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What's Behind The Talk Of Negotiations?
In recent days there has been repeated reference to negotiations with regard to the conflict in Ukraine—all of it emanating from Washington. The question is, What does it all mean? Is it just a ploy—for domestic political purposes, to delude the public into thinking the US is sincerely interested in a political settlement, while still pursuing war, perhaps with the ulterior motive of suckering Russia into a ceasefire? Or is it possible that the Neocons recognize that they’ve painted the US into a no-win corner—and this is an attempt, couched in hardline sounding language, to entice Russia into negotiations to pave the way for an exit strategy?
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The Russian position seems clear enough. Russia sees no point in pursuing a negotiated settlement with Ukraine. First, because Ukraine has shown itself to be untrustworthy and, second, because Ukraine is only a proxy for the real party that is at war with Russia: The US. With regard to the first point, the purge that is under way in Kiev is a sign for all the world to see that the US is calling the shots, not Zelensky—all American protests to the contrary notwithstanding.
Arch Neocon Victoria Nuland gave a briefing to the Senate yesterday in which she sounded as belligerent as ever, essentially espousing regime change. But there was the bare hint that the door to negotiations might be open. For example:
Victoria Nuland, the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, believes that a possible condition for easing some of the sanctions implemented against Russia is the withdrawal of troops from all of Ukraine and an agreement to negotiate seriously.
“In the context of Russia’s decision to negotiate seriously and withdraw its troops from Ukraine and return territories, I would certainly support that (easing of sanctions). I think the US Secretary of State, Blinken, would do the same,” she said.
On its face that’s a total non-starter from the Russian standpoint, but is it an opening gambit? An invitation to Russia to make a counteroffer? Interestingly, Nuland claimed that she and Blinken are on the same page. And yet an article on Wednesday in the WaPo—presumably written by David Ignatius at Blinken’s direction—seems to hint at more flexibility. Of course, the article features the usual bluster about U.S. weapons helping to “pulverize Putin’s invasion force”, about “Russia’s colossal failure to achieve its military goals”, and suggestions that Ukraine will launch a massive offensive a half year or so from now. But for all that there appears to be a suggestion that the US is looking for a way out, a backing away from what had been hard and fast positions in favor of, well, let’s call it a more nuanced approach. Weasel words, if you will. Consider:
Blinken’s deterrence framework is somewhat different from last year’s discussions with Kyiv about security guarantees similar to NATO’s Article 5. Rather than such a formal treaty pledge, some U.S. officials increasingly believe the key is to give Ukraine the tools it needs to defend itself. Security will be ensured by potent weapons systems — especially armor and air defense — along with a strong, noncorrupt economy and membership in the European Union.
That sounds rather like: 1) no hard and fast security guarantees and 2) weapons for Ukraine before we cut them loose. No NATO membership and defend yourself—and good luck! Am I reading too much into that?
The Pentagon’s current stress on providing Kyiv with weapons and training for maneuver warfare reflects this long-term goal of deterrence. “The importance of maneuver weapons isn’t just to give Ukraine strength now to regain territory but as a deterrent against future Russian attacks,” explained a State Department official familiar with Blinken’s thinking. “Maneuver is the future.”
It sounds like Blinken may be doing some verbal maneuvering. As for maneuver warfare, that would be a rejection of the approach that the US prepared Ukraine for over the last 8 years—essentially, trench warfare behind highly developed fortifications. A switch to maneuver warfare is a tacit admission that this approach has failed. Worse, such a switch would require disengagement from the Russian forces and withdrawal into more open country—a very iffy proposition given Ukraine’s inadequate air defense (among other deficiencies resulting from the relentless Russian war of attrition). Advocating a complete change of tactics in mid-war sounds like the US may be looking for a way out, and preparing its excuses.
The conversation with Blinken offered some hints about the intense discussions that have gone on for months within the administration about how the war in Ukraine can be ended and future peace maintained. The administration’s standard formula is that all decisions must ultimately be made by Ukraine, and Blinken reiterated that line. He also backs Ukraine’s desire for significant battlefield gains this year. But the State Department, Pentagon and National Security Council are also thinking ahead.
“Intense discussions that have gone on for months.” Does that mean the Zhou regime really, really, wants to cut their losses—another, but much bigger, cut and run? It could be taken that way. “Standard formulas” have a way of morphing into new and different formulas—a bit like switching from trench warfare to maneuver warfare midstream. Events of this past week have made it abundantly clear that Zelensky will do what the US tells him to do. Our decisions will become his decisions. It’s about saving face.
Crimea is a particular point of discussion. There is a widespread view in Washington and Kyiv that regaining Crimea by military force may be impossible. Any Ukrainian military advances this year in Zaporizhzhia oblast, the land bridge that connects Crimea and Russia, could threaten Russian control. But an all-out Ukrainian campaign to seize the Crimean Peninsula is unrealistic, many U.S. and Ukrainian officials believe. That’s partly because Putin has indicated that an assault on Crimea would be a tripwire for nuclear escalation.
The administration shares Ukraine’s insistence that Crimea, which was seized by Russia in 2014, must eventually be returned. But in the short run, what’s crucial for Kyiv is that Crimea no longer serve as a base for attacks against Ukraine. One formula that interests me would be a demilitarized status, with questions of final political control deferred. Ukrainian officials told me last year that they had discussed such possibilities with the administration.
How far in the future is “eventually”? Its meaning is one of those things that’s in the eye of the beholder, or mind of the speaker. You say “eventually” and I understand “never”. The point is, however, that for Blinken to be advancing a “formula”—a verbal sleight of hand—does seem very much like an appeal to Russia to talk to us. For a perhaps even more cynical view, see John Hellmer:
Now, as it happens, there may be a way to get some idea of what has been discussed in those “intense discussions that have gone on for months” within the Zhou regime. There’s a new research paper out from the Rand Corporation that concludes that a long war with Russia is a very bad thing for the US. Coming from Rand, I think we can guess that this paper reflects the “intense discussions”.
Remember how the CW used to be that somehow time was on our side? That was before Russian began chewing up Ukrainian personnel and NATO equipment on an industrial scale. It was also when we thought sanctions would totally kick Putin’s ass right out of the Kremlin, and before King Dollar looked like being imminently dethroned. Not to mention all the talk of recession in the US. Here’s the paper:
U.S. Policy and the Trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict
A “long” war is one of those concepts like “eventually”. Some might say that this war has gone on “too long” already. Or maybe we reached that point quite a long time ago. Much longer might certainly be “too long” at this point.
The paper itself is 31 pages of mind numbing think tank jargon, in the form of a cost - benefit analysis. However, the abstract and the concluding paragraph or two bring the bottom line out into the open. Taken together it becomes clear that influential centers of policy in DC are concerned that the US should find a way to get out of Ukraine. If you read between the lines a bit, you may be able to identify ideas in common with the Blinken article. Let’s start with the conclusion first. Amusingly, the authors pretend that the US is in the driver’s seat:
… we highlight four options the United States has for shifting these dynamics:
clarifying its plans for future support to Ukraine,
making commitments to Ukraine’s security,
issuing assurances regarding the country’s neutrality, and
setting conditions for sanctions relief for Russia.
All four of those “options” should sound familiar, based on Blinken’s article. What stands in the way? All four are aimed at finding ways to cut Ukraine loose and induce Russia to help us save face—that’s the dynamic shift. What a surprise—politics, and saving face! The authors don’t explain why Russia should help the US save face—especially with our European allies.
A dramatic, overnight shift in U.S. policy is politically impossible—both domestically and with allies—and would be unwise in any case. But developing these instruments now and socializing them with Ukraine and with U.S. allies might help catalyze the eventual start of a process that could bring this war to a negotiated end in a time frame that would serve U.S. interests. The alternative is a long war that poses major challenges for the United States, Ukraine, and the rest of the world.
Question. What would be a “time frame that would serve US interests” in the context of a war that “poses major challenges for the United States”? Tomorrow? Well, there is a note of impending hysteria in this.
The abstract lays it out for anyone to read: “The costs and risks of a long war in Ukraine are significant and outweigh the possible benefits.” To put it another way, Are you crazy? What are we doing here?
Discussion of the Russia-Ukraine war in Washington is increasingly dominated by the question of how it might end. To inform this discussion, this Perspective identifies ways in which the war could evolve and how alternative trajectories would affect U.S. interests. The authors argue that, in addition to minimizing the risks of major escalation, U.S. interests would be best served by avoiding a protracted conflict. The costs and risks of a long war in Ukraine are significant and outweigh the possible benefits of such a trajectory for the United States. Although Washington cannot by itself determine the war's duration, it can take steps that make an eventual negotiated end to the conflict more likely. Drawing on the literature on war termination, the authors identify key impediments to Russia-Ukraine talks, such as mutual optimism about the future of the war and mutual pessimism about the implications of peace. The Perspective highlights four policy instruments the United States could use to mitigate these impediments: clarifying plans for future support to Ukraine, making commitments to Ukraine's security, issuing assurances regarding the country's neutrality, and setting conditions for sanctions relief for Russia.
To give you some idea of how threadbare all this is, the authors come up with tables to lay out the costs and benefits. Table 3 sets out the benefits:
Highly significant benefits
Are you kidding? The authors couldn’t come up with a single idea for a “signficant benefit.” As for “moderate benefits”, they could only come up with one, and that one is a hoot:
Russia has already been significantly weakened by the war, so the United States would only see moderate benefits from further weakening its adversary.
Boy, that’s a long, long way from the heady days of sanctions shock and awe, bringing Russia to its knees, divvying it up, and regime change for Putin.
Highly significant is the risk of all out war with NATO, according to the authors. But that makes you wonder, What’s such a big deal about that if “Russia has already been significantly weakened”, and to such an extent that, hey, why bother weakening Russia further? Something’s not adding up.
Other costs of continuing war? Well … beyond the laugh lines, like US humanitarian concerns,
Ukraine would have a greater need for external economic and military support
continued upward pressure on energy and food prices
Global economic trends affect the U.S. economy.
The United States would be less able to focus on other global priorities.
challenges to other U.S. priorities.
I think you get the picture. The US is the one that wants negotiations, but having driven the whole war so far, it’s finding difficulty in disengaging. As far as I can tell, Russia has little incentive to shift its long term goals or strategy. Things are going their way.