Ukraine is currently experiencing the heaviest Russian attacks in weeks. The latest wave of attacks follows reports of Russian advances in capturing the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, which has been the subject of fighting for months. The Ukrainian government fears that if the city falls, the way would be clear for further offensives by Russian troops. The importance of Bachmut and the question of what role China could play in the further course of the war were the topics of the ZDF political talk "Maybrit Illner" on Thursday evening.
Guests were Jürgen Trittin, foreign policy spokesman for the Greens in the Bundestag, and Norbert Röttgen (CDU), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag. The journalist Sabine Adler, longtime Moscow correspondent for Deutschlandfunk, Felix Lee, former China correspondent for "taz" and Peter Neumann, professor of security studies at King's College London, also discussed.
"Bachmut is only a small town - but its location is extremely important," emphasized the journalist Sabine Adler at the beginning of the program. There were three trunk roads heading west. "If you want to conquer Donbass, you have to go through Bakhmut."
The Green politician Jürgen Trittin emphasized the symbolic importance of the city. "Russia has been trying to conquer a small town without strategic importance for nine months and it doesn't succeed - that says something." The conflict will now "run down to a long war of attrition," said Trittin.
"We must provide Ukraine with military support to enable it to achieve a good result at the negotiating table at the end of a war of attrition," demanded terrorism expert Peter Neumann. In doing so, one must strive for a "painful stalemate" - i.e. a point at which the military fight is no longer worthwhile for either conflicting party. A particular challenge is ensuring that Ukraine reclaims as much territory as possible without creating a situation that will lead to a "breakup of Russia," Neumann said.
"It's a policy, it's support for Ukraine, which is also pursuing Russia-political goals," countered CDU foreign policymaker Röttgen. “That is also my assumption as to why the Chancellor behaves the way he does. I think that's wrong.” The top priority must be peace in Europe, Röttgen added, not Russia's domestic political situation. "If Putin succeeds even to a certain extent with the war method, then we will not get rid of this war."
Sabine Adler was also skeptical: "So this prophecy of disintegration in Russia that is being painted on the wall - I don't see any basis for it at all." There is no one in the Russian government who is turning against Putin with enough support: " All these parties in the Duma are all pro-Putin parties, all artificially created.”
According to the journalist, alleged disputes between Vladimir Putin, his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the head of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, are only being carried out for show. "Fighting at the top is the only criticism that comes out," she said. "Prigozhin, Shoigu and Putin are three friends - we mustn't forget that."
Neumann then referred to talks with Russia experts: "They all say that Russia would not survive a defeat of the kind Mr. Röttgen is aiming for." Ultimately, this amounts to a regime change - "which we have not done in the last 20 years have had good experiences,” Neumann continues.
Former China correspondent Felix Lee referred to China's role. The discussion between Neumann and Röttgen was too "Eurocentric". China will try to prevent a regime change in Russia “by any means possible”.
"I think this conflict is also a major concern for China," Lee said. “Beijing wants to hold on to Putin at all costs. Now they fear that this rather failed war will only make Putin look worse and worse.” In Lee's view, Putin's place can be either a pro-Western government that would further isolate China, or “an even more unpredictable mafiosi” – both would be for Russia's neighbor not ideal.
That's why Chinese President Xi Jinping published his peace paper, Lee believes. In the position paper on the Ukraine war presented in February, China advocated a ceasefire and the resumption of peace negotiations, among other things. However, the position paper had caused international disappointment because, according to critics, it did not indicate any serious initiative to end the war. "The paper is bad and pro-Russian, but maybe it's also an attempt not to escalate it any more - because that's the big fear that China also has," Lee said.
Trittin became clearer: "I am in favor of dealing with the Chinese in a tough but pragmatic way and not letting them believe they are mediators," said the member of the Bundestag and demanded in the direction of China: "You want the effects of this war to end? Then do it! Use your influence in Moscow to ensure demilitarization takes place.”
The journalist Sabine Adler was cautious: "There will not be this one negotiator," she said. "There will be Erdogan, for example, who has a problematic but also productive relationship with both sides. It will be similar with China.”
Who is behind the attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines? The latest traces lead to the Ukraine. However, secret service expert Shlomo Sphiro has doubts: "The Ukrainians would never have risked their relations with Germany and Europe."
After a long discussion about China's role, the reports on the attack on the Nord Stream pipeline were discussed, albeit briefly. According to media reports, the attack last September could have come from a group of Ukrainians - a theory that no one in the group wanted to agree with. There is absolutely no evidence of an attack by Ukrainian forces, said Sabine Adler: "Ukraine had all the support and it would have endangered this support with such an attack. That’s why this motif is out of the question for me at all.”
The two politicians Trittin and Röttgen spoke out in favor of further investigations. Lee and Neumann doubted that the question of who was responsible could be clarified. "Even if there is evidence, there is no one independent to test it," Lee said. Neumann went even further: “I think this attack will become a conspiracy theory, like the attack on John F. Kennedy. We will still be puzzling over this in 50 years.”