A former top NATO commander has said Western fears “about nuclear weapons and World War III” have left it “fully deterred” and Vladimir Putin “completely undeterred” as the Russian leader pursues his increasingly brutal invasion of Ukraine.
“We have ceded the initiative to the enemy,” Philip Breedlove told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service in a recent interview.
Breedlove is a retired four-star U.S. Air Force general who led U.S. forces in Europe and served as NATO’s supreme allied commander from 2013 to 2016.
RFE/RL: Has NATO done enough to help Ukraine? Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has asked for more weapons.
Philip Breedlove: In my opinion, we have not. In warfare, you want to deter your enemy, you want to have the initiative and not give the enemy the initiative. And we have ceded the initiative to the enemy. There’s a lot more we need to do in the role of being a provider. We have not gotten a medium- and high-altitude air defense there yet, we have not gotten coastal-defense cruise missiles there yet. I do not yet understand why we haven’t gotten MiGs [fighter jets] there that other nations want to give them. So, there’s a multitude of things even inside our restricted sort of format that we still need to do.
RFE/RL: Zelenskiy has told NATO leaders to never again tell him that Ukraine’s military does not match NATO standards. Just how good is the Ukrainian Army?
Breedlove: Well, they’re showing us just how good they are. They’re magnificent. They have prepared a defensive depth. And they have thought very hard about how to fight with a smaller and less well-provided-for force against a larger and much heavier mechanical force. And it has worked so far like a charm and, of course, it means they use up a lot of ammunition and military weaponry and that’s where the West now has to step up its game and give the Ukrainian military what it needs to fight.
RFE/RL: Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Libya are all places where NATO, a defensive alliance, intervened in the past to stave off a humanitarian catastrophe. Is the reason it has not done the same in Ukraine boil down to Moscow having nuclear weapons?
Breedlove: As I mentioned before, the bottom line is we in the West, certainly my nation, and NATO, are completely deterred in this matter. We have been so worried about nuclear weapons and World War III that we have allowed ourselves to be fully deterred. And [Putin], frankly, is completely undeterred. He has switched into the most horrific war against the citizens of Ukraine, it is beyond criminal at this point.
If you remember what all Western leaders were saying for weeks, if he does this, then we’ll do that. That is the definition of ceding the initiative to the enemy and being reactive to what the enemy does. You do not want to do what we have done, which is become deterred, and cede the initiative to the enemy.
RFE/RL: What message is NATO signaling, if any, as a result?
Breedlove: Well, the message I worry about is the message to the Iranians, to the North Koreans, and to the Chinese. We’re going to have to deal with Mr. Putin now, and we’re going to have to reestablish deterrence and we’re going to have to regain the initiative. And we’re going to have to send Mr. Putin a strong message that the West doesn’t stand for what he’s doing.
If then we do that, we may be able to re-deter the Iranians, the North Koreans, and the Chinese but right now, the message we’re sending to the entire world is if you get a nuclear weapon, you’re going to have a certain reaction from the West and certainly from the United States…[that’s all]. And I don’t think that’s the message we want to send them.
RFE/RL: How do you rate the Russian armed forces in Ukraine?
Breedlove: On the battlefield, it’s speaking for itself. If it was the second-best [army] in the world, it didn’t send its first team to this fight, because this fight has not been executed well. A few things that we completely expected from the Russians are clearly not there. We expected the Russians to fight what we in NATO call the combined-arms fight — integration of land, air, and sea, an overarching game plan that plays out on the battlefield — and this hasn’t been apparent.
The other thing that is interesting is how little role the Russian Air Force has played. It’s been stymied by Ukraine’s limited surface-to-air capabilities. We thought Russia could do combined arms. We thought Russia could do suppression of enemy air defense. And we’ve seen neither and we had assumed that Russia knew how to do this. If they do, it has not shown up in Ukraine.
RFE/RL: What about other factors, including the morale of Russian troops?
Breedlove: There are clear indications that the morale of the Russian troops is poor. Early in the war, a long-range platoon, which in our military are some of our toughest guys, they surrendered in northeast Kharkiv, and one of the first things out of their mouth was, “Do you have any food?”
Another problem for the Russians is medical care for the wounded. Our troops know we’re going to bring them off the battlefield, no matter what, and we’re going to have medical care for them, and they’re going to have something to eat every day and occasionally something hot to eat. That kind of army has good morale, and we see indications that those are all problems for Russia.
RFE/RL: You said on March 2, “Capturing Kyiv is Russia’s biggest and most important target.” A month later, they aren’t even close to anything like that. What could Russia’s realistic military objectives be at this point?
Breedlove: They had a plan that they thought was going to take two, maybe three days. They planned around that, which means I think they made a lot of mistakes about what they brought to the fight. They obviously didn’t bring enough supplies, and they did not have plans for getting supplies. And if they thought they would be welcomed here, now it is clear that Russia has made an enemy out of everybody in Ukraine. There’s nobody there going to be waving Russian flags for them anywhere after what they have done to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.
So, I think that possibly we will see Russia change its goals. I believe we may be entering into a phase where Russia is trying to better its negotiating position. And I believe that also — that’s a little bit of the goal of President Zelenskiy — [the goal] is to get on the counteroffensive and start taking back some ground to better his negotiating position. We all hope and pray that we can come to a negotiated settlement.
But, selfishly, I’ll tell you that we should not accept anything that President Zelenskiy doesn’t want. This is not about what the West wants for Ukraine right now. This is about what Ukraine and President Zelenskiy want for his people. And I think he should demand all of Ukraine’s lands back. We should not try to force him into something less than that.
RFE/RL: Do you think there is anything that would make Putin halt his invasion of Ukraine?
Breedlove: If he comes across force, he will stop. And frankly, that’s what Ukraine is working at doing now. There is still a lot of ugliness ahead. But if there were others to enter, and Mr. Putin ran into steel, I believe he would stop. If Mr. Putin continues on his criminal path, and does something crazy, like biological, chemical, or nukes, as the nations have said, he may get a different response.
Secondarily, in my opinion, sanctions have never changed Mr. Putin. Sanctions have hurt Russia. They’ve hurt the Russian people. They’ve hurt the Russian economy. But they have never, ever changed Mr. Putin’s actions. But the sanctions now are so tough and getting tougher every day. I still do not believe they will change Mr. Putin, but they may change those around Mr. Putin. I used to say that [a plot] would never happen. But frankly, Mr. Putin is causing so much suffering for his people. And they are beginning to learn what is really going on in Ukraine. And now I wouldn’t bet my paycheck on that.
RFE/RL: Is there any realistic off-ramp that the West could offer Putin at this point?
Breedlove: I do not believe there’s a realistic off-ramp that we could offer Mr. Putin that is acceptable to Mr. Zelenskiy. That’s why I said before: I am strong-minded and I want to use my voice to say we have no business telling President Zelenskiy what he should and should not do in these negotiations. He needs to make his decisions for his country. Zelenskiy is a wartime leader, we see a real wartime leader there. If he chooses to say, “No, I’m not relinquishing these currently occupied lands,” then I’m behind President Zelenskiy in that.
RFE/RL: Is there a potential risk that Putin could turn Ukraine into a European version of Syria?
Breedlove: Russia’s way of fighting when they can’t win outright is exactly what you saw in eastern Syria. It’s exactly what you see in Mariupol. If I can’t defeat your military, I’m going to murder and terrorize your civilians.
And one of the things they do is weaponizing refugee flows; they’ve got [millions of] people headed into Europe. And remember what happened with the refugee flows before in Europe, it created all manner of political problems, dropped a couple of very important and strong governments. And so by making them the problem of all the nations of NATO along the border, this is the new Russian way of war. And we cannot allow it to stand.
RFE/RL: Is there a danger that as the conflict drags on that the rest of the world could become desensitized, paying less attention to what is going on in Ukraine?
Breedlove: I do believe that people are getting — the one word is tired. The other is incensed. The other would be angry at what they’re seeing play out. If you’ve been watching the polls in America, it’s up to now 62 percent of Americans believe we should be doing more in Ukraine.
And that number has been rising because of the atrocities that we’re seeing every single day, the absolute heinous criminal activity of Mr. Putin and his forces. We’re watching it play out on TV every day, and the American people are getting tired of it. And I would guess that that’s happening in other places around the world as well. So, I do believe that, that we are not going to get desensitized, we’re just going to get more angry.