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So They Want Negotiations, Now.
Have they any idea what they are talking about?
A reminder that Spanish versions of my essays are now available here, and some Italian versions of my essays are available here. Marco Zeloni is now also posting some Italian translations. Many thanks to all the translators.
In my last essay, I talked about how western politicians are doing a worse and worse job just as politicians, and how this increasing amateurism was very obvious in their response to some recent crises, notably Ukraine. I said I would return to that example, and this essay is concerned with the results of western amateurism, egoism and internal focus, on any attempted resolution of the Ukraine crisis.
I’m going to talk mostly about negotiation, which has suddenly become a Thing in the West’s ongoing debate with itself about what kind of outcome in Ukraine its fragile collective political ego can tolerate. Yet I’ve seen virtually no informed discussion of what “negotiations” might mean in practice here, still less any indication that those who courageously have started to employ the word have the remotest conception of what they are talking about. So let’s see if we can help them. For some, what follows may seem rather nerdish and over-detailed, and I can only reply that in this game details can be extremely important. Contrariwise, if there are career diplomats in the audience, serving or retired, they will probably feel I’ve over-simplified things. So with apologies to both extremities, let’s start with the most basic question: why negotiate.? What’s the purpose?
The simple answer is to achieve an objective of some kind that you cannot achieve alone, and you can immediately see a number of subtleties and further questions contained in that simple answer. Is the objective the same, or at least compatible, between the partners? Does everybody have the same understanding of what the objective even means and how it can be reached? Are all the partners equally committed to the process? And so on.
For convenience, we can divide negotiations into three broad types. The first is one we are probably all familiar with from our private lives. Broadly, I have something you want, and you have something I want, and it’s in our mutual interest to try to exchange them. The simplest example is buying and selling: from the street market, to buying a car or a house or an entire company, there is a buyer who is prepared to pay up to a certain amount, and a seller who is prepared to sell for a certain amount. Sometimes this goes very quickly: one minute to buy an imitation Lacoste polo shirt from a street-trader in Bangkok at a price that is regarded as fair by both sides. Sometimes it takes a lot longer, as when one company acquires another, and there is a mass of detail to sort out. And there are always surrounding complications: this Lacoste logo doesn’t look like it’s very firmly attached, for example. Whilst this model isn’t unknown in international relations, most actual negotiations are a lot more complex than that, and involve a lot more factors.
Typically, a second type of negotiation involves a common objective, sometimes well-defined, sometimes not, shared to different degrees by different actors. The idea is therefore to negotiate an agreement that will satisfy everybody reasonably well, while achieving an interpretation of the objective that everyone can live with. All of the European economic and political treaties since the 1958 Common Market agreement have been of this nature, for example: a broadly shared objective, combined with a mass of detailed differences on individual issues that needed to be ironed out in the final text. The classic individual example of this kind of negotiation is probably the 1949 Washington Treaty, which didn’t actually “set up NATO” (that came several years later) but which established the principle of a US commitment to the security of Western Europe against Soviet power and influence. I’ll spend a moment on it.
Here, the motivations of the parties overlapped, but were not identical. For the Europeans, the problem was the mass of Soviet forces to the East, and the possibility that they could be used to intimidate voters to put Communist parties in power (as had happened in Hungary and Czechoslovakia) as well as intimidating western governments themselves, exhausted and bankrupt after the war, into making political concessions. Above all, there was the fear of another war in the future, which Europe would simply not survive, not least because, as in Greece and as had nearly been the case in France and Italy, the war would also be a civil one. Whilst the Europeans were not really afraid of a deliberate military attack, they did seek a firm security commitment from the United States, such that Moscow would be more cautious in its dealings with western states, and its use of the Communist parties in Europe. The American perspective was rather different. That country was already in the grip of an anti-communist panic and it was getting worse, but it was primarily directed against domestic targets. Actual military confrontation with the Soviet Union had very little support in Washington, and, whilst the Truman administration was determined not to let Europe fall further under Soviet influence, there was little appetite for a formal alliance which would commit the US to intervening militarily in Europe so soon after the end of the War and the wholesale demobilisation that followed it. In addition, the American Congress, which would have to ratify any treaty, contained a significant isolationist lobby, which had to be respected.
The result was seen primarily in the famous Article 5 of the Treaty, which was a formulation that bridged the gap between the least the Europeans could accept and the most the Americans could give, in a rather gnomic formula that both sides could interpret as they wished. Although the military structure that was later set up did involve the US militarily, and ensured that US troops would be among the early casualties of any fighting, the underlying tensions never really went away, and, up to the end of the Cold War, Europeans worried that the US would try to enforce a settlement on its allies rather than actually fight alongside them.
A third type of negotiation is one which is imposed on one party, or which that party at least cannot avoid. The agreement between the US and the Taliban covering the withdrawal of US forces in 2021 is one such. All surrender negotiations are like this as well : even the unconditional surrender of German and Japanese forces in 1945 still incorporated a host of practical details to be sorted out between the two sides. The departure of Serb forces from Kosovo in 1999 was not really a surrender (they left in good order and largely intact) but it was politically imposed and inescapable, and in turn there were a whole series of practical details that had to be negotiated. The danger here of course is that the victorious power or powers may become carried away and try to impose dangerous or unrealistic conditions on the weaker side. So far, the Russians have behaved with moderation, but the war is not yet over.
So, of these three broad types, which do the advocates of “negotiations” over Ukraine seem to mean? Well, none of them, really, as far as I can see. The debate seems to centre around which conditions the West should seek to impose on Russia, and which concessions it might be acceptable for the Ukrainians to make, at least in the short term. Now there are a number of reasons for this, mostly involving the delicate collective ego of the western strategic community, and I’ll come back to that point at the end of the essay. But for now, the point I want to stress is that even the most daring and self-admiring radical western thinkers betray not only a complete unreality about the world (but we knew that); they also show a complete ignorance of what negotiations are, why they happen, how they are conducted and what can reasonably be expected from them, among other things.
Now, one vague idea that has been flitting around the more daring fringes of the western strategic community is the idea of a “freeze” in the war, apparently along the model of their understanding of the Armistice that paused the Korean War. This would, apparently, allow the West to rebuild Ukraine and its military for the next round. Even leaving aside the obvious fact that there is no earthly reason why Russia should agree to such an idea, which would only work if both sides cooperated, this line of argument suggests that these people know little or nothing about the example they are quoting, which is almost certainly true.
To begin with, the Armistice was an example of the second category of negotiation described above. That’s to say that enough key actors on both sides (effectively the Chinese and the UN) accepted that full victory would be costly and difficult, and maybe impossible, and so it made sense to have a pause in the fighting. After which, although a state of war still formally exists, there has never been any serious prospect of the war re-starting again. (I doubt whether those who pundit about a “frozen” conflict have ever been to the DMZ, or have any idea of the armed camp that exists around it.) It is obvious that no similar judgement can be made now. The Russians have no interest in a pause, since, whilst they are paying a price for the war, the price the West is paying is higher, and this will more and more be the case. In any event, a halt in the fighting (which is all we are talking about here) might actually destabilise Ukraine itself internally, and drive wedges between its government and those of western nations. It’s worth reminding ourselves that it was the UN, and especially the US, who were the keenest on an Armistice: the political leaderships of both the Korean factions wanted to fight on to total victory, and it took some time to persuade them against it. Something similar might well happen in Ukraine. So there is an amateurish and uninformed idea of the basic politics of the situation, and an assumption that “negotiations” of the type the West thinks it wants can happen when the West wants them to, without taking into account the opinions and objectives of others.
But in any case, the Armistice agreement, signed in July 1953 was very limited in scope. It was purely military in content, signed by the UN, the Chinese and what was to be North Korea (the South never signed it) and covered purely military questions of a cessation of hostilities and an exchange of prisoners of war. It was to be followed by peace negotiations and a treaty or treaties, but that never happened, largely owing to US opposition. Is this what pundits are asking for now? After all, does anyone actually believe that the West would have a free hand in Ukraine after some hypothetical cease-fire? And what would be the point, even from the narrowest of western perspectives, in a ceasefire that left Ukraine a country still at war, kept alive only by western aid, with no prospect of withstanding any serious Russian military assault, with its population reducing all the time, and in permanent political crisis, all against promises that we’ll send you some more military equipment Real Soon Now, once we’ve replenished our own stocks and ramped up our production? This approach, if that’s not too kind a word, contradicts one of the basic principles of negotiation: decide what you want from the talks, and what you are going to do with the result.
And yet it’s strange that pundits (presumably reflecting at least some official views) have settled on Korea as an example. There is one much closer to home: the Minsk Agreement, or rather Agreements, which were supposed to settle the problem that produced the war in the first place. Since the Agreements are often referred to but seldom actually quoted, let’s have a look at the texts. They aren’t easy to find, and of course they were originally drafted in Russian, as presumably any new agreement would have to be (although no doubt a “Ukrainian translation” would also be demanded.) The first of the Agreements, dated 5 September 2014 (“Minsk 1”) was eventually transmitted by the Ukrainian delegation to the UN on 24 February 2015, and it’s worth pausing over, because it illustrates a number of the issues raised by agreements of this kind. First, the document itself consists both of a “Protocol”, described as an “Understanding,” and an accompanying “Memorandum” covering parts of its implementation. That is to say, there are no individual undertakings by any country in the documents, and no individual legal, or even political obligations. The documents simply record what the participants say they have agreed. There is provision for monitoring, but not enforcement.
The second is the participants and signatories. The text is signed by representatives of the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, and the breakaway Oblasts as well as by the OSCE, which was responsible for monitoring.) The leaders of France and Germany facilitated the talks but did not sign any of the documents. On the other hand, the Ukrainians (who did not recognise the breakaway regions) insisted that their then leaders signed only as individuals, not as representing any political entity. This is the smallest of foretastes of the kind of problem that will arise in any “negotiations” that the West may want to contemplate.
The third is the content. Both documents are very short, as might be expected from documents concerned mainly to establish principles. That said, the Memorandum is extremely detailed in one part, and obviously drafted by military specialists, since it also contains very precise lists of equipment (mainly artillery) together with distances that they should be drawn back from the line of contact. The document is thus a strange mixture of vague long-term aspirations, and highly-detailed practical measures to be taken immediately.
Finally, the language. This is always difficult where translations are involved, but what we can say is that both documents contain largely statements of good intentions, without targets or associated dates. Someone (presumably the Ukrainian government) will “implement decentralisation of power,” several somebodies will “enact a law” to punish atrocities, someone will “adopt a programme” for the economic revival of the Donbas. The texts carefully avoid saying who is responsible for what, and how the what is to be accomplished and when, yet alone evaluated. The document ostentatiously avoids anything resembling treaty language (eg “reached an understanding” rather than “agreed.”). But this is not really a criticism: it was just what could be extracted from the parties at the time, and reflected their reluctance to enter into a legally-binding agreement. On the other hand, what is really important is what the parties intend to do, irrespective of the documents they signed, and it is clear from what followed that neither camp trusted the other. Any “agreement” this year or later will be much more complicated and much more difficult than that.
As a result of the lack of trust and commitment, fighting began again and, following more pressure from France and Germany and a very long and difficult meeting, a “Package of Measures” was finally agreed on 12 February 2015, to implement the original Minsk Agreements (this became known as “Minsk 2.”) Note again that this is not a treaty, or an enforceable document of any kind. It is essentially a record of points agreed at the meeting, issued over the signatures of the Trilateral Contact Group members. In certain cases (eg Constitutional reform) it is clear that the Ukrainian government has promised to do something, in others, who should do what is unclear. Once more, there are some detailed provisions on heavy weapons. It’s also worth pointing out that some of the provisions go outside the normal bounds of a treaty, because they commit non-signatories to do things: for example, the Ukrainian Parliament is supposed to adopt a resolution on the areas to which a special political regime will apply. This kind of thing never appears in treaties, for the simple reason that no government can commit its parliament. In essence, therefore, this is a collection of Clever Ideas, which, if they could be implemented, were intended to help with the implementation of the Minsk Agreement. Again, the above is not a criticism: it is all that could be extracted from the parties in the circumstances.
These extremely meagre results were the result of considerable pressure applied after a small, short conflict in a limited area of one country. For all that, the Agreements fell apart very quickly, each side (and for that matter those who had not been represented) blaming each other and accusing each other of bad faith. (I’m not going to go into the rights and wrongs of the issue now, what counts is perception.) The reality is that, had there been a willingness on both sides to make the agreements work, then somehow they would have worked. It’s a constant mistake of international relations pundits (and others) to suppose that just because a written peace agreement has been signed, practical results will necessarily follow. In fact, as I’ve argued elsewhere, absent a genuine desire to make progress, peace agreements can be dangerous, and the more complex they are, the more dangerous they can be. Some peace agreements have started wars.
Conversely, negotiations that appear impossible may actually become possible very quickly, because of a change or development in the political situation. The Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) negotiations ran in Vienna from 1973 to 1989, without producing a treaty of any kind, because the political will to do anything except talk was absent. They were replaced in 1989 by the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) talks, which were at first treated with some scepticism. But it became clear that both East and West had decided that the Cold War was coming to an end, and the CFE talks were the chosen method for giving it a decent burial. So enormous resources were thrown at the problem, and a massive, complex treaty was negotiated in less than two years.
So beyond and before the minutiae, which we’ll get into in a moment, the first issue is political will. In the ever-shifting Venn diagram of what states want and are prepared to accept, is there a minimum area of overlap in which a useful agreement could be reached, and is there a will to reach such an agreement and make it work? If so, fine. If not, then negotiations could make the situation worse, rather than better. Much as I admire the diplomatic profession, it does have a tendency to regard all negotiations as good, and all agreements, even the most trivial and provisional, as accomplishments. (“At least they’re talking.”) Whilst, as Churchill said, jaw-jaw is better than war-war, history shows that jaw-jaw too early can produce war-war anyway.
The above gives, I hope, some idea of the kinds of issues that the vague and blanket term “negotiations” will have to address. Let’s look at a few of them now in more detail, secure in the knowledge that no-one in any western capital will have done any systematic thinking about the problems involved.
The first question is simple: negotiations for what? Inasmuch as western pundits have any idea what they are talking about at all, they seem to be thinking in terms of a Minsk 3, which is to say a ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, promises of political reform by Ukraine, and an exchange of prisoners. This would not be a treaty (since such documents aren’t, by definition) and whilst it might be monitored once again by the OSCE, there would be no provisions for enforcement. The objective would be to stop Russian attacks and advances, and rebuild the Ukrainian Armed Forces for the next round. Put that way, it is perhaps obvious why only someone who has completely lost touch with reality, such as Mr Blinken, could imagine that such an idea would be acceptable to Russia. Oh, you mean the Russians have to accept it as well? You mean we just can’t impose it on them?
On the other hand, it is pretty clear what the Russians think any negotiations would be about, because any proposals they make will be based on their December 2021 draft treaties, which NATO refused to discuss. Effectively, their objectives will be a treaty that gets the US out of Europe and rolls back NATO to 1997, and their opening bid may be even tougher than that, after what will have been several years of fighting. As a result, apart from the word “negotiations” the two sides will effectively be talking about entirely different things.
Now maybe some flexibility is possible here. For example, couldn’t the West come up with counter-proposals (as it should have done in 2021) for a future security system in Europe? Well, the problem is that the system as it existed in 2021 actually suited the West rather well, so any proposals they make now can only be on the basis of accepting a system worse than it was then, even as an opening negotiating position. And who exactly is going to make these security concessions? And who decides? After all, the parliaments of the participating states (we’ll come to that in a second) would have to ratify any treaty that eventually emerged. Now of course there’s nothing to stop the West tabling proposals aimed at getting the Russians to withdraw from some or all of Ukraine, but that will be theatre. The problem is that NATO has nothing to offer which would be acceptable to their domestic constituencies, that the Russians can’t take or make happen anyway, and they cannot force them to give anything important in return. So not a very good basis for negotiations, then.
But it gets worse, because of the extreme political positions of the two sides. The official western account of 2021-22 seems to be emerging now, for example from the recent speech by Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary General. In this version, Russia, flushed with confidence from its massive military build-up, attempted to blackmail NATO into refusing Ukraine membership, and then to return to its 1997 borders. When NATO refused to be intimidated, Putin launched a war to overrun the whole of Europe, but was halted in his tracks by the plucky Ukrainians, with western help. Now, given the fortune in money and the weapons that NATO nations have supplied, how can any national leader go to their parliament and say, well guys, actually Ukraine isn’t joining NATO after all, and Russia gets to keep the parts it wants: it’s in the draft treaty we have tabled? For their part, the Russian government is likely to be subject to its own pressures as well, to the point that their December 2021 draft treaties may now seem to tame to much of the population. Oh, and the Ukrainians? Well, we’ll get to them in a moment.
Now, it’s not impossible that somehow, somewhere, a group of states could get together to exchange views, register demands, reject demands, and so forth, and if we were in a kindly mood, we might call the process “negotiations.” But they won’t be negotiations in the sense that there will be neither the will nor the capability to make any real substantive progress.
Which of course raises another question: who will take part, and within that, who will sign and who will be bound by what? Minsk was (relatively) easy. On one side the Ukrainian government, on the other the rebels and the Russians, in the middle the OSCE, and, encouraging both sides, the French and Germans. The situation has since become almost unfathomably complex: NATO nations, in varying degrees, are effectively but not formally parties to the conflict. The breakaway Oblasts are now part of Russia. Logically, any negotiations would be between Russia and Ukraine, but this poses two obvious problems. The first is that it’s not clear who speaks for “Ukraine” even in a domestic context. Any end, or even pause to the fighting could unleash political forces with wildly different objectives, such that any putative Ukrainian delegation would simply not be able to speak for the country as a whole. What happens if there is a military coup half way through the negotiations? What happens if several different groups claim to represent the government and people, with different objectives? What if other groups not at the negotiations tried to exercise control from a distance. (This happened at the Rambouillet negotiations in 1999 that preceded the attack on Serbia. According to someone who was in the room, the leader of the Kosovar Albanian delegation, a political figurehead, was obliged to tell Madeline Albright, the lead US negotiator, that it was impossible for him to sign the draft treaty prepared by the US, since in that case the Kosovar Liberation Army would murder him when he returned home.)
The second problem is that the collective Ego of the West would not tolerate being left out of such negotiations, although it’s less clear that they would actually sign up to any obligations, still less that their parliaments would agree to ratify them. Yet everyone would be well aware that the West was manipulating the Ukraine delegation, or at least trying to. For their part, it’s clear that the Russians don’t consider the Ukrainians to be independent actors, and so would demand that the negotiations be between themselves and NATO, with Ukraine being just an item on the agenda.
Now from what I’ve said so far, it must be apparent that we should abandon the idea of “negotiations” in any real sense, at least until the situation changes radically. But let us suppose an outbreak of rationality and moderation in western capitals, changes of government, economic and political crisis and so forth. What, if anything, could be cobbled together that looked like a negotiation and might lead somewhere. Supposing the West accepted a model somewhat like the Russian proposal: a new security regime for Europe, with questions relating to NATO up for grabs and Ukraine to be considered as a special case. Hooray. Now, how could that possibly be made to work?
For a start, who speaks for “the West?” Negotiations are classically between sovereign entities that have the legal ability to enter into treaties. The European Union does (for example in the Withdrawal Treaty with the UK) but NATO does not. Thus, Finland’s accession to NATO was registered in the form of a Protocol to the Washington Treaty, recording that “The Parties to the North Atlantic Treaty” had agreed that Finland would depose an instrument of accession with the US (as the depositary state) and that each NATO member would then notify its acceptance of the instrument. The reason for this clumsy system is that “NATO” cannot agree anything, nor would its member states allow it to do so. In any future theoretical treaty, “NATO” would not be a signatory, nor would it be represented at the negotiating table, not would it have obligations and rights under the treaty. All this is down to individual states. Something like this happened before, with the above-mentioned Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty in 1990. There, some very clever footwork was needed to reconcile the fact that the negotiations were bloc-to-bloc, between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, with the fact that the treaty had to be signed and implemented by individual nations. Likewise, endless, laborious and often acrimonious internal negotiations were needed within NATO itself to try to establish a common position.
So in practice, a future “negotiation” would be between however many paid-up members NATO then has, negotiating independently but trying to keep to a common position, Russia, Ukraine in one configuration or several, and perhaps others. Would Australia want a seat? What about Switzerland? Who decides? And what status would, say, Australia have, as an equipment supplier? What obligations would Canberra sign up to? An almost superhuman degree of consensus would be needed even to agree on the content of the negotiations and the rules of procedure. Whilst there are plenty of examples of treaties signed between large numbers of states of different persuasions, there is, as far as I know, no precedent for an effectively open-ended negotiation involving so many participants, on such difficult and complex issues, with most of the participants trying to coordinate their views in spite of massive objective differences in their situations. Again, some irresistible desire for political consensus could theoretically overcome western governments, and that might speed things along, but the problem here is that the stakes are so important and so complex, and the strategic implications for different countries so different, that maintaining any such consensus is really only a fantasy. The practical result is that, even if such a negotiation were to start, it could be brought to a halt at any time by disputes between states over an almost infinite number of issues.
There’s a whole list of banal but important other issues, and of which could take months to agree. For example, where to hold the talks? A lot of the classic neutral venues (Geneva, Helsinki, Vienna) are now looking a bit iffy. Ankara might work at a stretch, but it’s in a NATO nation after all, even if the Turks have been playing both sides. So the Russians might suggest Minsk, and the discussions would then collapse. No doubt the Ukrainians will want Kiev or Washington. This could (and probably would) go on for months. And just imagine, for example, the sheer logistic challenges of organising negotiations between, what, thirty-five countries? forty? Bearing in mind that most of the real work takes place not in plenary negotiations but in working groups and informal sessions, how many places in the world even have an infrastructure capable of accommodating this logistic nightmare? Oh, and there’s translation and interpretation. How many official languages would there be? At least three (Russian, English and French) and probably “Ukrainian” as well. Just imagine the arguments about which is the default authentic language for documents and finding the necessary interpreters and translators.
I could go on. And on. But in the end what we’re seeing here is the western strategic community negotiating with itself, since no-one else will negotiate with it, and trying to probe the extreme limits of what its fragile ego is capable of accepting without falling apart. None of which has much relation to real life. One of the things to bear in mind about successful negotiations is that you can’t force them, or their conclusions, on people. The West has a long history of forcing negotiations and settlements on other nations, if only for what it considers to be good reasons. These attempts fail because the partners are not ready or don’t trust each other, or because the underlying circumstances are not propitious. There will be none of that with the Russians, who will negotiate when they feel like it, if at all. The West talks of Endless War, for which it has neither the forces, the equipment, the capability nor the political will. The actual result will be a kind of Endless Sulk, and, in the end, western dreams of triumph through negotiation will be as illusory as their dreams of triumph on the battlefield.
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