On February 24, Russia attacked Ukraine and began Europe’s largest conflict since World War II. Prior to the invasion, the United States was involved in negotiations to avert a war. However, after Russia’s appalling invasion, it has focused almost exclusively on providing military aid. The Biden administration’s stated policy is to give Ukraine the arms and assistance it needs to not only defend itself but to regain lost territory so that it is “in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table.”
A bilateral negotiating process, however, will likely fail given the mistrust on both sides and because Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian president Vladimir Putin each have political incentives to make far-reaching demands of the other. Even if an agreement could be reached, neither side could credibly commit to honoring its terms, either in the short or long term. Scholars refer to this as the commitment problem and have argued that it explains the outbreak, severity, intensity, and duration of conflicts. Finally, Putin would not make territorial concessions unless Russian concerns regarding the enlargement of the European Union (EU) and the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were addressed. He would also expect the removal of some sanctions in return for showing diplomatic flexibility, something that only the United States and its allies can offer.
The Biden administration should be prepared to negotiate with Russia given that these demands cannot be met by Ukraine alone. Broadening the negotiating process to involve the United States and Russia, as well as the European Union, offers tangible benefits and should make it possible for Putin to make concessions to Ukraine.
Expanding the Negotiating Process
The Russo-Ukrainian War is partly the culmination of Russia’s long-running concerns over NATO expansion, EU enlargement, and the eastward spread of democracy to its border. These fears were repeatedly expressed by Russian officials after the Cold War and preceded Putin’s accession to power.
Their concerns, however, were repeatedly dismissed by the United States and its allies as they worked to integrate post-Soviet states in Eastern Europe into the liberal world order. Caught in the middle of this great power struggle, Ukraine has simply desired to remain a sovereign nation capable of making decisions without being coerced by its larger neighbor. To this end, Kyiv has worked to modernize its military (especially since 2014) and has eagerly sought to join NATO. These defensive actions have, in turn, further enraged Russia and helped contribute to the present war. Moving forward, how the belligerents overcome their deep-rooted insecurities will have implications for the success of Russo-Ukrainian negotiations and the durability of any peace agreement.
Because of the number of complex issues at the heart of the Russo-Ukrainian War, future talks must be broad in nature and include the United States and European Union. Thus far, the Biden administration has been content to allow third parties, such as France, Israel, and Turkey, to play the role of an intermediary, transmitting messages between Kyiv and Moscow and, in the case of Turkey, providing a venue to facilitate meetings. These countries, however, can address neither Russia’s underlying grievances nor Ukraine’s existential fears. As a result, they have a limited ability to encourage a ceasefire or craft a mutually acceptable agreement to stop the fighting.
At the moment, Russia and Ukraine have committed themselves to continue fighting in the eastern Donbass region. There is also a growing sentiment in the West that Ukraine, armed by the United States and its allies, can defend itself against Russia and inflict heavy losses upon Russian forces. Some go further and argue that Washington could use the conflict to weaken Russia and deal Putin a crippling blow through a war of attrition. Nonetheless, Western policymakers should be careful to avoid relying only on a military solution. Providing weaponry and intelligence without a political endgame could not only lead to a long war but, more tragically, a dangerous confrontation between NATO countries and Russia. Accordingly, preparing for a diplomatic settlement is essential given that the war could spiral out of control.
Providing military support to Ukraine is, of course, important since it raises the costs for Russia and deters Putin from widening the war. Nevertheless, Washington should be ready to involve itself in negotiations when the belligerents reengage in peace talks. This is likely to occur when both sides have reached (or perhaps are close to) a hurting stalemate or when Russia and Ukraine have reached a point where the human, economic, and military costs of a protracted conflict are too high.
It is hard to ascertain if both sides have reached this point but Russia and Ukraine have each suffered heavy losses and neither party has made a decisive breakthrough over the last six months. While both sides appear poised to continue fighting, it is unclear for how long they will do so. If the war is too costly, then Russia and Ukraine might end the conflict provided their leaders believe there is a way out.
Laying the Groundwork for Peace
The Biden administration ought to prepare a multilevel diplomatic framework that can bridge the differences between Russia and Ukraine and make the conflict amenable to resolution. First, the diplomatic process needs to be broadened to include parallel negotiations between Russia and third parties such as the United States, the European Union, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), all of whom can take specific measures to address the belligerents’ suspicions that their rival will renege on a future agreement. Outside intervention, as research has shown, allows the belligerents to better communicate with one another and provides them with a means to verify and monitor the terms of a prospective settlement. This, in turn, might help Ukraine and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Russia overcome the commitment problem and reach a deal.
The United States and the European Union can also provide the necessary carrots and sticks to incentivize Kyiv and Moscow to reach an agreement. They are well-positioned in this regard as Ukraine and Russia each seek something from these third parties. The former relies on extensive Western economic, political, and military support while the latter favors limitations to NATO expansion and EU enlargement, as well as sanctions relief. Washington’s ability to offer or withhold such inducements gives it some leverage that it could use to broker an agreement when the time is ripe.
The significance of American involvement is that it may lead to a political settlement not just between the belligerents but, more fundamentally, between the U.S.-led NATO alliance and Russia. This would be a highly desirable outcome since it would resolve the Ukraine issue and address the standoff over NATO expansion that has contributed to U.S.-Russia tensions since the end of the Cold War. Failure to successfully address these problems might lead to future instability, especially as more countries express an interest in joining NATO.
Finally, diplomacy would enhance American prestige, demonstrating to friends and foes alike that major problems in international relations must still be solved by Washington. At a time when allies are so frightened by perceived U.S. disengagement and isolationism, such an approach would go a long way to challenge these views without imposing excessive costs. It would also signal to rivals that the United States possesses not just the military but the diplomatic assertiveness to deal with global problems and threats. This would project strength, not weakness.
If, as Biden states, “America is back” and “diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” then his administration has to play a central role, rather than a peripheral one, in future negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. The United States and its allies should be ready to do more than just supply Ukraine with arms. Even though the war continues to rage in the Donbass region, it should not preclude American decisionmakers from considering solutions and devising a framework for ending the war. Failure to do so now may result in a missed opportunity to stop the carnage when the right moment appears.
Shahin Berenji is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A and M. Previously, he was the Colin Powell Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science and the John G. Tower Center for Public Policy and International Affairs at Southern Methodist University.