Yevgen Dykyy: You can leave the Armed Forces through the cemetery or disability. We need to fix this

7 November 2023, 19:38

The Ukrainian Week interviewed Yevgen Dykyy, a researcher, publicist, and former commander of the Aidar battalion. “When we think about the country functioning in wartime, we primarily talk about the rear – the state, the civilians, the economy. Needless to say, the military can only do its job to the extent the rear allows us,” says Dykyy. 

“When the war started, the fact that the Ukrainian state continued to function was a massive achievement. Healthcare, education, the energy sector, municipal services, and more are still operational. The Ukrainian parliament has been working throughout this whole time. It continues debating and passing legislation and laws. The government is fully functioning, as is an entire administrative system, down to the local self-government municipalities. In reality, no part of the state system has collapsed, and no chaos has ensued.”

If you look beyond the front line, that is, beyond the reach of Russian small arms artillery and their Grad rockets, this is where a relatively ‘normal’ life begins.

Sometimes, everything looks like we live in a country without a war. In its beginning, it was a fantastic accomplishment. However, while we were busy maintaining a ‘normal’ life, we failed to build a new one within the war context. In fact, we have always had this perception at the back of our minds – the army is supposed to fight and make the victory happen, while civilians in the rear are trying to preserve life as close as possible to the one they’ve lived before the war. We believed that we needed to hold on just a little longer until the army had won. Then, we would rebuild the country, join the European Union, and embark on a promising path of progress. This attitude would be rational, assuming the war would last no longer than a year. Now, this approach needs to be revised. The situation in Ukraine is fundamentally different from what it was six months ago.

The Ukrainian Week: What has changed?

Yevgen Dykyy: A prolonged war has begun, and this is a war of attrition. Nobody is able to predict the end date of this war. When the full-scale invasion happened in February 2024, we approached it as an earthquake: we had to survive it and then rebuild everything that was destroyed. Such a strategy, though, is hardly suitable for a prolonged war. Economic strategy and behavioural patterns that worked well in times of peace have proven ineffective. In fact, we need to mobilise all levels of society.

We need to revise the principles of the civilian government thoroughly. As difficult as it may be, we must change our mindset and accept the fact that the entire country must work to support the army and near our victory.

UW: What fundamental problems should be solved today?

YD: A year ago, I believed that we should fight the best we can now, and later, after the war, we will reset the entire system. Unfortunately, this does not work. We need to change our attitude towards the people in the army. Today, this approach is entirely Soviet-like. People are viewed as disposable resources intended to be used solely for the benefit of the state. Such a mindset is absolutely unacceptable in modern-day Ukraine. First and foremost, for our victory to happen, it is crucial to mobilise the correct number of people. Otherwise, we will have to accept that Ukraine and Ukrainians will disappear from the world map. Actually, that’s what the enemy wants. The Ukrainian authorities must address specific issues that put people off mobilising.

First and foremost, we need to establish a maximum length of deployment to the frontlines. Those who have already spent one and a half years on a battlefield deserve to be demobilised.

There is a difference: accepting very high risks, hard work, and challenging life for a year or getting a one-way ticket. Currently, in Ukraine, one can leave the ranks of the Armed Forces either through the cemetery or by declaring a disability. This has to be addressed immediately. However, I need to emphasise that such a situation has to be dealt with gradually. I’m not suggesting we send all of our experienced fighters back home right away. That would indeed cause a collapse at the front lines. But it’s realistic to achieve this in a year and a half. Today, the prevailing opinion among the military stands that it is better to continue using experienced soldiers rather than swap them for newly mobilised individuals who need extensive training.

UW: How can this be done step by step?

YD: The truth is that the people who are fighting for us and our future deserve a different treatment. They should be given an opportunity to mobilise directly into the unit they want to serve in. Currently, this is not possible. Territorial recruitment centres must fulfil their quota; hence, they do not necessarily mobilise soldiers to the unit that genuinely expects them. This can be fixed without changing legislation. An order needs to be issued by the General Staff. The next step is to allow military units to conduct recruiting independently. Ministry of Interior units are one of the examples, such as the so-called Advancement Guards. The 3rd Assault Brigade and the Kraken Special Unit even allow a probationary period; soldiers are given two weeks to determine if they can handle the warfare these units engage in. They have no problem with volunteers. In fact, the units have to filter those willing to join. By the way, this is an answer to those claiming that the pool of potential volunteers is exhausted. There are still many potential volunteers, but they want to mobilise wisely, not just to “fill a hole” in the territorial recruitment centre’s quota. People should have a choice.

At the same time, it’s important to take people’s skills into account. We can’t afford to squander talents. This applies to, for example, IT professionals. Do we not have tasks for computer geniuses? Even in volunteer projects, there is plenty of work for them. On the other hand, for example, there are people like me. I have combat experience and business management experience. I currently head the Ukrainian Antarctic program, managing logistics over 15,000 kilometres and a million-dollar budget. There hasn’t been a month during this war that I didn’t contribute. In 2014, I returned from the front with a disability. That’s why I can’t run around with an automatic rifle. In the first six months after the start of the full-scale invasion, I knocked on every door, looking for a place where I could work applying my skills.

You can be a successful businessman or manager in civilian life, but unless you earned an officer’s rank, any intellectual work in the military is a closed door for you. They appoint people who have the formal military rank. Often, these are officers who served in the Soviet army and do not understand modern warfare.

UW: What is the role of society in this? How can citizens influence the state’s actions?

YD: We need to introduce criminal charges, and not for evading military service but for avoiding military registration. This is the current legal loophole: a person becomes a deserter only when they’ve been mobilised and then run away. If you avoid being enlisted, it’s only an administrative offence and a small fine. Dodging military registration and mobilisation must be criminalised. We must stop being tolerant towards the draft dodgers. Asking a person in good health and of draft age why they are here, not at the front, should be normalised. In Ukraine, you can still hear questions like, “Why did you go to war?” instead of “Why haven’t you gone to war yet?”. Until we change this, our chances of winning this war are slim.

UW: What is the role of the economy during the war?

YD: This is another task that needs to be addressed if we’re talking about a prolonged military conflict. I recently visited my favourite place in Kyiv, Kontraktova Square. Right there, in the middle, a beautiful flowerbed has grown. It was planted there using the taxpayers’ money during the war. You can see hundreds of flowerbeds, sidewalks, pedestrian bridges, and fountains all over the city. Have we already won the war? The basic legislation allowing the military personal income tax to be taken off the local municipalities is yet to be signed. For example, there’s a town assigned to a military unit where 40 people worked in peacetime. During the war, the unit was expanded to 4,000 people who went to the front. None of these people are in the town, but all the taxes from their salaries go directly to the local budget. This law has been passed but not signed because it faces resistance. 

It’s not local communities that are at war. The entire country is fighting as one. As soon as the martial law was imposed, the distribution of funds received by communities through decentralisation should have been suspended. Once the war ends, all the state reforms and its achievements must be put back in place from the very first day. If we don’t do this, this day of victory will never come. 

Today, all the money used for building fountains, decorations, and laying tiles should be redirected directly into the national defence fund. I will repeat myself once again: no one is suggesting closing schools or hospitals or withholding the salaries of doctors and teachers. These are the basic needs that the state must fulfil. However, cosmetic repairs of schools and hospitals can be postponed. All development projects should be deferred until after Ukraine has won this war.

UW: What else can we do to get closer to victory? 

YD: We need to mobilise the economy. Our defence industry, including the manufacturing of weapons, equipment, and military uniforms, still operates as before the full-scale invasion. During a large and protracted war, this is hugely insufficient. The state must issue mandatory defence contracts that must be fulfilled, even if they are currently not very profitable. For example, today, the Russians are mobilising their industry for defence purposes. We are already feeling the first results. At the beginning of the war, they were lagging behind us in drone capabilities.

Now, in terms of drone quality, they are still behind, but in terms of quantity, they have already advanced. They’ve started large-scale mass production of drones. In our case, every Ukrainian company offers as much production as it can manufacture itself.

YD: For comparison, during the Second World War, the United States significantly increased the production of planes by creating competition among companies for the best model aircraft proposal. Ultimately, all companies were assembling a prototype, not their own products. This way, they urgently scaled up production during the war. We also need centralised measures to secure raw materials for companies manufacturing defence products. Currently, each company independently secures the necessary materials in Ukraine or the global market. Tomorrow, some types of production may stop entirely, while others will grab the scarce raw materials. Russian war against Ukraine has triggered a new arms race worldwide.

To a large extent, we must be prepared for an unpleasant scenario: imagine that in a year, Trump is elected as the President of the United States. Currently, Russia’s entire military strategy is built on the idea that they need to hold out for a year, and then ‘Trump will come and cut off the oxygen to the Ukrainians’. We shouldn’t just hope that this won’t happen; we should prepare ourselves for the scenario in case it does happen. We have a year when we will definitely be receiving help. During this time, we must set up independent production of at least the most critically important defence products. So that in case of the ‘oxygen cutoff’, we can continue the fight without Western assistance. We cannot afford to waste this time, as we did in the lead-up to the major war.

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