Urging talks with Russia, top US general challenges DC's proxy war
A series of leaks, including a call for diplomacy from Gen. Mark Milley, show that some US officials are ready for a settlement in Ukraine.
When the Congressional Progressive Caucus was bullied into withdrawing a letter urging diplomacy with Russia to end the war in Ukraine, everyone from neoconservative pundits to Sen. Bernie Sanders came forward to scold them. But now the same call is coming from a source that cannot be so easily ignored, and intimidated.
“A disagreement has emerged at the highest levels of the United States government over whether to press Ukraine to seek a diplomatic end to its war with Russia,” the New York Times reports. Leading the call for talks with Moscow is Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to US officials, Milley “has made the case in internal meetings that the Ukrainians have achieved about as much as they could reasonably expect on the battlefield before winter sets in and so they should try to cement their gains at the bargaining table.”
The top US general has made no secret of his stance. “When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it,” Milley declared in a public speech this week.
Milley’s view “is not shared” by President Biden or his National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, the Times claims. Nor by the top US diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken. As one US official explained to CNN, "the State Department is on the opposite side of the pole,” leading to “a unique situation where military brass are more fervently pushing for diplomacy than US diplomats.”
While US “diplomats” oppose diplomacy, White House officials would not be disclosing that Milley, the nation’s highest military officer, is challenging their stance if he were alone. Indeed, the Milley revelation is only the latest in a series of leaks suggesting that, despite the uproar over the progressives’ pro-diplomacy letter, at least some close to the president agree with its message.
The first sign came via an alarmist story planted in the New York Times on Nov. 2nd. Top Russian military leaders, the Times claimed, have “recently had conversations to discuss when and how Moscow might use a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine, contributing to heightened concern in Washington and allied capitals.” Yet the Times also noted that US officials have “seen no evidence that the Russians were moving nuclear weapons into place or taking other tactical measures to prepare for a strike.” The report, after all, came just days after Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly renounced the prospect of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine. “There is no point in that, neither political, nor military,” Putin said in a speech.
The Biden officials who leaked this story made the effort to highlight their contacts with Russian counterparts. “While the risk of further escalation remains troublingly high, Biden administration officials and U.S. allies also say that the phone calls between Western and Russian counterparts late last month helped ease some of the nuclear tensions.” Putin’s speech, they added, “further lowered the temperature.”
If there is no evidence that Russia was mulling the use of nuclear weapons, then a leak nonetheless claiming that diplomacy has “lowered the temperature” signaled that US officials were creating space for additional talks.
That prospect was bolstered with another White House leak three days later. “The Biden administration is privately encouraging Ukraine’s leaders to signal an openness to negotiate with Russia and drop their public refusal to engage in peace talks unless President Vladimir Putin is removed from power,” the Washington Post reported on Nov. 5th. To presumably appease proxy war supporters, the Post’s sources insisted that this private pressure on Kiev was just for show. Rather than “pushing Ukraine to the negotiating table,” officials told the Post, the White House was only making “a calculated attempt to ensure the government in Kyiv maintains the support of other nations facing constituencies wary of fueling a war for many years to come.”
For a Biden administration that bragged about its pre-invasion diplomatic efforts while refusing to even discuss Russia’s core demands, such a ploy would be perfectly in character. But if White House officials were indeed pressing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to fake interest in peace talks just to placate jittery allies, it seems rather unlikely that they would divulge their ruse to a major US newspaper.
The impression that the US is in fact embracing diplomacy with Russia was reinforced with another leak. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan “has engaged in recent months in confidential conversations with top aides to [Putin],” the Wall Street Journal reported on Nov. 7th. As with their previous disclosures to the Times and the Post, US officials added face-saving caveats. The aim of the talks, they insisted, is “not to discuss a settlement of the war in Ukraine” but instead “to guard against the risk of escalation and keep communications channels open.”
But the Journal’s account suggests that the talks are about more than that. Sullivan’s interlocutors have included his direct Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, as well as Yuri Ushakov, a foreign-policy adviser to Putin. If their discussions were strictly about avoiding escalation, that would be the domain of the US-Russian military leaders. Sullivan also has experience with outreach to US foes, including his key role in the secret overtures that ultimately yielded the Iran nuclear deal.
Indeed, during a recent visit to Kiev, Sullivan “did broach the idea of how the conflict can end and whether it could include a diplomatic solution,” NBC News reported two days after the Journal’s article. Sullivan, a source said, “was testing the waters a bit.” The US message on that trip, Politico added, was that Kiev “must show its willingness to end the war reasonably and peacefully.” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who hosted the March-April talks between Ukraine and Russia that were thwarted by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (presumably with US backing), has been floated as a possible broker.
The reports about Sullivan’s diplomatic efforts coincided with news that the US and Russia will resume talks on extending New START, the last remaining treaty that limits both countries’ nuclear arsenals. The negotiations will mark the first time that US and Russian officials have met under the auspices of the pact since October 2021.
Finding a settlement in Ukraine will not be easy, but is perhaps not as intractable as it may appear. Dan Rice, an advisor to the commander of Ukraine’s army, recently told CNN that Russia, rather than conquering all of Ukraine, is “trying to get to the negotiating table, to try to go back to the 2014 lines," — wherein Russia controls Crimea, and Russia-backed rebels control the breakaway republics of the Donbas. But “Ukraine won't have it,” Rice said. “Ukraine wants all of their land back to the '91 lines.”
Charles Kupchan, a former senior National Security Council official under Presidents Obama and Clinton, has proposed a settlement in line with Rice’s rendering of the Russian position. Along with a pledge to not join NATO, Ukraine would renounce claims to Crimea and the pro-Russian areas of the Donbas.
“Russia has legitimate security concerns about NATO setting up shop on the other side of its 1,000-mile-plus border with Ukraine,” Kupchan writes. “NATO may be a defensive alliance, but it brings to bear aggregate military power that Moscow understandably does not want parked near its territory.”
While giving up territory would be painful for Ukraine, the consequences of a protracted war are far worse, Kupchan argues. “If the defense of Ukraine is not worth U.S. boots on the ground, then the return of all of the Donbas and Crimea to Ukrainian control is not worth risking a new world war.” This is especially the case, I would add, given that a significant percentage of the Donbas population wishes to remain with Russia, along with the vast majority of Crimeans.
It is unclear if Russia would accept Kupchan’s terms, which would require the return of newly annexed territory to Kiev’s control. But Russia’s recent withdrawal from one of those areas, Kherson, shows that it is not willing to risk significant casualties at all costs. That retreat might suggest the potential for further Russian withdrawals. In any event, engaging in talks with the Kremlin is one path to finding out.
If Ukraine does end up permanently losing territory to Russia, it can blame its own far-right forces and their enablers in Washington. Had Ukraine’s ultra-nationalists been willing to tolerate the 2015 Minsk II Accords, Ukraine would have kept all of Donbas in exchange for granting the breakaway republics limited autonomy – including the right to speak the Russian language. But for Ukraine’s far-right, recognizing the equality of the country’s ethnic Russian population has been a non-starter. “The Russian language must disappear from our territory altogether, as an element of hostile propaganda and brainwashing of our population,” Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, recently declared.
That a change in US policy could have blunted Ukraine’s far-right was made clear in the fateful months before Russia’s invasion. As Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border in November 2021, Samuel Charap, a senior analyst with the US government-funded RAND Corporation, argued that US support for the Minsk II accords could help avert disaster.
“The reality is that Ukraine depends on political, diplomatic, economic and military support from the West, and particularly from the United States,” Charap wrote. Accordingly, that gives the US “significant leverage” on Kiev, which at that point had been “largely untapped.” To date, the US had “not yet used its influence to push for progress on the Donbas conflict.”
Instead of “focusing only on coercing Russia,” Charap proposed, “the Biden administration should also push Kyiv to take steps toward implementing its obligations under the Minsk II agreement, which Ukraine has shown little desire to do since the deal was brokered six years ago.” If the Ukrainian government could be pushed “toward complying with the agreement, flawed as it is,” that “might actually invite de-escalation from Russia and reinvigorate the languishing peace process,” while saving Ukraine “from calamity.”
Instead, Biden chose to sit idle as Ukraine’s far-right blocked any such peace process, to the point of threatening Zelensky with an outright coup if he reached a deal with Russia. "If anybody from the Ukrainian government tries to sign such a document,” Yuri Hudymenko, leader of the far-right Democratic Ax, declared in early February, less than two weeks before Russia’s invasion, “a million people will take to the streets and that government will cease being the government."
Rather than help Zelensky make peace, Biden adopted a strategy of flooding Ukraine with weapons to “weaken” Russia militarily and crippling sanctions aimed at destroying its economy. Although Russia has suffered heavy losses on all fronts – this week, Milley estimated that Ukraine and Russia have suffered some 100,000 casualties each -- it has still managed to capture about 20% of Ukrainian territory and keep its economy afloat. Despite its battlefield setbacks, “the Russian military continues to wage an effective missile and drone campaign against Ukraine’s infrastructure, according to U.S. defense officials and military analysts, exposing gaps in a heavily strained Ukrainian air defense network,” the New York Times reports.
One can never discount the possibility that the current US nods to diplomacy are merely a ruse: publicly floating an olive branch to Russia while privately preparing for more Ukrainian counter-offensives at an opportune moment.
But with hundreds of thousands of additional Russian troops set to mobilize, winter approaching, and talk of “Ukraine fatigue” growing across NATO capitals, there are enough signs to suspect, albeit cautiously, that for some of the proxy war’s Washington backers, the calamity in Ukraine has run its course.