The talks beginning on Monday between the United States and Russia are the most important for a generation when it comes to both U.S. interests and global peace. Their outcome will have repercussions that stretch far beyond Europe, and encompass Chinese actions in the Far East and the possibility of international cooperation against climate change.
That is not however how most of the Biden administration seems to see them. Despite certain positive signs of new thinking, the dominant desire among most U.S. officials appears to be essentially to continue the existing American policy of kicking the can of U.S.-Russia relations down the road; that is to say, try to avoid new clashes, but do not try to reach any concrete agreements or solve any of the key issues at stake.
If U.S. negotiators approach the talks in Geneva in this spirit, then their intention will be to soothe Russian feelings with vague bromides and commitments to further talks. The Biden administration may also use the supposed need to include Ukraine in talks and reach a consensus with the EU and NATO allies as an excuse not to move towards any concrete agreements. This approach has run its course. It is clear from the latest Russian demarche that the Russian government will simply not accept a relationship with the West that continues along these lines.
Seen from Moscow, this has basically been the U.S. approach since the Obama administration took office in 2009. Since then, not only has the West advanced further and further at Russia’s expense, but the unsettled state of U.S.-Russia relations has meant that every new crisis — including ones like Syria and Afghanistan, where U.S.-Russian interests should have been aligned — has led to a new increase in tension. Recent developments concerning Ukraine mean that the Russian establishment sees the vital interests of Russia as under threat, and failing an agreement that addresses enough of Russia’s key concerns, they appear to be willing to act violently in defense of those interests.
When entering into these talks, U.S. diplomats should first refer to the greatest thinkers in the U.S. international relations tradition, Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr. Morgenthau states that a fundamental duty of statesmen is to cultivate the mental ability to place themselves in the shoes of their adversaries. This does not necessarily mean agreeing with them. What it does lead to is an understanding of what your opponents see as the vital interests of their countries, and what they see as secondary interests, on which they will be prepared to compromise.
This is absolutely central to any successful international negotiation, and above all to issues of peace and war. For the best definition of a vital national interest is one for which the country concerned is in the last resort prepared to fight, with adequate support from the mass of its population.
In the present crisis over Ukraine, Russia is prepared to fight (as it did in 2014 and with Georgia in 2008) and the United States is not. This is not because of any “weakness” on the part of the Biden administration (or the Bush administration in 2008), but simply because the territorial integrity and geopolitical status of Ukraine and Georgia are obviously not vital U.S. interests, for which it is worth risking the catastrophe of a war with Russia.
U.S. diplomats should also keep in mind Reinhold Niebuhr ‘s warning (in The Irony of American History) against the dangers to the world and America itself presented by U.S. self-righteousness and moral arrogance. In the present context, this means a recognition that far from Putin having “gone mad,” and Russian policy being either “mysterious” or on the other hand reflecting permanent and quasi-genetic tendencies to “aggression,” Russian motives and actions are very close to those of the Washington establishment in pursuit of its own vital interests. This is pre-eminently true of America’s 200-year-old determination to exclude hostile international alliances from America’s own neighborhood.
How then should the U.S. administration address the concrete issues at stake in Geneva? Russian demands as they stand are obviously unacceptable, as they want Western concessions with no Russian concessions or guarantees in return. Hawkish elements in the West have suggested that they are in fact intended to be rejected, as the basis for a subsequent invasion of Ukraine. However, in the first place, the consensus of U.S. intelligence is that the Russian government has not in fact yet decided on war, and in the second place, the only way of testing this assertion is to open talks, make a reasonable counter-proposal, and see how Russia behaves.
This U.S. counter-proposal should contain two interlinked elements, founded on the idea of reciprocity: The first is a renewed U.S. commitment to guaranteed autonomy for a demilitarized Donbas region within Ukraine, and a public commitment to make Ukrainian agreement to this a condition of further U.S. aid to Ukraine. The Biden administration has recently signalled some real support for Donbas autonomy (which after all has been U.S. official policy since 2015), but it needs to act firmly to bring this about. The Russian quid pro quo would obviously be the withdrawal of Russian armed “volunteers” from the Donbas, the disarmament of the Donbas militias, and the full recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donbas.
The second U.S. proposal should be a Ukrainian treaty of neutrality, ruling out military alliance either with the United States and NATO or with Russia. Once again, this involves reciprocal concessions by both sides. This should be accompanied by a military standstill agreement, whereby the United States and NATO promise to station no additional forces in new NATO member countries in return for a Russian promise to deploy no additional forces in Kaliningrad, Belarus, Transdniestria and Crimea.
If agreement along these lines can be reached between the United States and Russia, then both Ukraine and America’s European allies will have no choice but to come on board. Demands from Kiev and Brussels to be involved in the talks themselves should however be firmly rejected by Washington. Due to its deep internal divisions, the Ukrainian political establishment is incapable of agreeing on any reasonable position vis a vis Russia; while the EU is incapable of agreeing on anything at all when it comes to external policy.
Involving them in the negotiations will simply be a recipe for making the entire process hostage to elements opposed to any settlement at all: Ukrainian ultra-nationalists and historically embittered Swedes, Poles and Balts. As for the talk of this threatening a “new Yalta agreement” over the heads of Europe, this is hysterical, historically illiterate garbage. Nobody is suggesting that Estonia, Poland or Romania leave NATO and the EU and submit to Russian-imposed governments, or that Russian tank armies return to the center of Germany.
An agreement along these lines will be bitterly attacked by Western hardliners with all the usual accusations of “cowardice” and “appeasement.” They need to ask themselves however whether they are really prepared to contemplate war with Russia; and if not, what they are proposing as a concrete alternative to these proposals. In the United States, Republicans also need to remind themselves that the Republican administration of George Bush did not fight for Georgia in 2008 any more than the Democratic administration of Barack Obama fought for Ukraine in 2014; and that in both cases, the decision not to intervene was backed and even initiated by the U.S. military, for the best possible military reasons.
Since nobody in the West is in fact prepared to fight, the issue of “cowardice” does not arise when it comes to seeking a reasonable, reciprocal agreement with Russia. On the contrary, moral cowardice means sticking with a provenly failed and dangerous strategy for fear of domestic criticism and personal unpopularity, and moral courage means a willingness to accept that criticism and unpopularity for the sake of the real interests of the United States.