Ukraine had Europe’s backing ever since the Russian invasion of its territory. For the European Union, Ukraine and Ukrainians are part of the wide European family. War in Ukraine is a threat to our collective security. Besides the strong condemnation of Russia’s activities, the European Union has been at the forefront to offer a constant flow of political, financial and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. It has also implemented a set of strong sanctions against Russia in an effort to thwart and repel the invasion.
TheFactual.eu meets with MEP Riho Terras (EPP Group) who is a member of the Delegation to the EU-Ukraine Parliamentary Association Committee and a former General and Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces from 2011 to 2018.
Since the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several European politicians have travelled to Ukraine to get first-hand insight into the developing situation in the region. But few MEPs know the region – and indeed the battlefield – better than MEP Riho Terras, who prior to his election served as a General and a Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces after an extensive experience in the military.
Given his political and military background, we ask Mr Terras whether he was surprised when Russia invaded Ukraine despite having previously rejected such claims. The Estonian MEP replied with a decisive “Not at all”, insisting that war has been coming for eight years since the invasion of Crimea. While the rest of Europe was looking the other way, Baltic countries, particularly Estonia, were very much aware of what was going on close to their borders and had already escalated preparation on their territories and support to Ukraine, he notes.
“I was there, in Donetsk, on 20th February 2022. I could look into the eyes of the Russians, less than 500 metres away. It was clear that a war was coming”, the MEP explains, adding that he made sure that he used his presence on Ukrainian territory to provide first-hand information to his colleagues in the European Parliament.
Europe was caught unawares, the MEP says, adding that it was not listening carefully to what the Baltics had to say. European leaders were perhaps too comfortable with the status quo, purchasing energy from Russia, and maintaining diplomatic relations with Vladimir Putin.
“It was clear to me that the Russians weren’t only after Donestk and Luhansk. They wanted Kiev. They wanted a change in the country’s government. Such a strategic objective was not achievable merely by taking the Donbass”, adds Mr Terras, who had made such an assertion already in January, weeks before the first shots were fired.
Evidence of Russia’s imperialistic desires is visible wherever you look since Putin came to power, with Terras suggesting that all the warring efforts undertaken by the Russian President, in Grozny, Sevastopol, Aleppo or Mariupol were all parts of the same pattern, of one wide strategy.
Our engaging discussion moves on to the war itself, as we seek Mr Terras’ views on the resilience shown by the Ukrainians defending their lends. As a General with military experience, the Ukrainian response was to be expected: “In 2014 (when Russia invaded Crimea) the Ukrainian army was not ready, but in eight years it moved ahead significantly. With the support of its allies, it was able to train its soldiers and invest in modern technology while sending its top brass to study abroad. In eight years, Ukraine’s colonels became generals at US institutions”.
Mr Terras shares some key military insight, telling us that to win a war, three factors are needed. The first is the will to fight, and in this sense, he lauds President Zelensky for his ability to rally the nation behind the idea of an independent Ukraine. The second is the support of a nation’s allies – not solely financial and military, which are both fundamental – but more importantly in their attitude. Here again, he feels that the Ukrainians achieved the respect of the international community by resisting the temptation to attack the Russian troops before the invasion. The third element is having an excellent logistics operation in place – and in this sense, Terras believes the Ukrainians are ages ahead of the invaders.
Our discussion revolves once again around the EU’s role, and although the MEP had previously expressed disappointment towards the pre-war approach towards Russia, he lauds European efforts since the war started. “Granting EU-candidate status to Ukraine was a very important step forward showing the complete support of the EU towards the country”, he adds, while expressing hope that Ukraine’s request for consideration as a NATO candidate country is also green-lighted at the earliest.
“The European Union, including the European Parliament, have already done a lot – but we can still do more. We have to keep supporting Ukraine and sanctioning Russia”, Terras suggests. The MEP, who ironically is himself sanctioned by Russia for his pro-Ukrainian efforts calls for the sanctioning of other Russian entities including banks and nuclear energy providers. “Some countries can do more – Estonia has provided the same defence equipment as France, a much larger country. We need to increase this support. It is surgical, training and intelligence support which changes the course of war”.
Although the war in Ukraine is the focus of European efforts a number of MEPs have begun to look forward beyond the end of the fighting. Terras is, in line with the centre-right EPP Group, one of the MEPs pushing for a strong European defence policy, backed up by a Commissioner for defence. “But more importantly we need to invest more in defence. There is a major, old-fashioned war in our backyard and still many EU countries are hesitant to increase their military budget”. He also calls on for consolidation and cooperation in the European defence industry: “Currently three different conglomerates are working on the design of new, modern warn tanks. Europe is too small in a military context to have such fragmentation”, he argues.
A cursory look at Estonian politicians engaging Twitter feeds one could not miss his concern at the news that thousands of Russian military-aged men are escaping the country. While the Western general media has generally portrayed such scenes as a demonstration of anti-Putin sentiment, Terras disagrees. “These men are not running away because they are anti-war. They are running away because they don’t want to die. If they are truly against the war, they should be showing that in Moscow or St Petersburg”.
Terras has expressed concern about the potential impact of many young Russian men in Europe, and he has an added reason for this: “Putin could have simply closed off the borders. But he didn’t. That in itself, says a lot” he adds, calling on European leaders to stop this massive influx of Russians into the continent.
Concluding the exchange, we ask Terras whether an end is in sight for this long-drawn war. Terras, who calls Putin’s bluff on using tactical nuclear weapons at least at this stage – believes the Ukrainians will eventually emerge victorious. “Putin will eventually call for a cease-fire”, he claims, adding that Ukraine’s tenacity will propel the nation to reconquer the land it had prior to the 24th of February”.
Expecting his prediction to end there, Terras leaves us with a shocker: “Both sides will be ready to go again, come next February”, in a clear suggestion that war will be part of our daily vocabulary for a long time ahead.
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