Unofficial meetings with Russian officials isn't diplomacy—it's a trap
Why former U.S. officials holding secret talks with Russian officials is actively unhelpful—and the trap they fell into by doing it
NBC news has a new story: “Former U.S. officials have held secret Ukraine talks with prominent Russians”, including Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov.
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The lede reads as follows:
A group of former senior U.S. national security officials have held secret talks with prominent Russians believed to be close to the Kremlin — and, in at least one case, with the country’s top diplomat — with the aim of laying the groundwork for potential negotiations to end the war in Ukraine, half a dozen people briefed on the discussions told NBC News.
In a high-level example of the back-channel diplomacy taking place behind the scenes, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with members of the group for several hours in April in New York, four former officials and two current officials told NBC News.
On the agenda of the April meeting were some of the thorniest issues in the war in Ukraine, like the fate of Russian-held territory that Ukraine may never be able to liberate, and the search for an elusive diplomatic off-ramp that could be tolerable to both sides.
Sitting down with Lavrov were Richard Haass, a former diplomat and the outgoing president of the Council on Foreign Relations, current and former officials said. The group was joined by Europe expert Charles Kupchan and Russia expert Thomas Graham, both former White House and State Department officials who are Council on Foreign Relations fellows.
The story is getting a lot of traction online, but it’s mostly getting traction for the wrong reasons.
First things first, this is not real backchannel diplomacy. As Dan Drezner notes in his excellent post “Please Stop Breathlessly Reporting Every Unofficial U.S. Interaction with Russia, Please”, the former U.S. officials here are not particularly close to the current U.S. administration. As Drezner writes: “Graham, Long, and Haass are Republicans who have served in GOP administrations; Kupchan is an academic”.
Second, although the participants apparently briefed the White House National Security Council after the talks, the NSC has explicitly disavowed the talks:
The discussions have taken place with the knowledge of the Biden administration, but not at its direction, with the former officials involved in the Lavrov meeting briefing the White House National Security Council afterward about what transpired, two of the sources said.
At best, the White House seems pretty annoyed at the whole thing. The U.S. can’t stop U.S. citizens talking with foreign governments1, but that doesn’t mean they like or endorse those interactions either.
Drezner is right: the talks are not backchannel diplomacy, and folks should, for the most part, calm down about it.
But if the talks are not backchannel diplomacy, why did Lavrov agree to it? And this, to me, is the much bigger story here, and one that everyone seems to be missing: This isn’t diplomacy. It’s Haass and his colleagues being played by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a game they don’t seem to fully understand.
First things first, these talks have directly caused headaches for the U.S. in two separate directions. For people reading the story who (wrongly) read it as Haass et al speaking for the U.S. administration, this leads to the mistaken impression that the U.S. is quietly abandoning its loud commitment to not hold “talks about Ukraine without Ukraine”. Several Ukrainians have clearly have read the story this way, and are now (wrongly) upset at the U.S. administration for holding talks about their future behind their backs.
Correctly reading the story as Haass et al speaking despite the U.S. administration also invites two different cognitive traps. It encourages the (misleading) impression that a diplomatic solution to the conflict is just around the corner, if only the Biden administration would permit it—after all, here are some other prominent Americans able to “negotiate”. And it gives the mistaken impression that the Biden administration is not talking to Russia, thereby encouraging the Russian-sponsored narrative that the U.S. is belligerently opposed to peace when Russia is amenable to it; a bizarre inversion of the reality. On that second point specifically, the U.S. maintains regular open communications with its counterparts in Moscow. Politico recently reported, for example, that “[a]n administration official confirmed the backchanneling with Moscow to West Wing Playbook, emphasizing that such open channels are routinely used when officials on either side have important messages to convey” (emphasis added).
But there’s a deeper reason why Lavrov was so willing to take this meeting, and it’s a risk inherent to “Track 1.5” meetings between official delegations and unofficial ones. It’s that fake negotiations operate in a framework that is deceptively unrepresentative of real negotiations, and which consistently lead to the official side steamrolling the non-governmental side, and the non-governmental side going home and immediately laundering an unusually friendly paper or article under their supposedly neutral and well-credentialed titles.
And that’s exactly what’s happened here. Shortly after their meeting with Lavrov, Haass and Kupchan cowrote an article for Foreign Affairs, titled “The West Needs a New Strategy in Ukraine: A Plan for Getting From the Battlefield to the Negotiating Table”. The article did not mention their meeting with Lavrov, and despite a brief overture in support of increased equipment transfers to Ukraine at the start, the article lays out a “peace plan” for Ukraine and Russia that is (unwittingly) heavily distorted towards Russian talking points and dismissive of Ukrainian redlines.
It’s a bit complicated to parse out exactly why that is, so let’s unpack it a bit.
Ceasefire agreements are always rough. Except in the vanishingly rare cases of unconditional surrender and total defeat of one side, ceasefires always strike a difficult bargain where all parties to the conflict are unhappy but can ultimately live with the result. Both sides have to make tough decisions about previously-unacceptable terms to trade in exchange for peace, and both sides have to weigh the emotional, political, and actual costs of the aggregate concessions on their side versus the other. That’s heavily shaped both by battlefield realities and by political priors brought into the negotiating room.
When Ukraine, supported by the United States and its other allies, eventually sues for peace against Russia, the Russian delegation will try to minimize its own concessions and extract maximal concessions in response. The Ukrainian delegation will do the reverse. The negotiations will iterate over several rounds towards a middle-ground, trading terms until all sides are able to stomach the result. This is hopefully not a controversial observation: It’s true of all ceasefires, regardless of the participants.
That eventual agreement will be emotionally, politically, and actually costly for Russia. It will also be costly for Ukraine. Ukraine will propose one settlement. Russia will propose another. Ukraine will counteroffer; Russia will counter-counter offer, and so on, iterating inwards. If a middle ground is reachable, it will be signed. If it is not, the war will continue until a later date when the process can continue with the benefit of updated battlefield- and political-realities in the next iteration.
I cannot stress this enough: It’s very easy to get to a ceasefire if you don’t care about the terms, or are unwilling or unable to accurately weigh them for both sides. The terms of the eventual ceasefire are the whole enchilada. Gaming your way to a peace deal is not impressive or useful absent a robust analysis of whether the terms are actually acceptable to the actual parties to the conflict in the real world. To belabor this point, here’s a dumb peace deal that would end the war tomorrow with obviously unacceptable terms: Ukraine surrenders unconditionally, and while we’re at it, so does every other country in Europe, all agreeing to replace their governments with ministers appointed in Moscow. And for good measure the United States gives them Alaska and hands over 80% of its GDP for the next decade too, why not. See? Super easy. War over in an afternoon. But obviously also very stupid. It’s easy to come up with terms acceptable to one side and declare the project for peace a big success. It’s far harder to come up with terms that hold weight in the real world, especially without the state apparatus to fire-test them accurately.
And this leads us to the problem here. Haass et al are not actually negotiating with Russia. They are negotiating against themselves. They do not speak for Ukraine or for the United States. Lavrov has no incentive to moderate any of his country’s terms in response to their hypothetical concessions, and every incentive to talk up their own advantages and the non-negotiability of their own terms. Lavrov knows this fake negotiation isn’t going to lead to an actual peace deal, so playing a maximalist hardball game is free and easy. Moreover, fake-negotiating in good faith yields a later advantage against Moscow in the real negotiation by revealing their hand too early. So of course he will fake-negotiate in bad faith. It’s the only sensible thing to do in that situation.
For the non-governmental delegation the opposite incentive plays out. To be seen as master diplomats, the non-governmental delegation needs to get a deal! Outsiders will be very impressed at their diplomatic skills of scoring a fake ceasefire, and most observers won’t pay too much attention to the proposed terms. After all: the resulting agreement will always be couched as what’s acceptable for Russia, so readers will look less closely at whether the proposed terms are actually acceptable for Ukraine. So where the governmental delegation has incentives to concede nothing, the non-governmental delegation has incentives to over-concede.
But wait, it gets worse: Not only do fake diplomats come to the fake negotiation against an opponent six-feet taller than reality, they also come into the fake negotiation with one arm tied behind their back. Real diplomats benefit from extensive prior knowledge about the flexibility of the terms on their own side, and national support to help shape those negotiations. Terms made in a hypothetical are easier to concede than equivalent terms in a real negotiation. Fake diplomats don’t have to actually pay the terms they hypothetically concede, nor do they have to deal with the messy realities of real politics, real victims, or real territory. This effect is further pronounced when the fake diplomat has little direct emotional attachment to the conflict. As a concrete example, Ukrainian diplomats will have a very different emotional and practical problem trading real Ukrainian territory for concessions to end a very real war than a fake American diplomat would have trading imaginary Ukrainian territory as part of a game.
All of which is to say, “Track 1.5” negotiations might be superficially similar to real negotiations, but they are structurally imbalanced towards the governmental participant in a way that is non-obvious to the non-governmental delegation. They will often end up with an outline for a fake deal, but that fake deal will skew wildly in favor of the governmental delegation—in this case, to Russia’s advantage.
But Lavrov didn’t meet Haass and his friends just to win in a fake game of diplomacy. He met them because of what comes next.
Newly armed with a hard-won “plan for peace”, the academics go home with seemingly-sensible terms that everyone could just about agree to: A brilliant show of diplomacy by a truly esteemed diplomat! The war is solved! Hooray! All that’s left is to publicly write up their ingenious plan under their own names and be celebrated for their hard-nosed diplomatic prowess. Other people—including current officials—who take those former officials seriously then read their article. It reads like a serious and sober analysis of the war as a whole, and provides a seemingly-workable plan to peace. And that shifts the perception of the relative value of the concessions Ukraine is advised to make, as well as inflating the relative value of concessions that Russia might have to make and advising the later real delegations away from requesting them, or at least expecting them to come at a far higher price.
That’s the game Lavrov is playing here.
Fake diplomacy isn’t real diplomacy. It’s a game of influence, and of laundering talking points through the academics who play it. It’s a simple trade: the academics get to meet some important people, get treated like very important diplomats, and get to be celebrated by influential people back home for their amazing diplomatic skills once they publish their negotiated “deal”. And in response, Russia gets to launder its talking points and throw Ukraine under the bus, all hidden under the credentials of those academics.
That’s the game Lavrov played. Haass and his colleagues should have known better than to play it.
Please, please stop talking about the Logan Act. No, really. It’s dead law. In 220 years nobody has ever been successfully prosecuted under it, and any such prosecution would almost certainly be unconstitutional. U.S. citizens can talk to foreign governments. They cannot fraudulently represent themselves as U.S. government officials, but that did not happen here. The legal system will not punish U.S. citizens who talk to foreign governments—even about foreign policy—in their capacity as ordinary citizens.