When the Secretaries of Defense and State said publicly the U.S. wanted Ukraine to win, Biden said tone it down

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had taken off on separate flights from Southeastern Poland after their risky, high-stakes visit to Kyiv when they were conferenced into a phone call from President Joe Biden. 

During their whirlwind April trip, Austin appeared to expand the U.S. goals in Ukraine, saying publicly that the administration wanted the Ukrainians to win the war against Russia, not just defend themselves, and that the U.S. hoped to weaken Russia to the extent that it could not launch another unprovoked invasion again. Blinken had publicly aligned himself with the remarks. Now Biden wanted to discuss the mounting headlines that resulted.

Biden thought the secretaries had gone too far, according to multiple administration officials familiar with the call. On the previously unreported conference call, as Austin flew to Germany and Blinken to Washington, the president expressed concern that the comments could set unrealistic expectations and increase the risk of the U.S. getting into a direct conflict with Russia. He told them to tone it down, said the officials.

“Biden was not happy when Blinken and Austin talked about winning in Ukraine,” one of them said. “He was not happy with the rhetoric.”

The secretaries explained that Austin’s comments had been misconstrued, another senior administration official said. But the displeasure Biden initially conveyed during that phone call, the officials said, reflected his administration’s belief that despite Ukrainian forces’ unexpected successes early on, the war would ultimately head in the direction it is now heading two months later: a protracted conflict in which Russia continues to make small and steady advances.

Now, U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that the trajectory of the war in Ukraine is untenable and are quietly discussing whether President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should temper his hardline public position that no territory will ever be ceded to Russia as part of an agreement to end the war, according to seven current U.S. officials, former U.S. officials and European officials.

Some officials want Zelenskyy to “dial it back a little bit,” as one of them put it, when it comes to telegraphing his red lines on ending the war. But the issue is fraught given that Biden is adamant about the U.S. not pressuring the Ukrainians to take steps one way or another. His administration’s position has been that any decision about how and on what terms to end the war is for Ukraine to decide.

“We are not pressuring them to make concessions, as some Europeans are. We would never ask them to cede territory,” one U.S. official said. “We are planning for a long war. We intend to prepare the American people for that, and we are prepared to ask Congress for more money.”

Biden announced a new, $1 billion military aid package for Ukraine on Wednesday after speaking with Zelenskyy. Congress last month authorized an additional $40 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, which is expected to last until October. 

The National Security Council and the State Department declined to comment.

The Pentagon and the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The future of the war in Ukraine, including how it might end, is expected to be a key topic when world leaders gather in Europe next week for the NATO and G-7 summits.

European officials are more openly discussing their preference that Zelenskyy enter into negotiations with Russia and consider relinquishing some territory Russia has gained in its latest invasion. Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014 and annexed Crimea.

On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said Zelenskyy must negotiate with Russia.

John Kirby, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told reporters later Wednesday that nothing about Biden’s view on the matter has changed.

“President Zelenskyy is the democratically elected leader of that country, and he gets to determine how this war ends,” Kirby said. “He gets to determine how he defines victory and how he gets at that outcome.”

Still, many experts, as well as U.S. and European officials, believe Russian President Vladimir Putin will claim Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region as Russian territory once conquered in the coming months, and declare victory, and Zelenskyy will have to negotiate.

Biden was asked on June 3 if he believes Ukraine will have to cede territory to achieve peace and he left open the possibility, saying he won’t tell the Ukrainians what to do.

Image:
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken during their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 25, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP file

“From the beginning, I’ve said and I’ve been — not everyone has agreed with me — nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. It’s their territory. I’m not going to tell them what they should and shouldn’t do,” Biden said. “But it appears to me that, at some point along the line, there’s going to have to be a negotiated settlement here. And what that entails, I don’t know.”

In April, Biden administration officials sounded more optimistic about Ukraine’s position in the war than they currently do.

While in Poland near the Ukrainian border after visiting Kyiv, Austin and Blinken held a joint news conference where they suggested the U.S. was going to help Ukraine defeat Russia.

Austin said of the Ukrainians, “We have the mindset that we want to help them win, and we are going to do that.”

“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” he said.

Blinken then concurred when asked about Austin’s comments: “I think the secretary said it very well.”

Biden was upset, officials said. But once Austin and Blinken provided him with the full context on the conference call, there was no admonishment by the president, a senior administration official said. The official viewed the president’s questions as asked and answered and said it remains the goal of the U.S. to see Ukraine win the war and to see a strategic failure for Russia to the extent it no longer has the capacity to threaten its neighbors. The official said what Austin said in April after visiting Kyiv remains U.S. policy.

Also in April, deputy national security adviser Jon Finer similarly said on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” in April that the administration’s “objective is to continue to enable the types of activity that allowed Ukrainians to win a victory in the battle for Kyiv.”

“We think that exact approach is going to be the way we follow through in the battles ahead, now focused on the south and the east,” Finer said, adding that the Russians “are failing at virtually every one of their initial objectives. And our objective is going to be to continue that trend.”

An administration official said the administration’s goals have not changed throughout the war.

Pentagon officials still believe the Russians are going to push the Ukrainians back, but the U.S. military assessment of the war right now is very mixed, officials said.

In recent weeks, as the situation on the ground has turned into a grind in the east, the administration stopped giving reporters daily updates. An official said, however, that the administration is “looking at restarting regular background briefings on the state of play in Ukraine and exploring ways to continue to keep reporters informed.”

President Biden outlined his policy on Ukraine in an op-ed in the New York Times on May 31.

“As the war goes on, I want to be clear about the aims of the United States in these efforts,” Biden wrote. “America’s goal is straightforward: We want to see a democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine with the means to deter and defend itself against further aggression.”

While White House officials are loath to be seen as pressuring Ukraine to agree to a deal with Russia that gives up some territory, there is growing concern that Zelenskyy’s public posture that there can be no deal unless all Russian troops leave Ukraine is unsustainable. Even if the Europeans lean more heavily into the notion of such a deal with Russia, which could get more pronounced as winter approaches, given Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas, administration officials said they intend to hold their ground on letting Ukraine decide its future.

“If Ukrainians are convinced that they need to do a bad deal we ought to back them,” a former senior administration official said. “And that’s the administration’s policy.”

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