The risks of escalation between NATO and Russia—a nuclear superpower with a potentially unstable leader—are clear. These risks imply that citizens of every nation have an interest in ending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
To do that, it is crucial that we negotiate with our foe, no matter how distasteful. We must give Russia an attractive path to leave Ukraine as soon as possible. A concern is that any concessions from NATO reward Putin’s misbehavior.
In fact, if Ukraine and NATO offer Putin a deal they would have agreed to prior to the invasion, Russia has gained nothing from its costly war.
Furthermore, Russia’s invasion has strengthened NATO, devastated Russia’s economy, and demonstrated Russia’s military weakness.
Thus, Russian misbehavior has already been punished. Prior to its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russia demanded the removal of all troops from NATO members that were once in the Soviet Union.
This week, Putin insisted on the lesser demand of Ukraine putting non-NATO membership in its constitution. The West must understand Putin’s true interests, not just his (shifting) public demands.
At the same time, the West should identify which of these interests are least costly to Ukraine and NATO. Then Ukraine and NATO can identify a deal they would have accepted prior to the invasion—and offer it today to Russia.
At a minimum, this approach means making clear to Russia that sanctions end when its troops leave Ukraine.
This approach may also mean making promises about delaying Ukraine’s membership in NATO, and a referendum (with international oversight) on autonomy for the parts of Ukraine that Russia already controlled prior to the war.
NATO may also address Russian fears of invasion by limiting its offensive weapons and large exercises near Russia—presumably in exchange for Russia agreeing to similar limits near its own borders. These are just examples, as a well-designed offer requires deep insight into the true interests of Putin, Ukraine, and NATO.
Finally, this approach may also mean promising Putin that he will not be prosecuted for war crimes if Russian generals and oligarchs pressure him to leave. While he deserves to be held to account, it does not make sense to risk nuclear war to preserve a slim chance to prosecute one war criminal.
At a deeper level, it is unfair that Russia annexed Crimea eight years ago, and then supported separatists who carved autonomous regions out of easter Ukraine. It is even more unfair to reach a peace deal that acknowledges those pre-war facts on the ground.
But while the deal I outlined may be unfair, it is even less ethical to prolong the war. To see why, consider the long conflict that will follow if we do not give Russia a quick exit.
Unless Ukraine can somehow defeat the massive Russian military, Russia will presumably install a puppet government in Kyiv. Assuming that most Ukrainians will continue to oppose a Russian-backed regime, Russia will have to continue to station troops in Ukraine.
Russia’s economy will continue to suffer from sanctions, and Russia’s military will be tied down in a European “Afghanistan.”
Some anti-Russian commentators are delighted at the prospect of Russia’s military stuck in this quagmire. This “optimistic” scenario ignores the misery of Ukrainians and the suffering of Russian citizens, few of whom had any idea this war was coming.
Accepting this scenario also ignores the known costs of ongoing conflict on the West—and also the less quantifiable risks.
The known costs include higher energy and food prices, the disruption of several million refugees moving into the EU, the costs of permanently higher defense spending, a possible financial crisis in the West due to Russian defaults on its debts, and the end of cooperation with Russia on everything from the International Space Station to fighting global terrorism and climate change.
The political costs may include the need to support imperfect democracies such as Poland and to start cooperating with dictatorships such as Venezuela as we seek new supplies of oil.
The fog of war
The military risks are even greater.
Russia has many strategists searching for ways Russia can retaliate for Western sanctions and for arming Ukraine. The most predictable means include increasing Russia’s current misbehavior: more cyberattacks, more election meddling, and more support for separatist and terrorist groups around the globe.
More generally, Russia can exploit any instability caused by high energy prices, the refugee crisis it has caused, and any other instability it can foment or find.
Beyond what Russia plans, there are dozens of paths to unintended escalation and retaliation. Some examples:
- A military plane accidentally crosses an international border
- One side attributes hostile acts by hackers, terrorists, or foreign fighters to the other side: for example, an attack on a NATO convoy while it is still in Poland, or a Russian military supply convoy in Russia.
- Russia may feel justified using force in NATO nations due to NATO support for Ukrainian resistance fighters that Russia calls “terrorists,” or to support ethnic Russians who protest in a Baltic state.
Given the many parties that can engage in violence—from terrorists Russia may plant among the millions of Ukrainian refugees to freelance hackers Ukraine recruits into its “IT army”— attributing blame for attacks will always include the risk of misunderstanding.
The risks of escalation are too great to imagine. Even if it requires some sacrifice, we must find a way for Russia to get out now.