May 27, 2024

Martin Herem: A NATO Victory Is Not in Question – But the Fight Will Be Ugly

Arno Mikkor and Annika Haas
General Martin Herem speaks at this year's Lennart Meri conference on May 17.
General Martin Herem speaks at this year's Lennart Meri conference on May 17.

It is trendy to talk about Ukraine or the Russian threat. However, actions speak louder than words. Many processes run exactly the way they did three years ago. Yet today, we are in a hurry. And the enemy should be warded off now. The Commander of the Estonian Defence Force, General Martin Herem, explains why we are where we are.

The Russian government is clearly aware of two major issues the western countries are facing: ammunition and human resources. If western countries revived the draft, would this measure compel Russia to reconsider future aggression?

I don’t think the return of the military draft alone would present Russia with a strategic dilemma. The Russian state must understand: if it dares to attack NATO, it will lose much more than it has already lost in Ukraine. The only way to deter the Kremlin is to show that by attacking us, it will lose virtually everything — the troops sent across the border as well as the weaponry remaining in Russian territory.

To deter the Russian armed forces, we must build up the capabilities. And we must do it as soon as we can. We can’t simply talk about deterrence while lacking the capabilities to substantiate it. If NATO speaks about the divisions, brigades, and battalions, we must have these units at our disposal. If more manpower is needed to staff them, it must be acquired by draft or other means.

Instituting the draft and forming reserves is not always easy. Our experience from the 1990s and early 2000s is instructive: we trained people only to send them back to civilian life because a coherent system was absent. We did not know which battalion they would be enrolled in. The reserve system is operational only if people — who are, in their civilian life, bank clerks, carpenters, or taxi drivers — have been assigned particular tasks in the military, and if the reserves are big enough to satisfy military needs while also being realistic.

Manpower is only one factor. Equipment must be properly maintained in order to be deployed immediately. There must be at least as much ammunition as required to inflict losses on the enemy. If our response is slow — if it takes days or even months to materialise — then the enemy can act at will.

A NATO victory is not in question — but the fight will be ugly. The Russian army has no need to occupy Tallinn. It can run rampant in the town of Põlva for a month, turn it to another Bucha, and then withdraw — whereas we will be left quarrelling with each other. The government, the military, the civil society, the political parties — they’ll be at each other’s throats. The Allied countries possibly as well. The opponent is skilled at exploiting atrocities. NATO will be weakened. Creating instability is something worth thousands of human lives for the opponent. Their culture and standards are rather different from ours.


Is Russia going to test the west in the Baltic states next?

It is hard to tell. Moscow can try to create instability here and there. The Baltic states may seem to be an easy target because there are not enough forces permanently stationed that would be able to destroy Russia’s forces and capabilities in its territory.

Any reinforcement would arrive only after some time. It’s not about geographical distance but about the chain of command and decision-making processes. If decision-making within Allied nations and coordination among them is too slow, the enemy sees an opportunity to commit atrocities. It does not matter if such incursion will be into Finland, Sweden, Norway, or Estonia.

The Russian Federation is convinced that the necessary condition for its existence is subverting any potential rivals. In the Russian view, NATO is one of these rivals. Objectively speaking, this is not true because NATO member states are not engaged in any military rivalry with Russia.

The west competes with Russia in societal development. Our societies and Russian society diverge even more as time goes by. If the western nations are doing well, Russian society is compelled to modify itself in ways that leave much less freedom for action to a dictator commanding an economy based on exploiting mineral resources.


Is NATO as a whole, and our nation of Estonia individually, prepared for Russia’s grey zone probings such as cyber and hybrid attacks?

Hybrid means have already been employed to cause instability in the west. Conventional and nuclear forces always form the background to Russia’s psychological operations — as a fist meant to intimidate.

Other hybrid means don’t imply lethal force. They’re useless even for the purposes of creating instability. Some time ago, for instance, three billion DDoS attacks were mounted on Estonian webpages — and we didn’t even notice. There was an instance of ATM service being disabled, but it was restored within a few hours. Those attacks were possible because we were unprepared; yet we also proved strong enough to recover quickly.

Hundreds of people in Ukraine today are losing their lives almost to the same weaponry that was used during World War II. Modern technology comes as a bonus. The enemy’s arsenal includes not only artillery but also cyber and information operations, as well as organised crime and corruption. And yet, it is not enough to make Ukraine stray from its course.

The only way for Russia to make Ukraine change its policies is to create instability by occupying its territories. Thus, first and foremost, Russia relies on conventional military force as it is Russia’s misfortune to be less clever than the rest of the world: it can only accomplish anything by brutal force.

On 26 February 2022, tens of thousands of demonstrators with Ukrainian and Estonian national flags gathered in the Freedom square in Tallinn in support of Ukraine. AP Photo/Scanpix

Speaking of modern technologies: Ukrainian naval drones in the Black Sea are a success story. What about the Russian Baltic Fleet? Are we up to the challenge?

When the war had escalated into a full-scale invasion, Ukraine lacked anti-ship missiles (and the ones it had were not of sufficient range). Estonia, Finland, Poland, and Sweden have anti-ship missiles of a 280 km range at their disposal now. Basically, Russia cannot do anything in the Baltic Sea until it significantly improves the protection of its own fleet.

Last summer, we learnt that Russia was deploying ships carrying Kalibr cruise missiles to Lake Ladoga. There are plans to construct naval facilities in the area that would be out of reach for our anti-ship missiles and our observing capabilities. This shows the kind of challenges Russia is dealing with.

After the accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO, I think the opponent is facing a serious strategic dilemma. If Russia attacked a NATO Ally, how would it be able to transport potatoes from Kaliningrad to Saint Petersburg? Maybe it would still be allowed to ship food — but every naval vessel would be a legitimate target. The Russian Navy would no longer be able to sail through the Gulf of Finland or between the islands of Gotland and Saaremaa.


The accession of Sweden and Finland to NATO were welcomed by the Baltic nations. How can these countries contribute to our collective security?

With Finland and Sweden as Allies, we can plan operations with them in the framework of NATO regional defence plans — something that was not possible before.

This matters because, in case of aggression, immediate action is needed to assemble wartime units and cooperate with Allies, which includes decision-making, planning, as well as exercising.

All this was lacking before. To use a sports analogy, earlier, we could send football players to showcase tricks to our neighbours, but we never practised the combinations necessary to win an actual match — now, we can.

The major domains of cooperation between the Baltic nations, Finland, and Sweden are sea, air, intelligence, and cyber. Although Sweden does not share a land border with Russia, it still has various means to be of assistance. For example, it can contribute with its remarkable ground forces to the defence of the Baltic states or Finland.

In my view, the air and sea domains matter most. While Finland could help us on the ground, its own eastern border remains vital. After Finland had joined the Alliance, the NATO-Russia border doubled in length; therefore, Finland needs to look after its own perimeter first.

Finland is no longer a neutral nation. Russia has nothing left to negotiate. Of course, it may continue operating in more subtle ways. It has been successful in Türkiye, Hungary, and Slovakia. But compared with earlier, ‘non-Allied times,’ it will be much harder to get Finland or Sweden to reconsider any of their policies.


Should the Nordic and Baltic nations be under the same NATO command?

If this command aspires to optimal military synergies in the area, then my answer is ‘yes.’ I can assume that F-35 fighter planes based in Norway (be it Norwegian or American) will assist us here if needed, even if we’re not under the same command. Obviously, missiles may be launched from the North Sea to support our operations.

What is more important, however, is what we aim to achieve in the Baltic Sea area by a command dedicated to a common goal and by having all our capabilities at its disposal.

This is why I believe that a Baltic Sea Combined Task Force must be created within the NATO command structure.

A tactical plan is needed for the entire Baltic Sea so that it will become a single operational area with all the requisite units. Then, it’s no longer important where exactly the line between Joint Force Command Norfolk (JFC-NF) and Allied Joint Force Command Brunssum (JFCBS) is.


Lithuania and Latvia will each get a permanent NATO brigade led by Germany and Canada, respectively. Estonia will not. Does it make sense in military terms?

In my opinion, there are some pros and cons. If Germany is ready to deploy nearly 5 000 soldiers (with their families) to Lithuania and rotate them back and forth, then it’s up to them. We have no such partner nation ready to do so.

Canada has been working to form a permanent brigade in Latvia, with its composition still unknown. One can say that Lithuania and Latvia are better off because they’ll have a permanent NATO brigade. Two questions remain open, though. When will these capabilities be ready? And when will Russia be ready to attempt another military aggression?

Estonia’s partner nation, the UK, says its brigade will be included in our division once the threat becomes apparent — that is, not after it has already materialised. In my opinion, we would rather have a unit assigned to joint practising now than a commitment to have a unit deployed here in five year’s time.


A permanent brigade also incurs some financial costs.

Lithuania estimates that the military infrastructure for the permanent presence of a mechanised brigade (what the Germans have promised) costs more than 500 million euros. Then, civilian infrastructure will be needed as well — meaning schools, grocery stores, kindergartens, etc. Eventually, it might pay back, with 10 000 people living there and earning good salaries. Even so, one must decide how much they are prepared to pay.

Another issue is where those 5 000 troops are going to practice. The heated public debate over the Nursipalu training area provides a good example of how difficult it is to expand the existing infrastructure. Are we ready to build one more Nursipalu?

If Lithuania has the training grounds ready, infrastructure funds available, and a partner nation willing to deploy personnel, it’s a great combination. I would like to emphasise, however, that none of it will be ready in two years. For the time being, Latvia and Lithuania will be in the same situation as Estonia: their militaries have non-resident partner states’ units to practise with.

The Estonian military has not been falling behind. For five years, we have been saying that the issues related to the infrastructure construction and training areas must be solved first. It is only then that we can invite a partner nation to station 5 000 troops here. Moreover, I don’t believe that there are many countries who are considering setting up a new military base abroad, to incur military costs, and to cause mental stress to its troops and their families as they would have to live in an entirely different environment for several years.

Since 2022, Estonian soldiers have also been honouring Ukraine on their uniforms. EPA/Scanpix

What are Estonia’s deterrence plans in lieu of a permanent NATO brigade?

Military units already located in Estonian territory are going to defend Estonia on its soil: in the cities of Narva, Jõhvi, Võru, and Põlva. Civilian lives and infrastructure will be lost. If we have weapons that can hit 20 or 200 km across the border, then the collateral damages move out of our country, too. So, we must consider technological solutions, deep combat capabilities, indirect fire, air force, etc.

There’s already a lot of infantry in Estonia. Our wartime structure comprises more than 40 000 troops, most of them infantry. Brigades and territorial defence units, together with a few thousand British, American, and French troops already here, are the NATO units that can be immediately deployed against the enemy.

We are working toward the goal of developing serious deterrence in the eastern direction. Russia will be destroyed without damaging us significantly. We have created an Estonian Division, a structure where we can add a potential British mechanised unit, as well as diverse surveillance and intelligence capabilities, which would provide us with an indirect fire capability — regardless of whether it is the Apache attack helicopters, F-35 fighter jets, or cruise missiles.


Can you identify three preconditions for Ukrainian success on the battlefield?

The nations must first decide to provide Kyiv with military assistance by spending their own finances on purchasing military assets for Ukraine — anywhere they can, which today mainly means from outside Europe.

The starting point should be the Ukrainian victory strategy, proposed by Estonia, according to which all the countries of the Ramstein Group should allocate 0.25 percent of their GDP to support Ukraine. This is not much money. Russia invests three times more in its war effort than the 50 Ramstein group countries pay for their aid to Ukraine. In such circumstances, Ukrainians are brave to hold back the Russian war machine. This was my first point.

My second point concerns the assistance that Ukraine needs to win the war. It must be delivered fast and without limitations. Not piecemeal as it has been done so far: antitank weapons today, tanks and artillery tomorrow, and planes the day after tomorrow. It all must arrive in Ukraine as quickly as possible.

Ukrainians must receive additional training, on every level. Had we not received proper education in democracy, government, and administration culture to complement military training in the 1990s and 2000s, we would have found ourselves in the same situation that Ukraine is in today. Our state apparatus would be shaken, from time to time, by corruption scandals, Russian influence activities, and other impediments.

Since Ukrainians can do many things even better than we can, they don’t need lessons in every subject. We should support them in the areas where our support is needed. This includes shouldering certain responsibilities such as healthcare, mine clearance, reconstruction, or even air defence to protect civilian infrastructure and air surveillance — this is a job for wider coalitions.


Lately, much attention has been paid to Emmanuel Macron’s words that the deployment of western troops to Ukraine cannot be excluded. What is your assessment?

Macron, in my opinion, was not calling for foreign troops to be sent to fight in Ukraine. He seemed to be suggesting that the western personnel could reinforce the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the rear so that more Ukrainian troops would be ‘freed’ for the operations on the frontline.

A person unfamiliar with military activities, of course, would fail to see the difference here. However, if we were to go to Ukraine to repair the howitzers that we had supplied earlier or to send our medical rehabilitation experts — would this also mean boots on the ground?

It would be useful to Ukraine, and we would learn some valuable lessons. Moreover, it would send a message to Russia. Today, a Russian soldier can kill a foreign volunteer in Ukraine, and we will just shrug it off. If we said — hypothetically — that our nation had a military presence in Ukraine, not fighting against the Russian army but assisting Ukraine with other functions, Moscow would then have to consider the possibility that all the military barracks in the city of Lviv are maintained by Estonians.


Why is it so difficult for the western countries to brace themselves?

The west is used to speak about Russia as a threat. We approach it as if it were cancer — with an implicit conviction that it will never happen to us. We are very slow to change our ways of life, to pay more. This is an issue. I can see a wildfire spreading just across my backyard fence, but those who live farther away cannot yet see it. Perhaps they can smell the fire or hear me sound the fire alarm. Anxiety levels across Europe are naturally different, but even in Estonia, many people assume the danger will simply pass.

It is fashionable and novel to talk about Ukraine — even more so about the Russian threat. We just talk and talk, but there’s a shortage of action. Many processes are still managed exactly as they were three years ago — not faster. We are proceeding in a careful and orderly manner, but we may run short of time.

We must work more and invest more in defence. We must also work faster and devise alternative solutions, even if the result is of a lower quality compared to our aspirations. Otherwise, we just continue smoking and hope cancer never catches up.

Gen Martin Herem

Gen Martin Herem was appointed as the Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces in 2018 and is set to step down in 2024. Previously, he held the position of the Deputy Commander of the Estonian National Defence College (ENDC) and became the Commandant of the ENDC in 2013.

In 2016, Gen Herem was appointed the Chief of Staff of the Headquarters of the Estonian Defence Forces. He is the first officer to have graduated from a National Defence College in Estonia to hold this position since Estonia’s restoration of independence.

This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference special issue of ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).

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