The war in Ukraine has increasingly become the war in eastern Ukraine, as Russia focuses its attention on capturing territory there. It claimed a significant victory there just days ago, with Russian President Vladimir Putin declaring victory in the province of Luhansk, and reports from the front line now point to growing Russian aggression across the neighboring province of Donetsk.
The Kremlin’s focus there is evident in the way it has boosted its military resources in the region, including its capabilities from the air — and that has made the Ukrainian need for international arms supplies increasingly urgent, according to Oleksandr Zvitnevich, the head of the Ukrainian Parliament’s national security, defense and intelligence committee.
“We need heavy weaponry — air defense systems, given what Russia has done to expand its ability to fight from the sky. We need missile systems, more of those systems, that can be deployed easily along the front line and can be moved,” Zvitnevich — a key member of the country’s defense and security establishment — told Grid.
During an interview in his office located inside the heavily fortified government quarter of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, Zvitnevich said he was confident that ultimately Ukraine would prevail — but only if it continued to receive military support from its international partners, including the United States.
“We have been using the American HIMARS systems — [High Mobility] Artillery Rocket Systems, a mobile rocket launcher — which have been deployed along the front line. It is a very effective, accurate and powerful weapon,” he told Grid. But he added: “We are always calling for more weaponry, given Russia’s refusal to pull back its troops. … The need for strong air defense systems in particular is growing all the time. We have Soviet-era systems, but they are not enough to cover our entire territory.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: Let’s begin with the recent news out of the east — Russia only days ago said it had full control over the eastern Luhansk region. Can you bring us up to speed on where the conflict stands in eastern Ukraine?
Oleksandr Zvitnevich: When it comes to the current situation in the east, it’s important not to measure success or failure on the front only by square meters on any given day. We are waging war with all available means to resist the invasion. It is brutal, and it is intense. The focus for our forces is to fight back against Russia and also to keep our troops safe. It is imperative that we do keep our soldiers safe as much as is possible.
And so, what I can say about the situation in the east is that it is evolving, and it is evolving in the sense that the fighting is continuing and that the decisions are being taken from a military perspective. If we pull back in any place, it is because it fits with our military goals, particularly when you consider that we are still waiting for a lot of weaponry from our international partners. So we have to be strategic.
In certain areas along the front line, Russia has an advantage because of its weapons system. Sometimes, it is a big advantage.
In Luhansk, our troops ran the risk of being encircled by Russian forces. So we had to move to prevent such a situation. We always have the bigger goal of resisting invasion in front of us when we make such decisions.
G: You say that you are still waiting on weaponry from your partners. Now, we’ve seen, over the past several months, pledges, and indeed deliveries, to support Ukraine’s war effort — from the U.S., European countries, others. Could you elaborate on what specifically you’re waiting on — any specific weapons systems or battlefield supplies that you need urgently?
OZ: From the first days of the war, what we have been calling for are mobile artillery systems. That is a general need. And we have been receiving support. We have been using the American HIMARS systems — [High Mobility] Artillery Rocket Systems, a mobile rocket launcher — which have been deployed along the front line. It is a very effective, accurate and powerful weapon.
Without going into specifics, because the supply of arms is a sensitive matter, we are always calling for more weaponry, given Russia’s refusal to pull back its troops. The Russian tactic is to fire very heavy rockets from the air and the ground. We have to do everything we can to respond and defend ourselves.
We have been very open and transparent with our partners about our needs, and they have responded. The main thing here, with our partners, is trust. When we call for more weapons, we are doing it because we are fighting to defend our country and also to defend the idea of democracy.
G: Let’s discuss weapons a little further — and in particular, the issue of training. You’re receiving weapons from various countries. The U.S., but also European nations, and in many cases, your military is trained to use Soviet-era systems. Could you tell us how the transition is going in terms of training — the switch first from Soviet-style systems to NATO weapons, and then in the latter category, the variety of different systems from sources?
OZ: The transition is going well. What is important to note is that this is an inevitable transition for Ukraine, and we were already on this path even before the war. We’ve been working to implement NATO standards. The war has of course brought an urgency to this.
Since 2014, we have had several interactions with the NATO alliance; our soldiers and officers have learned a lot, and that is proving helpful now on the front line.
The training they get now, meanwhile, is done in coordination with our partners. You’re right that we have received many different systems. But we have also received help with using these systems in terms of guidance and ways to train our forces.
But the main point is the one I made before. This transition has been made more urgent by the war, but it was already happening, and it was happening for an important reason. When it comes to the Soviet-era weapons, many are technically obsolete. Some of them can be modernized, and we have worked on that and continue to do so. But there is a big difference between the Soviet-era systems and the ones from NATO and the U.S. It’s evident on the battlefield.
G: What about — beyond the use of these new systems — their maintenance? Have you had any assistance to train your forces to maintain, say, the U.S.-supplied systems? Is that ongoing, and could you say anything about how and where it is taking place?
OZ: We are in talks with our international partners to open service centers on our territory, at least for the larger weapons systems that we are using now. We have already tried to adapt by calling on the resources we have here right now to help with maintenance. But this effort continues as we focus on expanding our ability to service the new systems locally.
G: What are your chief concerns right now, in terms of resources and weapons? What are you missing?
OZ: We need heavy weaponry — air defense systems, given what Russia has done to expand its ability to fight from the sky. We need missile systems, more of those systems, that can be deployed easily along the front line and can be moved.
The need for strong air defense systems in particular is growing all the time. We have Soviet-era systems, but they are not enough to cover our entire territory. Moreover, we have never produced our own systems, here in Ukraine, when it comes to air defense. It is a complicate and sophisticated area, and we do need assistance there, more assistance.
Two other things to add on our needs and our concerns right now: We’ve talked about the need for arms, but the other main concern is logistics. The war has complicated the movement of resources. Before the invasion, we had air, sea routes, as well as railroads that were functioning. They are critical for moving important military resources. Russia has been attacking that infrastructure. That is another big area of focus, and one we have raised with our partners and with the international politicians who have visited us in Ukraine. We show them what Russia has done in our country. There is the human devastation that is there for the world to see. There is also a general devastation of the country that is also important to highlight.
Finally, we also need more of another kind of weapon — sanctions on Russia. We should not forget this, and we should not step back from this. That has been our message to our partners, and that remains our message. It is important to keep up the pressure on Russia, on the front line and also through international sanctions.
G: Now that we are into month five of the conflict, how do you see this ending? We’ve seen many of the Ukrainians who fled initially return to their country, and as we have discussed, we have seen the conflict become ever more concentrated in the east. Do you have any thoughts on how this will ultimately end?
OZ: If we are talking about the active phase of the war, where we are still actively engaging Russia on our territory, it is hard for me to say.
To go back to what we have been talking about, it all depends on the resources we can get together from our partners. The faster we can get more weaponry, the faster we can push back Russia and the better we can defend ourselves. My best guess is that the active phase will be another two or three months, but we need to hold firm on the front line in the east. This is why I keep saying that we need more weapons.
This is a very difficult situation for all of us in Ukraine, and especially for the Ukrainian army as it tries to make sure that Russia doesn’t expand its footprint. Everyone — ordinary civilians in Ukraine, our international partners — needs to do what they can to support our army to bring victory closer.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.