For the average Western consumer of news, the present-day situation in the world is clear. The barbarous Russians are, through the war in Ukraine, attacking democracy while the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union are defending it. For their counterparts in the Russian Federation, the situation is reversed. Manipulative Western powers and NATO are trying to impose their worldview and ruin the way of life for all the others.
Both sides deeply believe themselves to be right. Everybody takes sides. The war goes on.
But, in all our righteousness, what do we really know?
It cannot be disputed that Ukrainian civilians are dying in a gruesome way and their country is getting ever more destroyed by the day. The Russian government did start the war, the Wagner boys are criminals and paid killers, and the weapons industry is flourishing while the chances of a diplomatic solution are remote.
At the same time, the average reader doesn’t know much about the Minsk agreement, the nature of the Azov Battalion, the real motivations of one or another of the countries involved, the ambitions of NATO, the impact of Western sanctions on the Russian economy, or—and this is perhaps the most important point—the secret meetings that are surely going on in the background.
The Power of Secrecy
Secret meetings in diplomacy—“behind the scenes” or “confidential encounters” or even “conspiracies”—are as old as the state itself. One of the first on record took place in Ancient Rome when Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar formed an unofficial alliance, the first secret triumvirate in history. Closer to the current era, Hitler sent his foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop to Moscow in 1939 to negotiate a secret nonaggression agreement.
Or consider the meeting between Croatian leader Franjo Tuđman and Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević in Karađorđevo, in the Serbian province of Vojvodina, on March 25, 1991. Outwardly, it looked no different from any of the other 40 meetings they held during the wars in Yugoslavia and that’s how the world media reported it. The two leaders stressed that the two largest republics agreed to solve the Yugoslav crisis in the coming months. Most of the discussion was held by Tuđman and Milošević alone, without witnesses or any record-keeping. There was no official agreement of any kind. Unofficially, it is widely suspected that the main topic was the division of Bosnia, a hugely consequential decision.
The list of secret agreements is endless. But as financial power is surely no less important than political power, the same types of meetings are taking place around the globe at any given moment between financial bigshots, accommodating a few politicians in their midst. The unrecorded discussions around Davos are the first that come to mind.
Secret Confabs Involving Ukraine
So, what sort of international communication is going on behind our backs at this very moment? Who is talking to whom (on our behalf) when it concerns the war in Ukraine?
In September 2022, Vladimir Putin’s ally Vladimir Makei said that he had a number of confidential meetings with American and European leaders on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. “They asked us to keep our conversations confidential,” he said. On November 8, TASS reported that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had been in private talks with senior Russian officials in recent months, including Russian Presidential aide Yury Ushakov and Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev. The information was not directly confirmed by either the White House or the Kremlin. Dmitry Suslov, from the National Research University Higher School of Economics, commented: “Roughly speaking, they could have addressed matters in order to avoid crossing red lines and the start of World War III. Questions of political and diplomatic settlement were most likely also brought up.”
A few days later CIA Director Bill Burns met his Russian counterpart in Ankara. As reported in The Guardian, the United States has insisted that it is not engaged in secret peace talks with Moscow without Ukrainian officials being present. However,
The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said he could neither confirm nor deny reports, before the US confirmed that Burns, the person normally used by Joe Biden for backchannel discussions, would be present at the meeting. There have been no publicly acknowledged meetings between US and Russian leaders since before the invasion, although there have been some direct phone conversations. The last face-to-face was when Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, met Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, in Geneva on 21 January.
Russia and Ukraine have also been in direct communication, with or without UN assistance, throughout the hostilities. At the end of October, representatives from Russia and Ukraine met in the United Arab Emirates to discuss the possibility of a prisoner-of-war swap that would be linked to a resumption of Russian ammonia exports.
And, of course, contacts between United States and Ukraine have been ongoing. On January 10, it was revealed that about 100 Ukrainian troops will head to the United States as soon as next week to begin training on the Patriot missile defence system, bringing Kyiv closer to obtaining long-sought protection against Russia’s continued missile attacks. A week later, Army Gen. Mark Milley travelled to the Ukraine-Poland border to talk with his Ukrainian counterpart Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi face to face for the first time. The two military leaders have talked frequently about Ukraine’s military needs and the state of the war over the past year but had never met. The meeting underscored the growing ties between the two militaries and the plans for the training of Ukrainian forces that the United States is conducting at the Grafenwoehr training area in Germany.
Finally, on January 24, after weeks of reluctance, Chancellor Olaf Scholz decided to deliver German tanks to Ukraine. Who twisted his arm?
Actually, it seems as though Scholz was doing the twisting when he persuaded—in “quiet diplomacy”—the Biden administration to send U.S. tanks before Germany would agree to send the Leopard 2s.
Behind Closed Doors
The only way for a curious audience to gain some insight into the world on the other side of the closed doors is through the works of historians, biographers, journalists, and the memoirs of active participants. In Henry Kissinger’s books, for instance, you can see how powerful political leaders steer history in the direction they want.
But what comes closer to the point are the “leaks.” Not many people have the time to go thoroughly through the Pandora Papers, carefully analyze all the data dumps of WikiLeaks, or familiarize themselves with what Edward Snowden, one of the most famous whistle-blowers, offered to the public. Snowden faces legal prosecution, as does the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange.
The same holds true for Florence Hartmann, who was indicted in 2008 by her former employer, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, for disclosing confidential information pertaining to two Tribunal decisions approving blackouts and exclusions from the war documents provided by Belgrade for the trial of Slobodan Milošević. These documents show Serbia’s involvement in the Srebrenica massacre. Reporters Without Borders, Article 19, and many other human rights organizations state that the press is obligated to highlight how the international system of justice works, to question its procedures, and to stimulate public discussion.
The question remains: what is the purpose of “secrecy” in politics? Is it maybe the noble intention of the elected to spare uninitiated plebes from the troubles they face on our behalf in the murky waters of politics? These same people may indeed be unwilling to reveal the ways that realpolitik contradicts the persona they offered in the pre-election speeches. Compromises, by their very nature, can be divisive, and politicians are reluctant to anger constituencies who would oppose the deals if they knew about them.
It goes without saying that secrecy can also play the important function of sustaining delicate negotiations when premature leaks could jeopardize a deal in the making. The Karađorđevo agreement between Tuđman and Milošević to divide up Bosnia would certainly have engendered considerable opposition if revealed at the time. But so would have the Paris Peace Accords, negotiated in secret, which ended the Vietnam War.
So, yes, the need for secrecy can be understood to some extent. The problem is that talks behind closed doors are taking place at all political levels, always. Governments use secrecy to manipulate public opinion to create approval for policies that would otherwise not attract support. This secrecy ranges from a lack of transparency to the actual hiding of information. Both manifestations stem from the notion that the populace is better off not knowing. Arrogance is omnipresent—a belief by politicians, thirsting for power and determined to bend history to their will, that they are above accountability. Arrogance and transparency do not go hand in hand. The lack of transparency also proves fertile ground for conspiracy theories, which are on the rise.
Time passes, and secret talks continue. Even when it’s a matter of survival, we do not know what is really on the table. One day, maybe, we will find out.