A MILITARY BASE IN SOUTHEASTERN POLAND -- The top U.S. military officer traveled Tuesday to a site near the Ukraine-Poland border and talked with his Ukrainian counterpart face to face for the first time -- a meeting underscoring the growing ties between the two militaries and coming at a critical time, as Russia's war with Ukraine nears the one-year mark.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met for a couple of hours with Ukraine's chief military officer, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, at an undisclosed location in southeastern Poland. The two leaders have talked frequently about Ukraine's military needs and the state of the war over the past year but had never met.
The meeting comes as the international community ramps up the military assistance to Ukraine, including expanded training of Ukrainian troops by the U.S. and the provision of a Patriot missile battery, tanks and increased air defense and other weapons systems by the U.S. and a coalition of European and other nations.
It also marks a key time in the war. Ukraine's troops face fierce fighting in the eastern Donetsk province, where Russian forces -- supplemented by thousands of private Wagner Group contractors -- seek to turn the tide after a series of battlefield setbacks in recent months.
Army Col. Dave Butler, a spokesman for Milley, told two reporters traveling with the chairman that the two generals felt it was important to meet in person. The reporters did not accompany Milley to the meeting and, under conditions set by the military, agreed to not identify the military base in southeastern Poland where they were located.
"These guys have been talking on a very regular basis for about a year now, and they've gotten to know each other," Butler said. "They've talked in detail about the defense that Ukraine is trying to do against Russia's aggression. 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."
Butler said there had been some hope that Zaluzhnyi would travel to Brussels for a meeting of NATO and other defense chiefs this week, but when it became clear on Monday that it would not happen, they quickly decided to meet in Poland, near the border.
While a number of U.S. civilian leaders have gone into Ukraine, the Biden administration has made it clear that no uniformed military service members will go into Ukraine other than those connected to the embassy in Kyiv. Butler said only a small group -- Milley and six of his senior staffers -- 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 what the military needs are for that, and the way he does that is, one, by understanding it himself, but by also talking to Zaluzhnyi on a regular basis."
Milley also will be able to describe the new training of Ukrainian forces that the U.S. is doing at the Grafenwoehr training area in Germany. The chairman, who got his first look at the new, so-called combined arms instruction during a nearly two-hour visit there Monday, has said it will better prepare Ukrainian troops to launch an offensive or counter any surge in Russian attacks.
More than 600 Ukrainian troops began the expanded training program at the camp just a day before Milley arrived.
Milley and Zaluzhnyi's meeting kicks off a series of high-level gatherings of military and defense leaders this week. Milley and other chiefs of defense will meet in Brussels today and Thursday.
The so-called Ukraine Contact Group will gather at Ramstein Air Base in Germany Thursday and Friday. That group consists of about 50 top defense officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and they work to coordinate military contributions to Ukraine.
The meetings are expected to focus on Ukraine's ongoing and future military needs as the hard-packed terrain of the winter months turns into muddy roads and fields in the spring.
Western analysts point to signs that the Kremlin is digging in for a drawn-out war, and say the Russian military command is preparing for an expanded mobilization effort.
APARTMENT BLAST DEATHS REACH 45
The death toll from the Ukraine war's deadliest attack on civilians at one location since last spring reached 45 at an apartment building a Russian missile blasted in the southeastern city of Dnipro, officials said Tuesday.
Those killed in the Saturday afternoon strike included six children, with 79 people injured, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on Telegram. The toll included 24 people initially listed as missing at the multistory building, which housed about 1,700, according to Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian president's office.
Emergency crews cleared some 9.9 tons of rubble during a non-stop search and rescue operation, the Dnipro City Council said. About 400 people lost their homes, with 72 apartments completely ruined and another 236 damaged beyond repair, it added.
People converged at the site Tuesday to lay flowers, light candles and bring plush toys. In Moscow, a makeshift memorial to the Dnipro attack's victims appeared in front of an apartment building.
The latest deadly Russian strike on a civilian target in the almost 11-month war triggered anger and prompted the surprise resignation on Tuesday of a Ukrainian presidential adviser.
Oleksii Arestovych said in a Saturday interview the Russian missile exploded and fell after the Ukrainian air defense system shot it down, a version that would take some of the blame off the Kremlin's forces.
As he quit, Arestovych said his remarks were "a fundamental mistake." Ukraine's air force had stressed that the country's military did not have a system that could down Russia's Kh-22 supersonic missiles, the type that hit the apartment building.
Zelenskyy vowed "to ensure that all Russian murderers, everyone who gives and executes orders on missile terror against our people, face legal sentences. And to ensure that they serve their punishment."
The British Defense Ministry said Tuesday the weekend barrage of long-range missiles, the first of its kind in two weeks, targeted Ukraine's power grid.
Observers have said that Russia has increasingly used older weapons, including those intended for other purposes, to attack targets in Ukraine in what could be a sign of the depletion of Russian stockpiles of modern precision weapons.
The U.K. ministry noted that Russia's Kh-22 supersonic missile, the type that hit the apartment building, "is notoriously inaccurate when used against ground targets as its radar guidance system is poor at differentiating targets in urban areas," suggesting that might have been a factor in the deaths in the Dnipro.
NEW PUSH LIKELY
Attacks on civilians have helped stiffen international support for Ukraine as it battles to fend off the Kremlin's invasion. The winter has brought a slowdown in fighting, but military analysts say a new push by both sides is likely once the weather improves.
Underscoring Russia's growing military needs, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that the country's military would increase the number of troops from 1.15 million to 1.5 million in the coming years.
New structures in the regions around Moscow, St. Petersburg and Karelia on the border with Finland will be created under the program, Shoigu told commanders Tuesday, saying the major changes will start this year and continue through 2026. In addition, he said, "self-sufficient" units will be set up on the Ukrainian territories that Russia has illegally annexed.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the military expansion came in response to the "proxy war" he claimed the U.S. and its allies are waging against Russia in Ukraine, Interfax reported. Kyiv and its allies are fighting to fend off Russia's invasion of its neighbor.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last month approved Shoigu's plan to boost the size of his military from the current target level of 1.15 million but the Kremlin hasn't said how fast that will take place.
Shoigu said the expansion will be spread across all branches of Russia's military and will be coordinated with the delivery of new weapons to equip them, the Defense Ministry said in a statement, according to Interfax.
Russia will create three new motorized-infantry divisions and two airborne divisions, combining a number of brigades, Shoigu said in comments posted on the ministry's Telegram channel. He also called for special attention to the recruitment of contract soldiers to fill out the ranks of the expanded military.
Since ordering the invasion nearly a year ago, Putin has laid plans to reverse years of reductions in the ranks of Russia's military. The Kremlin hasn't said how it will recruit all the new troops, but has proposed raising the draft age, which may increase the number of men eligible for conscription.
Ukraine's first lady was doing her part Tuesday to help. She pressed world leaders and corporate executives at the World Economic Forum's annual gathering in Switzerland to exercise their influence against a Russian invasion she said is leaving children dying and the world struggling with food insecurity.
As the first anniversary of the war nears, Olena Zelenska said parents in Ukraine are in tears watching doctors trying to save their children, farmers are afraid to return to their fields filled with mines and "we cannot allow a new Chernobyl to happen," referring to the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster.
"What you all have in common is that you are genuinely influential," Zelenska told attendees. "But there is something that separates you, namely that not all of you use this influence, or sometimes use it in a way that separates you even more."
Meanwhile, the head of the U.N. nuclear agency is visiting several of Ukraine's four nuclear power plants this week to oversee the establishment of a permanent presence of inspectors at each of them to oversee operations and ensure safety.
Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Tuesday the missions "will make a very real difference through supporting the Ukrainian operators and regulator in fulfilling their national responsibility of ensuring nuclear safety and security."
Compiled by Democrat-Gazette staff from wire reports Lolita C. Baldor and Hanna Arhirova of The Associated Press and by staff members of Bloomberg News (TNS).
Nadiia Yaroshenko, 38, desperately trying to locate her cat with a torch, that remains trapped in the damaged building on the edge to collapse in Dnipro, Ukraine, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. The white cat with blue and yellow eyes refused to go with the emergency service workers who tried to rescue him. He remains on his favourite place on the window that is blown out. The final death toll from a weekend Russian missile strike on an apartment building in southeastern Ukraine reached 45, officials said Tuesday, as the body of another child was pulled from the wreckage. The strike in the city of Dnipro was the war's deadliest attack since the spring on civilians at one location. (AP/Roman Hrytsyna)