Russia has so far failed to achieve its military objectives since invading Ukraine, but the chances are still “high” that President Vladimir Putin may attempt another assault on the capital, Kyiv, says a Ukrainian legislator who is now serving in the country’s military.
Roman Kostenko, a special forces commander and member of the liberal pro-European Holos (Voice) party, made his remarks in an interview on June 3 with Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. He was speaking as Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine entered its 100th day.
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Russian military forces are now largely focused on seizing controlling of the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, also known collectively as the Donbas. Moscow has made seizing the whole eastern Donbas a key objective of its unprovoked invasion after being pushed back from Kyiv.
However, the Ukrainian capital could face a second Russian assault with the likelihood of such a scenario possibly dependent on Belarus, explained Kostenko, who also serves as secretary of the national security, defense, and intelligence committee.
Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the authoritarian ruler of Belarus and close Putin ally, has said his troops are not taking part in Russia’s invasion, but the country’s territory has served as a launchpad for Russia to send thousands of troops across the border since the invasion began on February 24.
“Belarus is also our enemy, and we understand this. A country, that allowed our enemies to use its territory to kill our civilians, its leaders are also our enemies,” said Kostenko.
Given the ongoing security risk posed by Belarus, Ukrainian forces were being deployed along their common border, which stretches some 1,080 kilometers, Kostenko explained.
“We regard this threat as high. Either the Russians will be able to enter there if they gather forces and announce a mobilization, or they talk the Belarusians into taking part.”
Buoyed by Russian advances in Donbas, the Kremlin is reportedly contemplating a second assault on Kyiv, the Latvia-based independent Meduza news outlet reported on May 27.
In the early days of the invasion, Kostenko said, the Russian military gravely miscalculated what would await them in Ukraine.
“They hoped that the population of Ukraine would clearly support them and that with the help of these people they would not have to conduct long-term military operations here. They expected light skirmishes, that the Ukrainian Army would lay down their arms and Russia would take control of the entire territory,” Kostenko said. “As a result, there were these long [military] columns, that we hit with great precision. They had no communications, no coordination, no joint operations. They just went to the slaughter.”
Russia’s inability to achieve air supremacy in the skies over Ukraine was another huge setback for the Russian military, Kostenko noted.
“They tried to destroy our airfields with cruise missiles, they tried to destroy our radars and they did not succeed. And Russian planes, I know for certain, that they are afraid to fly into the territory of Ukraine; they are afraid to be bombed along the front line, because our air defense still terrifies them.”
Since then, the Russian military has learned and adapted, Kostenko explained.
“They have started setting up defensive positions; they have begun to use their equipment better; they are incorporating artillery. They are learning and it has become a more difficult fight for us,” he added.
Russia’s military has increased its use of tactical air to support its creeping advance in the Donbas, Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence bulletin on June 4.
Ukraine’s fighting capability is also improving, Kostenko pointed out, thanks in large part to the more sophisticated and lethal weapons being supplied by Ukraine’s “Western partners.”
“If we have long-range artillery and precision artillery, then this requires one tactic. When we were fighting with Cold War-era weapons, that required a different tactic,” Kostenko said.
Ukrainian officials have been asking allies for longer-range missile systems that can fire a barrage of rockets hundreds of kilometers away, in the hopes of turning the tide in the three-month-long war.
U.S. President Joe Biden has agreed to provide Ukraine with advanced rocket systems that can strike with precision at targets up to 80 kilometers away.
"We will provide the Ukrainians with more advanced rocket systems and munitions that will enable them to more precisely strike key targets on the battlefield in Ukraine," Biden wrote in a guest essay in The New York Times on May 31.
Although Russian invading military forces may now control up to 20 percent of Ukrainian territory, as Ukrainian President Volodymy Zelenskiy has noted, Kostensko is confident Ukraine will ultimately win.
“When we survived the first month [of the Russian invasion], we realized that we had already won. Our country has united, our country was able to and continues to fight back against the Russian Federation. We foiled all the plans that the Russian Federation had. That is the complete occupation of Ukraine; the occupation of the south, and the seizure of our eastern territories,” Kostenko offered.
“The Russian Federation is active only in the eastern territories, and bloody battles are now taking place there. And Ukrainian troops stubbornly defend their territory. Therefore, we have already won, there are still very big tests ahead of us, but all the people are united with the goal of defeating the Russian Federation and getting their territories back.”