HomeRetired Army 4 Star General and Former CIA Director David Petraeus on Hostomel

General Petraeus, what are your thoughts about the Battle of Hostomel Airport, on how it shaped the war in terms of a strategic perspective – does Hostomel represent a strategic failure or miscalculation of Russia, and did they fail because of their poor tactics, or was their failure more of a function of the Ukrainian defense?

“Well, I think the failure in that battle was a function of both courageous and rapid Ukrainian operations and soldiers who demonstrated initiative, leaders who rode to the sound of the guns, as they say, and exercised initiative to make sure that the Russians could not establish a sufficient airhead at that airport, and also frankly of the lack of execution by the Russian forces.

To put this in perspective, this is a very common operation. In fact, the units in which I was privileged to command the 101st Airborne Division Air Assault and the 82nd Airborne Division.

These are organizations that focus on seizing airfields. The 101st Airborne division by Air Assault, by helicopters, the 82nd Airborne Division by parachute operations, and they’ve done it.  Our airborne and air assault forces have done that routinely in recent decades. If you think about the seizure of the International Airport in Panama, or the smaller airfield that was seized by the Rangers in the Panama operation, the seizure of the airfield in Afghanistan by the Rangers by the 173rd Airborne in Northern Iraq during the invasion of Iraq.

Again, we always want airfields so that we can rapidly bring in, we want to airland more forces so that you can reinforce the airhead. And so that you can be begin bringing in not just additional soldiers, but additional weapons systems, and, above all, additional logistics.

But of course, these objectives can only survive for so long unless they’re able to bring in more.

And there is a ground link up, and of course, in this case the very swift action by Ukrainian forces, the rapid response and the courageous response in the attempt to seize Hostomel and the superb defense that prevented ground forces of Russia from linking up with the Russian forces at the airfield, meant that the Russians were unable to achieve their objective.

So again, this is an operation that should be put into historic context. It’s the kind of operation that militaries have conducted for many, many decades since we’ve been able to conduct airborne operations and air assault operations.

It could have been very important had the Russians been able to establish, to seize and hold that airfield and establish it as a base into which they could bring more soldiers, more weapon systems, more arms, ammunition,  supplies, food, water fuel, you name it, because of course of its proximity to Ukraine. But once again, poor execution by the Russians, superb execution by Ukrainian forces, meant that that operation failed. It was a defeat that contributed, of course, to the ultimate defeat of the Russians in the Battle of Kyiv.”

Building on that, we understand that Hostomel was a tactical failure. So, what does it tell us about Russia’s operational and strategic assumptions that lead to the Russian failure to seize Hostomel?

“First of all, again, since you’re obviously a lieutenant, and we’re talking to a military audience, I think this is not just a tactical failure, this is an operational failure, because it would have had implications far greater than just the tactical success. This would have been operationally significant as part of the overall strategy that Russia was pursuing to try to take control of Kyiv, and ultimately, of course, to topple the Government, which was its overall objective. The number one, the main effort for Russia was to replace President Zelensky and the Ukrainian Government with a pro-Russian figure and pro-Russian officials, and then frankly to go home to Moscow and have a victory parade and obviously the Ukrainian forces prevented that from happening.

So, this is part again of the overall strategy for the main effort of Russian forces in the war, and it turned out that not only was the overall strategy very flawed, the design was really quite horrible, but the execution was even worse.

So let me explain. If this is your main effort, you need to put everything at it instead, depending on how you  count the different axes by which Russian forces entered Ukraine. You obviously had two different axes coming at Kyiv. You had some more again at Sumy and Chernihiv. You had a battle over in the heart of Kyiv. You had forces coming out of the Donbass into Zaporizhzhia, out of Crimea.  Again, this is a very, very broad strategic move into Ukraine, and it did not sufficiently wait the main effort. I mean, that’s just obvious. If they had, if they had achieved victory in Kyiv and toppled the government, then obviously we would have said that their campaign design was very impressive and very effective, and the execution was successful. Obviously, that was not the case.

So, you start with a very flawed overall strategy and even operational concept. And then, when you work your way into the execution of it, you see that the Russians had not trained very rigorously, they’d never achieved true combined arms operations, in other words, tanks that were protected by infantry with artillery to suppress the Ukrainian forces with Anti-Tank guided missiles in the trees and built-up areas on their flanks at night and so forth. They didn’t have Engineers and Explosive Ordinance at disposal to reduce the obstacles that Ukrainian forces in place and keeping in mind of course that President Zelensky only mobilized about 24 hours prior. So, again I was worried that there would not be enough time to in place all of the obstacles.

So, you know I’ve done defense in my life, and obviously a lot of offense as well. And the more time you have, time is precious, the better your chances are that your defense will succeed. And so again Ukrainian forces are still scrambling by the time that the Russians began pouring into the country, albeit along roads, because of course, the ground was soft and trafficability, especially for wheel vehicles, was very, very poor. But beyond that the Russians didn’t integrate close air support very effectively. They didn’t Integrate electronic warfare, their command-and-control systems were on HF single channel, non-secure, which means that any Ukrainian with a police scanner can find them and jam them or record them if they’re criticizing their officers and then upload that on social media.

Director of the CIA David Petraeus addresses the Academy of Achievement at the Top of the Hay during the 2012 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C. (© Academy of Achievement)

Their logistics were abysmal. We’ve all known that Russians are not structured adequately for logistics once they leave the rail lines, that proved out, and of course we saw the flaws in a system that is top-down that does not promote initiative by young commissioned and non-commissioned officers noting that the young non-commissioned officers aren’t professional. They don’t have a professional non-commission officer corps the way that the US and Western armies do in the way that frankly Ukraine is seeking, has been seeking to develop, and I should just note that I watched the development of Ukrainian forces from my first trip to Ukraine – gosh, all the way back, actually, I was there, believe it or not, during the USSR days when Field Marshall Gromov met us at the airport.

But then subsequent to the collapse of the Soviet Union was out in Lviv the training area, of course, also Kiev, down in Crimea when it was still Ukrainian controlled. And then watched over the years, and I went to the front lines and the Donbas. I went to Kyiv, talked to all the leaders in Kharkiv.

It was very clear how impressively Ukrainian forces were developing. I think the Russians completely underestimated, didn’t appreciate what had been done, and also didn’t appreciate the early supplies of very sophisticated shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles and shoulder launched, anti-tank guided missiles, which played a very decisive role early on in this campaign.

So, what I’ve done is enumerate a host of ways in which the Russians proved to be very shockingly inept and unprofessional. I am particularly stunned frankly, as someone who spent months preparing for invasion of a country for example, say the invasion of Iraq, when I was the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, we used every minute that we had to rehearse. Every operational and logistical, and often it was the logistical tasks that were far more challenging. How do you establish a refueling point in the middle of the desert 100 miles into another, into an enemy country with big bags, and bulldozers. And you bulldozed a road, and you have to get, you know, hundreds of 5,000-gallon tankers. We pumped 500,000 gallons of JP8, this multi-fuel just from the first location, just in the first two weeks, and we had to set it all up in the middle of just open desert.

That takes a lot of training. The Russians never could have remotely done that. They didn’t achieve combined arms effects which tells me all that time that supposedly they were doing maneuvers on your borders in Russia, and also in Belarus they weren’t taking advantage of that training time. They’re basically hanging out; they were camping out.

There’s a real lesson there for junior leaders in particular, but leaders all the way up the line, if you have time before operations, make the most of it, because you’re never going to get it again.

And the Russians clearly wasted that entire opportunity.

Final point I would make is that I was one of the very few who said before the invasion that Russia would not take Kyiv, much less ever control it in part because I know Kyiv, I know how sprawling it is. Yes, it’s only half the size of population of New York City, but it’s actually a good bit larger in area, has very sprawling suburbs, as you know, and good determined soldiers who are encouraged to exercise initiative and reasonably well armed as they were already, because of what the UK and the US provided very quickly. They can hold off an armored force if they use those built-up areas successfully. I was quite confident they would do that, and indeed they did do that, and they validated what I told the Atlantic, an important media outlet here in the United States.

So again, very, very impressive operations, initiative, determination, courage, innovativeness on the part of Ukrainian forces, and shockingly inept operations by Russian forces.

The Battle of Hostomel was only one failure of the Russian offensive to date. What are the other issues that are contributing to strategic failures that we should consider for our future study?

“Well, I enumerated a lot of the failures of Russian forces initially, again, starting with complete lack of appreciation. So, their intelligence assessment was obviously shockingly bad. That huge intelligence failure to assess the capabilities of Ukrainian forces, and vastly overinflated view of their own capabilities and a lack of appreciation of their longstanding traditional weaknesses, except that they have never been seen because they were up against forces like Chechens, who are determined, but ultimately the Russians just destroyed Grozny. The Syrians, they just bombed them. All of a sudden they’re up against a competitive, determined, capable, professional force that’s fighting for its survival, its country’s survival. It’s war of Independence. And they obviously completely failed to appreciate that reality.

But lots of other failures along the way as well. Again, their equipment has been poorly maintained. As I mentioned, the logistics are totally inadequate. They don’t take care of their soldiers. They treat them poorly as well. Their mobilization has been seriously flawed. They’re not doing any serious training of these reservists they’re bringing back on active duty, or the new recruits are basically giving them a rifle, inadequate uniform;  you know the kit, the soldier, kit, that the Ukrainians have, ranks with the best in the world.

The Russian kit Is old Cold War vintage, hand me downs again, wholly inadequate. They treat their soldiers like cannon fodder, and soldiers respond accordingly. Often there’s shocking incidents of indiscipline, of alcohol and drug use. Obviously of war crimes. Again, the culture in the Russian forces is absolutely abysmal as well, whereas the culture and the Ukrainian forces is vastly more professional.

So, in every respect. And now this mobilization effort is crucial because the future in Ukraine, which force achieves its objectives more than the other, depends on the ability to recruit, to train to organize, to equip and then to employ additional forces and capabilities. And so far, during the first nearly year of this war, the Ukrainians have done a vastly better job at this, aided enormously, of course, by the United States, which is now provided over 27 billion dollars of arms ammunition, and assistance, and, of course, all of our NATO allies and Western partners, as well. Not to mention tens of billions more in economic and humanitarian assistance to keep the country just viable and surviving in that regard.

So, Ukraine now has a better, larger, more capable military on its soil ,then does a country that is three times its size and population, and vastly larger in economic terms.

And what we need to do, the US and the West, is enable Ukrainian forces, continue to enable them, so that they can convince Vladimir Putin that this war is unsustainable on the battlefield because of the horrific casualties that they’re taking – they’ve already lost at least eight times the soldiers in eleven months in Ukraine, that they lost in nearly ten years in Afghanistan during the Soviet operations there which were unsuccessful eventually.

And meanwhile the US needs to continue to lead the coalition that is imposing and tightening now the economic, financial and personal sanctions and export controls on Russia, so export controls so Putin recognizes that the war is unsustainable on the home front as well.

What general lessons can we draw in general from this battle and Russia’s strategic planning capabilities?

First of all, if you take lessons beyond Ukraine, really so, for the future of warfare, let’s say, and in fact, I’ve just finished with my co-author Andrew Roberts, the great British Historian and Biographer, and I have just sent to the Publisher a book, “Conflict, the Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine.”

Our assessment is that with respect this is not the future of warfare. You see, glimpses of the future, of warfare, drone warfare, but these are very modestly capable drones. They’re not the Predator or Reaper that the US and other forces use. You see, precision munitions, to be sure, the precision missile provided for the HIMARS, high mobility artillery rocket system, so called, GMLRS Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, it’s accurate to about 80 kilometers. It’s a dining room table at that distance but it’s only 80 kilometers. So again, not the future of warfare, which is hypersonic that could extend throughout the entire Indo-pacific theater if it ever came to that.

You don’t see many of the other features of what we think would be the future of warfare which will be increasingly remotely operated robots, ground, air, space, C, sub. C. and cyberspace, and increasingly beyond that algorithmically operated where the human in the loop becomes the person who designs the algorithm, not a person who’s actually controlling the particular robotic system.

Those are the future of warfare. You see again glimpses of that here and again, because Ukraine is so innovative, the mandatory skills, the IT skills, are so impressive. You know, we described Ukrainians as MacGyver’s. You know these people that can make anything working, you know you give them a harm missile from an F16, they can figure out how to MacGyver it, to work off a Mig 29. But again, this is not quite the future of warfare that we could see if you have, say the US and a peer competitor, we see glimpses of it, though, and we see very innovative use, for example, by Ukrainian forces in particular up drones as forward observers, and speeding the process by which you get the precise grid and then get it back to a precision munition again, whether it’s the GMLRS or the Excalibur round that we have provided for the 155 howitzer, which has a range of perhaps say, 25 to 30 kilometers less than half that of GMLRS.

These are the kinds of glimpses where you do see I think, the future of warfare is the context in which this is played playing out, and that is a context in which there are smartphones and social media outlets onto which videos, photographs, reports and so forth, can be uploaded.

And so that consortia people can come together and provide a platform like oryx.com, which captures and validates all of the Russian losses of armored systems precisely. And you can validate that, because, of course, you can deconflict it, using different social media posts to bring it all together oh, it’s also something that, again, not surprisingly innovative Ukrainian soldiers, you know.

They upload their greatest hits if you will, you know their drone is capturing a great battle in which the Ukrainians take out Russian tanks. And of course, they typically end up with a Russian turret blowing off on the side of the road, the signature destruction of this particular war.

So, in that respect you do see what will be the future of warfare in some respects. But again, across the board you just see glimpses of this I think, rather than what we will see when you have increasingly semi-autonomous, autonomous, vast numbers. You do see drone swarms, obviously a huge challenge for Ukraine, although Ukraine again is characteristically starting to figure out how to knock them down. But again, that’s the kind of challenge that you’ll see in the future, but on a scale that is vastly greater than what we’re seeing, thankfully what we are seeing in Ukraine right now.

That said what Ukraine is doing is exploring and expanding and pushing the envelope in a host of different ways, to show us additional ways in which the future of warfare may evolve. Noting again my enormous admiration for the skills that everyone is contributing, because, of course, the entire country of Ukraine is mobilized to when what is Ukraine’s war of independence.

What book would you recommend we add to our library and small group discussions, and why?

“Well, there’s a novel. It’s very slim, it’s about World War I, not modern warfare, but it captures something very, very important. It’s called “The General” and it’s, you know, a British General who’s really an admirable figure. He’s not a chateau, general, he goes up on the front lines he’s concerned about his soldiers. He spends time, he shares risks and hardship with them. Yes, he’s very austere. He’s not putting his arm around them, but that was that time.

But the message of this book, which sometimes escapes individuals on the first reading – is that for all of his admirable qualities, he doesn’t get the big ideas right, and that is tragic, and the consequences of that for his soldiers are also tragic. So, he looks at it offensive, remember, this is trench lines, this is sort of like Donbas, but without the drones and computers in that, in the fighting positions and command posts, they conducted offensive let’s say it’s over a four-kilometer front, maybe they use four divisions, they have a 30-minute prep with artillery, and it’s not successful.

So, the lesson that he takes from that is you need a longer prep, a smaller front and more divisions, which, of course, is wrong, and it just grinds an entire generation of British, and French soldiers into the mud of the Somme and Passchendaele, and these other horrible battles, in which tens of thousands of lives are lost in a single day or  two or three days, because the Generals they did not understand the context. They didn’t understand the impact of weapons systems such as machine guns, barbed wire, gas, howitzers and so forth, and it took, therefore, years before they finally came up with ways that they could actually break this trench warfare and achieve victory on the Western front.

So the message of that book is that leaders have to get the big ideas right. In fact, there’s a website at Harvard’s Belfer Center which a team and I built. In fact, many of the team members they were graduate students at Harvard at the time that worked for me, in Iraq and in Afghanistan, when I was privileged to command those wars and this website captures my thinking on an intellectual construct for strategic leadership, which has four tests. You have to get the big ideas right, the strategy.

You have to communicate that effectively throughout the breadth, and depth of your organization, and to other stakeholders.

You have to oversee the implementation big ideas, you have to drive the campaign you have to provide energy, inspiration, example, attract great leaders, incentivize them, motivate them, and so forth.

And the fourth task you have to sit down and determine how you need to refine how you need to refine the big ideas and do it again and again and again.

And let me just end this session by noting that President Zelensky has been absolutely brilliant in performing these 4 tasks of a strategic leader from the very beginning. The first big idea. I don’t want a ride, I want  ammunition. I don’t need a that from the very beginning. The first big idea is, I don’t want to ride.

I want ammunition. I’m staying right here in Kyiv, my family is going to stay, the entire country is going to mobilize. No men are going to leave. We’re all going to commit to this; communicates brilliantly, not just to the breadth and depth of the forces, and people in Ukraine, but the entire world every individual Parliament and  Congress and Bundestag and everything. He kept driving this campaign plan, pushing it hard and then figuring out how to refine the big ideas and do it again and again and again. And he’s really done this brilliantly. I mean, it’s accurate to say that he has provided Churchillian leadership.

So to come back to what junior leaders and mid-level leaders and then General Officers, and so forth, you gotta get the big ideas right.

Now, even if you’re not THE strategic leader, there’s this degree of latitude within the big ideas that are established by those at the very top and you’ve got to get the big ideas right at your level, communicate them effectively oversee the implementation and determine how, to refine them, to do it again and again and again.

It sounds very simple. It sounds very common sensical. It’s a statement of the obvious, except that you got to actually perform those four tasks. The Surge in Iraq that mattered most. It wasn’t the additional 25 or 30,000 forces. It was the change in strategy, the change in the big ideas where we’re going to secure the people by living with them again, we have to get off the big basis onto which we’ve been consolidated. We have to take back control for the Iraqi Security forces. We have to reconcile with as many of the insurgents and shame militia as we can, because you can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency, and you have to intensify the relentless pursuit of the irreconcilable to the leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the insurgent groups, and the Shia militia. You gotta get the big ideas right.

And again, the book that I’ve recommended. Why, it is so instructive is that this otherwise admirable figure fails to perform that first task of strategic leadership.

And if so, about which we all need to reflect.