In November, there was a surprising development in relation to the Ukraine War, with pressure for a diplomatic solution coming from the US military (pressure that has been resisted fiercely by the civilian political leadership).
The New York Times reported on 10 November that the chair of the US joint chiefs of staff, general Mark Milley, argued in private top-level meetings for Ukraine to enter peace negotiations with Russia to end the war.
After Ukrainian successes in the Donbass region, including recapturing the city of Kherson on 9 November, Milley, the top military leader in the US, was said to believe that the Ukrainians had achieved as much as they could reasonably expect on the battlefield, before winter set in, ‘and so they should try to cement their gains at the bargaining table’.
Milley also spoke out on US TV on 10 November: ‘we think there are some possibilities here for some diplomatic solutions’.
The Russian retreat from Kherson seems to have been partly about creating a more defensible position.
In White House discussions, Milley, making a hardheaded assessment of the military realities, and citing satellite images of trenches being dug by Russian forces, is said to have referred to the example of the First World War: ‘when the two sides engaged in years of trench warfare with little change in territory but millions of pointless casualties.’
On 9 November, Milley cast doubt on the possibility of outright military victory in a speech to the Economic Club of New York: ‘When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it. Seize the moment.’
On 16 November, Milley again argued publicly for diplomacy, saying at a press conference that the Ukrainians might be able to achieve through negotiations what they were unlikely to achieve through military force: ‘There may be a political solution where politically the Russians withdraw.... Russia right now is on its back. The Russian military is suffering tremendously.... 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.’
Peace-seeking is realistic
It is possible that Milley is wrong in his views. What is certain, though, is that no one who now calls for a diplomatic solution can be dismissed as an idle dreamer disconnected from reality.
The most powerful general in the world, with the world’s most powerful intelligence agencies at his fingertips, believes that this is the time for peace negotiations to end the Russia-Ukraine War.
Furthermore, he believes that peace talks now have a chance of winning Ukraine advantages that it cannot gain by military force.
These are not the beliefs of an idle dreamer disconnected from reality.
After weathering a political backlash for his earlier remarks, Milley was less direct on 16 November in publicly calling for negotiations: ‘if there’s a slowdown in the actual tactical fighting... that may become a window... for a political solution, or at least the beginnings of talks to initiate a political solution.’
In terms of the Ukraine’s military chances, Milley said: ‘The probability of a Ukrainian military victory – defined as kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine to include what they claim as Crimea – the probability of that happening anytime soon is not high, militarily.’
The US civilian political leadership responded to Milley’s public campaign for peace talks by quietly ‘working to reassure the Ukrainian government, outside experts, and former US officials that it will not push Ukraine to imminently seek a diplomatic outcome to the war with Russia’ (CNN, 15 November).
A US official, presumably a civilian, was quoted anonymously as saying that Milley’s position was ‘absurd’.
The way out
The civilian political leadership in the US has publicly remained committed to its policy (which is also the British government’s policy) of arming Ukraine to the hilt so that its military can drive all Russian forces from all Ukrainian territory.
US author and activist Noam Chomsky points out that there is a contradiction between Western propaganda about Russian president Vladimir Putin and this Western-backed policy of ‘driving the Russians out’. The contradiction can only be solved by assuming that, ‘facing defeat, Mad Vlad – a monster who [the West says] will do anything to extend his power – will quietly pack his bags and slink away to oblivion’.
The West is gambling with Ukrainian lives that Putin will not use his conventional forces – or maybe even nuclear weapons – to destroy what he cannot conquer, in order to avoid a humiliating defeat.
If the Ukrainians want to take such risks, that is a matter for them, as Chomsky rightly says. What should concern us in the UK is our own government’s policy.
The alternative to risking the complete destruction of Ukraine (and perhaps much more of the planet) is a negotiated end to the war.
‘As the conflict has escalated, the options for diplomacy have declined’, Chomsky admitted recently in Truthout. The options have not disappeared, though, at least according to the top military leader in the US.
Chomsky says: ‘What the US can do is stop acting to prevent negotiations.’ The same applies to the British government, which lobbied against a Russia-Ukraine peace deal that was nearly agreed back in April, in Istanbul (PN 2661). That deal, which did not give any Ukrainian territory to Russia, was mentioned favourably by Putin on 21 September (PN 2662) and again on 31 October.
Please fake it
As noted in our front page story, Ukraine has banned negotiations with Russia so long as it is led by Putin. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued that decree on 30 September, making this a ‘regime change’ war, from Ukraine’s point of view.
Zelenskyy’s ban on peace talks ‘generated concern in parts of Europe, Africa and Latin America, where the war’s disruptive effects on the availability and cost of food and fuel are felt most sharply.’
That’s what US officials told the Washington Post, according to a report on 5 November.
The response of the Joe Biden administration, as the headline of the article put it, was this: ‘U.S. privately asks Ukraine to show it’s open to negotiate with Russia: The encouragement is aimed not at pushing Ukraine to the negotiating table, but ensuring it maintains a moral high ground in the eyes of its international backers.’
US officials described this as ‘a calculated attempt’ to ensure Ukraine maintained the support of other governments facing ‘constituencies wary of fueling a war for many years to come.’
In other words, pull the wool over the people’s eyes so that the war can go on without interference.
In response, on 8 November, Zelenskyy said that he was open to negotiations, and he called publicly for the international community to ‘force Russia into real peace talks’.
This was a cynical farce, because Zelenskyy also spelled out his preconditions for negotiations taking place: ‘restoration of [Ukraine’s] territorial integrity... compensation for all war damage, punishment for every war criminal and guarantees that it will not happen again’.
In other words, peace talks can happen once Russia has withdrawn from all Ukrainian territory (including Crimea), has paid massive reparations to Ukraine, and has allowed its political and military leadership to be tried and sentenced for war crimes.
While Zelenskyy did not refer to the Putin ban, this list is actually an even more extreme agenda blocking the possibility of negotiations.
Of course, Russia has done a great deal to undermine the possibility of a negotiated end to this war, including committing gruesome war crimes and annexing tens of thousands of square miles of Ukrainian territory (saying they would be Russian territory ‘forever’).
At the same time, Putin said at a press conference on 31 October: ‘it is not always expedient in terms of one’s national aims to put one’s negotiating position on the table in advance. Sometimes, this is the last thing you do. A better option is to put forward what diplomats call initial demands and then gradually advance towards a common denominator that would suit both sides.’
Putin repeated something he’d said before: ‘We came to terms with them in Istanbul, but they later threw everything into the rubbish bin.’
The official Russian position is that it has no preconditions for peace talks – though it has also said recently that the US refusal to recognise the annexed territories as Russian was an obstacle to talks.
As Chomsky pointed out in August: ‘There’s only one way to find out whether Russia is serious about negotiations: Try. Nothing is lost.’