War looks imminent in Eastern Europe. Russia, which invaded Ukraine in 2014 and has been waging an aggressive war there ever since, has amassed around 100,000 soldiers on Ukraine’s borders in what appear to be preparations for a renewed offensive.
To understand what’s happening, what it means, and what we should do about it, THE BULWARK spoke to Gen. Ben Hodges (Ret.), the former commander of U.S. Army Europe who now holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]
TB: How imminent do you think a new offensive is? Could it start tomorrow, or next week, or next month?
Hodges: That’s what all of us are trying to figure out. With all the satellites in the world, you can see stuff, but you cannot see intention necessarily. And that’s the hard part. I would still say that a new offensive is not inevitable, but all the pieces are in place.
What’s most worrisome is the language that keeps coming out of the Kremlin. And here in the last couple of weeks Putin has been talking about genocide in [Russian-occupied] Donbas—and keep in mind that the Russian government has been distributing passports to people in Donbas. This provides perhaps a pretext for sending in military forces to protect these “poor Russians who are being suffering from genocide at the hands of Ukraine.”
At the same time, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu made this almost cartoonish statement that private military contractors from the U.S. were in the Donbas with chemical weapons. He’s saying, “We may need to bring nuclear weapons in Belarus,” and issuing constant red lines and unrealistic demands that the Kremlin known are not going to be answered.
I think president Putin has put himself in a corner and he’s going to have to have something to show for all this.
TB: Is that what makes this military buildup different from the one we saw back in April before the Biden-Putin summit? Or are there also technical or military differences that are making people more worried this time?
Hodges: The Kremlin under Putin has not been stopped since 2001. After their 2008 invasion of Georgia, they still occupy 20 percent Georgia, even though they agreed to withdraw. Their support for the Assad regime helped them achieve what they wanted. They’re in Ukraine and they’ve never been stopped. So I think they are operating at a higher than normal level of risk tolerance.
Putin looks at America and the allies, and we still seem a little bit disjointed. You’ve got a brand new German government that just took over a few weeks ago. The British government is in disarray. France has their own elections coming up in April. We are not at our peak right now in terms of unity. He sees mixed messages from Germany, especially about the new gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, Nord Stream II, and he sees mixed messages coming from the White House. I think he sees the possibility that he could separate the United States from Europe and that’s the biggest danger.
I think there’s more opportunity now because a gas is more of a useful weapon in the middle of winter. I mean, it was below zero here in Frankfurt in the last couple of days. And so people start thinking about how cold it is. So their vulnerability to gas as a weapon is at its peak right now.
Secondly, what we saw back in April—all that military hardware pretty much stayed in place. Even the Caspian Sea Flotilla, which they moved to the Sea of Azov, is still there from the spring. They never went back home, and they’ve been conducting amphibious operation rehearsals.
TB: Russian influence in Belarus has significantly changed over the past year and a half. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of Russia doing whatever they want in Belarus. How has that changed the situation?
Hodges: This adds to the to the complexity and the danger. For a while, I really had wanted to believe that even though Lukashenko was, er, not to be confused with Thomas Jefferson, that he was at least managing to maintain some sort of, uh, independence, and as long as he was able to keep permanent Russian forces out of Belarus, that was good. That’s obviously not going to be the case anymore. I would not be surprised if a regime change in Belarus was part of the whole plan.
I think the Kremlin has their own guy they’re ready to get in there. They know that Europe will not shed a single tear for Lukashenko’s early retirement. But it would really concern our allies in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.
Also it would expand the vulnerable northern flank that Ukraine would have to cover. If now you’ve got Russian land forces not only north of Kharkiv on the Russian side, but further west from Belarus, this would be very serious. Instead of just facing Russian forces in the two easternmost provinces and in Crimea, they’re also facing amphibious forces in the Black Sea and possible Russian forces on their northern border with Belarus.
Of course you never know what the mission of those various forces will be. We’ll have to consider all the different threats and risks and possibilities. My expectation is that the Russian forces that are in the Donbas, which are considerable along with the so-called separatists, their job would be to freeze the Ukrainian forces that are in front of them. More mobile formations would emerge from Crimea, perhaps from the north, and certainly amphibious forces in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. Then I would expect to see the insertion of airborne forces and helicopter-borne forces, attacks on critical infrastructure, those kinds of things. And obviously this is all happening within the context of massive cyber strikes that would be aimed at paralyzing command and control and decision-making.
And we’d probably see quite a few salvos of sea-launched cruise missiles hitting command and control, depots, critical transportation infrastructure. This is not going to be the “little green men.”
TB: As things stand now, assuming no major changes from the status quo, what are Ukraine’s hopes of defending itself against this kind of attack? Is it hopeless?
Hodges: Definitely not hopeless. These are not the same Ukrainian armed forces that were kicked out of Crimea almost without a shot.
But they certainly have vulnerabilities. Russia has overwhelming air power and sea power, if it’s just about math. But as you know, from history, war is never just about math. It’s a lot of other factors. You’ve got a significantly more experienced, veteran Ukrainian armed forces. They’ve modernized in several areas. They’ve demonstrated a real toughness and adaptability. They need some of the things that the United States is considering sending, and I hope we will.
The biggest vulnerability I think will be coming from the air, whether it’s missiles or aircraft or helicopters. I worry a little bit about mobility. They’ve been in a static environment for the most part. Do they have the capacity to move formations around on their interior lines to address where different challenges might be coming from, or to take advantage of opportunity?
On the other side, Crimea is a real bastion for Russia, but it’s also a huge vulnerability. If Ukraine is able to start putting missiles into Sevastopol, that’s a real problem for the Russians—the whole reason they want Crimea is for the port at Sevastopol. If Ukraine lets it be known that they can and will hit targets there, like the important facilities necessary for the Black Sea Fleet,that is a serious threat.
There’s another element to Ukraine’s defense, too, and that is the society. People talk about Putin as a genius. But he took his neighbor, the 40 million Ukrainian people that generally were predisposed to be either pro-Russian or tolerant of Russia, and now, thanks to the 2014 invasion, he’s got 40 million people on his southern border that hate him. This notion of Putin’s that somehow the Ukrainians are waiting to be rescued so they can rejoin Russia is a total fairy tale.
I think he’s going to have a hard time explaining to his own population why hundreds, if not thousands of Russian soldiers are killed.
TB: Do you think Russia is deterrable at this point still? Or do you think that they’re signaling that they’re going in, no matter what?
Hodges: They are deterrable if Putin looks over and sees Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Sholtz, French President Emmanuel Macron, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi—all the EU members, all the NATO members, Canada, the UK, all shoulder to shoulder, in unison on economic sanctions. If they all tell Putin, “You’re going to pay a price like you’ve never paid before. And all your friends around you that are keeping you in power, they’re not going to be able to send their kids to school in London anymore. Assets are going to be frozen, no matter whose name they’re in.” If they do that and they can do it in a compelling way, then I think there’s a chance.
But if Putin looks over and he sees just the United States, I think the risk goes up.
TB: Do you think sanctions are an effective tool here? Or do you think that Putin has figured at this point that Russia can ride it out?
Hodges: If it’s only us, absolutely they’ll ride it out. But if they see that Germany and other allies are united with us—that’s a different story.
If we were thinking strategically, of course, and maybe some people have, we would have already signaled to our European allies not to worry. We will provide any gas that you need. If the Russian turn it off or start disrupting anything more, we’ll make sure you’ll get it from the Middle East or LNG. Maybe some people have already signaled this. This is the United States. We can do big things if we’ve thought about it and are willing to pay for it.
What makes us even more dangerous in my view is that the Chinese are watching this, too. If the Chinese Communist Party leadership see that the Americans cannot even get the Europeans together to prevent Putin from expanding his hold on Ukraine because of gas, then I don’t think there’ll be too impressed with our warnings about Taiwan.
TB: In 2014, at the beginning of the war, there was a split in opinion about selling certain arms to Ukraine, and ever since the United States has gone back and forth on whether to provide lethal aid or not. Do you think at this point we should still have those reservations? Where would you draw a line as to we should give the Ukrainians, should they ask for it?
Hodges: Let me first say: All of those decisions are not strategy decision. Those are policy decisions. And what’s been missing is a strategy for the region. Once we have a clear goal, a clear desired end-state, then you have endless debates about Javelin anti-tank missiles or counter-fire radar. So that’s, that’s my position is that we need a strategy that encompasses diplomatic and economic efforts, as well as security cooperation.
Having said all that, of course, whatever we give them, it needs to be something that you could put in a soldier’s hands immediately and use immediately. A Stinger anti-aircraft missile or a Javelin anti-tank missile—those kinds of capabilities Ukrainian troops already know how to use.
This is part of the mixed signals I’m talking about: There was a shipment counter-fire radar and other aid that was headed to Ukraine and it was stopped by the White House. Now they already have some counter-fire radar from four years ago, and that was very effective for them. They lost one to the Russians, but they’ve managed to keep the rest of them alive. The White House stopped the shipment—for what reason?
On the other hand you have Patriot missiles. That would be a waste in the near term because it takes a lot of training. There’s a lot of overhead. It would be a big target.
I would strongly advocate for training. For example, do a joint, multinational, integrated air missile defense exercise. Practice now, because once a new offensive starts, there’s going to be dozens of missiles coming down, fixed-wing aircraft and drones going after every sensor, all at the same time, in a heavily contested cyber environment. So how do you make sure you’re shooting down the right thing? You’ve got to practice. And I think that we should be doing that with them right now. Bring them to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany, for example, and train, practice, work on this.
Same thing with mobility. Have they practiced loading up tank battalions rapidly, at night, moving stuff around to be able to, react to a potential attack or opportunity?
We should be helping with intelligence. The Ukrainians can see what’s in front of them very well. We can let them see deep through signals, intelligence, imagery. I think we should be wide open on this.
TB: You talked about having a consistent policy, about what end state we want. Besides obviously what’s at stake for the Ukrainians, what is at stake here for the Russians? And what’s at stake here for America and our NATO allies, our European allies?
Hodges: Our leaders should be able to explain and every member of Congress should understand, and people around Europe, should understand why does Ukraine matters to us, why the Black Sea matters for us.
It matters because of course we have three NATO allies there: Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria. And we have partners and friends that are there that we want to help protect. There’s respect for international law, for sovereignty, for all the values that we claim to be for. If we roll over for the Russians, then we have suffered a major defeat.
And there’s an economic interest. The Black Sea region is the ideal economic corridor between Europe and Eurasia. All the other corridors go through Russia or Iran. A free and open Black Sea benefits all of Europe, which is why the Russians don’t want that. They don’t want parliaments asking, “Why are there Russian troops in Georgia or Azerbaijan and Armenia?”
Finally, there’s Turkey. Now they’re very, very difficult, challenging ally. But you know, regimes change; geography does not change. Turkey is a bulwark for all of us against Iran and Islamic extremism, as well as a necessary ally for deterring Russian aggression in the region.
Why does Ukraine matter to Russia? Of course, there’s the reason Catherine the Great annexed it the first time back in the late 18th century, and that was for access to a year-round warm-water port. Most of Russia’s grain export goes out through the Black Sea, for example. Now, they have their own ports on the Black Sea, and before 2014, they had an agreement with the Ukrainian government, but they’ve chosen a different path.
TB: What do you think are the odds that after a new offensive in Ukraine, the war will stay localized? If you’re talking about massive cyberattacks, if you’re talking about use of drones and missiles, what are the odds that it spreads and becomes a more general war, with more than just the Ukrainians and Russians?
Hodges: Cyber doesn’t know boundaries. Refugees don’t know boundaries. There’s a lot of things that will be happening at sea, in Belarus, in Moldova, and perhaps even spill over into Romania or Poland or Hungary.
I think our allies are going to be very concerned about what might come out of Kaliningrad, too, and the potential that it could have unintended spillover activity in Belarus in particular. This isn’t likely, by the way, but the risk is what’s unlikely, and what you still have to plan for.
I think there will be some serious anxiety if cyber spills over and starts affecting others. You know, there’s an excellent story by Andy Greenberg in Wired magazine a few years ago about the Russian Not Petya attack. That attack was aimed at a Ukrainian tax office or something, but it ricocheted and knocked out Merck for weeks. That’s the kind of thing that’d be worth watching for.
TB: If you could send one confidential, personal message to Putin, Shoygu, and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, what would you say?
Hodges: I would say, “Gentlemen, I don’t have a strategy for the Black Sea right now, but I have all my best people working on it.”