By Alexander Kaffka

A former commander of U.S. forces in Europe predict that Ukraine will liberate Crimea. The peninsula has been occupied by Russian forces since 2014 and its liberation would be a huge victory for Ukraine.

Lieutenant general Ben Hodges, changed the command of NATO Allied Land Command (LANDCOM) headquarters to, lieutenant general John Nicholson (not seen), speaks to the press in Izmir, Turkey on October 23, 2014. Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges made the bold prediction that Ukraine will liberate Crimea. (EMIN MENGUARSLAN/ANADOLU AGENCY/ GETTYIMAGES)

 Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges made the bold prediction in an exclusive interview.  Hodges is the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis. He was the Commander of United States Army Europe from 2014 to 2017.  He is also the author of Future War and the Defence of Europe, published by Oxford University Press.  He spoke to Alexander KAFFKA, editor-in-chief of Caucasian Journal

Q: How do you assess the current state of U.S. military assistance to Ukraine? If you consider it insufficient, what kind of arguments, in your view, might serve the best to convince the decision-makers to approve whatever is needed?

Lt. Gen. Ben HODGES: What’s happening in Ukraine is about much more than Ukraine. This is about defense of the international rules-based order from which most of the World has benefitted since the end of WWII… respect for sovereignty as enshrined in the UN Charter, respect for human rights, accountability for war crimes, and respect for international law.   It’s also about deterring China… The CCP [The Chinese Communist Party – CJ] needs to see that the West is prepared to do whatever it takes to protect liberal democratic values and our strategic interests.

AK: The U.S. and Germany have recently authorized provision of the first two Patriot air defense batteries to Ukraine. While this is not offensive armament, why, from your view, did it take so long to provide it? If Ukraine had it last fall, could it be instrumental in avoiding the dramatic damage to infrastructure?

BH: I don’t know why we, the West, have been so incremental in our decisions on what to provide to Ukraine.  I think we have been self-deterring out of an exaggerated fear of Russian nuclear escalation, which I believe is a risk which must be taken seriously but which is extremely unlikely.  Patriot is of course the best system in the world for what it was designed to do – knock down missiles and aircraft to protect a specific site.  But it is not a ‘sky shield’ that will protect all of Ukraine.  It must be integrated into a network, or system of systems, with layers of air/missile defense…what we call Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD).  Don’t use a Patriot against a drone…use other systems in one of the layers to do that.  One battery of Patriot, with about six launchers, can help protect one major city.

AK: Speaking about the recently approved provision of heavy equipment to Ukraine, including the American Bradley, French AMX-10, German Marder fighting vehicles, how do you assess its scale and possible effect in the battlefield? How adequate is this support, how can it change the equilibrium, and when can the first results be expected?

Ben Hodges, Kommandierender General des US-Heeres in Europa. Ukraine will continue building up an armored force – a division or more – that is trained and prepared to serve as the breakthrough formation for the next major offensive phase of the Campaign according to Hodges Prediction. (USAREUR) (POPOW/ULLSTEIN BILD VIA GETTYIMAGES)

BH: Ukraine will continue building up an armored force – a division or more – that is trained and prepared to serve as the breakthrough formation for the next major offensive phase of the Campaign.  I’d anticipate that it’ll be at least three months before they’re able to do that.  It will be built around Ukrainian armor that they already have or have captured, but Western tanks/IFV’s/arty will be key to making it lethal.  I can’t judge the weather for March/April yet nor can I be confident of the delivery of tanks to complement the IFV’s that are now being delivered, but it does seem that the dam is about to finally break on Western tanks.  Maintenance and training and logistics for all of this is of course part of the build-up.

AK: If I am correct, the Ukrainian forces haven’t had much opportunity to practice with such Western-produced fighting vehicles as the Bradleys, not to mention the heavier armaments such as Abrams or Leopard tanks. Can the lack of training be a serious problem?

BH: This training is already underway.  The Ukrainians have impressed me with how quickly they can learn/adapt to new equipment and technologies.  I estimate they will be proficient in about 1/3 of the normal time for training.  The longer time requirement is for teaching mechanics and for building up the maintenance capabilities.

AK: We know that before 2022 many forecasts and assessments by military analysts – in fact from the both sides of the conflict – had proved completely wrong. Now, however, throughout the past year, the professionals have got plenty of facts and real-life evidence from this conflict.  Do you think these facts have changed your judgments as well, or did you have pretty much the same vision before the war and now?

BH: I was always confident that the Ukrainian Soldiers would do well.  But I underestimated the resilience and tenacity of the Ukrainian population and their elected officials.  I grossly overestimated the capabilities of the Russian forces, which is, for me, professionally embarrassing.  I failed to appreciate the depth and effect of corruption within the Russian Ministry of Defense, the lack of real operational experience, and their failure to conduct realistic, demanding training.

AK: What’s your strategic view of 2023 for Ukraine? And how seriously does it depend on the internal situation in the U.S.?

BH: I am confident that there will continue to be strong, bi-partisan support in the Congress for support to Ukraine, surely through the end of this year.  I therefore expect that the West and other partners will also continue to support Ukraine.  If we continue this, and if we provide the long-range systems Ukraine needs to isolate Crimea and render it untenable for Russian forces and which will enable them to deny sanctuary for Russian forces attacking civilian targets, then I expect Ukraine will liberate Crimea by the end of this summer.  And Crimea is the decisive terrain.

AK: Which scenario do you consider as a realistic end of war? And what is your view on the post-war settlement options?  

BH: Decisive terrain for this war is Crimea.  Ukraine knows that they cannot settle for Russian retaining control of Crimea… They’ll never be safe/secure or able to rebuild their economy so long as Russia retains Crimea. Therefore Kyiv cannot accept any negotiated settlement which gives up Crimea, nor should the West… If we are serious about the international rules-based order then we cannot allow the Kremlin to be rewarded for its illegal actions.  Additionally, war crimes tribunals should be established already.  Every level of Russian commander and authority should know that their names and crimes are already being catalogued.

Russian soldiers patrol the area surrounding the Ukrainian military unit in Perevalnoye, outside Simferopol, on March 20, 2014. Kiev will never recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea and will fight for the “liberation” of the strategic Black Sea peninsula, Ukraine’s parliament said in a resolution adopted on March 20. (FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP VIA GETTYIMAGES)

 AK: You are familiar with the political and military challenges present in our region of South Caucasus as well. Do you expect any implications or developments in this region? What about the bigger picture including such a player as Turkey with its specific interests? 

BH: The US Government will finally have to develop a strategy for the greater Black Sea region, thanks to bi-partisan legislation crafted by Senators Shaheen and Romney.  This is now the Law. Repairing/strengthening our relationship with Turkey and other nations in the region will be a key part of that strategy.

AK: Let’s go further up, to the global level. How do you assess the security challenge posed by China, and what is your “global priority list” of threats, if I may put it this way? 

BH: China has made it clear that it wants/expects to unify Taiwan with the Chinese mainland, whatever it takes.  They’re building a military that could be effective in such an effort, should CCP leadership ever make that terrible miscalculation.  I think it is feasible that we are in a kinetic conflict within five years from now.  Part of this is because President Xi’s term will end in about five years and I think he will want this as his legacy.

AK: In each holiday season, I am sure everyone hopes for the best – even if against all the odds.  I also hope it’s not going to be all grim and challenging times that we will be facing. What are the optimistic highlights that you may outline?

BH: Democracy is growing, NATO is getting better, Ukraine is winning, and I see talented young Women and Men in most places/nations working hard to fulfil their potential and their dreams.

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