The senior US military officer traveled to Poland and spoke face-to-face with his Ukrainian counterpart for the first time as Russia’s war against Ukraine nears the one-year mark.
US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Ukraine’s Chief Military Officer General Valerii Zaluzhnyi for a few hours at an undisclosed location in south-eastern Poland near the border with Ukraine.
Zaluzhnyi said he outlined the “urgent needs” of his armed forces with Milley on Tuesday.
The two leaders have spoken frequently over the past year about Ukraine’s military imperatives and the state of war, but have never met.
The meeting comes as the international community ramps up military assistance to Ukraine, including increased U.S. training of Ukrainian troops and U.S. and coalition European and American deployments of a Patriot missile battery, tanks, and reinforced air defenses and other weapons systems Russia other nations.
It also marks a key time in the war. Ukrainian troops are facing fierce fighting in eastern Donetsk province, where Russian forces – supplemented by thousands of private Wagner Group contractors – are trying to turn the tide after a series of battlefield setbacks in recent months.
“Look Each Other In The Eye”
Army Colonel Dave Butler, a spokesman for Milley, said the two generals felt it was important to meet in person.
“These guys have been talking very regularly for about a year and they’ve met,” Butler said.
“You have spoken at length about the defenses Ukraine is attempting against Russian aggression. And it’s important – when two military professionals look each other in the eye and talk about very, very important issues, there is a difference.”
Butler said there had been some hope that Zaluzhnyi would travel to Brussels this week for a meeting of NATO and other defense chiefs. But when it became clear on Monday that it wasn’t going to happen, Milley and Zaluzhnyi quickly decided to meet in Poland near the border.
While several US civilian leaders have entered Ukraine, US President Joe Biden’s administration has made it clear that no uniformed military personnel will enter Ukraine, except for those associated with the embassy in Kyiv. Butler said only a small group – Milley and six of his senior staff – traveled by car to the meeting.
He said the meeting will allow Milley to relay Zaluzhnyi’s concerns and information to the other military leaders during the NATO chiefs meeting.
Milley, he said, will be able to “describe the tactical and operational conditions on the battlefield and the needs of the military for this, and he does this by understanding it himself, but also by speaking regularly with Zaluzhnyi”.
Milley will also be able to describe new US training for Ukrainian forces at Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany. More than 600 Ukrainian soldiers have started the expanded training program.
Milley and Zaluzhnyi’s meeting heralds a series of high-level gatherings of military and defense leaders this week. Milley and other defense chiefs are meeting in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday. Then, on Thursday and Friday, the so-called Ukraine Defense Contact Group will meet at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.
The meetings are expected to focus on Ukraine’s current and future military needs as the harsh terrain of the winter months turns to muddy roads and fields in spring.
In an interview with The Economist in December, Zaluzhnyi said Ukraine needed 300 tanks, 600-700 infantry fighting vehicles and 500 howitzers to push back the invaders.
The UK broke the taboo on heavy tanks over the weekend and pledged a squadron of its Challengers. But it has too few to form the basis of a Ukrainian force. The US Abrams tanks run on turbine engines, which consume too much fuel for Ukraine to deploy in large numbers.
That leaves the Leopards, which Germany manufactured by the thousands during the Cold War and are now used by armies across Europe. Poland and Finland have already announced that they will send leopards if Berlin issues the re-export permit.
“We hope that some partners, allies, will give Ukraine tanks,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Separately, the Netherlands plans to send a Patriot missile defense system to Ukraine, Dutch news agency ANP quoted Prime Minister Mark Rutte as saying on Tuesday.
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said NATO allies are sending a clear message to Russian President Vladimir Putin by stepping up arms sales to Ukraine.
“The message we are sending to Putin is that we are committed to supporting Ukrainians until they are victorious,” Cleverly told a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.
Tens of thousands have been killed and millions displaced from their homes since Russia launched a so-called “military special operation” to eliminate alleged security threats in Ukraine in February last year. Supporters of Ukraine and the West call Russia’s actions an unprovoked, imperialist land grab.
Ukrainian forces drove back Russian troops in the second half of 2022, but over the past two months front lines have largely been frozen, although both sides have suffered heavy casualties in relentless fighting.