International

As Ukraine’s Fight Falters, It Gets Even Harder to Talk About Negotiations


Stian Jenssen, the chief of staff to the secretary general of NATO, recently had his knuckles rapped when he commented on possible options for an end to the war in Ukraine that did not envision a complete Russian defeat.

“I’m not saying it has to be like this, but I think that a solution could be for Ukraine to give up territory and get NATO membership in return,” he said during a panel discussion in Norway, according to the country’s VG newspaper. He also said that “it must be up to Ukraine to decide when and on what terms they want to negotiate,” which is NATO’s standard line.

But the damage was done. The remarks provoked an angry condemnation from the Ukrainians; a clarification from his boss, Jens Stoltenberg; and ultimately an apology from Mr. Jenssen.

The contretemps, say some analysts who have been similarly chastised, reflects a closing down of public discussion on options for Ukraine just at a moment when imaginative diplomacy is most needed, they say.

Western allies and Ukrainians themselves had hung much hope on a counteroffensive that might change the balance on the battlefield, expose Russian vulnerability and soften Moscow up for a negotiated end to the fighting, which has stretched on for a year and half.

Even the most sanguine of Ukraine’s backers did not predict that Ukraine would push Russian occupiers fully out of the country, an outcome that appears increasingly distant in light of the modest gains of the counteroffensive so far.

The conditions on the battlefield raise the question of what might be done off it, these officials and analysts say, even if neither side appears open at the moment to talks. Others fear that too open a conversation may be interpreted by Moscow as a weakening of resolve.

But given that even President Biden says the war is likely to end in negotiations, Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, believes there should be a serious debate in any democracy about how to get there.

Yet he, too, has also been criticized for suggesting that the interests of Washington and Kyiv do not always coincide and that it is important to talk to Russia about a negotiated outcome.

“There is a broad and increasingly widespread sense that what we’re doing now isn’t working, but not much of an idea of what to do next, and not a big openness to discuss it, which is how you come up with one,” he said. “The lack of success hasn’t opened up the political space for an open discussion of alternatives.”

“We’re a bit stuck,” he said.

With the counteroffensive going so slowly, and American defense and intelligence officials beginning to blame the Ukrainians, Western governments are feeling more vulnerable after providing so much equipment and raising hopes, said Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and a former American official.

The American hope, he said, was that the counteroffensive would succeed in threatening the Russian position in Crimea, which would put Ukraine in a stronger negotiating position. That has not happened. “So the political atmosphere has tightened,” he said, “and overall there is still a political taboo about a hardheaded conversation about the endgame.”

Mr. Kupchan knows of what he speaks. He and Richard N. Haass, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs in April, urging Washington and its allies to come up with “a plan for getting from the battlefield to the negotiating table,” and were widely criticized for doing so.

That criticism worsened considerably when the two men, together with Thomas E. Graham, a former American diplomat in Moscow, had private conversations with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, to explore the possibility of negotiations.

When the fact of those conversations leaked, there was a major outcry. While the three men have agreed not to discuss what was said, the reaction was telling, Mr. Kupchan said.

“Any open discussion of a Plan B is politically fraught, as Mr. Jenssen found out the hard way, as do we who try to articulate possible Plan B’s,” he said. “We get a storm of criticism and abuse. What was somewhat taboo is now highly taboo.”

If the counteroffensive is not going well, now would be the time to explore alternatives, he said. Instead, he suggested, Mr. Stoltenberg and others were simply doubling down on slogans like supporting Ukraine “as long as it takes.”

Of course negotiations require two sides to talk, and right now neither President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia nor President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine are ready to negotiate anything.

Mr. Putin’s forces seem to be holding their defensive lines, and most analysts suggest he thinks that the West will tire of supporting Ukraine. He may also hope that Donald J. Trump returns to the White House.

Mr. Trump has promised to stop U.S. support for Ukraine and finish the war in a day. Even if he is not re-elected, he could be a strong voice in pushing the Republican Party to limit its support for Kyiv.

But it is also not clear that Mr. Zelensky, after so much Ukrainian sacrifice, would feel politically able to negotiate even if Russia were pushed back to its positions when the war started, in February 2022.

“No one has a good sense of anyone’s war aims that are in the realm of the realistic,” Mr. Kupchan said. “But no one has tried to find out, either, which is a problem.”

German officials are eager for a negotiated solution and are talking about how Russia might be brought to the negotiating table, but are only doing so in private and with trusted think tank specialists, said Jana Puglierin, director of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“They understand that they can’t push Ukraine in any way, because Russia will smell weakness,” she said.

Still, there is a desire in Berlin as in Washington that the war not continue indefinitely, she said, in part because political willingness for indefinite military and financial support for Ukraine is already beginning to wane, especially among those on the right and far-right, who are gaining ground.

But for many others, the suggestion of a negotiated solution or a Plan B is too early and even immoral, said Constanze Stelzenmüller of the Brookings Institution. Mr. Putin shown no interest in talking, but the younger generation of officials around him are, if anything, even harder line, she said, citing a piece in Foreign Affairs by Tatiana Stanovaya.

“So anyone who wants to articulate a Plan B with these people on the other side is facing a significant burden of proof question,” she said. “Putin has said a lot of times he won’t negotiate except on his own terms, which are Ukraine’s obliteration. There is no lack of clarity there.”

Any credible Plan B would have to come from the key non-Western powers — like China, India, South Africa and Indonesia — that Russia is depending upon telling Moscow it must negotiate.

“These are the countries Putin is betting on,” she said. “It’s nothing we can say or do or offer.”

Eagerness from Paris or Berlin to negotiate too early will simply embolden Mr. Putin to manipulate that zeal, divide the West and seek concessions from Ukraine, said Ulrich Speck, a German analyst.

“Moving to diplomacy is both our strength and weakness,” he said. “We’re great at compromise and coalition, but that requires basic agreement on norms and goals. The shock of Ukraine is that this simply doesn’t exist on the other side.”



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