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Andriy Zagorodnyuk: ‘Those who say Ukraine can’t win don’t understand the situation'

by Illia Ponomarenko May 21, 2022 10:38 PM 9 min read
Ukrainian serviceman inside the basement of Azovstal steel factory in Mariupol amid the Russian invasion (Dmytro Kozatskyi)
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A New York Times editorial article titled “The War in Ukraine Is Getting Complicated, and America Isn’t Ready,” published on May 19, immediately triggered a stir in Ukraine and beyond.

Coming from a media outlet that has the reputation of being supportive of U.S. assistance to Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, it has surprised many.

The New York Times, following the U.S. Senate’s historic approval of $40 billion in assistance for Kyiv, said it was not “in America’s best interest to plunge into an all-out war with Russia.”

Even though Russia’s attack, the biggest in Europe since World War II, has been “surprisingly sloppy,” the board said, Russia remains too strong, and Ukraine’s decisive victory is not a realistic plan.

The assumption came even though over the previous two months of the war, Russia had sustained a range of serious defeats, having to completely withdraw from northern Ukraine and concentrate its active campaign in the eastern region of Donbas, where the Russian offensive has also ended up being extremely costly and slow.

The article criticized the U.S. and NATO for being involved in helping Ukraine’s “unrealistic expectations” of defending itself against foreign aggression that could draw the West “ever deeper into a costly, drawn-out war.”

Therefore, according to the New York Times, Ukraine “will have to make the painful territorial decisions that any compromise (with Russia) will demand.”

Moreover, the newspaper insisted that its suggestion to bow down to a foreign aggressor’s gargantuan claims against Ukraine’s integrity, security, democracy, and independence, is not an act of appeasement.

The editorial partly echoed the position of the Russian leadership, which has repeatedly demanded that the West immediately stop providing assistance to Ukraine, which plays an important role in Russia’s military failures.

In the wake of all the backlash about the editorial, the Kyiv Independent asked Ukraine’s former defense minister, director of the Kyiv-based Center for Defense Strategies, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, whether Ukraine really can’t prevail over Russia.

The Kyiv Independent: What is your general reaction to the New York Times editorial?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: In the American community, there’s still a lack of understanding of what (Russia’s war) might end up being and where it’s going. The most informed part, working with the military, has a clearer vision. They have a clear understanding of the fact that, despite all of Russia’s effort and investment, the result is far less effective than what was expected.

American and British defense secretaries say Ukraine is going to win; the same goes for military generals and U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mark Miley. In general, it is their policy to make everything possible so that Ukraine can win.

At the same time, unfortunately, certain intellectuals and authors publish rather strange and ill-timed articles. Most likely, they are just describing the situation as they see it. Their vision is very wrong, but they write it, and we have to respond.

Ukrainian soliders ride in the back of a truck to a resting place after fighting on the front line for two months near Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine on April 30, 2022. - Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. (AFP/Getty Images)

The Kyiv Independent: What exactly do you think is wrong here?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: The key wrong assumption is that Ukraine can’t win, therefore, it has to make a deal. We believe it’s a weak argument for two reasons.

First — Ukraine can win, and this, in many ways, depends on how our partners, including the U.S., are going to be sending weapons, hardware, and munitions. And second — we see absolutely no chances for a negotiation process. Russia has not demonstrated the slightest signs of altering its strategic goals regarding Ukraine. They keep pushing for their narratives; they keep waging war and going on the offensive. There's no point talking about any sort of compromise and negotiations.

A lot of things have been done and can’t be undone now — the war crimes, the things that we can surely identify as acts of state terrorism. We will always be saying that (Vladimir) Putin and his military are war criminals, and they have to leave our territory. If they end up being ready to talk, there can potentially be talks. But right now they aren't, so we have nothing to talk about.

When some foreign journalists or observers try to tell us we have to talk anyway, it means they don’t understand the situation.

The Kyiv Independent: So you think Russia can be defeated?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: The situation is changing rapidly, and it seems that many people can’t catch up with what’s happening. And they have already started giving advice and voicing their opinions on what should be done. There’s a psychological barrier that is blocking them from believing that Russia can be severely defeated. It is built on the long-lasting assumption that Russia is a military superpower, an undefeated force.

This thought is so deeply ingrained that they can’t believe Russia’s "super military" is fake. Even the Russian leadership doesn't understand this because of the lack of democratic, civilian control over the military.

We must explain to them that Russia can be defeated. The very way (Saddam Hussein’s) Iraqi military was defeated, along with others. Russians can and may be defeated because they are weak. It’s clear that they have a lot of vehicles and a lot of people. But the hardware is wacky, people are poorly trained, and all they are doing is rendering pressure upon us with their mass.

Ukrainian serviceman inside the basement of Azovstal steel factory in Mariupol amid the Russian invasion (Dmytro Kozatskyi)

The Kyiv Independent: And why do you think many in the West insist on saying that Ukraine can’t win?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: In America, for a long time, there has been an idea that NATO should not enter a fight against Russia to avoid escalating the situation into a world war. Also, there is this word "escalation" they fear. There is the term World War III. We are absolutely sure that, at this point, the word "escalation" has completely sputtered out. Just because we see it very clearly that Russia has already reached the limits of its capabilities. They can’t do anything drastically worse.

They’re already drawing on their last reserves. There’s an interesting thing now — they’re mobilizing untrained reserves. They are forming some company and battalion tactical groups without any collective training. And they send them into battle. Of course, their combat effectiveness is non-existent. And it demonstrates that they are out of options.

Of course, they have reserves at home, but they can’t just send them all to Ukraine, as they will end up having no military at all. Amid all their losses, they are not even close to having the results they expected, even in Donbas. In fact, they are collapsing, and they understand they can’t wage war against Ukraine. Now imagine what’s going to happen if NATO joins. What sort of escalation are we talking about? The only person not interested in this escalation is Putin. Because if NATO joins, he’s got no chances.

Foreign analysts have had a rather twisted understanding of Russian capabilities. They used to estimate it mechanically, based on the quantities of vehicles, potential, available manpower, and budget. $60 billion a year must be a very serious defense budget. But now, they see things clearly.

Defense think tanks see this paradox — in spite of all those numbers voiced and money spent, Russian capabilities are actually very limited. But many, including political analysts, still exist within the paradigm they were in at the beginning of the (full-out) war three months ago. They thought Russia is a superpower.

They’re still living in the past. Back in the day, the official opinion did not give Ukraine many chances. There has been a big change of heart. But now, someone like the New York Times editorial board seems to have this outdated understanding of who we are facing. There won’t be a nuclear war, no conflict acceleration, or escalation because Russia has no strength for that.

We’d recommend that the New York Times editorial board actually read the New York Times newspaper. The famous Tymothy Snyder recently had an article comparing (Putin’s Russia) to fascism. He has strong evidence saying that modern Russian ideology is very similar to the fascist ideology.

And now tell me — if in the editorial we change “Putin” for “Hitler,” what would it sound like? What would their suggestions for reaching compromises and making agreements sound like? How do they suggest that we make agreements with fascism? It’s not possible, because our positions are in absolute opposition.

The Kyiv Independent: So why is this idea of "ceasefire at any price" dangerous?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: This idea makes no sense. Any sort of armistice would entail two threats.

First, Putin can just make use of it to recover. They would just be recovering and preparing for a new stage of the war. They would manipulate this idea of "putting an end to the bloodshed."

Unfortunately, many foreign observers, journalists, and politicians say all the time that there needs to be a ceasefire. An armistice doesn’t stop the war at all. All it will do is give Putin a chance to exhale and re-launch a military campaign with a fresh start.

Besides, they will launch the full force of their disinformation machine to accuse us of violating this ceasefire.

The Kyiv Independent: Is Ukraine’s ultimate goal to take all its territories back, including Donbas and Crimea?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: Our country has carefully explained this. (The U.S. administration) understands that our ultimate goal is to reinstate control of all territories as of 1991, hold those responsible for war crimes accountable, and get reparations. But the first goal is to kick Russians back to where they were before Feb. 24. The U.S. administration sees and understands this as well.

There’s a window of opportunity now as Russia is in its weakest condition in its history. We need to take this chance and not miss it. You can’t fight a war always looking back and being afraid of making an extra step. One can’t support us and be always restraining oneself. This self-restraint, if there is still any left, is something that our Western partners should change.

During the Ramstein conference, there were correct statements, and we definitely support them. (U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin) said they were ready to move heaven and earth to let Ukraine win. Resolve has been indicated. So let’s get this implemented without looking back and restraining ourselves all the time.

There’s also the notion of “critical mass.”

Imagine you have a bucket of water. You can pour the whole bucket onto the fire and put it out at once. But you can also get a glass and try to choke the fire with small sips of water. The same amount of water, different results. We need to avoid a situation where we get assistance in small sips. It’s a critical challenge to us now — a lot of money has been allocated, and over 40 nations have joined. Now, it’s important that we, as a coalition, are not afraid of winning.

Nothing is going to happen if Putin loses. He might retire, or die, or whatever. In this situation, it’s important to collect this critical mass of weaponry and capabilities. Immediately after that, we’ll be able to launch a large-scale counter-offensive.

Some in the U.S. were unhappy about the $40 billion allocated to help Ukraine in wartime, saying that what happens to Ukraine is none of America’s business.

A Russian collaborationist forces T-72B3 tank advances toward the Azovstal combat zone in Mariupol on April 16, 2022 (Getty Images)

In all wars, including World War II, some politicians are afraid of making concrete steps. Even when WWII was in full swing, there were journalists, observers, and politicians, in Britain, America, in Europe, saying that there had to be a compromise and de-escalation. And the political wisdom of public figures making historic decisions was always about the fact that half-heartedness is a deathly matter. It’s a disaster.

Those complaining about the 40 billion for Ukraine are demonstrating a short-sighted approach. It’s like, let’s save money now, but we’ll have to spend ten times that later. The rest, namely infrastructure support, training, personnel, maintenance, transportation, and logistics, is what Ukraine is undertaking. We cover this by ourselves. What we want from them are weapons and munitions. If U.S. military personnel were involved in such things, there would be far larger budgets.

The problem is that many people thought China, rather than Russia, was the main issue. But now we see a fully established fascist ideology that is investing a lot of resources into its expansion. If someone thinks this is only between Ukraine and Russia, it’s a very short-sighted approach.

But thank God the U.S. administration says it understands that this case is crucial for the future, it’s not just a regional conflict, and if Russia succeeds, at least partly, it will be a big go for China. Those saying that Russia doesn’t need to be deterred fall short of a strategic vision. How can educated, trained, informed specialists not see such obvious things?

The Kyiv Independent: And what do U.S. authorities think about it?

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: They do have a strategic vision of this situation. They do understand why it’s important. They do understand that it’s a precedent and that the democratic world can’t let such wars happen, otherwise the world will fall apart. That’s why they're allocating money.

And there’s vast popular support for Ukraine, and the U.S. Congress is united in support. What is still being formed now is the understanding of how exactly this assistance must be allocated. The situation is pretty good.

There can’t be any compromises regarding a Ukrainian victory. There needs to be quick and resolute action to win.

Otherwise, it’s not going to happen.

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