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My favorite thing about Antony Blinken, and a bit of entertainment for your weekend
It’s been a week.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken talked to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He talked to his European counterparts. He spoke — just today — with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. And nothing got worse. That, in my book, is successful diplomacy.
Somewhere between Kyiv and Berlin, a journalist asked Blinken what he thought Russia’s next move was. Now, I’m not saying that Blinken paused to remember my sage advice before he answered, but his response is very much in line with my plea last week for a bit of analytical humility:
“I can’t read Putin’s mind,” Blinken said.
And he left it there.
Alas, President Biden wasn’t quite so circumspect, positing that Putin had painted himself into such a corner that he may feel compelled to do something — anything — to make all of those massed troops and rattled sabers look worthwhile. Other than that little bit of soothsaying, though, Biden’s remarks were most remarkable for their frankness: he was more open than presidents usually are about the uncertainties, about the range of options available to all sides, and about the potential for a degree of disunity within NATO.
But as I tried to summarize on Twitter in the immediate aftermath, behind all of that honesty was a fairly clear message:
While I obviously don’t know what went on behind closed doors in Geneva today, I imagine Blinken’s message to Lavrov included — among a great many other things — something like this:
And so both sides left with only one agreement: this would not be the end of the road for diplomacy. That might not seem like much, but it’s probably the best we could have hoped for.
In fact, it’s probably the only thing we could have hoped for. Leaving aside the rights or wrongs of Washington’s and Moscow’s respective positions, both parties are defending points of view that have been built up over decades. Moreover, neither party is capable of expressing its interests in terms that the other side might see as legitimate — and neither side has any real incentive to understand how the world looks from their opponent’s perspective.
I’m not saying that sympathy is called for here. It’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that one side is right and the other is wrong. But conflict resolution — even just conflict avoidance — requires at least a degree of empathy, the ability to game out your opponent’s moves in their terms, not yours.
If you’re looking for progress, though, you might find it in the fact that Washington is no longer talking in sureties about what Putin is thinking and why. Contrast that, for example, to UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who knows — just knows — that Putin is pining for an opportunity to rebuild the Soviet Union. If, at the end of the day, we’re seeking empathy, then admitting that you might not actually know what the other side thinks is a pretty good place to start.
Looking for some light listening and reading for your weekend?
Check out a conversation I was lucky to have at the beginning of the week with RFE/RL’s Mike Eckel and the always excellent Kadri Liik, exploring where we are and how we got there;
And then check out a thought-provoking piece by Denis Volkov, head of the Levada Center, exploring the attitudes of ordinary Russian citizens to the state of Russia’s relations with the West and the possibility of war.