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?

| Apr. 01, 2024


Amidst Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, the debate intensifies over whether the Biden Administration should pressure Ukraine into diplomatic talks with Russia. Proponents believe negotiations could preempt prolonged conflict whereas opponents feel such a move could compromise Ukraine’s sovereignty. The sensitivity of the topic demands a nuanced evaluation of its implications for Ukraine and the international order.


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. Students discuss and debate the weekly topic with guest speakers. 


Avoiding A Protracted Conflict: The Biden Administration should push the Ukrainians towards a negotiated settlement to avoid a prolonged conflict in Ukraine and mitigate further casualties and devastation. Acknowledging the grim reality that extended warfare carries, there is a need to maintain an open diplomatic channel with Russia to help bring this invasion to an end and to save Ukrainian lives. The sooner a peace agreement can be reached, the sooner Ukraine can begin to rebuild its communities.

Sustainability of Western Support: It is important to recognize the limitations of military and economic aid from Ukraine’s Western partners, particularly as we see aid for Ukraine still stalled in the U.S. Congress. Therefore, the U.S. should be pragmatic in its approach to ensuring Ukraine’s survival by pushing for a peace agreement now to secure a stable and sustainable future for Ukraine later.

Negotiations under Trump Would be a Catastrophe: The current political landscape in the U.S. could provide a better window of opportunity for Ukraine to negotiate more favorable conditions of a potential peace agreement with Russia. Should Trump win the 2024 presidential elections, Ukraine could be forced to accept less advantageous terms in a peace agreement, particularly given Trump’s concerning history with Russia and Ukraine. Therefore, considering the unpredictable nature of the U.S. political system, the Biden administration should push the Ukrainians toward a negotiated peace now.

Realpolitik Considerations: Ukraine is currently facing harsh challenges in passing a mobilization law in the face of low public support and overall morale. Given how difficult Ukraine is finding it to meet the demand for greater troop reserves, a negotiated settlement might reflect a more pragmatic strategy for Ukraine. Therefore, the U.S. should push Ukraine to the negotiating table to maintain public support in Ukraine for Zelenskyy and his government. This would be in Ukraine’s long-term interests and could forge a path to peace that conserves resources and sustains public morale in Ukraine.

Strategic Shift to China: It is in the strategic interests of the U.S. to pressure the Ukrainians to go to the negotiating table with Russia as it would allow the U.S. to shift its focus to an even greater world power: China. By forcing the Ukrainians to negotiate, the U.S. can reallocate attention and resources to backing Taiwan and addressing the challenge of China which is arguably a much larger emerging threat. Moreover, a peace settlement could afford the U.S. an opportunity to reverse an ever-growing relationship between Russia and China.


Ukrainian Sovereignty Could be Compromised: With current conditions on the battlefield, it could be a strategic failure to pressure Ukraine to negotiate as it could lead the country to make reckless concessions under duress. Such a scenario would simply undermine Ukraine’s agency by subjecting its decision-making authority to the interests of other nations rather than enabling Ukraine to set its own criteria and conditions for peace.

Negotiations Could be Seen as Illegitimate: There is genuine doubt as to whether such U.S. pressure would be successful as it could be viewed as illegitimate by the Ukrainians. The US previously pressured Ukrainians in 1994 with the Budapest Memorandum which has proven to be an absolute strategic failure for Ukraine. Consequently, there is considerable doubt as to whether the US’s attempts would lead to an actual agreement between Ukraine and Russia. It also raises the issue of Ukrainian autonomy in deciding when and how to commence the peace agreement process.  

Historical Failures of Negotiations: Previous attempts, such as the Minsk Agreements, to push the Ukrainians towards a negotiated peace agreement with Russia have failed which raises considerable skepticism towards the potential success of renewed efforts to negotiate peace. The precedent of the Minsk Agreements underscores both the difficulty in achieving sustainable peace through dialogue and the credibility that Russia would carry. Therefore, the challenges of past negotiations would drive an extremely cautious approach to a U.S. push for Ukraine to negotiate.

Russian Credibility Does Not Amount to Much: There is well-founded skepticism in the international community and in Ukraine regarding Russia’s willingness to engage in negotiations with genuine intent, particularly because of past experiences where similar efforts were manipulated or ignored. Furthermore, such attempts could simply present Russia with a strategic opportunity to reorganize its soldiers and resources to restart its invasion with greater force.

Similar Aggression Could be Encouraged: If the U.S. were to decide to pressure Ukraine to the negotiating table, it could signal to both Russia and other global powers that actions that undermine international law can lead to gains through diplomatic concessions. Such a step would suggest that international norms may simply be bypassed with sufficient force, thereby undermining the foundational principles of sovereignty and mutual respect that underpin international relations.

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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, April 1, 2024.