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“A massive gamble”

Interview with Atlantic Council’s Peter Dickinson on Ukraine’s military shakeup. Interviewer: Vazha Tavberidze.

February 13, 2024 - Peter Dickinson Vazha Tavberidze - Hot TopicsInterviews

Photo courtesy of Peter Dickinson.

VAZHA TAVBERIDZE: The latest big news to come out of Ukraine is that General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, who has served as the main commander of the army, for many a symbol of Ukraine’s heroic resistance so far, has been replaced. And the question I would ask first and foremost is why this is happening?

PETER DICKINSON: Well, unfortunately, it looks like domestic politics. There’s no compelling military reason that I’m aware of why for why Zaluzhnyi was removed. The only the military argument as such, is the idea that war is changing very fast. We need new thinking. Ukraine needs new people in charge, who are not from the old school, as it were, who are prepared to adopt new strategies, to incorporate drone warfare and all the new forms of warfare that we’re seeing. So the argument is that Ukraine needs to adopt this approach. But frankly, Zaluzhnyi is as good a candidate as you’re going to find, or he certainly is strong in this area. I think his strategies over the last two years demonstrate this. He’s incorporated a lot of new weaponry effectively since 2022, so I don’t believe the argument that he’s yesterday’s man, that he’s not fit for new challenges. It is not convincing. The other military argument is the illusion that he is too cautious. There’s been a number of incidents where Zaluzhnyi has reportedly wanted to withdraw and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said no, we stay. The Battle of Bakhmut was the most high-profile example, with claims of a disagreement between the civilian and military leadership. There have been similar suggestions about the counter offensive last summer, that Zaluzhnyi was too conservative in his approach.

Could it be that he’s paying the price for the failed counter-offensive?

No, I don’t think so. The Ukrainians recognize the counter offensive failed but there is a consensus that this was because they didn’t receive enough weapons. It’s really as simple as that. But I think from Zelenskyy’s point of view, or certainly some people in the Zelenskyy team have tried to create the idea that Zelenskyy is a much more ambitious leader and he wants a military chief who will be the similar, who will not be as conservative. Zelenskyy has been very upbeat talking about Ukrainian victory. And he was publicly upset when Zaluzhnyi talked about stalemate last year. He was quoted as saying: I believe in victory. I need people who believe in victory. So, there is a sense that he wants to have somebody who will be as ambitious in his thinking.

Are there any pitfalls and dangers attached to this kind of change? Could it be costly?

It could be extremely costly. The main reason why Zelezhny wanted Zaluzhnyi removed in my opinion, personally, is because he fears Zaluzhnyi’s popularity. Ukrainian politics is very, very fickle. Popularity comes and goes in hours or days. Somebody can be very popular today, but next week they are forgotten. One reason why Zaluzhnyi is significantly more popular than Zelenskyy is that Ukrainians typically have no faith in politics. Anyone who becomes a politician immediately loses half of their credibility. Because Zaluzhnyi’s not a politician, he’s automatically seen as more trustworthy. And he’s clearly a very successful military commander. He’s well respected. The military in general is very well respected. So Zaluzhnyi is really a symbol of the admiration Ukrainians have for the country’s military. The two things that are popular in Ukraine, the two institutions that enjoy public trust, are the military and the volunteer movement. These are the only two institutions that have any sort of respect or credibility in Ukrainian eyes.

So if the main reason for the removal of Zaluzhnyi is the battle for popularity, for people’s minds and hearts, that does not necessarily speak well about Ukraine’s leadership, does it? That probably should not be the number one agenda right now. The main focus should be how to effectively kick out Russians out of our lands.

It’s very worrying. It speaks very badly for Ukraine’s leadership and is a huge gamble.

What would be the cost internationally? How would external actors, Ukraine’s allies react to this kind of friction?

I don’t think the West will react. The West will leave it to Ukraine to choose the country’s military leadership. The West’s position is that they support Ukraine for their own interests, not for Ukrainian interests. They understand that Ukraine is not a perfect liberal democracy. They understand that Ukraine is far from an ideal nation in terms of its institutions. And they respect that. They understand that it takes centuries to establish such a country. The West’s interest is in preventing Russia from becoming a expansionist imperial power threatening Europe and NATO, so they will continue to support Ukraine. But the Russians, of course, will exploit the Zaluzhnyi situation, it will present opportunities to demoralize Ukrainian society. I would not be surprised if it become the number one theme of Russian propaganda. We will hear nonstop about how Zelenskyy is prioritizing his political interests over Ukraine’s national interests. How it’s madness to die for Zelenskyy, while Zelenskyy only cares about Zelenskyy. How Zaluzhnyi is a hero who’s been betrayed, how all Ukrainians have been betrayed, and how we must stop the war with our Russian brothers tomorrow, because it’s a losing trade and Zelenskyy is a traitor.

What will Zaluzhnyi do now?

This is a very good question. I think he will initially be inclined to take some time out and avoid any big public statements. But then I think there would be enormous pressure on him to enter the political fray in some form or to become a figurehead for different political forces. There have already seen indications of Ukrainian politicians attempting to use Zaluzhnyi to boost their own credibility. This is likely to continue. I am still far from certain that Zaluzhnyi personally harbors political ambitions. But he is certainly a leader and a patriot, so there seems little prospect of him opting for quiet retirement. Zelenskyy has spoken of keeping Zaluzhnyi “on the team,” so it will be interesting to see if he’s offered a significant new position of some kind. If not, he will almost inevitably be drawn into the political arena.

Let’s look at this from the Russian perspective, from the Kremlin. You’ve got Zelenskyy and Zaluzhnyi at each others throats, proverbially speaking – which one of the two is more likely to negotiate with you? To sit down with you and talk?

Honestly, it’s very unlikely that either of them would sit down with Russia in the near future, in the current circumstances. Perhaps if the military situation becomes dramatically worse or dramatically better, then negotiations become a real a realistic proposal, but at this stage I think neither of them would entertain the idea at all. There’s almost nobody in Ukraine today who would negotiate with Russia at the moment. With Russia occupying almost 20 per cent of Ukraine, they recognize this would be fatal for Ukrainian statehood.

How does this change affect the immediate war effort? is it a window of opportunity for either sides to exploit?

Well, Ukraine has very limited opportunities now, because they have very limited supplies of weapons. So Ukraine is on the defensive. That will be the situation for the foreseeable future, until they receive significantly more military aid. At the moment, they’re having to ration their ammunition. They have very limited abilities to defend themselves. And it’s quite likely they will have to make some minor retreats on the front. Perhaps at Avdiivka, perhaps around Bakhmut, perhaps on the Zaporizhzhia front. So it looks very unlikely that they will have the material capabilities for any kind of significant offensives until the aid situation changes dramatically. Realistically, that means America.

Do you expect it to change? Especially considering the developments that we’ve been seeing in both the US and Europe.

I mean, I think the European situation is very positive. Now we’re seeing the European Union has agreed to confirm this very large aid packages, long term aid. So that is a very solid foundation. Now we’re seeing the Germans are dramatically increasing their support. They are they’re still cautious in terms of the weapons, but in terms of the volume, they’re dramatically increasing. They began the war by giving 5000 helmets. Now they’re giving like 8 billion euros per year. So it’s a massive increase in German support. We’re seeing countries like the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania, trying to mobilize more, Finland is dramatically increasing its military output. And the rhetoric has changed dramatically. We’re seeing countries like France, speaking openly about the very big danger to Europe, if Ukraine is not defended, if Europe doesn’t rise, so I think Europe has really moved quite significantly in the last few months. But it’s mainly moved because of America, because they see that America is essentially lost now to the western coalition. It seems like it’s an unpredictable situation, but it certainly looks like there is very little hope of any more American aid before the elections in November. It seems to me that the Trump camp, the MAGA movement within the Republican Party has very clearly decided there will be no aid for Ukraine. And Trump has made very clear that anyone who supports aid for Ukraine within his party will be dismissed from the party and will be will be basically finished, will be canceled once he becomes President again in November. So everybody in the Republican party knows that if they support Ukraine, they will lose their careers and they will have no job in November. So they’re terrified and I don’t know how they can counter that. So on the one hand, the European situation looks encouraging, on the other hand, the American situation is very, very discouraging. The key question is, you know, can Europe replace America in this context? I think the answer is no, it can’t. Certainly not in the short term. So although it’s good that Europe is responding in a very proactive way, it won’t be enough. I mean, it will be enough to prevent a complete collapse, but it will not be enough to allow Ukraine to launch major counter offensive, that’s almost guaranteed. So, it’s really not sufficient without America. And that’s the reality for this year, I’m afraid.

What does Ukraine need to do up until the situation changes for the better?

The main thing defending itself. It’s got to assume a strong defensive stance, which it is doing now, they are building defenses along the front lines, they are looking to prevent Russia from making any major advances. They are looking to hold the ground they currently hold – they’ve managed to liberate the half of the land that Russia had seized in 2022. So they want to hold that, they want to protect the rest of the country. So I think that this is the first goal for Ukraine. And then they’re looking to open up new fronts. Black Sea already has been the big success story of the past year, Ukraine has managed to break the Russian blockade and resume merchant shipping from its black sea ports, it has forced the Russian fleet to retreat. And the Ukrainian exports are almost at prewar levels, they’ve managed to increase them to almost the same level as January 2022. So that’s the major success they’ve managed to have with very little resources really, with clever use of drones and cruise missiles, essentially.

And then there are the attacks deep inside Russia, targeting war deports, infrastructure, the energy sector. The question is will it be enough to force Vladimir Putin’s hand to relinquish what he now calls “conquered territories”?

Good question. Certainly the Black Sea will not be enough. Ukraine can destroy the entire Black Sea Fleet and most people in Russia would not notice. Unless they have a family serving in the Black Sea Fleet, they won’t care. That’s of no consequence to them. I think the attacks on Russia’s oil and gas industry have a far greater potential. We’ve just seen this, this campaign has just begun, so it’s literally in its first stages, we’ve only seen at around six or seven attacks so far, in the first month of the year. But the impact is already visible. It’s small, but visible. There were reports coming out this week that Russian refinery output was down 5 per cent, which is small but again, let’s see if they can increase the attacks. If that becomes 20-30 per cent, it will have a significant impact on the Russian economy, as the Russian economy is very heavily leveraged on energy.

Why did it take so long for Ukraine to open that front? To understand that there is a need to hit Russia’s energy transit routes, refineries and factories?

Primarily because the West didn’t want them to do it. The West did not want them to attack Russia’s energy industry. They were afraid of doing it because the West asked them to not do that. Then Ukraine said we don’t care anymore. We’re in a fight for national survival, so we’re going to do it. You know, this whole war has been fought with the West saying to Ukraine: whatever you do, don’t escalate. And this goes back to 2014 with Crimea, you know, when Russia invaded Crimea, the West’s response to the whole crisis was not to say to Russia, stop!, it was to say to Ukraine, don’t fight back. Don’t fight back, do not escalate. And that mentality is gone on and on and on. And in fact got worse as the years have gone by. But Ukraine is now increasingly ignoring all these restrictions, has gone against this advice, because of course the West can’t impose this on Ukraine. And so they were going to do it, as they did in the Black Sea. Same thing with Crimea – don’t attack Crimea.

Could that disobedience cost them when it comes to western support?

It’s actually a paradoxical thing, but I think many in the West would applaud it. They’d be like, we wouldn’t do it, we’d be too cautious, but well done you, good for you. The situation with Putin’s Russia is like a barroom bully. He’s threatening everyone, and this guy gets up and hits him, they’re like, Wow, I would never have done that. But well done that guy. You know, they love the courage of Ukraine. But they’re shocked by it, because they would never have such courage. And as long as Ukraine is doing it with their own weapons, I think there’s no issue. If Ukraine were to use western weapons, that would immediately be an issue. And I think we’re seeing this now with Russia, Russia is trying to make a lot of noise about the recent shutdown of a plane in Russia in January, when the Russians claimed the plane containing Ukrainian prisoners was shut down. The whole incident was very suspicious. And it’s still not clear what happened. But what we are seeing is a very, very concerted Russian information campaign, to say that Ukraine used Patriot missiles to shoot down a Russian plane inside Russia. Now the goal of this campaign is to say to the Americans, stop giving Ukraine Patriot missiles, because they use them in Russia and this could lead to unpredictable escalations. This is bringing you into the war. So you must stop giving Ukraine Patriot missiles. And that’s been one of Russia’s key goals, to show Ukraine as a monkey with a grenade, that you can’t trust Ukraine. You must not give them weapons, you must let Russia discipline them. Because Russia is the parental figure and Russia knows how to discipline them. You must never get involved. And this plane thing is a good example of how Russia seeks to promote that narrative.

Peter Dickinson is a British journalist and commentator who has been based in Ukraine since the late 1990s. He is currently publisher of Business Ukraine magazine and editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert service.

Vazha Tavberidze is a Georgian journalist and staff writer with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, the Spectator, the Daily Beast and New Eastern Europe.

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