Gen. Šedivý: Many Western politicians do not know the real situation in Ukraine

 26. 03. 2023      category: Interviews
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Has the Russian army learned from its military failures and is operating more rationally in Ukraine? Why does the optimistic presentation of Ukraine's successes ultimately lead to less Western support? Will NATO have to seriously consider whether Turkey is an asset to the Alliance? This is not the only question we discussed with former Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Armed Forces General Jiří Šedivý, whose voice among security experts is usually less optimistic and cautionary when it comes to the Russian invasion. And therefore important.

ukr_TITPicture: Has the Russian army learned from its military failures and is it operating more rationally in Ukraine? Why does the optimistic presentation of Ukraine's achievements ultimately lead to less Western support? Will NATO have to seriously consider whether Turkey is an asset to the Alliance? We spoke with former Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Armed Forces General Jiří Šedivý | Shutterstock

The last time we spoke was last autumn. At that time, unlike many other analysts, you expressed some scepticism about the further development of the war in Ukraine. In short, you tempered your optimism that the war could end in the near future and that Russia was already on its knees. How has the situation on the battlefield changed?

It must be said that Russia has changed its approach to the so-called special military operation. With the arrival of the new command staff, represented by General Sergei Surovikin, who has been appointed commander of the entire so-called special operation, there has been a fundamental change in the conduct of the fighting, which is very close in concept to classical warfare, sometimes even to what we know from the Second World War. One such feature is that the political implications of individual operations are not considered unilaterally, leading to a rationalisation of the actions themselves.

A typical example of a rational step was the withdrawal from Kherson. The Russians correctly assessed that they had disrupted the logistics of supplying the entire contingent on the right bank of the Dnieper in Kherson Oblast, and that the city itself could not be held without substantial losses in men and materiel. They simply left Kherson in an orderly fashion, even though it was a very politically sensitive decision. They did not leave in chaos, but in a very organised way, and they moved their troops elsewhere, probably towards Bakhmut, where there is heavy fighting today. And they reinforced the weakened troops there, which led to a stabilisation of the front and a slow but steady advance.

I also believe that their approach to the use of the weapons themselves was changing. A typical example is the change in the use of tanks.Initially, for the Russians, tanks were just a means of fire, not much connected to higher-level command and organizational structures. And that is why the Ukrainians, from the beginning of the war, managed to effectively eliminate Russian tanks, not only with Javelins, but also with unmanned aerial vehicles or artillery. But today it is quite obvious that the Russians have changed the system and that they are returning to the previously used concept of regimental structures. While regimental structures are not as logistically autonomous as brigade structures, when they are within a divisional structure they are quite mobile. And regiments are logistically smaller in terms of non-military structures and more advantageous for maneuver warfare. And you're starting to see that on the battlefield. And finally, they've also gotten pretty good at countering drones and using them themselves.

They have completely stopped talking about Turkish Bayraktars as if they are no longer on the battlefield at all.

It is only now becoming apparent, and the Ukrainians themselves admit it, that those adored Bayraktars have de facto been completely eliminated, as the Russians are actually already using electronic systems to limit unmanned vehicles. There is a lot of talk about Iran's Shahid attack drones, which the Ukrainians have been quite successful in shooting down. But few people realise that these are only frontal shields so that actual combat missiles can penetrate Ukrainian territory behind them. And even if the Ukrainians shoot down ten of those, one or two missiles penetrate behind them, and their impact is then fatal. I will give one more example. Russia's chaotic mobilisation and the lack of material and equipment for conscripts has been widely presented in the media. But every mobilisation is chaotic; it is never a perfectly organised activity. The Russians had problems, but they managed them. Just look at the pictures of fallen Russian soldiers, they are not dressed like men from somewhere in Siberia, their equipment is of a good standard. The Russians are learning and we must not underestimate them.

You mentioned that Russia can learn from its mistakes, albeit at absolutely insane human and material cost. But where does the West stand? The support for Ukraine is massive, but as far as weapons systems are concerned, it seems as if the aid is always delayed until it comes in again, at great cost to the Ukrainians.

Unfortunately, this is a fatal problem for the NATO countries and the European Union, because everything always takes us an awfully long time. And the lack of knowledge and experience with Russia is absolutely crucial. We have also underestimated the development of intelligence services on Russian territory, and we are not able to properly deduce how its high command will behave. We constantly talk about Putin as perhaps terminally ill, although this is probably just propaganda. Putin, unfortunately, continues to function. We have not been able to assess Putin's aggressiveness and recklessness, as well as the workings of Russian propaganda, which de facto still controls society despite massive losses. Most importantly, we have imposed a series of sanctions on Russia, but we have not assessed how they might work against ourselves. I consider this to be a fundamental failure, because, after all, we cannot sanction a country like Russia if we do not assess in advance what it will mean for ourselves.

After all, the predictions that Europe would freeze in winter have not come true, and energy prices are falling. Is this not a necessary price that Western societies have to bear in order to keep Russia as far away from their borders as possible?

The worst-case scenarios have not come true, but we have had a warm winter. Not to mention the pervasive inflation. For example, the capping of prices of Russian oil products should have been part of the sanctions from the outset. Clearly, Putin is not going to wait until we finally stop taking gas from him. We should have prepared for that. It was clear that he would use the intervening period to punish us. And when this started to happen, we were surprised to find that our gas tanks were empty and we hastily started to deal with floating terminals for liquefied gas.

And I'll mention one more thing. We didn't properly assess Russia's alliance ties. Now we are surprised that not everyone has accepted our sanctions. Whether it is Russia's strategic partner, China (although it sometimes tries to pretend it is not) or Iran or North Korea. And even South Africa joining the Sino-Russian naval exercise. We misjudged the whole situation because we were not prepared for it. And that is our deficit.

But the West is not a monolith with central control...

Yes, but there is crisis management! It's our fault that we didn't discuss many things and didn't work out the procedure for each possible scenario. And I am talking about the time before the outbreak of war in Ukraine, because we said that war was imminent, but nobody really believed it. Apart from some very sketchy plans, we were not prepared for what it would look like in our country. And this is related to the sending of weapons to Ukraine. If somebody says that we will give Ukraine 31 Abrams tanks, which are the best quality tanks in the world, and makes a big deal out of it, it should be added that they will get there in a year at the earliest, but that will not affect the war now. And the Germans will promise 14 Leopard "sixes" with other countries joining in, but with even older versions, which are tanks from the 1980s.

Leopard-2-A6-KMW-008Picture: The Germans will promise 14 Leopard "Sixes" with other countries joining in, but with even older versions, which are tanks from the 1980s. | KMW

By the way, again, this is part of the propaganda, because the Leopards are presented as some kind of miracle weapon, which is definitely not true. The Turks deployed Leopards in the operation in Syria against the Islamic State and lost at least ten units in just a few operations. Sure, the supply of Western tanks will help the Ukrainians, but if they reach the battlefield in May or June, it will be too late. I believe that many Western politicians do not know the true state of affairs in Ukraine. Maybe if some of them come there, they will get to know that reality better, maybe the soldiers will know it better. But what was presented by the political and military leadership of Ukraine was different from reality. So far we have heard that the Ukrainians have practically no losses, they are just winning and everything is basically perfect. But after the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Milley, began to speak critically of developments in Ukraine, the Ukrainians began to turn. And in smaller countries, where real information is harder to get, this can make it feel like there is no need to spend billions on aid when the situation is not so hot.

What a shameful incompetence...

Smaller states, including the Czech Republic, also have to defend their own companies. Today it is quite clear that many countries are running out of material and financial possibilities to support Ukraine. I am not talking about the extreme, such as Orban's Hungary, but about Italy or Croatia. These are examples of economically weaker countries that are now very much considering what else they can send to Ukraine. And when they keep hearing that the Russians are being liquidated by the thousands, have virtually no more missiles, etc., they have no reason to let their own people suffer further. That is simply wrong. And we also have to remember that there are strong ties of big countries like Germany and France, which think differently than smaller countries like the Czech Republic. Germany expects the war to end one day and the Russian market to return. The German economy is largely based on the car industry. And Europe has de facto lost the Russian car market, replaced by the Chinese. There is a huge amount of money at stake and Germany is considering to what extent to engage in Ukraine so that it does not lose this market in the future.

The entry of Finland and Sweden into NATO is still being blocked by Hungary and, above all, by Turkey, which is making more and more demands against the Kurds in Sweden. Is it the case that the Turks will eventually agree to their entry in some way, or is there a more serious problem with Turkey itself?

No one is budging with Turkey and its tilt towards Russia is evident, albeit in certain waves. Turkey as a regional power is heavily dependent on Russian gas supplies. The Russians are even building a nuclear power plant in Turkey. And we must not forget the area of tourism: this is where the Russians holiday. We remember how the strong US pressure against the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system ended up costing the Turks F-35 fighter jets. Turkey and Russia are working together in Syria. Even when the Russians had their plane shot down, shortly afterwards Erdogan and Putin met together, "hugged" and agreed to cooperate. I fear that unless the Swedes make significant concessions to Turkey, we will not move. And yes, Turkey has been a European problem from the start. The southern wing of NATO, which was supposed to blockade the Soviet Union, was built on the presence of NATO troops and primarily US assets on Turkish territory. It was assumed at the time that if both Greece and Turkey were part of NATO, their mutual political and national quarrels would be resolved. This conflict never escalated to a heated phase, but it continues. Turkish radicalism and increasing religious fanaticism will one day reach a stage where NATO will have to consider whether Turkey is still an asset.

In a previous interview, you warned of war fatigue that will affect Western support for Ukraine. But so far, support seems to be growing steadily.

Look at the protests in Wenceslas Square at the end of last year. There is an undercurrent of resistance and we must not underestimate it. So far, support is holding, but everything will be decided now in the spring. We will see whether there is the potential to end the war, or whether we will get to a situation where Russia achieves some success and does not want to withdraw its troops. I am afraid that that is a fairly realistic scenario, although of course the view of the Ukrainians is that Russia must withdraw completely, and we are repeating that after them. We should realise that the Russians have their own national interests and, on the basis of that mutual understanding, we need to start talking about options for ending the conflict. This does not mean that we will not defend Ukraine's interests. Ultimately, Ukraine must say when and how to end the war.

Which is probably happening, see the alleged visit of CIA chief William Burns to both Kiev and Moscow in January this year.

This was not the first attempt, and of course it reflects the concerns I am talking about, and it reflects our weariness materially and financially. Even the United States already has a problem with some of its weapons, such as the Javelins, whose stocks are practically exhausted. France, too, has no more weapons to get. There is similar talk in Germany, whose army is not in the best of shape. What I am saying is that there will come a point when some states will simply have no place to take and no way to continue to support Ukraine materially. Sooner or later, I am afraid that this will be our big problem, and it could significantly disrupt unity in Europe.

Poland has become a leader in Europe in helping Ukraine. It is heavily armed and oriented towards weapons from the US or South Korea. It seems to have completely bypassed cooperation with Germany and France.

The problem is that Poland does not have good relations with Germany. We talked about Turkey as an ambitious regional power. Poland is in a similar position today. The Poles' reorientation towards non-German weapons is based on one simple argument. First, the Germans are not very capable of supplying military air assets. The Tornado is past its zenith and a new Eurofighter is out of the question, or the US orientation is a given there. Then it's heavy equipment, infantry fighting vehicles and especially tanks. The Poles always thought they would develop their own infantry fighting vehicles, but so far they have not been very successful. But the tanks are crucial. When the Germans sold the Poles Leopards 2 in version four cheaply, which they upgraded themselves, they thought that the tank army would be based on Leopards. But then came the question of who would be involved in the development of the new generation of European tanks. The Poles started this debate together with the French and the Germans. They thought that they would enter the project with a requirement for perhaps a thousand of these tanks of the future. But with such a number, the Poles would become the strongest tank army in Europe. And logically, as the biggest buyers, they would want a large share of domestic production. At that point, the Germans and the French made it clear that the Poles would not be in the project. So the Poles ordered American Abrams and just South Korean K2 Black Panther, very high quality weapons. They have an agreement with the Koreans where their Krab artillery systems are built on the chassis of the Panthers. Thus, sooner or later, the large Polish army will be built on American and South Korean weapons, which will be produced under license in Poland.

polish_k2Picture: Sooner or later, the large Polish army will be built on American and South Korean weapons, which will be produced under license in Poland. | Ministry of Defence of Poland

It is obvious that Russia, whether the war in Ukraine ends sooner or later, will be an international pariah. Is it not, then, a strategic mistake for Germany to resign itself to this Polish market and, more broadly, to arms production in the whole region?

It is obvious that Russia, whether the war in Ukraine ends sooner or later, will be an international pariah. Is it not, then, a strategic mistake for Germany to resign itself to this Polish market and, more broadly, to arms production in the whole region?

Picture: Arm. gen. Ing. Jiří Šedivý | Jiří Šedivý

Army gen. Ing. Jiří Šedivý

Former Chief of the General Staff of the Czech Armed Forces, head of the Department of Security Studies and guarantor of the MPA – Security and Crisis Management programme at the CEVRO Institute. He is a member of the Czech Euro-Atlantic Council and specializes in security, crisis management, reform of the Czech Armed Forces, protection of the critical infrastructure of the state, energy security and other related areas.

 Author: Jiří Š. Cieslar

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