Melanie Joly in conversation with NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg. In this photo she shared on Twitter, she stated: "We are united and stand in solidarity with Ukraine." Credit: Mélanie Joly / Twitter

MOSCOW – Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly stepped into the middle of the most explosive geopolitical crisis since the Cold War with her visit to Kyiv this week.

Departing from Canada’s traditional role of trying to soothe the waters amid conflict, she assured Ukrainians of Ottawa’s “unwavering solidarity,” insisted that Ukraine should join NATO, and even hinted that Canada might supply arms to Ukraine’s army.

“The goal is to make sure that we contribute to their increased capacities, capabilities in light of the Russian threat, and also a further invasion of Russia,” she told a Kyiv press conference.

That sounds tough, but it’s not particularly helpful as negotiations continue between Russia and the West, primarily the US and NATO, over Moscow’s decades-old grievances about NATO expansion to the east. Those talks have been continuing for almost two months, including two Zoom face-to-face talks between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent weeks, formal high-level negotiations in mid-January, ongoing work by committees and several meetings between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, the latest in Geneva on Friday, January 21.

When diplomacy is this intense and dogged, despite the irreconcilable public rhetoric, it’s a sure sign that something is afoot. Both sides realize things can’t go on the way they have for the past quarter century, sense that a deal might be made, and seem committed to making at least some of the compromises that might lead to a new, more stable security order in Europe.

Why has Putin chosen now to issue an ultimatum over NATO’s repeated intention to induct Ukraine into NATO?

The Russians claim, with considerable evidence, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was promised that NATO would not expand “a single inch to the east” before he agreed to German reunification, but he failed to get that in writing. The deceptions continued through the 1990’s, they say, with a weak Russia unable to effectively protest. Putin laid out Russia’s case at the Munich security conference in 2007, in a speech widely regarded as “aggressive” but otherwise ignored, and Russia has gone to war twice, in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, to effectively hamstring post-Soviet regimes that aspired to join NATO.

Though talk of Russian invasion troops massing on Ukraine’s border seems wildly overstated, there is no doubt that since November the Russians have been moving forces, mostly those permanently stationed in the Western Military District, in suspicious ways, exercising provocatively near the border, building field kitchens and hospitals, and making other signs of future action – all in plain sight of satellite cameras.

“What Russia wants is a dialogue with leading NATO powers that would move the discussion away from the standard Western view that Europe’s security order is fine but just has a Russia problem, to an examination of the dangerous flaws in Europe’s security system and the need to address Russia’s concerns,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. “It is not yet clear whether that is going to happen in any acceptable form or not. So the crisis continues. . .” He added:

Western leaders have believed for decades that every country has the right to join NATO, and NATO should accept them without taking into account the strategic implications. That’s something new in history, it’s totally opposed to classical strategic thinking, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union Western leaders embraced this idea that NATO should just expand, that it was somehow the right thing to do, and that no one should oppose that. It’s an ideological belief, not one based on serious strategic or military calculations. When NATO enlargement began, back in the 90’s, no one expected Russia to recover as quickly as it has. But Russia is back, it is deeply concerned about its strategic neighborhood, and it needs to make clear that Ukraine must not join NATO. Putin’s point is that we need Western leaders to take that seriously, and not just in words.

What Russia wants, and may have little chance of actually getting, are ironclad guarantees that NATO’s “open door” to the east will close forever, and alliance military deployments in eastern Europe must be rolled back to the level of 1997. But practical compromises, and a bit of arm-twisting in Kyiv and other post-Soviet capitals, might just produce a de facto new security order that can endure. Just about everyone agrees that Ukraine isn’t joining NATO anyway – short of World War Three – but Russia’s fear of it is a valuable bargaining chip that can be traded for enhancements to the security and independence of those small post-Soviet countries, and permanently relax tensions in Europe.

Creating a system of neutral states may satisfy Russia

Russian foreign policy experts suggest that an acceptable outcome for the Kremlin would be to create a system of neutral states between NATO and Russia, perhaps something like Finland or Austria during the Cold War. The belt of neutral countries between Russia and NATO would include westward-leaning Ukraine and Georgia, but also Moscow-aligned Belarus. These states would be secured by international agreement, with guarantees for the independence, sovereignty and democratic choice of those former-Soviet countries.

Though such an arrangement isn’t likely to come about overnight, a surprising number of foreign policy experts on both sides now argue that some version of it may be the only way to satisfy Russia, end the vicious geopolitical competition that has destabilized the region for decades, and also save NATO from the consequences of its own dangerous overreach.

If diplomacy doesn’t make progress, Russia may well step up the pressure.

Despite the widespread media expectations of a blitzkrieg-like invasion – complete with imaginary maps depicting Russian invasion routes – an all-out Russian assault on Ukraine is highly unlikely. Ukraine is a deeply-divided country, with a wrecked and corruption-plagued economy and a highly unstable government. The Russians know the pressure points, and are likely to move through expanded separatism, subversion, coups, and other sub-military means. It’s not pretty. On the other hand, Russia is not the only big power that ostentatiously keeps “all options on the table” when dealing with smaller states whose governments it finds obnoxious.

In fact, if Russian leaders have traveled a learning curve, it began with the Kosovo war in 1999, where NATO first demonstrated that it’s not strictly a defensive alliance and the borders of sovereign states aren’t sacred after all.

All-out war is an intensely unpopular idea in Russia

Though a low-level war has been going on for years, the Kremlin has largely kept its own involvement limited and mostly secret from the Russian people. Opinion polls in both countries consistently show that the populations have warm feelings toward each other, even if they hold leaders in low regard.

A February 2021 survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) found that 41 percent of Ukrainians had positive feelings toward Russia, while 42 percent felt negative. A similar poll conducted by the independent Levada Center in Moscow found that 54 percent of Russians felt positive toward Ukraine, compared to 31 percent who did not. That is not a mystery. Russia is home to the world’s largest Ukrainian diaspora, almost 2 million strong, plus almost a million war refugees and guest workers. According to Vladimir Paniotto, director of KIIS, about half of Ukrainians have relatives in Russia. Historical, cultural and even economic ties, despite 8 years of mutual sanctions, remain surprisingly strong.

“You have to ask yourself: are Vladimir Putin and his team rational people?,” says Andrei Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, which is affiliated with the Foreign Ministry. “If you assume that they are — and, I assure you, yes they are — then we must acknowledge that Putin has no intention of starting a major war in the heart of Europe. Even if Russia were to win, the collateral damage would be immense, the costs too high to bear, and it would end any hope of reconciling with the West for a long time to come.”

He continued: “Putin is concerned with his legacy, and he really wants to find some resolution of the Ukraine issue, but he is not going to start a war.”

Fred Weir

Fred Weir has been covering Russia and the former Soviet Union, since 1986. He's traveled over much of that vast territory, reporting on stories ranging from Russia's financial crash to the war in Chechnya,...