The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists just released its 2023 Doomsday Clock statement, calling it an “unprecedented and dangerous time.” It has advanced the clock hands to 90 seconds to midnight, meaning the world is closer than ever to a global catastrophe, largely because the conflict in Ukraine has seriously increased the risk of nuclear war. The scientific assessment should wake world leaders to the urgency of bringing all parties to the Ukraine war to the negotiating table.
So far, the debate on peaceful negotiations to resolve the conflict has largely revolved around what Ukraine and Russia should be prepared to bring to the negotiating table to end the war and restore peace. However, given that this war is not just between Russia and Ukraine, but is part of a “new cold war” between Russia and the United States, it is not just Russia and Ukraine that must consider what they can come up with to end it. The U.S. must also consider what steps it can take to resolve potential conflicts with Russia that led to this war in the first place.
U.S. reneges on promise not to expand NATO
The geopolitical crisis that laid the groundwork for the Ukraine war began when NATO reneged on a pledge not to expand into Eastern Europe, and was exacerbated by the 2008 announcement that Ukraine would eventually join the largely anti-Russian military alliance.
Then, in 2014, a U.S.-backed coup against Ukraine’s democratically elected government led to Ukraine’s disintegration. Only 51 percent of Ukrainians surveyed told the Gallup poll that they recognized the legitimacy of the post-coup government, with majorities in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk provinces voting to secede from Ukraine. Crimea rejoined Russia and the new Ukrainian government launched a civil war against the self-proclaimed “People’s Republic” of Donetsk and Lugansk.
The civil war killed an estimated 14,000 people, but the 2015 Minsk II agreement established a ceasefire and buffer zone along the Line of Control with 1,300 OSCE ceasefire monitors and staff. The ceasefire line has basically been maintained for seven years, and the number of casualties has dropped significantly year by year. But the Ukrainian government never resolved the potential political crisis by granting Donetsk and Luhansk the autonomous status promised in the Minsk II agreement.
Now former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande admit that Western leaders agreed to the Minsk II agreement only to buy time so they could build up Ukraine’s armed forces and eventually retake Donetsk and Lugan by force sk.
In March 2022, a month after the Russian invasion, ceasefire talks were held in Turkey. Russia and Ukraine drafted a 15-point “neutrality agreement,” which President Zelensky publicly introduced and explained to his people on March 27 on national television. Russia agreed to withdraw from territory it had seized since its February invasion in exchange for Ukraine’s pledge not to join NATO or host foreign military bases. The framework also includes proposals to address the future of Crimea and Donbass.
But in April, Ukraine’s Western allies, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, refused to support the neutrality agreement and persuaded Ukraine to abandon negotiations with Russia. U.S. and British officials said at the time they saw an opportunity to “squeeze” and “weaken” Russia, and they wanted to make the most of it.
The U.S. and U.K. governments had the unfortunate decision to sabotage the Ukrainian neutrality agreement in the second month of the war, leading to a protracted and destructive conflict that resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties. As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently warned, neither side can defeat the other decisively, and each new escalation increases the danger of a “massive war between NATO and Russia”.
Peace Negotiations, Not More Wars
US and NATO leaders now claim support for returning to the negotiating table they overturned in April with the same goal of achieving a Russian withdrawal from territory it has occupied since February. They implicitly acknowledged that nine months of needlessly bloody war had failed to significantly improve Ukraine’s negotiating position.
Western leaders not only have to send more weapons to fuel a war that cannot be won on the battlefield, but also have a huge responsibility to help restart negotiations and ensure that this negotiation is successful. Another diplomatic failure like the one they orchestrated in April would be disastrous for Ukraine and the world.
So what can the United States offer to help bring peace to Ukraine and defuse its disastrous Cold War with Russia?
Like the original Cuban Missile Crisis during the Cold War, this crisis could be the catalyst for a serious diplomatic solution to the breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations. Rather than risking nuclear annihilation to “weaken” Russia, the United States could use the crisis to usher in a new era of nuclear arms control, disarmament treaties, and diplomatic engagement.
For years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has complained about the large U.S. military footprint in Eastern and Central Europe. But the US has actually stepped up its military presence in Europe following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has increased the total number of U.S. troops deployed in Europe to about 100,000 from 80,000 before February 2022. It sent warships to Spain, fighter squadrons to Britain, troops to Romania and the Baltic states, and air defense systems to Germany and Italy.
Even before the Russian invasion, the United States began expanding its presence at the Romanian missile base, which Russia has opposed since it became operational in 2016.The U.S. military also built New York Times Described in Poland as a “highly sensitive U.S. military facility,” it’s just 100 miles from Russian territory. Bases in Poland and Romania have advanced radars to track enemy missiles and intercept missiles to shoot them down.
The Russians feared that the facilities could be repurposed to launch offensive missiles or even nuclear missiles, which were prohibited by the 1972 anti-missile treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union until President Bush withdrew from the treaty in 2002.
While the Pentagon described the two bases as defensive and pretended they were not aimed at Russia, Putin insisted they were evidence of the threat posed by NATO’s eastward expansion.
Here are five steps the United States could consider proposing to begin to defuse these escalating tensions and increase the chances of a durable ceasefire and peace agreement in Ukraine:
- The U.S. and other Western countries could support Ukraine’s neutrality by agreeing to participate in the kind of security guarantee Ukraine and Russia agreed to in March but rejected by the U.S. and Britain.
- As part of a comprehensive peace deal, the U.S. and its NATO allies could let Russia know early in the negotiations that they were ready to lift sanctions against Russia.
- The US could agree to slash the 100,000 troops it currently has in Europe, withdraw its missiles from Romania and Poland, and hand over those bases to their respective countries.
- The U.S. could commit to cooperating with Russia on resuming an agreement to reduce mutual nuclear arsenals and suspend both countries’ current programs to build more dangerous weapons. They could also restore the Open Skies Treaty, which the U.S. withdrew in 2020, so that each side can verify that the other is removing and dismantling the weapons they agreed to eliminate.
- The United States could start discussions about removing its nuclear weapons from the five European countries that currently deploy them (Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Turkey).
If the United States is willing to put these policy changes on the table for negotiations with Russia, it will help Russia and Ukraine reach a mutually acceptable ceasefire agreement and help ensure peaceful, stable and lasting negotiations between the two sides.
De-escalation of the cold war with Russia would allow Russia to demonstrate tangible interests to its citizens as it retreats from Ukraine. It will also allow the US to reduce its military spending and allow European countries to take charge of their own security as most would like.
U.S.-Russia negotiations will not be smooth sailing, but a real commitment to resolving differences will create a new environment in which each step can be taken with greater confidence as the peace process builds its momentum.
Most of the world would be relieved to see progress towards ending the war in Ukraine, and to see the United States and Russia working together to reduce the existential dangers of their militarism and hostility. That should lead to greater international cooperation on other serious crises facing the world this century — and maybe even start turning the hands of the doomsday clock by making the world a safer place for all of us.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Fair Observer.