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An alternative security proposal could help break the cycle of conflict with Russia


To understand the threat of war in Ukraine right now, it helps to go back to the end of the Cold War. Since then, the U.S. and Western Europe have encouraged the sovereignty of former Soviet republics, and Russia has feared that those newly independent countries would align themselves with the democratic West. All of this has created a cycle of conflict between Russia and the West, including what's happening right now in eastern Ukraine.

Well, a group of nongovernmental experts set out to break this cycle with a bit of a thought experiment. They got together and came up with a proposal for a new security agreement in the region. Samuel Charap of the Rand Corporation led this project, and he joins us now. Welcome.

SAMUEL CHARAP: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So I was struck by a line that you wrote in this piece about this project. You said that U.S. policies aimed at Russia's neighbors have actually worked, quote, "too well." What did you mean by that?

CHARAP: Well, when, you know, 11 new countries - or, really, 14 if you count the Baltic states - broke off from the Soviet Union, there was a lot of concern that that might have just been a temporary phenomenon, that some sort of neo-Russian empire could sort of reform itself. And so the U.S. emphasis was on reinforcing their sovereignty and territorial integrity and basically giving them alternative paths to their preexisting arrangements with Moscow.

And over time, they, you know, essentially wanted to fully join the West almost. And that is an outcome that Russia can't accept. And that's, I think, in part why we are where we are.

CHANG: Right. OK. Well, this security proposal that you helped devise, can you just talk about, first of all, who was involved in these negotiations for this project, and how did it even come about in the first place?

CHARAP: So there were people from countries in between the West and Russia - so Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, from Russia itself, from Europe and from the United States. And some of us used to work in governments, but we were all there in our capacities as nongovernmental experts. And that gives us an advantage over officials in a way because we can go beyond the current policies and try to think out of the box.

CHANG: So what is the alternative that this proposal suggests?

CHARAP: The idea, say, if we take the case of Ukraine was in the place of what it has now, which essentially aspirations to join NATO but no realistic path of getting there and all the security challenges it creates with its relationship with Russia, it would instead - could opt to receive multilateral security guarantees - so that is Russia committing and the U.S. committing and Europe to its security - and measures to make those real in the form of military restraint commitments - so Russia would, say, agree to not deploy forces or exercise its military on Ukraine's borders - and a commitment to help resolve the conflict in the Donbas in a more accelerated manner.

CHANG: But let me ask you, I mean, while we're in this sort of imaginary world of diplomacy, what incentive does Russia have to enter and respect a multilateral agreement like this?

CHARAP: So if we accept what Putin often says, which is that the prospect of Ukraine's membership in NATO is categorically unacceptable to Russia, and we are able to thread the needle of offering Ukraine some increased security that doesn't involve membership in NATO, there is a plausible argument to be made that Russia would see that as in its interest, better than the status quo. And it could sort of achieve that outcome without having to resort to the use of force, which, as we will witness I think or already have, is going to be quite costly for Russia.

CHANG: So do you believe that if this proposal were actually in place, do you feel it could have headed off the sort of conflict that we are seeing right now over Ukraine?

CHARAP: I mean, the short answer is yes, although we didn't really write it as a policy proposal that could be implemented immediately. It was sort of thinking about what the outcome of a negotiation that hasn't begun might be. But what we see right now is that Russia basically does not accept the status quo and is seeking to revise it with force. And the alternative, which is not Russia getting everything that it wants, but it does get something of what it wants and the countries on its periphery do as well, is something, you know, that might not fully satisfy all parties but is better than a continual sort of cycle of crisis.

CHANG: Well, yes, your proposal is a very hopeful one, though I was struck obviously by the reality of the situation. You know, you describe the response that you got from government officials in various countries to your proposal. It sounds like none of them were on board, right?

CHARAP: Yeah. And we did it without any real expectation that any government would just pick it up and adopt it tomorrow, trying to think about what would happen if they did want to find some common ground. But we knew we were onto something when we were criticized, so to speak, in both Moscow and Washington and Kyiv for different reasons because a compromise is not going to be - among the governments is not going to be something that satisfies all their demands. By definition, you know, a good diplomatic agreement is one that all sides have some problems with but ultimately can live with.

CHANG: Samuel Charap is a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation and co-author of "Everyone Loses: The Ukraine Crisis And The Ruinous Contest For Post-Soviet Eurasia." Thank you so much for being with us.

CHARAP: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.