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‘No off-ramps’: U.S. and European officials don’t see a clear endgame in Ukraine

The situation seems destined to result in an even deadlier and more protracted slog, wreaking devastation in Ukraine and causing a massive humanitarian crisis

Ukrainians on a damaged bridge flee the Irpin area, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on March 8. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
11 min

When Russia first invaded Ukraine two weeks ago, the near-unanimous global assumption was that it would score a quick and easy military victory over its neighbor to the west.

But now — with the Ukrainians waging a fierce resistance and Russian forces bogged down outside nearly every major city — the Biden administration and its allies say they see no clear end to the military phase of this conflict, according to interviews with 17 administration officials, diplomats, policymakers and experts. The situation seems destined to result in an even deadlier and more protracted slog, wreaking devastation in Ukraine and causing a massive humanitarian crisis.

As the war enters its third week, President Biden and his team are also entering a murkier, more difficult stage of the conflict, where the new challenge is how to control the largely uncontrollable: Russian President Vladimir Putin and his endgame, whatever that may be.

The Biden administration has successfully encouraged NATO and other Western allies to use nearly every available lever of power to punish Putin, but those efforts so far have had little discernible influence over the Russian president, who has only escalated his military offensive on cities and towns across Ukraine.

Mariupol, Ukraine, residents spoke March 9 about living under siege after the Russian military used intense shelling to attack the city. (Video: The Washington Post)

Any outcome represents a lose-lose proposition, as even an eventual Russian defeat is likely to leave Ukraine decimated and its European neighbors bearing the brunt of the humanitarian crisis. So far, the U.N. human rights office reports that 516 civilians in Ukraine — including 37 children — have been killed since Feb. 24, adding that the actual toll is probably much higher. And during that same period, as many as 4,000 Russian troops may have died, a senior U.S. military officer said.

“The longer that this goes on, the likelier it will be that Russia ends up being defeated, but also more likely that more people will die,” said a European diplomat, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to share a candid assessment of the crisis.

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Jim Townsend, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and NATO policy, said that right now, “everyone is kind of feeling their way forward.”

“The endgame is going to be pretty complicated, and the endgame is going to have to deal with Putin as who he is, and it’s also going to have to deal with getting Ukraine back on its feet and also deal with what to do with these sanctions,” Townsend said.

The current U.S. strategy, according to senior Biden administration officials, is to ensure that the economic costs for Russia are severe and sustainable, as well as to continue supporting Ukraine militarily in its effort to inflict as many defeats on Russia as possible.

But U.S. military assistance remains limited, as Biden has made clear the United States is unwilling to get into a direct confrontation with Russia, a fellow nuclear power. Biden has said that he will not put any U.S. combat troops on the ground in Ukraine, and he and other NATO leaders have resisted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pleas to enforce a no-fly zone over the country.

And despite repeatedly engaging in diplomatic efforts with Russia in the run-up to the invasion, Biden officials have largely not pursued diplomacy with Putin since the conflict began, citing the Kremlin’s lack of seriousness about such negotiations as the reason.

As it enters the third week of the crisis, the Biden administration has yet, for instance, to engage directly with the Russian government over an off-ramp to curb the violence or any initial steps to bring an end to the war.

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A senior administration official added, however, that the U.S. government has maintained channels to the Russians since the conflict began, including through the U.S. Embassy in Moscow; a “deconfliction channel,” or phone connection to the Russian Defense Ministry, administered out of European Command Headquarters; and other existing channels that U.S. officials would not detail, citing security concerns.

In lieu of direct negotiations between the United States and Russia, the governments of France, Israel, Turkey and Ukraine have all opened channels of communication with the Kremlin since the start of hostilities.

Discussions with those countries — which the Kremlin views as bit players in contrast with the United States — have failed to reach any constructive agreements. Foreign diplomats hope to persuade Putin to soften his demands on the “full demilitarization” of Ukraine, but U.S. and French officials remain skeptical those talks will bear fruit.

Talks between the foreign ministers of Ukraine and Russia in Turkey on Thursday failed to reach an agreement on a cease-fire or even modest measures to improve the humanitarian situation.

Despite the bleak prospects, U.S. officials say they are in no rush to directly engage Putin, whom they view as unserious about diplomacy.

“It’s important to remember that throughout this crisis created by Putin and Russia, we’ve sought to provide possible off-ramps to President Putin,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Washington on Wednesday. “He’s the only one who can decide whether or not to take them. So far, every time there’s been an opportunity to do just that, he’s pressed the accelerator and continued down this horrific road that he’s been pursuing.”

Blinken added that the Biden administration ultimately expects “a strategic defeat” of Putin and Russia, despite any “short-term tactical gains it may make in Ukraine.”

“We’ll accomplish this by backing Ukrainians in their fight, by remaining united in holding Russia accountable through the devastating sanctions, the diplomatic isolation and other measures,” Blinken said. “And we’ve already seen that Russia’s failed at its chief objectives. It’s not been able to hold Ukraine. It’s not going to be able to hold Ukraine in the long term — again, no matter what the tactical victories it may achieve are.”

National security reporter Shane Harris explains what intelligence analysts know about Russian President Vladimir Putin's mental state. (Video: Casey Silvestri/The Washington Post)

A senior State Department official added that there are few “indications that the Russians are in any mood for serious diplomacy at the moment.”

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“It’s hard to offer an overture when the Kremlin’s position continues to be that ‘we’ll continue to pummel Ukraine until and unless Ukraine changes its constitution … demilitarizes [and] denazifies,’ whatever that means,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive U.S. decision.

But some analysts warn that the Biden administration doesn’t have the luxury of sitting back and allowing others to negotiate with Moscow as the prospect of a full-scale Russian bombardment of Ukraine’s biggest population centers looms.

“The Russians aren’t going to make concessions when they sit across the table from the French, Turks, Israelis or Ukrainians,” said Jeremy Shapiro, the research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Still, Shapiro added, “the advantage that a negotiated peace has is that it can limit the violence, save many people’s lives; it can reduce the risk of escalation; and it can find a soft landing for both sides so they can try to move forward with a broader reconciliation.”

Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., also said it makes sense to try to negotiate directly with Russia using some of the leverage created in recent days by sanctions and other economic measures — even if the chances of Putin backing down or changing his goals are slim.

“There is a case to be made for the president of the United States to be the one trying to push Putin to change his war aims, negotiate with Zelensky and cease fire,” Charap said.

Meanwhile, European officials involved in the crisis discussions say that — as in Washington — their leaders at this point are exerting little energy toward trying to guide Putin to specific actions that could lead to a sanctions rollback, partly because they, too, remain skeptical that the Kremlin is ready to negotiate.

European leaders have also been spurred on by public opinion, which is now overwhelmingly in favor of tough measures against Russia. That dynamic helped drive the announcements a week ago of historically tough sanctions against Russia’s banking sector and its foreign reserves.

“It’s hard to see how this is going to end,” said one senior European diplomat, one of those who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share their take.

“It sounds bad to say that there are no off-ramps — but diplomatic ones, I don’t see them,” the official added, explaining that there are some issues on which leaders can’t compromise, including neutrality for Ukraine if that’s not something Ukraine itself desires.

Another senior European diplomat who was deeply involved in the sanctions discussions acknowledged there was a danger to imposing measures so powerful that they could eventually lead to Russia’s economic collapse. But the diplomat said that failing to apply harsh sanctions after the invasion would be even more dangerous, because a weak response could embolden Putin to keep pushing forward into NATO territory.

Part of the challenge for the Biden administration is how to handle an adversary such as Putin, who some officials and analysts worry is liable to lash out further if he feels cornered.

And despite initial miscalculations, the Russian president may indeed feel boxed in. When he announced the invasion, Putin publicly stated that his goal was to “denazify” and “demilitarize” Ukraine — meaning that anything short of changing the Ukrainian government would be interpreted as a loss by his inner circle. The more Russia suffers economically, many experts and officials say, the more he is likely to feel the need to double down and bring home a victory.

In the run-up to the invasion, the Biden administration relied on the threat of devastating sanctions to deter Russia from launching its military offensive. But once that deterrence failed, the United States and its European allies followed through on their threats, implementing a set of damaging economic measures that included freezing the Russian central bank’s foreign currency reserves.

One risk is that Putin increasingly sees the measures not as sanctions designed to change his behavior in Ukraine, but as an effort to topple his government in Russia. The Biden administration has stressed, both publicly and privately, that it has no interest in regime change in Russia, said someone familiar with the private discussions.

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But Putin has long feared an attempt by the United States to push him from power, and Western leaders have sent mixed messages on the intent of their endgame. European foreign policy chief Josep Borrell specifically said the sanctions are not aimed at regime change in Russia, but a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the measures were, in fact, aimed at bringing down Putin’s regime — comments Downing Street later recanted.

“If Putin believes he is in a fight for the survival of his regime, he is likely to be willing to escalate this — both within Ukraine and beyond, because the stakes become existential,” Charap said. “When you are fighting for your life, maybe literally, or certainly for the survival of your regime, which he conflates with the survival of the country, you could go to extreme lengths.”

Testifying on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, CIA Director William J. Burns articulated the challenge of dealing with Putin, noting that the Russian leader is increasingly isolated and that he is “angry and frustrated right now” after his series of strategic miscalculations and setbacks.

“He’s likely to double down and try to grind down the Ukrainian military with no regard for civilian casualties,” Burns said.

And while administration officials don’t know precisely how the conflict will end, they have been clear about how much of the outcome is dependent on Putin, as well as what their own preferred result is.

“The way this conflict will end is when Putin realizes that this adventure has put his own leadership standing at risk with his own military, with his own people, that he is hemorrhaging the lives of the people of Russia, the army of Russia, and their future to his own vain ambition. And he will have to change course or the Russian people will take matters into their own hands,” Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, the No. 3 official at the State Department, testified Tuesday on Capitol Hill. “But from the U.S. perspective, the endgame is the strategic defeat of President Putin in this adventure.”

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.