A former top U.S. commander’s warning: NATO must do more to defeat the Russians – Grid News

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A former top U.S. commander’s warning: NATO must do more to defeat the Russians

As the war entered its second month, Grid spoke to an American general who until recently commanded all U.S. forces in Europe.

Lt. Gen. Benjamin Hodges served as a brigade commander in Iraq, a director of operations in Afghanistan, and the commander of United States Army Europe and Africa from 2014 to 2018. He is currently the Pershing chair in strategic studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

We asked Hodges about the state of the war, the Ukrainian resistance and the Russian military — its overall performance and reports of atrocities being committed against Ukrainian civilians. Hodges said the war has entered a critical phase, and that — for all the efforts NATO has made to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons — more needs to be done to push the Russians back.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Grid: Could share your impressions, a little over five weeks into the war? Are there one or two things that have surprised you about the way the war has gone thus far?

Benjamin Hodges: I would say it this way: We’re in a decisive phase of this campaign. After five weeks, the Russians have culminated. They don’t have the ability to continue sustained land offensive operations, they have manpower problems, they have logistical problems, and they don’t have unlimited time.

Of course, a major reason is the incredible defense put up by Ukrainian armed forces and the resilience of the Ukrainian population. So you put that together, and that’s why they’ve culminated — what Napoleon called the “culmination point,” when the attacker no longer has the ability to continue offensive operations. So that’s why they have transitioned to a defensive posture. They’re withdrawing in some places, but they’re not withdrawing as in retreat, but to reposition, to focus on the Donbas region [in eastern Ukraine], the area that they really want to hang onto when it comes time to start negotiating whatever the outcome will be.

So it’s going to be bad days ahead for the people in the Donbas and the areas where the Russians do have pretty solid footing.

But the next three weeks I think are decisive if we in the West decide that we want to win. It’s got to be more than just avoiding Ukraine being defeated, but to actually win — by that I mean that the Russians get pushed all the way back to the pre-24th February line. That’s got to be the objective. Unfortunately, I don’t hear that coming from the [U.S.] administration or from the French and the Germans. And in the absence of that, I think the Russians will eventually get back up, and they’ll regroup. They’ll continue to kill Ukrainian civilians, and this is going to go on and on and on. We’ve got our foot on the Russian neck. Now go ahead and break it, so we can stop this. Or just go ahead and count on it going on and on and Russians wait for us to lose interest.

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G: Can I press you on that, General? What do you mean specifically when you say the West needs to decide if we want to win? What would be involved in that?

BH: We would be much more proactive, with much more of a sense of urgency on delivering capability to the Ukrainians that they have been begging for. We don’t need another list; we already know what they want, and it doesn’t have to be U.S. or NATO troops or airplanes, but providing them the specific capabilities they’ve asked for to help them defeat what is causing the most problems, and that is long-range artillery and rockets and cruise missiles. So that means what we need to get to them urgently are the artillery and rocket systems that they already possess and know how to use, and which you would find in almost every Eastern European country: 122-millimeter, 152-millimeter rockets and artillery. These are long-range fires. The Ukrainians know how to use this stuff. They need more systems, and they need more ammunition.

And then they need some medium-range air defense systems that will help them knock down cruise missiles. The Russian Air Force is not entering Ukrainian air space so much anymore because it’s very dangerous. But they’re able to launch their weapons from inside their own air space. So those are the kind of things that we know that they need, and I just don’t see the sense of urgency to give them those capabilities. If they had them, they would keep the Russians on the run and could drive them out of the areas where they have taken over, and it would give the Ukrainians the ability to go over to the offensive and sustain that.

G: It does seem to the layperson to be an unprecedented level of support from NATO and the West in terms of weaponry. You’ve said more should be done, but how much of a difference do you think those shipments have made?

BH: I would say, essential. There’s no doubt that what has been provided is substantial. I mean, just during the Biden administration, almost $2 billion worth of stuff. So I don’t mean to dismiss what’s been done, and for sure the logisticians in Europe are working like dogs to deliver what there is.

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What I’m talking about is above and beyond that, to do more than just avoid losing. We’re looking for overwhelming combat power that would enable Ukraine to really take advantage of the Russians problems. Don’t let them get back up, you know. We’re either going to keep our foot on the pedal and crush what’s out there, or we’re going to take our foot off the pedal and the Russians will be able to rebuild, regroup and reload. That’s going to take some time, but this opportunity we have right now is not going to be there forever. That’s why the next three weeks are really important.

G: Almost from Day One of the war, there have been concerns raised by politicians, military experts, analysts and so forth about a potential collision of Russian forces and NATO forces, inadvertent or otherwise, in the theater of war. How worried are you about that?

BH: I think this is overstated. I have tried very hard to look at what’s going on and understand how the Kremlin might react. We have deterred ourselves. There are 30 nations in NATO compared to one Russia. Our combined economic and military power dwarfs what the Russians have. But the calculation that’s been made is, even though we have this huge advantage, they still have nukes, and they might use those. And so then it comes down to: Do we really think they would use them? Do we really think they would use chemical weapons just because we gave [Ukraine] 30-year-old Polish MiGs [fighter jets]?

It’s like we’ve talked ourselves out of doing certain things that I think we ought to be able to do, to impose our will on the Russians, to stop them from murdering thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians the way that they’re doing right now. And so I don’t know how we stand by, just providing endless amounts of Javelins [anti-tank missiles]. That’s not going to stop Russian cruise missiles from flying into apartment buildings.

So how do we get past this mental block we have about providing MiGs or providing anti-ship missiles or whatever that line is in the mind of the White House? That if we do this it’s OK, but if we give them this then it’s escalation — I don’t buy that. I think for the Russians, their nuclear weapons are only effective for them as long as they don’t use them. Once they use them, then it’s all over for Russia.


And I think the people at the far end of that long table in the Kremlin are probably asking, “Mr. President, what battlefield advantage do we gain if we use a chemical weapon?” Zero. They can’t kill any more than they’re already killing. Somebody might say, well, they could go ahead and finish Mariupol if they employed chemical weapons there — yes, that’s true, they might go ahead and kill the remaining 50,000 to 70,000 people that are still there. But the secretary-general of NATO has said if Russia uses chemical weapons, that puts this conflict in a whole new category. I take that to mean it would be impossible for us to stand outside and not do anything.

I think Srebrenica is still fresh in the minds of enough people, the place where in 1995 European soldiers under a U.N. mandate stood by while Bosnian Serb forces murdered 8,000 Bosnian men and boys. I don’t think we want to be a party to that kind of inaction and atrocity again.

G: A couple of questions about the Russians themselves: Two weeks ago, they struck that depot in western Ukraine where there were a lot of people training and apparently also a lot of these weapons that had been delivered. And they’ve made statements saying that those are legitimate targets. Why in your view have they not done more of that, attacking this weapons supply chain?

BH: This is one of the few times where I’m in agreement with the Russians: Of course the logistics lines of communications is a legitimate target. It’s inside Ukraine; it’s truckloads of weapons and ammunition that’s being delivered. Whatever routes they’re taking, I would have always assumed that they would try to interdict that. Now, it’s not legitimate to kill innocent people, but it is a traditional legitimate objective to interdict your adversaries’ lines of supply and communication.

I’m actually surprised that they have not done more to try to interdict these, other than that one strike to which you alluded. I think in this case, our guys and the Ukrainians have done a nice job of operational security. I mean, you don’t see pictures and reports and media wandering around looking at all the pallets of stuff, identifying where it’s at, which I think is helpful.

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G: What are your thoughts about the overall performance to date of the Russian military?

BH: I personally overestimated what they were capable of doing. It has bothered me ever since I realized it. Like, how did I miss this? But what we’re seeing is the result of decades of corruption, of mismanagement, of people siphoning off money that was intended for other things.

I mean, the Russians knew they were going to attack for months and months, and yet you’ve got soldiers that are issued rations that are long since expired. That’s corruption of the highest order — or just total gross incompetence. I mean, it’s wintertime, you’re sending troops to battle, and here’s your box of rations that expired three or four years ago? That’s unbelievable to me. So that’s an indicator of corruption and dereliction of duty and professional incompetence.

These generals that are being killed, that’s a result of two or three things. First, the Russian methodology for command and control is very tightly centralized, so decisions are made at the top. They do not want or encourage junior leaders to use initiative or make decisions down at the tactical level. And so when your plan begins to fall apart because of the nature of war, fog and friction and uncertainty, and because of stronger-than-anticipated resistance, then you have to have a very senior person come forward. And so a lot of senior officers are out there now, exposed or having to move up close to what’s going on to try and unravel the problems that normally should have been sorted out by a much more junior, lower-level commander. That’s certainly what we would do.

The other aspect of this, which reveals the lack of operational experience, is that these guys are talking on cellphones. On Ukrainian cell service. I remember when I saw President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy on Day Four of the war, walking around with the cellphone, and I thought, “How is he able to talk on a cellphone? How was the cell service still up?” I think the Russians deliberately didn’t take it down — because certainly they would have known how, but they didn’t take it down because they intended to use it themselves. They didn’t have confidence or didn’t have their own tactical network like we do, where you bring your network with you. And either out of arrogance or failure to appreciate how easily Ukrainians would be able to intercept and geolocate where they were on the phone, and then put a bomb on it, and that’s why so many of these guys are getting killed. It’s because of arrogance or lack of operational experience and understanding the danger of talking on the cellphone.

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G: Just how rare or unprecedented is it for that number of senior commanders to lose their lives in that short a time?

BH: Certainly in modern times it doesn’t happen. Twenty years in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I think we lost two general officers, and one of them was due to an insider attack. And yet American and British general officers were out there all the time. I was constantly, as a one-star in Afghanistan, driving through towns, we would go out there — I don’t want to overstate what I did, but what I’m saying is that it is the norm that general officers would be out on the battlefield but always understanding what the threat actually was. And you prepare for that. I think the numbers of Russian generals that you’re seeing killed is a reflection of outdated command systems, and then the lack of operational experience, making mistakes like talking on cellphones.

G: Last question, General. How does this end, in your view?

BH: Well, that’s a very good and legitimate question, and I don’t want to just say, “Well, it depends,” but of course it does depend a bit on how much help we deliver. If we don’t help, then eventually the Russians will be able to get back up, and it’s going to be a few months of them just continuing to hit Ukrainian forces and continuing to grind Ukrainian cities down, because the Ukrainians will eventually start running out of the ammunition they need and the systems that they need. That’s one possibility.

And then the Russians say, “OK, we’re ready to negotiate,” and they end up being rewarded with possession of big chunks of Ukrainian territory that they’ve taken, and Ukraine’s economy is in tatters, and it will be very difficult for the West to help them rebuild.

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If Ukraine is able to push back, we can get to a negotiated settlement where they regain access to their ports. We know we’ve lost this year for agriculture by and large. I mean, they should be out planting now. Obviously, this is not happening in at least half of the country, so in the near term we’re going to have to deal with a massive food problem for millions of people in Africa, the Middle East and Asia as well as of course inside Ukraine.

And there’s going to be a massive cleanup effort required. I mean, we already know that there’s radioactive materials lying around because of the genius Russian commanders who had troops digging in around Chernobyl, for example. And then there are likely tens of thousands of pieces of unexploded ordnance lying all over the place. You’ve got artillery ammunition, cruise missiles, rockets, where a large percentage of these things will not have detonated. So it’s going to be a massive cleanup effort before they can even start rebuilding towns.

I live in Frankfurt, Germany, and about every two or three months you’ll see a report of a bomb discovered from World War II. This is going to be in Ukraine for a very long time. And our chances of doing those things are much better if Ukraine ends up with its sovereignty restored and Russia not able to continue threatening Ukraine or any of its neighbors.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.

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Ukraine