Ukraine’s military chief has said his forces would defend the country “until the last drop of blood” as he urged people to calm down about threats of a new Russian invasion.
Lieutenant-General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, 48, repeatedly underlined that Ukraine has been at war with Russia since 2014, telling Sky News in an exclusive interview: “It is absolutely no news to us”.
Asked if he was disappointed NATO, the 30-nation defence alliance, including Britain and the United States, had ruled out sending troops to Ukraine to join the fight should the Kremlin launch a further attack, the commander-in-chief said he wasn’t expecting a “gift from God” and his forces would cope.
But he called a UK training mission to the country since 2015 “above important”, especially given the risk that Russian President Vladimir Putin does intensify hostilities.
Speaking after a daily security briefing with the Ukrainian president, the general was careful not to comment on areas he regarded as political, such as the outcome of talks this week between the US and its NATO allies and Russia on Ukrainian and European security.
“Of course I understand what are they talking about, people are negotiating,” he said, sitting on a chair in a meeting room at the Ministry of Defence in Kyiv on Monday evening.
“But… my mission is to prepare and sustain the armed forces for their intended task – to defend the state.”
This includes keeping calm despite warnings from American, British and other NATO officials about the possibility of another Russian invasion given the presence of some 100,000 Russian forces close to the Ukrainian border.
“I want to calm the people down so that they sleep calmly in their home,” Lieutenant General Zaluzhnyi said.
“So I will repeat that our armed forces have been at war for eight years. They carry out military operations in Donetsk and Luhansk regions and they are ready to conduct them in other regions.”
He was referring to areas in the east of Ukraine where Russian-backed separatists have been resisting Ukrainian government forces ever since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.
A top Russian diplomat, speaking after talks in Geneva with American officials on Monday, said that Russia had no plans to invade Ukraine.
Asked whether he was comforted by these words or did not believe them, the military chief said: “I will repeat myself that I consider only one option: “I have my motherland which I need to protect and I have the armed forces which have to be ready to defend our country.
“I can also add that we are not going to attack anyone at all. But we will protect our land until the last drop of blood.”
Ukraine’s military has long been on a war-footing, with only the level of danger rising or falling.
“It is absolutely no news to us,” said Lieutenant General Zaluzhnyi, himself a veteran of frontline conflict having commanded forces in the east during some of the deadliest days of the war during 2014 and 2015.
“Today [Monday] two servicemen died in the operation zone, yesterday one was wounded. The war goes on for us. And the fact that its scale can be bigger, well it used to be smaller, but became bigger. We are just doing our job.”
He said his military was closely investigating and analysing the activities of Russian forces close to the border but said it “was not suitable” to share what he knew about their intentions publicly.
What about whether his armed forces, which number some 260,000 servicemen and women, would be able to resist a large-scale Russian invasion?
“We have been countering the offensive since 2014. Of course we will,” the commander said.
Ukraine’s military is much better equipped, trained and prepared than eight years ago.
But analysts have still questioned whether it would ultimately be able to succeed against Russia’s much larger armed forces, predicting instead that a major Russian offensive could secure an initial win but then the occupiers would be faced with an enduring insurgency.
The military chief signalled that he knew Ukraine would have to face any further Russian military action without the prospect of NATO forces surging in to fight alongside them.
Asked whether he was disappointed, he said: “I, as the commander-in-chief, am responsible for my country and my armed forces in particular. I don’t have any illusions and don’t wait for a gift from God. I fought and I have been preparing my armed forces.”
Yet there is a number of foreign training missions in his country offering help, including one with about 100 British forces, which has trained about 20,000 Ukrainian personnel.
“This is above important, especially now when we are at the stage of a possible widening of the military aggression,” the general said. “It’s very important to feel their support.”