Original Sin: How the Weak Legal Foundations of NATO Make Negotiations With Russia Virtually Impossible

Aurelien published a very important post last week, So They Want Negotiations, Now.. It included a deep dive on the background and key provisions of NATO and the Minsk Agreements. It’s worth highlighting his discussion of these two pacts because both are far flimsier (especially Minsk) than most would imagine. Aurelien exposed a critical conundrum that was somewhat obscured by his focus on the history of some key negotiations, focusing on multi-party agreements where participants have overlapping and presumably sufficiently aligned interests to come up with what looks like an agreement. His observations:

For their part, it’s clear that the Russians don’t consider the Ukrainians to be independent actors, and so would demand that the negotiations be between themselves and NATO, with Ukraine being just an item on the agenda….

Negotiations are classically between sovereign entities that have the legal ability to enter into treaties. The European Union does (for example in the Withdrawal Treaty with the UK) but NATO does not….

So in practice, a future “negotiation” would be between however many paid-up members NATO then has, negotiating independently but trying to keep to a common position, Russia, Ukraine in one configuration or several, and perhaps others. Would Australia want a seat? What about Switzerland? Who decides? And what status would, say, Australia have, as an equipment supplier? What obligations would Canberra sign up to? An almost superhuman degree of consensus would be needed even to agree on the content of the negotiations and the rules of procedure.

I’ll serve up some additional extracts from Aurelien’s post. But at the danger of grossly oversimplifying (particularly since my frame of reference is corporate, not international, governance), European states wanted a security guarantee from the US at a time when strong formal support was politically unpopular and apparently didn’t have many stealthy backers in the Beltway either.

However, NATO became more solid due to the later setting up of a large-scale military operation, due in large measure to the US being willing to set up bases and put troops all over Europe (one wonders how much the profit potential of this operation was what Eisenhower had in mind when he warned of the growing power of the military industrial complex). It also has rituals and routines, like joint exercises, periodic high level meetings, and terrific media amplification, that give NATO the appearance of being more akin to the EU in terms of its cohesiveness.

However, Scott Ritter, who recall was a military brat in Germany and then was a NATO weapons inspector, has pointed out deficiencies in NATO’s ability to act in a well-synched manner. And this is not just Article 5, which merely tasks NATO members to consider coming to each other’s aid in the event one is attacked, as opposed to obligating them to do so.

On top of that, Ritter has also described multiple times in his interviews how when Ukraine troops are sent in at most the thousands (over time) to train in various NATO member states, the process impedes them operating as a cohesive force. One obvious lapse (also described by Brian Berletic) is that even after soldiers learn how to operate as a basic capacity in a specific role, say an infantryman or tank gunner, they then have to learn how to work together in increasingly bigger formations. That takes years.

The way the various NATO members train impedes creating bigger-unit cohesion. Even putting aside language differences, Ritter has stressed that every NATO member’s basic training differs somewhat. I have not heard him give an example, but he seems to regard those differences as big enough to matter.

Another example of lack of a desirable level of integration from a military perspective is the way many NATO members have their own weapons systems, such as in Ukraine, the US Abrams tank, the UK Challenger, the German Leopards. Any effort to provide a single fighting force with with disparate weapons creates a logistical and training nightmare. If NATO had had more central authority, one would imagine weapons development would have been on Airbus lines: a consortium so as to create a coherent, more streamlined “product line” with the manufacturing doled out among NATO members. But US arms-makers would likely not have tolerated being components suppliers and designers as part of a big US-EU combine.

Before you disagree with Aurelien conclusion that NATO can’t enter into treaties and why that is fatal to any effort to settle the conflict with Russia (even before getting to the wee problem that it is inconceivable that the West, or more accurately the US, will retreat from its position that no outside party can block NATO’s “open door” policy, when it is essential to Russia that any surviving independent Ukraine not join NATO), consider the nation-level duct tape and bandaid process for admitting new members. Again from Aurelien:

Thus, Finland’s accession to NATO was registered in the form of a Protocol to the Washington Treaty, recording that “The Parties to the North Atlantic Treaty” had agreed that Finland would depose an instrument of accession with the US (as the depositary state) and that each NATO member would then notify its acceptance of the instrument. The reason for this clumsy system is that “NATO” cannot agree anything, nor would its member states allow it to do so. In any future theoretical treaty, “NATO” would not be a signatory, nor would it be represented at the negotiating table, not would it have obligations and rights under the treaty. All this is down to individual states. Something like this happened before, with the above-mentioned Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty in 1990. There, some very clever footwork was needed to reconcile the fact that the negotiations were bloc-to-bloc, between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, with the fact that the treaty had to be signed and implemented by individual nations. Likewise, endless, laborious and often acrimonious internal negotiations were needed within NATO itself to try to establish a common position.

So this goes a long way towards explaining why the so-called Collective West gets so wrapped around the axle of having to negotiate with itself. If “NATO” has to act in some manner to settle the conflict in Ukraine, every member of NATO (an as Aurelien argues, potentially even interested parties like Switzerland) would have to come to an agreed position, since each country would have to sign off individually on any pact for it to amount to a NATO-equivalent treaty.

And look at what has happened of late with the supposedly agreed ascension of Sweden to NATO. Erdogan was browbeating into saying Turkiye was on board despite not having gotten what it wanted with Sweden’s handling of Kurdish separatists, which Turkiye deems to be terrorists. But Erdogan likely knew full well what would happen next. Turkiye’s parliament has to ratify Sweden’s membership. Sweden’s refusal to crack down on Koran burning, which they see as permitted free speech, means Sweden’s membership is in limbo. Of course, that it not preventing NATO from treating Sweden as a member in most respects, but this is not a very good fudge.

Some have suggested a Minsk III as another device for resolving the Ukraine conflict. After reading how tissue-thin Minsk I and Minsk II were, one wonders how lawyer Putin was able to talk himself into them, even before getting to the duplicity of Ukraine, Germany, and France.1 Aurelien has an excellent discussion which I am hoisting perhaps over-liberally:

Since the [Minsk] Agreements are often referred to but seldom actually quoted, let’s have a look at the texts. They aren’t easy to find….The first of the Agreements, dated 5 September 2014 (“Minsk 1”) was eventually transmitted by the Ukrainian delegation to the UN on 24 February 2015…First, the document itself consists both of a “Protocol”, described as an “Understanding,” and an accompanying “Memorandum” covering parts of its implementation. That is to say, there are no individual undertakings by any country in the documents, and no individual legal, or even political obligations. The documents simply record what the participants say they have agreed. There is provision for monitoring, but not enforcement.

The second is the participants and signatories. The text is signed by representatives of the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, and the breakaway Oblasts as well as by the OSCE, which was responsible for monitoring.) The leaders of France and Germany facilitated the talks but did not sign any of the documents. On the other hand, the Ukrainians (who did not recognise the breakaway regions) insisted that their then leaders signed only as individuals, not as representing any political entity….

The third is the content. Both documents are very short, as might be expected from documents concerned mainly to establish principles. That said, the Memorandum is extremely detailed in one part, and obviously drafted by military specialists, since it also contains very precise lists of equipment (mainly artillery) together with distances that they should be drawn back from the line of contact…

Finally, the language. This is always difficult where translations are involved, but what we can say is that both documents contain largely statements of good intentions, without targets or associated dates. Someone (presumably the Ukrainian government) will “implement decentralisation of power,” several somebodies will “enact a law” to punish atrocities, someone will “adopt a programme” for the economic revival of the Donbas. The texts carefully avoid saying who is responsible for what, and how the what is to be accomplished and when, yet alone evaluated. The document ostentatiously avoids anything resembling treaty language (eg “reached an understanding” rather than “agreed.”). But this is not really a criticism: it was just what could be extracted from the parties at the time….

As a result of the lack of trust and commitment, fighting began again and, following more pressure from France and Germany and a very long and difficult meeting, a “Package of Measures” was finally agreed on 12 February 2015, to implement the original Minsk Agreements (this became known as “Minsk 2.”) Note again that this is not a treaty, or an enforceable document of any kind…In certain cases (eg Constitutional reform) it is clear that the Ukrainian government has promised to do something, in others, who should do what is unclear….It’s also worth pointing out that some of the provisions go outside the normal bounds of a treaty, because they commit non-signatories to do things: for example, the Ukrainian Parliament is supposed to adopt a resolution on the areas to which a special political regime will apply. This kind of thing never appears in treaties, for the simple reason that no government can commit its parliament. In essence, therefore, this is a collection of Clever Ideas, which, if they could be implemented, were intended to help with the implementation of the Minsk Agreement…

For all that, the Agreements fell apart very quickly…The reality is that, had there been a willingness on both sides to make the agreements work, then somehow they would have worked.

So again, to perhaps oversimplify, Minsk was a set of aspirations, at best a toothless roadmap with only the military pullback well specified. Russian in late 2021 provided the US with draft treaty language as an opener to negotiating the new European security arrangement that Putin has been calling for since at least the 2007 Munich Security Conference. The US did not deign to respond.

In other words, this is yet another proof of what many paying close attention have already surmised: not only are the bargaining positions of Russia and Ukraine plus its Western allies too far apart for any deal to be possible, but the huge process issues with Russia needing a commitment from NATO creates yet another very large impediment.

Of course, Russia has already told itself there can be no deal. It has correctly called the US “not agreement capable”. You can’t sensibly sign a pact with an untrustworthy counterparty. Russia keeps formulaically saying it is willing to negotiate. But once you consider the history and the parties, these Russian statements are simply playing to the non-hostile parts of its global audience. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov just said the quiet part a bit louder: “If you insist on the battlefield, OK, let’s decide it on the battlefield.”


1 Yours truly has seen and even signed agreements that were clearly defective. A reason this sort of thing happens is one side putting too much trust into the other side, per the classic saying that an agreement is only as good as the parties to it. So a party agreeing to suboptimal terms may think the other side has incentives to perform beyond their weak obligations. In my case, my defective deal actually wound up working out to my advantage when breached by the other side….not that I could have expected that.

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  1. .Tom

    > Of course, Russia has already told itself there can be no deal. It has correctly called the US “not agreement capable”.

    Last week I was looking for the original source of this. For some reason I thought that it was China. Anyway, I couldn’t find anything and was left wondering if this an interpretation we place on the behavior and diplomacy of Russia and/or China or is it something one of them said and became a meme that we picked up?

      1. Prairie Bear

        Thanks for that! I had read the “non-agreement capable” version several time here, but I was able to plug this into google translate and hear it pronounced. It gave the English as “incapable of contract.”

    1. Louis Fyne

      Difficulty for etymology purposes is that Lavrov may literally said “not agreement capable” in Russian, but the term may have been translated as something more diplomatic like “does not implement its agreements”

      But “not agreement capable” was used well before 2017, particularly during the Russia-Georgia War in 2008.

      1. R.S.

        I’ve checked some book and newspaper corpora, and the word was already in use in the 1990s. It comes from a general verb that means something like “to settle things through talking, to make agreements”. Kinda polite way to say somebody is “non-negotiable” in a negative sense, either a my-way-or-highway type, or they abandon their agreements whenever it suits them.

  2. JW

    ‘You can’t trust them as far as you can throw them’ , which is nowhere at all.
    This is going to go the distance, or at least to November 5 2024. Which is an auspicious date in the UK calendar as well, being Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes and blowing up Parliament. Is this a sign?

    1. Redlife2017

      The UK will also be perilously close to an election in late 2024 as well (due by late January 2025, but with Parliament dissolved by mid-December 2024 at the latest). I presume that Sunak and his lot will push it out all the way unless something breaks their way (like Starmer looking weak for some reason).

  3. NN Cassandra

    In theory there are dozens of countries who have say in this, but in practice this whole thing is about US vs. Russia. I think Afghanistan is instructive example. The occupation was theoretically ran with NATO, but when US made the agreement with Taliban, it didn’t consult anyone. For five minutes there was hysteria in the rest of NATO that nobody told them they are leaving, followed by promises they will continue to occupy Afghanistan without US, which idea lasted for about five seconds, and then everyone left.

    So whatever US decides to do in Ukraine, it doesn’t need to ask NATO for permission. The problem is that US itself can’t produce realistic negotiating position and is not-agreement-capable anyway.

    1. ISL

      The situation is different. The US was not negotiating with anyone, it just stuck up its middle finger and left.

      The goal of any Minsk 4 would be to convince Russia not to demilitarize NATO (yes, NATO, not Ukraine) through a mutually acceptable and enforceable agreement. A Baltic could torpedo any such agreement as Russia would insist all NATO Euros sign (else the MIC would just funnel weapons through the relevant Euro intermediary with or without the US leadership’s knowledge).

      Absent NATO defeat, hopefully not nuclear, the only way I see is the West agreeing to intrusive inspections on all NATO soil (without reciprocity). Trust but verify. Otherwise, NATO (the US) only has one direction (per Duran) – escalate.

    2. Sausage Factory

      But the US will seek to make a face saving back room deal, they always do, except, this time, the Russians will not fall for it and provide for Biden (or anyone else) US is going to get publicly trounced and no amount of propaganda will save it. It is part of the future that this has to happen. The West needs to truly understand where it is, in global terms and that is, that in reality, it is finished. Oh of course it will be left to tend its ever shrinking garden (whilst maintaining its revenge fantasies) but little else. Truly dangerous times, one can only hope that an intellectually non existent US will realise far too late what is actually happening, it appears a few antenna are prickling but they are still 20 years behind reality.

  4. Socal Rhino

    I am reminded of Professor Hudson’s view expressed at the onset of the current military action: this is a US war against Europe, to cement their status as vassal states. This inside baseball stuff is interesting, if that interests you, but not really relevant.

  5. The Rev Kev

    At the end of the day, any negotiations will have to be between the United States and the Russian Federation. Any NATO countries there will just be window dressing and that is the truth. But there are so many problems with having negotiations that they may be insurmountable. So where will any negotiations be held? Off hand I cannot think of a country that both the US and the RF would accept. What if the Russians demand their stolen money back with the US demanding reparations. How are any agreements to be guaranteed with zero trust between the two countries. Back in the 60s there were negotiations between the US and the North Vietnamese but these for a long time bogged down on such things as the shape of the table in the room. They only concluded when it was obvious that the North had essentially won. In short, even without the other NATO countries – who will do whatever the US says – there is no chance of a negotiated settlement now. As Lavrov has said, at western insistence this will be decided on the battlefield.

  6. Lex

    In a rare disagreement with Aurelian, I’d argue that NATO doesn’t really matter. It will do what it’s told by the US because without the US NATO is inconsequential. Granted, that puts the US in a diplomatic bind because it knows that but can’t be too open about it. Russia doesn’t really need to demand much from NATO; it can simply demand that the US stop deploying in certain (or all) European countries. That’s what the Kremlin is after anyhow. Even collectively, the European NATO members without the US are no serious threat to Russia.

    But all this would require a treaty and the US will never ratify such a treaty. Ergo, Lavrov’s statement about settling it on the battlefield. In the same statement he said there will not be a ceasefire to facilitate negotiations. That’s what Minsk really was and the lesson was learned. Probably the lesson was understood beforehand but Putin didn’t want the war, showed no interest in returning parts of modern Ukraine to Russia except Crimea, and (likely) correctly ascertained that if the US climbed the escalation ladder then that Russia wasn’t in a position to resist.

    It’s worth recalling that the ATO was going very badly for Ukraine at the moments of both Minsk. Perhaps there was hope in the Kremlin that the western sponsors would realize that and recalibrate. Minsk gave them a pretty palatable way to climb down. Instead they did the opposite. Negotiating with Putin is pretty straightforward, the first offer will be the best one you get.

    1. Carolinian

      I agree with you. Poodles don’t get a vote. Perhaps the best solution would be to get rid of NATO which seems to be what the Russians would like. After all they dropped the Cold War pretense decades ago and here we are still acting as though they didn’t so our DC bureaucrats and politicians can be heroes in their own minds.

      Washington is the problem here and Europe is indeed irrelevant because they’ve made themselves so. And there’s another school of thought that says the Bidenistas will indeed end up saying uncle so Joe–or some other Dem–can hold onto power–that they will, in Vietnam parlance, declare victory or stalemate and go home. After all to the Dems the real boogie man is Trump and his populist followers. Their own world and not Europe’s is the one they are really concerned about.

    2. JonnyJames

      I agree with your take Lex. The rule of law, international and domestic law is flouted routinely and doesn’t really apply. The US (and NATO under the protection of the US) does what it wants, the law be damned – imposes illegal “sanctions” with impunity, commits war crimes with impunity, torture, gun running, drug running, regime change, election rigging etc.

      Bottom line: the US has the power to get away with crimes, it is above the law: it’s the “indispensable, exceptional” nation. The Law of the Jungle applies here. Although Israel is not a NATO country, the same applies: it gets away with crimes with the financial and military support, and political protection from the US.

      NATO is merely a collection of vassal states, directed by Washington. It would not exist if it were not for the US. Even with US participation, the conventional military capability of NATO is not as formidable as many believe.

    3. Acacia

      This makes sense to me as well. I will just add, repeating what @Kouros noted back in February:

      “The choice that we faced in Ukraine — and I’m using the past tense there intentionally — was whether Russia exercised a veto over NATO involvement in Ukraine on the negotiating table or on the battlefield,” said George Beebe, a former director of Russia analysis at the CIA and special adviser on Russia to former Vice President Dick Cheney. “And we elected to make sure that the veto was exercised on the battlefield, hoping that either Putin would stay his hand or that the military operation would fail.”


  7. Don Cafferty

    “Russian in late 2021 provided the US with draft treaty language as an opener to negotiating the new European security arrangement that Putin has been calling for since at least the 2007 Munich Security Conference. The US did not deign to respond.” There were 2 draft treaties, one with NATO and one with the US. Based on memory recall, I thought that NATO never responded formally because media reported individual statements sounding like guffaw, sneers, condescending and ridicule. Again based on memory recall, the US did respond officially. I understood the tactic that the US used was to respond to minor items of the draft treaty and ignore major points. In effect, the US was not willing to discuss major points. In writing my comment, I did a quick search and found that “The United States and NATO said … that they delivered written replies to security demands that Russia had made”. Further, “Russia said it had received Washington’s response to its security demands from US Ambassador John Sullivan.” The details of the letters were never made public. Concerning the major issue “Blinken reiterated Washington’s stance on the Russian demand that Ukraine never becomes a NATO member. “I can’t be more clear — NATO’s door is open, remains open, and that is our commitment,” he said.

      1. Yves Smith Post author

        Apologies for not mentioning the NATO proposal…but even Responsible Statecraft mischaracterizes it. It was not a treaty for “NATO” but “NATO member states”. And IMHO the US drives that bus, so having the treaties for NATO member states would be to prevent any too cute shenanigans.

        For the Russia draft treaty to the US, the Russian contention is that the responses were not in a form that was consistent with taking the Russian documenrts seriously. I am not familiar with norms, but some sort of similiarly-serious and detailed text was what they deemed to be in order if things were to go anywhere. The US response was apparently so far outside that that Russia didn’t deem it to rise to the level of being a proper reply.

        If you read the piece carefully, it is not inconsistent with Russian depiction:

        The tone of the U.S. statement is firm but polite.

        Russia wanted a counter-offer or detailed comments on their draft treaty, not a 50,000 foot reaction, even if it was measured by Biden Administration standards. After being had on the “not one inch further east” verbal promise, they wanted written terms. Lavrov made a statement on December 31 consistent with the idea that the US response was not looking sufficiently seroius. From the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, from a December 31 interview with Rossiya Segodnya:

        As you know, we have given our Western colleagues and then published draft treaties between the Russian Federation and the United States on security guarantees and a draft agreement on ensuring security measures for the Russian Federation and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation member states.

        This is a package of documents designed to guarantee that any further NATO advance to the East and the deployment of weapons systems near Russian bordersthat threaten us, especially in Ukraine, is ruled out…

        Our proposals are designedto create and legally implement a new system of agreements based on the principle of indivisible security and abandoning any attempt at achieving military superiority, which was approved unanimously by the leaders of all Euro-Atlantic states in the 1990s. Let me emphasise that what we need is legally binding guarantees since our Western colleagues have systematically failed to fulfill their political obligations, not to mention their verbal assurances and promises to the Soviet and Russian leadership.

        This legal foundation can be used to reachother agreements on a variety of issues in the future, including conventional arms control. Of course, they will not look like the longoutdated CFE Treaty even asarevised version.

        As far as we understand, the projects that we have drafted are being studied in Washington and other Western capitals. Specific dates for talks on these drafts and the members of the delegations are being agreed upon. Most likely, they will be heldin the first half of January…

        In closing, I would like to note that we will not allow anyone todrag outour initiatives in endless discussions. If a constructive response does not follow within a reasonable time and the West continues its aggressive course, Russia will be forced to take every necessary action to ensure a strategic balance and to eliminate unacceptable threats to our security.


        Remember, this was when Lavrov was less provocative than now.

        Keep also in mind that Biden and Putin had a December 30 call in which according to Russian sources (and Ray McGovern confirms he has read them) Biden told Putin there would be no offensive missiles in Ukraine. That was a big deal to the Russian side and a sign they were finally being taken seriously.

        Then when the January talks took place, the US retraded that point, confirming the Russia fixation with getting written commitments.

    1. Polar Socialist

      So I guess Russia can join NATO as soon as her disputes with neighbors are settled? That would be win-win, too, since I’ve heard NATO members are running out of weapons while Russia is producing them like there’s no tomorrow – a match made in heaven, should I say. /s

      1. The Rev Kev

        I read a story how at the end of the Cold war and the dissolution of the USSR, Russian officers would look at the huge parks of tanks and huge parks of artillery, etc. and wonder what those older officers that originally served in WW2 were thinking. Now with this war going on so long they have come to realize what all that gear in storage was all about and thanking their stars that much of it was still there.

      2. Petter

        If Russia is producing weapons like there’s no tomorrow, what’s the Russia-North Korea alliance all about?

        1. Feral Finster

          There is no “Russian-North Korean alliance” in the formal sense, and we don’t know the details of what any cooperation might entail.

          That said, we’ve been hearing for over a year now that NATO is out of weapons, just as various western military spokescreeps have stated that Russia is out of everything from men to missiles to burrito coverings and collapse is imminent.

          In neither case have these rosy predictions of victory come to pass.

          1. Schopsi

            Actually nobody has ever claimed that NATO is out of weapons per se.

            That they had and have problems feeding Ukraine’s demand for various specific types of systems doesn’t seem particularly controversial.

        2. Michaelmas

          Petter: If Russia is producing weapons like there’s no tomorrow, what’s the Russia-North Korea alliance all about?

          Primarily about raising the heat — the threat level — for US allies South Korea and Japan, and the US itself.

          North Korea has built and tested an ICBM — probably from a Russian design — that appears to be capable of hitting those allies and, indeed, the continental US.



          Still, access to North Korea’s vast supply of artillery munitions — for decades its main deterrent against Seoul has been the enormous amount of old school artillery ordnance it’s got stationed in tunnels in the hills within range of that city — won’t hurt Russia, either.

          1. Polar Socialist

            ICBM — probably from a Russian design

            Actually, and I know this sounds unbelievable, but it was Ukraine that sold North Korea a hulk of an older Topol. I mean, they had no warhead or command unit, but they also were not bolted to anything, so highest bidder got them. Thus the similarity to old Soviet Design.
            The navigation module was bought from China, apparently. Payload is likely a Pakistani design.

            At least, that’s what I’ve heard.

            1. R.S.

              I’m not sure about Topol. But the Yangel Bureau (aka Yuzhnoe, aka Pivdenne) in Dnipro/Dnepropetrovsk was indeed the head office for many Soviet ICBMs, including the solid-fuel RT-23 series. I wouldn’t be surprised if some blueprints and models grew legs and went AWOL.

        3. digi_owl

          Maybe a reminder that if USA cranks the heat on Taiwan, Kim has Putin and Xi’s approval to roll over the 38th and complete what was started in the 50s.

          The question then becomes: how thinly can USA spread itself as it already has trouble keeping Ukraine going.

        4. José Freitas

          I think it’s a strategic “hedging” of supplies. Russia is already probably producing enough ammo to sustain their level of usage in Ukraine, but they had to use lots of their stored ammo. They are probably looking at replenishing their stocks again fast and at a good price. So as to again have very large stocks, should war break out with NATO.

  8. TomW

    Even though you raise a rather abstract point, it leads to the more abstract point that Europe isn a nation. NATO includes Iceland, and excludes neutral Austria and Switzerland. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Union–NATO_relations
    And then you have the lesser issues of a common currency…the Euro…which includes a non overlapping set of countries. And on and on.
    Imagine if US states could separately enter into military alliances, currency schemes, or even membership. We settled things with the US Civil War … to the extent such things can be definitively settled.
    After WW 1, Europe remained a collection of great powers. After WW 2 wrecked the place agreed on the Coal and Steel Community in the 1951 Treaty of Paris. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Coal_and_Steel_Community

    European history through WW 2 is a history of constant warfare. Europe managed to bootstrap itself into a partially unified entity over decades. But if unification was the official rationale for the development of supra national institutions, demilitarization on a national level was a less discussed objective of the process.

    Yes people joked about the purpose of NATO being to keep Germany down and keep Russia down, but demilitarization on a national level was huge popular. That NATO is clumsy, inefficient, and unwieldy is a feature more than a defect. Except for the interest groups that want to fight. Which unfortunately includes US Neo-Cons. And weak peripheral countries that feel pushed around by stronger neighbors.

    From this perspective, NATO could be perceived as wildly in the best interest of Russia. If the US had really wanted to frighten Putin/Russia, threatening to unleash Germany would have done it. However, Russia was the essential “other” that was endlessly hauled out to justify European Unity. Should NATO be expanded to include the Balkans and prevent things like the ongoing Armenia–Azerbaijan border crisis? Or to leave it alone and declare victory? There was an enormous argument to leave it alone, but relatively weak interest groups aligned to relentlessly push expansion. Pushback limited to even weaker interest groups.

    OK…I am repeating the obvious. But see the foundation of the entire European project as the problem/opportunity.

    1. hk

      I think this is the fundamental problem of alliances. Someone (Keegan? It’s be like him to make a serious point and be oblivious to it’s ultimate implications.).

      The big difference between Western Powers and Germany (and also USSR) was that the former professed to believe in the ideal of alliances among equals while the latter did not. At the beginning of the war, the British and the French, supposedly having learned the lessons of WW1, set up a unitary command structure under which the BEF was legally under the command of the French high command, with all the accompanying legal-technocal accoutrements, except that “everyone knew” that it wasn’t “really” the case. This remained true even after US entered the war, when everyone was practically under US “control”: US couldn’t order the Free French around without de Gaulle in the way–despite trying hard to do that, for example. (This continues even today: legally, US generals, through alliance command structure, are (or were until very recently) in “command of,” say, South Korean military: everyone knows that no South Korean unit would obey the Americans without input from South Korean government.

      In contrast, the Germans (and the Soviets) generally did not bother with the pretense that their allies were sovereign (with the peculiar exception of North Africa where Kesselring, Rommel, and others were endlessly negotiating with Italians, but the whole thing was a diplomatic exercise to begin with. I suppose this was also true with Finland–but, they too were not so important to German war aims.).

      This is fascinating given the events of summer, 1939, as described by AJP Taylor. French and British leaders were eager to extend security guarantees to Poland but were uinterested in doing anything about it since doing so will force them into taking actions that they really weren’t capable of carrying out. USSR was willing to cooperate, but their condition was to bring Poland into their idea of an alliance system, as a not-really-sovereign ally under their control. The dithering by the French and the British, coupled with their treatment of Poland as a “sovereign” entity, coupled with the Polish unwillingness to be Soviet “ally” ensured that Poles, with their obstinate ultranationalism, dictated the events leading up to September 1, 1939.

      1. vao

        I suppose this was also true with Finland–but, they too were not so important to German war aims.

        There were the prized nickel deposits in the Northern part of Finland, which were considered crucial for Germany’s war production. Part of Petsamo had been actually lost in the Winter war between Finland and the USSR. The area was completely lost to the USSR from 1944 onwards.

        The Germans also counted on Finland to seal the siege of Leningrad, thus blocking re-supplies to the city through the lake Ladoga, and hence ensuring its fall.

        Finns were not interested — they wanted to get back the territories they lost in 1939-1940, not over-extend themselves in vast operational manoeuvers leading to life-or-death battles with an enraged Red Army. For them, re-conquering Vyborg and Carelia was enough, they hoped that could keep these formerly Finnish areas in a future settlement, and knew that moving beyond them would cost men and resources for naught, as they would not be allowed or able to keep whatever additional territory they would occupy. As a consequence, Hitler was always gritting his teeth when negotiating with Mannerheim.

        1. hk

          Yeah, I wound up tacking on Finland later after I thought a little more about Germany’s allies. Finland was never “subordinate” to Germany the way Hungary or Rumania were, or Italy became by 1942 or so. Maybe I’ll need to think about things a bit more.

    2. Michaelmas

      TomW: Yes people joked about the purpose of NATO being to keep Germany down and keep Russia down

      It wasn’t a joke.

      The exact line was “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” and they were the consciously chosen words of Lord Ismay, first NATO Secretary General, Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, Lord Temporal in of the UK House of Lords, etc., etc.

      This guy —


      1. TomW

        Thanks for the references. I’d never heard of Hastings, but he is an interesting historical figure. I don’t doubt that he is credited with the comment, but the wikipedia article references two articles written after his death. The Jofee article was interesting. https://web.archive.org/web/20111106225411/http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1886470-2,00.html
        Both that and the other article, written after his death, discuss, at some length, how Russia is the essential common enemy in the alliance. And illustrate the foolishness in the expressed Neo-Con desire to destroy Russia is what we are left with. Plus the common trope about what doesn’t kill, simply makes stronger. Instead of being an opportunity as proponents are expressing continually, it is simply a short sighted unforced error. Which, if we were a serious country, would be trying to enhance the symbolic threat posed by Russia, without increasing its actual capacities.
        But if you have a better source, I would be interested in seeing it. Because I frequently find details in original sources illuminating.

  9. ISL

    Yves, you ask a good question, why did Russia sign on Minsk, especially given Putin’s legal background?

    The only answer is that back in 2014, Russia foresaw the events that would lead to the current SMO. Of course, the Russian military buildup in the meantime has aided their performance significantly in the SMO; however, the rag-tag militias, with a little help from Russia, did very well with the well-armed Ukrainian forces, and as we see, even today’s NATO weapons perform poorly on the battle-field (excellent on the balance sheet).

    My conclusion is that it was the economic, financial, and diplomatic battles that Russia foresaw as requiring critical preparations in the intervening years – particularly ensuring a common front with China (made easy by US saber rattling).

    Russians are very good at chess, but also humint (and both require patience, not a current western leadership strength).

    1. Feral Finster

      “Yves, you ask a good question, why did Russia sign on Minsk, especially given Putin’s legal background?”

      Because they wanted to believe.

  10. Ignacio

    This nice analysis including here Aurelien and Smith helps us understand why do we see people in the West negotiating with themselves and sending messages showing their positioning publicly through their favourite media platforms. Problem is very few of them, if any, make the consideration that whatever outcome we want, if it is to be negotiated it will have to have Russia in the same negotiating table. Ignoring this is our way of saying that, so far, we are not ready to start any negotiation. Isn’t it? We are only mumbling about the possibility that one day in some future we might begin to think that a negotiation is necessary.

  11. Feral Finster

    Ukraine is not an independent actor. Neither is NATO. Both are monkeys that dance to the American tune.

    That said, I have seen no evidence that the United States is looking for a negotiated exit from the war. Rather, they continue to double down.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Yours truly has said that repeatedly. But there are way too many people talking up ideas like a frozen conflict and/or a ceasefire that their schemes need to be debunked from every available angle.

      1. Feral Finster

        There is a LOT of wishful thinking out there, and yes, it needs to be debunked, or, pace Brad de Long, gleefully and comprehensively trashed, but it seems that hope is the last to die.

      2. Acacia

        The main thing I hear from people around me is the idea that the conflict will just drag out endlessly and turn into another USian forever war.

        This position seems to turn on the presuppositions that, first, Russia cannot prevail on the battlefield, that NATO can tie them down forever in a slow burn, second, that “we’ll all forget about it soon anyway”, a sentiment which I interpret as the Collective West not really giving a toss about the Ukraine, or about the misery that “our” foreign policy has created for ordinary people there (Zelensky can escape to any of his numerous luxury hidey-holes), and that in fact the Collective West never wanted to think about it in any serious way in the first place. This recalls another excellent, recent essay by Aurelien, “Reality Would Like a Word”, looking at the “vast carelessness” of our elites.

        In such conversations, I try to point out that those forever wars were not with nuclear states in possession of very formidable military power, but this seems to just gets waved away.

        I’d like to find a better debunking of the “Ukraine will turn into another forever war” line.

    2. hk

      I submit that the problem is that they both are and are not, and that paradox is what manifests itself in the legal contradictions of the alliance.

      If they were truly not sovereign, they can be ordered to not make trouble by Washington and everything would be over. While it is true that they lack their own resources to do much of anything, it’s not quite true that they can simply be ordered (and would obey such orders). They dare not too openly defy them (they can’t), but they can still play a lot of games to manipulate their alleged masters in Washington.

      I suppose the problem really isn’t so much the problem of Ukraine or NATO as much as the schizophrenic state of Washington: too many people want different things at odds with one another’s agenda. But since Ukraine is a (sort of) valuable tool for them to use against their rival factions, Ukrainian (and other NATO) leaders get a lot of leverage vis a vis Washington. (i.e. “Frozen conflict” or whatever is not a “solution,” but a tool that Washington factions are using to negotiate among themselves because none of them is strong enough to dominate the political scene.) When nobody is in position to command, doing whatever the poodle wants to do is an easy fallback “solution.” I think this is also how AJP Taylor described the problem with Britain and France vis a vis Poland in the summer of 1939. Someone pointed out the work of Richard Lachemann the other day and he made some very astute observations.

  12. Darthbobber

    There are so many other obstacles to negotiations that this one is almost inconsequential. (and were those numerous obstacles to magically vanish, the structure of NATO would not be a problem)

    The US intervention in Vietnam had various members of our Asian regional “alliances” dragged into it, but the Paris Peace Accords were between only the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the United States of America. It nonetheless specified a host of things that countries and entities not party to the Accords would do.

    And the huge number of nations eventually involved in the anti-axis coalition didn’t keep the big 4 agreements at Yalta and Potsdam from being dispositive.

    I don’t find the Minsk 1 and 2 Accords to be unusually fuzzy by the standards of these things.

    The Paris Peace Accords, the Yalta declaration, the treaty of Veereniging (ending the Boer war), the treaty ending the Anglo-American war of 1812, and to some extent the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the American-Mexican conflict all made use of some creative ambiguity, along with some hifalutin’ stuff about respect for various rights for various peoples.

    Usually the parts that need to happen are nailed down, and a lot of other promises get made that neither party expects to actually happen.

    eg, the 1812 treaty had some boilerplate about the US respecting the rights of the tribes that had been British allies or under British protection. But the British knew perfectly well that they were in fact throwing those allies under the bus.

    Similarly with the Anglo-Boer treaty. The British got a tiny fig leaf of language suggesting eventual equal status for the black population, but the real question was when would that happen. Since the answer was “after independence” that meant never. And the British public knew it. (This outcome was somewhat unusual, in that the British, having been the clear MILITARY victors, nevertheless were compelled to agree a treaty so favorable to the Boers that had they been willing to do so earlier there would have been no war.

    Casual reading of the Paris Peace Accords will confirm that in various places it’s Chockfula aspirational, indeed soaring, commitments that absolutely nobody thought would be honored on either side

    And the Democratic and self determination rhetoric of Yalta really did little to hide that what was really being agreed was a demarcation line with nobody having much of any say in what went on on the other side of it.

    All a long winded way of placing the Minsk Accords in a long lineage of such things.

  13. Deeper Shades of Shade

    Europe wants to hold the Russian State to the terms of a 30-year-old treaty written on UN letterhead honoring the integrity of Ukraine’s borders. — Get real. We’re doing a multi-polar thing now. — So unless Russia wants to scribble an addendum in the margins of this particular document to which Russia’s other grievances are subordinate, I don’t see how NATO has authority to negotiate here at all.

    Because NATO, on the other hand, is honoring an older agreement to Europe to prepare to enforce the integrity of its members’ borders, the discussion of new draft treaties is just noise. From a philosophical perspective, I see this as collinear with Putin’s rejection of modernity, casting NATO as a declining Ottoman Empire and picking up from where the Russo-Turkic Wars were interrupted by the fall of both empires. Bakhmut was to be the victory at Nikopol in 1877. Immediately after, the Ottomans introduced the Winchester repeating rifle to European warfare, destabilizing the entire continent for 70 years, another example of the primacy of widespread technology dictating the terms of social relations, not hierarchal authority nor the United States.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Um, Ukraine tore up that treaty April 1, 2019. So you are accusing Russia of violating a treaty that no longer existed.

      The treaty that insured Ukraine’s borders was the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation. From Wikipedia:

      The Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation was an agreement between Ukraine and Russia, signed in 1997, which fixed the principle of strategic partnership, the recognition of the inviolability of existing borders, and respect for territorial integrity and mutual commitment not to use its territory to harm the security of each other. The treaty prevents Ukraine and Russia from invading one another’s country respectively, and declaring war.[2] Due to the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian War in 2014, Ukraine announced its intention not to renew the treaty in September 2018.[3] The treaty consequently expired on 31 March 2019.[4][3] The treaty was also known as the “Big Treaty”…

      The document superseded the previous treaty between the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic and the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of 19 November 1990 (before dissolution of the Soviet Union).[11][12]


      As for Wikipedia taking up Ukraine propaganda, Russia was not supplying arms to Ukraine early in the war (Jacques Baud, who was a UN inspector, said they didn’t find any; recall the Donbass separatists captured a lot of Ukraine equipment, in large part because the Ukraine army didn’t want to fight then and just left; this was why Banderite stiffeners were added to the army, to stop that sort of thing). Putin also repeatedly rejected separatist entreaties to be allowed to join Russia. This was a civil war that affected Russia due not just to the impact on ethnic Russians but the fact (per the UN) that 1 million refugees left the Donbass for Russia and another 500,000 went to Belarus in 2014 and 2015.

      It also appears that Wikipedia is less than honest in depicting Ukraine deciding “not to renew”. Vestnik Kakkaza clarifies that the treaty was set to automatically extend every ten years: https://en.vestikavkaza.ru/news/Ukraine-officially-scraps-Friendship-Treaty-with-Russia.html

  14. Susan the other

    It is incomprehensible that NATO is not a legal entity yet it behaves as if it were. It has no sovereignty yet war has been all but declared by NATO members. And conveniently, nobody takes responsibility for this pretense. Who can blame Russia for refusing to dialog with them. Russia has formed “political” alliances with the BRICS, the SCO, etc. They are alliances between sovereigns. NATO cannot deliberate anything effectively because it is a military alliance. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a joke, the whole thing is a charade. Fortunately for Russia and China, NATO appears to be too unwieldy to function effectively as well. All NATO does at this point is provide cover for its belligerent friends, which is a big mistake. Especially so because war is a very expensive way to interact, as opposed to diplomacy and trade, and all the more so given the fact that Europe and the US have limited supplies of oil – the lifeblood of any military.

  15. Aurelien

    A couple of points, if I may interject.
    It’s very important not to confuse political influence with legal status. Of course the US has by far the largest single voice in NATO, although the idea that other NATO nations simply follow its orders is a media fantasy that doesn’t survive context with real life. Many European nations are more radical on the subject of Ukraine than Washington is, for example, and will need somehow to be calmed down. In addition, many of the problems of NATO – especially now – are between European members rather than between them and the US, and it’s these kinds of problems that would cause the most trouble in any attempt to agree a negotiating position. Look at the fun and games between Sweden and Turkey, for example. Whilst the US could probably force through agreement on a very broad negotiating position (assuming it could come up with one) that’s not really the issue.

    Unless you are a party to a treaty, no-one else can impose legal obligations on you: such an agreement would be invalid anyway, and the Russians would refuse to sign it. The US could sign a bilateral treaty with Russia agreeing to do things it was in its power to do, and did not affect any other nations, but that’s it. If the Russians want a proper legal end to all this as opposed to a de facto permanent ceasefire, which is not certain, they will insist on the whole membership of NATO signing individually, as a minimum, and that means not only a fantastically complicated negotiation, but ratification by the parliaments of all member states. There are provisions in some treaties for the treaty to come into effect after a certain number of ratifications, but I doubt if that would work here. All this, of course, assumes that there’s something to put in the treaties. The alternative would be a series of bilateral treaties between Russia and the major NATO powers (sorry Portugal) but that would be a nightmare all of its own.

    In other words, by turning down the opportunity to make serious counter-proposals in December 2021, the West has produced a situation where any flavour of settlement, from ceasefire agreement to security treaty, has become impossible to negotiate. Since the West cannot now win, and since a treaty appears to be non-negotiable, the default alternative seems to be a permanent state of semi-conflict, with a strong and profoundly angry Russia facing a West which is becoming steadily weaker. It’s hard to think of an outcome which would be worse for the West in general and Europe in particular, but that’s the way we seem to be going.

    1. Carolinian

      Of course many of us are in the peanut gallery on this but I was in Europe decades ago–late 70s/early 80s–and I’d say yes, then, independence existed and attitudes toward Americans varied from arms length to downright hostile. But I’d humbly suggest that you are discounting the degree to which cultural conquest has occurred and complacent acceptance of US military hegemony has hardened. As Trump used to say Europeans have been getting a great deal defense wise as wealthy Americans in turn got to dominate the post war world economically. Whatever their rhetoric it certainly seems that the current Euro leadership are card carrying neocons who mirror the attitudes of DC and should those attitudes change theirs will as well. Who among them, after all, were acting as though afraid of Russia before Biden ginned up his Ukraine war to boost his image?

      IMO we started this and we will have to end it.

    2. kemerd

      I think the counter argument is not that the poodles will do what they are told (which is mostly true) but rather their disagreements would mean nothing. The NATO allies have no real military potential. For example, if the US agrees to not station any new troops or missiles and that removes existing infrastructure from Eastern Europe, what are the Europeans going to do?
      The conflict is all about raw power and Europeans simply does not have any that might matter to Russians

        1. kemerd

          Yes, also Erdoğan makes noises who matters even more than Poland, but if the US decides to pull out of Europe as Russia wants, what are they going to do?

          1. Smith W

            Poland may take Lvov and some western parts of Ukraine, the interpretation of the April 10 2010 event may change, instead of blaming the KGB and Putin, the Poles may blame the CIA and SBU ?

  16. R.S.

    >Another example of lack of a desirable level of integration from a military perspective is the way many NATO members have their own weapons systems

    Just an example of how crazy this thing gets:
    When long-anticipated military aid arrived at one of the brigades stationed on the Donbas frontline, the soldiers were over the moon. But disappointment soon followed when they learned that the ammunition they received is useless: Finnish mortar bombs of 120mm calibre didn’t squeeze into their Mod. 63 Italian mortars, despite them being the same calibre. .

    Taras, a commander of a mortar battery, was tasked to find the way out of the situation. He bought a grinder and manually trimmed each of the eight tail fins of the 1,000 mortar bombs.

    I saw a post on a Russian TG channel the other day. The guys there compiled a list of various artillery systems NATO provided to Ukraine. Mortars, cannons, SPGs, MLRS, those things. The list ran about 40 systems. And that’s just for artillery, the same goes on with tanks, IFVs, MRAPs etc etc.

    1. hk

      Some brass in DC (was it Kirby, Millet, or Austin?) thought that was a great thing and boasted about it publicly, to the horror of anyone who knew anything about logistics.

      And these guys had 10 stars among them?

      1. Polar Socialist

        While it matters little in this regard, it should be pointed out that the Finnish 120 mm mortar was developed in the early 30’s long before even NATO itself existed, and the concept was copied in many armies.

        Since Ukraine also has Finnish 120 mm mortars, this is a good example of the often mentioned logistical nightmare of a hodge-podge army.

  17. Finn Andreen

    Dear Yves,
    Thanks for giving attention to this piece from Aurelien that I hadn’t read.

    An important point hasn’t been mentioned here in connection with the Minsk agreements. However flimsily or non binding these were, they were actually unanimously voted in the UN Security Council, resolution 2202 (2015). That makes them part of “International Law” and as such this gives all signatories a “legal” obligation to implement them, or at least do their part in implementing them. Here one could argue, as does Russia, that Ukraine is in breach of “International Law” by not implementing the federalizing part of the Minsk agreements and refusing to negotiate with the leaders of DNR and LNR.


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