Finding off ramp for Putin is best case resolution for Ukraine


Marty Rochester


As I am writing this op-ed, Ukraine is the No. 1 subject occupying worldwide media attention. We do not know how the Ukraine conflict will end. Predictions range from Russia annexing Ukraine to its settling for regime change to its willingness to restore the status quo, accepting de facto control of the Crimea and eastern Ukraine along with an understanding Ukraine would not become a member of NATO in the foreseeable future. 

Some have suggested that this is an existential conflict, the largest conflagration in Europe since World War II. It involves the unraveling of the international liberal order based on a rules-based system of international law prohibiting aggression by one state against the territorial integrity of another state, amid fears that it might escalate into World War III, perhaps even including the use of nuclear weapons. 

Certainly, it is a terrible conflict, awful for Ukrainians who are seeing millions of their fellow citizens killed or fleeing as refugees and much of their country reduced to rubble by the Russian military. 

But my guess is that it will come to pass without much impact on the rest of humanity, including the United States. In other words, just as 9/11 at the time seemed a seminal event portending an ominous future of Americans experiencing everyday bouts of terrorism, Ukraine, too, will have relatively limited actual effects.

There has been much handwringing about whether the United States under President Joe Biden played its cards right in terms of failing to deter the Russian invasion and then failing to provide adequate assistance to Ukraine’s defense. My view is that we did have an important stake in preventing the Russian attack and then limiting Russian gains once it occurred. At issue was allowing Vladimir Putin to undermine an important norm of international relations and to feel emboldened to commit further aggression beyond Ukraine. That said, U.S. interests were not so critical as to justify responses that would risk escalation into possible American-Russian hostilities. 

That is why U.S. participation in a no-fly zone over Ukraine would be excessively provocative. One can only hope that the effort by the United States to coordinate allied imposition of severe economic sanctions against Russia along with a United Nations campaign to brand Moscow as a global pariah will be sufficient to teach Putin that aggression does not pay and restrain future adventurism. 

Meanwhile, we are left to speculate as to why Russia committed such an extraordinary act in the first place. In trying to explain the behavior of states, international relations scholars have suggested we examine factors that operate at three levels of analysis.

First is the international system level, in which state action is seen mainly as a rational response to stimuli (threats and opportunities) in one’s external environment. Recall Winston Churchill’s famous explanation of Soviet behavior: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”

In explaining Russia’s interest in occupying the Crimea and other parts of Ukraine, many analysts argue that Putin was merely “returning to the historical pattern,” extending back to the czars, of securing borders on the “near abroad” invasion routes used by Napoleon, Hitler and other would-be conquerors over the centuries (Stephen Kotkin, “Russia’s Perpetual Geopolitics,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016). 

It is argued that the U.S. was not entirely sensitive to how the expansion of NATO in the 1990s to include the Baltic states threatened Russian security. Although this does not justify Russian aggression against Ukraine, it can help us to understand it. 

A second level of analysis is the domestic level, which focuses on the role of public opinion and other internal political factors in explaining foreign policy behavior. Many observers attribute the Russian invasion more to Putin’s unpopularity and concern about how an increasingly democratic, pro-West Ukraine might undermine his regime. 

The third level of analysis is the individual level, which can include idiosyncratic characteristics of individual leaders and how they help account for foreign policy decisions. 

For example, Frank Harvey, in his book “Explaining the Iraq War: Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence,” states that President George W. Bush’s “born-again Christianity and religious beliefs contributed to a sense of mission” that led to the decision to invade in 2003. 

Likewise, Putin has been characterized as possessing a seventh-degree black belt with a macho complex and other peculiar personality traits that shape his, and ultimately Russian, behavior (Richard Cohen, “Why the Study of Vladimir Putin Is So Important,” Washington Post, March 24, 2014). 

We cannot know for sure why Putin invaded Ukraine. Sometimes leaders themselves do not know entirely. It is probably some complex mix of factors. 

Never mind. The immediate concern is to bring closure to this crisis. Much as one might want to try Putin in the International Criminal Court as the war criminal that he is, the higher interest of the U.S. and humanity is to provide him with an off-ramp so as to end the conflict and restore some semblance of world order. 

If Ukraine can continue to resist Russian occupation, perhaps the best case is that Putin might be willing to accept an outcome along the lines of the Austrian State Treaty of 1955. Signed during the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed that, on the one hand, Austria would be restored as a de facto member of “the West” whose sovereignty and territorial integrity was inviolable. On the other hand, it would not be admitted as a member of NATO, which remains the case today. 

One would assume the end to the destruction and the offer of massive amounts of foreign aid would induce Ukraine to accept such an outcome. For Russia, it would be the opportunity to put behind it a hugely humiliating stain on its national history. It remains mainly Putin’s decision to make as to timing and details.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.