Former NATO Commander: ‘Is the West Going to Tolerate Russia Doing This to Ukraine?’

Retired Gen. Philip Breedlove on NATO’s response, calls for a no-fly zone, and Putin’s state of mind.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Gen. Philip Breedlove, the outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe
Gen. Philip Breedlove, the outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe
Gen. Philip Breedlove, the outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, speaks in Stuttgart, Germany, on May 3, 2016. Marijan Murat/DAP/AFP/Getty Images

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine got underway late last week, NATO activated its multinational response force for the first time in the military alliance’s nearly 73-year history on Friday. While no U.S. or NATO troops will be sent to Ukraine, which is not a member nation, the force has been put on standby as a deterrence and defensive measure as tens of thousands of Russian troops have surged into the country, which borders four NATO member states.

Foreign Policy spoke with retired four-star U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who led U.S. forces in Europe and served as NATO’s supreme allied commander from 2013 to 2016, to get his thoughts on NATO’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the challenge of imposing a no-fly zone over the country, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state of mind.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine got underway late last week, NATO activated its multinational response force for the first time in the military alliance’s nearly 73-year history on Friday. While no U.S. or NATO troops will be sent to Ukraine, which is not a member nation, the force has been put on standby as a deterrence and defensive measure as tens of thousands of Russian troops have surged into the country, which borders four NATO member states.

Foreign Policy spoke with retired four-star U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who led U.S. forces in Europe and served as NATO’s supreme allied commander from 2013 to 2016, to get his thoughts on NATO’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the challenge of imposing a no-fly zone over the country, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state of mind.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: What is your reaction to the news that Putin has put his nuclear forces at elevated readiness?

Philip Breedlove: Well, first of all, I’m not surprised. If you do the homework and do a simple Google search and look at what Putin has talked about in the not-too-distant past and what [Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery] Gerasimov talks about and writes about, what they say often is that the nuclear weapon is a logical extension of the conventional battlefield. Whereas in the West, we distinctly divide the use of nuclear weapons away from a conventional fight. Putin distinctly connects it to a conventional fight, and he’s been very vociferous in the past about, “If you foment color revolutions in Russia, I’ll use nukes.” He’s very afraid of our conventional prompt strike capability, he says. “If you try to decapitate me, my command and control from my forces, our nuclear forces, I will use nukes.” And he has more than once intimated that if he is losing, he will use nukes. So this is something that Putin often writes and talks about.

FP: How alarmed are you at this decision?

PB: I don’t want to say I’m alarmed because as I said, I expected this. His forces have disappointed him. His advisors and commanders, I think, promised him a quick win. And the Ukrainians are fighting very hard, and they didn’t get the quick win. And now, Putin sees things that he didn’t want to have happened. NATO’s becoming more coalesced and stronger in the last 24 hours. Strong statements out of Germany and out of France and other things. All the things he didn’t want to have happened are now happening because of this absolutely ludicrous story of what he’s doing in Ukraine.

FP: What’s your assessment of the immediate threat that Russia poses to NATO’s members? The alliance has put its response forces on alert for the very first time in its history. How well positioned is NATO to respond in the event that this conflict spills over, either intentionally or unintentionally, into a member state?

PB: I’m so proud of NATO for having taken this step. I’m so proud of NATO for beginning to arrange themselves to be able to address Russia, should it do the unthinkable and spill over into a NATO nation. And now I speak only for myself, not my government and others, but I wish they had done this earlier. Several NATO nations got out in front of this: giving airplanes, air policing, getting ships to some of the NATO naval forces, and the United States contributing soldiers and things. But I would have liked to have seen NATO earlier in this process alerting portions of at least the very high readiness joint task force. But I think it’s magnificent, and it’s a show of unity that I don’t think Putin expected. Ergo, we see him now pulling out bigger threats.

FP: For many years, Russia experts characterized Putin as a calculated risk-taker, opportunistic but rational. I’ve seen a lot of people start to question that now. What is your sense about Putin’s state of mind, based on what we’ve seen over this past week?

PB: I think he is smart like a fox. And I do believe that Putin has acted in the past more rationally, and I think you cast it very well. He has been a prudent risk-taker. But he is a risk-taker. I do not want to sign up to any conspiracy theories about the Russian president. But I will make the following observation, and that is that I believe that he’s acting less prudently than he has in the past, and he is taking more risks now than he has in the past.

FP: Some Ukrainian activists, as well as former members of the Ukrainian parliament, have called for a no-fly zone to be implemented over Ukraine. What would that entail, and do you think that that is something that we may see in the coming weeks?

PB: I am actually a proponent of it. But let me now tell you why it will probably not happen, because the reality of a no-fly zone is, it is an act of war. There are a lot of people who don’t understand no-fly zones. You don’t just say, “That’s a no fly zone.” You have to enforce a no-fly zone, which means you have to be willing to use force against those who break the no-fly zone. The second thing, which nobody understands, is if you put a no-fly zone in the eastern part of Ukraine, for instance, and we’re going to fly coalition or NATO aircraft into that no-fly zone, then we have to take out all the weapons that can fire into our no-fly zone and cause harm to our aircraft. So that means bombing enemy radars and missile systems on the other side of the border. And you know what that means, right? That is tantamount to war. So if we’re going to declare a no-fly zone, we have to take down the enemy’s capability to fire into and affect our no-fly zone. And few understand that. And that’s why, if you talk about a no-fly zone, it is a very sober decision because many in the world would interpret it as an act of war.

FP: Yet, in spite of all of that, you said you would actually support the idea of a no-fly zone?

PB: Are we going to sit and watch while a world power invades and destroys and subjugates a sovereign nation? Are we just going to watch? I mean, a friend recently said, “This is like biblical times, and the whole Colosseum is watching the lions and the Christians, and they’re pulling for the Christians, but they just watch.” So the question is, is the West going to tolerate Russia doing this to Ukraine? What if the Russians do what they did in eastern Syria and they drop barrel bombs and make rubble of cities and terrorize citizens and force them on the road and make them refugees across Europe? Where is the line that Russia crosses in its inhumanity such that the rest of the world reacts?

FP: In 2008, both Ukraine and Georgia were offered extended NATO membership, but there was no road map toward them actually getting it. What do you make of that decision? Should NATO have accepted Ukraine and Georgia to the alliance by now?

PB: Let me give you one of the first lessons that every SACEUR [NATO’s supreme allied commander Europe] has. And that is the SACEUR cannot speak for NATO when it comes to political matters. So you’re asking me to do something I learned I can’t do. Of course, I’m retired now. But I still don’t want to engender that argument. Here’s the point: You can make the argument for both countries, but I want to use an example of Georgia because of how straightforward this argument is.

Georgia, while not perfect, has made so many of the changes that NATO said it needed to make. And a little-known fact is that on a per capita basis, Georgia gave more forces to Afghanistan than any country, including the United States. And on a per capita basis, Georgia lost more soldiers in Afghanistan than any country, including the United States. So here we have a nation that has done everything that was asked of it and contributed to missions. And it was a nation that served without caveat. The Georgians said, “We’ll do what you, the Americans, do, and we’ll go anywhere you go.” Zero caveats.

And so now let me say, as a military commander, I said it when I was in command, and now as a retired military commander, I would say to you, Georgia has done everything asked of it and should be given NATO membership. Now, the Ukrainians have been working on a lot of problems that they have. They still have work to do. They will tell you the same thing. They have come a long way. Are they ready yet or not? I will leave that to the politicians. Militarily, they’re working on it really hard. And now we see that those things that we have trained with them on, they’re doing very well.

This is a capable country that, if given the chance and if it can get out from under the shadow that Russia casts, I think, has the potential of being an incredible NATO member sometime in the future. If they choose to be. It is their sovereign decision, not Russia’s sovereign decision.

FP: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz just announced a spending increase for this year of $113 billion for German defense, bringing it over the 2 percent threshold of Germany’s GDP. This has been described as a reversal of decades of German foreign policy. What is your take?

PB: I think it’s outstanding. People have long called me a German apologist, and I am. I lived there five times. Both of my daughters were born in Germany. I have seen this great nation be a stalwart member of the Cold War NATO that stood in the Fulda Gap, ready to fight the operational maneuver group out of Russia. And so Germany has gone through a lot of challenges and changes. Hasn’t the United States gone through a lot of challenges and changes? And so I am happy to see what Germany has chosen to do. And I am just really looking forward to a period of time now when, as an incredible partner of NATO, it contributes even more to NATO’s defense.

FP: It seems that Russia’s ultimate goal here is to remove the Ukrainian government and to install some kind of puppet regime. Russia is obviously going to face an intense amount of opposition to that. But what are the risks to NATO if it succeeds and Ukraine becomes like Belarus, a kind of de facto puppet state of Russia?

PB: Yes, this is about Ukraine. Yes, we are concerned for our brothers and sisters there and what’s happening to the sovereign nation. But again, if we go back to those two documents [detailing the Kremlin’s demands for security guarantees from the West] and look at what Putin is demanding of the West, it’s far more about reorganizing the security infrastructure of Europe, reestablishing the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, subjugating all of those border countries along Russia’s edge, and forcing NATO back to the pre-fall of the Berlin Wall positions. We want to do the right thing for Ukraine, but this is even bigger than Ukraine. And that’s what NATO has to keep its eyes on. We need to do something to help the Ukrainians. But also we need to be prepared not to capitulate and give in to Putin’s demands to reestablish the Soviet Union and to re-set up the security infrastructure of the Warsaw Pact.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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