Time for Ukraine—and America—to Make a Deal With Russia
Ukraine’s political revolution is now complete. The country just elected as president the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, who crushed the incumbent by a nearly three-to-one margin. His party won the first majority in the Rada since the nation was reborn after the Soviet Union. Zelensky, who largely wiped out parties that favored continued confrontation with Russia, should now use his substantial authority to make peace with Moscow.
The United States and Europe can help seal the deal. In particular, the Trump administration should end the burgeoning cold war between Washington and Moscow. The conflict is unnecessary and is in nether side’s interest.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin is neither Western liberal nor American friend. He pursues his own agenda, disregarding what Washington wants. Most controversially, he has followed the U.S. example of intervening in other nations’ elections for political advantage, tossing a wrench or two into America’s presidential contest.
As bilateral ties began to fray, Moscow took advantage of opportunities to hinder American policy elsewhere. It helped preserve the Assad regime in Syria against all enemies, sustained Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro despite substantial American pressure, diminished Washington’s economic assault on North Korea, frustrated President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, and manipulated European governments. Some of these actions, such as the ones in Syria, reflected long-standing Russian policies; others, such as in Venezuela, were mostly intended to undermine Washington’s position.
However, Putin is not solely at fault for the collapse of U.S.-Russia relations. Declassified documents make clear that Washington lied to Moscow about its intention to expand NATO. Unconcerned about Russian sensitivities, the Clinton administration moved the border of the Western alliance to within a couple hundred miles of St. Petersburg. The U.S. ignored Russian interests in the Balkans and attempted to cut out Moscow while dismembering the latter’s traditional Slavic partner Serbia. The Clinton administration used money and influence to keep Boris Yeltsin in power even as Russia’s economy was being looted in the name, though not the reality, of a market transition.
The Bush administration continued to promote NATO expansion, even to Georgia, which started a shooting war with Russia in apparent expectation of U.S. backing, and Ukraine, long part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. In 2014 came Europe’s attempt to pull Kiev westward economically and subsequent support from Brussels and Washington for a street putsch against Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly president, who had won a fair election. In the aftermath, U.S. officials openly spoke of their favored candidates for Ukrainian office.
None of this justified Moscow essentially waging war on Ukraine and forcibly annexing Crimea. However, Western behavior undermines the claim that Putin is the latest Hitler, out to dominate the world. Russia couldn’t conquer Europe even if it wanted to: the continent has 10 times the economic strength and three times the population of Russia. Despite having rebuilt its military, Moscow is a declining power, focused on ensuring that its security and interests are respected by the West. Switch Mexico for Ukraine and Washington would be most unhappy with Russian “meddling,” per the Monroe Doctrine. Those Washingtonians currently outraged at Moscow’s behavior would be demanding that America make an equivalently aggressive response.
Today, Washington and Moscow appear to be adversaries trending towards enemies. Outrage is particularly abundant in Congress, whose members seek to punish anyone anywhere who opposes them. Yet sanctions against Moscow have completely failed. The Putin government has not disgorged Crimea, nor has it abandoned separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass, left Syria, dropped support for Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, or otherwise changed its foreign policy. And Moscow is unlikely to do so even if the U.S. turns up the pressure. At the same time, Russia has closed the Nixon-promoted gap between Moscow and Beijing, which now cooperate together against America.
Zelensky’s election offers an opportunity for Ukraine, Europe, and America to repair relations with Moscow. During the campaign, Zelensky both called for negotiations with Russia and promised not to sacrifice Ukrainian territory, and since has responded aggressively to Putin’s pressure. When Moscow offered Russian passports to residents of the Donbass, Zelensky invited Russians to request Ukrainian passports. Kiev recently seized a Russian tanker, while releasing its crew, in retaliation for Moscow’s previous detention of three Ukrainian vessels.
The new Ukrainian leader has spoken with Vladimir Putin by phone, proposed a swap of prisoners, indicated a willingness to end the blockade of rebel regions, and suggested talks that would include Donald Trump and several European leaders. With a Rada majority, Zelensky should be able to pass any legislation required for a peace agreement. Ending the war would allow him to concentrate on the real existential threats to his country—corruption, poverty, extremism, and despair.
Agreement will require compromise, including from American legislators who seem mostly interested in posturing. But that should still be possible—so long as everyone accepts the underlying, if unpleasant, realities. A cool peace would be far better than today’s lukewarm war.
First, NATO should indicate that expansion of the alliance has concluded. With a peaceful resolution to the Ukraine conflict, there would be no further extension of troops, exercises, or bases to Russia’s borders—most importantly in Georgia or Ukraine. Rather, the alliance would repair contacts with Moscow that have been damaged in recent years.
Second, the Minsk agreement would be refined and implemented. Kiev would provide autonomy for the affected region while Russia ended its support for separatists. The Putin government would shift its objective from destabilization to stabilization, recognizing that a prosperous friend on its border would improve Russia’s economy and security.
Third, the West would drop sanctions on Moscow. The two sides would move back toward normal commercial ties. However, the legal authority for their speedy imposition would remain should Russia violate the accord.
Fourth, Moscow would eschew future intervention in American and European political affairs. That would include cyber activities, funding of political groups, and electoral hacking. In turn, Washington would acknowledge its past political meddling and foreswear future interventions in Russian affairs, including funding private organizations involved in political activities.
Fifth, Ukraine would be free to form commercial ties and forge economic agreements both east and west. While Moscow might claim an enhanced influence over security issues, it could make no similar claim over investment and trade. Russia would cease to use its gas monopoly as a weapon; in return, Washington would drop its opposition to the Nord Stream 2 project.
Sixth, Crimea’s final status would be left for the future. Ukraine and the West would informally recognize that Russia is highly unlikely to return the territory under the best of circumstances while officially refusing to acknowledge the transfer. In continuing to press for Crimea’s return, they would propose a referendum. Washington, Brussels, and Kiev would then offer a formal resolution: a referendum conducted with international oversight to decide final control by Ukraine or Russia.
The benefits of such a peace to America are obvious. Moscow would end its destabilization of Ukraine while Americans would no longer be entangled in a conflict irrelevant to their security. Russo-American economic ties could be revived as Moscow ended its political meddling. Washington could build on this success, steering Moscow in a different direction on Cuba and Venezuela and winning Russian assistance or acquiescence on other controversies, such as Iran and North Korea. Finally, the U.S. could focus on separating Moscow from China.
No doubt such a package would elicit strong opposition from some, especially in Kiev. Obviously only Ukraine can decide what its priorities are. However, the U.S. and Europe should inform Kiev that their security interests require ending any plans to add Ukraine to NATO. America’s defense, ultimately the raison d’etre of its participation in the transatlantic alliance, is not served by Washington confronting a nuclear-armed state, namely Russia, over its relations with a nation essentially irrelevant to American security. Ukraine should make its decision realizing that it cannot rely on the protection of others.
How Zelensky would view such a proposal is unknown. But he would have good reason to embrace an agreement that ended Russian military intervention and secured his country’s freedom to choose economically. Crimea would not be returning, but under no circumstance other than full-scale war is it ever likely to be. And Ukraine need not formally accept the territorial loss.
In any case, Washington should move ahead and make a deal that best serves America’s interests. That will require minimizing U.S. military commitments to Ukraine, which might be a worthy friend but should not remain a defense dependent. It will also mean not treating Russia like an enemy.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington.