February 8, 2018

Victor Hvozd: “Today, Russia's Turning to Large-Scale Offensive Against Ukraine is Unlikely”

To discuss the peculiarities of the beginning of the “Russian Spring” and the prospects for Ukraine in the sphere of security and geopolitics, “Тиждень.ua” met with Victor Hvozd, former head of the Main Intelligence Department of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine (GUR MOU) and former Chairman of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine.


— In your book “Ukraine's Military Intelligence at the Turn of the Third Millennium” you describe the process of creating and developing this important state structure. The story ends at the moment when our armed confrontation with the Russian Federation begins. Did the Intelligence record exactly the initial stage in the preparation of the “Russian Spring” operation? And what were its signs?

— Although I am not currently in such responsible positions, but I cannot tell about everything I know. However, given that I already have some experience in teaching, and work at the “Borysfen Intel” Analytical Center, within the limits of the allowed I can tell you about some interesting for you moments.

Well, it is true that the Ukrainian military intelligence had been getting concrete data regarding Moscow's plans to annex the Crimea, which, being de jure Ukrainian, de facto, for some reason, was paid very little attention by our government. To the Russian Federation itself, this region was important not only from military-strategic or political point of view, but also in the context of the development of the “Russian world”. If nothing else, in the Crimea was based a part of the Russian Navy, the Peninsula was spoken of as a place of Russian military glory. Even though it's just words, as Russia lost almost all its battles there, and this is the historical truth. And we began to observe its special activation since 2004, after the victory of the Orange Revolution. Neither the Russian leadership nor its current leader were hiding such intentions. During a conversation with US President George W. Bush in Bucharest in 2008, Vladimir Putin pointed out that when it comes to Ukraine's joining NATO, it will do it without the Crimea and without its East.

As for the practical implementation of the promised by the Russian president, Russia has taken a wide range of measures, in particular by introducing and strengthening the Russian lobby in the Ukrainian government. Besides, our special services and security forces were being ruined, the society was purposely being split up. This created preconditions for armed aggression in the form of a hybrid warfare, as it is written in my book. The main purpose of such measures is to restore control over Ukraine through its actual disintegration. For Russia, which now seeks to become a superpower, the realization of such a geopolitical project without Ukraine is virtually impossible.

The signs of the RF's dedicated preparation to the beginning of the “Russian Spring” as a component of such a war were quite evident and were observed already during the active phase of the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. In particular, a powerful grouping of the Russian troops was concentrated in the Krasnodar Territory in the guise of ensuring the security of the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Also, with the support of the Command of Black Sea Fleet of the Russian Federation, illegal armed formations were being trained in the Crimea (the units of the so-called Cossacks and other organizations). It was published even in open sources.

By that time Yanukovych had already removed me from the position of the head of the GUR MOU, so I did not have access to the intelligence information. But I continued to work actively on this direction on the basis of the Independent Analytical Center “Borysfen Intel”, which is engaged in the analysis and assessment of events around Ukraine. On September 24, 2013, my article “By Fire and Sword: Do the Ends Justify the Means?” was posted on the site of the Center, in which, based on open information, there was a warning: threats to Ukraine from Russia are growing. It was not a question of a direct military attack then, but certain signs of it being possible were already there.

— And how did the then leadership of our state react to your reports as the chief of the Military Intelligence?

— I can say that during Viktor Yushchenko's presidency, when I was the head of the Main Intelligence Department of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, our state leadership adequately responded to the reports of the military intelligence. For example, based on the GUR's data on the RF's plans to annex the Crimea, a decision was made to restore the 32nd Army Corps in the Peninsula. And some of these plans were already being implemented. However, when Yanukovych became President, the decision was canceled.

In my times the question was raised about the reorganization of the Military Intelligence, because the General Staff did not have a body to manage intelligence. We conducted several events dedicated to the creation of a new body to manage the Intelligence within the General Staff, attended by the Minister of Defense and Commanders of the Branches of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. There was an absurd situation: for example, there was a system for managing communications, engineering troops, and so on, but there was no such system for managing the Intelligence! At the same time, we saw the rather serious activity of our opponent and realized that without Intelligence in the General Staff, without the managing body, effective preparation of the units was impossible. GUR MOU is a strategic component that is responsible for military-political challenges and threats, while the managing body and intelligence in the General Staff is a type of combat support. At that time it was in a state of neglect.

Remember that the Military Intelligence timely reported to the political and military leadership of Ukraine about Russia's plans to attack Georgia in August 2008, and also provided the assessment of the threats of such actions against our country. In this regard, a number of preventive measures were taken, in particular, was arranged training of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which demonstrated the possibility of rapid building up their grouping in the Crimean Peninsula. This was during Viktor Yushchenko's presidency.

But then Viktor Yanukovych came to the steering wheel. I have already told, how to one of my reports from the GUR MOU on the RF's threatening actions we received a response signed by the Vice-Prime Minister who was in charge of national security, defence and law enforcement agencies: “Stop frightening us with Russia”. And at that moment, I realized that the Russians had managed to bring their agents to our very top. And that our reports were “binned” at best, and were sent to Russia and read there at worst…

Shortly before I was removed from office, I was reporting to Yanukovych, the newly elected President of Ukraine. He asked how Yezhel (Defense Minister of Ukraine from March 2010 to February 2012 — Ed.) was perceived in the troops. I replied that I was not a counter-intelligence officer to deal with such questions, but I had information that he should explain some of his actions in the Crimea. After that, Yanukovych asked about the threats to Ukraine in the military sphere. Frankly, I was pleasantly surprised when I heard a professionally asked question. I gave a full report, but after that never met him again. I think, as President, he was aware of all the events. But the fact that to the important posts in the Ministry of Defense, special services and security structures had actually been brought citizens of the RF showed that the security block was controlled at that time not by President Yanukovych, but by Russia.

— The society keeps discussing a possible offensive of the Russian-terrorist forces. In your opinion, is it possible now? If so, then under what circumstances?

— From the very beginning, this situation with the intimidation of our leadership with the offensive has been purposeful. Because the main element of the hybrid war is undermining of the country's economic and political power. But this is happening against the background of constant threatening with war. During the events in the Crimea, along the whole of our border from south to north, Russian troops were training, and brigade tactical teams were being deployed. They were ready for large-scale actions and waited only for an order. March 1, 2014, the Federation Council of the Russian Federation gave permission to use the Armed Forces abroad. That is, all the formal signs testified to the fact that the Russians could at any moment start the offensive. But there must be a reason for this! One of such reasons is the so-called protection of the local Russian-speaking population, as it was in Georgia.

In this way, Russia constantly tries to press: puts on an alert different military units or commands. All these signs are fixed. They show that Moscow does not exclude the possibility of conducting against Ukraine an offensive operation of both local and large-scale nature. Close to our border and in the occupied territories, still there is a powerful grouping of Russian troops, which consists of three Combined Arms Armies, two Army Corps in the Donbas and the forces of the Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea. In total, they consist of three Motorized Infantry Divisions, up to fifteen Motorized Infantry Brigades and three Tank Brigades, as well as four Artillery Brigades and three Missile Brigades armed with “Iskander” operational and tactical complexes. Come the need, the grouping will be enforced by units from other regions of Russia. We saw the training, during which the movement of troops was mastered, we constantly see in social networks echelons with Russian military equipment. Different scenarios of offensive operations against Ukraine are systematically mastered during military exercises of the Russian Armed Forces on the South-Western (Ukrainian and the Black Sea) direction. The most indicative of them are the strategic command post exercises (SCPE) of the “Caucasus” series. Separate offensive actions against Ukraine are also mastered during the “West” SCPE.

But, I think, today Russia's turning to large-scale offensive against Ukraine is unlikely. By concentrating its troops along our border, as well as in the Crimea and in the Donbas, it tries to put psychological pressure on Ukraine, to prevent our attempts to return the occupied territories by force, to disable the so-called Croatian scenario. However, I do not rule out that under certain circumstances the Russian leadership will decide on a limited or full-scale military operation against our country. For example, to expand the area of the “DPR” and “LPR”, to create a land corridor to the Crimea or to occupy the entire Ukrainian territory.

You may ask what can be a prerequisite for this? For example, a sharp aggravation of armed confrontation in the conflict zone in the Donbas. Maybe as it once was in Georgia, so-called pacification. That is, Russian troops would be introduced for “coercion to peace”. Perhaps because of some serious social unrest due to the supposedly existing threat to the population. At this, the world community would be forced to believe that the Ukrainian authorities are not able to cope with the situation there and that only Russian military forces are able to sort it out.

Russian troops can act in Ukraine not only directly as official military units, but also under the guise of “militias” for the purpose of conducting a “peacekeeping” or “stabilizing” operation to protect the same Russian-speaking population. I hope that our military intelligence officers are working actively; they are aware of all these things. For example, deployment of command and control points in wartime, bringing troops into rural areas near the border of Ukraine, strengthening the troops on South-Western direction, creation of advanced warehouses of munitions, fuels and supplies. All this is constantly monitored, because the events most likely would be under the cover of some kind of training, as it was in 2014.

— How long would it take Moscow to conduct these events ?

— According to my estimations, to transfer additional forces would take at least four to six weeks. Although the main enforcement has long been ready — it's airborne troops. We know that they were used. That is, there are possibilities for this. But again, the question is rather geopolitical. Realizing the consequences of such steps and the situation in which it would find itself taking into consideration the position of the United States, the EU and other countries, Moscow will hardly dare to do something. Unless the situation in Ukraine gets extremely sharp or (and we should not rule this out) in case of aggravation of the situation in the RF itself. Therefore, this may be the only theme able to divert attention and give Putin some bonuses, especially before March presidential election there.

— What other threats to Ukraine's security can be in addition to the ones just mentioned?

— The armed aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation can be accompanied by a number of other risks and threats. Especially those to which lead the actions of major world players. I would mention here the spread of populist sentiments in the United States and the EU, which weakens the Western world and undermines its unity in containment of Moscow's neo-imperial politics.

A typical manifestation of this tendency was the victory in the elections in the United States (autumn of 2016) of Donald Trump, who used frankly populist slogans. In particular, he called to restore cooperation with Russia and to lift the sanctions against it. And only the principled position of the US Congress did not allow him to fulfill his promise given before the election.

The consequences of the European populists' actions were Great Britain's withdrawal from the EU, Catalonia's attempts to separate from Spain. Populist ideas also intensify the activities of various eurosceptic, left, nationalist and pro-Russian parties and movements that strengthen their positions in the EU. Just look at the results of the presidential and parliamentary elections in France, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.

Tangible problems for Ukraine arise as a result of nationalist forces' activities in the neighboring countries of our country: Poland, Hungary and Romania, who are trying to take advantage of our problems in neighborly relations. Sadly, in some cases, governments or parliaments of these countries also stick to a similar position. An example can be Hungary's negative reaction to the Ukrainian Law on Education, because of which the Hungarians promise to block the processes of European and Euro-Atlantic integration of our state.

It is a pity that all these trends are actively stimulated by Russia, including through interference in elections, information influence on societies, and support for destructive parties or movements. This was observed in the USA, France (although there it worked against these forces), Germany. We should not ignore the military activity of Russia and the USA/NATO in Europe, which can provoke a military conflict between them. There is no doubt that Ukraine, which today became the main field in these geopolitical battles, would be drawn into it. We are in an awkward position between the two forces.

Ukraine remains sensitive to common challenges and threats of the world and regional levels, such as international terrorism (the transit of militants or creation of so-called sleeping groups), organized crime, uncontrolled migration, illegal arms trade, drugs trafficking, etc. The country has faced a serious test.

— Taking into consideration this situation, which status, in your opinion, suits Ukraine? Non-aligned, regional alliances or integration into NATO?

— The only correct way is to create a powerful, independent, economically strong and military-powerful Ukraine. But this is in the future. Right now it is impossible to be outside of the integration processes. We stand, so to speak, between two serious geopolitical rifts. On the one hand, the West headed by the United States, and on the other, the East led by China. I am not speaking about Russia anymore, because now it is losing these two powers. Although it does want to take advantage of the situation and conclude an alliance with the People's Republic of China on the anti-American platform. But the Chinese strategy is based on entirely different principles.

We see that Ukraine, from the first days of independence, cannot protect itself and defend its interests by leading non-block or multi-vector policy, because it does not have its own forces and capabilities, reliable external guarantees. In fact, that is why Russia started armed aggression against us. At this it was not stopped by the norms of international law, or the leading powers' guarantees of security in exchange for giving up nuclear weapons, let alone the still not cancelled bilateral agreements with the RF.

In this case, Ukraine's security can only be guaranteed by its membership in the powerful collective security system such as NATO. Yes, it is the Baltic countries' membership in the Alliance that doesn’t let Russia attack them. In addition, the accession of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to the EU contributed to their reaching a qualitatively new level of economic development and decreased their dependence on the RF.

Any other regional alliances will not guarantee Ukraine security and protection of its interests. Besides, today such alliances simply do not exist, except for mostly formal associations such as GUAM or the Visegrad Four. These are just “special interest clubs”, “for chatting”. Several times I had to attend meetings of this format, so I saw to myself: they don't fix anything.

Even in the near future Ukraine will not be able to acquire a full membership in NATO and the EU. However, a number of programs of our in-depth partnership with these organizations is being implemented, which helps strengthen and develop our state, opens the door to its European and Euro-Atlantic integration.

At this, very helpful is the USA, NATO and the EU's support to Ukraine, in particular through the introduction of sanctions against Russia and the military-technical and economic assistance, which greatly hinders it from the expansion of the scale of the invasion of Ukraine.

Of course, there are ideas like the Intermarium. But this orientation is rather economic than security. None of our neighbors wants to see Ukraine strong, and it is also necessary to speak honestly and frankly about this. Prosperous Ukraine is only needed by Ukrainians. Nothing will change for better unless we realize this. Therefore, we need to build and reform. And then we will be gladly invited to cooperate. Look at China and remember that some 15–20 years ago, its army associated with a soldier with a rifle and a lorry for transportation of personnel. Now their doctrine is the priority in space, high-precision weapons, and cyber-sphere. Can the Chinese? They can. Then why can't we? That's the whole answer.

Interviewed: by Yuriy Lapayev

The original interview: http://tyzhden.ua/Society/208440