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'It's Not Napoleon Or The Wehrmacht. It's The Ukrainians': Military Strategist Sean McFate On What Could Stop Russia

Sean McFate, whose upcoming book is called The Sneaky War: Russia, China, The U.S. And The Emerging Strategic Paradigm, maintains that conventional war is dead. (file photo)
Sean McFate, whose upcoming book is called The Sneaky War: Russia, China, The U.S. And The Emerging Strategic Paradigm, maintains that conventional war is dead. (file photo)

In the eyes of American military strategist Sean McFate, Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February transformed a devastatingly effective strategy -- from the Kremlin's perspective, at least -- into a failed blitzkrieg and a validation of his assertion that "conventional war is dead."

Since then, he says, Moscow has abandoned the effort to "disguise war as peace" and is waging a campaign that is "more like terrorism than it is conventional war" in its targeting and tormenting of Ukrainian civilians. But as Russia bombards heating and other infrastructure to freeze out Ukrainians as winter sets in, says McFate, "it's not going to be Napoleon, it's not going to be the Wehrmacht. It's the Ukrainians," who are used to harsh winters.

The Tavberidize 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.

A former paratrooper and author of the influential book, The New Rules Of War: How America Can Win -- Against Russia, China, and Other Threats, McFate has been described by former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral Jim Stavridis as "a new Sun Tzu."

He is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a professor of strategy at the U.S. National Defense University and Georgetown University, and a consultant to the U.S. military and intelligence communities and the United Nations. His upcoming book is called The Sneaky War: Russia, China, The U.S. And The Emerging Strategic Paradigm.

RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Vazha Tavberidze interviewed McFate at length recently about Russian President Vladimir Putin's missteps, the West's path to overcoming "strategic paralysis" to defeat such autocrats, and the weight of "battlefield victories" versus just about everything else.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

RFE/RL: Let me start with this question. What have we learned in the Ukraine war, and has it reinforced or refuted any of the new "rules of war" you introduced? Or maybe it added a few?

Sean McFate: When the war started in February...a lot of my colleagues joked with me, "Hey, McFate, you said conventional war is dead." And my answer was, "Well, the war isn't over yet." This is when people thought the war would be over in three or four days. And sure enough, conventional war did not work for Russia.

They had a lot more success in 2014 when they did their own unconventional war. This year they launched a 1940s blitzkrieg, and it totally flopped. And in late March they switched; they pivoted to Russian unconventional war, which is basically massacring civilians and flattening cities as they've done in Chechnya, as they've done in Syria, and as they're doing in Ukraine.

Conventional war really is dead. There are much easier ways to win.

So I think what has been proven is that conventional war really is dead. There are much easier ways to win. Conventional war is hard to pull off in modern times.... Russia did a conventional war for about four weeks, and it failed. And there's no better symbol of its failure than that 60-kilometer convoy that was "moving to Kyiv" that was stuck. That's what conventional war looks like.

Conventional war is not just wars for terrain, and it's not just war with artillery rounds -- those things can be used unconventionally. What Russia has done is lobbed missiles into cities. That's more like terrorism than it is conventional war. Conventional war is the war of [Prussian general and military theorist Carl von] Clausewitz, it's laws of armed conflict, it's all of those things. It's not mercenaries. Russia's warfare is not conventional. People who confuse it with conventional today do not understand what conventional war is.

RFE/RL: Before talking about Russia switching tactics, there was a much-debated quote of yours in which you said that "the West has forgotten how to win wars." And yet to win a war, you at least should have the willingness to put up a fight. Is there that willingness today?

McFate: No, but this is part of our adversaries' strategy. Russia and China know that if they get European or American populations very engaged, as has been the case this past year with Ukraine, then those countries will put up a fight or support Ukraine.

If you can wage war but disguise it as peace, you can get away with it.

What they try to do -- although Russia didn't do this -- is they try to wage war but disguise it as peace. So if you can wage war but disguise it as peace, you can get away with it. Which is why Russia...used disinformation, they used mercenaries, they used "little green men," they used all these subversive tactics.

RFE/RL: A variation of "shadow wars," as you call it.

McFate: Yes, whatever you want to call it. That's how you win wars. The last thing you do is a huge public, conventional invasion, because all that does is galvanize the world against you. When Russia did that, that's when Sweden and Finland joined NATO; it actually got NATO closer together than to break it apart, which is what Russia really wanted to do.

It backfired because they used conventional war. If they had been more sneaky about it, who knows? But I don't think it would have been as bad as today.

RFE/RL: You said in 2015 that "Putin has a tsar's vision for 'Greater Russia,' and the strategic mind to achieve it." Yet this very strategic vision seems to be the one that opted for a 1940s kind of assault. What are we dealing with here?

McFate: Putin blew it, yes. He blew it big time. I don't know what happened over there in Putinland. For 21 years, he's been pretty masterful at slowly ratcheting up Russia's power from where it was in 1999, and then in 2022 he blows it all on the stupidest of strategies. So I don't know.

RFE/RL: Could it be that he does not buy into your theory that conventional wars are dead and he imagines this as an extensive prelude to a big showdown?

McFate: Well, obviously he has not done conventional war until recently. And it backfired. I think he probably regrets that now, or maybe he would come around to seeing why conventional war doesn't work. Now, why he did what he did, I do not know. I think part of it is that his inner circle probably became more and more yes-men, confirmation bias.

He also probably assumed that taking over eastern Ukraine would be like taking over Crimea in 2014, when it wasn't. He underestimated the political leadership of [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy and the will of the Ukrainians to fight. I mean, he made every sort of classic mistake of strategic assumption. I hate to say this, but in some ways it reminds me a little bit of the United States of America invading Iraq in 2003 -- I would say strategically boneheaded.

RFE/RL: You say that when conventional war failed, he switched tactics. He started targeting civilians, and you bring up examples like Grozny in Chechnya and Aleppo in Syria. We seem to be approaching that stage now, if the massive targeting of Ukrainian infrastructure is anything to go by. If this is the next step, what can Ukraine and the West do to counter this?

McFate: Putin's play here is, first of all, to use Russia's oldest ally, winter, to freeze the Ukrainians and erode their will to fight. Also it's going to freeze his own troops.

He's buying time to equip his new 100,000-man army for a spring offensive, and he's hoping that European allies will get sick of this, because the sanctions are hurting them as well and their will to support Ukraine will erode. And [he] is hoping that the American people will either be distracted by a new Kim Kardashian dress and lose interest or [the U.S. elections in] 2024.

The politics in the United States is starting to split over how far we go in supporting Ukraine. I think the current administration wants to turn Ukraine into a tar pit, like the Soviet-Afghan War. Some Republicans want that to be the case, but other Republicans are saying, "No, this is a civil war and we should not be involved," as if that's ever stopped the U.S. from being involved in anybody's civil war. But there's a debate that a year from now or six months from now could yield different policy choices in Washington, D.C., that could favor Vladimir Putin. So I think that's what's going on.

RFE/RL: What about the trust factor? Who's to say the United States will remain involved throughout? The United States probably has very noble intentions, but who's to say it's is not going to backpedal somewhere along the way? Because, let's be honest, it doesn't exactly have a perfect track record.

McFate: It's a good question. And I have nothing to give to you on that. Every presidential cycle, things can flip-flop. Also the U.S. has ignored these things in the past.

Let's not forget that in the early 1990s, the U.S. made a deal with Ukraine [known as the Budapest Memorandum] that "if you give us your nuclear missiles, we will give you security guarantees." And then it ignored the security guarantee.

This is a problem, not just for the U.S., but [because] international relations, in general, is [about] trust. And the U.S. particularly has some issues here, so I think it's an important question to ask. Countries have to have to take account of this.

RFE/RL: What can Ukraine do?

McFate: Ukraine has to keep on showing political victories, to get headlines. Basically Ukraine, in my opinion, has to convince the United States to remain involved. And what they need to do is [accomplish] things that are headline-worthy in the United States.

Ukraine has to keep on showing political victories, to get headlines.

Maybe they do something in eastern Ukraine against the Russians that aren't tactically so useful but are strategically really important because they make for great headlines that get attention. Keep on the David-versus-Goliath narrative. And pull off pranks -- like, you know, if they can do something in Moscow -- that is attention-grabbing, that shows that they are still in the fight.

RFE/RL: About winter, which has been one of the biggest allies of Russia since time immemorial. Isn't the hitch here that Ukrainians are also no strangers to winter? They are hardly Napoleon's troops.

McFate: And they're not Germans. Yes, you're correct. The difference also between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian soldiers is that Russian soldiers are more tempted to desert, because it's not their war, they have someplace they can be. But Ukrainians are defending their home.

Russia is still trying to freeze them out. But it's not going to be Napoleon, it's not going to be the Wehrmacht. It's the Ukrainians.

Ukrainians are no strangers to winter. And they certainly remember how winters starved them to death and 1932 and 1933 (the years of the Holodomor, the man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine.) There's a lot of historical imagination as well as morale. So you're correct: Russia is still trying to freeze them out. But it's not going to be Napoleon, it's not going to be the Wehrmacht. It's the Ukrainians.

And what they should try is to do psychological operations to encourage the Russian troops to desert. Because the Russian troops will get cold, will not be fed, [and] they'll realize they are cannon-fodder [and] that ultimately these [Ukrainians] are not Nazis, they're their brothers. So the Ukrainians should do everything they can psychologically to encourage desertion.

RFE/RL: What are your thoughts on the much-debated and divisive stance of U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, who said a couple of weeks ago after the freeing of the [southeastern Ukrainian] city of Kherson that maybe that was the moment for Ukraine to sit down at the negotiating table?

McFate: It's up to Ukraine to decide when or if they sit down at the negotiating table. When Milley said that, it's controversial; but the U.S. involvement in Ukraine is also controversial. There have been both Republicans and Democrats who have said, "Is this the time we leave?" Because the United States is kind of weary of getting sucked into other people's wars. Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam were not good experiences.

RFE/RL: To borrow from your vocabulary: Since when has that stopped the U.S.?

McFate: It's a great question. When has that ever been a principle of American foreign policy? But there are concerns about American stockpiles. It's not just bullets; we're [supplying] high-end rockets and things that take some time and money to rebuild -- even though, to be very clear, the [billions] that the U.S. is sending to Ukraine may sound like a lot of money but honestly the U.S. Department of Defense budget is outrageously expensive.... The U.S. Department of Defense's annual budget this year is a minimum of $780 billion, which is more than Saudi Arabia's GDP. So the U.S. can afford it, but it's a question of restocking things like HIMARS [rocket systems].

RFE/RL: If the Russians and the Chinese are perfectly aware that to engage in commercial warfare with the West, or the U.S., would be suicidal, as you say, then what's the point in worrying about restocking? Just give Ukraine what it needs now?

McFate: I think you raise a good question about economic warfare [and] supply-chain security. That's something the United States hasn't thought about thoroughly until very recently. If you have a global supply chain to build weapons and computers and vehicles, what happens if an adversary chokes off a little bit of that? So that's a concern. There are very many ways to win.

There are ways to win that don't require a big military or don't require a lot of missiles, and all sorts of things that you can weaponize if you're clever.

One of the things that conventional war ignores is the fact that it's about battlefield victory and only battlefield victory. But there are many other ways to win. And I think that clever strategists do that. There are ways to win that don't require a big military or don't require a lot of missiles, and all sorts of things that you can weaponize if you're clever. It's the Sun Tzuian way of war, the Art Of War.

RFE/RL: I'd like to ask you about a particular incident that was recently reported: the U.S. modification of HIMARS so the rockets can't be fired into Russia proper. Which new rule of war of yours covers that in particular?

McFate: I don't think any of them do, because I view states as declining in importance. I do talk about nuclear warfare, but on the oblique. So I do say that in our lifetime we may see a nuclear war; it may be a limited nuclear war, although we're not really sure what that is. But I think the problem here is -- and I think the Biden administration is correct -- that we don't want the U.S. and NATO to get sucked into a nuclear war with Russia in some sort of 1914 Sarajevo moment. So I think that's kind of what's at play here.

RFE/RL: What can the West do, then, to win the war on your terms -- let's say without firing a bullet? You write that "to defeat Putin, we must first learn to play by his rules." What would you suggest to do to out-Putin Putin?

McFate: A couple of things. First, if it were up to me, I would try to make Ukraine into their quagmire. The reason why that's important is not just to deplete the [Russian] military; it's to show the Russian people that their neo-tsar is not invincible.

Putin's legitimacy rests on him being a strongman, rests on him giving the finger to the West, to raising Russia's superpower status. If we can show that he can't do that any longer, then his own legitimacy and his own security become imperiled by both the right wing and left wing in Moscow's regime. So that is the first thing to do.

The second thing is: How do we break through, in the state media, the disinformation that they feed their own people? Can we use pirate VPNs? Can we use technology like Starlink to allow Russians to google anything they want? We don't have to have a counternarrative, we just have to allow them to ask questions like "What are we doing this for?" And make it known what the body count is, how many are deserting, and be truthful with them. I mean, Kyiv kind of plays with the numbers. I think if we can be truthful, like, "How many people deserted today or disappeared today?" that may make a difference.

The other thing is that Russia is an empire, as you know, and it's surrounded by countries and peoples who for hundreds of years have been under Moscow's imperial yoke. Let's prop up those countries. Let's do security-force assistance so they can be a thorn in the side of Russia and get Russia more involved in its own internal affairs.

RFE/RL: Do you mean some "Color Revolutions 2.0"?

McFate: Yeah, color revolutions, but also creating strong military forces that can -- the trick is we have to get Russia more interested in its own domestic security, and then it will pull out of Ukraine, it'll pull out of Georgia, it'll pull out of these places voluntarily [in order] to defend its own regime.

RFE/RL: When you mention those countries that the United States has to "prop up," would that include Georgia, for example?

McFate: I think so.

RFE/RL: And Armenia?

McFate: Yes.

RFE/RL: What exactly would be done there?

McFate: Security-force assistance. This would have to be done very quietly at first, but eventually security-force assistance so that Georgia has its own armed forces and its own paramilitary forces that can challenge, at least locally, Russian dominance -- whether [or not] that's creating an insurgency initially against Russia. But doing more than sending strong diplomatic notes. Can the U.S. assist countries in resisting Russian physical oversight?

Russia always plays offense against our…types of democracy, by trying to hack democracy; so let's try to return the favor.

To what extent is a good question, but I think it needs to be on the strategic table. It's not enough to give diplomatic high-fives at the UN Security Council; you've got to do things on the ground that matter. But this has been a problem. I mean, frankly, look at what the U.S. did in Latin America in the 20th century. It's been a disaster when they've done this. What that specifically looks like in, say, Georgia or Armenia, I don't know. But I think part of a larger strategy has to do this.

Another larger strategy is: Russia always plays offense against our…types of democracy, by trying to hack democracy; so let's try to return the favor. Autocracies are very strong, but they're very brittle. They're like a telephone pole, and at the top is all the lieutenants, and on top of that is the autocrat. The autocrat is always worried about his life expectancy. Can we covertly manipulate it [so] that some of Putin's lieutenants want to have a palace coup, so he kills them for us?

RFE/RL: Could [Wagner mercenary group founder Yevgeny] Prigozhin be a threat? Let's take ancient Rome, which Putin allegedly adores: It wasn't unheard of for mercenary commanders to have their own designs on the throne.

McFate: That's right. We can do our best to convince Putin that Prigozhin and the Wagner group are going to stage a palace coup. Then, you know, Putin kills them all for us. So are there ways to manipulate, to fool, to use trickery, to use brains not brawn, [even] false-flag operations, to do things that cause Russia to implode a little bit, enough where they decide that they are going to get out of Ukraine [and] get out of other places, as well. It's just not worth it.

The Wagner group, I think, has declined a lot. Initially, Putin relied on them because it helped disguise the costs of the war, a war that he thought would be short and easy. Russians, just like Americans, do not like seeing their soldiers coming home in body bags, but they don't care about contractors or mercenaries.

But then the war dragged on; all the Wagner guys got killed, for the most part, [and] they had to empty jails to fill the Wagner ranks. The effective Wagner guys ended up going to Mali, where they're still doing stuff there -- and now there's rumors of them coming back to lead sort of assault units this winter. But I think Wagner has played its course. They're still a part of the war. But I think the utility of Wagner was in February and March as a way to disguise the war, but that's over for Putin now.

RFE/RL: Say the mercenary cannon fodder kind of runs its course and now Putin declares a mobilization. What's that going to do to Russian mothers, who will not be so very happy to see their sons returning in body bags?

McFate: It's a political risk. Initially, Putin invaded with the Wagner group and conscripts from the periphery of Russia. Now he has recruited from core Russia, and it's a domestic political risk for him. He certainly remembers the 1980s; he was a KGB officer. So he's got to deliver victory and not with mass casualties, and he's taking a chance.

RFE/RL: What happens if those mobilized start returning in body bags?

McFate: Then he's in trouble. He's [at risk] of being replaced by either the right wing or the left wing, depending on who's stronger. I mean, the right wing like [political analyst Aleksandr] Dugin, and others are saying he's not man enough; and other Russians are asking "Why are we here?" Sort of like Americans on Afghanistan or Iraq. After a while it's, "What's the point? This is supposed to be a short and easy war? There are no Nazis. We're getting clobbered economically."

The two big questions are how much does it take for him to be removed or step down, or [does he make] use of some sort of nuclear weapon?

Putin's regime's staying power is going to be in jeopardy now. The two big questions are how much does it take for him to be removed or step down, or [does he make] use of some sort of nuclear weapon? You know, he's been talking back his nuclear weapon talk recently, which is good to hear. But still we can't ever forget about that, either. And we don't know; I don't know, at least.

RFE/RL: You say it would be in Washington's interest to turn Ukraine into a quagmire. And yet if Putin's latest speeches are anything to go by he is also preparing for that quagmire -- freely admitting that the war might take time and saying there have already been some benefits for Russia, pointing to territories gained or "annexed." Shouldn't this put to bed any notions of giving Russia security guarantees, which for example, French President Emmanuel Macron is so adamant about?

McFate: I disagree with Macron. I think that Putin has proven to be a snake; you can't make treaties with him. I think this war is going to go on for a while; I don't think it's going to be won or lost in the spring or the summer. And I think one thing that Putin could try to do, or Russia could try to do, is turn Ukraine into a landlocked country with three sides being Russian and just sort of cook Ukraine, cook them over the next couple of years.

That's a possibility. And if that's the case, I can't imagine NATO wanting anything to do with Ukraine. So if he could get that stretch [of territory] between Crimea and Odesa and seal it, hold it...if he could cut off Ukraine from the Black Sea, make it a landlocked country where only its western border is touching NATO, and just sort of have a siege, if you will, and keep it there for a couple of years, that wouldn't be necessarily a disaster for him, from his point of view.

RFE/RL: And your antidote to Putin doing that would be what you call your "sneaky war"?

McFate: Yes. Ultimately what the West has to do, at least what the United States has to do, is start to do the dark arts. That doesn't mean that the U.S. should fight like Russia. But it needs to find its own version of that and what it can live with. Because one of the big challenges of "sneaky war" is that democracies are not very good at secrets. And when they try to do these things, they turn into autocracies.

One of the big challenges of "sneaky war" is that democracies are not very good at secrets. And when they try to do these things, they turn into autocracies.

There [are] lots of examples of this in history. But there's also the problem of what happens if we don't try. And right now the United States doesn't really try -- it has the capability, but not the will. And it does some things, but not enough, in my opinion.

If the U.S. wants to stand up to Russia or China, they've got to start doing these other things in addition to what they're doing right now. Because what they're doing has not stopped Russia or China getting to this point. We used to do these things in the Cold War; we've just somehow forgotten over the last 30 years.

RFE/RL: The notion of "sneaky war," which is also the title of your upcoming book, suggests out-Putining Putin: being more cynical, more remorseless, having less moral boundaries, etc. Where does that lead us? Are there any pitfalls on that path?

McFate: Of course, there's a lot of risks. I'm not naive about that. If we're going to fight sneaky, if we're going to fight dirty, we risk our own democratic souls, and we risk blowback that can be worse than doing nothing. But here's the problem: People talk about the status quo as the optimal outcome. They're not thinking at all about whether there are better ways to achieve what you want to achieve, because what we're doing right now is certainly not working.

I mean, the U.S. military is buying more aircraft carriers at $13 billion a ship. It's not deterring anybody, it's not going to go to war against anybody. Why are we doing this? Also, we have to ask ourselves, this important question: Is it really somehow better to lose honorably than to win dishonorably?

RFE/RL: I cannot help but think many of your proposed strategies would feel at home in a computer war game. You say, "Let's make another revolution," or "Let's inspire Putin's lieutenants into a revolt." You make it sound as easy as clicking a mouse in Crusader Kings to assassinate a rival heir or plot a revolt. How applicable is that in the incomprehensibly more difficult reality that is ours?

McFate: It's always easy to discuss these things in the abstract, but on the ground these things are incredibly difficult to do: they're very risky, the risks of blowback are high. The law of unintended consequences. All these things come into play. I'm not naive; I used to be an operator.

But the difference is this: Currently there's so much caution that it leads to strategic paralysis, and I think that's not serving us. It's stuff that Russia and China and others have basically taken advantage of, have exploited. And I'm not saying we should do all these things. What I'm trying to do is get people to think about them, that's all.

Wargaming would be great, except that the Pentagon does not know how to do wargaming very well. And it reinforces the wrong lessons, so that's my concern. But I think your question is the right question to ask. The national security debate should be asking that question, not how many F-35s (combat aircraft) we should buy.

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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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