Will NATO Saber Rattling Derail Hopes for Ukraine-Russia Détente?

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Will NATO Saber Rattling Derail Hopes for Ukraine-Russia Détente?

On the eve of NATO summit, Obama calls for a united front against Russian "aggression" while Putin and Poroshenko negotiate ceasefire

Russian President Vladimir Putin (second from left) and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (center), along with European officials, at an August 26 meeting in Minsk. (Photo: European External Action Service)

On the eve of a NATO summit in Wales at which member-states will consider admitting Ukraine into their alliance and formally announce expansion of military operations in Eastern Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that he and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko are close to agreeing on a plan to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

While President Obama, in remarks delivered at Nordea Concert Hall in Estonia, talked of Russia's "aggression," "unrestrained nationalism," and "brazen assault on the territorial integrity of Ukraine," the leaders of both Russia and Ukraine appeared — amidst significant confusion and despite such saber-rattling — to be making progress toward possible political settlement.

“Yes, this morning President Poroshenko and I spoke over the phone and our views, as far as I understand, on settling the conflict are very similar,” Putin said Wednesday, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

According to news reports, Putin has drafted a seven-point ceasefire plan. Among its conditions: that separatists halt all offensive operations; that Ukrainian armed forces move their artillery back out of range of cities and large towns in the rebel-held area and cease airstrikes; the establishment of an international monitoring mission and humanitarian aid corridors; a total prisoner exchange; and the creation of “rebuilding brigades” to repair damaged infrastructure.

The rhetoric around Russia's — and more specifically, Putin's — aggression is misplaced, some experts warn, and threatens to undermine reconciliation. In fact, it could have the opposite effect, provoking a large-scale confrontation between NATO-aligned countries and Russia. 

David Gibbs, a professor of history and government at the University of Arizona who has written extensively on NATO, says:

Foreign policy specialists have rightly condemned Russian intervention in the Ukraine, which has aggravated political divisions in that country. At the same time, we should recognize that the United States and NATO have also contributed to the destabilization. Russia’s actions are at least partly a response to policies adopted by the U.S. and NATO immediately following the Cold War.

People often forget that post-Soviet Russia was at first highly cooperative with U.S. and Western policy, and they disbanded the Cold War era Warsaw Pact alliance. Russians assumed that in response the U.S. would gradually disband NATO, as a symmetrical action, or at the very least the U.S. would not expand NATO. Instead, the U.S. orchestrated NATO’s expansion, beginning in the late 1990s, incorporating several post-Soviet states. More recently, there has been open discussion of further expanding NATO, with possible membership for the Ukraine and Georgia. Russia views its interventions in the Ukraine as defensive actions, against NATO threats to its border security. NATO expansion must be viewed as a short-sighted action, one that was bound to provoke the Russians, and it laid the groundwork for the Ukraine’s civil war.

In his speech in Estonia Wednesday, which drew comparisons between the historic plight of the post-Soviet Baltic States and that of modern-day Ukraine, Obama called on NATO nations to "stand united against Russia's aggression in Ukraine."

With regard to Ukraine's possible entry into NATO, Obama remained cagey: "We must reaffirm the principle that has always guided our alliance," he said. "Countries that meet our standards and that can make meaningful contributions to allied security: the door to NATO membership will remain open."

Poroshenko has been invited to address the NATO summit on Thursday. But the more crucial conversation will come the following day, Friday, at a Contact Group meeting between Russia, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Kiev government, and eastern Ukraine’s independence supporters. Those talks are sure to be clouded, but hopefully not eclipsed, by whatever transpires in Wales.

In advance of the NATO summit, a group of former U.S. intelligence officials called Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity wrote a memo to German Chancellor Andrea Merkel, encouraging her to bring a "degree of judicious skepticism" to the talks in order to avoid repeating mistakes made in the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003.

"You need to know...that accusations of a major Russian 'invasion' of Ukraine appear not to be supported by reliable intelligence," the memo reads. "If the photos that NATO and the U.S. have released represent the best available “proof” of an invasion from Russia, our suspicions increase that a major effort is under way to fortify arguments for the NATO summit to approve actions that Russia is sure to regard as provocative."

Meanwhile, Ukrainian civilians continue to suffer. The UN Refugee Agency estimated Tuesday that 260,000 people have been displaced in Ukraine since the conflict began. 

In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said: "If this crisis is not quickly stopped, it will have not only devastating humanitarian consequences but it also has the potential to destabilize the whole region. After the lessons of the Balkans, it is hard to believe a conflict of these proportions could unfold in the European continent."

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