NATO’s Role in Setting Ukraine War Peace Conditions
Western powers may be at odds with the people doing the fighting and dying.
A WaPo report by Michael Birnbaum and Missy Ryan reinforces my longrunning sense that the United States and its allies will make settling the war harder:
How to end the fighting and support Ukraine will be among the sharpest discussions at a gathering of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels that starts Wednesday. The United States and its allies say that Ukraine must be the ultimate decider as it defends itself, and that it shouldn’t be pushed to make compromises or encouraged to fight longer than it is willing.
But Kyiv’s decisions — and any concessions President Volodymyr Zelensky might embrace — will help determine whether the Kremlin is chastened or emboldened, and nations that have territorial ambitions over their neighbors, such as China, will be watching the outcome. Some NATO allies are especially cautious about ceding Ukrainian territory to Russia and giving Russian President Vladimir Putin any semblance of victory, according to alliance policymakers and analysts.
While Biden administration officials remain skeptical that the Ukrainian government’s negotiations with Russia will lead to a swift deal, officials say they are considering how a settlement — or any end to the fighting, however that might occur — will impact the security of NATO nations.
Which, of course, is what national governments are supposed to do. But, while NATO and others have been generous with financial, material, and intelligence support to Ukraine, they have left the fighting and dying to the Ukrainians.
“We believe that our job is to support the Ukrainians,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said this week. “They will set the military objectives. They will set the objectives at the bargaining table. And I am quite certain they are going to set those objectives at success, and we are going to give them every tool we can to help them achieve that success. But we are not going to define the outcome of this for the Ukrainians.”
That’s contradictory: the Ukrainians are free to determine the end state, so long as the end state is the one we believe correct.
Some European countries, especially formerly communist ones with bitter memories of Russian invasion or occupation, are especially nervous about how the conflict will evolve, seeing themselves as next on the Kremlin’s target list. If Putin feels he has profited from the invasion, by winning territory, political concessions or other benefits, he may eventually be inspired to try the same thing against other neighbors, policymakers say.
The Ukrainians, as a result, are involved in a broader fight on behalf of Europe, NATO leaders say.
“I hope they will be hard as steel. I support maximum military support and maximum sanctions,” Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks said in an interview. “Russia must lose and criminals should stand in court.”
Again, a perfectly reasonable position. Anything that leaves Putin able to claim a win will only embolden him and threaten other countries in his “near abroad.” But the resolve to fight to the last Ukrainian is not as valorous as it seems.
Even a Ukrainian vow not to join NATO — a concession that Zelensky has floated publicly — could be a concern to some neighbors. That leads to an awkward reality: For some in NATO, it’s better for the Ukrainians to keep fighting, and dying, than to achieve a peace that comes too early or at too high a cost to Kyiv and the rest of Europe.
“Many of us have, and it’s absolutely human, a willingness to see that the war ends as soon as possible, that people are not suffering, not dying, and that there are no bombings,” said a senior European diplomat who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about sensitive security issues. “There is an unfortunate dilemma. The problem is that if it ends now, there is a kind of time for Russia to regroup, and it will restart, under this or another pretext. Putin is not going to give up his goals.”
That NATO will never agree to invite Ukraine as a member—and thus pledge that an attack on Ukraine is an attack on all—and yet balks at Ukraine pledging not to join would be comical if it weren’t so cynical and deadly.
The Ukrainians have power of their own: Zelensky has been willing to criticize his Western backers when he has felt they weren’t doing enough to help him. If he publicized any attempt to pressure him to accept a settlement, or to reject one, that effort could backfire. And with Ukrainians doing the fighting, they aren’t as susceptible to Western pressure as weaker countries might be.
For sure. But Putin isn’t going to agree to a settlement that doesn’t offer significant relief from Western sanctions and only the West can agree to lift them.
If Ukraine and Russia agree to a peace settlement, Washington and the European Union will face a separate question about whether to offer sanctions relief to the Kremlin. The answer is not an automatic yes, some policymakers said.
“It’s a little tricky for the U.S. and other allies. … They don’t want something to come out of the negotiation that isn’t implementable,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former NATO deputy secretary general. “If the Ukrainians accepted a deal that does involve territorial concessions, it may be good enough for Ukraine in some circumstances, depending on what else they get, but it could set a bad precedent in terms of further legitimizing changing borders by force and by brutal, rapacious conquest, as the Russians are doing in many parts of Ukraine.”
But, of course, “the West” isn’t actually a single entity but a collection of sovereign states with different cultures and interests.
NATO members themselves do not appear united on how much of a direct threat Russia poses to the alliance, with officials in Paris, Berlin and elsewhere more inclined than their allies in Eastern Europe to feel that Putin’s aims stop at the NATO border. French President Emmanuel Macron — who this month is facing a surging far-right election opponent, Marine Le Pen — has spoken to Putin at least 16 times since the start of the year to try to preempt or end the conflict, French officials said. Le Pen has espoused pro-Russian views in the past.
For countries that are closer to the war, there is a belief that they have more at stake.
“This is a major issue for us,” said a senior diplomat from a country that borders Ukraine. “A divided, fragmented, frozen conflict in Ukraine is a very bad deal for us. An active Ukraine-NATO relationship is crucial for the Black Sea region. If that is broken, we will have a problem of unchecked Russians and the need for even stronger presence by NATO allies.”
Which, yet again, brings me to the fact that there’s no obvious condition for a settlement.
For now, the math that would favor a negotiated settlement does not appear to add up, analysts and policymakers said, despite some positive noise after discussions last week between Ukraine and Russia. With Russia pulling back from Kyiv and other cities, Ukrainians feel that the momentum is on their side. And the accounts of atrocities under Russian rule in Bucha, Lotskyne and elsewhere make it harder for Kyiv to concede an inch of territory, since there are now fears for the fate of Ukrainian citizens under any Russian rule.
“Who are we to tell Ukrainians what to do? How can we imagine a situation whereby given all of the destruction, all of the massacres, we just say, ‘Okay, that’s fine,’ ” said Nathalie Tocci, head of the Italian Institute of International Affairs and an adviser to E.U. policymakers in Brussels.
The Kremlin, too, may be unable to back down, since its citizens have been fed a steady stream of lies and propaganda about what is happening on the ground, and they have been told they are winning.
“I don’t see any indication that we’re anywhere close to a negotiated solution on this,” said Andrew Weiss, a former top White House adviser on Russia who is now vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment. “The Russians are prepared to continue doing horrible things in Ukraine with the goal of getting the Ukrainians to surrender and the West to back off, and the Ukrainians are prepared to fight. I don’t see the conditions for a settlement in place.”
As to Western preferences:
While NATO officials say they are not trying to dictate terms of a potential deal to Kyiv, some Western officials have provided Ukraine with analysis of the country’s options and potential outcomes related to negotiations and the war.
Alliance countries — and particularly the United States, given the scale of its military aid to Ukraine — may have exerted their most significant sway in an indirect, perhaps unintentional manner, in their decisions about which weapons they will or will not supply to Ukraine. Those decisions have had a direct impact on the battlefield situation and, in turn, the Ukrainian government’s approach to peace talks.
Ukraine has said that in exchange for agreeing to give up its NATO aspirations, it would want legally binding security guarantees from the United States and others to defend it if it were attacked. A U.S. official said the U.S. military has not been consulted about what Western security guarantees for Ukraine would look like. The official said there wasn’t a lot of appetite among senior military leaders for such a notion.
“It appears like they’re looking for the same thing as Article V without being a NATO nation, and that probably would be a very rough row to hoe with the international community,” the official said, referring to NATO’s core collective-defense guarantee.
No matter how the war ends, the United States plans to review its military posture in Europe. Before the conflict, there were more than 80,000 U.S. troops on the continent. Today, with temporary deployments designed to shore up NATO’s eastern flank, there are more than 100,000, the official said.
Honestly, security guarantees without NATO membership simply make no sense. First, a pledge without a formal treaty simply has much less staying power. It’s highly questionable as to why countries that have allowed Russia to invade and commit atrocities, perhaps up to the level of genocide, rather than risk escalation would honor such a pledge. Second, if NATO members were truly committed to Ukraine’s security, then admitting them to the Alliance would be preferable to a mere “security guarantee” precisely because it would seem more credible to Russia and thus be more likely to deter another invasion.