Interview with Vladyslav Kovalchuk, political analyst with a Master’s degree in Security Studies at the Maria Curie-Skłodowska University in Lublin, and founder of the think tank Ximera. Before joining the Ukrainian army as a combat medic, Vladyslav fought Russian disinformation and participated in various humanitarian aid activities as part of the Intermarium support group.
You know Russian propaganda well. Why was “denazification” used as an excuse for the invasion?
Because the main focus of Russian propaganda is the Great Patriotic War, and the Second World War, hence all this effort to call Ukrainians “Nazis” and justify the invasion under the pretext of “denazifying and demilitarizing Ukraine”. Their target was the people of the post-Soviet space, and the truth is that the propaganda worked since it must be borne in mind that in schools and universities people still talk about the goodness of the Red Army and Stalin as the architect of victory.
This war was presented as the culmination of what Stalin had started. However, if we analyze the special military operation from the beginning, we see that it was first presented as a fight against Nazism, but then the narrative has been changed according to the target group: for Muslims, it is presented as a Jihad, as the Chechen Kadyrov repeats; for the Orthodox, it is presented as a Crusade against Satanism and to save the Orthodox Church in Ukraine; for Westerners, it is presented as a war against NATO and the US. Propaganda is suitable for every audience.
A key element of this propaganda is the Azov regiment. However, after the defense of Mariupol, there has been a significant change of opinion regarding this unit.
Yes, general opinion has changed after its heroic defense for more than 80 days, but there are still many people who continue to listen to this propaganda. For example, the Japanese government apologized to Azov and removed the unit from its list of extremist groups, but the US has not yet done so. Because of its inclusion on that list, the Azov regiment was not allowed to receive US training and weaponry in 2015. International public opinion has changed and Azovstal defenders have been invited to different countries: Poland, the United States, Israel, etc. The approach is totally different, but there has been a price to pay for this propaganda.
What do you think of Putin’s Christmas truce proposal? More propaganda?
Yes, they manipulate absolutely everything. This year Ukraine started celebrating Christmas on 25 December, although most Ukrainians celebrate both on 25 December and 6 January, and with this truce, Russia tried to appeal to the Orthodox part of the Ukrainian population. Of course, there was also a military background; it would help them reorganize or move units on the frontline, and a diplomatic background; it would help them negotiate in order to gain time to form new units with the mobilized conscripts.
The truth is that one has to be very cynical to talk about a Christmas truce while civilian targets are being bombed.
Of course, but in the end, this campaign against the Ukrainian civilian population and infrastructure has only resulted in Russia being designated as a state sponsor of terrorism and the EU and the US delivering more arms and aid to us.
Before enlisting, you had been helping with humanitarian aid. Some places have been razed to the ground or looted by the occupiers, but people are returning to their homes or what is left of them.
A huge amount of work is being done to rebuild the buildings and yes, people are coming back because they don’t want to leave their homes. The reconstruction is not as fast as we would like, but fortunately, there are several countries that are investing money in this. The aim is to rebuild everything that has been demolished.
What has the recapture of Kherson meant for Ukraine?
For Ukraine, it is a turning point, a symbol that we will regain all the lost territories. For Russia, it is an unmitigated disaster. The main message of Russian propaganda when they took Kherson was: “Russia is here forever”, “We will never leave”, and “We will not retreat”. After the failure in Kyiv and then Kharkiv, the withdrawal from Kherson has come as a blow to the Russians and even some of their war correspondents have since begun to criticize Putin and the army leadership. Right now, they are engaged in Bakhmut, where they have suffered heavy casualties for only a few meters.
Your unit leaves for the front in just a few days. Do you have adequate equipment to withstand the winter?
Yes, we are well prepared for winter, although it’s been a warmer winter than usual. On the other hand, the Russians have mobilized a lot of conscripts and do not have the necessary equipment for all their soldiers. When I hear about “General Winter” as an ally of the Russians, I am reminded of the war against Finland in 1940. That campaign was an unmitigated disaster for the Russians and “General Winter” worked against them. I think the same thing will happen in Ukraine.
How long did your training last?
In total it has been almost six months. I have received military training in different areas: shooting, tactics, urban combat, etc. And then my training as a combat medic. Our unit was going to be sent to the front a few months earlier, but the changes in the war situation allowed us to do more training and improve our skills.
What is the level of preparedness of Ukrainian combat medics?
It is difficult to say, but it is certainly much higher than the level we had in 2014. In these eight years, we have incorporated new equipment and the experience accumulated since 2014, and we have also adapted the protocols of the US military to our situation. For example, we have produced a Ukrainian version of the US CAT (Combat Application Tourniquet), which is just as effective, but much cheaper. NATO medical instructors told us: “Now we are teaching you how to save lives, but in a year’s time it will be you who will be teaching us because of the experience you will have gained in the war with Russia”.
Do you think Russia will be able to reverse the Ukrainian successes with the newly mobilized soldiers?
An untrained soldier is a one-time soldier and will probably die in the first battle he takes part in because he does not have the proper training and equipment; he does not know how to use combat medical equipment and does not have modern weaponry as our army has. Ukraine has a much more professional and technological approach to this war, we use drones and satellites, and we have intelligence provided by Britain and the United States. This makes the situation very complicated for Russia.
Some of these newly mobilized soldiers have died in Ukraine just two weeks after being recruited. Does the Russian army not care about the lives of its men?
In Russia, human life is worth very little. On New Year’s Day, they lost 600 men in a HIMARS bombing raid on Makiivka, but the comments of ordinary people on Russian social media played it down because it was such a low number considering Russia’s huge population. This is more of a World War II mentality.
Álvaro Peñas es redactor de deliberatio.eu, colaborador de Disidentia, The European Conservative, El American y otros medios europeos. Analista internacional, especializado en Europa del Este, para el canal de televisión 7NN. Autor en SND editores // Writer at deliberatio.eu, contributor at Disidentia, The European Conservative, El American and other European media. International analyst, specialized in Eastern Europe, for the television channel 7NN. Author at SND editores.