Retired General David Petraeus spent nearly forty years in the US Army, commanding US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan before serving as director of the CIA in 2011-12.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service, Petraeus argues that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is “about as clear a right-versus-wrong as we’ve seen in our lifetime.” He also talks about the “staggering failure” of Russia’s military leadership and its refusal to learn from its mistakes, the aims and strengths of Kyiv’s impending combined arms offensive, and why the West will be unable to seek an early exit.
Where do we stand in the Ukraine war?
We are awaiting the expected Ukrainian late spring / early summer offensive, which will feature Western tanks, Western industry fighting vehicles, artillery in a variety of other systems, and the kind of training and unit development that will allow Ukraine for the first time to achieve combined arms operations in this particular war, something that Russia has not done in the past, and something that the Ukrainians did, to a modest degree, in the Kharkiv offensive last fall.
I’m referring to the use of tanks together with infantry, to keep the enemy infantry and their anti-tank guided missiles off the tanks, with artillery and mortars, suppressing the enemy, and with engineers and explosive ordnance disposal to reduce obstacles and defuse mines. With air defense with the tanks to keep the enemy off them, supported now by the MIGs provided by Poland and other NATO nations, logistics right up behind them with additional ammunition, food, fuel, water, medical support, and supplies, good command and control on the Ukrainian side, plus electronic warfare to degrade the communications of the Russians.
And then, most important of all, perhaps right behind the lead elements, additional units that can exploit the gains of the lead forces, something that didn’t really exist in Kharkiv last fall, so that when the physical capacity of the forces was reached, after a week or so, there was nothing to push through, to exploit it in the way I think we will see this summer. So that’s where we are we. We completed a year in which Russia lost the battle of Kyiv, lost the battle of Kharkiv, lost the battles of Summy and Kherson, and they failed to achieve their winter objectives. Now, we’ll be faced with a spring and summer offensive by new Ukrainian forces that are being trained and equipped in Germany, Poland, the UK and Ukraine. I believe Ukraine will achieve what it sets out to do.
What might the end product of the Ukrainian counter-offensive be?
I think it will be twofold. One will be to ensure the Russians are not able to reinforce or resupply Crimea through the southeastern part of Ukraine, so to sever that ground line of communications that they achieved in their offensive last spring and summer. Second will be to bring about the crumbling, perhaps even collapse, of Russian forces in a fairly broad area of southern Ukraine, as they liberate more of the Ukrainian territory that the Russians captured last year, up to Crimea.
Including Crimea? Where do we draw the line? What’s the expected result?
Well, this will take time, they’ll do it a piece at a time. Very important is that they reached the point of having the additional longer range precision munitions, with a range of about 150 kilometers, that the US is providing for the multiple launch rocket system we handed over. It’s precise; they can hold at risk and target many more of the sites in Crimea that have been important to supporting Russians in southern and southeastern Ukraine- the air bases, headquarters logistical locations, reserve forest locations, and so forth.
General Mark Milley said that Ukrainians have turned Bakhmut into a slaughterhouse for Russians. Could this have been the Ukrainian plan all along, to use the bottleneck tactic and waste Russian manpower?
I don’t know whether it was all along but it has clearly become that over time. Early on, I believe even Ukrainians would observe that Bakhmut has no real geographic significance. It’s not a great rail or road hub the way some other locations are. But I think they came to see the value of defending an urban area against a force that was very unprofessionally throwing soldiers into this particular cauldron, and allowing those soldiers, as General Milley said, to be “hammered.” The losses have been staggering; the gains have been incremental, and incredibly costly. And I think over time, President Zelensky clearly came to recognize the need to not give Russia anything that it could portray as a victory.
We can talk as much as we want about the leadership deficiencies in the Russian military. But surely they could have seen the trap?
The problem is that they don’t have any alternatives. They don’t have well trained forces, they no longer have well equipped forces, they don’t have collective training of these units, the way the Ukrainian forces have. I think it’s very important for observers to recognize that the Ukrainian forces that will lead the offensive this spring and summer are not engaged in Ukraine on the frontlines right now. They are in training in Germany, Poland, UK, Ukraine and elsewhere. And over time, the conditions will be set for a combined arms operation before they launch that offensive. The Russians haven’t done that. They’ve basically just thrown soldiers into units. There’s no cohesion, and there’s no real organization to it. Some are our actual former convicts, prisoners who were given a chance to get out of jail, free, if you will, and if they could survive for six months, they could go for eight months. But of course the odds of surviving the way the Russians have employed them are not great.
What the Ukrainians will do in the upcoming offensive is going to be vastly different; combined arms operations, which again, the Russians didn’t achieve even at the outset, despite having had months deployed in Belarus and in Russia, on Ukraine’s borders, when they could have been training on these kinds of tasks. That’s a staggering failure.
You once led an invasion. Name three major mistakes Russia made in this war.
At the very highest level, they completely underestimated Ukrainian capabilities, and they completely overestimated their own capabilities. They failed to design a campaign properly, and to prepare the forces to carry out that campaign. Beyond that, they didn’t have modern communication systems. That’s why the generals kept getting killed.
We’ve always known that they lack a professional Non-commissioned Officer Corps, which are the backbone of our forces in the West, but they demonstrated many, many, many deficiencies some of which were anticipated, others of which were somewhat surprising, such as the fact that their communication system is single channel so you can easily find it. It’s not encrypted. It’s also HF, which means it’s broadcast very widely, anyone can pick it up with a police scanner, as opposed to ours, which is FM frequency and encrypted. Again, that they don’t have that kind of system at least encrypted is really quite staggering, given how much they supposedly invested in the modernization of their military.
There is an enduring belief that Russians always start badly, and then they get better. Back in October, you said that the battlefield reality Putin faced was irreversible. Six months on – is there still a chance for Russia to turn it all around, learn and adapt?
It should have been, but their military is not a learning organization, as we sought to make our forces into. When I was privileged to command our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and the greater Middle East, we explicitly set out to be learning organization – we built that concept into what it is that we did, lessons learned, planning sessions that required me to make decisions, refine the big ideas, the strategy, the tactics, and so forth. You have to build a culture of learning. In most NATO countries, they do that. Russia clearly has not done so. They’re not a learning organization. They didn’t recognize the deficiencies in advance. And some of these are not the kind of deficiencies that you can remedy just by sitting down and trying to learn lessons, though, because developing a professional non-commissioned officer corps is a huge decision, involving years of training and education and development and experience.
I just don’t see them learning, but I do see the Ukrainians learning and developing and getting better and better. And that’s why I say they will do what the Russians have failed to do, which is to achieve combined arms effects and operations.
What I should point out, though, is that Vladimir Putin is still not convinced that the Russians will not be able to out-suffer the West; he still thinks that, just as you said, in history, the Russians always have a terrible start. The Nazis pushed them back, Napoleon’s army pushed them out, but in the end, they prevail. And he still thinks he can out-suffer the Ukrainians, the Europeans and the Americans in the way that Russians out-suffered Napoleon’s army and the Nazis. And we have to ensure that we enable the Ukrainians to prove him wrong.
In realpolitik terms, can we truly argue Russia is losing this one, considering it occupies twice the amount of Ukrainian territory than it had before the full-fledged invasion, some of the richest, fertile land in Europe?
The war is still not over. This is still very much a work in progress. Ukraine has achieved some extraordinary victories, but the Russians, still control almost 20% of their territory, so, this is still ongoing, they should certainly be proud of what they have achieved, we should be proud of what they have achieved and what we’ve enabled them to achieve. But this is very much an ongoing war. And it requires continued support, continued determination, not just on the part of the Ukrainians, but on the part of those who are helping them in what I think is as clear a right versus wrong, as we’ve seen in our lifetime; a dictatorial kleptocratic regime, denying the right of its neighbor to even exist, invading it and doing so without provocation in a particularly brutal manner. Their culture is one of committing war crimes rather than preventing them and dealing with them.
How do you envisage the end of it all? At the Munich Security Conference in February I remember you saying that you hoped that it would end by the time your forthcoming book about Ukraine hit the shelves. The book comes out this October – is it realistic to expect a Ukraine win by that time?
Well, a lot depends on what is achieved by this upcoming Ukrainian offensive. If Russian forces can be forced to crumble and for that collapse to spread, then perhaps you might reach a point at which a negotiated resolution might actually be attainable. But without that, this is going to go on for another year or years. We need to be prepared for that. We should not be seeking an early exit. The Ukrainians are in this for their survival, their independence. They’re determined to do what’s necessary and we need to be determined to do the same.
What’s at stake here for countries like Moldova and Georgia?
I think Moldova has significant vulnerability. I believe the US and NATO countries have recognized this and are seeking to provide various forms of support to withstand Russian efforts to undermine the government, to topple it, to not just hang on to Transnistria, but to expand that and to make Moldova a kind of Belarus for Russia, if they can.
Georgia is a bit of a different situation, given that Russia is so intently focused with just about everything they have on Ukraine, and on Eastern Europe, including Moldova. I don’t think there’s much left for anything outside of that focus. I think Georgia has some breathing space, but they need to make the most of it. And I thought it was very interesting to see in their domestic political dynamics, of course, a very considerable rejection of Russia in recent months.
Unlike Moldova, Georgia harbors NATO membership hopes. What impact is this war going to have on those? Was eventual NATO membership more realistic for Georgia before this war or now that it has happened?
I suspect it’s just a tiny bit more realistic now. I think at some point, you will see not just Finland, but also Sweden, and Ukraine, over time, as NATO members. If there is some kind of requirement in the interim, there will be a security guarantee provided for it. I think we should disregard what the Kremlin thinks about this. We deferred to them in the past, and that set the conditions that enabled Putin to invade Ukraine. Those concerns should be dismissed. We now need to ensure that Ukraine can be part of what is a defensive alliance at the end of the day. And once that’s done, I think that the aspirations of a country like Georgia may be more realistic than they were in the past.
Interview by Vazha Tavberidze for RFE/RL