Public Versus Private: Managing Perceptions of the War in Ukraine

"I want Russia to be defeated in Ukraine," French President Emmanuel Macron publicly told the media. But it’s not what he privately told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He also said that now is not the right time for dialogue with Moscow and that France is ready to sustain "a longer conflict." That’s not what he told Zelensky either.

"America . . . will stand with you as long as it takes," President Biden publicly promised Ukraine in his State of the Union Address. But it’s not what his administration privately told Zelensky.

"The war I know about is not the war you are reading about," investigative journalist Seymour Hersh said recently.

Managing public perception about the war to control the narrative and maintain support seems to have required a divorce between what NATO officials are telling Ukraine privately and what they are telling the public they are telling Ukraine.

Biden’s public mantra has been "nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine" and "will stand with you as long as it takes." Privately, neither seems to be true.

Contrary to the public message of as long as it takes, as long as it takes has a private expiration date. "We will continue to try to impress upon them that we can’t do anything and everything forever," a senior administration official said. CIA Director William Burns secretly communicated to Zelensky that "at some point assistance would be harder to come by."

Contrary to the public message that the US supports Ukraine’s aspirations to reclaim all of its territory, the private message to Ukraine is that that is not going to happen. After the war, Ukraine will be a divided nation.

On February 17, US Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland publicly said that Crimea should be demilitarized and that Washington supports Ukrainian attacks on military targets in Crimea. Crimea, though, is heavily militarized by Russia. Demilitarizing it would mean forcing Russia out and reclaiming it for Ukraine.

But that is not what the US is saying privately. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked in a private virtual meeting if the US is willing to support Ukraine’s goal of retaking all of the territory held by Russia, Blinken answered that a "A Ukrainian attempt to retake Crimea would be a red line for Vladimir Putin that could lead to a wider Russian response." He added that the US "isn’t actively encouraging Ukraine to retake Crimea" and that such an attempt would not be "a wise move."

Despite Nuland’s public assurance, privately the US intelligence’s "sobering assessment" that retaking Crimea "is beyond the capability of Ukraine’s army" has been "reiterated to multiple committees on Capitol Hill over the last several weeks."

At the recent Munich Security Conference, a senior French official said that "no one believes they will be able to retrieve Crimea." Petr Pavel, president-elect of the Czech Republic and a former NATO commander told the allies in attendance that "We may end up in a situation where liberating some parts of Ukrainian territory may deliver more loss of lives than will be bearable by society…There might be a point when Ukrainians can start thinking about another outcome."

And that other outcome is the biggest betrayal of "nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine" that is privately being communicated to Ukraine.

At a February meeting at the Élysée Palace in Paris, while the three leaders privately dined together, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that "he needed to start considering peace talks with Moscow." They praised Zelensky for being a "great war leader" but said he would eventually have to transform into "political statesmanship and make difficult decisions."

Privately, Zelensky is being told that the time for negotiations is near. And the difficult decisions will include negotiating away the insistence on reclaiming all of Ukraine’s territory.

And it is not only America’s European allies that are delivering that message. The same message is being brought to Kiev by a flurry of US officials. The Washington Post reports that "The critical nature of the next few months has already been conveyed to Kyiv in blunt terms by top Biden officials — including deputy national security adviser Jon Finer, deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman and undersecretary of defense Colin Kahl, all of whom visited Ukraine last month." The "coming months" will be critical for "Ukraine to retake as much territory as possible . . . before sitting down with Putin at the negotiating table."

The message conveyed is that in the coming months Ukraine will have to take a seat at the negotiating table, and retaking as much territory "as possible" implies that they will leave the table without all of it. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told Zelensky’s team to "start thinking about its realistic demands and priorities for negotiations, including a reconsideration of its stated aim for Ukraine to regain Crimea. . . ." A Newsweek report outlines the possibility that Burns has secretly proposed a peace plan that would give Russia 20% of Ukraine’s territory.

A second difficult decision will be negotiating away the public insistence that there is an open door for Ukraine to enter NATO.

David Ignatius reports in The Washington Post that the Biden administration “has begun planning for an eventual postwar military balance that will help Kyiv deter any repetition of Russia’s brutal invasion.” But Ignatius says that the Biden administration has moved away from the earlier idea of "security guarantees similar to NATO’s Article 5." Instead, "U.S. officials increasingly believe the key is to give Ukraine the tools it needs to defend itself. Security will be ensured by potent weapons systems." At the Munich Security Conference, Blinken said "that means making sure that Ukraine has the capacity to deter aggression and, if necessary, to effectively defend against it."

Publicly, there is the promise that Ukraine can join NATO. Privately, there is the disappointment that it can’t. Ukraine’s security assurance will not come from an Article 5 guarantee that the NATO powers will defend it. It will come from the provision of sufficient weapons to "reassure" Ukraine, in the words of a recent report by the influential RAND corporation, "about their ability to defend themselves."

America’s European allies have privately come to the same position. The UK, Germany and France all support the idea of incentivizing Ukraine to start negotiating an end to the war by offering Ukraine "access to advanced military equipment, weapons and ammunition to defend itself once the war ends," according to reporting by The Wall Street Journal. Kiev has heard the private message. A Zelensky advisor has complained that Kiev is worried that “both on Capitol Hill and in the administration, there are people who are looking to calibrate security assistance to incentivize the Ukrainians to cut some sort of deal.”

Officials from the UK, Germany and France told The Wall Street Journal that, despite the NATO door that is publicly being held open for Ukraine, the arrangement would neither include NATO forces being stationed in Ukraine nor Article 5 protection. Instead, "it would provide Ukraine with the military means to deter any future Russian attack."

The consistent public message is that Ukraine can win the war and reclaim all its territory, that a victorious Ukraine will emerge from the war with the door to NATO membership open to them and that the West is committed to aiding them for as long as that takes. Privately, that is not the message at all. Privately, the message increasingly being communicated to Ukraine is that the timeline on aid and on the supply of weapons is waning, that the coming months are crucial and that Ukraine needs to start considering talks with Moscow to end the war. Privately, Ukraine is being told that, at the end of the war, they will not have reclaimed all their territory and that they will not be a member of NATO. They will receive vast amounts of advanced military aid that will give them the ability to defend themselves.

The public message is being managed. What is really happening may be very different. And the horror is that a Ukraine smaller than its territorial borders and armed by the West but not in NATO is much what Ukraine would have looked like had its Western partners allowed it to agree to the settlements it had said it was willing to agree to before the war or that it had tentatively agreed to in the early weeks of the war without ever having to suffer the savages of the war.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.