During internal conversations about the war in Ukraine, America’s top general, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, has in recent weeks led a strong push to seek a diplomatic solution as fighting heads toward a winter lull.
But Milley’s position is not widely backed by President Joe Biden’s national security team, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan, neither of whom believe it’s time to make a serious push for talks over Ukraine, according to two administration officials familiar with the discussion.
The result is a growing debate inside the administration over whether Ukraine’s recent gains on the battlefield should spark a renewed effort to seek some sort of negotiated end to the fighting, according to officials.
Milley’s push for peace has spilled into the public in recent days, just as Ukraine takes back the city of Kherson. In comments at the Economic Club of New York on Wednesday, 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.
The comments left administration officials unsurprised – given Milley’s advocacy for the position internally – but also raised concerned among some about the administration appearing divided in the eyes of the Kremlin.
While some Biden officials are more open to exploring what diplomacy may look like, sources tell CNN most of the top diplomatic and national security officials are wary of giving Russian President Vladimir Putin any sort of leverage at the negotiating table and believe Ukrainians must determine when to hold talks, not the US.
“That’s up to the Ukrainians. Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine,” Biden said at a Wednesday press conference when asked about the potential for talks.
In internal deliberations, officials said Milley has sought to make it clear that he is not urging a Ukrainian capitulation, but rather that he believes now is an optimal time to drive toward an end to the war before it drags into spring or beyond, leading to more death and destruction without changing the front lines.
“He’s not rushing to negotiate with Russia or to press (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelensky,” said one official familiar with Milley’s thinking. “It’s a discussion around a pause in the fighting towards a political end state.”
But that view is not widely held across the administration. One official explained that the State Department is on the opposite side of the pole from Milley. That dynamic has led to a unique situation where military brass are more fervently pushing for diplomacy than US diplomats.
Milley’s position comes as the US military has dug deep into US weapons stockpiles to support the Ukrainians and is currently scouring the globe for materials to support Ukraine heading into winter – such as heaters and generators – which has raised concerns about how long this war can be sustained, officials said.
The US intends to buy 100,000 rounds of artillery ammunition from South Korean arms manufacturers to provide to Ukraine, a US official said, part of a broader effort to find available weaponry for the high-intensity battles unfolding in Ukraine. As part of the deal, the US will purchase 100,000 rounds of 155mm howitzer ammunition, which will then be transferred to Ukraine through the US.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price would not say Thursday whether the State Department agrees with Milley’s position. Instead, Price deflected to a position that US officials have often made in recent months: the US sides with Zelensky who has said that a diplomatic solution is needed.
“The Ukrainians have made clear their belief that this war will ultimately end at the negotiating table. The Russians occasionally have voiced that same sentiment,” Price said, before laying the burden of proof on Putin.
“The onus remains on Moscow to demonstrate not only through word but also in deed that it is ready to negotiate, it is ready to meet what the world has very clearly heard from our Ukrainian partners, and that they are ready and willing to sit down and engage in good faith.”
The internal debate comes as senior US officials – including Sullivan – have in recent weeks been urging Ukraine to signal that it is still open to diplomatic discussions with Russia, even after Zelensky signed a decree in early October ruling out negotiations with Putin.
The US understands clearly why Zelensky would balk at negotiations with the country attacking Ukraine on a daily basis, and Putin has shown little willingness to enter serious discussions or make any concessions to Kyiv. Instead, the US’ immediate goal has been to shift the messaging strategy to make sure Ukraine can sustain the international support that has helped it succeed on the battlefield so far.
“The United States is going to be with Ukraine for as long as it takes in this fight,” Sullivan said in a recent visit to Ukraine. “There will be no wavering, no flagging, no flinching in our support as we go forward.”