Why Wouldn’t the US Negotiate With Putin?
It’s of course possible that Vladimir Putin was always hell-bent on invading Ukraine, that his decision was taken months if not years ago, and that no diplomatic intervention would have made any difference. Yes, that is possible. But it is also the case that the only country capable of making any difference in addressing the “security” concerns Putin claimed were driving his behavior — and thus, the only relevant diplomatic player in the situation — was the US. Many have pointed out that China’s tacit support for the invasion makes them a relevant diplomatic player, and that’s certainly feasible. But in terms of the core grievances that Putin repeatedly identified as his motives for this invasion — Ukraine’s potential accession into NATO, the already-existing moves to facilitate “interoperability” between the Ukraine military and the US/NATO, and the conversion of Ukraine since 2014 into a de facto US military outpost — the only relevant diplomatic player was the US.
For the chorus of people who will fulminate for the rest of their lives that any consideration of US culpability in this fiasco is somehow an “apology” for Putin, or a denial of his agency, or any other assorted nonsense: feel free to live in your black-and-white moral universe where tales of Good versus Evil always result in the princess being rescued by the knight, or whichever other comforting myths you need to tell yourself. The US deliberately chose — across administrations of both parties — to subsidize and “train” Ukraine’s military, flood the country with weapons, and otherwise assume the role of primary foreign sponsor. That’s the indisputable reality. Last week, Putin called Ukraine a “colony” or “puppet” of the US. Why do you think everyone from Hunter Biden to Rudy Giuliani correctly ascertained that they could secure huge sums of money from shady Ukrainian financial interests for doing next to nothing, other than having prominent political connections in the US?
So of course it was to the US that Russia’s demands for written “security guarantees” were officially submitted last December — not to China, or the EU, or Botswana, or anyone else. They were submitted to the US. Hence the clear-as-day centrality of the US in the progression of this conflict — a fact which now gets bizarrely denied on the regular by political-blackmailers who scream that there is absolutely no acceptable response to this invasion other than to condemn Putin about 15 billion times (even if you’ve already done so, emphatically). There is a certain point when these endless calls for condemnation function as nothing more than a coercive disciplinary tactic to preclude any further debate, and that point has arrived.
It’s a matter of factual record that Biden and other Administration officials never entertained the prospect of withholding NATO membership from Ukraine — even as they simultaneously admitted that Ukraine joining NATO was not going to happen. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was clear that the US would absolutely not budge on the issue. Then, at the very top of his speech on February 23 announcing the invasion, Putin cited “the fundamental threats which irresponsible Western politicians created for Russia consistently, rudely and unceremoniously from year to year” — namely “the eastward expansion of NATO, which is moving its military infrastructure ever closer to the Russian border.” It is not “taking him at his word” to note what Putin has expressly said was a foremost motivator of the invasion, nor is it a denial that other factors (like crude beliefs about the intrinsic non-autonomy of Ukrainians) were also relevant.
So why did the Biden Administration refuse to even consider giving Putin a “security guarantee” on this key issue, to the point that they would evidently prefer to see a war of the kind that’s now been unleashed? As Robert Wright noted in a recent article, the US made “no serious attempt to negotiate with Putin — to offer the kinds of concessions that lay discernibly at the core of his motivation.” Is anyone curious why the relevant decision-makers in the Biden Administration, the think tank-industrial complex, the war-drumming media, and elsewhere have been so adamantly opposed to even contemplating the possibility of giving Putin an assurance that NATO would not expand to Ukraine?
Again: every “serious” analyst had already acknowledged that Ukraine joining NATO was effectively “off the table” anyway. Withholding NATO membership from Ukraine wouldn’t have somehow violated Ukraine’s sovereignty; it would’ve been an assertion of NATO’s well-established prerogative to admit or not admit prospective members based on the criteria its constituent states choose. Prior to the invasion, Putin described the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO as eventually meaning that Russia would be accused of occupying NATO territory, given its control of Crimea — a situation which could then prompt a direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia. In short, everyone seemed to agree that Ukraine would not be officially joining NATO any time soon, and yet they were still zealously unwilling to codify this into a formal pledge that could’ve potentially averted war.
Why weren’t they willing to do this? I think to understand the reasons, one has to appreciate the ideological backdrop of the current conflict with Russia, particularly in the context of recent developments specific to the US. And yes, that requires an understanding of the frenzy wrought by Russiagate. Some of Russiagate’s staunchest proponents from 2016-2020 are back in action, tossing off mega-viral tweets which assert a “straight line” between Russia’s “attack” on the 2016 election — one of history’s greatest crimes in their minds — and the present war, with January 6 somehow thrown in for good measure:
This formulation may seem incoherent, but it coherently explains the underlying ideological dynamic that brought us to this point. Back when the term “alt-right” was still constantly in circulation, you couldn’t look at a “prestigious” US media outlet without seeing some grand proclamation anointing Putin as the fearsome tribune of global right-wing fanaticism. The Atlantic ran pieces proclaiming some new terrifying nexus of “Trump, Putin, and the Alt-Right International.” Serious-seeming NatSec sites gravely pondered how to go about “Confronting Russia’s Role in Transnational White Supremacist Extremism.” Media-adjacent academics christened themselves newfound Experts on the “The Unholy Alliance of Russia and the American Far-Right.” And on and on and on.
The contours of the ideological conflict between the US and Russia had thus shifted — no longer did it have anything remotely to do with capitalism versus communism. Rather, it pitted the US as the world’s leading steward of contemporary “liberal democracy” — a status temporarily imperiled by Russia subverting the US electoral system to install Donald Trump — versus Russia as the great nationalistic saboteur of “liberal democracy.”
If there is any “threat” that “Western” elites have been most exercised about for the past several years, it’s this supposed international surge of populist illiberalism and/or right-wing radicalism, and Putin was appointed as the main global exporter and string-puller. Which made it all the more untenable over the course of the latest Ukraine standoff for a Democratic Administration, especially one that campaigned on “confronting” Russia, to offer any significant concession to the world’s Number 1 progenitor of white supremacist extremism. You know, the same extremism that we are told nearly toppled the US Government on January 6.
It was consequently ruled out as unthinkable “appeasement” to give Putin a concession on Ukraine’s NATO membership that wouldn’t have actually conceded anything, but might have averted war. Yes, there did already exist a baseline attachment to the sacrosanct principle of NATO expansion, but that’s mostly confined to cloistered NatSec elites. The principle is now endorsed with such fevered gusto on account of Putin emerging as an all-purpose global villain — the man behind the curtain of horrendous White Nationalists, conspiracy theorists, and even “anti-vaxxers.”
You can see the contours of this new ideological conflict all over the place. Chrystia Freeland, the Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, tied the trucker “siege” earlier this month to the broader phenomenon of “liberal democracies being confronted with serious and repeated threats” by nefarious right-wing agitators — whose Grand Poobah we’ve long been told is none other than, you guessed it, Putin. So there was very little compunction about imposing some of the most extreme due process-shredding Emergency measures in Canada’s history to squash these “insurrectionists.” Doing so even swelled everyone with a sense of tingling patriotic pride, as the “siege” was said to be just another front in a seismic global struggle. “Canada and our allies will defend democracy,” declared Justin Trudeau as he froze bank accounts without judicial review and empowered police to seize private property. “We are taking these actions today to stand against authoritarianism.”
Of course, it’s important to note that — as per usual — this grandiose ideological vision of Russia’s designs mostly exists in the addled imaginations of think tankers. While it’s apparent that Russia has grown more authoritarian in recent years, the US “intelligence community” actually just studied the question of whether Putin was really backing all these horribly de-stabilizing right-wing insurrectionists all across the world. The strongest conclusion that their subsequent Report could muster is that the Russian Government “probably tolerates” support by “private Russian entities” for some dangerously motivated international extremists — but as the authors sorrowfully concede, “we lack indications of Russian Government direct support.” (With “support” defined as “financing, material support, training, or guidance.”) Really, the CIA and FBI couldn’t even come up with any evidence that the Russian Government has provided “guidance” to these sinister factions? What a bummer. This less-than-fervent finding might explain why it took approximately seven months for the Report — written in July 2021 by the Director of National Intelligence — to see the light of day when it was published on February 10 by Yahoo News, and even then it appears to have hardly made a ripple.
Naturally, this largely-buried Report had zero effect on changing the general perception of Putin as the standard-bearer of global right-wing extremism, or that he subverted the 2016 election on behalf of these evil ideological aims, or that he’s fueling insurrectionist turmoil all over the world — including perhaps in Canada, or at the Capitol on January 6. Yes, it’s true that a marginal contingent of the Right has expressed some half-baked affinity with whatever gestures Putin does make about ethnic nationalism, but this contingent is almost entirely irrelevant for practical purposes. I’d also note that for all the depictions of Putin as the savior of ethnic nationalism, at his annual end-of-the-year press conference in December 2021, he hailed Russia as having “a very solid foundation as an ethnically diverse state.”
There are a huge array of factors that led to this invasion. Some are necessarily a matter of speculation, like what’s going on inside Putin’s brain. Others are tangible and available for all to see, such as that certain demands were made by Russia, and any accommodation to those demands was rejected out-of-hand by the US — thus negating any real diplomatic process. To understand why this happened, you have to survey the ideological battlefield that was already being fought on for years. And if you think examining any of this “defends Putin,” there are plenty of other media outlets right now that will be happy to spoon-feed your preferred infantile pablum.