US officials said the Ukrainian attack could pave the way for diplomacy with Russia

Ukraine’s planned counterattack against Russia has clouded talk of a possible negotiated settlement to the conflict, but some US and European officials say the next phase of the war could create momentum for diplomacy.

It’s unclear how officials will determine success in the counterattack, which could last several months, or how its outcome might affect their approach. Opinions vary widely among military strategists about whether Ukraine is likely to regain its territory after more than a year of war.

For now, Russian President Vladimir 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 from China. Beijing continues to try to play peacemaker, despite its apparent strategic alliance with Russia. Foreign Minister Chen Gang traveled across Europe this week to try to sell the idea that China could sponsor the negotiations.

Some European officials who met with Mr. Chen expressed skepticism. And in Washington, he met with Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken is with counterparts from Britain and Spain this week to reinforce commitments to military aid to Ukraine, to send the message that territorial gains are the priority.

Mr. Blinken said on Tuesday at a press conference with James Cleverly, the British foreign secretary, that the Ukrainians “have what they need to continue to succeed in retaking the territories that Russia has forcibly occupied over the past 14 months.”

Like Mr. Blinken, Mr. Cleverly makes no mention of diplomacy with Russia at all, instead focusing on military assistance: “We need to continue to support them, regardless of whether this next attack will yield huge gains on the battlefield, because until this conflict is over it is done.” Solve it and solve it properly, it’s not over yet.”

Ukrainian leaders also say they will not agree to talks until they push back the Russian forces.

However, aides to President Biden are still exploring potential endgames, trying to determine an outcome that could be acceptable to both Kiev and Moscow if real peace talks begin, US officials say.

Biden aides and European officials say their best hope is for Ukraine to make significant gains during the counteroffensive, giving it more leverage in any negotiations.

But whatever its leaders may think, American officials say most Ukrainians have little desire to compromise with their Russian attackers.

And American officials fear that even if the Russian military suffers more 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 while Mr. Putin has been “curtailing his near-term ambitions” in Ukraine, the chance of getting Russian concessions at any negotiating table this year “will be low.”

Another senior US official said that regardless of Ukraine’s success, the Russian leader could simply order a broader mobilization project to rebuild some of his military might.

Mr. Putin could also benefit as the 2024 presidential campaign approaches in the United States, where former President Donald J. Trump was the Republican front-runner. Mr. Trump W Many Republican politicians They described US support for Ukraine as extravagant and dangerous.

China has pushed for a mediating role since it unveiled a vague peace initiative in February. Although Mr. Blinken and some senior European diplomats say they are open to the possibility of China playing a useful role in the future, they criticize Beijing for not publicly recognizing Russia as the aggressor in the war. They insist that a state unwilling to do so cannot be trusted as an honest broker.

Chinese President Xi Jinping paid an official visit to Moscow in March and expressed continued support for his country’s partnership with Russia, which both governments said was “boundless” before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. The initiative, Li Hui, was Russia’s ambassador for 10 years and He was awarded a medal From Mr. Putin.

US and European officials are also suspicious of calls for peace talks that do not include a demand for the Russian military to 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 talks as a pretext to freeze the front lines — and Russian gains.

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In her congressional testimony, Ms. Haines said Mr. Putin could use the cease-fire to try to restore power while “buying time for what he hopes will be an erosion of Western support for Ukraine.”

She added that he “may be willing to claim at least a temporary victory on the basis of the territory he has roughly conquered”.

Mr. Blinken He said recently It was a “positive thing” that Mr. Xi finally spoke to Mr. Zelensky last month, but he was “still not sure” that China was willing to accept that Ukraine was the victim. Germany’s foreign minister, Annalina Berbock, said the same thing almost directly to Mr. Chen at a press conference on Tuesday: “Neutrality means standing on the side of the aggressor, which is why our guiding principle is to make it clear that we are on the side of the victim.”

The main argument for a greater Chinese role in diplomacy is the fact that the country is Russia’s most powerful partner, and that Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin share a personal bond. The Russian war has disrupted the global economy, and created problems for China.

“As a matter of principle, if countries — especially highly influential countries like China — are willing to play a positive role in trying to bring about peace, that would be a good thing,” Mr. Blinken said.

The White House said Thursday that National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, I talked about Ukraine With Wang Yi, China’s chief foreign policy official, during a two-day meeting this week in Vienna.

The debate in Washington about potential peace talks is amorphous and contradictory. There are even competing arguments built on the same hypothetical outcome: If Ukraine makes significant gains, it could mean it’s time for talks, some officials say — or it could mean that Ukraine should put diplomacy first and keep fighting.

If Ukraine is unable to seize significant territory, some US and European officials may want to push Mr. Zelensky toward a negotiated settlement.

“The dynamic will change even if Ukraine makes marginal gains,” said Mr. Smith, the Democrat. He predicted that after several more months of war, both sides would come to an end.

But some officials and analysts in Washington warn against such thinking.

said Alena Polyakova, Head of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

“I personally find that shocking,” she added. Territorial concessions would vindicate Russian aggression, which would set a global precedent for China and other countries that meant success. Second, it could also mean that the West has to accept the moral ramifications — accepting war crimes and turning a blind eye to ongoing human rights abuses.”

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Among senior U.S. officials, General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been the most outspoken about the need for Ukraine and Russia to consider negotiations, arguing that a prolonged war would result in more casualties. Mr. Blinken has taken a different stance. “There has to be some profound change in Mr. Putin’s mind and in Russia’s mind to engage in meaningful diplomacy,” he said last week.

The Secretary of State and other US officials have made vague statements about what they see as a viable end to the conflict.

At least twice in the past several months, Mr. Blinken has referred to Ukraine’s need to regain territory “that Russia has forcibly seized over the past 14 months,” as he put it on Tuesday. But this war is a continuation of an earlier one: Starting in 2014, Russia effectively controlled hundreds of square miles of eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

It is unclear whether Mr. Blinken intentionally distinguished between those tracts of land. Ukrainian leaders insist their goal is to retake every inch of their territory captured 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 forcing Russia to at least demilitarize Crimea, so that it cannot be used as a springboard for future attacks on Ukraine. But this outcome may be difficult for Putin to accept. The Russian Black Sea Fleet is located in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.

Mr. Blinken said last week that the “just and lasting” peace plan “cannot be validated for what Russia has done, which is to seize a large part of the territory of Ukraine.” Nor can it allow Russia to “simply rest, retool and recycle in six months or a year later”.

Julian E Barnes Contributing reporting from Washington, W Stephen Erlanger from Brussels.

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