Today's D Brief: Milley cites WWI, pushes for Ukraine talks; $14M for more HIMARS; Zelenskyy's plans for Crimea; GOP win House control; And a bit more.
The U.S. Army says it just spent $14 million to replenish High Mobility Artillery Rocket System rounds, which have been sent to Ukraine for the past several months, and have helped prepare the battlefield for a Ukrainian counteroffensive that’s been retaking occupied territory since September. HIMARS-maker Lockheed Martin won the contract on Oct. 6, Army officials announced Thursday.
One big Q this week: Should Ukraine give occupied Crimea to Russia in exchange for peace? On the latter point, Russia “is waging the full-scale aggressive war against Ukraine, so any negotiations must take place in public, not behind closed doors,” President Volodymir Zelenskyy’s press team wrote Wednesday in an echo of the president’s recent message to Ukrainians. “I want the conversation about [peace] to be public, not behind the scenes; I want it to be discussed in specific terms, and not in broad strokes,” the president said Tuesday in his address to G20 leaders—the same address where he laid out a 10-step process for ending Russia’s invasion. But when it comes to Crimea?
Recall that Zelenskyy’s fifth step toward peace involved “restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity” and “within the framework of the relevant resolutions of the UN General Assembly and the applicable international legally binding documents.” This point, Zelenskyy said, “is not up to negotiations.”
He even vowed to visit the beaches in liberated Crimea as his first task after “victory” over Russia, he told Czech TV in early November. “I will go to Crimea. I really want to see the sea,” he said. Nine days later, his troops pushed the Russians out of Kherson City, the only provincial capital seized since the invasion began.
Background: One week before Ukrainian forces liberated Kherson City last Friday, U.S. officials had reportedly been privately pressuring Zelenskyy to show some kind of openness to negotiating a peace with Russia, according to the Washington Post. And that pressure was motivated in large part by worries about war fatigue among allied and partner nations across Europe; most of them are helping foot the bill against a Russian antagonist that’s historically enjoyed much larger manpower reserves than most every other nation on the continent. And, of course, Moscow has the world’s largest nuclear weapons stockpile, and—at least before the war—was believed to have one of the world’s largest and most diverse stockpiles of conventional weapons.
Indeed, America’s top military officer reportedly thinks Ukraine has peaked militarily, and is unlikely to advance much further on the battlefield, according to the New York Times, reporting one week ago on alleged discussions between the White House and the Pentagon. “Now, what the future holds is not known with any degree of certainty, but we think there are some possibilities here for some diplomatic solutions,” Milley told CNBC last Thursday.
Milley has cited the millions killed from World War I trench warfare during several discussions both publicly and privately, according to the Times, as well as a speech the Joint Chiefs Chairman delivered last week in New York City. However, White House officials—including, critically, the president and his national security adviser—are of a different mind than Milley, and do not think now is the time to consolidate Ukraine’s military gains and discuss concessions like the Crimean peninsula.
The latest: Milley said many of the same things Wednesday at the Pentagon, telling reporters, e.g., “Wars are not fought by armies; they're fought by nations.” However, he cautioned, “I think the Ukrainians should keep the pressure on the Russians, you know, to the extent that they militarily can, but winter gets very, very cold.”
Meantime, “what we're seeing is the lines from Kharkiv all the way down to Kherson, for the most part, are beginning to stabilize,” and “Come January, February, that ground probably will freeze, which could lend itself to offensive operations.” But there could be peace talks of some kind during that lull, the chairman said. “If there's a slow down in the actual tactical fighting, if that happens,” Milley explained, “then that may become a window possibly—it may not—for a political solution or at least the beginnings of talks to initiate a political solution.”
Milley’s bottom line: “Militarily kicking the Russians physically out of Ukraine is a very difficult task; and it's not going to happen in the next couple of weeks unless the Russian army completely collapses, which is unlikely.” To be even more precise, he added, “kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine to include what they define or what they claim is Crimea, the probability of that happening anytime soon is not high, militarily. Politically, there may be a political solution where, politically, the Russians withdraw, that's possible.”
“You want to negotiate from a position of strength. Russia right now is on its back,” Milley said. “So, you want to negotiate at a time when you're at your strength and your opponent is at weakness. And it's possible, maybe that there'll be a political solution. All I'm saying is there's a possibility for it.”
For Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin, “Crimea is an issue to be thought through and sorted out by the Ukrainian leadership,” he said while standing beside Milley. Otherwise, “In terms of what's a good time to negotiate, we've said repeatedly that the Ukrainians are going to decide that and not us. And we will support them for as long as it takes.”
Extra reading: A new book was just published about the war in Ukraine so far. It’s authored by British historian and former Moscow-based journalist Owen Matthews, and it’s called “Overreach: The Inside Story of Putin’s War Against Ukraine,” from HarperCollins. The book sets “a painfully high benchmark for those who follow,” Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti writes in his review for The Telegraph.
Developing: More than eight years after the tragic downing of Flight MH17 over Ukraine, killing 298 people, three men were found guilty for their involvement after the verdicts were announced in a Dutch court on Thursday. “The men—two Russians and one Ukrainian—were found guilty in absentia and sentenced to life in jail. A third Russian was acquitted,” the BBC reports.
- “Russia launches new Ukraine barrage as grain deal extended,” the Associated Press reported Thursday from Kyiv;
- “Ukrainian investigators find bodies with signs of torture in Kherson,” Reuters reported Thursday;
- “Egypt Dims the Lights in Cairo to Free Up More Gas for Europe,” the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday;
- And don’t miss, “How Ukraine Blew Up a Key Russian Bridge,” in a visual investigation from the New York Times’ multimedia team.
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Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. And check out other Defense One newsletters here. On this day in 1810, Sweden caved to pressure from Napoleonic France and declared war on the British. The conflict, which historians refer to as a “phantom war” because no fighting ever actually took place, would last for over a year and a half before concluding with the Treaty of Örebro; a second treaty signed the same day in the namesake Swedish city also ended a war between Russia and the Brits that had been brewing since 1807.
Capitol Hill latest: The votes are mostly counted, and Republicans won back control of the House of Representatives by a narrow margin, according to updated tallies Wednesday. GOP leaders in both the House and Senate were reaffirmed, leaving Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California in charge of the lower chamber, and Sen. Mitch McConnell again in the minority leader spot in the upper chamber. (Don’t miss The Onion’s coverage of Mitch’s resilience Wednesday.)
Developing: An NDAA delay? Shortly after the leadership vote, McCarthy told reporters he thinks Congress should wait until 2024 to vote on the National Defense Authorization Act, Defense News reported. “I’ve watched what the Democrats have done on many of these things, especially the NDAA—the woke-ism that they want to bring in there,” McCarthy “I actually believe the NDAA should hold up until the 1st of this year—and let’s get it right.”
Word of the possible delay irritated House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who said delaying the legislation would harm the military. “You are damaging the United States military every day past October 1st that you don’t get it done, and certainly more so every day past January [1st]... We’re going to get it done this year because that’s the right thing to do,” he said. Politico has more.