WASHINGTON — The United States will not pressure Ukraine into negotiating a cease-fire even as Russia grinds out steady gains on the ground in the country’s embattled east, a top Pentagon official said on Tuesday.
“We’re not going to tell the Ukrainians how to negotiate, what to negotiate and when to negotiate,” said Colin H. Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy. “They’re going to set those terms for themselves.”
Mr. Kahl’s comments came as Ukraine’s attempt to hold on to its territory in the eastern Donbas region reached a critical juncture on Tuesday, with Ukrainian and Russian soldiers clashing in street battles in the city of Sievierodonetsk and Russia edging closer to claiming the city. Russian forces and their separatist allies control an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the Donbas, according to Ukrainian officials, giving the Kremlin potential leverage in future negotiations.
Speaking at a security conference in Washington held by the Center for a New American Security, Mr. Kahl reaffirmed the American commitment to helping Ukraine defend itself. “Our role is to help them make sure that they can defend themselves against the Russian onslaught,” he said, “and they’ve been doing an unbelievably courageous job at that, and to strengthen their hand whenever the negotiations do happen.”
Despite Mr. Kahl’s strong words of support, the war has entered its fourth month, and the remarkable initial unity in response to Russia’s invasion seems to be fraying among some Western allies who have shipped lethal weapons to Ukraine and imposed a broad array of financial sanctions on Russia.
Leaders in Central and Eastern Europe, with its long experience of Soviet domination, have strong views about the need to tame Russia — even rejecting the idea of speaking to Mr. Putin. But France, Italy and Germany, among the continent’s biggest and richest countries, are anxious about a long war or one that could become frozen in a stalemate. They are also nervous about the possible damage to their own economies as countries in Europe grapple with rising inflation and gas prices.
On Tuesday, a day before 40 Western allies are scheduled to meet in Brussels to discuss Ukraine’s increasingly desperate plea for more heavy weaponry to offset Moscow’s deadly long-range artillery, Mr. Kahl sought to downplay the Russian military gains in the Luhansk portion of the industrially important Donbas region, which includes the territories of Luhansk and Donetsk.
“To some degree that is true, although the gains are really on any given day measured in blocks. They are not large sweeping breakthroughs of Ukrainian defenses,” Mr. Kahl said. “The Ukrainians remain stalwart defenders. There are significant casualties, but that is true on both sides.”
Administration officials in recent years have sought to calibrate and balance two oft-conflicting goals. The first is that Ukraine must emerge as a vibrant, democratic state — exactly what Mr. Putin is seeking to crush. The second is Mr. Biden’s oft-repeated goal of avoiding direct conflict with Russia — what he has repeatedly called World War III.