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The Vilnius Fiasco
Vilnius Summit, Lithuania. 12th July 2023. G7 leaders event to announce a Joint Declaration of Support to Ukraine. Alamy

The Vilnius Fiasco

There is a better way to protect Ukrainian sovereignty and security—and long-term Western interests—than NATO membership.

· 23 min read

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
~H.L. Mencken

I. Odd Days, Murky Words

This past July’s NATO summit in Vilnius was a strange affair as these things go. The proceedings resembled a reality-TV train wreck. Tempers flared, voices rose, and in an embarrassing breach of diplomatic etiquette, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan browbeat a harmless Ukrainian woman whose plaint apparently got under his skin (about which, more in a moment). Things calmed down the next day—at least in public—and the principals unanimously but unconvincingly declared the Summit a success by the time the lights were turned off and the doors to the plenary room were locked. 

The stain of embarrassment from those mid-July days faded with the passage of summer and now, just past New Year 2024, it is all but forgotten by most. But it shouldn’t be, because what was truly embarrassing was less the desultory show in the Lithuanian capital and more the Summit’s faux-heroic rhetoric with regard to Ukraine. While the summit communiqué did not say so plainly, the takeaway was that Ukraine will be issued a membership invitation at the planned Washington NATO Summit in mid-2024. 

This is how Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Ivo Daalder, and Stefano Stefanini—a trinational trio of experienced NATO experts—put it right after the summit in a July 18 Semafor essay: “[A]llied members did make it clear that Ukraine’s membership is no longer in question. The train has left the station. The best option to get to its destination will be to extend an invitation to join by the time they meet again next year.” As Ambassador Daalder elaborated in Politico the next day: 

NATO leaders in Vilnius made clear that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO.” As U.S. President Joe Biden declared, Ukraine’s membership was not a question of whether, but of when. ... Putin’s decision to attack has made Ukraine’s membership of NATO inevitable—if not immediately, then once the fighting has subsided. Ukraine, Biden said, “will join NATO.”

This sounds clear enough, and it was certainly the general impression left at the summit’s conclusion. Other prominent figures labored to spin the sense of inevitability. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, writing in Foreign Affairs, made the underappreciated point that the huge Western military supply to Ukraine and the consequent development of a greatly expanded training relationship require significantly upgraded communications and logistics coordination between several NATO member states and Ukrainian officials. As a signal function on the roadmap to a new member’s accession, Stoltenberg noted this to suggest the inevitability of the process continuing until completion. 

Except that the Vilnius communiqué wasn’t really clear at all. It read, “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and certain conditions are met.” What conditions? 

Implicitly, but above all, active combat must cease one way or another before an invitation can be tendered. The premise, spelled out in the Semafor essay, is that at some point before the 2024 Washington summit, both combatants will be sufficiently frustrated and exhausted that a moment of opportunity—more likely than not ratified by an agreement to stop the fighting—will establish the necessary conditions for an invitation to be extended to Ukraine. And with General-Secretary Stoltenberg’s support, Ukraine’s allies in Vilnius waived their Membership Action Plan so that Ukrainian membership can be established quickly when that moment arrives.

Inadvertently or not, President Biden made a second condition clear in a press conference held on July 11 with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda: “And look, as I’ve said before: We take, NATO takes, all of us take Article 5 literally. One inch of NATO territory means we’re all—we’re all in a war together against whomever is violating that space, and we’re going to defend every inch of it.” Translation: Ukraine cannot join NATO until its borders are clarified, to the inch.

Adding these two conditions together, we get the following: If Ukraine enters NATO during a time of active combat, all the allies are effectively at war with Russia to defend or, if necessary, to seize all occupied inches if Ukrainian military operations have not already done so. That will instantly make them potential targets of Russian retribution, and given the escalation ladder inherent in any major war that includes Russia, this alludes to the possibility of nuclear retribution. This obligation and its attendant risks are, of course, what the United States and other NATO members have sought to avoid ever since the war began. 

Will these two conditions have been established before the 2024 Washington NATO Summit, allowing the alliance to proffer an invitation to Ukraine? Even before the war meandered into an autumn stalemate, it was unlikely. This led former Die Zeit editor Josef Joffe, writing in American Purpose on July 19, to advise Ukraine to “hold its breath”: Not going to happen, not next year, probably not the year after that, possibly not at all. And the necessary conditions won’t have been established, thanks in part to the counterproductive impact of the Vilnius summit rhetoric, which has made a negotiated end to the fighting less likely and a Russian escalation more likely should the alternative become a major humiliation for Moscow.

The rhetoric is diplomatically counterproductive because it gives the Russians an incentive to keep the war going at least until next year’s Washington NATO summit. This they can do with showers of missiles even in the increasingly unlikely event that ten months hence they have been pushed from all Ukrainian territory (save for Crimea). So, the same sources of reluctance attached to Ukraine’s bid for membership this past July will still apply this coming July. Much motivated reasoning from the punditocracy aside, then, no imaginable Ukrainian military successes will produce a successful negotiation over at least the next ten months, even if the territorial status quo ante of February 21, 2022, were to be reinstated by force of Ukrainian arms. Those who argue for a deal to be made that gives Ukraine less than its maximal demands cannot show convincingly why Moscow would want a deal if it faces any other circumstance than a military humiliation.

Given the Vilnius summit rhetoric, those advocating negotiations before the July 2024 summit are essentially asking the Russians to acquiesce to Ukraine joining NATO—something the Russians will never do. This suggests that the motive behind the call for negotiations is a prelude to US pressure on Kyiv, not Moscow, and that NATO membership will not, in fact, be offered in July 2024. And if negotiations do not begin before July 2024, advocates of Ukrainian NATO membership will realize that their advocacy obviates Russian willingness to negotiate an end to the war. This in turn means that still-unmet conditions will make Ukrainian NATO membership another example of Stalin’s “communism is on the horizon” mantra: a point in the distance that continues to recede as one approaches it.

Another likely reason for Russian obduracy is the US presidential election on November 5, 2024. Putin is betting that the advent of a second MAGA administration will solve his Ukraine problem. A negotiation in the aftermath of that result would almost certainly undermine the Ukrainian position and enable the Russians to pocket any military gains. A continuation of the war without US support might even enable the Russians to achieve their original war aim—the Belarusianization of Ukrainian sovereignty. After all that has happened, after so much US and NATO political capital—not to mention Ukrainian blood—has been poured into this conflict, such an outcome would qualify as a headlong disaster.

That said, the argument—abundant after the House of Representatives refused in early December 2023 to pass a bill with military aid money for Ukraine—that any Russian gain leaves us at the portal of World War III, deserves arch-browed skepticism. The idea that Putin will immediately seek to reconstitute the rest of the Soviet empire ignores the singular significance of Ukraine in the Russian geopolitical imagination, and grants Russia a military prowess it clearly lacks. Worries about appeasing and therefore incentivizing global revisionism suppose that the global geopolitical map can and must be frozen forever. This ahistorical fantasy has previously misled America into an obsession with reputational capital so acute that it obscured distinctions between vital, important, and marginal interests. The notion of a seamless global environment once led John F. Kennedy to remark, “I don’t know where the non-essential areas are,” and led us to the disastrous detour of Vietnam.

So yes, any US policy that cuts the legs out from under Ukrainian defense of its own territory would harm America’s reputation and its interests worldwide, at least to some extent. But unless one’s real purpose is to target the Republican majority in Congress, there is no need to exaggerate the danger beyond credulity. The end of it all is simple enough. Having plunged into the deep end of the pool by committing itself to the avoidance of a range of war outcomes, the only safe US policy now is to keep swimming until it reaches the other end.

Potentially even worse, the Vilnius rhetorical posture is also strategically counterproductive because it gives the Russians an incentive under military duress to think about doing the “unthinkable” (to recall the language of Herman Kahn) so that they can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Why? Because once Ukraine is inside NATO—a reasonable worst-case reading of Western intentions from Moscow’s perspective after Vilnius—Russia’s window for achieving its currently central geostrategic objective at non-suicidal cost essentially closes indefinitely. Would the Russians go nuclear rather than suffer that level of defeat? It cannot be ruled out.

How is Ukraine different in the Russian nationalist calculus from other non-Russian parts of the former Soviet Union that have since gone their own way? Leaving significant historio-cultural factors aside for the moment, consider that the geographically contiguous Southwestern part of the United States has been ruled from Washington for 175 years, while the bulk of geographically contiguous Ukraine has been ruled from Moscow since at least the time of Catherine the Great (a torturously brief period in 1919–20 excepted). No other part of the former Russian Empire has had quite that sort of luck; work out the geopolitical psychology for yourself.

Speaking of psychology, the record shows that significant military defeats are unhealthy for Moscow political incumbents. Russians have put up with all kinds of horrible rulers historically, but the one sin they do not readily forgive is humiliation at the hands of foreigners in a fight. Vladimir Putin knows this, which is yet another reason why those who see a neat and conclusive negotiated solution to the current war do not make a persuasive case. Russia war aims were and have remained volubly maximalist throughout, so for Putin to settle in a negotiation even for some relatively insignificant real estate in east Ukraine could not be spun into a victory. Why then would he ever do that?

This suggests that any negotiated end to the current war cannot produce more than an armistice. The reason should be obvious: Ukraine simply cannot permanently defeat a country as large and populous as Russia. Its massive strategic depth enables Russia to lose a border war without ever formally acknowledging it, unless somehow incentivized to do so.

Ukraine might still be capable of catalyzing regime change from within by humiliating Russia on the battlefield—a sort of autumn 1917 parallel—but that looks far less likely after Ukraine’s summer offensive fizzled. Short of that and left mostly to its own devices, Ukraine must look to a permanently militarized and fragile future—something like the Israeli condition throughout most of its history—and that cannot come without high costs and inevitable sociopolitical distortions. Between an unlikely spasm of genocidal Russian violence to prevent outright military defeat and an unlikely humiliation-borne regime change that improves on what exists in Moscow today, we behold a vast roiling sea of unfathomable tides. 

But Ukraine must not be left entirely to its own devices on that sea. US and NATO security interests demand something better than that, for a permanent condition of “violent coexistence” between Russia and Ukraine, with or without some sort of armistice, is not an acceptable status quo. That something need not and should not be full NATO membership. That would spite the warning from H.L. Mencken with which I prefaced this essay: “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” It also brings to mind James Thurber’s advice that “one might as well fall flat on one’s face as lean over too far backwards.” Nothing is gained by solving one problem at the cost of creating a worse one.

The Ukrainian Year
Ukraine has been instrumental in restoring a focus on what matters to the people and elected leaders of the West.

II. American Politics and Strategy, Indivisible

So yes, we understand that NATO’s current rhetorical posture arose as a means of forging public compromise among the members, however transparently fragile it is. We understand, too, that seeking compromise became necessary because US policy does not actually favor full Ukrainian membership in NATO.

The Biden administration certainly does not favor it before Tuesday, November 5, 2024, just a few months after the planned Washington NATO Summit. It sees full-throated US support for Ukrainian NATO membership as a liability in the approach to what could be another close presidential election. The White House calculates, correctly, that the American people on balance do not want the US government to deepen its involvement, run greater risks, and spend more resources in East/Central Europe, and it knows that MAGA entrepreneurs will stick any such policy pronouncement to Joe Biden’s forehead with a bulls-eye painted on it.

Not a man lacking in political sagacity, the president understands that, at the present parlous moment, politics trumps policy. If Biden and the Democrats lose their grip on the politics then all the policy equivocations that occupy their staffs now will stop mattering in a hurry come election day. This puts US policy toward Ukraine into the mix of issues that could spill the nation into the abyss of a constitutional/rule-of-law-extinction event. It is perplexing that so many observers have missed this critical connected dot about the impact of an increasingly surrealist American domestic politics on US foreign-policy decision-making. 

The upshot is that Biden can’t support Ukrainian NATO membership even if he wants to for strategic reasons. But he doesn’t want to—and he is correct not to want to. Truth to tell, it’s no simple matter to credit him with making a sound strategic judgment. Recall that, back in 2015, when Biden mounted an early challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination (probably hoping to become Secretary of State after Hillary took the oath of office), then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates quipped to broad assent that Biden had been wrong about every major US foreign policy issue for the past 40 years. But if President Biden has made the right call on the strategic implications of Ukrainian NATO membership, he should be forgiven all his errors as Senator Biden. Why? Because the judgment of any one of a hundred Senators is barely sufficient to lift a piece of paper an inch off the ground, but there is only one president at a time, and he can move mountains. 

Why is Biden right? Four sets of reasons sum up the case.

First, full NATO membership is not appropriate to Ukraine’s circumstances. Why should Kyiv obligate itself to come to the defense of, say, Finland, a country with which it shares no border, while a Russian army sits menacingly on or near its eastern frontier? Ukraine needs protection, not gratuitous burdens. The duties of full NATO membership for Ukraine would be neither credible nor necessary, and would only cheapen NATO’s wares all around. It should be the beginning of wisdom to recognize that Ukraine’s special circumstances demand a bespoke security arrangement tailored to its needs, not a one-size-supposedly-fits-all security straitjacket. To be unwise is to ignore Mencken’s warning.

Second, why should the US government pledge to summon more effort, take more risks, and raise more resources for East/Central Europe when Asia is and will long be more significant strategically? Do we have the national-security policy bandwidth and the global military footprint to expand our obligations in Europe while still being capable of dealing effectively with a cornucopia of challenges emanating from Asia—not to mention the Middle East? Will Congress, such as it is and may remain for a while, agree to finance it? One may doubt it; certainly one cannot responsibly assume it.

Third, and more immediately important, current US domestic politics are dysfunctional and therefore dangerous insofar as international security arrangements are concerned. The worst of all worlds may be assured by undertaking a major new obligation toward Ukraine when a successor Trump or Trump-like administration will likely disavow the pledge either during a crisis or, perhaps worse, to catalyze a crisis. Nasty accidents could happen in such a confused and confusing context.

Fourth, and most important in the longer run, extending full NATO membership to Ukraine would ensconce US strategic nuclear power further east into Eurasia, possibly for a long time. Is this wise? 

Zbigniew Brzezinski used to say that Russia must ultimately choose between being a partner of the West or a vassal to China. Sometimes simplicity is a form of profundity, and this is one of those cases. Why should US policy push Russia closer to a decision that is bad for us as well as for Russia by placing a major new obstacle in the way of soothing and salving US-Russian relations in a post-Putin era? It is amazing that some observers are now preening over how much Moscow must have hated the declaratory outcome of the Vilnius summit, as if ensuring bad Russo-US relations long into the future is some sort of virtue. Has constructive and foresightful statecraft now become synonymous with indulging in schadenfreude?

If Moscow chooses China, something it has leaned toward in recent times but never committed itself to, its own authoritarianism will likely be deepened and its territorial integrity ultimately put at risk. China is reportedly publishing revised maps of Siberia with Chinese names attached to places like Vladivostok. If Russian anti-Western virulence continues to be manufactured at current rates, how long can it be before the State Department avers that it has no view concerning the sovereign dispensation of territories appended to Russia in 1860 by dint of a treaty signed by the Chinese Emperor under duress? If Moscow chooses the West as its partner, its authoritarianism at least may be moderated in the fullness of time even as its security interests are better served. 

How could all those experienced and well-educated people at Vilnius in July, and their colleagues back home in allied capitals, have been so myopic as to set Western policy in a mold that incentivizes the least benign future Russian geopolitical posture, as well as the least benign prospect for a genuine negotiation to end the current war? Let another question serve as an answer: Ever study the European and American diplomatic archives and memoirs of the 1920s and 1930s?

Mearsheimer: Rigor or Reaction?
What John J. Mearsheimer gets wrong about Ukraine, international affairs, and much else besides.

III. A Better Way

A better way forward than the one posited at Vilnius consists of three related parts that a second Biden administration may well be brought to by one path or another, if given the chance. Consider the following proposal, then, as a kind of prediction in three parts.

First, better late than not at all, the US government should proffer a temporary/contingent Article V guarantee to Ukraine, but short of full NATO membership, for as long as the active combat phase of the war continues—it being stipulated explicitly that we decide when that phase ends. In context, this guarantee will be understood as a US nuclear umbrella opened over Ukraine for the duration of the current fighting. But it would not obligate any NATO ally to participate in conventional warfare on Ukraine’s behalf. It is, in short, a proposal that parses the several aspects of what a military alliance typically does, and focuses on one aspect of particular importance right now.

Joint French and British assent and association with this guarantee is essential, since these are western Europe’s nuclear-weapons states. Otherwise the pledge should go unelaborated. This initiative would give the Russians an incentive to discuss an end to the present combat and, depending on battlefield circumstances and related political weather, to withdraw from any Ukrainian territory seized after February 22, 2022, that it still occupies. After all, since the last thing the Russians want is for an Article V guarantee of any shape or size to become permanent as a US/NATO commitment, they should be made to pay to achieve that.

This is not a proposition put forth lightly or without an awareness of its risks. Any unconventional policy proposal concerning a subject as complex and fraught as this one should be rigorously B-teamed, as all such ideas should be but often are not. One risk, as Adam Ulam once wrote generally about international politics, is that “Nothing endures like the provisional.” Even a pledge explicitly designated as temporary and contingent could get “sticky.” Certainly the Ukrainians would be generous with glue, and it could still be a liability in US domestic politics for President Biden. 

More daunting, it would also appear to commit the United States, publicly and explicitly, to going to war with Russia should it use nuclear weapons on Ukrainian soil—exactly and justifiably what the Biden Administration has been careful to avoid. But like it or not, that commitment is already implicit in the role the United States has taken in the war, and may be more explicit but private in communications already delivered from the White House to the Kremlin. 

What we would get from proffering a temporary Article V pledge is an added dollop of deterrence against any nuclear-weapons use at a moment when every additional amount matters. Some assure us that Putin’s nuclear threats are as empty now as when he waved them about on earlier occasions, but this display of certainty by those not currently vested with decisional authority is unconvincing. For all anyone can ascertain, we may witness a reverse calling-wolf catastrophe from a “power vertical” that increasingly seems capable of “crazy-state” behavior. We face, therefore, a classical mini-max problem: low but specifically unknowable odds combined with extremely high-impact consequences.

Note carefully: A temporary Article V pledge would not oblige the US government to undertake any particular course of military action, any more than the extant implicit pledge does. Declarations are words and words are meaningful, or else critiquing the Vilnius summit communiqué would be unnecessary. But words in themselves cannot trigger tangible actions. We could be shrewdly bluffing, and if we bluff we must do it right. Little is more assiduously to be avoided in the assessment game of strategic interaction than a halfhearted bluff that spites its own purpose. 

Second, other means to assure Ukraine’s basic security for the postwar period should be devised outside the NATO membership format. Doing nothing about this larger problem would constitute a form of self-deterrence unbefitting a great power with skin in the international security order. Here the Biden administration seems to have suffered a failure of imagination, even though the idea of developing a core European nuclear deterrent to accompany and, in time perhaps, take precedence over the US deterrent is not a new idea. You can’t defeat something with nothing, and the administration’s insinuation that short of NATO membership for Ukraine an “Israeli” solution would suffice is roughly equivalent to nothing.

But it is an equally stark failure of imagination—in this case, one revisited from the mid-1990s—to think that NATO membership is the only arrow in the US security-policy quiver, as if we should suppose that a military alliance of NATO’s broad kind fits every security contingency that comes along. That other means in the Ukrainian contingency should be an extension and a careful elaboration of the temporary/contingent guarantee just mooted, resulting in a tripartite French-UK-US agreement with Ukraine to be announced only after the current war subsides. 

This is the answer to those who ask how Ukraine can be protected from future Russian conventional-war aggression without NATO membership. It may not be a perfect answer, but no such answer exists in a world characterized by fluctuating contingency. The future credibility of any protective arrangement does not magically rest on the four letters N-A-T-O, but on the skill and will of the Western leaders who guide policy. At this point, it is by no means certain that all future US leaders will be more convincing in Moscow than a concert of European nuclear powers whose security equities are just as affected as American ones by the prospect of future Russian aggression. Any of us can today imagine a future US leadership that would be dramatically less well suited to the task, a somber vision that was not so vivid, perhaps, before January 2017.

Modest contingents of British and French soldiers on Ukrainian soil might be required to give full context to a new security cocoon for Ukraine, similar in a way to the “layer cake” arrangement that credibly protected West Germany during the Cold War. Of course, a new layer cake arrangement could not deter another bout of Russian conventional aggression any more than the Cold War-era layer cake literally offset Soviet conventional military superiority. But like that older architecture, it would raise significantly the political price of any contemplated aggression, automatically multilateralize the response, and link it to the escalation ladder inherent in any major European war. 

An effective additional supplement to conventional war deterrence would be to better integrate the militaries of the Visegrad states (the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland) with Ukraine. If the Hungarian government nixes that prospect, an alternative may be to devise a similarly purposed grouping of countries that share a land border with Russia: Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Norway and, again, Poland. (For obvious reasons, neither Belarus nor Moldova is a likely candidate for inclusion in such a group as things stand today.) 

This security architecture, even without any add-ons, would likely be more credible than any arrangement Ukraine has discussed with other G7 members. A Franco-British deployment should be large enough to symbolize commitment but small enough not to honestly bother any Russian government. (That arrangement should not include Germany. We can do without the delay that would cause, the German political crisis that consideration of it might touch off, or interference with the slow but important progress of the Zeitenwende.) 

The United States does need to stand behind Britain and France, but behind it is just where it ought to be. It is long past time that the prominence of the United States as Europe’s strategic guarantor be mitigated in favor of Europeans themselves. This architecture would not ensconce US power further east into the heart of Eurasia; it would instead be more likely to lessen it.

Third, a deep and accelerated Partnership for Peace (PfP) arrangement should be set up at the same time to bring Ukrainian governance standards as far and as fast as possible toward Western best-practice. A tri-chairmanship consisting of, say, Denmark, Italy, and Estonia (one north, one south, one new) might serve well for this purpose. Ukraine joined the PfP in the mid-1990s, but that program lacked the systematic nature it might have developed had NATO expansion not sharply diminished its stature and priority. A beefed-up program for Ukraine should be an immersive multiyear affair, with cadres from Ukraine and other EU and EU-associated member states doing intense multi-month sector-by-sector apprenticeships in each others’ countries so as to better institutionalize Ukrainian state capacities and lock in its democratic habits. 

Why is this important? Because no Western democracy or collection of democracies needs another Orbanesque ally. Everyone except a few flamethrowing MAGA circus clowns admires President Zelensky, and for good reason. But as charismatic and brave as Zelensky is, he is only mortal and Ukrainian governance capabilities remain under-baked. As Max Weber famously pointed out, the transformation of charismatic into formal authority is not something that happens by itself or overnight.

This three-part proposal makes far better sense than the “next year in Washington” scenario. It would create an immediate additive to deter Russian nuclear use; what happened in Vilnius does not. It protects Ukraine in the future and minimizes any incentive for it to obtain its own nuclear arsenal. And it gives allies at every level something genuinely useful to do now (and something potentially gainful for them, too; we mustn’t forget those lucrative reconstruction contracts once the fighting stops). And to repeat, it may plant a seed for a diplomatic route to seal the end of the fighting, even if that route cannot be expected to reach its destination until after November 5, 2024. Contrarily, the rhetoric and body language at Vilnius planted no seeds for diplomacy at all. Its body language was Ukrainian military victory or bust, with bust including the possibility of catastrophic Russian escalation to avoid humiliating defeat.

The enlightened US interest in this case also happens to be of potentially great benefit to Ukraine, for only through a pragmatic and patient Western policy toward Russia might Crimea be returned to it with broad international diplomatic assent and without a war. Just as it has not acquiesced formally to Russia’s seizure of Crimea, US policy should never acquiesce, formally or otherwise, to Russian absorption of any Ukrainian territory seized after February 21, 2022—territory that Russia itself publicly acknowledged on several occasions before February 2022 to be Ukrainian. That should not be a price paid for getting Moscow to a negotiating table, for that would justifiably keep Kyiv from that same table unless its erstwhile supporters bent its arms back in painful coercion. 

US policy must never reward aggression of the sort we witnessed in February 2022, not only for the sake of equities in the case but also as a matter of principle befitting the finest American and Western democratic values, even when the strategic stakes are modest. Those who took well to their history tutoring will know the story of a young woman questioning Winston Churchill at a 1935 lawn party about why Britain should care about the Italian invasion of Abyssinia. Churchill’s answer to her was both to the point and timeless: “It’s not the thing,” he said, “it’s the kind of thing.” The British government’s failure to take Churchill’s view to heart led willy-nilly to Munich in 1938 and thence to the onset of war on September 1, 1939. 

That said, while it would be best if Russian forces were expelled from all Ukrainian soil taken in the early weeks of the war before any negotiation begins—if one ever begins—what is best may not be what occurs. Should Russian diplomatic body language signal a willingness to enter into a negotiation, the wisest course may be to put territorial matters in suspension if it enables active combat to cease sooner than later. That would spell a negotiation about an armistice, and nothing more. But as already noted, nothing more is in the offing under the circumstances.

President Zelensky might not like such a suspension, but he realizes that the longer the war continues, the worse things will get for Ukraine on the battlefield and likely on the home front as well. He might also see that a stoppage of combat—it could not be construed as a real peace so long as the present Russian leadership exists—buttressed by a new, more Eurocentric security architecture for his country and a closer association with the West has the potential to shelter the development of both the Ukrainian state and society into the true core of its long-term security. Syngman Rhee disliked the idea of a mere armistice short of true victory to end the Korean War, but in retrospect his view looks less wise now than it seemed to some at the time.

When active combat ceases, two things happen that benefit US and Western interests. First, Ukraine acquires an indefinitely extended nuclear umbrella and closer political association with the United States and the European Union via a strengthened Partnership for Peace program. Second, and perhaps more importantly in the longer run, Moscow is not driven further from the West by full and formal Ukrainian NATO membership. 

Of course, the Russians will recognize that even a more-Eurocentric security architecture designed to protect Ukraine in future does constrain them; that, after all, is the point of creating it. But by detaching the constraint from the NATO bugaboo, it may facilitate the eventual moderation of Russian statecraft under new leadership. In any event, we should not minimize the power of verbal condensation symbols whether pressed into service for good or ill, or underrate how political leaders can gain flexibility, should they seek it, through their absence.

At some point, Vladimir Putin will no longer possess his power vertical, and so in due course any outstanding territorial issues—Crimea certainly and perhaps others—can be resolved with a Russian leadership less personally vested in the outcome. That could bear benign implications for Moldova and Georgia, where unresolved territorial business also waits to be done. We once knew how to be patient based on principle; take testimony from the Baltic States as to how long the US government withheld acquiescence to Soviet aggression and annexation of those three nations. We can do it again and, with any luck, half a century need not pass to justly settle the Ukraine portfolio. 

Lydia and the Vlads
An Estonian’s changing relationship with Russia.

IV. No Time to Lose

Everyone knows that two wrongs don’t make a right. Similarly, two stupidities do not make for an intelligent outcome. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was monumentally stupid, but US leaders are not thereby obligated to commit a reactive stupidity of their own just because Russia’s current leader is Vlad the Terribly Shortsighted.

Unlike the current NATO rhetorical posture, the alternative approach outlined here gives the Russians diplomatic agency by putting the ball in Moscow’s court. This is not a favor. Moscow will strive to remove a temporary/contingent Article V pledge that it doesn’t want to become locked-in as a permanent NATO-flagged commitment, but it will have to pay for what it wants with concessions, not to exclude territorial concessions.

That is precisely the structure of a discussion we should be seeking. The Vilnius posture provides zero incentives to get Moscow to sit at a negotiating table, let alone to bend over it. It rather advises the Russians to double down, delay, and perhaps get dangerously panicky if things go wrong on the battlefield or politically in Moscow now that Putin’s “power vertical” has been perforated by a former, now late and unlamented, Kremlin chef. 

Putin knows that politics trumps policy in the United States these days, and he is surely not wrong to believe that the advent of a second MAGA administration will work to his advantage. But that dour prospect must not be allowed to paralyze US diplomacy in the here and right now; so if we can improve on what the Vilnius summit left on the table we should, sooner better than later and much better than not at all.

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