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“Russia has already taken ‘Ukrainium’ and it’s fatal”

An interview with Lt. Gen. Michel Yakovleff, retired from the French army after 40 years of service. Interviewer Vazha Tavberidze

April 11, 2023 - Michel Yakovleff - Interviews

Lt. Gen. Michel Yakovleff. Photo: Private

VAZHA TAVBERIDZE: We recently marked the anniversary of the infamous Russian attempt – or rather the failure – called “Take Kyiv in three days”. We are witnessing a new Russian offensive gaining traction, as we speak. How do you rate their chances this time?

MICHEL YAKOVLEFF: Well, pretty dismal. It looks like the Russians have been engaged in an offensive for three or four weeks now. But it is diluted all along the line in Donbas with a focal point around Bakhmut. Even if they achieve success in Bakhmut, beyond symbolic value it doesn’t take them much further than the next town of middling importance. So I don’t believe they will collapse the Ukrainian lines. So okay, they may conquer a few square kilometres of real estate at tremendous cost. I have a suspicion they are wasting their resources, both human and ammunition. It’s not a very pointed thrust.

Putin had clearly envisioned a Blitzkrieg seizure of Ukraine. And there is another man, with whom the term is also very closely associated. Hitler’s Blitzkrieg lasted for 6 excruciating years – how long will Putin’s last?

Well, the big difference between Hitler and Putin is that Hitler, at least in the early years, was competent. And it’s very sad for the others, of course, but he took advice from his generals, you know — Von Manstein, for the 1940 plan that crushed France; Von Manstein again, for the Battle of Kursk, that stopped the crumbling of the front at Stalingrad. So for a few years Hitler, to a degree, was competent and took advice from the generals. It doesn’t appear that President Putin has achieved that degree of understanding of Military Affairs, simply put.

On the other side, how would you rate the chances of a Ukrainian counter offensive – when to expect it and what to expect?

Well, not very high because I suspect they lack punch, they lack tanks, and I believe they are short on ammunition. So they’ve got to husband their ammunition a lot. They can’t waste it the way the Russians do. Basically, the best chance for the Ukrainian is a Russian blunder — that the Russians try and attack and I have a theory that Putin needs to take a high-stakes gamble, to turn the tables and to demonstrate to the Ukrainians that they’ve got to accept his terms. And for that there’s got to be a deep thrust that’s got to hurt a lot. I don’t see why Donbas would bring that kind of success. I do see another attempt at Kyiv. Not to encircle or conquer Kyiv. But to come within reach of artillery from Kyiv and bombard it, just like Sarajevo was bombarded for 18 months, and then say, show that he can strike deep into Ukraine again, and achieve major success. It is a bit like Hitler in December 1944. With the Battle of the Bulge, it was a last-ditch attempt at turning the tables on the Western allies. And the plan was to reconquer basically Belgium, all the way up to Antwerp. And crumble the Western Front. It came as a surprise to the Western Allies, because he squandered his reserves in doing so. And he offered up his tank reserve for destruction. And from then on, it was downhill all the way. So I have a theory, a suspicion that Putin will be forced to do something bigger than just more pressure on the Donbas. The only thing bigger that’s worth the effort, I believe, is Kyiv; not even Kharkiv would do it. And then if he makes that attempt, then he is vulnerable to a counter-offensive. It’s easier to crush the arrow if it has penetrated [the enemy lines], and has travelled some distance due to its pace. So my belief is that the Ukrainians are waiting for that kind of blunder. If there is not that kind of blunder, I don’t see how the Ukrainians themselves can generate the force ratio, even in one sector of the front, to pierce the [Russian] frontline and start a mobile battle again.

If that blunder does not come to pass, is the Ukrainian counter-offensive still a foregone conclusion? Must they attack?

Well, I wouldn’t advise them to attack if they don’t have the necessary mass to do so. And the necessary reserves and ammunition and so on. They’ve been very good at this war without taking any advice of mine. So I’ve got to be humble about that. You know, and they know better in what situation they are.

Let me ask you, then, suppose that blunder comes to pass and suppose the Ukrainians have the chance of mounting a successful counter-offensive -What would be realistic goals for them?

Well, it seems to me the obvious goal is cutting the so-called land bridge [between Donbas and Kherson/Crimea] in two, reaching the Azov Sea somewhere. Where is not that important, as long as it severs the link with Crimea and takes them within reach — with their current artillery, with HIMARS — of the Kerch bridge again. But in saying that I don’t think I’m exposing their plan, because any competent Russian General will have done their research.

Your words, on introducing the Putin as a measuring unit for strategic blunder, have gone viral and it has become one of the more memorable quotes on this war. How many Putins would it be, if we were to measure how the West dealt with the Russian threat prior to 2022?

You mean, on the Putin scale, which is from zero to one? The blunders of the West, correct?

How high would those be on the “Putin Scale”?

Well, they are pretty high, because in essence they invited aggression. So for me, one on the Putin scale is the extinguishing of mankind, nuclear holocaust — you know, that’s the highest measure of blunder. And on the Putin scale, you know, attacking the way he did is for me, let’s say 0.7 Putins. But the West is 0.5, 0.6 — pretty high on the Putin scale — for misreading his attack in 2014, believing that it would be a one-off, a frozen conflict. And that suited Putin’s regime fine — [for the conflict] to stay like that — because it blocked Ukrainian accession to NATO and the EU to a certain degree. I think that assessment has been proven to be very mistaken, and based on a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the regime. And I remember my Baltic friends and Polish friends being very vocal about that within NATO, saying “you do not understand the nature of the beast”. Whereas for Germans, French, Italians, Americans, Brits to a certain degree, you know, there was no rationality for Putin in desiring more than he already had. But his rationality is not ours. So let’s say that by not arming Ukraine after 2014 — I rank that as a 0.5 – 0.6 Putin.

Ukraine was not the only wake-up call that the West was given, was it? Because my own country [Georgia] in 2008 was attacked by Russia. And that wake-up call was not exactly picked up and listened to. And for the French, of all people, maybe after the Germans, there were tell-tale signs of what Putin was and is about — in the Georgian war, France acted as a mediator. Was it handled the way it should have been?

No, I don’t believe we treated Georgia the way we should have. It was the first very open sign that Putin had completely zero [issues] about using force to achieve [his] aims. Strategic aims in this case — here again, preventing Georgia from becoming an acceptable candidate for NATO and the EU. Much play was made of the fact that President Saakashvili had tried to reclaim, you know, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia and his troops had entered the so-called breakaway regions, thus offering the perfect excuse to the Russians. And they were ready — they baited him. After that, French mediation would allow the Russians a face-saving way out of it, but one which still blocked Georgia. So it created a pattern that opened the way for 2014 and the Minsk agreements. I couldn’t believe it personally, that we would engage in writing on paper and having signatures whereby Russia would be considered an outside [actor], an arbiter, just like Germany and France, when it was a party to the conflict and actually the originator of the conflict.

To continue the theme, how many Putins would you award to the handling of Georgia and the Minsk [agreements]?

Not treating Georgia in 2008 as it should have been: 0.5. Because there are some, let’s say, extenuating arguments. And Ukraine for me — Minsk and not agreeing to give the Ukrainians a quarter of what we’ve given them this year — that’s 0.7. It did contribute, it did invite Russia to attack because they believed that the West would go on following the same pattern, you know, hand wringing, much regret, sanctions and trying to get Putin to the table to sign anything. Putin followed our lead — it had worked until now, and in that respect he is rational.

Now that the West has had its eyes opened, rather forcefully, it is helping Ukraine — but is it doing enough in that regard?

The West is not doing enough in my eyes, but it is doing everything it can, honestly. It’s just that we don’t have our industrial base geared to fuel a war of the magnitude of Ukraine. And then there are decisions that are always almost too late — you know, giving artillery, giving air defence — it’s after much discussion and “are you sure?”-s, and it then arrives, and arrives kind of just in time to prevent Ukraine from being crushed. That’s unfair on the Ukrainians. And I’m being polite in saying that. And it’s not good strategic calculation. That said, quite frankly I think we’ve reached the end of what we can give – I do believe we could give more tanks, quite frankly, but 300? I’m not sure.

On the warplanes, French President Emmanuel Macron said that if France did send warplanes, he would not want any to be used to “touch Russian soil”. Do you see that becoming a pre-condition for the rest of the would-be donors as well?

Well, I suspect so. And I do think that the Ukrainians get the message, that they’re reasonable themselves, they understand. In essence, we are in a limited war, as Russian doctrine written in the times of Putin calls it — a limited regional war. It’s not limited in terms of violence and assets involved and numbers. It’s limited in the geographical sense. So, the guarantee that warplanes wouldn’t be used to attack targets on Russian territory — I can understand why strategically it’s sound, because Russia is essentially sanctuary-ised in reality. It’s immoral and it’s not legally sound by the way — you have every right to strike an aggressor, including on his territory. And all nations have done that routinely, if I dare say so. But in this case, okay — it may be right, it may be legal, it may be moral — but it is not politically expedient. And it is not even politically expedient for the Ukrainians. So, of course, there would be guarantees. And I don’t doubt the Ukrainians would abide by them.

I must say there’s an interesting side story, which is Belarus. Because Belarus, legally speaking, is an aggressor to the same degree as Russia. If you allow a force on your territory to launch an attack from your territory, to launch missiles, with aircraft flying in your airspace, have artillery deployed on your soil firing barrages into your neighbour’s territory — you are a participant to the war. It’s not complicit, it’s a participant. And in that respect, technically speaking — and it would be amusing to see how politically expedient this would be, you know — maybe Russia is off limits. Belarus, may be a different story. I think it’s an interesting discussion.

To go back to the earlier argument that you made that the West is providing Ukraine with enough weaponry and just in time for it to save itself from being crushed. — every now and then we have distinctions being made between Ukraine winning this war and Ukraine not losing this war. And I would like to ask what this “not losing” stands for, what it might look like.

Well, not losing means Ukraine is still alive and kicking, not necessarily in control of all this territory. So it’s the situation now. Victory for me — the only measure of victory for Ukraine is that the bear has been defanged, and that the fear of Russia coming back recedes seriously. I have a suspicion that that does imply Ukraine recovering all its territory, if only so the Russian body politic understands that there was no reward in aggression, starting from 2014. That is a very extreme measure of victory, to be honest, and I don’t think it is achievable right now, much to my regret.

… I don’t think liberating all its territory is within reach now of the Ukrainian army in the foreseeable future. And that is months, not years. The only real chance for Ukraine to recover its territory is the demise of the Putin regime, and bitter infighting inside Russia and the crumbling of Russia, and that will reopen the discussion. That is, that’s not something I call for, advocate or desire. But I think it is the logic of this war. That’s what I call Ukrainium. Ukrainium is the same as polonium. You know, it’s Russian, and it’s fatal. And it’s tearing through the fabric of Russia now. Even if they win the war, by the way, the Russians, I think society has been too much stressed. So ultimately, I believe that the desirable outcome for Ukraine will be a change of regime in Moscow.

How far-fetched a future are we talking about here?

I think it’s the logic of what’s happening now — it will happen. Will it happen in months or years, I don’t know. And I am not very good at predicting. But I think this war has gone too far and exposed too much of the incompetence and the basic inhumanity of the current regime, and all the signs, for me, of the unravelling of the Russian Federation are there. I think it’s a disaster in the making, a trainwreck in the making and we’ll have to sort it out. And then, part of the sorting out will be Georgia, Transnistria, maybe Chechnya, Dagestan and other places, and of course, Ukraine [would] include Crimea.

What do you mean by sorting out — that, for example, Georgia would get its territories back, [as would] Moldova and so on?

Well, once you take away Putin’s dream, and either Russia crumbles or it has, let’s say, a more reasonable regime that tries to restore good relations in the neighbourhood, then they’ll load all the ills of the world on President Putin and find a way out and that would be the opening. Will it happen now, or in some years? I don’t know, but I hope we won’t have to deal with a new Russian revolution of the same magnitude as 1917.

Lt. Gen. Michel Yakovleff, French army retired, ended 40 years of service in the French army as a three-star vice chief of staff at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. He served under three Supreme Allied Commanders Europe from 2009 to 2016.

Vazha Tavberidze is a Georgian journalist working with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service.

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