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Gen. Ben Hodges: US failure in Ukraine encourages Iran, North Korea and China

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, U.S. Army.
Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, U.S. Army. Source: (Estonian Defence Forces)

The failure of the U.S. and its allies to support Ukraine has global implications as it encourages Iran, North Korea, and China, Gen. Ben Hodges, the former commanding general of the United States Army Europe, told "Välisilm". He also said NATO should shoot down missiles fired by Russia at Ukraine's civilian infrastructure, comparing the situation to the Middle East.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that Russia had used 300 missiles and 200 drones in five days. Will such bombings continue for a long time and what will be the effect of Western support on Ukraine?

Well, of course, there's three or four critical aspects of this.

First, Russia has been planning for this onslaught, I think, for some time, and building up the stocks of weapons that they have. Clearly, there are holes in the sanctions, and also not only are the Iranians providing the Shahids, but the Chinese are very clearly providing capabilities to Russia. This is something that the United States and the European Union are going to have to address. The economic aspect of helping Ukraine is not being effectively employed. That's one thing. We've got to squeeze off their ability to do this.

Secondly, I assume that they have hundreds more of these missiles and rockets and drones that they've been building up. So, that means this is going to continue for a while, which means that the West has got to provide Ukraine, continue to provide Ukraine, with air defense, air and missile defense capabilities, but also to go after where these things come from. To get left of launch, we say, to be able to strike the bases, whether it's airfields or launching pads.

Some of this comes out of Crimea. Some of it comes out of Russian-occupied Ukraine. But much of it comes out of Russian bombers that are launching from over the Caspian Sea. So we can't just sit back and watch apartment buildings continue to be hit. And I think it is that Romania and Poland, for example, and other Eastern European NATO countries should consider being able to strike, to counter these missiles from inside their own airspace.

So We're not talking about NATO forces engaging Russian forces, but we are talking about doing exactly what the U.S. Navy is doing in the Red Sea, knocking down missiles that are being aimed at cargo ships. Why don't we do the same thing, knock down missiles that are intended to hit civilian targets?

So, we've had an instance recently where a Russian missile went through Polish airspace and then hit a target in Ukraine. So why aren't Poland and Romania scrambling their jets as soon as they pick up that there's missiles coming in – you don't know that that missile is not going to hit them. And so to engage those missiles with their own counter capabilities, I think this is something that we should be considering to augment basically what the Ukrainians are doing.

Now of course some people will wet their pants at the idea of that, but to me this is exactly the same thing that we're doing by knocking down Houthi missiles that are being launched against civilian ships.

The third thing is that this highlights the ridiculous notion that some people think that we should push Ukraine to negotiate with Russia. Russia commits dozens of war crimes every single day with the whole world watching. And then you've got supposed experts, and I'm afraid including even from my own government, that are telling Ukraine: "You're going to have to settle, you're going to have to give up some land for peace". That reveals an utter lack of understanding of who Russia is and what Russia's goals are.

General Valerii Zaluzhnyi wrote an article in The Economist magazine that the war resembles the trench warfare of the great wars. Has military parity been reached, and what can be done to change the balance? 

Yeah, I thought that General Zaluzhnyi's Economist piece was actually very useful. It was sober, it was clear, and he identified exactly what the challenges are and what they need. This is exactly the kind of analysis you would want from your chief of defense, chief of the staff, and it was very professional analysis. No emotion, very professional analysis. I think that's a very good to-do list for Ukraine as well as the rest of us to help address.

I think the translation – I'm not a language expert – but the translation that The Economist used that was stalemate actually should have been something like deadlock, which is a different connotation in English. Deadlock offers the implication that this can be solved.

The kind of things where he needs help, obviously, are countering the enormous advantage that the Russians have in drones and electronic warfare capability. What are we doing to help with that? I think this is probably something that Ukrainians are going to be working on, that [they] are working on over the winter, to improve their ability to operate inside this very significant Russian electronic warfare advantage.

The Russians, as long as I've been in the army going back to the Cold War days, the Russians always had superior electronic warfare capability to us. It's just not something that we've been very good at, nor have we had the amounts of it. So now we're having to play catch-up in this regard.

But think about the notion that somehow they're at parity or that there's a stalemate. Russia started this war nine years ago with every advantage, every advantage, and after nine years, soon to be 10 years, they still control only about 17 percent of Ukraine.

Their air force has not been able to achieve air superiority or interdict a single train or convoy bringing equipment or ammunition from Poland. The Black Sea fleet is retreating. Already a third of the fleet has had to move from Sevastopol [in Crimea] back to Novorossiysk after just four or three Storm Shadows were used.

Their logistic system is very weak.

You know, everything I see, they've lost over 320-330,000 people killed and wounded in this war, and just in the last month over 20,000. So that's incredible, especially when you consider that we, the West, in particular the United States and Germany, have not delivered. We're not even committed to Ukraine winning. So with a policy change by the United States and Germany that we want Ukraine to win, that would release so many capabilities that would help Ukraine, this would go a long way to breaking that deadlock. 

So it seems that Western countries have not responded openly to the article or the list of needs? 

No, not at the government level. Obviously, our Congress, it's embarrassing that they walked away from their responsibility. I hope that this will get resolved this month or early February but what a gift to the Kremlin that our government and our Congress are abdicating their responsibilities. We are going to lose big.

Ukraine's going to keep fighting no matter what. But we in the West are going to lose big if we don't help Ukraine defeat Russia because what Russia is doing, the Chinese are watching. What Iran is doing through their proxies, Hamas, the Houthis, and Hezbollah, the Chinese are watching.

 If the United States and their allies, if we don't have the political will and the defense industrial capacity and the military capability, but especially the will to help Ukraine defeat Russia, to help Israel destroy Hamas, to help to force, to contain Iran's ability to use their proxies to disrupt international shipping, to deter North Korea. The Chinese need to see that we still can do all of that and deter them from making a terrible miscalculation. So this is what's at stake here.

Our failure to ensure freedom of navigation in the Black Sea, for example, our failure to really stop Russia from these endless attacks on civilian targets, that encourages Iran, that encourages North Korea, and that encourages China.

 So our failure in Ukraine is going to have global implications.

Will the fighting in Ukraine continue to intensify until the Russian elections in March?

Yeah, I think it's interesting to me. I don't think anybody in the world actually believes that the election will be legitimate in any sense, but They will attempt to keep up the facade and they do.

It appears to me that the Russian leadership does worry, the Kremlin worries about public perceptions of things. I think that's why they've avoided a massive mobilization, for example. And also, the vast majority of the casualties do not come from Moscow or St. Petersburg. They come from ethnic areas far away from the main cities. And they've gotten a Navalny locked up and now way the hell up in Siberia somewhere. So there, they do have worries about what the public thinks.

And this poor woman wanted to run for president and she was disqualified for some nonsense, didn't fill out her paper correctly. So they do worry that there would be opposition, even though there's not a chance in hell that this election will have any shred of legitimacy. So to answer your question, they will continue attacks to demonstrate to the Russian population that Russia has control of this, that Russia's winning and has this endless power.

But I think those attacks, and we know from history that strategic bombing never works on anybody's population. It didn't work against Great Britain, it didn't work against Germany, it didn't work against Japan [in the Second World War]. It has never worked. And it's not breaking the will of the Ukrainian people. I think these attacks are meant though to ruin Ukraine's infrastructure and to convey a sense of hopelessness or inevitability to us. That my God, the Russians clearly have endless amounts of stuff. They're never going to stop. We need to settle. That's what I think their attacks are aimed to do.

How could the West influence the Russian elections? 

Well, the most important thing that the West could do was to demonstrate that we're committed to helping Ukraine win, that we recognize this is a threat against all of us, and we're not going to sit back and hope it all works out.

And this ridiculous statement that "we're with you for as long as it takes:, they don't even say that anymore. Now the president says, "we're with you for as long as we can". That's horrible.

So we need to change that immediately so that Putin sees that despite all of his investments in ruining our, or disrupting our own internal domestic politics and trying to cause us to lose trust in our governments and our elections, that we're committed, that we're going to help Ukraine win. And if we want them to win, that means we're going to give them what they need to win. That would be such a powerful signal to the Kremlin that their attempt to wait us out has failed.

Is it possible to influence public opinion in Russia?

At this point, I don't think so. I mean, if they're not already convinced with the futility of what's going on with the over 300,000 casualties, impact on their domestic economy, shortage of eggs, I mean, give me a break, airplanes exploding, burning because of lack of maintenance, people are not able to travel around like they used to...

They have to know what's going on, but still, there's no legitimate journalist like in Estonia that's out there asking hard questions of Russian leaders, the Russian people, or where they get their information. So I don't see over the next three months a chance for the U.S. or the West to influence or help inform voters. We have a huge percentage of our voters in the U.S. that believe only one thing. So, If we can't change that here, I'm skeptical that we could change it in Russia.

Coming back to Ukraine, what is the impact of the F-16 on Ukraine's combat capability? There are rumors that the Ukrainians will start using them in January-February, but it seems too early. What do you think? 

Yeah, I don't expect to see F-16s employed in a meaningful, significant role before the summer.

There's no doubt that there will be many Ukrainian pilots trained and proficient on the aircraft. I mean, nobody should be skeptical or doubt how fast Ukrainians are able to learn technologies. So, that's not the issue.

The issue will be how do you fight the aircraft? The tactics, doing the operations, whether it's air to air or knocking down missiles or supporting ground operations, whatever the operations are sustained against what will obviously be very significant Russian air defense, Russian electronic warfare.

The Russians will go after every base where there might be F-16s. So Ukrainians, I think they don't want to waste these things. So I think they'll be clever in how and when they employ them, what they do to protect or deceive Russian attacks. I would imagine one of the key roles though will be the counter air to help. If you've got an F-16 with certain capabilities, it will be able to knock down a lot of these incoming rockets and missiles. I would expect that would be one of the tasks, but also making Crimea untenable for the Russian Navy and Air Force, helping to launch weapons against Crimea so that the Navy and Air Force and the logistics of the Russian forces have to leave there.

Could the F-16 airbase be in Romania, for example?

I think that's probably not something that NATO countries are willing to do yet, to have Ukrainian forces taking off from a base inside a NATO country going directly into the operation. I would be 100 percent in favor of it, but I think that would be a tough political decision. And right now I don't see the willpower to do that, unfortunately.

Western countries may think that the F-16 is like a silver bullet that will solve everything. Perhaps the way of thinking is the same as in the case of the other types of weapons.

Yeah, nobody should think for one second that there is one bullet, one platform, one thing, one capability that changes it all.

F-16s or any air platforms that, you know, next-generation better capabilities obviously will be very helpful, but they have to be integrated into a concept. If you're attacking, if you're using an air force to attack something, you have to also go after the enemy air defense. So that's what I mean.

You've got to have the ability with whether it's long range weapons or other aircraft that destroy enemy radar, enemy air defense before you can hope to fly your own aircraft into the area to do something. So F-16s will not magically end the war.

When will Germany give Tauruses to Ukraine? It's like a fairy tale that just keeps getting longer. 

The good news is that I see increasing numbers of Germans saying, come on, let's deliver Taurus. So, it really is Scholtz, the Bundeskanzler, that is holding it up.

I can't, and I don't know how to get him past that, But as long as President Biden is unwilling to do ATACAMs, Scholtz is not going to feel a lot of pressure to push Taurus, I don't think. So, that's unfortunate.

Have Western countries started to produce more ammunition? 

Well, this goes to the political will. The United States has quadrupled the amount of artillery ammunition that it's making, for example. But that was so small to begin with that quadrupling still does not generate enough. The EU said they were going to provide a million. I think they're going to end up having provided about 300,000.

This is political will. Defense industries, as your readers know, is not a charity. They have thousands of employees. They have very complex supply chains. And they, unlike car manufacturers or grocery stores, they don't make something and hope that somebody buys it, they have to respond to orders. And so until governments say, here's enough money to produce 100,000 rounds of artillery ammunition, go do it, They can't do it. So it always comes back to political will.

General Surovikin was replaced by General Gerassimov last year. Did the substitution change anything in Russia's tactics?

I can't tell. The thing that General Surovikin did was he won the argument to pull back behind the Dnipro out of Kherson, so he saved part of his army and then got to work on what people call the Surovikin line, this long defensive line. And of course, he was helped enormously by us, our failure to make decisions about delivering capabilities. And so they had months to build up defenses and we've seen the result of that. But since his departure, the only thing I've seen from the Ukrainian or from the Russian side is endless frontal attacks with untrained people and enormous losses for almost no gain of territory and to what end?

I don't see any operational design from the Russian side.

Will 2024 be the year of strategic defense for Ukraine?

I think that this year could be the decisive year if the United States and our allies made the decision for it to be decisive. That didn't mean the war was going to be won this year. It could have been won last year, but we would have had to have decided early on and done the necessary things. Unfortunately, I don't see that happening right now.

If the West were to get serious about this and think strategically, connect the dots... Russia depends on Iran, for example. It depends on Iran for these Shaheed drones, which says something about Russia's defense industry. And if we got serious about sanctions and by putting pressure on China to stop its support from Russia and to stop the flow of ammunition from North Korea.

If we did all those things, Okay, this thing, Russia's efforts would run out of steam, and Ukraine should win this war.

But of course, Ukraine has things to do also. They've got to, President Zelenskyy just recently announced it, They are improving their own defense industry so that they can improve their own capability. This is something, by the way, should have been happening since 2014. So Ukraine has enough blame of their own. Why weren't they making ammunition after the war started?

Their manning system, they do not have a manpower shortage. There's enough Ukrainian men, military agents that are around, but they've got to make a political decision about how to get that manpower. Right now, it looks to me like the government, the politicians are trying to put it on the army, and the army says, wait a minute, this is a government decision on whether or not to have a conscription or a mobilization. And I think this is unfortunate and the government is going to have to address this. There are thousands of military-age males in Germany, Poland, Romania, and other European countries. 

I think this hurts the credibility of Ukraine. They're asking for things from the West, but yet they're not willing to fix their manning system so that men and women who should be serving return home to serve.

The Estonian interior minister said that if Ukraine asks, Estonia is ready to extradite Ukrainians, but first they have to ask. 

I'm not in favor of any country, Germany, Estonia, anybody pushing these guys out. The burden is on the Ukrainian government to fix their system so that people realize that their duty is not working in a hotel in Thailand or Warsaw or Berlin, but instead helping defend their country and their families.

What will happen to Crimea this year?

It depends. I mean, the Ukrainians have proven the concept that with just three Storm Shadows provided by UK, they caused enough damage in Sevastopol to maintenance and to do in the destruction of the headquarters that the commander of the Black Sea Fleet saw how vulnerable they are. So he withdrew about a third of the fleet. And then just the other day, another storm shadow or scout was used to destroy this big ship in Ferdowsia.

Again, this proves the concept. So with four cruise missiles, the Black Sea Fleet is having to begin leaving Crimea. That proves the concept. Imagine if they had 50 or 100 more of these long-range precision weapons. There'd be no Air Force or logistics or Navy in Crimea anymore.

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Editor: Helen Wright

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