I do not want to unduly extend my debate with Jeremy Shapiro and Sam Charap about the trade-off between avoiding a new Cold War and negotiating with Russia over Ukraine. Their most recent blog post, however, misses two key points.

Paying dues

First, the Budapest Memorandum—in which Russia, Britain, and the United States committed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity and not to use force against Ukraine—regards security assurances, not security guarantees. A security guarantee embodies an obligation on par with what NATO allies have: a commitment to use U.S. military force in their defense. Neither the George W. Bush nor Clinton administrations were prepared to extend that kind of commitment to Ukraine.

So Jeremy and Sam are correct that the Budapest Memorandum imposes no obligation on the United States to send the 82nd Airborne to fight for Donetsk. But they suggest, in their desire to avoid a new Cold War, that the United States owes Ukraine nothing.

That was not what U.S. officials communicated to Ukrainian officials in 1994. The purpose of drawing the distinction between a security assurance and a security guarantee was to ensure that Kiev understood that an American response to a Russian violation would have an upper bound, not that there would be no response. Financial help to promote reform and military assistance for Ukraine certainly fall well within that bound.

One should recall that Washington was prepared to extend Kiev a security assurance because it was key to achieving something about which the U.S. government cared greatly: the elimination of nearly 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads in Ukraine that were capable of striking the United States. 

And this is not just about Ukraine. The Kremlin’s gross violation of the Budapest Memorandum unfortunately has discredited security assurances as a tool in future nuclear non-proliferation efforts. Jeremy and Sam’s approach would discredit that tool further. 

A compromise that has no bounds?

Second, I did not mean to suggest that the United States should not negotiate with Russia. But the United States should not negotiate with Russia the status of Ukraine over the heads of the Ukrainians. Nor should the United States negotiate with Russia out of an inordinate fear of a Cold War strawman.

Ukraine needs a negotiated settlement that Russia accepts if it is to enjoy peace and normalcy. Moscow has too many levers to pull to destabilize Kiev if it wishes. Kiev may have to compromise some of its sovereignty to achieve a settlement. 

But what I find troubling in Jeremy and Sam’s blog posts (and other articles that they have written on this question) is how far they seem prepared to go in compromising Ukraine’s sovereignty in search of a settlement. They do not set or imply any bound.

NATO is a touchy issue with Russia, no doubt. But it has been clear for at least the past five years that NATO has no enthusiasm for putting Ukraine on a membership track. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko suggested in summer 2014 that he was prepared to kick the NATO issue well down the road. The Russians never engaged him on that.

[D]o we ask Kiev to give up trying to become a successful state based on European values?

Russia’s seizure of Crimea in February 2014 was triggered by the appointment of an interim leadership in Kiev that set signing an association agreement with the European Union as its primary foreign policy goal. The association agreement, by the way, excludes an EU membership prospective for Ukraine. Do we now ask Ukraine to give up the association agreement?

And what if that does not satisfy the Kremlin? A number of analysts believe that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is motivated in major part by fear in the Kremlin that, if Kiev succeeds in building a normal, European, democratic, market economy—a big if to be sure—that country could become a model that Russians might envy and even wish to emulate. So do we ask Kiev to give up trying to become a successful state based on European values?

A negotiated settlement of the Ukraine crisis is ultimately necessary. But Jeremy and Sam’s writings lack any apparent bottom line in what they would ask of Kiev in order to secure that settlement or to achieve a new security order with Russia. That kind of negotiation would be bad news for Ukraine. It would also set a dangerous precedent. Were the United States and the West to show readiness to compromise so much on Ukrainian sovereignty, why would Moscow not conclude that such compromises would be possible elsewhere…and began advancing demands on, say, Estonia or Latvia?