Former senior U.S. national security officials have been holding secret talks with key Russians said to be close to the Kremlin, including in one case, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in hopes of preparing for negotiations that could end the war in Ukraine, according to people briefed on the discussions.

   The Lavrov meeting, held in New York in April, involved Richard Haass, a former diplomat and the outgoing president of the Council on Foreign Relations, along with Europe expert Charles Kupchan and Russia expert Thomas Graham, who are former White House and State Department officials and fellows with the Council of Foreign Relations, according to NBC News sources, described as four former and two current officials.

   In that meeting, the participants reportedly discussed the fate of Russian-held territory in Ukraine and the search for a diplomatic solution that both sides could approve.

   Lavrov was in the United States to chair the U.N. Security Council. At about that time, Haass and Kupchan wrote a lengthy article in Foreign Affairs, a publication by the Council on Foreign Relations about “a plan for getting from the battlefield to the negotiating table.”

   They predicted a stalemate after the Ukrainian counteroffensive and recommended the U.S. start with the groundwork to propose a cease-fire leading to a demilitarized zone that would be monitored by either the UN or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. After that, they wrote, “Peace talks should follow.”

   The former officials involved in the meeting either did not respond to requests for comment from NBC News or declined to comment on the record, and the network’s sources declined to be named while confirming confidential talks.

   Two sources said the Biden administration is aware of the talks but has not been directing them. The officials who met with Lavrov briefed the White House National Security Council after the talks took place.

   In diplomatic talk, such discussions are known as “Track Two diplomacy,” which takes place when there is unofficial engagement involving private citizens, and in Lavrov’s case, the term “Track 1.5” is used, which means current officials are involved in at least one end of the conversation.

   It was not made clear how often the discussions have been taking place with the Russians, or if they are being undertaken through an organized effort to bring about diplomatic talks, NBC noted.

   Two people briefed on the talks, though, say the discussions have also included some former Pentagon officials, including former U.S. assistant defense secretary Mary Beth Long, who is experienced in issues involving NATO.

   The Russians involved in the talks, along with Lavrov, have included think tank or research institute leaders, academics, and others who are believed to be in close touch with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. The Russian participants were not identified by name, out of concern for their safety.

   A spokesman for the White House National Security Council declined to comment, and the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request to speak.

   Further, an official in the office of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said there would be no comment on news reports based on unnamed sources, but insisted that Ukraine’s “position is unchanged.”

   “The fate of Ukraine cannot be decided without Ukraine,” the official said. “Many times the president and all our official speakers spoke about it. Not anonymously, but quite specifically and publicly.”

   There are signs that the U.S. and its allies want the two countries to move toward having peace talks this fall.

   In May, CIA Director William Burns heard from Ukrainian officials during a secret trip to Kyiv about pushing Moscow toward peace talks before the end of the year, according to reporting from The Washington Post.

   There are questions about whether the secret talks will continue after the revolt waged by Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. The discussions are also taking place while other conversations are being held between the United States and Russia concerning detained U.S. journalist Evan Gershkovich, which Putin’s spokesman revealed this week.

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