The Struggles of the Russian Military in Ukraine
More than six weeks into its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian military is hindered by an inability to gain air supremacy, supply chain breakdowns, and dangerously low morale. Our panelists discuss the state of Russia's military and the effect on the war in Ukraine.
DAVIDSON: Thank you so much, Sam. And welcome, everybody, to today’s Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting, “The Struggles of Russian Military in Ukraine.” I am Janine Davidson and I’ll be presiding over the discussion today.
And let me introduce our experts that we have with us today.
First is Phil Breedlove, a retired Air Force general, distinguished professor now, CETS senior fellow at the Sam Nunn School for International Affairs at Georgia Tech. He’s also the former supreme allied commander of Europe—NATO, which is probably one of the coolest titles a person could have—and where I had the pleasure of working with him on an advisory board.
Mark Galeotti. He’s the author of The Weaponization of Everything and the principal director of the Mayak Intelligence, honorary professor at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, senior associate fellow at the Royal United States Institute.
And we have Beth Sanner. She’s the senior fellow at the Intelligence Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. She’s also the former deputy director of the national intelligence—for mission integration in the Office of Director of National Intelligence. And she’s also a CFR member.
So it’s a really great group. Great to have you guys here today. Good morning.
Let me just go ahead and get started. I’m going to start here, because we want to really talk about what’s going on with the Russian military. I’m going to start with our military, retired, General Breedlove. Can you give us a bit of an overview here? It seems like—is it—is it an accurate assessment to say that Putin really overestimated his hand and underestimated everybody else’s hand? Can we say at this point that his first attempt has failed, his forefront effort, and that’s actually retreating back to the east? That seems to me, you know, the broad strokes. What else can you tell us about that? And what does that say to you about what’s happening with him on the ground?
BREEDLOVE: Well, I think it’s very clear that he has not met one of his major objectives. It is very clear by the way he initially deployed forces and where he put his best forces, et cetera, et cetera, that he was after Kyiv and he was after the leadership in Kyiv. And he expected a quick victory. And that did not happen. And I think you captured it extremely well. There is an effort now, I think, to insulate him from the decision making. And he’s blaming other people. But he was either ill-advised or he was appropriately advised but made more decisions. And they did not fight the fight they thought they were going to fight. And I think that the logistics planning and other things that we saw from what happened in the north indicated that they had a—made some bad assumptions about how long the fight would last and what they would have to do. And it’s hard to recover from that.
When you start such a big operation, and you’ve done that on false assumptions, and you’ve made logistical planning that is inappropriate, it’s hard to recover. And that was evident. And then the other thing I would say—I was over with a group of people about eight, nine days before the war started. And we talked with President Zelensky down all the way to opposition members in the Rada. And they were—almost always said the same thing: You in the West have been paying so much attention to what’s going on on the board, and all of this buildup of forces, and how well that plays out on the twenty-four hour news. And what you haven’t been watching is what we’ve been doing internal to Ukraine to prepare. And it’s very clear that the Ukraine military had prepared a wonderful defense in depth, especially in the north. And they took their toll on the Russian forces.
So I know there’s a lot of things to say yet, and I want to move on and let you have time with others. But I just want to remind people that old axiom, and I’m going to poorly misquote it, OK? But it basically says that amateurs talk about operations. Professionals talk about logistics. And I think that axiom played itself out well here in the north.
DAVIDSON: Absolutely. I completely agree with you. I think I’m going to—you hit on something about, you know, what it is we thought we saw along the border. I’m going to turn to Beth, as our intel analyst here. You know, what it seems to me that we missed is not only the Ukrainian prep—although, I would say, General, we might have known a little bit about that because I think we were helping them do that prep and that training over the last eight years. (Laughs.) But just watching troops and tanks and equipment on the border doesn’t tell you these other things. Like, how competent are they at logistics? What’s going on with their command and control? What’s going on with their own planning? And are they a professionalized military? The degree to which they had conscripts who potentially—supposedly didn’t even know where they were. What do you think was sort of the array of our intelligence there? And were we taking the right kinds of things into consideration?
SANNER: Well I think, first, let’s kind of stipulate that those things were all really important. And so I think we can kind of get caught up in looking at the outputs of what happened and saying poor logistics and, you know, tires that weren’t good and, you know, rations that were expired, and all of these things. But we should probably step back a little bit and say, like, what are the underlying things that caused this? And that’s kind of where I come from, maybe being more of a political analyst than a military analyst, it’s that, you know, sure, OK. You have this situation where you have a flawed strategy, based on flawed assumptions, based on flawed intelligence, based on flawed organizational concepts and bureaucracy, based on a flawed leader who actually instilled all this into a system that produced kind of what I call reap what you sow.
And so I don’t know, honestly, because I’m not in now, how much analysts were taking into account these kinds of things that aren’t about bean counting, but they’re about, you know, kind of the real—the tissue that holds a force together and makes it a cohesive fighting unit. And, you know, you mentioned corruption, the military culture, the torture of conscripts. All of these things came together in a way that pulled this military apart. But I think, you know, it’s very hard for intelligence analysts who have not seen an army operate at this scale trying to do a complex, just humongous operation that, frankly, we haven’t seen anybody try to do, right, since World War II, based on the limited expeditionary kind of activities that they’ve done. So I’m not really answering your question, because I don’t know. (Laughs.) But those are the things that we should be taking into account.
DAVIDSON: Well, you’re right. And I think that the analysis in all the conversation in the beginning was not the how, it was the will he or won’t he, and will this be smart? Of course, you should never take stupid off the table when you’re analyzing what might happen. But not looking into if he does do this would he be successful, and what would be his—yeah.
SANNER: Right. And the last thing I’ll just say before I let Mark join the stage here—sorry—but, you know, if the Russians had been successful in putting the Spetsnaz folks into Kyiv, and they had been successful in killing Zelensky or taking him out, this might have unfolded at least a little differently. I’m not saying 100 percent. But, you know, we’re also basing this on, you know, a flawed hindsight.
DAVIDSON: Right. You know, and that—great transition to the question that I had teed-up in my head for Mark, and that is, you know, Mark, I know you’ve done a lot of work on, you know, whether we should call this hybrid warfare or political warfare. And I kind of agree with you on that. But when you look at what Vladimir Putin has been doing for the past ten years, especially the past eight years, it seems pretty darn clever to me. And if you look at, like, the Sun Tzu’s, you know, ideas of—like, if you can achieve your strategic objectives without, you know, launching a major war and killing a lot of people, then more power to you. It seems to me like he was sliding in the side door of Crimea, he was trying—he was actually making a lot of progress in the East. If he could have done the little green man kind of Spetsnaz operation for another couple years and probably gotten there—what do you think happened? Or do you think that that’s too simplistic of an assessment on my part, Mark?
GALEOTTI: I mean, I think the problem is this, that although we often regard Putin as this great geopolitical grandmaster of three-dimensional chess, he’s not. He’s essentially an opportunist. And in many ways, I don’t think he thoroughly understands the 21st century. I mean, it’s a trivial point, but we know that he doesn’t have a smartphone, and he believes the internet was invented by the CIA, and suchlike. And he has been the beneficiary of the fact that this has been generally a period of crisis, transition, and often legitimacy issues in the West which he’s been able to exploit. And I think this has really demonstrated, I think, the limits of Putin’s capacity to think strategically.
Because here’s the irony, up to the point where his first tank crossed the border, Putin was winning. He’d assembled this massive force on Ukraine’s borders, which was a great force for coercive diplomacy. It was severely impacting the Ukrainian economy. You know, who wants to invest under the shadow of a Russian invasion? You had a stream of Western politicians traveling to Moscow to petition Putin, which is exactly how he likes to be—you know, he wants to feel precisely Russia is a great power and everyone is coming to him. And we had, it has to be said, certain Western European governments putting pressure on Zelensky to make concessions to Moscow.
Now, if he had genuinely been Machiavellian, he would have done nothing. He would have just continued the situation. He would have let one more American warning about after another about an imminent invasion come and pass. And at a certain point he then would have been able to turn to the Europeans and say: So, why are the Americans lying to you, do you think? And what else do you think they’re lying to you about? Because obviously breaking the transatlantic bond is one of his kind of key goals.
But he didn’t. And, look, it’s hard to know precisely why. But I think it’s, to a considerable degree, because Putin is not comfortable with not taking the initiative. He has to feel like he’s the sort of dramatic one. But also, and this is kind of, again, a perverse thing to say, what he did makes perfect sense if you believe the things that Putin believes. And that’s why you go back to a point that both General Breedlove and Beth have made about the fact that it’s—so much of it is about how much did Putin really understand?
This is a man who clearly does not think Ukraine is a country, does not think the Ukrainians are a people, and therefore felt that this was not actually going to be a hard-fought war but more like a police operation. That the whole state could collapse at the first push. And, yes, you could send a couple of companies of paratroopers motoring into the center of Kyiv, arrest the government, put in a new one, and there you go, if you genuinely believe that. Which, of course, was absolute nonsense. But if you genuinely believe that, then what he did makes perfect sense.
The teeny-tiny problem was, of course, that the world was very different from the world in Putin’s head. So I think, you know, this is really what is brought up, is actually we have, to a degree, built Putin up to be much more than he really is.
DAVIDSON: Fair enough. And, you know, he’s not the only leader to misinterpret the situation on the ground. We’ve had a situation like that with our own invasion of Iraq. But in this case, there’s a geopolitical piece here. General Breedlove, it’s interesting to me—Fiona Hill thinks that he’s really starting to kind of lose his mind a little bit—the way he thinks about NATO. I mean, I think you’re totally right, Mark, that he’s made these mistakes. He was actually kind of doing it—he was on his way to getting his strategic objectives. And if one of those was to really discombobulate NATO, that was starting to take place.
And I remember back when we were working together, General, at a conference or something with all our NATO partners, and that was in the time when we had Russian generals at the table with us. And I remember a time when, you know, I was in one of these breakout groups and we were talking about, you know, sharing costs and, you know, all this dysfunctional stuff that NATO is trying to always work out, and command and control. And the Russian general finally said: You know, when I was a junior officer, I thought NATO was like, you know, really story. But now that I’m, you know, in all these meetings I’m thinking, nah. He actually said that in front of everyone.
And I thought, well, that is—that’s really dangerous. For him to think that just because he’s in the living rooms and listening to us bicker that if the stuff hits the fan, we’re not going actually be pretty united. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the strategic objectives of discombobulating NATO at this point.
BREEDLOVE: Yeah, I—first of all, I want to just violently agree with a couple of things Mark said there. And I think that I am in violent agreement that he was winning right up until he started fighting. Those things were heading in a bad direction in several ways in the West. And now what he has done is singularly united the West, to a large degree. There are still some little cracks and fissures that have to be worked out, but largely exactly what he did not want to happen is beginning to happen around him.
And I like to remind people what he wrote us in those two documents and said: Sign these or there’ll be other means. Well, we know what other means are. And in those documents, we see that it’s bigger than Ukraine. While we grieve for, and want to help, and are fighting to get Ukraine what they want, those documents point us to Mr. Putin’s desire to essentially restructure the infrastructure of security in Eastern Europe and reestablish something more akin to the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union days. And the really good thing that NATO is coming out of this in NATO, is NATO is responding to give him exactly what he didn’t want—more force in the forward area, more weapons in the forward area, possibly now two very important new members of NATO. And all these things that he said he didn’t want in these two documents he’s now reaping the benefit of his decision to go to war.
And I don’t want to carry too much here, but I hope we get to talk a little bit about something else Mark said, which is Putin wanting to seize the initiative. I think that a discussion of deterrence and initiative is something we need to take away from this and do better at in the future. And I will allow you to either come back to that or not.
DAVIDSON: No, that’s a great place to go. I’ll turn to Beth on that one. You know, the tools that we have in our tool chest for deterrence—deterrence by denial, deterrence by punishment—it seems like we, the West, NATO, were threatening deterrence by punishment in terms of, well, if you do this we’ll swack you economically. Didn’t really work. What other sort of—where does that leave deterrence in the 21st century, I think is where General Breedlove was going.
SANNER: I have an answer for that. There is no easy answer for that because I think that this is the problem. The problem is that I never thought that deterrence by, you know, the threat of sanctions would work. I mean, you know, Putin’s mind was much—he had already baked in the implications for sanctions. That’s why he had, you know, hired the central bank governor and put them on their way to this massive war chest. I mean, he couldn’t foresee everything, but—certainly what has happened, right? But there was nothing that was going to stop him in terms of that kind of deterrence.
The only kind of deterrence would have been some kind of threat of military force. And we took that off the table. I’m not sure—I mean, there’s a big debate about this, right? We all have our personal views. I don’t think that Putin would have believed a threat of military force from us. I don’t think it was a believable threat. There’s too much in the—both sides in the aisle in the United States and the views of the American people I think that would have made that kind of a false threat. So that’s a problem.
And I think it’s a problem when we look ahead to China, because what has happened here—and I don’t hear a lot of people talking about this, frankly—we are—we have said we are not involving ourselves to a certain point militarily because we fear nuclear war. Well, what does that tell the Chinese? That tells the Chinese we will not interfere militarily to defend China—or, to defend Taiwan, because we will fear China’s nuclear force. And what does that tell North Korea? I mean, Kim Jong-un has over the last three decades defied all of our efforts to prevent him from having a credible nuclear threat against the United States.
And let’s wake up. He actually has the capability right now, not guaranteed but, you know, it would be a bad day if that nuclear weapon exploded over the United States and said it hit exactly the way they planned. So, you know, they have the range. So, you know, look, we have a problem right now with nuclear deterrence. And we have got to figure out how do we reestablish that? Because I think that the lesson I would take away, as most countries are, that if you don’t have a nuclear deterrent yourself, you don’t have nuclear forces yourself, then, you know, all bets are off. But if you have it, then you have a lot of scope of action.
DAVIDSON: Yeah. Thank you for that—popping us up to this bigger level. I mean, this is why people ask me, you know, why is this such a—why is this getting so much more attention than, say, what was happening in Syria. And it’s because of these implications. What does it mean for deterrence? What does it mean for nuclear disarmament? I mean, that stuff is out the window now. I mean, why would you get rid of your nuclear arms when you see how much more authority you have in the world when you keep them there?
So let me take it down to a smaller kind of level, or a weirder level, for Mark—(laughs)—the information war. So we’re also looking at all these things that are happening. We’ve got a lot of, you know, conventional things happening that aren’t working. We’ve got an asymmetric street fight going on that the Ukrainians are really doing super well at, I think. What I was expecting to see was a lot more of something catastrophic happening in the cyber space. What are your thoughts about that? And also if you want to talk about the information war going on at the same time.
GALEOTTI: Sure. I mean, this is obviously one of our concerns. But again, to a degree, Putin has once again—I won’t say outsmarted—I mean, actually out-dumbed himself. I mean, it’s clear that he decided to go into Ukraine very much on his own initiative. And even in that crucial last week, there seems to have been some flipflopping as to whether it was going to be all of Ukraine or just the Donbas region. And we know that a lot of his own commanders were caught flat-footed by this. We know that essentially most government ministers learned about the invasion the same time we did. So no wonder there’s not much preparation going on and, indeed, a lot of resistance.
I mean, just as a little sideline, I think it’s fascinating that we heard about the chair of the Russian central bank, Elvira Nabiullina, a very, very able technocrat who absolutely has done her bit to try and do what is possible to sort of strengthen the Russian economy beforehand. And she’s tried to resign twice now since the invasion, and not been allowed to. And therefore, I think she probably feels she has nothing much to lose. So apparently, she was on a video call with Putin, and she said: Look, ever since the invasion, basically, the economy has been flushed down the sewers. And what did Putin do? He terminated the conversation. Even now, he’s not willing to listen to the bad news. He’s not willing to listen to the hard truths.
And I think failure to understand exactly what’s going on I think is part of the problem. Look, cyber exploits are not something that on the whole you just keep sitting in a drawer for a long time and then you can pull out as and when. If actually the Russians wanted to launch a really serious—and I’m not just talking about some little sort of spearfishing attack or whatever, but a really serious cyberattack, this is the sort of thing which actually takes usually months if not longer to actually set up. So again, I think because no one was really let in on this, even if they thought, right, we now need to be launching cyberattacks against the West to punish them for sanctions and suchlike, frankly, I would suggest that it’s this summer that we should really start being aware of that risk.
But I think also, I don’t think we are yet contemplating properly the various other nonmilitary risks to ourselves. I mean, to a degree, let’s face it, there are two wars going on. There is a rather 20th century-style war going on in Ukraine. Russians versus Ukrainians. And then there is a very, very 21st century war that’s taking place between the West and Russia that is being fought with economic sanctions, with information operations, politically, legally, and suchlike. And clearly at some point the Russians are going to retaliate.
You know, we’re not really thinking about the fact that—even back in 2014, the Russians launched a covert operation against an arms depot in the Czech town of Vrbětice because they wanted to destroy weapons that were actually about to be sold to the Ukrainians. And in fact, two ordinary Czech citizens died in that. So, you know, we may want to expect that kind of covert operation beginning to be ramped up. You may want to look at a whole series of disruptive operations. So I think it’s more that the Russians—obviously the first focus is actually what the hell is going on in Ukraine, but I’m sure there are, unfortunately, smart, ruthless people who are thinking whatever alternatives have we got to mess with the West?
Final point I’d make, just on information operations. Again, I think it’s really interesting that we got this sense that the Russians are ten-foot tall in info operations. And now actually we’re finding that between us and the Ukrainians, we’re launching a lot of very, very effective ones because, in a way, all the Russians can do is try to disrupt. They can’t create an alternative narrative. But the one thing that I don’t think we’re thinking about in the information operations is this is also a very Northern Hemisphere war. If you look at the countries that are putting sanctions on Russia, they’re almost all Northern Hemisphere, apart from Japan, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand.
If you look at the countries which did not vote for withdrawing Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, again, they’re Southern Hemisphere ones. Both China and Russia are actually focusing their information operations currently on the Southern Hemisphere and saying, you know, this is just Europeans. And they’re trying to shanghai you all into, through economic sanctions and so forth, fight their wars. That’s a battlefront we do need to be thinking about.
DAVIDSON: That’s a really good point. And we’ve never been very good, I don’t think—getting a little bit better—in thinking about the different theaters and how they intersect, even to the extent that Russia was thinking about Syria, and we weren’t thinking about Russia when we were thinking about Syria. And I think we should be doing a lot better job on that. General Breedlove, your thoughts on the cyber piece, or whatever else you wanted to talk about.
BREEDLOVE: Actually, what I wanted to do was go back to something you mentioned and something that Mark mentioned that I think are important. And that’s deterrence and initiative. You know, for those of us who have had to suffer through the great war colleges of the world and studying the old dead guys—Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Jomini, and others—you know there’s certain axioms that you want to accomplish as a military planner or a strategic leader. And two of those—not all of them—but two of them are to deter your opponent and not find yourself deterred. And the second one is to seek, gain, and maintain the initiative, as opposed to allowing your opponent to gain the initiative.
In this round with Russia over Ukraine, it is my opinion that we are nearly completely deterred, and Mr. Putin is not deterred in any way, shape, or form. I think he’s testing us now with chemicals in Mariupol, since we sort of intimated that we would use force there. And so he’s now checking the boundaries. And I think that we ceded the initiative to Mr. Putin early. I mean, almost every statement we made in the West was: If you do this, we’re going to do that. That’s classic. You’ve now given your opponent the initiative and you are reacting to your opponent.
So I think after this is done, and not as a witch hunt, or not as a political maneuver, or anything else, but we are a great power. And just like you said, we have sort of signaled to the world that we can be taken completely off-game by the threat of nukes. I think that we need to not take counsel of our fears. And I think that we need to reassess how we—in this big, new world—we deter our enemy without being deterred. And we need to be able to be proactive rather than reactive in grabbing the initiative and forcing the enemy to have to react to our actions. I’ve just—I’m sorry for adding a little bit of my personal feelings about how this is going.
DAVIDSON: Well, that’s why we have you on today. And I think we’re sort of in agreement about the fact that we’ve been—we’ve put boxes around ourselves. That’s what’s been happening in warfare for a while, though. Even, you know, with the Iraqi street fights and insurgencies, where they’re playing by one set of rules, you’re playing by another. But even in this basic, you know, deterrence game, we’re the ones that have been deterred. Where do you think it goes from here? This will be my last question before we open it up to the members. But where do you think it goes from here? If he feels as though he’s cornered in conventionally, it doesn’t seem to me like he feels constrained by any way, shape, or form by the so-called laws of war, whether it's atrocities, leveling cities, chemical, nuclear, or even spilling out. Where do you think his line are? We’ll go with Beth first.
SANNER: I think that the way that—right now he has to achieve something that looks like a win on the ground. Now, our definition of win in the West is very different than the level of win that he needs in order to convince his own population, or at least just to put out the propaganda. I mean, he does have a problem. And this is a lot bigger conversation, about how, you know, he is pumping up nationalists to set goals that are actually beyond his own goals. But I still think he has enough control over the media there that he can declare a win with more limited gains than what he had originally set out for.
But, you know, clearly, we’ve already declared him a war criminal. So at that point, we’ve already said that he’s committed genocide. Then what does he have to lose in doing everything and all in order to do what any dictator would do? He has to win. There is no option. You know, this is more of an existential thing for him than it would be in a different kind of political system. So he’s going to do something that he can shape as a win. But I do think that there’s a wide range of what that looks like.
But in the meantime, you know, we’re at a point where Ukraine is not going to capitulate. They are not—right now they are saying publicly we’re not negotiating right now. And the only option, as Kuleba said on Tuesday night, is Ukraine to win. And so that means that we are going to have really bloody battles in the next weeks and maybe months.
DAVIDSON: Ukraine is potentially emboldened by what they perceive as their successes in defending the city of Kyiv.
SANNER: And morally—and morally, after Bucha. There’s no—you know, they are also working in a system where the views of the people matter.
DAVIDSON: Sure. Mark, what do you think? Is there a golden bridge here? (Laughs.)
GALEOTTI: Yeah, I mean, look, it always sticks in the craw to be suggesting that we should allow Putin to be able to get—to derive any kind of at least appearance of victory. But, yeah, I mean, if he’s faced with a stark choice between escalation and capitulation, he will escalate because, as Beth was saying, he has no reason not to. The issue is precisely that I’m not convinced at the moment that any kind of meaningful peace deal that bridges that gap is possible, especially after Bucha.
I mean, after Bucha maybe—before then, maybe there was a chance. But, you know, I think Bucha and Mariupol are going to be the crucial ones. Bucha, because of the sheer atrocity and Mariupol because the Russians would probably want to hold onto it. And I cannot see Zelensky or any Ukrainian leader being willing to say: People of Mariupol, you fought so incredibly bravely against the Russians. However, sucks to be you. In the name of peace, we’re having to give you to the Russians.
And so at the moment I cannot see that. And unfortunately, given that neither side really can, in my opinion, now deliver a knock-out blow, I think what we are in for is a hot and bloody stalemate. Not a frozen conflict, but a sort of continued struggle around Donbas and the southeast. Now, the thing about that is, just this last point in terms of the golden bridge, is there is one—and it’s a very, very ruthlessly pragmatic—but one advantage to that. It actually means that the whole issue of victory or defeat is pushed down the road a bit. That, yes, Putin—he wants victory. But the one thing he cannot afford is defeat. So as long as he can hold on there is always this prospect of victory somewhere down the line, and therefore that might be enough to keep him from going for some much, much more dangerous further option. But either way, I mean, unfortunately, it’s the Ukrainians who will be suffering in the meanwhile.
DAVIDSON: Right. And to Beth’s point, he’s in a box morally. Phil, last word on where do we go from here?
BREEDLOVE: Well, first of all, let me agree with my two panelists. They have made some incredible points here that I’m in agreement with. I’m really worried about what—I agree with Mark that there’s no knock-out blow coming. Even if Russia won at this point, it’s a loss in the grand scheme of things to Russia. They could go and paint it as a win to their people, which I think his internal audience is going to be his biggest problem in the future.
But one thing that worries me is this concept of a long war. Unverified fact, so I’m not going to give the exact numbers, but I was reading yesterday, as we go into the—when we should be planting grain and doing other things in Ukraine, that Ukraine is going to lose as much as ten billion (dollars) a month in revenue across the next months, due to this grain. And again, I don’t know if that fact is right or not; it’s something I read. And I’m trying to confirm that. And Ukrainian soldiers are not paid right now, and that can’t last forever. So I just really see problems for Ukraine if we allow this to protract. And I don’t think that we’ve actually seen all the issues that that’s going to bring up. So I think it’s going to—it’s going to push us here.
DAVIDSON: And the global spillover. It’s not just the grain. It’s the whole Black Sea is blockaded.
BREEDLOVE: Right. Right.
DAVIDSON: It’s drifting into starvation in other places, but I’m not so sure the global supply can kick up. And if it does, it’ll be very pricey.
Let’s move—let’s move now, y’all, to our members. I’d like to invite them to join the conversation with their questions. Reminder that this conversation is all completely on the record. And so I think Sam will be teeing up some of the questions for us.
OPERATOR: Excellent. Thank you so much.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We will take our first question from Dale Herspring. Please remember to state your affiliation. Mr. Herspring, if you’d like to unmute your microphone. We are having technical difficulties with him, so we will take our next question—
Q: OK, my affiliation. I’m retired both Navy captain, retired from State Department, retired from Kansas State University.
My question is both for Mark and for General Breedlove. I followed Putin since 1998. One of the things that’s absolutely clear to me—one, he was never in the military. Two, he knows nothing about the military. Three, he’s somewhat enamored by the military. In 2016, when he asked Gerasimov to restructure the military and redo the military, what Gerasimov did, and did very nicely, was he set up a military that was primarily defensive in nature, with two special units set up to be able to take care of a threat to different parts of Russia. (Inaudible)—I mean, excuse me, Putin sits above the whole thing. And instead of getting involved and trying to understand what’s going on, simply sat up in his little bubble.
And when this sort of thing came up, he knows absolutely nothing about the difference between defensive and offensive structures, and so forth. And he turned around and tried to take his defensive structure and put it into an offensive structure. And guess what? As the general knows better than I do, it doesn’t work. And that’s part of the reason why the whole thing is messed up. And now he’s trying to fight in the south with a defensive force that’s not really prepared to fight kind of offensive weapons—kind of offensive structure that the Soviet Union fought many years ago. The reaction is disagreement, or what do we think?
DAVIDSON: Sure. General, do you want to talk a little bit about the way the military—the Russian military is—what type of war they’ve been preparing for?
BREEDLOVE: So, Dale, thank you for the question. And while I agree in principle with some things you said, I am—I have observed what I think is, to me, a little bit bigger problem for him especially in the north. As you’ve seen, especially going into the winter of 2013 and ’14, and that conflict in the Donbas primarily—it was less so in Crimea—Russia had restructured its military around battalion task groups—highly enabled battalion task groups. And we were actually reporting about, OK, we’re up to thirteen task groups, twenty-four task groups, thirty-six. I think the final number was forty-two task groups in ’16. And now in this fight, especially in the north, what it appears is that we had a distinct lack of unity of command. And we had multiple groups of task groups, and some task groups appearing to be completely disconnected. But there was a lot of unconcerted operation going on in the north.
Penny packeting artillery, all of these things were a problem. And I think it really hurt them. And that may fit into the rubric that you described, but I think it’s basically they really lacked a unity of command. And what we now have to be concerned about is that we believe that as they’ve recovered those forces in the north, reconstituted them, and appeared to be ready to commit them in the south, we now understand there’s one commander. And maybe they’ve learned their lessons in the north, and this might be a little tougher and more organized slog in the south. And I think we’ll learn a lot about Russia as we watch what happens as this battle in the south starts.
DAVIDSON: That new commander has quite the reputation, from—
BREEDLOVE: And ugly reputation.
DAVIDSON: Yeah. Right, right. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will from Jeff Kohler.
Q: General Breedlove. How are you? Good to see you again.
I’d like to come back to what you and Beth were talking about earlier about deterrent. How far do you think we could push Putin before he does something wild and crazy? And at the same time, as you were just alluding to, the Russian general staff. You probably know them. You know, you and the other SACEURs know them pretty well because you intermingle with them a lot. But how far do you think we can push not only Putin, but push the general staff before there’s some fissures or, if you think there would be any fissures? Thanks.
DAVIDSON: Sure. Thank you, Jeff. Beth, you want to take a crack at that one?
SANNER: I left my crystal ball back at the office. (Laughter.) I think this is the problem, right? We don’t know. We don’t know. Especially when you—when it really is a matter on one person being the decider. So what you’re asking is: When would Putin decide to do something? And that’s probably, you know, a moving ball. I think this is the issue, is that you don’t know. And so you don’t want to take a risk. But I think that we have been too risk averse, personally. And I think that we’ve probably—you know, today we’re not going to do helicopters, tomorrow we do helicopters. Today, you know, we won’t do MiGs. Tomorrow we’ll do MiGs. I think it’s just—we’re wringing our hands a little bit too much on this and I think we need to push the bubble a little bit. But, you know, this is—this is the issue. You don’t know. No one knows. So don’t believe anybody who tells you they know.
DAVIDSON: You can game it a little bit. To your point earlier, there’s a little gaming you can do. I mean, the degree to which he feels like his back is to the wall and what does he have to lose.
SANNER: Right. I mean, and I think it’s really interesting because the new statements coming out of Moscow actually dialed back the threat that we should feel in terms of nuclear. You know, so we always talk about escalate to deescalate, blah, blah, blah, right? But, you know, the new statements coming out of Moscow were pretty clear. And this is in their doctrine. It’s stated in their doctrine. It’s if there is an existential threat posed to Russia. And, you know, in our worries that this existential threat bleeds over into how they view Ukraine, because I actually think that the newest statements should make us less worried about that, and we should have at that moment pushed the bubble.
DAVIDSON: In Ukraine, yeah.
SANNER: Mmm hmm.
DAVIDSON: Next question?
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Lawrence Wright.
Q: Thank you. Lawrence Wright with the New Yorker.
Would you help me understand a little bit about the sentiments and loyalties of the people in Donetsk? Is it so consolidated for Russia as it seems to be depicted? Or is—are the actions of Russia against Ukraine shifting the sentiments in that region and maybe it becomes a little more volatile that Putin had imagined?
DAVIDSON: Sure. Thanks, Lawrence. Mark, you want to take that one? Seems like, again, his information war over the last eight years has probably gained him some there, but where do you think it stands now?
GALEOTTI: Yeah. I mean, do I want to take this question? Not really. (Laughter.) Because in some ways no one can answer it, with Beth’s problem. I mean, the moment in particular within this region at the best of times, even before the start of the conflict—the start of the most recent phase of the conflict, it was hard to really get some sense of what was going on in these pseudo-states.
Within these areas, I mean, I think, frankly, most people just would like the war to be over. And for them, actually probably the best prospect is precisely that the battlelines get pushed further away from them. In the rest on the Donbas region, the ones that weren’t controlled beforehand by Russian proxies, I mean, I think this is one of the really interesting points, is that Putin has made the assumption that if you are of Russian ethnic origin, if you speak Russian as your first language, you are somehow therefore a “patriot of Russia,” quote/unquote. And in fact, that is clearly not the case. And we’ve known this ever since 2014.
That it’s not just that when the conflict in the Donbas started it was largely fought and driven by local actors. It wasn’t, actually. It was something that was immediately sort of created by little green men. It wasn’t like Crimea. But at the same time, the key militias that were fighting the pro-Russian forces were drawn from ethnic Russians from elsewhere in the Donbas. And if anything actually over time it’s clear that people’s loyalties have been much more with Kyiv rather than with Moscow. So I think on the whole these are not people who want to become part of some wider Russian sphere of influence. There will be some, of course, opportunists or nationalists or whatever. But I think they’re a very, very small minority.
And in some ways, that’s actually part of the reason that makes this conflict so vicious. We know that Putin has a view whereby there are enemies and there are traitors. Enemies you fight against and, you know, you’ll do your best but the hope is that someday you can reach some kind of a deal with them. Traitors, though, you can do nothing with traitors but wipe them out. And I think this is the problem. As far as Putin is concerned, the Ukrainians are in some ways traitors. He sees them as a sort of a subset of Russians who have turned against the motherland, and nowhere more so than in the Donbas. So I think if the Russians do manage to extend their control over the whole of the Donbas region, it could well get very bloody in the aftermath.
DAVIDSON: So not what Putin was hoping for there, I think, Lawrence.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Daniel Drezner.
Q: Hi. Thank you all for an interesting conversation. And I also want to say I agree with Mark. I lived in Donetsk in the early ’90s and his characterization of the residents there is spot on.
I guess my question is for both General Breedlove and for Mark. Which is, there’s a premise here that eventually the Russians are going to move down the learning curve in terms of prosecuting the war. They’re going to learn from their mistakes. They’re going to fight a better war in the Donbas than they did in terms of the incursion in Kyiv. And I guess my question is, are we entirely sure that’s true? Because they keep losing warships in the Black Sea and their soldiers keep digging up stuff in Chernobyl. And as you have all said, it appears that if Putin is the one making the decisions, he’s had eight years to realize that Ukraine was not going to be the walk in the park that he thought it was going to be in 2022. So I guess my question is, while it might be the case that Russian forces on the ground might move down the learning curve, if Putin doesn’t move down the learning curve should we expect to see a better prosecution of the war?
DAVIDSON: Sure. Great question. General, you want to take that one?
BREEDLOVE: Well, Daniel, I understand and track with your line of logic. I have said many a times that the Russian military force is a learning and adaptive force. And I do believe, from Georgia, to Syria, to the first two invasions of the Donbas and Crimea in 2014, that Russia showed that they learned in every episode, and they got better at things. But what is clear is that did not hold in this one. And I go back to what we talked about at the top of the hour. And that is that they made some horrid assumptions at the very beginning. And I think those are really tough to recover from. Once you get behind the logistics power curve, you don’t just wish it away.
But then on the flipside, Daniel, I think there are some things that are very worrisome. We really thought that the Russians could do what we called SEAD, suppression of enemy air defenses. And we really thought, and they sort of showed us that they could do it in 2016, that they could do combined arms assaults, combined arms warfare. And they have done neither in this episode to any degree. Parts of that could be training, and the leadership. Some of that is due to corruption and the toll it’s taken on their military from inside, et cetera, et cetera. But there are some worrisome things here for the Russian military in the future.
And I’ll just close with, before we celebrate and do a happy dance, mass has its own beauty. And what we’re about to see in the Donbas is a bigger, more focused force, that is in better terrain than in the north. More open terrain, more suited to armored formations, et cetera, and less suited to Javelins and NLAWs hiding in the trees. And so I think we need to be careful. Maybe they haven’t gotten it right, but they’re going to have some things to bring to the fight in the south.
DAVIDSON: Really good military observations. What they’ve basically done is move to a place where they can have the war they want, not—I mean, you are right about that too. Their inability to achieve air superiority, and then their combined arms approach as though they had, was a real mistake on their part, yeah? So. Next question.
OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Stephen Flanagan.
Q: Thank you, all.
I wanted to pick up on a couple of points and then ask General Breedlove a question that follows on his last comment. I think that one of the things, in terms of the underestimation in this whole effort, was that the Russians—in some ways the Russians who underestimated the Ukrainian capabilities. But I think the U.S. and NATO, you know, even though there was that extensive involvement and the important training program at Yavoriv, my sense is that going into this there was—and even look at some of the comments that were being made early on in the war, you know, getting ready to evacuate President Zelensky quickly, and the sense that the Ukrainian defense couldn’t hold.
And that training at Yavoriv was important, and certainly it was a national guard unit that was probably involved in some of that training that stopped the Spetsnaz at Hostomel Airport early on in the campaign. But when you talk to a number of the people that participated in the training, there was a sense that that was a real two-way learning process there going on with the—those who were veterans of the anti-terrorism operation in Donbas, you know, telling the Americans: This is how the Russians fight and this is what we’re learning. But the other thing was that—General Breedlove touched on the—on the logistics.
But the mobilization capability and reserve utilization was also remarkable. I and a number of other observes who were watching the Ukrainian plans on national resistance, they didn’t pass the law until last summer. It wasn’t implemented until January. And the whole question of could they really mobilize the kind of reserve and territorial defense forces they wanted to, and yet they have done. And of course, the remarkable X factor of national will fits in. But, General, I wondered, as you said, they’re now moving to a much more intense high-end campaign. And how do you think some of those other Ukrainian capabilities, coupled with that important reserve and civil resistance capability, will fare in the conduct of the next phase of the Donbas campaign? Thank you.
BREEDLOVE: Janine, do you want to me to take this one?
DAVIDSON: Yeah, please do. And I think this one might be your last one before you have to sign off there, General. So go for it.
BREEDLOVE: So first of all, Stephen, thanks for the question. And again, I’m sort of in agreement with many of your premises. I do believe that we underestimated Ukraine. But I think there were a lot of people that actually had it right about Ukraine. And Yavoriv is an incredible example. If you remember in ’16 when we gave them the counter-battery, counter-mortar radars there was this conversation, well, they’ll never figure these out. They’re not going to be able to use them appropriately. And even then, we still limited them digitally so that they wouldn’t be able to look into Russia.
Well, what happened is the Ukrainians took their radars and developed new tactics, techniques, and procedures, learned how to string them together, and they came back and taught us how to use our own radars because they were doing it way better than we were. And that’s one of my comments to some of the naysayers today that say, we can’t give them this equipment. They’ll never figure it out. They’re liable to figure it out and use it better than we do, because that’s our experience. And we learned a lot from the leaders at Yavoriv. I think I’ve been there a total of eight times. And those combat-wisened men, just like you said, Stephen, they were coming back and teaching us about what they had learned on the line of contact.
I do believe, though, that Russia will again face a well-fashioned defense of the south. Look how long Mariupol has held out. Russia is going to face a tough enemy in the south. But as Janine and others said earlier, this—they are now prepared to fight the war that they really want. They want to meet force on force in open fields and go at it. And Ukraine is still going to try to fight what I call the American Revolutionary War again—skirmishing and counterattacking and ambushing and so forth. It’s just going to be a lot harder for them in the south. And I do believe that another maybe Council on Foreign Relations get-together would be, are we supplying them correctly for this fight now? Are we sending them the right stuff for the new fight they’re going to face in the south? Over.
DAVIDSON: Very good. Very good.
We might have time for one more question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will be from Stapleton Roy.
Q: Thank you for this terrific discussion. I’m a retired Foreign Service officer who specialized on China and Soviet Union during my career.
This has been a great discussion, but there has been no recognition of the fact that this is the first war in Europe in which the possibility of nuclear weapons coming into play is a possibility. And we talk about Putin being unable to accept anything except non-defeat, victory if you will. And that means we have to assume that he will use nuclear weapons if necessary to avoid defeat. Some of you have commented on the fact that we haven’t been aggressive enough in kind of forcing Putin into a box. And yet, in a nuclear situation, forcing people into boxes creates potentials that we haven’t really looked at. So I wonder if you can comment a bit on the fact that we’re ignoring in our discussion the fact that nuclear weapons could come into play, and what does that mean in terms of how that would affect the nature of the conflict.
DAVIDSON: Yeah. I think that gets to our deterrence piece, but you’re taking it down more even to the tactical level. Mark, do you want to take this one, since you’ve been—
GALEOTTI: Sure. I mean—
DAVIDSON: General, thank you for joining us.
GALEOTTI: I think, in this respect, I’m unfashionably more optimistic. In the sense that, yes, Putin will happily hint at nuclear operations, simply because he knows that’s the way of making us pay attention. But I think that—I mean, first of all, there are some severe risks for the Russians, even just technical ones, in trying to go for some kind of tactical nuclear attack. Secondly, I think there is an awareness that that would breach all the understandings and so forth. It’s worth noting that the Chinese themselves would be very, very unhappy if, essentially, nuclear weapons suddenly started being put back into play. And we have to consider how far Putin would want to alienate Beijing.
Final point I’d make is Putin is an absolute leader. And absolute leaders are absolute until the point where other people decide otherwise. There are no Putinists in this system. Everyone is a ruthless opportunist. And I think that if he started going for the nuclear option, that might be the kind of thing that would precisely make a lot of people around him suddenly say: The old man is becoming dangerous to us all. And therefore, things might change. So I think there are all kinds of, shall we say, hidden deterrent factors entirely separate from whatever it is we might do if he went nuclear.
DAVIDSON: Let’s hope. Beth, do you want to put a damper on that optimism? You get the last word.
SANNER: No, actually agree with that in terms of the tactical nuclear. And I also think that there are limits in terms of how far he would go in—up the escalatory ladder. I think that the Russians are very aware of the—of the escalatory ladder. And I think that to date, I agree with Mark, that it’s been used largely as a rhetorical bludgeon in order to deter us. And I think that, yes, we have to think about that, but I also think that if we just accept the threat of the use of nuclear weapons, and allow it to deter us, then we have defeated ourselves. So we have to think through these issues. They’re very real, but we have to think through them more. Otherwise, our hands are tied in every single theater around the globe.
DAVIDSON: Thanks so much. And thank you for that question.
Listen, we are out of time. This just completely flew by. Thanks, everybody, for joining us today for this virtual meeting. Thank you to Phil, who just signed off, Mark and Beth. It was great to have the conversation with you. And please note that the video and the transcript for today’s meeting will be posted on the CFR’s website. Everyone, have a great day. Thank you so much.