Adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister talks post-war forces, industry

WARSAW, Poland — As Russia’s war against Ukraine continues, the Ukrainian military has liberated large portions of its territory previously occupied by Russian forces. Western funds and weapons have played a major role in helping Ukraine combat the Feb. 24 invasion. However, this is not the first time Russia has targeted its neighbor; Moscow seized and then annexed Crimea in March 2014.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s leading state-run defense enterprise, Ukroboronprom, is developing its capacities for the supply of multiple-rocket launchers as well as anti-tank and anti-ship missiles. Senior industry representatives say the domestic defense industry is observing a spike in demand from foreign customers interested in acquiring weapons already proven in combat against Russia’s military.

In an interview with Defense News on Sept. 20, Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, described how the war has transformed the military and defense industry, what security guarantees the nation needs to prevent further Russian aggression and which weapons will be most useful in securing a Ukrainian victory.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

How do you expect this conflict between Russia and Ukraine to end?

We not only expect, but are confident this war will end with Ukraine’s victory. As we have shown over the past months, the Ukrainian military is highly capable, motivated and professional. We have demonstrated that we are able to efficiently combat what was formerly known as the second-largest army in the world. Our allies see we are able to learn very fast how to use modern, Western weapons. Ukrainian soldiers use them very efficiently, and we take great care of them because we respect our allies.

What can Ukraine do to ward off another Russian invasion?

This war began in 2014 when Russia first invaded our territory, and the United Nations security system failed to stop this aggression from happening. In 1991, Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union and agreed to give up nuclear weapons for the sake of the greater good. We signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, but nearly 30 years later we see that what was supposed to guarantee Ukraine its safety, territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence failed to do so. One of the memorandum’s signatories [has ended up] conducting an aggressive war and committing violent crimes against Ukrainian civilians.

Russian troops guard an entrance of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station, a run-of-river power plant on the Dnieper River in the Kherson region in Ukraine on May 20, 2022. (AP)
Russian troops guard an entrance of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station, a run-of-river power plant on the Dnieper River in the Kherson region in Ukraine on May 20, 2022. (AP)

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as well as Ukraine’s top political and military leaders have repeatedly said we need a new set of guarantees. An international working group on security — led by the head of the Ukrainian Presidential Office, Andriy Yermak, and former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen — has developed a very clear list of key guarantees Ukraine will need to stop this kind of aggression from happening in the future.

Compared with the Budapest Memorandum, we will also need more countries as signatories of this new agreement. Russia would probably not dare to invade Ukraine if it would directly trigger action by the signatory countries.

Has the war transformed the Ukrainian military into a more modern and well-equipped force? If so, what are the main areas of progress?

We have gained invaluable battlefield experience since 2014. We have exchanged this experience with our foreign partners through regular exercises, joint drills and training. This is why we were able to surprise the world with our resistance and thwart Russia’s initial plans to conquer our land within seven days.

What we need now is to continue to receive high-quality weapons to prevent tragedies, such as the massacre of Mariupol, from happening again. The United States leads the way in terms of its military assistance to us, and we can also count on the U.K., Poland, Germany, France, Norway, the Baltic States and many other countries.

We hope to receive soon air defense systems to protect our cities from being destroyed by Russia. We also need more Javelin anti-tank weapons, Stinger missiles, 155mm howitzers and cannons. We know how to make good use of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and Harpoon missiles, and we are grateful to our partners for providing us with such weapons. The same goes for the Panzerhaubitze howitzers and Gepard anti-aircraft vehicles from Germany, the Zuzana howitzers from Slovakia, and the Caesar howitzers from France.

What will Ukraine’s military look like after the war?

The past months have brought a continuous, fast-tracked transformation of the Ukrainian armed forces toward Western standards. We are now fully aware that we need to be, as Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said, interoperable with Western armies. Our command structures and military planning resemble those of Western armies. Our military is very much unlike the Russian military, which is both mentally and organizationally stuck in World War II.

The Ukrainian defense industry is currently exclusively serving the needs of your armed forces. What role will this industry play in Ukraine’s post-war future?

We understand that, for Ukraine to be able to shield itself from our neighbor, we need to think strategically, and we can’t just rely on foreign deliveries of weapons. Our leadership wants to continue to reform Ukroboronprom. This reform was already initiated some time before the war.

Now we understand the needs our military has. Some of these needs have already been covered, but our military personnel increased so greatly that it was simply impossible to immediately equip all soldiers with helmets, bulletproof vests, uniforms and all the necessary gear.

We also understand how urgently we need ammunition, and in the future our defense industry needs to secure sufficient capacities to cover our ammunition needs.

Ukraine has been able to draft a large number of conscripts. Russia’s government has had problems convincing its population to enlist, and there are reports of thousands fleeing the country to avoid deployment to Ukraine. What made your conscription efforts effective?

The main reason behind this success is what Russian leadership failed to understand and appreciate. Ukraine is a sovereign nation, and Ukrainians have a very strong national and civic identity. We don’t want to live under a dictator, and we won’t let a tyrant ruin our children’s future. This is why, after the war broke out, the lines in front of our military recruitment centers became so huge that many volunteers were actually sent to other services where their capacities could be of best use.

Russian soldiers are demoralized and have little motivation to die in Ukraine for the delusions of their leaders, which is why Russia is recruiting criminals to its armed forces. They promise them their prison sentences will be scrapped if they kill Ukrainians. This is symptomatic of the state of their military.

Ukrainians perfectly understand the stakes: that we’re fighting for our freedom and for the freedom of our children. This is why we will win.