Chief of the General Staff, Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Ruslan Khomchak visited Brussels last week to attend a meeting of the European Union Military Committee. An Ukrinform correspondent met with the general who answered questions about the visit and outlined his vision of current events in Ukraine, Donbas, and in the country's armed forces.
Q: Your first visit to Brussels is coming to an end. What were your impressions and conclusions from the first communication with European partners? What were they interested in? What did you tell them?
A: It was the first visit for me personally, but for an official of the level of commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, of course, such meetings have already taken place. I hoped to see with my own eyes the level of the event, to hear what members of the European Union Military Committee were discussing between themselves and with their partners. It was nice to see that the security situation in Ukraine is of high interest. This is what a separate session of the EU Military Committee was dedicated to. Our partners have heard about the events in and around Ukraine, as well as about the state of the armed forces. As I saw myself and how the officers and generals who were with me reported to me, they did not see the indifferent eyes. Quite the contrary, they saw the interest, the desire to hear and understand what is happening in Ukraine.
Q: Ukraine already has stable areas of cooperation with NATO. Europeans themselves are now in the phase of a defensive transformation. What areas of cooperation did Ukraine discuss with them?
A: Almost all members of the European Union Military Committee are, above all, representatives of NATO member countries. By the way, Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, Marshal Stuart Peach, was also present at the meeting. We also talked to him. As far as I understand, these are two entities that are working closely together.
As for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, everybody was interested - both EU representatives and partners. It was important to hear words of support from those who commented on my speech. These were the chiefs of the general staffs of Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia, and Georgia. I can say that I felt comfortable in the environment of people, united by professionalism and spirit. So if it is appropriate to say so, I was in "my own team."
Q: How do your colleagues in the EU and, in particular, NATO, evaluate the events that are happening in Donbas now, especially in the context of the disengagement of troops and the search for some peaceful alternatives?
A: I said in my report that we have already conducted the disengagement process in three areas, that the first step, which we could not accomplish for years, had been accomplished, and this opened up opportunities for the political leadership of our state to hold the dialogue at other venues.
No questions were asked about disengagement. They, as professionals, understand what it means, and what it is done for. It's a pity that many of those who consider themselves professionals in our country either do not want to understand this or are engaged in some kind of unclear "PR campaign" that is just shattering the state. At the Committee meeting, this work did not raise any questions, doubts or objections.
Q: A sad event took place in Sumy on November 20. Commander of the 128th Brigade Yevhen Korosteliov was buried. He became another victim of this war. What conclusions did the General Staff make of this tragedy?
A: Unfortunately, this is the second brigade commander who died during this war, and with whom I was familiar. I was leaving Ilovaisk with the first one, Pavlo Pivovarenko, and we were leaving on the same road, we were moving in the same way. I personally appointed Colonel Korosteliov the brigade commander. He is a competent, trained, experienced and decent combat officer. It's a pity that he is no longer with us. But this person will be with us as much as we remember him.
Unfortunately, due to the fact I'm here (in Brussels), I couldn't be there personally. But I addressed the president, and the president of Ukraine signed a decree awarding him posthumously the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, 2nd Class. I instructed the Commander of the Ground Forces to present this award to the loved ones of the officer. It is very unfortunate that we are losing such officers. Therefore, only condolences to relatives. Now we, the military, as well as everyone who is nearby, have a duty - to help the children, parents and the whole family of the officer. We should always remember all those who gave their lives, defending Ukraine.
Q: Yevhen Korosteliov was not the first victim among the Ukrainian military after the disengagement of troops began. Almost every day there are reports of deaths, injuries, and wounds to our servicemen. What precautions can be taken to prevent this from happening? It is clear that not everything depends on the Armed Forces because it is impossible to control the actions of the enemy.
A: To prevent from happening what?
Q: So that people don't die.
A: You see, there can be no such thing at war. The president of Ukraine sincerely takes to heart every injured person, or, God forbid, everyone who has died. He sees it as personal grief. I can say this because we talk about everyone, and the president asks me what we should do to ensure that people do not die.
Unfortunately, there are no tips for every option that can happen. Because there is a war going on. Yevhen Korosteliov was killed by a grenade explosion. It's no secret that today, the 410-kilometer lane that divides our Donbas into controlled and uncontrolled areas has been seeded with mines from all sides for more than five years. I understand that if this lane was mined for five years, we will have to change it twice as long.
We must understand the cause of such tragedies, in the experience of all the wars that happened, both local and not local ones. Mine security is an issue that is not solved by the wave of the hand.
Brigade Commander Korosteliov was killed during a combat mission. He worked at the front line, he had just entered the area of responsibility with the brigade. He also organized work at the disengagement area in Petrivske. I was there, we met and talked with him. He wanted to hand me an emblem of the brigade. I tell him: "Hand it a presidential aide as he is not here that often, and you'll still have time to hand me one." I remember it very clearly. Unfortunately, he will no longer hand me this emblem. You see... There are so many sentimental questions that remain only in your heart, memory, and soul.
Q: That's exactly what I wanted to ask you – about such sentimental issues... Every soldier now staying on the front line has some motivation to defend the homeland. What is happening now, in particular, the disengagement of troops - how does this influence the morale of our military? You are probably the person who knows it best...
A: Maybe. In 2016, I was the head of the anti-terrorist operation and I had to implement the arrangements on the disengagement of troops in Petrivske and Zolote. And now, three years later, in another position, I have to do the same. Those two areas were "neutral" for two years, and in the third year, they were again occupied by troops. Moreover, it was not a strategic decision of either the General Staff or the Operation Commander. That was an initiative of individual units.
I do not welcome such an initiative. I dedicated my life to the army, so it is important for me, as a military man, that the military is able to obey and execute orders. The initiative, skills, and diligence of a true military should not be aimed at doubting whether to execute an order or not, but at thinking about how best to execute a decision made by a senior commander. And there can be no other way. Otherwise, it would be no longer an army, but anarchy, which has nothing to do with the army.
During this war, I had the experience of leading both military units and not military units, so I am clearly aware of this and distinguish between where the army begins and where the army ends.
You ask how this is perceived in the troops. It is mostly perceived normally. Because the army is mostly military who understands that if one makes a decision, then he or she has a reason for that.
As for the decision on disengagement... First, this decision was made many years ago. Secondly, this decision shows not so much the military, but the ability of the military and political leadership to fulfill its obligations.
I do not want to go deep into details now, but you can analyze the year 2016 when two areas were disengaged and the third one was not disengaged for three years – this is Stanytsia Luhanska. And when today it is disengaged, and the president opened the bridge yesterday, I don't think the situation there has gotten worse for the local population. Our ultimate goal is to regain control over our borders, public administration and ensure a normal life for the local population.
Today, we - the Ukrainian state and the Ukrainian army - are returning our lands. We want to restore our territorial integrity and make sure that anyone could not encroach on it.
So I would not make too much of a fuss about disengagement. Some people openly manipulate military terms. Unfortunately, those who want to destabilize the situation in the state shout that disengagement is a surrender of positions, betrayal… However, those shouting are those who have claimed for five years that they are war veterans, that they were fighting. The populism of such "veterans" does not unite society in any way.
Q: Once upon a time, under the previous administration, the armed forces were tasked with reaching a level of interoperability with NATO forces by 2020. What is the current situation with mastering NATO standards? Are we moving forward? Is there any vision of how will we achieve this goal?
A: We are in the process, and we are not at the beginning of the path. And this path is unlikely to end, in a good way. Our NATO partners say that once you have already achieved all the capabilities and mastered everything, it will mean that you will not develop further. I support this view. Only when we keep up with the times - and it is better to be ahead of challenges and threats that are constantly arising – then we will be able to say that we are a reliable army, that we can protect the country, and then the enemy will not encroach on our territory because he will know that he will get beaten.
Therefore, in the context of adapting to NATO standards, we are on a broad path today, in all areas. Achievements are bigger somewhere and smaller somewhere, but not because we did not want to work, but because everything has its own sequence. The sixth year of the war is ongoing, and it does not allow us to stop everything and say that we must transform. When there is a war, we can in no way reduce the combat capability and combat readiness of our troops.
This is our specificity, and today I informed all representatives of the countries that participated in the meeting of the EU Military Committee that the war is ongoing but we are undergoing a transformation. They appreciate it very seriously.
Q: There were many reports that Russia handed over ships seized last November to Ukraine in an inappropriate condition. Have you been informed of this situation, and to what extent it is true?
A: These reports are true, and there should be no doubt about it. Whoever has been blaming the Armed Forces for the last five-and-a-half years for hiding or not providing any information, that is not true, and I speak honestly.
I have recently taken up this position, but given the experience in previous positions - chief inspector of the Armed Forces or chief of staff of the Ground Forces - I can say that all the information we give is true.
It is clear that media representatives are always eager to get more and arrive at the scene earlier, just under a fire that has not yet begun. So we often hear a sort of claims "you have to"... We don't have to.
We also have hotheads who say that we have to provide information right away. Okay, then I ask the question. When a fireman arrives at the scene of the fire, he does not run first to the microphone with the camera, he first extinguishes the fire. When an injured or seriously ill person is brought to a surgeon, the surgeon does not run to the microphones, he first goes to the operating room, performs a complicated operation for hours, saves a person's life, and only then he comes out and makes comments. So why should a professional military who risks his life and defends his homeland first run to the microphone, make comments, and only then go to defend his homeland? In combat, the disclosure of any operational information is worth the lives of the military.
I would like you to convey this to your colleagues. I understand that the media want everything "faster and fried." But we must understand that war is a matter of life and death, the very existence of our state. What serious questions could be more important than these? There are none.
Definitely, all the information is given, we communicate with everyone, and the world must know, and, above all, our people in our country must know what's going on. They have to understand that people, unfortunately, are killed in the war. On the other hand, if we take the current statistics in the country on how many people die in the war and how many die out of the war, then the numbers for deaths in the peaceful life are tens or even hundreds of times higher. We also need to talk about this.
I have served in the army for over 35 years and I'm ready, as any military, to give my life for my homeland. Every soldier understands this, he went there consciously. If you are defending, you are holding a weapon. But your enemy also has what bears death. If you are professionally trained, if you are better trained, you survive. It is not worth hoping for some luck.
Q: As for the ships, is there any legal mechanism to make a claim to Russia regarding their condition?
A: There are such mechanisms. And we are already working on it. When the ships were taken, an act was drawn up, everything was described. What the Navy commander reported to me is even shameful to comment on. As a military man, I can understand why Russia removed communications and navigation means from the ships. But when they tell me that they removed even toilet bowls, I don't understand that. When they tell me that on the Yani Kapu tugboat, they removed copper pipelines as non-ferrous metal, I understand that these were not military personnel, these were looters. I cannot describe in another way the creatures that did so with the warship.
But our president said, as far as I know, that everything will be restored in two months. Last night, he was there in Ochakiv, where the ships arrived. But I'm sure we can fix them even earlier.
Q: If we continue this naval topic, we still have a problem around navigation in the Kerch Strait. Does the General Staff have a consolidated assessment of the events of November last year? How will the Armed Forces secure Ukraine's sovereignty in the Sea of Azov and over the Kerch Strait? Russia has recently openly proposed recognizing Crimea as part of Russia as a condition for border delimitation...
A: You ask me a question that goes beyond the powers of the Chief of the General Staff. This is already a matter of geopolitics, a matter of national importance.
It is clear that the Sea of Azov is now positioned by Russia as its inland sea. However, under international law, the Sea of Azov is common. Whether we want it or not, we will have that neighbor next to us.
The Sea of Azov is ours too. Of course, many legal institutions are operating in our country and in the world. Court submissions are beyond the purview of the military. The Foreign Ministry, the Justice Ministry and other bodies involved in this work are dealing with that. We understand that the respective decisions have to be made here in Europe. These are decisions of international courts. They are not made in one day, it can take years.
But that doesn't change the point. Crimea is Ukraine. Sometimes we can hear that we are talking about Donbas and are not talking about Crimea anymore. In my opinion, both as a man and as a military man, to speak equally about Donbas and Crimea is wrong, because the return of Donbas and the return of Crimea are somewhat different planes, including temporal ones. This is my personal opinion.
We should return Donbas as quickly as possible, and we should work on it right now. Another situation is around Crimea – it will be impossible to return it quickly neither in a military manner not in any other manner. The whole community, including the international community, must work on this. I also spoke about it today (with European partners), and yesterday we also had meetings with the Chiefs of Staff. Only in common. One military from a developed European country asked me if we can already forget about Crimea.
Q: Did he ask you so?
A: Yes, his question sounded like that. By no means! We need to understand that we can return Crimea only together so that you can help us, so that your businessmen do nor come there, so that the West never forgets that Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians and all those who disagree with the annexation of Crimea are persecuted in Crimea every day. Russians, in violation of all international legal norms, call on residents of Crimea to serve in the Russian army, while the occupying power continues to harass them - searches, arrests, disappearances, persecution for convictions...
Russia needs Crimea not to worry about people who live there and not even as a holiday destination for Russians. It is considered as a powerful Russian military base that should be a "nightmare" for all of Europe, North Africa, and should give them, Russians, the opportunity to rule in the Mediterranean. I was not mistaken - in the Mediterranean. Russia is already trying to position that the Black Sea basin is nearly its inland water. Of course, there is Turkey, which will not allow this no matter how Russia would like to get closer to them. There are NATO countries - Romania and Bulgaria. I have just had a conversation with the Romanian Chief of Staff and he fully maintains cooperation with us. So the Black Sea will soon be a region where different forces will test their capabilities and their patience.
Q: The North Atlantic Council has recently paid a visit to Odesa to discuss the development of Ukraine's naval capabilities. How does such cooperation help develop the Ukrainian Navy?
A: Such cooperation will not only help but will also greatly accelerate such work. We have the concept, we have the strategy, and we have all the calculations. But if we do it ourselves, it will take decades. We understand that building a ship or even a boat takes years.
Now the steps are realistic. Two Island-class boats have already come, and they have already been transferred to the combat composition. In just a couple of months, when armament is installed on them, they will already be included in all calculations, and this will increase our capabilities in the Black Sea. There are decisions on three more Island-class boats that America will give us next year with their weapons - even this is being discussed.
There are many decisions about coastal systems that should protect the country from shore. We are working on it. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell everything, because then there will be nothing to do since the enemy will immediately work out the opposition to what we only want to do.
But we must have such a modern Navy. We are not talking about all ships being modern. In our circumstances, above all, it concerns professional training and the ability of personnel to act, make decisions and execute them.
Q: You said that you had informed NATO partners about the situation in Ukraine and the Armed Forces. What are the main threats facing Ukraine now and what measures are being taken to prevent them?
A: I will answer this question as a military man because there are many threats to Ukraine, and not all of them are in the military sphere. Threats remain the same. Our eastern neighbor has not abandoned the fact that Ukraine should be a sphere of influence. In the discussions that are being broadcast on various television shows, our society somehow takes the worst option that Russia can commit widespread aggression, and they begin to think that everything will start tomorrow. In my opinion, and based on the analysis of the General Staff, we have come to the conclusion that open military aggression by Russia is not among the first threats, but it is on the list of "extreme" options.
Q: The information component of hybrid war is no less destructive than a real weapon. What does the General Staff do to develop its own strategic communications system?
A: The whole strategic and operational level management system is undergoing a transformation. We are now at this stage.
On November 5, the defense minister signed a directive on such practical transformation, because before that it was mostly theoretical - calculations, schemes, justification, everything else. But now we have started the practical component. By February, we should already get transformed and be able to develop capabilities in line with the standards and principles that our partners have. The General Staff will have a strategic communications department. The Defense Ministry will have its own, and the General Staff will have its own.
I already have an agreement with our partners - with the Chief of General Staff of Lithuania. I had the information that they are working very well in this area. We talked to him. We intend to send to Lithuania those who need to work in this field so that they could study this experience and see how it is happening in other countries. I submitted an application to many of our partners that we would like to learn from their experience. It is not necessary to invent a bicycle as it can only lead to wasted time and unnecessary mistakes. And today we need a result. We are studying and creating now, but I think 2020 will be a crucial year when it all will be working.
Dmytro Skurko, Brussels
Photo credit: Dmytro Shkurko, Mykhailo Palinchak, Volodymyr Tarasov, Ukrinform