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Ex-supreme allied commander of NATO forces discusses the state of war in Ukraine

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For a few moments yesterday, a startling figure appeared in the Russian news media. A pro-Kremlin publication briefly gave official figures for Russian dead and wounded in Ukraine. A Wall Street Journal reporter got a screenshot before the numbers vanished. The Russian publication said 9,861 Russians have been killed and more than 16,000 wounded. And the purported source was Russia's own Ministry of Defense. Now, these numbers were published and then unpublished as President Biden prepares to travel to Europe this week, meeting with U.S. allies in support of Ukraine.

So let's discuss the state of the war with retired U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, who knows this battlespace because he was supreme allied commander of NATO forces at one time. General Breedlove, good morning.

PHILIP BREEDLOVE: Good morning. How are you, Steve?

INSKEEP: I'm okay. Thanks for joining us. So those numbers that appeared and then vanished suggest more than 10% of Russia's invading force is out of action. And I feel comfortable repeating them because a senior Pentagon official also says the U.S. believes Russia has lost around or even more than 10%. What does it mean for a military force when they lose that many troops?

BREEDLOVE: Well, first, we'd like to say that those numbers are not very far off of what the Ukrainians have been reporting steadily. So I also think that they're fairly credible numbers. Ten percent is impactful. It's extremely impactful if it includes leaders. And you know that we are pretty sure five if not six of the generals that are leading this force have been killed. And so if that's indicative of the kind of people they're losing, that's going to be a real problem. Now, I have heard some talk that 10% starts to make the unit not combat-effective. That really I don't think is appropriate at that percentage. But with a force that is already suffering morale problems and losing 10% of the force, this might be a big issue.

INSKEEP: The Russians have been trying different things to make it appear that they're moving forward or adding additional force. There was much publicity about the firing of a hypersonic missile, which I understand to be just a missile that just travels faster to its target. Does that make any difference?

BREEDLOVE: Well, I think that the way they use this particular missile in this conflict - it really is just that they're trying to make a statement. They've had no real tactical effect on the battlefield that any other missile - you know, we have sort of stopped tracking it, but we're well over 900 missiles fired so far in this conflict. And one more really is not a tactical effect on the battlefield. I think they're just trying to get the world's attention that we're willing to escalate this business here.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about escalation. The U.S. and NATO, of course, have mostly been very clear on what they will and won't do. They will arm Ukraine. They won't send troops, won't send planes, at least not in the way that was proposed the other day. What more can the U.S. and NATO do as President Biden travels to Europe this week?

BREEDLOVE: Well, there's still things that NATO could do as far as arming the Ukrainians. There's been much talked about moving around some of these MiG aircraft. The Ukrainians have asked for this Soviet-era style surface-to-air missiles that we have yet to move to them. And at least three of our nations have those kind of missiles that can be immediately assimilated into the Ukrainian order of battle, as opposed to, say, if we introduce a new weapon, it may take a lot longer. So there's still a lot of arming to do, and...

INSKEEP: Is it possible, General, that there's some arming going on that we're not hearing about? I'm surprised we've heard as much as we have.

BREEDLOVE: I am, too, quite frankly. We've played some things out in the public that could have been handled much better in private. But in this war, I think both sides - the leadership of both sides are fiercely trying to signal their own populace that, you know, we keep standing up. And the very first thing that our senior leaders say out of their mouth are the things that they're not going to do. It's quite interesting how much public signaling we're doing.

INSKEEP: Well, now Poland has said it plans to submit a proposal to NATO for some kind of peacekeeping mission in Ukraine. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has already said the U.S. isn't going to participate in that. No U.S. troops in Ukraine. Is there some way for some NATO forces to introduce peacekeeping troops into Ukraine without massively escalating the war?

BREEDLOVE: Well, once again, you've heard these very public notes - no this, no that. And I think that we should be having conversations and not so publicly. A military force wants to plan and look at options, and to stand up and take those options off the table preemptively is not the way we operate. And so I think that we should allow military planners to take a look at this and then advise the civilians who make the decisions.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about other possible escalations here. How concerned should the United States be about the possibility of Russia using biological or chemical weapons, given that the Russians have started lobbing accusations about Ukrainian biological labs and so forth, which sounds like a preliminary to that?

BREEDLOVE: They've actually been doing that for some time now, haven't they, Steve? But what worries me more than what you just mentioned is the fact that Mr. Putin's war is not going well. He's stalled in many places. And you've seen him going to these Cro-Magnon tactics of just shelling cities, mass murder, get refugees on the road, cause just disruption in the rear area with this - these - this indiscriminate bombing and shelling. And it's still not working well for him. So the more frustrated Mr. Putin gets with the progress he's seeing, the more dangerous he gets on these chem and bio weapons. He's been talking about them for some time. That really is not a new piece. The new piece is what would force him to use them.

INSKEEP: Can the United States deter a Russian chemical attack?

BREEDLOVE: Well, let's just put it this way, Steve. We haven't deterred him at all yet in this war. You know, before this war started, we said we were in a very passive deterrent mode. We said, if he does this, then we'll do that. If he does this, then we'll do that. And so that's a very passive approach. And Mr. Putin, we were told, was told everything by our senior leadership that they were going to do. We heard over and over again, we've explained to him what will happen, and he understands it. He measured all of that. He was not deterred, and he attacked. And right now, our deterrence is really not working on anything we're trying to do with him. So I don't believe really we have an effective deterrent right now over chem warfare.

INSKEEP: General, thanks so much for your time - really appreciate it.

BREEDLOVE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Retired General Philip Breedlove. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.