On March 9, I had a conversation about the war in Ukraine with a longtime source of mine who has had a decades-long career in the military and in the intelligence community, serving both in and out of government. The source requested anonymity to speak freely. The following Q&A has been edited for brevity.
Q: What do you make of the offer by Poland to provide MiG fighters to the United States that we would then deliver to Ukraine?
A: It was really not smart of the Poles to float this publicly. It was an unforced error on their part. The more visible this discussion is, the less helpful it is.
Q: So how will Ukraine get the fighters it needs?
A: There are countries that have MiGs that are not members of NATO. This is a classic case where the U.S. government gets its checkbook out and quietly goes to one of those countries. The fighters just show up in Ukraine. The Russians wouldn’t even necessarily know where they came from—remember, right now, they don’t even control the airspace over Ukraine. They would obviously know what happened, but the United States and NATO would have deniability. It’s called “foreign material acquisition.” We did this all the time during the Cold War.
Q: How vital is it to get those MIGs to Ukraine?
A: I don’t see it as being decisive. Maybe I’m wrong. The Ukrainians seem to want them badly. I’m sure they want to use them to hit Russian tanks and deny Russia control of the airspace. But they are doing an amazing job of that with the weapons we already gave them. We’ve supplied them with something like 17,000 anti-tank missiles and I don’t know how many [antiaircraft] Stingers. We should be giving them thousands more.
We are witnessing a new form of warfare. To put a tank on a battlefield costs maybe $30 million. A Javelin anti-tank missile costs $175,000. Similarly with fighter jets and antiaircraft missiles. You can defend territory at a tiny fraction of what it costs the aggressor to take it. The drones the Ukrainians bought from the Turks are doing incredible damage. But just the cheap commercial drones you buy at Walmart can give you total tactical awareness of the battlefield. So Ukrainians can see everything the Russians are doing. They don’t even need satellites. But you can buy satellite imagery on the commercial market, too, and that gives you strategic awareness.
Q: How worried are you that the Russians will be able to cut off the supply of weapons and other key material from the West to the Ukrainians?
A: The Russians are said to be able to interdict supplies. But if you have Ukrainian convoys equipped with Stingers and also teams equipped with Stingers on fixed sites along the routes, all they need to do is shoot down a few Russian aircraft and the Russians are going to be saying, “Forget it, I don’t want to go there.” Will it be harder to get supplies into Kyiv if the Russians manage to blockade the city? Yes. But the Ukrainians can then attack the Russians from behind.
Q: How much of the military resistance we are seeing in Ukraine is the result of citizens rising up themselves and how much of it is being directed by the Ukrainian military?
A: Yeah, you see the photos in the media of the handmade Molotov cocktails. No question: The will of the Ukrainian people is incredible. You saw a taste of that determination in 2014. I saw it when I was in Ukraine right after the 2014 revolution. If Putin had been paying attention, they would’ve seen that, too. But also, we’ve had Green Berets going into Ukraine for years training Ukrainian special forces for just this kind of moment. This resistance was very well planned out.
Q: How does this end?
A: It’s a race against time. The Ukrainians are killing hundreds of 19-year-old Russian conscripts. The Russians are killing hundreds of Ukranian civilians. Thousands are going to die. But the Ukrainian people have had a taste of the West, a taste of freedom, and they don’t want anything to do with Russia. The Russian people, on the other hand, have had a tacit understanding with Putin: They don’t get involved in politics, and he gives them some semblance of economic stability. But now, with the war and the sanctions, Putin has broken the deal. Average middle-class Russians can’t go to Greece for vacation anymore. They can’t watch soccer. They can’t even go to McDonald’s. That tacit understanding has been broken. It’s really a case of this being one man’s war: Putin’s.