Watch CNN’s full interview with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley on “The Lead with Jake Tapper” today at 4 p.m. ET.
The top US general told CNN on Monday that while Ukraine is “very well prepared” for a counteroffensive against Russia, it is “too early to tell what outcomes are going to happen.”
“They’re in a war that’s an existential threat for the very survival of Ukraine and has greater meaning for the rest of the world — for Europe, really for the United States, but also for the globe,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley said in an exclusive interview with Oren Liebermann from Normandy, France.
Milley, who is retiring this year, is in Normandy to commemorate the 79th anniversary of the 1944 D-Day invasion – a massive World War II operation that he called the “greatest amphibious invasion in human history” – as the war continues to rage in Ukraine.
For months now, the US and its allies have been helping arm Ukraine for the counteroffensive, which was expected to start in the spring. Most recently, the US said it would support a joint effort by other nations to train Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets. Milley said that Ukraine is prepared for the counteroffensive because the US and partner nations have provided “training and ammunition and advice, intelligence.”
Russia has already begun to claim that it has repelled a “large scale offensive,” in southern Donetsk, though they have not provided evidence to support the claim.
The war has also begun creeping into Russia, as suspected Ukrainian drone strikes hit inside Moscow and a shelling attack was carried out in Belgorod. Asked Monday if such attacks would risk escalating the conflict, Milley said there is “always risk” of escalation, and it’s something the US is watching “very, very carefully.”
Speaking to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria last week, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said that the US believes Ukraine’s counteroffensive “will allow Ukraine to take strategically significant territory back from Russia.”
CNN reported Monday that Ukraine has begun providing drones to a network of agents and sympathizers inside Russia who are working to sabotage Russian efforts. There is no evidence that the recent drone strikes have been carried out by those pro-Ukraine agents, but officials told CNN they had noticed an uptick of attacks inside Russia’s borders.
“There has been for months now a pretty consistent push by some in Ukraine to be more aggressive,” one source familiar with US intelligence said. “And there has certainly been some willingness at senior levels. The challenge has always been their ability to do it.”
A spokesperson for the head of the Ukrainian Security Service told CNN that they would comment on “instances of ‘cotton’ only after our victory,” using Ukrainian slang term for explosions.
Quoting Vasyl Malyuk, head of the Ukrainian Security Service, the spokesperson suggested that the attacks inside Russia would continue, telling CNN that “‘cotton’ has been burning, is burning, and will continue to burn.”
After China rejected a request for a formal meeting between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Milley said that he also has not been able to speak with China’s most senior general.
“I have not had an opportunity to talk to my counterpart. I talked to my previous counterpart,” Milley said. “He had a routine change of command, I think it was October or November when they did their last Party Congress. I have not had an opportunity to talk to his replacement since then.”
An offer from Austin to meet with Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu at a security summit in Singapore over the weekend was rejected, as Chinese officials blamed worsening relations on the US and its sanctions on Chinese officials and companies.
On Monday, Milley echoed comments from Austin, saying it was critical for the two countries to be able to speak. While Milley said that the US and China have exchanged “messages back and forth,” he and Austin would “like to have an opportunity to talk.”
“Both countries are significant powers, great powers, If you want to call it that, in the world today,” Milley said. “Both countries have significant amounts of nuclear weapons, they’ve got large and capable militaries. So a conflict between great powers, arguably we – for sure we’re in competition and arguably we’re in confrontation, but we’re not yet in conflict. … And in times of crisis, it’s necessary to deescalate. So maintaining those relationships, maintaining the connectivity at all levels, whether it’s State Department or CIA or the military, etc., is an important function in order to potentially deescalate in a time of crisis.”
In addition to questions about international issues, Milley also addressed domestic concerns — namely, the ongoing Republican hold in the Senate on more than 200 general and flag officer nominations and promotions.
The hold, spearheaded by Alabama Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville, is a protest against new reproductive health policies from the Defense Department, which include travel allowances for service members who must travel to receive an abortion because of where they are stationed.
Milley told CNN that he has “had an opportunity to engage with the Senate Armed Services Committee and Sen. Tuberville” on the issue, adding that the hold could soon balloon to impact thousands of people, including officers down the promotion chain whose moves are stalled by the hold at the top, and their family members.
“It will be a backup of the whole system. It is becoming a backup of the whole system. This hold has been in place now for four or five months,” Milley said. “And you’ve got little kids who got to go to school, and we normally do rotations in the summer. So the bottom line is, yes, it has a significant impact on morale and readiness, and, and obviously on the stability of the assignment system.”
Milley emphasized that aside from the impact on military readiness, a significant concern is the politicization of the military.
“We in uniform, we are an apolitical, nonpartisan institution,” he said. “And we want no part of any of these political issues that are out there.”
Milley maintained that stance when asked about Republican pushback on so-called “woke” policies and initiatives in the military, which include diversity and inclusion efforts and highlighting of LGBTQ+ service members. Milley said he believes “a lot of this is misunderstood and mischaracterized,” and “exaggerated for whatever reasons.”
“I think the accusations of woke are grossly overexaggerated,” he said. “Every soldier, sailor, airman and Marine are out there focused on the mission, and the mission is to defend the United States, its people, our interests, and the constitution of the United States.”
The political battle over “woke” policies resulted in the cancelling of a drag show at an Air Force base in Nevada meant to mark the beginning of Pride Month. The Pentagon cancelled the event at Nellis Air Force Base after Austin told lawmakers questioning him about “wokeism” that the Defense Department does not support or fund drag shows.
Milley stood by Austin’s call to cancel the event, saying Monday that drag shows “were never part of DOD policy to begin with and they’re certainly not funded by federal funds.”
Austin, he said, did not support the show being held on the base and made the decision to cancel it.
“And that I think is the absolute right thing to do,” Milley said.
Milley’s interview came just days after CNN reported that an audio recording reveals former President Donald Trump acknowledging he kept a classified Pentagon document outlining a potential attack on Iran. The document was reportedly presented to Trump by Milley, which would not have been unusual given Milley was Joint Chiefs chairman at the time and Trump’s most senior military adviser.
Asked about the document on Monday, Milley declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate to speak about an ongoing federal investigation.