As the war in Ukraine grinds on and the world pays and Ukrainians suffer and die, the US has an obligation to end it. If everyone is to return to the negotiating table, it is the US that must set the table and send out the invitations.
It is not just that the US needs to force diplomacy, it is that there is a legal and moral obligation for the US to begin diplomatic talks on the end to the war.
If there is a way to accomplish your goal other than war, then there is a moral obligation to explore that way. There is also a legal obligation. Chapter VI, Article 33 of the United Nations Charter says that "The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice."
Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there were at least two opportunities to prevent war while accomplishing all the foreign policy goals. The first was the Minsk II agreement. The Minsk agreement promised autonomy to the Donbas and neutrality to a Ukraine that would not be a member of NATO. It provided the most promising diplomatic solution to the crisis. Former US Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack Matlock has recently said that "The war might have been prevented – probably would have been prevented – if Ukraine had been willing to abide by the Minsk agreement, recognize the Donbas as an autonomous entity within Ukraine, avoid NATO military advisors, and pledge not to enter NATO."
But Zelensky needed US support if he was going to implement Minsk, as he had promised to do in his presidential campaign. He didn’t get it. Abandoned and under pressure, Zelensky refused to implement the agreement. The US then failed to pressure him back onto the road of diplomacy. Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at Kent, told me that "As for Minsk, neither the US nor the EU put serious pressure on Kiev to fulfil its part of the agreement." Anatol Lieven, Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, agrees. Though the US officially endorsed Minsk, Lieven told me that "they did nothing to push Ukraine into actually implementing it."
Minsk II would not be the last chance to accomplish the goal without war. In December 2021, in the days before the war, when it still could have been prevented, Putin presented the US with a proposal on mutual security guarantees and a request for immediate negotiations. The US refused to discuss the core points, including the central point of Ukraine becoming a member of NATO.
Since the US hindered pathways to the goal of a settlement that might have prevented war, they have a moral and legal obligation to attempt to return to exploring those pathways to end the war now.
If You Break It, You Fix It
If an item is on the table, and you break it, there is an obligation on you to fix it.
A diplomatic solution to the war was on the table in April when a settlement seemed to be within reach at the Istanbul talks. But the US and UK pressured Ukraine not to pursue its own goals and sign an agreement to end the war. They then pressured Ukraine to continue the war to fight for larger US foreign policy goals.
The State Department rejected ending the war on Ukraine’s terms because “this is a war that is in many ways bigger than Russia, it’s bigger than Ukraine.” The war could have ended with Ukraine’s interests addressed. But the US insisted that it continue until US interests were addressed.
Then UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson then rushed to Kiev to tell Zelensky that Putin "should be pressured, not negotiated with." He added that, even if Ukraine was ready to sign some agreements with Russia, the West was not.”
Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said in an interview that "There are countries within NATO who want the war to continue." He said that “following the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting, it was the impression that…there are those within the NATO member states that want the war to continue, let the war continue and Russia get weaker.”
The US has an obligation to attempt to end the war through negotiations because they participated in breaking the negotiations that could have ended the war. The US has a further obligation to end the war through diplomacy because, having substituted Ukraine’s interests for their own, the war after the Istanbul talks is, in some important ways, the US’s war.
It’s Up to Ukraine
Since then, the Biden administration has consistently "ruled out the idea of pushing or even nudging Ukraine to the negotiating table,” insisting that “That’s a decision for the Ukrainians to make.”
And it is Ukraine’s decision if they want to negotiate or go on fighting. But they are only able to go on fighting because they are fighting with US weapons. It is the US’s decision whether they go on providing all those weapons.
It is the US, as the primary arms supplier, that is enabling the war to grind on. The US is providing the weapons, the training, the targeting intelligence and, at times, even the strategy. That gives the US a say on if the war should go on or if it is time to push for diplomacy.
No One Else Will Talk
On October 5, Zelensky invoked a decree banning negotiating with Putin. The decree "acknowledge[s] the impossibility of holding negotiations with President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin." Zelensky added in a video address that "we are ready for dialogue with Russia, but with another president of Russia," effectively ruling out peace talks.
On October 11, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed that Moscow would be willing to consider an offer for a meeting between Putin and Biden. Since Russia and Ukraine are not talking, short of allowing the war to go on until one side is completely victorious – an outcome which, even if possible, could only come with massive destruction and loss of life – US mediated talks are the best hope. The only hope for the fighting to stop seems to be the US pushing for a diplomatic settlement.
There is an urgent necessity to return to the negotiating table. And the US has the moral, legal and political responsibility to be the one to set the table.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.