Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valery Zaluzhny gave an interview to the Economist on December 3, 2022. This is Zaluzhny’s personal view of the war in Ukraine.
Valery Zaluzhny: For us, for the military, the war began in 2014. For me personally in July 2014. And I had no idea what war really was in 2014.
I read many books, graduated from all the academies with a gold medal, theoretically understood everything, but did not understand what war really is. But over the eight years of the war, until 2022, both I and those like me understood everything perfectly.
All we did when the large-scale aggression began was to implement not only our knowledge that we already had in 2014, but also the skills and experience that we have gained since then. And the most important experience that we had and the one that we professed almost like a religion is that Russians and any other enemies must be killed, just killed, and most importantly, not be afraid to do it. And that’s what we do.
Everything that happened on February 24 was zooming in. Prior to that, we had a front of 403 km and 232 strong points. And by February 24, this front had grown to 2,500 km. We had relatively small forces, but we entered the battle. Naturally, we understood that we were not strong enough. Our task was to distribute our forces in such a way as to use unconventional tactics to stop the onslaught.
The Economist: What makes you different as a general?
Valery Zaluzhny: In the Soviet Army, one concept was welcomed and introduced: the commander is always right. But being a commander and being a leader are not the same thing. With all due respect to Mr. Surovikin, if you look at him, then he is an ordinary Peter the Great commander of the time of Peter the Great, let’s say, a jerk.
You look at him and understand that either you are doing the task, or you are fucked. And we have long understood that it does not work. And we especially realized this in 2014, when 21-year-old lieutenants began commanding men in their 50s and 60s. Of course, we had our own morons who tried to maintain order with their fists and biceps, but in the Ukrainian army this does not work 100% … You can always be normal. To be normal means to remain human in any situation – this is the most important thing. Be human, be a leader. To be smarter, to be stronger, to be more talented and at the same time try to manage people. This is the religion that I practice.
The Economist: Does this mean that you listen to your officers and encourage their initiative?
Valery Zaluzhny: I trust my generals. Since the beginning of the war, I have fired ten of them, because they were not up to it. Another one got shot. I trust Syrsky [General Oleksandr Syrsky, Commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces]. If he tells me that he needs another team, then he really needs another team. I certainly don’t think I’m the smartest here. I must and must listen to those who are in the field. Because the initiative is there.
The Economist: Who are your military role models?
Valery Zaluzhny: Turn your head to the left. There is a portrait of the late Gennady Petrovich Vorobyov [commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces from 2009 to 2014]. He was a man of great respect in the army. Why is he here? When I’m calm, when things are going well, this photo is usually face down, I don’t need to look at it. When I doubt something, I say it straight.
I turn around and look at him, trying to figure out what Gennady Vorobyov would have done in this situation. This is a man who has been successful. This is a man who had a hard time, because he helped everyone. To each. He knew everyone in the Armed Forces, their wives, children, nephews and so on. It was hard for him, but he took this heavy burden and carried it. This is an example for me.
The Economist: The photo is now face up.
Valery Zaluzhny: Yes. I have many doubts.
The Economist: Which ones?
Valery Zaluzhny: Having carried out a number of operations, we realized that the main thing is not to be afraid of this enemy. This can be fought, it must be fought today, here and now. And in no case should it be postponed until tomorrow, because there will be problems. To do this, you will need resources. Like the Russians, when we plan something, we must have the resources to do it. Then, if your position is correct and you make the right decisions, you can expect the right result.
The Russians have been collecting their resources for a long time. By my reckoning, they have been creating them for three and a half or four years.
Intensively increased: people, equipment, ammunition. I think they had the resources for three months to achieve their goals. The fact that they have exhausted these resources and squandered their potential with little to no result indicates that their position was not well chosen. Now they again have to think about how to get out of this situation.
They wanted to take Kyiv. Militarily, it was the right decision – the easiest way to achieve their goal. I would do the same. I know Gerasimov [Chief of Staff of the Russian Armed Forces] well (not personally, of course). There was no way out for him. He focused on the Donbass to conserve the remaining resources. Today, the situation in the Donbass is not easy. But strategically, this is a hopeless situation for the Russian army.
So, most likely, they are looking for ways to stop the fighting and get a pause by any means: shooting at civilians, leaving our wives and children to freeze to death. They need it for one simple purpose: they need time to gather resources and build new capabilities so that they can continue the war, achieve their goals.
But they are working on another task in parallel, doing everything possible to prevent us from regrouping and hitting them. That’s why you see fighting along the 1,500-kilometer front line. Somewhere more intense, somewhere less intense, but they pin down our troops to prevent us from regrouping. The fact that they are now stubbornly fighting is, of course, very bad. But this is not a solution to a strategic problem. This is simply exhausting the armed forces of Ukraine.
Therefore, as during the Second World War, I have no doubt that, most likely, new resources are being prepared somewhere beyond the Urals. 100% prepared.
Ammunition is being prepared, not a very good thing, but still. These will no longer be the resources that could have been for two years of a truce. It will not happen. It will be bad, and the combat potential will be very, very low, even if Gerasimov recruits another million people into the army to bombard us with corpses, as Zhukov did. This will not bring the desired result in any case.
So the next task that we have is, first of all, to hold this milestone and not lose positions anymore. It is very important. Because I know it’s ten to fifteen times harder to get him out than it is not to turn him in. So our task now is to hold on. Our task is to track very clearly, with the help of our partners, what is happening there, where they are preparing. This is our strategic goal.
Our second strategic task is to prepare for the war that could take place in February. To be able to wage war with fresh forces and reserves. Our troops are now all tied up in battles, they are bleeding. They bleed and are held together solely by the courage, heroism and ability of their commanders to keep the situation under control.
The second, very important strategic task for us is to create reserves and prepare for a war that can take place in February, at best in March, at worst – at the end of January. The offensive may start not from the Donbass, but towards Kyiv, from the side of Belarus, I do not exclude the southern direction.
We made all the calculations – how many tanks, artillery we need, and so on and so forth. This is what everyone needs to focus on right now. Forgive me, the soldiers in the trenches, it is now more important to focus on accumulating resources for the longer and harder battles that could begin next year. I’ll talk to Millie [Mark Millie, US Army Joint Staff Chief] about this.
I’ll tell him how much it costs. If we do not receive weapons, of course, we will fight to the end. But, as one of the movie heroes said, “I can’t vouch for the consequences.” The consequences are easy to predict. This is what we must do.
There is also a third task that is very important for us, the third strategic task, which, unfortunately, is connected with the first one (holding lines and positions) and the second one (accumulation of resources). This is missile defense and air defense. In my personal opinion, I’m not an energy expert, but it seems to me that we are on the verge. We are balancing on a fine line. And if the electrical system is destroyed … that’s when the soldiers’ wives and children will start to freeze. And such a scenario is possible. What mood will our fighters be in, can you imagine? Without water, light and heat, is it possible to speak about the preparation of reserves for the continuation of hostilities?
The Economist: Do you need another wave of mobilization?
Valery Zaluzhny: We are already conducting it. We have enough people, and I can clearly see what I have. I’ve had enough. I don’t need hundreds of thousands.
We need tanks, we need armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles. And we need ammo. Please note, I’m not talking about the F-16 now.
The Economist: Have Russian troops adapted to HIMARS?
Valery Zaluzhny: Yes. They went to a distance unattainable for HIMARS. And we don’t have anything long-range.
The Economist: Can we talk about air defense?
Valery Zaluzhny: Now we have a coefficient of 0.76. The Russians use this 0.76 efficiency factor when planning their attacks. This means that instead of 76 missiles, they launch 100. And 24 pass and reach the target. And what do two rockets do to a power plant? It will not be possible to create a power plant in two years. It needs to be built.
NATO specialists know everything, absolutely everything, down to the smallest detail. Calculations are made and thank God everything has moved forward. We already have several NASAMS [Norwegian-American air defense systems]. Not enough, but still. IRIS-T [German air defense system] is already in use. Not enough, but there is. They just need more. We need dozens of these.
The Economist: Are your allies somehow holding you back from attacking Crimea?
Valery Zaluzhny: I cannot answer the question whether they are holding us back or not. I’m just stating facts. To get to the borders of Crimea, today we need to overcome the distance of 84 km to Melitopol. By the way, this is enough for us, because Melitopol would give us full fire control of the land corridor, because from Melitopol we can already fire on the Crimean Isthmus, with the same HIMARS and so on. Why am I telling this to you? Because this leads to my previous point about resources. I can calculate, based on the task, what resource is needed to build up combat capability.
We’re talking about the scale of the First World War… that’s what Anthony Radakin [Chief of the British Defense Staff] told me. When I told him that the British army had fired a million shells in the First World War, they told me: “We will lose Europe. We will have nothing to live on if you launch so many shells. When they say, “You’re getting 50,000 shells,” people who count money faint. The biggest problem is that they don’t really exist.
With these resources, I can’t run any new big operations, although we’re currently working on one. He’s coming, but you can’t see him yet. We use far fewer shells.
I know that I can defeat this enemy. But I need resources. I need 300 tanks, 600-700 infantry fighting vehicles, 500 howitzers. Then, I think, it is quite realistic to reach the borders on February 23rd. But I can’t do it with two brigades. I get what I get but less than what I need. It is not yet the time to address Ukrainian soldiers the way Mannerheim addressed Finnish soldiers. We can and must capture much more territory.
The Economist: What do you think about mobilization in Russia?
Valery Zaluzhny: Russian mobilization worked. It is not true that their problems are so terrible that these people will not fight. They will. The king told them to go to war, and they go to war. I studied the history of the two Chechen wars – it was the same there. They may not be as well equipped, but they still present a problem for us. According to our estimates, they have a reserve of 1.2-1.5 million people … The Russians are preparing about 200,000 fresh soldiers. I have no doubt that they will have another attempt to attack Kyiv.