Senior US officials have in recent weeks been urging Ukraine to signal that it is still open to diplomatic discussions with Russia, amid concerns that public support for the country’s war effort could wane with no end to the conflict in sight and neither side willing to begin peace talks, sources familiar with the discussions told CNN.
The discussions are not aimed at encouraging the Ukrainians to negotiate now – rather, the US wants Kyiv to convey more clearly that it wants to find a resolution to the conflict and that Ukraine has the moral high ground, sources said.
Officials including National security adviser Jake Sullivan began more urgently pressing the Ukrainians to shift their rhetoric after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree in early October ruling out any negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That decree came in response to Russia’s self-declared annexation of territories in eastern Ukraine following sham referendums there.
“We are ready for a dialogue with Russia, but with another president of Russia,” Zelensky said last month.
Sullivan discussed the issue directly with Zelensky during a trip to Kyiv last week, the sources said. He expressed the US’ view that categorically ruling out any talks with Putin plays into the Russian leader’s hand by fueling the Kremlin narrative that the Ukrainians are refusing to talk.
On Monday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Russia is “open to” negotiation with Ukraine but “at the moment we do not see such an opportunity, because Kyiv turned into a law [their decision] not to continue any negotiations.”
The Washington Post first reported that the US is urging Ukraine to appear open to talks.
The advice to the Ukrainians is also coming ahead of what could be a tough winter for Europe, which has already been experiencing soaring energy costs tied to Russia’s invasion and has warned of potential blackouts and gas rationing stemming from the energy crunch.
“I don’t think they’re naïve that now is the moment for talks. Just talking about talks more,” a Western official told CNN, referring to the White House. “They recognize that there’s not any clear signal from the Russians that they’re open for serious negotiations.”
“You can get everyone to agree on the principle, but the devil is in the details,” the official added.
Back in the US, Republicans have also begun to signal they might be less willing to support Ukraine financially and militarily should the GOP take back control of the House of Representatives.
“I think there has to be accountability going forward,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told CNN. “You always need, not a blank check, but make sure the resources are going to where it is needed. And make sure Congress, and the Senate, have the ability to debate it openly.”
Sullivan has also spoken with Russian officials, including his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev and Putin’s foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov, about de-escalating the Kremlin’s rhetoric around the war, sources said, and the consequences should Russia move to use a nuclear weapon.
US not pushing Ukraine to negotiating table
Zelensky has said repeatedly over the last eight months of war that Ukraine is willing 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 daily. US officials have therefore not been trying to push Ukraine to the negotiating table, the sources said, especially because it is clear that Russia has not shown any willingness to negotiate, either.
Rather, the US’ more immediate goal has just been to try to get the Ukrainians to change their messaging strategy, the sources added, so that the country can maintain its international coalition of financial and military support for as long as necessary.
“The United States is going to be with Ukraine for as long as it takes in this fight,” Sullivan said in Kyiv last week. “There will be no wavering, no flagging, no flinching in our support as we go forward.”
After Sullivan left Kyiv, Zelensky said in his nightly remarks that “we are ready for peace, for a fair and just peace, the formula of which we have voiced many times. The world knows our position. This is respect for the UN Charter, respect for our territorial integrity, respect for our people and due responsibility for terror - this is punishment for all those who are guilty and full compensation by Russia for the damage caused to us.”
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that any diplomatic solution needs to be worked out by Ukraine and Russia and refused to weigh in on what the negotiations could look like. But asked if there can be a diplomatic solution without regime change in Russia, Price said regime change is not the goal of the US, or that of the Ukrainians.
The discussions also come as some US officials question the ability of Ukraine’s armed forces to completely remove Russia from all of the areas it has occupied in Ukraine – a concern the US has privately harbored for months.
Zelensky has stated that Kyiv’s goal is to liberate all of Ukraine, including Crimea, and Ukraine’s military has repeatedly exceeded most Western expectations. But Russia has been preparing defense lines designed to slow Ukrainian advances, and Ukraine’s counter-offensives in the east and the south are still relatively small compared to the size of the occupied areas, even though they have reclaimed thousands of square kilometers.
The swiftness of the initial advances has transitioned to a slower, more brutal battle along front lines that shift 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 an outright military victory becomes increasingly unlikely for either Russia or Ukraine.
The outcome of the fighting around Kherson in southern Ukraine may become clear in the next two to three weeks, the official added.
It is not the first time that the US and Ukraine have disagreed over messaging about the war. US officials have urged Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky, to appear more outwardly grateful for the aid they have received from the West.
In a phone call with US President Joe Biden in June to discuss another $1 billion US aid package to Ukraine, Zelensky listed the additional equipment and weapons that Ukraine still needed—in response, Biden was “direct” with Zelensky about his belief that the US is already doing all it can to help the country, a source familiar with the conversation said.
As CNN has previously reported, moreover, tensions between Zelensky and Biden administration officials ran high in the weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, amid a disagreement over how to interpret and publicly communicate US intelligence assessments that said Russia could be preparing a large-scale attack on Ukraine.
CNN’s Alex Marquardt contributed reporting.