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The Ukraine war is Antony Blinken’s defining moment

Biden’s top diplomat has kept Washington’s allies together, but navigating an end game is proving elusive

Secretary of State Antony Blinken prepares to board a plane at Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport in Jasionka, Poland, on Sept. 9. Blinken was traveling to Brussels for meetings with NATO counterparts, a day after an unannounced visit to Ukraine. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool/AP)

When Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a personal appeal to Volodymyr Zelensky, hoping to convince him that a Russian invasion was imminent, Ukraine’s president didn’t believe him.

The warning lacked specificity, Zelensky recalled in an interview after the invasion. Moreover, if the Americans truly believed the situation was as dire as Blinken intimated, why hadn’t they begun to send more powerful weapons months sooner?

This discreet meeting, occurring on the sidelines of a climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021, revealed the limitations of Blinken’s influence over the Ukrainian leader and Zelensky’s innate skepticism of U.S. intelligence. But in the time since, Blinken’s rapport with Zelensky and his top aides has evolved substantially, and the top U.S. diplomat has become one of Kyiv’s most trusted champions and interlocutors.

“Blinken holds a special place for us,” said David Arakhamia, a top Zelensky adviser and leader of his party in parliament. “He’s completely synchronized with us in terms of vision.”

Blinken’s deep partnerships extend to Western allies of the United States, a diverse constellation of governments that has held together in support of Ukraine even as the conflict has dragged on and sent food and energy prices soaring.

That cohesion is owed to Blinken’s intense focus on alliance management, his European colleagues say.

At the same time, he has faced questions about his reluctance to more forcefully prod the Kremlin to end its devastating war. After more than a year of bloodshed on the battlefield, Blinken’s only face-to-face encounter with his Russian counterpart during the conflict came this month at a conference in India; the conversation with Sergei Lavrov lasted less than 10 minutes.

Blinken has rare encounter with Russia’s Lavrov at G-20 meeting in India

Blinken’s supporters say that engagement with Russia is a waste of time and that his attention on allied support for Ukraine will be what brings an end to the fighting. “The best way to hasten prospects for real diplomacy is to keep tilting the battlefield in Ukraine’s favor,” Blinken said last month. Critics counter that the only country that Russian President Vladimir Putin will negotiate with is the United States and that if the diplomats aren’t talking, the opportunities for finding a negotiated settlement are nonexistent.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave his own endorsement for negotiations in November, saying officials should “seize” the opportunity to sue for peace given the war’s staggering death toll.

“I give him an A on keeping the allies together. But I’m a little confused as to why the diplomatic arm of the United States is one of the least interested parts of the government in diplomacy,” said Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and a former Obama administration official.

This portrait of President Biden’s top diplomat and his management of the Ukraine crisis is based on interviews with dozens of senior U.S., Ukrainian and Western officials, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their observations. It comes at a pivotal moment in the war, as Kyiv prepares to launch an offensive that could lead to it recapturing swaths of territory in the south and east or plunge it deeper into a grinding war of attrition at an untold cost to Ukraine’s civilians and troops.

Managing the conflict has been a top priority for Blinken amid competing demands imposed by an ascendant China and strained relations with allies in the Middle East. He and his colleagues are under increasing pressure as support for Ukraine, which originally enjoyed strong bipartisan backing domestically, has softened significantly among Republican voters, according to recent polling. The two GOP stars seen as leading contenders to unseat Biden next year, former president Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, are explicitly questioning the billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Ukraine.

A Republican ‘civil war’ on Ukraine erupts as Reagan’s example fades

Blinken, 60, is unique in the recent pantheon of secretaries of state. He began working for Biden in the Senate more than two decades ago and built a career as the ultimate behind-the-scenes operator: a staffer enmeshed in foreign policy minutia, close to but never holding center stage.

His immediate predecessor, Mike Pompeo, was a pugnacious former CIA director and Kansas congressman who barely concealed his presidential ambitions. Rex Tillerson scaled the commanding heights of America’s energy industry as CEO of ExxonMobil. John F. Kerry and Hillary Clinton, celebrity politicians in their own right, tried and failed to occupy the highest political office in the land and took to diplomacy as life’s consolation prize.

For Blinken, the secretary-of-state role represents a career pinnacle — a dynamic that, in theory, frees him of the political constraints that shackled others who saw the job as a steppingstone to grander ambitions.

Yet, his predisposition is one of caution, observers say.

A disciplined speaker, he sticks to his talking points with the zeal of a Washington staffer who cleaned up his share of gaffes when the boss went off-script — a not-infrequent occurrence with Biden.

How Biden sparked a global uproar with nine ad-libbed words about Putin

After advising Biden on foreign affairs in the Senate, Blinken followed the then-vice president to the White House in 2009, eventually becoming deputy national security adviser and then deputy secretary of state.

Blinken “could do any job, any job,” Biden told The Washington Post in 2013 — a wager he doubled down on eight years later when he nominated him as chief diplomat.

A fluent French speaker who went to grade school and high school in Paris and whose father served as ambassador to Hungary, Blinken’s familiarity with the contours of Europe proved consequential after Putin initiated the continent’s biggest ground war since World War II.

In January, it was Blinken who resolved a heated dispute within NATO over the supply of German-made Leopard 2 tanks that Ukraine said it badly needed for its spring offensive. Countries on NATO’s eastern flank were furious that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was holding up the decision. In a phone call that month, Scholz told Biden that sending the tanks was politically risky for him, said two U.S. officials familiar with the call. The German leader needed the United States to send M1 Abrams tanks in tandem to give him domestic cover — a proposal the Pentagon opposed, given the tank’s complex maintenance needs, steep learning curve and other logistical concerns.

Contemplating the issue in the Oval Office with Biden and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Blinken suggested an “idea,” said the two officials: The United States would announce the provision of Abrams tanks even though logistical snags would hold up their arrival for many months, while Germany would simultaneously approve the transfer of Leopard tanks for delivery in the near term.

“That might be enough to give the Germans what they need,” Blinken said, according to the officials.

Biden agreed. Scholz did, too — and the first battalion of Leopard tanks are expected to arrive on the battlefield in the coming weeks.

U.S. will supply M1 tanks to Ukraine; Germany approves Leopards

The compromise allowed one of NATO’s most cautious members, Germany, to save face, while ensuring that the alliance’s most hawkish members, the Baltic states and Poland, did not go rogue with unilateral measures.

“In Blinken, you sense a person who actually gets where you are,” said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, whose country has been at the forefront of pushing for more powerful weapons to be shipped to Ukraine. “Whenever I’m talking to him, I always have a sense that he understands where I’m coming from. He gets that I’m from a front-line state that’s already been under occupation and has been warning about the Russian threat for years.”

What endears Blinken to Ukraine’s biggest supporters is his insistence that the United States will never negotiate with Russia if the Ukrainians aren’t present — even if ending the war was determined to be in America’s interest. “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine,” Blinken often repeats.

Blinken has even gone so far as to publicly chastise countries for urging both sides to negotiate, and he has questioned the value of a permanent or temporary armistice agreement, telling members of the United Nations Security Council last month that they “should not be fooled by calls for a temporary or unconditional cease-fire. Russia will use any pause in fighting to consolidate control.”

Blinken’s skepticism about peace talks are widely shared within the Biden administration, but not universally, as evidenced by Milley’s comments in November.

“Russia right now is on its back. The Russian military is suffering tremendously,” Milley said during a news conference alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “You want to negotiate at a time when you’re at strength and your opponent is at weakness.”

Milley tries to clarify his case for a negotiated end to Ukraine war

In remarks days earlier, Milley disclosed that roughly 100,000 Russian and 100,000 Ukrainian troops had been killed or wounded in the conflict — a staggering toll for what was at the time just nine months of fighting. An additional 40,000 Ukrainian civilians had died or been injured, he said, and as many as 30 million forced to flee their homes. “There has been a tremendous amount of suffering,” Milley said.

“When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it,” he said.

Milley’s comments outraged Ukraine’s leaders, who oppose any outside pressure to negotiate. But they also created an unusual contrast in which the United States’ top military official was promoting the idea of peace talks, while its top diplomat was actively discouraging them.

Blinken and his top aides say their position is more than justified. Separate efforts by French, Turkish and Israeli officials all failed to dissuade Putin from withdrawing Russian forces, they point out, so why would the outcome of any U.S.-led effort be different.

Beyond that, the preconditions that Moscow has demanded Ukraine accept ahead of negotiations — recognition of Russia’s newly annexed territory — make clear that Putin is not serious about a compromise, Blinken and his defenders say.

“That’s obviously a nonstarter, and it should be a nonstarter, not just for Ukraine or for us, but for countries around the world,” Blinken said on a recent trip to Uzbekistan.

But it is a mistake, his critics say, to judge Moscow’s sincerity by its public posturing.

“The idea that the Russians are going to go into negotiations publicly saying that they’re prepared to give up everything is kind of ridiculous. They’re not going to do that,” said Tom Shannon, a former acting secretary of state and career diplomat under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Shannon, who has years of experience negotiating with top Russian officials, said the failed talks between foreign leaders and Putin are no substitute for direct U.S. engagement. Putin sees Washington — Ukraine’s most powerful backer — as holding all the cards and is unlikely to make real concessions to the leaders of less-powerful countries, he said.

“This is a war [that] if left to itself is not going to end anytime soon and is going to cost Ukraine dearly,” Shannon said. “It has been escalating over time, and it can escalate further, which is why we should consider trying to stop the fighting.”

Blinken’s skepticism about negotiating with Russia is informed by his experiences in the Obama administration, said top aides, when he watched Russia negotiate cease-fires after its initial incursion into Ukraine in 2014.

In addition to that, the protracted and painstaking negotiations between Lavrov and Kerry, as secretary of state, over the Syrian civil war was a case study for Blinken in how the Kremlin can stall and play for time, a senior official said.

At a recent conference in New Delhi, amid growing calls from nonaligned countries for negotiations to end the war, Blinken changed tack ever so slightly and pulled Lavrov aside so he could reiterate U.S. support for Ukraine. The short impromptu exchange didn’t achieve much, according to officials in both countries, and was remarkable only in that diplomats representing the two most powerful actors in the conflict finally conversed in person.

“There were no negotiations,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said shortly after the encounter, which she said happened while Lavrov was “on the go.”

There are no plans for a follow-on sit-down conversation.

Blinken’s status within the Biden ecosystem can be discounted by outsiders given his affable demeanor and easygoing disposition in a city of aggressive personalities.

The amateur guitarist and father of young kids is not the hands-on technocrat fastidiously running Washington’s foreign policy machinery; that’s Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser.

The essence of Blinken’s influence is his relationship with the president, developed over decades and elevated to honorary family member status. “It is akin to James Baker with George H.W. Bush or Condi Rice with George W. Bush. The trust is implicit,” said a senior administration official. “We are never worried about whether the secretary will get a chance to weigh in.”

In most administrations, a natural tension exists between the secretary of state and the national security adviser as their turfs overlap and they vie for the president’s approval. There have been remarkably few spats between Sullivan and Blinken, however, and in a sign of unusual trust, Blinken has relied on Sullivan’s brother, Tom, a seasoned diplomat, to be his right hand in the department, attending nearly every important meeting on his daily agenda and appearing by his side ubiquitously in photographs and C-SPAN footage.

Although the president seeks Blinken’s counsel often, the secretary doesn’t always get his way. While his tank proposal quickly became policy, he lost a contentious prewar debate in May 2021 on whether to waive sanctions on Germany and Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Blinken wanted to sanction the pipeline, which increased Europe’s reliance on Russian gas, but Biden opposed such a punitive action out of concern about alienating Berlin.

In both cases, Blinken sided with the position favored by Ukraine.

What to know about Ukraine’s counteroffensive

The latest: The Ukrainian military has launched a long-anticipated counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces, opening a crucial phase in the war aimed at restoring Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and preserving Western support in its fight against Moscow.

The fight: Ukrainian troops on Wednesday night intensified their attacks on the front line in the southeast region, according to multiple individuals in the country’s armed forces, in a significant push toward Russian-occupied territory.

The frontline: The Washington Post has mapped out the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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