Bipartisan interest in pushing Ukraine to trade land for peace

President Vladimir Putin’s stated goal of retaining the Ukrainian territory occupied by Russian forces is being met with grudging bipartisan acquiescence in the United States, even among lawmakers who want to send more weapons to Ukraine.

“Realistically, Crimea is not coming back to Ukraine,” Rep. Adam Smith, the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said during a Wednesday hearing. “We need a sovereign democratic Ukraine that can survive. We have a sovereign democratic Ukraine that can survive, right now.”

The question of how to define and support Ukraine’s victory has bedeviled U.S. officials throughout the last two years. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pledged to liberate all the Ukrainian territory seized by Russia during the war, but President Joe Biden has used more ambiguous language. And Smith’s statement raised the curtain on Democratic misgivings about Ukrainian objectives — and frustration with the Biden administration’s rhetoric about allowing Ukrainian leaders to decide when to begin negotiations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (Gavriil Grigorov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

“If we were able to get them support, and we stop Russia where they’re at — that, of course, is not the ultimate objective of Ukraine,” Smith told a Pentagon official during the hearing. “Ukraine would like to take back all of the territory back to the pre-2014 borders? At the moment that seems unrealistic.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s representative at the hearing avoided a direct dispute over that assessment.

“Our policy is to fight to preserve to support Ukraine so that it is sovereign and can make its own choices,” Assistant Secretary Celeste Wallander, the Pentagon’s lead official for international security affairs, replied. “There is a misconception that what Putin is after is territory, he’s not after territory. … He’s after Ukraine. … We have to support Ukraine in negotiations, if it chooses to negotiate, but we must not be fooled into thinking that brings an era of peace and cooperation.”

Kremlin officials maintain that the fate of the occupied Ukrainian territory is not up for negotiation, as Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared those regions to be Russia’s sovereign territory.

“The Russian Federation has grown larger with the accession of four new regions,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday. “Everybody should take that into account.”

Putin signed the paperwork to annex those occupied territories in the fall of 2022, as Ukrainian forces drove back Russian troops from Kharkiv and Kherson. Former President Donald Trump’s stated intent to force an end to the war in one day has stoked widespread alarm that he would force Ukraine to agree to those territorial losses. As controversial as such a proposal might be, Smith signaled that U.S. officials in both parties should pursue such a goal.

“I’ve heard this phrase over [and over again] ‘nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.’ Forgive me: That is a ridiculous thing for any U.S. diplomat or person in U.S. policy to say, OK?” he told Wallander. “I get it. I know why; you don’t want to act like you’re bullying Ukraine into something. But let us walk down that road and see that that initial instinct … is a problem.”

Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Gen. Christopher Cavoli, addresses a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Jan. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, File)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other U.S. officials have signaled that they see the recovery of Crimea as “a red line” for Putin. At least some U.S. officials have allowed that “it’s very important that Ukraine win this war” — meaning, “Russians leave all of Ukraine.” Yet Biden’s tendency to resist providing longer-range or more advanced weapons systems has seeded suspicions that the administration is not “willing to let Ukraine win,” as a retired NATO supreme allied commander told the Washington Examiner last year. 

“This idea that’s being propagated on both sides of the House — that we can’t win this war — is insane,” Rep. Rich McCormick (R-GA) said during the hearing, which featured testimony from four-star Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, NATO’s current supreme allied commander. “We can’t give them ‘adequate.’ We have to give them superiority. That’s my point. Nobody’s talking about that right now. We have to give them what it takes to get this done. This is a winnable war.”

Cavoli, who is also the head of U.S. European Command, concurred. “Yes, I agree,” he told McCormick. “Much of my testimony today has been about the minimum — about avoiding defeat for Ukraine — which does not necessarily immediately lead to the accomplishment of our strategic interests.”

McCormick argued that Ukraine is “a top five country when it comes to resources” relevant to the long-term strategic competition with Russia and China. 

“You’re sending European grain, you have titanium, you have steel, you have cobalt, rare [earth] minerals, including the radioactive stuff that actually powers the world — all in this country, that could be taken to Russia, and then that stuff could be moved over to China, North Korea, and Iran, instead of our allies,” he said. “It will have consequences for generations to come that people aren’t really taking into account when they talk about the economic impact of this [war].”

The controversy on whether to help Ukraine recover Crimea has been muted in recent months by the more immediate dispute about whether Ukraine should receive any additional military assistance from the United States. Yet Smith pressured the administration on that point while making the case for additional aid to stave off a Russian offensive.

“Giving Putin Ukraine is an enormous mistake, and not giving Ukraine the money right now to defend [itself] — that’s giving Putin Ukraine,” Smith said. “We do not have to have Crimea to make it a 1,000% worth it to give Ukraine the money.”

Smith’s remarks were prompted by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), who flatly asserted that “we’re never repatriating Crimea back to Ukraine” because it’s “an unachievable goal.” Smith, who expressed some surprise to be in the position of agreeing with Gaetz — a right-wing lawmaker known for his provocative tactics in aligning with Trump — warned that the Biden administration’s hesitance to adopt that view in public could lead to “abandoning Ukraine because we’re defending something that is virtually theoretical, basically.”


As the Washington Democrat concluded his addendum to the MAGA firebrand’s statement, House Armed Services Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) — who urged Republicans “to send additional weapons to Ukraine” in order to prevent a Russian victory — made his own intervention. 

“I completely agree with the ranking member,” the Alabama Republican said.

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