The Euro-Atlantic region is on the brink of the biggest conflict in generations, with a Russian military buildup threatening on Ukraine’s borders and Ukraine and NATO beefing up their defenses in response. With Russian requirements seen as unrealistic by NATO, and NATO’s responses labeled as inadequate by Moscow, leaders are now – as President Nikita Khrushchev warned President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis – in danger of pulling the knot of war so tight that they won’t have the strength to untie it.
If Russia invades Ukraine, there will only be losers. First and foremost, the Ukrainians will bear the brunt of Russia’s considerable military capability. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and President BidenJoe BidenBillie Eilish meets Biden at the White House Marjorie Taylor Greene roasted for ‘gazpacho police’ remark Biden talks energy and security with Saudi King Salman MORE and NATO allies have made it clear that they support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but won’t put the boots down to defend Ukraine.
Russia itself will not escape immediate and long-term pain. An invasion would undermine, not advance, the Russian president Vladimir PoutineVladimir Vladimirovich Putin Biden talks to Macron about French meeting with Putin and Zelensky British envoy arrives in Moscow in bid to ease tensions Potential of war looms over Korean Peninsula MOREit is stated goals to keep NATO’s “strike weapon systems” and military infrastructure further from Russia’s borders and to halt Ukraine’s NATO aspirations. A long and costly insurgency would face any prolonged occupation of Ukraine. The promised Western sanctions against the Russian financial system would harm Russian citizens and leaders far more than the 2014 sanctions.
The West would not escape the damage either. The Russian economy is much more integrated into the world economy than that of North Korea or Iran, for example; As a result, the penalties could bite either way. The risk to the global economic and energy supply system is real, especially in the bumpy economic recovery from the pandemic.
In this tense situation, any clash could trigger a wider conflagration. The risk of accident, miscalculation or disastrous decision is particularly worrying when the two countries with the largest arsenals of nuclear weapons are on opposite sides.
Everyone has an interest in defusing the situation. The urgent task is to build a process of political dialogue that allows all parties to stop pulling at the ends of the rope and create space for diplomacy to repair and strengthen a Euro-Atlantic security architecture that includes the Russia.
Although Russia won’t get a veto over NATO membership, there is time and space for all parties to negotiate constructively. President Biden said that “the likelihood of Ukraine joining NATO in the short term is not very likely”, acknowledging that the consensual support required among NATO allies to admit Ukraine into the Alliance will not emerge from so early. The 1949 North Atlantic Treaty who established NATO and the Alliance 1995 Study on NATO enlargement identify the conditions and factors determining whether a state is invited to join, conditions that Ukraine does not currently meet. NATO’s ability to meet its collective defense obligations to its members is also a key consideration and underlines that NATO must align any enlargement ambition with its military capabilities.
All of this points to a long time before Ukraine can join NATO, so the time and space are there for diplomacy. The tragedy of this preventable war would be inexcusable, even to Putin’s own citizens. It will take time to resolve the fundamental political principles at stake for Ukraine, Russia and NATO. The diplomatic road will be difficult, but there are important starting points.
Many of the problems raised in the Moscow report proposed agreement with NATO are echoed in the responses of the United States and NATO. Both sides seek to ban the deployment of short- and medium-range land-based missiles in Europe. Both express concern about military equipment and personnel as well as military activities and exercises near each other’s borders. Combined, these common concerns set the stage for a practical program to defuse the current crisis and make future conflict less likely, even in the face of protracted political disagreements. This agenda could include:
- Renew and maintain the Euro-Atlantic Security Dialogue to address the current crisis and begin to address the global security concerns of all parties;
- Agree not to deploy short- and medium-range ground-based missiles west of the Urals, with strong verification measures;
- Re-engage arms control and confidence-building measures related to conventional force deployments in Europe, particularly those deployed close to international borders;
- Increase transparency surrounding military activities and exercises, in particular by strengthening existing arrangements accepted by all OSCE members – including Russia, Ukraine and NATO allies – requiring prior notification and observation of military exercises above a certain size threshold;
- United States-Russia intensification discussions on strategic issues, including work on a successor agreement on nuclear reductions to be put in place before New START expires; and
These steps represent the beginning, not the end, of a more lasting peace. Progress on the short-term steps could help restore trust and ultimately strengthen mutual security. Prioritizing efforts to resolve practical security issues – rather than focusing on intractable political disagreements – presents the only sensible way to loosen the knot of war.
Jon Huntsman Jr., Ernest J. Moniz and Sam Nunn serve on the Board of Directors of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Previously, they respectively served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia, U.S. Secretary of Energy, and Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.