A bombshell investigative report in NBC has revealed President Biden sought to clamp down on the ratcheted Ukraine war rhetoric of his own top officials on fears their words would make escalation with Russia inevitable, and would set false expectations among allies.
In particular questions and concerns were raised within the administration following the late April trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Kiev, where they met with President Zelensky. Their statements at the time asserted official US positions of wanting to see Ukraine forces "winning" against the Russians. It was especially Austin's words during a press conference which seemed to mark a strategic shift in US planning, portending Washington escalation in support of Ukrainian forces. "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," the Pentagon chief said at the time.
But in a phone call Biden questioned the statements, calling his own officials to account, after he was reportedly angered upon learning about rhetoric centered on 'winning' against the Russians.
"Biden thought the secretaries had gone too far, according to multiple administration officials familiar with the call," NBC reports. "On the previously unreported conference call, as Austin flew to Germany and Blinken to Washington, the president expressed concern that the comments could set unrealistic expectations and increase the risk of the U.S. getting into a direct conflict with Russia. He told them to tone it down, said the officials."
"Biden was not happy when Blinken and Austin talked about winning in Ukraine," one of them said. "He was not happy with the rhetoric."
However, the response by Blinken and Austin was to say their statements had been "misconstrued," according to officials cited in the report. Still, NBC's sources underscore, Biden expressed "displeasure" given the potential for the false expectations set, and further, as NBC writes, that "the war would ultimately head in the direction it is now in two months later: a protracted conflict in which Russia continues to make small and steady advances."
Now almost four months into the invasion, it's become increasingly acknowledged that Russia has made significant gains across Ukraine's east and south, now poised to solidify control over the whole of Donbas, and with Ukrainian forces constantly complaining about lack of enough weapons and ammo. The fall of the last Ukrainian holdout in Luhansk province, the city of Severodonetsk, is looking imminent.
With the tide of the war now shifted, following the early optimism and perhaps exaggerated headlines based on some early Ukrainian successes, Washington is reportedly signaling also to the Zelensky administration that it's time to tone down the 'victory' rhetoric. The Thursday NBC investigative report comes days after the Ukrainian leader reiterated prior vows of "no concessions" on territory for the sake of peace - with Zelensky's foreign minister and others even saying they would not so much as acknowledge Crimea as in Russian possession for the sake of a ceasefire. These positions have actually somewhat shifted since March, however, as at varying points during the course of the war some Ukraine officials have suggested being at least "open" to the idea.
At the time of the Austin-Blinken trip to Kiev, CNN and others called the 'weaken Russia' remarks a complete "strategy shift", but now the Biden White House appears to be distancing itself from this prior provocative rhetoric...
But it looks as if the tune is changing fast from among Kiev's Western backers, even as unprecedented weapons packages and transfers continue to get approved. The NBC report notes US officials are quietly pushing a very different line than what's represented in public:
U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that the trajectory of the war in Ukraine is untenable and are quietly discussing whether President Volodymyr Zelenskyy should temper his hard-line public position that no territory will ever be ceded to Russia as part of an agreement to end the war, according to seven current U.S. officials, former U.S. officials and European officials.
Officials were even quoted as saying they want Zelensky to "dial it back a little bit" when it comes to the hardline on 'no compromise'.
However, one admin official was still quoted as saying, "We are not pressuring them to make concessions, as some Europeans are. We would never ask them to cede territory." This means that "We are planning for a long war. We intend to prepare the American people for that, and we are prepared to ask Congress for more money."