Colonel Markus Reisner assumes "that Ukraine will try to go on the offensive as far as possible over the winter, while Russia will behave more defensively". In an interview with ntv.de, he says the Russians are counting on the Ukrainian army being weakened by spring. "By then, the mobilized forces will have arrived en masse at the front." The West's arms deliveries to date are "too much to die for and too little to live" for Ukraine.
ntv.de: Ukraine has liberated more than half of the territory that the Russians had conquered since the beginning of their invasion on February 24th. Would you have thought that ten months ago?
Markus Reisner: I can answer this question in unison with many other experts who have repeatedly had to correct themselves in recent months. Immediately after the start of the Russian invasion, there was a unanimous view that Ukraine would not be able to fight this war for long. Even the Pentagon, which had previously warned of the attack, did not believe that Ukraine would hold out for long. On February 24, Western secret services assumed that Kyiv would fall to the Russians within hours.
Putin's blitzkrieg wasn't quite as successful.
The Ukrainians surprised everyone. But one must also say clearly: in the first days of the war, it was on the brink. The Russians had built everything on a decapitation strike - they wanted to conquer Kyiv and depose President Zelenskyy. But that didn't work. Since then it's been back and forth. Sometimes the Ukrainians surprise with a successful offensive, sometimes the Russians advance. Now, in winter, we see a stalemate. Both sides have had successes and setbacks, but how the war will end is unclear.
In your opinion, what has been the greatest military achievement so far in this war?
That was the forced withdrawal of the Russians from the Kyiv area in the direction of Donbass due to the surprising defensive success of the Ukrainians. Even if the Russian withdrawal was orderly, it was clear that the Russians' Plan A had failed. At that moment, Ukraine's resistance became evident: we liberated Kyiv, we will liberate Donbass too, and even take back Crimea. To this day, the Russian withdrawal from the greater Kyiv area sets the tone for the Ukrainian resistance.
The Russian plan B was then to concentrate on the Donbass front.
Russia miscalculated its invasion. It took a while for it to realize that. But eventually the Russians responded. The first reaction was to gather forces in Donbass and try to bring about a decision there. With that, the Ukrainians' initial success in the summer turned into a stalemate. You certainly remember the battle of Lysychansk and Sieverodonetsk, which the Russians won in July. Admittedly not as big as they had planned, i.e. with a push south from Izyum, maybe even as far as the Dnipro. But they have used the pocket to repeatedly destroy Ukrainian reserves and arms shipments from the West.
Arms shipments, which were slow to get off the ground anyway.
It took a while for the West to understand how massive support Ukraine needs. This was partly due to the way the Ukrainian government conducted information warfare: it suggested that Ukraine could not only repel the Russians, but also successfully fight them.
Only after the arrival of the first weapon systems in Ukraine was the Ukrainian army able to keep the Russians at least at a certain distance. In particular, the HIMARS multiple rocket launcher artillery system was valuable to Ukraine. With this she was able to destroy ammunition depots of the Russians and also the bridges in Cherson. After their failure at Kyiv, the Russians switched to a different approach: no longer advance quickly and deeply, but slowly with massive artillery support. The HIMARS helped Ukraine disrupt this Russian move, allowing them to go on the offensive themselves in the third phase of the war.
The third phase began in early September with the breakthrough at Balaklija in the Kharkiv region.
In this phase, Ukraine not only recaptured the Kharkiv region, but also the city of Kherson and the surrounding area north of the Dnipro in November.
Sounds like a good starting position for the next Ukrainian offensive.
no Firstly, Ukraine still needs massive support from the West, above all in the form of arms deliveries and intelligence services. And secondly, Russia has recognized that the skins are swimming away and is once again trying to adapt accordingly. The first major decision we saw here that Russia actually wanted to avoid was mobilization. The newly mobilized forces are now filling the void that had caused difficulties for the Russians from the start.
At the moment they are mainly concerned with destroying Ukraine's energy infrastructure and attacking civilian targets.
These massive attacks on critical infrastructure began on October 10th. On the one hand, the attacks are about what is called "shaping", i.e. preparing for a battle by attacking the infrastructure. For example, they make it difficult for Ukraine to get supplies from the West that Ukraine urgently needs. And of course the Russians are also concerned with destroying the morale of the population.
Can something like this work?
We know that the bombing of cities during World War II did not weaken the morale of the population, quite the contrary. What is dangerous for Ukraine, however, is strategic attrition - the destruction of substations, power plants, and the power grid as a whole. Ukraine is reacting by trying to hit Russia in depth - by attacking airfields and the Black Sea Fleet, because the cruise missiles are launched from the ships. There were two or three spectacular attacks with unmanned surface water systems on Sevastopol and with drones on strategic air bases in Russia. But to really make a difference, such attacks would have to happen on a large scale. We haven't seen that yet.
What difference does the US delivery of a Patriot air defense system to Ukraine make?
Do you think it is conceivable that Russia will give up if it finds that its current strategies are not making any headway?
I think a surrender by Russia is almost unimaginable. The current leadership is so caught up in this war that it cannot simply give up. So the lead would have to be removed and another lead given the opportunity to perform this surrender. The question is who that would be. The next level behind Putin? There are some who are even more radical than he is. We see it on Russian state television, where some of the possible crown princes are demanding that Kyiv be reduced to rubble. Or the population struggles to push through a revolution. However, it doesn't look like it at the moment.
Is there no sign of negotiations?
I'm pretty sure there were background talks before the Russians left Kherson. You could see that in two things: first, in the trip by US President Biden's security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to Kyiv in early November, shortly before the liberation of Cherson. The withdrawal of the Russians may also have been discussed there. Because it clearly had an aftertaste: Despite the destroyed bridges over the Dnipro and although they were under constant Ukrainian fire, the Russians managed to get 30,000 men including equipment to the other side of the river in just a few days. Why did Ukraine allow this? Russia can now deploy these forces in the Donbass or in the Melitopol area in southern Ukraine.
You think Sullivan brokered the deduction?
Yes. A second indication of this are the statements by US Chief of Staff Mark Milley. He said in November that the Russians may have suffered 100,000 casualties, i.e. dead and wounded. Here it comes: He added that losses on the Ukrainian side are similar. Nobody had said that so clearly before. In addition, around 40,000 Ukrainian civilians died, according to Milley. Also, days after Ukraine's triumph in Kherson, he said that there was a possibility of a political solution and that the likelihood of a Ukrainian military victory "defined as kicking the Russians out of all of Ukraine, including their claimed Crimea," was not be high.
But neither Ukraine nor Russia seem to want the political solution Milley has mentioned. President Zelenskyj demanded that Russia withdraw the occupying forces by Christmas, and Russia stated that a prerequisite for peace negotiations was Ukraine's recognition of the annexed areas - including areas that Russia currently does not control.
Both Ukraine and Russia believe they have more to gain on the battlefield right now than they do at the negotiating table. Russia has started to dig in. They created the Wagner Line and the Surovikin Line. The Surovikin line, named after the commander of the Russian army in Ukraine, runs in Russia, in the Belgorod and Kursk regions, the Wagner line in the Luhansk region of Ukraine. The Russians are laying dragon's teeth there - that's what these concrete pyramids are called - barriers and hundreds of thousands of mines. They want to create a situation in which Ukraine is forced to attack.
The Russians want to let Ukraine go on the offensive?
The situation reminds me of the summer, of the Lysychansk-Syeverodonetsk basin. As there, the Russians again want to create a situation where Ukraine puts soldiers and guns exactly where they want them - within range of their artillery.
At the moment there is a lot of talk about whether the war will pause or escalate in the winter. What type of warfare do you anticipate in the coming months?
Both sides will always look to capitalize on good opportunities when they arise. The Russian approach will be more defensive in order to consolidate behind the lines currently favorable to them while continuing to destroy Ukraine's critical infrastructure. In the spring they will then take stock and see what is still possible.
Ukraine will try to bring about decisions. Along with Kharkiv and Cherson, Ukraine is trying to push forward from the Zaporizhia area in the direction of Melitopol, where it encounters bitter resistance from the Russians. A capture of Melitopol, combined with another attack on the Kerch bridge, would have the advantage for Ukraine that it would completely cut off the Russian army from its supplies in Crimea. That would put the Russians in a very precarious supply situation in winter. So far, however, Ukraine has not succeeded in making this breakthrough.
Bottom line, I'm inclined to think that over the winter Ukraine will try to go as far on the offensive as possible, while Russia will be more defensive. In the spring, when the Ukrainian army is weakened by its own attacks during the winter, as well as by the consequences of Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, the Russians will try to go on the offensive. By then, the mobilized forces will have arrived en masse at the front.
In other words, you see the Russians at an advantage in the medium term.
The fact that the Russians didn't win their blitz in February shouldn't lead us to believe they can be beaten. In the long term, the overweight lies with Russia. A country of 127 million people is fighting against a much smaller neighbor. The Russians set their unscrupulousness in dealing with their own recruits against the higher morale of the Ukrainians. For example, militias from the annexed "People's Republics" of Luhansk and Donetsk are sent ahead as bullet traps. Only then does the regular Russian armed forces or mercenary groups like Wagner attack. In the end, the outcome of the war will depend heavily on whether the Russian population remains calm. I wouldn't pin my hopes on that, though. Traditionally, Russians have been stoic about wars and crises.
Can't Western arms supplies make up for this Russian preponderance?
They could, but they don't. In my view, Ukraine can only continue this conflict if the West decides to support Ukraine unconditionally, with any means at its disposal. The alternative is that we admit to ourselves that we are not ready to do this. Then we should tell Ukraine that soon.
Chancellor Scholz recently emphasized again in the Bundestag that Germany will continue to support Ukraine "for as long as it is needed".
These are full-bodied explanations that do not fit reality. Germany and the Netherlands made 14 Panzerhaubitzen 2000 available to the Ukraine. So please, that's a drop in the ocean. What the west is giving to Ukraine is too much to die and too little to live. This also applies to the HIMARS systems. Why didn't the Americans deliver 50 or 100, but only pledged 20 and 18 over the next two years? Ukraine is asking the same question. To me it looks as if the Americans want to achieve a solution to the conflict or at least a freeze - also to give the Ukrainians the opportunity to regroup.
Hubertus Volmer spoke to Markus Reisner