Ukrainian soldiers advance to the Russian border, Russian troops are destroyed crossing a river and the advance in the Donbass falters. Are we experiencing the turn of the war? Is Ukraine already on the road to victory? Security expert Professor Carlo Masala provides answers.
ntv.de: The Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba said last week that they now want to expel the Russians entirely from Ukraine. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg said over the weekend that Ukraine could win the war. Is Ukraine already on the road to victory?
Carlo Masala: No. It's too early to tell. The crucial question is: When would Ukraine actually have won this war? Indeed, the foreign minister said: "We want to throw the Russians out of the country". A day earlier, President Zelenskyy said Ukraine would win if it pushed Russia back to where it was on February 23. That is a perfectly realistic goal.
So a day before the Russian attack.
I agree. I think the statement that Ukraine could throw Russia out of the country is sporty. We have not yet seen a major counter-offensive by Ukraine. We have seen around Kharkov that the Russians are evacuating their positions and only have residual forces there. We see in the Donbass that the Ukrainians are able to partially recapture the meager land gains of the Russians. But we're only talking about a few kilometers. Otherwise, a war of position and attrition can be observed in the Donbass.
Like in World War I?
Someone once coined the beautiful image: dynamic Verdun. It does move a bit, but in the big picture it's quite static.
At Verdun, a month-long, extremely bloody battle in the First World War, I also think of hundreds of thousands of dead.
Yes, of course people die there. But what I mean is that Verdun was a pure trench warfare. Now we have a situation where the Russian armed forces are advancing three to four kilometers a day, which is little. In some places, the Ukrainians are then able to take a kilometer or two away from them. So there is some dynamic in it.
There is a video in which Ukrainian soldiers in the Kharkiv area advance to the Russian border. Does that have a military meaning?
No, this is only symbolic. They show their ability to advance to the Russian border, which they haven't done for two months.
When the Russians withdrew from the Kyiv area, it was said that troop formations such as the tactical battalion groups, BTG for short, would be replenished and merged. Have the Russians come back stronger now?
They have summarized the BTG, but they have not managed to fill it up substantially. They still haven't gotten over the big problems they had at the beginning of the operation. We're also talking about logistics. The British say a third of Russia's forces have now been wiped out, which of course is massive after three months.
Does that mean 30,000 men? About 100,000 Russian soldiers are said to have been deployed.
I agree. We don't know exactly how many there were, but that would be 30,000 men. That doesn't mean they all fell. They may also be wounded, prisoners of war, or deserters. There are now reports, yet unconfirmed, that there is some kind of silent mobilization going on in Russia. They are trying to recruit 30- to 40-year-olds with combat experience to come to Ukraine. You have to wait and see.
If I put myself in the shoes of a Russian soldier and hear the reports of heavy arms shipments from Europe and the USA - should I be afraid?
As a Russian, you should be afraid. Last week two Russian BTGs were destroyed trying to cross a river. This happened entirely with American artillery. This is a game changer from the Ukrainian perspective, but also from the Russian perspective.
Then Russia would have to slowly go to the negotiating table.
That's the point: if the Russians are being pushed back to the old pre-February 24 line of contact and risk losing even more territory, then the point has come when they should sit down at the negotiating table. At the moment they last longer and of course they want to keep that. The Ukrainians have announced a major offensive for June. You have to wait for that now.
Many say Russia must get out of the war "face-saving".
Why does Russia have to go out there face-saving? Nobody has been able to explain that to me.
Because of the threat of nuclear war.
Yes, but you could also initiate it now. Your campaign is going badly because of the heavy weapons delivered. They could already carry out their demonstration strike there.
So detonate a nuclear bomb over the Baltic Sea or a small tactical nuclear bomb in Ukraine?
Yes. The second is that we are dealing with a totalitarian system that has almost total control over the Russian media. I think Putin can sell everything as face-saving internally. And third: Since when do we need face-saving solutions for states that wage aggressive wars?
Maybe because humiliation could immediately lead to the next war?
The war will not end in military defeat in the sense that anyone is standing in Moscow. But the Russian Federation has already suffered a number of military defeats. If you look at what they wanted initially, what they wanted in the meantime and what they are now concentrating on, you have to say: they are suffering one military defeat after another.
So you mean "face-saving" is over anyway?
Yes. If you apply "face-saving" to Putin and his cronies, then they will be able to sell everything as a success. This regime lies to its people about the course of the war every day. They believe that a large part supports this war, that's brainwashing.
Some politicians are now saying that we have to be prepared for a long war that may last for years.
I don't know if it will be years, but it will be a long time. This became clear when Russia withdrew from the Kyiv region and sent its forces to the Donbass. Unless Ukraine's offensive is a resounding success, it will amount to a long war of attrition.
There is also a lot of talk about morality. The Ukrainians are good because they defend their homeland, the Russians are bad, they say. But what does that mean specifically?
You can always compare weapon systems or analyze tactics, but that's not the only reason wars are won. We don't just have an army here, we have a whole country behind it. Take a look at the Mariupol Steelworks. Defenders there have voluntarily allowed themselves to be surrounded, although one must assume that this will not end well for them. It was hopeless that they could still defend the city with it. But they were able to tie down Russian troops who were lacking elsewhere. The Ukrainian soldiers are still thinking about how they could harm the Russians around the campfire. Russians sit together in the evening and think: What the hell are we doing here?
Last week, the Russian leadership is said to have burned several BTGs because they were supposed to cross a river under Ukrainian fire. What does that do to an army?
Of course, when the military leadership lets soldiers run into open fire, that is something that completely demoralizes the troops. The problem with the Russians is that if they disobey orders or desert, they risk being shot.
With all these problems of the Russians, can they conquer the Donbass at all?
War is a dynamic situation. That's why I'm careful with statements that this or that will definitely not happen. War is unpredictable. Of course, the Russians can do it, but it's becoming increasingly unlikely. They still don't have central problems with staff and logistics under control. They have now changed their strategy. Precision should now come before speed. But that doesn't work either. They still don't have air superiority. In purely tactical terms, the Russians haven't learned much there, or they aren't in a position to implement it.
At first it was said that the Russians were still keeping their really good weapons.
It looks like they don't have much else to throw in there besides rockets. The Russian army faces a catastrophic defeat. She has already lost her aura. If the goal is to hold Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, it should use more modern weapons now. But obviously they don't have enough of them.
Then why is it so difficult to expel them from the country altogether, apart perhaps from Crimea?
Of course, the sheer mass of their powers also makes a difference. Also, defending is easier than attacking. If the Russians entrench themselves, it will be difficult to drive them out. Then we would have a completely different conflict. Now one hears that Putin is also interfering in tactical issues. We can only keep our fingers crossed that he keeps doing it. This can only end in disaster.
Volker Petersen spoke to Carlo Masala