The ongoing confrontation between Ukraine and Russia puts heavy pressure on incoming President-Elect Volodymyr Zelensky to take new steps to readjust Ukrainian military capabilities. This is particularly true given Russia’s modus operandi within the so-called non-linear or “hybrid” approach, where Moscow has developed much greater expertise and capabilities than Kyiv. In this regard, it is worthwhile to look at some of the most recent comments from Zelensky and his team regarding how the new Ukrainian presidential administration is planning to deal with issues related to national security.
On April 18, three days before the second round of elections, candidate Zelensky presented his team of experts, among whom Colonel (ret.) Ivan Aparshyn was identified as a defense and security advisor. Zelensky noted that Aparshyn had been recommended to him by Anatoliy Hrytsenko, a former Ukrainian minister of defense (2005–2007), who also ran in the first round of the 2019 presidential elections (Ukrainenews.agency, April 19). During the campaign, on February 2, Hrytsenko stated that if he won, he would name Aparshyn as the new head of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MoD) (Grytsenko.com.ua, February 5).
Following Zelensky’s overwhelming victory at the polls, Aparshyn gave a lengthy interview, on April 23, in which he offered a number of insights into the incoming administration’s defense thinking—although some of his comments were somewhat inconclusive and requiring further explanation. Quite naturally, Aparshyn’s comments strongly hit on concerns over corruption in the defense sector. In the middle of the presidential election campaign, revelations emerged about massive corruption and potential illegal activity involving the Ukrainian military-industrial complex (see EDM, February 28, April 15), which Zelensky used to attack incumbent President Petro Poroshenko. However, the following ideas and takeaways from Aparshyn’s interview should also be highlighted (Telekanal ZIK, April 23):
First, Aparshyn’s words implicitly signified ambiguity toward Ukraine’s future in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Although he rhetorically expressed full commitment to the idea of integration with the North Atlantic Alliance (as well as the desire for Ukraine’s Armed Forces to seek technical convergence with NATO standards), some of his statements were nonetheless controversial. On the one hand, he expressed excessively high hopes that only NATO could render necessary support to Kyiv in dealing with Russia (including non-military support by various diplomatic means); but on the other hand, he suggested that Alliance bases/facilities “might never appear on the territory of Ukraine.” This ambiguity suggests either that Zelensky’s team still has no concrete strategy for dealing with NATO as such, or that the new authorities might be tempted to rely on a “multi-vector foreign policy” formula (famously developed by former president Leonid Kuchma) as a means to avoid exacerbating the confrontation with Russia.
Second, Zelensky’s top defense advisor spoke about the need to more effectively apply post-2014 experience to the Armed Forces. Specifically, he stated that the Ukrainian Army should consist of 200,000 (maximum) highly trained professional soldiers, along with an active reserve that would give the ability to increase this number to 1,000,000 within just 24 hours. Interestingly, this idea echoes similar proposals put forth by Hrytsenko in 2005. At that time, Hrytsenko additionally recommended creating special “rapid deployment forces” (around 29,000 soldiers and officers, in total) that could be put into action within several hours (maximum several days) in case of an outbreak of hostilities (Censor.net.ua, February 5, 2019). Importantly, last month, Aparshyn also highlighted the importance of “territorial defense units”—an element that (if effectively used) could have played a decisive role in April 2014, after Moscow-backed anti-governmental demonstrations broke out in Donetsk and Luhansk. In this regard, it is also worth pointing out that the head of Russia’s General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov, has himself implicitly underscored the importance of territorial defense, referring in 2013 to “control of territory” as a key factor in confronting so-called “hybrid threats” (Vpk-news.ru, February 26, 2013). Aparshyn, however, did not outline the operative principles of such formations in Ukraine’s specific conditions.
Finally, Aparshyn spoke about prioritizing radio-electronic warfare capabilities, with special emphasis on intelligence-gathering devices, anti-aircraft and missile-defense systems, communications, as well as Electronic Warfare (EW). According to Zelensky’s defense advisor, these rather costly, yet indispensable elements could be secured for the military through maximum transparency and the creation of a special central organ tasked with supervising the state’s defense procurement initiatives (Nv.ua, April 25). This statement, though difficult to argue against, failed to elaborate on where the money for these key procurements or new administrative bodies would come from (Icds.ee, April 22).
The ideas expressed by Aparshyn were harshly criticized by Dmytro Tymchuk (a member of the Ukrainian parliament and a military expert), who stated that “there is nothing new… the majority of these ideas have already appeared virtually word for word in the Law on National Security and Strategic Defense Bulletin of Ukraine.” Furthermore, Tymchuk asserted that the same arguments on professionalizing the Armed Forces have been repeatedly “reiterated for years.” At the same time Tymchuk doubted whether Aparshyn’s key argument pertaining to maximizing the budgetary transparency of the Ukrainian MoD is feasible at all, since “there is not a single country [in the world] where information on the expenditures of even a ‘single kopeyka’ [on defense] is fully available to the general public” (Glavcom.ua, April 24).
Another interesting comment came from Dmytro Razumkov—Zelensky’s advisor on internal political issues, who might soon become the chief of staff of the presidential office (Agropolit.com, April 22). Notably, Razumkov took a wider view of national security. In addition to the necessity of continuing the military buildup and increasing the capabilities of the Armed Forces, Ukraine, he argued, must concentrate on diplomacy as part of a non-military confrontation with Russia. Within this domain he identified three main “vectors” (Glavcom.ua, April 19):
– The “Normandy format” and its continuation (imperfect as it is, there are no alternatives), and the “Minsk” ceasefire agreements as the only available means to preserve previously introduced anti-Russian economic sanctions;
– The “American vector,” which, in Razumkov’s words, is “one of the main means to pressure Russia both formally and informally” by drawing on diplomatic assistance from the United States;
– The “British vector,” under the presumption that, after the Russian attempt to assassinate the Skripals in Salisbury using a chemical nerve agent, London “is ready to pressure Moscow with greater intensity.”
For now, it seems that Ukrainian policymakers agree on the necessity to employ a combination of military and non-military means to confront Russia. The big and, as yet, unanswered question, however, is how soon a coherent strategy will appear.