Don’t mention the peace 

In the months before Russia invaded Ukraine, many European leaders buried their heads in the sand, refusing to acknowledge the impending threat of war. Now, with the conflict into its third year, they don’t dare speak about peace. 

When Pope Francis floated the idea March 9 that negotiations might be necessary, given that Ukraine had failed to oust Russian forces from its territory, he raised an issue almost nobody in Europe’s power centers wanted to discuss. It also came at an acutely sensitive moment in the conflict for Kyiv. 

Ukraine’s plight has arguably never been more desperate. Last year’s much-anticipated counteroffensive failed to deliver a decisive breakthrough, and Russia is now gaining ground on the battlefield. Meanwhile, the future of Western support — particularly from the U.S. — suddenly looks uncertain. 

With former U.S. President Donald Trump surging toward another White House bid later this year, and European governments running out of ammunition, the Pope articulated a question that is only likely to be repeated in the months ahead: Has the moment come to think seriously about negotiating with Vladimir Putin? 

Asking that question — even in private — triggers a horrified response from many of the Western officials who spoke to POLITICO in recent weeks for this article. 

“Some Central European countries are very emotional about the idea of a peace conference,” explained one EU official. “They remain afraid that they will be next once we concede to Putin.” 

For Ukrainians, peace talks are off the agenda as long as Putin remains in power.

A senior European official added that Russia won’t treat any peace deal with Ukraine as final. “[Putin] has attacked Ukraine three times in 10 years. There is no reason to believe that because we give them Crimea or Donbas or Kherson [or] whatever, he would renounce [any plan] to take Kyiv.”

No taboos

The war, which has killed more than 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 10,000 civilians, has also transformed Europe’s security landscape. Sweden and Finland have both joined NATO since Russia invaded in February 2022, and European governments are fortifying their defenses with more spending and greater cooperation between countries. 

But Ukraine and its allies in Europe know their efforts will stall without one thing above all: the backing of the United States. Unlike in Europe and the U.K., in Washington the topic of negotiations is not taboo. 

Although U.S. officials insist they will not engage in any talks without Ukraine, Trump, who holds a narrow poll lead over current President Joe Biden, has said he’d end the war in 24 hours. Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán has claimed Trump will cut funding to Ukraine immediately if he wins power. 

Republicans in Congress have refused to sign off on a new package of aid for Kyiv, with some surveys suggesting a majority of Trump’s supporters oppose further help for Ukraine. 

In London, the British government — traditionally America’s closest military ally — refuses to countenance any talk of negotiation with Putin. Even with the prospect of Trump’s return to Washington, U.K. officials insist they aren’t even discussing contingency plans for peace talks. 

One senior member of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s team says the mission for Britain and Europe this year is to double down on supporting Ukraine, and to show Trump and his Republican backers that this is a war they can win. 

In Germany and France, officials are similarly reluctant to open the door to negotiating with Putin. Western European diplomats oppose even starting to plan for the possibility of America’s withdrawing support — fearing doing so will make it more likely to happen. 

One European diplomat said despite budgetary restrictions, “we need to redouble our efforts.” The diplomat said it was “not only as a political signal to Putin … but also to the U.S. debate in Congress on Ukraine support. We have seen the resistance by Trump and some other leading Republicans. This is currently the most fundamental challenge we have.”

Without American support, Europe will not be able to supply Ukraine with the cash or hardware it needs, the diplomat said. “I would be very cautious not to send the signal or create the impression that Europe can do it without the U.S. This is definitely not the case so we need the Republicans to rethink their position and to allow Ukraine help to move forward.” 

No doubts

Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa said the EU can’t afford to show the slightest weakness in its support for Kyiv. “Peace is our common goal,” Costa told POLITICO in an interview. “But only Ukraine can decide when a peace conference should be held.”

He added: “The European Union’s duty is also to show that it remains entirely behind Ukraine, and that there isn’t the slightest doubt of our commitment.”

French President Emmanuel Macron has hardened his stance against Russia in recent weeks, urging allies not to be “cowards” and warning he will not rule out sending ground troops to fight the Russians if necessary. 

There is no appetite for talks in Paris, according to Benjamin Haddad of Macron’s Renaissance party. “We need to regain the upper hand before we can enter into negotiations,” he said. “I don’t see how Putin would sit down and negotiate in good faith. Right now, it’s a good sequence of events for him, he’s winning on the ground, Trump is on his way.”

In public Putin has claimed he’s open to negotiations to end the “tragedy” of the war. He dangled the offer of a ceasefire at the G20 summit in November, and told American interviewer Tucker Carlson in January that he was open to dialogue. According to Reuters, Russian officials privately approached senior U.S. administration figures to broker talks on a truce but were rebuffed.

But in truth, the two sides are impossibly far apart. Kyiv is seeking the return of all the territory Russian forces have illegally annexed and invaded since 2014, along with financial restitution from Moscow. The Kremlin, meanwhile, won’t contemplate returning the four Ukrainian regions it took partial control of in 2022. On the contrary, Moscow is demanding Ukraine disarm, end its efforts to join the EU and NATO, and rejoin Russia’s sphere of influence. 

In private, some voices in European administrations recognize the eventual need for negotiations. 

The first European official, cited earlier, said that while “the idea” of peace talks is “a no-go” for countries that fear they could be Putin’s next target, those hawkish nations may ultimately be disappointed.

“We have to be realistic,” the official said. “At a certain point, we will have to start talking about peace and potentially even about giving up a piece of land.”

Barbara Moens and Stuart Lau reported from Brussels, Sam Blewett reported from London, Aitor Hernández-Morales reported from Lisbon, Clea Caulcutt reported from Paris, and Veronika Melkozerova reported from Kyiv. Dan Bloom, Emilio Casalicchio and Tim Ross contributed reporting from London.