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U.S’ Backchannel Diplomacy to end Russia-Ukraine war

It is not yet clear how often the discussions have been taking place, if they are part of a single coordinated effort, or whether Wagner mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin’s coup attempt has affected Russia’s willingness to talk.

A GROUP of former top US. diplomats has been conducting secret peace talks with officials at the highest level of the Russian Government since at least April with the goal of negotiating an end to the war in Ukraine.

That according to ‘NBC News’, which published an exclusive report on the talks on Thursday just ahead of the 500-day anniversary of Russia’s invasion of its neighbour and as the Biden administration announced a new $800 million weapons package for Ukraine.

Among the goals of the meetings are setting terms for official negotiations and compromises to bring the fighting—which is essentially at a stalemate—to a conclusion. It is not yet clear how often the discussions have been taking place, if they are part of a single coordinated effort, or whether Wagner mercenary Yevgeny Prigozhin’s coup attempt has affected Russia’s willingness to talk.

Participating in the back-channel diplomacy on the US side has been Richard Haas, a major figure in shaping US foreign policy for decades. He is currently president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Previously, he served as a policy planner at the State Department, a close advisor to former Secretary of State Colin Powell during the George W Bush administration, a US peace envoy to Northern Ireland, and coordinator of the US occupation of Afghanistan.

Along with Haas, there is Georgetown Professor Charles Kupchan, a senior director of European Affairs on the National Security Council under both Obama and Clinton and a former State Department staffer.

Thomas Graham also participated; he was the second Bush administration’s in-house Russia expert and a diplomat previously stationed in the Soviet Union and later Russia. Former Defence Department official Mary Beth Long, a specialist in NATO issues, was involved, along with several other unnamed persons.

Representing Russia, according to NBC, was Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov—the man in charge of international policy for President Vladimir Putin. Lavrov reportedly first met with the Haas-led group in New York in April when attending a UN meeting. A number of Russian academics and others in the Moscow foreign policy establishment who “have Putin’s ear” have also taken part.

Though none of the US participants are current employees of the Biden administration, there is a long history of what in foreign affairs parlance is known as “Track Two diplomacy.” Private citizens not technically representing their Government have often conducted talks in situations where it is embarrassing or politically compromising for official state actors to make the first move.

Such “Track Two diplomacy” has played a key role in the past in laying the ground for arms control talks, for instance. In 1994, former President Jimmy Carter went to North Korea for preliminary nuclear weapons program discussions that later produced a treaty.

Such talks also led to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords between Israel and Palestine. Though those instances of Two-Track diplomacy led to breakthroughs in lowering tensions, the leaked story of the Haas-Lavrov peace talks—at least for now—is proving troublesome for all sides involved, though for differing reasons.

The revelation that influential figures in the Washington diplomatic establishment have been discussing a ceasefire in bilateral meetings with Russia without the participation of—or possibly even the knowledge of—the Ukrainian Government gives credence, some say, to the view that the war is, at its core, a US-Russia conflict.

Oleg Nesterenko heads up the European Trade and Industry Center, an intermediary that helps European companies establish operations in Russia. A regular but controversial fixture on the European news commentary scene, Nesterenko has said the root causes of the war “lie with the United States.”

In an interview with the French publication L’Éclaireur des Alpes, he said, “It’s not the Ukrainians who have decided or are deciding anything—they’re just performers and victims in a great game that’s way beyond them.”

Eager to dispute any notion that the Ukraine-Russia dispute is really a proxy battle between the U.S.-led NATO military alliance and Russia, however, the Biden administration rushed to declare that it did not sanction the Haas team’s efforts—though it has been regularly updated on their progress.

White House spokesperson John Kirby told CBS that the administration was “aware” of the discussions, but they were “not engendered by us.” Sticking to the official line that only the government in Kiev can decide the future of Ukraine, the State Department repeated President Joe Biden’s past declaration of “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.”

It also said the U.S. will continue providing weaponry so that President Volodymyr Zelensky and Ukraine “can negotiate from a position of strength when they think the time is right.” As recently as last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken explicitly denounced countries like China and South Africa that called for a ceasefire, but signs are emerging that the U.S. and its NATO allies may think the “right” time for negotiations is fast approaching.

In a secret trip to Kiev two months ago, CIA Director William Burns talked with Zelensky about how Ukraine’s much-vaunted “spring offensive”—now stretching into July—would aim to “pressure” Putin into peace talks by the end of the year.

The leaders of several NATO countries, whose economies have borne some of the worst burdens of the war’s fallout in terms of inflation and exploding energy prices, will reportedly tell Biden when they meet with him in Lithuania next week that they do not want to admit Ukraine into their military pact.

NATO’s eastward expansion and the prospect of Ukraine joining the alliance was a key reason Russia offered for launching its invasion. Biden administration officials and Democratic Party strategists would also apparently like to start working toward an endgame for the open stage of fighting in Ukraine before the 2024 US elections.

A number of Republicans have already signalled their intention to trim funding for Ukraine, and Democrats are worried that an endless stalemate in the east will become a political liability for the President.

C.J Atkins for Hitavada

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