Roman Malko, The Ukrainian Week
Was Ukraine truly ready for a full-scale attack from Russia, why Putin’s ‘blitzkrieg’ failed and what do we need to do to make the tide turn in our favour – all discussed in an exclusive interview of Brigadier General Dmytro Krasylnykov.
– How different is the current war to the war of 2014?
– The difference is huge. In 2014, neither I, nor many other servicemen had any combat experience at all: the usage of artillery, manoeuvring in infantry formations, other measures in real combat situations, not merely during drills. The experience that we gained then and the experience supplemented with the war in Donbas in subsequent years is very useful to us today. As for the scale and manner of the military conflict in 2014 and now, it is simply incomparable. Back then, we thought it was difficult. Now, we understand that that was ‘child’s play’ in comparison.
– As for the Russians, are they still acting the same or have they changed their approach (since 2014)?
– Back then, we did not encounter regular Russian troops too often. Hence, I cannot compare how they were back then and now. Back then, the contingent of enemy units consisted of volunteer fighters, mercenaries, for the most part. Some of them had a lot of experience. As for units under my command, it is quite possible that they have been directly targeted by regular Russian troops through artillery fire, mortar shells, and perhaps even through means of scouting… I don’t know. Today, new volunteers arrived from other countries, and of course I mean Libya and Syria. Perhaps they are not even volunteers per se but simply came to ‘make a buck’. This has escalated linearly. Hence, battles fought in 2014 are fundamentally different to those fought now. Our troops find it very difficult now.
– Did you prepare for war in this format?
– Of course. Even though I hoped for less intensive combat operations, for a more limited military theatre, and more limited range of armament overall. In other words, I hoped that aviation would not be used to such a scale as it is now, as well as cruise and tactical missiles, weapons of great precision. We had hoped for the better, but still prepared for the worst, although it is impossible to say how one would behave during an air raid, during a missile strike, until they actually experience it. In books and films, it is one thing, in reality, it is something completely different. Simply put, our armed forces did not have this experience before. And for those who did, we’re only talking about a very limited amount of personnel which took part in conflicts abroad. For our entire armed forces, the use of all types of armament simultaneously and full-scale aggression was something new.
– If Russia invaded Ukraine like this in 2014, would we be able to withstand them?
– To be honest, I don’t know. I am not ready to give you an answer to this question. Back then, we had an entirely different army. They also had an entirely different army, different training, motivation, personnel, power and resources. Perhaps, if Russia started to create combat-ready formations for assault near the border with Ukraine, then perhaps, the world would react differently. After all, the international community stopped the war in Georgia in 2008 in one its early stage. Perhaps, the same could have happened after the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine in 2014. I am not ready to give you an answer. This is a difficult question. I don’t know what’s inside of our enemies’ heads.
– And why did the Russian ‘Blitzkrieg’, the quick takeover of Ukraine in three days, fail? You, as a military man, must have analysed this situation?
– Because they were not allowed to do so. Because any plan that is made, is always met with counteraction of the opponent. There were many factors at play here: they underestimated us and overestimated themselves. Moreover they underestimated such a full-scale resistance movement, which arose on almost the entirety of Ukrainian lands. Unfortunately, as it was later revealed, we had a lot of collaborators and traitors among us – people who guided armoured columns of the enemy, indicated places for pontoon bridges, revealed shortcuts, tunnels etc. Hence, the war revealed the disadvantages of both sides.
– Have we started making the necessary conclusions from this thus far?
– I hope so. Personally, I am doing so.
– Are our enemies doing so?
– Yes, they are. We cannot allow ourselves to underestimate the enemy. And the enemy has also learned a lot and is acting differently from the early stage of the war – they are no longer resorting to ‘cavalry charges’ so to say. They are fully exploiting their advantage in armament and especially in the advantage of quantity superiority in this department. They are using their advantage in artillery, in particular, this is the superior numbers of artillery ammunition. Therefore, our military personnel which are on the front lines and are met with constant shelling, find it very difficult to counteract such firepower.
– What can change the course of this conflict to make our side capable of an intensive response?
– The presence of armament that can strike from long distance, which will allow us to reach the enemies’ formations way behind its lines, so around 200 to 300km. If we will obtain such weapons, and if we will be able to learn how to skillfully use these machines, then I am 100% sure that this will improve the current state of the front and will hence give us an additional initiative to carry out plans for the next phase.
– The weapons that are given to us now, are they not enough?
– It is great that we are given howitzers and other long-range weapons, but this is not enough. Unfortunately, especially during the first phase of the war, we were given weapons in a similar manner as the native Americans were given bows and spears. I cannot understand why we are not given more powerful weapons that could engage in counter-battery fire against the enemy’s positions which are doing significant damage to us, especially with regards to civilian infrastructure – destroying bridges, crossings, roads and other civilian objects. I don’t know why we are not given the relevant means, while they (Ukraine’s allies) have all the relevant means to provide us with long-range rocket systems. I don’t know why our allies haven’t given us any of such systems. Perhaps, they are on their way. Perhaps, they have already decided to provide us with them. I understand that the system of approval in many other countries is very complex and demands time. Whatever their reasons, we are happy for any kind of support. Even though stronger, long-range rocket systems and more advanced armoured vehicles would be highly preferred. If the necessary weapons arrive, we will obtain means of long-range air defence, and then I would say with great confidence that we will be able to restore our territorial integrity in the short-term and save many of our personnel and civilians. After all, we cannot continuously say ‘help us, help!’… We should have been thinking about how to defend our independence 30 years prior to this.
– Putin declared that he will withdraw 6 thousand Russian soldiers from Syria, which will in turn be used in the war against Ukraine. Simultaneously, Russia has been carrying out concealed mobilisation. Can such a reinforcement have a significant impact on the front line? Should we carry out extra mobilisation?
– We must carry out moderate mobilisation. It is more important to coordinate various processes and subsequently make them more effective. Unfortunately, the majority of personnel drafted as part of the mobilisation process do not meet the necessary criteria in terms of quality (although the desired numbers of mobilised men have been met). It is necessary to find ways to carry out additional selections of military personnel, and allocate them between different military units and change the nature of their missions because the current state of affairs is problematic.
As for the soldiers from Syria which can be transferred to Ukraine, I think Putin would have already done so if he could instead of embarrassing himself with Ukraine, a country which practically had no army or the relevant technological capabilities before the war (2014). Yes, there are a certain number of Syrians, Libyans and others. A certain number of private mercenaries are here and have definitely taken part in major offences. They are well prepared, equipped and motivated. Because motivation through money, professionalism and possibly their own convictions that they are really fighting fascism, are all significant. We will see how this unravels. In any case, we must take the initiative, overcome and hopefully, turn the tide in our favour in the short-term.
– The Ukrainian soldier, his motivation and vision – has it changed during this war?
– Due to the fact that the nature of the war has changed, the Ukrainian warriors have changed as well. However, as always, a lot depends on persistence, firmness, endurance and motivation. This is all relative though, as even the most motivated soldier, the most persistent, experienced and renowned, after a few weeks of being under continuous shelling when seeing those around him dying or being wounded, may start to show signs of weakness. And this is completely understandable. Soldiers lose sense of reality, they lose belief in victory, they lose belief in themselves and their brothers in arms. If a particular soldier or officer is confident in spirit, he will be able to jump back quickly from losing faith – and his subordinates will follow and swiftly get back in formation. Henceforth, after such a recovery, it is rare for them to hit such a slump once again. This does have its drawbacks, however. A lot of these servicemen lose the instinct of self-preservation. They vigorously carry out their tasks regardless of any nearby artillery or aerial strike, and unfortunately, often get wounded and die. The biggest problem today is that we are losing the very backbone of our army. These are the most experienced men, sergeants, platoon commanders, company, deputy battalion and other commanders that lead their personnel into battle. Hence, during mobilisation, I already stated that this is not working for us. Somehow, our brigades received men who were never even in the army before. Another question was how did the troops which were supposedly trained (the reserves of the first and second wave) turn out to be unprepared for carrying out its tasks.
– Have the Territorial Defence Forces (TDF) completed the tasks that they have been assigned to?
– At the moment, I am not so sure. In the OOS zone (Donbas) of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, these formations do not hold the necessary strength, motivation and overall command. Honestly, they are currently only able to carry out tasks as the second echelon: being observers or constructing fortifications. They are not able to go into full-on combat. Luckily, sometimes, there are fractions of TDF (and there are not as few of them as before) which are able to carry out full combat tasks as part of their formations. There are optimistic signs of this. I will tell you about one particular case. A rifle platoon of one company was used to reinforce a larger unit. In battle, two platoons from this company left their positions, thereby leaving only one platoon behind, which continued to carry out its tasks. The platoon destroyed five armoured vehicles, one tank (using only handheld anti-tank weapons!), showed composed and organised behaviour and showed itself even better than regular servicemen of other units, which would normally have combat experience from the eight years of war. Overall, everything depends on the personnel and the specific person – going from a present day commander or sergeant in their units, all the way to the way they were raised by their families.
Nevertheless, the TDF on the greater part of Ukrainian territory, did work out. An exception, as I said, are the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where it did not have a significant effect as we expected. This is my personal opinion, based on my own experience and application of TDF in battle. The best performance by them could be observed in regions where combat has finished. Regardless of their motivations and moods upon entering the TDF, they have done a lot. In many cases, it was thanks to them that the enemy was stopped in its tracks and suffered many casualties.
Perhaps I will disclose secret information by saying this but it is a fact that many of those who entered the units of TDF were those who were trying to avoid mobilisation. When the TDF were launched and a command system was created, full-time positions in the organisation were taken by those who already had experience and who were in line to be mobilised in the first and second wave. And when mobilisation into TDF ranks took place while general mobilisation was called in parallel, many joined TDF only to be able to stay in their own oblast, take care of humanitarian aid, defence and so on. I see this based on the example of those units that are here with me. However, I am certain that if the enemy suddenly made it there, they would defend it vigorously. Very many people say this: if war reaches my home, I will fight and give my life for it, but fighting for other regions and dying, they do not agree with. This point of view must be accounted for as every person has the instinct of self-preservation and no one wants to die just like that.
– Would it make sense for Ukraine to use the Swiss model for the TDF in order to supplement its effectiveness?
– Yes. However, if we want to do this swiftly and immediately, then it should be done in certain regions and territories. In other territories, we must hold our armed forces along with other units. In other words, we must use other forms of defence of our country. In many regions, I think this is the very manner of experience and how it should be gained. In Switzerland or Albania, almost every household would be given a potential role as part of a national defence system plan. I think that this would make sense during national defence preparations.
– To what extent does our military experience tickle the interest of foreigners?
– Our experience attracts a lot of interest from our partners. They have never seen anything like it, and therefore are learning themselves and are looking to implement it in their own training.
– What do we have that they don’t?
– For example, they do not have the practical experience of fighting tanks, aviation and cruise missiles with machine guns and grenade launchers. First, they destroy the air defence system, followed by aviation, followed by three days of artillery fire. Afterwards, if the opponent is met again, retreat, aviation is used and so on. This war is a war of know-how. I think that they must rethink their conceptions completely. On one hand, they do get their tactics right on missile strikes of great precision, however, they do not have well trained infantry units which would also demonstrate enough fortitude. Hence, I think that our experience and our units will be used for the means of peacetime reconstruction of our country, after our victory.