Joe Biden says Russia is likely to invade Ukraine whereas Vladimir Putin says he is not planning to do so but will not rule it out if Ukraine joins NATO. Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky keeps pressing Biden for membership, including during his visit to the White House last September. Three months earlier the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told senators that “we support Ukraine membership in NATO.”
Putin’s concern with Ukraine is the same as John F. Kennedy’s was with Cuba in 1962 – to stop a neighbouring country joining a hostile military pact. Putin says he wants NATO out of the whole of Eastern Europe, but his base demand applies to Ukraine which with Belarus (a Russian ally) flanks most of Russia’s border with continental Europe.
Invading all Eastern Europe is farfetched since it would cruel Russia’s economy, which is smaller than Italy’s yet supports a much bigger population.
In 1962 the US threatened WWIII if Cuba joined the Warsaw Pact and accepted Russian missiles, air force and naval support to defend itself from an American-backed attack such as the Bay of Pigs invasion the year before. Khrushchev acceded to Kennedy’s demand that Russian rockets stay out of Cuba in return for the US withdrawing its missiles from Turkey. War was averted.
The Ukraine is the second biggest country by area in Europe (see map below). It and Belarus act as a bulwark between Russia and Europe, five of whose members (Lithuania, Poland, Sweden, France and Germany) invaded Russia in the past 650 years. In the Second World War the Soviet Union lost an estimated 16,825,000 people, more than 15 per cent of its population. When I visited in 1973 the paranoia about external security was evident since people grieved family deaths from the war.
Russia is sensitive about the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania belonging to NATO since they border it and have large Russian minorities that complain of discrimination. The hostility towards ethnic Russians in Eastern Europe is because they were overlords during the Soviet era. However, Russia feels an obligation to protect its kin including the 9 million concentrated in East Ukraine (the largest single Russian diaspora in the world).
The only lasting, peaceful, and low-cost solution to this standoff is for Ukraine to declare it will not join NATO and for NATO to say it will not accept it as a member but might intervene were it invaded.
Also, that the Minsk Agreement of 2015 (to which Ukraine is a signatory) be implemented, so that the breakaway Russian-speaking provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk come back as self-governing provinces (akin to French-speaking Quebec in Canada). There are 121 autonomous regions in 40 countries, so regional autonomy within a nation state is not unusual.
As for Crimea, that is a lost cause. It was part of Russia until Khrushchev “gifted” it to Ukraine in 1954. It has been the main base of the Russian Black Sea Fleet since 1783. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 Crimea became an “Autonomous Republic” within independent Ukraine until Russia annexed it in 2014. A survey in 2013 found 82 per cent of respondents spoke Russian, 10 per cent Crimean Tatar, 3 per cent Russian and Ukrainian equally, 3 per cent Russian and another language equally, and just 2 per cent Ukrainian. Crimea voted strongly for the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions in presidential and parliamentary elections before he fled during the 2014 uprising.
In any settlement, Russia should accept the right of Ukraine to be admitted to the EU just as Ukraine should accept that Crimea is now part of Russia. Ukraine would then have the same status as Finland, Sweden, Austria, Ireland, Malta and Cyprus, each of whom are members of the EU but not NATO. Finland has coexisted alongside Russia while being part of Europe and profiting from both relationships (especially during the Cold War when it brokered East-West trade).
Claims that Russia fears cultural invasion from a Westernised Ukraine are fanciful since Moscow and St Petersburg, where the political and business elites live, already indulge such a lifestyle. In any case if Russia wants to exclude future interaction with Ukraine it could reinforce its border as other nations do.
If Ukraine’s NATO membership remains an open option it risks being invaded, precipitating a devastating war for itself, Europe, and Russia. That could enable China to invade Taiwan because the US would be torn between two conflicts. In those circumstances it is doubtful that America could win either battle, though Russia would be bogged down by an insurgency within Ukraine. It would be no big deal for NATO to give an assurance that Ukraine won’t join it since France and Germany have opposed inclusion to date and other European members are wary too.
Hopefully, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz will broker a peace deal between Putin and Biden which leaves Russia without the fear of NATO missiles, tanks, and troops on its western border just as America was spared the threat of Russia’s missiles, fighter jets and warships in the Caribbean 60 years ago. In 1972 Cuba was admitted to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (the Soviet equivalent of the EU), but never became a member of the Warsaw Pact.
When the Soviet Union agreed to break-up it was on American and German assurances to the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, that NATO would never expand into Eastern Europe (“not one inch eastward” was US Secretary of State James Baker’s pledge). But thereafter NATO did exactly that. For NATO to complete its eastern expansion to Ukraine would cross a red line for Russia, just as Russia’s military move into Cuba was the last straw for America in 1962.