The current crisis over the Kremlin’s threats to Ukraine constitutes Vladimir Putin’s most serious attempt to rewrite the arrangements that ended the Cold War division of Europe in favor of a Europe whole, free, and at peace. Putin threatens war if Kremlin demands are not met rapidly, including new attacks against Ukraine and potentially against European or even U.S. targets, if some of the most lurid Russian warnings are taken at face value.

The Kremlin has spelled out its demands in two draft treaties, Russia-U.S. and Russia-NATO, that the Russian government published in December. The terms of those drafts would restore Moscow’s control over Ukraine and former Soviet territories; destroy the North American Treaty Organization as an effective alliance; and reduce the European countries that were once part of the Warsaw Pact or Soviet Union but are now members of the European Union and NATO to vassal status with, perhaps, domestic autonomy but security arrangements dictated by the Kremlin. While Putin demands new guarantees, the draft treaties would violate commitments Moscow has already signed onto, including the Charter of Paris of 1990 that helped end the Cold War, the Budapest Declaration of 1994 that guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and the NATO-Russia Founding Act of 1997 that established new, cooperative relations between an enlarging NATO and then-democratic Russia, an “alliance with the Alliance” as we called it during the Clinton administration.

Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Putin demands that the West help restore its empire in Europe, the imposition of which by Joseph Stalin was the original cause of the Cold War. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov revealed a lot about Kremlin views of the countries between Germany and Russia when he said in December that the collapse of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact left them not free or sovereign but “ownerless.”

The Kremlin’s complaints about the Europe that emerged from the Cold War in 1989-91 are not really about NATO enlargement but about what NATO and EU enlargement meant: making real the promise of an undivided Europe with the newly-free Europeans able to join the rest of the continent. Instead, as Lavrov’s comment reveals, the Kremlin regards the 40 million Ukrainians and 100 million Europeans from Estonia to Bulgaria as mere property of one or another great power; Moscow lost them as the USSR collapsed and now demands them back.

In a pattern recalling Soviet times, Putin’s foreign aggression is taking place at the same time his domestic repression deepens, the most recent example of which is the banning of the venerable human rights group “Memorial” that documented Joseph Stalin’s great terror.

What’s going on? How real is the threat of a major war in Europe? What should the United States and Europe do about it?

Bluster Doesn’t Mean It’s Not Serious

We may be seeing Putin’s version of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s bluster and threats in 1961 over then-divided Berlin: an attempt to intimidate a U.S. President into offering concessions at a moment of perceived U.S. weakness, today as a result of the American defeat and withdrawal from Afghanistan and domestic political division.

The war talk in Moscow may be a sort of psychological operation to soften up the West, frighten West Europeans, and divide Putin’s western adversaries so that a lesser Russian attack – seizing another slice of Ukraine rather than a full-scale invasion, or stationing Russian forces along the Polish frontier, or “mere” cyber attacks and physical sabotage in Kyiv – is greeted with relief and thus accepted. And that would then set the stage for still more pressure.

The United States and its allies cannot assume that war talk from Moscow is “just talk” or a bluff.  The Russian-led military incursion in Kazakhstan shows that Moscow is willing to use its military in a big, overt way inside its neighbors.

Thus, the Biden administration’s dilemma: accepting Putin’s demands to restore a version of the Cold War division of Europe would mark U.S. abandonment of its own strategy and principles that it has imperfectly but persistently held since 1945; signal to Moscow (and Beijing) that the United States prefers a world divided among great powers to a world based on rules and values; betray U.S. allies and friends (like the Ukrainians) who put their trust in the United States and the strategy it has advanced for decades; and thus constitute a rout in the face of a weaker but determined opponent.

Slapping back the Kremlin’s war talk and refusing dialogue in the face of threats would be understandable. But it would also be unsustainable because it would tend to divide Europe and let Putin shape the narrative.

Meetings Next Week

A three-part negotiating process is set to start the week of Jan. 10: between the United States and Russia, between NATO and Russia, and then within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The United States learned during the Cold War that it is possible to talk to Moscow without selling out our allies, friends, or principles. But lessons apply:

  • Don’t let Moscow set the terms or play the aggrieved party when in fact they are the aggressor attacking their neighbor and threatening war generally.
  • Don’t race after them with successively more favorable proposals or unilateral gestures of “good will.” Don’t accept Moscow’s lies and historical fabrications simply to create a “good atmosphere.”
  • Don’t get rushed into a bad deal. (Signal determination not to do so. And mean it).
  • Don’t do deals with Moscow over the heads of the most interested countries. (Importantly, the Biden administration seems to have internalized the old Polish saying understood and appreciated throughout Central and Eastern Europe: “Nothing about us without us.”)
  • Do address real Russian concerns, e.g., military transparency, if that’s what the Russians eventually agree to discuss.
  • Do respond to reasonable ideas. (There were some buried in the Russian draft treaties, such as arms control measures, amidst more numerous, extravagant demands).
  • Do turn around good ideas that might emerge in the talks quickly.
  • Do supplement negotiations with sticks, e.g., sanctions prepared to launch (that the administration appears to have prepositioned in coordination with the Europeans), sending weapons to Ukraine now (underway, though more might be done), and preparing additional rapid U.S. and other NATO deployments to NATO’s east and letting the Russians know it (again, some is being done but perhaps not enough).
  • Do be prepared for a moment (or moments) of truth. The Russians may well walk away from the talks. Or threaten. Or provoke.  Or otherwise create a crisis or make a military move that they think will force the U.S. side to offer additional concessions to defuse.

The Biden administration wanted a stable and predictable relationship with Putin. That was a reasonable near-term goal. But it’s not possible at present. The administration was closer to the truth when it was speaking of strategic competition between the world’s democracies and autocracies.

In the talks to start next week, the United States, with Europe, should push back against Putin’s aggression and pretentions to resume Russia’s domination of Europe’s eastern half while trying to find ways to address whatever is legitimate in Moscow’s long litany of grievance. It won’t be easy. Putin is threatening war and may act on it. We’re in for a rough ride. We’ve been there before.

IMAGE: A Ukrainian serviceman walks out of a dugout on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near the village of Pesky, Donetsk region, on December 14, 2021.  (Photo by ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images)