Russia is really not in a position to challenge the West and expand this war
An interview with Curtis Michael “Mike” Scaparrotti, a retired United States Army four-star general who served as the Commander of United States European Command and as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Interviewer: Vazha Tavberidze
The war in Ukraine has entered its third month without a clear end in sight. The first phase of the conflict has come to an end with Russia’s withdrawal from its northern offensive and seemingly new objectives to focus more on the east and south of Ukraine. Aleksandr Dvornikov, the Russian general known as the butcher of Aleppo and Grozny, has been appointed the new supreme commander for Russia’s operations. At the same time, the West continues its steadfast support of Ukraine with new shipments of heavy defensive and offensive weapons. How will these new developments affect the state of the war? Georgian journalist Vazha Tavberidze recently sat down with retired US General Curtis “Mike” Caparrotti for his assessment.
VAZHA TAVBERIDZE: Let’s start by reviewing the situation at hand. What could be Russia’s battle plan now and how can Ukraine manage it?
CURTIS MICHAEL “MIKE” SCAPARROTTI: At this stage, Russia is reconstituting its forces with a new leader in charge of the entire campaign – it’s about time they did that. And meanwhile, they are committed to limited attacks in the east, having determined that the east will be their main objective, to secure Luhansk and Donetsk. I would say that Russia is not in a good position, you can see that just from the limitation of fire they’ve used in preparation for this new phase. It is questionable just how successful this next part of their campaign will be. For the Ukrainians, they have to continue to strengthen themselves. It will be a bit of a different fight, in the sense that they are along the lines in Donbas that they’ve been on for years. The Russians intend to make a breakthrough in the north, near Izyum, and in the south around Donetsk city, and basically envelop that line. So they will have to reinforce their flanks, and it will be a different kind of fight if the Russians take a broad front, given that it’s flatter terrain, they are in a fixed defensive position.
Will this devolve into positional battles, or is there a big showdown coming? If so, what would make a prime target in that?
I think that it is more likely to be a grinding and destructive battle, just given the Russians’ present status. But if there were to be a breakthrough, it would be a penetration on the flanks that would envelop or encircle a fairly significant part of the Ukrainian forces. I think they would continue to fight, though, and it would still last weeks. So, in terms of a significant battle, at this point, I do not see that being the case, I think it will be more of a slow, steady and grinding battle.
If it indeed turns into a war of attrition, as you predict, on whose side would time be?
Under normal circumstances one would say the advantage goes to the larger country, the one with greater resources available – that being Russia. But Russia has committed a substantial portion of its ground forces to this campaign. And they have not done well. The Russians are vulnerable at this point and the sanctions have certainly impacted their national resources and economy. So this may be a case where if we continue to strengthen the Ukrainians, they can persevere.
Despite what Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, has been telling Vladimir Putin, Mariupol apparently still stands. Putin has ordered a siege instead of an assault. In this case, are we back to medieval tactics here? Starving out the defenders?
This is Russia’s way of war. When they cannot win through manoeuvres or with their forces, as we have seen in Syria and other places, they use overwhelming firepower, and they go after populated areas in order to bring about capitulation due to the devastation they are causing. That is a part of the nature of their warfare and high intensity conflict. And it has been so over the ages. Russia is one of the countries that is still using it.
Any chance for Ukraine to alleviate the pressure on Mariupol?
What I am seeing today, in the open press, is that Mariupol has been essentially razed to the ground. Those Ukrainians holding out are brave and persistent soldiers, but it appears to me that it is a matter of days before Russia claims victory there. And there are indications that they brought press into the area with the idea that they will do that soon.
How much of a game changer is the new commander, General Aleksandr Dvornikov, the “Butcher of Syria”?
It does mark a change in that Russia, to their benefit, put somebody in charge of the theatre, instead of having three separate Military District commanders working alongside each other. But I do not believe it is a game changer. Dvornikov is the most experienced and probably most successful at this point. If you look at the campaign objectives, now it is mostly in his region, so he is a natural fit. It is to the benefit to the Russians to put him in charge, but I do not think it will necessarily change much, given that he is coming in at a time when the initial campaign failed. They have performed so poorly and have demonstrated serious logistic and communications problems. He still has to try to repair those and his forces are already damaged.
Russia once again said it considers the western military support lines as legitimate targets and warned the US to stop supplying Ukraine. So let’s imagine a scenario where they do indeed target them. What happens then?
Well, if they attack a NATO country, NATO will respond, and Russia needs to understand that. I think what Russia says is largely an intimidation tactic. I am not sure that they would actually take that step, but if they do, NATO will respond.
On the subject of intimidation, Russia tested a nuclear-capable Sarmat missile as a warning to enemies. According to some accounts, it is the “world’s most powerful” missile. What’s the message?
Putin now routinely rattles his nuclear sabre because he knows that he has reduced his conventional advantage that he had prior to February 24th. So this is his assurance. I think we should expect it, but we shouldn’t blink.
Let’s talk about the military support to Ukraine. How would you rate US support? And what is your opinion on this protracted saga about delivering the fighter jets to Ukraine?
I think that we were probably slower than we should have been in the beginning, I mean the West as a whole. But we very quickly changed and picked up momentum. We then hung on for a little longer with this debate as to whether its offensive or defensive support. From a military perspective, when there is defence, there is also an offensive element to it. In other words, there is not much difference between offensive and defensive weapons systems. We finally got over that now. We are also beyond the point where we were worried about those systems. We’re now talking about armour and aircraft.
Russia is really not in a position to challenge the West and expand this war, so we should lean forward and give the Ukrainians what they need now, with the intent that they can place themselves in a position of strength from which to negotiate – to achieve the end state that they agree is best for their country. We can do that if we continue to provide them the equipment and provide the training they need for newer equipment as well. The Ukrainians are a brave people and we need to provide them all the support they need.
Is Western Europe pulling its weight? Considering it is largely European security that is threatened by Russia’s actions…
Individual countries have to make their own decisions on this, and there are some from which I personally would like to see more with respect to support. But let me say this: one of the issues here is that we continually come back to the east, west, north and south and that debate. What we are learning in today’s world is that we have to look at the transatlantic space as a whole. Each of those countries needs to understand this is a connected world, even a fight that Russia intends to be limited to Ukraine affects us all. The Russians call it a special operation, not a war, yet, we are all affected. This conflict is connected globally; it impacts us all. I think we need to take this approach. We need to think strategically; and we need to think in the long term.
When Russian intelligence analysts read that Estonia, which has a population of 1.2 million people, has provided more military support to Ukraine than Germany or France, what kind of message does that send to Putin?
I think if you are Putin, it is those differences that Russia leverages, and it always has. One of his consistent objectives has been to split NATO, and to cause a fracture among the countries within Europe and in the US. He still looks for opportunities to do that. And we should give him less chance to do so. Having said that, each of these countries within NATO make their own sovereign decisions. I would hope that, over time, Germany – one of the most prosperous countries within Europe – will choose to put themselves in a better position with respect to energy, so that they can be a bigger player, the right player, without risk to the population, which is part of their concern today.
On the subject of negotiations, when might be the next window of opportunity? And how can Ukraine better its position by that time?
Well, this is difficult to say. I think Ukraine should not seek negotiations until it has some sort of advantage, one that that provides it a strong negotiating position and allow them to achieve an acceptable outcome in this conflict. Russia’s objective is to focus on the east, to gain as much territory as it can, connect to the south in Mariupol and the land bridge to Crimea. I would think in Putin’s mind he could then form an argument that he is victorious and save some face.
Putin could probably end up selling this as a success to his domestic audience. But what about the rest world? Is there any chance to accept Putin back after this war?
I would certainly hope not. I think Putin’s reputation as a world leader is eternally damaged. His ability to re-enter the world stage as a respectable leader is done. I think Russia needs to understand the damage that has been done to them as a nation among nations. We cannot seek the former status quo. If there are negotiations, they should not take place with Putin still in power. He will continue to seek his objectives in his sphere of influence and destabilise the international rules-based order. He has continually said that for years and I do not think that it would dampen his ambition if he were to reach some negotiated resolution that satisfies him for the time being.
Do you think sanctions should be a separate matter from any conflict negotiations? That whatever happens on the negotiations, the sanctions should not be touched?
We should look at the horrendous damage and the atrocities that have been committed by Russia. We should not overlook that just because we want some peace now. If we do, I believe we will have to confront Russian aggression again in the future.
And probably not only in Ukraine.
Curtis Michael “Mike” Scaparrotti is a retired United States Army four-star general who served as the Commander of United States European Command and as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe. He also served as the Director of the Joint Staff.
Vazha Tavberidze is a Georgian journalist and a Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow working with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service.
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