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While Western Europeans smell smoke, we see fire

General Martin Herem, commander of the Estonian Armed Forces, explains how Estonia is preparing for possible aggression from Russia and why its approach may differ from the other Baltic countries. Interviewer: Rasa Tapinienė, journalist with LRT.

May 10, 2024 - LRT Martin Herem Rasa Tapinienė - Interviews

The commander of Estonia’s armed forces, Lieutenant General Martin Herem. Photo: Estonian Foreign Ministry / Wikimedia

Unlike Lithuania, which has convinced its ally Germany to deploy a brigade on its soil, Estonia decided to keep British troops assigned to defend it stationed in the UK.

The three Baltic states have also recently agreed to cooperate on a defence line alongside their borders with Russian and Belarus. According to General Herem, this will not be a Maginot Line. Rather, it should consist of very concrete plans for how to put up defences within days of any signs of impending aggression.

At the same time, Herem says there is no need to overreact to so-called hybrid attacks. “It may harm, but it will not kill,” he says.

General Martin Herem spoke to LRT TV’s Topic of the Day programme.

RASA TAPINIENĖ: Last month, the Estonian parliament’s National Security and Defence Committee vice chairman, former military officer Leo Kunnas suggested the idea of mining Estonia’s border with Russia. What do you make of this proposal?

MARTIN HEREM: I don’t think it’s very wise to put landmines today at the border, whether they are anti-personnel or anti-tank mines. I don’t think it’s efficient.

Estonia could, however, together with Finland block Russia’s access to the Baltic Sea from Saint Petersburg. Have such plans been considered?

Yes, absolutely, because that would be one of the strategic dilemmas for Russia. If they consider any aggression against Estonia, they must think about how they will keep the communication with Kaliningrad, for example. And, in my opinion, we have all rights to defend our country, even by closing the sea traffic, in case of aggression, through the Finnish Gulf. Estonia and Finland both have the necessary tools for that.

Several weeks ago, the Baltic countries signed an agreement to build a common defence line alongside our borders with Russia and Belarus. What is the end goal here?

Most importantly, we have planned to build obstacles and fortifications. Another question is how much we really build, pour concrete in the ground in peacetime. But it is important that we have plans, projects, readiness in industry. Maybe some items are stored very near the area where they will be used. That’s important. I don’t think we will build a Maginot Line or something like this, but we have to execute the line of defence very, very quickly. We may have only days for that.

Estonian soldiers in formation. Photo: Wikimedia

What would that line include, ideally?

The defence line should consist of obstacles that will not stop the aggressor but will canalize or direct them to the most suitable areas for us. It should give height and protection for our personnel. For example, bunkers or shelters to accommodate our soldiers in case of aggression. But it also should consist of the planning, the areas we can use as assembly areas or areas for artillery or other elements.

Estonia has announced plans to build 600 bunkers, while Latvians have calculated that such an endeavour could take ten years. What is the estimate of the Estonian military, how long will it take and what will be the use?

In case of a threat, we have to build this defence line within days, not years. I don’t think we will build exactly 600 bunkers in the coming years, but some maybe. We have to prepare the material for these bunkers and readiness in the industry to build these bunkers. So I really cannot answer today how many bunkers we will build, but we have to prepare to be ready to build them within days. And we have invested already, over the last three or four years, we have been investing like 3 million euros in these obstacles annually. So-called dragon teeth, concrete cubes, some metal items. They are already stored in the eastern areas of Estonia.

What military capacities should we focus more on in the Baltics? What you’re suggesting is that, while Lithuania is waiting for the tanks it has ordered, Estonia is busy making other preparations. What are they?

First of all, I do not have any criticism of Lithuania’s decisions. Every country makes their decision. I think today we must pay attention to the readiness of our existing forces. If we see on paper that we’ve got these battalions or brigades, we must be sure that they are able to operate within days after the order and they can operate for days and days, have ammunition and other equipment. So if you ask me where we have to invest – ammunition first, then situation awareness to find the targets and then everything else.

When it comes to forward defence, is it a good decision to have the assigned British brigade physically based in the UK rather than in Estonia?

We have to find the balance. There are different decisions in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. We have decided, as has the UK, that we will not invest money into military infrastructure like barracks and parking area storage. But we will invest money into armament, ammunition and do exercises for how to deploy the British troops very quickly to Estonia in case of indicators, not in case of aggression. Is it better than the Lithuanian solution? [Vilnius has convinced Germany to station a brigade in Lithuania – LRT] I don’t know. I know our budget and currently we do not have the money to build another brigade camp. And there is one more problem in Estonia, though maybe not in Latvia or Lithuania. Just a year ago, we decided to enlarge our training areas and to establish a second training area. It caused quite a big problem in society because some people must sell their property. I don’t think we would like to see a third training area discussion in Estonia. So we just don’t have the free space to build it without harming the population, property or disturbing their daily life.

That is all conventional warfare. Another thing is hybrid or cyber attacks. A telecoms cable was recently damaged under the Baltic Sea [between Estonia and Finland, investigators suspect a Chinese ship], there’ve been cases of GPS signal jamming. Do you see this as Russia’s escalation and how should we respond to these grey-zone acts?

It is a very challenging situation currently when we talk about hybrid threats, because we don’t know exactly who is behind all these problems and we cannot name the actor. First of all, we have to stay calm because all the hybrid warfare is not a threat to our existence, to the existence of Estonian independence. It may harm, but it will not kill. So we can manage this. Our main problem is still possible conventional aggression by Russia.

European leaders have been talking more about preparing for a war with Russia. As a military man, do you see any action – in military industries, army upgrades – that would indicate they’re putting their money where their mouth is?

There are some steps. They are not as fast as we in the Baltic states would like to see, but we also must understand that for us, the wildfire is on the other side of our fence. For Western Europeans, they may feel the smoke or hear about this wildfire through us. So it is understandable that they are slower, but there are some steps. The rhetoric has changed. We see that the European industry is growing and ready to produce more. What I have not seen, and I may not be correct, but I have not seen these countries putting money in the military market. I have not seen an increase of contracts to buy more ammunition, other equipment. I think it still has been very slow, especially when we bear in mind that we have had two years of very intensive warfare in Europe.

This interview was republished through the partnership between New Eastern Europe and LRT English.

General Martin Herem is commander of the Estonian Armed Forces.

Rasa Tapinienė is a journalist and news anchor with LRT. She has also translated A Song of Ice and Fire into Lithuanian.

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