What should Eurasian security look like after the Russia-Ukraine war?
In Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to a joint session of Congress, he stated: “Your money is not charity. It is an investment in global security and democracy.” The immediate investment is to secure a victory against Russia’s war of aggression. But what comes next? If we are to have any hope of a stable, long-term peace, we must think creatively about how to build new, more effective post-war security institutions that could underpin this up-front investment in global security.
To the extent such ideas are being discussed so far, they are the wrong ones. One concept, articulated only weeks ago when NATO’s foreign ministers welcomed Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Bucharest, Romania, would be for Ukraine to join NATO — just as alliance leaders had promised, back in 2008, in the very same city.
One need not, and should not, blame NATO expansion for causing Russia’s attacks against Ukraine in 2014 and 2022. Previous overtures to Ukraine to join NATO were undiplomatic toward Russia, but were not militarily threatening to Moscow, and did not amount to war crimes, as has been Russia’s disproportionate response.
That said, extending NATO further would virtually guarantee an antagonistic relationship with not just Vladimir Putin but all plausible future Russian leaders. Even the pro-NATO George Kennan and pro-Western Mikhail Gorbachev both warned against NATO expansion when the process began back in the 1990s. A stable peace in which Moscow is truly invested cannot be built on this option.
We will need creative ideas that provide real security enhancements or commitments to Ukraine — more than the paper promises of the Bucharest Memorandum of 1994, which Moscow ultimately trashed, but possibly less (or at least more subtle and finessed) than the security guarantees as codified in NATO’s Article V mutual-defense compact. Otherwise, it will not be possible to give Kyiv the necessary reassurances that the West has its back without permanently poisoning relations with Russia.
A new security architecture should create the possibility for both Russia and Ukraine to someday join the West in building a truly cooperative Eurasian security community — even if that will not be possible as long as Putin is in power. The vision, however, should be laid out as part of any possible peace process, in the near term. And in the meantime, the West must deter Putin from any future attacks in Russia’s “near abroad,” even if, and when, he agrees to stop the current carnage.
Two big ideas can help. The first is to create an institutional structure, parallel to NATO but distinct from it, that Ukraine can join as soon as a peace is negotiated. Russia should be invited to join as well — once Putin is gone and Russia reformed. Second, even without NATO membership for Ukraine, we need a mechanism to get considerable numbers of NATO troops into Ukraine — to help train and improve the Ukrainian armed forces, to monitor any peace, and to act as a tripwire against future Russian aggression.
Regarding a future alliance structure, to complement rather than replace NATO: Today, Europe already benefits from a Cold War construct called the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Russia is a member. However, whatever its utility as a talk shop, and modest field presence in certain places, the OSCE does not offer what Ukraine will need in any peace deal — and what Russia itself might take seriously enough to view as rivaling NATO in stature in the future, when it might consider membership itself. A new and different organization is needed.
Finding a mechanism that can reassure Ukraine while deterring an aggressive Russia, but also offering a vision of eventual partnership to a post-imperial Russia, will be tricky, to say the least. Any such Euro-Asian Security Community (EASC), as it might be called, would need to carry out some military planning, regular military exercises, and collaborative training. It also would need to establish a mechanism for transparency. In addition, it could be tasked with other NATO-like missions in the future, should the parties so desire.
But make no mistake: This EASC would not, on any foreseeable timeline, replace or weaken NATO. Moscow would have to understand that fundamental reality. Its ongoing aggression against Ukraine, and recent history of violent behavior in general, make this matter non-negotiable.
Regarding our second main proposal, finding a mechanism to have numerous NATO military personnel — but not NATO combat formations — on Ukrainian soil, two ideas might be considered. One would be to create a peace implementation force, approved by the United Nations General Assembly, that Moscow could not veto or stonewall. It might be given a multiple-year mandate to patrol along Russian-Ukrainian borders, perhaps also monitoring the fair treatment of all minorities on Ukrainian soil (as a concession to Moscow, to make the idea more plausible). Perhaps an Indian general could be in command. The force would have to possess rules of engagement that allow for vigorous self-defense.
A second approach might feature an enlarged training force by which NATO would establish a presence to work with Ukrainian armed forces throughout the territory, on a bigger scale than was witnessed from 2014 through 2021. Moscow would be expected to recognize and accept this presence, again for a period of time designed to outlast Putin.
Either of these approaches would ensure not only technical help for Ukraine but a deterrent against renewed Russian aggression. The presence would not be enough to defeat Russian forces, but it would help to defend Ukraine and virtually guarantee that the United States and much or all of the rest of NATO would enter any future war if Russia remained aggressive. Again, the broader EASC security mechanism must be open enough to one day include Russia. This openness bolsters support for the wishes of the silent but growing Russian opposition to the war, and the millions of Russians who are opposed to the “Imperial Russia” idea.
The three central tasks in these kinds of proposals must be to deter Russia, to reassure Ukraine, and to avoid inflammatory ideas such as Ukrainian membership in NATO that would make any negotiated settlement or future stable peace impossible. There is no guarantee, of course, that these ideas would work; only the parties to the conflict can ultimately decide. But at some point in 2023, continuation of warfare may begin to seem futile to both Moscow and Kyiv. When that happens, we need to be ready with a new security vision for Europe.
Lise Howard is professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University and senior fellow in residence at the United States Institute of Peace. She is the author of “Power in Peacekeeping.” Follow her on Twitter @HowardLise.
Michael O’Hanlon is the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, and author of several books, including “Military History for the Modern Strategist: America’s Major Wars Since 1861.” Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEOHanlon.
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