President Joe Biden spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday as tensions between the United States and Russia have risen drastically in recent days. U.S. intelligence reports indicate Russia may be planning to launch a large scale offensive involving 175,000 troops against Ukraine in early 2022. A White House statement released after the two leaders’ conversation says Biden “called for deescalation and a return to diplomacy.”
Prioritizing diplomacy is a step in the right direction. However, rhetoric alone will not lead to any real resolution to the crisis. To prevent the devastation of Ukraine and reduce the risk of the United States engaging in a counterproductive war with the only other nuclear superpower, Biden’s diplomatic efforts will require addressing the underlying cause of the conflict in Ukraine: NATO expansion.
There is good reason to believe the Kremlin is not bluffing. Putin recently reiterated Moscow’s red lines and declared that Russia is seeking legal guarantees NATO will not expand eastward. Russia also wants assurance the alliance’s troops and weapons, most notably missiles, will not be stationed on Ukrainian territory.
Putin’s red lines reflect the reality that he views the prevention of Ukrainian accession into NATO as a core Russian security interest. As such, Moscow is prepared to do whatever is necessary to achieve that goal — and it has proven its willingness to use military force. A realistic peaceful resolution to the Ukraine crisis will therefore necessitate that Kyiv and Washington take Russia’s concerns into account.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky seems to recognize this reality. In a recent address to the Ukrainian parliament, Zelensky said, “We must tell the truth that we will not be able to stop the war without direct talks with Russia.” Indeed, Zelensky won the presidency handily in 2019 with rhetoric calling for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
It is natural to feel sympathy for Ukraine’s difficult geopolitical circumstances. It has been mired in a conflict with Russia and Russian-backed Separatists since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. To date, an estimated 14,000 people have died as a result of the fighting.
While the conflict has largely remained frozen in recent years, with neither side gaining significant territory, a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine would certainly prove devastating. Negotiating with Putin, however unpalatable that may be to some in Washington and Kyiv, remains the best strategy to avoid an even more destructive war and prevent further human suffering in Ukraine.
The Biden administration has likely — and unfortunately — prolonged the conflict by providing false hope to Ukraine that the U.S. would come to Kyiv’s defense in the case of a Russian attack, declaring an “ironclad commitment” to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. This has created a moral hazard problem, where Kyiv is disincentivized to make the difficult political accommodations necessary to end the conflict. Given the risk of nuclear escalation, a direct U.S.-Russia conflict is an extremely dangerous prospect, and U.S. policy should reflect this reality.
Unlike Russia, the United States does not have a strong security interest in Ukraine that would justify U.S. troops fighting and dying for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Short of direct military intervention, the Biden administration is reportedly considering imposing severe economic sanctions on Russia, increasing U.S. and NATO military capabilities in Europe and providing more aid to Ukraine. The deterrent power of such a strategy is unlikely to be decisive, however, as years of existing sanctions, increased NATO budgets and providing Kyiv with $2.5 billion in security aid have done little to change Moscow’s calculus on Ukraine.
Moreover, Western economic retaliation will likely do little to comfort average Ukrainians who would be facing the horrors of war in their own backyard. Diplomacy, then, remains the only realistic path forward for a peaceful resolution.
U.S. foreign policy should always serve to increase the security and prosperity of the American people. In this instance, the United States also has a responsibility not to lead Ukraine further down the road of no return. Putin has proven himself to be a ruthless dictator, but he has also shown a pragmatic willingness to negotiate.
Definitively stating that Ukraine will not be offered NATO membership not only enhances U.S. security by reducing the likelihood of a U.S.-Russia war — it also addresses the root cause of the war in Ukraine. Biden’s conversation with Putin should be the first step in facilitating stable and predictable relations with Russia. Engaging in sincere diplomatic engagement rather than escalatory brinksmanship is the best way Washington can demonstrate it truly wishes to see peace in Ukraine.
Sascha Glaeser is a research associate at Defense Priorities. He focuses on U.S. grand strategy, international security and transatlantic relations.