Estonian Defense Forces commander Gen. Martin Herem sees no way the Ukraine war could have a happy ending and that Estonia needs to be constantly prepared in the coming years. The way the Nursipalu Training Area expansion was communicated fell flat because politicians were gearing up for elections and gave people false hope, he said in a recent interview.
Today is Veteran's Day [this interview was first broadcast on April 23]. In today's Estonia, veterans are men and women who have helped defend the country through their actions far from home. This often requires one to take up arms and ends in injury, while it has also cost lives. Why do people choose such a profession? There are many safer jobs in Estonia.
People in the military may find it strange if someone becomes a hairdresser or goes to work in television. I cannot tell you that the only reason someone becomes a soldier is to be able to fight. There are many countries that haven't fought wars in decades or even centuries but still have militaries. People like the profession or find it a good fit. Some stay longer than others as I'm coming up on 30 years.
You are a veteran yourself after a tour in Iraq. What did it teach you that you could not have learned in Estonia?
Confidence that the training and education I have obtained in Estonia works. That I can hold my own next to allies, that my work matters. I cannot say it taught me anything new in military terms.
I believe that our soldiers and officers do not learn many new military skills on missions. Mainly what you learn is whether you can cope under duress, whether you can recall the things you've learned or simply freeze. That is perhaps the greatest experience. We usually go on foreign missions not because we need something from there but because military power is needed to solve something. Someone invites us. We mainly go to make a difference.
While it often seems in hindsight that nothing was improved, I am sure of one thing. The situation would have been worse if we had not gone to the places we've been. We can see it in Mali today. When we left Mali with the French, people started to be killed in places where they weren't killed before. That was the benefit, the good that we have done. That is the main thing with these missions.
War has come disgustingly close to us. It is day 424 of the Ukraine war today. Does Ukraine have the strength to fight this war or win it?
It is hard to say. In a situation where your emotions are clearly rooting for one side, it is easy to perhaps see the Ukrainians in a better light than they really are. They are definitely strong enough to hold on to what they've got, even if a kilometer or so is surrender in Bakhmut or elsewhere. They can keep what they have for a very long time. But whether they will be able to retake territory in the short term I do not know.
But so much evil has been visited upon the Ukrainians that I just don't know how anyone could stop them before they've restored their borders. I cannot imagine anyone in Ukraine suggesting they're not going to retake Crimea. They may be discussing when and how on the down low, while no one dares publicly voice doubts because so much evil has been done.
The grotesque cruelty of what Russian troops are doing there, with videos of people, including children, being killed circulating in the media... How can soldiers be driven to such lengths?
When investigating the Forest Brothers in Estonia, I interviewed people who were arrested, deported, tortured, and beaten by Soviet security forces in the 1940s. I believe they have been quite sincere. Comparing it to what is taking place in Ukraine now, one might say our 40s were a nice time. It is quite horrible what's happening there. There are a lot of things we don't know because loved ones find it hard to talk about this level of psychological trauma.
In terms of how these things happen... On the one hand, it has been suggested that a soldier will start looting, torturing people, and otherwise breaking the rules when they've received poor training and after being handed a defeat by the enemy. That they will attempt to assert themselves in other ways. Training is key here. Lacking confidence, you resort to doing things you feel you can do. That is probably why they're killing children.
Orders are another possibility, of course. It seems soldiers have been ordered to resort to this kind of terrorism to break enemy morale. Commanders on different levels have issued such orders. That is how it comes together. How a man comes to do something like that I find hard to say. But we have seen people do terrible things in different situations.
It is largely down to training, also officer training, on which someone needs to keep an eye. I have also seen it in Iraq, how people become careless, arrogant toward the local population. Behavior becomes haughty after a while, and I'm not talking about torture here. And it is the business of officers and non-commissioned officers to notice and put a stop to such things. If attention is not paid, the sentiment will simply keep growing. I don't know... Maybe there is a dark side in us. I just cannot say.
Russia's military might is probably greater than we would like to believe. Their warehouses are full of weapons and their human resources seem limitless.
It is one thing how many of those things they have in warehouses between here and Vladivostok. The other is what someone considers a loss and is able to swallow. We in the West live in the age of post-heroic war where losing a single person is a tragedy that we all need to discuss.
It seems to me that Russia sees losing 500-600 men per day as a sign of strength, something they can do. That we can also lose tomorrow, while you cannot afford that, and, eventually, I will come and take what's mine. If that is the state of mind, it will be very hard for Ukraine to stop before every single occupier in Ukraine has been destroyed. Therefore, I see no happy ending for this thing.
The Russians have now taken the Ukrainians to a point where they cannot stop before they hit the border, which spells even more destruction for Russian troops. The Russians see those losses, and the Derzhava being treated to a beating by Ukrainians, whom it has run down in its media, will cause them to take it out again somewhere. Therefore, I cannot see this conflict ending before Russia changes completely.
What could change Russia?
It's difficult to say, but Russia should no longer be a great and powerful country that feels it has the right to do whatever it wants. Russia should dissolve into smaller countries with less power and ambition. Otherwise, I say again, I cannot see a good ending to the Ukraine war. We [Estonia – ed.] are moving toward the situation in Israel. This means being constantly prepared for something to happen. Not today or tomorrow, but the times are not about to take a turn for the calmer.
You've suggested that Estonia should be vigilant and prepared irrespective of how the war in Ukraine goes. Will it happen in four, three, or even two years according to your recent forecasts?
I cannot count on it not happening. As a military man, as EDF commander, I have to count on the possibility of something happening. And I'm calculating, our headquarters is calculating all the things we must be ready for. The likelihood of it happening is anyone's guess. But in terms of military power, history, experience... I say we have to be ready.
We have heard signals from Russia according to which the Baltic states' freedom is seen as a mistake and that attempts to test NATO could happen here. You've even said we're living in constant fear.
We're getting used to it. The important thing is for certain people to be preoccupied with how to counter such things instead of being scared.
To be very blunt, I believe we may not be able to prevent it, while, looking at Ukraine, I dare say we can put a stop to it should it happen. I'm not talking about Estonians alone, but all allies here. We may not be able to prevent it, while I believe we are capable of putting a swift end to it.
I have heard claims that before we can talk about us, Estonia would need to withstand the onslaught on its own, before the cavalry comes to the rescue.
That opinion is from a decade ago. It was wrong then and is doubly so today. The roughly 2,000 allied soldiers stationed in different parts of Estonia aren't going anywhere. Looking at the past ten years or even longer, every time the threat has grown, more troops have been sent here. Should the Russia threat increase, which is not on the horizon in the short term perspective because they are tied down in Ukraine and have few troops elsewhere, but should their rhetoric become even more menacing, we can always bring more in. Ideally, all troops meant to defend Estonia should be here before the aggressor crosses the border. While this will probably not be achieved, we will definitely not be alone.
Allied presence might not always mean boots on the ground. It could be indirect fire, intelligence information. The Ukrainians are getting a lot of help in intelligence terms today. It is lightning fast, a priority in new NATO plans of which I am glad.
Did you guess you would have to prepare for war when you took over as EDF commander in 2018?
When I took command of the EDF in 2018, I said that I would continue the work of my predecessor Riho Terras, which is developing readiness. Making sure what we have is ready to defend the country at a moment's notice instead of painting a grand illusion.
Will the world as it was in 2018 return?
It will one day, and there must always be hope. But I believe that nothing will improve in the next five or even ten years. Russia would have to completely change, which I do not see happening in the next five to ten.
A Government Office study from November asked people how many perceive a realistic threat of a Russian attack. Every fourth person admitted to having that fear. With that in mind, looking at what is happening in Estonia regarding the planned Nursipalu Training Area expansion, are you surprised there is so much pushback?
It frustrates me to no end. I sometimes wonder how on Earth they cannot understand, but that is human psychology. People also ignore symptoms and hope that what the doctor has been telling them is not true. It is understandable to some extent, while I would not rule out malicious intent and self-interest being at play.
People have homes there. I'm sure you can imagine what you might feel if your family's ancestral farm was there and about to be turned into a training area.
It would be rough indeed. However, we are hearing from people whose ancestral homes are not there, people who should not be speaking up in the first place, who know the background. More than a few politicians who have said we should consider alternatives or involve people have quite an accurate picture of what those alternatives are or were. They have even been mentioned in the media, which I find amounts to giving people false hope.
This was worst before the elections where it was not the EDF or the Ministry of Defense that failed in the Nursipalu expansion communication, it was the Estonian state and especially its parliament as everyone was concentrating on the elections. Everyone knew what Estonia really needs, while they were also trying to please voters. I think it was a failure that we saw a month ago.
Should this thing have been handled differently, in a way that would have made everyone understand and avoided the kind of protest concerts that we saw on Saturday?
I can understand the people who are directly affected and suffering as a result, which I can weigh against national defense needs. But I cannot explain what is driving people who just blurt out that it is part of a deal with the Americans and their plan to drag us to war. Or those claiming that the compensation offered is pocket change and in no way enough. No one has been paid, there aren't even any specific agreements yet.
In most cases, people claiming such things aren't even directly involved or eligible. There is no way for me to debate them, and, unfortunately, there are people like that in society. But perhaps it's good because it keeps us on our toes in terms of explaining things better.
Therefore, there are all manner of conspiracy theories out there to fuel even greater strife when it comes to Nursipalu?
Someone is taking advantage. And it does not necessarily have to be the Kremlin. Wanting to please people as a politician, I could take the stage and shout that I support you, want to solve your problems and many sensible people would give me their attention in hopes that I would sort things out. But it is not statesmanlike behavior in the current situation.
The steps we are taking today are urgent. Anything we decide to do today will materialize two or three years from now. And I would ask those very politicians and residents when they think Russia could attack us. Never? Because if it is never, we can just disband the military. But if it could happen five years from now, we need to hurry our preparations, including Nursipalu.
What would be the result of the expansion falling through? If you could not train in this larger territory?
How best to put this... We would be like a family of five in a two-room apartment, with a niece who attends university in the city and also spends the night on weekends. Another nephew also needs to crash at our place a few times a week, and somehow we make all of it work. While we would survive, despite there being more bickering than necessary, it would be very cramped. Kids' schoolwork and some other things would suffer.
Should everyone do something or live differently today?
The most important thing is to stay calm and do what you do best. To be a citizen, lead a normal life, follow the law, and contribute to Estonia's development. A country cannot develop its citizens if it does not want to end up in debt it is said. We need to support one another and keep developing the organization that is our country, and that is the most important thing. That's all I'll say.
I thought you were going to urge people to join the Defense League, store water, and learn to live without power.
I believe we could lay down a minimum viable level and take it from there. We could [do those things] but not everyone needs to grab a gun and head for the bushes if there's a threat. Such a situation of heightened risk could last for a very long time during which the country needs to remain operational. Schools need to work, libraries need to stay open so we don't succumb to a siege. We cannot descend into war hysteria.
People who must take up arms to defend the country know where they need to be when the summons comes. Of course, if people are interested, the Defense League is a great place, while it is also possible to become an assistant police officer, voluntary firefighter etc. All of it supports Estonia both today and in case of war.
The EDF is growing every year
And very quickly at that. Active servicemen will number up to 40,000 in a few years' time, talking about total wartime personnel, which includes reservists and Defense League members. The figure is 26,000 today, and we expect it to be 36,000 by year's end. This means we will be updating the training and equipping another 10,000 people. We will grow to around 43,700 in the next few years. We will also be adopting the world's most modern weaponry in the next two, maybe three years.
Therefore, while we may be critical of politicians for perhaps dropping the ball in terms of Nursipalu messages and their timing, I would imagine that the new state budget and the defense spending therein are to your liking?
Looking at Estonian politicians as a whole over the last 30 years, we have been very smart. We have maintained our reserve army system, we have not abolished conscription. We have spent years investing in defense when others weren't. We can buy munitions today, we have the warehouses for storing it. There are countries that don't even have the warehouses anymore. We have given Ukraine valuable aid and our own stocks have not dwindled. We have more of certain types of ammunition than we did before. Our aid started before the war escalated.
It has been the work of politicians, while it has also been the EDF's initiative, the realization of state officials, and the courage of politicians all put together. A kind of national wisdom we have shown when supporting Ukraine. But the fact that we have spent the last 30 years developing our national defense in a very smart way is a political achievement and I bow down to those who have been in charge. Which, of course, is not to say politicians don't occasionally royally screw up.
A politician who wished to remain anonymous suggested that Estonian independence has never been as threatened as it is now.
I believe it has been threatened constantly, we simply haven't realized. The threat has been masked. But today, Russia no longer needs to pretend it is not dangerous.
We know the aid organization Slava Ukraini which has taken a lot of donations in Estonia and done a lot to help Ukraine is currently tied to suspicious circumstances. In your opinion, what is its effect and to what extent does it cause people to question helping Ukraine?
It is having an effect. I warned things like that would come to light at one point. But we need to start by asking ourselves why we have such troubles in the first place. It is not because someone has pocketed money. It starts with Russia having created a situation where people need help, where we must help and where – maybe in this case but definitely in others – crime can flourish.
It is not Slava Ukraini's fault when someone has taken their money. They have tried to support Ukraine. Why? Because Russia is doing what it's doing. We often look away from the main reason, talk about how there are too many refugees, what we should do with them and who is to blame. But the blame lies with Russia that caused the flow of refugees in the first place.
Of course, we must be wary, keep a cool head and look at what are the main causes. I would not be despondent to know a part of the money I've donated has been swiped. We don't really know today how much of it has been stolen. /.../ People work there 24/7 and also need to be paid so they can buy food, companies need to buy fuel etc. These costs need to be covered and companies must have some revenue. But we don't know what exactly has happened.
I take it we are living in anxious times and you do not have a positive message for us in terms of when the war could end?
In some ways, World War II continues. Not everyone has made peace. I believe it will be the same for Ukraine. In a way, the best development would be the conflict freezing this year. The best [realistic] outcome would be a frozen conflict either along the 1991 or 2014 borders.
A situation where there would be days of silence on the front. But the conflict, hatred and will to keep fighting is still there. The Ukrainians have lost too much and the Russians have been shamed too deeply, so I don't think it will just grind to a halt like that.
People need something to hold on to during such times. What could it be today?
I tend to trust experts, scientists, and public servants, even though they sometimes miss the mark too. When a doctor tells me I should treat myself in a certain way, I have to trust them. Or I could go looking for alternative know-how and never recover. We have a solid country in that if someone steals or does evil, they will soon be caught and their activity will end.
We need to trust in ourselves. Reservists and Defense League members should put faith in their training in terms of defending the country. People should have more trust in how our country works, which is not to say we shouldn't strive towards improvement. However, we need more confidence born of trust instead of panic. Politicians should also pause from time to time to choose their moments for saying random things in exchange for popularity, which works to manufacture more panic while appearing statesmanlike.
Editor: Marcus Turovski, Helen Wright