General Claudio Graziano, 68, currently serves as the Chairman of the European Union Military Committee, the body of the bloc’s Common Security and Defence Policy and which is composed of member states’ defense chiefs. “I’m the most senior and have the highest rank, but also the oldest of the generals in service in Europe,” he tells EL PAÍS during an interview held on Tuesday in his office in Brussels. Since February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, he has been in non-stop meetings with senior leaders in Brussels. In his opinion, Moscow has failed with this initial stage of the war. “Putin thought it was going to be a quick, cheap and easy campaign, without many losses, immediately winning their objectives, but it’s turned out to be the complete opposite,” he says. “If they don’t get support in the next few months, they’ll be left without resources.”
Question. How long will the war last?
Answer. In my 50-year career, I have never seen a war that’s as close and so threatening for Europe. It’s a genuine conflict, with tanks, planes, and it has turned back the clock of history by 70 years. It’s lasted three weeks so far and it’s incredibly difficult to predict how much longer it will run. It’s a war of aggression against a free country carried out by one that’s much bigger and that has a much more powerful army. But the Russians have not been able to immediately achieve their objective; we could call it Plan A: surround Kyiv in order to overthrow the government and achieve its immediate objectives in Donbas. That first phase has failed.
Q. What happened next?
A. They’ve moved to a second phase, with new resources and other weapons – if you like, a very indiscriminate war, albeit still limited – but this has also failed. We’ve seen three lines of penetration from the north toward the center of gravity in Kyiv. From the south to take control of the Black Sea; in the northeast and the southeast from Donbas, in order to gain ground. But they have suffered major casualties, logistical losses – of supplies and of human resources. They need to recover and reorganize, which is why right now they are making an operational stop.
Q. How do you see the Ukrainian military response?
A. The Ukrainians have shown an unforeseeable willingness and capacity to fight, and of resistance, using their air-defense system. It could even be said that [the Russians] are avoiding entering cities and are now resorting to a war of attrition: instead of launching an offensive, they are trying to gain time so that they can resupply. The Russian army is probably not strong enough to launch an offensive, nor is it well enough equipped or technologically advanced, and perhaps it hasn’t got the same will to fight as we thought.
Q. What went wrong with its plans?
A. They have underestimated the quality and capacity of the Ukrainian army, and also the strength of its people. On occasion I have made the comparison with the Afghan army that melted in the sun in Kabul: it was relatively strong, but it had no hope, because its president fled. By contrast, the government and president of Ukraine [Volodymyr Zelenskiy] have remained in place and are motivating their people, the Armed Forces have displayed hope and the willingness to defend the country. That has been the biggest mistake [by the Russians]. By not being able to immediately overcome Ukraine’s defenses, they have not won superiority, which is very important for this battle. And it has forced them to readjust, probably, even the information that was given to the soldiers and commanders.
Q. Has this derailed Russia’s plans?
A. What Putin thought was going to be a quick, cheap and easy campaign, without many losses, and immediately achieving his objectives, has turned out to be the opposite: he has been stopped. Time has not played in Russia’s favor. The Ukrainians have been fortified and the world has reacted. The EU has begun to speak with a single voice on common defense and NATO has found a new cohesion. As such the psychological effect has also been the opposite: it has brought the EU together and the same is happening with the Ukrainians, who have come together to fight against the aggressor. Perhaps the aggressor has even realized that it is an aggressor, as is shown by the fact that they are talking about using mercenaries from abroad. That, in a certain way, means an escalation because they are not following the rules of war.
Q. Should we fear a nuclear incident?
A. Look, I am always concerned about all of the threats that could come from anywhere. I never thought that after a 50-year career I would see Russian tanks invading Ukraine, which is within Europe. So when someone mentions, even as a threat, that they are putting nuclear resources on alert, it worries me. I don’t believe that this is going to happen, but it’s the message that we have to think about because there are two words that no longer existed in our dictionary as Europeans, war and enemy, which continue to exist.
Q. What kind of message has Russia launched with its attack on the Ukrainian base of Yavoriv, which is located 20 kilometers from the EU?
A. First, they are trying to carry out psychological warfare, by sending a message to Ukrainians that there is no safe haven, even in the west. On the other hand, it is also a tactical objective because there is a principal line of communication for the supply of arms and supplies that are coming from the West. What’s more, it must be understood that, because the Russians aren’t winning, there is this war of attrition. They are not entering the cities because that would be too costly and at the same time they don’t have the capacity. We can’t rule out that in the future there will not be an indiscriminate launching of rockets on cities and towns, against any kind of objective, in order to try and destroy the morale and spirit of the Ukrainian people and increase their losses.
Q. Has the war swept away military taboos within the EU?
A. There is still much to do. But the true historical change came on February 27, when the decision was made in 72 hours to apply major sanctions on Russia, something that is genuinely placing the country under siege. And what’s more, in four hours the decision was made to support Ukraine with €500 million; €450 million in lethal weapons. A decision that would not have been possible in the EU for decades was taken in four hours. The EU and NATO have always reacted well in emergencies. We are a bit slower during normal planning. Perhaps we were suffering from what we could call Afghan fatigue after so many years there. But this has really been like going from the Belle Époque to the trenches of the First World War. History has changed, this war has been a boost for common European defense. There is no doubt about that. We have understood that with strong European defense, things will be different.