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Saturday, July 13, 2024

Trump the Peacemaker? How his presidency might help end the war in Ukraine

There are indications that the Republican candidate has a compromise plan which is based on reality, not propaganda or wishful thinking

The likely next president of the US, Donald Trump, has signaled that he has a plan for bringing the war in Ukraine to an end. Or, at least, two of his advisers have such a plan. More importantly, they have submitted it to Trump. And most importantly, they have said that he has responded positively.

As one of the plan’s authors has put it, “I’m not claiming he agreed with it or agreed with every word of it, but we were pleased to get the feedback we did.” It is true that Trump has also let it be known that he is not officially endorsing the plan. However, it is obvious that this is a trial balloon which has been launched with his approval. Otherwise, we would have either not have heard about it or it would have been disavowed.

The two Trump advisers are Keith Kellogg, a retired lieutenant general, and Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst. Both held significant positions on national security matters during Trump’s presidency. Currently, both play important roles at the Center for American Security: Kellogg serves as co-chair and Fleitz as vice chair. Both, finally, are clear about their belief in what is perhaps Trump’s single most defining foreign policy concept: America First. Fleitz recently published an article asserting that “only America First can reverse the global chaos caused by the Biden administration.” For Kellogg, the America First approach is key to national security.” The Center for American Security, finally, is part of the America First Policy Institute, an influential think tank founded in 2022 by key Trump administration veterans to prepare policies for his comeback.

Clearly, this is a peace plan that has not come out of nowhere. On the contrary, it has not merely been submitted to Trump to receive his – unofficial – nod, it has also emerged from within Trumpism as a resurgent political force. In addition, as Reuters has pointed out, it is also the most elaborate plan yet from the Trump camp on how to get to peace in Ukraine. In effect, this is the first time that Trump’s promise to rapidly end this war, once he is back in the White House, has been fleshed out in detail. The adoption of the plan or any similar policy would obviously mark a massive change in US policy. Hence, this is something that deserves close attention.

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Former US President Donald Trump.
Trump advisers have a Ukraine ‘peace plan’ – Reuters

What does the plan foresee? In essence, it is built on a simple premise: to use Washington’s leverage over Ukraine to force the country to accept a peace that will come with concessions, territorial and otherwise. In the words of Keith Kellogg, “We tell the Ukrainians, ‘You’ve got to come to the table, and if you don’t come to the table, support from the United States will dry up’.” Since Kiev is vitally dependent on American assistance, it is hard to see how it could resist such pressure. Perhaps to give an appearance of “balance” for the many Republicans still hawkish on Russia, the plan also includes a threat addressed to Moscow: “And you tell Putin,” again in Kellogg’s terms, “he’s got to come to the table and if you don’t come to the table, then we’ll give Ukrainians everything they need to kill you in the field.”

Yet it is obvious that, despite the tough rhetoric about Russia, the plan will cause great anxiety in Kiev, not Moscow, for two reasons. First, the threats addressed to Russia and Ukraine are not comparable: If the US were to withdraw its support from Ukraine, Kiev’s Zelensky regime would quickly not just lose the war but collapse. If the US were to, instead, increase its support for the Zelensky regime, then Moscow would respond by mobilizing additional resources, as it has done before. It might also, in that case, receive direct military assistance from China, which would not stand by and watch a potential Russian defeat unfold, because that would leave Beijing alone with an aggressive, emboldened West. In addition, Washington would, of course, have to weigh the risk of Russia engaging in counter-escalation. In sum, the plan threatens Ukraine with certain defeat, regime, and, possibly, even state disintegration; it threatens Moscow with a harder time – a type of threat that has no record of success.

The second reason the plan is bad news for Ukraine but not for Russia is that the peace it aims at is much closer to Moscow’s war aims than to those of Kiev. While the document that has been submitted to Trump has not been made public, American commentators believe that a paper published on the site of the Center for American Security under the title “America First, Russia, & Ukraine” is similar to what he – or his staff – got to see. Also authored by Kellogg and Fleitz, this paper, too, repeatedly stresses just how “tough” Trump used to be toward Russia. Plenty of strutting there for those who like that kind of stuff.

These statements, however, are balanced by an emphasis on what used to be called diplomacy: “At the same time,” we read, “Trump was open to cooperation with Russia and dialogue with Putin. Trump expressed respect for Putin as a world leader and did not demonize him in public statements … This was a transactional approach to US-Russia relations … to find ways to coexist and lower tensions … while standing firm on American security interests.”

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That already is a tone that Kiev cannot but find disconcerting. Because under Biden, US strategy – and therefore that of the collective West – has been built not merely on an extremely belligerent approach (as if that were not bad enough already) but, more importantly and more detrimentally, on the obsessive idea that there is no alternative. Everything, to its adherents, is “appeasement” except constant escalation to “win.” There is no room for genuine quid pro quos and compromise. That attitude is vital to America’s unrelenting support for Ukraine and, in particular, the fact that it has crossed one red line (meaning those previously recognized by Washington itself) after the other, with no (good) end in sight.

Hence, a Trumpist approach that is also anything but “soft” on Russia, while, however, acknowledging the possibility of de-escalation through negotiation is already a major departure from current US policy. You could even think of it as being inspired by the Reaganite foreign policy of the 1980s, which also combined pronounced “toughness” with a genuine readiness to compromise. Yet there would be one big difference: Toward the end of the Cold War, Washington was dealing with a pliable, even naïve Soviet leadership. That was a grave mistake – if made for mostly admirably idealistic reasons – that Russia’s current leaders see very clearly, are still angry about, and will not repeat.

In the case of the war in Ukraine, this means that any settlement, even with a newly “transactional” Washington “coming to the table” would involve not one but two “tough” players: Moscow will not agree to any compromise that fails to factor in that it has gained the upper hand in this war. That, in turn, means that, beyond the basic Trumpist mood of conditional conciliatoriness, details will be decisive.

Unfortunately for the Zelensky regime and fortunately for everyone else (yes, including many Ukrainians who won’t have to die in a proxy war anymore once peace comes), in that domain as well, the realm of the concrete and specific, the plan developed by Kellogg and Fleitz shows some progress. The authors, first of all, recognize important elements of reality that the current US leadership is either lying or in denial about: for instance, that this is a proxy war as well as a war of attrition, that Zelensky’s “10-point plan” (essentially a blueprint for what could only happen if Ukraine were to win the war, that is, never) “went nowhere,” and that Ukraine cannot sustain the war demographically.

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They also acknowledge that Russia will refuse to take part in peace talks or agree to an initial ceasefire if the West doesn’t “put off NATO membership for Ukraine for an extended period.” In fact, an “extended period” will not suffice; Moscow has been clear that never means never. But Kellogg and Fleitz may be formulating their ideas carefully with a view to how much their readers in America can take at this point. The plan also, again realistically, raises the option of offering a partial and, eventually, complete dropping of sanctions against Russia. Ukraine, on the other side, would not have to give up the aim of recovering all its territory, but – a crucial restriction – would have to agree to pursue it by diplomatic means only. The implication is, of course, that Kiev would have to give up de facto control over territory in the first place.

And there you have it: This is a proposal that, pared down to essentials, foresees territorial concessions and no NATO membership for Ukraine. It’s no wonder that Kellogg and Leitz conclude their paper by admitting that “the Ukrainian government,” “the Ukrainian people” (that is sure to be an over-generalization, by the way), and “their supporters” in the West will have trouble accepting this kind of negotiated peace. We could add: especially after more than two years of an avoidable (as the authors also recognize) and bloody proxy war. Yet that tragedy has already happened. We can wish it had not, but we cannot undo the past. The real question is about the future. Kellogg and Leitz, and Trump as well, if he will follow such a policy, are right that the dying must end, and that the only way to make it end – as well as avoid further escalation, perhaps to global war – is a compromise settlement built on reality.

June 30, 2024 at 03:24AM

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