In the first week of the war, Major General Michael “Mike” Repass was one of the very few who correctly predicted that the initial Russian offensive would fail. He followed that by accurately predicting the food security crisis we are currently in. Having served as the Deputy Commander of Special Operations Command-Europe, the Commanding General of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command, and the Commanding General of Special Operations Command-Europe, post retirement, he became the NATO mission’s military adviser in Ukraine. Radio Free Europe asked him, what do you think you saw that others didn’t?
“I think this goes to the character of the Ukrainian people,” he tell us. “The longer the war from 2014 and Donbas went on, the less tolerant the Ukrainians became towards anything Russian, specifically in the East, where you have Russian speaking people killing Russian speaking people. In December, there was a survey that asked the Ukrainians “if Russia invades, what would you do?” and 65% said that they would pick up arms against Russia. 65%! They didn’t say ‘I would oppose’, or ‘I would be a supporter [of Ukraine],’ they said: ‘I will pick up a weapon and fight Russia.’ That’s a potential 25 million people that were willing to actively resist Russian aggression.
“The Ukrainian army in early 2022 was not the Ukrainian army of 2014, which is the presumption the Russians went in with. There were substantial reforms along the NATO template, meaning, organizationally, they were they were light years ahead of where they were in 2014. In the US and NATO, they thought it was going to be a lightning war. What they didn’t understand was the institutional and structural reforms that Ukraine had made based on the NATO template provided them. They were very serious about NATO accession, and were moving along those lines.
“Also, they are superbly led from the top down,” he notes. “The President is a great communicator. The chief of defense, General Zaluzhnyi, is an extraordinary man himself, also with that classic Ukrainian charisma. And he is widely respected and loved by his subordinates. The commanders they have in the Army, the land forces, Special Forces, Air Force, and Navy, are all alike in that they are hugely experienced. It’s a very cohesive group of leaders, and they understand each other very well. This cohesive leadership, cohesive nature of society, and the institutional improvements that they’ve managed to make over the years, has really set them up for success.”
In the unlikely circumstance that Russia is able to seize all of Ukraine, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to retain it all.
You said, “Russia is going to be the dog that caught the car.” Has the dog caught up with the car yet? How’s the chase coming along?
I think Russia is still chasing the car. And I will tell you why they haven’t caught up with it yet. They’ve achieved some minor successes, among them seizing the North Crimea channel and successfully creating a land bridge to Crimea. That was a nice to have, but not a critical must have. They wanted to have all of Luhansk, they got that, which is their downgraded theory of victory. And they’re working on the rest of Donetsk. They’ve got around two thirds of Donetsk, but they’re running out of steam and may not be able to get all of it: they’re still they’re still running after the car.
FM Lavrov made a very interesting announcement. He said: “Donetsk and Luhansk are just the beginning. We also want Zaporizhya, we want these other oblasts.” He’s alluding to the fact they want all of Ukraine. But in the unlikely circumstance that Russia is able to seize all of Ukraine, it’s highly unlikely that they’ll be able to retain it all. So, even if they catch the car, they can’t do anything with it. Imagine a boa constrictor, a large Python, going after a porcupine. It can swallow the porcupine, but it can’t digest it. So it has to get rid of it, has to expel. It’s going to be too painful for Russia to sustain their operation, or, in the unlikely event they actually swallow Ukraine, they won’t be able to keep it. There’s no way. There’s no way you’re going to extinguish the national identity of over 40 million people. It just won’t stand.
20% of Europe’s largest country’s territory is currently occupied by Russians. Can they hold that 20%? They’re having trouble holding what they have, due to the fragility of the Russian army and Russian defense sector. Let’s say they have around 100,000 troops, maybe 130,000 troops fighting in the East there. They’re having to rely on conscripts, and people they’ve pressed into military service in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk areas to do the fighting for them. The contract soldiers that are rotated out are fewer, and fewer contract soldiers are volunteering to go fight. And the conscript soldiers that they’re getting to replace their losses are of low quality and have had very little training. Where that affects them most is in the technical services, like their electronic warfare, their long range artillery fires, their intelligence sections. Aircraft is where the lack of contract soldiers will affect them the most.
Putin made a deliberate decision not to mobilize the nation for war, so they went into the war undermanned. They’re struggling to man the formations that are in combat, so he’s got a real issue on his hands strategically. That’s why he’s struggling to secure the areas that he currently occupies.
The conscript soldiers that they’re getting to replace their losses are of low quality and have had very little training.
Yet the war seems to be in favor of Russia in its numerical and artillery superiority. What’s needed to even things out?
This is unrestricted warfare on the Russian side, and they’re willing to visit any level of violence on any element, anything, any person in Ukraine. They have no inclination to abide by the Geneva Convention in the protection of civilians in the pursuit of land warfare. And while it’s unrestricted warfare on the Russian side, it is restricted warfare on Ukrainian side, as they try to protect their country, and they don’t want to destroy it in the process.
You have the Ukrainian artillery outgunned- the Russians have 3.5 times the artillery in long range missile fire that Ukraine has. Ukraine can deliver about three to 5000 rounds of artillery a day. Based on the type of systems, particularly the multiple launch rocket systems that Russia has, which number in range of 1300, Russia can put somewhere between 20 and 30,000 rounds of artillery on Ukraine on any given day. Now, so just in terms of mass and net explosive weight, Ukraine is badly outnumbered. That’s just the number side of this.
Qualitatively, there are two developments inside of Ukraine that started to stabilize the situation: The arrival of long range, precision artillery, rocket fire, specifically, the M777 has a precision guided round, they go out to about I think 32 kilometers or so, and the HIMars and MLRS, multiple launch rocket systems. Those can go out to extended ranges of 70+ kilometers. Next comes targeting to be effective with that limited quantity of precision ammunition. This is where the use of unmanned aerial vehicles that Ukraine has, the Bayraktars and other things, come into play. And the use of the resistance elements that are reporting on Russian movements through the countryside. So fusing all that, the human reports with the UAV sightings in the overhead imagery is very accurate. The Ukrainians are now able to accurately target static, high value assets, including Russian ammunition depots, railroad heads, bridges, command posts, electronic warfare, and jamming and intercept assets. These things are extremely valuable to the Russians and are essential to their way of war. What you’ve seen with that precision targeting is a slowdown and operational pause, and the Russians have to rethink where their ammunition depots are. If they are arranged within 70 kilometers of the front, they have to move them out of reach somewhere, thus increasing the amount of ground transport they need to move to the frontlines. And we know that Russian logistics are horrible. Once they get off the railroads, they are horrible.
How many HIMARS and similar does Ukraine need to make Putin stop and rethink? What they have now is less than 24, but I think they’re going to get more. I would say they need probably double that figure. They’re getting multiple launch rocket systems from Norway, the UK and United States, they probably need in a range of 50 or 100 of those as well. And they need the ammunition to go with it. So, all of that is a significant game changer.
Can Russia, whose entire international standing is built on intimidating others, and on its military prowess, afford to lose this war militarily, or even appear to be defeated?
No, absolutely not. They can’t afford to lose this war. But the shroud of invincibility that Russia has enjoyed since the end of the Cold War has already been ripped away by their own inability to win the war in Ukraine. Can you imagine the same army trying to take on NATO? It would be a disaster of a matter of days. Russia would have to go nuclear, just to save themselves. The longer Russia pursues this war, the weaker they get, and Ukraine gets stronger by the moment. China’s paying attention to this because they have regional ambitions on Taiwan. North Korea’s paying attention, as is Iran- Iran has tremendous territorial aspirations in the Middle East, which include Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, thus creating an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea and restoring its greatness. The revisionist powers are paying attention to what happens to Russia, and what the West does. They ask, “will the West allow Russia to get away with this territorial expansion?” If the answer is yes, then standby for more news in the Pacific, in the Middle East, because it will get exceedingly unpleasant with the revisionist powers. The world cannot allow borders to be changed by military force. What we need now is a coalition of the willing that’s energetic enough and has enough domestic sanctioning to get Russia out of Ukraine, either by their own volition or throw them out. But I don’t see that willingness yet. I see very strong political will. Within the NATO alliance, I see no daylight among the Alliance on its resolve to sustain Ukraine. Yet, we’re going to have a very tough period in the West over the next eight months. We’re going to have an energy shortage in Europe and a food shortage globally, all induced by Russia. There will be political instability in the western democracies because of the fuel shortage, but they will come out of this, and we’ll be okay. The nations that have instability due to food stress, primarily in the Middle East, Africa and some South Asian countries, those nations are going to have tremendous economic and political challenges. But in the West, people will get through it and say, “We’re not going to repeat this”. If Putin shuts off the gas, the West will say, “Okay, we’re not going to put up with a cold winter again. Just his once, but we’re not doing this next year.” So, the clock is ticking on Mr. Putin.
If Russia can’t afford to lose and the West can’t afford to let Russia get away with it, where does it leave us? Somebody has to relent. The one who can’t sustain this indefinitely is Russia, because they don’t have the industrial capacity to sustain this fight indefinitely. The West is just now getting its industrial capacity cranked up. Furthermore, Mr. Putin has to maintain the big lie of this special military operation domestically. Once the lie is understood as a lie, domestically, his political support is going to evaporate. He also has a ticking time bomb in that his conscripts are primarily the non-urban elite. The people being pulled into the military, in his stealth mobilization, are people outside of the three largest cities in Russia. So you’re not getting the urban elites involved in this war at all? He knows if he loses them, he’s done.
If he’s cornered, Putin could be even more dangerous. How reckless can he be? Are there any red lines? So far, Russia has not demonstrated any red line it’s unwilling to cross. But a red line would be the NATO alliance mobilizing to fight Russia in Ukraine. A red line would be a coalition of nations wanting to enter the fray and forcibly opening the sea lanes for grain to be exported outside of the formal agreement that’s in the works now. And a formal NATO declaration of war against Russia would be a Russian Red Line. I think we’re some distance away from all three of those red lines, and there are degrees of ugliness until we get there.
Ukraine right now has less than 24 [HIMARS and comparable systems], I would say they need probably double that figure
On the Russians shelling Odessa port a day after the Istanbul deal – what does it tell us? The grain agreement was a step in the right direction for the world. The provisions were realistic for each side. We should be encouraged by the development. However, Russia is incapable of restraining itself for even humanitarian reasons. The destruction of the rail yard and grain terminal overnight was deliberate, as they used precision long range fire to destroy the essential infrastructure. This is a testament to the moral rot inside the Russian government and military. The UN Secretary General expressed the world’s outrage and disappointment on this matter.
Further, given the fact that Russia has seized the ports on the Sea of Azov, they will be able to steal eastern Ukrainian wheat and get it to global markets with ease while Ukraine struggles with its damaged infrastructure. Russia is playing an insidious game and demonstrating to the world they cannot be trusted when it comes to international agreements.
We’ve seen military assistance flowing to Ukraine. Was that a good time for other threatened neighbors of Russia to also extend a palm and ask for some? Did Georgia miss its chance?
No, I’d not say they’ve missed an opportunity. But they don’t need it at the moment. Russia has thinned its troops in the two Russian enclaves in Georgia, because they needed that manpower in fight in Ukraine. The Russian presence there is not capable of pursuing an offensive operation right now. But you can imagine the circumstances if they declare a victory in Ukraine – they might think “We should get what we want from Georgia as well, because the West is not going to intervene due to the lack of a formal defense agreement.” It complicates not only Georgia’s defense, but it also the argument for allowing Russia to achieve their objectives.
Georgia is watching. Azerbaijan is watching, because they’ve got the Russian peacekeeping brigade on their territory trying to keep the peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia. A lot of people are watching this. So I don’t think we need to escalate horizontally by giving HIMARS to Georgia at the moment. But I see that as a possibility for holding Russia in check if they get adventurous in the South Caucasus.