War came to Ukraine in 2014, but it was very different then.

After the Euromaidan, Russia saw its chance in Ukraine amidst the chaos and proceeded to occupy Crimea and instigate a separatist war in the eastern regions that would linger for years to come.

But compared to the full-scale invasion in 2022, Ukraine was much less ready then.

“It was a really tense period of my life, because after Maidan, we had a total reshuffle of security institutions,” Leonid Polyakov, a former deputy defense minister, told Kyiv Post.

Chaos in 2014

Between March and May 2014, Polyakov was a deputy to the defense minister – one of five that year – and during his tenure, he oversaw troops’ withdrawal from Crimea and the onset of the separatist attacks in the east, instigated by Russia.

“[In 2014] we [had] a total of five ministers of defense. And with each minister we have rotation of deputies. So I was [...] one of those who immediately came after Maidan,” said Polyakov.

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“The political decision was made to concentrate on defending the mainland,” said Polyakov.

“I was busy with securing the loyal troops. And extracting it from Crimea occupied by Russians. After [...] our troops left Crimea. We had the next crisis of Girkin,” Polyakov added, referring to the armed rebellion led by former Russian intelligence officer Igor Girkin near Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine – who, ironically, is now imprisoned by Moscow.

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Polyakov did not go into details about his duties at the time, but he said there was a need to secure the border with Crimea, then to “deal with separatism and terrorism in Donbas,” where he was involved in organizing air defense, troops deployments, among other affairs.

From 2014 to 2022

Polyakov said Ukraine “did its best” to “reconstitute the strength of the military” – to modernize and repair its arsenal, as well as receiving support from its allies in NATO and democratic countries.

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But it appeared to be insufficient, he said.

“We increased our budget on security and defense since 2014 five times. [The] defense budget was increased three times. Still it was not enough to deter Russian aggression,” said Polyakov.

“We were able to rely on our own forces about three months from the start [of the full-scale invasion] to May 2022 [...] In February 2022, we started feeling [an] urgent need for foreign support. Unfortunately it was very restricted and very slow.

“So we are still fighting this war, which we could have won long before if there was not this phenomenon of creeping fear of escalation [in] the part of our beloved partners,” he said.

Indecisive Western Support

According to him, the lack of definitive support for Ukraine has been a longstanding issue that could be traced back to 2014.

“In 2014 there was no NATO support. There was a moral support and very deep concern, and, you know, all those diplomatic phrases,” said Polyakov, adding that signatories of the Budapest Memorandum, who were supposed to guarantee Ukrane’s security after it gave up its nukes in the 1990s, were merely watching from the sidelines.

“One of my counterparts, I would say – I would not name the country, but you may guess, said, ‘if you will fight for yourself, we'll be supporting you; [...] if you are not fighting for yourselves, we will not.’

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“As direct and as simple as it is,” Polyakov said.

The indecisiveness meant Ukraine only received things like meal rations from the US in the middle of 2014 – “one box for 24 hours,” according to Polyakov.

“Only at the end of 2014, we started receiving some radars for artillery. Some not very important stuff, let's say,” he added.

He said Lithuania was the only country at the time that provided support immediately with no hesitation, supplying Ukraine with small arms and ammunition.

“So we started fighting for ourselves, and with time, we started receiving some equipment, some drones from Americans, some body armor from France.

“They sent instructors from [the] United States, UK, Canada – Lithuania by the way – and some other countries. Then in 2018, Javelins from the United States. Before this large-scale invasion, we started receiving, from the UK and from America, more anti-tank weapons.

“Like javelins and NLAW (Next generation Light Anti-tank Weapon),” he said.

Polyakov believed that if the Western nations provided Ukraine with the weapons and support it needed in 2014, perhaps the full-scale invasion would not have happened, or things would have been different at the very least.

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And this is an opinion shared by Polyakov 10 years ago, when he was still in office.

“Previously acting Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine Leonid Polyakov said that Western support, including joint military exercises, will help prevent the outbreak of a full-scale war with Russia,” read a BBC report dated March 24, 2014.

A prophecy? A forewarning? Perhaps it’s already too late to tell.

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