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Ukrainian soldier

A Ukrainian soldier points his rifle from the frontline in Zolote, Ukraine on January 20, 2022. (Photo: Wolfgang Schwan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

War With Russia Over Ukraine 'Last Thing' US Needs, Say Progressives

Urging diplomacy over violence, foreign policy experts say "Biden's failure to acknowledge Russia's legitimate security concerns has led to the present impasse."

Jessica Corbett

Ahead of a highly anticipated Friday meeting in Geneva between the top U.S. and Russian diplomats over the escalating Ukraine crisis, anti-war progressives around the world are pressuring leaders of the nuclear-armed nations to prioritize diplomacy in the pursuit of de-escalation and peace.

"Practically speaking, the path to peace does require mutual accommodation by all parties."

As The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel, president of the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord, put it in her Tuesday column for The Washington Post: "In the technical argot of diplomacy, what's going on in the Ukraine crisis is nuts."

"With the United States desperately needing to focus attention and resources on the challenges posed by the pandemic, debilitating economic inequality, severe racial division, and catastrophic climate change, and as the administration positions itself to take on China," she wrote, "the last thing we need is a war by proxy or, God forbid, directly with the Russians over Ukraine."

A diverse coalition of 15 groups similarly warned in a letter to the White House earlier this month that "continuing engagement is necessary to avert a military conflict that will harm the interests of the United States, harm innocent civilians in Ukraine, and risk spiraling into a potentially catastrophic war between the world's two leading nuclear powers."

Following several rounds of failed negotiations—and Washington's allegations that Russia building up troops along its border with Ukraine signals an imminent invasion, despite denials from Moscow—U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov plan to sit down together in Geneva on Friday.

After saying during a Wednesday night press conference that a "minor incursion" by Russia into Ukraine could mean "we end up having a fight" with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies about how to respond, U.S. President Joe Biden amped up his rhetoric.

Biden told reporters on Thursday that he has made it "absolutely clear" during direct talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin that any troops moving across the Ukrainian border "is an invasion, and it will be met with severe and coordinated economic response."

Aligning with that message, Blinken said Thursday that any invasion would be met with a "swift, severe, and united response," and any sanctions would be "complimentary, mutually reinforcing, and closely coordinated."

Putin and Lavrov, meanwhile, continue to raise alarm about NATO expansion and oppose former Soviet states joining the decades-old military alliance.

U.S. negotiator Wendy Sherman has called Moscow's demand for barring Ukraine from joining NATO a "nonstarter," though critics have pointed to the alliance's eastward push over the last several decades as the main driver of tension in the region.

As Medea Benjamin and Nicolas J. S. Davies of the anti-war group CodePink noted in a Wednesday opinion piece for Common Dreams, "The United States bears much responsibility for this crisis by supporting the violent overthrow of the elected government of Ukraine in 2014, backing NATO expansion right up to Russia's border, and arming and training Ukrainian forces."

"Biden's failure to acknowledge Russia's legitimate security concerns has led to the present impasse," Benjamin and Davies added, "and Cold Warriors within his administration are threatening Russia instead of proposing concrete measures to de-escalate the situation."

In her piece for the Post, vanden Heuvel wrote that "Ukraine provides an opportunity for Biden" to engage in the kind of diplomacy he promised when taking office. Pointing to 1950s negotiations over Austria as a potential model, she outlined what a "tough compromise" on Ukraine could look like:

The Russians would have to guarantee Ukrainian independence and agree to curb threatening military maneuvers even in its own territory. The United States would have to shelve delusions about NATO. Ukrainians would have to accept a federalized system that would provide guarantees for its Russian-speaking population. Both Putin and Biden would face harsh criticism from hawks prattling about surrender and credibility.

The hawkish path plays better among the armchair warriors and the ex-spook commentators in the United States. But it will prove once more to be a costly folly. Moreover, Americans are sick of endless battles in far-off countries. Biden may well find a true settlement far more popular than continued tension. The question is whether Putin and Biden feel strong enough to choose restraint, dialogue, and engagement rather than to stumble toward war.

Warning Wednesday that "nuclear powers need to tread carefully around each other," attorney and activist Mitchell Zimmerman made a similar argument.

"Ukraine has the right to defend itself, the right to conduct its internal affairs as it pleases, and the right not to be dismembered by a powerful neighbor," he wrote for OtherWords. "However, it's a sad reality of international affairs that powerful nations tell themselves that they (but no one else) have the right to meddle in the affairs of weaker neighbors."

"Avoiding war doesn't necessarily mean that the rights and interests of smaller nations have to be abandoned," he continued. "But practically speaking, the path to peace does require mutual accommodation by all parties."

While acknowledging that "finding the right accommodation may not be easy," Zimmerman asserted that "it is not unreasonable for the Russians not to want a hostile alliance—and potentially nuclear weapons—along their border. But Russia's key interests do not reasonably include dismembering Ukraine."

"Meanwhile the U.S. is not crazy for wanting Ukraine to be free to connect economically and culturally with Western Europe," he added. "But it's not a key interest, requiring a confrontation between nuclear-armed states, to insist that Ukraine has the 'right' to join NATO."


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