The U.S. military's top officer said Tuesday that Ukrainian forces had reclaimed more than half of Russian-occupied territory and stressed that the war will continue through the winter -- until the Russians are completely gone.
Speaking at a press conference in Germany, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley told reporters that "to date, Ukraine has liberated over 54% of Russian-occupied Ukraine and they continue to retain the strategic initiative."
The promising assessment comes as more than 50 countries gathered for their regular meeting -- known as the Ukraine Defense Contact Group -- where they decide what contributions they can make to the war effort. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stressed that the country needed more air defense systems and noted that the long-promised M1 Abrams tanks will be arriving "soon."
The war in Ukraine, started when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion in February 2022 with the aim of capturing its capital within days, is now approaching 600 days in length. In the early days of the war, Ukraine was largely focused on defending itself from advancing Russian troops but, this summer, the country kicked off a major counteroffensive aimed at repelling all invading forces.
"It's not particularly surprising ... the Ukrainian offensive is going a little bit slower than previously anticipated," Milley said. But he also said he was confident in the Ukrainian forces and their desire to press their advantage.
"As you get into the winter, the grounds will get muddy, but then it'll freeze," Milley said. "There's no intention whatsoever by the Ukrainians to stop fighting during the winter."
Much of the fighting is against heavily defended and entrenched positions -- something that military officials have been warning about for months.
However, Milley said that "generally speaking, the Ukrainians have penetrated several layers of this defense."
"It is not 100% penetrated yet, but they've penetrated several of the layers and they're going very slow, preserving their combat power," he added.
While the slow progress is not surprising to military leaders, it also comes at a time when the political will to keep sending military equipment and aid to Ukraine is being challenged on Capitol Hill.
In late August, the House Freedom Caucus -- the far-right coalition of representatives -- vowed to oppose "any blank check" for Ukraine. While most lawmakers in both parties continue to support American assistance, securing more money could become more difficult after 70 House Republicans held a vote in July to cut off all U.S. funding to the country.
When asked broadly about criticism aimed at the Ukrainian military leaders, Milley pushed back and stressed that the country has "plenty of combat power remaining and the Ukrainians have absolutely no intent to stop."
The general, who is set to retire from service at the end of the month, also had plenty of confidence in America's ability to keep providing aid.
"The United States and its allied countries are rich, powerful, with significant ... military resources that are capable of sustaining this fight, in President Biden's words, as long as it takes," he said.
Milley also added that for many Ukrainians -- especially those under 40 years of age -- they've known nothing but "a free and independent, sovereign Ukraine."
"I think that Russia has made one of the greatest strategic errors Russia has ever made," Milley said. "They've invaded a country that's been free and independent, and that country is not going to quit until they, too, are free and independent once again."
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.