History only remembers the victors. History remembers the strong and the brave, Zelensky said during his visit to Bakhmut, – Major Spencer tells Radio Free Europe’s Georgian Service. “It wasn’t a prepared speech. The risk of visiting Bakhmut, of coming to the US to show us his leadership – he knows it’s dangerous, but he does what’s best for his country. Zelensky said: ‘We won’t allow Putin to be an architect of the 21st century.’ And that is why we should stop supplying Ukraine with just enough for it not to lose and instead give it what it needs for victory in this war.”
Urban Warfare Expert Major (ret.) John Spencer is an award-winning scholar, professor, author, combat veteran, national security and military analyst, and internationally recognized expert and advisor on urban warfare, military strategy, tactics, and other military related topics. Considered one of the world’s leading experts on urban warfare, he served as an advisor to the top four-star general and other senior leaders in the US Army as part of strategic research groups from the Pentagon to the United States Military Academy. We begin our interview by asking – just how long will this war go on for?
“That’s a tough one,” he answers. “Months, not years. But wars are hard to predict. The science of war says that Ukraine’s position on the battlefield is very strong, as are the alliances that it has. Sun Tzu teaches that to defeat the enemy, you should defeat their strategy. Putin lost this war, his strategy, his political objective, back in April, when he couldn’t take Kyiv. And then he lost the war of trying to reduce Ukraine’s alliances. And even this current campaign, which is a campaign of weakness to strike at Ukraine’s infrastructure, to turn the country dark, to impose costs not just on Ukrainian civilians, but on Ukrainian alliances- that that has also failed and has instead shown the alliances for Ukraine to be strong and committed indefinitely to support Ukraine and whatever it needs to protect its freedom, and to continue to resist Russian occupation in Ukraine.
“It’s clear that Putin is not going to give up on it, that he doesn’t care about sacrificing Russian soldiers,” Spencer says. “But Russia’s military is desperate. Putin needs the war to slow down, he needs the thousands of people that he’s trying to force into military service to have a little bit of time and training, to try to regain the momentum. I don’t see any way in which Russia advances forward. Russia doesn’t have resupply, it doesn’t have alliances; it barely has manpower, as most of its core officers and trained people are dead or dying. Putting a bunch of men with a weapon in their hands worked in World War Two, when you could do it by the millions, and that was the Soviet strategy. But that doesn’t work in today’s battle.”
Presidential adviser Podolyak thinks that’s exactly the strategy Russia is going to opt for – to swamp Ukrainians with bodies, numbers.
Well, Ukraine has the will to fight and also an endless supply of ammunition. Throwing more bodies at them just gives them target practice. The Ukrainians are already becoming the most proficient military in the world, because they’re learning how to kill Russians better than anybody else.
Ukraine will not run out of bullets, it won’t run out of soldiers. Russia doesn’t have a million soldiers to put into the fight. In order to do that, you have to threaten Russia’s survival, you make this a fight about Mother Russia, you make this about a fight for survival. And Russians have already shown that they don’t believe that this is a war for survival. That’s why more men left the country than joined the mobilization.
Can Russia solve its logistics problem?
Not as the sanctions continue, no. They can’t do it at scale. The reason they don’t have a million-man army is not because they don’t have the soldiers: They don’t have the capability to logistically feed and supply so many. Ukraine is attacking smartly, not face to face like the Russians want. Ukraine is fighting Russia’s ability to stay in Ukraine by attacking their supply points, attacking the roads behind him. And that’s why some of those Western long range munitions are so important, to attack Russia’s ability to supply their soldiers.
The West is happy to proclaim that Putin’s mobilization has failed, but the Ukrainians, among them Commander of Armed Forces Zaluzhny and Podolyak, don’t seem to share that optimistic outlook.
Yes. It’s hard to generalize the mobilization. Russia rushed people with three days of training into southern Ukraine, but they also sent large batches of people off to training, and those people have yet to arrive. It’s hard to make people understand how big Ukraine is, how big these locations are, how hard it is for that small amount of Ukrainian soldiers, although in superior fighting formations, against the bigger Russian formations, to take back giant swaths of territory. Quantity does have its own quality, as Stalin said.
Russia is still trying to train people. Russia wanted to buy time with this mobilization by rushing some of the soldiers, knowingly with no training, to the front, handing them a weapon, and telling them to hold that ground. In some places that didn’t work, but in others it probably helped the Russian formations. The Russian mobilization bought them more time.
While the West has supplied Ukraine with some great weapons, it’s not been enough to end this war quicker. And the more time that Russia has, the longer they can hold onto what they have now, the fewer weapons that you give Ukraine that can reach out further, like ATACMS or more HIMARS, the longer this goes on.
If the West wants this war to end faster, they have to give more. But Ukraine will win. There’s no question. They’ve already won. They will achieve their goals, no question. But how long that will take depends on those supplies.
Is there any chance Russian forces, mobilized or not, will get better at things?
That is actually a very real danger. The more time you give Russians, the more combat capability they can develop. Even new, untrained people will start to build bonds with each other; will start to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Equipment doesn’t do that, but people do. This is why Russia wants things to slow down, so their soldiers get better trained, better organized, form new units. If they get more time, get better, the cost to the Ukrainians trying to repel them increases, though Ukraine has tens of thousands of soldiers training in other countries and receiving new equipment.
Russia is not going to surprise Ukraine with a massive offensive anywhere along the line. Even if Russia was able to mobilize 300,000 people and give them new equipment, they’re not going to be able to surprise anybody. But if they were able to mobilize and do a massive push somewhere, the Ukrainians would pay a very high price in stopping it.
You have said you don’t think a renewed push towards Kyiv is likely. Commander Zaluzhny thinks otherwise. What would it take to take Kyiv?
I went to Kyiv in July to analyze exactly how the Ukrainians prevented the Russians from taking it in February. If Russia was to try to attack Kyiv again, they would have to use speed and firepower to get into the city center; no need to surround the capital and siege it- that’s just not possible and was never their objective: They needed to figure out a way to get into the middle and take out the government and raise a Russian flag on the government building. If that had happened last year, the insurgency and resistance wouldn’t have mattered as much.
Kyiv is important is because it’s the center of gravity for political power in Ukraine, and if the Russians can kill Zelensky, if they can insert intelligence agency agents into the capital, then they achieve their goal.
Militarily, you’d have to do what’s called a Joint Forcible Entry, as we saw them try with the airport of Hostomel; an air corridor with airpower, or through a ground invasion. The Russians tried about three or four different ways to take the city in February, but their key advantage was surprise – even if they didn’t think they would encounter that much resistance, they still could have done it by sheer speed and surprise. They don’t have that anymore. But if the commander of the Ukrainian military said it is still a viable concern, then I 100% agree with him.
Ukrainians are becoming the most proficient military in the world because they’re learning how to kill Russians better than anyone else
I wrote a “mini-manual for the urban defender” and Ukraine followed that. They blocked the roads, they flooded the rivers, created ambushes, blew the bridges, made it harder for Russia to do what it wanted to do quickly. What we’ve seen over and over again is that Russia doesn’t have the capability to adapt to failure. This is why I think it is very unlikely that Russia could take Kyiv. Even if they tried a rapid air campaign, Ukraine would see it coming. One of the reasons I’m so interested in Ukraine getting a Patriot missile battery is that it comes with a very powerful radar, which increases their ability to see what’s in the air.
Now we see the Patriot era about to begin. How much of a game-changer will it be?
Was HIMARS a game-changer on the battlefield? Absolutely. The Patriot will not be as game-changing, but it will be very significant, as a game-changer in its political significance, opening the doors for other countries to give air defense systems.
What Ukraine needs is an integrated air defense system around its cities and critical infrastructure. The Patriot is powerful because of its ability to integrate both with the radar and its mission command systems all the other systems in the city. It should have been given months ago. There are 12 countries in the world that have it. It’s not exclusive United States weapons technology – it’s very old technology.
The Patriot is a very reliable, very tested and true system, but it’s not what you fire at Iranian drones. You also need other systems that can detect what is being fired, identify the right counter-weapon, and then shoot it down. Ukraine is getting up to 100% hits some days, destroying whatever is fired at them through an integrated system, but the longer we wait to get a Patriot into Ukraine, the longer the war drags out. Bombing is one of Russia’s primary strategies, and until we take that away from them, they’re going to keep doing it.
Zaluzhny said: “I can beat this enemy, but I need 300 tanks, 600-700 IFVs, 500 Howitzers.” Is the West going to give him what he wants?
The West combined could provide that in a week, if there was real leadership where the goal is complete Ukrainian victory as fast as possible. There is nothing on that list that is game-changing technology. Some fear the technology falling into enemy hands, which is ridiculous because these technologies were built to fight against Russia or China. Ukraine is fighting not just for itself; it is fighting for Europe, so the fact that Europe is not emptying its coffers for Ukraine to defeat the only aggressor up against Europe is ridiculous. The fact that Germany hasn’t provided the Leopard 2 tanks, and more, is ridiculous too. There is a massive political conversation happening behind closed doors that shouldn’t be happening: This risk calculation of could Russia escalate the conflict? Could it spill over? This isn’t about a border dispute between Ukraine and Russia: This this is about sovereignty, self-determination. The global rules with which the United Nations was formed should see them giving Zaluzhny everything he asks for. The ability to strike Russia? That’s another ridiculous political claim. I don’t think it a prevailing thought, but these people have a seat at the table.
Everybody’s concerned about nuclear war, as Russia is showing itself an unstable international actor with nuclear weapons. That concern has some people so scared they’re willing to appease Putin by not providing military aid to Ukraine, while we sit back and let him break every rule, from genocide to recolonization, that we say we stand for. This ridiculous political appeasement actually causes Ukraine to suffer more. Although I’m very proud of the US in the aid they’ve given, I’m very disappointed at the speed and level that it’s been happening.
Zaluzhny says it’s 10 – 15 times harder to liberate a territory than to defend it. What does this mean for Donbas, Luhansk or Mariupol? How does one go about liberating them?
It’s much harder to retake your own terrain when you care, because you put limitations on the use of military force: You have to take greater risks with your soldiers to reduce the risk and damage to the urban areas, the civilian population and their infrastructure. You take it with precision-guided munitions, with heavy armor- all the things that Zaluzhny is asking for. You need tanks, engineering assets, lots of precision guided artillery and rockets, so you can see the enemy and strike them wherever they are. You also need speed. I think people underestimate the true lack of vehicles that Ukraine has. You have to be able to move fast, be mobile. That’s why his list is so long: Because in order to achieve their goals, they need it all.
If you were at the decision-making table, to plan and choose the next target for the Ukrainian counter offensive, what would that be?
The Zaporizhya oblast would have to be very high on the list of what’s next. Everyone wants to know why house-to-house fighting didn’t start in Kherson. Because it didn’t need to. You can cut them off, surround them and it’s no longer a good option for them to stay there. The Russians don’t want to die. That’s why it took them 80 days to take Mariupol, because the Ukrainians are willing to die to save it. There’s no Russian willing to die to save any part of Ukraine or fight until they can no longer hold ground.
Ukraine has done the unthinkable in many places because of smart plays in elements of operational art. It may have to wait until certain supplies come in. Artillery is still king in the battle for many reasons. But that’s why they need more MLRS rockets. They need more of everything to advance anywhere.
Why do you think Ukraine will win this war?
The number one reason that Ukraine will win is because it has the will to fight until the end. Number two is the alliances that ultimately achieve even the smaller goals. Ukraine has the arsenal of democracy behind it, although it’s moving much slower than it could. There’s no way Russia can defeat Ukraine with 50+ nations in its corner, it’s just not a reality. There’s no doubt Ukraine will win, but we need the world to start saying “Ukraine MUST win – for Europe, for the world.”