“Odessa still getting ready for an assault - we are not in a position where we can treat any scenario lightly” [INTERVIEW]

MT-LB wreckage.
MT-LB wreckage.
Photo. Ukrainian Armed Forces, General Staff

Robert Czulda, Ph.D., speaks to Volodymyr Dubovyk, lecturer of the International Relations Department and Director at the Center for International Studies of the Odessa I. I. Mechnikov National University, who is also a former scholar of the University of Maryland Center for International and Security Studies.

So what is the current situation in Ukraine?

The situation is, obviously, dire. The Ukrainian forces have found themselves in a tough position. Not much has changed since yesterday, and it seems that there is still fighting going on in Kharkiv and Sumy. The Russians are getting ready for another attack on Kyiv. In the South-West, the Russians enjoy a greater degree of freedom which stems from the fact that most of the forces were repositioned by Ukraine to protect Kyiv. There is too little of us there, to stop the Russian march. Even there, however, the progress is slower than it was assumed. The Russians, unfortunately, managed to capture Kherson. However, they cannot speak of any progress west of Kherson. There are some hypotheses that they may try to walk around Mykolaiv, and follow the route towards Odesa - the hometown of mine - along the coast.

When it comes to Odessa, the beautiful city - this is where we have met a few years ago. How the situation in the city looks right now?

Some voices were suggesting that Odessa would be one of the main targets during the first phase of the offensive. This did not happen though. However, we are still getting ready for an assault. It is tough to explain why Odessa has not been targeted so far. Most probably, there are several causes here. The Russians probably want to reposition their land forces to the east first. However, they are unable to do that. They have been stopped in Mykolaiv, 150 kilometers away.

What about a maritime landing operation?

The amphibious operation was indeed widely discussed, it's true. As we know, it did not take place. We also do not know why. We can only speculate. First, it has been indicated that operations as such are very risky and bound to go bad. Secondly, the beaches surrounding Odessa have been fortified. There's a lot of artillery there, machine gun positions, trenches, and fortified structures. Anyone trying to get through must take failure into the account, as a possible scenario. Thirdly, rumors emerged that the Russian forces boarding the warships gathered around Odessa have organized a mutiny, not willing to participate in the landing operation. Fourthly, even though the Russians do have air superiority, they have not achieved complete dominance. They need to take into account the air defenses, surrounding the city.

One shall also remember that Odessa also has the advantage of having been given enough time to prepare. Many people have not expected open, full-scale aggression. This means that the cities that were attacked right at the beginning could not have gotten ready to defend themselves. In the case of Odessa, we are speaking of almost 2 weeks of preparations. Some roads and beaches now have been turned into minefields. Relevant military assets were deployed and positioned. This may be one of the reasons why we have not seen an attack here, so far. Nonetheless, a storm targeting my hometown is still a possibility. This vision is ripping my heart apart. Not only my heart, as people are getting ready to face the worst-case scenario.

Photo. Twitter

During the first days of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, some voices suggested that Russians may conduct a strike in the west, to cut off Ukraine from Poland. That would mean that the humanitarian corridors and support channels used by the civilians, and by the military, would have been sealed off.

We see no actions being made in that direction. Probably, if that scenario comes true, the Russians would need decisive support from Belarus. As the available reports suggest, the Belorussian Armed Forces are not eager to participate in the war. There are too few of the Russian forces available, to start an attack like that. I do not think they remain in possession of reserves sufficient to pursue such a course of action. Furthermore, I am convinced the Russians are aware of the fact that they would meet a major resistance in the west of Ukraine. Ukraine is nationalist right now - the whole country - but the west is above average. Look at what has been happening in the East, in Kherson or Mariupol, look how strong the resistance is, how the citizens are protesting. Multiply that by 10. You would get an answer on how that would look in the west.

Secondly, my take on this is that Russia does not want to engage in any sort of conflict with a NATO state. It is not ready for that, also noticing the problems it faces in Ukraine. Conflict involving any NATO member state would be more than they may be able to take.

When it comes to the humanitarian dimension - how the access to food, water, or electricity looks like, right now?

It is difficult, but it also depends largely on where you are. In places like Mariupol, it is really bad. This also refers to Kharkiv or Kherson. When it comes to Kherson, an interesting event took place there. The Russians were trying to stage up and pretend to do a humanitarian aid distribution, among the citizens. Most of them refused to accept it. There was a gathering organized, and the citizens made it impossible for the Russians to record this staged-up initiative.

I also have numerous friends staying in cities where the situation is dramatic. In Sumy, one of them spent three days in his basement, with a newborn baby. He is still in the city. I've lost contact with my friend in Mariupol, he stopped responding to my messages. I simply hope he is unable to do that, but I am not sure. Unfortunately, the Russians have deliberately targeted some cities destroying them, to simply crush the Ukrainian resistance. As there's bloodshed going on, the Kremlin has not been able to accomplish its objectives so far.

Professor Volodymyr Dubovyk.
Professor Volodymyr Dubovyk.
Photo. Volodymyr Dubovyk's archives.

What about the so-called humanitarian corridors? How do they function, from the Ukrainian point of view?

In the case of Mariupol, we have been dealing with negative examples. Most of the corridors have been targeted and shelled. There are some cases of shelling targeting the gathering areas. The Russians were trying to make use of the corridors, to enter Mariupol. The roads are cleared from the mines or any obstacles. All of that is done to make it possible for the civilians to leave the region safely. On the other hand, and I do hope that it's true, Tuesday morning we have received information on safe corridors reaching Sumy and Kharkiv.

Is it surprising for you, how bad the Russians have been in conducting the operation?

In some places the Russians are handling things better, in some, they are in a worse situation. We have always known that among the 150 thousand troops along the border, not many are well trained. We have assumed that there is just a handful of them. Now, we have a confirmation of that. Also, there has been a multitude of erroneous war planning and chauvinistic disregarding of the Ukrainians. The Kremlin could have concluded that if Zelensky runs away, once the Russians cross the border, and that no organized resistance can be expected.

There are high levels of rage directed against the Russians in Ukraine right now. Nobody discriminates the Russians from Putin. Following the year 2014, many people stated that it is no fault of the Russians and that we need to distinguish the society from Putin. It is not like so today - it is a war the Ukrainians are fighting against the Russians. If you look where the Russians are facing the greatest resistance now, we are referring to eastern and southern Ukraine. This refers to Kharkiv which has always been known for big numbers of pro-Russian citizens. Even the most pro-Russian politicians are now protecting their homeland from the Russian aggressors. Our government is working. All of the above has come as a surprise for the Russians.

The Russians have lost it, to their arrogance, and the belief that some Ukrainians would be unable to face the modernized, Russian Army that has been modernized for years now. And yet, they are not handling the situation as expected. Furthermore, for a couple of days, the Russians have been avoiding any fighting with our military. They are not attacking us often. Their firepower and attack have now targeted and been focused on the civil targets. By no means am I an expert on military matters, I am a political scientist. My take however is that the current situation is a source of hope for us. At the same time, we are about to face a period of bloody fighting now. With no end of that fight visible on the horizon.

Why did Russia attack now, and not earlier on?

This is a riddle. However, it is a purely academic dispute right now. This has no relevance right now - even though we are still asking such a question. When the escalation has begun, many people, myself included, were discussing this topic. Why now? Well, several factors come together here. These include internal issues in Ukraine and Russia. These also include the situation in Donbas and the domination of the "hawks" in the Russian power structure. This also refers to Putin himself. He has spent the last two years in almost complete isolation, as he is so afraid of COVID-19. Now we know that the circle surrounding Putin that was aware of the upcoming invasion has been incredibly narrow. This also stems from the growing dissatisfaction Moscow experienced since NATO has begun active cooperation with Ukraine, with NATO forces deployed to Ukraine.

This also, probably, pertains to the matter of Zelensky himself. I think that Putin assumed that Zelensky would've been an easy target, easy adversary to handle - inexperienced, lacking the political maturity. Such opinion could have been reinforced by the fact that Zelensky could be perceived as a "dove", seeking dialogue and understanding. This has changed, as he managed to bring a couple of pro-Russian TV channels to a closure. He also inflicted strong pressure on Viktor Medvechuk, Putin's main man in Ukraine. In the end, Putin could have concluded that it is high time to teach the Ukrainians a lesson. He was also assuming that the West would not get united, and he expected no reaction on their part whatsoever. He could have treated Biden himself lightly as well. Now we know that these assumptions have all been wrong and that the Russians have been unpleasantly surprised.

We will probably never learn the premises behind that action. To what extent Putin is still rational? In the part he was perceived as a rational politician, but is he still rational?

Right, is he?

I hope that he is still able to think clearly. If not, then I hope that there are people around him who would do something about that. Undoubtedly, Putin is furious right now, as he was asking for some concessions, and he did not get them. He was pretending to be ready to engage in diplomacy and negotiation. Now we know that he was just getting ready for war. Now, as our intelligence has captured Russian documents, we can see clearly that the preparation for the aggression has begun a long time ago. The Americans were right then when they started to speak about that in late October. At that stage, however, numerous experts denied the plausibility of such a scenario.

It seems that Putin has crossed Rubicon and reached the point of no return, or no simple return. He is fighting for life. This may be bad news for Ukraine, don't you think?

This probably is true. Putin has been placed in a corner, and a beast that has no way to escape is always very dangerous. At the same time, he can still present any resolution of the Ukrainian problem as a success to his compatriots. Either as a successful peacekeeping mission or as securing the Crimean Peninsula and Donbas. A narrative on disarming of Ukraine may also be used. The Russian media would go to any length to place a narrative as such in the people's minds.

We do not know, however, what thoughts reside in Putin's mind. Surely, he's not a person that easily surrenders. The necessity to resign from some of the set objectives is most certainly an irritating scenario. On the other hand, however, if any rational instincts are still within him, at some point in time he may understand that he may lose more if no step back is taken. This refers to the economic losses for instance. It may last months or even years. But given the current circumstances, the Russian economy is certainly doomed to failure.

Reducing tensions would pose a major challenge to Putin. Therefore, one cannot rule out readiness to send more soldiers to war and increase the mobilization in the society - however, as I said, seeking support in Ukraine is not the way to go. Undoubtedly, he would be facing difficult choices now.

Information emerged that reportedly Yanukovich is prepared to take the power back in Kyiv, with armed support provided by Russia. Could you please shed a light on these reports?

In that context, several names emerged, such as Yuri Boyko who could potentially become the Prime Minister. The names also include Yevhen Murayev, mentioned by the British intelligence some time ago. We do not know whether this scenario is being considered at the Kremlin. Maybe it is just a rumour disseminated on purpose, to check how this would be received. If it is taken into the account by the Russians, actually, then we could speak of a complete misunderstanding of Ukraine. Without occupation, one would be unable to install a new government. Once the Russians leave, any installed government as such would immediately fall. Is Russia able to begin full-scale occupation? I don't know. It depends on the quantity of forces that the Kremlin can send to Ukraine. As this may sound far-fetched, we are not in a position where we could comfortably ignore such a scenario.

So far, Zelensky is still in power. He has become a magnificent wartime president. His charisma is grand. I am expressing this as a person who has never been sympathetic towards him, taking a critical stance towards his presidency. In the last week, now, we can see that his work has been incredible, uplifting the morale among the society.

What do you expect to happen in the coming weeks?

I expect the war to drag on. How long? I don't know. This could be days, weeks, months. The Russians will be trying to enter Kyiv and other cities. I do hope, however, they will not succeed in capturing even a square inch of our territory.

Finishing our conversation, I would like to end it on a positive note - it may even be naive. War is, obviously, a tragedy. But even in war, one can find something good. I see two elements that would last after the war comes to an end. The first one is the deepened cooperation between Ukraine and Poland. We share a common, difficult history, while many people in Poland are concerned by Azov, or by the praise expressed towards the commemoration of Bandera. These matters will surely resurface in the dialogue - but this would happen in the future, between sovereign Poland, and sovereign Ukraine. Now, in circumstances of war, our nations have come close together.

Secondly, it seems to me, and correct me if I'm wrong, that the bloodshed is shaping the national identity of Ukraine. For quite some time, I have been hearing Russians saying that the Ukrainians are not a separate nation, that they are, in fact, Russian. Sometimes, some Poles were making similar statements - Ukrainians are Russian. However, they only seem to think they are separate.

Let me finish our conversation, referring to Poland. We are witnessing a major tightening between us now. Currently, there is no government and opposition, no fractions or diversity. Everybody is supporting the defensive war effort that, I hope, would become a fight for freedom at some point in time. Ukraine has been dreaming of independence for hundreds of years, and it only happened in 1991 - and the process was peaceful. Now we are experiencing something that may be referred to as a delayed war of independence. We deeply hoped we would have been able to avoid it - but it has not been given to us.

The war resulted in a national consolidation. Everybody noticed, who is the friend, and who is the foe. This is a major step forward for us. I do hope that this has an impact on future generations and that we would remember those who were killed. Museums and places where young people could learn about this history should be established. Secondly, Russia will come out of this war being much weaker. It may be a Pyrrhic victory for them. Even if they win, and I deeply hope this would not be the case, they would be forced to pay an enormous price for that. The attitude towards Russia has changed. For instance, according to the public opinion surveys, most of the Spanish citizens have begun to perceive Russia as the top threat. 48% of the respondents claim that Spain should send its troops into combat, should a necessity as such emerge. We are speaking of Spain, not Poland, or Lithuania! This is a grand change.

Finally, I would like to thank the Polish nation. The level of hospitality and support is astounding - and I am truly aware that this is a major burden for you. I do hope the EU is going to cover the cost. The Polish support is incredibly important to us.

Today I have seen a TV program that has shown the first Polish volunteers, already in the streets of Kyiv, ready for participating in the defence. Nobody expects tens of thousands of volunteers to fight for us, but even a small group is incredibly valuable.

I do not know how we shall finish. Is this the part where I wish you luck? Have a nice day? Any sentence seems to be inappropriate here.

Thank you Robert for giving us a platform to share our message with the world. This is what matters to us.