With Russia’s war in Ukraine now in its third week, US and European officials have little optimism that the diplomatic channels can deliver a way out of the conflict at this point.
Talks between Ukraine’s and Russia’s diplomats this week yielded no discernible progress. Supposedly safe evacuation routes out of the country have repeatedly been contested. The civilian death toll continues to rise, and by the end of the week both sides were trading accusations over the use of chemical weapons.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday there had been “certain positive advances” in negotiations with Ukraine, US and European officials and diplomats who spoke to CNN all expressed deep skepticism about the state of talks. None felt Putin’s actions to date have suggested the Russian leader is ready to find a diplomatic off-ramp to end the war.
The US and its allies have enacted crippling sanctions on Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine, and US President Joe Biden has kept in touch with European leaders as well as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But US officials have privately acknowledged they don’t believe any of these sanctions are going to change Putin’s thinking, and many don’t believe Russia’s losses in Ukraine will either.
The Biden administration is resisting putting its weight behind any single player involved in early efforts to broker a solution to end the Ukraine crisis. US officials say they have yet to see any tangible progress in any channel and continue to view Ukraine and Russia as the only essential players in driving a solution.
“A variety of different countries can try to shape things as they would like, but at the end of the day, this will likely boil down to what President Zelensky is willing to accept and what President Putin is willing to accept,” said a senior State Department official.
Some administration officials believe that efforts by Turkey and Israel could prove more effective than the French and German attempts because they have relations with both countries, but warn that it is too soon tell. Other officials are resistant to offer early judgment.
“There can be other parties that facilitate that or mediate, and there’s obviously been a number of efforts underway already. But at the end of the day, this is likely to be a conflict that lasts for a while longer – and ultimately it will be a negotiation,” the official added.
Hunting for successful channels
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett traveled to Moscow a week ago to meet with Putin, and he spoke to both Putin and Zelensky earlier this week. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was briefed on Bennett’s trip to Moscow by Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Riga, Latvia, according to a US official familiar with the matter. The US coordinated with Israel ahead of the visit as well.
Ukrainian officials, however, have raised concerns to US lawmakers in recent days about Bennett’s proposition, two US officials told CNN. Some lawmakers have even called the Israelis to raise their concerns about Bennett forcing Putin’s proposal on the Ukrainians, the sources said.
On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz held a three-way call with Putin, where the European leaders demanded an “immediate ceasefire” in Ukraine, according to an Elysée Palace readout of the call.
The Biden administration is in touch with all of the countries that have been talking with Putin and Zelensky in recent weeks and has no plans to engage directly with Putin anytime soon, officials said. They also think that the talks happening right now are not making any real progress yet, with a major focus being on the humanitarian side amid fears the war could continue for weeks, if not months.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Turkey on Thursday, but those talks ended without an agreement reached on humanitarian corridors or a ceasefire.
Asked about Putin’s comments claiming progress in the talks Friday, Kuleba told Bloomberg News, “There was zero progress in talks, so it’s hard for me to understand what kind of progress President Putin is referring to.”
‘It’s Vladimir Putin himself’
Estonian Ambassador to the US Kristjan Prikk told CNN on Friday it was “Orwellian” that Lavrov “in one sentence says that Russia has not invaded Ukraine and yet the demands that he presents are about the surrender of Ukraine.”
“There is very little point of spending the diplomatic capital, I’d say, on efforts that from the other side are designed to be a failure,” he said.
Asked if there was any leader he believed could talk Putin down from the war, Prikk said: “It’s Vladimir Putin himself – it is up to him to actually acknowledge that he is committing, he is doing something that is incredibly bad for his own people and his own country, just as well as it’s tragic and awful to Ukrainian people and country.”
US intelligence leaders told congressional committees this week that Putin had miscalculated when he launched his invasion. CIA Director William Burns said Putin had made a number of assumptions, including that Ukraine was weak, his military was capable of a quick and decisive victory, European countries would be risk-averse and Russia had “sanctions-proofed” its economy.
“He’s been proven wrong on every count,” Burns said.
But the intelligence community also assessed that Putin was unlikely to be deterred by Russia’s setbacks and instead may escalate. “We assess Putin feels aggrieved the West does not give him proper deference and perceives this as a war he cannot afford to lose,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said.
The US would support a conversation between Zelensky and Putin but remains skeptical that it could result in progress on a diplomatic solution right now, officials said.
“We would support our Ukrainian partners in the diplomatic overtures, the diplomatic initiatives that they wish to take part in. That does not mean that we would have necessarily high hopes at the moment,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said Thursday when asked about the potential meeting.
‘The pretense of diplomacy’
The US would “need to see the Russian Federation show up with a different disposition” if that meeting were to be effective, given Russia’s previous engagements have not been marked by a real desire to bring the conflict to an end, Price explained.
Russia’s approach to its diplomacy with Ukraine to date “strikes us as something much more akin to what we’ve talked about before, and that is the pretense of diplomacy,” Price said.
On Friday, Putin met Belarus’ leader, Alexander Lukashenko, in Moscow, where the Russian President claimed that the sweeping Western sanctions offered “a time of opportunity to move towards strengthening technological and economic sovereignty.”
The Biden administration is also holding firm on not opening the door to any potential agreement that would result in Ukraine capitulating.
“Our position is that we will support a negotiated resolution that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. Full stop,” the State Department official said. “We’re applying this pressure in the hopes that eventually there will be a negotiated resolution, but it does not appear that Putin wants one right now.”
Meanwhile, the US will forge ahead with “all forms of future reconstruction assistance that we can muster to help Ukraine survive as a sovereign nation,” the official said.
The support the US continues giving Ukraine is also viewed as a factor that could – over time – force Russia to come to the table in a more serious way.
“The pressure it’s encountering on the battlefield, the economic dire straits that it’s in back at home,” Price said of Russia. “It is certainly our hope that those forces will combine and it will push the Russian Federation to the negotiating table in a way that actually involves good faith.”
CNN’s Kevin Liptak contributed to this report.