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TL;DR Weekend Roundup
10 September 2023: Getting real, plus texts and tunes
If hackles can be raised, can they also be lowered? It’s a rhetorical question, because my hackles are clearly not lowered. So much for that relaxing summer hiatus.
Maybe I’m not cut out for this think tank thing. Or for the Washington thing. In the academic world, I can give a talk at a conference and people I love dearly will tell me that my analysis is sh*t—after which we’ll go out and get a beer. It’s not that academics are saints, but generally speaking if you keep the focus on the analysis, you just don’t take any of it too seriously. (Also, you almost always get the opportunity to return the favor.)
In Washington, I’m getting the impression that things don’t quite work that way. And that’s unfortunate, because I really do like and respect the people I’m about to lay into. If any of you are reading this, I apologize: I hate the analysis, but I love the analyst.
What I’m thinking about
For a few days in early September—in lulls in the conversation about the apparent death of Evgeny Prigozhin—the hubbub in my professional corner of the world was an article in the New York Times, reporting that there is precious little room for an adult conversation about the role of diplomacy in the range of potential end-games for the war in Ukraine.
Sorry, but no.
The impetus for the article was a statement made by Stian Jenssen, chief of staff to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, that, “a solution [to the war] could be for Ukraine to give up territory and get NATO membership in return.” This provoked a loud reaction from Kyiv and from many in the West who support Ukraine’s fight to restore its full territorial integrity. That response, Steven Erlanger reported, was emblematic of a broader problem:
The contretemps, say some analysts who have been similarly chastised, reflects a closing down of public discussion on options for Ukraine just at a moment when imaginative diplomacy is most needed, they say.
Erlanger pointed to complaints from a number of analysts—chiefly Sam Charap and Charles Kupchan—that their attempts to make the case for diplomacy aren’t taken seriously. “We get a storm of criticism and abuse,” Kupchan told the Times.
There are at least two problems with this insinuation. First, it’s not actually true. Second, it suggests that the problem with the case for diplomacy is that people don’t want to hear it, rather than that the case itself is analytically weak—which also, at least in my view, isn’t actually true.
Let’s start with Problem No. 1. Sam, Charles and others in what I would call the serious diplomacy camp—as distinct from the unserious diplomacy side, represented by the Quincy Institute—have prominent jobs and audible voices in Washington. Heck, Sam just had a piece in Foreign Affairs calling American support for Ukraine “an unwinnable war”. By my count, that was Sam’s seventh piece in Foreign Affairs making one version of the diplomacy argument or another since the war began. Sam, Charles, Tom Graham and others are in a great many of the conversations around town, in the think tanks, on the Hill, in the administration, and in the media. So, the argument that they and their ideas are somehow being denied oxygen is simply false.
Yes, Charles and Tom in particular came in for a genuine storm of criticism recently, but that was less for their arguments, than for the fact that they took their arguments to Moscow and met, among others, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Now, I happen to have been among those who defended their little adventure, which was a fairly standard attempt to gather information about views in Moscow, and which was thus genuinely useful. But it is not difficult to understand why making that trip would have irked Ukrainians and their well-wishers, and it would have been naive to believe that they wouldn’t come in for some serious flack. Charles and Tom are, of course, very far from being naive, and so Charles’s allegation that he was criticized for nothing other than his ideas strikes me as at least a little disingenuous.
The bigger problem, though, is the second one: the “people aren’t taking us seriously” line is itself deeply unserious, and it impedes exactly the open conversation its proponents claim to seek.
Those who argue for taking diplomacy seriously are, of course, correct to say that it is far from certain that Ukraine will win this war militarily, restore full control of its territory, and create lasting deterrence. Indeed, Sam’s latest Foreign Affairs article makes exactly those points at length, and he’s right: war is deeply unpredictable, victory will be difficult to achieve, and even if it is achieved, it may take a long time and cost a lot in terms of blood and treasure. That analysis takes up roughly 80 percent of the article and is, in many ways, indistinguishable from the analysis put forward by those who are calling for more support for Ukraine.
The problem is what comes next. In two paragraphs right at the end of the article, Sam writes:
The first step toward making this [diplomatic] vision a reality over the coming months is to stand up an effort in the U.S. government to develop the diplomatic track. An entire new U.S. military command element, the Security Assistance Group–Ukraine, has been devoted to the aid and training mission, which is led by a three-star general with a staff of 300. Yet there is not a single official in the U.S. government whose full-time job is conflict diplomacy. Biden should appoint one, perhaps a special presidential envoy who can engage beyond ministries of foreign affairs, which have been sidelined in this crisis in nearly all relevant capitals. Next, the United States should begin informal discussions with Ukraine and among allies in the G-7 and NATO about the endgame.
In parallel, the United States should consider establishing a regular channel of communication regarding the war that includes Ukraine, U.S. allies, and Russia. This channel would not initially be aimed at achieving a cease-fire. Instead, it would allow participants to interact continually, instead of in one-off encounters, akin to the contact group model used during the Balkan wars, when an informal grouping of representatives from key states and international institutions met regularly. Such discussions should begin out of the public eye, as did initial U.S. contacts with Iran on the nuclear deal, signed in 2015.
I’ll leave aside the fact that there are, in truth, plenty of officials in the US government whose entire job is diplomacy with Russia, not least the American ambassador to Moscow. Perhaps there is an argument to be made for a special “Diplomatic Solution Czar”, but Sam doesn’t really make it clear how that would work, and why. And that’s the big problem: The argument contains zero detail about cause and effect.
As Brookings analyst Constanze Stelzenmüller told the Times, “anyone who wants to articulate a Plan B with these people on the other side is facing a significant burden of proof question.” If the effects Western policymakers are trying to cause are an end to the fighting, the restoration of Ukrainian security, and the reliable deterrence of further conflict, then anyone who proposes a solution needs to demonstrate that their proposed solution could plausibly (a) end Russian aggression and (b) be realistically implemented. Put bluntly, the proponents of helping Ukraine to fight on have a plausible model of cause and effect. The diplomacy argument, alas, does not.
The “fight-to-win” camp, while not monolithic, begins from the observation that the only thing that has thus far been proven to reduce Russian aggression is Ukrainian military success. That, in turn, privileges a conversation about how to maximize Ukrainian military success, and that is where the uncertainty lies. The “let’s-start-talking” camp, however, leaves us with uncertainty on both vectors. There is, as yet, zero evidence that discussions of any kind can modulate Russian aggression, and so the proposition cannot even put forward a grounded hypothesis about how it might achieve its desired results. To make matters worse, the argument entirely elides the question of how a diplomatic solution might be sold to the Ukrainian people—particularly in the absence of any evidence that it would keep them safe. After all, the diplomatic solution imposed on them in 2015 demonstrably failed to keep them safe.
Back in the early months of 2022, perhaps it would have been acceptable to say, “look, let’s just talk and see what happens.” In fact, it was definitely acceptable to say that, because that’s what Kyiv said: Zelensky sent envoys to meet with Putin’s representatives repeatedly in the early weeks of the war, and on discrete issues—the grain deal and prisoner transfers—diplomacy between Kyiv and Moscow continues to this day. As, of course, does diplomacy between Washington and Moscow.
But eighteen months into this war, we should have moved beyond “suck-it-and-see” policy prescriptions. The “fight-to-win” camp have mobilized the wealth of data accumulated since the war began about how both armies fight and about escalation dynamics, giving rise to robust and highly nuanced policy debates about how to make progress towards a military victory while minimizing the risk of nuclear conflagration. If the “let’s-start-talking” camp wants to be taken seriously, they need to start by taking their own analysis seriously. At the very least, that means combing through the record on diplomatic engagement with Russia since its initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, or its invasion of Georgia in 2008, or on any number of other contentious fronts, for evidence of what works and what does not. And if they can’t find that evidence, they ought to admit it.
What I’m reading
It’s been a while, so the reading list is on the long side. That, alas, means bullet points—but first, a couple of longer thoughts.
Regular readers—or simply regular Russia watchers—will remember Sergei Karaganov, the Russian foreign policy hawk who suggested back in June that Russia should detonate a nuclear weapon in Ukraine or a European NATO ally. I argued at the time that, while I didn’t think Karaganov’s article reflected the views of the Kremlin, I was worried that such rhetoric would begin to make a nuclear strike seem less of an outlandish idea. Well, on 1 September a copy leaked of a report that Karaganov, together with Dmitry Trenin, Fyodor Lukyanov and Aleksandr Kramarenko, wrote for the Kremlin, which makes me worry both a little bit more and a little bit less. Much of the report, which was evidently never intended to go public, is rhetorical and ideological filler of the “we-were-wrong-to-get-too-close-to-the-West” and “lets-brainwash-Ukrainians-like-we-did-in-East-Germany” variety and thus of dubious interest. On the nuclear strike issue, the report argues that Moscow should begin talking with leaders of the “global majority” (read Beijing) about a limited nuclear strike, with the express intention of having those talks leak and thus producing Western willingness to back down in Ukraine. That’s the part that makes me worry a little less. The part that makes me worry more is the argument that Russia should withdraw from from the global arms control system as a way of undermining Western (read American) power. That resonates with the recent cozying up to North Korea and suggests that Moscow is willing to try to set the world alight to get what it wants in Ukraine.
On the Russian public opinion front, the Levada Center published the results of its August surveys on wartime sentiment on 5 September and found not much change. There is a dip in the amount of attention respondents say they’re paying to the war, but in August there’s usually a dip in the amount of attention Russian citizens pay to anything at all, so I’m inclined to ignore that. The broad patterns of support remain as they have been—older people and men support it a lot, women and younger people less so—but there are some interesting datapoints. One is that the gap between people aged 18-24 and aged 25-39 seems to be shrinking a bit, as the older cohort becomes a bit less supportive, while the gap between people aged 25-39 and 40-54 is now statistically insignificant. If this trend continues the divide will basically be between people on either side of 55. More interestingly, though, the data continue to show a lot of dissonance. On the one hand, for example, a plurality of respondents (50%) believe Russia should seek enter peace talks, while only 38% believe it should keep fighting—but on the other hand, only 20% are prepared to make concessions.
Now for the bullet points:
Even as all (or many) eyes are on the hawks like Karaganov and Trenin, it is worth noting that they are not the only Russian establishment foreign policy voices speaking out. After Karaganov’s piece back in June, Alexei Arbatov (Russian Academy of Sciences) and Ivan Timofeev (Russian Council on Foreign Relations), among others, clearly and openly called out Karaganov’s argument as lunacy. But the most striking piece of writing came from Valerii Garbuzov, head of the Russian Academy of Science’s Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada. In a piece in Nezavisimaia gazeta on 29 August, Garbuzov wrote, among much else, “The current domestic minions of authoritarianism (like the satraps of Eastern despotisms that have sunk into oblivion), completely devoid of historical consciousness, lacking hesitation but with touching emotion, sincerely equate the head of state with the state itself.” Almost needless to say, Garbuzov lost his job within a matter of days. (It’s kind of amazing that the paper hasn’t pulled down the piece. If they do, though, I have a PDF.)
Coming back to the Prigozhin saga, Maxim Trudolyubov had an excellent piece in Meduza on 31 August about what the hot-dog-mercenary-troll-farmer’s apparent death—which Maxim assumes was an assassination—tells us about the current state of the Russian political system. “Everyone understands what happened,” he writes. “And no one can predict how it will all end.”
On 15 August, The Insider published a major investigation into the poisonings of the Russian journalists and activists Elena Kostiuchenko, Natalia Arno, Irina Babloian, Lyubov Sobol and Elvia Vikhareva. The fact that these attacks occurred in Munich, Prague, Tbilisi and elsewhere outside Russia is, as the victims themselves argue, the point: the Kremlin is attempting to ensure that exile does not encourage its opponents to feel too safe. It is also well worth reading Kostiuchenko’s article about her experience in Meduza, published the same day. “We’re not safe,” she said. “And we will not be safe while this political regime is in power.”
At the other end of the political spectrum, it has long been true that the sons (and sometimes daughters) of Russia’s rich and powerful follow go into the family “business”. It turns out, the war has created yet another opportunity for the scions of Russia’s great and good to prove their worth (no, not on the battlefield). T-Invariant published an investigation on August 13 into the son and daughter of Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnev, who have spent significant amounts of time building patriotic youth groups at Moscow State University and well beyond, collecting money and sending it, well, who knows where.
Sticking with the theme of “could-have-guessed-but-nice-to-know”, Dossier Centre released an investigation on 9 August into Gennady Timchenko, the commodities trader who has long been one of Putin’s key financial enablers—and who is evidently still playing a major role in helping the Putin evade sanctions.
Oh, and one more for the “could-have-guessed-but-nice-to-know” category: the FT’s Max Seddon had lunch in Dubai with fertilizer mogul Andrei Melnichenko and, in a truly remarkable interview, plumbed the abyss of nihilism at the heart of Russia’s richest man.
Finally, In Latin American Policy, an article by Adriana Boersner Herrera explores the factors shaping the relationship between Russia and Venezuela. Unsurprisingly, the motivators seem to be much more pragmatic than ideological. This, too, could go in the “could-have-guessed-but-nice-to-know” bucket.
What I’m listening to
I got to spend the end of the summer down in Durham, North Carolina, and Durham’s parting gift — it turns out — was Jump for Joy, the new album from Hiss Golden Messenger. For some reason, the critics don’t particularly like the album, but for my money it’s the best record in years from the band that, together with Mount Moriah / H.C. McEntire and Shirlette Ammons, I most closely associate with home.
NB: The video here is odd, but the groove is great.