NATO and Putin’s Bad Assumptions

By Gen Philip M. Breedlove

Gen. Philip M. Breedlove retired as the Commander, Supreme Allied Command, Europe, SHAPE, Belgium and Headquarters, U.S. European Command, Stuttgart, Germany.  He served in several senior staff positions to include; Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force; and Vice Director for Strategic Plans and Policy on the Joint Staff.

A former NATO Supreme Allied Commander takes aim at the Russian President’s less-than-perfect assumptions about invading Ukraine and the opportunity presented for NATO

The Cipher Brief spoke with former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, General Phil Breedlove (Ret.) to get a sense of what he’s most closely watching as the Ukraine crisis unfolds. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

General Breedlove:  It’s an interesting time to be watching this and ‘watching’ is a word that bothers me. Ukraine is fighting for freedom, and the west is ‘watching’. Russia has encountered much stiffer resistance than they expected. Rumors are that there is unhappiness in the Kremlin right now, and that resistance is going to cause problems for the Russian President. If you’re expecting to be able to move in and quickly take something, and you have to struggle to do that, you begin to use those supplies that you have on hand, and as you move forward, your logistics trail lengthens and it becomes harder to protect.

We know that the Ukrainian military and their regional forces have organized to give Mr. Putin problems all across the countryside, as well as in the major cities and airports. While we also know that numbers of Russian casualties that are being reported right now are far from the truth, we also know that Russia is having a harder time than expected and they’re taking more casualties in vehicles, weapon systems and people, than they expected.

The Cipher Brief:  If you are to believe Twitter, some of the Russian tanks and the Russian equipment that has been moved in is now sitting on the side of the road. They’ve run out of gas. Soldiers are stuck. What are some of the other things that you think will logistically pose significant challenges for President Putin as he continues to press this campaign in Ukraine?

General Breedlove: I read a story about a platoon of soldiers in Northeast Ukraine, Russian soldiers, who reportedly surrendered to the Ukrainians. And the first question out of their mouths was, “Do you have anything to eat?” These are not confirmed accounts, but they’re indicative of the problem that Russia will encounter if this continues to drag on and their logistic lines get longer and become even more exposed.

The Cipher Brief: Given your former role as former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, what do you think NATO should be doing and what capabilities do they have that ‘should’ be brought to bear on the situation sooner rather than later?

General Breedlove:  This is a tale of two stories rather than two cities. The first story is: NATO, like the United States, has said it will not send a soldier for Ukraine. So, as of now, there will be no direct help for Ukraine. If there is a policy decision that changes, then there are a lot of things we should do.  First, for instance, we could institute a no-fly zone. If you’re following the news closely, you saw that the Russians declared a no pass zone in the northern Black Sea, and they’re turning back ships from various nations. There was also some reporting that Russians fired on and damaged a Turkish ship in the northern Black Sea.  Enforcing rights of free passage in the Black Sea and helping Ukrainians with the no-fly zone would be immediate things you’d think about if there’s a policy change.

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The Cipher Brief:  As you said, the world is watching, and Ukraine is fighting.  Is it worth a quick policy change in this case?

General Breedlove:  Well, what are we about? This nation is fighting for its freedom. It wants to be a democracy, and it wants to associate with the west, and one of the world’s superpowers is just going in and destroying it. A policy change whereby NATO was to contribute means one thing, on the other side, what NATO is doing right now, I think is wonderful. For the first time in the history of NATO, portions of the NATO Response Force (NRF) has been activated.  NATO has given some of those changes in authorities to the SACEUR.  I asked for these changes and they were adopted at the summit. 

The Cipher Brief:  Our CEO Suzanne Kelly was on the ground in Kosovo in 1999, when Russia troops secured the airport before any other NATO partners could get there. Are the tactics we’ve seen in the opening of this war in Ukraine standard playbook material for Russia? Are you seeing anything different?

General Breedlove:  No. Russia is having problems and I believe it’s because they made some less than perfect assumptions. But Russia is a learning and adaptive force. The numbers will eventually play out, but if you look at the map of where all the initial missile impacts were, this was a very coordinated and dense campaign, striking everything from airfields to power stations.

Russia has done some things very right, but again, they may have made some inaccurate assumptions about how fast this would go, and now they’re facing some of those challenges.

The Cipher Brief:  The only real public support Russia has gotten has been from Syria. Are you seeing a shift geopolitically here that you think there may be some opportunities in?

General Breedlove:  I do believe so. There are very few speaking out for Russia right now and the surprising thing is how many have come out condemning Russia for this. Frankly, it’s also surprising to see some of the things that are happening in non-traditional places. At major sports venues in the world, their own athletes are protesting this on television. I think there is fairly universal understanding that this is a completely contrived, absolutely manufactured crisis by Mr. Putin, and that he has no legitimate call to be doing what he’s doing. Some of the stories they’re telling now are getting almost comical in nature. The Russian lie machine has been more sophisticated in the past.

The Cipher Brief: Any closing thoughts? 

General Breedlove:  God bless President Zelenskyy. He is leading his people. If you didn’t think he had grit, the man’s got grit.  He is leading his people now, and I think that must absolutely be blowing up Putin’s blood pressure.

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