Is the US serious about negotiations on Ukraine?Nov 19, 2022
The U.S. president’s remarks about territorial compromise could be a sea change, but is the White House serious about negotiations? asks M.K. Bhadrakumar.
The midterm elections in the U.S. witnessed tight races and saw the Senate remain Democratic hands and House of Representatives being taken over by the Republicans.
Last Wednesday, President Joe Biden told a press conference that:
“I’m prepared to work with my Republican colleagues. The American people have made clear, I think, that they expect Republicans to be prepared to work with me as well. In the area of foreign policy, I hope we’ll continue this bipartisan approach of confronting Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.”
When asked whether U.S. military aid to Ukraine will continue uninterrupted, Biden merely replied, “That is my expectation.” He contended that the U.S. hasn’t given Ukraine “a blank check” and only equipped Kiev to have “the rational ability to defend themselves.”
Biden avoided giving a direct answer when asked whether the Russian evacuation from Kherson City would give Kiev the leverage to begin peace negotiations with Moscow. But he didn’t refute such a line of thinking, either. He said:
“ … at a minimum, it (evacuation) will lead to time for everyone to recalibrate their positions over the winter period. And it remains to be seen whether or not there’ll be a judgment made as to whether or not Ukraine is prepared to compromise with Russia.”
Biden said that on the sidelines of the two-day G20 summit at Bali that got underway on Tuesday, there might be consultations with world leaders, although Russian President Vladimir Putin himself was not going to be there.
Some sort of diplomatic messaging is going on.
Biden took a second question on Kherson developments to say furthermore that the Russian evacuation will not only help the sides to “lick their wounds” but “decide whether — what they’re going to do over the winter, and decide whether or not they’re going to compromise.”
Notably, Biden has spoken twice about “compromise” (read territorial concessions) by Kiev, which seems to be a major shift from the U.S. stance that the Russian forces should get out of Ukraine. Biden concluded: “That’s – that’s what’s going to happen, whether or not. I don’t know what they’re going to do. And — but I do know one thing: We’re not going to tell them [the Ukrainians] what they have to do.”
[In a video address to the G-20 Summit in Bali on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “reiterated 10 conditions for ending the conflict … among them a complete withdrawal of Russian troops and full restoration of Ukrainian control of its territory,” euronews reported.]
Taken together, Biden’s remarks are consistent with NBC News reporting last Wednesday, citing informed sources, that during National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s unannounced visit to Kiev last week, he studied Ukraine’s readiness for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
The NBC channel reported that Sullivan was exploring options for ending the conflict and the chance of starting negotiations and raised the need for a diplomatic settlement during meetings with Ukrainian authorities.
It said some U.S. and Western officials increasingly believe that neither Kiev nor Moscow can achieve all of their goals, and the winter slowdown in hostilities could provide a window of opportunity to start negotiations.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said, “We are still open to negotiations, we have never refused them, we are ready to conduct them – taking, of course, into account the realities being established at the moment.”
Russian authorities maintain the evacuation of their forces in Kherson stems purely out of security considerations. The onus has been put on the recommendation by Army General Sergey Surovikin, the commander of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. The general claimed in a televised speech that the evacuation from Kherson creates stronger defensive lines for the troops and will save the lives of soldiers and civilians.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s presence in Bali is of pivotal importance. Presumably, he had contacts with Western counterparts. Indeed, Biden’s remarks about territorial compromise signal a possible sea change in the calculus.
Also, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, while opening a discussion with the Economic Club of New York last Wednesday about the possibility of peace between Ukraine and Russia, confirmed that there is indeed “a window of opportunity for negotiation” moving forward.
The general urged, “When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it. Seize the moment.” To be sure, he spoke with an eye on the Russian military command.
The White House, however, pushed back on Milley’s remarks, sending mixed messages about the possibility of a negotiated settlement of the war. The U.S. “wasn’t undercutting its goal of expelling the Russians,” according to senior Biden administration officials, Politico reported.
With the Republicans now in control of the House of Representatives, Biden may have to negotiate decisions on Ukraine with the GOP leadership, though there has been strong bi-partisan support for Ukraine until now.
The cascading economic crisis in Europe also holds explosive potential for political turmoil, especially if there is another refugee flow from Ukraine in the harsh winter conditions.
The blowback from sanctions against Russia has lethally wounded Europe, and bluster aside, there is really no replacement for the inexpensive, reliable, abundant Russian energy supplies via pipelines.
All this is becoming hugely consequential for Western unity. The recent visit of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to China shows that dissent is brewing.
Above all, the massive Russian mobilisation threatens to give a knockout blow to the Ukrainian military, but there is no appetite among Europeans for a confrontation with Russia.
The U.K., Washington’s steadfast ally in Ukraine, also is under immense pressure to disengage and concentrate on the domestic crisis as the new government tackles a funding hole of the order of £50 bn in the budget.
The notions of regime change in Moscow that Biden had once espoused publicly and the neocon project to “cancel” Russia has hit a wall and crumpled.
That said, the U.S. can draw comfort that the Russian pullout from the west of Dnieper implies that Moscow is not intending to make any move on Nikolaev, let alone Odessa — at least, in the near term.
On the other hand, if the Ukrainian forces surge and occupy Kherson and threaten Crimea, it will pose a big challenge for the Biden administration.
For now, it is premature to estimate that Moscow only took the bitter decision to abandon Kherson City, which was founded by a decree of Catherine the Great and is etched deeply in the Russian collective consciousness, with a reasonable certainty that Washington will restrain Kiev from “hot pursuit” of the retreating Russian army to the eastern banks of the Dnieper river. Russia denied reports on Tuesday that such a Ukrainian attack on the east bank had taken place.