President Biden told Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken in April to tone down their rhetoric in supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia, NBC News reported Thursday.
The pushback reportedly came after the Pentagon chief said the Biden administration wanted Ukraine to win the war against the Kremlin and that the US wanted a weakened Russia that could not launch another attack. Blinken then publicly aligned himself with Austin’s comments, sparking a flurry of news reports.
“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Austin said at the time after the Cabinet members visited Kyiv.
During a later conference call, Biden told the two officials he thought their remarks went too far and to tone them down, multiple current and former administration officials familiar with the call told NBC.
One unidentified official told the network that Biden was concerned that Austin’s words could set unrealistic goals and up the chance Washington could get pulled into a direct conflict with Moscow.
“Biden was not happy when Blinken and Austin talked about winning in Ukraine,” one of the sources said. “He was not happy with the rhetoric.”
After a mismanaged and chaotic attack on Ukraine beginning on Feb. 24, Russia in mid-April consolidated its forces for an attack on the country’s eastern Donbas region.
The fight has been bloody and is expected to turn into a protracted war, with President Volodymyr Zelensky pleading for more weapons to beat back the invasion and staying firm that in the Ukrainian territory be ceded to Russia.
But US officials are growing more worried that Ukraine’s views are untenable, saying behind the scenes the Ukrainian president should shift his public position and “dial it back a little bit,” one of seven current US officials, former US officials and European officials told NBC .
Experts, US and European officials have voiced a belief that Russian President Vladimir Putin will attempt to claim the Donbas and declare it as Russian territory, with Zelensky then having to negotiate for peace to end the conflict.
The Biden administration, meanwhile, has maintained that it will not pressure Kyiv to end the war on any specific terms and is preparing for a long war.
“From the beginning, I’ve said and I’ve been — not everyone has agreed with me — nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. It’s their territory. I’m not going to tell them what they should and shouldn’t do,” Biden said on June 3. “But it appears to me that, at some point along the line, there’s going to have to be a negotiated settlement here. And what that entails, I don’t know.”
The Biden administration has also continued to send lethal aid to Ukraine, the most recent announced on Wednesday with a $1 billion military aid package.
The Hill has requested comment from the State Department regarding NBC’s report. The Pentagon declined to comment.
–Updated at 10:36 am