Oleksandr Danylyuk is emblematic of the battle between Vladimir Putin and westward-looking Ukrainians for the soul of their country.
Danylyuk spent nearly half his life in the US and UK, graduating from business school and working for the McKinsey consultancy group. The advent of democracy in Ukraine pulled him back like a magnet. He was Ukraine's finance minister, then national security adviser, from 2016 until 2019. In 2020 he co-founded a think tank called the Center for National Resilience and Development.
Danylyuk is an active member of Ukraine's Territorial Defence Forces and is likely to play a political role in the future. In an interview with The Irish Times, he praised President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for having the courage to remain in Kyiv and for conveying Ukraine's message to the world. When the war eventually ends, he says, Zelenskiy will have to explain why he ignored the looming conflict until the last minute.
As a former national security adviser, Danylyuk believes it is not in Ukraine’s interest to negotiate a ceasefire, in part because, he says, Russia’s negotiating position grows weaker by the day. Despite terrible casualties in Mariupol, he says the southeastern port city could hold out for months. “Mariupol and Kharkiv are very near the Russian border, and the Russians cannot even take those two cities,” he says.
Furthermore, Ukrainian forces have begun to retake territory north of Kyiv. “We are pushing back ... They were moving from Chernihiv and Sumy to encircle Kyiv. Now their advance has stopped.”
Earlier this month, Danylyuk spent two days rescuing civilians from the towns of Bucha and Irpin. He drove a civilian car and stowed his flak jacket and helmet in the boot “because I was ferrying women and children and you feel embarrassed being protected when other people are not”.
His most powerful memory is of a young woman clutching a baby. “She was zig-zagging, running irrationally. The army tried to put her into an evacuation ambulance but she refused to leave her husband behind. The Russians were firing Kalashnikovs and mortars. She had gone a bit mad. I persuaded her to come with me.”
None of those he rescued seemed relieved to reach safety, Danylyuk says. “All of them had left someone or something behind, and that was all they could think of.”
The war has created more than 3.3 million refugees and displaced 6.5 million Ukrainians within the country, according to the UN. Yet Danylyuk advises against a ceasefire because “after a ceasefire, there is always fire”.
Putin is unlikely to stop the war while he believes the Russian people support him, Danylyuk adds. He recalls a past conversation with Russian acquaintances. "They were so proud that [Russian billionaire and Putin crony Roman] Abramovich owned the Chelsea football club. I said, 'Are you crazy?" Danylyuk says Abramovich took "from your pockets to buy real estate, mansions, all this stuff, including Chelsea. And now you are proud? Are you sick?' This is a totally corrupt mentality. It's a similar situation here. They may not want to go and fight. But the thought of soldiers restoring the glory of Russia, they support it."
"Russia is stuck in Ukraine. They don't have the resources to attack the West"
Danylyuk believes “the war must end on Russian territory. The West will liberate Russia through Ukraine.”
This does not mean Nato will be an active participant. "Ukraine will be sufficient for this. It's the only sustainable scenario. Ukraine cannot develop if Russia occupies the coastline and cuts us off from the sea, or if Russian troops are near Kyiv."
If there is not a clear Ukrainian victory, Danylyuk insists, Russia will regroup and attack again in the future. “Russia will have to be demilitarised and de-Nazified, because they are behaving like Nazis now,” he adds, turning Putin’s demands against him.
Won’t that mean a long war? “This will last at least five years,” says Danylyuk. “If there is a ceasefire it will be temporary. Even a peace agreement will be temporary.”
He would like to reassure Nato that the war will not spill over from Ukraine. “Russia is stuck in Ukraine, so Nato should stop worrying about making Russia more angry. They don’t have the resources to attack the West.”
Putin is blackmailing the world with threats to use nuclear weapons, says Danylyuk. “Should we let Putin destroy Ukraine because he has a finger on the button? And after that, would he remove his finger from the button? ... Even if Putin decides to push the button, the Russian military would not execute the order, because it would mean the end of their lives. Nuclear war is total destruction, suicide. They don’t want to kill their families.”
Danylyuk also believes that western aircraft and anti-aircraft systems can compensate for Nato's refusal to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine. In addition to shoulder-held anti-aircraft Stinger and Star Streak missiles donated by the US and UK, Ukraine is to receive Soviet-era S-300 air defence systems from Slovakia and probably from Poland.
Danylyuk believes that, with adequate supplies from the West, Ukraine can fight the war alone. Russia has threatened to attack convoys delivering weapons to Ukraine. “How many cargo ships sent by the US were sunk during the second World War? Some of it could be destroyed. People could be killed. It’s a war. Even if we receive only 50 per cent of it, I’m sorry, but we need it. We are not talking about lowering insurance premiums. We are talking about how to win this war.”