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Don’t Let Retired Generals Drag America Into the Ukraine War

Ukraine NATO Russia
Tankers with Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team, conducts platoon live-fire gunnery qualification Feb. 4, 2019, at the Orchard Combat Training Center. The Idaho Army National Guard Soldiers are preparing for the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team’s upcoming rotation at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., later this year.

I get it. We love military heroes, and since the days of “Black Jack” Pershing from World War I and George Patton from World War II, we’ve especially venerated the general. But today’s crop of flag officers are not the stuff of their storied predecessors, and if we listen much longer to what they’re saying in regards to the Russia-Ukraine war, we may discover how catastrophically bad their judgment truly is.

Ukraine and the Generals

While it’s no secret that since 2013 I’ve argued many times (including last month in these pages) – we place too much trust on our generals and turn too blind of an eye when they are proven disastrously wrong. With statements and claims made by a number of retired general officers leading up to Friday’s one-year mark in Russia’s war with Ukraine, however, it is more urgent than ever that the American public take what they say with more than a little skepticism. 

If our policymakers take the advice of these former high-ranking officers, America may find itself at war with Russia, shocked by a Ukrainian loss – or worst of all: sucked into a nuclear exchange with Russia.

Lest any think these are unsubstantiated claims, consider the following claims and statements made by America’s highest profile generals on television of late. If one only listened to these former officers and didn’t know what was actually happening on the ground, they would be forgiven for believing Russia is a spent force, that Ukraine is well on its way to victory, and that the only way Ukraine doesn’t win would be if Western politicians go weak and fail to provide necessary supplies and gear.

Former Central Command General David Petraeus said he believed Ukraine would “retake the territory Russia has seized since 24 February (2022),” and that it is “even conceivable now that they could retake Crimea and the Donbas.” Former general Mark Clark seconded Petraeus’ suggestion, adding that taking Crimea “is a concrete, understandable and achievable military objective.” Retired general Ben Hodges went further, claiming it was “quite possible” Zelensky’s troops “will liberate Crimea by the end of (this) summer.”

Though many have argued that Crimea was a major emotional issue for Russia – for which Putin has flat-out said he might use nuclear weapons to defend – Hodges casually dismissed that idea. The chances, Hodges categorically claimed, “that Russia will use nuclear weapons are almost non-existent.” The rock-solid rationale Hodges puts forward for such confidence?

He “believes” Putin accepts that Biden would retaliate with a nuclear response. That any former general officer would so casually dismiss the idea that a desperate Russian leader might resort to nuclear weapons is itself a major red flag.

Finally, expanding on this line of thinking that Russians can so easily be read – and dismissed – is former commander of 1st Armored Division, Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling. Earlier this week in a Washington Post op-ed, Hertling plainly stated Ukraine “will win the war.” The reason for his declarative optimism? Russia won’t make the changes necessary to win “simply because it can’t.” 

The Russian military, the former general claimed, “reflects the character and values of the society” from which it was drawn, and Russians are incapable of learning lessons. The good general seems to have forgotten that Russia, when sufficiently threatened, destroyed France’s Napoleonic armies in 1812 and Germany’s vaunted Wehrmacht in 1945. 

Without a doubt, Russia has underperformed in this war for a full year. But these generals fail to even consider a number of critical fundamentals of war that don’t support the idea of a Russian defeat and Ukrainian victory. To one degree or another, each of these generals have based their claims of an inevitable Ukrainian victory on the delivery of modern NATO equipment.

It’s almost as though they aren’t aware, however, that all this promised equipment will be arriving in dribs and drabs, spread literally out throughout the year, and in some cases – like with the U.S. Abrams tanks – possibly not until early 2024. Further, the latest U.S. package for Ukraine of $2 billion will not include weapons and ammunition from existing stocks that could be immediately delivered to Ukraine, but “could take a year or two to get to the battlefront,” as reported by the Associated Press today

The Ukrainian forces suffer egregiously in the Bakhmut “meat grinder” on a daily basis, and lose tanks, artillery pieces, and armored personnel carriers in the process. How any U.S. general officer supposes that a force defending along a 1,000km front, under heavy pressure by its enemy, and which won’t see meaningful amounts of new gear until likely late in the summer, could switch to the offensive and even put at risk Crimea is strange to say the least. 

There is no reasonable path through which the UAF could mount a credible attack in the foreseeable future. They will do well to prevent additional Russian advances along the current front. Aside, however, from failing to account for obvious factors on the battlefield that don’t support a successful offensive, the greater danger posed by flag officer advice is encouraging U.S. and NATO policymakers to support unnecessarily risky actions. 

On Thursday of this week, seven former four-star generals, all of whom at one time served as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, published an editorial in Defense One that argued the U.S. and NATO “must do everything” possible to enable “a Ukrainian victory.” One of their key claims is that the U.S. must support a Kyiv victory because of what they claim would come next from Russia should they defeat Ukrainian forces. 

“It is highly likely,” the seven generals write, “that a successful Russian invasion would have emboldened China to act against Taiwan. History teaches, they continue, “that distant conflicts abroad can directly threaten us at home when we do not engage.” With all due respect: that is nonsense! China will or will not move on Taiwan based on their own calculations, regardless of whether Russia is or isn’t successful. 

And speaking of what history teaches, a far more pertinent lesson is that those nations which fight wars that are neither required nor beneficial have often resulted in their own civilization being destroyed; see also the Greek empire, Roman Empire, British Empire, all bankrupted by imperial and military overreach

The greatest benefit to the United States is for the war between Russia and Ukraine to come to an end, not see it extended possibly for years to come – especially when doing so could spawn the worst possible outcome for us: nuclear escalation. Yet the advice from such men who have so many stars on their chest is having a troubling impact on the opinions of even America’s allied leaders.

Two weeks ago Petraeus argued that whenever the conflict ended, the West should provide “ironclad security guarantees” to Ukraine. One week later, Polish president Andrzej Duda called for NATO to provide security guarantees to Kyiv. On Friday, the leaders of France, Germany, and the U.K. said that because Russia’s wars sometimes “unfreeze”, Ukraine “will need more guarantees from us.” 

Whether they had in mind some tri-country promise or they intended to seek a NATO guarantee is unclear. But what should be plainly clear is that it would be folly of the highest order to provide any security guarantee to a party who is currently at war with Russia, as any future flair of hostilities might immediately engulf the West. 

It is the undisputed national interest of the United States to make good on our obligation to NATO’s Article 5 treaty and defend every inch of NATO territory – it is not in our interest to essentially expand that protection to a volatile partner with a nearly decade-long history of conflict with nuclear armed Russia.

Too many of today’s retired general officers seem to still believe they are dealing with a foreign head of state like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi, or Bashar al-Assad, none of whom had or have the power to do any meaningful harm to the U.S. or NATO. Vladimir Putin, regardless of how much many in the West may detest him and blame him for the war in Ukraine, is not in that category by virtue of his nuclear arsenal. 

Moreover, as has been graphically demonstrated over the past year of war in which Russia has struggled to possess even a fifth of one bordering nation, Moscow does not represent any credible conventional threat to the NATO alliance. Even with a major mobilization, Putin will be hard-pressed to capture all the Donbas; there is presently no chance for him even to capture all of Ukraine. It is concerning that our generals don’t seem to grasp this clear military reality.

It is beyond time, therefore, that the American public and leaders – along with our NATO allies – start to apply significantly more scrutiny to claims by retired U.S. generals. If their advice continues to influence today’s policymakers, the United States may one day find itself sucked into a war that should never have been fought.

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Author Expertise and Experience

A 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.