Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak, 54, took office in late 2014 with a challenge on his hands: retaining Ukrainian territory amidst Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the onslaught of intensive fighting with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Nearly five years later, the challenge remains, but how the new administration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will respond is not yet clear. Defense Minister Poltorak resigned his post immediately after President Zelenskiy’s May 20 inauguration. He opted to stay on until the Ukrainian parliament decides whether or not to accept his resignation.
In a May 21 interview with Current Time anchor Iryna Romaliiska before his resignation, Poltorak assessed his performance, the advisability of talks with Russia, and the future of Ukraine’s NATO integration.
Can the president weaken the country’s defense capabilities?
My impression from the first meeting was that he was listening and, I think, he listens to the opinions of others. Today, after the first meeting, I do not think that he is able to make it worse.
The main thing is that a person wants to learn. The president of Ukraine is an experienced man in terms of learning; he learns very well. I think that he is a clever man and he will not take the wrong steps. There are people who can give him advice.
My dream is that Ukraine would return to 2014. Experiments with the army always end badly. And they ended for us with the loss of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk.
Does [the president] joke when he’s talking one-on-one with someone?
He’s a rather serious man. We talked about things like that today we, unfortunately, have 10 shootings and one person wounded [in Donbas]. Two people died in the zone of the United Forces’ operations. That’s why we were not in the mood for jokes.
Were you insulted by the rather harsh statements [about your performance] made throughout the country during the inauguration, when there were foreign envoys present?
I am personally not ashamed to look into either your eyes or [those of] all of Ukraine. I took a lot of decisions in my five years of work, and I did not take a single one for my personal benefit. All the decisions were aimed at making the army stronger.
Starting with the liberation of the Kharkiv regional state administration in 2014, I have not been ashamed. Otherwise, we would have HNR [the People’s Republic of Kharkov]. Starting with the decisions that were taken after that, [I have not been ashamed.
I lost a lot of personal strength, health. I have not been on vacation for four years. Almost five. Without days off. That is why I am not ashamed. I did what I could. And I would like to wish whomever will take my place to do even more. I am ready to help.
Do you know who will take office after you?
Are there any candidates?
I have told Volodymyr Oleksandrovych [Zelenskiy]: “Appoint a decent defense minister.” We lost almost 3,000 soldiers in the military forces. Today, there are almost 250,000 people in the Ukrainian military. They are courageous, heroic, and patriotic, and they truly have the right to a decent defense minister.
[Presidential defense advisor Ivan] Aparshin, for instance?
I have an opinion about that. I think that …
Is it negative, this opinion?
That doesn’t matter, if it’s positive or negative. I always judge based on actions.
I don’t know Aparshin well. I’ve seen him one or two times. The last positions that Aparshin held were as, if I'm not mistaken, head of the government administration, for, I think, six years. He was responsible for Ukraine’s [armed-forces] mobilization. What mobilization we had in 2014, I didn’t see. I don't have any doubts that he's clever. I also have no doubts that he's well prepared. But to know and to do are two different things.
The mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi, told me that someone from his team was offered the position of defense minister. Do you know who it was?
I have heard about some [parliamentary] deputy. I do not know his last name. I do not know who he is. You know, we have a problem: We do not talk about reforms, problems. We talk about positions.
We have the false opinion that anyone can be the defense minister. But why should the justice minister have a law degree? And why can a person who worked anywhere become defense minister? It doesn’t work like this.
It happens. Ukraine’s prosecutor-general, [Yuriy Lutsenko], doesn’t have a law degree.
It happens, but there are consequences. I'm not talking about the prosecutor-general. I am talking about the military forces and work in the army. For five years, for about 80 percent of my work, I was obliged to deal also with assignments entrusted to the general staff.
Why did you resign?
Claims about [other ministers’] retirements began two weeks before [the inauguration]. In my opinion, it's not that this rhetoric is not fully correct. It had more of an informational nature.
I am the defense minister. I should tell the newly elected president about the state of affairs. The day before [the inauguration], I informed Volodymyr Zelenskiy that I was planning to step down after the report [about the military] and after he takes the [presidential] oath to the people of Ukraine.
It's not mandated by legislation; handing in your resignation after the election of a new president. I did what I thought was right. I think this is an honest position because I respect the right of the president to decide on the new defense minister and to send his candidacy to parliament.
What do you think about the negotiations with Russia?
Negotiations should be conducted with Russia. The only thing is that we have to be very careful because, to be honest, I do not know many examples when Russia negotiated [an agreement] and then kept the promise. Especially when they negotiate with a country that has less potential, a smaller army, fewer opportunities, and a smaller territory.
They more or less keep [their promises] when they talk with the United States. And not all of them.
Zelenskiy announced that it was not Ukraine who started [the war], but Ukraine has to end this war. Why did Ukraine, in particular, not end that war during these [last] five years?
Because the country was not ready for that war. Not only the military forces. No one in Ukraine was ready for the war; neither the government, nor society. We never thought that we would have to fight on the territory of Ukraine.
Unfortunately, our carelessness and attitude toward the army, to which we dedicated 1 percent of GDP, led to a situation where there was no one to defend our country. You know, I remember with horror when, here, on the defense ministry’s stairs, I accepted humanitarian assistance from Canada. I was ashamed. It was not pleasant. I hated it because a country with enormous potential is receiving uniforms, which we did not have and which were really necessary for the Ukrainian military forces. That was the situation the army had wound up in. We were not prepared and, because of that, we could not end the war quickly.
We really started to make reforms in 2016. Before that, we actively conducted warfare and patched up holes. We did everything possible to do elementary things. We started work on reforming the system only after 2016.
During all the years of Ukrainian independence, there were several attempts to reform the military, but we couldn’t only not do this; we never even made a plan of these reforms.
And now the reform has been completed?
The planning is fully completed. Starting from the national security strategy and defense …
No, the reforms are not completed yet.
Knowing how diplomatic you are, I will not ask if Zelenskiy can end the war, but can any Ukrainian president end this war in the next two, three, four, five years?
Asking me, a soldier, you can receive only one response: The war can be ended anytime, but it can only be ended with a victory. Otherwise, we will not have a country.
What if there is direct conflict between the regular armies of Russia and Ukraine?
The Russian army is one of the strongest in the world, both in terms of the number of personnel and weapons. For sure, it is very difficult for us to oppose such an army; especially considering that we have been receiving a decent budget for only the last five years.
One U.S. soldier costs the country $500,000. In Russia, nearly $100, in Lithuania, $83; in Poland, approximately $90. From the beginning of the war with the Russian Federation, our one soldier cost the government almost $5,000. Now it’s much more. This money had to cover the uniform, medicine, a social package, a financial allowance, new technology, equipment, rockets, tanks, planes. But it does not work like that!
There is a belief that Zelenskiy went against the existing Ukrainian establishment. Do you have such a feeling?
I think that Ukraine needs changes. But they should be beneficial for Ukraine. So as not to destroy Ukraine’s statehood, they should be aimed at making Ukrainians happy. And the main thing is, they should be for real. In order to make Ukrainians really happy.
If something is not right, will there be a third Maidan?
I’m not thinking about whether a Maidan will happen or not. I don’t know. But I definitely know that Ukrainians will not tolerate [bad government] anymore. They have learnt to live another way.
What are you going to do next? Take a vacation?
In the near future, unfortunately, it’s unlikely that I will go on vacation. I will honestly complete my work till the end. When parliament takes the decision, I will go.
Do you see yourself in politics?
I have been thinking about it for a long time and still have not decided.
What do you think about the perspectives for joining NATO? Are they expecting Ukraine there? When? What is necessary for that?
I was talking about the help that we received from Canada. I was always ashamed to request help from our partners. I think that we have to learn to live according to our means. We need to learn to count money and to earn it. We need to do our reforms. This is not only about the defense ministry. It’s impossible to reform the military without an economy. And to do that, a lot of work is necessary.
As for joining NATO, during the last meetings in Brussels, all the [NATO] defense ministers talked about how they need to accelerate Ukraine joining NATO. About reforms, I don’t see any threat of non-performance; at least for what was planned by me as defense minister [for the period] until 2020. With the exception of reforms that are connected to financial resources. To huge financial resources. Now I am talking about rearmament according to NATO standards. Because even Poland, which has been in NATO for 20 years, still has not fully gotten rid of Soviet weapons.
That 's why there’s a threat. In other directions, if we will be consistent, we will meet the standards. And today, we are working very productively. If we take the defense ministry, the biggest part of the homework is done. We reached a new stage in managing systemic reforms. We have very productive work with our strategic advisors. And I think that the armed forces definitely will not trail far behind, when the question about accepting us into NATO will or not will be raised.
And when will it be raised?
When the country is ready. There aren’t armed forces in NATO. Countries join NATO.
By the way, the prerequisites [for joining] the European Union and NATO are almost similar. And that is why we have to finish the homework, if we decided to move in that direction. And, here, every ministry, every executive and legislative branch agency has its own task.
We conduct a lot of joint exercises. Until 2014, there were not any team exercises planned, and there were 26 of them in 2019. Up to 20,000 of our people have been trained according to NATO standards. We’ll reach these standards. But we still have a lot to do.
The main thing is not to drop the flag we carry. [We] should simply pick it up, raise it higher, and move forward. My dream is the next defense minister will be much better than me.
Do you have such candidates?
You know, this is not my responsibility.