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“It’s cold in here.”
Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukrainian defense minister, has barely finished shaking hands before an interview and flashing a wide, toothy smile — now recognizable from countless television clips — before he darts to a nearby heat lamp. The temperature is actually mild on this day in late April, but Reznikov, dressed in his similarly familiar camo-green fleece, seems to want the large unadorned conference room in a gold-tinted building on Sofiivs’ka Street in central Kyiv to be as comfortable as possible, if not for his own sake then for ours. He has exactly an hour to spare. And for a man with the weight of enormous responsibility and expectation on his shoulders, he looks incredibly relaxed.
Perhaps this owes to how far he and his country have come in just over a year.
Throughout the course of our interview, Reznikov reflects on how dramatically Ukraine has defied the naysayers in the West by surviving as a nation. The U.S. intelligence community anticipated that Kyiv would fall within 72 hours of the first Russian missiles landing in Ukraine. So did Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war makers. Was this underestimating Ukraine or overestimating Russia?
“Both,” Reznikov tells Yahoo News in perfect English. “We understand Russians better than our partners do, in particular their methods of waging war. Firstly, we have been fighting with them since 2014. Secondly, there are a lot of our generals who studied at the same academies and read the same manuals.”
At 56, bald and bearded, Reznikov finds himself in an unlikely position. A lawyer by training, with a distinctly avuncular air, he litigates exclusively on behalf of a client of 44 million people, traveling the world petitioning, persuading and beseeching a coalition of 54 very different countries to provide weapons, ammunition and nonlethal aid his military badly needs.
“I like to say that where yesterday we were told no, tomorrow we will be told yes,” he says. “This has been a reliable standard for Western military aid since the beginning.”
Reznikov previously served in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government as deputy prime minister and minister for reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. “Temporarily occupied territories” referred at the time to Crimea and heavily militarized swaths of Donbas, in eastern Ukraine, both of which Putin’s armies, operatives and proxies invaded and seized in 2014. Zelensky had to ask Reznikov twice to serve as defense minister before he accepted. He was appointed on Nov. 2, 2021, just shy of four months before the full-scale invasion began. There was no honeymoon period; those months were spent in a frenzy of anticipation and preparation for a conflict many outside Ukraine — especially in U.S. and U.K. intelligence circles — saw coming but many inside were still skeptical would ever arrive, at least to the full-scale degree that it did.
Since then, following Ukraine’s successful liberations of Kyiv, Kharkiv and the western half of Kherson, security assistance has been precipitously escalatory. Consignments of light arms meant for a protracted guerrilla insurgency have given way to the creeping NATO-standardization of Ukraine’s armed forces. Much of this owes to Reznikov’s personal relationships, particularly with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The two men hug whenever they meet, the last time being 24 hours before our interview, at the 11th meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, an alliance of 54 countries supporting Ukraine’s defense, at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
“A year ago, I had an apprehension that the world would experience war fatigue,” Reznikov says. “However, today I may confidently say that there is no fatigue in the West. Our partners unanimously claim that they will be with us until the complete victory of Ukraine.”
He defines that victory as everyone in the Ukrainian government does, at least publicly: the total recapture of Ukraine’s sovereign territory, as enshrined by its internationally recognized 1991 borders, including Crimea. A distinct murmur that risks becoming a chorus in Washington does not define it the the same way. While President Biden affirms that the U.S. will support Ukraine “as long as it takes,” foreign policy mandarins and commentators are beginning to advocate that Kyiv cede territory to end the war more quickly, or be forced into doing so by the U.S. and Europe by the withholding of crucial military assistance.
Land for peace is a nonstarter for the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians, with a poll conducted in mid-February showing that 87% opposed the prospect. Reznikov rules out such a contingency categorically.
“You’ve seen what the Russians do in the territory they have occupied, the barbarity,” he says. “Why would we ever consent to let them occupy any of our land? And what kind of peace would this ever bring?”
Thus far, Reznikov’s optimism has not been misplaced. Ukrainian infantrymen are currently training in Europe for combined-arms maneuvers (using infantry, artillery, heavy armor and air power in concert) and learning how to operate U.S. Abrams, German Leopard and British Challenger main battle tanks, not to mention infantry-fighting vehicles made in the United States, Germany and Sweden.
Before the war, the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO was viewed by many in the West as too provocative for Putin, if not one of the motivations for launching the war. Yet an unintended consequence of the invasion is that it has only brought Ukraine closer to the alliance — and turned onetime skeptics of its membership, such as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, into unlikely proponents.
“We are already a de facto member of NATO,” Reznikov says, a line he has used in other interviews of late. “And I have no doubt we will eventually become a de jure one. From our side we continue a job, for joint fulfillment of which NATO was founded. There is already a high degree of interoperability between our military and NATO systems.”
He points to the evolving rhetoric from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg from a year ago to now. Ukraine’s “right place is in NATO,” Stoltenberg said on April 20, on his first trip to wartime Kyiv, adding that all the allies agree that Ukraine’s membership is only a question of time.
The bulk of the ongoing Western training taking place now is in prelude to a much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive. The timing and location of that campaign remain closely guarded state secrets, contingent on matériel and mud as much as on anything else.
Did the Ramstein meeting provide the necessary resupplies of artillery and other ammunition that Ukraine will need for any envisaged blitzkrieg? “In war, there is no such thing as enough,” Reznikov says.
He denies that the so-called Discord leaks of U.S. intelligence published to an online chat forum by Jack Teixeira, a 21-year-old member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard, had any impact on Ukraine’s war planning. Reznikov tells Yahoo News that much of the information contained in those documents related to Ukraine was wrong, out of date or perhaps manipulated. (With one well-reported exception, wherein a third-party recipient of the original leaks altered the casualty figures in one of the intelligence documents to make it appear that Ukraine had lost more troops than Russia when the opposite was the case; there is no evidence that the Pentagon files were doctored.)
Apart from the necessity of beating back the Russians for its own sake, there is great political impetus to this counteroffensive to succeed, and succeed spectacularly. Should it fail to significantly dislodge the invaders, then the peace-at-any-cost caucus will grow louder and more persuasive.
Reznikov remains confident that Ukraine will beat the naysayers and odds makers yet again. He does hint at something contained in the Pentagon leaks that is neither misguided, passé or fudged: an urgent shortfall in Ukraine’s stocks of Soviet-era air defense systems.
Kyiv was expected to completely exhaust its missiles for midrange air defenses by the middle of April, the leaked documents stated, and its longer-range S-300 surface-to-air missiles by mid-May. While the timings may have been off (Ukraine still possesses stocks of both), the problem alluded to is real.
“Unfortunately, it became clear that S-300 and Buk missiles sooner or later might run out, and we can’t produce them in Ukraine,” Reznikov concedes, referring to another medium-range Soviet-era platform. “They’re manufactured in Russia. So our partners began to look for missiles in their stockpiles.” Slovakia, for instance, provided its only S-300 air defense system to Ukraine in April 2022, while the U.K. has been quietly sourcing Buk platforms on the international arms market, another nugget of information revealed in the Pentagon leaks.
Ukraine’s Western allies have attempted to make up for the depletion of Soviet systems by supplying a variety of their own. The most significant were the Patriot batteries provided by the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands. The Americans have even gotten creative, inaugurating a program dubbed “FrankenSAM” whereby RIM-7 Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missiles are jerry-rigged to be fired from a Buk launcher.
Another big request from Kyiv is for fighter jets, which can be used for defensive and offensive purposes.
For months, Ukraine’s political establishment and Defense Ministry solicited Washington and third-party countries for U.S.-made F-16s to replenish and upgrade their diminished fleet of MiG-29 and Su-27 Soviet-era airframes. According to U.S. Air Force European Commander Gen. James B. Hecker, Ukraine has lost around 60 fixed-wing aircraft of all types since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion last year. These losses have been ameliorated somewhat by Ukraine’s foreign partners — first by the provision of spare parts that enabled the Ukrainians to return their own grounded aircraft to service, then by the supply of entire MiG-29 airframes from Poland and Slovakia and Su-25 close air support jets from Bulgaria.
With the help of foreign engineers, Ukraine has also been hybridizing its Soviet-era planes to allow them to fire Western munitions. The MiG-29, for instance, is now outfitted with AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles, which seek out and destroy enemy radar systems, and the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAMs) kit, which turns unguided “dumb bombs” into smart bombs, the better to precisely target Russian positions.
We ask Reznikov about wreckage of a HARM missile turning up in Belgorod, Russia, which is somewhere that U.S. weapons systems are famously not supposed to be deployed, as per the conditions of security assistance. Reznikov flatly denies using any U.S-provided munitions inside Russian territory.
“Not only did I agree to this verbally with the Americans, but also in a written form,” he says. “We have not violated this provision.”
Despite these MacGyvered solutions, the Ukrainian government has been explicit in its pleas for F-16s. Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal flew to Canada in April on a transport aircraft that had the plea in emoji form on the fuselage: first a Ukrainian flag, then an image of the American fighter jet, then hands clasped together in prayer.
In a rare acknowledgment that Western military aid is not limitless, Reznikov says F-16s “are not an immediate priority but a long-term one” because of the cost-benefit ratios of getting jets instead of other systems.
“You cannot just procure the fighter jet — it’s about spare parts, weapons, maintenance, technical crews and infrastructure to fly the jet,” he says. “The total cost per jet is therefore higher than the initial price, and if we are weighing priorities, that money can more easily and quickly be spent on main battle tanks and other equipment.”
A number of Ukrainian officials have hinted to Yahoo News that Crimea will be a target in the forthcoming counteroffensive — if not a full-on ground invasion by infantry and armor, then subject to a massive campaign of artillery and missile strikes to neutralize Russia’s ability to use the peninsula to replenish its garrisons elsewhere along the frontline. The prevailing assumption in Kyiv is that recapturing Crimea, which has suffered almost no damage to critical civilian infrastructure since its seizure in 2014, is in fact easier and more feasible than recapturing occupied Donbas, “a black hole,” in the words of one Ukrainian military official. That same official suggested that putting Ukrainian forces that much closer to the Russian border makes no strategic sense at present, given Putin’s mobilization program and the regular influx of raw conscripts into the battle space. Crimea, by contrast, is more reachable from Ukrainian positions and more isolated from Russian ones, as Moscow is well aware.
Russia has been preparing for some form of Ukrainian action targeting Crimea by building extensive defensive trench networks, expanding military facilities on the peninsula and erecting a sea barrier at its naval port in Sevastopol.
Reznikov declines to go into detail, but he acknowledges that “prior to the liberation of Crimea, we have to liberate territories around the peninsula, Melitopol, the rest of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.” Doing so would sever Crimea’s direct line of communication with Russia’s mainland occupation and force any resupplies to come in by ship through the Black Sea or by crossing the Kerch Bridge, which was partially destroyed last October by a large explosive device secreted in a truck that originally set off from the Russian side. (The Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, is widely believed to have been behind that operation.)
A prerequisite for whatever and wherever Ukraine presses a counteroffensive has been the defense of Bakhmut, itself a strategically insignificant city in Donetsk. Yet for nine months, Russia has poured enormous resources into taking this tiny place, with a prewar population of just over 71,000, using both conventional soldiers such as naval infantry and mercenaries including Russian convicts recruited from prisons by the Wagner Group, recently designated a transnational criminal organization by the United States. White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said at a press conference Tuesday that Russia has suffered a staggering 100,000 casualties fighting in Bakhmut and in other flashpoints along the frontline since December.
Yet the U.S. has remained skeptical of Ukraine’s declared strategy of holding onto the city by sending in some of its most battle-hardened combat forces, including elite special forces, in order to keep the Russians bleeding and bogged down. That decision did forestall the risk of Russian encirclement, but not of gradual Russian gains through intense urban fighting right through the heart of the city. This fighting has been block by block and even room by room in what remains of Bakhmut’s blasted-out architecture.
The Pentagon evidently anticipated Bakhmut would fall in January. As of this writing, Ukraine retains about 10 to 12% of the city, although visually confirmed fighting continues. Reznikov is adamant that Ukraine’s policy was the right one — and that it was undertaken, contrary to much rumor and speculation, with unanimous support from his high command. He said that a meeting of the stavka, Ukraine’s war Cabinet, was held months ago with Zelensky to determine what to do about Bakhmut. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of the armed forces of Ukraine; Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces; and Serhiy Shaptala, the chief of the General Staff, were of one mind.
“The president asked them: ‘What should we do with Bakhmut?’” Reznikov says. “Everyone agreed that we have to continue defense. There was complete consensus in this matter. Therefore, for us it is not as controversial as it may seem to you in the USA.”
Reznikov concedes that “a lot of our heroes” have been sacrificed at Bakhmut, but insists their lives were not squandered: Defense of the city bought critical time to allow Ukrainian forces to prepare for their big push and train on newly acquired Western military hardware.
“The Americans who have been training our recently mobilized forces say that in three weeks they attain a level of combat readiness that it normally takes American trainees three months to achieve,” Reznikov says.
Moreover, had the Russians sacked Bakhmut months ago, quite apart from a symbolic victory, they’d have been able to redirect resources to tying up Ukrainian defenders at other points along the line of contact. They’d have also advanced closer to the twin cities of Ukrainian-held Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, huge prizes for Moscow, which has claimed to have “annexed” Donetsk Oblast without holding the entirety of it.
“Russia won’t stop with Ukraine,” Reznikov says. “We are fighting a war for civilization. That is my argument to the American people.”