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Pentagon’s top general meets Ukrainians training with US troops

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Picture: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP – Joint Chiefs of Staff chairperson General Mark Milley, centre, Wednesday, January 8, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. The Pentagon’s top general on Monday, January 16, 2023, visited two sites in Germany used by the US military to enhance the fighting skills of their Ukrainian counterparts, offering encouragement to those in training.

By Dan Lamothe

Grafenwoehr Training Area, Germany – The Pentagon’s top general on Monday visited two sites in Germany used by the US military to enhance the fighting skills of their Ukrainian counterparts, offering encouragement to those on the training field and directing the American soldiers instructing them to squeeze as much as possible into the newly established program before the Ukrainians return to war.

“This is not a run-of-the-mill rotation,” General Mark A Milley, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of the curriculum. “This is one of those moments in time where if you want to make a difference, this is it.”

Picture: Staff Sgt Jordan Sivayavirojna/Defence Department – General Mark A Milley, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, observes training at the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany on Monday, January 16, 2023. The US military yesterday released this single photograph from the excursion showing Milley observing the training while flanked by a coterie of US military officials, including Brigadier General Joseph E Hilbert.

The general’s visit marked his first trip to this facility in the muddy Bavarian countryside since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago. The base, covering roughly 90 square miles, began hosting Ukrainian forces in 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. It’s now the site of a newly expanded regimen for the Ukrainian military, which sent a battalion of more than 600 soldiers to spend up to six weeks learning how to layer tanks, artillery, and other weapons to maximise their effects ahead of an expected counter-offensive against Russian forces entrenched on Ukraine territory.

While at Grafenwoehr, the Ukrainians are quartered at Camp Kherson, named in apparent homage to the city that Ukrainian forces liberated in November.

Three American journalists were permitted to shadow Milley as he interacted with Ukrainian troops on the condition that no photographs or videos were taken, and his specific conversations with them were not disclosed. The United States and its allies continue to ramp up their military support for the government in Kyiv, but officials remain deeply concerned about how the assistance is perceived in Russia. The Kremlin has accused the United States and NATO of using the Ukrainians to wage a proxy war with Moscow.

Later Monday, the US military released a single photograph from the excursion showing Milley observing the training while flanked by a coterie of US military officials, including Brigadier General Joseph E Hilbert, commanding general of the 7th Army Training Command based at the installation.

Milley also visited another Army headquarters in Wiesbaden, west of Frankfurt, where a planning conference with Ukrainian military officials was under way. Journalists were not allowed to observe the meeting, and details about it were not disclosed.

The general’s travels in Germany came as senior civilian officials with the Biden administration visited Kyiv itself. Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state; Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defence for policy; and Jon Finer, the White House deputy national security adviser, met with President Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior Ukrainian officials.

The Ukrainian soldiers began arriving at Grafenwoehr late last week and commenced their training on Sunday. Milley observed them on a marksmanship range and familiarising themselves with US-provided Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, advanced weapons that President Joe Biden approved for transfer to Ukraine early this month as the Pentagon said they were intended to help Ukraine take back territory from Russian control.

In temperatures hovering under 40 degrees, Milley bantered with the Ukrainian soldiers and asked about their backgrounds and experience in combat, sometimes in English and sometimes through an interpreter. Their mission is urgent, Milley noted, and has international support. The conversations were punctuated by occasional gunfire, as Ukrainian soldiers nearby honed their skills with rifles and the M240B machine gun.

A spokesperson for Milley, Colonel David Butler, said the training is an extension of what the United States has provided since 2014. It’s part of the international effort, Butler said, to help Ukrainian forces repel the Russian invaders.

“The urgency was clear,” Butler said. “These soldiers are going off to defend their country in combat.”

Milley, speaking Sunday while flying from Washington to Europe, stressed the timeliness of the effort while acknowledging it is not yet clear how quickly the Ukrainian unit brought to Germany will be ready to use the new weapons in combat.

“It’ll take a bit of time,” Milley said. “Five, six, seven, eight weeks, who knows. We’ll see what happens here. But in terms of the criticality of it, the need is now.”

Milley is expected to spend the week in Europe, also visiting an installation used as a way station to move weapons into Ukraine and meeting with senior allied military officials. On Friday, he will join Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin at Ramstein Air Base in Germany for the latest meeting of the Ukraine Contact Group, a regular gathering of international defence officials who are open to assisting Ukraine militarily and examining what sorts of equipment they may provide.

The general said that even as Ukraine stresses its desire for tanks and other armoured vehicles, its top need is more air defence, a persistent challenge underscored by Russia launching a missile attack over the weekend on an apartment complex in the city of Dnipro that has killed dozens of people.

“They’re getting hit every few weeks with really significant attacks, and they’re attacks on the civilian infrastructure,” the general said. “The Russians are consciously, as a matter of policy, attacking civilians and civilian infrastructure. That in of itself is a war crime.”

Dan Lamothe joined The Washington Post in 2014 to cover the US military. He has written about the Armed Forces for 15 years, travelling extensively, embedding with each service and covering combat in Afghanistan. His reporting about the 2021 attack on the Capitol was part of a project that earned the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

This article was first published in The Washington Post