Edited highlights of the conversation
Valery Zaluzhny: For us, for the military, the war began in 2014. For me personally in July 2014. And I had no idea what war really was in 2014.
I had read a lot of books, I had graduated from all the academies with a gold medal, I understood everything theoretically, but I did not understand what war really meant. But in eight years of war, until 2022, both I and people like me understood it all perfectly well.
All we did when the large-scale aggression started was to implement not only our knowledge, which we already had in 2014, but also the skills and the experience we have gained since then. And the most important experience we had and the one which we have practised almost like a religion is that Russians and any other enemies must be killed, just killed, and most importantly, we should not be afraid to do it. And this is what we are doing.
All that happened on February 24th was an increase in scale. Before then we had a front of 403km and 232 strongpoints. And by February 24th that front grew to 2,500 km. And we were a relatively small force, but we engaged. Naturally, we understood that we were not strong enough. Our task was to distribute our smaller forces in such a way as to use unconventional tactics to stop the onslaught.
The Economist: What distinguishes you as a commander?
VZ: The Soviet Army welcomed and enforced one concept: the commander. But being a commander and being a leader is not the same. With all due respect to Mr Surovikin [the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine], if you look at him, he is an ordinary Petrovite commander from Peter the Great’s time, shall we say, a derzhimorda [a brutal martinet in Gogol’s “The Government Inspector”].
You look at him and understand that either you complete the task or you’re fucked. And we had long realised that this does not work. And we had particularly realised this in 2014, when 21-year-old lieutenants came to command men who were in their 50s and 60s. Of course we had our own derzhimordas who tried to keep order with their fists and biceps, but it does not work 100% in the Ukrainian army… It is always possible to be normal. To be normal means to remain human in any situation—that is the most important thing. To remain human, to become a leader. To be smarter, to be stronger, to be more talented and in that case try to manage people. That is a religion I practised.
TE: Does this mean that you listen to your officers and encourage their initiative?
VZ: I trust my generals. Since the start of the war I fired ten of them because they were not up to it. Another one shot himself. I trust Syrsky [General Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of Ukraine’s land forces]. If he tells me he needs another brigade, it means that he really needs another brigade. I certainly don’t think I am the smartest one here. I must and do listen to those who are in the field. Because the initiative is there.
TE: Who is your military role model?
VZ: Turn your head to the left. There is a portrait of the late Hennadiy Petrovich Vorobyov [commander of Ukraine’s ground forces from 2009 to 2014]. He was a man who was enormously respected in the army. Why do I have it here? When I am at ease, when things are going well, this picture is usually lying face down, I don’t need to look at it. When I have doubts about something, I put it up straight. I turn around and look at it, trying to figure out what Hennadiy Vorobyov would do in this situation. This is a man who has been successful. This is a man who had a hard time, because he helped everyone. Everyone. He knew everyone in the Armed Forces, their wives, their children, their nephews and so on. It was hard for him, but he took that heavy burden and carried it. That’s the model.
TE: The photograph is up at the moment.
VZ: Yes. There are a lot of doubts.
TE: What kind?
VZ: We have already realised through a number of operations that the main thing is not to be afraid of this enemy. It can be fought, it must be fought today, here and now. And in no way should that be postponed until tomorrow, because there will be problems. In order to achieve this, you need resources. Just like the Russians, when we are planning something we must have the resources to do it. Then, if your position is correct and you make the right decisions, you can expect the right result.
The Russians have been garnering their resources for a long time. According to my calculations it must have been three and a half or four years that they built them up intensively: people, equipment, ammunition. I think they had three months’ worth of resources to achieve their goals. The fact that they have exhausted these resources and wasted their potential without achieving practically any result, shows that their position was chosen incorrectly. They now have to think again about how to get out of this situation.
They wanted to take Kyiv. Militarily this was the right decision—the easiest way to achieve their goal. I would have done the same. I know Gerasimov [the head of Russia’s armed forces] well (not personally, of course). There was no way out for him. He concentrated on Donbas to preserve whatever resources he had left. As of today, the situation in Donbas is not easy. But strategically it is a no-win situation for the Russian army.
So most likely they are looking for ways to stop [fighting] and get a pause by any means: shelling civilians, leaving our wives and children to freeze to death. They need it for one simple purpose: they need time to gather resources and create new potential so they can continue to fulfil their goals.
But they are working on another task in parallel, they are doing everything possible not to let us regroup and strike ourselves. This is why you are seeing battles along the 1,500km frontline. In some places more intense, in some places less intense, but they are constraining our troops in order not to allow us to regroup. The fact that they are fighting hard now is very bad, of course. But it is not a solution to the strategic problem. It simply wears down the armed forces of Ukraine.
That’s why, just as during the second world war, I have no doubt about it, it is most likely that somewhere beyond the Urals, they are preparing new resources. They are 100% being prepared.
Ammunition is being prepared, not very good stuff, but still. It won’t be the same resources as it could have been in two years of ceasefire. It will not be like that. It will be lousy, and combat potential will be very, very low, even if he enlists a million more people in the army to throw bodies, like Zhukov [a senior Soviet commander during the second world war] did, it will not bring the desired result anyway.
So the next problem that we have is, first of all, to hold this line and not lose any more ground. It’s crucial. Because I know that it is ten to 15 times harder to liberate it than not to surrender it. So our task now is to hold on. Our task is to monitor very clearly with the help of our partners what is going on there, where they are getting ready. This is our strategic task.
Our second strategic task is to get ready for this war which can happen in February. To be able to wage a war with fresh forces and reserves. Our troops are all tied up in battles now, they are bleeding. They are bleeding and are being held together solely by courage, heroism and the ability of their commanders to keep the situation under control.
The second, very important strategic task for us is to create reserves and prepare for the war, which may take place in February, at best in March, and at worst at the end of January. It may start not in Donbas, but in the direction of Kyiv, in the direction of Belarus, I do not rule out the southern direction as well.
We have made all the calculations—how many tanks, artillery we need and so on and so on. This is what everyone needs to concentrate on right now. May the soldiers in the trenches forgive me, it’s more important to focus on the accumulation of resources right now for the more protracted and heavier battles that may begin next year. I’ll be talking to Milley [America’s top soldier] about this [later today].
I will tell him how much it is worth, how much it costs. If we don’t get it, of course we will fight to the end. But as a movie character said, “I don’t vouch for the consequences.” The consequences are not hard to foresee. This is what we have to do.
There is also a third, very important task for us, a third strategic task, which, unfortunately, is connected with the first (holding the lines and positions) and with the second (accumulating resources). This is missile defence and air defence. In my personal opinion, I am not an energy expert but it seems to me we are on the edge. We are balancing on a fine line. And if [the power grid] is destroyed…that is when soldiers’ wives and children start freezing. And such a scenario is possible. What kind of mood the fighters will be in, can you imagine? Without water, light and heat, can we talk about preparing reserves to keep fighting?
TE: Do you need to conduct another wave of mobilisation?
VZ: We are already conducting it as it is. We have enough people, and I can clearly see what I have. I have enough. I don’t need hundreds of thousands more.
We need tanks, we need apcs [armoured personnel carriers], infantry fighting vehicles. And we need ammunition. Please note, I’m not talking about f-16s right now.
TE: Have the Russian forces adapted to himars [American-made multiple rocket launchers]?
VZ: Yes. They’ve gone to a distance the himars can’t reach. And we haven’t got anything longer-range.
TE: Can we talk about air defence?
VZ: Now we have a ratio of 0.76. Russians are using this 0.76 coefficient of efficacy when they plan their attacks. This means that instead of 76 missiles, they launch 100. And 24 get through and reach their target. And what do two missiles do to a power station? It won’t work for two years. So it has to be built up.
nato specialists know everything, absolutely everything, down to the last detail. Calculations are done and thank God it all has moved on. We already have some nasams [Norwegian-American air-defence systems]. Not enough, but some. iris-t [a German air-defence system] are already in use. Not enough, but some. They just need to be ramped up. We need dozens of those.
TE: Are your allies holding you back in any way from advancing on Crimea?
VZ: I can’t answer the question of whether they are holding back or not. I will simply state the facts. In order to reach the borders of Crimea, as of today we need to cover a distance of 84km to Melitopol. By the way, this is enough for us, because Melitopol would give us a full fire control of the land corridor, because from Melitopol we can already fire at the Crimean Isthmus, with the very same himars and so on. Why am I saying this to you? Because it goes back to my earlier point about resources. I can calculate, based on the task at hand, what kind of resource is needed to build combat capability.
We are talking about the scale of World War One…that is what Antony Radakin [Britain’s top soldier] told me. When I told him that the British Army fired a million shells in World War One, I was told, “We will lose Europe. We will have nothing to live on if you fire that many shells.” When they say, “You get 50,000 shells”, the people who count the money faint. The biggest problem is that they really don’t have it.
With this kind of resources I can’t conduct new big operations, even though we are working on one right now. It is on the way, but you don’t see it yet. We use a lot fewer shells.
I know that I can beat this enemy. But I need resources. I need 300 tanks, 600-700 ifvs, 500 Howitzers. Then, I think it is completely realistic to get to the lines of February 23rd. But I can’t do it with two brigades. I get what I get, but it is less than what I need. It is not yet time to appeal to Ukrainian soldiers in the way that Mannerheim appealed to Finnish soldiers. We can and should take a lot more territory.
TE: What do you make of Russia’s mobilisation?
VZ: Russian mobilisation has worked. It is not true that their problems are so dire that these people will not fight. They will. A tsar tells them to go to war, and they go to war. I’ve studied the history of the two Chechen wars—it was the same. They may not be that well equipped, but they still present a problem for us. We estimate that they have a reserve of 1.2m-1.5m people… The Russians are preparing some 200,000 fresh troops. I have no doubt they will have another go at Kyiv.