There’s probably no “diplomatic solution” to the crisis with Moscow
But that doesn't mean war with Russia is on the horizon
Despite high-level talks between the United States and NATO allies on the one hand and Russia on the other, there’s been little progress in de-escalating – much less resolving – the European security crisis brought about by Moscow’s military build-up on its border with Ukraine. In anticipation of an outright Russian invasion, NATO’s western members have reinforced their frontline allies in Eastern Europe with additional fighters and warships. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has put 8,500 U.S. troops on “high alert” to be sent to join NATO formations should Russian forces move into Ukraine, bolstering the Biden administration’s firm approach to the crisis and dispelling any doubts about its ability to pull America’s allies together when confronting a major challenge. For its part, Moscow has sent fighters and surface-to-air missile batteries to neighboring Belarus – purportedly for previously unannounced military exercises.
In short, this crisis looks more likely to intensify than diminish moving forward.
At the same time, however, the failure to resolve this crisis should not be taken as a failure of U.S. diplomacy. The truth may well be that there’s no diplomatic solution to be had here, that the interests and values of the United States and its NATO allies are fundamentally incompatible with those articulated by the Kremlin over the last several months and years. It’s all well and good to put diplomacy first, but it’s important to recognize that diplomacy can’t solve all of America’s foreign policy problems or bring every conflict to an end.
In this particular case, it’s worth briefly teasing out why diplomacy has reached an impasse
First and foremost, the crisis has never been about Ukraine. As the Kremlin made crystal clear in its absurd draft treaties with the United States and NATO, it seeks nothing less than a full reversal of post-Cold War security arrangements in Europe. Claims by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that former Warsaw Pact countries like Poland were “orphaned” after the collapse of the Soviet Union also gave Moscow’s game away – it seeks to reclaim its old sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, wishes of those nations be damned. The United States and its NATO allies have rightly rebuffed these demands in the strongest terms possible, both in private talks with Russian diplomats and in public statements.
What makes Russian demands even more preposterous is the logical disconnect between Moscow’s stated objectives and the way it’s chosen to pursue them. It’s not at all clear why the United States or NATO would fold up shop and agree to a Russian sphere of influence simply because the Kremlin threatens to invade Ukraine. This approach banks on the not-entirely-unreasonable supposition that the United States and its European allies wish to avoid conflict at any and all costs. But the grandiosity of the Kremlin’s geopolitical demands simply do not align with the policy means at its disposal.
Second, Moscow doesn’t know what it wants. If the Kremlin thinks it can bully the United States and NATO into abandoning their Eastern European allies, it’s sorely mistaken – if anything, NATO’s military presence in these countries will permanently increase should Russia invade Ukraine. But it’s not clear that anything less than a full-blown NATO retreat would satisfy Moscow, nor would the sort of formal pledges on NATO expansion and alliance membership for Ukraine it’s demanding.
In the Kremlin’s official narrative, the United States and NATO repeatedly betrayed informal promises made to Soviet and Russian leaders that the alliance wouldn’t expand eastward. Never mind that this victim narrative isn’t true; if it’s taken at face value, though, it’s hard to see why Moscow would take the security guarantees it says it wants seriously. More telling is the fact that Russia itself has repeatedly reneged on the formal commitments it’s made to European security since the end of the Cold War. That’s a strong indicator that Moscow doesn’t take these sorts of guarantees seriously even when it makes them itself.
Nor is it entirely clear what the Kremlin plans to do with the military force it’s assembled on Ukraine’s borders. The possibility of a full-blown conventional military invasion obviously exists, and British intelligence says Russia may aim to install a new pro-Moscow regime in Kyiv – a view supported by some foreign policy analysts. Other analysts argue that a Russian military offensive will likely consist of an air campaign intended to punish Kyiv, while still other voices contend that Moscow is bluffing in the hopes of scaring the United States and its allies into substantial concessions. This uncertainty suggests that the Kremlin itself does not know what it wants to achieve in Ukraine or how it might aim to achieve it.
Finally, the United States and its allies can’t deliver what the Kremlin wants. It’s important to remember that the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe didn’t fall apart because American presidents issued absurd demands that the Soviet Union should agree to dismantle the Warsaw Pact; it fell apart because the peoples of Eastern Europe asserted their own rights to self-determination and the Soviet leaders of the day refused to intervene in the same ways they had in years and decades past. But even bloody crackdowns Soviet troops couldn’t stop the Baltic states from asserting their own independence from Moscow in 1991. There’s a reason these nations chose to join both NATO and the European Union after they liberated themselves from Soviet rule, and it’s unlikely they’d meekly accept any deal that would sell their interests out so the United States and western NATO allies like France or Germany can placate Moscow.
More fundamentally, the United States itself has never been comfortable with spheres of influence as a governing principle of international relations. While it’s fair to argue that there’s a certain amount of hypocrisy to this position and note that the United States has tacitly recognized spheres of influence in Europe at various points (including after World War II), the idea itself has never sat well with Americans or their political leaders. At best, Americans have informally accepted spheres of influence as a necessary evil – but for the most part the United States has rejected idea that great powers have the right to bargain over the fates of smaller nations. It’s one thing to grudgingly accept the necessity of certain long-standing geopolitical customs, but it’s quite another to enshrine them in principle.
Should Moscow take military action in Ukraine, as now seems likely, it will be important to place responsibility for the war squarely where it belongs: on the Kremlin. Despite its apparent futility, the United States and its NATO allies conducted good-faith diplomacy with Moscow in an attempt to address outstanding security issues in Europe. They have by and large stuck to their principles and defended their interests, refusing to give into the Kremlin’s absurd demands to hand Ukraine and Eastern Europe over to Moscow on a diplomatic silver platter. If Russia goes to war in Ukraine, it will be because the Kremlin chose war for reasons of its own – not because the United States failed to offer Moscow enough concessions.
None of this logically entails armed conflict between the United States and Russia. What’s most likely to occur in the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is what’s already been signaled by the United States and NATO: strong economic sanctions against Moscow and an increased NATO military presence on the alliance’s eastern flank to deter further Russian adventurism. The United States and all other NATO member nations have a formal commitment to defend one another, a qualitative difference with Ukraine that even Moscow seems to clearly understand. To put it another way, the Kremlin knows that if it attacks a NATO member it raises the distinct possibility of outright war with the United States itself – a possibility that it knows isn’t in the cards if it invades Ukraine. Confrontation between the United States and Russia may well prove unavoidable, but even the sharpest geopolitical confrontations do not ineluctably lead to war.
All the same, it will be critical for the United States to remain vigilant against Russia at home as this crisis plays out. The National Security Agency, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency have already issued a joint warning about the potential for “disruptive or destructive” Russian state-sponsored cyber-attacks against American critical infrastructure in reaction to any U.S. response to an invasion of Ukraine. Then there’s the obvious potential for Russian disinformation operations to take advantage of splits on Russia policy within the Republican Party, with the Trump presidency creating a significant conservative faction with sympathies toward Moscow.
More broadly, this Russian-instigated crisis reveals that “diplomatic solutions” to foreign policy problems sometimes simply don’t exist – at least not at a price the United States and its allies could, would, or should be willing to pay. Not even “relentless diplomacy” can alter that reality, and it’s a fact that American policymakers should remember as they embark on diplomacy elsewhere.