How Putin Saved NATO: Adm. James Stavridis on Ukraine's Effect on the West
"This conflict is going to give Putin everything he doesn’t want."
Less than four years ago, when French President Emmanuel Macron declared NATO brain dead, it made waves across the Atlantic—but not because everyone disagreed with him. Now, thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, the organization is back and bristling with energy, as it helps roll back Putin’s advances and deter him from further aggression. To better understand what the Ukraine war means for the Western alliance and how the fighting is likely to progress, I called Adm. James Stavridis, who served as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) from 2009-2013. Today, Stavridis works as a columnist, a best-selling novelist, Vice-Chair of the Carlyle Group, Chairman of the Board Trustees at the Rockefeller Foundation, and an NBC analyst. We spoke on Tuesday.
Octavian Report: You’ve said that you’re worried that Putin won’t be satisfied with Ukraine and that he has his sights set on other ex-Soviet Republics. Which ones are you thinking of and how would you expect him to move on them?
James Stavridis: He’ll use different techniques adapted to each particular ambition. He’s already accomplished what he wants in Belarus by supporting its dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, who has cut a deal with the devil and is now in so deep with Putin that he’ll never get out. Ukraine is the second example, where he’s using brute military force. Then there’s Kazakhstan, where Putin will continue to ensure that its leaders are amenable to his views. One final example would be Moldova, where he already has a foothold in Transnistria, a long-term frozen conflict. And I’ll throw in Georgia and Armenia as well. In all of these places, he’s going to seek to put leadership in place that is completely aligned with Russia and taking orders from Moscow. It’s as close as he can come to recreating the old Soviet Union.
OR: Does this mean that despite the massive Western reaction to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the West hasn’t yet established a credible deterrent?
Stavridis: I don’t think we have established a credible deterrent to Putin attempting to consume these former Soviet republics. I do think we have an effective deterrent to him attempting to move on the Baltics: three small nations that were also Soviet republics but were smart enough to gain entry to NATO at the end of the Cold War. Same with the many of the nations of the former Warsaw Pact. That NATO deterrent is quite strong.
That said, what we are doing now will be the best deterrent we can compose. I think the Biden administration has gotten it roughly right in terms of sanctions, military assistance to the Ukrainians, and strengthening NATO. Those are the three legs of the stool of deterrence that, over time, may disincentivize Putin from another attempt like he undertook in Georgia in 2008 and has now tried twice in Ukraine.
OR: Do you think that if NATO had done things differently over the past few years, it could have stopped Putin from invading Ukraine in the first place?
Stavridis: I’m not a big believer in counterfactual history. To me, it’s not a question of could we or should we have done something different. History will judge that. Our challenge today is Ukraine. We need to do all that we can to stop Putin.
OR: Why do you think the Ukrainian military, which is so vastly outmanned and outgunned, is performing so well against the Russian army?
Stavridis: I’ve thought a fair amount about this and I’ll give you three reasons. Number one derives from my experience commanding Ukrainian troops in Afghanistan as part of the larger NATO mission there. Ukrainian troops are professional. They are competent. They are very proud of their military capabilities.
Number two, which is vastly more important: when a soldier is fighting and behind him are his parents, his children, and his or her spouse, that soldier is highly motivated. Ukraine’s troops are defending their families. They’re defending their nation. They’re defending freedom. And they’re up against an invasion force that has significant number of conscripts who don’t know the mission, don’t understand why they’re in the country. All of that goes into spirit and motivation.
The third factor involves our assistance. We can argue about whether we should have sent more faster sooner. But the logistics that has flowed into Ukraine over the last 90 days in terms of anti-armor, anti-air, intelligence, cyber, is gaining speed. That logistics train is clanking like a Panzer tank. And I choose that image deliberately for our Russian friends.
To pull out another historical analogy, I’d turn to the case of another massive invader that sought to overwhelm a small nation where everyone spoke the same language. During the American Revolution, the British redcoats came through the roads of the small colonies in massive numbers and convoys—and were shredded by the Minutemen. I think the Ukrainians are taking a tactical page out of the American Revolution.
OR: To extend that analogy, the British didn’t just send redcoats, they sent mercenaries too. What do you make of the fact that the Russians are now recruiting Syrians to fighting in Ukraine?
Stavridis: The Syrians that are being recruited—and one hears stories of Chechens as well—are undisciplined and will become immediate war criminals. Look for looting, rape, every manner of undisciplined behavior. I am concerned that on the bonfire of war crimes that Vladimir Putin has ignited, he’s about to spray gasoline in the form of unaccountable mercenaries, who will be told, “Do whatever you want, terrorize the population.” Then the Russians will turn around and say, “Oh, well, they’re not really our troops. We don’t have control over them.”
OR: There are stories in the news today about even more Russian aircraft being shot down by the Ukrainians. Why haven’t the Russians established air superiority?
Stavridis: It is unclear why they have been so wanting in establishing air superiority or air dominance, which a U.S. force in a similar scenario would’ve accomplished in the first 24 hours. There are a couple of possible explanations. One is that the Russians underestimated the Ukrainians. Another is that they’ve had logistics failures on the ground. They aren’t keeping fuel flowing to their air bases. They are, in general, logistically challenged.
Finally, they failed to turn on the tap of cyber warfare. A lot of what they needed to accomplish could have been done with an aggressive, offensive cyber capability. Here again I give credit to the Ukrainians. I would also guess that the U.S. government has been very helpful in blunting that part of the offensive.
OR: On Sunday, you said that “It’s not yet time to impose a no-fly zone.” Does that mean you think there might be a time?
Stavridis: I know no-fly zones: I implemented one in 2011 over Libya. They’re dangerous. In a scenario like this, they’d put pilots into a potential nose-to-nose confrontation with Russia. That could lead to an escalation through miscalculation and on to a greater war.
So we need a no-fly zone, but it needs to be a Ukrainian one. That means we need to give them the means. We’ve come a fair distance in doing that. At this point, there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of anti-air missiles in the hands of the Ukrainians. But we need to increase the altitude capability of the systems we give them, to go beyond the range of their Stingers. And above all, we need to get the Polish MiG-29s into the fight—like, yesterday. Those could be a game changer.
OR: You’ve written a very scary book about how World War III might start. How worried are you that this war could bring Russia and the West into a direct confrontation? Either because intense public pressure does cause NATO to impose a direct no-fly zone, or because of an accidental clash with a NATO country that then escalates?
Stavridis: I’m very concerned about that possibility, and we ought to do what we can to mitigate it by keeping open military-to-military communication channels. Gen. Mark Milley, our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, should be doing so with his Russian equivalent, Gen. Valery Gerasimov. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin should be speaking with Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu. We need to maintain these open lines of communication because almost sooner or later, an incident is going to occur. It could be an errant Russian missile that flies across the Polish border and lands on a U.S. command post. It could be jets in the air that lose track of where they are and enter NATO airspace. Or it could go the other way around. Or it could be at sea, with a U.S. destroyer being overflown in the Aegean by a Russian aircraft, and the commanding officer deciding she’s under attack and shooting it down.
All of these are real possibilities, and the danger is enhanced by the youth of the people involved. It’s not like U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is up there flying a Hornet. It’s some 29-year-old right out of the volleyball scene in Top Gun. It’s Goose or Maverick or Iceman. And his counterpart on the other side is just like him. So we need to be able to deescalate.
OR: As a former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, how do you think the organization will change in the months and years ahead?
Stavridis: I think the organization will change dramatically. Exhibit A would be the way the Germans have raised their defense budget to $100 billion. Russia’s defense budget is only $70 billion. To see the German nation unite and increase its defense spending so markedly is remarkable. I also think we’re going to see Sweden and Finland start serious conversations about joining the alliance.
We’re already seeing NATO move its cutting-edge troops to the borders of the Russian Federation, and I believe those units are going to end up permanently stationed there, not in barracks in Italy and Western Germany. I think they’re going to be in Poland, in Romania, in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This conflict is going to give Putin everything he doesn’t want. He’s a clever tactician, but he’s a lousy strategist. In two weeks, he has managed to completely energize the NATO alliance.
But it’s going to go beyond NATO. European energy dependence on Russia? That’s over. There’s will be nothing but air whistling through Nord Stream 2 for the foreseeable future. And Putin better hope like hell that his BFF, Chinese President Xi Jinping—who I think is having buyer’s remorse right now—is willing to be his phone-a-friend and consider buying more Russian oil and gas.
For four years, every time I was at a NATO summit or a conference, or I paid a courtesy call on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, I did nothing but talk about the need to increase defense spending and avoid dependence on Russian oil. And in four years I accomplished nothing in either of those regards. Now, in two weeks, Vladimir Putin has completed the NATO agenda for us. It’s come at a horrific price for the people of the Ukraine and to the international order, but if there is a silver lining in this, the alliance will emerge energized, capable, steady, and poised to deter Russia.
OR: You just mentioned Xi Jinping. What does the current war mean for U.S. efforts to counter China, which, until a few weeks ago, everybody viewed as the United States’ main adversary?
Stavridis: Putin is not the most significant strategic challenge to the United States, because his nation is so weak. He’s got a declining population and a very limited economy based almost entirely on hydrocarbons. He has almost no allies in the world. So he doesn’t pose a strategic challenge to the United States. China does. That doesn’t mean we’re going to go to war with China, but it means we have to have a coherent strategic plan to deal with the challenges of the U.S.-China relationship. That will require a military component, an economic component, a diplomatic component, a tech component, and a values component. We need an overarching strategy, and we have yet to construct that.
OR: How do you see the Ukraine war ending?
Stavridis: I don’t know, and anybody who doesn’t use those three words upfront is being overconfident in their ability to prognosticate. Having said that, I think the likely ending will be similar to what happened in the Balkans. Russia will end up dominating Crimea and much of the Donbas. The Russian portion of the Ukrainian population will gravitate toward southeastern Ukraine, and that will become another frozen conflict. The rest of Ukraine will have earned its respect and freedom by defending itself. I hope it prospers, turns to the West, and becomes an even stronger partner than it is today. No one will like that outcome. In the West, people will say, “Putin got away with it.” And Putin will say, “This is not what I wanted, I wanted to dominate all of Ukraine.” Both sides will be unhappy, but I think that’s probably how this ends.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.