The US Has No Endgame in Ukraine
Putin’s disastrous gamble in Ukraine has left the West in a strong position to craft a peace that would underscore the futility of Russia’s aggression. But there are worrying signs that the Biden administration might be unwilling to accept peace on any terms.
- Interview by
- Branko Marcetic
It has been three months since Russian president Vladimir Putin shocked the world with his aggression against Ukraine, and Washington officials still seem to be unwilling to posit any clear endgame for what is now being openly acknowledged in the United States as a proxy war between the world’s two leading nuclear powers.
Amid a US political climate that is unique in the world in its rejection of diplomacy as a vehicle to resolve the conflict, longtime Washington policy hand Marcus Stanley, now advocacy director at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, has been one of the few prominent voices urging Washington to prepare the ground for an eventual negotiated peace.
Stanley spoke with Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic for an article published last week that examined the absence of a US diplomatic track in a war in which Washington has become deeply embroiled militarily.
What has the pattern of Western diplomacy looked like over the course of the war?
First of all, I don’t think you can separate the diplomatic effort from before the war and the effort during the war. People say, “Well, Russia has launched this highly aggressive and brutal invasion that’s killing civilians, so the question of how we got into this is somewhat academic.” It’s certainly true that Russia has launched the biggest aggressive war in Europe since World War II and that it’s been brutal and destructive, morally unforgivable. But at the same time, the issues on the table are the same ones that existed before the war. That has a lot of relevance to what the West, and the United States particularly, has been willing to do.
We’re still in the same narrative, the same story. I think [French president Emmanuel] Macron and others in Europe have kept up a dialogue with Putin, and we’ve had things like defense secretary Lloyd Austin reaching out to Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu recently. There’s been some level of contact between the United States and Britain and Russia, perhaps more than we can see. But I would say from what we know that the US has been absent diplomatically.
The assistance that we’ve given to Ukraine militarily (which Quincy has not opposed and has supported in general) has not been matched by a diplomatic track that was realistic in terms of what it would take to bring this war to a close. And we’ve always felt from before the war that there was the potential for a settlement here that would preserve a sovereign and independent and secure Ukraine as Europe moved forward.
A lot of damage has been done in this war, but despite that, we still feel that’s possible. And the United States has not defined and led on that kind of diplomatic or peace track. One can understand that, given that it was a shock — the brutality and scope of Russian assault — even to those of us who felt there was a real risk before the war and the US wasn’t doing enough to avert it. But the United States has the responsibility to show that kind of leadership.
When the administration speaks on this publicly there’s a kind of forswearing of US responsibility: “This isn’t our business, it’s all about Ukraine and Russia, and we’re not at the table.” But we are implicitly at the table for a bunch of reasons: one being that Ukraine is showing enormous courage in fighting on the front lines, but in a material sense, Ukraine is a US protectorate right now. They’re able to survive because of the scope of US aid right now. So that gives us a role.
Even more important though is that a treaty cannot be reached with the other players without US sign off, support, and participation. And that’s true on both the Ukrainian and Russian side. It’s true on the Ukrainian side, because for difficult compromises that might need to be made, someone like Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky needs US support to make those tough decisions and needs US assurances if they want security guarantees. The United States is the player who can provide those guarantees.
On the Russian side, they’re not going to trust any agreement from anybody, whether from Ukraine, France, or anyone else, unless they feel the US actively supports it. Russia’s been saying this for a while, but there’s an increasing admission in the United States that this is a proxy conflict between the US and Russia. So unless we’re saying to Russia we’re going to scale down or halt this proxy conflict if you agree to X, Y, and Z negotiations and hold to that agreement, Russia is not going to have the incentive to settle. The United States can offer critical things around potential easing of sanctions and around some meaningful form of Ukrainian neutrality.
Ukraine’s going to be a Western-oriented country when all this is over because of what they’ve suffered from Russia. But what’s that Western orientation going to mean? Is there going to be meaningful military neutrality? Are there going to not be offensive weapons on Ukrainian soil? These kinds of things US assurances are necessary for.
What are the US interests in making such a settlement happen?
We have to ask: what are American interests for the long term? There’s a big contingent in DC going unopposed in the American domestic discourse right now that is saying American interests are in the maximal weakening of Russia, bleeding Russia out, damaging Russia as much as they can, ensuring it can’t act aggressively in the future. I think that’s a misrepresentation.
First of all, because it misrepresents Russia’s current situation, which is that it has been weakened massively; it faces very severe limitations to its ability to act aggressively beyond borders. Russia’s ability to project conventional military power beyond its own borders has been shown to be limited. It can barely handle areas a hundred miles from their own borders in a region of Ukraine that was supposed to be culturally pro-Russia, where it has all kinds of political and tactical and strategic connections. There are people in DC that are saying that we have to fight a multiyear war to weaken Russia — otherwise it’s going to invade Germany. That’s fantasy.
The United States has an interest in a stable and secure European security order that minimizes the probability of nuclear escalation or a nuclear arms race. The US also has an interest in a stable, secure European security order that allows people to live peacefully and prosperously and avoids nuclear conflict. But if we extend this war to bleed Russia out, we’re creating a situation where Russia will rely even more intensely on its nuclear force.
We’re also creating a situation where Ukrainians can’t live peacefully or prosperously, where it’s going to be impossible to begin the economic rebuilding of Ukraine. From US interests and Ukrainian interests, we do not have an interest in bleeding Russia out; that’s a fallacy that relies on claims about Russia’s ability to project conventional power, and the situation calls for a US peace and negotiation strategy that is not there right now.
Has there been pressure on the government to take this path?
There needs to be a concerted effort across the political spectrum, from progressives, moderates, and Republicans to call on the administration to define this peace track and stop just pleading helplessness in this situation. And that would be helpful for the administration, to open up political space to do that. But there aren’t the people stepping up, calling for this.
This New York Times op-ed, I think, is the beginning of the establishment looking around and saying, “We need this.” If we came up with a realistic definition of victory, we actually have a ton of leverage right now. We’re a in a very good position to go to the table and try to achieve that. But to do that requires negotiating over some tough things, and there is not the political cover in the US discourse right now to do that. Progressives have been basically AWOL. People need to get out and create that space. The first step to getting the administration to provide that leadership is for civil society and prominent politicians to provide that leadership.
Even on the Republican side — and Republicans like Rand Paul have been stepping up and asking what it is we’re doing here — defining and pushing for this peace track is tricky. Because the other big excuse the administration has been using is, “We see no indication that Putin is willing to talk or ready for negotiation.” But that’s a problem too, because what people are really saying when they say that is Putin is not ready to concede to all our terms. He’s not ready to come to the table and say, “I was wrong, I committed a crime here, I’m going to withdraw from 100 percent of Ukrainian territory, I’m giving up.” People feel that, ethically and morally, because of the brutality of what he’s done, that’s the minimum he should do.
I think Russia understood this was a risky course. I think it had a lot of illusions about how easy it would be to overthrow the Ukrainian government; it had a lot of mistaken intelligence going into this war, but I think it also knew it was a very risky course, and there were things that from its perspective, right or wrong, felt existential in terms of Ukraine’s status. It’s true that it is not willing to set those things aside.
I think it’s realistic to say Putin is not ready to give back Crimea, he wants a neutral Ukraine, and he probably wants some kind of territorial settlement in the far east of Ukraine; he wants Donbas to at least be on the table. When UN secretary general António Guterres went to Moscow, Putin had a very telling speech. It was pretty defensive about the extent to which he’s ready for diplomacy but kind of laid out what Russia sees as the minimum, which is that Ukrainian neutrality, Donbas, and Crimea have to be on the table. It’s a big step back from its maximalist goals at the beginning of the war.
One thing that’s happened: at the beginning of the war, it was presented as, “This is about Russia’s attempt to conquer Ukraine” — which I think they would’ve loved to do — “and put in a puppet government.” That is all off the table. It’s not possible for Russia to do. Russia has already suffered a defeat in terms of all its maximalist goals, in terms of ending Ukrainian independence and sovereignty. Now Russia is back to these minimal objectives of the Donbas, the Crimea, 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 United States. The goalposts have moved there.
As long as that’s defined as defeat for the US and Ukraine, it becomes hard to talk about them. But I think those goals are compatible with a highly beneficial settlement for the United States and Ukraine, a settlement that sees Ukraine as Western-aligned, economically open to the West, independent, sovereign, and part of a European security order that’s way more stable than having an unsettled shooting war in Eastern Ukraine for the foreseeable future. There’s got to be people in the US discourse who are willing to define this as a win. Because it is a win — a massive win compared to Russia’s goals in 2013, which included a firmly Russian-aligned Ukraine, and a big win compared to its goals at the start of the war.
What scope is there for members of Congress to push for a more serious diplomatic effort from the administration?
I believe that for many reasons progressives have been reluctant to break from the Biden administration publicly. But I think that creating the space for a peace track here, for limiting the length of this war and trying to find a way to come out of it in the near future and claim victory, I think that does a big favor for the administration.
I do not think that it’s a political winner for this war and these sanctions to drag on indefinitely. I don’t think the American public in November 2022 or November 2024 is going to look at a continued brutal conflict in Ukraine and say, “This is awesome because Russians are dying and we’re showing how much we hate Vladimir Putin.” People in DC are possibly going to see that as positive, but I don’t think the American people will. They’re going to see this as another endless war that’s doing damage that we’ve got to see on the news every day, and they will be more concerned with that than the question of who has the moral high ground and who started it.
So you’re doing the Biden administration a favor by creating the political space to get out of this thing. I do hope that $40 billion package, which was massive, is going to create a hinge point where people can say, “No one can deny the assistance we’ve provided and the difference that assistance has made; now let’s pivot to the question of how peace happens here.”
We’ve been approaching offices to just call for the administration to lay out a diplomatic strategy here and to lay out what the future of this war looks like. How long do we believe it’s going to go on? How much damage will it do to both Ukraine and to the United States if it goes on for a long period? And what’s our strategy for potentially ending it victoriously, with a shorter war? I think calling on the administration publicly to do that is the minimum that we should be looking for right now.
What do you think is the biggest sticking point or potential obstacle to a negotiated peace?
I think it’s territorial concessions beyond the February 24 line — so Kherson and a land bridge to Crimea, and the parts of Donetsk and Luhansk that were held by Ukraine before the invasion. There’s going to be a lot of reason for Ukraine to say, “Not one inch of the territory you invaded, even if we concede Crimea.”
The territorial stuff is going to be very difficult politically in Ukraine and the West, and there’s going to be a big Western push to say Russia can’t benefit from its invasion because this is a terrible precedent. But even if there are minor territorial concessions, I still don’t think Russia will have benefited from this.
And I think the details for the security guarantees will be very difficult, because we refused to give security guarantees to Ukraine before the invasion. It was very irresponsible. What John Mearsheimer said, that we led Ukraine down the primrose path and now Ukraine’s going to get wrecked, is somewhat accurate. So coming up with a security-guarantee framework that’s both realistic for Ukraine but also doesn’t commit NATO to stuff that NATO isn’t willing to do and also effectively deters violation of the treaty. . . . There’s a lot of detail in there.
What neutrality means in terms of weapons too, because Ukraine is going to want to build up a very significant defensive capacity. . . . But then Russia is not going to want Moscow to be under the range of Ukrainian missiles or what have you. And just the general security arrangements for the eastern flank of NATO that don’t lead to an intermediate-range nuclear arms race is going to be tough. But those territorial concessions and security guarantees are going to be very difficult.
What Russia before the war wanted was a settlement of the conflict in the Donbas on terms that offered it at least cultural autonomy within Ukraine, and genuine Ukrainian neutrality. People talk about it as NATO membership, but that’s just part of this question of Ukrainian neutrality. If Ukraine is not a NATO member but they’re being integrated into Western security arrangements and we’re supplying them with offensive weapons, then that’s not really neutral. So these issues, of settling the Donbas, Crimea, and Ukrainian neutrality — the US unwillingness to deal with these issues and to press Ukraine to deal with these issues before the war was a contributing factor to the invasion, and they’re still the same issues today we refuse to deal on.
Has the public been given an accurate picture of the military situation over the course of the war?
I think obviously not. You have to add to that that even in a propaganda-free war environment, which doesn’t exist, it’s objectively difficult to see the military picture. I think a bloody stalemate in the east of Ukraine, or a very slow-moving but costly and bloody Russian advance — one of those two is probably the most accurate.
It’s quite clear that Russia experienced a defeat in its attempt to conquer half of Ukraine up to Kyiv rapidly, that it was pushed back and experienced a defeat. It’s clear Russia is taking very high casualties. I think how comprehensively Ukraine can defend its own territory — whether Ukraine can push Russia entirely out of all Ukrainian territory that isn’t Crimea, for example — that’s very, very unclear. It’s very difficult to see a complete Russian victory or a complete Ukrainian victory here militarily, which is one reason why defining that track for negotiated peace is so important. Because in the absence of that, you could be looking at a very long, brutal, and extended war with no way to get out of it.
And then you say, maybe more blood, more destruction, more damage will make that clearer to everyone, so that the time for peace will be in some indeterminate period a year from now when everyone understands the futility and destructiveness of the war viscerally. Well, why not show leadership to short-circuit that process, which is both very destructive and very risky?
How does the current moment compare to the Cold War?
This is worse and more dangerous than the Cold War, because we never had a hot war a few hundred miles from Moscow between the Soviet Union and a US proxy. 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 United States as dedicated to its existential destruction in the same way.
The architect of containment, George Kennan, warned about this situation. Containment was specifically designed to create a space that didn’t lead to this existential conflict. One of the things here is that the political center of gravity for NATO has moved to Eastern Europe — and Eastern Europe was very unhappy with the containment bargain, from their perspective it was a violation of their struggle against imperialism. But it did make it a lot safer from the US-Russia perspective.
There’s a kind of all-bets-are-off situation, especially if this grinds on. “All bets are off” could be different from a full-on nuclear war; it could be use of tactical nuclear weapons, it could be really damaging cyber warfare that creates major economic damage to the United States; there’s any number of things.
One thing we did in the Cold War was we gave Russia the space to reform itself. It wasn’t under constant existential threat, so it could sit back and look at the system and say, “Hey, our system doesn’t work, and we have to change that.” To do that now in Russia, when you’re under this kind of threat, is to side with the West. And we don’t see or understand this here, but in the ’90s, when the West controlled Russia, it was very destructive. There’s a lot of living memory of that. We really damaged it.
So part of a peace agreement is giving the political space for Russia to reform itself, which requires it to be integrated into some kind of secure arrangement. So I think this is worse than the Cold War, and I think the reason people are comfortable with that is they think Russia is weaker than in the Cold War: it’s not a globe-spanning behemoth, so we can knock it down to size. I think that’s very risky in terms of the potential outcomes.
Has the US capacity or willingness to engage in diplomacy with Russia changed since the Cold War?
I think during the Cold War, we felt we were dealing with maybe not an equal but someone of comparable power and status. Our interpretation of the end of the Cold War is that we beat Russia and that it is now reduced to a gas station with nukes — it’s reduced to a less developed country, so why should we have to deal with it as an equal? And that attitude and that perspective toward Russia hasn’t changed. A lot of the same people in DC in charge of this are the same people who were there in the ’90s dealing with Russia, and that perspective is still there.