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EXCLUSIVE
Russia-Ukraine Conflict

Some U.S. and Western officials think neither side can win and see winter as a shot at diplomacy in Ukraine-Russia war

Russia and Ukraine are most likely looking to the slower tempo of battle this winter as a time to reset and refit their forces to be ready for a spring offensive.
Image: An old woman walks in the Kherson region village of Arkhanhelske on November 3, 2022, which was formerly occupied by Russian forces.
A woman walks Thursday in the Kherson region village of Arkhanhelske, which was formerly occupied by Russian forces. Bulent Kilic / AFP via Getty Images

Some U.S. and Western officials increasingly believe that neither side can achieve all of their goals in the Ukraine war and are eyeing the expected winter slowdown in fighting as an opportunity for diplomacy to begin between Russia and Ukraine, officials familiar with the matter say.

Western defense officials question Ukraine’s ability to remove Russian troops completely from occupied areas, and if military operations on the ground stabilize over the winter that could underline that neither side is likely to achieve its goal of controlling the whole country, the officials said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly on matters of diplomacy.

“In the winter, everything slows down,” said a Western official with direct knowledge of military operations. “The potential for talks, we would like to see that happening.”

The official pointed to a statement by Russia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom last week about the potential for negotiations as possible “messaging” toward a diplomatic path.

U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan made a surprise visit last week to Kyiv, where he met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and top Ukrainian officials. The White House National Security Council said the meetings were to “underscore the United States’ steadfast support to Ukraine and its people.” But two people familiar with the meetings and a Ukrainian government official said Sullivan did broach the idea of how the conflict can end and whether it could include a diplomatic solution. “He was testing the waters a bit,” a person familiar with the meetings said.

The Ukrainian official said that during his meetings, Sullivan raised the need for a diplomatic resolution to the war and made the point that Ukraine’s leverage would be strengthened — not weakened — if it expressed openness to ultimately negotiating with the Russians. The official said that Sullivan had not tried to pressure Ukraine to enter into negotiations immediately or to take any specific steps. Instead, the official said, Sullivan expressed the view that Ukraine would able to maintain the support of Western allies better if it is perceived as being willing to reach an end to the conflict through diplomacy.

According to the Ukrainian official, Zelenskyy emphasized that Ukraine had pushed for diplomacy with Russia in the initial months of the war and only took talks with President Vladimir Putin off the table following documented atrocities and alleged war crimes that the official said had made talks with Moscow in the near term unpalatable to the Ukrainian public.

In a video tweeted Monday by an adviser to Ukraine's Ministry of Internal Affairs, Zelenskyy listed conditions for negotiations that included restoration of territorial integrity, payments of war damages and punishment for war criminals.

The U.S. and its allies do not want to be seen as pushing Ukraine into diplomacy, especially if that involves a formal arrangement that Russian-occupied areas in eastern Ukraine become Russian territory, U.S. and Ukrainian officials said. U.S. officials concede that bringing the two sides to the table will be challenging, and that both Russia and Ukraine are likely looking to the slower operational tempo this winter as a time to reset and refit their forces to be ready for a spring offensive.

The U.S. and Western allies have discussed whether Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could help mediate between the two sides, and he has already signaled a willingness to help broker a deal, according to a U.S. official, the Ukrainian government official and a former U.S. official familiar with the matter. Erdogan has been a constructive player in the conflict and one of the only world leaders still talking to both Ukraine and Russia, the Ukrainian government official said, adding that other countries, including Israel and the United Arab Emirates, have also floated the idea of mediating but that none of those offers seemed particularly viable.

A spokesperson for the National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told NBC News this week, “What we want to see for Ukraine is that they get justice, that they are in a position of strength when they go into any talks that they might have with the Russians.”

Battle lines

There are three main fronts in Ukraine: the battle around Kharkiv in the northeast, the massive Donetsk/Luhansk line along the central eastern border of the country, and the fight for Kherson in the south.

Kherson is the last major front line that could shift before winter, officials said, after which neither side is likely to make large advances. A defense official said there should be a clearer sense in the next two to three weeks of whether fighting will stabilize this winter as the battle around Kherson plays out. 

Fighting is already slowing down and the Russian forces are preparing lines of defense in depth around Kherson, creating “the potential for this to be slower,” according to a Western official.

If Ukraine wins in Kherson, it could put the Zelenskyy government in a better position to negotiate, U.S. and Western officials said. But, they added, it could also discourage Russia from coming to the table if Putin believes he’s not negotiating from a position of strength.

Sullivan has opened a line of communication with his Russian counterpart, Russia's Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, including speaking with him about Russian allegations that Ukraine could be planning to use a dirty bomb inside Ukraine, according to two U.S. officials familiar with the calls. The call about the dirty bombs came as a number of other Biden administration officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, also spoke with their counterparts about the allegations. Ukraine has denied the Russian claims and the U.S. has also rejected the Russian assertions.

Officials said concern about a false flag operation with a dirty bomb or even the use of a tactical nuclear weapon was extremely high for several days during the flurry of calls, but the communications between top U.S. officials and their Russian counterparts are believed to have helped bring down that tension, officials said. On the ongoing worry about Russia using a tactical nuclear weapon, one defense official said that the “concern has tamped down a bit.”

Asked Monday whether the Russian government is ready for talks with Ukraine, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “We have repeatedly said that the Russian side remains open to achieving its goals through the negotiations. But we have also repeatedly drawn everyone’s attention to the fact that at the moment, we do not see any opportunity for that since it is codified in Kyiv, that is, written in the law, that they cannot continue any negotiations with the Russian side.” 

The growing belief that there’s no military resolution to the war and the rising hope that Ukraine and Russia move toward starting talks comes as Ukraine needs additional military aid. The White House and Congress are expected to consider additional funds for assistance for Ukraine, potentially $40 billion to $60 billion, NBC News has reported. Some Republicans and Democrats have begun to question whether the U.S. should send additional tens of billions of dollars to Ukraine. 

The Western official said, “It’s increasingly apparent that Russia has now moved to a more definitively defensive position along most of the front lines, and we’re seeing a force gradually growing with the arrival of mobilized reservists. But a pretty low-quality force, likely little suited to complex offensive operations, and also short of munitions. We believe that the Russians are still planning for military withdrawal from their bridgehead on the west side of the Dnieper River, just by Kherson. And we think that planning is almost certainly well advanced."

“It’s likely that most echelons of command have withdrawn now across the river to the east, leaving pretty demoralized, and often, in some cases leaderless troops to face Ukrainians on the other side. A substantial number of forces across the river in Kherson are recently mobilized reservists. And it’s apparent to this lot also from the video circulating that a lot of these folks are woefully equipped and prepared.”

U.S. officials believe the Russian withdrawal will be contested and could be slower, as Ukrainian forces are likely to keep fighting them as they withdraw toward Crimea and elsewhere.

CORRECTION (Nov. 10, 2022, 8.55 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misspelled the name of a city and region. It is Donetsk, not Donesk.