January-April 2023Vol.XXXV No. 3

A Response to “Open Letter to Presidents Biden, Putin, and Zelensky: Pursue Diplomatic Solutions to Avoid Nuclear War”

David Gamarnik, Pavel Etingof

February 2, 2023

A recent editorial letter,Open Letter to Presidents Biden, Putin, and Zelensky: Pursue Diplomatic Solutions to Avoid Nuclear War,” published in the MIT Faculty Newsletter November/December issue of 2022, issues a call to the three presidents to initiate immediately ceasefire negotiations, and urges to pursue a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine. To quote, the letter says “We call upon you, as the leaders of the most involved nations, to initiate bilateral and multilateral talks aimed at rapidly negotiating a ceasefire, and then actively pursuing the difficult but necessary steps to effective peace treaties.”

While we hold no doubts whatsoever about the best intentions expressed by the signees of the letter, we strongly disagree with the position stated in the letter, and believe that negotiations and ceasefire in the present stage would be a grave strategic and moral mistake.

On February 24, 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine with a very clear goal of the occupation of the entire country and regime change. The result of the invasion, thanks to the heroic efforts by the Ukrainian forces, and thanks to an unprecedented military support by its western allies, was far less than what Russia might have hoped for, and at this stage Russia managed to occupy only the eastern part of Donbas region and other nearby territories (along with Crimea which it occupied in 2014). Ukraine launched several powerful counteroffensives, ridding several major regions from the Russian occupation, including areas north and east of Kyiv, areas of Kharkiv and Liman, and importantly the Kherson city and the surrounding territories.

Initiating a ceasefire at this stage and stopping the counteroffensive by Ukraine would then hold in place the Russian occupation of the remaining regions, and this is precisely what Putin wants!

In fact he called for a ceasefire and negotiations repeatedly, likely recognizing his failure to gain more territories from Ukraine, thereby attempting to maintain the status quo. The call for a ceasefire from Zelensky, Biden and western European Union leaders would be an extremely welcome news to Putin, and thus a grave mistake. He would love that! It will provide him with the much-needed breathing room and time to regroup. This is an opportunity he cannot be afforded. So why call for a ceasefire now?

President Zelensky made it plenty clear: he will not negotiate with Russia until not a single Russian soldier is still in the Ukrainian territory. President Biden made it plenty clear, he supports Zelensky in this. This is a right, principled, strategic and moral position, which we and many many people fully agree with. We thus strongly disagree with our esteemed colleagues, who under the premise of pursuing peace and ending hostility, call for something else, the result of which will be a Russian victory and Ukrainian defeat. Once again, negotiation and ceasefire now will cement Russian victory, let Putin get away with occupying still a large portion of Ukraine, and give him an opportunity to regroup and relaunch.

Ceasefire and negotiations is a very sound option in a symmetric warfare situation, where maintaining a status quo will not significantly alter the situation where the warring parties were prior to the beginning of the hostilities. This would be the case for example on February 23 of last year, before the Russian invasion began. This applies as well to the Cuban Missile Crisis, a case in point used by the letter writers. Ceasefire now, however, in light of the asymmetric situation that Ukraine and Russia find themselves in, would be a strategic mistake for the reasons stated above. It would also be a tragic moral mistake as well. Calling on Zelensky to negotiate at this stage is akin to calling a victim of a crime to negotiate with a perpetrator. Is this a position we are willing to leave Ukraine in?

The calls for negotiations and a ceasefire, voiced in the published open letter, are certainly not new. A few months ago a letter articulating a similar sentiment was drafted by several members of the progressive caucus of the US House of Representatives, calling on Biden for direct talks with Putin aimed at ending hostilities. The letter was retracted later by the chair of the caucus, Pramila Jayapal. A wise and a responsible decision which many have applauded.

Now, finally on the difficult issue of a nuclear threat emanating from Russia, the main theme which the letter writers underscore. Let’s begin with a brief background. Ukrainian borders, currently internationally recognized, were secured in part in 1994 by the so-called Budapest Mem- orandum, agreed and signed by the Russian Federation. According to this agreement Ukraine rids itself from its nuclear weapons (which it had when it was still a part of the Soviet Union) and, at the same time the Crimea Peninsula was recognized as an undisputed part of the Ukrainian ter- ritory. This agreement was violated by Russia when it occupied Crimea in 2014. The West stood by helpless, responding with meek sanctions, which, as by now is abundantly clear, had mini- mal to no deterrent effect. Ukraine was left without Crimea and without the nuclear weapons, which would certainly deter Russia from the aggression, if Ukraine had them before the invasion. Russia ignored the memorandum it signed and will easily ignore any other agreements it signs now or in future.

Calling on the ceasefire now, as a means to minimize the likelihood of a nuclear disaster, is then based on a flawed calculus.

This calculus ignores the potential and serious downstream implications of such a ceasefire agreement, which Putin will simply use as a convenient and much needed pause. It will not minimize the nuclear threat but instead will escalate it, as Russia will regroup, rebuild its military nuclear and conventional arsenal and re-engage in Ukraine and possibly elsewhere. There is no end to Putin’s territorial ambitions, we should be clear about that. The nuclear saber-rattling by Russia was there since Putin came to power and continues to this day. This is a threat which is perpetuated extensively by Russian media and Russian officials, quite possibly to elicit support for peace and negotiation from the West, but with little indication as to how credible the threat actually is. There is no reliable information suggesting that Russia is actually planning or preparing to use nuclear weapons. Thus the only strategy which minimizes the threat of a nuclear strike is sending a loud and clear message to Putin: “Engaging nuclear weapons, tactical or strategic is a red line, crossing which will have severe consequences for Russia.” The western allies went as far as articulating very concrete and specific countermeasures they are prepared to take should Russia be foolish enough to use said tactical nuclear weapons, the kind which will achieve minimal military gains for Russia anyway.

Freedom and democracy, the values which all of us share and cherish, don’t come for free and need to be defended. Sadly, often this has to be done by military means, when all other options have been exhausted, as is the case today with the Ukraine and Russia war. The call to end the hostilities now, voiced by the letter’s signees, while certainly well-intentioned, is misguided. It will not end the hostilities, just delay and elongate them, and will not decrease the likelihood of a nuclear confrontation. Far from it. Instead, it will be simply used by Putin as an opportunity to regroup, re-strengthen and re-launch. This is a sad state of affairs, but we should hold no illusions about this.