Calling Putin’s bluff on NATO

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine speech and actions yesterday escalated the Ukraine crisis dramatically. More than 150,000 Russian troops with advanced, enormously destructive weapons are poised to invade Ukraine. The movement of Russian troops into the Donbas region may be the first step toward a full invasion of the country.

An invasion would likely spell tens of thousands of casualties, including thousands of Russians, the destruction of Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities, a massive refugee crisis, the global branding of Putin as a modern-day Genghis Khan or worse, the elimination of Russian financial and economic trade with the developed world and Russia’s facing an ongoing Ukrainian insurgency armed with advanced Western weapons.

Putin might also realize his worst nightmare — the arrival on Russia’s existing and new borders of larger and better equipped NATO armies and, most alarming, the prospect of an initially conventional, but ultimately nuclear world war.  

None of this is remotely in anyone’s interest. Which is why negotiations continue, and why those negotiations should focus on Putin’s previous interest in joining NATO

I’m an economist, not a foreign policy expert. But my ilk is trained to make markets — find trades that are of common interest. Weeks back I suggested in The Hill something that surely sounded bonkers: Invite Russia to join NATO. Let me amend my proposal by suggesting that NATO immediately invite both Russia and Ukraine to join, but with the invitation to Ukraine conditioned on Russia’s acceptance. (Such a conditional invitation to Ukraine would not preclude an unconditional invitation down the road were Russia to refuse to join.) 

One objection: NATO is sworn to uphold democracy, and Russia is no democracy. Fair enough. But democracy is not a real condition for NATO membership, as evidenced by Turkey, and, arguably, Hungary and Poland. Moreover, there is no universally accepted litmus test for democracy. Nor is there unanimity within any given country about its democratic nature. A large share of U.S. voters falsely believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen. None, apparently, would list the U.S. as a true democracy. 

If the absence of “democracy,” at least as defined by most, doesn’t preclude Russian membership, why not bring Russia in from the cold? Would we have to share our military technology with Russia, and would Russia be forced to share their technology with us? No. We’d bring our stealth weapons to NATO exercises and Russia would bring theirs. But neither side would divulge blueprints, let alone software code. 

The putative Putin concern is Ukrainian NATO membership, leading to NATO troops stationed in Ukraine, providing an extra launching pad for a NATO war against Russia. This is hardly plausible given Russia’s nuclear deterrent let alone the self-interest of Western nations. But were Russia a NATO member, NATO’s Article 5 would compel, for example, Germany to defend Russia against any attack, including that of a NATO member, including the U.S. 

In sum, thanks to Article 5, Russia’s NATO membership would provide it the formal security guarantee it seeks from the West against Western attack while simultaneously guaranteeing that current NATO members, including those bordering Russia, would be defended against Russian attack. 

What about preserving Ukraine’s independence? Here, again, inclusion rather than exclusion can hold the key. The simultaneous inclusion of Russia and Ukraine in NATO would instantly provide Ukraine with full protection by current NATO members against a Russian attack. As for Russia and Ukraine’s ongoing dispute over Crimea and the Donbas, NATO nations pledge to peacefully resolve territorial disputes. With NATO membership off the table, Russia could agree to a long-term lease of these regions, with their ultimate reversion to Ukraine.

Finally, with Russia and Ukraine both part of NATO, members could agree to station their forces strictly within their own countries absent the imminent threat of a member nation’s being subject to attack.

In sum, there are not just face-saving but real solutions to the current crisis — ones on which both sides can agree if defense, not offense, is the true objective. Invite both Russia and Ukraine to join NATO. If Russia refuses, Putin will show that his focus is on conquering countries with any actual or alleged historical connection to Russia. In this case, the U.S. and its NATO allies will need to be prepared for war in the Baltics and other NATO countries that Russia might invade. 

Laurence Kotlikoff is a professor of economics at Boston University. He consults on academic economic research with The Gaidar Institute. The views expressed here are strictly his own. He has had no direct or indirect discussions whatsoever concerning Ukraine with American or Russian government officials or unofficial representatives of those governments. 

Tags Enlargement of NATO NATO Post-Soviet conflicts Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Russian irredentism Russia–NATO relations Ukraine Ukraine-Russia conflict Vladimir Putin

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