Negotiating Peace in Ukraine Is Not About What America Wants
The conflict in Ukraine must stay focused on what is good for Ukraine, not America.
Judging by his recent statements, it appears that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is looking for negotiations to end the war in Ukraine. Yet considering that the United States plays such a crucial role in the conflict, Washington has sufficient leverage to decide when and how Ukraine enters into peace negotiations. But Washington’s objectives in the conflict are far from clear.
Most observers initially believed that the United States stepped in with military assistance to defend Ukraine, push Russia out, and prevent a Russian victory. Now it appears that this is not the case. During a meeting in Kyiv with Zelenskyy on April 25, 2022, U.S. secretary of defense Lloyd Austin stated that he hopes a Russian loss in Ukraine will deter its leadership from repeating its aggressive actions elsewhere. Thus, American strategy apparently aims to use the Russian attack as an opportunity to pursue an American geopolitical objective: to weaken Russia thoroughly. This is a completely different objective, and one wonders how the Ukrainians feel about it. Such an objective implies a war of attrition with high casualties to be borne by Ukrainians, not Americans.
Austin’s statement is hardly conducive to negotiations to end the conflict. If anything, President Vladimir Putin can use it to consolidate his power in the face of opposition from Russia’s potentially dissatisfied military and security forces. For instance, some Russian elites may want to shift tactics or even oppose Putin—we do not know—but if their only outcome is a much-weakened motherland, why should they do so? Any opposition will be labeled non-patriotic. For the United States, it may have been wiser to state that while Russia must withdraw from Ukraine, the end of the war would offer Moscow an opportunity to rejoin the international community. Some Russians may not have forgotten that from 1997 to 2014, the G7 group of large industrial countries was actually the G8 (because Russia was a member). They should be reminded that it is not Russia, but current Russian policy, which has resulted in this estrangement.
Bringing in two lessons from history, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered a statement in 1943 announcing that the Allies’ war aims were to force the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan. Knowing how evil Nazism was, there are good reasons to pursue that goal, but it helped Adolf Hitler to rally the German nation behind him. Why should the Germans try to end the war knowing that they would deliver themselves to the Allies’ mercy or lack thereof? We know now that for the Japanese, the role of the emperor played a crucial role, and it is uncertain what would have happened, even after the two nuclear bombs, if the Americans had not acquiesced in preserving the emperor. So, vis-à-vis Japan, unconditional surrender was—very wisely—not applied.
President George H. Bush acted like a statesman during the liberation of Kuwait campaign in 1991. He forged a coalition inside a UN framework with the objective of liberating Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion (Resolution 678/1990 was agreed unanimously by the Security Council). When that objective was accomplished, he rejected all advice and ideas to go on and engineer regime change in Iraq. The art of genuine statecraft, not to be forgotten in Ukraine, is to know when and how to stop.
Equally ill-advised is Henry Kissinger’s statement on May 24, 2022, to a meeting in Davos that “Ideally, the dividing line should be a return to the status quo ante.” Apparently, the implication is that the war should end by leaving Russia in possession of the territory in Donbas it held before February 24, 2022.
Few negotiations have led to a mutually agreeable position if one of the parties, even before the two opposing sides sit down, offers major concessions. Russia and Putin will know that they already have bagged what territory they occupied before the war and consequently start by asking for more—probably a large part of Southern Ukraine at the coast of the Black Sea plus acknowledgement of the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
In such a scenario, Zelenskyy will start knowing that the United States—if the Biden administration follows Kissinger’s advice—has already gifted Russia a large part of his country. How can he then extricate himself from negotiations with a result his population can live with after such a spirited defense? Concessions should only be offered if they look likely to end the conflict with an acceptable result. Therefore, Zelenskyy is completely right in stating again and again that his aim is restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including Crimea.
Only such a position ensures that negotiations start from an equitable position. Negotiations may end with territorial concessions from Ukraine, but if so, they will be decided on the basis of what Ukrainians feel and have agreed to. This is the core of negotiations and should not be given to Russia a priori since Russia must pay for whatever concessions Ukraine puts on the table. If not, only one side of the table negotiates.
Negotiations to resolve conflicts more or less comparable to what we have seen in Ukraine do not commence before one of two conditions is present: either one of the parties acknowledges defeat or both are too exhausted and find that the cost of continuing the war outweighs whatever unpalatable concessions must be made.
Neither of these conditions looks present right now, meaning that the war will probably go on for some time. The United States and Europe must see to it that Ukraine continues to be able to stand up against the Russian aggression. Otherwise, an outcome will be shaped by a lopsided negotiation where Russia occupies the driver’s seat.
And the United States must resist the temptation to catapult the conflict from being about Ukraine and its sovereignty into a geopolitical issue used to achieve American objectives. The conflict in Ukraine must stay focused on what is good for Ukraine, not America.
The main objective for Ukraine’s president, leadership, and population is obviously to push Russia out of the country. But they also must avoid a war that leaves the country desolate. Its infrastructure must be kept intact, the countryside populated and cultivated, cities and towns not in ruins. What is the virtue of a victory if it looks like throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Zelenskyy understands that. This is why he calls for negotiations instead of just pursuing the war. He is walking a tightrope to rally the people behind him to pursue the war while searching for negotiations. The United States and Europe should do their utmost to keep his options open. It is not about what they want; it is about the future of Ukraine after the conflict has ended. For better or worse, Russia, with or without Putin, will still be its neighbor.
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is a former state-secretary for the Royal Danish Foreign Ministry and the author of Asia’s Transformation: From Economic Globalization to Regionalization, ISEAS, Singapore 2019 and The Veil of Circumstance: Technology, Values, Dehumanization and the Future of Economics and Politics, ISEAS, Singapore, 2016.