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16 September, 2019  ▪  Спілкувався: Dmitro Krapyvenko

Mykhailo Zabrodskiy: “Generals do not think within the framework of the previous war”

The commander of the Ukrainian Air Assault Forces on the feasibility of holding a military parade on Independence Day of Ukraine and the specifics of the war in Donbas

Does Ukraine need the Independence Day parade? 

— A country in war does need a parade. I’m glad to see that public opinion on the celebration has reached the President and the event will take place.  

Some of the points initially voiced against holding the parade included its cost and the fact that both the parade, and the preparations are an extra burden on the military who are already doing a lot of things. So why not just give them a few more days off? 

— Given my 30+ years in the army, I can say that the country can find both resources and military staff to take part in the parade, if it wants to hold one. This is not too much of a problem. 

Your colleagues in the European Solidarity nominate you for Head of the National Security and Defense Committee (MP Zabrodskyi was  appointed Deputy Head of the Committee after distribution of posts within the new Verkhovna Rada committees – Ed.). What will be your first initiatives if you head or join the committee? 

— We are not going to Parliament for seats or portfolios. We have a series of initiatives that should be submitted, some for the second time, to the Verkhovna Rada. We have a vision of what the committee could do within the next two-three years. The priorities I would list include a new law on the Security Bureau of Ukraine (SBU) to abolish its function of control over economic activities; changes in the system of counterintelligence, and public oversight over the SBU. The next step is the law on intelligence: we need to coordinate the activities of all respective components within different law enforcement and security agencies, review their powers, distribute functions and accountability. Another initiative is to introduce a new system of sergeant ranks close to NATO standards. Also, it is important to amend the Customs Code for duty-free import of defense goods. This will help us solve the issue of obtaining defense technologies, components, modern systems for communication and reconaissanceetc. – all the things that are difficult or impossible to produce in Ukraine at the moment. 

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The position of President Zelenskiy’s party and his personal position on NATO is quite uncertain. What will you do if the government sabotages Euro-Atlantic integration? 

— The position of the parliamentary majority should echo that of society. We know that nearly 70% of Ukrainians support Ukraine’s movement towards the EU and over 50% towards NATO. Nobody can ignore the will of the people. Apart from that, EU and NATO integration is in Ukraine’s Constitution. It is important to make sure that we continue to inform the population about the benefits of membership in NATO and the EU. 

Do you feel that the army and law enforcement and security agencies overall are experiencing some sort of backroll? One evidence is the lawsuits blocking material and food supplies to the army under the reformed scheme. 

— Iwould not call this backroll, but certain attempts to disrupt the positive developments taking place in security agencies. Take the segment of food supply: many military units will not be able to switch to the new system as a result of the latest court verdicts. The same is true for material supply. If this trend lasts, we can find ourselves in a position of 2014 where virtually everything was in deficit. 

Chronic understaffing of units is one of the greatest problems in Ukraine’s military. Salaries are hardly an issue, especially that they are raised on a regular basis. Your party fellow and veteran Oleksiy Petrov says that army charters need to be changed in order to motivate people to join the army. Do you agree? 

— Yes, a deficit of staff is a huge problem for all sections of the military. It requires a comprehensive solution; more funding will not solve the issue. All changes in the past 10-15 years, ever since Ukraine started building its professional contract-based army, have been very delayed. Here is one simple example: the government raised salaries for the military starting from January 1, while in fact soldiers and officers get more money two-three months later – and prices and the labor market had already changed. 

I will say something professionals know but the public doesn’t. When you have an organizational structure, a carcass, it’s much easier to grow muscle. A military unit can have half the staff, but it can be unfolded to its full size with operational reserve or mobilization, if need be. We begin to forget one of the bitter lessons from 2014: it was hard to build units virtually from scratch when they only existed on paper then. We needed people for all key positions, from commander to cook. It will now be much easier to staff the military organisms that already exist than it was to create them from scratch. папері. 

The old-school officers regarded the charter (code of rules – Ed.) as something sacred. Whenever someone said anything about its flaws, they would say that “This document was written with blood!” Can it not grow outdated?  

— Of course, the chartercan get outdated just like any other document. The saying about it “written with blood” refers to two codes of rules: for battle (even though it already has a number of controversies given the modern situation) and for garrison and guard service. The latter has many provisions on the use of arms, legal issues and clear instructions to avoid unnecessary use of weapons or incidents. It has a set of very clear rules that are several centuries old and are in charters of virtually any other country. Still, the document has to be tied to reality and be fully in line with the modern situation. For example, I was always surprised to see statements about protection of your Motherland on page one and the number of toilets per people in a dorm on page 15. These requirements are still valid in Ukraine’s army. But work has started to draft new books of rules for everyday life of the military. 

I recently spoke to an officer, deputy commander of a battalion. He mentioned soviet-style bureaucracy and living conditions at permanent duty stations as some of the biggest problems discouraging people to extend their contracts. Do you believe that these are important problems?

— The system of record keeping, even if somewhat automated, has many traces of the previous epochs. Personnel record keeping, temporary duty travels – all this is too often bureacracized. But it is hard to think that this affects rank-and-file servicemen; these are usually the problems of officers, from company commanders up. A machine gunner will write two-three reports a year. So I would not claim that it is bureaucracy that demotivates professional servicemen. It can affect them indirectly. 

When it comes to the living conditions at permanent duty stations, Ukraine has launched a program to build dorms. It is hard to say whether it will be continued into the next year. Of course, dorms do not solve the issue of residence for professional servicemen completely. It’s a temporary decision and it’s not for everyone. A bed in a room for four or five does not work for the military who want to have a family. But we do have temporary solutions for some categories of the military. But garrisons are different, with different rent prices, different packages for the servicemen and different conditions. 

The previous Rada had more MPs in camouflage than the current one. How would you interpret this? 

— Parliamentary elections in 2014 and 2019 were different. The Rada is a reflection of society, its state. In my view, some mandates went to people who speculated on being part of a law enforcement or volunteer unit five years ago. This, too, had some impact on the voting in 2019. Also, I think that we have gone from quantity to quality: even if the military have smaller representation in Parliament, it will be quite professional. Overall, I don’t think anyone will be going to Rada sessions in uniforms. 

Weariness with the war – is this a real sentiment or a propagandist cliche? 

— There is a law of human psychology: daily reports about shooting, injured and killed are eventually perceived as weather forecast. There is weariness, and this is hardly surprising. In broader terms, this is more of a propagandist cliche. Plus, the war directly affects a relatively small part of Ukrainian citizens ever since mobilization ended. 

Another widespread meme is that Ukraine has lost the information war. Do you have that feeling too? 

— From the perspective of 2014, yes, we lost the information war to Russia. Events in Crimea and the Donbas prove this. We lost part of our population informationally, the people who may be watching dozens of non-Ukrainian TV channels. Still, we have learned a lot in the past five years. I don’t see the situation today as a defeat. Paradoxically, we should not be looking for the impact of the information war in the information field alone. Information campaigns can influence the choice to take up weapons or not, and the choice of things to post and share on social media. They can influence voting in elections.  

The key task of psychological operations is to make people follow instincts and turn off experience, education and reason. These operations make it very easy to manipulate societies, and Ukraine has developed some immunity in this regard.  

Is it fair to say that every general thinks in terms of a previous war? 

— I can disagree. It’s not that generals think in terms of the previous war, it’s military education. Unfortunately, it is somewhat stuck at the level of interpreting the available guideline documents. How are these documents written? You conduct an operation or you have a military conflict that has ended – you analyse it, consult (or forget to consult) with professionals and draft a guideline document. Then several generations of future officers are educated on the basis of this document. They receive grades and decorations for diligent studies. But they see a very different picture when they come to the army or, God forbid, to war. Everyone understands this, but they keep playing the usual game. Sadly, Ukraine’s modern system for training military specialists still holds on to this non-constructive legacy. 

Soviet military schools trained staff for global war. They had their scale, operational and strategic space. Nobody counted tanks or artillery systems piece by piece. Trench war was seen as outdated legacy from World War I. Armed conflicts of the USSR’s last years showed how the nature of war was changing. Unfortunately, military education in Ukraine did not duly appreciate this experience.

War has changed profoundly. We only knew or heard something about drones before 2014. Now, every battalion has one. We knew that digital radio communication and electronic warfare existed, but we faced the war with soviet radio stations from the 1970-80s. We now know transfer from maneuver to trench warfare and battle with very restricted use of aviation. Our concepts before the conflict, at the beginning of it and now are extremely different. We have valuable experience which should be used to educate future officers.

You served at the peacekeeping contingent in the territory of former Yugoslavia. How could Ukraine benefit from the Balkan experience? 

— Croatia’s Operation Storm could be one of the possible solutions. A force scenario could in theory by quick and effective. But military theory says that any influence should be comprehensive and involve military, as well as political, economic and information aspects. If at least one of these does not work, all others will not bring the expected result. If you have four horses in your cart and one gets sick, the other three will need to pull the fourth one, however strong they might be.  

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Balkan experience includes handing over military leaders from all sides of the conflict to international court. We already have a precedent: the cases of Vitaliy Markiv (a Ukrainian National Guard serviceman recently sentenced to 24 years in prison by the court in Pavia, Italy, for alleged murder of an Italian journalist. The trial was seen as controversial and biased against Markiv by many and the respondent plans to appeal against the verdict – Ed.) and Serhiy Kolmohorov (a border guard sentenced to 13 years in prison for alleged murder of a young woman in a car that crossed a checkpoint in Mariupol in 2014. The trial was also criticized as biased, and Kolmohorov was released two years later to return to military service – Ed.). Do you see a trend of biased persecution of Ukrainian military?

— Such precedents give reason for much concern. There are other examples from the early stage of war in addition to the ones you mention. You have cases of desertion in any mobilization campaign in any country. Ukraine is no exception. A person fled the battlefield, was found six months later and sentenced to a fine of UAH 512. The lawyers’ arguments were impressive: he deserted because his life was under threat! Then a border guard (Kolmohorov – Ed.) who used weapons against a car that did not stop at the checkpoint under very murky circumstances got a real prison term. 

With political pressure on courts, thousands of the military can end up under trial for simply fulfilling their duty in the ATO-Special Operation Area… 

— Political regimes under whose “political will” thousands and tens of thousands of innocent people end up in courts tend to have very unhappy endings. 

Under what circumstances would you quit your MP mandate and return to the army? 

— The Constitution lists all conditions under which an MP leaves his or her mandate. And I’m not leaving the Army, I’m just delegated to the legislature to fulfill certain duties.

 

BIO

Lieutenant General Mykhailo Zabrodskiy, Hero of Ukraine, was born in 1973 in Dnipro. He graduated from the A. F. Mozhaysky Military-Space Academy in St. Petersburg, the US Army Command and General Staff College in 2006 and the I. Cherniakhovsky National Defense University of Ukraine in 2017. Zabrodskiy joined Army service with the 95th Airmobile Brigade, going from platoon to brigade commander. He commanded Ukrainian peacekeeping contingent in Kosovo in 2009. The 95th Airmobile Brigade conducted a two-week raid in the enemy rear under his command in 2014. Zabrodskiy commanded the Ukrainian Air Assault Force from 2015 and ATO forces in 2017-2018. He was elected to Parliament as part of Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party list in the 2019 snap election.

 

Translated by Anna Korbut 

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