The Negotiator’s Nightmare

by | Jun 27, 2023


President Putin has said that he is open, at any time, to talks with an American interlocutor.

Why then, has no one come forward? Why, when there is growing anxiety amongst the American public that the war in Ukraine seems locked into forever escalation, and fears are palpable that “Joe Biden and the ‘warmongers in Congress’ are leading the US to a ‘nuclear holocaust’”? This was the stark warning from former Presidential Candidate, Tulsi Gabbard, on Tucker Carlson’s widely-watched show.

The urgency to halt the slide towards escalation is clear: Whilst the space for political manoeuvre continuously shrinks, the momentum amongst the neo-cons in Washington, as well as Brussels, to land a fatal strike on Russia is not spent. Far from it, the talk in the lead-up to the NATO summit rather is one of preparing for a ‘long war’.

Urgency? Yes. It seems so simple – start talking. But seen from the perspective of a putative US mediator, the task is anything but.

The western public has not been conditioned to expect the possibility of a stronger Russia emerging. On the contrary, they have endured western ‘experts’ sneering at the Russian military; denigrating the Russian leadership as incompetent; and being presented on their TVs with the ‘horrors’ of the Russian ‘invasion’.

It is – to say the least – a highly adverse environment for any interlocutor to ‘venture foot’. Dr Kissinger (a year ago at Davos) was ‘roasted’ when he tentatively suggested that Ukraine might have to yield up territory to Russia.

What would be the mission? Well, clearly it would be to find that ‘off-ramp’ to which Kissinger alluded. But the first problem would be how to frame a prospective mediator’s mission from the perspective of a US public that has experienced a year of propaganda (much of it delusional) and much of which is hostile towards Moscow (the intended dialogue partner).

When Putin speaks of ‘an American interlocutor’, he must mean someone who has credibility within the wider US sphere – and some mandate of authority (however nebulous). In the past, Senator George Mitchell played this role twice (in the Israeli-Palestinian and Irish conflicts). There were other mediators, too, of course.

What were Senator Mitchell’s particular qualities? Well firstly, he had a reputation for convincing both conflicted parties that he could see and understand their position; that he was not hostage to immediate circumstance but could assimilate the long sweep of history too. Empathy was essential, but his job nonetheless was to disinter the underlying structure to the conflict – and to make ‘a fix’ for it.

Our putative negotiator would have to consider how to frame his/her mission in such a way as to carry support in at least part of the US power-structure. But here is the first problem: The conflict – for the western public – has been framed in extreme binary, ultra-humanitarian clothing deliberately: ‘Russia – unprovoked – invaded a sovereign state, and committed atrocities on its people’.

The choice of narrative hides the bigger geo-political purpose to destroy any prospect of a Eurasian heartland coming into existence that might threaten US primacy. It is the Kosovo war playbook again: a hypocritical ‘humanitarian intervention’ to “save” the Kosovan people from massacre and tyranny.

The ‘Realist’ approach – rationally setting out ‘the facts’ to the conflict – hasn’t worked for some years: In Syria, in particular, the ‘war party’ understood that one single photo of a child dying in her mother’s arms trumped any rational explanation to the conflict, and obscured all routes out of it. It was used ruthlessly to quash any alternative understanding. Pulling at the western ‘heart-strings’ invariably prevails over facts.

This is always the ‘nightmare’: As ‘talks’ progress, an atrocity – a bus bombing, civilians lying bleeding in the street – sweeps reason aside and displaces it with raw emotion.

Framing an US putative interlocutor’s mission therefore is not easy. The architects of the Ukraine conflict – having framed the conflict as a humanitarian mission – the question then becomes, how then to get to the desired political outcome? How to by-pass (or overcome/re-frame) the humanitarian issue?

To challenge the unprecedented propaganda onslaught is pointless. The ‘war party’ will always discover a new atrocity (and if there isn’t one to hand, there are always the producers and directors of TV companies always ready to oblige).

Tactically therefore, it is better to finesse ‘the framing’ (rather than go head-to-head against it). Yes, there may be a humanitarian dimension arising out of military action (there always are), but potentially it may prove possible to shift the focus towards that other largely unreported ‘humanitarian disaster’: The hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainian men being killed, pointlessly, in an unwinnable war.

It may seem shallow simply to shift rhetoric to saying his/her mission is a ‘humanitarian one’ – that of saving Ukrainian lives. Simply said, however, every negotiator must protect his back. The Brutus is behind, as much as in front.

Yet, that is but the first hurdle facing any imagined US interlocutor. The western extreme reductionist framing – asserting an ‘unjustified Russian invasion’ accompanied by concomitant ‘atrocities’ – simply is the move which strips away the surrounding context to the issue in contention. The ‘eye’ or the intellect is separated and disengaged from the ‘object’ under scrutiny: precisely that issue of ‘how there came to be this war’ in the first place, and how its’ underlying structure came into being.

In short, the western framing is the attempt to create an abstract ‘clearing’ or spatial void around Russia’s Special Operation in which the visible thing – the ‘invasion’ – is to be positioned, and set before the external spectator as the unique cause, and sufficient explanation to events, so that the ordinary US citizen delves no further.

The ‘Senator Mitchell’ (or whomsoever it is) cannot entirely roll-back monocular vision but must insist in his/her public discourse of making a point always to emphasise ‘seeing with two eyes’: Perhaps taking a cue from JF Kennedy’s 1963 speech, pointedly noting that almost uniquely among the “major world powers” the US and Russia had never been at war with each other. And acknowledging the massive human casualties that Russia suffered during World War II.

In the non-West, this quality of being able to ‘see’ double (at times seemingly oppositional aspects to the world around us) arouses absolutely no concern. It is precisely the western Enlightenment tendency to fragment the ‘whole’, and then to categorise, that tends us toward seeing conflict – when what we are observing are different polarities presenting themselves distinctly.

The most thorny issue, however, is the ‘war party’ ruse of presenting Ukraine as a some homogenous sovereign state in the 19th century mould of an ethnically coherent nation-state composition (shades of the Young Turks and the cleansing of the Turkish State, to make it ‘ethnically pure Turkish’).

This is the Big Fabrication. Ukraine never was ‘that’. It had been always ‘borderlands’ – ‘neither one thing nor truly another’. And there has been fierce resistance from the very outset (1917) by those who felt themselves culturally Russian, to being ‘dumped’ into a hodge-potch ‘Ukraine’ – the ethnically conflicted patchwork-state that emerged from Lenin’s minorities’ strategy.

In 1917, a new state, violently opposed by Ukrainian nationalists, the Donetsk-Krivoy-Rog Republic, was declared, (based around the Donbas), that petitioned to remain a part of the Soviet Union. But Lenin would have none of it. It was the start to the continuous ethnic killing spree that has segued out from that failed initiative to gain autonomy for Donbas.

Here is the ‘rub’. There are ways of managing two communities holding mutually incompatible views of the future and having irreconcilable readings of history. (This was Senator Mitchell’s main task in Ireland). But a successful outcome is only possible when both parties (however grudgingly), come to accept that the ‘the Other party’ is a legitimate expression of their community’s views, even as both parties simultaneously reject the Other’s vision for the future – and categorically refuse their reading of history.

This acquiescence is essentially the necessary precondition to any political solution – where two culturally and ethnically divergent peoples, at complete odds with one another, share one territory.

Achieving this jump-off point to a political outcome – whilst retaining the framework of a unitary Ukrainian state – was actually, precisely what the Minsk Accords were all about.

And the European leaders (by their own admission) conspired to sabotage Minsk (and therefore the prospect of one population achieving autonomy within ‘the whole state’). Europe chose instead to arm one side, in order to militarily crush ‘the Other’ (the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics).

Compounding this tragic European decision (fuelled by the neo-con aspiration to use Ukraine as a cudgel to strike at, crack, and fissure Russia), the Europeans’ exaggerated their investment in ‘the credentialled Ukrainian narrative’ – a move which has served only to facilitate the toxic twist to the ethnic rancour that today grips Kiev.

The prospect for any Minsk-type of resolution was destroyed. If this story ends with only a ‘rump-state Ukraine’ remaining, the Europeans have only to look to themselves for responsibility.

The imagined US interlocutor will have little choice but to recognise reality. The various psychologies (more important than reason during prolonged war) are now too embittered for any attempt to re-orientate the underlying structures to the conflict.

The only solution is ‘separation’, which already is ‘in course’ and may extend to the Dnieper River and Odessa (but which may extend further, with unforeseeable ‘bites’ to the territory chewed-off, by neighbours to the West).

Frankly, the Europeans brought this outcome on themselves, with their deceit over Minsk. They bet all of Europe’s future prosperity on a US-led neo-con project to bring-down Russia – and lost. Moscow is not interested now even to talk with the EU political class: they have no ‘agency’ anyway; the agency that matters resides in Washington.

Any US interlocutor will find all this – – a hard ‘sell’ at home. A stronger Russia, a truncated rump-Ukraine, will get no thanks from the power-élites in the US – only poisonous barbs directed at the messenger. But a key success should not be lost to sight.

Our putative US interlocutor can focus on finding how an (inevitably diminished) West can exist, in security, with a thriving and politically expanding Eurasian Heartland. Not easy. Some in the US will ‘go wild’ at the very thought, and will try to undermine it; but the great majority of the world will thank handsomely whomsoever can achieve this essential task.

Which takes us to the last point – timing. Do the dominant US power-élites even want an ‘off-ramp’ at this point?

The Washington Post reported on 15 June:

As Ukraine launches its long-awaited counteroffensive against entrenched Russian occupiers, both Kyiv and its backers are hoping for a rapid retaking of strategically significant territory. Anything less will present the United States and its allies with uncomfortable questions they are not yet prepared to answer … As he heads into next year’s re-election campaign, Biden needs a major battlefield victory to show that his unqualified support for Ukraine has burnished US global leadership, reinvigorated a strong foreign policy with bipartisan support and demonstrated the prudent use of American military strength abroad [emphasis added].

And if the battlefield victory is not forthcoming? Well, perhaps the answer will be that this lacuna will be disguised by promising more weapons and more money, so as to keep some glimmer of a Ukrainian prospect alive, through the 2024 US elections. Unless, of course, the Kiev centre ‘fails to hold’, and suddenly implodes (maybe quicker than many expect). Don’t bet on a long war: the Kiev ‘camp’ is, as an abandoned Chrysalis shell with the caterpillar out, searching forage – in new directions.

Reprinted with permission from Strategic Culture Foundation.