Ukrainians are ready to tear apart Russians with their bare hands
The general is ready for a war he knows he may not win. Absent of allies and with few foreign friends; short of modern weaponry and outmatched on land, sea and air, fury may be his best defense.
“We have about half a million people who went through a war in this country in which they have either lost someone or something. Half a million who have lost the blood of a relative, lost their homes or lost their friends, and they are ready to tear apart Russians with their bare hands,” Lieutenant-General Oleksandr Pavliuk stated coldly. He is determined to ravage any Russian force unwise enough to invade his homeland.
“If our intelligence manages to predict the direction of the main Russian hit, after the first big losses they won’t go further,” he said. “Putin realises that after heavy casualties his army may stop by itself. You cannot trust intuition in this. It is about cold calculation.”
Pavliuk, 52, who commands a combined arms group of 52,000 personnel on the front line in eastern Ukraine where the Russian hammer is expected to fall, knows his enemy well. He joined the Soviet Armed Forces in 1987 and trained as a tank commander. In later years he fought against his erstwhile comrades, and talks with pride of leading a brigade of Ukrainian soldiers against Russian airborne troops in the battle of Luhansk airport in 2014.
Yet he is sanguine when discussing the expanded war he now faces, with the US predicting that the 100,000 Russian troops massed around Ukraine may soon attack. Ukrainian military intelligence suggests that enemy reconnaissance aircraft are flying along the border of Ukraine and above the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov three times as frequently as they were this time last year.
Speaking to The Times at a military base in Popasna, near the front line, Pavliuk said Russia’s deployment amounts to 54 battlefield tactical groups, including 36 Iskander medium-range ballistic missile systems, some of which are in range of Kyiv.
Among various scenarios, February 20 is noted as a potential start date for the invasion: that is when the Winter Olympics ends in Beijing, and President Putin, 69, eager to woo the Chinese, may not wish to tarnish the event. It also marks the end of the joint Russian-Belarus exercise on Ukraine’s border.
Western intelligence agencies anticipate that any invasion will begin with Russia moving its forces into eastern Ukraine in stages, with thousands of soldiers arriving by rail to reinforce units already in the area. The question facing Ukrainian commanders is not whether they can hold back an advance of this kind, but how badly they can maul Russian units and for how long. They have begun distributing weapons in anticipation of a protracted insurgency-type war in areas where the Ukrainian regular army may be overwhelmed.
“We have already started doing this,” Pavliuk said. “We have created so-called territorial defense units, which means there will be more than 100,000 volunteers who are ready to take up arms. Even now, weapons are being handed out to people who are ready to fight.”
The general said victory for Ukraine would be a war in which his forces reclaimed all their territory, even the ground lost eight years ago to pro-Russian separatists in the east, “until the Ukrainian flag is hanging all along the border with Russia”. He also described what victory might look like for Putin, as outlined by Ukrainian military intelligence: Russia could attack from several directions and capture eight key regions in the east of the country, including the cities of Dnipro, Odesa and Kharkiv so that Ukraine lost its main military and industrial capabilities as well as its access to the Black Sea.
Putin, the general said, was determined to cripple Ukraine in a way that leaves it dependent on his whim. “The Russians are looking at various options but they won’t be satisfied merely with Donetsk and Luhansk in the east. They wish to wound the whole country, and through that wounding to manipulate Ukraine as they desire.”
He was speaking to The Times shortly after President Biden caused alarm on Wednesday by appearing to suggest that the US and Nato response to a “minor incursion” would be muted. The remark was later corrected by the White House, but not before it had caused deep concern in Kiev. Volodymyr Zelensky, 43, the Ukrainian president, tweeted yesterday: “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions … Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones.”
Pavliuk did not criticise Biden, but noted the divisions among Nato members in response to the crisis, which has left Ukraine swaddled by well-wishing statements but undefended by military alliance. He singled out Germany, which has consistently refused to supply Ukraine with weaponry through the Nato Support and Procurement Agency, while continuing to send ambivalent signals over whether it will turn off the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany in the event of an invasion. He said that Britain, which this week supplied a batch of light anti-tank weapons, and the US, which has provided $2.7 billion in military assistance since 2014, were among the few reliable partners of Ukraine.
Asked how European countries would respond to a Russian attack, he said in weary jest: “They will be ‘concerned’ — perhaps ‘very concerned’. Europe is either afraid to help Ukraine or doesn’t want to help Ukraine. Europe is in its own comfort zone and does not want to act, just like in 1939.
“Nobody really understands that invasion would be the end of the values and of the way the European Union exists. It would be an end to the European project. If Russia gets a country with the potential of Ukraine, then it will not stop. It’ll be the Baltic countries next.”
He reflected for a moment on the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, under which Ukraine relinquished its nuclear stockpiles in return for territorial protection. Then he pulled on his flak jacket, with a Fort-17 pistol holstered to its front, and moved off into the snowy wastes with a cortege of soldiers.
“It was a huge mistake for Ukraine to give up its nuclear weapons,” he said in parting. “It is a mistake we are still paying for.”