The war has thinned the ranks of Russian forces near Estonia’s border

Andres Einmann
, Eesti uudiste päevatoimetaja
The number of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine has probably exceeded 90,000 by the time this page is published. As of Thursday morning, according to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, 89,440 Russian soldiers had lost their lives in the war. The picture shows the funeral of 38 soldiers on November 11 in the Russian-occupied Luhansk region of Ukraine.
The number of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine has probably exceeded 90,000 by the time this page is published. As of Thursday morning, according to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, 89,440 Russian soldiers had lost their lives in the war. The picture shows the funeral of 38 soldiers on November 11 in the Russian-occupied Luhansk region of Ukraine. Photo: ALEXANDER ERMOCHENKO / REUTERS / Scanpix
  • The personnel strength of the Pskov division has declined by over three times.
  • Russia is trying to hide its weakness by moving troops around.
  • Prison inmates have been sent to work to Russian arms factories which are working in three shifts.

The Defense Forces intelligence center and the Foreign Intelligence Service have a good overview of what is happening in Russia's Western Military District, but precise information about what is going on in Russian military bases is not to be shared with the public. However, the representatives of both institutions admit that the war which has been going on since February 24 has definitely thinned the ranks of the Russian troops in our vicinity.

Captain Taavi Laasik from the Defense Forces press department said that a very large number of the personnel and equipment of these units are currently involved in the war in Ukraine – including those killed in action, wounded or active participants in combat activities.

“As has been said before, as a result of the war in Ukraine, units located in the immediate vicinity of Estonia are undermanned and do not have the same capability as before,” said Laasik and added that more detailed intelligence assessments concerning military units are not made public.

The Foreign Intelligence Service also does not currently share information with the public about the capabilities of the Russian units located next to the Estonian border. “We will certainly address this topic in our next public report, which we will publish in February," said a representative of the Foreign Intelligence Service.

The most combat-capable troops are in Ukraine

According to Kalev Stoicescu, a researcher at the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS), it can be said by using only the open sources that the situation of Russian troops behind our border is far from comparable to what it used to be before February 24. "Russia is forced to scrape together the most combat-capable troops from all over the country and send them to Ukraine,” said Stoicescu.

According to the researcher, one regiment’s or two battalions’ worth of personnel, 2,000 soldiers at most, has remained in the Pskov Airborne Division, which is the closest to Estonia. Before February 24, the division’ strength was about 7,000 soldiers.

“We also know that in recent years, Russia established a helicopter base in the Pskov region, quite close to the southeastern corner of Estonia, along the border with Latvia, where there were both attack and transport helicopters. Apparently, these helicopters have also largely found use in Ukraine,” said the researcher.

Stoicescu stated that Russia is trying to hide the real state of its troops and is also trying to show activity on the country's western borders. This category includes the recent announcement about exercises lasting almost half a year, until May, at a training ground near Pskov. The researcher considers this very strange, and the logical explanation for this would be that Russia is trying to demonstrate its still high military capability near NATO's borders.

"We all can see and know that this is not really the case. Russia's decision to move 11 Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bombers to North Karelia near the border of Finland and Norway belongs to the same category. With this, they are again trying to show some kind of strategic military activity. Perhaps they want to simulate combat readiness near the NATO borders. We all know that they are taking heavy losses in Ukraine, and the general condition of Russia's personnel, military equipment, supplies and everything else is not improving, but deteriorating every day," Stoicescu said.

Some bases are empty

The news published by the Finnish national broadcaster Yle in September that Russia has removed a large part of the missiles of air defense units intended for the defense of St. Petersburg also shows that Russia has greatly reduced its forces on its western border. Yle has satellite photos at its disposal showing that four of the 14 air defense bases around St. Petersburg are completely emptied of missiles.

However, this does not mean that St. Petersburg's air defenses have been significantly weakened; it is rather the case that the older missiles whose expiry date was nearing anyway have been sent to Ukraine. According to Yle, Russia sent S-300 missile systems to Ukraine from the St. Petersburg region and left behind the more modern S-400 systems. Air defense systems designed to shoot down aircraft and cruise missiles can also be used against ground targets, as Russia has done in Ukraine.

Stoicescu sees no reason to doubt the Finnish claims. “They rely on very specific sources. At the same time, we have to take into account that the surroundings of St. Petersburg are quite heavily militarized, so even if they relocate something, quite a lot remains behind,” he said.

The foreign media quoted quite widely last week an interview given by Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (RE) to the news agency dpa during his visit to Berlin, in which he mentioned, among other things, that the nine-month war in Ukraine has not significantly weakened Russia, and that the air and naval forces are more or less as strong as before the war. Stoicescu does not quite agree with the defense minister.

“Yes, it is true that Russia has a total of five fleets: in addition to the Black Sea Fleet, the Baltic Fleet, the Northern Fleet, the Pacific Fleet and the Caspian Sea Flotilla. Of course, they have not participated in this war and taken direct losses. At the same time, the Russian Air Force has suffered real losses, if you look at the Ukrainian data of what they have destroyed during the war. At the same time, the ground forces play a very important role in Russia, and there is no doubt that the general military condition of the ground forces has been greatly weakened in the Ukrainian war," stated the researcher.

Production in Russia is in the wartime mode

According to Stoicescu, attention should be paid to Russia's stockpile of missiles and projectiles, as they have used up much of their ammunition in Ukraine and cannot produce as much as they are consuming. He noted that Russia cannot afford to run out of missiles and projectiles and must keep a sufficient reserve in all directions – towards the West, in the direction of China, and in the Far East.

“Without ammunition, their fighting ability in these directions would be essentially zero. Another problem is military equipment in general. Even if they produce ammunition, but not enough cannon and howitzer barrels, for example, they simply wear out. You cannot shoot endlessly with them,” he said.

It can be seen that Russia is desperately trying to produce more military equipment and ammunition, because the factories work in three shifts.

“Russia has switched to a wartime regime and employs prisoners both in warfare and in factories. Recently, you could read the news that thousands of prisoners are being taken to the Uralvagonzavod (Ural Wagon Factory), where military equipment is manufactured and repaired. This shows that there are big problems with personnel in these factories and also in ammunition plants.”

Stoicescu noted that, apart from armament and personnel, there are other parameters by which combat capability can be assessed.

“The morale of the armed services is also important. Currently, a mood of defeat, depression and anger increasingly prevails in Russia because they cannot win this war. In summary, it can be said that the Russian military capability behind our border is significantly lower than it was before February 24. This is a fact,” Stoicescu said.

Weird tank exercises near Pskov

The South Estonian edition of Postimees wrote that exercises, which include armored vehicle maneuvers and life fire training, began on Wednesday at the Cherekha training ground, which is about half a hundred kilometers from the Estonian border as the crow flies. The Pskov local news Telegram channel announced that the exercise will take place every day, including weekends, and will last until May 31 next year, or half a year.

The existence of the exercise was also confirmed at the government's press conference yesterday by Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur, according to whom Estonia monitors the events around Pskov very closely, and not only there.

"There are quite a few places around St. Petersburg as well worth watching. In case of specific exercises, it is worth considering several circumstances. We assume that it is specifically about the training of units to be sent to Ukraine. Russia organizes similar exercises in Belarus as well, and our Lithuanian colleagues are watching it with concern," Pevkur said in response to Postimees’ question.

According to the minister, the Pskov exercise does not pose a direct threat to Estonia, but it is a confirmation that the south-eastern corner of Estonia needs to be secured.

The former commander of the defense forces, retired General Ants Laaneots, told South Estonian Postimees that there should not be large forces near Pskov right now, because most of them have been transferred to the war in Ukraine. He added that, at the same time, the Russians are unpredictable and that's why one has to keep a close eye on them.

Russian forces’ losses in Ukraine

According to the Ukrainian armed forces, the losses of the Russian forces since February 24 were as follows as of December 1:

  • personnel 89,440
  • tanks 2,915
  • armored fighting vehicles 5,844
  • trucks 4,441
  • artillery 1,904
  • unmanned aerial vehicles 1,562
  • aircraft 280
  • helicopters 261
  • cruise missiles 531
  • air defense systems 210
  • special purpose vehicles 163
  • ships/boats 16