Stewart McDonald MP (SNP Defence Spokesperson) describes the horrors experienced in Ukraine and articulates well the concerns felt there about any change in the West’s position, prompted by “extreme voices from the left and the right across Europe”.
He writes that “one cannot negotiate a lasting peace with Putin”. While it is not clear whether this extends to Russia generally, Mr McDonald is clear that Russia must not be allowed to win the war.
If one accepts the latter proposition, is it necessarily the case that negotiation can never occur? Let’s accept that no concessions should be made that reward Russia’s actions or are inconsistent with what Ukrainians wish. Where does that leave the West? Expecting surrender? Encouraging total victory? How likely is that to happen? What would be the consequences of trying to achieve it?
There are countless examples from history where negotiation has taken place with those who were sworn enemies: the IRA, the apartheid regime, the Taliban, for example. By contrast, in the Second World War, Winston Churchill concluded that Germany must be defeated absolutely. Which position do we take now? How do we make wise decisions?
Perhaps, rather than approaching this in a binary way, we must accept the reality of complexity and contradictions. It is perfectly possible to argue for and maintain your principles, self-respect and objectives, while also seeking to end conflict. The key is to be clear about your and others’ long-term interests.
It is not an indication of weakness to seek to understand what motivates the other party, the enemy; indeed, that can be a sign of confidence and strength. Understanding is not the same as conceding, appeasing or legitimising.
Nelson Mandela’s biographer Richard Stengel writes: “This way of thinking is demanding. Even if we remain wedded to our point of view, it requires us to put ourselves in the shoes of those with whom we disagree … But the reward … is something that can fairly be described as wisdom.”
Perhaps we should never negotiate with the Russian leadership. But if one argues for such a position, it is important to articulate clearly the risks inherent in alternative courses of action. Emotional or intuitive responses are not enough.
There are risks in negotiating of course. This week’s news may appear to make it less likely that there can be a negotiated solution with Russia and its leadership sometime in the future. However, it could be a strategic error to exclude the possibility altogether.
John Sturrock, The Times, Thursday 22 September 2022