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Oleksiy Danilov: “Weak people always come up with excuses not to act”

Ukraine’s national security adviser on German betrayal, the coming Russian onslaught and why the West is scared.

By Bruno Maçães

Among official circles in Kyiv the mood remains confident. Yet while Ukraine has recovered significant areas of territory since the summer, there are concerns about what comes next. All signs point to a new Russian offensive over the coming months, and Oleksiy Danilov, Ukraine’s secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, even suggests 24 February, the first anniversary of the invasion, could be used as a symbolic date for a decisive – or desperate – effort to turn the war in Russia’s favour.

Danilov calls the present moment a dangerous one, which only highlights the ­senselessness of Germany’s stalled support for Kyiv.

I met Oleksiy Danilov in his office in Kyiv on 19 January. As secretary of the National Defense and Security Council, Danilov is the Ukrainian equivalent of a national security adviser. He is part of both military and intelligence information channels and closely works with President Volodymyr Zelensky in an advisory role, tasked with developing and coordinating a policy of national security for Ukraine.

Over the course of our one hour interview, Danilov shared his thoughts on Germany’s refusal to send Leopard 2 battle tanks to Kyiv, who might eventually replace Vladimir Putin and why Russia wants a ­“Korean solution” to end the war. He also spoke about the helicopter crash in Brovary, Ukraine, on 18 January – in which 14 people died, including Ukraine’s interior affairs ­minister – and whether Russia was responsible.

Bruno Maçães: You have spoken about how the next two to three months of the war will be decisive and very difficult. What did you mean?

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Oleksiy Danilov The Russian Federation very quickly had a strong desire to end the project called Ukraine. Given that it is fighting for the past – for the Soviet Union – and in the past it was necessary to have accomplished certain things by certain dates. It will have been a year since the invasion on 24 February. Considering their propaganda machine, the Russians will have to have a big accomplishment in time for the anniversary. A difficult period is coming.

Additionally, the Russians have analysed Ukrainians quite well. They have made some new conclusions after the misconception they had before the invasion in February 2022. They are preparing in a different way now. This is a challenge for us.

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BM: Do you think that Russia’s capacities and strategies have improved since last year?

OD Russia understands what not to do. This is an experience that costs a lot, for the Russians as well. And we don’t know who their partners will be now. We understand their military-industrial complex capacities; we understand what they have remaining and the production they can set up.

However, we do not understand who may help Russia now: what Iran’s help would be, for instance; what North Korea would do; whether other countries would play any under-the-table games.

The West has an old problem: that is fear. The West has always been afraid of the Soviet Union. It believed the USSR was big and powerful and could solve everything quickly through military means. No conclusions were made even after the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979. And they couldn’t do anything there against the uneducated, at that moment, the mujahideen. That is when a conclusion should have been made that the USSR is not that powerful.

But those conclusions were not made. And the West kept on being afraid.

The messages that Ukraine should not be given weapons and that the supply of  weapons we absolutely need should be constantly postponed is destructive. Such people can be found in almost every country. In general, there are two groups of people now: those who say Ukrainians need to be given as much support as possible immediately; and those who say “do not anger Putin”. Some people from the second group – they are well-known – in time they will be very ashamed they took this position. We have to sacrifice the lives of our heroes every day because they don’t want to anger Putin.

If a person is insane – and Putin went insane rather a long time ago – angering them doesn’t matter. He has completely different ideas in his head.

BM: How do you explain Germany’s position? 

OD The Germans are in a really difficult situation. For a long time, they were the main economic partners of Putin and the Russian Federation. They had common plans – such as building Nord Stream 1 and then Nord Stream 2. And, in general, the roots of unity between Putin and the Germans has a very long history. Germany’s president Frank-Walter Steinmeier should be given credit. He has admitted that Germany’s policy on Russia was a big mistake. That’s a strong person’s behaviour. Weak people always come up with excuses in order not to act.

The Germans are not completely sure that we will be able to achieve victory because they don’t understand us. I had a lot of communication with them before the war; sometimes I heard them say that Russia and Ukraine are one nation. This absolutely does not correspond to reality: we are a nation that is part of Europe; Russians are a nation that belongs to Asia. There is nothing wrong with it but it has to be understood.

BM: Are you concerned about the role of China in 2023?

OD We don’t think China will be helping Russia with military tools, equipment or weapons because it is in a very difficult situation. The growth of the Chinese population has stopped – the consequence of the “one family, one child” rule.

China has a lot of challenges inside the country. It needs to sell what it produces. If we look at where China sells to, it’s the US and Europe. If the Chinese unite with terrorists, measures will be taken immediately: restraining measures, sanctions. They definitely don’t need it. Moreover, today China is one of the sides who is interested in our victory. Some time ago it was not, but today it is.

BM: Why do you say that?

OD China will quickly grab resources in the Far East. There is already a large part of the Chinese population living there. This is a special operation that has been going on for 30 years.

BM: Let me ask you about the coming Russian offensive this year.  You said there could be a Russian offensive in February or March. Is it 100 per cent certain or just a possibility?

OD Unfortunately, this is absolutely real. Russia can’t constantly keep its population tense [over the ongoing war], it also needs some achievements. If there are none, internal problems will quickly become apparent.

BM: How do you interpret the recent appointment of Valery Gerasimov to replace Sergey Surovikin as commander of the Russian army?

OD This is precisely the preparation for the offensive because Gerasimov is the person responsible for the entire general staff of the Russian military. Moreover, it’s becoming more difficult to call it “a special military operation”. More and more they are using the word “war”.

BM: How many men do you think Russia could use in the new invasion? The Ukrainian army has spoken about 200,000; some Russian media have spoken about 700,000. What do you think is the best estimate?

OD You know that since 17 January Russia has officially increased the size of its army. It called up an extra 300,000 citizens after 21 September. Around 150,000 of those have already been sent to the front line. Training the rest is taking place all over Russia now.

BM: Is mobilisation in Russia still ongoing?

OD Yes, it hasn’t stopped, but it is not public; it is hidden. Terrorist organisations such as the Wagner Group are recruited not through the Russian army, but through the prisons. This also should be taken into account.

BM: Your knowledge is that Russia’s borders are open or closed to men of a certain age?

OD It is now very difficult for men to cross the border. They are required to have documents which are very hard to access. And they are sent back.

BM: What do you think would be the main target of this offensive? The Donbas? Kyiv? Other parts of Ukraine?

OD Without taking Kyiv, Russia cannot solve anything because the heart of our country is located exactly here, including the top ­political-military administration. Besides, what it is fighting for is here, the so-called sacred, religious values. So the Russians could monopolise it all to rewrite history and say that only they can claim it.

Regarding the Donetsk and Luhansk region and regarding the territory around Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhia – they are also subjects of Russia’s attention.

BM: So you think Kyiv will be attacked?

OD Definitely with missile strikes. It should not be feared. We should be prepared and have the appropriate air-defence systems capable of shooting down what will be fired at us.

BM: But will Kyiv be a target for troop movements too?

OD It will be highly difficult for the Russians to do that. But it will depend on many factors — war is a constant change of circumstances. I can say that had we had enough weaponry before, the Russians would not be in Ukraine.

BM: What weaponry does Ukraine need to stop this invasion? I think politicians in the West already know but I think the public doesn’t always know. It would be good to hear what Ukraine needs quickly. 

OD Those countries know for sure what we need to achieve victory. Every country has a military specialising in such matters. Our military and their militaries understand each other and are on the same page.

Obviously we need weaponry that is definitely armoured: such as tanks; armoured vehicles for infantry; artillery shells. And again – shells, shells, shells. Even if you have a gun, but nothing to load it with – this is a problem. We stayed with the Soviet system using 122mm and 152mm calibres. Considering that the war has been going on for almost a year, we nearly ran out of them.

BM: How do you solve this problem?

OD Switching to Nato standards: 155mm calibre. Another thing is tank shells, if provided. But there has to be enough of them. So far we have been winning because of high-precision weapons which we have, but not as many as we would like.

BM: The number of tanks that are being discussed – a dozen from the UK, a dozen from Germany – they are not enough, are they?

OD That’s a drop in the ocean. But this is the beginning and the main thing here is to start. Yet Germany has to give permission for other countries to send us their Leopards. Because these are the conditions of the civilised world, which lives by civilised rules. But Putin doesn’t acknowledge any rules. And here we need to understand – if we are at war – what the rules should be.

It’s one thing to supply tanks or other things during peaceful times, it’s another thing during wartime. Yet the rules don’t make any exceptions – whether it’s wartime or peaceful time – the conditions are the same. It’s a bit strange.

BM: You’re a very good interpreter of Russia. Ukrainians are better interpreters of Russia than Americans or Western Europeans in my opinion. So how do you interpret the drama around the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, with his open criticism of the Russian army over the past few months?

OD There’s no drama here. They live on TV, in propaganda. If Prigozhin’s terrorist Wagner Group hadn’t been invited to help in Ukraine, Russia wouldn’t have any achievements to show on TV at all. If someone thinks Prigozhin can make decisions himself or can do something without running it by Putin or his immediate circle, then people don’t understand how the government system in Russia works. Everything would be approved. This is one system.

After he has carried out his functions, Prigozhin might be eliminated – physically. He is of no value to them.

BM: Is there a conflict between the Russian army and the Wagner Group?

OD Certainly. If there were any decent officers in the Russian army, they would have shot Prigozhin a long time ago. No one defames the Russian army the way he does.

BM: In you opinion, why would Putin allow that?

OD That’s a big question. The thing is that the processes that may get out of hand scare Putin a lot. If we remember August of 1991 – particularly 18 and 19 August – back then the military rebelled against Mikhail Gorbachev. So Putin’s natural cowardice plays a part. That is why those obscure paramilitary forces, such as Prigozhin’s army, appear as an alternative to those people who, God forbid, may plot to do something. The beginning of combat inside Moscow is just a matter of time. But for this we need to survive and push them back to the borders of 1991. We don’t need what belongs to someone else, but we mustn’t give up what belongs to us.

Suggestions regarding negotiations or agreements that take Russia’s interests into consideration cannot be accepted by us. Unlike Russia, we have a society, and that society needs to reach a consensus.

[See also: Ukraine deserves better than Boris Johnson]

BM: When Putin is replaced, or dies, or is killed, what kind of person will replace him? I know it is difficult to guess but what kind of Russia will come next?

OD You need to understand that Russia is a colonial country, which has a huge number of colonies inside the Russian Federation in the 21st century. That is why thinking that there will be a democratic Russia, and a different type of leader, means deceiving yourself.

Russia may only become democratic if it gets rid of its colonies. Having colonies makes it incredibly hard to build democracy, almost impossible. Boris Yeltsin’s attempts to build democracy in Russia were a complete failure. I remember his idea very well when he said “give regions as much authority as you think is reasonable”. Regions started gaining authority, but it ended very soon because Russia would have collapsed if the regions had grown too powerful. And everything turned in the opposite direction very quickly.

I don’t think there are experts in Russian matters in the West, nor are there experts in our Ukrainian matters. Because before 24 February, in your chair there sat many special services representatives of different countries. All of them said Ukraine doesn’t have the capacity for defeating the Russian Federation. They said we would be defeated in three, five, seven days. They said there would be an elimination of the top political-military administration of the country if we stayed here.

I explained to them that this was impossible and they thought I was crazy. I ­explained to them: “you just don’t know us. You don’t know how we will fight for our independence. That’s in our blood.” I got satisfaction in May when embassies came back here. The ambassador of one of the big countries, which is our partner, was here in this room. It was on 14 May, if I am not ­mistaken. He apologised: “We were wrong indeed.”

You must never ever have fear. If you have fear, you’ve lost. This is very important. When people say the armed forces have to get ready for war – this is obviously an important thing, but bear in mind that you have to prepare the society for war. We prepared our society for this war as much as possible; this is what shocked Russians. When, even in Kherson, which they considered Russian-speaking and to be their city, people stood up against tanks, held flags and thousands resisted them.

BM: You said at the beginning of the interview Europeans are afraid. How can Europeans get rid of their fear?

OD This is a difficult thing. The wealthier the person is, the more fears they have. They have no desire to lose what they’ve gained. That’s psychology.

BM: There have been some criticisms leaked to the American media that Ukraine did not prepare well for the war. Do you think this is unfair?

OD Absolutely. The thing is that during a war, you need to understand that the word “war” itself is a terrible catastrophe. You don’t know where a tank will shoot and you don’t know where a fighter jet will drop bombs. Do they think we could have predicted it somehow?

On 14 March, the roof of my own house was blown off. I am a person who is in the middle of this process but in what way could I have taken care of my house? It’s impossible. When we talk about preparing society, this is about a preparation inside, of the spirit.

BM: Do you think there is a danger of a Korean solution for Ukraine? Of there being a de facto partition and two Ukraines? 

OD For Russia this is the option it is offering the West. “Let’s end everything; let’s register the status quo that exists today and start a new status quo.”

BM: And it has been suggested to the West?

OD Look, there is this under-the-table business. Russia is not offering this to us. It is offering it to the West. 

BM: How do you know these communications between Russia and the West happen? 

OD Look, there are different levels there. The level of so-called probing – this is the work of Dmitry Kozak, the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff, who has been working with Putin. He communicates with retired politicians. But he knows that those politicians can convey the message to the politicians in charge.

I don’t know if the decision made by the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, to not give permission for us to receive Leopard tanks, is connected with these communications. Or is this because of something else? But sooner or later it will be revealed.

BM: The helicopter crash that occurred on 18 January outside Kyiv and killed 14, including the interior affairs minister, Denys Monastyrsky – was it an accident or not an accident?

OD Every “accident” has a pattern. However, there are no such things as accidents. We created the perception that things can happen accidentally.

BM: Are you suggesting it could have been an act of sabotage?

OD Someone, somewhere did something wrong. Who? When? What? And this “who, when and what” led to these consequences. On purpose or not, following an order or not, but a mistake was made somewhere.

BM: Let me ask a slightly different question: has Russia continued to try to assassinate Ukrainian officials since the start of the war?

OD Look, nothing has changed in Russia’s approach. The Russians are barbarians. Moreover, there is another big problem: you can’t make any agreements with them. Today you make an agreement, tomorrow they will act as they wish. When you tell them “we have an agreement”, they can say “that was yesterday”.

Let me remind you, we signed the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation on 31 May 1997. All the conditions were written down – guarantees, inviolability, independence – and it was a huge treaty that took in respecting the borders and sovereignty. There was a lot there. And where is it all now?

[See also: Ukraine is not a proxy war]

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This article appears in the 25 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why Germany doesn’t do it better