By Marc A. Thiessen
March 6, 2023
The Washington Post
Retired four-star Gen. Jack Keane knows how to win wars. A former vice chief of staff of the Army, Keane is the intellectual author of the 2007 “surge” strategy that turned around the war in Iraq. My American Enterprise Institute colleague Danielle Pletka and I recently interviewed Keane on our podcast. We asked him what winning in Ukraine would look like and how it could be accomplished.
For this week’s column, I’m highlighting some of Keane’s most insightful comments. The transcript below has our truncated questions, with Keane’s answers edited for style and clarity. You can listen to the entire interview here.
You say victory is achievable in Ukraine, defined as driving Russia out of all the territory it has unlawfully seized — including Crimea. How?
Keane: [Russia’s] conventional ground forces’ ability to conduct “combined armed” attack — that means a maneuver, artillery and support, and air support, all coordinated — they just can’t do it. The elements of their conventional ground forces have all either sustained high casualties or have literally been defeated.
The Ukrainians, through the use of HIMARS [High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems], have been able to deplete — not extinguish, but deplete — these forces significantly. So, we assessed that while [the Russians will] make some tactical gains, they will, in a matter of weeks, culminate [their offensive].
That will allow the Ukrainians to conduct an offensive operation that will likely begin somewhere around May, June. They would have liked to have started this offensive a number of weeks ago, [but] they couldn’t do that because they didn’t have tanks, they didn’t have enough armored vehicles, they didn’t have enough mobility to do that. And yet the Russians were very, very vulnerable to that kind of an exploitation.
We do calculate that if [the Ukrainians are] able to continue this offensive and we get the proper weapons to them, over time, yes, they can penetrate and go through the Zaporizhzhia oblast, go down on an axis dealing with Melitopol and get to the southern coast — but more significantly, [they can] sever the east-west main supply route that is the land bridge to Crimea. And then [they can] bring forward long-range missiles and rockets to begin to pummel the [Russian] bases in Crimea, the military bases and depots that are providing significant support to the Russians. And then, eventually, [they can] also use ground maneuver, combined arms to be able to move into Crimea.
Hopefully, by that time, we would have given them a couple of things that are necessary. One is ATACMS [Army Tactical Missile Systems], long-range missiles that go 194 miles vs. the 50 or so miles that the HIMARS give, and also advanced fighters like the F-16s. [With those capabilities] the Ukrainians do have the opportunity to retake their territory, yes.
So, victory depends on President Biden’s willingness to give Ukraine capabilities we are withholding?
To succeed at conventional combined arms warfare, you need tanks, armored vehicles carrying infantry soldiers, massive amounts of artillery, air defense systems that are going to protect this force from intrusion, coordinated artillery fire and air support. Those are the ingredients to be successful. And if you don’t have those ingredients, you cannot take the territory that you want to take in the time that you want to take it.
The United States is a master at how to conduct combined arms conventional warfare. We can put together a plan and a strategy on how to succeed against the Russians. And the Ukrainians, my God, they are so coachable. They are quick learners. They are fierce fighters. They have all the elements that are necessary to succeed. They
just need a strategy that we can help them put together with the right equipment to do that, and we can roll these Russians up. I’m absolutely convinced of it. But there doesn’t appear to be a stomach for it.
If Biden gave them those capabilities, could this help Ukraine retake its territory before the second anniversary of the Russian invasion?
If we had everything there, yes, I think we could.
Why isn’t Biden providing the weapons they need to prevail?
I think many of us have real concerns that the administration and the Department of Defense and others in the national security team have permitted the threat of escalation by [Vladimir] Putin to be a major guidepost to when they provide weapons systems to the Ukrainians. And I think the Ukrainians are very frustrated because they haven’t received these weapons systems, and particularly advanced systems, on time. Initially, we say no, and then a couple of months later, we say yes. And this has been going on now for an entire year.
And it’s really unfortunate, and I think what happened is their fear, their absolute fear of escalation, has been a major policy decision, and [so the administration has] provided the support piecemeal in the sense of slow-rolling Ukraine’s capability. And it’s really quite unfounded, because [despite] all of the weapons that we’ve given that have increased their capability to prosecute the war, there has been no escalation from Russia. Therefore, I think the policy is misguided.
For the life of me, I don’t understand why we would permit Russia, who has obviously a nuclear arsenal, and they’re threatening the potential use of nuclear weapons, to let that be a veto for our use of conventional weapons to support the Ukrainians’ fight to free their people. I think the alarm bells that [signals] to China, who also has nuclear weapons, to Iran, who is in pursuit of them, and also to North Korea, who has nuclear weapons and is a belligerent power who wants to flaunt those weapons, it is absolutely the wrong signal.
When I look at the Russian generals, I just instinctively know that they’re not going to make any recommendation to Putin to use tactical nuclear weapons inside Ukraine. They know full well that they can’t protect their forces from the hazards of a nuclear tactical weapon going off there. This is not the Soviet Union army. This is a Russian army that hasn’t trained for that and doesn’t have the protection for it. It makes no sense to have that continuing to be U.S. policy.
What is the fallout of not preventing this war?
I think if we had given the Ukrainians much of what we are doing now, it’s possible we could have deterred Putin. [We spent] the eight years of the Obama administration tolerating Putin’s annexing Crimea and moving into the eastern part of Ukraine, declaring a red line in Syria over the use of chemical weapons and [then] doing nothing about it, doing nothing about the situation in Ukraine. And then the Biden administration comes in, and Putin puts 70,000 troops on the border. And he did that for what reason? He wanted to see Biden’s reaction. [And] Biden stop[s] the shipment of [U.S.] arms to Ukraine. And what message does Putin get from that?
And then you add to that the incredible unconditional surrender of Afghanistan, and I think you put all that together, and, yes, they come to the conclusion that the United States is a declining power. It doesn’t have the same political will and spine to stand up to adversaries.
What lesson would China take from a Western failure in Ukraine?
President Xi [Jinping] is looking right at this. If he sees the United States walking away, and NATO, after committing the moral will and political will of NATO to Ukraine surviving and defeating Russia, and then [showing] a lack of political will walking away from that? I think that [would] just validate what he has been saying for 10 years — that the United States is a declining power, and he fully intends to replace it as the world’s global leader.
What do you say to critics who say we’re spending too much on Ukraine?
One hundred billion dollars, yes, that is a significant amount of money. But it’s a small part of [a roughly] $6 trillion budget. What a return on investment of $100 billion we’re getting, for stopping Russian aggression. If we’re able to succeed in that, that will literally make President Xi think twice before likely going into Taiwan. When he sees that American geopolitical stand, taken in concert with allies, it will send a huge message. I think Iran will get the same. Some Americans on the right say Biden cares more about Ukraine’s borders than our own. Some of these arguments are significantly irrational. For example, “We shouldn’t fund the war in Ukraine when we have such a problem on our border.”
Does anybody believe, if we pulled the funding from the war in Ukraine today and said we’re not going to do it anymore, that the Biden administration is going to solve the problem on the southern border? They’re finally going to enforce the laws? They’re finally going to change the policy? Are they finally going to have a coherent policy to stop fentanyl, and to deal with the cartels? [We have seen] the DNA of this administration, and these things are not mutually exclusive.
What will happen if China does start providing Russia with military aid?
I was really pleasantly surprised by the E.U., who stood up and said that they want no part of that, and, “This will be a red line for us.” And I think if [China does] provide this lethal aid, it will bring the United States and Europe much closer together in opposing China.
If Putin is not defeated, what will he do?
Putin has said time and time again his major objective is returning to the Russian empire. He wants the former Soviet republics that are now part of NATO to come back into that empire. He will do it by force, and he’s threatened it. I think he’s dead serious.
Now listen: His military is in bad shape. It’s not something where, if the war ended tomorrow, Putin is going to be able to mount up in six months or a year, and conduct an invasion of a Baltic state, or a Bulgaria or Romania. Those are the most vulnerable. Moldova is something he could take in a [matter] of weeks, but they’re not NATO-aligned. I don’t believe for a minute that Putin has given up on that goal. He doesn’t even believe [Ukraine] is a country. [He sees it as] it belongs to Russia. I think we should take him seriously.
Marc Thiessen writes a column for The Post on foreign and domestic policy. He is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the former chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush.