The most likely solution that will bring an end to the war in Ukraine is an agreement that “everybody will hate,” James Stavridis, NATO’s Greek-American former commander for Europe tells Kathimerini.
“Putin will hate it because he knows he failed at his real objective of conquering the entire country. Zelenskyy will hate it because he’ll be the president who gave up 15% of the country. And the West will hate it because we’ll have to back off on some of these sanctions to get the deal,” he says.
The retired United States admiral admits being surprised at the “hard tenacity and spirit” shown by the people of Ukraine, saying that the poor performance of the Russian military is “embarrassing” for Russia.
Stavridis, who is also the co-author, with novelist Elliot Ackerman, of the dystopian geopolitical thriller “2034: A Novel of the Next World War,” also notes that we are witnessing the first war in the 21st century where drones and shoulder-fired missiles are destroying expensive tanks and other heavy armored vehicles.
You were the military head of NATO for quite a few years. Τhere is a bit of a debate about whether NATO leaders should have let the Ukrainians believe that they were going to enter the Alliance without at the same time offering a concrete security commitment. What’s your view on this?
‘Putin will not pick a fight with a NATO country. He’s like someone in a schoolyard who picks out the weak child to go and beat him up. Putin is not going to go after the big kids’
I was the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO from 2009 to 2013. So I had a front-row seat for this conversation and I will tell you very sincerely that the Alliance meant what it said when it spoke to the Ukrainians and said there will come a time when potentially you could ascend to membership in NATO. And just like other new NATO countries in the Balkans, for example, Croatia, Albania and others, you go through a process. And so for the Ukrainians, it was clearly going to be a lengthy process. I think that was communicated very fairly to the Ukrainians, certainly at the military-to-military level, and I believe that the Alliance was sincere in making that offer and I think it was the right thing to do as well.
How do you see developments on the ground in Ukraine so far?
I’ll give you three big observations at the very highest strategic level. First of all, like many, I’ve been surprised at the failure of Russia to consolidate this campaign. They came in with a bad battle plan. They were too diversified, too deluded. Their forces were spread too thin. Secondly, too many conscripts, too many reservists, lack of leadership clearly played a part in this. And then thirdly, logistics. The support to their frontline troops has been an abysmal failure. So point one, surprising to me how poorly the Russian military has done and that’s embarrassing for Russia, it’s embarrassing for Putin and probably 10,000 minimum killed in action by the Russians. It’s a real setback to their reputation as a military. Point two, the other side of the battle line. I’ve been surprised at the hard tenacity and spirit of the Ukrainians. They have fought unbelievably hard against a massive neighbor. Certainly they’ve been supported from the Alliance and from the West, but they have more than held their own. And now you see the Russians forced to pivot from their plan A, which was to sweep across the country, decapitate the government and put a puppet regime in place. That failed, utterly. Plan B now is to consolidate their forces along the southeast, along Donbas and try and get to a negotiated conclusion. That’s the Russian view. The reason the Russians had to fall off of plan A was because the Ukrainians fought so hard and because they were supported. I’m very impressed with Ukraine’s emotion and their strength and their determination. And finally, the NATO Alliance has held together very, very well. Here we see all of our nations roughly taking similar stances, supporting the Ukrainians, we’re moving troops closer to the borders of Russia. Germany has doubled their defense budget, pretty remarkable. Overall, I’ve been very pleased with the unity displayed by the NATO Alliance. So those are three big takeaways.
How do you think this is going to be resolved in the end? How long do you think it will take for this to end?
Well, I always try and look to history and think about what’s an example of something similar. The closest I can come to is 1939, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland. Same scenario. Massive Russian invasion. A small country. But the Finns fought hard. It’s called the Winter War. And they fought the Soviets to a standstill. Eventually, more power was applied, but at the end it became a negotiation. When the negotiation was concluded, Finland gave up about 10% of their country, but they continued as a sovereign nation, they accepted a position of neutrality. And frankly, I think this situation could come out in roughly that place. There are a lot of other potential outcomes here, but I would say it’s a 60-65% chance that we’ll see a negotiation that ends up with Putin in control of 10-15% of Ukraine, but the rest of Ukraine continues as a sovereign state, Zelenskyy remains president and the Ukrainians decide that for them, in this moment, neutrality makes more sense. Again, a lot of other options. And by the way, everybody will hate the deal I just described. Putin will hate it because he knows he failed at his real objective of conquering the entire country. Zelenskyy will hate it because he’ll be the president who gave up 15% of the country. And the West will hate it because we’ll have to back off on some of these sanctions to get the deal. So everyone will hate it, but that’s often how wars end, with some kind of negotiation and compromise. In other words, I don’t see total victory for the Ukrainians and I certainly don’t see total victory for the Russians. We’re probably headed toward a negotiation along the lines I described.
About the disaster scenarios that have been discussed: A, that Putin might move against other countries like Moldova or even Estonia, and B, that there is a chance of a nuclear exchange. Do you give any credence to any of these?
I think both of those at this point are extremely low-probability. I believe if Putin had executed his original plan, had swept across Ukraine, put a puppet regime in place, he would have been very tempted to continue on into Moldova, where he already controls a chunk of territory. That would have been a temptation for him. I think the chances of Putin attacking Estonia or any other NATO country are extremely low because he knows he can’t win. The Alliance outspends him 15-to-one. We have a four-to-one advantage in troops. We have a five-to-one advantage in combat aircraft. We have a four-to-one advantage in warships. Putin will not pick a fight with a NATO country. He’s like someone in a schoolyard who picks out the weak child to go and beat him up. Putin is not going to go after the big kids, and the big kids are NATO. So I think there’s a very low chance of Putin going any further, and also because his military has performed so poorly. On the second one, a nuclear exchange, again very low-probability. Certainly NATO is not going to use a nuclear weapon. For Putin, what would be the upside? What would he gain? A serious nuclear exchange is an apocalypse. It’s the end of the world. Putin is not crazy. He’s not irrational. From what I can see, he loves his family, he loves his country, he likes being alive. I don’t think he wants to wake up and destroy the world. Would he use a tactical nuclear weapon? I don’t think so. It doesn’t really gain him anything. He can use his long-range bombers and his missiles to accomplish the same effect. It’ll take a little longer, but using a nuclear tactical weapon in Ukraine would cross the threshold that I think even Vladimir Putin would hesitate in the extreme. Here’s what I worry about, however: chemical weapons. The use of nerve agents. We have seen Putin involved in that, at least in the background, in Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has certainly used chemical weapons. Could Putin use that and then try and blame it on the Ukrainians or on the West? Yes. For me, the most concerning scenario would be Putin choosing a weapon of mass destruction, nerve agent. And I’ll conclude by saying we know he’s quite comfortable using nerve agents because he poisoned his leading political rival Alexei Navalny. So he has no scruples about using chemical weapons, so that is the scenario I worry about the most.
Turkey, the East Med and Greece
Turkey is playing both sides, providing drones to Ukraine and not applying sanctions on Russia. How do you view the geopolitical game it’s playing?
I think Turkey is, first, doing something good, which is hosting the talks, and that no matter where you are in the equation, all of us ought to think it is good to have negotiations. And so Turkey has stepped up and is attempting to create a zone, a place where the two sides can talk. I also have been encouraged by the military capability that Turkey has made available to the Ukrainians, which I think has made a real difference. We could go back to another weapon system, the S-400, which Turkey has purchased from Russia, and I think that’s a mistake and it’s an example of Turkey becoming a bit too close to Russia. So President Erdogan, indeed, is trying to play both sides here, but at the end of the day, I am confident Turkey wants to be part of the NATO Alliance and will continue to do so. But I would personally be concerned if Turkey drifted anymore toward Russia than we have seen them already.
The last time we met, you predicted a possible confrontation in the East Med. Do you think events in Ukraine made this more unlikely, in the sense that it’s not so easy for somebody to be revisionist?
I agree with that proposition, that what is happening in Ukraine actually reduces the chances of an offensive move by somebody in the Eastern Mediterranean. I think any nation looking at the events in Ukraine has to recognize that, as we’ve said before, war is unpredictable. And once you start firing missiles, firing shells, firing bullets, you don’t know where a conflict will go. And therefore, I think that puts a cautionary note in everybody’s mind, operating in the Eastern Mediterranean. Additionally, because the US has effectively stepped away from the Syrian conflict, that was part of my concern and calculus. Here we had Russia and the United States, backing two different sides in the Syrian civil war. Unfortunately, Bashar al-Assad, with the immense assistance of Russia, has effectively won that civil war. As a result, the US has turned toward other issues, Ukraine, the Pacific. So I think that also reduces tension in the Eastern Med somewhat.
And what advice would you give to the Greek military leadership?
Well, first I want to begin by saying, and of course I am Greek American and have immense affection for Greece, but let me put that to the side and simply say, as a former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, wherever I saw the Greek flag on the shoulder of a soldier, I knew I was in the presence of a real professional, a soldier, a sailor, an airman. The Hellenic military is superb, and has been professional across the spectrum of NATO operation. So point one is, thank you. Point two, I would say, and I think all senior military officers are looking very closely at the conflict in Ukraine as tacticians and as strategists, and thinking, as we’ve talked about, special operations, unmanned vehicles. I’ll add one, which is maritime operations. And certainly Greece is a maritime power in many ways in the commercial space, it has as a very capable navy. I think that maritime operations are going to be very important. And cyber – again, that dog hasn’t barked yet, but be prepared for that. In terms of conventional forces, I think the Hellenic military is where it needs to be in terms of capability. I would add some additional focus, as we are in the United States, to those new methods and modalities of war.
‘The first wave of true 21st century warfare’
When I read your book, I was really struck by what a different battlefield landscape this is. I mean the drones, artificial intelligence, cyber etc. Could you tell us a bit about this? And did you see any of that playing out in Ukraine right now?
I think what we’re seeing in Ukraine is the first wave of true 21st century warfare. And the prime example will be when we do the history here. Putin’s use of tanks and heavy armor and armored personnel carriers. What happened? The Ukrainians destroyed those forces and they did them with shoulder-fired US-supplied Javelin missiles, British NLAWS and other simple inexpensive weapons. A tank costs 5 million, 10 million dollars. One of those shoulder-fired missiles costs 100,000 dollars. Do the math. It is very expensive what is occurring. Inexpensive weapons, like those man-controlled weapons, special forces using them: That’s a new wave in warfare. I’m not ready to write the obituary yet for the tank. But certainly tanks have not fared well in this war. And then, secondly, you mentioned it already, drones. These have been powerful on the battlefield. They continue to be. Particularly some of the new variant drones supplied by the United States, the so-called Switchblade, which goes up in the air and comes down at the weak point of a tank. Again, very capable use of drones. And finally – and this one has surprised me because we have not seen it – cyber. We have not seen Putin use capably yet, offensive cyber against the Ukrainians. That maybe because he is holding back those cyber tools, concerned about getting into a conflict with the West or wanting to use them against the West, in response to sanctions. But I would say that the new triad of warfare on the battlefield is special forces with those kind of high-tech weapons, drones, the unmanned vehicles, and the third leg of that triad is cyber, which we have not seen used in this war, but I think may be coming before this war concludes. In the book “2034,” of course because it’s set in the year 2034, those are the weapons that really dominate the battlefield by then and I think they will.
What do you think China is thinking? What kind of conclusions are they drawing from this conflict?
I think it is always important to put yourself in the shoes of another and think, “How does this look to me?” And I think to President Xi, it is a scenario unfolding that will make him more conservative about the potential of using military force against the island of Taiwan. Point one, he’s watching how hard the Ukrainians are fighting. He has to be asking himself what would be the spirit of the people of Taiwan. Secondly, he’s looking at the massive applications of sanctions on Russia by well over half of the global economy. He doesn’t want those kind of sanctions applied to China and, let’s face it, it’s a very different construct, given the size and scale of the Chinese economy. But he’s got to look at the unity of the West and be somewhat concerned about how it might play if he made a military move against the island of Taiwan. And then finally he has got to be concerned about the technology we just talked about. For China, if they were to make a move against the island of Taiwan, it would be a combination of what we’ve discussed, but also in naval campaign, obviously because Taiwan is an island. The ability to reach out and touch Chinese warships with the anti-ship missiles I think has got to concern him. So for all those reasons, I think the Chinese will continue to be patient. They are hopeful that, over time, they can convince the Taiwanese to join them. It’s possible. On the other hand, I think what is happening in Ukraine makes it less likely that China will make a sudden move militarily against the island of Taiwan.
But having read the book, I really want to ask you, if there is an incident in Taiwan, a blockade or an invasion, can you see any scenario where the US would actually win such a confrontation?
Yes, I can. And I think that just as we see in Ukraine, war has unexpected results, very frequently. And I’ll give you a perfect example from our shared national history, which is the Battle of Salamis, where a handful of Greek mariners destroyed the Persian fleet. Who would have predicted that? In terms of a naval battle today around Taiwan, I think it would be close. I think China has immense capability and a home-court advantage. They’re operating near their mainland, so they can bring land-based missiles to bear. The US would have to operate from its carriers and its ships or from distant bases like Guam or in the south of Japan. So it would be a close fight. But I, for one, believe the United States could succeed in turning back a Chinese attempt to militarily combat the island. And by the way, the Taiwanese are a very tough nut to crack. They have a lot of defenses, they’re very good at cyber, they manufacture most of the high-end chips made in the world today, they have a distinct culture and language, I think they would fight and fight hard. And if the US were involved, I think you’d have an unpredictable outcome. And that’s another reason that the Chinese, I think, would hesitate, because they’re not certain about how it would come out, and for President Xi having watched the Russian military fail, that has to be part of his mind. “How good are my forces?” Here’s the point: In war, you never know how good your forces are until the first bullet flies, until the first arrow leaves a bow. That’s when you discover how good your forces really are.
Germany made a huge turnaround in terms of defense spending. How do you feel about that? And do you see any risk down the road that perhaps there will be a decoupling between the European economies’ defense and the US. Or do you think NATO will always be the name of the game?
Nothing is forever, and certainly NATO is not forever. But I would bet on the Alliance being around for decades to come, because we share values, because the 30 nations in this Alliance at the moment share values. Democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, gender equality, racial equality. Look, it’s different in some of the nations, one level here, another level there, but those are shared values and I think that’s the basis of this Alliance, not defense spending or threats; all those matter, but it’s those shared values and I don’t see those changing. And therefore I think the Alliance will continue. And then, second point, I applaud the Germans for increasing their defense spending, getting up to the goal that Greece has met for decades, of 2% of its GDP applied to defense. It’s good to welcome the Germans into the 2% club. And I think that’s good for the Alliance also, that we all meet that 2% goal. We still have some nations in Western Europe that are not close to that goal, but I’m hoping that events that have unfolded over the last couple of months will turn on the light for some of the others as well.
And lastly, I want to ask you, because you are a strategic thinker, whether all of this, what we just discussed, could be thrown up in the air by Trump or another “Trump” being elected in the US, or some European leaders deciding that they want to move toward Russia.
I’m going to quote Winston Churchill, who is the most quoted person in history, I’m told. And Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Which is to say democracy is messy, it’s inefficient. You turn over and the Tsipras regime leaves and the Mitsotakis regime arrives and whether you support Tsipras or you support Mitsotakis, you experience turbulence and change. And here in the United States, Trump departs, Biden comes in, there’s turbulence. It’s the reality of democracy. But here’s my point: I would not bet against democracy. And if you look at the long throw of history, even 100 years ago, there were maybe 10, 15 democracies in the world. Today, there are perhaps 100, maybe more, who are democratic or near democratic. History is marching, and there’ll be setbacks and authoritarian countries will push back. China and Russia have been authoritarian nations for thousands of years. There’s nothing new there. What’s new is democracy, and I think what’s occurring here in Ukraine, put some money on the bet on democracy. And I’m going to stay with that bet, despite some turbulence in every nation in the Alliance. Overall, the door of history is swinging toward democracy.