The Biden administration says they don't expect "tangible deliverables" from upcoming Ukraine peace plan talks hosted by Saudi Arabia but rather a continuing discussion on President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's "peace formula" for ending the brutal conflict.
John Kirby, director of strategic communications for the National Security Council, also told VOA on Thursday that the administration continues to work with Saudi Arabia on a process of eventual normalization with Israel, and that the administration believes that normalization is "better for our national security interests."
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
VOA: I'd like to start with Ukraine peace plan talks in Jeddah. Can this summit be an effective way to get more countries behind Ukraine's peace plan, especially countries from the Global South?
John Kirby, National Security Council: I think what you're going to see coming out of Jeddah is a continuation of a process to socialize the peace formula that President Zelenskyy has put forward and to find ways to actualize it, to move on it, to help get traction for it. So the short answer to your question is, yes. Part of the object here is to expose more of the international community to President Zelenskyy's peace formula and try to garner some support for that moving forward. A key component of this and something we should never lose sight of is the respect for territorial integrity, for sovereignty. Because President Zelenskyy's whole formula really hinges on that idea, that principal idea in the [United Nations] charter. And that's something that every nation – except Russia, of course – can sign up to.
VOA: Mexican President [Andres Manuel Lopez] Obrador has said that his country will only participate if both Ukraine and Russia are at the peace talks. At what point does the administration believe that Russia can be included? What needs to happen?
Kirby: I think it's important to remember what this is and what it's not. This is not peace talks. This is not negotiations about ending the war. People shouldn't look at the meeting in Jeddah as a forum through which there's going to be certain and tangible deliverables. This is really about having an ongoing conversation about what this peace formula can look like. Whenever Mr. Zelenskyy is ready to sit down with Mr. [Vladimir] Putin – and that doesn't appear to be anytime soon – we have said and will continue to say that Mr. Zelenskyy's perspectives, Ukraine's perspectives, have to be the foundational element. They have to be fully respected as negotiations occur. But we're just not there yet. Mr. Putin has shown no indication that he's willing to negotiate – quite the contrary. We're seeing more attacks in just the last 24 to 48 hours on grain shipments in the Danube River. He's doing everything possible to not only try to hold on to the territory that doesn't belong to him in eastern Ukraine, but limit Ukraine's ability to export grain and foodstuffs to many countries around the world, including the Global South.
VOA: Is there a timeframe that the administration believes would be most effective to find a solution for an effective, just and durable peace – and is there a concern that the 2024 presidential campaign could impact U.S. support for Ukraine?
Kirby: It's difficult to put a timeframe on what that end is going to look like. Right now, we are focused squarely on making sure that Ukrainian armed forces can be successful in their counteroffensive so that they can claw back even more territory that belongs to them from Russian forces and hopefully push Mr. Putin to the table. But again, we're just not at that point right now.
VOA: You're confident that the U.S. election will not impact this?
Kirby: This has nothing to do with domestic politics and everything to do with Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
VOA: [National security adviser] Jake Sullivan was in Jeddah last week, and President [Joe] Biden is pushing for diplomatic normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. What is he willing to provide to Riyadh to secure that?
Kirby: We are having ongoing conversations with our partners in the Middle East about trying to achieve a more cooperative region, a more integrated region. And we believe that normalization with Israel can be a key part of that. And so Mr. Sullivan's conversations were a continuation of discussions that we have been having since the beginning of the administration. We certainly would like to see normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but we understand and respect that that has got to be up to those two countries. We do believe that an Israel that is more integrated in the region is better for the region, quite frankly, it's better for our national security interests.
VOA: Riyadh is seeking a security pact from Washington as a part of a normalization deal with Israel. Is this something the president would consider?
Kirby: I don't want to get ahead of where we are in discussions. These are ongoing talks about how to get better regional cooperation and regional integration. And there's no agreed-to framework right now, no set agreement or a final negotiation on what the regional integration looks like.
VOA: I want to circle back [to Ukraine-related talks] in Saudi Arabia. The fact that it's happening there and also the fact we expect to see more representatives from countries from the Global South – what does this say to Putin? Because Moscow said they will be watching.
Kirby: I certainly hope that they are watching and I hope that they take away from this that more and more countries around the world are realizing that what Mr. Putin is doing is illegal, unprovoked and completely in violation of the U.N. charter. I also hope that when they're watching, the Russians realize that more and more countries are beginning to see that Mr. Putin's reckless decision to pull out of that grain deal is making them more hungry, is exacerbating existing famine conditions in many countries and contributing to food insecurity in places throughout the Global South. Many, many African leaders are realizing that the troubles that they're experiencing at home on the continent are directly related to what Mr. Putin is doing in Ukraine.