It Isn’t Time to Negotiate in Ukraine…Yet
Mary Harris: These days. This is what nights in Ukraine sound like. What the. Jesus Christ. This snippet of video was shot by a journalist named Liz Cookman. She is reporting from the city of Dnipro right in places like Dnipro. The city center has gone dark because of power cuts and the temperature is hovering somewhere around freezing. The lack of heat may not be the worst of it, though. Elevators are out in urban high rises. In some buildings, you cannot even flush the toilet. In fact, Russia’s bombing has left Ukraine’s energy system on the brink of collapse. And Slate’s Fred Kaplan says that’s all part of Russia’s plan here.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: Look, they’re losing on the battlefield, military on military. And so when that happens, they go after the population. They commit what’s essentially war crimes. And what is the most vulnerable thing in Ukraine in the winter? It’s its power stations.
Mary Harris: Because going after the grid punishes everyone.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: The idea is to pressure the Ukrainian political leadership to give up or to compromise or to come to the tables or or something. It’s it’s to pressure the Ukrainian people to pressure their own leaders to stop this war. It doesn’t seem to be working as, by the way, these kinds of of attacks rarely do. When the Germans fired V-1 and V-2 rockets in London during World War Two, it actually stiffened British morale. We now know that the American and British attacks on civilian targets in Nazi Germany didn’t really do much to hasten the end of the war.
Mary Harris: If you look at pictures from inside Ukraine, you can see the way this latest Russian assault is simply stiffening Ukrainian resolve into Dnipro, for instance. The locals have erected these mobile bomb shelters so folks can be out and about and feel safe. Restaurants are still open. At night, locals illuminate their tables using their camera phones. Fred says Russia thinks their brutal new approach is going to work anyway because it has worked for them in the past.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: Russia’s drawing on its own experience with Chechnya and Syria, where they did just mercilessly bomb civilian targets. And it did turn the tide militarily. But Ukraine is something different.
Mary Harris: Don’t you think some Ukrainians, even most Ukrainians, recognize that there has to be a diplomatic solution to what’s happening at some point?
Fred, Fred Kaplan: Oh, yeah, sure. That’s how most wars end. Even even wars that end in absolute surrender, they end with somebody signing a piece of paper. But the point is when? How, under what circumstances?
Mary Harris: Today on the show as Ukraine heads into a brutal winter, the push to end this conflict is only going to intensify. But when and how will either side agree to come to the table? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around.
Mary Harris: I asked Fred Kaplan to start out by giving me an update on how the war in Ukraine is going. Because as dire as the pictures look, militarily, the news is not all bad. A couple of months back, Ukrainian forces successfully forced back the Russians and then Russia itself announced a retreat from the city of Kherson.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: In most of the places where Russia was on the offensive, it is now not and it has retreated. This was initially around Kiev. Now it’s in Kherson, in the south. There, however, is still very heavy fighting and a continued stalemate, almost like trench warfare in the eastern part of the country, which was where war began back in 2014, namely in Donbas province.
Mary Harris: Yeah, I read one analysis that the loss, of course, often means Russia has very few territorial gains since February 2022.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: I mean, since the war started.
Mary Harris: Yeah, since the war started.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: Yeah. No, that’s right. About all that they can do now is to hold a defensive line. I had one person who follows Ukrainian Russian military much closer than I do say that probably at this point Russia is now, for the foreseeable future, incapable of relaunching any offensive operations. All they can do is hold the line.
Mary Harris: Is their reach entirely missiles at this point?
Fred, Fred Kaplan: Well, airplanes to dropping bombs. That’s why many people are pushing for Ukraine to be equipped with more advanced surface to air missiles that that can shoot down airplanes. But yeah, that that that’s what it is. It’s holding the line, feeding in thousands of poorly armed, poorly trained soldiers to just absorb the bullets and putting on the pressure through terrorism, basically, that that’s our tactic right now. It’s a race for time.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: Ukraine is holding out in the hopes of getting more and more advanced Western arms. Russia is holding out. In hopes that that the punishment that it’s imposing on on Ukrainian civilians will in the end pressure the government to making some kind of deal and that the the cut off of of oil and gas to Western Europe will make Naito and the E.U. apply more pressure as Wolinski to to strike a deal.
Mary Harris: I think it’s fair to say the U.S. did not anticipate the conflict going on this long.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: No, nobody did. Nobody did. I don’t think anybody anticipated that ten months into this conflict, we would still be seeing, you know, a war with tanks and artillery and, you know, something like World War Two with a stalemate, with Ukraine pushing back Russia on all fronts. I don’t know anybody who is predicting that when this war began.
Mary Harris: But it also must scramble how you think about the war ending. If you’d had one idea that, okay, Russia will probably be able to push in and take this country versus now, which is Ukraine pushing Russia out of many of its territories and sort of settling in for a long winter. I just imagine that in the military’s will job is to have plans for all of this. So did they have a plan for how this war ends in its current circumstance?
Fred, Fred Kaplan: The U.S. military?
Mary Harris: Yeah. The U.S. military or NATO’s?
Fred, Fred Kaplan: I think the NATO and U.S. response to this war has been improvisational because, you know, Ukraine is not a part of NATO’s. And so I my guess is that there were not any set operational plans for staving off or defeating a Russian invasion of Ukraine. And, you know, I think the Biden administration I mean, I think there have been some missteps in other aspects of foreign policy. But I think it’s been quite good as in dealing with Ukraine, and a lot of it has been improvised.
Mary Harris: I’m wondering if you can answer a really basic question, which is what communication between the U.S. and Russia about the invasion of Ukraine looks like right now? Because that communication would be the basis for any diplomacy that eventually did happen to end the war. Like I’ve read that the U.S. has established what it calls a deconfliction line, essentially a hotline with Russia where they can talk to each other in emergencies.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: Well, this was also true in Syria. It’s something where if U.S. and Russian forces kind of get close to one another, where to the point where they might directly conflict, we kind of let each other know.
Mary Harris: Yeah, I read it’s only been used once in even though it’s tested daily.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: Yes. Now, what’s concerning about this is that U.S. and Russian communications in general have collapsed. I mean, there are there is a consultative commission that was set up as part of the Strategic Nuclear Arms Reduction Treaty, and it’s been there ever since. There have been U.S., Russian or Soviet nuclear arms treaties going back to the late sixties that consult with each other regularly, that, you know, raise ambiguities about compliance, that kind of thing. The Russians didn’t show up at the latest meeting or they’ve canceled an upcoming meeting. You know, during the Cold War, even during the the most tense moments, there were still these kinds of meetings.
Mary Harris: Yeah. I mean, a deconfliction line seems like such an emergency measure.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: But here’s the thing. There have been some articles lately. Oh, you know, it’s time. It’s time to come to that. It’s time for diplomacy to start happening. It’s, you know, things are getting out of hand. But, you know, I don’t I don’t think that’s true. For one thing, it’s not for us to say, you know, it’s not for us to say, oh, you Ukrainians are really, you know, getting battered about a lot these days. You really need to go to the to the diplomatic tables now that that’s up to them. Second, there is no indication that either Ukraine or Russia is ready to make the kinds of compromises that it would have to make for a mutually acceptable settlement.
Mary Harris: So what would diplomacy even look like at this point? And what are Russia and Ukraine saying about it? More on that after the break.
Mary Harris: One reason some foreign policy wonks have been thinking about what diplomacy could look like in Ukraine is because Russia and Ukraine themselves have been toying with the idea. It’s just they’re pretty far away from any kind of settlement.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: One thing that happened a couple a few weeks ago, Jake Sullivan, national security adviser, went to Kiev and he told Zelensky that he has to come up with some kind of diplomatic proposal because the Russians were saying, oh, we’re ready to talk. It’s the Ukrainians who aren’t. So you might recall it, Zelensky came up with this ten point plan. The thing about the ten point plan and everybody knew it, was that Russia wasn’t going to accept it. That on the face of it, every point in this ten point plan sounded completely reasonable, Right?
Mary Harris: Like, get out of our country.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: But Russia wasn’t going Russia wasn’t going to accept it. Not at this point anyway. And so it was it was a PR gesture. It was a way of a countering Moscow’s claims that Ukraine isn’t interested in diplomacy and B, also showing some allied countries in Western Europe who are getting a little impatient, You know, that Ukraine still holds the high ground.
Mary Harris: Even though this ten point plan was a nonstarter for Russia. Here in the U.S., other voices have emerged pushing for a diplomatic end to this conflict. A few weeks back, a group of progressive congresspeople released a letter that encouraged President Biden to bring Ukraine and Russia to the negotiating table. That letter was withdrawn almost as soon as it went public. But then General Mark Milley, the highest ranking U.S. military officer, made comments suggesting a diplomatic end to the invasion might be near.
Speaker 3: Things can get worse. So when there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: Seize the moment.
Mary Harris: He quickly fell back in line, coming out with a statement that he was on board with continued U.S. military support for Ukraine. Nevertheless, his original comments shocked Fred.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: Well, you know, I don’t know why he would say something like that publicly. I understand his point. More specifically, he said that Ukraine has probably made about as much military progress in this war, you know, achieved as many military gains as they were likely to make. And maybe it’s time just to hold the lines there and to negotiate a settlement. And again, strictly from a kind of an abstract viewpoint, there’s something to that. But practically speaking, any kind of statement that suggests a willingness to just give it up is just going to encourage the other side to to fight more strongly. So I, I don’t think it was a politically wise thing to say.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: And I also think, look, let’s say there were a cease fire now, okay. Things are getting too rough. We’re just bashing the hell out of each other. We’re not going to be able to, you know, push tanks through the mud to the snowy mud. Let’s just call it a cease fire where we are now. The consensus is that this would just give an opportunity for Russians to regroup.
Mary Harris: You’ve said, too, that the U.S. military, part of what Milley might have been concerned about is the fact that we’re sending so many weapons to Ukraine that we’re depleting our own stockpile, which I hadn’t realized.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: Yeah, that in the past couple of decades in terms of, you know, you always have to make priorities in buying weapons. What kinds of war are you preparing for? We have not been very avidly preparing for armored combat in the on the plains of Europe. You know, we’ve been thinking about, you know, terrorist attacks, small scale wars, insurgency wars. We haven’t really built up enormous stockpiles in artillery shells, tanks, things like that. So we’ve actually a lot of the military aid that we’ve given Ukraine has basically come out of U.S. and NATO’s stockpiles. So I don’t it’s not like there is an emergency where we need these things right away. But the stockpiles are down.
Mary Harris: The pantry is a little bare.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: Yeah. And the military budget, which is already, you know, kind of overloaded with all kinds of stuff, will have to be increased some more to repurchase some of this stuff.
Mary Harris: Fred says a key question in a hypothetical diplomacy is what would actually be at stake. To him, there’s a real difference between Russian defeat and Russian withdrawal. And withdrawal might be something Vladimir Putin could stomach if he could. Claim something in return.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: I think that if there is any kind of peace talk, any kind of peace deal, it will have to involve Russia retaining control of Crimea. Look, it’s no accident that in that in 2014, Russian troops, a very small contingent of special forces, grabbed Crimea with no armed resistance whatsoever. It’s because most people in Crimea consider themselves Russian, even even when in 1991, when there when Gorbachev called for a referendum in Ukraine. Like, do you want to be independent? Just over half of the people in Crimea said yes. Whereas like 80, 90% every place else. So like Crimea, at some point they’re just going to have to let that go.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: And the other part of any peace negotiation would be some kind of a truly free and fair and internationally supervised referendum in Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, which is where this war started. And where do you want to be? Do you want to be a full member of Ukraine? Do you want to be an autonomous republic within Ukraine? Do you want to become Russia? And yet you can’t have that kind of settlement when you have armed Russian troops, you know, in in that region.
Mary Harris: There is going to be a test of how committed U.S. politicians are to the conflict in Ukraine fairly soon. President Biden has asked Congress for $40 billion in funding for the war. And House Republicans are saying a couple of things at the same time about it. They’re saying that they’re committed to supporting Ukraine, but also that they don’t want to support it to the tune of $40 billion. Is it possible that U.S. politicians drain enough resources from Ukraine that diplomacy becomes a necessary option? Or do you not see that happening?
Fred, Fred Kaplan: Mhm. I don’t know. I, you know. McCarthy the quite likely House speaker said, you know, we’re not going to give Ukraine a, you know, a free ride anymore. However, the incoming chairman of the House Armed Services and Foreign and International Relations committees are in fact quite hawkish, quite disposed to passing however large a military budget is put on the table and are very keen and and unabashedly so on continuing to help Ukraine.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: So I don’t I don’t really see that happening. Political support is still among the people who are really making the decisions is still quite firm. The ones the one thing that Putin is hoping for is weakness of Ukraine and disunity among his allies in the West. So the more that you give him the impression that there is disunity and that people are getting impatient, the more you encourage him to hold on, the more to the extent there is any dissension going on inside the Kremlin, the more foundation you’re giving him to tell his internal skeptics, Look, see this statement?
Fred, Fred Kaplan: See that statement? Don’t worry. Within five, six months, they’re going to collapse. Question is whether calling for diplomacy now is anything more than a PR gesture. And unless couched in very careful terms such as Zelensky’s ten point plan might even be counterproductive in terms of hastening a peaceful end to the war.
Mary Harris: Fred Kaplan, thank you so much for joining me.
Fred, Fred Kaplan: Any time.
Mary Harris: Fred Kaplan is Slate’s War Stories correspondent. And that is our show. If you’re interested in the war in Ukraine and how it’s going on the ground, definitely go follow Liz Cookman, that reporter whose video you heard at the top. She is on Twitter at Liz underscore Cookman. And if you’re a fan of what we’re doing here, what next? The best way to support our work is to join slate plus gives you all kinds of benefits, including ad free podcasts like this one and all access to Slate.com. You can do that by signing up at Slate.com. Slash what next? Plus, what next is produced by Elena Schwartz, Carmel Delshad, and Madeline Ducharme. We are getting a ton of support right now from Anna Phillips, Jared Downing, and Victoria Dominguez. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. Then I’m Mary Harris. I will be back in this field bright and early tomorrow. Catch you then.