Opinion Travels with Milley: The general brings his ‘big green map’ to NATO’s flank

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley arrives for a meeting with U.S. soldiers in Pabrade, Lithuania, on March 6.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley arrives for a meeting with U.S. soldiers in Pabrade, Lithuania, on March 6. (AP)

CONSTANTA, Romania — Gen. Mark A. Milley carries what his staff calls the “big green map” of Ukraine with him everywhere he goes — inside the Pentagon, at White House meetings with President Biden and on foreign trips such as the five-day tour of NATO front-line nations that he just completed.

Milley’s map is a compendium of U.S intelligence about Russia’s pitiless assault on Ukraine. The paper version isn’t actually big or particularly fancy, just a foot-square chart showing the locations, numbers and likely assault paths of the vast Russian force battering Ukraine. But the map documents what Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his top aides believe might be the most comprehensive operational intelligence in the history of warfare.

“The president and the [National Security Council] found it very useful,” concurs a White House official.

The green map was updated daily this week as Milley traveled along NATO’s flank, from the Baltic to the Black Sea. During stops in Belgium, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Romania, he drew on its intelligence to brief NATO allies and consult U.S. commanders about Russia’s advance on Ukraine. In this awful conflict, the intelligence data compiled in the map has been America’s most potent weapon.

Milley talked with U.S. troops and NATO allies about the dilemmas presented by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. The U.S.-led alliance wants to help beleaguered Ukraine with a flood of arms, whose delivery Milley inspected near the Ukraine border. But America wants to avoid any direct shooting between Russia and NATO nations that could escalate to nuclear war.

This razor’s edge cut in every NATO capital we visited, their streets decorated with Ukrainian flags. In Warsaw, a grim “wanted” poster branded Putin a war criminal. In Vilnius, Lithuania, a skyscraper was festooned with a banner summoning Putin for a trial in The Hague. With Russian shells pounding Ukrainian cities a few hundred miles away, Milley, at stop after stop, preached readiness combined with caution.

The United States and NATO must “prevent any further aggression by the Russians,” he told troops from the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment at our last stop here in Constanta, about 250 miles from Russian-occupied Crimea. But, he warned, “we’re not going to go into Ukraine. We’re not going to fly over Ukraine. We’re not putting ground troops into Ukraine.” The message: Be vigilant, but don’t pull the trigger unless you are forced.

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Milley is an archetypal American commander — barrel-chested, gruff, profane, boisterous and sentimental. At every stop, Milley, an Irish American from Boston, took time to banter with soldiers, quiz them about their personal lives or conduct surprise inspections of their prefab “hooches.” Any soldier who shared Milley’s Boston heritage got a shout of “Red Sox Nation” or a jesting offer of instant promotion. But make no mistake: Underlying this bluster is a remarkable war record. Colleagues say Milley has probably seen more combat under fire than any Joint Chiefs chairman in modern times.

Milley doesn’t advertise it, but he’s also a cerebral Princeton University graduate with an encyclopedic knowledge of military history. Talking about the Ukraine war, he will recall campaigns from Valley Forge to Stalingrad. Weighing the dangers of a confrontation with Russia, he quotes war theorists from Carl von Clausewitz to Thomas Schelling.

It’s this intellectual focus that led Milley to demand from his staff a way to visualize the assault that Russia was planning.

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Maps are the most basic tools of military strategy. They allow commanders to chart a course through the fog of war; they organize the chaos of the battlefield. Milley huddling with his staff around his battle plan of the Ukraine theater conjures similar scenes through history, as generals from George Washington to Dwight D. Eisenhower leaned over maps to study the enemy’s formation and plot strategy.

Milley ordered aides to begin assembling the map in late October, when startling intelligence reports signaled that Russia was gathering an invasion army on Ukraine’s border. The Russian forces were no exercise; intercepted messages showed that Russia was actually planning an attack.

Milley began quizzing aides about the coming invasion: “How many? Where are they? What can we see? What’s hidden? What’s the intent?” Though Milley doesn’t like using sports analogies for war, he believes the battlefield is not a football game with neat, linear advances. It’s more like the hockey he once played, fluid and dynamic with sudden spasms of action.

Milley took the first versions of his map to the White House in late October, “to paint the picture for the NSC and the president,” one defense official said. The chairman would bring five or six copies of the map, Ukraine in green, and leave them with top officials.

Biden quickly concluded that Russia’s assault planning was for real — and that America needed to lead an effort to stop it. Biden then did something unprecedented. He decided to share much of the top-secret intelligence with NATO allies — and then, increasingly, with the public through leaks to the press.

On the eve of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion, Biden ordered Milley and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to brief Congress on what the map showed — and then to give the same briefing, on “deep background,” to the Pentagon press corps. This was a declassified version of code-word intelligence, drawn from communications intercepts, surveillance satellites and spies on the ground. America’s best weapon against Putin, Biden decided, was the truth. The administration had found a way to weaponize intelligence.

Milley’s trek across Europe sometimes had the feel of a NATO pep rally. He met for strategy talks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the defense chiefs of Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Romania. And he visited U.S. troops across Europe, whose numbers have jumped since the Ukraine threat surfaced in October from a normal 65,000 to about 100,000.

Though it’s largely invisible to the public, the United States has moved an astonishing military presence forward in Europe, from a mere 200 in Hungary and 350 in Bulgaria to 2,500 in the Baltic states, 10,000 in Poland and 38,500 in Germany — forces in 17 countries, bolstered by 11,000 in ships at sea. It’s a forbidding display of force.

At one stop near the Ukrainian border, we watched one of the 14 widebody cargo planes that arrive at the local airfield each day with Western weapons; near the runway stood a rack of Javelin antitank missiles, awaiting shipment into Ukraine. If you want to see where they end up, just watch the videos on social media of Russian tanks and trucks exploding into fire.

Milley can’t resist jousting with American troops. It’s like the trash talk on a sports team; he’ll ask soldiers what’s wrong with their officers; he’ll take instant polls on whether an officer is a good leader. He introduces by name the senior generals traveling with him, the local commanders and even the local squad leaders. “I’m running for public affairs officer,” he muttered during a stop at the Nowa Deba training camp in Poland.

Milley hands out dozens of “commander’s coins” at every stop and presses them into the palms of wide-eyed soldiers. He advises them to study the coin’s representation of the U.S. Constitution. To an Indian American soldier in Poznan, Poland, and a Panamanian American soldier in Constanta, he repeats the same message: They’re all American citizens, equal under law, and will be judged by “the content of their character.” It’s corny, but it’s also moving, every time.

Nations appear eager for this sort of American leadership, and passionate about the Ukraine fight — from the northernmost tip of NATO to the southern edge. Artis Pabriks, the defense minister of Latvia, told us proudly that his country was the first to send Stinger antiaircraft missiles to Ukraine. “They are fighting our fight for us,” he said. As for the Russians, he predicted, “many of them will end up as sunflowers, I am sorry to say,” meaning they will die. “We will make a second Afghanistan for Russia.”

NATO troops have been fighting together in Afghanistan since 2001, and this shared combat experience resonates. In Romania, U.S. Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Earl Pickett told us how a Romanian rescue team saved his life after a firefight east of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2006 that wounded him in the head, chest and knee.

Milley’s army is preparing for a war he hopes it will never have to fight. It’s eerie, traveling this NATO arc, to see U.S. and NATO forces arrayed like a picket line. NATO, once a seeming anachronism, is reenergized. Putin is cornered with his reckless adventure in Ukraine.

As Milley tells the story conveyed by his map, the Russian leader began a war that he will have great difficulty completing — and any attempt to expand it will summon a devastating response.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.