Russia Will Fail to ‘Break’ Ukraine, Estonia’s Spy Chief Says

(Bloomberg) -- Estonia’s spy chief predicted a grinding conflict in Ukraine, with the war to be decided “on the battlefield,” though he expressed optimism that Kyiv will prevail against Russian forces in the end.

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Kaupo Rosin, the director general of Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, spoke as the agency issued an annual report assessing that Vladimir Putin remains convinced that time is on his side as he draws from significant resources to feed his war machine. As NATO member states ramp up weapons deliveries with battle tanks – and potentially air power – the Kremlin will struggle to fulfill its war aims, he said.

“I am certain that Russia will not be able to break Ukraine,” Rosin said in an interview in Tallinn after detailing the report on Wednesday. “The Russians indeed have a lot of resources — but the Russian economy is also taking blows, so Western decisiveness here is important.”

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The intelligence report said that while Russia is unlikely to achieve a “quality leap” in its war-fighting ability, Putin won’t be deterred despite setbacks in the first year of the invasion. Key to his thinking is a weakening in support from allies such as the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“Putin is playing for time, believing that Ukraine and the West will wear out before Russia,” the report said. “Putin thinks he can ‘bomb’ Ukraine to the negotiating table.” Last year’s report accurately predicted that Putin’s forces would be able to mount an invasion in the second half of February.

Even as Russian military planners were caught off guard by Ukraine’s ability to defend itself and the scope of US and European Union sanctions, Putin’s government shows no signs of buckling and is able to deploy the tools of “propaganda-induced imperialism,” the report said.

‘Radical’ Factions in the Wings

“Ukraine must win this war, because if Russia wins, then the cost of the blow to Western security will be significantly greater than the financial contribution that is currently being made,” Rosin said.

Russia’s elite is increasingly concerned that Putin “has gone mad, but most of them lack the courage to take real steps toward change,” the report said. There is no significant grouping that embraces democratic values in a potential post-Putin Russia.

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Instead, “radical” factions are vying for power. Those include Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin ally who leads the Wagner Group mercenary force that’s been declared a transnational criminal organization by the US government — and Ramzan Kadyrov, the militant head of Russia’s Chechnya region who has pilloried the Russian military for its failures.

The Estonian spies referred to the authoritarian regime under Putin as a Soviet Union 2.0, with “no new Gorbachev, not to mention Yeltsin, on the horizon” — a reference to the last Soviet leader who sought to liberalize the communist state and the first democratically elected Russian leader.

The intelligence agency is concerned that the invasion has heightened the risk of a military conflict in the Baltic region, with further mobilizations and Zapad 2023, the large-scale Russian military exercise planned for later this year, expected to ratchet up tension on NATO’s eastern flank.

“We will likely see forces near our borders, we will see naval and air force activity on the Baltic Sea,” Rosin said. “The aim of the exercise is probably to put military pressure on the West. It’s unusual in that it’s outside the scope of the usual schedule.”

Seeing the Baltics as the most vulnerable region in the 30-member military alliance, Russia is “highly likely” to prioritize rebuilding its military near Estonia, something which could take as long as four years.

--With assistance from Aaron Eglitis.

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