The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The future of Europe hinges on the coming talks between the West and Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at an extended meeting of the Russian Defense Ministry Board at the National Defense Control Center in Moscow on Dec. 21. (Sergey Guneyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)
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A brutal dictator, having staked a claim to power based on conspiracy theories and promises of imperial restoration, rebuilds his military. He begins threatening to seize his neighbors’ territory, blames democracies for the crisis and demands that, to solve it, they must rewrite the rules of international politics — and redraw the map — to suit him. The democracies agree to peace talks, hoping, as they must, to avoid war without unduly rewarding aggression.

What happened next at Munich in 1938 is a matter of history: Britain and France traded a piece of Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler’s Germany in return for his false pledge not to make war. The Munich analogy can be, and has been, overused and overstated. But given how closely the first paragraph of this editorial describes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s current bellicosity toward Ukraine, and given that the United States and its allies enter negotiations with Mr. Putin in the coming week, it’s worth reflecting on any and all relevant experience. The Biden administration and European allies must approach the talks with corresponding gravity: If Mr. Putin comes out ahead — either at the bargaining table or on the battlefield — the continent could be lastingly destabilized.

Give Mr. Putin his due: Incessant propaganda about the supposed inseparability of Ukraine and Russia, or the purported aggressive nature of North Atlantic Treaty Organization deployments in Central and Eastern Europe, has established his political narrative and forced the United States and other countries to entertain Russian grievances that are, on their face, absurd and lawless. “I would suggest that the status of Ukraine is now more important for Russia than for Ukraine itself,” Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, said — astonishingly — in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Russia has presented the United States and its allies with draft treaties that would prohibit Ukrainian NATO membership and otherwise constrain the alliance’s military freedom of action within its own territory.

The Biden administration has rightly rejected those terms, though officials should be even more aggressive in explaining, to global audiences, the sheer brazenness of Mr. Putin’s threats against Ukraine — which of course come on top of his illegal 2014 seizure of Crimea and, through local proxies, part of eastern Ukraine. He is overtly menacing a recognized member of the United Nations, whose sovereignty and territorial integrity Russia formally undertook to respect in 1994.

Probably Mr. Putin’s rhetoric is just a cover for his true objective: to dominate Ukraine, lest its democracy succeed and provide a nearby alternative to his kleptocracy. If, however, he intends serious dialogue, there may be something to discuss. The United States could propose, say, a restoration of the now-defunct INF treaty on intermediate nuclear missiles in Europe, and a return, with modifications, to the limits on military deployments in the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty. Mr. Putin repeatedly violated both in the past — prompting a U.S. withdrawal from the INF in 2019. But Russia’s definitive military de-escalation should be a precondition of any agreement.

What the United States cannot do is allow Mr. Putin to win concessions at the point of a gun. In the — all-too-likely — event that he is not bargaining in good faith, and does invade Ukraine, President Biden will have to help that country defend itself, rally NATO and ensure that Russia pays a heavy price.