Retired US major general: What it will take for the Ukrainians to win

CNN

By Peter Bergen, CNN National Security Analyst

May 5, 2022

Editor’s note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His forthcoming paperback is “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” View more opinion on CNN.

The former commander of the US Special Operations Command in Europe, retired US Army Maj. Gen. Mike Repass, says the international community has to greatly increase its support for Ukraine if the embattled nation is ever going to be able to drive the Russians out.

Repass has advised the Ukrainian military for the past six years on a US government contract. Last month he visited Poland and western Ukraine to get a better feel for the trajectory of the war in Ukraine. I spoke to him Friday and Monday.

He says the Ukrainian supply chain for military equipment is inefficient and that additional military forces are required to drive the Russians out of Ukraine.

To win the war in Ukraine, Repass advocates that the US and its allies build up a Ukrainian strategic force amounting to five brigades of up to 40,000 soldiers capable of mounting offensive operations to force the Russians out of their country.

Disclosure: Repass is on the advisory council of the Global Special Operations Foundation, where I am the chairman of the board. Our conversation was edited for clarity and length.

BERGEN: What did you learn on your trip?

REPASS: One, that Ukraine still needs a lot of help. Two, NATO is moving too slow. Three, we don’t have visibility on what happens to military equipment when it gets into Ukraine.

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The military equipment supply business is personalized as opposed to professionalized: The senior leadership establishes the distribution priorities and, from what I could observe, those priorities are not based on an understanding of consumption rates, or of future operations or objective data. It’s based on commander of brigade X or sector Y calling and saying, “Hey, I need 27 Javelin missiles.” So, it’s highly personalized, and that is not how to run wartime logistics. What should be going on is there should be an understanding of what the consumption rates are on important things like fuel, ammunition, batteries.

BERGEN: Is the likely outcome in Ukraine a bloody conflict that just goes on and on and on?

REPASS: The three obvious future scenarios are: Russia has a battlefield decision in their favor, the Ukrainians have a battlefield decision in their favor, or there’s a stalemate. Two out of three of those outcomes give Russia a victory. 

In the stalemate scenario, Russia would simply claim victory based on facts on the ground and continue its occupation over expanded terrain in Ukraine into the indeterminate future. This would give Russia a less than total victory over Ukraine, but a victory with significantly expanded terrain under Russian control nonetheless.

So, what are we, the West, collectively doing to ensure that two out of those three possibilities don’t happen? Everybody is thinking about the immediate fight right now, which means we’re running supplies to the Ukrainians. The problem is that the Ukraine’s army needs additional capabilities to be able to drive Russia out of Ukraine.

BERGEN: Why?

REPASS: Because they don’t have enough combat power to do that, meaning enough equipment, firepower and trained soldiers at the moment.

Russia is always going to have more forces, not necessarily better forces, but more of them. As Stalin once said, “quantity has a quality all its own.” Most people recognize that this is going to be a battle of attrition and, at some point in time, it will start to tip in Russia’s favor unless additional Ukrainian forces are generated.

I think there’s a growing realization among NATO countries and the international community that we’re going to have to do something besides resource Ukraine’s current fight. So, there are four things that the US and its allies need to do. First, we need to weaken Russia by strengthening Ukrainian capabilities. Second, we need to further deter Russia by increasing our own and NATO’s capabilities. Third, is degrading Russia’s armed forces and capabilities. Finally, we need to ensure Russia’s defeat in Ukraine, and that is done by building a strategic and operational reserve force for Ukraine that can do offensive operations to kick the Russians out of Ukraine and secure its borders.

BERGEN: What does that look like in practice?

REPASS: You need to have the US, French, Poles, UK and the Germans each build a brigade’s worth of Ukrainian combat power. Those nations have significant military capacity and could generate forces by equipping Ukrainian units and then training them in their own nations. So, that would be five brigades, in five operational sectors. And you would need probably six to eight months to implement that. These five brigades would have Western equipment fighting in Western ways, an integrated air-land battle approach where you have all the means available to you, to include NATO-interoperable tanks, close-air support and air defense.

BERGEN: Five brigades is not a huge number, right?

REPASS: No, it’s not. I think it’s doable in the near term. There are up to 8,000 soldiers or so in a brigade, so that’s up to 40,000 people in five brigades. I believe the Ukrainians are capable of finding that many soldiers given the current national emergency.

Historically, when a Western military has come up against an army that has been supplied by the Russians, the Russian-backed army has been totally annihilated by an inferior number of forces, as was the case, for instance, during the first Gulf War when the US military destroyed much of Saddam Hussein’s army in Kuwait. We know that the Western armaments have a significant qualitative edge over Russian equipment, so numbers and force ratios are skewed when it is Western military equipment up against Russian-made equipment.

BERGEN: Why do the Russians stick to a model that doesn’t really work well?

REPASS: They are hidebound in their ways. Specifically, what they tried to do at the beginning of the war in Ukraine was a coup de main, taking out Kyiv with a rapid strike. That didn’t work. Russian troops got their asses handed to them. So, they brought all their firepower around to the east and to the south by employing massive artillery fires on the objective or along their avenues of approach. Once they have destroyed almost everything in front of them, then they advance their troops methodically. So, it’s not maneuver warfare. It’s attrition warfare by fire. It’s a fire-based army as opposed to what we have in the West, which is a maneuver-based army.

BERGEN: What do you make of the new Russian commander in Ukraine, Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov?

REPASS: He is a dyed-in-the-wool, fire-based, attrition warfare guy. He’s not a maneuver warfare guy. He’s going to do everything that he’s done all his life, which is blow up and destroy everything in his path, and then send the troops in. Those troops will forcefully evacuate Ukrainian citizens to ensure there is no potential for a resistance movement in the land bridge from Russia through Donbas to Crimea. 

BERGEN: How would you characterize the state of the war in the east and the south right now? Are the Russians, in their own minds, winning? 

REPASS: The state of play today is Russia is making methodical advances both in the north and the south. It’s trying to fix forces defending in the east and envelop the Ukrainian defenders, then defeat them in the south. The Russians also want to encircle Mykolaiv, reduce the defense and destroy the defenders, and then have a free run at Odesa. They can’t get to Odesa until they either envelop or destroy the forces around Mikolaiv.

BERGEN: And Odesa is the prize because?

REPASS: Because that completes the cutoff of Ukraine from the Black Sea, and it’s also the gateway to Transnistria and Moldova

BERGEN: What did you make of the comments by the Russian general about going on to Moldova? Do you take them at face value? 

REPASS: I do take it as a serious threat, and I do think they have their eyes on Moldova. If they can take it, they will. To be specific, they talk about going to Transnistria. If they can build a southern land bridge to Transnistria, they will do it. That will put Russia on Moldova’s doorstep and Moldova won’t be able to effectively defend against a Russian invasion. 

BERGEN: Is the Ukraine war widening?

REPASS: It’s a fact that Belarus has been a haven for Russia since the start of the war on February 24. It’s an article of faith with the Europeans that I’ve talked to that Belarus is a client state and is controlled and essentially ruled by Moscow. Belarus has not contributed military units to the fight, but they’ve housed, based and supported Russia forces. They’ve allowed them to launch operations from their territory — both ground, air, and precision strike missiles have been launched from there. 

Putin’s officials have also said that the Baltic have no historical basis and they’re illegitimate states — the same thing they said about Ukraine before the war. The three Baltic states, and Polandfirmly believe that after Ukraine that they’re next on Russia’s hit list. They see Russia as an existential threat. And there’s no evidence that Putin is willing to stop at Ukraine. 

BERGEN: What about all this nuclear saber-rattling? Do you think it’s just mostly posturing?

REPASS: Yes, I think it’s mostly posturing. It would be one thing if Putin said it. To have Foreign Minister Lavrov say it is another thing. I think it’s posturing if it comes from Lavrov. On their nuclear doctrine, they will use so-called tactical nuclear weapons if they feel that there’s a significant threat to the Russian homeland. Those are the kind of circumstances that Russia has communicated to the West where they would use their nuclear weapons. 

BERGEN: So, it’s a high threshold.

REPASS: Right.

BERGEN: As a result of the sinking in mid-April of the Moskva, the Russian missile cruiser serving as the Black Sea Fleet flagship, do you think that the Chinese are looking at this and doing a little bit of soul-searching about whether attacking Taiwan would be wise? 

REPASS: Yes, I do. Not only the sinking of the Moskva, but also the ability of a well-trained solid opposition to halt an invasion. Russia is getting very heavily degraded by a numerically inferior force, and they don’t have a water bridge to cross. They’re crossing Ukraine by land, while the Chinese would have to cross 100 miles of water to get to Taiwan. So, they must be thinking that this is going to be a lot harder than expected. 

BERGEN: If you’re Putin today, how are you feeling?

REPASS: Probably better than the day after the Moskva was sunk. I think he’s probably feeling conflicted and confused but realizes that he has to press forward to get a victory here. And he’s held captive by a beast of his own creation in that he rarely uses the internet himself. You’ve never seen him at a computer, and, at least as of late 2020, he reportedly didn’t have an iPhone.

He has no connection to the outside world and all his information is either given to him by his inner circle or by what he reads in the Russia news media, which is, of course, controlled by the state and only puts out state-controlled messages. So he’s in a North Korean-like echo chamber and he is not getting accurate information.

BERGEN: Starting a war, that’s often the easy part. Wars have their own logic. Unfortunately, this war might go on for a year or even two years.

REPASS: I fear that you’re right. This will be a grinding, agonizing war if it lasts more than a year, and I think it’s going to last at least two years. But we can’t let it get into a stalemate. If it gets into a stalemate, Putin’s going to claim success followed by a brutal occupation of the Ukrainian territory that he controls.

7 comments

  1. I have very little trust in CNN. Their leadership seems to favor being a propaganda tool for wealthy leftists to keep the average citizen blind to the money/power-grasping of those wealthy leftists. Some of these want to spread communism to America, but I try not to assume too much in conspiracy theories. So I prefer Epoch Times, Daily Wire and only a few other right-wing news sources.

    If you’re interested, Epoch Times foreign language webpages, in both Russian and Ukrainian, among the other languages.

    https://www.epochtimes.com.ua/

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “REPASS: You need to have the US, French, Poles, UK and the Germans each build a brigade’s worth of Ukrainian combat power. Those nations have significant military capacity and could generate forces by equipping Ukrainian units and then training them in their own nations. So, that would be five brigades, in five operational sectors. And you would need probably six to eight months to implement that. These five brigades would have Western equipment fighting in Western ways, an integrated air-land battle approach where you have all the means available to you, to include NATO-interoperable tanks, close-air support and air defense.”

    Well you can fucking forget the French and Germans you idealistic fool. But other than that, a very sound analysis and excellent recommendations.
    I have repeatedly stated that Ukraine needs a lot more troops. To survive long term, she needs one million men under arms, including a minimum of 600,000 combat troops. Plus of course a modern Air Force.
    Short term, Ukraine’s offensive capabilities need to be rapidly enhanced. Kherson and Mariupol must be retaken as quickly as possible.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I really don’t like this ex-general’s assessment, except that Ukraine needs more help with weapons and ammo. That’s a given.
    He gives very little credit to the way Ukraine has conducted themselves in this war. Ukraine has been exemplary in just about every aspect. I’m certain that they know very well how to operate their supply system, first off, and I almost passed gas when Repass suggested the French and Germans train Ukrainian forces. I think our girl scouts would be better qualified. Jokes aside, this statement is degrading Ukraine’s own capabilities. The only ones I trust to properly train Ukrainians are the British and the US and this mostly in various weapons and weapons systems that are non-Soviet standard and maybe special operations.
    Another aspect is his thoughts on this war’s possible length. This depends on other factors, which he is not qualified to assess. Much depends on mafia land’s political, social and economic conditions. This topic is too lengthy to cover here, but it could be a much shorter war than he thinks. At least, this is what other experts are saying.
    Let us never forget that Ukraine has been kicking a giant’s ass all across this war, and this should account for something. They might not do things as this general expects, but you should never fix a working system. Give them enough weapons and ammo and special equipment and maybe training on the unknowns, and Ukraine will do the rest.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I thought it was a pretty decent effort. It’s far too early for a gung ho attitude against such a large, savage and evil foe.
      I always thought manpower was a big issue. I know these resources are secret, but they really need to increase hugely.
      As for his comments about the Germans and French helping out; I’m guessing he’s a Democrat? Democrats really do believe that Germany and France are great allies of the US; they really have no idea that most of them hate America.
      The Dems are owned, bought and paid for by the so-called American Irish, or “plastic Paddies” as some are known. In their ranks are a lot of Britain-haters, like Biden.
      You’d have to go back as far as JFK to find a Dem president who was pro-British. Ironically, despite coming from a hideous nazi-supporting IRA family, he was a good bloke and liked Britain. Unlike the ghastly Teddy.
      Ron Reagan was far more Irish than Biden, but he too was a great friend of Britain.
      The Dems need to grasp the fact that there is no more pro-US country in Europe than Ukraine and Georgia is not far behind. The other greatest friends are Britain, Poland and Pribaltika. Personally I would hardly trust any of the others except maybe Portugal.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I thought it was a pretty decent effort. It’s far too early for a gung ho attitude against such a large, savage and evil foe.
      I always thought manpower was a big issue. I know these resources are secret, but they really need to increase hugely.
      As for his comments about the Germans and French helping out; I’m guessing he’s a Democrat? Democrats really do believe that Germany and France are great allies of the US; they really have no idea that most of them hate America.
      The Dems are owned, bought and paid for by the so-called American Irish, or “plastic Paddies” as some are known. In their ranks are a lot of Britain-haters, like Biden.
      You’d have to go back as far as JFK to find a Dem president who was pro-British. Ironically, despite coming from a hideous nazi-supporting IRA family, he was a good bloke and liked Britain. Unlike the ghastly Teddy.
      Ron Reagan was far more Irish than Biden, but he too was a great friend of Britain.
      The Dems need to grasp the fact that there is no more pro-US country in Europe than Ukraine and Georgia is not far behind. The other greatest friends are Britain, Poland and Pribaltika. Personally I would hardly trust any of the others except maybe Portugal.

      Liked by 3 people

      • What makes you think he hates Britain?
        He fucked France with this AUKUS soon after he took office.
        I don’t think he hates Britain. Also I do not think he is playing very nice to the Germans, as after a call with Scholz they suddenly made a 180 degree turn.

        In fact I despised him for the deal he made about Nord Stream 2 with Germany, but I do think it makes a lot of sense now to establish better relations with European countries, as they play a vital role in making or breaking the Russian economy.

        I hate the German government and I do like the Lithuanian for example, but realisticly most of the Russian money comes from Germany, so it is vital for Ukraine that Germany is on board. Germany has the key to the complete collapse of the Russian economy and therefore Putin’s regime.

        I do not trust Scholz and I think he is a pragmatic arsse like Merkel, that has absolutely no principles and just go with the political wind at that very day.

        But I do think they are moving in the right direction by stopping to use Russian gas and oil and maybe equally important, cut all Russian banks off SWIFT.

        I do think the Biden administration did a great job uniting the West, I had expected countries like Germany and France would throw Ukraine at the wolves for some Rubles, but they did manage to keep the unity needed.

        I have also read and heard multiple rumours that there are 11 Ukrainian pilots training to fly F-16 fighter jets, so I think the U.S. finally got serious.

        I also think some Slovak Mig’s are on their way to Ukraine.

        So there is some reason for optimism.

        Like

  4. I do like his assessment as I think the arms supply by the West is a mess. And it makes sense as it has been set up rather hastily.

    It is not that I do not trust the Ukrainian management of assets, but I feel that it is still the West giving what they want to give rather than that they are are making an accurate assessment of what the Ukrainians currently consume and what they need to win this war.

    I think this has been going on for years. For example: the U.S. have been giving HUMVEES even though against a modern army they are obsolete and they are less effective as for example BTR’s and other armoured vehicles the Ukrainians already have.

    You can only bring in so much a day, and it should be tailored at the exact needs of the Ukrainians rather than what the West is willing to give.

    Also I think we should take this assessment seriously. Yes, CNN is not a neutral source but this is not a nobody but a high ranking military man. Also he is by no means defending the current administration but just criticising them.

    Also, I don’t think he doesn’t appreciate the Ukrainian resolve, but Ukrainians haven’t really been trained in large scale counteroffensives and also lack long range weapons to do so.

    Ukraine cannot afford to conduct large scale close combat counter-offensives because of their numerical disadvantage.

    So I think adding new brigades of soldiers trained and equipped for offensives is an excellent idea, because it is exactly what Ukraine lacks.

    This is not because a lack of skill or strategy, but simply because Ukraine never had the weapons to train for this kind of operations.

    Liked by 1 person

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