Russian President Vladimir Putin's glorious Ukraine blitzkrieg is turning into an ignominious bust. “The Russians miscalculated very, very badly,” observes U.S. General David Petraeus, the world's leading expert in counter-insurgency warfare. The celebrated four star and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency knows the combatants well, and tells Die Weltwoche that the Ukrainian resistance is deploying "the tactics and techniques of the French Resistance.” Petraeus warns the Russians that, unlike its previous military assaults, “We're in an era of social media. Every Ukrainian with a cell phone can document war crimes.”
In a telephone interview with Die Weltwoche, the 69-year-old former commander of the International Security Assistance Force discusses the state of play and Putin’s narrowing options.
Weltwoche: In the Western media, there is a widespread impression that the Russian war in Ukraine is not going as planned. General, what is your take on Russian military operations?
General David Petraeus: I think the Russians clearly, dramatically underestimated the capabilities of the Ukrainian conventional forces, partisan brigades, and even just the resistance, not to mention the hatred of the entire country. The Russians miscalculated very, very badly. You're now seeing the results of that.
Beyond that, the campaign design exposes the lack of sufficient logistical fore-structure in the Russian armed forces. They're just not that well structured for once you leave the railway system. [The railway] is crucially important to the military in Russia; it can move them very impressively through a country of eleven time zones. Once you're off the rail, they're not sufficiently structured to refuel, re-arm, resupply with food, water and medical supplies, and so forth. You're seeing that play out as vehicles are running out of fuel and as they're expending their munitions.
Weltwoche: The Russian air force doesn’t seem to have had a decisive role, so far. Why is this?
Petraeus: The Russians didn't appreciate how effective the Ukrainians would be, both in the air and with their air defenses. The Russians have lost a substantial number of aircraft, fixed-wing as well as rotary-wing. Certainly, the Ukrainians have as well. But the fact that the Russians have not been able to achieve air superiority is very revealing. The capabilities that they committed, and the way they committed them, have just not been anywhere near what I think a lot of the individuals thought they would be, based on this general sense that Putin has invested a great deal in his military over the last decade or more.
They seemed to be very impressive in Syria. The truth is: When they run up against a really determined, quite capable Ukrainian force that is fighting for its survival, its homeland, and has the advantage of the home field, the knowledge of the areas, detailed knowledge with locals who will support them in every way possible, they obviously completely underestimated the challenges of taking Kyiv and other major cities. We're seeing the results of that.
Weltwoche: This war was in the making for a long time. Russian troops were building up to 180,000 along the Ukrainian border for months. Why were they so ill-prepared?
Petraeus: Well, it's obvious they don't conduct the rigorous, demanding, force-on-force training that professional Western militaries do. They clearly haven't carried out the kinds of combined arms operations or training. We've seen individual tanks or small tank units without the infantry, without artillery, without air cover, without engineers. They haven't been able to integrate ground and air. Apparently, they haven't practiced the way one would have expected they would have during these months of preparation.
In fact, it's become well known, now, that they didn't even tell their units they were going to be in combat, in some cases, until 24-hours prior. Some of the soldiers didn't even realize what they were going to do until it actually began.
Weltwoche: You have commanded troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. How do you prepare soldiers for the hardships they face in the battlefield?
Petraeus: This is very hard business. People used to ask me, “What do you do when you're not in war? What does an army do that's not fighting?” You train. It is very demanding, and it's rigorous. You do live fires. I got shot one time through the chest in a live-fire exercise. That's how risky they can be.
It's pretty obvious that the Russians haven't done that because, in part, it's very, very costly. If you look at an exercise in the US national training center in the Mojave desert — where an entire brigade combat team of 3,500 to 4,000 troops is engaging with a very capable opposing force — it's all instrumented with lasers and optics and all the rest of that. It's taken us decades to refine that, and it's pretty clear that they do not have that.
Weltwoche: What do your sources tell you about the state of morale of the Russian troops?
Petraeus: It's pretty clear that there have been a fair number of desertions. In some cases, they just left vehicles because they ran out of fuel and didn't want to get captured. Keep in mind that, even though the ground is not frozen, they're road bound. Wheeled vehicles can't leave it at all. Track vehicles, in some cases, can. But even the track vehicles have gotten mired in the mud.
I think the real revealing indicators of morale will come in the weeks that lie ahead. When you get into tough urban combat, you just can't keep forces going into buildings, clearing every individual room. Every single time you enter a room, there is an adrenaline rush and then a letdown. Over time, it's not just physically incredibly demanding, it can be mentally exhausting.
When they get into tough urban combat against an enemy that's really determined, supported by the civilian population, with a lot of time now to build up fortifications, and with snipers and anti-tank weapons, they're going to have a very, very challenging time.
Weltwoche: There are reports about massive shipments of anti-tank weapons from the West into Ukraine, in recent days. What impact do they have?
Petraeus: There have been 17,000 anti-tank weapons delivered in the past seven or eight days, now, as reported in a great article in The New York Times. Twelve wide body aircraft landing per day.
That's where we're going to find out that the [Russian] infantry, the boots on ground infrastructure, is not sufficient. What we will see — tragically, I fear — is just when [Russian troops] meet resistance, and they find how difficult it is to eliminate it or to clear large buildings and large areas, they're going to just shell [Ukrainian cities and civilians] and bomb them and shoot missiles into them as they did to Aleppo, as they did to Grozny.
Weltwoche: Will Kyiv and other key cities face a similarly gruesome fate as Grozny that was essentially flattened during Putin’s war in Chechnya?
Petraeus: It depends, obviously, on how the Russians are going to deal with this. Keep in mind that, unlike in Grozny or Aleppo, the Russians didn't have cameras on them the whole way. Now, we're in an era of social media. Every Ukrainian with a cell phone can document war crimes. Just the growth of outrage is going to lead to more and more and more punitive actions against Russia.
You're going to see a decoupling of Russia from many elements of the global economy. We're seeing that already with the credit card industry, the financial system, and various sectors. Over time, this is just going to continue to accumulate. The impact on Russia, a country which was very integrated into the global economy, will be very severe.
Weltwoche: Russians apparently are not only attacking Ukrainian military targets. There is footage of Russian attacks on civilians, some civilians who try to flee, and civilian infrastructure. That raises the question if Putin is employing a scorched earth strategy to break the will of the Ukrainians.
Petraeus: I don't know if he has explicitly directed that. He's never demonstrated concern over innocent civilian casualties — certainly not when it came to Grozny or the overall war in Chechnya or Aleppo in Syria. This is barbaric what they're doing. Obviously, it's way beyond the accepted norms of the Geneva Conventions [the international law on land warfare]. These are war crimes, and those will be documented as well. At some point, individual Russian commanders may realize that they could be not just accused of war crimes but subject to trial for war crimes.
Only time is going to tell on an awful lot of this, and I think this is just different than any previous case because of how heavily reported everything is. You still have Western reporters all over Kyiv, and I suspect some of them will stay until the bitter end. Then, when that's done, anybody with a smartphone can be a documentarian.
Weltwoche: Unlike Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Ukrainian President Zelensky did not run when Russia declared war on his government. His famous quote: "I don't need a ride. I need ammunition." What do Ukrainians need most to defend themselves?
Petraeus: Well, I think the West is actually providing them what they need most. There's a lot of dialogue back and forth. The West understands very well what they need. As I said, 17,000 Man Portable Anti-Tank Guided Weapon Systems, it's an incredible number and that's just in the past days, and there's a lot more. It's a long laundry list of capabilities that have been provided, and we've been on the ground with them certainly very substantially since 2014.
Weltwoche: You have been in Ukraine, personally. What was your impression?
Petraeus: I've seen the evolution to a degree. I was last there maybe three years ago. I went to the Donbas. I met with the minister of defense. I was really impressed then, and they've received a lot of additional equipment and weapon systems since then. This has been building, and it didn't happen overnight. They've been planning for this. They've actually taken a page out of the book of the French Resistance.
They've all the tactics and techniques, noting that obviously the French Resistance was operating on soil that was occupied by the Nazis. They have misdirected the Russians. They have changed street signs. They've taken them down or painted them over. They're jamming frequencies. They have all these volunteers with a lot of different technical skills all of which they're employing, again, to make life difficult for the Russians.
The determination is just extraordinary. That's something you can't actually train. You can toughen people, but when I met with the soldiers in the Donbas, I came away thinking, "These are seriously tough guys." The entire society has mobilized, noting that women and children are being evacuated in very substantial numbers.
Weltwoche: The US and NATO allies strictly declined to establish a “no-fly zone.” Against an overwhelming Russian military power, does Ukraine have a chance without air support?
Petraeus: First, the Ukrainian air force is still flying, and it does have air defenses. It's knocked down substantial numbers of Russian aircraft. Russia does not control the skies, which is something that a lot of people thought would be attained very quickly. Yes, Russia has quantity. But if you really do the math, 190,000 troops is nowhere near enough to take all of Ukraine, much less to control it.
Then what do you do after those troops have been there for six or twelve months? When do they rotate the troops? And who do they rotate in? Let's say it evolves into an insurgency of some type. I can tell you that's very manpower intensive. We did it in countries where the communities, by and large, didn’t hate us and didn't want to kill us.
When do the Russian troops have to be rotated after it's just in the coldest fight, right now? It's not cold enough to freeze the ground, but it is certainly cold enough to have hypothermia. It's certainly cold enough to have cold weather injuries. One reason they keep running out of fuel is they sit there and idle the engines to stay warm.
Weltwoche: What is the biggest breaker of morale when you're in combat?
Petraeus: I think a little bit of what we learned in Afghanistan is if troops have a sense that nobody's coming to the rescue, that's pretty demoralizing. If nobody cares enough about them to get them hot food or refuel? They've been running out of food. They've been looting stores to replenish their food stocks.
How many rooms can the individual soldiers clear [in urban combat] before you have to rotate them out? How long can you keep on doing that, mentally? Physically, it's very demanding because you're doing it under body armor and Kevlar weapon and ammo, maybe even a rucksack. Do the Russian troops just start to be less effective within a month? If so, who do they replace them with? By the way, the conscripts are supposed to go home in April. Putin has already extended them. What happens when the bodies start coming home? You can't hide it anymore; the widows and the mothers start to demand answers. In the first weeks, they could lose more than we lost in twenty years in Iraq. But I wish to add that the numbers are very hard to verify.
Weltwoche: Putin warned, at the beginning of the invasion, that countries that "stand in our way must know that Russia will respond immediately, and the consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history." He said this just days after he raised Russia's nuclear readiness and put nuclear troops on high alert. How seriously do we have to take this warning?
Petraeus: You have to take what Putin says very seriously. I can't say any more than that. I'm not going to go into the hypothetical. But, obviously, this is one reason that you're not going to see a NATO no-fly zone created. The secretary general has made that very clear. The US president has made that very clear. We're not going to put either ground forces or air forces in direct combat with Russians.
Weltwoche: When we talk nuclear, there's a variation of weapons. Russia has an estimated 2,000 tactical nukes, for example. If the Russian conventional army is stalled, do you see the use of these weapons as a realistic scenario?
Petraeus: Again, I don't know how to answer this question. Obviously, it is something that Western leaders have to consider. Intelligence services, militaries have to consider that. I can't get into Putin's mind as to whether or not he would even think the unthinkable, much less do the unthinkable.
Weltwoche: So far, Ukraine’s leadership has been able to communicate to their people and the world via Instagram and other media channels. How vulnerable are those communication channels?
Petraeus: People are a little bit surprised that all of that is still operating. The fact is, in the era of satellite communications, you're never going to shut that off completely.
Weltwoche: Many in the West are keeping an eye on the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — as possible next targets. What do you see is Putin's wider strategy? And what deterrence does the West need to deploy?
Petraeus: It has already been reinforcing the deterrence forces in the Baltic states and in Eastern Europe, and I think you'll see more and more of that in the weeks and months ahead. You could actually see a change in the force structure of various countries, including the US, to enable a renewed deployment of forces to Europe, noting how much we went through in the wake of the Cold War.
I think “Article Five” of the NATO charter has always been the bedrock of NATO. [“Article Five” refers to NATO’s pact of mutual defense. It provides that an attack on one NATO ally is an attack on all and obligates members to respond accordingly.] Article Five is absolutely ironclad and just something that I don't think Putin would dare to test, especially given the reinforcements and all the additional capabilities that are being provided to Europe.
Keep in mind, now, Germany's dramatic increase in defense spending — the number four economy in the world and the largest economy in Europe. People have likened this to a revolution, to move immediately the 2% of GDP on defense. They hadn't even been at 1.5%. You're going to see a substantial increase in defensive capabilities, and therefore the deterrent capabilities, of Europe.
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