Diplomacy in Ukraine should not be politically incorrect |
Is it permissible to think of a possible diplomatic end to the war in Ukraine?
Judging by the reaction to a letter from House Progressives advocating talks between the United States and Russia, the answer is a resounding “no.”
The letter to President Joe Biden from 30 House progressives led by Representative Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has generated the same intensely negative reaction as public musings on the diplomatic deals of Elon Musk and Henry Kissinger. You don’t have to endorse any of the specific proposals that these very different people are talking about to be bothered by the campus fervor with which they were deemed unspeakable and unthinkable.
While it is possible that the Russian war machine, if you can call it that, will simply collapse in Ukraine, it is more likely that the war will end in a messy compromise involving a negotiated settlement. Recognizing this – and that the continuation of the conflict is a humanitarian disaster with huge costs for the West and the world – should not be a near-crime.
Jayapal’s letter was untimely given Ukraine’s battlefield gains and Russia’s assault on civilian infrastructure, and we would obviously want Volodymyr Zelenskyy on board for any diplomatic overtures.
Still, the letter was hardly an excuse for Putin. He was referring to “Russia’s war of aggression” and “the outrageous and illegal invasion of Ukraine”.
Still, a member of the House Democratic leadership told Politico Playbook that “Vladimir Putin would have signed that letter if asked.” This isn’t remotely true, but it shows how deviating an inch from orthodoxy on the war is automatically seen as an admission of affection for the Kremlin.
Nevertheless, Jayapal retreated hastily, shamefully retracting the letter.
The administration follows the mantra “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine”. It’s a sound principle, but it shouldn’t mean we can’t take the lead on important war-related issues, or wield our enormous influence over our Ukrainian allies.
While our interests largely overlap with those of Ukraine, they are not identical. Ukrainians naturally care more about returning every square inch of their territory than we do. They also want to be part of NATO for understandable reasons, when we have no interest in having to respect a conventional commitment to defend Ukraine militarily.
If the Ukrainians can score a clean win by forcing a Russian withdrawal, that would be wonderful. It is more plausible, however, that we are shaping the terms of an eventual negotiation which can only temporarily suspend the conflict and which will certainly not be an ideal end state.
A potential deal would involve Russia holding Crimea, a guarantee that Ukraine will not join NATO, and a referendum in areas Russia has held before the start of this phase of the war in February 2022, while the Ukraine recovers the rest of its territory and moves towards the West.
Would this be “rewarding Russian aggression”? Moscow would have taken a bite out of Ukraine, yes, but at such a high cost that no one could reasonably conclude that Putin did anything other than a calamitous blunder.
The principle that territory cannot be taken by force is worth defending, but there is always the prudential question, at what cost? If the war drags on, it is not inconceivable that a member of the Western alliance could crack, fracturing NATO, and the Western appetite for sustaining the war will not be unlimited.
For the moment, neither Ukraine nor Russia would accept such an agreement. Getting there at some point will require strength and skill on our part. We will have to be direct and firm with the Ukrainians behind the scenes, reassure Poland, the Baltics and Romania that we are not letting the Ukrainians or them down, and convince Putin that he will never win the war.
Unrealistic? Maybe. Sore? Sure. But diplomacy, like war, has its price, which is not a good reason to forbid any discussion of it.