A Ukrainian soldier walks past a damaged residential building in the frontline town of Avdiivka in November.

Credit: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Radio Free Europe/Reuters

Editor's note:

Peter Bergen is a CNN national security analyst, vice president of New America, and professor at Arizona State University.

and host of the Audible podcast “In the Room,” also available on Apple and Spotify.

Bergen is the author of "The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World."

The opinions expressed in this article belong exclusively to its author.

(CNN) -- 

Two years after the start of the war in Ukraine, the situation has changed and Russian forces have some momentum, according to retired US general David Petraeus.


However, Petraeus stated that the Russians have suffered heavy casualties and that Ukraine can still resist Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion if it receives the necessary support from the United States.

Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which began disastrously for Putin, marks its second anniversary next weekend.

To gain insight into the state of the war, I spoke to former CIA Director David Petraeus, who was a commanding general during the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and is co-author with Lord Andrew Roberts of the new book "Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine".

David Petraeus has spent decades studying war and practicing its application.

He was the US and coalition commander in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and later was director of the CIA.

Credit: Michal Dyjuk/AP/File

This past weekend, General Petraeus was at the Munich Security Conference, the world's premier national security conference attended by virtually all European leaders and senior American officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The mood at the conference was somber, coming as the shocking news of Alexey Navalny's death broke and in the shadow of Ukraine's withdrawal from the key eastern city of Avdiivka, all of which highlighted impassioned calls for military aid. additional from the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Shortly after the conference ended, I spoke with General Petraeus.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

BERGEN:

What was the atmosphere at the Munich Security Conference?

PETRAEUS:

It was unlike any other Munich Security Conference I have attended in the past, and I have attended them since I was a commander and speechwriter for the High Allied Commander Europe in the late 1980s.

Typically, the American delegation is the one putting pressure on others to do more.

But on this occasion, the Europeans had never taken things so seriously, while on the American side there was considerable uncertainty: concern about the commitment of the United States to continue supporting Ukraine and concern about the willingness of the United States to continue exercising his very important leadership in the world in general.

There were encouraging elements: the Europeans are stepping up, for example, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on stage at the conference pledging to spend 2% of Germany's GDP on defence.

It must be taken into account that it is the third largest economy in the world, so this is a significant advance.

And NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that this year 18 of the 31 NATO nations will meet the commitment of 2% of GDP on defense, which represents a constant increase among European members.

Even though Europe has taken a big step forward, and the European Union, just before the Munich Security Conference, announced an additional €50 billion in aid to Ukraine, additional American support hangs in the balance in Congress. of the United States, and it is desperately needed.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and US Vice President Kamala Harris, along with members of their delegations, meet for talks at the Munich Security Conference on February 17.

Credit: Tobias Schwarz/Reuters

That said, many of the House members who were at the Munich conference, including some of the Republicans who are steadfast in defending and resisting Russia, believe that the votes are there and that they will be able to push this through. .

But the delay, indecision and uncertainty undoubtedly weighed on the atmosphere in Munich.

Putin notes the stagnation of legislation in the US Congress and the apparent inability to make a decision to support a democracy that broadly shares our values ​​and principles, however imperfectly, and that has been brutally invaded.

And then he looks at the US presidential election in November, and looks at some of the campaign rhetoric, and no doubt finds some hope in that as well.

BERGEN: Who is winning the war in Ukraine?

PETRAEUS:

I'm not sure either side is winning the war.

Obviously, the Russians have been gaining ground and right now they have the initiative, as they have just forced the Ukrainians to withdraw from Avdiivka, in the southeast.

  • Ukrainian forces withdraw from key town of Avdiivka after months of fighting

There are other areas where the Russians are attacking in the east and south and using massive amounts of artillery that usually destroys whatever they are trying to take and then using human wave attacks that are extraordinarily costly in terms of of casualties, and yet they seem to be able to sustain it.

Vladimir Putin seems unconcerned by these losses and still appears to be able to continue generating additional recruits.

One question, of course, is: Could there come a point where the Russian people, particularly Russian mothers, fathers and wives, say: "My son no longer, my husband no more"?

And there have been modest demonstrations to bring the boys home, although they certainly have not reached a substantial number nor have they been especially influential.


Russia also has a long history of not allowing opposition for a considerable period.

Alexey Navalny just died in prison (CNN: The Kremlin has denied accusations of involvement), and a Russian helicopter pilot who defected to Ukraine early in the war was just found shot to death in Spain (CNN: Moscow said I had no information on the matter).

Essentially, it is eliminating any illusion that the Russian Federation is anything other than a Stalinist dictatorship.

BERGEN: Are you surprised that we've been in this war for two years with no end in sight?

PETRAEUS:

Well, not necessarily.

Although the Ukrainians demonstrated truly impressive combat operations during the first year of the war, winning the battles of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, and Kherson, once the battle lines hardened and the Russians were able to establish defenses, the counteroffensive depended of the supply of certain weapons systems in a sufficiently timely manner so that the Ukrainians could deploy in large numbers.

And, obviously, that didn't happen.

Although the US-led response to the invasion has been very impressive in many respects, there were delays in certain decisions that meant that the Ukrainians did not have US tanks in time, for example, and that decision caused delays in the approval of the German Leopard tanks.

The Ukrainians also did not have the Western aircraft that would have provided air support to their ground forces.

The United States also needs to supply Ukraine with more long-range Army tactical missile systems, ATACMS, which allow the Ukrainians to accurately hit distant targets in Russian-controlled territory.

A Ukrainian soldier fires a Swedish-made howitzer at Russian positions in the Donetsk region in December.

Credit: Thomas Peter/Reuters

So, taking this into account, I think it's not a surprise.

Certainly, the Russians have learned certain lessons after not being able to achieve this during the first year or so of war.

They have found a way to generate replacement personnel and additional units, and Russia has put its economy on a war footing, and this is where reality comes in, as Russia has more than three times the population of Ukraine and an economy that is more than 10 times larger than the Ukrainian one.

With the support of the United States, I believe Ukraine will be able to at least maintain its current position, and even make progress in the only arena where Ukrainian achievements have been impressive: the western Black Sea.

There, through the use of anti-ship missiles, some produced in Ukraine, others supplied to Ukraine, and then the use of maritime drones developed by Ukraine, the Russian Black Sea Fleet has probably suffered losses of 30%.

It has been largely driven out of the western part of the Black Sea and has had to withdraw the bulk of its fleet from the critical port of Sevastopol in occupied Crimea, a port it has used for a couple of centuries.

And this is a critical achievement because it allows Ukraine to export its grain across the western Black Sea to countries highly dependent on it in North Africa, including Egypt in particular.

BERGEN: Last week the Pentagon gave a briefing to reporters, and they gave what seemed to me a pretty surprising estimate of the number of Russian forces killed or wounded: 315,000.

What's your opinion about it?

PETRAEUS:

These are shocking losses.

And yet, it seems that there is no concern in the Kremlin because it seems that they can continue recruiting through large enlistment bonuses in rural areas.

It must be taken into account, of course, that Putin is protecting the elite of Moscow and St. Petersburg;

the burden does not fall on them.

He is falling on these young people in much more rural areas.

Putin is certainly in a much better position than he was a year ago, for example, and that is obviously worrying.

But if the United States gets this $60 billion package passed and Ukraine makes critical decisions about how to increase its force generation, and that is a critical issue, and can continue to advance the development of both maritime and aerial drones, Ukraine , I believe, can not only maintain its position but, in certain cases, progress.

But that's a lot of assumptions.

There are many "ifs" that have to fit.

BERGEN: President Zelensky recently fired his army chief.

Do you think that will change things?

PETRAEUS:

I don't think this changes the fundamental issues that are the most significant factors that will determine the path forward for Ukraine.

Specifically, Ukraine has to face how to generate replacement forces, and it has to make a very difficult decision.

The Ukrainian parliament has to make some fundamental decisions about recruitment ages, keeping in mind that the average age of a Ukrainian soldier on the front is not the 18 to 23 years that I had the privilege of leading in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He is over 40 years old.

This is the result of their recruiting policies, and they are going to have to change it.

(Under Ukrainian law, men between the ages of 18 and 26 cannot be recruited, although they can volunteer.)

It's very clear that this is an emotional topic, understandably so, and it will be difficult, but it is necessary.

BERGEN: If Ukraine loses the war, what will happen next?

Would Putin feel qualified to attack a NATO country, or have Russia's losses in this war degraded its ability to invade another country?

PETRAEUS:

There is no doubt that Putin would not stop at Ukraine.

The question is how long it would take to regenerate the forces to use them elsewhere.

Moldova would undoubtedly be in the spotlight.

After all, there are still about 1,500 Russian soldiers on the ground in that piece of land, Transnistria, in Moldova.

Its attention could also be directed to the Baltic countries, whose existence it also resents.

His goals have always been to rebuild as much of the Soviet Union or perhaps the Russian Empire as possible, with him at the helm as Tsar.

BERGEN: What's happening in Ukraine is a lot like World War I, in the sense that it's trench warfare, minefields, machine guns.

Obviously, there are new techniques, like swarms of armed drones.

What do you think of this war?

PETRAEUS:

There are elements of World War I here: the trenches, the belts of defensive fortifications, the barbed wire, very, very deep minefields, enormous amounts of artillery, especially on the Russian side.

There are also tanks and infantry fighting vehicles from the Cold War era, which is largely what you see on this battlefield.

And then on top of all this, we have some pretty advanced drones.

Some are "suicide" drones.

There are also precision missiles in the air and at sea, and maritime drones.

Electronic warfare is also much more important.

There are activities in cyberspace.

There is even involvement of deep space capabilities that enable command, control and communications, Starlink satellite communications being, of course, one of them.

Ukrainian emergency services extinguish a fire in a residential building following a missile attack in the capital Kyiv on February 7.

Credit: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

And we have the arrival of the enormous transparency that comes with the ubiquity of smartphones, Internet access and social media platforms.

So it's really different from any previous context for war, and it gives us clues about the future of war that Andrew Roberts and I describe in our book, "Conflict."

BERGEN: The Biden administration and Congress have already sent about $75 billion in aid to Ukraine.

Why should Americans spend more funding Ukrainians?

PETRAEUS:

Because it is in our fundamental national security interest.

It is in the interest of our prosperity and the rules-based international order that we and our allies and partners established after World War II, which, for all its imperfections, generally served our interests and those of our allies and partners.

Other countries, Russia and its various confederates around the world, are trying to make the world safe for autocracy, not safe for democracy, and our interests and those of our NATO allies and the free world are defended now on the border between Ukraine and Russia.

This is not charity.

What we do around the world is not out of the goodness of our hearts.

It is by cold calculation.

It is in our national interest to do so, and if we do not do so, conditions in the world will change in a way that will not be positive for either our national security or our national prosperity.

BERGEN: Do you take former President Donald Trump's threats to withdraw the United States from NATO at face value?

What effect would that have on the alliance?

PETRAEUS:

The United States is, after all, the cornerstone of NATO's capabilities.

Although the Secretary General of NATO reports that this year 18 of 31 countries will reach the 2% of GDP spending on defense agreed upon approximately a decade ago, the US military remains the fundamental piece of any NATO operation and the deterrence of possible aggressors.

So NATO, in many ways, depends on decisions made in the Oval Office, and those recent statements were a cause for concern at the Munich Security Conference.

Every American who was there was questioned repeatedly about this, and the fundamental character of NATO and the alliance's deterrence would obviously be greatly undermined if the United States did not continue to play the role it has, led by presidents of either parties since the founding of NATO many decades ago after the Second World War.

BERGEN: What do you make of reports that Russia is developing some type of anti-satellite weapon, possibly with some nuclear component?

Wouldn't that be quite dangerous for all countries, potentially including the Russians, since they are as dependent on satellite systems as any other country?

PETREO:

It would be.

We should note that we don't know if the nuclear element here is for nuclear power, like some of our satellites, or if it is a real nuclear weapon, whether it is a nuclear powered satellite with some type of electromagnetic pulse weapon, or if it really It carries a nuclear device that could be used in an anti-satellite role.

The real challenge here is that this is enormously destabilizing, because the dozens of minutes that the United States now has to warn of some kind of significant nuclear attack would be dramatically reduced if the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance resources we have, many of them in the space, they were blinded and decisions had to be made immediately.

Then "crisis deterrence" would be dramatically undermined.

Therefore, it is very dangerous, very misguided and also very provocative


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Russian war in Ukraine