FOCUS online: Mr. Weber, do you think it’s possible that the Ukrainians, not the Russians, blew up the dam themselves, as Moscow claims?
Joachim Weber: The fact that the Ukrainians blew up the dam doesn’t make any sense because they would be opposing their own people in Crimea, who want to recapture them. And you can’t do that by separating the people there from the water supply, which means blowing up the dam.
Why is the blast coming now? What military benefit could Putin’s troops derive from this for their war of aggression?
weaver: There are many indications that this is actually intended to disrupt the Ukrainian counter-offensive. The most recent troop movements in Ukraine, including the fighting for the completely destroyed town of Bakhmut in the Kramatorsk region, suggest that the army is planning a pincer movement to encircle the Russian troops from the Cherson region beyond the Dnipro to the southeast.
The aim is to advance further south to the Black Sea coast in order to split up Putin’s troops there and move closer to Crimea. This should not have escaped the attention of the Russian troops.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claims that the counter-offensive will not suffer from the destruction of the dam. Do you believe him?
weaver: Unfortunately, no. Bridging the Dnieper should not have been a real obstacle for Zelenskyi’s troops to push further south and south-east. But the large-scale flooding caused by the dam blast is in the process of transforming huge areas downstream of the dam into a swampy lake landscape.
The amphibious capabilities of the Ukrainian military are far from sufficient to overcome such an obstacle with mechanized formations including heavy tanks. The well-planned splitting of Russian troops between Crimea and the region around Mariupol is likely to be delayed by several weeks into the summer. With potentially serious consequences.
What consequences could this have for the counter-offensive – and beyond that for the entire course of the war? Just a delay, or is it more?
weaver: If the Ukrainian troops actually wanted to split up or even encircle the Russian troops with a pincer movement – and the vast majority of military experts probably also see it that way at the moment – then the dam blow-up means a massive deterioration in the chances of success for the counteroffensive and throws the Ukraine down a notch return.
The Ukrainian army is under intense pressure to achieve a military success over the Russians this summer. If they don’t manage to do that, the leadership in Kiev will find themselves in a quandary of being able to continue to justify this war of attrition.
That means you think the counteroffensive won’t bring a clear victory anyway?
weaver: The word counteroffensive in this case means nothing more than trying to gain strategic advantage in a war of attrition by regaining the initiative.
Ukraine lacks the material and troops for a long-term, rather static war of attrition. In order to throw Putin’s army out of the country, Kiev would actually need a 3:1 superiority in terms of the military balance of power. In reality it is probably much closer to 1:3. No good prospects for a short-term victory over the invaders.
And what is the long-term danger if Zelenskyy’s troops fail to recover important terrain?
weaver: Above all, it consists in the fact that the longer there are no discernible changes in the course of the war, the more difficult it will be for Ukraine to justify a war of attrition to the Western Allies.
There could be a significant deterioration if the Republicans win the US presidential election in autumn 2024. The risk that the USA could then significantly reduce its support for Ukraine is by no means only linked to a possible re-election of Donald Trump. Other candidates could also turn off the money supply, which could have dramatic consequences for the course of the war.
For this reason, I think that the outcome of the war in Ukraine will be decided this summer.