Why The US Hasn’t Really Supported Ceasefire Talks Between Ukraine and Russia
Originally published as part of the Dissenter Newsletter
The world is in a nuclear crisis, and instead of strongly supporting ceasefire talks to end the Russia-Ukraine war, Western countries are pouring gasoline on the fire.
On February 24, delegations from Ukraine and Russia met on the Ukraine-Belarus border near the Pripyat river. It was the first round of negotiations since Russian military forces invaded Ukraine.
No breakthrough occurred during the meeting, which lasted nearly five hours. Yet the two delegations agreed to meet again on March 2 near the border between Poland and Belarus.
According to Al Jazeera English, Vladimir Medinsky, the head of the Russian delegation, said there were “certain points on which common positions could be foreseen.” Ukraine’s delegation was not as optimistic.
“The talks were taking place against the backdrop of bombing and shelling of our territory, our cities. Synchronizing of the shelling with the negotiating process was obvious. I believe Russia is trying to put pressure [on Ukraine] with this simple method,” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared in his evening address on February 28.
Prior to the talks, French President Emmanuel Macron was urged by Ukraine to speak to Russia President Vladimir Putin. The Guardian reported that he asked “Putin to ensure that for the duration of the negotiations all strikes and attacks on civilians and their homes would be halted, civilian infrastructure would be preserved, and all main roads — particularly the road south out of Kiev — would remain safe to use.” Putin reportedly agreed.
Videos of Russia attacking Kharkiv with “short- to medium-range, truck-mounted multiple-rocket launchers” known as “Grads” were posted to Telegram the day of talks, leading numerous media outlets to report on the shelling as a violation of Putin’s pledge to Macron. Yet it was unclear if Russian military forces “synchronized” the attack with negotiations.
Putin told Macron a ceasefire would be possible if there was “unconditional consideration of Russia’s legitimate security interests,” such as: Ukraine staying out of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the demilitarization and “de-Nazification” of Ukraine, and “recognition of Russian sovereignty over Crimea.” He was open to negotiate with Ukraine’s representatives on these terms.
While there are armed neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine, perceived as a problem in recent years, Putin has exaggerated their influence over Ukraine’s government. Zelenskyy’s election diminished the mobilization of the far right (though generally they have enjoyed a resurgence during the war).
Of course, Ukraine’s delegation demands Russia withdraw all of their military forces and respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.
‘Diplomacy At The Barrel Of A Gun’
State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters at a briefing that Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba consulted with G7 ministers ahead of the negotiations. Zelenskyy spoke to President Joe Biden, and Biden talked with Kuleba. U.S. officials compared notes and coordinated closely.
This may explain the U.S. State Department’s skepticism. It does not appear the U.S. has advised Ukraine to offer Russia an offramp, even though Putin ordered his nuclear forces into “special combat readiness.”
“You would be right to color us skeptical of what it is that Moscow intends. What we’ve said before, including last week, applies equally today. Diplomacy at the barrel of a gun, diplomacy at the turret of a tank — that is not real diplomacy,” Price stated.
In fact, the U.S. is a hegemon that uses its vast military power to advance a worldwide agenda. Alexander L. George, who was globally renowned for his work on international relations, argued, “The proposition that force and threats of force are a necessary instrument of diplomacy and have a role to play in foreign policy is part of the conventional wisdom of statecraft.”
“Diplomacy is not an alternative to military force; it is the use of all elements of U.S. force in a coordinated, cumulative way to achieve our results in other countries,” former U.S. ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey told Defense One in 2014. Jeffrey was a diplomat in Iraq after President George W. Bush preemptively invaded Iraq in 2003.
Cheering President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Jeffrey said, “I saw them do major groundbreaking diplomatic initiatives that were revolutionary, but those guys were kicking ass and deploying military forces as an integral part of their diplomacy.”
“That is why they were successful in their diplomacy, and I don’t see any difference between the two — negotiating agreements and threatening force, and when necessary delivering on the threat,” Jeffrey added.
Elementary school children in the United States are taught the concept of “Big Stick Diplomacy,” which was promoted by President Theodore Roosevelt. He relied on the military strength of the U.S. to seize land and build the Panama Canal. He had the Great White Fleet travel from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in a show of force to deter Japan from expanding their dominance in Asia.
The reality is the U.S. may pursue peace by flaunting its monopoly on violence, but any adversarial power will be condemned for acting similarly.
“We are ready and willing, just as our Ukrainian partners are, just as our European allies are, to engage in real, in substantive, in genuine diplomacy in order to see if we can find a way out of what is a needless, brutal conflict,” Price said. “But that diplomacy is highly unlikely to bear fruit, to prove effective, in the midst of not only confrontation but escalation.”
It is absurd to spell this out, but ceasefires are only necessary during conflicts that involve confrontations and escalations of violence. Diplomats negotiate to establish a stoppage in warfare so that a political agreement or peace treaty may be established.
An Offramp For Russia
Diplomats may pursue a ceasefire to prevent catastrophic events that could result in a substantial amount of death. Preventing further death does not necessarily equal appeasement.
Nevertheless, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss parroted the U.S. State Department’s talking point the day before the talks. “[Ukraine] cannot negotiate with a gun to the head of Ukrainians…So frankly, I don’t trust these so-called efforts of negotiations.”
The same day Truss expressed absolute support for Britons, who would like to travel to Ukraine and become foreign fighters.
Russia’s act of aggression has been met with economic warfare in the form of harsh sanctions from the U.S. and European countries, including the removal from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a messaging system that allows for international banking; barring Russian financial institutions from transactions with currencies other than the ruble; export “restrictions on semiconductors, telecommunication, encryption security, lasers, sensors, navigation, avionics, and maritime technologies”; asset freezes; and cutting off 13 state-owned companies from “raising money” in the United States.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson proclaimed, “We will continue on a remorseless mission to squeeze Russia, from the global economy, piece by piece. Day by day, and week by week.”
In this context, supporting a ceasefire would not be capitulating to Russia’s invasion. The Western world is inflicting lasting damage on Russia that will make it a pariah state for the foreseeable future — and collectively punish Russia’s population of 144 million.
Sanctions could be wielded to force Putin to negotiate a ceasefire and withdraw forces, however, there is no indication that leaders from any NATO country are leveraging them by offering to rescind certain sanctions if Russia reverses course.
Norman Eisen, the former U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic, appeared on CNN and was asked about the talks. He said it was too early for Ukraine and the West to give Russia a “diplomatic way” out of the nuclear crisis.
“I’m extremely dubious, like President Zelensky, about the negotiations that have started. But I do think over time, particularly as — remember, we’re only five days into the conflict. I think as the situation on the ground evolves there will be opportunities over time for offramps, things like discussing a Ukrainian pledge never to be a part of NATO,” Eisen answered.
Retired military general David Petraeus played a key role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that destroyed the two countries. But stunningly, in his appearance on CNN, he showed more humanity than Eisen and contemplated why the U.S. should not merely accept that the war may drag on.
“We have to start thinking through how do we provide Russia an out. You never want to put a guy who has nuclear weapons truly in a corner, where he feels that he has nothing left to lose,” Petraeus said.
“So as the weight of the world is coming down on [Putin], on his economy, on his financial institutions, and the forces in the field,” Petraeus suggested we need to think about how he gets out of this but not capitulate to demands that he has placed on Ukraine or on NATO and the European Union.
China, India, Pakistan, and Turkey all seem to recognize the extraordinary threat posed by the crisis, and they encouraged Russia to engage in ceasefire talks. They were even willing to mediate.
Meanwhile, the interests of the U.S. military industrial-complex, which profits off NATO’s alignment against Russia, has surged. The U.S. approved $350 million in additional weapons for Ukraine, and other European countries, particularly Germany, followed suit.
With Russia’s advance on Kiev momentarily stalled, the west has had ample opportunity to recognize the devastation that could come with a nuclear war and make a deal. It will not be long before Russian air strikes pummel targets in Kiev and drive more Ukrainians to flee their country.
The State Department claims de-confliction channels remain open with Moscow, but funneling weapons to Ukraine won’t save Ukrainians. It will only increase the chance that Ukraine becomes a quagmire.