The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In Ukraine, it’s too early even to be talking about talking

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks via video at the COP27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Tuesday. (Peter Dejong/AP)

The war in Ukraine, like so many military struggles before it, has turned into a contest of will. Having failed to conquer his neighbor quickly, as he expected, Russian President Vladimir Putin now seeks to outlast it. He has pulled Russian forces back to more defensible lines, mobilized reserves, subjected Ukrainian civilian infrastructure to incessant bombardment — and stepped up propaganda intended to neutralize global public opinion. In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has projected steadfastness. He has rallied his people behind a stance of uncompromising resistance to Mr. Putin’s aggression, focusing on the restoration of all Ukrainian territory — to be followed by the payment of reparations and war crimes prosecutions. There can be no negotiations with Moscow as long as Mr. Putin is in power, Mr. Zelensky has said.

Which brings us to reports in The Post that the White House has privately urged Mr. Zelensky to soften his opposition to negotiations. The idea is to counteract any impressions that might be forming in other countries — especially large, influential nations outside of Europe, such as India, Brazil and South Africa — that Kyiv, not Moscow, is the intransigent party. The Biden administration must also be aware of and concerned by the drift of public opinion in the United States. Republicans appear to be headed for control of at least one chamber of Congress next year, and their voters are increasingly skeptical of the open-ended U.S. financial commitment to Ukraine. The probable next speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), said Sunday that he is “very supportive of Ukraine” but also wants “accountability” about spending for that cause. We’ll see how that mixed posture evolves under pressure from former president Donald Trump and his hardcore supporters in the months ahead. The publication of a letter by 30 progressive House Democrats calling for direct U.S.-Russia talks on the war didn’t help, either. Though its authors later retracted the letter, the possibility of a left-right alliance of aid skeptics remains.

So, while it makes sense in theory for Mr. Biden’s team to hedge against “Ukraine fatigue” in Washington — and Europe, which is facing winter with tight energy supplies — it might be unwise in practice. You can’t preprogram a contest of will. Mr. Zelensky and his supporters in the West undoubtedly understand that peace talks might eventually be necessary, his commitment to victory notwithstanding. And yet to declare that, or even imply it, before the time is right — before Ukraine’s armed forces have exhausted every opportunity to regain occupied territory — would convey slackening commitment. And that, in turn, can only convince Mr. Putin that time is on his side and that he should prolong the fighting.

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Opinion writers on the war in Ukraine
Post Opinions provides commentary on the war in Ukraine from columnists with expertise in foreign policy, voices on the ground in Ukraine and more.
Columnist David Ignatius covers foreign affairs. His columns have broken news on new developments around the war. He also answers questions from readers. Sign up to follow him.
Iuliia Mendel, a former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, writes guest opinions from inside Ukraine. She has written about trauma, Ukraine’s “women warriors” and what it’s like for her fiance to go off to war.
Columnist Fareed Zakaria covers foreign affairs. His columns have reviewed the West’s strategy in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Josh Rogin covers foreign policy and national security. His columns have explored the geopolitical ramifications of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Sign up to follow him.
Columnist Max Boot covers national security. His columns have encouraged the West to continue its support for Ukraine’s resistance. Sign up to follow him.


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In short, the less everyone on Ukraine’s side says about negotiations, publicly or privately, the better. The most important thing Congress and the administration can do meanwhile is to lock in a major new aid package for Ukraine in the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress, while Mr. Biden’s Democratic allies still control the legislative agenda. That would help sustain Ukraine until the moment, still distant, when it does make sense to talk about talks.

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