Today, I spoke with Dr Mike Martin and retired LTGEN Arne Dalhaug, who have both provided regular commentary on the Russian invasion of Ukraine in regular and social media.
Mike is a former British Army Officer who subsequently completed his PhD studying war and conflict. He has published a number of books, including ‘An Intimate War’, still one of the go-to books on understanding Afghanistan, as well as ‘Why We Fight’, a book that explores root causes of human conflict and war.
Arne is a retired three-star general who was previously the Deputy Chief of Norwegian Armed Forces, served as the Norwegian Military Representative to the NATO Military Committee, and was the Commandant of the NATO Defense College. After retiring from the military, Arne served in a senior position for the OSCE in the non-government-controlled area in eastern Donbas in Ukraine.
They join me today for an update on the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some of the topics we covered are:
- Current operational situation on the ground
- The potential deception of Sieverodonetsk
- State of the Russian Army
- The likelihood and ‘dangers’ of a peace deal
- The risk of nuclear war
- Ukrainian requirements to sustain combat operations
- The role of Turkey
- Chinese view of the war
- Putin’s most-likely and most-dangerous courses of action
For previous discussions with Mike and Arne, check out these episodes:
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Dr Mike Martin And LTGEN (Ret.) Arne Dalhaug – Update On The Russian Invasion Of
In this episode, I’m speaking with Dr. Mike Martin and retired Lieutenant General Arne Dalhaug. Both of these gentlemen have been on the show a number of times before, so I won’t be providing lengthy introductions. In a nutshell, both Mike and Arne have been regular commentators on the Russian invasion of Ukraine on both regular and social media.
Mike is a former British Army officer who subsequently completed his PhD studying war and conflict. He has published a number of books, including An Intimate War, which is still one of the go-to books on understanding Afghanistan, as well as Why We Fight, a book that explores the root causes of human conflict and war.
Arne is a retired Three-Star General and was previously the Deputy Chief of the Norwegian Armed Forces. He served as the Norwegian Military Representative to the NATO Military Committee and was the Commandant of the NATO Defence College. After retiring from the military, Arne served in a senior position for the OSCE in the non-government-controlled area of Eastern Donbas in Ukraine. They both join me for an update on the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Gentlemen, it’s good to see you both again.
It’s good to be here.
Maybe we can take a few minutes for a general roundup of where we are in this war. Mike, maybe we can start with you for a macro level of where we are at the moment, and then we’ll go across to you, Arne.
At a high level, we’ve seen an ever-shrinking set of Russian objectives. We started out with nothing less than a regime overthrow. Your audience will remember the beginning stages of the war when they tried to make a dash for Kyiv, and that didn’t work. They got routed to the North of Kyiv and left. They were going to look at taking the Black Sea Coast or the Southern Coast, linking up this area where they’ve been since 2014 in the Donbas to Crimea, and then maybe onto Transnistria. That got scaled back to focusing on the Donbas, which is comprised of two regions, Luhansk and Donetsk in the East.
Although their stated aim is still to take the whole of the Donbas, we’ve seen a further narrowing to 1 or 2 axes. As your audience would have learned from the news over the past weeks, this city called Sievierodonetsk has the biggest population in Central Luhansk. It’s important more for symbolic reasons than military reasons. There’s a riverbank behind it and a big hill and another city to the West, which is much more defendable.
However, because it’s this last big population in Central Luhansk, which is half of the Donbas, which the Russians say was their objective, the Ukrainians have decided to make a stand there. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen it go backwards and forwards. The control of it goes backwards and forwards. The Russians have had to strip out forces from other fronts. There are probably three areas of military activity around Kyiv in the Northeast. That’s the second biggest city in Ukraine, in the Donbas and Sievierodonetsk, and the South in Kherson.
They have had to strip forces out of the other two fronts to make progress in the Donbas. Finally, whilst the Russians have made some small amounts of progress in the East because they’ve had to strip out forces elsewhere, particularly in the South, the Ukrainians have managed to push them back about 10K, which is about the same distance the Russians have managed to move them in the East.
It’d be interesting to see what happens over the next month or so, whether the Ukrainians will be able to take Kherson back, which is this city in the South. That was the only big city that the Russians have controlled since the beginning. It was where they were going to have this big referendum, and everyone was going to get annexed. They’re all going to join Russia.
The reason for that is really important because it’s the only place where the Russians have a foothold North of the Dnipro River. This is a big river and the most strategically important waterway in Ukraine, which runs from the South by Crimea, all the way up to Kyiv. It runs through Kyiv in the North. If the Russian is to hold Kherson, it makes it much easier in either this conflict or a future conflict to take another chunk out of Ukraine. Whereas if the Ukrainians take it back, and they’ve had this counter-offensive over the last few weeks, then that makes their country much more defendable.
The Russians lose the foot foothold. Arne, what are your thoughts?
In the overview here that Mike gave us, I think it’s important to emphasise that the Russian forces were spread from the Sea of Azov and up to Kyiv along the border at the very beginning. Now, what we see is the fighting is going on in something that’s about the size of a stamp of an envelope if you compare it to the rest of Ukraine.
I know this area very well. I’ve been there for three years. The big advantage of Sievierodonetsk is its urban terrain. I walked there around a lot. You can get a lot of urban terrains where you can defend from. As Mike mentioned, you have this other city close by Lysychansk which is quite extraordinary and high-level above Sievierodonetsk. If the Russians attack from Sievierodonetsk into Lysychansk, if they take Sievierodonetsk, they would’ve to cross the river, and then they would have to enter up a steep hill. It’s a very defendable area in Sievierodonetsk.
Also, I very much shared the opinion that it’s mostly for symbolic reasons that Sievierodonetsk is fought about nowadays. I consider a few square kilometres more or less in Donbas. I don’t see that of any military strategic importance. What I’ve said several times lately, and Mike alluded to it, is that Pervomaisk is the area to watch. If they lose the foothold East and North of the river, we also had a problem with the water intake into Crimea, which was closed for eight years.
Now, the water is flowing again. If they have this ambition to go to Transnistria, and they lose the foothold on the North and West of this big river, that will be immensely more complicated to establish a land corridor from Mykolaiv to Transnistria if they have to give up Kherson. The other interesting part of Kherson and a couple of other places is that you still have a pretty huge Ukrainian population present.
Although, there’s only a heap of rubbish around it basically. There’s no one there. At least, not any significant number, but in Kherson, you still have a city that is up and running. You also see that’s the first signs of an insurgency going on there and in Melitopol. In my mind, it’s probably more interesting to watch in the long and medium term than what’s going on exactly on this small stamp around Sievierodonetsk.
Maz, I know it’s your show, but can I ask a question? It’s a symbolic target in the East versus something of real military value in the South. If you look at all the media, all of the media is focused on the East. Why is that happening? What’s going on?
I think it has to do with the fact that Putin, on the 21st of February, promised the whole of Luhansk and Donetsk Oblast should become so-called independent states and all that. I imagine that is probably the reason why Putin is pressing the offensive in this area because he wants to say one day, “I accomplished what I promised. We are ‘liberated.’”
It’s a tactic we’ve seen. The Ukrainians are holding them there whilst they make gains elsewhere, which is a tactic that we’ve seen before. They held the Russians in Mariupol. They tied down lots of combat units in Mariupol whilst they were doing things elsewhere in the country. What we see now around Kyiv and Sievierodonetsk is we see them hold the Russians, attriting them, trading space for time, and attriting the Russian forces whilst they’re pushing in other areas.
It’s also interesting because Zelenskyy is obviously in on the plan because he’s the Ukrainian boss. If you listen to all of his pronouncements on social media, he’s talking about how Sievierodonetsk is the battle for the heart. He can’t speak in grand terms about, “It’s a battle for the heart. This is where it’s going to be. This is the decisive point.” That’s partly to drag weapons out of the West, which has slowed recently, and that’s fair enough. I think it’s also partly to make everyone focus on it whilst they make some useful gains elsewhere.
One of the principles of war is deception and that’s what they’re doing. What you’re both suggesting is that Sievierodonetsk is merely a distraction both geopolitically, whilst Kherson might be the real thing to look for.
In my mind, that’s the most strategic area to have right now. As Mike alluded to, I think the Ukrainians have developed quite a shrewd strategy. They have been delaying the Russian forces around Sievierodonetsk with maybe not more than a couple of brigades, the most. Even this pocket that you can see slowly being formed and taking place on the map over the last month. We have to remember that the Russians have been attacking Sievierodonetsk for more than a month.
The disastrous river crossing happened in May. For more than a month, they hardly have had any progress in this area. You’re talking about a few kilometres at best. I’m pretty sure that this is what the Ukrainians wants the Russian to do. They can apply the economy of force and hope for more Western weapons to arrive. Also, get some more extra time to train Ukrainians.
As you said, the urban terrain favours the defender. In an urban terrain, you need 3 to 1 let’s say, if you’re an attacker against a defender. In urban terrain, that can go up to 7 to 1 or 10 to 1. I was reading an article before we came on about press-ganging. Whilst Russia is not having a general mobilisation within Russia, within those in Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic, which are these things that were created in 2014 that no one recognises.
They have had military law since the beginning of the conflict, and they have been conscripting people in. There are stories of people being picked up off the street, made to sign papers, and literally three days later with no military training, they find themselves standing next to Russian soldiers in Sievierodonetsk. These are not the actions of an army that has their sh*t together.
That’s the other question. We are seeing also figures about the casualties. On one side, we know that the Ukrainians or Zelenskyy made the point between 80 to 100, but there are reports of Russians losing about 300 per day. Firstly, how credible do you think those numbers are? Secondly, how sustainable is this? Where do you keep drawing troops from? I think some of the figures here are 32,000 soldiers or conscripts that Russia has lost. What impacts is this having and how sustainable is this type of aggression by Russia? Either of you or both can answer.
First of all, we should remember that Russia is fighting with a scaled-down peace establishment force. They haven’t been able to expand the force very much, which means that every brigade will have two battle grips available at the best. Even they are not banned up to what the numbers should be. We all know that in general.
The Russian units are pretty lean on infantry even if they’re manned up to the peacetime establishment. They’re fighting with battalions that are probably half the size of what there should be. It means that if you hear that you have 3 or 4 battalion groups up against you, the number of people will be far less than the norm should be. They’re very short on trained and motivated personnel. What they’re not short of are artillery and ammunition. I’m quite often joking in saying, “You should almost remember that the Russian army is an artillery army with a few tanks.
Arne nailed it. It is this idea of balance. When we talk about combined armed forces, they need to be balanced. Tanks, artillery, and infantry each have weaknesses and strengths. The Russians are very infantry-light. This battalion tactical group of say 1,000 might only have 150 or 200 infantry. That’s why they came unstuck in the initial invasion because they got hammered with anti-tank weapons because they didn’t have any infantry out screening ahead of their vehicles.
We look at Sievierodonetsk. You need infantry in urban warfare. You need the other bits as well, but what is essential is infantry. If you are being shelled, it is possible but it’s very uncomfortable that you can dig into the ground. You can survive artillery barrages. Not everyone is going to survive, but you can keep your force preserved if you’ve prepared defensive positions.
We saw this 100 years ago in the World War I. People would dig into trenches and they survived, and that hasn’t changed. You see this as interesting. The Ukrainians are very infantry-heavy, which enables them to defend very well, which we’ve seen consistently, but it makes it harder for them to go on the offensive. For the offensive, you need manoeuvre and to create manoeuvre, you need armoured vehicles, tanks, and all the rest of it. We have seen both armies. The way they’re configured is creating what we see on the ground.
That is interesting but I hadn’t thought about it that way. They’re both fighting a different type of war, and that’s having a massive impact. I do find it interesting though that Russia is artillery-heavy, which is why they’re prepared to have raw recruits come in with basic training, but that surely has to have an impact both on the capability of that armed force, but also on the unit cohesion. If you are forming units on the march, so to speak, surely that has to have an impact on how cohesive and effective those combat units are. Never mind the morale of those troops, if they’re dying 300. What impact is this having? How do you both see that, and particularly the importance of morale?
I see an ineffective force being under mortifier.
The reason I’m asking this is because we are hearing more and more, “Have we underestimated Russian incompetence? Are the Russians regrouping? Are we seeing them better concentrate their force?” We’ve seen the failures from the start of the war and the invasion. Are they now better at concentrating their firepower using their limited forces in a better way?
There are lots of questions there. On your first question about forces that have been conscripted, the reality is coming under fire for the first time is an experience, to put it mildly. Getting mortared for the first time, that’s starting to get quite scary. If you’ve got civilians and they’re being mortared by the Ukrainians, to your point about cohesion and morale, which are small unit cohesion and morale are critical fundamental underlays of fighting power, along with logistics.
Those units are going to dissolve. People are going to run away. It’s not far for them to run away. They need to get out of there. They probably have $100,000 and they’re back home. They can go and hide out with their aunts until the whole thing is blown over. They speak the language. It’s easy for them to get away. Are the Russians going to shoot them in the back? They probably are. I don’t know what your second question was.
That was the primary one. I think that’s the impact. Arne, you go.
What we have seen is a force of very low morale. A lot of deserters have been seen around trying to get away from combat and all that. Let me return to the fact that there is some small incremental progress going on with the Russian forces in the area of Sievierodonetsk. We should remember that this fight has been ongoing since late April or early May. They’re talking about, at best, a couple of kilometres across the centre of Sievierodonetsk. They have concentrated a lot of the forces there. They have thinned out in Kherson and also in other areas.
They’re now building 45 positions to defend. They don’t have any offensive capacity in those areas because everything is concentrated in Donbas. Even with this absolute maximum concentration of forces and artillery, still, they have hardly made any progress for more than a month. Even if they’re making progress, it’s so slow and so incremental, and they’re taking heavy casualties in this fight in the urban terrain of Sievierodonetsk. This has been a disaster and not a success story at all.
The Institute for the Study of War every day publishes these maps of control, which I’m sure people on Twitter have seen. They collate reports and shade in the map. It’s quite interesting. If you look around Popasna which is where they started to make this salient to try and cut around behind several spaces where the Russian is trying to create a pocket, the maximum extent of that advance is about 20 kilometres, and it’s about 10 kilometres wide.
It’s 20 kilometres advanced on a 10-kilometre-wide salient. If you look down in the South in Kherson, the width of the front that the Ukrainians have advanced on is about 100 kilometres. It’s 100 kilometres wide. In some places, it is 20 or 25 kilometres deep. In other places, it’s only 10 kilometres deep or 8 kilometres deep. The Ukrainians have taken more territory from the Russians in the South than the Russians have said, “Yeah.”
It is interesting. It seems to be that the emotional attachment to Sievierodonetsk by the Russians might be the sword that they fall on. At least that’s what they are in many ways.
The Russians are discussing these issues. A lot of military bloggers have questioned the wisdom of thinning out in the area in the South, and then moving that much forces to the fight in Donbas. As we both have touched upon so far, there is no particular strategic military advantage if you have Sievierodonetsk or not. It’s just a few more square kilometres.
Would Ukraine be prepared to trade the area permanently?
I don’t think so. For the time being, we should also remember that it’s almost all of the government-controlled area. Donetsk Oblast is still a government-controlled area. The only progress they have made is basically in Luhansk and not in Donetsk Oblast. That has to do with the fact that they came in North of the line of contact. They didn’t have to reach the line of contact to get into Luhansk. They crossed the border between Russia and Ukraine. They didn’t come through these entities that Putin created. Still, most of Donetsk is in a government-controlled area.
I want to comment on this trading thing as well. There’s so much chitter-chatter amongst heads of state who should know better. Even people like Kissinger, I’m very surprised about him saying, “We should have a deal here. The Ukrainians have got to trade Luhansk for a peace deal” or whatever. Being a realist is the call. You’re facing an overwhelming force. Be real about this, but that’s not the proper realist interpretation of what’s going on. The realist interpretation of what’s going on is if Russia is not put back in its box, then it will come and do this again.If Russia is not put back in its box, it will come and do again what it did to Ukraine, just like what happened to Georgia, Crimea, and Syria. Click To Tweet
We’ve seen it. They have done it in Georgia and then Crimea. This is time and time again.
The reason we’re fighting this war is we didn’t put Russia back in its box after Georgia, Crimea, and Syria. Finland put Russia back in its box in 1941. There haven’t been any problems from Russia for Finland. I think that it’s the same. Ultimately, from the Ukrainian strategic point of view, I think they have a trade. Either we’re going to lose 100,000 civilians and military now fighting this war. If we win, meaning to regain control of their sovereign territory, then they’ll join the EU or whatever. They’ll get security guarantees. Maybe they’ll join NATO. That then solidifies their country, and they’re fine for the next generation or two.
A peace treaty can only ever be a frozen conflict. It invites Putin or whoever is next to take another chunk of land. It can be spun in Russia that these are historical lands that have always been part of Russia and so on and so forth. I think that is the realist appreciation of what the strategic situation is for Ukraine. It’s not nice, but the strategy is not nice. It’s real. Often, we confuse what’s humanitarian or what’s going to save the most lives now with a realist approach, but that’s not a realist approach because you’ll lose those lives. You might not lose them now, but you’ll lose them the next time the Russians try and take a chunk out.
A question that I have for both of you is what do you make of Macron’s statements to not humiliate Russia? That’s at least the French stance at the moment for that very reason. There’s a trade-off here of the potential risk. We need to stop this war because the risk of humiliating Russia is so great because it’s a nuclear-armed superpower. That’s pushing against what you’re saying there. It’s the counter-realist threat of might is right. Putin might ultimately push the red button. What do you both think of that?
I’m not scared about the red button, to be honest. I think it was pretty stupid what Macron said because that makes us underestimate what France is doing. France is giving a lot of support to Ukraine. Macron has had these unfortunate comments before when he travelled to see Putin at the end of the long table before the war broke out. He came up with this word of Finlandisation when he travelled back from Moscow.
Where did he pick that up from? Now, he had this interview and then he suddenly jumped up with this idea that Putin should not be humiliated or whatever that could possibly mean. It’s difficult to imagine what it could mean or not mean, but it gives the impression that he’s talking about some future Russia without taking into consideration what is going on in Europe. It’s a large-scale war.
It puts France in a difficult position. I certainly agree, Mike, with your assessment of possible Russian behaviour in the future. I don’t think any kind of peace agreement signed with Russia is of any value whatsoever. At this time, for the first time in its 400 or 500 years of history, why would Russia live up to something they signed on? There is no reason to believe that. At this time, why should they start to keep what they have promised when they signed gazillions of treaties?
The UN Charter, all the treaties in the Helsinki Process about the security architecture of Europe. They signed and guaranteed the Ukrainian Territory in the Budapest Memorandum in 1994. If Russia had lived up to just one of the agreements they have signed, there wouldn’t be any war. I’m very sure that the Ukrainians understand that very well in their approach to what kind of treaty they could possibly imagine. You can easily see that they don’t trust Russia.If Russia had lived up to just one of the agreements they have signed, there wouldn't be any war. Click To Tweet
Mike, what are you seeing or hearing from inside Russia? Surely, this has got to be raising some alarm bells with both the Russian people, but also the military chain of command. They’ve got to be cognizant of this. The war is not going well by any stretch of the imagination, even though they’re making some small progress. How much longer can it take and how much can the people take? Are the sanctions having an impact? Are we seeing any change of narrative inside the Russian borders?
Let’s jump back to May 9. There was all kind of rumours about Putin with the state or what he would do on the 9th of May for the anniversary of the victory in the great patriotic. He came across at the end of the day with absolutely no ideas. He had no idea that could have any kind of impact on the frontline in Ukraine. Nothing has happened in Russia in between. They are doing the same sluggish style of warfare that they did a few months ago. There’s no change to it.
For sure if you look at all the desperate ways they try to recruit people, the shortage of competent personalities is bad to deal with. I don’t think Putin can mobilise because up to now, the socialists that have been dying are coming from the more poor districts in the East. You can also see on their faces that they’re not ethnic Russians. If you mobilise, that means that the sons of the middle class around Leningrad, Saint Petersburg, and Moscow will also be involved in the war.
They got the Freudian slip.
You also got the problem with taking all those people out of the economy. No one has ever done that since the Second World War. There are all kinds of pitfalls around starting a mobilisation. Also, you can question if it’s at all possible to train people that you mobilise because in running the Russian army, you don’t have huge training units as we have in the West. The soldier trained in the units where they’re going to stay, and those units are already in Ukraine.
There is no possibility to train soldiers. The instructors are the officers that are dying in Ukraine. Even if you mobilise them, the soldiers will just be hanging around and couldn’t be taken care of. You can also question if they have enough reserve materials to train them because they’re already sending T-62s to the frontline.
Somebody said about training in the pedal.
They started with 200,000. If you assume a mechanised army in the US Army, which is more technological, the tooth-to-tail ratio is the ratio of fighting troops to the support troops like logistics, intelligence, and meds. You got everything that’s not holding a bayonet. That might be 10 to 1 in the American army. Let’s call it 5 to 1 to make the maths easy.
In the Russian army, they started with 200,000. That means they’ve only got 40,000 fighting troops. What was the casualty figure you came up with earlier? That was 30,000. It means they got 10,000 of their original troops left spread out around all the areas where they are cocky. You can see why they’re press-ganging teenagers in Donetsk and Luhansk. It’s because they don’t have anyone. The infantries are the ones that can press gangs off the street, “Here’s a rifle, get on with it.” You can’t press-gang a doctor or an artilleryman or an intelligence specialist because they take time to train. The ones that have the shortest training time are the ones that you press gang.
What I’m hearing you both say is that this potentially could all unravel very quickly. What does Ukraine need for this to occur? Mike made the point that while Ukraine has been getting a lot of weapons, that has slowed down at the moment. Is Ukraine getting enough support? If not, what is a need? I know you are being quite vocal on your social media and even some of the regular media commentary on this, but maybe start with Mike and then we’ll go across to you, Arne.
Look at it in PR terms first. Zelenskyy seems to move from the weapons category to the weapons category. We started out with anti-tank weapons, and then it was vehicles for a bit, and then it was artillery. The latest one I heard is air defence.
That’s 2,604 reasons or something. The figures are undoubtedly wrong. I’m misquoting it.
He never asks for drones, which I would be asking for thousands of tiny drones. The ones that have got explosives attached to them that you can fly like suicide insects that you can drop. What do they need? Artillery is one. That’s what they’ve been asking for a long time. It’s a good way of doing counter-battery fires. If you’re being fired with the artillery, you find out where they’re firing. You use a computer, basically in radar, to trace back the flight path of the shell that’s coming towards you so you can fire back at the thing.
It’s fair enough. The problem with artillery is it has an unbelievably huge logistics footprint. It’s not just once you’ve got the guns, you can fire off a shipping container full of shells in a couple of hours, and then what? That’s what they’re asking for. It means you’ve got to continually have shipping containers full of shells being driven across Ukraine.
Maybe they are being supplied these things but no one is talking about it. Particularly as NATO dominates the surveillance and the electronic warfare and the signals intelligence space in Ukraine, I wonder whether there aren’t a lot of small drones going across that are helping spot targets and queue assets onto, and all that kind of stuff.
It’s a cheap way to assist as well.
It’s a briefcase and once you’ve got it, it’s good. You can charge it off a USB. You don’t need shipping containers.
Arne, what do you think?
I pretty much agree with what Mike said. I would’ve loved to have some more drones if I was a Ukrainian commander. If you have a drone, if you have the Switchblade® 600, for example, use that one. You don’t necessarily need artillery for counter-battery fire. You can use a drone also. There are many ways to do it. What I hope they get is electronic warfare equipment that can block signals from the Russian guns up to space.
They do have their own GPS system. Blocking that could be very effective. Also, I tend to think that you just need to have a certain number of long-range artillery or rocket artillery for counter-battery fire before the Russians will have to behave in a much different way tactically speaking. You don’t need to fire at them. They’ll have to start to behave like they could be fired at, which means that when you position a gun, you cannot be there for a long time.
It means that you cannot build up a lot of ammunition in that spot, and plan on hanging around there firing for the rest of the day. You have to move all the time both the gun and all the ammunition. That by itself will lower the number of grenades that you can fire significantly. You don’t get fired at all. You have to make them start to behave like they will be fired at.
It hugely exposes the other Russian weakness, which is mobile logistics. As soon as you force them to deliver the stuff along small roads, or if you’re moving your gun posts all the time, and you’ve got to move the ammunition with them, then their logistics have been rubbish. You probably will seize up the entire artillery force.
Especially when you got raw recruits picked up on the street.
I recall when I was in Luhansk and Donetsk, they usually filled up with mine workers that had been working in the mines. They were unemployed, so they were hooked to guard the line of contact. It was well paid. They got ₽15,000 a month, which is about twice what a teacher will make in this area. As military personnel, they are completely useless and drunk most of the time, but they made good money.
That all makes sense. Maybe we can pivot now briefly and be conscious of our time. We’ll try and keep this one relatively short, but one player that’s trying to wedge himself in there is undoubtedly Turkey or Turkiye as it has been requested to now be known. What role is Turkey playing in this war, especially with the whole managing of grain shipments in and out, and seeking some sort of resolution and negotiations between the two presidents, that being Zelenskyy and Putin? What are your thoughts? Maybe Mike first, and then Arne again.
Look at where Turkey is on a map. It’s right in the middle of everything. The Middle East is in one direction. Europe is in another. The Balkans are there, Mediterranean, and Africa. It’s right at the crossroads. I think that geopolitical positioning affects the psychology of Turkish leaders. It makes Turkey a balancing power. The uncharted way of looking at it is Turkey is trying to play off outside powers against each other.
The charitable way of looking at it is that’s what their saleable commodity is because they have links to everyone. They’re able to trade information and ideas and so on and so forth. What they’re trying to get out of it as any country would, they are trying to get maximum advantage out of it. Right at the beginning, they close their airspace to Russia or Russian troops reinforcing Syria.
Despite the autonomy, they have different strategic objectives in Turkey. That was kind of, “Thanks very much. We’ll have that.” They’ve been selling loads of drones and making loads of money. They’ve also been trying to negotiate between the two sides as an intermediary. They’re blocking Finland and Sweden from joining NATO, but they won’t. They’ll just back down once they’ve got a pound of flesh.
That’s the bargaining chip.
They close the Bosphorus Straits to put pressure on Russia. For them, it’s brilliant. They can tinker with stuff to their advantage. They’d like to see Russia weakened long term because Russia competes with them in the Middle East. Along the way, they can extract some pots of gold from different people whilst they do it.
I tend to think much the same way. We should recall that Turkey is very dependent on the gas coming from Russia. That’s a soft spot. Also, in Libya, they were fighting on supporting different warlords there. They have some issues going on in Syria. Also, the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020. They supported Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Russia to a certain degree. Also, Armenia, but only to a certain degree.
Turkey is basically in a very bad neighbourhood compared to many of the NATO members. I can see that they need to do a lot of balancing. I agree with Mike. I don’t see that they are going to block Finland and Sweden forever. I still know quite a few people in the NATO headquarters. My feeling is that they are quite relaxed about that.
Sometime, this will be solved. That seems to be what they are thinking. Also, Erdoğan is playing a lot in this role because the presidential election is coming up. It will be interesting to see how Turkey at the end of the day comes out of this. I’ve served six years in NATO positions, and I’ve been dealing a lot with Turkey. Normally, there is some kind of bargain at the end of the rainbow.
That’s certainly reassuring and promising. What about the dragon? We can’t skip a discussion on how China is doing. You’ve probably seen the news of Putin apparently using some expletives to describe Xi, which I thought was rather comical when it comes to two world leaders. What are you making of the China-Russia relationship, and how is China viewing this, particularly in relation to Taiwan? Arne, maybe we will start with you this time.
I can start out with a few reflections. First of all, this war has shown that China is only in a very transactional relationship with Russia. China is not supporting Russia at all because Russia is not a big trading partner for China. Only a couple of percent of China’s trade is with Russia. It’s about 10% with Germany, and the most important one is the US. Russia is not important in that aspect.
It has made life much more difficult for China, particularly in relation to Europe because China was hoping that they could have a normal business relationship with Europe. Now, this is unraveling because of all the human rights abuses in South China itself. The problem is if they are supporting Russia in this war, this will unravel completely between China and Europe.
They are in a difficult position. I don’t think the Chinese president is the kind of personality that one will say openly, “I was wrong. I supported Russia. I should have done differently.” That’s for sure. I don’t believe in this theory that we can do a Nixon-Kissinger to zero over again because it was a stroke of genius in 1972 when they opened up to China. We should remember that during the Cold War, China and the Soviet Union were opponents of the rights of religion with Marxism and all that.
They fought a war in 1969 up in Manchuria. One of the biggest diplomatic successes for both Russia and China is this new relationship between the two of them. This has led to an obvious advantage for Russia. They don’t need to keep that much force on the Chinese border as they used to do. China is not keeping that many army forces along the border of Russia anymore, which means they can concentrate down in the direction of the ocean, which is of so much greater importance to China. I would say that this war in Ukraine should have reminded Beijing about the unpredictability of war. I tend to think that Taiwan is somewhat safer than it was before this time.
I agree with that. I think the Americans have realised that. One way of viewing the war in Ukraine is the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a failure of Western deterrence. Deterrence gets more expensive the later you leave it. Now, it’s costing us an absolute fortune, and it’s destroying Ukraine. We saw this when Biden met the Quad.The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a failure of Western deterrence. Deterrence gets more expensive the later you leave it. Click To Tweet
Right after your election, your new Prime Minister Albanese’s first action was to meet up with the Quad. The Quad is India, America, Japan, and Australia. It’s containing China security alliance, let’s be frank about it. Biden said in that meeting that the US would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan explicitly. Previously, there has been some strategic ambiguity deliberately maintained, hinting that there would be some American response, so on and so forth. America has now come out and said that.
If you think about what they were doing before the Ukraine War, they were saying, “We definitely won’t get involved militarily, but there will be some other consequences.” Talk about green lights. I think the Americans have learned that, and that has changed. If you think the Russian army’s having a problem, the Chinese army hasn’t fought a war for a long time.
It hasn’t fought a war for a long time. It suffers from many of the same structural problems that the Russian army does in the sense that there’s a yes-man culture. Problems are not rooted out. Truth is not told to power in that system. When you have systems that are like it that are corrupt, it’s hard to get people to charge machine gun posts because they don’t feel there’s trust in that army.
Just look at the military difficulty. Russia is invading a country that is next door. It shares a long border with it, and it can choose where to cross that border and drive its vehicles across. There are lots of similarities in language in the rest of it. China and Taiwan have a similarity of language, but there’s a 100-mile sea crossing. Amphibious landings are difficult, particularly if they’re contested. How difficult would it be to contest that with submarines? It’s not very difficult.
How difficult would it be to contest that with missiles? It’s not very difficult. I think it has made America’s response, but also how difficult it has been for Russia and has made China look at Taiwan and go, “We’ve got problems now because we’ve spaced a lot of our political rhetoric on retaking Taiwan, but that’s now looking difficult.”
An interesting question is over the next six months or a year or whatever, they’re having problems with the economy. They have problems with zero COVID. At some point, the Chinese political system will have to grapple with this idea. They told everyone they were going to go to Taiwan. Now, it is off-limits because the Americans drew a red line. It’s off-limits without a major war which the Chinese don’t like.
It’s in no one’s interest.
The one-child policy means that there are lots of families with one son. They do not want a war with lots of casualties. How does their political system digest that reality and come up with a new narrative? I think that’s a very interesting question for the next 12 to 24 months in China.
The last question for both of you then. What do you consider Putin’s most likely dangerous course of action from here on in?
For a long time, I believe that he has now settled for occupying, at least temporarily, the areas where Russian forces basically are in control as we speak. I say basic because it’s not all complete control. The frontline to Kherson is about 2,000 kilometres. It’s thinly defended in many places. This area is also not bigger than they could probably keep it occupied without any kind of peace agreement or whatever. I have a hard time seeing that this will end up with any kind of signed peace agreement, in particular, because of the Russian war crimes and the general behaviour of the Russian Armed Forces.
The question has been raised. Is it ethically acceptable to give up land and Ukrainian people to the Russian military? They are killing civilians and so on. I don’t see that Ukraine will accept that. Ukraine has been very specific that they’re not going to give up any territory. They will have to accept the military fact on the ground that more will be occupied than it was before the 24th of February. To give any kind of recognition to Russia occupying this by signing an agreement, I don’t see that going to happen.
Putin has framed the objectives around Donbas and whatever. We’re going to see him sticking to that because he’s surrounded by the culture of yes-man. It’s not clear whether the bad news is reaching him. I think it’s possible that we might see a further diminution of Russian objectives, and focus on trying to desperately make progress in Luhansk and Donetsk.
The most dangerous is either one or two things. It’s either he loses his marbles and goes nuclear, which I agree with Arne. I don’t think that’s very unlikely. I think he grew up in the Cold War and the rules of the Cold War where you don’t lose nukes. Even when in Afghanistan, the Americans supplied millions of dollars worth of equipment to defeat the Soviets. In Vietnam and Korea, the opposite happened.
There were lots of proxy wars that went nowhere in nuclear. I think that’s very unlikely that it is the most dangerous. I think the most dangerous is if we see a collapse in Russia and/or the armed forces collapse or there’s some kind of coup against Putin. Russian leaders don’t do very well when they lose wars. The West has got no idea how to handle that, and how to secure things like nuclear weapons and the rest of it. That’s very difficult. How do we shape that? What does that look like? I don’t think anyone has a clue. How do we not?
Part of the reason we are where we are is because of the mistakes of the 1990s. The West is part of that gangster capitalism that Putin then harnessed for his own good, but also trod on. He very cleverly harnessed that gangster capitalism. That was unleashed largely because of what the West did in terms of its structural programs and stuff. We’ve got to not make the same mistakes again. It would be good if Russia was a European power. That would be amazing. That should be the strategic goal of the West.
It’s a post-Putin world because Putin won’t be part of the Europe that you envisage. I guess the most dangerous part is the destabilising effect of a collapsed Russia, and what happens to the weapons and the nukes. Is that what you mean is the most dangerous?
If it collapses, who controls the nukes and where do they go? Any number of films have gone into that scenario. Who controls them? When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a huge effort. Ukraine had some of the stockpiles when the Soviet Union fell apart. They gave it up in return for security guarantees. They regret that. If we don’t have one governing authority in Russia, who ends up controlling random nukes in the middle of Siberia? Who do they sell them to? I don’t know.
Arne, any final comments from you?
I consider a breakdown of the regime in Russia as possible. If you look at Russian history, there’s nothing new about that. If you go back to the beginning of 1600, Russia was basically without any kind of functioning government or regime. You should also remember in more recent times, if you go back to 1917, the Russian regime collapsed as part of World War I. Also, the Russian Soviet regime collapsed again in 1990. Russia has a history of regime collapsing. It’s the only great power that has collapsed twice in the previous century. It’s not vaccinated against collapsing. That could happen. I agree with you. That’s the danger that has to be taken into consideration. What happens if it collapsed again?Russia has a history of regime collapsing. It's the only great power that has collapsed twice in the previous century. Click To Tweet
Listening to what you both have said, it seems like the most likely scenario in many ways is the Russian military has to culminate at some point, especially given what you’ve discussed about their weaknesses. Western support continues for Ukraine. Ukraine gains more and more weapons and sustains the fight. They’ve got morale and purpose on their side. They’re fighting for their lives and for their families.
The Russian conscripts are certainly not. Putin will keep pushing because he has to have some victory probably for his own ego, but also for his own political survival. There has to be something that he comes back home with. If that victory is not secured, his position is destabilised more and more. Sanctions have to have their effect at some point. Although we are seeing Russia’s still maintaining the supply of gas etc. It still has revenue coming through.
Gentlemen, unless there are any final points from both of you, I want to thank you for your time. It’s been a very insightful conversation. I knew it would be, putting the two of you together. Thank you very much for your time. I thank you both, gentlemen. Thank you very much.
Thanks for having us.
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