Ukraine’s Former Defense Minister Andrew Zagorodnyuk, who now leads the Center for Defense Strategies, talks about what the Kremlin is capable of doing in Ukraine in a candid interview with NV’s own Kristina Berdynskykh.
The conversation took place amid an escalating standoff between Russia and NATO over Ukraine, with the latter surrounded by Russian troops massing in huge numbers.
NV English has condensed the original interview for ease of reading and clarity.
— Is there any indication that Russia is gearing up specifically for a large-scale invasion?
— We don’t know their current intentions. But we can be sure they always have several actionable plans ready. They don’t follow a linear strategy – the Russians are ever adaptive in their approach. Starting with several options, they narrow those down based on how the situation at hand develops. Everything except their strategic goals tends to change, and change rapidly.
That’s why they are deploying a very substantial force: across our border, including Crimea, there are 127,000 Russian troops. This has been pretty much constant since last April. The crucial difference is that their military presence is deeper within their territory – 100-400km from our border. This means they are preparing for something that could end up being a large-scale offensive operation.
Will they ultimately choose to do so? They will first wait for a reaction: if Ukraine is bulking up, getting more military aid (just like right now – a planeload of weapons lands in Kyiv every couple of days), if the populations is prepared to defend their country and join the territorial defense forces, and if our military remains calm and collected – Moscow will not invade in full force.
That is, unless Russians have abandoned rationality – a possibility, if only remote. At any rate, they would clearly understand that their attack will have been seen coming a mile away, with Ukrainians getting used to living under the looming threat of invasion.
— Compared to last Spring, this time around Russian troops are now also present in Belarus. How large of a threat to us are their military exercises and deployments in Belarus?
— It’s definitely a threat; Belarus is a problem. Russians could strengthen it and even remain in Belarus once the exercises conclude, inching ever closer to our borders; their presence there increases the risk (of invasion). We will be at a critical point (in this whole saga), once their exercises conclude on Feb. 20.
— We’re being showered in military aid, but most of it is suited for repelling a land force. How are we faring at sea: What’s the status of our naval defenses?
— The trouble with naval defense is that military aid of this sort is much slower to provide and deliver. The United States, along with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and others, are currently focused on the threat of imminent invasion – a matter of weeks. Our allies are talking about a sudden escalation, which will require a swift reaction. For now, they are supplying us with whatever they can “grab from the shelves” and send our way. Ships are a different matter entirely. We’ve been raising this point as far back as two-and-a-half years ago. The UK is sending us some anti-ship missiles, so at least we’ll get some naval defense weaponry. The challenge is to avoid getting essentially blockaded at sea, since the light boats we have would not be sufficient to neutralize this risk.
— In that case, are we in need of something that can be delivered on short notice? What kind of weapons would you request from our allies?
— In order to effectively fight specifically on our territory, we need more Javelins, Stingers, anti-armor weapons supplied by the UK, sniper rifles, visors, and, naturally, munitions. Basically, we need ways to destroy the advancing military vehicles of the enemy. That way we would deny them secure supply lines and have insurance against encirclements. Next – there are the enemy helicopters, so we need Stingers. Our anti-air capabilities are limited; while not completely ineffectual, they won’t be enough to contend with Russia’s air force. Their air strikes would be most effective against concentrations of our forces and supplies: trains, warehouses, large structures. Their air power could do us serious harm. We are in need of anything that could quickly stop a Russian advance in its tracks.
— What about hybrid warfare: cyber-attacks, fake bomb threats around schools and subway stations? What are some other indirect attacks they could unleash against Ukraine and its economy?
— At first, they will do anything they could claim plausible deniability for. The Russians will do everything they can to harm us, while insisting that they are blameless. Prime targets would be elements of the critical infrastructure: communications, internet, government bodies. Next, they will shift to diversions and sabotage on our territory, aiming to disrupt our infrastructure. It will serve to ramp up psychological pressure. At the same time, they will closely observe how we react to all those disruptions. If we lose our cool, start panicking and acting in an emotional, uncoordinated fashion, we would only invite Moscow to proceed with their actions to ratchet up pressure and destabilize the situation. A reaction like that would point them towards on offensive military operation.
The more Ukraine panics – the more likely is Russia to invade us, and vice versa.