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Make a Deal with Russia: Neutralize Ukraine, End NATO Expansion

The Trump administration reportedly plans to propose a peacekeeping force for Ukraine. The initiative would have a greater chance of success if Washington offered a package that neutralized Ukraine, backed by a promise not to further expand NATO.

Washington policymakers just can’t imagine life without an enemy. However, the supposed Russian menace falls short. Vladimir Putin is an unpleasant autocrat, but his kingdom is freer than that of American allies such Trump and Putinas Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

The Russian Federation is not an ideological competitor. Putinism has little appeal to anyone other than Vladimir Putin and his cronies. Although he bridled at the West’s treatment of Russia, he was not otherwise anti-American, and looks like a traditional czar, demanding respect and emphasizing security for Russia.

Which explains Russian foreign policy. For instance, Putin believes Moscow’s interest should be taken into account in Syria, which is far closer geographically to Russia than America and has been a military ally of Moscow for years.

More important, Russia is determined to prevent Georgia and Ukraine from entering NATO. It should surprise no one that Moscow opposes expansion of a historically hostile alliance up to its border, incorporating territories once integral to its predecessor states.

Despite extensive wailing and gnashing of teeth in Europe over Moscow’s behavior, there is no evidence that Putin is contemplating aggression—what could he hope to gain even if he did not face almost certain defeat? Anyway, only a Europe that has become hopelessly dependent on America could seem so vulnerable to a declining power like Russia.

Collectively Europe has some twelve times the economic strength, three times the population, and two times the military outlays of Russia. The latter is a regional military power with weak economic and uncertain political foundations.

Washington and its allies continue to impose sanctions for no practical purpose. Russia isn’t going to disgorge Crimea short of war. By encouraging continued turmoil in eastern Ukraine Moscow ensures that Kiev won’t enter NATO. Congress wants to remold the rest of world, but sanctions rarely cause nationalistic governments to abandon perceived vital interests.

Improving relations with Moscow should be a top U.S. objective. Western policymakers look forward to Putin’s departure, but he represents larger political forces in Russia. Indeed, those who know opposition leader Alexey Navalny warn that he may be no less authoritarian and nationalist than Putin.

Yet everyone would benefit if conflict in the Donbas ended and perceived threats against Europe dissipated. Russia also can help or hinder Western objectives elsewhere, including in the Middle East and North Korea.

Most important may be pulling Moscow away from the People’s Republic of China. Richard Nixon opened a relationship with the PRC to balance against the Soviet Union. Recent presidents reversed course, pushing Moscow and Beijing together. About the only interest which binds the two governments is the determination to prevent U.S. hegemony.

The administration’s policy toward Moscow has been hindered by charges of electoral collusion against the Trump campaign. Congress dominates relations with Russia and intensified sanctions, making positive change less likely.

The 2015 Minsk accord over Ukraine remains unfulfilled, but Kiev shares the blame, having failed to make promised constitutional changes. The administration reportedly plans to propose a 20,000-man peacekeeping force for the Donbas, scene of the heaviest fighting. The ultimate objective is remove Russian forces, disarm separatists, and reintegrate the region into Ukraine with greater autonomy.

Moscow’s agreement would be more likely if Washington addressed Russia’s larger security concerns. The U.S. and its allies should indicate that they have no intention to further expand the alliance. While they would defend present members in the unlikely event of Russian aggression, they will not drive Western commitments, troops, and arms into what once was the heart of the Soviet Union.

Taking NATO membership off the table would remove Moscow’s incentive to keep the Ukrainian conflict alive. Ukraine could develop economically and politically as it wished. Sanctions could end, encouraging economic integration from Europe through Ukraine onto Russia.

Such an approach would be a compromise, but may be the best possible deal for everyone. Of course, Kiev is free to set its own policy, but so are the allies, which would be foolish to add additional vulnerable defense dependents.

Washington has lost the ability to dictate to other nations. No one benefits from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The administration should address the reasons behind Russia’s Ukrainian intervention and declare the end of NATO expansion.

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