Col. Riho Ühtegi, the former longtime head of military intelligence who went on to serve as commander of the Estonian Defence Forces’ (EDF) Special Operations Force, has been serving as commander of the volunteer Estonian Defence League (Kaitseliit) for three weeks now. In an extended interview with ERR journalist Toomas Sildam, Ühtegi speaks of guerrilla tactics, hybrid warfare and “little green men.”
Toomas Sildam: Have you read Leo Kunnas’ “War 2023”?
Col. Riho Ühtegi: I have to admit that I have read it in parts, but not beginning to end.
TS: Which of his versions is more believable — if Russia attacks, will NATO stand by as Estonia is conquered, or will NATO get involved and the Estonian state survive?
RÜ: We can’t even consider anything other than NATO intervening and Estonia surviving.
TS: We can see when Russia moves a tank battalion along our border, for example, or brings a S-400 anti-aircraft missile system close to Ivangorod.
RÜ: We can.
TS: How active are the Russian Armed Forces near the Baltic states?
RÜ: If we consider Russian units near the Ukrainian border or in the Caucasus, for example, then the latter are more active.
But their units near our borders are in a very good state of military readiness, very professional, have participated in many conflicts; the officer corps is experienced; their weaponry is gradually being upgraded. We cannot underestimate them.
TS: But nothing bad can happen unexpectedly. Or can it?
In certain situations we may not necessarily foresee their actions until they have started rolling out the gate.
Naturally there is a slew of signs to watch out for, but we must always take into consideration the unexpected possibility that orders [to attack] may be given from the highest level, via secret channels, and in this case we really would only see their activity once they started moving out the gates of their units.
TS: What do we actually need to be prepared for?
RÜ: We need to be prepared to defend our homeland.
But if we’re talking about the immediate threat of war, then I don’t currently see this immediate threat of war.
TS: You have been quoted as saying that exemplary general staff — and we have no reason to believe that Russia’s general staff isn’t an exemplary general staff — always have a military plan in place for any and all regions or conflicts. It would be interesting to know how the Russian side defines what the Kaitseliit is and who Kaitseliit member are.
RÜ: I can imagine that this definition is relatively vague. As much as I have seen their assessments regarding the Kaitseliit, they’ve still never fully understood what exactly the Kaitseliit is.
They actually consider our organization a very serious force. When they talk about Estonia’s preparations for guerrilla war and a partisan fight, they’re referring to the Kaitseliit.
TS: Maj. Deniss Metsavas, who turned out to be a traitor, was arrested a year ago the same day he was to begin work at the General Headquarters of the Estonian Defence League. If the Internal Security Service hadn’t caught him and he had remained active to this day, how much would this have benefited Russia’s military intelligence?
RÜ: You see, it’s like this: when an officer from the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) comes over to serve at the General Headquarters of the Estonian Defence League, it takes them about a year to understand where it is they’ve ended up. The Kaitseliit is a very multifaceted and complex organization, which includes a military defense side, volunteer women’s organizations, youth organizations, and very different social classes.
I have always considered myself a native Kaitseliit member, and every day that I am in this position, I am surprised to discover something new that I didn’t know absolutely anything about before.
TS: How much do you trust your colleagues whose native language is Russian?
RÜ: I know Russians who are bigger Estonian patriots than many Estonians.
TS: Is it true, then, that the Kaitseliit is to its enemies like a phantom force that nobody quite understands?
RÜ: The term “phantom force” isn’t the right expression. The Kaitseliit is people who want to defend themselves and are prepared to do so.
TS: Are more than 15,500 members of the Kaitseliit preparing for war?
RÜ: 15,500 members of the Kaitseliit are those people of Estonia who have clearly understood that § 54 of the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia is a paragraph according to which one must know how to act.
[“It is the duty of each citizen of Estonia to be loyal to the constitutional order and to defend the independence of Estonia. In the absence of other means of opposing a forcible attempt to change the constitutional order of Estonia, every citizen of Estonia has the right to resist such an attempt of his or her own initiative.”]
The Kaitseliit’s mission is first and foremost to offer people the opportunity and knowledge necessary to contribute to national defense. And these 15,500 people have decided to contribute to this.
TS: I once read that if well-armed “little green men” appear, then the future of the conflict will be decided right from the start by our speed, resolution and strength, as hesitation over whether to shoot “little green men” will pave the way for future provocations. Is this true?
RÜ: It is true, however each situation may be different from the last.
And we always have to be prepared for those situations that may follow. I’ll give you an example. If we forcefully suppress some sort of stand within our country, the next step may be that another country’s tanks come rolling across the border to protect the interests of those people that we just suppressed.
Are we prepared for this? Perhaps it would be more reasonable to keep this kind of conflict under control and handle it… Or would it be more reasonable to go right into a NATO Article 5 situation… This is a question that must be resolved on the political level.
TS: I asked about “little green men.”
RÜ: We are talking about “little green men,” who may be the guys running around with guns, but may also be those pulling the strings in the organization of unrest.
TS: I was thinking of those unmarked but well-armed “little green men” who blockaded Ukrainian military units, airports and government agencies in Crimea five years ago.
RÜ: We need to be clear that if “little green men” refers to those “little green men” in Crimea, i.e. [Russia’s] 45th Spetsnaz Airborne Regiment, then it is clear that these are enemy forces.
RÜ: And then we must react immediately and powerfully.
TS: Which means?
RÜ: They need to be taken down.
TS: What would be the role of the Kaitseliit in such a situation?
RÜ: Until a state of war has been declared, the Ministry of the Interior is in charge of operations, and an appointed chief of internal security directs operations that may appear fairly warlike. The Kaitseliit and the EDF fulfill support roles in this case; we assist units of the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA). This remains the Kaitseliit’s task regardless, whether in crisis, war or during a period of stabilization.
TS: When everyone is at the front line, who is defending the rear?
RÜ: The front line is just a line in the landscape.
Broad-based territorial defense covers 100 kilometers on either side of the front line. Territorial defense means that we don’t direct all of our units to the front line, but rather cover the entire country with our units in accordance with the principles of territorial defense.
TS: Should the rear collapse, as a result of either mass unrest or diversionary attacks, is holding the front line in the classical sense pointless?
RÜ: Nowadays we shouldn’t talk about traditional front line warfare at all.
We have to consider Estonia our territory, where enemy forces are moving that hold only the bit of terrain where they happen to be located at the moment. The Republic of Estonia remains, and will remain, on all sides of this point.
If we can manage to understand mentally and emotionally that any territory where an enemy has moved through does not belong to them now, but rather remains part of the Republic of Estonia, then it isn’t possible to defeat us.
TS: The Ministry of the Interior is putting the finishing touches on a plan to establish a well-equipped internal security reserve unit whose volunteer members would be prepared to fend off armed surprise attacks, for example, or suppress mass unrest. Perhaps all of this could be considered in cooperation with the Kaitseliit, which already has policing units?
RÜ: The problem is that there are not enough policing units prepared by the Kaitseliit for cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior as needed to resolve all internal security issues.
Also a problem is the fact that many of us still haven’t fully grasped the true nature of territorial defense. The principle of territorial defense that I just mentioned means that we have units all across Estonia: in the rear, their mission is to ensure security; on the front line, to fight; behind enemy lines, to continue resisting. Which means that we need to consider national defense from a much broader perspective than simply military defense.
In the area of government of the Ministry of Defence, the EDF and the Kaitseliit have been involved only in military defense for years. In today’s hybrid situation, we should consider expanded defense capabilities. In other words, if we are able to fend off enemy success in a hybrid war, then perhaps we can avoid ending up in a real war.
To sum up a long and complex explanation: yes, we understand the Ministry of the Interior’s current problem — that it doesn’t have enough power to resolve difficult situations, and we don’t have enough power to help them, as the part of the Kaitseliit dedicated to internal security is too small. As a result, the interior ministry is considering the opportunity to establish additional reserves. The problem is, if they want to do so on a voluntary basis, people tend to want to volunteer there where they live; they don’t want to go somewhere else.
Personally, I’m in favor of this internal security reserve being established on a compulsory basis and consisting of those reservists who have trained as military police or border guards. But not on a volunteer basis.
TS: Estonia’s reserve army consists of 25,000 people who, in case of crisis, are divided between the wartime units of the EDF and the Kaitseliit. All of them have been assigned wartime positions. At that point, this has nothing to do with volunteering anymore?
RÜ: No, it doesn’t.
TS: And so the internal security reserve should be established according to the same principle?
RÜ: It should be on the same principle. Former military police or border guards who have received training during conscription often don’t have positions in wartime units. This is a resource that we should take advantage of. But this is my personal approach.
It’s just that when I consider this picture, I am reminded of the early 1990s, when the Home Guard was established in parallel with the Kaitseliit, and this led to competition between the two organizations which ultimately did not benefit either. There were people who wanted to defend the country and they were faced with deciding which organization to choose.
TS: When the Kaitseliit was established in November 1918, its primary goal was to maintain public order in the rear during troubled times.
RÜ: The goal was indeed to defend local residents and keep our home free of marauders, roving gangsters. They defended their homes and their neighborhoods. In 1924, following the December coup d’état attempt, the Kaitseliit was reinstated against internal enemies when “specialists” sent from Russia, communists, attempted a coup. When we reestablished the Kaitseliit in 1990, the enemy was once again within, not without.
And so the Kaitseliit’s role has always been connected to internal security, and so it must remain now. The Kaitseliit will continue to support the police and border guards, whose own numbers are currently insufficient…
TS: Compared to the April Unrest in 2007, they’ve been thinned out by more than 1,000.
RÜ: [Stares at Sildam in prolonged silence.]
TS: On the subject of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, you considered imposing one’s will important in achieving success as allegedly it is no longer important whether your army is three times bigger, but rather that you are capable of using the battlefield to your advantage. Does this reasoning tie in with the Kaitseliit? How?
RÜ: In the most direct way. Asymmetrical warfare has been discussed in the Kaitseliit for two or three years.
This means that we will impose guerrilla warfare tactics on conventional units — swift and forceful attacks without getting stuck in long-lasting battles. In doing so, will wear down our opponent, attack its weaknesses, cut through its supply lines, destroy its logistics and any other units we come across.
By doing this, we will deplete the opponent’s resources and won’t give them the opportunity to utilize those means that would be effective used against conventional militias but are ineffective in the case of scattered fighting.
TS: Would these be the aggressive, stinging attacks against the enemy across Estonia that can be called the “wasp tactic”?
RÜ: Precisely. There is no front line. The enemy has to feel as though they are not comfortable anywhere, and that they could be attacked anywhere.
TS: But we see a front line in Ukraine.
RÜ: A front line is maintained in Ukraine in order to determine sides. The Ukrainian conflict went conventional when the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk republics were established; there had been two or three points in time where Ukraine would have just about defeated them if Russia hadn’t intervened with its conventional units.
Or let’s take Syria, for example. [The Islamic State group] fought very successfully for years with a very small makeup, as it could not be caught. It was successful until it started fighting more conventionally in Aleppo and other regions, where it was devastated within a matter of weeks.
TS: Is the Islamic State group our enemy?
TS: And we should learn from our enemies?
RÜ: Yes. The same has been the case in Afghanistan, for example.
In the case of asymmetrical warfare, holding territory is no longer important. What’s important is maintaining initiative. An enemy may be permitted to move around the territory more, but if we’re capable of establishing a very uncomfortable environment in which to move around, if we hit them morally and physically, just keep exhausting them, then the enemy will figure out at some point that this war isn’t worth it.
TS: You built from the ground up the capability of the EDF’s Special Operations Force, which can be compared to guerrilla or diversion activity.
RÜ: It’s not quite like that.
Special operations in are divided in NATO into three areas. Direct Action (DA), in which small units are used for rapid and forceful strikes against specific targets. Then there is Special Reconnaissance (SR), in which the goal is to go after and retrieve some kind of very specific information. And the third special operations area is Military Assistance (MA), which is also called a “force multiplier.”
Those who have seen the movie “12 Strong” know what this means — where a 12-strong U.S. Special Forces unit is deployed to Afghanistan after 9/11 to fight against the Taliban alongside the Northern Alliance. And so it is — you send in your own team, they establish an army and fight together in this army, which is ultimately the most powerful output of any special operations forces.
Special operations forces have established countries and destroyed countries.
TS: How much of this experience do you bring with you to the Kaitseliit — in other words, to what extent are you guiding Kaitseliit members toward practicing guerrilla fighting?
RÜ: It’s no coincidence that the commander of the EDF proposed that I — commander of the Special Operations Force — take command of the Kaitseliit.
Yes, the model for warfare, that asymmetry, that is characteristic of special forces, is likewise characteristic of the Kaitseliit’s tactics. Likewise the skill of taking advantage of all resources. We view war in such a way that we would not only use our own personal gear, including a gun, backpack and binoculars, but rather everything available to us — people, infrastructure, cars and tractors, communications devices.
TS: How good are the Kaitseliit’s weapons?
RÜ: As good as the EDF’s. The EDF is currently organizing an arms procurement; we’ll be getting new weaponry from there as well. Yes, we can say that the Kaitseliit doesn’t have CV-90 combat vehicles. But if we’re talking about a different kind of warfare, then do we need them for ourselves?
The Kaitseliit’s weaponry also includes the skills that its people bring with them from their civilian experience. Our cyber warriors are stronger than the EDF’s cyber warriors, as the cyber-Kaitseliit includes Estonia’s top cyber specialists whom the state could not afford to pay sufficiently but who join us voluntarily. Our communications specialists are often experienced amateur radio operators, who establish their own networks and communications capabilities. We have a slew of very experienced pioneer specialists who in their civilian lives work as mining engineers…
TS: And as members of the Kaitseliit know how to blow things up?
RÜ: That too. Our survival specialists — who are capable of surviving in the wild and know how to teach this to others as well — are better than anywhere else, because they do this on a daily basis in the civilian world as well.
Our medics, our chefs… All of them are specialists in their fields.
TS: After the arms procurement, the Kaitseliit will be giving the Estonian War Museum the 90mm recoilless anti-tank guns received as aid from Sweden 20 years ago to display…
RÜ: Why? That is a phenomenal weapon.
TS: But it won’t penetrate through the armor of a modern tank.
RÜ: But we’re not talking about just tanks. We’re also talking about armored transporters, trucks and so on. The 90mm recoilless anti-tank gun is a phenomenal weapon because it is virtually maintenance-free, light, easy to use, and its ammunition can be stored for extended periods of time. We won’t be giving these up.
TS: What weaponry does the Kaitseliit need more of?
RÜ: What it needs is, as you yourself said, powerful but lightweight arms capable of piercing armor. One-time, “shoot and forget”-type weapons that can be used in close proximity, as needed in asymmetrical conflict.
TS: Do all Kaitseliit members have weapons at home?
RÜ: Not everyone does. It is up to them to decide whether they will take their weapon home or keep it at the Kaitseliit.
TS: How difficult is it to recruit new members to the Kaitseliit?
RÜ: This isn’t easy. Not because we have a lack of patriotic men. You need to consider the bigger picture. The economy is blossoming right now, many people can focus on improving their quality of life, and they don’t have time to join the Kaitseliit. But we’ve seen that membership in the Kaitseliit grows during times of crisis because… there’s less for people to do.
TS: And when Russia annexed Crimea and launched military action in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, membership in the Kaitseliit increased significantly.
RÜ: This is the other side, which is affected by the threat picture and one’s sense of danger. If we live in a peaceful environment for an expended period of time, one’s sense of danger subsides and participation in the Kaitseliit falls. When the threat picture involving us deteriorates, patriotism increases and the desire to join defense organizations increases.
It was the same before the war. After the 1924 December coup d’état attempt, the people wanted the Kaitseliit to be reestablished, and joined up en masse. More recently, we saw spikes in new membership in 2007 [following the April Unrest], in 2008 [following the Russo-Georgian War], and in 2014 [as a result of evens in Ukraine].
TS: How many deadbeats are there in the Kaitseliit — those that are listed as members, but that’s it?
RÜ: They exist, but I cannot give you exact numbers yet. I want a clear overview of members of the Kaitseliit — who are receiving active training and attending training exercises; who are members of the Kaitseliit but are currently occupied with other things; and who are just included on our member lists.
To us, deadbeats are those who are no longer interested in participating in the Kaitseliit.