The Ukrainian Week met with General (ret.) Ben Hodges, former commander of United States Army Europe, now a Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) to discuss possible Russian attacks on Ukraine, Western answers on such actions, and the problems of the Black Sea region.
This article was taken from The Ukrainian Week magazine with the editorial permission.
Author: Yuri Lapaiev.
Do you find current political, economical, and military situations as favourable for Russia to invade? If not – why?
– For certain, all of the conditions will be in place in September with the summer drought and the lack of water in Crimea, the disinformation operation that the Kremlin is conducting in this region, where they have talked about the humanitarian crisis. And, of course, the new Constitution for the Russian Federation. Basically, they try to take a legal claim to former parts of the Soviet Union. They are also issuing Russian passports to Ukrainians. All of these things are political and economic conditions. Then you need to think of the Kavkaz 2020 exercise, where you have a significant amount of Russian Federation forces in the region. And you need to think about the United States. We are distracted, right now we have plenty of challenges of our own because of the COVID-19, domestic violence going on and especially because of the presidential elections. September would be just a few weeks before our election. Then you can add this huge mistake in the decision to withdraw 9500 Americans from Germany. And most of these troops are essential for logistics, rapid reinforcement. So, all of these things together do not mean necessarily, that there would be an attack. But the conditions are there. This is why it is so important that not only Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) are vigilant, but also everyone in the region, like Georgia, Romania, and Turkey. And the United States pays attention too, same for NATO. I think Germany and France should be really putting the pressure on the Kremlin, but they haven’t done so yet. They also have their own internal challenges with post-pandemic recovery.
So, if the Kremlin thinks that the West would really respond in a minimal way, then I think, there is a risk. They could do the calculation, that could lead to an attack of some sort. Obviously, I hope I’m wrong. And I’m sure that the UAF will do all the right things to be prepared, to maintain surveillance. It is really important that Ukraine works closely with Georgia, Moldova, and Romania to watch very closely this exercise, but also what is going on in the Black Sea and in the Sea of Azov. You need the whole combination of intelligence capabilities: signal intelligence, aerial platform intelligence. Ukraine has become very good at working with drones, this would also be very important. But also maritime surveillance of what is going on out there.
What could be used as a casus belli? And what is the reason for Russia to make such a move?
– Of course this water shortage in Crimea, partly as a result of weather conditions and partly of Ukrainian blocking of the North Crimea Canal. The Kremlin is talking about the humanitarian crisis, and they are not able to solve this problem by themselves with bringing more water or creating desalination capability. I think the pretext for them would be to tell “We have a humanitarian crisis, we have no choice and need to open the dam near Nova Kakhovka.” There are already some information operations that are kind of saying this, in that region. I don’t know what this invasion would look like. It could be helicopters with special forces, it could be people, who infiltrate not in uniform, or it could be an airstrike. The main goal is to disable the dam, but there are a variety of things that they could do to get the water going on again. If Russians do that and if the West does respond in a minimal way, I don’t know where could be the end of it.
They wouldn’t go if they only destroy the dam and leave. In fact, if they control the area of Nova Kakhovka in addition to the whole seashore of Crimea and 10 thousand troops in Transnistria, all that is left for Ukraine is a tiny area near Odesa. And the Russian Navy is always conducting military exercises, which include the blockade of this area. So, for me, that’s the long-term goal, to completely control the entire Black Sea coast and isolate Ukraine from it. You already have troubles with the Sea of Azov, and the Kremlin saw that the West didn’t react. In the Kerch Strait, there were no “green men”, there was the Russian Navy, which seized Ukrainian vessels. If the Western community doesn’t push back on that, then de facto it will become Russian territorial water. Because, obviously, they are not leaving. Since they saw there was no real reaction to their actions in Azov, they became emboldened. When you combine that with the US having been distracted and lack of strong actions by American administration against Russia, I think they can make a miscalculation, that the Kremlin could be tempted to do something, take advantage of all these factors.
Which developments (political and military) from the Russian side could be an early sign of preparation for invasion?
– Number one is the construction of medical capabilities, like field hospitals, more than there would be necessary for just regular exercises. Of course, ammunition and similar things. Logistical preparation is what takes the most time. And then I could imagine and expect that the Ukrainian intelligence services are listening to whatever they can. At the same time, I could expect that Russian forces would be disciplined in their operational security. And of course, we need to look at the information space, if there would be a significant increase in the news on the humanitarian crisis. Potentially, Ukraine could gather some human intelligence on Donbas, because there are thousands of Russian officers there. They could tell somehow about what is going on. I hope that the OSCE will take a bold step for its SMM to listen to the development of the situation.
But as we hear in the news, terrorists in Donbas prohibit free access to SMM observers, telling that this measure is to stop the pandemic.
– At this point I’m disappointed in Germany and France and the UK, they all don’t do more to put international pressure on the Kremlin to allow the OSCE to do its job. To me, it’s absolutely unacceptable. And the Kremlin sees that. It is a shame because there are a lot of brave men and women in the OSCE, that are taking risks doing their job.
Are there any steps for the West and Ukraine to prevent possible invasion?
– If you think in terms of diplomacy, Ukraine should be working overtime through diplomatic channels with Berlin, Paris, London as well as Washington and Brussels. To raise awareness of all of these things. To draw attention and to remind people, that Ukrainian soldiers are still getting killed every week, that Russia still illegally occupies Crimea, that Moscow is making plans which are completely illegal. Kyiv needs to build up a proof collaboration with Romania, Georgia, and Turkey. Together they could be a louder diplomatic voice that could be heard in Brussels and Washington. To me, it’s the first step.
In the information space, there need to be steady efforts by the Ukrainian government to communicate to all its citizens, explain what’s going on, and build up resilience in the society. So that people would not be susceptible to the Russian disinformation. That’s easier for me to say, harder to do, but that’s what leadership is about.
In the military space – continuing to maintain surveillance on the coast as well as in the air watching for the indicators, what we have talked about. You cannot have the whole army just sitting in alarm mode ready to go, which is not sustainable. We don’t talk about alerting everybody. But I would focus my intelligence efforts, while at the same time making sure that all of our forces are doing the proper things to be ready, like maintenance and training.
In the field of economics Ukraine should get all the countries of Europe to declare that any vessel that sails from any port in Crimea is contraband. Crimea should be some kind of poison to them and it should not be allowed to enter any European port, no matter whether it is Russian Navy or commercial vessel. This could be an effective way to remind, that Russian annexation of Crimea is illegal. As I remember, president Poroshenko has declared all ports closed. So, this ban could be an important step within the legal framework. Also part of the reason why there is not much attention to the Black Sea and why the West does not have a strategy for this region the way Russia does, is despite all the respect for Ukrainian and Georgian people, there are no investments. There is no skin in the game. If France, Germany, the US, the UK, or other countries do not have a major economic investment in Georgia, Ukraine, and Romania, then, to be honest, there is nothing for them to fight for. And that is exactly what Russia wants. Moscow made it impossible for Georgia to make progress with the Anaklia port, for example. If they had that port in Georgia, then the country becomes a logistic hub between Eurasia and Europe. So, all involved countries would be interested in Georgia’s security. Then you could have traffic going to Odesa and Constanta which could change the whole economic dynamic of the whole region. And that’s the last thing Russia wants. The Kremlin needs to have total control over the Black Sea. That allows them to continue to operate in Syria and Libya, for them it’s one region. We in the West don’t see it that way. Earlier Russia has weaponized refugees from Syria, now they can repeat that in Libya. The civil war, in which Russia is supporting general Haftar, generates millions of refugees, which will come to Europe again. And this is not an accident.
If we are talking about the worst-case scenario when the Russian invasion has happened, what could be the reaction of the Western countries, first of all, of the USA, Germany, France? What about China and Turkey?
– What should happen immediately, is all the usual diplomatic condemnation from everybody in the EU as well as in the United States. Even in China, I think. After that, a significant increase in sanctions, like something we have discussed above. Germany should immediately cease Nord Stream 2, which needs to be done on Day-1. If Russia does something, that must be the end of this project. I don’t know what type of military action would be taken, but I think in this case Ukraine should ask Turkey to deny any Russian maritime movement through the straits under the Montreux Convention. I would hope that Ukraine does such diplomatic work with Turkey right now, so that Ankara would be prepared to do this. Of course, Russia has huge leverages to pressure on Turkey as well. For sure, our Romanian allies would be very concerned. Russia has already seized Ukrainian gas platforms, so, Kremlin claims to expand its exclusive economic zone. They already are up against Romanian EEZ, but underwater with the perimeter for the gas fields there is an overlap of what Russia claims to be their EEZ. I think the United States and the rest of the NATO members should make it very clear, that they are ready to defend our Romanian and Bulgarian allies. Another thing that the West could do, would be to hit Russia in another place, like in Syria for example. A cyber strike of some sort, which shuts down their ability to operate in Tartus or some other places. And for sure we should shut down more than two major Russian banks, so this would be a real pain, not just sanctions. Otherwise, the Kremlin will know that we are very concerned, but not serious.
Do you find such steps by the West possible or Ukraine would have just another round of “deep concern” expressions?
– Of course, unfortunately, that is very likely. Strong unquestioned American leadership is so important in this situation. What is so concerning, is that the American leadership right now does not seem as strong and consistent and clear on the Kremlin. Which is why the risk is higher.
As we are in a hybrid conflict, which non-kinetic means the Kremlin could use in addition to conventional forces?
– Without a doubt, if the Kremlin moves, there will be massive cyberattacks against Ukraine to disrupt communications, command, and control infrastructure. As well as the disinformation efforts, they will continue. I would expect to see a total blockade of Azov. I would also imagine the possibility of massive civil disturbances that would be generated by Russian special forces in different communities. They want to distract attention in such a way. So, there would be many places in all regions of Ukraine, not only in the South, with multiple problems for Kyiv, in order to keep people away.
Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges. Born in 1958. In 1980 graduated from the United States Military Academy, became an infantry officer, serving as a platoon leader. In 1993 graduated from the School of Advanced Military Studies. In 2001 graduated from the National War College. After his first assignment as an Infantry Lieutenant in Garlstedt, Germany, he commanded Infantry units at the Company, Battalion, and Brigade levels in the 101st Airborne Division, including Command of the First Brigade Combat Team “Bastogne” of the 101st Airborne Division in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (2003-2004). His other operational assignments include Chief of Operations for Multi-National Corps-Iraq in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (2005-2006) and Director of Operations, Regional Command South in Kandahar, Afghanistan (2009-2010). In November 2012 took command of Allied Land Command. Hodges became commander of United States Army Europe in November 2014, holding that position until retiring from the army in early 2018. From 2018 he is the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).
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