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Gen. Mark Milley retires after 4 years as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Now to a changing of the guard at the Pentagon. Over the weekend, at midnight on Saturday, General Mark Milley stepped down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the top military adviser to the president. He gave his last interview as chairman to our colleague, All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly. And she's here now to tell us more about it. Good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: So General Milley is regarded as one of the most influential and most loquacious chairmen of the Joint Chiefs in recent history. And you caught up with him on his last day at the Pentagon.

KELLY: We did. We, in fact, spoke to him just an hour or so before he was clapped out of the Pentagon here. I will let you listen to just a little taste of that as we talk.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

KELLY: So this is the traditional sendoff ceremony. You can hear their service members and staff there lined up. They shake hands, they salute. And then, as you mentioned, midnight Saturday, the baton officially passed to CQ Brown. This is the Air Force general who has been confirmed by the Senate. He is now officially the nation's most senior military officer.

FADEL: Now, of course, you will have asked Milley about Ukraine. Take us to that part of your conversation with Milley. What's his take on how the war is going?

KELLY: Well, so I love, Leila, when each interview we do at NPR informs the next.

FADEL: Yeah.

KELLY: And as you know, your show, MORNING EDITION, just talked to Ukraine's President Zelenskyy when he was in New York.

FADEL: Right.

KELLY: And he said something interesting, so that's where I began my conversation with General Milley. I wanted to play for Milley the question to Zelenskyy where we ventured the possibility that maybe the hardest part of this war in Ukraine still lies ahead. Zelenskyy, you may recall, he disagreed. Here he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) I believe that the most difficult part of this war is already in the past. We can see that whenever we start pressing on the Russians, the Russians are starting to retreat. And now we are having the initiative on the battlefield.

KELLY: General Milley, what do you think? The most difficult part of this war is behind us, Zelenskyy says.

MARK MILLEY: Now, first of all, I would say that the Ukrainians do have the strategic initiative. So let's roll the clock back a little bit, back to 24 February, when the Russians attacked. Essentially, by the end of March, maybe the beginning of April, the Russian offensive had been defeated and the Ukrainians held. But the Russian offensive operation where the Russians had the strategic initiative, they were on the attack, and that attack failed. They failed to take Kyiv, they failed to topple the Zelenskyy government. They failed to reach the Dnipro River and so on, yeah.

KELLY: But to the question I asked, whether the hardest part is in the past, do you agree?

MILLEY: Well, so I think the hardest part was right there, actually. I think the most difficult challenge to the Ukrainians was right at that beginning because that is when the Russians were the most prepared. They had stockpiles of ammunition, etc. And they came, essentially, with a significant amount of air power, missile attack and so on and so forth. And so I...

KELLY: Although, you have said neither side can win, that victory may not be achievable through military means. Where does that leave us?

MILLEY: But yeah - but you asked me about the - you asked me the difficulty part of it. So I agree that the most difficult part of this war for the Ukrainians was probably the very beginning when the Russians had the strategic initiative.

KELLY: And to the other part of my question - the where does this leave us? - he said, look, Ukraine's defined what winning looks like. How you get there remains very much an open question.

FADEL: Can you share a quick preview of the rest of your interview, Mary Louise?

KELLY: Sure. We also asked about another war. We pressed him on the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. And we pressed him on his efforts to try to keep the military out of politics towards the end of Trump's presidency. We had asked a number of veterans to send questions, things they wanted to hear the general asked. And that resulted in some pretty interesting answers from the outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs, as you will hear.

FADEL: Yeah, looking forward to hearing the rest of your conversation with General Milley later today. Our colleague, Mary Louise Kelly. Mary Louise, thank you.

KELLY: You are welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SWIFTLY'S "DAYDREAMING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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