Ischinger: Ukraine’s worst case scenario is a long conflict

Leading European diplomat on the Ukraine war, weaponry and Germany’s place on the world stage after battle tanks saga.

Munich Security Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger stands next to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy ahead of his speech during the annual Munich Security Conference, in Munich, Germany February 19, 2022. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert
Then-Munich Security Conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger stands next to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy before his speech during the annual Munich Security Conference on February 19, 2022 [Andreas Gebert/Reuters]

Russia has been waging a war in Ukraine for almost a year, and Kyiv expects Moscow is planning a new offensive.

On Friday, air raid sirens wailed across the nation amid an onslaught of new attacks while fighting intensified in the eastern Donbas region.

This week, Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has toured European capitals, urging his Western allies to send more arms quickly, to prepare for the coming battles.

His hope was raised recently as several nations agreed to supply tanks to Ukraine.

At this critical point in the war, Al Jazeera spoke to Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference from 2008 until 2022, a former German ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom, and the current president of the Foundation Council, about the war in Ukraine, tank deliveries and the West’s unity against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Al Jazeera: If someone had told you on February 24, 2022, that after a year of war, Russia would not have achieved its goals and Ukraine could win, would you have believed them?

Wolfgang Ischinger: Quite unlikely. In the first days of the war, almost all experts assumed that Russia would be able to pursue its goals largely successfully.

Al Jazeera: The war has had an immense toll on the Ukrainian people and the country is devastated. Fears of an escalation are high in Europe as the anniversary approaches. Has anything been learned over the past year, in terms of geopolitical developments?

Ischinger: A development in this war that can only be seen as positive is the restoration of Western and European unity and cohesion. Just a few years ago, [then-United States President] Donald Trump sowed doubts about NATO, and [French President Emmanuel] Macron spoke of it being “brain dead”. Today, Sweden and Finland are waiting for their membership to become effective.

Al Jazeera: Do you currently see a scenario in which the West and Berlin could send fighter jets to Ukraine?

Ischinger: From my point of view, in this situation, nothing, absolutely nothing, should be ruled out as far as deliveries to Ukraine are concerned in order to leave the Russian side in the dark as much as possible.

Al Jazeera: Ukraine says Russia is planning a new major offensive, that could begin within days. How do you see Ukraine’s chances and what role can the newly promised tanks play?

Ischinger: The promised tank deliveries will not be able to play a role in the war in eastern Ukraine until late spring at the earliest. But regardless of the Leopard debate, Ukraine has been promised many critical additional military hardware in recent months.

Examples are artillery, anti-aircraft and armoured personnel carriers, such as the Marder [German infantry fighting vehicle].

Al Jazeera: Germany finally agreed to send Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine after facing significant pressure from Kyiv’s other Western allies. Its decision came around the same time as Washington’s move to supply Abrams. Is Europe’s desired strategic autonomy still out of reach?

Ischinger: Yes, unfortunately.

Al Jazeera: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hesitated for quite a while, fearing Russian retaliation, but this upset the Baltic States and some officials in Washington. Is Berlin’s reputation on the international stage irreversibly damaged?

Ischinger: There is little irreversibility in foreign policy. If there have been disruptions, then they can and will be overcome again. In principle, the Transatlantic and German-American network of relationships is very good at the moment.

Leopard 2 interactive

Al Jazeera: Given Russia’s invasion, will Europe and Germany reconsider or even abandon the policy of “Wandel durch Handel” [change through trade] with aggressive nations?

Ischinger: One should not think that “Wandel durch Handel” was seen as a motto that could reliably bring about political and social change. At the same time, it does not mean that intensified trade relations cannot produce stabilising political effects.

One should not solely rely on this approach. Instead, one should also uphold the Harmel Doctrine: as much deterrence as necessary and as much cooperation, trade and dialogue as possible.

Al Jazeera: Do you believe an end to the war in the foreseeable future is realistic, and what do you wish Ukraine and the Western alliance for 2023?

Ischinger: I wish Ukraine and all of us a speedy end to this war. In foreign policy, however, one must always reckon with the “worst case” [scenario]. The worst case in this instant of the Ukraine war is a bloody conflict that drags on for years. Hopefully, we will be spared such an outcome.

Source: Al Jazeera