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Serious negotiations haven't been tried (Pt. 5)
This is part 5 in a 6-part exchange between Konstantin Kisin and myself. I will be writing parts 1, 3 and 5; Konstantin will be writing parts 2, 4 and 6. The subject of our exchange is whether the West is following the right strategy in Ukraine. Konstantin and I have previously discussed the issue on my podcast, as well as on Twitter. We are now doing so via this Substack exchange.
Konstantin: Thanks again for your reply. Before getting to the meat of our disagreement, I would say the following about Minsk 2.
Although there were undoubtedly sticking points on both sides, historian Anatol Lieven argues the agreement failed primarily “because of the refusal of Ukrainian governments to implement the solution and the refusal of the United States to put pressure on them to do so”. This is consistent with my earlier claim that US officials made decisions they knew were likely to provoke Russia.
Turning to more recent events, you reference a scene from the movie Troy in which Andromache tells her husband Hector: “50,000 Greeks did not sail the sea to watch your brother fight!” The implication here is that, having amassed his 200,000 strong army on Ukraine’s border, Putin was not amenable to negotiations; rather, he was bent on war.
While this may be true, it’s plausible that Putin would have pulled back his forces had he been able to extract concessions from Ukraine and the West. According to US intelligence officials, “Putin did not make a final decision to invade until just before he launched the attack”, with one official opining that he was “still keeping his options open”.
The question then becomes: were there any concessions we could have offered that would have mollified Putin without harming our own strategic interests? The obvious one is ruling out NATO membership for Ukraine – something the Russians had been demanding for years.
We can’t be sure this would have worked, but there are several reasons to think it might. In early January, Sergei Ryabkov told his American counterpart, “NATO must end its expansion plans”. Later that month, Sergei Lavrov explained, “The main issue is our clear position on the inadmissibility of further expansion of NATO to the East”. Putin went on to mention NATO 40 times in his speech on 22 February.
Perhaps assurances were offered behind-the-scenes, only to be ignored by Putin? Nope. Derek Chollet confirmed that the US “refused to talk about NATO expansion with Russia”.
Now, everyone knows Ukraine wasn’t about to join NATO. The war in Donbas was still simmering, and in any case, France or Germany would have vetoed Ukraine’s membership bid. So why were the Russians demanding it be ruled out?
Well, Ukraine’s integration into NATO had already begun, and it’s plausible they wanted guarantees from the US that Russian interests would not be threatened. As Putin stated in his 24 February speech, “The question is not about NATO itself,” which “merely serves as a tool of US foreign policy.” It’s also plausible, as Robert Wright has argued, that Putin craved respect from US leaders.
To be clear: we can’t be sure this would have worked. What’s remarkable, though, is we didn’t even try. Quoting Wright:
Wait, let me get this straight. So the leaders of the big NATO countries didn’t especially want Ukraine to join NATO? And agreeing to not let Ukraine join NATO—agreeing to not do what they didn’t want to do anyway—might have kept Russia from invading Ukraine? But they didn’t do that? And doing that wasn’t even seriously discussed?
Turning to the post-invasion period, you correctly note that Russia initially showed little interest in negotiations. However, you fail to note that there subsequently was progress toward a deal: “According to multiple former senior U.S. officials, in April 2022, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators appeared to have tentatively agreed on the outlines of a negotiated interim settlement.”
And note: one of the authors of that sentence, Fiona Hill, is a well-known Russia hawk. So she’d have no reason to twist the facts in order to paint the Russians in a favourable light. Her revelation is consistent with other reports that Moscow was “prepared to let Kyiv join the EU if it remains militarily non-aligned”.
In the end, of course, no such agreement was reached. This may be because Russia was never really interested in negotiations, as cynics allege. But there’s another possible explanation: Boris Johnson scuttled the talks when he visited Kiev in early April.
“One of Zelensky’s close associates” told the newspaper Ukrainska Pravda that Johnson was an “obstacle” to negotiations because he’d brought two simple messages: “Putin is a war criminal, he should be suppressed, not negotiated with. And secondly, if you are ready to sign any agreements on guarantees with him, then we are not. We can with you, but not with him, he will still abandon everyone.”
Putin made reference to this incident in his 21 September speech, claiming that “after certain compromises were coordinated, Kiev was actually ordered to wreck all these agreements”.
You might say Johnson was right to advise Zelensky against negotiating because Putin would inevitably have reneged on his commitments. But as with ruling out NATO membership before the invasion, it was at least worth trying. Yes, it would have allowed Russia to regroup, but Ukraine needed this time anyway to prepare its Kherson and Kharkiv counter-offensives.
As for negotiating now, you make several valid points as to why it wouldn’t be in Ukraine’s interests. But we can’t be sure that Ukraine’s bargaining position will have improved three or six months down the line. And the longer the war goes on, the harder it will be for both sides to negotiate.
Russia’s mobilised troops may be badly trained and poorly equipped, but 300,000 extra men on the battlefield is going to make some difference. And Russia appears to have escalated its campaign of aerial bombardment by systematically targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. There’s also the risk that European support falters this winter as the energy crisis start to bite.
Getting Russia to the negotiating table will probably require the US to abandon its policy of leaving everything up to Ukraine – a point that has been made by Viktor Orbán. Earlier this year he observed, “There will be no peace until there are Russo-American talks.”
You end by saying it’s in “our strategic interest” to defeat Putin and thereby uphold Western hegemony. Yet as John Mearsheimer notes, China is the West’s only “peer competitor”, and through our Ukraine policy we’ve been “pushing the Russians into the arms of the Chinese”. (This is somewhat beside the point, as the time for bringing Russia into a balancing coalition against China has long since passed.)
From what I see, Europe’s strategic interests lie in preventing catastrophic escalation and ensuring the war does not become a permanent source of instability. It’s far from clear that our current policy is the best way of pursuing those interests.
Image: Anton Holoborodko, Military base at Perevalne during the Crimean crisis, 2014
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