ukraine war

Progressives’ Ukraine Letter Was Right (and Pointless)

Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to the White House Monday in which the liberal legislators advised Joe Biden to seek a diplomatic resolution in Russia’s war against Ukraine.

The CPC did not counsel capitulation to Vladimir Putin’s war aims. Rather, the caucus argued that any negotiated settlement must preserve “a free and independent Ukraine,” enjoy the support of the Ukrainian people, and include “security guarantees” that would oblige major military powers (presumably including western ones) to defend Ukraine in the event of a future Russian invasion. Critically, the CPC stipulated that the White House must not coerce Ukraine into such an agreement, as “it is not America’s place to pressure Ukraine’s government regarding sovereign decisions.” In other words: The United States must not threaten to withdraw military aid in order to persuade Ukraine of the merits of a peace deal but must instead maintain aid for as long as Ukraine deems appropriate.

Yet the letter was almost universally condemned for selling out Ukraine. Signatories began distancing themselves from the remarks within hours of their publication. By Tuesday afternoon, progressives had formally withdrawn the letter. House progressives claimed that it was drafted in late June and that its publication this week had not been approved by all signatories. CPC chair Pramila Jayapal claimed the letter had been released by her staff without approval, though there is some reason to doubt this being the case. Further, while the letter may initially have been drafted in June, it must have been updated ahead of its release as the existing text refers to recent Russian actions in Ukraine.

On one level, the controversy the letter generated is easy to understand. The missive came one week after House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy suggested his party might try to cut off funding for Ukraine should Republicans secure congressional control in November. In this context, many reporters interpreted the CPC’s letter as a sign of a bipartisan weariness with the war effort. This impression was furthered by expressions of war weariness in the letter itself. The authors wrote that “the catastrophic possibilities of nuclear escalation and miscalculation” would “only increase the longer this war continues.” They also suggested that a prolonged conflict would “spark acute crises in global hunger and poverty” and that a “war that is allowed to grind on for years — potentially escalating in intensity and geographic scope — threatens to displace, kill, and immiserate far more Ukrainians while causing hunger, poverty, and death around the world.”

On another level, though, the brouhaha over the CPC’s statement is bizarre. In the document, progressives put forward a framework for peace that is roughly as hard-line as any proposed by their party’s hawks. The liberal legislators sketch a diplomatic resolution in which Ukraine remains “free and independent” while enjoying the protection of security guarantees from western powers, an arrangement that would bring Ukraine under NATO’s security umbrella, in fact if not in law. The letter does not counsel any territorial concessions. Rather, in listing the “difficulties involved in engaging Russia,” it cites Putin’s recent “decision to make additional illegal annexations of Ukrainian territory.”

The letter did encourage the White House to launch a “proactive diplomatic push” for a ceasefire, including “direct talks with Russia.” In its write-up of the letter, the Washington Post framed that proposal specifically as constituting a demand for Biden to “dramatically shift his strategy on the Ukraine war.” Yet even this is a bit of a stretch: The day before the letter’s release, U.S. Defense secretary Lloyd Austin spoke directly with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu. And that was the second conversation between the two men in the previous three days.

In other words: There are indeed open lines of communication between Washington and Moscow. If Putin were prepared to accept a diplomatic resolution that preserved Ukraine’s independence, restored its pre–February 2022 borders, and provided the nation with de facto NATO protection — in exchange for sanctions relief — the White House would know about it. And in such a hypothetical, the CPC would be absolutely right in imploring the administration to seal the deal.

But there’s no reason to believe Putin is prepared to accept such an agreement. Putin did not invade Ukraine for the sake of providing Kyiv with NATO’s de facto protection. Further, given both the current state of Ukrainian public opinion and the optimism conferred by its recent military successes, it is unimaginable that Ukraine would consent to territorial concessions in the present context in the absence of western pressure (which the CPC letter forbids).

Thus the problem with the CPC’s letter isn’t that it conveyed a heretically conciliatory position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict but, rather, a pointlessly banal one. Who needed to be told it would be better if the Russia-Ukraine war ended sooner rather than later? Or that the U.S. should maintain diplomatic communications with Russia? Or that, if Putin offered a settlement that was acceptable to Ukrainians, the United States should support that settlement? Okay, it is possible that some Republican hawks may have needed to hear that last bit, but there’s no reason to think the Biden administration does.

There is a coherent critique of the administration’s current Ukraine policy with some support from parts of the U.S. left; that critique maintains, among other things, that Ukraine and its backers must be prepared to make significant territorial concessions to Russia in exchange for peace. The logic of this argument varies between proponents. Some argue that it is simply unlikely that Ukraine will be able to push Russian forces back beyond its borders in the remotely near-term future and that the economic and humanitarian costs of a years-long conflict are unacceptably high. Therefore, the U.S. should proactively seek a diplomatic agreement that affords Russia some minor territorial concessions, which would allow Putin to save face with his domestic constituencies while preserving Ukrainian sovereignty over the bulk of its territory.

A distinct iteration of this argument holds that Ukraine may be able to deal a total defeat to Russian forces but that such an outcome would have catastrophic consequences. Unable to prevail through conventional means, Putin would surely resort to either terror bombing of Ukrainian cities, a tactical nuclear strike, or both. Thus the only way to avert catastrophe is to provide Putin with an off-ramp, which is to say territorial concessions he can sell to Russians as victories.

True, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may have a hard time getting the Ukrainian people to swallow such bitter pills, especially when their army has been gaining ground. But the United States can shift the boundaries of political debate within Ukraine by placing conditions on its military aid. As Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute has written, “Any peace initiative will have to come from the United States … The Ukrainian government’s ability to negotiate is crippled by (understandable) fury at the Russian invasion and Russian atrocities; by pressure from Ukrainian hardliners, especially in the military; and, increasingly, by the government’s own rhetoric, which is committing Ukraine to goals (like the recovery of Crimea) that could only be achieved by total military victory over Russia.”

I’m unpersuaded by the argument that the United States could broker a lasting peace if only it were willing to dictate terms to Ukraine and make minor concessions to Russia. Beyond the humanitarian implications of allowing Russia to perpetually subjugate some Ukrainian territories to its rule, it is difficult to imagine Ukraine making such painful concessions in the absence of robust security guarantees. It is one thing to trade land for lasting peace; it is quite another to give an unrepentant aggressor the opportunity to rearm and then launch another invasion, this time from a border closer to your capital. And yet I have difficulty believing Putin is prepared to acquiesce to the West’s providing Ukraine with a security guarantee. The extension of the U.S. security umbrella to Ukraine was ostensibly one of the hypotheticals Putin had launched this war to preempt. Further, he has reason to believe that his leverage over both Ukraine and the West will increase as winter descends and consumers become hungrier for Russian gas to heat their homes. Therefore, he has little reason to make any dramatic concessions to Ukraine right now.

At the same time, I don’t fully identify with moralistic denunciations of the doves’ perspective, since the merits of their case seem to boil down to suppositions about Putin’s psyche that I have no real way of falsifying. Putin commands roughly 6,000 nuclear warheads, which means he has the legal authority to end the world. If it is genuinely the case that Putin would respond to total defeat in his conventional war with Ukraine by resorting to nuclear weapons, then it’s possible that appeasing him in some manner might be the least bad of our awful options — though, of course, there are also risks to establishing a precedent by which nuclear powers can claim contested territory through atomic ransom. My best guess is that Putin would not resort to nuclear weapons because such an escalation would make little strategic sense and Putin seems like a rational actor (albeit one capable of grave misjudgments). But, ya know, maybe he isn’t?

Without perfect knowledge of (1) what Putin is actually willing to settle for, (2) what diplomatic gestures the U.S. has and has not made through secret channels, (3) whether Ukraine has a plausible chance of driving Russia off its territory in the medium-term future, (4) how Putin would respond to such a development, and (5) how other powers would respond to a scenario in which Putin appeared to secure concessions through nuclear ransom, it seems impossible to say with full confidence which course of action would minimize suffering or maximize justice.

I do not trust the U.S. government to do everything in its power to foster peace. Uncle Sam doesn’t have a great track record in that regard. But I also don’t trust Putin to abide by the terms of a diplomatic resolution unless it has the backing of a western military force. And in any case, I have trouble seeing the plausible peace agreement the Quincy Institute often suggests is right there for the taking.

What I do know is that the CPC’s letter read like an awkward compromise between ardent doves and politically cautious progressives. The result was a statement that lacked the courage of its own contrarianism. If progressives aren’t prepared to countenance the U.S. pressuring Ukraine into concessions or into ceding Ukrainian territory to Russia, compromising Kyiv’s independence from Moscow, or leaving a postwar Ukraine outside the West’s security umbrella, then, for all practical purposes, their position was indistinguishable from Biden’s even before they withdrew their letter.

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