As Ukraine continues to repel a full-scale Russian invasion, unleashed more than 80 days ago, Dan Rice, a U.S. combat veteran, recently appointed Special Advisor to Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, came to Ukraine to speak with the latter precisely about leadership and what it takes for an army to hold its ground in the face of a massive Russian force.
Dan Rice sat down with Ukrinform to share the things he learned from Ukraine’s commanders about the ongoing war, the weapons Ukraine needs to push the Russians back and eventually win, and the lessons that NATO armies can learn from Ukraine’s forces in terms of effectively repelling Russian aggression.
RUSSIA TOOK ON ONE OF THE BEST ARMIES IN EUROPE
- How different is this war, as seen from the ground, from how it is perceived by the U.S. audience?
- You know it’s hard to really explain to somebody how this is total war. I mean this is a massive war. We’ve seen it on TV, I’ve been in a lot of combat zones, I’ve been in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Lebanon… This is different. This is total war against a sovereign nation, all those other wars were civil wars – this is an invading force that is morally bankrupt from the top to the bottom, taking on a smaller nation, underarmed, undermanned… Yet, the Ukrainian forces have really punched Putin in the nose. I think the battle of Kyiv will be taught in military history for years.
So this is a bigger war than I imagined, and the battle of Kyiv was actually more pivotal than I had any idea.
- How do you think Vladimir Putin actually came to the idea of actually going for a full-scale invasion and what, in your opinion, was the Russian president’s crucial miscalculation?
- I can’t get inside his head but I can see when I’m here now that the 2014 invasion of Crimea and then the Donbas – they basically took 10 percent of Ukraine – I think Ukrainian forces knew he was coming for the other 90 percent at some point. So this country has been on a war footing for years. All of those lieutenants that were in Crimea are now battalion commanders, lieutenant colonels, they’ve been at war for eight years. This country has basically been at war. Russians have not been at war – they had a couple of their troops off, while the majority of their population didn’t even know they were at war.
I think the miscalculation was taking on probably one of the best armies in Europe. Nobody in Europe has as much combat experience as Ukraine. In the last couple of years, it’s increased in armament. It doesn’t have what it needs but it has gotten some great equipment, specifically anti-tank, anti-aircraft, some electronic warfare, some drones, but they need a lot more to get rid of the Russians. His miscalculation was that he didn’t realize he was going against the country that is willing to fight and will fight to the death, and many have.
BATTLE OF MOSHCHUN BECAME A TURNING POINT IN THIS WAR
- Has there already been a turning point in this invasion or is it yet to come?
- I think the turning point was a battle north of Kyiv, in the towns called Moshchun and Irpin. That was the pivotal point in the battle. The Russians attacked in four different avenues of approach and they thought the Ukrainian forces were going to be in their known positions, in their barracks. For two days, Ukrainians knew they were coming so they moved their forces to get ready for the invasion and the Russians had no idea they were in for such a fight. So they all stayed on highways on these four avenues of approach, which made it easier for the Ukrainians to sight them with their anti-tank, and they just pummeled them. I think some 2,000 tanks and BMPs were taken out by anti-tank missiles – light anti-tank weapons, Javelins…
So it’s nearly 25,000 dead Russians. They didn’t see this coming, they totally miscalculated. They thought they were going to take Kyiv within three days. Actually, that was testimony before our Senate from our military, they thought it could fall. But it didn’t.
North of Kyiv, all the bridges were blown, which, again, this army learned from Crimea. In Crimea, they didn’t blow the bridges cause they thought they wanted them back when they returned. But they should have blown the bridges to stop the Russians.
Here, all the bridges were blown. The Russians got held up, stuck on highways, and then they just got targeted with anti-tank weapons. But the colonel I’ve been with in Moshchun, he had quite a battle. It was a brigade-size element, and a battalion in Irpin taking on 30,000 Russians coming down on them. And they fought them off. It was amazing. I walked the battlefield with the colonel, he explained the entire thing. This should go down in military history. They beat a much larger force. And now the Russians are basically stuck in certain areas and now Ukraine has to go on the offensive, for which you usually got to have a larger force. So they really need weapons. They need artillery the most, artillery shells from the west. I think the NATO countries need to support this.
NATO COUNTRIES HAVE TO SEND UKRAINE ALL WEAPONS THEY CAN
- We see that Putin failed miserably to achieve his initial goals in Ukraine. Do you believe Russia will stick to the current tactical goals they have announced for this stage of their “operation”? Could there be any unannounced ones that they might be pursuing?
- I think they failed in their primary goal, which was to take Kyiv and have the government gone into exile, to say that “these Nazis are gone now.” They failed miserably and I don’t think they can take Kyiv now unless they double down or triple down and put in a much larger force. But I think they realize they can’t go on the offensive without major casualties and even then they will probably not be able to achieve this.
My concern about this war at this point is that their objectives have changed. Instead of taking Kyiv and basically taking the whole country, I see the fear is that they keep Donbas, the eastern side, put a bridge all the way down to Crimea, and then they cross over to Transnistria, and then take Moldova. And then they’d basically surround Ukraine and try to control the Black Sea at that point and so they’d have a lot of the territory that they had when they were Soviet Union. I think that’s what they’re probably trying to do and that’s what the west has to stop – for multiple reasons.
The whole reason we started NATO in 1949 was to counter the Soviet Union, which was Russia plus 14 other states, enslaved and occupied by the Russians. So NATO’s mission has always been to counter the Russians. As Eastern Europe became free, more countries joined NATO, now we have former Yugoslavia’s Croatia, North Macedonia… There’s 30 countries now, and the goal of all NATO is to protect each other against the Russians cause everyone’s always feared that Russians will come back. Now they have, first time in 70 years.
So all of those countries, for their own interest, should be sending all those weapons. Ukraine needs artillery shells, new howitzers – you can take U.S. standard or Russian standard. Also it’s 82mm mortar, 152mm and 153mm artillery – these are all Russian. 81mm mortar, 105mm and 155mm howitzers – these are all American. They should pile up everything they have – both Croatia, France, the Czech Republic, Poland – get all their excess inventory, anything they can give, and send it right into Ukraine. The Ukrainians will kill the Russians, and that should be everybody’s goal. Basically, it sounds harsh but that’s the reality. This is immoral, bankrupt army that is invading its neighbors. Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Czech, Poland – they’ve all been there before with the Russians, they know what they’re fearing. That’s why everybody’s starting to arm up. But in addition to arming themselves, they should be helping Ukraine right now giving them the weapons they got. This is a critical stage of the battle. You can’t let the Russians keep coming back. You got to push them out.
- Do you think these weapons that you named could be a real game changer in this war?
- Already, the weapons that Ukraine received have been a game changer to keep Ukraine alive. I think if they did not receive Javelins, Stingers, and some other anti-tank weapons, they would have collapsed. I mean, to have this size of the armored force coming bearing down on a country, I don’t think any other country in Europe could have withstood that. The fact that Ukraine has is largely dedicated to their heroic, valiant defense, but without the weapons, they just couldn’t have done it.
HAD PUTIN TAKEN UKRAINE IN THREE DAYS, HE WOULD HAVE TAKEN MOLDOVA RIGHT AWAY AND MIGHT HAVE BEEN GOING TO INTO BALTIC STATES…
- Do you think Russian threats of a tactical nuclear strike are a real thing or just pure blackmail? And how should the international community react to the very fact that such threats are being voiced in the first place?
- First of all, I think Putin is a dictator and a madman. I don’t think he’s stable. Two – to invade a sovereign country like this… Their army basically has no values, from the top down, from Putin through the soldiers, you see the atrocities that they’re committing – they’re sick people and they’re undisciplined army. When they’re coming through the cities and they’re killing children, executing people, those handcuffed civilians, this is not a disciplined army.
So from the top down, there’s something wrong. And the world should know that fear. I can’t get inside Putin’s head personally but I think it’s probably just saber-rattling to make people in the west go out: “We shouldn’t even send weapons because he’s threatening nuclear arms!” But wait a minute, he has just invaded his neighbor. He’s already shown he has no morals, he is violating sovereignty of a nation. People shouldn’t be backed down by a dictator – that’s basically appeasement. That’s what we did in World War 2, with Churchill, with Chamberlain: “Let them take Czechoslovakia, let them take Austria…!” That doesn’t work against a dictator like this. You got to fight him. That’s why Ukrainians are standing and fighting. I think they’d rather be dead than live under occupation. And I’ve seen a lot of Ukrainians telling me that. And they’re fighting tough.
But when you’re talking about what Putin is going to do next, if he’s going to use a nuke, he’s going to use it. He has 6,000 nuclear weapons. He could have used it throughout these 20 years that he’s been around. He’s now using conventional forces to attain his political goal, which is to occupy and own Ukraine, and to dominate the wheat markets. Now he’s got energy, he’s got wheat, he’s got food security for Africa, so this is a power grab. And this was his miscalculation as it’s now in the best interest of the EU and U.S. to support the fight here to make sure this doesn’t go to those other countries because had he taken Ukraine in three days, I don’t think he would have stopped here. I think he would have taken Moldova right away. He might have been going into the NATO countries – Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia…
He’s become the best salesman for NATO than NATO could ever have. Look, in the last 30 days you have Sweden and Finland both wanting to join. They’ve had the last 70 years to join and they didn’t, but they are right now, because Putin is forcing everybody to come together. The reason NATO is so important is cause it all boils down to Article 5. It says that if anybody attacks one of the NATO countries, they all have to respond and support that country. It doesn’t mean that if that country invades somebody else, they’ll support it. In fact, they’ll probably kick it out of NATO if that happens. NATO is a defensive organization. That whole Russian propaganda saying that NATO is encroaching on Russia…
There’s already 5 NATO countries that border Russia. They’re already on the borders. Russia is the largest country in the world. It has vast borders. Nobody wants to invade Russia, and I think everybody knows that. Only the madman is telling his people that “they’re starting to surround us.” They’ve got a very strange culture over there. Right now, they think they’re invading Ukraine to get rid of Nazis. They’ve already lost the information operation for this war. The whole world knows they’re lying. Their people don’t know it but the rest of the world doesn’t believe any of that stuff that comes out of Russia. They believe Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military has done such an amazing job with messaging of the war, the strategic communications. They’re telling the truth – good or bad. If they lose a city, they tell the truth. If they gain the city, they say so. But everything the Russians say is basically a lie. And they’re telling their troops lies. They didn’t tell them they were going to invade a country. They told them they were going on a special mission. The third of their troops are conscripts. They’re getting killed out here. And some of them are turning on their officers. And that’s good news for all of us. We just hope more of them will kill their officers and eventually they’ve got to remove themselves from this country and free Ukraine.
THE PRIMARY REASON THAT MOST PART OF UKRAINE IS RIGHT NOW FREE IS THAT IT ALL BOILS DOWN TO LEADERSHIP
- How pressing is the threat of this invasion turning into a long-dragging war of attrition?
- I think it will if the Ukrainians are not properly supplied. I think at the current levels of weapons and ammunition, they can barely just hang on and they could actually lose ground. And if Russians put even more troops in here, you could see Ukraine collapse just under the weight of the enormous Russian army, second-largest in the world. That is why it’s so important for the west to pony up, and they have. So many countries – the Netherlands has been supplying weapons, Sweden, the United States is supplying a lot of weapons. A lot of these weapons are some of our best – the Javelins and Stingers in particular. And I was on a battlefield talking with these commanders – some of them had no training going into the battle on these weapons. They were actually issued Stingers during a battle, they pulled YouTube, they learned how to fire a Stinger and then shot down a Russian helicopter. That’s a very effective weapon system – user-friendly.
Also, the Ukrainian military has been so innovative. They’re learning on the fly and they’re adapting quickly to Russian tactics. The Russians do have their playbook but they’re not well-led. The Russian military leadership is very different. They don’t care about their soldiers. You can see that. They leave their dead all over the battlefield. How confident are you in your military if you leave your wounded and dead on the battlefield? Ukrainians always recover their dead.
- What Ukrainian capabilities turned out to yield better results than initially expected, from your point of view?
- The primary reason that most of Ukraine is right now free is that it all boils down to leadership. I think General Zaluzhnyi is an amazing leader and you can see the discipline in the army – and I’ve worked with the militaries all over the world, I went to West Point, I was in the U.S. Army three different times – so you can spot different things when you meet soldiers to see if it’s a disciplined army, if it’s a well-organized and motivated army. Just by seeing how they carry themselves and their weapons you can say if they’re disciplined. I’ve spoken not only with the general in our two-hour interview the other day, going through all his background plus the war, and it was absolutely amazing. I also spoke with his subcommanders, and they all love him. This is not an army of the old Soviet style, which it used to be when Ukraine was part of the USSR. Over the last several years, actually since Crimea, this army has changed dramatically. Everything from starting special operations forces to psychological operations, to information operations – they have changed entirely. And a large part of it is working with NATO special forces. A lot of Ukrainians have been trained by U.S. green berets – I think, 26,000. So when you start working together, that’s where NATO is good – getting standards across all of these NATO countries. So you can learn from each other, also they have the same type of weapons, they help each other when necessary and fight alongside each other.
The Ukrainian military right now I think can actually add more to NATO than NATO can add to them. NATO can now give them weapons.
- What exactly do you think the NATO armies could learn from the Ukrainian forces, from their current experience of repelling Russian aggression?
- It’s so much. For me, being a military person, just doing a battlefield tour – we call it a staff ride – with the commander, who’s pointing stuff out, it was just amazing to see how the war is a constantly changing environment. You don’t know what the enemy is going to throw up against you.
NOW IT’S ALL CLEAR – THIS IS GOOD UKRAINE VERSUS EVIL RUSSIA
- Is Russian propaganda still making its way to the United States in terms of pushing its own vision of the nature of its war with Ukraine? Are there any media platforms channeling the Russian vision to this end?
- From that side of the Atlantic it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction and truth from lies so with all this information going on social media and mainstream media, it’s hard for even a good, honest journalist to make sense of it. So that’s why it’s so important for people like me to come here and see this, and report facts. One of the things I want to do is to tell a story. I interviewed many people, I filmed things.
I think the Russian media is so powerful that some of their lies get out there and it gets confusing for some people to understand where truth is. But the reality is that this is a sovereign nation with great people, with western values – and I think these values are why NATO should welcome them in.
On the other part, the Russians have just a horrible army, committing atrocities. They claim there are Nazis here but it’s actually they who’re behaving like the Nazis, torturing people, executing prisoners… committing war crimes on a massive scale. They’re sending in MLR systems on civilian targets. There’s no military even in the area and they’re firing MLR systems taking out an entire grid.
Why can’t they just follow the Geneva conventions? They are laws in a land war and if you follow them you could still win a war.
- How significant will the actual sanction damage be for Russian economy? What is the safety margin of the Russian economy against the backdrop of all those sanctions imposed?
- These are really good questions on both sanctions and deterrence. One of the debates now is on whether deterrence works. So clearly it didn’t here because Russia invaded.
On the other side, deterrence has worked because he hasn’t used his nuclear weapons yet. The sanctions will take a lot of time.
Some of the things coming of this as positive is that the west has come together and NATO has never been stronger. It’s basically survivalship. You see that the Russian army is back on the move again, first time in 70 years, heading west and invading countries, it’s going to bind everybody together.
Now everybody knows Putin has control of energy and food, and he uses them as weapons. Now he’s got even more food now that he holds Donbas and other areas that have real high quality wheat (I believe Ukraine produces 20% of the world’s high-yield wheat).
So, while controlling energy and food, he’s oppressing his own people. This is a soulless country, they have a negative birth rate, alcoholism is through the roof, their age of death continues to decline, it’s a poorly-run country with a GDP outside of energy is horrible, this is a third world country. That’s outside of the fact that they have nuclear weapons and energy. But that doesn’t help the people anyway. He oppresses his people, and now he’s trying to oppress even more people.
In 2005, Vladimir Putin said the biggest catastrophe in the last century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. So that’s the mentality of his person. And, unfortunately, we have only played into it. In 1999, it was Chechnya, in 2008 he took Georgia, in 2014 he took Crimea, in 2021 he took Belarus with what basically was a coup d’etat, installing his people in the government, and used Belarus to go in to invade. So all those times the world did nothing or very little. This time, however, Ukraine put up a fight and now suddenly the whole world is supporting it. It’s very encouraging but it’s too bad it required that tragedy to get there. You see blue and yellow all over the world.
- What is the main weakness of the Russian army – and Russian society?
- Since World War 2, there have been a lot of wars, there were gray areas, but now it’s all clear – this is good Ukraine versus evil Russia. I’m talking about from the dictator all the way down to the bottom. But if you look at President Zelensky, the whole world sees he’s done an amazing job rallying the world, getting world leaders to support Ukraine. Vladimir Putin has become more and more isolated. Everybody hates him, everybody sees he’s a dictator and murderer. He murders his own press, he murders his own people – he’s a nut job. So while he’s isolated himself, Ukraine has only become more appealing to the world, and I think that will help in many ways, after the tragedy is over. Tourism will hopefully increase, hopefully there’s going to be a sort of a European Marshall Plan to help rebuild Ukraine quickly – it would be in everybody’s best interests.
- How did Ukraine surprise you in a good way?
- I’ve been to Kyiv before on a tourism trip nearly five years ago. This time, I drove from Krakow to Lviv, then to Kyiv and all around the Kyiv area. It’s an amazing country in a lot of ways. It’s first of all beautiful, it’s very advanced. I’m shocked at how advanced most of the younger people here are. Most of them speak English, and they didn’t speak English as well when I was here five years ago. There’s an increase in the number of people bracing the west, bracing western values. Also, there’s very good wifi and internet across the country, as well as cell coverage. That’s an advancing change. And I think the educational system here is great. I think it’s one of the most educated nations in the world.
So we’re talking about a very advanced country, which is why the tragedy is even more shocking. When you go to, say, to Afghanistan, it’s a really undeveloped country with a 4% literacy rate, there’s conflict, there’s tribal warfare there, but this here is one of the most advanced countries in Europe being invaded by a horde of Russians that are ripping, pillaging an killing. It’s kind of shocking to see the disparity and contrast in that.