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Former NATO Commander Wesley Clark Explains What Ukraine And The West Need To Do To Beat Russia


'Mostly it's artillery," says former U.S. General Wesley Clark when asked what type of military assistance Kyiv needs to win the conflict in Ukraine. "Lots and lots and lots of artillery..." (file photo)

Wesley Clark led NATO's Kosovo campaign as the alliance's supreme allied commander in Europe to end Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic's bloody crackdown on the region's ethnic Albanian community in 1998. Clark, a senior fellow at UCLA's Burkle Center for International Relations, talked to RFE/RL's Georgian Service about what Ukraine needs from the West in order to have a chance of beating Russia.

RFE/RL: What's your assessment of the military situation right now in Ukraine? Has Putin achieved any of his objectives?

Wesley Clark: In Ukraine he's achieved really nothing, and there's nothing to boast about. And this is why he was flat in his remarks on the anniversary of the end of World War II, on May 9. He had really nothing to boast about. Kyiv's free, Kharkiv is being pushed, the Russians are out of artillery range in Kharkiv. The Ukrainian offensive is moving in the northeast, and the Donbas is mostly holding. We are going to reach the critical point as the ground dries out.

In Donbas, if the Russians can get across a couple of these big rivers, then maybe they will hit more open terrain where [the] maneuver warfare that was characteristic of World War II [will] come in handy. The Russian method of advance is to break through the Ukrainian defense by destroying villages. They know these villages provide the hard points for Ukrainian anti-tank and antiair defense, so they're just going to pulverize them with artillery. And at some point, as I said, when the ground dries out, they may be able to bypass these villages and move around them across the open fields.

I don't want to hear any premature celebrations about how well Ukraine's doing. This is a fight that could be lost. It can only be won by Ukraine with much more support...

For the Ukrainians, they've got to be reinforced to fight this kind of warfare. They still don't have the tanks they need; they don't have enough artillery; they don't have fighter aircraft; they don't have ground attack aircraft; they don't have attack helicopters. And so, you can imagine, if there was a Russian breakthrough, and an armored column went 50 kilometers deep, someone has to find it, control it, and attack it, maneuver against it. And that means you need a different type of force than what's been successful thus far.

I know the Ukrainians are trying hard. I hear lots of promises of support. But as I keep track of what's being given, what's arrived, how effective it is, it's still insufficient, in my view. It may be enough to hold a stalemate, but let's be honest, the objectives of the United States are to provide Russia [with] a strategic failure and to weaken Russia so that this doesn't happen again. Well, if the fighting stops and Russia controls everything it controls right now, that's hard to say that's a strategic failure. They've basically got the whole southern coast of Ukraine, plus major parts of both the Luhansk and Donetsk oblast. And they've done 500 billion to a trillion dollars' worth of destruction. So, if that's the success that we've had, that's not much of a measure of success. Ukraine needs to be further reinforced. It has the fighting capacity, and the determination to force the Russians out; it does not have the means.

And here's the other thing we have to understand: Russia does have a domestic military industry. Now maybe we're crippling it with sanctions, I don't know about that but that's what I hear is that there have been some problems because that domestic defense industry relies on some Western technologies that they don't have enough of. However, Ukraine doesn't have that much of a domestic defense industry and most of the equipment it's getting is being brought hundreds of miles, first by air, and then through rail and convoy transport. That's going to be increasingly difficult. So I don't want to hear any premature celebrations about how well Ukraine's doing. This is a fight that could be lost. It can only be won by Ukraine with much more support from the United States and other Western European allies.

RFE/RL: What type of military assistance does Ukraine need right now to win?

Clark: First of all, you have to defeat the Russian artillery. If you can defeat the Russian artillery right now, they'll never make a breakthrough. If, when they're pounding cities, you can pound the Russian artillery and destroy it, the cities won't be destroyed. So that's the first thing. The second thing they need, is, to do that, they need intelligence support. Maybe they get that for themselves through counterbattery radars; they probably don't have enough of them. Maybe they get some of that from overhead drones. They probably don't have enough of them. But mostly it's artillery. Lots and lots and lots of artillery, with the ammunition; hundreds of rounds of artillery fired per artillery tube per day.

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Next, they need air [capability]. Why? Because they need the rapid immediate response that comes from attack helicopters and air-to-ground assets. They don't have these. Ukraine's maybe flying two or three sorties, or individual air missions a day. They need to be able to fly 50 a day, they need to be using their air power to keep the Russian air power off. They need better air defense. The air defense was dense enough around Kyiv that it kept the Russian airplanes away, but across a 300-kilometer front in Donbas there's not enough air defense there. They need anti-ship missiles. I hear promises of these missiles going in, but they're not there yet. There are still numerous Russian ships, they're still able to fire their Caliber missiles. Why should a Russian ship be allowed to sit 200 or 150 kilometers offshore and fire a missile and be like a sanctuary and not be attacked?

In the port of Odesa, for example, there are millions of tons of grain waiting to be exported that the world desperately needs, and the Russians have this bottled up. With the right unmanned aerial systems and long-range anti-ship missiles, the Black Sea could be opened up.

And then if there are Russian submarines out there, that's a different matter, but that also could be dealt with through something like a NATO zone, if necessary, for humanitarian purposes. So they need these things. They probably also need more armored vehicles, because if the Russians do break through, they're going to have to maneuver forces against the breakthrough elements.

RFE/RL: Are you convinced NATO countries are supplying the arms Ukraine needs in a timely fashion?

Clark: I know there's concern about following the legal procedures by both the Ukrainians and the Americans, because we don't want diversion of assets and people making excessive profits off these things. And as they're selling them, there have to be legal procedures. But somehow, these procedures have to be expedited, streamlined, to enable Ukraine to get the reinforcements it needs. When the Russian forces were driven back from Kyiv at the end of March, it was clear that we had a few weeks to get reinforcements in. OK, those few weeks are over. Most of the American howitzers are in there, maybe some of the other assets from other allies are in there. But that [only] is enough to replace Ukraine's losses.

Former U.S. General Wesley Clark (file photo)
Former U.S. General Wesley Clark (file photo)

To be successful in rejecting Russia, we need much more. It's got to be expedited. And if we have an opportunity for Ukraine to kick Russia out of Ukraine, out of Donbas, and out of the southern part of Ukraine, that window is July and August. It will take Russia until December to mobilize significant forces. China won't be able to help much until Xi Jinping gets his third term. So, for now, there's a window of opportunity for Ukraine, if Ukraine moves, and if they get the materials that they need to move.

RFE/RL: Is it fair to compare Milosevic with Putin, especially given the fact that the Russian leader has access to nuclear weapons, something that Milosevic did not have?

Clark: Well, I think that all manner of pressures are in play. But ultimately, in the case of Milosevic in Yugoslavia, what he discovered was that he couldn't avoid the NATO air attack. He couldn't shoot down the airplanes and he couldn't outlast it. And so, ultimately, he had to find a way out. Now what we have to show to Mr. Putin is that he's not going to succeed militarily on the ground in Ukraine. And then these other pressures come in on him and convince him he's got to find a way out.

It was not so different in Kosovo. Actually, during the summer of 1998, France and Germany both said that, yes, they weren't going to do anything through NATO unless there was a UN Security Council resolution. And Russia, of course, said, 'Of course there wasn't going to be a Security Council resolution on this.' And so, some 400,000 Albanians were forced out of their homes in the summer of 1998. But Russia was wrong. And Milosevic was wrong. France and Germany did agree to the campaign once it was clear what Milosevic was up to. And so, it is the exact same thing here.

Russia has miscalculated when it thinks that the West is being weak. The West is resilient, it's strong…. So Putin had a 12-year plan; in the United States and Europe, people were looking at [their] families and homes and how they get their children educated. It's an entirely different mindset. And this is an old, old issue with democracies…. But it's so hard for these people like Putin, or maybe President Xi [Jinping] in China, to understand and accept that…. But it all comes together with incredible strength when challenged. This is the lesson that we want the world to understand.

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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow working 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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