By Sonia Koshkina, Chief Editor of Lb.ua
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine
“Now I can talk about this…” communicating with LB.ua, the former acting head of state, who de facto assumed command of the [Ukrainian] army in perhaps one of the most dramatic moments in the history of Ukraine (hopefully the most dramatic–note by SK), often repeated this phrase.
Passing the reins of the country on to the legitimately elected fifth president Petro Poroshenko, Oleksandr Turchynov, without exaggeration, removed the mountain from his shoulders. Despite this, he still remains one of the most informed players as to what actually happened and is happening on the eastern front.
And, in all fairness, we cannot say that things are unchanged on the eastern front. On the contrary, the situation has qualitatively improved for Ukraine (although, of course, it continues to remain rather tense, and it is still very far away from a full, decisive victory–SK). It has improved largely thanks to Turchynov.
Even today, his Office of the Speaker looks more like a headquarters of the General Staff. Military maps are everywhere, each with operative notes indicating deployment of Ukrainian troops and the locations of enemy forces.
“Plans for a large-scale invasion were being lined up even before Maidan,” recalls Oleksandr Turchynov.
Also [he recollects] Russian tanks painted in the colors of a UN peacekeeping mission (the so-called “blue helmets”–SK), how “we [Ukrainians] were leaving Crimea,” how the Southeast went up in flames, and how we were desperately trying to gain some time…
For the first time, Oleksandr Valentynovych [Turchynov] talks about all of this very frankly and in detail.
“Yes, it is a war.”
We have two main topics of conversation for you–war and politics. Where do we start?
With the ATO [anti-terrorist operation]. This is more important.
I agree. As the acting president for three months, you were one of the most knowledgeable people in regard to Crimea, the ATO, and the state of affairs on the eastern front. Can you tell us in a nutshell, insofar as you are permitted, in what state were the affairs handed over to the Commander-in-Chief [Petro] Poroshenko?
The ATO had a very difficult start. At that time, we de facto did not have a functioning army, an army ready to fight terrorists. The National Guard, the specialized battalions were just passing through their baptism by fire at the time.
All of this–against the background of a full economic collapse, an objective inability of the state to guarantee its defenders with everything necessary.
That is, on the one hand–the practical absence of an army, on the other–an acute shortage of resources for its revival. Nevertheless, we managed to create a fully-fledged army and prepare the National Guard in a few months.
VIDEO, Part 1 of the interview (in Russian):
We are calling what is happening today in the East an anti-terrorist operation [ATO], but in fact it is a real war. Is that right?
Today, a full-scale intervention by the Russian Federation is taking place. It can be prevented only by closing the border using [Ukrainian] troops.
Have we not blocked it?
As much as we were able to.
In any case, there is definitely no comparison to what it was like before. Just recently, processions consisting of tanks, “Grads” (multiple launch rocket systems–SK), APCs, MANPADS, anti-aircraft installations were coming through the border. That is, insurgents and heavy weaponry were moved from the territory of one country to the territory of another. What is this if not a full-scale military intervention? And in this situation, we can clearly state the fact: the actions of Russia with regard to Ukraine are war.
On our side, the opposition to external and internal aggression takes place in the form of an antiterrorist operation. This is due to the specifics of Ukrainian legislation. Up until the moment that martial law is introduced on this territory, we can only conduct the ATO.
Do you think that it is necessary to introduce martial law in Donbas? Earlier there was an excuse–the [presidential] elections, now this factor is absent.
We will talk about martial law, but first, allow me to finish my thought. The main thing that we managed to realize during my tenure as the Commander-in-Chief was to ensure the severing of the terrorist tumor from other regions of Ukraine. We did not let Russia ignite Kharkiv, Odesa, and other Oblasts of Southeastern Ukraine.
Did you stop the threat along the northwestern border of Donbas?
Initially, yes, but later we were able to liberate Western Donbas, and the South and North of Donetsk Oblast. In addition, the entire northern part of Luhansk Oblast. Now our checkpoints have moved right up to Donetsk and Luhansk. The task that is being implemented today is to fully close the circle, lock it along the eastern border of our country, surrounding the insurgents and cutting them off from nourishment from Russia.
“The Russians painted their tanks in the colors of a UN peacekeeping mission”
Still, about the border. Do we completely control it now? In my opinion, no one has neutralized the forest trails.
This is true, we have not yet built an Iron Curtain.
Do you think it is necessary to build one?
I think there is a need for it.
According to the scenario proposed by Mr. Kolomoisky [Dnipropetrovsk Governor and oligarch]?
I gave an essentially analogous task to our services before the active stage of combat even began. I should emphasize, analogous in principle, not form. If you remember, in the first weeks of the conflict, we were literally waiting for a full-scale invasion by the Russian army at any minute, and even then began digging a 4-meter anti-tank ditch along the eastern border and creating the fortified defensive positions in the direction of a likely enemy invasion.
Has your task been executed?
I no longer have the full extent of information as does the President of Ukraine, but to my knowledge, the border is adequately protected today. Just so that you understand: for many long years, a border as such practically did not exist. Moreover, Russia still refuses to participate in the process of demarcation of the border, and so we, in fact, have begun to do it unilaterally.
After the fall of the Yanukovych regime, the authorities at that time crumbled, and a new set had yet to form. It was at this time, knowing full well in what plight Ukraine found itself, that Russia invaded Crimea. [Russia] invaded calculating that eventually there would be blood spilled, and under this pretext, to ostensibly protect its compatriots, it would be possible to bring its troops onto mainland Ukraine… We had this information and, therefore, made every effort in preparing to repel the aggression.
That is, the invasion was supposed to begin from Crimea?
Not only [from Crimea]. Russian troops were concentrated along our border in the North, East, and South. These were powerful formations with armored vehicles, artillery, aviation, etc. Their frontline units were repainted in the colors of a UN peacekeeping mission (“blue helmets”–SK).
So you have confirmed it! I wrote about it on Facebook then, but few believed that Russia was capable of that.
What could we oppose them with? Just in Crimea, the Russians had 46,000 people, while the [Ukrainian] Ministry of Defense was able to gather from about the whole country a composite group which amounted to approximately 5,000 people. And what should we do then? Throw them under the tanks, send them to a guaranteed death? We needed to win time in any way possible, to restore the defensive capabilities of the country.
What stopped the Russians? Why has an invasion not taken place?
The Kremlin was convinced that under the conditions of a complete collapse of the economy, the absence of an army prepared for war, a complete demoralization of the power structures, mob-law, and mass riots, the authorities in Kyiv would not last even for two weeks. They hoped that Ukraine would become mired in chaos and that they would occupy practically the entire country without much resistance.
They did indeed have grounds for such predictions.
But we still managed to win some time. During this time, we revived the Parliament, gathered the Cabinet, resumed the vertical chain of command, formed a battleworthy army, occupied combat positions.
Under Yanukovych, the law enforcement structures were preparing to perform qualitatively different tasks. The best proof of it is the Crimean Berkut [riot police during Maidan], which, along with the Russians, became one of the key forces in the capture of Crimea. We had to restore operation of the law enforcement structures. In essence, the police, the traffic police, the patrol services that were simply afraid to go out into the city streets.
Of course, sitting on Facebook, everything seems simple and logical, and it is very easy to judge and criticize [others] from such a position. Yes, and not only on Facebook. Let’s be honest: many provocateurs–they cannot be named anything else–who were then shouting at the top of their lungs, called for an escalation to the conflict; and on TV, they gave a thousand and one recipes for how to “kick the Russians out of Crimea.” Some of them knew the full complexity of the situation but continued to destabilize the situation.
…That is why our servicemen in Crimea, those who remained faithful to their oath, who did not betray, were tasked to hold tight. To hold until the very end. Despite numerous provocations. Overall, the soldiers and officers fulfilled this task.
…By the way, the region about the northern border was very dangerous.
From the side of Chernihiv?
Yes. Because in the event of an invasion from this side, Russian tanks could have already been in Kyiv in a couple of hours. Realizing this, I repeat, we did the most to protect the border, we created fortified areas; prepared a defensive line capable of countering an invasion, etc.
“Russian tanks came right up to the border, performed maneuvers, and turned back a hundred meters from the cordon”
For the first time, you were the Speaker, the Acting President, and headed the Cabinet of Ministers. Had you even realized at that stage, what you had gotten yourself into?
I had to remain calm and act. It was not easy of course. On the one hand, it was necessary to restore all state institutions, to restore the system of governance. On the other hand, [it was vital] to prepare the country for defense under the conditions of an economic crisis and a deficit of all necessary resources. At that time, we received information about the impending invasion several times a day. And, alas, it was not a fake. If, they said, the Ukrainian military in Crimea failed to abide by another ultimatum and begin their disarmament… We spent almost every night at the command post, the army–in the trenches along the border…
VIDEO, Part 2 of the interview (in Russian):
Regarding the invasion. Should we still expect it today?
To avoid the third round of sanctions, the [Russian] Federation Council overturned the decision allowing the troops to enter the territory of Ukraine. But the Russian armed forces continue to stand at our borders. They only need a few hours to adopt this decision again.
Allow me to go back to the issue of martial law. Of course, it should have been introduced in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts a long time ago. This would have allowed for a more efficient use of our existing resources.
Why has this still failed to happen?
You know [the reason behind it]: it was necessary to hold the presidential elections. And in the case of introducing martial law to an isolated territory, not only does any political activity stop–including elections–but a series of other restrictions are introduced, and in particular, censorship of the media.
But the elections were absolutely needed. We had to fully legitimize the central government. We managed the task.
Today, the President is looking for ways to resolve the situation peacefully. In any case, no one will be able to then say that he did not attempt to do so.
If the peaceful initiatives of our head of state will not be supported, we will have no alternative other than martial law and resolving the situation by force.
In this case, we must be ready for a full-scale invasion.
This threat has been constantly hanging over our country for three months already.
I said that at the start of the war, our troops were brought to full combat readiness. I remember well how at night–when once again information about the impending invasion came–Russian tanks would come right up to our border, perform maneuvers, and turn back a hundred meters from the cordon. This was such psychological pressure. Then, in the morning, the Russian side would make a statement about holding some supposedly regular [military] exercises.
Of course, at the time we could not publicly disclose all the details of what was happening, on the contrary, we had to extinguish any sense of panic.
“Most of the Crimean contract soldiers remained in Crimea”
You briefly mentioned the fact that, at the beginning of conflict in Crimea, we were not ready to fight…
We actually did not have a combat-ready army. And, yes, the military units stationed in Crimea were also not ready to fight. Unpreparedness to shoot is not such an outlandish or special problem. Talk to the veterans of the Great Patriotic War … Many died then without even pulling the trigger. Shooting another person, even if this person is the enemy, is psychologically always very difficult.
Therefore, when the seizures of military units began, yes, under the Charter, our servicemen not only were able, but they were supposed to use their weapons in response. However, this did not happen.
“When the seizures of military units began, yes, under the Charter, our servicemen not only were able, but they were supposed to use their weapons in response.”
The military said they had not been given orders to shoot.
This is not so. After the death of our serviceman, I gave the direct order to use weapons. The leadership of the Defense Ministry asked me to duplicate it in writing. And I signed the order.
Is that so?! Why were we not aware of this?
Because the war and PR are incompatible.
…We were constantly in touch with all of our commanders of the Crimean [military] units. We constantly held–with the participation of the General Staff–conference calls with them. Orders were communicated directly to the commanders, and they were given tasks.
Why did they not shoot? You remember what sort of situation it was. On the one hand, there were investigations regarding the use of weapons by the security forces on Maidan, on the other hand, this was my order… And so, the commanders of the military units were not so much afraid [to use weapons] as they feared that they would be made “responsible” for using weapons in the first place… Please note that they were all surrounded by the enemy, who outnumbered them. Therefore, the commanders had to give the order to use weapons only in extreme cases, when there was a real threat to the lives of the personnel.
And one more point. 80% of our military units in Crimea were staffed with local contract soldiers. These were Crimeans, who themselves lived on the peninsula, and their families were situated there. For them, this was a regular job. And then came the moment when they–with weapons in their hands–had to defend Ukraine. There were those who immediately went to the side of the occupiers, or surrendered their weapons at the first sight of danger. But there were those who persevered. One way or another, most of the Crimean contract soldiers in fact remained in Crimea.
Could I talk about all this publicly at the time? Of course, I could not. On the contrary, I repeated the words about the high morale of our army like a mantra. It was not possible to act otherwise under those circumstances.
It is clear that this weighs on you…
During the many conference calls with the commanders, they asked for the order to retreat, to withdraw the troops from Crimea…
And when they said that they were not given the order, they meant the order to retreat. Is that it?
Ahem. This is a serious statement.
Look, the enemy forces greatly outnumbered ours, both in weapons and the number of personnel. Our [military] units were completely surrounded on territory where most of the population actively supported the occupiers.
During these very conference calls, the commanders explained, “More than half of our men are locals, they are not ready to fight…” It’s not that they were unprepared to protect their units, but to even give the appearance that they were protecting [them].
But there were hero officers, real heroes–Mamchur, Voronchenko, Hayduk, and others–ready to stand to the end. Nevertheless, they also understood that their families were in Crimea and, in the event that the situation intensified, their loved ones could be taken hostage.
And we desperately needed to win some time. Our army was still unprepared to maintain a full defense. So I could only give one order–to hold on, hold on and hold on again. And they held out for as long as we needed to rebuild the army and mobilize.
“I could only give one order–to hold on, hold on and hold on again”
At what point could you say that our army was ready? Say, more or less?
We were able to get prepared in about a month. That is, the end of March–beginning of April.
Now I will ask you a very primitive, from a journalistic point of view, but a quite justified question from the standpoint of a layman. Namely, why were we left alone with the Russian threat? After all, the Budapest Memoranda and such had been signed. Why did the international factor not come into play?
Europe and the whole civilized world were not ready for aggression. They feared a large-scale continental war. They were afraid that the war would come to Europe, which itself was not ready to fight.
Video, Part 3 of the interview (in Russian):
Yes, on paper there are countries that act as guarantors (of security and territorial integrity of Ukraine–SK), but in reality what we got is sympathy and MREs. That’s it.
However, the moral support, the pressure of the public opinion of the whole civilized world, also unquestionably played a major role. Especially at the initial stage. We were publicly supported by all democratic countries, and Ukraine is very grateful for that.
The threat of economic sanctions played its role as well.
At the same time, I met with many leaders of European countries, the USA, Canada, and asked them to provide us with assistance in the form of weapons and technical means. Having new, high-accuracy weapons would allow us not only to fight more effectively, but to protect the civilian population better as well. Unfortunately, we have not received even a slingshot from them. This is true.
“The blood of Ukrainians is on the conscience of the Russian political leadership”
Let’s rewind a little. By the end of March, you were the de facto head of the state. Unrest unfolds in Crimea, the parliament of the ARC [Autonomous Republic of Crimea] is seized. Did you try to get in touch with Mr. Putin then to find out what was going on?
Putin refused to get in touch. And the [Russian] Federal Assembly gave him the right to bring troops into Ukraine.
They pointedly did not recognize the legitimacy of the Kyiv authorities (smiles–SK). Except, perhaps, the Parliament. And so, they allowed the State Duma Speaker Naryshkin to talk with me as the head of the Parliament.
Literally right after the beginning of the Crimean occupation, the invaders gave us an ultimatum for the first time–to surrender our weapons. I remember how I got the call at three o’clock in the morning and was told about this. What were we to do? I give the command to protect our troops, ships, equipment, etc. Yes, I dial Putin myself. Naturally, they would not connect us at three o’clock in the morning, but I managed to talk to Naryshkin. He tried to give the appearance that he did not understand what was the matter, did not know what was going on, etc. At which point I said to him, “War crimes have no statute of limitations, your country is now crossing a very dangerous line…”
…I would like to say that they initially considered Crimea their springboard. A springboard for a full invasion, with the capture of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson, and Mykolaiv Oblasts.
When the plan for a direct invasion was disrupted, they launched a plan for large-scale destabilization in these regions.
It began with Kharkiv. Do you remember how the Oblast State Administrations [OSAs] were captured there several times? I sent the Interior Minister Avakov to Kharkiv and can note today that, largely thanks to his efforts, we managed to defend the city. The OSAs were promptly freed, the plotters were arrested, and then, little by little, the situation in the region was stabilized as a whole.
“They initially considered Crimea their springboard. A springboard for a full invasion, with the capture of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Odesa, Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson, and Mykolaiv Oblasts.”
The appointment of Ihor Kolomoisky [as the governor] in Dnipropetrovsk was a positive factor, he also quickly restored order in the entrusted territory.
As far as I know, he volunteered as a Governor and offered you his candidacy.
Unlike many, he was not trying to hide, he did not wait, but declared his readiness to defend the country.
Well, it’s not the point of the matter. You have touched on an important topic now. Regarding the scope of the impending aggression. As far as I know, it was planned long before Maidan. Maidan simply acted as a catalyst. Not so long ago, you met with Belarusian President Lukashenko. According to my information, during the meeting, he showed you military maps dating back to the fall months [Fall of 2013], where the directions of invasion were marked with red arrows. Places for the deployment of Russian troops at our borders were also designated there. By a strange coincidence, the troops are now located exactly where it was indicated on these maps.
Indeed, the Russians considered the Yanukovych authorities as their puppets, called on to guarantee all their “little wishes,” but just the same they prepared to seize Crimea in advance. Moreover, when Maidan had only just begun, and Yanukovych still retained his full authority, the number of flyovers of our border by Russian aviation had increased a hundredfold. To be completely accurate, it began in the second half of 2013.
That is, the Russians did not trust him.
No, of course not. Moreover, the intelligence service reported everything to Yanukovych, but he had another priority then–to hold on to his power. That is why he was so willing to make any concessions to the Russians: recall the economic agreements that were concluded at the time.
The privatization of a number of strategic enterprises. Which, incidentally, are located in Southeastern Ukraine.
If the regime had not fallen, all these businesses, including the gas transportation system, without a doubt, would have gone to the Russians.
…In any case, let’s continue regarding Russia’s plans for Ukraine. In Moscow, they foresaw the likelihood that the Kyiv authorities would no longer be under their [Russian] control. In this scenario, a regime of invasion and military occupation were foreseen. Which, in fact, was partially implemented.
Why do they need to do this?
To resurrect the empire. As in, from sea to sea. For Putin, it is literally an obsession.
“What does he offer the Russian people now? Reforms, economic development? This requires democracy, transparency, competitiveness, which Russia does not have; therefore, the Russians are offered the image of an external enemy, they are offered war, the illusion of strength.”
Similarly, that happened once in fascist Germany. In totalitarian regimes it is always like this: someone must be killed, someone must be put on their knees. But they couldn’t put Ukraine on its knees. Moreover, however paradoxically it might sound, the external aggression only accelerated the formation of a true and strong nation in Ukraine. A nation for which “freedom” is not an empty word, a nation that is ready to defend itself.
Video, Part 4 of the interview (in Russian):
To conclude the military part of the conversation. How do you think the events will continue to develop, what is your forecast? Will we truly be able to promptly conclude the ATO?
The blood of Ukrainians is on the conscience of Russia’s political leadership. Unfortunately, I do not believe that they will abandon their imperial ambitions or further aggression. They have been offered a peaceful way, but will they take this road?
As of today, our main achievement has been to close the ring around the insurgents, including to significantly limit their external supply channels of reinforcements, weapons, etc. If we manage to hold the situation on the eastern border, then I am sure we will be able to truly stop it completely.
It is important to complete this before the end of Summer. So that the first half of the Fall can be devoted to the restoration of law and order in the freed territories, the rehabilitation of the infrastructure and public utilities, and to have time to prepare for Winter. You do understand that the terrorists will not busy themselves with issues of boilers and heating, and will instead doom hundreds of thousands of people to intolerable conditions of existence. Meanwhile, our citizens are living in these areas…
“I can’t confirm that I will participate in the elections”
Let’s turn to the political part of the conversation. When do you predict the date of the early parliamentary elections to be? If you can predict them at all?
Early elections are necessary, but they can only be held after the situation stabilizes in the East. War and elections are incompatible categories.
Got it. That is, no earlier than the Spring. In what capacity will Oleksandr Turchynov go to these elections? Obviously your paths with Yulia Tymoshenko have parted completely. Or not quite?
No, [our paths have] not parted. I am convinced that everyone who wishes the country well are all moving in the same direction…
Wow. It means you have definitely and permanently parted [your ways].
You are mistaken. The truth is that we truly had a difficult conversation before the start of the election campaign. I said that Yulia Volodymyrivna [Tymoshenko], in my opinion, should not run [for president]. She did not listen to my point of view, so I just stopped actively giving her advice, that’s all.
What counterarguments did she give in response to your reasoning?
Yulia Volodymyrivna was convinced of her victory. At the time, I realized that the victory should be won in the first round. For the same reason: the war. After all, if it had not happened, think about it, we would still have no new head of state. Under these circumstances, it was necessary for the democratic forces to unite behind a single candidate.
Poroshenko had the best chance of victory. And that is what actually happened.
In what capacity, on which party list will you participate in the next elections?
I cannot confirm that I will participate in the elections. There are many issues that are more important and necessary.
Pingback: OLEKSANDR TURCHYNOV: “During an invasion from Chernihiv, Russian tanks could be in Kyiv within a couple of hours.” - Israel Foreign Affairs News