Former Generals Debate How Much Say US Should Have in Ukraine’s Offensive


Ukrainian artillery fires towards the frontline during heavy fighting amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, near Bakhmut, Ukraine, April 13, 2023.
REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

  • Kyiv is getting irritated with criticism of its counteroffensive, which doesn’t appear to have gone as planned.
  • Ukraine has blamed a lack of equipment and tough defenses while some in the West have put the blame on Kyiv’s forces.
  • A number of former generals have weighed in on the debate lately.

Kyiv is getting increasingly frustrated by backseat drivers criticizing Ukrainian operations as its forces wade into the thick of Russian defenses and push ahead with a bloody counteroffensive, the fate of which remains to be seen.

“Everyone is now an expert on how we should fight,” Ukraine’s defense ministry said on social media Thursday. “A gentle reminder that no one understands this war better than we do.” The same day, the foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, accused critics of “spitting into the face” of Ukrainian soldiers and advised them to “shut up.”

Forward movement has largely been a grinding crawl since Ukraine launched its offensive roughly three months ago. Kyiv has argued it’s advancing despite the unrealistic expectations, a lack of necessary equipment, and tough Russian defenses, but among some Western officials, whose views may be untethered from official positions, there have been concerns that strategic and tactical errors have hurt the offensive and could even lead to a failure to achieve key objectives.

Amid Kyiv’s noticeable irritation with these comments critical of its counteroffensive, former generals — some of whom held top positions among US forces in Europe — have been diving into the debate over the appropriate level of input Ukraine’s Western backers should have in how it fights.

A Ukrainian soldier uses PKP Pecheneg machine gun during a military training of the Ukrainian Army near Chasiv Yar as Russia-Ukraine war continues in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on August 19, 2023.
Jose Colon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

No ‘chirping from the sidelines’ or ‘nitpicking from cheap seats’

Jack Keane, a former US Army vice chief of staff and the chairman of the Institute for the Study of War, argued in an opinion article published in The Wall Street Journal that “America should stop the criticism,” at least in part because military officials critical of this offensive may well be out of their depth when it comes to knowledge of the kind of war Ukraine is fighting.

The Ukrainian armed forces are attempting to conduct complex offensive operations against Russian defenses consisting not just of combat assets, like infantry, artillery, and air power, but also minefields, trenches, explosive traps, and anti-vehicle barriers. And Kyiv’s forces are doing this despite certain capability gaps, such as additional combat air power.

“No one in the American military today has designed large-scale mechanized operations against a serious and capable enemy that is employing a comprehensive defense,” Keane wrote, arguing “the last time was the Metz campaign in France in 1944.”

Military historian Michael O’Hanlon agreed that the last time the US armed forces mounted a comparable offensive to what Ukraine’s forces are doing today was probably World War II, when Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army battled against fortified German defensive positions around the French city of Metz late in 1944.

“Saddam’s defenses didn’t stack up in terms of quality or sophistication,” O’Hanlon told Insider. “In Vietnam, the battlefield was much less clearly defined. In Korea, there were front lines and trenches but less artificial fortification. One could argue, though, that with Korea’s hills, the effects were similar.”

But “either way,” he told Insider, “Keane is correct that we haven’t really done this ourselves in well over half a century.”

Keane argued that in this situation “the US should be focused on helping Ukraine fight the war the way it wants to fight, not chirping from the sidelines.”

But while the last directly comparable battle may have been decades ago, others argue that the US and its NATO allies have valuable experiences from more recent conflicts, lessons that would probably serve Ukraine well.

Mark Hertling, who previously served as the commanding general of US Army Europe, wrote in a social media thread that NATO has conducted “large scale targeting, intel gathering, movement of forces,” moving gear and supplies into theater and equipping troops, “operational logistics, and headquarters staff planning and wargaming in training, exercises and in combat.”

He acknowledged that “commanders don’t need nitpicking from cheap seats,” but Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhny, likely does need advice and mentoring. He wrote that the general is “extremely talented,” but “he has never before” coordinated the kind of operations Ukraine is executing now.

Hertling concluded his thread arguing that it is important to remember that friends have their value and that “those now stoking ‘UAF shouldn’t pay attention to NATO/US advice’ may want to reconsider.” Kyiv’s forces have certainly benefited from prior Western training.

Ukrainian soldiers fire the M777 artillery at their artillery position as Ukrainian Army conduct operation to target trenches of Russian forces through the Donetsk Oblast on August 6, 2023.
Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Help ‘Ukraine to fight the way it fights best’

The US, along with its NATO allies, has been heavily involved in supporting Ukraine’s war effort from the start, assisting with the planning and wargaming, even targeting, and has provided over $40 billion in aid and security assistance in the form of weapons and training in tactics, command and control, and combined arms.

The US has reiterated that it will continue to support Ukraine’s war effort, even as the counteroffensive is expected to potentially last for at least a couple more months and the conflict possibly for years. NATO, likewise, has made similar commitments. But there are questions about what that support should look like, especially amid concerns about the execution of the counteroffensive.

Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general and influential military strategist, made the argument in a Foreign Affairs article that “Kyiv faces many challenges before the entire country can be liberated,” but “perhaps the greatest one is that the West, although it has provided substantial support, lacks a coherent Ukraine strategy.”

He said that the US and its European partners need to come up with a plan to get Ukraine through the fighting now, the winter, and the years to come so that it can defeat Russia and “achieve a just and durable victory.”

Experts Michael Kofman and Franz-Stefan Gady wrote an article for The Economist after returning from Ukraine in July that “the West is,” due to Ukraine’s demonstrated difficulties in fully executing the Western approach of combined arms, “best served by backing Ukraine’s way of war” and helping Ukraine’s military “fight the way it fights best.”

Ben Hodges, a retired American general and the former head of US Army Europe, wrote on social media recently that he would “trust the attitude of [Ukraine] Commanders in the fight for the survival of their country” over “the defeatist attitude of people thousands of miles away.”

David Petraeus, another influential retired general and the former head of US Central Command, told CNN “the West ought to acknowledge that the Ukrainians probably know best their own terrain, they know best their own troops, they know their strengths, and they know their weaknesses,” which continue to be insufficient air power, air defense, and long-range strike capabilities.

A Ukrainian soldier uses PKP Pecheneg machine gun during a military training of the Ukrainian Army near Chasiv Yar as Russia-Ukraine war continues in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on August 19, 2023.
Jose Colon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A ‘heavy slog,’ but ‘not over yet’

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the highest-ranking US military officer, recently noted that while there has been forward progress in the counteroffensive, “the speed at which the offensive has been undertaking is slower than the planners had thought.”

It is “bloody, it’s long, and it’s slow,” Milley continued. But, he said, Ukraine has “a significant amount of combat power remaining. This is not over yet.” On Friday, the White House called attention to “notable progress” in sectors of the front.

Petraeus wrote an opinion article for The Washington Post recently with American Enterprise Institute expert Frederick Kagan explaining that while “the fight against Russia has proved to be bloody and slow — a very hard slog,” war observers “would be wise to temper their pessimism.”

Seemingly strong defenses can suddenly crumble, lines can break, and the offensive “might yet surprise critics,” they wrote.

Continuing the discussion with CNN, Petraeus told the cable news outlet that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”

“Certainly there were hopes that with Western tanks and infantry fighting vehicles and other systems that they might be able to mount combined arms operations that could penetrate Russian defenses, but that was before we all learned about the depth of these defenses, about the sophistication of them,” he said. “This defense in depth is quite formidable.”

But “the Ukrainians have adapted quite impressively,” Petraeus said, adding that Kyiv’s forces are presently advancing.

In a recent conversation with Insider about Ukrainian operations, Hodges said that the Ukrainians “have recognized that they have to adapt, which is what they’re doing.”

He noted that amid the many challenges Kyiv’s forces are facing, such as a lack of the kind of air power that Western forces rely on for complex operations, he is “quite impressed” with Ukraine’s performance.

Ryan made similar points, arguing that it’s too early to tell how the counteroffensive will play out but stressed that “the sluggish pace should not surprise people who have studied military conflicts and the challenges of offensive operations.”

He noted that 18 months into both World Wars, the situation looked rather bleak for the Allies. By that point in World War II, he wrote, “most of Europe was occupied by the Nazis, Singapore had fallen to Japan, and the United States was fighting on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines.”

By comparison, Ryan argued, the Ukrainian counteroffensive actually offers a lot about which observers can be optimistic, even if the road ahead for Kyiv’s forces continues to be difficult and deadly.





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