Ukrainian veteran warns of tough months ahead – interview

Maria Berlinska
Maria Berlinska

Maria Berlinska, a Ukrainian war veteran and head of the Air Intelligence Support Center, spoke in an interview with NV Radio on May 2 about challenges the Ukrainian military will face in the coming weeks and months.

NV: You wrote that May 2024 will be the most difficult month of this war. What kind of offensive do you think Russia will mount in Ukraine this month?

Berlinska: It’s important to understand that I wrote all that not to induce panic, but to help us understand the real risks. Many factors affect this, both from the Ukrainian side, and from the side of international partners, and from the side of the enemy.

I can cite several factors for making the conclusions I did. The first factor is that, obviously, the mobilization has failed for one reason or another, primarily political. I believe it was necessary to communicate more thoughtfully and systematically with people about the need to recruit more people into the military. Every person wants to understand that if they go [to war], they will be used according to their skills and abilities, as well as quality training and adequate support will be provided, and not just “go assault this clump of trees.” In addition, it took a long time for it to be politically adopted in Ukraine.

And there’s a huge demand for justice in society. People are ready to go to war, but only if they realize that the political elites are taking the same risk. They need to see representatives of the families of political elites at the front, as well as friends of lawmakers and top officials, their close relatives, and even some government representatives on a rotational basis.

I believe it’s populism to say that “let the entire parliament or the entire Defense Ministry go to the trenches,” but up to 20-30% could be mobilized, on a rotational basis. And then people would see a clear signal that the whole country shares these burdens equally, because every person wants to live, and every mother wants their child to come back alive and well.

But we have what we have. The first is the failed mobilization. People are tired and exhausted on the front lines. Some of them have had no rotations for two or more years. This is the first factor.

Second is the delay in the delivery of weapons, in particular from the United States, with some initial deliveries just starting now. Accordingly, we have a huge ammunition shortage.

We don’t have enough resources. At the same time, the Russians have been ramping up production all this time, and their military industry is working around the clock. This is another factor to consider. Thirdly, the Russians are preparing very well: forming new units, new battalions, brigades, divisions, battalion tactical groups, etc.

There’s also the factor that we haven’t ramped up our own production of weapons and munitions. In fairness, it’s worth noting that there are certain positive changes, and production of some items is expanding, both drones, and electronic warfare systems, and even certain ammunition. But this is totally not enough for a challenge of this scale. That is, it would be a great indicator as of the beginning of the war, but definitely not enough for May 2024.

So, if we take only these few factors into account, we already understand that we are greatly weakened now, while the enemy, unfortunately, on the contrary, has prepared a lot with the help of China and other countries.

And the last thing I’ll say on this topic that we need to understand. We’re fighting not only against Russia, but we’re fighting against the combined military-industrial complex of Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Belarus, and many other proxy countries that are very actively helping Moscow. And, unfortunately, Western countries are also supplying Russia with [certain components]. Sanctions don’t work and that’s why we often find components from China in Russian drones and missiles along with circuit boards and chips from Canada, the United States, France, and other Western countries.

In fact, the Russians are using technologies from all over the world against us. In addition, they’re ramping up their own weapons production, upgrading the old ones, as well as actively drilling troops at training grounds, by tens of thousands. So, there’s no need to have any illusions.

It’s necessary to realize that now is the historical moment that will really be difficult for all of us. The best thing we can do now is to prepare, to constantly provide the army with drones, electronic warfare, radio electronic intelligence, and robotic ground systems. There should be as much robotic technology on the front lines as possible, with as few people exposed as possible.

At the same time, we need to deploy landmines, fortify, and build our “Surovikin lines” [a system of trenches, minefields, and fortifications named after Russian general Sergey Surovikin]. Unfortunately, we don’t do it well everywhere, and this is actually the determining factor in our ability to withstand the coming Russian offensive.

Read also: Ukraine's intelligence predicts Russian offensive timing in Kharkiv and Sumy

NV: Ukrainian journalist Yuriy Butusov says that many of our problems are explained by military commanders sending untrue, rosy reports to their superiors, making the top leadership think that things are much better than they are.  Can we say this is part of the problem?

Berlinska: I believe that fear is always the root of all problems. Because lies begin with the fear of telling the truth to your boss, the commander. And if we actually analyze most of the dishonest acts, they start with fear that there will be some kind of punishment, that you’ll be fired or that you will lose standing in some way.

That’s why Kyiv officials are very often afraid to sign some piece of paper, because they’re afraid of inspection, they’re afraid to take responsibility, even for absolutely correct and sensible decisions.

And here we get into a paradox, when, on the one hand, some people at the front aren’t afraid to sometimes stop tanks with their bare hands. And on the other hand, someone in high offices is afraid to sign something, someone submits false reports, and it’s all out of fear.

Thus, we have a pack of lies making its way up the chain of command, when great indicators and beautiful presentations are shown how we ramp up production, what excellent logistical support we have, how we perfectly hit enemy equipment, how brilliantly we have everything fortified in 10 lines of defense... Such beautiful numbers and pictures are then proudly shown to the public. This is a lie that moves from the tactical level to the presidential one, to the strategic level.

What should we do about it? I think it’s important for all of us to introduce a culture of not being afraid and, on the contrary, to encourage everyone involved in national security to speak the truth. It should come primarily from the top level: “Even if you didn’t succeed, even if something didn’t work out, the best thing you can do is be honest. Then we’ll have time to fix this problem. You won’t be punished.” But this rule of truth must be communicated by all the “adults in the room.”

I believe that each of us should behave that way, being the adult in the room. It means no matter what happens, no matter what ambitions, resentments, tantrums, all this must be thrown aside, to remind everyone that we’re doing a common thing, we have a common threat to us and our families. And from every office, from every meeting, from every process, no matter where it takes place, whether it’s in the Support Forces Command, in a dugout, or in the Cabinet, we must work based on reality. Because this entire vertical line of lies begins with the fear of telling each other the truth that something didn’t work out.

It’s normal that we all make mistakes. It’s not scary to make a mistake, it’s scary when it’s suppressed. And then, when they submit a report that the brigade is fully staffed, everything is fine, everyone is provided for, the top command thinks this brigade can be thrown into battle, but in fact it’s 20-30% effective at most, resulting in a defeat where people are injured and killed. Because there was deception at all levels.

Read also: Ukrainian military hampered by series of unforced errors — opinion

NV: What do you expect from the mobilization reform that takes effect on May 18?

Berlinska: It won’t have an immediate effect because people need to be trained, they must undergo basic general military training. In the future, if these people undergo adequate training, coordination will be provided with the necessary means, if their commanders also undergo adequate training, which is no less important...

There should be a comprehensive system of training, which we’ve been doing on a volunteer basis since 2014. And we’re doing it systematically on training grounds in this iteration of the war as part of our Victory Drones program and our Dignitas Fund. More than 60,000 people have already been trained specifically in using technologically advanced weapons.

But this isn’t enough, because the scale of the challenge is such that it’s necessary to train hundreds of thousands of people. And drones and robots alone won’t win the war at this stage.

Everyone knows me as a person who has been advocating for robotics warfare for 10 years, but at the same time we understand there’s a factor of artillery, traditional war, its methods haven’t gone anywhere. Guns, multiple launch rocket systems, air defense systems, aviation — all this must work in a complex.

Read also: Ukraine can launch limited counteroffensive in late 2024 or early 2025 - ISW report

NV: Regarding the mobilization law, the head of the Come Back Alive foundation believes it’s not radical enough to substantially change the situation with our armed forces. Do you agree with him?

Berlinska: I communicate with the commanders and my comrades-in-arms all the time. And I also communicate with [Come Back Alive head] Taras Chmut. It’s hard to disagree with him. Taras said what’s obvious to those who have long been involved in the security and defense sector.

We should have articulated much earlier the idea that with such the threat of this magnitude, if not all, then most of the society will have to fight. Political elites should have set an example.

In addition, society has long been lulled by propaganda. I believe this propaganda machine, which united, unfortunately, many pseudo-journalists, bloggers, and pseudo-experts has caused enormous damage. For many months, we heard that “we’ll be in Crimea in two-three months.” It really caused a lot of damage. Because, firstly, people didn’t take out their children, sick old parents, got occupied, because they believed that the war would really end in a few months. And they were also lulled by “we believe in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, we pray for the Armed Forces of Ukraine, they are superhumans and they’re winning the war now.” It doesn’t work like that.

They are ordinary people who are simply dressed in a military uniform, whose everyday life is very difficult. War is daily hard work. They are exhausted, tired, they must be replaced, they need rest, rotation, some opportunity to take a breath.

Therefore, it’s clear the best communication now, it seems to me, is honest communication to the whole society. Yes, the war is really long, it will not last two or three weeks. It’s enough to look at the Russian military industry and the countries that supply it. For example, China is a huge economic machine. It’s enough to look at the population. It’s simple math. [It’s enough] to see that they have, basically, 146 million people, and how many people do we have after many have left or are living under Russian occupation?

Look at the math, and it says reality is harsh and war can last for a long time.

But if we consolidate our efforts, if we use our resources and those provided by our partners wisely, if we protect the life of every person, if we get involved as a whole society — we may live to see the backs of Russian troops.

The Russians learned from the mistakes they made a year and a half or two years ago and bet on technology. In addition, they have a huge production of shells. They fire tens of thousands of shells at us every day, while we’re starved for ammunition, we’re counting rounds piece by piece. It actually defines a lot, so we’re retreating now. The front is shifting, the Russians are on the offensive.

This is only the beginning of their offensive. I see this big offensive coming in May and a very tough summer campaign.

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