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.