Written by Ron Levy, Associate professor, Australian National University
As Russia’s military losses mount in Ukraine, the rhetoric surrounding Russia’s war is increasingly apocalyptic. Few in Ukraine are calling for talks, and US President Joe Biden has indicated he will respect Ukraine’s wishes.
Yet could direct talks between top Russian and Western leaders help to avoid disaster?
During the Cold War – a time now often compared to the present point in history – Soviet and Western antagonists managed to hold several successful dialogues on matters including nuclear de-escalation. Cold War examples suggest that not merely “talks”, but “summits” – symbolising high-level dialogues between equals – may help to initiate a rhetorical reset.
What are the arguments for and against such high-level talks?
The potential downsides of talking are clear. Some commentators have argued that talking would reward Putin for his nuclear brinkmanship.
Indeed, there’s no question that, besides talking, there must be other strong forms of response to the invasion.
Another argument assumes Putin’s ultimate aim is to incorporate Ukraine into the Russian nation, and short of that, any talks will inevitably fail.
Still others simply think it’s morally unacceptable to talk with aggressors.
This isn’t a new debate. Leaders have often grappled with whether to talk with enemies, even if they abhor their enemies’ actions.
For instance, similar questions, focusing on Iran at the time, featured in the campaign between presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008.
This time around, Western leaders from Biden in the US, to Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland, have adopted McCain’s harder line.
The case for talks
Those who would call for talks might ask, however, if it’s realistic to expect wars to end by simply waiting for the initial aggressor to admit they were wrong.
Of course, another option is to wait for the war to run its course on the ground. But despite its setbacks, Russia’s resources for sustaining the war are nowhere near fully depleted.
Choosing not to talk with the other side is understandable. When a war is vicious and unjust, it must be called out.
But what if, by expressing our moral disapproval by choosing not to talk, the war we disapprove of paradoxically lasts longer? What if the consequences are many more deaths?
Is it right simply to blame the other side for the extra deaths? Or do we bear some obligation to talk in a bid to foreshorten the war, even if we didn’t cause it?
Status grievance as a root of war
Previous wars have often been explained in part by status grievance – the historical humiliation of a group, leading to a score to settle. Of course, the grievances may be wholly misguided. And status grievance shouldn’t be a legitimate cause for war.
Yet whether we think it’s legitimate or not, status grievance is in fact a contributing cause of war. We might ask Russia why it can’t simply accept its diminished post-Cold War position. But it may be no use. Status grievance cannot in most cases be wished away or defeated by rational argument. To those it animates, status grievance feels as real and rational as any other cause for war.
Russia’s rationale for attacking Ukraine seems to be a paradigm case of status grievance. On the Ukrainian side is a struggle against conquest, a struggle for sovereignty, and a struggle for democratic and liberal values – each clearly worth fighting for.
Yet on the other side is a settling of scores on a wider scale. In his speech addressing Russia’s efforts to annex four eastern provinces in Ukraine, Putin’s focus was not on Ukraine, but on a catalogue of misdeeds of a West bloc too powerful to be trusted. He cited the Western record of colonising, enslaving and weakening other peoples and powers. He didn’t turn a similarly critical gaze onto Russia itself.
What would a summit look like?
At the moment, a range of academics and politicians are hoping for a summit, although only a few are willing to say so out loud and risk blowback.
If a summit did take place, it could perhaps include Russia and other leading global powers as the main parties. The United Nations or a neutral government might play host.
But what would the parties talk about? Many wars have underlying causes based in clashes of values. Without addressing these, we may struggle to end even the most horrifying wars.
In Northern Ireland, for instance, the 1998 peace agreement formally adopted values such as “mutual respect” and “equality”.
It may cost nothing for the sides in the current war to hear each other out about values. For instance, there’s no harm in Western powers recognising their adversary’s equal worth. We can readily respect Russia’s historical scientific and cultural accomplishments.
At any summit, the signing of a treaty would be ideal, but it isn’t necessary. A merely informal statement of mutual respect between the historical blocs could be pursued, with the aim of defraying some of the underlying forces sustaining the war.
Russia seems to crave acknowledgement of its high status as a global power, and as an accomplished people. That is not a hard concession for the West to make. Yet it may offer Putin a face-saving way to begin de-escalating.
Summit ground rules would need to be stipulated. These could include discussion based on reciprocity: for example, listening by each side to the values and grievances of the other.
Finally, there could be no substantive preconditions – no requirement that, before a summit could take place, one side first acknowledge the errors of its ways. We’d need to be far more realistic. Peacemaking always involves two or more parties to a conflict that, though they view each other’s causes as illegitimate, proceed to talk anyway.
Sooner or later, summit talks may take place. Perhaps the only question is when. Leaders in the West, representing people deeply disturbed by Russia’s invasion, may not be ready. As the Congressional progressives found out, there are political risks to even floating the idea.
The arguments for a summit are at least as clear as those against, however. With careful design, and a little luck, a summit could conceivably reset the discourse around a war that is currently stuck in cycles of escalation.