After over 10 months of fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces, there’s no sign that 2023 will bring peace to Ukraine as the warring parties have radically different demands, and the US continues to escalate aid for Kyiv and its role in the war.
Ukrainian officials are demanding that Russia withdraw from all the territory it has captured and face war crimes tribunals before peace talks can even begin, while Russian officials say they’re open to talks but insist any peace deal must involve the territories it has annexed joining the Russian Federation.
The only way Ukraine would likely be compelled to talk with Russia is if the US leverages aid to push them to do so, as the Ukrainian war effort is entirely reliant on support from its Western backers. There was a glimmer of hope in November when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said winter would provide a good opportunity for peace talks, but his view was not a popular one within the Biden administration.
Milley said that the warring sides should “seize the moment” to achieve peace, but following his comments, the US reassured Ukraine that negotiations don’t need to happen. Media reports said that other high-level officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, were against the idea of talks.
The only time a peace deal seemed possible during the war was after Russian and Ukrainian negotiators held in-person talks in Istanbul back in March, but reaching an agreement with Russia was discouraged by the West. Then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited Kyiv in April and urged Zelensky not to negotiate with Moscow, likely at the behest of the US and NATO.
According to a Ukrainian media report, Johnson’s visit was a major factor in the scuttling of negotiations. Turkey said later in April that some NATO members wanted the war in Ukraine to continue to make Russia “weaker.” A few days later, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin admitted that a US goal in Ukraine was to “weaken” Russia.
While discouraging negotiations throughout the 10 months of the war, the Biden administration has continued to escalate military aid for Kyiv, and so far, Congress has authorized $112 billion in spending to support Ukraine. In the latest escalation, the administration will be providing Patriot missiles, considered the US’s most advanced air defense system, although Russia said it received assurances that no US troops would be deployed to Ukraine with the systems.
The administration has still held off from sending Ukraine the longer-range missiles, fighter jets, and advanced tanks that it seeks. But Biden will be under pressure to oblige Ukraine from Republicans as they take control of the House. While there is some significant dissent among the GOP on the policy of arming Ukraine, Republican leadership has been critical of Biden for not sending more advanced weapons.
Rep. Michael McCaul, who is expected to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committee next year, has accused President Biden of “slow walking” military aid to Kyiv. McCaul said the US should provide Ukraine with more advanced weapons to hit targets in Crimea.
McCaul and other hawkish Republicans have come out in favor of more transparency of the tens of billions the US is spending on the war. But the calls for more oversight have been used to justify the presence of US troops inside Ukraine as the Pentagon now acknowledges it has a small number of personnel in the country for “onsite” weapons inspections, which are based at the US embassy in Kyiv.
NBC News reported earlier this month that the Pentagon is mulling sending a small number of additional troops to track weapons, a plan a former US official called “classic mission creep.” The report said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin wanted to add more troops for oversight and to ensure there are “experts in country to help Ukraine use critical weapons systems,” signaling they may be doing more than tracking weapons.
The small group of US military weapons inside Ukraine is the only presence that has been officially confirmed. The Intercept reported in October that US special operations forces and CIA personnel are also inside the country, but the US hasn’t officially acknowledged the covert campaign.
As the US is escalating its role in the war, the Pentagon has also shifted its view on Ukrainian attacks inside Russian territory. After Ukrainian drones hit airfields deep inside Russia earlier this month, The Times reported that the Pentagon tacitly endorses such operations, and Asia Times reported that the drones used US satellite GPS data to hit their targets.
Since those Ukrainian drone attacks at the beginning of December, the Engels airfield, about 300 miles from the Ukrainian border, which houses Russian strategic bombers, has come under another drone attack. In total, six Russian soldiers were killed at the air base in Ukrainian drone attacks in the month of December.
According to a report from investigative journalist and US Army Special Operations veteran Jack Murphy, the US has also been involved in a covert campaign inside Russia. Citing unnamed former US military and intelligence officials, Murphy reported that the CIA has been using an unnamed European NATO country’s intelligence services to conduct sabotage attacks inside Russia since the February invasion of Ukraine.
Both the covert campaign inside Russia and the US-backed Ukrainian attacks in the country risk provoking a major escalation from Moscow. But US officials are not as concerned with an escalation based only on the fact that up to this point, Russia hasn’t responded to attacks on its territory with nuclear weapons or by attacking NATO countries.
While US officials aren’t concerned by a nuclear escalation, experts have warned that the chance of nuclear war is greater today than at any time during the Cold War. President Biden himself acknowledged that there is a risk of nuclear “armageddon,” and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has warned a full-blown war between Russia and NATO is possible. But both men insist the Western powers should continue supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia despite the risks, and 2023 will likely bring more dangerous escalations.
Dave DeCamp is the news editor of Antiwar.com, follow him on Twitter @decampdave.