Biden administration asks Zelensky to be open to peace negotiations

I wouldn’t have minded being a fly on the wall for this conversation. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was dispatched to Kyiv this week to meet with Volodymyr Zelensky. The stated purpose of the meeting was to inform the Ukrainian president that yet another round of fiscal and military aid was on the way, courtesy of the United States taxpayers. The latest package weighed in at $400 million and includes refurbished T-72 tanks, unmanned drones, and the initial steps to refurbish 250 HAWK surface-to-air missiles that will be delivered later. Zelensky is always happy to pose for some photos and accept more foreign aid, so this was a pretty easy lift for Sullivan.

But under the covers, there was more going on than that. The Washington Post later reported that one of their sources learned that Sullivan had been instructed to quietly pull Zelensky aside and tell him that he needed to change his public stance on the question of peace talks with Moscow. For many months, Zelensky has been saying that peace talks couldn’t happen until the Russian army pulled back fully to the pre-invasion lines, but he may have to change his tune in the near future. It’s not much of a stretch of the imagination to suspect that the upcoming midterm elections in the United States are a significant factor in this apparent policy shift. 

From The Hill:

The United States privately asked Ukraine to drop its public refusal of peace talks with Russia and signal a willingness to engage in negotiations, as the war in Ukraine drags into its ninth month, The Washington Post reported.

The move is reportedly a strategic effort by the U.S. to ensure ongoing support for Kyiv, according to the Post.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky initially expressed a willingness to negotiate early in the war. However, after Russian President Vladimir Putin formally annexed four regions of Ukraine in late September, Zelensky issued a declaration stating that it would be impossible to hold peace talks with Putin.

The WaPo is warping history a bit here in terms of the events that played out in the early days of the invasion. Zelensky was offering to negotiate with Putin before the Russian army first crossed the border and continued to do so even after Russian troops were rolling toward Kyiv. It was the United States and other NATO allies who drew a red line in the sand and said only a full withdrawal would be acceptable.

Then we started showering Zelensky with cash and weapons and when he started seeing some military victories, he sang our tune and prepared to fight this proxy war against Putin on our behalf. Now he’s probably wondering if the rug is being pulled out from underneath him by the ally who promised that we would keep delivering “whatever it takes” for “as long as it takes” to fully eject Russia from Ukraine.

But the White House probably realizes that they don’t have much of a choice in the matter. Barring some sort of unprecedented failure in polling, the Democrats are poised to lose control of the House on Tuesday and very possibly the Senate as well. Joe Biden can’t just keep writing checks for Zelensky without congressional approval, and both Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy have recently suggested that the days of limitless “blank checks” for Ukraine were coming to an end.

Biden is also losing the support of the progressive wing of his party on this issue, though they’re doing their best to paint a happy face on the split. The House Progressive Caucus sent a letter last month urging Biden to push harder for a diplomatic resolution, though they quickly recanted in an embarrassing about-face maneuver. If this war is still dragging on when we get into 2023, it’s probably going to start to look quite a bit different. Putin may still be willing to find an exit ramp if he’s offered something that he can chalk up as a “win” in front of his home audience. And the world’s waning patience for this proxy war may wind up driving some sort of compromise.

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