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Former U.S., NATO Commander Says Putin's War In Ukraine Has Left Russia 'Vulnerable As A Nation'

Since his invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin's ability to return "as a respectable leader on the world stage is done," says retired U.S. Army General Curtis Michael Scaparrotti.

The former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe has said Russia is "not in a good position" as the 2-month-old Ukraine war grinds on, but that its newer focus on the east of the country will make it "a different fight."

Retired U.S. Army General Curtis Michael Scaparrotti also argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin's ability to return "as a respectable leader on the world stage is done" and Russians will have to come to terms with the harm that's been done to them as a "nation among nations," including through sanctions and other punitive measures.

"Russia is vulnerable, I think, as a nation at this point," Scaparrotti told RFE/RL's Georgian Service in a recent interview, "and the sanctions certainly have impacted their national resources and their economy, etc."

A West Point graduate, the 66-year-old Scaparrotti has commanded troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and has directed the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, in addition to his transatlantic commands.

He encouraged Kyiv to avoid rushing into possible peace negotiations.

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"I think Ukraine should not seek that until it's in a position of advantage, one that provides it a position to go into negotiations with the belief they can achieve what's acceptable to them as an outcome of this conflict," Scaparrotti said.

Responding to reports this week of Turkish efforts to set up a meeting between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Kyiv negotiator and presidential adviser Mykhaylo Podolyak said on April 27 that no such agreement had been reached.

Podolyak said "the time of a meeting of the two countries' presidents and the context of the meeting have not yet been determined," Reuters reported.

Scaparrotti predicted a "grinding and destructive battle" but said Russia's commitment of forces, its limited battlefield progress so far, and the international response all combine to temper presumptions that it can outlast its much smaller neighbor in a war of attrition.

"I think normally you'd say [time is on the side of] the larger country with the greater resources available -- that being Russia. But Russia has committed a substantial portion of particularly their ground forces to this campaign, and they've not done well," Scaparrotti said, noting the Ukrainians' use of their "asymmetric systems."

He said Russia appeared to be reconstituting forces that were repelled in Kyiv and building up logistics and command-and-control under the Russians' recently promoted commander, General Aleksandr Dvornikov.

The Russians' limited use of firepower to prepare for an all-out assault on eastern Ukraine, including around where Russia-backed separatists have controlled swaths of territory for eight years, invites questions about the next part of their campaign, he said.

'A Different Fight'

He said Ukrainians would have to continue to strengthen themselves for the fight, which has forced more than 11 million of them to flee internally or abroad as military, militia, and volunteer defense forces fight for Ukrainian independence and their own survival.

"It'll be a bit of a different fight, in the sense that they're [fighting] along the lines in Donbas that they've been on for years, and the Russians' intent will be perhaps to make a breakthrough in the north, near Izyum, and in the south around Donetsk city, and basically envelop that line," Scaparrotti said.

Ukrainian forces, he said, will have to reinforce their flanks and counter Russian forces from more fixed defensive positions on flatter terrain.

He said he expected a "slow, steady, grinding battle" rather than a swift blow from either side.

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"If there were to be a breakthrough, it would be a penetration on the flanks that would envelop or encircle a fairly significant part of the Ukrainian forces. I think they'd continue to fight, though, and it would still last weeks," Scaparrotti said.

He described a "Russian way of war" that is reminiscent of the type of intense conflict that targets population centers and is discouraged by many combatant countries.

"When they can't win through maneuver and with their forces, as we've seen in Syria and other places, they use overwhelming firepower, and they go after populated areas in order to bring about capitulation because of the devastation they're causing," Scaparrotti said.

"That's a part of the nature of warfare and high-intensity conflict, and it has been so over the ages. Russia is one that's still willing to use it."

He said Putin's new unified command under Dvornikov marks a more dangerous situation than when the Kremlin leader had three military district commanders sharing responsibilities.

Russian General Aleksandr Dvornikov (file photo)
Russian General Aleksandr Dvornikov (file photo)

"It's of benefit to the Russians to put him in charge, but I don't think it's necessarily a game changer, given that he is coming in at a time when the Russian forces' initial campaign failed. And they've been shown to have performed so poorly and to have logistical and communications problems. He still has to try to repair those, and he's fighting with a force that's already damaged."

He regards Putin's and other Russian officials' public actions and statements about nuclear-capable weapons like the Sarmat ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) as a sign of desperation to project power when conventional forces have faltered.

"Putin now has routinely rattled the nuclear saber, and he continues to do so, frankly, because I think he knows that...he has reduced his conventional advantage that he actually had prior to the 24th of February, and so this is his assurance," Scaparrotti said. "And I think we should expect that, but we shouldn't blink."

He said he thinks that, while the West was "probably slower" than it should have been at supplying Ukraine with weapons and other military aid at the start of the invasion, "we very quickly changed and picked up momentum."

'A Brave People'

He welcomed debates about whether to provide "offensive or defensive support" and which kinds of systems. "In a military mind, there's not much difference between an offensive and defensive weapon system," he said.

"Russia is really not in a position to challenge the West and expand this war, so we should lean forward and give the Ukrainians what they need now, with the intent that they can be successful and place themselves in a position of strength from which to negotiate," Scaparrotti said.

"And we can do that if we continue to provide them that equipment and provide them the training they need for newer equipment as well, which is another part of this conversation. They're brave -- a brave people -- and we need to provide them all the support they need."

Former U.S. Army General Curtis Michael Scaparrotti (file photo)
Former U.S. Army General Curtis Michael Scaparrotti (file photo)

He said the Ukraine war is among the lessons demonstrating "that we have to look at the transatlantic as a whole" and that each country needs to understand "this is a connected world today -- even a fight that Russia intends to be limited to Ukraine."

"They've said it's a 'special operation,' not a war, yet we all see that we're affected, that it's connected globally, that it impacts us all," Scaparrotti said. "And I think we need to look at it that way. We need to think strategically. We need to think long term."

Putin and his circle, he said, leverage distinctions and differences, "and they always have." He cited "splitting NATO" among Putin's "consistent objectives."

"We should give [Putin] less opportunity to do so," Scaparrotti said. "Now, having said that, each of these countries within NATO makes their own sovereign decisions. And I would hope that, over time, Germany, for instance, one of the most prosperous countries within Europe, will choose to put themselves in a better position with respect to energy so that they can be a bigger player in the long term, the right player, without risk to the population, which is part of their concern today."

The Russian nuclear threats, implied or otherwise, are part of a perceived credibility problem that Scaparrotti thinks Putin has created for himself more than two decades since the former KGB colonel was appointed to succeed outgoing President Boris Yeltsin.

"I think Putin's reputation as a world leader is eternally damaged here, and his ability to reenter as a respectable leader on the world stage is done," he said. "And I think Russia needs to understand the damage that's been done to them as a nation among nations. We cannot seek the former status quo."

He said Putin remains determined "to seek his objectives of a sphere of influence in the east [and] of destabilizing the international rules-based order."

"He's continually said that for years, and I don't think that this will dampen his enthusiasm if he were to reach some negotiated position that satisfies him for the time being."

Scaparrotti warned that the damage and alleged atrocities committed by Russia shouldn't be overlooked in pursuit of peace in the short term.

"If we do, I believe we will have to confront Russia and their aggression again in the future," he said.

Written by Andy Heil based on an interview by RFE/RL Georgian Service contributor Vazha Tavberidze
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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.