Ukrainian General Sergei Melnik: ‘Only the Russians can change Russia. That’s when the war ends’

The commander of the Kharkiv region defends the need to bomb military targets on Russian soil to protect Ukraine and Europe

Sergei Melnik
Sergei Melnik, Ukrainian brigadier general and military chief of the Kharkiv region.Legión Marsel
Cristian Segura (Special correspondent)

Sergei Melnik, 45, is the paradigm of a generation of men in their 40s and 50s who are leading the defense of Ukraine. They are generals like him and his direct superiors: Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Valeri Zaluzhni, 49; Army Commander Oleksandr Sirski, 57; and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, 45. Younger than the authoritarian elites leading the invasion from Russia, their charisma and their proximity to the reality of war are qualities that they all wish to highlight. If Zelenskiy visits frontline positions just a few miles from enemy troops, Russian President Vladimir Putin meets commanders at a base located 93 miles from the front line. The same goes for Melnik: no Russian general has been seen, like he has, in trenches under artillery fire.

Melnik, commander of the Kharkiv region in the east, bordering Russia, confesses that he had not been expecting the Russian invasion (despite the fact that other military leaders, such as Zaluzhni, had taken it for granted). He admits that 15 years ago he was one of those who believed that a war with Russia was unimaginable and that there was no need to reinforce the Ukrainian army. Everything changed in 2014 with the conflict in Donbas and the annexation of Crimea by Moscow. The general now believes that the threat will not disappear as long as Russian citizens do not understand that they are also victims “of a form of terrorist government.” And he adds: “We must isolate Russia so that the Russians will understand that they are also victims of this terrorism. Only the Russians can change Russia in a democratic way, that’s when the war ends.”

Melnik lives with his wife and daughter in Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine, just 18 miles from Russia, despite the high price on his head. He is a Doctor of Law and has gone down in the history of his country for having defended the city against the siege of the invader between February and April 2022, and for having participated in the counteroffensive last summer, which expelled the Russians from the province.

The military official spoke to EL PAÍS last Thursday in an interview lasting more than two hours in the private area of a central restaurant in Kharkiv. The establishment seemed closed from the outside, but inside, secretive meetings were taking place at several tables. Escorted by four soldiers, the brigadier general, whose code name is Marsel (this is how he is known to the general public) specifies that during the 2022 siege he had some 20,000 men under his command. He remembers many moments from those months. One of the most notable was the interrogation of the pilot of a downed SU-35 fighter. It was a high-ranking officer from the Russian base in Voronezh. Thanks to that prisoner, Melnik realized that the enemy had a significant amount of useless military equipment: the pilot confessed that of his regiment’s 24 combat planes, only 12 were operational.

The pilot also made it clear to him that the goal of the invasion was to disintegrate the Ukrainian state. “I replied that the enemy has yet to be born that can completely destroy our nation. And that, for people like him, the only future that awaits them is to rot in our land.” Melnik reveals that the officer was exchanged for 200 Ukrainian prisoners.

Melnik is just as confident in the success of the counteroffensive that the Ukrainian General Staff is planning for late spring: “Each of us is like a cog in a chain, each one knows the moment and the place where must act. I can’t provide details, but when we attack, the enemy’s reaction will be to flee so they can tell what hell awaits them.”

“A normal person will not resist until he is the last to wait for death, especially in the face of a massive and precise attack,” adds the commanding general in Kharkiv.

Russia has built 500 miles of fortifications since last summer to protect the territories it occupied in the invasion. Melnik estimates that the superiority of fire and troops that will be needed to break through these Russian defenses is four to six times that of the enemy’s. This data confirms the titanic challenge facing Ukrainian troops, because military theory indicates that for an attacking army to succeed, it must have at least a three-to-one superiority over the defending army.

Russian tactics have not changed in the 14-month invasion, the general says: “First they send cannon fodder, then artillery fire, and finally assault troops. The only thing that has changed is that they care less and less about the lives of their own people.” Melnik points to another important advantage, in his opinion, over his rival: Commander-in-Chief Zaluzhny’s knowledge of his nemesis, General Valeri Gerasimov, chief of the Russian General Staff, one of the leading military theorists in the world: “He has read everything Gerasimov has written, and can identify his next steps, his tactics and way of fighting.”

The general fears that Russia may want to replicate in Ukraine the strategy it carried out in the wars in Chechnya: “The current calm worries me a bit [the Russian army is concentrating its forces in Donetsk province]. In Chechnya they entered in the same way to withdraw in a first phase, just like here. And they regrouped two years later to attack again. They introduced a network of collaborators and took over the land.”

There is always a shortage of men, but we are not Russia, which carries out covert mobilizations

He admits that Ukraine needs more troops, but not only men, also ammunition for artillery and tanks. But soldiers on the front lines need more frequent rotations in the face of an enemy that has more resources: “The problem is that we will never have enough people and equipment. Because those who are professional soldiers, hardened in patriotism, are already exhausted, injured or recovering. Or they have died. That’s why we invite people with no military experience and train them.” In Ukraine there is a growing chorus of voices warning that a draft could take place, ending the current voluntary recruitment. But Melnik rejects the idea: “There is always a shortage of men, but we are not Russia, which carries out covert mobilizations.”

Melnik is convinced that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have enough weapons to coordinate the spring attack, but concedes that the more modern weapons they receive from their international allies, the better. The general stresses several times during the interview that the priority is to receive anti-aircraft defense systems. Not only to eliminate the threat of Russian planes and helicopters at the front, but also to protect Ukrainian cities.

The Ukrainian general Sergei Melnik visits the front escorted by several soldiers.
The Ukrainian general Sergei Melnik visits the front escorted by several soldiers.Legión Marsel

The military officer smiles with a hint of malice when asked about the bombardments that his artillery is carrying out in Belgorod, the neighboring Russian province. Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory are causing misgivings among Ukraine’s international allies. The president of the United States, Joe Biden, has reiterated that he does not plan to supply Kyiv with long-range weapons that could be used to strike Russian soil. Melnik assures that they do not use foreign-supplied missiles or shells to attack positions in Russia, but insists that Kharkiv and Ukraine need a security perimeter of at least 62 miles: “We do not attack in areas where civilians live. If we detect a threat from Russia that is 3.5 kilometers [two miles] from our border, we will destroy it. But we do not use weapons from our international partners.” Energy infrastructures in the city of Belgorod have been destroyed in attacks.

Ukraine is betting on building its own drone production industry. Unmanned aerial vehicles, says Melnik, are the great revolution of the war in Ukraine in terms of military theory, as they are used on all fronts and for multiple uses: “It is the safest option to hit troops and technical assets of the enemy. A drone is a piece of plastic with a bomb that flies directly at a target. A decade ago we watched movies about it, today it is a reality. Drone warfare is incredible because it is reaching unexpected heights.”

Drones must also be used to destroy Russian bombers at Russian military airfields, Melnik repeats. And this, he assures, Ukraine wants to do not only to defend its territory, but also for the rest of Europe: “Their planes are currently taking off calmly, they fire their long-range missiles, they return to their bases and the pilots are calm, certain that nothing will happen to them. We have to stand up to this arbitrariness. Because in the same way that they launch their missiles on Kyiv or Kharkiv, they can do it against the rest of Europe. We have to stop them.”

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