scroll to top arrow or icon

Podcast: David Petraeus on Putin's war games

Podcast: David Petraeus on Putin's war games

TRANSCRIPT: David Petraeus on Putin's war games

David Petraeus:

Look, I think that Putin has had to have looked into the abyss, or shaken the tree and he sees what falls out, and it can't be real pleasing to him. I mean, he's managed to unite NATO in a way that nothing else has since the end of the Cold War, other than his annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas in 2014.

Ian Bremmer:

Hello and welcome to the GZERO World Podcast. This is where you'll find extended versions of my interviews on public television. I'm Ian Bremmer, and today I'm coming to you from the 2022 Munich Security Conference where world leaders are gathering again for the first time in two years, in a moment of unprecedented crisis. At the time of this recording, Russia's 150,000 plus troops have yet to cross the Ukrainian border. Western officials warn that an invasion could happen at any moment. I'm joined today by former CIA Director and retired four-star General David Petraeus, who's led a couple of invasions himself, to talk about this critical moment in world history. Things look grim, there's no question, but when it comes to the state of NATO today, there is a silver lining. So let's get to my conversation with Dave Petraeus.

Announcer:

The GZERO World Podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company, places clients needs first by providing responsive, relevant, and customized solutions. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more.

GZERO world would also like to share a message from our friends at Foreign Policy. How can sports change the world for the better? On The Long Game, a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, hear stories of courage and conviction, both on and off the field, directly from athletes themselves. Ibtihaj Muhammad, Olympic medalist and global change agent, hosts The Long Game. Hear new episodes every week on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Ian Bremmer:

David Petraeus

David Petraeus:

Ian, good to be with you. Thanks.

Ian Bremmer:

This feels like a rather momentous Munich Security Conference. I mean, do you think that we are sort of heading back to the future?

David Petraeus:

I'd like to think that the diplomacy will prevail, touch wood. The latest of course that just broke as you and I were discussing is that there may be a meeting between the Russian, American Foreign Minister, Secretary of State, if there is no evasion. Look, I think that Putin has had to have looked into the abyss, or shaken the tree and he sees what falls out, and it can't be real pleasing to him. I mean, he's managed to unite NATO in a way that nothing else has since the end of the Cold War, other than his annexation of Crimea, invasion of the Donbas in 2014. I mean, he has really given NATO a reason to live again. And again, this is the best time for NATO since the end of the Cold War, paradoxically.

Ian Bremmer:

You have. You've been coming to this conference for a long time now.

David Petraeus:

I have since in the mid '80s, when I was a speech writer for the Supreme Allied Commander.

Ian Bremmer:

When's the last time NATO felt this coherent?

David Petraeus:

Well, back in the Cold War.

Ian Bremmer:

Right.

David Petraeus:

And it was, in fact, my boss, the Supreme Allied Commander. In those days, the SAC here was almost the king of Europe because of course you have the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact faced off with the West and NATO. Yeah, I think that's right to say there hasn't been that degree of unity. There have certainly been some missions that have been very important. I would say the Balkans missions in the 1990s were very, very important and unifying Bosnia, Kosovo, and so forth. Afghanistan was a NATO mission of course, but the way it was ended, at least on this side of the Atlantic is felt that there was not sufficient consultation. Many of them wanted to stay. And certainly the way that we ended up leaving was not the most orderly of departures.

So, yeah, this is really quite a striking moment. I also think you do have to actually understand the context for the US delegation, the national security team, and that is that to a degree, Afghanistan forms that context, and a recognition that whether they believe it or not, in Washington, the Europeans did not feel adequately consulted. Look at the consultation they have done this time.

Ian Bremmer:

And the Russians saw an opportunity perhaps as a consequence.

David Petraeus:

Maybe. It may be that this message that we were not a dependable partner and so forth. I don't believe that.

Ian Bremmer:

Yeah.

David Petraeus:

I mean, I think Afghanistan was something that was a one-off for the United, the commander-in-chief in particular. But I do think that, having been very critical of the administration over the decision to withdraw and the way it was done, that the conduct of what they're doing now has been very impressive.

Ian Bremmer:

It almost feels like a different administration in terms of both the communications, which they've done so much of in advance of the challenges with Russia over Ukraine, to the public, as well as the multilateralism.

David Petraeus:

Sure, yeah.

Ian Bremmer:

It's night and day.

David Petraeus:

Well, number one, people have their feet firmly on the ground. That was very early on in the beginning when the decision was made and then when the execution was carried out. Again, you have that context that we've got to show that we are a dependable partner, that we do consult, and that we have the will to employ the extraordinary capabilities that only we have. So it's a very different sense, and it's a very reassuring sense. Again, I give credit to the administration for what they have done and the way that they are very quickly taking what is undoubtedly sensitive intelligence and laundering it into releasable public information to put Russia on notice repeatedly is also very impressive.

Ian Bremmer:

The Russians engage in a false flag.

David Petraeus:

Yes.

Ian Bremmer:

Or that they will be seen to have been manipulating in.

David Petraeus:

Yeah, I mean, it does help that you have the media, the social media, that you can follow this all on TikTok or on whatever is posted. So that literally drawing social media plus all of the other sources. And government does that too, of course. In fact, the CIA has an open source center that mines all this stuff.

Ian Bremmer:

Tell me, I mean, because you've got a hell of a lot of experience in terms of the disposition of forces that we're seeing right now, and I mean, yeah, it's a big buildup. I understand that. Talk a little bit about what it means for the Russians to have-

David Petraeus:

It's huge.

Ian Bremmer:

-put what they have now arrayed across Ukraine's borders.

David Petraeus:

It's enormous. And having been part of an invasion of a country, as a two-star general in the beginning of Iraq, as the commander of the great 101st Airborne Division, you are seeing the kind of activities that would be a prelude in the final days to actually going across the border, through the berm as we did in Kuwait into Iraq. And a lot of that is logistics. It's not the combat forces. It's all the last minute logistics. It's the re-fuelers, it's the field hospitals. It's again, a whole variety of enablers that are needed to literally enable the tanks, the infantry, and so forth to continue to move. What's interesting is that force-

Ian Bremmer:

Can you say that there is definitively, there is zero credibility given what they've arrayed, that this is about exercises in Belarus, for example?

David Petraeus:

Look, I think they have positioned a force that presents a number of options to President Putin. There's no question about that. That's indisputable. The question obviously is does he really truly want to go in from, gosh, I don't know, you come in from the north and the south and have a pincer and shut it off and encircle the Ukrainian forces in Eastern Ukraine or something. Does he really want to try to digest what we believe will be a porcupine that will not go down easily? And I think that, again, those options are still there and they may stay there for another few weeks, maybe. You could do it for conceivably for another month or two. But I'll tell you that, again, the troops are out there. This is not an easy time of year to be living in a tent east of the Ukraine border.

Ian Bremmer:

What can you say about the Ukrainian forces, their preparedness as well as the weapons systems that have been sent by the United States and NATO allies to Ukraine?

David Petraeus:

Yup. A lot better than 2014, which frankly is from a pretty low baseline.

Ian Bremmer:

Yeah.

David Petraeus:

I've actually been to the front, if you will, of the Donbas. I went out three years ago before the lockdown, visited with Ukrainian troops and all the Ukrainian leaders back in Kyiv as well.

Ian Bremmer:

So-called line of contact.

David Petraeus:

It is. I mean, it's dug in. This is World War I with drones, optics, and computers in the command post, but still mud and still trenches. And if you pop your head above the ground for too long, there's a sniper on the other side who might take it off.

So it's deadly serious. There are casualties every single week, but those lines haven't moved much in recent years. Ukraine took this hill back, or little adjustment here and there, but by and large it is a frozen conflict in that regard.

Of course, one of the options that Putin has is to either put forces in there to safeguard them against perhaps some trumped-up Ukrainian attempt to liberate the Donbas, just as something to do short of an additional invasion of some other other part of the Ukraine.

Ian Bremmer:

And the Russians falsely claim that the Russians are being obliterated by the Ukrainian government.

David Petraeus:

Certainly, yeah. Which is hard to do in this day and age. I think they're finding out that it's much more difficult to have disinformation if the entire world is riveted on it. It's one thing in some social media silo or something like that, but if the whole world is focused on something and every human being with an iPhone is a journalist and taking video and so forth, it's pretty hard to argue with that. Now, people will try. They can construct different stuff. But that's again, the context in which all of this is playing out. I tend to think again, that having shaken the tree, Putin didn't achieve what he wanted, which was to separate Europe from North America, drive a wedge between members of the alliance, perhaps even in the EU and NATO and so forth.

That certainly has not been the case. There is very broad unity. Certainly there are some issues in which the German chancellor may see the world a bit differently than the US President, like Nord Stream 2. But by and large, I think what we have seen has been very reassuring. And I would just note, of course, brand new chancellor, after 16 years of the previous chancellor who was always the steadying force in Europe. And he was in Washington, then he was in Kyiv and Moscow-

Ian Bremmer:

And the response was pretty strong.

David Petraeus:

Very strong.

Ian Bremmer:

Yeah.

David Petraeus:

And so quite impressive.

Ian Bremmer:

And what about these weapons systems? The Germans sent like 5,000 helmets and everyone was embarrassed, but I mean the systems that have been sent from the UK, from the United States, from others to Ukraine, symbolic or actually meaningful?

David Petraeus:

Oh no, no. The manned portable anti-tank system and the manned portable anti-aircraft system, especially the anti-tank system, the javelin, is a very lethal weapon. I'm not sure I'd want to be shooting head on at a tank, but those tanks have to stop sooner or later. And if there are people with javelins within a mile and a half or so, that's a good distance. They're going to take them out.

Ian Bremmer:

So do you think that what the NATO and allies have provided to the Ukrainians would plausibly be seen as a useful deterrent against Russian invasion?

David Petraeus:

Yeah. It's a very good down payment. Maybe a bit more than that. Again, but then give credit to the UK. They're the first ones that landed C-17s on the ground in Ukraine with lethal equipment. So again, none of this, this is not offensive stuff. Again, you're not going to run to Moscow with this anti-tank system on your shoulder. But it sure is pretty good if you want to make the invader pay a very heavy price.

The real question, of course, is how fiercely would the Ukrainian forces-

Ian Bremmer:

Actually fight.

David Petraeus:

-and the partisan brigades. Keep in mind, there aren't just several dozen conventional military brigades. There are several dozen partisan brigades. And if they want to put up resistance, it'd be a very, very difficult situation for the Russians. I mean, you're not going to go outside your perimeter without, again, someone taking a shot at you, and maybe even in the perimeter. So the other thing is, again, keep in mind the numbers. These sound enormous, 130, maybe even 150,000 troops as President Biden said the other day. That's about what we had the invasion of Iraq. That was nowhere near enough, even for just-

Ian Bremmer:

To hold these cities.

David Petraeus:

-part of the country.

Ian Bremmer:

-To hold the cities.

David Petraeus:

Just part of the country. We couldn't even, yeah, nowhere near enough,

Ian Bremmer:

I vaguely remember a story from you around Najaf.

David Petraeus:

Well, yeah. I mean, I called up my boss and I said, "Hey, this is the very first big city that we take." There was some resistance, couple days of fighting, then it sort of melted away. But now you're left with a city of five or 600,000 people and at that time they were still applauding. Of course it's a Shia city, happy to see the Sunni Arab leader be cast out.

Ian Bremmer:

Removed, yeah.

David Petraeus:

But I remember calling my boss on the radio and I said, "I got good news and bad news." He said, "What's the good news?" I said, "We own Najaf." By the way, it's also the holiest city in Shia Islam.

Ian Bremmer:

Yeah.

David Petraeus:

He said, "What's the bad news?" I said, "We own Najaf. I mean, what do you want us to do with it?" And we ended up with an entire brigade combat team pinned down, just sort of administering it, and there wasn't even really much resistance left at all.

Ian Bremmer:

I think if you're calling Putin from Ukraine, you probably just give him the good news.

David Petraeus:

You probably do. In fact, I'm not sure there's, the channels, remember the old Soviet army, you could only call down, not back up. But the reality is that he knows enough to realize that they could probably run the government out of Kyiv. Actually, most of them are here right now, keep them from landing back there. But how do you hold it? It's not about taking part of the country or a good bit of it, even the capital. It's about how do you hang onto it. And that's not a trivial issue.

Ian Bremmer:

Yeah. So before we close, I should ask you at least a little bit about Afghanistan.

David Petraeus:

Yeah.

Ian Bremmer:

Of course, there's a very different story in terms of how the Biden administration very handled that.

David Petraeus:

Very bleak. Yeah, very bleak situation.

Ian Bremmer:

And now we're facing a situation that potentially many millions of refugees from Afghanistan. We've got polio still running around in that country. I mean.

David Petraeus:

COVID is rampant.

Ian Bremmer:

Yeah. So when you look at all of that, talk about, I mean, I don't want to rehash the mistakes that were made-

David Petraeus:

Yes.

Ian Bremmer:

Then, but I would like to say, what, if anything, do you think the Americans, the allies, should be doing at this point, given the government that is now on the ground in Kabul?

David Petraeus:

And I think to be fair, that our government and most are wrestling with how do we provide very substantial assistance. We just gave another $300 million over that actually. We're the biggest donor by far. We need everybody else to get back to the table on this. The question is how do you bring that to bear for the people without enabling the Taliban government, which we won't recognize, I'm sure, if ever. We're certainly not going to do it early on, especially when they haven't agreed to a whole variety of different issues that we have raised with them. Not the least of which is some 60,000 special immigrant visa holders or applicants. These are the battlefield interpreters.

Ian Bremmer:

That are still there.

David Petraeus:

Plus their family members, so it's somewhere around 12, 15,000 of them, plus family members. We have a moral obligation to them.

Ian Bremmer:

To bring them to the United States?

David Petraeus:

Yes, we do. We said, "You serve two years or more on the ground with our men and women as a battlefield interpreter." Turp, our son had one as a second lieutenant, on the ground. Now he's the commander, in fact. He is a platoon leader, "and we will give you a special immigrant visa." And we have not evacuated them. We did not get many of them out. We got a couple of thousand at best.

Ian Bremmer:

But flights are leaving Afghanistan again.

David Petraeus:

Very, very small numbers. I literally just had an update from No One Left Behind that tracks all of this. And the most influx is less than 100 of those that we count, that we're focused on, which are again, the special immigrant visa cases. But again, the big issue is this is a humanitarian catastrophe. It's fellow human beings. Again, regardless of government, the circumstances that it took over, we have to figure out how to get help to them directly, and we need to do it a lot sooner rather than later. They're starving. I've seen numbers as much as a third to a half of the population, which could be as many still as 35-

Ian Bremmer:

Facing starvation this winter.

David Petraeus:

Facing starvation by the UN definition, yeah.

Ian Bremmer:

Yeah.

David Petraeus:

So it's very, very grim. I think we still have an obligation to the other Afghans as well, frankly. And so we've got to figure that one out. It's very, very concerning. It was at the top of the list before Ukraine, which has in a sense, sucked the oxygen out of the situation room, as they say.

Ian Bremmer:

Were you dismayed, surprised, at the political decision, that half of the Afghan reserves, Taliban reserves, would be allocated to 9/11?

David Petraeus:

Yeah, I've been thinking that through with others, candidly. I mean, at the end of the day, you can only say, "Look, domestic politics does actually intrude on foreign policy." I mean, it's a reality. Sort of get over it. I mean, that's a way of the President trying to get assistance to them by unfreezing part of this money, which will still be fought out in court. And then also trying to satisfy what is a very legitimate legal case that's been advanced by those who suffered under extremists that were allowed, tolerated, by the Taliban on their soil and subsequently. So again, this is one of those slicing the baby kind of decisions.

Ian Bremmer:

You know what happens when you slice the baby?

David Petraeus:

Well, you do.

Ian Bremmer:

Yeah.

David Petraeus:

I know, I do. It doesn't turn out well for either side. But again, that's reality in Washington. And we can say politics stops at the water's edge and all that stuff, but it's in everything really.

Ian Bremmer:

David Petraeus.

David Petraeus:

Pleasure.

Ian Bremmer:

Thank you much.

David Petraeus:

Good to be with you, Ian. Thanks.

Announcer 4:

That's it for today's edition of the GZERO World Podcast. Like what you've heard? Come check us out at gzeromedia.com and sign up for our newsletter, Signal.

Announcer:

The GZERO World Podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company, places clients needs first by providing responsive, relevant, and customized solutions, visit firstrepublic.com to learn more.

GZERO World would also like to share a message from our friends at Foreign Policy. How can sports change the world for the better? On The Long Game, a co-production of Foreign Policy and Doha Debates, hear stories of courage and conviction, both on and off the field, directly from athletes themselves. Ibtihaj Muhammad, Olympic medalist and global change agent, hosts The Long Game. Hear new episodes every week on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

Previous Page

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO's daily newsletter