US reportedly held talks with Russia on nuclear risk in Ukraine

National security adviser Jake Sullivan is said to have spoken with senior Kremlin aides

The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has reportedly held talks with aides to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, with the aim of reducing the risk that the war in Ukraine could spill over or escalate into a nuclear conflict.

The Wall Street Journal said the senior White House figure had held confidential conversations in recent months with the Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov and Russian security council secretary, Nikolai Patrushev, Sullivan’s counterpart, that were not made public.

Neither Washington or Moscow has confirmed if the talks took place and the report did not detail the time or dates of the phone calls.

The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment on the report at his daily briefing. “Once again I repeat that there are some truthful reports, but for the most part there are reports that are pure speculation,” he told reporters.

In September, Russia started ratcheting up the idea that it may use nuclear weapons as it set the stage for the illegal annexation of parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, saying Ukrainian attacks on them would be considered a threat to Russia’s national security, which would be defended against using all available means.

Sullivan warned that month that any use of nuclear weapons by the Kremlin would have “catastrophic consequences for Russia”, which the US had “spelled out” in private conversations with Russian officials, he told NBC.

Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington DC-based thinktank, noted last week that Russia had notably softened its nuclear rhetoric since early November.

Russia’s foreign ministry issued a statement on 2 November about “the inadmissibility of a nuclear war in which there can be no winners” and said it was committed to reducing nuclear weapons. Putin went so far as to claim Russia had never discussed the possibility of using nuclear weapons.

Shortly before what the west called sham referendums in parts of Ukraine Russia had said it intended to annex, Putin claimed without evidence that the west had threaten to use nuclear weapons against Russia. “When the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we, of course, will use all the means at our disposal to protect Russia and our people,” said Putin. “This is not a bluff. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the weathervane can turn and point towards them.”

More recently, Russia had made claims, without providing evidence, that Kyiv was preparing to use a radioactive dirty bomb. Ukraine said it feared that Russia was preparing a false-flag nuclear attack, which it would then blame on Kyiv.

Throughout the war, the US has had the tricky task of supporting Ukraine to defend itself against Russia, while maintaining some distance to avoid giving cause for escalation. For this reason, the US and other key western allies of Ukraine, such as the UK, have ruled out putting boots on the ground or establishing a no-fly zone that could put Nato and Russian forces into direct conflict.

The US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, said in late October that it was important to keep channels of communication open with Russia to “manage escalation”, specifying his main concern was Russia’s nuclear rhetoric, but did not say if or how often such channels were being used.

“We’re going to continue to communicate that any type of use of a weapon of that sort, or even the talk of the use of a weapon of that sort, is dangerous and irresponsible,” said Austin.

Though nuclear tensions appear to have subsided for now, the ISW said Russia may return to nuclear brinkmanship again to prompt the west to pressure Ukraine into negotiating.

Russia is trying to regain the advantage in Ukraine after a series of retreats in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions. So far, its strategy, it seems, is to disable Ukraine in the rear by cutting off its power supplies over winter, while using its newly mobilised troops to gain and regain ground on the frontlines.

Ukraine’s western allies reportedly envisage negotiations beginning after Ukraine has retaken the Kherson region, so that Kyiv will start from a point of strength, Italy’s La Republicca reported on Monday. On Saturday, the Washington Post said that the US was urging Kyiv to be more open to talks amid worries from allies in parts of Europe, Africa and Latin America of a protracted war with devastating economic effects.

A senior adviser to Ukraine’s president said on Monday that Kyiv had never refused to negotiate with Moscow, but restated it would not hold talks while Vladimir Putin was in power. “Ukraine has never refused to negotiate. Our negotiating position is known and open,” Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter, saying that Russia should first withdraw its troops from Ukraine. “Is Putin ready? Obviously not. Therefore, we are constructive in our assessment: we will talk with the next leader.”

On Monday, Peskov said Russia was open to talks but it was Ukraine that was refusing. Both Ukraine and the US, its main western ally, say Russia has yet to show it is serious about negotiations, pointing to Russia’s recent mobilisation drive, rerouting of its economy for the war effort, the illegal annexation of more Ukrainian territory and the accompanying nuclear rhetoric.

In his nightly address on Monday, Volodymyr Zelenskiy said it was vital to oblige Russia to participate in “genuine” peace talks, describing the country as a destabilising force on a range of issues, including climate change.

He decried “Russia’s destabilising influence” as the world confronted war, energy and food crises, and what he called the destruction of customary international relations. The climate agenda, he said, was “really suffering” but could not be “put on hold”.

“So anyone serious about the climate agenda must also be serious about the need to immediately stop Russian aggression, restore our territorial integrity, and force Russia into genuine peace negotiations,” Zelenskiy said.

Despite its struggle to make headway on the battlefield, Russia has had significant success in striking Ukraine’s energy sector thanks to Iranian-supplied drones, which are reportedly making up for its rapidly depleting stockpiles of missiles and rockets.

Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, has told residents to prepare for longer cuts and make arrangements to leave the city in the event of a total blackout.

Obtaining additional air defence systems and ammunition has become Kyiv’s number one priority in recent weeks. Last week, Germany sent an Iris-T system and on Monday, Ukraine’s minister of defence, Oleksiy Reznikov, welcomed Nasams and Aspide air defence systems, thanking Norway, Spain and the US.


Isobel Koshiw in Kyiv

The GuardianTramp

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