MSNBC's Alex Witt brought on retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey yesterday to ask what Putin is trying to accomplish with the latest attack so close to the Polish border.
"Well, he's widening the war," he said.
"He is going to go after the West resupply effort to Ukrainian armed forces and humanitarian aid also coming in out of Poland and Romania. He has reverted to essentially the center of gravity of his military campaign, which is now to terrorize the civilian population, and hopefully through that means to force President Zelenskyy and his military to capitulate. At a tactical level, the Russians are doing very badly against a smaller number of extremely aggressive Ukrainian fighters.
"There really isn't any pushback so far. I think he's approaching the limit of endurance what Europeans can tolerate once we see the takedown of Kyiv, the capital."
Asked to comment on the risks of a no-fly zone, McCaffrey called it "sheer nonsense."
"We're either going to go in and confront Russian air power and the ground air defense artillery, and the S-400 anti-aircraft system, which mostly is still in Russia, or we're not going to have any impact on the outcome. I think it's a political decision at the highest levels. NATO can clearly knock the Russians into the next world in a 30-day air campaign. They can take out their ground elements, which are still inviting targets. So the question is, is NATO there? The answer is no. And is the president prepared to risk escalation? I think the answer is no.
"We need to understand, I don't think World War III is in the offing. I think that's nonsense. Putin is so over his head. 60% of his ground capability is in Ukraine and half his air power. So it's a question of, are we going to watch Ukraine go under, or not?"
"President Zelenskyy said yesterday he doesn't see courage from NATO. Do you think NATO's response has been weak? I mean, do you think Putin has managed to intimidate NATO leaders, despite your assessment you just told me, which is that you don't think World War III's in the offing, because Putin couldn't handle it?" Witt asked.
"I don't think courage is the word," McCaffrey said. "I think President Biden and NATO leadership is appropriately trying to minimize the conflict, not to have it escalate horizontally to other countries or escalate vertically, meaning go nuclear. Putin has been pretty effective, though, as a second- or third-tier military power, in intimidating and confronting the greatest military on earth, which is the NATO alliance. To what extent do Europeans or Americans have in intensifying a war direct against the Russians? A question Mr. Biden and his senior advisers have to address."
McCaffrey said the Russians would be "squashed" if they tried to attack Poland, Romania, never mind a massive movement to take western Europe.
"It's not even in the cards. However, what is in the cards is that NATO has now pulled itself together in dramatic fashion. I think Biden's team been brilliant in the way they handled this. Moved forward as an alliance, not as a U.S. unilateral move. Germans re-arming, doubling their defense budget for next year is remarkable. And I think we're going to see that across the board, Putin put himself in a strategic disaster. The problem is, how are we going to act to end this intense suffering in the Ukraine? A huge nation, 40 million people. When the fighting in Kyiv gets intense and in the coming weeks, it's going to be painful to watch."
"Where's your level of fear that Vladimir Putin might try to use tactical nuclear weapons?" Witt asked.
"I think it approaches zero. I cannot imagine a lieutenant colonel in the Russian air force telling Mr. Putin this is a good idea. We have tactical nuclear weapons sitting on boomer submarines of the U.S. Navy that within 15 minutes could respond to a tactical attack. No one in their right mind thinks you can win a nuclear conflict. The Russians have written their doctrine that says escalate to de-escalate. Mumbo Jumbo. They nuke - what? Ukrainian forces, Polish forces, U.S. forces and then say now we want to talk? I don't think he's even remotely going to do that. If there was a giant nuclear exchange, it would be Armageddon for the civilized world."
"Generally, you're speaking as a military man suggesting the Russian military man counterpart would say this is not a good idea. What if Putin says 'do it?' " Witt asked.
"I don't know. I think if it came to a nuclear strike, strategic exchange of missiles, I think some general might shoot him right between the eyes. I don't think they'd want their own families vaporized in a final act of nihilism, but tactical nukes, maybe he'd take that step. I assume right now Secretary Austin and the agency are trying to figure out what should we do if that happened," he said.