Time to Talk to Russia
Renewed contacts signal a welcome change in tone.
Despite the risk of escalation reaching levels unimagined since the Cold War, unlike during the Cuban missile crisis, channels of communication between Washington and Moscow have remained disconnected. In a recent piece in the Financial Times, Gideon Rachman reports that “Although some might assume there is more secret diplomacy going on than meets the eye, those who should know suggest there are few channels open with the Kremlin.”
There are subtle suggestions, though, that the lines might be, if not lighting up, glowing dimly. Though Russia claims they have always been willing to talk, there seems to be a burst of recent signals from Moscow.
On October 26, Vladimir Putin tried a novel channel of communication, sending a message to Zelensky via President Umaro Mokhtar Sissoco Embalo of Guinea Bissau. “I was in Russia with President Putin,” the president said. He then gave the message that Putin “asked me to forward you what we spoke about, something he thinks would be very important. He wishes and thinks that a direct dialogue should happen between your two countries.”
That was not the Russian president’s first attempt. On September 30, Putin called on Kiev “to return back to the negotiating table.” On October 11, responding to a Turkish offer to mediate talks between Russia and the West, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded that Russia would be open to that suggestion and "was willing to engage with the United States or with Turkey on ways to end the war."
On that same day, Lavrov claimed that "Should an offer for a meeting between Putin and Joe Biden no [sic] the sidelines of the G20 summit be filed, Moscow will review it." And still on that same day, after speaking to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, the Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, said that "The importance of declaring a ceasefire urgently in order to prevent further loss of lives and to re-establish peace and stability in the region was emphasized, and it was gladly observed that there was a common understandıng regarding the ceasefire.”
Ten days later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Putin appeared to be “more open to negotiations.”
The flurry of offers has not been answered by Washington or Kiev. Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky has invoked a decree banning negotiating with Putin. And “U.S. officials . . . have ruled out the idea of pushing or even nudging Ukraine to the negotiating table." Zelensky responded to the message conveyed to him from Putin by refusing talks until Russia recognizes Ukraine’s territory, borders, and security. The State Department has dismissed Lavrov’s proclamation that Moscow is willing to engage with the U.S. on ways to end the war as “posturing” and replied that Washington has “very little confidence” that Lavrov’s offer is genuine.
In response to the claim that Moscow would consider a meeting between Putin and Biden on the sidelines of the G20 summit, Biden said in a CNN interview that "I don’t see any rationale to meet with him now" and insisted that "I have no intention of meeting with him." Biden then expanded the rejection of talks beyond the US, saying, "So I’m not about to, nor is anyone else prepared to, negotiate with Russia about them staying in Ukraine, keeping any part of Ukraine, et cetera."
U.S. officials have not only ruled out a meeting between Biden and Putin at the G20, they are even putting plans in place to make sure Biden does not run into Putin in a hallway or group photo.
Despite the White House’s insistence on keeping the lines of communication closed, other voices have emerged. Thirty members of Biden’s party in the House sent a letter to the president urging him to begin a “proactive diplomatic push, redoubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a ceasefire.” The signatories went so far as to say that there is “a responsibility for the United States to seriously explore all possible avenues, including direct engagement with Russia. . . .”
Though the White House rejected the letter’s urging, its writing represented a significant change in tone on Capitol Hill. According to the Washington Post, it was the first time Democrats had broken from the unanimous note favoring supporting the fight against Russia and openly advocated negotiating. However, facing pressure, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the leader of the Progressive Caucus of which all of the signatories were members, has since retracted the letter.
While a few Democrats in the House were writing to Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was talking to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on the phone. While the call may have focused on measures to avoid accidental clashes between U.S. and Russian planes and ships in the Baltic, the Pentagon says that “Secretary Austin emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication amid the ongoing war against Ukraine.” According to Russian reporting, the two discussed “current issues of international security, including the situation in Ukraine.”
Two days later, Shoigu called Austin, and the two spoke again after not talking since May 13. For the second time, Austin “reaffirmed the value of continued communication amid Russia’s unlawful and unjustified war against Ukraine.”
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Austin wasn’t the only one talking to Shoigu. On October 23, Shoigu also spoke to officials in France, Turkey, and the U.K. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace expressed a “desire to de-escalate this conflict.” He added that “the UK stands ready to assist” if “Ukraine and Russia seek a resolution to the war.” Like the letter to Biden, the British defense minister’s comments represent a potentially important change in tone.
On October 24, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley talked to Chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov for the first time since May. The two top generals reportedly agreed “to keep lines of communication open.”
Though far from negotiations, these contacts represent the first small openings in the closed channels of communication. Those openings are accompanied by the first whispers to negotiate, or to assist in negotiations, from the U.S. and U.K. They are small. But, coupled with increased signals from Moscow that they may be willing to talk, they may offer the first hope of a change in tone.