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Opinion: We must be ready for the next phase of Russian aggression

Lt Gen. Martin Herem.
Lt Gen. Martin Herem. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

We must focus on the Ukrainian victory right now, but we must be prepared for Russia's next aggression against us in Estonia, against our allies and our values, Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) commander Lieutenant General Martin Herem writes.

We are all waiting for the end of the war between Ukraine and Russia. It is widely believed that, in order to end the conflict, the Russian Federation must withdraw its forces from Ukrainian territory. This includes eastern Ukraine and Crimea. This is what we all desire, and hope for.

We imagine that will transpire. But what will our situation then be? There are some circumstances that do not allow us to see the future in a too positive of a perspective. For now, let's put aside the scenario whereby the [Russian] troops have physically left the territory of Ukraine, but Russia still has the ability to strike it from a distance. We imagine that the war will at least become "frozen" for some time, at the state borders as they were in 2014.

First of all, Russia has declared officially and publicly a large proportion of Ukraine as its own territory. No matter how wrong that is according to international law, Russia has repeatedly and publicly made this declaration: "This is a part of Russia, and we intend to defend it if necessary".

It is difficult to imagine what pretext Russia will give for ending hostilities in a situation where it no longer controls these territories. How would "powerful Russia" be able to give an account of such actions to its own people, plus demonstrate it to the West, its competitor? If Russia does not give up on these demands - and this is unlikely at the moment - then peace will be built on very weak foundations.

Second, the justification for the war has changed during its course. This is true both within the Russian leadership, in the media and in society. Whereas initially, the desire was to de-Nazify and demilitarize the "dangerous Ukraine" and was mainly related to the Ukrainian government in Kyiv, expressions of this kind are not used much anymore. We are instead hearing more and more about the "Satanists" and "pedophiles" of NATO or the EU, which Russia is waging war against.

This war has increasingly become a "crusade", a struggle against a completely unacceptable and dangerous phenomenon, in relation to Russian culture and values. But how does the Russian leadership explain the loss of territory and the falling short of its values?

Third, the attitude towards Ukrainians as a nation has changed. Since the summer months, the Russian media has increasingly started to mock the suffering of the Ukrainian people (as opposed to its government)

For example, politicians on Russian state TV have pledged to gift a missile to the children of Kyiv, for Christmas. In that talk show, however, it was suggested that elderly Ukrainian women pay for their rape with their own burial funds. 

Millions of Ukrainians are without electricity, but the [Russian] news pokes fun at the "fact" that Ukrainians do not know how to use generators or gas stoves, as a result causing house fires. Those people talk about Ukraine's "killer generators" with a smirk on their faces. The TV shows suggest annihilating civilian infrastructure since it would force the Ukrainian population(!) to surrender. Otherwise, they would end up drowning in their own feces or die from an epidemic resulting from that, it is argued.

It was openly stated on one TV broadcast that if necessary, a whole generation of Ukrainians, millions, must be killed, so that Ukrainians would never again have a non-hostile attitude towards Russia. Step by step, an emotional justification for genocide is being created. However, at the same time, Ukrainians are conversely portrayed as a ridiculous, amorphous mass, which Russia could take down any time it chose to.

There are four more, still growing attitudes that could sustain the anger and hatred for decades. Tens of thousands of Russian citizens have lost their lives at the hands of Ukrainians, and because of Western support. However, this concerns the millions of family members and friends [of the deceased], who really believe that Russia's enemies, i.e. Ukraine and the western countries that support it, are to blame for these losses.

Even more, Russians have lost their health and well-being. Injured soldiers will continue to characterize the street scene and commemorate the (lost) war. In a grotesque way, the by-product of mobilization also appears here: Society is caught up in hatred.

Against all this background, it must be emphasized that in Russia, the foolish decisions of generals and officials get criticized, rather than the government's mistake in escalating the war from February 24. Furthermore, among those people who fled Russia, there are many who were not willing to go to war, but were at the same time not necessarily opposed to the Russian government's decisions to behave, as a country, as it does. The enmity sown by Vladimir Putin has found fertile ground. We hope that is not the case, but at the moment it doesn't look like it can be any different.

Let us now imagine again a situation where troops from the Russian Federation have left Ukrainian soil. However, according to Russia (children's) opinion, they would have left territory rightfully belonging to Russia. They left because the Ukrainians, who are a joke, and represent decadent western values, and who received aid from the West, have somehow been able to kick out the "mighty Russia".

The accompanying outcome is relatively substantial economic decline, isolation, the anger of the relatives of those who lost their lives in the war, and war invalids in the streets being a constant reminder of that loss, while Kyiv rules over territory declared Russian. There is no need to fantasize about what the motivation for Russia to demonstrate its military power somewhere and someday might be; to take revenge. After all, everyone knows the efforts made by the three Baltic states in supporting Ukraine, as well as those by Poland, the U.K., the U.S…. but the latter are big countries.

Needless to say, Russia uses non-military methods of blurring this shame, and also to create new conditions. The effects of the war also then reach us, because the war has at least in part been responsible for inflation, economic recession and the energy crisis. Ukrainian war refugees have arrived, and the benefits offered them could raise our own standard of living.

The opinion is slowly emerging whereby, event though this is all the fault of Russia, other, richer countries have not taken on the burden that we have. Some feel we have militarily supported Ukraine more than we should have, thereby reducing our own defensive capabilities in the event of any possible aggression.

All of these viewpoints are unlikely to be directly the result f any information operation organized by Russia. But the effects certainly constitute aspects of hybrid warfare that Russia can exploit. They are probably also socio-psychologically inevitable, and perhaps natural processes in a military conflict of this kind. However, they are certainly not useful for us, since in such cases there is a tendency to defend one's own positions more vigorously, and aggressively attack those of the other side.

However, common sense suffers, as does real preparation for threats. However, we desperately need sober thinking, with a perspective oriented on the future. As outlined above: No matter how Russia's aggression against Ukraine ends up, aggression, hatred and the need for revenge, as well as the belief in one's own power and right, do not seem to evaporate anywhere.

First, of course, we have to focus on Ukrainian victory, as this is the primary and inevitable goal on the way to securing a better future. But only the first. Second, we must be prepared for the next aggression against ourselves, our allies, and our values. Just as we fear fire, even though we don't think one is very likely today or tomorrow, we still need to be prepared for it.

Despite heavy losses in manpower and technology, Russia has enough potential to carry out a military attack against some of its neighbors. Thousands of tanks, combat vehicles, armored personnel carriers and artillery are sitting in Russian storage, many of which may not be operational or are obsolete. However, out of every three or four, they can definitely put together one that functions.

Having announced the mobilization, the Russian government can also increase the load and performance of its corresponding industrial enterprises. For example, Russian factories have already produced nearly two million units of artillery ammunition per annum. It is probably not impossible to double that. Russia has so far used perhaps 10 percent of its S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, which have been used to attack ground targets in Ukraine, 70km away. No anti-aircraft weapon is known to have been able to destroy these as of yet.

It is not too difficult to mobilize hundreds of thousands of relatively well-motivated people from among the people who lost the war (if they are of a mind to). However, the basic training of those soldiers who are motivated is more a matter of organization. With the absence of intensive military activity, there are also enough instructors. At least enough instructors with such experience to build self-confidence.

The situation in the air and at sea looks much better for Russia. In 10 months they have lost less than 10 percent of their air force, and even less of their navy. You might be forgiven for thinking that Russia lacks modern technologies, but in order to build a "stupid", but massive and dangerous, army, you don't need a tonne of 21st century tech. Maybe you can find aid in terms of tech as well. All this might be difficult for Russia, but there does not seem to be any lack of motivation either.

Not so as to describe any specific possible scenario, but to describe a military threat, let us imagine Russian aggression in the direction of the Baltic states, a few years from now. Whether or not the purpose of such aggression is, for example, to disrupt stability in our societies and between countries by demonstrating Russian military might.

Estonia's border with Russia is more than 200km, as the crow flies, Latvia's is less than 200km. We imagine that during the exercises, about 1,000 tanks and 4,000 armored personnel carriers, 1,000 artillery systems and 100,000 soldiers will be concentrated on our borders.

Does it make a difference for the average person, including trained reservists, whether they are facing a T-62 or T-72 tank? Or will BMPs or MTLBs attack? Will it be self-propelled or towed 152 mm howitzers that are firing at us from a distance of 20km? Are the 100,000 soldiers professional or conscripts with one year of training and mobilized? Are the attack tools that reach Tallinn and Riga Kalibr cruise missiles, or "drones" of Iranian origin? Does it matter to the residents of Jõhvi, Tartu or Võru, which type of missile, carrying at least 100 kg of explosives, hits them?

Most people would probably say that there was no difference. But this is the essence of threat which is antiquated, outdated, non-contemporary and low in training requirements. We imagine that for an attack against the Baltic states, Russia will concentrate its above-mentioned means against Estonia and Latvia. With his annual production of artillery alone, it could fire 166 shells per kilometer every day during a month-long aggression, or over 66,000 shells per day on the entire 400km front. This is more than in Ukraine right now, where the active front line is, however, almost as long.

It doesn't matter if Estonia is attacked with decades-old T-62 tanks or brand new T-90 tanks, Javelin or Eurospike missiles will still be needed to nullify them. The same applies to the enemy's soldiers, air capacity and other things - we still need weapons, ammunition and the ability to use them against the incoming mass ranged against us.

This means that we must constantly and systematically develop our military capabilities in order to be ready to resist an adversary attacking us with both advanced and earlier technology, realizing that their advantage is and will remain their mass.

What are our advantages? First of all, we have no other option since this is our country, and so better motivation. Second, we are on our home ground. Third, our training is better. Fourth, the high-tech capacity we have together with our allies is superior.

Based on the above, we have no right to underestimate Russia's aggressiveness in the future, and there is also no reason to think that the defeat of the Russians in Ukraine would be the end of any danger lurking in wait for us. This would just be one important step. There is no single magic bullet for such a threat. But it is possible to fight back. And probably, by preparing for that, it can also be prevented. In any case, the EDF will do its best towards that.

The above opinion piece is based on comment that Lt Gen. Herem originally posted on his social media page (link in Estonian).

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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Kaupo Meiel

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