The long haul: Reykjavík, Yalta or Helsinki?
The ends and means of protracted strategic confrontation
As the fear of expanded war in Ukraine ever so slightly recedes, I am seeing more deep breaths than sighs of relief. Whatever this is, it is not yet over.
The possibility that something like the status quo could drag on for months, years or even decades is — and should be — disturbing. More disturbing still, it creates an imbalance. Americans and Europeans are used to a certain amount of instability in farther flung reaches of the globe, but a flashpoint on your doorstep is something altogether harder to accommodate. As a result, as it becomes increasingly clear that neither large-scale war nor large-scale deescalation are likely, western leaders and policy advisers are becoming increasingly anxious to find a solution that would send Russia’s troops back to base and yield something resembling normalization.
The problem is that there’s very little evidence that Moscow shares that sense of urgency. For one thing, as I wrote last week, the ostensible casus pseudo-belli — Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO — is very far from being the real crux of the matter. For another, as I tried to explain to Bloomberg TV the other day, the present state of affairs suits Putin just fine:
In a nutshell, Putin profits from this kind of confrontation: it focuses the attention of world leaders on him, and the attention of Russian citizens on foreign policy, rather than the parlous state of the Russian economy; it reinforces the sense of threat that has underpinned so much of Putin’s legitimacy since 2014; and it drives home the message that now (with ‘now’ easily stretching to 2024) is not the time to seek new leadership.
From the Russian side, then, we should expect Putin to dig in. That doesn’t have to mean a hundred thousand or more troops camping on the Ukrainian border. Moscow has other ways of keeping the pressure on Kyiv, Brussels and Washington, including repositioning missile systems or creating a large forward presence in Belarus on a more permanent basis. That might be enough to allow Ukraine and its partners to climb down from their current war footing — but not very far down. For this strategy to work, the Kremlin needs western leaders to face a credible threat of military escalation at a moment’s notice.
This scenario — which Lawry Freedman described recently as “drift” — may well suit Putin, but it certainly doesn’t suit Biden, Macron or Scholz, all of whom find this crisis an unfruitful distraction from their various domestic and international agendas. It clearly doesn’t suit Zelensky, either, as it makes Ukraine more or less ungovernable. The urgency to “do something” is thus understandable, and there are, as best I can tell, three basic options on the table.
I’ll call Option 1 Reykjavík II, taking inspiration from the historic but mostly unproductive 1986 summit between Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. In fact, Reykjavík II is more or less what is being done at the moment: demonstrate a willingness to talk about everything, except what the Russian side insists it wants to talk about. Thus, while a moratorium on NATO enlargement is off the table, there is plenty of room to talk about nuclear security, transparency, exercises, force posture, and so on. The theory here is that such an approach might give Moscow enough intermediate wins to be able to back down while saving face, although actually implementing those ‘wins’ would be contingent on deescalation. And, to be fair, there’s some evidence that it’s working, as Putin continues to prefer talking over shooting — albeit the evidence of deescalation is less clear. The advantage of Reykjavík II is that it avoids giving Putin any real rewards for his provocative behavior. The disadvantage, though, is obvious: it will lock us into drift for the foreseeable future.
Option 2 — which I’ll call Yalta II, for reasons that will become evident in a moment — is the polar opposite of Reykjavík II. Yalta II, described most forcefully and succinctly by the Quincy Institute’s Anatol Lieven, begins by recognizing that NATO and the EU are no longer sufficient to provide European security, and it finishes by calling for the creation of a ‘European Security Council’ comprised of, in Lieven’s words, “the countries that really count in European security”: the US, UK, France, Germany and Russia. Nothing if not bold, Yalta II would suit those western leaders and publics — potentially including Macron and Scholz — who are already nervous about any further EU enlargement. But by giving Moscow an effective veto over the ability of any state to join a bloc, economic or military, of which it is not currently a member, it would amount to a more or less permanent re-division of the European continent.
Option 3 is what I would call Helsinki II, because that’s what Michael McFaul called it in his essay summing it up. Oddly enough, McFaul’s starting point isn’t worlds away from Lieven’s: whatever their virtues, NATO, the EU and the OSCE have not prevented us from finding ourselves in a place of deep insecurity. There is thus good reason to think that we do in fact need a new security architecture for Europe, and — uncomfortable as it may be to say it with 130,000 Russian troops parked on the Ukrainian border — Moscow needs to be a part of that process, if the architecture is to be sustainable. The differences between Yalta II and Helsinki II are more important, though. First, Helsinki II adheres to the philosophy of “nothing about us without us”, giving every European state an equal and sovereign stake in the process. Second, Helsinki II doesn’t begin with a proposal for what the new security architecture should look like; rather it proposes an open-ended process of negotiations, the ultimate outcome of which is inherently uncertain. It dares to imagine a post-NATO future for Europe, but it doesn’t pretend to know what that future would look like.
Whatever the relative merits of any of these plans, they all have one problem in common: they are unlikely to alter the fundamental logic of confrontation in the near term.
Whether or not you accept the premises on which Moscow has moved its troops — from NATO’s “broken promises” and the threat of hypersonic US missiles on Russia’s borders, to the ostensible need to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine — Russia’s positions have been decades in the making and will not quickly be unravelled. Moreover, confrontation with the US and Europe is too important to the structure of domestic politics in Russia to imagine that Putin, or an eventual successor, could easily pivot away from it.
The obstacles, however, are not only on the Russian side. Mistrust of the Kremlin now runs deep in the US and many European states, permeating political elites and general publics alike. Overcoming that would require political will and political capital on a scale that few western leaders can mobilize. And, whatever their failings, NATO and the EU have deep histories, having underpinned decades of security and prosperity. Many people will find them worth fighting for.
All of which is to say this: We can and should use our imaginations to design a future more secure than our present. We should not imagine, however, that any of our designs will work miracles. It took more than three decades for the post-Cold War order to disintegrate. It may take at least that long to build a new one.
It is more important than ever to get to grips with Russia — its politics, its society, its role in the world, and those of its neighbors. There is no better place to do that, than at the King’s Russia Institute, in our MSc Russian and Eurasian Politics & Economics and PhD Russian & Eurasian Studies programs. Running these programs, together with a truly outstanding group of colleagues, is more than my day job for the last ten years: it’s been the greatest privilege of my professional career. To find out what we can offer you, please come along to our virtual open week, beginning 28 February.