Biden’s plan B to avoid war: a pact with Putin on the Europe of tomorrow

Helsinki 2: an agreement on the Atlantic retreat from the East Among the supporters also McFaul, former Obama ambassador

The constant announcements about the date and modalities of a Russian attack seek to destabilize Vladimir Putin’s plans. Behind the scenes more is happening. Authoritative voices are beginning to imagine what concessions could placate Putin and usher in a period of truce in Europe. Among the proponents of a compromise are Barack Obama’s former ambassador to Russia; two of the major strategic think tanks heard by the White House; several analyzes in the geopolitical journals of the American establishment such as Foreign Affairs And Foreign Policy.

The starting point is a lucid diagnosis of the balance of forces. In the face of the more than one hundred thousand Russian soldiers deployed on the border, what is the West opposing? Beyond the apparent NATO cohesion, the reality is not comforting. Having linked itself to Russia with an overwhelming energy dependence (55% of its gas comes from Moscow), Germany is not quite as sympathetic to its Atlantic allies as one would like.

New Chancellor Olaf Scholz met with Biden in Washington last week. When announcing whether a Russian attack would spell the end of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Scholz made a painful mute scene, which only optimists interpreted as adhering to US sanctions threats. If a part of Germany is tempted by “Finnishization”, that is, by a neutrality between East and West, Biden’s reluctance is all the more evident. The American president has ruled out sending American soldiers to fight in Ukraine. Why should young Americans risk their lives while wealthy Germany only sends… helmets to the Ukrainian army? It is in this scenario that the compromise party comes out into the open.

Michael McFaul, who was Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, argues that “only a great deal with Putin can avoid war.” The former diplomat is not optimistic, he considers Russia’s requests unacceptable: that is, that NATO should forever close its doors to Ukraine, and remove troops and weapons from the countries that joined it after May 1997. This would be a retreat. Atlantic from Eastern Europe, a return of those countries to the sphere of influence that was Soviet. Those demands are so extreme that they may seem “justifications for war, rather than grounds for negotiation.”

But war is not an easy option for Vladimir Putin either. He would encounter resistance and would have to justify massacres of a Ukrainian people that he himself describes as part of Russian history. McFaul launches the idea of ​​a «Helsinki 2», a great multilateral agreement that offers reciprocal guarantees to the Russians and the Europeans.

The historical recall is interesting because the first Helsinki agreement took place in the 1970s, when the USSR seemed on the rise and America in difficulty. That agreement, by stabilizing Europe, did not turn out to be a bad deal: in the long run it facilitated the advance of freedom to the East.

Dmitri Trenin, an authoritative Russian analyst who heads the Moscow office of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, expresses himself on the same wavelength. For him, Putin’s goal is not to conquer Ukraine, but to change the balance in Eastern Europe in a way that is less unfavorable to Russian interests. It is essential that Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova remain out of NATO for a long time; and wants US intermediate missiles out of reach. With these results Putin could triumphantly present himself to re-election in 2024.

The Rand Corporation, another think tank heard by the Pentagon and the State Department, imagines the creation of a European Security Council (United States, Russia, France, Germany, England) guaranteeing a “buffer” of non-aligned states: the same former Soviet republics mentioned above, plus Armenia and Azerbaijan. “Seeking consensus – says Rand’s Samuel Charap – is not appeasement or yielding, it is pragmatism ». During the First Cold War, in addition to Finland, another frontier country, Austria, settled into neutrality between the blocs. They were not ideal solutions: Vienna and Helsinki gave up pieces of sovereignty. Sometimes we settle for the least worst.

The doves that suggest a plan B to Biden are not necessarily destined to prevail. In Washington, the alignment of pessimists condemns the search for compromise with Putin as a mistake: according to the hawks, every failure will encourage the Russian autocrat in his aggressive impulses, every piece of influence regained by Moscow will make his appetites grow again.

The alternatives proposed by the hawks have weaknesses. In particular the sanctions: on the one hand they would do the same damage to Western Europe if it came to energy blackmail; on the other hand they would push Russia more and more into the economic sphere of China.

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