The Biden Administration Is in No Rush to Help Ukraine Negotiate an End to the War
Almost all knowledgeable observers believe the war in Ukraine will have to end with a negotiated agreement. Yet the US, Ukraine's leading patron, has signaled it has no patience for diplomatic efforts that cut against its hope for Moscow's "strategic defeat."
Three months in, 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 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. 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.” Russian leadership, for 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.
Empty Seats at the Table
The experts Jacobin spoke to all agreed that for a settlement to be reached, the United States at the very least has to be at the negotiating table.
“Russians believe the US calls the shots,” says Chas Freeman, longtime 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 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 fueled 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.
Yet without diplomacy, this outcome — a potentially yearslong quagmire reminiscent of Soviet and US misadventures in Afghanistan and the extended US presence in Syria — looks most likely.
“Another war like Syria in Ukraine — that would be a disaster for everyone,” says Daniela Irrera, associate professor of political science and international relations at the University of Catania.
Split on Talks
Yet it’s an open question how much of an appetite for a diplomatic solution exists on the NATO side.
“A major thing about diplomacy in the West is its total absence,” says Freeman.
“The US and UK governments show no efforts or desire to achieve peaceful settlement of the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” says Ivan Katchanovski, a Ukrainian professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa.
Freeman and others point to the US rejection of Putin’s opening negotiating bid put forward late last year, in the middle of the Russian troop buildup that he says was “quite clearly a coercive diplomatic effort.” A group of experts and former diplomats had urged Western officials in January to negotiate or else expect an escalation, though few expected the full-scale regime change operation that Putin eventually launched. Intelligence officials later revealed that the CIA concluded Putin had only decided to invade in February and had been “keeping his options open” until then, contradicting alleged intelligence and statements from US officials throughout the preceding months that an invasion was inevitable.
“I think there was an enormous opportunity lost to explore the possibility of a neutral Ukraine,” Menon says about this period. “The response is, that would not have satisfied Putin. My response is, we will never know, because it was never put to the test.”
Since then, 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.
Yet despite Western insistence that any peace deal is “their choice” and that, in the words of national security advisor Jake Sullivan, Washington is “not going to define the outcome of this for the Ukrainians,” the US and British governments have at times worked at cross-purposes to the Ukrainian side. When negotiations in Istanbul yielded progress, secretary of state Anthony Blinken immediately undermined it, charging that nothing suggested the talks were moving forward in a “constructive way” and that Russia was merely teasing a pullback to “deceive people and deflect attention.”
Maybe more significant was UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s surprise visit in April to Kiev, reported earlier this month by the leading pro–Western Ukrainian newspaper, Ukrayinska Pravda. Immediately after the encouraging talks in Istanbul and with the future prospect of a Zelensky-Putin meeting, Ukrainian officials told the paper that Johnson “appeared in Kyiv almost without warning,” urging Zelensky not to negotiate with Putin.
“If you are ready to sign some guarantee agreements with him, we are not,” Johnson said, according to a Zelensky associate, before insisting it was instead the time to “press him,” because the Russian leader had revealed he was less powerful than previously thought. Johnson later confirmed to French president Emmanuel Macron that he had “urged against any negotiations with Russia on terms that gave credence to the Kremlin’s false narrative for the invasion.”
“Such a peace settlement was better for Ukraine than the continuation of the war, which results in significant civilian and military casualties, destruction, and negative economic impact,” says Katchanovski.
Johnson’s visit may not have been the deciding factor in ending talks, having come shortly after revelation of the Bucha massacre. Still, it’s remarkable that a Western leader traveled to a war-torn country to try to scuttle progress on a diplomatic settlement to end hostilities. But with few exceptions, the Pravda report has gone almost entirely unreported in the Western press.
No Pressure for Talks
The Pravda report’s absence from Western consciousness points to an underlying factor hampering chances for successful talks: there’s neither enough pressure nor the political space for Western leaders, particularly in the United States and the UK, to pursue diplomacy.
From the start of the war, the White House press corps has pressured the Biden administration relentlessly to escalate its weapons shipments and even its involvement in the war, with little comparable attention paid to the administration’s diplomatic absence. This has been a pattern across much of the media, including on the center left, which has echoed the administration’s argument that arms shipments are meant to further a peace deal — with scant mention that Washington and the UK are in fact uninvolved in, and possibly hostile to, any such agreement.
“There has not been pressure put on the US government,” says Quigley. “The debate has been on how much aid to give, but outside groups, nongovernmental organizations, I think have not been pushing the United States and Britain and the others in the direction of negotiations.”
“There needs to be a concerted effort across the political spectrum, from progressives, moderates, Republicans, to call on the administration to define this peace track and just stop pleading helplessness in this situation,” says Marcus Stanley, advocacy director of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “And that would be helpful for the administration, to open up political space to do that. There is not the political cover in the US discourse right now to do that.”
In late March, the Quincy Institute put together a letter addressed to the White House, signed by a coalition of pro-peace and liberal interest groups, calling for Washington to begin laying the groundwork for a diplomatic settlement. But organizations like Quincy are still fairly isolated, enveloped in a political discourse that has cast any dissent or disagreement with Western policy on the war as disloyal, morally wrong, and even doing the bidding of the Kremlin.
“The media often falsely equated proposals of a settlement with policies of appeasement of Nazi Germany,” says Katchanovski. “This made peace in Ukraine toxic, even though even a ‘bad’ peace is better than a ‘good’ war.”
First aimed at the Right, these attacks have now broadened across the political spectrum. Noam Chomsky recently faced a barrage of such accusations when he urged, in an interview with Current Affairs, that Western governments pursue a diplomatic settlement rather than fighting Russia “to the last Ukrainian.” Even Matt Duss, foreign policy advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders, has mocked that idea.
“I have yet to hear anyone explain the settlement the Biden administration allegedly refuses to push for,” Duss tweeted at the start of this month. “If what you mean is ‘Ukraine surrenders’ then just say it.”
“Advocacy of any compromise has become taboo in the West, particularly in the United States,” says Freeman. “To oppose or to question it is to be labeled an apologist for Putin.”
“You don’t have to call into question the war or talk much about the risks of it before you’re automatically silenced as somebody who is carrying water for Putin,” says Menon. “I think there are lots of intellectuals, especially those who aspire to be in government one day, who don’t really want to be in that position at all.”
Besides the professional and reputational disincentives to speak out, the prospects for diplomacy might also be hindered by a widespread perception in the West that Ukraine is winning the war. Part of that is likely owed to Ukraine’s surprisingly successful repulsion of Russian forces early in the war, and the steep costs Ukrainian forces have extracted from the faltering Russian military.
But part of it may also be due to the “information war” being fought by all sides in the conflict, where propaganda and intelligence have been interchangeably filtered through the Western press and presented as truth. For this reason, and due to the general “fog of war,” the experts Jacobin spoke to all doubted the Western public is being given an accurate picture of the war, or that it’s even possible to know with certainty where exactly the military situation stands.
The serious casualties Russian forces have taken, for example, have been heavily publicized in the West, fueling the commonly stated belief that Ukraine can win, and that the war must go on. But as France’s Le Monde recently pointed out, information about the casualties the Ukrainian military have taken “is one of the black holes” of the war so far, where “nothing or almost nothing is filtering out about the state of the Ukrainian forces.” The New York Times likewise recently charged that the Ukrainian government treats “those figures as state secrets.”
“Such coverage creates inaccurate perceptions about the state of the war and its likely outcome, and complicates a peaceful settlement,” says Katchanovski.
Meanwhile, perceptions of Ukrainian momentum have butted uncomfortably against news of the Ukrainian surrender in Mariupol, or recent reporting that a month after Johnson urged Zelensky to give up on peace talks, Russia has made significant territorial gains in the country’s east. Experts told Jacobin they were skeptical that victory for either side was possible, and that the most likely outcome was a bloody stalemate — making the task of pursuing peace talks even more important.
None Dare Call it a Win
The first step to such a settlement may be to let go of the view, popular today, that negotiations and any accompanying concessions are a reward or capitulation to Putin.
“It cannot be winner-takes-all logic. There is no winner here,” says Irrera. “When it comes to the negotiations, concessions will be inevitable. It’s part of any power-sharing agreement.”
Yet this view remains a minority one in the American mainstream. The Biden administration has spoken of inflicting a “strategic defeat” on Putin but said almost nothing about possible diplomatic trade-offs. “I am totally committed as one person to seeing Ukraine to the end with a win, not basically resolving in some type of a treaty,” Senator Joe Manchin recently said at Davos, explaining that a win for him is “moving Putin back to Russia and hopefully getting rid of Putin.”
“There’s no off-ramp,” perennial war hawk Lindsey Graham has declared. “Let’s take out Putin by helping Ukraine.”
Such calls for a hazily defined total victory have been echoed in the press. Yet they ignore the fact that Putin has by now been forced to accept a major loss.
“Russia has already suffered a defeat in terms of all its maximalist goals, in terms of ending Ukrainian independence and sovereignty,” says Stanley. “Now Russia is back to these minimal objectives of the Donbas, and some form of neutrality where there aren’t offensive weapons on Ukrainian soil. But now we’re saying that any discussion of these minimal Russian goals is appeasement, or surrender to Russia, or defeat for Ukraine and the US. The goalposts have moved there.”
Stanley argues that someone in the US context needs to step up and publicly define the existing situation as a win, something he says would do the Biden administration a favor, by opening up political space for negotiations. “Because it is a win,” he adds. “A massive win compared to Russia’s goals in 2013, which included a firmly Russian-aligned Ukraine, and a big win compared to their goals at the start of the war.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher. For Ukraine, a failure to achieve a settlement not only means continuing suffering and devastation for the country but also the risk, as US director of national intelligence Avril Haines outlined earlier this month, of Putin responding to mounting losses and a grinding stalemate with nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, polling suggests the US public’s willingness to tolerate the economic fallout of the war is starting to wane, and a rising tide of opposition to US aid to Ukraine among Republicans raises the prospect of the country losing its chief military patron if fighting continues to drag on.
The possibility also remains that, with time, Russia will seize more territory and dig in, gaining an upper hand in any eventual negotiations. “If the war goes on, I think it becomes more and more difficult, now that Russia is in control of a good part of the southern coast of Ukraine,” says Quigley. “Then it becomes much more difficult to convince them to withdraw in return for Ukraine accepting Russia’s control of Crimea.”
Meanwhile, for the world, there’s not only the continuing economic chaos that remains most voters’ number one priority but also what some say is the most threatening nuclear risk in decades. During the Donald Trump years, the late Stephen F. Cohen charged that today’s US-Russia tensions are in many ways more perilous than during the Soviet era, when US and Russian leaders talked regularly, and there was a freer, more open foreign-policy debate in the US mainstream, and safeguards and mechanisms to manage escalation were still in place — something further undermined by Trump’s serial pullouts from the era’s arms-control agreements.
“There was a lot of diplomacy during the Cold War, and we were better for it,” says Menon.
“This is worse and more dangerous than the Cold War, because we never had a hot war a few hundred miles from Russia between the Soviet Union and a US proxy,” says Stanley. “We did fight these brutal and awful and near-genocidal proxy wars in the Global South, but there were rules of the game around how close it could get. Russia in particular did not perceive the US as dedicated to its existential destruction in the same way.”
Will we find a way to cut through the toxicity of our current political discourse and save both Ukrainian lives and global stability by pressing concertedly for a diplomatic solution to the fighting? Perhaps the better question is, who in the US establishment — in Congress, in the mainstream press, among its lobbies and pressure groups — has the courage to even suggest such a thing?