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A Quick Ukrainian Defeat Of Russia Lessens Chances Of 'Black Swan Event,' Argues Former Military Adviser To Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer toward Russian positions near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, the epicenter of the war in Ukraine's eastern region of Donetsk.
Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer toward Russian positions near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, the epicenter of the war in Ukraine's eastern region of Donetsk.

Dan Rice is a former special adviser to Valeriy Zaluzhniy, the commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces. A graduate of West Point and now the rector of American University in Kyiv, Rice predicts that if Ukraine gets not just better training but also more and deadlier military hardware, its armed forces are heading for "strategic success on the battlefield" against invading Russian forces amid expectations of a major Ukrainian counteroffensive.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Rice also said the sooner Ukraine defeats Russia, the lower the chances are of a so-called black swan event, including a possible "meltdown" at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, China's entry into the conflict on the side of Russia, or even the potential use of a tactical nuclear weapon by Russia.

Dan Rice
Dan Rice

RFE/RL: Let's begin with this: Is the Ukrainian counteroffensive under way?

Dan Rice: I think history will tell when it actually started and where it went. I couldn't reveal anything that I knew, but I don't [have any special insight]. But the world is expecting a counteroffensive and it's been discussed openly, and I think it will occur within 30 to 60 days. I think you'll see some material changes on the battlefield. And I have confidence that Ukraine will have a strategic success on the battlefield in the next couple of months.

The Tavberidze Interviews

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Vazha Tavberidze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics who hold a wide spectrum of opinions about the war's course, causes, and effects. To read all of his interviews, click here.

The Ukrainian military is getting better weapons, longer-range missiles, better armor, better everything. They're exceeding all of their training standards. Everybody is completely impressed by these battle-hardened soldiers going to France, to the U.K., to Germany to get their training, and everybody is impressed across the board with how successful and how quick they adapt to new weapons and how quickly they innovate with the new weapons. The Ukrainian military is a learning institution, and it is certainly learning on the fly and adapting to new weapons, tactics, techniques, and procedures.

RFE/RL: They're getting more weaponry, better weaponry, but are they getting the quantities for a successful counteroffensive?

Rice: You never have enough until the victory is won. And so, you know, "we need more of everything." But I do think the West has really stood up and realized that this threat is not just against Ukraine. This is really a threat against democracy in the entire West. And so there's no need to hold back on weapons when the Ukrainians are willing to fight and die, to use those weapons to kill everybody's enemy, which is Russia.

Russia is the only aggressor here, and they have proven time and again -- in 1999 in Chechnya, in 2008 in Georgia, in 2014 in Donbas and Crimea, 2016 in Syria, 2022 in Ukraine -- they are the aggressor nation and they must be stopped. And we are stopping them.

I think this counteroffensive could be a strategic success to the point that the Russian Army is defeated. I think there's the chance -- it doesn't mean it's going to happen -- there is the chance that the Ukrainian Army defeats the Russian Army on the field of battle this summer. That's the goal, that would be the hope; whether it can be achieved, you know, nobody wants to make promises they can't keep.

Every battle has two sides, and the commander on each side expects and hopes to win and plans to win. The Russians expect to win, just like the Ukrainians do. But I think the Ukrainians are favored in this battle. And I think they're going to actually have a strategic success.

RFE/RL: As far as offensive maneuvers go, the overwhelming consensus is that the Russians have failed miserably and repeatedly. But what about defense? They've had enough time to prepare. They have the so-called echeloned defense lines. What's your take on that?

Rice: Defense is always easier than offense. Whenever you're attacking, you should have a ratio in military science of generally three-to-five to one. You need to have more soldiers, because you're going to take more casualties. When you're attacking, you're going across open ground against dug-in troops that have better defenses, that have been planning the defensive; they have land mines, they have all their fire support zoned in.

It's getting more and more difficult to have offensive operations in this modern day because of precision-guided weapons and other things that make it impossible for anybody, whether it's China, North Korea, anybody' [they are] going to face trouble having an offensive operation, just like Ukraine will. But Ukraine has to have offensive operations to defeat the Russian Army to regain this territory. That's why it will be costly for Ukraine, unfortunately. But they need to achieve success to get rid of the Russians and regain all the territory back to the 1991 borders.

RFE/RL: In spite of the numerical inferiority.

Rice: You know, anytime you're going to be going on the attack, you're going to mass your forces at one particular place...and then hope to break through and envelop the enemy army. That would be the expectation here, that there will be an offensive operation that will be massed who knows where, but it will likely be a surprise. The question is: Can the Russians react quickly enough to stop that gap and hold back the Ukrainian Army? Or does the whole army break through and envelop and destroy the Russian Army? That's my hope.

RFE/RL: You said in a March interview that you expect there to be a major battle, a major showdown. Is that still the case, in your opinion? f so, where do you believe it will occur?

Rice: The West can hope that we've provided enough weapons training, intelligence, and ammunition to have a cataclysmic breakthrough and have a success and defeat the Russian Army once and for all, get them out of Ukraine, so that we don't have a black swan event.

The longer this goes on, the more you have to worry about a black swan event, such as a tactical nuclear weapon used by Russia potentially, or a meltdown of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear plant, or, say, something external, like the entrance of China on the side of Russia, [for example] if China were to come in supplying weapons or an escalation outside of the borders of Ukraine -- there have been some tensions between Russia and Poland.

A black swan event could throw this into a whole separate set of uncertainty for the world. Defeating the Russian Army, getting them out, prevents that from happening and hopefully eliminates the [chance of a] black swan event.

But, you know, last night (May 18) we got hit really hard here in Ukraine: 18 cruise missile, including six hypersonic missiles that were supposed to be unstoppable. Yeah, they were stopped. So, you know, I'd say the score last night was [Patriot missile-defense system maker] Raytheon 18, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin 0. That's the way I'd grade this bout last night. It was a very kinetic night.

Think about it: If those had gotten through -- 18 cruise missiles, including hypersonics -- the destruction, the death in the civilian population would have been massive. But thanks to Patriot, and the weapons provided by Germany and the United States, and the NASAMS (Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System) provided by Norway, the air-defense systems are really strong here right now, and are preventing massive death.

The Russians are trying to kill a lot of people with these cruise missiles and they're not getting through, which is absolutely a testament to the West's resilience and the need to resist against these Russian forces.

RFE/RL: Will that kind of showpiece performance also prompt the rest of the West -- the United States, for example -- to provide more Patriots?

Rice: I hope so. Everybody likes to be on the side of success. So when you're seeing your weapons systems defend the civilian population against a massive onslaught of cruise missiles, it reinforces the fact that, one, they needed them: We didn't provide resistance to an evil threat that didn't exist; this is a real evil threat, and this evil threat is executing and trying to kill a massive number of civilians.

The U.S. and the West, 65 nations, have come together to defend and have done a phenomenal job of arming Ukraine to defend herself. The weapons systems we're providing are working. The worst job in the world right now, besides being Putin, is to be a salesman for Russian hardware; I mean, it's getting just destroyed left and right. They used to have a major export industry; that industry has plummeted because the West's weapons are destroying all the Russian weapons.

RFE/RL: Let's return to the counteroffensive: Should we expect Ukraine to try and actually retake Crimea? What would be the chances of that?

Rice: The natural expectation would be [to] isolate the Russian forces in Crimea, and that would mean that you have to separate the land bridge from Russia. The second thing would be to take out the Kerch Bridge.

It has been hit once with what appears to have been a truck bomb, but it's been repaired and is still operating. It'll need to be taken out. That can happen a number of different ways. A glide bomb that we are providing now, that is being used on the old Ukrainian Soviet-style fighters, can be dropped from 3,540 miles away and glided in with GPS. [Or it] could be some of the longer-range British weapons that are now being provided. It could be a number of different ways. But the Kerch Bridge has to come down to stop the supply from Russia.

Then the land bridge: If you can actually break through the land bridge somewhere in that area and then isolate Crimea and isolate the Russian Army there and then starve it, the Russians don't have enough air transport to be able to resupply that area. They would have a very difficult time holding that for a long time without resupply. So you want to cut it off, and then starve it and kill it.

RFE/RL: Probably one of the determining factors would be continued Western support. Is that secured for the foreseeable future?

Rice: If Ukraine loses the West's support, Ukraine is dead; and that's why Putin has been trying to drive a wedge between the Western forces, the 65 countries. I always like to make sure I reinforce it: 65 countries are aligned against Putin. So the challenge would be keeping that 65 together and all of NATO, basically.

Putin has tried a bunch of different things to try to drive a wedge between these different powers, but the West has responded by saying, "You know what, we're not gonna be held hostage by your fuel, we're not gonna be held hostage by your nuclear weapons. We're going to supply Ukraine." And I don't see that dissipating.

RFE/RL: One of the major political developments outside Ukraine that's going to affect the war, I think you'd agree, will be the U.S. presidential election in 2024. What happens, for example, if [Donald] Trump becomes the president again? What would that mean for Ukraine?

Rice: I think hypotheticals like that, while interesting -- and you know, we can have fun debating it -- but the realistic aspect is that's 18 months away. And we're in month 15 of this war. I don't see it going 18 more months; I see one side winning or losing. It could be either, which is why the West has to continue to supply Ukraine, because Ukraine can't survive without Western support.

But I don't see the Russian Army being able to take the beating it's taken -- there's been roughly 200,000 killed in action on the Russian side. Two hundred thousand. (Editor's note: The New York Times in February quoted U.S. sources as estimating that Russia was nearing a casualty figure, including dead and wounded, of 200,000 troops.)

One of the challenges is a lot of it's a mercenary army. So, the Russian army has the Wagner group [fighting alongside it], and those are mercenaries -- they're dregs of Russian society that were pulled out of prisons and given a pass, so [the idea is that] nobody's missing those men.

When you're fighting a war of attrition against a mercenary army, and you're trying to break the will of the opponent's people, you're not going to achieve much because most of the mercenaries are from all across Africa and the Middle East. And these are people who, you know, they're dying at Bakhmut by the tens of thousands. But the Russian people don't care. They're not protesting in the streets [over the Russian side's casualties] because they're a bunch of mercenaries. They're using petrodollars to fuel a mercenary army.

The West just needs to fuel the Ukrainian military with weapons to kill the mercenary army. That's a really tough thing for some people to get their heads around. As a professional military officer, basically, you're a manager of violence, and you want to use proportional scale to your enemies' attacks. But at some point, when you have massive waves of humans coming at you that are mercenaries that are being paid to kill your people, you just have to kill them all. That's the goal here: to kill all the Russians and the mercenaries until they're gone.

That's the goal here: to kill all the Russians and the mercenaries until they're gone.
Dan Rice, former military adviser

RFE/RL: On to Western military assistance. The U.K. has provided Ukraine with Storm Shadow missiles. What impact should we expect from those?

Rice: The impact will be on Russians. The West as a whole should have provided Ukraine weapons to defend herself within the borders of Ukraine back in February 2022. We kept escalating slowly, slowly, slowly. "Let's try these weapons." "Let's try these." Meanwhile, every day Ukrainian young men and women are giving their lives to defend the West.

I think it's great that they're getting long-range weapons; I think it's going to make a major impact. And what I mean by major impact is that all of their command-and-control, all of their supply, all of their major troops, everything is going to be within range, so they can't hide anywhere.

When you add Western intelligence to long-range weapons, precision-guided weapons, and there's nowhere to hide, it's going to be very hard for the Russians to continue to conduct warfare in this environment -- when they're going to see all their supplies cut, all their command-and-control is going to be hit constantly in deep, deep areas. Not only are they further from the battlefield, but now they're within reach. And now the Ukrainians will reach out and touch them, and they'll kill them.

RFE/RL: Should we expect the United States to follow suit and provide ATACMS, for example?

Rice: I think we should. What America has done -- and we don't want this to look like an America-versus-Russia war, so we've allowed others to lead, and I think that's great that we're not trying to escalate this, nobody wants this to go into Russia. Nobody wants this to get to be outside of the borders of Ukraine.

Now that Britain is supplying long-range weapons, I hope America will follow. I hope we will start providing some longer-range weapons. Let's win this war. Let's end the suffering on both sides. Let's get Ukraine back to the 1991 borders and stop the chaos. The only way you do that is by providing the weapons that the Ukrainians can kill the Russians with and make it just too painful [for Russia].

RFE/RL: If there's one glaring caveat in the Western military assistance provided to Ukraine, it's been the refusal to give Kyiv the fighter jets its has been requesting. Does the "jets coalition" by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and U.S. President Joe Biden announced last week endorsing training programs for Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets signal that Ukraine is getting closer to getting Western aircraft?

Rice: I think it's inevitable that Ukraine will get Western fighter jets. The Ukrainian fighter pilots are being trained, and when they are ready to go, as soon as the West makes the announcements, they're going to be appearing ready to go. Because not only are the pilots trained, but the crews are trained to repair the jets.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.

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