A forest near the border between Finland and Russia.

A forest near the border between Finland and Russia. Giulio Paletta/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

For a Lasting Peace, Europe Must Embrace Russia

The U.S. and the West should follow six principles to bring Russia into a “Europe whole and free,” as G.H.W. Bush envisioned in 1989.

Russia, a great power inhabited by a great people, now stands humiliated on the world stage. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a crime against peace, and his conduct of that war is a crime against humanity. Putin may be adept at poisoning opponents and jailing dissenters, but his army cannot refuel tanks or fight at night. Having failed to conquer Ukraine in a swift coup de main, Russia turned to bombing hospitals and daycare centers in a failed effort to terrorize the indomitable Ukrainian population. Putin’s aggression has been rendered impotent by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a Churchill in an OD green t-shirt. 

Putin’s personal humiliation may be well deserved, but a humiliated Russia is a grave threat to international peace and security. A vision of a better peace in Europe is now more essential than ever before—not merely a ceasefire or an end to atrocities and occupation, but a just and therefore enduring political order. The United States, still the indispensable nation, must lead the West in shaping that peace. That peace cannot include Vladimir Putin or the generals who committed war crimes in his name and under his orders. However, that peace must include Russia. When the Soviet Union justly disintegrated, President George H.W. Bush envisioned “Europe whole and free and at peace.” That vision is as vital today as it was 30 years ago. Russia is a European nation, and peace in Europe must embrace Russia as vital a part of Europe.

The vision of Russia as a vital part of Europe has deep roots in Russian history and promising shoots in contemporary Russian society. Peter the Great and Catherine the Great earned their honorifics not because of their fleeting wars of conquest but through their enduring commitment to education and modernization. Recognizing that the benefits of free markets required free people, Alexander II freed the serfs in 1861, four years before the U.S. ended slavery and without a bloody civil war. Fierce Putin critic Alexei Navalny continues this tradition, battling the regime’s corruption and brutality from behind bars. Tellingly, Navalny leads a political party known as Russia of the Future. Equally effective and equally organically Russian, the music of feminist rock band Pussy Riot challenges autocracy in Russia and around the world. 

Nevertheless, Putin’s brutality has equally deep roots in Russian history and society, and any realistic foreign policy toward Russia must recognize those roots. Putin continues a long tradition that views Russia as an empire and as the seat of a Slavic civilization separate from and opposed to the West. In 1833, Czar Nicholas II embraced an ideology of “orthodoxy, autocracy, and nationality.” This ideology posited the czar as the father of the Russian nation, leader of the Slavic civilization, and defender of the Russian Orthodox faith, answerable only to God. While rejecting overtly religious appeals, Stalin continued the autocratic, nationalistic, and imperialistic elements of this ideology, dismissing the internationalist pretensions of doctrinaire Marxism. Putin’s regime is firmly grounded in czarist and Stalinist traditions and enjoys considerable support among the Russian people. The Levada Center, an independent polling agency in Moscow, placed Putin’s approval rating at an astounding 83 percent. While acknowledging that polling is inherently difficult in a propaganda-saturated dictatorship, it would be foolhardy to ignore Putin’s considerable domestic support. It’s noteworthy that his approval is strongest among the same segments of the population that supported the czars: Orthodox Christians, rural populations, and older Russians. 

The central question thus playing out in Ukraine, and in Russia, and across the globe is this: Is Russia a nation that is part of Europe, or an empire that is opposed to Europe? Putin, in the czarist and Stalinist traditions, is the most recent advocate of the latter view. The United States must lead the West in achieving a better peace based on the alternative: Bush’s vision of Russia integrated into a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace. Moving from Putin’s Russia to the one Bush dreamed of will be a trek that must follow these principles:

● Peace in Ukraine will be determined by the government of Ukraine. While President Zelensky negotiates that peace, the United States and its NATO allies must continue to provide military, financial, diplomatic, and other assistance to amplify the costs of Russian aggression and relieve the suffering of the Ukrainian people. Western assistance is most effective when describing what the West is doing and will do, rather than providing a detailed program of what the West will not do. Western support for Ukraine must include post-conflict reconstruction, regardless of any reparations Ukraine seeks from Russia.

● Sanctions against Russia will remain in place so long as Putin remains in power. Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, and Russia cannot rejoin the family of nations under the leadership of a war criminal. If he reigns for another 20 years, then sanctions against Russia must remain for another 20 years. While painful to the West over the medium term, these sanctions are proportional to Putin’s crimes. Moreover, these sanctions offer a salutary opportunity for the West to free itself from dependence on Russia and other autocratic fossil-fuel providers.

● NATO reaffirms its Article V security guarantee to all member states. This reaffirmation cannot be mere rhetoric. NATO must tangibly strengthen its eastern flank, to include stationing and exercising of permanent, substantial ground forces and building the necessary infrastructure for rapid deployment to augment those forces in the event of Russian aggression. Constructing, expanding, and reinforcing ports, airfields, railheads, roads, bridges, training areas, and other military facilities demonstrates NATO’s seriousness of purpose over the long term.

● NATO reaffirms its commitment to the UN Charter, explicitly forswearing the threat or use of force against Russia’s territorial integrity or political independence and of interference in its internal domestic affairs. Such a commitment may seem a statement of the obvious in the West, but it is less obvious in Russia. Like his autocratic predecessors, Putin has justified his external aggression under the guise of resisting Western encirclement. Like his autocratic predecessors, Putin has justified his internal repression by falsely characterizing his domestic opponents as agents of the West. NATO must deny Putin these rationalizations by punctilious adherence to the principles of the UN Charter. While the Charter prohibits pursuing a policy of regime change, it specifically authorizes states to defend themselves, individually or collectively.

● The European Union should remain the primary instrument of European engagement and integration, including overtures to Russian civil society, Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics. To integrate Russia fully into Europe, the West must rely on institutions that are wholly of Europe. The European Union must engage Russian civil society, encouraging efforts to strengthen transparency, counter corruption, and respect human rights. This effort must be exclusively public and overt, in confidence that in the fullness of time these pro-democratic forces will one day rule Russia. Similarly, the European Union must engage Ukraine and other Eastern European states, rejecting any Russian pretensions of spheres of influence beyond its borders. Russia and Ukraine are European states, and must be members of the European Union.

● The West must commit itself to a sustained campaign of public diplomacy to affirm its acknowledgement of and respect for Russia as a great nation and Russians as a great people. Russia’s current government of kleptocratic war criminals represents neither the best of its past nor the possibilities for its future. Russia produced Tolstoy’s literature, Tchaikovsky’s music, Gagarin’s space flight, Baryshnikov’s dance, Kasparov’s chess, and so much more that Europe and the rest of the world embraces. Russia will one day export not gas, oil, and disinformation, but technology, art, literature, and science, rather than hatred and evil and death. 

Lenin is reputed to have said that there are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen. As in 1918 and 1948, we are now living through challenging weeks that will define the prospects for international peace and security for decades. The West must resist aggression, but cannot be content with the defeat of aggressors. We must use these coming weeks and months to build a better peace for generations to come. 

John Nagl is a retired Army officer who teaches at the Army War College. Paul Yingling is a retired Army officer who lives and writes in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado. This article reflects their own views, not those of the Army or the Department of Defense, and is not based on any special or classified information.