Why any deal with Russia is a bad idea

As the situation in Ukraine continues to worsen with Russia stepping up its military aggression, and as rhetoric between the West and Russia escalated during the recent G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia, several voices in the West are now calling for a grand bargain with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But such a deal would only make things worse. The West should instead boost its assistance to Ukraine and put more pressure on Moscow.

The proponents of striking a deal with Russia over Ukraine have varied reasons. Some of them are pure Putin apologists and should thus be immediately dismissed. Others are well-known experts frustrated with the failings of the current Western strategy. They argue for a deal out of necessity for the sake of saving Ukraine and salvaging the West's own deteriorating relationship with Moscow.

Their arguments deserve serious consideration. The current strategy of gradually adding more sanctions while repeatedly offering Putin an "off-ramp" has done little to alter Russia's behavior in Ukraine. In fact, it may even have contributed to further emboldening Putin: Since the Minsk Agreement was signed in early September, almost 1,000 people have been killed in Ukraine. It is equally true that the West has failed to provide sufficient financial assistance to Ukraine, whose economy is now in shambles.

Still, this is not to say that a grand bargain with Putin over Ukraine ought to be pursued. In fact, such a deal is neither achievable nor attractive. Three major reasons account for this.

First, there is no reason to believe Putin actually wants a deal. Moscow has already been offered multiple chances to end the conflict in Ukraine — and has rejected all of them. Putin has repeatedly broken his word, most recently over the Minsk Agreement. Instead, Putin seems determined to keep destabilizing Ukraine so as to ensure Moscow's grip over the country. More broadly, Putin wants to "destroy" Western solidarity and reassert Russian greatness though its Eurasian Union. Clearly, these objectives are incompatible with Western goals.

Second, a deal with Russia would be appeasement of Putin and his policies. Putin's spokesman recently suggested that Russia wants an "absolute guarantee" that Ukraine will never join NATO. Were NATO to offer Moscow such a "Finlandization" pledge, it would legitimize a Russian sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Doing so would only give rise to further problems down the line, and put neighboring states Moldova and Georgia at even greater risk. That's why it was good that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently made clear that Russia has no veto on NATO enlargement in Eastern Europe.

Third, a deal with Putin would damage Western credibility around the world and raise question marks about the West's resolve. The consequences of this must not be underestimated. Other rising powers are closely monitoring the situation in Ukraine. If Russia can get away with seizing Crimea and creating a permanently frozen conflict in Ukraine, this would send a signal to China that it too can use military force against one of its smaller neighbors. The result would be to further undermine the post-World War II rules-based order.

Therefore, rather than trying to make a bad deal with Putin that is doomed to fail anyway, the West should pursue an alternative strategy with two broad aims. The first is to prop up Ukraine. The Ukrainian economy is nearing a complete meltdown. While domestic reforms are urgently needed, external help is also necessary. Besides additional International Monetary Fund loans, the West should launch a Marshall Plan for Ukraine. Imposing strict conditionalities on Kiev will be key in this regard.

Besides financial assistance, the West must also step up its military assistance to Kiev — something that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called for during his speech before Congress back in September. So far, the U.S. has only pledged some $53 million in non-lethal military aid. During Vice President Biden's recent trip to Kiev, additional assistance was promised. However, given the increase in Russian military involvement in eastern Ukraine, there is clearly a need to boost military assistance to Ukraine, including sending advisers, trainers and equipment such as anti-tank weapons and air-defense systems.

The second part of a Western strategy against Russia must be to put more pressure on Moscow. This can be done through increasing the economic sanctions to also include entire Russian economic sectors such as oil and gas, including Gazprom. The West could also suspend Russia from SWIFT, the international financial transaction system. Russia should be kept out of the G-8 and expelled from the Council of Europe. Finally, the United States and Europe needs to speed up their efforts to promote energy security by bringing in more North American liquefied natural gas (LNG) to Europe.

While a deal with Russia to end the bloody conflict in Ukraine may seem tempting, it is a false hope. A more realistic and potentially fruitful strategy for the West is to instead boost its assistance to Ukraine while also beefing up the pressure on Moscow. Only this can achieve the long-term goal of a stable Ukraine within a Europe that is whole, free and at peace.

A word of caution at the end: rejecting a deal with Russia does not mean going to war. It is, however, about recognizing Russia for what it is today — and not what we would like it to be. The West must lose no precious time preparing itself for what is likely to be a protracted standoff with Russia.

Brattberg is a resident fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council.