Why the World Can’t Ditch Diplomacy in Putin’s War

A former U.S. diplomat who served in Afghanistan on why talks still matter.

By , a former intern at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian and Russian officials meet for talks in Belarus.
Ukrainian and Russian officials meet for talks in Belarus.
Ukrainian and Russian officials meet for talks as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues, in Belarus's Brest region on March 7. MAXIM GUCHEK/BELTA/AFP via Getty Images

Officials from Ukraine and Russia met in Belarus for a third round of peace talks Monday, after two attempts to establish a partial cease-fire and humanitarian corridors to allow for the evacuation of Ukrainian civilians broke down due to Russia’s continued shelling. Nearly 2 million people have fled Ukraine so far, according to the United Nations refugee agency, as families have fled to neighboring countries by train, car, and foot, while many men, called by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to join the fight, have stayed behind.

World leaders have retained varying degrees of contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett traveled to Moscow over the weekend, and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Putin again on the phone last week. But attempts to de-escalate the conflict have so far seemed to fall short as Russian airstrikes continue to hit Ukrainian cities. On Monday, in Belarus, Russian officials offered to stop fighting if Ukraine agreed to relinquish sovereignty over Russian-annexed Crimea and the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk republics in the east, abandon its bid for NATO and European Union membership, and completely demilitarize.

Foreign Policy spoke to New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim, a former diplomat who worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department, and the National Security Council, about the role of diplomacy at this point in the war. He warned about the potential dangers of cutting off communication with Russia, assessed the international response so far, and explained why the initial framing of the crisis as a European conflict rather than a global one has made countries hesitant to get further involved.

Officials from Ukraine and Russia met in Belarus for a third round of peace talks Monday, after two attempts to establish a partial cease-fire and humanitarian corridors to allow for the evacuation of Ukrainian civilians broke down due to Russia’s continued shelling. Nearly 2 million people have fled Ukraine so far, according to the United Nations refugee agency, as families have fled to neighboring countries by train, car, and foot, while many men, called by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to join the fight, have stayed behind.

World leaders have retained varying degrees of contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett traveled to Moscow over the weekend, and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with Putin again on the phone last week. But attempts to de-escalate the conflict have so far seemed to fall short as Russian airstrikes continue to hit Ukrainian cities. On Monday, in Belarus, Russian officials offered to stop fighting if Ukraine agreed to relinquish sovereignty over Russian-annexed Crimea and the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk republics in the east, abandon its bid for NATO and European Union membership, and completely demilitarize.

Foreign Policy spoke to New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim, a former diplomat who worked at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department, and the National Security Council, about the role of diplomacy at this point in the war. He warned about the potential dangers of cutting off communication with Russia, assessed the international response so far, and explained why the initial framing of the crisis as a European conflict rather than a global one has made countries hesitant to get further involved.

“To avoid the all-out catastrophe of a regional war or something that goes on for years and years and years … you need to have diplomacy,” Kim, who also served as a security advisor in Afghanistan, told Foreign Policy.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: Is the fact that things reached this point itself a crisis of diplomacy?

Andy Kim: This is not just a crisis of diplomacy, this is a crisis of the international order. What is being challenged here isn’t just simply bilateral relationships between nations, this is about the structure of our international system—especially that which arose after World War II and the Cold War. And I think that’s why I find it so unsettling. This idea that a country that is a significant power in the world would challenge the rules-based order in such a blatant and flagrant way, a way that is so damaging and painful for civilians … it’s mind-boggling to me.

FP: So what is the role of diplomacy now that the war has started?

AK: Well, what is the endgame? How do we see this ending? Already too many lives have been lost. But to avoid the all-out catastrophe of a regional war or something that goes on for years and years and years, which is another scenario, you need to have diplomacy. At this point in my assessment of Putin—I think the assessment of many people—is that he plans to go all the way. To take over the entire country of Ukraine and try to exert his control over it for a long time to come. That scenario has no possibility of being conducted without severe civilian casualties and loss of life. 

So the only way to prevent that is through diplomatic means. Some type of offramp. I don’t know exactly what that’s going to be right now. And honestly, I don’t even know if it has a high probability. But you bet that I have to believe it’s still possible otherwise. Otherwise, then we’re saying it’s only going to be on the battlefield—completely dependent on domestic internal Russian dynamics of politics—that this will end. And you know, that would just be such a devastating turn of events.

FP: Nearly two weeks into this war, we’re seeing Russians offer to quit fighting if Ukraine relinquishes its sovereignty over parts of the country. How seriously can we take Russian diplomacy at this point?

AK: Russia’s absurd demands show that they are intent on continuing their devastation against the Ukrainian people. I hope that the sanctions, international pressure, and resistance from Ukrainian people weaken Russia’s position so that further escalation can be avoided. I always try to keep hope in George Mitchell’s remarks about the role of diplomacy in the Good Friday Agreement [that ended the conflict in Northern Ireland]: “We had about 700 days of failure and one day of success.” We need to keep the door for diplomacy open and work to change interests and calculus to bring about an end to this violence.

FP: Do you think the West has been thinking creatively enough? In terms of trying to create offramps? 

AK: I think the trouble is that we still don’t have a good sense of what Putin really wants here. And so we don’t actually know if there are offramps at this stage. A lot of the talks before the war started, Russia came forward with their list of demands. These were unreasonable. These demands were not ones that were done with some intention of seriously taking diplomacy forward. 

The surrender of NATO in the eastern part of Europe is just unacceptable. His demands went beyond Ukraine and even included troop movements in certain European NATO nations. We need to see what his reactions are to some of what’s been done so far. There’s been some moving pieces here. While [the Russian military] have had some gains on the battlefield, they also have had a lot of difficulty. 

FP: What else could the U.S. and its allies be doing to help Ukraine?

AK: One of the biggest things that I think about when I’m looking at how to further isolate Russia is that it’s not just about the West. There’s more that we need to be doing in terms of partners and allies in Asia and elsewhere in the world. Again, this is a threat against the entire global order. When you look at the U.N. resolution, you see broad condemnation, but you also see some countries that really stuck out, like India. What does that mean? There is a lot more room to grow globally, in terms of this commitment to isolate. I think there needs to be a level of clarity of isolation that Russia will be experiencing going forward. And I hope that that is made clear, not just to Putin, but to the Russian people. I still don’t fully understand how much of what is unfolding is readily apparent to the Russian people. They will be feeling it financially, if they haven’t already, but do they understand why this is coming about? 

FP: Has the international community gone far enough? 

AK: As I said, this needs to be done across the entire globe. So yes, the United States and European allies have taken some strong measures when it comes to sanctions. I’d like that to be replicated [in] many other countries around the world. So that is something that we should be engaged in. I think that inherently requires us to think about reframing this. I think very early on it was framed as a battle in Europe and talked about as the biggest land invasion in Europe since 1945. Yes, that’s all true. But again, I think we need to pull it out from just the European context. Pull it out from just the context of Russia versus NATO. I think that framing has led other major powers and countries around the world to not feel like they’re necessarily on the hook, to go as full-throated. 

When you’re talking about Russia, this is a country that borders or is in near proximity to many of our allies and partners in Asia. There are some Asian countries that are closer to the border of Russia than European countries to the border of Russia. 

The other thing that I’ll say is that you need to be thinking about what effect you are having and the time that it takes for that to be felt. And then you need to compare that to what is actually unfolding on the battlefield. So yes, these sanctions are moving forward, and that is powerful. But what we’re also seeing is that we could be within days or a few weeks of major gains on the battlefield by Russian forces, especially against the capital of Kyiv. So these sanctions are not going to, on their own end, stop some of that momentum on the battlefield.

FP: Do you support the idea of a no-fly zone? 

AK: I’m struggling with that one. A major issue when it comes to the no-fly zone is escalation. If you put in place a no-fly zone, are you actually going to enforce it? And that basically means—are you going to shoot down Russian jets and aircraft? This would be pushing [NATO] beyond what we’ve done before. 

That being said, I have to say, when I see what appears to constitute war crimes and breaches of international law, I don’t think that we as a globe can just stand by and watch what happens. I’m not sure exactly what kind of accountability to talk about here, whether it’s air power or other means. But clearly, if this continues and we see the lives of tens of thousands of Ukrainians, innocent civilians being killed, when you continue to see the shelling of apartment buildings … right now, I’m still kind of grappling with that, and I’m trying to think through how far to push while recognizing that escalation is very scary.

FP: What are the mistakes you don’t want to see happening at this moment? What can’t go wrong?

AK: The biggest [factor] right now is the will of the Ukrainian people to fight for their lives in their country. If this was a situation where—that we saw in Afghanistan last year—the president fled the country before anybody, who was first off the boat, that’s the kind of situation that really saps the will of people to fight. I’m not saying this is an exact comparison to what happened there, but at least in Ukraine, you have a tremendous will to fight. You have Zelensky and others really showcasing a level of wartime leadership that we haven’t seen much of during my lifetime. So that’s what you have to protect at all costs. And that means providing every and all resources available for them to be able to fight.

Right now they have some of that energy, but over the last couple of days, Ukrainian people have suffered a significant set of setbacks. Is this will to fight durable? Anything that is done that goes against that would be a mistake. We have to be very supportive and careful here.

I think right now, there is the sense that Russian gains are inevitable. I don’t want us to assume that. I don’t want us to assume that territorial control of Ukraine by Russia is inevitable. I think telegraphing that is not good. I think we should be planning that that’s a possible outcome. And we should also be planning what that would look like afterwards. What kinds of insurgency might exist afterward and how to pre-position for some of that. 

I don’t necessarily see some of that thinking happening just yet. If it were to happen, and we haven’t already put in motion steps to address that, it will be too late at that point. The ability to move weapons and aid and medicine into Ukraine is quickly closing. So if we wait until Russia consolidates territorial control to put into place a plan to deal with a possible insurgency there, the door may very well be closed, and we may not be able to actually transfer or push any weapons, body armor, or medicine into Ukraine if Russia controls some of those border crossings and elsewhere.

So it’s not a situation where you’re playing chess and thinking a couple moves ahead. You literally have to play multiple games at the same time.

FP: Would diplomacy ever be moot?

AK: No. There’s no point at which diplomacy serves no purpose. It needs to be there. Diplomacy is the ability for a nation to be able to communicate with each other, even during war, even during high conflict. You need to have some capacity for communication, if only at that point to try to work yourself through possible miscommunications, misunderstandings, miscalculations. Sometimes you need to deconflict reporting. God forbid something were to happen, and it appears that “Russia did this” or appears that “NATO did this,” and there is potential for high escalation very quickly, you need to deconflict that.

I am someone who has always believed that some level of communication is necessary. Communication in and of itself does not necessarily mean legitimacy. Just because we stay in touch does not necessarily mean you’re legitimizing the actions of somebody else. 

That being said, we cannot allow dialogue and that effort to be utilized or weaponized, as we often see Putin try to utilize ideas of talks and other means to buy himself more time to make gains on the battlefield. He obviously is slow-walking the idea of a cease-fire right now, because the Russians are not at the level of territorial gain that he wants. But I’m sure if they were to take control over all or most of Ukraine, he may then want the cease-fire there, because he would be happy with where pieces are. So we need to make sure that they’re not weaponizing that kind of diplomacy to solidify or buy time for military gain.

Mary Yang is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @MaryRanYang

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