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NATO Has One Last Chance To End Russia’s War on Ukraine

NATO F-16 Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
NATO F-16 Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

NATO’s Last Chance to Acknowledge Reality and Support an End to the War in Ukraine – While much of the United States remains mesmerized watching the graphic and shocking images pouring out of Ukraine as a result of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked attack, Western leaders pillory Russian President Vladimir Putin with condemnation and promises of “decisive action” to punish the Russian leader for the invasion.

While Putin is deserving of the condemnation heaped upon him, it is also useful to examine whether these same Western leaders might not have some degree of culpability for this disaster as well. It doesn’t take much scrutiny to realize that, in fact, there are many who share responsibility for the still-unfolding disaster.

It must be stated upfront, unambiguously, that the responsibility for this war, the destruction of infrastructure, and the detestable loss of Ukrainian life ultimately lie at the feet of one individual: Vladimir Putin. Whether he was afraid of NATO expansion to his border, believed the threat of Western missiles stationed near his border represented an existential threat or wanted a rollback of NATO to its 1997 positions, the right and mature path would have been tough diplomacy. Instead, Putin is tired of waiting and chose war.

War wasn’t forced on Putin. There was no imminent threat. Hell, even the theoretical formal invitation of NATO membership to Kyiv wasn’t even being considered by Western leaders. The Russian leader instead made a calculated, conscious decision to choose a military solution that he knew would result in the likely deaths of thousands of innocent Ukrainians and possibly even the same number of casualties among his own troops. By any calculation, it was an unethical and immoral choice.

However

Even the cold, calculating Putin preferred to solve his security dilemma via diplomatic means. Not that he cared whether lives would be lost or saved, but because successful negotiations would have lowered the cost of him attaining his political objectives. The West had two golden opportunities to leverage Putin’s cost-benefit propensities to simultaneously prevent war and assure the security of the alliance members. Western leaders abjectly failed at both.

First, Western leaders have, since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, been on autopilot of the eastward expansion of NATO. Never mind that the near-simultaneous overnight collapse of both the Warsaw Pact military alliance and the Soviet Union dramatically reduced the military threat against which NATO was originally formed. The inclusion of most of the former eastern and central European members of the Warsaw Pact into NATO by 2004 effectively eliminated any remaining threat against which the Atlantic alliance might fear.

At that point the West had its first golden opportunity to solidify the security of the entire European continent by capping NATO and working to effectively form a new European security relationship that included both NATO, the rest of eastern Europe, and Russia. There needn’t have been any basis for any of them to feel threatened by the other.

Brussels made its first major error by throwing away its golden opportunity in a lust to further isolate Moscow by expanding its military alliance closer to Russia’s border. At the 2008 Bucharest Summit, NATO formally declared Georgia and Ukraine would at some point be invited into the alliance. Putin issued a declaration of his own four months later, when he ordered a limited military incursion into Georgia, effectively eliminating them from future consideration of NATO membership.

Instead of realizing Putin was deadly serious about preventing any further eastward expansion of NATO – and instead of spending the Alliance’s time and energy solidifying its then-current membership – NATO continued additional rounds of expansion in both 2017 and 2020 – and relentlessly focused more energy on seeking membership for Ukraine.

The Alliance’s last golden opportunity to avoid this war came within just the last few months. Putin had already shown he was willing to use lethal force to keep NATO off his border in the 2008 Georgia war and the 2014 seizure of Crimea.

When he started building up the type and number of combat forces on Ukraine’s border in late 2021 while saying he needed “written guarantees” of no further NATO expansion to his borders, the West could have acknowledged the reality that Ukraine was never going to qualify for entrance into the alliance, and claimed that for our own security and to reduce the threat of war to Ukraine, we would withdraw the membership offer.

Without question, that would have taken immense political courage for any Western leader to make such a declaration, but it should have been abundantly clear that such a move was necessary to reduce the threat of invasion for Kyiv. Instead, we let the last opportunity evaporate by adamantly emphasizing that no one was going to tell us who could and couldn’t join NATO – predictably condemning Ukraine to its fate of war.

On Friday, Ukrainian President Zelensky publicly admitted he was willing to negotiate a declaration of neutrality, and Moscow almost immediately indicated its willingness to negotiate such a deal. That is the one thing that has a good shot at ending the war now before any more Ukrainians pointlessly die. Sanctions will never do it because Putin obviously calculated he was willing to endure sanctions before he ordered his troops to cross the border; if the threat of sanctions didn’t prevent him from starting a war, the threat of more sanctions surely won’t make him stop mid-stream.

Arrogance and an unwillingness to recognize simple geopolitical reality led the Western alliance to refuse to do what made sense for its own security and give Ukraine the best chance of avoiding war when it had chances to stop it. NATO should eat its stubborn pride now, publicly support Zelensky’s desire for negotiations, and accept a neutral Ukraine. Failure to do so will likely condemn yet more Ukrainian people to pointless deaths.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him Twitter: @DanielLDavis1.

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

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