WASHINGTON — U.S. and European officials have begun quietly talking to the Ukrainian government about what possible peace negotiations with Russia might entail to end the war, according to one current senior U.S. official and one former senior U.S. official familiar with the discussions.
The conversations have included very broad outlines of what Ukraine might need to give up to reach a deal, the officials said. Some of the talks, which officials described as delicate, took place last month during a meeting of representatives from more than 50 nations supporting Ukraine, including NATO members, known as the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, the officials said.
The discussions are an acknowledgment of the dynamics militarily on the ground in Ukraine and politically in the U.S. and Europe, officials said.
They began amid concerns among U.S. and European officials that the war has reached a stalemate and about the ability to continue providing aid to Ukraine, officials said. Biden administration officials also are worried that Ukraine is running out of forces, while Russia has a seemingly endless supply, officials said. Ukraine is also struggling with recruiting and has recently seen public protests about some of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s open-ended conscription requirements.
And there is unease in the U.S. government with how much less public attention the war in Ukraine has garnered since the Israel-Hamas war began nearly a month ago, the officials said. Officials fear that shift could make securing additional aid for Kyiv more difficult.
Some U.S. military officials have privately begun using the term “stalemate” to describe the current battle in Ukraine, with some saying it may come down to which side can maintain a military force the longest. Neither side is making large strides on the battlefield, which some U.S. officials now describe as a war of inches. Officials also have privately said Ukraine likely only has until the end of the year or shortly thereafter before more urgent discussions about peace negotiations should begin. U.S. officials have shared their views on such a timeline with European allies, officials said.
“Any decisions about negotiations are up to Ukraine,” Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the National Security Council, said in a statement. “We are focused on continuing to stand strongly in support of Ukraine as they defend their freedom and independence against Russian aggression.”
An administration official also noted that the U.S. has participated with Ukraine in discussions of its peace summit framework but said the White House “is not aware of any other conversations with Ukraine about negotiations at the moment.”
Questions about manpower
President Joe Biden has been intensely focused on Ukraine’s depleting military forces, according to two people familiar with the matter.
“Manpower is at the top of the administration’s concerns right now,” one said. The U.S. and its allies can provide Ukraine with weaponry, this person said, “but if they don’t have competent forces to use them it doesn’t do a lot of good”
Biden has requested that Congress authorize additional funding for Ukraine, but, so far, the effort has failed to progress because of resistance from some congressional Republicans. The White House has linked aid for Ukraine and Israel in its most recent request. That has support among some congressional Republicans, but other GOP lawmakers have said they’ll only vote for an Israel-only aid package.
Before the Israel-Hamas war began, White House officials publicly expressed confidence that additional Ukraine funding would pass Congress before the end of this year, while privately conceding concerns about how difficult that might be.
Biden had been reassuring U.S. allies that Congress will approve more aid for Ukraine and planned a major speech on the issue. Once Hamas terrorists attacked Israel on Oct. 7, the president’s focus shifted to the Middle East, and his Ukraine speech morphed into an Oval Office address about why the U.S. should financially support Ukraine and Israel.
Is Putin ready to negotiate?
The Biden administration does not have any indication that Russian President Vladimir Putin is ready to negotiate with Ukraine, two U.S. officials said. Western officials say Putin still believes he can “wait out the West,” or keep fighting until the U.S. and its allies lose domestic support for funding Ukraine or the struggle to supply Kyiv with weapons and ammunition becomes too costly, officials said.
Both Ukraine and Russia are struggling to keep up with military supplies. Russia has ramped up production of artillery rounds, and, over the next couple years may be able to produce 2 million shells per year, according to a Western official. But Russia fired an estimated 10 million rounds in Ukraine last year, the official said, so it will also have to rely on other countries.
The Biden administration has spent $43.9 billion on security assistance for Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, according to the Pentagon. A U.S. official says the administration has about $5 billion left to send to Ukraine before money runs out. There would be no aid left for Ukraine if the administration hadn’t said it found a $6.2 billion accounting error from months of over-valuing equipment sent to Kyiv.
Public support slipping
Progress in Ukraine’s counteroffensive has been very slow, and hope that Ukraine will make significant advances, including reaching the coast near Russia’s frontlines, is fading. A lack of significant progress on the battlefield in Ukraine does not help with trying to reverse the downward trend in public support for sending more aid, officials said.
A Gallup poll released this week shows decreasing support for sending additional aid to Ukraine, with 41% of Americans saying the U.S. is doing too much to help Kyiv. That’s a significant change from just three months ago when 24% of Americans said they felt that way. The poll also found that 33% of Americans think the U.S. is doing the right amount for Ukraine, while 25% said the U.S. is not doing enough.
Public sentiment toward assisting Ukraine is also starting to soften in Europe.
As incentive for Zelenskyy to consider negotiations, NATO could offer Kyiv some security guarantees, even without Ukraine formally becoming part of the alliance, officials said. That way, officials said, the Ukrainians could be assured that Russia would be deterred from invading again.
In August national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters, “We do not assess that the conflict is a stalemate.” Instead, Sullivan said, Ukraine is taking territory on a “methodical, systematic basis.”
But a Western official acknowledged there has not been a lot of movement by either side in some time, and with the cold weather approaching it will be tough for either Ukraine or Russia to break that pattern. The official said it will not be impossible, but it will be difficult.
U.S. officials also assess that Russia will attempt to hit critical infrastructure in Ukraine again this winter, attempting to force some civilians to endure a frigid winter without heat or power.
Administration officials expect Ukraine to want more time to fight on the battlefield, particularly with new, heavier equipment, “but there’s a growing sense that it’s too late, and it’s time to do a deal,” the former senior administration official said. It is not certain that Ukraine would mount another spring offensive.
One senior administration official pushed back on any notion of the U.S. nudging Ukraine toward talks. The Ukrainians, the official said, “are on the clock in terms of weather, but they are not on the clock in terms of geopolitics.”