The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Saying Ukraine won’t be in NATO anytime soon isn’t a concession. It’s reality.

Taking NATO membership off the table, for now, could end the current crisis — and lead to peace in the separatist regions of Ukraine

Ukrainian service members talk with a resident in Stanytsia Luhanska, in the Luhansk region, on Feb. 17. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

A distinct irony hovers over the standoff over Ukraine. A principal goal of President Vladimir Putin’s threat of invasion is to ensure Ukraine does not join NATO, which would grant Ukraine the protection of the alliance’s mutual-defense pact. But even if Russia had not poised troops on its borders, there was no realistic prospect in the near-to-medium term that the United States and its allies would accept Ukraine into their ranks. In a sense, both sides agree — Ukrainian leaders aside — that the nation does not currently belong in the Western alliance.

Clearly, NATO cannot, in response to Putin’s demands and threats, unconditionally promise to deny Ukraine membership forever. Still, the starting point for diplomacy should be the following: There is no way Ukraine will join NATO In the foreseeable future. The United States and its allies don’t want the security commitments that would involve; some NATO members have always been against it; and for Russia, the idea is threatening enough to become its main argument for invading now.

If we can devise a different way to ensure Ukraine’s security, membership may never be needed — as we should indicate to Moscow now.

Acknowledging that reality does not mean abandoning resolution in opposing Russian sabre rattling. If anything, to strengthen our deterrent, the threat of severe and lasting economic punishment if Russia attacks Ukraine should be intensified. Potential retaliation could include a serious U.S.-European Union-NATO plan to wean the West off Russian oil and gas over the next five years (for example, by expanding U.S. production and using NATO infrastructure funds and other resources to build more liquid natural gas terminals in western Europe.) President Biden has proposed shutting down the Nord Stream 2 pipeline linking Germany and Russia if Russia invades, but dismantling it fully would be an even stronger response.

Nonetheless, if the prospect of Ukraine in NATO is taken off the table — albeit not formally, or forever (not yet at least) — the focus of diplomacy can return to resolving the dispute over the two breakaway regions in Ukraine’s east, which Russia seeks to control.

Threatening to invade Ukraine will help Putin at home. Actually invading won’t.

In principle, the Minsk 2 process, which dates to 2014-2015 and is named for the Belarusian capital in which Ukraine-Russia talks were held then, is designed to deal with that problem. Minsk 2 would grant some local authority to the disputed regions — where Russia has supported separatists for eight years in a war that has left about 15,000 dead and the local economy destroyed — after legitimate elections are conducted there. In return, Ukraine would regain control of the areas as well as of the border between the region and Russia.

But Russia’s unreasonable demands have rendered that framework effectively dead, as well as deeply loathed by Ukrainians. Moscow wants constitutional changes that would grant near-absolute autonomy to these regions — and grant them so much power in the federal system that leaders in the Donbas could effectively veto future Ukrainian foreign policy decisions. Russia also wants the autonomy to be granted before Ukraine regains control of its boundaries, a non-starter in Kyiv.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been pushing Minsk 2, but the United States could reassert itself and take the lead in a new diplomatic initiative, seeking to make the terms of the agreement more reasonable for Ukrainians.

Putin till now has been unmovable in his demands concerning the Donbas. But he may change his mind if the United States privately indicates to him that a workable new security system for Ukraine — one that, obviously, would include the verifiable departure of Russian troops from the separatist regions — would help make NATO membership for the country unnecessary. Of course, Biden can’t speak for future presidents. But he can make a promise covering the remainder of his own presidency; he can also ask other NATO nations to make the same promise, some of them publicly. This diplomatic pledge would not be the binding commitment Putin seeks, but given the enormous downsides of war for him, which would include a potentially hard military fight as well as severe economic punishment, it may be enough to provide a way out of the current crisis. (Crimea would have to be finessed; Russia, which seized it in 2014, isn’t giving it back.)

After an agreement is reached on the issue of the breakaway regions, and after Russian troops withdraw — with monitoring on the ground by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — the United States and its allies would end their lethal military assistance shipments to the Ukrainian armed forces. Some sanctions on Russia would also be suspended, then lifted.

To say that Ukraine won’t be joining NATO soon (if ever) is not a concession to Putin, but an acknowledgment of reality. Admitting a new nation into NATO requires a unanimous vote by the 30 current members, and the idea of admitting Ukraine was controversial even when NATO said, in 2008, that the door was open to Kyiv. (The offer included no timetable and no interim security guarantee.)

Some critics of the approach sketched here would say it violates NATO’s “open door” policy, under which countries in Europe that meet the standards for membership — including a democratic government, a market economy and civilian control of the military — supposedly earn a right to join.

But that policy as commonly understood has no basis in the alliance’s treaty. The treaty’s Article X makes it clear that future membership invitations should only be issued if they would enhance the security of the broader North Atlantic region. Clearly the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO is doing no such thing.

As part of the deal, Moscow would have to acknowledge Ukraine’s right to other forms of membership in international organizations, including perhaps admission to the European Union someday. There should be no compromise on this core question. The vision for a new security order in Eastern Europe cannot be allowed to resemble Yalta, the conference in 1945 that is commonly blamed for the descent of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe after World War II. Russia’s view that NATO should not expand further right up to Russia’s doorstep is understandable. Its apparent desire for a latter-day sphere of influence in Europe is not.