If US Assistance Decreases, Europe Will Be Unable to Make Up for It. Interview with Ukraine's Former Defence Minister

Monday, 9 October 2023 — , European Pravda, from Warsaw

Lately, it may seem that there are too many international obstacles on Ukraine's path to victory.

The United States is talking about whether to place conditions on assistance (even military aid). Poland, in the final stretch of its election campaign, has dropped hints about ceasing to be a logistical centre. Slovakia, where elections have just taken place, is threatening to change its policy toward Ukraine.

How serious are these signals?

Last week, we spoke with Andrii Zahorodniuk on the sidelines of the Warsaw Security Conference. Zahorodniuk is a former defence minister who maintains excellent relations with NATO member states and is aware of their fluctuating moods. He heads the Centre for Defence Strategies, which advocates for military assistance for the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

On changes in the US and other challenges in the provision of Western assistance to Ukraine:

Ukraine will have to overcome many obstacles on its path to victory. The ones emerging now are just a small part of the challenges. They could grow in significance if they are left unattended.

The most important new challenge is that Ukraine, its support and its future victory have become a card to be played in elections.

The United States and Poland are examples of countries where a key party, feeling vulnerable in upcoming elections, uses Ukraine-related stories in an attempt to draw votes away from its opponents.

This doesn't necessarily mean that voters are demanding cuts in assistance to Ukraine. But that's why politicians are proposing them. Sometimes, political parties create this discussion in society artificially.

The US election campaign features very simple slogans that have maximum voter impact. And the issue of Ukraine is becoming part of this battle.

We are trying to convince Republican politicians, explaining to them: "Wake up! You, like us, don't want Russia to reshape the world order." But politicians, especially populists, primarily think about themselves.

On the likelihood of US military assistance significantly decreasing:

Is this likely? After the elections or during the campaign? These questions remain unanswered for now.

Immense efforts are now underway to prevent this from happening at all.

However, the danger of such a development exists.

Even in a negative scenario, it doesn't seem likely that US assistance will be reduced to zero or a negligible level. It will remain substantial, in the billions or tens of billions of dollars.

What makes US assistance so significant in monetary terms is the high cost of American military equipment. It is expensive not only because it is costly to manufacture, but also because the US defence industry has operated for decades under non-market conditions, fulfilling government orders.

As a result, the costs of supplying Ukraine are far higher than we could imagine based on the volumes of these supplies.

But crucially, if US assistance decreases, Europe will be unable to make up for it.

Europe lacks the industrial capacity to produce comparable amounts of weaponry, ammunition and equipment. Moreover, what they had in their stockpiles has largely been depleted.

First and foremost, we need to work to ensure that weaponry continues to come from the US. Because if the US is taken out of the "equation" of this war even partly, it will be a problem.

Our friends in Washington understand this and are actively working to prevent it. Ukraine and Ukrainians, as well as the Europeans, are not standing idly by either. I’m not going to name names, but I can assure you that advocacy for US military aid is ongoing. There is significant support for it, and I believe it will be successful.

On why the US underestimates Ukraine:

Unfortunately, even now, Biden avoids saying that Ukraine must win. Why? Because they don't know how our victory will happen operationally.

Every time we do something they didn't expect, we win using asymmetric methods.

Americans rely on their own analysis and expectations which they construct far away from the front lines. But the reality turns out to be quite different. 

War used to be seen as a mathematical equation where the main thing was to consider all the variables. The number of aircraft on each side, the number of personnel, reserves, training levels on both sides and so on.

As you will remember, the main indicator of a country's military might used to be its defence budget. Russia had the third-largest budget after China and the United States. According to analysts, they had inexhaustible stockpiles of ammunition, howitzers, artillery, tanks and more. They compared this to Ukraine's capabilities and told the US leadership: Ukraine will last a month at most.

As we can see, everything turned out differently. The model needs to be much more complex.

Every time we achieve significant success, it happens in a way they didn't expect.

Everyone remembers the rapid liberation of Kharkiv Oblast, but our allies didn't foresee it.

Or take recent events like the Russian disaster in the Black Sea. What's interesting is that we had been talking to the US for years about naval asymmetry and warned them about our plans during the full-scale war.

The response we got was: "What asymmetry, when you have no naval assets and you won't be able to control the sea?"

And now the UK’s Armed Forces Minister, James Heappey, has stated – in Warsaw – that the Russian fleet has suffered a functional defeat in the Black Sea, meaning that Russia lost to Ukraine, which is using exclusively asymmetric methods. (Russia hasn’t been defeated yet, by the way. The story continues.)

We explain once again that we must reclaim Crimea. We are talking about asymmetric actions. But our allies still cannot see how we can achieve our final victory.

On what Biden and others are afraid of:

This is a big question, because nuclear war no longer appears to be the primary threat that dictates caution in US assessments. They did genuinely fear the nuclear weapons for a while and worked hard to convey to Russia that it would be an absolute catastrophe for Russia. Now the US administration is confident that this has worked, and they no longer consider nuclear war a real risk in the foreseeable future.

There are concerns about what will happen to Russia next. There is a fear of Russia's collapse, just as there were fears of the Soviet Union collapsing. However, the US does not believe this is likely.

I don't know what Biden is afraid of specifically.

But I can say with certainty that the US deliberately avoids any mention of Ukraine's victory.

Throughout the entire duration of the full-scale war, the word "victory" has been mentioned just two or three times, and only once very explicitly. That was on 26 April 2022, at the first Ramstein conference, when US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin practically said, "We will move heaven and earth to help Ukraine win."

Immediately after that, all the US government representatives changed their rhetoric and adopted a strategy of silence on this matter.

When they finally realise that each time we will win in an unexpected way, they will have faith in our victory in the foreseeable future.

On why Ukraine’s partners are slow to provide weapons to the Ukrainian Armed Forces:

The United States does indeed take a long time to make decisions on sending new types of weapons to Ukraine.

For example, ATACMS is a real problem that we have not yet resolved.

However, the key to a frontline breakthrough is not unlocking a specific weapon or having a specific amount of funding allocated. The main thing is the number of units that are delivered to Ukraine at a specific point in time and having enough of them to establish a firepower advantage in certain specific areas of the front line. It's not about how many tanks you have. It's about the combined capability of the Ukrainian Armed Forces being higher in a particular operational zone than that of the enemy.

Unfortunately, in most cases, we are conducting counteroffensives without a firepower advantage.

There are many reasons for this, including bureaucracy, political issues with funding, and the search for weapons in storage.

On Ukraine's neighbours and weapon transit through them:

The idea of Poland suspending logistical support does not seem likely. Any hints that have been heard in that direction are more of a political game. In Polish society, especially among opinion leaders, politicians and experts, there is no chance of that happening. Poland fears long-term Russian threats and understands how strategically important Ukraine is for Poland. They realise that by helping Ukraine, they are also helping themselves.

Slovakia is also important for Ukraine, primarily because we are neighbours. Ukraine shares a border with Hungary and does not need another neighbour like that. Unlike Hungary, Slovakia has a very influential pro-Ukrainian political elite. I don't think it will turn into another Hungary.

On "war fatigue":

We can feel war fatigue, but it shouldn't be exaggerated. It's more about Ukraine news disappearing from the front pages. People have got used to the war in Ukraine. The situation was even more challenging until recently because many were advocating for negotiations with Russia. In the past month, key partners have come to understand that negotiations are unrealistic.

For a long time, many countries’ policies revolved around the idea that "it's up to Ukraine to decide when to engage in peace talks". But who do we negotiate with? What are we bargaining for? What are we willing to give up—Crimea or Donbas? Now, I see an understanding emerging that trading territories for peace is unrealistic. However, the idea of negotiations has not disappeared among our partners.

Overall, over the past 18 months, our partners have started to understand Ukraine and our context better. But they still do not have a vision of our victory. It's like a fire that needs to be fuelled, worked on and explained—until victory is ours.


Interviewed by Sergiy Sydorenko

Video by Volodymyr Oliinyk

European Pravda, Warsaw - Kyiv

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