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Diplomacy Watch: The West doesn’t know how to talk about Ukraine

Diplomacy Watch: The West doesn’t know how to talk about Ukraine

From Bucharest to Washington, leaders are struggling to have a real conversation about the path to peace.


Earlier this month, Romanian Defense Minister Vasile Dincu argued that the “only chance” for peace in Ukraine “may be negotiations with Russia.”

“It would be ideal to reach a situation of negotiations,” Dincu said. “Even if it ends in a frozen conflict, negotiations would still bring more benefits than what is happening now, the destruction of human lives, material values.”

Following weeks of backlash from many in his own political coalition, Dincu stepped down on Monday, saying in a statement that it had become “impossible to cooperate with the Romanian president, the army's commander-in-chief.”

This political dust-up may seem peripheral — after all, Bucharest rarely figures prominently in most people’s geopolitical calculations — but it illustrates a growing norm in the discourse around the war in the West. Namely, you can’t talk about diplomacy and the human cost of prolonging the conflict unless you begin your argument with a declaration that talks can only start when Ukraine says it’s ready. In fact, sometimes you’re punished for talking about diplomacy even if you include that preface.

Take, for example, a recent congressional letter from members of the Progressive Caucus that praised President Joe Biden’s policies toward Ukraine while also calling on him to “seriously explore all possible avenues, including direct engagement with Russia, to reduce harm and support Ukraine in achieving a peaceful settlement.” (Note: The Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft, endorsed the letter prior to its release.)

The letter, which came out Monday afternoon, initially garnered some support from progressive foreign policy leaders. But others on the left were less enthused, with some Democratic elites arguing that the letter was a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Republican Party, or both. The situation quickly devolved as some signers claimed that they were not consulted about the letter’s timing while others said that they no longer agreed with its entire premise. 

Within 24 hours, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who led the letter’s release, announced that she had decided to withdraw it.

Process issues aside, the most jarring aspect of the whole debacle was how little the document diverged from Biden’s strategy, as Stephen Wertheim of the Carnegie Endowment argued on Twitter.

“The firestorm over a congressional letter whose position was scarcely distinguishable from that of the Biden administration does not speak well of the quality of debate over a conflict that has no easy answers and no end in sight,” Wertheim wrote.

Jonathan Guyer, a foreign policy reporter for Vox, agreed. “The margins of acceptable debate around Ukraine have narrowed to the point of groupthink,” Guyer wrote. “How else could one explain the way that a pretty middle-of-the-road letter saying that diplomacy is an important tool could become Washington’s foreign policy spat of the day?”

It may seem prosaic to argue about the Overton window on Ukraine, but the stakes of this debate could scarcely be higher. Putin’s nuclear threats, however desperate they may be, cannot be ignored given that the Russian atomic arsenal could easily destroy the world a few times over. And the prospect of a long, bloody stalemate in Ukraine — the most likely outcome as things currently stand — is frightening to anyone who values human life.

And the problem doesn’t stop with issues in the United States and Romania. French President Emmanuel Macron has often found himself at odds with other Western elites for his oft-stated view that the war in Ukraine will have to end at the negotiating table (as well as his less often expressed opinion that Kyiv is unlikely to actually recover Crimea with force).

Though “diplomacy” is not a magic wand, experts broadly agree that consistent contacts between adversaries can be effective in reducing the risk of escalation and mitigating some of the worst effects of conflicts. 

Nevertheless, Western policy has placed little if any attention on diplomacy in recent months, as evidenced by reports that U.S.-Russia and EU-Russia contacts are at a historical low point. 

But hope springs eternal: The controversy over the letter has managed to open up some, let’s say, spirited conversation about diplomacy, and some establishment figures have been pushed to defend the idea of expanding talks between Washington and Moscow. Even former Obama aide Ben Rhodes, who has previously worked closely with much of the Biden administration, argued on his podcast that dodging the topic of diplomacy is (politically) dangerous for the Democrats.

“Some of you Ukraine stans who just pile on this stuff, you might be creating the outcome you don’t want, because by punishing anyone who says, ‘let’s have diplomacy,’ the only alternative to your position is [...] where Tucker Carlson is,” Rhodes said.

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— The Black Sea grain deal, which restarted shipments of Ukrainian grain back in July, is set to expire on November 19, according to Reuters. The timing will coincide with the G20 summit in Bali, leading some in the West to worry that Putin could threaten to not renew the deal in order to strengthen his hand for talks at the large multilateral event. Notably, the summit may bring Biden and Putin together in person for the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

— On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said U.S. support for Ukraine will continue until “victory is won” at a conference about pushing Russia out of the Crimean Peninsula, which it has held since 2014, according to A Ukrainian official argued that Pelosi’s participation in the summit was “direct confirmation that the issue of de-occupation of Crimea is high on the agenda in Washington.”

— Basketball star Brittney Griner lost an attempt to appeal a nine-year sentence in Russian prison on charges of marijuana possession, according to Foreign Policy. Following the decision, Moscow is now expected to move Griner, whom Washington considers a political prisoner, to a penal colony. Talks aimed at securing her release have stalled, stoking concerns that her return to the United States could take years.

— Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), a far-right House member who was stripped of his committee assignments for posting an animated video in which he kills a Democratic politician, invited Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Phoenix for peace talks. The ambitious call for diplomacy is almost certainly doomed given Gosar’s political isolation in Washington.

U.S. State Department News:

In a Wednesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel explained why Biden continues to oppose the idea of designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. “There has been some specific concerns from humanitarian organizations and NGOs that a specific state sponsor of terror designation could impact and significantly impair the important work that they are doing in the country in terms of humanitarian work and humanitarian assistance that they can offer,” Patel said.

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