Wednesday, 30 September

“If it is needed, I am ready to lose my position without hesitation, just for the sake of peace,” Volodymyr Zelensky assured during his inaugural speech in Parliament. Not to hold on to the presidency for the sake of peaceful sky over the Fatherland is a noble act. But the desire is not enough for this. We need political will, strategic thinking, determination in making important decisions and a lot of other things. Does the new Supreme Commander have this arsenal? How is he going to fight?

He has a combat-ready army

Ukraine’s goal is to join NATO, the war goes on in the East of the country, the format of the Operation of the United Forces (hereafter – OUF) should not be changed. The points announced by Volodymyr Zelensky’s team advisor on national security and defence Ivan Aparshyn even before the inauguration seem to have sorted everything out – the Supreme Commander is of one hundred per cent pro-Ukrainian views. While taking the office, Mr Zelensky didn’t focus his attention on the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Ukraine but dedicated a considerable part of his speech to the situation in Donbas. He stressed that we didn’t start this war, but we need to finish it and we are ready for dialogue.

The return of our prisoners of war and lost territories is on the agenda. The President assured that Donbas and Crimea are Ukrainian lands. The phrase “Our very first task is the ceasefire in Donbas” caused long applause in the parliamentary hall. Volodymyr Zelensky is against the deaths of the Ukrainian heroes. However, he didn’t say that Russia is an aggressor and how exactly the ceasefire in the East of the country will be achieved. Earlier he declared that to finish the war it is necessary to stop shooting. And this position was criticized: what about the victory?

“It is extremely difficult to understand the position of Volodymyr Zelensky in relation to almost all issues of strategic development of the state because he doesn’t publicize his personnel plans,” Yevhen Mahda, the executive director of the Institute of World Politics, assured Opinion. However, it is quite obvious that Ukraine will have to act in accordance with the circumstances, and it will be extremely difficult to “just stop shooting”. Almost impossible. And needs to be understood by all interested parties.”

It should be noted that Volodymyr Zelensky is in a difficult situation. He took the country in a state of war and the burden of the most difficult problems of its conduct and finding ways to finish them lies on his shoulders. At the same time, the situation is somewhat simpler and clearer than that of his predecessor Petro Poroshenko, who faced aggression from neighbouring Russia practically without a combat-ready army 5 years ago. For the restoration and development of the troops took years. And all this was happening in the conditions of counteraction to the insidious aggressor.

The Ukrainian media quoted a recent interview with Petro Poroshenko for the publication Politiko, in which he noted the power of the Ukrainian army. Being the head of state at that time, he said, “When I was elected as the President, we didn’t have an army. Now we have one of the most effective and one of the best armies in Europe, which has unique combat experience in the fight against Russia.”

Obviously, Zelensky’s team cannot help but agree with this, despite the harsh criticism of his predecessor. Even Mr Kolomoisky recognized it as a positive point of Petro Poroshenko’s presidency after returning to Ukraine. Of course, Zelensky’s team doesn’t have an intention to praise Poroshenko, but they will surely use the positive changes obtained under his rule in their favour. In particular, the way of conducting the OUF.

Does he have a strategy?

Another advisor of Volodymyr Zelensky Dmytro Razumkov assured that the new President is ready to be the Supreme Commander and is aware of “the entire volume of the complexity of decision-making that will fall on his shoulders”. Understanding the situation is very good, but the assurances of advisors and the statements of the President himself are not enough to return of Donbas and Crimea, even if they are correct in essence. An elaborate concept is needed. And the fact that the new power lacks it is a cause for concern.

“I don’t see any military plans from the new team,” Dmytro Tymchuk, a member of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on national security and defence, told Opinion. “The claims presented by Mr Aparshyn as an alleged military doctrine don’t provide for the understanding of something new even if it is analyzed on the surface. Things that he offers in relation to the personnel policy and the support of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), either have already been implemented, according to the plans of development and reform of the AFU or are now on the stage of implementation. It seems that he read our strategic defence bulletin, the state program of development of the AFU until 2020, and voices the main theses as the plans of the new political leadership of Ukraine. In fact, it is not true. The new points from Mr Aparshyn: we don’t need a naval base on the sea of Azov, and the Ministry of defence needs to get rid of the excessive property.

“On the eve of the presidential elections, Volodymyr Zelensky said that he was not ready to give an order for the military liberation of the occupied Donbas. The lack of his experience in public administration allows to suggest that Zelensky will not be able to break the situation in Donbas in favour of Ukraine,” says Yevhen Mahda. “It is obvious that the adoption of the strategy for the return of the occupied territories is a priority of the state policy, and its content should resonate with the position of not only civil servants but also the expert community and concerned citizens of Ukraine.”

Shortly before the end of his presidential powers, Petro Poroshenko replaced the commander of the OUF: the position of the Lieutenant General Serhii Naiev was given to the Lieutenant General Oleksandr Syrskyi. The appointment was criticized by the supporters of Zelensky. However, the experts interviewed by Opinion don’t see this as Poroshenko’s trick.

“The person has served for a year in the position and was very effective. Should we say that he should have been left until the change of military and political leadership? To be in the area of the OUF for another six months?” Dmytro Tymchuk asks. “There are huge psychological loads, the working day is actually 24 hours. The planned rotation took place. The person who replaced Naiev has the experience of participation in the OUF. If there will not be any large punctures, and I’m sure there will not be any, he will be replaced. And this will be decided by the new military and political leadership. But I would not say that the format of the OUF will change in the coming months.”

The Minister of Defence is still the main figure that is appointed on the proposal of the President. Stepan Poltorak resigned immediately after the inauguration of Volodymyr Zelensky.

“I have some caution as to whom they will offer for this position (of the Minister of defence – ed.),” Serhii Hrabsky, a military expert, told Opinion. “Even if they offer some unpredictable personality, it is necessary to understand that the AFU is an extremely big mechanism, and the sudden dramatic change of the format of its activity is impossible – it will take at least a year, or even two.”

Despite the confrontation with the possible dissolution, the Parliament is ready to support President Zelensky. But provided that his legislative initiatives will not run counter to the course of Ukraine’s accession to the EU, NATO, protection of the country from the Russian aggression. This was stated by the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on national security and defence Serhii Pashynsky. The assurance was announced on the eve of the exit from the coalition of the parliamentary faction People’s Front, in which Mr Pashynsky is the Deputy Chairman.

The future of the OUF

The daily reports from the area of the OUF are disappointing. As before, the Ukrainian soldiers are perishing, there are many casualties. The enemy uses weapons prohibited by the Minsk agreements. So, when will the war come to an end? A few weeks ago, Ivan Aparshyn said that Ukraine will manage to return the occupied territories of Donbas within 5 years. This time coincides with the cadence of the newly elected President and seems to indicate his promises to finish the war. Later Mr Aparshyn pointed out that Zelensky’s team has no intention to change the approach to the management of OUF. According to him, they will use the “normal format”, and Armed Forces of Ukraine will be used in the format of its aim.

“It is now impossible to even consider the possibilities of change in the format of the OUF,” Serhii Hrabsky confirmed. “It’s technically impossible, given the task set for AFU. By 2020, the AFU will ensure the implementation of the medium-term plans, namely, preventing the spread of the conflict to other territories. And they are coping with it. This depends on the conditions of the material support of troops operating in the area of Operation. Therefore, Mr Aparshyn is absolutely right. In addition, we have a certain balance of forces in the war zone, and such changes should be considered only from the point of view of the strategic plan of the possible liberation of these territories by force. Now neither the political nor the military capabilities allow for such a dismissal without serious loss on our part, which is unacceptable both for the society and for the AFU.”

Zelensky supports the course of building a professional army. This meets the needs of the time, but it is worth remembering that Ukraine is actively fighting and it needs a constantly trained military reserve. And this eliminates the possibility of the full shift to a professional army in the nearest time. The enemy’s actions are difficult to predict.

“The strategic goal of Russia is the destruction of the Ukrainian state, and now we have neither moral, nor material, nor physical right to transfer to the contract army completely,” continued Mr Hrabsky. “But the increase in the number of professionals is necessary because the army of 2014 and 2019 are different armies. We see how many weapons, military equipment, new technologies and control systems are already involved in the troops. They require skilled professionals, that need long preparation, and are unacceptable to lose. Therefore, the trend of increasing the number of soldiers under the contract will continue, but we cannot avoid military conscription. It makes it possible to carry out a certain selection and to offer some individual young men to continue their serving in the professional military forces.”

The war is not only the art of warfare. It is often won through diplomacy. But the Minsk agreements didn’t give tangible results in improving the situation in Donbas. Only the laziest critics didn’t criticize them. Will the Minsk format change under Zelensky’s presidency? Yevhen Mahda sees no reason for this:

“The stated desire of Volodymyr Zelensky to involve the US and the UK in it doesn’t seem to be supported by real agreements. Besides, it is not clear why Russia should strengthen the position of its counterparts at the negotiating table. Even Poland’s accession to the negotiation process for resolving the conflict in Donbas seems problematic, given the relationship between Moscow and Warsaw. Therefore, the rejection of the Minsk format is unlikely to become a priority for Zelensky, who lacks diplomatic experience, and the foreign policy team will be largely Poroshenko’s legacy.”

They fought

Can the format of the OUF change under the new power, and how exactly? This was answered by those who went through the ATO hell – the veterans of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Vitalii Kuzmenko, the representative of the Public Council of the Ministry of veteran affairs:

“The President-elect is just beginning to form his team, in particular, a military unit. At the same time, the main strategic objectives of AFU development are defined. It is unlikely to expect major changes in the format of the OUF before the end of the year. The personnel changes in the command of both the General staff and the OUF to more loyal ones are likely. Russia can also dare to the aggravation of the situation in Donbas to force Zelensky to negotiate on their terms. In this case, the President will face a difficult choice.”

Ivan Luzhin, an entrepreneur:

“The format will not change in any way, because this problem goes beyond the powers of any Ukrainian government. And Mr Zelensky is no exception. The interests of the world community and the situation in the Eurasian region and the world are too closely connected with Ukraine to give the issue of the solution of the war to the discretion of local authorities.”

Denys Antipov, 5th tactical team, 81st landing brigade:

“The new power doesn’t need to change the format of the OUF and negotiate with the terrorists. The path of the previous power with at least some support of the international community both in material and political terms is gradually bearing fruit. Russia is already experiencing opposition and resistance on its sanctioned economy. Therefore, the Kremlin needs a change of format, and it will continue to promote this idea through its agents of influence. Whether the new power will understand this and make concessions to Moscow will largely depend on our civil society and the reaction of the concerned citizens and veterans to possible attempts to make concessions or even surrender national interests.”

Text by Viktor Tsvilikhovsky

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