Austria’s top military strategist Markus Reisner considers the widespread narrative that Russia and Vladimir Putin have already lost the war in Ukraine to be less than objective. In an interview, he explains what speaks for which war party from his point of view and why the outcome of the war is still open.
FOCUS Online: Mr. Reisner, has the war already been decided? Is Putin already certain to be the loser, as people like to say?
Markus Reisner: Both warring parties are trying everything to shape the narrative of this war in their favor. There is no question that Russia is the aggressor under international law, but when assessing the course of the war, the Western perspective is very much determined by the images and reports from Ukraine. In this respect, the difficulty lies in obtaining an objective assessment of the situation. But we need them, for example, to identify a possible escalation at an early stage. And to come back to your question: No, this war is far from over and Putin has not lost it yet – even if nobody wants to hear that.
The fact is, however, that the Russian army is struggling with massive problems and that Putin’s invasion of eastern Ukraine, like in Kyiv before it, is increasingly coming to a standstill.
Reisner: That is correct. Defending Kiev was a clear victory for Ukraine, which also had to do with their position as defenders. The current invasion is also not going as planned for Putin. I’m relatively sure that Putin’s plan was to capture as much of eastern Ukraine as possible by May 9th. He didn’t succeed, but that’s not the end of the war. He has changed a lot more recently.
Markus Reisner is a lieutenant colonel in the Austrian Armed Forces and head of the development department at the Military Academy in Wiener Neustadt.
Where are we now in this war? What is your objective assessment?
Reisner: Since Russia cannot bring about a quick decision in eastern Ukraine either, this is now a war of attrition with an open outcome. In a war of attrition, both sides pound each other until one gives in. This is exactly what we are now experiencing in the Donbass, where the fronts are only slowly shifting. The civilian population in particular suffers from this and cannot flee in either direction. So the question arises as to who has the staying power. There are points that speak for one side and the other.
The so-called air superiority speaks for the Russian army. Although it cannot fly its air missions safely, it can fly wherever it deems it strategically important. Ukraine, on the other hand, does not have the air defenses that it actually needs. To date, Russia has lost an estimated 68 fighter jets and helicopters: an average of a little less than one aircraft per day, which is below norm given the size of this operation. So these are not serious losses.
Should Russia continue its attacks, Ukraine will gradually be worn out from the air. This can be clearly observed in Odessa, where Russian jets are trying to destroy the last remnants of the Ukrainian air force. Even the official press briefings of the US military mention more than 300 missions by the Russian air force, and the number is rising. This painful detail is often overlooked.
The increasingly scarce supply of fuel on the Ukrainian side is also problematic. In the past two weeks there have already been long queues in front of the gas stations. In the case of Odessa, Russia has cut the central train connection, which means that fuel can hardly be delivered to the south from the west.
And what speaks for Ukraine?
Reisner: Above all, the massive deliveries of arms, including heavy war equipment, from the West. A war of attrition, as the name suggests, requires a great deal of material, and it is no coincidence that Ukraine began demanding heavy weapons just as Russia was focusing on eastern Ukraine.
The receipt of Western intelligence information about the Russian positions and plans also speaks in favor of Ukraine. Just think of the high number of Russian officers killed or the sunk Russian guided missile cruiser “Moskva”. Ukraine was able to do both primarily through the use of US reconnaissance data. In addition, the Ukrainian troops always seem to be superior to the Russians in terms of tactical operations.
Which points do you think are more important now?
Reisner: That is the crucial question and it cannot be answered seriously at the moment. There are simply too many imponderables, because fighting doesn’t just happen on the battlefield. How high is Russia’s mobilization potential really – i.e. how many troops can Putin push in? To what extent is the EU fully prepared to impose an energy embargo? How quickly can further weapon systems be delivered to Ukraine? All of these open questions have an impact on the outcome of the war.
We often talk about victory or defeat. Also in this interview. But is it even possible to say what a win would look like for each side?
Reisner: The territorial losses in the south-east are massive for Ukraine. The fact that the Russian offensive is now faltering does not change that. Ports, oil production and grain production are essential for Ukraine’s economic viability. Much of it is now in Russian hands, or at least contested. It is therefore only logical that Ukraine has declared the entire reconquest of the occupied territories as a war aim. However, this is only realistic with massive and continuous arms deliveries from the West.
From a Russian perspective, the aim is to snatch and separate as large areas as possible from Ukraine. The focus is primarily on the two oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk. In Donetsk in particular, there is still a lot missing from the Russian point of view. Over the past 20 years, Russia has been building the narrative that it is once again a global power with strong and modern armed forces. That is now on the brink. Putin can’t go back and that’s why we very likely have to prepare for a longer and costly war.
What period are we talking about here?
Reisner: If the Russian military or even the Russian state doesn’t collapse overnight and the soldiers flee Ukraine, then this conflict will last at least until the end of this year or the middle of next year. I emphasize the word “at least”, after all, these dates are no more than guesswork. If one side does not collapse quickly at the start of such a conflict, it often turns into a long and protracted war. Look at the example of Syria. There, ruler Bashar al-Assad was about to flee when Russia intervened. And today we have a never-ending war.
In his May 9 speech, Putin avoided further escalation. How do you see the performance?
Reisner: I think the Russian side follows Western reporting very closely and often does the opposite of what is expected. Simply not to agree with the West. But of course discussions and considerations are going on in the background about how to proceed. Therefore, a general mobilization or the declaration of a state of war cannot be ruled out.
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