This past week, I had the opportunity to attend a roundtable in New York sponsored by the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development on the question of whether the West and Russia have entered into a new Cold War. My sense of pessimism that it now seems impossible to get relations between Russia and the West back on track was reinforced by listening to the exchanges. Even if the present cease-fire holds in Ukraine and succeeds in halting open warfare, the effect will only be temporary. Any sort of long-term settlement seems to be beyond reach. Neither Russia nor the Western powers are willing to be the first to offer the unilateral compromises that might start a trust-building process.
One issue that was particularly striking was the apparent inability to untie the Gordian knot of NATO expansion. On the one hand, as a former German defense minister noted, the majority of NATO members are unwilling to even consider a Ukrainian application to join the alliance. Very few of the alliance’s members, apart from the United States and several former Warsaw Pact states that feel their security jeopardized by a resurgent Moscow, are interested in having the alliance share such a direct frontier with Russia or take on new security commitments. A simple headcount reveals that at least half the alliance would be opposed to extending a membership action plan to Kiev—and this for an alliance where the consent of every member state is required.
Yet even if a number of European capitals insist in their demarches to Moscow that Ukrainian membership in NATO is off the table, no NATO country is willing to guarantee, as Russia has demanded, that Ukraine will remain permanently neutral. Even among NATO members that oppose Ukrainian accession, none want to endorse the principle that any country outside the alliance can have influence over who joins it. Ukraine may never be allowed into NATO, the thinking goes, but Ukraine’s right to seek membership cannot be abridged.