In contrast, the Russian invaders have displayed a host of weaknesses: flawed planning; overly optimistic intelligence projections about how the conflict would play out; underestimation of the Ukrainian forces and people; inadequate maintenance and logistics; unimpressive equipment; a reliance on conscripts and an inability to mount effective cyberwarfare.
In interviews on Sunday and Monday, Petraeus, who formerly headed the CIA, assessed the war in Ukraine as it has played out in its first three weeks. He is skeptical that the Russians have enough forces to take, much less to control, the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and some of the other major cities, saying that continued urban warfare generally will favor the Ukrainians.
Nonetheless, he also notes that the Russians have enormous capacity for — and history of — destroying cities, civilian facilities and critical infrastructure, and they will “rubble” urban areas in an effort to take control.
Petraeus praised the actions of the Biden administration and its allies in recent weeks and noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin, instead of making Russia great again, has made NATO great again. He predicts the most likely near-term outcome of the war in Ukraine will be the continuation of a bloody quagmire for Russia that is largely indecisive, even as it inflicts greater and greater loss of life, infrastructure and basic services on the Ukrainian people. There is, however, also the possibility of a negotiated resolution, as both Moscow and Kyiv recognize the damage and destruction being done to their countries.
Our conversation was edited for clarity.
PETER BERGEN: Is the Russian military’s performance in Ukraine surprising to you?
DAVID PETRAEUS: Somewhat surprising, but not entirely. And there are many reasons for the Russians’ abysmal performance. First of all, they’re fighting against a very determined, quite capable Ukrainian force that is composed of special ops, conventional forces, territorial forces and even private citizens, all of whom are determined not to allow Russia to achieve its objectives. They are fighting for their national survival, their homeland and their way of life, and they have the home-field advantage, knowing the terrain and communities.
The Russians also have found it difficult to go off-road. Their wheeled vehicles get mired in mud very quickly. The ground is not frozen the way they had hoped it would be. Even tracked vehicles seem to be getting mired in mud. And the Russians are just not performing sufficient preventive maintenance on their equipment.
I’ve served in mechanized units, with a mix of tanks and armored personnel carriers. And every single time you stop, the driver and the crew members are outside checking road wheels and final drives, pumping grease, topping off fluid levels. If you don’t do preventive maintenance, then you will end up with such vehicles breaking down.
Beyond that, the Russians just have relatively unimpressive equipment, given the investment supposedly made over the past decade or so. They certainly don’t have equipment comparable to what the United States has.
So Russian precision munitions are lacking. We can also see this with the sheer frequency of the Russians hitting civilian infrastructure, like the hospital in Mariupol, other medical facilities and the government center in Kharkiv — unless they truly meant to hit those targets, which obviously would be nothing short of horrific.
They also have problems in very basic tasks such as staying dispersed. A column never closes up on a major highway where it can be spotted by a drone and hit by artillery, as was seen recently. The 40-mile traffic jam we saw outside of Kyiv — this is just incompetent movement control for which normally there is doctrine and organizational structures and procedures. And then it took them days just to disperse that 40-mile column into the tree cover as opposed to being out in the open.
And then on top of all of that, you just have an unimpressive campaign design by the Russians that clearly was based on very flawed assumptions about how quickly they could take Kyiv and particularly how quickly they could topple the government and replace it with a pro-Russian government.
So, in every single area of evaluation, the Russians, starting with their intelligence assessments and understanding of the battlefield and their adversary, and then every aspect of the campaign, all the way down to small unit operations, have proved woefully inadequate. And they’re facing an enemy that is absolutely determined, surprisingly capable, very innovative and resourceful, and fighting on their home field.
Much of the population also hate the Russians, and that hatred is being deepened with every strike on civilian infrastructure. Not only are the Russians not winning hearts and minds, they are alienating hearts and minds.
BERGEN: Is time and mass on the side of the Russians?
PETRAEUS: I don’t think so, but quantity does have a quality of its own over time and the sheer destructive capability of Russian bombs, missiles, rockets, artillery and mortars obviously has to be a huge concern.
Clearly, they do not have enough forces to take, much less to control, Kyiv and some of the other major cities, but they do have missiles, rockets, artillery, and bombs and an apparent willingness to use them in a very indiscriminate fashion.
And so, they continue the approach they used in Chechnya, particularly with Grozny, and in Syria, particularly with Aleppo, where they depopulated the cities by indiscriminate use of bombs. And it is going to be an endurance contest between the Russians’ willingness to destroy cities and the Ukrainians’ ability to survive such destruction.
BERGEN: Will urban warfare favor the Ukrainians?
PETRAEUS: Very much so. Usually, the rule of thumb for urban warfare is that it requires at least five attackers to every defender. In this case, I’d argue it may be more than that because the Ukrainians are so resourceful. They will work together to prevent the Russians from taking urban areas the way that infantry and combined arms normally would do, such as the way the United States military cleared and then held cities during the Iraq War in, e.g., Ramadi and Fallujah as well as parts of Baghdad and other cities.
Such big-city battles require you to take every building and clear every room, and then you have to leave forces behind in each building or else the enemy will come back behind you and reoccupy them. So, it’s incredibly soldier-intensive. The Russians have nowhere near enough soldiers to do that even for Kyiv, much less all of the other cities.
To be sure, the Russians will have some success in some cities, and certainly, the battle for Mariupol is a race between the starvation of the Ukrainians who remain there, which include forces that are still fighting very hard, and the Russians’ willingness to continue to heap destruction and innocent civilian casualties on a city that’s resisting but is surrounded.
BERGEN: If Putin decides to try and take all of Ukraine, what size army would he need?
PETRAEUS: I’m not sure. I don’t think even his entire military could do this, and keep in mind, there’s a huge limiting factor, and that is the apparent inability of Putin to replace the forces that are presently fighting. How and when does he replace his forces? It’s not apparent to me.
BERGEN: US officials say that Russia is asking China for military and other forms of aid. What do you make of this?
PETRAEUS: The report by US officials is interesting in several respects. First, if accurate, it indicates that Russia is running out of certain weapons systems and munitions — another reflection of how Russia seriously miscalculated so many aspects of the war they launched.
Second, this presents a very difficult issue for China. It was one thing for China to abstain from the UN General Assembly vote in which 141 countries condemned Russia for its unprovoked aggression. It would be a very different matter if China was to accede to Russia’s request and thus actively side with a country that is truly becoming the evil empire, the target of unprecedented sanctions and experiencing a decoupling from the global economy. It also might result in some sanctions on China.
Finally, Xi, having gotten through the Olympics had likely hoped for no drama in the months leading up to the Communist Party gathering in the fall during which he undoubtedly will be reelected for an unprecedented third term as President, while retaining his leadership of the Party and the Military Council. Putin could thus put Xi in a very awkward position.
So, it has not been a complete surprise that both Russia and China have stated that no such Russian request for aid was issued.
BERGEN: What do you think the Ukrainians need most?
BERGEN: Should the US have begun arming Ukraine after Putin seized Crimea in 2014?
BERGEN: Are you surprised by that?
BERGEN: Getting inside Putin’s mind, of course, is not easy, but to what extent do you think that US withdrawal from Afghanistan may have figured in his calculations?
Hearteningly, I think that US actions and those of our allies around the world on Ukraine have shown that the US is a dependable partner and is not a great power in decline. If anything, instead of Making Russia Great Again, what Putin has done is to Make NATO Great Again.
BERGEN: There have been warnings by the Biden White House about the possible use of chemical weapons by Putin. Is that plausible? Because it seems like kind of a Rubicon to cross.
Certainly, the Biden administration has sought to dissuade Putin from using chemical weapons by exposing that possibility. In fact, another way in which this administration has been very impressive is taking what clearly are finished intelligence products and turning them into publicly releasable announcements without exposing sources and methods, which is really quite unique.
In fact, I think it has been quite effective because it has established the Biden administration’s credibility on Ukraine. You can’t dismiss what the administration is saying is possible, given that so much of what they said about Putin’s plans for and goals in Ukraine, which was either initially dismissed or seen as unlikely, has now come to pass.
BERGEN: The Russians, clearly, they’re taking significant losses, according to US officials.
BERGEN: Is it politically sustainable for Putin, or is it not clear?
PETRAEUS: Only time will tell. He seems to still have a very strong grip on power. But when do the mothers of the fallen soldiers start to really make their voices heard? What happens when the economic collapse really comes home to roost? When does the collapse of the ruble, the collapse of the economy, the inability to reopen the Russian stock market, the departure from Russia of major corporations who spent decades building up there such as McDonald’s or Starbucks begin to hit home?
BERGEN: What do you make of the Russian attack on the Ukrainian base near the Polish border: What does this portend for a possibly widening conflict?
PETRAEUS: The Russian attack on the sprawling Ukrainian training base near Lviv, which I visited while in uniform, was undoubtedly launched to try to interdict the flow of weapons and supplies into Ukraine from Poland, some 12 miles to the west, and also, perhaps, to disrupt the location at which the foreign volunteers may be receiving orientation training before joining Ukrainian forces.
Given the proximity to the border, it clearly raises concerns about strikes falling in a NATO country — which would require a NATO response given NATO’s Article 5 commitment. Given the understandable efforts by NATO leaders to avoid a widening of the war, the attack on the training base outside Lviv obviously raises red flags, and I am confident that NATO leaders have consulted on possible responses should the conflict widen further.
PETRAEUS: Well, I think there are several possibilities, and I’m not sure which is the most likely. Right now, though, it appears that it doesn’t end, and that you have a bloody quagmire for Russia that is worse than the Soviet war in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
This quagmire would cause a terrible loss of life, destruction, displacement, depopulation of urban areas, a massive humanitarian catastrophe, as well as terrible losses for Russia, without a conclusive outcome for Russia. We’re talking about this in the somewhat near term; in other words, in the next year or so.
There could also be a negotiated settlement as both Putin and Zelensky realize that neither of them can fully achieve what it is that they want, and that both sides are suffering enormous destruction. This could be advanced by, say, the president of Finland or the prime minister of Israel or the president of France or former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, or the president of China, to name a few possible interlocutors.
There’s another possibility, of course, which is that Putin could depart power in some fashion. A new leader could recognize the folly of what Putin has done and pull out of Ukraine, perhaps try to get some agreement that saves a bit of face, but nonetheless allows Russia to extricate itself from what is going to be just an endless, costly, and indecisive involvement.
To be sure, the leader who follows Putin could also be just as ruthless, unfeeling and kleptocratic as Putin has been, so we should always temper our optimism when it comes to Russia.
There’s a fourth possibility that can’t be ruled out, and that is that Ukraine, in a sense, wins. It actually defeats the Russians on the battlefield, and gradually, that battlefield reality sets in, in Moscow. And maybe Ukraine even retakes the Donbas — or, in a sense, dictates terms to Russia.
There are at least those four possibilities. Unfortunately, the one most likely in the near term appears to be the continuation of a bloody quagmire for Russia that is largely indecisive, with some Russian successes and some costly failures — and greater and greater economic privation, inflation, unemployment and deprivation on the Russian people.