Ukraine offensive could set stage for diplomacy with Russia

WASHINGTON – Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive against Russia has overshadowed talk of a potential negotiated settlement in the conflict, but some US and European officials say the next phase of the war could create momentum for diplomacy.

It is unclear how the officials will define success in the counteroffensive, which could last many months, or how its outcome might affect their approach. Opinions range widely among military strategists about whether Ukraine is likely to regain territory after more than a year of war.

For now, President Vladimir Putin of Russia has shown no signs of wanting to make concessions or engage in meaningful dialogue.

And US officials remain wary of any calls for an immediate ceasefire or peace talks, especially those coming from China.

Beijing persists at trying to play peacemaker, despite its obvious strategic alignment with Russia. Foreign Minister Qin Gang has been travelling across Europe this week to try to sell the notion that China can shepherd negotiations.

Some European officials meeting with Mr Qin have expressed scepticism. And in Washington, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his counterparts from Britain and Spain this week to shore up commitments to military aid to Ukraine, sending a message that battlefield gains are the priority.

Mr Blinken said Tuesday at a news conference with Mr James Cleverly, the British foreign secretary, that the Ukrainians have “what they need to continue to be successful in regaining territory that was seized by force by Russia over the last 14 months.”

Like Mr Blinken, Mr Cleverly did not mention diplomacy with Russia at all, instead focusing on military aid: “We need to continue to support them, irrespective of whether this forthcoming offensive generates huge gains on the battlefield, because until this conflict is resolved and resolved properly, it is not over.”

Ukrainian leaders also say they will not agree to talks until they have pushed back Russian forces.

Still, US President Joe Biden’s aides have been exploring potential endgames, trying to identify an outcome that could be acceptable to both Ukraine and Russia if real peace talks started, US officials say.

“I know that senior-level administration officials are regularly having conversations about what peace ultimately would look like with our Ukrainian counterparts,” said Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, “while at the same time having conversations about how to arm them and win back as much territory as possible.”

Mr Biden’s aides and European officials say their best hope is for Ukraine to make substantial gains during the counteroffensive, which would give it more leverage in any negotiations.

But whatever its leaders may think, US officials say that most Ukrainians have little appetite for compromise with their Russian attackers.

And US officials fear that even if Russia’s military suffers more setbacks this summer, Mr Putin may still believe he can win a war of attrition.

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