General Marchenko: Russia Will Fail

In a rare interview, the “Defender of Mykolaiv” explains why Ukraine will prevail, as long as it receives enough support.

General Marchenko: Russia Will Fail

In a rare interview, the “Defender of Mykolaiv” explains why Ukraine will prevail, as long as it receives enough support.

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Major General Dmytro Marchenko, Ukraine Army interviewed by Anthony Borden, IWPR Executive Director in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, 15 Feb 2023.
Monday, 20 February, 2023

The Russian army will fail against Ukraine because it is fighting not against the army of Ukraine but against the nation as a whole, claims one of Ukraine’s best-known military personalities.

“Russia has been preparing this war for about ten years,” Major General Dmytro Marchenko said in an interview with IWPR. “But their plans were completely broken in the south. They made a fatal mistake. They didn't think that, together with the army, ordinary people will resist.”

This is the conclusion of the man who has become known as the Defender of Mykolaiv. His success – with regional governor Vitalii Kim – in rallying this key maritime city to beat back Russia’s southern blitzkrieg was a critical turning point in the early days of war. 

The experience gives him confidence that Ukraine will prevail, whether confronting Russia’s initial incursion or its much-trailed renewed offensive. 

A year on from the full-scale invasion, the invaders face a people who have lost their fear of the enemy and a Ukrainian military, according to the general, determined to maintain the element of surprise.

Meeting in Mykolaiv, the general now serves as a senior official for cooperation between the army, partisan resistance and the regional military administration. Speaking solely in a personal capacity, he highlighted the role of the population in confronting the invading force. 

While intending to encircle and quickly control the capital, in the south the Russians planned to race across the coast and put the country in a stranglehold. Moscow, he said, invested significant funds and ten years’ effort in manipulating Ukrainian society and co-opting government and military officials. 

“They were convinced there would be no resistance in southern Ukraine,” he said. “It took them just six hours to get to Kherson [70 kilometres east], and they were sure that Odesa and Mykolaiv would fall. They always use massive attacks and artillery shelling, but… something went wrong with their advance.”

With Russians overrunning outlying hamlets and reaching the military air base, only 800 metres from the town’s central railway station, the population stood firm. 

“In villages, people were making human chains across the roads, or trying to stop tanks with their bare hands,” Marchenko recalled. 

Critical to this effort was detailed knowledge provided by the local population. 

“There are a lot of natural barriers, such as water channels,” he continued. “The Russians were using [them] as shelters and fortifications. It was very important for us to get information from communities . . . about which channels they were using.”

As a result, the Ukrainian forces were able to shell Russian troops before they could gather into attack groups. 

“We were hitting them with artillery shells when they were just starting to advance . . . thanks to the information given to us by the local population,” the general continued. 

In Bashtanka, a small town 68 kilometres northeast of Mykolaiv, a hunter captured three Russian captains, taking them by surprise in their hiding place. 

“He jumped them and said, ‘I have a double-barrelled shotgun and two shells. If you don't surrender, two of you will be killed.’ They dropped their weapons, and the hunter delivered them to the authorities,” Marchenko recounted.

“From the beginning, it stopped being a war between two armies, and turned into a war between the Russian army and the whole nation. Civilian doctors didn't leave the city. They were treating wounded soldiers. Military vehicles were being filled up by local petrol stations. The soldiers were being fed by local restaurants and cafés. Ordinary people helped dig trenches to fortify the city. Everybody was part of a big machinery. And thanks to these common efforts, done by everybody here, everyone had their place in defending and saving the city.”

A heroic civic response helped save Mykolaiv, and continues to be seen across the country. Down the road in Kherson, even under occupation and facing detention and torture, a network of citizens formed a loose underground, regularly providing information to the security services on the movement of Russian officials, and contributing to the collapse of Russia’s hold there.

Yet varying reports from official Ukraine sources have suggested that Russia is gathering huge numbers of fresh troops on the borders. The recent restrictions on access to Bakhmut have been taken as a potential signal that Ukraine intends to pull back. There is a feeling of expectancy over what kind of massive shelling Moscow may unleash to mark the anniversary.

Marchenko acknowledges the strains facing Ukrainian society and the military now – especially in the east, where Russia has concentrated its forces.

“The Donbas situation is hard, very heavy and complicated,” he said. “But no one wants to retreat. They will hold and they will fight for as long as possible. They have the same mood as here, people holding weapons in their hands… We need to defend our motherland, because it's our only one.

“The Russians still didn't understand whom they're fighting with. They didn't understand that we have changed and we are not afraid of them anymore. They're trying to use the same tactics as they did, advancing en masse, using massive artillery shelling, using missile strikes. And they can’t get that, actually, instead of being more scared, we are getting angrier and we have started hating them more.”

Like all Ukrainian leaders, the general underlines that the country’s capacity to endure and succeed depends on international military support. The key factor in improving the situation in the east depends on “the necessary quantity of heavy machinery, aircraft and air defence,” he said. 

But he underlines the link between troops and materiel. 
“It's the same situation for us and for Russia,” he said. “We are starting to run out of resources. We still have people and the desire to defend our country. But while Russia can take people from other locations and bring them to where they think it's necessary, we do not have this possibility. We have no reserves to take people from.

“The worst is that this lack of the necessary quantity of machinery leads to losing people. We are losing possibilities, we are losing time. Every soldier in the Ukrainian army is ready to die, but he wants to do that taking as many Russians with him as he or she could.”

As the anniversary approaches, the West continues to supply arms – if never fast enough. But dissenting voices can be heard, alongside calls for settlement, for accepting Russian territorial gains, for conceding the Donbas and Crimea.

“To those who doubt our capabilities to liberate all our territory, I would say that you shouldn't be doubting us or looking from the top of the hill at our efforts. You should better help us because just for a single second, imagine that Ukraine will fall and who will be next,” Marchenko said.

“Ukraine is a shield of Europe. It's defending Europe. And Putin… is like a dog that has tried meat for the first time. It won’t stop. It will do anything to get more and more meat. If he takes Ukraine, he won’t stop. So that is why it is time for us now to get together and fight to repel him together. We have the people and the will to fight, we only need the equipment. We only need assistance. Give me a sword and a shield and I will fight.”

With Russia pressing around Donbas, might it serve Ukraine’s advantage to make a move from Zaporizhzhia towards Melitopol and the water? The general would not be drawn in terms of tactics. But he did indicate that Ukraine would not rush into a precipitous attack and was waiting for Russia to be overexposed.

“Military historians and specialists say that to break their defence, we need at least three times more people and capabilities than they have, and that if we do not have this advantage, the offensive will be lost,” the general noted. “That is why the Russians are doing everything to lure us into an offensive, because they know it would be tragic for us. We understand the situation, and that is why we are waiting for them to come forward, to even our chances.”

Although Russian forces are learning lessons from the fighting, the general is convinced that they remain fundamentally vulnerable – “We only need to push, to push hard and to crack them, for them to run away – even from the Crimean peninsula”.

As the war heads to its first anniversary, does he think it be the last? 

“I hope very much that there will be no second anniversary,” the general said. “But everyone should understand that without assistance from western countries and western people, there is the possibility that there could be a second anniversary and a third anniversary, and on and on.”

Portions of this interview were edited for length and clarity.

Translation and additional reporting by Mykhaylo Shtekel.

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