Finnish General Esa Pulkkinen: ‘Putin is not even frustrated anymore, he is desperate’

Finnish General Esa Pulkkinen Putin is not even frustrated anymore

No one knows the Russians better than the Finns. Not only do they have the longest border in the European Union with Russia, but they have twice repelled the assaults of their brutal neighbor who tried to invade them during the Second World War. These heroic episodes – reminiscent of today’s Ukraine – are known as the Winter War (1939-1940) and the Continuation War (1941-1944).

Highest ranking in the Ministry of Defense in the post of “permanent secretary” – the equivalent of the deputy Minister of Defense – General Esa Pulkkinen, 65, has a long career behind him in uniform. Posted in Central Africa, Mali or Somalia, he also commanded the famous Jaegger Brigade, which operates north of the Arctic Circle in extreme temperatures. More recently, Pulkkinen served as Director General of the European Union Military Staff, from 2016 to 2020, in Brussels, just before French Vice-Admiral Hervé Bléjean. A highly respected personality in his country, he is one of the best connoisseurs of the Russian armed forces.

How do you assess Vladimir Putin’s belligerent speech evoking partial mobilization and nuclear weapons?

Esa Pulkkinen This speech is important because the Russian leader is showing his last cards and his intentions appear clearly there. He is aware of being cornered. Hence the mobilization of 300,000 Russians and the allusion to nuclear weapons, once again… At the present stage, he is not even frustrated anymore, he is desperate. Ready for everything. He is not going to give in, because his own survival is at stake. He is going for broke.

A photo released by the Kremlin on September 21, 2022, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin during a televised address in Moscow.

A photo released by the Kremlin on September 21, 2022, shows Russian President Vladimir Putin during a televised address in Moscow.

His rhetoric is more or less consistent with what he has always claimed since February 24: we must get rid of the so-called Ukrainian “neo-Nazis”. But this time, he goes further. He points out that his enemy is not just Ukraine, but the unified West. Which is an escalation in itself.

Another element also displeases me; it is the organization of referendums in the regions of Ukraine occupied by its army, which will allow it to transform them into components of the Russian Federation. Therefore, any military action against these regions would amount to a “direct threat” to the Russian motherland. Which, in his logic, would authorize him to take the “necessary measures” to protect his country. This is the part of the speech that worries me the most.

But we have already seen something similar in Crimea this summer. Ukraine destroyed an airport and ammunition depots…without Putin react.

The nuance is that these Ukrainian bombardments did not threaten Crimea “directly”. Since the Ukrainian counter-offensive of August 29 towards Kherson (south) and in the Kharkiv oblast (east), the situation has evolved. We are in a new phase.

“Putin is fighting for his survival, not for the future of Russia”

When discussing the nuclear option, Putin has clarified that it was “not a bluff”. However, someone who is bluffing, and who is sure of his fact, never makes such a statement. This considerably weakens his point…

I don’t think we’re close to using a weapon of mass destruction. But the risk is high. Putin is cornered. He is fighting for his survival, not for the future of Russia. His fight has become personal. We all know how Ceausescu, Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein ended up. He knows it too. In his eyes, there is therefore no peaceful way out of his situation. He gave up on the idea of ​​a peaceful retirement. Either he stays in power or something terrible will happen to him.

Russian history shows, however, that even in the Kremlin, one is not necessarily safe.

Certainly, but the security apparatus dedicated to his personal protection is considerable. As a former KGB agent, he knows how to handle the secret service and the political police. He is very protected. Overthrowing it from within is not a simple thing to accomplish. What’s more, the middle class, which could have been a driving force for protest, has been wiped out for ten to twelve years. It no longer has any assets nor does it have sufficient critical mass to make a difference. The leeway of supporters of change is limited. The whole society is under the control of the security apparatus.

‘Putin can’t win this war’

Putin announces the mobilization of 300,000 soldiers, which is equivalent to the – considerable – mobilization capacity of the Finnish army. Can he succeed?

Our two countries are not comparable. We know how to quickly mobilize units assigned to tasks they already know. We have an organized mobilization structure for the scenario of a war. Russia is different. There, they mobilize individuals without skills and a few experts in different fields. But they don’t have an organization for that. Are they ready to form combat groups immediately available for war? I doubt.

In reality, they have to replace some of the soldiers who are at the front and who are exhausted by eight months of war. They have to fill in the holes. The operational impact will therefore be limited. If they really want to train new recruits to bring them to a level that allows them to lead a military offensive, it will take at least a year. During this time, the Ukrainians will also improve. Putin cannot win this war.

We are therefore not in the case of mobilization massive under Stalin, who had made it possible to beat the (real) Nazis at Stalingrad…

Truly not. It must also be taken into account that the Russian army has suffered badly since February 24. Its material losses are considerable. A simple example: she lost a lot of armored personnel carriers. Those that remain are much less modern.

What do you think of the demonstrations in the big Russian cities against the mobilization announced by Putin?

First of all, this indicates that the youth of Moscow, Saint-Petersburg or Yekaterinburg was not hitherto affected by the war, insofar as those who fight in Ukraine mainly come from regions far from urban centres. This is why the man in the street, in the metropolises, limited himself to the information broadcast on television by the propaganda of the regime. Suddenly, the mobilization concerns them. The war becomes real. And she has a face: that of a son or a boyfriend who is going to be sent to the front.

Finnish General Esa Pulkkinen in 2022

Finnish General Esa Pulkkinen in 2022

@MoD Finland

Finland has the longest border in the European Union with Russia. What did you observe there?

So far, no change. At the only open border post [situé à 200 kilomètres de Saint-Pétersbourg], the night from Wednesday to Thursday was normal. However, it is possible that the situation will change, in particular because Poland and the Baltic countries refuse access to Russian nationals, including holders of a Schengen visa.

Finland does not apply such restrictions. Those who have a visa can enter us. However, we have clearly restricted the issuance of visas, knowing that 100,000 people already have one, because of their marital status – Russian-Finnish couple – or their status as cross-border workers. But the debate is open in the media and the Finnish political class. According to a poll published on Wednesday September 21, 70% of Finns are in favor of the total closure of the last open customs post. This puts a lot of pressure on policy makers.

Your country, together with Sweden, is on its way to joining NATO. How would Finland react today if Putin attacked it?

(Laughter) We would defend ourselves, of course! No doubt about it. We have done it twice in the past during the Second World War and the Russians have a burning memory of it. Finland has one of the strongest armies in Europe because we didn’t give up our core defense in the 1990s when everyone was saying ‘the end of history’ and cutting budgets military. Others have done it, like Sweden or Germany. We weren’t naive, because we know our eastern neighbor well. As a close friend always says, “It’s always best to store gunpowder in a dry, dry place. Just in case…”

Because they weren’t able to beat us in World War II, Finland is one of the few countries Russians respect. No need to argue about it. The Winter War, from November 1939 to March 1940, was disastrous for them [NDLR : environ 125 000 morts, 250 000 blessés, soit cinq fois plus que du côté de la résistance finlandaise]. The memory of this carnage, still fresh in their minds, is also part of our deterrence system.