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A former NATO staffer and retired army maj. gen. on what's next for the Ukraine war


Reporting and analysis of the war in Ukraine keeps repeating that the conflict has entered a new phase at the beginning of its second year. Retired U.S. Army Major General Gordon Skip Davis joins us now. He served in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout Europe, most recently as NATO deputy secretary general for the Defense Investment Division. He joins us now from Vincenza, Italy.

Thank you so much for being with us, General.

GORDON SKIP DAVIS: Thanks, Scott, for the opportunity to join you.

SIMON: What do you make of the - what seems to be the new Russian offensive? Why now?

DAVIS: Well, it's really all about timing. And I'd say it's really a race against time for Putin at the moment. Politically, he wants to show progress by 24 February, the one-year anniversary of the start of this war. Progress, meaning seizing the remaining parts of the Donbas republics that remain under Ukrainian control, Luhansk and Donetsk. Militarily, Russia has sufficient manpower for an offensive, therefore, theoretically, also has sufficient combat power. Ukraine lacks combat power for a counteroffensive at the moment, but Western help is on the way. Does it make sense for Russia to exploit a relative advantage in combat power while it still can? But, you know, any offense advantages can be quickly reduced, especially when manpower and combat power are squandered through poor tactics, poor combat training, poor leadership.

SIMON: Why do you believe Ukraine has been able to hold out so successfully?

DAVIS: First and foremost, they remain determined and cohesive as a government, as a public, as the armed forces. And then military leadership and the armed forces are doing extraordinarily well against superior numbers through the same determination, resourcefulness and combat effectiveness, more than anything else, at the tactical level. At the operation or theater level, they've got good logistical coordination, good operational planning and assessment, operational patience employing that combat power. So that's really all opposed to what we see on the Russian side.

SIMON: How important has support from the NATO alliance been?

DAVIS: That has been critical - politically, for many reasons, 'cause of putting pressure on Russia, coordinating their efforts with the EU and other national organizations to put the economic pressure, and then, you know, most importantly, acting as that advocate, informing the allies on what the Ukrainians' needs are. And this is where individual allies and groups of allies are providing the military assistance that Ukraine needs.

But what does Ukraine need right now? In the defense, they need munitions, you know, for effective defense. And they need weapons systems for the close fight - drones, air defense as well. For an effective counteroffensive, they'll need more of the same, plus combat vehicles for maneuver. Allies are providing what Ukraine needs. I think there's some evidence of them struggling on the level of munitions, given the demand of the current fight. But we've seen evidence of the willingness to ramp up production in a number of countries.

And as logisticians plan, they want to make sure that they have the right kind of volume coming in. That means that they have to have the right kinds of munitions from the countries that provide the various systems. And so you need British rounds for British artillery, U.S. rounds, German rounds for German artillery, etc. And so that's the challenge.

SIMON: We've seen evidence of Ukraine seemingly successfully using drones in warfare. What could they do with fighter jets? Do they need them?

DAVIS: So I'm a strong advocate for multirole fighter jets. They have done a remarkable job - this Ukrainian Air Force - in keeping the small number of MiG-29s and other rudder-wing aircraft alive and to employ them against an incredible array of air defense systems from Russia. There are MiG-29s available now from Poland and from Slovakia they have retired that could equal a couple squadrons. Ideally, the West would also provide F-16s.

You know, small numbers could make a big difference. And they would provide that third dimension of the battlefield that would help in either a counteroffensive later on this year or long-term defense and deterrence. So I'm an advocate for starting now the kinds of training and assistance programs that would provide Ukraine a viable Western air force in the future.

SIMON: And do you believe that 2023 could be the year in which Ukraine makes a real breakthrough and regains some lost territory and gains the upper hand?

DAVIS: I do believe so. I think that they're - we're going to see Ukrainians seize the initiative. Russians have failed in seizing the initiative right now with their current ongoing offensive, even though that's obviously what Putin desires, that's what the Russian military leadership would like to see. But there's too many detracting factors that are undermining the Russian effort to have a significant, effective offensive.

SIMON: U.S. Army retired Major General Gordon Skip Davis, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

General, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVIS: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.