Ukrainian soldiers make their way to their position amid Russia and Ukraine war in the vicinity of Bakhmut, Ukraine on March 30, 2023.

Ukrainian soldiers make their way to their position amid Russia and Ukraine war in the vicinity of Bakhmut, Ukraine on March 30, 2023. Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Ukraine Victory Unlikely This Year, Milley Says

“I'm not saying it can't be done. I'm just saying it's a very difficult task,” says top U.S. general.

Watch Kevin Baron's interview with Gen. Mark Milley, part of Defense One's State of Defense series, here.

Updated on March 31 at 4:53 p.m. ET.

Ukraine is unlikely to expel all Russian forces from its territory this year, the top U.S. officer said Friday, giving a grim reality check to the expressed goal and hopeful ambitions of policymakers, diplomats, and defense leaders from Washington to Kyiv. 

“I don't think it's likely to be done in the near term for this year,” Gen. Mark Milley said Friday in an interview with Defense One

“Zelenskyy has publicly stated many times that the Ukrainian objective is to kick every Russian out of Russian occupied Ukraine. And that is a significant military task. Very, very difficult military task. You're looking at a couple hundred thousand Russians who are still in Russian-occupied Ukraine. I'm not saying it can't be done. I'm just saying it's a very difficult task,” the Joint Chiefs chairman said. “But that is their objective. They certainly have a right to that, that is their country. And they are on the moral high ground here.”

In November, Milley said in a press conference that the probability Ukraine was going to retake Crimea and expel all Russian forces “anytime soon is not high.” His comment stirred speculation that the United States was pressuring Zelenskyy toward negotiating territorial concessions with Russia.

On Friday, Milley said Russia “has failed” strategically, operationally, “and now they’re failing tactically, as well.” That followed his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee that Russian forces were “getting slaughtered” by Ukrainian troops, due in part to poor training and human-wave tactics.  

Milley was asked whether the ATACMS long-range missile would become the latest advanced weapon initially withheld from and later sent to Ukraine.

“Well, there's a policy decision to date not to, so far. And I would never predict anything on the table, off the table, for the future. But from a military standpoint, we have relatively few ATACMS, we do have to make sure that we maintain our own munitions inventories, as well. And the range of the weapon—I think there's a little bit of overstating of what an ATACMS can do and can't do. You're looking at a single shot, so think of a musket versus a repeating rifle. Whereas the GMLRS fires six shots, and ATACMs fires one. Now the range of the ATACMS is longer, but there's other systems they can get you that range. There’s UAVs, for example, that could do it, and the Brits have a couple of systems. So, those are some things that we're looking at to give them a little bit more legs. But right now, we're not providing the ATACMs.”

Lawmakers, many fulfilling campaign promises, have stepped up their inquiries into U.S. pledges of bottomless support for Ukrainian forces. The greatest pressure has come from the new crop of House GOP leaders, including far-right Republicans who oppose the effort entirely. But even moderate GOP committee leaders pressed Milley and Austin this month on the effect on U.S. munitions stockpiles. 

Milley warned the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that the Ukraine conflict has revealed “the incredible consumption rates of conventional munitions” in wartime.

“If there was a war in the Korean Peninsula or a great power war between the United States and Russia, or the United States and China, the consumption rates would be off the charts,” he said.

On Friday, Milley said the services are reassessing what the U.S. needs for future conflicts. 

“We're going back and we're reviewing all of our estimates for logistical estimates, for all of the key ammunitions or munitions that are required for the various contingency plans,” he said.

Milley said it will take the U.S. defense industry “probably several years” to backfill all that has been spent and ramp up production to meet what the Pentagon needs.

“We have some indications, and that will probably have to increase over time, it's not going to be done by magic overnight. But this is something that's going to be very expensive. And it's going to have to be a deliberate program. It'll take probably several years to do it,” he said. “We have sufficient ammunition in our inventory today to do what we need to do. But if you're involved in a significant great-power war, it's best not to underestimate how much munitions you're going to need.”

That rationale for not giving Ukraine MGM-140 ATACMS missiles, which have a range of 190 miles, did not sit well with ​​retired general Ben Hodges, who led U.S. Army Europe from 2014 to 2017. 

“I'm actually surprised given the talent of the people involved, how incoherent these kinds of excuses are,” Hodges told Defense One on Friday. “For the chairman to say, well, there's actually other systems that could do what the attackers does, okay, what are we doing to get them there?”

He said the Ukrainians need to be able to strike the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters on the Crimean peninsula. 

“It’s exactly 300 kilometers from Odessa to Sevastopol. So if you could be launching ATACMS right now. The Black Sea Fleet would have already had to relocate because their port facilities, if not ships, would have already had to move.” 

While the Ukranians have struck facilities on Crimea with drones, these strikes have been few and isolated. 

A former senior U.S. diplomatic official who worked on Russia-Ukraine issues said that the real reason that the Biden administration has been reluctant to send ATACMS to Ukraine is based on continued fears of escalating the conflict. The former official dismissed those fears as small in comparison to the risk of the conflict continuing to drag on. 

“The issue of the administration has always been that they don't want to be Ukrainians to be using anything we provide against targets and Russia for fear of escalation. The Ukrainians have always been very reliable and lived up to any conditions that we set for the equipment we give them. And at the same time, we say that ‘Crimea is Ukraine’ and therefore that is a legitimate target.” 

He also took issue with the idea that by awarding Ukraine the missiles that they have been asking for for more than a year the United States would be escalating the situation. 

“Are we preventing escalation, are we encouraging Russian escalation?” he said.

The former official described the ATACMS as an important part of any potential ceasefire negotiation. 

“Having systems with a longer range that could be valuable Russian targets at risk would be a deterrent against any renewed aggression if there were some kind of mutually acceptable ceasefire over the coming months,” he said.

Patrick Tucker contributed to this report.