At the summit between presidents Biden and Putin in Moscow, the conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine and the dispute over Crimea will be high on the agenda and will interfere greatly with the discussion of other issues.
The existing U.S. approach is a classic example of a zombie policy: a dead policy that walks around pretending to be alive because the Washington establishment cannot summon up the will and courage to bury it. For there is no chance whatsoever of this policy ending the conflict, helping Ukraine to recover its lost territories, or enabling Ukraine to join NATO.
But as every moviegoer knows, zombies can be extremely dangerous, and the Donbas conflict represents by far the greatest danger of a new war in Europe, and of a new crisis in relations between the United States and Russia. The Biden administration does not wish to escalate tensions with Russia, but so long as these disputes remain unsolved, the United States will be hostage to developments on the ground that could drag it into new and perilous crises.
A war could end only in Ukrainian military defeat, and perhaps in the loss of much larger territories. The United States, which has declared “unwavering” support for Ukraine in the dispute would be faced with the choice of either going to war with Russia (an unthinkable proposition with disastrous consequences for the United States and its citizens), or leaving Ukraine to its fate and suffering a dramatic loss of international credibility.
The threat of war with Ukraine will not shift Russian policy. The United States did not fight for Ukraine in 2014, or for Georgia in 2008. And as of 2021 America has only some 26,000 ground troops in Europe — and most certainly could not rely on the participation of its European allies in a war with Russia. Russia has more than ten times that number that it could deploy quickly to fight in Ukraine. To prepare seriously for war with Russia would require a colossal redeployment of U.S. forces to Europe — so colossal that placing military checks on the expansion of Chinese power would have to be abandoned.
Over the past seven years, U.S. and EU sanctions against Russia have also not worked in the slightest to make Russia accept Ukrainian terms over the Donbas and Crimean disputes. There can be no rational basis for thinking that they will work in future, not least because the strength of Russian nationalism means that no conceivable future change of regime in Moscow will change Russia’s basic approach.
Ukrainian economic pressure, like the blockade of the Donbas and the cut-off of water to Crimea, may push Russia towards compromise — but only if Ukraine and the United States are also prepared to compromise. If not, there is an equal risk that Russia will eventually respond to this pressure with force of arms. It is therefore emphatically in the interest of the United States, as well as Europe and Ukraine itself, to find a peaceful political solution to this conflict.
There is, however, no chance that such a solution can be based on the position of Ukrainian governments since 2015 — that full Ukrainian control be re-established, the separatist forces disarmed, and Russian forces withdrawn before the granting of autonomy, and that any autonomy legislated by the Ukrainian parliament will in any case be only provisional.
A glance at the history of other peace processes around the world should demonstrate the senselessness of this position. It demands in effect that the separatists and their Russian backers surrender in advance in return for only temporary and unconfirmed Ukrainian concessions. No separatist force in the world would make peace on these terms. Only the defeat of the Russian army could bring about this outcome, and the defeat of the Russian army could only be accompanied by a new world war. Kiev and Moscow must therefore find a compromise.
The dictates of reality, the wishes of the people of the region, and modern international tradition all point in the same direction: a settlement derived from the principles agreed (but never implemented) in 2015 by the “Minsk II” group of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine, and endorsed by the United Nations Security Council . “Minsk II” calls for extensive autonomy for the Donbas within Ukraine, guaranteed by international treaty and the presence of an international peacekeeping force.
Above all, this solution would correspond to something that the discourse on this issue in Washington too often completely forgets, despite America’s sense of democratic mission: namely, the wishes of the local people themselves. Both before and since the outbreak of war, pluralities in local opinion polls repeatedly supported autonomy for the region within Ukraine. Only minorities have wanted either union with Russia or centralized rule from Kiev.
In Crimea, opinion polls before 2014 showed majorities for independence, and it seems probable that if a new referendum were held under international supervision, then as with the internationally unrecognized Russian-held plebiscite of 2014, it would result in a vote for union with Russia.
The Minsk II agreement was also endorsed by the Obama administration, but since then no U.S. administration has done anything serious to bring it into effect. But it is above all, the stance taken by Ukrainian governments that has made implementation of the agreement possible, and there is therefore no possibility of progress without real pressure by the United States on Ukraine as well as on Russia.
Accordingly, the United States should actively help to broker a solution along the following lines:
— The restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donbas region (namely the provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk), including the return of Ukrainian customs and border guards.
— Full autonomy for the Donbas region within Ukraine, including control over the local police.
— Complete demilitarization of the region, including the disarmament and demobilization of the pro-Russian militias, the withdrawal of all Russian “volunteer” fighters, and the exclusion of all but token Ukrainian armed forces.
This settlement should be endorsed by a UN Security Council resolution, with a neutral UN peacekeeping force stationed in the Donbas to guarantee autonomy and prevent a new conflict.
The issue of Crimea is different and separate from that of the Donbas, since Crimea has been annexed by Russia and no armed conflict has occurred there. However, Crimea does constitute another major stumbling block in U.S.-Russian relations, hindering agreement on other issues and carrying the potential for future crises. The resolution of this issue is therefore desirable, and it should be accomplished by a new local referendum held under UN monitoring and supervision, and linked to a diplomatic compromise whereby Russia recognizes the independence of Kosovo.
Those critics who declare that such an approach is impossible for the Biden administration have a duty to propose an alternative approach that stands some chance of ever actually succeeding. If they cannot, then they are trying to commit the United States to one side in a frozen conflict that will be in perpetual danger of exploding again, with permanent damage to wider U.S. interests in the world. An American statesman — as opposed to a politician — in these circumstances should have no hesitation in following the advice of former Defense Secretary Robert A. Lovett: “Forget the cheese – let’s get out of the trap.”
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
President Biden (Naresh777/Shutterstock) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Sasa Dzambic Photography/Shutterstock)
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its two-year anniversary, President Vladimir Putin has reportedly had his suggestions of ceasefire rejected by Washington.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Russia had approached the United States through intermediaries in late 2023 and early 2024 to propose freezing the conflict along the current lines. Washington reportedly turned down the suggestion, saying that they were not willing to engage in talks if Ukraine was not a participant.
“Putin was proposing to freeze the conflict at the current lines and was unwilling to cede any of the Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia, but the signal offered what some in the Kremlin saw as the best path towards a peace of some kind,” according to Reuters, which cites three anonymous Russian sources.
The plan, one of the sources told Reuters, was for national security adviser Jake Sullivan to meet with the Russian counterpart to hash out the details. But after meeting with other senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, “Sullivan told Ushakov that Washington was willing to talk about other aspects of the relationship but would not speak about a ceasefire without Ukraine, said one of the Russian sources,” according to Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that there is no point in negotiating with Putin and has maintained that he will never accept Russia controlling any part of Ukraine.
"Everything fell apart with the Americans," one of the sources told Reuters, saying that Washington did not want to pressure Kyiv into reaching an agreement. The sources also added that given the U.S. reaction to a potential ceasefire, Moscow saw little reason to reach out again.
Both Washington and Moscow have denied the reporting.
The Kremlin “never made any kind of proposal to us nor have we seen any signs that Putin is sincerely interested in ending the war,” an unnamed U.S. official told Politico’s NatSec daily on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the report that Russia had made such an offer was “not true.”
Despite Washington’s insistence, this is the latest piece of evidence that Putin may have pursued a ceasefire in recent months. The New York Times reported late in 2023 that the Russian president had quietly been sending signals to the West that he was prepared to freeze the conflict.
“The signals come through multiple channels, including via foreign governments with ties to both the United States and Russia,” the Times reported. “Unofficial Russian emissaries have spoken to interlocutors about the contours of a potential deal that Mr. Putin would accept, American officials and others said.” The report also revealed that Putin had been interested in a potential ceasefire as far back as the fall of 2022, following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.
As journalist Leonid Ragozin explained in al-Jazeera earlier this week, this may be an effort to pressure the West to negotiate on Putin’s terms.
“What Putin is trying to achieve is making the West face its moral dilemma which boils down to the cost and benefit of resisting his aggression,” Ragozin writes. “The continued support for Ukraine’s military effort will cost thousands of lives and devastate Ukraine even further, while success is hardly guaranteed.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The prospects for the next tranche of U.S. aid for Ukraine saw the first glimmer of optimism in months, but the chances that it becomes law remain murky. After a tumultuous negotiation, the Senate passed the $95 billion national security supplemental, which includes approximately $60 billion for Kyiv. The legislation next goes to the House of Representatives, which has been more skeptical of sending aid, and where leadership so far appears unwilling to bring the bill to the floor. Supporters believe that if the House voted on the package, it would pass overwhelmingly, and some have floated pursuing legislative maneuvers that would allow them to supersede leadership and bring the legislation to a vote.
— Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Paul Whelan, the U.S. Marine currently detained in Russia, on Monday, according toCNN. Blinken provided few details on his conversation with Whelan, who has been detained since December 2018. When asked about a possible prisoner exchange involving Whelan or detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the Kremlin said that such matters could only be resolved, “in silence.”
— French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a statement that he will sign a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on Friday. Macron did not specify what exactly the agreement will look like, but he said earlier this year that he was expecting to model an agreement after the 10-year deal that the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed earlier this year.
— The Netherlands will join a coalition of countries that is providing Ukraine with advanced drones, according toReuters.
“Ukraine intends to manufacture thousands of long-range drones capable of deep strikes into Russia in 2024 and already has up to 10 companies working on production, Ukraine's digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a Reuters interview on Monday.”
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller reiterated the importance of Congress passing the supplemental, stressing that it was in the national security interest of Ukraine, Europe, and the United States.
“A lot of that money is spent here, helps develop the manufacturing base here in the United States. And so we will continue to push for the passage of the supplemental bill, and ultimately we think – as the President said, the world is watching,” Miller said. “And certainly I’m sure that when we are in Munich we will hear directly from foreign leaders that they are watching very much what Congress does. We know the Ukrainian people are watching. And as the President said, history is watching as well.”
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Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, supreme commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1952; President Barack Obama, at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 2014.
President Trump's latest comments criticizing NATO and the ensuing media reaction obscure the fact that Americans have long held dissenting opinions on the U.S. relationship to European security.
As has happened all too often throughout the Trump era, the heat of escalating rhetoric on the part of the 45th President and his committed adversaries has distracted from the more substantive foreign policy debate.
Today, the U.S-European security relationship has never been more sacrosanct, at least in the mind's eye of the national security establishment and their allies in the mainstream press. Yet historically, the range of debate and criticism of this ostensibly sacred pact has been far more open than nostalgia or the modern commentariat may suggest.
Throughout American involvement in NATO, the nation's national security elites, members of Congress, commentators, and, yes, presidents, too, have all challenged the contours of commitment to the organization and its members at one time or another. Furthermore, they did so when Western countries faced a significantly larger Soviet military deployed deep into the heart of Central Europe.
During the early Cold War, the nature of American involvement in the alliance and its commitment to staff Europe with a permanent garrison were not seen as beyond question, even by American officials in positions of authority. In fact, American Cold War architects sold an American garrison in Europe as a temporary measure meant to shore up allies still licking their wounds from the Second World War. In congressional testimony concerning the ratification of the NATO treaty, Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper (R-Iowa) pressed Secretary of State Dean Acheson on if he thought the treaty meant that the U.S. would leave "substantial numbers of troops over there." An indignant Acheson responded, "[t]he answer to that question, Senator, is a clear and absolute 'No.'"
Even as Acheson's assurances to Congress proved hollow, NATO's first commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, while supportive of NATO's legal mechanisms of collective security, believed that America's garrison and material aid were temporary. Eisenhower warned that if "in 10 years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed."
In Congress, the extent of American military involvement remained a persistent issue for the Republican Right. Be they principled noninterventionists or Asia First unilateralists, the extent of American troop presence in Europe remained a contested issue. Retired Army officer Bonner Fellers, writing in a July 1949 issue of Human Events, a conservative magazine, summed up the widely agreed-upon position of these dissenters. While Fellers believed that the NATO treaty had "enormous psychological value," as it served as a "symbol of unity" and deterrence, he did not think that that should translate into a massive and permanent military garrison in Western Europe.
Fellers revisited the issue two years later in an article for Human Events, which was read into the Congressional Record. Rather than see the American European garrison as a deterrent, Fellers asserted that it could be viewed as a provocation and argued that the "presence of our forces on the Rhine gives Stalin a visible symbol, a unifying agent which tends to enlist the support of all Russians behind the Kremlin."
It is important to note that Fellers was hardly a dove. Instead, he was a committed anti-communist who loathed the Soviet Union and supported a nuclear deterrence on the cheap, a Fortress America 2.0. Yet, he, like many within the Republican Right, did not allow their ideological priors to automatically dictate a desire for endless security commitments to Western Europe.
On Capitol Hill, Fellers's views were common and supported by conservative Republicans who saw an American military garrison as an expensive handout to allies whose rebuilt economies could shoulder their defense, all while providing little deterrent effect. In 1953, speaking on the issue of America's military mission in Europe, Rep. Lawrence H. Smith (R-Wis.) asked rhetorically, "[w]here is the threat of military aggression?"
According to Smith, after returning from a fact-finding mission in Europe, his subcommittee on Europe reported that "there was no fear of communism in the hearts and the minds of the people there." The sentiments espoused by Fellers and Smith persisted in pockets of the Republican Right throughout the early Cold War despite the ideological demands of the era.
During the final decades of the Cold War, opposition to the presence of an American military garrison in Western Europe and the continuation of military aid emanated primarily from the left wing of the Democratic Party as a new generation of Democrats took office and sought to rein military spending and commitments. On Capitol Hill, Democrats attempted to force American troop level cuts in Europe in the House in 1988, and the Senate in 1990.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the horseshoe of opposition to maintaining the status quo thickened as a body of conservative Republicans joined progressive Democrats in opposing NATO expansion, first in 1994 and then in 1999. While both votes failed, and the United States maintained a sizeable garrison in Europe, the opposition to outdated Cold War paradigms remained and flowed freely, untainted by the scurrilous charge of echoing "Putin talking points."
Indeed, even as late as November 2016, President Obama mirrored the sentiments of then President-elect Donald Trump in stating that “[i]f Greece can meet this NATO commitment, all our NATO allies should be able to do so."
This latest fervor has, as all too often now, completely ignored these historical debates around American foreign policy commitments, creating in their passions an ahistorical sense of policy inevitability. If Americans past and present, from presidents on down, could question the contours of American security commitments and did so in far more perilous times, then so should we.