Reflections on the Ukraine War

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This transcript is from a CSIS event hosted on February 20, 2024. Watch the full video here.

Dr. Eliot A. Cohen: Hello. My name is Eliot Cohen. I’m the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy here at CSIS. And I’m pleased to welcome you to a conversation with General Wesley Clark.

General Clark has a long and distinguished career of military service. He was a graduate of West Point, a Rhodes scholar, wounded and decorated in Vietnam, served in many capacities including as the Head of Plans on the Joint Staff, and then as Supreme Allied Commander Europe 1997 to 2000. And he remains an active observer and participant in debates about national security. We’re going to be talking with him about Ukraine, about the war, about things that we might have done better, that we need to do better, and its larger implications.

General Clark, welcome to CSIS.

General Wesley K. Clark (Ret.): Thank you very much, Eliot.

Dr. Cohen: So let me begin with the question, how do you assess the American government’s performance in Ukraine? What have we done right? What have we done wrong? And what consequences has it had?

Gen. Clark: Well, let’s start by going back to the beginning. We’ve never handled Putin the right way. We didn’t handle him the right way in the second Bush administration because, clearly, he’s not a Christian and he doesn’t really exhibit Christian values, despite having worn a cross when he met with President Bush. We didn’t handle him the right way after he invaded Georgia during the Olympics of 2008. We didn’t handle him the right way with the reset in the Obama administration. We didn’t handle him the right way when we invited him into Syria. And we didn’t understand what he was doing in Ukraine in 2013 and ’14.

Dr. Cohen: Can I just pause you there and ask, why do you think that’s the case? I mean, you’ve had a long career of dealing with Russians, first looking at them on the other side of the inter-German border but then negotiating with them after the end of communism. What accounts for this misreading, which, you know, if you think about the different presidencies that you’re talking about here – Republicans, Democrats, different flavors of both – why?

Gen. Clark: We never really opened up the Soviet Union after it collapsed. The same people rebranded themselves as parliamentarians. Many of them were KGB. They’d been through a KGB school. The book “Putin’s People” lays all this out very clearly. We didn’t really understand it at the time.

We sent a few economists from the Chicago school over there and said, oh, get rid of these state-owned industries. We created oligarchs.

President Clinton thought he had a great relationship with Boris Yeltsin, but even Yeltsin told him: We don’t want NATO to expand. And the people in Eastern Europe understood this very well. The Foreign Minister of Bulgaria told me in 1997 – she said: Look, today, Russia’s weak. Someday, it’s going to be strong again. They’ll be back, and before that time we’ve got to be in NATO. They understand the Russian imperialist urge. And it’s been fostered and nurtured by the – by the Communist Party even more than the czars did. And so Putin is the heir of that – more than that; he’s totally the apostle of it.

So from the beginning, in 1999, when he was at Kuchma’s inauguration – President Kuchma in Ukraine – his speech went something like this. He was the prime minister at the time, not the president of Russia. He said: Ukraine and Russia, we are more than brothers. We are in each other’s souls. The Polish National Security Advisor flew to meet me the next week and he said: We’re going to have big problems with Putin. He’s trying to recreate the Soviet Union. And he gave me some examples that they’d already seen.

So our political leaders in the West just – we can’t imagine – when we deal with people and they speak and we have a dialogue and we share coffee or a dinner table, we can’t imagine they don’t think like us. Putin doesn’t think like us. He is an intelligence agent who is imbued with a messianic zeal to restore the greatness of the Soviet Union. He said as much in 2007. We should have taken him at his word.

But to go back to Ukraine, Eliot, in 2014 we actually told the Ukrainians to give up Crimea. They had the Russian green men in their sights. They would have resisted. They understood in their military what this was about even then. And we told them, give up Crimea. And then, of course, there was a lot of confusion, and suddenly these people showed up in Donbas, and people said, well, they might be a Russian intelligence agent. Yeah, they were Russian intelligence agents. They tried to do what we do with our Special Forces, which was create an indigenous movement. It didn’t work very well. They did assassinate some Christian missionaries in there and they rounded up some hooligans and criminals, but ultimately to take over the part of Donbas they had to have the Russian army come in and to support them. And in 2014, we had these poor Russian soldiers, they took away their phones, took away their ID cards, said you’re going on an exercise, and suddenly they’re being shot at and shooting back at the Ukrainians inside Ukraine. And we let all that pass.

When Poroshenko was elected in 2014 and came to Brussels and asked for military assistance, and he gave President Obama the list of what he needed, we left.

Dr. Cohen: But –

Gen. Clark: We said no. No M1s. (Laughs.) No F-16s. No MLRS. And until 2022, there was an eight-year war with 10(,000), 12(,000), 14,000 people killed just holding the line in Donbas. That’s where it starts.

So is there a problem with American policy? Sure. Goes back a long way.

Dr. Cohen: Yeah. I think, you know, you and I both have been in Kyiv, and one of the things I know that struck me on my first visit is that wall with pictures of all the soldiers who fell in 2014 and since – before this – the full-scale – the full-scale invasion.

Gen. Clark: Right. Right.

Dr. Cohen: Well, first I want to ask you just on the Obama administration’s decisions. Do you think this is naïveté at work, or fear?

Gen. Clark: I think it was naïveté. And there were people inside the White House and out – I went to Les Gelb at the Conference on Foreign – Council on Foreign Relations after I got back. Les is an old friend of mine, and he was a Democrat, and he was considered, you know, sort of left of where I was when I was working for Al Haig. And I said: Les, you’ve got to help us on this. I mean, this is a war of conquest of Ukraine. But the people he had – he knew that were advising Obama were, like, no, this is a misunderstanding, and you know, Ukraine’s not really a separate country, and there’s always been these frictions, and this is about money and organized crime, and don’t take this seriously; we need Putin to help us with the Iran nuclear agreement. And so the Obama administration, at least from what I could see from the outside, had made two fundamental mistakes.

Number one, when they announced the pivot to Asia, it seemed as though we weren’t interested in what was happening in Europe. It’s that snatch of a quote that Obama said, maybe innocently, to Putin; said, I’ll have more freedom after the – after I’m reelected. And maybe that – whatever it was, we somehow gave the nod to the Russians to say, look, we’re interested in space and we’re interested in Asia. Don’t mess with us there, but you can do what you want in Egypt, be good friends with the – in Europe. Be good friends with the Germans, and do what you want, and you know, we’re going to have a good relationship. And I think the drive toward the problem with Israel, the Iranian nuclear thrust, trying to forestall a conflict in the Middle East led the Obama administration to bring Putin in, let him into the Middle East and also not really take seriously what he was doing in Ukraine.

Dr. Cohen: So let’s move forward to 2022. I think most of us would probably agree that the Biden administration did a pretty good job of alerting people that this was going to happen, that – you know, they shared more intelligence, I think, than was normally the case. But then the question becomes aid and assistance and advice. And that’s the story, now, that’s been going on for more than two years, because, after all, the Ukrainians have been asking for various kinds of weapons for a very long time. Could you assess that, and particularly assess it as a – as a military professional looking at the kind of assistance we’ve given them, how much, when? And also the critical question of advice because, you know, we’ve played a role there, too. So if you’d open up on that and tell us.

Gen. Clark: So, Eliot, here’s what I think happened. And of course, we may never know the truth of all this. But when President Biden met Mr. Putin in the summer of 2021, I think they had a very civil conversation. And according to the readout, President Biden said, look, we’d like you to be a responsible statesman and so forth. At that point, we already knew that there were plans that Russia had to invade Ukraine. They’d rehearsed it in the spring of 2021. They moved forward, but there were some reasons why they didn’t do it then. But after the Afghanistan coming apart and so forth and having the meeting with Putin, I was rooting for President Biden to say: Don’t you dare go into Ukraine. We will block you, we will oppose you, and you will fail. But apparently it was a very gentlemanly conversation.

Then the information started to come out as the Russians maneuvered in the fall of 2021, and apparently there was a meeting between the head of the Central Intelligence Agency and either Putin’s number two, Patrushev, or Putin himself. And we don’t know the details on this, but somehow I’m sure it was, like, we told the Russians: Don’t do this. Don’t invade. This is a big mistake. Don’t do it. And Putin or his guy probably said: What are you talking about? That’s not even a country. That’s just Ukraine. That’s part of Russia. That’s like us telling you you can’t do anything in Texas. This is our country.

And then it must have morphed into something different, in which there were red lines discussed – maybe, like, if you go in there, you’re risking a confrontation and something. Well, if you don’t give the Ukrainians weapons to strike us, maybe, you know, you’ll be safe in NATO and we won’t – we won’t hurt NATO at this point. Or maybe there was some exchange like that. Somehow, red lines must have emerged from this, because from the beginning we were worried about red lines – Putin’s red lines, not our red lines.

Now, the Secretary of State was giving speeches about the importance of the rules-based international order. To me, what that meant was national boundaries, legitimate boundaries, they are sacrosanct. But instead of standing on that principle as the attack approached and the day of the attack – and it became more and more ominous, we pulled our trainers out of the Yavoriv camp in western Ukraine, where they could have served as a deterrence. Or, a number of us said: This thing’s getting bad. Send an air expeditionary force to Romania. Put the ambiguity in there that will underscore American deterrence. But we didn’t do that. We made sure we didn’t do that.

And when it came time in the second or third day of the operation when it was clear we were going to have a problem with airpower, there were some of us who suggested to the White House: You need to – (laughs) – don’t give up the airspace to Russia. It belongs to Ukraine. If you believe in the rules-based international order, you have to act on that belief. That’s our airspace if Ukraine says to come in, and we should support them with that. Harry Truman did it in 1950. But instead, what we said is: Oh my God, no. No. We don’t want a confrontation with Russia. We mouthed the words of the rules-based order, but we didn’t act on them.

Dr. Cohen: Yeah.

Gen. Clark: And then all the military assistance we gave was penny parceled out. It was agonizing in the White House. It must have been really difficult. What are the red lines? What will Putin do? Can the Ukrainians – and there were a lot of excuses.

The Ukrainians aren’t smart enough. Well, they got more educated people than we do in our armed forces, to be honest with you. Much better science and technology in the schools in Ukraine than we have in the United States.

Well, the terrain is no good for an M1 tank. Really? Then why did we sell them to Poland?

Well, they’re not – it's too complicated. Really? So we left them in Iraq and the Egyptians have them; the Ukrainians can’t?

I mean, it was a combination of doubletalk, misleading information, requests that weren’t answered.

Dr. Cohen: Do you think that was on the military side as well as the civilian side? Because –

Gen. Clark: Yes. I think there was a certain arrogance in our military.

Now, look, I’m sorry. We did a lot of things right, OK? I don’t want to say we didn’t do everything right. We built the alliance. We got out the warning. We held NATO together. We didn’t have a confrontation with Russia. OK, plus, plus, plus, plus. But you’re asking me: How could it have gone better? So I take all those things for given – as givens. Of course we tried to build an alliance. Maybe Donald Trump wouldn’t have, but we did, and we did that very well. And won the information war at the beginning because we alerted everybody to what was going on. So I don’t want my friends to think that, you know, it’s all negative. It could have been a lot worse. And we did give them Stingers and some Javelins; not enough.

But really, we’re in the fourth phase of the war. The first phase was the failed Russian offensive. They weren’t ready. They didn’t understand the – the second phase was the Ukrainian grab everything and build up. The third phase, the counteroffensive, which ran into the big barrier system. And now we’re in the fourth phase.

And the point is, we’ve got thousands of tanks in the United States; we’ve sent 31. We have a whole fleet of A-10 Warthogs out there sitting in the desert; we’re going to get rid of them. They’re still sitting there. We have hundreds of F-16s that are around, and we delayed it and delayed it and delayed it. We have ATACMS that are obsolete. We’ve still got 155 dual-purpose ICM munitions that we didn’t send. It was – it was measured. The response was measured. It was calibrated. And what many of us in the military tried to say is: Look, I understand, you know, the policy is we don’t want Ukraine to lose and we don’t want Russian to win, OK? That’s the policy. But you can’t calibrate combat like that. You either use decisive force to win or you risk losing.

And what’s happened is we refused to given the Ukrainians decisive force or the means for decisive force when they could have won more easily, and instead we’ve sort of bled out our Ukrainian force, and we’ve got guys in their thirties and forties in there fighting, and some of them have been in the line for a year or two years. The Ukrainians had to put reservists in. They had to put people in there who drove their own POVs up to the frontline and dismounted and walked in with nothing but AK-47s and a helmet, and some of them didn’t even have a helmet. So they did an amazing job, given the restrictions that were put on.

Dr. Cohen: Do you think we gave them bad military advice? I’m talking at the sort of military-technical level.

Gen. Clark: Well, I think – I think at the – I think we were overly restrictive in terms of how we approached the sort of legal responsibilities. I know we don’t want become a party to the conflict, OK but, you know, we could have gone in there and with civilian contractors we could have organized people to take care of the 777 artillery pieces.

No sooner did they get those artillery pieces in the summer of 2022 than a third of them were inoperative because they didn’t have the maintenance parts and the channels weren’t prepared and we tried to do everything at that point through a small office in the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, and the defense attaché was probably going crazy with it.

There were guys in the U.S. military in Dallas who did heroic work and they put their hearts and souls into this. But starting at the top the idea was that we don’t want a confrontation. Keep NATO out of this. Well, Ukraine – they were really surprised. Ukraine can fight, no kidding, and they are going to fight.

But we didn’t take the risk. We didn’t see it right. We didn’t give the right military advice in there to say you can’t fine tune a conflict. It has momentum. It has a life of its own. You’ve got to go in there to win, and we never said as a policy that we wanted Ukraine to win.

Dr. Cohen: That’s absolutely right. I mean, I’ve always thought that there was something really deeply problematic about saying, you know, we’re going to be with you to the end but we don’t – we’re not willing to say we want you to win and, by the way, we want Russia to lose.

One question I’ve always had is it always seemed to me it would have been a good thing to have had a military advisory group there, that is to say to have the American soldiers not in combat but in country advising, training, but among other things establishing relationships with Ukrainian officers and military leaders and getting a better – simply getting a better sense of the reality on the ground.

I mean, my own feeling is we’ve had a lot of quarterbacking from a distance of – from people who – some of whom have never been in Ukraine because the government won’t let them go, not because they don’t want to go.

Is that a legitimate criticism?

Gen. Clark: I think it’s a legitimate criticism, yeah, and I think there’s something else, and I don’t want to be overly critical of our own armed forces because it’s a volunteer force and the Army has done incredible work and how we held together during the 20 years in Afghanistan and the time in Iraq and the great work done by our Special Forces and the generals who pulled all this and getting the recruits in there and building the equipment and now having to face China.

I mean, it’s just that what happened is that the expertise of facing the Eighth Guard’s army across the inter-German border was lost in all of that and –

Dr. Cohen: Could you explain what you mean by that? Because, I mean, I think you and I both know that.

Gen. Clark: During the Cold War period we had about 300,000 U.S. Army in Europe and all the heavy forces leaders – and I was a tank officer – and you had repetitive tours. You went there as a lieutenant or a captain you were back as a major or a lieutenant colonel or a colonel or as a general and you saw it again and again and you had to deal with the reality of what was on the other side of the inter-German border which was a formidable complete Soviet force.

I was in Ukraine as a NATO commander and met with the Minister of Defense and we had a nice talk in 2000, and he had been the commander of a tank army during the Cold War and he told me – he said, we’d have been on the English Channel in five days.

Dr. Cohen: Did you believe him?

Gen. Clark: So it’s the kind of professionalism that was there in the Soviet armed forces. It wasn’t like our armed forces, but they had a powerful group of artillery, tanks pushing the East Germans first, radio electronic combat, non-eye-safe laser range fighters on their tanks so they had blinding weapons.

And as one of their Spetsnaz guys told me he said, before the war ever started we would have assassinated all of your generals. We knew where everybody lived and we would have had the people in there. One guy told me – he said, you know, I came across many times as a truck driver to Rotterdam and we looked all through your forces and reconned everything.

So but the leaders who did that – they’re retired. The intelligence assets that we had who spent careers studying the Soviet Union, they were gone. They became terrorist experts or something else.

And so during this critical period leading up to the conflict we didn’t have the eyes and ears focused. We didn’t really understand what was going on; it probably didn’t get up to the policy network. But for whatever reason we started at a huge disadvantage and our armed forces leaders were suddenly looking at China and long-range fires and suddenly it’s about tanks and trenches and obstacles.

And so I think there’s a lot of learning that has to come out of this. I would love to see a group of retired generals who – there’s still some alive who really worked it during the Cold War as advisors in there. But that hasn’t happened, and so we could have done more even within the framework of the policy.

Dr. Cohen: Could we shift a bit – and the time is flying by – to – could you give me your assessment of where you think the war is today? You know, you said that there are four phases. We’re in the middle of the fourth phase which is a Russian offensive. It’s had major success in terms of taking the town of Avdiivka.

Could you talk about – well, where do you think this goes from here? What are some of the following phases? I mean, there are obviously different branches and sequels here one of which is, of course, crucially the American election.

But could you walk us through your – you know, your expert analysis of the war?

Gen. Clark: Well, I think if we pass the assistance bill and we treat Ukraine the same way in crisis as we treated Israel – in 1973 we actually took stuff out of our own forces in Germany and flew it into Israel and we needed to have done so and we’re doing almost that today.

If we treated Ukraine that way and actually brought the stuff to them and really got that distributed we could stabilize where we are right now and then with the right additional equipment in 12 to 14 months of work there’s a chance they can break through the Russian lines somewhere. It could be Donetsk. It could be Crimea. It could be an air envelopment.

But they’ve got to have the tools of modern warfare. You can’t expect them to fight without air superiority. The drones are great. Build more drones, and they’re ingenious and their action development cycle is faster than the Russians. But the Russians will catch up.

And so it’s a moving target you’re going against. We have to recognize that this war is in a very dangerous stage right now and if that bill isn’t passed the Ukrainian forces are not like – they’re not like what we envision the American Army to be. They’re not all armored, mobile, and all connected the right way.

They’re not capable, I don’t think, of waging an effective war of movement and if there’s a breakthrough and it slices in toward Kharkiv or even further toward Kyiv and if you want to put up that map.

Dr. Cohen: Yeah. Why don’t we put up the map?

Gen. Clark: I mean, it’s a long way. But it’s going to pose – that’s a 600-mile front and you look over there Kyiv is about 450, 500 miles away from where that battle is right now. But that’s mostly rolling, wooded, and open terrain. There are some river lines that have to be crossed but the toughest terrain is where the fighting is right now.

And so we’d be – we need a different focus for the Ukrainian army if it’s going to fight a war of movement. It doesn’t need 31 tanks and a hundred Leopard tanks. It needs a thousand, 2,000 tanks.

It doesn’t need a few – 300 towed artillery pieces. It needs self-propelled artillery, and it needs not 25 F-16s – it needs a couple hundred F-16s and a couple hundred A-10s, and it’s not going to happen quickly enough.

So they’ve got to hold this line and that means when that aid package comes through we’ve got to put – we’ve got to find a way to get that artillery ammunition and the new systems in there and distribute it as rapidly as possible.

Dr. Cohen: Do your successors as general officers and flag officers in the United States and elsewhere understand things, you think, the same way you do in terms of the scale of what’s needed and the urgency of what’s needed? I mean, we’ve talked about the political leadership and about the fear of escalation and so on and so forth. I’m curious, on the military side, do you think that need is sufficiently well understood?

Gen. Clark: I think it’s a staggering bill, and I think General Cavoli over there understands it very, very well. If we don’t stop them here, we’re going to have a 2,500-mile front with NATO. And we could – we really couldn’t handle 400 miles of the inter-German border in the Cold War. I can’t imagine what it will take to sort of mobilize NATO if Ukraine falls and we’re faced with a threat that runs from the Baltics all the way down to the Black Sea.

Dr. Cohen: Let me ask you just one other kind of military technical question, and that is Russian performance. Before the war, there was a lot of talk about, you know, the Russians were going to roll over all of Ukraine. In fact, I’m part of a project here at CSIS with Phillips O’Brien of St. Andrews University on the initial analysis of the Russian-Ukrainian military balance, which was way, way off. I mean, the Russians were far less competent and effective than anybody anticipated to such a degree that we should think about it.

But that was two years ago. And as somebody who’s interacted with the Russians, who’s studied them, who’s observed them closely, how do you assess the evolution of the Russian military throughout this?

Gen. Clark: You know, first of all, they didn’t really – the Russian military really never had much say in the first phase of the operation. That was an intelligence operation. And it was set to put a few helicopter-landed troops in there and then an internal revolt and then get rid of Zelensky, and then they assumed that they could put Yanukovich back in and suddenly they’d have Ukraine. It was like a coup de main. And so they weren’t deployed for combat. And when the dam was broken and the roads were flooded and they couldn’t get off road, they didn’t have the logistics, air defense, electronic warfare, or artillery actually deployed. What they had were battalion tactical groups, and some will have made it south of the Lviv-Kyiv road, and but they ran out of guidance and logistics. They couldn’t get the logistics in. It was a misreading of true Russian military capabilities.

And then they tried to reorganize, and that was a fumbling difficult thing also in combat. And by the way, we were assisting the Ukrainians with some powerful assistance that is not disclosable. But it contributed to the difficulties that the Russians had in phase two. But when they put the defense in, they know how to defend, and they had a lot of mines, and they had a lot of automatic mine-laying equipment.

The way the Soviets thought is the way the Russians think. We learned that for us battles are won at the bottom. It’s the individual soldier, the guy with the rifle. He’s the one who actually makes the advance possible. The Russians operate exactly the opposite. For them, a soldier is like a bullet. You got so many bullets, you got so many soldiers, you’re going to use this many bullets today, and that many soldiers, throw them in there. And so when we look at the horrendous losses the Russians have taken, and we look at it, we interpret it through our own values system, my God, they’re getting killed out there. Surely, they’re going to stop? Well, no, no. What they’re going to do is call for another round of mobilization, put some more warm bodies up there to get shot. It doesn’t have the same impact on the chain of command. Now, it might have an impact on the mothers, but Putin has maintained very capable control of the information space inside Russia.

So, you know, we knew early on, we got to get some people in there to talk common sense to the Russian people. We’ve got to find a way to do it. We haven’t been able to do it. So understand, Eliot, that what we’re dealing with is a totally asymmetrical military relationship. The Ukrainians, they’re fighting like we would fight. They love their people. They’re taking care of their soldiers. They want to save every life they can. For the Russians, that’s not the case. Orders come from the top down and you either perform as an officer and throw your people into the breach and go into it if you have to, or else.

Dr. Cohen: Let me push the question a little bit further. So, they’ve – I mean, I absolutely take what you say. But still by British estimates, Ukrainian estimates, they’ve taken somewhere on the order of about 400,000 combat casualties.

Gen. Clark: Right.

Dr. Cohen: Dead and wounded who are effectively off the battlefield or prisoner. We – I mean, an amazing thing these days, you can document equipment losses using open sources. They’ve had extraordinary losses of equipment, which they don’t really seem to be able to replace and their own military industry can’t do it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be turning to North Korea and Iran and so on.

Gen. Clark: Right, yeah.

Dr. Cohen: And even with the human losses, while there are plenty of – you know, they’ll keep on sending warm bodies into the fight, they’ve also been losing the captains and majors and lieutenant colonels and even the generals to a degree that, you know, we really never have. Does that degrade their overall effectiveness to some extent?

Gen. Clark: Sure, because experience matters on the battlefield, and you don’t get the experience and you don’t use it unless you survive. But on the other hand, the Russian, and before them the Soviet troop leading procedures, are very different from ours.

Dr. Cohen: Could you say a little bit more about that?

Gen. Clark: So in the Western army and the way we’ve tried to work with the Ukrainians over the years is the troop leading works at the bottom. You get a mission. It’s a zone. You give it to the commander down below you. He thinks about it, he subdivides it, gives it down, and then it rolls back up. And in the Russian system and the Soviet system, it’s all done on norms, so that this unit for an attack has this zone. And the commander plans the operation. In the American Western system, we teach how staff work. The staff in the Russian system only does the execution. The plan is the commander’s, and he alone is responsible for it and he must do it. And what this gives or has historically done is made the Soviet system very flexible at the top and very casualty-prone at the bottom. And it’s the exact opposite of the way we’ve tried to work. So the losses they’ve taken would have been absolutely just totally destructive for a Western force. But for the Russian force, there’s certain rules you follow. This is the way you do it. Here it is, it’s a cookbook, you do it, or you’re a traitor. And so it’s easier for them to fill in the replacements at the bottom – not necessarily at the top, but at the bottom it is. And they’re still having problems. And you know, all is not lost in this by any means for the West or for Ukraine. But we have to understand what we’re up against.

And, Eliot, the United States has to understand we’re in a new era. There’s a coalition of forces, nations forming up against the United States. It’s Russia, it’s China, it’s North Korea, it’s Iran. They’re increasingly well-coordinated, exchanging information plans, tactics, munitions, technologies that our principal potential adversaries, starting with Russia, are willing to use force in a major way. We didn’t see this in the post-Cold War. It was a shock when Russia really invaded Ukraine. And we’re looking at China. We’re looking at Iran. We’re looking at North Korea, which has just said it’s no longer aiming for a nice peaceful reunification with the South. So the third thing is that our nuclear deterrent is in play in a way that it hasn’t been before.

Dr. Cohen: Say more about what you mean by that.

Gen. Clark: We’ve taken the nuclear deterrent for granted since the end of the Cold War. Nobody likes nuclear weapons. It could cause nuclear – a nuclear global winter. We could shut down civilization. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock is two seconds from midnight, and on and on and on. But the truth is, we stopped our nuclear program in 1983 when President Reagan said we’re not going to do the enhanced radiation warheads. And the Russians didn’t. And they’ve brought out new nuclear technology and new delivery systems. They’re way ahead of us. They must think there’s value in it. The Chinese are doing the same thing. And there must be value in it, because the first thing that we’ve been nervous about in supporting Ukraine is Putin and Medvedev and other people giving these nuclear threats. And we keep saying that’s irresponsible as though you’re sitting around the coffee table, don’t be talking like that. But for them, it’s highly responsible, because what they see is they see timidity on the part of the West when confronted with the reality that Russia has nuclear weapons and might use them in this case.

And then you have to ask – and this is what our Western leaders have to ask – how strongly do we believe in this rules-based international system? Strongly enough to fight for it? Or we’re going to say it’s NATO? Well, if you won’t fight for Ukraine when they’re fighting, how do you think the people in the Baltic States feel? They’re on the edge out there. Do they think the United States is really going to risk nuclear confrontation with Putin to save Talin? Will we do that? We say we will legally, but will we? What’s the real credibility? And so our deterrent is in question in a way it hasn’t been.

And this latest flap over the Russian nuclear weapon in space, this is – we’ve worried about this for a long time. And back in the 1980s, back when you were a young man –

Dr. Cohen: Could you explain – why would somebody put a nuclear weapon up in space? Could you explain that?

Gen. Clark: If that weapon goes off in space, it creates an electromagnetic pulse that can disable satellites. But of course, it also disables things on the ground. It depends on the altitude, the size of the nuclear weapon, et cetera. But it could completely wipe out the U.S. electricity grid for much of the United States with just one weapon, depending on where it is, its altitude, and its strength. So to say there’s not going to be any impact on the ground, it’s – well, I mean, maybe if it’s a one-tenth of a kiloton at 22,000 miles, maybe not. But if it’s a megaton class weapon at 300 miles, it’s a really serious problem.

And so we’re dancing around all these things. No, we don’t want a confrontation with Russia. But like we used to say in army training, the enemy has a vote. And Putin is pushing a confrontation with us, and he’s lining up his allies. It’s just – this is military. It’s diplomatic. It’s financial with the BRICS and other efforts. And I think, you know, we have to recognize for the United States, we’re in a new era. The old ideas that, you know, we’re a shining example – President Reagan said, we’re a city on a hill. Everybody wants to live in a democratic country like the United States. And we certainly have a lot of people who want to live here. But the politics of democracy are difficult, even in America. And there are alternative models. And with the development of – economic developments around the world, there’s wealth elsewhere, and there are people looking to retain that wealth. So the old models, the idea that we were the indispensable exceptional power, we’d like to be, but the times, they are a-changing, and we’ve got to adapt our policy to this new era.

Dr. Cohen: Yeah. Well, that’s – you put a lot on the table there.

Let me go back to nuclear weapons for a moment. Do you expect that – or how would you assess the chances that sometime in the next 10, 20 years somebody actually uses a nuclear weapon for military purposes?

Gen. Clark: Well, we – if you asked that question 30 years ago, people would have said it’s high. It always is going to be possible. But it’s hard to find the scenario who’s going to do it, when. So if we back away from a confrontation with Putin, he’s not going to use a nuclear weapon. He doesn’t want to open that box either even though he has tactical weapons and we don’t. He has artillery and short-range rocket-delivered weapons that would be actually quite useful on the battlefield, especially if the Ukrainians are not dug in. If they’re in the open, these enhanced radiation weapons that he has, supposedly, they could be very effective.

Dr. Cohen: Why do you think he –

Gen. Clark: But he doesn’t want – he doesn’t want to cross that. China doesn’t want across it. They want us to give without raising that – the conflict to that level. So it’s what Putin said: Give Back Ukraine, unroll NATO, get these Baltic States back out of NATO, give up on it. Let Russia have what it wants.

Dr. Cohen: What would be the consequences in your view? Could you just sort of play out the scenario in which – whether it’s because of the outcome of the election, or you know, a deadlocked Congress, you know, we don’t deliver aid to Ukraine? The Ukraine suffers a substantial defeat of some kind, which could be in variety of ways. What do you think? Just play out for us what would be the kind of cascade of events you think that might follow that.

Gen. Clark: Well, I think in some countries in Eastern Europe you might have changes of government, because there are Russian tendrils everywhere, especially in Eastern Europe. And people say, well, you know, this is too dangerous. We don’t have our army together. NATO can’t really protect us yet. We’ve got to buy for time on this. So we’ve got to sort of acquiesce to certain things. And I think that’s the normal way that diplomacy unfolds in something like this.

But I think, in this country, of course, there’d be political repercussions. I go back to the Vietnam War. And I’m a little bit older than you. I was at Oxford in 1968 when Tet happened. And just before that, in the months before that, the American commander had said, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We’re successful in Vietnam. It’s going to be over pretty soon. Suddenly, there was what looked like a catastrophe. And out of the woodwork came these incredible forces that overran major parts of Vietnam, northern part of South Vietnam, and even got inside the American Embassy and onto our air bases. And in the American news media it was portrayed as a catastrophic defeat for the United States. Well, it wasn’t actually. It was a military defeat for the other side. But we lost the war of public opinion. And a lot of the support for the United – by the United States to Ukraine has been premised on the idea that these brave plucky Ukrainians can show the big bad Russians that they’re not 10 feet tall, democracy is going to win. But in Tet, that support for Vietnam was punctured. And one thing you have to respect about Vladimir Putin and the Russian intelligence network is they are students of history. And they see this, and they’re looking at this, and they would love to have a repeat of Tet in the spring of 2024.

Dr. Cohen: Well, that’s a pretty dark note in which to end the conversation, but I think, you know, there’s probably no human endeavor about which it’s more true than war that it pays to be sober about what the possibilities are. So –

Gen. Clark: Well, Eliot, I think, you know, we have to look at it with as much balance as possible. The Ukrainians have done a magnificent job, and we’ve given them a lot of support. But we didn’t give them sufficient support at the right time, in my view, to be able to take advantage of Russian disorganization. And now as General Zaluzhnyi said, it’s a positional war. And if we’re going to commit to the success of the international rules-based order, then we’ve got to help Ukraine restore its legitimate boundaries. Otherwise, it’s a Russian victory and it’s the beginning of the unraveling of that order.

Dr. Cohen: Agreed. And on that note, General Clark, thank you so much for joining us.

Gen. Clark: Thank you.