To avert war, the West should welcome Ukraine and a reformed Russia into NATO

Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinActing U.S. ambassador to Ukraine: Embassy families evacuated out of 'abundance of caution' Overnight Energy & Environment — 'Forever chemical' suits face time crunch US shipment of military equipment, munitions arrives in Ukraine MORE is forcing President BidenJoe BidenDeputy AG: DOJ investigating fake Trump electors On The Money — Vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses nixed Warner tests positive for breakthrough COVID-19 case MORE to deal with the worst Russia-U.S. security confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis. He says he will invade Ukraine unless NATO bans it from membership.

The threat is taken seriously, given his regime’s legacy roots in Soviet regional domination and its invasions and ongoing occupations of Crimea and parts of Georgia and Eastern Ukraine.  Putin is not a former Soviet KGB operative to be trifled with. 

In October 1962, President John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyLouisiana Democrat running for US Senate smokes marijuana in campaign ad MORE was warned by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to accept Soviet nuclear-armed missiles Moscow secretly had placed in Cuba or precipitate World War III. Having met with Kennedy in Vienna the year before, Khrushchev was convinced the young, callow leader would cave under such pressure. He misjudged his adversary. Kennedy’s Irish prevailed over his Harvard, and Moscow agreed to remove the missiles. As Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it: “We’re eyeball to eyeball and the other guy just blinked.”

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At least that’s what JFK mythologists long have told the world. It turns out the situation was more complicated and less a complete stare down than mutual missile disarmament. Newly emplaced Soviet SS-4 ballistic missiles were taken out of Cuba in exchange for removal of NATO’s Jupiter systems from Italy and Turkey as Moscow had demanded for years. As a bonus to the Soviets, Kennedy gave a permanent security guarantee to Communist Cuba — after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, America never again would seek to liberate the Cuban people and overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro or his successors. 

Communist China has proved especially adept at the strategy of “winning without fighting,” which they are presently employing in the South China Sea and elsewhere. The coercive strategy is now in full force with Putin’s threatened invasion of Ukraine and his warning to retaliate with unspecified “military-technical measures” against Western punitive actions.

Biden, of course, is a lot older and more experienced than Kennedy was at the time. He warned Putin last week that Russia would pay a “heavy price” if the country made further military moves against Ukraine. In return, Putin said imposition of severe U.S. sanctions would cause “a complete rupture of relations.” Biden’s catastrophic abandonment of Afghanistan, his earlier foreign policy record, and his instinctive rejection of American “unilateral” use of force to defend Ukraine provide ample grounds for Putin to question his resolve. 

Yet, Putin’s demand of veto power over NATO’s decision-making is so extreme, and has been rejected so often by Washington and Brussels, that some observers believe it is an “offer” made to be refused again. He deliberately has created a situation that is existential for him politically and existential for the West morally and geopolitically, with no room for compromise. Moscow, it is argued, will have no face-saving course of action except to invade Ukraine and achieve a quick initial victory. From that point on, any negotiations will be entirely on Russia’s terms, if they take place at all. The West would then bear the unbearable responsibility for initiating war with Russia over a fait accompli — or to do what it has done after Putin’s three earlier invasions and incursions: swallow hard and accept them as the new normal.

The alternative theory flows from the first — that Putin expects the extreme pressure to work this time, compelling the West to reappraise its commitment to Ukraine. After all, despite the brave affirmations from the Biden administration and Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg that no country can dictate NATO’s membership decisions, Russia’s objections have already significantly delayed admission of Ukraine and Georgia.

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Moreover, Putin knows the West’s aversion to using force and its commitment to diplomacy work in his favor. Washington and its allies will strive to understand the other side’s “legitimate” needs and to find a way to accommodate them. Putin may well have up his sleeve an idea that will serve that purpose, one that he broached in the early 2000s: NATO membership for Russia itself.  

George Robertson, NATO’s secretary-general from 1999 to 2004, reported on a conversation he had with the Russian leader at that time: “Putin said, ‘When are you going to invite us to NATO?’” And Robertson said he responded, “We don’t invite people to join NATO; they apply to join NATO.” Putin allegedly replied, “Well, we’re not standing in line with a lot of countries that don’t matter.” 

NATO’s rejection of the arrogant Russian demand was the right response then and it would be the right posture now if Putin is indeed dangling the Russia-in-NATO possibility as a way out of the West’s predicament — and his. If he contemplates Russia replacing Ukraine in NATO, it is an obvious nonstarter. But Biden and NATO can build on the raw concept and shape an authentic solution that would fairly serve the long-term security interests of all countries in the region. 

Instead of the burden-free NATO admission that Putin sought earlier, NATO should announce a new expansion program for all interested countries that qualify by Jan. 1, 2027. That would provide a five-year window for potential applicants to get their political and economic houses in order to meet the NATO standards.

Putin is unlikely to be willing to make major changes in Russia’s economic and political system, but that is his government’s choice and he would have five years to change his mind. If he does reject the opportunity to apply and qualify for membership like other countries, or initially indicates he wishes to join but does not seriously undertake the necessary reforms, NATO should not further delay the admission of Ukraine, Georgia, or other states that have been dutifully preparing for membership and are ready to join. 

NATO should not repeat the mistake of the World Trade Organization, which delayed Taiwan’s admission in the early 2000s in order to allow China to catch up. Once in the organization, Beijing proceeded to shape it to serve China’s interests. Russia and China both have distorted the workings of the United Nations in the same way. NATO should require Russia to demonstrate its good-faith intentions before it is allowed in, first, by withdrawing from Georgia, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Putin will take umbrage, but he has well-earned the world’s suspicion and distrust. As the Chinese like to say, “He who tied the knot must untie it.”

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BoscoJosephA.