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Ukraine: A New Plan

The global system appears to be entering an era much like the early Cold War period, but in a geopolitical situation in which Russia appears to be even more unstable than the former Soviet empire. The Russian Federation now fears the defection of its major allies and has been attempting to stave off its potential disaggregation by seeking close political-economic ties with China, Iran, and other Eurasian states. In Georgia and Ukraine, Moscow has been attempting to check NATO and European Union encroachment into its self-defined “near abroad” by the use of force. In Syria, it fears that the potential collapse of the Assad regime would result in the loss of Russia’s strategic position in the Middle East while permitting pan-Sunni Islamist movements to destabilize the immediate region and the predominantly Muslim areas within the Russian Federation and Central Asia as well.

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s use of force can be considered preclusive and regionally revanchist—but Moscow could become even more disruptive and hostile if the United States and Europeans do not engage in far-reaching discussions with Russia on the critical issues. Moreover, a failure to even articulate the goals of a diplomatic solution impairs any ability to envision long-term strategic goals concerning Russia.

Ukraine Seen from Moscow

Contemporary Russian efforts to support autonomous forces in eastern Ukraine appear reminiscent of Soviet efforts to revise the Polish-Soviet border at the time of the 1943 Tehran Conference—an action later confirmed by the 1945 Yalta Accords. While the United States largely ignored Soviet annexation of Finnish territory, it refused to recognize Soviet annexation of the Baltic states—much as Washington now refuses to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. Likewise, the Soviet backlash to the 1948 Marshall Plan for U.S. financial assistance to Eastern European states (without Soviet participation) has been reincarnated in another form. German-backed European Union efforts to forge Association Agreements (AA) with the post-Soviet states of the Russian-defined “near abroad” (Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova) has occasioned a series of differing Russian responses since 2008.

The European Union’s offer of an Association Agreement to Ukraine in 2013–14 (without Russian participation) helped to spark the Euromaidan movement when the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, suddenly refused, under Russian pressure, to sign the proposed EU accord. Moscow then engaged in an act of preclusive imperialism by seizing Crimea and by supporting autonomy movements in eastern Ukraine during the protests and chaos that followed. Russian president Vladimir Putin had feared that the European Union’s superior economic capabilities might divert Ukrainian trade away from Russia, and that Moscow itself might lose its political and economic influence (in the arms and ship-building industries, for example). Moscow also took the opportunity to seize Ukrainian resources in the vicinity of Crimea. Kiev eventually signed the AA with the EU, but only after the Russian intervention in Crimea and interference in eastern Ukraine.

President Putin had likewise feared that the Euromaidan movement would expel the Russian Black Sea fleet from Sevastopol and lead to Ukraine joining NATO. Further, he feared that eventual NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia could effectively put NATO in a position to interdict Russia’s key trade and energy transport hub of Novorossiysk on the Black Sea. As a response to the uncoordinated NATO and EU “double enlargement,” Moscow has effectively established its own version of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine that is intended to check foreign military and political-economic encroachment into proclaimed spheres of influence and security. Much as Washington used the Monroe Doctrine to justify U.S. intervention during the Cuban missile crisis, Moscow, to the understandable dismay of the West, now sees the expansion of NATO military infrastructure (including missile defenses) toward Russia as a “Cuban Missile Crisis” in reverse.

From Moscow’s perspective, the fact that NATO has not ruled out Ukraine and Georgia’s joining the alliance represents a potential lever to pry Russia out of Crimea, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. NATO’s official policy is that it will not recognize the “illegal” annexation of Crimea, and it condemns Russia’s continuing “destabilization” of eastern Ukraine. In addition, NATO has also affirmed that it will never recognize the independence of the “occupied” Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia—even if these enclaves did not possess very positive relations with Georgia prior to their Russian-backed independence after the 2008 Georgia-Russia war. Here, Moscow has been blamed for causing the August 2008 war when the war was, in fact, initiated by the Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili after South Ossetian provocations, but with Moscow waiting on the sidelines ready to pounce.1

In addition to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum that provided security assurances for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act has been put in question along with many other U.S.-European-Russian accords that set the groundwork for a positive NATO-Russian relationship. The Russian military and tactical nuclear weapons buildup in and around Crimea, in Kaliningrad and the Baltic region, has led NATO to deploy forces in Poland and the Baltic states on a “rotating” (but possibly permanent) basis in January 2017. Other provocative Russian actions have buttressed that decision, such as Russia’s alleged deployment of new intermediate range missiles in violation of the 1987 INF treaty. And in a further escalation of the conflict that is leading the Baltic states to demand even greater U.S. and NATO military support, Moscow has planned major military exercises in the region in September 2017. Yet the fact of the matter is that, while NATO deployments could slow down a feared Russian offensive, they could not defeat a surprise attack.2

In his telephone call to President Putin in February 2017, President Donald Trump denounced the 2010 New START Treaty, negotiated by the Obama administration, that limits each side to a maximum of 700 deployed ICBMs, submarines, and bombers, for a total of 1,500 warheads. Trump said that the New START Treaty was a bad deal for the United States, after President Putin had raised the possibility of extending the treaty.3 Here, Trump’s proposed military buildup, which includes the renovation of the US strategic triad, the costly F-35 stealth aircraft, and the B-61 tactical nuclear bomb, appears intended to press Moscow into settling a number of disputes from a position of strength. But this settlement is to be achieved on American terms, in accord with a posture of power-based bargaining. Key questions remain: Will such power-based bargaining bring about mutual compromise? And what would such a compromise look like? Will one side or the other capitulate? Or will major power war be the consequence?

Strategic Rationales for U.S.-EU-Russian Agreement

A potential general geopolitical settlement between the United States, the European Union, and Russia over the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine and over the Russian annexation of Crimea would in fact prove to be in the interest of each party. Countries of the Black Sea, Balkans, and Caucasus, which are members of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) organization possess tremendous economic potential that could be put toward the purposes of peace and development but that is currently being thwarted. With a population of 335 million, BSEC members possess an intra-BSEC trade volume worth $187 billion annually and represent a major transport corridor for gas and oil and an alternative to Middle Eastern energy supplies. The BSEC has the potential to become Europe’s major transport and energy transfer corridor—if positive relations among the BSEC membership can be achieved.

Yet Putin’s annexation of Crimea is proving unexpectedly costly for Moscow to achieve successfully in the short term—and even more so with U.S. and European sanctions in place. First, Moscow has needed to augment the salaries and pensions of the Crimean population to Russian standards, while tourism will remain much lower than normal until the situation stabilizes. The Kerch bridge that is needed to supply Crimea from Russia will cost much more than the officially estimated $4.5 billion and may not prove long lasting due to the harsh nature of the surrounding climate.4 In addition to the need for Moscow to supply Crimea with gas and electricity, Kiev’s blockade of the North Crimean Canal has negatively impacted Crimean agriculture, as well as the overall Crimean economy, ecology, and population.5

Moscow has hoped that it can ride out U.S. and EU sanctions and that it can eventually develop Black Sea energy and other resources seized from Ukrainian jurisdiction that are potentially worth trillions of dollars—while also seeking finance and investment from banks and corporations that are not subject to U.S. and EU sanctions. At the same time, however, working against Moscow is the fact the annexation has jeopardized energy deals sought with Kiev and its state-owned Chornomornaftogaz by ExxonMobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, Repsol, and Petrochina. It is now nearly impossible for Moscow to legally make deals with these same companies, among others, over formerly Ukrainian-owned assets—until there is a political and legal settlement between Kiev and Moscow. The Russian annexation of Crimea thus comes at a major political-economic price and undermines international trust in Moscow.

The fighting in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine has moreover proved very costly for all sides, and rebuilding the region will prove very difficult. The specter of more intense fighting in the years ahead has been raised in the aftermath of Kiev’s “creeping offensive” into the Donbass region since mid-December 2016. Kiev’s military move was ostensibly intended to check supplies going to the Russian-backed autonomists (who in turn have begun to expropriate Ukrainian businesses in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions), but has nonetheless stepped deeper into the gray zone between the two sides.6

A collapsed Donbass region that is potentially separated from a partitioned Ukraine could soon become a much larger and unstable version of Russian-backed Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia combined. Such political and economic instability will continue to pollute the whole area with black marketeering, weapons smuggling, and other forms of criminality. A failed “state” in eastern Ukraine would not only prove very troublesome for an essentially bankrupt Kiev and the rest of the region, but for Moscow as well—as the latter, for example, will need to deal with refugees fleeing to Russia. Some 1.5 million people have already fled the country, with the vast majority (1.2 million) going to the Russian Federation—which has not necessarily accepted them with open arms. Roughly 150,000 have gone to Belarus.7 The cost of reconstruction and development in the aftermath of the conflict will be considerable. So it should be in the common interest to bring this conflict to a close as soon as possible.

War in Ukraine also impacts Belarus, a Russian ally and trading partner, which could well be the next former Soviet state to collapse. A political succession crisis in Belarus appears highly likely given strong opposition to President Alexander Lukashenko, his difficulties in balancing political-economic relations between German-backed EU association promises, and Polish influence. Coupled with the Russian inability to continue to subsidize the Belarusian economy—due, at least in part, to the imposition of U.S. and European sanctions since 2014—the political strains will only grow. Here, Moscow has feared the possible breakup of its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which represents a pathetic mini-version of the Warsaw Pact.8

The Question of Western Europe

A general settlement between the United States, European countries, Ukraine, and Russia is crucial to prevent the further destabilization of eastern Europe that could, in turn, further antagonize western Europe. Such a destabilization would deepen the divisions between pro-NATO and pro-EU sociopolitical movements and anti-NATO and anti-EU movements on both the right and the left. In general, both left-wing and right-wing political parties in states closest to Russia (Poland, Finland, Sweden, and the Baltic states) tend to take a strong anti-Russian position, no matter whether they are for or against NATO or EU membership. But left-wing and right-wing parties in both France and Germany—the two countries that now form the core of the European Union after the UK’s exit from the EU (Brexit)—tend to oppose both EU and NATO membership.

During the ongoing process of Brexit, which could take several years to complete, it is not at all clear where the European Union is heading. European financial instability means that a number of states could, in the not too distant future, opt to drop out of the European Union and even out of NATO. Here, for example, sanctions placed on Russia in the agricultural sector (coupled with a Russian ban on European imports) have ironically been hurting the Europeans much more than the Americans. The impact of EU and Russian sanctions, along with general impact of regional deindustrialization and delocalization, has been pressing agricultural producers and workers, as well as small business owners, to turn toward anti-EU anti-NATO parties on both the right and the left, particularly in France.9

A French exit from the EU would break up the Franco-German alliance so that both Germany and France could go in separate directions, which could result in the renationalization of their defenses. While it appears unlikely that an anti-EU and anti-NATO party will win the French presidential elections in May 2017, that option cannot be ruled out in the next five to ten years if the overall French economy does not improve. If the EU does not engage in serious reforms that lead to the establishment of a multi-tiered Europe with a more closely integrated Franco-German core, the sociopolitical schisms throughout Europe will only grow wider. The European “democracy deficit” must also be addressed by permitting greater local and national participation in EU decision-making. The EU needs to create a new more integrated European defense capability that better pools defense resources in order to spread costs, as proposed in the June 2016 EU Global Strategy: Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).10 A more integrated European defense entity would help to stabilize and unify the post-Brexit European Union, but it would also need to seek out areas of defense and security cooperation with both NATO and Russia.

In Search of a U.S.-Russia Policy

In apparent contrast to Trump’s campaign promises to forge a general rapprochement with Moscow, the United States and NATO are now backing Kiev’s claims to eastern Ukraine and to the Crimea—while still keeping the door open to Kiev’s membership in NATO. This policy has reversed Trump’s stance during his presidential campaign, when he warned in August 2016 that U.S. efforts to regain Crimea on behalf of Ukraine against Russia could result in World War III.

On the one hand, in arguing against Trump’s proclaimed efforts to make amends with Moscow, Senator John McCain and others have feared that U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, could use his connections with Putin for the benefit of ExxonMobil. He might, they suggest, try to put an end to sanctions that had been placed by Washington on the Russian energy sector since July 2014. Eliminating sanctions would then safeguard ExxonMobil’s considerable joint investment deals and potential profitability given the size of Russian reserves in the Arctic Kara Sea, western Siberia, Sakhalin island, and in the Black Sea that had been reached with Rosneft, the Russian government energy company, in 2012–13.11 The concern of those like McCain who want to sustain maximum political-economic pressure on Moscow, is that “sectoral sanctions” impacting major energy companies and banks are due to expire in December 2017—unless extended by Congress.12

On the other hand, Trump’s “America First” policies are actually ideologically opposed to ExxonMobil’s investments in Moscow. Trump’s “economic nationalists” hope to return U.S. multinational corporate investments abroad back to the United States itself—while seeking to export U.S. shale oil and gas to Europe, for example. In effect, U.S. shale oil exporters hope to supply Poland, Ukraine, and other European countries so that these countries will be less dependent on Russian energy; Russia would have to lower prices to compete. Kiev, for example, is still dependent upon Moscow for about half of its natural gas needs.13 As opposed to the argument that the United States needs to sustain positive political and economic “linkage” with Moscow (as Henry Kissinger would argue), the United States could soon fully antagonize Moscow by becoming a direct rival for Russia’s energy export markets—in a sector in which Moscow derives significant national revenues.14

President Trump had initially raised the prospects of a U.S.-Russian summit. Yet the Trump administration’s own errors, combined with a general American media climate of suspicion surrounding Russia—in which alleged Russian interference in the U.S. democratic process has been denounced as an “act of war”—has greatly reduced the chances of moving toward a full rapprochement anytime soon. Nevertheless, it is important to keep options open in case a diplomatic breakthrough can eventually be reached and the two sides can begin to talk.

The major dilemma lies in the fact that U.S. diplomacy under President Barack Obama did not go far enough to “reset” the general crisis in U.S.-Russian relations. Prior to Obama’s first term, neither the United States nor the EU picked up and developed two significant proposals that might have prevented the escalation of tensions since 2014. The first proposal was Russian president Dmitri Medvedev’s June 2008 call in Berlin for a new European security pact and the second was Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call in Moscow for a new Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Pact in the aftermath of the August 2008 Georgia-Russia War. President Obama did try to reach out to Moscow once he came to power in January 2009, yet the fact that U.S.-Russia discussions did not address the issue of the uncoordinated NATO and EU “double enlargement” into the Russian-defined “near abroad” could only doom reset talks to failure.

Had the United States and EU reached out to address the issues impacting the Black Sea and Caucasus raised by both Russia and NATO-member Turkey, this crisis might not have escalated. Instead, the general attitude since the end of the Cold War was that NATO and the EU could somehow manage these regions without the involvement of Russia—in the false assumption that Russia would do nothing to defend its interests in its “near abroad.” In effect, the general U.S. and EU attitude has been that there was no need to create a new, jointly managed, regional peace and development community under OSCE auspices that would incorporate the interests of Russia, Turkey, and other regional states.15

Moreover, after the Russian annexation of Crimea, the 2014 Minsk II accords between Germany, France, Ukraine, and Russia (in which the United States is not a participant) were not designed to address the two elephants in the room: the questions concerning NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, plus Ukrainian demands for the return of Crimea from Russia. The focus of the Minsk discussions has been on the conflict in eastern Ukraine only—in which a total ceasefire, Ukrainian “decentralization,” and direct negotiations between Kiev and the Donbass “autonomists” have been considered essential to success. Yet Kiev’s promises of “decentralization” have not been constitutionally implemented and the March 2017 decision of the Ukrainian Poroshenko government to support the blockade on the Donbass region basically puts a dagger into the heart of the Minsk II accords.16 It now appears politically impossible for the government in Kiev to recognize the autonomist factions in the Donbass region, while Moscow has continued to supply autonomists with weaponry.

Given the gravity of the situation, the Minsk discussions over eastern Ukraine will soon need to be widened to include at least the United States and Turkey. This step would broaden the negotiations to include issues impacting the Black Sea and Caucasus regions, plus the Crimea. NATO-member Turkey—despite its deep domestic instability and President Erdogan’s steps toward implementing an “illiberal democracy”—would need to play a key role. Given Turkey’s central position in the Black Sea region, Ankara could potentially help to mediate between the United States and NATO, the EU, Ukraine, and Russia. Moscow is not the only “illiberal democracy” that Washington needs to talk to. Turkey must be included as well.17

A New “Plan A” for Ukraine and Crimea

Washington is accordingly faced with a number of disputes and conflicts that could soon spiral out of control. As Russia is involved in many of these conflicts, and as many of these conflicts cannot be resolved or even managed without Russian assistance, Moscow could continue to play its present role of “disrupter” of the peace—as long as it believes that the United States and Europeans (plus U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia) are actively seeking to undermine its perceived vital interests. What is needed is something like a new “Plan A”—named after George Kennan’s foiled efforts to reach a U.S.-Soviet rapprochement in 1949.

In 1949, George Kennan, then director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, was confronted with two options to decide the fate of Germany during the Berlin Blockade. One option was to do nothing and continue to insist on demands that Washington knew that the Russians “would not or could not accept.”18 The second alternative, advocated by Kennan, was dubbed “Plan A”: the United States would explore the prospects for a limited withdrawal of U.S., British, and Russian forces from the heart of Germany. This would have led to the establishment of a neutral German state, with the country still subject to a modified four-power control. But, in the story as told by Kennan, a distorted version of “Plan A” was leaked to the New York Times—by “the military side,” he believed, but it was “never protested or investigated in any quarter.”

As Kennan himself admitted, “Plan A” might have been “atrociously naive,” and the Soviet Union did eventually withdraw from Eastern Europe without the implementation of such a plan—and without initiating a nuclear war. In today’s circumstances, however, it is not certain that the world will be as lucky. Unlike West Germany during the Cold War, where the U.S. military was physically present, the United States has no effective military deterrent in Ukraine. And if Ukraine were to become a NATO member, the only way to defend its long border with Russia would be by nuclear weaponry.

From this perspective, it is absolutely crucial to consider a new “Plan A,” and a general settlement with Moscow that results in a formally neutral Ukraine, for several key reasons: (1) to prevent a new partition of Ukraine, if not of Europe as a whole; (2) to prevent the breakup of NATO and ever-increasing tension within Europe; (3) to gradually draw Russia away from a tighter military alliance with China and other states; and, most crucially, (4) to prevent the real possibility of a major power war—for it is not certain that nuclear weaponry will necessarily serve as a deterrent in the age of hybrid warfare as it ostensibly did during the Cold War under the now-outdated theory of mutually assured destruction.

A general settlement with Moscow that results in Ukrainian neutrality, but allows self-defense forces and permits Moscow to retain sovereignty over Crimea, will not necessarily result in a full “capitulation”—even if Washington must lower its sights as to what can and cannot be negotiated in Moscow’s view. Despite renewed conflict in eastern Ukraine since mid-December 2016, President Trump has promised to “work with Ukraine, Russia, and all other parties involved to help them restore peace along the (Russian-Ukrainian) border.”19 Yet Trump’s promise to work for peace has not yet fully addressed the question of the Crimea. It has, however, been alleged that Trump officials may have been secretly attempting to make a deal with Moscow over Crimea and eastern Ukraine. That deal, somewhat like the negotiated settlement that George Kennan had sought in 1949, was leaked to the press, leading to allegations of Trump administration collusion with Moscow.

There is a major irony in the fact that Trump had warned in August 2016 that U.S. efforts to regain Crimea on behalf of Ukraine against Russia could result in World War III, but then in February 2017, his administration appeared to reverse that position by arguing that the United States would support Kiev’s claims to Crimea. But much as Kennan observed, this appears to represent a position that Washington knows that Moscow “would not or could not accept.” It thus appears highly unlikely that Vladimir Putin—or any other Russian leader in the future—would give up sovereignty over the Crimea after having gone to such lengths to annex it. Trump may consequently be taking a much tougher line that fully expects Moscow to hand over Crimea to Kiev or he may be taking a hardline stance on Crimea in order to forge a compromise, based on the perceived belief that the U.S. must negotiate from a position of strength. The answer will depend on the course and flexibility of future negotiations—that is, if full-fledged negotiations do, in fact, take place.

First, Washington could urge the creation of an “international free trade zone” in Crimea. A Crimean international free trade zone under Russian sovereignty would not represent a “capitulation.” It would, however, open up an indirect path for Moscow to repay Ukraine for its seizure by opening the Crimean isthmus to international investment and trade, tourism, and joint ventures (which could include investments of Ukrainian companies if mutually agreed). On the one hand, such a proposal could offset Ukrainian demands for a complete return of the isthmus; on the other, it could help save face for Russia’s historical and nationalist claims to Crimea. (Russian elites have gone to great lengths to argue that Nikita Khrushchev’s decision to hand over Crimea to Ukraine was also “illegal,” and that one illegal action justifies another.) And even though Moscow would retain sovereignty, Moscow would be compelled to make compromises and sign legal accords in order to attract greater U.S. and European finance.20 This proposal could additionally provide the isthmus greater social and political autonomy at a local level and permit the protection of the Tatar, Ukrainian, and other non-Russian minorities.

Negotiations over eastern Ukraine and Crimea could be taken simultaneously with NATO-Russia negotiations over Ukraine as a whole in a step-by-step process. A formally neutral Ukraine with limited self-defense forces would move the dynamics of the U.S.-European-Russian relationship in a more positive direction, as Moscow would no longer need to prepare for war with Ukraine in order to sustain its control over Crimea. In addition, a neutral Ukraine would help Europe define its territorial limits so that it could concentrate on the need to make significant reforms in the European Union as a whole.

Even if the Minsk II accords collapse, or if the Donbass region separates from Ukraine in a future partition, the United States, Europeans, and Russia will need to find ways to limit the damage. The deployment of international peacekeepers in the Donbass region under a general OSCE mandate (going beyond OSCE observers) could help ameliorate the situation considerably, once a political settlement can be reached. At the same time, the United States, EU, Russia, and Ukraine would need to begin reconstruction efforts through the implementation of a regional peace and development community backed by U.S./NATO, EU, and Russian security supports under a general OSCE mandate.

Much like Kennan’s “Plan A” with respect to Germany in 1949, a new approach to Euro-Atlantic security through engaged negotiations with Moscow would accordingly seek to establish Ukraine as a formally neutral state with limited self-defense capabilities. Both Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski have likewise called for establishing Ukraine as a formally neutral country that is not a member of NATO or the Russian-led CSTO. For his part, Kissinger has also argued that Ukraine should have the right to choose freely its economic and political associations, including with the European Union. Yet full EU membership is not a viable option either, as even the EU association accords require that Kiev gradually adopt Common Security and Defense policies and European Defense Agency policies. The problem is that the EU Eastern Partnership program has not yet been able to develop a formula that can balance Russian security, defense, political-economic, financial, and energy interests with those of the post-Soviet eastern European countries and of the EU itself. It is therefore essential that the European Union begin to think more strategically, in cooperation with the United States, as the two coordinate their rapprochement with Moscow.21

NATO efforts to deploy rotating forces in the Baltic states and Poland are, as noted earlier, being met by a buildup of Russian nuclear and conventional forces in northwest Russia and Kaliningrad, plus major military maneuvers planned for September 2017. Despite the fact that President Putin’s proposal to restart military-to-military relations and to increase intelligence cooperation between the United States and NATO was rejected in mid-February 2017 by Trump’s new defense secretary, James Mattis, a step-by-step normalization of U.S.-European-Russia relations should be considered.22 This could be accomplished by means of setting up joint security exercises and overflights in the Baltic region and Kaliningrad, and in the Black Sea region, and in joint U.S., EU, and Russian peacekeeping operations in Donbass and the Caucasus under a general OSCE mandate, for example. The establishment of NATO-Russian confidence-building measures as soon as possible is absolutely crucial if peace is to be maintained.

Once there is progress in these areas, the United States and EU could then begin to lift sanctions on Russia, while also looking for ways to bring the United States, EU, and Russia into greater political-economic, financial, and energy cooperation. One possibility would be a three-way trade and financial commission between Ukraine, the European Union, and Russia. Another step would be to bring Moscow back into the G-8 discussions after Russian membership was suspended in March 2014. Both G-8 and EU-Russian-Ukrainian discussions could likewise lead the EU to work out a political-economic association accord that better balances Russian and Ukrainian financial, political-economic, energy, and ecological interests—after the EU’s abysmal failure to do so in 2013–14.

After sanctions on Russia are put to an end, offering Russia American and European investment, as well as joint military and security cooperation, could help to draw Moscow away from too great a financial and economic dependence on Beijing. It could likewise prevent the formation of a closer Sino-Russian military alliance, somewhat reminiscent of the 1950s, but in which Russia plays a role as a junior partner. Such a strategy must not, however, alienate China, which is the main indirect beneficiary of U.S.-European-Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

The United States is no longer locked into an existential war with the Soviet Union, and it should cooperate with the Russian Federation in order to sustain peace in a number of key areas: Ukraine, Iran’s nuclear program, Syria/Iraq, Islamic State, and North Korea. All these areas, among many others, need to be addressed as soon as possible through multiple forums, including the UN Security Council, the OSCE, the NATO-Russia Council, the G-8, and Contact Groups, as well as through international conferences and bilateral U.S.-Russia, U.S.-China meetings. The United States, Europeans, Japan, and Russia will also need to channel China’s rise to major power status in such a way that it does not harm Russian, Japanese, or American interests.

The dilemma is that it is the rise of China with its burgeoning global political-economic influence and increasingly powerful military capabilities—combined with a close alignment with Russia as a junior partner—that now represents the primary concern causing tremors in the United States and throughout the world. Washington will need to fully engage in both bilateral and multilateral negotiations with both Beijing and Moscow if the global system is not to soon polarize into two contending alliance systems: a U.S./NATO-EU-Japanese alliance of essentially democratic states vs. a Russia/CSTO-Chinese-Iranian alliance of “illiberal democracies”—with democratic India soon forced to choose sides.23

Disturbing Ghosts

Given Trump’s repeated statements that NATO was “obsolete” and that he was “indifferent” to the European Union, it was not surprising that Vice President Mike Pence rushed to Europe in early February 2017 to reassure the skeptical Europeans that the United States would continue to strongly support both NATO and the EU. Yet Pence’s promises of support for NATO were accompanied by the caveat that a number of NATO members still need to augment defense spending despite the burden that this might put on some NATO-member populations.24

But the crucial issue is this: on the assumption that neither NATO nor the EU breaks up in the near future, the Trump administration’s newfound support for NATO and EU unity must not also mean the strong U.S. support for the largely uncoordinated NATO and EU expansion into Moscow’s “near abroad.” Instead the United States, NATO, and the EU should help forge a new Black Sea and Caucasus peace and development community under a general OSCE mandate in working with Russia—and with a formally neutral Ukraine. Such an approach will need the strong support of NATO-member Turkey as well—on the assumption that Ankara can play a positive role in mediating between the United States and Russia.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Putin in April and stated his support for the Minsk II accords, but took a tough stance on sanctions. The only agreement he was apparently able to obtain concerned a restored hotline to prevent accidents between U.S. and Russian military aircraft. On one side, the Trump administration is being accused of weakening NATO in the face of Russian “aggression.” On the other, it is being accused of collusion with Moscow. A resolution to this crisis can take place only once the uncoordinated enlargements of the NATO and EU are restrained and redesigned. The danger is that U.S. domestic pressure to prevent the Trump administration from engaging in more substantial negotiations with Putin could lead to an even deeper crisis. The Russian Federation sees itself as being walled off in Europe, with its “near abroad” penetrated by the NATOEU “double enlargement” which, Putin fears, could lead to the breakup of the Russian-led CSTO. The breakup of the CSTO could, in turn, lead to the disaggregation of the Russian Federation itself. Certain regions in Russia are nearly bankrupt, a fact which once again caused protests in March 2017 against corruption and economic stagnation throughout the country. The fears of a potential breakup of the Russian Federation (as occurred during World War I) have led Putin to seek out strong political-economic and military ties with China in the effort to form a Eurasian Union, if not a military alliance. But unlike the relatively peaceful disaggregation of the Soviet Union, the feared disaggregation of the Russian Federation and concurrent civil war could lead to full scale Russian backlash.

In this regard, the Syrian crisis could provide the spark for an even greater conflagration. This is because Moscow fears that the potential collapse of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad will result in the loss of Russia’s position in the Middle East, while permitting pan-Sunni movements to destabilize the immediate region as well as the northern Caucasus and other predominately Muslim regions inside the Russian Federation itself. The April 2017 Trump administration decision to engage in unilateral cruise missile strikes as a means to punish the Assad regime for its use of chemical weaponry against its own population has been denounced by Moscow as yet another illegal unilateral U.S. attack against a sovereign state.

Nevertheless, now that the Trump administration has used force—both as an ostensible means to obtain greater bargaining leverage vis-à-vis Putin and in an effort to deter Assad in Syria—it is crucial that Washington strive to find a collective approach that would eventually phase the al-Assad regime out and open the doors to a new Syrian coalition government that could work with Washington, the Europeans, as well as with Moscow.25 Such an approach would concurrently need to prevent the rise to power of pan-Sunni movements that would attempt to spread their revolution beyond Syria. Otherwise, much as was the case during Cold War confrontations over the Middle East, Moscow and Washington could soon find themselves engaging in a tit-for-tat series of retaliations that could end in a nuclear showdown. But this time, the outcome could prove catastrophic.

In 1998, as the Clinton administration took steps to enlarge NATO beyond eastern Germany, George Kennan forewarned: “In trying to place NATO ahead of the EU as the focal point of European unity, and at the same time in looking to Germany to be, together with the U.S., the greatest military power on the European continent, the NATO leaders are, as I see it, making a mistake of historical dimensions. They are trying to revive all the disturbing ghosts of the modern European past.”26 In retrospect, the largely uncoordinated and overextended enlargements of NATO and the EU have both provoked the ghosts of European nationalism and Russian revanchist backlash.27

Nevertheless, if Moscow is approached by both the United States and Europeans candidly, there is still a strong possibility that Russia could move away from its present negative position as a disrupter of the international system, and begin to play a more positive role in the possible resolution of a number of international disputes. If, however, the United States, Europeans, and Russia cannot soon begin to collectively resolve their differences, even more ghosts are certain to arise from their shattered sepulchers—and not in Europe alone.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume I, Number 2 (Summer 2017): 166–83.


1 Hall Gardner, NATO Expansion and US Strategy in Asia: Surmounting the Global Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). See also, Mikhail Zygar, All the Kremlin’s Men (New York: Public Affairs, 2016).

2 Reuters (Andrius Sytas), “Baltic States Seek More NATO Help ahead of Russian Exercise,” February 9, 2017, Karol Ulc, “Russia’s Secret Weapon to Invade the Baltics and Crush NATO: Soldiers Falling from the Sky,” National Interest, January 17, 2017,

3 Reuters (Jonathan Landay and David Rohde), “Exclusive: In Call with Putin, Trump Denounced Obama-Era Nuclear Arms Treaty,” February 9, 2017,

4 Halya Coynash, “Russia’s Crimea Bridge Could Collapse Anytime,” The Atlantic Council, January 10, 2017,

5 Lily Hyde, “Crimea’s Water Troubles,” New Eastern Europe, February 8, 2017,

6 Christopher Miller, “Anxious Ukraine Risks Escalation in ‘Creeping Offensive,’” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, January 30, 2017,

7 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “UNHCR Operational Update-Ukraine,” January 31, 2017,

8 See for example, Andrew Wilson, “Europe, Keep an Eye on Minsk,” Politico, March 17, 2017,

9 Some U.S.-based agricultural firms have been benefiting, largely at the expense of the Europeans (with losses at $100 billion in mid-2016), after Moscow placed sanctions on European farm products in response to EU sanctions. Jake Rudnitsky and Ilya Arkhipov, “Putin’s Reliance on American Commerce Has Never Been Greater,” Bloomberg, June 15, 2016, In June 2016, the French Senate urged the Hollande government to put an end to sanctions: “French Senate Urges Government To Lift Sanctions On Russia,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, June 9, 2016, The National Front of Marine Le Pen on the right and Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the left were among the prime contenders in the 2017 French presidential elections. Both oppose NATO and EU membership, and combined they receive approximately 40 percent of the first-round vote. It is unlikely that the national-populist Marine Le Pen will win the presidency against the liberal-centrist Emmanuel Macron in May, but anti-NATO, anti-EU sentiment will continue to run very high among both the French left and right.

10 See Sven Biscop, “How the EU can Save NATO,” EGMONT: Royal Institute for International Relations, Security Policy Brief no. 83 (March 2017),

11 For projected benefits of the Trump presidency for Exxon, see Jenny Rowland, et al., “How Exxon Won the 2016 Election,” Center for American Progress, January 10, 2017, If the ExxonMobil and Rosneft joint venture is forced to break up, then Exxon and Rosneft could swap assets in the United States and Canada and in Russia. But the gas deposits in the Arctic Circle are probably worth much more than the U.S. ones. And Bazhenov shale could prove ten times bigger than the Bakken shale of North Dakota. See Christopher Helman, “Why Forcing ExxonMobil Out of Russia Isn’t Going to Help Anything,” Forbes, September 14, 2014,

12 Russia essentially has had three sets of sanctions put on it by the United States since Crimea became part of Russia. U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Ukraine-/Russia-related Sanctions Program,” June 16, 2016,

13 Reuters, “US Shale Firms Go Back to Work after Donald Trump’s Victory,” November 14, 2016,

14 See Jon Hellevig, “Putin 2000–2014, Midterm Interim Results: Diversification, Modernization and the Role of the State in Russia’s Economy,” Awara Group, December 2014,

15 See my arguments prior to the Russian annexation of Crimea, in Hall Gardner, NATO Expansion and US Strategy in Asia: Surmounting the Global Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

16 Roman Olearchyk, “Ukraine Imposes Cargo Blockade on Breakaway East,” Financial Times, March 15, 2017,; Nicolai Petro, “The Bizarre Reason Ukraine Could Be Facing a Legitimacy Crisis,” National Interest, March 15, 2017,

17 The United States and Turkey are in fundamental disaccord over U.S. support for Kurdish factions in Syria who are fighting the Islamic State. Turkey fears that U.S. military support for Kurdish militias will backfire if Syrian Kurds are able to forge enclaves inside a collapsed Syria where they could potentially back Kurdish secessionist movements inside Turkey in alignment with the Kurdish PKK. This is one of the major problems that has caused Erdogan to look toward Putin for support. As a consequence, Washington will need to work with both Russia and Turkey and the Kurdish factions in order to find mutual accords once (or rather, if) a Syrian settlement can be found.

18 George F. Kennan, “Letter on Germany,” New York Review of Books, December 3, 1998,

19 Nikita Vladimirov, “Trump Vows to Restore ‘Peace’ along Russia, Ukraine Border,” The Hill, February 4, 2017,

20 One option is for Moscow to lease Crimea from Kiev. Great Britain had leased Hong Kong for 150 years after seizing it from China. The U.S. had leased the Panama Canal zone, after supporting and recognizing Panama’s independence from Colombia. In the 1921 Thomson–Urrutia Treaty, the U.S. then paid Colombia and granted it special privileges in the Canal Zone for recognizing Panama’s independence.

21 For a prescient analysis that forewarned of the crisis, see Rilka Dragneva and Kataryna Wolczuk, “Russia, the Eurasian Customs Union and the EU: Cooperation, Stagnation or Rivalry?,” Chatham House: Russia and Eurasia Programme, August 2012,

22 Helene Cooper, “Mattis Rejects Closer Military Ties with Russia as He Reassures NATO,” New York Times, February 16, 2017,

23 See my forthcoming book, World War Trump (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2017).

24 Pence’s speech in Munich in February 2017 was generally interpreted as repeating Trump’s threats that the United States might not support NATO allies who do not pay their share of the defense burden, most importantly, Germany. Ewen MacAskill, “Pence’s Speech on NATO Leaves European Leaders Troubled over Alliance’s Future,” Guardian, February 18, 2017,

25 Ben Aris, “Moscow Blog: Is Russia Seeing the Start of a Colour Revolution?,” Intellinews, March 26, 2017,

26 Kennan, “Letter on Germany.”

27 A better option—the option not chosen—was the cooperative-collective security approach that would have strengthened the Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiative, as urged by Paul Nitze and General Jack Galvin, among others. This approach would have included Moscow from the beginning. See Hall Gardner, Dangerous Crossroads: Europe, Russia and the Future of NATO (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997); Crimea, Global Rivalry and the Vengeance of History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

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