Follow us on social

Screenshot-2023-06-12-at-5.38.44-pm

Is the US military more intent on ending Ukraine war than US diplomats?

There are growing reports that unlike the guys with guns, the civilians are discouraging negotiations and talk of a ceasefire.

Analysis | Europe

Throughout modern American History, hawkish military officials have often been frustrated by the caution of civilian leadership. Military brass had little respect for President John F. Kennedy’s reluctance to use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union. Gen. William Westmoreland chafed at the restrictions President Lyndon Johnson set on his air war in Vietnam.

This is reportedly not the case today. In a recent report about the growing U.S. willingness to cross Russian red lines by supplying Kyiv with ever more escalatory weapons, the Washington Post tells us that “inside the Biden administration, the Pentagon is considered more cautious than the White House or State Department about sending more sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine.” 

It’s part of a peculiar trend evident throughout the war in Ukraine, where in a dramatic reversal, U.S. military officials appear more often on the side of restraint than their civilian counterparts. 

Last November — only two weeks after a blizzard of hawkish attacks from media pundits and politicians led progressives in Congress to retract and disavow their letter calling for stepped-up diplomatic efforts — saw Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the highest ranking U.S. military officer, publicly urge Ukraine to “seize the moment” and move to the negotiating table before winter set in. 

According to reporting from CNN and theNew York Times, his speech reflected his private advice to President Joe Biden, advice that received pushback from top White House advisors who believed Kyiv should keep fighting — including national security advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is Washington's senior diplomat. 

“[M]ost of the top diplomatic and national security officials are wary of giving Russian President Vladimir Putin any sort of leverage at the negotiating table,” CNN reported at the time, with one official relaying that the State department, meant to be the driving engine of U.S. diplomacy, was “on the opposite side of the pole from Milley.” 

Biden’s National Security Council — comprised mostly of former speechwriters, presidential aides, lawyers, State Department officials, and others with non-military backgrounds — was “the most resistant to the idea of talks,” Politico reported, while Milley’s more dovish remarks “echoed a broad sense inside the Defense Department that the coming winter provides a chance to discuss reaching a political settlement to end the war,” with senior military officials doubtful Kyiv would force Russian forces from the territory they had seized.

In a separate report, an official close to Milley explained the four-star general was motivated by worries about the war escalating. When Sullivan publicly contradicted Milley and assured the public Kyiv would not seek to negotiate, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, called it “very welcome.” 

All of this was only two months after what we now know, thanks to the Discord leaks of classified Pentagon documents, was a dangerously close call between Russian and British aircraft, which could have sparked a direct Russia-NATO conflict had it not been for a fortuitously timed malfunction. 

This appears to remain the case. As recently as this past February, Milley reiterated that the war will end at the negotiating table, insisting that there was “a rolling window” for diplomacy and “opportunities at any moment in time.” By contrast, just last week Blinken gave a speech denigrating a growing global push for ceasefire, arguing it would “legitimize Russia’s land grab” and “reward the aggressor and punish the victim.”

This stance isn’t limited to Milley. Only a few weeks before the political firestorm that engulfed Congressional progressives’ letter, retired Adm. Mike Mullen, himself the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke about the need for diplomacy. 

Calling Russian president Vladimir Putin a “dangerous” and “cornered animal” in light of Ukraine’s bombing of the Kerch Bridge in Crimea, Mullen said his nuclear threats should be taken seriously, and that it all pointed to the need to negotiate, warning that Washington needed to “do everything we possibly can to try to get to the table to resolve this thing.” 

Insisting that all wars end in negotiations — “the sooner the better, as far as I’m concerned” — Mullen suggested the four eastern Ukrainian provinces Putin had illegally annexed a month earlier could form part of an “off-ramp” for him. 

This stood in stark contrast to the rhetoric of both civilian officials and media commentators, with many of the latter insisting to this day on a policy of total military defeat for Russia, and even inducing the country’s break-up. At the time and since, there was widespread insistence that Putin’s nuclear threats were a mere bluff to be safely dismissed, that negotiation is akin to surrender, and that Ukraine should fight until it had regained all of its lost territory. 

Just months earlier, Sullivan had said the administration’s goal was ensuring the invasion was a “strategic failure” for Putin, which would see “Russia pay a longer-term price in terms of the elements of its national power.” A few months before that, when the war had virtually just begun, historian Niall Ferguson reported that a senior administration official had been overheard saying that “the only end game now” was “the end of the Putin regime,” words echoed by Biden’s own off-the-cuff remark the same month that Putin “cannot remain in power.”

At the same time that many in the West cheered the destruction of the Kerch Bridge in Crimea, it was senior intelligence and military officers who raised the alarm to Newsweek’sWilliam Arkin. “The very conditions that Putin has told us might justify nuclear escalation are emerging,” warned one. “What would drive him to use nuclear weapons, not what would satisfy some Washington pundit, is the question we should be seized with,” said another. 

The task now, a third official said, was “to craft an out for him,” because “the good of the planet at this point is more important than the defeat and humiliation of a single nuclear madman.” 

This was all back in October 2022. Since then, under Biden and his civilian advisors’ leadership, U.S. involvement in the war has only deepened, with Washington sending weapons like tanks and fighter jets that it had earlier considered far too escalatory to provide, giving Kyiv the green light to attack within Russian borders, and officially okaying Ukrainian attacks on Crimea even as the administration acknowledges this is could trigger the use of a nuclear weapon. 

This isn’t the very first time this century that top military officials have pushed back against civilian leaders’ war plans. Adm. William J. Fallon, then the commander of U.S. Central Command, resigned in 2008 after resisting what he called the Bush administration’s “drumbeat of conflict” with Iran in favor of diplomatic engagement. 

And it’s not as if Pentagon officials have all suddenly turned into doves. Kyiv’s attacks inside Russia received the tacit endorsement of the U.S. military, for instance. 

But the fact that these same military officials are more favorable to diplomacy and concerned about escalation than their civilian counterparts suggests just how radically the political center of gravity has shifted on matters of war and peace under the Biden administration. As the New York Times informed us in a September 2022 report, the president “often reminds his aides” that “we’re trying to avoid World War III.” 

Sixty years on from Kennedy’s tussle with his military brass, it seems it’s no longer civilian leadership who are the voices of restraint, but rather the ones who need restraining.

US Secretary of State Tony Blinken (US Dept. of State) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley (US National Guard)
Analysis | Europe
Will US troops have to  go to war for Mohammed bin Salman? (VIDEO)
Biden's Saudi War Obligation

Will US troops have to go to war for Mohammed bin Salman? (VIDEO)

Video Section

Even as the war in Gaza rages on and the death toll surpasses 35,000, the Biden administration appears set on pursuing its vision of a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal that it sees as the path to peace in the Middle East.

But, the agreement that the administration is selling as a peace agreement that will put Palestine on the path to statehood and fundamentally transform the region ultimately amounts to a U.S. war obligation for Saudi Arabia that would also give Mohammed bin Salman nuclear technology.

keep readingShow less
Following a largely preordained election, Vladimir Putin was sworn in last week for another six-year term as president of Russia. Putin’s victory has, of course, been met with accusations of fraud and political interference, factors that help explain his 87.3% vote share.   If this continuation of Putin’s 24-year-long hold on power makes one thing clear, it’s that he and his regime will not be going anywhere for the foreseeable future. But, as his war in Ukraine continues with no clear end in sight, what is less clear is how Washington plans to deal with this reality.  Experts say Washington needs to start projecting a long-term strategy toward Russia and its war in Ukraine, wielding its political leverage to apply pressure on Putin and push for more diplomacy aimed at ending the conflict. Only by looking beyond short-term solutions can Washington realistically move the needle in Ukraine.  Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, the U.S. has focused on getting aid to Ukraine to help it win back all of its pre-2014 territory, a goal complicated by Kyiv’s systemic shortages of munitions and manpower. But that response neglects a more strategic approach to the war, according to Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who spoke in a recent panel hosted by Carnegie.   “There is a vortex of emergency planning that people have been, unfortunately, sucked into for the better part of two years since the intelligence first arrived in the fall of 2021,” Weiss said. “And so the urgent crowds out the strategic.”   Historian Stephen Kotkin, for his part, says preserving Ukraine’s sovereignty is critical. However, the apparent focus on regaining territory, pushed by the U.S., is misguided.   “Wars are never about regaining territory. It's about the capacity to fight and the will to fight. And if Russia has the capacity to fight and Ukraine takes back territory, Russia won't stop fighting,” Kotkin said in a podcast on the Wall Street Journal.  And it appears Russia does have the capacity. The number of troops and weapons at Russia’s disposal far exceeds Ukraine’s, and Russian leaders spend twice as much on defense as their Ukrainian counterparts. Ukraine will need a continuous supply of aid from the West to continue to match up to Russia. And while aid to Ukraine is important, Kotkin says, so is a clear plan for determining the preferred outcome of the war.  The U.S. may be better served by using the significant political leverage it has over Russia to shape a long-term outcome in its favor.   George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft, says that Russia’s primary concerns and interests do not end with Ukraine. Moscow is fundamentally concerned about the NATO alliance and the threat it may pose to Russian internal stability. Negotiations and dialogue about the bounds and limits of NATO and Russia’s powers, therefore, are critical to the broader conflict.   This is a process that is not possible without the U.S. and Europe. “That means by definition, we have some leverage,” Beebe says.   To this point, Kotkin says the strength of the U.S. and its allies lies in their political influence — where they are much more powerful than Russia — rather than on the battlefield. Leveraging this influence will be a necessary tool in reaching an agreement that is favorable to the West’s interests, “one that protects the United States, protects its allies in Europe, that preserves an independent Ukraine, but also respects Russia's core security interests there.”  In Kotkin’s view, this would mean pushing for an armistice that ends the fighting on the ground and preserves Ukrainian sovereignty, meaning not legally acknowledging Russia’s possession of the territory they have taken during the war. Then, negotiations can proceed.   Beebe adds that a treaty on how conventional forces can be used in Europe will be important, one that establishes limits on where and how militaries can be deployed. “[Russia] need[s] some understanding with the West about what we're all going to agree to rule out in terms of interference in the other's domestic affairs,” Beebe said.     Critical to these objectives is dialogue with Putin, which Beebe says Washington has not done enough to facilitate. U.S. officials have stated publicly that they do not plan to meet with Putin.    The U.S. rejected Putin’s most statements of his willingness to negotiate, which he expressed in an interview with Tucker Carlson in February, citing skepticism that Putin has any genuine intentions of ending the war. “Despite Mr. Putin’s words, we have seen no actions to indicate he is interested in ending this war. If he was, he would pull back his forces and stop his ceaseless attacks on Ukraine,” a spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council said in response.   But neither side has been open to serious communication. Biden and Putin haven’t met to engage in meaningful talks about the war since it began, their last meeting taking place before the war began in the summer of 2021 in Geneva. Weiss says the U.S. should make it clear that those lines of communication are open.   “Any strategy that involves diplomatic outreach also has to be sort of undergirded by serious resolve and a sense that we're not we're not going anywhere,” Weiss said.  An end to the war will be critical to long-term global stability. Russia will remain a significant player on the world stage, Beebe explains, considering it is the world’s largest nuclear power and a leading energy producer. It is therefore ultimately in the U.S. and Europe’s interests to reach a relationship “that combines competitive and cooperative elements, and where we find a way to manage our differences and make sure that they don't spiral into very dangerous military confrontation,” he says.    As two major global superpowers, the U.S. and Russia need to find a way to share the world. Only genuine, long-term planning can ensure that Washington will be able to shape that future in its best interests.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin/File Photo
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during their meeting in Moscow March 10, 2011. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin/File Photo

Playing the long game with Putin

Europe

Following a largely preordained election, Vladimir Putin was sworn in last week for another six-year term as president of Russia. Putin’s victory has, of course, been met with accusations of fraud and political interference, factors that help explain his 87.3% vote share.

If this continuation of Putin’s 24-year-long hold on power makes one thing clear, it’s that he and his regime will not be going anywhere for the foreseeable future. But, as his war in Ukraine continues with no clear end in sight, what is less clear is how Washington plans to deal with this reality.

keep readingShow less
Georgia bill passes: Why the West needs to stay out of the protests

Demonstration at Georgia's Parliament in Tbilisi on May 12, 2024, the night before the vote on a law on foreign influence. (Maxime Gruss / Hans Lucas via Reuters)

Georgia bill passes: Why the West needs to stay out of the protests

Europe

Mass protests are roiling the Republic of Georgia as tens of thousands have taken to the streets against a proposed bill by the Georgian government on “foreign influence” that has worsened tension in an already polarized Georgian society.

That bill was passed Tuesday after turmoil in which punches were actually thrown between lawmakers on the parliament floor.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis

Latest