Addressing the real source of the U.S.-Russia rivalry

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit at Lough Erne in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland June 17, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque (NORTHERN IRELAND - Tags: POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX10R8R

Donald Trump has indicated a clear interest in improving the U.S. relationship with Russia, as has his designate for secretary of state. Despite President Vladimir Putin’s misadventures and provocations from Georgia to Syria to Ukraine to the U.S. elections, this is not an unworthy ambition, if pursued with open eyes.

However, beyond a healthy dose of skepticism about Putin and his intentions, Trump and his team will need one more ingredient if their relationship with the Russian strongman is not to deteriorate the same way it did for George W. Bush and Barack Obama—both of whom also began their presidencies with high hopes for improving ties with the Kremlin. It is time that Western nations conceptualize, and seek to negotiate, a new security architecture for those countries in central Europe that are not now part of NATO that would guarantee their safety without bringing them into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Today we have what is, in effect, the worst of all worlds. The countries that Putin most wants to influence are not in NATO and not covered by any formal U.S. security guarantees—yet Putin worries that they may be someday. Hence the incentive is high to make mischief now.

A new security architecture for Central Europe needs to be based on several foundational concepts. The first, as a matter of moral principle and strategic necessity, is that all countries, big or small, east or west, are fully sovereign and have inherent rights to choose their own form of government, political leadership, diplomatic relations, and economic associations. This is as true for Ukraine and Georgia, and other countries of Central Europe, as for America’s traditional core allies or any other nation. This principle is inherent to the U.N. Charter. It is also central in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, with its emphasis on self-determination and full political sovereignty as well as territorial security, which was signed by virtually all European countries including the Soviet Union.

Even if it were deemed normatively acceptable that great powers have spheres of interest, there is no natural way to define these that would or could be stable. Once the pursuit of such spheres is condoned, history and logic suggest that great powers will define them in increasingly ambitious and expansive terms—ultimately producing conflict.

Some Russians, including President Putin, have whipped themselves up into an unjustified anger over perceived slights by NATO nations. But it is not only Putin and the older Russian Cold Warriors who feel put out. Many Russians feel that NATO did not win the Cold War. Rather, a new generation of leaders of their own country had the wisdom to end it. They were then rewarded for their good sense, not only by a reaffirmation of the organization that had been their nation’s adversary, but by a major expansion of that very alliance.

Thus, Russia’s reactions, and Putin’s in particular, have been understandable in one sense. They were also predictable, and predicted. But they have not been justifiable. It is important to make a proposal for a new security architecture with the willingness and ability to walk away, should Moscow begin to engage in negotiations and then escalate its demands—perhaps proposing that some new NATO members be removed from the alliance, or that the alliance itself be somehow recast or neutered.

[A]lliance enlargement has gone far enough.

Yet alliance enlargement has gone far enough. NATO should not expand further into Central Europe. NATO and the United States should work with the neutral states of the region and Russia to develop a permanent alternative security architecture for those countries that would guarantee their sovereignty and security without NATO membership. It should also ensure a full range of options for their diplomatic and economic activities and other associations; they should not be part of the sphere of influence of Russia or any other country or group.

The new security architecture would demand that Russia commit to help uphold and guarantee the security of Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and other states in the region. They would also be promised their complete freedom to associate economically and diplomatically with whomever they chose. They would also be allowed to participate in multilateral security operations on a scale comparable to what has been the case in the past.

This proposal for a new security architecture will strike some in the West as distasteful. It would allow Vladimir Putin—who has squelched Russian political and civil society and provoked unnecessary conflicts near his own borders—to claim that he was the Russian leader who had stopped NATO in its tracks, preventing any further expansion. But allowing Putin to claim some degree of vindication is a far less injurious outcome than running an unnecessarily heightened risk of war—or, at a minimum, perpetuating a period of poor relations between Russia and the West that impedes cooperative action against other problems of mutual concern like Iran’s or North Korea’s nuclear programs, or instability throughout much of the broader Middle East.