Like early morning river mist, hopes of peace in Ukraine rise momentarily, then dissipate with the first sigh of a contrary breeze. UN chief António Guterres mounts a mission to Moscow and Kyiv – then Vladimir Putin’s missiles blow it all to hell. Russia coyly offers talks at next month’s G20 summit. Then Joe Biden scoffs: they’re not serious, he’s heard it all before.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, watches his cities burn anew and vows never to negotiate while Putin rules. Turkey, playing a double game, confuses mediation with collaboration at a secretive Kazakh tryst. Meanwhile, a world aghast at scary escalations and threats of nuclear war cries out in alarm: “When will it end? And how?”
No matter what Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, says, international opinion is dead against Putin’s war of aggression. More than 140 countries condemned Moscow at the UN last week. Only North Korea, Syria, Belarus and Nicaragua voted in support. “Russia has failed on the battlefield and failed at the UN,” the UK’s ambassador, Barbara Woodward, succinctly concluded.
Yet despite this huge anti-war consensus, backed by three-quarters of the world’s countries; despite solemn declarations that the latest atrocities are “unacceptable” and Russia’s annexations are illegal; and despite the Kremlin’s insincere talk of talks, substantive steps to halt the fighting and pursue a genuine peace process remain wholly absent.
Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, tried hard. But his repeated phone calls to Putin proved fruitless and sparked accusations of appeasement. After his trauma in Kyiv, Guterres, the UN’s secretary-general, is reduced to heartfelt pleas. His sole success – lifting Russia’s Black Sea grain blockade – is in trouble.
Some hoped China might act as honest broker. But Beijing, enjoying western discomfort and discounted Russian oil, prefers to sit it out while expressing “concern”. Breaking the habit of a lifetime, even Israel’s Naftali Bennett offered to play peacemaker. But he, too, was fobbed off, flannelled and misled by Putin and Lavrov.
The reason there’s no peace – the reason diplomacy isn’t working – is simple. Putin does not want it. Since the US first warned of invasion, he has rebuffed all efforts to resolve matters peacefully. He failed to grab all of Ukraine by force. So now he is threatening greater horrors – and still avoiding meaningful talks.
Diplomacy as conducted by Putin’s regime has become a parody and ugly farce, a cynical exercise in falsehood and disinformation. Mendacious Lavrov follows Lenin’s dictum: “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” While he argues black is white, the Earth is flat, and Russia is a free country, Putin indiscriminately targets civilians, oversees war crimes, then claims to be fighting fascism.
“A trail of blood is left behind the Russian delegation when it enters the general assembly and the hall is filled up with the smell of smouldering human flesh,” Kyiv’s ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya, told the UN. Theirs was not normal diplomatic activity, he suggested. Russia’s diplomats were a front for state terrorism and mass murder.
The EU, the G7 countries, Nato defence ministers – all held urgent talks last week but made limited progress in response to Putin’s intensified bombing campaign. New sanctions, more missile defences, verbal warnings; all the usual pressure tools were considered. All expressed shock.
This isn’t nearly enough. Western leaders must now deploy the one big non-military weapon they still have in reserve.
It’s time to stop pretending Putin’s Russia is a normal country. It’s time to admit diplomacy has failed. It’s time to complete Moscow’s isolation by withdrawing all American, European and G7 diplomats, closing all western embassies, and ostracising Russian officials in international forums, including the UN.
All Russian diplomats must simultaneously be expelled. This would rid the west of a motley crew of professional liars who pollute the airwaves with propaganda. It has the added advantage of neutralising the spies, assassins and saboteurs who use Russian embassies as cover and, for example, blew up Germany’s rail network earlier this month.
The conventional argument – that it’s vital to maintain channels of communication with an enemy – is redundant in Russia’s case. Putin’s people just don’t listen to the west or its diplomats, do not share the same basic premises concerning facts, truth and legality. This outlaw regime speaks a different language, composed of deception and denial. Its word cannot be trusted.
Nor, arguably, is there much the west could not discover about Russia’s politics and policies were its envoys to be withdrawn en masse. In the era of global satellite surveillance and digital intercepts, the comforting concept of “our man in Moscow” is old hat. Uncomfortably new, however, is the possibility, if Putin closes Russia’s borders, that western envoys may be taken hostage.
If a conversation with the Kremlin is truly necessary, there’s always the phone.
How might Putin react to near-total diplomatic isolation? It would be a huge humiliation, entrenching Russia as global pariah. It could harm ties with countries such as China and India, which have their own relationships with the west.
And while Putin himself might not immediately change his behaviour, it would forcefully bring home to Russians, and the country’s institutions, just what an utter disaster he is – assuming they need any reminding.
Ukrainians should ignore siren voices urging a “freeze” of the front lines or other diplomatic compromises. Sooner or later, the Russian people, perhaps with their mutinous military to the fore, will reject this loathsome regime.
That could be the moment when it all changes, the moment when the mist rises, the war’s end comes clearly into view – and with it, the end of the dictator.
Putin will certainly fall, eventually, and fall hard. But it won’t be diplomacy that brings him down.