US officials are urging Ukraine to signal that it is still open to diplomatic talks with Russia
Senior US officials have been urging Ukraine in recent weeks to signal that it is still open to diplomatic talks with Russia, amid concerns that public support for the country’s war effort could wane with there is no end in sight to the conflict and neither side is willing to begin peace talks, sources familiar with the discussions told CNN.
The talks are not intended to encourage Ukrainians to negotiate now – instead, the US wants Kiev to convey more clearly that it wants to find a solution to the conflict and that Ukraine has the moral high ground, the sources said.
Officials, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, began pressing Ukrainians more urgently to change their rhetoric after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree in early October ruling out any talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The decree came in response to Russia’s self-proclaimed annexation of territories in eastern Ukraine following fake referendums there.
“We are ready for dialogue with Russia, but with another Russian president,” Zelensky said last month.
Sullivan discussed the issue directly with Zelensky during a trip to Kiev last week, the sources said. He expressed the US position that categorically ruling out any talks with Putin plays into the hands of the Russian leader by fueling the Kremlin’s narrative that Ukrainians refuse to talk.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that Russia was “open” to negotiations with Ukraine, but “at the moment we do not see such an opportunity, because Kiev has become law [their decision] not to continue any negotiations.”
The Washington Post first time reported that the US is urging Ukraine to appear open to talks.
The advice to Ukrainians also comes ahead of what could be a tough winter for Europe, which is already experiencing rising energy costs linked to the Russian invasion and warning of potential blackouts and gas rationing stemming from the energy crisis.
“I don’t think they are naive that now is the moment for talks. I’m just talking more about the talks,” a Western official told CNN, referring to the White House. “They acknowledge that there is no clear signal from the Russians that they are open to serious negotiations.”
“You can get everyone to agree on the principles, but the devil is in the details,” the official added.
In the US, Republicans have also begun to signal that they may be less willing to support Ukraine financially and militarily if the GOP regains control of the House of Representatives.
“I think there needs to be accountability going forward,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told CNN. “You always need, not a blank check, but make sure the resources go where they are needed. And make sure that Congress and the Senate have an opportunity to discuss it openly.”
Sullivan also spoke with Russian officials, including his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev and Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov, about de-escalating the Kremlin’s war rhetoric, the sources said, and the consequences if Russia moves to use nuclear weapons.
Zelensky has repeatedly said during the last eight months of the war that Ukraine is ready to engage in diplomatic talks with the Russians, and the US understands why he would not want to sit down with the man who is bombing his country every day. U.S. officials have therefore not tried to push Ukraine to the negotiating table, the sources said, especially since it is clear that Russia has shown no willingness to negotiate either.
Instead, the more immediate U.S. goal was just to try to get the Ukrainians to change their messaging strategy, the sources added, so the country could maintain its international coalition of financial and military support for as long as needed.
“The United States will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes in this fight,” Sullivan said last week in Kiev. “There will be no wavering, no stalling, no wavering in our support as we move forward.”
After Sullivan left Kiev, Zelensky said in his nightly comments that “we are ready for peace, for a fair and just peace, the formula of which we have spoken many times. The world knows our position. It is respect for the UN Charter, respect for our territorial integrity, respect for our people and due responsibility for terror – it is punishment for all those who are guilty and full compensation from Russia for the damage it has caused us.”
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Ukraine and Russia must work out any diplomatic solution and declined to estimate what negotiations might look like. But when asked if there could be a diplomatic solution without regime change in Russia, Price said regime change was not a goal of the US or the Ukrainians.
The talks also come as some U.S. officials question the ability of Ukraine’s armed forces to completely remove Russia from all areas it has occupied in Ukraine — a concern of the U.S. private refuge for months.
Zelensky has stated that Kiev’s goal is to liberate all of Ukraine, including Crimea, and the Ukrainian military has repeatedly exceeded most Western expectations. But Russia has been preparing defensive lines designed to slow the Ukrainian advance, and Ukrainian counteroffensives in the east and south are still relatively small compared to the size of the occupied territories, although they have reclaimed thousands of square kilometers.
The speed of the initial advance has given way to a slower, more brutal battle along front lines that are moving less and less by the week. And with winter fast approaching, a defense official says the battlefield is likely to become more static and less dynamic. That could create a window for diplomacy, as outright military victory becomes increasingly unlikely for either Russia or Ukraine.
The outcome of the fighting around Kherson in southern Ukraine could become clear in the next two to three weeks, the official added.
This is not the first time that the US and Ukraine have disagreed on messages about the war. US officials urged Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky, to appear more grateful for the help they received from the West.
In a phone call with US President Joe Biden in June to discuss a second $1 billion US aid package to Ukraine, Zelensky listed additional equipment and weapons that Ukraine still needed – in response, Biden was “straightforward” with Zelensky about his belief that the US is already doing everything it can to help the country, said a source familiar with the conversation.
Furthermore, as CNN previously reported, tensions between Zelenski and Biden administration officials have risen in the weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, amid disagreements over how to interpret and publicly convey U.S. intelligence assessments that said Russia might be preparing a large-scale attack on Ukraine.
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