By Garry Kasparov
August 14, 2023
Eighteen months into Russia’s all-out invasion of their nation, the Ukrainian people continue to resist. The response of the free world in Ukraine’s defense, led by NATO nations, has been robust, especially relative to the appeasement that followed Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Eastern and Northern Europe, which well understand the Russian threat, lead in percentage of GDP, but the game-changing military and economic aid has come from the United States.
Ukraine is still suffering horrific violence, even as its forces counterattack to regain their occupied territory. Missiles and drones rain down from the skies every day as they face the Russian way of total war – terror and destruction often targeting civilians.
But the weapons Ukraine needs to defend its people and eject the invaders are being withheld by their allies – again, bafflingly, led by the United States. With no explanation, the Biden administration has developed cold feet for the one thing that matters most: ending the war. Russian dictator Vladimir Putin has made it clear that the war will only end with his defeat and the restoration of all Ukrainian lands by force of arms. I write today to question why the US has deliberately delayed that desirable end.
My fear is that the Biden administration dreams of negotiating immoral “land for peace” deals with war criminal Putin instead of giving Ukraine all the weapons it needs to win the war quickly and save lives. I admit my supposition is based on circumstantial evidence, but it is based on the long track record of Biden officials and their unsavory relationships with Putin and other dictatorships. The absence of a smoking gun for evidence is not evidence of absence, as I show below. There is no jury of peers, only a jury of dead Ukrainian children, whose number grows every day. In their names, I ask: “Why?” In the names of those who may still be saved, I accuse, and I demand answers. In my eyes, failure to provide such answers means they are guilty until proven innocent. I’m looking for conviction, not a conviction.
This article is a plea, for those who will listen, to question the actions and motives of President Biden’s secret negotiators: Bill Burns, John Kerry, and Jake Sullivan. Keep in your mind every day the heroic Ukrainians fighting and dying to prevent Putin’s genocide. They, the American people, and the entire free world deserve an honest answer. I want to be clear early on that despite the Biden administration’s back-channel dealing on Ukraine, Trump would have been far worse. Blackmailing Zelensky, while he stood up to Russian imperialism, is the type of cartoonishly evil thing that a Hollywood executive would laugh at for being too unrealistic.
Trump’s pusillanimous behavior towards Putin suggests that he would have abandoned Ukraine as a throwaway bargaining chip in any negotiations with his mutual admirer in the Kremlin. As I have said before, Joe Biden was the best candidate in 2020. The question is whether he is doing what moral decency demands for the Ukrainian people. Does he want to be a force for good or only the lesser evil?
I will also reiterate that all the foreign appeasement and corruption aside, the true responsibility for this war rests on Putin, Russia, and the Russian people, including me. I have spent two decades railing for stronger free world action against Putin’s dictatorship and war-making. But while there is metaphorical blood on many hands, Russia and Russians wield the murder weapon alone. Too few of us wanted to stop Putin, and those of us who did want this failed. Thus, we are implicated in his crimes. Today, innocent Ukrainians pay the price in blood for the free world’s greedy carelessness.
Ukrainians Die, While America Delays
Last week marked the 15th anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Georgia, another war we should not forget. It was the warning everyone ignored, and Georgian territory is still occupied. At the time, in August 2008, the free world not only responded with indifference, but the Obama administration also [which took office in January 2009 – ed.] even rewarded the occupiers with the disastrous “reset” policy. Today, we reap the consequences of that cowardice. Even at this late hour, the same politicians and generals not only refuse to stop Putin’s war on the free world, but they also hold back Ukraine from fighting for its own land while they secretly try to negotiate backroom deals with the Kremlin. They restrict the weapons Ukraine may have and how they may use the ones they give. Just this week, the Washington Post reported that after months of delay, the F-16 training for the first six Ukrainian pilots will not be completed until next summer! I could not believe the number at first either. NATO is training 6 pilots. Not 600. Not 60 or 16 – but 6.
If this is some sort of sick joke, it’s not funny. Children are being killed. Every single day brings horror stories of new terrorist attacks by Russians just across the border. While the Biden administration enforces the Kremlin’s arbitrary rules of warfare upon Ukraine for fear of “escalation,” it allows the Kremlin to escalate the campaign of genocide and terror with impunity.
Negotiating Behind Ukraine’s Back
Last month, when President Biden elevated CIA Director Bill Burns to his Cabinet, he formalized Burns’s role as Biden’s negotiator with hostile regimes. In his announcement, Biden cited Burns’s “clear-eyed, long-term approach” to Ukraine to justify the promotion. But while Burns’ – and the whole Biden administration’s – record on Ukraine may indeed be long-term-oriented, it is far from clear-eyed and has become increasingly opaque.
Although they may talk publicly of standing with Ukraine “as long as it takes” or promise they won’t negotiate with Russia – “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine” – the Biden foreign policy team has played great power politics with Russia while locking Ukraine out of the conversation.
Caught up in the daily news cycle, we can miss the big picture, so it is worth taking a step back now to trace the timeline of how Biden’s team has repeatedly failed to live up to its rhetoric on Ukraine.
Biden’s advisors first tried to negotiate with Russia behind Ukraine’s back. Then, when they failed to make a deal with Putin, Biden’s team prepared to surrender Ukraine to the Kremlin. Even today, as Ukrainians fight – not just for their liberty, but for the defense of the entire global security order and the values of the free world – Biden has yet to bury the idea of negotiating with Putin at Ukraine’s expense.
The seeds of this war were sown in the Obama administration
The seeds of the Ukraine war were sown by President Obama. The Obama administration – many of whose alumni serve in the current White House – wanted to ignore Ukraine, so it pretended no problem existed. For over a decade, Western leaders ignored my warnings against Putin’s false promises of negotiation and “engagement“ – as they still do to this day. Just last week, in my debate with Obama policy director Charles Kupchan (who will appear again later in this article), I confronted him over the fact that the “realists” have been wrong on Ukraine and Putin from the very beginning.
The great failure of the early 21st century is that, in the name of so-called “realism,” America consistently sold out its friends and values to appease its enemies. The realists want to appear serious, and thoughtful, but they do so by selling out America’s allies and values. They “negotiate” away other people’s land and other people’s freedom in a world of empires. They fall into traps like repeating Kremlin propaganda, seemingly oblivious to the common sense that if your opponent negotiates in bad faith, repeating that bad faith argument just legitimizes it. The “engage with Russia” crowd may have been excusable in 2005, but those arguments lost merit when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008. Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 proved that “engagement” was a corrupt and cowardly excuse to keep making money in Russia despite the moral costs.
With no one willing to stand up to him, Putin waged campaigns of terror across the world, invading Ukraine twice, waltzing across Obama’s red lines in Syria, and assisting military juntas from Mali to Myanmar. When Putin and Bashar al-Assad waltzed across Obama’s chemical weapons red lines in Syria, Obama did nothing. When Putin invaded Crimea, Obama did nothing. When Putin waged war in the Donbas, Obama did nothing.
Even today, Obama shamelessly insists that nothing could have been done to stop Putin. In his interview this June with Christiane Amanpour, he even repeated Kremlin propaganda nearly verbatim on the Crimean invasion! “There’s a reason why there was not an armed invasion of Crimea, because Crimea was full of a lot of Russian speakers and there was some sympathy to the view that Russia was representing its interests.” It was one thing to be blind in 2014, although even that was pathetic. To repeat Kremlin propaganda today is sick.
I wrote Winter is Coming in 2015 because I wanted America’s leaders to wake up to the fact that Putin was no longer a threat to Russian democracy, but to the whole free world.
Instead, the Obama administration slammed NATO’s door shut in Ukraine’s face, leaving the protestors of the 2014 Euromaidan (Revolution of Dignity) to fend for themselves against Putin’s tanks. Today, innocent Ukrainians pay the price in blood for the free world’s greedy carelessness.
The next administration’s record on Ukraine was just as bad, if in that unique Trumpian way that makes all predecessors and successors look better in comparison. Instead of just ignoring Ukraine, Trump held $400 million in vital aid hostage and tried to blackmail President Zelensky into fabricating slander against his potential rival Joe Biden. If Zelensky had not stood up to Trump then, Biden would not be president today.
There’s an alternate universe where a fake “but Ukraine!” scandal sinks Biden, Trump wins in 2020, and a rudderless Europe without American leadership stands aside as Russia pounds Ukraine into submission and sets up shop across NATO borders. It’s safe to say that President Zelensky was defending the free world even before Russia invaded again.
Biden’s secret negotiators
But if the Obama administration abandoned Ukraine and the Trump administration bullied it, the Biden team has yet to learn from their mistakes. Throughout this entire war, Biden has leaned on a key circle of advisors to negotiate secretly with Putin. Biden’s core negotiators – CIA Director Bill Burns, Presidential Envoy John Kerry, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan – served as the foreign policy team of the Obama administration. Each of the members Biden sends to secretly negotiate with Russia has worked with him for years, share his confidence, and speaks for him.
Joe Biden and John Kerry know each other not only from serving as Obama’s Vice President and Secretary of State together but from 24 years in the old boys’ club of the Senate. After serving on the Foreign Relations Committee together for decades, when Biden became Vice President, he passed the Chairmanship to his close friend Kerry.
In the Obama administration, Bill Burns served as John Kerry’s top deputy. Before that, he had been Ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2009 [during the Bush administration – ed.] in the middle of Putin’s crackdown on the country’s nascent democracy. He still draws on those old Russian contacts today in his new role as Biden’s dealmaker with the Kremlin.
Jake Sullivan succeeded Anthony Blinken as National Security Advisor to then-Vice President Biden, serving in the role from Feb. 26, 2013 – Aug. 1, 2014. Later, Sullivan, as a senior member of Hillary Clinton’s [State Department] staff, was also one of the principal architects of Obama’s catastrophic “reset“ with Russia.
This core trio shares Biden’s Cold War mindset about great powers carving up the world by negotiating secret deals in dimly lit rooms. When they “accidentally” meet Kremlin officials in quiet hotels in Ankara or Delhi, or talk on the phone in “routine” contact, they are negotiating behind Ukraine’s back.
I should mention that not all of Biden’s lieutenants are involved in this ignoble deal-making. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have consistently supported Ukraine both in public and in private, and the timeline below demonstrates just that.
Just last month, while others were blocking weapons for the counteroffensive, Blinken declared that Ukraine had reclaimed 50 percent of the land it initially lost and pressed for further victories. But among the foreign policy bureaucracy, the trio of Kerry, Burns, and Sullivan seem to command more authority than the two Secretaries. Compared to Sullivan’s office down the hall from the Oval Office, the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom [State Department] may as well be half a world away. Austin and Blinken’s subordinates often appear to be more loyal to the trio of negotiators than to their immediate bosses. Especially at State, where many top officials were brought to their respective positions by Kerry and Burns. This disconnect is confusing and potentially dangerous. The free world can little afford inconsistency and unpredictability between what the world’s most powerful nation says and what it does.
Bill Burns is Biden’s Kissinger, playing great power politics with the Kremlin and his counterpart, Kremlin intelligence head Sergei Naryshkin. During the Obama administration, Burns and Jake Sullivan were sent secretly to negotiate the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] with Iran. When Biden pulled out of Afghanistan, he secretly sent Burns to negotiate with the Taliban. When Biden wanted to boost Saudi oil production, he secretly sent Burns to arrange a face-to-face with Mohammad bin Salman. Now that Biden wants to meet Xi Jinping, he secretly sent Burns to meet with Chinese officials earlier this summer. And just a couple of days ago, Burns secretly negotiated a $6 billion payout to the Iranian regime for hostages – rewarding terrorism by funding Iran’s next kidnapping. Bill Burns, the architect of the first Iran deal, was almost certainly behind this one as well.
Meanwhile, John Kerry plays a similar role as a behind-the-scenes negotiator. His job as climate envoy is a convenient cover to reach out to his old diplomatic contacts. As the timeline proves, Kerry frequently speaks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, whom he knows all too well from his term as Obama’s second Secretary of State.
Along with Jake Sullivan, this trio continues to put forward peace proposals carving up Ukraine without Ukraine’s participation. This is the policy team that keeps delaying weapons transfers to Ukraine, costing innocent lives.
With no explanation for the delays from the administration, I can only conclude that Biden’s team wants to keep options open as bargaining chips while they negotiate with Putin. Every day that America is not fully committed to Ukrainian victory furthers Russia’s genocide.
What can we take away from this series of events?
First, ever since he took office, Biden has been negotiating Ukraine’s future with Putin, while leaving Zelensky out in the cold. It’s possible that Bill Burns may not have discovered Putin’s intentions about Ukraine through secret spy work; it may be that Sergei Naryshkin or even Putin himself simply told Burns, straight-up, that the Russians were going to invade.
At that June 2021 Biden-Putin summit in Geneva, the two men discussed many issues, and Ukraine was only one of them. They may have discussed Iran, Biden’s climate agenda, nuclear arms treaties, or a whole host of other issues important to both countries. But for Biden, Ukraine ranked the lowest on his agenda, while it was the most important issue for Putin. We can guess that whatever agreement the two came to in Geneva, it was not favorable to Ukraine. Finally, we can conclude that once Biden understood that Putin would invade Ukraine, he prepared to surrender instead of fight. When, in November or December, the Biden administration was 100 percent confident that Putin would invade in weeks, they failed to properly equip Ukraine for deterrence or for war.
Right after Putin dodged Kerry’s visit in July 2021, Biden sent his first weapons to Ukraine, but that supply trickled in. When war became a near-certainty in November, Biden sent more small arms. These were not emergency-mode weapons transfers to stop a war; they were superficial play-acting. In addition to refusing to send arms to Ukraine, the Biden administration even blocked NATO allies from sending weapons of their own to Ukraine for fear of “escalation.”
The Biden administration did not want the surrender to be too bloody or to look like a loss for a US that had done all it could and failed. Gen. Mark Milley reportedly told Congress in early February 2022 that he was confident Ukraine would lose. Even the weapons that the Biden administration chose to send show just how unprepared Mark Milley, the RAND corporation crowd, and the appeasers were for this conflict. They sent Ukraine Javelins and Stingers, weapons fit for a guerrilla war in the mountains of Afghanistan or the jungles of Vietnam – not the highly urbanized landscape of Ukraine. By sending only weapons for a guerrilla war, instead of a full complement of arms for a conventional war, Milley showed how little confidence he had in the Ukrainian army: the Biden administration was preparing for Ukraine to lose right away.
Instead of preparing tanks, fighter jets, and long-range missiles for Ukraine, the Biden administration prepared an evacuation helicopter for Zelensky and a white flag for Ukraine. It was only the personal moral courage of Zelensky, once again, that prevented total surrender. From February until June, it took four months – four months! – for heavy weapons to arrive in Ukraine. Even after the Ukrainians fought back and defended Kyiv, the US sent weapons to Ukraine at a drip-drip trickle, with disastrous consequences. In April 2022, Lloyd Austin took a courageous stand in favor of arming Ukraine to not only survive, but to win. But ever since then, the core group of negotiators in Biden’s inner circle have preferred to delay and to slow-roll weapons, rather than arming Ukraine with urgency. By blocking HIMARS, then tanks, then jets, and then releasing each in limited supplies only after great delays, the United States has cost Ukraine its counteroffensive as well as many innocent lives.
Timing is everything in war. Had the United States given Ukraine heavy weapons like tanks, jets, and ATACMS early and in large amounts, Ukraine would have had a far better chance at retaking its territory and striking at the Russian weapons that are still bombarding Ukrainian civilians daily.
It appears that every Ukrainian request is another bargaining chip for the US in its negotiations with Russia. Meanwhile, the Biden trio’s questionable geopolitical calculations are being paid in Ukrainian blood, military and civilian alike.
Yes, the United States has allocated $47 billion in military aid to Ukraine as of July 10, 2023. But in terms of actual delivery and practical utility, that number is far lower. Of the $47 billion allocated, only $17 billion in supplies have arrived.
The decision earlier this month to block any invitation for future Ukrainian participation in NATO is just another example of the United States keeping more bargaining chips on the table for its negotiations with the Kremlin. No more hidden talks with Putin and his war criminal mafia.
Time and again, the Biden administration’s Cold War thinkers have tried to make the Ukrainian problem go away by compromising with Putin, only to be stopped by Ukrainian courage. It is time for Biden’s negotiators to testify under oath in front of Congress and explain themselves.
Why are they negotiating Ukraine’s future without Ukraine? Why do they continue to try to cut secret deals with the Kremlin? And why won’t they support Ukrainian victory publicly and fully, not only in words but in deeds? Every day that America is not fully committed to Ukrainian victory furthers Russia’s genocide. Ukrainians are dying today, right now, because the Biden administration refuses to act.
It is time to make a choice: either Ukrainians enjoy the same right to freedom, life, and liberty that all humans do, or they do not. We either fight hard for a world of rules and values, or we do not. Bill Burns, John Kerry, and Jake Sullivan live in a world where the great powers set the rules and small countries must obey. So does Putin.
We do not have to live in that world. We can choose to be governed by morality, not some cold political calculus that always fails to add up. Instead of leering at Hunter Biden’s sex tapes, House Speaker McCarthy should do his job and bring Burns, Kerry, and Sullivan under oath. No more hidden talks with Putin and his war criminal mafia.
Drag Biden’s secret negotiators into the light to account for themselves to the American people, who overwhelmingly support Ukraine.
Slava Ukraini. Glory to the heroes.
Garry Kasparov is chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, author of Winter is Coming, a visiting fellow at Oxford Martin, business & tech speaker and 13th World Chess Champion.