Russia is advancing further in eastern Ukraine's Donbass. For defense, Kyiv needs more heavy weapons from the West. In an interview with ntv.de, Gerhard Mangott, Russia expert and professor of international relations at the University of Innsbruck, explains why the danger of a "bad peace" for Ukraine could increase if Moscow were to take over the entire east of the country.
ntv.de: At the weekend, after weeks of fighting, Russia also took Lyssychansk. What does the city mean militarily?
Gerhard Mangott: Lyssychansk is an industrial city, just like the previously captured twin city of Sievjerodonetsk. But not much is left of this industry and especially of the residential buildings. This is due to the Russian strategy of razing everything to the ground so that it can advance with fewer casualties. For Russia, having captured the twin cities is a political achievement, as it has captured the entire Luhansk region, which was one of the aims of the war. It is a moral and military defeat for Ukraine because it failed to hold the two cities.
So is Russia now turning to Donetsk?
This is the next stage of the Russian campaign. The goal is to conquer the 40 percent of Donetsk Oblast that is still under Ukrainian control. Russian forces are preparing the next push from Popasna, which has been under Russian control for months. The city of Bakhmut will then be the next military target. From there it heads towards Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the closest centers of the Ukrainian resistance in Donbass. If these cities were to fall, then Ukraine would have suffered a devastating defeat in the Donbass. However, at a high price for both sides - in terms of human lives and equipment.
What is your estimation, when will Russia have taken the entire Donbass?
This will certainly take several weeks. But it could also be longer if Ukraine receives more and faster artillery from the West to stop the Russian offensive. In any case, it cannot be assumed that Ukraine will be militarily strong enough in the next few months to push back the Russian conquests. The Russians will probably dig into their positions. But if arms are not delivered to Ukraine more quickly, within the next few weeks Russia will be able to capture the remaining 40 percent of Donetsk province.
What is the current status of heavy weapons?
The Ukrainian side says it itself: too little and too slowly. For example, the US has supplied multiple rocket launchers to Ukraine. However, only four of these HIMARS systems were delivered. And on the Russian side, there are hundreds of similar systems that Russia's artillery can use to level cities. When it comes to heavy weapons and ammunition, there is still a massive mismatch between Ukraine and Russia.
How well prepared is the Russian army for such a war of attrition?
The Russian side has now increasingly used anti-ship missiles against cities in Ukraine, which are still from Soviet stocks. Many military analysts conclude that Russia ran out of high-precision ammunition and is therefore using these missiles, which are very inaccurate. On the other hand, it could also be that Russia made a conscious decision to use less valuable weapons that achieve the same purpose as precision weapons, even if they entail greater civilian collateral damage. I lean more towards the second reading, but that is the minority position.
In recent weeks, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned that Western Europe is forcing a peace on Ukraine against its will. The energy crisis could have an even stronger impact here in the coming winter and spring. What do you think of this scenario?
There are already more and more voices saying that Ukraine must be pushed into negotiations with Russia because, despite the arms deliveries, a counter-offensive has so far been unlikely. This would allow Russia to hold the conquered territories. In addition, interest in the war is waning in the western population. There are two reasons for this: partly because we are tired of the war and partly because the war is having a negative impact on the living conditions of people in western countries, especially in Europe. In a winter of energy shortages or starvation, that could fuel those voices that are not as strongly behind Ukraine.
Could Russia try to amplify this scenario?
I can well imagine Russia declaring a unilateral ceasefire after conquering the rest of Donetsk Oblast. Because the Russian side has also suffered significant losses. This means that soldiers and material are missing for an offensive that goes beyond that. A unilateral ceasefire would have the advantage for Russia that the front line would become an armistice line and the Russian side could consolidate control over the conquered territories. This is precisely why the Ukrainian side will not accept such a unilateral ceasefire, but will want to continue fighting. In the West, that will certainly have the potential for division. Then the voices that say Ukraine should agree to a ceasefire because they want the war to end grow louder. This is the second Russian target of a bid for a ceasefire, which Moscow is likely to offer in a few weeks when all of Donbass is conquered.
These are bad prospects for Ukraine.
As far as I can tell things are really not looking good for the Ukrainian side. With better weapons, if they came fast enough, they could certainly stop the Russian advance. But I believe that the Russian side's immediate war goal is "only" to conquer the Donbass and not to make any further advances beyond that. I also believe that Russia will be able to capture Donbass in the next few weeks.
Since the meeting between Belarusian ruler Alexander Lukashenko and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, there have been repeated threats from Minsk. How seriously do you have to take it?
I wouldn't take her very seriously. These are propaganda exercises, primarily as a sign of support for Russia. But I don't think Lukashenko will use Belarusian forces. There are reports that there is high dissatisfaction in the armed forces with a possible combat mission in Ukraine. Lukashenko would then risk desertions to a greater extent. In addition, the Belarusian armed forces are not very well equipped militarily. The most important reason, however, is that there is currently no front in northern Ukraine. The Russian side has already withdrawn from there. And it is completely out of the question that Belarus will try to conquer northern Ukraine from its own territory. That would go beyond Belarus' military capabilities. The purpose of such attacks is, of course, also to tie down Ukrainian military forces on the northern border.
Sebastian Schneider spoke to Gerhard Mangott