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Opinion | Progressives’ Humiliating Retreat on Ukraine

House progressives made a terrible mistake — they used the D-word in public.

For this error, they were roundly denounced and had to swiftly backtrack, withdrawing the ill-fated missive entirely.

The D-word in question is “diplomacy,” which has long been a favored word of Democrats. Indeed, it’s their go-to proposal for solving any international problem, no matter how intractable or threatening. That it has now become a toxic notion in the context of the Ukraine war is a sign of how a justified feeling of moral righteousness among backers of Ukraine is swallowing rational thought about how the war might end.

The letter to President Joe Biden from 30 House progressives led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, engendered the same intensely negative reaction as public musings about diplomatic deals by Elon Musk and Henry Kissinger. You don’t have to endorse any of the specific proposals talked about by these very different people to be disturbed by the campus-like fervor with which they have been deemed unsayable and unthinkable.

Although it’s possible that the Russia war machine, if it can be called that, simply collapses in Ukraine, it is more likely that war will end in some messy compromise involving a negotiated settlement. Acknowledging this — and that the continuation of the conflict is a humanitarian catastrophe with enormous costs for the West and the world — shouldn’t be a quasi-thought crime.

The Jayapal letter’s call for “direct talks with Russia” as Ukraine makes battlefield gains and Russia has responded with attacks on civilian infrastructure was obviously inopportune, and this wouldn’t be the first move regardless — we’d want to get Volodymyr Zelenskyy on board with any diplomatic proposal as a first order of business.

Yet the letter was hardly an apology for Vladimir Putin. It refers to “Russia’s war of aggression” and the “outrageous and illegal invasion of Ukraine,” while at the same time hailing Biden’s support for Ukraine’s “self-defense” as an “independent, sovereign and democratic state.” It expressed its support for a deal “preserving a free and independent Ukraine,” and stipulated that there should be security guarantees for Ukraine acceptable to all parties, “particularly Ukrainians.”

Still, a member of the House Democratic leadership told POLITICO Playbook that “Vladimir Putin would have signed that letter if asked.” This isn’t remotely true, but it shows how departing an inch from the orthodoxy on the war is automatically taken as an admission of fondness for the Kremlin, even when Democrats are talking about other Democrats. (To be sure, the Democratic leadership also didn’t like exposing party divisions right before a midterm election.)

The letter’s observation that there are high costs and risks to a prolonged conflict was obviously correct, and it shouldn’t be controversial to say so.

Nonetheless, Jayapal beat a hasty retreat, “clarifying” the letter by redefining it as advocating only “diplomatic support to Ukraine” and then shamefacedly retracting it all together.

The extraordinary valor of the Ukrainians and the vast reservoir of moral capital they have built up in the West mean that there is particular sensitivity about the possibility of Kyiv getting cut out of any negotiations. This is why the administration hews to the mantra “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.” It’s a sound principle, but it shouldn’t mean we can’t take the lead on important questions related to the war, or exercise our enormous leverage over our Ukrainian allies.

In reaction to the letter, the chair of House Veterans’ Affairs Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), released a statement saying, “Only Ukrainians have a right to determine the terms by which this war ends.” But the Ukrainians aren’t fighting on their own — they are crucially dependent on our financial and military support, and, by the way, we are the leader of the Western alliance. It makes no sense to cut ourselves out of the equation.

If our interests considerably overlap with those of Ukraine, they aren’t identical. We want Putin to learn that military aggression against the West and its allies is too costly to venture again, and so do the Ukrainians. We want a free and independent Ukraine, and so do the Ukrainians. We want a Ukraine that can defend itself in the future, and so do the Ukrainians.

The Ukrainians, though, naturally care more about the return of every inch of their territory than we do. They also want to be in NATO for understandable reasons, whereas we have no interest at this time in having to abide by a treaty commitment to defend Ukraine militarily in the future.

The Biden administration has been too slow to provide Ukraine the arms that it needs, and we should be giving them more now to press their advantage. If the Ukrainians can achieve a clean victory forcing a Russian withdrawal, that’d be marvelous, and it’s certainly an outcome to be wished for. It’s more plausible, though, that we are shaping the conditions for an eventual negotiation that may only temporarily suspend the conflict and that certainly won’t be an ideal end state.

A potential deal would involve Russia holding Crimea, a guarantee that Ukraine won’t join NATO and a referendum in the areas Russia held prior to the onset of this phase in the war in February 2022, while Ukraine gets the rest of its territory back and orients itself to the West. Kyiv would get armed and rebuilt by the West, and fashion some relationship with the EU.

Would this be “rewarding Russian aggression?” Moscow would have taken a bite out of Ukraine, yes, but at such an extremely high cost that no one could rationally conclude that Putin made anything but a calamitous blunder. Plus, whatever we might prefer, it’s unlikely Russia will ever relinquish Crimea. As for NATO membership, Ukraine is not getting in regardless, and we’ve shown we can provide massive aid to its defense even without a treaty.

The principle that territory can’t be taken by force is worth defending, yet there’s always the prudential question, at what cost? If the war drags on, it’s not inconceivable that a member of the Western alliance could crack, fracturing NATO, and the Western appetite for backing the war won’t be limitless. Kevin McCarthy generated his own outage by saying that if Republicans take the House, the Ukrainians won’t get a “blank check,” although no one — not even the U.S. Navy — gets a blank check and it’s simply a fact that the West won’t fund Ukraine at this level forever.

At the moment, neither Ukraine nor Russia would take a deal along these rough lines. Getting there at some point will require strength and deftness on our part. We’d have to be blunt and firm with the Ukrainians behind the scenes, reassure Poland, the Baltics and Romania that we aren’t cutting the Ukrainians or them loose, and convince Putin that he’s never going to win the war, only make himself an even more pathetic vassal of China.

Unrealistic? Maybe. Easier said than done? Absolutely. Painful? Of course. But diplomacy, like warfare, has its costs, which isn’t a good reason to shut down any discussion of it.