The West Must Engage with Russia after the War in Ukraine

April 22, 2023 Topic: Russia Region: Russia Tags: RussiaNATOUkraineKyivCold WarVladimir Putin

The West Must Engage with Russia after the War in Ukraine

NATO allies, and Ukraine itself, need to find an acceptable blueprint for engaging with Russia after the war.


Asked at a recent event, when asked what possible plans his country had or would support for its relationship with Russia once the conflict between it and Ukraine ends, a senior member of a NATO-country parliament and political party official replied, “None at all. At least while Putin is still in charge.” That would be a serious mistake, not only because of Russia’s inherent, domestic attributes but also because of its relations with other countries, especially (but not only) with China. NATO allies, and Ukraine itself, need to find an acceptable blueprint for engaging with Russia after the war.

The palpable fury at the Kremlin by Ukraine and the NATO allies is driving their policies toward Russia. We have not seen such an intentional, deliberate, indiscriminate, barbaric assault turning entire regions and towns, hospitals, schools, nurseries, homes, and power plants into rubble and concrete graveyards since the Wehrmacht attack against Poland and the Soviet Union.


President Volodymyr Zelensky has established the unambiguous Ukrainian objective: "We will only stop when we bring our country back to the borders of 1991. We will return the Ukrainian flag to every corner of Ukraine." That understandable ambition is almost certainly beyond the grasp of the Ukrainian forces. Yet Russia is also unlikely to achieve Vladimir Putin’s goal of terminating Ukraine’s independence, decapitating its government, re-occupying all or almost all of the country, and absorbing it within a Greater Russia. It seems unlikely to even recapture all of the Donbas at this time. Short of resort to its tactical nuclear arsenal, it does not have the military resources—troops, hardware, munitions, leadership, strategy or elan—to do so. Still, neither side is (yet) willing to settle for a ceasefire in which, like World War I, the two forces are dug indefinitely into trenches running down half of the Donbas.

Zelensky has rightfully noted that 2023 is key to Ukraine’s goal. Ukrainian forces must be able within the year to turn the tide and make significant advances expelling Russian forces in the east and the south. If they cannot, the tide of the war will most probably turn against them and in favor of Russia or of a stalemate. The Ukrainian people cannot indefinitely withstand the desolation visited upon them. Their remarkable valor, endurance, and granite resistance cannot last indefinitely, nor will their own assets or the economic, political, and military support of allied countries. None of that portends a Russian victory—it means only that at least parts of the Donbas and probably most, if not all, of Crimea would remain in Russian hands, meaning that de jure borders would sooner or later adjust to the de facto realities. Ukraine’s allies will need to work with Kyiv to develop and support a realistic strategy through 2023 and, preferably, to some kind of victory acceptable to and achievable by Ukrainians.

Still, notwithstanding NATO outrage at Russian aggression and atrocities, international ostracism does not provide a judicious prescription for relations particularly for a country as large and important as Russia once the wanton carnage has ended or abated. True statecraft requires a sagacious perspective on long-term as well as immediate-term policies. Russia will not disappear, although Putin might.

If anger and hostility are to be the hallmarks of NATO-country policies toward Russia, the result would be a line of enmity from the Barents Sea, down the eastern frontiers of Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Ukraine to the Black Sea and, depending on the disposition of Turkey, possibly to the Mediterranean—in effect, a recreation of the Cold War 450 miles to the east. It would mean a border of animosity between whole civilizations, each with huge armies and economies, and with nuclear armaments capable of turning one another into a pulverized (and now also radioactive) wreckage. The celebration of the end of the last Cold War three decades ago and its replacement by a peace, however stoney and contingent, would be reversed. Surely that cannot be the only or let alone the best option.

Justifiable anger toward toward Russia cannot blind policymakers to what it really is: an expansive county with extensive human and natural resources; a federation of republics, the largest country in the world spanning eleven time zones; really, a kind of empire in its own right. Moreover, it has a long history and a commensurate sense of itself as great power in Eurasia and an imperial chronicle three centuries old. It commands very substantial armed forces, however much now depleted, and it has nuclear weapons and systems of delivery that could obliterate an adversary even if Russia itself were also devastated in the process. In addition, even if Russia could be ostracized from the West, it cannot be sequestered from the rest of the world, and although it would pay an enormous price were it to be isolated by the West, so too would the countries attempting the isolation. Finally, it cannot be in the U.S. interest to see Russia pushed into the arms of China and thus find itself confronting two colossi rolled into one challenger. Russia is not some barely inhabited Pacific atoll, and it would be both foolhardy and arrogant, even self-defeating, to try treating it as one.

By far the better strategy is, if possible, to induce Putin (or his successor) with his enervated forces and economy to negotiate a tolerable resolution, and to provide clear benefits for doing so. Among those benefits would be a return to global commerce, an end to sanctions, and—unlike the end of the Cold War—treatment as the global power that it is rather than the humiliation it felt in the 1990s. Instead of “no relationship at all,” Russia—with or without Putin—should be integrated as far as practicable into the European family not as a supplicant seeking the forbearance of its superiors. None of that requires restraint in supporting Ukraine now or restraint in responding to Russia’s barbaric aggression. It requires only that carrots, not just sticks, be available in the process and that the NATO allies keep in mind that the objective is a better status quo not a worse one.

Gerald F. (“Jerry”) Hyman has been a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies since 2007. He held several positions at USAID from 1990–2007, including director of its Office of Democracy and Governance from 2002–2007. He has published widely.

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