Relations between the United States and Russia have deteriorated dramatically this past winter and spring as the result of the unfolding civil strife in Ukraine. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich accepted and then rejected a trade agreement with the European Union, resulting in popular unrest that led to Yanukovich’s overthrow. Russia then initiated a military occupation and annexation of the Crimea region in Ukraine. Meanwhile, a violent conflict has been unfolding within Ukraine between the new government and Russia-leaning separatists in the country’s eastern regions. The United States has responded to this strife by increasing its military presence in Europe, while NATO has broken off cooperation with Russia.
This new hostility between the two great powers with the world’s two largest arsenals of nuclear weapons has created a very dangerous situation for both the United States and Russia, as well as many other countries. Relatively small confrontations between these two countries’ militaries—of which there have been many in recent months—have the potential to spark a larger conflict, given the current tense situation. Lowering tensions and achieving a more stable American-Russian relationship is imperative. Such a de-escalation of the conflict might well be possible through complex diplomacy that would involve the three central players—Russia, Ukraine, and the United States—and would offer all three incentives for accepting a negotiated settlement over further confrontation.
Given the understandable suspicion with which many Americans view Russian President Vladimir Putin, the prospect of a diplomatic deal with Russia might seem naïve. A deal that offers incentives to Russia might even seem to be rewarding Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. Both of these concerns are reasonable. Nevertheless, when the events of the past nine months are viewed from Putin’s perspective—and placed in the larger context of US-Russian relations over the last 20 years—the Russian president’s actions become understandable, if not justifiable. Understanding how Putin and other Russians view American actions shows why diplomatic compromise is, for all its shortcomings, a more promising approach than steps such as increasing American military forces in Eastern Europe, offering security guarantees to Ukraine, or even trying to bring Ukraine into NATO.
Ukraine has a special significance for Russia. The two countries have a common Slavic, historically Orthodox Christian culture and a long historical association (with Russia in a dominant position for most of that history). Ukraine is important for the Russian economy, offering access to the Black Sea through its ports and transit for Russian natural gas shipments to Europe. Above all, Ukraine provides Russia with a defense against military attack from the west: the Carpathian mountain range in western Ukraine is a natural obstacle to an invader. If Ukraine were in the hands of an anti-Russian power or allied itself with such a power, Russia would be much more vulnerable to an invader. Given Russia’s historical experience of being invaded from the west—two such invasions took place within the last 100 years, with devastating effects on Russia—Russian leaders would understandably be wary of again becoming vulnerable to such an invasion.
For these reasons, dominance over Ukraine is vitally important to Russia. Russian actions over the last nine months make sense as attempts to maintain this dominance in the face of closer EU-Ukraine ties, Yanukovich’s overthrow, and a new, unfriendly Ukrainian government. Meanwhile, American responses to Russia’s actions—denunciations, sanctions, an increased military presence in Eastern Europe—appear to confirm the view that Russia is facing hostile powers in the west and must protect itself.
This view did not originate during the events of the last nine months, either, but is consistent with American actions, as understood by Russian leaders, over the 22 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. An array of US policies in the interim can quite plausibly be interpreted as forming a pattern of threatening and humiliating Russia.
First, NATO, which was originally created as a military alliance directed at Soviet Russia, has gradually expanded since the end of the Cold War to include Eastern European states formerly part of Russia’s sphere of influence: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This historically anti-Russian military alliance now extends all the way to the Russian border. Further, this expansion may be perceived by the Russians as a blatant violation of an understanding between the United States and the Soviet Union, reached in the last days of the Cold War, that NATO would not grow to include Eastern Europe.
Second, the United States has repeatedly attacked or threatened nations with which Russia has had friendly relations: in 1999, President Bill Clinton bombed the Serbs, another Slavic, Orthodox people; in 2003, President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, a historical Russian ally; in 2013, President Barack Obama seriously threatened to bomb Syria, another Russian ally.
Third, the United States has pursued an anti-ballistic missile defense system that could counter the deterrent effect of Russia’s nuclear arsenal; President Bush even went to so far as to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that the Soviet Union and United States agreed to in 1972—as with NATO expansion, another instance of the United States apparently breaking its word to Russia. Despite his efforts to “re-set” the US relationship with Russia, President Obama has continued deployment of an anti-missile system.
Given both this history of apparently anti-Russian policies and Ukraine’s importance to Russia, closer economic ties between Ukraine and the EU could reasonably appear to Putin and other Russian leaders as the next step in a strategy by the United States and its European allies to threaten vital Russian interests. Pressuring Ukraine to cancel the EU trade deal, supporting Ukrainian separatists, and annexing part of eastern Ukraine are all rationally understandable, though morally unjust, measures to prevent this important Russian neighbor from falling under anti-Russian influences.
To repeat, none of this justifies or excuses Putin’s actions, nor does it make the Russian president anything other than a ruthless would-be dictator. This context does make his actions understandable in terms of Russian economic and military self-interest, however, and strongly suggests that attempts by the United States to extend its influence into Ukraine—even if the intention is simply to protect Ukraine from Russia—will be met by further hostile Russian actions. Recognizing this and trying to avoid escalating tensions is not “appeasement” but simply prudence.
The prudence of a less confrontational approach to Russia becomes clearer if we consider a relevant historical parallel. Over 50 years ago, a pro-American ruler of Cuba, Fulgencio Batista was overthrown and replaced by a regime led by Fidel Castro that forged links to the United States’ leading superpower rival, the Soviet Union. The prospect of an anti-American, pro-Soviet nation only 90 miles from the United States led to overt and covert American attempts to undermine the Castro regime, including an attempted invasion of Cuba in 1961. These efforts to overthrow Castro were not justified, whatever American fears of Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere might have been. Nevertheless, the injustice of American hostility to Castro’s regime did not make the Soviets wise or prudent in placing nuclear missiles in Cuba in the autumn of 1962. Such a policy only aggravated international tensions and brought the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war.
The conflict over Ukraine is not yet as serious a situation as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the situations are similar. The United States should be very sensitive to the risk of playing a role analogous to the Soviets in 1962 and provoking a further escalation of tensions. High international tensions already present one significant danger that parallels what happened in the earlier crisis over Cuba.
While neither Russia nor the United States and its allies seem likely to initiate a full-fledged war over Ukraine, local confrontations between Russian and western military units—or other incidents that appear threatening—when they take place within an overall context of heightened tension and hostility, could spark a larger conflict before decision makers in Moscow or Washington can assert control over the situation.
The historian John Lewis Gaddis has noted in chilling detail how in the crisis atmosphere during October 1962 the Soviet Union and the United States came close to war because of a number of small-scale incidents that could easily have been misinterpreted or spiraled out of control: missile tests that could have been mistaken for nuclear attacks; hostile planes confronting each other; and other incidents. As Gaddis notes, “in that highly charged atmosphere, there were numerous ‘close calls’ as unexpected results created, or could have created, the impression that a Soviet attack was under way.”
In the same way, a disturbing number of such volatile encounters and incidents involving the United States and Russia have taken place in recent months:
- Russia tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), designed to carry a nuclear warhead, in early March, only a few days after sending troops into Crimea.
- A US destroyer went on a patrol of the Black Sea in early April and a Russian fighter jet repeatedly flew close to the ship, in an action a Pentagon spokesman called “provocative and unprofessional.”
- A Russian fighter jet flew very close—within 100 feet—of a US reconnaissance plane over the Pacific in late April.
- Two Russian bombers flew close to the north coast of Scotland in late April, causing British fighter planes to scramble and intercept the bombers.
- Russian warships passed by the British coast in early May and were tracked by the Royal Navy. While such an encounter was routine, the British naval commander involved noted that “a Russian task group of this size has not passed by our shores in some time.”
- Two nuclear-capable Russian bombers came close to the coasts of Alaska and California in early June, causing US fighter planes to intercept the bombers.
At another time, many of these incidents would be unremarkable. The March ICBM test was scheduled before the Crimean intervention, for example, and the United States knew of the test beforehand. Russian planes and ships passing by the United Kingdom are routine. The US destroyer’s Black Sea patrol in April was also routine. When these routine incidents occur at a time of great Russian-US tension, however, they can be misinterpreted as unusually hostile moves. Pilots and naval commanders can make bad judgments and violence can ensue. This kind of great power friction is extremely dangerous. If the Obama administration follows through on its promise to increase the US military presence in Europe—a move that Putin is likely to interpret as a further threat to Russia—these kinds of incidents may only increase in number.
Given the risks of prolonged Russian-US hostility, some kind of diplomatic solution that can ease tensions is necessary. An appropriate solution would address American concerns about further Russian military action in Ukraine and Russian concerns about countering threats from the west and ensuring its interests in Ukraine. The broad outlines of an appropriate diplomatic solution could be as follows:
1. Russia guarantees the independence and current borders of Ukraine (the annexation of Crimea cannot be remedied at this point but at least further violations of Ukraine’s territorial integrity can be prevented).
2. The United States and the rest of NATO guarantee that Ukraine will never be invited or permitted to join NATO. The European Union offers similar guarantees about EU membership. These western powers also pledge not to give any military aid to Ukraine.
3. The new Ukrainian government offers a new degree of local autonomy to the Russia-leaning eastern regions of Ukraine, allowing them to use Russian as their primary language and pursue closer trade or other economic ties with Russia. This offers some degree of satisfaction to the eastern separatists.
4. Following up on the trade treaty that, after Yanukovich’s previous rejection, was finally concluded between the new Ukrainian government and the European Union, the United States and the European Union should provide a substantial economic aid package to the new Ukrainian government. Such aid might compensate for understandable Ukrainian discontent over points 2 and 3 of this diplomatic deal.
A diplomatic deal with these characteristics would be unsatisfactory in many ways. From an American and Ukrainian perspective, it has the disadvantage of not punishing Putin for the annexation of Crimea and other aggressive moves and even seems to reward his bad behavior by offering concessions. From a Russian perspective, it would not eliminate the EU-Ukraine trade deal, would increase Ukraine’s ties to the west, and does not address larger concerns about American power in Europe and the world.
Nevertheless, this four-point solution would at least prevent further Russian military intervention in Ukraine and possibly lower the overall Russian-US tensions that could otherwise lead to a larger conflict. Such a solution certainly offers more hope than indefinitely prolonged threats, military activities, and great power hostility. It is a step well worth taking.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Life Matters Journal.
 Reuters, “Ukraine Crisis Forces U.S. to Bolster Europe Forces,” June 20, 2014, https://reut.rs/2GycMVv; Reuters, “NATO Suspends Cooperation with Russia over Ukraine Crisis,” April 1, 2014, https://reut.rs/331nPxP.
 See the discussion of how empathy can be applied to US-Russian relations in Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight, Wilson’s Ghost: Reducing the Risk of Conflict, Killing, and Catastrophe in the 21st Century (New York: PublicAffairs, 2001), 64-73.
 George Friedman, “Ukraine: On the Edge of Empires,” Geopolitical Weekly, December 17, 2013, https://bit.ly/2Z9unti.
 For information on NATO expansion and other provocative actions listed below, see Blight and McNamara, Wilson’s Ghost, 85-87; Stephen F. Cohen, “Cold War Again: Who’s Responsible?” The Nation, April 1, 2014, https://bit.ly/3i2QGZ4; and Jack F. Matlock, “Who Is The Bully? The U.S. Has Treated Russia Like a Loser since the End of the Cold War,” Washington Post, March 14, 2014, https://wapo.st/3h5Y1po.
 David Nakamura, “U.S. Criticizes Russia for Preventing Formation of Coalition for Possible Military Action in Syria,” Washington Post, August 30, 2013, https://wapo.st/2F9A8Qm.
 Reuters, “Putin Says Annexation of Crimea Partly a Response to NATO Enlargement,” April 17, 2014, https://reut.rs/2Zavk4z.
 John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 272-274.
 Ibid., 274.
 Reuters, “Russia Test-fires ICBM amid Tension over Ukraine,” March 4, 2014, https://reut.rs/3lUKLYg.
 CBS News, “Russian Jet Makes ‘Provocative and Unprofessional’ Pass at USS Donald Cook,” April 14, 2014, https://cbsn.ws/2QXHIQR.
 Associated Press, “Pentagon: Russian Fighter Intercepted US Plane,” Seattle Times, June 2, 2014, https://bit.ly/358kBvm.
 Ewan MacAskill and agencies, “RAF Fighter Jets Intercept Russian Bombers off Coast of Scotland,” The Guardian, April 23, 2014, https://bit.ly/2Z7uRQy.
 “Royal Navy Sails to Meet Russian Task Group,” UK Royal Navy, May 8, 2014, https://bit.ly/3217aeE.
 Brad Lendon, “Russian Bombers Fly near California,” CNN, June 13, 2014, https://cnn.it/3jPG5RH.
 This proposal owes a great deal to proposals made in Cohen, “Cold War Again: Who’s Responsible?”
 Andrew Higgins and David M. M. Herszenhorn, “Defying Russia, Ukraine Signs E.U. Trade Pact,” New York Times, June 27, 2014, https://nyti.ms/3m16Lkz.
© 2015 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.