Talking to Russia: Five Things You Won’t Believe Are Being Said Behind Closed Doors

On July 6, it was revealed that secret back-channel talks have been held between former US officials and “prominent Russians believed to be close to the Kremlin.” The US officials do not represent the White House but have briefed the White House. Though no current US officials have participated in the talks, on the Russian side, they have reached the lofty level of Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Now, “a former U.S. official directly involved in the talks” has revealed that those talks are ongoing and frequent. The official, who says he has “been visiting Moscow at least every three months,” says the meetings “have been taking place at least twice a month.”

The White House says “The United States has not requested official or former officials to open a back channel, and is not seeking such a channel.” The Moscow Times report replaces the original NBC description of “prominent Russians believed to be close to the Kremlin” with “high-ranking members of the Kremlin.”

Several things have been said in these unofficial meetings and in other closed door places recently that are surprisingly different from what is being said openly in the public.

The US has consistently, since the end of the Cold War, refused to take seriously Russia’s security concerns. At the core of the US-Russia dispute is the US refusal to allow the principle of the indivisibility of security that states that the security of one state should not be bought at the expense of the security of another. The US insists on NATO’s right to expand to Ukraine and Russia’s doors though that expansion threatens Russia’s security concerns. When Russia demanded in December 2021, just prior to the war, that the US provide security guarantees, the US refused to discuss the open NATO door to Ukraine.

But the former US official involved in the talks told The Moscow Times that “we made clear that the U.S. was prepared to work constructively with Russian national security concerns.” Though the former officials do not speak for the White House, this is a striking departure from official and public US policy. In another break from public and official policy, they made it clear that the US does not seek to “isolate and cripple Russia” or bring about its “collapse.” The former US officials went so far as to “emphasize” that the US “needs . . . a strong enough Russia to create stability along its periphery. The U.S. wants a Russia with strategic autonomy in order for the U.S. to advance diplomatic opportunities in Central Asia.” The former official said that “Russian power is not necessarily a bad thing” for the US.

Secondly, the former official acknowledged a US share in the strain between the US and Russia since the end of the Cold War, saying that “Both the U.S. and Russia should have used greater strategic imagination in the decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union.” That admission came with a recognition that “Moscow has become especially resentful after the Biden administration did not prioritize efforts to rebuild strained U.S.-Russia ties.” This awareness differs from the official claims of blamelessness and perhaps even of the absence of provocation.

The official concluded that the lack of attention Washington was paying to Russia’s concerns led the Biden administration to realize “too late– that Russia sought to be taken seriously, with its military build-up at Ukraine’s borders in 2021 a tactic to gain attention.”

The third behind closed doors admission was that it was “evident” to the US officials from the discussions that “Ukraine’s chances of regaining its occupied territories were extremely slim.” The former official said that it was clear that Russia had no interest in international help in referendums in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia because referendums had already been held, and those regions were now part of Russia. Crimea is even more “contentious,” and the official clearly stated that “If Russia thought it might lose Crimea, it would almost certainly resort to [using] tactical nuclear weapons.”

This admission differs from optimistic pronouncements of Ukraine’s chances. It also veers away from Biden administration statements that Ukraine can target anywhere in Ukrainian territory,  and that “Crimea is Ukraine,” that “Washington supports Ukrainian attacks on military targets in Crimea” and that  “What we have said is that we will not enable Ukraine with U.S. systems, Western systems, to attack Russia. And we believe Crimea is Ukraine.” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, however, has acknowledged that “A Ukrainian attempt to retake Crimea would be a red line for Vladimir Putin that could lead to a wider Russian response.”

But the most shocking statement was held to the final lines of the article where the former official revealed that regime change in Moscow was still, unofficially, being explored. “Putin is the major block to all progress,” he said. So, he said, the US “should begin reaching out to the anti-war Russian elite and begin making progress with them.” If they find fertile soil, then “ousting Putin would not be impossible.”

The final behind closed doors statement comes from a different venue. When Russia made the decision not to renew the UN-Turkish brokered grain deal, they cited the failure of the West to keep their side of the deal. “Not a single clause related to what is in the interests of the Russian Federation,” Putin said, “has been fulfilled.” The first on a seven point list of Russian demands before renewing the grain deal is “A real, not a speculative conclusion from the sanctions on the supply of Russian grain and fertilizers to world markets.”

Despite Putin’s defense, the West has placed all the blame on Russia. However, The Moscow Times reports that the fault was not all with Moscow. Putin has said before that “the Secretary-General and the United Nations staff who are dealing with this problem are sincerely striving to fulfil the relevant conditions, including with regard to Russia – I have no doubt about that. But they are not succeeding because the Western countries are not going to keep their promises.” The Moscow Times has now explained that when UN secretary-general António Guterres “attempted to persuade the EU to fulfil at least some of the terms of the memorandum with Russia . . . The EU said ‘no way.’” In a stunning statement, the EU explained that “in terms of sanctions, it would be a step backward. Our principles are more important to us than what will happen with Ukrainian grain.” That statement is reminiscent of the State Department statement that “this is a war that is in many ways bigger than Russia, it’s bigger than Ukraine” and that there were “core principles” to fight for that were more important.

The EU statement about the grain deal and the four unofficial US statements are surprisingly different from the official public statements.

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.