But such talk was never presented to Russia as a formal diplomatic offer.
Charles A. Kupchan, who was Europe director of the National Security Council in the Obama White House, said Mr. Putin’s muted response to such talk suggested that more explicit proposals to keep Ukraine out of NATO would have been futile.
“Was the body language coming out of Washington, Kyiv and every European capital enough to provide some trade space if he wanted it? Yes. But he did not seem to pick it up,” Mr. Kupchan said.
“I think going back to the early 1990s, the American foreign policy establishment has too easily dismissed Russian objections to NATO enlargement,” he added. “That having been said, when I step back from the events of the last couple of months, the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO looks more like a smoke screen to me than the nub of the issue” for Mr. Putin.
Understand Russia’s Attack on Ukraine
What is at the root of this invasion? Russia considers Ukraine within its natural sphere of influence, and it has grown unnerved at Ukraine’s closeness with the West and the prospect that the country might join NATO or the European Union. While Ukraine is part of neither, it receives financial and military aid from the United States and Europe.
Andrew S. Weiss, the head of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that Russia had made impossible demands from the start, but that the illusion of diplomacy set off a political debate in the West that served Mr. Putin’s purposes. Moscow, he said, focused “rather cleverly on age-old complaints about Ukraine’s theoretical eligibility for NATO membership, knowing full well that this issue triggers a lot of people in the West.”
The United States engaged in a “stale and predictable academic debate with ourselves about whether past administrations’ policies were needlessly provocative toward the Kremlin,” Mr. Weiss said. That discussion, he added, played into the hands of “isolationists like former President Trump who maintain that U.S. alliances are a needless burden and the Americans would be better off defending the border with Mexico.”
“In Europe, where anti-Americanism and Ukraine fatigue are just below the surface, the Kremlin’s Potemkin diplomacy gambit also paid off,” Mr. Weiss said.
Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said it was hard to know whether Mr. Putin ever took diplomacy seriously. But she said he might have expected the extreme pressure of an invasion to fracture the West and win him some concessions. “Having underestimated Western unity, he may have felt trapped and couldn’t retreat with nothing to show for it,” she said.