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Putin’s War Against Ukraine and the Risks of Rushing to Negotiations Copy


Putin is losing the war he started against Ukraine. Russia still holds Ukrainian territory, but Ukraine’s forces are advancing. With Russia mostly on the defensive, its forces are behaving brutally but also erratically: not only are they targeting Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, they’re also threatening nuclear escalation and then backing away, and pulling out of — and then coming back into — the Black Sea grain-export deal.

Ukraine’s victory is no sure thing. The battle lines could stabilize for the winter. Putin could keep pounding Ukrainian civilians, hoping that fatigue will overtake Ukraine and that Western support for Ukraine will crumble.

But Ukraine’s battlefield success is possible, and it’s not far-fetched.

In this context, intensified calls for the West to initiate negotiations to end Putin’s war on essentially his terms seem oddly timed – and potentially dangerous.

Yet such calls are increasing. Advocates of pushing negotiations argue, more or less, that Ukraine cannot win back all or even most of its territory, that Putin would respond constructively to good faith offers, and that U.S. and European interests in Ukraine are limited. They argue that these interests do not include restoring all of Ukraine’s territory back to Ukrainian control, and that the costs of supporting Ukraine and the dangers of the conflict’s escalation outweigh what limited interests the United States and Europe do have.

All three assumptions are dubious.

We don’t know how far the Ukrainian military can advance. But so far in this war, Ukraine’s military has performed better — and Russia’s military worse — than almost all predictions in the West. Ukraine stands a good chance of liberating more territory, including, according to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the Western side of the Dnipro River, even the city of Kherson,  which Russian forces have controlled since March.

Defeat at Kherson could lead to more Russian defeats, and Russia’s overall military position in Ukraine could unravel. At some point, Russians’ dissatisfaction at high casualties in an unsuccessful war could boil over, as it has before in Russian history, e.g., the 1905 Russo-Japanese War, or in 1917 after Russia lost to Germany in World War I.

Of course, Russia’s military position in Ukraine may not collapse. But the United States and European partners should not forestall the possibility, even likelihood, of more Ukrainian military success by insisting on a ceasefire in place or by assuming that it’s impossible for Ukraine to, for example, liberate the Donbas or even Crimea.

Furthermore, by pushing negotiations now, the United States would risk falling into a dynamic of undercutting Ukraine’s strong position on the ground by becoming the supplicant (“demandeur,” in diplo speak).

Accepting Putin’s Premise in the War

Advocates of initiating diplomacy now usually start with an assumption that Ukraine must accept the loss of lots of territory and millions of its citizens. How would such a negotiating dynamic work? Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s veteran spokesperson, recently hinted that the Kremlin could negotiate adjustments to the borders that Russia has now claimed for itself. Should the Biden administration quietly offer Russia a map with a new border? Less crudely, should the United States simply hint that it would encourage Ukraine to be “realistic” about its future border? Will some in the West use a “track two” unofficial process to produce a new boundary, publicly revealed or simply given quietly to the State Department?

Here’s the rub: U.S. acceptance of any idea that Ukraine’s international border is negotiable would constitute acceptance of one of Putin’s premises in the war. Having made such a massive concession at the outset, Putin would hardly respond with grace; rather, he would stand back and demand more. Negotiations would take place on Putin’s terms, with the Biden administration reduced to haggling over the details of its surrender of its friend and its principles.

What would Ukraine receive in return? Russian guarantees of its new border? What would such guarantees be worth? Would they be stronger than those of the previous Russian-Ukrainian border agreement or than the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which Russia, along with the U.S. and U.K., agreed to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity? The surrender of Ukrainian territory would be a fact. Russia’s guarantees would be conditional and reversible on Putin’s whim. Would the United States or NATO offer to defend what was left of Ukraine, a la South Korea or Cold War-era West Germany? If the United States surrenders its position about Ukraine’s territorial integrity while the Ukrainians are still advancing, such an offer would be hard to imagine.

No one can say yet whether Ukraine can liberate all its territory. The Biden administration has wisely noted that its military assistance to Ukraine is intended to put that country in the strongest position when negotiations take place, should they take place. The more territory Ukraine can liberate prior to negotiations, the better.

The “Washington Post” has reported that the Biden administration is encouraging the Ukrainian government not to rule out negotiations with Putin, a stance that raised concern (and ire) among some supporters of Ukraine in the United States. Even if accurate, however, the article makes clear that the administration has made this suggestion neither to push negotiations now nor to push Ukraine into territorial concessions. Rather, it seems to want to Ukraine to hold open the door to negotiations, partly or even largely to demonstrate that Ukraine is not the obstacle to ending the conflict.

A Terrible Starting Point for Talks

But willingness to negotiate doesn’t mean accepting bad terms for negotiations. And the presumption of Ukrainian territorial concessions would be a terrible starting point for talks. Ukraine’s government and people know, as we in the West should know, that Russian occupation means oppression and death for many, many Ukrainians, with mass graves, deportation, kidnapping of children, and eradication of Ukrainian culture part of the Kremlin playbook. It’s Stalin’s playbook in the 21st century.

Given the consequences of abandoning its citizens to Russian control and the possibility to liberate more of them, Ukrainians are making a reasonable choice to keep fighting. The West is making a reasonable choice to keep helping Ukrainians defend their country and stop a 21st century tyrant. The starting point for negotiations should be the terms for restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty and withdrawal of Russian forces.

Advocates of negotiations on Putin’s terms, many of whom call themselves foreign policy “realists,” seem to believe that U.S. and European interests in Ukraine are limited and that Russia’s interests are so much greater that Putin will prevail or escalate to make the costs of Russia’s defeat too high for the United States to accept. They thus argue that the United States should not align itself with the Ukrainian government but prepare to break with it when the costs and risks of U.S. support grow too great.

History suggests two objections to that argument: first, the risks of escalation are not as great as fear would make them. The Kremlin has threatened nuclear escalation and many in the West worried about the dangers. But the United States and European governments pushed back and, it seems, the Kremlin backed down. The United States learned during the pre-détente period of the Cold War to deal with Moscow’s nuclear threats without caving. It can re-learn those lessons. The costs of giving in to nuclear blackmail, whether from Russia, North Korea, China, or Iran, would be high as well.

More broadly, deferring to Russia’s assertion of its interests in Ukraine recalls the assumption of Cold War realists, widely accepted at the time, that all of Europe east of the Iron Curtain was within a more-or-less permanent Soviet sphere of influence; that Soviet interests in what we then called Eastern Europe were so much greater than those of the United States that challenging Soviet domination was too risky and impossible. Yet, Poles, Balts, Czechoslovaks, Hungarians, and others overthrew communist domination starting in 1989. They did so (mostly) peacefully, even when hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers were stationed in then-East Germany.

The situation in Eastern Europe then and Ukraine now are not analogous. Ukraine is not a suppressed nation struggling for freedom against Moscow-supported tyrants. That’s roughly the position of Belarus. Ukraine is free and fighting to stay so. The United States and Europe are helping it to preserve the principles of the settlement that ended the Cold War and offered Europe a chance at unity. Given the history and the stakes, it seems not just immoral but contrary to U.S. interests to abandon Ukraine to a Russian sphere of influence imposed through war and setting the precedent for more such wars of conquest by Moscow, Beijing, and other aggressive governments.

It seems instead the more realistic course to seek to help the Ukrainians defeat the Russians. Negotiations should reflect that goal, as much as possible. In foreign policy, interests do not always align well with values, especially in the short run. In Ukraine, they do.

IMAGE: Hanna, a retired local teacher for more than 35 years, wipes a tear as she briefly weeps next to her house that was destroyed during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian occupying forces, on October 30, 2022 in Knyazivka, Kherson oblast, Ukraine. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

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