Zaluzhnyi’s former adviser on why Ukrainian counteroffensive will shock the world – interview
The new president of the American University of Kyiv, Dan Rice, brings together the American and Ukrainian militaries and promises to make the American University a place where leaders of a new formation grow. (Photo:Photo: Oleksandr Medvedev)
NV sat down for an interview with Dan
Rice, President of the American University Kyiv (AUK) and former adviser to the
Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, covering
a range of topics – from Kyiv’s much-anticipated counteroffensive to Russia-China
UPDATE: This interview was first published in Ukrainian on March 23rd. Mr. Rice is no longer an adviser to General Zaluzhnyi, and has taken on the duties of President at American University Kyiv.
We meet with Dan Rice against the familiar background of air raid sirens blaring in Kyiv. However, the West Point graduate, Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, and former adviser to Gen. Zaluzhnyi only smiles and extends a firm handshake. The AUK opened on the eve of the war and remained operational throughout these grueling 14 months, now preparing to begin in-person classes.
NV: What is your mandate as Zaluzhnyi’s advisor and what kind of expertise do you bring to the table?
Rice: I became involved with the Ukrainian war when I took in some refugees into my home in Miami, like so many people did in the West. And I let them have (the place), so I left Miami and I went to New York. And one of the women who was in my home happened to have had a restaurant in Kyiv, and she used to have a comedian would come entertain her guests – that was President (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy.
And so, she knew the president personally, and she saw all of my West Point memorabilia around the house. You know, I went to West Point and so I have all kinds of stuff that says West Point. She sent me a WhatsApp text and said, did you go to West Point? I said, yes. And she says, would you like to meet General Zaluzhnyi, the commander in Ukraine? And I said, yes, I of course would like to do that.
And that was in the beginning of the war. He's fighting the battle of Kyiv and I'm on a Zoom call with him. And we talked about, my background is, I went to West Point, I was an Army officer, I'm a leadership expert. And so, we talked about leadership, leader development and it was an amazing talk. And at the end of it, I volunteered to come help if he could use my help. He said, yes, I could use your help.
So, I flew off to Poland with no idea what I was going to be doing here. And took a civilian bus in and linked up with his team in Lviv. And they drove me to Kyiv and had (I) a great talk with the general. And then he asked me to be his special advisor. It's kind of a deceptive title because it would give the impression I'm advising. But he doesn't need any advice. So, really what really happened in my opinion is that because the United States has no troops here, there's a giant gap in information (available) between Kyiv and Germany, where our units are stationed, and then the Pentagon.
And so, essentially what I started doing was basically promoting Ukraine’s cause. I know all of our weapon systems, U.S. weapons systems. I would sometimes advise, well, maybe we should order this system, the TOW missile system (for example). And so, Ukraine would order it. I would go back to the Pentagon. I would tell my friends why we were ordering it. And then they would fill the order. I was basically writing articles and getting on TV speaking about the war.
And that's really how I became on the radar of the American University of Kiev and Ambassador Kurt Volker and CEO Rick Shangra. And they recruited me to be the president of the university. It's a wonderful idea. It's a very interesting story, really.
NV: It seems that the war in Ukraine has reached a certain plateau since last fall: Russian and Ukrainian forces are locked in positional warfare. How would you describe this stage of the war?
Rice: I think Bakhmut is where the Russian army went to die. And I think Putin has continued to make blunder after blunder, violating all the principles of war. He attacked in the wrong month: you don't attack in February in these (weather) conditions.
And all he did was chew up his army. Attacking across open ground with infantry going against artillery, they have lost so many Russians. We're killing now about 25,000 a month. I think this month in March we'll kill 25,000. About 75,000 wounded. All of his best units are being destroyed. Terrible time to attack. We're glad he did.
And when the right time to attacks comes, which is in the spring, Ukraine will have a much stronger military, much better supply than it was a year ago, ready to go on the offensive. And you have to do that to take back your territory. And I believe Ukraine will have a very strong counteroffensive this spring that will shock the world.
NV: How would you assess the state of the Russian military, what should we expect from them in the coming months?
Rice: Uncertainty is always terrifying. You don't know whether they're going to eventually use chemical or nuclear weapons. That's always a concern, but it can't stop us from going back on the offensive. You can't let a madman deter you from taking back your land.
I'd say the likelihood that the Russian army will collapse continues to increase every day. They're being degraded to the point that they can't replace their troops, they can't recruit, they can't do another mass mobilization without having the people riot. And they're losing all of their best equipment and all of their best units and all of their best ammunition. I mean, they're bringing in T-55 tanks. Those are historical museum pieces. They're bringing in more and more old stuff.
I think the (Ukrainian) strategy has been brilliant: to degrade the Russians over the winter and then to counterattack when the Ukrainian army is stronger and better trained and has a much better armored force of not only Leopard tanks but Bradley fighting vehicles and MRAP – mine-resistant vehicles. So there's a lot more capability to go into areas that are going to be heavily mined, that are going to be heavily defended, but break through and encircle and kill the Russian army.
NV: Putin recently met with Xi Jinping, and China clearly wants to prevent a Russian defeat. How likely Beijing is to directly aid Moscow in the war?
Rice: I think Xi Jinping would be a fool to get involved on the Russian side. That doesn't mean he won't do it. Just like Putin made a fool of himself here (in Ukraine), Xi Jinping could too, but I don't think it’s going to happen.
I think the Chinese are playing the long game, and Xi Jinping is looking, you know, two years ago, there were three major powers. They were pure competitors, Russia, China, and the United States. And now one of them is no longer a contender, thanks to the Ukrainian military destroying the Russian army. Now the Russian economy is in shambles, the Russian military is in shambles. All they have left are nuclear weapons. They don't really have much to offer the world – nuclear weapons and natural gas. They're a gas station, you know, pretending to be a country (referring to Barack Obama’s 2014 remark).
Xi Jinping sees all this happening. I think if he started to supply major weapons systems to Russia, the whole world would go against him. He does not want that. He wants to be able to economically conquer the world, basically. On one hand, he's trying to broker peace in Ukraine, and on the other – threatening to use force (in Taiwan). I think he'll go with peace. I think he's probably making some economic deals in Russia that are going to be good for China. But I think from a military standpoint, he'd be a fool. I mean, the only countries that are supporting Russia at this point, you know, it's an axis of idiots: Nicaragua, Syria, Belarus. You know, none of these countries are legitimate countries, and there's probably money being passed in order to gain that support. But the rest of the world is all for Ukraine, and China does not want to go against the whole world.
NV: There’s been a lot of discussions surrounding the recent Washington Post story about the Ukrainian army. It's about the problems in the Ukrainian army. We know there are problems, and we know that our soldiers are not equipped according to NATO standards, and operate with a mix of Soviet and NATO doctrines. How the military leadership could improve the effectiveness of the Ukrainian army today?
Rice: Well, I think the Ukrainian army right now is the strongest army in Europe, so they're doing a lot of things right.
Years from now, after victory is won, we'll have to have to do a lot of thinking to come up with a future vision for Ukraine’s armed forces. You know – what main battle tank should be used here? Should it be the T-72 or the Leopard? What fighter aircraft? Should it be MiGs or F-16s? Those are luxuries that will be afforded once there's peace.
Right now, there's no room to pick and choose. We take everything we can get and put it to good use. And the Ukrainian military has proven to be incredibly innovative and adaptive, and training times are much shorter, out of necessity. Soldiers go into France and Poland and Germany. They don't go off to party. They don't go off to bars. They learn the equipment, and they come right back and put it to use.
So, I think the Ukrainian military has a lot to teach the rest of Europe after this war is over. Now is not the time, but I think the lessons learned here are going to be very important for the Western countries to learn – in case Russia comes after one of them, which is possible.
NV: How would you assess the window of opportunity for a Ukrainian counteroffensive? Some say it is important to have time to conduct the operation before the U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in late 2023.
Rice: Well, I think the Ukrainian counteroffensive, when it comes, will be a well-planned, well-coordinated attack. Wherever it comes, it will likely break through the Russian lines. And I think that, with the new combat power that Ukraine has, it could be a decisive battle.
As to whether Ukraine wins in 2023 or 2024 – it’s anybody's guess. Prepare for a long war, hope for a short one. But I think there will be a major battle that Ukraine wins decisively. And that will also embolden the West to continue the support, to increase weapon and ammunition supply, and ramp up troop training.
Nothing like success to garner further support. When the Ukrainian offensive comes and everybody sees it, it'll help get even more support. And, eventually, the West supporting Ukraine has to overcome Russia. And it will be a victory back to 1991 borders, in my opinion.
NV: Do you think this kind of a major success could come before fall?
Rice: It's unfortunate that weather plays a big role in warfare. In modern combat, when you're looking at an armored force, it's not smart to attack in the winter, as Russia did. That's why they were stuck on the highways. And that allowed them to be channeled into kill zones. And that's how Ukraine was able to defend Kyiv.
In the summer months, armored forces can spread out for an attack. For Russia, most of their armored forces have been destroyed. And every day, more and more tanks and more and more fighting vehicles are being destroyed. And every day, more and more Ukrainian tanks and fighting vehicles arrive. And so, the Ukrainian military is getting stronger by the day, while the Russians get weaker. And there's a pretty good window of opportunity, in the spring and summer, that armored forces can operate and secure a victory.
The big question is, is the force large enough to overcome the Russian army? The Russian army is still very dangerous. And it's unfortunate that Ukrainians have to make the ultimate sacrifice. But in order to win, you need the right offensive operations. Last summer, the Ukrainian military didn't have the right offensive equipment. This summer, we will. And this summer, it'll be decisive.
NV: You're an expert on the Middle East, having spent a lot of time in Iraq and Afghanistan. You assert Iran will eventually transfer short-range ballistic missiles to Russia. At what point in this war it could happen? And what is holding Iran back from doing it right now?
Rice: It's a good question. I can't explain why they're not doing it. They are providing, you know, obviously the (Shahed kamikaze) drones. But they are limiting the number of weapons supplied to Moscow, and that's a good thing.
That shows there is some restraint on the Iranian leadership. But you never know. They're very unpredictable. And you have to plan for it, prepare for it. Some weapons you can't really defend against, and ballistic missiles are that kind of weapons. You can only try to destroy them while in transit to Russia. And I think Ukraine will attempt to do that.
But right now, Iran would be picking the wrong side – just like Xi Jinping. And these leaders know that if they get the ire of the world against them, that it's not a good thing. So, I think the more Russia loses, the less support it gets from anybody. Because everybody sees they're going to be on the wrong side of history. It's generally best to avoid being on the wrong side of history.
NV: Crimea. The Russian general public has grown accustomed to military defeats in Ukraine. Do you think they could accept losing Crimea to Ukrainian liberation forces? Would Putin retaliate with a nuclear strike?
Rice: I don't think the likelihood of a nuclear weapon is a concern – it's such a low probability. And there's not really much you can do to – I mean, prepare for it with iodine tablets and things like that. But the reality is if he drops a tactical nuke, his regime will have about 20 minutes to live because he'll be targeted immediately, militarily. And the Black Sea fleet will be sunk in about 10 minutes.
Right now, many of the Western weapons aren't being used. And Putin knows that if he does something like that, it would set off an escalation that would take out the rest of his military. So I think that's off the table. I think the only question regarding the liberation of Crimea is does the West have the tolerance to continue to support Kyiv. And does Ukraine have the will to fight and, unfortunately, make the sacrifices necessary to do that? And I think the answer to both these questions – emphatically yes.
I think the Russian army is in for a really tough couple of months here. And I think the whole world knows Ukraine will win, it's only a matter of time. And Crimea will be back in Ukrainian hands. And I think the rebuilding effort is going to be Herculean. It's going to be enormous. But I think the world loves Ukraine right now and will support with a massive Marshall Plan type of a rebuilding effort.
And I think tourism will thrive. I mean, many of the cities like Kyiv, Odesa, and Lviv are completely intact. If the war ended tomorrow, everybody in Europe is going to want to come visit Ukraine. And it'll take a while. Some places in Crimea will be ready for tourism quickly, and other places will have to be rebuilt. But I think it'll be a thriving economy, and Ukraine is already on the world stage, and everybody loves Ukraine.
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