Despite much spilled ink over how to respond tactically and operationally to Putin’s machinations in Ukraine, the United States and its European allies have by and large neglected the larger, strategic dilemma—how will Russia fit into the international order after the dust settles?
Last month marked the one-year anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a shocking breach of international law that has ushered in a steadily worsening chill in relations between the West and Russia. Despite much spilled ink over how to respond tactically and operationally to Putin’s machinations, the United States and its European allies have by and large neglected the larger, strategic dilemma—how will Russia fit into the international order, if at all, after the Ukraine crisis dies down?
The current conflict in Ukraine is a symptom of a larger and longer-term problem: Russia’s apparent rejection of the West and seeming withdrawal from the prevailing world order. In this sense, this year’s anniversaries of three major East-West summits spanning the Cold War bear greater significance.
Seventy years ago this February, the big three of the Allied powers during World War II—Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin—met in Yalta to discuss terms of the war’s end and the creation of a new global order. Forty years ago this August, leaders of the Western and Soviet blocs were able to reduce Cold-War tensions by agreeing at a conference in Helsinki to formally accept the post-World War II status quo in Europe. Finally, 25 years ago this November, the West and a deteriorating Soviet bloc came together in Paris to announce that “the era of confrontation and division of Europe has ended” and shape a new order in Europe.
In each case, leaders of the West and East came together to reckon with new geopolitical realities and agree upon the outlines of an agreeable world order for their time. There were major faults with each—the lack of consideration for the fate of Eastern European nations at Yalta and the ambiguity surrounding the future of NATO at Paris stand out in particular—but they proved valuable by instilling a sense of stability in international relations by affirming and reaffirming the basic global order established after World War II.
Today, changing geopolitical realities once again challenge the prevailing system. Russia’s aggression in Ukraine culminates an anti-Western trend in its foreign policy in recent years and marks its rejection of the post-Cold War order. In his October 2014 Valdai Club speech, Putin claimed that this U.S.-led order “has become seriously weakened, fragmented and deformed” and that “we see the growing spread of chaos” as a result. But Putin does not oppose outright the underlying system established after World War II represented by the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions. In the very same speech, he argued that this “system needs to develop” in order to be capable of “regulating the intensity of the natural competition between countries” rather than calling for its demise.
Herein lies the common denominator upon which the West and Russia can convene a strategic dialogue to hammer out guidelines for their relationship in a new era. Such a dialogue should entail a forthright reckoning with evolving geopolitical realities, identifying confidence-building measures, and, most importantly, reaffirming the underlying, post-World War II international order. Specifically, the United States and its allies should be prepared to accept a “non-bloc” status for Ukraine, halt NATO expansion, discuss reasonable limits on U.S. missile defense systems in Europe, avoid discussing internal Russian politics, and jumpstart cooperative ventures tackling common challenges like nuclear proliferation, climate change, and transnational terrorism.
The United States need not offer Russia everything it wants, but simply show a willingness to account for its fundamental interests. Professor Yuval Weber of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow argues that Russia in fact seeks such a “grand bargain” with the West, but that the United States should be in no hurry to reach one because Russia’s bargaining position, as a declining great power, only diminishes with time. But waiting also bears significant risks. Russia’s large nuclear arsenal, extensive natural resources, enormous landmass, and seat at the United Nations Security Council ensure Russia’s great-power status for the foreseeable future. If it finds the West unwilling to come to some set of strategic terms soon, it might decide once and for all to buck the post-World War II order.
Convening a new version of what happened in Yalta, Helsinki, and Paris to placate an increasingly tempestuous Moscow isn’t about preserving the post-World War II order for its own sake. The United States has a deep-seated strategic interest in its well being. This is because it was built based largely on U.S. principles and has contributed greatly to the positive macro-trends of increasing wealth and democracy around the world. As renowned Princeton Professor G. John Ikenberry observes in his book, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order after Major Wars, the genius of this international order is that it can sustain U.S. influence and promote U.S. values well after Washington has lost its position as the world’s superpower. The key to its lasting success, however, is convincing other countries that they benefit more from upholding than upending it.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine constitute a warning that something is fundamentally wrong with the post-Cold War order, namely that Russia feels it has gotten the short end of the stick. When the dust settles on the Ukraine crisis, the colossal challenge for the United States and its allies will be to find a modus vivendi with Russia that endorses the underlying international order created after World War II. This will not be easy, and it will take time to materialize, but initiating a strategic dialogue as outlined above is necessary to stabilize relations with Russia and preserve the liberal international order that can sustain U.S. influence in the world.
Daniel Pitcairn is a contributing editor for Charged Affairs, focusing on Russia, NATO, and U.S. foreign policy. He holds an undergraduate degree in Global Affairs from Yale University and is currently a Research Analyst for Government Executive Media Group.