Ex-Minister of Defence shares his views on the recent developments in Eastern Ukraine with The Ukrainian Week
U.W.: How efficient are the strategy and tactics of the Ukrainian army in this conflict?
What troubles me the most is that people who have not served a single day in the army are now trying to answer this question in TV programmes. We are indeed facing a war of a new generation which started with a powerful special operation planned by Russia’s Chief Intelligence Directorate and carried out by the 45th airborne spetsnaz regiment in Crimea and later in the Donbas. All of this was supported by the fifth column, likewise created in advance. Moreover, the situation in Ukraine has been persistently destabilized by Russia since late 2013. Moscow’s main efficient step at the first stage of the conflict was not so much the deployment of Russian military units in Ukraine, but arming local separatists whom Russia reinforced using fitting contingents, such as prisoners who were promised an amnesty for participation in the military conflict in Ukraine. In general, a thorough analysis of the situation should involve a discussion of the state of Ukraine’s Armed Forces in the past years. Look at who was in charge – direct agents of Russia’s Chief Intelligence Directorate or simply bribe-takers who are now being investigated by the Prosecutor’s Office.
I state with confidence that Ukraine’s Armed Forces were being purposefully destroyed in the past years. The best proof of this is the situation in Eastern Ukraine, or rather the nearly complete absence of Ukrainians troops there at the beginning of military action. We had one light-armoured brigade, one airborne brigade, one tank brigade and an artillery rocket regiment in Sumy. That was all. A powerful motorized rifle division in Artemivsk and the 90th light-armoured regiment in Alchevsk had been dissolved; the best weapons had been sold, etc. Importantly, not only was there no task force of the Ukrainian Armed Forces there ready to fulfil military tasks, but the locals had simply become accustomed to the absence of any troops in the region. There were no military trainings or any other activities, for that matter, where people would see the Ukrainian military.
I vividly remember how Colonel Momot of the Border Guard Service, who is sadly no longer with us (Ihor Momot was killed in Luhansk Oblast in July in the shelling of Ukrainian border guards from GRAD missile launchers – Ed.), and I led Border Guard units into the territory of Luhansk Oblast in early March. We were met as enemies – people shouted that we were fascists and Banderites and tried to tear off our shoulder straps. It took us a long time to explain that we were simply Ukrainian and had come to defend our own state. I say this as a military professional: the army was like a corpse when the conflict erupted. Ihor Teniukh (Acting Defence Minister from 27 February through 25 March, 2014, the period when the “little green men” appeared in Crimea and it was subsequently annexed by Russia – Ed.) was right in estimating the size of Ukraine’s battleworthy troops at around 6,000, even though he perhaps should not have gone public with this statement. Remember how Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a Russian buffoon through whom Russia leaks its views, said back on 25 April that Russia was going to send in its troops? It did not do so only because we had managed to deploy battle-ready forces at virtually all points of possible intervention, protect Kyiv and other large cities with air defence troops, carry out training to repel the Russian aggressions, etc. In general, a big thank you is due to company and brigade commanders, as well as to ordinary soldiers who are bearing all the hardships of war. However, most of them have not received even the simple words of gratitude, not to mention awards or decorations.
U.W.: Could you tell specifically about the strategy of battle action? Was it right to use elite paratroopers as ordinary infantry? How come the command of Ukraine’s Armed Forces had no adequate reserves near Ilovaysk? Why were territorial defence battalions used as regular army units on the frontline despite the fact that they are not equipped for this?
It is hard for me to answer this question, because I am an active military man. As far as territorial defence and volunteer battalions are concerned, I have great respect for these units. However, they had to be turned into regular army units before being sent into action. They had to be given normal commanders, armoured groups, artillery, etc. The ones that exist now should be used exclusively in the rear to guard security road blocks. Volunteer battalions should be used as the basis for forming spetsnaz units in the army, police and the National Guard. With a sensible approach, these could be unique units – motivated, patriotic and brave.
Unfortunately, the situation in our military leadership now is such that an ignoramus teaches an ignoramus and both believe they are great experts. We need to simply follow the laws of the military science to have a battalion operate in a military way rather than stretch along the entire frontline, as was the case with our troops. We also need to have a reserve echelon of troops and so on. How can an army fight for three months without having evacuation paths and collection stations for damaged vehicles? That is why we are abandoning equipment. The truth is that we suffered colossal human losses and even bigger losses in terms of equipment. The military command lacks a strategic vision of the conflict.
U.W.: A lot is now being said about the large-scale infiltration of Ukraine’s military command by direct and indirect Russian agents. The army has never carried out a purge, so the situation is still the same?
I do not have this information. I am not a counterintelligence officer. Moreover, let me repeat that I am an active serviceman and do not have the right to publicly criticize the General Staff. I can say that during the three months when the Ministry of Defence was under my command, the General Staff was working overtime. I do not have specific data on anyone, but there are, of course, spies. However, we should not forget that Ukrainians are like scorpions – they keep stinging themselves. We are criticizing everyone left and right, failing to understand that sometimes it does more harm than good, especially now, in wartime.
Whether the top command is scared, I don’t know about that, but I can tell you frankly: now, in the office of deputy Chairman of the National Defence and Security Council, I am busy doing completely meaningless stuff instead of leading at least a company on the front. But they won’t let me go.
On personnel issues: Ihor Teniukh came and tackled them before doing anything else, and I am sorry to say he simply let Crimea slip into Russia’s hands. Meanwhile, I had no choice whatsoever. The mobilization process did not allow me to dismiss military men, but I did fire corrupt civilians. You know, I still regret I had not entered the minister’s office earlier, before Teniukh. I believe our troops had a chance to stand their ground in Crimea. We would have sunk several ferries in the Kerch Strait, installed Rapira anti-tank cannons and fired at helicopters and planes. Some would have burned; some others would not have even taken off. I believe there were enough men there prepared to execute a normal order.
I am, in general, against carrying out lustration in wartime, even though this is an unpopular notion. During a war, the military expect gratitude and should not be thinking about checks and inspections. But the counterintelligence service and the Military Prosecutor’s Office should be working actively. However, I believe that in order to achieve efficiency, it would have been enough to avoid placing gendarmes at the top of the Ministry of Defence as is the case now. You cannot run these kinds of experiments – any experiments, for that matter – in the army during wartime. We have a burning need for experienced professionals who can get down to work immediately. Bring them back from the reserve if the current ones are failing. However, our military elite is, for the most part, like the political elite – in a bad sense of the word. The same people who embezzled the army’s property continue to command it.
U.W.: But you would not deny that the Armed Forces need to be fundamentally reformed, both in terms of their personnel and strategy?
A reform is indeed necessary. I conveyed my vision several times personally to the president: a small (some 150,000 men) mobile army that would be able to immediately react to any threat and allow time for mobilization if necessary. It would be based on a system of normal territorial defence, which has to be the Armed Forces’ reserve, while the National Guard has to be charged with more serious tasks. Meanwhile, we should stay away from a massive rush when everyone suddenly needs the army, everyone is a great expert in army-related issues and people propose Semen Semenchenko (commander of the Donbas volunteer battalion – Ed.) for Chief of the General Staff. When things settle down a bit and there is no longer need for PR, the issue will again be forgotten. And then they will again cut to the quick, sell weapons, etc. The process must be constant: an army that is not modernized on a daily basis becomes outdated overnight.
Mykhailo Koval is a professional military man in the rank of colonel general. He was born in 1956 in Iziaslav, Khmelnytsky Oblast. He graduated from the Kamianets-Podilsky Higher Military Engineering Command Academy in 1979, from the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow in 1990 and from the Academy of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in 1997. While in combatant forces, he rose from platoon commander to chief of staff to army corps commander. In 2001-2002, he was chief of staff and the first deputy head of the Chief Directorate of the Internal Troops of Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. In 2002, Koval moved to the State Border Guard Service where he served as the first deputy head and director of the Personnel Department. On 25 March 2014, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine appointed him acting Minister of Defence. Koval was dismissed from this office and instead appointed deputy Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council on 3 July 2014. He has numerous orders and decorations.