Without ruling out possible NATO membership for Ukraine, why can't we finesse this issue a bit?
Have NATO make it clear that no state with a non-NATO military base in it can join NATO; and then work a deal that returns Crimea to Ukrainian sovereignty but which grants Russia a Crimea Base Zone.
Russia could pay rent on the zone back to March 2014.
As for the Donbas? Well, Russia would have to get out. But Ukraine could grant some level of local autonomy on a limited range of issues, while Ukraine would maintain absolute control over the border.
I mentioned this notion just after Russia invaded, although I focused on selling the Sevastopol base complex to Russia. A year later, my views evolved on this concept (and I even found a draft from August 2016 that discusses the notion more--I have no idea why I didn't hit publish.)
Now I think Putin would need something a bit more, so I'd focus on the trade above that would in practice keep Ukraine out of NATO--which is something I thought Russia had already achieved--without denying the theoretical right of Ukraine to join NATO.
And for the West, it would not prevent Ukraine from joining the West through economic links and cooperating with NATO to improve Ukraine's ability to govern (by fighting corruption to strengthen rule of law) and defend their own territory.
That deal would also be a deterrent to a Russian annexation of a Sevastopol Base Zone because by doing that Ukraine would be eligible to join NATO.
There is no reason for Russia to be hostile to the West. And while we have to block Russian aggression until they tire of this pointless policy, surely taking a flashpoint off the table would benefit America, NATO, Ukraine, and even Russia.
Maybe trying to make this a crisis over Sevastopol rather than all of Ukraine would focus all of us on a problem small enough to be solved.
Given that China is still rising and seems intent on reshaping the status of their region, a confrontation with Russia--while necessary as long as Russia remains a threat--distracts us from coping with China (hopefully peacefully):
Kendall [the Pentagon's "chief arms buyer"] said U.S. policy had been centered on threats in the Asia-Pacific region and Middle East, but was now focused more on Russia. "Their behavior has caused us ... to rethink the balance of capabilities that we're going to need," he said.
At the strategic level, it would be better to avoid having Russia and China as potential foes. Given the lack of real capabilities of Russia to pose a threat to NATO away from the peripheries of NATO and given the inability of NATO to pose a threat to Russian territory, other than Kaliningrad, I think that we have more room to make deals that end the budding Cold War 2.0 that Russian paranoia is stoking.
And Russia has far more to worry about from China as Chinese influence spreads in former Soviet republics and in Russia's Far East itself--large portions of which were seized from China in the 19th century.
While America and China got along later in the Cold War to unite in the face of Soviet threats, the far stronger Chinese don't need our help to confront a far weaker Russia.
And America stands in China's way everywhere China looks as they seek to compel neighbors to submit to Chinese power.
So a deal with China is less feasible because we'd have to abandon allies, which could set off a train of allied defections to China as they see the power balance shift.
The best we can hope for with China is that we deter war until the Chinese realize that just as they have grown more powerful and prosperous within the system America designed that China can continue to prosper without overthrowing the system.
So Russia is the most logical of the two to win over. Let's start with Sevastopol, eh?
UPDATE: Let me add that August post that I oddly never published, since it notes that settling the crisis could prevent a war from breaking out with Russia, notwithstanding their weakness:
We really need to consider resolving the Ukraine Crisis with Russia rather than just seeing what happens.
Putin's subliminal war against Ukraine continues:
For two years, Ukraine has just been strong enough to cling to independence, but is too weak to regain control of the Donetsk basin. Regain Crimea? Crimea is lost. And Putin's creeping war proceeds.
Do read all of Austin Bay's commentary.
Are sanctions over Ukraine really harming Russia?
The West must not waver when it comes to sanctions. They are working and undermining Putin's support at home. His cronies and corporations are denied access to credit. The ruble has cratered, along with oil prices, making imports and travel unaffordable for Russians.
By 2017, the country will go bust, say experts.
"Russia's attempt to have Western sanctions removed over Ukraine is a 'race against time,'" said billionaire George Soros recently at Davos. "Russia is in a very, very weak position. It has enough reserves that it can last a couple of years... and in 2017 a lot of debt comes due."
Moscow's budget deficits soar, and social spending has been cut, leaving only shrinking foreign reserves to keep the lights on. Soros says there is $360 billion left, others say there's only half that amount left.
The writer says Putin has painted himself into a corner. That's a dangerous position for a man who may not be quite sane--and who has lots of nukes.
Are sanctions the key? Or is the low price of oil? And don't forget corruption that is felt now that oil prices aren't rising.
I ask because if the sanctions are truly the crippling part of Russia's economic problems, you have to consider whether Russia will consider sanctions the equivalent of war--which could prompt Russia to respond with military force.
Recall that Japan resorted to their Asia-wide offensive in response to our embargo of oil exports to Japan. A military response to an economic action, exploiting military opportunity against weak opponents.
By all means keep the economic pressure on Russia. But bolster eastern NATO and help Ukraine rebuild its military just in case.
And leave Moscow a way out by making this a crisis over Crimea again rather than the Donbas.
That is, get Russia to end their support of secessionists in the Donbas so Ukraine can reassert control--with perhaps some light autonomy as a face-saving gesture for Russia to justify withdrawal.
And restore Crimea to Ukrainian control while establishing a Crimean Base Zone that perhaps Russia buys or leases from Ukraine. It all depends on whether Ukraine wants to disqualify itself from NATO membership (but otherwise being free to join the West) by having a non-NATO Russian base on their soil, as I thought the situation was pre-February 2014, or whether they'd rather sell the territory to Russia and open their options.
Such a result would really be the status quo ante with enough spin that Russia could tell its people they won something for their troubles.
And then Russia wouldn't be tempted to escalate to war in response to economic sanctions that could be seen as the equivalent of war if they really are as crucial as the author says they are.
Bay thinks Crimea is closed. But if this isn't resolved in a way that knocks back Russsia and makes them pay a price for violating the Budapest Memorandum, Ukraine might try a Hezbollah strategy of hardening the Crimea front ground defenses and shelling, rocketing, and missiling (?) Russia's forces in Crimea (Ukraine can build missiles with as long a range as needed to hit Sevastopol), sending naval mines to harass Russia's ships using Crimea's ports, and making promises to ethnic Moslems in Crimea to resist Russia.
The latter would likely be a major problem in the long run, but against more powerful Russia, Ukraine can't afford to leave any potential weapon unused.
The West want the crisis to be over. But Russia does not. And Ukraine might not, either. What do we do about that?