Will the United States Empower Zelenskyy to Negotiate an End to the War?

The Intercept asked the White House if the United States would respect Ukraine's sovereignty in negotiating with Russia.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 15: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki talks to reporters during the daily news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on March 15, 2022 in Washington, DC. Psaki fielded questions about the U.S. support for Ukraine in the face of invasion by Russia and other topics.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
White House press secretary Jen Psaki talks to reporters during the daily news conference at the White House on March 15, 2022, in Washington, D.C. Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made twin requests of his Western allies as his country fends off an invasion by Russian forces. First, he has consistently implored the United States to provide more military aid, including by enforcing a no-fly zone, and to impose additional sanctions on Russia and those close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Second, he has pushed the West to be more involved in negotiations toward an end to the war.

The first demand sits at the center of the debate over the war in the United States and in Europe, as the allies grapple with how, and with which weapons, to support the Ukrainian defensive efforts. The second demand has met a far more muted response, but on Saturday, an unnamed State Department spokesperson told Reuters that the U.S. was prepared to help.

“If there are diplomatic steps that we can take that the Ukrainian Government believes would be helpful, we’re prepared to take them,” the spokesperson said, according to the Reuters article. “We are working to put the Ukrainians in the strongest possible negotiating position, including by increasing pressure on Russia by imposing severe costs and by providing security assistance to help Ukrainians defend themselves.”

On Tuesday, The Intercept asked the White House what role it was playing to promote negotiations. “One of the steps we’ve taken — a significant one — is to be the largest provider of military and humanitarian and economic assistance in the world, to put them in a greater position of strength as they go into these negotiations,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

“We also engage and talk to the Ukrainians on a daily basis, and the president and his national security team has rallied the world in being unified in their opposition to the actions of President Putin,” she added. “So those are the steps we’re taking. We also engage, oftentimes before and after any conversations that any of these global leaders are having with both Russians and Ukrainians, and encourage them to make sure they’re engaging with Ukrainians directly.”

Asked whether the U.S. was willing to empower Zelenskyy to negotiate with Russia and have those negotiations result in the lifting of U.S. sanctions, Psaki said: “He’s the leader of Ukraine and so he’s empowered to have a negotiation with Russia, and we’re here to support those efforts.”

Psaki demurred when asked if that was a yes, but she didn’t rule out the possibility. “Again, I’m not going to get ahead of a negotiation, but we are here to support those efforts. We discuss and have conversations with his team on a daily basis,” she said.

Zelenskyy will address Congress on Wednesday and is likely to continue to insist on ramped-up military support and sanctions, both of which Congress and the administration have been eager to provide, short of enforcing a no-fly zone or sending fighter jets from a NATO ally’s territory into Ukraine. At the same time, the Ukrainian president has continued his diplomatic efforts, including by taking NATO membership off the table — a key concession to Putin.

“It is clear that Ukraine is not a member of NATO; we understand this,” Zelenskyy said Tuesday at a meeting with NATO leaders. “For years we heard about the apparently open door, but have already also heard that we will not enter there, and these are truths and must be acknowledged.”

Putin, meanwhile, has also demanded recognition of Crimea as Russian territory and the independence of two separatist regions where Russia has fueled civil wars.

It’s unclear what Zelenskyy’s line will be when it comes to negotiating an end to the war, but it’s important that the Ukrainian president be fully empowered by the United States to make those decisions, said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a deputy whip in the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“I fully support President Biden in providing more weapons and military aid to Ukraine against Putin’s immoral and unprovoked war,” Khanna told The Intercept. “We also should aggressively be encouraging diplomacy and fully support Zelenskyy in reaching whatever settlement and ceasefire he sees as achievable to preserve Ukrainian sovereignty and save Ukrainian lives.”

“The United States is in a punishment mindset with regards to Russia, and it needs to quickly transition to a more balanced, diplomacy-based approach [that] includes clear incentives, off-ramps for sanctions, and a realistic pathway to a ceasefire,” said Hassan El-Tayyab, legislative director for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a nonpartisan Quaker organization that lobbies Congress. “While only Ukraine and Russia can ultimately decide the framework for a negotiated settlement, the United States can help talks by signaling it would support a deal that ends the conflict and meaningfully preserves Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

El-Tayyab told The Intercept it is crucial that Congress not implement Russian sanctions by statute, because doing so would later require a vote to lift them. Very few lawmakers would be willing to cast such a vote, and the failure would deprive Zelenskyy and the Biden administration of the flexibility to lift sanctions amid negotiations.

“If the Biden administration shows it’s willing to lift sanctions if peace talks are successful, and champions possibilities for compromise as they emerge, it can positively contribute to ending the conflict and suffering of millions of innocent Ukrainians,” El-Tayyab said.

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