Espreso. Global
Interview

The weapons test that can turn Ukraine into a world power — General Clark

30 June, 2024 Sunday
13:50

Legendary American General Wesley Clark, former Commander of the U.S. Euro-Atlantic Contingent in Europe, has told Espreso TV's Studio West host Anton Borkovsky about his recipe for Ukraine's success in the war

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We in Ukraine experienced not just anxious, but literally unpleasant feelings when we gave Putin a few months to get a handle on the issue of large-scale American aid. For six months we in Ukraine felt that things could end badly for us, but now it seems that the war is taking on new dimensions.

I think it’s good that Ukraine is receiving weapons from the West, and I'm very glad about the support from the United States despite the ongoing six-month drought and conflict in Congress. However, it's really important that Ukraine must establish its concept for victory and use that concept to drive its requirements.

This doesn't have to be done publicly, but there needs to be a clear plan. What's the reason why these weapons are needed? Without a plan, people will soon say, "Well, the front has stabilized; there's nothing more to be done but go on the defensive and give up hope," which is not necessary.

In 1940, British forces were forced off the continent of Europe. It took four years for them, with American help, to cross the English Channel, enter France, and liberate it. Important geostrategic undertakings don't happen in a couple of months.

It’s not just a matter of another two batteries or battalions of artillery or another 100,000 155mm shells. While these are necessary for defense, you need a concept for how to win. Without that concept, your supporters in the West will have difficulty articulating the requirements for forces, supplies, and reinforcements.

That's the bottom line: let's get the concept for victory.

The formula for our victory and the scenario for further war depend on resources, and resources depend on a specific political will, including President Biden's. It is clear that the White House put some things on hold only because Putin threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons. Putin may have threatened with other things, but he is inadequate - the very beginning of the war demonstrated this and all the atrocities that accompanied it, including the shelling of our peaceful cities. Will we get enough F-16s this summer? And what will the US do if Putin does decide to use tactical nuclear weapons?

You have asked two questions. First, regarding the F-16s: it ties back to the same issue. How many F-16s are enough? Do you need 15, 50, or 500 F-16s? It depends on your concept for victory. What's missing, at least in the public dialogue (though I don't know what is being said behind the scenes), is the concept for victory. What is it? This concept forms the basis for addressing the adequacy or inadequacy of the military supplies you receive.

As for the United States, you have very strong popular support, reflecting both your determination to fight for your independence and democracy, and the American commitment to support those who fight for freedom. This strong sympathy spans both political parties.

Should Mr. Putin decide to go nuclear, the United States will have to respond appropriately, though I don't know what that response would be. I hope the United States has an appropriate package of military responses as well.

This war will end when Mr. Putin understands he cannot win and cannot retain parts of Ukraine that he claims are part of Russia. That's how this war must end. People say it has to end in a diplomatic settlement, and sure, all wars usually end in some kind of written agreement. But the question is, what's the basis for that agreement? The basis for that agreement must be the results of Ukraine's concept for throwing the Russians out, the requirements that concept generates, and the determination to fulfill those requirements and execute the plan. Once that starts to happen, I think Mr. Putin can be forced out. And I don't think he'll use nuclear weapons.

At one time, you deterred not only Serbian aggression in the Balkans but also Russian aggression in the region. You were one of those who were not afraid to escalate the situation to an "either/or" level. You managed to halt the crimes of the Serbian fascists under Milosevic's leadership without involving nuclear weapons.

How serious are Putin's intentions, and how far can things escalate? Is the Euro-Atlantic community ready to fulfill its responsibilities if, for example, Putin launches aggression against a NATO member state such as Estonia, Lithuania, or Poland?

Conflicts can be ended in two ways. One is by achieving escalation dominance, where your adversary recognizes the hopelessness of their situation and gives up. This is how we fought the Serbs in 1999. Milosevic was a rational man, but he was also somewhat exhausted after five years of war. His forces were exhausted, and he faced many pressures. He made a mistake by trying to finish off Kosovo, thinking NATO would get discouraged because Kosovo was part of Serbia. However, NATO, once committed, had trouble backing away.

Milosevic misunderstood the political calculus at the highest levels in NATO. We started with a minimalistic air campaign that could have ended with a ground force invasion of Kosovo and possibly Serbia. Once Milosevic realized this, he reached an accommodation and pulled his forces out.

The situation in Ukraine is different because of the nuclear issue, but the nuclear issue cuts both ways. The United States, France, and Britain have nuclear weapons. When Mr. Putin brandishes the nuclear card, he should recognize the nuclear capabilities on the other side. If he claims he wants to go all the way, he should remember what happened to Adolf Hitler. Let’s not entertain any fantastical notions from Mr. Putin about risking Mother Russia.

Mr. Putin, like every wartime leader, wants to win and is willing to commit forces to a certain extent. Even Hitler, in 1945, was looking for a way out, hoping to preserve Germany. He wasn’t prepared to fight to the end until it really was the end.

Mr. Putin must understand there’s no reason for this war to continue. It was unnecessary from the beginning. Ukraine was never a military threat to Russia. The people of Ukraine simply wanted to choose their own path and associations. If Mr. Putin had been reasonable and understood the 21st century, Ukraine and Russia could be partners today. Instead, Mr. Putin made the wrong choice based on false history and the allure of Russian imperialism, which has no place in the 21st century. The leaders of NATO understand this, which is why they’re meeting on the 75th anniversary.

Democracies are always slow to engage. Even in Kosovo, the conflict went on for years before NATO acted. In Ukraine’s case, it has been over two years, and the West has been watching. But Mr. Putin should not assume the West will tire. The heroism of the Ukrainian people, their incredible technological competence, innovation, and determination to chart their own course in Europe as an independent state and democracy, are admired by the whole world and the West.

However, the burden of success rests first on Ukraine. This means Ukraine needs a concept of victory. What’s the military concept? What’s the political concept that drives the requirements? This concept must then be endorsed and supported in the West to ensure that the requirements are fulfilled.

This conflict is more than just a war; Putin describes it as an existential struggle. A few weeks ago, instead of remaining silent, he issued a public ultimatum, declaring that there could be no negotiations and demanding the withdrawal of our Ukrainian troops from our own territories. It’s clear that Putin is willing to pay a high price, but on the other hand, the Russian army has shown only a willingness to sacrifice its soldiers.

When we discuss the Formula for Peace, I completely agree with you that there must be a resource-backed, clear position from the West. Putin’s recent meeting with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un was no coincidence—he is desperately seeking allies to fuel the fire.

Putin is making a mistake by reaching out to North Korea, China, and Iran. This coalition will only alienate the West further and internationalize Ukraine's struggle to repel Russian aggression, incentivizing Western nations to provide even more assistance to Ukraine. It's a miscalculation on his part.

Ukraine must do what it must do. When British forces were forced out of France in 1940, Prime Minister Churchill made incredible statements. He said, "We will fight them on the beaches, we will fight them on the farms, we will never, never, never, never give in." That was British determination. At that time, Churchill did not have an American ally, as America was not yet in the war. It was a frightening time for Britain, with the country being bombed and its fighter planes inadequate to prevent the bombing.

There are many historical parallels here. This is a historic moment for the truth of Ukrainian nationhood. This trial by arms and this struggle can make Ukraine a stronger and leading nation on the world stage.

The situation could change rapidly this autumn with the upcoming US elections. We don't know what to expect from Donald Trump and his team, and the signals he is sending are alarmingly simplistic. According to his former advisers, Trump might pursue policies that would involve a lack of cooperation with both Kyiv and Moscow, which is deeply concerning. Putin and his analysts are anticipating significant developments this autumn, and we in Ukraine are worried about what this could mean.

Before we get to the political situation in the United States, I just want to say something to the soldiers of Ukraine and their families. Many of us in the West watch what’s happening and our hearts go out to you. We tremendously admire your courage and what you’re doing. We understand what it’s like to be out in the dark, the cold, the wet, and the mud. We’ve been there—not in your circumstances, not in these lifetimes, but in our training. We're there with you in our hearts.

We admire your dedication, patriotism, and sacrifice. I also want to say that those of us in the West who follow this closely, admire the flexibility and quick reaction that General Syrsky and the leadership in Ukraine showed to the incursions around Kharkiv. Maybe Russia thought they could penetrate and take Kharkiv, but the quick response and strong leadership blocked that, as well as the sacrifice of the soldiers. It takes good leadership at the top and strong will and determination at every level to win in war. The flexibility shown in dealing with the incursions in Kharkiv and Sumy demonstrated good leadership at the top, in my view.

Now, regarding the politics in the United States, we can't predict the outcome of our presidential election. They're always going to be close, and it really depends on how many Americans vote. The issues are rarely about foreign policy; they’re usually about domestic considerations like the price of gasoline, inflation, the cost of bread, and the unemployment rate in September—kitchen table talk, not foreign policy.

When Mr. Trump talks about what he's going to do in Ukraine, I think he’s trying to get help from Mr. Putin. He wants more help from Russia to try to win this American election. However, my friends in the Republican Party strongly support Ukraine and have no intention of cutting and running if Mr. Trump is elected. So, you shouldn’t be too disheartened by Mr. Trump’s statements. You just have to understand who he’s speaking to when he makes these speeches.

In 2016, during a debate with Hillary Clinton, or maybe it was a private speech, he said, "Russia, if you’re watching…" He knows Russia was important in getting him elected and wants Russian support. What will actually happen will be determined by the skill and character of Ukraine itself. If, as President Zelensky and others say, "We’re not going to negotiate or give up our territory," then that’s it. Mr. Trump won't be able to force you to negotiate and give up your territory.

I wouldn’t worry so much about the election. Focus on strengthening your forces, preparing for the cold weather next winter, restoring the electric power supply as best you can, and working on the concept for victory. This concept for victory is not just a couple of guys standing around a blackboard with a map. It requires a wholehearted commitment from the nation. But I believe there is a way to win, and I believe Ukraine can do that.

What advice would you give to our generals, particularly to Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrsky? What should they focus on and prioritize?

Oh, I couldn’t answer that kind of question or give that kind of advice, especially not in public. It’s a very special thing to be in command, as General Syrsky is. You get all kinds of advice, information, and pressure. You can’t really know what it’s like to sit in his seat.

He has to make those decisions and do the right thing. If he does, the results will show—not tomorrow, maybe not next week, or even quick results like those seen in the vicinity of Kharkiv. This is a long-term struggle. It won’t be decided in a month, two months, or three months, any more than what happened to Britain was decided in a few weeks after Dunkirk in 1940, or when the Allies crossed the channel in 1944. People thought those wars would be over quickly, but they weren’t.

You’ve got to tighten your belts, pull up your socks, recognize this is an existential struggle, and push forward to succeed.

Why hasn't Putin opened a northern front in Belarus? This poses an extremely serious threat, but it seems that Putin is hesitant to pursue it.

Putin is determined to be a man of history, and he may be relentless. But ultimately, the forces that will determine the outcome come from the heart. The heart of the Ukrainian people, after centuries of struggle, after the disappointments of 1918, after the problems of the 20th century, the revolutions, the loss of Crimea in 2014—it's all part of an evolutionary process. It's a struggle.

Those who succeed are those who persevere through the struggle. That’s the challenge Ukraine must face now.

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