(Atlanta) Match 15 (16/03) Retired Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded US forces in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, says the Russians are facing a Ukraine military that is exceptionally determined, surprisingly capable and innovative, and one that is fighting on its home territory for its very survival.
In contrast, the Russian invaders have displayed a host of weaknesses: flawed planning; overly optimistic intelligence projections about how the conflict would play out; underestimation of the Ukrainian forces and people; inadequate maintenance and logistics; unimpressive equipment; a reliance on conscripts and an inability to mount effective cyber warfare.
In interviews on Sunday and Monday, Petraeus, who formerly headed the CIA, assessed the war in Ukraine as it has played out in its first three weeks. He is sceptical that the Russians have enough forces to take, much less to control, the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and some of the other major cities, saying that continued urban warfare generally will favour the Ukrainians.
Nonetheless, he also notes that the Russians have enormous capacity for — and history of — destroying cities, civilian facilities and critical infrastructure, and they will “rubble” urban areas in an effort to take control.
Petraeus praised the actions of the Biden administration and its allies in recent weeks and noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin, instead of making Russia great again, has made NATO great again. He predicts the most likely near-term outcome of the war in Ukraine will be the continuation of a bloody quagmire for Russia that is largely indecisive, even as it inflicts greater and greater loss of life, infrastructure and basic services on the Ukrainian people. There is, however, also the possibility of a negotiated resolution, as both Moscow and Kyiv recognize the damage and destruction being done to their countries.
Our conversation was edited for clarity.
PETER BERGEN: Is the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine surprising to you?
DAVID PETRAEUS: Somewhat surprising, but not entirely. And there are many reasons for the Russians’ abysmal performance. First of all, they’re fighting against a very determined, quite capable Ukrainian force that is composed of special ops, conventional forces, territorial forces and even private citizens, all of whom are determined not to allow Russia to achieve its objectives. They are fighting for their national survival, their homeland and their way of life, and they have the home-field advantage, knowing the terrain and communities.
But beyond that, the Russians are just surprisingly unprofessional. They clearly have very poor standards when it comes to performing basic tactical tasks such as achieving combined arms operations, involving armour, infantry, engineers, artillery and mortars. They are very poor at maintaining their vehicles and weapon systems and have abandoned many of them. They are also poor at resupply and logistical tasks.
We have known for decades that the Soviet system, now the Russian system, has always lacked one of the key strengths of US and Western militaries, which is a strong, professional noncommissioned officer corps.
And part of the problem is that the Russian military has a fairly substantial percentage of conscripts. It’s very hard to determine how many of them are in Ukraine. We know in the Russian military overall, probably in the range of 20 to 25% are conscripts. And there are particularly large numbers of conscripts in a critical area, which is logistics — including drivers of trucks and fuel tankers and soldiers in maintenance units.
The Russians also have found it difficult to go off-road. Their wheeled vehicles get mired in mud very quickly. The ground is not frozen the way they had hoped it would be. Even tracked vehicles seem to be getting mired in mud. And the Russians are just not performing sufficient preventive maintenance on their equipment.
I’ve served in mechanized units, with a mix of tanks and armoured personnel carriers. And every single time you stop, the driver and the crew members are outside checking road wheels and final drives, pumping grease, topping off fluid levels. If you don’t do preventive maintenance, then you will end up with such vehicles breaking down.
Beyond that, the Russians just have relatively unimpressive equipment, given the investment supposedly made over the past decade or so. They certainly don’t have equipment comparable to what the United States has.
Their precision munitions aren’t very precise: This was underlined by the fact that they didn’t crater the runways in Ukraine in the first hour of combat the way we did in Iraq in 2003 to completely deny the Iraqi Air Force any opportunities to take off. In fact, the Ukrainian Air Force is still flying. As modest as it is and as many losses as it has sustained, it’s still up in flight.
So Russian precision munitions are lacking. We can also see this with the sheer frequency of the Russians hitting civilian infrastructure, like the hospital in Mariupol, other medical facilities and the government centre in Kharkiv — unless they truly meant to hit those targets, which obviously would be nothing short of horrific.
They also have problems in very basic tasks such as staying dispersed. A column never closes up on a major highway where it can be spotted by a drone and hit by artillery, as was seen recently. The 40-mile traffic jam we saw outside of Kyiv — this is just incompetent movement control for which normally there is doctrine and organizational structures and procedures. And then it took them days just to disperse that 40-mile column into the tree cover as opposed to being out in the open.
They’ve also been incapable of combining what should have been a huge advantage for them, which is integrating air and ground operations together. They’re not really doing true close air support, just ahead of their ground formations. Rather, they’re just doing air attacks.
Russian cyber warfare has also been unimpressive, perhaps because they overused it in the past and the Ukrainians, possibly with some help, learned how to deal with it. The Russians have been unable to take down the Ukrainian command and control system and unable to take down President Volodymyr Zelensky’s access to social media and the internet. So, their cyberwarfare capabilities that seemed impressive in earlier campaigns, when the Russians took Crimea in 2014 for instance, are a whole lot less impressive this time.
And then on top of all of that, you just have an unimpressive campaign design by the Russians that clearly was based on very flawed assumptions about how quickly they could take Kyiv and particularly how quickly they could topple the government and replace it with a pro-Russian government.
So, in every single area of evaluation, the Russians, starting with their intelligence assessments and understanding of the battlefield and their adversary, and then every aspect of the campaign, all the way down to small unit operations, have proved woefully inadequate. And they’re facing an enemy that is absolutely determined, surprisingly capable, very innovative and resourceful, and fighting on their home field.
Much of the population also hate the Russians, and that hatred is being deepened with every strike on civilian infrastructure. Not only are the Russians not winning hearts and minds, they are alienating hearts and minds.
BERGEN: Is time and mass on the side of the Russians?
PETRAEUS: I don’t think so, but quantity does have a quality of its own over time and the sheer destructive capability of Russian bombs, missiles, rockets, artillery and mortars obviously has to be a huge concern.
Clearly, they do not have enough forces to take, much less to control, Kyiv and some of the other major cities, but they do have missiles, rockets, artillery, and bombs and an apparent willingness to use them in a very indiscriminate fashion.
And so, they continue the approach they used in Chechnya, particularly with Grozny, and in Syria, particularly with Aleppo, where they depopulated the cities by indiscriminate use of bombs. And it is going to be an endurance contest between the Russians’ willingness to destroy cities and the Ukrainians’ ability to survive such destruction.
BERGEN: Will urban warfare favour the Ukrainians?
PETRAEUS: Very much so. Usually, the rule of thumb for urban warfare is that it requires at least five attackers to every defender. In this case, I’d argue it may be more than that because the Ukrainians are so resourceful. They will work together to prevent the Russians from taking urban areas the way that infantry and combined arms normally would do, such as the way the United States military cleared and then held cities during the Iraq War in, e.g., Ramadi and Fallujah as well as parts of Baghdad and other cities.
Such big-city battles require you to take every building and clear every room, and then you have to leave forces behind in each building or else the enemy will come back behind you and reoccupy them. So, it’s incredibly soldier-intensive. The Russians have nowhere near enough soldiers to do that even for Kyiv, much less all of the other cities.
To be sure, the Russians will have some success in some cities, and certainly, the battle for Mariupol is a race between the starvation of the Ukrainians who remain there, which include forces that are still fighting very hard, and the Russians’ willingness to continue to heap destruction and innocent civilian casualties on a city that’s resisting but is surrounded.
BERGEN: If Putin decides to try and take all of Ukraine, what size army would he need?
PETRAEUS: I’m not sure. I don’t think even his entire military could do this, and keep in mind, there’s a huge limiting factor, and that is the apparent inability of Putin to replace the forces that are presently fighting. How and when does he replace his forces? It’s not apparent to me.
In fact, the Russian conscripts are only on 1-year rotations, so it’s no wonder that they demonstrate very poor standards of everything, given that they barely made it through basic and advanced training and then unit integration and now they are in combat (and their tours were supposed to have ended in April, until Putin extended them).
BERGEN: US officials say that Russia is asking China for military and other forms of aid. What do you make of this?
PETRAEUS: The report by US officials is interesting in several respects. First, if accurate, it indicates that Russia is running out of certain weapons systems and munitions — another reflection of how Russia seriously miscalculated so many aspects of the war they launched.
Second, this presents a very difficult issue for China. It was one thing for China to abstain from the UN General Assembly vote in which 141 countries condemned Russia for its unprovoked aggression. It would be a very different matter if China was to accede to Russia’s request and thus actively side with a country that is truly becoming the evil empire, the target of unprecedented sanctions and experiencing a decoupling from the global economy. It also might result in some sanctions on China.
Third, beyond those issues, President Xi Jinping clearly has to be irritated with Russia’s invasion, as Ukraine’s largest trading partner was China.
Finally, Xi, having gotten through the Olympics had likely hoped for no drama in the months leading up to the Communist Party gathering in the fall during which he undoubtedly will be reelected for an unprecedented third term as President, while retaining his leadership of the Party and the Military Council. Putin could thus put Xi in a very awkward position.
So, it has not been a complete surprise that both Russia and China have stated that no such Russian request for aid was issued.
BERGEN: What do you think the Ukrainians need most?
PETRAEUS: Clearly, the US anti-tank Javelin system. And it’s not just the Javelin. It’s also other countries’ anti-tank systems — and man-portable air defence systems, as well. The UK AT system is very good. 17,000 of these anti-tank weapons have flowed into Ukraine in just one week. That’s a huge number of man-portable anti-tank systems.
BERGEN: Should the US have begun arming Ukraine after Putin seized Crimea in 2014?
PETRAEUS: Congress authorized the transfer of Javelin weapons to the Ukrainians, and then it was delayed in the Obama administration. In the early period of the Trump administration, the Javelins were finally delivered, but then you had the whole issue with Ukraine subsequent to that when President Donald Trump reportedly withheld equipment for a period.
The effort by the Biden administration to arm the Ukrainians and the actions of our Western partners has been really quite dramatic, especially in the immediate run-up to the invasion and then following it. You see that Germany, which would only send helmets prior to the invasion, agreed to give lethal weapons. Even the EU agreed to send 500 million euros worth of military and other aid to Ukraine. So, there were revolutionary policy changes just days after the invasion began.
BERGEN: Are you surprised by that?
PETRAEUS: I think you must give credit to the US and to NATO and to the EU. I think that the Biden administration has performed impressively, and I say this as someone who publicly criticized the administration for the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and the conduct of the withdrawal in August 2021.
BERGEN: Getting inside Putin’s mind, of course, is not easy, but to what extent do you think that US withdrawal from Afghanistan may have figured in his calculations?
PETRAEUS: It is impossible to say, obviously, but what one can say with confidence is that some potential American adversaries seized on that withdrawal to say: “See? We told you the US is not a dependable partner and ally, and we told you that the US is a great power in decline.”
Hearteningly, I think that US actions and those of our allies around the world on Ukraine have shown that the US is a dependable partner and is not a great power in decline. If anything, instead of Making Russia Great Again, what Putin has done is to Make NATO Great Again.
BERGEN: There have been warnings by the Biden White House about the possible use of chemical weapons by Putin. Is that plausible? Because it seems like kind of a Rubicon to cross.
PETRAEUS: It would be a Rubicon to cross, although the Russians have crossed that Rubicon before. They used the nerve agent Novichok against opponents of the regime such as Sergei Skripal and Alexei Navalny. They clearly have nerve agents. It’s unknown whether they have them in large amounts and whether they’re deliverable, but that clearly has to be a serious concern.
Certainly, the Biden administration has sought to dissuade Putin from using chemical weapons by exposing that possibility. In fact, another way in which this administration has been very impressive is taking what clearly are finished intelligence products and turning them into publicly releasable announcements without exposing sources and methods, which is really quite unique.
In fact, I think it has been quite effective because it has established the Biden administration’s credibility on Ukraine. You can’t dismiss what the administration is saying is possible, given that so much of what they said about Putin’s plans for and goals in Ukraine, which was either initially dismissed or seen as unlikely, has now come to pass.
BERGEN: The Russians, clearly, they’re taking significant losses, according to US officials.
PETRAEUS: Yes. It appears that they have taken more fatalities in the first two weeks of the war than the US took in 20 years in Iraq; somewhere around 5,000 or so by most accounts, which is just stunning.
BERGEN: Is it politically sustainable for Putin, or is it not clear?
PETRAEUS: Only time will tell. He seems to still have a very strong grip on power. But when do the mothers of the fallen soldiers start to really make their voices heard? What happens when the economic collapse really comes home to roost? When does the collapse of the ruble, the collapse of the economy, the inability to reopen the Russian stock market, the departure from Russia of major corporations who spent decades building up there such as McDonald’s or Starbucks begin to hit home?
In fact, 380 companies, according to the count of a professor at Yale, have ceased operations in Russia. No one can predict what the results of the sanctions, frozen assets, corporate decoupling and other actions will be on Russia and the Russian people.
BERGEN: What do you make of the Russian attack on the Ukrainian base near the Polish border: What does this portend for a possibly widening conflict?
PETRAEUS: The Russian attack on the sprawling Ukrainian training base near Lviv, which I visited while in uniform, was undoubtedly launched to try to interdict the flow of weapons and supplies into Ukraine from Poland, some 12 miles to the west, and also, perhaps, to disrupt the location at which the foreign volunteers may be receiving orientation training before joining Ukrainian forces.
Given the proximity to the border, it clearly raises concerns about strikes falling in a NATO country — which would require a NATO response given NATO’s Article 5 commitment. Given the understandable efforts by NATO leaders to avoid a widening of the war, the attack on the training base outside Lviv obviously raises red flags, and I am confident that NATO leaders have consulted on possible responses should the conflict widen further.
BERGEN: After the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003 you asked a reporter, “tell me how this ends?” How does the Ukraine War end?
PETRAEUS: Well, I think there are several possibilities, and I’m not sure which is the most likely. Right now, though, it appears that it doesn’t end, and that you have a bloody quagmire for Russia that is worse than the Soviet war in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
This quagmire would cause a terrible loss of life, destruction, displacement, depopulation of urban areas, a massive humanitarian catastrophe, as well as terrible losses for Russia, without a conclusive outcome for Russia. We’re talking about this in the somewhat near term; in other words, in the next year or so.
There could also be a negotiated settlement as both Putin and Zelensky realize that neither of them can fully achieve what it is that they want, and that both sides are suffering enormous destruction. This could be advanced by, say, the president of Finland or the prime minister of Israel or the president of France or former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or the president of China, to name a few possible interlocutors.
There’s another possibility, of course, which is that Putin could depart power in some fashion. A new leader could recognize the folly of what Putin has done and pull out of Ukraine, perhaps try to get some agreement that saves a bit of face, but nonetheless allows Russia to extricate itself from what is going to be just an endless, costly, and indecisive involvement.
To be sure, the leader who follows Putin could also be just as ruthless, unfeeling and kleptocratic as Putin has been, so we should always temper our optimism when it comes to Russia.
There’s a fourth possibility that can’t be ruled out, and that is that Ukraine, in a sense, wins. It actually defeats the Russians on the battlefield, and gradually, that battlefield reality sets in, in Moscow. And maybe Ukraine even retakes the Donbas — or, in a sense, dictates terms to Russia.
There are at least those four possibilities. Unfortunately, the one most likely in the near term appears to be the continuation of a bloody quagmire for Russia that is largely indecisive, with some Russian successes and some costly failures — and greater and greater economic privation, inflation, unemployment and deprivation on the Russian people.