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Biden's role in Ukraine peace is clear now

Biden's role in Ukraine peace is clear now

It's not enough for Washington to urge talks from behind the scenes, while insisting in public that only Kyiv can negotiate.

Analysis | Europe

It is now clear that the Ukrainian offensive of the summer and fall of 2023 has failed, with minimal gains and enormous losses. There has been no repeat of the sweeping Ukrainian victories of 2022. Ukrainian army chief General Valery Zaluzhny has admitted that the war has now entered a stalemate.

Russia is now attacking in its turn; and although so far its forces also have made only very slow progress, time does not appear to be on Ukraine’s side. Russia has some four times Ukraine’s population and 14 times its GDP, which give it huge advantages in what has become a war of attrition. Serious imbalances in the U.S. and European military industries mean that Russia is also producing far more shells than Ukraine is receiving from the West.

Ukraine’s victories in the first months of the war were due to the courage and grit of Ukrainian soldiers, certain particularly effective Western weapons, and extremely bad Russian planning. They were also, however, attributable to the fact that Ukraine was able to mobilize more men than Russia, due to President Putin’s hesitation over increasing conscription. That advantage has now been reversed.

Moreover, as recent developments in the U.S. Congress and in Europe make clear, there can be no guarantee that Western aid will continue at levels sufficient to allow Ukraine to continue the fight successfully.

There is therefore no realistic prospect that Ukraine can significantly improve its existing position on the battlefield. The West can provide more weapons, but it cannot generate additional Ukrainian soldiers. Ukraine is facing greater and greater difficulties in recruiting troops; meanwhile, Russia is calling up reserves and continually strengthening its defensive lines in southern and eastern Ukraine.

Voices in the West that promote the idea of complete Ukrainian victory are becoming increasingly desperate; an example is the suggestion by retired American generals that, with additional U.S. missiles, Ukraine can somehow force Russia to evacuate Crimea through bombardment alone — something that the entire history of this war contradicts. To achieve this, Ukraine would also need massive amphibious forces that it altogether lacks.

A ceasefire and negotiations for a peace settlement are therefore becoming more and more necessary for Ukraine. Indeed, if the fighting stopped along the existing battle lines, more than 80 percent of Ukraine would be fully independent of (and bitterly hostile to) Russia and free to do its best to move towards membership of the European Union.

Given the Kremlin’s original aims when it launched the invasion last year, and of the history of Russia’s domination of Ukraine over the past 300 years, this would be not a Ukrainian defeat, but, on the contrary, a tremendous Ukrainian victory. If, on the other hand, the war continues indefinitely, there is a real possibility that Ukrainian resistance may collapse, whether through the exhaustion of its manpower or because Russia’s additional forces allow it to reopen the fronts in northern Ukraine that it pulled back from last year and that Ukraine lacks the troops to defend.

Recognizing this, the Biden administration is reported to be privately advising the Ukrainian government to start talks with Russia. It is however exceptionally difficult for the Ukrainian government to initiate talks. President Zelensky and other leading officials would have to reverse their repeated statements that they will not negotiate with Putin and that the only acceptable terms for even a provisional agreement are complete Russian withdrawal from all the territory that Russia has occupied since 2014. Ultra-nationalist groups are passionately opposed to any compromise. The Russian government for its part is naturally uninterested in a temporary ceasefire at present, since it, too, can see that time is on its side.

In these circumstances, it is not enough for Washington to urge talks on the Ukrainians from behind the scenes, while insisting in public that only Ukraine can negotiate peace. Nor is it wise to defer any diplomatic initiative until after the next U.S. presidential election almost a year from now in the hope that both the Ukrainian forces and U.S. aid will hold up that long, and also that an embarrassing about face in the middle of the election campaign can be avoided.

Ukraine may not be able to hold out that long, and a major Russian success, involving the conquest of significantly more Ukrainian territory, would confront the Biden administration with an agonizing choice: accept a Ukrainian defeat that would be a grave humiliation for the U.S. and NATO, or threaten direct intervention and risk nuclear war with Russia.

Moreover, as the disaster in Israel and Gaza so vividly demonstrates, it is never sensible to trust that an inherently volatile situation like the U.S.-Russian struggle over Ukraine will remain stable. At any time, an accidental clash between (for example) the Russian and U.S. air forces over the Black Sea could precipitate a terrifying increase in tension and a lurch towards nuclear war. Even if the worst outcomes were avoided, such a crisis would have a dire effect on the global and U.S. economies.

The full engagement of the United States in the peace process from the outset will be necessary if negotiations are to have any chance of success. Only a U.S. administration can bring sufficient pressure to bear on the Ukrainian government, while also offering reasonably credible security guarantees for the future. And only a U.S. administration can threaten Moscow that, for some time to come, massive U.S. military and economic aid to Ukraine will continue, while at the same time offering the Kremlin compromises on wider issues of vital importance to Russia.

If Moscow is to be brought to the negotiating table when the military situation is developing in its favor, it will need to be assured that Washington is prepared to discuss seriously a final settlement involving neutrality for Ukraine (of course, including international security guarantees), mutual force limitations in Europe, the lifting of sanctions, and some form of inclusive European security architecture to reduce the danger of more wars in the future.

Initiating such engagement will be extremely difficult for the Biden administration, given its repeated promises of Ukrainian victory and declarations that only Ukraine can negotiate peace. The administration therefore will need outside help if it is to engage in peace talks with Russia.

The administration should therefore reach out in private to India, Brazil, and other leading countries of the “Global South” and urge them to issue a strong collective call for a ceasefire and peace talks. In initiating talks, Washington could then present itself as bowing to the will of the global majority. This may also help counteract the disastrous impact on U.S. relations with the “Global South” of the war in Gaza. The U.S. will also need to build support among European allies for a peace effort, including strong public U.S. commitment to NATO.

Full Chinese participation will also be essential if a peace process is to succeed. Chinese influence on Moscow will be critical if Russia is to be persuaded to abandon its maximalist ambitions in Ukraine and accept a compromise peace. Amid dangerously rising tensions between the United States and China, such an invitation from Washington would signal to Beijing Washington’s willingness to accept China as a partner and legitimate stakeholder in the solution of global problems.

None of this is going to be easy, and there will be a strong temptation in Washington to let things slide in the hope that something will happen to let U.S. diplomacy off the hook. To follow this path would, however, be a tragic error and a betrayal of the vital interests of both Ukraine and the United States. The present trajectory of the war is towards disaster. Only the United States can change that trajectory, but it will need a lot of help from its friends.

Thousands of flags have been planted at the makeshift memorial for fallen soldiers in Maidan Square, Kyiv. Each flag is a tribute to someone who was killed by Russia's war. (Jose Hernandez_Camera 51/Shutterstock)

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