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Putin annexations mean US-Russian talks more critical than ever

Moscow's moves are a serious escalation — Washington must heed its Cold War lessons now to avoid a wider confrontation.

Analysis | Europe

The Russian government’s move today to annex the territories it has occupied in Ukraine is absolutely illegal, as well as a very serious escalation of the conflict. The local “referendums” in support of this move were a sham and will quite rightly be condemned by the vast majority of states around the world. 

Even states like China that have been so far unaligned with the West and more sympathetic to Russia in this conflict have made clear that they will never accept forced annexations.

The Russian action greatly complicates the search for an eventual peace settlement, as Ukraine and Western nations won’t formally accept nor recognize the annexation. At the same time, once these territories have been officially accepted into Russia under the Russian constitution, it will be much more difficult for a future Russian government to give them up. Nonetheless, barring the very unlikely prospect of a complete victory for either side, at some stage a ceasefire to end full-scale war will still be necessary.

Above all, the drastic nature of the Russian action makes it even more essential that Washington and Moscow enter into direct talks to prevent the war from spreading and escalating into a direct clash between the United States and Russia, which in the worst scenario could lead to a nuclear exchange that would destroy civilization.

The very fact that direct peace talks between Ukraine and Russia are now so difficult means that the Biden administration must assume greater responsibility for diplomatic efforts to contain and limit the conflict. Not to do so would essentially be abdicating its responsibility to protect the United States and the American people from threats to their very existence.

This danger is in no sense hypothetical or speculative. Both before and during the war, the Biden administration has responded to Russia’s aggressive moves by increasing its support to Ukraine. At every point, the Russian government has responded not by backing down, but by further escalating in turn. If this cycle of escalation continues unchecked, then the prospect of direct nuclear conflict between America and Russia will become an active probability.

In these exceptionally dangerous circumstances, it is important to remember the lessons of the Cold War. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the U.S. establishment and its allies in western Europe came together to prevent the further spread of Soviet power and Stalinist communism in Europe. In that effort they were completely successful, leading to the containment and eventual collapse of the Soviet Union and Soviet communism.

At the same time, the Eisenhower administration rejected the idea of “rolling back” Soviet power in eastern Europe by military means, arguing that this strategy would lead to an extremely high risk of nuclear war in which both the Soviet Union and the United States would be largely destroyed. President Dwight Eisenhower, as the former allied commander in World War II, also understood that even a conventional war in Europe would once again reduce that continent to ruins — including those east European countries that U.S. hardliners wished to liberate.

As a result of this wise decision (and the Soviet decision not to risk nuclear annihilation by exploiting its superiority in conventional forces in Europe), war was avoided, and over time, lines of communication were put in place between Washington and Moscow to limit the risks of unintended escalation. At present, such lines of communication have largely broken down. Diplomatic links are more limited than at the very worst moments of the Cold War. Meetings between high-level officials have ended completely. Yet — paradoxically but logically — it is precisely when relations are at their worst that such contacts are most important.

At certain points during the Cold War, failures of communication led to acute dangers of conflict. Thus, as recorded in Soviet documents cited in books by authors like Serhii Plokhy on the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet leadership deployed missiles to Cuba because it was convinced that this was the only way to deter a U.S. invasion of the island. 

Soviet fears were not irrational; the United States had staged the “Bay of Pigs” invasion by Cuban émigré forces, and when it failed, hardliners in Washington did indeed urge a direct U.S. invasion. Yet by the time the Kremlin made its decision to deploy missiles, President Kennedy had in fact already categorically rejected the idea of U.S. invasion. A Soviet move and U.S. response that brought the world to the very brink of nuclear cataclysm was therefore objectively unnecessary and could have been avoided by frank and honest private communications.

Today, to avoid escalation towards nuclear war, it is necessary that Washington and Moscow begin talks that would allow secret but credible assurances by both sides — just as President Kennedy’s agreement to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey in return for the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba was kept secret by both sides. These assurances should concern first and foremost issues that could point directly towards outright war between the two countries.

Russia needs to give Washington assurances that it does not intend to attack any NATO member. Washington needs to assure Moscow that it will not make any move to blockade the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, and that it will stop short of supporting any Ukrainian offensive aimed at recapturing Crimea and seizing the Russian naval base of Sevastopol. Both sides need to give assurances that they will not sabotage the other’s infrastructure — an especially urgent issue given the (as yet unexplained) sabotage of Russia’s Nord Stream undersea gas pipeline to Germany.

As part of the process of moving towards such talks, U.S. officials should understand that while on the one hand Russia’s annexation of these territories marks a very serious escalation, on the other it also masks a colossal scaling down of Russian ambitions compared to the first months of the war. The Kremlin’s original plan was to capture Kyiv, subjugate or replace the Ukrainian government, and reduce Ukraine to the status of a Russian client state. When that failed, Moscow hoped to conquer all or most of the Russian-speaking areas of eastern and southern Ukraine. Both of these plans were foiled by Ukrainian resistance backed by Western weaponry and intelligence.

The Russian defeat in Kharkiv has forced Russia both to increase its forces and to further scale back its goals. Now, Putin’s goal seems to be permanent Russian control of a portion of eastern Ukraine (excluding the main cities of Kharkiv, Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk), so as to allow him to ward off attacks by Russian hardliners and claim to the Russian people that his criminal and disastrous war has led to some sort of success for Russia.

The latest Russian statement says that what Moscow calls the “special military operation” in Ukraine must continue until “at a minimum” the whole territory of the Donbas has been “liberated.” This is a strong indication that ambitions beyond that have in practice been abandoned under the impact of military reality.

By presenting this war as one to defend Russia’s own territory against Western-backed Ukrainian attack, Putin also hopes to justify the greater demands for sacrifice that he is having to make on the Russian people in support of the war. Megalomaniacal ambition appears to have been replaced by a measure of desperation — but that only makes the present situation all the more dangerous, and direct talks between Washington and Moscow all the more urgent.

Screenshot/Sky News
Analysis | Europe
Chris Murphy Ben Cardin

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