Status: 06.12.2023, 05:18 a.m.
By: Georg Anastasiadis, Marcus Mäckler
In the Ukraine war, the two armies are stagnating. In an interview, retired Brigadier General Armin Staigis talks about the fighting and the hope for peace.
Munich – The Ukrainian offensive has not brought the hoped-for success, and now winter is taking its toll on the troops. The current stalemate benefits Russia in particular, says Armin Staigis (72). The retired brigadier general, who has worked in the Federal Chancellery and NATO headquarters, among other places, and commanded German troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina, talks in an interview about the course of the war – and outlines a negotiation scenario.
Mr. Staigis, the Ukrainian commander-in-chief Zaluzhny has given a sobering assessment of the offensive. Is Kiev on the verge of military failure?
I don't think so. It is astonishing what Ukraine has achieved militarily to this day – just think of the successes in the north near Kharkiv, which came as a complete surprise to the Russians. But that was last year, this time the Russians were able to prepare for the summer offensive. They have built defensive fortifications of huge proportions. Therefore, it was hardly to be expected that the offensive would break through.
Are we partly to blame because we were too reluctant to deliver the weapons?
That's certainly part of the truth. Now they are in a military stalemate, which benefits the Russians more. They expect that the willingness of the West to support the Ukrainians and bear the burdens associated with this will decrease. Of course, the stalemate also benefits them, because they have completely different potentials to strengthen themselves militarily again.
What follows from this? Does Ukraine have to negotiate – or do we need to support it even more?
First, we need to ask what the Ukrainians want. They are a sovereign people whose will is to be accepted. Then we have to draw our own conclusions. If we follow the basic premise that we do not want to allow an aggressor to succeed in the 21st century, it remains our obligation to continue to support Ukraine.
So should we send the Taurus missiles that the traffic light still refuses?
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I think we should focus less on individual weapon systems and more on strategic thinking. What do we want, what is necessary for this? But if you're already asking: Personally, I can understand that the government is cautious about Taurus, taking into account its own stocks and the potential for escalation.
Do we in Germany actually know what we want? The Chancellor is still not talking about a victory for Ukraine.
Russia is the world's largest nuclear power and it is incredibly difficult to assess how rationally decisions are still being made in the Kremlin. So the question that arises is whether we in the West are sufficiently willing to take risks. Some now even speak of self-deterrence.
At least the tone is different. Boris Pistorius has received a lot of criticism for saying that Germany must become fit for war. Did he express himself incorrectly?
That's where you hit a point with me. I don't know much about the concept of military capability, even though I'm a former soldier. From his inner orientation on the basis of the Basic Law, the soldier of the Bundeswehr is not a soldier of war, but one of peace. I would have thought it appropriate if Minister Pistorius had continued to talk about operational and defence readiness, which must be established right now. But language and diction have an effect within the Bundeswehr and in the society that supports it. The concept of warworthiness is likely to prove counterproductive in both spheres.
Do you expect offensives in the winter?
Both sides are currently strategically and operationally incapable of attacking. I expect that, apart from tactical battles, it will remain a stalemate on the battlefield for the time being. However, the Russians will certainly try to hit the Ukrainian infrastructure and make the winter as hard as possible for the people.
Like last year...
Maybe even harder. The Russians have two goals of attrition: one is the Ukrainians themselves, who have basically endured unbelievable things since 2014. The second attrition target is us. By the way, I don't know much about the concept of the turning point. For the Ukrainians, the turning point was not in February 2022, but nine years ago with the occupation of Crimea by Russia. We in the West should have recognized lines of development even then and should now draw the lessons for the future from them.
Do you see Ukraine fatigue in the West?
Fatigue is not the right word. The support is politically controversial, think of the tough debates about the aid in the U.S. Congress. Much will depend on how long populations hold out if it really affects the personal life of the individual. I say: it must be worth it to us if we want to preserve peace and freedom for ourselves. If we even show a willingness to cede part of Ukraine, this is the signal for an authoritarian system like Russia to continue. Then it's about the Baltics, about Poland. And then you're not far from Berlin. This war is a systemic conflict between democracy and autocracy, ultimately about the political order in which we want to live in the future.
Does this mean that Kiev should take back all occupied territories, including Crimea?
That is my conviction. The only question is how to achieve it. Whether it can only be done by military means – or whether there are other ways as well.
If it could be made clear to the Russians that cooperation with the West would not be possible again until the status quo before 2014 was returned, a negotiated solution might be conceivable. To do so, however, NATO would have to be prepared to defend every inch of the ground that is under Ukrainian control at the time of a ceasefire.
Wait, would NATO have to threaten to enter the war?
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that every square inch of the alliance's territory would be defended, meaning the Baltic states and Poland. This time, NATO would have to give Ukraine protection up to a ceasefire line. In this way, the mistake of the Minsk-2 agreement could be avoided. At that time, the Russians knew that they could continue to act aggressively, without consequences.
But this presupposes a huge willingness to take risks on the part of the West ...
Of course. It would also be an important signal to station NATO troops in Ukraine.
But the occupied territories would be lost.
That would only be an intermediate step. The aim should be to talk at the negotiating table about how Ukraine can get all of its territory back.
Why would Russia get involved in such a thing?
Because there is an incentive: the Russians could be offered the prospect of fully reintegrating them into the international community. This may all sound very unlikely. But the alternative is for the bloodshed to continue, with no prospect of a solution.
With Vladimir Putin, this is hardly feasible ...
I would also put big question marks there. There is only one way: the West must develop strength and be prepared to stand up for its freedom. Then we have a chance. The Wall collapsed in 1989 at a time when the West was stronger than ever before in all respects. At that time, the Soviet bloc had no choice but to open up.
Is the war still militarily winnable?
The Ukrainians have achieved something terrific. But for the foreseeable future, they will probably be too weak militarily for that.
Interview: Georg Anastasiadis and Marcus Mäckler