The Progressive Letter on Ukraine: Some Questions & Answers

Stephen R. Shalom

Refugees from Ukraine in Kraków, Poland CC 4.0

THE CONGRESSIONAL PROGRESSIVE Caucus sent a letter on Ukraine to President Biden signed by 30 of its members on October 24. Within 24 hours the letter had been formally retracted. What are we to make of all this?

1. Did the Progressive Caucus mess up?

The letter was not formally sent on behalf of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), which has more than 100 members. But it came from the office of CPC chair Pramila Jayapal, and the retraction came from Jayapal under the name of the CPC. So it seems appropriate to refer to it as the Progressive Caucus letter.

The letter was reportedly initially drafted in June and signatures obtained at around that time, though it was not formally released until Oct. 24. Comments from some of the signatories indicate that they were not forewarned about the release of the letter four months later, when the situation in Ukraine was very different. In June, Russian forces were on the offensive and much of eastern and southern Ukraine seemed to be hanging in the balance. Today, of course, Ukrainian forces have made major military advances and they clearly have the initiative. Also today, Russia has greatly expanded its missile and drone attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure. And just a week ago, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives warned that if the GOP gains control of the House in the November elections there would be no blank check for Ukraine.

Clearly it is inappropriate to send a group letter, regardless of its content, many months after the signatures were obtained under sharply changed circumstances. Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-CA) said she signed on June 30, but would not have signed today. This was a major blunder on the part of the CPC. The letter obviously had been updated since June (it referred to the Russian annexation of four Ukrainian oblasts), but edited haphazardly, not referring to the Ukrainian offensive liberating a bunch of territory or to the Russian bombardment of power plants designed to deny Ukraine’s population heat and electricity.

2. Did the letter betray Ukraine?

Some supporters of Ukraine’s just war against Russian aggression denounced the letter in the harshest terms, charging that the signatories had “join[ed] the #MAGA cult,” and displayed “breathtaking” ignorance, showing they were “beyond naïve, stupid, and irresponsible.” These critics, however, sharply overstated the problems with the letter.

The letter would have been highly objectionable had it counterposed diplomacy to providing Ukraine with the weapons it needs for its self-defense, or had it called for Washington to make a deal behind Kyiv’s back. But the letter does neither of these.

It praises the provision of military, economic, and humanitarian aid that “was critical to enable the Ukrainian people, through their courageous fighting and heroic sacrifices, to deal a historic military defeat to Russia, forcing Russia to dramatically scale back the stated goals of the invasion.” It calls for “pairing” military and economic aid with a “proactive diplomatic push.”

Some in the peace movement have opposed the delivery of U.S. weapons to Ukraine. Three months ago, for example, Code Pink initiated a campaign urging supporters to write to their Congressional representatives demanding that they “vote NO on the next Ukraine weapons bill.”

“While some of our progressive allies in Congress want to pair more weapons with negotiations–believing few in Congress will support negotiations alone, we at CODEPINK believe fueling an ongoing war serves as a disincentive to reach a diplomatic settlement. Enough weapons!

Of course, had this advice been followed last summer, it is likely that Ukraine would have been militarily defeated, with much of its territory under Russian occupation, with consequences all too horrible to imagine, as the tortured bodies recovered from liberated areas confirm.

When the Progressive Caucus letter came out, Code Pink wrote to its mailing list:

“The next step is for Congress to acknowledge that there is no military solution and that weapons only prolong the fighting.

Tell your Congress member to make a public statement in support of a ceasefire and diplomatic settlement to the war in Ukraine. Urge your Rep to vote against more weapons that fan the flames of war.”

But this message from Code Pink was not the position of the CPC letter, which explicitly supported weapons for Ukraine.

Likewise, the CPC letter did not call for negotiating a deal over the heads of the Ukrainians. It repeatedly insisted that any diplomatic arrangement would have to be acceptable to Ukraine:

“if there is a way to end the war while preserving a free and independent Ukraine, it is America’s responsibility to pursue every diplomatic avenue to support such a solution that is acceptable to the people of Ukraine”

The letter hoped that talks could “establish security guarantees for a free and independent Ukraine that are acceptable for all parties, particularly Ukrainians.”

And the letter affirmed:

“We agree with the Administration’s perspective that it is not America’s place to pressure Ukraine’s government regarding sovereign decisions, and with the principle you [President Biden] have enunciated that there should be “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.”

3. Does this mean that the content of the letter was unobjectionable?

No. The letter can be properly criticized for its ambiguity regarding a “ceasefire.”

A ceasefire is a suspension of military activity by both parties to a conflict. As peace advocates it might seem that we should always support ceasefires, just as we should always support “peace.” But as Noam Chomsky famously observed some time ago, “Everyone wants peace, even Hitler and Genghis Khan. The question always is: On what terms? Under whose direction?” Stopping the killing, which a ceasefire accomplishes, will sometimes be the only thing we care about. But there are situations in which a ceasefire undermines rather than promotes peace and justice and that could be the case in Ukraine.

When an aggressor has seized another country’s territory, there are two sorts of ceasefires. One is a ceasefire that is part of a multi-step process — stop the shooting and then the aggressor immediately withdraws its forces to the pre-war lines. This sort of ceasefire can lead to a just outcome. For example, as a result of the Paris Peace Treaty in 1973, there was a ceasefire in Vietnam, but – according to the terms of the treaty — this was followed by the withdrawal of U.S. troops and the end of the war.

But sometimes a ceasefire is only a ceasefire in place, with any additional terms left to further negotiations. With this sort of ceasefire the aggressor will be at a great advantage in the ensuing talks because in the absence of any agreement the aggressor retains control of the ill-gotten territory. Think about the various peace talks that have taken place between Israel and the Palestinians since 1967 when Israeli conquered the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem: Israel has always had the crucial upper-hand because if no agreement is reached, then the status quo of Israeli occupation continues. So there is no incentive for Israel to make concessions. Likewise, for Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire today, with talks to follow, would put Kyiv in an extremely disadvantageous position; it would mean negotiating over what fraction of Putin’s illegal conquests Russia would get to keep.

Another potential problem with a ceasefire arises in the situation where the aggressor’s forces are being routed and they need a pause in the fighting to allow them to rebuild their military potential. In Ukraine today Russia would like nothing more than to freeze military activity for a while to give it the opportunity to dig in its forces in the territories it has illegally seized, repair its supply lines, and train a new crop of soldiers to make up for its battlefield losses. This would be just a temporary respite from fighting, with the aggressor having the opportunity to improve its military position before going on the offensive again.

So the question is not “do we support a ceasefire in Ukraine?” Of course we do. Every conflict where there is not an unconditional surrender ends with a ceasefire. But what are the other terms, aside from the ceasefire? The CPC letter does not clarify what sort of ceasefire they are calling for. But unless the terms are specified, a ceasefire could lead to a more unjust and less peaceful outcome.

4. Has the United States been blocking diplomacy in Ukraine?

A myth has spread widely on the left that Kyiv and Moscow were on the verge of an agreement to end the war when Washington and London scuttled the deal. In fact, however, the Biden administration and Boris Johnson have always said they would accept any deal Ukraine accepted.

When Zelensky floated the idea of neutralization in March, the U.S. comment was “This is ultimately a question for our Ukrainian partners to decide – to decide the terms of diplomacy, what they are willing to pursue, what they are not willing to pursue.” When asked in late April whether the United States would be open to accepting Ukraine as an unaligned neutral nation, Secretary of State Blinken declared (at 1:25:02):

“We … are not going to be more Ukrainian than the Ukrainians. These are decisions for them to make. Our purpose is to make sure that they have within their hands the ability to repel the Russian aggression and indeed to strengthen their hand at an eventual negotiating table. We’ve seen no sign to date that President Putin is serious about meaningful negotiations. If he is, and if the Ukrainians engage, we’ll support that.”

Ukraine’s view on the terms of an agreement did change following an April visit to Kyiv by Boris Johnson, but not because Johnson demanded that Ukraine fight on (how could Zelensky be pressured to continue a war it did not wish to pursue?) Rather, as Volodymyr Artiukh and Taras Fedirko have shown, it was Johnson’s assurance that military support would be forthcoming that allowed Ukraine to do what it wanted to do. The military situation on the ground had turned in Ukraine’s favor and the atrocities at Bucha had shown the consequences of Russian occupation.

The deal that was purportedly thwarted was never very realistic in the first place. First, Putin had apparently rejected a similar deal when Russia first invaded Ukraine. In any event, however, Ukraine had always insisted on external security guarantees if it accepted neutralization. But what sort of guarantee could the West offer? Clearly the vague verbal guarantees of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum had been inadequate (Russia, the United States, and the UK had pledged to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, to refrain from the threat or use of force against it, and to consult in the event of violations). But to give a formal guarantee to come to Ukraine’s aid in the event its neutrality were threatened would be the same as the NATO chapter 5 guarantee. And if NATO has been reluctant to allow Ukraine to join, it would be equally reluctant to afford it this sort of security guarantee. (One wonders whether those who put the primary responsibility for this war on NATO favor such a guarantee?)

There is nothing that suggests that Washington or London or Brussels blocked a diplomatic solution that Kyiv favored.

5. Do we support diplomacy in Ukraine?

Yes, of course, every diplomatic avenue should be pursued, not to deal behind Ukraine’s back, but to further the prospects of a free, democratic, and sovereign Ukraine.

For example, Washington should let Putin know which sanctions it is prepared to lift if he reaches an agreement acceptable to Ukraine and what actions by Moscow would cross red lines. Washington too should make clear to Russia its willingness to pursue arms control agreements, regarding intermediate range nuclear weapons and other matters. The United States should attempt to reach  “deconfliction” agreements with Russia to minimize the dangers of inadvertent superpower clashes.

The Biden administration should also discuss with Ukraine what the conclusion of this war might look like. Ukrainian troops are not going to march into Moscow, so how is the war to end? Washington, correctly, does not have identical interests with Kyiv. The United States needs to make sure that actions that make sense from the Ukrainian perspective don’t incur too high a risk of nuclear war. Thus, Biden properly refused Zelensky’s call for a no-fly zone because that would entail a serious likelihood of US and Russian forces directly engaging one another. A nd Biden has insisted that US-provided weapons not be used to attack Russia proper. If there are other limits on the support Washington might give Ukraine, these need to be clearly communicated to Kyiv. If a common position can be arrived at for the endgame, then the United States ought to push this solution diplomatically – with Moscow, but also with other governments.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), a signatory to the CPC letter, issued a long personal statement following the letter’s retraction. It was in many respects an admirable expression of support for Ukraine’s just war of self-defense against Russian aggression. But his statement included this:

“All champions of democracy over autocracy—whether they call themselves progressives, conservatives or liberals—should be doing whatever we can to ensure that Ukraine wins this just war as quickly as possible. Diplomacy by the Biden administration will inevitably follow as sustained diplomacy always marks the conclusion of war—even with tyrants and despots. But first Ukraine must win—let us continue to unite as Americans and focus on that central and historic imperative.”

This wording seems to say that there should be no diplomacy until Ukraine wins. That position seems doubly wrong. First, it suggests that there is no appropriate role for diplomacy until there is a victory, which would mean foregoing the beneficial diplomatic moves that might be pursued as indicated above. And, second, it seems to tell Ukraine that it ought to keep fighting until victory, no matter the costs. But just as Washington should not force Ukraine into making concessions, neither should it be encouraging Ukraine to fight on regardless of the costs.

Early in the war John Ganz expressed what seems the proper attitude for we supporters of Ukraine to take:

“The spirit of defiance shown by the Ukrainian people and their elected leaders is something I deeply admire, but I want to emphasize it’s admiration I feel and not enthusiasm: the decision by a civilian population to take up arms against an invader is a grave one and will come with terrible costs. But, again, that recognition does not diminish at all my profound respect for this kind of courage.

***

A romantic part of me certainly wants to see this vile and outrageous act of aggression thoroughly defeated and punished, but in truth I just sincerely hope there’s a diplomatic resolution to this war very soon, for the sake of the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the world.”

If diplomacy can help lessen the terrible costs that the people of Ukraine are paying while respecting their wishes, then by all means it should be pursued.

The Washington Post’s initial story breaking the news of the Progressive Caucus letter  asserted that Biden had been urged “to dramatically shift his strategy on the Ukraine war and pursue direct negotiations with Russia.” But actually, its recommendations were not so different from current U.S. policy. Mainstream academic Daniel Drezner tweeted: “Having read the letter my hot take is that it’s neither the outrage that mainstream supporters of Ukraine believe nor is it the out-of-the-box thinking that progressives believe. It’s a giant nothingburger.” But underlining the fact that we should always support efforts to achieve a just peace is not nothing. Unfortunately, the clumsy handling of the letter’s release – generating push-back as much from signatories as from the foreign policy “blob” that tries to squelch dissent – weakened this important message.

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