By Vazha Tavberidze – RadioFreeEurope RadioLiberty
James L. Jones is a retired four-star Marine Corps general and a former NATO supreme allied commander in Europe (2003-06) and onetime national-security adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama (2009-10). He is now a consultant and frequent commentator on security issues who has strongly advocated for military and other aid to help Ukraine defend itself against the Russian invasion.
Jones talked to RFE/RL’s Georgian Service about the global reverberations of the Ukrainian war, whether providing longer-range weapons risks a wider war, and what this coming February should tell us about “donor fatigue.”
RFE/RL: How would you describe the battlefield situation in Ukraine in chessboard terms? It has been likened to “positional warfare” by [Ukrainian commanding] General Valeriy Zaluzhniy.
James L. Jones: I don’t think it’s a matter of chess so much as it is probably one of the biggest historical blunders that any leader has made, when [Russian President] Vladimir Putin decided to invade. And we might never know what prompted the decision, but I think he — like all dictators — he listens to people who echo his own views. But I think that he saw the unfortunate [U.S.-led international] withdrawal from Afghanistan as an indication that the United States probably would not be happy about an invasion, but they would believe that the war would be over very quickly and eventually, like the annexation of Crimea, that this would become a fait accompli very quickly. Unfortunately, for him, he was sadly mistaken.
To the extent that there’s any analogy with chess right now, it probably wasn’t present then but is probably present on the ground now…. How the denouement of this fight between Ukraine and Russia turns out is probably very important for the world.
RFE/RL: How would you describe the situation on the battlefield?
Jones: I don’t think there’s any clear picture right now. The Ukraine spring offensive [launched in June] was unfortunately lacking in one key element, and that’s air power, and the Russians had plenty of time to mine the areas where they thought the Ukrainian [ground forces] would advance. And it just caused everything to slow down. But I think one thing is clear: Mr. Putin’s ambition to take over Ukraine in its entirety is not going to happen.
RFE/RL: Is a decisive battleground victory still feasible for either side?
Jones: I don’t know the answer to that. It doesn’t look like it, although I think the stated ambitions on both sides have not changed all that much. But if you look at what’s going on right now on the ground, I don’t see a definitive advantage on either side, except for the fact that there’s pretty much no doubt that Russia will not be successful in taking over Ukraine as a country.
RFE/RL: Can we conclude that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is over and that another Russian offensive is beginning?
Jones: I think it’s extremely important — on almost a global basis — that how this ends has to be seen as a victory for Ukraine and a defeat for Russia. And I don’t know what that looks like, but I’m pretty convinced that it has to end that way. Because if it doesn’t, the autocrats of the world will be emboldened. I would think that the president of China would rethink his position with regard to Taiwan, perhaps.
If Putin is readmitted to the family of national leaders, in the international meetings and as though nothing happened, I think that would be the worst outcome. He’s an indicted war criminal by the ICC [International Criminal Court in The Hague], and that should stand for something. But how this ends, I think, is really, really important in terms of the perceptions that are going to reverberate all over the world and will cause many countries to behave differently one way or the other.
RFE/RL: As you mentioned, at this moment, there is no end in sight — we don’t know what the end of this war would look like. But what we know is that Russians are launching another offensive at Avdiyivka. I have a very simple and perhaps naive question: How come? Wasn’t the Russian Army supposed to be depleted to a degree as to being unable to mount another massive offensive?
Jones: Well, I think one thing that was always clear is that the Russian leader was willing to commit whatever manpower he needed, because they outnumber the Ukrainians in terms of population. And their ability to launch a major offensive — it might surprise someone — but I think that his ability to draft young men and throw them into the Russian Army, even though they’re fairly poorly trained, is something that you have to take into account. But it’s clear that the lessons learned from the first year have taken root in Russia as well as Ukraine. They know each other better now; they know where their strengths and weaknesses are. It’s not surprising that both sides are trying to exploit that advantage. But I don’t see that the Russians are capable of achieving Putin’s goal of taking over the whole of Ukraine.
RFE/RL: For a long while, it was assumed that Ukraine had this long line of volunteers willing to fight to defend the country. And then this Time magazine profile on Zelenskiy comes out and it cast doubts on many things, and the manpower was one of these things. It highlighted that this is also a problem for Ukraine. Who has the bigger problem when it comes to manpower, Ukraine or Russia?
Jones: Well, it’s good to have enough manpower; [but] it’s a problem to have qualified manpower that is organized, trained, and equipped to do the job. In the first year of the [full-scale] war [during 2022], Ukraine was more on the defensive, which is much easier in terms of manpower losses. And then the second year, Ukraine wanted to go on the offensive, but they also found out that if you don’t go on the offensive with at least a three- to four- to five-to-one ratio, you’re going to take more casualties. And the fact that they were fighting a combined arms war without one of the key elements — which is air power — that slowed things down. And I think the needed air power is on the way, but it’s not going to be ready to go for quite a while. Once they get that, they can really complete that combined arms capability for which they do have great comprehension — but they need to get it all together before they can really start making a difference.
RFE/RL: On this combined arms maneuver — and let’s call it NATO’s military vision of how combat warfare needs to be carried out — there was this great interview with General Zaluzhniy in The Economist, where he said that “If you look at NATO’s textbooks and at the math which we did [in planning the counteroffensive], four months should have been enough time for us to have reached Crimea, to have fought in Crimea, to return from Crimea, and to have gone back in and out again.” Were NATO, or rather Western military calculations and forecasts wrong, or was it Ukraine that underperformed?
Jones: Generally speaking, all along, it would have been better for the allies to provide the needed equipment that Ukraine wanted and should have had in order to prosecute a more effective campaign, especially when they tried to go on the [offensive]. And I think the United States was complicit in not providing the weapons rapidly enough — particularly the air side. We were too cautious about not giving the Ukrainians weapons that could strike into Russia. And so, you’re really causing them to have to fight the war with one hand tied behind their backs. But I think people realize that now, and the supply chains are better, and the equipment is arriving at a faster rate. So, we’ll have to wait and see. But the big missing piece, I think, for me, is aviation…. If there isn’t a resolution this year, which there doesn’t appear to be, when they get the air power that they need, it’ll make a difference.
RFE/RL: Zaluzhniy himself admits that they’re at a stalemate, but he doesn’t see the combined arms maneuver as a solution; he is betting on technological advancement. He says that “in order for us to break this deadlock, we need something new, like the gunpowder which the Chinese invented and which we are still using to kill each other.” Where does this leave us when it comes to the Ukraine war, if one side doesn’t suddenly conjure up a modern equivalent of gunpowder in terms of technology?
Jones: That’s a great question, and I think you’ll get the first indication of where that leaves us in February  at the Munich Security Conference, which I’m sure will be dominated by the Ukraine-Russia conflict. I was there last year, and there was great enthusiasm and many words spoken by political leaders that were very encouraging, like, “We’re with you until the end.” So, it’ll be interesting to see what the dialogue is this year. And then I think we’ll have an idea about whether there’s donor fatigue out there. And I think Mr. Putin is certainly counting on the fact that he can outlast the West, because the West is always wanting to end wars quickly: “Do whatever you have to do but stop this.”
RFE/RL: I will be asking you about this donor fatigue in a moment. But before that, let’s go through the Western military assistance issue in a bit more detail. We saw the impact of HIMARS [U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System] on the battlefield. Will there be an ATACMS [U.S.-made Army Tactical Missile System] era or an F-16 [fighter jet] era, too?
Jones: I think so, yes. I think the military advice here in Washington would be to provide that.
RFE/RL: Many noticed that the ATACMS given to Ukraine are of older production with a shorter range than their modern equivalents? Will there be more, better, longer-range ones?
Jones: It goes back to a fear in [NATO] capitals that if you give the Ukrainians the weapons that can strike into Russia, they will do that and it might cause a wider war. I don’t think that’s correct, to be honest with you. My first war was in Vietnam, and I was always frustrated by the fact that we couldn’t pursue the enemy into Laos or Cambodia or go north of the DMZ [demilitarized zone], and there were so many restrictions on us that we did have the impression that we’re fighting with one hand tied behind our back. And I think that’s a risky strategy that normally contributes to defeat of the side that has so many impositions on it. The fear, obviously, is that Vladimir Putin would escalate to a nuclear conflict, and everybody’s concerned about that. But I do think that the important thing is to give the Ukrainians the panoply of weapons that they need and to certainly prevent Russia from advancing any further into Ukraine.
RFE/RL: So, should we expect more, better, longer range ATACMS? And what’s that dependent upon?
Jones: I think the military advice here is that they want to give them longer ranges. I’m not sure where the political leadership is on that. But if you’re going to fight a war, you need to fight a war to win it. And you need to have the equipment that you need to prevail. Otherwise, you’re working toward a stalemate, and that’s not very good for anybody.
RFE/RL: With all this taken into account, what can be done now? What’s the hand that the West has and how can they play it?
Jones: Well, I think that the list of things that they don’t have needs to be shortened. I’ve mentioned aviation two or three times in our discussion, and I think that’s the big missing piece, to be honest with you. The land offensive was stymied by the amount of time the Russians had to prepare the field with mines and fortifications that make it much harder for the Ukrainians to achieve a mass of success, especially if they’re trying to do it without air power — because then the manpower bill becomes much more expensive. So that’s where I think we are.
RFE/RL: Let’s look at this from General Zaluzhniy’s perspective. You are a general, you have to conduct a counteroffensive, and you are asked by your partners on whom you are heavily dependent in your war efforts to go into it without air support. How does it feel?
Jones: Not good. You know, in my days in Vietnam, we always had adequate air power, whether [it was] gunships or Phantom jets. The North Vietnamese that we fought against did not have that, and they paid a heavy price militarily, regardless of how it worked out politically. And I think that Ukraine understands that without air power, the manpower bill goes up exponentially. So, you have to be very careful, because for Ukraine manpower is really important. And they can’t afford the Putin doctrine, which is just throw men at the problem; he doesn’t care.
RFE/RL: On this manpower topic. Which approach is proving more effective: One relying on people’s willingness to defend their country, versus one where people are corralled like cattle, or one where people are so poor that going to the front is an economic solution?
Jones: I think the advantage there is with Ukraine. They’re defending their homeland; they’re obviously very passionate about that. And there seems to be consistent support for President Zelenskiy — some criticism but generally speaking, he’s regarded as a heroic figure — and I have not seen a crack yet in Ukrainian society that says, “Enough.” I think they’re very determined, and I think the allies, and especially the United States, should accelerate to the extent possible the delivery of equipment and ammunition that they need to be successful.
RFE/RL: You said you don’t see cracks in Ukrainian resolve. But do you see cracks in Western resolve, perhaps?
Jones: Well, Vladimir Putin is counting on that. And I think the first time that you may see it — if it in fact exists — will be at Munich in February. That’s where they launched this thing from. (Editor’s Note: Putin delivered a key speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2007 that was highly critical of the United States and NATO and is widely regarded as having signaled the Russian leader’s foreign policy intentions.)
On the positive side, though, one of the good things is the resurgence of NATO. I think NATO deserves a lot of credit, with the secretary-general and the member countries who are going to increase their financial contribution. The defense of Europe is now a valid concept, and we know what that is, and we know where the line of defense is for the defense of Europe and protection of other countries like Georgia, Moldova, and others. And if we’re able to limit Russia’s advance to what it is now — if that becomes a negotiating position — then I think the West will be able to say that they prevailed, and the battle between the autocracies and the democracies in other parts of the world will probably have a different outcome.
RFE/RL: So that would be a partial victory but still a Ukrainian victory?
RFE/RL: You mentioned countries like Georgia and Moldova. Ever since the full-scale war started, we’ve seen some profound changes in Russia’s neighborhood: Finland has become a NATO ally; Sweden is poised to; Moldova has aligned with the West more strongly than ever; in the South Caucasus, we saw Azerbaijan reclaiming Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, subsequently, drifting from the Russian orbit and recently getting arms deliveries from France and India. What would be your advice to a country like Georgia in these troubled times?
Jones: I think the closer the countries are to the threat posed by Mr. Putin and Russia, the more the relationship with NATO becomes important. And I think that NATO needs to reach out to those countries that are at risk and lend a hand toward explaining to them what it takes to become a NATO member. And frankly, I think, right now in Ukraine, the Ukrainians should be doing things to prepare for NATO accession that they can do right now…[so] that when the day comes and the conflict is over and they become a NATO member, that they don’t have to wait another couple of years. So, I think there’s a lot of work that can be done right now to reassure the people of those at-risk countries that the NATO embrace is out there and they should be doing things that they can do now to shorten the time between where we are now and eventual accession to NATO.
RFE/RL: Those countries have been standing in front of NATO’s “open door” for decades, and it’s not reassuring that they might have to wait another decade or decades. How would you reassure them?
Jones: Well, I think it’s up to NATO to reach out, and there are all kinds of different programs as countries get closer and closer to NATO. Certainly, NATO interoperability with the military forces is something that can be worked on. There are all kinds of standards for NATO admission.
But I think that, at the end of the day, Russia has to be convinced that this was a mistake, what they did, and secondly that NATO is going to be many times stronger and more capable than it was before the invasion. And that there is a line of defense for the defense of Europe. And countries like Georgia and others will probably be on it at some point.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.