EXCLUSIVE: Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council Secretary Speaks
12 February, 2018

He’s a powerful force in Ukrainian politics, the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council and a key ally of President Petro Poroshenko. After the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, he even served as interim president and chairman of the Ukrainian Parliament. But Oleksandr Turchynov seldom speaks with the press.

Hromadske managed to sit down with Turchynov to discuss some of the key political issues in Ukraine.

My first question is about the Donbas law. The lawmakers had voted in its favor, the bill is now on the president’s desk to be signed. Our question is: You were the main ideologist behind this bill, so how is it going to be implemented? Can you tell us a bit more?

First off, Russia is now officially recognized as an aggressor country and this wrecks Putin’s plans to mask his aggressive military operation under a peacekeeping one. Secondly, the law clearly determines the technique for protecting those Ukrainian citizens who were forced to stay on the occupied territory and those who had to leave their homes and are in Ukraine now: they lost their property, estates and so on. The law clearly states that any actions that are carried out [in the occupied Donbas] will not be legally recognized. While it holds diplomatic methods as its top priority, the law also provides the opportunity for Ukraine to use force, armed forces and other power institutions to their full potential in order to defend the country, fight back against aggression and restore the country’s sovereignty in the occupied territory.

The law also implies the launch of a joint center. When will this executive center be created? And who is likely to head it?

There is already an executive center within the General Staff [of Ukraine,] so we don’t need to create anything from scratch. Another question is that it would only be able to start operating in the areas of military actions after it becomes qualified to do so; and that’s when [the President] signs the bill. What is important is that there is a united security system in the process of creation and it will be headed by our soldiers. We had this before but it was only de-facto, now it will be de-jure too. So, it’s a united and executive center. And not only will the armed forces obey it, but also all the power institutions located in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblast.  

Рhoto credit: Anastasiia Vlasova/HROMADSKE

Do we understand correctly that the philosophy of the Donbas law allows the use of force in order to restore the occupied territories?

We’re not saying that the only way to do it is by force, by the use of the armed forces. But this law does not rule this method out and creates the right conditions for that: so that no additional legislative acts are required to be taken and there is a legal foundation for the use of force and resisting the aggressor already. At the same time, the law also does not rule the diplomatic method out. Quite the opposite. No one canceled the Minsk agreements. Yes, Russia is trying to sabotage them, Russia is trying to neutralize them. But at the same time, the president deems the diplomatic method as one of his most preferred ones today.

You spoke of the people who stayed in the occupied territories, that [the law] provides them with a legal status and the territories are seen as ‘temporarily occupied.’ How would you, as the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, refer to the people who stayed at the temporarily occupied territories?

Many people were just forced to stay and, of course, among them, there are those who cooperate with the occupant administrations. Because the ‘LPR’ and ‘DPR’ are fake titles to cover up for the military occupant administrations installed by Russia on the occupied territory. And, of course, there are those who cooperate, and even more, those who took part in riots against their own country, took part in military or criminal activities. There are many of those. But there are also those who don't have any other option, who stay in their houses and have to work in some establishments.

Рhoto credit: Anastasiia Vlasova/HROMADSKE

You previously said that 2016 was the year we haven’t surrendered a single patch of the Ukrainian land. If we go back to that, how would you describe the year 2017?

Both 2016 and 2017 differ in the way that we haven’t surrendered a single meter of our land. Moreover, some of our units improved their positions by 10 and more kilometers. That’s a fact. All the attempts at changing the configuration in favor of the occupant forces and changing the demarcation lines ended badly for Russia’s terrorist troops. They failed at both: capturing more towns and moving forward in their position. But there is another problem and it’s a very serious one. We need to speak about this. Russia continues to build a strong military infrastructure across our border. And de-facto, they use corps that obey Russia’s 8th Guards Army, they use these corps as their first echelon. And the second echelon is located across their border with our country. There are strong reinstated [military] units, including the aviation infrastructure.

Is there a way for Russia to attack Ukraine from the Crimean territory or is this an unlikely prospect?

They installed some really powerful military bases in the occupied Crimea, clearly not just for defense purposes. These include powerful offensive armaments, strategic aviation, missile systems, including those that can carry and operate with nuclear weapons. It posits serious danger and such troop concentration does not look like it’s solely for defense purposes.

Рhoto credit: Anastasiia Vlasova/HROMADSKE

Last year, a whole array of measures to resist [Russia’s] hybrid war actions came into force. We remember there was a ban on Russian social media and a change in the rules for crossing the border, as well as an expansion of the economic sanctions and many other things. Were there any results of these measures? How can one sense a result under hybrid war conditions?

Friends, if those results didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have an independent, European Ukraine. So the fact that it exists is a proof of our joint victory and it’s a proof that Putin can’t meet the goals he set and wanted to meet at the beginning of 2014. There is no such thing as a free, independent and European Ukraine in [Russia’s] format of “imperial revanche.”

But do you not think that these methods resemble the methods of Putin’s Russia?

Which ones?

When we speak of certain restrictions, bans — isn’t it like fighting Russia using their own methods?

You probably saw how serious the discussions were in the society when you banned social media websites like Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki, and other websites.

When there is a hybrid war and no methods to resist it, the country becomes unprotected. And I, as an NSDC secretary, who initiated many sanctions, restrictions — including the ban on Russian social media and other information resources used not only as information tools but also as aggressive cyber tools against our country — I [think that] it’s our duty. How did Russia play the game? It turned the freedoms of both European and non-European countries, like the United States and others, into their weaknesses. When [the West] pushed for the importance of not putting any restrictions on the media and the information they provide, it turned [some media] into a weapon. We can see it with Crimea: first, there is Russia media and then there are Russian tanks.

Mr. Turchynov, since you raised this topic, do you agree that freedom can be restricted for the sake of security, under the conditions of a hybrid war?

The line is based on our Constitution. There is a law that allows limiting some serious things if there is incoming military aggression.

But what is this law that comes into practice when there is military aggression?

It wouldn’t come into force with the conditions that we have today. But it can’t be sparked by political actions, it can only be used as a safety measure. It would take something like a random military behavior activation to instigate it. The Constitution and the [Ukrainian] law clearly state which conditions allow to make the restrictions.

With regards to sanctions, it’s just an obvious technique that is used not only in Ukraine. It would be funny if our partners used sanctions against Russia and we would say “that’s not democracy.” No, we need to take a tougher approach to this and no compromises can be made.

The people who weren’t happy with the NSDC position on social media just thought that it’s better to verbally explain why Vkontakte is bad, that the FSB can potentially access their data...

They already access it.

Yes, so: “let’s not ban, let’s just explain that it’s better if they don’t use it.” But you went a different way.

You know, the government does not control a single television channel. It doesn’t have that many methods of conveying information [to the public] and we hope that honest journalists like you provide objective information, don’t just criticize the government. Because sometimes it becomes uncool to speak well of the [Ukrainian] government organizations and when you are an honest person with principles, you need a bad twist, and then people will respect you and say “yes, that person means business, he’s a professional and does his job well.” So, friends, help us explain [things,] convey information. Here, we’ve been explaining this for a year, but some serious cyber attacks are still used like the one last year. My point is that last year we set up the National coordination center of cyberdefense under the NSDC and we did a lot. Moreover, Ukraine is now in top 10 in the European Information Community rankings of countries that effectively increased their skills in cyberdefense.

Рhoto credit: Anastasiia Vlasova/HROMADSKE

When I headed the parliament in 2014 and de-facto had to govern the country, it was a catastrophe. Ukraine’s defense industry was being systematically destroyed. First of all, it was just an addition to the Russian one. All of them worked as just an addition to the Russian defense industry and this concerned missile systems first and foremost. Virtually all the orders came from Russia.

Mr. Turchynov, coming back to the time [when you were the head of the state], you put in maximum effort but it looked like it just wasn’t what you wanted to do.

Only the sick-minded want war. Normal people don’t want war. When the war started in 2014, I had to always take responsible decisions. And when the Russian aggression started in Crimea, our armed forces did not measure up. They were not capable of following orders or even guarding their locations and using weapons for defense. They couldn’t even follow that decree. The situation was tragic and the country was in panic. So if I went out there and complained about the soldiers, that they can’t defend the country, there would be a mass hysteria. I held up all the negativity inside me and told everyone that we have strong armed forces, despite that not being true. I couldn’t say anything else, I just couldn’t say that the orders are not being obeyed and that the troops cannot defend the nation. And there were threats not just from Crimea. They formed entire troops just off the north of Ukraine in order to invade mainland Ukraine, on March 1 they approved the decision to send the troops to the Ukrainian territory. So we had to [do two things simultaneously:] buy some time making sure their soldiers remain in Crimea and prepare weapons of mass destruction to fight against the aggression. We didn’t have the means to defend Kyiv. And under such conditions, we had to learn to balance, to restore our defense power, our military strength. We desperately needed time for that and we had to buy that time whatever it took. When the war had started in Donbas and our army wasn’t ready [to fight] yet, we had to send our untrained volunteer battalions. Many boys, Ukrainian patriots, were killed. Their blood and their heroism was what stopped the enemy in the east. Today we can speak about our ability to defend the country, to fight the enemy. But it took us time and effort. But to send children to their death... you don’t need to be a hero for that, you can just be a scum.   

How long do you think the Ukrainian army will need to restore the control over the occupied territories of Donbas, if Russia won’t interfere?

A couple of weeks. What makes planning a military operation in the east so difficult? It’s that you don’t understand how many troops you will have to be dealing with, how many divisions Russia will send to Ukraine: corps, armies and so on.

How long will we need to restore the control over the occupied territories without considering the Russia factor? How long do we need to wait? We’ve developed our army, we see some progress. So how long?

A lot depends on our strategic partners. Unfortunately, there are many new politicians coming into European governments who say that it’s Ukraine’s problem without realizing that Ukraine is Europe’s outpost and that the Ukrainians don’t just defend Ukrainian independence but Europe too. We stopped the progress of Russia’s aggression toward the west. So it’s quite an irresponsible attitude [from them]. We really needed [their] help back then and I didn’t receive a single cartridge. Today there are more talks about help, but it’s mostly psychological help they offer, consultative. So everything that concerns the military-technological cooperation.

What about the javelins?

The javelins are approaching us but they haven’t quite made it here yet.

The Normandy contact group helps us with the laws that could potentially stop the conflict in a diplomatic way.  Do global leaders think of Ukraine as a subject or are we still just an object in their eyes?

Unfortunately, it’s a problem. Ukraine is treated as a problem. Like “you see we lose our own profits because of Ukraine, because of the sanctions.” Have you noticed how often the question of canceling the Russian sanctions is raised now in various European countries? You see, they don’t sense this. Their matters are more important to them than someone else’s. There is no understanding that it’s not just about Ukraine as a European state, but about a civilizational choice and the future of Europe. And what’s our problem? We don’t learn from history. History teaches us that it doesn’t teach us anything. Unfortunately, that’s how it is. For example, there were Munich agreements when Hitler received part of Czechia to calm him down — they didn’t want to irritate the aggressor. They didn’t want to irritate the aggressor and then they spilled their blood all over European land. So I find this formula “don’t irritate the aggressor” deceptive and dangerous.

Russia makes claims to its imperial rights, to its rights to other countries’ territories — they even do it demonstratively now. And this doesn’t just concern Ukraine.

Where do we stand in this new paradigm? Where do you see Ukraine in this new world? And who would be our role model for this? Turkey? Israel?

There are many role models. By the way, Israel had to lead war ever since their state came into existence, in order to survive and defend themselves. Turkey showed quite a good economic growth. There are many European countries that only have their own potential to work with. Norway, Switzerland are just some of them. Today’s Ukraine is dependent on foreign loans, that’s a fact. But our recipe for survival and defense is the nation’s unity.

As in, one language, one state, one nation?

We don’t ban anyone from speaking another language. The nation needs to comprise of not just those who prove that they have Ukrainian origin; a nation is a unity of people who live in this state and take responsibility for it.

Do you think that before the elections the government needs to join forces into one big political union? And is it true that you already agreed to head a presidential campaign of one of the candidates, that of Petro Poroshenko, to be precise?

You know fake information disseminates really fast and then you have to reiterate that it’s not true. First of all, the presidential election [campaigns] haven’t even started yet. Even if there was a candidate that I liked or wanted to endorse, I wouldn’t have the right to do that. That’s why I think that it’s crucial that we don’t restore the format that allows using administrative resources in political battles.

Friends, there was a war going on and we still managed to hold the elections. So what will stop us from holding honest and transparent presidential [elections,] followed by the parliamentarian ones? It’s not the biggest challenge for us. Another thing is that you can’t turn elections into a civil conflict. If you lose a country, there will no longer be a need for the government.

So no one even offered you anything yet?

The election campaigns haven’t started yet. I am also confident that Mr. Poroshenko has a well-proven technology for this, it’s not his first elections after all. The people in the government cannot compete among themselves because then they wouldn’t have the time to work on the reforms, economics, decentralization, but will only be dealing with arguments and problems — we saw this in the history of Ukraine many times. So the government needs to be one team of people, not only for the sake of achieving better political results, but first and foremost to achieve a real result in the society and economics.        

Do I understand correctly that you’re not planning to take part in any form in the 2019 presidential elections?

I worked as a president and I didn’t like it. No sleep, tremendous workload. Therefore, I am not planning to run for president or head any [political] party.

You spoke of the government joining their forces. Would that also entail the People’s Front political party joining the president’s team in the upcoming elections?

The coalition [that we have today] and that has been operating for almost three years had times when it had to act in secret, when it was on the verge of being broken up, but it works. So those who are ready to take the responsibility for the country — and I’m not just talking about the parliamentary factions — they have to be united. Those people who don’t just make promises but who actually do things.

United into one party, one political bloc?

I’m just saying that it needs to be one team. Let’s call it a battalion, a brigade, a corp or an army — it’s up to you what we want to call it.

Describe your relationship with the President, taking into account the history of your difficult political relations, coming back to the year of 2005. How did you manage to reconcile and in what state is your relationship right now?

One needs to make conclusions from feuds and from their own political experience. I made my own and I think so did Poroshenko. I am in charge for defense matters so I view the President as the Supreme Commander. That’s how I see him when I follow his commands and orders.

So not partners, friends or allies?

I don’t throw out labels such as ‘friend,’ it’s not in my nature. But I do think that we work in the same direction and solve the same problems, which concern security and defense. The Supreme Commander gives out orders and I obey them. That’s a normal relationship and, of course, I think that there are mistakes made, there are problems, but our relationship allows me to make a point when I agree or disagree with a certain decision. But once this decision is approved and the decree is signed, we have to obey. But I want to say that the president often takes my advice into account. At the same time, his experience is crucial for making the right decisions.

/Interview by Anastasiia Stanko and Maksym Kamenev