This is an exclusive testimony of the Ukraine ex-commander of the armed forces and chief of the General Staff Volodymyr Zamana. Interviewed by a Ukrainian journalist Natalia Dvali.
Colonel General Volodymyr Zamana was the Ukrainian commander of the armed forces and chief of the General Staff under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych for two full years. On February 19, 2014 he was fired, as he claims, for the refusal to bring troops into Kyiv for Maidan clean-up. According to him, after Yanukovych had fled and new people came to power, he nearly became the head of the Ministry of Defense. But just before voting for his candidacy, some incriminating evidence against him appeared in Ukraine’s parliament. The evidence alleged that Volodymyr Zamana is a bribe-taker. The Colonel General claims that this controversial info about him was cooked up a year ago when Zamana spearheaded the search operation of an illegal Russian surveillance buoy in the Black Sea. From February to March 2014, he was authorized by Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) to manage the Ministry of Defense. Zamana is transferred to the Army Reserve.
Why the criminal charges were filed against you in 2013?
- The criminal charges were not exclusively against me, they were against the entire General Staff. In August 2013, there was a scandal around the Russian surveillance buoy which was recording the radiated noises of ships in the bay of Sevastopol. It had all begun with a Kyiv factory “Hydropribor” creating the very first Ukrainian surveillance buoy “Olymp-2”. It was then installed at the bottom of the Black Sea in Spring 2013, and all of a sudden our buoy began acting weird.
What do you mean by “weird”?
- There is a homing device in torpedoes which detects the target when the information is loaded. The information contains the ship noise, so that the torpedo strikes the desired target. Each ship engine noise is as unique as human fingerprints. The Ukrainian buoy “Olymp-2” was installed to conduct underwater surveillance in the Sevastopol bay.
So it picked up not only the ship noises, but also the signals of another buoy?
- That’s right. Since Sevastopol was the naval base of both the Ukrainian and Russian fleets, we thought that both sides were supposed to share surveillance information. But all of a sudden Russia installed its buoy behind our back. As the chief of the General Staff, I gave the order to eliminate the Russian buoy. It’s difficult to locate such device: we had to install at least two Ukrainian buoys to get the exact location of the Russian buoy in the Black Sea. But we had only one.
So we deployed the Ukrainian ships to Sevastopol, closed the bay, and relocated some of the aircraft in case the Russians started making a move. Basically, we initiated a surveillance. The operation lasted one week. We had destroyed the cables connected to the buoy, but still couldn’t locate the buoy itself. After that I realized that no matter how hard we tried, we would never locate it.
Why is that?
- I suspect that the counterintelligence of the Security Service of Ukraine tipped the Russians off the very first day of the operation. Obviously, it was impossible to organize a top-secret operation. Although I even intentionally waited for Lebedev (Pavel Lebedev is a financial expert and businessman, the Secretary of Defense of Ukraine from December 24 2012 to February 27 2014 – ValueWalk) to go on vacation so that his deputy signs the permits.
What is that about Lebedev that you didn’t like?
- I was well aware that if he found out about the General Staff plan to locate the Russian buoy, he would immediately share this information with his friends from the Security Service of Ukraine, specifically the Intelligence Department. But, as it turns out, they shared the information anyway. You must understand, Russia was seriously disturbed by this operation. The Commander-in-chief of the Russian Black Sea Fleet Alexander Vitko was urgently called back from his vacation. The operation to locate the buoy tensed the relations between Ukraine and Russia. I’m sure that there were the talks on the Yanukovych-Putin level.
Why do you think so?
- Because the General Staff had been “bombed” only slightly before that, but they took the matter seriously after Lebedev got recalled from his vacation.
What do you mean by “bombed”?
- In October 2013, two months after the search operation and a month before the Maidan, a serious operation to discredit the General Staff was launched. The Security Service of Ukraine made us go through constant scrutiny and also tested our security systems. As a result, they found a formality and filed criminal charges against the General Staff leadership.
So was Crimea annexed or “ceded”?
- On January 20, 2014 as the chief of the General Staff, I started receiving intel that there are certain problems in Crimea, Russians became more active.
On January 20th? Are you saying Kyiv had been aware of the “little green men” one month prior to Yanukovych’s flight and the Crimean events?
- That’s right. I received the information from the intelligence officers. What to do with this kind of information? Report to Lebedev-Yanukovych? They didn’t care about me at that point. In the beginning of February we developed a plan and deployed the armored cavalry troops of the 25th Dnepropetrovsk airborne brigade, the Kirovograd and Ochakovskiy units of special regiment to Crimea under the guise of training exercises. 300 men total. Furthermore, we developed a plan to bring four battalions of airborne forces into Crimea – that’s 1200 more men. It was reported that Yanukovych fled the country on February 22. I thought that the new leadership is going to pay attention to the Crimea situation, particularly because the plan was on the table and our armored cavalry troops were already on the peninsula. But the new leadership got caught up in the bureaucracy again. I didn’t have the best relationships with the new military leadership, and through my previous deputies I tried to convey to them that something is cooking up in Crimea, but… (he shrugs) On February 22, 2014 I was authorized by Verkhovna Rada to monitor and manage the Ministry of Defense. In the beginning of March I personally went to Crimea.
What was the situation like on the peninsula back then?
- The Perekopsky narrow neck which connects Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland was already blocked back then, there were ex-Berkut soldiers at the checkpoints (the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov disbanded Berkut right after the Maidan and some of them went to Crimea – ValueWalk). In the beginning of March they were checking only trucks, so I drove through them with no problem. I came to the Naval Establishment headquarters and met with the Commander-in-chief of the Russian Black Sea Fleet Alexander Vitko there. We had already known each other, so we met one-on-one. “What’shappening?” Iaskedhim. “We were assigned a task, and we’ll go until the end,” – Vitko replied, his hands were shaking.
Why were his hands shaking?
- As the Commander-in-chief of the Russian Black Sea Fleet he just couldn’t defy Putin, but at the same time he understood that Ukrainian and Russian military men in Crimea had known each other for a long time, their families were close… And now they got this order from Kremlin. I believe Russia’s occupation of Crimea was a spontaneous operation.
Spontaneous? There are so many evidences that Putin had been planning the occupation since 2004, right after the Orange Revolution.
- Nonsense. Itwasallspontaneous. The “little green men” made a lot of mistakes: instead of blocking Ukrainian military units they way too often blockaded private and state enterprises. The confusion was very common in the first 10 days of the Crimean events. My conversation with Vitko and the evidences from our Crimean officers only proves it. The colonel of the Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB), the name of whom I don’t remember, came to the Naval Establishment headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet right after my conversation with Vitko. He offered me to take Russia’s side saying that “we all served in USSR, we’re all brothers, we don’t want blood, take our side”.
How much did he offer?
- It was only a brothers-Slavs talk. Then the FSB colonel suddenly gets a call from Aksenov (Sergey Aksenov is the illegitimate head of the so-called “Republic of Crimea” – ValueWalk), passes me his cell phone and Aksenov begins his moronic talk about how screwed up we all are, and that they’re not going to stop. Basically, he said the same things that the FSB colonel did, but in a tough-guy manner. Then I came back to Kyiv, personally met with Turchynov and Parubiy, reported it all that to them, but…
- But I was told that our European partners suggest us that we don’t do anything rushed. There was a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine right before my trip to Crimea. The head of the Ministry of Defense Tenuh reported that the Ukrainian army was not ready to fight Russia, and the leadership made a decision to not initiate any counteractions. I reminded them that there is a developed plan to bring four battalions of airborne forces into Crimea, but they rejected my suggestions.
I’m going to ask you a direct question: did the Ukrainian authorities cede Crimea?
- It’s a difficult question. From one point of view: complete unpreparedness, incompetence, inexperience, a lack of political will, the request from our “European friends” to not engage in the conflict. On the other hand, the reports from the Ministry of Defense and the General Staff leadership… they just didn’t understand the situation within the army, they were learning on foot. In their reports to the authorities they didn’t exactly lie, they just couldn’t adequately assess the actual state of the Ukrainian army. It wasn’t all that bad in the Ukrainian army as it may seem. I was so powerless, so angry. I went to Crimea again, by my own car this time, not the official one. Was going from one Ukrainian military unit to another, met with a lot of commanders. On my way to Perevalne I went over the speed limit and was stopped by the traffic police. They found out that I was authorized by Rada, and I thought to myself, “Well, that’s it. They are going to hand me over to Berkut now”. But instead, they started asking me questions like “There are no orders to make a stand from Kyiv, Aksenov’s thugs are putting pressure on us, what should we do?”. We were all so proud that our Ukrainian military men had bravely held out against the siege of Russian forces. If Kyiv had taken the initiative and responsibility and showed that it cares about Crimea, our military men would have defended the peninsula.