Is the war in Ukraine at a major turning point? It sure looks that way

With a series of high-level meetings in Europe, U.S. sends a signal to Putin: We think Ukraine can win this year

By Lucian K. Truscott IV


Published January 21, 2023 8:00AM (EST)

US President Joe Biden and President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky during a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday December 21, 2022. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden and President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky during a joint press conference in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday December 21, 2022. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The thing you've got to understand about chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and CIA directors is that they don't just wake up in the morning and decide to do the kind of stuff they did this week. Last Friday, CIA Director William Burns met secretly with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv. On Monday, Gen. Mark Milley was in Germany to observe the training of a new Ukrainian mechanized infantry battalion that is destined for the front lines in the conflict with Russia. On Tuesday, Milley traveled to a secret location in eastern Poland to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhny, the highest-ranking officer in Ukraine's armed forces. On Monday, John Finer, the deputy national security adviser, Wendy Sherman, the deputy secretary of state, and Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, met with President Zelenskyy and his top advisers in Ukraine to discuss the status of the war and U.S. support for Ukraine.

The whole week was a full-court press by the U.S. defense establishment on Ukraine's behalf. Under normal circumstances, weeks of preparation go into arranging these kinds of meetings and the travel involved. In this case, the planning probably took days, rather than weeks. The meetings that took place over the last week had three targets, the first of these being the war itself. Contacts between high-level officials last week involved war-planning and intelligence sharing, crucial to gains on the battlefield. The second target was Vladimir Putin. No attempt was made to conceal these very high-level contacts, so the whole week can be understood as a message to Putin and the Russian military that the U.S. government and its military and intelligence and diplomatic leaders stand foursquare behind Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression. The third target of the meetings was the U.S. Congress. It will be much more difficult for Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his unruly right wing to continue their threats to reduce support in the Congress with such high-level meetings between American and Ukrainian officials taking place. 

The most important signals were sent by Milley and Burns. General officers like Milley don't make personal visits and put their imprimatur on events they expect to end in loss and disaster, and thereby have negative impacts on their careers and legacy. Milley doesn't have boots on the ground in Ukraine, but he's got everything else invested in a Ukrainian victory over Russia. As the war closes in on its first anniversary, I think Milley and Burns and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin have concluded that Ukraine can win its war against Russia and win it in this calendar year. Austin was at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Friday for a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which consists of NATO defense leaders and meets monthly. 

Generals like Mark Milley don't make personal visits and put their imprimatur on events they expect to end in loss and disaster — and thereby damage their careers.

This month's meeting was primarily about pressuring Germany to allow the shipment of its Leopard II tanks from Poland to Ukraine for use against the Russian military. Several NATO nations have the German Leopards in their militaries, but Germany won't allow the export of its key weapons system to other nations without its consent. Zelenskyy made an impassioned plea for the Leopard II tanks by video to the gathering of defense officials at Ramstein. German officials have not yet agreed to shipping these tanks to Ukraine, although in statements to the press after the meeting, Austin seemed to indicate the decision was imminent. Britain has already agreed to send its Challenger II tanks to Ukraine, but there are no plans for the U.S. to send M1 Abrams tanks, for reasons I'll get to in a moment. But Austin reminded reporters in Germany that American Bradley Fighting Vehicles and Stryker Combat Vehicles are already scheduled for shipment to Ukraine in support of the war. In fact, Milley was in Germany to observe the training of a Ukrainian mechanized battalion that will be equipped with Bradleys. 

The U.S. reluctance to send Abrams tanks to Ukraine stems from a number of reasons. These are the most highly advanced armored vehicles in the world. They are basically an armored interface with the electronic battlefield mounted on tracks:  Everything on board is connected to satellite guidance and intelligence systems with computerized targeting, all defended by complicated high-tech armor and attack-avoidance devices. Training in the combat use of the Abrams takes months, but that's not the only issue. Everything on the Abrams is in danger of breaking down and the whole apparatus needs constant maintenance, much of which can only be done by specialized civilian technicians. In places like Kuwait, where stockpiles of Abrams tanks stand ready for use against possible aggression by Iran, there are warehouses of spare parts and civilian technicians on constant standby. None of that can be readily established in the Ukraine combat zone. 

During his visit to the training site in Grafenwoehr, Germany, Milley pointed out that the Ukrainian battalion was being trained in using its Bradleys in combined operations, a tactic that integrates armored and infantry units with artillery and air defenses in attacks on the enemy. Combined operations are baked into U.S. tactics and are basic to the training of all soldiers, from privates in the foxholes to colonels and generals who command thousands of combat troops. 

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U.S. officers go to schools throughout their careers to learn combined operations in each of the Army's combat branches – infantry, artillery, armor, signal and engineers. As lieutenants, officers first attend basic training in their branch, then they attend branch advance schools as captains who will command infantry, armored, artillery or air defense companies. As majors, they are sent to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to learn battalion and brigade combined operations. As colonels, they attend the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, to learn division and army-size operations. (An "army" is designation for a combination of divisions for operational combat purposes.) In all these schools, officers are taught how to serve on battalion, brigade, division, and army staffs, doing jobs like operations, intelligence, personnel and logistics.

That kind of across-the-board training is basic to the U.S. military, and the challenge with Ukraine is transferring all this tactical knowledge to another army at warp speed. The Russian army, on the other hand, seems to do little training in combined operations. Military experts have said that's the major reason why so many Russian generals have been killed in Ukraine. Their command structure is strictly top-down. Russia doesn't have the layers of well-trained staff officers and commanders of lower units that the U.S. Army has as a matter of course. Generals have had to take battlefield front-line positions because they are the only ones in the chain of command authorized to make key decisions.

Ukrainian soldiers are currently at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, learning to use the Patriot air defense missile system that will soon be deployed in Ukraine. Now hundreds of them are undergoing American military training at U.S. Army facilities in Germany, learning to deploy multiple combat units and equipment all at once against the Russians. 

The U.S. may not have boots on the ground in Ukraine, but it's got damn near everything else: armored personnel carriers, howitzers, air defense systems and anti-tank weapons, just for starters.

The U.S. may not literally have boots on the ground in Ukraine, but it's got pretty much everything else on the ground there, from MRAP mine-resistant armored personnel carriers to 155mm howitzers to Avenger radar-controlled air defense systems to Javelin anti-tank weapons to Stinger shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to HIMARS rocket systems to Humvees and personal-protection equipment such as helmets,bulletproof vests, boots and winter uniforms. And now there are reports that U.S. officials are contemplating giving Ukraine weapons capable of striking deep into Crimea, the peninsula seized byRussia in 2014. That can only mean longer-range American truck-mounted precision rockets, which can strike targets between 250 and 350 miles away.

And then there was the meeting between CIA Director Burns and Zelenskyy last week, which may have been as important as all the military hardware combined. The CIA and NSA can see everything Russia does in Ukraine from satellites. They know where every Russian battalion group is located, what its unit designation is and most likely the name of the Russian battalion commander. They can see every movement of every Russian tank, armored personnel carrier, and resupply truck, and see what is loaded on every flatbed railroad car headed from Russia into eastern Ukraine. It was probably CIA intelligence that led to the recent Ukrainian rocket strike on the Russian weapons stockpile and barracks in Makiivka, a suburb of Donetsk, which killed more than 60 Russian soldiers. 

All of this — the training of Ukrainian troops, the shipments of heavy weapons, the visits by Milley and Burns — is being done in an in-your-face manner, in full view of Putin and his military commanders. That's just as important as the weapons and training and intelligence. The U.S. and NATO are sending a specific message to Putin: We're in this fight with Ukraine in a serious way. Milley told reporters traveling with him in Germany that the goal of training and equipping the Ukrainian combined-forces mechanized battalion was so it could be used "sometime before the spring rains show up. That would be ideal."

That could be a statement of fact, or it could be a feint, intended to get Putin to prepare for an offensive that might come before the spring, as Milley said, or in the summer or even next fall, like last year's offensive that recaptured the entire Kharkiv region. You don't get to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because you're a kiss-ass or a game-player, and Putin knows this. Milley and Zelenskyy are going to keep Putin guessing until he wakes up one morning and finds his troops once again on the run toward the Russian border. That's what this week was about. Putin just doesn't know when Zelenskyy will pull the trigger that Milley and Burns and the U.S. trainers in Germany are giving him.

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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Commentary Mark Milley Military Russia Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy War William Burns