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U.S. sees little prospect for Ukraine talks with Putin

Dec. 2, 2022 Updated Fri., Dec. 2, 2022 at 8:50 p.m.

By Michael Crowley and Michael D. Shear New York Times

WASHINGTON – A day after President Joe Biden said he would be willing to talk with President Vladimir Putin of Russia about a possible peace agreement in Ukraine, the Kremlin offered a frosty response, and prospects for settling the brutal conflict remained as distant as ever.

Biden said Thursday that he would hold his first conversation with Putin since before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 if the Russian leader was “looking for a way to end the war.” But U.S. officials said that Russia, as they have previously assessed, was not prepared to negotiate in good faith, and Russian officials repeated hard-line demands that are unacceptable to Ukraine.

Although Biden’s remark was taken by some as a new emphasis on moving toward peace talks with Russia, John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told reporters that Biden’s position had not changed.

“The president has been very consistent about that,” Kirby said. “He’s got no intentions to talk to Mr. Putin right now. As he also said, Putin has shown absolutely no inclination to be interested in dialogue of any kind. In fact, quite the contrary. Everything he’s doing shows that Mr. Putin is interested in continuing this illegal, unprovoked war.”

In Moscow, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesperson, said at a news conference Friday that Putin remained “open to contacts and negotiations” and that diplomacy was the “preferable way” to achieve Russia’s goals.

But Peskov noted that the United States “still does not recognize new territories as part of Russia,” an apparent reference to eastern Ukrainian regions that Putin claimed to annex after sham referendums in September, saying that “this makes more complicated the search for common ground for mutual discussions.”

In fact, the Russian position essentially rules out serious negotiations with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, who said in a mid-November interview with Bloomberg News that the war could not end until Ukraine had reclaimed all its territory from Russia, including the purportedly annexed regions as well as the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.

“The Russians have made it very clear that, of course, they are not in the mood for constructive dialogue and for constructive diplomacy,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at a press briefing. Any conversation between Biden and Putin “is nothing more than a hypothetical at this time,” he added.

“We have been very clear that the United States and countries around the world will never – never, never, never – recognize territory that Russia has illegally annexed, either in 2014 or more recently, as part of its illegal and now brutal aggression against Ukraine,” Price added.

Biden’s comment – made during a news conference with the visiting President Emmanuel Macron of France, who has spoken to Putin several times over the past year, including in late August – follows some signs that senior U.S. officials have contemplated whether Ukraine’s recent successful offensives present a window for negotiations.

Last month, the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, told reporters that Ukraine’s position of “strength” creates “a possibility” for a political solution.

But Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who served as NATO secretary-general from 2009 to 2014, said this week during a visit to Washington that he had spoken with Biden administration officials and saw no sign that they were pressuring Ukraine’s government to begin negotiating with Russia.

“It was an idea that was just floated, but it has been immediately shut down,” Rasmussen said. “It would really weaken the Western front if we tried to push Zelenskyy into premature peace negotiations, because that would be a trap.”

“Putin is not sincere when it comes to peace negotiations,” Rasmussen added.

Ukrainian officials have said the same, warning that Russia could try to pause the fighting for talks – but only to use that time to prepare for new military offensives.

Macron reaffirmed France’s support for Ukraine and nodded to the reality that a Ukrainian population enraged by Russia’s occupation is in no mood to compromise. France “will never urge Ukrainians to make a compromise that will not be acceptable for them,” he said.

On Friday, Italy’s foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, said that Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure targets such as power grids were “making any kind of dialogue impossible.”

“We all want peace, but it must come through Kyiv’s independence, not through its surrender,” Tajani said. “The responsibility for this situation is only Russian. Now the Kremlin must give concrete signals instead of bombing the population.”

White House officials said they were not surprised by Russia’s reaction to Biden’s comments. Few on the president’s national security team expected anything different from Putin, given Russia’s behavior in the past several weeks, which has included strikes on infrastructure targets that have deprived major cities including Kyiv of heat, light and running water.

“This brutalization of Ukraine’s people is barbaric,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at a NATO meeting in Romania on Wednesday.

Biden’s remark about speaking to Putin was not intended, the officials said, to signal a shift in policy or to indicate that the president was drifting from his commitment to ensuring that Ukraine’s leadership decided when and how to negotiate an end to the war.

Aides say the president continues to believe that negotiations will be necessary. But they also say he does not believe that direct talks with Putin will be possible unless the “facts on the ground” change.

In his remarks Thursday, Biden was careful to show deference to Ukraine and NATO allies, saying he would talk to Putin only after consulting with them first.

In part, the message was intended to be a show of support for diplomacy by his counterparts. Macron has stressed the importance of maintaining dialogue with the Russian leader, if only to avoid dangerous escalation or miscalculation. He called Putin in August and is expected to meet with him in a few days. Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, spoke to Putin on Friday morning.

A Kremlin readout of the call with Scholz blamed the West for the absence of talks, saying that the Western approach of “pumping the Kyiv regime with weapons” and providing it with financial and political support “leads Kyiv to reject any idea of negotiations.”

But there are other audiences to consider as well. Some leaders are anxious about the economic impacts of a war that has driven up food and energy prices worldwide. And in the United States, some Republican and progressive Democratic lawmakers have expressed frustration that the Biden administration, which has provided nearly $20 billion in military aid to Kyiv since the Russian invasion, appears to be writing “blank checks” without describing an end game for the conflict.

White House officials said the president’s comment about being willing to meet with Putin under certain circumstances was not directly aimed at those groups. But the remark nonetheless signals that the Biden administration has not foreclosed the possibility of diplomacy, even though Biden has not spoken to Putin since mid-February.

Blinken has spoken to his counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, only once since mid-January, to discuss the potential release of two Americans imprisoned in Russia, Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner. Biden also said in October that he would be willing to talk with Putin about releasing the two Americans.

Speaking a day before Biden’s comments, Rasmussen, the former NATO chief, said he did not believe that Ukraine would accept a peace deal that allowed Russia to occupy any part of its territory.

“I can conclude quite confidently that as long as you will see Russian troops on Ukrainian soil, you will have a conflict,” he said. “The only off-ramp for Putin is, get out of Ukraine.”

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