Toward a European Buffer Zone

Mike Sweeney
Jan 16, 2019 · 22 min read
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Source: NASA via DVIDS

One of the nice things about not having much of a reputation is you can’t ruin it by proposing something crazy. And I freely admit that there are aspects of what I’m about to propose that ordinarily would constitute very bad ideas. But relations between Russia and the West have veered into unnecessarily dangerous territory. Current debates about basing US armored forces in Poland highlight the creeping confrontation between the two powers. Such moves would contribute to an environment in which small missteps can quickly become minor crises which, in turn, can become major conflicts and full-blown war. The intensity of the initial reaction to the relatively minor Sea of Azov incident highlights how skewed perspectives and reactions have become.

Yet there remains no concrete reason for the United States and Russia to fight. The ideological underpinnings of the Cold War — specifically the Soviet belief that capitalism (and thus, well, us) couldn’t exist in the same world as communism — are long since gone. The Russia of today is simply an illiberal power. Distasteful? Yes. Militarily capable at the regional level? Probably. Led by a competent geopolitical strategist? True, but let’s not get carried away: it can be argued that Putin has been more lucky than good (and has had no small share of screw-ups to go with his successes.) In short, Russia is a regional, possibly global, rival, but it doesn’t have to be an existential threat, which it could become if tensions (and force deployments) in Central and Eastern Europe continue to escalate.

What follows is a proposal for a European buffer zone that would prohibit any activity by US and Russian forces — from permanent basing to joint exercises — on the territory of Belarus, Poland, or Ukraine. There are additional stipulations, concessions, and inducements spelled out, but that is the proposal’s main objective. Creating space — physically between US and Russian forces and temporally for Belarus and Ukraine to develop as independent states — is the overarching goal.

Drawing Lines Works

I start from the premise that drawing lines is useful for stability. I’m an unrepentant believer that NATO expansion has, on balance, contributed to European security far more than it has hurt. It permanently settled “the Polish question,” which provided grist for a good century-and-a-half’s worth of wars. It has protected the tiny Baltic states, stabilizing their relationships with Moscow, even as tensions remain. Coupled with good governance on the part of Riga and Tallinn, the Russophone minorities in Latvia and Estonia have not been the flashpoints once feared. It has even allowed the awkward and potentially dangerous process of regular Russian military movement across Lithuanian territory to Kaliningrad to become, if not blasé, than routine. NATO expansion has provided an umbrella of certainty and clarity in these regions that has thwarted conflict and helped keep the peace.

The problem was not what NATO expansion did, but what it did not. There always was an ad hoc nature to the pace and scope of enlargement that created ambiguity even as it established boundaries and set down markers between NATO and Russia. This process left an uncertain zone of influence in the former Soviet space and open questions about which round of expansion would be the last for the Alliance. NATO long ago should’ve made it explicitly clear that it had no desires on Ukraine, a move that was always going to be too much for Russia to accept and which also would’ve raised unsolvable questions about how NATO would defend Ukraine without the equally unacceptable act of basing forces on its territory.

I’m kinder than most in assessing George W. Bush’s foreign policy, but his support for Ukrainian membership in NATO at the Bucharest Summit was an unabashed mistake. But it’s not too late to correct that error as part of broader bargain designed to decrease military deployments across a large swath of Central and Eastern Europe, turning the region into a “no go zone” for both Russian and US military forces.

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U.S. Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division move to secure an airfield during Saber Strike 18 at Adazi Training Area, Latvia, June 11, 2018. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Zachery Perkins via DVIDS

Return of the Grand Bargain

What I propose is an old-fashioned grand bargain between the United States and Russia that would do the following: we would pledge under a binding treaty that both Belarus and Ukraine will never be offered NATO membership. In the same document, Russia would formally accept the prospect of membership in the European Union for Belarus and Ukraine, if they are ever able to meet the necessary criteria. The United States would also recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Russia would pledge itself to ending the conflicts in Transnistria and the Donbass by a specified timeline. Both the United States and Russia would forsake any permanent bases on the territory of Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine. Additionally, they would agree not to deploy any forces on those territories temporarily, even if the host government wishes them to.

Russia would receive a dispensation for its strategic facilities in Belarus at Gantsavichi and Vileyka; the United States would receive special transit rights through Poland to Lithuania. The latter would require something like 30-day prior notification to Moscow of planned US troop movements, with 72-hour window for the actual transit to take place. It would not be dissimilar to the conditions Russia would retain for moving troops through Lithuania to Kaliningrad. The treaty’s final provision is that the United States would dismantle the Aegis Ashore facility currently being constructed near Redzikowo in Poland and withdraw any personnel integrated into Polish units.

Each side gives and receives significant concessions. For example, acknowledging Russia’s annexation of Crimea is a serious step, but so is Moscow accepting possible EU membership for Belarus and Ukraine. There is much in the proposed treaty that is painful and useful to each side. I don’t claim that this proposal is unassailable or airtight. I’m genuinely troubled by the possible precedent that recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea might set in China’s mind regarding Taiwan. The absence of hard security guarantees for Belarus and Ukraine in the event Russia doesn’t adhere to its end of the bargain is also a glaring weakness.

But the fact is such guarantees don’t exist now and likely never will. If Russia rolled tanks from Rostov to Odessa tomorrow morning, is NATO counter-attacking anyone? I don’t think so. Ukraine’s and Belarus’ independence is always going to be tenuous. It will have less to do with anything external powers can offer than with the limitations on Russia’s ability (and desire) to absorb territories where it may not be as welcome as in Crimea.

However, the proposed treaty would do several things that would at least modestly improve the security situation for Belarus and Ukraine. It would signal unambiguously to Russia that NATO has no designs on either territory and thus no need for preemptive Russian annexation or occupation. The prospect of EU membership could allow them to develop not only higher standards of living but also a modicum of economic independence from Moscow. Third, in the case of Ukraine it could end the draining and cruel conflicts that continue to fester in the Donbass and on its western border with Moldova. Finally, it could give each state time to further develop better governing structures and to reduce corruption. Neither of those two tasks will be easy — especially in Belarus where Lukashenko remains the last Stalinist — but it is precisely in developing a qualitatively better state that both Ukraine and Belarus can most effectively inoculate themselves against meddling and intimidation by their powerful neighbor.

At the same time, a European buffer zone would provide valuable breathing room between the bulk of US and Russian land forces. Yes, they still will abut in the Baltics and Kaliningrad will remain troublesome. Air-to-air run-ins will likely remain a concern. But the symbolic act of literally taking a step back — and of avoiding potentially provocative exercises like Saber Strike 18 and Zapad 17 — could have a carryover effect onto broader relations between Moscow and the West, particularly with the removal of the massive stumbling block that is Crimea. The elusive “reset” successive administrations have sought is unlikely to come about, but there could be a welcome decrease in tensions and a return to what might awkwardly be described as “normal animosity.”

I still believe that space — temporally and physically — is a more effective “weapon” in the long-term development of European security than basing American tanks in Poland or selling ever more lethal weaponry to Ukraine. The ultimate goal should be to avoid a war with Russia, not to win one that would be devastating for all sides.

The “A” Word

Having set forth my proposal and its possible benefits, let me try to anticipate some of the reader’s many and understandable concerns. Let’s start with the most obvious and objectionable: that recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea constitutes appeasement. For eighty years, the notion of legitimizing territorial gains obtained through force has been anathema. Could something as brazen as the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014 ever be recognized by the United States?

Let’s deal with the realities on the ground. Is Ukraine going to take Crimea back? Is NATO going to help in this endeavor? The answer to both questions is certainly no. Ukraine doesn’t have the means and NATO doesn’t have the will. In contrast, Russia has both in abundance when it comes to holding onto the peninsula. The situation is not going to reverse itself. With each year that passes there will likely be a de facto acceptance of Russian control from the rest of the world. Wouldn’t it be better to exact a steep price for outright recognition, like Moscow acquiescing to the possibility of EU membership for Ukraine and Belarus? Or to force Russia to use its influence to end the conflicts in Transnistria and the Donbass?

But isn’t it still appeasement? That depends on what happens next. The ultimate measure of the Munich Pact’s failure was that it emboldened Hitler rather than satiated him. Would formally accepting Crimean annexation have a similar effect on Putin? My inclination is that it would not. I subscribe to the belief that Putin’s moves against Ukraine in 2014 were inspired (and risky) improv, not part of some grander scheme to create Russia’s version of lebensraum.

Russia under Putin has been a bit like a vampire: it needs some sort of invitation before it enters. With the important exception of Chechnya — where things didn’t exactly go smoothly — Putin has only moved Russian forces into environments where there was clear support — or at least benign indifference — from the indigenous population. This was the case in Crimea, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and even Syria. Debates continue on why Russian forces didn’t march on Tblisi in 2008; it’s possible it was due to US warnings, but I also wonder how eager the Russian political and military leadership was to occupy a hostile city with the wounds of Grozny still fresh in their minds.

RAND famously gamed out a rapid Russian invasion of the Baltic states, but I’d be more interested in a detailed study of what it would cost Russia — in both military and economic terms — to occupy and rule those three states for a prolonged period of time. A realistic assessment of a Russian occupation of large parts of Ukraine would also be useful. An important, related question: does the Russian military really want to be an occupying force again any more than the US military does? There’s no reason Vilnius can’t be as inhospitable as Grozny or for Kyiv to be as difficult for Russia to operate in as Baghdad was for the US. I’m not saying Russia won’t use its military forces if it feels (perhaps unjustly) that it’s threatened, but I’m not sure I see a direct correlation between accepting Crimean annexation and emboldening Russia to attack (and more importantly occupy) elsewhere.

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Troops from the 82nd Airborne Division parachute onto Adazi Training Area in Latvia as part of Saber Strike 18. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Zachery Perkins via DVIDS

Dealing with the Devil?

Would it be politically feasible for a US leader to enter into such an agreement with Putin? For a number of reasons, I doubt that the Trump Administration could ever effect the sort of grand bargain I’ve outlined above. First, the president is inexorably hamstrung by the cloud over the 2016 election and the question of Russian interference. Even if he were to sign such an accord, people from across the political spectrum would rightly consider it tainted. Also, such a treaty would hinge on details — and if there’s one thing we’ve learned from North Korean “denuclearization,” it’s that details aren’t Trump’s strong suit.

What about a future president?

It’s worth remembering we’ve worked with far worse leaders in Moscow. The great liberal lion, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, regularly dealt with megalomaniacal mass murderer, Joseph Stalin. It was the original devil’s pact, allying with arguably the second-worst person of the twentieth century to defeat the undisputed front-runner. The patron saint of US warrior-statesmen, Dwight D. Eisenhower, would almost certainly have signed a treaty with Nikita Khrushchev had it not been for the downing of Gary Powers’ U2. And Khrushchev was far more ideological and unpredictable (and thus dangerous) than Putin. Furthermore, a succession of US presidents — as diverse as Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter — did enter into multiple arms control agreements with Leonid Brezhnev, who ruled during the one period of the Cold War when the correlation of forces was unambiguously against the United States.

To be clear, I don’t think Putin is a good person. Or even one we should trust. But those are precisely the types of people with whom you need to sign binding arms control agreements.

Hybrid Interventions?

What about “the polite people” or “little green men?” They, of course, remain a concern. But consider this: undercover Spetznaz and nationalistic biker gangs can’t create a crisis where one doesn’t exist. There are few areas that compare to Crimea in terms of historic attachment to Russia, a preponderance of the citizenry that considers itself “Russian,” and overall strategic value. Crimea was always a unique case, made more so by the specific instance of unrest and violence within Ukraine that accompanied the Maidan protests. Those factors were exploited and, yes, abetted by Russia, but they weren’t constructed by Moscow out of whole cloth. There are important limitations on those circumstances being replicated elsewhere.

Look at the extremely limited progress in the separatist war in the Donbass. While the conflict has brutalized the inhabitants of that area, it has achieved little in the way of decisive territorial gains. Presumably, Donetsk and Luhansk should have been the lowest-hanging fruit after Crimea, due to the majority of self-identifying Russians in these regions and their contiguous location to Russia proper. Yet, five years on, separatists have been unable to claim even half the combined territory of those two oblasts despite not-so-covert support from regular Russian military units.

In Crimea, at least two-thirds of the population considered themselves “Russian” prior to annexation. The demographic picture is far less clear in Ukraine’s southern regions, such as Odessa, Mykolayiv, Zaporizhzhya, and Kherson — the ones Moscow would need to build a dream bridge to Transnistria. While these areas have more ethnic Russians and Russian speakers than other parts of Ukraine, there is no decisive majority. Rather, there is a hodge-podge of self-identifying people, who may consider themselves ethnically Ukrainian or Russian, but speak either the Russian and Ukrainian language (and not necessarily the same one as their ethnicity) or may regularly use both tongues. Russian and Russophone elements certainly exist in these areas, but there simply is not the same ethnic and linguistic “critical mass” as was at play in Crimea.

(Here, I would urge readers, if they haven’t already, to find a copy of Gerard Toal’s Near Abroad. It’s a very good read on many facets of the 2008 August War and 2014 annexation of Crimea, but is especially strong on the demographics at play in Ukraine and Crimea.)

None of this is to say that parts of Ukraine still couldn’t be annexed by Russia. But if that happens, it almost certainly will be as a result of action by regular Russian forces. It will resemble an old-fashioned land grab, with little “hybrid” about it.

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A heavy equipment transporter (HET) team moves an M1A2 Abrams tank across the Suwalki Gap en route to Estonia. U.S. Army Photo by 2nd Lt. Connor Eulberg, via DVIDS.

Stranding the Baltics?

Would the United States foregoing joint exercises and a permanent presence on Polish territory compromise NATO’s ability to defend Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania? The answer is complicated. There’s nothing in my proposal to stop the rotation of forces into the Baltic region; NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) deployments could still continue in all three states. In theory, the US could even permanently base forces in one or all of the Baltics, though I don’t think anyone has recommended this (or should). So in terms of the actual situation on the ground in the Baltic states, not much will have changed.

The biggest deficit in what I propose is what won’t happen: US armored tanks in Poland. Most observers of the region are familiar with the aforementioned RAND wargame in which Russia quickly overruns its three tiny neighbors in a few days. The exercise concluded that there was not much the US or NATO could do without a large expansion in forward-deployed armored forces.

On one level, I don’t disagree. But I also think this analysis misses the bigger picture. Relying on a NATO counterattack to keep the Baltics free is like treating high blood pressure with a quintuple bypass. It might work, but do you really want it to come that? Think this through: let’s say the US did base substantial armored forces in Poland. And Russia does invade the Baltic states. The US and NATO counterattack with their newly beefed up tank force and manage to win the day, presumably without anyone using nuclear weapons.

Great. The Baltic states are free.

Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn also probably look a lot like Berlin circa 1945.

I realize the whole point of defensive alliances are, well, to defend. I’m not saying it’s silly of the Baltic states to expect NATO to fight for them. But it’s infinitely better if it never comes to that, not least because these three countries have zero strategic depth. Any type of high-intensity conflict fought on their territory will devastate their people and their critical infrastructure irreversibly.

Focusing exclusively on what’s best for counter-punching at the operational level also risks inadvertently escalating at the strategic level. If American tanks in Poland enhance Russian paranoia and force it into a preemptively aggressive posture with its immediate neighbors, has it helped the security of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania or hurt it?

To be clear, there are two elements that will deter a Russian attack on the Baltic states. The first is the simple fact of their membership in NATO and the danger that any war instigated by Russia could spark a broader conflict with the United States, possibly a nuclear one. That existential, strategic concern — not the operational give-and-take on the ground — is how NATO truly protects Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The absence of tanks in Poland won’t change that.

The second is their own will to resist. Here, the Finnish model actually works, with the added benefit of direct assistance from NATO. Like Finland, the Baltic states are small enough that they can arm themselves sufficiently to punish an aggressor without also becoming an offensive threat, something Ukraine truly can’t do because of its sheer size. As mentioned above, Russia under Putin has shown great reluctance to move military forces where it’s not assured of strong local support. That could change, of course. But continuing to invest in their own defensive capabilities — while relying on the strategic threat of escalation — is a better means of ensuring Baltic security than an unrealistic emphasis on an external rescue force riding in from the west.

Finally, while the US loses exercises and potential bases in Poland, the same is true for Russia with Belarus. Pushing Belarus towards greater independence from Moscow (albeit with all the usual caveats) does narrow the pathways for surprise attack by Russia. Estonia and Latvia will still face Russia proper in the east and Lithuania will still border Kaliningrad in the west. But removing Belarus as an avenue of advance — or at least forcing Russia to traverse that territory, possibly without local support — does modestly improve the Baltics’ security environment and enhance warning time.

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U.S. combat controller assigned to the 352nd Special Operations Wing near Krakow. Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt Elizabeth Pena via DVIDS.

Can Belarus Be Broken Off?

Implicit in this discussion is a reasonable prospect of Belarus adopting something like true independence from Moscow. At first glance, I realize this seems doubtful. Alexander Lukashenko isn’t going to confuse anyone with Gustaf Mannerheim anytime soon. Added to that is Belarus’ economic and energy dependence on Russia and what could be described as deep “cross pollination” among the two countries’ militaries and security services. If anything, an argument can be made that Belarus meets the criteria for a potential next target for Russian annexation more than any other area of post-Soviet space.

Yet Belarus has also quietly demonstrated an ability to stand up for itself. Significantly, it never acknowledged Russia’s annexation of South Ossetia or Abkhazian independence following the 2008 August War. It also took an extremely muted position during Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014. Most interestingly, plans for a new Russian airbase on Belarussian territory continue to be delayed. Russia operated fighters out of Baranovichi in Belarus from 2013 to 2016. Why Russia withdrew its fighters — and why the new base have been put off — isn’t entirely clear. But it has to be seen as a marginally positive move with respect to Minsk showing some assertiveness against Moscow.

(Russia’s two extant installations in Belarus — a radar station at Gantsavichi and the Very Low Frequency (VLF) transmitter at Vileyka, which is used for communicating with submarines — are less true “bases” and more technical facilities.)

While we need to be realistic about how far Belarus can take its self-assertiveness — and also still understand that under Lukashenko it remains a deeply authoritarian state — planners and analysts also probably need to update the assumptions they traditionally make about Belarus in a future NATO-Russian conflict. Cooperation in (or even support for) aggressive Russian military operations shouldn’t be taken as a given by Minsk, even as we shouldn’t go too far in projecting Belarus as “its own man” in the region.

(Alexander Lanoszka is well worth reading on all these points here and here.)

I also realize that Belarussian membership in the European Union seems like a pipe dream today. But things change. Twenty years ago, the drift towards illiberalism by Hungary and other eastern NATO members wasn’t widely expected. Belarus could still surprise in the opposite direction. By including the prospect of EU membership for Belarus in my proposed bargain with Russia, I’m not stating it as an eventual fact. It is more about getting Russia to define its relationship to Belarus and to acknowledge a modicum of independence in exchange for the concessions the US will be making in return.

While Belarus or Ukraine will likely never be “the Finland,” some Western strategists hoped for, other forms of effective neutrality are possible. Austria’s example seems more salient. Rather than being rooted in the wartime experience with conflict (as Finland’s was), Austria’s was primarily a negotiated position, formalized in the Austrian State Treaty of 1955 and subsequent acts by the Austrian parliament. Even this limited form of independence — or at least the absence of outright coordination and assistance to Russia — could provide important dividends for NATO.

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U.S. Soldiers with the 1st Cavalry Division near Ahja, Estonia, Dec. 11, 2018. U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sfc. Robert Jordan, 382nd Public Affairs Detachment via DVIDS.

How Much of a Loss is Redzikowo?

I’m not someone who is theologically opposed to missile defenses. If one is realistic about their capabilities and limitations, I think they can be a vital tool in dealing with an otherwise impossible threat. But the facility at Redzikowo always struck me as being of questionable value. At best, it seemed a backdoor way to establish a US “trip wire” on Polish territory and, at worst, it’s a PR gimmick designed to show Poland’s value to the Alliance. But the actual defensive utility of the site — which remains behind schedule due to construction delays — was always doubtful.

It’s worth briefly recapping the facility’s history. Originally, President George W. Bush proposed putting ten Ground Based Interceptors (GBIs) at the site. The GBI is a big missile and is — in theory — capable of engaging ICBMs. The US has 44 of these deployed in Alaska and California to counter North Korean threats. Redzikowo would’ve thus played a role in US National Missile Defense (NMD) with an eye on a future Iranian threat. The Obama administration scrapped the Polish GBI deployment and eventually substituted an Aegis Ashore facility with SM-III missiles. The SM-III is a solid missile designed to deal with short and some intermediate-range missile threats. Most Navy destroyers and cruisers carry them. The “Ashore” part is just what it says: the missile package that a ship would ordinarily carry is fitted into a land-based battery.

Both the Bush and Obama plans incensed the Russians. Although nominally aimed at Iranian or rogue threats, Moscow perceived it as a challenge to their strategic deterrent. The Russian position was, admittedly, fairly paranoid and in keeping with a long tradition of other states having far greater faith in our missile defense capabilities than we do. (See also: China and THAAD in South Korea.)

That aside, the numbers simply don’t work. Even ten of the more robust GBIs would in no way compromise Russia’s nuclear arsenal which still boasts 1,440 operational strategic warheads (with another three thousand or so in storage). These are distributed over hundreds of delivery systems — not only on land-based missiles but submarines and bombers, as well. Moscow’s objection is almost silly, especially when one factors in the inability of the SM-III to engage long-range intercontinental targets.

But is the value of an Aegis Ashore site in Poland worth the animosity it engenders in the Russians? Really, no. First, there already is an operational site to the south at Deveselu in Romania, arguably placing it in a far better position to intercept threats coming from the Middle East. Second — and perhaps more importantly — the planned Aegis Ashore facility in Poland…is barely ashore. Redzikowo is about 20 miles from the sea. If it really is essential to have SM-III missiles in the area, couldn’t the requirement be met by a cruiser or destroyer based in the Baltic or North Sea?

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U.S. Marines disembark from the Polish minelayer-landing ship ORP Krakow during BALTOPS 2017. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jessica Dupree via DVIDS

The Polish Reaction

Looking back over this essay, I recognize that I’ve probably given short shrift to the Polish perspective. Part of this is practical: in reality little will change in Poland’s defense posture. Yes, the absence of exercises with US forces will have important implications for their ability to conduct combined operations in the event of an actual war. (That said, there wouldn’t be anything to stop such maneuvers from happening in, say, Germany.) NATO membership and the Article V guarantee would still be in place and that remains the most important thing for Polish security. US troops would not be permanently based on Polish soil and, while that may seem like a loss, such deployments don’t exist now. Poland might fail to gain something, but it doesn’t lose anything as far as basing of US forces is concerned. (The exception is the missile defense site at Redzikowo.) For the most part, Poland’s position under the proposed treaty would mostly be status quo with the added benefit of a reduction in Russian exercises on Belarussian territory.

Subconsciously, it might also be that I’m not that interested in Poland’s perspective. I was an unabashed supporter of NATO expansion to what were then-called the Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia) and to the Baltic states. I still believe that enlarging NATO, on balance, has enhanced European stability and security, even as the subsequent discussion on Ukrainian and Georgian membership had the opposite effect. But one area where NATO expansion has left a decidedly mixed record is on producing stable democracies. In the Nineties, this was one of the major selling points of NATO enlargement, perhaps even more so than the security implications, which seemed quaintly theoretical twenty years ago.

Hungary and Poland are Exhibits A and B in how the Alliance (and the European Union) have failed in this regard. I don’t think Poland is irredeemable and is not quite as far down the rabbit hole as Viktor Orban’s Hungary. The recent decision to “undo” the government’s purge of Supreme Court justices was a positive step. Poland is far freer than its neighbors to the east, but its future orientation is also not assured. It continues to have serious issues regarding rule of law and freedom of the press. Withholding a permanent US presence (with or without the proposed treaty) from such a country might not be the worst thing. It could send a reminder to Warsaw (and Budapest) that NATO is supposed to be an alliance of liberal democracies (and, well, whatever we’re counting Turkey as these days.)

Putin’s Intransigence?

Finally, there is the obvious question of whether the Russians would be interested in the type of grand bargain I’ve suggested. This whole excursion is for naught without a cooperative partner in Moscow. Is it possible that Putin prefers the destabilization created by the Transnistria and Donbass conflicts to the price Russia currently pays for its annexation of Crimea? Does he fear Ukraine someday being in the EU more than he does US tanks in Poland? Is Belarus drifting even slightly further outside Russia’s orbit too high a price to pay for scrapping the Aegis Ashore site at Redzikowo?

All of these objections are possible, but I would make three final points.

First, the various conflicts and independent regions Moscow has been supporting — a short list includes, Abkhazia, the Donbass insurgency, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and, of course, Crimea — all cost money. Added to this is the expense of what increasingly looks like an open-ended commitment in Syria. Putin’s popularity took its worst post-annexation hit this fall when he signed legislation raising the retirement age in a bid to reign in the costs of state-funded pensions. At the same time, military procurement remains modest rather than transformative. Russia’s latest ten-year plan (GPV 2027), will enhance existing capabilities, but its more exotic (and publicly hyped) capabilities remain unfunded. There are real trade-offs — socially and militarily — to Russia continuing to dump cash into its neo-imperial pet projects. And oil prices don’t seem to be going up. Can the Russian economy support all of this — and keep all domestic stakeholders happy — indefinitely?

Second and related, none of the aforementioned adventures have a clear exit path. Certainly Russia is now committed to Crimea in perpetuity. It’s hard to see Russia summarily abandoning any of its other commitments without losing significant face. We know Putin uses external crises to burnish his domestic image. Just giving up and leaving isn’t a viable option for him. The type of grand bargain proposed here could provide a lifeline for extracting Russia from two of these conflicts (Transnistria and the Donbass) and also reduce the penalties of another (Crimea.) That’s not an insignificant inducement.

Third, we can’t make bricks without clay. We need data. By making a serious proposal similar to the one I’ve outlined, we would gain important insight into Putin’s thinking. There remains considerable debate about Putin’s motivations during the 2014 crisis with Ukraine and what they say about his strategic mindset. Writing in 2016, Daniel Treisman helpfully broke this down into three possible explanations: Putin as defender, pushing back against two decades of aggressive NATO policies and expansion; Putin as imperialist, hell-bent on reconstituting the territory of the Soviet Union; or, my preference, Putin as improviser, exploiting crises on an ad hoc basis to enhance what he sees as Russia’s interests.

If Putin fits into either the defender model or the improviser model (or possibly something in between), then my proposal could gain traction in Moscow and could achieve some of its desired ends. On the other hand, if Putin truly is an imperialist focused on unlimited territorial gains in the former Soviet space, then I suppose we might as well base tanks in Poland, preferably lots of them. Because eventual war with Russia would likely be inevitable. But before we go down that path, don’t we owe it to ourselves to explore every option and make sure there’s no alternative?

Mike Sweeney is a disillusioned former think tanker. He currently lives and writes in New Jersey. He wrote an essay, “Could America Lose a War Well?” He’s still not sure how he feels about it.

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