Crafting an Architecture to Negotiate an End to the Ukraine War: Taking Control of Our Destiny

By Robbin Laird

Recently, I spoke with my colleague Brian Morra about the war in Ukraine, as part of my series on the crisis.

I made the point in the last piece, a discussion with Paul Bracken, that the war in Ukraine is about the dynamics of global change and neither the objectives of Volodymir Zelensky nor – certainly – those of Vladimir Putin align with the West’s interests in the War in Ukraine.

Who’s Driving the Train?

Brian Morra noted that the current situation is a bit like a runaway train with Zelensky and Putin at the controls of the locomotive and the United States riding in the back as a high-paying passenger. The Biden Administration’s approach of assuring Zelensky that the U.S. policy is ‘we will stay with you for as long as it takes’ leaves the White House’s strategic goals undefined.

In contrast to Biden, President Zelensky is crystal clear about his desire for ‘total victory’ over Russia, invoking President Franklin Roosevelt’s declaration that World War II America sought the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the Axis powers.  In Washington, Zelensky gave a rousing speech before both houses of Congress, seeking both American sympathy and massive funding support to continue the Ukrainian war effort and to keep the Kiev government afloat.

President Biden distanced himself from Zelensky’s call for ‘absolute victory’ over Russian.  In the joint press conference, he held with Zelensky, Biden never used the word ‘victory’ regarding America’s war aims.

He also stated that our NATO allies are not ‘looking for a third world war.’

That’s reassuring, but what then is the U.S. doing?

It is the duty of the American President to define and protect U.S. interests, which assuredly overlap with but are not the same as the goals Zelensky has articulated for Ukraine.

The German Question

The Biden Administration likes to say “America is back” to distance itself from the Trump Administration’s hard-nosed approach to NATO and Germany, in particular.  President Biden claims that he has restored unity to the NATO alliance.

If so, it seems a brittle unity.

In Germany, the chancellor has pledged a 100-million-euro special defense procurement fund and the German government recently announced it will acquire the F-35.  On the other hand, the Kiev government has criticized Berlin for not following through on its financial and armament commitments to support the war against Russia.

Will Germany follow through with its defense pledges?

President Trump effectively vetoed activation of the Nordstream Two pipeline, citing it would empower Russia and make Germany even more dependent on Russian energy sources.

In the interest of ‘unity’ with Germany, one of Biden’s first acts as president was to approve Nordstream Two.

This, combined with his disastrous handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, surely emboldened Vladimir Putin with respect to Ukraine and likely influenced his calculation of the risk of a full-scale invasion.

Lessons from the Past Ignored?

There is a dramatic contrast between the current White House approach to relations with Russia and how Washington managed its fraught confrontation with the Soviet Union in the 1980s.  During the 1980s, the White House collaborated vigorously with our European allies to shape common positions.

Today, the wobbly nature of German support to Ukraine and French President Macron’s repeated attempts to discover a negotiating framework that NATO and the EU can embrace make one question the current White House approach.

One example of the White House’s approach to ‘unity’ is for it to look the other way when our richest European allies renege on their commitments of support to Ukraine.  After all, why should they pay up when Biden seems willing to bankroll Kiev militarily and otherwise?

It’s worth noting that Zelensky’s first trip abroad since the Russian invasion was to Washington and not to Brussels.

The president of Ukraine is no fool and he knows where his bread is being buttered.

The Biden Administration lacks a framework for peace in Ukraine.  By contrast, in the 1990s, the Clinton Administration shaped the Western negotiating position for the Dayton accords which was a very innovative approach to building as a U.S.-European collaborative effort.

Ironically, the Dayton agreement is now in danger as the Ukraine war continues apace and Moscow encourages Serbia to increase its meddlesome behavior in Bosnia and Kosovo.

The unity that President Biden crows about is thin gruel compared to the strong unified positions that the United States and its allies staked out in the 1980s vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.  The sophistication of our approach to the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) talks is but one example.

Similar negotiations occurred to control conventional forces in Europe.  In the 1980s, the West had strong institutions and relationships to draw upon – not only amongst the allies, but also with the USSR.

The Biden Administration seems to have forgotten that the progress on arms control that was made in the 1980s was done in concert with Moscow. A Western position on negotiations with the Soviets was not easy to achieve and had to be forged through hard work on the WESTERN side – not shaped on the fly in talks with the Soviet leaders.

Today, the White House is barely talking to the Kremlin.

The Long War and the Potential for Escalation

While Zelensky was visiting Washington, Putin sent former Russian President Medvedev to Beijing to parlay personally with President Xi.  President Putin himself visited the Russian Ministry of Defense on the same day Zelensky was in the United States.  Putin gave a speech there in which he told the Russian people to prepare themselves for a full wartime economy.  In a speech the very next day, Putin even called the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine a “war” for the first time, violating his own law prohibiting such talk.  Moscow is digging in for the long haul.

How should American and NATO policy be shaped to deal with a Russia committed to a long war, seemingly prepared to take escalatory steps to protect what it sees as its vital interests?

A long war in Ukraine is of global significance and it carries major risks not only to U.S. interests abroad but to the homeland as well.  In fact, if it so chooses, Russia can touch our vital interests in space, cyberspace, and physical space.  Moscow’s cyber attacks on the commercial satellite systems of both ViaSat and Starlink demonstrate the vulnerability of Western space constellations to Russian action.  The Kremlin’s escalatory options are many:  space, cyberspace, critical infrastructure, chemical, biological, and nuclear.

Is Washington prepared for a long war where the probability of a climb up the escalatory ladder becomes more likely over time?

The U.S. homeland is not immune.

The White House is now contemplating providing a Patriot missile battery to Ukraine and training Ukrainian military operators on the system in the United States.  Surely, Moscow will view this as an escalation of the conflict.

Working now to shape a Western architecture for negotiations is vital to attenuate future conflict rather than ensure it.

Morra underscored that “This war has major implications on every level. But I get the sense that in Washington, the debate is very tactical. It seems to be ‘how do we do better today the same things we did yesterday?’ The focus is on calibrating tactical actions. This looks like an approach without a strategic underpinning. It’s reminiscent of the lack of strategic vision that yielded such a terrible outcome in Afghanistan.  And it’s very much unlike what the generation of American policy makers did in the 1980s and 90s.

“Moreover, the Administration can’t seem to keep its own story straight.  Even though President Biden distanced himself from the word ‘victory’ this week, his secretary of defense has spoken of eliminating Russia’s war making capacity.  That echoes President Franklin Roosevelt when he declared that ‘Peace can come to the world only with the elimination of German and Japanese war power’.   Secretary of Defense Austin sounds like Zelensky striving for an absolute victory that looks like Appomattox in 1865 or Tokyo Bay in 1945.

This is directly contradictory to Biden’s own statements in Washington this past week.

Morra underscored: “Why isn’t the Administration focused on defining American goals for terminating the war?  Perhaps they are doing so in private, but it’s not too soon to have a public debate.  The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives seems poised to demand such a debate.  It’s likely that they will be branded by the media and Democratic leaders as ‘Putin appeasers’, but isn’t it the duty of our government to debate policy when so much is as stake?  Afghanistan policy was never subject to a rigorous public debate and look how that turned out.”

A Strategic Framework

We discussed the need to fit the U.S. and European approach into a strategic context because the future of Ukraine and Russia must be seen as part of a larger global reshuffling. We discussed briefly the argument made by one analyst that the disintegration of the Russian Federation could be an outcome of the War in Ukraine.  But the dissolution of Russia would pose numerous problems, including the challenge of the disposition of thousands of nuclear weapons.  The fall of the Russian Federation would also create mini states that could lead to Chinese domination of the Russian Far East and wars in Central Asia.

Morra offered: “To create a strategic framework, the White House could sponsor serious discussions with our allies to shape an architecture for negotiations. Looking back at relatively recent history we could seek out those models that worked for us in the past. We then could construct today a new architecture for a negotiated settlement informed by what was done in the past.

“For example, during the Cold War we developed confidence building measures. Such measures can help the West close out the Ukrainian conflict on reasonable and rational terms.”

There are large issues to sort out regarding both the future of Russia and Ukraine. A process of discussing the kind of architecture the Western parties can agree on in Ukraine will be part of determining the next European security and economic order.  The Western powers can climb into the driver’s seat and not be whipsawed by policies promulgated in Kiev and Moscow.

One objective must be to reduce the probability of Putin’s ‘Long War’ becoming a reality. Beyond Ukraine, forces in Russia, in Belorussia, and the forward states in NATO are on a hair trigger – a situation that is extremely dangerous.

The West should shape an environment in which Russian leaders cannot plausibly make the case to their publics that NATO seeks to invade Russia.  And Russia needs to tone down its threats against the most vulnerable states in Europe.

During the Cold War, we faced an even more dangerous Soviet threat and had the intelligence to figure how to deal with it, so why cannot U.S. and European leaders do so now?

Simply putting President Zelensky in the train engine and letting him drive is not a strategic policy.

Featured Photo: Copenhagen, Denmark – May 4. 2022. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks via broadcast on a big screen outdoors in front of large crowd of people gathered with lit torches in the evening

Editor’s Note: Brian Morra has written an important historical novel – The Able Archers – about the 1983 nuclear crisis which lays out the context of the challenge of solving problems with the Russians.   Unfortunately, we are back again at this point in history but without the dense network of expertise we once had. 

The Able Archers can be ordered directly from Amazon and or from Brian Morra’s website

Or see, our review of the book as well:

Training for Crisis Management: Start by Reading the Able Archers