Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet and Mark Toth

November 9, 2023

The Messenger


Reports that the United States and European Union (EU) are initiating peace talks with Kyiv to end the war in Ukraine are maddening — unacceptable and defeatist.  NATO and the U.S., by way of Ukraine, are in a position to bring the regime led by Russian President Vladimir Putin to its long overdue conclusion. Not only would that eliminate a threat to Europe, but it would significantly reduce instability in the Middle East and Africa — Israel, Niger and the Sahel region, and Sudan.  It also could dramatically affect Iran’s ability to threaten the Middle East with its proxies — Hamas, Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Houthis, and Shia militias in Iraq and Syria.

The problem is, President Biden evidently is not willing to provide Ukraine what it needs to win — or, at least his advisers are not. He has settled into a strategy of defending Ukraine. What happened to the man who proclaimed about Putin, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power” in Warsaw back in March 2022?

Although Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denies he is being pressured by U.S. and EU leaders to talk about a settlement, a delegation is reportedly in Kyiv for “talks with Ukrainian leaders about possible measures to end the war with Russia.” Zelenskyy has made his conditions known, and on Sunday morning he told NBC’s Kristin Welker on “Meet the Press” that “We are not ready to give our freedom to this f—ing terrorist, Putin. That’s it. That’s why we are fighting. That’s it.”

Zelenskyy is in it to win it; how about Washington? Why not give Ukraine the weapons and ammunition they need to win the war?

If not, then Biden’s pledge that the U.S. will offer support “for as long as it takes” apparently meant only until the next U.S. presidential election cycle. The message it sends to our allies is that the White House is not willing to stand behind its words. Israel, Taiwan and South Korea are paying attention, as are other countries with security agreements with the U.S.

Ukraine has repeatedly defeated the Russian military on the battlefield — in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and elsewhere. An estimated 305,090 Russians have been killed in action, with no U.S. casualties. But Ukrainian battlefield successes do not equate to victory if there is no political will to use them to achieve victory or a defined end state. The Biden administration appears to have neither.

Biden would do well to remember the lessons of the Vietnam War. During the Paris peace talks, Army Col. Harry Summers, author of the book On Strategy: The Vietnam War in Context, was talking to his North Vietnamese counterpart during a break and told him that the U.S. had won every battle in the war. The North Vietnamese colonel replied, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”

Washington still has time to ensure Ukraine’s hard-fought and costly battlefield successes remain relevant — to not only Kyiv but all of the West.

Ukraine is on a path to accomplish the NATO mission “to secure a lasting peace in Europe.” NATO’s principle of a collective defense will not defeat Russia, though. Nor will negotiating a peace deal with the Kremlin. That only buys time for Russia to reset and try again — and it will.

Chechnya should be dispositive. Consider the peace deal signed by then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov in May 1997. How long did Yeltsin’s promise  “never to use force or threaten to use it in relations between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Ichkeria” last? Less than three years.

Within weeks of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin ascending to the position of Russian prime minister, the Kremlin renewed the war in August 1999, after a “series of explosions in apartment buildings in Moscow and two Russian towns killed more than 300 Russians.”

Moscow accused Chechen rebels of the attack — though they never claimed responsibility — and the Kremlin used it as justification to launch an “anti-terrorist operation.” In today’s terms, that would be known as a “special military operation.”

The second Chechen war had begun — or, arguably, Putin reignited the first after Russia had finished its military reset. Some experts on Russia believe the 1999 bombings were a false flag operation coordinated by state security services to help elevate Putin into the presidency.

Maskhadov later would be killed in a raid by Russian special forces in March 2005. Soviet-style brutality was back, and Putin has made it the modus operandi of his regime ever since. Mikhail Gorbachev’s relics of “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” were to be no more under Putin, who wanted to rule Russia and, ultimately, Europe and the West.

Biden cannot allow Putin to win on the battlefield or at the negotiating table. Zelenskyy and his generals must not be rendered into “dead men walking,” as were Maskhadov and his compatriots in Chechnya. Ukraine’s leaders must continue to be considered Europe’s guardians and given what they need to decisively defeat Russia, expel Russian troops from Ukraine, and plant their blue and yellow flag on Sevastopol in Crimea.

Washington must face the danger that Putin represents and not turn away from it. Putin is counting on the U.S. doing just that. After all, the West has allowed him to get away with his aggression in Chechnya, Georgia, and then Crimea.

Biden should remember Neville Chamberlain’s about-face when he thought he had secured “peace for our time” in negotiating a deal with Adolf Hitler. Not only does negotiating further endanger Ukraine but it puts the Baltic States, NATO partners, at risk as well. Putin has been clear about what he intends to achieve. With the Nazis, Chamberlain could not have been more wrong. So, too, would be any deal with Putin that does not result in Ukraine controlling all of its territory.


Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army Colonel and 30-year military intelligence officer, led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014.