Six months after the start of the Russian invasion, the course of the front in Ukraine seems frozen. That's misleading, says Markus Reisner, an officer in the Austrian army who has analyzed the Ukraine war from the start. "The Russians are making slow progress, but they are making steady progress." The arms deliveries from the West are too small to show "a recognizable effect on the battlefield".
In Reisner's view, western populations are a potential weak point for Ukraine. "Each warring party has an Achilles' heel. For Ukraine, it's support from the West - if that's not available, it can't survive this war. For Russia, it's the cohesion of its own people." After the attacks on Crimea and the attack on the daughter of the Russian nationalist Dugin, Reisner expects the war to escalate. "Until now, for example, we have hardly seen the deployment of the Russian strategic air force. It is quite possible that Russia will now use them in massive retaliation."
ntv.de: In July, the Russians completely occupied the Luhansk district, but they have not yet succeeded in taking the Donetsk district. How long do you think it will take for Russia to conquer the entire Donbass?
Markus Reisner: The Russians will try to take possession of as much ground as possible before the onset of winter. The Russian advance in Donbass has still not stopped. The war can be divided into several phases. The first phase was marked by a success on the Ukrainian side - the Russian side was therefore forced to reposition itself. The fighting in the Donbass ushered in a second phase. Here the Russians managed to bring about a regional decision at short notice in the Battle of Lyssychansk. A third phase, on the other hand, would be initiated by an offensive by Ukraine, for example in the Cherson area. However, we don't see any of that at the moment. It seems that Ukraine wants to show initiative at least by attacking in Crimea and in Russia near Belgorod.
What is the difference between the current situation and the first weeks of the war?
Apparently, as the Russians advanced towards Kyiv, they still thought that the war would be a quick success. In this phase they advanced fast, narrow and deep. They fundamentally changed their tactics in Donbass. There they used massive amounts of artillery, and only when the Ukrainian positions were ready for an assault did the infantry attack. This tactic has led to the fact that the front is more or less frozen in our perception. Greater progress is rarely reported, such as in early May when the Russians managed to break through the first line of defense of Ukrainian forces at Popasna. This led to the Battle of Lysychansk. This allowed the Russians to take complete possession of Luhansk Oblast. Fierce fighting is currently taking place in Donetsk Oblast. As at Popasna in early May, they are now slowly breaking through Ukraine's first line of defenses at Pisky, west of Donetsk.
Why isn't the Russian advance in Donetsk faster?
The Russians no longer have enough strength to move faster. By the start of the war they had massed between 150,000 and 200,000 soldiers. Some of them suffered very heavy losses, especially in the battles for Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkiv. They are now trying to keep their own wear and tear as low as possible. They play the card that gives them a clear advantage: the artillery. This is a war like that of the First World War. The Russian side has an advantage because they have enormous amounts of artillery and ammunition at their disposal. Every artillery shell that the Russians fire at Ukrainian positions means that soldiers on the Ukrainian side are killed, injured, worn down. The Russians are making slow progress, but they are making steady progress.
In an interim report on the Ukraine war, you recently wrote on the army's website that the Western arms deliveries that have arrived so far are "too much to die for and not enough to live on" for the Ukrainian armed forces.
The question of whether a military operation is successful can only be answered if success can be measured. In terms of Western arms shipments, that means they must have a discernible effect on the battlefield. Recognizable effects would be a halt to the Russian advance or, ideally, a retreat of Russian troops in depth, perhaps even across the border back into Russia itself. So far, that simply hasn't been the case. Although Russia has suffered setbacks, it has so far maintained its attacks. Above all, the ongoing attacks using cruise missiles and medium-range missiles hit the Ukrainians hard.
So if you want Ukraine to stop Russia, you have to say: The West is not delivering enough.
Right. The problem is that the front line is very long, 1200 kilometers, a distance like from Berlin to London. After six months of war, the Ukrainian side has fewer and fewer forces available, and the supply of arms, despite all the quantities, is still so scarce that it has to be used judiciously. Take the sixteen - soon to be twenty - HIMARS from the USA. This amount is not enough to use them along the entire front. At the moment, these systems are mainly in the south, less so in the Donbass. There we see, among other things, the fifteen Panzerhaubitzen 2000, the Polish KRAB or the M109 from Norway. But this material is not enough for the Ukraine to be able to shell the Russian positions ready for an assault. In addition, there are ongoing failures due to necessary repairs or even destruction.
How is the situation in the north, in Kharkiv?
In Kharkiv, after the end of the first phase of the war, the Russians had the problem that they were in an area where they were very exposed to Ukrainian artillery fire. They therefore withdrew in April/May. As with Kyiv, this was considered a great success for Ukraine at the time, and the Ukrainian side actually tried some kind of offensive here as well. The Ukrainians were primarily concerned with taking the pressure off their hard-pressed front in the Donbass, i.e. forcing the Russians to move forces to the north. However, after their retreat, the Russians consolidated northeast of the city of Kharkiv. Since then, the battle has been going back and forth there. Recently, the Russians launched a minor offensive, and so far the Ukrainians have managed to repel it. As a far-reaching means of attack, the Russians have deployed an Iskander brigade in the Belgorod area. From there it is now continuously shelling targets in eastern Ukraine.
And in the south?
The south is currently the central problem for Ukraine. Already at the beginning of the war I made a summary in which I addressed the four core problems of Ukraine that had existed since the beginning of the war. At that time, the most important thing from the Ukrainian point of view was to hold Kyiv. They did it. The second was to prevent a major encirclement in the Donbass - although the battle of the encirclement near Lysychansk was lost, the Ukrainians are still successfully defending themselves against a major encirclement. The third and fourth problems are the south and the north - after all, Ukraine is still being threatened from Belarus. It must therefore have permanent forces in the north and north-west of Ukraine in order to be prepared for a possible attack from there.
Why is the south currently the central problem?
At the beginning of the war, the Russians were very successful in the south. They took possession of the North Crimean Canal, which brings water to the peninsula from the mainland and is of great importance to Crimea's agriculture. Ukraine had drained the canal with a dam after the annexation of Crimea - the Russians blew up this dam. Second, the Russians not only captured Ukraine's largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhia, but also occupied the cities of Melitopol and surrounded Mariupol. But their advance across the Dnipro in the Cherson Oblast was decisive. There are three bridges, one railway bridge and two road bridges. The Ukrainians couldn't destroy them in time, so the Russians managed to get to the other side of the river. This gives you a bridgehead to later launch an attack via Mykolayiv to Odessa. By taking Odessa, the Russians would cut off Ukraine from the sea.
Isn't an advance on Odessa now considered unlikely?
At the moment it doesn't look as if the Russians have the necessary forces for this. Nevertheless, they will try at all costs to hold this beachhead. If they were pushed back to the east side of the Dnipro, they would have to amphibiously prepare any new attack. Incidentally, that's also Ukraine's problem: Even if Ukraine were to manage to drive the Russians off the west bank, they would still have the problem that they would then have to cross the river themselves in order to advance towards Crimea. And as we know, in ongoing attacks using HIMARS rocket launchers, Ukraine has severely damaged the bridges across the Dnipro. The Russians are therefore forced to operate a ferry service and to lay a pontoon bridge.
Ukraine has announced several major offensives in the south, but so far there have not been any. Why?
In fact, over the past two months Ukraine has repeatedly announced its intention to push the Russians back behind the Dnipro, and has also rallied forces to do so. The problem is that the terrain around Kherson is very flat and there are no large wooded areas. This means that there are no opportunities to hide mechanized attack forces, i.e. tanks or armored personnel carriers. Again and again the preparations are recognized and fired upon by the Russians. There are constant Ukrainian losses. Recently, the commander and part of the staff of the 28th Mechanized Brigade fell. In order to secure its positions, Ukraine would also need a powerful anti-aircraft defense system or air force. So far there has therefore been no major offensive in the direction of Cherson. Instead, Ukraine has begun blowing up the bridges over the Dnipro to at least create supply problems for the Russians - an important preparatory measure for a possible offensive.
What role do you think the explosions in ammunition depots in Crimea and Belgorod played in the course of the war?
There have already been spectacular successes, such as the attack on the Saki airbase in Crimea. Such a thing leads to the questioning of the quality of the Russian air defenses, which obviously failed here. However, there is no measurable effect so far. My Ukrainian contacts say: "It's good that we got the sixteen HIMARS. But why don't we get more, why don't we get more ammunition? It's just enough that we can have an effect, but not enough for one resounding success." In my view, these questions are entirely legitimate.
That is why the attacks on Crimea and Belgorod are important for Ukraine for another reason: Ukraine wants to show the West that support is still necessary, but that it can also win this war . Such signals are important because the war also takes place in the information space. If Westerners get the impression that Ukraine is losing anyway, they will lessen their willingness to support sanctions against Russia and arms sales to Ukraine. Especially when there are noticeable hardships in Europe in autumn/winter.
Is warfare really that important in information warfare?
The war for heads on the home front, as part of a "cognitive" or "information" warfare, is becoming increasingly important. I contend that the Russians, and China too, have seen very well where the West's weak point is. It's not the weapons systems - it's the populations. Russia is deliberately trying to widen the gap created by challenges such as inflation, rising energy prices and an impending recession in Western societies. With us, politics is the result of a democratic process, i.e. of elections. Here Russia is clearly trying to bring about a change in its favor. You are experiencing this in Germany too: One bad news follows the other, the district craftsmen's association in Halle-Saalekreis demanded in an open letter to stop all sanctions against Russia. The core statement: "This is not our war." This is exactly where Russia comes in. The battle for heads, that is now, but even more so in the future, is the challenge that needs to be overcome. Wars of attrition in particular are often not won on the battlefield, but in the hinterland - in the willingness of the population to continue to support the conflict. In the case of Ukraine, it is also the West's willingness to provide the necessary weapon systems or financial support. Russia is therefore stoically counting on simply making minor progress week by week and otherwise waiting until autumn and winter come and the West is on its knees. Remember that in 1917 Lenin was sent on a train from Switzerland to Russia via Germany to wreak havoc there. His work led to the October Revolution of 1917, Russia's withdrawal from World War I and a bloody civil war.
Then the populations of the West are Ukraine's weak point?
Every war party has an Achilles heel. For Ukraine it is Western support - without it, it cannot survive this war. For Russia it is the cohesion of its own population.
In military terms, one speaks of the "center of gravity" from which a warring party draws its central strength. In the information war, both sides are trying to eliminate this "center of gravity": Russia, by trying to undermine the morale of the population in the West by cutting off gas supplies. And the West, by trying to reduce support for Putin with the sanctions. So far this hasn't worked. The Russians are suffering heavy losses and the economy is suffering, but we haven't seen any change in behavior yet. Russia bit down on its prey like a terrier. The snout is bloody, the ear is half off, but the jaws are still tight. It is ready to go to the extreme.
Back to Crimea: after the explosions at the Saki airbase, Russia claimed it was an accident, and another time saboteurs are said to have been at work. Then, on Sunday, the head of administration in Sevastopol said that the Russian anti-aircraft defense system had fended off "objects". How do you rate that?
There is an interesting parallel to the attack on the Saki air base in particular, the sinking of the "Moskva" in April, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. One can assume that the position of the ship, but also the preparations, have been verified in detail by the American side through appropriate reconnaissance, so that the use of anti-ship missiles, and at the same time the use of drones, has succeeded in to sink the ship. But to date nobody has taken responsibility for it, there is no official explanation as to which weapon system was used. Incidentally, this also shows how important the aspect of information warfare is.
In what way?
In the west, the sinking of the "Moskva" was celebrated as a great success. On Russian social media, on the other hand, the matter was used to promote national cohesion, in line with the Russian narrative: we are not fighting Ukraine, but the West, the US and NATO, are fighting us.
And in Saki?
Half of the aircraft of the 43rd Independent Naval Fighter Squadron were destroyed in the explosions there. There were four nearly simultaneous impacts, nearly equally spaced, forming a right-angled "L". This practically rules out the possibility that it was a sabotage attack, it was by no means an accident, and it wasn't an action by special forces either, but almost certainly an attack with a missile system - like the "Moskva".
At that time it was said that two Ukrainian rockets of the type "Neptun" were used in the sinking of the "Moskva".
This has not been officially confirmed, neither by Ukraine nor by the Russians, who should know how their ship was sunk. The craters will also have been examined in Saki - the Russians definitely know which systems their airfield was attacked with. But if they said that, they would have to admit at the same time that their anti-aircraft defenses failed at this point. The attacks in Crimea are putting massive pressure on the Russian political leadership. The killing of Dugin's daughter also plays a role here. The Russian people, and this is clearly visible on social media, are looking questioningly at the President. Putin now blames Ukraine for the attacks and killings. It is therefore quite possible that this will be used to further escalate the war. So far, for example, we have hardly seen the deployment of the Russian Strategic Air Force. It may well be that Russia will now use them for massive retaliation.
Hubertus Volmer spoke to Markus Reisner