A ceasefire or peace deal in the coming weeks could potentially save hundreds of thousands of lives and untold injuries and suffering. It would reduce the dangerous risk of further escalation and the potential of open conflict between NATO and Russia. And it might be the best option to preserve Ukrainian sovereignty and independence.
Russia and Ukraine have been talking, but negotiations, which are still in the early stages, would benefit from a leader like Biden facilitating the process. Having worked as the director for European affairs at the National Security Council in the Clinton White House, I saw firsthand how essential presidential leadership can be in the cause of peace.
Presidential leadership is essential for three reasons.
First, negotiations are extraordinarily difficult because the cause of peace itself often conflicts with deeply felt principles of identity or justice. How do you convince the leader of one country to sit down and negotiate with another who has laid waste to the land and lives of his or her people? These challenges require incredibly strong third-party leadership to focus on the shared goals of peace and stability moving forward.
Second, the United States brings tremendous leverage and power to the negotiating table across the political, economic and military spectrum. American leadership is often at the vanguard of international support and can bring the collective power and influence of much of the world on board.
Of course, Russia, as America’s historic enemy, is a different beast, and the dynamics surrounding the war in Ukraine make peace talks particularly difficult.
Can the US be a legitimate peacemaker in Putin’s eyes? Yes, given the reasons above, although Biden would have to walk a tightrope given that Putin will likely interact with the US as a negotiating counterpart rather than as a third-party mediator. But the US can still actively engage with both sides to find peace.
Those conditions are in place right now. Putin has backed himself into a corner, and he needs a way out of the trap he has set for himself. His military campaign is going far worse than anticipated, both on the ground and in terms of global condemnation.
On the Ukrainian side, high morale and heroic resistance may enable Ukraine to resist Russian occupation, but it will not be enough to end the war any time soon. Instead, they will continue to suffer as Putin uses more and more inhumane tactics to inflict punishment.
For Ukrainians, a decision to fight to the end may be akin to a decision to watch the destruction of their nation in a resolute attempt to save it. If Ukraine wants to avoid the devastation of its cities and alleviate widespread suffering, it will have to give Putin at least some face-saving off-ramp if it wants even a chance of striking peace.
Biden should be thinking about what potential agreements can be struck in the near-term, and what must be punted down the road for more extended talks. His road map to peace should involve three steps: 1) engage Ukraine and Russia separately to help identify interests and establish an agreed upon process; 2) identify interim steps to build confidence and momentum such as a ceasefire, pullback of forces or cooperative humanitarian measures; 3) when the time is right, push more intense negotiations on a peace framework that will start to bring the negotiators face-to-face for long negotiating sessions.
Strong US leadership is essential to the cause of peace. As US presidents have done many times in history, Biden must turn his full attention toward brokering such a deal.