Argument

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Talking With Russia Is Tempting—and Wrong

Why it’s still too soon for negotiations to end the war in Ukraine.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin meet during the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange on June 16, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland.
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin meet during the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange on June 16, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland.
Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin meet during the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange on June 16, 2021 in Geneva, Switzerland. Pool/Keystone via Getty Images

In the summer of 1814, U.S. and British negotiators gathered in Ghent in the hopes of putting an end to the war that had begun two years earlier when England invaded the United States. The British, confident of victory, demanded major territorial concessions; when the U.S. delegation, led by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, rebuffed those extortionate terms, the British proposed to redraw boundaries to include current gains, which contained parts of New England. News of the burning of Washington, which reached Europe in early October, tempted the Americans to concede.

Instead, they stalled, hoping for good news. That news soon arrived in the form of U.S. victories around Lake Champlain and in Baltimore. Just before Christmas, the British withdrew all demands and agreed to postpone the most contentious issues for future discussion. The Treaty of Ghent put an end to the era when U.S. sovereignty was threatened.

The moral of this story is that premature diplomacy during warfare is a mistake; the dynamism of the battlefield must be allowed to shape the conditions of negotiation. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has urged his colleagues in the Biden administration to “seize the moment” for diplomacy now that Ukraine has fought the Russian army “to a standstill.” But that’s the wrong metaphor; the Ukrainians first withstood the Russian onslaught and have since pushed it back. A diplomatic bid a month ago might have conceded Russian control of Kherson, a city Ukraine has since regained, just as an agreement in September 1814 would have lopped off a significant portion of New England. The moment will come for diplomacy; it’s not now.

In the summer of 1814, U.S. and British negotiators gathered in Ghent in the hopes of putting an end to the war that had begun two years earlier when England invaded the United States. The British, confident of victory, demanded major territorial concessions; when the U.S. delegation, led by John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, rebuffed those extortionate terms, the British proposed to redraw boundaries to include current gains, which contained parts of New England. News of the burning of Washington, which reached Europe in early October, tempted the Americans to concede.

Instead, they stalled, hoping for good news. That news soon arrived in the form of U.S. victories around Lake Champlain and in Baltimore. Just before Christmas, the British withdrew all demands and agreed to postpone the most contentious issues for future discussion. The Treaty of Ghent put an end to the era when U.S. sovereignty was threatened.

The moral of this story is that premature diplomacy during warfare is a mistake; the dynamism of the battlefield must be allowed to shape the conditions of negotiation. Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has urged his colleagues in the Biden administration to “seize the moment” for diplomacy now that Ukraine has fought the Russian army “to a standstill.” But that’s the wrong metaphor; the Ukrainians first withstood the Russian onslaught and have since pushed it back. A diplomatic bid a month ago might have conceded Russian control of Kherson, a city Ukraine has since regained, just as an agreement in September 1814 would have lopped off a significant portion of New England. The moment will come for diplomacy; it’s not now.

In an earlier column on the letter progressive Democrats sent to U.S. President Joe Biden on Ukraine, I wrote of my reservations about the left’s antiwar case for diplomacy. The stronger argument, however, is on the right, or at least the non-left. This side correctly points out that while Ukraine’s interest in protecting its territorial integrity is unlimited, the West has many other concerns that it must hold in balance with its support of Ukraine. In an article in the National Interest, Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, recently listed the grave and long-term costs of the war: accelerated “deglobalization,” rising food and energy prices and the social and political unrest those spikes can provoke, nuclear instability, and, above all, the prospect of war between Russia and NATO, possibly including a Russian resort to nuclear weapons.

In a recent conversation, Kupchan told me that he was “in the minority that thinks we should entertain talks with the Russians.” The cost that most concerns him is the military one. “We haven’t,” he said, “found Putin’s red line.” Russian President Vladimir Putin was not risk-averse, as he had been thought to be. He might respond to what he regarded as a threat to his regime with a form of escalation, nuclear or otherwise, that would be calamitous for the West, whether or not the Ukrainians regarded it as a price worth paying. Kupchan’s brother Charles, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, has also made the case that “the Kremlin’s resort to a nuclear weapon becomes a realistic option should Russian forces face full expulsion from eastern Ukraine and Crimea.”

This turns the argument about diplomacy and timing upside-down, suggesting that the West needs to begin formulating a diplomatic endgame before the Ukrainians succeed so well on the battlefield that Putin pulls the world down upon himself—and us. That kind of reasoning is, of course, the whole point of nuclear blackmail. When I said as much to Cliff Kupchan, he pointed to the additional costs of the war, very much including the horrendous deaths of hundreds of Ukrainian children. Yet this is a cost that the Ukrainians themselves seem willing to bear.

That said, simply calling Putin’s bluff would be the height of madness. The Biden administration is acutely conscious of the problem of the red line; even as he authorized another $400 million in military hardware for Ukraine, the president refused to provide long-range drones that could hit targets inside Russia. The argument for diplomacy says, in effect, that Washington must restrain not only itself but Ukraine; if not, as the international relations scholar Emma Ashford recently wrote, “[I]t may find its carefully calibrated response to the war being overtaken by a dangerous fantasy of absolute victory.” Ashford takes a careful middle position, suggesting that while a negotiated solution “seems impossible today,” U.S. diplomats “should begin to raise—both publicly and to [their] partners—the difficult questions that such an approach would entail.”

That sounds reasonable—don’t try to push Ukraine into sitting down with Russia but do begin to prepare for discussions that you know are bound to come. But is it? I raised the issue with Stephen Sestanovich, a Russia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Sestanovich said that even publicly airing possible end scenarios could sap Ukrainian will, the most precious commodity of all. “Yes, at some point you can sit down and talk to the Ukrainians about their future,” he said. “But you must have respect for how much harm you could do to them.” The analogy that occurred to Sestanovich was Winston Churchill’s refusal to consider Italian diplomatic feelers in May 1940 for fear that doing so would undermine British morale.

The reason that plans for a possible endgame should remain inside diplomats’ desks right now has to do not only with timing and tactics but with other kinds of costs that diplomatic realists tend to soft-pedal. The British realized after the War of 1812 that the United States was too strong and well-located to be retaken. Putin, however, would be emboldened by an agreement that granted him, for example, something a bit better than the status quo of 2014. In fact, he will remain a threat to his neighbors and to the West so long as he retains the capacity to do harm. Sestanovich suggests that if Ukraine continues to advance in the east and take back much of what it has lost, “the Russians will be in full panic mode” and Putin’s own rule will be threatened. That is, in effect, the best-case scenario for Ukrainian military success. (The worst-case scenario, of course, is that Putin lashes out against that threat.)

The question, at bottom, is: How much does it matter? So far, the United States and Europe—to a much greater degree—have concluded that halting Russian aggression in Ukraine is worth a good deal of sacrifice. The fact that the professed values of the West turn out to be real has obviously come as a shock to Putin; it has also come as a shock, if a very pleasant one, to many people in the West. But that will is hardly bottomless. Biden and his fellow leaders will not keep bearing the political and economic burden in order to achieve Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s maximal terms, which include Russian reparations and the return of every inch of Ukrainian territory.

The time will come when diplomats pull those plans out of their desks. But first we must see how much further, with our help, Ukraine can push back Putin’s advance. Doing so is in our interest as well as Ukraine’s.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea. Twitter: @jamestraub1

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