Biden Should Open Negotiations With Russia

According to press reports, President Joe Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin have not spoken since a February 12 phone conversation. The last contact between Russian and American diplomats was February 23. Much has changed since these previous conversations. The vaunted Russian military, launching an invasion from its home soil, has struggled to achieve objectives in Ukraine. The West has imposed crippling sanctions on the Russian economy. Traditionally neutral nations such as Switzerland have joined in sanctions. Germany, hesitant to send offensive weapons into any combat zone, has made an exception with Ukraine. Mass protests inside of Russia show defiance to the Putin regime.

We are not sure of Putin’s ultimate objectives in Ukraine. Still, one thing is clear—Russian forces will not be able to occupy the country effectively. Civilians are armed and angry. Occupiers will face sabotage, resistance fighters, and hatred. Ukrainians who once felt a kinship or brotherhood with Russia have had their eyes opened. The installation of a pro-Russian regime will not result in obedience. Absent a massive military presence, its hold on power will be tenuous.

Putin needs a way out to save face. Maybe—just maybe—a deal can be cut where he, like Richard Nixon with defeat in Vietnam, can claim “peace with honor.”

A long-simmering issue for Putin is the expansion of NATO. In 1949, there were 12 founding members of the Alliance: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO added Greece and Turkey (1952), Germany (1955), and Spain (1982). Putin claims that NATO and the US promised that there would be no NATO expansion at the end of the Cold War. This account is disputed—with even Gorbachev having different recollections at different times. 

While there were assurances made about stationing non-German forces in former East Germany, that was the extent of an agreement. This is borne out by a letter from Boris Yeltsin to Bill Clinton. In this letter, Yeltsin recognizes the right of sovereign nations to join any alliance. He also warns that entry of former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO will cause concern by many in Russia and would be against “the spirit” of the agreement on non-German forces in former East Germany.

Of course, NATO did expand. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia (2004), Albania and Croatia (2009), Montenegro (2017), and North Macedonia (2020).

Looking at the expansion as a foreign policy realist, a post-Cold War expansion was not in America’s interests. Just looking at Poland and the Baltic States, they have been perpetual targets for empires and dictators. The Baltic countries also share a border with Russia. While I certainly wish these states no ill and instead hope they prosper and maintain the integrity of their borders, their security is not integral to that of the United States. In fact, in guaranteeing their security in NATO, we pledge to go to war to defend them. And absent a substantial geopolitical shift, there is only one danger to them: Russia. By expanding NATO, we have expanded the possibilities of military conflict with Russia.

Biden and American leaders rightly have ruled out the participation of American forces in Ukraine. In my heart, I’d love to see A-10 Warthogs destroying the Russian convoy heading toward Kyiv. But in my head, I know that the results of this intervention could lead to a larger war on the continent and perhaps the use of nuclear weapons. Suppose NATO powers seem to agree that valiant Ukraine—situated in a difficult location with a terrible neighbor—is not a proper object of direct NATO military assistance. Why would we ever consider admission of the country into NATO? We should not. We cannot undo previous NATO expansions, but we can stop any further expansions.

Russia has reasonable concerns about having a western military alliance expand further east. Just as we would look askance at a Russian-Mexican-Canadian military alliance surrounding the US, Putin’s concerns with NATO expansion are not unfounded.

Considering Putin’s difficulties with Ukrainian resistance, sanctions, and the world seeing his army as relatively ineffectual, he might be ready for serious talks. An agreement that NATO would not expand to include former republics of the USSR would give him a victory so he could claim peace with honor. He would also have to agree with withdrawing all forces from Ukraine and permit the Ukrainian people to chart their own future. It would also for a victory for the United States because it limits our obligations to go to war for countries that have little or nothing to do with American national interests.

Of course, Putin’s list of demands prior to launching his war encompassed more than ceasing NATO expansion. He has demanded a rollback of NATO forces to positions before the expansion in 1999. While I wish this expansion had never happened, it is difficult, if not impossible, to undo these obligations. Perhaps an alternative would be to agree that no nuclear weapons will be deployed in countries that joined NATO post-1999. Considering how poorly the war has gone for Putin, I expect that he will reduce his demands and be thankful that the West is pointing the way to an offramp so he can extricate himself from this conflict.

Some will see efforts at negotiations and prohibitions on NATO expansion as appeasement. This conjecture is unfounded. NATO’s expansion after the Cold War made conflict with Russia more likely rather than less likely. It was a mistake. NATO’s open-door policy to all European countries ignores reasonable Russian perceptions that their country is being backed into a corner. While I sympathize with countries such as Ukraine and Georgia who believe (with good reason) that they will always be in danger absent an alliance with western nations, the costs of defending their borders with US troops against a nuclear-armed Russia is too high.

In sum, now is the time for serious negotiations with Russia. Biden has a chance to end the war and suffering in Ukraine, provide Putin with an exit strategy, and prevent the United States from assuming greater military commitments. He should act now.

William J. Watkins, Jr. is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books, Crossroads for Liberty, Reclaiming the American Revolution, and Patent Trolls.
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