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Milley tries to clarify his case for a negotiated end to Ukraine war

The top U.S. general has drawn scrutiny for suggesting that winter may present Ukraine an opportunity to explore a peace deal with Russia

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, foreground, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Nov. 16. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

The Pentagon’s top general on Wednesday doubled down on his assessment that the likelihood of Ukraine fully vanquishing Russia on the battlefield is “not high,” as he sought to contextualize his recent suggestion that the government in Kyiv should consider the coming winter an opportunity to negotiate an end to the conflict.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters emphatically that the United States would “continue to support Ukraine as long as it takes to keep them free” and that it was “up to Ukraine to decide how or when or if they will negotiate with the Russians.” But he was equally resolute in his belief that the approaching seasonal shift, when pace of combat is expected to slow, could provide “a window” to a political solution — as pushing Russia out of Ukraine completely would be “a very difficult task,” while the likelihood of Russia defeating Ukraine “is close to zero.”

It was similar comments, delivered by Milley during a speech in New York last week, that infuriated Ukrainian officials, who have vowed to take back all Russian-occupied areas, and set off a scramble within the Biden administration to dispel any impression that U.S. support may be waning. Asked Wednesday about those remarks, the general ticked through a list of Moscow’s recent battlefield losses, emphasizing his belief that such extensive setbacks would give Kyiv the upper hand should peace talks resume.

“Russia right now is on its back. The Russian military is suffering tremendously,” Milley said during the news conference alongside Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “You want to negotiate at a time when you’re at strength and your opponent is at weakness.”

Missile in Poland was accident, NATO says. But spillover fear remains.

The joint public appearance came as U.S. and other Western officials endorsed a preliminary assessment indicating that Tuesday’s deadly explosion in eastern Poland was probably caused — unintentionally — by Ukraine as its military tried to intercept incoming Russian missiles. The White House and the Pentagon each said they had seen no evidence to contradict those findings, announced earlier by Poland’s president.

Austin said that the United States, which maintains a substantial military presence in Poland, had dispatched experts to aid in the Polish-led investigation and that “our information supports” the early findings. Like other U.S. and Western officials, he said that “the world knows that Russia bears ultimate responsibility for this incident,” which coincided with a mass strike across Ukraine on Tuesday.

Ukraine accused Russia initially of being responsible for the explosion, and President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday rejected assertions that his country’s military was probably at fault in what has been characterized as an unfortunate accident. Milley told reporters that he tried to contact but was unable to connect with his Russian counterpart as the incident in Poland raised fears of a broader escalation.

Zelensky has ‘no doubt’ missile that hit in Poland was not Ukrainian

The Polish explosion occurred on what the Pentagon said was a record-setting day of Russian strikes throughout Ukraine, including in Lviv, about 50 miles from the site on Tuesday. Milley said the Kremlin’s efforts to target Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, including its electrical grid, amounted to a “war crime,” adding that “over a quarter of Ukrainian civilians” are living without power as winter is about to set in.

U.S. officials anticipate that battle lines will harden in coming months, as muddy ground complicates tactical opportunities to fight. “If that happens,” Milley said, “that may become a window … for political solutions or talks to initiate a political solution.”

Austin said the United States’ role was to ensure Ukraine has the means to accomplish its goals — adding that those objectives “are the Ukrainians.’ They’re not ours.”

“In terms of what’s a good time to negotiate, we’ve said repeatedly that the Ukrainians are going to decide that, not us,” he said.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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