The interview with the General of the French Army Michel Yakovleff about the prospects of Ukrainian victory, the level of Western responsibility for the war in Ukraine, and the real potential of the Russian army.
– How realistic, in your opinion, is the prospect of Ukrainian victory and, accordingly, Russian defeat in the current war?
– There are conditions for the Ukrainian victory. This is, in particular, the help of the West. For me, this prospect is the most likely one at the moment. But whether it will be an absolute, final victory, or only a significant victory, I do not know.
– Is it realistic to inflict such a defeat on Russia that it will no longer be able to attack its neighbors?
– The only method to defeat Russia in such a way that it will no longer be able to attack its neighbors is – to achieve the fall of Putin’s regime.
– Unfortunately, we are still far from this…
– In my opinion, we are closer to such a situation now than we were six months ago. I am not saying that it is the most likely, but it is possible. For example, if the Russian resistance in Kherson collapses and Ukraine captures twenty thousand Russians at once, it will be Stalingrad for Putin’s regime. And I think it will be difficult for it to survive. Both a cataclysm caused by Russians in Ukraine and another one caused to Russians by Ukrainians are possible. It will have huge consequences. Therefore, an absolute victory with the reconquest of Crimea, Donbas, and expulsion of every last invader is not necessary. But once Putin’s regime falls, Russia will be doomed to global negotiations with the world.
– I saw figures according to which Russia lost 40% of its military resources in Ukraine. Do you confirm this information?
– The numbers I saw came from the Americans and possibly the British. We are not talking about 40% of the Russian military resources, but about 40% of the Russian armed forces deployed in Ukraine. And where are the others? Others hold an empire. They are located in the military districts of the center, north, east, and south of the Russian Federation. These are considerable forces, but they cannot be mobilized for this war. As long as Putin does not want to admit that there is a war going on, he is legally in a situation that does not allow for general mobilization. Even if he gets the idea to mobilize his entire army, he will find a hundred or a hundred and fifty thousand more to go and fight in Ukraine. Because there are those who cannot leave Georgia, Transnistria, Armenia, move away from the border with China. And there are also many people in the Russian army who cannot fight on the front lines. So, Russian President scraped the mobilization part of the Russian army away, and all these people are already in Ukraine. Yes, 40% loss in manpower – that seems quite plausible. Paradoxically, Ukraine is gradually gaining advantages in human resources. Ukrainians are methodically replenishing, training and equipping their units, and it is not just about soldiers.
– Your colleague, General Trinquand, said on the air of the LCI TV channel that any Western army if it lost 30% of its weapons or troops would immediately stop the war. Instead, Russia continues it. Why?
– When you lose 30% in a week, you have to stop. Because you have to take care of injured and dead, 30% in a month is another matter. Indeed, it is true that in our Western armies, as soon as someone is injured, he must be evacuated. We always take care of the injured. If someone is injured in the Russian army, in most cases he is told to crawl to the doctor, and then, if he dies, everyone doesn’t care. Whereas our legionary’s oath says: “Never abandon your killed, injured, and your weapons.” My comrade Trinquand is right: the Russians are ready to suffer greater losses than the Western armies, and that is true. But this does not make them more effective.
– Why did the Western support for Ukraine act so slow? It was very poor in the first weeks, and the West hesitated for a long time before providing Kyiv with powerful weapons…
– Support varied in proportion to the belief in Ukraine’s victory. When everyone thought that Ukraine would lose in the first days, no one wanted to bother. Then when two or three weeks passed, we still did not believe in the victory of Ukraine at the end of February – the beginning of March, but we already began to say to ourselves: “It will be difficult for the Russians”. The British and Americans provided Ukraine with rockets that could be carried and used by one person for the first-level resistance. At that time, there was no talk of what is called “collective competence”. But later, artillery, surface-to-air artillery, and radar were needed in order to last longer in battles. Collective competence is needed here, in particular, teamwork. And people hesitated: as long as you teach them, the war can end. This was the most rational hypothesis since the forces are not equal.
For example, at one time there was a debate about the Polish MiG-29. The Poles agreed to give these planes to Ukraine, but said: “We must train Ukrainian pilots to fly them.” And they asked the Americans to do it at the Ramstein base, the American base in Germany, far beyond Poland. Then the Americans replied: “Not at all.” One of the reasons for the rejection was that the aircraft had been improved. It seems to be the same – the chassis is the same – but the radar is different, the fire control is different, and the missiles it fires are different. That is, a pilot who knows how to get and land the MiG-29 plane already saves a lot of time, but he still has to spend a certain number of hours in the simulator, he has to fly several times and pass tests before he is told: “Okay, you can fly this Polish MiG-29”. And American reluctance was dictated by the fear of making a lot of effort in vain. After two or three months, when the Russians left Kyiv, Kharkiv, and most importantly, despite Mariupol, we saw that they were advancing meter by meter in Donbas, we said to ourselves: well, the front line is stabilizing, and it will be for a long time. If we are talking about the long term, then our help, which takes time, is worth it. I think that this opened the chakras of some Western leaders.
– In your opinion, how high is the risk of a frozen conflict?
– Very good question! I think that in the end, this is exactly what Putin would like, and what Zelenskyy fears. If Ukraine is not given more weapons, either because they [countries – ed.] don’t want or because we no longer have them, it will lead to the emergence of a frozen conflict. On the other hand, what conflicts are now frozen? Transnistria and Georgia. In both cases, Moldova and Georgia were left to fend for themselves. And the territories of the frozen conflicts have been abandoned to their fate face to face with the Russians, who commit arbitrariness there. But Ukrainians in the conditions of a frozen conflict, even without the means to win back their lands, can continue to carry out operations in the rear, they can transfer the war to the territory of Russia… In my opinion, if the Putin’s regime achieves a frozen conflict, Ukraine’s response will be to transfer the war deeper and deeper into Russian lands, by shelling military facilities, as it is already done. This will “unfreeze” the conflict. Neither Georgia nor Moldova dared to take such steps.
– You said in one of your television appearances, that the fear of being seen as a participant in an armed confrontation was not the best tactic of the West. Do you also hold the same opinion now?
Today, there is no need to become a participant in armed confrontation, because Ukraine does everything on its own. And as one of my TV colleagues told me, Zelenskyy did not ask for this. It is easier for the West. But if the only way to prevent the disintegration of Ukraine is to take part in the war, then we are not talking about soldiers and tanks on the front lines. I see the next stage of our participation as helping Ukrainians to achieve their long-term goals. For example, it can be a presence in an air defense system, that neutralizes the Russian air force. It will make Russians stay at home so they don’t get destroyed.
– Is it about closing the sky over Ukraine, as it has been asking since the start of a full-scale offensive?
Exactly. But it is not easy. The President of the French Republic has information that I do not, and he is not alone. For example, even if we, France, say that we will participate in the defense of Ukrainian skies, where are our planes based? In Romania or Hungary. Therefore, the consent of the Romanians and Hungarians is required. If you use an airfield to fly, you are a belligerent! We are all interconnected. These negotiations are suspended now, because this is not an existential problem. Everything remains as it is.
– Georgia and Ukraine did not receive a NATO Membership Action Plan in 2008. France, in particular, was against such rapprochement. However, many experts say today that if the Bucharest Summit had made a different decision, there would have been neither Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008 nor the war in Ukraine that began in 2014. What do you think?
– Being an expert retroactively is always easy. I was in “strategic patience” mode until 2022. In the sense that I had no doubts: Crimea will become Ukrainian again, just as Berlin reunited long ago. I thought that maybe it was not worth starting World War III to jump 50 years forward. I do no doubt that Putin’s regime will fall. And then Russia will be forced to start negotiations. Many in the West thought that there was no point in risking a nuclear holocaust to buy time.
I was shocked by the lack of reaction in 2008 in the case of Georgia. We did not help them. I told my colleagues at NATO headquarters in 2014: “This is the beginning of the Third World War.” At the time, I was very angry with NATO and the Allies for not being able to stop Putin. Okay, let Ukraine not join NATO, but it was necessary to give it the weapons it needed. And the weapons that the Ukrainians demanded were not given to them for many years. Only the Americans and the British began to provide missiles in 2017, and this saved the lives of Ukrainians in the first days of the invasion. But even then, before the Maidan, we were in the regime: “corruption in Ukraine”, “who are we doing a favor?”, “the regime can very easily become pro-Russian”… This was also.
– All of this is evidence of the effectiveness of Russian propaganda, which worked. By the way, it is difficult to understand why is the French television so fond of playing footage that the Russian Ministry of Defense provides for free, in particular, about the new RS-28 “Sarmat” [missile complex – ed.], which has not yet been put into production? To scare people? To increase the audience? To serve Russian propaganda?
– It is easy to wave hands after a fight, but we did it unwisely. I had no influence, I did not make decisions in NATO. But I believed that we should help the Ukrainians since 2014, and make a plan so that in three years the Ukrainian army would move to another category. Won’t Putin like it? It will be enough to remind him that it was he who started the war. Will he get angry? So what? But we did not dare to speak to him in such a tone, and now we are paying for it. And Ukrainians are paying for everything. I am angry because I think that Europeans showed less courage than Americans. Of course, it is easy to speak after the fact.
– Do you think that if in 2014 Ukraine was helped at the same level as now, we would not have this war today? So many deaths, so much destruction, so many broken lives?
– Yes, it wouldn’t be. More precisely, there would be no such war. If the Ukrainians had enough HIMARS in time and were trained on them, and they did not have to learn how to use them now, then the Russian artillery would have been quiet. Then we wouldn’t have 30,000 Russian shells falling on Donbas per day. In my opinion, we bear our share of responsibility. But the choice that was made between 2014 and 2022 can be explained based on certain parameters, from a probabilistic calculation. There is a difference between a mistake and a fault.
– What urgent measures should the international community take today in view of the war in Ukraine?
– I do not see any urgent measures, because we are focused on the long-term perspective. In fact, the most urgent thing is to prepare for this long-term perspective.
Lt. Gen. Michel Yakovleff, French army retired – is the head of the Department of “Defense Policy” of the Institute of Advanced Studies in National Defense (IHEDN). He was born in 1958 in France. He joined the 16th Dragoon Regiment (in Nyons) in 1976, then he served in the 18th Dragoon Regiment (in Mourmelon) as a conscript officer. In 1982, he graduated from the Saint-Cyr military academy. He worked in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Senegal, French Guiana and almost all Balkan countries. He served in the Foreign Legion in 1983-1993. He commanded the 7th Armoured Brigade (in Besançon) in 2008, and together with his unit, he was a member of the operational-tactical group “North” as part of the international peacekeeping force in Kosovo (Kosovo Rorce, KFOR) from September 2008 to January 2009. Lt. Gen. Michel Yakovleff worked at the Military Committee of NATO in headquarters in Brussels in 2009-2014.