General Riho Terras, who has held key positions in Estonian national defense for a full decade, will take a time-out but does not rule out returning to the circle of decision-makers one day.
Terras: I would like to withdraw
President Kersti Kaljulaid said in her Defense Forces anniversary speech that you have been a brisant officer. That is an explosives term.
A lot of people reached for their phones at that moment, to find out what it means. I suppose she was referring to my tempestuous nature. Sometimes I just shoot, and it has led me to have to apologize on a few occasions, but I can do that – it’s okay.
The word in the general staff is that you have a shorter fuse than you predecessor Ants Laaneots. That you are sometimes stubborn at meetings but always have an ulterior motive. You express your opinion as concerns defense policy or diplomacy behind closed doors but keep yourself strictly separate from politics in public. Has this been a conscious choice?
It is the job of the Defense Forces commander to represent the armed forces. It is important for me to express my opinion when it is sought, but I don’t want to do it in the form of a public conflict.
When was the last time politicians’ actions made you angry?
When they abolished special pensions without replacing them with a compensation mechanism. My gut tells me that it will be difficult not so much to recruit but to hold such high-intensity exercises in the future. I have seen soldiers in their 50s and 60s in Belgium – most countries have special pensions for a reason. I’m not saying it should come at the expense of the Estonian social system, it could come from inside the 2 percent spent on national defense. I understand that it is a strain in the long run, but we should compensate young men for weekends spent in the forest somehow.
You are credited with at least three major achievements in the armed forces: salary advance that managed to bring people back to the Defense Forces, that the army is now brigade-based and that we’ve never had as many allies as we do today. There is a fourth, less visible, thing: minister at the time Jaak Aaviksoo ended trench warfare between the ministry and the general staff when he made you commander. All have been major processes.
Those achievements belong to the entire armed forces. The important thing in a national defense system is to have a common goal, not to get stuck in individual trenches. I hope this unity will endure. Boosting the role of non-commissioned officers is what has given the Defense Forces its spine.
The defense minister candidate of a particular party Leo Kunnas describes current Defense Forces command as a grotesque farce and vows to restore defense districts. How do you respond?
It is definitely possible if he gets a corresponding budget. Defense districts exist and remain functional; nothing wrong with it if someone can secure more resources for them. Additional resources would also give us another brigade that would also be a sensible development. I have done the best I could, together with my team, with the resources we were given.
Kunnas was your classmate in officer training. Does it bother you when former comrades want to turn back recent choices?
I also like to talk about an army of 50,000! I would have nothing against Estonia having three divisions. It’s just that it would be pointless without ammunition, soldiers or officers. Talk of a surplus of reserve officers in Estonia just isn’t true. A glance at the actual situation is all it takes to realize this.
Jonatan Vseviov, who went from the Defense Forces to serving as an ambassador, wrote in his defense policy testimony that Estonia did not have a single combat-ready unit at the end of Gen. Ants Laaneots’ term as commander of the defense forces in 2011. You had to see it at the time. Why was nothing done sooner?
I believe that all Defense Forces commanders have given it their all. We also worked hard. The first ten-year defense plan was drawn up when I was secretary general. We found that 29,000 troops plus the Defense League is what Estonia would need. Our desire to do more is entirely understandable. But once you start looking into things, you discover you have hundreds of thousands of blanks reserved as keepsakes in your warehouse but no live ammunition. That is one area we have been concentrating on. The mobilization system was created during Laaneots’ time – it has not been changed.
Vseviov also revealed that provided defense spending does not grow to 2.5 percent of GDP, the Defense Forces cannot afford to procure anything new from 2026. There is currently no political debate on defense spending. How can you be so calm about it?
It is a political topic and a very explosive one at that. I think that everyone understands: while change is needed, there is time until 2026. We have several things in the works that will be completed before then. That will raise questions we are already asking ourselves but do not fully comprehend yet. Our trucks for example. When I signed the procurement in 2001, we got them for 5 percent of what they were worth. No one will give us those prices today. The cost of a tank driving for one meter during an exercise is €400-500. The important thing is for politicians to listen to military advice instead of trying to run the armed forces on a tactical level in place of the commander.
Do you believe funding will be hiked?
I do not know. But I believe it will not be cut, and that is already very good.
The Defense Forces will soon have new firearms, mobile artillery and medium-range anti-tank systems. If you were to give advice, what would we need next?
I would hurry to get done everything we have planned until 2026 as quickly as possible: so the second brigade would be equipped and manned in full. To have the artillery here before 2024-2025.
The recent issue of military magazine Sõdur writes that Estonia could do with rocket launchers. Is that wishful thinking?
Not at all. Conflicts have shown that long-range high-precision weapons for hitting air, ground and sea targets have proven decisive. All three should be considered if there are sufficient resources. The Poles are buying eight batteries of Patriots and six batteries of HIMARS. Estonia does not have the resources today, but we definitely need to consider these things in the future.
You’ve said that NATO defense plans have increasingly catered to Estonia’s interests since 2008. Still, it does not sound overly encouraging. What would be needed to say they are exhaustive?
That will never happen. The plans being exhaustive would be what we need. But we need to plan for what NATO and all allies need. Today, we are very close to things we couldn’t even dream about in 2008. When we joined NATO, the alliance was not what we wanted it to be. It has come a lot closer by now.
What is missing?
Speed of decision-making and chain of command, lack of leadership structures. Helicopters, planes and ships in the Baltic Sea is what needs planning. What we have achieved is that allies know ours is not an empty theater, that there are brigades fighting here. A total of 60,000 troops in the three Baltic countries. They need to realize that once war breaks out, their support will be needed. I believe that the Brits believe that we believe we have a defense force.
Would Estonia remain independent should the scenario of the recent Zapad training exercise in Russia materialize?
That is a highly theoretical question. Estonia would fight and hold on for a time. We would fight regularly and irregularly if needed. I think that the level of our special forces and Defense League battle groups in terms of unconventional warfare can be regarded as one of our greatest successes of recent years. We also have world-class scouts.
You made efforts to have allies station Patriot missile systems in the region a few years ago. You believed the Baltic air policing mission would become an air defense mission before the Warsaw summit. What happened to those plans?
I still believe it will. That understanding exists at Allied Air Command in Ramstein. I believe these decisions will be made. As concerns the Patriots, it’s true that no one will station systems allies are short on themselves in our region. However, being able to move them here in case of a threat – that is completely realistic.
Will it become impossible for Russia to violate our airspace once the air defense mission arrives?
No. It is a political decision. You have to have guts to shoot down a plane that has violated your airspace for a minute. But it is crucial for these things to be taken seriously.
How to solve the problem of air defense in Estonia?
Together with allies; there are no other options. In Baltic cooperation.
What is the problem? We could come to an agreement?
Money. Lithuanians are procuring a single system, but it will not give them actual capacity. It will give them the ability to protect an area the size of Harju and Rapla counties, but they can afford to take it from there. It costs a lot of money.
This year’s major training exercise Hedgehog tested the Defense League’s readiness. What mark would you give it?
A strong C. There was still uncertainty, and some people who promised to be there did not show up. But they pulled it off. The system worked as a whole. There is much to be done still: equipment, command and communications support. Such exercises point out pain spots, gaps that need to be filled in.
Where is the lesson in Denis Metsavas’ case?
That traitors need to be caught. That we need to be more alert, keep our eyes open, have control mechanisms in place. I do not believe it is the last we’ve seen of such incidents. Throughout centuries, armies have had their traitors. The warning is to put them away for a long time. I hope that is what will be done with Metsavas.
Estonia is living good times again. There is money, and people are becoming soft. One complains he’s not allowed to build wind parks, while another cries over the quality of gloves in the Defense Forces. It seems national defense is increasingly under criticism. Are you not afraid that maintaining the legitimacy of a citizens’ army might become problematic?
Coercion is increasingly difficult to defend all over the world. People are more involved with themselves than society. Spending more than a day in the same room with ten others is a challenge for many young men these days. We need to stay with the times and change the way we do things: more technology, less strict discipline and pressure. Even though the number of volunteers aiming for the Kuperjanov Battalion means we cannot accept everyone. Some still like a tougher environment. However, it is getting harder for the armed forces every year.
The eight and 11-month conscription model has been in use for a long time now. When will it have to be changed?
When we have to start using conscripts to man systems. We have not done so yet, but if we want more complex systems and cannot hire the people to work them, we need to review that model. It will definitely be discussed as part of the upcoming ten-year plan.
What will that new model look like?
That is up to the new commander to decide, and I’m sure you will hear a lot on that subject quite soon. Systems of the future will likely need more cybersoldiers. Perhaps not everyone will have to pass the physical test.
Bringing women to the service has not really worked out that well: there are few volunteers and many quit.
We are doing something wrong somewhere. Women are giving military service a chance, but they quit after only a short time. Women make up 6-7 percent of conscripts today, while 15 percent would be good. There have been experiments, discussion – no results. Attitudes of officers and non-commissioned officers could change perhaps. Everyone is treated like a soldier, but perhaps we need to be a bit more flexible. Years ago, the Danish army procured one-size bras for all the women to keep costs down because the tender was handled by men. That is an example of why you need to listen to women. I sincerely hope the first woman will soon be promoted to battalion commander.
Is it in the stars?
It seems so, yes. I really hope so.
The Estonian Defense Forces and people have paid a relatively high price in blood on foreign missions. Will we never return to places like Iraq or Afghanistan?
It has to be a carefully weighed decision. Participation in Iraq and Afghanistan gave us NATO membership; anyone who thinks that is not the case is wrong. The fallen have paid in blood for it. Cooperation with the French has largely been tied to our mission participation. The phrase “we want” needs to be backed up by “we did”. Our voice needs to become louder in the planning stage. An end goal needs to be visible in terms of mission plans. I honestly do not see any such plan for Afghanistan today.
Give Gen. Martin Herem a tip for getting along with foreign generals as you did.
The more often you say what you mean, the better. It got on my nerves when people showed up at NATO military committee and especially EU military committee meetings and simply read out political statements that had absolutely nothing to do with what they really thought. When the Estonian unit left the Central African Republic, I gave a presentation at the military committee and said it was not right, that there would haver to be a transition, intelligence resources. Everyone fell silent. After, when we went for coffee, people came up to me and commended me for speaking out. I could have used that support in the room! I have no fear in terms of Gen. Herem not being able to handle himself and speaking his mind.
Could things have gone differently at some point in your career?
There have been low points. I had the best time as battalion commander. That is where young men can really live it up. It is much better to be a big fish in a small pond than it is to be small one in a large pond. They are your 500-600 people, and everything is clearly specified. You can be out in the field during exercises.
What has been the hardest moment?
To stand in front of mourners or give a speech in a church. Or looking an Estonian soldier, who lost his legs a few days earlier, in the eye either in Afghanistan or in a British hospital. Nothing compares to that feeling.
Does it change something in a man?
I believe everyone would feel it, but you only really acknowledge it when you are the one responsible. When you signed the order. I hope that everyone tasked with deciding whether to send troops on new missions will think on it before pressing that button in the parliament.
Which parties have come courting?
I’ve been asked whether I’m interested in politics, but since I have been very clear in saying that I’m not, no invitations have been extended. There have been hints, but I’ve told politicians I want nothing to do with it.
What’s the expiry date on that?
Hard to say. I have been on the front lines long enough – almost ten years, and it takes its toll. It is all at the expense of my family, so I would like to withdraw.
Whom in the Estonian defense industry will you be working for when you move to the Hague?
I have quite the network after all these years. I know generals in active duty and in reserve. Using those contacts, I would be willing to contribute. I would like to do something that has a beginning and an end. The Estonian defense industry has been my hobby. I attended a defense industry fair where Latvia was present for the first time. They are roughly where Estonia was ten years ago.