Will NATO Saber Rattling Derail Hopes for Ukraine-Russia Détente?

On the eve of a NATO summit in Wales at which member-states will consider admitting Ukraine into their alliance and formally announce expansion of military operations in Eastern Europe, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that he and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko are close to agreeing on a plan to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

While President Obama, in remarks delivered at Nordea Concert Hall in Estonia, talked of Russia’s “aggression,” “unrestrained nationalism,” and “brazen assault on the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” the leaders of both Russia and Ukraine appeared — amidst significant confusion and despite such saber-rattling — to be making progress toward possible political settlement.

“Yes, this morning President Poroshenko and I spoke over the phone and our views, as far as I understand, on settling the conflict are very similar,” Putin said Wednesday, according to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti.

According to news reports, Putin has drafted a seven-point ceasefire plan. Among its conditions: that separatists halt all offensive operations; that Ukrainian armed forces move their artillery back out of range of cities and large towns in the rebel-held area and cease airstrikes; the establishment of an international monitoring mission and humanitarian aid corridors; a total prisoner exchange; and the creation of “rebuilding brigades” to repair damaged infrastructure.

The rhetoric around Russia’s — and more specifically, Putin’s — aggression is misplaced, some experts warn, and threatens to undermine reconciliation. In fact, it could have the opposite effect, provoking a large-scale confrontation between NATO-aligned countries and Russia. 

David Gibbs, a professor of history and government at the University of Arizona who has written extensively on NATO, says: