RAND: Ukraine procrastination unwise for American imperialism – Biden must negotiate

Feb 3, 2023
US Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The unravelling military situation in Ukraine means that Biden’s best option is to negotiate, a new RAND report argues. The sooner the better. There is the awful danger that continued procrastination will propel the hapless Biden administration into precipitating nuclear war. 

The issue of how to approach negotiations to end America’s proxy war against Russia in Ukraine continues to be tortuous, murky and unresolved.

The US, global hegemon since 1945, with the hubris attached to that, tends to be negotiations averse and ‘non agreement capable’, frequently reneging on international agreements for domestic reasons – examples include the Agreed Framework with North Korea, the JCPOA with Iran and even the World Trade Organisation. It has encouraged, perhaps instructed Ukraine to default on the Minsk Agreements  which would have forestalled the Russian intervention of February 2022 and the Istanbul agreements of March 2022 which might have provided a resolution to the conflict. In addition there is the recently-admitted execution at that time of Zelensky’s lead negotiator Denys Kirieiev by the SBU, the Ukrainian secret police. Although there have been limited talks between Moscow and Washington, and constant diplomatic communication, Biden’s refusal to negotiate has presented him with the generic dilemma of the player with a losing hand; as the situation in the field degenerates negotiation becomes both more necessary and less palatable, as possible deals become increasingly disadvantageous.

In these circumstances the recent RAND report calling for meaningful negotiations for a peace deal is important not only because RAND itself is influential but also because instead of humanitarian and democracy posturing it bases its argument on what’s good for US imperialism. There’s no shortage of cant of course, but underneath there is a substratum of strategic rationality. Crucially it calls for negotiations, with whatever concessions and compromises are necessary, in order to do a deal with Russia.

The authors argue that, in addition to minimising the risks of major escalation, U.S. interests would be best served by avoiding a protracted conflict. The costs and risks of a long war in Ukraine are significant and outweigh the possible benefits of such a trajectory for the United States.

It recognises that Kyiv conquest of the Crimea is unfeasible but it goes beyond that by arguing territorial concessions (as suggested by Kissinger to outrage in May) are not that important compared with the costs and disadvantages for the US of a prolonged war and that Kyiv will adjust to whatever they are. It implies that the line of control at time of writing (December 2022) will have to be accepted. Crucially it says that the US (and NATO) will have to commit to Ukrainian neutrality and not joining NATO. Since this would address the twin Russian demands of protection of the Russian minority and the removal of the threat of Ukraine as a NATO springboard a deal is quite feasible

The RAND report is analytically limited but it does represent a step forward in US strategic thinking. Perhaps it is an acknowledgment that the policy of NATO expansion to destroy Russia has not worked and that the Ukraine adventure was a failure. Official Washington sees China as the main challenge to its hegemony and there may be a growing awareness that is necessary to accept a setback on the Russian front to concentrate resources on the Chinese one; a tactical retreat to serve strategic objectives Significantly and ironically it was RAND in a research brief and a research report in 2019 that outlined a strategy of ‘overextending’ Russia by exploiting vulnerabilities, Ukraine being first pick. But RAND researchers, being professionals, also take risks into account:

Most of these measures—whether in Europe or the Middle East— risk provoking Russian reaction that could impose large military costs on U.S. allies and large political costs on the United States itself. Increasing military advice and arms supplies to Ukraine is the most feasible of these options with the largest impact, but any such initiative would have to be calibrated very carefully to avoid a widely expanded conflict.

It seems that the latest report, whose authors were not in the original team, have decided that the calibration was not careful enough and that now the risks outweigh the gains. However, it is very much an open question whether Biden, or power brokers within the administration, will be so persuaded.

Bernhard Horstmann of Moon of Alabama makes the good point that the RAND report echoes the call of Chief of General Staff Mark Milley back in November 2022, after Russia had withdrawn from Kherson, that now was the time to negotiate. This caused a furore in Kyiv and Washington and Milley lost that particular battle. Horstmann suggests that Milley might have commissioned the recent RAND study.

What seems to be clear is that there is a struggle between most of the military, exemplified by Milley, and the civilian hawks of the National Security Council, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Under Secretary Victoria Nuland, who was instrumental in the 2014 coup which led to the present war. These hawks have their military allies, such as former US commander in Europe Ben Hodges, who fantasises about Ukraine retaking all lost territory, including Crimea, by the summer of 2023.

So, as is always the case, there are two battlefields – one in foreign lands, today Ukraine, yesterday Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc., tomorrow perhaps China – and the other in Washington, within the Beltway.

Many argue that the US will not, and cannot negotiate. Alistair Crooke, for instance, sees US imperialism as a sort of Ponzi scheme that has to keep expanding for it doesn’t it will collapse. Hegemony is non-negotiable. However, as Cameron Leckie recently pointed out, the unravelling military situation means that Biden’s best option is to negotiate, and the sooner the better. There is the awful danger that continued procrastination will propel the hapless Biden administration into precipitating nuclear war.

Whether we all have a tomorrow depends on the outcome of this struggle between strategic rationality and desperate, delusional attempts to maintain hegemony at all costs. RAND argues that procrastination is unwise for American imperialism. It is also perilous for mankind.

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