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Now Is Not the Time to Negotiate with Putin

Pushing for negotiations could undermine the morale of the Ukrainians fighting in the field.
November 7, 2022
Now Is Not the Time to Negotiate with Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to representatives of national public associations, youth and volunteer organizations after a flower-laying ceremony at the monument to Citizen Minin and Prince Pozharsky on the National Unity Day on Red Square, in Moscow on November 4, 2022. - *Editor's note : this image is distributed by Russian state owned agency Sputnik.* (Photo by MIKHAIL METZEL/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

Aiding Ukraine is not only the morally right thing to do—it also serves U.S. national security interests. By helping Ukraine defeat Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces, we not only staunch the dangerous spread of Putinism beyond Russia’s borders, but we send a signal to Putin, as well as China’s Xi and other authoritarian leaders, that we will stand by democratic allies in their struggle for freedom. Thanks to the heroism of its fighters and citizens, Ukraine has imposed enormous costs on Russian forces and is regaining previously occupied territory. President Biden has said the United States will continue its support “for as long as it takes.” That is the right stance. Much to the surprise of many officials and analysts, it looks increasingly possible that Ukraine could win this war. It is in U.S. national interests to help them do so.

The United States has provided more than $20 billion in vital military assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s first invasion in 2014, with most of it coming after Putin launched the latest phase of the war in February. U.S. support has made a massive difference on the battlefield, enabling Ukraine to regain the initiative, inflict heavy losses of personnel and equipment and push back invading and occupying Russian forces.

It’s not enough to help Ukraine merely defend the territory it currently controls; we must help Ukraine win this war and defeat Russian forces. If negotiations prove to be the path Ukraine seeks to pursue, we should help them start from the strongest position possible so that any talks are carried out on Kyiv’s terms, not Moscow’s. Any negotiated outcome must ensure a lasting peace, not simply a respite for Russian forces to reconstitute themselves and invade another day.

Support for Ukraine has been bipartisan and popular among the American people. Congress has voted several times this year, by wide margins, for significant assistance packages. Only a small minority of Republicans in both the Senate and House have voted against providing aid.

But recent comments and statements by members of Congress have raised questions about the sustainability of that congressional support. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy predicted that a new Republican-controlled House after the midterms would no longer provide a “blank check” to Ukraine. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene went even further, telling a rally in Iowa that “under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine.” McCarthy hasn’t retracted his remarks nor contradicted Greene, though Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, pushed back, arguing that the majority of the Republican caucus supports assistance to Ukraine.

Days after McCarthy’s comments, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell urged the White House and other allies to “be quicker and more proactive to get Ukraine the aid they need.” And Sen. James E. Risch, who would chair the Foreign Relations Committee if the Republicans retake the Senate, told the Washington Post, “Ukrainians alone must decide the future of Ukraine. I support their fight for freedom, which they are winning on the battlefield. Any efforts to appease Putin are dangerous, irresponsible and will only encourage Russia’s aggression.”

From the other side of the aisle, the House Progressive Caucus released an open letter to President Biden signed by 30 Democratic House members urging him to pursue a “proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire” in the war.

Following an immediate avalanche of criticism, including from some Democrats listed as signers, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Progressive Caucus, took the unusual step of retracting the letter, blaming staff for releasing it “without vetting.”

During a recent visit to Croatia, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sought to reassure nervous Ukrainians and other Europeans in stressing that “support for Ukraine is bipartisan, bicameral, that means in the House and in the Senate, and it starts in the White House with our president.”

Still, damage has been done. Much like McCarthy’s remarks, the letter from House Democrats was ill-conceived, ill-timed, and deeply demoralizing to Ukraine. Ukrainians are the ones fighting and dying in defense of their country and freedom. They rely on our assistance to beat back Russian forces. The last thing they need is to worry whether America’s support will wane.

Not helping are calls from the think tank community pushing for negotiations just when the Ukrainians are on the march. In Foreign Affairs, the Rand Corporation’s Samuel Charap and Miranda Priebe seemed to bemoan the withdrawal of the progressives’ ill-timed and ill-advised letter after a “predictable outcry.” Doubling down on the thrust of that letter, they expressed support for “openness to an eventual negotiated end to the war” and dismissed the “optimistic scenario” that Ukraine could actually defeat Russia in this war. Such calls undermine Ukrainians’ confidence in American support.

Of course, the call to pursue negotiations is not new, and Charap and others have been suggesting it since the beginning of the conflict. They claimed that the only possible outcome was a negotiated peace and that the best the United States could do was push for negotiations as soon as possible. They even argued that U.S. military assistance was futile since it couldn’t change the “lopsided” military balance favoring Russia and would only prolong the agony before the inevitable negotiated settlement ratifying Russia’s superior military position.

The Stimson Center’s Emma Ashford argues that the question is “not whether negotiations are needed to end the war, but when and how they should unfold.” In a suggestion unlikely to go over well in Ukraine, Ashford contemplates “some face-saving deal in which de facto realities, such as Russian legal control of Crimea, could be recognized, and which the Kremlin could portray to the Russian public as genuine concessions by the West.” Incredibly, she even considers other territorial concessions Ukraine could offer Putin, including Crimea and “some of the Donbas.” Meanwhile, Ashford urges Ukraine to “tone down triumphalist talk” and proposes that the Biden administration “embrace flexibility, particularly in working out which sanctions against Russia can be lifted without strengthening Putin’s regime,” without specifying which ones.

Charles Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations also enters the fray in the New York Times, arguing, “Sooner rather than later, the West needs to move Ukraine and Russia from the battlefield to the negotiating table, brokering a diplomatic effort to shut the war down and arrive at a territorial settlement.” As part of a “hypothetical deal,” Kupchan proposes taking NATO membership for Ukraine off the table and having Ukraine make territorial concessions, which the Ukrainian population strongly opposes.

Calls for negotiations now or “preparing” for negotiations now are sneaky ways of seeking the same thing. The point isn’t to be pro- or anti-negotiation. The point is to set the conditions for negotiations, should they come about, that lead to a real settlement that reflects U.S. interests in maintaining a sovereign, independent, sustainable Ukraine and a Russia that foregoes waging war against its neighbors on behalf of imperial ambitions to recreate, more or less, the Soviet empire.

There may not be a negotiation as long as Putin remains in power. That means we have to play for the long haul. Pushing for negotiations without regard to the balance of forces on the ground could well undermine the morale of the Ukrainians fighting in the field today. The central question of the war now is whether Russian forces’ combat effectiveness and morale crack before Ukraine faces economic and social exhaustion. Undermining our own side now is the height of folly.

The United States should not pressure Ukraine into negotiations with Putin when the Russian leader has never demonstrated any serious interest in ending the war. Given his responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide against Ukraine, there is little support inside Ukraine for sitting down with Moscow and trading territory for a ceasefire. Any hope for serious negotiations actually rests on setting the conditions that would enable both sides to come to the table. Putin started this war, but Ukraine is on the march. If Putin wants to negotiate, it’s up to him to ask—and not in a way that seeks to buy time for the Russian side.

Not every war has a diplomatic solution. Sometimes, the solution comes from military victory, and Ukrainians are confident, despite the tremendous losses they are suffering, that they will prevail. Victory for Ukraine means the expulsion of all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, and the Ukrainians have made significant progress in this direction. Concerns that an “uncontrolled” escalatory spiral will end in World War III are vastly exaggerated. The recent climbdowns by Russia with regard to the Black Sea grain deal and the Putin/Foreign Ministry statements denying any intention to use nuclear weapons are the latest evidence indicating that the West’s ability to support Ukraine is greater than many have generally understood.

More than 80,000 Russians fighters have been killed or wounded in the fighting, an absolutely staggering toll. Running short of men, Putin resorted in September to ordering the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of new recruits, a very unpopular move that he had hoped to avoid. In response to that order, hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled the country. Those unable to escape have found themselves without uniforms, weapons, food, or shelter in increasingly inhospitable conditions on the battlefield.

While Ukraine continues to pay a steep price in lives lost and infrastructure damaged, it has turned the tide. Putin’s largely indirect hints that Russia might resort to using weapons of mass destruction, including his defense minister’s latest absurd claims that Ukraine intends to deploy a “dirty bomb,” are designed to discourage us from continuing our critical support to Ukraine. We should not fall for such tricks.

Putin is expected to attend the G-20 meeting in Indonesia in mid-November. Inviting him to attend—or even participate remotely—as he bears responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide against Ukraine makes a travesty of the G-20. While never a gathering of democracies (given the participation of China and Saudi Arabia, along with Russia), the leaders of such major economic powers should be isolating Putin and applying pressure on him in every way possible, not including him in glitzy summits.

Do any leaders want their photo taken with their Russian counterpart? Biden should resist any temptation to meet with Putin, whether to discuss the possible release of Americans unfairly held prisoner in Russia or to avoid “jeopardizing cooperation between Washington and Moscow on issues of global importance, such as arms control,” as Charap naively argues.

Now is the time to redouble American and European support for Ukraine and provide the weapons and assistance that country needs, including financial assistance to stave off an economic collapse. Our European allies have fallen woefully short in providing desperately needed financial and economic assistance to Ukraine, which is hemorrhaging between $5 and $7 billion a month. Europe this year has sent far more money to Russia for energy imports than it has provided Ukraine in assistance.

Now is not the time to show weakness or fear, nor to demoralize the brave Ukrainians who are fighting for their freedom—and, for that matter, ours. There may well come a time for negotiations, but no reasonable observer thinks we are anywhere near that point yet.

For the moment, Ukraine’s battle is our battle, and the stakes could hardly be greater.

Eric Edelman and David J. Kramer

Eric S. Edelman is counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and a non-resident senior fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is also the co-host of The Bulwark’s Shield of the Republic podcast.  He was U.S. ambassador to Finland from 1998 to 2001 and under secretary of defense for policy from 2005 to 2009. David J. Kramer is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the George W. Bush administration.