CHICAGO – Mykhailo Zabrodskyi, Hero of Ukraine, is a lieutenant general and a member of the newly elected Parliament of Ukraine. In 2014, Lt. Gen. Zabrodskyi launched a unique military raid, attacking the enemy from the rear of the enemy lines in Russian- and separatist-held territory to recover a significant area of the Russian-occupied territory and liberating 3,000 Ukrainian troops from their posts. This raid made history – it is being studied in military schools and the general himself has become a living legend. He is uniquely familiar with Ukraine’s military problems and understands what changes are required.
Lt. Gen Zabrodskyi spoke at a celebration of Ukraine’s Unification Day in Chicago on January 26, giving an hour-long presentation on how the Ukrainian Army has been rebuilt during recent years. He elaborated on the military support from the Verkhovna Rada and improved morale, and the differences between Western and post-Soviet military. Afterwards, he consented to an interview. Following is an edited version of the interview in English translation by Maria Korkatsch-Groszko.
What was your biggest surprise when you started working in the Verkhovna Rada? After all, you, a military man, were caught in a very different environment.
Previously, my ideas about the Parliament were based, as among most people, on what was reported on TV outlets or from acquaintances. It surprised me that, despite their official statements, a large proportion of the ministers were busy with personal or business issues rather than the national welfare. It seemed to me that they should at least demonstrate that they were serious about their work. In the current parliamentary session, the behind-the-scenes influence of a well-known political force is distracting the Parliament from addressing the important issues. Politics is always about lobbying for certain interests. And when semi-private issues begin to prevail, it is not a constructive approach to the work of Parliament.
You are one of the architects of the national security policy of the presidency of Petro Poroshenko. Has this national security direction been maintained after the election of the new president?
Unfortunately, the incumbent authorities have taken a number of inconsistent and shortsighted steps that threaten this course. We see a complete policy failure – instead of leading, they are reacting. This is not a constructive approach. We are witnessing that two or three shortsighted actions are weakening the alliance with the entire European coalition that was created by incredible foreign policy efforts.
What changes does the Ukrainian Army need most today?
The pro-Western model of the Armed Forces, which has been defined earlier, must be protected. Those who want to undermine the military must not be allowed and removed from any private understanding. It should be programmatic, clearly defined in terms of time and directions, independent of political conditions, especially since this threat is beginning to be felt. It is important to at least maintain the momentum that already exists.
How do you feel about the decrease of troops in the Donbas?
We have very contradictory data as to whether it is a decrease on both sides. We do not always have official confirmation. You would think that at the least, we would have confirmation from the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] observation missions. This is always such a mix of data, because our intelligence works from official statements and unofficial sources. One-hundred percent of something cannot be confirmed today. As for my attitude, as a military person, regarding the decrease in troops on the frontline, I can say that any military movement backward is not inherent and difficult to do, but we all understand that the requirements of time and the situation may vary.
When it comes to a decrease [in troops], it is important to understand that this is not a military matter, but a political signal to demonstrate readiness for the next steps towards each other. That’s what they think. There was much controversy over the need for troop decrease before the [Normandy format] meeting in Paris, which the commander-in-chief attended. Although the decrease de facto did happen, in some areas the fighting continues and there are losses. These were purely political steps, merely an informational meeting.
Were these efforts justified?
Whether this was justified is difficult to judge for those who did not attend the meeting. All participants came with their discoveries and impressions of the meeting. If we operate purely with official sources, we have only achieved the exchange of prisoners and the statement that the decreases will occur along the frontline. Nothing more. Only time will tell, to what extent these efforts were justified in terms of sacrificing tactical advantages (decrease is always a concession). This is difficult to perceive, especially for most of our military. If the decrease of troops was an absolute tool that would prevent new contacts and save the lives and health of our military, it might be acceptable. So far, what we are seeing does not suggest that any decrease in troops has led to a decrease in enemy activity.
You talked to Russian soldiers who were captured by Ukrainians. In your opinion, are they brainwashed by propaganda or are they clearly aware of where they are and what they are doing?
To some degree, propaganda is handled by any serviceman as a component of training. But in the case of the Russians, there was and remains a complete distortion of information. The prisoners with whom I dealt in 2014-2015 had big surprised eyes when they saw that they were surrounded by only Ukrainians. They thought there were American infantry and mercenaries from all over the world. They believed that they were at war with the Americans, because in their imagination there was no Ukraine, and especially no Ukrainian Army.
Did the knowledge you gained at the U.S. Army College come in handy for you? And where did you study English so well to receive such training?
I learned English at the U.S. Lockland Air Force Base, Texas. This is where the Defense Language Institute is, an institute owned by the U.S. Department of Defense. After that, it was the command staff of Fort Leavenworth College in Kansas. Everything that was taught – absolutely everything – became very useful. All further accomplishments of military tasks were made possible by the education obtained.
How are these skills different from those in the post-Soviet army? After all, our enemy tactics remain post-Soviet.
In the army of the post-Soviet model, in the center is always a combat task and everything revolves around it: people, equipment, circumstances, resources. The military model philosophy is that the task must be accomplished at all costs. The Western approach puts the person in the center and everything revolves around the individual: the task, weapons, resources. This approach works much more effectively.
Can we assume that the Western military is more knowledgeable about human psychology?
Probably more from historical experience. Because such a powerful mechanism for analyzing experience, for example, used in the U.S. Army, is not inherent in any army in the world, except in Germany and England. This is one of the factors that underpins all future victories. Americans like to make a detailed examination of all military clashes, regardless of scale, and this allows you to draw the right conclusions and formulate new principles and approaches. This is not done anywhere in the world, much less by the Russians.
The history of your raid is being studied at military academies around the world. What were your thoughts when you were implementing it?
We all understood what we were getting into. The chances of being killed or captured are incredibly high when you are going into enemy territory. It cannot be said that we were not afraid of anything at all, but it must be remembered that courage is not the absence of fear. However, one moves forward in spite of it. When a person ceases to be afraid, he or she must quit the military service as it becomes uncontrolled and loses its relevance. Fear must be present, because it is an internal fuse that does not hurt itself and its surroundings, especially when it comes to hundreds of subordinates. But you must continue to act despite fear.
What is your vision of military reform that involves the so-called territorial defense forces when each region has its own brigade in the event of a full-scale war?
This is normal international practice. However, there is a potential problem here: when we limit the scope of a brigade to only one area, it is pointless. But, potentially, it can become a problem. We experienced slight echoes of these problems in 2014 when the Battalions of Territorial Defense emerged. At that time, these problems had already arisen because the anchoring to the territory implied an anchoring to the area of the tasks. Strategic mistakes cannot be made here – it must be enshrined in law that, despite its name, “territorial defense” must have its hands open to work where it is needed.
Today in Ukraine many weapons are on hand. Do you think guns should be accessible to the public, or should they be legally enforced, as they have done in the U.S.?
I am absolutely against it. Our society is not yet ready for this. In the United States, there is a culture of guns that has been around for centuries. In Ukraine, it is not even possible to speak the language for the next 20-30 years.
In your opinion, how realistic is a potential “knife in the back” from Belarus? Can the Russian army be expected to withdraw from their territory?
The use of the territory, infrastructure and resources of Belarus to strike Ukraine can be expected. However, it should be understood that this can happen without the desire of Belarus itself. Unfortunately, recent events only confirm this. There is a very difficult relationship between the government and the military, because the military has long considered itself part of the United Armed Forces of Belarus and Russia. They are so entangled in a united nation that it is already difficult to understand where Russia ends and Belarus begins. You can expect anything you want from this cocktail.
Ukrainian journalists have talked a lot about Ilovaysk and Debaltseve. Do you feel that there is little attention paid by the Ukrainian media to our military achievements?
There is an information war, during which all that is negative is inflated and all good is well-concealed. This builds hybrid combat. Not only what is happening on the battlefield is important, but also how it will be presented in the information field. In such a situation, the events of the same Ilovaysk are indeed the main events in a military conflict. Debaltseve, which was essentially a successful detachment of troops to prevent encirclement, also appears as a tragedy.
In the information field, war is not waged by the armed forces, but by other state institutions; and, unfortunately, we can state that ours are inferior to those of the enemy. The conflict itself began as a result of the first defeats in the information war. However, we can also say that a project like Novorossiya can no longer happen, and this is already a great victory.