Rainer Saks: Ukraine needs air defenses more than it needs tanks

Rainer Saks.
Rainer Saks. Source: ERR

While western-made tanks are more capable than those produced by the Soviet Union, many of which are still in Russian Federation service, Ukraine urgently needs air defense cover to shielf itself from Russian missile attacks, security expert Rainer Saks told ERR, in an interview which follows in its entirety.

There has been plenty of talk lately about sending tanks for use in Ukraine. The shipment of German Leopard tanks has been stressed in particular. What help would tanks in Ukraine offer to the Ukrainians now, and what advantage would western-made armor have?

In general, tanks produced in western countries - France, Germany, the US, Great Britain - are considered more effective than their Russian counterparts, not because of their armor, but because they are able to operate more effectively, have more capabilities, while, usually, those units where these tanks are used are better commanded.

Tanks may not generally carry the meaning of a mass weapon as Russia uses it, in mass offensives. However, this is all very subtle tactical design. It is actually the biggest challenge here. Simply giving Ukraine tanks won't help it too much. They must learn to use these tanks, and learn to use these tanks in such a way that the advantages of any western tanks they have will be clearly demonstrated in practice. If you can't do that, it doesn't matter which tank you are maneuvering round the battlefield.

I don't take the idea of providing tanks to Ukraine very seriously right now. So far, tanks of Soviet origin have mostly been searched for among the armories of Central and Eastern European countries or elsewhere, where they have been used, and attempts have been made to modernize them and hand them over to the Ukrainians, given they know how to use them anyway, and how to repair them and restore them if necessary. In order to provide this type of western armored technology, however, it would be necessary to build a new complex logistics chain, a repair base, all these things, none of which is at all easy.

I therefore really don't believe that Ukraine will be given more complex armored vehicles from the West in the near future.

Why do you think western opinion leaders, plus some politicians, have recently called for tanks to be sent to Ukraine and from the direction of Germany?

Germany must somehow be pressured into helping Ukraine more; Germany's arms aid has been relatively modest so far.

Instead, though, I think that at the moment, Ukraine would benefit more from from air defense equipment, which would be able to provide in the form of missile defense.

Armored, tracked vehicles are primarily needed to recapture Ukrainian territories or to liberate territories that Russia has occupied. But I think that Ukraine does not have too glaring of a shortage of this armored technology at present In the long run, yes it will. At some point, these tanks of Soviet origin will run out on the Ukrainian side as well, because they will incur losses. It is very easy to say that western tanks should be handed over to them in that case, but in reality that would be a very long and complicated process.

What to expect from Ukraine in the near future. At the moment, things are difficult, at a standstill, where Russia is steadily bombing Ukraine's critical infrastructure and energy infrastructure every week or so. What are the possible next developments?

Without a doubt Russia will try to repeat that. Since they have launched so many missiles towards Ukraine, they are obviously now using missiles in such quantities that it is inhibiting Russia's own defense capabilities in other directions. The question is, how long the Russian leadership is willing to risk limiting their defensive capability. How long can they continue these missile attacks in this way?

On the other hand, it can be observed that firing individual missiles at individual objects is not very effective, and a larger number must be launched, which will bypass some part of Ukraine's defenses. So air defense is of the most critical importance for Ukraine now.

The second point is that the fronts are pinning down each other's positions with artillery fire. The front will not shift until the losses incurred on either side have grown large enough. As a result, the other critical component that Ukraine needs is artillery, ammunition, and as long-range and as accurate weapons as possible. If Ukraine had more of this kind of weaponry and ammunition, they would be able to break the Russian defense capacity faster, then logically there would again be an opportunity to actually invade them.

That's pretty much how this war is going right now. Russia will definitely try another offensive with its ground forces, to move forward in Donbass. But so far he has not been able to get this offensive going.

Although the Russian arsenal is running out of more sophisticated missiles, simpler missiles and artillery are still in abundance. And Russia is partly betting on waiting until the ammunition provided by Ukraine and the western countries simply runs out.

You could certainly say so. Russia has begun waging a war of attrition. Until now, they tried to break Ukrainian resistance via military operations, which did not succeed Now they are trying more to exhaust them. From the Ukrainian side it works in the same way. This has been the tactic since the summer, while at the same time, Russia has still not given up its offensives aimed at occupying territories.

I will remind you that in Russia's general understanding on the ground of how to wage war, it needs a very active air force. However, it can be seen that they cannot use their air force in Ukraine. Consequently, in planning, the destruction of Ukrainian forces should take much longer. 

In other words, it is certainly not viable to break Ukraine's defense capability with artillery in this way, as if it could be done with artillery and air force in combination. In essence, they also have a very poor use of their fleet, which they only use to fire Kalibr cruise missiles from. So Russia has a lot of problems and as a result they have chosen the approach that they think will cause them the fewest losses.

There is, however, essentially no cur against artillery, from the West of from Ukraine, if they, Russia, have unlimited ammo to use?

It's not quite like that. If there was no cure for it, the Ukrainian troops would not have been able to take back the territory that they have. Ukraine has shown that it can, ultimately, deal with Russian artillery.

But not when the ammo run out?

At the moment, they still have enough of this. Information that spreads is very difficult to control. Russia is getting more ammunition from all over the world, but perhaps it still can't produce as much as it consumes. And Ukraine, of course, is completely dependent on the supplies of others. 

In this sense, they are in a rather tricky position. But now there is no reason to say that Russia's chosen tactics will bring them success either. Their troops are still stuck. They are unable to achieve their goals, although they keep trying, and their losses continue to be much higher than those of the Ukrainian side. Furthermore, compared with July and the time when the Himars arrived at the front, the volume of activity of Russian artillery has dropped by more than half.

Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur (Reform) recently told German media that Russia's armed forces have not been significantly weakened by the war, while, according to the Ministry of Defense's own forecast, it will take Russia about two years to restore its pre-war military capabilities. You have suggested longer periods in the past. What is your final assessment on that?

What Russia has not suffered is in its the capability of strategic missile forces and air defense capabilities; that is, what is meant for Russia's defense, stationary air defense, and these most recent complexes. They have lost a lot of mobile air defense in Ukraine, with different ranges. But what is there to protect the territory of Russia is there.

However, that Russian ground forces' operational capability has fallen drastically is a claim I don't agree with. There has been no real decline in ability here. Their losses are very high and I am still of the opinion that it will not be possible to restore them in less than five years. 

Russia does not necessarily need to reinvigorate its military capability to the situation it was in before, where the emphasis was on a professional army.

However, it is not possible to restore such combat-capable units as they had before the invasion of Ukraine, in two years' time. 

That takes much longer. They started creating professional airborne forces and units after the [few days' long] war in Georgia, and it took about a decade to reach the level where they started using them in Ukraine. 

They can't go any faster than that, now, now that the general picture is bad for them and a lot of potential victories have been quashed.

The training and retraining of officers takes a huge amount of time, and there is no way to recoup things in two years


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Editor: Aleksander Krjukov, Andrew Whyte

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