Former British Army Chief Says It's 'Perfectly Reasonable' For Ukraine To Strike Inside Russia

Richard Dannatt is a retired general who commanded the British Army from 2006 to 2009 and became an independent member of the House of Lords, the United Kingdom's upper house of Parliament, in 2011. He writes and speaks on military affairs and leadership issues.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Dannatt says the West's reluctance to arm Ukraine quickly with the lethal weapons it needs has given Russian President Vladimir Putin's invading forces the time it needed to build up defensive lines in conquered areas of Ukraine. That means, according to Dannatt, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his Western allies should prepare for what is likely to be a protracted conflict with Russia, as Kyiv will struggle to reclaim these fortified areas. He also said it is "legitimate" for Ukraine to strike deep inside Russia, in part to "degrade" its military.

RFE/RL: Let's begin with your assessment of the summer phase of the Ukrainian counteroffensive. How decisive has it proven to be? What has been gained, achieved?

Richard Dannatt: Well, I think we have to recognize that the Ukrainian Army has worked extremely hard at much expense in terms of casualties over the course of the summer months. But I think we have to put this in the widest possible context going right back to February 2022 when the Russians launched their disgraceful, highly illegal attack on Ukraine. And in the intervening time since 2022, the Ukrainian Army has done extraordinary well to recapture at least half the territory that the Russians illegally seized.

Of course, many countries have been supporting Ukraine and quite properly -- the United States, the United Kingdom being two, and of course many others -- but I think it's fair to say the West was fairly slow to decide to give Ukraine the necessary weapons that it required to launch this counteroffensive. It took a long time to decide to send tanks, armored infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled artillery, sufficient ammunition, long-range artillery, and drones. Well, that has been done, and indeed, it took quite a long time for Ukrainian forces to be trained in how to use that equipment.

And of course, while that was going on, the Russians were not idle. They spent the same period of time preparing very comprehensive defensive positions -- up to three lines of defense in many parts of the 1,000-kilometer front line, which has proved very difficult for the Ukrainian forces to penetrate. Now, there have been areas, at some cost, where Ukrainian forces have managed to penetrate the first line, [and] at places the second line of defense. But the thought and the hope of early summer that Ukrainian forces, equipped with Western tanks and other equipment, would be able to not just break through the Russian lines but break out and get into the Russian rear areas and cause the same kind of panic that we saw in September last year in the north of the country -- that hasn't so far happened.

It's not for want of the Ukrainians trying. But I'm afraid it's a reflection of the fact that the Russians have prepared very deep and very comprehensive defensive positions. So, with the onset of autumn and the onset of winter and the poorer weather coming, I think the likelihood of there being a decisive move on the battlefield in 2023 looks most unlikely. So, therefore, I think President Zelenskiy and the Ukrainian military have got to prepare for a much longer conflict that neither of them would have wished, or indeed, their Western allies would have wished. And I think that's where we are now. No criticism at all of the Ukrainian military but simply a reflection of the fact that the Russians prepared proper defensive positions. And they have proved very difficult to penetrate.

RFE/RL: General, I also remember your recollections of what it was like to convince politicians what was required for many military campaigns during your tenure. And you describe the experience as constantly beating your head against the wall. Given that, what do you think it must feel like for the Ukrainian military leadership and President Zelenskiy to be constantly telling its Western allies what they need and why they need more of it?

Dannatt: Now, I think this has been a very frustrating process for President Zelenskiy and his senior leadership team, both the political leadership and the military leadership. Yes, eventually, the West has given much of what Ukraine has been asking for. But my wider point is the gifting has been slow and valuable time was lost. And during that valuable time being lost to Ukraine, the Russians made good use of that time in preparing these comprehensive defensive positions.

And we are in the same position now, with discussion about the availability of F-16 [fighter] aircraft or other modern fighter aircraft being made available to Ukraine. It is almost as if the West is trying to control the capability and capacity of Ukraine to really carry out its mission of freeing its sovereign soil from the Russian occupier. It's almost as if the West is pulling the strings and only allowing Ukraine to do what the West is willing to allow it to do.

Now, of course, there is a concern over escalation of the war. There is a concern that if the West and NATO [are] seen to provide so much -- and particularly if the war is then carried on to Russian soil -- that it plays into the Russian political agenda of claiming that this is a war in which they are defending themselves against Western aggression, that NATO all along has intended to attack Russia. And, of course, this is completely wrong.

Politicians and leaders in the West have to continue saying time and time again that NATO is purely a defensive alliance, it has no offensive aims at all. It is simply there to support Ukraine to recover its sovereign territory, which it's legally entitled to do, and to stand up for self-determination and sovereignty and the rights of countries to run their own territory as agreed by international law.

RFE/RL: What do you think of this argument that, if Ukraine attacks Russian territory, that Russian land is somehow sacred and it will result in escalation, and therefore Ukraine should limit itself to conducting military operations on its own soil?

Dannatt: I would assume that there is no Ukrainian intention of occupying any Russian soil. But, when you are in a war situation…it is perfectly legitimate -- in exactly the same way that Russia is hitting Ukrainian cities, factories, infrastructure, and the like, and have been doing that for months ever since the war began -- [for Ukraine to] strike targets deep into Russia. That is perfectly reasonable in order to degrade the Russian military capability. I mean, that is a facet of modern war. And although you could ascribe this as being a classic limited war -- limited in aims and limited in geography -- it is certainly not limited in means, and there shouldn't be limits imposed on Ukraine to try to prevent [it] attacking targets in Russia. This is legitimate. And, if anything, it's important that the Russian people know that this isn't a war being carried on by other people over there. This is something that affects them as well.

RFE/RL: If you had been asked to conduct a similar counteroffensive without appropriate air support, just as Ukraine is being asked to do, would you have done it? Would you have carried out such orders?

Dannatt: Well, if the government of my country had required me as head of the armed forces to carry out such an attack, then yes, of course, I would. I think the question is how would one have done that. And I think we have, as I was saying earlier, a strategic miscalculation here that, in the months when the West was agonizing whether it should provide tanks, armored infantry fighting vehicles, and the like to Ukraine, that time was being used by the Russians to prepare very comprehensive defensive positions.

Now, I think this should have probably been realized sooner. Although it was the right thing to do to give Ukraine offensive equipment such as battle tanks, self-propelled artillery, and the like, there should have been a realization that the break-in battle was going to be very bloody, very difficult, and very old fashioned, if you like, and maybe more assistance should have been provided with the equipment needed to break through the Russian defensive lines.

And such equipment does exist. And maybe that has not been supplied in sufficient quantity, because there was a strategic miscalculation that underestimated the strength of the Russian defensive position.

The related challenge that the Ukrainian Army has had to face is that they've had to change themselves, transform themselves: [from] being an army on the defensive to being an army capable of carrying out an offensive. And that is very difficult to do during a war and while you're in contact. No criticism of Ukrainian soldiers' determination, their willingness to accept casualties. It's just the hard reality of trying to break in and break through solid defensive positions.

RFE/RL: According to the latest reports, Ukraine will be getting Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) from the United States, although in small quantities. How big a change should we expect from that on the battlefield? The High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) had such an impact on the battleground, should we expect something similar with ATACMS?

Dannatt: Well, with every better and longer-range weapon that Ukraine is provided with, the opportunity…to have a major operational effect is increased. We've seen it with the U.K. gifting (long-range) Storm Shadow [cruise missiles], for example. There have been some well-documented attacks made using British-supplied Storm Shadow missiles.

RFE/RL: For example, the recent strike on the Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol [in occupied Crimea].

Dannatt: Indeed. And it's my understanding that it was probably three Storm Shadow missiles that carried out that attack. That is the kind of attack that the provision of ATACMSs will enable -- long-range, precise, very effective. And of course, this gets back to the early part of our conversation about it being perfectly legitimate for Ukraine to strike targets deep into Russia, because Russia has started a war, and it must accept the consequences of the conduct of that war.

And the deep battle, if you like, is a legitimate part of the battle. I don't want to get into military theory here, but if you accept the concept of a deep, close, and rear component to this war, the close battle is the battle that's going on along the front line at the present moment. The deep battle is the [use of weapons such as] Storm Shadow and ATACMS.

It's also [about] the propaganda -- the information part of the war in affecting people's attitudes. And then the rear part of this is protecting the morale of the Ukrainian forces, the morale of the Ukrainian people. And you have to put all those deep, close, and rear elements together as part of the overall operation.

If you lose any of those elements, there is a danger of losing the war. But to win, you've got to win all three as well. Which is a lengthy explanation, using some military jargon, as to why the use of Storm Shadow and ATACMS and HIMARS is an important and legitimate part of the deep battle, part of the overall battle.

RFE/RL: Ukraine's military has reported, as of October 5, that Russia has lost more than 280,000 troops in Ukraine. Let's look at those numbers skeptically as they're coming from Kyiv. But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Russia has lost half as much. How many more soldiers can Russian President Vladimir Putin afford to lose?

Dannatt: Well, I think that's a very good question. I think if you take the fact that he attacked with a force of about 180,000-190,000, it seems very likely that he has lost -- killed or very seriously injured -- at least that number. I mean, that is a horrific casualty bill. Now, of course, Ukraine has also suffered horrific casualties and the Ukrainian military, quite rightly, is not [revealing the extent of] their casualties. But let's assume that they are between a third and a half of the number that Russians have lost, I don't know. It is a very, very high toll.

And it's a high toll for both countries, bearing in mind that the Russian population is about three times the size of the Ukrainian population. It means the provision of manpower by both sides is particularly difficult. I think it is less difficult for Ukraine because there is the absolute determination to free their country from an invader. So, Ukraine will always find people who are willing to go and fight, although that can't go on forever and ever. But certainly, if it's [in the] short term, there'll be people willing to go and fight.

But in Russia, it's a war that many of the soldiers haven't really got their heart in. The Russian way of using manpower is pretty indiscriminate, with a pretty low regard placed on human life. And that, over time, will I'm sure have a cumulative effect. And it'll become increasingly difficult for Putin to find more men willing or unwilling…to go into battle to fight in his war in Ukraine. And I think that is a major area that needs to be worked on, to get as much information through social media channels -- through any channel possible -- into the Russian population's mind at large: that this is an illegal war being conducted by the Kremlin elite, for their own purposes, and it's costing a huge number of young Russian men's lives. That is a message that somehow has got to get out there to the Russian people to change their attitude toward their government and change their attitude toward the war.

RFE/RL: But hasn't that been the Russian way for ages now, this complete disregard for human life?

Dannatt: Sadly, I completely agree. But that doesn't mean to say that one should give up on the attempt to try to get a better understanding out there among the Russian people. Again, this [raises] the wider question of how secure Putin is in the Kremlin? On the one hand, there may be a growing disapproval of the war itself. But there's also disapproval [from] some people for the way he's waged the war; that's he's not been tough enough, he has not been aggressive enough. So, there are many forces at play. And then, of course, you throw in the much discussed other unknown as to how healthy or not Putin is…. There's a lot of uncertainty there.

But your basic point is right. This has always been the Russian way. But I think we should not give up on our efforts to try to get the truth into Russian people's minds, because that is much better, much more hopeful, in terms of ending this war in Ukraine's favor.

RFE/RL: Let's talk about the military assistance the United Kingdom has provided. I remember when London provided main battle tanks, Challenger 2s, you wrote a very remarkable piece in which you said that we should not be giving 12 tanks, we should be giving 50. Based on this counteroffensive, the expectations it created, and the hard reality, has that ship already sailed?

Dannatt: I think in many ways that ship has sailed. And unless there is a breakthrough before winter settles in -- and I would very much still like to see that happen -- I think we have to accept that the war is going into literally a deep freeze over the winter, [and] the Russians will continue to improve their defensive positions. And we may find that the front line solidifies into being a line that is very difficult to shift.

Of course, this then opens up the whole question of how this conflict [has] progressed. Received wisdom is always that conflicts like this are resolved by negotiation. Well, as far as this conflict is concerned, the negotiation positions of President Zelenskiy and Putin are irreconcilable. Zelenskiy, quite properly, wants every square kilometer of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea back under Ukrainian control. And Putin has got to get something out of this war, to control at least some proportion of Ukraine's territory in order not to appear to the Russian people that he has been defeated.

So, it's very difficult to [know] what the opening positions for a negotiation might be. And this, I think, is a real challenge. But I think it's a challenge that's going to have to be considered over the course of the next few months. I mean, there is also the wider concern that Western support for Ukraine may start to tail off.

There is concern, watching to see what will happen in the United States with a presidential election (in 2024). [U.S.] President [Joe] Biden remains very committed to supporting Ukraine. But we don't know if President Biden will remain the U.S. president. A lot of people are concerned that [former U.S. President] Donald Trump might come back.

I, frankly, find that improbable, but the wider point is that there is a concern, that time is not on [Ukraine's] side, time is on Russia's side. Western support and enthusiasm to support Ukraine will diminish, and that will increasingly put Putin in a stronger position.

So, it is difficult to see an early conclusion to this conflict. It's actually also quite difficult to see a medium- to long-term solution to this conflict. It is conceivable that it could be decided [along the lines of the] Korean Peninsula. That war stopped in 1953 as a result of a cease-fire, but there's no peace agreement, there is just a frozen war on the Korean Peninsula. Could that happen with Ukraine and Russia? Well, I suppose theoretically, it could. But it would be disastrous for Ukraine. I think it'd be disastrous for Europe as well, because at any moment, the Russians could decide to resume their offensive.

And then, of course, there's the whole question of who makes good the damage caused in Ukraine by the Russian attack. We will all say, well, Russia must do that, but Russia is not going to do that if Russia is still in a conflict situation and holding part of Ukrainian territory. So, what seemed like a reasonable hope, in the spring and early summer, that there could be a decision in 2023 on the battlefield -- and that seemed to be the best way to solve this war -- that seems unlikely to happen now. And trying to find other ways to resolve the conflict are difficult to imagine.

RFE/RL: And finally, I want to paraphrase something you wrote that Ukrainians are fighting on behalf of all of us, spilling blood to buy us time to decide how to respond to the new challenges to European security. How is the West using that time?

Dannatt: There is no doubt that Ukraine is paying in Ukrainian blood for the removal of the threat of Russian aggression to Europe more widely. We have been concerned about the threat that Russia posed to the West more generally. Of course, that threat became a real threat in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and moved into [the eastern Ukrainian] Luhansk and Donetsk provinces. So, it wasn't just a threat, it was actual aggression.

But then you have to ask what's been the response by the West? Yes, there has been a response in terms of economic sanctions. There was a modest response between 2014 and 2022 in endeavoring to support Ukraine's military and a much greater response since February 2022.

But the wider question is -- assuming by some means or another that Ukraine wins this war and Russian forces withdraw from Ukraine -- has the threat to the security of Western Europe been removed just by that? Or does Russia remain a threat to the security of Western Europe, or the Baltic states and all those countries that border Russia? And that's another unknown.

When you've got an unknown like that, that could actually be a major negative factor. Russia could choose that it wants to maintain an aggressive stance toward the West, then the West [would be] wasting the time that Ukraine is buying by not increasing its defense spending, not increasing its military capability, and being in a much better position to deter future Russian aggression.

I don't know whether you had a chance to read the book that I published only a couple of weeks ago, (Victory To Defeat: The British Army 1918-40), but it makes the very clear parallel between the situation today and the situation in the 1930s when Hitler was a threat who was not opposed by Britain and France, in particular. Indeed, Britain didn't even have a useful expeditionary force that it could have deployed into Europe. And the argument runs that had we had a reasonable-sized force that we could have deployed alongside the French into Europe in 1935, 1936, 1937, it may well have deterred Hitler from launching what became World War II and indeed that would have prevented the Holocaust and 6 million Jews being murdered. So, possessing yourself a credible set of armed forces that can be a deterrent to future aggression is really, really important. And the question one has to ask now: Is the West using the time that Ukraine is buying wisely or not?

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Key Words: Russia, Ukraine, Russo-Ukrainian War, UK, Britain

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