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Negotiations With Russia Must Go Beyond the Ukraine War

T-84 Ukraine
A T-84 tank from Ukraine. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

According to U.S. officials, the Russo-Ukrainian War appears to be headed toward an attritional stalemate in which neither side will be able to achieve outright victory. When negotiations with Russia begin, U.S. policymakers will likely prioritize supporting a ceasefire before addressing difficult questions related to occupied Ukrainian territory.

However, diplomacy with Moscow should not be limited to the issues directly related to the war itself. Instead, Washington must work to remove Ukraine from the center of what has been a disastrous geopolitical confrontation with Moscow. Doing so will invariably require negotiating with Russia to build a more balanced Euro-Atlantic security architecture that accounts for the underlying sources of the conflict.

Indivisibility of Security

At the heart of Washington and Moscow’s proxy war in Ukraine lies differing interpretations of the concept of “indivisibility of security.” The United States typically emphasizes the right of states to choose their security arrangements, specifically by maintaining that NATO has an “open door” policy and third parties cannot veto the accession process. Russia, however, argues that indivisibility means that other states cannot enhance their security at the expense of others. These contradictory understandings have their roots in several agreements produced during and after the Cold War.

The 1975 Helsinki Final Act—which formally legitimized the post-war European settlement—recognized “the indivisibility of security in Europe,” the sovereign equality of states, the inviolability of existing frontiers and states’ territorial integrity, the peaceful settlement of disputes, the imperative of non-interference in internal affairs, and respect for human rights. The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act highlighted the “principle that the security of all states in the Euro-Atlantic community is indivisible.” Finally, the 1999 Istanbul Charter for European Security reaffirmed that while states are free to choose their security arrangements, they could not “strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other States … or consider any part of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) area as its sphere of influence.”

In the run-up to the Russo-Ukrainian War, U.S., NATO, Russian, and Ukrainian officials repeatedly cited these principles to justify their respective positions. Obviously, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine grossly violated all the core tenets of the aforementioned documents. For its part, the United States repeatedly ignored or discounted Russia’s perceived vulnerabilities stemming from its weakened position after the Cold War. Most glaring among these was President George W. Bush’s drive to extend the prospect of future NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine at the April 2008 Bucharest summit even after being warned by Putin that such a move would be viewed as a direct threat to Russia’s security. 

As Owen Matthews, a Russia-based correspondent for the Spectator, explained in his recent book on the origins of the war, between “2008 and 2022 the two sides were locked in an escalating dialogue of the deaf that would bring NATO and Russia’s relations to a crisis point.” Accordingly, Russia’s military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine are the predictable result of the two sides’ failure to reconcile their competing interpretations of indivisibility with geopolitical realities.

Even if Washington disputes Moscow’s characterization of its policies, dismissing Russian anxieties will only guarantee a heightened militarized standoff in the Euro-Atlantic area. Along with a negotiated settlement to end the war, U.S. policymakers should be prepared to compromise with Russia to address its long-standing security concerns. 

At a minimum, this will require promising to keep Ukraine out of NATO—and NATO infrastructure out of Ukraine—while ensuring armed neutrality status for Kyiv. A more comprehensive and advanced formulation could include restrictions on bases and long-range weaponry deployed near the NATO-Russia border, limits on the forward deployment of nuclear-capable missiles and bombers, and perhaps even conventional force reductions modeled on the discarded Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty which, according to the Arms Control Association, “was designed to prevent [NATO or the Warsaw Pact] from amassing forces for a blitzkrieg-type offensive.”

These initiatives would offer Russia a stake in upholding the basic principles of world order outlined in the Helsinki Final Act and other key documents. It would also lower threat perceptions in Washington and Moscow and provide an opening for a less adversarial long-term relationship between the world’s premier nuclear powers. Pursuing a ceasefire to end the fighting is the first order of business, but extended U.S.-Russia negotiations must address the underlying tensions that have brutally victimized Ukraine and locked Washington and Moscow into a confrontation that neither side can win.

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Matthew Mai is a research associate at Defense Priorities. He was previously an associate editor at The National Interest and a Marcellus policy fellow with the John Quincy Adams Society. He is a graduate of Rutgers University and a proud native of Hackensack, NJ.

Written By

Matthew Mai was a Marcellus Policy Fellow with the John Quincy Adams Society in the fall of 2020.



  1. Walker

    February 3, 2023 at 6:37 pm

    You can’t successfully negotiate if you don’t know what your negotiating partner wants. And you don’t know what Putin wants.

    Putin feels the sting of the breakup of the Soviet Union. He wants Russia returned to the state of power in the world the USSR had. He believes he still has the military of the USSR so he’s going to use it to get what he wants. But all he really has are the Nukes. Therein lies our quandary.

  2. Joe Comment

    February 3, 2023 at 10:03 pm

    What could Russia offer in return for a promise to keep Ukraine out of NATO? Would it be willing to promise not to ally militarily with Iran or North Korea, for example?

  3. Ilya pokmorov

    February 4, 2023 at 8:35 am

    Written by the Russian propaganda unit K17 operating from Minsk.

  4. Frank R. Mai

    February 4, 2023 at 11:41 am

    As a long time Union & Private Business negotiator, one of the main reasons to enter into negotiations is to find out what the other side wants. What they or the news media says, and what they really want, are many times far from the same. In World politics, count on it!

  5. Frank N. Furter

    February 4, 2023 at 1:04 pm

    Mr. Mai falls victim to the same thing all “think tankers” do: too much thinking and not enough reality.

    The reality is no matter what would be common sense to us, it will not be to Russia. From the beginning, Russia does not negotiate in good faith. In Mr. Mai’s own article, it spells out that NATO can’t do anything in the OSCE’s sphere, but had no limits on what OSCE cannot in NATO sphere. What kind of crazy is that? That is the ol’ “peace at any price” and “better red than dead” bs from the 70’s and 80’s.

    How do you negotiate in good faith with a country that has a specific word for lying, and everyone knows it? (Vranyo) You can’t.

    Like Patton said at the end of WW2, “We’re gonna have to fight these guys at some time”.

  6. Quartermaster

    February 4, 2023 at 1:41 pm

    What Putin wants is not compatible with European security. Ukraine is on fire because it stands in the way to the goals of controlling the historical invasion routes from the west – the Bessarabian Gap, the Polish narrows of the European plain, and the Baltics. To control those Putin must have both Ukraine and Moldova, as well as chunks of Romania, Slovakia and Poland, and the entirety of the Baltics. In the end, that would mean a confrontation with NATO, a war that would see the destruction of Russia.

    The best way to stop those moves is to make sure Putin loses in Ukraine. No one wants the destruction of Russia because of the power vacuum it would create.

  7. froike

    February 5, 2023 at 11:07 am

    The only “negotiation” with Putin would be UNCONDITIONAL SURRENDER!
    The Russian “Military” should be totally dismantled and they should sign an agreement to give up their Nuclear Arsenal. NATO would insure their security. This sounds radical, but I believe after this war, The Russian People would agree to this, in turn for Democracy and a better quality of life all around.

  8. Tamerlane

    February 5, 2023 at 3:54 pm

    These Ukrainian trolls are active here, shilling anti-American warhawk neoconservative propaganda.

    Walker: false. We hear in the U.S. know clearly what Russia seeks.

    Joe Comment: what could they offer? Besides not condemning the world to escalation to nuclear war over a fight over their existential interests v. Our parochial interests? Well, they would be of tremendous assistance were we able to split them off from China. Ukraine is much less relevant to our interests than Russian positioning vis a vie Communist China.

    Frank N. Furter: you’re an imbecile, and your hyper ear hawkishness would kill us all. You’ve learned nothing from the past 20 years of failed moronic wars, wars I served this country in.

    Yes Quartermaster: first—Russia is part of Europe, and is the largest country of Europe by the way. Second, Ukraine is on fire because it stands in the way to the goals of controlling the historical invasion routes from the west – the Bessarabian Gap east of the Carpathians—and because NATO seeks to grab a hold of this dagger and hold it to Russia’s throat. Russia has clearly explained that Ukraine in NATO is as acceptable to them as Mexico in a formal alliance with Communist China would be for us—which is to say, it’s a hard strategic red line, over which they would go to war.

  9. Tamerlane

    February 6, 2023 at 12:32 pm


    You’re literally insane. Your prescription would assuredly result in the death of billions of people. Also… Unconditional surrender to whom? The US maintains that neither we nor NATO are even at war with Russia… I’d also remind you that Ukraine is not part of NATO nor is it an ally of the United States.

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