In late June, a group of six Americans consisting of academics and former officials met with seven Russian counterparts on Boisto Island, Finland, to discuss the state of U.S.-Russian relations in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. I was among the American participants.
Though hosted by the Finnish government, the meeting was unofficial: none of us was speaking for our governments. Certainly, the U.S. participants were not encouraged to participate in the meeting—or asked not to—by Washington.
The session was, in short, a conclave among experts, acting in their private capacities, to discuss an important international issue. To use the favored jargon, it was a “Track II” event. The latter is rather different from hatching plans to decide countries’ fate.
Draft proposals emerged from the Finland meeting. They were meant to spur discussion on the terms for a ceasefire, in the first instance, and for a follow-on settlement of the conflict in Ukraine, which was deepening by the day. The preliminary ideas were discussed further in extensive email exchanges. The culmination was a document—I’ll refer to it here, for convenience, as “Boisto,” with apologies to that bucolic island’s few denizens—agreed to by all participants.
The Atlantic published Boisto on August 26th with a preface written by one of the magazine’s editors, Uri Friedman, to provide context and background. On September 1, the same site ran a response, which was critical of Boisto on both procedural and substantive grounds . Eighty-eight people signed this riposte. Our hope for stimulating a discussion had been realized—and then some.
In what follows I respond to Boisto’s critics. I have consulted my American colleagues while gathering my thoughts, but I speak solely for myself, not for them.
Among Boisto’s critics (another term I’ll use as shorthand) are several individuals who have been my long-time friends. Others are acquaintances with whom I have worked or interacted over the past thirty-plus years. Still others are scholars and former officials whom I have not met but know to be serious individuals with considerable knowledge of, and experience in, Russia and Ukraine.
Together, they have raised important questions about Boisto, and that is all to the good. While I disagree with their conclusions and found their tone overwrought in places, they deserve a considered reply. Though they observe that the exclusion of Ukrainians from the Finland discussions “disqualifies this initiative [Boisto] from any serious consideration” they then proceed to give it consideration that is very serious indeed; for that at least I am grateful.
Let me begin with the point about the lack of Ukrainian participation, which I take to be the critics’ main theme and the source of their greatest distress.
The proposition that a country can be discussed only if its representatives are also present is itself open to question. The reality is that the practice of a given pair of governments meeting to discuss issues—even sensitive ones—pertaining to third parties that are not present is routine and unremarkable.
The United States meets with its allies and friends bilaterally to discuss Iran, North Korea, Syria, and China, to give but a few examples. What Washington does other governments do routinely.
This is at least as common, if not more so, in Track-II sessions, which is what the Finland meeting was. It was in no sense an official undertaking.
The vast majority of the critics are themselves Americans; Ukrainians among them are few. Should the Americans be taken to task for issuing a statement about Ukraine—even if written in response to another—that scarcely involved Ukrainian participation? Should it be said that they have no right to represent Ukrainians’ views? Surely not. That was not their intent. But nor was it ours.
One critic—Professor Alexander Motyl of Rutgers, a respected scholar of contemporary Ukraine—has since published a piece on the Foreign Affairs website advocating that Ukraine relinquish the Donbas to Russia. He argues that retaining it is more trouble than it’s worth because the territory merely gives Russia a constant means for meddling in Ukraine’s affairs and destabilizing the country. Should Alex be castigated for daring to propose this idea—which, incidentally, makes Boisto seem like thin gruel—because he, an American, has no right to do so? Surely not.
Whatever one thinks of his idea, one must respect his right to voice it, eschew objections laced with innuendo and ad hominem characterizations, admire his courage for offering a proposal that’s bound to be controversial, even anger-inducing, and address his arguments. That is in the spirit of proper public debate.
The critics amplify their theme on Ukraine’s exclusion by conjuring the specter of backroom deals in which great powers decide weaker nations’ fate through the retrograde practice of fashioning a “condominium.” This point, while dramatic, also misses the mark.
Those of us who met in Finland were not deciding the fate of any country nor acting on behalf of any great (or super) power. We did not succumb to such grandiosity and certainly had no illusions about the extent of our influence.