We recently learned that Russia has staged more than half a dozen long-range bombers capable of carrying nuclear warheads at the Olenya air base well to the south of Moscow. This would give the Russian military the ability to perform strategic strikes in both Ukraine and some NATO countries or allies, including Finland. This is a disturbing development (obviously), particularly considering all of Vladimir Putin’s recent nuclear saber-rattling. But we’re still dealing with the tricky question of precisely what the United States or anyone from NATO would do in response, particularly if the weapons were deployed in Ukraine. Retired Army General and former CIA Director David Petraeus has some ideas and he revealed them this weekend. Petraeus said that “we” (meaning the United States) and our allies would “destroy” Russia’s troops in Ukraine along with any of their military hardware. On top of that, he claimed that we would “take out” Russia’s entire Black Sea fleet. The word “escalation” is probably coming to mind for many of you, and for good reason. (The Guardian)
The US and its allies would destroy Russia’s troops and equipment in Ukraine – as well as sink its Black sea fleet – if Russian president Vladimir Putin uses nuclear weapons in the country, former CIA director and retired four-star army general David Petraeus warned on Sunday.
Petreaus said that he had not spoken to national security adviser Jake Sullivan on the likely US response to nuclear escalation from Russia, which administration officials have said has been repeatedly communicated to Moscow.
He told ABC News: “Just to give you a hypothetical, we would respond by leading a Nato – a collective – effort that would take out every Russian conventional force that we can see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and also in Crimea and every ship in the Black sea.”
First of all, Petraeus has been retired for more than a decade so he isn’t speaking from a position as any sort of official government spokesperson. The opinions he is expressing are his own. He also admitted that he hasn’t spoken to America’s National Security Adviser or anyone else in the Biden administration. But the guy was a general in addition to running the Central Intelligence Agency briefly under Barack Obama so he’s no doubt well aware of America’s military capabilities.
My first thought upon hearing this was that Petraeus was engaging in some needless provocation of Vladimir Putin, who has been acting more than a little unstable lately. But that instability along with his recent actions in Ukraine may very well be good reasons to deliver a bit sterner of a warning to the Kremlin. When Putin began amassing troops near the Ukrainian border, many observers (including yours truly) still suspected or at least hoped that it was a strategic bluff of some sort, intended to threaten Kyiv into following Moscow’s orders. But it appears that Putin doesn’t move his pieces around the playing board for no reason. If he’s lining up nuclear-capable bombers in that region, we can’t rule out the possibility that he’s already made the decision to use them.
Jake Sullivan has reportedly been “repeatedly” telling Putin what our response would be to the use of nukes in Ukraine, but that’s been going on behind closed doors. There hasn’t been a coherent, detailed plan released to the public yet. While I hesitate to give this administration too much credit for competence or strategic calculations, I find myself wondering if these comments from Petraeus weren’t worked out with the White House in advance. It might have been a way to deliver a message to Putin while retaining the ability to publicly say that he doesn’t speak for the administration.
But let’s say for a moment that we did decide to simply “destroy” Russias troops, armor, and ships. Could we do it? And what would Russia’s response be at that point? Most analysts and wargamers believe that the NATO alliance would almost certainly wipe out Russia in an all-out war. But it wouldn’t happen overnight and the costs would be high. We would be unable to repel Russian tanks and personnel carriers (assuming they have any left at this point) and prevent them from entering into neighboring allied countries.
It’s difficult to believe that such a scenario is the end game Putin had in mind when he launched the invasion. But then, it seems that he clearly overestimated his own army’s capabilities by a great degree and thought that he could oust the Ukrainian government in a matter of weeks if not days. Now he’s dug in on the eastern end of the country and the battle isn’t going well for him. Could he really just tuck his tail and retreat from Ukraine entirely? It just doesn’t seem as if he could.