The Washington Post reported on Monday that Biden administration officials say they want to help Ukraine retake as much territory as it can from Russia over the next few months before they sit down at the negotiation table with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The report, which cited unnamed Biden administration officials, said that some “optimists” think Ukraine can stop Russian advances in the east, regain territory in the south, and negotiate a deal by the end of the year. But there are “skeptics” who recognize that Russia has been reinforcing its positions with hundreds of thousands of troops.
Russia has been making more gains around the eastern Donetsk city of Bakhmut, where Ukrainian forces have been taking heavy casualties. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Russia has started its long-awaited offensive, but it’s not clear if Russia has launched a major push or the momentum is just on its side in Bakhmut, where Russian and Ukrainian forces have been locked in battle for months.
Ukraine’s Western backers, including those in the Biden administration, think Kyiv has been sinking too many resources in the battle of Bakhmut and want them to focus elsewhere. The Post report said that American military analysts and planners think it’s unrealistic for Ukraine to continue defending Bakhmut and launch a spring counteroffensive in another area.
The report said that the Biden administration conveyed to Ukraine that it might not be able to receive the massive amount of assistance Washington has provided indefinitely. “We will continue to try to impress upon them that we can’t do anything and everything forever,” an administration official said.
The message to Ukraine is that they face a pivotal moment in the war, and the recent weapons packages and ones that will soon be announced will give them their best chance to turn the tide. The US has recently pledged a series of massive arms packages to Ukraine that include longer-range missiles, Abrams tanks, and Bradley fighting vehicles, although some of the equipment could take years to deliver.
The report cited conservative Republicans who have said they want to stop providing aid and the fact that it’s not clear how long Europe can support the war as reasons why the assistance might not continue at these levels. This message comes despite constant pledges from the US and its allies that they will support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”
“‘As long as it takes’ pertains to the amount of conflict. It doesn’t pertain to the amount of assistance,” the administration official said.
There are other signs that the US is thinking about an end game for the war, including recent comments from Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), the head of the House Armed Services Committee. Rogers suggested the US and NATO should pressure Ukraine on what victory will look like, which he said should help “drive Putin and Zelensky to the table to end this thing this summer.”
Ukrainian officials have maintained their goal is to drive Russia out of all the territory it controls, including Crimea. But officials in the US don’t think taking Crimea is a realistic goal.
Any deal that Russia and Ukraine reach in the future would likely involve Kyiv ceding more territory than it would have if an agreement was reached earlier in the war or if the Minsk agreements were implemented before the Russian invasion. The Minsk agreements were drawn up to end the Donbas war and would have involved Kyiv ceding autonomy to separatists in the east, but the region would have remained part of Ukraine.
The Minsk accords were brokered in 2014 and 2015 by France and Germany, but former German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently said the deal was meant to buy Ukraine time for a war with Russia, suggesting they were never meant to be implemented.
The only time negotiations had a chance during the current conflict in Ukraine was in the early days of the war, but those efforts were impeded by the US and its allies. Former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recently revealed his attempts to mediate a peace deal in March 2022 were “blocked” by the US.
Later in March 2022, Russian and Ukrainian negotiators met in Istanbul. They reportedly tentatively agreed on a deal around that time that would have involved Russia withdrawing to the pre-invasion lines in exchange for some form of Ukrainian neutrality with security guarantees. But former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson traveled to Kyiv and urged Zelensky not to negotiate, said the West didn’t want to sign a deal with Russia, and the talks ultimately failed.