Time is therefore now in favour of Ukraine, which can best prepare its counter-offensive, says Minister of Defence of Ukraine Oleksii Reznikov.
The Ukrainian top defence official said this in an interview with ELTA’s Editor-In-Chief Vytautas Bruveris, on the sidelines of his meeting with Lithuanian National Defence Minister Arvydas Anušauskas in Kharkiv earlier this week.
“Time is key for us in preparing for a counter-attack. What is more, it is working in our favour because, as we can see, the further we go, the more the ‘centrifugal processes’ within the Russian regime are accelerating,” Reznikov noted.
On the other hand, he said, Ukrainian intelligence’s data show that the leadership of the Russian regime is prepared to mobilise and sacrifice as many as three million lives.
The defence minister rejected the criticism voiced in the Western media, and sometimes coming even from the Ukrainian military itself, about the military and political leadership’s categorical determination to continue defending Bakhmut, as the losses sustained by the Ukrainian troops there could even undermine Ukraine’s ability to launch a counter-offensive.
Reznikov says that Russia’s losses there are incomparably high and simply “insane”. According to the minister, Russia loses around five hundred soldiers killed and wounded every day in Bakhmut alone.
“Bakhmut allows us to keep the enemy’s much larger forces there with our own smaller forces, while at the same time destroying and grinding down their offensive resources and potential. This is very important in the context of the whole theatre of military operations,” the minister emphasised.
“The Russians have been using that ‘creeping offensive’ tactics there for more than half a year and are suffering insane losses. This means that, if those losses had not been there, they could have used their full potential on another line of defence or frontline against us. Somewhere less fortified and less defended. And now, every day, we are inflicting huge losses and we basically keep them tied down,” he said.
He also reiterated the firm position of Ukraine’s top leadership not to have any talks with the current Russian leadership as long as its troops are on Ukrainian territory. Besides, it is impossible to talk to criminals, Ukrainians say.
Reznikov also pointed out that no “negotiations” will be able to “freeze” this war at all, because it is a global confrontation. On the other hand, he said that he understood the desire of some Western leaders not to create too high expectations and belief in a quick victory for their citizens – hence their more cautious and reserved attitude towards Ukraine’s proclaimed victory goals. However, the counter-offensive, according to the Ukrainian minister, will certainly take place “at the necessary moment”.
– The military hospital in Kharkiv alone, which we have just visited, has admitted over 64,000 wounded people since the start of the invasion. So the vital question is: how are the losses and the casualties suffered by the Ukrainian forces being compensated? Not only in terms of manpower, but also in terms of weapons and ammunition?
– From the start of the invasion, when martial law was declared, mobilisation was also announced. The General Staff of the Army naturally approved the mobilisation plan. As things stand today, this plan, which was launched in February last year, has certainly not been completed yet, let alone exceeded. We have not even fully implemented it yet. There is no need for us to announce a new mobilisation.
So the General Staff continues to deal with the compensation for the losses that we are unfortunately experiencing at a calm, gradual pace, and we are certainly not short of manpower. However, the other issue, which you quite rightly mentioned, is that this manpower needs to be armed. And, of course, there is a strong desire to arm it with modern weapons.
Equally important is the training and preparation of people. At the very start, the regular army took the heaviest blow and withstood it. Those people who had been in the army before and had the relevant experience. They were joined by veterans from the beginning of the Russian and Ukrainian war, those who had served and fought since 2014. It was primarily those who had already served and fought who withstood the first waves of the invasion. But now, naturally, the country’s defence and security forces are filling up with people who need to be trained first. We are very grateful to our allies and partners who are also helping us in this very important area through various training programmes intended for our troops.
Britain alone is training 30,000 troops, it has been joined by Canada and the Scandinavian countries. Europe itself has many other programmes ongoing. Lithuania, other Baltic States and Poland are also training our troops. Our troops are trained to use air defence systems, artillery, tanks and other armoured vehicles. The training is both individual and collective, starting at battalion level. The training of brigades that will carry out the counter-offensive is of particular importance now. It will start as soon as the General Staff decides that the time has come.
– How do you see the accumulation of counter-offensive potential? Are you satisfied with its dynamics, pace and volume?
– In this role, I must be optimistic. But at the same time, I have to be critical, if not a little sceptical. So whether I am satisfied or dissatisfied is not an emotional question. However, you are very right to ask in the sense that I simply forbid myself to be completely satisfied with something. On the contrary, I always have to be at least a little dissatisfied.
After all, my task today is not only to meet the needs of the General Staff, which I receive regularly. I still have to think ahead – how to build up reserves. I always ask partners for more than I need right here and now. After all, I know that tomorrow I will need more – for the reserves from which I will have to compensate for the losses. Also, the intensity of military action is changing. So if I need so many thousands of shells today, I will need many more tomorrow, and so on and on. The Russians are a very difficult enemy to fight. They learn very quickly. As a result, the warfare tactics also change.
When they openly invaded Ukraine on 24 February last year, they advanced in columns, without artillery cover, without intelligence, without fear of anything. They also carried parade uniforms with them, thinking that in three days they would be marching in a parade in the centre of Kyiv. This cost them dearly. We were smashing those columns, cutting through their logistics chains. This led to what they called the first “gesture of goodwill” – the liberation of the Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy areas. The next “goodwill” gesture took place on Snake Island, followed by the Kharkiv area and Kherson. But they are, as I said, fast learners.
We started receiving game changers like 155 mm calibre artillery systems from our partners in May, and in mid-summer we received a second game-changing support – HIMARS and other rocket salvo systems. These were not only American systems, but also German and French ones, which allowed us to reach targets 80 km away. Of course, this allowed us to start destroying their weapons depots, their fuel depots and their headquarters. This was the road to success in the direction of Kharkiv and Kherson.
This taught them a lesson, and they started to withdraw all of this infrastructure 120 km away. Yes, it made logistics more difficult for them, but we could no longer reach those targets with HIMARS and other systems. We had to start looking for other solutions, to make our arms extend longer. That is why we are now discussing this with our partners, saying to them that we need new weapons and ammunition so that we can reach targets beyond 120 or 150 km. Well, the dream is to reach beyond 300 km.
– What is the current state of play in these talks?
– Well, we are finding different solutions, for example, by using aviation as well. But I cannot really be happy about that. I want more and, last but not least, sooner. After all, for me and for the president of Ukraine and for the entire leadership, the health and lives of our soldiers are the most important value. Our task is to defend the country with maximum efficiency and, at the same time, with maximum protection for our troops. This is what distinguishes us from the Russians.
– But even though, as you said, the Russians are fast learners, some of the basic elements of their tactics, such as throwing numbers of bodies at the front, remain the same.
– It is true, this thing has not really changed since the World War Two at least, and they still see soldiers as cannon fodder. They are still using meat grinder tactics and they really do not care about their losses at all.
Look at Bakhmut. Their “creeping offensive” there is in its sixth or even seventh month. They are using waves of attacks. There may be 10 or 12 such waves immediately following each other. In Bakhmut alone they are losing up to 500 soldiers a day in killed and wounded. But there, first of all, that is Wagner, the criminals and the prisoners whom they simply do not count.
– What do you see of it? That at least their human resources are, for the time being, if not inexhaustible, at least almost unlimited?
– First, they follow an old and well-known saying: “Women will give birth to more [sons]”. Second, according to our intelligence, many of the Kremlin’s top representatives base their strategic calculations and planning on the logic: “We do not regret one million or three million, because at the expense of those losses, we will annex half of Ukraine with twenty million and thus compensate for those losses.”
As we can see, it is a completely cynical attitude towards its own people. On the other hand, it was also based on the mistaken belief, which we have also seen in many pro-Ukraine countries and capitals, that Kyiv would fall in 72 hours and the whole of Ukraine follows in three weeks. After all, it was believed that a small Soviet army would fight against a large Soviet army. If that was the case, the small Soviet army was doomed to lose to the big Soviet army.
But the key thing is that we are no longer a small Soviet army. Just as we are not a Soviet country at all. Yes, we still have a lot of Soviet legacy and burden, and we certainly have not done all that we could and should have done over the last thirty years in getting rid of it and fighting corruption. But democracy has managed to prevail and settle in Ukraine, and democratic and European values are already our own.
This has also had an effect on Ukraine’s army and defence capabilities, which were still being reformed and developed over the last eight years of Russia’s hybrid aggression. There are almost no colonels and generals who served in the Soviet army left. They are now a rare exception. Almost all of our generals have trained and served in the Ukrainian army. Yes, that army also felt an impact of certain Soviet legacy and its disadvantages.
Despite that, in recent years, this army has made a giant leap towards creative thinking, the freedom of decision-making that is afforded to everyone from the sergeant to the company to the battalion command. A completely different internal relationship and culture has begun to emerge. In addition, in these eight years, we have also moved closer to many NATO standards. And then there is the experience of having mastered a wide range of weapons from countries around the world.
It means that while our armaments are still based on old Soviet weapons, we also use modern weapons from NATO countries. We are so creative and efficient in combining all this that even our instructors in the West are happy to have us come to them, because we are providing valuable experience to them too. A remarkable progress has been achieved in the use of drones – from civilian small drones for filming weddings to large military strike drones. We have even come up with an idea to attach anti-radar missiles to our warplanes to destroy the enemy’s air defence systems.
In general, Ukraine is the only country in the world that has such a unique experience of mastering military hardware and weapons, engaging in such military multitasking, and at the same time successfully containing and defeating the so-called second army in the world. To go back to your earlier question, I can only repeat that I always want to see more and more weapons delivered, and faster, as well as more and faster training for our troops.
– Battles are currently the fiercest in Bakhmut. What is the situation there at the moment? It seems that the Ukrainian forces, even though slowly, are losing the city.
– Our soldiers and their top leadership, both Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi and General Oleksandr Syrskyi leading the defence of the stronghold, share a principled standpoint that has been stated to the president a number of times when he asked. The standpoint is to defend and hold [the city].
Why? There is a very clear military logic behind that, which is also very understandable to me. Bakhmut is a well-fortified defensive position in an advantageous geographic location. There is high ground, rivers. So it is a real stronghold. Bakhmut allows our smaller force to hold much larger enemy force there, at the same time destroying, grinding their offensive resources and potential. This is important in the context of the entire theatre of military operations.
Russians have been using the tactic of “creeping offensive” there for more than half a year and incurring insane losses. This means that if there were no losses, the entire potential could have been used in another defensive or front line against us. In a different place that is less fortified and less defended. Now we inflict major losses every day, essentially keeping them tied down. That is where Russia’s offensive is happening. The Kremlin’s dreams and plans to reach the boundaries of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts rapidly are failing.
– So, what is happening in the Donbas front is in fact Russia’s offensive that was talked about so much?
– In my understanding, yes. It is “creeping” like this.
– Has it failed already?
– It is failing. They have many times changed the implementation date of the offensive plan and they still are unsuccessful whenever a new date is set. This means that they are also losing psychologically. They are losing not only manpower there but also equipment, ammunition. The owner of Wagner [a private military company] had obliged and promised to bring success at least in a narrow stretch of the front. Infighting is happening between the Kremlin top brass.
– Is this also prompted by the assassination in Saint Petersburg of Vladlen Tatarsky, a propagandist who represented Wagner?
– First of all, this enables us to win more time and maintain the stability of our defence. Time is crucial for us to prepare for a counteroffensive. Moreover, time is in our favour. As we can see, the longer this continues the more “centrifugal processes” are accelerating within the Russian regime.
– Many discussions are revolving around this question, on whose side is time? As I understand, you are saying that time is ticking in Ukraine’s favour, at least in the current phase of war?
– Yes, the time is now on our and our partners’ side. We still need time to prepare, to master new systems, to train our units. Additional air defence forces will arrive. As you know, we are receiving Patriot, NASAMS systems, Italian, French weaponry.
Air defence will enable us to better defend and safeguard some cities. We have successfully survived winter. Although, as you are aware, they were dreaming of plunging us into cold and darkness, of taking away electricity, water, heating. This was yet another dream of theirs that also failed.
– Indeed, we have not heard for a long time about electricity supply collapsing in Ukraine. How was this possible?
– It is essential that Ukrainians declared: “It is better without lighting, without water, but also without you [Russians]”. The rest was a matter of equipment and ingenuity how to safeguard our infrastructure against air strikes. And we learned quickly to achieve this. Simultaneously, we were honing our skills and methods how to shoot down Iranian drones, cruise missiles; our air defence is constantly improving.
Without a doubt, we need aviation, too. I think the issue of supply of fourth generation jets will be solved and we will receive F-16 or other aircraft. We need aviation as an element of air defence and this is vital. To some up, it may be said that Bakhmut is the place where we are winning time for all of that and we are also weakening the capabilities of Russians.
– There is criticism, including in Western media, that Ukraine risks losing its own counteroffensive potential due to losses incurred in Bakhmut. What do you have to say?
– Losses are unavoidable in war. However, when you defend you always experience fewer losses than those assaulting. Therefore, the more damage we inflict on the Russian army when we defend Bakhmut, Avdiivka, Vuhledar, Marinka, the more we weaken their overall capabilities and can shift to our offensive experiencing fewer losses.
– We are again hearing that some Western politicians are “fatigued” by the war in Ukraine. Thus, purportedly, a pessimistic scenario is possible: military aid would be provided to Ukraine until the counteroffensive begins, which at some point Russia might stop and it might stall, and then Ukraine’s allies might declare that this is enough and start pressuring to “stop”, “freeze” the situation, to launch “talks”. Of course, such “freezing” of the war in Ukraine’s territory is impossible under any circumstances, but we still hear such talks. What can you say about that?
– Yes, I have heard such points being made many times. I will say even more. Last summer, when asked what primary risks I envisioned in the future, I would reply that the main risk was the “fatigue syndrome”. People may become “fatigued” just because the news all the time contain Ukraine, Ukraine and Ukraine. People get tired of bad news and want something else. Or bad news must be replaced by other bad news from elsewhere. Therefore, I particularly closely followed the world’s major news outlets, such as CNN, BBC and saw how Ukraine was in the headlines at one point, but then some tragedy would happen, perhaps in the United States or elsewhere, pushing [news about] Ukraine down, and it may not return [to the top].
This is normal actually. This is how the psyche of ordinary normal people functions. However, this also affects politicians because people are their voters and taxpayers. So politicians start assuming that at some point somehow “talks” and “negotiations” could begin. Yet there is one “but”. What about the tragedy we have suffered, losses and casualties we experienced, everyone saw the horrors that Russia brought not only to Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel, Izyum, Kupiansk, Kherson and Mariupol.
We cannot just sit down at the table and discuss something with them. Whom to talk with? Murderers? Robbers, marauders and rapists? Child kidnappers? This is simply impossible. On the other hand, we have demonstrated to the entire world that we can fight successfully. A claim that the Russian army is the second best in the world is a bluff and we have proved that. Yes, there are plenty of them and they have many weapons, but the quality is low. One of key things, which I have always mentioned in all meetings with my colleagues, ministers from other countries, is that we must tackle the “fatigue syndrome”. All of us must do that.
– It is likely just as important to explain to people and constantly remind them that this is not some “regional conflict”, one of many that can ostensibly be “frozen” somehow, but that this war of civilisations has global implications, which cannot be “postponed” or somehow avoided?
– Precisely, of course. In 2008, obeying Germany’s categorical pressure not to “provoke” Russia, Ukraine and Georgia were refused an invitation to join NATO. A partial occupation of Georgia happened, occupation of Crimea and other parts of Ukraine in 2014. And yet calls not to “provoke” Russia were still repeated, oil and gas was purchased from it, business was done jointly.
What did this lead to? To a large-scale invasion. They [the West] stopped purchasing oil and gas, and many other things, and finally did what we urged to do long ago – imposed sanctions. Now many most influential and serious politicians in Europe and the world are openly and consciously saying that Ukraine is fighting for democratic values; that a frontline in the fight of values is stretching through Ukraine.
– In your opinion, has a fundamental turning point been reached in the political consciousness of the West? Are people beginning to realise both the nature of the Russian regime and that this war is the existential war of the Western civilisation, which cannot be “put off” once again or swept under the carpet?
– Yes, I believe and notice that a breakthrough is happening. Both ordinary citizens and politicians are starting to realise this, even those from different sides of the political spectrum. When I arrive in a foreign country and speak to the local media, I am often asked what “scenario of negotiations” I envision. I always reiterate that we are ready for talks but only under Ukraine’s conditions. The conditions are simple – Russian forces withdraw from the territory of Ukraine, reparations and contributions are paid, the damage caused is compensated, and all the criminals and their leaders are punished. After all, I think the risk of “fatigue” we are talking about is now lower than, for example, it was last summer.
– China is entering the stage increasingly more. What role does it play? Some argue that China’s dictatorship will in any case desperately support Russia’s dictatorship, even providing weaponry if needed, and will do everything for the Russian dictatorship not to suffer a strategic and existential defeat in Ukraine, and may even launch its own war in Taiwan. Others argue that China will play a cautious but more complex game focusing solely on its own interests, which Ukraine could even take advantage of. What is your opinion?
– I really do not share the former view. I hope that China will not support Russia under any circumstances, any efforts and measures. Of course, China would benefit from the Russian regime surviving, from it not collapsing. However, whatever the case, China is thinking in terms of the bigger picture and far to future. Moreover, it only takes into account its own interests. Based on these interests, Russia has already become just a simple addition to the supply of resources. This is official. Hence, China will support Russia only to the extent to have a source of raw materials, from which it could draw gas, oil and timber, and make claims for Russian territory.
Recently I spoke to colleagues, experts on China among them, who told me a quite interesting thing. In the Chinese language, there is no term for “a brother”, just “an older brother” and “a younger brother”. Therefore, this already implies hierarchy. When in the Soviet times the Soviet Union and the Communist China signed agreements and other documents, the Soviet Union was “the older brother”. Whereas Today, in China’s understanding and, I think based on the wording of their documents in Chinese, China has become “the older brother”, while Russia is probably just “a younger sister”.
I believe this to be the key aspect supporting my prediction that China will back Russia just so much but not as to undermine its own interests. It had sent certain signals, in fact as had India, that there are many other important and great challenges, while the use of nuclear weapons is absolutely unacceptable. I think China may try to become a possible mediator in potential talks. After all, there will be competition on who will be the organiser and mediator of negotiations as this would grant that country and its leaders additional weight and points.
– General Mark A. Milley, United States Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a number of times said that in his opinion it would be extremely difficult and possibly even impossible to push out Russian forces from the entire territory of Ukraine already this year. Clearly, a message is sent to someone, perhaps also to the Ukrainian leadership, signalling that US leaders may view the current political stance of Ukraine and her goals not so unconditionally enthusiastic. How do you assess and explain such statements by the general? And what message about Ukraine’s upcoming counteroffensive would you send?
– I will attempt to explain some of the statements made not only by General Milley, whom I respect very much, but also by all of our military officers and politicians. In wartime, it is very important to maintain the balance between good and bad news. It is crucial to manage public expectations. We have discussed the “fatigue syndrome”. It may be felt not only by friendly countries but also by our own people. If there is only bad news, people may lose hope and morale may decline, which will immediately affect defensive capabilities.
On the other hand, if we try to bring only as much as possible good news, inflate optimism, underestimate the enemy, then we may create an image that the war is nearly ending and that we may return to our “national sports” of infighting and bickering. Unity is the main weapon at the time of war. We have been succeeding because we have buried all the hatchets on 24 February of last year.
Unfortunately, representatives of a party that “has ended the war” emerged in Ukraine and are once again starting to look who to blame and engage in similar activities. This is normal – this is how democracy functions. Yet speaking about the need of balance, General Milley is trying not to arouse high expectations, so that there would not be major disappointment, including for his [American] society. They have helped us a lot. Yet they are looking to avoid reproach that they tried in vain, in case something goes wrong. Let us remember that the Americans recently had to withdraw from Afghanistan, and how they withdrew.
Every politician must consider this, whereas General Milley in this case is speaking like a politician and is addressing his country’s audience. As I have said, it is essential not to build up high expectations so that there would not be great disappointment afterwards, a sense of betrayal and additional aggression. As regards the counteroffensive, we are waiting for it, it will happen when the General Staff deems necessary and in the needed direction.