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Interview with U.S. Central Command Former Command and KKR Global Institute Chairman David Petraeus. Aired 1:00-2p ET
Aired August 23, 2023 - 13:00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA NEWTON, CNN INTERNATIONAL ANCHOR: And hello, everyone, and welcome to "Amanpour." Here's what's coming up.
I'm joined by former CIA chief and four-star general David Petraeus as the U.S. faces a world of challenges from Ukraine to Taiwan.
Then, India makes history as its spacecraft lands on the moon's mysterious south pole. We'll have the latest.
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NEWTON: After the inferno, how will Hawaii recover? A search and rescue efforts continue joined by Hawaii governor, Josh Green.
Also, ahead --
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NEWTON: -- my conversation with the Grammy award winning musician, Jason Isabell. We discuss his life, his music, and he tells me why think of
anything more American than a culture war.
And a warm welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Paula Newton in New York sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is using his virtual podium at the BRICS summit in South Africa to once again blame the West for Russia's invasion
of Ukraine. Saying the West desired to maintain its global dominance, that's what triggered the conflict. And this comes after a night where
drone strikes were traded between Ukraine and Russia. And as Moscow dismisses top general, Sergei Surovikin, from his post leading the
country's aerospace forces. Now, Surovikin briefly led the Russian army in Ukraine but hasn't been seen in public since that failed rebellion by the
Wagner Mercenary Group to which he in fact had ties.
Meantime, Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is back in Kyiv ahead of the country's Independence Day tomorrow, and that wraps up a whirlwind
European tour, that saw him bag guarantees of F-16 fighter jet deliveries from both Denmark and the Netherlands.
Now, I spoke about all of this earlier with retired four-star general, David Petraeus, the former head of the CIA, also commanded U.S. forces in
Afghanistan. He's currently chairman of the KKR Global Institute, which does advice the KKR Investment firm about international matters, and that
includes Ukraine. Listen.
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NEWTON: And General Petraeus, welcome to the program. And, of course, we want to get right to what is top of mind for so many now, and that is the
state of this counteroffensive. You know, according to open-source data Ukraine is making small significant gains. And yet, according to CNN
reporting from a few weeks ago and "The New York Times" this week, U.S. officials seem concerned. How do you assess the state of the
counteroffensive and are you still optimistic?
DAVID PETRAEUS, FORMER COMMAND, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND AND CHAIRMAN, KKR GLOBAL INSTITUTE: I'm guardedly optimistic or with qualifications, if you
will. And a lot of those have to do with how well the Russians will do once the Ukrainians are able to crack the lines in a couple of places, which I
think they will be able to do.
What's happened here is that the Ukrainians tried to conduct a mounted combined arms operation to get through these very, very deep minefields
with tank ditches and dragon's teeth and then trenches full of soldiers with Russian drones on top of them calling for artillery with spotters and
so forth, and they found that just was not possible.
The truth is, we could not have done this. In fact, the only two times where we've done anything remotely like this, and we didn't face anywhere
near the kind of defenses that the Russians have established, was in the Gulf War where we pounded the Iraqis for 39 days from the sky without any
opposition and then rolled over them in 100 hours. Some tough fighting to be sure, but not what we're seeing, not these miles deep minefields, again,
covered by observation and fire.
And then, to a degree, during the fight to Baghdad, and I was privileged to be there, of course, as a division commander, we had, again, air supremacy.
We didn't have the long preparation that we had prior to the Gulf War. But we also had huge numbers of armored breaching devices, if you will. So,
there's essentially think of armored bulldozers that are completely with ballistics glass and everything else and you just roll this forward. Well,
the Ukrainians don't have the numbers of those that they would need and they don't have air cover at all, much less air superiority or supremacy as
we had. So, they adapted. And I think they've adapted very impressively.
The U.K. chief of defense staff has, I think, described this best of all. He describes it as stretch, starve, and strike. So, they're trying to
stretch the Russians, keep them engaged all across this very vast 600-mile front. Keep in mind, that's 150 miles further than from Kuwait to Baghdad.
So, it's quite a considerable distance. Then they are starving the Russians. They're trying to do that. They are attriting their ammo supply
points, their fuel depots, their headquarters, their reserve force locations, going after their artillery, trying to render bridges that are
key from Crimea to Southern Ukraine and then, routes from Russia into Southeastern Ukraine, trying to take all of that, at least, into a degraded
state, if not destroy it.
And when the conditions are right, they're picking their way through these minefields now. They can't mount combined arms through these, as I
mentioned, and they're starting to achieve small but significant, as you noted, advances in at least two areas of Zaporizhzhia province and the
NEWTON: I do want to get to that point though about being stretched, right? And we have heard time and again from U.S. officials that Bakhmut
remains a point of contention. I mean, it's clearly important to Zelenskyy. He brought a flag from Bakhmut to congress. And yet, there is this issue
that U.S. officials keep pointing to, off the record, that Ukraine is stretching itself too much in this counteroffensive.
PETRAEUS: I might suggest to those who are doing that, if you will, that perhaps we should be focusing on providing additional assistance to ensure
that they're going to be able to carry out this offensive for another four months or so.
Keep in mind, we're just at the 10-week mark. You know, this is like a third of the way through the surge in Iraq, when I was also getting lots of
questions and comments, and people were wondering whether the surge had failed and so forth.
First of all, no plan survives contact with the enemy. They have adapted, I think, very impressively. And that final element of stretch, starve and
strike -- and I believe stretch is appropriate, contrary to those that think we should mass it all in one location, if you do that, they'll be
able to reposition their forces. And to blunt that, you've got to keep them stretched out. The Ukrainians still have important reserve units that have
not yet been committed, some of which have American provided Striker vehicles, other have western tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.
And when they have the conditions set, when they have sufficiently degraded the Russian's capabilities, including their logistics and headquarters and
reserve forces and artillery, and are able to work their way through the first belt of minefields, then I think you'll start to see them try to
exploit this and push it farther.
There are two locations in particular, in the south, in western Zaporizhzhia province and then -- (INAUDIBLE) and then Eastern
Zaporizhzhia, both of those show modest but promising advances. And if they can crack through there, then we're also going to find out something we
really still don't know, and that is how effective the Russian second line units will be, and whether or not they can actually muster reserves.
Keep in mind, the Russian forces have been in these lines since the very beginning of this offensive, and in many cases, months prior to it. And to
be fair to the Russians who have not distinguished themselves with professional expertise, certainly didn't during the first year, they have
established a very impressive defensive in depth, and that's very difficult to penetrate.
NEWTON: And it is striking, General, that you say that even the United States would have had difficulty given what the Russians have been able to
do on those lines and how entrenched they are. But if we underscore that and then take something else that you said, given air superiority, which
has clearly been a point of contention, we see that perhaps the F-16s, Ukraine might get them by the beginning of 2024, they say it's a game
changer. What do you say? Do you think that could potentially change the course of the war or is that opinion overblown?
PETRAEUS: I think it will be a very substantial augmentation of the Ukrainian capabilities, but it's not a game changer per se. I don't think
they're going to be able to establish air superiority, much less supremacy, which is what we would have had, had we done this. And again, we would have
done this with massive forces. Remember the size of force that was accumulated before we launched, again, Desert Storm, the ground campaign of
that particular war, and we had mastery of the skies. That's not going to be achieved by either side, by the way. The Russians don't have mastery of
the skies either. They've had enormous losses of their aircraft because of very effective and very innovative Ukrainian air defenses, and both sides
are using drones to varying degrees in quite effective ways as well.
So, again, I think, again, if those that are
?Both sides are using drones to varying degrees and in quite effective ways as well. So again, I think again, if those that are perhaps wringing their
hands ought to be seeking to accelerate the decision to provide the U.S. army tactical missile system, which would help this starve component of
this stretch, starve and strike campaign, we ought to be providing cluster munitions that can be in rockets as well as the artillery that we've
By the way, those have been very effective against the Russians and have been a big help to the Ukrainian counteroffensive. We ought to be ensuring
that the Ukrainians will have the munitions to carry through for four months. That's how much longer this should go, pending on, again, when the
rain start with the winter and really bog it down literally, make it miring.
NEWTON: Yes. And the clock is ticking, we should note, on all of that, anything in the fall, making this much more difficult, as you said,
depending on the rain. I want to go back to those drone strikes that perhaps Ukraine is using in Russia right now in unanticipated ways. Do you
think that that could backfire, that strategy on Ukraine in the sense of actually strengthening Russian resolve for this war?
PETRAEUS: I don't think so, actually. I think for the first time, Moscow is actually seeing, you know what, we're at war. Because keep in mind that
Putin has tried to keep Moscow somewhat insulated from this. He's never fully mobilized. It's always been a special military operation. The brunt
has fallen on these communities that are way outside the major cities of Russia. And so, this is all of a sudden reminding the Russian people that
there is a war going on. Also, it will remind them, of course, that they started it, and that it's been carried out in quite a brutal manner.
NEWTON: But in that reminder, General, as you know, there is going to be patriotic passion that is ignited, something that many in the first few
weeks of this war in Russia just didn't feel.
PETRAEUS: Well, because they left. Russia suffered a huge brain drain, and then it suffered another loss of military age males. More left last fall
than go to the conscription stations. So, to a degree, this brings that war home to them. It certainly forces Russia to have air defenses in many of
the locations where it thought that wouldn't be required.
The key would be certainly keep it focused on military targets, don't go after civilian infrastructure. Don't do what the -- certainly, what the
Russians have done. They're attacking clearly civilian infrastructure and locations.
But at the end of the day, this is going to be about what happens on the front lines, and that's where the focus should be. And frankly, I think,
again, that the Ukrainians have adapted very impressively. They know their forces far better than we do and their capabilities and their lack of
capabilities. They know the terrain far better than we do. They're fighting their war of independence. We shouldn't forget that.
This is total mobilization in Ukraine and they are keenly aware of the need to achieve results during this particular offensive. The objective of which
is, of course, to crack and then hopefully bring about the collapse of the Russians, at least in some areas, to enable them to cut that ground line of
communication that comes in from Russia across Southeastern Ukraine and then connects down into Crimea, ideally then, even to isolate Crimea a bit
more to put the air bases and naval bases at risk there as well.
NEWTON: What you're outlining is quite ambitious and likely necessary. You and I both know that what's going on in the battlefield right now is what
lays the foundation at the negotiating table.
PETRAEUS: Exactly right. Yes.
NEWTON: Do you think they can pull off progress, the progress they need in the next few months, on territory?
PETRAEUS: Again, the only honest way to answer that is to say that it depends, because it does depend very much on certainly ensuring that they
have the munitions they need to carry this out. That's always a concern. I'd also add additional air defenses and the munitions for those as well
because you've seen the Russians not just focus on Kyiv anymore, which is quite well defended, but on areas like Odessa, including the seaport and
the grain holding receptacles and so forth.
But -- so that's first what needs to happen. And then the next question is, what about Russian morale? When do these soldiers who can't look over their
shoulder and see what they're fighting for, as the Ukrainians can with their own people? I'm sure you saw the liberation of this town in
Zaporizhzhia where the Ukrainians are coming up with tears in their eyes, hugging their soldiers. The Ukrainians know what they're fighting for. I'm
not so sure that all these conscripts do know what they're fighting for or "volunteers" lured by large salaries from remote villages in the Russian
So, the question really, I think most of all, is about how the Russians do when they're really put under pressure once the Ukrainians can start to
crack the front lines of these defenses.
NEWTON: Listen, this, conflict in Ukraine is being watched very closely in China obviously and also in Taiwan, given the United State is now launching
its new Indo-Pacific strategy, where do you come down on this in terms of arming Taiwan and really, if we just take the summit between South Korea,
Japan, and the U.S., is it too provocative in terms of a strategy in that region right now, too provocative for China to really withstand?
PETRAEUS: Well, you've raised a really critical issue, because I've always felt that the biggest of the big ideas about the most important
relationship in the world, which is, of course, that between the Chinese and the U.S. and also the West and our allies and partners in that effort,
we saw, I think, a very significant meeting at Camp David with the leaders of Japan and South Korea.
But the question should be, how can we ensure that this is sufficiently firm? And I'm not sure we always have been sufficiently firm and we're not
always across the board, but not needlessly provocative. I don't think that those actions are needlessly provocative. I think they're part of ensuring
that deterrence is very, very solid. And deterrence rests on a potential adversary's assessment of two elements, they are your capabilities on the
one hand and your willingness to employ them on the other.
And yes, what happens in Ukraine reverberates out there and it does affect calculations of our willingness to do something and our capabilities to do
it. Let's not forget, President Xi seized on our decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and then the way that we conducted it, commenting that, see,
you can't count on the Americans. And look at that, they're a great power in decline.
Ukraine shows that we can and will lead the world. The $44 billion worth of arms, ammunition, and other assistance are just extraordinary. So are the
sanctions that we've led the way on with our western partners. But we do need to do more, and we do need to have a greater sense of urgency about
some of these issues that have just been hanging fire, waiting for key decisions.
NEWTON: And we will have to leave it there. General Petraeus, though, as we continue to watch this counteroffensive in Ukraine, really important to
get your context. I thank you for joining the program.
PETRAEUS: Great to be with you, Paula. Thank you.
NEWTON: And we will be right back in a moment right after this break.
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