Russia and NATO Meet: Time for Allies to Call off Mini-Cold War with Moscow

The NATO-Russia Council met in Brussels for the first time in nearly two years. “We are not afraid of dialogue,” announced alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Alas, he explained: “it was reconfirmed that we disagree on the facts, on the narrative and the responsibilities in and around Ukraine.”

Of course, this should surprise no one. After all, Russia is in a mini-Cold War with the U.S. and Europe over Ukraine.

Only reassessing everyone’s respective national interests will change the existing relationship. Should the West maintain permanent confrontation with Russia over Ukraine?

None of the allies has made a security commitment to Kiev. Indeed, few if any of the 28 NATO members are willing to go to war with Russia over its neighbor.

Should the U.S. and Europe treat Kiev as if it was a member of NATO? There’s a reason the alliance has a membership process. One criterion is not to induct countries with a casus belli or two trailing behind.

More fundamentally, inclusion only makes sense if it makes the existing allies more secure. No one seemed to consider this issue during the madcap alliance expansion after the Cold War because the organization was treated as an international gentleman’s club.

However, the Ukraine conflict reminded everyone that war could happen. Which is why NATO members would be mad to include Kiev.

Moscow has behaved badly and Ukrainians are suffering as a result, but such humanitarian considerations, are a poor basis for issuing military commitments. Kiev simply doesn’t matter much geopolitically to Europe or America.

Indeed, despite all of the tub-thumping about the supposed new Russian threat, Vladimir Putin is a poor excuse for Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler. His aggregate “conquests” so far are pitiful. There’s no evidence that he covets any other territory, certainly none without an ethnic-Russian majority.

And despite Moscow’s modest military revival, Europe alone vastly outranges Russia in economic strength and military spending. America’s global reach is unparalleled.

There’s still reason for the West to oppose Russia’s actions in Ukraine, though the allies’ hands are hardly clean. However, provoking a wounded bear is stupid in international relations as well as in the natural world.

Sanctions remain in place to no obvious effect. They punish but have not transformed Moscow’s behavior. And they discourage Russian cooperation on other important issues.

The U.S. and Europe must decide whether they are willing to wage a permanent mini-Cold War over Ukraine. Russia took back Crimea lawlessly, but no more so than the allies broke up Serbia and created an independent Kosovo.

A majority of Crimeans probably supported the move, though only a free and fair referendum, unlike that conducted by Moscow, would tell for sure. In any case, Crimea is no more likely to go back to Ukraine than Kosovo is likely to go back to Serbia.

The Donbas is a mix of civil war and aggression, which isn’t unusual. While everyone seems to agree on the political settlement represented by the Minsk agreement, both Kiev and Moscow appear lax in implementation. Even the end of shooting won’t mean harmony is restored.

Which suggests the allies should seek to forge a deal with Moscow that gets both sides out of the present geopolitical cul-de-sac. As I point out in Forbes: “agree to disagree over Crimea, neutralize Ukraine by withdrawing Russian support from insurgents and NATO’s promise of eventual membership for Kiev, liberalize trade opportunities for Ukraine in both directions, and swap Moscow’s acquiescence in the results of Ukraine’s political system for grants of significant autonomy to areas filled with ethnic Russians.”

Kiev could refuse to go along, but then it would be on its own. Only a deal seems likely to deliver peace for Ukraine, security for Russia, stability for Europe, and satisfaction for America (which really has no meaningful geopolitical stake, only moral sentiment).

The EU and U.S. should negotiate a deal normalizing relations. Everyone would benefit from ending the current impasse. Especially the Ukrainian people.