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Fighting bullets and patronisation

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine in 2022, segments of the US foreign policy elite have been encouraging Ukraine to pursue peace with Russia. This encouragement would be one thing if it was done with Ukraine’s best interests at heart. However, a read through many publications by certain individuals reveals a patronising tone that often ignores the needs of a country fighting for its existence.

December 1, 2022 - Daniel Jarosak - Articles and Commentary

Demonstration urging for more action against the Russian invasion of Ukraine outside the White House in Washington D.C in March 2022. Photo: Eli Wilson / Shutterstock

The war in Ukraine has now dragged on for over eight months at the time of writing. During this time, Ukraine’s fortunes have violently shifted from being on the brink of disaster to expelling an army far larger than its own from vast swathes of its territory. It must be said, first and foremost, that this would not be possible without the soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Ukrainian armed forces. Their bravery and equally impressive tactical aptitude have not only frustrated, but outright countered supposedly one of the most powerful armies in the world. However, these men and women have not done it alone.

Since Russian armoured columns crossed rebel-held land into Kyiv-controlled territory, the West (most notably the US, Britain and Poland) has pumped billions of dollars’ worth of material, arms and funding into Ukraine. These shipments have, without question, greatly aided the Ukrainian forces in their fight for their country’s preservation. Because of these supplies, Vladimir Putin has continued to make veiled threats regarding the use of nuclear weapons. Even after recently promising not to utilise these weapons of mass destruction, he still has signalled the potential use of a dirty bomb.

It should come as no surprise then that many in the West are nervous about escalation. While Putin has escalated matters in terms of the inhumane weaponisation of energy and food supplies, there has been very little actual military movement to suggest he is planning to use nuclear weaponry. Yet, many political figures have been clamouring for a “peaceful” end to the conflict. This view is espoused by both politicians and members of the US foreign policy elite. On the face of it, these arguments often contend that concessions are needed to prevent both a further loss of life, and potential collateral damage in other countries. However, there is an inherent contradiction here that is difficult to reconcile.

Politicians weigh in

Currently, the most (in)famous example of US politicians urging for a negotiated settlement can be found in this letter issued by the US House Progressive Caucus. This was originally written in June but then quickly retracted in late October. In this letter, they urge the Biden administration to couple military aid to Ukraine with diplomatic contacts with the Kremlin. The representatives stated that while they agree that the US should not pressure Ukraine, “involvement in this war also creates a responsibility for the United States to seriously explore all possible avenues, including direct engagement with Russia, to reduce harm and support Ukraine in achieving a peaceful settlement.” They go on to say that the US should pursue a negotiated settlement acceptable to all parties.

This letter has been dissected by various publications that chastise both its content and message. There is nothing inherently wrong with the US maintaining diplomatic contacts with the Kremlin. In fact, it has been revealed that the US has been engaging with the Kremlin to ensure that the use of nuclear weapons remains taboo. However, this is not everything advocated for by the Progressive Caucus. They write that it is vital to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and not apply pressure regarding acceptance of a peace deal. Yet, simultaneously, they also maintain that the US must pursue one-on-one diplomacy with Russia and help provide a solution acceptable to all sides. One cannot square this circle. Following this line of thinking, at some point the US would have to apply pressure on Ukraine to accept a less-than-favourable deal or acquiesce to certain stipulations.

The view from the “blob”

Meanwhile, members of the US foreign policy elite have also begun to bring up the need for a settled peace deal. One such author, Emma Ashford, writes for Foreign Affairs that the Russo-Ukrainian War will end in negotiations. When it comes to America’s role, she states that “the West should [not] push Ukraine to concede, as some have argued. But it does suggest that the United States and its partners should provide future aid with an eye to putting Ukraine in the best negotiating position, not simply continuing the war.” She then goes on in the same paragraph to note how the US should “encourage” Ukraine to pursue narrow goals and not necessarily look to recapture land taken after February 24th (let alone Crimea)!

Later in the paper, Ms. Ashford writes that the US should only push for a settlement if the war progresses towards one of three scenarios. Those three scenarios are: Ukraine continues to find military success on the battlefield; Russia is able to absorb Ukraine’s advances and begin its own offensive; or the war devolves into a stalemate. Of course, these three “specific” pathways are the only three directions that the war can take. It becomes obvious here that the author wants the US to exert pressure on Ukraine to accept a peace deal, no matter how nonsensical certain provisions might be. For instance, she implies that Ukraine should be willing to give up parts of the Donbas because “[it] retain[s] some pro-Russian populations” and might be “more stable and defensible”. Never mind the fact that the pro-Ukrainian population was practically forced to flee after eight years under a pro-Russian puppet government.

Ukraine is a reliable partner

There is a common position laid out in each of these pieces. As showcased in the aforementioned examples, the writers hold the view that America must allow Ukraine to decide when it is best to negotiate. However, America should also begin pressuring Ukraine to negotiate and/or press it to the negotiating table. These two positions are, of course, contradictory. There is a consistent fear permeating these pieces, whether implicitly or explicitly, that Ukraine will cross a line and engender greater destruction or force active involvement from NATO.

There is very little to suggest that Ukraine will commit some grand blunder that would give Moscow a justifiable excuse to ratchet up the tension. When provided with ammunition for its HIMARS rockets, the Ukrainian army was explicitly informed by the Biden administration that they could not use them against targets on Russian soil, a promise they have kept. Ukrainian soldiers have shown an almost unbelievable amount of restraint when dealing with Russian POWs. As we know, Ukrainian army personnel have not committed war crimes on a scale nearly equal to their Russian counterparts. Ukraine has voluntarily invited UN inspectors to their homeland in order to disprove the Russian claims that the country is preparing to use a dirty bomb.

The views espoused by the two aforementioned works reveal two related aspects of thinking within certain sections of the US foreign policy apparatus (or the “blob” as it is known to its detractors). The first is a sense of superiority that some within the American foreign policy realm possess when dealing with other, smaller, powers. In these analyses, it is always America that understands best when to act at the diplomatic level. Additionally, the timing of this letter and article is interesting in that they come right as Ukraine’s army is seeing its biggest successes since, arguably, the start of the conflict. Thousands of kilometres have been retaken and Kherson has been recaptured. These individuals chose now to publish their beliefs that Ukraine should not get its hopes up too much and show restraint.

A snobbish elite

This need to constantly remind Ukraine of the need to negotiate and for diplomacy also smacks of a condescending and quasi-colonial attitude that can be pervasive in American foreign policy. It is of vital importance to note that this article is not attempting to equalise the treatment of Ukraine by Russia and the US. There is a vast difference between taking a slightly patronising tone towards a people or a government and waging an imperial war of conquest. Nevertheless, it is vital for Americans to not only recognise the right for Ukraine to conduct the war as it sees fit (within obvious legal limits), but also to recognise that the Ukrainian people are smart enough to know when they can and should stop the war. There is no need for constant reminders that diplomacy is an option. We cannot forget that every country relevant to the conflict attempted to reach a diplomatic solution with Russia prior to the war. In the opening weeks, Ukraine dispatched its emissaries in an attempt to secure a ceasefire.

It is the moral and geopolitical duty of America and NATO to continue supplying equipment to Ukraine. If Ukraine wants to begin the process of negotiations, they can, and will, inform their allies. There is no need to remind Ukraine of negotiations, or to “pair equipment with outreach to Moscow”. As many of these authors note, this war will end someday. It is better for it to end without the West alienating and patronising a country that has sacrificed so much to protect its sovereignty.

Daniel Jarosak does contract work for the US government. He was a former Researching Editor for New Eastern Europe and has an educational background in Eastern and Central Europe.

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