The below is an edited transcript of David Petraeus’s interview with CNN’s Jim Sciutto.
On the war’s momentum: It has fundamentally shifted, and I’m normally fairly guarded and cautious about this, but the tide clearly has turned because the success of this offensive, as important as it is itself on the ground, is that it reflects a hugely important development: Ukraine has been incomparably better than Russia in recruiting, training, equipping, organising and employing additional forces.
Russia has been struggling to do just that, literally running out of soldiers, ammunition tanks, fighting vehicles and so forth. Ukraine is supported superbly by the US and Nato, whereas Russia, even if it declared mobilisation today, could not reverse this fundamental reality. So the implications are stark. They’re very, very clear. Ukraine will over time experience tough fighting, more casualties, more punishing Russian strikes on civilian infrastructure. But Ukraine will over time, I think, retake the territory that Russia has seized since 24 February. And it’s even conceivable now that they could retake Crimea and the Donbas. And oh, by the way, with what’s going on in the front lines, there is insurgent activity now picking up in the Russian rear areas carried out by Ukrainians there as well. So again, this is going to take time. There will be tough fighting, all of that. But this is a disastrous situation for Russia now.
And I’m not sure that everyone recognises just how does it worse than Afghanistan. This is going to be a terrible, painful retreat for them. I don’t think in doubt any more: Ukraine will prevail unless there’s some unforeseen development and as long as we continue to provide the weapons. I’m confident we will continue to do everything that they need to help them build on the momentum that they have now achieved and carry this all the way through to victory, frankly.
On Putin’s next move: Well, again, full mobilisation is too late. And beyond that, they’ve stripped their training base. They don’t have the replacement vehicles. The export sanctions on microchips to Russia have crushed their industrial base and so forth. So that’s too late.
The consideration of tactical nuclear weapons, yes, you could have a tactically very disastrous situation, but it doesn’t change the fundamental realities which are that Russia just cannot generate the forces, much less employ them capably and competently. Their morale is rock bottom. They’re not even sure what they’re fighting for other than the paycheck or perhaps to stay out of jail. The morale on the Ukrainian side is sky high. They’re winning there. So the question at first is: can the Russians find new defensive lines or do they have to fall all the way back in the East, for example, to the original lines of the Donbas, where there are very considerable, almost world war one-like defences? And then how do they hang on in these other locations? Yes, they’ll find places where there are urban settings that they can use effectively and fight hard again. There will be tough fighting, tough casualties, a lot more damage. But Russia is in, again, a truly disastrous situation at this point in time.
And crossing the nuclear threshold would be so profound and the benefit of that, it would not be as profound. So I think, again, Putin is in a very difficult position. What he’s going to do now is try to change the narrative and blame others and all the rest of this and find some way to explain why the special operation has failed.
On Putin’s position: He still clearly has a very, very solid grip on power in Russia. But this does obviously call that into question somewhat. And somewhere there are going to be individuals who are going to be raising serious questions. There have been officials, of course, from St Petersburg that suggested he should resign. They ended up in jail. But then there were others from Moscow. So again, he’s in a precarious situation, I think, although it’s so difficult to predict when someone who has been an autocrat, obviously: what is that moment that pushes them off the throne. And of course, he’s a kleptocrat on top of everything else and everyone is empowered by him. But he set out to make Russia great again. What he’s really done is make Nato great again. And by the way, what could change this dynamic? I think with respect to European and US reluctance to say that Ukraine should be able to join Nato, given what Russia has done, there has to be a security guarantee at the end of this. The only credible guarantee is Nato membership. And we can then say, look, you brought this on yourself. We were very sensitive to your feelings before. We did not want to needlessly provoke you. You have needlessly carried out an unprovoked invasion of your neighbour and this is the price that you’re going to pay as a result of that.