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Yuriy Sak: Procrastination of our partners gives Russia the most valuable asset

At the time of the full-scale invasion in 2022, Ukraine had only enough ammunition to last a month. What is the current state of the Ukrainian military? Yuriy Sak, adviser to the Ministry of Strategic Industries, delves into this topic in the new episode of Ukraine Calling.

Yuriy Sak: Procrastination of our partners gives Russia the most valuable asset
Estimated Reading Time: 25 minutes

Brian Bonner: Hello, this is Brian Bonner again from Ukraine Calling, Hromadske Radio’s English-language podcast. I am so happy today to have Yuri Sak in our midst. Yuri is one of the most influential and visible representatives of Ukraine during the entire full-scale He has given more than a thousand interviews, so he’s a very familiar face.

He’s changed his role a little bit. Now, he’s an advisor to the Minister of Strategic Industries Oleksandr Kamyshin, and he’s been there since January or December. Since the onset of the full-scale invasion, he was an advisor to Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov. Before that, he worked in the consulting field in Ukraine for many years for CFC Big Ideas. They specialize in crisis communications, and that’s needed now more than ever.

He’s had many clients over the years. We’ve interacted since 2015. Our email trail goes back to when he represented many different corporate clients and the government as well. Yuri, welcome to the program.

Yuriy Sak: Thank you so much, Brian. It’s a pleasure and honor to be here.

Mobilization is crucial for Ukraine

Brian Bonner: Let’s dive into the news because we’re recording this the day after President Zelensky signed a mobilization law lowering the draft age from 27 to 25. Is that a good idea?

Yuriy Sak: Well, I think considering that we are now in our third year of this war, considering the fact that there’s a big need to carry out rotation of the armed forces who are serving, on the front lines, I think it’s a timely idea, and it’s an efficient way to improve the mobilization process and make sure that it’s fair and transparent. That’s my view.

Brian Bonner: Why 25? Many nations, like Israel, start at 18. Do you agree with that?

Yuriy Sak: In Ukraine, the military age actually begins at 18. So, in peacetime, men of this age, as soon as they reach it, have to do military service. But again, you can rephrase that question as to why it was 27 in the first place.

Today’s generation, those who are 25 or 27, have sufficient experience to be in the army. And I will just repeat that it’s the third year of the war. We want to make sure that our army is capable of not just defending our territory and our sovereignty but also carrying out more offensive operations in the future. So, for this, we need our forces to be rotated on a regular basis.

Brian Bonner: Unfortunately, it looks like we may be in a permanent state of war.

Yuriy Sak: Nobody will ever, right now, be able to tell you when this war will end. But one thing we can say with certainty is that there will be peace, and it will be just peace, and Ukraine will win.

Brian Bonner: I’m glad to hear that 500,000 additional troops was the number of additional troops that had been floated around. And General (Oleksandr) Syrsky said: no, no, it’s fewer than that. How many more soldiers do we need to conscript and draft?

Yuriy Sak: Well, exactly. General Syrsky, after he was appointed, carried out an audit of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, which they are now. And they’ve realized that the number that you’ve said floated, like 500,000, which is excessive. There’s no need for so many soldiers. But I don’t think the General Staff has named an exact figure. But if they say it’s considerably smaller, we can assume that it’s many times less than 500,000.

But we also have to understand our enemy, they are carrying out mobilization as well. And you’ve heard our president say recently, that we should be prepared for more offensive operations from the side of the aggressor come May and June. This is another reason why we have to take the mobilization process seriously. And this is exactly the reason why that law is being enacted right now.

Brian Bonner: Exactly. Russia has lowered the draft age to 18. And there is a difference. Russia takes from 18 to 30, and we take from 25 to 60. The last figures I heard were that Russia hopes to get at least 150,000 and maybe more troops to the front. Is that what you heard?

Yuriy Sak: That’s what we heard as well, yes.

Brian Bonner: We’ll see if they get them. Before we get into our major topics, we should also mention that there are 650,000 fighting-age men outside the country. There’s nothing we can do about that, right? They’re out.

Yuriy Sak: Well, there have been several different ideas. Some of them involve limitations on these people’s right to use banking services. Some have involved calls for making it more difficult for them to, for example, get new foreign passports, which they use as a main document while they’re abroad.

But yeah, it’s a difficult issue because once people leave, they leave for a reason, right? Getting them back is a challenge, but we also must understand that even today, Ukrainian men are still returning from abroad and entering the Armed Forces of Ukraine as volunteers.

So, probably for understandable reasons, the news of these hordes of Ukrainian men in Europe who are trying to avoid draft spread fast. There’s the other statistics, right? This shows Ukrainian men coming back and joining the Ukrainian armed forces. So there’s a balance.

Brian Bonner: It’s not a one-way street. The best way to get them back is through persuasion and patriotism, and there are coercive methods, but I gather that the government doesn’t want to go that route.

Yuriy Sak: Regardless of the government’s desire, coercive methods, their implementation takes work. You’ve heard statements from some European countries, for example. Now and again their politicians say, well, let’s send some Ukrainian men back. And then the governments of those countries come out with a statement that it’s, you know, it’s against human rights. There are certain objectives or circumstances which make it impossible. It’s more about incentivizing people than forcing them to do that.

Brian Bonner: The other big thing is that we’re in early April, and we still need the $60 billion in the USA. How soon before the situation becomes dire in your estimation? Russia is already exploiting some of our weaknesses.

Yuriy Sak: Well, we’re seeing that, on the one hand, indeed, there’s a long overdue decision by the Congress of the United States of America regarding the $60 billion support aid package. At the same time, our European partners have come together and have unanimously adopted financial support for Ukraine in excess of $50 billion, which will, of course, spread over the years. But that in itself is already a backup plan.

We’ve also seen in the last months that the government of Japan has come up with a proposal. And they came forward with a 12 billion financial support package. And as we speak, somewhere in Brussels the foreign ministers of the NATO countries are meeting. We’ve seen reports that Jens Stoltenberg, who is the current General Secretary of NATO, came up with this idea to protect Ukraine from the volatility of the political winds of change. NATO will now consider a hundred billion support package just in case, you know, things don’t go as planned in the US regarding the $60 billion support package.

At the same time, we meet representatives of the Congress here in Kyiv almost daily, both Democrats and Republicans. And honestly, it is almost difficult to grasp because you meet them, whether Republican or Democrat and they all tell you how much they support Ukraine. They all assure you that this is like electioneering, but when push comes to the show, it will happen.

So, fingers crossed, it will happen. The disparity between the views that you hear from people you actually meet and the news that you get from Capitol Hill is unusual.

Production or weapons in Ukraine

Brian Bonner: Well, yeah, the Financial Times said NATO wants to “Trump-proof” the aid to Ukraine. And that’s going to be an interesting development and a welcome development, I think. I think everybody wants to know, and the New York Times had the story too, that Ukraine will have to become self-sufficient, making its own weapons. Will we do this fast enough? Because if we don’t, Ukraine is at the mercy of its Western partners or what it can afford to buy abroad. I think that’s a big part of your mission now at the Ministry of Strategic Industries.

Yuriy Sak: First of all I don’t think any country in the world needs to be, or actually can 100 percent self-sufficient. For instance, everything that the United States of America makes is based on the microchips and semiconductors they get from Taiwan. And that means that in Ukraine, of course, we don’t even need to aspire to build our own Patriot systems or NASAMs or IRIS-T aerial air defense systems. There are certain types of weapons that are objectively impossible to develop and start developing and producing in Ukraine quickly.

At the same time, this war has taught us that the art of war is changing, modern warfare. If you speak to military experts and ask them if they would have envisaged this few months before the large-scale invasion, they would have all said in one voice that, you know, if there is a big war, it will be aerial war. It will be a war of a couple of days like the “Desert Storm” operation, for instance.

And then what followed? It shocked and surprised so many of us, and even many of the military experts abroad, because it’s a hybrid warfare where, on the one hand, you have trench warfare similar to what happened in World War 1. But at the same time, you have modern warfare with drone technologies, first-person view drones, bomber drones, naval drones, and aerial drones. Our strategy is to be self-sufficient and where we can compensate for the stuff that we don’t have yet.

For example, while we are waiting for the F-16s and sometimes experience a shortage of ammunition for the artillery, we are relying more and more on drones. And on many occasions, they have been a very decent substitute for air superiority. So there’s even a term now, “low altitude air superiority,” and we have been able to actually achieve that in most parts of the front line.

Of course, Russians are learning fast. This is why we always say that procrastination on the part of our partners is giving Russia the most valuable asset: time. Russia is weaponizing time. And the way they do it, they learn. So they do reverse engineering. They come up with their own electronic warfare systems, and they make it more difficult for us to maintain low-altitude drone air superiority. But we’re kind of doing okay on that front.

Now, on the other hand, we don’t have the high altitude or fixed-wing air superiority. It is not likely that we will have it anytime soon, because even after we get the F-16s that we were promised, they will still be insufficient, of course, to oppose the Russians who have vast numbers of fighter jets, bombers, and so on and so forth. But we have proven time again, and this is actually something that General Syrskyi said when he was appointed. This war, which has been regarded for a long time as the story of David versus Goliath, We’re David, so we have to be smart. So we don’t use quantity, but we are smart about how we use the stuff that we have.

This has allowed us to withstand the aggression during the first days of the war, to liberate Kyiv, Chernihiv, and those parts in the first months, then Kharkiv, then Kherson. And at the moment, you know, look, we’re still standing in a war that many Western experts predicted would not have lasted longer than three days.

Going back to the original question, we, of course, want to be self-sufficient. At the same time, we realize that our partners will continue to supply certain weapons systems to Ukraine. But we want to be equal partners. This is why, for instance, if we excel, which we do in the drone sphere, when the war ends with our victory, we, of course, will be willing to share our experience. We already do in fact. This is an invaluable experience. Unfortunately, we are a testing ground for different types of weapons, including those we get from our partners.

Brian Bonner: Is it fair to say that, with the various types of drones we have, Ukraine is leading right now in terms of the drone industry?

Yuriy Sak: In many respects, exactly, yes. Moreover, sometimes we hear stories. Sometimes, we get some equipment from our partners when we get it, it is touted as good and high quality. But then there are certain real combat conditions that, when discovered, render these weapons less efficient. So, they have to be adjusted.

This is why we tell our partners, you know, yes, it’s a tragic war, but at the same time, it’s an opportunity for all our partners to improve the weapons that will help us protect ourselves in the future. So, why not use this opportunity?

Brian Bonner: There are many things that have stunned the world. And one is, you don’t need a navy to destroy the enemy’s navy.

Yuriy Sak: Exactly. The way we have been able to use Ukrainian-made naval drones to destroy Russian warships Russian landing ships, and to actually deny Russia the right of freedom of shipment in the Black Sea. The Black Sea fleet now is, on a daily basis, under the risk of being attacked. So, they’re not able to just float around the Black Sea with impunity and terrorize Ukraine and other countries. That’s a good development.

Brian Bonner: Even though Ukraine is spending a lot more on research and development and weapons production, I believe Kamyshin, like everybody else, said that we don’t have enough investment or money to produce what we want. After drones, what would be on the wish list of the things that are most strategically necessary to win this war that you would like to see more domestically produced?

Yuriy Sak: Well, ammunition is one such thing, and 155 caliber is, as Minister Oleksandr Kamyshin has said most recently in one of his interviews. So that’s on the way. That’s something that we understand because our long-term objective, of course, is to become a member of NATO. That means that our army needs to be interoperable with other NATO member countries, and that means that we aspire to gradually replace all the old Soviet-style weapon systems with the new NATO standard weapon systems.

This means that the more we can produce and provide maintenance here in Ukraine, the more prepared we will be to join NATO when the time comes. So, it’s a top priority for the Ministry of Strategic Industries and for the government in general, and we are on our way.

Brian Bonner: As I understand it, NATO and Europe still have a long way to go to unify their standards.

Yuriy Sak: Well, in many respects, yeah. That has been an interesting point because, in many respects, Ukraine has already achieved good results in standardizing more than some of the existing NATO countries. However, we understand that our membership in the NATO alliance depends on the outcome of this war because there are certain legally prescribed conditions that must be satisfied by an aspiring member before they’re allowed to join.

Brian Bonner: How do you keep track of all of it? I read stories that the UK is producing components for this type of drone and different European weapons makers are talking about it —we’re already here. And obviously, you’re going to have to keep those locations secret because they become targets. But is it fair to say we’re at the beginning of this quest for self-sufficiency, or we’re already well underway?

Yuriy Sak: I would answer that question by quoting Oleksandr Kamyshin again. He was the CEO of Ukrzaliznytsia (Ukrainian Railways – ed.) before, so some of his analogies are based on his previous experience. So he says, when you have a standing train, it’s enough to put just one small brick under the wheels of that train, and it will not be possible to move it an inch. But once the train gets going, you can build a brick wall in front of the train, which just goes through it.

So, our “train,” our defense industry, is already moving fast. And when we say that next year, this year, we will produce one million drones, it’s based on fact. It’s based on real capabilities, on real innovation discoveries. The strategy for this year and next year is actually to be a few steps ahead of our enemy. As I said, they are also developing; they’re also quadrupling their defense industry spending, and we are aware of that.

Brian Bonner: Well, they’re on a war footing, that’s for sure. They’re spending at least $140 billion on defense this year. They’ve turned into a war economy. And I don’t think it’s just for Ukraine. It’s the reordering of their society. It looks like it will be an aggressive military threat for a long time.

I look at everything. So you have the Ministry of Defense, you have Strategic Industries, you have Digital Transformation. You have a special drone unit, and then you have Ukroboronprom, which is the state mega-defense concern. I say, oh my God, this bureaucracy runs amok. Am I wrong? Or is there a clear division of responsibilities?

Yuriy Sak: Let’s go back to February 2022. When the large-scale invasion began, if an outsider looked at how things were organized, they would probably go crazy because everything looked chaotic. Everybody was doing everything, from bulletproof vests to providing pickup trucks to the army. But that was the requirement of that time. So you needed everybody to be involved to survive.

Little by little, chaos was substituted by predictable systems, and some of those processes have been handed over to, for example, the Ministry of Defense. Right now, it’s moving toward standardization and predictability, resulting in good management and efficiency.

So, with the drone sphere, it’s the same. The moment we realized that drones are a very powerful force on the battlefield, the whole country started making drones, advocating for drones, and inventing new types of drones. And little by little, all of this is beginning to be shaped into a predictable and efficient system. A few months ago, President Zelensky instituted the Unmanned Systems Force within the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Vadym Sukharevsky is the commander of this force.

The strategy is for this unmanned vehicle force to be the focal point for the whole drone industry if you like. That will be the agency that will have the information, first of all, from the front lines, the army’s needs. It will have information about the innovations. And, of course, all the others: The Ministry of Strategic Industries, The Ministry of Digital Transformation, all of those who are currently heavily involved in drone production, manufacturing, and distribution, will all be part of the same system. But the system is now moving towards a more, say, organized structure because this is needed for efficiency and speed in this very dynamic warfare.

Brian Bonner: So you’re hopeful about everybody doing their job rather than duplicating?

Yuriy Sak: Well, absolutely. Look, representatives of these different organizations meet on a daily basis. And if there is an area where there’s some duplication, it’s removed. Because everybody is driven by the same goal: to win the war. And to win the war, you need to be efficient.

On Ukrainian military capabilities

Brian Bonner: Let’s run a quick history of our defense capabilities, which could be a better story. In the 1990s, we disarmed. We got rid of our nuclear weapons and missiles under international pressure and tried to be a good neighbor in terms of promoting non-nuclear proliferation. In return, we got the Budapest Memorandum, which offered us little in the way of assurances. And one of the signatories is attacking us, Russia.

Then, from 2010 to 2014, Viktor Yanukovych (4th president of Ukraine – ed.) pretty much decimated what was left of the defense industry it seems. At least three of his former defense ministers are now in exile in Russia on treason charges. And we didn’t have much. And then Ukraine was attacked.

When you came to the ministry, what was this in 2022? What was the state of it at the time? Has a lot of progress been made from 2014 to 2022?

Yuriy Sak: I learned this six months after the beginning of the large-scale invasion because this information wasn’t shared very widely at the beginning. When the large-scale invasion began, we as a country had enough weapons, ammunition, and everything else to last us a month, a month and a half at max. Everybody realized that. And this is the state that we were in, in terms of the army’s resources.

At the same time, the army that met the aggressor in February 2022 was a different army than the one in 2014. We always repeat and stress that this war began not on February 24, 2022. It began in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea, the proxy wars in Donbas, and the illegal annexation of parts of those territories.

On the one hand, we had a very capable army made up of very capable commanders and soldiers who had a very unique combat experience from 2014. And on the other hand, we had a weak sort of resource base of that army. This is why the first months of the war were dedicated to procuring weapons from wherever it was possible to procure them, Soviet-style weapons.

Back then, nobody was actually confident that Ukraine would ever win. If you remember, the first NATO standard artillery pieces, like M777s, for example, we got only in May. That was the first time that seeing how the Ukrainian army had liberated Kyiv and Chernihiv, our partners abroad started to believe that, okay, Ukraine can fight this war, and we need to help them.

But at the beginning, of course, it was very dire. A very simple illustration is something that you might have actually seen by now. In the beginning, we had just one Bogdana, which is a NATO standard 155-millimeter caliber self-propelled howitzer. We had just one. Now we are producing eight a month. That’s a very good illustration of where we were and where we are now.

Brian Bonner: What are they most effective at?

Yuriy Sak: Well, they are very effective because they can strike enemies at long distances. For example, they were used for the liberation of Snake Island. Apparently, aggressor soldiers were surprised that it was even possible to use artillery at such distances. So it’s something we are proud of, and it’s being made.

Brian Bonner: So when you came in, we had a good army but not enough weapons or tools?

Yuriy Sak: Well, exactly, because in February, we had what? We only had a couple of dispatches of Stingers and Javelins delivered to Ukraine from the U.S. We received some NLAWs from the U.K., Which, of course, was a lifesaver because had we not had those types of anti-tank and aircraft weapons, the situation could have been even more difficult.

On the psychology of war

Brian Bonner: Looking back, I don’t know if you’ve had any time to reflect but were there times where we had peaks and valleys, during the peaks that you thought, listen, we’re going to win this, and we’re going to win this soon? And it’s not just PR or propaganda. And other times where you said, oh, I don’t know how long we’ll be able to hold on.

Yuriy Sak: Well, first of all, I personally, honestly, hand on heart, I never had this thought that you know, how long are we going to be able to hold on? Because I’m confident that we will win. And it’s just a matter of time and price that we will have to pay for this victory. Because it’s inevitable, you know, you cannot make the river flow backward. We just don’t have examples from history where empires would disintegrate and then would be resurrected. That just didn’t happen before. And I don’t think it will happen with the Kremlin’s desire to resuscitate the Soviet empire.

So on that count, I’m confident that we will win. I’ve never had those thoughts (that Ukraine might lose the war – ed.). Now, I was extra excited and overconfident after we liberated Kherson. Of course, that was the moment in time when Kharkiv and then Kherson, it felt like the momentum was on our side. It felt like the enemy was demoralized and degraded to such an extent that their front would collapse. And this was actually confirmed by the stuff that we have in our reports from the other side. There was panic in their ranks.

It was a period of high hopes, and it was very easy to speak on behalf of Ukraine to the international media during that period because hopes were running high. Another period of high hopes was the beginning of the so-called summer counteroffensive last year.

Little by little, we learned more about how deeply entrenched the enemy was in Zaporizhzhia Oblast and Kherson Oblast. The more we learned about the strength of their fortification lines. The more we understood that there were serious delays with the provision to us of the weapons that we requested, which our partners promised, the more it became obvious that the progress that we planned needed to be more attainable. And while it wasn’t a reason to feel defeatist or to stop believing in Ukraine’s victory, it was a period when it was a bit of a pessimistic period.

Brian Bonner: Yeah, after Kharkiv and Kherson, we just needed the weapons to go further.

Yuriy Sak: Yes.

What does the West want with Ukraine?

Brian Bonner: Yes. The delays bring us to the West strategy. And I know you have to do a diplomatic dance, but I’ve had guests, Kurt Volker and Ben Hodges say basically, and they’re both Americans, so they speak bluntly about America. They say there’s no strategy to win and we need a strategy to win. The West has to say we’re going to win this war and get together with Ukraine and say, what do we need to win this war? Are they right?

Yuriy Sak: Of course, if you listen to the official statements. The leaders of our partner countries repeatedly and unanimously say that Putin must not be allowed to win, that Ukraine is fighting for our shared values,, and that Ukraine’s victory is in our own national interest. In my view, they say this sincerely because they understand that we are going through a period of tectonic changes in the geopolitical arena.

There is a group of states who are interested in a major reshuffle, in changing the rules-based order into something else, which people need to understand what it will be. But all of our partners understand that that will not be the world in which we will feel safe, in which we will have stability, and in which we will be able to preoccupy ourselves with things like climate change and whatever.

We’ll just be in survival mode permanently. Right now, Ukraine is on fire, Gaza is in crisis, and Taiwan is sending daily alerts. It’s a moment in history when the leaders of the civilized nations understand it’s now or never. I’ll have to be careful with my choice of words. If they allow Ukraine not to defeat Russia, nobody is considering that as an option.

We’ve seen, for example, the European countries during recent months when they saw that the situation on the front lines was not as positive and rosy as they hoped. They understand the real risks, and they are just next door. Despite, for example, the position of the Hungarian prime minister, when it came to voting for the financial support bill, they all came together and voted unanimously in favor of it.

We’re seeing a change in the sound in France. It has been very, very powerful in recent weeks. The United Kingdom has been a strong supporter, as has Germany and Italy. I’m confident that everybody understands the risks and wants to help. It’s just that sometimes bureaucratic processes in countries that are living in peace are slower than they need to be during times of war.

Corruption in the Ministry of Defence

Brian Bonner: Corruption during times of war is stealing from soldiers. It’s stealing from taxpayers. The defense ministry was tainted with some allegations. How widespread was corruption? Was it exaggerated? Do you even know the extent? And since corruption is basically everywhere in every nation, the way to combat it is to have processes to prevent it and to punish it. What would you say about that subject?

Yuriy Sak: Most Ukrainians have zero tolerance for corruption. We can all ask Yanukovych about how that works out for people who have doubts about our attitude towards corruption. This is because of the Revolution of Dignity, during which 100 people were killed. In essence, that revolution, that peaceful protest that ended up in bloodshed in the killing of peaceful protesters, was about our position on corruption as a civil society.

At the same time, rooting out corruption doesn’t happen overnight. You rightly said that corruption exists in every country in the world. It’s about the existence of efficient mechanisms that allow society to detect and deal with corruption incidents in a way that is just and fair and is perceived as just and fair by society.

We are moving toward a society where institutions are in place, with the help of our partners. And you have seen since the scandals in the Ministry of Defense, those people who were implicated are now either under investigation or have been detained and are kept in prison. There have been, for example, the head of the Supreme Court who was caught red-handed taking a two million bribe. He has been detained and is now under prosecution.

There have been many other instances involving, for example, military heads of the conscription units and corruption in that field. We are aware of corruption in Ukraine and fighting it as much as we can. Again, it’s like war. Our victory over corruption is just as inevitable as our victory over Russia. It’s just a matter of time.

And one thing I would like to say in this context Of course, Russian propaganda cherry-picks these incidents. It amplifies. It is using billions of dollars of petrodollars internationally to discredit Ukraine, to discredit the whole of Ukraine, the whole of the Ukrainian government, to convince Ukraine’s partners that Ukraine is a corrupt country. Don’t give it aid; don’t give it weapons.

And I was personally involved in, for example, false reports by organizations such as Amnesty International, who would come out with a report claiming that Ukraine did something wrong, that Ukraine is corrupt. Foreign media would pick that up and then spread it in the parliaments in Brussels, in Washington, D.C. And those who are against the support of Ukraine would use that as an argument.

So, we have to be aware that Russian propaganda is still at work. Its information war against Ukraine is just as active, if not more so, than the actual kinetic war on the front lines. So when we hear news about corruption in Ukraine, those of us who are responsible with our information, let’s double-check. We are fighting corruption. It’s not an easy challenge, but it’s happening, and it’s being public and transparent, and we will defeat it.


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