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Top U.S. general meets Ukrainian counterpart near edge of war zone

It was the first in-person meeting between Gen. Mark Milley and Gen. Valery Zaluzhny. Milley shared his impressions of a Ukrainian unit training with U.S. troops, aides said.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington on Nov. 16. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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SOUTHEASTERN POLAND — The Pentagon’s top general met on Tuesday for the first time in person with his Ukrainian counterpart, traveling by vehicle from a base here in Poland to an undisclosed location near the countries’ border in what appeared to be a symbolic show of support as Washington intensifies its military assistance to Ukraine.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the top officer in Ukraine’s armed forces, discussed the war with Russia over the course of a couple of hours, said Col. David Butler, a U.S. military spokesman. The meeting was arranged after it became clear that Zaluzhny would not be able to attend a gathering Wednesday of senior NATO military officials in Brussels. Milley was accompanied by five other Americans, an interpreter and security personnel. News of the high-level interaction was withheld until it concluded, with officials citing safety precautions.

“They’ve talked in detail about the defense that Ukraine is trying to do against Russia’s aggression,” Butler said of the two officers. “And it’s important — when you have two military professionals looking each other in the eye and talking about very, very important topics, there’s a difference.”

The face-to-face encounter occurred after a year of remote meetings between the generals, and as the United States and its allies expand the arsenal of weapons they are providing to Ukraine — including advanced American fighting vehicles, European tanks and an array of other equipment — ahead of an expected counteroffensive. Ukrainian military commanders want to push out entrenched Russian forces in the east and south of the country while fortifying its defense against continued missile and drone attacks on civilian areas.

The scope of training being provided for Ukrainian forces also has grown significantly, with U.S. soldiers in Germany now preparing a Ukrainian mechanized battalion to better combine how those troops use U.S.-made weapons to maximize their effects on the battlefield, and as other U.S. Army personnel in Oklahoma show their Ukrainian counterparts how to use the sophisticated Patriot air defense system.

U.S. involvement in Ukraine war deepens, with troops to train in Oklahoma

The Kremlin has sharply criticized Western efforts to help Ukraine, accusing Washington and its NATO allies of waging a proxy war against Moscow and raising concerns that Russia could at some point grow intolerant of the intervention and target the United States or another NATO country. Russian President Vladimir Putin recently named Milley’s Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov as his top commander in Ukraine, a move observers have said is a strong indication Moscow has no inclination to end its invasion as the war nears its one-year mark with more than 100,000 dead or wounded on both sides.

Later this week, Milley will join Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Germany for a gathering of the Ukraine Contact Group, a regular meeting in which the United States and its allies supporting Ukraine discuss what additional military aid may be needed to repel Russian forces and which countries are best positioned to send it.

The Netherlands appeared poised on Tuesday to send a Patriot air defense system of its own to Ukraine. Prime Minister Mark Rutte, meeting with President Biden at the White House, said his country has “the intention” to join “what you are doing with Germany on the Patriot project.” Berlin and Washington both have committed a full Patriot system. A single battery typically has eight launchers, each capable of carrying between four and 16 ready-to-fire missiles depending on the type of munition.

A Pentagon spokesman, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, said Tuesday that it would be up to Germany to decide how it will train Ukrainians on the system that Berlin is providing. He declined to discuss the Dutch leader’s remarks.

Asked whether the United States is open to sending other advanced weaponry that it has so far resisted sharing with Ukraine, including Gray Eagle drones and the long-range Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, Ryder demurred. “Secretary Austin’s been very clear that we continue to maintain an active and ongoing dialogue with our Ukrainian partners, with the international community, on what are Ukraine’s most urgent needs,” he said.

Milley arrived in southeastern Poland about 11 a.m. local time and began his meeting with Zaluzhny about two hours later, Butler said. Some Americans traveling with the general, including two journalists, remained at the military base here — a way station used to funnel aid to Ukraine — while Milley traveled closer to the border. No photography was allowed during the visit, and U.S. military officials requested that the journalists withhold exact locations.

The meeting occurred a day after a contingent of civilian officials from the Pentagon and State Department met in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior Ukrainian officials. Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Ukraine’s capital previously in a demonstration of the Biden administration’s support. Milley has not visited Ukraine, as the United States appears to maintain a policy in which only the small contingent of American military personnel assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv spend time in the country.

Butler said the visit did not pose significant security concerns for Milley, and that he did not go anywhere believed to be dangerous. The general wanted to provide Zaluzhny with his impressions of the Ukrainian unit that just began training under the supervision of U.S. soldiers in Germany after visiting them on Monday, and to discuss Ukrainian needs ahead of a regularly scheduled meeting later this week of the Ukraine Contact Group, the international partners that have supported the country militarily throughout the war.

“Gen. Milley’s job here as a military guy is to be able to describe the tactical and operational conditions of the battlefield, and what the military needs are. And the way he does that is one, by understanding it himself, but two, by talking to Gen. Zaluzhny on a regular basis.”

Pentagon eyes major expansion of Ukraine military training

Milley’s visit to the border area and his characterization Sunday of Russia’s missile campaign against Ukrainian civilians as a war crime are “overdue but important,” said Kori Schake, a defense analyst who has followed the war for the American Enterprise Institute. His visit, she said, also is significant after his “unhelpful” suggestion late last year that neither Russia nor Ukraine can achieve a full military victory.

“My sense is the impact will be for Russia to realize their strategy of terrorizing Ukraine into submission will have to last at least another year before the U.S. and allies falter in support of Ukraine,” Schake said of his visit.

Tuesday’s trip marked the third time that Milley has stopped at the base in southeastern Poland since the war began. U.S. troops here, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the military, said that their mission has expanded in the past few months as the array of weaponry approved for transfer has grown.

Military personnel have worked to improve security at the base since the beginning of the war, adding new concrete bunkers and thick, sand-filled outdoor walls commonly known as Hesco barriers to join two batteries of Patriot air defense systems that were deployed in southeastern Poland in the spring.

A U.S. soldier assigned to a Patriot unit there said Tuesday that some have been assigned to the base since March, and that they aren’t sure when another unit of soldiers may rotate in and replace them. That’s not uncommon for Patriot units, but the lack of predictability has put a strain on the unit, the soldier said.

The unit operates continuously, with its alert status ebbing and flowing based on events of the day. He acknowledged an incident in November in which a Ukrainian missile landed accidentally in Poland as one such event.

“We have to respond properly to the situation,” the soldier said.

Alex Horton in Washington contributed to this report.