Writing on this blog—in “Why a new Cold War can be avoided”—Jeremy Shapiro and Samuel Charap pose a stark choice between a new Cold War and Washington negotiating with Moscow on a settlement for Ukraine. They make an interesting case. But they overstate the risk of a Cold War, appear ready to negotiate over the head of a smaller state, and do not define how much they would negotiate away.

Such an approach could well make things worse. Let’s take these points in order.

Then and now

First, the Cold War was a scary time. The United States and NATO faced off against the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact in a political, military, economic, and ideological confrontation. At several points, crises or mistakes (mechanical and human) could have ignited a horrific conflagration. With some luck, we got through it. But consider where we are today in contrast to the Cold War:

  • While relations between Washington and Moscow are frosty, they cooperate on strategic arms reductions, Iran, and Afghanistan in a way that would not have been conceivable in the 1960s, 1970s, or early 1980s.
  • The military face-off is very different. The United States and Russia have dramatically cut their nuclear arsenals. NATO now has the advantage in conventional forces—in part because all of the Soviet Union’s Warsaw Pact “allies” have joined the alliance. And Russia struggles to man its armed forces at a number one-quarter of what the Soviet Union had.
  • Regarding economic competition, there is none. The combined economies of the United States and Europe come to more than 15 times the size of Russia’s.
  • As for the ideological aspect, it’s game over. The Soviet Union tried to offer the world communism as an antithesis to capitalism. Russia offers a corrupt authoritarian model that only appeals to aspiring corrupt authoritarians.

We should not fear negotiating with the Russians, but we also should not cite a Cold War strawman to frighten ourselves into a negotiation or unwise concessions.

Breaking rank

Second, perhaps I misunderstood their article, but Jeremy and Sam seem to argue for a U.S.-Russian negotiation over Ukraine’s head. Elsewhere they have argued for a negotiation on a new European security order. Either way, Washington and Moscow cannot negotiate over the heads of Ukraine or other Europeans—those countries need to be subjects, not just objects, of the negotiation.

Otherwise, we risk an unhappy lot who could frustrate implementation of any arrangement. Yalta remains a part of Europe’s historical memory: A large power negotiation over the fate of a smaller country (or countries) would leave many allies, particularly in the Baltics and Central Europe, nervous about American leadership.

How much compromise is too much?

Third, while acknowledging that a negotiated settlement—either on Ukraine or the broader European security order—is unlikely, Jeremy and Sam do not explain how far they would go to secure it. Russia broke the cardinal rule of the Helsinki Final Act by using force to change borders. It has grossly violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity and seeks to erode its sovereignty and independence.

We should not fear negotiating with the Russians, but we also should not cite a Cold War strawman to frighten ourselves into a negotiation or unwise concessions.

That poses a problem for the United States, which in 1994 joined with Britain and Russia in committing to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence in the Budapest Memorandum. That memorandum played a key role in persuading Kiev to give up what was then the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal.

Ukraine will have to compromise to get a settlement, but how much? Fifteen months ago, President Petro Poroshenko was prepared to devolve some political authority to Donetsk and Luhansk, provide status for the Russian language, defer Crimea for later discussion, and put off the issue of Ukraine’s relationship with NATO well into the future. Moscow did not engage. What more would Kiev have to give to secure Russia’s withdrawal from the Donbas and a restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over Donetsk and Luhansk?

Pushing Kiev too far on this would run a risk. What if the outcome of Jeremy and Sam’s negotiation emboldened the Kremlin to try similar hybrid warfare tactics elsewhere—say, against Estonia or Latvia, NATO allies to whom the United States has given a security guarantee? That would raise the specter of something far worse than a Cold War—a hot one.