"The counteroffensive is, in many respects, exactly as I would expect it to be," says Sir Mark Carlton-Smith, "which is very deliberate; very precise; very cautious about husbanding human lives of your soldiers and your military capabilities… And none of that can be done quickly."
Sir Carlton-Smith is one of the most experienced Western military officers. He was Chief of the General Staff of the British Army, the SAS special operations forces, and fought in the wars in the Persian Gulf, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He has been awarded two knighthoods and the Crown Honours.
LIGA.net spoke with Sir Carlton-Smith about Ukraine’s readiness for a major war; the role of Boris Johnson and other UK prime ministers; the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ counteroffensive; and its prospects of NATO membership.
‘In the late autumn of 2021, Russian forces were building up to war’
Back in 2018, you said that Russia was a far bigger strategy than ISIS or Al-Qaeda. Why was that clear for you even five years ago?
I think part of the lesson of handling Russia over the last 15 years or so has been that we've missed various strategic indicators that the Russian president had embarked on a pattern that was increasingly reckless and revisionist, and Russia today is not a status quo power.
We've seen that in the invasion of Georgia, Russian behaviour in the broader Middle East, particularly in Syria and in Libya, and some of their activities across Africa.
And of course, we Western Europeans forget that Ukraine has been involved in a confrontation with Russia since 2014. This isn't an enterprise that started on the 24th of February last year. This is already the tenth year of the war for you.
And I have felt that Pax Americana that has broadly regulated the peace in Europe all my adult lifetime was finding itself increasingly stretched by three authoritarian regimes, most obviously here in Europe by Russia, but also in the broader Middle East by Iran, and of course, America today is also focused on the circumstances of increasing strategic competition across the Indo-Asia Pacific with China.
And so it was important in the wake of the invasion that we recognized that this was a turning point for Europe. There had been an earlier turning point in 2014 when we failed to turn, and we couldn't repeat that mistake in 2022.
When was the first time that you realised that a full-scale war was imminent?
I think militarily we thought that in the late autumn of 2021, the buildup of Russian forces in Western Russia and in Belarus didn't represent simply a repeat of the military winter manoeuvres; that this actually was a build up to war.
I think it was also true that on the day that the invasion took place, it was still a surprise to many people.
The belief was that president Putin was bluffing; that he was using the buildup for international and diplomatic leverage and that the costs of a major continental war in Europe were simply too hard to bear; and that Russia indeed had taken a different set of lessons from the history of our own interventions over the last 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, and we were wrong.
But, as I said earlier, it wasn't an aberration in his behaviour because it fitted that pattern that you could track back at least to 2008 and the invasion of Georgia.
‘Russia poured billions into its army. We assumed it would be better’
Many governments and pundits in the West believed Russia would quickly defeat Ukraine and had an easy win. Why did they make such a mistake?
I think we overestimated Russian military capability. We assumed that, given the billions of rubles that have been poured into the modernisation of the Russian armed forces, their tactical military performance would be better.
I think Western countries misunderstood the depth of national spirit of resistance that characterised the Ukrainian response. That incredible call to arms by your president who said, "I don't need a ride, I need ammunition". And the civilian, popular mobilisation that that unleashed.
And thirdly, we miscalculated the exceptional tactical military performance and the very rapid mobilisation of the Ukrainian armed forces, and what became a civilian military partnership just so quickly.
Those three miscalculations led us to assume that Russia might prevail -- and prevail really very quickly.
And those same miscalculations were made, of course, by the Russian president and his own armed forces which led them to miscalculate in terms of their military planning. And therefore, very quickly, they made a series of tactical errors which led to the relinquishing of any form of military surprise. And they have struggled to restore tactical military momentum or any strategic initiative since.
UK former prime minister Boris Johnson had visited Ukraine just a few weeks before the full-scale war. And I was told by Ukrainian ambassador to London Vadym Prystaiko the main goal of that trip of had been to reveal what Ukraine needs to be successful and help you prepare for the defence. So how did the UK help Ukraine prepare for a full-scale war?
We've been engaged in terms of the training of the Ukrainian armed forces since 2014. And that proved to be an invaluable exercise. Amongst other things, we helped Ukraine build up a cadre of experienced non-commissioned officers and junior officers who have proved fundamental to the adaptation of the Ukrainian army when the invasion happened.
And that has been a major tactical advantage and not one that has been enjoyed by the Russian army, which still retains many of the characteristics of the Soviet army. They find it much harder to adapt and use their initiative when the situation changes.
The second thing is that, crucially, we were very quick to recognise that in the first instance, Ukraine needed additional weaponry and particularly weaponry to defeat armour.
And so the early provision of anti-tank weapons and then subsequently leading the arguments about expanding the provision in terms of wider additional military capabilities has been a major role in contributions that the United Kingdom has played.
And, of course, we've expanded our training program as well for the second and third echelons of young Ukrainian men and women who volunteered to serve the country.
‘Putin respects strength’
The UK continues to play the leading role in terms of military assistance to Ukraine. Why is London not afraid of Russia’s so-called red lines?
The UK prime ministers -- both Mr Johnson and his successors – recognise that, in managing a reckless, revisionist Russia, it's a president [Putin] that respects strength. And Russian doctrine has always emphasised the requirement to exploit weakness, and the reason that the invasion took place in the first instance was because it had been a failure of deterrence.
And the international community had not given a strong enough signal that that was not just illegal, but was going to be unacceptable, and that we were going to support Ukraine to reverse the invasion.
And prime minister Johnson was very clear very early that Russia needed not just to fail, but they needed to be seen to fail, otherwise Russia had unfinished business in Moldova, in Georgia, conceivably across the three Baltic states. And so this needed to end here, in Ukraine, and it needed to end as soon as it could.
I remember that in the summer of 2021, the British HMS defender just passed by Crimea, and Russia was really outraged but did nothing really serious. Did that prove that Russia could merely bluff when it comes to major powers?
It was an interesting example in the increasing risk appetite of the Russian Federation.
Russia was prepared to portray a very capable force but when actually in the first instance. When it was confronted by a similar response, that led to a much more cautious and orthodox Russian behaviour.
And that really seems to be the fundamental lesson: You need to stand up to a regional bully. And I think Russia has made a strategic miscalculation of generational proportions; it will fail.
In the first instance, the responsibility for defeating Russia lies with the Ukrainian nation and the performance of its young men and women.
But I hope, subsequently, the NATO alliance recognises that it will be much stronger, having incorporated Ukraine. It will present a much greater and believable and credible deterrent threat to whatever Russian state emerges because the political geometry and trajectory of Russia is unpredictable.
And it's not inconceivable that we're going to see an increasing vulcanisation of the Russian state over the next several years, which I think is a concern for Ukraine and it is a concern for Europe.
Because however the war ends, and I hope it ends successfully for Ukraine. It ends with politics and it therefore ends in Moscow, and it is difficult to see a sustainable political solution whilst president Putin remains in this mood as an international pariah in a deeply reckless sense and very unpredictable behaviour.
‘Ukraine’s counteroffensive is very deliberate and very precise’
A lot of Western media report that Ukraine’s counteroffensive has not met the expectations and the progress is slow. What’s your assessment?
I think the counteroffensive is in many respects exactly as I, a military professional, would expect it to be, which is very deliberate; very precise; very cautious about husbanding human lives of your soldiers and your military capabilities; not wanting to confront the Russian defences, where they're at their very most secure, but now seeking to try and determine and detect Russian weakness, which you might be much more successful in terms of exploiting.
And none of that can be done quickly.
So I would expect continual incremental progress, relatively piecemeal; a very deliberate exercise that therefore will take some time. This isn't something that will conclude in a decisive manner, I think, necessarily this summer, but it will set the conditions for the battlefield in the autumn.
I think it'll continue to set the conditions for how Ukraine decides to use its strategic reserves. And I would not be surprised if General Zaluzhnyi has not yet made his mind up as to when the optimum moment in time and place to release those sorts of capabilities.
You fought many wars – the Persian Gulf war, Iraq, Afghanistan. In all those cases, the Western coalition had an air superiority. Can you use Western capabilities without an air superiority?
Generals are never in the position of the luxury of making war as we necessarily should or indeed as our doctrinal manual suggests that we should. It's the general's job to fight the war that they must and with the tools that they have.
It is the case, as your question suggests, that it would be more successful if Ukraine was able to employ the full orchestra of three-dimensional warfare. But today it can't.
And therefore it would be a mistake for the field commanders to fight the battle in a manner that assumed that they had their superiority, which is why the counter-offensive is taking the more conservative and cautious approach.
You were a commander of the UK Special Air Service (SAS). What’s your assessment of the role of Ukrainian special forces?
I think we can already see various very sophisticated asymmetric capabilities being very effectively employed by Ukraine, some of it physical, some of it digital and virtual. And I think it's been a remarkable adaptation of both military and civilian capabilities that have been put together in a very effective manner in a very short space of time.
Ukraine’s president said that we want to win this war before the US presidential election. In your opinion, is it possible to achieve this goal militarily?
There are a number of campaigns being fought at the same time. For obvious reasons, the military campaign gets much of the attention.
But that needs to be matched with the diplomatic, the political, and the economic campaign to sustain a very long effort to contain any further Russian invasions or escalations of the operation so far, and to recognise that however this war ends, it'll end with a humiliated and deeply unstable Russia that will need very careful and calibrated management.
So the military activity is just one part of what needs to become an integrated, orchestrated, strategic campaign to deter Russia, to contain the worst elements of its behaviour, but also to rebuild Ukraine.
‘This is not a war that Ukraine can sustain indefinitely’
You’ve once said that future wars will be long-distance wars waged with long-range and precise capabilities. What should UK and Ukrainian armies be like to effectively deter Russia and other dictators from potential aggression?
Ukraine's position will be greatly reinforced by eventual membership of the NATO alliance because this is not a war that Ukraine can sustain indefinitely, unilaterally. And nor should it be the sole responsibility of Ukraine to deter Russia in the future.
One of the more dangerous contingencies is that this war ends up in a frozen conflict which may prove to be in Russia's strategic advantage because it allows them to regenerate and to come back stronger later without making the mistakes that they've made in the last year and a half.
But if by that moment Ukraine belongs to the NATO alliance, then that ends up being a much more credible deterrent and represents that strong depth of strategic capabilities that even the Russian president, I think, would recognise that it would not be in his interest to confront.
You opposed the scaling down of the British army amidst Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Do you believe that one day, Russian and British armies might clash on a battlefield?
My job as the chief of the General of Staff was to create as capable an army for the United Kingdom and the government of the day. It was my professional opinion that it was a mistake to reduce our numbers, particularly in the light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
But it is also true that the size of the British army is just one of the metrics associated with its capability. It was equally important that the army of tomorrow was well-trained, well-equipped, and had expeditionary capabilities that meant it could deploy and sustain relevant capability on tomorrow's battlefield.
And if that meant reapportioning resources from salaries for soldiers to future capabilities, then that in proportionate balance was going to be a sensible trade-off.
Last but not least: Do you think Ukraine should become a member of NATO and can make the Alliance stronger?
I think the Alliance is stronger incorporating Ukraine. Membership of the Alliance is a very important conclusion for Ukraine as a nation and for the Ukrainian armed forces who will emerge from this war amongst the largest, most battle-hardened and experienced European nations.
And that would certainly be in the interests of the European alliance and NATO because there will continue to be a residual role for NATO to play in terms of deterring future aggression on the continent of Europe.