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British General Says Ukraine War Could Last For ‘Decades’

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General Sir Richard Barrons is a former commander of the British Joint Forces Command and is now chairman of the defense and security company, Universal Defense & Security Solutions.

He spoke to RFE/RL’s Georgian Service about the constraints on both sides of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the importance of industrial transformation in a drawn-out conflict, and offered a bleak forecast for the course of the war.

What have we learned after one year of warfare in Ukraine? And where are we now?

Sir Richard Barrons: There are some lessons at a very high level, particularly for Europe. And the first of those is that we haven’t somehow grown out of fighting in a way that some people wanted to believe at the end of the Cold War in 1990. And we’re being reminded by the war in Ukraine that war is part of the human existence. And even if you would prefer it was not so, there is no guaranteed immunity from it. And as [Prussian] General von Clausewitz says, “You may not choose war, but war can choose you.” And when it occurs, it is the same brutal, feral, dangerous, usually disappointing business it has been for millennia. And yet, at least once a generation, we feel the need to reacquaint ourselves with that thought.

And the second thing it has reminded us [of] is that big wars — and the war in Ukraine is a big war — are fought, won, and lost by civilians, as the war becomes not something that is just conducted by the professional, regular armed forces in the way Western armies principally took part in Iraq and Afghanistan and Balkan interventions in the 1990s. These big wars, where the survival of the state is at stake, which is the case in Ukraine, are fought by citizens who are mobilized and industry that is mobilized. And you can see that actually now, on both sides, in this war in Ukraine, that it’s being fought by Ukrainian citizens who a year ago, in many cases less than a year ago, were teachers, nurses, mechanics, whatever; and increasingly, on the Russian side, the manpower is being mobilized from civil society. So again, people who were not professional soldiers.

And if the tactics of the private Wagner mercenary group are employed, people who were not professional soldiers, but professional criminals.

Barrons: Yes. And that is a feature that is important to the Russian effort — that there is a mixture of the Russian armed forces, increasingly mobilized civilians, and the Wagner Group, which has this extraordinary role in this war of a private enterprise mobilizing prisoners and mercenaries to fight alongside the Russian armed forces. And indeed, now they are locked in a competition about who is succeeding and who is failing, and actually who is to blame for failing. And you don’t see that on the Ukrainian side.

And I think the third thing we’re being reacquainted with is there is no logical rule that says these wars either have to be definitively successful for one or other party, or quick. And what we’re essentially seeing playing out in Ukraine is not just a big war but a long war where, despite the aspirations of both sides and despite everyone’s preference for this to be done and over, the dynamics of it suggest, first of all, a long fight because neither side has won, neither side has lost, neither side is anywhere close to giving up. So, there’s a lot of fighting to come at the cost of terrible destruction. But the most likely outcome is one of exhaustion and stalemate followed by profound disagreement for as long as you can imagine. And we may be staring at an outcome where you can’t count [on] the war as being over for decades.

That’s an even bleaker prediction than the earlier one of yours, when you said that this war might last until 2025. And if indeed, we need to be bracing ourselves for such a long war, let me ask you whose side is time on strategically?

Barrons: The question of who prevails is one of choice. From the Western perspective, it has always been absolutely clear that Ukraine can be supported to achieve an outcome that Ukraine is content with, provided the West mobilizes a relatively small fraction of its money and its industry. Because Ukraine wins, or prevails, or at least it doesn’t lose, so long as it is connected to money, at about $6 billion a month, and [the] Western defense industry to supply the weapons and ammunition and other equipment and stores that Ukraine needs to equip a mobilized society with. And if the West continues to choose to provide that support — and let’s be absolutely clear, that support is a very small fraction of the economic power of the West, so it is a matter of choice — yes, there’s a cost. But it’s a very small percentage of the economic wealth of the West. If the West does that and Ukraine retains the will to fight, it can keep fighting.

From the Russian perspective, well, Russia is mobilizing its society more and more and reenergizing its defense industry, which employs around 2 million people. So, it’s a very big enterprise. And Russia believes that it has the money, the will, and the social control, and the industry to outlast the West’s will to continue.

And no one really knows the outcome of that. The one thing that would be a game changer now, in all sorts of ways, given that both sides are short of equipment, because of losses, and both sides are very short of ammunition, particularly artillery ammunition, because of the rate of use and the time it will take to ramp up production — so a lag of a year or two is going to apply to both the way the West supports Ukraine and the way Russia drives up its own industry.

The one thing that would change things in the short term would be China and/or India connecting the Russian Armed Forces to their stocks of ammunition — the things that already exist. Because that would energize the Russian military with ammunition that the West simply can’t match in the time that we’re talking about. And that is wholly dangerous, because were that to occur, it takes you to a much higher prospect of the West having to engage in the fighting, because reenergized Russian forces start to break through in a way that would be very disconcerting. And it also, of course, cements this idea that the war in Ukraine, which is a war between Russia and Ukraine, is actually a proxy conflict between liberal democracy in the West and autocratic capitalism, led by Russia and China but actually led by China, increasingly followed by Russia. And were that to be become amplified in Ukraine, then I don’t see any way in which that makes our world safer, better, or more prosperous.

There are two ifs there: You said, “if the West is willing to” continue its support, and in Russia’s case, “if China or India are willing to contribute.” How big are those ifs?

Barrons: I think right now for the West, the “if” is a very small one. Because one of the cardinal features of U.S.-led, Western policy around the war has been that the West remain united. And that has played out, I think, way better than many people expected.

The test for the West now is about sustaining the cost of a new industrial policy which builds ammunition and weapons; and more than that, the cost of sustaining the energy subsidies that have come with the energy price shock from the war, which dwarfs the cost of military aid. And I think this is going to be calibrated by two things. One is I think there will be increasingly a transition from the burden of this war, which is currently very heavily falling to the U.S. I think it’s likely more of that burden will fall on Europe, partly because of the uncertainty around U.S. politics, and partly because of the economic disparity — that the U.S. is paying a very high percentage of the effort…. And I certainly think the cost of reconstruction, when the shooting stops, will fall more to Europe than to anybody else. But to come back to the point I made: If you look at the economic power of Europe, the cost of the war in Ukraine is very, very modest. It’s just that it’s coming at a time when people are worried about the cost-of-living crisis and all the other things at the margins of their lives.

So, I think the “if” for Europe is quite small, provided Europe’s political leaders stay the course. And one of the interesting things of this war is that it’s causing political leaders, like the leaders of Germany, France, and the U.K., to elevate their sights from where they habitually are, which are politicians focused on the next election and the margin that takes it there and the politicians who, whether they like it or not, are essentially wartime leaders. They have to think at the level of statesmen who ask their societies to do things that their societies don’t necessarily want to do or aren’t attracted to. And this is a really interesting test….

The “if” from the Russian side, I think, is different for two reasons. One is that Russia is a monolithic state where there really isn’t any sign of a significant challenge to President [Vladimir] Putin and his regime despite the clear strategic- and tactical-level blundering that has gone around this war, despite the shock to the Russian economy.

The fact is that many, many Russians still support the objectives of this war — they support the narrative that President Putin subscribes to — and there’s no point us wailing at this, if you’re sitting in the West.

The fact is there are two irreconcilable narratives about this war in Ukraine and both sides subscribe strongly to the narrative that has been set out for them. So, I don’t see there’s a challenge, really, to President Putin. And President Putin believes that Russia and Russians can manage far greater hardship than Western Europeans are inclined to, so they will “out-tough” it and they can direct more economic effort to energize the Russian defense industry….

When the “if” extends to China and India, I think what we have seen is very little interest from India, but also very little interest from India on siding with the West. A lot of its military equipment comes from Russia; they have longstanding ties with Russia. India is resolutely nonaligned and does not feel the need to take sides in this war; it is benefiting from a flow of cheaper energy from Russia. So, India has kept out of it and shows no sign of that changing and, you know, India is very good at defining what India’s interests are.

From a China perspective, I think the position still remains the case that China sees no advantage in this war deepening to the point where the West identifies China as siding with Russia in fighting it, because of the enormous consequences that would have for Chinese economic interests; for the way that it would amplify the war from a regional conflict to a global confrontation; and I think China — which, of course, is driven by China’s interests — doesn’t see any value in how war in Ukraine could become something that deeply damaged China’s economic, political, and military interests in the war.

Now that doesn’t mean that China hasn’t tried to do small things. China has supplied some technology to Russia. It probably thought it wouldn’t be detected; it was detected. And it’s one of the features of this war that it’s pretty transparent, in terms of what goes on. That is not the same as China unlocking its stock of ammunition and providing it to Russia, which would be a definitive sign of China engaging in this conflict on terms which the West would find deeply confrontational. And I just don’t see that China thinks now or will think in the future that that is a good thing for China, even if it would be a good thing for Russia.

How has the Russian offensive fared? Because there was much fanfare, much dread at its start, and we were expecting so much.

Barrons: The Russian offensive, which has played out in 2023, and looks like it’s running out of steam now, has been a surprise for its continuing lack of, essentially, professional competence. And the first thing that didn’t happen was: There was no surprise; there was no Russian maneuver from somewhere else on the border with Ukraine to do what would be a classic military maneuver of trying to take your enemy from behind or in the flank. And what we have seen is just more frontal battering — so there was no surprise involved in this.

The second thing, which I think reflects two things — one is a shortage of ammunition, and two is a shortage of leadership and training — is that this offensive has been characterized by throwing waves of people into the teeth of Ukrainian artillery and machine guns; and the losses of individuals have been astonishing. Now in some cases, the Wagner Group have simply thrown waves of prisoners, about whom nobody cares, to take yards of ground where it was possible.

Genghis Khan would be so proud of that tactic.

Barrons: Yes. It’s culturally astonishing to Europeans, and maybe more resonant historically in Russia, this use of human waves to try [to] take small bits of ground because the commanders don’t seem to care, because they don’t have the ammunition to prepare the battlefield first, and because probably people don’t have the training to act in a more sophisticated way. And there are absolute parallels here with the early years of [World War I], where the regular armies were essentially dismantled in the fights of 1914, of 1915, of 1916, where you had new citizen-armies but very green, and new, and large. They couldn’t do sophisticated things, so they were essentially sent in waves of humans to see what difference it could make. Now we’re seeing that play out.

So, the Russian offensive appears to be culminating because it didn’t do anything new; there was no surprise. It’s short of ammunition, and it’s short of leadership and training. And all it’s tried to do is batter its way forward with waves of mostly quite inexperienced infantry. And it’s failed.

On a Ukrainian counteroffensive then, and let me lump three short questions in one here: When to expect it, what to expect, and what would be realistic war goals for Ukraine?

Barrons: I think the first point on the Ukrainian offensive is [that] how powerful it is will partly be dictated by how much loss has been sustained in breaking up the Russian offensive. And what we’ve begun to see among Ukrainians is weariness among Ukrainian soldiers who have been fighting in some cases for six months without relief; every day they’ve gone to fight, they’ve defeated the Russians, but they had the thought “I’ve got to come back tomorrow,” and they’ve seen many of their friends die and be injured in this process….

It would be interesting to know whether the losses in defeating the Russian offensive have depleted the ability for the Ukrainian side to go on the offensive. However, it is also clear that Ukraine very thoughtfully has kept good forces out of defeating the Russian offensive to train and equip them.

And the question is: How big are they, how good are they, and have they got enough stuff? And no one knows the answer to that question.

But what we would expect to see is a Ukrainian counteroffensive when they judge the Russian offensive is exhausted and when the current thaw is over, and the ground has hardened up again. So, I think this takes you into April and probably May before you could maneuver without being taken prisoner by the mud.

And when that offensive occurs, one of the interesting features is where does it occur…. Wherever they look now, they are looking at quite well-defended Russian positions, and in some places they would be fighting for territory that belongs to Ukraine but where the people who are there now are either ambivalent or want to be Russian.

And that is an important consideration and obviously a very difficult one. And we also know that the quantity of Western equipment that has been provided so far — an enormous amount of equipment has been provided in the early months of this year, but it is not in numbers that would enable us to equip the entire Ukrainian Army or allow them to fight and endure.

So, we might expect the Ukrainian military to inflict some defeat on the Russian occupation, but it would be a major leap of faith to judge that it would be good enough to throw the whole Russian occupation out this year. And more likely, a Ukrainian counteroffensive will make a difference, but it won’t end the Russian occupation.

That rules out any chances of retrieving Crimea in the scope of this counteroffensive?

Barrons: I think in terms of the counteroffensive we expect to see in 2023, Crimea would be a very difficult objective because accessing it is hard. It’s surrounded by sea in many places and there are only two roads that lead into Crimea. The Russians have assembled at least two lines of defense, and they’ve had since 2014 to take charge of Crimea, to prepare it for defense, and indeed to populate it with people who are inclined to support Russia. So, it is hard to imagine a successful Ukrainian offense into Crimea in 2023.

It is equally impossible to imagine that Ukraine would start saying that they will give up Crimea. Because in the middle of a war like this, you are never going to make a concession like that. And only time and circumstances will dictate whether removing Russia from Crimea is or is not actually achievable at a price that Ukraine is prepared to pay, bearing in mind the degree of Western support that it would also require. This is a very difficult issue, and I doubt it will be resolved in 2023.

On Western military assistance: What does Ukraine need for a successful war effort, and will they be getting it?

Barrons: In terms of the equipment, Ukraine needs the conventional military tools to defeat what will be, I think, quite effective Russian defense. And we know that when you are on the defense, you should anticipate — if you’re good at your job — defeating an attacking force that is three to even seven times larger.

So, Ukraine knows when they go on the offense, the problem is much greater. So, they need artillery; and above all, they need artillery with enough range, precision, and ammunition not just to fight today but for months to come. And currently they have some of that equipment and some ammunition, but simply because the production does not yet exist, [it is] hard to see that they have enough to prevail.

A Ukrainian serviceman prepares 155-millimeter artillery shells near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.
A Ukrainian serviceman prepares 155-millimeter artillery shells near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

Unless Russia gives up, which I think is unlikely. They need armor. So, they need tanks and armored vehicles to do a range of things. And they need tanks and armored vehicles that are better than the Russian equipment. And they have some of that, but they’re still learning to use it and the quantities are not yet at decisive levels.

Is a lack of capacity from the Western side one of the reasons why you think this war is going to last longer?

Barrons: Yes. I think it applies to both sides. So, last year, both sides found that the rate at which they would want to consume — let’s take artillery ammunition as an example — was dramatically greater than the sum of what they had on the shelf and what their industry could replace quickly. And both sides are now embarking on new policy to ramp up production.

We can put some numbers to that. The West currently can produce about 30,000 artillery shells a month, and Ukraine typically fires 6,000 a day. So, once you’ve consumed what you had on your shelves…then the current rate of production is way, way less than the rate of desired use. And that doesn’t change until you have wound up your factories, and that is beginning to happen but will take at least a year, and more likely two years, to show fruit. And you can see that in the way the European Union is talking about centralized purchases of artillery rounds.

As for Russia, only Russia knows how much ammunition it had to start the war; I guess it was between 5 million and 20 million rounds. It has been firing 20,000 rounds a day; by about month eight of the war, it was thought it had already fired 10 years’ worth of production. And right now, Russia is firing between 5,000 and 10,000 rounds a day, because it’s short on ammunition and its own factories have not ramped up. So, one of the reasons it’s hard for either side to be decisive this year is that they simply do not have the ammunition to hand to be decisive, and both sides know it will take a year or two to ramp up the industrial production to make a difference. The simple mathematics of industrial production mean that it is more likely than not that both sides will end up in a stalemate again during the course of this war.

You said that “air power is needed to throw Russians out” of Ukraine. Is that an absolutely irreplaceable element for Ukrainian victory?

Barrons: Ukraine needs air power to do two important things. The first and most important is Ukraine needs air power to shoot down Russian cruise and ballistic missiles…. The ballistic missiles that have been fired in recent weeks are beyond the capability of the ground-based air-defense systems that they have. Less for the Patriot systems that the U.S. and Germany are providing, and they are not online yet, and I think they’ll only really be able to protect something the size of Kyiv. The point of having advanced air power is, in the first instance, defensive: It improves your ability to keep Russian air force, cruise, and ballistic missiles out of Ukraine. Advanced air power would allow them to do that.

The second reason is the ability to target the Russian occupation in Ukraine. Now, given the geographical size of the occupation, there will be plenty of targets. But it’s a relatively small area, given that there is no appetite in the West whatsoever to support Ukraine in targeting Russian combat power in Russia. And from that perspective, fighting a war when your opponent is allowed to have an enormous sanctuary at the back of the fight is a huge disadvantage…. The problem is that to learn to fight a modern jet aircraft is about two years’ work. So, even if you give the equipment now, to be competitive against the Russian air force is two years’ work. And it’s not just flying the aircraft and fighting it, it’s having an airfield that is intact in Ukraine. And as soon as you opened an airfield for, say, F-16s in Ukraine, Russia will focus its missiles on it to make sure it’s inoperable. More than that, the logistics and maintenance to support a modern aircraft is a massive effort. So, there isn’t any practical way you can give Ukraine advanced Western aircraft quickly, unless you do what Poland [and Slovakia] have just done — which is to give Ukraine aircraft types they are already familiar with.

The other aspect of the air battle is ground-based air defense and long-range precision fliers — like HIMARS [multiple rocket launchers] but with longer ranges. So, you can make up some of the deficit of not having aircraft by giving Ukraine more air-defense systems to protect their country, and more long-range rocket systems to target the Russian occupation.

Do you see Ukraine getting those longer-range weapons, and in time to make a difference?

Barrons: Yes. I think Ukraine will get longer-range ammunition. What’s key here are the rules of engagement, which is [that] they then do not fire them into Russia, because the day they do that the supply will be turned off. But I think in order for Ukraine to be capable of liberating its own territory, it needs longer-range artillery.

How real is the danger of war fatigue?

Barrons: So, the first thing is that no one expected to be where we are. I mean, nobody expected to be in a war that’s gone on for a year, which shows no sign of ending; that’s inflicted about 300,000 casualties, military and civilian, adding up on both sides; that’s costing Russia between half a billion and a billion dollars a day; that’s cost Ukraine a third of its economy; that’s threatened the supply of grain to 400 million people; that’s caused a trillion dollars’ worth of damage. So, it’s a great surprise being reacquainted with war like this; but the shock is definitely wearing off.

And from a Ukrainian perspective, it’s clear that the winter, just because it’s winter and the casualties and the constant fighting and the predation on the electricity system, has had some effect on public morale…. [But] overall, the Ukrainian will to fight on is profound, and some of it is because they’ve taken casualties and they’re hurt and they’re angry. I don’t see in Ukraine a major shift to wanting the war to stop, but the war is taking a toll.

General Sir Richard Barrons (file photo)
General Sir Richard Barrons (file photo)

From the perspective of the West — as you know, the Western attention span can be quite short — the sense that this is going to go on and on and on is depleting the will of some citizens to keep, quote, “paying the price,” even though as I will argue the price is so modest for the stakes that are in play. And things like the U.S. presidential election next year will have a bearing on this, and I think most Western leaders are not enthusiastic about another winter of a high energy subsidy. But for all of that, the West is pretty unanimous that its own interests mean that it has to endure.

And from a Western security perspective, having a war that is fought exclusively with Ukrainian blood but where the stakes include Western security, prosperity, and values, is an absolute bargain at the financial price that’s being paid. But it’s very hard for people to say that, it sounds cruel, but I think it must be said.

From a Russian perspective, the toll has been extraordinary. Russia is just regressing as a state in terms of its place in the international community, in terms of its prospects, but [also] it is still driven to fight. So, the fatigue has not exhausted either side yet even remotely.

How real is the danger then that the West might not so gently start nudging Ukraine toward some unfavorable negotiations?

Barrons: The West basically has three choices. One is to stop, to say, “I don’t want to do this anymore,” and turn the tap off. The day the West says that, Ukraine knows the game is up because it doesn’t have the means to fight. Even if it has the will. And the consequences of that are catastrophic for Ukraine and for the West and its place in the world. So, I’ve seen no sign of that being likely; the tap is not being turned off. The second choice is to continue to support Ukraine at broadly the levels that we’ve seen this year, which have been substantial — way more support than was flowing in for most of 2022. And that is enough support conclusively to make sure that Ukraine does not lose much more territory — and we’re seeing that play out in Bakhmut — but not enough yet in order to give Ukraine overwhelming capability to throw Russia out of its country. And that is a combination mostly of the fact that the industrial capacity does not yet exist.

And again, history is really instructive here. If you think about Europe in 1940, it was in a terrible place in the face of the then-Nazi German onslaught. And it took fully three years to build the forces and the industrial capacity to get to D-Day in 1944. Now, it might have gone sooner, [but] it’s just that the industrial dynamic of war has its own timescale. But if the West keeps going at the present level of effort, it will prevent Russia from breaking Ukraine, but it will not definitely give Ukraine the capability to win decisively and certainly not quickly — in which case, this war will go on for two, three, four years and then likely end up in some sort of bitter stalemate where both sides have exhausted the advantage of fighting. And they’re not in that place now.

The third choice for the West is to dramatically increase the flow of support to Ukraine, which will still take, I think, well into next year, to give it quickly the capability to defeat Russia on the battlefield and bring the war to an end on terms which are favorable to Ukraine. The Clausewitzian principle of “clout, don’t dribble.” And the West isn’t dribbling now, but it’s not really clouting either.

And this is a race, because Russia is also trying to rearm and relaunch its defense industry. So, you can either pay a higher price sooner or you can pay an even higher price over a much longer period of time…. I think the West will, incrementally over the course of this year, head to the third option of giving Ukraine the ability to do better on the battlefield.

But I think when it comes to the very tricky issue of is that enough to remove Russia from all that is in the boundary of Ukraine, I think a combination of two things will prove very difficult. One is the sheer price in blood that Ukraine would have to pay to liberate the whole of its country, given the price that it’s paid so far. And I think the price in blood will be greater than the price of Western military support. But you can see that the cost for successful battle will go up, but I think also [that] will become the price of Ukraine taking back territory, which sits within the borders of Ukraine where the population wants to be Russian. Because it’s quite one thing for Ukraine to fight for territory, which is part of Ukraine and where the citizens want to be Ukrainian; but quite another thing for Ukraine to [recapture] territory which is Ukrainian but where the occupation will be by force, not consent. And I think this very difficult set of decisions will only come about as a result of a combination of resourcing, will, and events. And we’ll know it when we get to it, but we can’t very well define it in advance.

What does this all spell for what the Kremlin dismissively calls the “near abroad,” specifically those that don’t enjoy the NATO umbrella, Georgia and Moldova?

Barrons: The heart of this war is, on the one hand, the Russian view that it is a global power that secures its border by a sphere of interest — in other words dominating, neutering its neighbors. And you can see why, from Russian history, that view remains entrenched.

And then on the other hand, you have a Western view which is now entirely…postcolonial, which is “No, no, you don’t do this anymore. We did this, we don’t do this anymore; and states should be allowed to determine their own future.”

If Russia prevails in this war, and the West walks away, that means that the future for not just Moldova and Georgia but also arguably for the Baltic states is highly questionable. Because Russia will have seen that if it’s persistent and strong enough, it can restore its sphere of influence. It would also mean that Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and so on, which are currently slowly walking away from Russia and walking towards China, might have to have a rethink.

On the other hand, if the West supports Ukraine to prevail on terms Ukraine is content with — whatever that is, and we talked about the challenges — and as a result of doing that Russia, which launched this war, is strategically isolated, economically broken, and militarily effectively crushed, at least for now although we’d expect it to transform and rearm. [All] that should [send a] message [to] Moldova and Georgia and Kyrgyzstan and others that they need not sit within a Russian imperialist footprint. Which is why it is so important to keep saying that this war in Ukraine has at stake the security, the prosperity, and the values that the West holds dear and which, frankly, in supporting Ukraine’s fight is the bargain of the century if they persist with it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
  • Vazha Tavberidze

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