Heading into its second year in office, the Biden administration has been hit hard by rising inflation, another pandemic variant and a stalled agenda in Congress. As it struggles to salvage things, the administration can little afford a major international conflict—especially after finally winding down the 20-year fiasco in Afghanistan.
That’s precisely the risk in Eastern Europe, where the administration is straining to confront Russia over its troop buildup on Ukraine’s borders. If handled improperly, the conflict could potentially spiral into a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia.
But if the administration stops dealing with Ukraine as a dangerous distraction, it could turn this crisis into a profound foreign policy opportunity.
The truth is, the United States has few levers of influence with Russia, and European allies are divided on how to respond to the Kremlin’s increasingly aggressive stance. In his bid to level the geopolitical playing field, Russian President Vladimir Putin is threatening to unravel what remains of the post-Cold War architecture of cooperative security.
The Biden administration is hoping that the threat of sanctions and the dispatch of NATO forces to Eastern Europe will dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine. There is also the possibility that diplomatic efforts will succeed, and Moscow will deescalate after some vague promises to put the brakes on NATO expansion.
But in its ham-handed, destabilizing way, Russia is actually raising some important questions about the post-Cold War order. Instead of simply dealing with the military crisis around Ukraine, the Biden administration should take this opportunity to engage Russia—as well as Europe and the post-Soviet countries—to fashion a new security order that is better suited to the current era.
The first step is to acknowledge that some of the Kremlin’s larger concerns are legitimate. Back in the 1990s, Russia never thought that NATO troops or EU membership might one day extend to its very doorstep—and may not have expected that the U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in Europe for decades would remain.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, its seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its creation of “frozen conflicts” in eastern Ukraine and elsewhere were attempts in part to redress this imbalance of power. But these aggressive actions have only strengthened the resolve of Russia’s neighbors to seek the West’s embrace, raising tensions further.
These conflicts speak to the inadequacy of the post-Cold War order to accommodate both Russia’s security concerns and aspirations of smaller countries on its borders. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)—which counts the United States, Russia, Europe and former Soviet states as members—was largely powerless to prevent those wars or resolve the ongoing territorial disputes.
The OSCE traces its origins back to the 1975 Helsinki agreement that brought East and West onto the same page around security, human rights and inter-governmental cooperation on a range of issues. The bargain at the heart of Helsinki was a recognition of post-war Soviet borders in exchange for Soviet willingness to address human rights. It was a landmark accomplishment.
After the end of the Cold War, however, the eastward expansion of NATO overshadowed the OSCE and its mutual promise of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. It’s necessary now to reboot the Helsinki process, something the Russian government has supported in the past.
A new Helsinki process should put three Russian concerns on the agenda: denuclearizing Europe, reducing and eventually eliminating military exercises on Russian borders and keeping NATO troops out of Ukraine for the foreseeable future. In return, Russia would end its military build-up at the Ukrainian border—and all parties would agree to cooperate on a range of other issues.
In this way, Helsinki 2.0 and an invigorated OSCE could put arms control back on the table, take concrete steps toward reducing the military stand-off in Eastern Europe and put more power in the hands of diplomats rather than generals.
And as the overwhelming threat of climate change advances, Helsinki 2.0 could also put climate cooperation at the center of a new bargain. In exchange for the West acknowledging Russian security concerns around its borders, Moscow could agree to engage with its OSCE partners on a new program to reduce carbon emissions and transition from fossil fuels. Helsinki 2.0 must be about cooperation, not just managing disagreements.
This is no time for the Biden administration to disengage from Europe to focus narrowly on domestic issues—or to risk a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine.
Instead, it’s time to confront Russia—not with military might, but with a bold diplomatic deal that can safeguard Ukrainian sovereignty, make Eastern Europe safer and improve the welfare of everyone from Vancouver to Vladivostok.
Newsweek, January 28, 2022