Track two diplomacy on Ukraine

Hussein Haridy
Wednesday 16 Feb 2022

Could track two diplomacy lead to a negotiated solution to the crisis over Ukraine?

Exactly 60 years ago in 1962, the US under Democratic Party president John F Kennedy and the former Soviet Union headed by secretary-general of the Soviet Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev were on the brink of a world war, which unlike World War I and II of the 20th century would have been a nuclear war.

Despite the fact that the two leaders had been under tremendous strategic, military, and political pressures to settle the Cuban Missile Crisis – the cause of this threat – in the best interests of their respective countries, they had also shown the utmost restraint and the political will not to unleash their nuclear arsenals in a war that would know no winners.

The two superpowers of the time were also involved in what has become known as “track two diplomacy,” in other words a parallel diplomatic channel to the traditional one. This second diplomatic track proved to be very effective in bringing about a satisfactory agreement between the two superpowers that was based on compromises that served their strategic interests and helped defuse the most dangerous military confrontation between the US and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Despite the frenetic diplomatic contacts and efforts by all the parties concerned, mainly the US and Russia, the present crisis over Ukraine is still unresolved, and Russian forces are still deployed along the Russian-Ukrainian border and on the border of Belarus with Ukraine. To make matters more complicated, Moscow has also launched large-scale military exercises with Minsk from 10 to 20 February, putting the might of the Russian army on display.

Footage of the forces taking part in these exercises has been published with the intention of sending a message to NATO and Ukraine that barring a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis and one that would meet at least some of the Russian demands, Russia has the political will and the military might to have its way in Ukraine.

Hectic diplomacy called Allied Resolve 2022 preceded the Russian exercises. A few days before they started, French President Emmanuel Macron met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow for five hours on 7 February, and the following day he travelled to Kiev to confer with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The French government has been trying to contain any future escalation between the West and Russia over Ukraine and assist in elaborating a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The French president said that he had made some proposals to Putin in his meeting without elaborating what they were. The Russian president promised to keep the “dialogue going,” while indicating that Moscow was still waiting to see whether NATO would provide Russia with the security guarantees that it had demanded the previous week in writing.

In a joint press conference with Putin, Macron did not leave any doubt that he wants to solve the Ukraine crisis in a European framework. He stressed that Russia is a European power and that “whoever believes in Europe must know how to work with Russia” and “find the ways and means to construct the European future among Europeans.”

He made clear that he aimed to secure “military stability” and prevent the outbreak of hostilities in the short term. As for a long-term solution, Macron only talked, realistically enough, of finding “medium-term solutions.” What was interesting in his analysis was his emphasis, rightly so, that there can be “no security for Europeans if there is no security for Russia.”

In order to allow Europe to contribute to a diplomatic solution, Berlin then hosted a trilateral summit on 8 February between German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Macron, and President of Poland Andrzej Duda. The three European leaders emphasised that their overriding objective was the preservation of peace in Europe. They warned Russia of dire consequences “politically, economically, and surely strategically” if it invades Ukraine.

While the Europeans were trying hard to contain the situation, Pentagon Spokesperson John Kirby informed the press on 9 February that “we have continued to see even over the last 24 hours additional capabilities flow from elsewhere in Russia to the border with Ukraine and Belarus.” He went on to say that “we also see indications that additional battalion tactical groups are on their way. And so, every day he [Putin] adds to his options.”

No wonder the US administration, starting from 11 February, has been raising the alarm that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is “imminent” and could take place before the end of the Olympic Winter Games in Beijing on 20 February. It is worth noting in this respect that senior US officials have also previously talked about a Russian invasion taking place after 20 February and not before then.

In this context of heightened tension, US President Joe Biden talked with Putin on the telephone for the third time on 12 February. Their conversation lasted for an hour, but a senior US official said that the discussions had not yielded a “fundamental change in the dynamic.” Biden warned of “swift and severe costs” for Russia if it moves against Ukraine. The two leaders agreed to remain engaged, however, regardless of whether Moscow decides to invade or not.

Commenting on the summit call, a Kremlin official quoted in the Wall Street Journal on 13 February said that Moscow would soon announce what actions it would take in response to proposals by the US administration and NATO. He added that the US had again ignored Russia’s central demands of rolling back NATO’s eastward expansion and barring US weapons systems from reaching Ukraine.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also had a telephone call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on 12 February, during which he said that Russia had to de-escalate, meaning drawing down forces already deployed on the Ukrainian border without indicating what steps Washington and NATO would take to provide the Kremlin with a justifiable and credible cause for such a move on Russia’s part.

Maybe “track two diplomacy” is an avenue that should be seriously explored by Washington and Moscow, especially since the two superpowers have a precedent for it that dates back 60 years. Back then, they used it to save face while preserving their security and strategic interests by negotiating a political compromise of historic proportions against the odds.

* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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