Gen. Martin Herem, commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF), warns that some losses are inevitable should war break out in Estonia, and that people need to be prepared to mitigate the initial shock. The general would not close Estonia's borders during a mobilization as he is convinced the army would assemble.
How do you look back on prognoses regarding Ukraine from January 2022? What parts were accurate and where have there been surprises? I remember your opinion, according to which the Russians would not penetrate more than 40 kilometers into Ukraine.
I thought they would try to establish an overland link to Crimea and not penetrate deeper than 40 kilometers elsewhere. That they went straight for Kyiv came as a surprise for me. The other surprise was the level of brutality visited upon civilians and their own soldiers, as well as those of Ukraine.
I was told by a Donbas veteran in Kyiv, just days before the start of the war, that the Ukrainian army had been making preparations for years, and that some soldiers couldn't wait to test their mettle against the Russians. How prepared were the Ukrainians by February 24?
The Ukrainians were moving their forces around in January, pulling brigades back from Donetsk so they could be used to defend Kyiv on the morning of the 24th. They were fresh troops ready to move, but they were not moved before.
We could say that the Ukrainians were also trying to hide their countermoves and did not deem it likely anyone would be coming over the Red Forest.
They were quite scattered. That is why most of Ukrainian anti-aircraft capacity was left intact. I have seen for myself a comms unit that took over 20 bomb hits but only lost 10 troops. They were guards, the rest of the unit had departed by then.
How long would Ukraine have lasted had it received no help from the West?
I cannot say because a part of Western aid had been delivered much sooner. Javelins donated by the Americans had arrived even before ours did. They were stored somewhere in Western Ukraine but they where there, next to other kinds of equipment.
But rather they would have been defending. We can say today that a lot of territory has been reclaimed, probably also thanks to Western aid.
By today, the Ukrainian army has learned to use very different weapons. They have immense experience going up against a brutal enemy. How good is their army today, where could it rank in the world?
I would refrain from putting together such rankings, as while they may be well trained, experienced and equipped, their military training has still been very short.
I would also not turn this into a competition, with one of the key questions being how much ammunition do they have. We do not know that today. The Ukrainians are not sharing much and are asking the same from others. So even if I knew more, I would still have to keep quiet.
How many myths have arisen from the Ukraine war and are they a part of warfare?
Both the Ukrainians and friendly Western countries have definitely disparaged Russia to lower enemy morale. But it seems to me that the Russians are rather bulletproof in this. That you can say what you want about them, they'll do things based on their own standards.
There are also myths regarding Javelins, Bayraktar drones, HIMARS and NASAMS. Drones especially are referred to as silver bullets that will immediately win one the war. But that is not really the case. You need combined arms to achieve success, and I sincerely believe we will see such synergy between different types of weapons in Ukraine in the coming days or weeks.
I have heard from Ukrainians that Russia hoped to conquer Ukraine in three days and then move on to Poland with help from the Ukrainian army and the Baltics with help from Belarus. This sounds insane on the one hand, while Russia has recently proved it does crazy things.
We're talking ifs and buts here. It was never possible to take Ukraine in three days. Urban battles in Kyiv alone would have taken quite a lot longer. But we still did not believe Russia would go for Kyiv in December, and even on February 23 almost everyone suggested it was impossible.
Personally, I believe Russia does not have to take Warsaw, Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius and occupy them at all costs. Rather, they would like to put these capitals and by association NATO in a situation where everyone would desperately want to negotiate. Because occupations are expensive.
Going into Ukraine, the consideration might have been that it will pay off if they switch sides. It is clear today that they're not. There is no such hope in Estonia, Baltics or Poland. But you can do enough evil and damage to make people desperately want to negotiate with you. These societies will also go to war with themselves. Accusations will fly that we were not ready, Russia can do whatever it wants, the Americans have abandoned us etc. This achieves instability and greater influence.
How would NATO have reacted had the Russians succeeded in taking Ukraine and threatened to push forward if the alliance did not fall back to its pre-1997 borders? Would we have gotten help?
Inevitably. Plans were being drawn up and there was a gradual buildup of troops on the eastern flank. We would likely have seen more aircraft and land units brought here. I see no scenario where help would not have come.
You mentioned that an occupation in the Baltics and Poland would cost Russia too much. But they are not rational, are they?
I admit that we're trying to take the measure of the Russians based on our own standards, which is a mistake. Thank God we don't have the Russian standard where you can lose 600 (or hundreds at least) men every day for six months straight before getting what you wanted and simply writing it off as the cost. We cannot think along those lines. Of course we'll be surprised time and again if we keep measuring the Russians based on our own standards.
What has this war shown us about the Russian army? Is it the second most powerful in the world?
It is fighting today, no matter its losses, and all the Western arms and tens if not hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are not having an easy time kicking it out. So it must have some strength. But a part of that strength is due to their much higher tolerance for losses, willingness to lose soldiers to achieve aims for which the West absolutely is not prepared today.
At the same time, we see that the Ukrainians are also ready to pay a high price for their home and freedom, and it is likely we would eventually be the same way.
Have Western arms exhibited any weaknesses in Ukraine?
Based on what I know, artillery systems have been put under immense load and smarter pieces have started to give after a while, while they were never intended to see such intensive use. Everyone is learning to do things better, while I see no general weakness of Western technology.
The Russian ambassador to the U.K. recently told the BBC that Russia has not even begun to fight.
That kind of bragging is just their way. Actions and results are what counts.
They have quite desperately bombed everything to pieces, tortured people and I don't know what else. We have no reason to believe they'll suddenly find new strength. I don't think so. They are slowly running out of capacity and will have to take a break soon. But it will take more time.
Many politicians and war analysts tend to be more optimistic than soldiers in their Ukraine analyses. Why is that?
It is also very difficult for me to say when Ukraine is not doing great in certain places. You are on their side psychologically and tend to look for signs of success.
Looking at the opposing forces and developments today, it is brilliant that Ukraine has come out of its difficult position last year and gained so much territory. We are all waiting for them to retake the rest of it.
What will happen should the Ukrainian counteroffensive fail?
I cannot imagine Ukraine stopping after a single failed offensive. I will never tire of saying that the evil that has been visited upon Ukraine is something we cannot really comprehend here in Estonia. Even if politicians wanted talks, the soldiers don't, and they won't stop.
Have the Ukrainians also earned criticism, and are they willing to listen?
I will not be airing any criticism here as I am just a theoretician in this situation, while they are involved with the practical side of things. And we cannot see all the details of why certain things happen. We see isolated episodes, and it would be wrong to draw conclusions from there. Though some things do raise questions.
Bandit chef Yevgeny Prigozhin has shown that it is possible to assemble an army of convicts, that you don't need military training. They took Bakhmut.
I believe they have officers and non-commissioned officers in charge of that gang of thugs. They would not be making much progress otherwise. They are also willing to sacrifice more than the Ukrainian side, which is how they advance. It likely comes at a very steep price.
One should never underestimate one's enemy. Could we come to underestimate the Russians should they lose this war?
Indeed. Many Western countries are suggesting it will take Russia years if not decades to recover. I don't think so. The question is what this recovery will be for, what kind of future military operations. It will not have to march on Berlin, Warsaw or even Tallinn. It can achieve its goals by doing something far smaller, and it will not take decades to restore that measure of capacity. Rather, Russia will again have an army capable of achieving certain goals in a few years' time.
We need to be prepared. I believe that is the lesson from the Ukraine war. We may not be able to avoid it through deterrence but we may be able to stop it.
Don't we simply number too few to put up a fight? Even the Ukrainians are saying that there are so many advancing Russians that they can't kill them all.
Perhaps it would have been simpler if they had had the weapons they do today when the war started. We have no other choice but to try and be prepared. Better prepared than the Ukrainians were. We need to have certain weapon systems, enough ammunition to fire them, as well as trained personnel. We are working on all of that today, and whether it will measure up will become clear once that day comes.
The Ukraine war makes me think back to the Chechen wars. The Russians lost the first and won the second. Are there any parallels to be drawn here?
The most important thing, no matter how the war ends, is for the Ukrainians to remain united, refrain from falling out among themselves and losing the West's support. Chechnya was left to its own devices with its semi-independence. I believe Ukraine will not be abandoned today, a little how Georgia was also left to its own decides.
You tend to comment on military matters on social media. Why do you engage, and is someone advising you in those terms?
I am not being given media advice. I talk to people who are experts in their respective fields, while I would not describe it as seeking advice. For example, I am not arguing with people who lie on social media. But I do believe that someone needs to provide an alternative opinion, next to people who know absolutely nothing about the field.
I don't do it too often.
It is something that a press representative could handle.
Perhaps it would no longer appear convincing, and press representatives have other things to do. I have turned it into something of a hobby.
What have been the developments of our armed forces during the Ukraine war? What have we procured and replaced?
We haven't replaced anything we didn't plan to replace before. Some of those processes have simply happened ahead of schedule. For example, our artillery. Because the Ukrainians have needed howitzers, we have donated more than we have been able to replace. While this is true in terms of numbers, it is a different story when talking about capacity.
Weapons and weapon systems for which there was no funding before the war have now secured it. This has allowed us to procure more of these weapons. A completely new capacity that we used to lack is loitering munitions. A technological development the worth of which has been demonstrated by this war.
Are we in a place where the taxpayer realizes that security requires a contribution?
I do not think they do. I don't think people understand how much munitions that are needed today really cost. And we would not have been able to give Ukraine anything if we had not procured enough of it for ourselves first. We are not short on ammunition today, while we need a lot more if we want to be prepared for that day.
Talking about our 3 percent of GDP defense spending, we are spending it on buying new things, maintaining existing things, salaries etc. But we could just as easily invest 5 percent of GDP in buying as many munitions as manufacturers can currently churn out. It would be very sensible from a military point of view.
But if I propose those things to the government and politicians, and I have, they all look at me with rather startled faces, suggesting that it would be insanely too much. That is how much ammunition costs today.
Have we made any fundamental changes in terms of our army's readiness?
Things get done quicker in the EDF now. If before, we wanted to analyze and weigh everything first, develop infrastructure and train personnel – we're now doing all those things simultaneously.
There's territorial defense attached to the Defense League, increasing the size of the armed forces by 10,000 staff this year. We are pulling them out of the reserve and training them quickly. We're procuring equipment. The same goes for other systems. So, everything is happening much more quickly.
Talking about NATO as a whole, more thought is given to conventional war. The first British and American volunteers who went to fight in Ukraine, people with considerable combat experience – some of them turned around and came back mere weeks later, saying that it was like nothing they'd ever seen.
It is something the West has started to consider and prepare for.
To what extent can our soldiers rely on experience from Afghanistan and Iraq to try and make sense of this war?
Some. There are leadership skills, experience and knowing that people may die as a result of decisions you made. This kind of confidence is always a boon. But the intensity and weaponry used against you in Ukraine are on an entirely different level.
Has the war tempered Estonians' will to defend ourselves?
It seems to me that it has as some indicators have improved. For example, the number of conscripts who decided to report for military service themselves [before being called] has grown from 40 percent two years ago to 61 percent now. The number of military service dropouts has fallen from 18 percent five years ago to under 5 percent now.
But reservist participation still remains around 60 percent.
How much of a problem is it that we perhaps cannot trust the mentality of all EDF members?
First, we need to trust everyone. Second, we can rely on the good old need-to-know basis. It is the same with the Ukrainians' plans, they are keeping a lid on things. Even the battalion commander gets their orders at the last possible minute. There is no reason to talk about things one doesn't need to know in the first place.
How has NATO changed its idea of defending Estonia?
Changes started even before the war. While NATO had previously loosely said that three or four brigades were assigned to particular regions, it has now been decided that these brigades need to be designated and checked in terms of their readiness, makeup and supplies. And they'll need to practice all of it. To make sure they're fast. Not all forces must be stationed in the Baltics, while they must be ready to move very quickly, which requires relevant training.
Things seem to be going well on that front. What leaves me a little concerned is that I'm not sure all NATO members have started building up their ammunition stocks. Manufacturers have not upped their production capacity because it is not covered by contracts.
However, this situation looks like it might improve in the next year.
Does this mean that should Russia attack us today, NATO soldiers will come but they won't have enough ammunition?
It might amount to that. We are all making efforts today to have enough ammunition.
Are NATO air policing craft still prohibited from shooting down Russian planes that enter our borders and plot a malicious course?
They are allowed to return fire.
What if the plane is fixing to bomb Tallinn?
A clear show of aggressive intent will cause fire to be opened. While an air policing fighter may still have taken off without missiles a decade ago, they all carry live ordnance today. That is a sign right there.
The other thing we've perhaps not been the most adept at is monitoring the seafloor. Is it still possible for a Russian submarine to unexpectedly surface behind the Estonian Maritime Museum today?
We know the number of submarines in the Baltic. If there is just one Kilo-class submarine [a Soviet multipurpose diesel sub launched in 1982] in the Baltic and if it is currently in Kronstadt, then it won't be doing anything unexpectedly. We can monitor these things.
We will be taking steps to try and improve the situation in the coming years, and we also have Finland and Sweden now whose help should definitely give us a better overview.
I'm sure they don't feel they're joining NATO to start doing things for Estonia.
No one has to do these things for us. But we need to strengthen one another.
What does Finland and Sweden's NATO membership mean for Estonia?
Changes in naval defense are perhaps the number one thing. While we have shared experience so far, we will soon be drawing up joint plans. The sea domain stands for many different things. One is the Kaliningrad link, which is also our link to the outside world.
But Russia also has anti-aircraft ships at sea that can cover terrestrial advances. Finland and Sweden's military capacity makes it much more difficult for Russia to achieve such aims.
Will it be a deterrent? I cannot say. Will it make it easier for us to defend our country? By leaps and bounds.
I think that instead of talking about how Russia could blockade us, we should be thinking about how we could cut them off. After they exhibit aggressive behavior, of course, not before.
The Finns have always been like our big brother. Have the Finnish and Estonian soldiers taken a step toward one another?
First, Finland effectively doubled NATO's border with Russia, adding 1,000 kilometers. Contacts between non-commissioned officers were close before, you could always just call them and ask about things that interested you. But we have come closer now as we need to make joint plans.
In the case of war in Estonia like in Ukraine, would we also close the borders to our own men?
It could be considered in case of a general mobilization and probably would be done. Personally, I would take the last 300 men like Gideon and go to war with them.
It seems to me today that we should not make serious efforts to close the border. I believe that the forces we have planned to arm, equip and train would assemble. Even if a few boats would plot a course for Sweden.
Can we make use of people who are perhaps not fit for military service but are otherwise smart boys and girls, in the field of IT perhaps?
It was said even before the war how modern warfare takes place in additional dimensions. There are the cognitive and cyber domains. In the end, the war will be won by the soldier carrying a rifle, and everything else exists to support them.
Can we make effective use of our people in Estonia? I believe that what I mentioned earlier, the EDF's low dropout rate, points to the affirmative. I dare say that if someone is singled out because of their physical condition but nevertheless wants to serve, that they can. As long as they have skills we can use.
You have studied the Forest Brothers [partisan] movement. Would something like that make sense in modern war? The air is full of drones and everything is out in the open.
Too much is made of the whole drone situation. People often get lost in the woods in Estonia and have to be searched for using thermal cameras and other measures, and we still can't find them quickly. These are people who want to be found.
So, there is still a place for such activity in occupied territories.
Looking at how the Russians are conducting themselves in Ukraine today and comparing it to the security situation in Estonia in the 1940s, I would say the latter was child's play compared to the level of brutality and sadism we are seeing. The lives of local residents are much more complicated in the occupied parts of Ukraine today. I cannot imagine supporting a resistance movement by giving them information or by providing shelter in their shoes – I just cannot imagine how they could do that.
Does this mean our bogs and forests still offer protection? What part of nature could help protect us best?
Forest. Forests still keep us hidden from many eyes. We had allied helicopters in the air during the Spring Storm [training exercise], and they said that if an infantryman goes to the least amount of trouble, they just cannot be seen. Just how tanks cannot find infantry if measures have been taken.
That said, coming to help us will be people from Western Europe that doesn't really have woods, where the landscape is quite different. Is it possible allied soldiers will simply get lost in the woods?
That is one reason allies come here to train. The French are very happy with all the forest training they're getting here, even if they are from alpine units and know the forest to some extent.
How the Brits and Americans were wide-eyed to see the Estonians dig themselves into the ground. They did not see the point, being paratroopers and ready to strike. But once you're in Estonia and all the way to Võru County, where will you go on the offensive? We will have to sit tight and wait for the enemy to come to us. We'll need to take the first blow and that requires digging in.
They said they'll have to dust off their 50-year-old manuals and tap into past know-how.
That is precisely why these units come here to get to know our circumstances.
Years ago, I walked across the Suur Strait ice with a group of British soldiers. It was obviously an experience for them. Some had never seen ice. How will our Western friends manage in winter time?
A third of British troops currently in Estonia are here for the second or third time. They are learning, the Brits also have their winter camp somewhere in Norway, and they're not poor soldiers to begin with. They will learn those winter skills on top of what they know. But, of course, it is interesting for them to slide a tank [on ice].
What does the future spell for Estonia living next to Russia? Our fate has been compared to that of Israel. Will we erect a concrete wall ten meters tall on the Russian border and send women to the military?
I don't know whether it's more accurate to compare Estonia to South Korea or Israel. But it's something along those lines. Because as long as Russia remains as big and aggressive as it is today, and I do not believe we will see much change after Putin is replaced, we just don't have any other choice. Having ripped off its mask, Russia can no longer even pretend to be in any way democratic or civilized.
We have seen back-to-back crises? The coronavirus crisis sent us making masks and vaccines that no one any longer needs. Now, we are racing to arm ourselves. What if we won't need them at all because we will somehow end up living next to a safe Russia? What will we do with all those guns and ammunition?
That is a 16th rate problem for me today. Rather, I would say that we need those things now and that we don't have enough of them. I won't even waste time thinking about what we would do if we won the lottery. We'd figure it out.
What has the Ukraine experience caused you to reevaluate as a military man?
I thought we had deterrence through punishment. That if Russia lost a thousand men a day it would break their psychological back, that soldiers' mothers and others would protest to cause the war to stop, as it happened in Chechnya. Today, I see that a thousand daily casualties is not enough.
The aggressor needs to be completely eliminated when it enters your territory, and it is simply something you need to be prepared to do.
Should Russia attack Estonia like it did Ukraine, thinking back to that first day, would our air defenses take everything down?
One thing we must learn from Ukraine is that we need to count on certain losses. Air defense cannot be omnipotent, and isn't in Ukraine, or capable of bringing down everything.
The closer one is to the border or the front line, the likelier it is that an S-300 missile will get through. And we need to consider the possibility. There are different ways to insure ourselves against it – possible targets need to be reinforced to minimize potential damage.
Second, we must be ready to destroy Russian artillery systems lying, in the case of this example, 100 kilometers away. We are also making progress with that.
And we must make sure everyone in Estonia knows how best to keep themselves safe on that day.
Most definitely. Civil defense begins with awareness, avoiding shock when it hits. We are talking about shelters in Estonia today. In Ukraine, people get killed not because they don't have shelters but because they did not take cover.
As the war and shelling continues, relatively few people are hurt inside Ukraine compared to the first days of the war. This suggests that people not only understand but are also disciplined enough to take cover. That is what is keeping them alive. They also had trouble with evacuation when the war started as people did not want to leave. When they finally agreed, it was already too late. That is another thing we need to learn in civil defense.
Have you considered what is next for you after your term as EDF commander runs its course? People usually go into politics from where you're sitting.
If I had not become a military man, I would be someone like Fred Jüssi, someone who likes to wonder the wilderness.
How do you relieve stress? Do you collect stamps or go wondering through the outdoors?
I go hunting. But I don't really have time for that these days. I sometimes simply go and hang around in nature. Interesting things happen there that are nice to observe, and I suppose that is how my mental health stays intact.
What scares you the most?
That there are things we can prepare for but won't out of some kind of stupidity or psychological reluctance. That we have enough resources to do those things but lack the necessary will. That has been among my biggest fears in recent months.
Editor: Marcus Turovski