Zalmay Khalilzad: The West Needs to Call Russia’s Bluff on Peace in Ukraine

From a Wall Street Journal column by Zalmay Khalilzad headlined “The West Needs to Call Russia’s Bluff on Peace in Ukraine”:

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Africa last week carrying the message that Moscow would like a political settlement to the war in Ukraine, but Kyiv is thwarting the initiative at the behest of the U.S. Russian diplomats echo the message, telling U.S. media and policy makers that Washington is eschewing diplomatic engagement and blocking pursuit of a peaceful resolution.

This is bunk. There are high-level channels for communicating serious messages, and if officials in Moscow want to discuss a political settlement, they know exactly how to use them. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, speak with their Russian counterparts. There is no indication that Vladimir Putin is truly willing to pursue a political settlement.

The message from Moscow has been, and continues to be, contradictory and tactically tailored to the audience. Dangling the prospect of peace talks is intended to weaken support for Ukraine, divide its supporters, and diminish Russia’s international isolation.

For a reliable indicator of Russian intentions, look to what they are doing on the ground. It looks nothing like a prelude to a political settlement. Instead Moscow is preparing for escalation and a land grab. This includes preparation to annex territory currently under its control, gain control of additional territory, conduct attacks on major cities outside the Donbas region, and eradicate the Ukrainian identity wherever possible.

Moscow has appointed its own officials in the Donbas, issued Russian passports to the local citizens, and replaced school texts with books that teach history from the Russian narrative. These steps signal a concerted buildup toward annexation, which may include a “referendum” with a preordained result, as was done in Crimea. Moscow seeks additional territory in the south and recently carried out large-scale attacks on different parts of Ukraine, including Kyiv and Odessa.

Ukrainian leaders are preparing offensive operations across the occupied territories—especially in the south. They understand that conditions for an acceptable settlement aren’t in place. In any such negotiations, military realities are the determining factor. An acceptable peace deal requires the situation on the ground to tilt in their favor, and Ukraine seeks to do so at great cost of life.

For many reasons, including future stability and order in Europe and the vital task of dealing with China, a political settlement of the Ukraine conflict is the most desirable outcome. But getting there will require improving Ukraine’s ability to impose risks on Russia and substantially increasing the international political costs to Russia. This demands the West take three steps.

First, deter Russian escalation and prevent the annexation of its recently conquered Ukrainian territory. Successful deterrence requires the cost of escalation and annexation to exceed the benefit in Russia’s eyes. One step that may force Moscow to recalculate is for senior U.S. officials to clearly convey that Russian escalation will be met by an accompanying escalation of American support for Ukraine. This would include providing armed systems with greater reach (which the U.S. so far hasn’t supplied) that enable Ukraine to threaten disputed and Russian territory, including Crimea and beyond.

Second, improve the chances that Ukraine’s planned offensive operations succeed by ensuring that their plans are realistic and thoroughly evaluating their assets. The recent provision of American arms, especially the Himars (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), with their nearly 50-mile reach, has boosted Ukrainian morale. Timely delivery of additional Himars, as the Biden administration announced last month, will enhance Ukraine’s capability to accurately destroy Russian targets at longer range.

Third, make a better case for other countries to support Ukraine. Mr. Putin’s war carries enormous costs for Russia, Europe and much of the world. Yet Ukraine and the U.S. are losing the information war in Africa and Asia, where Russia is pushing buttons selectively. Mr. Blinken’s announced trip to Africa is a good step, but Ukrainians are the best spokesmen for their own cause. The U.S. should help them make their case—to the receptive West, around the world and inside Russia.

The U.S. should be ready to facilitate and support a peaceful settlement. But the Russians will become serious about negotiations only if they see significant risks, costs and potentially failure ahead. A protracted conflict is acceptable to them, and they are content to seize Ukraine inch by bloody inch. To defeat their cruel logic will require making the conflict hit Russia closer to home.

Zalmay Khalilzad served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, 2007-09.

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