Analysis |

Hold Your Optimism: What Should Happen for Ukraine Crisis to Be Defused

The U.S. believes the crisis is part of a tacit Sino-Russian agreement to challenge the existing world order, while Russia is focused on restoring its superpower status – leaving little common ground for a diplomatic process

alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas
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Ukrainian Army soldiers posing for a photo as they gather to celebrate a Day of Unity in Odessa, Ukraine, earlier today.
Ukrainian Army soldiers posing for a photo as they gather to celebrate a Day of Unity in Odessa, Ukraine.Credit: Emilio Morenatti/AP
alon pinkas
Alon Pinkas

Let’s start with the bottom line: there is no “diplomatic process,” no “diplomatic framework,” no “diplomatic formulas” – let alone a “diplomatic solution” – at this point regarding the Ukraine crisis.

What you hear is a lot of static noise masquerading as diplomacy, a great deal of wishful thinking and instant analyses of how Russian President Vladimir Putin is desperate to “climb down from the tree” – a hypothesis that justifies being optimistically impressed with diplomacy.

Essentially, there’s an impasse in which Putin is playing for time and weighing all his options, while U.S. President Joe Biden is maintaining his resolute rhetoric and trying to maintain tight cohesion among allies.

If you happened to follow the past few days’ coverage in the U.S. and, particularly, European media, and if you followed statements from Western European leaders and diplomats, and if you took note of the report that Russia “pulled back troops” from the border with Ukraine, you may have believed that a Russian invasion of Ukraine, a war, is on the verge of being averted.

You must have seen the reports detailing “optimism,” and European heads of state landing in Moscow and rushing to meet Putin. You likely heard French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson all giving diplomacy a chance. It’s their job to say that, and their responsibility to try to make it happen. It doesn’t actually make it diplomacy, and it is not viable or effective.

Ukrainian troops taking part in a military drill outside the city of Rivne earlier today.Credit: ARIS MESSINIS - AFP

There are three main reasons why, at least at this stage, there isn’t a substantive and meaningful diplomatic process. First, the gap between Russia’s ostensible demands, or what it would conceivably accept, and what the United States and NATO are ready to provide or concede is wide and unbridgeable.

Second, it is not at all clear Putin is interested in a diplomatic, negotiations-led process. Such a process is by nature a compromise based on quid pro quos. He has escalated the crisis too much to agree to this mechanism at this point.

Is he interested in the appearance of diplomacy? Sure. Does he revel in the image of a peace-loving, war-averse, stability-driven leader? Absolutely. But is he ready to make compromises? Doubtful.

Third, if Putin does realize the crisis has exhausted its usefulness and he has little to gain from a protracted stalemate, he would negotiate only with the United States. That is consistent with his self-image of Russia as a forgotten superpower and would put him on a par with Biden. No offense, but surely no one expects him to cut a deal with Germany or Britain.

That is why the only diplomatic event that mattered in the last few days was the hour-long phone conversation between the two presidents – a call the White House summed up in a readout as “President Biden was clear that, if Russia undertakes a further invasion of Ukraine, the United States together with our allies and partners will respond decisively.” Hardly a diplomatic process.

So where did this current burst of optimism come from? Possibly from an image: Russian TV showed Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, seated at a long table on Monday, as far from each other as a pitcher and catcher at Yankee Stadium. An orchestrated exchange took place, in which Lavrov explained that diplomatic possibilities “are far from being exhausted.”

U.S. President speaking about the Ukraine crisis in the White House yesterday.Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

Putin, who has a reputation for always listening intently and carefully to his advisers during a staged event, dramatically asked: “In your opinion, Sergey Victorovich, is there a chance to reach an agreement with our partners on key issues that are of concern to us, or is it just an attempt to drag us into an endless negotiation process that has no logical resolution?”

Lavrov deeply contemplated the exact wording of his answer. History was taking note, after all. “Vladimir Vladimirovich,” he responded, “we have already warned more than once that we will not allow endless negotiations on questions that demand a solution today.” But as foreign minister, he said, “I must say there are always chances.”

And that’s how Western optimism was born.

Then Putin added an important, though repetitious, sentence: Russia will not consent to NATO expansion eastward.

That point constitutes both the gap between Russian and U.S. positions as well as the pretext for Putin’s instigation of the entire crisis. His long-standing position is that despite assurances and signed agreements, since 1997 NATO grew its membership from 16 to 30 countries, including nine former Warsaw Pact countries. Ukraine – and Georgia – were invited to join in 2008. However, according to Russian national security concerns, this is not about Ukraine alone but the threat and disrespect that NATO expansion poses to Russia.

The United States, as detailed in the official response to Russia’s demands, will not reverse the “open door” policy of allowing countries to join NATO, nor to a unilateral scaling-down of force deployment or military exercises.

Russia is trying to impinge on the right of European countries, from the Baltic to eastern and southwestern Europe, to make sovereign decisions. The Americans will not allow it, even though the chances of Ukraine actually being admitted to NATO are close to zero.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov attending a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday.Credit: SPUTNIK/REUTERS

The appearance of a flurry of diplomatic activity – from Macron’s visit, to the Putin-Lavrov exchange, to the Moscow visit Tuesday by Scholz – reflects the best of intentions, but should be viewed against the backdrop of military activities.

Russia is currently conducting a large-scale military drill in Belarus, bordering Ukraine from the north, while from the Black Sea and the adjacent Sea of Azov, it is busy with naval exercises that show patterns of a potential blockade in the event of an invasion. Russia is also weighing a major exercise in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Syria.

The White House, meanwhile, recently set up a “tiger team” – a group of experts analyzing and dissecting all possibilities, aspects and dimensions of a Russian invasion. They are gaming scenarios not only to gain predictive capabilities, but to draft a menu and timetable of appropriate and diverse responses to every possible scenario.

The United States believes the Ukraine crisis is linked to a growing Russian-Chinese alliance that has a clear objective: undermining, challenging and then attempting to change the U.S.-dominated world order. In regard to its Ukraine policy, the U.S. specifically wants to avoid the appearance of a damaging outcome, even if it is only about the optics – such as the withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer.

In order to update and renovate the security architecture of Europe, not only must the Ukraine crisis be defused; there also needs to be an American and Russian understanding and willingness to negotiate comprehensively. However, when the United States believes this is part of a tacit Sino-Russian agreement to challenge the very structure of the international system, and when Russia believes this is about restoring its superpower status and dominance in Eastern Europe, there seems to be little common ground to launch such a process.

For both the Ukraine crisis to be defused and the greater European security structure to be revised, both sides must believe they have won and that their interests were preserved. That’s when you can really call it a diplomatic process.

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