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Diplomacy Watch: Ukrainian commander admits war is  ‘stalemate’

But despite battlefield realities and political dynamics, talks of negotiations still ‘taboo’ in Kyiv

Reporting | QiOSK

Ukraine’s top commander acknowledged that his army is currently locked in a “stalemate” with Russia that seems unlikely to break any time soon.

“Just like in the First World War we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate,” Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, told The Economist. “There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.”

This is the starkest acknowledgement to date from the Ukrainian military that its counteroffensive has stalled, and, comes “amid a wider effort by Ukrainian officials to temper allies’ expectations of rapid battlefield success, while urging them to maintain military support to allow Ukraine to gain the advantage on the battlefield,” according to the New York Times.

But despite the realities of grinding war and sapping international attention and support, discussion of a negotiated settlement with Russia is still “taboo” in Kyiv, according to a new profile of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

“Zelensky’s stubbornness, some of his aides say, has hurt their team’s efforts to come up with a new strategy, a new message. As they have debated the future of the war, one issue has remained taboo: the possibility of negotiating a peace deal with the Russians,” writes Simon Shuster in TIME magazine. “Zelensky remains dead set against even a temporary truce. ‘For us it would mean leaving this wound open for future generations,’ the President tells me.”

Shuster reports from Kyiv that many of the fears surroundings funding and arming Ukraine without a clear endgame are coming true. In RS this week, David Sacks analyzes which of these concerns have been validated: Ukraine’s maximalist war aims are unrealistic; the long war has decimated Zelensky’s army; Kyiv’s conscription policies are increasingly draconian; morale in the country is collapsing; and corruption in the government is rampant.

Accompanying the changing domestic and battlefield dynamics is lagging support among Ukraine’s most important international backers. The piece focuses primarily on Washington, where reluctance to fund Kyiv — primarily from Republicans in Congress — has steadily grown in recent months, and focus has quickly shifted away from Europe as war has broken out in the Middle East.

The Biden administration’s pursuit of new strategies, including framing support for Kyiv as good for the American economy and combining the next tranche of aid with a number of other policy priorities, show that Ukraine’s war effort no longer has the same political power it once did.

Public opinion in the United States has also trended away from aid for Ukraine.

“Public support for aid to Ukraine has been in decline for months in the U.S., and Zelensky’s visit did nothing to revive it,” reads the TIME piece. “Some 41% of Americans want Congress to provide more weapons to Kyiv, down from 65% in June, when Ukraine began a major counteroffensive, according to a Reuters survey taken shortly after Zelensky’s departure [from a visit to Washington in September.]”

As the Quincy Institute’s Anatol Lieven argued over a year ago: “Any peace initiative will have to come from the United States. (...) The Ukrainian government’s ability to negotiate is crippled by (understandable) fury at the Russian invasion and Russian atrocities; by pressure from Ukrainian hardliners, especially in the military; and, increasingly, by the government’s own rhetoric, which is committing Ukraine to goals (like the recovery of Crimea) that could only be achieved by total military victory over Russia.”

Zelensky’s reluctance to pursue a diplomatic solution with an invading country is understandable and will be difficult to change without Washington’s support, and the increasingly clear realities of the war laid out in TIME could incentivize the Biden administration to do so.

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

—Malta hosted officials from 65 countries for a third round of “peace talks” surrounding the war in Ukraine. Participation has increased from 15 during the first round in Copenhagen in June and 43 for the second round in Saudi Arabia in August, according to the Associated Press. However, Russia continues to not be invited to these negotiations, and Moscow has dismissed the initiative.

—New Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) has moved forward with his pledge to separate aid for Ukraine from aid for Israel, going against the wishes of the White House and Senate Republican leadership. Johnson has said that he is supportive of Ukraine’s cause, but called on the Biden administration to provide clear guidelines on what the objective and endgame in Ukraine are.

—European politicians are planning a trip to the United States in an effort to shore up support for Ukraine and echoing the Biden administration’s rhetoric on how the war effort strengthens the American economy. “We need to find ways to reach out to [the public] on both sides of the Atlantic — not to forget that there are actual electorates that see their problems in a certain way," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told Politico. “We have a plan to travel … to separate states, meeting — for example — the companies that sell equipment that actually create jobs in the U.S. Most of the money that has been spent on Ukraine was actually spent in the U.S.” It is not yet clear which other politicians will accompany Lithuania’s foreign minister.

U.S. State Department news:

During a press briefing on Wednesday, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller was asked about whether disagreements in Congress and the broader domestic political context could imperil aid for Ukraine.

“It continues to be important that the United States be there to help Ukraine defend itself against these horrific attacks that Russia has launched on them and continues to launch on them. And we believe, as a practical matter, that should funding for Ukraine get an up or down vote, it will pass in both houses of Congress,” Miller said. “So I understand the kind of churn that has accompanied this, but it continues to be our position that funding is important, it should pass, and that as a practical matter if it gets a vote, it will pass.”

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