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Why Ukraine Negotiations Are Both Futile and Necessary

Churchill famously said it is better to jaw-jaw than war-war, but as he himself reflected, that’s not always possible. 

While a ceasefire in Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine would be the answer to many prayers, there was no sign of it Monday. Ukrainian and Russian delegations ended five hours of negotiations without agreement. Russian forces heavily bombed the city of Kharkiv the whole time.   

It’s possible that Putin, increasingly aware that he has miscalculated badly, will seek a way to avoid a war of attrition in Kyiv. But images of a 40-mile-long Russian military convoy heading toward the Ukrainian capital Monday night suggest instead that he has made the grisly choice to double down.

Though the Russian delegation indicated there would be further negotiations soon, there is no obvious off-ramp for Putin now. With each passing day, it becomes more difficult to see what a negotiated “solution” would look like.

Having formally recognized two pseudo republics in the Donbas region, Putin would hardly repudiate his whole pretense. And given the scale of the attack and the civilian targets, negotiations would be unlikely to deter a war-crimes investigation. He has become not simply a pariah but one of history’s monsters. His country will be deeply isolated, economically hobbled and cut off in all sorts of ways from the rest of the world as long as he rules.

But although negotiations seem futile, the search to end the invasion must continue. Putin is capable of inflicting tremendous harm, and the prospect of a nuclear escalation is unthinkable. 

Meanwhile, the free world’s response has begun to crystallize. As the reality of a major war in the center of Europe has sunk in, so too have the broader stakes, which Ukraine’s government has been at pains to emphasize. It has taken us a while to connect those dots.

After Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, realists argued that the West should accept that Ukraine is fully within Russia’s sphere of influence. The idea of a Western-oriented Ukraine was seen as a liberal fantasy; it would serve better as a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia, the argument went.

Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who strongly disagreed with the Crimea grab, was gunned down in front of the Kremlin for his views seven years ago. The West imposed sanctions that caused some trouble, but Putin adapted and, in some ways, made his economy more resilient.

“We should not be fooled,” international-law scholar Thomas Grant wrote at the time. “The situation in Ukraine is clear-cut. And, if Russia prevails in that situation, there will be consequences for our own security.” Now a senior research fellow at the University of Cambridge, Grant says the Ukraine invasion, because of its scale and the pattern it shows, poses a bigger threat to the legal stability of international territorial borders.

It’s a sobering thought. If you think of the millions of ways individuals, companies, states and institutions are connected around the world, remove the immutable principle of stable borders and it’s like pulling the rug out. Suddenly you need to price in a lot more risk, uncertainty and volatility. Your country and my country may be big, allied and safe, but many others aren’t. And there will be a race to be armed to the teeth.  

Normally the prospect of fighting the most serious security threat in most of our lifetimes, armed only with the United Nations Charter and other postwar legalese, would be a cause for despair. But the brazenness of Russia’s invasion and the threat it poses to Ukraine and broader European security have brought a swift and robust international response. 

Putin, ever the former KGB officer, tried to coopt the language of international law in his rambling announcement of his “peacekeeping” mission. He wants the Crimea annexation recognized as a precondition of any deal. He realizes that legalese gives legitimacy to state action and will now be used against him.

“International law plays a role in coordinating the behavior of other actors. The fact that we have clear red lines that were broken makes it easier to coordinate a response,” says Dapo Akande, a professor of public international law at Oxford University. Of course, Russia’s action also massively tests international institutions and the laws that provide the plumbing for our world. 

A more proactive round of sanctions is already helping to unplug various segments of Russia’s economy from the global system, holding its leaders to account and pursuing the assets of those close to Putin. The freezing of Russian Central Bank assets and Switzerland’s decision to join sanctions are particularly impactful. And while Russia’s veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council effectively paralyzes that body, a Cold War-era mechanism has allowed the broader emergency General Assembly session to debate the invasion of Ukraine and vote on a resolution later this week. It won’t have the practical impact of cutting off banks from the SWIFT payment system, but it will be a measure of the international opinion arrayed against Putin and will perhaps encourage dissent in Russia. 

That resolve will have to withstand the costs and pressures that arise in the days and weeks ahead. Negotiations, if they resume, offer only the slimmest of hopes that this madness will be brought to an end. In the meantime, decoupling Russia from the global community and defeating Putin are the West’s most urgent tasks.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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