Can the war in Ukraine end if negotiating with Putin is off limits?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Last week the Congressional Progressive Caucus released a letter signed by 30 liberal Democrats in Congress urging President Biden to “make vigorous diplomatic efforts” to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine. The letter, which was later retracted amid backlash, argued that the United States should continue to support Ukraine’s military while also ramping up efforts to find a “realistic framework for a ceasefire.”

The letter prompted swift backlash from many members of Congress, including several Democrats. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., warned of the “moral and strategic peril” of holding talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin at this stage in the conflict, saying it would risk “legitimizing his crimes.” The White House responded by reiterating that it sees no room for negotiations right now.

The United States has provided more than $60 billion in military, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February. That support, along with aid from NATO allies, has helped Ukraine grind the Kremlin’s advance to a halt and even mount a successful counteroffensive in recent weeks.

Throughout the conflict the Biden administration has maintained that only Ukraine can decide when to pursue peace talks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a formal decree last month declaring negotiations with Putin to be “impossible.”

Why there’s debate

Many foreign policy experts argue that there is nothing to be gained, and much to be lost, by negotiating with Putin at this point in the war. They make the case that any conceivable ceasefire agreement would have to include major concessions to Russia — including allowing Russia to formally annex some of the Ukrainian territory it has captured — that would essentially amount to rewarding Putin for his invasion. Others make the case that it would be foolish to negotiate right now, when the tide of the war is turning in Ukraine’s favor.

There’s also a risk, some argue, that pursuing diplomacy against Ukraine’s wishes could fracture the unified international coalition backing Kyiv as the war approaches its ninth month.

But others say, despite the gains made by Ukrainian forces in recent months, the prospects are slim that the much larger Russian army will be fully defeated. They argue that, as distasteful as it may seem, making some concessions to Russia is a better outcome than allowing the war to drag on indefinitely in pursuit of a Ukrainian victory that may never come. And thousands of more people may die.

Some experts contend that diplomacy with Russia is critical, even if a peace deal appears all but impossible right now. They say an open dialogue could set the stage for an ultimate ceasefire when conditions change down the road and, crucially, would help calm tensions between Russia and the West that have raised the dangers of nuclear war.

What’s next

With winter setting in, Russian and Ukrainian forces are preparing for what is expected to be a grueling few months for both sides — though some experts believe the cold weather may play to Ukraine's advantage.


Diplomacy can work

Negotiations won’t end the war, but it could stop it from escalating

“More diplomacy makes sense — if it’s properly focused. The United States shouldn’t try to bargain now over the endgame of the Ukraine war. That’s Kyiv’s prerogative. Even if the United States wanted to impose a solution, it couldn’t. But it’s time for urgent talks about how to keep this terrible war from becoming something vastly worse.” — David Ignatius, Washington Post

The odds of the war ending in a total Ukrainian victory are incredibly small

“Although it’s possible that the Russia war machine, if it can be called that, simply collapses in Ukraine, it is more likely that war will end in some messy compromise involving a negotiated settlement. Acknowledging this — and that the continuation of the conflict is a humanitarian catastrophe with enormous costs for the West and the world — shouldn’t be a quasi-thought crime.” — Rich Lowry, Politico

Starting talks now will make a peace deal easier to reach down the road

“The answer isn’t to force a settlement under unacceptable circumstances. Taking steps to change the balance of power can alter the circumstances under which this war ends. Ukraine is keeping the door to diplomacy open, but at the same time working to change the parameters within which that diplomacy occurs.” — Elizabeth Shackelford, Chicago Tribune

The longer the conflict drags on, the greater the risk that the West’s support will erode

“The United States and its allies also need to be concerned about the rising economic and political threat that a long war poses to Western democracy and solidarity. The trans-Atlantic community has so far shown remarkable unity and resolve in supporting Ukraine, but the West’s staying power may be fragile.” — Charles A. Kupchan, New York Times

At the very least, lawmakers should be able to debate diplomacy without being pilloried

“The first step toward ending a war is talking about ending a war. This week, unfortunately, we learned that even starting that conversation is apparently off-limits.” — Eric Boehm, Reason

The parameters of a peace deal are probably similar to what they’d be many months from now

“It is, at the very least, worth a shot for American and Western diplomats to reach out to the leaders of both countries to find out whether some form of compromise is within reach. The alternative is months or years of grinding war—and, in the end, quite possibly, the identical outcome.” — Seth Weinberger, The Hill

There’s no negotiating with Putin

There is no possible deal that both sides would be willing to accept

“The problem … is that the terms that Russia has set for any peace deal involve locking in its battlefield gains. Now that it has illegally annexed several Ukrainian regions, any preconditions that Putin would set would be impossible for Kyiv to agree to. And rolling back such positions would deal the Russian leader the defeat he is desperate to avoid. So while the idea of talking might seem appealing, it’s not clear how the US could shift the calculus of either side.” — Stephen Collinson, CNN

Any deal made with Putin would be nothing more than surrender

“What [progressives] have never seemed to grasp is that war criminals like Putin do not understand the language of diplomacy. … Negotiation at this point is tantamount to appeasement. Whatever utopian image progressives might have about Russia from its socialist past is a pipe dream. Putin has dedicated himself to restoring the old Soviet model of thuggish, murderous oppression.” — Editorial, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Talks shouldn’t start until Ukraine is in a stronger position

“The route to peace will involve negotiations and cease fires, but only when Ukraine and its friends have a stronger hand. Russian President Vladimir Putin must be in a much more precarious position before Ukraine will receive the peace it deserves, one free of occupation. Suggesting otherwise at this time undermines unified support. Ukraine isn’t even ready for negotiations. Its counteroffensive is going well. Better to keep pushing the invaders back.” — Editorial, Seattle Times

The U.S. has no right to negotiate a peace on Ukraine’s behalf

“Ending the fighting may well require talks, but the decision to negotiate should lie with Kyiv.” — Steven Pifer, Brookings

The only way to end the war may be to defeat Russia on the battlefield

“Defeat may be the only way to force Russia to retreat. But that process could take months. …

The Ukrainian people are not going to seek peace at any price, nor should they.” — Dan Reiter, Los Angeles Times

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