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Estonian defense chief: West now considers Russia threat more likely

EDF commander Gen. Martin Herem.
EDF commander Gen. Martin Herem. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

While the Western countries did consider the possibility of Russia putting NATO to the test in the past, they now hold it more likely as Russia has not eased up in Ukraine, Gen. Martin Herem, commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF), tells ERR in an interview.

You had two years added to your five-year term in office. But last week, you dropped the bomb when you said you plan to quit 18 months early, come summer. There has been a fair amount of speculation as to the why of it. It has been suggested that you burned out, fell out with politicians or simply had enough. Which is closest to the truth?

It might be a mix of the first and third, but not the second. I thought I'd leave after my five-year term. But when I was offered to continue in the unstable situation caused by the start of the Ukraine war, I agreed to stay until there was some clarity. There is no scandal here. Rather, people tend to be suspicious if someone is being sincere.

Your announcement coincided with signals from various sources that Russia might be planning to put NATO resolve to the test. Is there a connection?

There is none. If we had reason to believe such a test was coming, I would not be going anywhere.

Meelis Oidsalu writes in Postimees that the government refused to discuss your additional requests late last year. Is it a source of bitterness for you?

It has always been the case that the EDF commander and headquarters make their recommendations, whereas they always exceed what's possible or at least have so far. That is when we realign it to fit inside what the government has decided. I cannot describe it as a disappointment as I work with the resources I'm given.

But the public still says that Herem didn't want tanks and that's why we don't have any.

I want some other things before I want tanks. Those other things are far more important today.

Talking about warmongering or the threat of war, different sources have in recent weeks suggested that Russia might seek to test NATO, for example, by attacking the Baltic countries. Ben Hodges, an article in [German newspaper] Bild, while our own prime minister has also pointed to the possibility. Why now?

The heads of the Swedish and Norwegian armed forces, the Estonian Defense Forces commander for the last two years. I believe that while many Western allies considered it a possibility before, they now see it as more likely since Russia is not really slowing down in Ukraine. Over the past year – let's say from May to December – Russia has managed to grow the number of forces it has in Ukraine. It has got its military industry in gear. If we said last year that Russia was producing around a million shells annually, I think it is many times that number now. It makes me talk about the threat without reservation, while there is no panic.

I will not be bothering to prove that Russia is a threat. But you need to look at four factors for this threat to manifest. First, Russia would have to pull most of its troops out of Ukraine – 300,000 of its 400,000 troops there. Second, it needs a period of recuperation. Looking at the Russian war machine today and how society supports it with recruits and factory output, I believe it would need a year in which to recover its strength, depending on what they would want to achieve.

Third, even after a year of recovery and pulling out of Ukraine, something earthshattering would need to happen in the world – a super pandemic, complete economic collapse, war in Taiwan or the Balkans – that is when we should be very attentive.

The fourth thing, and what we can affect, is how ready we are. The better prepared we are, the smaller the likelihood that they'll try us. But if we do not prepare and do not talk about it – or the other way around, really – it may be in the cards. That is where those three- or five-year warnings stem from. Russia will not be pulling out of Ukraine this year, add another year or two and that is what you end up with.

The possibility of Russia trying to attack NATO members was not discussed as openly during the first year of the war. Looking at the four factors you mentioned, what has changed in the past year?

All have changed for the worse from where Russia is standing, except the time it would take to recover. It is still in Ukraine and has not achieved its objectives there. Of course, it is not difficult to paint anything as a victory in Russia. The Red Square in all its trappings alone proves how Russia can mix and match things from the Czarist, Soviet and modern periods and call all of these controversial aspects its values. It can just as easily describe whichever situation as a victory for itself and march out of there. What has gotten worse for us is how they've managed to gear up their war machine – their whole industry, but also people who go there to earn money or kill Ukrainians who are seen as the enemy. That it's not Putin who is sending their sons to die but rather the Ukrainian soldiers are the bad guys, and that is perhaps somewhat unexpected.

If we try to put together the point of view of the armed forces and that of ordinary people, is it better to publicly talk about the Russia threat while knowing it will not reassure businesses?

If we don't talk about it, we cannot explain why we are taking relevant steps. I see it as a positive sign that in a situation where teachers are demanding a few dozen extra millions (a nationwide teachers' strike is underway in Estonia – ed.) it has not been contrasted with our military budget, which I perceive as a sign of strength. We need to talk about these things.

In terms of whether we've improved? Absolutely. We are stronger militarily, looking if only at the Ussisõnad exercise or the weapons deliveries of the past year, with more on the way. Looking also at social cohesion, we had 19,000 reservists attend trainings last year and half of them continued to receive a salary from their employers. Even allies in Finland found it commendable when I told them. Therefore, I believe our society has become stronger. That also goes for state agencies. The level of cooperation in national defense matters between the Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Defense and Government Office is unprecedented.

How well-defended is Estonia compared to January two years ago, when the full-scale war in Ukraine had not yet begun?

Better. Allies have also improved. How quickly they'll be able to get here and our joint understanding of what's coming and when. It is still far from being satisfactory, while, like I said before, Russia has not come out of Ukraine, has not had time to recuperate either, meaning that we still have time.

We have given roughly 1.5 percent of GDP to help Ukraine. What does that mean in units?

I cannot give you a detailed overview, while we have talked about some of those things in the media. A lot of what we have given would have been replaced soon anyway. We have sent munitions that were close to the expiration date. /.../ I'll say again that we have more munitions today than we did before the Ukraine war, even though we've given some of it away. Air defense munitions, artillery shells, anti-tank munitions etc. And more is coming.

Your opponents say that old weapons shoot better than weapons you don't have.

They do not know what they're talking about. As I said, old weapons spoil in warehouses and it makes no sense to pay for keeping them warm.

You are quite likely the only EDF commander who has bothered to argue with politicians on social media. Don't you think you are feeding that debate, at least to an extent?

Possibly. My problem is that I get approached by reservists, Defense League and EDF members who ask me whether it's true, whether things are really that bad every time politicians make such statements. This forces me to launch into an explanation every time, and I honestly cannot be bothered. That is why I'll write about it once and can then refer people to that.

Second, I feel that people who interpret these statements as problems and poor management at EDF might decide not to show up for reservist trainings or try and dodge conscription. It is also something I need to address as morale is part of my duties.

Have you managed to change a few minds?

I believe so. But what is even more important is that those engaging in – let's be honest – slander or who are plain wrong haven't managed to break our will to defend ourselves.

The Ukraine war has also shown that fighting a war is different than what we perhaps thought it was. What has it changed in practical terms, talking about our training or weapons?

That everyone is always preparing for the last war is a convenient thing to point out here, but I'll say again that had Ukraine prepared for World War II, this war could have been prevented or would already have ended in a Ukrainian victory. The war over there today is very similar to WWII, while it is being fought with different tools. What this means is that we need lethal resources. Information and cyber operations are all well and good, but fundamentally what we need is a lot of munitions with which to destroy the aggressor.

By the way, would it ever be possible for the EDF commander to say there is enough munitions?

Not for me. We have talked about how many days worth of fighting we have in terms of ammunition, while we are also making different kinds of calculations these days. Quite simply by counting how many tanks, IFVs and planes the enemy could throw at us and multiplying it by a coefficient to know how much ammunition we need.

And today, despite all of our recent investments, which have been considerable, also from where our allies are standing, we would still need €1.6 billion worth of ammunition on top of what has been pledged. That would make any military aggression against us less ugly, and victory would help convince society that we can cope.

If we won the war in a very ugly manner, I believe it would split society and erode international relations, which could be Russia's aim in its next aggressive venture – not to occupy Tallinn or Riga, but to do something short-term. Two months of Bucha somewhere followed by a retreat, knowing that no one will follow. /.../

The last few years have brought the EDF new weapons. Some things are here, while some are on the way. Do we have time to wait?

A lot of things in terms of capabilities and munitions will arrive before 2026. The decisions made in January, March and September 2022 will be realized in 90 percent capacity by late 2025. A lot of these decisions were made earlier, talking about HIMARS or anti-ship missiles. Those decisions were made in 2021. So, a lot of things are on their way, while we also need a lot more, especially munitions.

Of course, we need to improve our intelligence capacity in order to find the targets first. Another thing we need to improve is staff. We are doing relatively well in terms of recruiting. But we should take some measures involving conscripts. They should get a different status about half-way into their conscription as they have been trained by then. We can also see it in the case of the Ukrainians and Russians today, that we can train pretty good fighters in six months. But changing that status has become stuck behind politicians. We could also retain EDF personnel who currently retire when they turn 50. Another amendment waiting on politicians.

What is the problem?

You should ask the [Riigikogu] National Defense Committee that for some reason seems to think it has a better solution. That said, I haven't seen a concrete proposal and the clock keeps ticking.

For some reason, people always ask about Estonian tanks. News came today that Lithuania has ordered Leopard tanks. Does it make you bitter?

Not really. Our tanks are coming from France, U.K. and USA today. We have British tanks here as we speak. I would very much like for us to have tanks, while I also think Estonia is obligated to get some other things done first. I am not up to speed on the details of the Lithuanians' decision, but if we are talking about between three and five years, I believe we will have the other things we are seeking before the Lithuanians will see their tanks delivered.

Taking a wider look at the security situation, quite a lot has changed in our region. Finland is in NATO, the alliance's eastern border is considerably longer, Russia's military region nearest to us has been emptied. How quickly could the Russians repopulate and rearm the western military district?

NATO's border with Russia doubled in length after Russia got scared of NATO. Russia clearly does not think NATO might attack it, nor has it any reason to. They know it quite well. I believe they have their agents who have seen all manner of plans, including exercise scenarios. Nothing will be crossing the Russian border until they do themselves, which is why Russia can quite calmly busy itself in Ukraine.

How quickly will those forces be moved back is difficult to say. But as I said, Russia would need a year to recuperate to be able to do something terrible again. If we and our allies also prepare, it will take them that much longer.

What might warn us that things are getting serious? What would be those factors? You mentioned four major aspects, but in terms of a closer, regional look.

Number one is troops returning from Ukraine and number two efforts to restore stores and equipment. We are keeping an eye on all of it.

We have learned in recent days of plans to install bunkers on Estonia's eastern border. Did you come up with that or did politicians?

Politicians have asked me about it. I would develop a lot of things, while politicians have come along with this particular proposal. I believe it would have been unthinkable to start pouring concrete on the border just a few years ago. We're not building the Maginot Line, while relevant preparations have been made for three years. Many RMK or private plots already have dragon's teeth and concrete blocks. It is the continuation of these efforts, which the Baltics are doing together, also to show Russia that we are serious about it.

Let's come to the long-term strategy in Ukraine. In a situation where we can see the West struggling to give Ukraine aid even in the short term, and where it is much more difficult for the West to gets its military industry off the ground compared to Russia, what might serve as our long-term strategy for Ukraine?

The long strategy has been handed down by the government. We need to spend more money. Today, support for Ukraine is tied to how much countries are willing to pay. And they are reluctant to take money out of the country and prefer to pay their own contractors. If you ask a Western munitions factory how long it would take them to double or triple production, they'll tell you it would take several years. This has to do with the regulations today. If we ask the same question outside of the EU, they'll say two or three months. Some countries have, including Estonia, I must admit.

We will mark the passing of two years from the start of the Ukraine war and the Anniversary of the Republic a month from now. The minister of defense should have the name of your predecessor by then. What might be the new EDF commander's tasks or goals in your opinion?

I would remain modest and say that what I took over from Gen. Riho Terras, what we have built needs to be kept ready for battle, that we would have as little as possible in terms of mothballed things that are useless in battle and not spend on fancy things that similarly have little battlefield worth. That will be their task, whereas it will be more challenging since we'll have new capabilities we know little about today. MLRS or loitering munitions. We need to make sure all of it is usable and ready to be deployed using the people we have. That is a major challenge. Let's say that if the commander of the HIMARS unit is motivated today as they are about to take delivery of the systems, a lot of warehouse workers and logistics specialists are simply looking at more work, without seeing the military capacity. Motivating people is an important challenge.

There has been some speculation as to who might be the next EDF chief. Which do you support more, Veiko-Vellor Palm or Vahur Karus?

There are other names.

Those two have perhaps been the most prominent.

I will keep my preference to myself.

You will be a so-called young pensioner come summer? What will you be doing?

There are several challenges and opportunities. We'll have to see. Gen. Riho Terras serves as a good example.

Will you go into politics?

I cannot wait to demonstrate whether I will or won't.

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Editor: Merili Nael, Marcus Turovski

Source: "Esimene stuudio"

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