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Opinion It’s an open secret there’s no NATO plan for Ukraine. Why not just tell Putin?

Ukrainian service members walk on the front line in Avdiivka. Donetsk region on Dec. 17. (Oleksandr Klymenko/Reuters)

On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush (a former pilot in the National Guard) donned a flight suit and rode the second seat of a combat aircraft to the deck of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, where he declared victory in the Iraq War beneath a massive banner that said: “Mission Accomplished.”

The Iraq War was not over, of course. The mission had not been accomplished — the mission had never fully been defined. And the testosterone-saturated photo op was not just embarrassing. It was illuminating of Bush’s tendency to overpromise and underdeliver.

Few presidents have promised more liberty and more democracy to the world. Laying out his Bush Doctrine in 2002, he declared: “The 20th century ended with a single surviving model of human progress, based on the non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance. America cannot impose this vision — yet we can support and reward governments that make the right choices for their own people.”

Nearly 20 years later, the only part of that grand promise that has been redeemed is the one about the United States being unable to impose its vision. Russia is not the friend that Bush described in that speech, nor is China opening up as he theorized, nor have we nurtured free and prosperous societies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Now the bill is coming due on the last of the Bush overpromises. In the final months of his presidency, he overruled more cautious advisers and allies to offer a vague promise of NATO membership to the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine. Though the promise was, characteristically, unconnected to any concrete steps toward membership, this was taken as an existential threat by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who today has, menacingly, massed many thousands of troops on the border with Ukraine.

As in Afghanistan, failure to deliver on Bush Doctrine promises is coming due during the tenure of President Biden, and we can only hope that lessons learned this past summer might improve performance in this crisis. Historically, Biden has shared some of the Bush tendency to make promises he has no detailed plan to deliver, from an end to the pandemic to the passage of Build Back Better.

The good news here — or what passes for good news in a very troubled situation — is that a middle ground potentially exists. It may be possible to give Putin a portion of what he wants without substantially altering the U.S. position, and thus defuse a dangerous situation.

Ukraine is neither West nor East. That is the curse of this brutalized land. Between 1940 and 1945, when it was part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was among the bloodiest battlefields of World War II on account of its geographical position between Hitler and Stalin. Its history before, and since, has been darkened by violence, famine and corruption.

It ought to be possible to say forthrightly what everyone in the West knows to be true: NATO has no plan, short or long term, for bringing Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance. Bush did not have a plan in 2008, and no administration has developed such a plan in the years since. If Putin needs assurance that no such plan exists, what’s the harm in giving it to him?

At the same time, while the West does not intend to claim these lands, we won’t surrender them either. The West has precisely the same interest in Ukraine that Russia has. It is a borderland we share.

Biden is right to threaten severe economic consequences for Russia should Putin further invade Ukraine. (He has already annexed Crimea and is fighting a war in the Donbas.) This should include a promise to ramp up U.S. natural gas production to supply Europe’s needs and gut the gas-exporting economy of Russia. And it should include a credible threat to impound Putin’s estimated billions in the West.

At the same time, the United States and its allies must recognize Russia’s interest in a neutral Ukraine. A mechanism of formal and informal talks should be created to pursue the joint interests of East and West in a stable, neutral frontier.

Sometimes, diplomacy involves skirting the truth. But in this case, truth can be a powerful tool. Putin leads a nation in economic, demographic and cultural decline, and has neither the capacity nor the appetite for ruling Ukraine against the wishes of Ukrainians. That’s true. It’s also true that the West has no intention of giving the NATO promise of mutual defense to the age-old battlefield of Ukraine.

A stable, neutral Ukraine serves everyone’s interest. So why not tell it like it is.