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Breaking the Impasse Between Russia and the West Over European Security

January 20, 2022
Thomas Graham

Last week’s intense talks between Russia and the West over European security seemed to end in failure. Moscow heard nothing to convince it that the West was prepared to address seriously its principal demand that NATO halt further expansion eastward. The United States and its NATO allies continued to insist that NATO’s door is open to former Soviet states and that membership is a matter for the alliance and the applicant alone, over which Russia has no say. Instead, the West offered Moscow some confidence-building and arms control measures to ease its concerns, which Moscow found interesting but of secondary importance.

Meanwhile, the march continues toward a new war in Ukraine, which both sides say they want to avert, while elaborating narratives to put the blame for the outbreak of conflict on the other. Is war thus imminent, as many in the West seem to believe? Is there indeed no diplomatic way to break the impasse? U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Jan. 21 in Geneva to find out. That meeting too will end in failure, however, unless the two sides are prepared to recognize hard truths and introduce flexibility into rigid positions. If they do, the exit from the crisis could come in the form of a U.S.-Russian agreement to a moratorium on NATO’s eastward expansion.

Here’s why.

Serious security negotiations have to be grounded in the realities of power. And the reality is that the United States and Russia alone have the military might to alter the balance of power in Europe. They alone can cut the difficult deals to reach an enduring settlement, even if they must then bring their allies and partners along. That was the way security agreements were negotiated during the Cold War. It is the way they will have to be reached today, when adversarial relations are scraping depths reminiscent of that dark period.

To be sure, Washington needs to consult its European allies and partners closely. Western unity is critical to successful negotiations. But it is simply not serious for Washington to insist that it will not discuss Europe or Ukraine with Russia without Europeans and Ukrainians in the room. As last week demonstrated, large multilateral formats allow for exchanges of views but not the tough give-and-take that negotiations over grave security matters demand. Indeed, they enable the most recalcitrant to slow, if not veto, progress. Washington knows that. Now is the time to abandon the pretense and talk to Moscow directly about European and Ukrainian matters.

Substantively, the United States and Russia need to put the full range of issues affecting European security on the table: military activity along the Russian-NATO frontier, NATO expansion and current and frozen conflicts. Both sides have already agreed that discussions of limitations on military activities are important, although Russia insists that its primary concern about NATO expansion has to be the first order of business. Despite its categorical refusal to address that matter last week, the United States will eventually have to relent, to avert a deepening crisis and possible war. It can do that without abandoning its principles.

The challenge is to square the circle of the West’s insistence on NATO’s open door to former Soviet states and Russia’s demand for a sphere of influence that includes them. The positions appear irreconcilable, but as a colleague and I have proposed, a moratorium on further NATO expansion into the former Soviet space for a period of 20-25 years could bridge the gap. It would formalize what any Western official would say in private—and some have said publicly—that no former Soviet state, including Ukraine, will be ready for membership for years to come.

The compromise would require the West and Russia to agree on a period for a moratorium. There is nothing magical about 20-25 years. The period only needs to be long enough for Russia to claim that it has blocked NATO’s eastward expansion for a time that could become forever—who knows how long NATO will last in any event?—but short enough for the West to credibly assert that it has not closed the open door. The two sides would also have to negotiate the terms of a moratorium, which would have to reconcile Moscow’s rejection of any Western security ties with Ukraine that could be construed as preparation for membership with the Western determination to provide Ukraine with the means to defend itself. Reaching agreement will require creative diplomacy, but it is not impossible if given enough time, as the Soviet Union and the West showed when they signed the 1975 Helsinki Accords.

As for the ongoing and frozen conflicts, the task is to develop an agreed set of procedures that would legitimize the separation of a certain territory from an existing state in the eyes of OSCE members. They would include some kind of vote to determine the will of the local population and some general rules to guide negotiations to resolve the technical issues involved in a peaceful political separation. Those procedures could be applied in a pro-forma fashion to the most troubling conflicts in Kosovo and Crimea to validate the hard truth that the former will remain an independent state and the latter a part of Russia. But they could produce surprising outcomes if applied faithfully to the Donbas and frozen conflicts in the former Soviet space, where the views of local populations under separatist leaders are difficult to ascertain.

Critics of compromise will inevitably shout appeasement. But this is hardly the case. In taking the steps outlined above, the West would not be eroding its principles or abandoning Ukraine. The proposed compromises are grounded in the assumption that Russia-West relations will remain adversarial for an extended period, that neither side is about to capitulate and neither has the wherewithal to compel the other’s surrender and, thus, that the competition over Ukraine’s future will continue. The compromises are intended to ensure that that contest is pursued in a framework that minimizes the risk of a catastrophic military conflict and focuses the two sides on accumulating incremental advantages over time. That kind of responsible rivalry is most assuredly in the West’s interest—and Russia’s.


Thomas Graham

Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as the senior director for Russia on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration.

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author. Photo by Ars Electronica shared under a Creative Commons license.