Ukraine-Russia negotiations do not rely on power politics
Bradley Blankenship
A view of the talks between the Ukrainian and Russian delegations held in the Gomel region, Belarus, February 28, 2022. /Xinhua

A view of the talks between the Ukrainian and Russian delegations held in the Gomel region, Belarus, February 28, 2022. /Xinhua

Editor's note: Bradley Blankenship is a Prague-based American journalist, political analyst and freelance reporter. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis has come center stage across the world, with the military operation ongoing as peace talks began on February 28. We have seen already a remarkable shift in the global geopolitical scene, particularly in the West. 

Germany has abandoned its moderate foreign policy status vis-á-vis Russia and announced that it will increase military spending to over 2 percent of its GDP in direct response to the situation in Ukraine. Sweden and Finland are reportedly considering joining NATO. Even Switzerland has ended its perennial neutral status and joined the EU's sanctions on Russian assets. 

Perhaps, more importantly, for any blowback the conflict might have in Russia, the last holdouts among European Union member states have abandoned their objections to the "nuclear option" of unplugging Russia from the global SWIFT network. This is expected to deal a major blow to the Russian economy – and, most probably, to the global economy itself. 

We now find ourselves in a situation where the consequences of what is happening are not only confined to Ukraine, but are surely being felt in Russia, Europe, and, if not already, around the world soon. While it's truly unfortunate that this is happening, it only underscores why the ongoing peace talks should be taken very seriously in case the opportunity might be lost forever. 

Stephen Walt, a professor of international relations at Harvard University, made a particularly illuminating point on this recently. He said on Twitter, "I am reminded of Sun Tzu's dictum that one should 'build a golden bridge for your enemy to retreat across'." That is, he said, "saving Ukraine also requires making it easier for Moscow to reverse course."

To elaborate on what I believe Walt is saying, it means that the Ukrainian side in the negotiations, a stand-in for Western countries at this stage, needs to provide incentives for Moscow to abandon the course it has chosen.

Smoke rising in the sky in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 27, 2022. /Xinhua

Smoke rising in the sky in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 27, 2022. /Xinhua

For the first brick in this "golden bridge," Ukraine's neutral status must be at the center of negotiations. As even mainstream American political scientists like John Mearsheimer have readily pointed out, the West and NATO are primarily to blame for the Ukraine situation that has been ongoing over the years. They pressured Ukrainian leadership into pursuing NATO membership which was only ever bound to create tensions with Russia.

It does not actually serve Ukraine's national interests to engage in such brinksmanship and this situation reveals that Ukraine was merely a sacrificial lamb for NATO's reckless expansionism. As Ukraine is left hung out to dry in this situation, the U.S. and NATO are standing by. A politically neutral Ukraine, on the contrary, would be the linchpin in a stable European security structure. It would help integrate Europe and secure Russia to its west.

Secondly, Western countries would only incentivize the prolongation of the conflict if they maintained their pile-on sanctions and other punitive measures, many of which target ordinary Russians, regardless of the results of the peace talks. It would provide no incentive for Moscow to come to the table and, if anything, would entrench a feeling of encirclement. This is why dropping punitive measures must be a part of the negotiations.

Things like Russia's inclusion in SWIFT must be on the table. Bans on flights must be on the table. And particularly radical policies, such as the Czech Republic's blanket visa ban on Russian nationals, must be reconsidered. All of these policies harm ordinary Russians and, if left in place regardless, would only destabilize the situation further. 

From Russia's perspective, these policies would deal damage to the population in a way meant to foment unrest against the government. This is because the punitive measures are so broad and debilitating that every part of Russian civil society will be affected.

This is part of the reason why Moscow has described these actions in the past as an act of war – and it is unlikely that this would act as a deterrent but would only increase hostility against the West.

Instead of pursuing a path of retribution, Western countries must prioritize the ongoing peace talks as an end to themselves. They must avoid overplaying their hands once again in a bid to isolate Russia, even if it might appear effective.

Failure to do so could collapse the peace talks, take the war to an even more brutal chapter and even pull them directly into it.

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