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Officials in Ukraine and Russia are talking about negotiations. Why now?

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Just last week, any type of compromise between Russia and Ukraine seemed out of the question. Let's ask Daniel Fried what's changed. He's a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, now the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council. Ambassador, why do you think both sides are talking negotiations now?

DANIEL FRIED: I wouldn't hold my breath for negotiations to get started. The Russians have maintained a maximalist position that negotiations have to start with a recognition of the territories they've tried to conquer and don't even control. That's a ridiculous position and an aggressive one. The Ukrainian position is that negotiations start with the Russian withdrawal and justice for Ukraine, which is a much more reasonable position. But the fact is this war, as Foreign Minister Kuleba has said, will be decided on the battlefield before you get to negotiations.

Both sides still think that they can, if not win, at least do better. The Russians think that they can wear down the Ukrainians by attacking their infrastructure, which they're doing. And the Russians also hope that U.S. and Western support for Ukraine will crumble. The Ukrainians believe that they can keep liberating territory. And remember, since the beginning of this war, the Ukrainians have outperformed everybody's expectations, and the Russians have underperformed. So the Ukrainians hope to liberate more of their territory, save more of their people, is a reasonable hope.

I think the Ukrainians, by proposing this U.N. meeting, are trying to get the discussion away from the Russian demands as a starting point and over to their side, which is not a bad tactic. And let's remember, these aren't two equal sides. Putin started this war for no good reason, and he's not winning it. The Ukrainians are fighting for their lives and their country, and they're doing all right. It's a good investment to back the Ukrainians. But don't hold your breath for diplomacy, at least not yet.

MARTÍNEZ: Right. You called Ukraine's demands more reasonable, a lot more reasonable than Russia's demands. But that would be factoring in a huge ego blow to Vladimir Putin. So given that possibility, how realistic do you think it is to have those demands met before negotiations happen?

FRIED: Well, you're right that Putin has staked his leadership and maybe his life on success in Ukraine, but nobody told him he had to start this war. The U.S. warned him that he'd better not or we would back Ukraine. The Biden administration was pretty very clear about that. When Russian leaders start wars that they don't win, Russian history tells us, bad things can happen. That's true. But it's not Ukraine's responsibility to make life easier for Vladimir Putin.

They're fighting for their lives. Putin is fighting for his imperial vanity and some vision of Russian glory from the past. That's no reason to start displacing millions of people and killing tens of thousands. It's a bad and ugly war that Putin has started. And we're right to back Ukraine. It's not charity, as President Zelenskyy told Congress last week, it's a good investment in a world order that happens to be in America's national interest.

MARTÍNEZ: Ukraine looks to the U.S. for global leadership. You've written that, Ambassador. What part do you see the U.S. possibly playing in all this?

FRIED: The U.S. certainly has reemerged again as the leader of the free world. Whatever we looked like after the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Ukrainians look to us, with good reason, as the indispensable nation. And so we are. We're their biggest backer. We've rallied the West. Other countries have joined us in a big way. Poland, the U.K. and France and Germany have done a lot, too. But the U.S. is going to be the key player. That's why Zelenskyy came here last week and not to Brussels or Berlin or Paris. The U.S. role is critical, and I believe the administration has encouraged Ukraine to make clear its terms for a diplomatic settlement, which the Ukrainians have done.

And I think one of the topics that President Zelenskyy covered with the Biden administration is how to make their peace plan more visible. And I think we are seeing the results of that this week with Kuleba's proposal. But we're still in the phase of sparring rather than actual negotiating. For real negotiations to start, I want to see some sign that the Russians have fallen off their maximum position.

MARTÍNEZ: And you need to see or hear that before you would think that any possibility of these negotiations being productive would actually happen.

FRIED: Exactly. The Russians aren't fools. When they want to negotiate, they know how. Right now - and I've been dealing with them since the Soviet period - they don't want to negotiate. They want to win. But when they want to negotiate, they do know how, and that's what I'm waiting for.

MARTÍNEZ: Former U.S. ambassador and distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council Daniel Fried, thank you very much.

FRIED: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.