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In the business world, all negotiations start with a central question. Is there a deal to be made that both sides will accept? There is no point in negotiating if one or both sides is not willing to strike a deal. Salesmen are trained to think about this question whenever they engage with a prospective client. Unless they can show that a sale is possible, they should not waste their time. In order for negotiations to make sense, both sides have to want to make a deal and think a deal is possible.
Related to the primary questions are the questions about the shape of the deal, as in what will both sides accept and what will they never accept. Negotiations are often about both sides coming to accept that they will have to take less than what they initially wanted in the deal in order to get the deal done. The two questions that loom over negotiations are “what would we like?” and “what will we accept?” The latter becomes the starting point of an agreement.
War is a form of negotiation. In almost all cases, the attacking side would prefer a negotiated settlement, but they determined that the other side was not prepared to do what was required to make a deal possible. One or both sides is unrealistic about what they can get and what they will accept. The war resets the negotiations. If one side wins convincingly, then they can dictate the terms of the final deal. The important thing about wars is they always end in a settlement.
This is the great puzzle in Ukraine. The war will end eventually. If the West is right and Ukraine is clearing the Russians from the field, then the Russians will have to accept the terms of the Ukrainian victors and their NATO backers. If the maps are right and Russia is slowly destroying the Ukrainian army, then the Ukrainians will have to accept the terms offered by Russia. More important, Ukraine’s Western backers will have to strike a deal with the Russians to close the books on the war.
Of course, the third option is some sort of stalemate in which both sides can either claim victory or deny being defeated. This seems to be the hope on the Ukrainian side, as they have broken off negotiations. Presumably, the West has promised unlimited arms shipments if the Ukrainians keep fighting. The logic is the Russians have plenty of weapons, but a finite number of troops, while Ukraine has unlimited troops but has a finite number of weapons, until now.
This is what makes the whole thing baffling. Before the conflict, the Russians demanded a return to the Minsk agreements. This was a set of protocols to bring peace to the Donbas, which had been in a civil war since 2014. Kiev had signed this deal in 2015 with the support of France and Germany, which brokered the deal. Kiev and Moscow would demilitarize the two sides, peacekeepers would be sent in and the two provinces would have elections and some degree of autonomy.
Compared to war, that looked like a great deal for Kiev, but for reasons that have not been explained, Kiev rejected the offer. Once the Russian army crossed into the Donbas, the Russians made a new proposal. Autonomy for the Donbas, recognition of Russia’s claims in the Crimea and the neutrality of Ukraine. That last part was in response to efforts by Washington to bring the Ukraine into NATO. Oddly, Kiev accepted this but rejected the other demands from Russia.
Here we are in the third month of the war and it is clear that the Russian deal, if an offer is coming, will be much different. The Kherson region in the south is preparing to join the two regions in the Donbas in demanding separation from Ukraine. There are rumors that Odessa is in negotiations with Russia to do the same. In the northeast, the Kharkiv region is rumored to be breaking away. This may simply be the result of the Russian occupation and elimination of Azov in the area.
Barring a radical change to the facts on the ground, the deal Ukraine can now get from any negotiations with Russia is much worse than two months ago. Rumors of Polish troops on the border with Ukraine, where many people speak Polish and identify as Polish, suggests the deal could get a lot worse in a hurry. This raises a rather important question. Why is Kiev and its Western backers, unwilling to make a deal? What deal do they think will materialize in a month or a year?
One possibility is Washington thinks Ukraine is winning and just needs time, which goes back to that belief she has unlimited manpower. Given the facts on the ground, this seems unlikely, but war makes people crazy. The leaders on both sides of the Great War staggered on sure they were about to break the other side. War often warps the ability of the planners to properly interpret reality. They stick to the plan despite the obvious failures of the plan. The Somme is a good example.
What this says is the only deal the West will accept is the total surrender of Russia, which conforms what the Russians have said from the beginning. Their reason for going into Ukraine was that Washington was planning to use Ukraine as a launching pad for war against Russia, both culturally and economically. What the Russians are now seeing is that there can never be a deal with the West. She will have to guarantee her own economic and territorial security.
What this means is that there is no walking back to some early point when a deal could have been struck between the sides. The West now demands unconditional surrender, which means they cannot relent on the sanctions. At some point that means cutting off all imports from Russia. The limited sanctions have sent prices soaring, which means Western leaders are committed to a massive reduction in the quality of life of the West in order to win this war with Russia.
The irony here is that the people who plotted this war, the neocons who control American foreign policy, appear to have made the same blunder Athens made in the Peloponnesian war. The irony is that the neocons are obsessed with that war, seeing themselves on the side of Athens. In that war, Athens recklessly attacked Sicily and was defeated at the battle of Syracuse. This eventually led to the over all defeat of Athens by the Spartans and the end of the Athenian empire.
A forgotten lesson of the Peloponnesian war is that Athens had many chances to make a deal with Sparta but could not stop provoking the Spartans. If the Athenians had viewed the conflict as a negotiation and set realistic conditions in order to strike a deal, she would have avoided disaster. Instead, she just assumed victory was inevitable, so no negotiation was required. In the end, Athens would prevail and the terms would be whatever suited Athens.
This seems to be the position of Washington and Brussels. Various leaders keep popping up demanding the unconditional surrender of Russia. They are making clear that they will fight forever. Given the deal they could have gotten from Russia just a few months ago, this new deal sounds dreadful, which suggests they are not the brilliant tacticians they imagine themselves to be. In the fullness of time, the Minsk agreements may look like the best deal that was ever possible in Ukraine.
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