Ukraine war paradox: Negotiated settlement only way war can end safely, but prospects more remote than ever

If the diplomatic line between Kyiv and Moscow has gone cold in recent weeks, the one between Moscow and Washington is buried under an ice shelf

Ukraine visuals (Representative photo)
Ukraine visuals (Representative photo)

Branko Marcetic

Thirteen weeks long, the war in Ukraine has reached a state of paradox. To a greater extent than at any previous point since Russian president Vladimir Putin invaded the nation, the political establishment is acknowledging that a negotiated settlement is the only way the war can end safely. Yet the prospect of anything of the sort happening also seems more and more remote.

After months of steady low-level negotiations, the diplomatic line between Moscow and Kiev seems to be dead. The Ukrainian leadership, emboldened by the unexpectedly effective resistance it has shown on the battlefield, is abjuring any resumption of talks until Moscow hands back the territory it has occupied since the invasion started, saying that “any concession to Russia is not a path to peace.”

The Russian leadership, on its part, has given no indication it is ready to accept the tacit acknowledgment of defeat implied by serious peace negotiations at a time when its battlefield gains remain so disappointing.

In the midst of all this, one factor has gone little remarked upon: the role of the West, and the US government in particular.

Knowledgeable observers of the diplomatic scene say that there has been little appetite or effort from Washington to prepare for a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, even as it has become more and more deeply embroiled in what both Russian and American voices are increasingly calling a proxy war between the two nuclear superpowers.

While there have been no shortage of voices calling for an escalation of US military support for Ukraine, those calling for the United States to take an active diplomatic role to bring the Russian invasion to an end have been few and far between.

Yet the war has already become costly for Ukraine. Its indefinite continuation would be a disaster for that country, and potentially for the world.

“Russians believe the US calls the shots,” says Chas Freeman, long-time US diplomat under successive presidents and assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs under Bill Clinton. “Therefore, talking to those who take direction from the US is unlikely to yield anything useful.”

“You’ve got the issue of whether Ukraine will join NATO, and the sanctions,” says John B. Quigley, an expert in international law who led talks on the status of the Donbas and Crimea after the Cold War. “So I think the major powers do need to be involved.”

But if the diplomatic line between Kiev and Moscow has gone cold in recent weeks, the one between Moscow and Washington is buried under an ice shelf.

While the United States and Russia have engaged in a prisoner swap and seen contacts between military officials, secretary of state Tony Blinken — the top US diplomat — and his Russian counterpart haven’t spoken even once since before the start of the war.

US officials have justified this lack of engagement in a variety of ways, arguing that Putin isn’t serious about negotiating, and that whether or not to negotiate “are decisions for [Ukrainians] to make.” But it’s been harder to wave off as US involvement in the war has deepened.

“The idea is that we don’t negotiate with him, the Ukrainians decide,” says Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities. “But we are deeply implicated in this war — we can’t pretend we aren’t.”

Washington has begun sending heavy weaponry that was considered too escalatory only weeks earlier, and has boasted of its role in helping Ukraine kill a series of Russian generals and sink the flagship of its Black Sea fleet. Multiple US officials have now openly described the conflict as a proxy war with Russia, while Steny Hoyer, the second-highest-ranking Democrat in the House, declared that “we’re at war.”

The feeling is mutual over on the Russian side.

The stakes of not reaching a settlement are high. For the world, there’s the hovering specter of nuclear escalation that could quickly envelop all of Europe and North America in the devastation, along with the government-toppling economic instability being fuelled by the war’s resulting supply shocks.

For Ukrainians, it means more death, destruction, and economic chaos, with the World Bank predicting the invasion will shrink its economy 45 percent this year.

Washington has refused diplomatic engagement with Moscow, setting Russia’s “irreversible” withdrawal from Ukraine, so it doesn’t have the capability to invade again in two or three years’ time, as the condition for lifting sanctions — a demand that’s hard to define in concrete, practical terms.

This has been paired with a series of bellicose statements by US and other Western officials suggesting that US and British goals are fomenting regime change in Moscow, or, at minimum, weakening Russia.

Yet for all the talk of a renewed Western unity of purpose since the war began, the United States and its allies are split on this matter. Unlike Washington, France, Germany and Italy have all kept diplomatic lines with Russia open since the war began, and have called for a cease-fire and peace talks throughout, even as they’ve signed off on ongoing weapons transfers to Ukraine.

So has fellow NATO member Turkey, which brokered peace talks between Kiev and Moscow in March. Last week, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, stressing that “a cease-fire must be achieved as soon as possible,” put forward a four-point peace plan: a frontline cease-fire for evacuations, followed by Ukrainian neutrality, autonomy for disputed territories, and an EU-Russian peace deal that exchanges a Russian withdrawal for the easing of sanctions.

“This can be a good starting point that should be endorsed by others, the US obviously,” says Irrera. “They should not stay away from that, not just because they’re relevant but because they need to take responsibility for what’s happening in the region.”

But the enthusiasm for a negotiated settlement is far from universal. Last month, the Washington Post reported that for other NATO members, chiefly those in Eastern Europe, “it’s better for the Ukrainians to keep fighting, and dying, than to achieve a peace that comes too early or at too high a cost to Kyiv and the rest of Europe,” arguing that any concessions to Putin will lead to future Russian aggression.

“The problem is that if it ends now, there is a kind of time for Russia to regroup, and it will restart, under this or another pretext,” one unnamed diplomat told the paper.

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has since charged that “there are countries within NATO who want the war to continue” because “they want Russia to become weaker.”

At least until recently, Ukraine has long asked for deeper Western diplomatic engagement. In March, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky called for the West to get more involved in negotiations for ending the war, praising Israeli mediation efforts.

British defense secretary Ben Wallace unwittingly revealed in March that Zelensky was “quite keen to see the United Kingdom alongside Ukraine in these negotiations,” and that there was “a desire for the UK and the US” to be there to avoid the experience of the doomed Minsk Accords, “where just France and Germany were there.”

As recently as last week, Zelensky himself affirmed that “there are things that can only be reached at the negotiating table,” and that the war would “only definitively end through diplomacy,” albeit before he was swiftly undercut by an advisor.

(IPA Service)

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Courtesy: Jacobin

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