Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive against Russia has overshadowed talk of a potential negotiated settlement to the conflict, but some U.S. and European officials say the next phase of the war could create momentum. for diplomacy.
It is unclear how officials will define the success of the counteroffensive, which will last for months, or how it will affect their approach. Opinions are wide among military strategists about whether Ukraine is likely to regain territory after more than a year of war.
So far, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has shown no signs of wanting to make concessions or engage in meaningful dialogue.
And US officials remain wary of any calls for an immediate ceasefire or peace talks, especially those coming from China. Beijing continues to try to play the peace game, despite its clear strategic alignment with Russia. Foreign Minister Qin Gang traveled across Europe this week to try to sell the idea that China could keep an eye on the negotiations.
Other European officials who met with Mr. Qin expressed skepticism. And in Washington, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with his counterparts from Britain and Spain this week to support military aid commitments to Ukraine, sending a message that battlefield victories are the priority .
Mr. Blinken said on Tuesday in a press conference with James Cleverly, the British foreign secretary, that the Ukrainians have “what they need to continue to be successful in recovering the territory that was seized by Russian force in the last 14 months. “
Like Mr. Blinken, Mr. Cleverly did not discuss Russian diplomacy at all, instead focusing on military aid: “We have to continue to support them, even if this coming offensive creates many victories in the field of battlefield, because until this conflict is over. resolved and resolved properly, it will not end.”
Ukrainian leaders have also said they will not agree to talks until they push back Russian forces.
However, President Biden’s aides are exploring potential end games, trying to figure out an outcome that would be acceptable to Kyiv and Moscow when real peace talks begin, US officials said.
“I know that administration officials at the highest level are constantly talking about what peace looks like with our counterparts in Ukraine,” said Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Committee. of the Armed Services, “while at the same time there are conversations. on how to arm them and recover as much territory as possible.”
Mr. Biden’s aides and European officials say their best hope is that Ukraine will make more gains during the counteroffensive, giving it more leverage in any negotiations.
But whatever its leaders think, American officials say most Ukrainians have little appetite for compromise with their Russian aggressors.
And U.S. officials fear that even though the Russian military has suffered several setbacks this summer, Mr. Putin may still believe he can win a war of attrition.
Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, said in congressional testimony last week that as Mr. Putin “toned down his near-term ambitions” in Ukraine, the chance of concessions to Russia on any table in negotiations this year “will be low. .”
Another senior US official said that regardless of the success achieved in Ukraine, the Russian leader could only order a wider mobilization draft to rebuild some of his military power.
Mr. Putin could also benefit as the 2024 presidential campaign gears up in the United States, with former President Donald J. Trump the first Republican front-runner. Mr. Trump and many Republican politicians have called U.S. support for Ukraine wasteful and dangerous.
China has pushed for a mediating role since it unveiled an ambiguous peace initiative in February. Although Mr. Blinken and some top European diplomats said they were open to the possibility that China could play a helpful role in the future, they criticized Beijing for not publicly recognizing Russia. as the aggressor in war. They insist that a country unwilling to do so cannot be trusted as an unscrupulous mediator.
Xi Jinping, China’s leader, made a state visit to Moscow in March and expressed continued support for his country’s cooperation with Russia, which both governments said had “no limits” before Russia invaded Ukraine. in February 2022. China’s special envoy for its peace initiative, Li Hui, was Russia’s ambassador for 10 years and received a medal from Mr. Putin.
US and European officials are also suspicious of calls for peace talks that do not include a demand that the Russian military first withdraw from Ukrainian territory, which is the position of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. China has not taken a clear position on Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and US officials say China and Russia may use the pretense of talks to freeze front lines – and the victories of Russia.
In her congressional testimony, Ms. Haines said Mr. Putin could use a ceasefire to try to regain strength while “buying time for what he hopes will be an erosion of Western support for Ukraine.”
He added that “he may be willing to concede even a temporary victory based on the approximate territory he occupies.”
Mr. Blinken recently said it was “a positive thing” that Mr. Xi finally spoke with Mr. Zelensky last month, but he is “still not sure” that China is ready to accept that Ukraine is the victim. Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, said almost the same thing directly to Mr. Qin at a press conference on Tuesday: “Neutrality means siding with the aggressor, and so our guiding principle is explaining that we are on the side of the victim.”
The main argument for a greater role for China in diplomacy is the fact that the country is Russia’s strongest partner, and Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin shares a personal bond. The war with Russia disrupted the global economy, creating problems for China.
“As a matter of principle,” said Mr. Blinken, “countries – especially countries with significant influence like China – if they are willing to play a positive role in trying to bring peace, that’s a good thing.”
The White House said Thursday that Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, spoke about Ukraine with Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, during a two-day meeting this week in Vienna.
The debate in Washington about potential peace talks is amorphous and paradoxical. There are even competing arguments based on the same hypothetical outcome: If Ukraine makes more gains, it could mean it’s time for talks, some officials say — or it could mean that Ukraine should put diplomacy on the back burner and continue fighting.
If Ukraine does not gain significant territory, some US and European officials may want to push Mr. Zelensky towards a negotiated settlement.
“The dynamic will shift even as Ukraine makes marginal gains,” said Mr. Smith, the Democratic lawmaker. After a few more months of war, he predicted, both sides would be exhausted.
But some officials and analysts in Washington caution against such thinking.
“There’s always been a desire among some people in Washington to say, look, if Ukraine doesn’t make money — or if they do — maybe it’s time to talk about Ukraine seeking a settlement,” said Alina Polyakova, the president of the Center for European Policy Analysis.
“I personally find it shocking,” he added. “Territorial concessions will validate Russia’s aggression, setting a global precedent for China and others that it means work. Second, it also means that the West must accept the moral implications – accepting war crimes and condoning ongoing human rights abuses.
Among the top US officials, Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was the most outspoken in the need for Ukraine and Russia to consider negotiations, arguing that a prolonged war would result in more casualties. Mr. Blinken takes a different position. “There has to be some profound change in the mind of Mr. Putin and in the mind of Russia to engage in meaningful diplomacy,” he said last week.
The secretary of state and other American officials have made vague statements on what they see as a practical end to the conflict.
At least twice in the past few months, Mr. Blinken has spoken of Ukraine’s need to reclaim territory “seized by force by Russia over the past 14 months,” as he put it Tuesday. But years before this invasion, Russia seized effective control of hundreds of square miles of eastern Ukraine and annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.
It is not clear whether Mr. Blinken intended to draw a distinction between the territorial divisions. Ukrainian leaders insist their goal is to reclaim every inch of their land taken since 2014, including Crimea. But many US officials and analysts believe Mr. Putin will take more drastic measures to maintain his grip on the peninsula.
Some US officials have raised the possibility of at least forcing Russia to demilitarize Crimea, so that it cannot be used as a staging ground for future attacks on Ukraine. But that outcome may be almost as difficult for Mr. Putin to accept. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is based in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.
Mr. Blinken said last week that a “fair and stable” peace plan “cannot ratify what Russia has done, which is to seize most of the territory of Ukraine.” It also cannot allow Russia to “just rest, refit and attack again six months or a year later.”
Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Washington, and Steven Erlanger from Brussels.