As Russia continues to concentrate more than 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine, in blatantly threatening fashion, talks last week between U.S. officials and their Russian counterparts stalled. But we must continue the effort to defuse what could become the greatest security threat to Europe since the Cold War ended.
Russia demanded guarantees that NATO, the Cold War alliance set up to counter the Soviet Union that has now expanded to 30 members, will not expand farther into the former Soviet space. In fact, Vladimir Putin has insisted that NATO walk back some of its existing capabilities. The United States and NATO flatly rejected these demands.
What could any future talks realistically aspire to achieve? I have two suggestions - beyond maintaining vigilance, deterrence and firmness in dealing with the Russian autocrat.
New concepts for European security
Of course, NATO cannot give in to Russian bullying or allow Russia a sphere of influence over its formerly subjugated neighbors. Any deal on Putin's proposed terms would of course be unacceptable.
However, as a first suggestion, we need to develop new concepts for future European security structures. In particular, Ukraine and Georgia should not be in NATO - they are not crucial to our security and are very far away and hard to defend - even if Russia should not be able to make that decision for them.
It is not surprising that Russia would be so sensitive about seeing them offered membership (as happened in 2008, though with no imminent timeline) into Western security organizations.
The new concept for future European security in Eastern Europe would be one of permanent neutrality for Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan and perhaps other countries, too. The new security architecture would require that Russia, like NATO, commit to help uphold the security of Ukraine, Georgia and other states in the region. Russia would have to withdraw its troops from those countries in a verifiable manner (though the Crimea issue would have to be finessed, because Moscow almost certainly will not give that strategic peninsula on the Black Sea back to Kyiv, after giving it to Ukraine in the 1950s and then grabbing it back with its "little green men" in 2014).
Some autonomy could be granted by capital cities Kyiv, Ukraine, and Tbilisi, Georgia, to Russia-friendly parts of those countries, within reason. As all that occurred, corresponding sanctions imposed on Russia due to its aggressions against neighbors would be lifted, though "snapback" provisions would remain in case Moscow subsequently violated its promises to keep its hands off those fully sovereign and independent nations.
Second, NATO can rethink how it does big military exercises - provided that Russia will commit to restraint of some sort itself. A series of smaller but more frequent exercises could be just as good for combat preparedness.
Reducing training exercises
When U.S. forces train at home, they do not conduct giant exercises with tens of thousands of troops. They work up to exercises involving hundreds or thousands of troops. Army forces cap their training cycles in brigade-level exercises at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Louisiana or the National Training Center in California.
Navy battle groups typically exercise with several surface ships or submarines, no more than a few thousands of sailors at a time in general, even if an aircraft carrier and air wing are involved.
Marines frequently train, and deploy, as Marine Expeditionary Units with about 2,200 uniformed personnel in all. The Air Force (and air units of other services) typically will conduct exercises with up to only a few dozen aircraft.
Big exercises have a downside: They need to be choreographed carefully to keep to schedule, so huge exercises cannot really be used to test commanders' capacity for handling surprises. Smaller exercises, by contrast, can allow enough leeway to require real problem solving. By expanding small exercises, the United States and allies can do better at simulating the unpredictabilities of war.
To be sure, as a general principle we need to stand firm when dealing with Putin. But on some matters, we can be creative and should be flexible as well. The stakes are high, and this crisis needs to be ramped down in a way that also addresses its root causes to the extent we have that within our power to attempt.
Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is author of "The Art of War in an Age of Peace: U.S. Grand Strategy and Resolute Restraint." Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelEOHanlon
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russia talks failed. But US, NATO still need solutions for Ukraine