Speech Chief of Defence General Onno Eichelsheim at the symposium War in Europe: The impact of Russian aggression in Ukraine 2 years on

Good afternoon,

Thank you, Professor Osinga, for the introduction. 

To the Ukrainian people in the audience, His Excellency the ambassador among them:
I wish we were celebrating another kind of anniversary today: the anniversary of the end of this war. But that time is still far ahead of us. And we’re not talking about two years of war, we are talking ten years. Let me share a quote with you: ‘This is a European war that happened to have started in the East of Ukraine.’ The words of Volodymyr Khromeychuk a Ukrainian soldier. He was killed in action in 2017. His sister Olesya wrote a book about his life and his death. As a reader, you can feel the desperation of the Ukrainians as they warn the world of their neighbour’s aggression. The past years have been hard – but they have provided us, and continue to provide us, with lessons that we must learn.

I want to thank you, professors, teachers, students and journalists, for studying this war and all of the dimensions and domains in which it is taking place: diplomacy, cognition, politics, economics, military, cyber, and so on. For learning lessons about hard and soft power and making sure these lessons are passed on. The lessons that we manage to learn and share amongst our allies will be the game changers of this war. Any country confronted by a much larger enemy has to employ its smarts rather than its mass.

Ukraine is doing this in a formidable way, like a modern-day David fighting Goliath – with a modern-day stone and sling, and allies to help restock those stones and slings. A few weeks ago, I visited Ukraine and saw first-hand how innovation and combat complement each other. A smart move, and one that should inspire us. We, too, should experiment with new technology and implement it in a continuous flow, within our own units, to bolster our deterrence.

This year, we’ll support Ukraine by acquiring and delivering Counter UAV equipment so that the troops can defend themselves against Russian drones. Latvia is one of our partners in this endeavour. And one of the Dutch companies we are working with is Robin Radar, based here in The Hague. It’s a company that makes radars to detect birds in airspace and wind parks, and it quickly also developed the capability to produce excellent drone detection radar systems. The company is constantly refining its products to fit the needs of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Right now, the people at Robin Radar are working on adapting their radars to function ‘on the move’, attached to vehicles driving at a 120 kilometres an hour. This is the kind of adaptive mindset that we need right now. 

That leads me to another lesson: mobilisation of the private sector, to at least double its production of Defence materiel within four years. The enormous amounts of ammunition and equipment being used up, serve as a warning to us, to replenish our own stocks. We need the private sector to increase manufacturing, to tell us which hurdles to remove, and to be wary of using certain dual-use companies such as Huawei. Companies need to realize that the war in Ukraine provides opportunities for new products, for testing prototypes immediately and refining them over and over. This will benefit Ukraine greatly – and us, too.

The Dutch company Hospitainer, based in the village of Vaassen, produces field hospitals and tents for the Ukrainian armed forces. Besides maintenance and repair, they also provide on-site training. The whole of Vaassen seems to be involved.

A local baker made a huge loaf of Christmas bread, measuring a meter and a half in length, for the troops. Operating in Ukraine gives Hospitainer the opportunity to work with a short innovation cycle, to experiment with their products.
And to see that their work is meaningful. Working like this is not without risk – but they see it as a must. 

Another lesson learned is that we need to move faster in the digital domain. Everything is connected in Ukraine; from drone to soldier to mortar shell. They have an app that predicts the speed, arc and target of incoming rockets. Their IT always works, from planning in the operations rooms to launching drones from the trenches, there’s barely a glitch. Remote controlled systems such as the Shablya 7.62 make it possible to operate machine guns from a distance.

They’ve succeeded in connecting old Soviet materiel to the modern Patriot system and French Air Defence systems.
The Netherlands Armed Forces lag far behind in this regard. I think we’re a bit too focused on cyber security at every level, and we may be missing out on innovation as a result. I’ve seen how Ukraine is using the innately vulnerable internet with all sorts of tools to keep it operable and safe enough. They’re working with 4G and 5G and a lot of open source developed apps. They are using less secure connections at the level of the soldier – where you want information to move rapidly because it loses its relevance very quickly. Working in this way increases everyone’s situational awareness, from soldiers in the trenches to the military leadership.

Ukrainians accept the risks that come with a lower classification of information on some levels. While at the same time, a higher classification system is used at the strategic planning levels. This is how we must also adapt our processes. Another lesson is: the great necessity of air defence capabilities in order to protect soldiers and civilians from incoming rockets and drones. From low-cost gun systems to take down slow drones, to complex rocket systems to combat long-range missiles. So we need a variety of means that can form layers, continuously connected to each other and capable of shielding the nation’s critical infrastructure. Ukrainian Air Defence is achieving success by applying air defence capabilities dynamically, sometimes deploying them in manoeuvre-like tactics. I’ve also seen how Ukrainians are using combinations of old and new systems to entrap their attackers. Several Russian bomber jets have been taken out by what they call ‘SAMbush’: a combination of Surface to Air Missile – SAM – and Ambush.
The hostile jets initially detect older air defence systems that don’t seem particularly threatening; but as they come closer, they’re surprised by the more modern Surface to Air Missiles lurking behind those outdated systems.
The next lesson learned involves training. 

Yes, this conflict involves high-tech materiel and a fast innovation cycle. But it also still involves trenches; and mines, perhaps one of the first unmanned weapons. Therefore, training is focused not only on handling new and advanced materiel, but also on basic and specialised military skills. Independently, we’ve trained around 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers in total. We’re also involved in training Ukrainian soldiers together with our German and British partners.
Together, we have trained over 75,000 soldiers. Among them soldiers with all kinds of professions, from mechanics to Marines.

I’ve been very impressed by the dedication of my servicemen and women to the Ukrainian military. When they meet Ukrainians and get a taste of their courage and conviction, they quickly understand that they are our brothers and sisters in arms. And they consider it a privilege to help them out. We’ve trained all kinds of Ukrainians – soldiers, but also teachers, farmers, even once a lawyer and a forester – who are donning a uniform for the first time in their lives, because they simply want to defend their country. Our Dutch trainers spend several intense weeks working with them, taking them under their wing. And they may never see them again afterwards.

Training days can be intense and eventful. I’ve heard a story about a day on which one man heard that his nephew had been killed on the battlefield; while another man received news that he had become a father. And I heard another story of how a trainer said goodbye to a group of Ukrainians he had spent weeks training. He knew he would never see these men again. And he said: ‘I’m not really into hugging other men, but one of them, a young man, hugged me very tightly because he knew he had to go back to the frontline. And he was scared. That made a huge impression on me.’

Afterwards, a new group of Ukrainians comes in, and the learning cycle starts over. It starts over for us, too: we are learning a lot from them. The materiel we’ve donated is put to very heavy use, and we’re learning how to improve maintenance and keep it going. I am also impressed by how much the Ukrainian soldiers can learn within a short period of time. Our own military training is too long and too expensive, too focused on perfection instead of effectiveness. We have to shorten our education and training courses and provide more add-on modules for specific expertise. This is a subject that I’ll discuss with the commanders of our armed forces services and our command sergeant majors. So it’s important to realize that while we are providing training, at the same time we’re learning a lot from the Ukrainians.

I recently visited the National Defense University Ukraine and learned that 90 % percent of the officers who study there have served at the front lines. Their combat experience provides the university with a continuous flow of expertise. They experiment with materiel at the front, work with their technicians and knowledge institutions, and then report back to defence industry partners about the outcomes so that improved versions of the materiel can be sent to the front. Their innovation cycle had been brought down to about three months, and every participant benefits from the speed of this process. T

his way of working demonstrates an important difference between the leadership styles of the Ukrainian and Russian Armed Forces. Russia’s style is rigid and brutally hierarchical – although they are learning fast too. But Ukraine is fostering a learning environment where creativity and ideas are welcome, whether you’re a sergeant or a general.
And I fully agree with that – I can learn as much from a corporal as from a fellow general. 

The last lesson is a broader one. It centres on the resilience we’re seeing in Ukrainian society, which is much discussed and admired. Most Ukrainians contribute to the war effort, because they are aware of what they stand to lose if Russia wins. 

In the Netherlands, we’re not there yet. My colleagues and I have started warning the general public about the war moving into NATO territory. It has led some people to buy survival packages for themselves. That’s good – you need to be able to save yourself. But I want to shift that mindset to a higher level. I want to shift it closer to the kind of mindset that we saw at the beginning of the Covid pandemic. Sure, there was a phase where people were hoarding toilet rolls and flour. But there was a moment before that. A moment when people were buying groceries for their elderly neighbours; walking the dog when a friend fell sick; checking in with stressed-out colleagues. People were stepping up, helping each other and loving it.

I need our whole society to get into this mindset: sticking up for one another; working towards a common goal.
But let me tell you: when it comes to resilience, there is a lot of ground to cover between ‘buying a flashlight and canned food’ and ‘becoming a professional soldier’. There’s a need to accept that we require more space for training and exercises; possibly in a bit of your backyard – not easy in a small country, I know. There is a need to understand that defending ourselves costs money. There’s a need to be aware of the continuous waves of disinformation that come our way, and to arm our minds against such deception. 

This is the mindset we have to tap into. Because in times of peace, the Armed Forces support the population.
In times of war, the population supports the Armed Forces. 

All in all, we need to stick together and get comfortable with being a bit uncomfortable. Because we are in this for the long haul. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be quick. Ukraine is facing a dictator who wants to revert back to the Soviet Union and to turn back time to the era of Peter the Great and his empire. And while Putin thought that this war would be over in a matter of days, we’re now at the two year mark – but he’s nowhere near stopping.

This is a war of attrition. That means that war fatigue is a luxury none of us can afford. If the war is going to move from the front pages to our own front doors, we want to be prepared, united, and resilient. We want to realize what we are fighting for: extending to the next generations the peace and freedom that our country has enjoyed for the past 80 years. Our children and grandchildren deserve a future in which they can cast their votes in free elections.
They deserve a prime minister who can cycle to work safely. A real democracy, with an opposition that isn’t silenced, imprisoned, or worse. Where citizens have the right to voice their protest if they don’t agree with the status quo.
To read any book and watch any movie that holds their interest. And to claim the rights they are promised under our Constitution, no matter their gender, age, race, sexuality and beliefs. And we want to extend this freedom to our ally, Ukraine. Thank you.