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Diplomacy Watch: Washington may deny it, but looks like someone wants to talk to Russia

Diplomacy Watch: Washington may deny it, but looks like someone wants to talk to Russia

Experts have made the case in recent months that such openings are crucial to avoiding a vicious circle of mistrust and protracted war

Global Crises

Communication between Washington and Moscow has been rare over the first 500 days of the war in Ukraine. But NBC News reported Thursday that a group of former high-level U.S. officials have held secret talks with Russians perceived to be close to the Kremlin, with the goal of laying the groundwork for an eventual diplomatic solution to the war. 

According to the NBC News story, which cites “people briefed on the discussions,” the talks focused on some of the most pressing questions concerning the conflict, including “the fate of Russian-held territory that Ukraine may never be able to liberate, and the search for an elusive diplomatic off-ramp that could be tolerable to both sides.” 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attended at least one of the meetings when he made a rare visit to New York City to chair the UN security council in April, according to the report. The former U.S. officials named in the article are Richard Haass, the outgoing president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Charles Kupchan, and Thomas Graham — all of whom previously worked in senior positions in the State Department, among other national-security agencies — as well as former Pentagon official Mary Beth Long. 

The Biden administration reportedly was aware of the meetings, but did not organize them. There was no indication of whether or not the White House endorsed the discussions. 

Kupchan, now a senior fellow at CFR, wrote a piece for Responsible Statecraft on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion in February that made the case that “as Ukraine and its Western supporters seek to build on their successes, they should embark on year two determined to continue the fight — but also ready to marry efforts on the battlefield to a diplomatic strategy aimed at bringing the war to a close sooner rather than later.” While, at the time, Kupchan predicted that the war would drag on for months, if not longer, he argued that “[j]ust as Washington readied plans to support Ukraine before the fighting started, it should ready plans for a diplomatic endgame before the fighting stops.”

Two months later, Haass and Kupchan co-authored an article published by the influential Foreign Affairs journal entitled “The West Needs a New Strategy in Ukraine: A Plan for Getting from the Battlefield to the Negotiating Table.”

The kinds of unofficial talks in which they reportedly participated — known as Track II diplomacy (or “track 1.5” in the case of the meeting that Lavrov attended, since a government official was present for one side) — can be an important step in preparing for real negotiations and a chance to get a better sense of where the other side stands and what opportunities for compromise may lie in the future. Experts have made the case in recent months that such preparations are crucial to avoiding a vicious circle of mistrust and protracted war. 

“Track II is intelligence gathering. As the fighting goes on, talks are needed to assess how the other side reacts to changing realities on the ground,” wrote Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute, in RS in response to Thursday’s story. “Is their resolve weakening? Are they overconfident? What are they seeing that we are missing?”

“Track II is needed to explore possible pathways to real negotiations and a lasting solution,” Parsi added. “When real talks start, you don't want to go flying blind; you want to know as much as possible to maximize your chances of success.”  

The NBC News report follows a Washington Post story last weekend that broke the news of CIA director Bill Burns’ secret trip to Ukraine last month during which the former deputy secretary of state discussed possible plans for an endgame with officials in Kyiv. The Post described these officials’ approach as “an ambitious strategy to retake Russian-occupied territory and open cease-fire negotiations with Moscow by the end of the year.”

“In private, military planners in Kyiv have relayed to Burns and others bullish confidence in their aim to retake substantial territory by the fall; move artillery and missile systems near the boundary line of Russian-controlled Crimea; push further into eastern Ukraine; and then open negotiations with Moscow for the first time since peace talks broke down in March of last year,” according to the Post. 

In this plan, Ukraine would agree not to try to retake Crimea by force in exchange for Russia accepting whatever security guarantees Ukraine can get from the West.

It was also reported that Burns had called his counterpart in Russia after the short-lived Wagner mutiny to assure their intelligence services that Washington had nothing to do with it.

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

—The short-lived Wagner rebellion in Moscow raised fears about the future stability of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. “[M]onths of nuclear posturing by Putin and other senior Russian officials, and a new debate among Moscow analysts on using a nuclear weapon on a NATO country, have raised doubts about whether Putin really provides the stability necessary to avoid an atomic Armageddon — or if he is the risk they should fear most,” according to The Washington Post.  

As the Quincy Institute’s Anatol Lieven told the Post, if Putin faced the loss of occupied Crimea, “the chances of escalation would be extraordinarily high because he would believe it was necessary to save Crimea, but it would also be necessary to save his regime at that point.” 

—Sweden kicked off its push to be admitted to NATO in Washington this week in advance of next week’s summit in Vilnius. Sweden’s prime minister visited the White House Wednesday, and President Joe Biden told him that he was “anxiously looking forward” to welcoming Sweden into the alliance. Sweden’s bid has been held up by Turkey and Hungary. Ankara claims that Stockholm has been too lenient towards Kurdish groups and individuals that Turkey considers terrorists, while Budapest faults Stockholm’s criticism of the decline in liberal democratic governance in Hungary. 

—In an interview with CNN broadcast Wednesday evening, President Volodymyr Zelensky blamed the slow transfer of U.S. weapons for Kyiv’s stalled counteroffensive. “I’m grateful to the U.S. as the leaders of our support, but I told them, as well as the European leaders, that we would like to start our counteroffensive earlier, and we need all the weapons and matériel for that,” he said through an interpreter, according to The New York Times. “Why? Simply because if we start later, it will go slower.”

—Moscow indicated on Tuesday that it was open to discussions with Washington regarding a possible prisoner exchange involving Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich so long as the talks remained private, reports the Associated Press. “We have said that there have been certain contacts on the subject, but we don’t want them to be discussed in public,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with reporters. “They must be carried out and continue in complete silence.”

U.S. State Department news:

The State Department did not hold its regular press briefing this week.

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