Senior US official in Israel: We won’t push Kyiv to accept Russian terms

US Embassy source says Washington supports PM Bennett’s diplomacy; stresses there is no ‘red line’ that would bring about American military intervention

Carrie Keller-Lynn is a political and legal correspondent for The Times of Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a flag-raising ceremony via video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, on March 4, 2022. (Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a flag-raising ceremony via video link at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, on March 4, 2022. (Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP)

Marking two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, a senior US Embassy official in Israel said Wednesday that Washington continues to support the Ukrainian government, but will stay on the sidelines — both militarily and in terms of evaluating negotiated peace terms.

In a briefing to reporters in Tel Aviv, the official said, “The United States stands in solidarity with and will continue to support the government and the people of Ukraine in the face of the Kremlin’s aggression,” adding that, “President [Vladimir] Putin and Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov are directly responsible” for the war.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, in line with requests from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, has taken an active role in mediating between Kyiv and Moscow. On Saturday, Bennett flew to meet Putin in the Russian capital and has spoken with with both leaders by phone several times since.

The embassy official said the US is supportive of all peace negotiations efforts, including the ongoing efforts led by Bennett.

On Tuesday, Zelensky said that Ukraine is cooling off on its demand to join NATO. A key Russian demand has been to ensure Ukraine does not join the international force.

Without naming NATO specifically, the embassy official responded to this development by reaffirming that “the US is supportive of a solution that Ukraine is supportive of because we’re backing the government of Ukraine and its people in its reaction to this unprovoked, premeditated war.”

Groups of Ukrainian refugees walk along the road between Lviv and Shehyni, in Volytsya, Ukraine, Saturday March 5, 2022. The number of Ukrainians forced from their country since the Russian invasion has been increasing on a daily basis. (AP Photo/Marc Sanye)

According to an Axios report, the US will not pressure Ukraine regarding terms with Moscow.

The report said Putin is demanding the annexation of Crimea and independence for Donbas and communicated this position to Bennett, who shared it with Zelensky, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and US officials. It said the US is not pressuring Zelensky on whether or not to agree to relinquish sovereignty over the regions, contested since Russia first invaded them in 2014.

When asked by The Times of Israel if the US could recognize Russian sovereignty over Donbas and Crimea, the embassy source pointed to past US Eastern European policy.

“The US has a track record here with Baltic states, which after decades under Soviet rule emerged again as full states. We tend to act on principles, at least historically,” the official said, presumably referring to US non-recognition of the Soviet Union’s 1940 incorporation-by-force of Baltic states, and immediate support for their 1991 independence.

“It will be up to the leadership of Ukraine to determine what conditions might be acceptable or unacceptable,” said the embassy source, noting that the US does not force parties to join NATO.

When asked if there was a “red line” that Russia could cross that would prompt direct American military action, the official said that the US does not plan to join the “front lines of this war.”

“We’ve been clear that Russia must stop,” he said. “It’s also clear that, at present, the American people are not looking for US forces on the ground, on the front lines of this war.”

“But the people of Ukraine are doing outstanding jobs and defending themselves,” he added.

On Tuesday the Pentagon ruled out a deal to have Poland send Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, because of fears that Russia would perceive it as NATO stepping into the war effort.

“The Pentagon has termed that proposal to be untenable. This revolves around the question of NATO’s direct engagement in direct hostilities,” the embassy official said.

In this photo taken Friday, Oct. 20, 2017, a Serbian Army MiG-29 jet fighter received from Russia stands on the tarmac at Batajnica, a military airport near Belgrade, Serbia. (AP/Darko Vojinovic)

The American official raised the specter of war crimes being committed, saying that “we don’t have all the evidence yet, but we certainly have things that raise concerns.”

“Ultimately war crimes need to be adjudicated, but there’s certainly been damage to civilian targets, infrastructure, people, and if those are proven to be deliberate, planned, targeted attacks, that’s when it becomes a war crime,” the official said.

While the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor has already announced an investigation into alleged war crimes in Ukraine dating back to 2013, neither the US, Russia, nor Ukraine are parties to the Rome Statute, which is the treaty that establishes jurisdiction by the court. Ukraine, however, can voluntarily accept the court’s authority over crimes committed in its territory.

On Tuesday, US President Joe Biden announced that the US would ban all Russian oil imports, an additional measure to individual sanctions and blocking much Russian access to the SWIFT banking system. The embassy official said sanctions imposed against Russia by the US and Western allies are “unprecedented” and that America would be happy to see Israel join the West in its effort.

“We would like to see our allies and partners imposing strong sanctions. Israel falls into the category of our allies and partners,” the embassy official said.

The official added, “Putin chose to start this war and the Russian Federation will be held accountable and bear the consequences of his actions.”

Last week, a senior Foreign Ministry official told The Times of Israel that there is currently no legal infrastructure in place that enables Israel to impose sanctions.

The American official declined to comment on Israel’s refusal to support a UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia, but thanked Israel for its efforts supporting and enlisting other signatories to the March 2 UN General Assembly condemnation.

Parallel to Ukraine, the official said that “there is an active conversation” between US and Israeli officials about the Iran deal currently being negotiated in Vienna.

“You saw that in evidence just two days ago when Foreign Minister Lapid and Secretary Blinken met in Latvia,” the source said.

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