Day 492: highlights from rare interview with Ukraine’s chief commander, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi

In a rare, wide-ranging interview with The Washington Post, Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi expressed frustration over an opinion publicly expressed by Western officials and military analysts that Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive has started slower than expected. The conversation circled around “planes, shells, and patience.” 

Speaking to The Washington Post in Kyiv, where The Post now has a bureau, Zaluzhnyi reminded the Western public that Ukraine’s counteroffensive “is not a show.” He also said Ukraine still has not received modern fighter jets it needs.

That’s his fourth extensive interview since the invasion. Last year Zaluzhnyi spoke to Time magazine and The Economist. Earlier this year, for the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, he was interviewed by Ukrainian journalist Dmytro Komarov. 

Here are the highlights from Zaluzhnyi’s interview with The Washington Post.

Ukraine needs modern fighter jets

For Ukraine’s counteroffensive to progress faster, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the top officer in Ukraine’s armed forces, says he needs more — of every weapon. And he is telling anyone who will listen, including his American counterpart Gen. Mark A. Milley as recently as Wednesday, that he needs those resources now.

Zaluzhny expressed frustration that while his biggest Western backers would never launch an offensive without air superiority, Ukraine still has not received modern fighter jets but is expected to rapidly take back territory from the occupying Russians. American-made F-16s, promised only recently, are not likely to arrive until the fall — in a best-case scenario.

Zaluzhny also pointed to NATO forces’ own doctrine — which parallels Russia’s, he said — that calls for air superiority before launching ground-based deep-reaching operations.

“And Ukraine, moving to offensive operations, should follow which doctrine?” Zaluzhny said. “NATO’s? The Russian Federation’s? Or is that none of your business? ‘You have your own doctrine. You have tanks, you have some cannons, you have some [fighting vehicles]. You can do it.’ What is that?”

In his command post, Zaluzhny has a screen that shows him everything in the air at any given moment — the aviation from NATO countries at Ukraine’s western border, his own planes in the sky over Ukraine, and Russia’s on the eastern edges. “Let’s just say the number of aircraft that are on duty near our western borders is twice as much as the number of Russian aircraft devastating our positions. Why can’t we take at least a third of it from there and move it here?” Zaluzhny asked.

Because Russia’s more modern fleet of Su-35s have a far superior radar and missile range, Ukraine’s older jets cannot compete. Troops on the ground are easily targeted as a result.

“Nobody is saying that tomorrow we should rearm and get 120 planes,” Zaluzhny said. “Why? I do not need 120 planes. I’m not going to threaten the whole world. A very limited number would be enough. But they are needed. Because there is no other way. Because the enemy is using a different generation of aviation. It’s like we’d go on the offensive with bows and arrows now, and everyone would say, ‘Are you crazy?’ But with this question, ‘No, no.’”

Ukraine needs more ammunition

His troops also should be firing at least as many artillery shells as their enemy, Zaluzhny said, but have been outshot tenfold at times because of limited resources.

“Without being fully supplied, these plans are not feasible at all,” he added. “But they are being carried out. Yes, maybe not as fast as the participants in the show, the observers, would like, but that is their problem.”

Zaluzhny said he relays his concerns to Milley, whom he has grown to deeply admire and considers a friend, several times per week in conversations that can last hours. “He shares them absolutely. And I think he can help me get rid of those worries,” Zaluzhny said, adding that he told Milley on Wednesday how many more artillery shells he needs per month.

In these conversations, Zaluzhny is frank about the consequences: “We have an agreement: 24/7, we’re in touch. So, sometimes I can call up and say, ‘If I don’t get 100,000 shells in a week, 1,000 people will die. Step into my shoes,’” he said.

“It’s not a show (…). Every day, every meter is given by blood.”

So it “pisses me off,” Zaluzhny said, when he hears that Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive in the country’s east and south has started slower than expected — an opinion publicly expressed by Western officials and military analysts and also by President Volodymyr Zelensky, though Zaluzhny was not referring to Zelensky. His troops have gained some ground — even if it’s just 500 meters — every day, he said.

“Our task is to prepare for the worst and most possible scenarios. And we will try to minimize the possible consequences of what could be.”

One worst-case scenario Zaluzhny must consider is the threat that Putin might deploy a nuclear weapon. And Zelensky warned last week that Ukrainian intelligence received information that Russian forces were preparing a “terrorist act with the release of radiation” at the occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, Europe’s largest atomic power station.

Does that give Zaluzhny pause from trying to retake control of the plant as part of Ukraine’s counteroffensive?

“It doesn’t stop me at all,” Zaluzhny said. “We are doing our job. All these signals come from outside for some reason: ‘Be afraid of a nuclear strike.’ Well, should we give up?”

Explaining Ukraine podcast. A story of a Ukrainian village head tortured by the Russian soldiers

Mykola, the acting head of Nechvolodivka, a village near Kupyansk in Kharkiv Oblast, was twice kidnapped and tortured by the Russian occupiers. We went to his village and spoke to him and his family. In this episode, we tell you the story of him and his family’s story – and try to look at the patterns of Russian cruelty during the occupation.

Hosts: Volodymyr Yermolenko, Ukrainian philosopher and journalist, chief editor of, and Tetyana Ogarkova, Ukrainian scholar and journalist, in charge of international outreach at the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre.