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At A 'Pivotal Moment' For Ukraine, U.S. General Petraeus Says Eastern NATO Members Could Do More

U.S. General David Petraeus speaks at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington in 2011.

The former CIA director and commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, David Petraeus, says that Ukraine is at a "pivotal" and "perilous" moment and that Eastern European countries could do more to provide Ukraine with weapons and supplies.

Speaking to RFE/RL's Balkan Service from New York on April 5, the retired general said that how Ukraine fared would depend "on how well we do, and 'we' means not just the United States, but all of the NATO nations put together and especially, frankly, those Eastern Europeans countries that have the air defenses, the multiple-launch rocket systems, the artillery, and the munitions...that are compatible with what Ukraine has."

The Pentagon announced on April 2 that it will provide $300 million worth of military supplies, including drones, machine guns, and armored vehicles, to Ukraine. The Pentagon said it had already committed more than $1.6 billion worth of security assistance, including antiaircraft Stinger missiles and anti-tank weapons, since Russia's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

Military experts have said that what Ukraine needs greatly is weapons, parts, and supplies that are compatible with Soviet-era technology. Some Western military technology can be hard to operate for Ukrainians without extensive training, plus spare parts are not readily available for repairs.

"The Ukrainians are fighting very effectively, very heroically, with enormous resourcefulness, creativity, courage, and effectiveness, and what we need to do is to help them," Petraeus said. "Eastern European countries should be scouring their own defense stocks and providing anything they have to Ukraine that would be useful."

In a Twitter thread on April 2, Mark Hertling, a former lieutenant general who commanded the U.S. Army in Europe, said that it made sense to transfer Soviet-era heavy weaponry, for example T-72 tanks, which Ukrainian forces would know well.

On April 5, the London-based Financial Times reported that the Czech Republic had been sending tanks, including Soviet-designed T-72s, and infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine for several weeks. The Czech Republic was reportedly the first NATO country to deliver heavy weaponry to Ukraine.

In the interview with RFE/RL, Petraeus also spoke about the magnitude of Russia's military failure in Ukraine. "They failed. Ukraine has won the battle of Kyiv," he said. "They have also won the battles of Chernihiv in the far north and then Sumy in the northeast."

After Petraeus commanded the 101st Airborne Division following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, he led the coalition's military effort during the surge in 2007 and 2008, when the United States deployed an extra 20,000 troops. He said the "surge" was "the most important endeavor -- and greatest challenge -- of my 37 years in uniform.

"I cannot imagine having lost 15,000 soldiers in five weeks. It's staggering," Petraeus said about Russian troop losses, the exact numbers of which are not known. Ukraine says that Russia has lost more than 18,000 combatants in the war, whereas Western countries, including the United States, put the losses at around 10,000. The Russian authorities have reported their losses as a fraction of those numbers.

As to why Russian forces have been bogged down or forced to retreat in some parts of Ukraine, Petraeus said that Russia's "Achilles' heel" was "their lack of what might be termed expeditionary logistics. In other words, once they are away from a rail system or a port, their logistics are very, very modest."

He said that the Russian armed forces are tied to their railway system in Russia. "Once they leave it, as we saw, they are wholly inadequate in the provisions that they provided for their forces when it comes to food, fuel, and ammunition, medical evacuation, and all the rest of it," he said.

With multiple reports of atrocities in Ukraine allegedly committed by Russian troops, Petraeus said it was very clear that war crimes have been committed. "If they [Ukrainians] didn't hate Russia before, then they certainly do now because of the horrific way they [Russian forces] have treated the people," he said.

Most notably, the world's attention has focused on Bucha, a town near Kyiv where Russian forces were positioned until their withdrawal late last week. Eyewitness accounts from Bucha say that civilians were brutally killed and tortured and there is evidence of mass graves.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told the UN Security Council on April 5 that Russian troops had committed some of the worst war crimes since World War II and urged the council to hold Moscow accountable.

"I am sure we will find much more on a much greater scale in Mariupol eventually and some of the other cities that the Russians are leaving," Petraeus said.

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After commanding U.S. forces in Iraq, Petraeus assumed command of U.S. Central Command in 2008-10, before going on to lead U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan. He was sworn in as director of the CIA in September 2011, but stepped down in November 2012.

While Petraeus said he couldn't imagine U.S. forces getting involved with "boots on the ground or actual military forces," he said that "we are approaching a moment that might be termed a Srebrenica moment," referring to the 1995 massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces.

"Remember that the U.S. did not get involved with Bosnia until Srebrenica happened. And again, the moral outrage around the world was so great, the U.S. was finally compelled to take action. I'm not implying that the U.S. would take direct military action, but I think we would tear apart every supply chain that feeds any Russian industry and sanction every element of it."

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    Valona Tela

    Valona Tela is a senior editor with RFE/RL's Balkan Service. She joined RFE/RL in 2007 as a Pristina-based correspondent and moved to the Prague headquarters in 2011. Valona is the author of the Exposé weekly TV magazine program. A wide variety of experts, political scientists, health professionals, and others have appeared on the show. She is fluent in English and South Slavic languages.