The reaction from the White House was a veritable dousing of cold water on what, hours earlier, seemed like one of the first, sincere potential diplomatic breakthrough weeks into the bloody conflict. At the talks in Turkey, both Ukrainian and Russian sides said moves were being made toward a leaders’ summit, as Kyiv for the first time signaled a willingness to hold negotiations over territory seized by Moscow. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said his military planned to “fundamentally cut back” military activity near the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and another northern city in an effort “to increase trust” around the peace talks.
But Biden administration officials cautioned that while they had seen a recent reduction in Russian attacks around Kyiv and Chernihiv, violence had continued unabated and even grown elsewhere, particularly in southern and eastern Ukraine. Moreover, the officials said that the break near Kyiv may be a ruse to resupply troops and that the violence could ramp up at any time.
“We need to see what the Russians actually do before we solely trust what they’ve said,” Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director, said during Tuesday’s daily briefing. “We have no reason to believe” Moscow has abandoned its push into Kyiv. “No one should be fooled,” she continued, adding “The world should be prepared for a major offensive against other areas of Ukraine.”
It’s a general sentiment that was echoed in relevant corners of the administration.
“I have not seen anything to suggest that this is moving forward in an effective way because we have not seen signs of real seriousness” from Russia, said Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a press conference in Morocco.
“We are not ready to buy the argument that this is a Russian withdrawal,” top Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said hours later to reporters.
More vitally, even if Russia did silence its guns near the Ukrainian capital, it still very much was conducting an active assault on other regions – which would inherently undermine any sort of cease fire, according to US officials.
Feeding the new push for diplomacy has been the growing recognition that the Russian invasion has badly stalled, with Moscow taking huge manpower and equipment losses. Biden aides, buoyed by Ukraine’s military campaign to date, nevertheless scoffed at the suggestion that Putin was ending the war, instead believing he likely was temporarily focusing on a more winnable region, officials said. The Donbas region – parts of which have been held by Kremlin-backed separatist forces since 2014 – appeared to be a particular target.
Putin’s campaign has gone so unexpectedly poorly that US officials have begun reviewing their own intelligence assessments to determine how they could have so badly misjudged the strength of the Russian military. Despite pouring billions of dollars into modernizing Russia’s military, Putin’s forces have been saddled with poor equipment, communications and morale – all leading to, so far, a stalemate against a much smaller and overmatched foe.
To that point, one US official bluntly said: “The Russians really fucked this up.”
Still, one US official, who like others would only speak about sensitive geopolitical matters on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that “no one should be fooled by Russia’s announcements” and added that the administration believes “any movement of Russian forces from around Kyiv is a redeployment, not a withdrawal, and the world should be prepared for a major offensive against other areas of Ukraine. ”
Michael Kofman, research program director in the Russia Studies Program at the CNA think tank, said that even a retrenchment to focus on the Donbas could still leave Russia with “sufficient presence to fix Ukrainian forces around Kyiv.”
“We should see this as a sign that Russia is revising down its war aims,” said Kofman, “and expanding options to end this phase of the conflict while spinning it as a victory with domestic audiences.”
White House officials stressed that it was encouraged that peace negotiations were occurring. But earlier signals from Moscow about a willingness to negotiate were almost immediately proven to be a ruse, with Russian forces instead only ramping up their assaults. There has been no concrete signs of troop withdrawals back to Russia; the only movement so far has been different deployments within Ukraine.
“They have lied about everything else, why should we start believing them now?” asked a second US official.
Though some analysts believe a conversation or summit between Biden and Putin may be needed to bring the war to a close, the White House has been unwilling to conduct any direct negotiations. Instead Biden officials have left it to other world leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, to convey messages to and talk with the Russian leader. Macron and Putin had a conversation on Tuesday after Biden and Macron spoke as part of a larger call.
Officials said that a call between Biden and Putin would only be set up if Russia first shows tangible signs of winding down hostilities. The White House offered a conversation before the invasion but revoked it once Russian forces went into Ukraine. Aides made clear Tuesday that a presidential call carries significant diplomatic weight and should be used as a final or near-final step; they did not want to set up a summit only to see Putin ramp up the violence in its aftermath.
Putin’s ability to withstand the international pressure and heavy economic sanctions placed on his country has left Biden and his allies with limited options. The war to this point has killed thousands, left entire cities ruined and forced the displacement of millions of Ukrainians, but Biden has repeatedly stressed his unwillingness to risk a confrontation with Russia that would escalate into World War III.
US officials theorize that the nod toward peace talks may be a feint to buy time to resupply Russia’s beleaguered forces. Moreover, a possible Russian move away from Kyiv, even a temporary one, may be a face-saving effort to cover for the extraordinary amount of losses Putin’s forces have taken. Moscow badly misjudged the strength of the Ukrainian resistance – as well as its own might – and has lost a huge amount of men and machines.
US officials have warned against growing overconfident amid Russia’s stalled invasion. Biden, in a secure call Tuesday morning, urged the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom to keep the pressure on Moscow and continue sending arms and equipment to Ukraine.
Just back from a trip to Europe to rally the allies, Biden has escalated the rhetoric against Russia, refusing to back down from his off-the-cuff suggestion that Putin should leave power even though he insisted he was making a moral judgment and not calling for regime change.
Ukrainian officials signaled Tuesday that they would be willing to negotiate the status of Crimea – the Ukrainian peninsula that Moscow seized in 2014 – in talks to be conducted over a period of 15 years. And some military analysts believe Putin may soon pull out some ground forces from hot zones and instead settle in to conduct a lengthy, long-range bombing campaign to shatter Ukrainian cities.
But even that, though devastating to Ukraine, would be a far cry from Moscow’s early belief that it could topple Kyiv in a matter of days.
“It’s a huge retreat from Putin’s initial war aims,” said Jeffrey Edmonds, former Russia director on Obama’s National Security Council and now adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security think tank. “This is a huge defeat to Putin’s maximalist initial goals. The Russian leadership is trying to salvage a military fiasco. ”