When the US Assumed Joint Ownership of the War in Ukraine

On February 24, 2022, Russia illegally invaded Ukraine. From that moment on, every horror that would never have happened had Russia never gone to war was Russia’s responsibility.

But somewhere in an increasingly significant period between March and April, the US assumed joint responsibility.

There is an increasing pattern of proof that, before the war escalated, before tens of thousands of people died, before Ukraine’s infrastructure was devastated, the war could have been ended on terms acceptable to Ukraine and Russia. There is an increasing pattern of proof that, as Russia had planned, the war could have been quick and confined. Ukraine would promise not to join NATO, the Donbas would be autonomous as promised by the Minsk agreements, and Russian troops would leave without massively targeting civilian infrastructure and destroying the country.

But the US and the UK obstructed that outcome and stopped it from happening. The war could have been stopped, but it continued. That did not free Russia from responsibility. But, from that moment on, the US assumed shared responsibility.

The next phase of the war continued in the service, not of Ukrainian interests, but of US interests. It escalated and devastated the infrastructure and people of Ukraine.

Wars are illegal and immoral whether short or long. But, in the early days of the war, Russia seems not to have been targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure. A senior analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency leaked to Newsweek that, in the first month of the war, “almost all of the long-range strikes have been aimed at military targets.” A retired Air Force officer, working with a “large military contractor advising the Pentagon,” told Newsweek that “the Russian military has actually been showing restraint in its long-range attacks.” The sources told Newsweek that Russia was not bombing indiscriminately and that the US dropped more missiles on the first day in Iraq in 2003 than Russia dropped in the first 24 days in Ukraine. “The vast majority of the airstrikes are over the battlefield, with Russian aircraft providing "close air support" to ground forces. The remainder – less than 20 percent, according to U.S. experts – has been aimed at military airfields, barracks and supporting depots.” The DIA analyst concluded that “that’s what the facts show. This suggests to me, at least, that Putin is not intentionally attacking civilians. . . . I know that the news keeps repeating that Putin is targeting civilians, but there is no evidence that Russia is intentionally doing so.” A senior DIA official says that "in terms of actual damage in Kyiv or other cities outside the battle zone, and with regard to the number of civilian casualties overall, the evidence contradicts the dominant narrative."

It was at that point that a negotiated settlement seemed still to have been possible. But an expanding body of primary source testimony suggests that the US and the UK put a stop to it.

On February 4, former Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett described in an interview his attempt at mediating a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine in March 2022. Bennett says that "Zelensky initiated the request to contact Putin," that "Zelensky called me and asked me to contact Putin." He then told the US that he "had the trust of both sides" and that "I have Putin’s ear. I can be a pipeline."

That began a series of back-and-forth phone calls between Bennett and Putin and Bennett and Zelensky, followed by meetings between Bennett and Putin in Moscow and Bennett and Scholz in Germany and then "a negotiation marathon of drafts."

"Everything I did," Bennett says, "was fully coordinated with Biden, Macron, Johnson, with Scholz and, obviously, Zelensky."

Putin told Bennett that "we can reach a ceasefire." The US said "there was no chance of success." Bennett says that Putin made "huge concessions." When Bennett asked Putin if he was going to kill Zelensky, Putin answered, "I won’t kill Zelensky." Putin also "renounced" Russia’s demanded "disarmament of Ukraine."

Bennett confirmed the narrative that is unpopular in the West that "the war broke out because of the demand to join NATO." Putin complained of the West’s broken promise regarding NATO expansion and, talking to Bennett in Moscow, passed on the message, "Tell me your not joining NATO, I won’t invade." Zelensky then made his "huge concession." Bennett says "Zelensky relinquished joining NATO."

That left the issues of territory and security guarantees. Zelensky wanted security guarantees; Putin saw security agreements with major powers as being the same as joining NATO. Bennett says he suggested abandoning NATO-like guarantees in favor of Ukraine adopting "the Israeli model" and creating a strong, independent army that can defend itself. Bennett says both sides accepted that.

Bennett then flew to Germany and updated Scholz, the Americans, Macron and Johnson. "Boris Johnson adopted the aggressive line. Macron and Scholz were more pragmatic. Biden was both." Bennett says that "there was a good chance of reaching a ceasefire." But he says the West made the decision "to keep striking Putin." "So, they blocked it?" the interviewer asks. "They blocked it," Bennett replies.

Bennett’s account of what was said privately contradicts Ukrainian accounts at the time that complained that “Bennett has proposed that we surrender,” suggesting that was more for public consumption. Sources "privy to details about the meeting" said at the time that Zelensky deemed the proposal "difficult" but not "impossible" and that "the gaps between the sides are not great."

Axios reported at the time that Russian concessions included that demilitarization could be confined to the Donbas, that there would be no regime change in Kiev and that Ukraine could keep its sovereignty. They report that Zelensky told ABC news that he had "cooled down" about joining NATO and that Zelensky found Putin’s proposal "difficult . . . to accept but not as extreme as they anticipated."

Bennett’s account of the US and the UK prohibiting a negotiated settlement that was within reach is not an isolated story but part of what is shaping up to be a consistent pattern.

One month after Bennett’s attempt at mediation, Turkey took a turn. In April 2022, negotiations in Istanbul produced a “tentatively agreed” upon settlement. A negotiated end to the war seemed to be within reach. But, once again, the US and UK put a stop to it.

Ukraine and Russia seemed, once again, ready to end the war. But the US and UK pressured Ukraine not to pursue its own goals and sign an agreement that could have ended the war. The State Department objected that “this is a war that is in many ways bigger than Russia, it’s bigger than Ukraine.” And UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson rushed to Kiev to scold Zelensky that Putin "should be pressured, not negotiated with." He added that, even if Ukraine was ready to sign some agreements with Russia, the West was not.”

Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, said in an interview that "There are countries within NATO who want the war to continue." He said that “following the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting, it was the impression that…there are those within the NATO member states that want the war to continue, let the war continue and Russia get weaker.”

Numan Kurtulmus, the deputy chairman of Erdogan’s ruling party, has hinted at the same obstruction. He told CNN TURK that "We know that our President is talking to the countries of both leaders. In certain matters, progress was made, reaching the final point, then suddenly we see that the war is accelerating. . . . Someone is trying not to end the war. The United States sees the prolongation of the war as its interest. . . . There are those who want this war to continue. . . . Putin-Zelensky was going to sign, but someone didn’t want to."

There is a growing pattern of evidence that a negotiated settlement was twice within reach in the early days of the war and that twice the US and the UK prevented it. Up to that point, Russia bore all the responsibility for the horror. After that point they bore it still. But now the US and the UK bore it with them.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.