EDF chief: Some countries chose to ignore last January that war was coming

Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Gen. Martin Herem during the EDF parade in Tallinn's Freedom Square on Independence Day. February 24, 2023.
Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Gen. Martin Herem during the EDF parade in Tallinn's Freedom Square on Independence Day. February 24, 2023. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

A month before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, some Western countries chose to ignore information indicating that war was coming, Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Gen. Martin Herem said in an appearance on ETV's "Ukraina stuudio" on Sunday.

Herem recalled that when the report came in on February 24 last year of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it was simply a confirmation of what was already known.

"The demands made of NATO by Russia in December [2021] were a clear indication that it was moving toward conflict and merely attempting to justify that conflict," he said. "This was even clearer in January. And on February 22, when [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin delivered a speech, he essentially declared war. From there on, we were already counting the hours. We had intelligence as well, of course. And it was also a bit of a question of ⁠— many people had the same intel, but the question was whether they believed that war was coming or not."

According to Herem, a summit of some Western military commanders took place in mid-January, about a month before Russia launched its full-scale invasion, and it was evident there that some chose to believe that war was coming while some chose to ignore it.

"Some of us said that we're not analyzing anymore whether this event, whether this escalation will take place but rather are thinking now about what we have to do when it happens," he recalled. "So some of us had decided to believe, and others had decided to continue ignoring it. And then on the morning of February 24, those who had believed had already prepared some steps, and it was certainly easier to take all of that in."

The EDF commander acknowledged that over the past year, Russia has frequently been deemed weak and right on the verge of losing the war. He himself, however, thinks that Russia will not become weak even if and when it loses in Ukraine, and that it most certainly won't be giving up its strategic goals.

Herem believes Russia is underestimated because people want to believe that evil is weak.

"We tend to show more of those images where the Russian Army is shoddy, stupid, weak, dirty and whatever else and we fail to notice, for example, that when we see dead Russian soldiers, we don't pay attention to the fact that their gear is no worse than our soldiers' gear — that it's alright," he highlighted.

According to the EDF chief, how much ammunition and how many weapons Russia currently has is difficult to say, but Russian forces have used fairly new missiles in its war in Ukraine.

"So on one hand their stocks have certainly been reduced, but at the same time, they do have some kind of production capacity," he acknowledged. "And if we're talking about anti-aircraft missiles or also anti-ship missiles, thousands of which have been produced since the 1980s, then Ukraine right now is a very suitable place for the Russians to dispose of them, and there could be a lot more of these left in store. They aren't precise, and they don't fly very far, but they cause quite a lot of trouble, to put it lightly."

Herem said he believes Russia today is capable of producing more such so-called dumb ammunition than the West, but at the same time doesn't really have many opportunities to produce smart equipment.

"It's capable, but not to the same extent as the West," he continued. "That's the difference. Unfortunately, Russia is currently killing and destroying with dumb ammunition. We're also seeing attacks with cruise missiles, which are high tech, but they don't do as much damage to human lives as regular, dumb artillery, if that can be said about artillery."

Russian art of war 'different'

In his "Ukraina stuudio" appearance, Herem noted that Russia's art of war is different.

"While we think we're currently winning against Russia in the boxing ring by simply striking it with punches and points, Russia thinks it's earning points just for enduring these punches," the EDF chief explained. "They can lose 600 or 800 [troops] a day and it'll just keep on coming. That's just a cultural difference. For us, all of this would have long since been shocking and we would be seeking peace, but for Russia it suits them somehow."

It is for this reason he believes that time is currently moreso on Russia's side right now.

"Russia's standards are different than ours," Herem said. "And if we saw the kinds of losses Russia is seeing today, we'd be weak already. But the West has of course also adapted significantly to all of this, so I'd like to hope that we have more resources. It isn't perhaps so much a question of resources as how much either of us is willing to suffer. Europe has way, way more resources, no question — just, are we willing to pour it into the war machine?"

War may be over this time next year, but results unclear

The commander of the EDF believes that the war may be over by a year from now, but it's difficult to forecast what its outcome will be.

"Will we be talking about what Russia's next steps will be following defeat — I'd very much like to hope we'll be talking about that — or will we be talking about the frozen conflict that has arisen?" he asked. "And how we have to prepare for this conflict developing in our direction as well, that's another matter altogether. I'd like to hope that we'll be talking about what Russia will do now that it's been defeated."

Should Russia be defeated and withdraw from Ukraine, Herem believes it will look for somewhere to prove itself once again.

"I can see that in that case, Russia will have lost territory that it had openly declared as its own, it will have lost people and its reputation, and such a criminal ruling culture will certainly seek to improve its image afterward, and it has to be victorious somewhere — it has to be arrogant somewhere," he explained.

"So what will happen? What will happen is that it will look for somewhere to prove itself," he continued. "That could be anywhere. It could even be a NATO country, should the global situation allow. It could also be Estonia, Latvia, or somewhere else. But for this [to happen], the world has to provide the opportunity — economic crises, countries in conflict, a country in internal conflict, some sort of tensions, all of that is very dangerous. Regardless of which country. And it's obvious Russia isn't very discouraged by the losses it could incur there."

According to Herem, Russia is in fact contributing to this effect, which it can later take advantage of in so-called information and psychological operations.

"By achieving instability, it still feels like a winner and feels powerful against regions where it has generated instability," he said.

The most important lesson of the war, according to the EDF commander, is that Russia isn't invincible and that, if prepared, a country can very successfully defend itself.

"The Ukrainians have proven this, because they did in fact prepare a great seal, although we didn't see all of that, and the Ukrainians have said this in recommending we prepare more of one thing or another," Herem said. "So we have a great deal of I don't know if hope, but opportunities certainly."

He finds Russian soldiers' brutality against Ukraine's civilian population to be the most shocking aspect of the past year of the war.

"The way not just buildings, but the population has been treated that has remained on these territories — that is the most shocking," Herem admitted. "We haven't seen photos of everything by a long shot. But the stories of what has been done to people, torture — not even for information, but to show superiority — rapes, torture, murders — this is something the likes of which I wouldn't have expected from this conflict."


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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