Padre Christian Venard studied history and law in Paris, before going to study philosophy and theology in Rome. He became a priest in 1997, and he has been a military chaplain in the French army for 22 years, mainly with the paratroopers. He participated in 16 overseas operations in all the theaters where France was engaged (from Kosovo to Mali, through Afghanistan, etc.). Since September 2020, he has been chaplain of the Monaco Public Force (Carabinieri and Firemen) and episcopal delegate for the Communication and Digital Evangelization Department of the Diocese of Monaco.
He is the author of Un prêtre à la guerre: Le témoignage d’un aumônier parachutiste (A Priest in War: The Testimony of a Paratrooper Chaplain), and La sainteté de A à Z: Dopez votre vie spirituelle! (Holiness from A to Z: Boost Your Spiritual Life).
We are so very honored to have this conversation with him.
The Postil (TP): Please tell us a little about yourself. What led you into the vocation of an army chaplain?
Padre Christian Venard (PCV): I come from a military family, going back several generations. So, when the question of a vocation to the priesthood came up for me, it was quite obvious to me that I wanted to serve Christ and His Church in a military setting.
TP: Is military priesthood different from being a pastor in a parish?
PCV: Yes and no. No, in the sense that one is a priest exactly like any other priest with the same obligations of life and prayer and that one exercises one’s ministry within the particular framework of the diocese of the armed forces.
Yes, because the lifestyle of the military chaplain is similar to that of the “worker priests” in the 1950s and 1960s. The chaplain is immersed in military life, while remaining fully a priest; he adopts the customs and habits, the uniform, the way of life, the training, the departure on operations. His objective: to be as close as possible to everyone—always available, open and welcoming to all. Finally, this ministry allows the priest to be in contact with a whole population that is largely outside the churches: mostly men between 20 and 40 years old!
TP: Are men in the army more religious than civilians? Or, is secularism more predominant than faith?
PCV: The French army is the image of the civil society from which it comes, and this is rather reassuring. The men and women who work in the army are mostly indifferent to religion, and practice a kind of practical state atheism, taught by the French national education system. That being said, the specificities of the military, the official presence of the four recognized religious denominations (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim) and certain sociological particularities (in particular the rate of Catholic religious practice among Saint-Cyrien officers, or the tradition of the feasts of arms) mean that religion is more present within the armed forces than in the rest of society.
TP: What are some of the challenges that you faced as a chaplain?
PCV: The first one is to be accepted in such a particular environment. Certainly, because of my family history, several elements predisposed me to it. However, as for every chaplain, you have to “prove yourself” in some way. One cannot impose oneself only with one’s title of clergyman. It is necessary to show that you have the human qualities that can make you a “member of the clan.” This was particularly true of paratroopers. You had to go through the parachute certification and regularly go jumping out of planes with the guys.
A second challenge will probably surprise you. That of standing up to the hierarchy of military chaplaincy. I have known four bishops in the armed forces, appointed by the Vatican, who knew little about the specific vocation of military chaplaincy. The last three surrounded themselves with advisors who would blinker them in this respect. This put me (and other chaplains) in very distressing situations, and led to misunderstanding, even persecution, because of this hierarchy not wanting to accept the particularities of military life.
TP: What was the most humorous experience that you had as a chaplain?
PCV: One day, with a fellow parachute chaplain, we were with our young people who were learning to jump and were in the plane for their first jump. The two “padres” were each at a door and my confrere said to me in a loud voice, just before the jump: “And you, Christian, what do you think about organ donation?” Imagine the faces of the poor young soldiers, who were already having a hard time. But we were laughing our heads off!
TP: What advice would you give to young people about service in the military?
PCV: Give it your all. Don’t look back. Never compromise yourself. Follow your ideal at the risk of your career. May the young man that I was, be able to look at the old man that he has become one day and not be ashamed of anything. “To be and to endure” (motto of the 3rd RPIMa, my beloved Regiment).
TP: Turning to larger contemporary issues—as the West becomes further de-Christianized, how should the individual Christian, who feels isolated, even “under siege,” respond?
PCV: You know the famous answer of Mother Teresa when asked what needs to change in the Church and she answered: “you and me.” There is no better way to put it. Indeed, Catholics must realize that this old European continent that they have forged through their religion over the centuries is almost no longer fed, in the public sphere, by the values of Christianity. For those who are called upon to exercise important responsibilities (in the public or private sector, it doesn’t matter), it is advisable, in its rightful place, to make the Christian faith shine, through behavior, in decisions, in philosophical choices. For all of us, it is important to bear humble witness in our daily lives, in the strongest possible fidelity to Christ and His commandments.
TP: The Church has called for the re-evangelization of Europe. Despite difficulties, are you seeing any signs of success?
PCV: Is it a distorting mirror? As the person in charge of communication in the diocese of Monaco, I can see that many Catholic initiatives are taken on social networks and with a certain success. This is a hope. Moreover, if, for the moment, the dominant culture remains rather hostile to Christianity, it seems to me to perceive in the younger generations a thirst for transcendence, for meaning, which reopens doors for evangelization. But nothing can be done today, as we well know, by arguments of authority. Only credible witness counts. In this respect, the terrible crisis of pedophilia, the equally serious crisis of authority within the Church, are so many deleterious counter-witnesses.
TP: In the modern world, we have very few heroes; we are overwhelmed by celebrities. Should we see saints as heroes?
PCV: Yes, the heroes (heralds!) of the Gospel. Men and women, whose holiness has been officially recognized, have been, according to the well-known image, illustrations in time and space, of the evangelical virtues. Virtue is both strength and struggle. One does not become virtuous by crossing one’s arms, but by boldly advancing on the path of life, always strewn with pitfalls and temptations.
TP: Who is your hero?
PCV: Many saints inspire me. Charles de Foucault is one of those who touches me the most. The vigor with which he followed the road of sin first, then that of sanctity, pleases me. There is nothing bland about this man. An immense appetite for the absolute. A confounding humility when he discovered the true meaning of his life. A form of activism almost naive in his will to create a “religious order.” Yes, all this speaks to me deeply.
TP: Holiness in our daily lives has certainly weakened, and we seem content with the ever-expanding struggle for “rights.” How can individuals cultivate and advance in holiness, given all the “noise” of the world?
PCV: To find silence, solitude (inhabited by the Spirit). Leave time for God and our soul. To extract ourselves from the tumult. It is virtuous. It is a daily struggle. Accepting the Cross of Christ, in humility and perseverance. To appear to be nothing in the eyes of the powerful—even in the Church—and to rejoice! To dare to be fraternal with those we meet—that is to say, to fully accept the inevitable wounds that will result from this, as rivers of charity for this world.
TP: Many people struggle with faith, and some have even lost it entirely. What do you say to people who cannot believe in God, let alone in Christ?
PCV: This is the question that has been asked by so many men and women after the Shoah. We cannot miss the atheist questioning. I do not know a priori what to say. I know that we must stand by, suffer with those who suffer, weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice. To witness that being a son of God is to love one’s neighbor as oneself and God above all else, at the risk of losing oneself, the better to fall into the arms of Love. Our free and respectful response to the atheist is our life. Life is a risk. Witnessing to God is a risk, if we take Him seriously.
TP: Padre Venard, thank you so very much for sharing with us your valuable experiences and ideas, and giving us your deep guidance.
The war in Ukraine continue to impact on many regions of the world. This is specially true in Northern Africa, where, aside from the old and established rivalries between the states of the area, there crisscross new trends, such as the increased need for new energy sources (far, not only geographically, from the flow coming from Russia), and the search for the influence of Moscow, Beijing, Brussels (NATO and EU), Washington, Paris, Rome, Ankara and others.
Algeria, a baricentric country, is involved in a complex action of positioning, faithful to firm principles of non-alignment and anti-colonial sentiments, in a changing international context.
The growing influence of this North African country increases its attention to the eyes of USA, NATO, the EU and other states, as well as being a reason for vigilance by consolidated partners, such as Russia (since 1962, the year of independence, the USSR) and China. All this, as the 2022 energy crisis gave this nation a boost of wealth and political clout in the region.
This attention is not without pressures. In fact, in September, some members of the US Congress invoked the 2017 CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act), asking for the imposition of sanctions against Algeria for purchases of arms from Russia. This appeal followed that made by Republican Senator Marco Rubio in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Marco Rubio is known for being very close to Morocco, Algiers’ historical adversary, and for his support that Rabat’s sovereignty claims over Western Sahara, whose pro-independence cause is instead defended by Algeria.
While the Spanish MEP Susana Solís Pérez, of the Renew Europe group, in early February asked the European Commission if it continued to consider Algeria a reliable partner in terms of energy supply and asked the European institution if it was evaluating the possibility that Algeria “acts at Russia’s request to aggravate the energy crisis” and warned against the use of gas by Algeria as a “political weapon” against the interests of Spain, Portugal and especially Morocco, considered as a “strategic partner” (in the light of recent developments, like Qatargate and Moroccogate, such declarations, especially from European elected officials, should invite in-depth reflections about the real meaning of ‘lobbying’).
Since the days of the Cold War, Algeria has remained outside the orbit of the West; close (but never enslaved, as some say, poor in knowledge but rich in bad faith) to Moscow, while favoring national liberation movements; and this pitted it against its western neighbour, which instead supported the dictatorial government of Mobutu in Kinshasa and the racist one in South Africa (violating the arms embargo declared by the UN, by buying, for example, among the few in the world, 6×6 wheeled protected infantry vehicles “Ratel”). However, it must be added that the common understanding about Morocco, described as always aligned with the West, is of a showy oscillation (which began with Hassan II, the father of the current king), with the most recent trips to both Moscow and Beijing, made by King Mohammed VI. This was becuase of, in the eyes of Rabat, the tepid Western support for Mohammad’s territorial claims on the former Spanish colony of Western Sahara, considered by the UN General Assembly as part of the non-self-governed territories (colonies, in other words), which today number seventeen.
The persistent tension with Morocco, which attacked Algeria in 1963 (Algiers had just achieved independence from france, after a terrible war of independence that began in 1954 and ended in 1962) to attempt to annex western areas of the neighboring country, claiming their re-appropriation for unjust borders inherited from the colonial era—which led Algiers to set up a massive military apparatus, financed by its enormous energy resources, purchasing in full and for many years, its equipment from the Soviet Union and, since 1991 , from Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, China, with occasional and ready presence of Western weapons systems in the bid to acquire substrategic weapons.
Thus, between 2014 and 2017, Algeria activated 4 regiments of the “Iskander” E surface-to-surface missile system (each missile regiment is made up of over 50 vehicles and 48 missiles: 12 launch vehicles, 12 missile carriers and loaders, 11 command control vehicles and other logistic and support vehicles). This equipment has significantly strengthened Algeria’s regional prominence in the volatile Middle East and North Africa.
This situation has progressively changed in the last ten years, with an increased presence of Chinese, but also German (wheeled Armoured Infantry Combat Veichles TPZ “Fuchs”), Italian (helicopters and a large amphibious assault unit and other systems lined up), aling with Moscow-based equipment.
This situation of tensions with Morocco has been accompanied by a generalized worsening of the security situation for Algiers, starting with the Libyan crisis, the vulnerabilities in Tunisia, Mali and Niger, and ending with the Turkish, Qatari, Emirates, Saudi, Israeli and Iranian diplomatic (and not only) intrusions in the region, and increased activity of NATO (with which Algeria also collaborates in the framework of the Mediterranean Dialogue since 2000).
With this in mind, on 22 November 2022, the National People’s Congress (the lower house) adopted the finance bill for the year 2023 by a majority in the plenary session. The text of the of the bill includes a series of provisions concerning, inter alia, measures regarding investments, taxation, purchasing power, etc. But the flagship of these new measures is undoubtedly that which concerns the national defense budget, which provides for the allocation for defense a total amount of 3,186 billion dinars, (or more than 22 billion dollars). A military budget more than double compared to last year which amounted to 1,300 billion dinars (9 billion dollars). In numerical terms, the budget of the National People’s Army (which includes the three principal services, but also the national gendarmerie and the coast guard) for the year 2023 will increase by 1.886 billion dinars, or almost 13 billion dollars. This represents a 145% increase. This unprecedented reassessment of the defense budget was made possible by the sharp increase in oil export revenues in 2022. “The increase in hydrocarbon prices is helping to strengthen the recovery of the Algerian economy after the shock of the pandemic. The windfall revenues from hydrocarbons have eased pressure on public and external finances,” stated the latest IMF report.
To some extent, the reasons for this increase have been outlined above. But there are others, such as the need to update the weapon systems purchased during the great 2007 agreement with Russia, and the desire to acquire new ones, in particular for combat aircraft (Sukhoi Su-75 “Checkmate”), submarines (with the expansion of the number of exisiting “Kilo” class submarines with new ones, capable of launching the “Kalibir” cruise missiles and updating others in service), and anti-aircraft defense systems (with additional S-400 “Triumf” and the brand new S-500 “Prometheus”), with an eye to the challenging reinforcement of the Moroccan Air Force (which is expanding its fleet of F-16s in service and upgrading those already in service to the 70/72 standard). Much of the Algerian arsenal does require a mid-life overhaul, but it remains to be seen whether Russian firms, involved in the support of the quagmire in Ukraine, will be able to comply with any Algerian demands, both for modernization and for new systems.
But there are also other reasons for the increase in the defense budget, such as the revaluation of the pensions of retired military and paramilitary personnel.
In the context of the new constitution of 2020, which has opened the door to the possibility of operating with its armed forces abroad (reversing a basic concept of the Algerian political and constitutional discourse), there is the growing involvement of the Algerian armed forces in the Sahel, through collaboration with neighboring armed forces, such as Niger and Mali; and it is believed that Algeria is gradually moving towards creating a sort of permanent aid scheme to the Nyamey armed forces to deal with the phenomenon of Islamic terrorism, while trying to reduce the French influence in its “southern flank” and the revitalization of the CEMOC (Comité d’Etat-Major Opérationnel Conjoint), an Algerian-led multinational command, based in Tamanrasset and which includes delegates from Mauritania, Niger, Mali. CEMOC’s Algerian chairmanship meeting of last October was personally chaired by President Abdelmajid Tebboune. Furthermore, security issues in the Mediterranean represent a major challenge for the Algerian authorities, especially after the recent, further deterioration of relations with neighboring Morocco due to the profound disagreements on the issue of the Western Sahara and the diplomatic and military rapprochement between Rabat and Israel. This event, in August 2021, led Algeria to severe diplomatic relations with Morocco and close the airspace to flights by Moroccan airlines and/or other companies originating from, or going to, Morocco.
But Algeria, in its new dynamic of international relations, is in talks with China to acquire the new short-range ballistic missile system (SRBM) SY-400. To do this, an Algerian delegation travelled to NORINCO (North Industries Group Corporation) at the Zhuhai Airshow 2022 last November. The purchase of the SY-400 SRBM will integrate the Russian-made “Iskander” E ballistic missile system and China’s YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles (a 2014 Pentagon report calls the YJ-12 the “most lethal anti-ship missile that China has ever made”).
The Algerian Ministry of Defense initially planned to acquire a coastal battery of Russian anti-ship missiles (3K55 “Bastion”), but then chose the YJ-12B, which completed the deployment of another hypersonic cruise missile of Chinese manufacture, the ASCM CX-1, which the Algerian Navy acquired in 2022, after more than 10 years of negotiations.
Algerian diversification is not just military. In fact, Algiers has signed a new five-year strategic agreement with China to deepen its bilateral relationship in all areas, strengthening economic ties, already strong, but expanding further, such as the opening and exploitation of a huge iron mine in the Tindouf area (Der Djebilet).
The Gray Area
However, some changes have recently taken place which require reflections on the future international and regional position of Algeria. Despite the pressure and numerous high-level visits by Russian delegations, which intensified after the aggression against Ukraine, Algeria seems to be progressively distancing itself from Moscow. In fact, the Algerian defense ministry suddenly canceled the joint military maneuvers planned in November at Hammaguir, in the province of Béchar, about 50 kilometers from the border with Morocco. The anti-terrorism exercise (sic) of the special forces of the two countries, in which about 80 Russian soldiers were supposed to participate, was named “Desert Shield.” The exercise was announced last April 5, by the HQ of the Southern Military Rrgion of the Russian Army, after a first joint preparatory meeting held between staff officers of the two countries in Vladikavkaz (North Ossetia, the same area where between September and October 2021, an Algerian unit took part in an exercise with Russian troops). The Algerian Ministry of Defense has not confirmed, but has not denied, this announcement, but it is being widely reported by the Algerian and foreign press. A sober statement read on ENTV public television channel announced the cancellation, without further explanation.
The cancellation of the maneuver has stunned the Moroccan press and those close to it (such as the once prestigious Jeune Afrique, which is allegedly part of a financial holding owned by the Moroccan royal family) who tried to sell the story that Rabat, due to its proximity to the West and for having hosted the much larger “Africa Lion” exercise in the summer of 2022 (a US-led maneuver that has been taking place since 2004) in southern Morocco, was threatened by Russia and Algeria and, for this commitment, the whole of the West must accept Morocco’s claims (and annexation) of Western Sahara, ban Algiers once and for all from the international community, force it to stop supporting POLISARIO, and accept the condition of inferiority vis-à-vis Rabat.
Another indication of the possible distancing of Algiers from Moscow could be the cancelation of Algerian President Abdelmajid Tebboune’s official visit to Moscow, which would have deepened the “strategic relationship” between the two countries. Originally scheduled for July this year, the trip was reportedly postponed. The Russian ambassador to Algeria, Valerian Shuvaev (recently transferred from Rabat) told the Russian news agency Sputnik that Tebboune would visit Moscow by the end of the year; according to unofficial Algerian sources, this visit was postponed without providing new dates. The ineffectiveness of the Russian army and its weapon systems, the evident weakening of the Kremlin as a political ally and the EU’s insistence on strengthening energy ties with Algeria could be among the reasons that pushed President Tebboune to a new dynamic, even if there are large gray areas (and difficult choices) in Algerian security policy (foreign and defense, but not only).
On November 7, Leila Zerrouki, Algerian high representative in charge of partnership with international organizations (former magistrate and deputy special representative of the UN Secretary-General for MONUSCO [peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo]) announced that Algiers had requested the joining BRICS, an trade organization formed by China, India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa. Within this club, which also has aspirations of becoming a full-fledged international organization, Russia is, for now, the one that has the most ties with Algiers (but there is also China, which is growing rapidly). Perhaps for this reason it was the deputy Foreign Minister of Moscow, Mikhail Bogdanov, a highly experienced and capable diplomat, specialist in the Arab world, who publicly welcomed Zerrouki.
But a gray area remains, confirming Algerian prudence. In fact, interviewed by the prestigious newspaper Le Figaro, President Tebboune (in addition to announcing a state visit to France in 2023), expressed an opinion on the presence of Wagner’s Russian mercenaries in the Sahel, saying: “The money for costs this presence would be better spent and more useful in developing the Sahel.” And regarding his relations with Vladimir Putin he said: “I can only say that I will soon go to Russia. I do not approve or condemn the Russian operation in Ukraine. Algeria is a non-aligned country and I want to respect this philosophy. No one will ever be able to turn Algeria into its satellite. Our country was born to be free. Furthermore, it would be good if the UN did not just condemn the annexations that are taking place in Europe. What about Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights or Morocco’s annexation of Western Sahara?”
As mentioned above, the initiative of the pro-Moroccan US deputy Marco Rubio (and of 26 others elected with him), is supervised by Algiers, although aware that the CAATSA is a highly politically-motivated tool, which Washington sometime waves, as needed, to put pressure on other states, but which the US sometimes does not find convenient to use. For example, it had been pushed forward with India; but New Dehli, which Washington would like to involve more closely in its strategy of containment of Beijing and Moscow in the Indo-Pacific, did not care for it; and also due to Indian uncertainties on the dubious effectiveness of the S-400s and the serious Russian delays in the delivery of the promised systems (India had signed a huge contract with Russia in late 2021). And do, Washington silenced the threat of sanctions.
US Ambassador to Algiers Elisabeth Moore Aubin revealed, however, that she has asked Algerian authorities to reduce their imports of Russian arms, adding at the same time, Algeria is a strategic partner for Washington and that she has “advised partners who buy weapons from Moscow to diversify their suppliers with non-Russian suppliers,” and to have had assurances to this effect. The US diplomat’s conciliatory language can be explained (in part) because now that the French military has withdrawn from Mali, the United States needs a solid militarily partner, like Algeria, in the fight against jihadist groups destabilizing the Sahel.
Even if Algeria seems to be cooling its ties with Russia, its armed forces, the second-largest in Africa after those of Egypt, possess such quantities of weapons manufactured in that country that should keep the maintenance and training contracts signed with its military industry for several years.
But the growing difficulties of the Russian defense industry represent a further threat to the military capacity of Algiers, which risks finding itself in a short time with a huge mass of unusable materials.
All these options represent serious unknowns for Algiers, impacting on its security policy choices, more for operational, training and logistical reasons than merely financial, given that at the end of 2022, Algeria had over $60 billion in financial reserves and has no foreign debt.
Against the backdrop of tensions with its Western-aligned North African neighbor, Algiers has emerged in 2022 as a renewed regional player whose importance extends beyond the region. As the global energy crisis continues amid the West’s standoff with Russia in Ukraine, Algeria in the first five months of this year alone, has seen its energy revenue grow by more than 70%, to a total of 21.5 billion dollars.
This comes after a long period in which Algiers closed in on itself due to the institutional standoff that hit the country when in 2013 a cardiovascular attack seriously damaged the health of President Abdelaziz Boutefllika, who took office in 1999 (he was forced to resign in April 2019 and died in September 2021). Since 2013, the ruling group around Bouteflika, has worked to maintain its power. This standoff has left plenty of room for Morocco which has objectively strengthened its regional and international position with respect to the Western Sahara question, called the “national cause” and, much less prosaically, the prism through which Rabat sees and interprets all its policies, including cultural and sporting ones, both at home and abroad.
The long and painful parenthesis of Bouteflika’s lengthy illness, which formally ended with the election of Abdelmajiid Tebboune to the presidency in the summer of 2019, were signs that the armed forces, the pillar of the country policy-making, have resumed the previous situation.
Today, tensions are simmering again between the North African leaderships due to the emergence of new dynamics, especially since Morocco has decided to normalize (only officially, given that the confidential ones have been solid since the 1960s) ties with Israel due to pressure from the administration of then outgoing US President Donald Trump. This normalization is perceived by Algiers as a threat to its national security (while for Morocco it is a kind of insurance) and is intertwined with an arms race, which has existed for some time, but which has developed further since 2015.
Along with ongoing attempts to make the most of new economic advantages at the national level, Algiers also seems determined to have its own impact on regional affairs. As the nation has severed ties with neighboring Morocco, in part due to ties to Israeli intelligence and military influence, as well as support, according to press sources not just verbal, Moroccan support for the Berberophone separatist groups of Kabylia and radical Islamist movements, such as Rachad.
Algeria, the third largest gas supplier in Europe, has attracted considerable interest this year, now becoming the first energy supplier for Italy, as military ties also appear to be intensifying.
While it has to keep a careful balance, both regionally and internationally, Algeria has emerged this year as a key player in Africa, the Middle East and beyond. It forced President Emmanuel Macron to change estbalished and hostile French rhetoric against Algiers and turn the page on the unresolved post-colonial and memorial issue, and paved the way for the abandonment of French in the national education system and the choice to adopt the English language instead, further eroding the influence of France.
Another major issue: Algiers is very involved in Palestinian reconciliation, hosting a series of meetings between rival factions Hamas and Fatah in order to bridge their differences and develop a platform from which to support the joint Palestinian political initiative . This was also a central theme at the Arab League summit last November, when Algeria attempted to strengthen its position at the regional level by hosting the meeting, thereby taking away space from Morocco, which through the role played by the king, president of the Al Qods Committee (Jerusalem) set up by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, had tried to increase his influence within the Muslim community, in view of the role that Jerusalem plays for it. However, the official normalization (the concrete, but clandestine one that has existed for decades) of relations with Israel has deeply irritated Moroccan public opinion, which, although not anti-Semitic, is strongly pro-Palestinian, creating embarrassment, beyond the self-congratulations typical of the official narrative, for the institutions of Rabat.
Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).
The recapture of the Kharkov region at the beginning of September appears to be a success for Ukrainian forces. Our media exulted and relayed Ukrainian propaganda to give us a picture that is not entirely accurate. A closer look at the operations might have prompted Ukraine to be more cautious.
From a military point of view, this operation is a tactical victory for the Ukrainians and an operational/strategic victory for the Russian coalition.
On the Ukrainian side, Kiev was under pressure to achieve some success on the battlefield. Volodymyr Zelensky was afraid of a fatigue from the West and that its support would stop. This is why the Americans and the British pressed him to carry out offensives in the Kherson sector. These offensives, undertaken in a disorganised manner, with disproportionate casualties and without success, created tensions between Zelensky and his military staff.
For several weeks now, Western experts have been questioning the presence of the Russians in the Kharkov area, as they clearly had no intention to fight in the city. In reality, their presence in this area was only aimed at affixing the Ukrainian troops so that they would not go to the Donbass, which is the real operational objective of the Russians.
In August, indications suggested that the Russians had planned to leave the area well before the start of the Ukrainian offensive. They therefore withdrew in good order, together with some civilians who could have been the subject of retaliation. As evidence of this, the huge ammunition depot at Balaklaya was empty when the Ukrainians found it, demonstrating that the Russians had evacuated all sensitive personnel and equipment in good order several days earlier. The Russians had even left areas that Ukraine had not attacked. Only a few Russian National Guard and Donbass militia troops remained as the Ukrainians entered the area.
At this point, the Ukrainians were busy launching multiple attacks in the Kherson region, which had resulted in repeated setbacks and huge losses for their army since August. When US intelligence detected the Russians’ departure from the Kharkov region, they saw an opportunity for the Ukrainians to achieve an operational success and passed on the information. Ukraine thus abruptly decided to attack the Kharkov area that was already virtually empty of Russian troops.
Apparently, the Russians anticipated the organisation of referenda in Lugansk, Donetsk, Zaporozhe and Kherson oblasts. They realised that the territory of Kharkov was not directly relevant to their objectives, and that they were in the same situation as with Snake Island in June: the energy to defend this territory was greater than its strategic importance.
By withdrawing from Kharkov, the Russian coalition was able to consolidate its defence line behind the Oskoll River and strengthen its presence in the north of the Donbass. It was thus able to make a significant advance in the Bakhmut area, a key point in the Slavyansk-Kramatorsk sector, which is the real operational objective of the Russian coalition.
As there were no longer any troops in Kharkov to “pin down” the Ukrainian army, the Russians had to attack the electrical infrastructure to prevent Ukrainian reinforcements by train to the Donbass.
As a result, today, all Russian coalition forces are located within what may become the new borders of Russia after the referenda in the four southern Ukrainian oblasts.
For the Ukrainians, it is a Pyrrhic victory. They advanced into Kharkov without encountering any resistance and there was hardly any fighting. Instead, the area became a huge “killing zone” (“зона поражения”), where Russian artillery would destroy an estimated number of 4,000-5,000 Ukrainians (about 2 brigades), while the Russian coalition suffered only marginal losses as there was no fighting. These losses come on top of those from the Kherson offensives. According to Sergei Shoigu, Russian Defence Minister, the Ukrainians lost about 7,000 men in the first three weeks of September. Although these figures cannot be verified, their order of magnitude matches the estimates of some Western experts. In other words, it seems that the Ukrainians have lost about 25% of the 10 brigades that were created and equipped in recent months with Western help. This is a far cry from the million-man army mentioned by the Ukrainian leaders.
From a political point of view, it is a strategic victory for the Ukrainians, and a tactical loss for the Russians. It is the first time that the Ukrainians have taken back so much territory since 2014, and the Russians seem to be losing. The Ukrainians were able to use this opportunity to communicate about their final victory, undoubtedly triggering exaggerated hopes and making them even less willing to engage in negotiation.
This is why Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, declared that the moment “is not one for appeasement.” This Pyrrhic victory is therefore a poisoned gift for Ukraine. It has led the West to overestimate the capabilities of the Ukrainian forces and to push them to engage in further offensives, instead of negotiating.
The words “victory” and “defeat” need to be carefully used. Vladimir Putin’s stated objectives of “demilitarisation” and “denazification” are not about gaining territory, but about destroying the threat to the Donbass. In other words, the Ukrainians are fighting for territory, while the Russians seek to destroy capabilities. In a way, by holding on to territory, the Ukrainians are making the Russians’ job easier. You can always regain territory—you cannot regain human lives.
In the belief that they are weakening Russia, our media are promoting the gradual disappearance of Ukrainian society. It seems like a paradox, but this is consistent with the way our leaders view Ukraine. They did not react to the massacres of Russian-speaking Ukrainian civilians in the Donbass between 2014 and 2022, nor do they mention Ukraine’s losses today. In fact, for our media and authorities, Ukrainians are a kind of “Untermenschen” whose life is only meant to satisfy the goals of our politicians.
Between 23 and 27 September, there were four referendums in progress, and the local populations have to answer different questions depending on their region. In the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Lugansk, which are officially independent, the question is whether the population wants to join Russia. In the oblasts of Kherson and Zaporozhe, which are still officially part of Ukraine, the question is whether the population wants to remain within Ukraine, whether they want to be independent, or whether they want to be part of Russia.
However, there are still some unknowns at this stage, such as what will be the borders of the entities that will be attached to Russia. Will they be the borders of the areas occupied by the Russian coalition today or the borders of the Ukrainian regions? If it is the second solution, then we could still have Russian offensives to seize the rest of the regions (oblasts).
It is hard to estimate the outcome of these referenda, although one can assume the Russian-speaking Ukrainians will most probably want to leave Ukraine. Polls, whose reliability cannot be assessed, suggest that 80-90% are in favour of joining Russia. This seems realistic due to several factors.
Firstly, since 2014, linguistic minorities in Ukraine have been subject to restrictions that have made them 2nd class citizens. As a result, the Ukrainian policy has caused Russian-speaking citizens to no longer feel Ukrainian. This was even emphasised by the Law on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in July 2021, which is somewhat equivalent to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which give different rights to citizens depending on their ethnic origin. This is why Vladimir Putin wrote an article on 12 July 2021 calling on Ukraine to consider Russian speakers as part of the Ukrainian nation and not to discriminate against them as proposed by the new law.
Of course, no Western country protested against this law, which is a continuation of the abolition of the law on official languages in February 2014, which was the reason for the secession of Crimea and Donbass.
Secondly, in their fight against the secession of Donbass, the Ukrainians never tried to win the “hearts and minds” of the insurgents. On the contrary, they have done everything to drive them further away by bombing them, by mining their roads, by cutting off drinking water, by stopping the payment of pensions and salaries, or by stopping all banking services. This is the exact opposite of an effective counter-insurgency strategy.
Finally, the artillery and missile strikes against the population of Donetsk and other cities in the Zaporozhe and Kherson region in order to intimidate the population and prevent them from going to the polls is further alienating the local population from Kiev. Today, the Russian-speaking population is afraid of Ukrainian reprisals if the referenda are not accepted.
So, we have a situation where the Western countries announce that they will not recognise these referenda, but on the other hand they have done absolutely nothing to encourage Ukraine to have a more inclusive policy with their minorities. Ultimately, what these referenda could reveal is that there has never really been an inclusive Ukrainian nation.
Moreover, these referenda will freeze a situation and make Russia’s conquests irreversible. Interestingly, if the West had let Zelensky continue with the proposal he made to Russia at the end of March 2022, Ukraine would more or less retained its pre-February 2022 configuration. As a reminder, Zelensky had made a first request for negotiation on 25 February, which the Russians had accepted, but which the European Union refused by providing a first package of €450 million in arms. In March, Zelensky made another offer that Russia welcomed and was ready to discuss, but the European Union once again came to prevent this with a second package of €500 million for arms.
As explained by Ukraïnskaya Pravda, Boris Johnson called Zelensky on 2 April and asked him to withdraw his proposal, otherwise the West would stop its support. Then, on 9 April, during his visit to Kiev, “BoJo” repeated the same thing to the Ukrainian president. Ukraine was therefore ready to negotiate with Russia, but the West does not want negotiations, as “BoJo” made clear again on his last visit to Ukraine in August.
It is certainly the prospect that there will be no negotiations that have prompted Russia to engage in referenda. It should be remembered that until now, Vladimir Putin had always rejected the idea of integrating the territories of southern Ukraine into Russia.
It should also be remembered that if the West were so committed to Ukraine and its territorial integrity, France and Germany would certainly have fulfilled their obligations under the Minsk Agreements before February 2022. Moreover, they would have let Zelensky proceed with his proposed agreement with Russia in March 2022. The problem is that the West is not looking for Ukraine’s interest, but to weaken Russia.
Regarding Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilisation, it should be recalled that Russia has intervened in Ukraine with considerably fewer troops than the West considers necessary to conduct an offensive campaign. There are two reasons for this. First, the Russians rely on their mastery of the “operative art” and play with their operational modules on the theatre of operations like a chess player. This is what allows them to be effective with reduced manpower. In other words, they know how to conduct operations efficiently.
The second reason that our media deliberately ignore is that the vast majority of the combat actions in Ukraine is carried out by the Donbass militias. Instead of saying “the Russians,” they should (if they were honest) say “the Russian coalition” or “the Russian-speaking coalition.” In other words, the number of Russian troops in Ukraine is relatively small. Moreover, the Russian practice is to keep troops only for a limited period in the area of operations. This means that they tend to rotate troops more frequently than the West.
In addition to these general considerations, there are the possible consequences of the referenda in southern Ukraine, which are likely to extend the Russian border by almost 1000 kilometres. This will require additional capabilities to build a more robust defence system, to construct facilities for troops, etc. In that sense, this partial mobilisation is a good idea. In this sense, this partial mobilisation is a logical consequence of what we have seen above.
Much has been made in the West about those who have sought to leave Russia to avoid mobilisation. They certainly exist, like the thousands of Ukrainians who sought to escape conscription and can be seen in the streets of Brussels driving powerful and expensive German sports cars! Much less publicity has been given to the long queues of young people outside military recruitment offices and the popular demonstrations in favour of the decision to mobilise!
As to the nuclear threats, in his speech on 21 September , Vladimir Putin mentioned the risk of nuclear escalation. Naturally, the conspiratorial media (i.e., those that construct narratives from unrelated information) immediately spoke of “nuclear threats.”
In reality, this is not true. If we read the wording of Putin’s speech, we can see that he did not threaten to use nuclear weapons. In fact, he has never done so since the beginning of this conflict in 2014. However, he has warned the West against the use of such weapons. I will remind you that on 24 August, Liz Truss declared that it was acceptable to strike Russia with nuclear weapons, and that she was ready to do so, even if it would lead to a “global annihilation!” This is not the first time that the current British Prime Minister has made such a statement, which had already prompted warnings from the Kremlin in February. Moreover, I would like to remind you that in April of this year, Joe Biden decided to depart from the US “no-first use” policy and thus reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first.
So clearly, Vladimir Putin does not trust Western behaviour that is totally irrational and irresponsible, and which is ready to sacrifice its own citizens in order to achieve objectives guided by dogmatism and ideology. This is what is happening in the field of energy and sanctions at the moment, and this is what Liz Truss is ready to do with nuclear weapons. Putin is certainly worried about the reactions of our leaders who are in increasingly uncomfortable situations because of the catastrophic economic and social situation they have created by their incompetence. This pressure on our leaders could lead them to escalate the conflict just to avoid losing face.
In his speech, Vladimir Putin does not threaten to use nuclear weapons, but other types of weapons. He is of course thinking of hypersonic weapons, which do not need to be nuclear to be effective and which can thwart Western defences. Moreover, contrary to what our media say, the use of tactical nuclear weapons is no longer in the Russian employment doctrine for many years. Moreover, unlike the United States, Russia has a no-first-use policy.
In other words, it is the Westerners and their erratic behaviour that are the real factors of insecurity.
I am not sure that our politicians have a clear and objective view of the situation. Ignazio Cassis’ recent tweets show that his level of information is low. First of all, when he mentions Switzerland’s role and neutrality in offering its good offices, he is a bit out of touch with geography. In Russia’s mind, Switzerland has abandoned its neutrality status and if it wants to play a constructive role in this conflict, it will have to demonstrate its neutrality. We are a long, long way from that.
Secondly, when Cassis expressed his concern about the use of nuclear weapons to Lavrov, he clearly did not understand Vladimir Putin’s message. The problem with today’s Western leaders is that none of them currently has the intellectual capacity to deal with the challenges that they themselves have created through their own foolishness. Cassis would probably have been better advised to express his concerns to Truss and Biden!
The Russians—and Vladimir Putin in particular—have always been very clear in their statements and have consistently and methodically done what they said they would do. No more, no less. One can of course disagree with what he says, but it is a major and probably even criminal mistake not to listen to what he says. For if we had listened, we could have prevented the situation becoming what it is.
It is also interesting to compare the current general situation with what was described in the RAND Corporation reports published in 2019 as the blueprint for trying to destabilise Russia.
As we can see, what we are witnessing is the result of a carefully planned scenario. It is very likely that the Russians were able to anticipate what the West was planning against them. Russia was thus able to prepare itself politically and diplomatically for the crisis that was to be created. It is this capacity for strategic anticipation that shows that Russia is more stable, more effective and more efficient than the West. This is why I think that if this conflict is going to escalate, it will be more because of Western incompetence than because of a Russian calculation.
In this latest discussion, Jacques Baud explains the current situation in regards to the Ukraine conflict, while keeping an eye on the larger geopolitical maneuvering that is now taking place. Colonel Baud speaks with Thomas Kaiser of Zeitgeschehen im Fokus, the Swiss journal, through whose kind courtesy, we are able to bring you this interview.
Thomas Kaiser (TK): You have worked for NATO and know the mechanisms of this organization very well. What does “Nato enlargement” mean in the current situation?
Jacques Baud (JB): In fact, despite the emphatic statements, the situation has not really changed. First of all, it must be understood that the announcement of the candidacies of Sweden and Finland is essentially political. The Madrid Summit merely accepted the candidacies of these two countries. I recall that according to Article 10 of the Washington Treaty, it is NATO that invites new members, not the new members that decide to join the Alliance. NATO needed a “small success.” The forces it has funded and trained for eight years in Ukraine are failing against Russia. The problem is not the determination of the Ukrainian soldiers, who are certainly brave, but the inability of the military staffs to fight a war in a European tactical-operational environment. As a result, the Ukrainian military failure is therefore essentially also the failure of NATO. Added to this are the Western sanctions which tend to backfire on our economies. Thus creating a situation that has already impacted the governments of Bulgaria, Estonia, the UK, France, the Netherlands… and it is probably not over.
TK: How long will it be before the two states are definitely accepted into NATO?
JB: We will have to wait for the next NATO summit in 2023. Then the allies will decide whether to accept – or not – the actual membership of Sweden and Finland. But I expect that it will be done according to plan.
TK: What is the role of Turkey, which wanted to prevent membership?
JB: First of all, Turkey is not trying to “prevent” the membership of Sweden and Finland, but to preserve its own national interests. Secondly, it should be remembered that the admission of new member countries can only be done with the unanimity of the allies. In other words, every vote counts. Turkey is a staunch ally of the Alliance, which is not afraid to assert its national interests. I have worked a lot with the Turks during my time at NATO. One can agree or disagree with their policies, but one must recognize that they are probably the most consistent and honest members of the Alliance in asserting their interests.
TK: Can you give a specific example?
JB: Yes, when the United States wanted to launch its war in Iraq, Turkey opposed it because it felt that it would have an impact on the situation of the Kurds and thus on its own national security. But the Americans did not listen. Today, Turkey is arguing for its national security. Sweden and Finland have always been very supportive of the Kurds and have taken in many refugees, including members of the PKK, the Kurdish Workers’ Party, which is considered as a terrorist movement in many countries. In fact, even the European Union considers the PKK a terrorist organization . For Turkey, it is a matter of national security. It was therefore quite predictable that Turkey would ask for its own security interests in exchange for its voice. What is true for the Nordic countries is also true for Turkey.
TK: Why did Turkey withdraw its veto for the time being?
JB: First of all, it was to be expected that Turkey would not use its de facto veto right. The stakes are too high for NATO. It was clear that Turkey would be pressured to accept the candidacy of the two countries. Turkey is already subject to sanctions by the United States for having “dared” to buy Russian anti-aircraft missiles. It should be noted that the United States automatically applies sanctions to all countries that buy Russian military equipment. This is the CAATSA Act . This is why Turkey was taken out of the F-35 fighter program and no longer receives spare parts for its F-16 fighters. So, it was easy to trade the lifting of sanctions for its approval. But this also shows that Western unity is achieved through the threat of sanctions!
TK: In the Western media, the future membership of the two states to NATO is being celebrated as a great increase in security and military clout. Is this assessment correct?
JB: No, it will not be a radical change. First of all, you have to know that in the early 1960s, Sweden wanted to have nuclear weapons. The United States, on the other hand, wanted to keep its monopoly over these weapons. In order to convince Sweden to give up, the United States offered to provide its nuclear umbrella protection in case of aggression. In other words, since the 1960s, Sweden had the same nuclear protection as NATO members, without the same obligations in case of conflict. So Sweden has not significantly improved its security.
TK: And what advantage does NATO have?
JB: For NATO, Sweden’s membership provides the advantage of having full control over the Baltic Sea passages to the Atlantic Ocean. But this is a very relative gain. For it is Denmark that really occupies a key position, and the military collaboration between Denmark and Sweden, especially for maritime control, works well. It should be remembered that Sweden claimed for years that it was the target of clandestine Russian submarine warfare. As a result, there was intense cooperation in anti-submarine warfare around the Baltic Sea, in order to identify secret Russian weapons. But they never found anything: in fact, it was herring flatulence, which produced the same sound signal as submarines!…
TK: Even if this does little for either side, it does have an outward effect.
JB: The membership of Sweden and Finland is certainly a political signal. NATO obviously sees it as a success. But the reality is more nuanced. For the two Nordic countries, I don’t think it is an improvement of their situation. They have the same advantages as before, but with additional constraints. But here too we have to be careful. It is unlikely that the United States would use its nuclear weapons on Russian territory just to protect Helsinki or Stockholm: this would create a direct threat from Russia against Washington or New York. Instead, they would more likely use theater weapons against attacking forces on Swedish or Finnish territory. In other words, by joining NATO, these two countries have increased the risk of being caught in a nuclear conflict.
TK: Don’t the two countries also have to make concessions?
JB: On the diplomatic front, Sweden and Finland have to expect a loss of the credibility they enjoyed thanks to their neutral or non-aligned status, especially in the non-European world.
In terms of their foreign and humanitarian policy, the price demanded by Turkey is very high, since it means no less than giving up their policy towards the Kurds. We do not know if they will fulfill their commitment to Turkey, but it is likely that they will have to do so, as this is an issue that Turkey perceives as existential.
TK: We are reading less and less about Ukraine’s “military successes” in the mainstream media. Did these ever exist or was the whole thing pure propaganda?
JB: Our media are slowly beginning to portray a more nuanced reality than they have done since February. The irony of this is that by never questioning the Ukrainian government’s narrative and by simply relaying its propaganda, our media have contributed significantly to the overconfidence that led to its defeat. As I have said from the beginning, our media bears a tremendous responsibility for the course of the war and the Ukrainian defeat.
TK: What do you mean?
JB: Our media never tried to help Ukraine, but to fight Russia. Don’t forget that a Norwegian researcher revealed that a journalist described as a “Swiss-French conspiracy theorist” working with some mainstream media that “blacklisted” me in Switzerland, inspired Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik, who is celebrated as a hero by most right-wing militant groups in Ukraine.
TK: Why is the war dragging on for so long, and why is Ukraine making no attempt to reach a negotiated settlement with Russia?
JB: The West and the Ukrainian far-right extremists are literally preventing Zelensky from reaching an agreement with Russia. This is what Boris Johnson went to tell Zelensky in Kiev on April 9: “If you negotiate with Russia we will stop delivering arms to you!”
TK: Can we tell from the Russians’ actions what the ultimate goal of this operation is supposed to be?
JB: No, we do not know. But it is important to understand that Russia’s objectives are not quantitative, but qualitative in nature. In other words, it is not about gaining territory, but about destroying the threat against the Russian-speaking populations of Donbass and Crimea. Being a bit cynical, one could say that the Russians do not need to advance to achieve their goals, but only need to let the Ukrainian military come to them. According to Ukrainian officials, Ukraine is losing 1,000 men a day (killed, wounded, prisoners or deserters). The British have started a training program for new soldiers and promise to train 10’000 men in 120 days. In other words, they will train in 120 days what Ukraine loses in ten days. We are not helping Ukraine: we are pushing it towards disaster.
TK: Der Spiegel writes, “Putin’s soldiers are committing the most serious war crimes.” Do you know more details about this, or does this belong in the realm of propaganda?
JB: I don’t know, because making accusations is not enough, you have to prove them. As Ignazio Cassis, the Swiss Minister of Foreign Affairs, said: “These are not war crimes until a Court of Law rules so.” In the absence of multi-party, international and impartial investigations, these accusations are unsubstantiated. Having said that, it is very likely that Russian military personnel committed war crimes. It happens in all wars and is almost inevitable. Only the Western armies do not seem to commit such crimes. For two reasons: because they do not prosecute their own soldiers and because slaughtering an Arab family is not considered a crime. You can see for yourself that Julian Assange has served more time in prison than the perpetrators of the war crimes he exposed! This tells you everything about the so-called “values” we defend!
TK: When you read the Western media, you inevitably get the feeling that only the Russians are committing war crimes.
JB: The problem is that our media NEVER mention Ukrainian war crimes. As a matter of fact, we mention Russian war crimes, while in Eastern Ukraine the Russians are often welcomed as liberators. But that too, we do not want to say: the German journalist Alina Lipp, who is on the ground in the Donbass, has been condemned by the German justice for having dared to say it! Claiming that Ukraine is a democratic country that does not commit war crimes is just a way to legitimize our blind support for the war against Russia.
TK: On July 4th-5th, in Lugano was the so-called reconstruction conference. President Cassis wanted to use it to put himself in the limelight. The media response seems to have been rather limited. What is the point of such a conference?
JB: I think the idea of such a conference is good. The problem is that it is totally premature. How to seriously mobilize donors to fund Ukraine’s reconstruction means nothing until we have a clear picture of the final state of affairs. Will Western countries fund the reconstruction of Mariupol? Russia has already started to rebuild the cities damaged by the war. In Mariupol, schools have reopened since May and the Russians have already started to rebuild the destroyed residential buildings. Russia has restored banking services as well as telephone services. This is certainly in the realm of propaganda, but for the inhabitants it is a concrete result.
TK: How is such a conference compatible with Switzerland’s neutrality?
JB: As a matter of principle, I think that by organizing such a conference, Switzerland plays its role. The problem here is that in this particular case, this conference is essentially partisan and its real purpose is propaganda.
TK: Are there countries that are currently trying to find a negotiated solution to the Ukraine conflict, or is only the logic of weapons speaking?
JB: This is probably what all Ukrainians are asking themselves. But do not forget that in May 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was threatened with death by his own neo-Nazi partners if he concluded peace with Russia. By the way, our media and our leaders also say that we should not negotiate with Vladimir Putin. So…
TK: Mr. Baud, thank you very much for the interview.
Featured: “Let us beat Swords into Ploughshares,” bronze, by Evgeniy Vuchetich; dated 1959.
In this penetrating interview, Jacques Baud delves into geopolitics to help us better understand what is actually taking place in the Ukraine, in that it is ultimately the larger struggle for global dominance, led by the United States, NATO and the political leaders of the West and against Russia.
As always, Colonel Baud brings to bear his well-informed analysis, which is unique for its depth and gravity. We are sure that you will find this conservation informative, insightful and crucial in connecting the dots.
The Postil (TP): We are so very pleased to have you join us for this conversation. Would you please tell us a little about yourself, about your background?
Jacques Baud (JB): Thank you for inviting me! As to my education, I have a master’s degree in Econometrics and postgraduate diplomas in International Relations and in International Security from the Graduate Institute for International relations in Geneva (Switzerland). I worked as strategic intelligence officer in the Swiss Department of Defense, and was in charge of the Warsaw Pact armed forces, including those deployed abroad (such as Afghanistan, Cuba, Angola, etc.) I attended intelligence training in the UK and in the US. Just after the end of the Cold War, I headed for a few years a unit in the Swiss Defense Research and Procurement Agency. During the Rwanda War, because of my military and intelligence background, I was sent to the Democratic Republic of Congo as security adviser to prevent ethnic cleansing in the Rwandan refugee camps.
During my time in the intelligence service, I was in touch with the Afghan resistance movement of Ahmed Shah Masood, and I wrote a small handbook to help Afghans in demining and neutralizing Soviet bomblets. In the mid-1990, the struggle against antipersonnel mines became a foreign policy priority of Switzerland. I proposed to create a center that would collect information about landmines and demining technologies for the UN. This led to the creation of the Geneva International Center for Humanitarian Demining in Geneva. I was later offered to head the Policy and Doctrine Unit of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations. After two years in New York, I went to Nairobi to perform a similar job for the African Union.
Then I was assigned to NATO to counter the proliferation of small arms. Switzerland is not a member of the Alliance, but this particular position had been negotiated as a Swiss contribution to the Partnership for Peace with NATO. In 2014, as the Ukraine crisis unfolded, I monitored the flow of small arms in the Donbass. Later, in the same year I was involved in a NATO program to assist the Ukrainian armed forces in restoring their capacities and improving personnel management, with the aim of restoring trust in them.
TP: You have written two insightful articles about the current conflict in the Ukraine, which we had the great privilege to translate and publish (here and here). Was there a particular event or an instance which led you to formulate this much-needed perspective?
JB: As a strategic intelligence officer, I always advocated providing to the political or military decision-makers the most accurate and the most objective intelligence. This is the kind of job where you need to keep you prejudice and your feelings to yourself, in order to come up with an intelligence that reflects as much as possible the reality on the ground rather than your own emotions or beliefs. I also assume that in a modern democratic State decision must be fact-based. This is the difference with autocratic political systems where decision-making is ideology-based (such as in the Marxist States) or religion-based (such as in the French pre-revolutionary monarchy).
Thanks to my various assignments, I was able to have an insider view in most recent conflicts (such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Syria and, of course, Ukraine). The main common aspect between all these conflicts is that we tend to have a totally distorted understanding of them. We do not understand our enemies, their rationale, their way of thinking and their real objectives. Hence, we are not even able to articulate sound strategies to fight them. This is especially true with Russia. Most people, including the top brass, tend to confuse “Russia” and “USSR.” As I was in NATO, I could hardly find someone who could explain what Russia’s vision of the world is or even its political doctrine. Lot of people think Vladimir Putin is a communist. We like to call him a “dictator,” but we have a hard time to explain what we mean by that. As examples, people come up invariably with the assassination of such and such journalist or former FSB or GRU agents, although evidence is extremely debatable. In other words, even if it is true, we are not able to articulate exactly the nature of the problem. As a result, we tend to portray the enemy as we wished him to be, rather than as he actually is. This is the ultimate recipe for failure. This explains why, after five years spent within NATO, I am more concerned about Western strategic and military capabilities than before.
In 2014, during the Maidan revolution in Kiev, I was in NATO in Brussels. I noticed that people didn’t assess the situation as it was, but as they wished it would be. This is exactly what Sun Tzu describes as the first step towards failure. In fact, it appeared clear to me that nobody in NATO had the slightest interest in Ukraine. The main goal was to destabilize Russia.
TP: How do you perceive Volodymyr Zelensky? Who is he, really? What is his role in this conflict? It seems he wants to have a “forever war,” since he must know he cannot win? Why does he want to prolong this conflict?
JB: Volodymyr Zelensky was elected on the promise he would make peace with Russia, which I think is a noble objective. The problem is that no Western country, nor the European Union managed to help him realize this objective. After the Maidan revolution, the emerging force in the political landscape was the far-right movement. I do not like to call it “neo-Nazi” because “Nazism” was a clearly defined political doctrine, while in Ukraine, we are talking about a variety of movements that combine all the features of Nazism (such as antisemitism, extreme nationalism, violence, etc.), without being unified into a single doctrine. They are more like a gathering of fanatics.
After 2014, Ukrainian armed forces’ command & control was extremely poor and was the cause of their inability to handle the rebellion in Donbass. Suicide, alcohol incidents, and murder surged, pushing young soldiers to defect. Even the British government noted that young male individuals preferred to emigrate rather than to join the armed forces. As a result, Ukraine started to recruit volunteers to enforce Kiev’s authority in the Russian speaking part of the country. These volunteers ere (and still are) recruited among European far-right extremists. According to Reuters, their number amounts to 102,000. They have become a sizeable and influential political force in the country.
The problem here is that these far-right fanatics threatened to kill Zelensky were he to try to make peace with Russia. As a result, Zelensky found himself sitting between his promises and the violent opposition of an increasingly powerful far-right movement. In May 2019, on the Ukrainian media Obozrevatel, Dmytro Yarosh, head of the “Pravy Sektor” militia and adviser to the Army Commander in Chief, openly threatened Zelensky with death, if he came to an agreement with Russia. In other words, Zelensky appears to be blackmailed by forces he is probably not in full control of.
In October 2021, the Jerusalem Post published a disturbing report on the training of Ukrainian far-right militias by American, British, French and Canadian armed forces. The problem is that the “collective West” tends to turn a blind eye to these incestuous and perverse relationships in order to achieve its own geopolitical goals. It is supported by unscrupulous far-right biased medias against Israel, which tend to approve the criminal behavior of these militias. This situation has repeatedly raised Israel’s concerns. This explains why Zelensky’s demands to the Israeli parliament in March 2022 were not well received and have not been successful.
Apparently, Zelensky is trying to navigate between Western pressure and his far right on the one hand and his concern to find a solution on the other, and is forced into a ” back-and-forth,” which discourages the Russian negotiators.
In fact, I think Zelensky is in an extreme uncomfortable position, which reminds me of Soviet Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky’s during WWII. Rokossovsky had been imprisoned in 1937 for treason and sentenced to death by Stalin. In 1941, he got out of prison on Stalin’s orders and was given a command. He was eventually promoted to Marshall of the Soviet Union in 1944, but his death sentence was not lifted until 1956.
Today, Zelensky must lead his country under the sword of Damocles, with the blessing of Western politicians and unethical media. His lack of political experience made him an easy prey for those who were trying to exploit Ukraine against Russia, and in the hands of extreme right-wing movements. As he acknowledges in an interview with CNN, he was obviously lured into believing that Ukraine would enter NATO more easily after an open conflict with Russia, as Oleksey Arestovich, his adviser, confirmed in 2019.
TP: What do you think will be the fate of the Ukraine? Will it be like all the other experiments in “spreading democracy” (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc.)? Or is Ukraine a special case?
JB: I have definitely no crystal ball… At this stage, we can only guess what Vladimir Putin wants. He probably wants to achieve two main goals. The first one is to secure the situation of the Russian-speaking minority in Ukraine. How, remains an open question. Does he want to re-create the “Novorossiya” that tried to emerge from the 2014 unrests? This “entity” that never really existed, and it consisted of the short-lived Republics of Odessa, Donetsk, Dnepropetrovsk, Kharkov and Lugansk, of which only the Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk “survived.” The autonomy referendum planned for early May in the city of Kherson might be an indication for this option. Another option would be to negotiate an autonomous status for these areas, and to return them to Ukraine in exchange of its neutrality. The second goal is to have a neutral Ukraine (some will say a “Finlandized Ukraine”). That is—without NATO. It could be some kind of Swiss “armed neutrality.” As you know, in the early 19th century, Switzerland had a neutral status imposed on it by the European powers, as well as the obligation to prevent any misuse of its territory against one of these powers. This explains the strong military tradition we have in Switzerland and the main rationale for its armed forces today. Something similar could probably be considered for Ukraine.
An internationally recognized neutral status would grant Ukraine a high degree of security. This status prevented Switzerland from being attacked during the two world wars. The often-mentioned example of Belgium is misleading, because during both world wars, its neutrality was declared unilaterally and was not recognized by the belligerents. In the case of Ukraine, it would have its own armed forces, but would be free from any foreign military presence: neither NATO, nor Russia. This is just my guess, and I have no clue about how this could be feasible and accepted in the current polarized international climate.
I am not sure about the so-called “color-revolutions” aim at spreading democracy. My take is that it is just a way to weaponize human rights, the rule of law or democracy in order to achieve geo-strategic objectives. In fact, this was clearly spelled out in a memo to Rex Tillerson, Donald Trump’s Secretary of State, in 2017. Ukraine is a case in point. After 2014, despite Western influence, it has never been a democracy: corruption soared between 2014 and 2020; in 2021, it banned opposition media and jailed the leader of the main parliamentary opposition party. As some international organizations have reported, torture is a common practice, and opposition leaders as well as journalists are chased by the Ukrainian Security Service.
TP: Why is the West only interested in drawing a simplistic image of the Ukraine conflict? That of “good guys” and the “bad guys?” Is the Western public really now that dumbed down?
JB: I think this is inherent to any conflict. Each side tends to portray itself as the “good guy.” This is obviously the main reason.
Besides this, other factors come into play. First, most people, including politicians and journalists, still confuse Russia and the USSR. For instance, they don’t understand why the communist party is the main opposition party in Russia.
Second, since 2007, Putin was systematically demonized in the West. Whether or not he is a “dictator” Is a matter of discussion; but it is worth noting that his approval rate in Russia never fell below 59 % in the last 20 years. I take my figures from the Levada Center, which is labeled as “foreign agent” in Russia, and hence doesn’t reflect the Kremlin’s views. It is also interesting to see that in France, some of the most influential so-called “experts” on Russia are in fact working for the British MI-6’s “Integrity Initiative.”
Third, in the West, there is a sense that you can do whatever you want if it is in the name of western values. This is why the Russian offensive in Ukraine is passionately sanctioned, while FUKUS (France, UK, US) wars get strong political support, even if they are notoriously based on lies. “Do what I say, not what I do!” One could ask what makes the conflict in Ukraine worse than other wars. In fact, each new sanction we apply to Russia highlights the sanctions we haven’t applied earlier to the US, the UK or France.
The purpose of this incredible polarization is to prevent any dialogue or negotiation with Russia. We are back to what happened in 1914, just before the start of WWI…
TP: What will Russia gain or lose with this involvement in the Ukraine (which is likely to be long-term)? Russia is facing a conflict on “two fronts,” it would seem: a military one and an economic one (with the endless sanctions and “canceling” of Russia).
JB: With the end of the Cold War, Russia expected being able to develop closer relations with its Western neighbors. It even considered joining NATO. But the US resisted every attempt of rapprochement. NATO structure does not allow for the coexistence of two nuclear superpowers. The US wanted to keep its supremacy.
Since 2002, the quality of the relations with Russia decayed slowly, but steadily. It reached a first negative “peak” in 2014 after the Maidan coup. The sanctions have become US and EU primary foreign policy tool. The Western narrative of a Russian intervention in Ukraine got traction, although it was never substantiated. Since 2014, I haven’t met any intelligence professional who could confirm any Russian military presence in the Donbass. In fact, Crimea became the main “evidence” of Russian “intervention.” Of course, Western historians ignore superbly that Crimea was separated from Ukraine by referendum in January 1991, six months before Ukrainian independence and under Soviet rule. In fact, it’s Ukraine that illegally annexed Crimea in 1995. Yet, western countries sanctioned Russia for that…
Since 2014 sanctions severely affected east-west relations. After the signature of the Minsk Agreements in September 2014 and February 2015, the West—namely France, Germany as guarantors for Ukraine, and the US—made no effort whatsoever to make Kiev comply, despite repeated requests from Moscow.
Russia’s perception is that whatever it will do, it will face an irrational response from the West. This is why, in February 2022, Vladimir Putin realized he would gain nothing in doing nothing. If you take into account his mounting approval rate in the country, the resilience of the Russian economy after the sanctions, the loss of trust in the US dollar, the threatening inflation in the West, the consolidation of the Moscow-Beijing axis with the support of India (which the US has failed to keep in the “Quad”), Putin’s calculation was unfortunately not wrong.
Regardless of what Russia does, US and western strategy is to weaken it. From that point on, Russia has no real stake in its relations with us. Again, the US objective is not to have a “better” Ukraine or a “better” Russia, but a weaker Russia. But it also shows that the United States is not able to rise higher than Russia and that the only way to overcome it is to weaken it. This should ring an alarm bell in our countries…
JB: In fact, I started my book in October 2021, after a show on French state TV about Vladimir Putin. I am definitely not an admirer of Vladimir Putin, nor of any Western leader, by the way. But the so-called experts had so little understanding of Russia, international security and even of simple plain facts, that I decided to write a book. Later, as the situation around Ukraine developed, I adjusted my approach to cover this mounting conflict. The idea was definitely not to relay Russian propaganda. In fact, my book is based exclusively on western sources, official reports, declassified intelligence reports, Ukrainian official medias, and reports provided by the Russian opposition. The approach was to demonstrate that we can have a sound and factual alternative understanding of the situation just with accessible information and without relying on what we call “Russian propaganda.”
The underlying thinking is that we can only achieve peace if we have a more balanced view of the situation. To achieve this, we have to go back to the facts. Now, these facts exist and are abundantly available and accessible. The problem is that some individuals make every effort to prevent this and tend to hide the facts that disturb them. This is exemplified by some so-called journalist who dubbed me “The spy who loved Putin!” This is the kind of “journalists” who live from stirring tensions and extremism. All figures and data provided by our media about the conflict come from Ukraine, and those coming from Russia are automatically dismissed as propaganda. My view is that both are propaganda. But as soon as you come up with western data that do not fit into the mainstream narrative, you have extremists claiming you “love Putin.”
Our media are so worried about finding rationality in Putin’s actions that they turn a blind eye to the crimes committed by Ukraine, thus generating a feeling of impunity for which Ukrainians are paying the price. This is the case of the attack on civilians by a missile in Kramatorsk—we no longer talk about it because the responsibility of Ukraine is very likely, but this means that the Ukrainians could do it again with impunity.
On the contrary, my book aims at reducing the current hysteria that prevent any political solution. I do not want to deny the Ukrainians the right to resist the invasion with arms. If I were Ukrainian, I would probably take the arms to defend my land. The issue here is that it must be their decision. The role of the international community should not be to add fuel to the fire by supplying arms but to promote a negotiated solution.
To move in this direction, we must make the conflict dispassionate and bring it back into the realm of rationality. In any conflict the problems come from both sides; but here, strangely, our media show us that they all come from one side only. This is obviously not true; and, in the end, it is the Ukrainian people who pay the price of our policy against Vladimir Putin.
TP: Why is Putin hated so much by the Western elite?
JB: Putin became Western elite’s “bête noire” in 2007 with his famous speech in Munich. Until then, Russia had only moderately reacted to NATO expansion. But as the US withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002 and started negotiations with some East European countries to deploy anti-ballistic missiles, Russia felt the heat and Putin virulently criticized the US and NATO.
This was the start of a relentless effort to demonize Vladimir Putin and to weaken Russia. The problem was definitely not human rights or democracy, but the fact that Putin dared to challenge the western approach. The Russians have in common with the Swiss the fact that they are very legalistic. They try to strictly follow the rules of international law. They tend to follow “law-based International order.” Of course, this is not the image we have, because we are used to hiding certain facts. Crimea is a case in point.
In the West, since the early 2000s, the US has started to impose a “rules-based international order.” As an example, although the US officially recognizes that there is only one China and that Taiwan is only a part of it, it maintains a military presence on the island and supplies weapons. Imagine if China would supply weapons to Hawaii (which was illegally annexed in the 19th century)!
What the West is promoting is an international order based on the “law of the strongest.” As long as the US was the sole superpower, everything was fine. But as soon as China and Russia started to emerge as world powers, the US tried to contain them. This is exactly what Joe Biden said in March 2021, shortly after taking office: “The rest of the world is closing in and closing in fast. We can’t allow this to continue.”
As Henry Kissinger said in the Washington Post: “For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” This is why I felt we need to have a more factual approach to this conflict.
TP: Do you know who was involved and when it was decided by the US and NATO that regime change in Russia was a primary geopolitical objective?
JB: I think everything started in the early 2000s. I am not sure the objective was a regime change in Moscow, but it was certainly to contain Russia. This is what we have witnessed since then. The 2014 events in Kiev have boosted US efforts.
These were clearly defined in 2019, in two publications of the RAND Corporation [James Dobbins, Raphael S. Cohen, Nathan Chandler, Bryan Frederick, Edward Geist, Paul DeLuca, Forrest E. Morgan, Howard J. Shatz, Brent Williams, “Extending Russia : Competing from Advantageous Ground,” RAND Corporation, 2019; James Dobbins & al., “Overextending and Unbalancing Russia,” RAND Corporation, (Doc Nr. RB-10014-A), 2019]. .This has nothing to do with the rule of law, democracy or human rights, but only with maintaining US supremacy in the world. In other words, nobody cares about Ukraine. This is why the international community (that is, Western countries) make every effort to prolong the conflict.
Since 2014, this is exactly what happened. Everything the West did was to fulfill US strategic objectives.
TP: In this regard, you have also written another interesting book, on Alexei Navalny. Please tell us about what you have found out about Navalny.
JB: What disturbed me about the Navalny case was the haste with which Western governments condemned Russia and applied sanctions, even before knowing the results of an impartial investigation. So, my point in the book is not “to tell truth,” because we do not know exactly what the truth is, even if we have consistent indications that the official narrative is wrong. The interesting aspect is that the German doctors in the Charité Hospital in Berlin, were not able to identify any nerve agent in Navalny’s body. Surprisingly, they published their findings in the respected medical review The Lancet, showing that Navalny probably experienced a bad combination of medicine and other substances.
The bottom line is that we don’t know exactly what happened, but the nature of the symptoms, the reports of the German doctors, the answers provided by the German government to the Parliament, and the puzzling Swedish document tend to exclude a criminal poisoning, and therefore, a fortiori, poisoning by the Russian government.
The main point of my book is that international relations cannot be “Twitter-driven.” We need to use appropriately our intelligence resources, not as a propaganda instrument, as we tend to do these days, but as an instrument for smart and fact-based decision-making.
TP: You have much experience within NATO. What do you think is the primary role of NATO now?
JB: This is an essential question. In fact, NATO hasn’t really evolved since the end of the Cold War. This is interesting because in 1969, there was the “Harmel Report” that was ahead of its time and could be the fundament of a new definition of NATO’s role. Instead, NATO tried to find new missions, such as in Afghanistan, for which the Alliance was not prepared, neither intellectually, nor doctrinally, nor from a strategic point of view.
Having a collective defense system in Europe is necessary, but the nuclear dimension of NATO tends to restrict its ability to engage a conventional conflict with a nuclear power. This is the problem we are witnessing in Ukraine. This is why Russia strives having a “glacis” between NATO and its territory. This would probably not prevent conflicts but would help keep them as long as possible in a conventional phase. This is why I think a non-nuclear European defense organization would be a good solution.
TP: Do you think that NATO’s proxy war with Russia serves to placate internal EU tensions, between conservative Central/Eastern Europe and the more progressive West?
JB: Some will certainly see it that way, but I think this is only a by-product of the US strategy to isolate Russia.
TP: Can you say something about how Turkey has positioned itself, between NATO and Russia?
JB: I have worked quite extensively with Turkey as I was in NATO. I think Turkey is a very committed member of the Alliance. What we tend to forget is that Turkey is at the crossroads between the “Christian World” and the “Islamic World;” it sits between two civilizations and in a key region of the Mediterranean zone. It has its own regional stakes.
The conflicts waged by the West in the Middle East significantly impacted Turkey, by promoting Islamism and stimulating tensions, in particular with the Kurds. Turkey has always tried to maintain a balance between its desire for Western-style modernization and the very strong traditionalist tendencies of its population. Turkey’s opposition to the Iraq War due to domestic security concerns was totally ignored and dismissed by the US and its NATO Allies.
Interestingly, when Zelensky sought a country to mediate the conflict, he turned to China, Israel and Turkey, but didn’t address any EU country.
TP: If you were to predict, what do you think the geopolitical situation of Europe and the world will look like 25 years from now?
JB: Who would have predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall? The day it happened, I was in the office of a National Security Adviser in Washington DC, but he had no clue about the importance of the event!
I think the decay of US hegemony will be the main feature of the next decades. At the same time, we will see a fast-growing importance of Asia led by China and India. But I am not sure Asia will “replace” the US strictly speaking. While US worldwide hegemony was driven by its military-industrial complex, Asia’s dominance will be in the research and technology area.
The loss of confidence in the US dollar may have significant impact on the US economy at large. I don’t want to speculate on future developments in the West, but a significant deterioration could lead the United States to engage in more conflicts around the world. This is something that we are seeing today, but it could become more important.
TP: What advice would you give people trying to get a clearer picture of what is really driving competing regional/national and global interests?
JB: I think the situation is slightly different in Europe than in North America.
In Europe, the lack of quality alternative media and real investigative journalism makes it difficult to find balanced information. The situation is different in North America where alternative journalism is more developed and constitutes an indispensable analytical tool. In the United States, the intelligence community is more present in the media than in Europe.
I probably could not have written my book based only on the European media. At the end of the day, the advice I would give is a fundamental one of intelligence work:
TP: Thank you so very much for your time—and for all your great work.
Featured image: Detail from the “Siege of Sevastopol,” by Franz Roubaud; painted 1902-1904.
On February 24, the Russian armed forces launched a lightning offensive on Ukraine. This attack was preceded by a bombardment carried out by cruise missiles, including 3M14E Kalibr, KH-555 and KH-101, 9M728 Iskander-K semi-ballistic missiles and KH-31P anti-radar missiles. These missiles targeted Ukrainian air bases, ground/air defense sites, air surveillance radar sites and command posts. Barely 4 hours later, Russian ground forces crossed the Ukrainian border while a particularly daring and risky helicopter assault was launched against the Hostomel airport.
Several hundred missiles were launched during these first hours, destroying on the ground a good part of the Ukrainian fighter force—which had been spread over several bases—the main long-range ground/air defense sites made up of S-300 systems, as well as a good number of air surveillance radars. If this first phase strongly resembled the operations carried out by Western forces, the rest was radically different.
Partial and Short-Lived Air Superiority
An offensive preceded by the firing of cruise missiles and anti-radar missiles to eliminate strategic sites and ground/air defenses is not original in itself. It is the prerequisite for all military operations. However, completely neutralizing a ground/air defense and all enemy combat aircraft is generally a long-term operation, lasting from several days to several weeks. And even then, this work is almost never completely finished. During the Kosovo war, despite 58,574 air missions over 78 days—including 4,397 missions to suppress enemy air defenses—neither Serbian fighter aircraft nor ground/air defense were completely neutralized. However, the Serbian ground/air defense and its air force had nothing to compare with what Ukraine can offer, which is much better equipped, both in quantity and quality, not to mention the size of the country.
This first phase of the Russian attack was nevertheless likely to neutralize for a few hours the bulk of the enemy’s fighter and ground/air defense; but it was very far from being able to neutralize all the available means.
The Ukrainian fighter aircraft seem to have been hit hard during this first phase; the number of flights remained relatively low afterwards, which seems to indicate that there were few aircraft left able to take to the air. It is unclear whether the Ukrainian aircraft that continued to fly were operating from their air bases or from secondary runways or routes. In the latter case, the ability to operate the aircraft must have decreased rapidly, as it is very complicated to maintain and refuel sophisticated aircraft, such as combat aircraft outside their support infrastructure. Apart from the losses suffered in combat, this could also explain the slow but gradual disappearance of Ukrainian fighter aircraft from the sky.
The Ukrainian ground/air defense has proven to be much more difficult to neutralize. Not only were not all Ukrainian S-300 systems deployed on the ground—so that a number of the 20 or so S-300 systems in the field were in reserve—but all short- and medium-range systems were generally protected from strikes. In fact, the Ukrainian ground/air defense could still count on a few S-300 batteries and also on several hundred short- and medium-range systems (2K12 KUB (SA-6), 9K37 BUK (SA-11), 9K30 TOR-M1 (SA-15), 9K33M2 Osa-AK (SA-8), 9K35 STRELA-10 (SA-13), and hundreds of MANPADS (SA-7, SA-14, SA-16 and SA-18). Nevertheless, it seems that the air surveillance radar network was durably affected, at least on the eastern part of the country; which means that Ukraine probably did not have a complete air situation anymore. Without this, it is much more difficult to set up a structured anti-aircraft defense. Each weapon system also becomes more vulnerable because it must operate its own surveillance radar and thus reveal its presence, instead of taking advantage of a remote air situation that allows the system to be activated only when a target is in range.
Nevertheless, this partial neutralization and of short duration (a few hours), appeared sufficient for the blitzkrieg hoped for by the Russians. But the failure of the helicopter operation on the Hostomel airport greatly complicated the continuation of the operations.
Russia Facing Ukrainian Ground/Air Defense
As the numerous images broadcast on the internet show, the Ukrainian ground/air defense remains active and is capable of shooting down planes, helicopters and even cruise missiles.
Having engaged its ground forces very quickly without having air superiority, the Russian army found itself very exposed. As a result, Russian helicopters and attack aircraft were forced to take on ground support for the troops, despite the threats, hence the losses suffered. The weather conditions—low ceiling, fog—also hampered air operations. All this may also explain the relative discretion of Russian fighter aircraft during the first days of the conflict.
The lack of guided ammunition also forced the Russian fighter aircraft to operate at low altitude. It should be remembered that a guided munition costs between 100 and 600 times more than an unguided one, and that the Russians have favored the development of bombing calculators, such as the SVP-24 or GeFest-24, which allows for an CEP (circular error probable) of around 5 meters for a maximum release altitude of 5,000 meters. This is certainly much less precise than a guided bomb, but it is undoubtedly sufficient in the majority of cases for a much lower cost. The other advantage is that the stocks of smooth bombs are very large and easy to replenish, contrary to guidance kits which take a long time to produce; but this means that the planes are more exposed to ground/air systems.
After a period of uncertainty during the first two weeks, SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) missions seem to have been implemented more systematically in order to progressively reduce the most dangerous systems. Recurrent images of SU-30 aircraft equipped with KH-31P anti-radar missiles have been posted on the internet and the use of E95M target drones to attack Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses is also attested. There have also been reports of the transformation of old AN-2 biplanes into drones to play the same role, but their use has not yet been confirmed. The deployment of electronic warfare aircraft has also been noted in Belarus, suggesting that jamming actions against weapons systems will be implemented.
Nevertheless, given the number of ground/air systems in the Ukrainian arsenal and the many very short-range missiles delivered by the West, Russian aircraft are not in a position to operate without any threat on Ukrainian territory, especially for those operating closest to the ground, such as helicopters or SU-25 and SU-34 attack aircraft. Unless such aircraft are not used, attrition will remain inevitable.
Russian Ground/Air Defense
Russia does not seem to have modified its defensive system; only two or three S-400s seem to have been deployed on Belarusian territory and, a priori, one in the north of Donbass; but none on Ukrainian soil. The ground/air defense around Moscow, Saint Petersburg, the Kaliningrad enclave, Crimea, the Murmansk region and the Russian Far East continues to hold the bulk of the S-400 systems. The rest of the country is still mostly protected by S-300P systems, whose replacement by S-350s is just beginning. This may explain why the OTR-21 Tochkaukrainian missiles launched at the Russian air bases of Tarantog and Millerovo were able to get through, knowing that the former had, for any protection, only an old S-300P located 50 km to the east, which was incapable of handling a ballistic missile, and the latter had no ground/air system within 200 km. The missiles could therefore not be intercepted. Although Russia has one of the densest air defense networks in the world, total anti-aircraft protection is impossible, given the vastness of the territory. Only the most strategic sites are systematically protected. This explains why two Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopters were able to carry out a raid on Belgorod, a city with no strategic installations and therefore no particular means of protection. Air defense is not a kind of magic that can create an invisible shield to protect a territory.
With regard to the invading forces, anti-aircraft cover was provided but in a very incomplete manner. As plethoric as the Russian anti-aircraft arsenal is, it is not sufficient to ensure the protection of all deployed forces. Ground/air systems, such as the Tor-M1, the 2K22M1 Tunguska and the old 9K35 Strela-10 and OSA have been supplemented by systems normally used for static protection, such as the Pantsir-S2, but in insufficient numbers to be able to provide protection for all the armored and supply columns.
Another problem is that Russia is now facing an air threat from drones, such as the TB-2, or the locally built Punisher. These relatively small and slow drones are particularly difficult for ground/air systems to detect while in motion. To be effective, the radars must be in a static position. Indeed, the speed of the vehicle and the movements accompanying it considerably hinder the detection of relatively slow targets because they are drowned in the Doppler speeds of the moving environment. These systems were designed to detect aircraft, missiles or helicopters, moving at much higher speeds and not likely to blend in with the environment. Empirically, we can consider that a drone moving at less than 200 km/h will be very difficult to detect by a moving radar. It should be considered that this problem will be aggravated by the arrival of suicide drones that the Americans are planning to deliver to Ukraine.
Russia has also deployed medium-range ground/air systems, such as the BUK-M1-2, whose interception capabilities are more extensive, with even an anti-ballistic missile capability up to 20 km.
All these anti-aircraft systems, far from having been demerited, have been able to shoot down Ukrainian aircraft and TB-2 drones—at the end of March, 35 of the 36 TB-2s delivered would have been shot down (information to be confirmed) when they were in a position to do so, i.e., in operation and in a fixed position. However, the enormous logistical problems encountered by the Russian army, particularly in terms of refueling, meant that a good number of these ground/air systems were “dry,” which meant that they were mechanically inactive due to a lack of electrical power; hence the number of pieces of equipment abandoned on site. Under these conditions, the Ukrainians were able to widely broadcast images of TB-2 drones destroying ground/air systems, which does not mean, however, that they had defeated them.
The other deficit of the Russian army is in the area of air surveillance. While the Russian territory is dotted with numerous air surveillance radars interconnected with anti-aircraft defense, this is not the case in Ukraine, where ground/air systems are generally isolated, which greatly reduces their overall effectiveness, as they are unable to function as a network and do not benefit from depth in surveillance. It would appear that at least two A-50 radar aircraft have been deployed to Belarus to compensate for this lack.
This is the first time since the Second World War that we are witnessing a high-intensity war in the third dimension in Europe, bringing into direct confrontation two armies with a set of first-rate capabilities (air force, dense and relatively modern ground/air defense, drones) and a more or less similar technological level. Three lessons can already be drawn from this conflict:
Faced with a country richly endowed with ground/air systems, it is impossible to completely eliminate the threat. This means that aircraft flying over the protected territory must accept risks, and therefore inevitably suffer losses. Even old systems remain a threat that should not be neglected;
in addition to missiles, the appearance of drones on the battlefield maintains a permanent air threat, practically impossible to suppress, which requires a respectable number of anti-aircraft/anti-drone systems capable of protecting ground forces, notably armored formations and logistical convoys which are particularly vulnerable;
High-intensity warfare requires a very high consumption of ammunition, which implies that the use of guided ammunition, which is in limited supply due to its price, will be reduced over time. As the rate of industrial production is incompatible with the level of consumption, the air forces will have to rapidly accept the use of unguided munitions (much easier and quicker to produce) and therefore to operate at lower altitudes, i.e., within the firing volume of practically all ground/air systems.
Unlike all Western military operations conducted over the past several decades, where air dominance has always been achieved, a high-intensity war will require aircraft to operate in a constantly contested and threatening space. Losses will be inevitable, and therefore sufficient equipment must be available to deal with attrition. This only serves to remind us of what the relative operational comfort of the last few decades has made us forget—that any military equipment that is supposed to go into combat must be considered “expendable,” if not consumable.
Olivier Dujardin is associate researcher at Centre Français de Recherche sur le Renseignement, and his expertise includes intelligence, technology, weapons, electronic warfare, radar signal processing and weapons systems analysis. We are deeply grateful to Centre Français de Recherche sur le Renseignement for their kind generosity. Translated from the French by N. Dass.