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The Great Game of the Ukraine War. A conversation with David Petraeus


The Great Game of the Ukraine War. A conversation with David Petraeus

How will the Ukraine counteroffensive against the Russian Army develop? Which strategic and geopolitical challenges will Kyiv and the Western alliance face in order to counter Moscow? And how is the conflict shaping the global order? Osservatorio Globalizzazione dialouges with General (ret.) David Petraeus about the full-range consequences of this complex, ongoing war.

Petraeus, born in 1952, has served 37 years in the U.S. Army and has served in many leading roles. He has commanded Multi-National Force – Iraq (MNF-I, 2007-2008), the U.S. Central Command (Centcom, 2008-2010), the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A, 2010-2011). From to 2011 and 2012 he has been the 4th Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (Cia). Now, Petraeus is a Partner at KKR and Chairman of the KKR Global Institute.

(By Andrea Muratore, Amedeo Maddaluno and Alessandro Cassanmagnago)

Osint analyses show that the Ukraine counteroffensive is going on. How must Ukraine behave in order to make it successful in the coming weeks? 

“The counteroffensive is still in the very early stages, with Ukrainian forces conducting probing attacks and so-called shaping operations so far, as part of the effort to set conditions for the subsequent commitment of the bulk of the new, western-equipped brigades.  There have been operations conducted in five different locations, with modest gains so far in the southeast and limited gains in the south.  Again, however, we have not seen the commitment of most of the new elements established over the past six months or so, equipped with western systems, and trained in Germany, the UK, Poland and other locations.  Over time, success will hinge on Ukrainian forces finding and exploiting Russian weaknesses and achieving “combined arms effects” – by employing all arms and weapons systems in a synchronized, coordinated manner, with tanks supported by infantry and engineers (to keep the enemy’s infantry from attacking the tanks with anti-tank guided missiles and to breach minefields and obstacles), with artillery and mortars to suppress the Russians and force them to hunker down in trenches, with employment of air defense to prevent Russian aircraft from providing close air support to Russian troops, with use of electronic warfare to jam Russian command and control systems, with logistics right up behind the lead elements (with additional ammunition, water, food, and medical support), and with follow-on forces postured to take over from the lead elements when those elements culminate after 72-96 hours of fighting.  If the Ukrainians can achieve combined arms effects, I believe they will be able to achieve significant breakthroughs in key areas and force the Russians to move and reposition their forces to block those breakthroughs; and that will open up further opportunities for the Ukrainians to exploit with their follow-on forces, ultimately leading to a crumbling of Russian elements that in many areas have been in continuous fighting for many months and are not composed of individual replacements that are poorly training and equipped – though there are also well-rested, capable Russian elements in some key locations in the south, in particular.  If the Ukrainians can force the Russians to crumble – and this will entail tough fighting and tough losses – I believe the can achieve an important objective of cutting the ground line of communications from Russia to Crimea along the southeastern part of Ukraine, and that would be a significant accomplishment that might change the dynamics in the war”.

The supply of Western Weapons to Ukraine has increased in the last few months. What weapons could prove themselves decisive in the future scenario of the Ukraine-Russian War? 

“Western tanks and infantry fighting vehicles are not invulnerable (as we have already seen); however, they are much more survivable for crews than are Russian tanks (whose turrets often blow off when ammunition ignites inside due to a design weakness) and infantry fighting vehicles and they are also more capable than Russian systems.  In fact, many of the western tanks and IFVs “knocked out” so far have been “mobility kills,” not “catastrophic kills;” in other words, the crews have survived (and they are what is irreplaceable, not the armored vehicles) and the vehicles can be recovered and repaired later on.  Beyond that, the air defenses provided by the west have been invaluable, especially as Russia has launched unprecedented air attacks against Kyiv and other cities in recent weeks. I was in Kyiv for four nights two weeks ago and can attest to the excellence of the integrated western and Ukrainian air defense systems and the Ukrainian employment of them.  Western-provided precision missiles, rockets, and artillery rounds have also proven of enormous value and I hope that the US will provide the longer-range Army Tactical Missile System in the weeks ahead.  Less visible has been the advantage that western-provided night vision goggles and armored vehicle system optics has provided; they have proven of enormous value in recent weeks, too.  And, over time, western F-16s fighter-bombers will also prove to be extremely valuable, as well”. 

 Many analysts state that Russia and its army have proven themselves vulnerable to drones and their effective attacks, both on the frontline and in the heart of the Russian territory. What is the real role and effectiveness of drones in this conflict? 

“Drones have provided Ukraine (and Russia) considerable value as platforms for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems and also for launching various weapons.  They have also served as “aerial forward observers” for artillery, rocket, and missile systems, enabling much more accurate employment of them, by pinpointing the locations of headquarters, reserve forces, critical frontline elements, logistics sites, and air and naval bases. And, it appears that they have been considerable distractions to Russians when employed, together with the ethnic-Russian Legion fighting from Ukrainian territory into Russian oblasts such as Belgorod”.

Iran has been providing drones and ammunition to Russia despite its public claim of neutrality. Is supporting Putin’s war a good opportunity for Teheran to test the value of its arms or is it a risky gamble that might further endanger the relationship between the Islamic Republic and western actors? 

“It is a bit of both.  Iranian drones have proven quite helpful to Russia on the frontlines and, to a lesser degree, in complicating the challenge of missile attacks by launching drone swarms simultaneously (attempting to overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses around Kyiv, in particular, though not that successfully, thanks to the superb integration of Ukrainian air and missile early warning and defenses).  Drones have, at various times, been true game changers, though both sides have learned out to employ systems to jam the command and control of drones and linkage to GPS guidance systems.  And, of course, in having Russia those systems, the Iranians have likely learned about their strengths and limitations against Ukrainian forces, many of which employ western systems”.

Finally, it’s important talking about China. How do you judge China’s role in the Russia-Ukraine war as a possible supporter for the Kremlin’s actions? 

“The leaders of China and Russia famously proclaimed a “partnership without limits” on the eve of the Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies in early 2022; however, that partnership has turned out to have considerable limits on China’s part, as President Xi has not provided remotely all that Russia had hoped China would, in large measure presumably because China does not want to expose itself to secondary sanctions by violating the export controls and other sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and other western countries.  There has, to be sure, been some Chinese diplomatic support, with China abstaining from some votes to condemn Russia in the UN General Assembly and also carrying out some other diplomatic initiatives, but President Xi has also publicly cautioned President Putin not to consider employment of tactical nuclear weapons.  In short, again, the partnership without limits has actually had distinct limits”.

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