It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Is There a Diplomatic Offramp in Ukraine?

As Russia masses troops along the border—and in Belarus—the prospects for peaceful resolution are fading, but there are options.

By , a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
A Ukrainian serviceman stands in front of tanks
A Ukrainian serviceman stands in front of tanks
A Ukrainian serviceman stands in front of tanks at a base near Klugino-Bashkirivka, Ukraine, on Jan. 31. SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images
It's Debatable

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt, have you seen any good Olympic sports yet? It’s time for the Beijing Winter Olympics, which means it’s time for everybody’s favorite quadrennial pastime: having an opinion about curling. Ready to sweep?

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma. I appreciate your attempt to start on a lighter note, but I am boycotting the Chinese Communist Party’s genocide Olympics. I haven’t watched a single second. What am I missing?

EA: Mostly figure skating. It’s fun to watch, but you’re right that human rights concerns cast a pall over the whole thing. Plus, it’s impossible to avoid the politics: The Russians have reportedly been caught doping again, and even some of the skiing competition has been overshadowed by controversy about whether Eileen Gu, the gold medal winner, really gave up her U.S. passport to compete for China or not.

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt, have you seen any good Olympic sports yet? It’s time for the Beijing Winter Olympics, which means it’s time for everybody’s favorite quadrennial pastime: having an opinion about curling. Ready to sweep?

Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma. I appreciate your attempt to start on a lighter note, but I am boycotting the Chinese Communist Party’s genocide Olympics. I haven’t watched a single second. What am I missing?

EA: Mostly figure skating. It’s fun to watch, but you’re right that human rights concerns cast a pall over the whole thing. Plus, it’s impossible to avoid the politics: The Russians have reportedly been caught doping again, and even some of the skiing competition has been overshadowed by controversy about whether Eileen Gu, the gold medal winner, really gave up her U.S. passport to compete for China or not.

MK: I have seen the headlines about Gu. It is poor taste to choose to compete for Communist China instead of the United States, but I didn’t realize it was possibly a permanent move. That seems downright foolish.

EA: Well, it wouldn’t be the first time an athlete has made a strange citizenship choice in order to compete; some folks might remember the bizarre case of a couple from New York who took Dominican citizenship in order to ski in the Sochi Olympics, for example. But the whole episode does highlight the growing hostility between the United States and China, even in the cultural realm.

Perhaps you’ve been following the other big international competition more closely? It seems like world leaders are trying to outdo one another in holding summits and high-level meetings over Ukraine. It might be a bit harder to judge who wins, though, despite Stephen M. Walt’s recent article here at Foreign Policy declaring Germany the gold medal winner!

MK: That’s debatable. First, there is a lot of competition over the past couple weeks, with high-profile meetings between China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, America’s Joe Biden and Germany’s Olaf Scholz, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Putin, and many others. Second, Germany has a contradictory foreign policy, with the foreign minister and chancellor figure skating to different tunes. Finally, and as a result, Germany has been the weakest link in a Western alliance that is, otherwise, mostly unified against Russian aggression.

At best, I score Germany a 7.5 out of 10, which doesn’t even get them a bronze.

EA: Ah, so you’re the East German judge, then? (That’s a bit of Cold War humor, there.)

Look, I wouldn’t necessarily give the Germans gold either. They’ve been extremely cautious and hands-off in the Ukraine crisis, which isn’t helpful given their status as a key European economic power. But there are some good reasons for that: The new German coalition government is almost brand new, the coalition—and the chancellor’s own party!—are both divided on some core foreign-policy questions, and the Germans are in a difficult economic position when it comes to questions about sanctioning Russia, on which they are highly dependent for energy.

MK: Germany is in a tough spot, but it is partly of its own making. Berlin could have decided to diversify its energy supplies years ago, and instead it moved in the opposite direction, phasing out nuclear power and choosing to become more dependent on Russia, including through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline deal.

More fundamentally, it would be a mistake to choose short-term economic comfort over the future of security, stability, and democracy in Europe. It is time for Berlin to make a hard choice and do the right thing, which is to stand strongly with the Western alliance against Moscow’s aggression.

Fortunately, it does seem that Scholz has been taking a firmer line against Russia since his meeting with Biden.

EA: It’s easy to say that in retrospect. The German perspective—as I understand it—is that the overall energy and economic relationship between Russia and Western Europe is too big to be disrupted over anything other than core security issues. German leaders will often point out that they traded for energy with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War.

But it’s a complicated question. I wrote about some of the energy issues along with my colleague Rachel Rizzo last week here in Foreign Policy. If readers are curious to learn more about Germany, Russia, and energy, they can check it out here.

MK: It was a good piece. I would say, however, that the potential outcome you and Rachel describe as “perverse,” with Russia and China deepening their energy cooperation as Europe looks for alternate supplies in the Middle East and elsewhere, seems desirable to me. The free world should move supply chains to friendly countries to reduce dependency on revisionist dictators, and we could avoid messes like Germany’s current predicament in the future.

EA: Yeah, nothing says “democratic supply chain” like buying more Saudi oil and Qatari gas.

MK: I have more faith in the Gulf monarchies than Putin and Xi. But go on.

EA: Well, let’s move on to Macron. The French appear to be taking a much more active role in diplomacy, with Macron meeting Putin in Moscow earlier this week and offering what appears to be a more flexible approach to the crisis than American leaders. He’s been getting a lot of criticism for his freelancing here in Washington, but I note that the administration hasn’t criticized him at all. Is this the French just freelancing as usual, or is he acting as a middleman?

MK: The Biden administration (and much of the West) desperately wants to find a diplomatic solution that forestalls a Russian invasion without appeasing Putin and his unreasonable demands. It is a difficult needle to thread. My guess is that the White House is happy to have Macron and others do their best to find this solution.

The other relevant question, however, is: How does Moscow perceive these mediators? It is notable that a Russian spokesperson dismissed Macron’s efforts, saying, “France is a member of the EU and of NATO, where it is not the leader. A different country in that bloc is the leader. So, how can we speak about any ‘agreements’?” As Putin sees it, this is a confrontation between Washington and Moscow, and any successful deal will require U.S. involvement and support.

EA: That’s probably true. Even though the Normandy format talks continue—that’s the ongoing peace process for Ukraine run by the French and Germans—Russia’s been pretty clear that it doesn’t want a European-only solution to this crisis. But I also think it does no harm to remind Moscow that American views aren’t the only ones that matter and that there is a growing push in Paris and elsewhere for more European strategic autonomy from the United States.

As Putin sees it, this is a confrontation between Washington and Moscow, and any successful deal will require U.S. involvement and support.

But Macron’s visit to Moscow in some ways raised more questions than it answered. He came away promising that Putin had made some concessions, but they were either things Russia had already committed to (such as removing troops from Belarus after scheduled exercises) or were things the Kremlin immediately walked back. So, Macron didn’t really score any big wins.

MK: I agree. I also don’t put much stock in the supposed promise Putin made to hold off an invasion for at least a few weeks. I think Macron basically got played.

He and others seem to think that a solution can be found in the Minsk agreements, but Russia and Ukraine interpret the agreements differently, and Kyiv believes that implementing the accord will mean giving up Ukraine’s sovereignty to Russia.

Do you have a better diplomatic solution for us?

EA: There are still diplomatic solutions to this crisis. But I think most Russia watchers would tell you that the window to reach an agreement is rapidly closing at this point. I’ve got a paper out this week talking a bit about how American leaders might take unorthodox diplomatic steps to try to find a workable solution, drawing on the example of prior conventional arms agreements from the Cold War.

For example: the question of NATO expansion to Ukraine. Russia says it wants a moratorium on NATO expansion; the West says that can’t happen. So, they have to find a different way to approach this problem, like finding a de facto way to commit to no NATO expansion to Ukraine in the conceivable future. Committing to no NATO troops or bases in Ukraine, or a moratorium on NATO-Ukraine military cooperation, for example, is a way to give Russia some of what it wants, without formally renouncing NATO’s open door. U.S. diplomats could then try to match that commitment with Russian concessions—such as limiting Russian forces in Belarus—to find a solution that helps to reduce tensions.

MK: I suspect Western governments (and maybe even Ukraine) could get behind the solutions you propose. I just don’t know if it would be enough for Putin; it really depends on what he is trying to achieve, which brings us to the roots of this crisis.

I don’t know if you saw Peter Beinart’s Substack post on CIA Director William Burns’s recent memoir. His take is that the Biden administration is currently laying all the blame on Putin, but Burns’s memoir suggests the real problem was NATO expansion and that Russian aggression was the inevitable result.

EA: Beinart is definitely on to something here. This crisis has its roots in NATO’s post-Cold War expansion. You disagree?

MK: I think it risks confusing explanation with justification. Sure, if the Russian Empire still stretched to Berlin, I doubt Putin would be invading Ukraine right now. But it does not mean that it is the right thing to do. I mean, many Brits were unhappy with the demise of their empire, but London didn’t try to invade India 30 years later. It found a new, constructive role in a new world order, and Putin and Russia should do the same.

EA: You might be surprised how many people in the United Kingdom are still vaguely dissatisfied about the loss of the British Empire, Britain’s current prime minister among them.

But I agree with you that it’s not a justification. The debate over NATO expansion in Washington has often been unhelpful, simplifying a complex problem by suggesting that NATO expansion either was an unalloyed good that cannot be questioned or was entirely bad and is causing a war. But there’s been a much more fruitful and reasoned discussion among scholars doing research on this question, and they generally conclude that NATO expansion had both bad and good effects: It probably helped to stabilize Eastern Europe, but it also increased Russian threat perceptions.

And that suggests that Burns and Beinart, and all the other people who predicted this might happen if NATO expanded—Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Paul Nitze, George Kennan—were correct. I’m glad that someone as foresighted as Burns is advising Biden during this crisis.

MK: Well, there is one big leader summit we haven’t addressed yet. While other world leaders are trying to convince Putin to back down, Xi is backing him up. The Chinese leader endorsed Putin’s calls for a halt to NATO expansion and made several other gestures that suggested a deepening of the Moscow-Beijing strategic partnership. Figuring out how to deal with Russia and China at the same time will be the biggest security issue facing the United States and its allies for the foreseeable future.

EA: It was certainly a very friendly summit, though I did notice the Chinese leaving themselves some room for maneuver; for example, the joint statement didn’t mention Ukraine by name. We also don’t know exactly the extent to which China will back Russia in the event of an invasion and punishing U.S. sanctions.

The United States retains the ability to impose sanctions globally, using America’s powerhouse financial system to force other countries to abide by U.S. sanctions. And the Chinese have typically been wary about violating U.S. sanctions too visibly. But major sanctions on Russia might prompt China to build on existing mechanisms to circumvent these sanctions to purchase Russian energy.

We just don’t know the extent to which China will back Russia. But one thing is certain: If Washington cannot find an agreement with Russia in Europe, Moscow will almost certainly be pushed closer to Beijing in the long run. That’s got to be bad for U.S. security.

MK: I still think the answer is to beat them both at the same time, but that will have to be a debate for another time. I need to go lecture—in person for the first time in almost two years! I hope I don’t get stage fright.

EA: I just hope you don’t get COVID-19!

(Ed. note: He got COVID-19.)

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and the author of Oil, the State, and War, a forthcoming book on energy and international security. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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