Interview with Ben Hodges — retired U.S. Lieutenant General, the former Commanding General of the U.S. Army in Europe.
Ben Hodges / photo: Spirit of America
Why the liberation of Crimea is the key to the liberation of Donbas and the whole of Ukraine, how it can be achieved in 2023, and what is holding the West back — read in an interview with Ben Hodges exclusively for the «Vchasno» news agency.
«Vchasno» news agency: Mr. Hodges, you always express faith in the victory of Ukraine. In your opinion, what is now key in supporting Ukraine to turn the situation in its favor as much as possible?
— Two things. First of all, we need to hear from the American president, as well as the German Bundeskanzler and the British prime minister, and the French president, that they all want Ukraine to win, that that is the strategic objective for all of us. If they say that, then everything else will happen. But for some reason, we continue to deter ourselves to not be as aggressive in providing what’s needed. And really, without a clear definition of the strategic outcome from the West, we will continue to have this incremental delivery of capability. And I don’t fully understand it.
Now, the second thing is specifically what should be provided. And I would advocate for more long-range precision weapons that could be used in the isolation and then the liberation of Crimea. For me, that’s what’s crucial in the near term because liberating Crimea is the key to victory here for Ukraine. That’s the decisive terrain. And I think long-range precision weapons will be the key.
Map as of April 20, 2023 / source: DeepState
— So you think that Crimea is like an end game in this war? Why precisely this territory?
— Because when you look at a map, anybody can tell that as long as Russia occupies Crimea, the Russians will always be able to dominate Ukraine’s Black Sea coast and obviously to block anything coming in and out of the Azov Sea.
And so no chance for Ukraine to really rebuild its economy as long as Russia is there. And then also I see the Crimean Peninsula as a dagger that’s pointed right into the belly of Ukraine. From there the Russians are able to launch drones, missiles, aircraft, and support operations that are happening in the southern Ukrainian region.
So Ukraine will never be safe or secure as long as Russia occupies the peninsula. So from a security standpoint and an economic standpoint, we should not be putting pressure on Ukraine to accept any negotiated settlement where Russia still controls Crimea.
— You mentioned the long-range weapons. What weapons, in theory, can the USA provide to Ukraine?
— Well, of course, we’re talking about the ATACMS, which is the 300-kilometer rocket that is fired off the back of a HIMARS, or the Gray Eagle drone that has 25 hours of loiter time and it can deliver Hellfire missiles, the ground launch small diameter bombs (GLSDB), which are 150 kilometers.
These are the kinds of weapons that would make a difference in Ukraine’s ability to start making Crimea untenable for Russian forces. And this precision is what defeats the only advantage the Russians have, which is mass. Now, whether or not F-16s or other kinds of aircraft, of course, that should have started months ago and I hope that the policy will change there as well because it would help Ukraine not only in the near term but in the longer term to be able to help defend its airspace, as well as support ground operations.
ATACMS, Gray Eagle, GLSDB / фото: Root Nation, RBK and Ukrinform
— Should Ukraine expect the F-16s this year? This is one of the top requests of our military-political leadership since the beginning of the big war.
— I don’t know. I wish they would. And I’m glad that there’s already some training happening. But I don’t understand why the administration continues to be reluctant to provide that kind of capability.
— And also I have a question about the latest scandalous leak of documents about the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Will it play some role in providing weapons to Ukraine? Because apparently we saw that Ukrainians have some problems with ammunition for the air defense system, and it’s very important for protecting the life of civilians.
— So the leaks were not about the Ukrainian counteroffensive. It was a variety of things. And of course, it was damaging to the trust that we all need to share intelligence. But I think the content of what was leaked is not so damaging.
Most of the information was already known, I think. I mean, nobody would be surprised to hear that Ukraine is running low on air and missile defense weapons. But what would be bad if we’re not doing something to help address that.
So I think the General Staff probably has already taken the necessary steps to mitigate any risk associated with this. I’ve been so impressed with the General Staff, very professional, and I think this will not be a major problem in the near term.
But it does pose a problem for people who are wondering how could such a young junior person have access to so much information (21-year-old US Air National Guard soldier Jack Teixeira — ed.). So we’ve got some problems internally that we have to fix. But he also appears to be something of an extremist. And so I think we also have a problem in our military with a small but nonetheless portion of people in service who are also extremists.
— If Ukraine will have these long-range weapons, what time frames can you outline in which we can liberate Crimea?
— Well, if Ukraine had those things that I talked about, it could happen by the end of August. Of course, I don’t know exactly when the General Staff plans to launch their offensive. They’ve done a very good job of protecting information so I should not know when it’s going to be.
But I think once it gets going, we will see very, very big success. And as soon as they are able to penetrate closer to the Azov Sea, then they can begin to bring up HIMARS and other weapons that can begin to reach the Crimean Peninsula. And you start using precision strikes against Sevastopol or Saky or Dzhankoi or these places. And the Russians won’t be able to stay there.
So think of three phases. The first phase is isolation. The second phase is making it untenable. And then the third phase is clearing the occupied part. And then you go ahead and drop the Kerch Bridge.
The Ukrainian General Staff, of course, still has a better plan than what I have just outlined. But in broad strokes, conceptually, that’s how I think it could happen. And it could all be done this year. But it depends on the West to provide what’s needed.
— And does the city of Mariupol play a serious role in this possible operation? Because I think it might start from the direction of Mariupol.
— I don’t know that they’ll go directly from Mariupol. What’s most important is that they break the land bridge. So wherever it is, and they might aim for two or three different places, but to isolate Crimea — that’s what is key. And then they can begin to clear out Donbas. But the strategically important part is Crimea.
— And if we talk about eastern Ukraine. We see how for a lot of months the Russians trying to capture Bakhmut, although they do not have success in Avdiivka and Mariinka directions. So is there something else to expect from them? Do they have capabilities for a new offensive?
— No, I think Russia has used all that they have right now. Now, in two years they could have rebuilt a lot of this and maybe improve some of their problems. But right now, I just don’t see the evidence of it.
The fact that after nine months, they have still not captured Bakhmut. After nine years, they still do not have air superiority. They still have not figured out their command and control structure. The leaders hate each other. The Navy is not able to do anything except launch missiles against apartment buildings.
So I just don’t see the potential for Russia all of a sudden breaking out and doing something. It looks to me like they have transitioned to a defensive posture to try and hang on to what they have.
— Do you think maybe the West must have some fear of further escalation from the Russian Federation? But why? Because the world already saw what Russia is capable of. And I think our army debunked all the myths about the big power and everything.
— I think the White House and some European capitals are still concerned that there would be a nuclear escalation of some sort. And I think it’s exaggerated and unfounded.
But I think that’s part of the reason that they are still deterring themselves and exaggerating fear about that. And I think they also still have not gotten their head around the idea that Ukraine is actually going to defeat Russia. They can beat them. And so there are still too many people that are skeptical about that. But I also think there’s probably something about China, and I don’t know what it is, but the Chinese have probably communicated that they absolutely do not want to see Russia defeated or collapse. So perhaps that’s some of it. There are things that obviously we don’t know in public and we shouldn’t know everything.
— Yes, you mentioned that there are a lot of skeptical forecasts for the future win of Ukraine. But in your opinion, what is the best-case scenario and the worst-case scenario for this year for Ukraine?
— Well, the best case is what I said earlier, that Crimea is liberated by the end of summer and the West provides Ukraine with what it needs. And by the end of the year, the whole thing could be over. I mean, most of it. But that is possible because I think that Russians are really fragile right now. I mean, they have a lot of problems. And economically, people, populations, not just military, leadership. And I think if Ukraine keeps the pressure on them if the rest of the world keeps the pressure on them, then it collapses.
The worst case, of course, would be if the West said, «We're not going to do anything else». But that’s not going to happen.
— And also, you said that maybe in two years, Russia might restore all the losses they have and maybe gain some power.
— The two years would be an estimate after whenever this war ends. So this is why I think a peace settlement with Russia retaining control of Crimea would be really bad because in less than two years, Russia would have rebuilt and replaced a lot of what they’ve lost and they would be preparing to come again. So I don’t want to give them that two years. We want to make sure that Ukraine has Crimea and also that it is able to defend itself and that we continue to help them modernize.
— Do you think it will all end with some negotiations? Because there are a lot of expert opinions about the possible negotiations. But what are the terms for negotiations might be? I mean, when Ukraine will reach Crimea, maybe then Russia will negotiate more actively.
— President Zelenskyy and his team will have thought through.
And, you know, unless Russia was ready to surrender, what would Ukraine be negotiating for right now? I think that the leadership in Kyiv knows that they are winning and that they can achieve full victory. So I don’t know if there are negotiations in the near future. Maybe the Russians will want to do it before they lose everything. But I think that President Zelenskyy has been clear about what victory looks like. Full restoration of all of your territory, return of the thousands of young Ukrainians who were deported into Russia, accountability for Russian war crimes, and then also what comes next, a plan to help rebuild and also to defend yourself.
The interview with Ben Hodges was recorded on April 19, 2023
Interview in Ukrainian available by the link: «Звільнення Криму й Донбасу — це те, чого Україна може досягнути цього року, але є умови«