At the US base in Germany, the Ukrainian military conducts war games

WIESBADEN, Germany — With winter almost behind them, senior American generals this week invited Ukrainian military officials to a series of “tabletop” drills designed to help Kiev begin the next phase of its fight to retake territory from entrenched Russian troops to plan.

During a war games session at US Army Europe and Africa Headquarters, military officials explored a number of options for an offensive that Ukraine’s leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky, has been telegraphing for some time.

Sessions Thursday, attended by President Biden’s top generals responsible for America’s efforts in support of Ukraine, were designed to develop strategies, officials said, and outline the risks and benefits of various moves Ukraine may take in the coming months could take action against Russian positions.

Ukrainian officials will ultimately decide which course to take, with American military officials described as a sounding board.

After a meeting Thursday, General Christopher G. Cavoli, the supreme Allied commander for Europe, praised the “phenomenal” adaptability of Ukraine’s military and said, “We will help them adapt even more.”

The United States and NATO, he said, “can continue for as long as necessary.”

The war games arrive as Ukraine emerges from a winter that was expected to bring about a lull in fighting. But both sides continue to suffer heavy casualties in the Russian attack on 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 he had met with top military officers about preparations and arms and ammunition shortages.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, attended the exercises on Thursday. Discussing them later, he described a huge table with maps and symbols and other military paraphernalia meant to represent potential battles.

“Ukrainians move things around on these maps to determine what their best course of action is and they determine the pros and cons of the risks involved,” he said. “It’s a common thing that all military men do.”

General Milley refused to detail the options the Ukrainians tested during the exercises. But other senior American officials, military analysts and Ukrainian officials themselves have suggested that Kiev may seek to crack down on Russian defenses in the north-east or east of the country, including in Donetsk and Luhansk.

Ukraine could also launch an offensive in the south, targeting the so-called land bridge that connects mainland Russia with Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, illegally annexed by Moscow in 2014. In January, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said a Washington Post columnistMax Boot that a “realistic goal for this year” is for the Ukrainians to cut the “land bridge”.

Gen. Milley said that in addition to providing tanks, ammunition and combat vehicles, the Biden administration intends to help Ukraine’s air defenses, a task Pentagon war planners say is critical. Western officials have warned that Moscow could quickly gain a stronger hand if Ukraine runs out of weapons it has used over the past year to keep Russian warplanes at bay.

“The number one priority Ukrainians need now is air defense,” General Milley said. “This is what President Zelenskyy has asked for – the ability to continue defending Ukraine’s airspace against Russian onslaught using Russian planes and missile attacks.”

During the course of the war, Russian pilots did not venture far beyond their own borders into Ukrainian airspace because Kiev managed to turn the skies over Ukraine into a danger zone for Russian warplanes with a variety of air defense systems and early warning information from the USA .

Earlier this week, another member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was in Germany to review US aid to the Ukrainian army. General Daniel R. Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, visited the Army Training Area in Grafenwoehr, where New York State National Guard soldiers and other American troops train Ukrainian forces.

General Hokanson spent several hours at Camp Kherson, part of the military training area named after the city in southern Ukraine where Ukrainian forces won a major victory over Russian troops last fall. “We’re delivering the training they’ve asked for and the training they need,” he said in an email Thursday.

Under Pentagon policy, 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 US involvement in the war or triggering a wider conflict with the West.

The US has been training at Grafenwoehr for years, with limited training for Ukrainian forces beginning last year, shortly after the Russian invasion.

Initially, the training focused specifically on several weapon systems supplied by the United States, such as the howitzer. But starting in January, the Pentagon began expanding training to prepare Ukrainian troops to launch an offensive or counter an increase in Russian attacks, as is now happening along hundreds of kilometers of front lines.

The five-week course is designed to teach Ukrainian troops how to move and coordinate company- and battalion-sized units on the battlefield and synchronize the deployment of artillery, armor and ground forces in what the military calls combined arms training.

US forces have trained over 1,000 Ukrainians since January, bringing the total number of soldiers trained since last February to just over 4,000, senior Pentagon officials said this week.

National Guard soldiers have played an integral role in training Ukraine for three decades. Ukrainian pilots have also trained with the California Air National Guard, both in California and Ukraine.

Helen Cooper reports from Wiesbaden, Germany, and Eric Schmitt from Washington. At the US base in Germany, the Ukrainian military conducts war games

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