The Ukraine crisis has been characterized by many, including Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. But such an oversimplification serves no one—not the West, not Russia, not those attempting to de-escalate. The present struggle is fundamentally about the nature and implications of the security arrangements that have dominated the globe since the end of the Cold War.
Affording some legitimacy to Russia’s security concerns does not mean rejecting the notion that the West—and Ukraine—also need to feel secure. Russia must step back its militaristic rhetoric and posturing, including any explicit or implied threat to invade Ukraine. But the West, especially NATO, would do well to examine the stability of current security arrangements and the ways in which they are perceived in Russia and elsewhere.
There are various dimensions to this crisis. On the question of Ukraine’s sovereignty and security, a roadmap exists that provides a solid basis for political accommodation and may yield concrete security benefits: the Minsk Accords of 2014 and 2015.
The prevailing, overly militarized approach to transatlantic security is in dire need of revision.
Under the agreements, signed by Russia, Ukraine, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and mediated by France and Germany, various regional and linguistic groups in Ukraine would have meaningful political representation. This, in turn, could be conducive to Ukraine’s de facto neutrality, as no one faction would be able to steer the country into the grip of either NATO or Russia—which may satisfy some security interests on both sides.
Yet this path only partially addresses the underlying reality of the eastward expansion of NATO. Since 1999, more than a dozen eastern European states have joined NATO, including former Soviet republics. This creep raises security concerns for Russia, which sees a military alliance inching closer and closer to its borders.
There is now some debate as to the nature of earlier assurances by NATO not to expand eastward after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Whatever assurances might or might not have been given, the demonstrable, observable reality is that NATO has indeed expanded.
The nuclear weapons component of the current crisis also requires careful attention. The standoff is one between two nuclear-armed sides, a situation that is without precedent since the end of the Cold War—the U.S. and other NATO states on one side and Russia on the other. Together, the sides possess more than 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons.
And it is little consolation that there are liberal democracies on one side, because, as the mantra says, there are no right hands for wrong weapons. From this perspective, there is no moral high ground. It is hoped that the crisis will not escalate, but such is the nature of escalation: outcomes that neither side intends can be reached.
Still, the current crisis represents an opportunity on several levels.
First and foremost, it is an opportunity to take a close look at the security arrangements that have dominated East-West relations since the end of the Cold War. The prevailing, overly militarized approach to transatlantic security is in dire need of revision. In this context, it is imperative to address legitimate security concerns and threat perceptions of all parties.
It is also an opportunity to push ahead on arms control. With luck, this crisis will not propel either side to acquire more weapons or to abandon dialogue aimed at regulating them. A silver lining to the standoff could well be the genuine engagement of the U.S. and Russia on bilateral talks about strategic stability, including the revival of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which expired in 2019.
Going forward, NATO and Russia will need to abandon their reliance on nuclear weapons. Part of that process must include a long overdue conversation about the stationing of nuclear weapons on the soil of European countries, against the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty to which all NATO members belong.
And the crisis is an opportunity for diplomacy. True to its best character and tradition, Canada can and should be calling for restraint and pushing forcefully for diplomatic solutions.
The Ukraine crisis provides an opportunity to move toward a common security framework. Adversarial security arrangements that define the relationship between the East and the West will result in adversarial outcomes—and no one should be surprised.