Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled on separate trips from southeastern Poland after their dangerous, high-stakes visit to Kyiv when they were conferred by a phone call from President Joe Biden.
During their whirlwind trip in April, Austin showed up to expand U.S. goals to Ukrainetelling the public that the administration wants the Ukrainians to win the war against Russia, not only to defend themselves, and that the U.S. hopes to weaken Russia to the extent that it cannot launch another senseless invasion. Blinken publicly agreed with himself in the comments. Now Biden wants to discuss the rising headlines that have resulted.
Biden thinks the secretaries are too far away, according to several administration officials familiar with the call. Prior to the reported 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 U.S. risk of becoming a direct conflict with Russia. He told them to lower it, officials said.
“Biden was not happy when Blinken and Austin talked about winning Ukraine,” said one of them. “He’s not happy with rhetoric.”
The secretaries explained that Austin’s comments were misunderstood, another senior administration official said. But the anger Biden expressed earlier in that phone call, officials said, showed his administration’s belief that despite the unexpected achievements of Ukrainian forces earlier, the war in finally going in the direction it is now after two months: a protracted conflict in which Russia continues to make small and steady progress.
U.S. officials are particularly concerned that the course of the war in Ukraine is unsustainable and have quietly discussed whether President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should retain his strong public position with no territory to be handed over to Russia as part. in an agreement to end the war, according to seven current U.S. officials, former U.S. officials and European officials.
Other officers wanted Zelenskyy to “dial it a little bit,” as one of them said, when it came to telegraphing his red line to end the war. But the issue is full because Biden remains adamant that the U.S. has not forced Ukrainians to take steps in one way or another. The position of his administration is that any decision on how and on what terms to end the war is for Ukraine to decide.
“We did not force them to make concessions, as other Europeans did. We will never ask them to cede the territory, ”said a US official. “We’re planning for a long war. We’re trying to prepare the Americans for that, and we’re willing 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 approved 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 Ukraine war, including how it will end, is expected to be an important topic when world leaders gather in Europe next week for NATO and G-7 summits.
European officials have more openly mentioned their desire for Zelenskyy to enter into negotiations with Russia and consider handing over some of the territory captured by Russia in its latest invasion. Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014 and occupied Crimea.
On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron said Zelenskyy should negotiate with Russia.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the National Security Council, told reporters Wednesday that nothing has changed about Biden’s view of the matter.
“President Zelenskyy is the elected democratic leader of that country, and he knows how to end this war,” Kirby said. “He was able to figure out how he defined the win and how he got that result.”
However, many experts, as well as US and European officials, believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin will claim the eastern Donbas region of Ukraine as Russian territory once covered in future months and declare victory, and Zelenskyy must negotiate.
Biden was asked on June 3 if he believed Ukraine should cede the territory to achieve peace and he left the possibility open, saying he would not tell Ukrainians what to do.
“From the beginning, I said and I – not everyone agreed with me – there is no part of Ukraine without Ukraine. This is their territory. I will not tell them what is necessary and they will not do,” Biden said. “But it seems to me that, at some point down the line, there has to be a negotiated settlement here. And what that means, I don’t know.
In April, officials in the Biden administration were more optimistic about Ukraine’s position on the war than they are now.
While in Poland near the Ukrainian border after a visit to Kyiv, Austin and Blinken held a joint news conference where they suggested that the U.S. help Ukraine defeat Russia.
Austin said of the Ukrainians, “We have a mentality that we want to help them win, and we will do that.”
“We want to see Russia vulnerable to the level that it can’t do the kinds of things it did to invade Ukraine,” he said.
Blinken then agreed when asked about Austin’s comments: “I think the secretary said it very well.”
Biden was upset, officials said. But once Austin and Blinken gave him the full context of the conference call, there was no warning from the president, a senior administration official said. The official looked at the president’s questions asked and answered and said it remains the U.S. goal to see Ukraine win the war and see a strategic failure for Russia until it no longer has the capacity to threaten the its neighbor. The official said what Austin said in April after a visit to Kyiv remains U.S. policy.
Also in April, deputy national securityr Jon Finer similarly told NBC News “Meet the Press” that the administration’s goal is to continue to create the types of activity that allow Ukrainians to win a victory. in the war for Kyiv. “
“We think the exact approach is the way we’ve followed the fights ahead, which now focus on the south and east,” Finer said, adding that the Russians “failed in almost every one of their first purpose. And our purpose is to continue that trend. ”
An administration official said the administration’s goals had not changed throughout the war.
Pentagon officials still believe the Russians will push the Ukrainians back, but the U.S. military’s analysis of the war is now mixed, officials said.
In recent weeks, as the state of the land has become a bit tense in the east, the administration has stopped giving reporters daily updates. An official said, however, that the administration “is looking to resume regular background briefings on the state of the game in Ukraine and explore ways to keep journalists informed.”
Biden outlined his policy in Ukraine on an op-ed in The New York Times on May 31.
“As the war continues, I want to be clear about the United States’ intentions in these efforts, ”Biden wrote. “America’s purpose is straightforward: We want to see a democratic, independent, sovereign and prosperous Ukraine with ways to recognize and defend itself against further aggression.”
While White House officials don’t want to be seen forcing Ukraine to agree to an agreement with Russia that gives some territory, there is growing concern that Zelenskyy’s public posture is nothing to do unless everything is in place. that Russian troops leave Ukraine unsustainable. Even if Europeans are more reliant on the idea of such an agreement with Russia, which could be more pronounced as winter approaches, due to Europe’s reliance on Russia’s oil and gas, administration officials are as they seek to retain their right to allow Ukraine to decide its future. .
“If the Ukrainians are convinced that they need to make a bad deal, we need to support them,” a former senior administration official said. “And that’s the administration’s policy.”