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Interview: The Daunting Challenges Of Ukraine's Counteroffensive

In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, retired British General Sir Alexander Richard David Shirref talked about managing expectations as Ukrainian counteroffensives target dug-in Russian forces, the pressure to succeed given the level of its international support, and his argument that Kyiv's allies must "double down" on war economies -- or else.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, retired British General Sir Alexander Richard David Shirref talked about managing expectations as Ukrainian counteroffensives target dug-in Russian forces, the pressure to succeed given the level of its international support, and his argument that Kyiv's allies must "double down" on war economies -- or else.

Retired British General Sir Alexander Richard David Shirreff is a former deputy supreme allied commander Europe and author of the novel War With Russia: An Urgent Warning From Senior Military Command, which the author described as "fact-based, entirely plausible."

In that 2017 book, written nearly a decade after Russia's lightning war with Georgia and three years after Russia occupied and annexed Ukraine's Crimea, Shirreff cited growing risks to Russia's neighbors, including NATO, and pleaded for a new Western mindset to respond to those threats.

The Tavberidze Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

In a wide-ranging interview last week with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, he talked about managing expectations as Ukrainian counteroffensives target dug-in Russian forces, the pressure to succeed given the level of its international support, and his argument that Kyiv's allies must "double down" on war economies -- or else.

RFE/RL: Russia has claimed it downed two drones that were apparently attacking the Kremlin, and they blame it on Ukraine, saying the intent was to assassinate President Vladimir Putin. Roughly one month ago, a Washington Post report claimed that for the Victory Day anniversary [on May 9], Ukraine was planning to carry out mass strikes on Moscow and other Russian cities [but] was dissuaded by Washington: Moscow was considered off-limits.

Then Politico reported that Ukraine was unwilling to share counteroffensive details with the Americans after recent U.S. intelligence leaks. Finally, there's the May 3 development in which these two drones were downed, and Russia claimed Ukraine was behind it all, that they wanted to kill Putin and called it a "terrorist" act and is reserving the right to respond in kind. What do you make of all of this?

Alexander Richard David Shirreff: Well, it's frankly a bit rich of Russia to start complaining about attacks on Moscow when Russia has launched multiple attacks against every single Ukrainian city ever since the start of the war on February 24, 2022. I was in Kyiv last week, and I spent most of the night in a bomb shelter because Russia was launching cruise missiles against Ukraine. So frankly, it's a bit rich. Ukraine is fighting a war of national survival, and in a war of national survival you have to be prepared to take your fight to the enemy.

I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Ukraine is reluctant to share details of its counteroffensive plans with America after the unbelievable leak of information, because America is a very leaky sieve, as we saw with a 21-year-old IT consultant specialist in the National Guard having access to an extraordinary array of secrets. So quite right of Ukraine to guard its details very, very closely to those who need to know. And that's a basic principle of war: security. And that applies to security of intelligence as much as security of a force.

RFE/RL: Does it not keep Ukraine at a massive disadvantage, creating a sanctuary on Russian territory like that?

Shirreff: You've got to have a sense of perspective there. Ukraine's military aims are to evict every single Russian soldier from sovereign Ukrainian territory and to protect itself. Now I don't know whether these alleged drone attacks were Ukrainians. I mean, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if this was Russian disinformation in order to probably drive a wedge between Ukraine and perhaps America -- because yes, the Americans are, absolutely rightly, determined to avoid further escalation into the nuclear sphere -- so of course they're going to be concerned if Ukraine is attacking Russian soil. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if it's Russian disinformation designed to get America to lean on Ukraine to tone it down a bit.

A still image taken from video shows a flying object approaching the dome of the Kremlin building during the alleged Ukrainian drone attack in Moscow on May 3.
A still image taken from video shows a flying object approaching the dome of the Kremlin building during the alleged Ukrainian drone attack in Moscow on May 3.

RFE/RL: What do you expect from the [reportedly] looming Ukrainian counteroffensive? Over the last few months, I've interviewed two dozen, if not more, top army generals, and military experts, and the overwhelming consensus is that Ukraine will try to liberate the Kherson and Zaporizhzhya regions in the south, try to cut off [occupied] Crimea [from Russian-controlled territory] to destroy the land bridge, and so on. Is this a foregone conclusion? Because if it is, surely Russia also has seen that and has prepared accordingly? Is there room for tactical surprises here?

Shirreff: Well, nothing is a foregone conclusion. That's the first point I'd make. The second point is that I clearly don't know what Ukraine's plans are; I don't need to know, I don't want to know, and they wouldn't share it with me anyway. I think we have to understand a couple of points. Yes, I'm sure there has to be a counteroffensive. Ukraine has to retake territory. It's got to be able to demonstrate success after the support that it has been given by NATO countries and other partners.

But I think also we have to remember -- and you've sort of touched on it yourself -- that Russia has the vote, too. The Russians have spent the winter [there], they were able to stabilize the front lines after the catastrophes east of Kharkiv last year, and then, of course, the recapture of Kherson. There has been an incredibly bitter attritional fight over the winter, with a series of Russian counteroffensives which by and large have failed.

They haven't certainly delivered the Donbas to Putin, which was the intent. But at the same time, Russia has been able to build significant defenses, lay significant minefields. So, breaking into those defenses and minefields is going to be a major, major issue, a major challenge for Ukraine. It's one of the most difficult operations of war: a deliberate attack against well-defended positions.

RFE/RL: Which also has numerical superiority. My understanding is that usually it's the party that goes on the offensive that has three to five times numerical superiority against the defenders, and even then, success is not guaranteed. And here we have an offensive force attacking a defensive force which enjoys numerical superiority, correct?

Shirreff: Well, of course, it all depends on where you attack. And what you don't do, as a general military principle, is you do not attack where the enemy is strongest. And that's where deception and surprise are fundamental principles. So, what you aim to do is concentrate your force where the enemy is weakest. And you may not, on the face of it, have numerical superiority. But if you're clever, and you catch the enemy off balance, there are plenty of examples in military history where the inferior numerical force has succeeded.

But as a general principle, I would say that we have to manage expectations here. And my sense is -- and perhaps I sound cautious here, I don't want to sound gloomy; I would love for this coming counteroffensive to achieve a catastrophic defeat on Russia -- but I think the chances of doing that must be quite low.

A Ukrainian soldier fires a grenade launcher on the front line in Bakhmut on April 10.
A Ukrainian soldier fires a grenade launcher on the front line in Bakhmut on April 10.

I think they will succeed, but it seems to me that what we should be looking at, given the amount of Ukrainian territory that has been occupied by Russia, is that this is likely to be a lengthy campaign still, a series of counteroffensives -- concurrent, sequential -- each of which is likely to take a fair amount of time to prepare for to build up troops. And the trick is going to be to launch these counteroffensives as a series of hammer blows that get the Russians off balance. But you need to be able to follow up quickly to keep them off balance. But I still think that's likely to take some time.

Meanwhile, of course, Ukraine still has to defend the front line across over 1,000 kilometers in the east against continued Russian attritional attacks. So rather than assume that there will be a single counteroffensive and Ukraine will achieve all its military ends -- this isn't going to be over by Christmas -- I think we're looking at potentially a two- or three-year campaign here.

And the "so what?" out of all this is the paramount importance of NATO support, Western support, to give Ukrainians the tools to do the job. And this means a fundamental mindset shift in NATO countries, which need to start developing and investing in, effectively, a war economy to manufacture and generate the ammunition, for example, the military equipment, required to sustain Ukraine over a lengthy campaign.

RFE/RL: "With or without warplanes, Ukraine will begin its counteroffensive." This seems to be the official Kyiv position. How costly might that lack of warplanes prove?

Shirreff: It depends on how clever the Ukrainians can be, fighting from the disadvantage of [lacking] the sort of state-of-the-art warplanes that they have asked for and that they absolutely need. I think we have to respect and admire the way Ukrainians have demonstrated that, despite apparent military disadvantages, they've demonstrated they're more than able to overcome them. But, in a sense, you have to do the math.

The reality is that advanced Russian fighter aircraft are more capable, in terms of being able to identify targets at range and then to kill those targets at a range greater than the very best aircraft -- the MiG 28s and MiG 29s -- that the Ukrainian Air Force have got. If Russia understands and can learn how to use its air force, that's going to put Ukraine at a disadvantage. But thus far Russia has not been able to demonstrate it knows how to use its air force properly. And so, I put great trust in Ukrainians' ingenuity.

However, I also think that it is long overdue that the Western alliance delivers precisely what Ukraine needs in the air, which is F-16s. And there's been a lot of talk from our specialists about the time it takes to train a fighter pilot, etc, etc. Of course, if this [training] had started on February 24, 2022, or even, as it should have done, in March 2014, when the Ukraine war started, then Ukraine would be in a very different position now.

RFE/RL: What are the chances of Ukraine successfully pulling off this vaunted combined arms maneuver?

Shirreff: Oh, I think they will do this. I think the Ukrainians will be able to deliver a successful combined arms attack in a counteroffensive, a forthcoming counteroffensive. But I just say again what I said earlier about cautioning people to have reasonable expectations and not expect that this is going to be one round and Ukraine is free. This is going to require sustained campaigning over a longer period of time and sustained support from the West.

RFE/RL: In a piece published in January, you said that "now, more than ever, the West has to ensure Ukraine has all the support to fight," and "we must double down." I have a reasonable suspicion that I know what your answer to this might be, but has the West doubled down?

Shirreff: No, it hasn't. "Doubling down" means giving Ukraine the F-16s, the ammunition they need. And it means implementing a war economy in each Western partner in order to ramp up the ammunition supplies and capabilities and other military equipment. And also, "doubling down" means building up NATO's own military forces. So, I would look to see defense spending going up to 4 or 5 percent of GDP. And that means adopting a mindset that says, "We've got to be ready for the worst case."

I've been saying this since the very start of the war. The West has to be ready for the worst case. What is the "worst case"? It's war with Russia. We are a long way short of that, [but] that [new mindset] is simply not happening.

RFE/RL: How realistic do you think that the prospect of direct confrontation with Russia has become since the Ukraine war?

Shirreff: Either the West doubles down now to give Ukraine the tools it really needs to do the job in a series of sustained counteroffensives, or the West faces -- I think NATO faces -- the very real possibility in two to three years' time of potentially having to intervene to support the Ukrainians [to] achieve final victory. Because there's only one outcome of this; it's got to be victory. This is a war not just against Ukraine; it's a war against the West. And I would include, by the way, the fact that Georgia is firmly part of the West, as is Ukraine part of the West.

And you understand, in Georgia, the reality of Russian offensive operations because 20 percent of your country is occupied by Russia. That penny hasn't dropped in this country yet. We cannot accept a decade of a new Iran-Iraq war on Ukraine's eastern flank, because that is Europe's security…. Russia [is] determined to rebuild a second Russian Empire, [and] if it gets a negotiated cease-fire, it will just rest, recover, and start all over again -- and not only will Ukraine be in its sights as a target, but [also] Georgia, Moldova, the Baltic states, eastern Poland…. And we have to recognize that once again in Europe there is a bloodstained autocrat prepared to inflict unspeakable suffering on peaceful democratic neighbors to further his own imperious ambitions. We've been here before in 1939 to 1945. And we're here again.

RFE/RL: Do you see [the West] being ready for a direct confrontation against Russia in four or five years' time?

Shirreff: It's going to take three or four years to get ready to fight. And unless that mindset shift changes now, the West won't be ready.

RFE/RL: What happens then?

Shirreff: Then it turns into a long-running, bloody, attritional battle on Ukraine's eastern frontier. Think back to the 1980s, the Iran-Iraq War. Unless, of course, Ukraine achieves military success as a consequence of counteroffensives, which it could still do -- so let's look at the optimistic side, as well. But we have to look at the best and the worst case.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg meet in Kyiv on April 20.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg meet in Kyiv on April 20.

RFE/RL: One could argue that part of a changing mindset in the West, in NATO in particular, would be Ukraine actually becoming a NATO member. I know it's a cause that you're championing. And let me ask you this billion-dollar question: How do you plan to persuade the longtime skeptics?

Shirreff: There is very little to do to persuade people that the only way Ukraine and Europe can be secure is if Ukraine is a member of the NATO alliance, and I would also include Georgia and Moldova in that, as well. That is going to take time. But I think what we would be expecting from the [NATO] Vilnius Summit [scheduled for July 11-12] is a clear signpost that starts with the strongest realistic and effective bilateral security guarantees and leads ultimately to NATO membership, perhaps at the Washington 75th-anniversary conference summit in 2024.

RFE/RL: Let's talk about Russia. According to [Western] estimates, in the last five months alone there have been more than 100,000 casualties for Russia. How sustainable is this? Is there a chance they will kind of replicate the success of World War II, where this sheer disregard of their own troops' lives was actually one of the determining factors as to why the Soviet Union came out on top?

Shirreff: How sustainable?... I think it's infinitely sustainable that Russia will scoop up expendable manpower and pile it into the fight. The question, I think, is how capable they are of equipping them properly. And if Russia is having to dig out T-55s from the 1960s and deploy those from stocks to the front, that tells me that Russia is running out of equipment.

Will Russia be able to replicate what the Soviet Union did? No, no way, fundamentally. Because the Soviet Union fought a war of national survival, which mobilized the population in defense of not only Mother Russia but of Ukraine, of Belarus, of all the [Soviet] republics. This is a war of aggression, and ultimately Russia will not be able to sustain that.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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