In Ukraine, US fears 'unacceptable' ceasefire
As Russia and China discuss a peace plan for Ukraine, the White House declares that any lull in the fight would be "unacceptable" and even illegal.
The meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow brings together the two states that the United States deems as its top strategic rivals. It has also crystallized what the US currently deems as a top strategic threat: the prospect of a halt to the proxy war in Ukraine.
“If coming out of this meeting, there’s some sort of call for a ceasefire, well, that’s just going to be unacceptable,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby declared. For Secretary of State Antony Blinken, a Ukraine ceasefire would not only be unacceptable, but illegal. “The world should not be fooled by any tactical move by Russia supported by China, or any other country, to freeze the war on its own terms,” Blinken said. “Such a move would violate the UN charter.”
The US argues that any ceasefire would consolidate Russia’s battlefield gains and allow it to prepare for a major spring offensive. While plausible, what happens after a ceasefire is not pre-ordained. A halt to the fighting in Ukraine could be followed by serious negotiations to end the war permanently, provided that all warring parties engage in good faith efforts toward that goal. As its top diplomat has newly made clear, the Biden administration is clearly in no mood to give diplomacy even a cursory try.
The White House’s open rejection of a ceasefire in Ukraine also calls into question its oft-professed fidelity to Ukrainian “sovereignty” and “agency.” The US has declined to push for a peace agreement in Ukraine on the stated grounds that such decisions are up to Ukraine’s government. Yet it has no qualms about publicly informing its Kiev proxy that it actively opposes any halt to a war fueled by US weaponry and intelligence.
The US stance was made clear well ahead of Xi’s visit to Russia. “President Biden and his aides say their goal for now is to keep giving Ukraine military aid to repel Russia and take back Ukrainian territory, and that any peace talks, an idea that China and a few other nations are pushing, are a distraction,” the New York Times reported earlier this month.
From the US perspective, another apparent distraction is the resulting Ukrainian toll, which US officials estimate has topped 100,000 killed or wounded. A bleak assessment in the Washington Post notes that Ukraine’s military “has been degraded by a year of casualties that have taken many of the most experienced fighters off the battlefield, leading some Ukrainian officials to question Kyiv’s readiness to mount a much-anticipated spring offensive.”
But as their open hostility to a truce illustrates, US officials stationed far away from the battlefield apparently have so such apprehension. According to the New York Times, senior US generals recently hosted Ukrainian military officials at a military base in Germany for “tabletop” exercises “designed to help Kyiv map out the next stage of its battle to reclaim territory from dug-in Russian troops.”
The Times insists that the Ukrainians are in charge, with “the American military officials described as serving like a sounding board.” But “described” may be the key word. When Ukrainian forces use advanced US-provided rocket systems, they “require coordinates provided or confirmed by the United States and its allies for the vast majority of strikes... a previously undisclosed practice that reveals a deeper and more operationally active role for the Pentagon in the war,” the Washington Post reported last month. Accordingly, Ukraine “usually chooses not to strike without U.S. confirmation.”
Although US opposition to diplomacy is entrenched, one open question is whether the US-coordinated strikes against Russia will extend deep into Crimea. In January, the New York Times reported that the administration had started to “warm” to helping Ukraine attack Crimea, “even if such a move increases the risk of escalation.” Even with “additional weaponry, the Biden administration does not think that Ukraine can take Crimea militarily — and indeed, there are still worries that such a move could drive Mr. Putin to retaliate with an escalatory response,” the Times added. But despite these “worries”, the prevailing “assessment now is that Russia needs to believe that Crimea is at risk, in part to strengthen Ukraine’s position in any future negotiations.”
The White House position also apparently stems from “a dampening of fears that targeting Crimea would drive Mr. Putin to use a tactical nuclear weapon.” Explaining the “shifting thinking,” Dara Massicot, of the Pentagon-tied RAND Corporation, said: “There is more clarity on their tolerance for damage and attacks. Crimea has already been hit many times without a massive escalation from the Kremlin.”
In short, to avoid nuclear strikes or even World War III, the White House is counting on Russia’s “tolerance for damage and attacks” to continue apace. Unacknowledged is the flip side of the White House’s gambit: a growing US tolerance for more damage and attacks against Ukraine. Back in September, US officials warned the New York Times “that the most dangerous moments are yet to come,” given that Russia, at that point, “has avoided escalating the war in ways that have, at times, baffled Western officials.” A few weeks later, Ukrainian operatives bombed Crimea’s Kerch bridge, soon triggering a devastating wave of Russian attacks on Ukraine’s electrical grid, as US officials had predicted.
If the Ukrainian military attacks Crimea, it is Ukrainians who will pay the costs of any Russian response – a result that the Biden administration apparently has endless “tolerance” for.
Asked last month about the Times’ account of its Crimea strategy, senior US official Victoria Nuland signaled her assent. “No matter what the Ukrainians decide about Crimea in terms of where they choose to fight etcetera, Ukraine is not going to be safe unless Crimea is at a minimum, at a minimum, demilitarised,” Nuland told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As for the potential dangers of escalation in Crimea, Nuland is not concerned. “Those are legitimate targets, Ukraine is hitting them and we are supporting that,” Nuland said.
Along with disregarding the likely Ukrainian toll of a Russian response to an attack on Crimea, US officials appear equally unconcerned with the wishes of Crimea’s population. Since Russia seized Crimea following the 2014 US-backed Maidan coup, US-funded polls “show that Crimeans were and remain mostly in favor of the Russian annexation,” Foreign Affairs reported in 2020. “That popular sentiment complicates the West’s prevailing view of the seizure of Crimea as an aggressive land grab” by Russia.
The emerging US determination to prolong the war has started to unnerve some NATO allies. “We keep repeating that Russia mustn’t win, but what does that mean? If the war goes on for long enough with this intensity, Ukraine’s losses will become unbearable,” a senior French official told the Wall Street Journal. “And no one believes they will be able to retrieve Crimea.”
“You can continue to wear down the Russians, which means hundreds of thousands of deaths, but on both sides,” Erich Vad, a former German army General and military policy advisor to former Chancellor Angela Merkel, said in January. “And it means further destruction of Ukraine. What is left of this country? It will be leveled to the ground. Ultimately, that is no longer an option for Ukraine either. The key to solving the conflict does not lie in Kyiv, nor does it lie in Berlin, Brussels or Paris, it lies in Washington and Moscow. It's ridiculous to say that Ukraine has to decide that.” Diplomacy, Vad added is “the only possible way. Anything else is a senseless waste of human life.”
With an open contempt for diplomacy, US officials have signaled that the goal of using Ukraine to wear down Russia remains their top strategic priority. From that point of view, the waste of human life in Ukraine that results from opposing a possible ceasefire is not senseless, but perfectly acceptable.
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