The Kremlin’s announcement that military activity near Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv would be reduced, together with the beginning of talks in Istanbul, signal that Russian President Vladimir Putin is suing, if not for peace, then at least for a freezing of the ongoing war until a more opportune time for Russia to conclude its “special military operation” materializes.
But the Biden administration and Western leaders should be under no illusions about the dangers that lie ahead.
It is up to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the country’s leadership to decide how to respond to Russia’s outreach. Notwithstanding the current setbacks, the Russian regime is in it for the long game and is seeking to destroy Ukraine as an independent country.
It is telling that even as Russians are retreating in the north, they are not easing their stranglehold around Mariupol, signaling a determination to preserve the captured coastline between Crimea and the Donbas. It is equally telling that since the moment when it became clear that the Kremlin’s plan to capture and subjugate Ukraine in two days had not worked, Russia’s war became one of terrorizing civilians and destroying Ukraine’s infrastructure and its industrial base.
No doubt Zelensky and his colleagues will accept any prospective cease-fire or peace agreement only if they believe it gives them a fighting chance to preserve Ukraine’s nationhood and sovereignty. The West needs to defer to Ukraine’s choices and stand by it no matter what contours the hypothetical Russia-Ukraine deal takes.
At the same time, the United States and its European allies have to make our own decisions about the future, informed by the reality of Putin’s aggression. In particular, Biden’s “gaffe” in Warsaw revealed a fundamental truth. As long as Putin remains in power, he is a threat to Ukraine and to Europe’s — and by extension the world’s — security. The question is what policies, if any, we are willing to put in place to eventually produce, yes, a regime change in Moscow.
First, there is the question of sanctions. Clearly, the threat of sanctions failed to deter Putin from invading Russia’s neighbor to the west. If a peace agreement appears within reach, there will be a lot of pressure both from well-meaning observers and self-seeking interest groups to relax some of the sanctions imposed on Russia to provide the Kremlin with an “off-ramp.”
Sanctions relief would be a mistake. At this moment, the sanctions’ purpose is not to dissuade Russia from doing anything; rather, it is to both cripple Russia’s ability to replenish its hard- and soft-power capabilities and protect the West itself from Russian influence and extortion facilitated by energy dependence or presence of Russian money in our politics.
Second, there is the question of strengthening Russia’s immediate neighborhood. Ukraine — or those parts of Ukraine that do not fall into the Kremlin’s hands — must be rebuilt and turned into an economic miracle on par with South Korea, Taiwan or Estonia. That will require some Western assistance and the prospect of deeper economic integration with, say, the European Union.
Arguably, though, the West might end up playing a far smaller role than is commonly imagined. The presence of an existential threat has the wonderful capability to focus people’s minds on what truly matters. With the right set of economic institutions, security and deeper political and economic ties to the West, there is no reason why Ukraine should not see dramatic catch-up growth in the years and decades to come.
It is a no-brainer that Russia’s aggression requires NATO to strengthen its posture across Eastern Europe and provide credible security guarantees to Ukraine itself. Forget the NATO-Russia Founding Act and its idea of no permanent military bases in “new” member countries. Russia’s Western neighborhood has to scream deterrence by denial far and wide, making it clear that any incursion would trigger an overwhelming response.
To those in Washington who are looking past Europe to Asia, it may come as a disappointment that Eastern Europe is returning back to square one, namely to a new Cold War of sorts. Yet the United States, as the world’s unparalleled superpower, has the unique responsibility of dealing with the world as it exists, even if it means tackling multiple challenges on several fronts at once. The coming years will show whether we still have the seriousness of purpose to do so.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.