The Worst Thing About the Progressives’ Ukraine Letter
It revealed a deeply flawed conception of diplomacy.
Stephen Colbert famously roasted President George W. Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondent’s Dinner with an instant-classic zinger. “He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday,” Colbert said, in full character. “Events can change; this man’s beliefs never will.”
So, too, the authors of perhaps the shortest-lived letter in Congressional history did not let events change their minds. Their missive, signed but perhaps not read by 30 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, was sent to President Joe Biden on Monday mid-afternoon. It made front-page, column-right of the Washington Post on Tuesday morning—a staffer’s dream hit.
By early Tuesday afternoon, it had turned into a nightmare. The embarrassed Caucus chair, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., was forced to withdraw the letter. Liz Truss had lasted longer.
Jayapal made the right call. The letter was an incoherent mishmash of contradictory positions, obsolete information, and quotes cherry-picked to make a case, not present an accurate analysis. After two corrective statements to walk back the letter, she realized it was doomed. She stopped the bleeding and took full blame.
How did a respected caucus with a brilliant chair get this so wrong? Terrible staff work, teamed with terrible expert advice. The group’s policy staff worked with outside groups associated with the libertarian “restraint” positions to draft the letter in June, gathered signatures in July, then inexplicably sat on the letter until October 24. They blindsided their own members, provoking a furious reaction that forced the withdrawal.
The letter called for a fundamental change in President Joe Biden’s strategy just two weeks before a critical mid-term election. It called for a ceasefire and direct talks between the United States and Russia as Russian forces are retreating across the front lines and the Ukrainian army is poised to liberate the city of Kherson.
Policy positions that may have made sense over the summer—when many experts believed that the war would become a “frozen conflict”—made no sense in the autumn, as Ukrainian forces turned the tide of battle and many now predict their ultimate victory. Many of the sentences and references were frozen in time.
The letter claimed “Russia’s’s recent seizure of cities in Ukraine’s’s east have led to the most pivotal moment in the conflict.” This supposedly pivotal moment, however, was back in May. By October, Ukrainians had liberated scores of settlements and cities in stunning advances. They have exposed the horror’s of Russian occupation, hardening Ukraine’s will to free the occupied people and shown that the army had the strategy, skill and weapons to do it.
The letter spoke of “the consolidation of Russian control over roughly 20 percent of Ukraine’s’s territory.” That was true in the summer months. Now, Russian forces are retreating across nearly the entire front line. Russia doesn’t fully control any of the four provinces it has illegally annexed. Its forces are in various states of disarray; its losses so severe that Russian President Vladimir Putin was forced to declare a mobilization.
Like almost every move Putin has made from the beginning of his unprovoked war, the move produced the opposite results of those he intended. There are now deep fissures in Russian support for Putin and for his war among the Russian public—whose sons, fathers and even grandfathers are dragged off the streets and sent to the front lines—and within Putin’s ultra-nationalist base who ever-more shrilling demand the elimination of the Ukrainian people and nation.
All the hyperlinks in the letter are from articles published in May and June or earlier, including the quotes from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressing his support for principled diplomacy. Any letter written today would have to cite Zelenskyy’s actual, current views. “Ukraine will not hold any negotiations with Russia as long as Putin is the president,” he said September 30. “We will negotiate with the new president.”
It’s not just the letter’s outdated analysis. The deeply flawed conception of diplomacy undoes the letter. If the authors had stuck with “it is America’s responsibility to pursue every diplomatic avenue,” it would have done a service to help balance Biden’s approach. There could be and should be more pursuit of negotiated solutions. Instead, they want to leap-frog Ukraine, force an immediate cease-fire, and get Biden to cut a deal with Putin.
They do this by slight of hand. The authors genuflect to Biden’s phrase “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.” But then they immediately contradict it with calls to “engage in direct talks with Russia,” and the odd demand to “explore prospects for a new European security arrangement.” There is no linkage; no Ukrainian veto, no Ukrainian role.
That is because the authors and their experts see this war as caused by the West; a proxy war between two great powers. Thus, they support “a sovereign and independent Ukraine,” but not a territorially intact Ukraine. Kyiv’s desire to free all its people is an obstacle, not a viable strategic goal, and, thus, must be abandoned, by pressure if necessary. Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., denounced this view as a “colonialist reflex” in his brilliant repudiation of the letter on Tuesday.
“The alternative to diplomacy is protracted war,” they claim. No, it is not. Ukraine is winning the war; Putin is losing. The alternative could well be Ukrainian victory. That was unlikely in June; it is probable in October. Events matter.
The authors approach this as if there is some secret diplomatic solution that Biden is blocking. But nowhere in the letter or in any article yet written is there any practical plan for what the solution could be. Progressive leader Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., on Tuesday blasted the “magical thinking regarding the nature of the Russian threat.”
The biggest problem is not Biden or Zelenskyy but Putin. The Russian leader does not want to negotiate. He thinks he can break Western support for Ukraine over the winter. His demands have actually increased in recent months. As former ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer tweeted, “There may come time for negotiation. But that will require significant change in Russia's negotiating position.” That time is not now.