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Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S President Joe Biden shake hands during their meeting at the 'Villa la Grange' in Geneva, Switzerlandon June 16, 2021.Alexander Zemlianichenko/The Associated Press

As Vladimir Putin moved tens of thousands of troops to Ukraine’s borders, and issued a list of demands to Washington and NATO, the West asked: What does Russia want in Ukraine?

But the more important question we should be asking ourselves is: What does the West want in Ukraine? The answer is, or should be, simple: The West – Canada, the United States, the European Union, NATO – wants an independent Ukraine.

There are many aspects of autonomy and security from Russia that Ukraine needs; whether the Russian President, Mr. Putin, can accept any of them is what continuing talks must aim to discover. They continue this week through the NATO-Russia council and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Some believe that Mr. Putin’s military buildup on the Ukrainian border late last year, and his call for such things as a NATO pullback to its frontiers of a quarter-century ago, is a carefully staged prelude to an invasion. He’s making demands that can’t be met; when they are not met, he has his pretext for war.

And that’s how this story may end. But it’s difficult to believe that it’s Moscow’s preferred end. Because if Mr. Putin had wanted to invade Ukraine, he could have already done so. He has before.

In early 2014, Russian troops took over Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and later, in an act not recognized by the international community, Moscow announced that it had annexed the region. Something similar happened in eastern Ukraine, which Russian-allied militias and barely disguised Russian soldiers violently occupied, setting up two self-proclaimed independent statelets. On their unrecognized borders with Ukraine, a low-intensity war has raged for eight years.

Mr. Putin has long portrayed all of this as a story of Russia simply defending itself. In his tendentious retelling of history, Russia is the victim and NATO the aggressor, for allowing many countries in the former Soviet bloc to join the alliance. Forgotten is that, once upon a time, when the hope was for a democratic and friendly Russia, the West extended all sorts of olive branches.

Mr. Putin’s list of demands in the current crisis includes NATO pulling back to its pre-1997 lines. That is obviously a non-starter, since it would mean that countries such as Poland and the Baltic states – which have rather large historical reasons for fearing Russia – would be shoved out into the cold. U.S. President Joe Biden couldn’t possibly sign on to such a political humiliation, and neither could other NATO governments. It’s not a serious demand, and Mr. Putin surely knows that.

But the demand that Ukraine not join NATO is different, and far from objectionable, because NATO isn’t planning on offering membership to Ukraine.

NATO was created after the Second World War to deter Stalin’s Soviet Union. Its creation effectively recognized two European spheres of influence. The West would respond with massive force to any military incursion into its sphere, but it would not launch World War III to support uprisings – Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 – in the Soviet sphere.

We are not going back to that. But there may be one aspect of the old East-West arrangement that can offer inspiration. During the Cold War, there were some territories that both sides agreed would be in neither’s sphere of influence. The most successful example was Austria.

Like Germany, it was divided into four occupation zones (French, British, American, Soviet) in 1945. But Austria was unified more than three decades before Germany, in 1955, under a democratic, Western government. Moscow was given a guarantee that Austria would remain militarily neutral; Moscow in turn agreed to respect Austria’s sovereignty.

All sides kept their parts of the bargain. Neutrality was entrenched in Austria’s constitution; to this day it has never joined NATO. And the Soviets pulled out and stayed out. It was an excellent result for Austrians, and for Europe.

So what do Washington, London, Paris, Berlin and Ottawa want in Ukraine? For Russia to recognize and respect the country’s independence.

Given that Moscow has already bitten off two chunks of Ukraine, negotiating an exit from the Russian orbit will be no easy thing. But Mr. Putin, a nostalgist for all things Soviet, might just be willing to embrace one of the few happy results of Soviet policy in postwar Europe: The Austrian solution.

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