Russian President Vladimir Putin has imposed martial law on Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson regions of Ukraine annexed by the Russian Federation. Deutsche Welle spoke to Joachim Krause, Director of the Institute for Security Policy at the University of Kiel, about what this means for the situation at the front and for the people in the affected areas. And whether a nuclear escalation in Russia is possible as a next step.

DW: Mr. Krause, how does the imposition of martial law affect what is happening at the front?

Joachim Krause: At the moment I don’t see that anything will change. A state of war or a state of emergency simply means that the authorities can do whatever they want and, above all, that the military administration can take over the management of the areas. Then there is a situation without rights, and that is the case in these areas anyway.

My concern is that the Russians are now trying – as they did in the war zone – to deport the remaining population to Russia. A large part of the provinces is not under Russian administration at all. It is also not certain how long these areas will remain under Russian occupation.

In Cherson we are witnessing that the military administration there wants to evacuate the civilian population, probably against their will. I fear that this is the real motive behind it.

Some experts believe that Putin wants to appear unpredictable. Did martial law come as a surprise?

Krause: I don’t think any of the serious observers expected that, because it won’t change much in these regions. In this respect, I don’t know whether this is a sign of Putin’s unpredictability or whether it is simply a signal that Putin wants to use to make it clear how serious he is about it.

It’s probably more of a political signal to the West that we should give this a lot of thought.

Can this step be seen as a new escalation level?

Krause: I don’t see it as an escalation yet, because it’s a purely verbal action. Putin still has many options for military escalation. If this is a sign that the Ukrainian population is to be deported to Russia, then of course this is an escalation for Ukraine as far as the civilian population is concerned.

Because I can imagine that most of the Ukrainians who are staying there do not want to be deported to Russia to be assimilated there against their will as “new Russians”.

Should we expect that the male population in the annexed areas will now be drafted into the Russian army?

Krause: That’s already happening. The bad thing is that young men are recruited in the occupied territories to fight against their own country. That could be done more systematically now, although I don’t know how many men are actually there. Nobody really knows.

Only part of the original population remains in these areas. I suspect that it is more of an act of desperation to show that Russia is still capable of action. Otherwise, the general situation of the Russian armed forces is not particularly good. It turns out that morale is collapsing everywhere, that the Russians are having major problems with supplies and ammunition. All this does not bode well from the Russian point of view. Above all, the situation of the Russian troops west of the Dnipro is becoming more and more difficult.

The question arises: will they withdraw on an honorary basis, or will they be overrun or captured by the Ukrainians? That’s at least 20,000 to 25,000 soldiers. This is no small part of Russian military power. I think things will change in the Cherson area in the next few days. That could change the calculus on the Russian side a lot.

What changes do you expect?

Krause: Let’s assume the Ukrainians win back Cherson and the whole area west of the Dnipro. That would be a great defeat for the Russians. I wouldn’t compare it to Stalingrad, but it would certainly be of similar dimensions.

I’m afraid that the Russians will then do some desperate act, that they might blow up the dam there as revenge to flood the whole area.

Or they will then launch more attacks against civilian Ukrainian targets with everything they still have. This, of course, challenges Western countries to invest more in Ukraine’s air defenses.

Is Ukraine prepared for such a development?

Krause: I think so. I admire the Ukrainian side’s ability to adapt to different changes and also anticipate what the Russians will do.

In this respect, I am quite optimistic that the Ukrainian military leadership will calculate these scenarios very carefully.

Can Russia retaliate for further successes of the Ukrainian armed forces with the use of nuclear weapons?

Krause: The Russians still have many other escalation options before they go into the nuclear field. I think it is relatively unlikely that they will escalate to a nuclear level, because then reactions from the western world could take place that would completely destroy the Russian calculations.

The Russians must assume that if they try to force the Ukrainians to capitulate with a nuclear weapon, the Western states will then launch a major operation to destroy the Russian troops in Ukraine and will also threaten that if Russia goes nuclear again, that then there will also be a nuclear response from the West.

I don’t think Putin will dare to do that because it can weaken and destroy him and the entire vertical of power that governs the country. There will come a point when Putin will no longer have a military option in Ukraine. Then he’ll probably signal that he’s willing to make some compromises.

And then somehow a small bridge should be built for him, but by no means a bridge that envisages territorial concessions from Ukraine, but somewhere in a symbolic sphere. But what is important is that Russian troops are retreating behind the lines of February this year.

What will happen to Crimea in this case?

Krause: It’s also possible that the Russian front will collapse completely and the Ukrainians will also take Crimea. Otherwise, I think Crimea should rather be attempted as part of a diplomatic process in which Western states condition the lifting of sanctions on Russia’s withdrawal from Crimea.

Can Russia end this war without losing face?

Krause: Russia and Putin have already experienced a loss of face. It gets bigger and bigger the longer you try to deny this loss of face. This is basically the tragedy of Putin or Russia. The longer the war goes on, the more Russian troops will wear out, the less military might Russia has, and the weaker Russia will become.

You can see that in Putin’s international reputation. Friends or well-meaning heads of state now view him much more critically than they did a year ago. Many of them have the impression that he is not able to understand his bad situation and to draw the appropriate conclusions, but believes that he can always go the extra mile to end this war until the end, until there is really nothing left to end victorious. But he will not be able to end this war victoriously.

The interview was conducted by Alexandra Ivanova

The original of this post “Security expert: “It’s possible that the Russian front will collapse completely”” comes from Deutsche Welle.