(Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Heather Williams, a War Studies PhD candidate. Header image is copyright Maksymenko Oleksandr issued under a creative commons attribution license)
Oscar Jonsson’s post posed the question, what would be the benefit for the West of a negotiated solution with Russia? At first I thought this was either rhetorical or designed to stir the pot. Seeing that it was not the former, I will assume it was the latter and provide the spoon for said pot stirring.
First, why is the West in talks with Russia over Ukraine? Jonsson notes that the West ‘came running’ to negotiate with Putin and it’s ‘in the bone marrow.’ To quote the second most cliché of security studies phrases (Clausewitz obviously gets the first), ‘it is better to jaw jaw than to war war.’ Now before you cry out ‘Sudetanland’ or fall victim to the Godwin’s law, let’s not discard the notion of negotiation altogether. Generally speaking, the goal of negotiation is to communicate interest, identify areas of discord, and, hopefully, settle on areas of agreement. Negotiations also offer an opportunity for building personal contacts, relaying concerns in a private setting, and building trust, however limited that might be. Negotiations entail risk, to be sure, and there comes a time when it is best to walk away from the negotiating table. Has the West really reached that point with Russia, though?
This doesn’t mean the West and Russia will be braiding each other’s hair on the weekends whilst watching Hunt for Red October. But any alternatives to dialogue point in the direction of misperception, miscommunication, and potential escalation. Taking a closer look at Western interests in negotiations reveal why this isn’t a massive waste of time.
- Stop Russian advances. In the midst of our ongoing analyses, we often forget the impact of these events on the ground, on people and families living with the stress of corrupt leaders, a collapsed government, and, now, a decapitated state. Keeping this in mind, the first priority must be to promote security within Ukraine, which means stopping Russian advances and facilitating a stable environment in which the Ukrainian people can rebuild. With that said, talking to the Russians is a much more desirable option than remaining silent or military escalation. Negotiation does not mean the West will concede to Russian positions, however. For example, the West will not recognize Crimea as part of Russia. As Jonsson points out, this would undermine the post-WWII system. But why should the West or Russia insist on this point in practice? Any negotiations towards federalization would have to be put to the Ukrainian people for a vote. Given all the fuss the West raised about the illegality of the referendum in Crimea, it would be blatantly hypocritical to then apply the same principles to the rest of Ukraine and undercut its attempts to rebuild a government. This is not Iraq circa 2003.
- Uphold principles of sovereignty as much as possible. Yes, this will be limited and recent history is riddled with exceptions, but this remains the foundation of the international system and a keystone to stability. To ignore Russian incursions altogether and deflect invitations to talk would suggest complacency and a Western disinterest.
- Reassure NATO allies. There is a chorus coming from Talinn, Riga, Vilnius, and Warsaw: ‘I told you so!’ The West needs to show that it will not stand by quietly while Putin eats away at respect for boundaries in Eastern Europe and creeps towards the NATO border.
- Maintain a working relationship with Russia in Europe. Russia is a necessary partner in energy (Germany), trade (France), and investment (United Kingdom), as has been discussed thoroughly elsewhere. Russia may not be the most trustworthy or consistent partner, but for the time being it is chained to Europe. Over the long-term, however, and as discussed below in greater detail, this may not be the case.
- Maintain a working relationship with Russia globally. Russia isn’t just an important international player because of its oil, gas, and oily (and possibly gassy) oligarchs. Russia is currently a key player in negotiations with Iran and Syria. And despite the current spat, Russia continues to participate in arms control verification with the United States under the New START Treaty. Turning Russia into a pariah will further isolate it and undermine progress in other areas. This is not to suggest the West should acquiesce to Russian demands and actions, but rather keep open the lines of communication. As Kennan said, ‘the best policy with Russia is always keeping the door open for them when they finally do decide to come in.
What leverage does the West have in negotiations with Russia? At least two. First, Russia needs European energy markets given that 80% of its exports are in natural resources. As Professor Andrew Lambert mentioned in a recent War Studies podcast, following the 2008 invasion of Ukraine, not to mention Russia’s erratic record as a supplier throughout the 2000s, the West is already looking for alternatives to Russian energy and Russia is feeling the pressure. Additional geopolitical demerits are taking an economic toll.
And second- now to the meat of the issue- events in Ukraine both directly and indirectly affect domestic stability within Russia. Domestic issues have always been the primary security concern for Russia. Its most recent Military Doctrines and Foreign Policy Concepts disproportionately focus on internal security and security on its borders. I would dispute the characterization of Russia’s interest in federalization as ‘bonkers’ given its attitude towards Ukraine and the ‘near abroad’ more generally. Federalization is the best vehicle for Russia to draw other parts of Ukraine into its orbit without the risks or messiness of further military incursions.
As Professor Lambert also notes, what Putin did was ‘inevitable, fairly predictable’ because Putin couldn’t allow Ukraine to drift towards Europe which could undermine his own power base at home. Putin’s grasp on power in Russia seems shaky at times, and is dependent on economic growth and stability, thus energy exports and political support. As highlighted by Andrew Nagorski, Putin’s use of Ukraine as a rallying cry for Russian nationalism is fake and the ‘real motive for his behavior since the downfall of Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych is his recognition of the example this could set for his own people.’ And as I recently discussed in a review of Limits of Partnership, quoting the author, Angela Stent, ‘For Putin, events in Ukraine are an albatross, “After all, if Ukrainians could take to the streets and overthrow their governments, so could Russians.”’
Putin needs to demonstrate his nationalism and firm approach to internal dissent, and the West needs to condemn his tactics. But Russia also needs the West to buy its energy just as much as the West needs Russia to respect borders. It isn’t an ideal balance, but it is mutually beneficial for the time being.