Former NATO commander tells KU crowd that U.S. must confront its fears over war with Russia

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Retired Gen. Philip Breedlove, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, spoke at the Dole Institute of Politics on the KU campus on April 10, 2024.

Americans should become less worried about a nuclear war and more concerned about an unrestrained Vladimir Putin, the retired general who once oversaw the defense of Europe told a KU crowd on Wednesday.

Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who served as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, said America must soon decide whether it is willing to take new risks in the Ukrainian war or whether it is ready to watch Putin and Russia launch similar attacks in Europe.

“Mr. Putin will not stop,” Breedlove told a crowd of about 150 people at the Dole Institute of Politics. “Mr. Putin will have to be stopped.”

Breedlove, who delivered the keynote address for a national security conference hosted by the University of Kansas, said that Putin knows the American public is fearful of nuclear war, and is using that fear to his advantage. He said Putin or one of his ministers makes a point to say something publicly about nuclear war or its threats on a weekly basis.

“He wants us focused on nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes, nukes,” Breedlove said of Putin. “Every six to eight days somebody talks about nukes.”

Breedlove said it is not the first time Russians have used this strategy against Americans. It was prominent during the Cuban Missile Crisis when the Soviet Union bet that President John Kennedy would be too fearful of nuclear war to directly confront the Soviet Union when the country started establishing a military presence in Cuba in 1962.

“We are afraid of a war,” Breedlove said. “My daughter and my son-in-law wear the uniform of this country. I don’t want them to go to wars like I have. But we cannot, I think, allow our fear to completely eliminate response in all manner.

“Again, I think President Kennedy faced a pretty tough problem. He chose to stand up against his fears and take some risks. There are no zero-risk ways ahead. None.”

Breedlove, though, said he thinks American foreign policy is on a different course. He said that except for some very early days of the war, America has been giving Ukraine enough assistance “to remain viable on the battlefield,” but purposely is not “giving them what they need to win.”

Breedlove said he believes the purpose of that strategy is to bring Ukraine to the negotiating table to end the war, likely with a resolution of Russia keeping some of the territory it has gained. The retired general said that will be at least the third time the U.S. and Western powers will have rewarded Russia for bad behavior, citing previous incursions or invasions of Georgia and Crimea.

Breedlove said he thinks top U.S. foreign policy leaders are wary of giving Ukraine what it needs to win, in part, because they are uncertain how to deal with a defeated Putin or a defeated Russia, which, of course, is a major nuclear power.

“We have to be intellectually honest that we don’t have a crystal ball and we don’t know what we don’t know about what Putin would do,” Breedlove said.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

Retired Gen. Philip Breedlove, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, spoke at the Dole Institute of Politics on the KU campus on April 10, 2024.

During a question-and-answer period, Antonina Broyaka — who later told the Journal-World she is an agriculture economist who fled Ukraine with her children shortly after the war began — thanked Breedlove for “telling the truth” about the situation between America and Ukraine.

But Broyaka, whose husband remains in Ukraine, said she is worried that even if America and its allies start giving Ukraine the weapons it needs to win the war, that it might be too late. Breedlove said he does not believe that is the case. He said Russia’s trench warfare mode of attack is not built to withstand the full force of modern air warfare that the U.S. and NATO could supply to the war effort.

He also told the crowd that he was optimistic that such an effort would require no American troops on the ground, saying he has come to that conclusion through his many trips to Ukraine.

“I have talked to a lot of Ukrainian soldiers,” Breedlove said. “The fighting spirit of those soldiers, if we give them what they need, they will take care of business.”

Broyaka thanked Breedlove again for “believing in us.” After the event, she told the Journal-World that Americans need to hear more from Ukrainians or people close to Ukrainians to understand the situation.

“They do not understand that we are never going to negotiate,” Broyaka said of ordinary Americans. She said continuing to fight is not optional because to surrender would mean a loss of their homes.

“They will not understand until the missiles land on their houses,” she said.

Breedlove told the crowd that he is confident Ukrainians will continue to fight “for a long time,” even if Western support for the war ends. But he said Ukraine also would be destined to lose and become a subjugated people.

That would be a loss for more than just Ukraine, he said. He said that countries including China and Iran are watching very closely how the U.S. responds to the Russian invasion. He said the U.S. has written policies regarding those countries now, but they currently mean very little because those policies are currently being rewritten in Ukraine. Breedlove told the crowd that America’s adversaries don’t really watch what the Americans write.

“They watch what you do,” Breedlove said.

The KU Security Conference continues through Thursday at KU, with panel discussions featuring speakers from across the country on topics regarding the Ukrainian war and other threats.


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