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Front row view: what's happening on the frontline in Ukraine?

Are Ukrainians ready for a long-term war? The war in Ukraine currently resembles a sort of WWI trench fighting. Despite the losses, Russia continues to deploy more and more troops, hoping to break Ukraine’s defenses.

What is the current situation on the frontline in Ukraine? Is the troop shortage real? Is there someone in Russia who can take Putin down?

Front row view: what's happening on the frontline in Ukraine?
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Brian Bonner: Good day. Brian Bonner here with Ukraine Calling. I’m very excited to have Askold Krushelnycky with me today. Hello, Askold.

Askold Krushelnycky: Brian, it’s great to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

Brian Bonner: Askold is one of the premier war reporters of our time. He started, whether he wanted to or not, covering wars from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. He is, through the Ukrainian diaspora, the son of World War II refugees. He’s worked for all kinds of UK and other newspapers.

He and I share the distinction of being Kyiv Post chief editors, two of only 15 people in the world who have that title. He was, for a year and a half during a tumultuous period in American politics, the Washington correspondent for the Kyiv Post when I was still the chief editor there, covering all the Trump impeachment shenanigans and scandals that happened there.

What is the situation on the frontline?

Brian Bonner: The reason why he is here today, is he just came back from the front and we’re so grateful to have him to give us the real insider’s front-row view of what is happening on the front lines. And so, lots of questions. Are we winning? Are we losing? What’s troop morale? Is troop shortage real? How did the troops greet the coming arrival of American aid? You were there for everything. Well, how was the situation?

Askold Krushelnycky: I have been here since the beginning of the full-blown invasion in 2022. I was almost certain that Putin would invade. So I came here on February 16th, 2022, and I stayed for 10 months in 2022, six months last year, and I’ve been here since early February. So I’m able to do a comparison of how things have changed.

On all those occasions, I’ve done a tour in my car around Ukraine. I think three or four times in 2022, the entire country, and three times last year. I’ve just returned from another tour, which took me mostly to eastern Ukraine. I’ve spoken to a variety of people. And as I’ve told you, I’ve always found it very helpful over the years to talk to, as far as the military goes, to ordinary soldiers or lieutenants, sergeants, NCOs, captains, and majors.

At that kind of level, if they trust you, they’re willing to open up and give you a quite honest assessment of what’s happening. With a general or with a president or prime minister, you more or less know what they’re going to tell you. They’re not going to break some big story or give away big secrets to you. But these people, if they trust you, and many of them become my friends over the years, they’ll give an honest assessment.

Everyone knows that many of these Ukrainian troops have been in the same positions, some for over two years. I know of one brigade that’s been on what’s called the Bakhmut Front since May 2022. In peacetime, they’re based in Kolomyia in Western Ukraine, Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast. They get a pitiful amount of leave time, so they’re not able to see their families. There’s a lot of worry and concern about familial matters.

They’re also just exhausted. Nobody’s ready to throw in the white towel; nobody’s saying we’ve got to start negotiating because nobody trusts Putin. But there is a weariness and an eagerness for something to be done with conscription so that they can rest.

Brian Bonner: Is the troop shortage real?

Askold Krushelnycky: The troop shortage is real. And the Ukrainian high command or the general staff is not trying to conceal that anymore. They’ve used euphemistic language previously, but in the same way that they’ve been very open about having to cede territory in recent weeks and recent days, that they’ve withdrawn from places. A withdrawal, however, you count it, is a retreat. And even if it’s planned, it’s not a route. It’s not something that any commander-in-chief is eager to do.

Brian Bonner: Even if it’s just a village going backwards is going back.

Askold Krushelnycky: But that’s the kind of war Ukraine’s in. Apart from spectacular advances, such as in the fall of 2022, by Ukrainians to retake big swathes of Kharkiv, most of them are incremental movements. But as people have said, every meter is soaked in blood or lost limbs.

What is going on in Chasiv Yar?

Brian Bonner: How severe is the troop shortage based on what the troops told you? And I do not doubt that they confided in you because you’re very trustworthy, you’ve known these people for a long time. Is it critical to the point where some pundits say there could be a breakthrough by Russia? They could take over Chasiv Yar, the strategic city in Donetsk Oblast. Is it that bad?

Askold Krushelnycky: In Chasiv Yar, the principal problem isn’t manpower. It’s the obstructions in Congress that produced this dramatic reduction in U.S. supplies. And it meant that these glide bombs have pummeled Chasiv Yar, these CAB bombs, different types of missiles and drones, without having much in the way of a response—and ordinary artillery.

Instead of artillery, they’ve been using FPV, first-person view drones. They’ve been using them very effectively, and they’ve managed to hold the line. But they’ve told me the Russians have FPVs as well. They’ve also got seemingly limitless amounts of artillery and ammunition. And it is close enough there for Russian Soviet-era artillery to be used.

Brian Bonner: Is it going to fall?

Askold Krushelnycky: I’ve learned very early in this kind of conflict reporting that the people who think they know what will happen have almost inevitably been wrong. I’ll tell you what people that I’ve spoken to there said. They said that unless they get supplies coming in rapidly to enable them to start using their artillery again and rocket systems, if they get anti-aircraft defense, which can knock down the Russian planes that launch CABs, these glide bombs, from beyond the present reach of Ukrainian defenses, then the situation can change. And it is changing.

But if the Russians just carry on pounding away in the way that they’ve done elsewhere and don’t seem to care about how many people they lose, then theoretically, yeah, they could take it. But it’s not going to happen, I think. People have said the Kremlin would like it as a victory celebration for May 9th. I think it’s much further off than that, and it’s impossible to call it.

Brian Bonner: How important is that? You’ve written about how important keeping control of that city is. Why?

Askold Krushelnycky: Because it is at a high point. It’s not like it’s on a mountaintop, but if you’re driving towards that area from, say, northwest Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. You’re driving along the road, which then takes you through Druzhkiuka and Konstantynivka, and you can see the lay of the land. You can see that it’s getting higher where Chasiv Yar is. And it doesn’t have to be a mountain. It just needs to be significantly higher to give any artillery position there a huge advantage.

An artillery controlling Chasiv Yar can hit the four big remaining Ukrainian-held centers (of Donetsk Region – ed.), which are the ones I’ve enumerated: Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, Druzhkiuka, Konstantynivka. And they can hit those; they can hit Konstantynivka.

Brian Bonner: Ukraine needs to hold that at all costs?

Askold Krushelnycky: Taking Chasiv Yar provides the Russians with a big opportunity to grab or just pummel into destruction these last remaining towns of any size in the Donetsk Region.

Brian Bonner: So we need to hold it.

Askold Krushelnycky: That’s one of Ukraine’s priorities, to do that.

Manpower shortage issue

Brian Bonner: If manpower shortage is not the big problem there, where did you see a real critical or a critical manpower shortage anywhere?

Askold Krushelnycky: You know, I just visit portions of the front, so I get snapshots of places. I don’t have the general staff feeding me statistics about Ukrainian casualties, deaths, wounded, and so on. I can only get anecdotal stuff from the people that I meet, and in some places, it’s been pure bad luck.

I know of colleagues who’ve visited places where the people have said there were 100 of us this time last year, and now only nine are still fit to fight. The rest are dead or wounded. All it takes is for one big piece of ordinance to say “land” in the wrong place, and 50 people can be taken out immediately.

I haven’t seen places where there are deserted positions. The numbers that they’re talking about, the importance of numbers, are that they want fresh people to be trained up so they can replace, give rest, and allow leave to some of these people who are exhausted. They’re exhausted both physically but also are debilitating psychologically. As I’ve said, I’ve never encountered people who’ve said, “We’ve had enough; we’re going to surrender.” But I’ve seen them over this period of the last two years, and I’ve seen the tiredness. And that is an important thing to address.

Brian Bonner: Ukraine waited months before lowering the conscription age from 27 to 25, which is still pretty high for a nation at war. What do the soldiers there make of that? And what is their attitude towards men who avoid military service?

Askold Krushelnycky: Lots of people, obviously, understandably upset, angry, that they’ve been doing what they think is the right thing to do. They’re not demanding to be called heroes. But they are angry at people who seem to be not just avoiding service but doing it in a flaunting manner. I’ve spoken to people who’ve been angered by some young kids driving around in expensive cars around Kyiv.

Brian Bonner: And there’s almost a million fighting-age men abroad.

Askold Krushelnycky: Again, on an anecdotal level, people were pleased with the Ukrainian government’s decision to lower or suspend diplomatic services in consulates and embassies for Ukrainian men of fighting age who are abroad unless they can explain why they need to be in those countries.

Brian Bonner: Why do you think we waited so long on that? And is it too late or not really, when you’re talking about a long war?

Askold Krushelnycky: I haven’t spent much time so far since coming to Ukraine on this occasion in Kyiv and I haven’t spoken to politicians. If elections are suspended; no serious people want a presidential election to be held; I don’t see what the political consequences for lowering this.

Brian Bonner: Got to win the war.

Askold Krushelnycky: Yeah, without winning the war, all of this is, like somebody would say, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Brian Bonner: You know, now they’re open about it, and the US and the Western partners applied pressure, too. But I think the greatest pressure came from the military, who you talk to regularly because they need more people. We still don’t know how many more. Do you have any sense of whether the army needs to double?

Askold Krushelnycky: I haven’t got access to that kind of statistics. And much of it also depends on what the Russians do. Before we started recording this, we talked about how things may play out. I don’t have any rigid idea; I think it’s foolish. Anybody who says: “I know what’s going to happen,” is either an idiot or arrogant.

Many important factors can depend on Western support, principally the US. If Trump returns to the White House in the US presidential elections, that’s probably not good news for Ukraine. For me, one of the likeliest big changes, a breakthrough change, could happen in Russia. With people that we call “the elite” or “the power brokers” there, we’re pretty certain that many of them would like to see Putin removed. They’re too scared, or they think it would make their position vulnerable. But I think that that’s one of the likeliest.

Is Ukraine ready for a long war?

Brian Bonner: So the longer the war, the greater the likelihood. We’ve been wishing for that. And we hope it’s not just wishful thinking because we’re talking about three elements. So if the West provides everything that Ukraine needs to win, all the weapons without hesitation, they’ve been hesitating a lot. And opposition mounts in Russia, that could be another way to end the war.

What more does Ukraine need to do? There is talk that even if Ukraine wins, when Ukraine wins on the battlefield, Russia will not be a gracious loser. They will be a sore loser who lives next door and will want to always get even with Ukraine for the humiliation that they suffered during the war. And will always be attacking Ukraine with whatever they have.

Do you agree with that? And does that argue that Ukraine will have to make the painful transition from basically a democratic, peaceful society to a permanent Israel on a permanent war footing?

Askold Krushelnycky: Their whole history under Tsarism, Stalinist communism, or this kind of psychopathic banditry shows that they’re not good losers. And Putin hasn’t made Russia the way it is; I think that Putin is a product of Russia. Whether it’s Tsarist or communist or the present environment, too many Russians still crave or are willing to be subservient to a ghastly figure like Putin.

They will, of course, try to punish Ukraine and wreak revenge however they can. And I, like you, have heard that possibly what awaits Ukraine is a sort of Israeli solution where it’s not exactly permanent war, but it’s never peace. Everybody has to have some sort of training to come to the defense of their country from the age of 18. We’re a long way from that, but you’ve got to start somewhere.

And you’ve probably also heard the example of Switzerland, which has managed to avoid war for so long. But again, where every male person (is obliged to join the military – ed.), I don’t know whether females are also trained. And they have access to weapons.

Demands of your population aren’t necessarily anti-democratic; they’re not something that’s not concomitant with democracy. And unless there’s some miraculous transformation in Russian attitudes toward Ukraine, that is likely the way that Ukraine will have to think about developing.

Brian Bonner: It’s painful, though. Do you think Ukraine will get there as a society? Do you see evidence that it will?

Askold Krushelnycky: Well, we’ve seen that since 2014, there’s been a transformation in Ukrainian society. Many people said that if Putin had pressed on in 2014, if he’d just openly used Russian forces, well, he did, but pretended that they weren’t there in places like Debaltsevo and Ilovaisk.

But suppose he continued in the fashion he has been since February 2022. In that case, he may have taken bigger swathes of Ukraine because, psychologically, the resistance amongst the population might not have been there. Although it was in surprising places. Kharkiv resisted, and Odea resisted. So Ukraine was never fond of being annexed by Russia, like the Kremlin propagandists said.

We’ve seen how Ukrainian society has transformed since 2014 and again since 2022. A stark example for me was that in 2022, I was in Kharkiv just a few days before February 24, when the full-blown invasion began. You could mostly hear Russian on the streets. When I went there again last year, there were more Ukrainians on the streets.

I’ve spent some weeks there, and Ukrainian is prevalent on the streets. And lots of younger people, people of all ages, have made a principled decision to brush up on their Ukrainian and transform. Ukrainian society can adapt to the needs of the people and has successfully transformed positively. And if Ukrainians see that sort of transformation, this kind of preparation for the defense of your country, having training for everyone, even if they don’t get sent to the front lines, but in the worst-case scenario, everybody can pick up a weapon. I think Ukrainians will be open to that.

Can we count on the West to support Ukraine?

Brian Bonner: Can we count on the West to support Ukraine? I say “we”. I’m American, but I’m a permanent resident of Ukraine, so I often say “we” about Ukraine. Can we count on that support? And it seems like if not, we’d better develop our weapons in big quantities.

Askold Krushelnycky: Both of those last statements are worth pondering on. I don’t think we can 100% rely (on the support of the West – ed.). We’ve seen, unfortunately, in other instances where the West has abandoned its allies, so you can never dismiss that. Also, the West isn’t a unitary system. It’s not Putin, and it’s not a dictatorship.

We’re used to kicking out our governments every four or five years. At the most, in the US, a president will have an eight-year stretch. Many new administrations need learning time to come up to scratch, which is why I think that both George Bush Jr. and, after him, Obama and Hillary Clinton tried to make nice with Putin. It took them a year and 18 months to see that he was just pulling their chains.

Brian Bonner: Well, there are transformations we talked about. Hopefully, they will all have their “Emmanuel Macron moment” and move to becoming hawks.

Askold Krushelnycky: It’s impossible to predict. We have seen a learning arc in the Western countries. NATO and others hold themselves to be democratic countries where they shied away from angering Moscow, angering Putin, Macron being the most dramatic.

Brian Bonner: Well, we still have ways to go.

Askold Krushelnycky: Right, there still is a way. But they have come to accept the message that Kyiv was drumming into them long before the 2022 February invasion. For years, Kyiv had been saying: “This is not just our conflict.” This is the fate of democracy, to a large extent, worldwide. It depends on allowing Ukraine to fall or making sure that Ukraine wins.

Brian Bonner: We’re making progress on that.

Askold Krushelnycky: There has been progress.

Brian Bonner: You know, I think, and you said it, unfortunately, Ukrainians have to get killed and get bombed before the West realizes, really starts thinking, well, what happens? What are the consequences if Ukraine loses? And if there is a big hope, would you see hope that the West has? I know it’s not one entity, but generally, there is a consensus that we have to stop.

Askold Krushelnycky: The trend has been in that direction because, as we both know, the West is a jigsaw of different types of slightly different political systems, characters, and historical attitudes, but the trend has favored Ukraine. And I think that those countries that have given any kind of help, military help to Ukraine, know that Russia isn’t going to forgive them.

Russian use of illegal weapons

Brian Bonner: Before we wrap up, I’ve been reading a lot of reports of chemical weapons use. Do you come across Russians using illegal, banned chemical weapons?

Askold Krushelnycky: Look, I’ve asked people about that, and in some places, they’ve said that it’s like the equivalent of tear gas. I haven’t come across places where people have been fatally affected by chemical weapons. However, I think that the Ukrainian government and the military did present some evidence. They want an independent view, which won’t affect the Russians because they’ll say it’s not independent. The Russians can do that if they think they can if there aren’t witnesses to it.

The future of Kerch Bridge and closing remarks

Brian Bonner: What should we look for this summer? And I won’t hold you to the prediction. Is the Kerch Bridge coming down?

Askold Krushelnycky: What I’ve been told is that the Kerch Bridge, Ukraine can make it unusable by the Russians, at least for a time. Doing it just as a one-off to show they can do it is not particularly useful. It should be part of, I’ve been told, a more elaborate coordinated advance. Maybe to cut a way through to the Azov Sea, to sever the land bridge from Russia to Crimea as part of a broader operation. But I’ve been told that when you see the Kerch Bridge hit, you can expect exciting events.

Brian Bonner: Askold, I know you’ve got a lot of trips and a lot more reporting to do. Do you have another book on this?

Askold Krushelnycky: I had a book proposal with an agent in January 2022. And when this all kicked off, a full-blown invasion, I thought I’d better hold off. I don’t know if I regret that, but I still want to do a book. And I’ve got a heck of a load of just very personal stories from extraordinary people, soldiers, civilians who are brave, kind, decent, wonderful people. If I can somehow write about those just a sliver, a fraction, conveyed to a broader audience, the extraordinary, the magnificence of these people, I’d like to do that. But I know a crop of interesting books is already on the horizon.

Brian Bonner: I’m looking forward to yours because I neglected to mention this great book: “An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey through Ukrainian History.”

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