Ukrainian veteran on Zaluzhnyi’s dismissal and strategic vision – interview

UAV operators of the Third Assault Brigade
UAV operators of the Third Assault Brigade

Maria Berlinska, a veteran of the Russo-Ukrainian war and head of the Air Intelligence Support Center, explained in an interview with NV Radio on Feb. 10 why Ukraine should continue to invest in technology development—a priority for outgoing Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi.

NV: I’ve read your column in Ukrainska Pravda [NV’s sister publication] where you nostalgically described General Zaluzhnyi and your conversations with him. What are your feelings on the subject now that such a prominent champion of combat UAV development has been dismissed?

Berlinska: I don’t work in the field of emotions, but in the field of rationality. The column wasn’t about nostalgia. I objectively paid tribute to the commander-in-chief: the general who, according to my observations, according to the observations of my comrades-in-arms, was objectively the best commander-in-chief in the history of Ukraine, as of today.

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Obviously, no one would mind if someone even better showed up. But the reality is that the commander-in-chief was really one of those who kept the situation under control. In the first months of Russia’s invasion, we were objectively millimeters away from chaos, from total collapse of the state.

He was one of those who, with his strategic vision, the ability to manage troops, the ability to see far beyond the horizon, to forecast, made the direst consequences as small and less tangible as possible.

We must understand that we’re fighting against one of the most serious enemies in the world. And I really don’t like that our propaganda has portrayed Russians as comically inept soldiers, incapable of anything. This is a serious army, it’s a serious opponent, which is taken seriously by the United States, China, and other countries.

And, obviously, we need to take the enemy just as seriously, to study them, understand their trends, and preserve the lives of our people through technology, as clearly articulated by General Zaluzhnyi in his articles on the state of war.

We recently met again a few days ago, just before his dismissal. One of the most important messages he voiced at the meeting was about the need to develop robotic systems and technologies. He said that would be the future. It sounded like his “final testament”: moving in this direction, saving people through technology.

NV: General Zaluzhnyi introduced you to Colonel Vadym Sukharevskyi. This is the person who, as a senior lieutenant, took part in the first battle with the Russian invaders near Slovyansk in 2014. What kind of impact can veterans with first-hand combat experience have to fostering Ukrainian UAV advancement?

Berlinska: Everyone who has been in the army professionally and for a long time understands that the future lies with this. It seems to me that at least the lion’s share of some old, Soviet-trained commanders who disagree with this vision have already left the service.

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I can still remember it. We had a lot of this back in 2014, 2015, and 2016. For example, when I said that the future lies with drones, they said it was all nonsense, that only armored vehicles, artillery, etc. were important. Practice has shown that everything is important.

Of course, modern warfare is impossible without artillery, armored vehicles, aviation support, and air defense systems. But robotic systems will play an ever-increasing role on the battlefield.

As for the mood. Vadym is definitely a combat commander and one of the most brilliant combat commanders. I have a very good impression of him as a professional and a person who understands what an officer’s honor is. At the same time, he has flexibility of thinking and understands that the future lies with this, and he’ll be actively engaged in it now.

We must not have an army that runs on paper, with officers committing their reports to physical media. All these processes should be digitized, to reduce the burden on commanders, who sometimes spend up to 90% of their time on some incomprehensible reports. It should be fast and convenient. The data must immediately be sent to relevant commanders and operational and tactical groups.

As for the mood, I’ll tell you the following: we have no right now to despair or demoralize. I understood this for myself once... Probably in 2015 or 2016. Grown men with guns in their hands cried like little children, giving up because they were demoralized.

And I saw when boys and girls, completely unarmed, but simply having a high morale, advanced and stopped enemy attacks just because they had this will to win.

We have no right to despair, and there is nothing more important in war than the will to fight. To wake up every day, even after two to four hours of sleep, and continue to fight.

Therefore, let it not demoralize us all. We must continue in those traditions that were established, in particular, by General Zaluzhnyi. We must save people, we must understand that 2024 will be one of the defining years [of the war], because the Russians are obviously betting on the fact that we’ll exhaust and give up or will enter some kind of collective apathy.

NV: He is a general with incredible experience, now studied by our foreign partners. How do you see Zaluzhnyi’s function in the context of Ukraine’s victory?

Berlinska: I’m more than sure that Valerii Fedorovych will do a lot more for all of us. His knowledge, skills, experience, which are recognized everywhere in the world... He’s certainly a world-class figure.

I saw the respect for him when I talked with [U.S.] congressmen and senators in Washington. I gave an interview to a Danish publication and the journalists also asked [about Zaluzhnyi]. I spoke with the Danish commander-in-chief almost a week ago and he also asked about the general. That is, I see how much Zaluzhnyi is respected in the world, and his name alone is already an unconditional authority.

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World politicians and generals quote his articles by heart. Therefore, it [his most recent article for CNN] is not a “final testament” [almost in the classical sense]. It means a further plan of action, a further algorithm of what we all need to do.

Of course, he will continue his work. He’s not the kind of person who will leave his people, his tribe without help, without his guardianship and protection at such a time. Of course, he’ll continue to work towards our victory.

NV: How do you think establishing UAV forces as a separate branch of the military will affect the war? Do you think this could help us achieve parity with Russia?

Berlinska: I really hope so. The idea was initially just like that.

Valerii Fedorovych [Zaluzhnyi] and I talked once during the process of developing this idea. The idea is to translate UAV procurement and deployment into a systematic, completely understandable track, a clear workflow, both accounting and auditing, so that everything becomes more orderly. In general, remove the chaos. Here’s the basic idea. Remove chaos, introduce planning.

Planning takes place on the basis of audit and understanding of where, how much, what is used and what the result is. And this already gives an opportunity to plan how many people need to be trained, for which systems, what works and what doesn’t work for us.

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This is not only about drones. It’s important to understand that it’s generally about the ecosystem that supports UAVs. Because these are both antennas, spectrum analyzers, electronic warfare, and ammunition for drones. In fact, we need millions of drones and ammunition for them.

There is also such a myth that a million drones are a lot. A million drones are good, much better than it was. It would be great to have a million drones by 2021 or 2022 at the latest. But as of 2024, this is no longer enough, because the enemy is also advancing, and very quickly.

Therefore, we shouldn’t stop. Russia is entering multimillion-dollar production in various types and classes of devices and systems. Their military industry is working in three shifts.

They’ve launched this death machine, and engineering developments and the best engineering scientific research institutions, and private industries have been under the personal control of the president [Russian dictator Vladimir Putin]. They constantly force them to work more and set goals for the industry.

The biggest threat is automatic optical guidance and navigation systems. With those, UAVs on the battlefield become more autonomous, and the Russians are now very actively working on this. Imagine when the drone takes off and is actually no longer controlled by an operator, it begins to pursue a target it has locked on. If there are swarms of such drones, it will create a very serious danger for us.

Now we can see that the Russians are starting to test the first such solutions on FPV [First-Person View] drones, even with thermal cameras at night. Therefore, it’s now important for us to invest our resources in technology.

NV: Do we have enough qualified professionals to build the infrastructure to achieve the goals you’ve described?

Berlinska: Unfortunately, I can’t say that this infrastructure has been completely formed. This is a nascent market and industry in general. The short answer is no, not enough. Enough for 2018, but absolutely not enough as of 2024.

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Why is it so? Because nine women don’t give birth to a baby in a month. This is not an industry that is formed in a matter of days or even in a few months. This is an industry in which you have to invest for years to get it on its feet. That’s why I and several dozen other city lunatics had been ringing the bell for years. I’m glad that the development has finally started.

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