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Ukrainians say U.S. Democrats pressing for peace talks don’t get Putin

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaking via video link at the opening session of the International Crimea Platform parliamentary summit, organized by Ukraine and Croatia, in Zagreb on Tuesday. (Damir Sencar/AFP/Getty Images)

KYIV, Ukraine — Members of Ukraine’s political elite rejected demands by some congressional Democrats for negotiations with Russia to end the war, saying this was “not a viable option,” after a group of liberals called on President Biden to push Kyiv for direct talks with Moscow.

The Ukrainians said that Russian President Vladimir Putin had closed off any possibility of negotiations by illegally declaring the annexation of four Ukrainian regions, and that the Russians, who are facing repeated setbacks on the battlefield, would use any cease-fire to rebuild their strength and then resume Putin’s plan to steal Ukrainian territory and destroy Ukraine as a nation.

In a letter to Biden, 30 members of the liberal wing of the Democratic party, led by Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called on Biden to pursue a “proactive push, doubling efforts to seek a realistic framework for a cease fire.”

On Tuesday, the Progressive Caucus withdrew the letter. Jayapal said it had been “released by staff without vetting.”

Andriy Sybiha, the deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential administration and an adviser on foreign affairs, declined to comment directly about the liberal Democrats’ letter but said Kyiv’s position “was very clear” in a five-point peace plan presented by President Volodymyr Zelensky during the United Nations General Assembly in September.

During his speech, Zelensky said that the key points of his plan were “punishment for aggression, protection of life, restoration of security and territorial integrity, security guarantees, and determination to defend oneself.”

Ukrainian forces advance against Russian fighters in Kherson and Bakhmut

Biden and other leaders of the Group of Seven democratic economic powers endorsed Zelensky’s call for a “just peace” in a statement this month.

In the statement, the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United States, Britain Kingdom and the European Union, said such a peace “should include” assuring respect for territorial sovereignty as enshrined in the United Nations Charter, which would require a full Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory.

Sybiha also said that “no negotiations” were possible with Putin after “attempts at illegal annexation” and “sham referendums” that were carried out at the end of last month in the four Ukrainian regions partially occupied by Russian forces.

In response to the letter, White House officials repeated Biden’s position that it would be up to Zelensky and Ukraine to decide when, or if, to enter peace talks.

And Sybiha added that Ukraine was “completely confident in the support” of the “U.S.A. and American people,” whom he called Ukraine’s No. 1 ally.

But the letter inevitably adds to growing anxiety in Kyiv about maintaining crucial financial and military support from Washington, especially if Republicans regain control of Congress in the upcoming midterm elections. Some Republican leaders have signaled an intent to review U.S. support for Ukraine.

The liberal Democratic lawmakers are among a small but growing chorus of voices calling on the Ukrainians to engage the Russians directly to bring an end to the war, or at least introduce a cease-fire, although Putin has refused repeatedly to meet and speak directly with Zelensky.

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Ukrainians are deeply wary of being caught up in Washington’s internal politics, especially after being ensnared in President Donald Trump’s first impeachment scandal, and they said they expected to hear differing views. But there was a sense of dismay over what they perceived as a lack of understanding of Putin’s views.

“We don’t get between Republicans and Democrats,” a senior Ukrainian official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive international relations. “That’s the internal politics of a foreign government. That the positions on this war will be varied, that’s expected.”

“The thing is, in this war, it’s obvious that Russia isn’t capable of negotiating in good faith,” the senior official said, noting that Zelensky’s position is a willingness to discuss Russia’s demands only when Ukraine’s territory has been restored.

“We had the experience of 2014, when we had an agreement, and how did that end,” the senior official said. “For the Russians, it would be to their advantage for there to be some kind of pause in fighting. But considering how much destruction they’ve already caused, we have nothing to lose.”

“Dialogue is for when each side takes a step back for some greater goal,” the senior official continued. “In the current situation, they’ve already done so much damage. They alone have ruined the chances for discussion. The only thing left is nuclear weapons. Other than that, they’ve done everything to us.”

Setbacks in its invasion of Ukraine have led to increased nuclear threats by Russia, echoing Cold War events like the little-known 1983 nuclear crisis. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

A second Ukrainian official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to preserve relations with Washington, was more blunt. “This is an encouraging signal for Putin,” the second official said of the liberal Democrats’ letter.

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Orysia Lutsevych, the head of the Ukraine Forum at the London-based Chatham House think tank, said negotiations on these terms were “impossible.”

“Some people say, ‘Look, at Finland — they’ve lost part of their territory, but they preserved a nation-state,’ ” Lutsevych said by telephone from Berlin. “But you don’t want to negotiate with an enemy that wants to completely destroy you. It’s not a viable proposition.”

Lutsevych said that the “proposal to negotiate with Putin harks back to appeasement of Hitler” and that the United States “cannot negotiate about Ukraine without Ukraine.”

“Ukraine is defending its way of life, which Russia wants to destroy,” she said. “This is what it’s about. It’s not about territory.”

A European diplomat, speaking the on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that the letter’s language was “vague” and most likely would not affect the position of E.U. member countries.

“The Ukrainians would naturally point out that a cease-fire would serve Russia to regroup and train their newly recruited forces,” the diplomat said.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

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

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