‘Difficult but fair’: ‘There is no red button you can just press’

zOn May 9, the Soviet Union’s “victory day” over Nazi Germany, the world waited to see what words Putin would address to the Russian people at the grand military parade. But the Russian president said little new about the war in Ukraine. What does this mean for Russia’s strategy? What does this mean for Germany and NATO? Guests discussed this on the “Hart Upper Fair” talk show Monday night.

“Putin squandered his last chance to end this war today,” said CDU foreign policy expert Rodrich Kiswetter. However, the signals aren’t de-escalation either, Kiesewetter said – and he was in agreement with military expert Claudia Major and journalist Jessen Dornbluth on the show.

“One thing is for sure, Putin is under tremendous pressure,” said Dornbluth, who was a Moscow correspondent for Deutschlandfunk from 2012 to 2017. “For me, that speech was a stumble.” Putin has neither announced the withdrawal nor deviated from his previous goals. Instead, he used old narratives in an attempt to justify the war.

Discussion (from left to right) Michael Roth, Claudia Major, Rodrich Kezeuter, Jessen Dornbluth, and Wolfgang Merkel.

Source: ARD / © WDR / Oliver Ziebe

Similarly, Michael Roth, a foreign policy maker for the Social Democrats, evaluated performance at the military parade in Moscow. Putin reiterated that, in his opinion, Ukraine had no right to exist as an independent country – and that NATO’s eastward expansion provoked the Russian war.

Now one must be prepared for a long war in which Ukraine will have to receive constant support from the West, Kiesewetter said: “We the four parties that support the countries show that we have a common goal: Ukraine must not fall,” he said. He referred to the visit of Christian Democratic Union leader Friedrich Merz to Ukraine, which he accompanied. “There is no place for partisan politics either.”

The group also discussed the open letter to Olaf Scholz, in which prominent figures spoke out against arms deliveries in favor of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. Political scientist Wolfgang Merkel, one of the first to sign the letter, defended the letter against criticism on the show.

Political scientist Wolfgang Merkel

Political scientist Wolfgang Merkel

Source: ARD / “Difficult but fair” / © WDR / Oliver Ziebe

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“Putin cannot lose this war because his political existence and perhaps his physical existence are linked to it,” Merkel said. For this reason, the West should not provoke anything else by handing over weapons: “Putin, who has completely lost his face, has his back against the wall,” he said. “And then completely different disasters can arise.”

Michael Roth, in particular, defended himself against this: “This man rules in a country where there is no one but him who has the supremacy of interpretation,” he said. “Only he has the power to tell his people that he won, or that he didn’t.”

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Russian President Putin with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the background

Claudia Major Merkel contradicted her, saying: “The belief that one can negotiate with someone who is fighting a war of annihilation is a misconception.” “If you see what is happening in Ukraine, the answer for the Ukrainians will not be peace, but submission.” Ukrainian society decided to fight Russia and showed itself open to negotiations. The Russian response was “purge, rape and kidnapping”.

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“How many deaths can we actually afford before we reach a ceasefire?” Merkel asked. Russia’s political ideas on Ukraine will not change after a year of war. Merkel did not find any allies among the other guests. “It bothers me that you are constantly trying to convince us that it really failed because of us,” Michael Roth said.

“It failed because of Putin, who is still more than willing to use his soldiers as cannon fodder before he seriously agrees to negotiations.” When it came to the question of how to bring Putin to the negotiating table in the first place, Merkel was also at a loss. “Putin’s appeal would be absurd,” he said simply.

The authors of the letter warn of a Russian attack with nuclear weapons. How realistic is that? Military expert Claudia Major spoke to Frank Blasberg face to face about the issue.

Frank Blasberg and military expert Claudia Major

Frank Blasberg and military expert Claudia Major

Source: ARD / “Difficult but fair” / © WDR / Oliver Ziebe

The Russian government has skillfully orchestrated the threat of nuclear weapons to frighten Western public opinion, saying, “If we panic, we’re actually doing exactly what Russia is trying to do.” Putin is counting on people hearing the “third world war” narrative, pressuring Western governments to stay out of the conflict and limiting arms supplies.

Despite everything, she considers the use of nuclear weapons extremely unlikely, since in Russia the threshold for prohibition is very high: “there is no red button that you can simply press.” Russia is still next to Putin from the chief of staff and the defense minister subordinate, which can also be seen from the fact that threats of nuclear attacks are made only by Putin and therefore they must always be arrested by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

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WELT Editor-in-Chief Ulf Bochardt

“Russia fears nuclear weapons as much as we do,” Major said, noting that the balance of terror, i.e. mutual nuclear deterrence, will continue to function. In the event of a nuclear strike, Russia would also have to reckon with China’s disengagement, so “taboo-breaking” would be loud.

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Jessen Dornbluth also shared this view: “One could assume that Putin is a rational person,” she said. He’s not crazy,” Major added.

For Germany, this means precisely that you need a “coordinated strategic plan,” Major said. It is necessary to equip Ukrainian soldiers with military systems and heavy weapons, while defending the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

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Michael Roth spoke of a responsibility the Germans had to live up to. At the end of the program, he quoted a Ukrainian woman he had recently spoken with: “The best humanitarian assistance is when you hand over weapons,” she said. “Every place that is liberated is a place less where people are being slaughtered.”

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