Why Russia is Losing: Gen. David Petraeus on the War in Ukraine
"Not only are the Russians not winning hearts and minds, they are alienating hearts and minds."
With the war in Ukraine now almost a month old, the fighting has entered an ugly stalemate. Russia’s once-vaunted military has bogged down in the face of Ukraine’s fierce resistance. With the possible exception of Mariupol, Russia has failed to capture any major cities, and with Ukraine launching counterattacks and ambushes, the Russians are suffering as many as a thousand casualties per day. As the invaders grow more desperate, they’ve begun the mass bombardment of civilian areas, causing a predictably high number of deaths; indeed, inflicting pain on civilians may be part of President Vladimir Putin’s strategy. Given all these developments, I decided that now was the time to hear from one of America’s most-decorated military leaders, the man who literally wrote the book on winning over civilians during wartime. Gen. David Petraeus led the 101st Airborne during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, before overseeing the drafting of the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency manual and commanding all coalition forces in Iraq from 2007 to 2008. Petraeus then ran U.S. Central Command, led coalition forces in Afghanistan, and served as CIA director under President Barack Obama. We discussed the reasons for Russia’s surprisingly bad performance in Ukraine, how the conflict is likely to play out, and the parallels between that war and the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Octavian Report: Why has the Russian military performed so much worse than expected?
David Petraeus: There are numerous reasons. First, Russia is facing very capable Ukrainian forces and a citizenry that are fighting for their survival, have the home-field advantage, and are fiercely determined to defend their country. Second, the Russians have been surprisingly unprofessional in numerous ways, from tactical tasks to overall operational concepts. Third, the vast majority of the Ukrainian population hates the Russians, and that hatred is growing every time a civilian building gets hit and civilians are killed. Not only are the Russians not winning hearts and minds, they are alienating hearts and minds, and that is helping to galvanize the entire Ukrainian nation.
The Russians have also been surprisingly poor at performing basic tasks like employing armor, infantry, engineers, artillery, and mortars to achieve combined-arms effects. They seem quite inadequate at maintaining their vehicles and weapons systems, and they have abandoned some of them when they’ve broken down. They don’t appear to perform sufficient preventive maintenance and are also generally struggling to provide sufficient logistics support to their forces.
The Russian military also lacks one of the key strengths of U.S. and Western militaries, which is a strong, professional noncommissioned officer corps. To make matters worse, the Russian military uses a fairly substantial percentage of conscripts. It’s very hard to determine how many of them are in Ukraine, but in the Russian military overall, around 20-25 percent of all troops are conscripts. And there are particularly large numbers of conscripts performing logistics tasks—including driving trucks and fuel tankers and maintenance vehicles. That might explain some of Russia’s problems in these areas.
Early on, the Russians also struggled to move off-road. The ground was not frozen the way they had hoped it would be, so their wheeled vehicles got stuck in the mud very quickly, and even their tracked vehicles had problems. With spring rains not far off, the traffic issues could get even worse (though it has been relatively dry in recent days).
Beyond that, the Russians have fielded less impressive equipment and soldier kit than expected, given how much money they reportedly spent on their military over the last 10 years or so. Their communications have proven unsecure and vulnerable to jamming—one reason that generals and other commanders have had to move to the front to find out what’s going on, leaving them vulnerable to snipers. The Russians’ precision munitions don’t seem very precise. That’s presumably why they weren’t able to make Ukraine’s runways inoperable in the first hour of the war, the way the United States did in Iraq in 2003, making it impossible for the Iraqi Air Force to take off. In fact, the Ukrainian Air Force is still flying. Meanwhile, the Russian Air Force has been unimpressive in providing their troops on the ground with true close air support just beyond the front line of their forces. Instead, they’re generally been carrying out attacks that are disconnected from ground maneuvers.
You can also see the lack of precision munitions in the sheer frequency with which the Russians are hitting civilian infrastructure—unless they truly meant to hit those targets, which would be barbaric and criminal.
The Russians also have problems doing very basic tasks, like staying spread out and dispersed and seeking concealment when stopped for any period of time. A vehicle column should never close up and stop in the open on a major highway where it can be spotted by a drone and hit by artillery, as happened last week. The 40-mile Russian traffic jam we saw outside of Kyiv—that was sheer incompetence. And it took them days just to get that column under tree cover.
On top of all those shortcomings, the whole Russian campaign was clearly was based on wildly mistaken assumptions about how quickly they could take Kyiv and how quickly they could topple the government and replace it with a pro-Russia regime.
I should note that it does appear that the Russians are now making some adjustments in response to their appreciation for Ukrainian strengths and weaknesses—for example flying more bombing missions at night, when Ukrainian air defenses are less effective, and digging into defensive positions outside cities and pounding them with rockets, missiles, artillery, and bombs, rather than trying prematurely to seize them. But it makes one wonder what those forces were doing during the months of supposed training before the invasion was launched.
OR: Russia seems unable to send more men or equipment to Ukraine. Why is that?
Petraeus: The Russians do appear to be scrambling to replace their casualties and equipment losses, which seem to have been much higher than they expected—their killed-in-action numbers already nearly double our losses in 20 years in Iraq. They are scouring the eastern military district and Georgia, Chechnya, and Syria for additional troops, foreign partners, and mercenaries. They are also reportedly extending the one-year tour of duty for their current cohort of conscripts—which would have ended in April—and are bringing on the next cohort early. All that bodes ill for Russia; at some point, its units will take so many losses that they are no longer combat-effective (that is, they will be unable to accomplish their mission without being reconstituted with new personnel and equipment). Russia will also need to rotate its forces out of combat at some point and replace them with others units, as the United States did over the years in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it’s not clear how they’re going to manage that.
OR: Why did the West overestimate Russia’s military?
Petraeus: I think it’s because we were unduly impressed by reports of Putin’s investment in the modernization of Russia’s forces. And we’d not seen them try to conduct large-scale operations against a determined, capable enemy. Over the last 30 years, most of Russia’s military operations have been against the forces of small countries such as Georgia—an important brigade of which was in Iraq and under my command when the Russians attacked in 2008. Or they’ve fought against extremists and insurgents—like in Chechnya, where Russian forces ultimately destroyed Grozny and many other built-up areas—and in Syria, where Russian forces largely provided bombing support for Syrian forces and Hezbollah, destroying and largely depopulating Aleppo in the process. What Russia is trying to do in Ukraine is incomparably more challenging. Remember that Ukraine is about the size of Texas, but before the invasion it had about 13 million more people. And Kyiv covers 320 square miles, 20 more than New York City.
OR: What do you think of the wisdom of a NATO no-fly zone for Ukraine?
Petraeus: I understand the desire of those advocating for one. But however it is configured and named, it would inevitably require U.S. aircraft to enforce it by confronting—and likely shooting down—Russian aircraft. It would also likely require taking out Russian air-defense assets on the ground. And those actions could result in an escalation of the conflict that could be quite worrisome. It is for those reasons that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and President Joe Biden, among other NATO leaders, are understandably unwilling to commit to such a mission.
OR: Are you worried that Washington may nonetheless feel pressured into imposing a no-fly zone?
Petraeus: It seems pretty clear that President Biden is not willing to reconsider his decision. In the absence of that, what Ukraine really seems to need right now is more air-defense assets, ideally ones that can not only shoot down aircraft flying higher than Stingers can engage but also take out missiles and rockets. Reportedly, additional air-defense assets are now on their way to Ukraine. I would love to see additional aircraft provided, if that could be done quietly and relatively clandestinely.
OR: How should NATO respond if Russia uses weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine?
Petraeus: Severely. But NATO should not publicly detail precisely what its response would be, since that response is impossible to decide on in advance given the myriad possible contexts.
OR: How, if at all, should the Biden administration increase its military support for Ukraine?
Petraeus: More air defense assets—and from all NATO nations, not just the United States. And many more than the 100 Switchblade “suicide drones” being provided, including ones with larger warheads that can wreak havoc on vehicles. The Switchblades could be a game-changer if provided swiftly and in sufficient numbers.
OR: How real is the threat that Putin will retaliate against the West for its support of Ukraine? We’re seeing more and more stories about Western fears of Putin lashing out, but those strike me as a bit far-fetched.
Petraeus: It’s very hard to say. The chances are certainly greater than zero at this point, but still quite low, as the last thing Putin needs is a fight on another front and even greater NATO unity. Nonetheless, given Russia’s nuclear arsenal and Putin’s saber-rattling a couple of weeks ago, this danger has to give pause to those sitting in the situation rooms of NATO nations.
OR: What else can NATO and the United States do to respond to Russia?
Petraeus: We haven’t yet discussed the unprecedented economic sanctions that have been imposed and the enormous financial actions that have been taken, nor the withdrawal of hundreds of Western companies from Russia. These have all been generated very swiftly, and more such actions are being taken every day. They could, over time, prove the decisive element in the strategic battle of attrition between Moscow and Kyiv, even as the physical battlefield has settled into a bloody stalemate.
OR: What are the parallels between the Russian war in Ukraine and the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what should those parallels teach us?
Petraeus: Clearly each of those wars demonstrates the importance of leadership at every level, especially at the top. But the contexts of each of the wars is unique and very different. That makes it very difficult to say, for example, whether an Afghan version of President Volodymyr Zelensky could have galvanized and led the Afghan forces and people in mounting a coherent, determined defense against the Taliban without U.S. air power—and, critically, without the thousands of western contractors who, until the U.S. withdrawal, were maintaining the sophisticated U.S. planes and helicopters we provided to the Afghan Air Force.
Ukraine also reaffirms what we revalidated in Iraq and Afghanistan: that hearts and minds do matter. We were applauded when we invaded Iraq and toppled the murderous kleptocratic regime of Saddam Hussein. And even in the toughest days that followed, the vast majority of the Iraqi population was at least tolerant of the Western presence—and became supportive again when the Surge [President George W. Bush’s 2007 troop increase] restored security and pulled the country back from a Sunni-Shia civil war. The same was largely true in Afghanistan, where the Taliban regime was not loved and where many of the people celebrated their toppling by playing music, shaving their beards, and sending their girls to school.
In contrast, I can’t imagine the extraordinary challenges the Russians face in Ukraine: invading a country where virtually everyone hates you and many of the adults are trying to kill you. With every additional civilian life lost, the Russians only make their task more difficult.
OR: How linear and consistent is fighting in a war? Will Ukraine be a continual slogging battle of attrition until one side is ground down, or will one side’s military capabilities and/or will to fight simply crack at some point, causing a relatively sudden phase change? If the latter, what are the precursors to look for?
Petraeus: It’s always hard to tell when an enemy is about to crack. If Russia’s reported losses of troops, weapons systems, and vehicles are not wildly inflated, however, there may already be a number of Russian units that are combat ineffective, and there have to be others on the edge of becoming ineffective. That points to challenges overall in the weeks ahead, particularly for those Russian units under pressure, such as those around Kyiv and Kharkiv. Units elsewhere are likely are in somewhat better shape and will continue to fight, unless logistics shortfalls undermine their ability to do so.
At the end of the day, though, the real battle is the one between the leaders of Ukraine and Russia. And I suspect that the losses, damage, destruction, and displacement of people will ultimately lead both President Zelensky and President Putin to make compromises that, before the invasion, would not have been acceptable to either. The question is how long that will take.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.