By Trevor Hunnicutt
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Joe Biden convened U.S. military leaders on Wednesday in an annual White House gathering taking on special significance as the war in Ukraine enters a risky new phase and Washington plans more weapons assistance.
A "variety of topics" were set to be discussed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and senior military leaders, a National Security Council spokesperson said. The event includes a formal West Wing meeting as well as a dinner in the president's residence with leaders' spouses afterward.
While the annual military policy meeting rarely makes news, weighty issues are on the agenda this year, topped by a conflict in Ukraine that officials fear could imperil European security for years to come.
Russia has said it has entered a new stage of its operation and is methodically seeking to "liberate" the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Western allies anticipate Russia's campaign could last many months, grind to a stalemate and test the battlefield capabilities of Ukrainian fighters.
Opening the meeting, Biden touted the toughness of the Ukrainian military and said that NATO's unity has shocked Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"They're tougher and more proud than I thought; I'm amazed what they're doing with your help," Biden said. "I don't think that Putin counted on it being able to hold us together."
The United States is expected to announce another military aid package for Ukraine in coming days that could match the $800 million pledged last week.
Russia says it launched what it calls a "special military operation" on Feb. 24 to demilitarize and "denazify" Ukraine. Kyiv and its Western allies reject that as a false pretext.
U.S. forces are not fighting in Ukraine but are indirectly engaged, arming, training and financing Kyiv's forces.
A lengthy clash could also test U.S. public support for Washington's backing of Ukraine. Last month, Biden asked Congress for record peacetime spending on the military for the upcoming fiscal year.
The meeting comes amid questions about the future of NATO forces in Europe, including whether to install a permanent presence on the defense alliance's eastern border with Russia.
During a brief portion of the meeting open to reporters, Biden also expressed pride that women represented three of the senior officials included in the gathering.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Heather Timmons and Cynthia Osterman)