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Interview: Mobilizing Hundreds Of Thousands Of Russians 'Doesn't By Itself Give You A Capability'

Russian conscripts line up at an assembly station in Kazan following Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement of a partial military mobilization in September.
Russian conscripts line up at an assembly station in Kazan following Russian President Vladimir Putin's announcement of a partial military mobilization in September.

Retired Major General Clive (Chip) Chapman spent decades as a paratrooper, battlefield commander, instructor, and served as the British Defense Ministry’s head of counterterrorism. He also served a stint as Britain’s senior military adviser to U.S. Central Command.

Chapman has drawn on his operational, tactical, and strategic experience to provide frequent public commentary and analysis on the course of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Chapman spoke to RFE/RL’s Georgian Service ahead of the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion about whether Kremlin war planners’ apparent attrition strategy can work, Moscow’s “deep battle” for territory and Ukrainian minds, how Ukraine might win the war, and the “realism” of Russia’s neighbors.

RFE/RL: Your former student finds himself the president-elect of a sovereign country in Europe. What are your expectations of General, and soon President, Petr Pavel?

Clive Chapman: I think firstly, the election of Petr Pavel as the Czech president is a really big thing because he beat a pro-Russian populist. (Editor’s note: Pavel beat billionaire former Prime Minister Andrej Babis, winning 58 to 42 percent of the vote in a runoff in January, and he will be inaugurated in March.) So, in terms of reinforcing the fact that democracy should be on the march against dictatorships, I think that's really important.

The second thing is, of course, that, when Pavel joined the military, Czechoslovakia was still under the boot of Russia. And he was schooled, of course, in some of his early courses by the spetsnaz [special forces], because he served in the Czechoslovak parabattalions. But the fact that he is a libertarian -- because those who have been occupied and seen what an invasion means in the east -- and Czechoslovakia, of course, was invaded in 1968 -- don't like it, and want to go towards freedom and liberty.

So, I think all those things are really important for the future. And he represents that beacon and represents that we must support Ukraine to the total degree, and he is a realist in understanding that for the future.

RFE/RL: I remember you correctly predicted what Russians would try to do on February 24 last year, when you said: "First one is control of the air….then pulverize the airfields of Ukraine and make sure they've got air supremacy." The second and third, I think, involved shock and surprise. I think you’d agree that they tried all of those things, but they failed. And now, as reports emerge that a new, major offensive is imminent, what do you think they will try to do this time?

Chapman: Well, I think that they would try and, if they could, to have some sort of combined arms maneuver with local air superiority in the sectors where they want to break through. But I don’t think they’re going to do that. I think they’re going to keep on hammering at the door in the Donbas – in [the regions of] Luhansk and Donetsk – and use this sort of grinding tactic of attrition to ultimately try and wear the Ukrainians down and, more importantly, wear the political will of the West down, to get to a position where there’s a negotiated cease-fire or some sort of armistice. That won’t work, and we need to resist that, because the notion of “land for peace” will just lead to a future bite-and-hold operation from the Russians at a time and place of their choosing. It might be two years, it might be five years.

“Capability is the sum of a number of things, including your training, your equipment, your morale, your logistics.”

And I think that’s why you see the realism of those countries which are closest to Russia, those that border Russia. So, it’s the realism from [Prime Minister] Sanna Marin of Finland about “Ukraine must win because [otherwise] we’ll have this sort of behavior for decades in the future.”

It’s the kind of realism of [Prime Minister] Kaja Kallas from Estonia that goodness must triumph over evil and we must go in this for the long haul and support Ukraine as much as we can for the future. That’s why one percent of GDP from Estonia – which is an astounding amount – has been given to Ukraine. So those who are closest to the problem realize that you really do need to support Ukraine. Those who are further away geographically sometimes forget that.

RFE/RL: Regarding this imminent counteroffensive, is it merely symbolism that is at play here -- as in they are trying to secure some sort of a victory for the 24th of February, or is Russia trying to race against time before [advanced] Western tanks arrive in Ukraine?

Chapman: I think both of those can be true at the same time. I don't think that there will be a major offensive prior to the 24th of February. But one of the key men, of course, in determining that should be the Met man -- the guy who forecasts the weather.

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.

Now the last time I looked over the last seven days, it was sort of plus-2 or minus-2 [degrees Celsius in Ukraine]. So, a bit of thaw, a bit of hardness. That's the stuff which will be churned up and doesn't enable you to do combined arms operations. There doesn’t seem to be any indication, in terms of any depth of Russian potential offensive that we’re seeing any intelligence indicators of that. So, I'm not quite sure it will come this month. There might be something on the 24th, of course.

But they'll continue to fight, I think, their deep battle. And by the “deep battle” in terms of how we look at the theater of war, you have the contact battles going on at Bakhmut and Vuhledar. But you also have the deep battle where the Russians are trying to break the will of the Ukrainian people by the destruction of the energy infrastructure and things like that.

And that is also failing badly in terms of the metrics I've seen. As soon as the Russians do that, the support for no compromise -- that is “no land for peace,” including Crimea -- is maintained at a very consistently high level, including amongst even those who are sort of Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

So, it's counterproductive from the Russian side, but it's still part of their campaigning strategy.

RFE/RL: I want to ask you about this numbers war, the beloved Russian tactic of swarming the enemy with numbers. Can the Russian leadership’s disregard for their own men and the sheer numbers that they possess win them the day?

Chapman: I don't think it can, ultimately. The latest American intelligence about a week ago was that those who are joining the fray -- and I'm now talking about the regular Russian Army, not the Wagner sort of mercenaries and prisoners -- are ill-equipped and ill-prepared for what's been going on.

The mobilization of hundreds of thousands of people does not by itself give you a capability. The capability, of course, is the sum of a number of things, including your training, your equipment, your morale, your logistics.

The problem with having an attritional strategy, where you're just keep on getting tens of thousands of your own soldiers killed or wounded is that when you come to replace them, and particularly within the Russian Federation, there are 22, of course, non-Russian parts of the Russian Federation.

They're the ones who potentially would be a fracture, in terms of centripetal forces, which do impinge upon the Russians, which could break the Russian Federation apart. So, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has a sort of balancing act in terms of what he can do. I don’t think he’d want to try and mobilize hundreds of thousands more troops if he can get away with not doing that.

But, of course, he’s also not going to compromise at the moment; and the best solution to making him compromise is to give Ukraine the equipment, because they’ve got the morale, so that they can succeed. Weapons are the way to a better peace, from a Ukrainian perspective.

RFE/RL: Putin apparently has given orders to Russian military leadership, to capture all of the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk by March. Untrained, low capability, whatever, we are still talking about twice or thrice the size of the army that they began this war with. So, keeping all of this in mind, is it feasible?

Chapman: In theory, it would be low probability of success because of the variables about the weather as much about the capability of the Russians at the moment. So, a low probability is of course an intelligence term which we would use. So, it will remain this grinding conflict at the moment.

Around Kazakhstan and [Central Asia], and Moldova, Georgia. I think there could absolutely be a geostrategic, geopolitical realignment, depending on what comes out the other end of this conflict.

And I would suspect that the Russians will culminate, which is a military term which means they will run out of offensive power before they reach the objective of trying to capture both [Donetsk] and Luhansk, certainly before the end of March. They've not reached any of their timelines so far in their campaign.

But of course, the Ukrainians are going play a cunning game. There's no point then just going into a meat grinder and losing tens of thousands of their own troops. So, a counteroffensive from Ukrainian perspective, which sort of slices through Zaporizhzhya and severs the Russian forces in Kherson from the land bridge through Donetsk and Luhansk, perhaps would potentially be a war-winning move from the Ukrainians.

So, from a Ukrainian perspective, fix Russians in the Donbas and strike in as much capability and power that you can muster in Zaporizhzhya would be one of the ways to unlock this.

RFE/RL: You don't rate the strategic soundness of remaining or defending Bakhmut to the last soldier, as I’ve read.

Chapman: The problem for the Ukrainians is twofold. Firstly, you can't recapture your territory by remaining on the defensive. And secondly, trying to negotiate territory which you still don't occupy is very difficult from a Ukrainian perspective when I don't think the psyche of Putin is to give anything away. So, the best leverage comes from decisive military victory from a Ukrainian perspective, and that is offensive operations, not defensive operations.

RFE/RL: On Bakhmut, most of what was remaining as a regiment has been transferred to the east. Will we see more sieges like we saw in Mariupol last year? Will that become a new norm to hold on to Ukrainian territory?

Well, it shouldn’t be. It would be useful for mythmaking in terms of both morale and propaganda. But the Ukrainians will know when to conduct a retrograde operation – essentially a withdrawal – if the danger of their logistics being cut is about to happen. Because what you don’t want is to have thousands or tens of thousands of Ukrainians put in the bag – that is, to become prisoners of war – from their perspective. You want to sustain your force for another day. Because at the end of the day, Bakhmut only matters in terms of it’s a tactical battle, and tactical battles are only fought to enable operational successes in furtherance of your strategic objective. It’s not decisive in the slightest. So don’t fight there in perpetuity if you don’t need to.

RFE/RL: On to the new military assistance and the latest U.S. military assistance package introduces the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb, or GLSDB, a precision-guided 250-pound bomb that is strapped to a rocket. It has a range of 94 miles (151 kilometers), which is farther than any bomb the U.S. has so far provided to Ukraine. What kind of impact is expected?

Chapman: The impact it will have will be severe, both geographically and logistics.

Retired British Major-General Clive "Chip" Chapman (file photo)
Retired British Major-General Clive "Chip" Chapman (file photo)

So, the first thing is that it puts everything in eastern Ukraine in range because the range is 150 kilometers.

The second thing is it puts most of Crimea in range, so you can start knocking out the infrastructure and logistics in [occupied] Crimea.

The third thing is, because of the range issue, it pushes the Russian logistics further back and therefore you need more free running of trucks to get your logistics forward to your… fighting troops.

That therefore limits your tempo of operations -- it slows it down in sustainment and availability terms of logistics, artillery, ammunition, and the like. So, I think it's going to be almost up there as one [example] of that dreadful phrase...“it's a game changer.”

RFE/RL: What else might be stopped? Are we going to see ATACMS [surface-to-air Army Tactical Missile Systems], for example?

Chapman: I think you will at some stage. Like all these things, we've really gone through a four-phase cycle -- and this really came from the Ukrainian defense minister -- where any weapons system, there's always a “No,” then it's “Look at the technical feasibility” in phase two, then it's phase three, “Let's train them on it.” Then phase four, “Let's give it to the Ukrainians.”

So, I think we will see that both on ATACMS and, I think, ultimately on airpower. Because ultimately, at the end of the day, in 20th century warfare, there were four factors for success in land operations, and the number one was control of the air -- so having close-air support to enable you to move in your combined arms, formations, tanks, infantry, engineers, artillery -- is still a vital capability which is needed to give at least air parity over the offensive operations, if not air superiority, when the Ukrainians want to go on the offensive at a time and a place of their choosing.

RFE/RL: It's kind of a paradox, isn't it? Ukraine should perform badly to be injected with this kind of new weaponry. And as long as they continue to perform beyond expectations, that might be more complicated to see this new weaponry on the battlefield. Does it make sense militarily to you, to drag your feet so much?

Chapman: Now, of course, it doesn't make sense militarily. But for example, rather like the discussion early in March last year about a no-fly zone. From a military perspective, the advice you give is, “Can we?” Yes, we can, we could impose a no-fly zone. But politicians ask two different questions: “Should we?” and “Must we?” So, you do need a strategy bridge between political intent and military power. But you also need that between the senior military folk and the politicians. And ultimately in a democracy it's the politicians who make the decisions, not the military men.

RFE/RL: What could be the impact on Russia’s neighborhood?

Chapman: We don’t really know what the “better peace” means. But there are centripetal forces both within the non-Russian bits within the Russian Federation and in the southern states around Russia – around Kazakhstan and [Central Asia], and Moldova, Georgia. I think there could absolutely be a geostrategic, geopolitical realignment, depending on what comes out the other end of this conflict. Because people often talk about a cease-fire. But there’s a huge difference between a truce, a cease-fire, an armistice, and a peace settlement. People use the term cease-fire, but it’s far more complex than that.

And one of the difficulties of seeing that with very open eyes is that is really the difference between conflict termination and conflict resolution. Because three things will always be the same. Leaders might change. Vital interests rarely change. And geography never changes; there will always be some sort of border between those countries, and the root cause of the conflict is not always sorted out by an armistice.

One would hope it would be sorted out by a peace settlement. But history is not very kind on that -- the First World War. It was more benevolent after the Second World War. And we would hope that, if Russia were defeated at the real strategic level, there might be an embrace of a new future – a future that Putin and the Putinists don’t offer for Russia.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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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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