ONLINE FOCUS: Mr. Thiele, according to a report by the Italian newspaper “La Repubblica”, Russia could launch a major attack on the Ukrainian port city of Odessa. Do you think that's realistic?

Ralph Thiele: At least it can't be ruled out. Putin could try to overwhelm Ukraine's fragile defense system with multiple attacks.

In a nearly transparent battlefield where each side can use drones to see who is moving where and with what forces, this would likely be a bloody undertaking for Russia.

However, experience shows that the threat of losses does not stop the Kremlin leader from attacking. He could envision such an attack as a multidimensional operation flanked by special forces, air power, and cyber and electronic attacks.

What makes Odessa an attractive destination for Putin?

Odessa plays an important role for Russia. The port city is essential to protect the continental connection with Crimea, the freedom of operations in the Black Sea and the use of the peninsula as an economic and military base. If Russia captured Odessa, Ukraine would also be cut off from an important economic and military center.

“We find ourselves at a crossroads”

Will Ukraine be able to defend Odessa in the long term?

Until now, the Russian armed forces have behaved clumsily and clumsily in offensive maneuvers, as opposed to defensive operations. To do this, they bring large amounts of personnel and material. In the end, this is not without effect.

Ukraine is already overwhelmed in the categories of personnel, ammunition, air defense and electronic warfare. If there are more major Russian attacks against other sectors of the front, defending Odessa will become a challenge.

An EU source spoke to República about the Odessa scenario: “At this point, the debate on sending soldiers to support Ukraine would no longer be theoretical but very concrete. And we, Europeans, would run the risk of dividing.”

With the course of the war so far, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Several States more or less seriously propose a concrete involvement of NATO with troops in Ukraine. Others are betting that July's NATO summit in Washington will pave the way for Ukraine to become a member of the defense alliance.

Both would probably be a casus belli, that is, a reason for Putin to declare war on the West. I am surprised that many political-military decision-makers and commentators are not deterred by such a bellicose approach.

How do you see that?

Anyone who thinks like this hopes that Putin will collapse. I believe that this is a risky poker game for the life and future of our population, which expressly does not want to follow this path in the polls. In Ukraine, both on the front and in the rear, we see daily the suffering that comes with a warlike approach.

The fact that those who favor greater involvement in Ukraine are criminally neglecting their own defense capabilities does not fit the picture at all. Who will help us if things go wrong in Ukraine and we are unwilling and unable to protect ourselves?

“Three confrontations are coming”

Do you think there will be a decisive turning point in the Ukrainian war this year?

It's definitely getting serious. Three confrontations are coming up. First: Is the Ukrainian front resisting, against the Russian attack, internally around President Zelensky, but also on the side of Western supporters?

Second, what direction will the summit in Washington take: dare to engage in more diplomacy, take Russian reservations seriously, or continue regardless of losses, including Ukraine's membership in NATO? Third: Trump before the door: does he have any agreement in the drawer?

So the situation is getting worse.

That's the way it is. 2024 is likely to be a year of decisions, and not only for Ukraine. Germany also has to think about it. We should not allow it to go to extremes.

What do you mean exactly?

On the one hand, the widespread collapse of Ukraine with large refugee movements and a developing partisan resistance. On the other hand, a direct confrontation with Russia through the participation of NATO troops in the war.

How serious is the situation for Europe as a whole?

The biggest problem of the last two years is that we have not developed our own strategy. We have not yet specified how we want to restore peace and stability in Europe. What future do we see for Ukraine and Russia in a European peace order? How do we achieve this objective and what means – beyond tanks and ammunition – do we want to contribute to this goal. What about politics, economics and diplomacy?

You sound worried.

Transferring and leaving this decision in the hands of Ukraine – also for the future of Germany and Europe – is cheap. Ukraine cannot defend our democracy, our freedom and our rule of law. Because we don't make enough preparations for this, things get complicated.

“Then America will leave.”

What do you think we Germans could do?

First: the management of support for Ukraine so far is pathetic. Big words and lack of action. This requires professionals who know how to order weapons and ammunition and deliver them on time. Secondly: in such a crisis, it is important to strengthen the armed forces.

We have already wasted more than two years. We cannot deter Putin with empty weapons and ammunition magazines and a lack of operational preparation. Third: More urgent than ever, we need to explore and prepare options to de-escalate the conflict.

Without a doubt, it also influences how the war will develop in the coming months. What do you think will happen next?

Russia will continue its combination of conventional attack and hybrid weakening of Western states and societies. The West seeks an economic solution. Shows of solidarity always come before the end. We saw it not long ago, before the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan: “We will not abandon you.”

Speaking of Afghanistan: What role does the United States play in the course of the war in Ukraine?

Trump is the elephant in the room. Will it revoke everything? He probably already has a deal with Putin in mind. The US elections will clarify the future of our American partners. The example of Afghanistan shows that things will not necessarily be easier under Biden.

A President Biden also primarily represents American national interests. These are mainly found in the US itself and in the Asian economic space. If US involvement in Ukraine can no longer be justified in the context of national interests, the US will leave.

Russia is doing better economically than expected; gross domestic product (GDP) even increased in 2023. Has the West underestimated Putin's resilience?

Definitely. Even in the US government there are voices saying that Russia has already made up for its initial losses. Its war economy is booming. Their value chains have found new anchor points in Asia. Our wait for Russia's economic collapse reminds me of Godot's wait: it's futile. We didn't do our homework.

“Diplomacy should finally start working”

What are Putin's red lines and when would we cross them?

Putin wants peace in the neighborhood. In my opinion, with Ukraine's membership in NATO, including the direct commitment of the corresponding troops in Ukraine, we are turning the traffic light to “red”. Of course, you can check if this assessment is really correct. But isn't the price too high?

What can Germany do to prevent the war from escalating?

Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Helmut Kohl knew from their own painful experience that war should not be a means of politics. That's why they relied on a combination of deterrence and relaxation.

Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer also respected this approach. A de-escalation is necessary. And beyond functional support for beleaguered Ukraine, there are finally better and more urgent measures for our own security.

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