Rich Lowry / October 28, 2022

Diplomacy in Ukraine Shouldn’t Be Politically Incorrect

Diplomacy, like warfare, has its costs, which isn’t a good reason to shut down any discussion of it.

Is it permissible to think about a potential diplomatic end to the Ukraine war?

Judging by the reaction to a letter from House progressives advocating talks between the U.S. and Russia, the answer is emphatically “no.”

The letter to President Joe Biden from 30 House progressives led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, engendered the same intensely negative reaction as public musings about diplomatic deals by Elon Musk and Henry Kissinger. You don’t have to endorse any of the specific proposals talked about by these very different people to be disturbed by the campuslike fervor with which they have been deemed unsayable and unthinkable.

Although it’s possible that the Russia war machine, if it can be called that, simply collapses in Ukraine, it is more likely that war will end in some messy compromise involving a negotiated settlement. Acknowledging this — and that the continuation of the conflict is a humanitarian catastrophe with enormous costs for the West and the world — shouldn’t be a quasi-thought crime.

The Jayapal letter was ill-timed given Ukraine’s battlefield gains and Russia’s onslaught against civilian infrastructure, and we’d obviously want Volodymyr Zelenskyy onboard any diplomatic overtures.

Yet the letter was hardly an apology for Putin. It referred to “Russia’s war of aggression” and the “outrageous and illegal invasion of Ukraine.”

Still, a member of the House Democratic leadership told Politico Playbook that “Vladimir Putin would have signed that letter if asked.” This isn’t remotely true, but it shows how departing an inch from the orthodoxy on the war is automatically taken as an admission of fondness for the Kremlin.

Nonetheless, Jayapal beat a hasty retreat, shamefacedly retracting the letter.

The administration hews to the mantra “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.” This a sound principle, but it shouldn’t mean that we can’t take the lead on important questions related to the war, or exercise our enormous leverage over our Ukrainian allies.

If our interests considerably overlap with those of Ukraine, they aren’t identical. The Ukrainians naturally care more about the return of every inch of their territory than we do. They also want to be in NATO for understandable reasons, whereas we have no interest in having to abide by a treaty commitment to defend Ukraine militarily.

If the Ukrainians can achieve a clean victory forcing a Russian withdrawal, that’d be marvelous. It’s more plausible, though, that we are shaping the conditions for an eventual negotiation that may only temporarily suspend the conflict and that certainly won’t be an ideal end state.

A potential deal would involve Russia holding Crimea, a guarantee that Ukraine won’t join NATO and a referendum in the areas Russia held prior to the onset of this phase in the war in February 2022, while Ukraine gets the rest of its territory back and orients itself to the West.

Would this be “rewarding Russian aggression”? Moscow would have taken a bite out of Ukraine, yes, but at such an extremely high cost that no one could rationally conclude that Putin made anything but a calamitous blunder.

The principle that territory can’t be taken by force is worth defending, yet there’s always the prudential question, at what cost? If the war drags on, it’s not inconceivable that a member of the Western alliance could crack, fracturing NATO, and the Western appetite for backing the war won’t be limitless.

At the moment, neither Ukraine nor Russia would take a deal along these rough lines. Getting there at some point will require strength and deftness on our part. We’d have to be blunt and firm with the Ukrainians behind the scenes, reassure Poland, the Baltics and Romania that we aren’t cutting the Ukrainians or them loose, and convince Putin that he’s never going to win the war.

Unrealistic? Maybe. Painful? Of course. But diplomacy, like warfare, has its costs, which isn’t a good reason to shut down any discussion of it.

© 2022 by King Features Syndicate

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