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If US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin do manage to hold a summit on Ukraine, what should Biden’s approach be?

Biden has said repeatedly that the US is open to diplomacy with Russia, but on the issue that Moscow has most emphasized — NATO enlargement — there has been no American diplomacy at all. Putin has repeatedly demanded that the US forswear NATO’s enlargement into Ukraine, while Biden has repeatedly asserted that membership of the alliance is Ukraine’s choice.

Moscow has steadfastly opposed expansion of the alliance eastward for 30 years

If a summit does materialize in the days ahead, and in the planned meeting this week between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, the US should propose a guarantee that NATO will not enlarge to include Ukraine in return for a full withdrawal of Russian forces from the Donbas region, an end of Russian support for the independence of the two Moscow-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, a demobilization along the Russia-Ukraine border and an assurance of Ukrainian sovereignty. If the US won’t do this, then France and Germany should step forward instead.

This would inevitably lead to cries of appeasement. Many insist that NATO enlargement is not the real issue for Putin and that he wants to recreate the Russian empire, pure and simple. Everything else, including NATO enlargement, they claim, is a mere distraction.

This is utterly mistaken. Russia has adamantly opposed NATO expansion towards the east for 30 years, first under Boris Yeltsin and now Putin. Before that, the Soviet Union largely opposed NATO expansion, too.

It is easy to understand why. The US would not be very happy were Mexico to join a China-led military alliance, nor was it content when Fidel Castro’s Cuba aligned with the USSR 60 years ago.

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Neither the US nor Russia wants the other’s military on their doorstep. Pledging no NATO enlargement is not appeasement. It does not cede Ukrainian territory. It does not undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty. It would in fact help to secure it. Ukraine should aspire to resemble the non-NATO members of the EU: Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden.

NATO Enlargement is the Issue

Americans can learn much from the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. As the historian Martin Sherwin showed in his book Gambling with Armageddon, the crisis was resolved by a deft compromise. The Soviet Union agreed to remove its missiles from Cuba while the US agreed to remove its missiles from Turkey.

The American public never appreciated this, alas, because President John F Kennedy insisted on keeping the US removal of missiles from Turkey secret. Kennedy did not want to appear to speak for all of NATO, and sought to protect himself from charges of appeasement from the US right. The public therefore believed that the crisis ended with Soviet capitulation, not compromise.

Despite claims to the contrary, the western nations offered informal assurances to the Soviet Union that NATO would not enlarge to the east after German unification. The US and allies acted deceitfully, using sophistical arguments to claim that previous pledges were not binding. It was especially reckless in 2008 for President George W Bush to open the door to Ukraine’s (and Georgia’s) NATO membership.

Biden and the US foreign policy establishment has so far refused to reconsider NATO enlargement for three reasons. First, they fear the charge of appeasement. Second, the US wants the prerogative to puts its military in any country that will have it, even if that disregards the legitimate security concerns of neighbouring states. Third, the US foreign policy establishment has long failed to acknowledge valid Russian security concerns that go back to the second world war and even earlier.

Russia has long feared invasions from the west, whether by Napoleon, Hitler or latterly NATO. For this reason, cooler and wiser US foreign policy strategists, including Bill Clinton’s defence secretary William Perry, the great statesman and diplomat George Kennan and former ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, argued that NATO enlargement to the east after the demise of the USSR was unnecessary, reckless and provocative.

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If war comes, Putin would of course deserve the blame and global opprobrium. Russia’s threats are thuggish and dangerous. Yet as misguided as the Russian actions are, American intransigence regarding NATO enlargement is also utterly misguided and risky. True friends of Ukraine, and of global peace, should be calling for a US and NATO compromise with Russia — one that respects Russia’s legitimate security interests while fully backing Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Jeffrey Sachs