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Is Hersh story on secret Ukraine peace talks true?

There is a story, published by Seymour Hersh and picked up by Russian media, that Ukrainian General Valerii Zaluzhny and Russian General Valery Gerasimov are secretly negotiating a deal that could potentially end the Ukraine war.

The story is supported by “anonymous” sources, allegedly in the US intelligence establishment. The question is: Is the report true?  

The Russian report on the Hersh story has disappeared.

What is true is that the relationship between Zaluzhny, the overall commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, and Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, is very bad.  So bad, in fact, that Zaluzhny did not show up on the last day of November for a meeting between Zelensky and his generals.  On top of that, Zelensky is reported to have ordered Ukraine’s regional governors not to speak with Zaluzhny.

Given the estrangement between Zelensky and Zaluzhny, anything that Zaluzhny might or could negotiate should run into a Kiev brick wall.  Zelensky has made it clear that the Ukrainian government will not – nor , legally, can it (because of legislation prohibiting it) – negotiate with Moscow.

Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valery Zaluzhny, pictured above, told Time magazine last year that when studying military doctrine he had read all the publications of Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, General Valery Gerasimov, 17 years his senior. Photo: Front News

The Russian papers, following Hersh, say there are two broad conditions for a deal between the generals.  The first is at least some kind of recognition by Ukraine of Russian control of the territory it presently occupies. The second, which seems altogether impossible, is that Russia would not object to Ukraine joining NATO provided there are no NATO bases in Ukraine.

Russian General Valerry Gerasimov. Photo: Moscow Times

The first idea on territory is consistent with a trial balloon that Zaluzhny floated some months ago in two different ways.  The first was his hint that Ukraine could live without the territories Russia is occupying. The second was that to best preserve Ukraine it would be wise for Ukraine’s army to pull back from the line of contact and set up strong defense perimeters. 

Zaluzhny’s idea was to stop the bleeding down of Ukraine’s army and to prepare for the future.  Ironically, Zelensky is now saying the same thing when it comes to the disposition of Ukraine’s military forces.

Whatever Zaluzhny and Zelensky say about the war, the fighting continues in earnest along the line of contract stretching from north to south in the east, and across the south all the way to the little bridgehead at Krynki, not far from Kherson.

It is likewise true that the Russians are advancing, especially in Avdiivka where the Russians recently made important territorial gains, in the area around Bakhmut, in Kupyansk and Liman and elsewhere.

There is no sign suggesting either that Russia slowing its current operation or that Ukraine is pulling back forces. In fact, Ukraine is trying to redeploy and rotate troops in the main areas of contact.

That throws a lot of cold water on the notion that any deal is in the offing.

In fact, the idea that Russia would accept a NATO presence in Ukraine as part of a deal is one that would require quite political agreements that would have to include NATO in any deal. NATO is not talking in a way that suggests anyone has tried to bring the NATO security alliance into a dialog.

The continued fighting and Russian gains do not mean that Ukraine will not pull back or that Russia will stop pushing forward. However, they do mean that if there are talks going on they are not at a stage that is satisfactory to either side – meaning there are no battlefield gestures.

One key indicator is the bad reception that Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, received at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s high-level meeting in Northern Macedonia this week. There are several items coming from that meeting that require attention.

First off, this is the first time since the start of the Russian “Special Military Operation” that Russia’s foreign minister traveled to a NATO country (a visit to the United Nations in New York actually is not technically a visit to the United States).  To get there Lavrov’s aircraft was denied overflight permission by Bulgaria, so his plane flew over Turkey and Greece instead. That snub hardly indicates any peace process.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the 30th OSCE Ministerial Meeting in Skopje. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service

Secondly, the OSCE was part of both the 2014 and 2015 Minsk Agreements that sought to end the crisis in Ukraine. The OSCE was to supervise the agreement, deal with violations, and help with implementation. The Northern Macedonia meeting has destroyed OSCE credibility as a peace partner, which could have been important in a final deal.

Thirdly, Lavrov poured a lot of hot water on any peace deal. “We aren’t seeing any signals from Kiev or its masters about their readiness to seek any kind of political settlement,” Lavrov told reporters at the security conference. “We see no reason to review our goals.”

It is always possible that Lavrov has not been briefed on the meeting or meetings involving Gerasimov and Zaluzhny, assuming they have really taken place. (Not only can we not be sure, but no one can yet say where they would have been conducted.)

Another theory is that Seymour Hersh has been sold a bill of goods, or duped, take your choice.

If Zaluzhny has become an impediment to the US effort to support Ukraine and push more arms into Zelensky’s hands, then how do you trash him?  You do it by floating the idea he is secretly negotiating with the enemy. The usual word for that is “traitor.”  That would explain the Russian news reports on Hersh’s Substack report, since the Russians would be happy to undermine the Kiev regime.

Stephen Bryen, who served as staff director of the Near East Subcommittee of theUS Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as a deputy undersecretary of defense

for policy, currently is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and the Yorktown Institute.

This article was originally published on his Weapons and Security Substack. It is republished with kind permission.

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