WASHINGTON -- The Biden administration is privately encouraging Ukraine’s leaders to signal an openness to negotiate with Russia and drop their public refusal to engage in peace talks unless President Vladimir Putin is removed from power, the Washington Post reports.
The request by American officials is not aimed at pushing Ukraine to the negotiating table, the paper said, citing people familiar with the discussions.
“Rather, they called it a calculated attempt to ensure the government in Kyiv maintains the support of other nations facing constituencies wary of fueling a war for many years to come,” it said.
According to the Post, the discussions illustrate how complex the Biden administration’s position on Ukraine has become, as U.S. officials publicly vow to support Kyiv with massive sums of aid “for as long as it takes” while hoping for a resolution to the conflict that over the past eight months has taken a punishing toll on the world economy and triggered fears of nuclear war.
U.S. officials, the paper said, acknowledge that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s ban on talks with him has generated concern in parts of Europe, Africa and Latin America, where the war’s disruptive effects on the availability and cost of food and fuel are felt most sharply.
“Ukraine fatigue is a real thing for some of our partners,” said one U.S. official who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations between Washington and Kyiv.
In the United States, polls show eroding support among Republicans for continuing to finance Ukraine’s military at current levels, suggesting the White House may face resistance following Tuesday’s midterm elections as it seeks to continue a security assistance program that has delivered Ukraine the largest such annual sum since the end of the Cold War.
In a trip to Kyiv on Friday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States supported a just and lasting peace for Ukraine and said U.S. support would continue regardless of domestic politics. “We fully intend to ensure that the resources are there as necessary and that we’ll get votes from both sides of the aisle to make that happen,” he said during a briefing.
Eagerness for a potential resolution to the war has intensified even as Zelensky has vowed to fight for every inch of Ukrainian territory.
Veteran diplomat Alexander Vershbow, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia and deputy secretary general of NATO, said the United States could not afford to be completely “agnostic” about how and when the war is concluded, given the U.S. interest in ensuring European security.
“If the conditions become more propitious for negotiations, I don’t think the administration is going to be passive,”
Vershbow said. “But it is ultimately the Ukrainians doing the fighting, so we’ve got to be careful not to second-guess them.”
While Zelensky laid out proposals for a negotiated peace in the weeks following the Feb. 24 breakout of the war, including Ukrainian neutrality and a return of areas occupied by Russia since that date, Ukrainian officials have hardened their stance in recent months.
In late September, following Putin’s annexation of four additional Ukrainian regions in the east and in the south, Zelensky issued a decree declaring it “impossible” to negotiate with the Russian leader. “We will negotiate with the new president,” he said in a video address.
Western officials have chafed at Ukraine’s harsh public rebukes as Kyiv remains entirely dependent on Western assistance. Swiping at donors and ruling out talks could hurt Kyiv in the long run, officials say.
The maximalist remarks on both sides have increased global fears of a years-long conflict spanning the life of Russia’s 70-year-old leader. Already the war has deepened global economic woes, helping to send energy prices soaring for European consumers and causing a surge in commodity prices that worsened hunger in nations including Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan.
In the United States, rising inflation partially linked to the war has stiffened head winds for President Biden and his party ahead of the Nov. 8 midterms and raised new questions about the future of U.S. security assistance, which has amounted to $18.2 billion since the war began. According to a poll published Nov. 3 by the Wall Street Journal, 48 percent of Republicans said the United States was doing “too much” to support Ukraine, up from 6 percent in March.
Progressives within the Democratic Party are calling for diplomacy to avoid a protracted war, releasing but later retracting a letter calling on Biden to redouble efforts to seek “a realistic framework” for a halt to the fighting.
Speaking in Kyiv, Sullivan said the war could end easily. “Russia chose to start it,” he said. “Russia could choose to end it by ceasing its attack on Ukraine, ceasing its occupation of Ukraine, and that’s precisely what it should do from our perspective.”
The concerns about a longer conflict are particularly salient in nations that were already hesitant to throw their weight behind the U.S.-led coalition in support of Ukraine, either because of ties with Moscow or reluctance to fall in line behind Washington.
South Africa abstained from a recent UN vote that condemned Russia’s annexation decrees, saying the world must instead focus on facilitating a ceasefire and political resolution. Brazil’s new president-elect, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has said Zelensky is as responsible for the war as Putin.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has tried to maintain good relations with Moscow and Kyiv, offered assistance on peace talks in a call with Zelensky last month. He was spurned by the Ukrainian leader.
Zelensky told him Ukraine would not conduct any negotiations with Putin but said Ukraine was “committed to peaceful settlement through dialogue,” according to a statement released by Zelensky’s office.
Despite Ukrainian leaders’ refusal to talk to Putin and their vow to fight to retake all of Ukraine, U.S. officials say they believe that Zelensky would probably endorse negotiations and eventually accept concessions, as he suggested he would early in the war, the Post said. They believe that Kyiv is attempting to lock in as many military gains as it can before winter sets in, when there might be a window for diplomacy, it added.
Zelensky faces the challenge of appealing both to a domestic constituency that has suffered immensely at the hands of Russian forces and a foreign audience providing his forces with the weapons they need to fight. To motivate Ukrainians domestically, Zelensky has promoted victory rather than settlement and become a symbol of defiance that has motivated Ukrainian forces on the battlefield.