Interview with the First Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine

Anatolii Lopata: “The State Exists As Long As There Is Someone to Defend It”

Our conversation with Anatolii Vasylovych Lopata took place on February 22, 2022, but its publication as an interview in the journal was delayed due to well-known events that began two days later, i.e. due to the Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Of course, the journal was postponed, and the very theme of our website, as well as all the activities of “Borysfen Intel”, acquired a different “tone”, that is, it became more operative, when we had to respond to current events caused by changes in our lives because of the war, to deal with specific security issues that are urgent for our society. Later, when we remembered about our printed “product”, i.e. the “BINTEL” journal, and began to prepare materials for it, we came to the conclusion that Anatolii Lopata’s thoughts have not lost their significance, and even more, thanks to their publication we can draw attention to them, because they are relevant even after a several months of the war and will remain equally relevant after its end. We also ask readers to believe that the content of this conversation remained as it was recorded on February 22, which allows us to compare the views expressed by the interlocutors with what is heard daily in speeches on television and radio. Sadly, it never came to continuing the interview in a few days, as agreed.


— Of all the urgent topics of the organization of territorial defense, I think it is interesting how it is organized. After all, in case of failure, such a defense of the state will be compromised, or on the contrary, it will be made one of the main options for confronting the aggressor. And what else: is it appropriate to take as an example just such a way of resisting the attacker, as it is organized in Switzerland, Israel, that is, in the countries to which we are compared?

— Today our country lives in two dimensions of time. That is, part of our society is at war (ATO/JFO — Ed.), and another, relatively large — in peacetime. And we have no right to analyze such a situation, but I think that our biggest problem now is the territorial defense of Ukraine. The problem is multifaceted. I had to worry about it even when I was the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which, by the way, I mentioned in my book written after my retirement from military service.

You ask about Israel, whose prime minister, Rabin, I once met. I asked him: how does he manage to combine two positions — those of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense? Because it is extremely difficult to perform duties on two directions! And I hear from him: “On the contrary, it is easier for me to organize activities in such important spheres, because I hear the military every day and this allows me to know immediately about the problems of our defense, and then promptly eliminate those problems with other ministries and departments. I determine other ministries’ tasks to answer the needs of defense. If it were not so, it would be much harder for me”. Listening to Rabin, I marvelled: how well-established the management of the defense structure is, that is, when important issues are not separated, but, on the contrary, concentrated so that everyone immediately performs his duty to protect the state. After all, the state exists as long as there is someone to defend it…

Would you like to know who we can take an example from in the case of state defense? Which system is most appropriate? In the same Israel, the system of defense is structured in such a way that every citizen is responsible for it, regardless of gender. There is a mandatory military service there.

— Of which we are trying to get rid.

— A mandatory military service is the principle on which the defense of any state is based! And when I hear today that we can give up a mandatory military service, I am terribly indignant! There should be no such giving up, because this is the position of a traitor. I repeat: the traitor’s position! This must not be allowed.

— I expected to hear this from you, and I’m glad I did hear it!

— I will try to explain the essence of this issue. When I am told that they are planning to build a professional army, I always ask: can an army be unprofessional? After all, what is the professionalism of the army? It is a contract with officers who have been trained in military schools and perform their military duties — pilots, air defenders, missile operators, engineers, signalmen, etc. This is, the stratum of the military, which is the basis of the state’s combat capability, it responsible for all the training and combat capability of the armed forces. These are citizens who have relevant experience and are able to use it if necessary.

— It seems to be needless to persuade somebody of this, especially the leadership, right?

— Our authorities probably confuse the terms “a volunteer military” and “a compulsory conscription”. Unfortunately… And how many of conscripts serve in the Armed Forces? Twelve to fifteen thousand all in all! They say: if there were enough funds, everyone would be hired on a volunteer basis. If you ask me if this is right, my answer is “No!”

Here, an 18-year-old citizen was drafted into the army, where it is possible to get acquainted with this type of activity… Will he not understand what kind of profession it is after the service? Whoever likes the service will go to study at the academy and become an officer, sign a contract. Those who do not consider themselves ready for this type of activity will be released after the end of their service, but will have the appropriate skills to work with military equipment and weapons that society needs.

I have considerable experience of military service, with privileged — 48 years. I am well aware of what service in the Armed Forces and the place of a serviceman in society are about, including what a serviceman should be responsible for.

— What if a serviceman, so to speak, is left without a state, or it actually ignores him?

— Such a state will not exist for a long time. And the former soldier may become a mercenary, which is also not good for humanity.

— Are we talking about the so-called Wagner Group?

— That’s not the point. Military service hardens the character. And, of course, makes such a citizen a reliable defender of his homeland. This will be denied only by those who have neither a homeland nor, accordingly, citizenship…

— It is difficult to disagree, especially given the events that have taken place and are taking place in the former Soviet Union, but in Ukraine — above all.

— An interesting detail: when I was still in the military, in 1995, at the invitation of the United States, we sent a unit of our paratroopers to compete. Those were conscripts, but they showed much higher results than the US professional soldiers! And they did not immediately believe that they were competing with Ukrainian conscripts. You know, a person at the age of 18 is able to excellently master the necessary training and this cannot be denied. So why not give him such an opportunity?

— I agree, I will even add that I somehow managed to communicate with Ukrainians who had to serve in the famous French Foreign Legion, where the requirements are also serious. This is one of their conclusions: thanks to their previous military service, they were able to perform their duties in the Legion.

— You see, a 40-year-old person cannot perform the tasks he is capable of at the age of 20. So, is there anything else to explain about this? I repeat: giving up a mandatory military service is a big fault, to say the least. Based on my considerable experience in military service, I argue that this is a social, personnel and financial fault.

You probably know very well that a small, professional army will serve one person. Because the president appoints a minister, the minister his deputy, the deputy — commanders of units, those select the personnel of subordinates, and so on, and such an army separates itself from the people. And this is what I call a big social mistake. I hope that you are not the only one who understands what I mean.

— Of course, because I also have experience of military service.

— After all, the army was that of the whole nation, and otherwise it becomes an elite structure that serves the relevant caste and can go against its people, who will not respect it. But defense of the state rests on the shoulders of the people! Try to deny this.

— I can only confirm this with many examples from world history.

— All professional armies are destroyed during the three months of the war. And who will continue to fight? Unprepared civic mass? They explain to me: “We will prepare them in special centers”. Tell me: what are these centers? What can you learn there within a few weeks, let alone days? Comparing the approaches to this case in Israel and ours, I believe that we are, to put it mildly, inferior in this case.

— In recent decades, we have seen that people from all over the world come to Israel, while our citizens are forced to leave Ukraine. Arriving in Israel, one acquires citizenship if he fully meets the requirements established there, and will later serve in the army, defending his homeland. Our passport does not even indicate our nationality, let alone the proposal to allow multiple citizenship. Does a military service not suffer from such “obstacles”, apart from a lack of funds? And is it possible to conscript the holder of several passports?

— No! This is not just a dangerous proposal. It is also contempt for military service. It seems to me that this attitude arose in our country when people who had never been in the military, that is, did not serve or even deliberately tried to avoid it, began to command in the army. It is appropriate to mention the old principle professed in the United States: one cannot enter the civil service if one has not served in the army. And what is important: our question about military service and the army raises a problem more serious than one might think.

— Anatolii Vasylovych, let me remind in this context that some hundred years ago, during the First World War, Ukrainians served in different armies — Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Polish. Isn’t that the reason why they failed to defend their Ukraine, to achieve its independence? And during the Second World War, Ukrainians served in the Soviet, American, Czechoslovak, Polish, UPA (for which some try to blame them, although its soldiers were on their own territory). Ukrainians are taken to military service with enthusiasm, and… that’s how it all ends. This is what the Polish writer Domino once described in his novel “Syberiada polska”, raising the issue of military service in national armed formations, when, in particular, Poles refused to serve on the Soviet side and as part of Anders’ Polish army went through Iran to North Africa to fight shoulder to shoulder with the British and the Americans against the Germans. Isn’t it because of this that the Poles managed to defend their homeland?

— That’s right, because, as the saying goes, you can’t throw words out of a song. We started talking about territorial defense, the importance of which is emphasized by such examples. Such a defense is important today, because no matter what the enemy is today — strong, well-equipped, determined to strike a powerful blow at our country and disable important production facilities, administrative or military facilities, railways — he cannot erase Ukraine and its people from the world. In terms of territory, Ukraine is no smaller than France, hence all the attention to it, because everybody realizes its prospects and role. The people will repulse the attack. But the question is: what will happen next?

— Figuratively speaking, what will happen the next day?

— Indeed, because after that the people will beat everyone who tries to come to their land. Our people need to be united. Why do we not use historical experience, which was in the Cossack era? I hope that public organizations will take care of this. They had talked so much about the Ukrainian Cossacks. Where are they today? Do they really care about defending their country? The answer is: no, there are none. There are no Cossack military units and, accordingly, no Cossack territorial defense. And why not create Cossack units in each village or city on the directives of our General Staff, which would take responsibility for the defense of their territory? And why not create units and headquarters on the basis of territorial defense brigades? They could be formed in a legal way, but there are no such laws. Cossack reserve is 250 thousand people!

— Is this information accurate?

— I have communicated with the Cossack Otamans many times, and I have such information from them. But they are ignored, their perseverance and experience are not appreciated. This is not about their grand epaulets. They are simply not involved in territorial defense.

— Why?

— Because they are concerned. That the Cossacks unites at such a time and say their true word. I once advised the Cossacks to ensure that their representatives were present in every village and city council, and called on them to run in elections to local counsels.

— Where there are often representatives of completely different structures that can have nothing to do with local affairs.

— Exactly. And the Cossacks can have their representatives in the Verkhovna Rada, which will help neutralize the introduction of laws harmful to society. Why shouldn’t the current village elders be assisted by representatives of the local Cossack organization, who would be legally responsible for maintaining law and order, for organizing territorial defense as part of a squad or platoon. They are provided with weapons, a certain procedure, all their ammunition and communications are kept at home. During their days off, once a week, the unit meets for training. And each of the members of the unit knows his task, determined by the leadership of the state, and in case of something is ready to perform it.

— This is similar to what I once saw in Czechoslovakia, where every state-owned enterprise had detachments that included local workers. Rifles and ammunition were kept for them in special rooms, if necessary they were handed to them and detachments defended their enterprise or settlement.

— This is exactly how territorial defense should be organized. By the way, in addition to ammunition on hand there can be a weapon, at least the hunting one, which can be used for protection. As, for example, in Switzerland.

— I want to remind about this country, although its citizens have never fought in a war…

— Keep in mind that within three days the Swiss can gather an army of 1 million 200 thousand soldiers. They have a good training at the mandatory meetings, know where they are at H-hour, what to do and to whom to report, and so on. There, the experience is passed from father to son, as well as information about who is responsible for what and what he defends. It is not done on a national scale, readiness is checked in turn in each local community. And the readiness check covers everything from location, ammunition, weapons to basic and backup communications, alerts, and more. By the way, they do not rely on mobile phones for communication, because they preserve the wired lines.

— This cannot be said about our communications. Because there are almost no wired phones anywhere.

— You know that with the beginning of the Second World War, the only thing that helped us was wired phone communication with village councils… To put it mildly, I do not like that nobody cares about such things, about own population. We didn’t even manage to keep what we had. You know, at the company where I work, I prepared autonomous power plants, established proper communications, emergency water supply, shelter for employees — all that will help the company to continue to work in difficult conditions. But do they do this everywhere?

I like the current commanders of the Armed Forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the Chief of General Staff Serhii Shaptala… I am sure they are well aware of the importance of such preventive measures. But it seems to me that due to known circumstances, including objective ones, it is difficult for them to take the initiative. And territorial defense is not so much their responsibility as the responsibility of the state and local authorities.

— What does the rich experience tell you when it comes to dealing with current events?

— It is difficult for me to understand the actions of our statesmen… We sometimes criticize our school, the military one included, of the former state — the USSR. And in vain. In that state there was a military science based on the military experience of previous wars, including tsarist Russia. During the Soviet era, the USSR’s armed forces took part in 64 military conflicts that took place after the Second World War. As a professional military, I believe it would be useful to study that experience. But I failed to persuade our government.

— Well, then I will ask you how they perceived the Russian generals, including General Ivashov, who opposed Russia’s attack on Ukraine?

(Retired Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, Acting Chairman of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly, issued a statement against Russia’s war with Ukraine on January 31, 2022. He accused the Russian leadership and president Vladimir Putin of preparation for such a war and called on Putin to resign — Ed.)

— He is an experienced general, and the essence of the problem he raised is that he expressed not only his own position, but also that of some of his colleagues. This is the opinion of the All-Russian Officers’ Assembly, but it can also be supported by high-level Russian government officials, possibly Russian oligarchs who do not want to lose what they now own because of the war. Because they realize that this could be a collapse for their business empires.

— Can’t such a statement be considered a continuation of the principled views of the General Rokhlin, who renounced the title of hero of Russia after the Russian-Chechen war, answering the Russian president that “I do not accept awards for war against my people”?

— It can. He demonstrated the position of a real soldier and a citizen.

— As for military science… In a private conversation, he said that he did not have the necessary strength to carry out the order in the Russian-Chechen war to take Grozny. Only two battalions were formed from the once-famous 62nd Army, which had to fulfill the order.

— Dmitry Yazov (Minister of Defense of the USSR in 1987–1991 — Ed.) also complained about the shortage of personnel in the armed forces, when the newly formed states — former Soviet republics refused to provide their conscripts. And is it easy for Moscow to gather troops on the border with Ukraine to start the fighting? All they can do on the territory up to Moscow — is 150,000. The rest is brought from the Far East, along with equipment and logistics.

I think the Russians are exposing their borders, including the borders with China that are crossed freely today. According to my modest data, 800,000 Chinese citizens aged 40 to 45 currently work in Russia’s Far Eastern Primorye. All of them are united in groups of 500 people and are able to quickly change their location, or militarily —dislocation. It’s up to you to draw conclusions, if you are a former military.

— What do they do to earn their living — is this also known?

— They cut wood, sort it, process it and deliver it to their homeland to furniture factories. Interestingly, the land after cutting is thoroughly cleaned to the last root and a new forest is planted. They were praised for working so diligently and economically on Russian land, to which they half-jokingly replied: “We can’t do it otherwise, our grandchildren will live here!” Today, 300,000 Koreans live on Russian Sakhalin… Russia has a very difficult situation that Russians are unlikely to cope with. But history has shown that if Russians have problems at the state level, they find nothing better than to start a war to distract the society or even shift the responsibility for the mistakes or crimes committed by the leadership.

— Thank you for the frank answers to my questions.

Recorded by Oleh Makhno


The interview you also can read in the
“BINTEL” Geopolitical Analytics Journal, Issue 1–2, 2022

Схожі публікації