Diplomacy Watch: Calls for negotiations grow as Russia threatens nuclear use
After more than seven months of brutal fighting, Ukraine and Russia have never seemed further away from peace.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has attempted to create a fait accompli by illegally annexing huge swathes of eastern Ukraine (parts of which are not under Russian control) and insisting that the territories are no longer up for negotiation. This decision has been met with understandable contempt from Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, who issued a decree that ruled out any chances of talks with Putin.
Yet support for peace talks among Western elites seems to have increased in recent days. In an unexpected turn, billionaire lightning rod Elon Musk called for talks and proposed his own peace plan after months of backing Kyiv’s war effort to the hilt. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) also publicly backed talks for the first time since the conflict began in February, arguing that Washington must “pursue every avenue of diplomacy to seek an end to the war.” And, in an unprecedented move, Pope Francis called directly on both Putin and Zelensky to lay down arms and start talking.
Even mainstream media outlets, which have largely avoided arguments in favor of diplomacy, joined the trend this week. The Washington Post published a piece explicitly advocating for a negotiated peace, and both the Post and the Wall Street Journal published op-eds that called on policymakers to consider the lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis as the war in Ukraine continues.
One key factor seems to have driven this shift: fear that the war could turn nuclear.
Though such a possibility felt remote a few months ago, many now worry that Putin could use nuclear weapons in response to Ukrainian advances that threaten Russian territory — a slippery term given the recent “annexations.” Regardless of what Russia’s “territorial integrity” really means, the Russian leader and his aides have now repeatedly said that they will use nukes to protect it, and officials in Washington are increasingly concerned that Moscow is not bluffing.
As journalist Ross Barkan recently noted, Putin’s threats should remind the world of the cardinal rule of nuclear policy:
“The cost of underrating the threat of nuclear war is so much greater than the cost of overrating the threat of nuclear war,” Barkan wrote in a tweet, adding that the conflict in Ukraine “can drag on for years and kills hundreds of thousands — and maybe far more — if diplomacy is not attempted soon.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Zelensky during a phone call on Tuesday that he is ready to help with efforts to end the war, according to Reuters. Modi “expressed his firm conviction that there can be no military solution to the conflict and conveyed India’s readiness to contribute to any peace efforts,” according to an Indian readout of the call. The news comes just a few weeks after Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed that Modi, Pope Francis, and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres serve as mediators for peace talks in Ukraine.
— On Monday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba pledged that Ukraine will send more grain to Africa following complaints that Kyiv’s grain exports have largely gone to wealthier countries since they restarted in July, according to Al Jazeera. “We will do our best until the last breath to continue exporting Ukrainian grain to Africa and the world,” Kuleba said during a visit to Senegal.
— Russia is pushing for an unprecedented secret ballot vote at the UN General Assembly on a resolution that would condemn Russia’s “attempted illegal annexation” of much of eastern Ukraine, according to Reuters. Moscow’s ambassador to the UN argued that, given strong Western lobbying in favor of the measure, states may be afraid to vote against it in a public vote.
— In Politico, Michael Wahid Hanna and Delaney Simon of the International Crisis Group argued that President Joe Biden should continue to ignore calls from Congress to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terror. “This would hobble future peace efforts and have other counterproductive effects, while doing nothing to strengthen Kyiv’s hand in pushing back on Russian aggression,” Hanna and Simon wrote.
U.S. State Department News:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said there were “no updates” on the status of basketball star Britney Griner and former Marine Paul Whelan, a pair of Americans held in Russian prison on what Washington considers to be trumped-up charges. “The Russians should take the deal that’s on the table,” Patel said, referencing a prisoner swap that the U.S. proposed earlier this year.