Ex-CIA chief’s top fear in Russia-Ukraine conflict is escalation ‘spiraling out of control’

Watch the full CNBC interview with David Petraeus, former CIA director and retired Army general

The biggest concern for former CIA chief Gen. David Petraeus (U.S. Army, retired) regarding the war in Ukraine is the possibility of an unbridled escalation that would have catastrophic consequences, he said Tuesday in the CNBC.

Asked what his main concern was regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict, in which the US heavily supports Ukraine with billions of dollars worth of military aid, Petraeus replied: “As a category general, it just is [the risk of it] it spirals out of control.”

“I think it’s legitimate for the American leadership and the leadership of other countries to avoid starting World War III, as the phrase has been called,” the retired general told CNBC’s Hadley Gamble at the Warsaw Security Forum in Poland

Ukrainian and Western leaders are grappling with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat to use nuclear weapons. Uncertainty over the likelihood of such action hangs over decision-making, even as Ukrainian forces carry out bold counteroffensives in territory Russia has illegally annexed.

Western policymakers must signal their moves appropriately and refrain from going too far in terms of offensive military action against Russia, Petraeus said.

“Remember, in the beginning, there were these calls for no-fly zones over Ukraine, which I thought were not fully intended,” he said, recounting the urging of Ukrainian officials in the early months of the war to establish the defense mechanism that would allow US aircraft to shoot down Russian aircraft in Ukrainian airspace.

Because when you put American planes in that airspace, and Russian planes… you can’t fly our planes without taking down the air defenses that could take them down. And now you are in a war between USA and Russia. And again, me I think it’s understandable that the American leadership and the leadership of other countries should be concerned about a further spiral, as horrific as it is, a further spiral from where we are right now in the war in Ukraine.” .

General David Petraeus.

Bill Clark | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

Over the weekend, Ukrainian forces successfully recaptured the strategic town of Lyman in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast, one of four territories that Putin announced as belonging to the Russian Federation in a speech Friday. Counter-offensives are also underway in the south of the country, amid reports of low morale among Russian troops and Ukrainian forces capturing Russian units.

Still, battlefield success doesn’t mean Russia can’t retaliate in other ways, Petraeus stressed.

“Keep in mind that the one element that Russia will still retain, even though it is losing on the battlefield in Ukraine, is the ability to punish Ukraine,” he said, describing the countless bombings and missile attacks on major civilian centers .

Russia “can continue to carry out missile, rocket and bomb attacks, as it has done, almost petulantly. You saw that when the counter-offensive was successful outside Kharkiv, they hit certain areas and did not go after military targets,” he said Petraeus . “They’re going after power generation plants, power transmission, other civilian infrastructure, almost again as if to punish people for what their military forces are doing, all major violations, by the way, of the Geneva Convention.”

In response to Putin’s threat to use all weapons at his disposal, the Biden administration responded that any use of nuclear weapons would be met with a “decisive” response from the United States. It was not revealed what exactly that response would entail.

Ukraine retakes Lyman, a key logistical hub for Russian forces.

Institute for the Study of War

“So again,” said the former CIA director, “this is a situation that is somehow out of control. That’s why it’s so important that, as our national security adviser in the US, Jake Sullivan, is It’s very important that we communicated to the Russians in advance, “if you do this, you can expect something like this,” noting that obviously there will always be a range of options presented to the president. And it depends specifically. you know, what happened, all of that, that’s going to determine what the answer would be.”

“But we don’t want to start climbing the nuclear scale with Russia,” he stressed, “which could get out of control.”

A Ukrainian BM-21 ‘Grad’ multiple rocket launcher fires towards Russian positions in the Donetsk region on October 3, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Anatoly Stepanov | AFP | Getty Images

Ultimately, Petraeus believes that Putin is not suicidal.

“I don’t think for all the whiny rhetoric we heard the other day in his speech, I don’t think he’s suicidal,” he said. “I don’t think he wants to bring about the end of the Russian Federation as he knows it; I mean, the irony is that this is someone who despised Gorbachev,” he said, referring to Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader. Union, which Putin and many Russians blame for its collapse.

Putin has long denounced the collapse of the Soviet Union as the most catastrophic historical event of the 20th century.

But Putin, Petraeus argued, “is doing colossal damage to the Russian Federation on a scale that Gorbachev did to the USSR, because of this incredibly catastrophically bad decision to invade its neighbor.”

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