Why Biden Didn’t Negotiate Seriously with Putin

The two themes that let the Blob carry the day

A couple of decades from now, someone reading an account of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war—if that’s what the Ukraine crisis turns into, as it seems to be doing—may have this thought:

Wait, let me get this straight. So the leaders of the big NATO countries didn’t especially want Ukraine to join NATO? And agreeing to not let Ukraine join NATO—agreeing to not do what they didn’t want to do anyway—might have kept Russia from invading Ukraine? But they didn’t do that? And doing that wasn’t even seriously discussed? Like, virtually no influential American commentators argued that doing this would make sense? How could that be?

Good question! Regular readers of this newsletter may expect me to answer it by launching immediately into an indictment of “the Blob” (the foreign policy establishment) and lamenting the Blob’s lack of “cognitive empathy” (understanding how your adversary, or anyone else, views the world).

Well, you’re wrong about the “immediately” part. Those themes will surface soon enough, but first I’d like to turn your attention to two other themes. These are themes whose promulgation (yes, by the Blob) has stifled serious discussion of how to prevent war in Ukraine (yes, in part by impeding cognitive empathy).

Both are hardy perennials—themes that, over the years, have done untold damage to peacemaking efforts. Maybe if we ponder how little sense they made this time around, we’ll be less likely to fall for them next time around.  

1. The Munich theme.

Last week Ukrainian President Zelinsky delivered a speech at the Munich Security Conference in which he complained that NATO hadn’t set a firm timetable for admitting Ukraine. His talk generated this headline in the British tabloid the Daily Mail: “Ukraine’s president condemns Western ‘appeasement’ of Putin in blistering address in MUNICH…”

Yes, the headline had “Munich” in all caps: MUNICH. That was a helpful reminder that, in foreign policy circles, the word  “appeasement” is almost always a reference to British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s infamous performance at his 1938 meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich. With Germany having massed troops along Czechoslovakia’s border, Chamberlain made concessions to prevent an invasion and then emerged from the meeting declaring that there would be “peace for our time.” Which was off by about six years and 60 million bodies.

Ever since then, people who advocate making concessions that could reduce the chances of war have been accused of favoring “appeasement” and have been sternly warned not to repeat the mistakes of MUNICH. No doubt President Biden was aware that he’d have been deluged with that word had he broached the possibility of granting Putin his main wish by ruling out the admission of Ukraine to NATO. (Commentators were sending Munich warnings as early as November and December in response to a different rumored concession.) 

The Munich comparison shouldn’t be casually dismissed. For one thing, it’s always regrettable to make concessions to someone who is threatening to invade a country. You’d rather not reward that kind of behavior. Still, paying that price is, I think, the only important parallel between the Munich case and the Ukraine case. And there are at least two big differences between the two cases. 

Munich-Ukraine Difference #1: At Munich, with Hitler threatening to invade and seize a chunk of territory, Chamberlain agreed to let him have the chunk of territory he was threatening to seize. Britain and France strongarmed Czechoslovakia into giving Hitler the Sudetenland, a German-speaking part of the country. In contrast, the idea behind the NATO-Ukraine concession would have been to keep Putin from seizing the territory he was threatening to seize.

There’s been a lot of talk—from administration officials and others—about how excluding Ukraine from NATO would somehow violate Ukraine’s “sovereign right” to decide which alliances it joins. That’s nonsense. Ukraine has no more of a sovereign right to join NATO than I have to join the Council on Foreign Relations. International alliances, like organizations at the heart of the Blob, get to choose their members.

In short: Chamberlain replaced one kind of violation of Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty—losing territory via invasion—with what was, in effect, another kind: losing territory without the invasion. No one was asking Biden to do that with Ukraine. We’ve been asking him to prevent a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty (losing territory via invasion) by doing something that violates no one’s sovereignty.

Munich-Ukraine Difference #2: At Munich, the guy on the other side of the table was Adolf Hitler.And here’s something to keep in mind about Hitler: He was crazy.

I don’t just mean he considered it totally OK to murder millions of people because of their ethnicity. That’s a kind of craziness, but the more relevant kind, for present purposes, is that he suffered from delusions that led him to repeatedly take existential risks. His declaring war on Russia in 1941, which sealed Germany’s fate, is the most famous example, but other examples had surfaced long before he was Germany’s leader. In 1923, he was lucky to get through his failed “Beer Hall Putsch” wounded and jailed rather than dead.

Putin has never—not in his ascent to Russia’s leadership and not in his subsequent foreign policy—shown the kind of casualness with risk that Hitler showed again and again. So there’s no reason to believe Putin would have followed a negotiated deal with the kind of expansionist rampage that ensued in the aftermath of Chamberlain’s deal—when Hitler, within a year, annexed the rest of Czechoslovakia and invaded Poland. (Hitler was surprised that the Poland invasion led France and Britain to declare war on Germany; risk assessment just wasn’t his strong suit.)

Besides, since any deal with Putin would have made continued adherence to the NATO-Ukraine concession contingent on Russia’s continued compliance with the deal, this “concession” could be easily reclaimed if Putin violated the deal. A promise not to expand NATO is easy to revoke; letting Hitler’s troops occupy part of Czechoslovakia wasn’t.

2. The ‘Putin can’t be reasoned with’ theme.

Depicting Putin as crazy or irrational or unfathomably strange is a common theme in the Blobosphere (and it of course works in synergy with the Munich theme, since it locates Putin’s tactical psychology in the general vicinity of Hitler’s tactical psychology).

For example, in January influential Blobster Michael McFaul, the former US Ambassador to Russia who is MSNBC’s go-to Russia expert, explained in the Washington Post why there was no point in offering Putin things like a freeze on NATO expansion: “If Putin thought like us, maybe some of these proposals might work. Putin does not think like us. He has his own analytic framework, his own ideas and his own ideology—only some of which comport with Western rational realism.”

Also in January, international relations scholar Tom Nichols wrote in the Atlantic that Putin “simply does not share a common frame of reference about the world with his opponents in the West.” Rather, “deep in the dark recesses of Putin’s psyche,” there are such things as an “emotional and visceral attachment to Ukraine” so strong as to give the West “limited sway in the situation that is now unfolding.” Hence the title and subtitle of Nichols’s piece: “Only Putin Knows What Happens Next: He alone can make the choice to bring Europe back from the brink of a major war.” And hence Nichols’s take on why Putin was massing more and more troops on Ukraine’s border: “No one really knows why Putin is doing this.”

Not everyone would see the Ukraine crisis as a perplexing product of Putin’s eccentricities. Consider the current CIA director, William Burns. Back in 2008, the year George W. Bush fatefully badgered reluctant European leaders into pledging future NATO membership to Ukraine, Burns sent a memo to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that included this warning:

Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all red lines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players, from knuckle-draggers in the dark recesses of the Kremlin to Putin’s sharpest liberal critics, I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.

Burns added that it was “hard to overstate the strategic consequences” of offering Ukraine NATO membership—a move that, he predicted, would “create fertile soil for Russian meddling in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.”

So Burns predicted 12 years ago that pretty much the entire Russian national security establishment would be inclined to make trouble in Ukraine if we offered NATO membership to Ukraine—yet now that we’ve promised NATO membership to Ukraine and Putin is indeed making trouble in Ukraine, people like McFaul and Nichols say the explanation must lie somewhere in the murky depths of Putin’s peculiar psychology.  

I’m not saying Putin’s calculations are purely about Russian national security. Obviously, Putin is a politician, and he responds to domestic political forces as well as geopolitical ones. But in the domestic realm, too, his pattern of responses is intelligible as the product of a rational mind.

For example: If enough Russians feel their country is being disrespected by the West, Putin can win points by standing up to the West. And, to put a finer point on it: If Russians hear that the pro-Western Ukrainian government is shrinking the Russian language’s role in public schools and closing Russian-language media outlets—both of which the Ukrainian government has done—then standing up to Ukraine could become an especially popular way to stand up to the West. A recent New York Times piece about Putin noted “the nationalist firebrands on prime-time talk shows and in Parliament who have been urging him for years to annex more of Ukraine.”

None of this is rocket science! It’s not that hard to get at least a rough idea of the political and geopolitical factors shaping the thinking and actions of world leaders, and to then engage them accordingly. Yet our finest Blobsters, writing in our most esteemed Blob outlets—McFaul in the Washington Post, Nichols in the Atlantic—sit around scratching their heads in abject befuddlement: This Putin character is so weird that there’s no real point in seriously negotiating with him.

In defense of McFaul and Nichols—and other Blobsters who also suffer from cognitive empathy deficit—they may be victims of the cognitive bias known as attribution error. Attribution error can distort our perception of both allies and enemies. The way it works with enemies is that if they do something we consider bad, we’re inclined to attribute this behavior to their internal disposition, their basic character—not to external circumstances.

So if, say, we’re trying to explain why an enemy is threatening to invade Ukraine, we discount explanations involving political and geopolitical circumstance and embrace explanations that locate the problem in the enemy’s fundamental disposition—in his “emotional and visceral attachment to Ukraine” or, more vaguely, in a peculiar “analytical framework” that’s hard for us rational westerners to grok.

In any event, whatever the roots of cognitive empathy deficit and other unfortunate Blob-typical tendencies that have surfaced lately, the damage is done: Once again, it seems, the Blob has prevailed. Thanks to people like McFaul and Nichols, there was, so far as we can tell, no serious attempt to negotiate with Putin—to offer the kinds of concessions that lay discernibly at the core of his motivation. And now that Putin has recognized Ukraine’s breakaway republics and ordered troops into them—an act of aggression and a plain violation of international law—the political costs for Biden of making concessions will be even higher. (And the real costs of making concessions—in terms of the magnitude of wrongdoing that would now be rewarded—is higher.)

As the aggression unfolds—and possibly expands well beyond the Donbass region that comprises these two republics—expect to hear people like McFaul and Nichols claim vindication: Putin’s as bad and irrational as they said he was! You may even hear some Hitler analogies.

But remember: What we’re seeing from here on out is what Putin did after we followed the advice of McFaul and Nichols and refused to negotiate seriously with him. What we’re seeing is what happens when you don’t try “appeasement.”

Note:Obviously, we don’t know for sure what concessions might have forestalled Russian invasion. But in late January Foreign Minister Lavrov signaled that the NATO-Ukraine concession, along with concessions about missile placement in Europe, would have done the trick. Also obviously, I don’t know what the Biden administration may have offered Putin in private. It’s conceivable that they offered more than we know about. (But beware: Now that negotiations have failed, the administration may try to make its private offers to Putin sound more accommodating than they were.) In any event, this piece is only partly about what seems to have been Biden’s failure to seriously negotiate. It is also about the undeniable fact that mainstream media devoted virtually no time or space to people who were advocating serious negotiation.