Global outrage is mounting against Vladimir Putin, and rightfully so, as Russia's hand is apparently exposed behind the deaths of nearly 300 entirely innocent passengers on flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine. But amid the shock and horror, the tragedy may offer a new opportunity for peace in Ukraine -- if Western leaders can provide Putin with a plausible way to retreat.
From the Russian point of view, it was a terrible piece of bad luck that most of the tragedy's victims were Europeans. Moscow's spin on Ukraine has been to cast it as one more US imperialist adventure; Washington seeks confrontation with Russia and is dragging a more pragmatic Europe along with its usual bullying.
This narrative flies in the face of certain basic facts: The whole Ukraine conflict started because Kiev wanted to move closer to the European Union, not the US. Nonetheless, it finds many sympathetic ears in Europe, who either want to keep the business ball rolling with Russia or just suspect America's motives in anything it does. (Our ham-handed spying on Germany does not help in this regard.) Washington has led the way with rhetoric and sanctions against Russia, while the EU has done as little as possible, passing up another chance to act at a Union summit last week.
That division of labor suited Putin perfectly. Russia has little to lose by angering the US. Economic ties between the countries are weak.
Europe, by contrast, represents Moscow's trade and investment lifeline, as well as its cultural lodestar for centuries. Most Russians of standing these days want to educate their children in England, own a summer villa in Tuscany or Nice, and act like a big shot on the streets of Paris or Amsterdam. That surely includes many who have helped craft state policy or propaganda around Ukraine. Within Europe, the Russia-backed separatists could scarcely have chosen a worse target than the Netherlands, which shed more blood on MH17 than any other nation. A large proportion of Russia's oil exports are pumped to the Dutch port of Rotterdam, and Russian organizations of all size use Dutch offshore companies as a tax dodge and foothold to global trade.
So whatever knee-jerk bluster or obfuscation the Kremlin is offering at the moment, Putin is almost certainly more eager to end his Ukrainian adventure now than he was a week ago. Even if the EU sputters over formal action again, turning Russia into an informal pariah state closest in spirit to North Korea or Syria cannot be the legacy that its current leader wants. Yet Putin has probably invested too much political capital in the East Ukraine insurrection to walk away from it empty-handed, and those in the West who would press him should not underestimate the leverage he maintains in the conflict.
As a military reality, the rebels could dig in again, forcing battles for control of the regional cities Donetsk and Luhansk that could shift the outrage-ometer against the Ukrainian attackers as they make fatal mistakes of their own. Economically, Russia can maintain its current gas blockade, and otherwise sow chaos that would make it tough for Petro Poroshenko's Kiev government to survive its first winter.
The question then becomes: What can Ukraine and the West give Putin as a consolation prize for ending the insurgency? Of Russia's various objectives in Ukraine, clouded as they are by months of hyperbole and dissimulation, the most legitimate is preventing its largest neighbor from joining NATO. If Americans put the shoe on the other foot for a moment, they will readily understand Moscow's concern. How would we feel if Mexico and Canada aligned themselves with a magically restored Warsaw Pact, whatever promises were given of non-aggression? We in fact gathered a motley crew not unlike Putin's proxies in Ukraine to invade tiny Cuba in 1961, and sponsored another one throughout the 1980s in distant Nicaragua.
Ukraine's relationship to the Atlantic alliance is amorphous at the moment. In 2008, NATO declined Kiev's request for a Membership Action Plan, the normal run-up to joining, but instituted an Annual National Program that could in theory lead to membership by another route. Recently-deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, who took power in 2010, blew hot and cold on the issue, keeping the Annual Program in place but declaring there was "no question of becoming a member" of NATO in the foreseeable future.
Current President Petro Poroshenko supported NATO membership when he was foreign minister, just before Yanukovych was elected, but has tempered his position since then, saying he would not push for a referendum on the issue. Public support has also been lackluster. As recently as 2012, polls showed no more than 15% of Ukrainians wanting to join NATO, though that number shot up to nearly half after Russia's annexation of Crimea this spring -- one more example of how Putin's policy is making his own fears come true.
So trading a firm pledge from NATO of Ukraine's neutrality in exchange for a renewed Russian pledge to respect its territorial integrity, and of course an end to the Eastern revolt, might give everybody something they want without sacrificing anything that is essential. Hawks will object that this amounts to rewarding Putin for aggression (not to mention writing off Crimea as a lost cause), but if you cannot defeat an enemy at acceptable cost, you have to negotiate with them.
It is instructive at this moment to look back at Thirteen Days, Robert F. Kennedy's memoir of life by his brother John's side during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. While JFK is remembered for his resolution during the confrontation, Bobby reminds us that his decision to blockade Cuba was the more dovish of the options the Pentagon put before the president. Numerous voices within and without the administration clamored for an outright invasion of Cuba instead before the Soviets could finish building their missile batteries.
The memoir also reveals that JFK kept in constant contact with his antagonist Nikita Khrushchev, concerned about maintaining an honorable path to retreat for Moscow. "The final lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is the importance of placing ourselves in the other country's shoes," RFK wrote. "What guided all [President Kennedy's] deliberations was an effort not to disgrace Khrushchev, not to humiliate the Soviet Union, not to have them feel they would have to escalate their response because their national interests so committed them."
Such a credo, publicly spoken today, would doubtless be eaten alive by the army of Beltway armchair warriors. But it remains a guidepost for grown up leaders with real lives depending on their decisions. Maybe they can act on it now, and give some meaning to last week's awful event.
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