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Ice Cream Diplomacy

What the progressive caucus gets wrong on Ukraine.

Words: Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon
Pictures: Max Kukurudziak

In a recent Wall Street Journal piece on occupied Eastern Ukraine, a resident characterizes Luhansk as a place where there are “no prospects for the future.” Bombed-out buildings, art museums turned into torture centers — a liminal existence between chaos and fear. This is what life is like in Luhansk and Donetsk, the two pro-Russian enclave territories of Eastern Ukraine. Since 2014, Russia has destabilized and continued armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and has illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula. On top of this, Ukraine (including its breakaway territories) has been ravaged by COVID-19, compounding the chances of catastrophe. Knowing this, the progressive caucus’s response to the Biden administration’s plans to aid Ukraine in the latest flare-up of the eight-year-long Russian invasion of Ukraine is curious. Worse, it is utterly misguided in its aims. The statement represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, the impact of the American and European response to the 2014 invasion, and the horizons for American involvement in the current conflict. Diplomacy alone is not enough.

On Jan. 26, 2022, members of the progressive caucus released a statement written by Representatives Pramila Jayapal and Barbara Lee. In the statement, the pair states, “We continue to watch Russia’s threatening behavior towards Ukraine with alarm. There is no military solution out of this crisis  —  diplomacy needs to be the focus.” At the end of the statement, they argue, “In past crises, where events are moving quickly and intelligence is unclear, vigorous, delicate diplomacy is essential to de-escalation.” The caucus also put forth a resolution that seeks to “outline a new framework for foreign policy” and calls for the US to use foreign policy to lessen the harms outlined earlier in the document. This is fascinating because among these issues are: The spread of infectious diseases, the proliferation of weapons, human rights violations, corruption, conflict and violence, and authoritarianism and distrust in democracy. All of these are combined in the current UkraineRussia crisis.

Yet, the day after, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez doubled down on the progressive narrative. She alluded to the idea that the military-industrial complex would engage in armed conflict in Ukraine for profit. On top of that, she lamented the harm sanctions could do to Ukrainians because of some barely logical connection between pipelines and climate change. I’m still wondering how sanctions on Russia harm Ukrainians, or how Ukraine and the United States are pursuing a path to war rather than Russia. Perhaps Ben and Jerry’s can help me with that one.


What the members of the progressive caucus either fail to understand or do not know are threefold. One, this is not a new conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Instead, it is a continuation of an eight-year-long war that has cost Ukraine thousands of lives and has fundamentally destabilized its eastern territories in Donets and Luhansk. Two, Ukraine is not Iraq. The American military-industrial complex’s interests have not driven the Biden administration to place troops in Ukraine for “democracy building.” Ukraine is already a democracy, albeit flawed with myriad domestic issues, but none of these negate the fact that it has a popularly elected Parliament and a free press, despite multiple changes in power and popular uprising. Ukraine’s most pressing issue is that it has a neighbor that insists on undermining its territorial sovereignty and whose leader publicly refuses to acknowledge that Ukrainians are, in fact, not Russians.

Third, the Biden administration, the EU, and NATO have been working toward a diplomatic resolution to this crisis with Russia. At the same time, Russia has amassed over 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, started military exercises with Belarus (guess what, this is also near the Ukrainian border), and has allegedly moved its emergency supplies closer to Ukraine. Oh, and Russia’s response to these diplomatic overtures? In a meeting with Hungarian President Viktor Orban, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin stated that the West had ignored Russia’s security concerns about NATO expansion. Simply put, Russia does not want Ukraine to join NATO. Moreover, Russia demands autonomy for the eastern regions occupied since 2014. Although this demand is in line with the protocols of the Minsk II agreement, we should keep in mind that this agreement fundamentally undercuts Ukrainian territorial sovereignty and rewards Russia’s meddling in Ukraine.

So, what about more diplomacy? Here’s the thing: Diplomacy requires the parties involved to engage in good faith negotiations and be willing to make compromises to preserve peace or lessen tensions. Russia must engage in good-faith diplomacy, but we have little hope it will do so. Last week, the American and Russian UN Ambassadors butted heads in a UN Security Council meeting. Moreover, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spent a considerable amount of time on the phone and in discussions with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, without any major diplomatic breakthroughs. What we see here, much like in 2014, is Russia using its aggression to undermine Ukrainian autonomy and to gain diplomatic concessions.

Ukraine’s most pressing issue is that it has a neighbor that insists on undermining its territorial sovereignty and whose leader publicly refuses to acknowledge that Ukrainians are, in fact, not Russians.

What is more worrisome is that the progressive caucus’ statement simply repeats a Russian state talking point about the “imagined” conflict in Ukraine. Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia stated that the United States was “almost calling for this, you (America) want it to happen. You’re waiting for it to happen as if you want to make your words become a reality.” In both cases, the onus of Russian incursion into Ukraine somehow lies at the feet of the United States, Ukraine, and its allies, rather than Russia for amassing troops and continuing to menace its neighbor. While defending voting rights and democratic participation in the United States, the progressive stance does not recognize that Ukraine’s push to expand its democratic institutions and align itself with non-authoritarian governments was stifled by Russia. Let me help everyone understand why this is important: In no sense is Russia the victim here. Russia is not Iraq circa 2003. Ukraine is dealing with the aggression of an authoritarian government that holds the values progressives hold dear in contempt. While war-weariness is understandable, the framing of Ukraine as akin to Iraq is misguided. Neither the United States nor Ukraine wants an armed confrontation with Russia.

Furthermore, as historian and expert on Ukraine Dr. Timothy Snyder argued in a recent Twitter thread, Ukraine should have the full support of the progressive caucus, considering what they know about the country. Ukraine and Ukrainians have suffered from Russian military aggression since 2014, the year their push toward democracy and alignment with Europe was undercut, and Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty was destroyed. What also seems to have fallen into the abyss of talking points is that Ukraine willingly gave up its nuclear arsenals in 1994 in the Budapest Memorandum. What did Ukraine ask for in exchange? A guarantee of its territorial sovereignty, including respect for its borders. The United States, United Kingdom, and Russia all signed this agreement. Furthermore, in 1991, the Russian Federation signed the Belovezha Accords that effectively ended the legal entity that was the Soviet Union and recognized the sovereignty of Russia, Belarus, and the Ukraine.

What has Ukraine received for its belief in international law and alliances? A tepid American and European response to the 2014 Russian invasion. Yes, I will keep using that word because that is precisely what the hell it was — an invasion. Ukrainians in the East have and continue to live in the shadow of armed conflict. Ukraine is striving toward European integration but has been purposefully destabilized by Russia to prevent that. Already thousands of Ukrainians have died, and more are preparing to fight for Ukraine’s continued existence and the preservation of what is left of its territorial autonomy.

There is room for nuance in our domestic discussions about the use of the American military and the overwhelming influence of the military-industrial complex within that. However, to rely on the idea of diplomacy without realizing that diplomacy usually requires a mechanism for execution is to be naïve. Targeted sanctions, monetary and lethal aid for Ukraine, and continued support for our NATO allies are implementation mechanisms. And yes, so is American troop deployment. We are talking about around 3,000 troops to Poland and Romania, thousands of miles from the eastern Ukrainian border where Russian troops are located.

The idea is deterrence, and we can debate whether it will be successful, but that is where the Biden administration is hedging its bet. Biden has made it clear that he will not deploy American troops to Ukraine. With this in mind, what has changed? The United States has kept sanctions on Russia since 2014 and has sent over $1 billion in monetary and lethal aid. We even have a few hundred troops in the Yavoriv training center in western Ukraine to help train Ukrainian military leaders. If these measures were strong enough, I doubt we and Ukraine would be in the position we are in now. They have fallen short of what we need for successful diplomacy that deters the threat of further Russian aggression toward Ukraine.


So, considering we’ve been doing all of this for nearly eight years, what precisely is the caucus concerned about? To be blunt, American politicos have certainly expressed a lot of “concern” about and for Ukraine. Unfortunately, their concern may help them sleep at night, but it will not shield Ukrainians from Russian tanks. I drew my lessons from early and mid-2014 when we expressed our concern as Crimea was taken and the Donbas was in flames.

The question is straightforward: Do we allow Russia to further infringe upon Ukrainian sovereignty? Russia’s diplomatic demands include a non-starter clause that Ukraine should never join NATO and the “autonomy” of Luhansk and Donetsk, those very regions in which Russia has supported a proxy war against Ukrainian forces. Neither of these options appreciates Ukrainian autonomy nor sovereignty, and both reward Russian aggression and sabotage democratic processes in Ukraine. Ukraine does not want another explosion of armed conflict within its borders, and clearly, the United States does not want an armed confrontation with Russia. Thus, what we can do is continue to engage diplomatically with Russia while continuing to help Ukraine prepare for the worst-case scenario and hold Russia accountable for its aggression toward its neighbors.

Ukraine, as a sovereign state, should have the right to decide its own international alliances and the extent of its participation in Western European institutions. These decisions should not have to be made under the shadow of Russian artillery. What Ukraine is asking from its Western allies, including the United States, is not to engage in war, but to continue to offer support. Put simply, Ukraine is asking that we keep the promises we have made to it since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon is a Ph.D. student in History at the University of Pennsylvania. She holds an M.A. in Russian, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies from Harvard University.

Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon

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