Outgoing head of the Estonian Defense League, Gen. Riho Ühtegi tells ERR in an interview that territorial defense is effective because it's dispersed and lacks a center of gravity the destruction of which would allow the enemy to make rapid progress. Ühtegi holds territorial defense to be the crowning achievement of his military career.
What went through your head when you learned that a gas pipeline and a communications cable between Estonia and Finland had been hit at roughly the same time.
It seemed like a provocation at first, while we must weigh the circumstances and understand what really happened. Russia has threatened such action against the Baltics for some time. The investigation will determine what happened.
Ukraine gave almost every willing citizen a weapon on February 24 last year, to make sure every window and bush could fire back. Can our territorial defense, which now comprises 20,000 men, make sure every window and bush would fire back but in trained hands?
The people of Saaremaa did not agree to bushes firing and only came around when we agreed to say that every juniper fires back.
We do not have a man behind every bush yet today, while we hope that the number of those who can contribute, for example, through the Defense League, will grow further. The Defense League is growing, and the fact that we have trained an additional 7,500 men and plan to train the rest in the coming years is a sign that Estonia is better defended than ever.
What is the role of territorial defense in wartime? What do they do exactly?
Territorial defense is among the most important service arms of the military, not just in Estonia. Many countries are developing territorial defense to have a force that covers the entire country and can carry out different tasks. For example, such units would be in charge of internal security in areas where there are no hostilities during times of crisis. They would help with rescue efforts following hostile actions by the adversary, and also make sure the area is cleared of hostile forces. In areas where there are active battles, territorial defense units will be involved in the fighting. This helps make sure enemy actions do not take us by surprise. Also as we are not talking about linear war anymore, and war can crop up pretty much anywhere inside the country.
The enemy can penetrate as far as Saaremaa?
More or less. To prevent that and any surprises we need a territorial defense force. We can take the example of Ukraine. Let us look at what happened there in the first month [of the war]. The Russian side had planned a blitzkrieg – to attack Kyiv and quickly legitimize the Russian troop presence. This did not happen because the defense of Kyiv was multilayer, with volunteers, territorial defense, police and other forces in play. Checkpoints were set up, similarly to what we did during training, alongside patrols and guards at key sites. That is just what territorial defense does.
Territorial defense is also used to cover the flanks of maneuver units, in terms of large-scale and conventional tasks. But looking at who was being trained at the recent Ussisõnad exercise, we are talking about units up to the platoon size. Will these platoons get to train as companies and companies as battalions at one point?
Definitely not. The aim is to tie these platoons to existing Defense League units. If we have a permanent Defense League territorial unit somewhere, we will attach two or three platoons to it to form a whole, which is then covered, for example, by the local Defense League district's territorial and administrative subunit (malevkond), concentrating on command on the one hand and intelligence and other things units need to fight effectively on the other. This is not quite how conventional military units are set up. Territorial defense is different in relying on a three-pronged approach of fighters, amplifiers and enablers in its own territory, which it knows. It goes beyond boots on the ground in a given area.
During the Ussisõnad major exercise, the armed forces grew by 10,000 people, with the Defense League playing a key role. But we must also look at turnout. In a situation where 7,300 reservists turned up out of 13,000 summoned, we can figuratively say that every squad was missing its assistant gunner or medic. Have you had the chance to analyze why the Okas exercise last year saw 66 percent of reservists show up, while this fell to 56 percent this time?
The Defense League delivered Okas. The Defense League has never had a staff surplus and its turnout is considerably higher than it is for EDF reservists. /.../ While we expect everyone who joins the Defense League to know why they did it and that they are assuming an obligation, we have a 40 percent surplus regarding reservists. We needed 9,500 men to show up and we got 7,700. It means that a platoon will be short a few gunners, which is not too bad.
We will be compensating for these shortcomings in the years to come. There are other nuances involved. The turnout delivered a positive surprise in that we summoned people who had not served for 15-20 years, whose contact info might have been outdated and who perhaps did not expect to be called up as they are no longer part of the hot reserve and the general reserve. There are myriad other factors which could pose problems.
How did these people, some of whom had not held a gun for 15 years or longer, cope, for example, when you compare them to Defense League units that meet monthly or even twice a month? How many exercises would we need to get them to the same level?
I asked Defense League members who came into contact with them for their opinion, and the general mood was favorable. It shows that we got the best part of those reservists. I have always had a soft spot for mature soldiers, perhaps because I'm older myself. But I believe that men start to get an idea of what they are doing and why in their 30s. We can see it in the Defense League. The average Defense League member is over 40. And talking to the reservists, you can see them concentrating and getting the picture very quickly.
I understand that the men were motivated and bright-eyed. But we are talking about basic skills. What should come next?
Indeed, we gave them the basic tools this time. We got to train platoon and squad leaders over ten days, and they did a good job over the following seven days. We trained squads in three main areas. We concentrated on checkpoint duty, defense of key sites and ambushes. Those are the three core skills of territorial defense units. But this only goes skin deep. To really get into it, we need to continue their training at future exercises. There are eight types of different ambushes alone, and you need to be able to pick the one you need. We also did not train them on complex weapons systems, anti-tank weapons. They did not have to delve deep into communications or camouflage. We also did not require them to display complex tactical skills. It's just too much to get done in ten days.
We could see little in the way of squad weaponry – anti-tank weapons, grenade launchers, machine guns. Could these reach reservists at a later time, or are we talking about units that will be equipped with older AK4 assault rifles?
When the government decided to add 10,000 men [to the reserve], the aim was to equip and train them to perform the simplest infantry tasks, meaning that weapons were not part of the deal. The weapons would have to be what we can give them, which today means AK4s. We know that the EDF plans to procure more weapons and switch to more modern rifles. This will take place over several years as procurement takes time. As concerns squad weapons, they were shown anti-tank systems. Modern anti-tank systems are simple to use and you can learn it in a few hours. And the Defense League has them. I would point out that these platoons will be attached to Defense League units that have those weapons, more than we need to outfit the platoons. The same goes for machine guns. While they do not have machine guns today, it does not mean they won't have them during wartime. We would hand out Defense League weapons to them if war broke out tomorrow. While I also believe these platoons will have more weapons [to train with] four, five, six, or seven years from now.
I believe that every commander and private I have spoken to has told me that Ussisõnad went well. But did you systemize this feedback somehow? Do you have a preliminary feedback analysis and what did you learn?
Every participant will be sent a link by email where they can hopefully provide their feedback. The exercise was only wrapped up on Sunday. We have received feedback in the form of letters and opinions. We know some of the problems as we moved around and heard from a lot of soldiers on location. We also took a critical look at our capacity. Yes, we are considering all of it, and it makes for crucial information. I asked soldiers to include in their feedback what they think could be done differently. It matters a great deal for us.
One litmus test is how many Ussisõnad participants have applied to join the Defense League?
We have 70 applications, but I cannot give you the whole picture as I don't have the figures for Southern Estonia here. While our members told reservists they could learn more in the ranks of the Defense League, we did not pursue direct recruitment efforts.
Why didn't you?
The idea is that a person should get to see the Defense League in action and then make up their own mind. As the Defense League is a voluntary organization membership in which is an honor rather than obligation. We consider it a victory if some Ussisõnad participants will join over the next three or four years. It does not have to be a spur-of-the-moment call.
I must also ask about recent events in the world. All signs point to Israel preparing a ground invasion of Gaza. The last major invasion took place in 2014, it was 2009 before that. Thousands died and every time Israel vowed to destroy Hamas. But recent experience tells us it is only possible to suppress Hamas for a time. What should Israel count on going into Gaza to uproot Hamas?
The same thing will very likely happen again. That they'll get things under control for a time before it starts picking up again little by little. It could be compared to our attempts in Afghanistan to root out the Taliban. Where are we today? The Taliban is ruling Afghanistan. It is very difficult to root out things that are supported from the outside, lack a rigid hierarchical structure, and have the ability to always grow new tendrils. Violence doesn't really get rid of things. We lived under occupation for 50 years, while we kept our desire for freedom alive. What is usually used to keep things in check is the economy. People are tied to economic interests and this works to dilute and divert attention. When you need to pay your mortgage. There is no stability in the region today, while Israel tries to maintain it on its side. But as you can see, they are doing it with the help of hundreds of thousands of reservists who are ready to turn up at a moment's notice as the neighborhood is not stable.
You wore a different hat for every one of the three offensives I mentioned. In 2009, you headed the intelligence arm of the Land Forces Headquarters, while it was the special operations command in 2014 and the Defense League recently. Has Estonia learned more from Israel or the forces that surround it?
We have learned from both sides. Just as we learned from our enemies in Afghanistan. And talking about the territorial defense doctrine of fighters, amplifiers and enablers and non-linear war, that is largely what they're using. If traditional armies concentrate on destroying a center of power to knock out their enemy, the asymmetric approach is not to offer that center of power in the first place. Disperse everything. This makes powerful weaponry less effective. You may be able to destroy a small part of it but not the whole system. It is one way of waging war, which has been used by terrorists, informal armed groups, freedom fighters and everyone else. It still works and is complicating Israel's effort to destroy Hamas.
I was getting at something listing your previous posts. You will soon be retiring as Defense League head. What will you do next year?
I believe that next year I will be doing all the things I have missed in the past more than 30 years. I have dedicated so much of my time to working, especially in the last 10 or 15 years, that things are unfinished at home. I would like to put my home in order so that by the time I'm too old to get anything done, I can put my feet up and rest.
Yet, you could continue your service. I believe the Defense League would be glad to retain your contribution, as would the Ministry of Defense.
I am the oldest serving Defense Forces member today. The change of generation needs to be finalized eventually. If I am the last dinosaur, then the time has come for him to move and allow younger men to take over. That is the main reason.
It was not by chance the former special operations chief was appointed Defense League commander. How much of that experience did you get to pass on? What did you change in the Defense League?
I believe that most principles we follow today have to do with how to carry out special operations. It has been my good fortune to learn a lot in different conflicts in different parts of the world. All of it has accumulated and led to my final thesis of territorial defense, returning to the Defense League's roots, putting an end to pointless battle groups, and concentrating on fighting in familiar territory, which has proved its merit everywhere in the world. In other words, men are effective when they are protecting their homes in the immediate area, fighting in familiar surroundings, and with support.
Editor: Aleksander Krjukov, Marcus Turovski