A couple weeks ago, speaking at an event at the Economic Club of New York, Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said publicly what he’s been saying privately for months: the war in Ukraine would not be won on the battlefield. And so, as he told a Manhattan audience on November 10, “When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it.”
The logic behind this thinking was of the practical, military sort: defending territory is easier than seizing it. It was a lesson Russia learned early in its ill-fated invasion of Ukraine, but now it is Ukraine that is trying to seize territory while the Russians are trying to hold it. The losses, more than 100,000 on both sides, have been atrocious. Military stockpiles not just in Ukraine and Russia, but in the Western countries that are supplying Ukraine, are running low. Russia has gutted half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and winter is coming. How long can Ukraine keep pushing? Their advance has slowed to attritional pace, and to take back what Ukraine wants to reclaim, which is all the territory Russia has seized since 2014, including Crimea, is a tall order, especially after nine months of vigorous bloodletting. Why not negotiate from a position of strength? Why not secure the gains you’ve made? Why risk a setback and lose this hard-won territory yet again?
Unfortunately for Milley, this triggered a wave of Washington stories about a divide inside the Biden administration on Ukraine, with Milley on one side and the civilians on the other. Ironically, it is the civilians, who have been encouraging Kyiv to at least seem open to negotiation, if only not to give Moscow the talking point that Vladimir Putin is open to diplomacy while Volodymyr Zelensky is not. Still, Milley’s comment came across as more than that, as a suggestion that it was time for the Ukrainians to quit while they’re ahead.
It did not go over well, and though Milley’s people will never admit to having been chided by anyone across the river in Washington, the Biden administration had some clean-up to do. The White House sent national security advisor Jake Sullivan to tell reporters that Joe Biden and the U.S. government would do their utmost to put Ukraine in the “best possible position on the battlefield so that when they make their determination to proceed, they’re in the best possible position at the negotiating table.” It was, he emphasized, a position “shared across the U.S. government.” It was up to Ukraine to decide “when and how they want to negotiate,” Sullivan said, which was yet another way of stating the administration’s position of “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.”
And so, last Wednesday, Milley, along with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, held a press conference at the Pentagon at which he carefully stated a position that he clearly was asked to lay out. “We, the United States, on the direction of the president and the secretary of defense… will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes to keep them free, sovereign, independent with their territory intact,” Milley said. “The president of the United States has been very, very clear to us: that it’s up to Ukraine to decide how and when or if they negotiate with the Russians, and we will continue to support them as long as it takes.”
It was all going according to plan—until the reporter asked Austin if he agreed with Milley “that Ukraine cannot achieve a military victory” and should therefore use winter as an opportunity to negotiate.
Austin tried to answer, but Milley couldn’t resist. “The Russian military is really hurting bad,” he finally cut in. “So, you want to negotiate at a time when you’re at your strength and your opponent is at weakness. And it’s possible, maybe that there’ll be a political solution. All I’m saying is there’s a possibility for it. That’s all I’m saying.”
And with that, Milley gave the news cycle a fresh lease on life.
“Not Militarily Winnable”
By this point, both the Biden administration and the Pentagon want this story dead and buried, though, quietly, the misgivings are still there, as are the questions Milley has raised. The military is often the small-c conservative actor in these debates, in part because it is the organization that has to bear the burden of implementing—and living—the policy designed by civilian leaders, and in part because of the debacles of those policies over the last few decades.
But the Pentagon also takes a more narrow view. Their mandate is military and that is what they consider. Pulling back and widening the lens, however, one can quickly see that there are more than purely military considerations to this fight. There are also political and moral dimensions—and these are far more complicated.
To wit, the Biden administration has pushed Zelensky to at least appear more willing to negotiate with Moscow because Putin has very adroitly seeded his message through various emissaries—including Elon Musk and the Vatican—that he is willing to talk but that Kyiv is being militantly intransigent. And while the administration is clear that negotiations will come at a time of Zelensky’s choosing while the West will continue giving his country (almost) everything he needs to fight back the Russian invaders, it is clear that there is an internal debate. A world in which a hot, kinetic war in Ukraine lasts through 2024, dragging with it the long tail of inflation, political instability, and domestic isolationism, is not the world the Biden administration wants to face, especially in an election year. There is also an understanding, as one U.S. government official told me, that the war “is not militarily winnable,” even if the Ukrainians don’t want to negotiate right now.
At the same time, there is a knowledge, born of long experience—remember Ukraine and Russia were Biden’s portfolio when he was vice president—that a settlement signed with Russia isn’t worth the paper it’s written on. Thus the debate. “There isn’t a single American view,” said one European diplomat. “They would like some sort of settlement, they want some kind of resolution, but they’re not as bad as the French.”
Moreover, there is a difference of opinion between the Biden administration and their closest European allies, the U.K. “The Brits have a very different take,” said the British-born Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution Russia scholar who was the Russia director on the National Security Council during the Trump administration. “They think the Ukrainians can keep on pressing forward. Despite the losses, they think the Ukrainian military is in reasonable shape whereas the Russian military has all kinds of problems. The Brits are not ruling out dialogue but they think that negotiating now would be grossly unfair to the Ukrainians.” According to the European diplomat, the Biden administration “has always been a bit less optimistic about Ukraine’s abilities than the Baltics, Poland, and Britain.” If one believes that Ukraine is tapped out or always at the outer limit of their abilities, “then you think it’s better to have a frozen line of control,” said the diplomat. “But if you start talking to real Russia experts in countries with real experience dealing with Russia, they’ll tell you that you cannot give in with the Russians because they’ll regroup and attack again.”
In that sense, the political considerations are pragmatic ones as well. What is the point of negotiating with a partner who is not negotiating in good faith? The Biden administration learned this lesson‚ if it didn’t know it already, last winter, when, in a frantic effort to forestall the inevitable, it engaged Russia in round after round of furious diplomacy that ultimately went nowhere—because Putin didn’t want it to. It’s hard to see how this time is any different. Yes, Russia’s losses are immense; yes, some of the war’s overt aims have been scaled back, but there is still no sign that Russia is actually ready to stop the war, rather than to just use the negotiations as a play for time to regroup and so it can strike back harder at Ukraine at a time of its choosing.
The Ghost of Minsk
Nationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin, who has admitted to fighting in the Donbas alongside the so-called pro-Russian separatists, went on Kremlin TV the other day to openly explain why Moscow would ever want to negotiate with Kyiv. “We want to start the negotiating process,” he said, “because it is strategically important for us to draw the situation out because it is obvious that we are not ready for any serious offensives; we’d have to double the size of our forces.” He added, “Even if we conclude a ceasefire, we will still inevitably have to finish the fight until the end.”
The Ukrainians know this better than anyone. They have been fighting a war with Russia since it first invaded in February 2014. Since then, there were ongoing negotiations, Minsk 1, Minsk 2… They went on so long and did so little to stop the fighting in the Donbas, which took over 13,000 lives in eight years, that they became a joke among Russia and Ukraine watchers (“Minsk Strikes Back,” “Return of the Minsk,” etc.). They were also each a poison pill, designed by Moscow to be impossible to implement without politically hobbling and subjugating Kyiv. And so, when in February 2022, Moscow invaded Ukraine in part under the pretext that Kyiv wasn’t implementing the Minsk Accords, it showed yet again what Russia means when it says it wants to negotiate: it’s lying, always. “There’s no tolerance in Ukraine to have that conversation yet, and rightly so,” said the European diplomat. “Zelensky doesn’t have the mandate to negotiate with the Russians—and you can’t forget that.”
Moreover, it’s important to keep in mind what a negotiation with Russia would actually look like, even if Ukraine went into it now, having retaken Kharkiv and Kherson, from a clear position of strength. “In any negotiation now, Ukraine is going to lose territory,” said Hill, “because Russia still has a maximalist set of demands. All Ukraine has been able to do so far is to recoup some losses. That’s not much of a concession. Only Russia has been able to make gains. Russia has devastated Ukraine. In thinking about negotiations, you have to think about how you’re going to roll back Russia. And there’s not much sign of that. There’s every sign that they’re digging in.”
Putin, after all, will never agree to anything that he can’t spin as a domestic win. “I think Putin wants to end the war, but he wants to end it on his terms,” Hill explained. “It’s like being at the gambling table—and he’s a pretty cautious gambler. He’s taken some losses but he still has a big pile of chips. He’s trying to figure out how to cash out with all those chips without having to fold and leave the table. And he still wants to take more by other means.”
Added Hill, “There’s some misplaced belief that things will go back to normal if we just get the war to stop. But there’s no status quo ante.”