After ominously positioning more than 100,000 troops on its border with Ukraine, Russia has presented the West with a list of security demands.
NATO nations — particularly the United States — should reject the unrealistic ultimatums and the context in which they're pressed. But they should agree to continue a diplomatic dialogue with the Kremlin, albeit a multilateral one that involves all NATO members and partners, including Ukraine itself.
Russia is proposing a Cold-War like security construct that would codify no new nations joining NATO and an end to all Western military activities in countries that were once republics of the Soviet Union. It also wants to roll back NATO forces in countries once held captive by the Soviets, like Poland and the Baltic states.
These and other Russian demands are rightly nonstarters for the West, a position that alliance political and military leaders have repeatedly made public. The former Soviet satellites, and the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, are now free, independent nations that should make their own decisions, not those dictated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has already violated the sovereignty of Georgia and Ukraine.
However wrong to try to coerce Ukraine into its orbit and put the West outside of it, Putin's motivation and timing seem clear, Barry Pavel, director of the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, told an editorial writer. Putin "thinks the developments since the end of the Cold War were disastrous for Russia, and he wants to start trying to do what he can to reverse that, and he also doesn't want things to get worse, which is Ukraine joining Western structures," said Pavel, who served on the staff of the National Security Council under former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Absurdly, Putin blames the West for the rise in tensions. In a tough speech to Russian military leaders on Tuesday, he said that "what is happening now, the tension that is developing in Europe, is their fault. At every step, Russia was forced to somehow respond, at every step the situation was constantly getting worse, worse, worse. And today we are in a situation where we are forced to decide something."
And Putin apparently thinks that things in the West are worse as well, and that the distractions might work to his favor. Pressing problems like COVID, the economy and polarization (which, Pavel said, "Russia foments") as well as a new leader in the key nation of Germany may be emboldening the Kremlin.
The West, especially the U.S., may indeed be weakened by transnational challenges like the pandemic and internal deep divisions. But it must remain unified in its response to Russia.
That's why it was reassuring to hear White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki state on Dec. 17 that the U.S. is consulting with allies but would not compromise "the key principles on which European security is built, including that all countries have the right to decide their own future and foreign policy free from outside interference."
The Biden administration has previously warned that any Russian incursion into Ukraine would be met with severe sanctions and continued military support (albeit unlikely NATO troops). And according to the Washington Post, it has even considered a grinding insurgency should Russian forces overrun portions of eastern Ukraine.
While Ukraine and Georgia appear nowhere close to NATO ascension, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was right to recently say "we stand by that decision" regarding the 2008 pledge that both countries could eventually join NATO.
A "frank exchange" (as diplomats call it) between Russia and NATO is preferable to an exchange of fire in Ukraine, or elsewhere. And some good could come out of a dialogue with Moscow. But the alliance should insist that any negotiations should not be conducted under the threat of a Russian invasion of a NATO partner, which would be "talks with a gun held to Ukraine's head," as Pavel termed it.
"NATO is an alliance that countries choose to join; it's not an alliance of coercion," Pavel said. And everyone except seemingly Putin and Russians fed a strict diet of state propaganda can clearly see that Russia's revanchist bellicosity makes nations like Ukraine and Georgia eager to join the Western alliance, not return to the suffocating sphere of influence they suffered under during Putin's longed-for Soviet era.