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'Ukraine Has Retaken The Initiative From The Enemy,' Says Former Top NATO Officer

Ukrainian troops prepare to launch artillery strikes against Russian positions during their country's counteroffensive in the Zaporizhzhya region.
Ukrainian troops prepare to launch artillery strikes against Russian positions during their country's counteroffensive in the Zaporizhzhya region.

Giampaolo Di Paola boasts a distinguished military career, including having served from 2011 to 2013 as Italy's defense minister and as the chairman of NATO's military committee, the alliance's top military authority between 2008 and 2011.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Di Paola said Ukraine has seized the initiative from invading Russian forces, but as its counteroffensive slowly grinds on the risk of war fatigue in the West grows.

RFE/RL: Where are we now in the Ukraine war? The summer phase of the Ukrainian counteroffensive is almost over: What has been achieved, what hasn’t?

Giampaolo Di Paola: Nobody really knows. It is not moving as fast as maybe some NATO allies expected. We’re now in a critical phase because whatever is gained will be gained during the short summer period, before the rains start and the terrain becomes muddy.

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.

The pace is slow. The Ukrainians keep saying it's going as planned. I don’t know whether it's true or not.

What has been achieved is that Ukraine has retaken the initiative from the enemy. We saw the long-awaited counteroffensive finally happening.

But what has not been achieved yet is a significant regaining of the territory from Russians, a significant breakthrough, a weak point in Russian defense lines that the Ukrainians could exploit. But we’re still very much in the realm of uncertainty; we will probably need another month or two to determine where we are, what has been gained or lost.

But it’s a very critical phase, because the longer that combat drags on, the more possible it becomes that we will see war fatigue in some of the countries supporting Ukraine.

So, the “whatever it takes, as long as it takes” might be questioned if this “as long it takes” proves to be very long.

RFE/RL: Could one of the reasons for this slow progress be insufficient Western support when it comes to what the Ukrainians were asking for before the counteroffensive?

Di Paola: The support has been very extensive, and certainly helpful. For the Ukrainians, enough will be never enough; and it is also fair to say that blaming someone else is an easy game to play, whoever does it. The biggest difficulty in this regard is that the Ukrainians have to conduct offensive operations without air superiority. That, I think, is the most significant missing element. (Recently the Netherlands and Demark said they will give F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine once certain conditions are met.)

RFE/RL: Let me ask you about the blockade of the Black Sea: Whom does the Black Sea belong to now realistically, from a realpolitik perspective?

Di Paola: The Black Sea at present belongs to the nations which are facing the Black Sea -- so Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia…. It is a fact. Presently, Russia tries to blockade Ukrainian ports, but we’ve seen Ukrainians fighting back and attacking Russia’s maritime forces, trying to close the gap between the two. So, at present, I would say nobody is the owner of the Black Sea.​

RFE/RL: What about Turkey? In a recent interview you dubbed Turkey as the “Mistress of the Black Sea.” Has the queen abdicated?

Di Paola: No, Turkey is still the strongest player in the Black Sea because at the end of the day it controls the Dardanelles [Strait], the only entry point into it. It gets a say on who’s allowed to come in and out and who is not. So, if you really want to exercise control, you need the key of the Bosphorus, and this key belongs to Turkey. Right now, Turkey is bargaining; it’s a reluctant player trying to make a deal happen and establish its status as the mediator, a judge of debates in the Black Sea.

RFE/RL: How do you see the grain crisis playing out? What events do you see unfolding?

Di Paola: Well, if the Russians are not willing to make a deal, we have to find an alternative way out. Because the point is that even if you could theoretically navigate the western part of the Black Sea, if you are bold enough, then that means that you are in the territorial waters of the NATO countries. And therefore, it is unlikely that Russia will attack merchant ships there, because an attack on territorial waters could mean that Article 5 gets invoked.

RFE/RL: What happens if Russia attacks, in Ukrainian territorial waters, a ship that belongs to a NATO member country?

Di Paola: Well, that’s a very complex scenario which, you’ll have to judge the situation then and there. There is no established [protocol] that says “this and this will be happen after this.”

If a vessel with a flag of a NATO member nation is attacked, said NATO member nation can decide to invoke Article 5, saying, “I am under attack from Russia,” or they may decide not to do that over an attack on a single merchant ship. It would be a political decision that said nation would have to make, because even the NATO member countries are not so willing to go to war against Russia.

But it works both ways: For Russia, it’s also a great risk to attack a NATO member country’s ship and risk invoking Article 5 against Russia; that wouldn’t be a rational thing to do. So these are the kinds of situations where you cannot predict what will happen; therefore that uncertainty sometimes works as a deterrent.

Giampaolo Di Paola (file photo)
Giampaolo Di Paola (file photo)

RFE/RL: This month marks the 15th anniversary of the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008, when you held the post of the chairman of the NATO Military Committee. So let me ask you this: What is its legacy and impact when it comes to interpreting today’s events?

Di Paola: It is clear that what happened in Georgia was a result of the famous Bucharest [2008 NATO] Summit which said that Georgia and Ukraine would become NATO members. But it was just a declaration, and Russia used it as an excuse to invade Georgia. NATO wasn’t in a position to do anything militarily at that time.

So, we said that what [then-Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin did was illegal, but we were unable to actually do anything against him, to stop him from doing that. So in the end it was an easy bite for him. Georgia, in the end, had to bow to reality.

I remember thinking at Bucharest -- saying even -- this is a mistake, you don’t do this. And then it happened exactly as I was afraid it would -- it gave Putin the right timing to invade Georgia. Some say, and I think there is an element of truth in this, too, that had we given a clear road to Ukraine back then [into NATO], Russia would have invaded Ukraine, too, and at that time, Ukraine was in no position to put up the resistance that they did in 2022.

So, I think the best thing we could have done at Bucharest in 2008 was to say nothing, nothing at all -- that would be the right thing to do. To keep our mouths shut. If you don’t have to say something sensible, it’s better not to say anything at all.

RFE/RL: Did the West do enough during and after the war, do you think?

Di Paola: They did enough -- or rather, they did what they could do. As I said earlier, the West wasn’t in a position to do much about Georgia back in 2008. That’s the reality, sad as it is.

RFE/RL: No leverage. Can the same be said about the mediation efforts from French President [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and the cease-fire plan that still remains unfulfilled? How effective was that plan, objectively?

Di Paola: Taking into account that part of Georgia was already occupied by Russia and Russians were still advancing and Georgia was in no position to put up any resistance anymore, I think, at the end of the day, that was the best possible outcome from what was available to us. We pretty much had to settle for the status quo.

So, in the end, it was the best we could do. And, in a sense, it proved to be somewhat effective, because the status quo still remains, and there haven’t been renewed hostilities between Russia and Georgia.

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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