Alberto de Filippis – a journalist and analyst at Euronews, explains what's wrong with idea to negotiate with Russia.
After the successful defense of Kyiv, after Russia's withdrawal to the east, during the summer of Russia's sluggish progress in the Donbas, following Russia's defeat in Kharkiv oblast, and now, following Russia's retreat from Kherson, a chorus of commentators, experts, and former policymakers have pushed for a negotiated peace at every turn on the battlefield. The calls for Ukraine to engage in negotiations have grown stronger as its military performance has improved.
Today, more people than simply commentators are advocating for a negotiated settlement. Progressive members of the U.S. House of Representatives wrote a letter to President Joe Biden urging diplomacy, but they soon withdrew it. Kevin McCarthy, the chairman of the Republican Party in the House, has pledged to examine military assistance to Ukraine and work to end the conflict. Even Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley is said to have pressed for negotiations with Ukraine, but he later made it clear that Kyiv should make the final decision.
Why not try to negotiate?
Isn't diplomacy the best, no, the only course of action, for any form of lasting peace between Russia and Ukraine? And if so, what possible harm could there be in considering those options? Actually, quite a lot: Contrary to popular belief, diplomacy is not always beneficial or free. It also has costs. The difficulties with a push for diplomacy are particularly evident in the Ukraine crisis. The benefits of discussions are unlikely to outweigh the potential expenses, which may be high.
However, attempts to reach a diplomatic agreement while the military situation was still tense, such as those made by the United States during the Vietnam War and more recently in Afghanistan, have failed miserably. Even though most battles eventually result in diplomatic agreements, this does not constitute a win.
Pressuring Ukraine to negotiate now sends a number of negative messages
The conflict in Ukraine cannot be resolved diplomatically at this time because the interests of Russia and Ukraine do not yet coincide. It seems to make sense that the Ukrainians want their nation back. They demand that Russia be held accountable for its war crimes and compensated for the harm it has caused. In contrast, Russia has made it apparent that it still seeks to subjugate Ukraine.
Diplomacy also has little chance of preventing further escalation. A common argument for why the United States should try diplomacy is to prevent Russia from following through on its threats to use nuclear weapons. But why does Russia even make the threat to use nuclear weapons? Probably because Russia has no other options and is losing on the battlefield. Assuming that the "diplomatic solution," as its proponents assert, is not a cover for Ukrainian capitulation, Russia's decisions regarding when and how to escalate would remain the same. Russia would still be struggling to turn around its situation in the conflict.
Only in minor ways may diplomacy lessen human misery
Ukraine and Russia have arranged prisoner swaps and an agreement to permit grain shipments throughout the crisis. For the abducted soldiers and those regions of the world that depend on Ukrainian food exports, this form of tactical diplomacy on a specific problem was undoubtedly welcome. However, it's not at all clear how to build on these rather modest diplomatic successes. For instance, Russia, using one of its few remaining strategies, won't stop attacking Ukrainian infrastructure as winter approaches in an effort to subdue Ukraine.
Nevertheless, wider-ranging diplomacy has a price. Pushing Ukraine into negotiations now sends a number of negative signals: It sends a message to the Russians that they can simply wait out Ukraine's Western backers, prolonging the conflict; it sends a message to the Ukrainians; it sends a message to other allies and partners around the world; it sends a message to the American people that its leaders are not committed to seeing this war through, which in turn could increase domestic impatience with it.
Prematurely launching discussions has additional costs. Every negotiation "reflects the reality on the ground," as Biden said in June. Biden is accurate. Due to its decision to fight rather than negotiate, Ukraine is currently in a better position. Today, rather than Kharkiv and Kherson, the question is whether Ukraine will ultimately regain sovereignty over Donbas and Crimea. This would not have happened if people had paid attention to the pro-diplomacy crowd in the spring or summer.
There are many grounds to think that as time goes on, Kyiv will hold a better negotiating position. The Ukrainians have operational momentum after a succession of victories, the most recent of which was retaking Kherson. Despite Ukraine's defeats, western military assistance is coming in. Ukrainian morale is still high despite Russia's missile attacks on infrastructure used by civilians. In comparison, Russia is struggling. It is difficult to find replacement supplies because its military stores have been completely depleted.
As many Russian men fled the country as were ultimately mobilized to fight in Ukraine as a result of its mobilization drive. Additionally, according to an assessment by the Institute for the Study of War, "Russian mobilized personnel have revealed themselves to be badly trained, poorly equipped, and quite reluctant to combat."
There will eventually be a need for negotiations. At that point, Russia will declare that the conflict is over and that it wants to stop it. Or it will happen when Ukraine declares that the pain of the ongoing Russian bombing is not worth the restoration of its land. Neither scenario has materialized to this point. Putin's apparent ban on nuclear use in a statement made last month was the only thing softening Russia's stance, at least temporarily. Apart from that, the Kremlin appears determined to persist even as its troops are gradually driven out of Ukraine. That hardly constitutes a request for negotiations.
Although these realities are unpleasant, current calls for a negotiated settlement are not inherently moral. Diplomacy is not always the morally or strategically more justified course of action if it entails forcing through a settlement when the battlefield conditions demand otherwise. Sometimes the better course of action is to fight rather than discuss.
Ecclesiastes asserts that "to everything there is a season," which includes "a time of battle, and a time of peace." There will be a period in Ukraine for diplomacy. I'm hoping that happens soon. However, it doesn't appear to be today.