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Diplomacy’s Final Exam

January 20, 2022

Without a dose of humility, Russia and America will not pass the current test. And we’ll all pay the price.

By Greg Blake Miller

Note: I wrote this piece on January 20, 2022, looked at its bleak tone, and promptly filed it away, hoping the ensuing weeks would prove my pessimism wrong. So far, they haven’t. In fact, my thoughts at the time now seem to have been unduly optimistic. But I believe there are lessons, even at this late date, in looking at the larger context of the post-Cold War era to understand how we got here. Thus my decision to pull these pages off the shelf and post them on this cold 2-22-2022, when even the digits of the date look like soldiers on the march.

Russia is calmly knotting a noose for Ukraine. The United States is bandying about the airy concept that any nation that wants can pursue membership in NATO, which is purest nonsense because an open club is not a club at all. Meanwhile, Russia’s bid to negotiate begins with a set of non-negotiable demands, and the American counteroffer sees each of the Russian demands as a “non-starter.” All parties have led with the chin and left themselves with few ways to save face.

A friend wrote to me this morning asking me for a prediction. Knowing that I’d lived in Russia, worked for a Moscow newspaper, studied the country for many years, written a dissertation on Russian culture, and married a Russian, he leaped to the assumption that I might know what to do about Russia. 

This is a question of Hegelian complexity, considering that even Russia does not know what to do about Russia, a subject on which Russian novelists have built lasting reputations. 

But I love Russia in a love-your-wayward-brother way. And I love America in a love-your-wayward-self way. So I accepted my friend’s fool’s errand and tried to not only parse how we got here, but predict where we might be heading. It was fun to write and entirely disturbing to read. With that endorsement, read on, with the understanding that the sole purpose of predictions is to reveal our fundamental foolishness in the face of time and sloppy humanity.

The Almost-Doomsday Scenario

Tucked away in antiviral seclusion, Vladimir Putin may be trying to devise a way he can avoid the invasion and still declare victory, but his rhetoric has left him short on options. He could decide to take advantage of the opening President Biden gave him when, in his January 19 press conference, he appeared to signal that the U.S. considers a “minor incursion” on Ukrainian territory a pinkish, rather than red, line for NATO.

The Biden Administration swiftly walked back the supposed gaffe, but it wasn’t really a gaffe: It was a bit of nuanced truth-telling at a moment when such truth was entirely unnecessary. In the “minor incursion” scenario, Putin stages a provocation in Eastern Ukraine and starts an apparently “limited incursion” in the Donbass—territories over which he already has significant leverage and some loyalty among the primarily ethnic-Russian population. Such an incursion would split NATO (and President Biden has publicly state that NATO nations are indeed divided “on what they’re wiling to do”): Members would hesitate to commit resources and human lives to a part of Ukraine that many have already written off as a region that will be in “frozen conflict” for the foreseeable future. Having tested the West’s mettle in this way, Putin will then restate his demands while threatening a full-scale invasion of the remainder of Ukraine.

As at the outset of World War II, we have a side that has will but fewer long-term resources confronting a side that has less will but more long-term resources. In this equation, Russia would want to act swiftly, get what it can, and then negotiate from a position of greater strength. The West would possibly cut off Russia’s access to SWIFT, which controls global financial transactions (an extremely blunt instrument, in that it would cause a great deal of collateral suffering among everyday Russians), and provide arms to Ukraine for a massive and lasting resistance (both conventional and nonconventional). Russia would respond with massive cyberattacks on the West and possibly move its hypersonic missiles closer to the U.S.

The conflict in Ukraine itself may become a quagmire for Russians—even if they “win” swiftly by toppling the Ukrainian government and either annexing or installing a puppet, they would face a lasting and well-armed resistance. We could also expect, however, that a good deal of U.S. weapons technology would wind up either in Russian hands or in the hands of an emerging class of criminal warlords. The risk for all sides is an Afghanization of Ukraine.

The winner in all of this is China, which would delight in the damage to the West while supporting Russia just enough to turn it into a client state.

The Accursed Past, or The Wisdom of Monday-Morning Quarterbacking Was Readily Available on Sunday

First, let’s consider NATO’s Open Door policy, which the West uses to explain why committing to Ukraine’s non-membership is a “non-starter.” NATO justifies the policy by reference to Article 10 of the organization’s founding treaty. But Article 10 is not an open door policy. Here is the text: 

The parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of the treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.

In other words, an invitation must be extended. Which in turn means NATO has the freedom not to extend an invitation. And this means that the West’s current rhetoric about the Open Door policy is both misleading and has been fecklessly used as a tool to back itself into a diplomatic corner, a process that has now been unfolding since 1994, when NATO signaled its desire for eastward expansion. At the time, Russia was deep in its own difficult struggle become more like its Western European neighbors—secure, prosperous, open—without losing its identity. But, after the American-Russian air-kisses of the early 1990s, the expansion plans signaled to Russians that the West had decided that Russia not only had been, but always would be, a rival to be contained. Perception matters: NATO began as an anti-Soviet alliance, and for Russians, the enlargement of the organization toward their borders seemed a clear signal that NATO was being transitioned into an anti-Russian alliance. The perception also handed a discursive hammer to the anti-Western forces in Russian society, one they have used craftily for a quarter of a century.

George F. Kennan, the greatest Russia expert ever in the employ of the United States, vehemently warned against NATO expansion in the 1990s and later wrote that it was “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” The problem was not in the understandable desire among the newly unfettered nations of Eastern Europe for a sense of belonging in the greater European community, with the economic and security advantages that implied, but in the failure of the West to understand that NATO was an incendiary vehicle for that belonging. It was a time for new conceptions of European security, with new acronyms, and ultimately a place for full Russian participation beyond its outsider status within NATO’s well-intentioned “Partnership for Peace.” But neither creativity nor optimism carried the day. Once set in motion, the momentum of expansion carried NATO ever closer to Russian borders. In 1999, NATO welcomed former Warsaw Pact countries Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In 2004, the membership of former Soviet Republics Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia brought the alliance to Russia’s western frontier.

With each step, the relationship between Russia and the West further soured and the nationalists, militarists, opportunists and mystics in the Russian camp gained power. For some in the West, this was proof of some kind of inevitable baked-in trait of Russian national identity. For others, it seemed like NATO expansion had not only helped scuttle a moment of relative hope for a new relationship with a new Russia, but also had created a monster. The Russian militarist-mystic wing is fueled by grievance; provided the thread of a humiliation narrative, they will weave it into a garish tapestry and sell it to the people, again and again.

In 2008, NATO declared that it “welcomed” Georgia and Ukraine’s “aspirations for membership,” a move that managed to paint a target on the backs of two countries that shared a border with Russia without providing any assurances of security. In other words, the move functioned primarily as a propaganda victory for Vladimir Putin in depicting a nefarious Western plot to encircle Russia—a victory he used in 2014 as he rode a wave of high approval ratings while lopping Crimea off of Ukraine and facilitating a not-so-frozen “frozen conflict” in eastern Ukraine.

Why was the proposed “open door” to Ukrainian membership so incendiary for Russia? To ask this question—and to propose an answer—is not to excuse Russia’s use and misuse of history as a hammer, particularly when Vladimir Putin is a known purveyor of historical funhouse mirrors. But if we are to understand the emotional and cultural (not to mention economic and geographical) levers of the current crisis, it worthwhile to acknowledge the unique relationship between Ukraine and Russia: Kiev, going back to the year 862, is the original seat of both Russian and Ukrainian history—histories bound together over more than a millennium. Russians have an unfortunate tendency to claim that they are the lone heir of Kievan Rus, a medieval brigadoon sundered by the Mogol invasions of 1223 and 1240—but what followed the invasions were centuries in which two distinct but kindred cultures gradually arose. In 1654, Ukraine became part of the Russian empire after Ukraine’s great national hero, Bogdan Khmelnitsky, appealed to Russia in an effort to fight off Poles and built an independent Ukraine. After World War I, Ukraine briefly declared independence but was ultimately swept up in the Russian Civil War, with its own Whites and Reds battling for the ideological future. But for the better part of 400 years, the borders between Russia and Ukraine have been porous, and never more so than in the Soviet period, where people moved for jobs or love or were simply transferred hither and thither by the authorities. Today, families have brothers and sisters and parents and cousins on both sides of the Ukrainian border. The degree of cultural, social, economic, familial, and even romantic entanglement between the two countries is not entirely unlike that between American states.

To understand the fraught nature of the proposed NATO expansion to Ukraine is simply to acknowledge the welter of entanglements as they exist in the real world. It is not in anyway to deny that Ukraine should retain its independence and its ability to choose its own form of government and its own friends. It has its own distinctive culture, its own unique history, and a clear lack of desire for a return to empire. The problem—certainly not the only one, but an important one—is the symbolic weight of NATO and the understandable Russian perception that Ukraine as a NATO member would turn into a militarized strategic bulwark against Russia. Most ordinary Russians—outside the government and a fanatical nationalist core one might best translate as “Trumpy”—are fine with Ukraine not being part of a Russian empire; they’re fine with it not being a puppet-ruled client state. What they’re not fine with is it joining what is appropriately perceived as an enemy military camp. 

The bitter seed of NATO expansion is the father of Putinism in affairs both global and domestic (where Putin has, in generally cartoonish tones, justified virtually every move by referencing the threat of a culturally, economically, and militarily ravenous West). It is entirely unsurprising that it is the seed of the present conflict as well. From the moment of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, thinking people realized that Ukraine was potentially the most dangerous flashpoint, a profound temptation for Russian irredentists. 

Beyond the cultural reasons for this temptation, there were the geographical oddities that emerged from centuries of empire and imperial happenstance: Crimea, for instance, was not historically part of Ukraine, but in 1954 Nikita Khrushchev transferred it from Russia as a symbolic gift for the 300th anniversary of Ukraine’s absorption into the Russian Empire. On December 25, 1991, it became for Russians a sort of accidental foreign territory. Yuri Luzhkov, who was Moscow’s powerful showman-mayor during the 1990s and early 2000s and had presidential ambitions, was not shy about his desire to see Crimea (and most pointedly the city of Sevastopol, home to the Black Sea Fleet) returned to Russia. So there has long been an urgent need for the West to work with Russia and Ukraine to craft structures to allay foreseeable future conflict. But now the conflict is here, and 25 years of NATO expansion toward to the heart of the old empire has not only failed to prevent these dangerous days, but helped light their fuse. 

The Future, or Exam Day

It’s true that the threat of NATO expansion to Ukraine could be used as a bargaining chip: We won’t bring Ukraine into NATO if you … (insert hard bargain here). But the timing makes such negotiation extremely difficult: When Putin is holding a gun to Ukraine’s head, even reasonable compromises acquire the stink of treachery. 

Putin would, therefore, need to provide the West a way to save face in the case of such an agreement. He’d have to go far beyond merely withdrawing forces and permanently guaranteeing Ukraine’s security. A new Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty would have to be negotiated (the original one, between Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik, was the high point of Cold War diplomacy). Interference in Western politics via hacking and state disinformation campaigns would need to end, the Petersburg troll farm would need to be disbanded, cyberattacks on US infrastructure would need to end, and Russia would need to prosecute supposedly nonstate hackers sowing trouble in the West. (The West would need to give parallel assurances on hacking, etc.) All of these reforms would need to be subjected to verification process on both sides, a return to the “trust, but verify” maxims of the Reagan-Gorbachev eras. (The West could conceivably sweeten the deal by acknowledging a fait accompli and putting recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea on the table, but such a move, with its whiff of abandoned principle, should be held in check unless absolutely necessary to win vital concessions.)

Ukraine would have to be part of these negotiations, not just a pawn on the Great Power chessboard. Such negotiations could build a modicum of trust between Russia and the West, and possibly start to complicate Russia’s seeming decision to rush into the arms of the Chinese. It could also prepare the ground among the Russian people for greater comity between our countries in the post-Putin era by taking the teeth out of anti-American propaganda.

Alas, we’re in a period where all negotiation is dismissed as weakness and therefore the accumulated bargaining chips are rendered worthless. Every possible tradeoff is immediately greeted with the dread incantation, Neville Chamberlain! 

That leaves the West with its current unattractive options:

• War (which could degenerate into WWIII—the reason the West has repeatedly said that direct military action is off the table)

• Support of insurgency (which could lead to the aforementioned Afghanization of Ukraine), and

• Asymmetrical cyber- and financial warfare (which could have extraordinary costs on all sides, with accelerated domestic division in the U.S. and the pauperization, embitterment, and perhaps lasting anti-Americanism of ordinary Russian people). 

Some Americans may be betting on the destabilization of a Russia that, recognizing the chaos and the price of adventurism, turns its back on Putin and Putinism. But that’s a dangerous bet indeed, particularly when nuclear weapons are involved. If the US has learned anything in the past two decades, it should be that the destabilization of vast regions stirs up a sandstorm of unintended consequences.

In a world of non-negotiable demands, non-starters, and the perpetual need to save face at all costs, it’s time to reexamine the nature of our conflict, rethink our needs, embrace the possibilities of diplomatic creativity, and ask ourselves what courage really means. War is occasionally necessary and inevitable. Stupid war may be inevitable, but it is certainly not necessary. The current conflict is a test not only of our will, but of our intelligence. So before we turn in the Scantron, let’s check our work and make sure we’re all as smart as we think we are.

More on Russian history and the Ukraine conflict:
“Russia, Ukraine, and the Battle of Yesterday”
“Harvest of Grievance”

Greg Blake Miller is a former staff writer for The Moscow Times. He holds a doctorate in international communication from the University of Oregon and earned his master’s in Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies. He is the director of Olympian Creative Consulting and teaches media studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

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