How Estonia’s Military Intelligence secretly helped Ukraine

February 24, 2022. It had been maybe 10 hours since Vladimir Putin announced the “special military operation” against Ukraine, but the fighting was already taking place dangerously close to Kyiv. Russian forces were trying to take control of the Hostomel airport on the north-western outskirts of Ukraine’s capital. Columns of tanks and other heavy equipment were heading towards Kyiv from Belarus. It was only a 130 kilometers journey. 

Then, roughly 800 km away in Pskov, 18 IL-76 transport planes started their engines and headed towards the takeoff track. The planes were full of perhaps Russia’s most elite airborne troops from the 76th Guards Air Assault Division. The approximately 1,000 troops loaded onto the planes were highly trained, and many of them already experienced from the Chechen wars. Their objective was to fly to Kyiv and quickly finish the “special military operation.”

The ILs were already halfway towards the Hostomel airport when Christo Grozev was the first to publicly draw attention to it: “The only plausible goal would be to capture and subordinate Kyiv (and install a puppet government) today. While the world is watching and doing almost nothing.”

But luckily this time Grozev got it a little bit wrong. Two different sources confirmed to Delfi Estonia that Estonia’s military intelligence, officially known in English as the Military Intelligence Centre of Estonian Defense Forces, had sent an advance warning to their Ukrainian colleagues before the troops had even stepped on the planes.

“I cannot confirm or deny this,” says Estonian military intelligence chief colonel Margo Grosberg when asked about it. His pause before the answer seems just a tad too long. But he acknowledges that the Hostomel battle that day might well have been the most crucial battle in the whole course of the Ukrainian war so far. “If the ILs would have been able to land at Hostomel, we might be today in a totally different situation than what he have,” he says. 

Ukraine poured everything it had around Kyiv to keep the planes from landing. The Ukrainians showered the airfield with artillery fire to make the landing strip unusable. Apparently one of Russia’s KA-52 attack helicopters was shot down and crashed on the runway making it virtually impossible for the ILs to land. After circling in the Ukrainian sky for some time, they needed to return to the base.

Comment: This is an exit interview with Colonel Margo Grosberg, the outgoing chief of Estonia’s Military Intelligence. It’s a far ranging interview and well worth reading in its entirety. I think it’s a refreshingly frank and sober view from another frontline East European state. I also see this pointing towards a robust future for the Three Seas Initiative in either supplanting NATO or giving it a strong backbone.

Concerning the specific battle of Hostomel, I think the decision to try to air land an air assault division rather than attempt a combat drop with an airborne division was fateful. Was it a decision based on over confidence or a lack of confidence in the VDV’s ability to pull off a combat drop? Did Gerasimov and Shoigu lack faith in the much vaunted VDV to pull off an airborne assault and keep those doubts from Putin. This wouldn’t surprise me in the least.   


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17 Responses to How Estonia’s Military Intelligence secretly helped Ukraine

  1. Fred says:

    The Russians started their attack @7am with a missle strike and then minutes later; ok make that an hour; ok make that two; no three, how about four hours later the bulk of the troops – via air just the the others in the attack – finally get going. Find out more in “How not to plan a coup de main” by Vlad’s best.

    What was the alternate landing site? What were the acceptable aircraft and personel losses in the plan? And as TTG points out, why no combat drop? Did they watch A Bridge Too Far once too often?

    • English Outsider says:

      Fred – the “coup de main” occurred further south. It was scarcely noticed in the West since all eyes were on Kiev.

  2. babelthuap says:

    Doesn’t matter. The current state is Ukraine lost the ground war. Only thing left is long range attacks. There won’t be anything left of Ukraine if these long range attacks continue.

    • elkern says:

      I disagree; it mattered a *lot*. If Russia had been able to land those troops at Hostomel, they may well have take Kyiv within weeks. The war would have been over in a month; Russia would have installed a new government, and NATO would not have been able to do anything about it.

      Ukraine would be securely [back] in Russia’s sphere of influence; pockets of resistance (like Azov & similar semi-private militaries) would have been rooted out by now. (Russia might have found it easier to split off Western Ukraine and let NATO/EU support it).

      Food & fertilizer (from Ukraine *and* Russia) would be flowing freely through the Black Sea (so food prices would be lower, globally).

      Russian NatGas would be flowing through NordStream to Germany, and through various pipelines through Ukraine to Europe. Energy prices in Europe would be much lower; German heavy industry would be competitive. US Oil & Gas Corps would be a few $B poorer, but diesel fuel and heating oil would be cheaper in US.

      Kakhovka Dam would still be standing; ZNPP would be providing power for much of Southern Ukraine (and Crimea).

      A couple hundred thousand young Ukrainian and Russian men would be healthy and working, rather than killed or maimed. Many towns & villages which are now unlivable rubble littered with unexploded ordnance would instead be thriving as the economy recovered from temporary financial shocks.

      For a large majority of Ukrainians, the difference between old & new government would be negligible. Some Ukrainians would have been killed, “disappeared”, or put on trial for real or perceived infractions (Russia prolly would have gone after people involved in the Maidan revolution/coup). Sadly, most of the worst Ukrainian Oligarchs would have escaped to London, where they would continue to corrupt British governments; but at least they would have lost control of any immovable assets in Ukraine (like Azovstal).

      Ukraine would be dependent on SCO for funding, rather than on Western Governments and private Financial Institutions. China would be building new rail lines through Ukraine to connect Europe and Asia.

      In my most optimistic fantasies, USA might have chosen to compete peacefully with China – by developing the Western Hemisphere as a unified economic area – rather than doubling down on more Military Keynesianism.

  3. leith says:

    That’s an intriguing interview with Colonel Grosberg at the vsquare link.

    I suspect he is right about Putin’s lack of redlines. And his command to his subordinates that “they were not to count the dead or wounded” was damn smart IMO. We learned (and apparently forgot) that 50 years ago from our own body count experience in Viet-Nam where victory was assessed by having a higher enemy body count. The metric never should have been the measuring stick for the success of any operation “Body count mania caused grossly inflated figures to be reported and caused commanders to needlessly seek contact with the enemy in order to achieve
    a body count.”
    Memo for the Record from Office of the Secretary of the Army, dated 27 April 1971.

  4. blue peacock says:

    The failure at Hostomel airport contradicted the “super power military” myth of the Russian army. The fact that after a year of war the Russian army is no closer to their initial objectives says it all.

    The Ukrainian army continues to hang in there when no one expected they would last even hours.

  5. Keith Harbaugh says:

    If some of you are not tired of addressing Ukraine skepticism, here is an article along that line:

    The author, Norman Gary Finkelstein, has some notoriety in Jewish circles, due to, among other reasons, his books
    The Holocaust Industry and
    Beyond Chutzpah.
    But leaving those issues aside, I think his perspectives on the back war in Ukraine are worth reading.
    Be interested in what the regular contributors here have to say about his views.
    A hint: he doesn’t worship Zelenskii.
    I would give excerpts, but I think it would be better to let you explore it yourself.

    • TTG says:

      Keith Harbaugh,

      I think he’s absolutely correct about Ukraine not being admitted to NATO anytime soon. We worry about every weapon we give Ukraine being the one that pushes Putin over the nuclear threshold. We also have no desire to directly engage Russia militarily. The thought of two nuclear powers voluntarily going at it is just too much to bear. Most of the scenarios of war in Europe involving DC and Moscow inevitably end up in nuclear Armageddon.

      If Zelenskiy truly thought he was going to be admitted to NATO at the Vilnius Summit, he was engaging in wishful thinking. Given our track record in providing military support, we would never be so bold and reckless to immediately invite Ukraine into NATO along with a shooting war with Russia.

      Where he’s wrong is where he thinks Ukraine is only resisting the invasion because we directed them to do so. He refuses to acknowledge the Ukrainian people as a real people worthy of existence. They would resist with or without us.

      • English Outsider says:

        Keith Harbaugh – a most interesting link. Finkelstein hasn’t lost his ruthless edge. Not his sharpness of observation. He sees through the NATO membership scam in seconds, From your link – “The horrible truth is, NATO never slated Ukraine to join; that was just a goad and ploy.”

        Articles 4 and 5 are nowhere near as solid as they’re made out to be but for us in the UK general public they’re solid as a rock: an attack against one is an attack against all. We all believe that. Mess with us, mess with the Poles, mess with anyone under the NATO umbrella and the Americans come in heavy. The credibility of NATO rests on that belief.

        None consider the converse. An attack from NATO is an attack from all.

        Any missile that is sent from any of the NATO countries gives the Russians carte blanche to attack them all. Send a missile into Russian territory from a British aircraft in the Baltic, send a cruise missile over from Poland, and if the Russians retaliate it’s WWIII. Or if the retaliation gets no NATO response then all know that that American protection is fake.

        In reality it’s not quite like that. There are safeguards to ensure the US doesn’t automatically get drawn in if one of the NATO countries goes rogue. But the US can’t use the UK or Poland to attack Russia and then say “Look, no hands”. In those circumstances it would be forced to back up the NATO guarantee when the Russians responded. If it didn’t, as said, the credibility of NATO and of its only powerful member would be shattered.

        Ukraine outside NATO has no such drawback. We can arm, train, supervise, send in covert assistance. We can even send in our own long range missiles or artillery, even provide the targeting and the technicians, And then stand back and say, as Blinken does, we’re only helping and it’s the Ukrainians’ business how they use that help. We can do with a proxy what we cannot do with a NATO member and that is why we shall always, if we can, encourage the Ukrainians along their disastrous path by always leaving open the possibility of NATO membership but never granting it.

        Finkelstein gets that. If Zelensjy hadn’t he got it for sure at Vilnius. What astonishes me is that all think the Russians are too dumb to get it too.

        • TTG says:


          You bring up an important point about NATO’s article 5. It is not a guaranteed military response to an attack on one of its members. It’a a guarantee to talk about it. What NATO does as a result of those guaranteed talks could be anything… or nothing.

          You also make a good point about the converse. “An attack from NATO is an attack from all.” As you explain, this is no more a guarantee than the article 5 guarantee. However, why let a potentially aggressive hothead into the club. That’s why NATO requires a commitment to democratic principles among its members, although there’s obviously a lot of leeway in that required commitment. Another requirement is a lack of internal armed conflict. That’s been cited as a reason for not admitting Georgia and Ukraine in the past.

          I see you’re still hung up on Ukraine being nothing more than a US proxy rather than a nation and people worthy of continued independent existence. We arm and train a lot of countries. Does our arming of Finland with F/A-18s and soon F-35s make Finland a US proxy? Ukraine is resisting the russian invaders because the Ukrainians want to resist, not because we want Ukraine to end Russia for us. If that was our goal, Ukraine would have had M1 tanks, F-16s and ATACMS. We probably would have long ago arranged for an AVG-like squadron or more of A-10s, like Colonel Lang suggested in the opening days of the Russian invasion. Perhaps we’re supporting Ukraine’s defense as a form of penance for our past neocon sins.

          Note: Don’t worry about your occasional editorial faux pas. I can handle it.

          • English Outsider says:

            TTG – on your last paragraph, the question of whether the we in the West are in the right in this conflict is one on which I believe there will never be agreement.

            For all practical purposes that argument is settled anyway! Most in the Western electorates, certainly most in the European electorates, will always believe that it’s Russia that’s in the wrong.

            This is not going to be like, say, the Iraq war where most of us came to believe in the end that we were in the wrong. It’s unrealistic to consider the future course of this conflict without accepting as settled fact that what most of us believe and will continue to believe is that it’s Russia in the wrong.

            What is also clear is that if there is any truly independent Ukraine surviving, and that Ukraine under anything like the current Ukrainian government, it will be implacably anti-Russian. It will be permanently seeking to recover its lost territories.

            It will be supplied with arms and financial support from the West, those arms including long range missiles, further Western assistance with training and, in all probability, further Western covert assistance. Also, for a certainty, that indispensable ISR assistance.

            So from that territory of remnant Ukraine the Russians may expect raids across the border, missile and drone strikes, and further activation of Ukrainian cells inside Russia.

            All this is clearly the intention of Washington. That is what the “frozen conflict” Washington is now seeking means. Washington wants a remnant Ukraine left that is free to pursue its fight against Russia. And that can pursue that fight with Western assistance but without any of the constraints that would result from its being a NATO member.

            In this connection it makes no odds whether we regard Ukraine as a proxy of the West or, as most in the West consider, a country fighting for its freedom from Russian imperialism. The result will be the same. Either way there’ll be a patch of territory on the Russian western border, supported to the hilt by the West, from which attacks can be launched against Russia. For the Russians it will be, to use Sleboda’s description “A zone of destabilisation and insecurity for the rest of our lives”,

            I simply don’t see how Blinken can hope to get that result. One way or another the Russians will seek to neutralise remnant Ukraine so that it can no longer pose that threat to their security. Any Russian administration that failed to do that would fall. After such a war as has now been fought the Russian people would accept nothing less.

            The military position is such that, barring Biden going nuclear, they need get nothing less. As said before (I hope not too often!) with the failure of the sanctions war, our main hope of defeating Russia, the military war could never lead to anything other than defeat. The neutralisation of remnant Ukraine so that it will not again become a security threat to the Russians will be an inevitable consequence of that defeat.

            It’s impossible to say exactly how the Russians will achieve that neutralisation. Best would be a straight deal with the US that NATO would not continue to arm and assist remnant Ukraine. Maybe the two parties will cobble together some such deal, though that does seem unlikely in the extreme at present.

            But however it’s done remnant Ukraine will be neutralised. It will not longer be permitted to be a security threat to Russia.

            It’s what happens afterwards that should interest us. The Euros are going to have to make up their minds whether they see the future Europe as Festung Europa come again – the Scholz and Stoltenberg future planned for them – or whether they want to arrive at some accommodation with their now hated Eastern neighbour.

            If the Euros select the first future, as I believe they will, then I think they’re heading for trouble. The balance of power is radically different now from the balance of power that obtained in the first Cold War.


            TTG – thanks for putting right that italics error above. I always type straight into the box. Such a procedure has its hazards, for all the precautions taken to weed out typing errors and such.

  6. drifter says:

    My understanding of what you guys mean by being “in the right” is that you feel you (or someone) is “in the right”. So “in the right” should be be excluded from any objective analysis, at least among you guys.

  7. Keith Harbaugh says:

    Let me ask a somewhat naive question:

    The argument is now being made by many at high levels in America
    that we must come to the aid of Ukraine
    because we must not allow aggression to succeed.

    (One argument against that is to note that seems an open-ended goal, requiring unlimited expenditures.)

    But there is, in my probably naive view, a precedent that should be considered.
    Compare, if you will, Russia’s conquest of the Donbass
    with Israel’s conquest of the West Bank in 1967.
    Both were aggressions.
    In each case, the aggression was justified on national security grounds.
    One difference seems to be that Russia supporters in the Donbass were being oppressed by the Ukraine government.
    I do not recall analogous claims that Jews in the West Bank were being oppressed by Jordan.

    If we are to condemn all acts of aggression, does consistency demand that we also condemn Israel’s conquest of the West Bank?

    • TTG says:

      Keith Harbaugh,

      To be consistent we should condemn Israel’s annexation of the West Bank. We should also condemn Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory. I’m sure there’s other instances we should condemn for the sake of consistency. Conversely, if we think Russia is justified for her security reasons, there’s no reason to condemn Israel’s annexation of the West Bank or Golan Heights.

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