Brinkmanship versus Diplomacy

March 9, 2022

Merriam-Webster defines “brinkmanship” as, “the art or practice of pushing a dangerous situation or confrontation to the limit of safety especially to force a desired outcome”, and “diplomacy” as “the art and practice of conducting negotiations between nations”. However, I am inclined to see the former not as an art, but as a gambling game at the end of which, more often than not, there are no winners.

Now, with loss of life, devastation, displacement within Ukraine and into neighboring countries, “brinkmanship” in the Ukraine crisis has already gone beyond the limit of safety. So, it is time for diplomacy.

On March 7, CNN reported the following drawing a bleak picture:

“US and European officials have been discussing how the West would support a government in exile helmed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky should he have to flee Kyiv, Western officials told CNN.

“The discussions have ranged from supporting Zelensky and top Ukrainian officials in a potential move to Lviv in western Ukraine, to the possibility that Zelensky and his aides are forced to flee Ukraine altogether and establish a new government in Poland, the officials said.

The next day, President Zelensky addressed the nation. He said, “The war must end. We need to sit down at the negotiating table – honest, substantive, in the interests of the people, not obsolete murderous ambitions.”

Again, on March 8, 2022, he gave an interview to ABC News. [i]

“I have cooled down regarding this question a long time ago after we understood that … NATO is not prepared to accept Ukraine,” Zelensky said. “The alliance is afraid of controversial things, and confrontation with Russia.”

Zelensky also said Ukraine did not want to be a “country that is begging something on its knees” and he “did not want to be that President“.

“I have spoken many times about NATO and publicly conveyed messages to both Russia and President Putin: we are ready for any guarantees of our country’s security from the respective states that must guarantee. And Russia is also among these states because Russia is our neighbor,” he said.

“These will be guarantees not only for Ukraine. These will be guarantees for Russia as well, about which it is constantly talking. Although I don’t know who it is protecting itself from. Because Ukraine has never attacked anyone, it only conducted defensive actions. Because it protects the last thing we have – the family and the land,” the President stressed.

As for the demands put forward by the Russian authorities, in particular, regarding the recognition of the independence of the occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, Mr. Zelensky noted that a compromise is possible on this point.

But in order to resolve all these issues, Russian President Vladimir Putin has to start a direct dialogue, he said.

“The people who elected me are not ready to surrender, we are not ready for ultimatums. But we can discuss with Russia the future of Crimea and Donbas,” the President added.

On March 9,2022. the Jerusalem Post reported that “three days after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the details are beginning to emerge.” According to people who were privy to details about the meeting, the current situation is that Russia has offered a “final” version of its offer to end the crisis, which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky needs to accept or decline. The proposal was deemed “difficult” but not “impossible,” the sources said. It is worse than what Zelensky would have gotten before the invasion but “the gaps between the sides are not great.” Zelensky can fortify Ukraine’s independence but will have to pay a heavy price, the sources said. Assumptions are that he will be forced to give up the contested Donbas region, officially recognize the pro-Russian dissidents in Ukraine, pledge that Ukraine will not join NATO, shrink his army, and declare neutrality. If he declines the proposal, the outcome may be terrible: thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Ukrainians will die and there is a high probability that his country will completely lose its independence.[ii]

Russia has demanded legal guarantees from the US and NATO to put an end to expansion. Both Washington and Brussels dismissed these as non-starters. With the invasion of Ukraine, this has now turned into an ultimatum that the West could not possibly accept. Had brinkmanship not preceded diplomacy a way out could have been Kyiv agreeing to solemnly declare that it will not seek NATO membership. If there is a will a formula could still be found.

On Crimea, the best Kyiv and Moscow could do would be to agree to disagree.

The third issue would be the future of Donbas. This is what Professor Anatol Lieven had said about Donbas in a New York Times article on September 3, 2014:

“To separate the Donbass in this way while preserving the principle of Ukrainian territorial integrity would allow the West to help in developing and consolidating the rest of Ukraine without constant disturbances in the East. This would open the possibility — albeit a long way in the future — of Ukraine joining the European Union; and if the people of the Donbass region at that point choose to secede and lose the benefits of European Union membership — well, so much the worse for them.” [iii]

Yesterday President Biden declared that the US is banning all imports of Russian oil and gas and energy. “We’re moving forward on this ban, understanding that many of our European Allies and partners may not be in a position to join us,” he said. But he also admitted that “the decision today is not without cost here at home.  Putin’s war is already hurting American families at the gas pump.”

On the other side of the Atlantic, the European Commission published plans to cut the bloc’s dependency on Russian gas by two-thirds this year and end its reliance on Russian supplies of the fuel “well before 2030”.

Washington and its leading European allies have underlined Western unity, solidarity throughout the Ukraine crisis. Nonetheless, ensuring enduring unity in an alliance of thirty nations is easier said than done. Long-term Western interests would be better served by finding a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine conflict, and de-escalation. Perhaps, it is also time for President Putin to realize that his use of the Russian military may yield him something but pushing it further would surely be counterproductive. His theory of Russians and Ukrainians being one people has taken a huge blow, with continuing military action this blow could prove fatal.





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