The Case for Negotiating with Russia

If you want to hear a different perspective on the war in Ukraine, talk to Samuel Charap. A fine-featured Russia analyst with, at forty-three, a head of gray hair, Charap works at the RAND Corporation, a think tank that has been doing research for the U.S. military, among other clients, since the nineteen-forties. In the self-abnegating architectural spirit of many Washington institutions, it rents several floors of an office tower attached to a mall in Arlington, Virginia, not far from the Pentagon. The mall has a Macy’s and a Bath and Body Works, which are not places that Charap likes to go.

Charap, who grew up in Manhattan, became interested in Russian literature in high school, and then became interested in Russian foreign policy in college, at Amherst. He got a Ph.D. in political science at Oxford and spent time researching his dissertation in both Moscow and Kyiv. In 2009, he started working at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in D.C. Russia had just fought a short, nasty war with Georgia, but the incoming Obama Administration was hoping to “reset” relations and find common ground. Charap supported this effort and wrote papers trying to think through a progressive foreign policy for the U.S. in the post-Soviet region. But tensions with Russia continued to increase. In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursion into eastern Ukraine, in 2014, Charap wrote a book, with the Harvard political scientist Timothy Colton, called “Everyone Loses,” about the background to the war. In it, Charap and Colton argue that the U.S., Europe, and Russia had combined to produce a “negative sum” outcome in Ukraine. Russia was the aggressor, to be sure, but by asking that Ukraine choose either Russia or the West, the U.S. and Europe had helped stoke the flames of conflict. In the end, everyone lost.

I first met Charap in the summer of 2017, not long after the book came out, and in the midst of a maelstrom of anger at Russia for its interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Robert Mueller had been appointed as special counsel for the Justice Department, Donald Trump had labelled the investigation a hoax, and Congress was in the process of passing a bipartisan sanctions bill against Russia. Charap was as angry as anyone else about the interference, but he thought the sanctions proposed in the bill were a mistake. “The idea of sticks in international relations is not just for beating other countries,” he told me at the time. “It’s for achieving a better outcome.” He used the example of the long-standing Iran sanctions, which had finally compelled Iran to come to the negotiating table and vastly limit its nuclear program. The sanctions on Russia, he went on, were not like that. “Sanctions are only effective at changing another country’s behavior if they can be rolled back,” he said. “And, because of the measures in this current bill, it’s going to be nearly impossible for any President to relieve them.”

In the following years, as Russia became more and more of a neuralgic subject in American politics, Charap continued to travel to Russia, engage with Russian counterparts, and look for ways to lower the temperature of the relationship. Going to Valdai—the annual conference where Vladimir Putin pretends to be a wise tsar interested in discoursing with professors on international politics—had become somewhat controversial. But, before the war began, Charap went to the conference whenever he could, and several times even asked Putin a question. “It’s my job to understand these people, and I was given firsthand access to them,” he said. “How can you understand a country if you don’t go and talk to the people involved in the decision-making?”

In the fall of 2021, Charap, along with much of the expert community in D.C., became worried that Russia was planning an invasion of Ukraine. In a piece in Politico that November, he urged the Biden Administration to work with Kyiv to make at least some nominal concessions, to see if the crisis could be defused. Two months later, as the crisis deepened, he wrote another piece, for the Financial Times. In this one, he argued that NATO should announce publicly that Ukraine was not seriously being considered for membership. “Nato cannot and should not accept being told what to do by Russia,” Charap wrote. “But Moscow’s inflammatory rhetoric should not distract from the fact that Nato is not prepared to offer Ukraine membership. If doing so could avert a war, why not find some way to say out loud what any Nato official would say behind closed doors[?]”

When I spoke to Charap around this time, he was freaking out. The disposition of Russian forces, their activities, the fact that blood supplies were being sent to the Russian encampments: none of this was the behavior of an army conducting an exercise. Even more worrisome was the tenor of Russian diplomatic communications. Their demands—not only that Ukraine promise to never join NATO but also that NATO pull its troops back to their 1997 locations—were simply unrealistic. “They’re asking the world’s most powerful military alliance to strip naked and run laps,” he said. “But the gun they’re holding is to Ukraine’s head.” Charap estimated that if an invasion was going to happen, it would happen in late February.

In late January of 2022, he co-authored an editorial for Foreign Policy in which he argued that sending anti-tank Javelin missiles and anti-aircraft Stinger missiles to Ukraine would neither deter Russia from invading nor meaningfully affect the military situation if Russia did invade. He once again urged that diplomacy be given a chance.

And then the war began. It turned out that Charap and his co-author were right about Western weapons and deterrence—the Russian Army went in despite the Javelins and Stingers that had been sent to Ukraine by NATO countries—but wrong about their military utility. The Russian Army used low-flying helicopters, vulnerable to Stinger fire, and sent armored vehicles, in a juicy column, straight down a main road toward Kyiv, where they were destroyed. Subsequent studies have pointed to Russian carelessness, timely U.S. intelligence, and, above all, Ukrainian mobility and courage as the prime factors in the debacle of the war’s first weeks for Russia. But the weapons helped.

Nonetheless, for Charap, there was more that the U.S. might have tried to prevent the fighting. In recent months, as the fighting has gone on and on, he has become the most active voice in the U.S. foreign-policy community calling for some form of negotiation to end or freeze the conflict. In response, he has been called a Kremlin mouthpiece, a Russian “shill,” and a traitor. Critics say he has not changed his opinions in fifteen years despite changing circumstances. But he has continued writing and arguing. “This is a five-alarm fire,” he said. “Am I supposed to walk past the house? Because, as bad as it’s been, it could get much, much worse.”

So far, the most active phase of negotiations to end the war took place in its first two months. During that time, there were numerous meetings between Russian and Ukrainian officials, most notably throughout March, in Turkey. At least one rumored proposal coming out of those talks had Ukraine agreeing to not seek NATO membership in exchange for Russia abandoning all the territory it had seized after February 23, 2022. Accounts differ about what happened next. It was not clear that the ever-shifting Russian delegations had Putin’s support, nor was it clear that Western countries were willing to provide the sort of security guarantees Ukraine sought in place of NATO membership. Soon these questions became moot. On March 31st, Russian troops withdrew from Bucha; Ukrainian soldiers who entered the city discovered mass graves and learned that residents had been tortured and randomly shot. Volodomyr Zelensky called what happened there “war crimes” and “genocide.” An early April visit to Kyiv from Boris Johnson, then the British Prime Minister, seems to have stiffened Zelensky’s resolve. After that, there were still occasional attempts at negotiation and mediation, but it was clear that both sides wanted to see what they could get by continuing the war.

In the spring and summer of 2022, Russia re-engaged in the Ukrainian east, trying to make progress in the Donbas region; it managed to level and capture the large port city of Mariupol, connecting the Russian mainland, through occupied Ukrainian territory, to Crimea. In the fall, Ukraine mounted a counter-offensive, which succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. Ukrainian forces overran demoralized Russian troops in the Kharkiv region; they also laid siege to the city of Kherson, forcing a Russian retreat. In the winter, Russia was back on the offensive, occupying, after tens of thousands of casualties, the small city of Bakhmut, in the Donbas. Early this summer, it was Ukraine’s turn for another counter-offensive. This one was bolstered by much-publicized Western equipment and training, but so far it has not yielded anything like the successes of last fall.

At some point, this counter-offensive will end. The question will then become whether either of the sides is ready for negotiations. Russia has been saying for months that it wants negotiations, but it is not clear that it is ready to make any concessions. Most significantly, Russia has not backed off its demand for recognition of the territories it “fake-annexed” in September, 2022, in the words of Olga Oliker, of the International Crisis Group. Ukraine has said that it needs to continue fighting so it can expel the occupying forces and make sure that Russia never threatens Ukraine again.

The argument in the U.S. has split into two profoundly opposed camps. On the one side are people—not very many, at least publicly—like Charap, who argue that there might be a way to end the war sooner rather than later by freezing the conflict in place, and working to secure and rebuild the large part of Ukraine that is not under Russian occupation. On the other side are those who believe that this is no solution and the war must be fought until Putin is soundly defeated and humiliated. As the defense intellectual Eliot A. Cohen put it, in May, in The Atlantic:

Ukraine must not only achieve battlefield success in its upcoming counteroffensives; it must secure more than orderly Russian withdrawals following cease-fire negotiations. To be brutal about it, we need to see masses of Russians fleeing, deserting, shooting their officers, taken captive, or dead. The Russian defeat must be an unmistakably big, bloody shambles.

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