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Why negotiating an end to the Russia-Ukraine war should be a priority


It's been more than 10 months since Russia invaded Ukraine. And while both sides have suggested at various times that they're open to peace talks, no public effort is underway. Georgetown professor of international affairs Charles Kupchan says it's time to get serious about negotiations. He's also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and joins us now. Welcome to the program.

CHARLES KUPCHAN: Good to be with you.

RASCOE: So Ukraine at this point seems to be doing pretty well in the war. They're regaining territory they lost last spring. They're causing some serious damage to the Russian army and its troops. Given all of that, why is now the time for negotiations?

KUPCHAN: Well, I think that it makes sense for three different reasons. One is that this is a war that's doing enormous damage to Ukraine. We're hearing there are up to 100,000 casualties and deaths on both sides. And I do worry about the risks of escalation - escalation either because Russia tries to interdict weapons that are coming in and hits NATO territory or because Putin uses nuclear weapons. Second concern is the global blowback effects. We are seeing very serious shortages of food, rising energy prices. And then finally, even though the U.S. and Europe have demonstrated remarkable solidarity and resolve, I do think we have to ask, could this coalition go wobbly eventually?

RASCOE: So I know that you've argued in Op-Eds that a peace deal would likely need to include Ukraine giving up its aspirations to join NATO. Why do you think that would help, and why do you think that's necessary?

KUPCHAN: I think that Putin invaded Ukraine for a number of reasons, but there's no question that he was concerned about NATO showing up on the other side of Russia's thousand-mile-plus border with Ukraine. And so I do think that a lasting and stable peace for the region does require Ukrainian neutrality - armed neutrality.

RASCOE: Yeah, I guess that's one of my questions then is, Ukraine wants to be in NATO so that it can protect itself from Russia. Russia has shown it is very aggressive towards Ukraine. So how would Ukraine be safe without being a part of the alliance?

KUPCHAN: It would be safe through armaments, continuing armaments of the sort that we see now. And I'm guessing that part of the strategy of the Biden administration is not just giving Ukraine the ability to take back more territory and blunt the Russian attack, it is also investing in Ukraine's military for the long term.

RASCOE: So you've also said that these negotiations, if there is an agreement reached, that it would likely need to have some sort of territorial settlement. That means likely that Ukraine would have to give up some of the land that Russia occupies right now. There are people that, you know, I've talked to on this show that say that would be rewarding Russia's aggression. Is it rewarding them if Russia gets some of that territory?

KUPCHAN: Everything else being equal, Ukraine should succeed in driving Russia completely from its territory. The question, though, is, at what cost? And I do think that it would be hard for Putin to swallow complete defeat. And as a consequence, yes, hard decisions have to be made about how far Ukraine goes. I don't think that we should overstate the consequences of that outcome. Would it be to reward Russia's effort to grab land from its neighbor? Yes. But is it the end of the rules-based system? Is it a grievous setback for democracy? No.

RASCOE: You mention the cost of this war, and there has been an incredible cost to Ukraine. Is part of the issue that it may be hard for Ukrainians to accept anything other than total victory because of what they have been through?

KUPCHAN: No question that Zelenskyy faces a domestic populace that is angry and should be angry. And yes, there is pressure in Ukrainian politics to go all the way. On the other hand, going all the way may mean years of further destruction in Ukraine, may mean the possible use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. So I think that as the war goes on, the Ukrainian position may become more flexible.

RASCOE: What role do you see the U.S. and President Biden playing in, you know, trying to get these negotiations to come about? You know, and do you think that some of this may already be happening behind the scenes?

KUPCHAN: Well, President Biden has been explicit since the war began that the U.S. goal here is to put Ukraine in as good a position as possible at the negotiating table. So Washington envisages some kind of diplomatic endgame. But I don't think we're yet at the point of seeing serious negotiations launched.

RASCOE: Charles Kupchan is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown. Thank you so much for joining us today.

KUPCHAN: It's been my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.