The conflict between Ukraine and Russia that has been simmering since 2014 now threatens to become open war. Russian military forces reportedly have been gathering close to the Russia-Ukraine border this past fall. US government sources recently suggested Russia might be preparing for an attack on Ukraine.
War between Ukraine and Russia would be a devastating tragedy for both nations. Yet efforts by the United States and NATO to protect Ukraine could easily ratchet up east-west tensions further—and even provoke the war they are meant to prevent. Diplomacy to ease tensions and avoid armed conflict is needed urgently.
The current conflict arose in 2014 when an uprising in Ukraine overthrew the pro-Russian president. Russia responded by invading and occupying Ukraine’s Crimea region. Also in 2014, armed separatists in eastern Ukraine began, with Russian support, a struggle against the central government. The civil war in eastern Ukraine continues to this day.
A 2015 ceasefire agreement required giving greater autonomy to the separatist regions while securing the central government’s control, throughout the conflict zone, of Ukraine’s border with Russia. However, this agreement has never been fully honored. The civil war’s front lines run through inhabited areas and to date over 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict.
This fall, satellite photos and other analysis indicated that Russian troops and military equipment, including tanks, were being moved closer to Ukraine. Then came US warnings of a possible Russian attack. Meanwhile Ukraine has been massing its own troops, a move that Ukrainian authorities have justified as defensive but Russian authorities warn might signal a new campaign against the separatists.
A video meeting between US President Joseph Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin on December 7 was inconclusive. The United States has warned of severe economic penalties for Russia should Russia invade Ukraine.
Whether Russia is actually preparing to invade Ukraine soon or is simply saber-rattling is ultimately known only to Putin and his advisers. Understanding why Russia might be massing military forces close to Ukraine is easier to discern, though: the Russians have been very clear about their concerns and goals. Understanding these concerns and goals can help in understanding the current crisis and perhaps preventing war.
Russia wants to keep Ukraine from joining NATO—a path Ukraine has been contemplating since the 2000s. Putin raised the issue of Ukrainian NATO membership at the meeting with Biden. Later in December, Russian authorities proposed an agreement with NATO in which NATO would pledge never to offer Ukraine membership.
Beyond NATO expansion, the Russians are more generally concerned about western military activities close to their borders. As an official Russian statement about the Biden-Putin meeting explained, Putin spoke about how NATO “has been expanding its military potential near Russian borders.” The recent Russian proposal includes a request for NATO to scale back significantly its military presence in countries close to Russia.
Russian security concerns are understandable. Russia has no easily defensible western border: no mountains or bodies of water separate Ukraine from Russia. Stopping an invasion from the west, through Ukraine, would be very difficult. If Ukraine joins an American-led western military alliance (that is, NATO), and becomes a base for NATO military activities, Russia becomes extremely vulnerable to western attack. Russia has endured at least one such western attack every century for the past 400 years—the most recent, Nazi Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, cost millions of lives.
Modern military technology hasn’t made the situation any more reassuring for Russia. In November, Putin expressed concern about NATO stationing (presumably nuclear-capable) missiles in Ukraine. Such missiles could reach Moscow in 5 minutes. “The emergence of such threats represents a ‘red line’ for us,” Putin has said. (Although stationing US nuclear missiles in Ukraine is not an option currently being considered, the United States has given weapons and other military assistance to Ukraine.)
Russian policymakers have a strong incentive to prevent further western military expansion into Ukraine. Preventing such expansion could involve supporting separatists, to weaken Ukraine. It could involve invading Ukraine. It could involve escalating Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling. For example, Putin has spoken of countering a western threat with the threat of Russian hypersonic nuclear weapons, which are set to be deployed next year and supposedly can “reach those who issue orders” in 5 minutes.
However, the guarantee Russia wants—no NATO membership for Ukraine—isn’t acceptable. While its concerns are understandable, Russia doesn’t have the right to dictate another country’s security arrangements, least of all through military threats. Further, the United States and NATO are not going to agree to Russian demands: US and NATO officials have repeatedly affirmed Ukraine’s right to join NATO.
Yet Ukrainian NATO membership remains very dangerous. At best, pursuing such membership will cause Russia to respond with its own assertive military activities, dramatically worsening tensions in Europe. At worst, the prospect of Ukrainian NATO membership will provoke a Russian invasion—precisely the opposite of the security Ukraine seeks from NATO.
The current stand-off doesn’t have a clear solution. The best option for policymakers is some stop-gap agreement to buy time until (perhaps) better options become available. Such a possible diplomatic deal might include the following measures:
- The United States, NATO, and Russia should seek a mutual reduction in western and Russian military activity in the region. The recent Russian suggestion of a ban on large-scale military exercises on either side of Russia’s western border is worth pursuing. This step would reduce the threat to Ukraine while also reassuring Russia.
- The United States and NATO should slow the pace of any further military assistance to Ukraine and should defer consideration of Ukraine NATO membership for at least a few more years.
- Ukraine and Russia (and other nations, as necessary) should negotiate a new agreement on Ukraine’s civil war—with an eye toward dropping the previous requirement that the central government give autonomy to the separatist regions. Such talks offer Ukraine some political compensation for delayed NATO membership.
- All the nations involved, as well as non-governmental groups, should provide appropriate humanitarian assistance to those in the conflict-affected region of Ukraine.
Whether such a diplomatic deal would succeed is uncertain. Even if successful, it would fall short of a satisfactory resolution of the conflict. Nevertheless, a deal along these lines would be preferable to war or to the continual escalation of international tensions. Diplomacy should be seriously attempted.
A version of this essay originally appeared on the Rehumanize International blog.
 Shane Harris and Paul Sonne, “Russia Planning Massive Military Offensive against Ukraine Involving 175,000 Troops, U.S. Intelligence Warns, Washington Post, December 3, 2021, https://wapo.st/3FEYg8d.
 Sara Cincurova and Guillaume Binet, “On Ukraine’s Front Lines, Europe’s Forgotten War Grinds On,” Al Jazeera, November 21, 2021, https://bit.ly/33TLFzU; Andrew E. Kramer, “Fighting Escalates in Eastern Ukraine, Signaling the End to Another Cease-Fire,” New York Times, March 30, 2021, https://nyti.ms/3qldJ6J.
 BBC, “Ukraine Ceasefire: New Minsk Agreement Key Points,” February 12, 2015, https://bbc.in/32k950R; Roman Goncharenko, “Ukraine Conflict: Can the Minsk-2 Peace Deal with Russia Be Salvaged?,” Deutsche Welle, February 12, 2020, https://bit.ly/3JdelEa; Reuters, “Factbox: What Are the Minsk Agreements on the Ukraine Conflict?,” December 6, 2021, https://reut.rs/3Frfo11.
 International Crisis Group, “Visualising the Dynamics of Combat and Negotiations in Donbas,” August 3, 2021, https://bit.ly/3mqfFK0.
 Betsy Woodruff Swan and Paul McLeary, “Satellite Images Show New Russian Military Buildup Near Ukraine,” Politico, November 1, 2021, https://politi.co/3pohKbq.
 Associated Press, “Ukrainian Defense Minister: Our Troop Buildup Is Defensive,” December 14, 2021, https://yhoo.it/3qeFG00.
 Aamer Madhani and Dasha Litvinova, “Biden-Putin Square Off for 2 Hours as Ukraine Tensions Mount,” Associated Press, December 7, 2021, https://bit.ly/3EovEhK.
 Andrew E. Kramer and Steven Erlanger, “Russia Lays Out Demands for a Sweeping New Security Deal With NATO,” New York Times, December 17, 2021, https://nyti.ms/3mviE3N.
 Madhani and Litvinova, “Biden-Putin Square Off for 2 Hours.”
 Kramer and Erlanger, “Russia Lays Out Demands.”
 Tim Marshall, “Russia and the Curse of Geography,” Atlantic Monthly, October 31, 2015, https://bit.ly/3EBtv2F.
 Vladimir Isachenkov, “Putin Warns West: Moscow Has ‘Red Line’ about Ukraine, NATO,” Associated Press, November 30, 2021, https://bit.ly/3ei8rTU.
 Alexander Marrow and Mark Trevelyan, “Russia Says It May Be Forced to Deploy Mid-range Nuclear Missiles in Europe,” Reuters, December 13, 2021, https://reut.rs/3pn9TdU; White House, “Joint Statement on the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership,” September 1, 2021, https://bit.ly/3eAPkot.
 Samuel Charap, “The U.S. Approach to Ukraine’s Border War Isn’t Working. Here’s What Biden Should Do Instead,” Politico, November 19, 2021, https://politi.co/3eqMHoN.
 Isachenkov, “Putin Warns West.”
 Kramer and Erlanger, “Russia Lays Out Demands,”; US Embassy in Ukraine, “Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III Remarks to the Press following Bilateral Meeting with Minister of Defense Andriy Taran,” October 19, 2021, https://bit.ly/3srzO6p; White House, “Joint Statement on the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership.”
 Kramer and Erlanger, “Russia Lays Out Demands.”
© 2022 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.
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