There needs to be a concerted effort across the political spectrum, from progressives, moderates, and Republicans to call on the administration to define this peace track and stop just pleading helplessness in this situation. And that would be helpful for the administration, to open up political space to do that. But there aren’t the people stepping up, calling for this.
This New York Times op-ed, I think, is the beginning of the establishment looking around and saying, “We need this.” If we came up with a realistic definition of victory, we actually have a ton of leverage right now. We’re a in a very good position to go to the table and try to achieve that. But to do that requires negotiating over some tough things, and there is not the political cover in the US discourse right now to do that. Progressives have been basically AWOL. People need to get out and create that space. The first step to getting the administration to provide that leadership is for civil society and prominent politicians to provide that leadership.
Even on the Republican side — and Republicans like Rand Paul have been stepping up and asking what it is we’re doing here — defining and pushing for this peace track is tricky. Because the other big excuse the administration has been using is, “We see no indication that Putin is willing to talk or ready for negotiation.” But that’s a problem too, because what people are really saying when they say that is Putin is not ready to concede to all our terms. He’s not ready to come to the table and say, “I was wrong, I committed a crime here, I’m going to withdraw from 100 percent of Ukrainian territory, I’m giving up.” People feel that, ethically and morally, because of the brutality of what he’s done, that’s the minimum he should do.
The United States has an interest in a stable and secure European security order that minimizes the probability of nuclear escalation or a nuclear arms race.
I think Russia understood this was a risky course. I think it had a lot of illusions about how easy it would be to overthrow the Ukrainian government; it had a lot of mistaken intelligence going into this war, but I think it also knew it was a very risky course, and there were things that from its perspective, right or wrong, felt existential in terms of Ukraine’s status. It’s true that it is not willing to set those things aside.
I think it’s realistic to say Putin is not ready to give back Crimea, he wants a neutral Ukraine, and he probably wants some kind of territorial settlement in the far east of Ukraine; he wants Donbas to at least be on the table. When UN secretary general António Guterres went to Moscow, Putin had a very telling speech. It was pretty defensive about the extent to which he’s ready for diplomacy but kind of laid out what Russia sees as the minimum, which is that Ukrainian neutrality, Donbas, and Crimea have to be on the table. It’s a big step back from its maximalist goals at the beginning of the war.
One thing that’s happened: at the beginning of the war, it was presented as, “This is about Russia’s attempt to conquer Ukraine” — which I think they would’ve loved to do — “and put in a puppet government.” That is all off the table. It’s not possible for Russia to do. Russia has already suffered a defeat in terms of all its maximalist goals, in terms of ending Ukrainian independence and sovereignty. Now Russia is back to these minimal objectives of the Donbas, the Crimea, and some form of neutrality where there aren’t offensive weapons on Ukrainian soil. But now we’re saying that any discussion of these minimal Russian goals is appeasement, or surrender to Russia, or defeat for Ukraine and the United States. The goalposts have moved there.
As long as that’s defined as defeat for the US and Ukraine, it becomes hard to talk about them. But I think those goals are compatible with a highly beneficial settlement for the United States and Ukraine, a settlement that sees Ukraine as Western-aligned, economically open to the West, independent, sovereign, and part of a European security order that’s way more stable than having an unsettled shooting war in Eastern Ukraine for the foreseeable future. There’s got to be people in the US discourse who are willing to define this as a win. Because it is a win — a massive win compared to Russia’s goals in 2013, which included a firmly Russian-aligned Ukraine, and a big win compared to its goals at the start of the war.