Zelensky Goes to Washington: Some Key Questions

On December 21, President Volodymyr Zelensky went to Washington to meet with President Biden and to address the Congress.

The meeting comes at a time when pressure for negotiations and for a diplomatic settlement are intensifying. Both France and Germany have advocated for talks that include discussions of Russia’s security concerns. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently traveled to Kiev to tell Zelensky to "start thinking about its realistic demands and priorities for negotiations, including a reconsideration of its stated aim for Ukraine to regain Crimea." A recurrent formulation has come out of several countries, including the UK, the US and in Europe that the West could be open to negotiations on Russia pulling back just to where it was before the war started on February 24, potentially leaving them in control of Crimea and parts of the Donbas.

After their meeting at the White House, Biden and Zelensky held a press conference. Biden dedicated much of the time he had at the press conference to reminding Zelensky what the US had already done. "To Ukrainian people, I say to them all: You have demonstrated – you have shown your strong stand against aggression in the face of the imperial appetites of autocrats who wrongfully believed you might – you might – they might be able to make might right, and they’re not able to do it." But then he was quick to add that "Thus far, they have not – they’ve stood alone. You know, and you’ve had – but you haven’t stood alone. You have had significant, significant help. We’ve never stand alone – you will never stand alone." He then gave a catalogue of US economic and military aid.

Though the meeting may have been meant to stage the US’s continued long-term commitment to Ukraine, it may, privately, have been about more.

Despite public assurances that the agenda and schedule for negotiations is up to Ukraine, the US and Europe increasingly seem to be suggesting compromise on the agenda and acceleration on the schedule. CNN has reported, without providing a source, that the meeting "has also been an opportunity for Biden and top American officials to sound out Zelensky on how he views the trajectory of the conflict, and to offer their thoughts on what it would take to bring the war to an end."

Whether the privacy of the White House offered the two leaders an opportunity to discuss those issues in a way that they could not in public nor, perhaps, even on the phone would be hard to glean, for that very reason, from their remarks to the press after the meeting. But there may have been a few hints, however small.

Zelensky may have hinted that they had discussed such issues when he said, "We had a very good negotiation and talks about our strategic steps – which we discussed with President Biden – and what we expect next year and for what we are preparing." Zelensky also mentioned that "it is very important that we have the peace formula. And for that, we offer very specific steps – what America can do to help us to implement them." In his speech to congress, Zelensky said that he had "just discussed" his ten-point peace formula and hopes for a summit with Biden. He claimed that "President Biden supported our peace initiative today."

For his part, Biden said Zelensky is "open to pursuing a just peace." That statement may have hinted at a willingness to negotiate.

After that, the hints that the press conference offered may have resided more in what Biden and Zelensky would not say than in what they did.

A reporter asked both presidents, "Mr. Biden and Mr. Zelensky, could you share your vision? What’s the fair way to end this war? And how do you understand this words for peace?"

Zelensky seemed to refuse to answer the question in any way but a personal one. He did not commit to what Kiev’s policy or view could be on the question of what a just peace would look like. "You know, for all of us, peace – just peace is different," he said. "For me, as the President," he qualified his answer, "just peace is no compromises as to the sovereignty, freedom, and territorial integrity of my country, the payback for all the damages inflicted by Russian aggression." But that was just what a just peace would look like to him. He did not say that that is Ukraine’s policy or bottom line for negotiations.

It is also interesting that, this time, Biden did not lay down any preconditions or insist on a full Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. He mentioned, theoretically, that in the fight for "something much bigger," the US knows "that if we stand by in the face of such blatant attacks on liberty and democracy and the core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, the world would surely face worse consequences."

But after Biden said, "Let me respond," he never really did. He talked instead about helping Ukraine to position itself on the battlefield so that it can succeed at the negotiating table. Though he said that the war could end if Putin "pulled out," he did not geographically define "pull out." Uncharacteristically, Biden never once said that Russia had to pull out of Crimea or the Donbas. And when he said that he and Zelensky "share the exact same vision" of a just peace, he did not include territorial integrity in his list. He said only that "a free, independent, prosperous, and secure Ukraine is the vision."

Biden’s omission of the standard insistence that a prerequisite for peace is a full Russian withdrawal to pre-2104 lines and restoration of the territorial integrity of Ukraine may be significant. It is consistent with the recent remarks of Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Russian aggression needs to be pushed back and that Ukraine needs "to take back territory that’s been seized from it since February 24th."

The reference to a "just peace," Zelensky’s willingness only to publicly declare his personal vision, his declining to declare Ukraine’s official position, and Biden’s calling only for a Ukraine free and secure without calling for a Ukraine whole or for the restoration of territorial integrity is suggestive. What was not told may be more telling that what was told.

The other pregnant hint that may have come from the press conference came from Biden’s response to the last question. "Ukraine desperately needs more capabilities, including long-range missiles – TACMS. Maybe I sound naïve, but can we make long story short and give Ukraine all capabilities it needs and liberate all territories rather sooner than later?"

Biden’s answer hinted not only at Washington’s continued unwillingness to supply longer range weapons but, more importantly, to potential tensions in NATO between the US and its European partners.

In response to the first question, which was about holding the coalition together in 2023, Biden said "I’m not at all worried about holding the alliance together in NATO and European Union, as well as other nations. . . . I’ve never seen NATO or the EU more united about anything at all. And I see no sign of there being any change."

But his response to the last question about longer range weapons hinted at something different. "Why don’t we just give Ukraine everything there is to give?" Biden repeated. "[T]here’s an entire Alliance that is critical to stay with Ukraine. And the idea that we would give Ukraine material that is fundamentally different than is already going there would have a prospect of breaking up NATO and breaking up the European Union and the rest of the world."

Biden’s answer hints of tension within NATO. His answer suggests that he knows that Europe opposes going beyond the limits of what NATO is currently providing Ukraine to such an extent that providing something "fundamentally different," like longer range weapons, risks the "prospect of breaking up NATO."

He went on to explain that one of the reasons Europe is opposed to the prospect of providing longer range, offensive weapons is that "they understand . . . fully" why it is "overwhelmingly in their interest that they continue to support Ukraine. . . .but they’re not looking to go to war with Russia. They’re not looking for a third World War."

Biden then confessed that he had "probably already said too much."

Perhaps the two most important hints at Biden and Zelensky’s press conference that followed their meeting in the oval office was talk of a just peace and talk of European limits on NATO contributions. The first was notable for what was not said; the second was notable for saying too much. Neither Biden, nor Zelensky, except personally, ever mentioned the usual insistence on Russia respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and vacating the Donbas and Crimea. And Biden hinted at tension in NATO, suggesting that Europe was so opposed to providing longer ranger weapons that doing so risked the "prospect of breaking up NATO."

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.