MR. IGNATIUS: Hello. Welcome to Washington Post Live. I’m David Ignatius, a columnist for The Post. Today I’m joined by General David Petraeus, former CIA director and one of America’s leading battlefield generals in recent decades in Iraq and then Afghanistan. And as the introduction suggested, we’re gonna talk about the military situation in Ukraine, where President Vladimir Putin is looking for a savior general to rescue what’s been a very difficult campaign for Russia.
General Petraeus, thank you for joining us. Welcome.
GEN. PETRAEUS: Good to be with you, David. Thank you.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, let's begin with the situation in Iraq [sic]. As we're nearing the end of the first year of combat, we have what appears to be a stalemate on the ground. The United States has--its NATO allies have just announced their decision to send tanks and other maneuver warfare equipment to Ukraine in the hopes of breaking the stalemate in this coming fighting season as we move into spring. Give us your assessment at the outset of the--of the order of battle, of the situation on the ground in early 2023.
GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, as you note, the battle lines have been essentially static. The Russians have been doing more offensive operations than have the Ukrainians for the last several months, but not really achieving all that much. And what they have been achieving has been very, very costly. So, I think the big question right now, David, is whether or not the Ukrainians can do once again what they did earlier in the war, which is to do better than Russia in force generation, in other words in recruiting, training, equipping, organizing, and employing additional forces.
And of course, this is where the latest very important announcement comes in--the Western contribution of German Leopard 2 tanks, U.S. M1 Abrams tanks, and also UK Challenger tanks--because that will be the last piece that they need to assemble combined arms capabilities, in other words, mechanized forces that include tanks--the centerpiece--infantry, engineers, artillery, close air support, air defense, explosive ordnance disposal, drones, all of this. And if they can put that together, and once again out generate Russia in this force generation battle, then in a few months we'll see the Ukrainians able to resume counter offensive operations, and to try to liberate more of their territory of that which is occupied by Russia, and in an ideal world, perhaps to sever the ground connection that Russia has achieved from Russia proper to Crimea.
But again, this depends on how each side does in force generation. We know that the Russians are going to mobilize further. They had a much-vaunted mobilization of some supposedly 300,000 additional soldiers last year. Nobody knows how many actually showed up at the recruiting station. We do know that more left the country than did show up. But that's hundreds of thousands of additional forces. The problem for the Russians has been that they have not really conducted any meaningful training for these soldiers. Many of them are reservists. And they don't have the equipment for them at this stage, either, because the export controls and other sanctions on Russia have taken a serious toll on the military industrial complex of Russia, which is why of course the Iranian-supplied drones have proved to be so important.
So that's where we are right now, David. The question is which side can generate more forces, and more capable forces. Last year, the Ukrainians did that far better than did the Russians, helped enormously, of course, by the U.S. and other countries’ provision of arms, ammunition, and other assistance. And we'll see if that plays out again this year. That would be my prediction. But it's going to take time to bring in these new weapons systems, the tanks, to put them together with the other capabilities that are required for combined arms operations and then to position them, get the logistics set, and launch what will be probably a spring or late spring, early summer counter offensive.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, General Petraeus, what was your sense of the battle within the alliance over providing tanks? It went on for weeks. There are some people who think that the United States should have moved earlier to provide the Abrams M1A1 tanks that finally broke the logjam. Others complained that the Germans should have been much quicker in providing the Leopards. What's your own sense of this conversation, really ended up being a quite a fight within the alliance about providing this new equipment?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Yeah, I was in Berlin a good three or four months back, and it was very clear to me there that the Germans were not going to move without the Americans, and I think we should have recognized this sooner. There are understandable reasons for not providing the M1. We've heard a lot about that in the news, that the U.S. military is worried that the difficulties of maintaining essentially a 1,500-horsepower jet turbine engine are very substantial, whereas the Leopard 2 is a 1,500-horsepower diesel, something that can--diesel mechanics can sort their way through. And then a variety of other challenges with the Abrams, which version, what armor would it have? It's 10 tons heavier than the Leopard, very tough on bridges and on roads. And it just consumes fuel at a staggering rate, because, again, that turbine is on. When it's on, even idling, it is just sucking up fuel.
So, I think, again, understandable reasons, hesitation to provide the U.S. system. But finally, the realization that if we didn't do it, the Germans really were not going to provide the Leopard 2s, nor were they going to allow other countries such as Poland that very much want to transfer their Leopard 2s to the Ukrainians. So, the decision was finally made we’ll provide a meaningful number. It’s about a battalion’s worth, that we’ll provide 31. And then that opens up the opportunity for the Germans to contribute, and maybe more importantly for the Poles and several other countries that have the Leopards to provide them as well.
The problem is that there is time lost here. You can't get that back. There is already ongoing training on mechanized operations at our training centers in Germany, Hohenfels and Grafenwoehr. It's been going on for some time. Now you add the tank to that. As I mentioned earlier, though, it will take some time to put all this together. This is very complex stuff. You have to combine the capabilities of all these weapon systems. By the way, something the Russians have not done throughout the war, you'll recall they basically ran tanks down roads, they didn't have the infantry out front, they didn't--weren't covered by the other capabilities, didn't integrate close air support, indirect fires, engineers to remove obstacles, and so forth, and poor command and control. That's what the Ukrainians have to get right. I think they can. They demonstrated that to a considerable degree last year with the systems that they do have, which are the old Soviet bloc systems, but they're running out of those, and our Eastern European NATO allies have largely given what they had of those types to Ukraine already. So, it had to be Western systems that were provided. It's good that that decision is finally made, and that we can now move on.
MR. IGNATIUS: So one of the issues, General Petraeus, that figured certainly in the German calculation, and I think in the American judgement about the Abrams tanks, was concern about escalation risks. Russia had said that it would see the provision of tanks to Ukraine as escalatory.
Let me ask you how you, as a commander, putting yourself in this situation, would judge the issue of escalation risk. How do you walk that quite narrow balance in providing additional weapons without getting us into a situation where Russia might radically escalate the weapons systems it was using all the way up to tactical nukes?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, I think the most important element here is actually to convey to Vladimir Putin very clearly, as we have, our U.S. national security adviser, understated individual, as you know well, Jake Sullivan, said the results of any escalation, certainly in tactical nuclear weapons would be catastrophic for Russia, in other words, alerting Russia that if that capability was used, that Russia would find itself in a worse situation afterward, not a better one. They would be no--not only no benefit to them; there would be significant downsides of various types. And I think that message got through.
So, we have heard these nuclear saber-rattling messages from time to time. Obviously, they haven't transpired. And I think, again, Russia realizes that that would be a mistake. It would open them up to even further sanctions of various types, further export controls. The situation would end up worse. And they wouldn't actually translate that into some particular battlefield success.
That's, I think, the biggest part of all of this. Certainly, it's easier for you and me to sit on the outside than it is to sit at the situation room table, and especially at the head of it in the West Wing of the White House. But having said that, I tend to think we have been a little bit overly risk averse, especially when it came to the tanks. And now I think the next decisions will be important as well. At some point, we have to give the Ukrainians a longer-range precision munition for the HIMARS, the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System.
The one that they have right now, the guided missile launch rocket system is accurate to about 80 kilometers--very accurate. Land on a dinner table at that distance, and it has proven--that was one of the gamechanger weapons that enabled the Ukrainians to take out Russian headquarters, fuel depots, ammo storage sites, barracks, and so forth, and really forced the Russians to withdraw their forces that were west of the Dnieper River. They just no longer could sustain them once the Russian--the Ukrainians had made it impossible for the Russians to support them. You'll see something like that similar, but we--they really need a longer-range system.
And if we get into the question of Crimea at some point in time and trying to isolate it, that's where you'd need a longer range as well. There are two options the one that's most well-known is the Army Tactical Missile System, accurate to about 300 kilometers. And then there's an intermediate one called the Small Diameter Bomb which can be adapted to be shot from HIMARS and available in quite large quantities and also relatively cheap. It's a--it's much less actually than either the guided missile launch rocket system or ATACMS. So that's another one.
And at some point, I think F-16s probably are going to begin to be discussed. And I don't think, again, David, that Russia wants to pick a fight with a NATO country. I think that they have recognized that use of tactical nuclear weapons would backfire on them. So I'm not sure what their options are. You know, they make these threats. But in every case, they have proven to be empty. And I think that that will continue to be the case.
MR. IGNATIUS: Let's focus on Crimea for a moment. You mentioned that earlier as a prospective goal for Ukraine. We have an audience question from Andre Brandi from Delaware who asks, "What kind of assistance would Ukraine need to take back the Crimea?" You've mentioned several things, the ATACMS long-range missiles. You’ve mentioned the F-16 airpower. But there's a larger question of whether an attack on Crimea would be a bridge too far in terms of the strategic balance of this war. Putin has made clear as--in his response to the attack on the Kerch Strait Bridge leading to Crimea that he regards this as a different part of the battle, and might respond radically differently. So ask, do you think realistically, say over the next year, it's possible to have a military conquest of Crimea by Ukraine?
GEN. PETREAUS: Well, it depends very much. First of all, there is a policy question here that is not trivial, as you note. And let me back up, in fact, and start, David, first by saying--let me try to answer the question that I asked rhetorically of your colleague, Rick Atkinson, during the fight to Baghdad when you will remember I started asking tell me how this ends--this is during the invasion of Iraq; I was a two star general, commander of the 101st airborne Division--and I watched as the various assumptions that we had been given were being invalidated one by one. And, of course, that question was asked to me many times subsequently about Iraq. And we answered that for a period of time, at the very least during the surge.
When you ask, tell me how this ends in Ukraine, I think it ends in a negotiated resolution. That comes about when we're able to help Ukraine sufficiently that they can convince Vladimir Putin on the battlefield this is unsustainable because of the staggering casualties, which are reportedly something like eight times the losses that Russia sustained in nearly 10 years of war in Afghanistan, just in the first 11 months of this war, and then also through our leadership of the Western world's sanctions--financial, economic and personal--and export controls on Russia that Vladimir Putin concludes that the war is unsustainable on the home front as well.
Now, it's very hard to say what it would take to get to that moment. But at some moment, when that conclusion finally settles in in the Kremlin, then you could have some meaningful negotiations. And the question there is, of course, where is the situation on the ground at that time, and does Ukraine then, is it then willing to negotiate away some territorial issues here because it needs for the war to stop, it needs the missile and drone strikes to stop which are just making life incredibly difficult for the enormously resilient, courageous Ukrainian people. But that has to stop at some point in time. Could there be a Marshall Plan that's part of this overall deal? There will have to be one to rebuild the country.
But as you know, David, what made the Marshall Plan successful in the wake of World War II in the Western European countries where we provided $120 billion or so in today's dollars, what made it successful was the security guarantee that the U.S. provided. And here, that would be the final element. And whether that is NATO membership, if that's possible, and Hungary and Turkey would go along with that, or if it's not, is it a U.S.-led ironclad security guarantee? You package all of that together and then I think you might get a resolution to this war.
Now to the question where is Crimea in that, I'm so hesitant, actually, to ever suggest that there, again, might be some kind of territorial concession after the extraordinary sacrifices that Ukraine has made. And I don't want to imply that, you know, I expect that they can take it or actually cannot. I think this is an open question.
Here's the scenario. If they can, in the spring/summer offensive this year sever the ground link that Russia has, the ground bridge, as it's called, that Russia has established that goes from Russia proper down into Ukraine, and so they block that, then, Russia is dependent on the Kerch Strait Bridge to keep Crimea resupplied. If you could take that down again--or part of it, of course, was knocked down earlier--and then force it to rely on ferries, and then if you can start taking them out--now, these are very, very challenging actions and operations.
But I put nothing--the Ukrainians have shown incredible innovativeness, initiative, skill. You know, they're called the ultimate MacGyvers. They can make anything work. They can adapt to a hard missile from an F-16 and put it on a MiG-29, and so forth. If you can isolate Crimea fully and if you then have the precision munitions with greater range and can start picking off the Black Sea Fleet headquarters, the various air bases, the various sea ports, and all the rest of this, again, it is not inconceivable that you could sufficiently isolate it, and then at some point in time, either go in on the ground or have some kind of concession in the other direction.
So, this is, I think, how you'd think about this, David. But again, so much of this is so dependent on that very first issue that we discussed, and that is the ability to generate additional forces and capabilities in the next few months. And then it depends on decisions that I'm sure are being discussed right now in Western capitals, and especially in Washington when it comes to the additional capabilities that I've described. I'd also add advanced drones here, because they can be incredibly important, as you well know, for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and possibly also first strike capabilities if you enable that as well.
So that's just sort of thinking our way through both the end game and how Crimea might or might not fit into it.
MR. IGNATIUS: Just sticking with the end game a little bit more, a member of our audience, in this case Donald White from Arkansas asks, "Given Vladimir Putin his apparent intransigence, is there any scenario within Russia that's likely to bring a close to this war?" That gets us to the very delicate question of Russia's political balance, Putin's strength of command, all the things that are steaming under his command and control structure. Speak to that question a bit.
GEN. PETRAEUS: Sure. Again, first, there is the possibility that he could conclude again that this is not sustainable on the battlefield, the losses are just too great, and that it is not sustainable on the home front because the financial and economic and personal sanctions--which we continue to tight--and they're going to get tighter and tighter and tighter--and export controls are really damaging the economy.
Now, frankly, the economy has not been as damaged as many had predicted. The--you'll recall that the assessments were that these various sanctions could drive the economy down by at least 5 and maybe as much as 10 percent in a given year in terms of its GDP. It's down apparently 3.5 or so. So that's not as much. And of course, we have to acknowledge that there's no country that's better equipped to withstand sanctions than Russia because it's a top-three producer of natural gas, oil, coal, and then a variety of minerals all of which the world needs and much of which certain countries in the world are still willing to buy, at a discount to be sure, despite various sanctions on Russia.
So--but if you can get to that point, that realization then, again, we can get to the negotiating table and you can get this kind of negotiated resolution, noting that as I mentioned earlier, Ukraine gets out of this an end to the conflict and a Marshall Plan and an ironclad security guarantee.
The other alternative, of course, is regime change. And that is so hard to calculate, and he has such a grip on power. This is not just an autocracy, as you know, it's a dictatorship. And within that, it's a kleptocracy dictatorship. And everyone around him is in a position because the individual is intensely loyal and proven himself to Putin. Very, very hard in that kind of scenario, lots of different security services, all of which, again, Putin controls, to try to plan and carry out some kind of coup.
But also, as you know from history, what is inconceivable all of a sudden can become inevitable, sometimes overnight. And looking for those kinds of indicators is something that an organization near and dear to both our hearts is looking for, I'm sure very, very assiduously. But it's the most challenging of all questions.
MR. IGNATIUS: It's like the bridge that takes a million cars, and then all of a sudden, the millionth and first, and the bridge--the bridge crumbles. Why did that happen?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Yes.
MR. IGNATIUS: So, General Petraeus, I want to take the time remaining to ask you to do something a little bit unusual, which is to put your mind in the place of General Gerasimov, the Russian chief of staff who’s just been named the overall battle commander. As we said in the introduction to our program, there's a history of political leaders turning to savior generals in our own country. President Lincoln just couldn't find the right General. General McClellan famously had the slows going after the Confederates, finally decided on General Grant and General Sherman, and the civil war was won. In Iraq, terrible problems with your predecessors getting to a stable point, and then you came in with the surge and had better results.
Let's think about Putin’s search for a savior general. He’s been through three or four commanders, depending on how you count. He's now got Gerasimov in place. So let me ask you to do something that's unusual. If you were Gerasimov trying to think how do I take what's been a really unsuccessful campaign now for almost a year and turn it around, what are the things that would be part of getting the Russians on a better foot? What do they need to do to perform better?
MR. PETRAEUS: Frankly, what they need to do is perform tasks that they should have been doing, you know, five and 10 years ago. They need to conduct really rigorous training. You know, what's a mystery to me, David, is that they had months during which they were assembled on the borders of Ukraine and Belarus and Russia. And as far as I can tell, they did nothing in way--in the way of training. If you'd given us, our commanders months, we’d train that force to a razor's edge. And they did not. And we saw the results of that.
They should have had a professional non-commissioned officer corps a long time ago. They shouldn't have the kind of top-down leadership structure that doesn't prize initiative at lower levels. They need a larger logistics force structure. Once they leave the railways, they have roughly a quarter of what we have, and they don't have real expeditionary logistics.
They have a lousy command control communication system. It's HF single channel, not encrypted. Anybody with a police radio can jam it.
So, the list goes on and on of the deficiencies that he actually has to overcome. Some of these obviously are much longer term. I mean, you're talking about an entire service culture. You're talking about practices, how, again, command is exercised, and so forth. What he could do in the short term and what they're trying to do is just generate additional forces. Of course, there will be, we expect, another mobilization. Can they train them better? Could they achieve combined arms operations? Can they revive their military industrial capacity? The export controls are really crippling it. Can they actually produce the thousands of tanks that they have lost and other armored wheeled vehicle systems, air defenses, and all the rest of that? Can they make additional missiles and drones, or do they have to get them from Iran?
They’re in a very, very difficult position, I think. And the options that they've had so far have been just basically to throw soldiers into the line with modest equipment that's not good kit, and they're not well trained.
So again, his options, I think, at this point, are not particularly attractive. He isn't going to bring real additional capability. Now, again, quantity has a quality of its own. And especially if the order is to take the rest of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, if that is his mission, I'm not sure I see how he conducts that, again, given that these grinding attacks that they've been conducting have achieved relatively modest gains, but at very high cost, and they're also destroying the locations that they're trying to take. So, he's in a difficult position. And the ills that afflict Russia are those that would require a real overhaul
Very similar, frankly, to what our army had to do after Vietnam, where we had to rebuild the non-commissioned officer corps, create combat training centers with really rigorous training, get into real culture of integrity and of after-action reviews, and inquiry and learning, fostering initiative. All of these kinds of actions are not ones that can be carried out short term.
During the surge in Iraq, we could go in. We had a terrific force. We just basically needed to change the big ideas 180 degrees. Instead of consolidating on big bases, we're going to go back into the neighborhoods, live with the people. That's the only way to secure them, take back the control from the Iraqi Security Forces, promote reconciliation. In other words, you can't kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency. You have to reconcile with as many of the rank and file as you can, intensify the pursuit of the irreconcilables with our special mission units, closer integration of civil and military, clear hold, build and transition, not clear and hand off to the Iraqis.
So essentially, the surge that mattered most was not actually even the extra 25,000 superb forces. Very helpful. The surge was the change in big ideas, the change in strategy, literally 180 degrees. But that was doable. And that was something you could actually see happening; we could envision what was possible.
In this case, I can't envision what's possible for Gerasimov because he doesn't have the basic tools, the basic capabilities to carry out the kind of offensive operations, combined arms offensive operations to take the rest of those two provinces, oblasts that they supposedly want to seize at least in the near or midterm, while still noting that Putin’s overall objectives are still tied up with the notion that Ukraine doesn't have a right to exist as an independent country; it should be part of the Russian Federation.
MR. IGNATIUS: Absolutely fascinating discussion of the military aspects of this conflict by one of America's best generals in modern times, General David Petraeus. General Petraeus, thank you for joining us.
GEN. PETRAEUS: Privilege to be with you, David. Thank you.
MR. IGNATIUS: Great. So please join us here on Washington Post Live for other programming. You can go to WashingtonPostLive.com to see what we’ve got coming up. We hope to see you back here again. Thanks for joining us this morning.
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