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Understanding the Biden administration's approach to diplomacy with Russia


Eight months into the war in Ukraine, the Biden administration's main strategies continue to be arming Ukraine and tightening economic sanctions on Russia - two sticks, no carrots. Is diplomacy a nonstarter? Heather Conley is president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a nonpartisan public policy think tank that focuses on relations between the U.S. and Europe. And she joins us now. Welcome to the program.

HEATHER CONLEY: Great to be with you.

RASCOE: So French President Emmanuel Macron has been the West's main messenger with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now Putin says he's angry that contents of their calls have leaked. So are we seeing that line of communication closed now?

CONLEY: Well, you know, that communication has been really difficult to maintain because even in the earliest days of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, you're right - French President Macron did try to keep channels open, and it was not clear whether President Macron was able to establish the clarity of the West's perspectives. And, of course, it really wasn't moving the needle. So really, from a leader-to-leader perspective, there really has not been much dialogue in the last several months.

RASCOE: So what would American diplomacy look like in a situation like this? Who would be its face? How would negotiations happen?

CONLEY: So really, what's happening now is both sides are communicating via speeches, via interviews, statements, and we're piecing together intentions and will. What's happened is the military-to-military channels have had to try to remain open. So that's really important because if there's something we're seeing that's concerning us and we're not understanding what's happening, those channels have to remain open so we're not misinterpreting and perhaps escalating a conflict. You know, what we're seeing now is sort of third-party activism, folks that want to jump in to try to play that mediation role. We've seen that in Turkish President Erdogan, who's tried to mediate between both sides, both Russia and Ukraine. But you know what? There are varied limits to what those third parties can do.

RASCOE: What does diplomacy look like with a country that is flagrantly violating international law and the U.N. charter with actions like annexing another country's territory? How do you even approach that when you have a country that is engaging in these sort of violations?

CONLEY: Ayesha, the trust is completely broken. And I think this goes back to, you know, Russia has violated, I think, upwards up to nine international treaties. So even if you use diplomacy to try to get some space, to get some agreement, we just have no trust that they will comply with that agreement. So it's really, really difficult when that trust is gone. And typically, when governments have a hard time speaking with one another, that's when think tanks like the German Marshall Fund and other think tanks jump in, and we hold what we call track two (ph), which is, officials aren't welcome. It's think tanks. It's experts. It's former government officials. They sometimes jump in, and we begin to have a conversation. But quite frankly, over the last several years - and I've participated in several of these track two conversations - even they became really not useful. Our Russian counterparts felt very compelled to only - to say the same talking points that the government - I think there was fear about what they were saying. And so even that has had really, really limited opportunities, and that's what's concerning.

RASCOE: Last week, a group of 30 House Democrats sent a letter to President Biden asking him to pair the economic and military support the U.S. has been providing Ukraine with a, quote, "proactive diplomatic push." That letter, of course, was withdrawn only a day later. How will the domestic political reality affect diplomacy, and could it keep diplomacy off the table?

CONLEY: In this particular war, there really is no compromise to be found because for Ukraine to stop fighting would mean they would stop to exist. This is Russia trying to completely annihilate Ukraine's existence. For Russia to stop, it would be Vladimir Putin admitting that the Ukrainian military defeated the Russian military. It would completely challenge his legitimacy. So there is no room in this place for compromise, for diplomacy. That may not be the case forever, but right now it certainly appears that way.

So when you have sort of a letter that says, let's go after diplomacy, what that means is, what should we give Vladimir Putin to make him stop? He's not going to stop. We can't give him anything, except the West can agree to all of his demands, and then he's just going to get hungry for more. So this is when, again, you have to confront it and support the Ukrainian people in their desire for freedom and independence. This is what's going to be so difficult.

And these types of letters, while I appreciate they could be well-meaning about diplomacy, they fall into this trap of the crisis. And then, of course, what the Kremlin wants is the United States to be politically divided over this issue. They will seek to stoke those divisions because that weakens us, and that gives the Kremlin a greater opportunity to continue to push its gains.

RASCOE: Heather Conley is the president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Thank you so much for being with us.

CONLEY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.