Ukrainian commander: Russia will turn its gaze on the Baltics one day
One of Ukraine's most legendary soldiers, commander of the 1st Siveria Tank Brigade, Col. Leonid Hoda tells ERR in an interview how Russian tactics have changed in the war and how Ukraine is coping. He believes that Russia has not given up its imperial plans and will turn its gaze on the Baltics sooner or later.
Col. Leonid Hoda is a legend in Ukraine. He received Ukraine's highest honor –the Hero of Ukraine decoration – just weeks after the war started, in March of last year. Hoda's brigade defended the city of Chernihiv near the Belarusian border. The 1st Siveria Tank Brigade destroyed more than 50 units of enemy machinery and kept the city from falling. The brigade is currently fighting in Donbas. Leonid Hoda was interviewed by ERR's Anton Aleksejev.
Cameraman Kristjan Svirgsden and I were in Kyiv when the war started, in February-March last year, and wanted to travel to Chernihiv. But we couldn't find anyone willing to take us there as it would have been extremely dangerous. Many in Kyiv believed Chernihiv would fall, while it didn't. How did you manage to defend the city?
I believe that your idea of visiting Chernihiv at the time was completely insane. There were many incidents of vehicles getting blowing up while delivering munitions, volunteers being killed. First, the enemy was in control of the airspace. Second, they had aerial reconnaissance and thirdly artillery. Fourth, they were coming up the highway from the direction of Moscow, which they also controlled. Why did Chernihiv not fall? It is probably because something went wrong for them. We can analyze these things in hindsight. Their method was to attack in mass, to intimidate the Ukrainian society and army, sow panic and chaos. To reach the outskirts of Kyiv and force us to surrender. Luckily, it did not happen.
Perhaps you recall how [Russian President] Vladimir Putin urged the Ukrainian army to turns its weapons against the country's government and president, referring to them as drug addicts and neo-Nazis. What did you and your subordinates think of that?
You know, the information vacuum we were in ended up benefiting us. There was no power, the television wouldn't turn on, so we simply didn't see what he said. We also didn't have time for television and Putin's propaganda, we were just doing our job. We were trying to push to the border and keep the enemy in check. No one thought about laying down their arms or retreating. There was no panic, no thoughts of retreat. No one even mentioned the possibility.
Courage alone is not enough in war, one also needs strategy and tactics. Did the Belarus invasion take you by surprise or were you prepared?
You may recall that there was a lot of information about a potential invasion in the media at the time. Naturally, our army was also making preparations. We were in the middle of drills when Russian troops were moved to Belarus. We practiced reaching defensive lines, stationing troops on the border.
And under this guise, commander Maj. Gen. Nikolyuk (commander of Operational Command North – A. A.) gave us permission to hide equipment, including some tanks in the area surrounding Chernihiv. We also moved all our weapons and ammunition out of the base and positioned it some way off. But few indeed believed that such a massive offensive could be possible. The third millennium and there's full-scale war in Europe – it still sounds like gibberish. But it happened.
We also caught a break because the first missiles hit ammo storage facilities and bases, while there was nothing there.
We are in Donbas over a year into the war. Has your enemy learned from its mistakes? Have they changed their tactics?
Everyone learns. Only those who are lazy or do nothing fail to learn from their mistakes. The Russians are constantly altering their tactics. They are trying to gain ground, break through. At first, they tried the Tatar-Mongol approach of just throwing hundreds of thousands of troops at us. It didn't work. Next, they tried to overwhelm us with machinery – tanks, IFVs. That also didn't work. Now, they are acting in small tactical groups made up of two tanks, two or three IFVs, trying to get as close as possible. This means they are starting to run out of machinery. But they have plenty of human resources as they make no effort to spare them.
And now their tactic is using infantry, without mechanized and artillery support, in small groups. Wagner are here – how many of them were ground to dust? 50,000? 60,000? It's biomass that requires neither pay nor benefits. We'll see what they'll come up with once they run out of biomass.
What do you think about Russia's mobilization? Politicians and experts have been very critical of the ability to fight of the newly mobilized. However, you urged people to take off their rose-colored glasses and look at the situation realistically in an interview. What did you mean?
As concerns rose-colored lenses, we need to know the enemy, know their habits if we want to win. Let us look at the mobilization realistically. A guy who still drove a taxi yesterday is sent to the army. He is given an assault rifle, sent to the front and promptly dies. But what about a thousand such taxi drivers? A hundred will survive the battle and turn into decent soldiers a few months later. Russia's human resource is 150 million of whom 30-40 million can fight. We cannot bet on being able to defeat them all. We are not immortal either, we're not terminators. People tire mentally and physically. The war is wearing us out, Ukraine's armed forces. I believe they are preparing new reserves. We are also preparing, of course.
Supreme commander Volodymyr Zelenskyy decided to create army reserves late January. While news tells us that not everyone is keen on joining the army voluntarily. At the same time, we were told in almost all brigades we visited that they need more people. How do you replenish your ranks?
We are not catching people or forcing them to join the brigade. We have recruiters and the 1st Tank Brigade has a bit of a reputation. I need motivated soldiers who join the army knowingly, pick up their weapon and want to learn. And we teach them. Knowingly giving your life – what could be more valuable?
We can keep the brigade staffed, we have no shortage of personnel. Unfortunately, we also get wounded soldiers who are taken out of action for a time and need replacing. Therefore, we are recruiting and training new people. And, of course, the better staffed the brigade, the easier it is to send people on leave. We are trying to make sure the brigade is fully manned.
We are receiving letters not just from Ukraine but also Great Britain, with people looking to join our ranks. People also write us from training units. Of course, we run background checks because we don't need random people and adventurers. We try to recruit motivated people.
How long does it take to train a tank crew?
I can teach you to drive a tank in a day or two. A few more weeks, and you'll also know how to fire the gun. But that is not enough to make a tankman out of you. Getting in a tank, driving it to the line of fire and facing the enemy takes character. The psychological training is the hardest. We are trying to get people used to the pressure gradually, so they don't break right away. This takes between four and six months on average. Starting from scratch, it takes me six months to train a battle-ready tank crew.
Ukraine has been promised Western tanks the first of which are beginning to arrive – Leopard, Abrams and Challenger tanks. Have you ever driven a Leopard or Abrams MBT?
I have only seen the Abrams but haven't driven one. I also haven't driven a Leopard, while I have seen it up close and climbed on top of it. It was interesting, even though it happened a long time ago.
Will we get Leopards? I cannot tell you. I don't know what our superiors will decide. If they decide to give us Leopards, that is what we will use. If it's the Abrams, we'll fight in those. It makes little difference for us – a slight change in tactics, that's all.
You know the capabilities of Western tanks. Do they have any advantages over what you're working with today and what could those be?
To be honest, our tanks aren't bad either. The Western models in question, the Challengers and Leopards, especially the new generation or the A4 and newer variants, differ in terms of avionics, thermal sights and a highly accurate main gun. The sooner you detect the enemy, get them in your sights and fire first, the greater your chance of survival. If our tanks have an effective range of 2-2.5 kilometers, their Western counterparts can be fired from 4-4.5 kilometers away. A slightly more interesting distance, shall we say. There is also protection, radio communications and many other details.
How are your ammunition stores? I know that artillery crews are short on 122 and 152 millimeter shells. Do you have enough munitions?
That depends on the type of shell. We have enough of one type of ammunition, while we may have a shortage of another. It is a question of particular needs. Talking about defense, holding an advancing enemy at bay, we have enough ammunition. Were we ordered on the offensive, this would increase the amount of ammo we need. So it makes no sense to try and summarize whether we have enough ammunition or not. We have enough for now. While I would like to have more, I have enough munitions to perform operational and tactical tasks.
Valerii Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, said late last year that he would need 300 tanks and 700 IFVs to liberate all of Ukraine. How many of those would have to come where you are engaged?
Yes, we are fully manned and equipped right now and do not need additional tanks. I respect Valerii Fedorovych as a commander and person, and I fully trust him. If he asked for 300 tanks in such a modest fashion (smiles – A. A.), he knows the price of the mission and how many we need. I know he will not ask for more. If he said 300 tanks, it should be enough.
We stopped in Kyiv on our way here, and, to be honest, life in the city seems almost back to normal. I do not know when you last visited Kyiv or another major city, but were you shocked by what you saw there?
That is a trick question (smiles – A. A.). As concerns what I feel... Well, it is a shame in a way. However, let us talk feelings after we win, while society needs to prepare for continued full-scale war in the meantime. I do not think this war will be over in a month or six months for that matter. And there is no sense in telling oneself that our soldiers are excellent, that they will take care of business and everything will be fine. Soldiers are like everyone else. Unfortunately, they are killed and wounded. We need people, fighters, and I hope society will gradually come to understand that.
You were in Northern Ukraine, the border of Belarus when the war started. How likely do you hold a new offensive from Belarus?
It is impracticable. If we were prepared for full-scale military operations last February, we now have defensive lines and fortified zones in place. It would not be realistic now.
You said that the Ukrainian society should prepare for a long war. What should people in Estonia and the Baltics prepare for in the long run?
I would take this opportunity to thank the Baltic countries and especially Estonia because you do a lot for Ukraine. What should you be preparing for? I believe you need to count on the Russians not abandoning their imperial ambitions. Look at history – Russia has never given up on its plans of conquest and its ambition. It has always waged war and meddled in other countries' affairs. I hope to God that I'm wrong but I think it will turn its gazed to the Baltics sooner or later. I also believe we will see Belarus annexed by Russia in the near future. It is a matter of time, six months perhaps. Let us prepare for the worst and stick together.
The end of our interview has taken a rather gloomy turn. Give us hope!
Hope... (smiles). I hope that the world has now seen the true face of Russia, seen what it really is. All their plans, all their lies have been uncovered. And I hope that the countries that are helping us remain united. But Russia will be unable to rise again for a long time after its army is demilitarized in Ukraine. For that, we need to finish the hydra, preferably in their territory.
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Editor: Mait Ots, Marcus Turovski