We have seen intense diplomatic activity during the past week about the fate of Ukraine, a large European country bordering on Russia and four members of the West’s security alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). As the current round of talks conclude, the issues remain dead serious, the stakes high and the choice of war or peace far from settled.
Senior diplomats held crisis talks in Geneva, Brussels and Vienna because Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, moved more than 100,000 troops to Ukraine’s border to underline his demands. Those demands are complicated, but in effect, he wants NATO to guarantee that it will not expand further, particularly into Ukraine.
The United States and its allies say that’s a non-starter, that Ukraine, like every other independent country, must be free to decide what is in its national interest, including security arrangements. NATO, for its part, is committed to offering membership to interested parties that meet its qualifications.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, NATO has taken in 14 new members, starting with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999, the 50th anniversary of the founding of the alliance. Most of the new members were formerly part of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact or of the Soviet Union itself before it collapsed in 1991.
As a foreign service officer assigned to our embassies in Romania and Poland in the ’90s, I worked on the NATO expansion issue; it was seen as the answer to the security vacuum created in the region as countries broke free from a relationship with Moscow that had been forced on them a half century earlier by the Russian Army and ratified by the Yalta agreement most East Europeans saw as a Western sellout.
Putin says that insisting NATO stay out of his neighbor Ukraine is no more than what the United States did during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 when we risked nuclear war to get Soviet missiles removed from our doorstep in Cuba. Putin is here indulging in a blatant bit of false equivalency, since NATO is not about to install offensive nuclear weapons in Ukraine, as Moscow was doing in Cuba in 1962.
Ukrainians and most other residents of Eastern and Central Europe would regard capitulating to Putin now as another Yalta, as allowing Russia’s security concerns to outweigh yet again those of other countries. They feel threatened by his quest to return to the glory days of the Russian empire — at their expense.
These issues were thrust front and center in 2014 when Russia occupied Crimea, a part of Ukraine, and eventually annexed the territory following a sham election. Russia also sent irregular forces into sections of eastern Ukraine where a substantial portion of the country is ethnically Russian. More than 13,000 people have died in the resulting armed conflict between separatists and the legitimate government.
How far the United States and its NATO allies should go in arming Ukraine to defend itself against Russia’s proxy attacks remains a contentious matter in Western capitals and Kiev. The United States sent about $450 million in military assistance in 2021 and some $2.5 billion since 2014. Critics say that’s not nearly enough, while others contend Ukraine cannot conceivably defeat Russia militarily, so a diplomatic settlement is the only viable choice.
No one can be sure exactly what Putin wants in Ukraine or whether he’ll invade the country if he doesn’t get it. President Biden says the United States would respond strongly to an invasion with severe economic and other sanctions as well as more aid to Ukraine. He has, however, ruled out dispatching American combat forces.
As diplomats grapple with these thorny questions, the United States is hampered by the lack of an ambassador on the ground in Kiev. We have not had a Senate-approved envoy there since Marie Yovanovitch was yanked by President Trump at the urging of Rudy Giuliani in May 2019. The career officer temporarily in charge may well be outstanding, but I know from personal experience, having occasionally served as a charge d’affaires myself, that leaders feel slighted and uneasy when Washington doesn’t have accredited ambassadors in their capital.
The pivotal decisions in this crisis will be made at a higher pay grade — by the president and secretary of state — but a resident ambassador can help assess the state of mind of Ukrainian leaders and their constituents. That person will also be needed to help persuade Ukrainians to sign on to any peace deal. President Biden has clearly had a crowded agenda, but he should have long since designated a special envoy to Kiev, bypassing the formal Senate approval process because of the urgency of the situation.
The days and weeks ahead will test the skill of the West’s diplomats as well as the determination of its leaders to defeat Putin’s aggressive campaign to dictate Ukraine’s future and impose his will on Russia’s neighbors. Appeasement would only delay a reckoning.
Dick Virden, Plymouth, is a retired senior foreign service officer. His diplomatic assignments included three tours of duty in Eastern Europe.