Estonian intelligence chief: Ukraine unlikely to reclaim all territory

Mikk Marran at the Aspen Security Forum.
Mikk Marran at the Aspen Security Forum. Source: Aspen Security Conference

Ukraine may not be able to regain all of its occupied territories, director of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service (FIS) Mikk Maran said at the Aspen Security Forum on Wednesday. The agency has also identified dozens of Russian officials, diplomats, oligarchs who are privately against the war.

Marran joked that the most important intelligence services in the world had been invited to the U.S. forum — "MI6, CIA and [the] Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service". But said Estonia was a "boutique-sized service" in comparison.

Giving an overview of the situation in Ukraine from FIS' point of view, he said: "I am cautiously confident that Ukraine will defeat the Russian army in Ukraine, sooner or later.

"It will not come easily, it will take time, and Ukraine probably might not be able to liberate all the occupied territories. But strategically speaking, Putin will not be able to succeed in his ambition of taking Kyiv and the majority of Ukraine."

Marran said the war will not be over anytime soon.

"It will take time until Ukraine is ready to counter-attack and to win back at least some of the territories. But, what I want to stress, is that Ukraine for Putin is a messianic thing, he is having a crusade and he does not listen to his advisers, or his intelligence or that they are providing him with false information," he said.

"I would say the gap between Putin's strategic goals and the situation on the ground is widening on a daily basis."

The intelligence chief said Putin's long-term goal is still to take Kyiv and remove the government, a medium goal could be to create a land corridor to Transnistria and shorter goals are focused on Donbas in the east.

Mobilization unlikely, moral low

Russia does not have a "second gear" and it is not deliberately holding anything back, Marran said: "Over the last five months, they have already basically put everything on the table."

However, Russia is currently being held back due to an "increasing lack of manpower" and losses have been "huge." "We can see on a daily basis this is a huge challenge for Russia to overcome," he said.

He estimated 15,000 members of the Russian military have been killed in the fighting but said it was hard to come to an accurate figure.

"According to our assessment, we consider 60,000 Russians [are] out of business in one way or another," he said, adding this is "unsustainable."

But Marran still believes a full military draft is unlikely.

"That would be a huge blow to President Putin domestically because that would send a message that the so-called special military operation is not going well, the opposite of what Russian TV is saying. The reality is that there is a huge gap between so-called armchair patriotism and the actual willingness to go and fight in Ukraine," he said.

Marran said, according to the FSI's assessment, Russia is not winning but Ukraine can only win if it sees continuous support from the West, politically, militarily and economically.

"Ukrainians have high moral, high motivation but I would say it is directly linked to Western support. So we need to continue Western support to Ukraine," he emphasized.

Marran declined to say how many Ukrainians may have been killed fighting in the war.

Dozens of Russian officials, diplomats, oligarchs against war

The Estonian official said the stability of the regime is one of Putin's top priorities, but the war undermines this goal.  

"Paradoxically the war in Ukraine is becoming a regime survival issue, I would say. At this point, I would assess Putin has a good grip on power but that might change quite quickly. And in the coming months, as more and more Russians will be out of jobs due to Western sanctions, Russians will basically have to choose between the TV and the refrigerator."

"We have collected information about tens of Russian officials, tens of Russian diplomats and oligarchs who privately oppose the war. Yet almost none of them have said so publicly," Marran said, but declined to publicly name them when pressed by the moderator.

Looking at Putin's future, he said it will not be hard for the president to fix the next election in 2024 but it still needs to look plausible.

"The biggest problem in Russia is that they are brainwashed on a daily basis because the Russian TV channels are spreading propaganda that the Kremlin is tasking them to do. 

"But I think that many Russians are still using alternative channels and sooner than later the losses of Russian military will be noticed by different cities, families, groups and the discussions will start after that."

Putin's miscalculation is problem number one

Asked what worries him about Russia and the war in Ukraine, Marran said miscalculation is his biggest concern.

"Putin has miscalculated several times, he has based his decisions on faulty information or he just doesn't believe what kind of information is presented to him. So, I am afraid that he might miscalculate again," he said, adding this is why it is so important the U.S.A and NATO stress that every inch of NATO's territory will be defended from day one.

His second concern is western war fatigue and said: "I think we are not used to longer-term wars, we want the war to be over. But I think that we all have to think that the second option will be even worse and even more painful.

"So we have to take this hit, we will survive. But we have to consider that every day Ukraine is suffering much more than we do or we will in the coming months."

The full panel discussion "The New Russian Empire?" can be watched below.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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