The Wall Street Journal on February 6, 2015, published an interview with Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe. Excerpts below:
‘I believe the Russians are mobilizing right now for a war that they think is going to happen in five or six years—not that they’re going to start a war in five or six years, but I think they are anticipating that things are going to happen, and that they will be in a war of some sort, of some scale, with somebody within the next five or six years.”
So says Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe.
The U.S. military presence in Europe is more vital at this moment than it has been in many years. American engagement is essential if the West is to deter a revanchist Russia that has set out to “redraw the boundaries of Europe,” Gen. Hodges says with a native Floridian’s drawl.
He points to the recent increase in violence in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Kremlin forces in January assaulted the Black Sea port of Mariupol, killing 30 civilians, and are now consolidating their gains.
“What’s happening in eastern Ukraine is very serious,” the 56-year-old West Point alumnus says. “When they fired into Mariupol that got my attention. Mariupol is an important place, city of 500,000 on the Black Sea. Russia has to resupply Crimea by sea or air, and that is very expensive, so obviously they would like to do it overland. Mariupol sits right in the way. They would really like to drive right through there.”
What Russian President Vladimir Putin “has done in Ukraine,” he says, “is a manifestation of a strategic view of the world. So when you look at the amount of equipment that has been provided, and the quality and sophistication of the equipment that has been provided to what I would call his proxies . . . they clearly have no intention of leaving there.”
The new weapons Mr. Putin has supplied to these proxies include “some of the latest air-defense systems,” says Gen. Hodges. “They also have brought in some of the latest, most-effective jamming, what we would call electronic-warfare, systems.” This level of assistance suggests Ukraine “is not a foray, not a demonstration.
They are deploying capabilities way above and beyond anything that any militia or rebel organization could ever come up with.”
“When you saw video of the Spetsnaz [Russian special forces], the so-called little green men” in eastern Ukraine, the general says, “unless you absolutely know nothing about military stuff, how they carry themselves, the fact that they were all perfectly in uniform, that’s hard to do. It’s hard to get soldiers to stay in uniform and everybody carrying their weapon the right way all the time. That’s how you tell the difference between a militia, or rebels who have a variety of uniforms, and this group who are all perfectly in uniform.”
The Russians have “got some forces in Transnistria,” he says of the state that broke away from Moldova in the 1990s. “They’ve got forces in Georgia. And I think they view China as their existential threat, so they’ve got a lot of capacity out there.” The Russian military is thus already somewhat stretched, and Moscow had to carve out from existing units the battalion task groups currently arrayed near eastern Ukraine. Yet “they are clearly on a path to develop, to increase, their capacity,” Gen. Hodges says. Add to this expansion that “they’ve got very good equipment, extremely good communications equipment, their [electronic-warfare] capability, T-80 tanks.” How long will it take for Russia to reach its desired military strength? “I think within another two or three years they will have that capacity,” he says.
Gen. Hodges notes that the Russians already have an advantage in the information battleground: “They’re not burdened with the responsibility to tell the truth. So they just hammer away, and whenever somebody in the West puts out a blog or a tweet, there’s an immediate counterattack by these trolls.”
Russia Today, the Kremlin’s foreign-language television service, is estimated to be within reach of 600 million viewers world-wide. Russia Today’s YouTube channel has received a billion views, making it one of the most-watched channels on the online-video platform.
Then there is the Kremlin’s sheer aggressiveness, not least on the nuclear front. The Pentagon last year announced that it is removing missiles from 50 of America’s underground silos, converting B-52 long-range bombers to conventional use and disabling 56 submarine-based nuclear-launch tubes—all well ahead of the 2018 New Start treaty deadline. Moscow, by contrast, has been simulating nuclear strikes…Western leaders should first determine what outcome they’d like to see emerge in the region, he says, and then apply a “whole-of-government” approach, including a military dimension, to achieve it.
Many Americans and their representatives are tempted to regard Crimea as a distant geographical abstraction—and to say that it’s about time Europeans met their own defense needs instead of financing bloated welfare states. “It’s a fair question,” Gen. Hodges says. “Why won’t the Germans do more? Why won’t the Brits do more? You’ll get that from people in the States. I’ve never been bashful about telling allies, ‘Hey, you have a responsibility here, too. You all agreed to spend 2% of your GDP on defense. Right now only four countries are doing it.’”
To a commander like Gen. Hodges, the strain on the Army caused by budget sequestration is palpable. “With the possibility of sequestration hanging over our head, the Army will have to go to 420,000” personnel, he says. “That’s about another 80,000 below where we are now. . . .
What Gen. Hodges fears is a “hollow” Army, in which commanders will have to forego a capable and sufficiently large personnel, readiness or modernization to meet budget requirements. To serve its purpose, however, an Army needs a depth of resources at its disposal.