War may loom, but are there diplomatic options?

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – Russian troops are encircling Ukraine from three sides. In Washington and Brussels, there are warnings of crushing sanctions if Mr Vladimir Putin orders an invasion. Diplomatic families – both American and Russian – are being evacuated from Kiev.

Yet there are still diplomatic options – “off-ramps” in the lingo of diplomats – and in the next several days the Biden administration and Nato are expected to respond, in writing, to Mr Putin’s far-reaching demands.

The question is whether there is real potential for compromise in three distinct areas: Russia’s demand for ironclad assurances that Ukraine won’t enter Nato; that Nato won’t further expand; and that Russia can somehow restore some approximation of its sphere of influence in the region to before the strategic map of Europe was redrawn in the mid-1990s.

The hardest issue of all defies negotiation: Mr Putin’s demand that Ukraine reverse its “drift” toward the West.

That is a matter of national sentiment, and polls show that Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 has only driven more Ukrainians toward Europe. Putin’s massing of the troops is likely to accelerate that trend, American officials say, rather than reverse it.

And as in all conflicts with roots in the Cold War and its aftermath, the subtext of any negotiation includes how the world’s two largest nuclear-armed states manage their arsenals – and use them for leverage.

While there is still time to avoid the worst, even US President Joe Biden’s top aides say they have no idea if a diplomatic solution, rather than the conquest of Ukraine, is what Mr Putin has in mind.

The Russian president views Ukraine not as a separate nation but as a land that was negotiated away after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Many who have dealt with Mr Putin believe he now sees it as his mission to correct that error, even if that means risking war to redraw the map of Europe.

Defusing Ukraine

It is possible that Mr Putin’s bottom line in this conflict is simple: that he wants to stop Ukraine from joining Nato and get an assurance that the United States and Nato will never place offensive weapons that threaten Russia’s security on Ukrainian territory.

On those two issues, it would seem, there is trading space. While the United States says it will never abandon the Nato “open door” policy – which means that every nation is free to make its own choice about whether it seeks to join the Western alliance – the reality is clear: Ukraine is so corrupt, and its grasp of democracy is so tenuous, that no one expects it to be accepted for Nato membership in the next decade or two.

On this, Mr Biden has been clear.

“The likelihood that Ukraine is going to join Nato in the near term is not very likely,” he said at a news conference last Wednesday (Jan 19. “So there is room to work if he wants to do that.”

It seemed an open invitation to offer Russia some kind of assurance that, for a decade, or two, or maybe a quarter-century, Nato membership for Kiev was off the table. But the Biden administration has drawn a red line at allowing Mr Putin a right to veto which nations can join Nato.

More complex is negotiating the reverse problem: How the United States and Nato operate in Ukraine. Ever since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the United States and Nato nations have been haltingly providing Ukraine with what the West calls defensive arms, including the capability to take out Russian tanks and aircraft. That flow has sped up in recent weeks.

To hear Mr Putin, those weapons are more offensive than defensive – and Russian disinformation campaigns have suggested that Washington’s real goal is to put nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

Administration officials say the United States has no such plans – and some kind of agreement should be, as one official said, “the easiest part of this,” as long as Russia is willing to pull back its intermediate-range weapons as well.