At U.S. Base in Germany, Ukraine’s Military Conducts War Games
WIESBADEN, Germany — With winter almost behind them, senior American generals hosted Ukrainian military officials this week for a set of “tabletop” exercises designed to help Kyiv map out the next stage of its battle to reclaim territory from dug-in Russian troops.
During a war-game session at the headquarters of U.S. Army Europe and Africa, the military officials rehearsed a range of options for an offensive that Ukraine’s leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky, has been telegraphing for some time.
The sessions, attended on Thursday by President Biden’s most senior generals responsible for American efforts to help Ukraine, were meant to strategize, officials said, mapping out the risks and benefits of a variety of moves that Ukraine might make against Russian positions in the coming months.
Ukrainian officials will ultimately decide which course to follow, with the American military officials described as serving like a sounding board.
After one session on Thursday, Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli, the supreme allied commander for Europe, praised the Ukrainian military’s “phenomenal” adaptability and said, “We’re going to help them adapt more.”
The United States and NATO, he said, “can keep going as long as necessary.”
The war games come as Ukraine is emerging from a winter that was expected to provide a lull in fighting. But both sides continue to take heavy casualties in the Russian onslaught against the eastern city of Bakhmut.
Earlier this week, Mr. Zelensky appeared to signal that Ukraine was preparing for a major offensive. He said in a speech that he had met with top officers in the military about preparations, as well as about shortages in weaponry and ammunition.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended the exercises on Thursday. In discussing them afterward, he described a huge table with maps and icons and other military paraphernalia meant to represent potential battles.
“The Ukrainians are moving things around on these maps to determine what is their best course of action, and they determine the advantages and disadvantages of the risks associated,” he said. “It’s a common thing that all militaries do.”
General Milley refused to detail the options that the Ukrainians tested during the exercises. But other senior American officials, military analysts and Ukrainian officials themselves have suggested that Kyiv might try to move against Russian defensive lines in the northeast or eastern parts of the country, including in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukraine could also mount an offensive in the south, targeting the so-called land bridge that connects the Russian mainland to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014. In January, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III told a Washington Post columnist, Max Boot, that a “realistic goal for this year” would be for the Ukrainians to cut the “land bridge.”
General Milley said that in addition to providing tanks and ammunition and fighting vehicles, the Biden administration was intent on helping Ukraine’s air defenses, a task that Pentagon war planners deem critical. Western officials have warned that if Ukraine runs out of the weaponry it has used over the past year to keep Russian war planes at bay, Moscow could quickly gain a stronger hand.
“The most important priority the Ukrainians need right now is air defense,” General Milley said. “That is what President Zelensky has asked for — the ability to continue to defend the airspace of Ukraine against the Russian onslaught by Russian aircraft and missile attack.”
During the course of the war, Russian pilots have not ventured far beyond their own borders into Ukrainian airspace because Kyiv, using a variety of air defense systems coupled with early warning intelligence from the United States, has managed to make the skies above Ukraine a danger zone for Russian warplanes.
Earlier this week, another member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was in Germany to review U.S. assistance to Ukraine’s army. Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, visited the Army training area in Grafenwöhr, where soldiers from the New York State National Guard and other American troops are instructing Ukrainian forces.
General Hokanson spent several hours at Camp Kherson, a portion of the training area named after the city in southern Ukraine where Ukrainian forces achieved a major victory over Russian troops last fall. “We are delivering the training they’ve asked for, and the training they need,” he said in an email on Thursday.
Under Pentagon guidelines, General Hokanson was not allowed to describe in detail the training he saw. The restrictions reflect the Biden administration’s concerns about escalating tensions with Russia over U.S. involvement in the war or triggering a wider conflict with the West.
The U.S. has conducted training at Grafenwöhr for years, with limited instruction for Ukrainian forces beginning last year, shortly after the Russian invasion.
At first, the training focused specifically on several weapons systems supplied by the United States, such as the howitzer. But starting in January, the Pentagon began broadening the training to prepare Ukrainian troops to launch an offensive or counter any surge in Russian attacks, as is happening now along several hundred miles of front lines.
The five-week course is intended to teach Ukrainian troops how to move and coordinate company- and battalion-size units on the battlefield, synchronizing the use of artillery, armor and ground forces in what the military calls combined arms training.
The U.S. armed forces have trained over 1,000 Ukrainians since January, bringing the total trained since last February to just over 4,000 troops, senior Pentagon officials said this week.
National Guard soldiers have played an essential role in helping train Ukraine dating back three decades. Ukrainian pilots have also trained with the California Air National Guard, both in California and in Ukraine.
Helene Cooper reported from Wiesbaden, Germany, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.