“Putin has made NATO great again”: a dialogue with David Petraeus

After one year of war in Ukraine, Nato is stronger and more united. Inside Over dialogues with General (ret.) David Petraeus about the dynamics shaped by the conflict at the global level, the role of the Alliance in the world competition between powers and the possible ends of the war. Petraeus, born in 1952, has served 37 years in the U.S. Army and has served in many leading roles. From 2007 to 2008 he was the commanding general of Multi-National Force – Iraq (MNF-I), from 2008 to 2010 he has served as commander of the U.S. Central Command (Centcom), between 2010 and 2011 he has been the commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and commander, U.S. Forces – Afghanistan (USFOR-A). From to 2011 and 2012 he has been the 4th Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (Cia). Now  Partner at KKR and Chairman of the KKR Global Institute,

How has the Ukraine War changed the strategic context in Europe? 

“I think it is accurate to observe that while Vladimir Putin set out to “Make Russia Great Again,” what he really has done is make NATO great again: prompting two historically neutral (and very capable) countries to seek NATO membership; fostering a level of unity in NATO that has not been seen since the end of the Cold War; resulting in increased defense budgets in Europe and the U.S., with Germany, notably, now committed to achieve the NATO goal of spending 2% of GDP on defense, after having not event gotten to 1.5% previously; leading to augmentation of forces in the Baltic States and eastern Europe; and, finally, dramatically reducing Russia’s military capability, with Russian forces having sustained enormous casualties and staggering losses of weapons systems and vehicles, as well as dramatically depleting its stocks of munitions.  In sum, Russia is very substantially diminished and NATO substantially strengthened”.

Can we state that the West is more united one year after the beginning of the war? 

“Yes, absolutely, despite occasional hesitation over provision of certain weapons to Ukraine (as in the decision over the provision of western tanks to Ukraine, which is now agreed, of course).  As I noted earlier, NATO and other western countries have not been this united since the end of the Cold War”.

What was the role of Western weapons and Intelligence support in strengthening the Ukraine resistance? 

“Absolutely vital.  Ukraine has done a truly extraordinary job of mobilizing the entire country to fight what Ukrainians see as their War of Independence; they have done vastly better than Russia in recruiting, training, equipping, organizing, and employing additional forces and capabilities.  But that would not have been possible without the massive assistance from the U.S. and other western countries.  The U.S. alone has now provided over $27 billion in arms, ammunition, and materiel to the Ukrainian military since the invasion last February, with another $2B reportedly about to be added.  And the weapons systems provided continue to be more and more capable.  And, reportedly, sharing of intelligence has been very helpful, as well, though I don’t want to speculate further on that”.

Which mistakes were committed by the Russian Army? 

 A staggering number of mistakes, – everything from the terribly deficient initial campaign design, overestimation of Russian capabilities, complete underestimation of the capabilities (and incredible determination) of the Ukrainian forces and people, lack of appreciation of western support for Ukraine, poor command and control and communications, failure to achieve combined arms effects (armor, infantry, artillery, engineers, close air support, air defense, and electronic warfare all working together), wholly inadequate logistics, terrible indiscipline by Russian forces, lack of a professional noncommissioned officer corps, poor senior leadership (which is why multiple leaders have been fired), and, clearly, a failure to take advantage of all the time Russian forces had in Belarus and Russia to actually train and prepare the forces for the invasion. 

Gen. Petraeus during a press conference in Milan, 16 October 2010. Petrause was at that time the commander of American troops in Afghanistan

Is the perspective of an Ukraine victory a feasible one for the end of the War? 

“Yes, though the answer to that question obviously depends on how one defines “victory” and it also depends on a number of factors, most significantly continued strong western security and economic assistance for Ukraine and further tightening of the sanctions and export controls on Russia.  At the end of the day, I believe the war will end with a negotiated resolution when Russia realizes that it is unsustainable on the battlefield (where Russia has already lost more than 8 times the soldiers the USSR lost in nearly 10 years in Afghanistan) and also on the home front, given the ever-tightening sanctions and export controls.  And we need to do all that we can to hasten that day – and also to be ready with a Marshall-like plan to help rebuild Ukraine and also with an ironclad security guarantee for Ukraine, as well (whether that is NATO membership, which would be ideal, or a U.S.-led coalition commitment, if NATO membership is not achievable”.

President Biden stated in his Inauguration Speech that America was coming back as a global, reliable leader. Has the Ukraine War proven that he was right or America’s leadership is still in doubt? 

“I think that America’s leadership of the NATO and western effort to support Ukraine and to impose sanctions and export controls on Russia has shown that the U.S. is “back,” to use President Biden’s term (and that is particularly important in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, which allowed potential adversaries to contend that the U.S. was an unreliable partner and a great power in decline).  And in offering that assessment, please recall, Andrea, that I am not a member of any political party in the U.S. and do not even register to vote, much less vote.  I stopped voting when I was promoted to two-star general and have sought to stay non-political ever since”.

At the global level, the US is dealing with Russia’s expansionism in Europe and China’s ambitions in the Far East. What will be the most important issue for Washington in the coming years? 

“I think there is no question, that the most important relationship in the world is that between the U.S. – together with our allies and partners – and China.  Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s National Security Advisor, has described the relationship with China as one of “severe competition.”  And we all – all like-minded nations – must work together to ensure that competition doesn’t turn into conflict.  One might hope that patient, pragmatic, firm engagement could help reduce the sense of competition and increase areas of cooperation, eventually producing a relationship that is as mutually beneficial as is possible.  But we have to be clear eyed and coldly realistic, even as we seek to deal with differences and, again, ensure that they do not result in true conflict.  And we also all have to work together to ensure that the elements of deterrence (capabilities and willingness to employ them) are rock solid”.