General Ben Hodges Q&A: Ukraine could push Russia back by end of 2022

Ben Hodges.
Ben Hodges. Source: ERR

It is possible to hope Russia could be pushed back to the positions it held in Ukraine on February 23, before it launched its full-scale invasion, by the end of 2022, former commanding general of the U.S. Army in Europe Ben Hodges told ETV's "Valisilm" in an interview this week.

Hodges is currently Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Frankfurt, Germany. He was interviewed by ERR's Tarmo Maiberg and said he is feeling "optimistic" overall about the situation in Ukraine.

This is the 68th day of the war. Ukraine has been able to defeat Russian forces in the north of the country, but the front in the south has become more violent. Which keywords are important to you?  

Obviously, we are in a decisive part of this campaign here. Russia has adjusted its aims to something that they think is more achievable because, clearly, they failed in all of the original aims. But I don't think they are going to be successful even in these reduced aims.

Warfare, as we know from history, is a test of will and a test of logistics, and it is clear to me that Ukrainians have more will and that the side, their supporters, the U.S. and other allies, are growing in willpower.

And the logistical situation for Ukraine, while still tenuous, is getting better each day.

On the other side, for the Russians, their logistics situation gets worse each day because they are not able to replace things, in part due to sanctions, and in part due to the system.

So that is why I feel, overall, optimistic.

But what happens in the next two or three weeks could determine if this is brought to a conclusion quicker or [if] it will it drag on for years.

If we can accelerate all of this aid which has been promised and which needs to come behind it, particularly ammunition, then I think Ukraine really has the chance to break the back of the attacking Russian forces. If it takes too long to get there then I think it will go on much longer.

We can see that aid is being sent too slowly. Ukrainians want to, and can, fight but they do not have enough ammunition  

Do you think that Europe has lost the chance to be seen as a major donor? 

No, I would not say that. We have not lost momentum. But now it is a matter of delivery and distribution. There is an increasing amount of equipment and ammunition and things which are arriving in Poland and other entry points.  

But getting it into the hands of the fighters, that is the hard part of any logistics situation, especially if the distribution network is damaged or under pressure.

So getting it into their hands whether we are talking about Javelins [anti-tank missiles] or artillery or ammunition or helmets etc, getting it out there it's hard, it's tough. I think it would be worth considering how we can help strengthen the distribution network also, I think that is probably being looked at.

But the increase of countries saying we can provide tanks, I mean, even Germany now, obviously, is going to go forward with parts.

I live here in Frankfurt and so you can feel there is a growing sense of responsibility by Berlin to do more and I think this is important.

Does it seem that the German people are more willing to support Ukraine than the government? 

That is an interesting way to frame it. I have a wide range of German friends and family that come from all sides of the political spectrum and the vast majority of them, generally, in favor of helping Ukraine.

But I also know that in Berlin you have got a significant amount of debate inside the coalition government about what to do. Most impressive to me was the strong support by the Bundestag last week to support the delivery of armored vehicles.

I mean, for all of us inside democratic societies, when the majority of the congress or the parliament or Bundestag or assembly votes to do something in a large majority, I think that probably represents the mood of the nation as well.

So we will see.

Was Chancellor Olaf Scholz too slow to help? 

He is absolutely too slow but he is not alone.

I mean he has to bring along his own coalition government as well as his own party, you know inside the SPD you have left, center and right, relatively speaking.

But yes, I thought Germany had been too slow but now at least ... too slow, but not too late. Let me say it like that.

Last week, at the Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, a U.S.-led meeting of 40 countries was held where participants made promises about how to help Ukraine. But Hungary was not present. 

How bad a signal is this when we talk about Western unity? 

I think it is unfortunate. Hungary, they are a member of the alliance [NATO], they are members of the EU, and they benefit significantly from being a member of both of those institutions. I think it is not responsible of them to not be more supportive, to block deliveries of ammunition, for example, and equipment necessary for Ukraine, to block it. I think that's a bad choice. I would have expected more from an ally, even one that has a unique political situation like Hungary does.

But we will work around that and I think that we have no choice. As long as they are not blocking important decisions we can find other ways to deliver ammunition and capabilities.

The United States has once again taken the lead in Europe. Should a coalition of the willing have been launched earlier? 

Well look, I think the Biden administration has done a good job for months. If you think back to what seems to be a long time ago now, but just last summer or fall, the initial meeting in Switzerland between President Biden and President Putin and all the diplomatic efforts that took place throughout the summer and the fall and over the winter, Secretary Blinken and other U.S. diplomats and to me what was the best and most comprehensive U.S. diplomatic mission [that] I've seen since 1995 and the Dayton Peace Accord. Very powerful, effective.

So, I do think that we, the US, administration, was slow to embrace fully the idea of Ukraine winning and providing everything that was needed. it was just eight weeks ago that the administration was trying to decide whether or not to provide Stinger [missiles] — we've come a long way since then, obviously.

So, now the idea of winning, this is important for the United States to say this. This is about more than just Ukraine. This is about democracy and the rights of sovereign nations to choose their own future - democracy versus autocracy. In addition to Ukraine, there are other countries on Russia's periphery that are under pressure.

Of course, the Chinese are watching how all this turns out so I think it is appropriate for the United States to take a leading role - but so long as we take a leading role in NATO and so long as we continue to consult with allies and partners, I think it is appropriate.

Turning to the threat of nuclear war. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned of the dangers of a Third World War or nuclear war. But at the end of last week, he called on his deputy to keep the risk to a minimum. 

Former U.S. government advisor Gideon Rose wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that this war will not turn into a nuclear war because the nuclear powers know the consequences but a conventional war could carry on for years, similar to wars in Korea, Vietnam or Afghanistan. 

Is there a nuclear threat, or is this more a matter of fear? 

I always take things like that seriously and thanks for remembering that the Russians do exercise the use of nuclear weapons in their various scenarios.

But that is part of their messaging if you will. To demonstrate to others that they are serious they might use a nuclear weapon, that they know how they can, that it is a realistic option for them. That is part of the threatening approach.

I do think it is very irresponsible for a member of the U.N. Security Council to threaten the use of nuclear weapons when the survival of the state is absolutely not at risk. Nobody, Ukraine, the U.S., is talking about or even considering doing something that would look like an invasion of Russia. This is about protecting democracies on the periphery of Russia and so the fact that they would be so reckless and threatening the use of nuclear weapons is not surprising but it is inappropriate.

Now, I do not believe - I could be proven wrong tonight - but I do not believe they will use a nuclear weapon because there is no battlefield advantage.

I mean, I don't know if a nuclear weapon could do more damage to Mariupol than has already been done, for example. Or to some of the other Ukrainian cities.

But if they were to use a nuclear weapon then that would change the nature, the character, of this entire conflict and it would make it very hard for the U.S. and others not to become directly involved and I do not believe Russia wants direct involvement by NATO. It is more convenient for them now, to threaten NATO, to keep NATO out of direct involvement.

Once they do cross that threshold then it is a whole different story.

As you know, the response of the United States of the West does not have to be nuclear. There are a lot of other things that could be done in retaliation to Russia.

So, in other words, this does not automatically equal nuclear war or escalation just because Russia may make the terrible miscalculation of using a nuclear weapon, there are many other things that we could do that would be much more damaging to Russia's military capabilities or financial institutions or various other aspects.

I think the Kremlin actually knows this, I think people around Putin also privately know this and they gotta be thinking about life after Putin.

So, as long as Ukraine does not try and invade Russian territory, nothing should happen at this level?

Ukraine has no desire to do that.

Has the West decided what an acceptable outcome of the war would be? Is it a victory for Ukraine, a stalemate or is there another definition?

That's a very good question. The administration has specified that winning means restoration of Ukrainian sovereign territory. And that is also the weakening of Russia's ability to threaten its neighbors. Whether that is Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, or Georgia — that's the outcome that has been specified.

The timeline for that has, of course, not been specified.

It is reasonable to expect that Russia could be pushed all the way back to pre-February 24 lines, before the end of this year. I think it is very possible.

The full restoration of Crimea and Donbas, I think that is going to take longer. But that we should be publically committed to that as policy — that we want them, that that is the desired outcome.

I think we should emphasize, specify, that the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have been kidnapped or deported or who are under Russian control should be released immediately.

Now, beyond this, I do not know the thinking in any of the governments but clearly, we are going to have to figure out what is our relationship going to be with Russia. This is a huge country, with endless natural resources and it can and should play an important part going forward.

But it has a small population that is unhealthy and an awful lot of the talented young people have left. It has an economy dependent that depends on the export of weapons and gas and neither of those are going in the right direction. The decision to cut off Poland and Bulgaria from gas for not paying in rubles is going to backfire. It will accelerate countries moving away from Russia as a source

I think that the manpower shortages that they facing for their military reveal a significant vulnerability. And then finally, at some point, the corruption inside the government, which has been exposed with the terrible condition of the military... there are more [Alexei] Navalny's out there that realize how much money has been spent and gone into the pockets of oligarchs and the leadership versus taking care of Russia, taking care of their young soldiers.

Europe needs to be prepared for a dramatic change within Russia over the next five years. We were not prepared for the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and I think we need to be thinking strategically: "What if Russia, the current government, collapses? What is our relationship going to be?"

A collapse seems to be a long way off. In the meantime, will Russia continue like North Korea? 

It could be but I don't know if that is sustainable. The people of North Korea have not been exposed to the West and other opportunities, and what is outside [Russia], in the way that millions of Russians have. And Russian businesses, Russian people have many more connections with Europe and other parts of the world than North Korea.

But you could be right, I don't have a crystal ball. But I see so many manifestations of Russia's vulnerability and weakness that you just wonder "Is that sustainable?" It could be, it could be.

So that would mean a heavy loss for Russia. They must realize that they lost the war. The great empire has lost.

Just as important as getting weapons to Ukraine is helping get the truth to Russians, that Russia itself is not under attack. That's what Putin is trying to create, that this is religious, that this is a holy war, this is about Russians under siege from NATO and the west and all these things when it is actually not true at all.

There is not one single American soldier, or NATO soldier, violating Russian territory or airspace.

When Russia was at its weakest, during the collapse of the Soviet Union and Russia was on its knees, not one humvee, tank, helicopter or jet entered Russia. We had no interest in that — in fact, we were disarming.

It's the same thing today. There is zero interest in invading Russia. What we want to do is protect our allies and friends on the periphery of Russia from an expansionist Russia.

Could Moldova and Transnistria be drawn into the war? 

This has been the subject of a lot of discussions over the past week. I don't believe so. I believe this was Russia's attempt to create distractions on the periphery to cause Ukraine to divert resources, to distract us.

But Transnistria itself, as you know, has about 1,500 Russian troops that are there as peacekeepers and also to guard this massive ammunition storage site which is believed to have some 20,000 tonnes of ammunition left over from the Cold War days.

By most accounts, it is poorly guarded and it is very dangerous and unstable. It is not something that can necessarily be used as it is so old and unstable. So, it is more of a danger to anyone close to it than it is being used.

For Russia to open up a front there, they would have to get there and, as you know, they can't get there without flying in. So, they would have to fly over Ukraine, which is not gonna be very safe or reliable and I think that the Russian Navy has zero interest in getting anywhere close to the Ukrainian coastline anymore. So, without the Navy there to support [them] it just doesn't seem plausible. It could happen but it does not seem plausible. I do not know what they would hope to achieve by that.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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