Espreso. Global
Interview

 'We must give Ukraine what we would take if we went to fight' - US General Philip Breedlove

26 February, 2024 Monday
18:50

"If the Western leadership decides to give Ukraine what it needs to win, then this year will be the year when the situation starts to change for the better," Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2013-2016) General Philip M. Breedlove

Philip Breedlove, US Air Force General, Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2013-2016), and now Professor Emeritus of the Sam Nunn School at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told what exactly will lead Ukraine to victory in an exclusive interview with in the online edition of Sestry. 

Maryna Stepanenko: On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, there were many promises of military assistance to Ukraine. For example, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called on all European countries to provide the Ukrainian army with ammunition and air defence systems. The Czech Republic has already found 800,000 pieces of artillery ammunition that it can deliver to Ukraine in a matter of weeks. Can we talk about increased European support?

Philip Breedlove: The short answer is yes. Over the past few months, we have seen a slow but steady increase in European support.

MS: In Munich, Denmark also announced the transfer of all of its artillery, which is the equipment it is due to receive from Israel in the coming years. But Tel Aviv is against supplying its military equipment to Ukraine. In addition, these systems contain Swiss-made components, and this country is neutral. What can Denmark do to fulfil its promise? And will it be possible to change the position of Israel and Switzerland on helping Ukraine?

PB: I can't predict whether Israel or Switzerland will change their minds about helping Ukraine, but what is important is that the Danish government has taken this important step and made a big promise to Ukraine. This is a very important signal. Switzerland as a whole is starting to take measures that will better prepare it for the possibility that Russia could invade much of Europe. Both Israel and Switzerland may or may not change their minds.

I believe that they will act wisely, realising the need to stop a global superpower from amassing troops and invading their neighbours

‍MS: On February 17, on the sidelines of the Munich conference, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that "the fall of Ukraine will endanger the whole of Europe" and that Russia would next attack the Baltic states or even Poland. How do you assess this statement? 

PB: President Zelenskyy is absolutely right that the collapse of Ukraine would be a huge problem for Europe. Ukraine is a big part of the European economy and, frankly, the global economy, especially when it comes to food, grain, etc.

If Ukraine fails, obviously Putin will feel more confident. He is already interfering in the affairs of the other two states. We see what we call hybrid or grey zone actions already being used in Georgia and Moldova.

That is why we do not need to wait for Putin to take any further steps. He is already taking them. It is important that the democracies of the Western world stop Putin at the stage he is at.

MS: The largest NATO exercise since the Cold War is underway, involving 90,000 troops. The media call it "preparations for the World War III". Can you tell us about the details of this exercise?

PB: What the media is saying is sensational and wrong. We are not talking about the Third World War. Great thinkers have said that the best way to avoid war is to be prepared for it. And that is what NATO is doing. The Alliance is committed to deterring Russia from further immoral, illegal actions in Europe, and to being ready if it does so again. It is therefore important that the Alliance continues to exercise and remain prepared to avoid a future war.

MS: The Baltic states are trying to strengthen their defences with a network of fortifications called the Baltic Defence Line. They are analogous to the Maginot Line in France and the Mannerheim Line in Finland. Is this type of defence still relevant in the 21st century, especially since both countries that built these defence lines lost wars in their time?

PB: France and Finland did lose wars in their time, but they also won their independence twice, didn't they? So they have experience of regaining their independence from Russia. So I would not call what they are doing a parallel to the Maginot Line. I think they are taking measured steps to slow down or create problems for Russia if it decides to try to attack NATO. And I believe that we all understand that a line on the ground, a static set of fortifications like the Maginot Line, is no match for air capabilities, drone capabilities, sea-based missile capabilities. 

Defence capability is much more than just fortifications along the border. But some of them are important. As you know, the Baltic states have large lakes, rivers and swamps, and so fortifying individual small areas poses a big problem for Russia. And, again, this is not the only contribution to their defence.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are investing heavily in their air defence, anti-ship defence, air defence, and these are important components that, together with some land fortifications, will pose an even greater challenge to Russia

MS: In Munich, Ukraine signed security agreements with Germany and France, and earlier with the UK. Can any agreements and guarantees replace Ukraine's membership in the Alliance?

PB: These agreements are very important. But the most important thing would be Ukraine's accession to NATO. That is the most important thing. It is very valuable that these three huge nations, these three very capable states have signed agreements with Ukraine. But we know that these agreements are only as good as the policies of the countries that sign them. Do you remember that the US, the UK and Ukraine signed an agreement in Budapest in 1994 (the Budapest Memorandum, which provided compensation for nuclear weapons and their removal, as well as security guarantees for Ukraine - ed. Not very well. That is why these agreements that are being signed today are important, but it is more important whether Ukrainian partners will adhere to their obligations. But the most important thing is that we eventually accept Ukraine into NATO.

MS: How do you assess the prospects of Ukraine's membership in NATO?

PB: Several of the world's leading countries (NATO members) have said that it will happen when it happens. But what Ukraine will look like when it joins the Alliance is one of the most important milestones on this path.

MS: What do you personally expect from the NATO summit in Washington this summer?

PB: I'm not going to predict anything, because any predictions will be completely wrong. I hope that Western countries and, most importantly, my country, the United States, will take a firm stance on providing Ukraine with a clear path to NATO. It is important that the states that lead the West do not capitulate to Russia and agree to give it more territory in exchange for security. So I think it's important for us to follow President Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine on how they want to end this war.

MS: For the past two years, there have been calls for Ukraine to provide long-range missiles. Navalny's death should push Scholz to deliver Taurus missiles, Politico writes. But the German chancellor, according to journalists, is afraid of Russia's reaction if Ukraine strikes the Crimean bridge. In light of these allegations, when might Ukraine see long-range weapons in its arsenal?

PB: Let's not just think of Germany. The United States has not yet provided Ukraine with its most powerful missiles. We have given several versions of shorter-range missiles, and some of them are very accurate and very powerful, but they are shorter-range missiles. I think that the West in general and the United States in particular refrains from giving Ukraine long-range weapons because they are afraid of what Putin's reaction will be.

MS: In this case, what exactly scares the US and Germany the most?

PB: Even before the war started, the West told Putin what it was afraid of.

We are afraid of the use of tactical nuclear weapons. And Putin has been threatening us with this fear every week for two years of this war

He, or someone very high up in Russia, is always talking about nuclear weapons, always mentioning something nuclear, like now about nuclear weapons in space. There is always something to focus the West's attention on. Russia promises to use nuclear weapons, and this is a great deterrent to Ukraine's partners. Putin himself is a little less frequent, but people in his inner circle keep repeating it, adding that the war in Europe will expand. And from time to time, when they say this, they mention many other things, including that "American soldiers will again be dying on the battlefields in Europe". So, we have told Mr Putin what we are afraid of, and he plays it up in his propaganda almost every week.

MS: You and the former commander of US Army Europe, retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, called on the previous Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, to quickly approve additional aid to Ukraine. How do you currently assess the chances of passing this bill and what are the consequences if there is no vote?

PB: I believe that America intends to provide more aid to Ukraine. Unfortunately, this issue is now completely politicised. There is a huge political debate going on, and one side is trying to use this aid to force the other side to take certain actions that they have always wanted. And, unfortunately, an issue that should be completely separated from politics is completely drawn into it. So as soon as these other political issues are resolved, I believe we will see America return to what almost all of our Congress really wants, which is to stop Putin from taking another big chunk of Ukraine and asking for peace.

MS: Without US assistance, Europe will have to at least double its support. In terms of military supplies, what do you think Ukraine needs most and most urgently?

PB: The good news is that Europe as a bloc is actually giving more than America, and if you look at GDP, America is 14th or 15th in the world in terms of aid to Ukraine. Many European countries give more than the US in terms of GDP, so the trend is good, but we need America to step up. This is important. We need to give Ukraine a few things, some of them very short-range.

The Ukrainian armed forces need ammunition and the ability to defend themselves in the trenches right now
Then we have to start working in earnest to give Ukraine the capabilities to be superior in terms of long-range strikes, air defence, air defence and attack aircraft, and so on. There are many things that Ukraine needs. I am always asked, what do Ukrainians need? And it is never just one thing. No bright, shiny object will change this war. Not even an F-16. This is a complex of weapons. And I tell people simply: we have to give Ukraine what we would take there if we went to war. We have to give Ukraine the same. We should not ask Ukraine to confront a global superpower without equipment.

MS: Ukraine has decided to withdraw its troops from Avdiivka. According to the American Institute for the Study of War, the Russian forces managed to enter the city thanks to local air dominance. At the same time, the Danish Ministry of Defence said that Ukraine will receive its first F-16 fighter jets in three months at the earliest. What weapons do the Ukrainian army's successes at the front depend on in the first place?

PB: In the short term, we need to provide Ukraine with artillery shells and spare artillery pieces. You need accuracy and you need quantity. We need to provide you with a long-range precision strike, which is what the ATACMS (American Long Range Precision Missile - ed.) has. You have to be able to strike Russia before it enters the battlefield, while it is amassing its troops, its supply lines, its warehouses. Finally, you have to destroy the Kerch Bridge.

To do that, you need certain types of munitions, whether from F-16s or ATACMS with a high-explosive unitary warhead, that can destroy the bridge. Ukraine should be able to strike Russia to the full extent of its military capabilities and military power, and this would slow down its advance on the front line. And then, after two years, Russia has now finally started to use its air force.

We have to give Ukraine the ability to continue to shoot down Russian aircraft on the front lines

MS: It has been two years since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Given the state of affairs on the battlefield today, what scenarios are likely to unfold this year?

PB: This war will end exactly as Western politicians decide. If we give Ukraine what it needs to win, it can win and it will win. You've strategically defeated Russia north of Kyiv, you've strategically defeated Russia north and northwest of Kharkiv, and you've made significant gains in the south. If the West gives Ukraine what it needs to win, Ukraine will win. If the West doesn't give Ukraine what it needs to win, either Ukraine will fail or Ukraine will be forced to make a peace in which it gives up more land at the cost of more soldiers and civilian casualties.

So, if the Western leadership decides to give Ukraine what it needs to win, this year will be the year when the situation starts to change for the better. If the West does not step up to give Ukraine what it needs to win, we will see the Ukrainian forces continue to face difficult challenges.

‍MS: Ukraine and Russia are using 20th-century weapons 一 artillery and tanks. And yet, nowadays, the use of artificial intelligence tools for military purposes is being discussed more and more. Can you give examples of such use and how they can influence the situation on the battlefield?

PB: The word "artificial intelligence" is used too often. Real artificial intelligence does exist. Today, on the battlefield, we see certain steps towards the use of artificial intelligence, such as machine learning with human participation and some other areas that many call "artificial intelligence". Ukraine has been very active in using these technologies on the battlefield in the form of air and sea drones and has been extremely successful in fulfilling its tasks.

Russia makes good use of drones it buys from other countries. Currently, they are supplied mainly by Iran and North Korea. At the same time, Ukraine has developed a completely new way of using small drones, and now larger ones, especially on the battlefield and at sea. And I see this trend continuing to grow.

Ukraine has to be inventive. It has to be very smart. It has to make good use of the limited resources that it has in order to stand up to a much larger adversary

‍MS: Russia's war against Ukraine has demonstrated how important drones are in modern warfare. And yet, Greece, Cyprus and France have blocked funding for the supply of Bayraktar drones and Turkish-made artillery shells to Ukraine, which were to be purchased with EU funds. What does this step by Ukraine's partners mean?

PB: A lot is happening in the world. I am not going to criticise nations. They have their sovereign reasons for doing what they do. Most of the problems of such countries are that they either do not support Ukraine or stop supporting it. This is mostly due to the dependence of these countries on Russian energy, Russian money, etc. I think we will have to work on these issues, as we have done many times in the history of NATO and the EU.

Russia is very good at keeping others dependent on its energy or other types of trade
And when a nation's existence is threatened because of its ties to Russian energy or other commercial interests, it often makes a sovereign decision to defend its country rather than do what is right with respect to Russia. So we just have to help these countries to overcome the dependence they have formed.

MS: General Breedlove, how can Ukraine strengthen its capabilities in the field of drones and electronic warfare?

PB: Well, first of all, through partnerships. We see that some big countries like Germany and others are starting to consider partnerships when they come to Ukraine and create these capabilities on Ukrainian soil. And this is the way forward, and this is not only the way to win the war, but also the way to rebuild Ukraine afterwards, because we will need to create jobs, cash flows and encourage people to come back, those who have left the country, and so on. This will be an incredibly important task.

EU countries and NATO countries will have to help Ukraine when it comes to electronic warfare. And I will tell you that, again, Ukraine is incredibly smart in this regard. In fact, I would say that Ukraine is moving faster in this area than many NATO countries. So the question now is how we can help them develop these capabilities. Ukraine, and our observations of how Russia is fighting in Ukraine, teaches us a lot about how the enemy uses these capabilities. And this will benefit the EU and NATO in the long run and hopefully also benefit Ukraine.

MS: Russia is receiving attack drones from Iran, missiles, including ballistic missiles, from North Korea. What can the West do to contain this newly formed "axis of evil"?

PB: There are many options for how we could deal with this. But unfortunately, in the West, we always resort to sanctions first and almost always only. So we need to think about how best to impose sanctions on the people who provide these opportunities for Russia. I think it's very sad that we have created a safe haven for Russia and its forces in the West.

We tell Ukraine that you cannot use missiles, drones and equipment supplied by the West to strike Russia. But we, in the West, allow Russia to fire from all over Ukraine at Ukraine, using, as you said, Iranian, North Korean and other capabilities. So we have literally tied Ukraine's hands behind its back.

We need to change this and finally stop covering for Russia and its allies.

Maryna Stepanenko for the Sestry international online magazine

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