The Biden administration is 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 after the most senior US general publicly pushed for a more urgent diplomatic effort this winter.
The administration is organizing a phone call later this week with outside experts and former US officials to discuss their approach to the war, after Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley’s comments prompted frantic outreach to the administration from those concerned about rewarding Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and undermining Ukraine’s military gains, three sources familiar with the matter said.
Some of those invited to the call – which will take place on Wednesday – said that they believe it’s part of the administration’s continued cleanup efforts after Milley’s remarks, the sources said.
Milley’s push for peace has spilled into the public last week in comments at the Economic Club of New York, Milley praised the Ukrainian army for fighting Russia to a stalemate, but said that an outright military victory is out of reach.
“When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it. Seize the moment,” Milley said.
Milley’s comments also rattled some Ukrainians and US officials, two US officials told CNN. They prompted the Ukrainians to worry about a possible change in US policy and administration officials grew concerned about who was being associated with Milley’s comments, with one official calling his view that Ukrainians should seek negotiations now “absurd.”
National security adviser Jake Sullivan directly addressed the matter when he spoke with the press aboard President Joe Biden’s flight to the G20 on Friday night, making it clear that Milley’s comments did not mark a change in US policy.
Citing a position that is “shared across the US government” Sullivan said that the US will continue to do everything possible to put Ukraine in the “best possible position on the battlefield so that when they make their determination to proceed, they’re in the best possible position at the negotiating table.”
Sullivan also publicly cited Biden’s remarks last week that it is up to Ukraine to decide “when and how they want to negotiate.”
Biden also reiterated that the US will not be negotiating anything related to the ongoing war without Ukraine during a G20 press conference on Monday.
“I’ve been very clear that we’re going to continue to provide the capability for the Ukrainian people to defend themselves. And we are not going to engage in any negotiation,” Biden said. “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine. This is a decision Ukraine has to make.”
Military officials who work with Milley had been privately telling people outside of government that he was simply concerned about escalation and that he was not trying to contradict the Biden administration’s policy, one source familiar with the matter said.
CNN previously reported that most of the Biden administration’s top diplomatic and national security officials are wary of giving Putin any sort of leverage around the negotiating table and believe that Ukrainians must determine when to hold talks, not the US.
Sullivan’s public comments were met with relief among those who worried about the US urging Ukraine to head to the table while its military push continues to be successful.
“Jake’s comments, his clarification were very welcome. They made it clear that decisions about negotiations are Ukrainians’, that is the US position. And that in this regard the US position and the Ukrainian position are the same,” said Bill Taylor, the former US ambassador to Ukraine and the vice president for Russia and Europe at the US Institute of Peace.
While the Biden administration has held a series of calls with outside experts over the last year as the Ukraine war has raged on, this is the first in a while. The call scheduled for later this week will allow exports to once again ask the administration even more questions about what lies ahead for the Ukraine war.