Playing With Fire in Ukraine
The Underappreciated Risks of Catastrophic Escalation
Vladimir Putin has the world on edge. The Russian president has deployed more than 100,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders and threatened “military-technical” measures if NATO continues to cooperate with Kyiv. He unilaterally drafted two extraordinarily aggressive treaties in December designed to constrain the organization and its members. They contain demands that are such nonstarters—most centrally, closing NATO’s open door to Ukraine and prohibiting organizational forces and weapons in nations that joined after May 1997—that they read more like predicates for war rather than sincere overtures for negotiations.
Nonetheless, U.S. President Joe Biden and NATO provided detailed written replies in January, attempting to start a dialogue with the Russian leader. If Putin spurns these offers, war is likely. But Moscow has not yet wholly rejected negotiations. Conquering Ukraine would be no cakewalk, and Putin understands that killing thousands of people from a nation he describes as “part of Russia” would be hard to explain to his citizens, especially if the Russian military also suffers major casualties. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said the United States’ response to the initial proposal contained “a kernel of rationality,” and Putin is still speaking and meeting with Western leaders, including Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
If Putin does agree to negotiate, then Biden and his team should not just offer defensively minimal concessions to freeze the crisis. Instead, in concert with allies and partners, Biden should seize the diplomatic offensive and counter with a comprehensive, grand bargain for enhancing European security. Call it “Helsinki 2.0.” This agreement could refresh and modernize the Helsinki Accords signed during the Cold War, which stabilized the continent even as U.S.-Soviet competition grew in other parts of the world. It could resuscitate and amend defunct arms control agreements and provide a bigger framework for European security, and in the process help solve the issues surrounding Ukraine.
Convening a major summit to renegotiate European security will give Russia an international platform that Putin does not deserve. But that symbolism shouldn’t stop Biden, NATO leaders, and other European democracies. The Helsinki Accords recognized the Soviet Union as a superpower, and that affirmation helped persuade Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to make concessions. Putin also likes attention, and the West should be prepared to offer cheap pageantry not only to prevent a new Russian invasion into Ukraine but also to repair Europe’s broken security architecture. The United States and Europe must have the courage to move beyond defensive patchwork fixes and instead pivot to bold, aggressive initiatives to make the continent safer.
On the surface, the 1970s were not an auspicious time for Soviet-U.S. compromise. Many observers believed the Kremlin’s power was rising and Washington’s was falling. Communists were taking power in parts of southeast Asia and southern Africa. Tension between the world’s main blocs was running high.
But in the middle of the decade, Canadian, Soviet, U.S., and European diplomats set aside their broad and fundamental disagreements to discuss an issue of shared concern: European security. After several years of negotiations, they produced and signed the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, which codified ambiguous issues left over from World War II. At the heart of the accords was a central compromise: Western states de facto recognized the borders that resulted from Soviet conquests after World War II, and in return, the Soviet Union agreed to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or beliefs, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion, and joined the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) tasked with implementing these obligations. The Soviet Union and the West also tacitly agreed to disagree on the precise definitions of government accountability, human rights, economic rights, and non-intervention in internal affairs . Ambiguity, they showed, is sometimes necessary for effective diplomacy.
In the first two decades after the accords were signed, Europe saw an explosion of new security agreements and treaties, particularly after Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. In 1987, he joined U.S. President Ronald Reagan to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, eliminating a whole class of highly destabilizing weapons. In 1990, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty came online, substantially reducing the size of conventional forces deployed on the continent. The 1990 Vienna Document, signed by Canada, the Soviet Union, the United States, and most of Europe and Central Asia, expanded transparency about weapons and military training exercises.
Putin has violated virtually every security agreement his predecessors signed.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia and the West continued to make deals that helped keep Europe secure. The 1992 Open Skies Treaty, which followed the Vienna Document, allowed signatories to fly reconnaissance missions through one another’s territories to collect information on military activities. The ambitious 1990 Charter of Paris trumpeted that all European signatories would “build, consolidate and strengthen democracy as the only system of government of our nations.” It declared prematurely that “the era of confrontation and division of Europe has ended.” The 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances for Ukraine sent Kyiv’s nuclear weapons to Russia in exchange for promises that Moscow, the United Kingdom, and the United States would respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act established mechanisms for the two parties to collaborate, marking a high point in cooperation.
But during the following decade, ties between the two sides deteriorated. Putin came to power in 2000, and he grew progressively more disappointed with the West as NATO further expanded in 2004; as Washington started a war in Iraq; and after the so-called color revolutions in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. The West, meanwhile, grew disenchanted with Moscow after Russia launched the second Chechen war; grew more autocratic; invaded Georgia and recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries in 2008; annexed Crimea in 2014; and then supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, leading to ongoing war and thousands of deaths.
European security agreements from the previous two decades began to break down. Russia stopped implementing the CFE Treaty in 2007. Putin then violated virtually every European and international security agreement his Kremlin predecessors signed. The United States stopped meeting its CFE obligations in 2011, and under former President Donald Trump, pulled out of the INF and Open Skies treaties, as well. The Vienna Documents today do little to enhance transparency, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)—the successor to the CSCE—has become feckless in large measure because Moscow objects to its efforts to monitor elections and protect human rights.
After decades of division, it will be difficult—and maybe impossible—for Russia and the West to strike any security deals on Europe. They have little faith in each other and plenty of reasons for suspicion. But given the stakes, the world must try. If Putin signals a commitment to negotiate, Biden and his European partners should go big. After all, Europe’s security architecture needs genuine repair and creative renewal.
They should start with steps toward revamping transparency, which will allow each country to keep tabs on the other’s activities and better predict each other’s actions. Right now, Russia, the United States, and Europe have less information about the deployment of rival soldiers and weapons than at any time since the end of the Cold War. A new grand bargain on European security could commit all signatories to more frequent monitoring of troop deployments, weapons deployments, and military exercises. The United States and Russia have learned how to successfully implement an obtrusive inspections regime from the New START Treaty, which limits the number of nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles each country can deploy. New START is one of the few U.S.-Russian deals that still operates, and a broader agreement could share the treaty’s obligations to short-notice inspections and close probing of weapon systems. Helsinki 2.0 could allow Russian inspectors to visit the sites of U.S. missile defenses in Poland and Romania, and NATO monitors could have similar access to Russia’s Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad.
Moscow and Washington could further bolster transparency by rejoining, amending, and modernizing previously effective agreements, such as the Open Skies Treaty and CFE. To avoid dangerous miscalculations, both states must also work to revive the Vienna Documents. That means Russia and every NATO country should offer specified notifications about training and impose new limits on the scale and locations of exercises, especially because exercise preparations can appear very similar to planning for an actual attack.
Diplomats should also dust off, modernize, and implement old ideas that never came to fruition. Russia and the United States failed to implement a 2000 memorandum of agreement on sharing data about missile launches, known as the Joint Data Exchange Center (JDEC), because of technicalities and mounting hostilities in U.S.-Russian relations. But an initiative of its kind between Moscow and NATO or among all OSCE members would enhance all of Europe’s security (including Russia’s) and could have better odds of succeeding.
Transparency, of course, is just one aspect of arms control. After Russia and the West agree to open their systems for inspections, diplomats will need to turn to the issue of control itself. They should begin by addressing the most destabilizing forces: the troops and weapons stationed on or near the Russian border. On a reciprocal and verifiable basis, all sides should pull these back, beginning with the massive Russian army mobilized around Ukraine today. They should also pull back their rockets. This may seem like a hard ask of Moscow, but Putin has already proposed that signatories not deploy land-based intermediate- and short-range missiles in areas where they can reach other signatories. Russian commentary has emphasized keeping all such weapons out of Ukraine. Their demand is reasonable as long as Moscow places similar restraints on short-range rockets that can hit Kyiv, Riga, Tallinn, Vilnius, or Warsaw.
Transparency is just one part of arms control.
The Biden Administration could also propose some limits on missile defenses in Europe. Washington could agree to refrain from deploying defense systems on the continent with capabilities against Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles in return for limits on Russian missile defenses in the European theater. This may sound like a big U.S. concession, but it’s not. The U.S. interceptors that are currently deployed (SM3s) have no capability against Russian strategic weapons. The smartest place for interceptors that can defend the U.S. homeland against Russian or North Korean weapons (the Ground-Based Interceptor, or GBI) is Alaska, which is where they are mostly already located.
To better safeguard the United States and Europe from quick, devastating attacks, negotiators also must try to reduce the overall number of missiles—especially nuclear missiles. Ideally, both Russia and the United States would rejoin and credibly implement the INF treaty. To do so, Russia would have to agree to include its 9M729 missile in the agreement. If a complete ban on intermediate-range ground-based ballistic and cruise missiles in Europe proves impossible, negotiators could at least prohibit these kinds of rockets from being armed with nuclear warheads. Although this would be difficult to verify, negotiators should also try to restrict or ban the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe (including Russian territory west of the Ural Mountains).
Diplomats also must attempt to reduce the amount of conventional weaponry on the continent, going beyond either the original or adapted CFE treaties. If new limits on conventional weapons prove impossible, negotiators could consider more modest regional limits, such as in the Baltic or Black Sea regions. They should try to place limits in Europe on cluster bombs and cyberweapons, which can target civilians and critical infrastructure.
Finally, Western diplomats must insist again that Putin obtain permission before placing troops in other countries, which would keep Russia in line with agreements signed by its previous leaders. Putin will dispute who the legitimate host nation is in Crimea, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. But he might be persuaded to relinquish Russian claims of consent in certain breakaway regions, such as Transnistria in Moldova and Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine, if in return, NATO allies could drop a demand from the CFE treaty that placed constraints on Russian troop movements between different regions—or “flanks”—of Russia. (Of course, this new provision would not mean greenlighting buildups on the borders of other countries.) Such a deal is unlikely, but Western diplomats must affirm the principle of host nation consent.
Throughout the current crisis, Moscow has argued that every state’s security is connected to the security of others. In interviews and meetings with his Western counterparts, Lavrov has repeatedly cited Istanbul and Astana OSCE declarations, which proclaimed that “the security of each participating State is inseparably linked to that of all others” and that “each participating State has an equal right to security.” As part of his draft treaties, Putin proposed that no signatory “strengthen their security individually, within international organizations, military alliances or coalitions at the expense of the security of other Parties.”
The Kremlin is correct that every state has an equal right to security. But Russia’s behavior belies Lavrov and Putin’s rhetoric. Moscow has taken many actions “at the expense of the security of other Parties,” including cyberattacks against Estonia in 2007; military interventions in Georgia and Ukraine; annexing Crimea; and supporting a separatist war in Donbas. Putin cites Russian security concerns as a reason to bar Ukraine from joining NATO, but NATO soldiers and operatives have never killed anyone in Russia. By contrast, Moscow’s troops and intelligence officers have carried out assassinations in Berlin, London, and Salisbury. They also attempted to kill one of the most famous European opposition leaders, Russia's own Alexei Navalny, in the Russian city of Tomsk.
A fixation on nonstarters—such as Putin’s demands for a NATO expansion moratorium, or the West’s insistence that Russia withdraw from Crimea—will make reaching a new security agreement impossible. But negotiators could make progress by focusing on other issues and then embedding intractable problems into a larger deal. Widening the aperture of the negotiations could create opportunities for deals that are currently not available. For instance, if Russia withdraws support for the so-called separatists in Donbas, then the United States could commit to not installing offensive missiles in Ukraine and not deploying missile defenses in Europe that can intercept Russian weapons. That kind of a trade is not available through the Normandy Format assigned to negotiate a Moscow-Kyiv peace settlement, which is limited to France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.
The Kremlin is correct that every state has an equal right to security.
Helsinki 2.0 must also include new provisions on individual security, human rights, and noninterference. Most obviously, signatories need to pledge not to assassinate other European citizens within or outside of their borders. The deal should also ban kidnapping; Belarus cannot down jets to arrest opposition figures. The signatories must all commit to improve their treatment of refugees. A new deal could also prohibit states from meddling in one another’s elections. That means Moscow would stop funding or supporting indirectly political parties and candidates in other countries. Biden could commit to doing the same, since the United States does not do so now.
Individual countries, however, should not have the right to unilaterally declare that other countries are threatening their security or meddling in their internal affairs. Russia cannot claim that a pro-European government in Ukraine is by itself a menace to Moscow, or that U.S. statements defending human rights in Russia are tactics of regime change against the Kremlin. To sort through the legitimacy of complaints, the architects of Helsinki 2.0 should try to create an independent arbitration tribunal that can adjudicate security claims, akin to the World Trade Organization’s mechanism for trade disputes. In today’s polarized environment, such a tribunal would not be effective. But it would create an institution that could establish precedents, build momentum, and perhaps find value in the future.
Diplomats will not be able to solve every issue bedeviling relations between Russia and the West in Helsinki 2.0, just as they purposely did not try to resolve all U.S.-Soviet or European problems in the original Helsinki Accords. The negotiators must be ready to agree to disagree. To make sure that unresolved disputes do not derail the broader agreement, diplomats could note them in nonbinding, unilateral side letters. Writing down disputes may seem counterintuitive, but these letters can signal a state’s future plans should major conditions outlined in the agreement change. They can also communicate principles to domestic constituencies that diplomats may need to win ratification. Side letters, for example, helped the United States and Russia agree on the New START Treaty in 2010. They gave Washington space to outline its objections to missile defense constraints and provided a way for Russia to spell out responses to U.S. missile defense expansions. In Helsinki 2.0, NATO and other European partners could make clear in a side letter that they refuse to recognize the annexation of Crimea or the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Russia could lay out its objections to NATO expansion.
To launch these ambitious negotiations, all OSCE leaders—Biden and Putin included—could meet in Helsinki this year. The countries would then station special envoys there dedicated to hashing out a new agreement. Their work could be complemented by negotiations at the OSCE headquarters in Vienna, the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels, and in bilateral U.S.-Russian channels. Diplomats could aim to complete their final product by 2025, the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act.
These negotiations will invite criticism, so participating governments must be ready to explain why the exercise is worthwhile. For Biden and some European leaders, it will not be easy. Launching comprehensive discussions with Russia over European security rewards Putin’s illegal, belligerent behavior. That is a fact. Some critics will dismiss such an initiative as appeasement. They will be echoing observers from the 1970s who charged that the West was forgetting about the Soviet Union’s illegitimate military interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, tacitly recognizing the Kremlin’s World War II annexations and neglecting the Soviet bloc’s totalitarian repression. Those complaints were valid then, just as today’s concerns are valid now.
But as U.S. policymakers must explain, the alternative is worse. In the absence of a new security deal, Putin will continue to stoke divisions, tensions, and conflicts both between and within countries in Europe and North America—even if he does not launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. That doesn’t mean Washington needs to compromise on core normative and security principles or offer unilateral concessions. In fact, it absolutely shouldn’t—every paragraph of the agreement must be based on reciprocity and mutual interests. And by offering to negotiate a new grand deal, Biden would gain the moral high ground and make Putin’s invasion of Ukraine look even more irrational and immoral.
The negotiations could also succeed even if they fail to yield a major agreement. Putin may hold off on invading Ukraine while diplomats confer, if only to see what he can get out of a deal. This delay may not comprehensively solve the issues surrounding Ukraine or Europe as a whole, but with thousands of lives at stake, kicking the can down the road would still be a tremendous service. Three years of peace is, after all, far better than three years of war.
Talk With Putin, but Keep Him Guessing