Commanding General of United States Army Europe Ben Hodges told Censor.NET in an exclusive interview about the threat of Russian invasion, U.S. strategy of aiding Ukraine, capabilities of the Ukrainian Army, and three priorities of military reform in Ukraine on the pattern of the U.S. Army.
— How many times did you visit Ukraine as a commander?
— This is probably seventh or eighth maybe, at least. To Lviv several times because of the training center at Yavoriv, Dnipropetrovsk, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Poltava, and Kyiv several times. I enjoyed meeting so many Ukrainian men and women military, members of the Rada, and people in different parts of the society. It’s such a great history, and I’m glad that my country’s policy is to support Ukraine, and to demand respect for Ukrainian sovereignty and to restore Crimea and the borders. I’m glad that’s my country’s policy. I’m just one part of U.S. support, so I’m going to do everything I can for that policy to be successful.
— And what are you looking to achieve this time?
— The principal reason for coming this time was to meet with several members of the Rada [including Deputy Speaker Oksana Syroid - ed.] to describe how the U.S. military works with the Congress. The Congress has authority and responsibility over the military from the Constitution, so we talked about how we communicate with the Congress. We [the military – ed.] have been working with the Rada now for over a year. At Garmisch, at the Marshall Center, in Wiesbaden [the U.S. Army Europe headquarters – ed.], and so this was the continuation of that. After visit by Rada members to my headquarters in Wiesbaden, they invited me to come back and to describe that [mechanisms of parliament and army cooperation – ed.] to them. And I also gave them an operational update on what we are doing in Eastern Europe, as well as in Ukraine, watching for what the Russian exercises Zapad, for example. And it was a fascinating discussion [with] some very talented patriotic men and women that serve in the Rada.
— Now let’s talk about the military situation. Do you think we could stop Putin only with diplomatic methods?
— What I have seen is Ukrainian soldiers did stop the Russians. The military I’ve watched, the Ukrainian military rapidly improve its capability over the last three years. They are very technically savvy, more than I realized, with counter-fire radar [provided by the U.S. – ed.], for example. They learn very fast, they’ve adjusted. I’ve seen examples where units were innovative with their small UAVs, drones. So that’s been impressive to me. The fact is even though at the start of the war they were not prepared, they have adjusted and learned, and you see the result was to stop the Russian forces. And so that gives me some optimism about the potential that’s in the [Ukrainian] military.
— OK, but is it possible to achieve peace without decisive combat activities on our part? Diplomats say “We want peace, not war,” but these incantations are powerless without strength.
— So we [the U.S. – ed.] support the Minsk process. I believe that’s the ultimate, the only solution — getting the Russian Federation to seriously and genuinely participate in the process right now. Because the Russians do not allow the special monitoring mission of OSCE to do their job. So we have no idea how much ammunition and equipment Russians are moving back and forth across the border between Russian Federation and Ukraine into the Donbas. They threaten them [OSCE – ed.], they’ve shot at them. These very brave men and women of the special monitoring mission are not allowed to fully do their job. If Russia was serious about Minsk being successful, then they would allow OSCE to do its job better.
So the key to success is Russia getting serious about full implementation of Minsk. Now Germany, France have led a good process, and I’m glad that the United States is getting involved in that process, supporting, continuing to demand the return of Crimea, for example, keeping the sanctions in place. The EU sanctions are extremely important.
— Of course sanctions are important, but Russians continue the war with new kinds of weapons, and they have advantage in many types of artillery, for example. Do you think the United States could help us more with the new kinds of weapons so that we were able to destroy Russian artillery batteries?
— Of course that’s a decision at the president level whether or not to change the policy. I have made my recommendation to my commander [U.S. president – ed.] on what I think the policy should be, so it would not be appropriate for me to say publicly what I shared in private with my commander. Whatever decision is made, it should be taken in the context of will it keep Europe unified so that the sanctions remain in place? And what will the Russian reaction be? And ultimately, what is the strategy with regards to Russia? Because Ukraine obviously is a critical part of that, just like Secretary of State Tillerson said: Russia must have a better relationship with the United States, and it starts with Ukraine. So it’s all connected. To just give [lethal] weapons by itself, that’s not a strategy. That may be a part of overall strategy, but whatever the decision is, it should always take into account how will Russia react, the West and other countries. You can see all kinds of advantages [in this matter – ed.] but you can also see potential downsides, so that’s why it’s a sensitive issue. Certainly you know several senior people have testified in Congress already on what they think, and there is strong support in the Congress for expanding that policy [of military aid to Ukraine – ed.]. But that’s all available, you can say that in public. I’m not trying to be evasive, I’m not trying to avoid the question, but I think my role is to give recommendation. You can be sure: whatever the policy is, whether it’s what it is today or if it changes, the U.S. Army will do everything to maximum extent of what the policy says.
—As far as we know, the Americans control the border with Predator drones and satellites. Does the U.S. Army Europe control the activities of the Russian troops in the Donbas, what can you say about them?
— Most of what I know we get from Ukraine or when we read what OSCE puts out. I personally don’t have my own Predator or something that’s watching. But you’re able from a variety of different ways to make an assessment of what Russian capabilities are there, and of course the amount of ammunition, the type of weapons that are being used, the type of electronic warfare [that] only comes from Russia. These are not things that you can make on a farm or in a basement of your home, these are things that are provided by a state. So we obviously watch this very closely to understand the status [in the Russian army – ed.]. We’re watching what Russia’s doing everywhere up in the Western Military District, in Belarus, in Syria, in the Caucasus, along the Black Sea, and Ukraine is the part of it. I’ve seen the development of a lot more Russian infrastructure along the northern border of Ukraine, and down by Rostov. They clearly have no intention of ever leaving Crimea.
I will also say this: we have learnt so much [about Russian army – ed.] from Ukrainian soldiers. You know, we have about 250-300 Americans that are in Yavoriv at the training center. Ukraine is the only place where you’re getting shot by Russian artillery, Russian rockets, [where] Russian drones [conduct surveillance – ed.]. So we’ve learnt about Russian capability just from talking to Ukrainian soldiers. Their experience of fighting against the Russians has been very helpful [for the U.S. Army – ed.]. It’s changed our training because of the quality assessment we’ve gotten from Ukrainian Armed Forces, and watched how Ukraine has adjusted their counter-fire, their artillery, their operating in a very very difficult cyber and electronic warfare environment [created by Russia in the Donbas – ed.]. It’s been very helpful for us.
I would also say that we have Ukrainian soldiers that train with us, they are on exercise with us right now in Bulgaria. We have a Ukrainian tank platoon who came to Grafenwoehr back in May and participated in the international tank competition. You can believe they were the prettiest girl at the dance. The German, Austrian, American, French, Polish and I think Slovenian are all there, and everybody wanted to talks to the Ukrainians. Because the Ukrainians are the only ones that did ever fought as a tank platoon against Russian tank. So people [in NATO – ed.] have a lot of respect for them.
— What do you think of the probability of Russian invasion in central Ukraine?
— I would say it’s unlikely, but the reason people are worried is because the Russians are not transparent. There’s no media there, nobody knows what they do, they speak in a very threatening [manner] about nuclear weapons. They have recreated offensive strike formations like the 1st guards tank army. Their modernization effort is all very offensive. So you can see why people in Eastern Europe [including Ukrainians – ed.] are concerned with what Russian capabilities are being developed.
I don’t think that’s likely because why would they do it? What would be the objective? It certainly would make impossible for Russia to have any kind of a normal relationship with the United States or the West.
— How possible do you think is the Georgian scenario of 2008 and the Ilovaisk and Luhansk scenario of 2014? I.e. the scenario of a local offensive operation aimed at impacting our political system?
— I won’t speculate about what they might do against Ukraine, but certainly what they have done in Georgia is a pattern of undermining countries around on their periphery, not living up to agreements. They were supposed to pull out after the Sarkozy agreement [with Putin – ed.], and they didn’t. They’re still 10,000 soldiers in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and they continue to move the borders back and forth. The 1,500 peacekeepers in Transnistria — they’re not peacekeepers, of course, but it’s a way that they continue to keep things unsettled [around Ukraine – ed.]. I think their activities in Belarus and the Western Military District it’s all part of a pattern, and then of course what they’ve done in Donbas it’s that pattern of constantly putting pressure on all their neighbors so that it makes it difficult for neighbors to join the EU or to be affiliated with the West. And I’m sure that that’s their objective in Ukraine is to make sure Ukraine could never join the EU, could never join NATO, could not be fully integrated economically into the West. So I think they’ll use whatever they can to continue that if the West does not stay united.
Now, of course, Ukraine has responsibility too. I mean has Ukraine done everything it can do to defend itself? To modernize, to create the most effective armed forces.
— Ukrainians didn’t get scared of Russia’s land forces, but the Georgian scenario involved airstrikes by Russia. The Russians have big advantage over Ukraine in air force. If Russia employs air forces against Ukraine, can we hope that U.S. or NATO forces will step in to at least secure the no-fly zone, like in Croatia and Syria, for example? What is your opinion as a military person?
— I think I couldn’t possibly speculate on how we might or what political decision would be made. I think that the real issue is not what the U.S. or the West might do; the issue is Russia’s continued aggressive behavior; they do nothing to give people confidence and trust. President Reagan one time said [about talks with Russians – ed.]: “Trust, but verify.” For 400 years they’ve never lived up to any agreement unless you had a real strong [international – ed.] confirmation process. So I think we can expect them to continue to put pressure on Ukraine unless they realize it is no longer in their interests to do so.
— We understand that political leaders make the decisions, but is there the will for that? Do you think Russia is dangerous for security of Ukraine, for security of Europe?
— Absolutely. Russia completely changed the security environment in Europe when they invaded Ukraine. Three years ago the last American tank left Europe, went home. We had zero tanks in Europe because we all thought that Russia was going to be a partner. When they invaded Crimea and then the Donbas, everybody in Europe realized that the environment had changed completely. Even countries not in Eastern Europe — Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece, Canada, as well as U.K. and U.S. — all agreed that this was unacceptable. The EU stuck together, as well as NATO, and that’s continued to stick together. Everybody [in Europe – ed.] views that Russia’s aggressive behavior is a continuing potential threat. We are not at war with Russia, they are a near peer adversary, and I think they only respect strength.
— 30 years ago, the U.S. helped Afghanistan significantly in its resistance against Soviet Russia. Why Ukraine cannot use the same help, and the same clear political will and strong political support from the United States to fight Russians now?
— You don’t think we’ve been clear in our support for Ukraine? The secretary of state of the United States was just here. And I think it would be impossible for him to be more clear. The secretary-general of NATO was very clear. So I think the West is actually very clear in its support for Ukraine. The United States has provided almost 600 million dollars of military support, whether it was training or equipment. We have the largest budget for military education here [Ukraine – ed.] of any country in Europe. The United States were more serious, we’ve put money on it, we’ve put people on it. And so what I have seen is signal after signal after signal after signal that the United States and the West do support Ukraine. We have 300 soldiers that live in Ukraine now that are helping to train Ukrainian troops. That’s a hell of a commitment.
Now, is every single thing being delivered — you know, weapon systems or whatever people might want — not yet, but that policy is always under review, I think. I’ve seen nothing but strong support from the Congress. I come here a lot. For a non-NATO partner, that’s a lot of support in a very complex, difficult situation. I think I’m kind of disagreeing with you a little bit that we’re not clear about what we’re doing.
— What do you think is there a military need to place U.S. military bases in the territory of Ukraine now? To provide reconnaissance, communications, logistics, let’s say?
— I think that the current arrangement is actually pretty good. I’m satisfied with the access that the General Staff gives us [to information and personnel – ed.]. Of course, I’m just the army; the navy, the air force, and the marines have their own avenues as well working with their Ukrainian counterparts. I’ve been given the privilege to visit ATO, I’ve visited four different Ukrainian military hospitals. I don’t think that there’s a need to expand, to even ask for additional bases. We’ve got our hands full right now with what we are trying to do in Poland and Romania as part of the NATO deterrence efforts, and I personally am not looking for an additional place. I do want to continue to be able to learn from Ukrainians about Russian capabilities, and we will continue to do everything we can to help with training [and NATO standards – ed.].
— You know the state of the Ukrainian Army very well. If you were the one to plan the military reform in Ukraine, what would be the top three priorities of the reform? What should we start with?
— After Vietnam, the U.S. army was in very bad shape. Most of NCOs have been killed, the experienced ones, we lost almost 60,000 soldiers and airmen killed in Vietnam. And we were in bad shape — 1973, 74, 75 all came out of there. It was a catastrophe almost. But sometimes it takes a very bad situation to force you to relook yourself and make adjustments. So three things that the army did after Vietnam that saved us and got us back up to where we are now.
Number one: combat training centers. We got serious about training. So you know in the U.S. we have the NTC, the National Training Center, the one in the desert, we have the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, and then we have the training center in Hohenfels, Germany. The air force created the Red Flag/Blue Flag series [in conditions close to combat – ed.]. So in other words, serious training, getting focused on training and readiness, that was number one. That helped us rebuild the army.
Number two is about doing critical self-analysis that would never in many years be possible under the Soviet system. We created and implemented what we call the AAR, after action review. After every training event, everybody that was involved, they would have a very candid discussion led by the leader, said what happened, or what went wrong, why did it go wrong, how do we fix it. And that simple process helped change the army because it forced us to be honest about ourselves at every level. Now it’s like oxygen, it’s part of everything we do. Coming from the Embassy, we did an AAR on what we just finished doing. So now we do it all the time. That was very important.
And then the third thing was the education system for NCOs, for sergeants. Being a sergeant was not just putting a rank on your uniform; there was education just like we have education for officers. So two things. I believe that the Ministry of Defense has said that they want to be at NATO standard by 2020. That’s an important and achievable objective if it’s properly resourced to have Ukrainian units that could be interoperable with NATO units. And the critical part of that will be continuing to develop an NCO corps. The NCO corps is important because at modern warfare, you can’t centralize all the decisions at one place and then expect everybody to do it. Because of the nature of modern warfare, communication [in command chain – ed.] is disrupted, you have to defend on junior leaders to make decisions to understand what’s going on. So that means you have to empower them, they have to feel confident that they can make decisions, they have to practice that. And of course, the sergeants are the ones that will have to do that.
The other part is that NCOs is where you connect the army to the public. Not through the officer corps, but through the NCOs, and that’s because they come from the population. And that a great way to maintain popular support, I think, is through the sergeants. Every family probably knows a sergeant. They may not know an officer but everybody knows a sergeant. I think that’s an important part of it [trust between army and people – ed.].
— But the first step should be selection for education, right? So the system changes were about motivation and selection?
— For sure, if you were going to become a sergeant, you have to be selected to become a sergeant. And then we are going to send you for the right education for your next level. And that process kind of continues, so that’s not which one comes first. You look for people to have potential.
Now I will say this: I’ve been to two military academies in Ukraine. I’m not going to say which was which, but I’m going to contrast. I saw one that was progressive, the young people, cadets that were there, junior officers were very alert, asked questions, challenged me, I loved that. The other one was like it was 1955; they were mindless. So if you’re serious about the future of your military, you’ve got to encourage innovation, initiative, and you need young officers to be willing to accept responsibility because they are going to fight like that. So the long-term education system is also very important.
Yurii Butusov, Censor.NET