As Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine has churned on for more than a year, occasional glimmers of the hope of an end have emerged. One such glimmer has emerged in recent months — but it’s now an open question whether the Biden administration will support it.
That glimmer comes in the form of China’s intervention into the war, fresh off its successful mediation of rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Its peace plan for the conflict was greeted dismissively by NATO states when it was first rolled out in February — partly because critics viewed it as too thin to be a serious proposal, partly owing to the careful tightrope Beijing has walked in light of its closeness to Russia, refusing to supply weapons to the country but effectively helping prop up its war effort through massive purchases of discounted oil and gas. (Recently leaked intercepted Russian intelligence suggests that Beijing had approved “provision of lethal aid” to Russia, though US officials say they haven’t seen evidence of any weapon transfers so far).
But since then, several key players have shown interest in the Chinese proposal, suggesting it’s more than just the empty PR that some critics have charged. French president Emmanuel Macron at first responded that Beijing’s peace efforts were “a good thing” before traveling to China earlier this month and issuing a joint statement with Chinese president Xi Jinping that affirmed their shared support for restoring peace in Ukraine. A French diplomatic source told Reuters the two had “agreed to ‘work hard’ in order to accelerate the end of the war and to obtain that a negotiation opens in the full respect of international law.” Similarly interested is newly inaugurated leftist Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who had publicly proposed forming a “peace club” of neutral countries to mediate an end to the war, and who is in China today to discuss the idea with the Chinese leader.
More important, the two principal warring sides both sent positive, if cautious, signals about the Chinese proposal. Russian president Vladimir Putin said the plan “can be taken as the basis for a peaceful settlement” to the war, and a joint statement following his meeting with Xi stated that “Russia reiterates efforts to resume peace talks as soon as possible.” The statement also included a line asserting that “the Chinese side positively assesses the willingness of the Russian side to make efforts to restart peace talks as soon as possible.”
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, said it was a “good thing” China was talking about Ukraine, and that “if there are ideas that are aligned with the idea of respect for international law, territorial integrity, and some security considerations, we need to put that to good use. We need to work on that with China.” Zelensky also said he planned to meet with the Chinese leader. Both Putin and Zelensky’s statements are significant, if subtle, shifts from both leaders’ public resistance to negotiations earlier this year.
The seriousness and viability of the Chinese proposal was given unwitting support by a late-breaking twist: the Biden administration’s opposition to it. “U.S. Seeks to Head Off Any Chinese Call for Cease-Fire in Ukraine,” read a Wall Street Journal headline in mid-March, reporting that the Biden administration fears a stoppage in fighting would cement Russia’s territorial gains.
This begs the question of why, if the Chinese proposal was unserious and unlikely to bear any fruit, Washington would feel the need to actively work to prevent its success.
Posturing in Straitjackets
Public statements from US officials have lent weight to the Journal report. “We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again today that if coming out of this meeting, there’s some sort of call for a ceasefire, well, that’s just going to be unacceptable,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in the middle of Xi’s visit to Russia, warning that this would simply “ratify Russian’s conquest to date” and give Moscow time to build up for a “renewed offensive.” Earlier, President Biden had said about the proposal, “Putin’s applauding it, so how could it be any good?”
Some pointed to the numerous qualifiers in Zelensky’s response to the Chinese plan — including his insistence on a Russian withdrawal as a precondition, as well as his declaration that talks with “sick” Russian leadership were currently impossible — as reasons for cynicism. A coterie of Zelensky’s advisors have also insisted that Kyiv won’t accept any territorial concessions, including the Crimea region annexed by Putin in 2014, which the Ukrainian president’s office just a week ago reiterated it aimed to win back militarily — the very scenario experts consider the most likely prospective trigger for a Russian nuclear escalation. Such words mirror both Putin and other Russian officials’ similar claims about the possibility of negotiating with Kyiv, as well as Putin’s own precondition that Ukraine must accept the loss of the territory it annexed last year.
Yet it’s also worth keeping in mind the recent warning from longtime diplomat and former Obama secretary of state Tom Shannon to be careful with Russian leaders’ public posturing — one that applies equally to Kyiv’s own public statements on the matter. “The idea that the Russians are going to go into negotiations publicly saying that they’re prepared to give up everything is kind of ridiculous. They’re not going to do that,” he told the Washington Post.
Zelensky’s seemingly hard-line position toward talks may well be a result of domestic political constraints. A top Ukrainian national security official recently warned that if the Ukrainian president pushed peace talks, it would mean his “political assassination.” One wonders if it would also mean his literal assassination: Ukraine’s well-organized far right has long resorted to political violence to derail peace efforts. As the New York Times reported shortly before the Russian invasion, such groups were a direct threat to Zelensky’s government, “which could be rocked and possibly overthrown by them if Mr. Zelensky agrees to a peace deal that in their minds gives too much to Moscow.”
This is compounded by a repressive climate of fear and conformity within Ukraine that has been intensified by Zelensky’s own increasingly authoritarian rule. Returning from a recent fact-finding trip to Ukraine, Anatol Lieven, director of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft’s Eurasia program, described how the government’s war propaganda coupled with its repression of dissidents “has helped create what one Ukrainian analyst called a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ for itself when it comes to compromise with Russia, a public mood that it helped create but now cannot control.” The result, according to Ukrainians that Lieven spoke to, is that those in the country who favor talks or are even willing to let go of Crimea do not air their views in public, while the press is rife with self-censorship.
All of this suggests that Zelensky would require concerted political support from his Western backers to be able to successfully steer toward negotiations and a ceasefire. In the past, his direct pleas to Western leaders for support in peace talks have been ignored. If US officials’ public rhetoric is anything to go by, it is uncertain he would get a better hearing today.
The Need for Pressure
Of course, it’s entirely possible that the rhetoric from US officials here is the same as what Shannon warned about with Russia: public posturing partly motivated by politics at home. After all, only late last year, dozens of progressive lawmakers hurriedly withdrew a letter urging diplomacy to end the war under a hail of vicious criticism, suggesting that US officials have their own “Frankenstein’s monster” to deal with at home.
There are some signs this could be the case. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), one of the few congressional advocates for US diplomacy regarding the war, recently dismissed Kirby’s comments opposing a ceasefire, saying he was merely “a spokesperson” and was “not making American policy.” Earlier this year, Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported, based on the testimony of two unnamed German politicians, that the administration had offered Putin a deal in mid-January that would see him retain control of roughly 20 percent of Ukrainian land, which he rejected. (If true, this renders even more puzzling the current US posture of rejecting a Chinese-brokered ceasefire because it would cede territory.)
The administration is also still resisting an ongoing push from former Eastern Bloc countries now in NATO to let Ukraine into the alliance, a possible sign it doesn’t want to jeopardize any future peace talks, in which Ukraine’s prospective neutrality is almost certain to be a major topic.
Whatever the case, this lack of clarity around what exactly is the US government’s policy on peace talks with Moscow makes it incumbent upon antiwar campaigners to continue upping public pressure on the Biden administration. Even in the best-case scenario here — that US officials don’t really oppose attempts to mediate a ceasefire and are simply taking a hard-line position in public — such antiwar efforts can play an important role in opening up political space for an administration trapped in its own stifling, peace-averse domestic political climate.
It’s also a reminder of the way that the US government’s chronic disinvestment in diplomatic capacity in favor of turbocharging spending on military power has ironically left it weaker on the world stage. Analysts criticized US policy following the Chinese-mediated breakthrough in Saudi-Iranian relations last month, pointing out how Washington’s many years of resorting to military and otherwise coercive measures to get its way, along with its abandonment of neutrality, had left it seemingly barren of influence in a region it has dominated for decades — even supplanted there by its leading global rival.
Meanwhile, the stakes for Ukraine are high. The country has suffered tremendously as a result of a prolonged war, both in terms of casualties and in terms of the massive economic and social costs of the war — ones that will, at best, make it a prime target for neoliberal shock therapy in the coming years. At the same time, the recent major leak of US war documents regarding the war backed up what has been consistently, but quietly, reported in the press: that the Ukrainian military and wider war effort is not in a good state, and that US officials are privately doubtful it will have much success with its long-hyped spring offensive.
For these reasons and more, Quincy Institute director of grand strategy George Beebe is now urging the Biden administration to steer the war to an end and give Zelensky the political support he needs to defy hard-liners at home, warning that a failed counteroffensive could weaken Ukraine’s hand in any future negotiations.
But for the Biden administration to do this, it will first need both the political room to maneuver at home, as well as concerted pressure to ensure it follows through on a ceasefire. And that can’t happen without an active antiwar movement organizing for this purpose on the ground.