The Path Out of Ukraine Is Reversing the Path In

When you get hopelessly lost in the woods, the best way to find your way out is to reverse the steps you took to get in.

In numerous addresses since the illegal invasion of Ukraine, Russia has clearly set out its terms for ending the invasion "in a moment." The terms usually follow a three part formula: Ukrainian neutrality, meaning not joining NATO; removal of US and NATO troops and missiles from Ukrainian soil; and recognizing Donetsk and Lugansk.

These are the same three issues that Russia has consistently cited as the causes that led to the Russian military response. Though the West has consistently insisted that Putin’s list includes terminating Ukrainian sovereignty and regime change, Putin has consistently not included those demands on his list. That Russia seeks to reverse the steps that ignored Russian security concerns and does not seek further territorial gains like recreating the Soviet empire or annexing Ukraine is supported by Israeli officials with direct knowledge of the negotiations who say that "Putin’s proposal is difficult for Zelensky to accept but not as extreme as they anticipated. They said the proposal doesn’t include regime change in Kyiv and allows Ukraine to keep its sovereignty." A senior Ukrainian official says that Israeli Prime Minister Bennett, who has met with Putin and spoken to Zelensky, told Zelensky "that he should take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal for ending the war."

There are two ways to stop a war: destruction and defeat or negotiations. Russia laying out its terms, whether acceptable in their current form or not, seems like an opening to negotiate. But the US has said it will not pressure Ukraine to negotiate and has even discouraged it from negotiating. State Department spokesperson Ned Price seemed to suggest that Ukraine continue to fight and Ukrainians continue to die rather than ending the war by negotiating Russia’s terms: “Now we see Moscow suggesting that diplomacy take place at the barrel of a gun or as Moscow’s rockets, mortars, artillery target the Ukrainian people. This is not real diplomacy. Those are not the conditions for real diplomacy.” But during the war is precisely when negotiations to end it have to take place.

The European Union has followed the US lead. The EU has shed its packaging as a body that prioritizes diplomacy. It has been absent from negotiations. It has joined the US in launching what France has honestly called – before throwing the words down the memory hole – "all-out economic and financial war" against Russia. And it has, for the first time in its history, sent weapons to a conflict zone, sending nearly $500 million of weapons to Ukraine.

Instead of launching economic and proxy military war against Russia, the terms Russia has laid out provide a map for retracing the steps that led to the disaster and beginning to negotiate a way out. After all, all sides, Russia, the US and Ukraine, have more or less already agreed to all three terms.

NATO Encroachment to Ukraine and Russia’s Borders

At the close of the Cold War, NATO promised Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand "one inch" east of Germany. Declassified documents make it clear that the promise was made, not only by the US, but also by Germany, the UK and France. Secret minutes from the two plus four meeting in Germany on March 6, 1991 that have recently been discovered now add to that evidence. The meeting was attended by the foreign ministries of the US, UK, France and Germany and clearly states that "We made it clear in the two-plus-four negotiations that we would not expand NATO beyond the [Oder River]. We can therefore not offer NATO membership to Poland and the others." At other places, the minutes state that “NATO should not expand to the east, either officially or unofficially" and refer to a "general agreement" that, regarding "Eastern Europe," membership of NATO is “unacceptable.”

Despite those assurances, the US and NATO betrayed Russia and encroached toward its borders. It was not only Yeltsin and Putin that warned against NATO expansion. It was also a pantheon of American officials from George Kennen and Jack Matlock to William Burns and Robert Gates. In 1997, Kennan, the architect of the US policy of containment and rollback of the Soviet Union, said that NATO expansion east "would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era."

As the US and NATO ignored those warnings and approached Georgia and Ukraine, Putin clearly and repeatedly warned against crossing that red line. Still, the US and NATO refused to assure Russia that NATO’s door was closed to Ukraine. Just this past November, the US signed the US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership that committed to helping Ukraine make the reforms that are necessary for its ascension to NATO. The document says that the US and Ukraine will be guided by the 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration. In Bucharest in 2008, the US and NATO guaranteed Ukraine eventual membership in NATO: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agree today that these countries will become members of NATO.”

The broken promise on NATO expansion east was a step down the path that led to the current crisis. But that step can be reversed on the path out of the current crisis. All sides may be willing to approximate that item on Russia’s list of terms.

The US has told Ukraine that NATO membership is unlikely for them in the next decade. Biden has publicly stated that “the likelihood that Ukraine is going to join NATO in the near term is not very likely.” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said that “The question of [Ukrainian] membership in alliances is practically not on the agenda.” He then repeated more strongly that it “is not even on the agenda.” So, the US and NATO should be prepared to discuss this term.

Ukraine has repeatedly said, recently, that it is open to discussing the neutrality term. Zelensky has said that “We are not afraid to talk to Russia. We are not afraid to say everything about security guarantees for our state. We are not afraid to talk about neutral status. We are not in NATO now … We need to talk about the end of this invasion. We need to talk about a ceasefire.” Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak has reportedly said that “Ukraine wants peace and is ready for talks with Russia, including on neutral status regarding NATO.” He told Reuters on February 25 that, "If talks are possible, they should be held. If in Moscow they say they want to hold talks, including on neutral status, we are not afraid of this. We can talk about that as well" he said. Most recently, Zelensky said that “Regarding NATO, I have cooled down regarding this question long ago after we understood that NATO is not prepared to accept Ukraine.”

So, it should be possible for all sides to at least discuss what may be the most important item on Russia’s list of terms to end the war "in a moment." The US should empathetically be able to understand that Ukraine is no more free to join NATO than the US would allow Venezuela, Cuba, Mexico or Canada to be free to join a military alliance with Russia.

Removing US and NATO Troops and Missiles from Ukraine

In violation of the NATO-Russia Founding Act on Mutual Relations, which promised explicitly that as NATO expanded east, there would be no “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces,” the US and NATO continued to surround Russia with the most threatening weapons, placing antiballistic missile bases and “spearhead” military bases in Eastern Europe. There are US nuclear weapons in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey. And the US has a military base in Poland just 100 miles from Russia.

Western nations had soldiers right in Ukraine, training the Ukraine military. Prior to the war more than 150 US troops were in Ukraine in the role of “military advisors.” Operation UNIFIER is the name of the Canadian project to support and train Ukraine forces. Canada had a force of about 200 troops in Ukraine. Several other countries, including the UK, also had troops in Ukraine. The CIA also secretly trained Ukrainian special operations forces in the US.

In 2017, the Trump administration began selling Ukraine weapons. The Biden administration has provided Ukraine with billions of dollars of weapons since.

Many of these moves should be open to discussion since they violate the spirit of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. They should also be open to discussion because the US seemed to suggest that they were when responding to Russia’s proposal on mutual security guarantees. The American response included the offer that “The United States is willing to discuss conditions-based reciprocal transparency measures and reciprocal commitments by both the United States and Russia to refrain from deploying offensive ground-launched missile systems and permanent forces with a combat mission in the territory of Ukraine.”

So, it should be possible for all sides to at least begin negotiations on this item of Russia’s terms. The Cuban missile crisis and the Soviet Combat Brigade crisis of 1979 show clearly how the US would respond to Russian soldiers or missiles on territory in a country near its borders.

Autonomy for the Donbas

If Russia is willing to negotiate autonomy instead of independence, this item on the list of terms should be negotiable too. Ukraine has said that it will not give up territory, but on March 8, Zelensky said that "we can discuss with Russia the future of Crimea and Donbas." He said that "Ukraine is ready to hold a dialogue with Russia on . . . the future of the occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions."

The best opportunity to stop the civil war in the Donbas region of Ukraine that has killed at least 14,000 people since 2014 was the Minsk Agreement. Signed by Ukraine and Russia and endorsed by the UN Security Council and the US, the Minsk Agreement promised autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine. But Ukraine openly refused to implement the agreement, and the US adamantly declined to pressure them to implement it.

But this too was a step on the path into the current crisis that can be reversed. The US endorsed Minsk. And, though little discussed, it is important to remember that that is what the people of Ukraine too wanted prior to the war. Zelensky was elected on a platform of making peace with Russia and implementing the Minks Agreement. He was then pressured out of that promise and refused to implement the agreement granting autonomy to Donetsk and Luhansk.

So, Ukraine and Russia should both be able to agree to autonomy for the Donbas within Ukraine, and the US should be able to endorse that, since they have.

Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine is not defensible. But its terms to end the invasion may be as they seem to correct and reverse the causes that led to it. When you can’t find your way out of a forest, the best strategy may be to retrace your steps back out. Russia’s terms for ending the war "in a moment" seem to offer at least the opening for negotiating the way back out.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.