US General Mark Milley and Pope Francis discuss war in Ukraine

Pope Francis meets with US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley at the Vatican Aug 21, 2023. [Reuters]

Pope Francis and US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed the war in Ukraine at the Vatican on Monday.

Milley, a Catholic, said the visit meant a great deal to him, according to Milley's spokesperson, Colonel Dave Butler.

The general, who is visiting several European countries, said the pope expressed deep concern about the loss of life in Ukraine, particularly of civilians, since Russia invaded the country in February 2022.

Milley has condemned Moscow for waging "a campaign of terror" in Ukraine by targeting civilian infrastructure as part of its war strategy. Russia denies that it targets civilians.

A strong advocate for Ukraine’s defense against Russian forces, Milley, 65, has championed sending billions of dollars in arms to Kyiv.

Francis has condemned the international arms trade in general but acknowledged last year the moral justification for nations to supply weapons to Ukraine to fight against Russian aggression.

The 86-year-old pontiff has urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to seek a peaceful resolution with Russia. Zelenskyy has asked the Vatican to support Ukraine’s 10-point peace plan calling for the restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the withdrawal of Russian troops and the restoration of Ukraine’s state borders.

The pope has dispatched his peace envoy, Italian Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, to Kyiv, Moscow and Washington to discuss humanitarian aid and the repatriation of Ukrainian children.

Kyiv estimates that nearly 19,500 children have been taken to Russia or Russian-occupied Crimea since February 2022, in what it condemns as illegal deportations. Russia says it has helped to evacuate children from the war zone.

Vatican officials say Zuppi will soon go to Beijing to try to enlist China's support.

Appeal for F-16s

F-16 fighter jets could be a game changer in Russia's war against Ukraine, providing Ukrainian troops with much-needed air superiority in occupied territories, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yurii Ihnat said on national television Monday.

"Air superiority is the key to success on the ground,” he said. Ihnat remarked that F-16s would prevent Russian fighter jets from dropping guided air bombs and launching air missiles in the occupied territories.

In an interview with the Ukrainian service of RFE/RL, Ihnat said Ukraine needs more than 100 fighter jets to fully replace its old aircraft fleet so it “can respond to different challenges and strike various targets … [Russian] planes, ground targets, and rear camps in particular."

Also Monday, Zelenskyy thanked Danish lawmakers as he addressed them in Copenhagen, a day after Denmark and the Netherlands announced they would provide Ukrainian forces with U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets.

Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen pledged 19 F-16s to Ukraine and said she hoped the first six could be delivered around the start of 2024.

Russian Ambassador to Denmark Vladimir Barbin said in a statement Monday that Denmark’s decision to send F-16s to Ukraine “leads to an escalation of the conflict.”

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte did not detail how many F-16s his country would provide, nor when any deliveries might take place. He said the timing depends on how soon Ukrainian crews and infrastructure are ready.

“The F-16s will not help immediately now with the war effort. It is anyway a long-term commitment from the Netherlands,” Rutte said Sunday. “We want them to be active and operational as soon as possible. … Not for the next month, that’s impossible, but hopefully soon afterward.”

The Dutch and Danish governments are involved in a coalition that is working to train Ukrainian pilots to fly the advanced fighter jets.

The fighter jets are not likely to affect the trajectory of the war anytime soon, according to U.S. officials.

U.S. Air Force General James Hecker told reporters Friday at a virtual meeting of the Defense Writers Group that there are no prospects currently for either Ukraine or Russia to gain the upper hand in the air.

"I don't think anyone's going to get air superiority as long as the number of surface-to-air missiles stays high enough,” Hecker said, responding to a question from VOA.

"Both Ukraine and Russia have very good integrated air and missile defense systems,” he said. "That alone is what has prevented [Russia or Ukraine] from getting air superiority."

Zelenskyy in Greece

Zelenskyy met Monday with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Athens on his first official visit to Greece. The meeting reasserted Greece’s support for Ukraine, according to Greek newspaper Kathimerini.

In a joint press conference after the meeting, the two leaders stressed the economic, humanitarian and economic cooperation between the two countries. The Greek prime minister stated Greece’s unequivocal support to Ukraine’s fight against Russia.

Kathimerini quoted Mitsotakis as saying Greece “will never recognize Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territories,” and that officials in Athens “oppose any violation of international law.”

During the press conference, Zelenskyy said Greece will take part in training of Ukrainian air force pilots on the F-16s.

"Today, we have the important result for aviation coalition. Greece will participate in [the] training of our pilots for F-16. I am grateful for this proposal," he said.

Zelenskyy is also expected to attend an unofficial dinner hosted by Mitsotakis, alongside regional leaders from the Balkans and the presidents of the European Commission and European Council.

Drone attacks

The Russian Defense Ministry said early on Tuesday that the military jammed two Ukrainian drones over the Black Sea on Monday night.

The drones crashed into the water 40 kilometers to the northwest from Crimea, the military said in a statement.

Nearly 90 airplane flights in and out of Moscow were disrupted after Russia said it jammed a Ukrainian drone in the Ruzsky District west of the capital and destroyed another one in the nearby Istrinsky District on Monday.

Separately, the Russian Defense Ministry said it had downed two drones in the Belgorod region bordering Ukraine. The governor of Kaluga region, south of Moscow, said a drone had also been repelled there. No damage or injuries were reported from these attacks.

Both Russia and Ukraine have deployed drones to target the opposing side, with damage on the ground often caused by debris from downed aircraft.