Elina Beketova 

Hi, my name is Elina Beketova, and I’m a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). I have the privilege to speak with retired US Army Lieutenant General Steph Twitty and learn more about things we should pay attention to during the initial phase of Ukraine’s counteroffensive. General Steph Twitty has 36 years of service with the US Army, having served as Deputy Commander of US European Command, and is a Distinguished Fellow for CEPA. So, General Twitty, thank you so much for joining us, and for helping to interpret updates from the frontline. And I want to make the most of our time and would like to start by asking right away, Ukraine now is in the early stages of its country offensive, given your expertise in the military service in five combat tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait. What is your assessment of the counteroffensive so far? What can be an indicator of success or failure? Or maybe I would call it an obstacle in this country offensive?

Stephen Twitty 

Well, thank you, Elina. It’s great to be with you today. I’ll just say a couple of things. My overall assessment that this fight is going well, obviously, is going slow, but from a military perspective, because I know there are some folks that are out there that are anxious, that they want this war to be completed pretty soon, and they’re not sure whether or not the Ukrainians are making success. So let me just walk you through how I define success here. The first thing is what the Ukrainians are doing is they’re they are probing various locations throughout the 600 mile defensive belt that spans from the vacinity in Bakhmut all the way to Kherson, and a serious belt that ties Kherson through Crimea, where the Russians have put up a serious defense there. They’re probing for weaknesses in that defensive belt. And once they find weaknesses, the intent is to exploit those weaknesses. And so prior to this week, what you saw were the Ukrainians probing for those weaknesses. They found gaps in locations that they think are vulnerable. And now that they have found those locations, they’re starting to explore those locations. Bakhmut is a prime example where you see the Ukrainians meeting success, in Bakhmut, particularly in the northern part of Bakhmut, and in the eastern part of Bakhmut. In the the Donetsk Oblast particular around the Donetsk city, they are doing extremely well they’re, about eight cities or towns villages have been seized by the Ukrainians there. In the Kherson area where they found weaknesses there, they have now crossed the Dnipror River and on the eastern flank, or the eastern part of the river, which says that now they have crossed that major obstacle and can perhaps explore the south eastern portion of the Dnipro River. And so my overall assessment here is, yes, this is slow and the advancements that I’ve talked about are tactical advances, these tactical advances can turn into strategic advancements. And let me just tell you real quickly when I say strategic advancement, the overall goal is to cut the landbridge from Russia to Crimea. And if we can take these tactical advances seize upon them, the Ukrainians consolidate their gains, and continue forward to break through this main defensive belt, which will be their hardest fight by the way, because many of these forces have been there a year and in some cases in the Donbas area for, since 2014. If we can break through there the Ukrainians, then they can break the landbridge and therefore, that will be a strategic advancement for them. Sorry, it takes so long to describe that but I felt the need to describe the type of success the Ukrainians are having, slow success but good tactical success.

Elina Beketova 

And thank you so much General Twitty for describing what the success means and the realistic operations because for some reason, people sometimes think that it should be just one operation, that Ukraine may be liberated in just you know, one click, but we realize that it’s not possible. So that is why just coming back to these vulnerabilities or weaknesses of Russia, so what are factors that can help Ukrainian forces in the near future? And what are Russia’s vulnerabilities?

Stephen Twitty 

Yes, there are couple of factors. What we must continue to do is the West must continue to assist in funding this war, funding in terms of the equipment that the Ukrainians will need. As they hit this main defensive belt that I talked about, there’s going to be significant losses, both in personnel and equipment. You’ve heard a couple of weeks ago where they lost Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, they’ve lost leopard tanks, all that must be sustained for them to continue to fight this war. So the West must continue to sustain. In addition to that, I look forward to the F-16s and other air platforms to get into Ukraine, because it will make a significant difference. It will not be a game changer like most folks think. But it will make a significant difference for the Ukrainians to have air power to go after deep targets such as command posts, Russian command posts, Russians sustainment and logistics areas and the Russian artillery that you see that’s firing down not only on civilian infrastructure targets, but also on the Ukrainians right now. So those are the type things that the Ukrainians will need to continue to push forward in this fight that I see the West has pledged to continue to support.

Elina Beketova 

Well, we definitely talk about F-16s, you know, because it’s very important. People say and ask you all these fighter jets, what can actually be a game changer on the battlefield. But just coming back to this possible vulnerabilities of Russia, you know, we’ve kind of seen what was going on in Russia, like during the weekend. So in your point of view, how might Prigozhin revolt influence Ukraine’s country offensive? Can for instance, Wagner’s presence in Belarus pose a future possible advant-, could pose a renewed threat to Kyiv. How should Ukraine defend itself on the northern front? Because some people say that the presence of Wagner Group can definitely threaten Kyiv. Some people say no. So just what are your realistic assessment?

Stephen Twitty 

Yeah, well, there’s there’s no doubt due to the the uprising that occurred this past weekend that there’s uncertainty out there. In terms of the Wagner Group. My impression is that if the Wagner Group moves to Belarus, which I believe that they’re planning on the forces that were part of the, the uprising, that they planning on integrating those into the regular Russian force, I’m not so sure that’s going to happen, we shall see. They may end up moving into camps in Belarus. The one thing that obviously the Ukrainians will have to watch is that northern flank, as you talked about, could it be vulnerable to a Wagner Group attack that comes from the north, we already know perhaps is vulnerable now, because we don’t know whether the Belarusians plan to support Putin in this war. And so they’ve already been watching that. What I will tell you is, with the force that the Ukrainians have right now, they can’t spread themselves too thin. And so they have to pick the place where they think the most valuable outcome will occur. And that’s down in the south in the east, and then they will have to take some risk, obviously, in what they’re doing. And they’re doing that now with the northern flank. They’re using their border police and other police to watch that flank and they have sensors up there and other intelligence assets to watch that flank as well. I think that is appropriate right now, given what we don’t know. And I think that’s okay. In terms of Russian vulnerabilities. I’ve always said that the most important Russian vulnerability out there is the Russians will not the fight. They do not have the will to fight. And they don’t know what they’re fighting for. And they’ve been lied to and told that this is special operation. This is war. And those forces that are down south there, they fully understand that this is war that they have been told lies. And so that is what the Ukrainians need to capitalize on, is the fact that these soldiers are ill trained. They’re ill led, they don’t know what, where, why they’re fighting and they have low morale as a result of all this.

Elina Beketova 

Definitely thank you so much for well, emphasizing on it. And just coming back to this southern and eastern fornt, because we have had the message from Ukraine’s deputy defense minister saying that Ukraine’s defense forces are making gains in southern and eastern Ukraine, advancing 1300 meters, which is about one mile on the Berdiansk front, and a few other frotns near Bakhmut. So this is basically what you’re talking about that as far as I have understood, Ukrainian forces are trying to expand the front and they’re trying to basically use different, like, directions and fronts right now, why do they do it?

Stephen Twitty 

Yes, that is a excellent point, what you want to do is number one, when you do a counter offensive, surprise, the enemy of the locations that you’re covering. And number two, you want to attack them on multiple fronts to continue to disrupt the enemy, and have them think that you’re going to come in one location, but you come in two or three or four locations. And so the Ukrainians are doing this extremely well, where they’re attacking on multiple fronts, in order to disrupt the enemy, and the see them of the locations that they’re attacking. And so that’s what this is all about now. And again, once they find those vulnerable locations, they can exploit them. And that’s where you see in these tactical games that occur, and they found vulnerability. So they’ve been able to have tactical games with these vulnerabilities. Pretty soon, if they continue to press hard, and it will be slow, they will break through that Russian main defensive belt. And once they do that, they can consolidate the gains that they’ve made, and potentially cut the land bridge between Russia and Crimea. That’s the hope anyway, you should not expect this in dates. And I will tell you, based on having done this before, you should not expect this to occur in months. And so define success, as the terrain that’s been taken by the Ukrainians do not define success by hours or days. Because I know folks get can get impatient sometime. This is hard, tedious work. We’re talking about minefields. We’re talking about ditches, obstacles, that you go through slowly to clear for follow on forces to come behind and exploit that area. And soldiers lives are at stake here. So it’s gonna take a while.

Elina Beketova 

And thank you so much for saying that because I think that we are all learning the art of patience right now these days, probably this week’s, this month. And just coming back to the question of the Dnipro, Kherson Oblast. What are the perspectives of Ukrainian forces retaking territory on the left bank of the Kherson region? For a future possible advance over Crimea, like land bridge with Crimea that you’re talking about? Because we understand that the left bank is occupied right now. And is it possible that we will see something there? What is needed, for actually retaking territory on the left bank of the Kherson region?

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Stephen Twitty 

Yes, I think this is where you’re going to find your biggest fight. The Russians have poured a bunch of assets to defend that location to defend Crimea. So that’s going to be a significant fight for the Ukrainians, even in the Donbas area. If you remember, the Russians occupied the Donbas in 2014. And they’ve been there for a while, that location has been fortified and reinforced over the past year. And in the Kherson area, south and eastern bank, all that has been fortified to prevent the Ukrainians for trying to take Crimea. So I think the two biggest fights the Ukrainians will have will be in the area that you just talked about, on the eastern bank there across the Dnipro, in order to break through and perhaps take Crimea, that’s going to be a huge fight and a huge challenge, as well as the in the Donetsk and Luhansk area, that’s going to be a tremendous fight as well. Those are the two areas that’s going to be key in order to break this land bridge. And certainly,in the Kherson area, the breakthrough that will be key to continue to attack to take Criema. Now, what will they need?

Stephen Twitty 

It’s going to take a while to get there to both of these areas that I’ve talked about, I already talked about the tremendous Western support that they’ve received, the West will have to continue to support this effort, because then I’m thinking this will take a while I’m looking at months, maybe years before we can completely clear the Russians out of out of the Ukraine. So this is going to take a while and so they’ll continue to need the ammunition. Absolutely will need the Patriot, to be able to support with air cover, they will need the the long range condors missiles continue with that. And they will absolutely need the firepower the air firepower will be in the form of drones, F-16. They will need fire support to be able to sustain themselves to take such a large swath of ground in terms of the 600 miles and then on to Crimea. If that’s the intent and I believe that is given President Zelenskyy’s comments.

Elina Beketova 

Right, so and right to rephrase is going to take a while you know that Ukrainian authorities and military on the ground say that they need more weapon systems to defeat the Russian army. So I’m just kind of wondering, you have already started this conversation about F-16. But from your perspective, what can become a game changer in addition to Kyiv’s arsenal? Can it be F-16 fighter jets or tanks or artillery, which can help Ukraine actually gain air superiority?

Elina Beketova 

Yes, so to be polite here. I don’t like the word game changing, particularly in war, in combat. Again, I’ve spent a lot of years in combat and I have not seen anything game changing. The best game changer on a battlefield, bar none is the human soldier. That is the best game changer on the battlefield. Now, what we put around that human soldier in terms of equipment and firepower is key. And so we’re at now, the Ukrainians have some pretty good arsenal that they’re working with, they have the best tanks in the world now with the M1, excuse me, with the M1 Abrams tank, they have the best infantry fighting vehicle in the world with the with the Bradley surrounded by a massive amount of Western equipment that’s come in such as the Leopard tank, as well, and other European assets that are pretty good on the battlefield. Introducing the F-16, in my view would not be a game changer, but a complement to what we term “combined arms maneuver”. When you take all this equipment that we’ve given the Ukrainians, wrap it around the soldiers, and use it together in order to create mass and death and destruction on the battlefield. That’s the so called game changer in my view, and how the Ukrainians are going to win this war, not just one piece of equipment alone, but all the equipment working in concert with the soldiers on the ground to be able to accomplish success here.

Elina Beketova 

Thank you so much for explaining this. And just well definitely, you know, a game changer is a human soldier. Right? And we understand that, you know, soldiers are being unfortunately injured are being unfortunately killed. So the question is how to save their lives right now. So what is needed for Ukraine to give Ukraine so that we could preserve more humans, more soldiers to defeat the Russian army.

Stephen Twitty 

Yes, the good thing about all this equipment, that’s coming in, it has a two fold play in combat, first of all, is tremendous firepower. I mean, it’s unbelievable to see the firepower and arsenal that’s been sent to, to Ukraine right now. And so it has a lot of death and destruction on a battlefield. But the other thing about this equipment that we’re sending in, it also offers the soldiers a lot of protection. These are armored vehicles, that has the best technology that can be brought on the battlefield. And so with the armored vehicles that are coming in, that’s going to be a layer of protection. The second thing that’s going to be able to save the soldiers on the battlefield, is the training that the soldiers are getting right now. They’re getting a lot of training from the West, and also the Ukrainian soldiers that have been battle hardened, that have been pulled out of the fight, that absolutely know how to Russians fight and absolutely know where the vulnerable locations are, are providing some great training to their their counterparts and their subordinates. And so those three things that I think will keep our soldiers or the Ukrainian soldiers say, as they go into harms way here.

Elina Beketova 

General Twitty, and thank you so much for explaining everything. And we are, I think, coming closer to the topic of Crimea, because you have said about a several times landbridge to Crimea, and everything. So how should we understand that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have come closer to this point that they can actually liberate Crimea? What are the indication, indicators?

Stephen Twitty 

Okay, so what I will tell you, my one significant indicator from a Ukrainian soldier is their will. And I certainly will never underestimate a Ukrainian soldier, that if you go back to February the 24th, when this war started, who would have thought that the Ukrainians could protect Kyiv? And so if you take a look at what they’ve done in Kyiv, what they’ve done in Kherson, what they’ve done in Kharkiv, what they’re doing in Bakhmut, tremendous courage, resilience, and will to fight. And that’s what’s going to carry them to the fight and take Crimea. I do not underestimate. And oh, by the way, I didn’t mention what they did it on Snake Island, as well. And so this has been a very impressive campaign by the Ukrainians, where they have fought what many around the world thought was a 10 feet army. And one of the best militaries in the world. The Ukrainians have proven that the Russians are not the best, do not have the best military in the world. And so I think they can do whatever they put their minds to do. And they seem to be set in that direction. And so I look forward to vacationing in Crimea at some point in the future.

Elina Beketova 

I’m sure everyone kind of expects it. And we even see a lot of tweets and Facebook posts on this topic. But just coming back to the topic of Ukrainians, who are tremendously, who have who have tremendous courage and resilience. The question is, there are a lot of threats everywhere, we all understand it. So the situation with the separation nuclear power plant is becoming increasingly unpredictable and dangerous. How critical can it be for the counteroffensive taken into account information by the Chief of the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine, the threat of an explosion is real, because Russian forces have additionally mined nuclear. So how would it impact the counteroffensive? How can it, right?

Stephen Twitty 

Well, I certainly worry about the nuclear plant. And I think a lot of folks do. And I also think we don’t talk about it enough and we’re not doing enough about the Russians and how they have a stranglehold on that plant. And I think there needs to be some serious negotiations around this particular plant. The last thing you want to do is use that power plant as a platform for war. And we’re not talking about it enough across Europe and the risks associated not just in within Ukraine, but outside of Ukraine. And it’s not being talked about enough. And there’s not enough people in my view that’s worried about it. And so we need to put a no fighting buffer around that nuclear plant. And we need both Russia and Ukraine to enforce that buffer. So we do not cause an explosion that could not only impact Ukrainians, by the way, but can also impact the Russian populace. And quite frankly, impact perhaps a large majority of Europe. So that’s how I see this nuclear plant here, we’re definitely not focused on it enough, in my view.

Elina Beketova 

General Twitty we have four minutes left. And just the final question. So you have said that it’s going to take a while everything with the counteroffensive, and with all the operations. So what should we prepare for? In the nearest months, maybe a small prediction from you, I know that predictions is something that you don’t want to do, but just so that we were kind of prepared for it?

Stephen Twitty 

Yeah, well, you’re correct in your assessment, war is extremely unpredictable. And so I can’t predict anything, but here’s what I will tell you, what we should be focused on. First of all, the only way this war is going to end is by two ways. Number one, someone is victorious in this thing. And when I say this thing in this fighting that we’re doing, one has to be victorious. That’s one way you win. The second way you win is through negotiations. But in order to get to the negotiation table, one of these forces need to have leverage, they need to have the upper hand. And neither in my view have an upper hand at this point. And so the way you gain the upper hand is through this counteroffensive that we’re talking about. If the Ukrainians make gains throughout this counter attack, they do not have to completely destroy the Russians. They do not have to go all the way to Crime. They just need to make significant enough gains where they have leverage to go to the negotiating table, and perhaps, end this war. And I think if we get behind them stay patient here. They’re on their way to this leverage that I’m talking about. That’s going to put them in a good position at the negotiating table. And maybe that’s the way this fight ends, but it’s got to in one or two ways through negotiation, or someone’s victorious in this fight.

Elina Beketova 

And thank you so much for that we are definitely waiting for these gains and General Twitty thank you for all your insights and for giving us an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the aspects we need to know about Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

Stephen Twitty 

Thank you. Great to be with you.

Elina Beketova 

Thank you so much. And for more information, please visit our website cepa.org. And of course, stay tuned.