Ukraine is preparing for Russia to try again to invade from the north – maybe around the anniversary of its first, failed attempt to seize Kyiv last February, a top commander has said.
President Vladimir Putin could even ultimately order millions of soldiers into the war as Russia’s offensive falters in the face of fierce and enduring Ukrainian resistance, Major General Andrii Kovalchuk, one of Ukraine’s most senior military officers, said in an interview.
He said the Ukrainian armed forces would be ready, even to combat millions of Russians, but they would need ever more lethal support from Western allies, including potentially cluster munitions – a type of weapon that many countries, including the UK, have banned.
Commander of the Operational Command South, Major General Kovalchuk, 48, a key architect of a major counter-offensive in the south of the country, told Sky News that Ukraine would win the war – retaking all of its territory including the Crimean Peninsula.
But the decorated and highly-experienced officer warned that the fiercest fighting might yet be to come.
The comments came in a wide-ranging interview in which Major General Kovalchuk offered his thoughts on the operation over the summer and autumn that recaptured swathes of territory in southern Ukraine, culminating in the liberation of the city of Kherson, the only regional capital to have been captured by Russia since the full-scale invasion.
His most notable remarks, however, were about the potential for Russia to expand its attack.
‘We live with the thought that they will attack again’
Asked whether Russian forces will again try to invade Ukraine from the north, the east and the south, maybe even on 24 February, the anniversary of the start of the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion last year, the commander said: “Yes, we foresee such options, such scenarios. We are preparing for it. We live with the thought that they will attack again. This is our task.”
He appeared particularly focused on the possibility of Russian troops again invading via Belarus on Ukraine’s northern border – the route to target the capital.
“We are considering a possible offensive from Belarus at the end of February, maybe later,” Major General Kovalchuk said, speaking at an undisclosed location in southern Ukraine.
“We are preparing for it. We are investigating. We look at where they accumulate strength and means. We are preparing.”
Russia’s first attempt to conquer Kyiv from the north ended in humiliating failure.
Ukraine’s more-motivated forces, backed with an initially limited flow of Western weapons, managed to beat back the poorly prepared and badly equipped invading troops within a matter of weeks.
‘We have to be ready’ if Putin orders full mobilisation
If Putin tried a second time, drawing on the remainder of some 300,000 troops he mobilised over the summer, Ukraine would be better prepared to fend them off, the general warned.
“We mined individual areas, and prepared reliable defences in certain areas,” he said.
“It will no longer be the case that they [the Russians] will simply walk in, as was the case on 24 February (2022).”
The frank-talking commander – well-liked and highly regarded among his troops and peers – also raised the prospect of the Russian president ordering a full mobilisation in Russia as the war drags on, generating potentially millions of men to send into the fight.
Asked if he was expecting the mobilisation of millions, Major General Kovalchuk said: “I think Putin is thinking about it. And we cannot rule out such an option. We have to be ready for it.”
As to whether Ukraine would be able to cope with such a large invading force, he said: “Definitely yes. I believe that our position and the position of our partners today should be clear. If Putin carries out a full mobilisation, our partners are ready to provide us with all the force and means to stop not an army of 300,000, but an army of a million.”
Ukraine ‘needs more weapons’
He signalled that Western weapons would need to become even more deadly to respond to such an expansion.
“We need more collective weapons – not an assault rifle, but a machine gun; not a projectile, but a cluster munition. There is a corresponding counteraction to the enemy’s actions. We are sure that our partners will help us in this matter – those who want [us] to win. Because it is not only Ukraine winning today, but the entire civilized world. And we must win.”
The UK is one of more than 100 countries signed up to an international treaty that bans the use of cluster bombs. Dozens of nations are not yet signatories, including the United States.
In the immediate term, the general said Ukraine needs weapons from Western allies that are intended for offensive operations.
“We need both tanks and planes. We also need a reliable air defence system that is at least 95% effective.”
The commander spoke of his forces’ operation to recapture swathes of occupied territory on the Western side of the Dnipro River in the south, including the regional capital of Kherson on 11 November.
He said the ultimate goal had been to destroy all Russian soldiers on the west bank of the river. However, timing pressures and shortfalls in ammunition meant ultimately the Russians were able to retreat.
‘We will return every square centimetre of our territory’
The general said it meant the counter-offensive had been only 50 to 60% successful, noting that these Russian troops had since moved to fight Ukrainian positions in the east and were also still able to launch artillery strikes onto the Western side of the river.
As for Ukraine’s next targets, the senior commander was tight-lipped – for now.
“Someday I will definitely write a memoir,” he said. “I will tell the truth about what happened. “Today I can’t say too much so as not to spoil the future.”
The plans, though, do include retaking Crimea.
“Crimea is a must – it is only a matter of time,” the general said, sitting in front of a line of flags representing different regions in the south of Ukraine, including the peninsula.
“This flag doesn’t just hang there,” he said.
“We will return every square centimetre of our territory.”
He would not be drawn of a timeline for victory, other than to say he hoped it would be soon.
“I would like to solve all the issues this year. But I believe that next year we will bring everything to a logical conclusion.”