The JF Commander Oleksandr Pavliuk: When we put our flags at the border, this will be a victory

Олександр Павлюк

He was the commander of the Ukrainian peacekeeping forces in Kosovo (2006-2007). The future commander of the Joint Forces gained there his first experience of cooperating with NATO units and noticed a significant difference in the attitude to the personnel.

A participant of the Russian-Ukrainian war. From 2017 to 2020, he commanded the troops of the operational command “West”. From 2020, he was the Commander of the training of the Land Forces Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

On July 28, 2021, he was appointed the Commander of the Joint Forces.

We continue a series of interviews with representatives of the new generation of Ukrainian servicemen, who for the first time took the oath to the new state.

Read about Russian armaments in the war, resistance to hybrid aggression, Western assistance, the use of Bayraktars, and changes in the Ukrainian army for NATO membership in an exclusive interview of American journalist Nolan Peterson with Commander of the Joint Forces, Lieutenant General Oleksandr Pavliuk. The interview was conducted within the framework of the “Mission East” of the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center (USCC).

 What are the main threats facing the Ukrainian military today?

For the time being, Ukraine is observing the ceasefire. I do not consider the ORDLO representatives an independent unit with its own opinion. These are ordinary puppets who just follow the Kremlin’s whims.

Provocations are ongoing. Provocations are carried out on the instruction of Russian curators to inflict most possible damage on our personnel, to shutter morale and the spirit of society. The only goal is to diminish Ukraine’s potential, to force Ukraine to come to the negotiating table on Russian terms. Moreover, such provocations are being created to accuse the Ukrainian army of starting fire and provocations. But we have professional soldiers, we respond adequately, hold our positions with dignity and fulfill all agreements. Unfortunately, that party does not commit itself. This has been going on for the eighth year. But we will withstand this as long as it takes.

Do you expect a possible escalation of the conflict and are you ready as a Commander for such developments?

— Yes, we see and understand it perfectly. For example, take the situation on September 8, when the Russians were close to the border, gathered people to celebrate their anniversaries. They began firing first at their positions, and then at the positions of our troops, placing guns behind the people and waiting for our response. You understand why it was done. In order to show this picture on the other side, to provoke a conflict. Thanks to the professional actions of our military, who are monitoring the situation and understand everything, they did not succumb to this provocation. We understand perfectly well who is in front of us. We understand perfectly well how Russia is waging war. We are ready for escalation, ready for a new round of hostilities. In addition to the stabilization operation, we have a defensive operation ready, and if possible we will conduct a counter-offensive operation. The troops are ready for this.

Are Bayraktar drones used now for combat?

Bayraktar drones operate according to the decision of the Commander-in-Chief in the identified areas. Everything else is a military secret.

What helps the Ukrainian army to adapt so quickly to the modern war waged by Russia?

The whole history of Ukraine is a war. One probably needs to destroy the nation in order to eradicate our free spirit. Despite all attempts, such as the Holodomor, you know, when millions were starved to death, this could not destroy Ukrainian patriots and defenders. The Ukrainian army was destroyed. Nobody thought that it would survive, and the eighth year is passing already. The eighth year, and we can combine all the old available equipment with the new that we now get, which is in service. We do not abandon everything that works effectively. Why abandon wire communication if it cannot be muffled, suppressed, or tapped. It should remain in use. We take things that work effectively, add those promising and combine them. This is all in our work and therefore we manage to successfully complete the task. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough new means of communication. We don’t have enough tools to fight drones, but we are finding ways to solve any situation.

Could you please name the types of weapons used in the war against Ukraine, which proves the presence of Russian occupation forces?

Let’s take what we record. This is the latest Russian-made Orlan drone, which is constantly used in our territory, which constantly violates all agreements, crosses borders, conducts reconnaissance, and corrects enemy shellings also carried out by Russian mercenaries, not locals. Specially trained people come to earn money and work against our troops. There is a lot of evidence, I will not stop here. For example, I mentioned the one clearly visible, which we intercept every day. Such equipment can’t be produced by those pseudo republics.

What rules do the Ukrainian military follow when they are on the front line?

Each of our units has the right to use weapons independently at the discretion of the commander in the field when it threatens human life or loss of positions. Human life is the foundation. There are fewer answers because a lot of shots go straight to nowhere. That is, they shoot to shoot.

We do not react to such situations, and this is treated calmly already. Field commanders assess the situation in a clinical fashion and if there is a threat, they respond to eliminate the threat. If there is no threat, there is no expediency to waste ammunition. There are also many situations when the enemy wants to force us to shoot back with a purposefully provoked fire. To put our military under fire from their snipers. It is also analyzed by commanders, who understand where a fire is, whether it is a threat or not, and what the reaction should be to that fire. This is the professionalism of our servicemen, who react very calmly and cold-bloodedly to every shelling. They never panic and respond when really needed.

How do you manage to maintain the fighters’ morale and motivate them to continue their service?

— I’d say that the core remains. The one that is truly patriotic, ready to fight to the end, until the complete liberation of our country. Many such people stay in the army since the beginning, some return. First of all, it is about patriotism. The second is trust in commanders, faith in victory, faith in the future. These concepts are very important. You can’t replace them with money, any material services, or anything. As long as a person believes in victory, we will be invincible.

How do the servicemen help each other while on the front line?

— They are primarily officers, sergeants. For many of them it is not the first rotation, many stay from the first days. They usually show on their example how to act, and young staff learns from them. We do not allow only young people to take positions, for example. Every young person has an experienced serviceman near who will give clues, sometimes calm down, sometimes teach. This is primarily to see how they are psychologically prepared for war. Not everyone can withstand shellings and hostilities. And it is very important at this time when a person is a really experienced, psychologically prepared soldier. After one or two or three shellings the young man also becomes experienced and continues to perform tasks smoothly.

Is there a volunteer movement now and what is its role?

The volunteer movement is moving forward. Yes, its scale might be smaller, but it is not only material support, it is moral support for personnel. We feel great support from the majority of the Ukrainian people, society, and it is very important to be confident in our actions. 

Back in 2014, the volunteer movement was forced to exist, because the Armed Forces were indeed destroyed. Over the last two years particularly everything was under the leadership of Russian ministers, Russian people in the post of Minister of Defense. During those two years, they destroyed everything at such a rate that yet another year and the Armed Forces could have not fully defended the interests of Ukraine.

But this impulse in 2014 really shows the spirit of society and faith in Ukraine. At that time, both the Armed Forces and volunteer units were spirited up by such a general impulse. And they did their job. Yes, now it has lost its meaning as such because the Armed Forces are self-sufficient, provided with uniforms, equipment and food, such issues do not arise. Yes, sometimes there are minor issues because it is not so easy to respond to all situations that arise at the front. However, there are still people who will always support their units, with whom they have been together since 2014.

Has the Ukrainian army undergone the process of decommunization and has it become closer to Western standards?

— This is primarily an attitude towards people, saving people. By Soviet standards, a completed task was a priority and no one niggled for the number of losses. Partner countries have a completely different approach. We took this vision that human life is the foundation. There are also a lot of young people who have been trained according to these standards. And not just training. The very vision of the situation, the very performance of tasks leads to that we adopt these standards. I’d say that the Armed Forces, like no other structure in Ukraine, are ready for cooperation and performing tasks with its partners.

How has the professionalism of the Ukrainian army changed since the outbreak of war?

An army that is at war and an army that is training at a permanent location are two different things. We also realized this in 2014, when we entered the war. The army managed to grow, recover, and for the 8th year already, we are adequately repelling all attempts of the aggressor to impose its requirements and vision on us. But all this is thanks to our commanders, first of all. You already saw a young shift yesterday. These are people who came after 2014 when they realized that they were going to war. It was a call of the soul, a call of the heart. The Armed Forces have a great future, as they know what war is, they know how to fight, they have trust among the personnel, they trust each other. Such territory and such volume do not allow controlling the enemy, and only trust of the commander to subordinates gives the chance to carry out a task successfully. So we can only be proud of our officers and commanders.

What has improved the most in the Ukrainian army and what is the biggest problem now?

— The material supply has completely changed. You can see that the Armed Forces are dressed in a new uniform, not differing from NATO standards. We have made a big step in unmanned aerial vehicles and other technological issues. There is something to be proud of, and there is something to work on. Unfortunately, the pace of replacing old equipment with more modern models is very slow for us, we are still fighting with Soviet equipment mainly. It depends on the country’s economy because it takes a lot of money to support the Armed Forces at war, constantly carry out repairs, and restore equipment in combat. Therefore, we would like to be rearmed and have newer weapons, but everything rests on the economy, everything rests on money. I believe that Ukraine has been fighting on its own for 8 years, thanks to the support, but the main costs fall on the budget of Ukraine, on the budget of Ukrainians.

Can the Ukrainian military somehow teach the partners?

Whenever possible, we share all the experience gained, and only by combining all this experience can the Armed Forces be more powerful, both in the United States and ours.

What major changes should occur in the military for Ukraine to become a NATO member?

— It’s only NATO’s desire to accept Ukraine. In general, as far as I study the experience of other countries that are already members of NATO, we are not inferior, and in many respects – head and shoulders above. Our headquarters can already work in one direction, we have created structures that correspond vertically to NATO structures. I do not see anything threatening in accepting Ukraine at any moment. There might be a political issue, reluctance, but yes, overall, the Armed Forces are ready for this.

Is the Ukrainian army already able to fight on its own or still needs assistance, in particular from the United States?

— We are grateful for the help provided to us, first of all, by the Government of the United States. We had a very strong need at the beginning of the war in artillery reconnaissance stations, communications, counter-sniper stations, night surveillance, and unmanned aerial vehicles. This has had a very powerful effect on our ability to defend ourselves while saving people.

It would be very expedient if this assistance was constantly increasing because Ukraine is now on the verge of struggle. If we survive, then there are chances for the whole world. If we lose, then it may be the end. The very essence of Russia is war. This is the capture of other territories, and they live on this like vampires.

Russian propaganda likes to call the war in Ukraine civil, what is your response to such an accusation?

— Who can sanely imagine how it is to keep an army for 7 years, an army that is potentially equal to the armies of many European countries, to fight a war spending billions, without own economy? Given that there are seized samples of weapons, ammunition produced only in Russia. Everyone understands everything perfectly, and no one hides who started this war. It was Girkin who was and is an officer of the Russian Armed Forces, and the rest of them.

What are you doing to counter Russia in a hybrid war against Ukraine?

— First of all, the war is really hybrid, it goes in all directions, especially information warfare. You can enter the enemy’s territory, but the war will be lost without the support of the population. You can keep the border, but the people behind you will be subjected to the enemy’s information operations, and they will not support you, will shoot in the back, surrender the positions of our troops, and the war will be lost. Therefore, this is a set of measures to which we pay attention. Starting from the direct war, to national-patriotic education, we work in schools, work among personnel, among people, in order to promote our ideas of wiping out all the propaganda of the Russian world. That is why we work in all directions – war, propaganda, and patriotic education.

Why are entry-exit checkpoints closed? Because on the other hand, they are afraid that once they come to this territory, they will see the real situation, real developing cities. There is a huge difference in the well-being of people if we compare 2021 and 2014-15, no matter how hard it might be for Ukraine. The difference is in people’s welfare, in the condition of the roads.

5 EECPs are ready, but only Stanytsia Luhanska is working. However, it is questioned. They want to close it, referring to quarantine measures. We understand that they are afraid that people, seeing the real picture, will bring this turmoil into their ranks. As far as we know, many people on the other side are afraid, but they already want Ukraine’s return.

Is the support of the local population needed to win the war?

— Yes, 100%, because a soldier’s foot can step on any territory, but if there is no support of the local population, it will be difficult to stay there. That is why we are working in this direction so that the population still supports and understands the real situation. It is very difficult because Russia’s information propaganda works powerfully so that this matter requires the help not only of the whole society but also of other countries. As far as I know, this propaganda operates not only in Ukraine but all over the world.

Don’t you think that Russia “shot itself in the foot” by starting a war against Ukraine?

— When we came face to face with Russian troops, this really became a catalyst for the rise of Ukrainian patriotism and spirit. We realized that we are a country. An independent free country that they just want to destroy. They want to bring it to the “sovok” again, to make it a union republic, without the right to vote, without a free future, without the right to live in a European family.

That is why Russia has taken a big step to unite Ukraine. Probably not understanding this and not thinking that it will be so. As far as I know, it was planned to separate seven regions of Ukraine. The Russian curators faced these tasks, but a miracle occurred. With God’s help and thanks to the Ukrainian people, the patriotic Ukrainian people, we survived. And now it is not Ukraine of the fourteenth year at all. This is a truly free country that has its own idea, its own future, and its own spirit of the Nation. And the further we go, the greater is the gap between Ukraine and Russia.

Despite all the billions of accusations against pro-Russian politicians who still function in Ukraine, the propaganda pouring out of the TV, the spirit of the Nation is unbreakable. This is especially evident in our youth. They have a completely different vision. Most young people see themselves as Europeans. They have the consciousness to live in a free country, in a bright country, to earn decently, to feel free, and to travel around the world. Instead of sitting in four walls in Russia, proud of the “Russian spirit”. 

How do you define victory?

— How do I define victory? When we put our flags on the border, on our border, it will be a victory. When people, first of all, those now supporting and seeing Russia here, realize that they were wrong, and yet Ukraine is the bright future they need to strive for, it will be a victory. Children in the occupied territories who will shout “Glory to Ukraine” are a victory. Military victory is a component, a component of the whole existing complex of measures, but to put a flag on the border of our state, to restore the border, we need to combine all these components.

How do you personally assess Russia’s attack on Ukraine?

— It was really a turning point then, and maybe we thank God that this happened for us to understand who is the enemy and who is the friend. Who lent a helping hand when it was really difficult for us, and who tried to finish Ukraine off, when it was suffocating. Believe me, when Ukraine is reborn, it will not forget anything.

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