DW: The Ukrainian commander-in-chief Valeriy Zalushnyj wrote in the British Economist that Russia’s war is at a dead end and there is a risk of trench warfare like in the First World War. President Volodymyr Zelensky indirectly contradicted it: It is not a dead end. Who is right?
Markus Reisner: You have to place these statements in the context of the course of the war. Saluzhny says that after 20 months it can be seen that Ukraine only gets what makes it possible for it to rebalance an asymmetrical situation. But not enough to corner the Russians so much that they are forced to enter into negotiations. An example is ATACMS missiles or the discussion about the F-16 fighter jets. Salushnyj says, look, the situation is precarious, and if you want us to win, then there has to be a difference here compared to before.
The president is trying to classify that. Zelensky says, yes, it’s my general’s statement, but we’re still on the winning track. He is doing what is expected of him as president. If the president says it’s lost, that would have a huge moral impact. Just as he had said at the beginning of the war: I’ll stay in the city, send me weapons and not a taxi.
Victory through morality? “This goes against all military logic”
Many perceived these statements by Salunzhny and Zelensky as differences of opinion that were perhaps so visible for the first time. How dangerous is this for supporting Ukraine?
Reisner: This is a dilemma. The Russians immediately picked up the ball and declared that the Ukrainian offensive had failed, citing General Zalushny, who said there was unlikely to be “a deep and beautiful breakthrough.” The dilemma is: Ukraine didn’t have all the capabilities it needed. I always said that and back then people thought that with morale you could do it. This goes against all military logic. General Saluschnyj also made a very clear statement through the English media a few months ago that we are here at the front, you don’t need to explain to us how we have to fight this war. We are grateful for every supply of weapons we receive, but the situation is that without air support we cannot proceed as described in the NATO manual. That’s why we developed our own tactics.
Isn’t it the case that trench warfare has basically been here for about a year? After the recapture of Kherson, there were no major changes to the front line. Then why this statement now?
Reisner: The thing is that Ukraine was always good when it was mobile. The Russians have repeatedly managed to force Ukraine into stationary warfare. This, of course, favored the Russian side because it can exploit its great capabilities here, such as the use of massive artillery, but also the use in the electromagnetic field, jamming communications and communications to the drones. They wanted to break through this dilemma with the offensive that began on June 4th, but it did not achieve its set goals. In doing so, the Russians have forced the Ukrainians back into trench warfare.
That’s why now is the moment when we have to end the summer offensive and prepare Ukraine so that it can go on the offensive again in the spring. You can see the signs of this, the creation of five new brigades. But the question is: where does the device come from? To do this they need 150 main battle tanks, 300 infantry fighting vehicles, at least 200 to 300 artillery systems, which must be delivered now. Not that they mourn the offensive, but rather ask the question, what happens next?
“We have a situation where both sides are in a kind of stalemate.”
Saluschnyj mentions a technical miracle in his article. He doesn’t say the word “miracle,” but he means it. He compares it to the invention of black powder. What could it be?
Reisner: We have a situation where both sides are in a kind of stalemate. It is reinforced by technological developments. While Ukraine has been very innovative in introducing new weapons systems in recent months, of a quality that could previously only be read about theoretically, in texts about the future of war. We have swarms of drones operating almost simultaneously. The Russian side has often copied and started producing these innovative ideas. So we have the so-called glass battlefield. It is no longer possible to provide forces, to concentrate large numbers of tanks in a small space and then not to start maneuvering because the enemy or the defender immediately knows that they are coming and that has to be made ineffective with artillery and drones.
How can we prevent this? There are references to this in Saluzhny’s interview. It’s about mastering the electromagnetic field where radio signals are transmitted and drones are controlled. If you manage to master this, you will also be able to blind your opponent again. It is interesting that Zalushnyj describes his meeting with Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google. This is where artificial intelligence comes into play. Many sensors generate data and the AI evaluates it and quickly makes a suggestion – here is a target, these weapons can be assigned. Time is a factor in warfare. If Ukraine manages to innovatively recapture the electromagnetic field and work with the time factor, then it can be able to get the momentum on its side.
“The West has been glossing over the situation for 20 months”
Is the West prepared for a trench war in Ukraine?
Reisner: The West is not prepared for this because the West has been glossing over the situation for 20 months and because it believes that Ukraine is able to use morale to defeat this Russian bear. It does not work like that. In my view there are two options. One is to go all-in. But four to five loaded military trains would have to travel to Ukraine every week. The other thing is to self-critically admit that it is not possible. Then you have to tell that to the Ukrainians. You may then have to start negotiations, but with the admission that Ukraine will no longer exist as a state because Russia will destroy it.
What is your forecast for 2024?
Reisner: We are approaching a culmination point where the situation is on the brink and will be decided – in one direction or the other. We have multiple crises and attention to Ukraine is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. If Ukraine does not manage to remain in the spotlight of the world and, above all, make it clear to the European side that the war for Europe may be decided in Ukraine, then things will be difficult for Ukraine. If Ukraine manages to do the opposite, then the conflict could develop in this direction. We don’t know whether this is possible. We experience history in the making. That’s why Saluzhny’s article is so important.
Markus Reisner is a military historian and colonel in the Austrian army.