July 18, 2023 - 3:00pm

US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are ready to do a deal, according to the historian, military strategist and advisor to the US government Edward Luttwak. The comments were made in a discussion this week with UnHerd’s Freddie Sayers, during which Luttwak argued that “a shift in the overall situation” has resulted in both leaders being more willing to negotiate an end to the Ukraine war.

The author, who has worked inside and outside of the Pentagon and the US Department of State for decades, believes that channels between the CIA and the Kremlin are sufficiently open for peace talks to develop. Following the aborted Wagner Group uprising at the end of last month, CIA chief William Burns spoke directly to Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s SVR foreign intelligence service, to reassure him there was no CIA involvement in the rebellion. For Luttwak, this implies “a certain overall attitude and willingness to communicate”, while Naryshkin’s very presence in the Kremlin is further evidence that the war could be coming to an end. 

“Naryshkin is the person who, before the war started, told Putin directly, ‘Don’t do it: you have a problem with Ukraine. Talk, don’t fight. Don’t start the war,’” Luttwak claimed. “So we have somebody in the Kremlin who took that position who hasn’t been fired. He’s still there, in charge of SVR. Meanwhile, we have the American head of intelligence calling him up. And why is that? Because the United States wants this war to end.”

The strategist also pointed to Biden’s refusal to accept Ukraine into Nato as evidence that he is planning for later, war-ending negotiations. “You have a bargaining chip when you want to talk to the Russians […] When you want to find a way out of this war, you want to negotiate,” he said.

This eagerness to strike a deal goes beyond the American camp, as Putin’s recent comments on the plausibility of a Russian nuclear attack arguably reveal his own willingness to de-escalate. According to Luttwak, “the priority is to end the war. Putin said, ‘I will not use nuclear weapons at all, unless Russia faces imminent destruction.’ In other words, it is the same position as Israel has, India has, Pakistan has, the United States — which is, ‘we will strike back, we’re not going to have a first strike’”. 

Putin’s newfound interest in ending the conflict is, in Luttwak’s view, driven by paranoia over the war’s impact on inflation rates in Russia. “Putin’s reason has nothing to do with tactical operational military tanks,” he suggested. “It has to do with the fact that his director of the Russian Central Bank […] is now signalling that the war has to not build up, but scale down, because otherwise she won’t be able to control inflation.” What’s more, “inflation is a catastrophe in Russia, because people live in towns scattered over immense distances […] They can’t go and get a job somewhere else down the street: they have to travel 200 miles.”

Luttwak was clear on what a Russia-Ukraine deal would look like. The only way out of the conflict, he argued, would require the Russians to withdraw from all parts of Ukraine, other than Donetsk and Luhansk, and to organise plebiscites in these two regions. 

“The plan of holding plebiscites may be the most ridiculous plan, but there’s no other plan,” he said. “The Russians have to give up any claim or pretence that they have the right to rule all of Ukraine or other parts of it: they have just the two regions. Secondly, the Ukrainians have to give up Crimea. Crimea was always Russian — it was transferred administratively by Khrushchev.” Then, he claimed, “once Ukraine gives up Crimea and accepts these terms, Ukraine can enter Nato. That’s the big payoff. That’s why you don’t give it to them for free.”

Luttwak saw no reason why talks can’t start immediately, detecting a sense of urgency from both sides: “there are two possibilities. One is that it will happen exactly as I said. The other is that it won’t. And if it won’t, we are looking at the Seven Years War, if we’re lucky. It could be a 25-year war.”