The evident willingness to entertain talks at some point has drawn sharp criticism from some foreign policy experts who argue that it would be a mistake to bet against Ukraine’s ability to win more of its territory back from Russian occupiers.
“The United States and European partners should not forestall the possibility, even likelihood, of more Ukrainian military success by insisting on a cease-fire in place or by assuming that it’s impossible for Ukraine to, for example, liberate the Donbas or even Crimea,” Daniel Fried, a longtime former career diplomat now at the Atlantic Council, wrote on the Just Security website after reports about possible negotiations.
Mr. Zelensky and his aides reiterated this week that Ukraine had repeatedly proposed resuming peace talks with Russia, and that such talks could not begin until Russian troops withdraw and return the territory they have seized. But analysts noted that the Ukrainian leader did not repeat earlier statements that talks seemingly could not start while Mr. Putin was leading Russia.
More broadly, there has been huge support in the Ukrainian public for sustained military offensives against Russian positions, and each announcement of Russian setbacks has been met with an outpouring of public enthusiasm. Even before the recent wave of Ukrainian military gains, Mr. Zelensky was under heavy and continuous political pressure to refuse any concession that would leave Russian forces in control of Ukrainian territory.
In internal discussions, General Milley has been a strong voice for diplomacy but does not want to give the impression of undercutting the Ukrainians, officials said. He has pointed to satellite imagery showing that the Russians are digging trenches and establishing firm lines through much of the occupied territory in preparation for winter, when the fronts presumably will stabilize.
Given that, officials said, the general has argued that the fighting may ease during the cold weather months with less chance of further fundamental change on the ground, offering a window of opportunity for talks. In White House discussions, he cites World War I when the two sides engaged in years of trench warfare with little change in territory but millions of pointless casualties, an example he aired in his New York speech this week as well.
The point is not to reward Mr. Putin, officials said in describing the general’s view, but that maybe this is a time when Ukraine and its allies can start working toward a political solution because a military solution may not be obtainable in the near future.