U.S. and European officials have initiated discreet dialogues with the Ukrainian government to explore the potential terms of peace negotiations with Russia to end the ongoing conflict. This information comes from a current senior U.S. official and a former senior U.S. official who is familiar with these discussions.
These discussions have encompassed broad outlines of what Ukraine may need to concede to resolve, and some of these sensitive talks occurred during a recent meeting of representatives from over 50 nations that support Ukraine, including NATO members, known as the Ukraine Defense Contact Group.
These discussions reflect an acknowledgment of the evolving military and political situation in Ukraine, with concerns that the conflict has reached a stalemate and doubts about the sustainability of providing continued assistance to Ukraine. There are also concerns about Ukraine’s diminishing military resources in contrast to Russia’s seemingly endless supply. Ukraine has been grappling with recruitment challenges, including public protests regarding President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s conscription requirements.
Additionally, there is unease in the U.S. government regarding the decreased public attention on the war in Ukraine since the Israel-Hamas conflict began nearly a month ago. This shift in focus may pose challenges in securing further aid for Kyiv.
Some U.S. military officials have privately characterized the current situation in Ukraine as a “stalemate,” suggesting that it may ultimately depend on which side can sustain their military forces the longest. Neither side is making significant advancements on the battlefield, leading some U.S. officials to describe it as a war of inches. There is also a belief that Ukraine may have a limited time frame, possibly until the end of the year or shortly thereafter, to engage in more urgent discussions about peace negotiations. U.S. officials have conveyed this timeline to their European allies.
It’s important to note that the decision about negotiations ultimately rests with Ukraine, as stated by Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the National Security Council. The U.S. has expressed its commitment to supporting Ukraine in defending its freedom and independence against Russian aggression. An administration official mentioned that the U.S. has participated in discussions with Ukraine regarding its peace summit framework but is not currently aware of any other negotiations with Ukraine on this matter.
Questions about manpower
President Joe Biden has shown a strong commitment to addressing Ukraine’s dwindling military resources, as reported by individuals who know the situation.
“Manpower is currently the administration’s top concern,” one source stated. While the U.S. and its allies can supply Ukraine with weaponry, this source emphasized that having competent forces to utilize these resources effectively is paramount.
President Biden has requested additional funding for Ukraine from Congress, but this effort has faced obstacles due to resistance from some congressional Republicans. The White House’s most recent funding request linked aid for Ukraine and Israel. While this approach garnered support from certain congressional Republicans, others insisted on voting only for an Israel-specific aid package.
Before the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas conflict, White House officials publicly expressed confidence that Congress would approve additional funding for Ukraine before the end of the year. However, they privately acknowledged concerns about the potential challenges in achieving this.
President Biden had been assuring U.S. allies that Congress would approve further aid for Ukraine and had planned a significant speech on the matter. However, with the eruption of the conflict involving Hamas and Israel on October 7, the President’s focus shifted to the Middle East. Consequently, his speech on Ukraine transformed into an Oval Office address advocating for financial support to both Ukraine and Israel.
Is Putin ready to negotiate?
The Biden administration has received no indications that Russian President Vladimir Putin is prepared to engage in negotiations with Ukraine, as reported by two U.S. officials. Western officials believe that Putin continues to operate on the assumption that he can “outlast the West” or persist in the conflict until the U.S. and its allies lose domestic support for assisting Ukraine or the cost of supplying Kyiv with weapons and ammunition becomes prohibitively high.
Both Ukraine and Russia are grappling with challenges in maintaining military supplies. Russia has increased its production of artillery rounds and may have the capacity to manufacture 2 million shells annually over the next few years, according to a Western official. However, given that Russia expended an estimated 10 million rounds in Ukraine last year, it will need to rely on other nations as well.
According to the Pentagon, the Biden administration has allocated $43.9 billion for security assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February 2022. A U.S. official disclosed that the administration still has approximately $5 billion left to provide to Ukraine before the funds are exhausted. This remaining aid would not be available had the administration not identified a $6.2 billion accounting error stemming from months of overvaluing equipment sent to Kyiv.
Public support slipping
Progress in Ukraine’s counteroffensive has been notably sluggish, and the prospects of Ukraine achieving substantial advancements, such as reaching the coastline near Russia’s frontlines, are diminishing. The lack of significant battlefield progress in Ukraine is detrimental to efforts to reverse the declining trend in public support for providing additional aid, as per officials.
A recent Gallup poll reveals decreasing support for sending more aid to Ukraine, with 41% of Americans now believing that the U.S. is overly involved in assisting Kyiv. This marks a significant shift from just three months ago when only 24% of Americans held this view. The poll also indicates that 33% of Americans think the U.S. is offering the right level of support for Ukraine, while 25% believe the U.S. is not doing enough.
Public sentiment toward aiding Ukraine is also showing signs of softening in Europe.
As an incentive for President Zelenskyy to consider negotiations, NATO could extend certain security guarantees to Kyiv, even without Ukraine formally joining the alliance, according to officials. This approach would offer the Ukrainians assurance that Russia would be deterred from launching another invasion.
In August, national security adviser Jake Sullivan stated to reporters, “We do not assess that the conflict is a stalemate.” Instead, he noted that Ukraine is methodically and systematically gaining territory.
However, a Western official acknowledged that there has been limited movement by either side for some time, and with cold weather approaching, it will be challenging for both Ukraine and Russia to break this pattern. While not impossible, it will be difficult.
U.S. officials also anticipate that Russia will once again target critical infrastructure in Ukraine during the winter, aiming to subject some civilians to a harsh season without heat or power.
Administration officials anticipate that Ukraine may desire more time to fight on the battlefield, especially with new, heavier equipment. Nevertheless, there is a growing sense that it might be too late, and the time for reaching a negotiated settlement has come, according to a former senior administration official. Whether Ukraine will initiate another spring offensive remains uncertain.
One senior administration official rebuffed the notion that the U.S. is pressuring Ukraine into talks, emphasizing that the Ukrainians are constrained by weather-related factors but not by geopolitical timelines.