By RFE RL
By Vazha Tavberidze
(RFE/RL) — Riho Terras is an Estonian politician and former high-ranking military officer who has served as a member of the European Parliament since February 1, 2020. He was the commander of the Estonian Defense Forces from 2011 to 2018.
In a wide-ranging interview with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service, Terras, 55, discussed an incident earlier this month when a missile hit Poland, calls for more military support for Ukraine, and the likelihood of Russian President Vladimir Putin attacking NATO and widening the conflict.
RFE/RL: A stray missile crashed in Poland on November 15, just 6 kilometers from the border with Ukraine, killing two people. Western officials have said it appeared to be an Ukrainian air-defense missile, adding that ultimate blame rests with Russia, which invaded Ukraine. What is your opinion on this incident?
Riho Terras: The first thing to say always is that this happened because Russia launched an enormous missile attack against all of Ukraine [on that day]. More than 90 missiles were launched, and, we understand now, this was [done] from ships and planes.
What exactly happened on the border with Poland? This is a question which needs to be answered by people [on the ground]. First, there were reports saying that there were two explosions; now it is one explosion, [allegedly involving] an S-300 missile, which is not meant to hit land targets. So, it does not have too much explosive power, because it functions differently to air-to-land missiles. But on the other hand, if they have seen and found the debris or pieces of this missile…it is possible to identify the number and the type of the missile.
If it would have been a Russian air-to-land missile [that] hit Polish territory, then, of course, [U.S.] President [Joe] Biden’s announcement that “we are defending every inch of NATO territory” would mean that it would be an Article 5 case [meaning an attack on one NATO member is an attack on the entire alliance]…. But whatever it was, as it seems today, it was an accident. So, for sure, it wasn’t an attack against Poland.
Whether it was a Ukrainian air-defense missile, which had some kind of failure or didn’t hit the Russian missile, or it was a Russian missile — either way, it was a mistake and so cannot be seen as an attack against NATO territory. I hope that is clear. As you see, Poland did not invoke Article 4 [a formal call for consultations among members of the alliance in the face of a security threat].
RFE/RL: How significant was this incident? Should there be more alarm in the West?
Terras: Well, if there’s a war ongoing on the borders of NATO, there is always a potential of an incident. I think it rather helps Ukraine to get more support. And [the] Rammstein meeting [on November 16 of the Ukrainian Defense Contact Group, known as the Rammstein 7, which took place online] showed us that countries are willing to offer more support to Ukraine, to supply more weapons to Ukraine and more economical support. So, I really do hope that that is the case.
For my taste, it has not been enough from the very beginning. I even wrote a letter to NATO, together with [former top NATO commander] General [Philip] Breedlove and some other generals…right after February 24 [when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine], [saying] that we need to create air superiority over Ukraine. From the NATO side, it was not accepted. It doesn’t matter whether it is NATO or countries of NATO who do that. I think that they still need to control the airspace over Ukraine.
RFE/RL: Back to Biden’s statement about defending every inch of NATO territory. Many Western leaders commented on this accident or incident in Poland, including Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who recently said Italy does not believe it makes much difference if the missile that landed in Poland was Russian or not, because Moscow is still to blame for attacking infrastructure in Ukraine. So, given all that, is there a danger that Western red lines may be drawn in the sand?
Terras: No, I don’t see that, as I already said. It was clearly an accident and not a real attack. And if it’s so blurred, it doesn’t change the course. I mean, the Italian prime minister has shown, surprisingly to many, that she stands very much behind Ukraine and Ukraine’s course. And all the other NATO countries — except for Hungary and Turkey, which are playing their own games — are very unified again, behind Ukraine, and the support is increasing.
I have the feeling that the U.S. can end the war very quickly, if they would want to…. Russia is talking about NATO being at war with Russia, but NATO has not yet arrived, and they are losing already. I guess a couple of squadrons of F-35s [combat aircraft] would end this war.
Of course, I understand the context of the [possible] nuclear [threat] and that is another facet. But I agree with the assessment that China doesn’t want Russia using nuclear [weapons], because for China, the current situation is actually the best it could be. They can earn money from this war, but they would not really be willing to have a nuclear conflict, because the only thing where China is not the world power is in [its] nuclear arsenal. And so, they don’t want to be a smaller brother, and Russia needs China — or at least not to be against Russia.
So, therefore, it is important for the Russians that the Chinese are not taking sides, and therefore I don’t think a nuclear conflict is likely, but there’s always a slight possibility with this mad government of Russia.
RFE/RL: Do you think there is any scenario under which Russia does attack NATO territory and risk widening the conflict?
Terras: Well, nobody actually believed that Russia was suicidal enough to attack Ukraine, from five different corners. Well, there was a belief that perhaps Russia can push in, in eastern Ukraine, perhaps in Kherson, but people — really, anybody who can read and write and calculate — were absolutely convinced that Russia would not attack Kyiv, and it did.
So, the question is: How far they are willing to go? Because logically, if you look at the forces of Russia at the moment of the attack, any military analyst would have said: “Not logical, not possible. Russia will not do it.” But they did.
RFE/RL: So why did Putin decide to launch a full invasion? What were his own military analysts thinking?
Terras: I guess that had more to do with the assumption that the Ukrainians were ready to celebrate their “liberation.” And the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service) junta, which is around Putin, just played this game of how Ukrainians would want them to be liberated by Russian forces. And they were very surprised, as they saw that nothing of the kind happened in Kyiv as what happened in Crimea. I mean, Crimea was taken over. So, that is for sure a surprise for Putin.
And I have very often this feeling that people don’t give him the real analysis. They want to please him and make sure that his ideas are supported by the analysis. And that is misleading, of course. And today we see that the Ukrainian Army has become Europe’s most powerful army, even compared to the Russian Army.
So, we need to beef up Ukraine’s army with assault weapons like main battle tanks and planes, in order to give them the possibility to liberate Ukraine’s occupied territories.
RFE/RL: I know you are firmly convinced that Ukraine will win on the battlefield. Can you describe how you see this happening, tactically?
Terras: Well, first, I think the next objective should or could be Melitopol (the second largest city in the Russian-controlled region of Zaporizhzhya), which is an important, key terrain, as this area has always been.
Second, the Ukrainians would need to take other oblast centers, and I think Donetsk and Luhansk [would be options]. Donetsk especially would be a good victory. That would be another Kherson for them, and to push beyond what was the line on February 24 would be very important because it would show: “We will take not only what was taken from us since February, but we won’t be satisfied with that. We want it all back.”
Knowing that, that this area of Donbas is very rich in raw materials, the biggest lithium reserves in Europe, the fourth biggest in the world, so I think that would be a sign at which the world would then say: “Now we need to go to the end.”
Today, still, there is not that much belief that the Ukrainian Army can do that. I believe it can.
RFE/RL: How can the Ukrainian Army drive out Russian forces from Donetsk, an area from which they were forced to retreat in the past?
Terras: Well, first they would need to do it exactly how they have done it till now: with good discipline and mission command at all levels, which is the secret of the [Ukrainian] successful advance, unlike the Russian command structure. I know that the Russian Army has an immense shortage of command personnel. They’re giving officer ranks to soldiers who have just studied at university, not even received a diploma. But if you have studied at university, and no matter what you studied, you might be a teacher or a welder, but if you studied, you can become an officer. And that, of course, shows that their training is very, very low [quality].
At the same time, Ukrainians are going through training in the European Union. The European Union started a training mission for Ukrainian soldiers, which we want 15,000 [Ukrainian] soldiers to go through. So, I think the good education, training, and, of course, the Ukrainians have been very good in the art of war. They normally do things by surprise, taking Kharkiv, for example. Nobody was expecting them to go forward in the Kharkiv oblast, but they are liberating it, [and] the Russians are running [away]. So, I think the element of surprise will be there as well.
The Russians still have lots of dumb bombs and grenades, but they are used against civilians. It’s much more difficult [for the Russian military] to kill Ukrainian soldiers because they know how to operate.
RFE/RL: Russia seems to be targeting civilians and Ukraine’s infrastructure in a bid to lower Ukrainian morale by drastically diminishing their living standards. Can that work? Do you see that happening?
Terras: Well, I think it has had a very big influence on the morale of Ukrainians: They now hate the Russians even more. It has worked the other way around. It is again another assumption from the Russian side, which is completely wrong. If they think that if they keep bombing and that the Ukrainians will start to lose their faith in the government, I have not seen that. And the polls are not saying that. It’s more that every Ukrainian now is very angry with the Russians.
Another thing is Russia’s diplomacy and propaganda working hard and very effectively on European citizens, telling them, “Please end the war, it is a bloody war. We don’t need war in Europe. Please stop, go to [negotiate].” But even Joe Biden or his administration understands that [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy cannot be pushed into peace negotiations, because it will be his political death sentence for sure in Ukraine….
And the important thing that everybody needs to understand — and what the West does not understand — is that they think that Russians can endure, that the Russians can suffer and win, because of what they did in the Second World War, but, well, so can Ukrainians. And that is the difference: They aren’t “Western softies,” as Putin likes to say, but they are hard fighters….
The Ukrainians are not easy to take on — they have spirit. [Whether] we are sending them enough weapons…[is a] problem in itself, because the European defense industry isn’t geared towards that.
We are giving them what we have in stock, but we will soon run out ourselves, if we don’t start producing more ourselves. But I am still a cautious optimist here. I cannot see Russia winning. Ukraine has already won, even if they will have to lose territory — comparable to Finland in 1939, the Winter War, when they had to give up Karelia but preserved their independence.
The war for independence, Ukraine has already won. Now the question is whether we can make Russia lose, and that’s another step we need to take. Europeans need to understand that one or three degrees less heat in their offices or at home will save Ukrainian lives.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
- Vazha Tavberidze is a Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow working with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.