The deal proposed by Michael O'Hanlon and Jeremy Shapiro in their Washington Post op-ed earlier this month would not just be misguided – it also would be dangerous. The premise of their argument that a “win-win-win outcome for Russia, Ukraine and the West is far smarter than zero-sum thinking” runs counter to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s exclusively “zero-sum” view of the world. If we have learned anything from the Obama administration’s failed “reset” with Russia, it is that Putin unfailingly seeks to exploit the West’s futile pursuit of “win-win” deals.
To get Putin to behave, O'Hanlon and Shapiro proposed granting him a veto over anything the European Union and NATO would do vis-à-vis Russia’s neighbors, thereby consigning Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and other countries to a Russian sphere of influence. There would be no more NATO enlargement, and any European Union relationship with Ukraine would have to meet with Moscow’s approval and not interfere with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union project. Countries join the latter because they face tremendous Russian pressure to do so; they join the European Union and NATO because they see it in their own best interests.
Putin clearly is not interested in seeing Ukraine succeed; in fact, he fears that a democratic, European-oriented Ukraine would pose an attractive alternative to his authoritarian system. Putin undermines his neighbors’ independence and right to pursue deeper integration with the West because of his zero-sum way of thinking. He sees movements calling for liberalization and democracy and against corruption and authoritarianism as threats to his own power. When Viktor Yanukovych, Putin’s partner in Ukraine, fled the country in February, Putin invaded to make sure that Russians wouldn’t get the idea that they could produce a similar result in Moscow.
How can one build a new, pan-European security structure, as O'Hanlon and Shapiro proposed, with someone who sees everything the West represents as his biggest threat?
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Giving Putin any say over his neighbors’ policies would be the height of irresponsibility, yet O'Hanlon and Shapiro proposed holding a referendum to determine Crimea’s future. Instead, the West should stick to its policy of not recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, even if it takes years to return the region to Ukraine, just as it never recognized the absorption of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union. Since 2004, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have been proud members of NATO and the European Union – and are no doubt thankful they have security guarantees from the alliance’s Article 5 in light of Russia’s rising threat.
The source of tensions between the West and Russia lies with the nature of the Putin regime. To justify his invasion, Putin fabricated stories that Russian speakers and ethnic Russians, first in Crimea and then in eastern Ukraine, were under threat. In reality, no such threats existed. Putin did not cite NATO enlargement — in large part because nobody was discussing the idea of Ukraine joining the alliance. NATO had nothing to do with Putin’s decision.
To the extent that it exists at all, the prospect of Ukraine’s membership in NATO is a far-off possibility, but O'Hanlon and Shapiro would take it off the table entirely, overturning the alliance’s decades-old “open door” policy. For the first time, a small majorityof Ukrainians may want to join NATO. How demoralizing for them if NATO, on top of refusing to provide Ukraine with the military means to defend itself, were to shut the door to membership. Putin would read such a decision as open season on Ukraine and its other non-NATO neighbors.
Russia’s most secure, stable borders are with countries that belong to NATO, the European Union or both. The idea that NATO, a defensive organization, is a threat to Russia is nonsense. It would be a huge mistake to follow O'Hanlon and Shapiro’s recommendation that NATO refocus on missions outside Europe when the biggest danger the alliance faces today is Russia. Indeed, Putin’s Russia is a grave threat to its immediate neighbors, to the West and to global stability more broadly.
In their proposed deal, O'Hanlon and Shapiro demand plenty from the West. What would be asked of Putin? He would be required to retreat from eastern Ukraine and pledge to uphold Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But Putin lied about the invasion of Crimea this year, continues to deny that Russian forces are in eastern Ukraine and broke his promises to abide by the Sept. 5 cease-fire. Why should his agreement on a new deal mean anything?
After the terrible toll Russia has inflicted on its neighbor – including the loss of thousands of lives – it would be unconscionable to give Putin effective veto power over Ukrainian and Western decision-making. The right way to deal with such a threat is by ramping up sanctions, supporting Russia’s neighbors and providing the military assistance Ukraine needs to defend itself. We must contain Putin, not compromise with him or pursue naive “win-win” approaches that would only weaken our security and that of our friends and allies.
David J. Kramer is senior director for human rights and democracy at the McCain Institute.
Special to The Washington Post