1. Chapter One: The Outbreak of the War
    1. Why were Western analysts wrong to give Ukraine a week?
    2. Did Western leaders know and understand the scale of the war?
    3. Could we have prepared better for the Russian-Ukrainian war?
  2. Chapter Two. The Current Stage of the War
    1. What can you say about the success or failure of the Ukrainian counterattack?
    2. How will the use of F-16s, Abrams tanks and more technologically advanced weapons affect the battlefield?
    3. How have Ukrainian generals performed and what can you say about Mr Zaluzhnyi’s strategy?
    4. What do you think about the strategy of the Russian military command, including General Valery Gerasimov and Minister Sergei Shoigu?
  3. Chapter 3. Further Developments: Scenarios
    1. How do you assess the state of the Russian army?
    2. How do you currently assess the state of the Ukrainian army?
    3. Is Putin's plan to take over the whole of Ukraine still in effect?
    4. What is the strategy of the armies of Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States if the Ukrainian army is defeated and the conflict spreads to European countries?

The full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war has been going on for over 19 months.

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At first, Western analysts said Ukraine would hold out for a week. Instead, the Ukrainian Armed Forces managed not only to hold on to Kyiv, but also recapture large swathes of occupied territory in the north, east and south, including the city of Kherson.

Right now, a very heavy counteroffensive is underway, with the Ukrainian military literally fighting for every inch of land and pushing through Russia’s echeloned defences.

The narrative of the Russian-Ukrainian war has changed dramatically since then. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Ukrainians were happy to receive Javelins and NLAWs. Now, they demand F-16 fighter jets and Abrams, Challenger and Leopard tanks.

Why were Western analysts wrong in their analyses of the war? What is the assessment of the Ukrainian counterattack in the summer? What is so special about F-16s and Western tanks—and can they change the situation on the battlefield? How have Ukraine’s and Russia’s top generals, Valerii Zaluzhnyi and Valeriy Gerasimov, performed during the full-scale war? Are NATO armies ready for a hypothetical war with Russia in Europe? spoke to three Western generals to try and answer these questions.

Sean Bell is a guest military analyst at Sky News and retired Air Vice Marshal of the British Royal Air Force.

Mick Ryan is a military analyst and author, a retired Australian major general who was responsible for all military training in Australia.

Sir Richard Shirreff is a military analyst and author, a retired British general who was Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

Chapter One: The Outbreak of the War

One of the key issues in the outbreak of the war was the miscalculation of Western intelligence. Almost all of Ukraine's key allies did not believe in the Ukrainian Armed Forces' ability to conduct long-term war and defence.

Why were Western analysts wrong to give Ukraine a week?

General Sean Bell

I think 10 years ago, my generation was involved in wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and I did three tours in Afghanistan. So we didn't learn about wars from a book. I spent a long time in the UK Ministry of Defense looking at the threat from Russia and China, and we did war games to work out what military equipment we would need, how big an army we would need, how big an air force we would need.

But none of us predicted that Russia would invade Ukraine, and if you look at it through the lens of history, Ukraine was what we call in the UK a county, a province of the former Soviet Union.

And militarily, it is a tiny fraction of the size of Russia. Its budgets are a tiny size of the size of Russia. Russia has oil and gas, lots of money. Ukrainian has not.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Sean Bell. Photo: Sky News

If you were looking at this from a historical perspective, if you were ready for a war, if you were ready for Russia's invasion, then everybody would be prepared, there would be defensive lines and everybody would be ready. But as the Nazi Germany showed in the Second World War, if you're not ready for that, the forces can quickly roll through. And I think it would be fair to say Ukraine wasn't ready. And that's probably why Russia managed to take so much territory.

But I think President Putin probably expected, like Crimea, that he would just walk in. And he hadn't expected Ukraine to be so brave, so resilient, and fight.

As a British general, I do not claim to understand the Slavic mentality. And I've never been to Ukraine, but I think it's a great testament to Ukraine's resilience, courage, determination that despite being the smaller army against the big army despite being on the back foot that Ukraine not only stopped Russia but also has been successful in pushing it back.

General Mick Ryan

Firstly, we didn't really understand the Russian transformation programmes, particularly in the last decade. We didn't understand that they weren't as well executed as the Russians have told us; that we didn't dig deep enough analytically to see whether the Russian military had truly modernised itself.

A second one—and I think a major one—is that most military analysts haven't studied the Ukrainian military. A lot of people didn't study what happened in 2014, or if they did, they moved on to other things.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Mick Ryan. Photo:

And then, a lot of people looked at President Zelenskyy and believed he was not doing well in the polls and said, "Well, he’s a former comedian, there's no way he would be able to hold the country together."

I think these were three of key reasons why people grossly overestimated Russian potential and underestimated Ukrainian capabilities.

General Richard Shirreff

I think there was a sense of disbelief in the West that Russia would attack Ukraine. But any understanding and analysis of what Putin has said going back to 2014—and let's be clear, the war started in 2014, not in 2022—shows that Putin's long-term aim has always been to effectively remove Ukraine from the map and to incorporate Ukraine back into greater Russia, to rebuild the Russian empire.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Sir Richard Shireff. Photo: Wikipedia

I think for the Russians and for Putin, the notion of a Ukraine independent, free, and democratic is simply incomprehensible. There was a general assumption in the West that although the Ukrainians would fight like absolute tigers, the Russian strength and overwhelming dominance in terms of capability would prevail against a massive opposition.

Of course, this did not happen. And this comes down to the indomitable will and determination and sheer cleverness, ingenuity, and courage of the Ukrainian armed forces and Ukrainian people, the way your country has come together. It's also down to the fact that the West supported you. And I'm very proud that Britain was up there right at the start, shipping anti-tank weapons into Ukraine. This has certainly played a part.

The final factor here is that Putin completely overestimated the capability of the Russian armed forces who demonstrated extraordinary incompetence.

The Russian armed forces demonstrated that they are in many ways a reflection of the Russian state, kleptocratic, incompetent and built on a sort of Potemkin village with a front which hides all sorts of rubbish behind it.

But that doesn't mean to say, of course, that the Russians have not learnt. They've learnt from their mistakes, and they continue to learn. And as we've seen in recent operations with the way the Russians have designed and built a series of defensive positions to prevent Ukraine breaking through.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Photo: 10th Separate Mechanised Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine / Facebook

And of course, it also highlights the absolute imperative for Ukraine's Western partners in NATO, particularly, not to take the foot off the accelerator as far as providing support to Ukraine is concerned.

Did Western leaders know and understand the scale of the war?

General Sean Bell

I don't think anybody in the West understood what was coming. I was involved with exercises looking at the threat that Russia posed. But I don't remember ever gaming Russia invading Ukraine. And I remember even in early February last year, when Russia was masking its forces on the border, there was still a belief that this was just Putin flashing his chest and threatening.

So I don't think anybody thought that this was actually going to end up with an invasion. And that is a failure of the West, it's a failure of the US, it's a failure of the UK, that is a big failing and that's one of the lessons I think that will be taken away from the end of this conflict.

General Mick Ryan

Everyone hoped that the era of large-scale conventional warfare in Europe was over. We've done everything possible at the end of the Second World War to set up the international institutions, everything from the World Bank through to the EU being formed to make European countries so close together and bona fide.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Photo: 47th Separate Mechanised Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine / Facebook

Largely, that's worked—but it hasn't with Russia. And they have preyed upon various neighbours over the last 50 years or so from Czechoslovakia onwards through to Georgia, Chechnya, and Ukraine—twice now. But I still think there are a lot of people who hoped this could be avoided.

I think, too, that the wars of the last 20 years, the counterinsurgencies did not prepare us well for mass conventional warfare—not just the scale that it's been conducted, but how much it consumes in the way of war material. We just haven't done that since 1945.

And we've forgotten what it's like to produce masses of equipment and munitions and to use them, let alone be prepared for human costs—both military and civilian—that Ukraine would suffer in such a war.

General Richard Shirreff

I don't think people did understand the scale of it at the start. A number of us in the West did believe Russia would attack, not everyone understood the scale.  I think it highlights the need to really try and understand what is going on and to listen and to watch and to form deductions and to understand history, of course.

Could we have prepared better for the Russian-Ukrainian war?

General Sean Bell

Part of our military spends a lot of time studying history because there's a lovely quote in English: ‘If you fail to learn the lessons of history, you are destined to repeat them.’

And I think it's easy to look back and say what we should have done better. In every war, nobody is as well prepared as they should be. The challenge is, that's just where you start it. The question is, how would you better prepare, how would you use what you have as well as you can? And at the end of the war, you look and decide how you would do things differently.

One example of that is that in your country, at the fall of the Soviet Union, you were the third biggest nuclear power, because the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union were forward-located in Ukraine.

So in an effort to take those back, you signed the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which Russia guaranteed the security and sovereignty of Ukraine. Twenty years later, it ignored it. Now, with the benefits of hindsight, we can say the paper was not worth it. At the time it seemed a good trade.

But if Ukraine had kept the nuclear weapons, would Russia have invaded? I don’t know.

General Mick Ryan

If you have a look at the history of the Ukrainian Armed Forces since 1991, you know, their development has gone in pulses and pauses.

From 1991 to 1994-95, there was a lot of downsizing. The Budapest arrangement with Russia, the US and UK, saw you handing over nuclear weapons and downsizing your military significantly, but even then Ukraine still had a very significant military.

You had more tanks than the Ukrainian armed forces than the rest of Europe combined, more artillery. So, it was a pretty significant ground force. The Air Force was large and you had a good air defence capability.

2014, however, was a shock to the Ukrainian system. The Ukrainian chief of ground forces at one point just said the Ukrainian army was broken and needed to be fixed. And you saw successive Ukrainian governments investing in the military, producing new military doctrine focused on the one enemy that Ukraine knew it would have, which was Russia.

Notwithstanding those who've criticised Ukrainians for their preparation, I think the reality is Ukrainian preparations provided a good foundation for what you're able to achieve around Kyiv, what you're able to achieve since then, both in a material, in a human sense, but also in how you're able to learn and adapt.

If you were to have a look at it pretty objectively, I think Ukraine did all it could given its form of government, given its budgetary resources, given its existing links with NATO, which existed all the way back to 1997.

And the fact that it's still around fighting the Russians, probably, is testament to the fact that there were good preparations before the war, and they paid off during this war.

General Richard Shirreff

Yes, it would have been possible. And I think the time for really full-throated, unrestricted Western support and support from NATO allies was back in 2014, not in 2022. Arguably, if that sort of full level of support had been given to Ukraine in 2014, who knows, Russia might have been deterred.

But as we know, President Obama did not want to support Ukraine, and there was support from some Western countries, but the support was not there. And that, to me, I'm afraid, is a terrible mistake.

Chapter Two. The Current Stage of the War

We asked the generals to assess the current situation on the battlefield in detail, including the strategy of the sides, achievements and shortcomings, victories and defeats.

What can you say about the success or failure of the Ukrainian counterattack?

General Sean Bell

First of all, I don't have intelligence. The Ukrainians understandably don't talk much about what is happening. Russia will always say Ukraine is failing. So it's quite difficult to make an informed judgement, but, and there's a few ‘buts’ here.

One is that Ukraine needed Western support to do the counteroffensive. It needed weapons, it needed tanks, it needed training, and it needed ammunition.

Now in the West, nobody buys more weapons than they need. In fact, we always have slightly fewer weapons than we need because we can't afford all we want. So if we are to give weapons to Ukraine, we have to take big risks.

So it's not a question of just saying, ‘President Zelenskyy, what do you want? Yes, they're on their way.’ It doesn't work like that and you can't go down to the shops and just buy. So it took a few weeks, months to get these weapons to Ukraine.

The tanks are very, very good, but the crews need training. They're all in English. They're all with British Western technology. So we needed to train Ukrainians how to use them. All of that took time, and all of that meant the Russians were able to build very big defences, minefields, trenches.

If you look at it from a military perspective, you, Ukraine, started the counteroffensive with a smaller army against the big Russian army. You had to attack into some defences which were very well prepared, and you didn't have the air force helping you from above.

Any military man would tell you that was not going to work. But Ukraine has made it work, but it is very, very slow.

General Mick Ryan

I think that [the counteroffensive has] been extraordinarily difficult going

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Photo: 1st Separate Assault Company of the Voluntary Ukrainian Corps / Facebook

Ukraine found that the Russian defences include new-era surveillance that is much quicker, and they've adapted a slightly different plan and they've been working their way through the Russian defences since then. So I don't think anything can be called a failure just yet.

But this isn't a campaign that's just focused in the south; there's a whole bunch of different campaigns going on besides the southern counteroffensive. And Ukraine is making progress in all of them, in my view.

I think we need to zoom out from just the southern one to recognise progress that's been made in other areas. The strategic strike campaign in particular has accelerated over the last couple of months, and that is really causing the Russians quite considerable problems.

General Richard Shirreff

What Ukraine has got to do is probably about the most difficult form of a challenge in warfare. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have got to break through well-established Russian defensive positions and then break out in order to inflict defeat on the Russians.

The Russians are good at fortifications. You've got minefields, dragon's teeth, extensive trench systems in depth, all of which are overlapping, interlocking with mutual support.

It's a really difficult thing for the Ukrainian Armed Forces to break through. And on top of that, we're asking the Ukrainian Armed Forces to do it without proper air cover.

And on top of which, Ukraine has had very limited time to integrate Western weapons systems, tanks and the like into its Armed Forces and to train collectively.

It's one thing to train individuals, but you have to train collectively at battle group, brigade, division and above, so that the full orchestra of capability understands its strengths and weaknesses and can operate as a synchronised whole.

Despite all that though, Ukraine is making progress. Of course, that progress is slow, but I don't think anybody expected it not to be slow, given the challenges.

I'm afraid I absolutely deplore Western media, particularly some American media that has criticised Ukraine for being too slow. And I would also deplore some voices in the West that have said that if Ukraine had fought the way NATO would fight, it would have achieved a different result.

My view is that Ukraine has more experience of fighting Russia than anybody in NATO. You've been doing it now for over 500 days. You have demonstrated extraordinary success against the Russians, and our job, the West's job, is to give Ukraine the tools to do the job, not to tell it how to do the job.

And we should be there to support and provide the capability. Remembering, of course, that you are fighting a war which is not just a war against Ukraine, it is a war against the West, it's a war against Ukraine joining the West.

And so, in a very real sense, Ukrainian soldiers, sailors, airmen, are fighting a war for the West. So we, the West, need to give you the capability to do that and then let you get on with it. Provide intelligence support, provide EW support, provide technical support, yes, but not tell the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Ukrainian general staff and Ukrainian generals how to do the job.

How will the use of F-16s, Abrams tanks and more technologically advanced weapons affect the battlefield?

General Sean Bell

I think if Ukraine went on to the battlefield and met the Russians on the battlefield and just fought them, Russia would have the biggest force and would win. So Ukraine has to find a different way of fighting. Russia doesn't use technology, it doesn't think, and Ukraine has been very effective at using drones.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
An F-16 fighter jet. Photo: EPA

Each evening you take them apart, put something new into them and send them off again the next day—and it's very effective. That is something that a small country can do. However, drones on their own will not win the war.

But when Russia attacks Kyiv, does it make the Ukrainians in Kyiv want to give up? Not at all.

Now if you turn the other way around, when Ukraine sends drones to Moscow—where they expect the war to be done miles away—they're all running around scared. One weapon has a completely different impact whether it's being used against Ukraine or against Russia and that has proved to be an advantage for Ukraine.

In terms of F-16s, I think the problem is, if you gave Ukraine 50, 100 F-16s tomorrow, that would not change the course of the war.

Your pilots are good, but they would not be able to operate the F-16. They could fly it, but they would not be able to operate it. And they would be very, very expensive targets for the Russians to shoot out of the sky.

The reason the West has been very slow to provide them is because you've got to also train the pilots, the engineers, the armament people. You've got to supply the weapons, the radar. There's lots of things that have to be in place. And what the West has said is that in the future, Ukraine, when the war is over, Ukraine will need to have its own air force, its own combat air power.

But if you start training now, in two years' time all of those pieces will come together and you will have at least a start of an effective air force. But nobody expects it to be involved in this conflict. Ukraine may hope it does, but it's very unlikely that it will happen.

General Mick Ryan

I think Ukraine must get the equipment in time to not just train the crews, but have the crews participate in large-scale collective combined arms training—whether it's a platoon, company, battalion, or brigade level, and to have the training for the staffs that do the planning of battalion, brigade and higher level manoeuvres.

That's critical, and that's the kind of thing we need to be working on for 2024.

Yes, certainly having better air cover would be good, no one's going to say no to that, but I don't find that as a silver bullet. It would be just part of one larger operating system that Ukraine needs to continuously evolve and improve.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Photo: General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

I do think we in the West need to re-look at our doctrine. When it comes to combined arms, a lot of it was developed in the Cold War. While in the Cold War we didn't have a democratised access to battlefield surveillance as we do now, we don't have the digitised command and control systems that link sensors to artillery and allow you to close this detection to destruction gap to just minutes.

I actually think there was an intellectual failure on NATO's part not to realise that before this offensive started. And I would hope they're working quickly and very hard to update that doctrine so it can be trained to Ukrainians.

As for the use of drones, it certainly changes the visibility of the battlefield, whether it's a soldier looking over the hill or a general looking across the entire front.

It really, I think, changes how you lay out your battlefield architecture, where you put supply dumps, how much you can concentrate troops, where you put your reserves, where you put your headquarters—just because of the increased visibility that they provide you, and because of that increased visibility you have an increased capacity to strike.

There's a range of different functions drones can also provide, whether it's dropping supplies, casualty evacuation, a range of functions like this as well.

General Richard Shirreff

If the decision had been taken to give F-16s in February last year, Ukraine would probably be flying F-16s now. As it is, Ukraine is not going to be flying F-16s until sometime in 2024.

In some cases, Western support has been really good. And without that Western support, Ukraine would not have survived in the way that it has. I know that Ukraine will go on fighting whether or not it gets Western support. But it has fought much better as a result of that Western support.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Sir Richard Shireff. Photo: militaryspeakers

However, it has been too slow. And we've had, again and again, Western politicians dithering over the provision of tanks, of ammunition, of long-range precision missiles, such as HIMARS and Storm Shadow. Meanwhile, the Germans are still dithering over the provision of Taurus long-range precision missiles, for example.

Over the provision of tanks, it was Britain who said, ‘We're going to send some tanks’. And that forced America. Then, the Germans were dithering over whether to allow Leopard 2 going, and eventually they did allow it to go.

If there had been no dithering, then Ukraine would be in a different position now. I'm afraid to say, I think if there'd been no dithering, after the successful liberation of Kherson in November last year, If Ukraine had had the capability to immediately follow up against the Russians, that would have not allowed the Russians to build defensive positions, stabilise the front line, launch a winter offensive as they did.

Anyway, we are where we are. We can't change history. What we can do, though, is to continue to put pressure on Western governments not to pull back.

The year 2024 is an election year in the United States. Decisions will stop being made. And we should be really concerned that money is drying up, that equipment is drying up, that ammunition is drying up, and that the West will not continue to be able to—or be able to continue providing the very high level of support it has done.

We need to call Western governments out and say, "Now is not the time to slow down. Now is the time to double down. Now is the time to continue. And it’s necessary, if anything, increase the support to allow Ukraine to achieve its military objectives."

I'm absolutely certain that if the West continues to give Ukraine and ramps up what Ukraine needs, then Ukraine will ultimately break through those Russian defences, get the Crimea within range of Ukrainian missiles, make it impossible for the Russians to hold on to Ukraine, and put Russia in a very, very difficult position.

What we don't want is a stalemate as a result of the West not giving Ukraine what it needs.

How have Ukrainian generals performed and what can you say about Mr Zaluzhnyi’s strategy?

General Sean Bell

We in the West, if we go to war, we've rehearsed it, we've tried it all before. We train for war, we train on the equipment, we work with allies.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi. Photo: Presidential Office of Ukraine

Your military, in a war, are trying to change from fighting like Russians to fighting like the West. You are trying to learn how to, you used to have artillery that just fired lots of rounds. Now we give you radar and you need to use that to fire accurately at the Russians. We give you missiles that fly further than the Russians have got, but use high precision to hit their targets.

We're giving you missiles that need to be carefully matched to their target. And I think your generals are doing an excellent job at trying to find a way to fight the way that they know they can fight but to use the West's weapons most effectively without being so Russia has never cared about the lives of its soldiers.

It does not care how many people die as long as it wins. In World War II and World War I, the West saw millions of soldiers die and said, so there has to be a better way of doing this. This isn't about soldiers dying, it's about winning.

And they invested in technology, in weapons, in sensors, in air forces, so that we could lower the number of people who die and still win.

That is why Ukraine, if they just fought Russia, loads of people would die and the bigger Russia would win. By helping Ukraine, by providing some technology, we can help Ukraine lose fewer soldiers but maybe win.

For your leaders, it must be very difficult to change the way you fight war when you are actually involved in a war. So I think your leaders have done an amazing job in very difficult circumstances.

General Mick Ryan

General Zaluzhnyi has done a pretty extraordinary job, to be honest. Not only is he the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and having to lead them through what they're doing now, but also prepare them for what they have to do in winter and in 2024. That alone is extraordinarily demanding.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Mik Ryan. Photo: Michael J Barritt

At the same time, he is the President's principal military advisor, and that is very demanding appointment in itself. He also has to work closely with the defense minister who is focused on a range of endeavors about getting equipment, building up defense industries within Ukraine itself, working on a whole range of personnel support issues. 

He has to be the representative of the Ukrainian military to the Ukrainian people and to other military institutions overseas.

So he's been pulled in multiple directions, and he appears to have managed that in pretty good humor. But he has also done a very effective and successful job as the Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. I don't think we've had a military leader with those kind of demands and who has been quite as successful in the modern era.

You might go back to the Arab-Israeli wars, but even then you're talking wars that last days and weeks, not years. The 1991 Gulf War was 100 hours, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq was a matter of weeks.

You probably have to go back to someone like General Dwight Eisenhower (one of the main American military leaders of the Second World War, later president – ed.). He’s managed such a dizzying array of challenges over such a long period of time.

I think General Zaluzhnyi was an inspired choice as Commander-in-Chief in 2021. And I think that he should stay at that job as long as he's physically able, including to and beyond the Ukrainian victory.

General Richard Shirreff

I can't say a great deal because sadly I've never met General Zaluzhnyi and he's got much better things to do than to meet retired officers like me.

But what I can say is that I have watched with admiration from the sidelines as Ukraine under very, very capable, successful, inspiring leadership by General Zaluzhnyi and others has given a master class in operational design to NATO and to the West. 

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
A member of the International Legion of Ukraine. Photo: Valentyna Polishchuk /

The Ukrainian Armed Forces are demonstrating extraordinary agility and ingenuity in harnessing technical capabilities, high-tech capabilities, particularly drones, the data-driven battlefield, smart artillery, which is absolutely an object lesson for the West. And that comes from [AFU] leadership.

And at the end of the day, there will be no military success without leadership. So what military success we have seen Ukraine achieve is down to inspiring leadership by general Zaluzhnyi and other Ukrainian generals.

What do you think about the strategy of the Russian military command, including General Valery Gerasimov and Minister Sergei Shoigu?

General Sean Bell

I think what's interesting about a dictatorship is that nobody thinks, they just do. They do what they think their masters want and in the Russian military nobody is encouraged to think, they just do what they're told. Soldiers on the battlefield, commanders do what you are told. That is completely different than in the West, where we have from the most junior soldier — they are told to think, to do what the right thing is to do.

And in Russia, that's not how they do it. Every now and again, a general like Surovkin will put his hand up and say, "this isn't right, we should be doing it better". But the Russian leadership says, "shut up, just do what you're told".

And people like Sergei Shoigu and General Gerasimov, who have been in post for 12 years, They are very close to Putin and he trusts them. It doesn't matter if they're any good at their job. Putin knows they are not going to get a knife and stab him. And that is more important than being good in their job.

And the problem we're seeing is that within the Russian military nobody thinks for themselves. The soldiers are not being looked after. They know that they are going to die, and that is not the way to treat a military. That's not what we do in the West. That is what Russia does, and it's not working.

General Mick Ryan

I think that Gerasimov is one of the biggest military failures of Russian modern history for multiple reasons. He failed in the transformation of the Russian military over the last decade. Clearly that modernization has not worked. He failed in the initial planning and advice to President Putin for the 2022 invasion.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Russian troops in Azovstal, an indistrual complex in the now-occupied city of Mariupol, in the Donetsk region. Photo: EPA

He failed in the initial mobilization efforts in September 2022, it was a disaster. He failed in the 2023 offense that he conducted and he's failed in managing the relationships with his key generals or private military companies. 

He has allowed his troops to commit the most appalling atrocities against the Ukrainian people, against Ukrainian soldiers, particularly prisoners of war who are under his care, and against Ukrainian cities and very significant cultural sites.

The only rare place he has been successful has been getting rid of those who criticize him and him staying close to President Putin. And that is why he's been kept around is because more than ever Putin needs loyal generals and Gerasimov, if nothing else, is loyal.

General Richard Shirreff

I think Russian generalship has been appalling. And what you see in General Garasimov, who I met and had several meetings with when I was still serving, is that he is out of a mold of a classic, old-fashioned, brutal Russian and Soviet general.

Unimaginative, as we've seen with the offensive that Gerasimov launched in January this year – human waves of attacks against well-defended Ukrainian positions with casualties among the Russians on a scale not seen frankly since the Second World War.

And this all indicates to me that Russian generals simply don't care about their soldiers, they don't care about casualties, they're not interested in the people who, their young men, and indeed perhaps young women, but the young men are pushed into the firing line without any consideration at all.

And it doesn't matter to Russia how many casualties it suffers. And it's a tragedy for Russia. But at the end of the day, this is Russia's fault. This is not just Putin's war, it is Russia's war, because Russians are supporting Putin and acquiescing in Putin's grotesque genocidal war against Ukraine.

Chapter 3. Further Developments: Scenarios

We asked the generals to assess the current state of the two armies and lay out possible scenarios for further actions.

How do you assess the state of the Russian army?

General Sean Bell

Russia is not thinking of stopping. Russia will keep laying traps, they will keep putting minefields down, and they will not stop. They've recruited over a quarter of a million people since January.

It's one thing wanting freedom. Everybody wants their country back and that's a Ukrainian decision. It's nothing to do with the West. But without the West's support it's quite difficult to see how Ukraine will do [now] that you've used some of your best fighting men.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Russian troops. Photo: EPA

It's obviously your decision to make as to what you do with your country. Do you continue fighting? Do you accept a compromise? And that is your decision. It's nobody else's. It's absolutely a Ukrainian decision. But the West will not be able to continue supporting you if it doesn't believe that that is a sensible decision, because Ukraine can't do it on its own.

In the West, in my country, we have none of the problems, we're not at war, but the cost of energy has gone up, people are out of work, our health system's not working. They're not problems like your problems, but for everybody in this country, that's the biggest priority. And to know that we are sending billions of pounds to Ukraine, that we are sending weapons to Ukraine. There are people in this country saying, "hang on a minute, Russia is not a threat anymore, why are we doing that?"

General Mick Ryan

I wouldn't call the Russian army good, but it's an army that's doing enough to meet the requirements of Putin. Initially it was about taking over all of Ukraine. It just wasn't big enough to do that.

But now, Putin's theory of victory is to just prolong the war, so Ukraine's supporters tire of it, to prolong the war until, hopefully, for Putin, President Trump gets elected.

And you don't have to be a good army to prolong the war. You've just got to keep your army viable. They've done that in the south by digging extensive defenses. They're doing that in the northeast by piecemeal attacks, which are forcing Ukraine to have troops in the northeast more than people would prefer to have up there.

So the Russian army at the moment, they're not idiots, they are learning. General Syrskyi and General Zaluzhnyi have both said their doctrine is good and they're not idiots. They're doing just enough to meet Putin's requirements, but they're not doing anywhere near enough if they ever wanted to win this war.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Russian troops. Photo: EPA

General Richard Shirreff

No matter how incompetent it is, it has enormous reserves of manpower and equipment on which to draw on to. Stories of digging into stalls and recycling T-55 tanks from the 1950s and ‘60s is an indicator of that. However, Putin is clearly running short. As we speak, Putin and Kim Jong Un of North Korea are meeting. 

And we have to assume that Putin is going to North Korea with his begging bowl out, asking for weapons and ammunition from North Korea. And no doubt he will be able to offer food supplies in return. 

But that Russian ability to dig deep into manpower is very extensive. And again, recent reports suggest that he's just mobilized or conscripted another 250,000 soldiers. Now, they will not be well-trained, they will not be well-equipped, but they're manpower. It's manpower to be pushed into the firing line. 

But ultimately Ukraine, I am convinced, providing it against the Western support, will prevail against Russia, because at the end of the day, Ukraine is just better. The Ukrainian army is infinitely more capable and more intelligent than the Russians.

How do you currently assess the state of the Ukrainian army?

General Sean Bell

The trouble is that Ukraine doesn't say what casualties it is taking. Russia never admits the casualties. I think when there were fights near Bakhmut, there were stories of Russian convicts climbing over the bodies of their own people. It was horrible. 

And it does look like the Russians have lost a lot of people. But Ukraine would not want to tell its people how many soldiers it has lost. In wartime, you need to encourage people to join your military to fight. You don't want to tell them that loads of their people have died. So I'm not saying Ukraine is bad, I'm just saying that's a reality of war.

What I do know is that when you are on the attack, you generally lose three times as many people as on defense, and Ukraine has been on attack for three months now against positions that are very well defended. That almost certainly means that Ukraine has used up a lot of its military. 

Probably they would have hoped to use one corps to break down the Russian defenses, and then another corps to burst through and run south. 

It looks like Ukraine has had to use a lot of its forces just to break through. I don't get the numbers, but I don't think Ukraine would have wanted the offense to last this long, because the offense, the objectives for the Ukrainian offence are not killing Russian soldiers, it's not how many rounds you fired, it's how much territory, how much land you have got. That's why you're doing it. And on a map at the moment, it's very difficult to see any movement after three months of fighting.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
The ruins of a Ukrainian city. Photo: 93rd Separate Mechanised Brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine / Facebook

Now, I hope that the indications are that Ukraine has very close to breaking through and then we might see some [liberated] territory.

General Mick Ryan

The Ukrainian army has obviously taken significant losses. It's an army that has a professional core, but that core is required to be the foundation for a large mobilized military.

Now those who are mobilized last year and are still around have learnt a lot and have become very competent, but those who were mobilized and trained earlier this year still are learning as they go.

It's also an army that institutionally is still transitioning from its Soviet-era roots to being a NATO army, and this is not a simple thing to do.

This is really hard because as we say the hardest thing to change in a military institution is an idea and that is what General Zaluzhnyi is also doing on top of every other challenge he has.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
A Ukrainian soldier. Photo: Valentyna Polishchuk /

He's given some fairly direct guidance in his interviews that if he finds officers who are still showing evidence of Soviet-style centralised decision-making that he will remove them. 

So you've got a Ukrainian military that's increased in size, is absorbing masses of Western equipment and Western doctrine, is transforming itself into a NATO institution whilst at the same time mastering whole areas of modern war, such as the use of drones, the use of digitized command and control with AI that no other Western military has done. 

It's leading the way. So what it's doing is extraordinary. It is mastering modern war better than any other Western military is.

General Richard Shirreff

What the West needs to be doing is not only providing Ukraine with more offensive capability, such as Leopard 2, Challenger 2 tanks. I would add to that anti-minefield equipment such as engineer tanks, the hoses that destroy mines to allow you to break into minefields. And of course air power too.

But above all, ammunition. Ammunition in vast quantities to allow Ukraine to continue to maintain the pressure. 

But on top of that, I think what the West could do usefully to support Ukraine is provide the expertise and the training to take Ukrainian brigade headquarters and help them put together their combined arms, build up their combined arms capability and their combined arms understanding as well.

But to do it in a Ukrainian way, not trying to force it into some NATO template, but to recognize the skills, the experience Ukrainian Armed Forces have got, and just to add the capabilities and expertise that the West has got to assure that Ukraine can do what it needs to do.

Is Putin's plan to take over the whole of Ukraine still in effect?

General Sean Bell

if you look at history, there are some lessons. When Russia, in 2014, invaded Crimea, the West didn't really do anything about it.

And if you wind the clock forward eight years, Putin probably thought the West would not get involved and that he could move through Ukraine as quickly as he moved through Crimea. And because he doesn't listen to his generals, because he just does what he wants to do, he expected to take Ukraine like that. I think he's only ever called this a special military operation. He's not called it a war.

And most of us in the West believe that if he keeps part of the Donbas and he keeps Crimea, he will tell his Russian people "it was a success. We won. It wasn't a war. It was a special military operation to ensure our security."

Because Putin will not be able to take Ukraine. He might try again in five years, ten years, which is why we have to help Ukraine with security. 

But it's very [interesting] to see how Yevgeny Prigozhin marched on Moscow. Putin must have been worried about his own security. He's going to be worried because Ukraine has attacked Crimea. He's going to be worried because Ukraine is attacking Moscow. He's going to be worried that other enemies of Russia will see weakness in Russia and take that as an opportunity to attack.

It's very difficult to see how Russia will ever take Ukraine. But, and I think it's an important but, if Ukraine loses a lot of its soldiers, if it loses a lot of its military capability, trying to push Russia out, then Russia could suddenly push in and suddenly make life very difficult for Ukraine.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Ukrainian troops. Photo: 93rd Separate Mechanised Brigade / Facebook

So the more you push Russia back, the more soldiers that die, the weaker Ukraine becomes. And if Russia then brings to bear, the worry is that Ukraine loses a lot more territory. That's a military man talking, not a Ukrainian.

General Mick Ryan

There is no doubt that Putin would like Ukraine to be like Belarus, a supplicant that does whatever he wants, that's a pseudo sub-state of Russia.

Now the Ukrainian people made it clear not just in this war but in 2014 and two revolutions since 1991 that you don't see yourselves as part of Russia. Putin cannot accept that. He won't accept it. 

His plan in 2022 was based on his assumptions that Zelenskyy was a weak leader and he would flee the country if the Russians marched on Kyiv. 

His assumption was that the Ukrainian military was the same one as 2014, and that it wouldn't fight, even though in the Donbas it fought extraordinarily bravely and continued to fight up until February 2022.

And he also assumed the West would not decisively intervene or provide assistance. Now, he’s got all of those assumptions wrong. But if they'd all been right, he may well have been able to take over Ukraine.

Now, that's history now, it's counterfactual.

It is extraordinarily hard to see how Russia could take over all of Ukraine without defeating the Ukrainian Armed Forces. And I don't imagine they will be giving up anytime soon, even if there was a decrease in assistance from the West.

General Richard Shirreff

I think Putin is still planning to take over the whole of Ukraine, and I think we have to assume that even when Ukraine has defeated Russia, and there is some form of armistice which stops the guns.

Russia will continue to be a very, very dangerous country. And the mindset that says that Ukraine has got to be totally subjugated and removed from the map and become part of the Russian Empire will not go away. 

And I think we have to recognise that in the West, which is why it's going to be really important that Ukraine joins NATO and that NATO can put a band of deterrent steel around the borders of Ukraine, the borders of Moldova, Georgia – and maybe one day Belarus as well – in order to defend those parts of those countries such as Ukraine and others that want to be free, democratic and part of the West.

What is the strategy of the armies of Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States if the Ukrainian army is defeated and the conflict spreads to European countries?

General Sean Bell

First of all, each country, whether it's America, Britain, France, their first priority is to look after their own country. Our country is an island. We have water all the way around. 

So whilst we need an army, the first priority is Navy and Air Force because the Navy will stop ships attacking us, and the Air Force will stop aircraft attacking us. So if you are looking at it only for our country, it's nice to have a big army, but we don't need a big army.

Because we're a member of NATO, we have to contribute to this big. So we do need to have forces prepared to fight in Europe or elsewhere in the world, but the problem with NATO is that everybody is meant to spend 2% of their GDP, 2% of their money on defense. Not many countries in NATO do. Germany was only just over 1%. The invasion by Russia has woken Germany up to go, we need to spend more money on defense.

In the start of this war, Ukraine was fighting for its survival, but the West generally does not get involved in wars around the world. There are wars in Yemen, there's a war in Ukraine.

I think the reason is because Russia is a threat to our way of life. If Ukraine was to fall, where next? And our experience of World War II means that Ukraine has suffering, but we need to support Ukraine to stop Russia moving on into Europe. The problem is that it was at the start of the war.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Згоріла російська техніка

What was the West's objective? It was to stop Russia invading Europe. What was Ukraine's objective? It was to liberate its country. They are not the same. 

Now you wind the clock forward today, Russia's military has not been destroyed, but it's lost 2,000 tanks, it's lost a lot of its air force. Putin's economy is [not doing well] because of the sanctions. He wanted to stop NATO expanding, and NATO has expanded. Russia has been defeated, Russia is not a threat anymore to Europe. So the West's objectives have been achieved, 

Ukraine's objectives have not been achieved. So the challenge now is it looks very unlikely that Russia is in any way ready to invade Europe next? Poland or Germany? No chance. 

And it will struggle to take more of Ukraine. At the moment it looks more likely Ukraine will push Russia back. But how long will the West continue to support Ukraine when the West's objectives have now been met?

And there is a conversation that says whilst it is Ukraine's war, it is Ukraine paying a very high price. It is President Zelenskyy and Ukrainians’ decision in what you do next. But I think the West doesn't have any more weapons, not many. It can't keep throwing money into this war because it's not in our national interest for the war to continue. 

It was in our national interest to stop Putin being able go into Europe. He can't now. And whilst I understand Ukraine might want to keep fighting until they've got every last Russian out of their territory, from a Western perspective, it's very unlikely you'll be able to liberate Crimea anytime soon, and very difficult to [liberate[ Donbas anytime soon. So the West can't get stuck in a war just to help Ukraine when it doesn't benefit our nations. 

And actually, for the West, the ideal answer — and we can't talk about this publicly — but the answer from the West’s perspective is that Ukraine pursues peace, that the war is ended, Russia is badly damaged, and the West provides security guarantees for Ukraine. 

The West puts arms into Ukraine, the West puts soldiers into Ukraine, the West helps rebuild Ukraine, and the West helps Ukraine join the EU, NATO, and prosper. But we can't tell Ukraine that's the answer. That's for Ukraine to decide.

As Ukraine war passes 19 months, Western generals ponder over what will be next
Photo: 53rd Separate Mechanised Brigade / Facebook

General Mick Ryan

I think most European armies are in a state of transition. They're still transitioning intellectually out of the operations they conducted post 9-11, particularly in Afghanistan and some in Iraq as well. They're in a process of modernizing their equipment. 

They had a modernization holiday at the end of the Cold War. They didn't do a lot of  development of new equipment. Leopard 2 was developed in the Cold War, not after the Cold War, even though it's being upgraded. And that's the same with many of the systems. So investment is needed in new equipment.

Their governments are still transitioning to the pace at which wars are now fought. We're used to the pace of decision of counter-insurgencies, which is a very relaxed pace. That is not the luxury that you and Ukraine have. And I think Western governments are still coming to grips with having to make decisions more quickly. 

And we've seen that play out through this war, just the very slow decision-making on every weapon system, whether it was Javelins, whether it was artillery, whether it was tanks, whether it was F-16s. This slow decision-making is a gift to our enemies. We have to change that.

General Richard Shirreff

For me, [it was clear] ever since 2014, when I produced my book highlighting the risk that Russia posed, that the Western European armies in NATO need to build up their capability against the threat from Russia.

And I think that where we are now is that there's a long way to go. I think a number of Eastern European armies are really building up their capabilities. Poland particularly is a good example. The Czech Republic are doing a great deal to build up their military capability.

I wish I could say the same thing about Germany, Britain, and France. In Germany, the defense budget is in 2023 lower than it was in 2022. In Britain, [there is] no sign of being able to increase its defense budget significantly.

And so there needs to be a fundamental mindset shift to address this problem, because at the end of the day, Western European countries have got to be prepared for the worst case against Russia.