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Former US officials in secret talks with Russia and Ukraine on war’s endgame, reports say

White House officials have confirmed secret meetings were held between former senior US security aides and prominent Russians on potential talks to end the war in Ukraine – but insisted Joe Biden had not authorised such discussions.

Former US national security officials met Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in New York in April, according to NBC News.

They were reportedly joined by Richard Haass, a former US diplomat and outgoing president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and two ex-White House aides.

It was unclear how frequently the group, which included former Pentagon officials, held discussions with other prominent Russians thought to be close to the Kremlin, NBC News reported, adding that at least one unidentified group member travelled to Russia.

“The Biden administration did not sanction those discussions,” a State Department spokesperson told Reuters on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov waits before a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin with delegation of African leaders in Saint Petersburg, Russia June 17, 2023. Pavel Bednyakov/Host photo agency RIA Novosti via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT./File Photo
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov (Photo: Pavel Bednyakov/RIA Novosti via Reuters)

“And as we’ve said repeatedly, nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine,” the spokesperson added, referring to a policy of not discussing possible negotiations on ending the war without involving Kyiv officials.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said the Biden administration was aware of the unofficial discussions.

“But I want to make it clear that these discussions were not encouraged or engendered by us and we were not supporting them in any active way,” he said, repeating the mantra “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine”.

Mr Biden has typically taken a back seat role in other diplomatic talks, getting involved from behind the scenes but not as lead negotiator. When he was asked if the US had advance knowledge of the mutiny led by the Wagner group in Russia last month, Mr Biden replied: “I can’t tell you. We knew things ahead of time.”

The secret US-Russia meetings were aimed at keeping channels of communication with Russia open and laying the groundwork for potential peace talks, NBC reported, citing six people briefed on the discussions.

Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass moderates an event with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, Wednesday, June 28, 2023. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass was reportedly involved in the secret meeting with Russian officials (Photo: Seth Wenig/AP)

Some of the issues on the agenda included the future of Russian-held areas in Ukraine – a major sticking point for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has repeatedly said peace talks with Russia would only be possible after Moscow withdraws its forces from occupied territory.

Two sources said the meetings took place with the Biden administration’s knowledge but not at its direction and that those who met Mr Lavrov briefed the White House afterwards.

Responding to the NBC report, an official in Mr Zelensky’s office said: “Our position is unchanged – the fate of Ukraine cannot be decided without Ukraine.

“Many times the President and all our official speakers spoke about it. Not anonymously, but quite specifically and publicly.”

It came after CIA Director William Burns held a secret meeting with officials in Ukraine last month, at which Kyiv revealed its strategy to retake Russian-occupied territory and open ceasefire negotiations with Moscow by the end of the year, the Washington Post reported.

Kyiv aims to retake substantial territory by autumn, according to the report, as it plans to move artillery and missile systems near the boundary line of Russian-controlled Crimea and push further into eastern regions of Ukraine occupied by Kremlin forces.

It will then open negotiations with Russia for the first time since peace talks broke down in March last year, three sources told the Post.

“Russia will only negotiate if it feels threatened,” one senior Ukrainian official said.

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