Don’t Fall for the Russian Peace-Talk Jabber
American dupes calling for a negotiated end to the Ukraine war are forgetting the long history of Russian ‘peace offensives.’ What's needed is a Western ‘peace counteroffensive.’
IN RECENT WEEKS, there have been new public calls for negotiations of some sort with Moscow over the war in Ukraine. The problem with this notion is not simply that a “ceasefire” is highly improbable on terms amenable to Western and Ukrainian objectives. Rather, Western strategists and commentators have misconceived the role of diplomacy, and in particular diplomacy with Russia. The Kremlin’s supposed peace overtures, combined with Western analytical efforts to amplify them, are part of a standard Russian “peace offensive,” a tactic familiar to any student of Soviet diplomatic and strategic history. This time, the West should launch a “peace counteroffensive” of its own, weaponizing its diplomatic position to spoil Russian attempts to split the Western coalition.
As this year’s Ukrainian military counteroffensive petered out, the United States entered a period of extreme legislative gridlock—one result of which is that members of the House and Senate left Washington at the end of last week without having made a deal to renew aid to Ukraine. There is still a chance for a deal when Congress reconvenes in January, but Kyiv is understandably nervous: Ukraine is expected to start to running out of weapons by February, and now there are rumors of an alleged desire among German and American officials to force Kyiv to the bargaining table.
This is the context for the current Russian peace offensive, begun in the spring, when American former officials and foreign policy commentators, including Richard Haas and Charles Kupchan, began “secret” unofficial negotiations with representatives of the Russian government. It broke into full view over the summer. In November, Haas and Kupchan authored the latest in a series of negotiation-minded essays in Foreign Affairs. Putin followed a few days later with video-transmitted remarks at the G20 summit, pinning blame for the lack of negotiations on Ukraine. Russian state-aligned media, meanwhile, are exploiting the appearances of division between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Valery Zaluzhny—all the better to paint Zelensky, the symbol of defiance in the face of Russian aggression, as the last holdout against negotiations.
Lest anyone think negotiating with the Russians is a solution to the problems that ail Eastern Europe, keep in mind that the Russians, with 100,000 guns aimed at Ukraine’s head just before the full-scale invasion, demanded “negotiations” that amounted to the United States surrendering Ukraine’s sovereignty for it and retroactively un-winning the Cold War. Several months later, after the start of the full-scale invasion, Russia and Ukraine again negotiated over a possible peaceful solution to the conflict, and Putin negotiated with French President Emmanuel Macron—all of which apparently served only to stall Ukraine’s supporters while Putin’s armies tortured, raped, and murdered their way toward Kyiv.
RUSSIA’S LATEST CALLS FOR NEGOTIATIONS, like the others before it, are in keeping with the standard tactic of “peace offensives” used by the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. The Soviets and their allies never viewed negotiations with the earnest good faith of many Western leaders, diplomats, and commentators. Instead, Soviet goals in negotiations were twofold. First, sympathetic Western movements would support the Soviet position, undermining American diplomatic credibility while also encouraging the Europeans to deal with Moscow directly, splitting the Atlantic coalition. Second, negotiations were a stalling tactic designed to exhaust the West. Soviet bloc diplomats would repeat the same positions ad nauseam, haggle over the most pedantic semantic points in any text, and manipulate the time and pace of negotiations to exhaust their Western interlocutors.
The first Soviet peace offensive began in 1948, when the USSR intentionally misread a memorandum from U.S. ambassador to Moscow Walter Bedell Smith to mean that the United States sought a bilateral agreement with the Soviet Union. Although the Soviet interpretation was demonstrated as fraudulent, the USSR’s propaganda machine spat out article after article on the possibility for peace. The Soviet foreign ministry convened several “peace congresses,” meetings of sympathetic intellectuals to provide their efforts a veneer of legitimacy. Soviet diplomats emphasized to all audiences their willingness to negotiate in the face of American intransigence.
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Soviet bloc positions in the Korean armistice negotiations took the inverse approach. Mostly at Stalin’s behest, North Korea and China delayed and disrupted negotiations for nearly two full years. Throughout, the U.S.-led coalition lost thousands of men in a host of small engagements along a largely static line of contact. Only Stalin’s death broke the deadlock.
Western diplomats often fell prey to the Soviet misdirection. Even the noted Sovietologist and U.S. ambassador to the USSR Charles E. Bohlen wrote in in the shaky months after Stalin’s death that “In its foreign relations most evidence to date would indicate that the Soviet Government desires a return to diplomacy and a lessening of world tension for an indefinite period of time,” an estimate distinctly out of character with his previous opinions.
North Vietnam took a parallel approach during the Paris peace talks. Washington continuously modified its positions to gain Hanoi’s agreement. In the event, it took North Vietnam’s strategic failure in the 1973 Easter Offensive to induce legitimate compromise, which Hanoi abandoned just two years later. Throughout the negotiations, the American press continuously assailed the Nixon administration’s intransigence, accusing it time and again of giving away the chance for peace absent any real evidence of North Vietnamese interest in constructive discussion.
In general, throughout the Cold War, whenever the Soviets felt pressure from the West, they engaged in a peace offensive. When the USSR felt secure, it or its allies stonewalled negotiations. In neither case did Soviet policy positions change.
None of this analysis is particularly shocking based on the facts. Yet it remains controversial, primarily because of the tendency for historians of the Cold War to identify potential lost chances for peace, including John Lewis Gaddis’s “missed opportunity to reunify Germany” in We Now Know, or Vladislav Zubok and Konstantin Pleshakov’s argument that the Soviet leadership never grasped a chance to abandon universalist ideology in Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War (somehow missing the reality that the Soviets never had an interest in abandoning universalism).
The most aggressive Soviet peace offensives occurred when the USSR felt the greatest pressure. The Soviets encouraged direct negotiations between East and West Germany in the late 1960s, just as Nixon and Kissinger engineered an opening to Beijing. The Soviets gained confidence in the mid to late 1970s, as South Vietnam fell to the Soviet-backed North, U.S. military spending was squeezed, Washington lost its key Middle Eastern partner in Iran, and Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan. But the rearmament of the late Carter and early Reagan years drove the Soviets into a frenzy. U.S. military spending and technological advancement threatened to erode thirty years of Soviet military investments in under a decade. The result was an aggressive arms control push, overtures to the Europeans, and crucial support for the Nuclear Freeze movement in the West. Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, initially serialized in the New Yorker, raised popular hostility to the Reagan nuclear buildup, which along with other popular arguments prompted the million-strong June 12, 1982 disarmament rally.
Even Gorbachev’s policy can be characterized as a peace offensive—a view at odds with established Cold War historiography, but with a clear basis in Soviet diplomatic activity and defense budgeting. Glasnost and perestroika are remembered as his signature moves, but Gorbachev’s foreign relations were conducted in textbook backhanded Soviet style. By relaxing tensions to gain space for domestic reforms, Gorbachev sought to rebuild Soviet power, not rein it in. Indeed, had he not abjured repression and brutality, the night of November 9, 1989 might be remembered alongside the Warsaw Pact invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia.
RUSSIAN PEACE OVERTURES are likely to increase in the coming months, as are Western voices counseling “earnest conversations” with Kyiv over war termination. There is, however, cause for optimism. Russian peace offensives occur only when Russia feels vulnerable. And the events of recent months do imply serious long-term vulnerabilities.
Although Ukraine’s counteroffensive failed to meaningfully punch through Russia’s lines, the war’s stresses finally exploded into public view with Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted putsch in June. Russian casualties have been truly enormous, with tens of thousands dead since this summer, and as many as 315,000 killed since the war began, according to newly declassified U.S. intelligence. Even if that total figure is exaggerated, Russia has visibly lost huge quantities of men and materiel. As Zaluzhny said in a recent interview, “Russia has lost at least 150,000 dead. In any other country such casualties would have stopped the war.”
Indeed, Ukraine did come close to a breakthrough in the south in August and September. Only waves of reinforcements and a talented Russian commander, Alexander Romanchuk, stymied the advance at extreme cost. The Ukrainian military has also driven the Russian Navy from Crimea and much of the western Black Sea, loosening the Russian blockade enough to allow grain shipments out. Although Ukraine sorely needs more American aid—more ammunition, replacements for damaged vehicles, a handful of modern fighter aircraft, drones, and a better organized training effort—with the right support, Ukraine can inflict the same or more severe damage on Russia in 2024 as it did in 2023.
At some point, Russian resources will run dry. Russia has forestalled a full mobilization and declaration of war by emptying its prisons of convicts, press-ganging migrant workers and Ukrainians in the occupied territories, hunting down draft evaders, offering outlandish salaries to volunteers, generating a host of mercenary groups, and intimidating conscripts to sign professional contracts for deployment to Ukraine. The Kremlin is well aware of the political risks of outright mobilization, especially in an “election” year.
Yet every dead Russian in Ukraine hollows out Russian manpower. Moreover, while Russia’s Aerospace Forces have been innovative, Russian ground forces have struggled to improve tactically.
Russia may well take the small town of Avdiivka after another winter of vicious combat, but only at the cost of hundreds, if not thousands, of armored vehicles and thousands of dead and wounded. Putin’s political goals apparently require continued attacks against Ukrainian lines, even though Russia is in no shape to achieve a breakthrough and is unlikely to be capable of such an operation for the duration of this war. A properly supported Ukrainian army, by contrast, could be capable of a renewed counteroffensive after some rest, re-equipment, training, and planning.
Moreover, Russian economic capacity cannot sustain a war economy indefinitely. Russia’s supposed GDP growth is misleading, considering much of it will come from military production that will constitute a tenth of its GDP next year. (Meanwhile, consumption is likely down and investment has effectively stopped.) Russia’s 2022 current account surplus reached $227 billion because of high global energy prices, but $239 billion of capital left the economy anyway. Waves of emigration, a shortage of migrant workers, and the draft have tightened the labor market. And while Russia can still field a steady number of poorly trained conscripts, it must resort increasingly to coercion to back-fill damaged units.
China has provided a lifeline, selling Russia a variety of cheap consumer goods (and almost certainly industrial technology needed to expand defense production) in return for heavily discounted energy. But China faces a capital crunch of its own, and appears to be ambivalent about how much to support its “partner without limits.”
Given these myriad weaknesses and crises, it’s no surprise that Moscow, in keeping with its standard peace offensive tactics, is pushing for negotiations now.
RUSSIA, ONCE AGAIN, WILL NOT NEGOTIATE in good faith. Ukraine and the West should not cede the battlefield of global public opinion, allowing Russia to manipulate the international narrative. Rather, a peace counteroffensive is in order.
Ukrainian unwillingness to revise war aims—the recovery of Ukraine’s 1991 borders—stems in part from strong domestic opposition to compromise with Russia after the brutality of invasion, horrors of occupation, and stresses of bombardment against Ukrainian cities. But equally relevant is the lack of legitimate Western accommodation of Kyiv’s needs.
First, Ukraine needs defensible borders—that is, borders that allow Ukraine to survive not only militarily but economically. Second, Kyiv needs a secure economic future through access to European markets and a path toward EU membership. Third, and crucially, Ukraine needs legitimate access to the Western defense industrial system—access that can best be provided through NATO membership.
The security guarantee is the most relevant. Ukraine might be able eventually to drive Russia from its territory, but the threat will not go away: Russia will remain a larger, nuclear-armed state, one that will rebuild its forces once again and assault Ukraine in the future. Ukraine’s domestic military production has improved, but it will not be able to sustain the military it needs for the long term without Western support. Ukraine’s enormous economic potential—large critical minerals deposits, enormous amounts of agricultural production, and a vibrant technology sector—can only be tapped with a secure strategic situation, which in turn requires NATO membership, or at least legitimate security guarantees, including NATO forces permanently deployed in Ukraine.
So far, NATO and the EU haven’t offered Ukraine either of those two options. The NATO summit in Vilnius this past July did not result in Ukraine having a path to NATO membership, (although the requirement of a membership action plan for Ukraine was waived). Nor does Washington’s and Berlin’s emphasis on escalation management and drip-feeding advanced capabilities to Ukraine suggest a desire to provide temporary or long-term security commitments. Ukraine’s EU accession process is almost guaranteed to be delayed—if not blocked—by Hungary, possibly with help from Slovakia.
Absent a NATO guarantee, Ukraine has no incentive to demonstrate flexibility on other aspects of negotiations. Kyiv may be privately amenable to painful, unjust territorial concessions, but there is no incentive for Zelensky or any other Ukrainian policymaker to indicate this without commitments from the West.
The Western peace counteroffensive should involve a public commitment to Ukrainian NATO membership upon the cessation of hostilities with Russia—a phrase deliberately kept vague to avoid questions about a peace settlement or formal negotiations—along with a security mission to be executed immediately after Ukraine accepts some sort of ceasefire, even if Russia avoids full commitment to it.
Ukrainian NATO accession is improbable without a peace agreement of some kind. The difficulty is the gap between that settlement and formal membership. The accession process will take a year or more of negotiation within the alliance, then even longer for ratification by each ally.
During this gap, the Russian propaganda machine will overwhelm social media and news reporting with allegations of corruption, mismanagement, and alleged Nazism in Ukraine. The only way to counter Russian subversion is to provide clear, tangible commitments to Ukraine’s security—through unilateral assurances like those the United Kingdom extended to Sweden and Finland during their recent accession processes, or through a Ukrainian-American mutual defense treaty, or through the stationing of NATO troops in Ukraine.
Russia likely will reject this proposal out of hand, but a clear Western commitment to Ukraine will allow Kyiv to demonstrate private, and perhaps public, flexibility over territorial arrangements, thereby ameliorating remaining skepticism in Europe and the United States. By shifting the focus of debate from Ukrainian borders to Ukraine’s political and diplomatic affiliations, the West can short-circuit the Russian peace narrative. In turn, this will quiet domestic second-guessing throughout the West of supposed NATO or Ukrainian intransigence.
A tangible security guarantee that the West will honor requires both significant diplomatic work and willingness to accept some risk. The United States would need to organize a real support mission with a more limited coalition—likely Poland, the Baltic States, and the United Kingdom. Skillful diplomacy may well entice Germany, too, particularly if the support mission contains robust linkages to the German defense industry. There is, of course, the risk of escalation. But such risks are far higher if Western support for Kyiv ends, or the West allows a halfway settlement absent Ukraine’s proper integration into European security architecture.
Rather than asking how the war might end, Western leaders and commentators would be better advised to recognize reality. The Ukraine war is not some sort of intractable puzzle to be solved through political gamesmanship but a rather clear military situation that requires strategic prudence and will. The peace counteroffensive is but one element of the need to win a long war.