When Presidents Biden and Putin meet online today, a fundamental question will dominate their discussion: Will Ukraine become part of the collective West, or will it return to Russia’s control, where it was for centuries? This question has produced nearly eight years of war in Ukraine, and it is threatening to bring the United States and Russia into direct conflict.
The answer by now should be clear: Neither scenario works. Political and social divides within Ukraine are too deep and longstanding for membership in any geopolitical bloc to be realistic, absent a significant re-drawing of its borders. But many of the leading actors in this unfolding drama have yet to recognize that none of them can prevail.
Ukrainian nationalists concentrated in the country’s western regions have shown they will fight rather than submit once again to Moscow’s rule. Ukraine’s eastern regions, mostly culturally and linguistically Russian, have demonstrated that they will fight rather than allow anti-Russian elements in the country’s west to drag them into NATO. Neither side can defeat the other on the battlefield.
For its part, Russia has made clear that it will go to war rather than allow Ukraine to become either a formal NATO member or an “unsinkable U.S. aircraft carrier” deployed along Russia’s periphery. Some 100,000 well-armed Russian troops now arrayed near Ukraine’s borders are putting an exclamation point on Moscow’s concern that U.S.-Ukrainian military partnership may grow to alarming levels if Russia does not act soon.
By contrast, the United States is justifiably reluctant to go to war with Russia over Ukraine. We demonstrated that reluctance in 2014 when we chose to sanction rather than fight Russia after it annexed Crimea and sent soldiers covertly into Ukraine’s Donbass region. The dangers of escalation in a war with nuclear-armed Russia — which would have clear advantages over the United States in a conventional conflict conducted so close to Russian territory — make that option unpalatable. Pretending otherwise by proclaiming our “ironclad support” for Ukraine is nothing more than a bluff — one that we must pray neither Kyiv nor Moscow calls.
What, then, is a realistic outcome for Ukraine, if none of the contenders in the tug-of-war over its fate can prevail and Russia is unwilling to stand by idly as the American military slowly sets up shop there? One possibility is particularly undesirable but all too likely: a bloody partition along the lines of East and West Germany. This would have grave implications for Ukrainians, for regional and global stability, and for Washington’s ability to focus its attention and resources on China, our biggest geopolitical challenge.
But more acceptable outcomes are, in principle, achievable, such as Ukraine’s formal neutrality along the lines of the Austrian State Treaty that President Eisenhower negotiated in 1955 to rid that country of the Soviet army. With skillful statesmanship, it should be possible for Biden to avert disaster and steer toward compromise in Ukraine.
Many hurdles stand in his way. Putin is signaling a growing resolve to derail a Ukrainian alliance with the West, even if that requires force and results in crippling U.S. and European sanctions. He is demanding guarantees that the American military umbrella will stop short of Ukraine. Ukrainian President Zelensky, on the other hand, has moved away from the “Minsk II” settlement agreement brokered by France and Germany and put his chips instead on U.S. military backing to strengthen his hand with the Kremlin. At a minimum, he will require guarantees that Ukraine will not be under the perpetual threat of Russian attack.
But if he is to pursue a compromise, Biden’s biggest challenge will be in Washington, not abroad. America’s foreign policy mavens have learned all too well the lessons of Munich in 1939, when appeasement whetted Adolf Hitler’s appetite for conquest. But they have forgotten the lessons of World War I, when entangled alliance commitments and an ominous cycle of military mobilizations spurred, rather than prevented, war.
Washington fell into this trap in Georgia in 2008. Concerned by the prospect of Russian military attacks, the United States stepped up its training and equipping of the Georgian military, signaled our support in a series of high-level meetings with Georgia’s leadership, announced that Georgia one day would join NATO, and warned Russia against attacking. Just as with Ukraine today, we expected these measures would deter Moscow. But they had the opposite effect. Russia became alarmed by the prospect of Georgia’s membership in NATO, and Tbilisi grew emboldened by American support to launch an ill-fated military operation to regain its separatist regions. The result was a war that Russia won decisively.
To avoid an even more disastrous failure in Ukraine, Biden will have to take on a Washington establishment that has yet to recognize that America’s unipolar moment has ended and we cannot simply coerce the Russians into accepting situations that they believe threaten their vital interests. He will have to persuade skeptics in his administration that the most promising path toward security and democracy in Ukraine lies not in some illusory future membership in NATO or the European Union (EU) but in extracting Ukraine from a geopolitical battle that is tearing the country apart.
The first requirement of statesmanship is to recognize the difference between what is vital and attainable, and what is desirable but unrealistic. America’s vital interests in Ukraine are achievable. Our hope of bringing Ukraine into the Transatlantic community in one piece is not.
We need not break Ukraine to save it. Waking up to this reality may be Biden’s biggest challenge.
George Beebe is vice president and director of studies at the Center for the National Interest. A former director of Russia analysis at the CIA and staff adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, he is the author of “The Russia Trap: How Our Shadow War with Russia Could Spiral into Catastrophe.”