Western allies diverge over Ukraine war aims

War aims change, shaping and reshaping as fortunes ebb and flow on the battlefield, combatants become weary or emboldened, and political dynamics shift.

Emotion plays a significant part too: Negotiating a settlement, or even contemplating doing so, can seem a betrayal of sacrifice and heroism — a breach of faith with the dead.

That’s how Ukrainian leaders see the flurry of ceasefire talks this week by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

Speaking in Washington, Draghi said Western leaders should work toward “the possibility of bringing a ceasefire and starting, again, some credible negotiations.” He added: “In Italy and Europe now, people want to put an end to these massacres and this violence, this butchery.”

“That is our goal,” Macron had similarly stated at a press conference with Scholz this week, adding that the only way to achieve peace is “at a negotiating table with both Russia and Ukraine taking part.”

The French leader was careful not to prejudge Ukraine’s demands, however, saying Western leaders should “help Ukraine negotiate on the terms it will determine.” And Draghi and Scholz also underlined there could be no dictating terms to the Ukrainians.

But Ukraine’s leaders are in no mood to hear talk of ceasefires or negotiations at this stage — and they are wary of Europeans advocating negotiations. Paris and Berlin’s history of pressuring smaller states into making concessions to Russia makes them especially suspicious, officials told me in Kyiv recently.

For this, they point to the peace deal the Europeans brokered to end Russia’s invasion of Georgia, led by then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and to the 2015 Minsk accords that France and Germany pushed Ukraine into signing despite the agreements’ favorable terms for Russia.

Ukrainians are more emboldened now as well. Having forced Russian forces to withdraw from around Kyiv, they are frustrating Moscow’s even more limited campaign in the east of the country.

And though Russian forces are gaining some ground, their bid to expand on the territory they previously held in the Donbas region is also suffering embarrassing reversals — including a significant portion of a battalion being reportedly wiped out as it sought to cross the Siverskyi Donets river.

As Ukraine’s confidence has grown and arms supplies from the West include more modern and long-range weaponry, the country’s war aims have expanded from the more limited, albeit large, goal of pushing Russian forces back to the positions they occupied before February 24.

“The end story for Ukraine is, of course, the liberation of occupied territories. And payments by Russia for everything . . . for all the damage that [has been] inflicted on us,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told POLITICO in an exclusive interview this week.

The carnage and suffering Russia has inflicted on Ukraine has changed how Ukrainians think about victory.

And in that wider war aim of taking back Crimea — which was illegally annexed by Russia in 2014 — and parts of the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk that declared themselves “independent republics” in February, they seem to have the backing of London and Washington, whose war aims have also been evolving.

Even though the White House walked back remarks made by President Joe Biden in April that appeared to imply his interest in regime change in Russia, not long after, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin went much further than what had been the previously declared goal of helping Ukraine defend itself.

“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” he said in Poland, after a long train trip to Kyiv to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“We believe that we can win — they can win if they have the right equipment, the right support,” Austin added. 

U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace have echoed the Ukrainians and have been expansively talking about pushing Russia out of the Crimea and the Donbas, in other words returning Ukraine back to its pre-2014 borders.

But the remarks by Draghi, Scholz and Macron seem at cross-purposes with what the Ukrainians, the British and the Americans are saying.

While Western European leaders appear to want the war to end quickly and everything to “return to normal” as soon as possible, what’s being propounded by leaders in Kyiv, London and Washington holds out the likelihood of a much longer conflict and greater Western involvement, as well as more state-of-the-art arms.

Unlike Draghi, Scholz and Macron, they see little reason to negotiate — at least at this stage. “Nothing is impossible, I suppose, but I just cannot see for the life of me how we can renormalize relations with Putin now,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a radio interview Thursday.

To try that, he suggested, would be to just repeat the mistake made in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea. His underlying message being that Putin couldn’t be trusted to keep to any deal and would simply regroup, rearm and repeat the aggression.

That too is in line with the thinking of Ukrainians, who fear any Russian offers to deescalate and negotiate would just be aimed to manipulate and divide Kyiv’s allies.

That may be so, but even without any Kremlin maneuvering, divergences over allied war aims are emerging.