Exactly four months ago, Grid spoke about the war in Ukraine with an American general who until recently had commanded all U.S. forces in Europe. In early April, Lt. Gen. Benjamin Hodges argued that beyond economic sanctions and condemnation of Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, more needed to be done in terms of military aid to Ukraine. It was, Hodges said then, a matter not only of supporting the Ukrainian resistance but arming and training its armed forces to a level that would enable them to reverse Putin’s aggression.
Much has changed since then — on the front lines and the weapons supply lines, and there are questions about the staying power of global support for Ukraine.
We asked Hodges for an update on all these fronts and how he sees the next phases of the war unfolding. Hodges said he’s optimistic that Russia can be driven back — but only if the West continues to “stand with Ukraine.”
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.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: We spoke in the first days of April, about one month into the war, and you gave us general impressions about how things were going. Can you step back and give us your sense of how you think things are going now — whether from the perspective of the Ukrainians, NATO, the Russians or all together?
Lt. Gen. Benjamin Hodges: I remain optimistic about the outcome. And I say that because we know that war is a test of will and it’s a test of logistics. The Ukrainian logistical situation gets a little bit better each week, as the West continues to deliver ammunition and equipment. Ukrainians started from one point, and now here we are, almost six months in, and they’re much more mature in the development of their institutions, if you will, and structures.
On the other hand, the Russian logistical situation gets worse by the day. I think they’re exhausted, actually. I don’t know how much more ammunition they have — seemingly endless amounts. But they don’t have much else that they can do. And now that the Ukrainians have the ability to destroy ammunition storage points and [Russian forces] are having to move back, that significantly increases the load, the transportation requirement on their truck fleet, which has already been seriously damaged.
In other words, the logistics picture improves for Ukraine and gets worse for Russia.
That said, on the Ukrainian logistics side, I do think we still have two major challenges. One, the distribution network inside Ukraine is being asked to do things for which it was never designed or properly equipped. The amount of ammunition, heavy equipment, troops moving all this stuff around inside Ukraine — it’s enormous pressure there. If we’re not going to put our own troops and logisticians on the ground there, certainly there are large commercial logistics companies that could do this. We depended on commercial logistics companies in Iraq and Afghanistan for 20 years. Transport expertise, forklifts, those kinds of things would be helpful.
The other thing is they still are not getting enough ammunition fast enough. The White House announcement that there’s another 50,000 or 75,000 rounds of artillery ammunition, more rockets for HIMARS, that’s good. But this is a challenge. Can we give them the ammunition that they need to continue to destroy Russian artillery, Russian rockets and Russian ammunition storage? Because that’s what causes most of the problems.
That’s the logistics test. And I believe the momentum is in favor of Ukraine.
G: From a distance, and a layperson’s perspective, it can seem like a miracle of logistics that the volume of heavy weaponry, HIMARS and all these other things can make their way into the country and across the country to the eastern front. But I gather from what you’re suggesting it’s not as streamlined or effective as it should be.
BH: I’m having to make that assessment based on understanding what the requirement is and also knowing, from some conversations I had before this all started back in February, the state of transport inside Ukraine.
Fortunately, the Russians have not been able to interdict it. They launched some rockets and hit a few train stations, but they don’t seem to have the dynamic targeting capability to hit and identify convoys, trains, all this stuff, and then hit them along the way. I hear almost no reports of interdiction on the lines of communication. But what I’m concerned about is, are those lines robust enough that they can absorb some losses, they can adjust? Because eventually the Russians are going to try and figure out a way to interdict that. So, are they resilient and robust enough?
The other thing is the expertise. So much of logistics is anticipation and being able to forecast requirements, whether we’re talking about fuel, artillery, ammunition, maintenance repair parts. This is a challenge because they’ve gotten a lot of help from a lot of different places, but that means you’ve got multiple different types of repair parts that are needed for all the different systems.
The barrels for an artillery: normally between 2,000 and 2,500 rounds. The tube on a howitzer that has to be replaced. So, the logistics is not just about transporting ammunition or fuel, it’s also about the maintenance to back it all up. This is where I think having some expertise there that can manage this for them would be very useful.
G: About one month into the war, you were quite critical of NATO and Europe more generally. You said it didn’t appear that the West was really supporting Ukraine to win, it was more just to help them defend themselves. Do you still feel that way now?
BH: This is the other test I’m talking about, the test of will. Clearly Ukrainian soldiers and the Ukrainian population have a will superior to what Russian soldiers have. We see so many indicators of that. The real test of will is between the Kremlin and the United States, the U.K., Germany, France — the West.
This is the key. I think that clearly the White House has the will to continue doing this. Secretary [of Defense Lloyd] Austin said, “We’re going to help Ukraine win, and we’re going to weaken Russia so much they cannot threaten their neighbors anymore.” But after that, those words were never heard again. And I think this a mistake, that the White House continues to believe that if they do certain things, somehow Russia will be provoked to do something else. And I think this is an overstated concern about escalation that is unfounded.
The Russians don’t have anything else they can do except to use a nuclear weapon. Over 85 percent of their ground forces are in Ukraine. And after five months, they only control about one-quarter of Ukrainian territory, if that. Ukrainians are making progress in and around Kherson, the Russians are pulling troops out of the east to reinforce the effort, and this is with 85 percent of their land forces committed. They’re unwilling to do a mass mobilization because the whole world would then see that their mobilization system is a total failure. It’s corroded by corruption, and a lot of people won’t show up, so they can’t escalate.
Back in World War II, in 1944, at a critical time of the war, tens of thousands of Siberian troops came from behind the Urals, and all these fresh Soviet troops showed up and totally turned the tide against the German Wehrmacht. There are no Siberian divisions on the other side of the Urals coming now. There is nothing else out there, and the [Russian] navy and air force are terrified of Ukrainian anti-ship missiles. The Russian air force has been largely ineffective, except in launching cruise missiles from inside Russia and Belarusian airspace.
The escalation that they can do, of course, is to use a nuclear weapon. But I think this is very unlikely. It’s possible, but very unlikely. Why is that? For Russia, I think their nuclear weapons are actually only at their most effective if they don’t use them.
We in the West continue to hamstring ourselves and just kind of spoon out things rather than saying, “We’re going to push everything, all the chips on the table.” Instead, every two weeks, there’s an announcement of a few thousand more rounds, or “Here’s two more HIMARS.” The rest of the countries will follow the U.S.; if the U.S. says, “We’re going to help them win,” then I think you’ll see an increase in output from other countries as well. I think that we are making a mistake by hamstringing our own efforts and not going all in.
G: You mentioned the HIMARS rocket launchers. Explain for the layperson — do you think they are making an appreciable difference already, and if so, how?
BH: What’s needed is long-range precision fire. That means whether it’s rockets or artillery, drones, missiles, things that can reach out and hit what is causing the most damage — that’s Russian artillery, Russian rocket launchers and Russian airfields from which aircraft take off and launch cruise missiles.
So, the Ukrainians need the ability to hit those targets, and that requires precision. A basic regular artillery is what we call an “area fire weapon.” That’s where you have six howitzers typically in a battery, because all six howitzers can fire at the target, and then the rounds would land within 200 meters of each other.
That’s obviously how the Russians do it, and you need enormous amounts of ammunition. But if you’ve got a rocket or missile that uses GPS retargeting, you can put it in the pocket of the guy that you’re trying to hit. And with a warhead, we’ve seen over the last few weeks how many Russian ignition storage sites have been destroyed because of launching one or two rockets, precision weapons, into those storage sites. So those make a huge difference.
We’ve seen a dramatic reduction in the amount of Russian artillery rockets that are pounding away on Ukrainian positions. That’s the capability that’s needed.
Where the White House, I think, has come up short is the reluctance to give the Ukrainians rockets called ATACMS — rockets that can be fired from HIMARS or other rocket-launch systems. It’s the one that has a range of 300 kilometers — and it’s exactly 300 kilometers from Odessa to Sevastopol. So, you could imagine if they started launching one or two of those things and hitting the [Russian] maintenance and refueling facilities at Sevastopol, the Russian navy would have to move from there.
The White House is concerned that the Ukrainians would use these launchers to go after airfields inside of Russia. Of course they would. Of course they should. That’s what I would do. But Ukrainians have said, “We won’t do that.” If you’re saying you won’t let this happen because you will shoot into Russia, causing this so-called escalation, I think this is a mistake.
G: Another potential game changer, depending who you talk to, is the looming Ukrainian offensive to retake Kherson and other areas in the South. Help us to understand how vital that part of the country would be.
BH: Ukrainians have done a masterful job of protecting information. I’ve been impressed. We know so much more about who’s doing what on the Russian side than we do on the Ukrainian side, at least in the public information space, which is as it should be. I should not know what Ukrainian plans are, what their actual status is, because that’s information they would want to protect from Russians.
Having said that, it does seem to be a lot of effort in the Kherson direction, which I think is significant. They have an opportunity to destroy a large number of Russian troops that are there. And I don’t think that most of the region around Kherson is friendly or supportive of the Russian occupiers. So, if in fact the [Ukrainian] general staff was planning a large strike in that region, part of it would be done in conjunction with partisan and/or special forces operations in the rear that can disrupt transportation reinforcement, go after leaders, things that would make it more difficult for the Russians to defend.
I would imagine that the general staff has been working very hard to build up capabilities necessary for that. We’ll see. I hope they’re able to do it.
G: For some time now, since the Russians turned their military focus to the east and parts of the south, the war has been described as kind of a slog or war of attrition. Is that the way you see it in the weeks and months ahead? Or do you see opportunities for a breakthrough for either side?
BH: I don’t believe that the Russians have the capability to break through. They’ve lost so much capability. It would require them to fix almost every problem that they’ve shown in the last five months. They have not developed the ability to do joint operations where air, land and sea forces and special forces are integrated.
I don’t think they can do a breakthrough. So, what the Russians have settled for is attrition. Attrition of Ukrainian capabilities, just endless artillery rockets, but also attrition of our will.
Ukrainian people — their will is not going to be attrited. But the Kremlin, I believe, is counting on the U.S. to back down because of our own domestic issues, worries about China and all of that. As for the Germans, there’s a lot of anxiety about the impact on the German economy because of the gas cutoff. The U.K. is going through its own domestic issues right now, looking for a new prime minister and so on.
So that’s the attrition that matters most from a Russian perspective.
If we, the West, deliver what we have said, if we can keep pushing ammunition to Ukraine, then I think this Ukrainian approach can be successful. But if we don’t stick together, if the West doesn’t stick together, if we don’t keep delivering what we said at speed, then attrition could win, or at least extend it longer.
That’s the advantage for the Russians. If this thing goes wrong, if most people in the West lose interest like we typically do, and the Russians wait for a couple of years, they’ll fix most of their problems or many of their problems, rebuild, and in three years you and I will be talking again about why the fighting is still going on here.
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.