It’s Time to Cut a Deal with Putin

by Benjamin Studebaker

It was beginning to look as though things might be winding down in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin had the duma revoke his government’s permission to intervene directly in the country, and the pro-Russian rebels have been beating a swift retreat. But since Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down in Ukraine, western countries have unleashed a new round of sanctions. Russia has retaliated with sanctions of its own against the west, but in a far more worrisome move, reports have it that Russia is once again amassing troops on the border with Ukraine. To minimize the risk of further escalation, it is now time for the west to offer Putin a deal.

Why should the west make a deal with Putin now? Putin is now in a position of desperation. Already the Russian economy has been weakened by sanctions, and the latest round is likely to do still more damage:

But the Russian economy has, to this point, still managed to avoid recession, and the Ukraine crisis has done wonders for Putin’s poll numbers:

This puts Putin in a precarious position–yes, Putin would like the sanctions to end, but if Putin just walks away from Ukraine, he risks a return to his pre-crisis polling numbers, which had been steadily declining. If Putin is going to back down, he’s going to need to get an agreement that he can take home to his people. This agreement must get Russia something substantive from the west, something that allows him to portray the crisis as a Russian triumph.

What might that agreement involve?

For any agreement to be satisfactory to the west, Putin needs to give a lot of ground:

  1. East Ukraine: The Russians need to stop supporting the rebels.
  2. Crimea: The Russians need to compensate Ukraine for annexing this territory and depriving them of the rent they were to receive for the military base located there. This will reduce the need for the west to supply Ukraine with financial aid.
  3. Natural Gas: The Russians need a new agreement to supply gas to Ukraine at stable prices. At present, the gas supply to Ukraine is entirely cut off.
  4. Europe: The Russians need to allow Ukraine’s new trade agreement with Europe to go through.

Putin will not agree to do all of this unless Russia also gets concessions. There are four key things the west should consider giving Putin:

  1. NATO: Ukraine should stay out of NATO.
  2. Crimea: The west should recognize Putin’s annexation.
  3. East Ukraine: Ukraine should pledge to give the eastern region some devolved powers and recognize the language rights of Russian speakers.
  4. Sanctions: The west should lift sanctions.

Let’s briefly review why it is reasonable for the west to give Putin each of these things.

NATO

Putin’s primary strategic concern in Ukraine is preventing NATO from expanding further eastward. Since the Cold War, NATO has continually expanded closer and closer to Russia:

NATO’s original purpose was to balance against the Soviet Union, and Putin and the Russians still view NATO as a hostile, anti-Russian alliance. Traditionally, Russia has used the eastern European states as a buffer against invaders–Napoleon and Hitler had to come through Poland and Ukraine before they could get at the Russian heartland. Berlin is 1100 miles from Moscow and even Eastern Poland is nearly 700 miles away. But if Ukraine were to join NATO, NATO would be able to deploy troops on Ukraine’s eastern border, less than 500 miles from Moscow and less than half as far as the nearest NATO troops were to Moscow during the Soviet era. A firm commitment to maintain Ukraine as a buffer state between Russia and NATO would put Putin’s mind at ease and would cost the west very little strategically, as the west has no intention of invading Russia. Indeed, from a western perspective, NATO membership for Ukraine is almost a liability–Ukraine is not very wealthy and cannot contribute much in the way of funds or arms, and once Ukraine joins NATO the alliance would be obligated to defend Ukraine in the future. Whether or not Ukraine joins NATO is of critical importance to Putin but of negligible importance to the west. It’s a cheap concession and may go a long way.

Crimea:

A few months ago, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula, which was once part of Ukraine:

The west is doubtless very cross with Russia for seizing the Crimea, but there is no substantive chance that Putin relinquishes it now that it has been seized. The Crimea has a population that is mostly Russian-speaking, and the annexation of the Crimea was immensely popular with the Russian people. It also allowed Russia to seize direct control over the military base in Sevastopol, which it previously had to lease from Ukraine. The Ukrainians do not have the military strength to take the Crimea back, and the west is not going to invade the territory. Given these truths, the west might as well recognize the annexation if this will help reach an agreement that satisfies the west’s core demands.

East Ukraine:

The Russian media has thoroughly convinced the Russian people that the new pro-western government in Kiev is fascist and that this government will persecute ethnic Russians and Russian speakers living in Ukraine. These people live disproportionately in the eastern portion of the country:

The Ukrainian government made a grave blunder, attempting to abolish a law that granted the Russian language regional status. Though this attempt was ultimately defeated, it contributed to the perception that Kiev is hostile to Russian speakers. Putin has made much of this issue, using it as his primary justification for intervening in Ukraine (though if I had to guess, I’d say that in truth the NATO issue plays the largest role). To placate the Russians, the Ukrainian government should offer the eastern regions some level of autonomy via devolution, like the Welsh have in Britain. This should make it clear to Russian speakers that the government in Kiev is not hostile to them and respects their language and culture, and will help to calm down the rebellion in the east.

Sanctions:

Finally, once an agreement is reached, the west should revoke the sanctions against Russia and attempt to normalize relations. Provided the Russians well and truly agree to stop arming the rebels, to compensate Ukraine for the Crimea, to come to a new natural gas agreement with Ukraine, and to allow Ukraine to forge deeper economic ties with the EU, there will no longer be any need for sanctions. At that point, it will be advantageous to the west to drop the sanctions so that it can resume profitably trading with Russia.

It has recently been leaked that before the MH17 fiasco, Germany and Moscow were in secret negotiations to resolve the conflict. The agreement they were constructing is said to look remarkably similar to the one I propose here. Unfortunately, since MH17, talks have been put off and new sanctions were announced. These sanctions have angered Putin and made him feel cornered. Unless Putin sees a way out that will play well with the Russian people, he may be tempted to escalate further, either by increasing his support of the rebels or possibly by invading Ukraine’s eastern regions. If Putin does that, the Ukrainian army has no substantive chance of mounting an effective resistance, and western governments will not risk further escalation and unpopularity at home by committing their own troops to Ukraine’s defense. Consequently, it is imperative that the west cool its rhetoric and resume negotiations before things get out of hand. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s proposal is fair and even-handed. It should be agreed to posthaste.