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Rene Toomse: Russians willing to take cruel risks in war

Rene Toomse.
Rene Toomse. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The current static state of the war in Ukraine is inevitable and what happens when a major force meets another and finds itself unable to overcome it. But the Russians are willing to expend a countless number of lives, tanks and IFVs, head of the Defense League School, Maj. Rene Toomse tells ERR in an interview.

You have seen war as an active serviceman. How does your experience compare to how Ukraine is defending itself against Russia's attack?

The comparison is difficult to make because I have joined hundreds of EDF members on peacekeeping missions, which are different. They are military affairs that involve weapons and danger, while the level of enemy intensity is completely different. We have participated in missions from a position of strength where our support, weaponry, equipment and skills have been better than those of our enemies. We are seeing a very different kind of conflict [in Ukraine] today. It is more akin to what took place in the two world wars. The scope, intensity and threat do not really compare.

We have seen different phases, types of war in nearly two years. If in March-April 2022 we held our breath to see whether Kyiv would manage to resist and the main Russian offensive came down from the north, the front line changed very quickly and the Ukrainians spent a long time monitoring a Russian armored column who knows how many kilometers long...

It was 60 kilometers.

,,, which was supposed to reach Kyiv but was picked apart by the Ukrainians piece by piece. If we compare that to what we are seeing today or saw in the second half of last year... Why has it been so changeable? What were the Ukrainians and Russians doing differently in February-March 2022?

We can only speculate as we lack access to either side's strategic calculations or battle plans. It seemed to me, and this has been suggested elsewhere, that the Russian leadership bet on a big bang – which is a part of their doctrine. To be fast and very aggressive early on to shock the Ukrainians into submission, cause them to lose hope in the face of overwhelming odds. But it didn't work, which caused them to draw up new plans. This, of course, does not mean they lacked backup plans from the start.

Their hope collapsed, based on speculations today, for a host of reasons. Whether Putin was misinformed or whether it was something else doesn't really matter today. What matters is that they did account for the possibility.

The Russians are not really foolish planners. Grand plans were made throughout the Soviet period, and they were not too bad at all. They foresaw the possibility and were not too disheartened when it happened.

We need to realize the Russian mentality in war – human life does not matter. It is very difficult for us to understand in the West because for us human life is sacred and needs to be spared whenever possible.

We have been seeing attacks similar to the Winter War and World War II from the start of the war – throwing countless troops at the enemy or advancing over dead bodies is their normality.

Losing hundreds of thousands of people and machinery is inconsequential. No one is losing sleep over it. They will just recruit and throw new troops at the enemy. We need to understand differences in how people in the West and in Russia think. You and I might still remember, while the younger generation increasingly does not get it.

Talking in broad strokes about the spring-winter of 2022, we indeed saw battles reminiscent of the Winter War where the Russians moved winding armored columns into a vulnerable position for them to be destroyed from the sides. This happened again and again as we could see from videos and learn from witnesses. It seemed harebrained.

To us. Not to them.

I remember a video thousands have probably seen where Russians moved an armored column into a main street of a settlement, seemingly without any infantry support, and what were likely Ukrainian mobile anti-tank squads took the entire column out in seconds.

And that wasn't the first time. The same happened in Grozny, it happened in Tskhinvali, Georgia, and it is their tactic – going in with a bang and betting on the enemy going weak at the knees and laying down its arms versus losing some of their troops. So what? There will be others.

We have seen examples where simply moving in an armored column has failed. But have there been opposite examples from the near past?

None that I can think of right away. I'm sure there have been, while it would take some searching.

I haven't seen any.

We know of such things. I'm not a daily observer, but the Russians have also claimed their share of victories if we're honest. And they have better fighters than those we see getting hit and dying. It is painful for both sides. And both sides have better and worse troops.

Rene Toomse. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

We saw the latter in another major battle from the same period – the one for the Antonov Airport in Kyiv, and which I understand constituted a major failure for the Russians. It may even have been a key failure – time will tell.

A failure where the Russians' best paratroopers were flown in to take a small and probably not heavily defended airfield, which would have given them a way into Kyiv. From a military perspective, what did the Russians do wrong and what did the Ukrainians get right?

What the Ukrainian got right is that they realized the airport was a key target and defended it accordingly. The Russians did just what I described before – went for the high stakes game of maybe we'll pull it off.

What surprises me is that the Russian intelligence was so poor or they just didn't care when told that the area was not undefended. An insane risk. But they are willing to take such cruel risks.

That's the mentality. We need to realize that we cannot deter them through fear of losses. Something else is needed.

What could that be?

That is indeed the million dollar question and one I have no answer for.

One aspect is why the Russian soldier is willing to go to battle like that. Everyone is afraid of dying, instinctively, but if you are given a mock-up Kalashnikov rifle and told to run around with it singing "Fatherland – I can give my life for you" in kindergarten, if the mentality is thrown at you by Vladimir Solovyov and other such clowns day in and day out – it amounts to genuine brainwashing which is nonstop. There are also no alternative sources of information to make you doubt that this is the right way. And so, both the newly mobilized and professionals simply go and die.

The two examples I gave – simply moving a largely undefended armored column into a settlement and the attempt to take the airfield – probably included very valuable units, while they both failed. They are examples of how one side's professional, well-trained, well-equipped army was defeated by the Ukrainian side's loosely organized and likely hurriedly formed units.

Talking about the airfield, there were several aspects. The first unit came down and was meant to create a bridgehead and hold it, with the rest of the troops following in helicopters. But once the first helicopters were downed, others turned back according to the doctrine. In other words, they pulled the plug at some point. We'll throw no more resources at it and those already there will just have to make it work. And that was that.

The Ukrainians saw it coming and also had the home field advantage. They knew where the best vantage points were, what to look out for and how to move around, none of which the first Russian unit in had. Also the fact that help never came, which is again quite common in the case of Russia – you never reinforce or rescue a failure, only a successful breakthrough.

Once the headquarters felt the first unit had failed, the operation was terminated. The rest were recalled to be used elsewhere and the first unit in was written off. It all goes back to attitude toward human life. One also has enough planes, helicopters tanks and artillery at the start of the war. Losing a few was hardly of great significance.

In the second half of the year when Ukraine managed to liberate the northern territories from occupation, we saw the Russian front, if it ever was one, collapse faster than the advancing Ukrainians could keep up with. How to explain that?

They were ordered to move south as reinforcements.

Do you mean to say it was organized activity rather than a chaotic retreat?

They got their act together quite quickly and managed to roll out in a relatively organized manner. They could have been hit much harder but the situation came as a surprise to the Ukrainians who were not prepared to inflict more damage. We might learn more one day. The information at our disposal is by no means complete.

One surprising aspect of the first half of the war is how little the Russians used their air force. If you read up on the Russian doctrine or how modern war is conducted in general, you'd expect the offensive to have very strong air support. But we saw nothing of the sort.

Air superiority is difficult to achieve. If the enemy has jets of its own as well as terrestrial anti-aircraft systems, it is quite difficult to come by.

And while it's not polite to poke fun at another arm of the military, airmen are a different breed – they may simply refuse to fly. Many have also died.

But they are also a rare resource, meaning that rational planning might decide to spare the air force and pilots in less important situations and have the infantry do the fighting and dying to still have the former once their use is deemed crucial. They are a resource to be used sparingly.

Is it also something the Russians have less of than artillery, tanks or infantry and which cannot be used as cannon fodder?

The air force is hugely expensive whichever way you look at it.

Has it been luck or an achievement from where the Ukrainians are standing?

They achieved quite a lot recently when they took down several planes. And shooting down three or four planes if they were piloted by aces, whose training takes years, carries weight as they are a different breed than infantry.

We have been talking about fast-moving phases of the war where both sides managed to take or liberate great swathes of land. But over the last year we have rather seen a static front line with a lot of fortifications on both sides –trenches, tank traps and mine fields. The Ukrainians report around 1,000 Russian dead every day, but the front line is just not shifting. We are not seeing the kind of changes we did in 2022 or early 2023. How to explain it?

It is inevitable to a degree and what happens when a major force meets another and finds itself unable to overcome it. You get a face-off, a static form of combat so to speak. We are seeing a repeat of World War I – 1917 and all quiet on the western front. It is the Ukrainian front today.

It has been 100 years

The nature of war never changes. It has remained the same for millennia, tens of thousands of year really. You get new toys – drones, missiles – while war remains largely the same. Neither how we think nor the aim of war – imposing your will on others through whichever means – have changed.

And when two equally matched forces are facing off against one another, things will only start moving again when one of them achieves a sufficient advantage in terms of energy and weapons.

Will it boil down to resources? The side being able to fire more often winning the day at the end?

And being able to recuperate losses. In the end, there is a person behind every weapon system. We do not yet have autonomous battle robots today, meaning that the skill, number and weapons at the disposal of fighters is still what matters.

Rene Toomse. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

The Ukrainians and their foreign backers placed great hopes on the summer counteroffensive on the southern front where Ukrainian units, equipped with modern Western weapons, should have pushed from the Dnipro River to the Black Sea, toward Melitopol, Berdiansk and even Mariupol. What we saw was an advance of just a few dozen kilometers, probably at the expense of great losses as the offensive would not have ground to a halt otherwise. What went wrong based on what we know today?

It is possible to compare the war today to both World War I and II. In other words, the side that manages to physically destroy more of the other side, push it out will win. And it takes an insane amount of firepower, missiles, artillery shells and everything else. Trying to level everything at your destination using artillery before going in. The air force would have been a great help. But they just didn't have enough juice.

Figuratively speaking, Ukraine would have needed 10,000 SPGs to unceasingly batter a section of the front line before attempting a breakthrough?

Basically, yes. Classically, you need three-to-one odds for offensive operations. That would give you 50 to 60 odds so to speak. Realistically, you want four or five times the enemy's numbers to ensure victory. We are talking about weapons, preparations in general as well as manpower. They simply didn't have enough.

Would success have been more probable with air support?

Yes, but there is the risk of enemy air defenses. That is always the first thing you need to hit before moving on to other targets.

I visited Afghanistan in 2012, which was, of course, a very different war. I talked to an Estonian officer there who described a situation where the Estonian unit was facing an enemy hiding behind a strip of woods at the edge of an irrigation canal. They were discussing their tactics when an American unit arrived and promptly called in a couple of Apache helicopters with Hellfire missiles that reduced the little strip of woods hiding a few dozen men with Kalashnikovs into smoldering embers. Simple, you see, the Americans supposedly said. Estonia does not have that opportunity today, did not have it in Afghanistan, and it seems that neither do the Ukrainians.

Had their intelligence suggested the rebels might be in possession of a few man-portable anti-aircraft systems, it might have been impossible for the Apaches to get close enough.

Taking another look back in history, things started going wrong for the Russians in Afghanistan when the U.S. equipped the local rebels with Stinger missiles.

The Russians had been successful courtesy of their aerial superiority – a helicopter was like a flying tank for the rebels, armored and all. But the Stingers changed the balance of power, the Soviets lost their air support and the war went south from there.

It is also important for Estonia to have strong multilayer air defenses. There has been much ado about medium-range air defense, while short-range anti-aircraft capacity is also important, which units carry with them and the location of which the enemy cannot really pinpoint. That is also what causes the somewhat more delicate pilots to be very cautious and not get too close. You need to deny the enemy the air if you want to have any success. That much is clear.

Coming back to positional warfare which we are seeing in Ukraine and the sides' symmetrical contribution in the form of manpower, weapons, ammunition etc. – it seems Russians have many times more of everything, if only because they are willing to sacrifice their people. Therefore, they should also have the upper hand in such positional fighting. They also seem to have the advantage in artillery, more weapons and munitions.

More tanks and armored vehicles too.

So why is the front line not moving?

Hard to say. They are trying to create an advantage for themselves, but throwing men at anti-tank and machine guns suggests you lack a clever tactic, which is the task of highly trained commanders. The planning process, how to dupe the enemy by way of diversion, pulling away their reinforcements while really attacking in another place etc. That's the only way to gain ground.

What we may be seeing is the Russian side running out of brilliant tactical commanders. Maybe they have already. Training them takes a fair bit of time. Understanding the enemy is like a game of chess where you need to think several moves in advance.

/.../ You need to be able to see through the enemy, know its weaknesses. Ideally, you should know your opponent's favored fighting style and how they will react if you try to lure away their reserves etc.

It's like a game of cards, gambling. The better you know and understand the enemy, the bigger your chances of a breakthrough.

But such skills are not obtained in military academies and are rather forged in battle.

Military schools and the Defense League School can give one a lot of tools. We analyze historical battles where new opportunities have been created through decision-making processes.

Tactical decision-making games are a very good start. Of course, no one is a professional upon graduating or during the first day of the war. Skills and experience inevitably need to be paid for in blood.

But everyone is not equally gifted either. Simply learning painting on a theoretical level is not enough to turn anyone into a Rembrandt.

It is also possible that a lot of talented or skilled officers die in battle.

And they do because active commanders usually lead on the front lines.

On the company or platoon level.

But they are the people making breakthroughs happen. You can make the world's most ingenious plan in the headquarters but if your lower-ranking unit commanders aren't on a level necessary to exercise it, that plan is worth nothing. It's empty air.

Rene Toomse. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

How have the Russians managed to lose so many high-ranking officers? We have learned of more than ten generals, and they are not company-level men.

They're not, while they are still close enough, within reach. They may not be on the very front lines, even though there are commanders who decide to go and inspire their men in the thick of it. But it may also be a string of coincidences.

Battalion, brigade and regiment headquarters make for the juiciest targets for the Ukrainians and should make for us should the need ever arise. Because those are the nerve centers where instructions and orders come from. Another major difference between the Russian army and our forces is that they have little independent decision-making capacity below the battalion level. You are given your orders, and if you don't receive them, you will rather do nothing.

And if you don't get it done there will be consequences.

If you fail to carry out an order. But if you don't have orders to begin with you cannot do anything wrong either. While those who study their doctrine say one could [take initiative], while their training doesn't really reflect that.

In other words, different levels of command have far fewer rights than we and our Western allies do.

Could a sergeant have more say on our side than a senior lieutenant on theirs?

Yes. They can take initiative if an opportunity presents itself. The Russians have the same idea, while it does not seem to be working in practical terms.

Looking at the Ukrainian forces, the Russian army and the EDF or another Western force, are the Ukrainians' command tactics more reminiscent of NATO or Russian forces?

We can make neither claim factually. Looking at the big picture, there seems to be some westward movement as their training used to be rather Soviet in the past. But there is so much integration with NATO advisers on so many levels today to facilitate some movement in that direction. Things have come a long way in terms of the freedom to act, initiative and ability to understand war.

They would have a good chance to defeat the enemy but they just lack strength – they need more munitions, more different types of weapons. Those things are crucial for success.

Does that mean Russia will eventually win should the Ukrainians not receive more munitions and weapons?

That depends on how we define winning. Russia can tell its people it has won whenever it feels like it.

Also on the battlefield?

Yes.

Let us imagine a hypothetical situation on the Avdiivka front where the Russians just send men across an open field in waves, with the Ukrainians manning defensive positions and simply gunning them down before tactically advancing for a few hundred meters or a kilometer, clearing it all up and pulling back again to receive the next wave. The Russians can keep this up indefinitely, while the Ukrainians will eventually run out of men.

Yes. A classic attrition warfare situation.

What could the losses of either side be in this situation? Five to one at least?

Difficult to say. It could even be closer to ten to one. If you have well-prepared positions... you will lose some men to artillery fire which is constant and in direct contact. But the infantry who have to cross an open field are little more than firing range targets in such a situation. But, as we've said, this does nothing to deter Russia. They will simply send in the next wave.

So what that it's ten to one. I have many more where those men came from. We'll just wear them down by the end of the day.

But talking about strategic goals in the long run, I'm not sure Russia wants to occupy all of Ukraine. They understand it would be too much for them.

What they need to do is break the people's spirit. Say, okay, we'll keep Crimea and the Donbas and make peace. But Russia still needs a favorable administration in Kyiv. It [Ukraine] can remain a separate country or whatever, but it needs to be a friendly one.

That is the point of all this – Russia is mortally afraid and does not want to allow itself to be touched by any more of NATO's borders. It is the same as what we saw in Georgia – [Dmitri] Medvedev later admitted that the main aim was to cross out Georgia's NATO accession plans. That was it.

I'm sure many readers share my interest in history books about war, and it's possible that Israel's wars where it has defended itself against its neighbors might be worth studying also in the Ukrainian war context. The Yom Kippur War was similar in many ways, looking at how hurriedly mobilized and much smaller Israeli units managed to hold out against the enemy's vast technical advantage. Perhaps we have reason to be optimistic as there were examples where a single non-commissioned officer commanded a company of tanks and delivered a breakthrough in their section of the front line.

Looking to Estonia, the EDF and our abilities, what kind of a war are we prepared to fight in early 2024?

That is a good question.

Because we used to prepare for a very different kind of war.

Yes and no. We know from our history and have kept a close eye on what the Russians are doing. It did not come as a major surprise to me. What did come as a surprise is that nothing has changed in their thinking or patterns of behavior. We're back to the Winter War, World War I and II, or let us look at Chechnya – the same bravado, carelessness and violence against civilians. Nothing has changed.

If I might have thought at some point that the developed world, globalization and a freer internet might affect the views of young people in Russia, their humanity, that hope is dead and buried now. There will be no change until we can do something about the sphere of information they inhabit.

That of Russia?

Indeed.

It is pretty much impossible to do anything from here.

But even globally speaking – we aren't really doing anything. /.../ We used to have the Voice of America, the older generation still remembers listening to it, as did I when I was a boy – it served as an alternative to official information. I believe it went quite a long way in shaping Estonians' desire for freedom and decisiveness.

We had that desire for freedom, which is not something a person living in Kazan might have.

Let me give you an example. I was in Afghanistan in 2006 and I was talking to an interpreter, much older than me and he had a PhD to boot. We were waiting for the patrol to start when I asked him how he thought we were doing. He looked at me and said that you will lose in the sense that you'll gain nothing. He said it back in 2006.

I wasn't too surprised but still asked him why he thought that. He said that the country should have been flooded with television sets instead, and that the way people thought would have started to change by itself.

Figuratively speaking, Russia was flooded with TV sets and their thinking altered a long time ago.

Yes, but what he meant was that there was no program to make people doubt things. To make them think that what they were told might not be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That perhaps there is a better alternative.

Coming back to Estonia, we talked about how Russia's way of waging war is absolutely brutal – its aims are achieved through quantity of troops and machinery if not their complexity. Looking at Estonia, our human resource is limited to say the least. We also lack strategic depth, meaning that we cannot fall back 100 kilometers for a tactical advantage as it covers half of our land and is where our people live. How should we prepare, what are the things we should do if we are convinced the enemy will come for us one day?

One thing is clear – we must not give up. We need to fight not matter what. Planning is aimed at that.

Of course, there will be allied support. But we'll inevitably need to surrender a part of our territory. Because you cannot fight successfully where you have no advantage. That said, you still need an excellent plan, enough weapons and troops to defeat the enemy once you trap them.

Even so, we will probably have to fend for ourselves during the first few weeks.

Perhaps. It may or it may not be the case. I'm convinced plans are in place for an escalation and we will see more allied presence. We also have access to Hellfire missiles.

Hypothetically, we would not be fighting as the Ukrainians have been forced to fight for the last two years.

Yes, we have an advantage in terms of our stockpiles.

And since we are a NATO member, our allies probably will not tell our commanders that Pskov is out of bounds should the Estonian Division decide to go on the offensive?

That is a matter of agreements. I cannot speak to that.

After all, people have asked whether NATO would reduce Kaliningrad to a smoldering ruin should something like Ukraine happen here.

I can neither confirm nor deny that. Should Kaliningrad Oblast pose a threat – which it would no doubt do if the allies were to arrive by sea – it would have to be done.

Returning to the Estonia-Russia boundary line, we have some geographical advantages in Lake Peipus and the Narva River. Even though you can cross the latter by foot looking from Kreenholm Island. But then comes 100 kilometers of land border with very little in the way of natural obstacles until we hit Emajõgi further south. What should we do about that stretch of land? Perhaps we should dig our own Mannerheim line there. Tank ditches and mine fields?

Yes, we have the plans for that, while we also need other toys to be able to hit the enemy behind their lines. And that is largely what territorial defense in the form of the Defense League is training and getting ready for.

Ukraine is quite bare and open, offering little opportunity for disrupting the enemy's rear. There you need to hit logistics, headquarters and things like that. But our landscape provides excellent opportunities for this and our tactics will be a little different and more successful for it, I believe.

Can we do what the Finns did in the Winter War in trapping enemy columns and destroying them piece by piece instead of engaging in trench warfare?

It will be a combination of things one way or another, but you need to use every toy and tactic and your disposal.

But wouldn't it make sense to already be building that anti-tank ditch or line of defenses now?

I'm not sure it would. How would we pay for it?

Our defense spending is nearing 4 percent of GDP – it is a fair bit of money if we're being honest. And building those lines might be more useful than some other activities.

The approach today is that fixed positions poured in concrete are risky because they are immediately obvious to the enemy. Rather, infantrymen wielding shovels are the best solution. That is what we need to concentrate on and what ensures mobility. Because once you lose that fortified position, the enemy can turn it to its advantage.

How prepared are we for what we can see in Ukraine in terms of drones and other completely new ways of fighting? The Russians were not well-prepared at first, while they may even have the upper hand today.

They have more resources. But we are busy learning and have relevant training programs in the works.

Could it [the heavy use of drones] be a specifically Ukrainian thing courtesy of the open landscape there. Perhaps our woods might make it easier on us?

Drones with thermal imaging equipment can see you just fine when the trees are leafless in winter. While it is a different situation in the summer when the foliage helps mask heat signatures. It all boils down to discipline – how diligent the troops are about perceiving threats and staying hidden. We have learned all those lessons and have training programs for them. I am ready to adopt drones. Work is proceeding.

Rene Toomse. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

I have also thought about that if we look at the intensity and brute force Russia is bringing to bear, we would need extensive stockpiles of weapons and ammunition even with excellent preparation, tactics and leadership.

This is so. And we clearly do need it. We also need newer technological solutions. Capabilities with which to counter Russian drones. How to eliminate them, keep them at arm's length, hijack them etc.

I believe that people working in the defense industry and the field of electronics could take a serious look at this. I know that some things are being done, while there is more to do. The airspace needs to be secure for infantry and other forces to advance.

Talking about dug-in infantry with their shovels and rifles in Ukraine, it doesn't really compare to anything Estonian soldiers have experienced anywhere. I don't suppose it is possible to be fully prepared for something like this as a human being?

All we can do is train. We should pull out our shovels every single exercise – make it a habit do dig in whenever you stop.

But you are not under constant artillery bombardment for eight hours...

It brings us right back to World War I. I must admit that I'm only now reading Erwin Rommel's "Infantry Attacks." It talks about WWI and nothing seems to have changed. Every time a unit moved and then stopped, it proceeded to dig in. Whether it was a defensive or offensive operation or even just a break in the fighting – you immediately start digging. Discipline. That's it!

No one sleeps or eats before it is done because it is the only thing keeping you alive. We need to reintroduce discipline to our training with full force. That is the only thing keeping you alive. In the end, the battle will be won by infantry on the ground and in control of it.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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