Expert on the course of the war: “If Putin could escalate, he would have done it long ago”

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For weeks the Russian troops wear themselves out without really taking the insignificant Bakhmut, and neither does the rest of their winter offensive make any headway. “There are no additional resources,” says security expert Nico Lange, senior fellow of the Munich Security Conference’s “Zeitwende” initiative. In an interview with ntv.de, he explains why the “infinite forces” in Russia are just a myth.

An almost static battle for Bachmut has been raging for weeks, but overall, is Russia making progress little by little?

Russia, especially the Wagner Group, has now needed months to advance from the eastern side to the city center and hoisted a Russian flag on the central administration building on Monday night. At the same time, this means that about a third of the city in the western part is still controlled by Ukraine. Militarily, a flag on City Hall does not mean that you control the entire city. But if it took Russian troops months to get to the town center, it’s likely that it could take them a long time to conquer the rest of the city, if they manage to do so at all.

From the very beginning, one argument for Ukraine’s resistance there was that the Russian troops, who are not as combative in the city area, were said to have lost a much higher proportion of their losses – around 7 to 1. Is that still the case?

I don’t have enough data on the loss rates of both sides in the last few days, and I don’t think anyone really has either. But what I see is that Russia’s cost of capturing a town as small as Bakhmut is being pushed up and Russia’s ability to launch further attacks appears to be greatly diminished.

Nico Lange is Senior Fellow of the Munich Security Conference’s “Zeitwende” initiative and was head of the management team at the Ministry of Defence. Long lived in Russia and in Ukraine.

(Photo: Photo: Tobias Koch (www.tobiaskoch.net))

So the bottom line is that the losses are still worth it?

The fact that Russia has not managed to close the last kilometers of the encirclement behind Bakhmut for months is a sign of the weakness of the Russian side. It looks like their attack actually stops at Bachmut. From a military perspective, however, I see critically on both sides how politically charged the town of Bachmut is. I can’t judge that conclusively, but I would find it difficult if something like a political override of military necessity also occurs on the Ukrainian side. It would be better to go by the purely military point of view.

In Avdiivka, too, the Ukrainian armed forces defend themselves in the event of heavy losses.

The same applies to Avdiivka, a little further south near Donetsk. This city, too, has meanwhile come under pressure from Russia from three sides. Ultimately, the commanders on site can best decide how to proceed. At the very least, Ukraine should not run the risk of using resources now to defend these cities that it actually needs for future counterattacks.

For these counterattacks, they also urgently need western tanks, but these are only being delivered little by little. “Boiling the frog” is the name of the West’s strategy of slowly increasing the amount and quality of its support so that Putin does not escalate. Sounds reasonable. But how great is the danger that Ukraine will run out of well-trained soldiers until it has the necessary weapons in sufficient numbers?

I don’t think much of “Boiling the Frog” at all, I’ll tell you why right away. Before doing so, however, I would like to explain why, from my perspective, your question does not arise in this way. The situation can be described as follows: Russia has personnel problems but still a lot of technology, even if it is partly outdated. The Ukraine lack technology and equipment, but they do have reserves in terms of personnel. Just because Russia is larger and has a larger population, one should not automatically assume that Moscow has more soldiers and Kiev has fewer. That is not right.

But you still think “Boiling the frog” is bad?

With “Boiling the Frog” I’m not at all sure: is that really a strategy or did you interpret it into your own behavior afterwards? I see no point in always waiting for Russia to do something and always giving the Russian armed forces a chance to rest and then give a little help again.

The West does not want to show Putin so clearly how strongly he supports Ukraine.

Key Western partners have been hesitant to react to what Russia is doing for more than a year now and have repeatedly given Russian troops the opportunity to regroup. It would be a new phase of the war if Russia was simply given no more breathing room, but massively helped so that Ukraine could break through the front and drive the attackers out of the country. From a military perspective, I can only allow myself this opinion: It would make sense now to help Ukraine so decisively that it would be able to win and then retain the initiative in this war. Militarily I think it’s possible, but then you have to change that “boiling the frog” approach.

In your opinion, isn’t there a need for a Western strategy that keeps the ball a little flat? In your view, does the risk of escalation that is being sought to be contained not exist?

All I can say is that all hypotheses on time courses and escalation risks since February 24, 2022 have turned out to be wrong. At first it was assumed that the war would be over in a few weeks. Then you thought: In the summer of 2022 there might be a compromise. Then the realization slowly came: Oh, it’s going to take a long time, so we also have to follow up industrially. One should not make the mistake of making decisions based on false hypotheses again. You should learn from it if your own hypotheses are not correct.

From here, can we make a serious assessment of how Russia is positioned and what it is ready for?

As for the risks of escalation, let’s look at the realities soberly: many have said: if Crimea is attacked, the war will escalate. Crimea has been attacked, on several occasions. What happened: Russia has withdrawn its submarines from the Black Sea – apparently for fear that they too could be attacked. There are no further escalations and from a military perspective I can only ask: What is this escalation supposed to be?

There is no second Russian army somewhere in reserve in case anything bad happens. There are also no additional military resources. We should get rid of this myth that the Kremlin could still unleash infinite power. Putin uses what he has. We’re seeing Russia’s military capability right now, and it’s not as strong as everyone thought it would be. If Putin could escalate, he would have done so long ago. Based on these experiences, we can now come to a different assessment.

Arguably the biggest concern is that Putin will escalate with nuclear weapons.

But we don’t have to locate this risk in the realm of mythology either. The use of a strategic nuclear weapon…

… these are those with an explosive power that can destroy entire regions and with a range of over 5000 kilometers and more …

is excluded. That would lead to mutual annihilation. Deterrence has worked for many decades, and it continues to work.

That leaves the option of a shorter-range, lower-yield tactical nuclear weapon that could be deployed on the battlefield in Ukraine.

You have to state soberly: This is neither an “I’m winning the war” button for Putin, nor is it an “The end of the world” button. Putin could do damage with it, but the Ukrainians would still fight on. He would not have won the war, but he would have had these high costs: the Americans made it clear to him what conventional countermeasures would be and China and others would move away from Russia. I therefore consider the probability of such an escalation to be very low. The threat of nuclear weapons is primarily psychological warfare, especially in relation to Germany, because here, whenever the word “nuclear” is mentioned, the immediate reaction is irrational. No one should constantly talk about a mythological danger of escalation. We have been observing the Russian threats and real military events for more than a year, the war did not start yesterday. When we finally stop being intimidated and stop ourselves being deterred by opportunities for action, we will be able to provide better, and ultimately more successful, assistance to Ukraine.



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