Updated Jan 9, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Sullivan seeks advice from Russia hawks ahead of talks on Ukraine

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan is seen entering the White House Briefing Room.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan enters the White House Briefing Room in December. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A group of Russia experts urged National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to send more arms to the Ukrainians when he spoke with them ahead of this week’s high-stakes diplomatic meetings with Russian officials, participants told Axios.

Why it matters: By soliciting advice from the hawkish pockets in the foreign policy establishment, including those who served under former President Trump, the Biden administration is considering all options while weighing how to discourage Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine — and punish him if he does.

  • "It’s always smart to engage with outsiders. There’s never a downside,” said Michael McFaul, a National Security Council official under President Obama who later served as ambassador to Russia.
  • “Jake is not afraid to interact with specialists, including those who may disagree with him,” said McFaul, who declined to confirm last Monday's videoconference or his participation in it.
  • Officials routinely meet with outside Russia experts with a diverse set of views and have welcomed "their expertise as we address this crisis," NSC spokesperson Emily Horne told Axios.

Between the lines: Private meetings also can dissuade potential critics from publicly airing their grievances — and second-guessing — if a diplomatic engagement falters.

Driving the news: With an estimated 100,000 Russian forces amassing on three sides of Ukraine, the U.S. and Russia will hold bilateral talks in Geneva on Monday.

  • Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who tangled with her Russian counterpart during the 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiations, will lead the U.S. team.
  • Those talks will be followed by a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels on Wednesday, and then the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Thursday in Vienna.

What they're saying: "It can't be said enough: As we undertake talks this week, 'nothing about Europe without Europe' is our North Star," Sullivan told Axios.

  • "We know part of the Russian strategy is to try to divide us from our transatlantic allies and partners and sow discord and doubt about how we'll engage as talks are underway. That dog won’t hunt."

The big picture: Russia wants to freeze any future NATO expansion — especially to Ukraine — and halt all military activity in the former Soviet republics along its European border.

  • Those maximalist demands, which NATO swiftly rejected, have set a pessimistic tone for this week's talks.
  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned it's part of Russia's "playbook" to propose non-starters as a pretext for aggressive action when negotiations inevitably fail.

Behind the scenes: Senior Biden administration officials say there are several areas of Russian concern the U.S. would be willing to discuss on a "reciprocal" basis.

  • They include new restrictions on missiles and the size and scope of military exercises in Europe.
  • Officials strenuously denied an NBC report last week saying the U.S. was weighing cuts to troop levels in Europe. They insist that's not on the table.
  • They also stressed there will be "no firm commitments made in these talks," and urged reporters "not to fall for" Russian spin or lies about what went on behind closed doors.

What to watch: For the first time, the U.S. detailed last week what sanctions are under consideration if the talks collapse and Russia proceeds with an invasion of Ukraine.

  • The measures include cutting off the largest Russian financial institutions and banning the export of U.S. technology needed for Russian defense and consumer industries.
  • They also include potentially arming Ukrainian insurgents, though Biden previously assured Putin he has no intention of deploying offensive missile systems in Ukraine.
  • Unlike the Obama administration's response after Putin's annexation of Crimea in 2014, these sanctions would target high-impact sectors of the Russian economy from the outset.

Go deeper: Sullivan's Zoom meeting with the group of Russia hawks came after scholars, diplomats and former generals wrote a public letter calling for America to provide additional military equipment to Ukraine — including more Javelin and Stinger missiles.

  • “The most important thing that the West can do now is to enhance the deterrent strength of Ukraine’s armed forces by providing military assistance and equipment on an expedited basis,” they wrote.
  • The letter, organized by John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and now the senior director for the Atlantic Council Eurasia Center, included McFaul; retired Gen. Wesley Clark; retired Gen. Philip Breedlove; former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott; Trump’s special representative to Ukraine, Kurt Volker; and Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland.

The bottom line: The group ended the meeting convinced Sullivan was clear-eyed about the threats and potential responses available to the U.S. government and NATO.

  • “I can’t possibly confirm the possible Zoom call,” said Fried. "I will say that Jake is much too smart and much too capable to put himself in a box."
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