Ukraine could offer to suspend its NATO candidacy for some time, but only in return for Russia’s withdrawal from Donbas.
There is a still a diplomatic way out of the current crisis if Putin were in fact open to one. And it could be seen as win-win. Ukraine could offer to unilaterally suspend its candidacy for NATO membership for 15 years in return for — and following — Russia’s withdrawal from occupied Donbas in Eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine would be giving up little in reality since there is no consensus in NATO for Ukrainian membership for the foreseeable future — and there may never be. Putin would be able to claim that he had secured a concession on his key demand.
Russia’s security interests
Would Putin withdraw his support from his puppets in occupied Donbas? Quite possibly not, but it would be in Ukraine’s interest to challenge him by making the offer.
For two decades, Putin has been demanding that the West take Russian security interests into account. This desire to be paid attention to is – as much as Ukraine’s quest for NATO – is at the core of Putin’s motivations for the present military buildup.
A feasible off-ramp for Putin
Putin has achieved that goal: He now has everyone’s attention. But unless he is intent on war regardless, he needs an off-ramp.
The only one that will work must give him something on his demand on Ukraine’s NATO membership. Given NATO’s Open Door policy, that concession must come from Ukraine.
The U.S. administration and NATO partners have wisely pursued multiple diplomatic contacts with the Kremlin despite Putin’s threatening behavior.
The Administration and NATO have offered to expand such dialogue and engage in confidence building measures with Russia related to NATO exercises, missile deployments and arms control.
If Ukraine were to offer a significant-appearing concession on its NATO membership – albeit in return for a reintegration of occupied Donbas – it might be enough for Putin to declare that his build up has gotten Russia the notice it deserves and declare victory.
The OSCE, where Russia is a member, would provide diplomatic cover for a return of Donbas to Ukrainian control. The parties would agree for an OSCE force to take over security. After a reasonable interval, the OSCE would conduct elections under Ukrainian law for new regional leaders.
Putin as peace maker?
Russia would have to give up its demand for federal status for Donbas. But the OSCE and other interested parties can commit to monitoring and assuring full language and political rights for all residents.
Putin could declare himself a peace maker. He could also claim that Russian pressure resulted in more devolution of power to Ukraine’s regions and thus achieved more autonomy for Donbas.
Many have argued that Putin needs to keep occupied Donbas as a lever over Ukraine. If the current crisis has shown anything, however, it is that the Kremlin does not need to hold on to a piece of Donbas to pressure Ukraine. The pressure can be applied quite readily, as it is today, from Russian territory.
To lessen domestic Russian opposition to withdrawal from Donbas, Putin could trumpet that the West’s relative silence on the status of Crimea represents de-facto recognition of Russia’s annexation.
De-escalation as a win-win
Crimea is what really matters to Putin and to Russian public opinion, not Donbas. For their part, Ukraine and the West will have to leave the Crimea issue for a future time.
A lessening of tensions would allow the Nordstream 2 natural gas pipeline to become operational. Putin could claim victory on that. He would also avoid the severe sanctions and censure that would come from an attack on Ukraine and Russia’s complete isolation from Europe.
An off-ramp is not free. Putin will have to give up something – and that something is Donbas. In doing so, he can portray himself as a victor who obtained valuable concessions on his key demand and got the world to take Russia’s security concerns into account.
Putin’s propaganda machine can sell such a deal to a Russian public that is not keen on body bags coming back from Ukraine or for a bloody attack against what most Russians still see as a brother nation.