July 16, 2024

The Economist published an interview and essay by Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief, in early November. 

Zaluzhnyi does not often go public or talk to journalists, so the appearance of his publications becomes a real event that is discussed for days.

This time was no exception. And for many people, it was a real revelation. Zaluzhnyi spoke quite frankly not only about the problems the Ukrainian army faced during the counteroffensive but also pointed out potential ways to solve them.

When asked why the Commander-in-Chief chose The Economist to publish his thoughts, the magazine’s military columnist Shashank Joshi modestly paid tribute to the team of the publication he works for.

He himself is the author of a major study, Battlefield Lessons, which analyses in detail how Ukraine’s war against Russia differs from military confrontations of the past.

In a conversation with Ukrainska Pravda, Shashank shares his impressions of Zaluzhnyi’s essay, straightforwardly describes what problems are critical to Ukraine’s counteroffensive, explains what exactly Kyiv lacks and what its Western partners could do more about it, and says that the next phase of the war may not be as attractive as many would like.

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Our first question is about the column in the Economist by Valerii Zaluzhnyi. It revealed a lot of topics that were discussed among the people who are connected to war. However, for the society, it was kind of a cold shower. So how do you think, was the Commander-in-Chief’s decision to discuss these problems of the Ukrainian army on time?

I think it was a very difficult choice for him to be so open about the problems and to be open about the failure of the counteroffensive as well because it’s an extremely sensitive subject. And clearly, we saw he was criticised by the president.

For me, this was fundamentally about setting expectations. I think that some people had maybe run away with their expectations over the past six months. Some people had failed to understand the difficulties that Ukraine was facing, particularly on the southern front, on the Tokmak axis of attack. And I think they had maybe deluded themselves that some kind of breakthrough is just around the corner if Ukraine can keep pushing. Perhaps because they thought that the Russian army was on its last legs, that the Russian army was out of reserves, out of ammunition, out of missiles and struggling.

The most important thing is that General Zaluzhnyi is setting expectations for the long positional fight, as he calls it, or an attritional fight, some people might call it, over the year ahead, that is not going to be resolved in a sudden breakthrough in the next few months.

  

Last year, Zaluzhnyi published such texts in Ukrainian media. And this year, he published it in Western media.  Do you think that it’s evidence that his main target audience is Western partners of Ukraine?

I think that he has a number of audiences. One of his audiences is absolutely the partners of Ukraine: the United Kingdom, the United States, European countries. He wants to try to help them understand the kind of support that Ukraine needs.

General Zaluzhnyi spoke to us in an interview, but he also published an op-ed with us. And he also published this remarkable 4,000-word essay that I’ve never seen any general in the midst of a war publish something like this, which was a technical, detailed, very personal in some ways, document setting out the kinds of equipment that he feels Ukraine needs. And he says that, yes, the basic, standard equipment like shells, armour, all these other things, these are still vital, there should be no mistaking the fact that this is vital.

But setting out all the other things that there has been less attention on, such as electronic warfare, first-person view drones (FPV drones), counter-mining equipment, counter-battery radar for artillery and finding out enemy artillery. These are things that have not been given the same attention as ATACMS, F-16s or Leopard tanks. And I think that part of his audience in the West was trying to reshape our understanding of what he thinks are the most important supplies and aid that Ukraine can receive.

Having said that, I think he was also trying to address the Ukrainian political elite, because of course, you know, you and your colleagues and Ukrainian leaders read the same newspapers and magazines and outlets that we all, we all read collectively.

Zaluzhnyi wanted to try to clarify his thoughts and to try to make this case for how do you break out of a war of position into a war of manoeuvre, and how do you solve the problem that, in his eyes, the generals of World War I faced in 1914-1916.

And I want to say here, I don’t agree with all of his analysis. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions. I certainly don’t agree with his characterisation of World War I, but I think that the fact that he was able to reflect on the history with such depth of knowledge in such detail, I think, speaks very highly of him.

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What effect this interview and this essay have caused on the Western world?

I think it’s important to be honest. Western politicians were very eager to avoid the s-word, the “stalemate” word, because the risk is that by diagnosing a stalemate, you can cause a sense of fatalism, a sense that Ukraine’s cause is hopeless, that Russia is a bigger country in a war of attrition. And that if the war is in stalemate, then this is a failure and the Western countries may need to give up on Ukraine. That’s the risk.

We saw back in August, Jake Sullivan, America’s national security advisor said, we do not assess this war as in stalemate. And those of us who were more pessimistic about the offensive in September and October, which is not just outsiders, it was also some important analysts in Ukraine. We were heavily criticised by those who said that we’re dismissing Ukraine’s prospects. They said this is fatalism, defeatism and pessimism.

Now, I think that’s wrong. I think that you have to be able to be honest about the situation to understand how to fix it. And certainly, we have never been fatalistic about Ukraine. We think that in a long campaign, Ukraine faces great difficulties, but it can win. And Russia is not guaranteed to prevail in a long war just by virtue of being bigger.

But the risk is that politicians who have been trying to abandon Ukraine, particularly those Republicans in the United States will latch onto this kind of remarks as a way of furthering their case.

The optimistic view is that in listening to this assessment, they can try to reflect on what went wrong this year because we must start from the basics. We have to start by acknowledging: this offensive did not succeed. And we have to ask ourselves again. Next year or in 2025, whenever the next major offensive comes, what are we going to do differently in terms of Ukraine, how it wages the offensive, and in terms of Europe and the United States as to how they support Ukraine? Because if we just repeat what happened in June of this year, we cannot expect different results.

  

You have mentioned positional war, which General Zaluzhnyi has also mentioned in his essay, and he mentioned that despite the Russian losses, Russia continued to maintain a significant advantage in the air and, frankly speaking, even if we have several F-16 squadrons, which Ukraine, under the most optimistic forecast, will receive in 2024, are not capable for radical changes of the situation. How should we fight against such an enemy like Russia with its advantage?

In 4,000 words of writing, General Zaluzhnyi talked about the primacy of air superiority, the importance of the air domain, and he did not mention F-16s once. And I think that reflects the view that the role of F-16s is going to be quite limited.

People have, again, placed too much emphasis and weight on F-16s. They will help Ukraine, ideally with long-range air-to-air missiles, keep the Russian Air Force at bay. They will help diminish the threat of glide bombs by pushing the Russian planes at a greater distance from the front lines. They will help with other tasks as well. But Ukraine is not going to have air superiority because it will still face the same air defence environment that it has today with S-400s and other systems that will make it extremely difficult.

Ukraine will have F-16s, but it will not have the full range of Western air power. It will not have AWACS [NATO surveillance jets – ed.]. It will not have airborne command posts. It will not have airborne electronic warfare aircraft. It will not have the same supporting capabilities that Western air forces do. So I think we have to manage our expectations on F-16s.

[BANNER3]This raises the bigger question of how Ukraine fights. Now, General Zaluzhnyi’s answer to this is to say, focus on those capabilities, on the mass use of UAV swarms. And it’s interesting that he mentioned his sustained conversations with Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, who has been writing extensively about the role of artificial intelligence and UAVs and drones in Ukraine.

If Ukraine is at a disadvantage when it comes to mass, when it comes to the volume of artillery shells, particularly now that North Korea is supplying Russia, it may be able to offset that advantage by some other technological means. For example, the large-scale production of cheap suicide drones that may not be able to substitute for artillery, but can have some of the same effects that can allow Ukraine to replicate some of the same firepower.

Ukraine still needs a huge number of shells, and the US and Europe are building up production, but we are not going to be able to outproduce Russia, I think, until 2025. That means next year is going to be extremely difficult, extremely difficult. And people need to understand this. Otherwise, we’re going to see headlines next summer that say “Ukraine is losing”. But unless we understand that the timeline for this may improve in 2025, we won’t be able to understand the direction of the conflict.

The fundamental challenge for Ukraine is going to be how does it fight more efficiently? How does it generate that kind of firepower and mass? Now there are other capabilities as well, electronic warfare is one, counter-battery radars are another, which is the ability to find and strike Russian artillery pieces. Demining equipment is another one.

I think the next thing is we must not put all the emphasis on equipment and on material. Manpower is still absolutely vital. And here, I think, Ukraine is struggling. Ukraine is finding it difficult to have sufficient trained reserves because it is difficult to pull people off the front lines and to give them the training that they need.

General Zaluzhnyi talked about the importance of having a system of building up reserves. The importance of having a modern system for conducting the draft, a system for conducting what he called a combat internship, giving personnel with limited training experience of the front lines. For me, as someone sitting in the UK, as a part of Europe, as a friend of Ukraine, one of the most important things we have to do next year is focus on training and scaling up training to make sure that Ukraine has the training that it needs and particularly the training to operate at a larger scale, because that’s one of the problems we saw this year in the offensive.

I’m sorry, that’s a very long answer, but I think that those are some of the areas I would highlight if Ukraine is going to be able to sustain itself against Russia next year.

  

Are there resources to escalate trainings of Ukrainian soldiers abroad? 

If Europe and America put their mind to it, I see no reason that they could not scale up training. I see no reason we could not fly over more Ukrainian personnel to give them longer and better training. Not the five weeks of combined arms training that we had this year in Germany, and that was clearly not enough to build up experienced, capable units to breach these incredibly difficult, forbidding Russian minefields.

But they need longer periods of training. They need more advanced training, and they need more realistic training. You may have seen the report by the Royal United Services Institute, the think tank in London, that said that we are unable to provide Ukrainian troops on the ground with the realistic UAV environment that they face in the front lines because of the safety regulations we have on European training facilities. That is something we have to fix. I don’t see any reason we can’t fix that. I would say that one of the biggest challenges, really, right now is, first of all, being able to mobilise more young Ukrainians, which, as you know, is a challenge, and a political issue and a social issue. And the other one is being able to pull units away from the front lines to give them the time that they need to train. That’s going to be the big issue, because, of course, as you know, there’s a big Russian attack currently underway in Donetsk right now. The Russians are not going to sit back. Their attacks may not be successful. Their attacks may not be efficient. They may be extremely self-destructive. They may be losing huge numbers of men. But the problem is they can still pin down Ukrainian forces. So we have to find a way to withdraw Ukrainian forces from the front lines and give them the time and the space to have training. I think next year Ukraine is fundamentally going to have to be on the defensive, which may not be politically very satisfying. It may not be very attractive to the Western audiences who want to see Ukrainian gains. They want to see attacks. They want to see, you know, psychologically and visually rewarding images. But Ukraine may have to go on the defensive next year to prepare itself and train itself for the task that it lies ahead of it.

We don’t just want people who know how to fire a gun, we need people who are capable of more complex tasks as well. And we need people who can command and provide staff for brigade-level operations that Ukraine’s army is struggling with.

[BANNER4]If you look at Ukrainian units right now, only a small proportion of these brigades are capable of actually offensive tasks. Most of the personnel are not. And that’s not the fault of these people. They are being asked to assault well-defended positions without air power in an environment involving huge numbers of drones for surveillance and Lancet loitering munitions pounding down on them with artillery. No Western army has done this in the last 70 years. So this is a new type of challenge that Ukraine is facing.

The other challenge is being able to pull units away from the front lines to give them the time that they need to train. That’s going to be the big issue, because, of course, there’s a big Russian attack currently underway in Donetsk right now. The Russians’ attacks may not be successful. Their attacks may not be efficient. They may be extremely self-destructive. They may be losing huge numbers of men. But the problem is they can still pin down Ukrainian forces. So we have to find a way to withdraw Ukrainian forces from the front lines and give them the time and the space to have training.

I think next year Ukraine is fundamentally going to have to be on the defensive, which may not be politically very satisfying. It may not be very attractive to the Western audiences who want to see Ukrainian gains. They want to see attacks. They want to see, you know, psychologically and visually rewarding images. But Ukraine may have to go on the defensive next year to prepare itself and train itself for the task that lies ahead of it.

  

So you have mentioned that nobody has done it, and even before the counteroffensive, some NATO experts have mentioned that no NATO countries will go for such large-scale offensive without some support from the sky. And why our Ukrainian partners are so critical of Ukraine about this counteroffensive even if they know what the result will be?

I think that one of the reasons for criticism of Ukraine is that we have seen a blame game between the two sides play out. And I think that both sides share some responsibility for this.

I would say that there are some legitimate criticisms that one could make of Ukrainian tactics. If you look at some of the reports and papers and writing published by experts, experts I respect, on the conflict, you can see that mistakes have been made, including mistakes by the Ukrainian armed forces.

Now, I don’t have all the evidence. And we’re in the middle of the war, so it’s difficult to sit back and reflect like a historian. But I think one complaint I have heard repeatedly from experts has been, to say, that the decision to keep fighting for Bakhmut in the first part of this year, last winter, had an influence, a big influence on the subsequent counteroffensive.

So, for example, Konrad Muzyka, who is one of the really expert analysts of this campaign, has argued that Ukraine depleted its stockpile of shells in Bakhmut, while Russia gained time to build up for its defences in the south, the Surovikin line.

In addition to that, it seems to me now clear that Ukraine did deploy some of its more – or Ukraine kept some of its more experienced brigades on the eastern front and the more inexperienced brigades were given the newest equipment and allocated to the southern front. And had that choice been made differently, we may have seen a slightly different pattern of fighting in the south.

I’m not saying this would have guaranteed a breakthrough. I’m not saying this would have guaranteed success. Nobody knows. But I think that those mistakes are legitimate mistakes.

Now, what happened then is, I think, Ukraine, Ukrainian officials began blaming Western countries in private for some of these problems as well, saying you didn’t supply us enough, you didn’t supply us with the right equipment, and you gave us the wrong advice. Some of that is unfair, because I think it conceals Ukraine’s mistakes. Some of that is, I think, reasonable and fair.

For example, I think it is fair to say that the planning for the offensive did rely on some outdated assumptions about the nature of the war. Much of the data supporting the tactics that Ukraine’s international partners sought to train Ukrainian forces to adopt was based on operational analysis from the 20th century that did not contend with a range of technologies employed in Ukraine. In other words, the assumptions that NATO allies were using when they helped Ukraine plan the offensive may not have been fully up-to-date and a reflection of the battlefield.

And to some extent, I think that’s what General Zaluzhnyi’s saying as well. He’s saying that, look, this is a problem of technology. This is a problem that does not reflect the textbooks and the assumptions, and the simulations, and the war games that we have in our existing arsenal.

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Do you think that keeping Bakhmut was more like for media than for actual war reasons to keep it?

I don’t want to say media, because that would be unfair, because, you know, all war is political. Prussian military theorist Klaus Witt famously said war is the continuation of politics by other means. It has to have a political aim.

Bakhmut was an important town from a symbolic and political perspective. And I understand why the Ukrainian political leadership did not want to give away any Ukrainian soil, particularly when it is so much more difficult to take back territory than it is to defend it.

I do think that Bakhmut was a campaign that cost Ukraine more than it gained. Had Ukraine pulled west to more defensible positions, it would still have made losses. It would still have had to use artillery. The Russians would still have pressed. But the terrain to the west of Bakhmut is in many ways more defensible because of the geography of the area. And I think it would have been a more defensible area for Ukraine to hold.

It would have allowed Ukraine to rotate out some of these units, to put them in the South, to give them training for the offensive. And it would have reduced Ukraine’s artillery consumption. I can’t say that I’m sure of that, but I think that that’s a fair assumption to make, a fair argument to make.

And in that sense, Bakhmut was militarily somewhat irrational in my perspective, but we have to be humble. We don’t have all the evidence. We don’t have all the data. And the people who have to make these decisions, these people have very difficult decisions to make, and I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.

  

How do you think, is Avdiivka in the same situation now?  

I think that’s a slightly different situation. I think that it has some similarities in that the Russian army is conducting a large-scale offensive without adequately trained troops, which is costing it a huge amount of manpower, and is unlikely to result in any wider strategic success. So I think that that’s not a campaign that is going to go well for Russia.

However, the geography of this place is different. And I don’t think that you can make an exact parallel with Bakhmut. It may well be that it is more justifiable to defend Avdiivka than it is to defend Bakhmut.

The counteroffensive also shows that the tactics of the attack armoured groups which are supposed to cut the defensive lines also do not work. And over time, in many areas, the parties switch to the tactics of assault by small mobile groups, which is unlikely to bring quick results. Thanks to drones and intelligence, every step of the Russians is almost in full view, and how lost is the role of tanks in this war right now?

The role of armoured vehicles and all concentrations of forces is more limited, but I would be wary of singling out tanks. Tanks are not obsolete, and if you want evidence of that, we can look at Gaza City, where Israeli tanks are operating right now against Hamas, using huge numbers of tanks for the first time since the Lebanon war in the 1980s, the entire Israeli armoured corps has been called up. So tanks are still useful.

The problem is how do you avoid being spotted by drones? And being struck by artillery or loitering munitions? This is a problem of counter-surveillance. How do you blind the enemy? How do you stop the enemy from seeing you? And how do you then manoeuvre? How do you advance on the ground without being seen and struck?

And that can involve lots of solutions. It can involve blinding the enemy sensors, taking down the drones via electronic warfare. It can mean blinding the thermal images. It can mean jamming the communications link between the drone and the artillery piece. It can mean suppressing the artillery by firing on the Russian positions before you move.

In other words, these are all the same challenges that were faced by European armies in 1916 or by the Israeli army in October 1973 in the war with Egypt. These are not new problems. They are just old problems occurring with new technology.

If armies can solve some of these problems, it is possible that the space for armoured warfare, including tanks, would open up again. Nothing is permanent in warfare. Nothing is static. Nothing is unchanging.

Technology shapes the battlefield, but it doesn’t determine the battlefield. And this is where I think I disagree with General Zaluzhnyi that technology was responsible for the stalemate of World War I. It’s not just about technology. In 1916-17, you had tanks made their appearance on the battlefields of Europe, but they did not succeed in breaking through. Not because tanks were the wrong vehicle, but because you didn’t have the right tactics, you didn’t have the right combined arms. And it’s only when the different technologies came together – airpower, armour, radio communications, and all of these other things – in the right tactical approach that we saw the blitzkrieg approach of the Germans in May 1940 in France.

So it’s not just about the hardware, the equipment, the technology, it’s about the combination of technologies, and it’s about the tactics. And it may take some of these different things over time, over a longer period of time, to create the space to allow tanks to become fully relevant again and have the ability to manoeuvre over this incredibly risky exposed ground.

As we see in the south of Ukraine now the minefields are the biggest threat to the attacking side. And it also turned out that both Ukraine and our partners still do not have enough equipment for demining. And did you not expect such a scale of mining? 

It’s a great question. I don’t know what the problem is. We knew the minefields were extremely deep and serious even in June of this year. And we understood that because it was no secret that these areas were mined. It was no secret that Russian doctrine is not just to build a trench in a ditch and to say, okay, we’re done, go home. It is to mine these areas.

The purpose of mines is not just to destroy enemy forces. It is to slow them down so that they can be targeted by other capabilities. And Western countries have a lot of expertise in demining. But the problem is they do not have much expertise in demining under conditions of observation and firepower. I think that this has been a critical issue.

How do you demine under conditions when your demining teams are being struck by artillery? When your vehicles are getting stuck and you can’t go around them? And then if you go around them, you get struck and enter the minefield? So I think that we need not just more demining equipment.

General Zaluzhnyi is absolutely right that we need a new focus on demining technologies of other kinds, including remote robotic technologies that can help to do this. But I would emphasise again, this is a symptom of a bigger problem. The mines and the difficulty of demining is a symptom of the problem that Russia has minefields under observation, and it can fire upon them.

If you want to solve that problem, it’s not just having more demining technology, because you can send in a hundred robots, and a hundred robots are going to be shelled and attacked by drones. You need an ability to suppress the Russian artillery, guns and drones, whether by blinding, jamming or downing them.

So unless we solve that combined arms problem, that fundamental tactical issue, we’re not just going to be able to solve the mining problem on its own.

  

Everything indicates that the war will be exhausting and may drag on. And how much time do you think Ukrainians have before Western partners start thinking about ending support? Like, how much longer will the West support Ukraine? Especially as you have mentioned, it will be a defensive war and not a “sexy” war.

Of course, things can go wrong. Donald Trump might become president in November 2024 and then I think Ukraine would be in real trouble. Yes, European governments might change and European politicians might decide that the combination of a difficult winter of high energy prices, a lack of progress on the battlefield and escalation risks mean that they have to push Ukraine into a settlement.

But I think we cannot be fatalistic about this. I have to tell you that when I talk to senior officials on both sides of the Atlantic, I do not sense that there is any desire to force Ukraine into negotiations, however much we may be afraid of that outcome.

I think they understand that Russia is not that interested in negotiations right now. And that even if it were, it would use the time to build up its forces. I think they understand that.

So we need to understand the risks of a sudden dramatic change in support for Ukraine, for example, in the elections in November 2024. But as Europeans, we have to be prepared to try to bridge the gap that may result by stepping up our own level of artillery production, intelligence sharing, other kinds of support that America is providing right now.

We should not just assume that things are going to go badly. If you look at the opinion polls in Europe, yes, there is waning interest in the conflict. Yes, Gaza is a distraction from Ukraine. But actually, it’s not that people are fed up with Ukraine. The polls don’t suggest that people want Ukraine to stop fighting, or that they want Russia to win, or that they just want the war to go away.

If this is a war that goes on to 2025 and to 2026, I think that the most important thing we could do is to signal to Russia that, okay, you may try to wait us out, but we have the stamina for this as well.

We have a defence industrial base that can outproduce you, that can produce better weapons and technology, that has access to better intelligence that we will share with Ukraine. And you will have to mobilise hundreds of thousands of Russians to keep this war going, and you may face escalating political risks as a result of that.

So, to my mind, we should ask ourselves: how do you prepare Ukraine for a longer campaign? And how do you fix the mistakes that we made this year?

Western partners did not allow Ukraine to use Western weapons on the Russian territory. What can change their opinion?

Almost nothing, I suspect, because escalation concerns have not gone away. The reality is  that among Western leaders, there is a clear sense, however artificial and absurd it may seem to many people, that strikes against Russian forces in Ukraine are different to strikes against Russian forces in Russia. Now, if we were waging a war against Russia, if NATO was fighting Russia, of course, we would be striking Russian forces on Russian soil. But the fact is, escalation and the management of escalation is still a serious concern.

And if it looks as though escalation is getting out of control, that may potentially undermine Western support for Ukraine. So this is a strategic concern. So while I understand that it’s frustrating and absurd and difficult, it’s just not going to change in my view. It’s just not going to change.

Now Crimea is, of course, different because Crimea is Ukrainian. Crimea is recognised as Ukrainian. Crimea is recognised as occupied territory. And we have already seen Storm Shadows or SCALP striking Crimea. But I have to say that I think Russian territory is still going to be one of the red lines for support in this.

How do you think how realistic are Ukrainian hopes of liberating Crimea?  

I think that the likelihood of liberating Crimea is bound up with Russian exhaustion in this war. Right now, the likelihood of liberating Crimea in the next 12 months is very low. If we are in a situation where this war goes on for several years, and Ukraine is able to stay in this campaign without suffering political, economic and military exhaustion itself, then I think everything is possible, including a degree of turmoil in Russia that could result in the liberation of Crimea.

So I think it is absolutely a possibility, but I see no direct military route to the liberation of Crimea through a ground offensive. If Crimea is going to be liberated, I suspect it will be part of a much larger settlement to the war that is not going to occur anytime soon. And sometimes I worry that it may not be possible in the lifetime of this Russian president.

Alina Poliakova and Yevhen Buderatskyi, Ukrainska Pravda 

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