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Experts: Russian losses are not yet high enough to end the war

Kusti Salm, Martin Herem and Indrek Kiisler
Kusti Salm, Martin Herem and Indrek Kiisler Source: Anna-Maria Kurrel/ERR

Russia's losses are not high enough for it to end the war in Ukraine, said Estonian Defense Forces chief Gen. Martin Herem and the Ministry of Defense's top official Kusti Salm on Monday. The pair were also against the formation of a civil defense service which has been discussed in recent days.

Herem said that before the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022, he believed the death of 1,000 Russian soldiers a day – 15,000 over two weeks – would put a stop to any aggression. But he has now changed his mind.

"[The Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valery] Zaluzhnyi told me last July that 15,000 is definitely not enough. This autumn, he wrote an article in which he said that 150,000 was also too few. I do not think we have a standard by which to say what is enough," the general told ERR's radio show "Välistund".

Salm said Russian society is now fully mobilized to win the war and the goal is to win the war.

"And it's not just for Putin, it's the whole industrial complex, the education system, the central bank, everybody – everybody's working day and night, thinking about how to win this war. And, of course, if you put all the resources behind it and measure all the resources on an absolute scale, the losses are actually not very large. Russia still has 130 million people. 200,000 deaths is 0.15 percent. This does not seem like something that can be promised now. And especially when we compare it with the casualties of World War II or the Russian Civil War. Then 20–30 million people died there, that's normal wear and tear for him," said the permanent secretary.

Herem said there is no manpower shortage in Russia: "Russia went to war with about 300,000 plus people and has sent 400,000 more, of whom an estimated 100,000 have been recruited this year. Not mobilized, but recruited, which shows that society is not, if not supporting, then certainly not opposing this war."

Approximately, 700,000-800,000 people in Russia have been sent to the war, this is less than 1 percent of the total population. The number in Ukraine is more than 2 percent. "So in that respect, Russia still has some steam left," the general said.

"And it has [in addition to the war industry] got society going in this respect. And these are now, in my opinion, very dangerous indicators. So even if the sanctions have an impact on the economy in the longer term, the war industry and the war machine in many ways, both in society and, I don't know, in metallurgy [for example], is still up and running," said Herem.

Discussing the development of the Russian armed forces since the start of the war, the general said, there are technological improvements but it has not become any smarter.

"What they have got going, though, is their own military industry, because if we say today that Russia produces two million projectiles a year, I think we'll hear in the near future that it's going to produce even more. Today, Russia itself already produces about 1,000 of these Iranian so-called Shaheed drones with its own name. Russia has begun to produce its own stealth air-to-air missiles, which it didn't have at the beginning of the war, but which it has deployed over the course of the war, and which we know it has improved significantly. All these things are technological developments," he outlined.

Ukrainians' motivation is high

Asked about Ukraine's resources and will to defend, Herem said if around 2 percent of the population is directly involved in the war, then the tolerance limit could be about 10 percent.

He said Ukrainian volunteers are highly motivated and wider society is prepared to support them until the end.

"I can't tell you what the ratio is between conscripts and volunteers. But what I do know is that volunteers are highly motivated. Those men who have been prisoners of war or have been wounded, and if they have been volunteers before, they go back [to the war]," Herem said.

Salm said: "When General Zaluzhnyi wrote his infamous article [in The Economist] a few months ago, in which he mentioned the words stalemate and so on, and the whole Western world gasped, what are they saying and does this mean that it's going to end, the diagnosis of the Ukrainians themselves was that this article was sending a message: be prepared for a long war, be prepared for a vicious war, be prepared for a war that will wear us all out. And this was to a domestic audience too."

"There's no expectation that there's going to be a win somewhere in two months' time, and I think that's the way it has to be understood there, what the mood is like. But it seems that at least the reception to this article was pretty good. If anything can be measured on such a good or bad scale," the permanent secretary said.

The West is struggling to reorient itself

Herem highlighted how the Western countries are unable to sufficiently support Ukraine.

"According to the calculations I know today, Russia is putting in twice as many resources every month as the Western countries that are part of the Ramstein coalition. In this case, we seem to be expecting some kind of miracle from Ukraine to achieve this victory with so little support," he said.

Salm said these countries' most recent military experience has been far from Europe, in circumstances that require a completely different set of abilities and responses.

"The thing about these things is that just as success breeds success, failure breeds failure. For the last 20 years, until the middle of the last decade, NATO's motto was Out of area or out of business – that is, whether we conduct military operations further afield or close up shop altogether," he said. "And, of course, in terms of conventional equipment, ammunition stockpiles, all the rest of it, it was less needed in Afghanistan and everywhere else. Less of it was needed because it had to be carried there and the opponent was different. These things were not done for several decades, and if you do not do anything for several decades then you forget."

"And I think we're now trapped in this situation in Western Europe, although not Estonia – we've been one of the exceptions in investing in ammunition for five or six years at a very high rate. And also in conventional artillery and so on," Salm stressed.

"But the Western world is still not paying attention, and the most frightening thing is that the war in Ukraine has not been the wake-up call that gets people out of bed and into the field," he added.

He highlighted Estonia's recent decision to purchase €280 million worth of 155-millimeter shells, which is equivalent to 1 percent of GDP. 

"The equivalent for European allies together would put the same figure at around €150 billion. €150 billion would be more than enough to win the war in Ukraine, and we could build up the whole artillery production industry in such a way, that not only would it be the most built up and produce the most projectiles per year, but it would also be the most competitive for the next generation as so much capital would have been invested. And all of Europe's allies would be able to fill their warehouses to the brim for that money, if they all did exactly the same as Estonians do," he said.

Estonia's new weapons promise to strike back at Russian territory as well

At the same time, Herem pointed out that Estonia has been proactively investing in strengthening its defense capabilities for several years. 

"I dare to add one thing here. All the things that we have seen that Ukraine lacks, Estonia has been dealing with long before the escalation of the war in Ukraine and long before, for example, General Herem became head of the Defence Forces. Before that too, so in that respect, we have been on the right track," the general said. "In my opinion, over the next two years, we will have built up enough strength to have the potential to put an end to, if not prevent, all the above scenarios [possible Russian provocations against Estonia]."

Salm said, in 2022, Estonia doubled the total amount of money spent on ammunition since 1991. In the coming years, it will invest almost a billion euros in buying ammunition.

"The majority of our defense spending goes into ammunition stocks and we are sending the same message that we are ready and we are doing the thing that will most improve that readiness," he said.

Herem said, should Estonia need to, now after acquiring HIMARS and coastal defense missiles it will be able to hit Russian territory. The range is 290 kilometers.

"The term coastal protection is a bit misleading. We are actually not only planning to protect our own coastline, but by developing those capabilities and having those capabilities among our allies and in cooperation with our allies, we are sending a message – think now, dear neighbor, if you take this step, we will not stay within our own national borders in any way. That your daily life cannot go on as it does every day, but that we ask many other questions. For example, the connection with Kaliningrad: if someone enters my country's territory, and carries out an act of aggression, then all the other targets that we can reach, military, strategic, are probably legitimate for us. So Russia will have to take this into account. Whether it will, it's hard to say. It is up to us to create these dilemmas," the general said.

Estonia still needs €1.6 billion

Salm pointed out that Estonia still needs approximately €1.6 billion to eliminate critical deficits and to acquire sufficient ammunition reserves from NATO's point of view. "And this, in our view, is an absolutely critical thing that needs to be done in Estonia as a matter of urgency," he stressed.

"If it's missing, you have to add it, which is still complicated. The way it works in terms of accounting, so to speak, whether a loan is taken for this, whether it's over the course of a year or three or four years – we've got a roomful of accountants for that, they'll sort it out," the official said.

Herem said Estonia's own example can influence its allies to contribute more.

"And we cannot raise the issue of the Baltic Fleet alone. But together with our allies we can do it, the question now is how can we say to Latvia or Sweden or Germany, to develop these capabilities if we don't do it ourselves. We probably have to be a step or so ahead all the time to ask our allies, because otherwise, it seems very stupid, when you spend less than 2 percent on defense, to say to somebody who has spent more than 2 percent, listen, do more. It is up to us to lead the way, and how much we choose to take from other areas of life to get there," the general said.

"But to say once again that we can't take on Russia, we can! In many ways we can, it's just that somebody has to start first. It's like in any collective, someone has to come up with the idea, someone has to lead by example, and someone has to organize this cooperation. Today we are moving in that direction," Herem confirmed.

No support for civil defense

Both Herem and Salm said they do not support the idea of starting a civil defense unit for young people who do not take part in construction. This would take a lot of resources and it would raise questions about who participates.

"I think our overall objective today is to win this war. Not how to get out of this war with less suffering. We are not yet in a position where we can somehow soften or step back from that goal. And in order to win this war, we must first address those things where the impact on winning the war is greatest. And only later those things where the impact is either indirect or less," said Salm. "And all the things that we do today instead of developing military capability come at the expense of military capability in the literal sense of how many days we can last in a war. And if there are too few of those days, then taking the war becomes difficult. It's a relatively simple resource-use calculation. Today, in terms of resource utilization, there are a number of better things to deal with."

Herem said measures need to be taken to protect the population.

"Civil protection has to be dealt with, and a warning system to warn of, for example, air strikes, is a task for the Defense Forces. Marking shelters is not a task for the Defense Forces. Managing evacuation in terms of where to move people from and where it is safer to move them to is the task of the Defense Forces. How they get there, how they are guided, is not the task of the Defense Forces," the General said. "If we started doing conscription for civilian tasks, we certainly don't have that resource in the Defense Forces. Secondly, we also have to take into account that the people who do not make it into the military service today do not meet the health requirements for certain tasks. We do not have a single healthy male citizen who is not going to be called up for military service today. So when we talk about civilian service, we have to think very carefully about what tasks they are doing and whether their health is up to it," he said.

Herem added if the whole country is sent to war, then there will be nobody left to keep the country going, including putting money into the economy, watching children in kindergartens, or caring for the sick.

Russia must be broken by the war

Salm and Herem said Russia's efforts to split Western unity show it is still afraid of NATO. They also said they are not worried about the results of the U.S. presidential elections next year.

Additionally, Salm outlined how the war in Ukraine should end: "Now, if we make this very simple, what this war has to end with is very simple: Russia has to realize that militarily it has been beaten, economically it is impoverished, diplomatically it is a pariah and stands alone in the corner, and legally it is so entrenched that the only option is to send half its people to prison."

"Only then will we make sure that this never happens again. If we give in to one of these four categories in any way, we will simply ignite the instinct that thinks that even though the cost may have been high – sanctions, people getting killed – imperialist ambitions are still worth it, that a blind eye will still be turned to aggression, and it turns out that military law is a plasticine thing that can be molded to your liking. /.../ That's the job, a very simple task actually if you put it into words, but of course very difficult to carry out in real life," Salm said.

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Editor: Mait Ots, Helen Wright

Source: Välistund

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