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White House says not 'nudging' Zelensky to negotiate, after Milley said Ukraine has upper hand to enter talks
“Nobody from the United States is pushing or prodding or nudging [Zelensky] to the table...while his citizens are literally being slaughtered," NSC’s John Kirby said today.
When top U.S. military officer Gen. Mark Milley this week explained his logic for why he thought Ukraine might be in a good position to enter negotiations with Russia to try to end the war, one was left to wonder if the U.S. is pushing behind the scenes on the Ukrainians to get to the negotiating table.
Milley’s comments came amid reports that CIA Director Bill Burns had met with his Russian counterpart in Ankara on Monday (Nov. 14), before traveling to Ukraine and Poland; and amid comments from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that he had gotten signals that Russian President Vladmir Putin was seeking direct talks.
But several current and former US officials say that is not what is going on. Rather, they suggest, there is something of an information war going on for global public opinion, in which some believe Zelensky stating his willingness to negotiate a just peace might help keep on board countries particularly in the global south that just want to see the war end, including over concerns about food and energy prices.
“Everybody across the administration agrees that this war could end today if Mr. Putin did the right thing, [but] obviously, he has shown no proclivity to pull his troops out,” US National Security Council official John Kirby told reporters today (Nov. 18). “We've also said that President Zelensky gets to determine if and when he's ready for negotiations and what those negotiations look like.”
“Nobody from the United States is pushing or prodding or nudging him to the table,” Kirby said. “It’s difficult to imagine us doing that, while his country's still coming under a barrage of missile strikes and attacks, including over just the last few days, deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure and killing innocent Ukrainians.”
When US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan traveled to Kyiv to meet with Zelensky on Nov. 4, he announced another $400 million US security assistance package for Ukraine, including refurbished T-72 tanks, unmanned aerial vehicles, and the refurbishment of HAWK surface to air missiles.
But behind the scenes, former US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder suggested, Sullivan was also conferring with Zelensky about messaging, with an eye to counter the Russian narrative making headway in parts of the world that it is Ukraine dragging its feet on negotiations to end the war.
“The White House has been for quite a while concerned that the narrative in the global south in particular has been that the consequences of this war are so bad for us, in terms of high food and fuel prices and food shortages, that we need to just find a way to end this war,” said Daalder, now President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
In swathes of the world outside of North America and Europe, “the Russians have been very successful in blaming the West and sanctions as opposed to their invasion” for the food and energy price rises and shortages caused by the war, Daalder said. “We have tried to make clear that the fundamental cause of the problem is Russian aggression. But we have not won the narrative argument in the global south.”
“We have been trying to work on how we can affect that narrative,” he said. “Part of the reason why Jake [Sullivan] went to Kyiv was to have a conversation with Zelensky, how can we have a better rhetorical posture when it comes to negotiations.”
“The phrase used is we are in favor of ‘a just peace,’ and we are happy to negotiate,” Daalder said, noting a G7 statement in October was the first to start using it.
‘A Just Peace’
“No country wants peace more than Ukraine, whose people have suffered death, displacement and countless atrocities as the result of Russian aggression,” G7 leaders said in a statement Oct. 11. “In solidarity with Ukraine, the G7 Leaders welcome President Zelensky’s readiness for a just peace.”
Zelensky, in a speech to G20 leaders meeting in Bali on Nov. 15, talked about “our vision of the path to peace—how to actually achieve it,” and laid out a kind of ten point peace plan.
“I want this aggressive Russian war to end justly and on the basis of the UN Charter and international law,” Zelensky told the “G19,” as he called it, as he thought Russia should be excluded from the group and Putin did not attend.
“Ukraine should not be offered to conclude compromises with its conscience, sovereignty, territory and independence,” Zelensky said. “If Russia says that it supposedly wants to end this war, let it prove it with actions.”
‘This is information warfare’
Zelensky laying out his 10-point peace plan is a “direct result of our attempt to try to convince him to deal with the narrative problem in the global south, to demonstrate that…Ukraine is not the problem,” Daalder said. “It is the Russians who are not willing to negotiate. It is the Russians who have the knife on Ukrainians’ throats.”
“This is information warfare,” Daalder said.
If the US and Ukraine have coordinated on this narrative messaging, Milley’s comments this week have raised some questions if everyone within the US administration is on the same page. Milley argued essentially that with Ukraine currently ascendant on the battlefield and Russia on the back foot, but total Ukrainian military victory to liberate the rest of its territory unlikely in the next couple months, maybe now would be a good time for Ukraine to get to the negotiating table.
“In terms of probability, the probability of a Ukrainian military victory defined as kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine to include…Crimea, the probability of that happening anytime soon is not high, militarily,” Milley, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said at a press conference with US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin Wednesday (Nov. 16), following a meeting of the Ukrainian defense contact group. “Politically, there may be a political solution where, politically, the Russians withdraw, that's possible. You want to negotiate from a position of strength. Russia right now is on its back [foot].”
“The Russian military is suffering tremendously,” Milley continued. “Their leadership is really hurting bad. They've lost a lot of causalities, killed and wounded….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.”
A former US diplomat said it was his impression that Milley was “off the reservation,” and those are just his own positions.
Keeping US-Russia Communication Channels Open
But a former US intelligence officer who worked on Europe said he believes that parts of the US government are concerned about a protracted war, including about the risks for some sort of catastrophic event and for the stability of Russia.
“My sense is that there is concern in the US administration about the stability of Russia, that they would like to see this ended sooner rather than later, and that bangs up against Ukrainian war aims,” Marc Polymeropoulos, nonresident senior fellow at Atlantic Council, and a former senior CIA officer, told me.
The United States is making a concerted effort to keep communications channels with Russia open, the NSC’s Kirby said. In addition to CIA Director Burns’ meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Naryshkyn in Ankara Nov. 14, the NSC’s Sullivan has reportedly held regular conversations with his counterpart, Russian National Security Secretary Nikolai Patrushev and with Kremlin foreign policy advisor Yuri Ushakov; Secretary of Defense Austin with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu; and Milley with his counterpart, Valeri Gerasimov. (However, Milley said Wednesday that after a missile killed two people in Poland this past week, his staff reached out to the Russians to try to set up a call with Gerasimov, and the Russians were not responsive.)
“We want those channels of communication to stay open with the Russians, especially now,” Kirby said. “But we’re not participating in negotiations about the end of the war with the Russians.”
“Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine,” Kirby added.
Former NSC and State Department Russia hand Andrew Weiss said he thinks the US administration assesses that it is too early for there to be serious negotiations between Russia and Ukraine to try to end the war, because of Russia.
“It just seems really early to me,” Weiss, now with the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, and author of a new graphic book, Accidental Czar: the Life and Lies of Vladimir Putin. “The Russians have repeatedly said we are ready to talk, but they say it in this very disingenuous way….The Russians have never been operating in good faith in any of the negotiating processes. I don’t have confidence they were ever truly serious.”
“A simple ceasefire won't solve anything,” Zelensky told a Bloomberg energy conference yesterday (Nov. 17). “We need to bring peace back - reliably, for a long time. Merely mitigating crises provoked by Russia won't bring back stability.”
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