Four recent events have put the war in Ukraine on a distinctly more dangerous course.
— The Russian annexation of four additional Ukrainian provinces blocks compromise solutions that were feasible earlier.
— The disabling attacks on both North Stream pipelines make it impossible in the near term to restore Russia as the principal energy supplier to Germany, even if the war in Ukraine should be miraculously ended.
— The Ukrainian attack on the bridge to Crimea gave Russia a pretext to escalate attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets.
— The Russian retaliatory attacks on civilian targets are certain to do more damage to Ukraine than Ukraine can do to Russia.
The leaders of both Russia and Ukraine have set impossible goals. In fact, not a single participant in the war in Ukraine has espoused a goal that can restore peace in the area. Russia’s recent incorporation of four Ukrainian provinces into the Russian Federation will not be accepted by Russia’s neighbors or by most European powers.
Given the passions aroused by the war and its atrocities, Ukraine, even with NATO support, cannot create a stable, functioning state within all the borders it inherited in 1991. If Ukraine tries to regain these territories by force and is encouraged and empowered by the U.S. and NATO to do so, Russia (and not just President Putin) will very likely demolish Ukraine in retaliation. Reality trumps illusion whenever the two conflict.
And if war should stop with the destruction of Ukraine — Kyiv and Lviv leveled as Grozny once was — that would assume that escalation does not involve the use of nuclear weapons. If the Russian leader feels convinced that the U.S. and “Western” goal is to take him out, what is to prevent him taking out others as he goes?
What Went Wrong
It did not have to happen. When the Cold War ended (by negotiation, not by victory) and the USSR fragmented into 15 separate countries (because of pressures from the inside, not from without), Europe was suddenly whole and free, the goal of U.S. and NATO policy during the Cold War. If the future stability and prosperity of Europe were to be ensured, the principal task was to build a security system covering all the countries of Europe.
But a succession of American presidents, from Clinton to Trump, chose instead to enlarge NATO, to trash arms control treaties that ended the Cold War, and to enlist former Soviet republics in a military alliance that excluded Russia. Benjamin Abelow summarized the portentous events in his insightful How the West Brought War to Ukraine.
The war might have been prevented — probably would have been prevented — if Ukraine had been willing to abide by the Minsk agreement, recognize the Donbas as an autonomous entity within Ukraine, avoid NATO military advisors, and pledge not to enter NATO. Nevertheless, what was possible even as late as January 2022 may not be possible now. The Russian annexation of additional territory raises the stakes. But the longer the war continues the harder it is going to be to avoid the utter destruction of Ukraine.
We Americans can only admire the valiant resistance Ukrainians have mounted to the Russian invasion and should be proud that we have been able to support their defense. Everything possible should be done to make sure that Ukraine survives as an independent state. But that does not mean that Ukraine has to recover all the territory it inherited in 1991. In fact, given all the passions aroused by the war and what preceded it (the violent change of government in 2014 that many Russians considered a coup d’etat organized by the United States), the population in some areas is likely to resist a return to Kyiv’s control.
Some will argue that the United States has a moral obligation to support whatever the Ukrainian leaders demand since “they know best.” No, they do not know best what is in the security interests of the American people, and that should be the primary concern of any American government. They also, under the stress of war, may not be the best judges of their own ultimate security interests.
I was ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1990 when the Lithuanians declared their independence from the Soviet Union. The United States had never recognized the annexation of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia by the Soviet Union, so the Lithuanians requested immediate U.S. recognition of their independence. I had total sympathy with the Lithuanian aspirations but had to explain that it would be a mistake to do so until Lithuania was in fact free. Why? Because, in 1990, U.S. recognition would almost certainly have precipitated a Soviet crack-down which the U.S. could not counter without risking nuclear war.
The Lithuanians, along with their Baltic neighbors, kept their demands for independence peaceful. The U.S. privately kept pressure on the Soviet Government to refrain from using force, and the USSR State Council recognized the independence of Lithuania and its two neighboring countries in September 1991, freeing them legally before the rest of the Soviet Union broke up.
The issue with Ukraine and Russia of course is not recognition of independence but whether the U.S. should support the Ukrainian goal to restore its control over all the territory it received when the Soviet Union broke up. If pursuit of that goal precipitates the progressive destruction of Ukraine, it is obviously not in Ukraine’s interest.
Effect on the World
The fighting in Ukraine continues and intensifies while the world is still struggling with the covid-19 pandemic and remains vulnerable to mutations and new pathogens, while global warming is producing ever more destructive effects. Meanwhile, migrations caused by famine, flood, war, and misgovernment are overwhelming the capacity of even the richest countries to absorb the afflicted. And to all of that one must add the threat of Armageddon, a nuclear holocaust — something no rational leader would risk. But rationality cannot be assumed in either domestic or international politics today.
Europe’s position will be severely tested during the upcoming winter as the result of drastically curtailed trade with Russia, particularly when it comes to energy. Increasingly, European publics are likely to blame the United States for policies that fuel inflation and bring on economic recession, especially as their currencies weaken against the dollar. The U.S. sanctions on Russia will be seen by many as self-serving attempts to dominate Western Europe.
A new iron curtain is now being imposed on Russia — this time by Western policy — even as the United States announces more measures to confront and “contain” an assertive China. This will result, inevitably, in more cooperation between Russia and China. Also, the increasing use of economic sanctions to achieve political purposes will encounter push-back with a greater volume of international trade conducted in national currencies other than the U.S. dollar.
As Europe is weakened and more countries suffer from U.S. sanctions, coalitions to resist U.S. dominance will flourish. Geopolitical competition will take precedence over action to deal with common problems, even as international conflict intensifies them.
What all the parties to the conflict in Ukraine seem to have forgotten is that the future of mankind will not be determined by where international borders are drawn — these have never been static in history and doubtless will continue to change from time to time. The future of mankind will be determined by whether nations learn to settle their differences peacefully.
Is There a Way to Stop the War?
There may not be, given the passions aroused by the conflict. Both Ukraine and Russia have lost enough blood that their populations are likely to oppose any effort to give the other side any portion of what it wants. Their presidents hate each other and see any concession as a personal defeat. But the more the war continues, the more Ukrainian lives will be lost, property destroyed, and the probability of a wider conflict increased.
The only practical way to stop the actual fighting would be to agree on a ceasefire. This is difficult for the Ukrainians since they are liberating some of the occupied territories, but the reality is that if the war continues Russia is capable of damaging Ukraine more than Ukraine can damage Russia without risking a wider war.
As principal arms supplier to Ukraine, the U.S. should encourage the Ukrainians to agree to a ceasefire. As the sponsor of the most punitive sanctions on Russia, the U.S. should use its leverage to induce Russia to agree to genuine negotiations during a ceasefire.
Negotiations must be conducted in private to be successful, which would require a revival of U.S.-Russia diplomacy. Over the past few years, tit-for-tat expulsions have reduced both countries to skeleton diplomatic staffs. Nevertheless, if there is a will to talk and negotiate, ways can be found. So far, it is the will that seems to be lacking.
At present, none of the relevant parties to the conflict in Ukraine seem to be willing to stop fighting and enter into genuine negotiations to bring peace in Ukraine. Until this changes, the fighting stops, and serious negotiations get underway, the world is headed for an outcome where we all are losers.
Jack F. Matlock, Jr. is a career diplomat who served as U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987-1991. Prior to that he was Senior Director for European and Soviet Affairs on President Reagan’s National Security Council staff and was U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1981-1983. He was Kennan Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study and has written numerous articles and three books about the negotiations that ended the Cold War, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and U.S. foreign policy following the end of the Cold War.
Ukraine, Kiev - October 12, 2022 3 soldiers of the foreign legion in Ukraine pay homage to one of their killed in action. A small flag with the name of the dead soldier is planted in the main square. (Jose Hernandez Camera 51/Shutterstock)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.