The Parisian daily Le Figaro has run an interesting interview about the situation in Ukraine with retired General Ihor Smeshko, who is well positioned to understand the realities at play. Once a Soviet Army officer, Smeshko served as Ukraine’s military attache in the United States in the 1990s, was promoted to general, then was head of military intelligence (HUR) from 1997 to 2000. He subsequently served as chief of the Security Service (SBU), Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency, from 2003 to 2005. While Smeshko is a somewhat controversial character, he remains active in politics and his insights on the current crisis merit consideration. The interview follows in toto, with my comments after.
Q: Moscow has annexed Crimea, and Ukrainian troops are to leave the peninsula. How do you feel?
A: I feel enormous humiliation. I have been an officer, first in the Soviet Army, then in Ukraine’s. Never could I have imagined what’s going on. Vladimir Putin is making a terrible mistake. In the long term, the aggression that Russia has committed will catch up with it, and will perhaps lead to its disintegration. What is more, I do not want to come out against Russia in general, nor do I want to lump the great Russian people — Tolstoy, Pushkin, and the others — together with Putin. Putin has opened Pandora’s Box by breaching the bilateral treaty that recognized Ukraine’s frontiers in exchange for our giving up nuclear weapons in 1994. What will Russia do if China decides to protect the millions of Chinese already living in Siberia by annexing that territory? As I see it, Moscow is very afraid of a European-style democracy in Ukraine, which would put ideas into the Russian people’s heads.
Q: Putin is asserting that Ukraine is a geographical concept, not a nation.
A: Putin understands nothing about Ukraine. When he dared to claim that Russia won World War II without the Ukrainians, it was a terrible slap in the face. What about the seven million Ukrainians who gave their lives? Putin knows nothing about it and surrounds himself with servile advisers. He is unaware that the Ukrainians are old Russians, but bred on the freedom of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who never submitted to serfdom. He cannot conquer us, but he has wounded us and has thus fallen afoul of the nation that gave the Tsarist empire its best troops. I know something about that: We have been soldiers, father and son, for five generations on my mother’s side. Instead of acting with the European Union to help the young Ukrainian state become democratic and prosperous – to build a bridge between Europe and Russia and make de Gaulle’s fantastic dream of a Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals come true – Russia’s leadership has conducted military aggression against the territory of a sovereign state. It is placing Europe on the verge of a Third World War.
Q: Could the Ukrainian Army hold out in the event Russian troops enter eastern Ukraine?
A: Russia stands no chance of winning a war against Ukraine. To be sure, Ukraine is weakened by the twenty years it has spent laying the foundations of its state and by the total corruption of the machinery of that state. That is why part of the population has risen up against [ex-President] Viktor Yanukovych’s regime. Of course, we lack well-equipped divisions for the time being, but Russian ground forces are not in great shape. Russia has mobilized 150,000 men on our borders, but it’s not in a position to wage an offensive war against Ukraine or to occupy our territory. When the USSR fell apart, there was a highly trained military force of one million men here. Ukraine, for its part, has 700,000 reservists it can mobilize. Mobilization is under way. My twenty-one-year old son, who is a reserve lieutenant, has dropped out of university to sign up. If it persists in its adventure, Russia will stand no chance against a defense force of partisans.
Q: You say Crimea will remain Ukrainian, but former Georgian President Saakashvili said the same about South Ossetia.
A: We are not Georgia. For instance, part of the Russian nuclear shield is currently undergoing technical checks in a Ukrainian factory, Yuzhmash. We have not said to date that we are going to cease all cooperation, but that might change. Given our scientific expertise, we could even decide to resume building nuclear weapons.
Q: Do you believe Putin will invade Eastern and Southern Ukraine?
A: That will depend on two factors. One is the response capability of the Ukrainian government, which has to make an urgent decision to appoint experienced generals capable of organizing our defense to our top military posts as soon as possible, at the same time countering Moscow’s propaganda and provocations in the East of the country. For the time being, these appointments leave something to be desired, as I see it. The other factor depends on what’s going on in Putin’s head, as he is the sole decision-maker in Russia, where he has enslaved society by overwhelming it with propaganda. Will he settle for Crimea? I am a general, not a psychologist.
Q: What can the West do?
A: The West must remember what [Zbigniew] Brzezinski said, which was, basically: “The Russian Empire can re-emerge with Ukraine, not without it.” Ukraine has to be a bridge, not a part of the Russian Empire. No attempt must be made to appease Putin, as that will lead to the Third World War. Let us not repeat Munich.
Rousing words, to be sure, but does General Smeshko’s viewpoint, however experienced, reflect reality? He’s surely correct that there is enthusiasm for defending the homeland among average Ukrainians now, who are being subjected to Russian violence and propaganda that is deeply offensive to millions of them. He is, however, far too optimistic about recovering Crimea anytime soon, and his mentioning of possibly regaining nuclear weapons for Kyiv is foolhardy in this crisis.
Yet I concur that Kyiv desperately needs better leadership, especially in the military and security realm, than it has at present. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s mishandling of the Crimea situation does not inspire confidence in its ability to successfully defend the whole country against 150,000 Russian troops in any conventional conflict. However, it is certainly true that Russia is wholly unready for the ugly and protracted conflict it would inherit if Putin decides to invade and occupy Central – much less Western – Ukraine. Smeshko is likewise correct that the danger of World War III is real if the Kremlin opts for a military solution to the crisis it has created in Ukraine. Putin, who has indeed opened up the Pandora’s Box of nationalism in a manner that Russia is sure to regret someday, must decide if he wants to run that risk. The fate of Europe may depend on his choice.