Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Should the Biden Administration Pressure the Ukrainians to Go to the Negotiating Table and Resolve the Dispute With Russia Diplomatically?

| Nov. 16, 2023



As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reaches a stalemate, whether there is a need to push for diplomatic negotiations has come to the forefront of debates. Some argue that the Biden administration should pressure the Ukrainians to go to the negotiating table and resolve the dispute with Russia diplomatically. Others firmly oppose any such negotiations out of fear for Ukrainian capitulation.


Over the course of six sessions, this study group, led by Dr. Karen Donfried, is examining key foreign policy debates flowing from Russia’s war against Ukraine.  The objective is to provide a deeper understanding of the geopolitics of the war in Ukraine and the implications for U.S. interests. Two teams of four students each debate the weekly topic as the rest of the study group observes.

The U.S. Must Play an Integral Role


The U.S. government is a critical actor that can guarantee Ukraine and Russia come to the negotiating table in an effective manner. Pressuring Ukraine to undertake a successful negotiation and diplomatic conflict resolution would require the Biden administration to continue providing military support to Kyiv. Such support would allow for Ukraine to advance in its counter-offensive and regain part of the occupied territory, which would in turn add pressure on Russia to come to the negotiating table.


Any attempt at pressuring the Ukrainian government to the peace negotiating table should first and foremost come from Ukrainians themselves. According to polls, 84% of Ukrainians support continuation of  fighting to protect their country’s sovereignty; thus the U.S. is in no position to undermine such a sovereign decision. Having the Biden administration as the biggest voice in support for bringing Ukraine to negotiate would send the wrong signal to Russia and could potentially empower Putin to ramp up his efforts in the invasion. This could even further undermine current deterrence schemes that key U.S. allies such as the Baltic states and Poland rely heavily on. Finally, this option might not even be in the best interest of the U.S. as it can be argued that Washington is benefitting from diminishing Russian military capacity without having a single American boot on the ground.

No Good Faith by Russia in Negotiations


A diplomatic agreement achieved through good faith negotiations is possible, and this is testified to by evidence that Russia and Ukraine seemed to be close to such an agreement at least three times in the past. This first happened in Belarus, was then followed with talks mediated by then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and most promisingly, in a last attempt in Istanbul. Additionally, the Black Sea Grain Initiative and sporadic prisoner swaps demonstrate that there is room to negotiate and believe that successes can be achieved through these avenues.


History shows that it is unlikely that Russia will adhere to any negotiated settlement. Attempts to appease Moscow through dialogue and diplomacy have failed time and time again in the past, as seen following the invasions of Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014. Foreign Minister Lavrov has explicitly stated that Russia is willing to continue their invasion of Ukraine until the end. In light of this, a utilitarian case can be made that peace brought by a negotiated settlement - as opposed to Russia’s absolute defeat - will be used by Moscow to rearm and reposition itself to further advance its military interests in Ukraine. Russia’s continued violations of previous signed treaties proves that they cannot be trusted to have good faith in any peace negotiations.

Moral Imperative Remains Central


Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have already died (if not more), 6 million are displaced abroad and 5 million within Ukraine—with 18 million in dire need of humanitarian aid. Negotiations can very well end this decimation, at the right time—and the U.S. should push Ukraine to those negotiations by ensuring they will matter and lead to genuine, sustainable peace, not future conflict. Such a strategy necessitates a steadfast push to help Ukraine continue to weaken Russia’s unfettered, imperialist, and dangerous power. 


84% of Ukrainians want to keep fighting for their sovereignty. The US is not in a position to overrule Ukraine’s democratic decision. Furthermore, domestic public support in the U.S. for Ukraine in the war remains strong. Ukraine is fighting for its sovereignty and autonomy. Pressuring it could mean inadvertently harming it under the guise of good intentions—intent does not equate to impact. If Russia is positioned, as a result of a temporary agreement, to conduct a future attack or reinitiate the invasion, more innocent civilians will be harmed - underscoring the moral imperative to not push Ukraine to the negotiating table.

Temporal Considerations Matter


It is important to define a concrete timeline for any proposed negotiations and under what conditions they would take place. In the current timeframe, the conditions are simply not right to push Ukraine to the negotiations table; however, once correct conditions are established, the United States should almost certainly encourage Ukraine to move to the diplomatic table with Russia to obtain a sustainable peace agreement. It is important to understand that general support for negotiations does not come with an implicit understanding that they would need to take place immediately.


While it is difficult to say when negotiations should take place, if at all, it is almost certain that negotiations should not happen within the next 12 months or against the terms of Ukraine. Negotiations at this present moment, and potentially future ones, could simply provide Russia with a window of opportunity to restore its military capacities and restart attacks later. Negotiations would also merely strip Ukraine of the agency it has to decide for itself what is best. Therefore, the Biden administration should not push Ukraine to the negotiating table to resolve the war through diplomatic means.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:Should the Biden Administration Pressure the Ukrainians to Go to the Negotiating Table and Resolve the Dispute With Russia Diplomatically?.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 16, 2023.