Estonia’s Spymaster: The Danger of Putin’s Frustration

In a wide-ranging interview, Mikk Marran, Estonia’s foreign intelligence director, talks about Russia’s war on Ukraine, its impact on Europe and what may become of Putin’s regime

Estonia’s Spymaster: The Danger of Putin’s Frustration
A protester holds Ukrainian and Estonian flags during a protest against Russian invasion of Ukraine / Hendrik Osula / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Investigative journalist Holger Roonema speaks with Mikk Marran, director general of Estonia’s foreign intelligence service, about the possible outcomes of Russia’s war on Ukraine and what will become of Putin’s regime.

Holger Roonema: When the Russian invasion into Ukraine started, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the behavior of Europe as standing by and watching events roll out. Can the European reaction still be described this way or have the reactions of the EU and NATO been enough?

Mikk Marran: Europe and the U.S. are definitely not following the events from a distance; they are acting on several fronts. I can see an unprecedented unity in sanctions, military aid and political support. The sanctions and other restrictions set up by the European Union are very tough. We can see that this has already caused very painful reactions among the Russian elite as well as ordinary people.

HR: It was feared and predicted that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be swift. How can you explain why Russia hasn’t made greater progress?

MM: The key reason: large-scale miscalculation. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin underestimated the capacity of resistance from the Ukrainian people and its armed forces. He clearly overestimated the progress capability of Russia’s forces. I presume that Putin was planning a 48-hour shock and awe type of war, after which the political power of Ukraine would fall.

HR: How does the foreign intelligence service assess the war right now?

MM: It is difficult to assess, it’s the fourth day of the war. Putin has not achieved his goals and is probably very frustrated about it. Right now they are probably recalibrating. Fresh units will be sent to the frontline, and then we will see a new effort toward Kyiv. Intensive military action will continue in Kharkiv and Kherson. There is a danger that Putin — wishing to revive the attack — will bring even larger forces into play. This means additional firepower and even less avoidance of targeting civil objects than now.

HR: How long can Russia continue to keep such a military pressure on Ukraine? From where and how will it start to succumb, provided that Kyiv and other major cities won’t fall?

MM: It depends on a lot of details. The Russian armed forces still have reserves close to Ukrainian borders. They can also bring new reserves from across Russia. At the same time, we can see that the motivation of Russian troops is low. They don’t understand the purpose of the war, they are getting exhausted, information about damages in battles is spreading. The motivation among the Ukrainian forces and people is growing because the first days of the war have shown that they can stand against the overwhelming aggressor. The will of the Ukrainian people is impressive. Today I assess that Putin can’t keep up an intensive war for more than two months.

HR: Let’s presume that the Ukrainian defense will hold up. What happens then? Would Putin have any way out of the war if he doesn’t win it?

MM: The Ukrainian defense will keep up. Russia will not win this war. Even if Putin manages to set up a puppet government, the partisan war will remain. As Gen. Riho Terras [the former chief of Estonian defense forces] has said, Ukrainians are the world champions in it. A way out without, in essence, not winning the war would be, in simplest terms, through negotiations in which the DNR and LNR [the so-called people’s republics in eastern Ukraine] will be cut off from Ukraine. Definitely, they want to pressure Ukraine to declare their neutrality.

HR: What would such a scenario mean for the security of Estonia and Europe?

MM: It would be a really bad scenario — first of course to Ukraine, but in a wider sense to all of Europe. Russia would make clear that with military pressure and actual war it can achieve its goals. The assumption was that Russia does not want a war with NATO, but the ongoing scenario indicates that this assumption might not hold true anymore. Russia’s military power is definitely weaker than the combined power of NATO. But in a situation where Russia is ruled by an unstable leader, we need to be ready for everything.

HR: How much military resources does Ukraine have to continue its defense against the Russian advance, as they have done for the first few days of the war? How long will they keep on having men and women who actually know how to use the military gear and ammunition provided by the West?

MM: The Ukrainian land forces [roughly 255,000] are the third largest in Europe after that of Russia and France. Ukraine has been in a war for eight years. This means [they have] additionally tens of thousands of people with good training and military experience. If you add the volunteers willing to defend their country, we can say that the situation is good. The type of equipment we are sending to Ukraine has already been in use by them, and it is easy to learn. The important thing here is that the flow of weapons and ammunition continues.

HR: Putin has referred in several speeches and statements to the possibility of using nuclear weapons in case the West will help Ukraine. How realistic is the threat of a nuclear attack?

MM: We presume that a nuclear strike against Ukraine would be one of the last options for Putin.

HR: Presuming that Kyiv will not fall in the next few days, what does the foreign intelligence see as the probable outcome?

MM: In that case the pressure on Kyiv continues with even larger forces, and at the same time, Russia will try to advance in the southern and northeastern parts of the country. It is important for Putin to show in the next few days that they have some important location or city under their control.

HR: Under which circumstances would Russia be forced to stop their war against Ukraine? I mean, can the addition of new sanctions, removal from SWIFT etc. bring such a change? What kind of role does China’s stance play here?

MM: The sanctions will not bring a quick result. Discontent will accumulate, and we will see the effect of sanctions after months and years. It is important to understand how the essence of sanctions has changed sharply. Until now, sanctions were used to warn and to punish specific people. Now there are sanctions that will have an effect on the entire [Russian] economy. Ukraine is an obsession for Putin that he will not give up. He will clearly keep an eye on China’s positions, but I don’t believe that even if China would turn critical against Putin, it would kill that obsession.

HR: How significant do you see the possibility that the anti-war pressure inside Russia would grow so large that the Kremlin would need to flex?

MM: In my opinion it is domestically the most difficult period for Putin in the last 20 years. The number of different petitions and protests is impressive. Oligarchs, the church, Duma deputies, medical workers, athletes are talking against the war. Also, employees of Kremlin-controlled media outlets have joined the anti-war petitions. More than 3,000 protesters have already been arrested. Considering how tightly they have fixed the screws domestically, these signals and numbers are meaningful.

HR: Some Western experts are saying that this war means the end of Putin’s regime in Russia. Isn’t that naive?

MM: Putin is clearly afraid of the end of his regime. He has been afraid of it for years. He has taken maximum preparations for it by suffocating free media and the opposition. The end of the regime is a decision that will probably be made by the Russian people.

HR: After taking an active role in the war, what is the perspective of Belarus?

MM: They don’t have any perspective any longer. At least under the rule of [President] Alexander Lukashenko that state can be nothing more than Russia’s puppet. Lukashenko hasn’t had any right to speak for a long time already.

HR: What can NATO and the EU still do to make Russia pull back?

MM: Maximum political support and sending weapons to Ukraine is essential. Maximum sanctions against Russia and Belarus — this time sanctions that will affect a significant part of Russia’s population. In principle, the isolation of Russia and Belarus.

HR: How large is the danger that Russia will escalate to a war with NATO? What is the threat to the security of Estonia?

MM: Right now there is no direct military threat to Estonia. It is calm next to our borders [with Russia]. The troops from there have been taken to fight in Ukraine. But we are monitoring the situation closely.

HR: How do you assess claims that some Russian military units have started protesting and decline to go fight in Ukraine. Is there any substance to this?

MM: We are monitoring these claims. At the moment I can only say that fighting in Ukraine is anything but popular among Russian forces.

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