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McMaster: ‘It’s past time to provide Ukraine what they need’ 

Then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster answers questions from reporters during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017.
Then-national security adviser H.R. McMaster answers questions from reporters during the daily briefing in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Thursday, Nov. 2, 2017.

The Russian army is attacking Ukrainian positions in the Donetsk region, near Chasiv Yar. British intelligence says Russia is sustaining heavy losses and according to the Ukrainian military has mobilized 20,000 soldiers around the small town just west of Bakhmut. In recent months, Russia has claimed limited gains along the 1,200-kilometer front line in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration has asked its Western partners for ammunition, long-range weapons and air defense capabilities.

Ani Chkhikvadze of VOA's Georgian Service spoke to H.R. McMaster, a Hoover Institution senior fellow and national security adviser in the Trump administration, about the war and what Washington can do to help Ukraine.

“It's past time to provide Ukraine what they need,” he said. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

VOA: When we talk about war in Ukraine, does the United States right now have a strategy of what the outcome should look like?

H.R. McMaster, Hoover Institution senior fellow: I think the outcome is clear, and it is clear because the Ukrainians defined it themselves. They want a free, sovereign, independent, secure country. That's what we ought to be supporting. That includes winning back the territory that they've lost, and I think we have not been as clear maybe in Washington and other capitals. We say [we will support Ukraine] as long as it takes. But I think we should define what “it” is. It is, again, a free, independent, secure Ukraine.

VOA: Some critics say that Ukraine is not getting enough arms to make a difference on the battlefield. Does the White House have an idea of what the outcome should look like?

McMaster: I wish that the White House and the president would be clearer about the objective. That would make clearer the amount of assistance, the kinds of weapons and munitions and the scale needed. I think there should be two fundamental military objectives. The first would be to stop the onslaught against the Ukrainian people and against their infrastructure. And the second would be to regain the territory that's been lost, certainly at least since the massive reinvasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Once you clarify those objectives, then, you know, you need tiered and layered air defense, or you need long-range precision strike capabilities, because you have to shoot down the arrows, but you also have to kill the archers who are firing these missiles and so forth.

Then you need a range of military capabilities and logistics capabilities to sustain an offensive. Ukraine is struggling to rebuild their manpower, their womanpower, for their armed services. What we should be doing is providing as much material support as we can and stop, kind of, the "We don't know if we want to provide tanks or jet aircraft or long-range systems." It's past time to provide Ukraine what they need to accomplish those two military objectives.

VOA: As a general and a [military] historian, how does the battlefield look to you right now?

McMaster: It looks like it's a very tough situation for Ukraine right now. Russia has been able to replace the manpower they've lost, even though the numbers of casualties that they've suffered are staggering: 100,000-plus casualties. Russia, though, doesn't care about the casualties that they're taking. Apparently, they're taking about 30,000 casualties a month, a thousand casualties a day, for these gains that they're making around Chasiv Yar, for example, which is a pretty strategic, important place because of the routes it opens for more offensive operations, and because of some of the manufacturing capabilities that are around that city. Ukraine is doing their best to defend that area, and they're inflicting massive costs on Russia. One of the things that I think we have to consider is that every army has a breaking point. Russia might be reaching that breaking point.

World War I is kind of instructive in this case. That war was relatively static, and it was terrible in terms of the casualties. There had not been any major gains. And then, in 1917, the French decided to mount the major offensive called the Nivelle offensive. ... They took staggering losses, and the French army mutinied. What happened after that was, the Germans conducted an offensive. It seemed like it was going to work, but they couldn’t sustain it. Then America entered the war, and the war ended as a war of maneuver.

Not that America is going to enter this [Ukraine] war. But wars don't remain static. There are always changes. Oftentimes those changes are due to physical strength and losses, but also because of morale or psychological effects of a battle.

VOA: You served in the Trump administration [as national security adviser]. What would foreign policy look like under President Trump?

McMaster: It's hard to say. I think that President Trump would be pragmatic about the challenges we're facing. I hope he would get good advice from those around him in an administration. It's also important to note, you know, that we're not a monarchy in the United States. You have separation of powers, and if President Trump had a desire to do something that the vast majority of members of Congress thought was unwise, even though the president has a lot of latitude in foreign policy, he's going to need Congress to go along with him for other elements of his agenda. I think it's important that we recognize that once the president is elected, that president is still held to account by the American people and by their representatives in Congress. We should wait to see what happens.