”Moral responsibility will be on me for the rest of my life.” Maria Berlinskaʼs first interview after the Russian attack on Chernihiv, and itʼs not about drones

Kateryna Kobernyk
”Moral responsibility will be on me for the rest of my life.” Maria Berlinskaʼs first interview after the Russian attack on Chernihiv, and itʼs not about drones

Maria Berlinska

Дмитро Драч / "Бабель"

Maria Berlinska, head of the Victory Drones project, has been saying for many years that technology and engineers will help Ukraine win the war with Russia. In this war, she herself has been engaged in aerial reconnaissance, procurement of drones and operator training since 2014, with breaks. And almost all this time, Berlinska has been called almost the biggest skeptic and pessimist regarding forecasts for the future. On August 19, 2023, all media of the country wrote about her. Berlinska was a co-organizer of the meeting of drone manufacturers in Chernihiv, which took place in the local drama theater. The Russians hit it with an "Iskander" missile — seven people died and 129 were injured. Some bloggers and politicians said that the organizers did not take care of peopleʼs safety and should not have held the exhibition in the city center near the Belarusian border. Berlinska answered that such measures are necessary in wartime, and the organizers did everything they could for security. After the tragedy in Chernihiv, Maria agreed to an interview for the first time, but warned that while the investigation is ongoing, she cannot comment on the details of the case. The chief editor of "Babel" Kateryna Kobernyk recorded a video version of the conversation — it will be released in a few days. This is its shortened text version. In it, as in the video, there is no question about drones. And there are answers about them.

About Chernihiv and hate

Maria, we agreed not to discuss the details of the arrival of the Russian rocket in Chernihiv, but I will ask a few questions on this topic. First, when it happened, the most common comment on social networks was "Maria Berlinska often says that one should not underestimate the enemy, instead, an exhibition of drone manufacturers was arranged almost on the border with Belarus." Is this comment fair? Have you underestimated the enemy?

First, we were co-organizers of this closed meeting together with the military-civilian administration. It is important to understand that if someone thinks that during martial law you can just come to the city, just occupy some house or some location, it is not so. Such things are always coordinated directly with representatives of local authorities and military-civilian administrations. And it was not, as they like to declare without understanding, some kind of open exhibition of drones. It was a closed meeting of military, volunteers, engineers to consult, test certain things, see certain technologies, things that cannot be done online.

I will demand specific security protocols from the authorities. It is important that we learn from these terrible tragic consequences. Moral responsibility will be on me for the rest of my life. And I will do everything possible and impossible so that Russians feel the terrible pain and fear that our people are experiencing every day. So that they understand what itʼs like to live under constant attacks, to go to bomb shelters, to not know when and from where an airplane will come.

The Russians attacked the drama theater in Chernihiv on August 19, when a meeting of drone manufacturers was held there.
The impact of the Russian "Iskander" killed 7 people, among them a six-year-old girl Sofiyka.
Experts say that the Russians programmed the rocket so that it exploded over the central square and killed as many people as possible.

The Russians attacked the drama theater in Chernihiv on August 19, when a meeting of drone manufacturers was held there. The impact of the Russian "Iskander" killed 7 people, among them a six-year-old girl Sofiyka. Experts say that the Russians programmed the rocket so that it exploded over the central square and killed as many people as possible.

Getty Images / «Babel'»

There was a theory in social networks that your haters are bots and representatives of the Ministry of Defense who attacked you because you applied for a ministerial position. What do you think of this version?

First, I never had political ambitions. And in the previous years, since 2014, I had enough offers to enter some lists of political parties or to hold certain positions. But this is not the field that interests me. I do not believe that there was an attempt by the Ministry of Defense to somehow take revenge on me or disperse some kind of informational wave. In fact, Russian bots were hating, there were comments from, for example, an official of draft age, who fled and lives somewhere with his family in Belgium, took his grown-up sons away.

The only comments that matter to me are from the affected people from Chernihiv, from their families. They have the right to any emotion. None of them wrote to me in private messages, but I am ready for it, I am not afraid to communicate, because these are my people. Iʼm not hiding anywhere. Furthermore, I had a gun advocacy visit scheduled for several weeks in the States on August 23rd. There was supposed to be a fundraiser in Chicago and meetings with senators and Pentagon officials in Washington. But I immediately [after the tragedy in Chernihiv] handed in the tickets, because I understood that there was no question of going anywhere. I did not return home to Ukraine after the start of a full-scale invasion to run away now.

You mentioned about security protocols, that the state should develop them and show them. Are they gone now?

Well, look, for example, a few weeks before that, IForum was held — a huge event where leading engineers, manufacturers, IT people and so on gathered. There were thousands of people there, and I was there too. I understand that if the Russians wanted to overload the air defense, launch dozens of drones and missiles, they could very well strike. The same is true for many activities. It is impossible to stop them, but what is possible and absolutely necessary is to tell the state how it should happen. Where can these people gather and see their inventions? We will not co-organize any activities with any military-civilian administration until the state gives clear protocols.

Are these instructions currently being developed?

I personally donʼt know anything about it yet. In my opinion, it would be good to hold such events in certain dungeons, in bunkers. We have enough of these left in Ukraine, although, by the way, I have never been there. Again, you see, the Russians, having learned that something like this is being done somewhere under a specific place, can strike at this point just to intimidate, to cover the square or, conventionally, a residential building nearby. Therefore, I call on my colleagues to suspend, if possible, any mass events on the topic related to security and defense issues.

Last question about hate. Even the president spoke about it as a nationwide problem in an interview. Not so long ago, Masi Nayem became the object of hate because of a client his law firm took on. How did you deal with it? Wasnʼt there a desire to throw everything and send everyone away?

I am calm about both praise and hatred. I only care about the opinion of the injured people and the families of the injured. Why should I care about the opinion of complete strangers who do not understand what we do, do not understand how it affects the course of war, do not understand what technology is in war at all?

And for me, the support from my brothers and sisters and the military was very important. I had the impression that half of the front called me — from ordinary soldiers to combatants, brigade commanders. This was important for our team of volunteers, because among our people there were also concussions, there was stress. And people feel a deep sense of responsibility.

About the US plans, the turning point and the end of the war

I wanted to dedicate the second block of questions to our partners, the Americans. You lived in the States for a while, you know their society from the inside, you understand how they think. But the first question is very short: do you think that without Americaʼs support we will not win this war?

Undoubtedly, the support of the States is a key element in international support, and we must maintain this support. Not to get, but to keep.

I spoke with military personnel who have an understanding of the big picture of what is happening on the front. Almost everyone says the same thing: we receive weapons and equipment in small batches, and the same story repeats itself. A small number of tanks, for example, arrive, they break through a small section of the front, the Russians quickly rush their artillery and additional forces there, destroy the equipment and eliminate the breakthrough. Of course, the States understand this problem, but still act in this way. Because of this, there is an opinion that the USA is not interested in the victory of Ukraine. In some end of the war, yes, but not in our victory. You talked a lot with US senators about weapons and support. States need our victory?

What I can say for sure is that the United States does not need our defeat and does not need the final victory of Russia. However, whether Ukraineʼs victory is necessary is an open question. States operate in the concept of controlled escalation. What does it mean? It is about not bringing the conflict to the level of using nuclear weapons. Is there such a risk? Potentially there is. What is the probability of this risk? There are many factors here. It is difficult for me personally to assess how crazy the Kremlin has gone. But from my conversations with military experts in the States, with representatives of the Pentagon, the White House, with representatives of certain security services, these risks are taken into account.

I donʼt want to puff up my cheeks and pretend that I know whatʼs going to happen one way or another. I can only speak in terms of the fact that in April and September 2022 I flew to the States for gun advocacy and now maintain relations with representatives of Congress, certain American bodies, stakeholders and design makers. Now we are talking about a very gradual scenario for rolling out aid.

If the States are not interested in our final victory, what is your prediction for the next year of war? I ask because on the eve of the big invasion, you made a fairly accurate prediction about the further actions of the Russians.

There are several scenarios, and they depend on a number of factors. First, how quickly we will increase the production of technology. The second point is how quickly Russia will do the same and be able to localize those technologies that they previously took from China, Iran and other countries. How qualitatively the sanctions will be refined, how effectively the supply channels will be blocked for the Russians. It is important to understand whether China will become more and more involved in the war. Now, de jure, he does not wave the Russian flag at UN meetings, but de facto supplies Russia with technology.

But somewhere under the table is waving.

Somewhere under the table is waving, yes. It is critically important for us that China does not become fully involved. An important factor is the election in America. And here you canʼt underestimate the media. Public opinion largely depends on information policy. From the way Ukraine looks in top media. If there is voter support, then politicians will, whether they want to or not, be forced, at least partially, to respond to this request. If some other agenda is formed, calls for some kind of reconciliation, concessions, and compromises may be voiced more and more. For Ukraine, in my opinion, this will mean another pause [in the war], which we have already been through. I communicate with my comrades at the front, and we always say that under no circumstances should we fall into the illusion again and repeat the same mistake, thinking that it is possible to come to an agreement with Russia. It is impossible to come to an agreement with Russia. Any pause they use to prepare for an even bigger war.

An important factor is our internal situation. To what extent will we support our own army, how will we prepare on our own. Shall we throw money into paving stones or into the purchase of serials, drums, and something else? This will directly affect the moral and psychological mood in the army, which is actually one of the determining factors. Everyone is used to hearing from me that our strongest weapon is drones, technology.


Yes, an engineer is the most important person in the country. But without exaggeration, our most important weapon is mutual trust. It all starts with faith. People act as they believe. When in the first weeks of the invasion people went and stopped tanks with their bare hands, why did they do it? Because they believed that their sacrifice was not in vain. That while they are sacrificing themselves, everyone else who is safe is working to catch up, to be on time, to prepare. And if a person does not believe and understands that while he is giving the most there, someone behind his back is simply mocking, stealing, this destroys trust and, in principle, all defenses.

And when you add up all these factors in your head, what is the end of this equation? This is not to write what Berlin said: the war will end in three or thirty years. But, probably, we all have some idea in our heads that the war will probably end then.

Forecasting is a very thankless business. What can I voice and in what, by the way, do I want to be wrong? First, the war will not end in a year. Second, the war may eventually become an intro to a much larger war, which will be a certain battle between the Western world — the European Union, America, Canada, Taiwan — and the conditional China, Iran, North Korea and other dictatorial and semi-totalitarian regimes. Technologies, artificial intelligence, neural networks, satellite intelligence, drones, etc. will be used to the maximum extent. We need to understand the underlying technologies. Russians are beginning to actively teach their high school children how to use drones, radio communication, understand what an artillery ballistic calculator is, and much more. This is already being introduced at the federal level, we cannot ignore it.

If we first of all use technology, clear mines with robots before each assault, fly in attack drones, destroy command posts and logistics points and only then let people in, we will be able to return a certain part of the territory in the next year. And, again, I want to be wrong, but certainly not to the borders of 1991.

Do you mean not at all to the borders of 1991 or a year later still not to the borders?

During the next year, that is, until, conditionally, the fall of 2024. If we act differently, if the level of Western aid falls and at the same time we become demoralized, do not adequately help the front, do not increase our own technology production, we will have to be on the defensive, and the Russians will definitely try to break through further, capture even more territories in those sections of the front that are the most promising.

When I talk to people, take or watch interviews, I often hear: we will definitely win, the only question is when and at what cost. Thatʼs what Taras Chmut says, thatʼs what Yuri Gudymenko told us in an interview. I sometimes have a question — where does such confidence in our victory come from? Do you have it?

I have a counter question for you — what do you call a victory?

They usually talk about the borders of 1991, that is, with Crimea.

First, for me, victory is not only the borders of 1991, it is the elimination of Russiaʼs military capacity for aggression, at least for a few decades. Why is this important? Because we can kick a conditional maniac out of our house, but if he comes back to us in a few days with guns and knives to rape and kill, then itʼs not a victory.

Second, I donʼt know where people have confidence that victory will definitely come. You mentioned Taras, we met and talked with him just yesterday. I consider him one of the leading military experts, volunteers. We have been friends for a long time. Taras is balanced in his assessments and as a balanced person he understands that you cannot demoralize people. He has a number of his considerations. My thoughts... Iʼll give you two examples. When you watch a movie or read a book, where from the first pages some terrible injustice happens, but when it comes to the end, you expect a happy ending and that the good characters will stay alive?

Of course.

Therefore, it is a matter of our faith, because it is very difficult for a person to live with what may not be happiness or just justice.

Second, do you think that when Kateryna dissolved Sich, the Cossacks were counting on a happy ending? Bohdan Khmelnytsky expected, signing an agreement with the Moscow tsar in 1654, that it would be possible to come to an agreement with them? Or the period of 1917, when there were Petliura, Vynnychenko, Hrushevskyi, Skoropadskyi — they probably also hoped for a happy ending and that there would be a Ukrainian state, but there was no state for another good 70 years. So I donʼt want to demotivate anyone or, God forbid, spread panic, Iʼm just saying that you canʼt discount different scenarios. And what the real scenario will be depends directly on every Ukrainian inside the country and in the world, because there are millions of Ukrainians around the world. If we throw in all the resources now to keep our people at the front, then a happy ending is possible. If we donʼt give up, if we relax and think that the Armed Forces are holding everything there somewhere, then there will be a different scenario. Because the Armed Forces are the same people who also want to live, they are terribly tired and see torn bodies every day.

We now need to work not with consequences, but with causes. For example, one tank can enter a position, destroy an entire village, hospital, school, kill hundreds of people. And you can send one drone for 600 bucks, or even for ten thousand dollars, and burn this tank along with the crew, and there will be no destruction and no victims. We will not need to work with medicine, with reconstruction, with payments to the families of the dead, with orphans.

Can there be a turning point at this stage of the war that will radically change the balance of forces and the situation at the front? Can F-16s become that factor?

First, you need to understand the number of these planes. Secondly, how many pilots do we have. The third thing is to understand the combat load, whether we will have enough missiles, maintenance and many other things. I will say two more things about the F-16. First, to the great regret of the whole country, Jus recently died. He was not only a brilliant pilot, but also one of the foremost experts on the F-16. In many ways, we relied on his knowledge and expertise in our advocacy work. Secondly, regarding F-16 issues, I would highly recommend talking to Yulia Marushevska. She is the person who actually organized all the advocacy work for these planes long before the topic was even in the media. In the summer of last year, Jus, another pilot and Yulia organized a visit to the USA, spoke in the top American media. Then for the first time from Ukrainian pilots, young, brilliant, America heard that Ukraine needed these planes.

Pilot Andrii Pilshchikov, head of the Office for Support of Changes at the Ministry of Defense Yulia Marushevska and Maria Berlinska.

Марія Берлінська / Facebook / «Бабель»

But will these planes in the number articulated in the media (as far as I know, the number of 50-60 planes sounded) be a factor that will completely change the course of the war? I do not think so. Letʼs face it, the F-16 will be part of the air defense system and will have a certain influence on the course of hostilities. It is very good that this step exists, but it is not enough.

What can be a serious game changer is the increase in the production of own drones and missiles on the scale of hundreds of thousands, with different ranges, for different tasks, strike systems, and so on.

In conclusion, a somewhat philosophical question. In one interview, you said a phrase that surprised me: when the war ends, the first thing you will do is leave Ukraine.

Why surprised?

In my subjective opinion, people are fighting for Ukraine in order to have their place on earth, a place where they and their children will live. When you said you would go, I thought, what have you been fighting for for so many years? What is the main motivation?

Well, letʼs go by points. First, Ukraine is my home, and it will always be like that. I tried on many countries, traveled the world, lived for a long time in the States, and nowhere do I feel as good as in Ukraine. If I live to see the end of the war, I plan to go not because I donʼt feel at home, but because the world is wide, big, interesting, and I would like to see it and have many other experiences. I really like Iceland, for example. This is a space country, I advise everyone to go there at least once in their life and see. Looking at Icelandic volcanoes, the ocean, glaciers with black sands to the music of Björk is something incredible.

So what am I fighting for? I am fighting... It will be like this, maybe a wider frame. I believe that from the point of view of the countryʼs history, borders, lands, resources are all changeable. The most valuable thing is people. And, in my opinion, it is worth living in order to save yourself by saving others. Do you know what helps veterans who return from the front, burned out? Pulling out people like himself. Make sure he doesnʼt sit somewhere alone with a beer. Make it so that he goes to the rehabilitation center and helps the one who does not have two legs. In our country, we will have hundreds of thousands of people with PTSD, tens of thousands of families of the dead and wounded, and millions of people who know how scary it is when your house explodes. And on the one hand, this will be our great pain, and on the other hand, great strength. We will understand each otherʼs experience more, sympathize more. This will give us the opportunity to pull each other out.

At some point in March 2022, I was overcome with despair. I realized that the great war, about which I wrote and spoke, but hoped in my heart that it would not happen, had begun. I felt such doom, I realized that I might have to die in this war, that this war might last longer than my life. But then suddenly I reevaluated this story and replaced doom with the realization that sooner or later I would die anyway. It may be in this war, it may be 40 years from old age surrounded by grandchildren, but still it is the end. Anyhow. So why be afraid? War is the best time to learn, not to fear. And itʼs important for me to be on time. Have time to save others and not waste time.