Look Who’s Talking – Slivers of Hope in Ukraine

There is no scarcity of reasons to despair of hope for a push for a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine.

Thirty Democrats in the House were pilloried for suggesting only that the US open diplomatic channels parallel to full military and economic support for Ukraine.

When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to a Turkish offer to mediate talks by declaring Moscow’s willingness "to engage with the United States or with Turkey on ways to end the war,” the State Department dismissed him as "posturing" and responded that Washington has "very little confidence" that Lavrov’s offer is genuine." When Lavrov said Russia could consider a meeting between Putin and Biden on the sidelines of the G20, Biden replied that "I have no intention of meeting him."

When India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi told President Zelensky on the phone that India was prepared to mediate in peace efforts, the Ukrainian President turned him down, insisting he would not participate in negotiations with Putin.

But revelations in the past few days have also offered a sliver of hope: a very thin sliver of hope. The minimum necessary conditions for negotiations are a willingness to talk and an openness to compromise. The hardened Ukrainian position has negated both. Zelensky has gone so far as to sign a decree banning negotiating with Putin. He has also spurned compromise by reversing an earlier openness to discussing the status of Crimea and the Donbas with a hardened position on the full return of all the territory that has been absorbed by Russia since 2014.

If Zelensky has refused to negotiate, Biden has refused to nudge him. The Washington Post has reported that “US officials . . . have ruled out the idea of pushing or even nudging Ukraine to the negotiating table.”

But both the refusal to negotiate and the refusal to compromise have become more nuanced in the past few days.

Zelensky’s decree banning negotiating with Putin and putting talks on hold until there is "another president of Russia" has worried a weary and soon to be cold international community. There is a very low probability of regime change in Russia. So Zelensky’s decree becomes a prescription for endless war.

Recent reporting by The Washington Post reveals that, secretly, the US has been pushing Zelensky to "signal an openness to negotiate with Russia and drop their public refusal to engage in peace talks unless President Vladimir Putin is removed from power." Publicly, Ukraine at first rejected the request, with Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Zelensky, saying that Ukraine will only "talk with the next leader" of Russia. Kiev publicly pushed back, "saying talks could only resume once the Kremlin relinquishes all Ukrainian territory and that Kyiv would fight on even if it is "stabbed in the back" by its allies." But the US push suggests a change, and the change provides a sliver of hope. The US maintains that the request is an attempt to massage international perception and not an attempt to push Ukraine to the negotiating table.

But on November 8, the message from Ukraine suddenly dramatically changed. Zelensky announced that he is open to peace talks with Putin. Zelensky urged the international community to "force Russia into real peace talks." Zelensky insisted that his preconditions for talks are "restoration of (Ukraine’s) territorial integrity … compensation for all war damage, punishment for every war criminal and guarantees that it will not happen again."

Some of those demands will be very hard to achieve. But it is an opening: negotiations usually start with both sides’ ideal demands. Importantly, Zelensky did not include NATO membership.

The US has also signaled a change in, at least, the perception of Zelensky’s willingness to compromise. Though Ukraine has insisted on a full Russian withdrawal as a precondition to talks, and Zelensky has promised to "return the Ukrainian flag to our entire territory," Washington is quietly suggesting otherwise. The Post reports that "U.S. officials say they believe that Zelensky would probably endorse negotiations and eventually accept concessions, as he suggested he would early in the war. They believe that Kyiv is attempting to lock in as many military gains as it can before winter sets in, when there might be a window for diplomacy."

Less reported is that the US may even be telling other countries what the line is that Ukraine must push to before it is willing to open that window for diplomacy. According to reporting in La Repubblica, "The US and NATO think that launching peace talks on Ukraine would be possible if Kiev takes back Kherson." According to the Italian newspaper, the US has not only discussed this possibility with NATO and its allies, but is "instilling this idea into the mind of the Kiev regime."

The US has long insisted that its goal is backing Ukraine militarily until "facts on the ground" put Ukraine "in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table." The US may now have come closer than ever in identifying those facts on the ground, saying that retaking Kherson could be strategically and diplomatically significant enough "to hold negotiations from the position of force."

A second sliver of hope, in addition to the willingness to talk and the willingness to compromise, comes from recent revelations that the US may have been talking to Russia more than has been reported. Though they have reportedly not discussed "a settlement of the war in Ukraine," National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has reportedly "engaged in recent months in confidential conversations with top aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to reduce the risk of a broader conflict over Ukraine and warn Moscow against using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction, US and allied officials said." The officials say "The aim has been to guard against the risk of escalation and keep communications channels open, and not to discuss a settlement of the war in Ukraine."

And it is not only Sullivan who has been speaking to his Russian counterpart. In October, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on the phone. While the conversation may have focussed on measures to avoid accidental clashes between US and Russian planes and ships in the Baltic and on accusations of dirty bombs, the Pentagon says that "Secretary Austin emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication amid the ongoing war against Ukraine." According to Russian reporting, the two discussed "current issues of international security, including the situation in Ukraine."

Less reported is that Austin and Shoigu spoke again two days later. And, again, Austin "reaffirmed the value of continued communication amid Russia’s unlawful and unjustified war against Ukraine."

The third sliver of hope comes from subtle cracks in European solidarity. On October 23, British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace took his turn talking to Shoigu. On that call, he expressed a "desire to de-escalate this conflict." Surprisingly, and perhaps for the first time for a British official, he added that "the UK stands ready to assist" if "Ukraine and Russia seek a resolution to the war." That offer is a significant shift from Boris Johnson’s reprimand of Zelensky that Putin “should be pressured, not negotiated with” and that, "even if Ukraine was ready to sign some agreements with Russia, the West was not."

French President Emmanuel Macron has recently again broken from the war without talks consensus by calling on Putin to "come back to the discussion table." Macron has been one of the few leaders to maintain a dialogue with Putin. In September, Macron insisted that "The job of a diplomat is to talk to everyone, especially to people with whom we do not agree. And so we will continue to do so, in coordination with our allies. . . . Preparing the peace means talking to all the parties including, as I did just a few days ago and will again, to Russia.”

Meanwhile, Germany fractured from the consensus in a novel way. On November 4, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz went to Beijing to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping, breaking from the US led consensus not to talk or trade with nations, especially China, who have not gone along with US sanctions and censures of Russia. XI asked Germany and Europe to "play an important part in calling for peace and facilitating negotiations." Scholz urged XI"to deepen trade ties with Germany,’ seemingly pulling away from US policy.

Even Russia and Ukraine have recently spoken, at least at some low level. The proof is the October 29 prisoner exchange in which 52 Ukrainian soldiers and 50 Russian soldiers returned home and the even larger November 3 exchange. Those exchanges follows an earlier September 22 prisoner exchange and another exchange that took place on October 18.

None of these developments portend an imminent diplomatic opening or negotiated settlement to the war, but they may signify the first changes in tone and the first slivers of hope since the April talks in Istanbul.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.