Petraeus with Zelensky
Gen. David Petraeus meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in May 2023.

General David Petraeus on the Russia-Ukraine War

December 21, 2023
Kate Davidson, Conor Cunningham and RM Staff

Few of America’s living statesmen have as masterly a grasp of the drivers of contemporary warfare as Gen. David Petraeus. With over 37 years of service in the U.S. military, Petraeus was famously in command of the “Surge” during the Iraq War in 2007, leading U.S. and coalition forces. In 2004, he became the first commander of the Multi-National Security Transition Command – Iraq, responsible for training Iraq’s security forces and developing the country’s security institutions. Following his service in Iraq, he became commander of the U.S. Central Command in 2008, and in 2010, of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Five of his six consecutive commands as a general officer were in combat. After retiring from the military, he served as CIA Director in 2011-2012, and currently, he is a senior fellow and lecturer at Yale University. Petraeus recently visited Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs to share with the students, faculty and staff the insights he has outlined in his most recent book, co-authored with Andrew Roberts, "Conflict: The Evolution of Warfare from 1945 to Ukraine." 

Below is our compilation of insights on the Russia-Ukraine war from this book, as well as his other recent insights. 

History matters:

  • Russia has not been particularly successful when fighting beyond Russian-speaking borders over the past 120 years, something that has transcended politics because it has been true in its Tsarist, Bolshevik and post-Soviet iterations. Its forces attacked Japan in 1904-5, Prussia and Austria in 1914-17, the Baltic States in 1918-20, Poland in 1920-2, Finland in 1939-40 and Afghanistan in 1979-89. Every single time they received a bloody nose, for much the same reasons that they have so far done so badly in Ukraine: poor logistics, badly integrated arms, low morale and so on. (“Conflict,” 2023)
  • Yet history does not tend to favor aggressors, for as the historian Adam Tooze has pointed out, “Other than wars of national liberation, one is hard pressed to name a single war of aggression since 1914 that has yielded clearly positive results for the first mover.” Furthermore, as we have already seen time and again in this book, soldiers defending their own homes and families are far more motivated than invaders. In both the wars in which Russia did well - those against Napoleon and Hitler - it was as defender of the motherland, not as aggressor. (“Conflict,” 2023)
  • His Blitzkrieg might have faltered, but [Russian President Vladimir] Putin probably assumed (and still seems to believe) that Russia could simply “out-suffer” the Ukrainians, Europeans and Americans, in the same way that Russians had out-suffered Napoleon’s and Hitler’s invasions. Yet once again the key difference that eluded him was that while Napoleon and the Nazis were the aggressors invading Mother Russia, this time it was the Russians themselves who were the foreign aggressors. (“Conflict,” 2023)

Putin’s blunders:

  • The first principle of strategic leadership is to get the overall strategy right, yet [Vladimir] Putin, [Valery] Gerasimov, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and their staffs all failed miserably in this when they approved the plans to attack Ukraine on no fewer than seven different axes, rather than to launch a diversionary attack but then concentrate on taking Kyiv, the decisive and main effort.  (“Conflict,” 2023) 
  • The Russian President hoped his invasion of Ukraine would be a swift, overwhelming. Blitzkrieg attack by special forces, the regular Army and fifth columnists against what appeared to be a weak Ukrainian government and inadequately equipped Ukrainian forces … As so often in the past, however, Putin had failed to grasp how warfare had evolved since the days of Blitzkrieg, and how the advantage in recent years had shifted decisively from the offense to the defense. (“Conflict,” 2023)
  • Unity of command is an essential principle of war, because commanders have to be in overall charge when coordinating battles, directing logistics, committing reserves, adjusting concentration on different axes and so on. That might seem like an obvious prerequisite for a full-scale war of this nature, but Putin and his war minister Sergei Shoigu had not grasped it. The Russian leadership not only failed to design a proper campaign to achieve its objectives in Ukraine, it also failed to establish the proper organizational architecture and authorities, not unlike some of the coalition shortcomings of the early months - and years - in Afghanistan after the Taliban were toppled. (“Conflict,” 2023)
  • Although, Vladimir Putin has had thousands of accomplices, he alone is ultimately to blame for launching the most consequential war of recent times, the first year of which will be taught in staff colleges around the world for decades to come as providing a masterclass in how not to fight a war.  (“Conflict,” 2023) 
  • Over time, it would become increasingly obvious that in setting out to make Russia great again, Putin was actually making NATO great again, fostering the most comprehensive unity there since the end of the Cold War and prompting historically neutral Finland and Sweden to seek membership. (“Conflict,” 2023)
  • Putin completely underestimated the response of the Ukrainians, the resilience, the determination, the capability, the skill, the will and frankly, the response of the U.S. and the West collectively. He overestimated the capabilities of his own forces very substantially and basically got the big ideas wrong. The idea that in a few days they could take Kyiv, topple the government, replace [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky with a pro-Russian figure and go home to a victory parade obviously proved to be just more than a little bit flawed. (Carnegie Endowment, 11.07.23)

Zelensky’s traits:

  • Clearly, just as it had been for Ronald Reagan, Zelensky’s training as an actor was a great asset. Moreover, he spoke truthfully and bluntly and largely eschewed propaganda. As U.S. forces had tried to do in Iraq during the Surge, he sought to “be first with the truth" and avoid spin. (“Conflict,” 2023)
  • The Ukrainian Army’s passivity in Crimea during the 2014 coup de main (though it resisted elsewhere) encouraged Russian expectations that the same might transpire in the event of a similar coup against Kyiv, but developments over the next eight years changed everything. Ukrainian humiliation over the loss of Crimea, the fighting in the Donbas, subsequent extensive training and professionalization of the Ukrainian Army by NATO, the inspirational leadership of President Volodymyr Zelensky and the fact that Ukrainians would be defending their own homes and independence were all factors that Russian planners failed sufficiently to take into account in 2022.  (“Conflict,” 2023)
  • There is a quite interesting contrast between the strategic leadership in Afghanistan and that of President Zelensky in Ukraine, who you know said, “I don’t want a ride, I want ammunition. We’re going to stay in Kyiv, my family is going to stay in Kyiv and men in the country are going to remain, and we are going to mobilize fully for war.” (Carnegie Endowment, 11.07.23)

Differences between the Russian and Ukrainian leaders’ approaches to the war:

  • Petraeus said that Russia’s war in Ukraine is a study in leadership contrasts. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he argued, is a “truly brilliant strategic leader as a wartime leader,” who “got the big ideas right” by opting to stay and defend Kyiv “until the end”—and by employing his “Churchillian” communication skills. In contrast, Petraeus said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is the “exact opposite” because he “got the big ideas wrong. . . underestimated the Ukrainians, [and] overestimated his forces,” in addition to employing a “terrible campaign design”—although Petraeus warned that the Russian military “has been a learning organization” and that it has now established a “formidable” force in the south. (Atlantic Council, 11.17.23)

Role of nuclear weapons:

  • The Russian stance was particularly worrying because there is a qualitative difference between the way the Russians regard tactical nuclear weapons and the way the West does, with the former concentrating on the word “tactical,” while the latter tends to focus on the word “nuclear.” Russian wargames routinely envisage the use of tactical nuclear weapons, whereas ever since Douglas MacArthur, Western leaders have reacted with horror to the idea that a conflict might ever “go nuclear.” (“Conflict,” 2023)
  • With Western officials threatening ‘catastrophic consequences’ for the use of any nuclear weapons, and with both China’s and India’s leaders warning Putin as well, it appears that the Kremlin has been dissuaded from employing them. (“Conflict,” 2023)

Assessment of the recent developments on and off the battlefield:

  • The Ukrainian government and its armed forces have been “learning organizations” - and in prolonged wars the side that learns and adapts the fastest often prevails. (“Conflict,” 2023)
  • This may well be history’s first full-scale drone war. The Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2 drone had already been deployed successfully in conflicts such as that over Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, but came into its own in Ukraine … Ukraine had only a limited number of them, but they ensured that Russia did not control the skies and also forced the Russians to be much more cautious in their movements. (“Conflict,” 2023)
  • Unfortunately, the hope for gains over the summer did not materialize to the extent that, again, Ukrainians and many of us had hoped we would see in part because even though we provided enormous support, over $44 billion dollars in security systems alone, we delayed some of the really critical decisions. Our tanks were not there for the summer offensive, our F-16s or other countries' F-16 were not yet released and overhead and our doctrine says that to conduct a breach of the kind of substantial defenses the Russians created requires air superiority, they [the Ukrainians] don’t even have air parity. (Carnegie Endowment, 11.07.23)
  • The challenge is of course that despite the Ukrainians winning the battle of Kyiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Kherson and so forth, that right now even their own military Commander in Chief acknowledges that, used the word “stalemate,” which his president did not appreciate, it appears. But nonetheless that’s the challenge, so this is still not decided and Russia still occupies not quite 20% of the country. So, this will continue. (Carnegie Endowment, 11.07.23)

What the future holds and what needs to be done:

  • With individual tycoons such as Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos wielding such extraordinary power, wars of the future will have to take their influence into account. (“Conflict,” 2023)
  • The big idea for us ought to be that we should do everything humanly possible to help Ukraine hasten that moment, together with other allies and partners, to hasten the moment when Putin realizes this war is unsustainable … But we’re a long way from that still. (Carnegie Endowment, 11.07.23)
  • There is overlap in what we are trying to provide to Ukraine and Israel. It's publicly known that we are shifting some 155 mm howitzer ammunition from stockpiles in Israel to Ukraine; we did the same with some that were on the Korean peninsula. So clearly, as I mentioned, the industrial base does need to dramatically increase its production of certain types of systems, but those are not necessarily the systems that underpin deterrence in, say, the Indo-Pacific region. (Carnegie Endowment, 11.07.23)
  • [Responding to Aaron David Miller’s question of whether there is a political bandwidth problem in the United States vis-à-vis the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel]: I don’t think it's necessarily a bandwidth problem. I think it's more just a domestic political angle. The truth is that in both houses of Congress, there is a bi-partisan majority supporting additional funding and ammunitions for Ukraine, just as there is even more so for Israel. But we are going to have to work our way through that … I would like to see us package Israel, Ukraine, the border and Federal Aid Emergency Management agency … put it all together; we can afford it, we can do this and let's get on with it because the clock is ticking in all these different locations. (Carnegie Endowment, 11.07.23)


  • At the end of the day Ukraine is fighting a war for NATO. Henry Kissinger himself—who was for years not a huge fan of NATO enlargement, as you’ll recall—says that the security of NATO begins at the Ukrainian-Russian border. (Carnegie Endowment, 11.07.23)
  • Despite the sanctions being the strongest imposed since the Second World War, nations comprising 76% of the world’s population, such as China and India, did not join them. (“Conflict,” 2023)

Kate Davidson

Kate Davidson is a researcher with the Avoiding Great Power War Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.


Conor Cunningham

Conor Cunningham is an RM student associate and a graduate student at Harvard University.

Photo shared by the Ukrainian presidential press service via a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.