04:55 - Source: CNN
Stunning images inside Russian grocery store show dire situation

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. His forthcoming paperback is “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Vladimir Putin’s five-week long invasion of Ukraine has peaked, with Russian forces no longer possessing enough combat power to continue to advance, according to one close observer of the military situation.

In interviews Thursday and Friday, the former commander of the US Special Operations Command in Europe, retired US Army Major General Mike Repass, gave his well-informed view of the war in Ukraine. For the past six years, he has advised the Ukrainian military on a US government contract.

While the Russians may be bogged down, Repass says, the Ukrainian side is also under great stress. He said that the Ukrainian counterattacks in recent days may be less effective than the media coverage has suggested. And he says it’s also not clear how many casualties the Ukrainians have incurred, which makes any kind of accurate analysis of how they are faring difficult to do.

Repass also contends that the Ukrainians need more S-300 missiles capable of bringing down mid-to-high-altitude jets and ballistic missiles, which would fall below the threshold of instituting a formal no-fly zone requested by the Ukrainians, which the US has rejected. And Repass says that he believes that Putin’s “must-haves” in the conflict are securing a land bridge connecting Russia to Crimea on the Black Sea and pushing out the boundaries around the two Russian-proclaimed “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Disclosure: Repass is on the advisory council of the Global Special Operations Foundation, where I am the chairman of the board. Our conversation was edited for clarity and length.

Mike Repass: The Russians culminated about 5 days ago. In the military vernacular, “culmination” means you no longer have sufficient combat power to continue to advance in the offense. I believe that the Ukrainians sensed that and started conducting local counterattacks, particularly to the north and west of Kyiv. They also started counterattacks in the east recently. The Ukrainians went on the counteroffensive, but in a limited way. They took the town of Irpin to the west of Kyiv and some other towns, but the news coverage of the counterattacks has, I think, surpassed the actual effects of those operations on the ground.

I’m concerned that it’s not a large counterattack because perhaps the Ukrainians don’t have enough forces to launch one. So, if they can’t muster a larger counterattack around Kyiv, they may have a hard time gathering enough forces to push the Russians back in the east near Donbas.

We really don’t know what’s going on, on the ground, in granular detail, so it’s hard to judge the Ukrainian tactics and capabilities, and – this is more important – we have no idea what the Ukrainian losses have been so far. If this devolves into a battle of attrition between both sides and we don’t know what the costs to the Ukrainians have been, our analysis about what is going on will be somewhat shallow, quite frankly.

BERGEN: What do you make of the peace talks?

REPASS: I think it’s a Russian delaying tactic because they have not established satisfactory facts on the ground. They’re not ready to stop fighting because they don’t have what they need or want. Unfortunately, I think there will be much more suffering and destruction in Ukraine before there is a ceasefire or peace agreement.

BERGEN: There appears to have been an attack on a fuel depot in Russia on Friday, which the Kremlin has blamed on the Ukrainians. What do make of this?

REPASS: The Belgorod strike is extraordinary in my view. Assuming that it was conducted by the Ukrainians, the operation put Russia on notice that their previous sanctuary in the homeland is now potentially at risk. (Ukraine’s Security Council Secretary denied responsibility for the attack hours after the Ukrainian defense ministry spokesperson said he would neither confirm nor deny Ukraine’s role.) They will no longer have freedom of unrestricted movement in what was previously considered safe rear areas. Russia will have to divert military assets that are currently employed in Ukraine to secure their critical assets and capabilities on Russian soil. Further, the attack destroyed critically needed fuel and other resources needed for the Russians’ faltering fight in Ukraine, which will certainly amplify their logistics challenges. Psychologically, it is another blow to Russia’s sense of invincibility.

BERGEN: Is there anything that surprised you in the last month?

REPASS: Unfortunately, the biggest surprise is the willingness of Russia to destroy everything. Russia is using unrestricted warfare, short of nuclear war, and we haven’t seen this in Europe during the modern era. The only other places that we’ve seen it is Russia’s war in Grozny and then the Russians repeated it in Homs and Aleppo in Syria. Both of those cities are ancient and have archeological significance, and the Russians destroyed both. And Putin did it without penalty or repercussions for his unrestricted use of force to destroy entire cities, including landmarks of cultural and historical significance. Now, he’s destroying Mariupol. He’s after Kharkiv, and he’ll do the same there and with the other cities that he’s encircled, if he’s given a chance.

So the unrestricted brutality that Russia is willing to use in Ukraine has surprised me, given the prewar Russian rhetoric of “We’re brothers,” “We’re cousins,” “We’re one people.” But it’s clear to me that what Putin’s going for – the annihilation of the indigenous population – is because he doesn’t want any potential resistance movements in those cities. Mariupol in particular could be a base for resistance in the midst of his attempt to secure a land bridge from Donbas down to Crimea.

BERGEN: As the former commander of US Special Operations in Europe, how would you rate the Ukrainian Special Forces?

REPASS: They have five regiments of Ukrainian Special Operations Forces, and they were in varying degrees of readiness and capability prior to the war. There are some that were NATO-interoperable and some that were not up to those standards. There are other Special Operations Forces units as well, such as the SBU-Alpha troops from the Security Service of Ukraine, that are pretty darn good. They also have special forces in the State Border Guards.

The Ukrainian law on territorial defense, which went into effect in January, directed the Special Operations Forces to be in charge of the national resistance effort. I know that the resistance forces and territorials have been very active in the Russian rear areas. They don’t have the numbers or the combat capability to go head-to-head with a Russian battalion tactical group, so they tend to engage the rear echelons of support troops and forces.

BERGEN: There are reports of seven Russian generals killed in Ukraine: What does that say to you, and how unusual is it?

REPASS: It’s exceedingly unusual in the modern era. What it tells me is that their command and control processes are very poor. It is also a function of technology and organization. On the organization side, the Russians created battalion tactical groups as their primary war-fighting formations with vastly different armaments and degrees of vehicle mobility. To employ their capabilities properly, they have to string them out across the battlefield in depth, but they don’t have the technology and procedures for arranging these forces in the way they need to. This problem is compounded by the poor infrastructure, which forces the armored and heavy vehicles to remain on the limited and narrow roads. As a result, tactical engagements cause traffic jams, which are exacerbated by bad radio communication systems. In combination, the situation requires the senior leaders to go forward to unscrew things, which makes them vulnerable to artillery and sniper fire.

BERGEN: Are you surprised that the Russians are sometimes communicating in the clear on radios or cell phones?

REPASS: Yes, it does surprise me, but it’s just evidence that their command-and-control capabilities are insufficient for the way they’re organized.

BERGEN: The body bags will start going back to Russia and the funerals will start happening. Does Putin care?

REPASS: I think the consensus among Russia watchers is he either doesn’t know or doesn’t give a damn. He’s impervious to domestic opinion because he’s so thoroughly insulated from what’s going on domestically. He has a circle of trusted advisers and people around him that he pays attention to, and then he has his very tight circle of security that ensures that he’s well protected. Adding to his isolation, Putin has said himself that he barely uses the internet.

He’s informed by his own state media, which has only state-approved messages to report. He’s living in an echo chamber, and they’re not going to report the bad news.

When we see this recent reporting through US, British and Australian channels that he didn’t understand that he was using conscripts, doesn’t understand how badly the Russian military is performing, those reports seem to be confirmatory evidence that he’s insulated from the facts on the ground at home and in Ukraine.

BERGEN: You were a part of a group of retired senior US military and senior Eastern European military leaders that released an open letter on March 9 urging that the Ukrainians be armed with S-300 missiles. Your reason for advocating for the S-300s is they would be below the threshold of setting up a formal no-fly zone, yet would still intercept mid-to-high-altitude jets and ballistic missiles?

REPASS: Right. If you were able to achieve a no-fly zone through your own air defense capabilities, then perhaps there wouldn’t be such a political demand from the Ukrainians – “Give us MiG fighters. Give us a no-fly zone.” So, it was somewhat supportive of the administration’s position on not instituting a formal no-fly zone, while also supporting the actual requirements on the ground in Ukraine.

BERGEN: And the Ukrainians know how to use the S-300s?

REPASS: Absolutely. They’re using the ones that they do have to good effect already.

BERGEN: On NATO, how would you rate its response?

REPASS: The answer to that depends on where you sit. If you’re in Kyiv, you would be very frustrated. They are genuinely and very appreciative of the support they’ve received from all the donor nations. But they expected more support from NATO. There are two different things at play here. The organization, NATO, is not engaged in activities to directly support Ukrainian operations. They are rhetorically and politically supporting what individual nations are doing to support Ukraine, but those nations are coordinating among each other as opposed to coordinating support activities through the NATO alliance structure.

The Ukrainians have several lists of things that they need, but they’ve got to go through a rather bureaucratic process to acquire them. In some cases, the donor nations are moving at the speed of process rather than at the speed of war.

I’ll give you an example: Level IV body armor is capable of withstanding one or two shots from a Soviet-type round. That technology is controlled by the State Department for US export. The Ukrainians will tell you, “Hey, we have the money to pay for this stuff. We’re not asking you to give it to us. We’re asking you to sell it to us expeditiously.” However, the provision of Level IV body armor is subject to a lengthy process to get US approval for delivery to Ukraine. It is late-to-need as a result.

BERGEN: Do you have other concerns?

REPASS: What about the pending humanitarian disaster that’s going to happen in Russia with food shortages and other issues that are coming up? Probably by June, there’s going to be a substantial humanitarian challenge in Russia, and the West would be well served to start talking about this now.

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    They have stopped exporting commodities out of Russia. They have already started rationing some food items like sugar. If the domestic situation gets seriously destabilized due to shortages of food and essential commodities, then perhaps the ruling elites will become unpredictable and desperate to maintain their hold on power. That could lead to substantially increased violence in Ukraine to force a more rapid military outcome.

    BERGEN: What’s the Russian game plan now?

    REPASS: Their initial theory of victory was to decapitate the Ukrainian government, secure a land bridge to Crimea and then seize as much land as possible. He also said he was going to secure the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts (regions). The additional land seizure was going to be things that they were willing to bargain away. They have no intention of bargaining away the land bridge to Crimea.

    The Russian expedition to Kyiv from the north was well anticipated and superbly defended against by the Ukrainians, and the Russians realized after substantial casualties that they didn’t need that. The seizure of Kyiv was (and is) not essential to Russia’s success, and was a want-to-have as opposed to a must-have. The land bridge to Crimea is a Russian must-have.

    In 2014, when the Russians invaded, they took over Crimea, but they also invaded in the east and created this mythology that there was an indigenous revolution in areas of the Donbas, the two “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk, which Russia recognized as independent republics in the runup to the war that they’re currently in.

    That area was heavily industrialized and it has mineral wealth. A lot of the industry was destroyed during the war in 2014, but the coal remains, which Russia is interested in controlling. Extending the political boundaries around the states of Luhansk and Donetsk and securing the land bridge to Crimea would give Putin sufficient political cover to claim some form of victory. It would allow him to then seek a ceasefire or peace agreement. However, I don’t see the Ukrainians agreeing to any of this.