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Invite Russia to join NATO

According to President Biden, Russia is going to invade Ukraine. Diplomacy, he’s effectively saying, has failed. If true, the consequences will be terrible for Ukraine, the West and Russia. Ukrainian and Russian soldiers will die, NATO and Russia will edge closer to armed conflict and all parties will suffer severe, long-term economic losses. At the extreme, open conflict could lead to nuclear war. 

NATO was established in 1949 as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, yet NATO did not disband. Instead, it added 12 member countries in the ensuing 31 years. Russia views NATO’s continued existence and expansion as targeted toward itself. And it justifies its foreign policy moves as defensive reactions to NATO’s actions. 

For its part, NATO views Russia as trying to resurrect the Soviet Union, albeit without a Communist veneer. It has enrolled nations, such as Latvia, to guarantee they will never again experience Russian domination. 

Both Russia and NATO claim to have no aggressive motives toward one another. But if Russia moves into Ukraine and NATO responds by enrolling Finland and sending divisions to the “front,” war between NATO and Russia could break out. If so, President Kennedy’s grave warning, issued six decades ago, will apply. 

“Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.” 

Kennedy’s speech was delivered a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis. In that terrible affair, Kennedy and Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev came within hours, if not minutes, of ending humanity. Fortunately, both leaders blinked and devised a solution. The U.S. would remove offensive weapons from Turkey and the Soviet Union would remove offensive weapons from Cuba. 

I was 11 at the time. Yet I remember the crisis as if it were yesterday. In particular, I remember the fear on every grownup’s face. That fear is not yet visible, but soon may be. As I write, the U.S. embassy in Kiev is evacuating all nonessential personnel, and President Biden is considering airlifting major arms supplies to Ukraine as well as rushing small numbers of American troops to NATO’s eastern members.

Few Americans or Russians appear to realize that a Russian invasion of Ukraine and the NATO response we are starting to observe could devolve into World War III.

In short, the U.S. and Russia are once again navigating on the edge of insanity. Presidents Biden and Putin need to find a way off this desperate precipice. Russia needs assurances that it is not being encircled by an ever-growing coalition of nations that view it as their enemy. And NATO members, particularly those bordering Russia, need assurances that Russia is not trying to restore the Soviet Union.

Both sides profess no interest in doing what the other fears. But deeds, not words, ultimately matter. Yet the words both sides are using are limiting and instigating deeds.

At this moment, minutes before midnight, it’s time to change words to alter deeds. Doing so requires both sides to think far outside the current box in which they have set their locks. Indeed, they need to contemplate the seemingly absurd. I propose NATO invite Russia to immediately join its ranks, which, of course, requires it to abide by NATO’s charter. This includes Article 1, which requires members to:

“…settle any international dispute in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered, and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.”

Once Russia is a NATO member, its fear of encirclement will dissipate. Moreover, it will be obligated to peacefully resolve its conflicts with Ukraine. Indeed, it can help enroll Ukraine into its new club — NATO. Russia should also, over time, be invited to join the European Union (EU). 

The EU is the perfect model for this solution. The EU’s genius was in making countries that had fought for centuries members of the same team, the same organization, the same family. The EU has had its problems, and Brexit represents a tragic mistake. But the EU and NATO have kept the peace in Europe for 80 years. Try finding an 80-year period between 1000 and 1945 without armed conflict among at least two regions comprising the EU’s 27 member nations or NATO’s 30 member states. 

Yes, NATO would have to welcome a member it deeply distrusts. And Russia would need to abide by rules that it would prefer to break. But this is the nature of agreements between adversaries. Both give to get. And as both sides see the value of the agreement, they will take steps to reify it.

In joining NATO, Russia would pledge not to invade Ukraine and to resolve its ongoing disputes over Crimea and the Donbas. And NATO would pledge to defend Russia were it attacked by foreign powers, including renegade members of NATO. 

Thus, Russia’s joining NATO, at NATO’s behest, immediately eliminates the two concerns at hand. Russia will, effectively, agree to settle its dispute with Ukraine peacefully, and the current NATO allies will, effectively, agree to a peace treaty with Russia. Indeed, a treaty in which they are sworn to its defense, including its defense against attack by a subset of the alliance.  

The idea of Russia’s joining NATO is actually decades oldMikhail Gorbachev proposed it in 1990, and President Putin reportedly proposed it to President Clinton. Thus, the obstacle to Russia’s membership in NATO appears to be NATO. But NATO may be willing, indeed eager, to accept Russia now given that it has shored up membership of several countries that feel threatened by Russia. In joining NATO, Russia would be pledging to defend their independence from any other nation including itself. 

May NATO leaders have the wisdom and courage to add Russia to its ranks. And may Russia have the wisdom and courage to embrace those it fears, as in days of not so old, when Russia, the U.S., the UK, Canada, France and many other nations stood as one band of brothers to withstand the most perverse form of our species to ever walk the earth.

This is not 1942. Nor is it 1962. It is 30 years after the end of the Cold War — high time to set aside distrust and start constructing a warm and enduring peace among once and future friends.

Laurence Kotlikoff is a professor of economics at Boston University. He consults with many organizations, including The Gaidar Institute in Moscow. His work with the Institute is purely academic. He has had no discussions about the current crisis or his proposal with either Russian or U.S. government officials or associates of such officials.

–Updated on Jan. 25 at 6:00 a.m. 

Tags Enlargement of NATO Joe Biden NATO Post-Soviet conflicts Russia Russian irredentism Russia–NATO relations Russo-Ukrainian War Ukraine Ukraine-Russia conflict Ukraine–NATO relations

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