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Biden is right to pivot toward diplomacy in the Russia-Ukraine war

Turns out widely criticized congressional progressives were helping Biden, not hurting him.
Image: President Joe Biden disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
President Joe Biden disembarks from Air Force One upon arrival at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, June 29, 2021. Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images file

President Joe Biden’s recent diplomatic interventions in the Russia-Ukraine war have given Washington whiplash. In just the past two weeks, reporting has revealed that the Biden administration has had discussions with Ukraine to nudge it toward negotiations and engaged in secret direct talks with Russia to prevent nuclear escalation. The administration also recently agreed to resume inspections under the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty in coordination with Russia.

Ironically, the revelations of Biden’s diplomacy come less than a month after the now infamous — or perhaps visionary — retracted letter from 30 House progressives calling on Biden to invest more in diplomacy to bring about an acceptable end to the war. While that letter was mischaracterized and roundly criticized by much of the Washington establishment as appeasement, it turned out that Biden was already sensibly using diplomacy to try to reduce harm and help end the war on terms beneficial to Ukraine. It’s a promising development: Biden should be commended for shifting toward diplomacy and de-escalation.

Biden should be commended for shifting toward diplomacy and de-escalation.

Recent reporting has revealed that national security adviser Jake Sullivan earlier this month started discussions with Ukraine on ending the conflict while nudging Kyiv to show greater openness to diplomacy. Ukraine “must show its willingness to end the war reasonably and peacefully,” U.S. officials reportedly relayed to Kyiv. As a direct result of Sullivan’s efforts, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy outlined five conditions for negotiations last week that no longer included the non-starter demand that Russian President Vladimir Putin be out of power before talks can take place.

At the same time, Sullivan has initiated direct communications with his Russian counterpart, Russia’s Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, ensuring that U.S.-Russia diplomacy is no longer exclusively in the hands of the American generals. Extensive American support has helped Ukraine retake large swaths of land, including Kherson, forcing the Russians to give up territory it had formally annexed only weeks ago and adopt a defensive posture. “It’s increasingly apparent that Russia has now moved to a more definitively defensive position along most of the front lines,” a Western official told NBC

Biden’s laudable shift toward diplomacy is perhaps a bit surprising given how the Washington establishment has treated any hint of negotiations as appeasement and a betrayal of the Ukrainians. Just two weeks ago, the Financial Times’ Ed Luce concluded that diplomacy “is a taboo word in American politics right now.

That assessment followed the brutal condemnation of a Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) letter expressing support for Biden’s Ukraine policy of military assistance to Ukraine while also softly encouraging the White House to make a “proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.” (My organization, the Quincy Institute, saw an early draft of the letter and helped secure signatures for it.) The 30 progressive signatories argued that “if there is a way to end the war while preserving a free and independent Ukraine, it is America’s responsibility to pursue every diplomatic avenue to support such a solution that is acceptable to the people of Ukraine.” Given the risk of nuclear war, the letter called on Biden also to explore “direct engagement with Russia, to reduce harm and support Ukraine in achieving a peaceful settlement.”

There was nothing controversial about the substance of the letter. The controversy was the reaction to the letter, partly rooted in a Washington Post article that mischaracterized it as seeking “to dramatically shift” Biden’s Ukraine strategy, and the CPC’s unwise decision to withdraw the letter less than 24 hours after its release. As one congressional staffer put it: “We floated the world’s softest trial balloon about diplomacy, got smacked by the Blob, and immediately withdrew under pressure.” The intensity of “liberal hawkishness” even surprised the White House, according to the Financial Times.

The Blob — or the foreign policy establishment and its allies — did indeed show no mercy. Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas called it “unbelievably naive and stupid” to ask for “diplomacy” with a regime like that of Russia. The head of the Global Magnitsky Justice campaign, Bill Browder, wrote that the letter “makes my blood boil.” Diplomacy is to “reward Putin’s murderous aggression. We all know where appeasement goes,” he asserted. Congressman Jake Auchincloss tweeted: “This letter is an olive branch to a war criminal.” In the face of a tsunami of misguided criticism, the CPC withdrew its letter.

But now these categorical condemnations of diplomacy, equating it with appeasement and acquiescence to Putin, look all the more misplaced after reporting revealed just a short while later that the administration had indeed had been engaged covertly in direct talks with Russia, was pressuring Russia and nudging Ukraine to start negotiations, and recognized that Ukraine can not score a total victory on the battlefield. 

Congressman Ro Khanna, the only CPC member who boldly stood by the letter, tweeted, “I am waiting for an apology from Twitter critics. Not holding my breath.” (No apology has been issued as of yet.)

Biden — understandably — feared the reaction of the Blob due to its irrational animosity toward diplomacy.

Indeed, the self-appointed thought police who thought they were defending the president’s policy were in reality doing a terrible job, since they clearly did not even know what Biden’s policy was. Working to make diplomacy taboo hardly helps Biden under any circumstance as it reduces his maneuverability. What the president needed was exactly what the CPC was seeking to provide — more political space for the president by making diplomacy a viable political option.

In retrospect, there were signs Biden was looking for political space to shift toward diplomacy earlier this year. To some extent that desire manifested itself through quiet pushback against Zelenskyy himself. In August, the White House leaked to Thomas Friedman of The New York Times that U.S. officials were “concerned about Ukraine’s leadership” and that there was “deep mistrust” between the White House and Zelenskyy. Last month, NBC reported that Biden had lost his temper with the Ukrainian leader in June, when he perceived Zelenskyy as failing to appreciate the American people’s generosity toward Ukraine. There were also leaks of U.S. intelligence assessments indicating that there is no military solution to the war for either side

In recent days, these signals have grown stronger and more explicit. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized in remarks at the Economic Club of New York this week the tremendous human suffering caused by the war while urging the two sides to “seize the moment” for negotiations. A Western official with direct knowledge of military operations told NBC that “in the winter, everything slows down … The potential for talks, we would like to see that happening.” In no way does this indicate that the U.S. has ceased supporting Ukraine. Rather, the support is now increasingly toward ending the war in a favorable way for Ukraine rather than just keeping the war going when the U.S. itself does not see complete military victory as possible.

Given that the White House was quietly conducting the very kind of diplomacy the CPC letter called for, why did Biden feel the need to keep it secret? After all, the administration had clearly felt pressure from both Democrats and Republicans that it is not politically feasible to endlessly fund the war with American taxpayers money. Additionally, the Global South has called for the U.S. to invest more in diplomacy, and there have also been concerning signs of fraying political consensus among Western states on how long support for the war can be sustained. The most plausible explanation is that Biden — understandably — feared the reaction of the Blob due to its irrational animosity toward diplomacy.

In this context, the CPC letter may paradoxically have been an astounding success. The White House was no doubt aware that the letter reflected growing anxieties in the country about the war. Numerous polls have shown that support for Ukraine among Americans has been slipping. Pew Research Center polls indicated that the number of Americans who believe that the U.S. is providing too much support for Ukraine has steadily increased since May. A poll commissioned by the Quincy Institute revealed that a clear majority of Americans — 57% — support “the United States pursuing diplomatic negotiations as soon as possible to end the war in Ukraine.”

Even though the CPC hastily withdrew its letter, the White House arguably read it as a sign of fatigue among Americans, decided to reveal its existing negotiations through leaks and announcements, and ratcheted up diplomacy even further. By coming clean about its diplomatic initiatives, the likely calculation was to allay the public’s growing anxiety about the war. Even if that meant embarrassing those who erroneously thought they must lambast diplomacy in order to protect Biden.