Jaw to Jaw

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 05-01-2022

A Federation starship is sneaking around the Romulan Neutral Zone, playing cat and mouse with a Romulan ship. The Federation captain is very aggressive and there is nearly an incident, but he reports that he got away without being detected. Several weeks later, in a bar in a neutral space port on a rock circling Eta Carinae, a Romulan Admiral follows the Federation Naval Attache to the Romulan Empire into a bar and, uninvited, sits at the table with him. 
“Good afternoon, Captain.”
"Good afternoon, Admiral. What can I do for you?”
“Several days ago one of your ships strayed into the Neutral Zone and it was nearly disastrous. If you are not more careful, the next time your ship will be destroyed.” He stands up and throws some coins on the table. “Have a drink on me,” he adds, and walks off.

Message delivered.
Nations maintain diplomatic relations, even icy ones, as much to be able to receive bad news and warnings from those they don’t like, as to hear good news from allies. 

Talking with the Russians, or the Romulans, doesn't mean you agree with them, it means you’re being smart.

Yes, what the Kremlin has done is horrific. But as this war grinds on there is an increased probability that it will become more violent, not less, more unpredictable, not less, more likely to escalate, not less. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have already been killed. Meanwhile, as was mentioned by the former Ukrainian Minister of Finance earlier this week, current damage to Ukraine - beyond the tens of thousands who are dead and hundreds of thousands who have been deported to Russia - suggest the country is being destroyed, with current damage estimated between $600 billion and $1 trillion dollars, and growing.

And still no one is talking, in Washington, in the capitals of Europe, or in Moscow.

Perhaps more has happened in private, and we must hope it has, but the commentary from Secretary Blinken, Secretary Austin, even from President Biden, suggest every willingness to simply let the war be decided on the battlefield.

Publicly, Secretary Blinken last talked with Foreign Minister Lavrov in January. The Russian Ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, has complained that he can get no one to talk to him. Ambassador Sullivan, the US Ambassador to Russia, does not appear, based on public reporting, to have been able to talk with Lavrov since before the war kicked off.

While the US Ambassador can’t force Lavrov to meet with him, Secretary Blinken can force the Russian Ambassador to meet in Washington. And the US has the political, economic and military “muscle” to pressure Russia into talks. 

What is certain is that there is not any meaningful talking going on about ending this war. 

Are there problems with talking? Yes. Do we trust the Russian government? No. As President Reagan observed: “Trust but verify.”

Perhaps there is no reason to worry, the folks in Washington and London and Paris and Berlin have this well in hand. You know, the same folks who thought the sanctions would prevent the war. The same folks who are now lining up funds and production schedules through the end of September, when the war will be 7 months old.

What else will have happened by then?

If you missed the latest news out of the war in Ukraine, the Russian Chief of the General Staff (the Russian equivalent of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) was wounded in an attack on the Russian headquarters (HQ) in eastern Ukraine. During a staff meeting in the HQ in the city of Izyum, south of the city of Kharkov, the building was struck by Ukraine fire, probably a rocket. Per the Twitter stream that first reported this, there were other “senior officers” who were killed, to include at least one general.

The Russians would presumably ask how it was that the Ukrainian rocket forces knew exactly where Gerasimov was and when he would be there. As a general rule, outside of the headquarters personnel and the other generals this sort of information is closely held. But, it probably won’t take a great deal of work to figure out how the Ukrainians might have known. And that leads to the next question: What if the answer is: the Americans told them. Just as it was reported that American intelligence allowed the Ukrainians to shoot down the aircraft carrying 150 Russian airborne troops. Just as it was reported that American targeting helped the Ukrainians strike and sink Moskva. 

I really would like to find some way for the Russians to lose badly. But more than that, we really need to end this war. Particularly before it goes off in some other direction again and they decide to use nuclear weapons. 

There’s another question that no one chewing on right now: What happens if the Russians figure out how to beat the Ukrainians? Right now the Ukrainians are winning. What will we do if they start losing?

President Putin is supposedly going to go under the knife for cancer surgery some time after the May 9th Victory in Europe Anniversary Parade. Will he return chastened and willing to end the fighting? Or more determined than ever to secure his legacy? What if he doesn’t return? Will his replacement be more civilized? Or less?

Wouldn’t it be better to have made contact before we start asking those questions, rather than after?

Winston Churchill - the last fellow in the world to give in, to appease - said: “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.” 

At the very least, there must be someone who can deliver hard messages - in private - to the Kremlin that clearly communicate where and when the Kremlin appears to be going too far, and tells them enough is enough. But that requires clear and credible communication. 

And that is exactly what appears to be missing.