How the War in Ukraine is Being Fought

How the War in Ukraine is Being Fought
(Lt. Gen. (ret.) Ben Hodges, May 15, 2022)

About the speaker

Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis. He joined CEPA in February 2018. A native of Quincy, Florida, General Hodges graduated from the United States Military Academy in May 1980 and was commissioned in the Infantry. 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). General Hodges has also served in a variety of Joint and Army Staff positions to include Tactics Instructor; Chief of Plans, 2nd Infantry Division in Korea; Aide-de-Camp to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe; Chief of Staff, XVIII Airborne Corps; Director of the Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell on the Joint Staff; Chief of Legislative Liaison for the United States Army; and Commander, NATO Allied Land Command (İzmir, Turkey). His last military assignment was as Commanding General, United States Army Europe (Wiesbaden, Germany) from 2014 to 2017. He retired from the U.S. Army in January 2018. He previously addressed Westminster on the subject of: How Great Power Competition Prevents Great Power Conflict.



Robert R. Reilly:

Hello and welcome to the Westminster Institute. I am Robert Reilly, its director. Today, we are privileged to welcome back to the Westminster Institute Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, which he joined in February 2018 after retiring from 37 years of military service.

General Hodges graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1980 and was commissioned in the infantry after his first assignment as an Infantry Lieutenant in Germany.

He commanded Infantry units at the Company, Battalion, and Brigade levels in the 101st Airborne Division, including in Operation Iraqi Freedom. His other operational assignments include

Chief of Operations for Multi-National Corps-Iraq, again in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Director of Operations, Regional Command South in Kandahar, Afghanistan. General Hodges also served in a variety of Joint and Army Staff positions to include Aide-de-Camp to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Chief of Staff 18th Airborne Corps, director of the Pakistan Afghanistan Coordination Cell on the Joint Staff, and Commander, NATO Allied Land Command in İzmir, Turkey. His last military assignment was as Commanding General, United States Army Europe from 2014 to 2017. General Hodges today is going to discuss with us the subject of: How the War in Ukraine is Being Fought. General, welcome back.

Gen. Ben Hodges:

Bob, thank you very much.

Military Performance

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, of course, it is being fought in different ways at different stages. Can you walk us through those, how the military forces have been deployed, which ones have been deployed, and why they have been deployed, with what military objectives in mind? And then perhaps you can critique how they have performed because everyone seems to be surprised by how both sides have performed or by a lack of performance.

Gen. Ben Hodges:

Well, certainly I am included in the group of people who overestimated Russia’s abilities. My expectations for them were much more than what we have seen so far. They are not stupid, so I anticipate that they will eventually, if given time, correct some of the mistakes, and so, you know, kind of the crux of what I want to say today is we do not want to give them time to fix all their problems and get going again.

So [there are] three or four aspects that I would like to use to respond to that first question.

I do believe we are in the decisive phase of the campaign, that in other words what happens in the next three or four weeks could very well determine what happens for the next three or four years. Ukraine is going to win. I will say that up front. Eventually, they are they are going to win. Russia has already lost in so many different ways and so many levels, regardless of how many more, how much longer they are able to keep firing artillery at innocent people and destroying villages and cities. In my assessment, even though we have got many, many, many tough weeks ahead, in my assessment Russia will culminate by the end of this summer, so August, September, and Ukraine will be able to go back onto the offensive and push Russia back to the 23 February line.

Now, I say that for a couple reasons. We know that war is a test of will and it is a test of logistics, and the Ukrainian logistical situation gets better with each day as all of the aid that the U.S. and the UK and other nations are providing builds up and starts getting into the hands of Ukrainian soldiers, then their situation gets better. Now, we have still got a lot of work to do here, but you can feel it is getting better.

On the other hand, the Russians have terrible manpower shortages, but the first, big, red flag was when they started asking for Syrian volunteers to come fight. They have a broken mobilization system so they have decided not to try and do a general mobilization, and they just do not have enough troops to do all that they set out to try and do. And they will not be able to control even the territory that they have taken so far.

The sanctions are beginning to to take effect. I am talking specifically sanctions that prevent the Russians from getting the necessary components to replace the precision munitions that they have already expended. I do not believe that, sitting on the other side of the border, that there is a second [or] third wave of people and new equipment ready to come in. They just do not have it. They have not invested in it. The corruption in the Ministry of Defense over the past decades has left them in a situation now where [their forces are depleted], and this is all being exposed.

So, in other words, Ukraine has the moral high ground, they have the will, they are defending their homeland, they are defending their families. They have got a very good manpower situation. They have no manpower shortages. Their shortages are in artillery and artillery ammunition and in other systems to attack deep, to destroy Russian artillery and rocket launchers. The Russians on the other hand do not have the will, not down at the soldier level. They do have the will at the top. President Putin obviously is willing to expend as many lives as necessary to achieve what he wants to achieve.

But I do not think that they have the logistics to keep this [going], what they are doing right now, and so this logistical situation is going to improve in the favor of Ukrainians. And I believe that by the end of the summer they will be on the offense, driving Russia back to the 23 February line.

[The] last thing [is] it was so important that Secretary Austin said what he did the other day when he talked about [how] we are going to help Ukraine win, that that is important. That is an end state that will drive all of us to do everything we can to help Ukraine win. 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, I never heard the word win a single time. It was never a policy statement. It was always, you know, ‘prevent terrorism’ or different things, never win, and this is important. And then the other word he used was weakened, to weaken Russia to the point that it can no longer threaten its neighbors.

Now, both of these have made some people uncomfortable, but of course, Secretary Austin is Secretary of Defense. He did not just pull that out out of his pocket. This is a policy decision by the United States government. And the administration, I think, has done a very good job working with allies, so being able to explain when, and weaken, and keeping the alliance together, unified in this effort, this is why I am optimistic that Ukraine is in fact going to win.

Robert R. Reilly:

Can we go back and draw upon your military expertise in, indeed, how the war is being fought? We know that their initial drive to take the capital of Ukraine failed to the point where they withdrew, but they do seem to be making some incremental progress in the Donbas and they have occupied a great deal of the southern coast of Ukraine, the Sea of Azov, and at least they are sending a lot of rockets into western Ukraine, but you are saying they do not have the capability to pursue an offensive further? And even if they do not, they still still have a vital piece of Ukraine in their hands.

Gen. Ben Hodges:

Yeah, so that is why we cannot stop. I mean that is why it was important to say win equals Russia out, back to the 23 February line, because if we do not [achieve that objective], then Ukraine’s economy will have a very hard time without the the ability to export grain. And of course, this is part of the design by the Kremlin. Putin wants to see Ukraine erased as a state, even the idea of Ukraine as a state, so he is doing what he can to make sure that their economy is trashed and in the occupied territories making people use rubles as a currency, all the different things, and he has also deported about half a million Ukrainians into Russia out of Ukraine, so this is classic, Stalinist-style [tactics], completely changing the landscape.

So I think that the ability of Russia to continue large-scale offensive operations is on the clock. They just do not have it. I think they restarted this offensive too soon. There is no way they had time to repair the damage to all the units, what we call reconstitution where you take units [that] have been beaten up or they are tired or had to replace equipment. This takes time and, you know, you bring in new people, new leaders. You have got to train together. You have got to learn to fight together. They have not had that time, so I think that they just jam people back in there into the line, trying to push it forward.

They still are not fighting as what we would call a joint force.

You do not see air, land, and sea, and special forces, operating in a synchronized manner where air power is [prioritized]. First of all, the first priority for air power is to get air superiority, to knock the enemy out of the sky. The Russians have failed with the huge numerical advantage they have and the ability to fly out of safe [or] pretty safe bases inside Russia and Belarus, [but they] have not been able to get air superiority. That points to the fact that while they may have a lot of airplanes, they do not have a lot of good pilots, that are trained properly, that know how to do this. And they do not even think in terms of joint air support for ground operations.

Where is the navy?

I mean the navy other than launching some missiles from 70, 80 miles away in the cities has done zero. They have they have done zero to contribute to the fight. I had expected [more from them]. This is part of my failed or my early overestimation. I expected them to be conducting enough amphibious operations all up and down the Black Sea coast. I mean that is the huge advantage that they had, the ability to to go in, pick a place, put their naval infantry ashore in outflying Ukrainian land forces. They have not done it. I do not think – and especially now that Ukrainians have displayed the ability to sink a ship, a major ship, from distance, the Russian navy has no desire to get in close. And so if they are not able to do that, then I do not think we are going to see an amphibious operation towards Odessa.

And certainly, all their land operations have failed so far. They cannot get past Mykolaiv, and so that is why I think, yes, they have got a lot of artillery, a lot of rockets, yes, they are whittling away, attriding Ukrainian forces in that southeastern part of Ukraine, but this is going to change. We started too late. We started too late to get serious about delivering capability that they needed. I mean you and everybody listening will remember it was only about two months ago that we were still arguing about whether or not to give Stinger [missiles] to the Ukrainians. How silly does that seem now? So, at least now we are talking about artillery, drones, long-range systems, getting that into the hands of Ukrainians, and that is how they are going to defeat Russian artillery, Russian rockets. That is going to turn the tide.

Robert R. Reilly:

Russia every couple of years has been holding massive military exercises with well over a hundred thousand troops, field hospitals, all of what would seem to be necessary to pull off something like what they failed to do here so far, so it is all the more startling that they have not achieved success. A very experienced combat officer I know made the remark that mass wins and Russia has the mass, but from what you have said they do not really have enough mass to do [what they set out to do], to reach their objectives. Would that be correct?

Gen. Ben Hodges:

Yeah, I would disagree with the assessment that mass automatically wins or at least in this case that Russia has enough mass to win, but there actually are more Ukrainian soldiers than there are Russian soldiers, and what the Russians have failed to do is they have actually failed to mass at the critical place. You know, instead they are spread out along this 300 mile contact line instead of massing to the way that their grandfathers did in the Second World War to achieve a big penetration. And I think this reflects a dearth of people who truly understand operational art and that are able to design a campaign necessary to get the benefit out of the advantages that they started with.

Now, why is that? They are not stupid, and I have been trying to figure out over the last few weeks how was I so wrong, how did I overestimate their abilities so much, and one of the things you mentioned [was] these exercises. Of course, the Russians never allowed people [to truly observe them], they never lived up to agreements for transparency, so we never had many observers at their exercises, so we could not really see.

But what we know now is that these big exercises were not exercises in the way that we know them where we train to the point of failure, where you go against an enemy force and the enemy almost always wins the first few days until you start getting your act together, and then you are able to win. That is called, you know, improving, training, learning, getting better.

Now, [for] the Russians there is no culture where you have trained to the point of failure, do an after-action review, critical self-analysis of what you did wrong, zero. That is just not in the culture, and so [in] these big exercises while they do exercise some logistical muscles such as moving lots of stuff over long distances on trains, this is all long planned and all the movements are demonstrations, basically, so there is no uncertainty.

More than anything there is no enemy, there is no force to change it so that that has been manifested by some of the mistakes they have made in the logistics and the obviously terrible at the tactical level situational awareness. When these generals are getting killed because they are talking on cell phones, it is not because U.S. intelligence is saying, hey, he is over here. It is because these guys are talking on cell phones on Ukrainian cell service, and you know, anybody [can listen in on them]. I mean Ukrainians, are very, very, very technically savvy, and so they are able to intercept, then geolocate, and then you put a rocket on that headquarters with this Russian General.

Now, a couple of them, I think, have been killed by snipers, different things, but the point is they do not have [discipline]. They are not exhibiting any of the indicators that you would find with a force that was well trained, disciplined, or had real operational experience.

This was another mistake I made. I thought, you know, I had seen Russians in Georgia, in Syria, in Crimea, and Donbas, Africa, all these places. Then I realized it is only about five percent of the military actually doing all that. The vast majority of the military has no operational experience; army, navy, air force, zero. And so, the things that we have learned after two decades in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and other places about force protection, about signature management, about how to do joint operations, working with allies, what is required for logistics to keep thousands of vehicles moving in difficult terrain, they had none of that. And you could add in a healthy dose of arrogance now and then and put that against a Ukrainian military that has been learning steadily for the last eight years, defending their homeland, and you see what the result is.

Robert R. Reilly:

One of the startling things is that one of President Vladimir Putin’s signature efforts was the modernization of the Russian military in which he threw a lot of rubles, and one result of that seems to have been some seriously upgraded military hardware, some very impressive weapons which in some cases may be better than ours. But you are saying that the level of corruption sort of undercut the improvement in hardware and that it trickled down to the point where you have got this lack of maintenance and people taking cuts at various levels as the money trickles down so when it gets to the bottom that some of the basic things are not seen to. Would you say that is correct, General?

Gen. Ben Hodges:

That is a very accurate description, Bob. One example there was the report or what we were all tracking was that there are about 900,000 Russians, Russian troops, that is army, navy, air force, all the services, 900,000. I would bet they probably do not have 500,000 total, but this is a classic way to scale off a lot of money. You say I have got to pay a thousand soldiers when in fact you only have 500, but you get salary for a thousand. That is a great way to make a lot of money for officers and ministry officials.

Why were Russian generals talking on cell phones on Ukrainian cell service? It is incredible.

Well, it turns out that their battle command system that you would expect that they would take into battle does not work. It has got a lot of cheap Chinese components in it. There are reports of tires, cheap tires that they bought from China that were rotten on vehicles. Then you have got soldiers being sent into battle with rations that have already expired. So, this is not just mismanagement, this is corruption and a lack of any care about what your soldiers are going to have or how they are going to fight, but this is a reflection on most of the history of of Russian troops under their leadership.

Now, I think that the command style also traditionally very centralized, which is another reason why you have a lot of generals there who are super exposed, because decisions that we would normally make at the level of a captain or a colonel they are requiring a general to move forward and come fix the situation, and so that means they are much more exposed. And of course, when they are exposed that means all the staff officers around them are exposed, which is also probably even more damaging to the effort in a very centralized system.

Whereas Ukraine, counter-intuitively, you would think that they still would be under kind of the Soviet model since the most senior Ukrainian officers would have been lieutenants or captains in the old Soviet military, but over the last 20 years they have been with us, the West, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we have had U.S., Canadian, British, Lithuanian, and Polish trainers with them in the Yavoriv training center near Lviv since about 2015.

And so, they have over time absorbed a lot of the Western way of what we call mission command, which is a power down, decentralized, command and control system where junior officers at the platoon, company, battalion level or brigade level have the authority to make decisions. In fact, they are expected to make decisions based on what they see in front of them and based on what they know the higher headquarters expectations are. That is a wonderful way to fight in a dispersed, distributed battlefield like this where uncertainty is all over the place and people are having to make quick decisions to either seize an opportunity or avoid a disaster, so you are seeing this in action also.

Robert R. Reilly:

Also, one thing that has always impressed me about the U.S. military is the level of responsibility given to junior officers even at the lieutenant level. I mean if you have a tank platoon, you are responsible for equipment that is worth a great deal of money, and you have responsibility for your men, and you do so without any excuses, and you are expected to take the initiative.

Gen. Ben Hodges:


Robert R. Reilly:

When I have talked to young officers, including my son who is a marine officer, if you leave the military and when you do, you will not achieve a comparable level of responsibility in your civilian career until you are well into your 40s. I mean there is nothing. No one at such an early age is given that level of responsibility, and of course, it matures these young men and women at a very rapid rate.

Let me go back then to something you have said twice. You have said the Russians are not stupid and we know when they have suffered enormous setbacks as of course they did when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union or Napoleon invaded Czarist Russia, they fall back, they licked their wounds – or even the Russo-Finnish War in 1939 where the Finns really gave them a bad licking at the beginning, they see what they have done wrong, they reorganized, and they go back in a far more effective way. Can that happen now or are you saying that manpower and logistics will not allow them that effort?

Gen. Ben Hodges:

Well, the historical examples you gave are good ones. Those examples play to the biggest advantage that Russia has and that is its enormous depth, that they could just keep going back and going back and going back, and of course, almost unlimited natural resources. In this case, they are the ones that are attacking. They are the ones that are attacking into Ukraine, so the biggest advantage they have does not come into play.

Secondly, if you remember from reading about the Second World War, once the Soviet Union found out through intelligence that the Japanese were never going to attack the eastern part of the Soviet Union, they were able to bring thousands and thousands of their eastern divisions of troops, Siberian divisions, west of the Urals. And so now, right as the fight is in not a stalemate but a deadlock, I mean between the Wehrmacht, German Wehrmacht, and the Red Army, now, all of a sudden, here comes tens of thousands of new fresh troops and Soviet tank production is in high speed. And now this is where mass really does take effect, and still the Germans were able to hold out for another couple of years, but it was at this point it was almost inevitable.

In this case, there are no Siberian divisions waiting to come in. The Russians have already pulled troops out of South Ossetia. They have pulled troops out of Kaliningrad. They have, like I said, put out a call for Syrian volunteers. They are trying to grow the Wagner Group, this mercenary organization, and they have sent out notices, asking for anybody up to the age of 60 that is willing to drive a truck. I mean they are in [a] desperate manpower situation, and they are on the offensive. That is, I think, part of the problem for them.

The second thing, of course, you had the opposite of sanctions in World War II. You had the United States providing incredible amounts of trucks, and equipment, and resources to the Soviet Union throughout the war to help them stay in the fight. Now, that does not get much coverage in Russian history, but it is a well-known fact. Okay, here we have the opposite. We have sanctions, and it is not just about seizing yachts and exclusive properties in London, and New York, and Miami, and so on. It is about making sure that the critical components that Russian defense industry needs to make certain things like precision munitions they are not getting, it is not coming in anymore, and so as they get to the end of their stockpile of munitions, precision munitions, then they are having to use more and more of what we call dumb bombs.

Now, those still kill people, but with dumb bombs their air force is going to have to come in much closer and they are going to start taking more losses to the air force because they cannot stay in Russian air space, which is what they have been doing, and just launching cruise missiles into cities, so that that is why I feel that this test of will is in favor of Ukrainians and the test of logistics is going to be moving into favor of the Ukrainians as well.

Robert R. Reilly:

When we speak of losses, General, whom do you believe? I mean war propaganda is always endemic in war and the Russians are denying losses. The Ukraine Defense Ministry is claiming very large losses of Russians and not minimal losses by them, but far fewer troops have been lost. Well, do we have any way of assessing what the actual losses are?

Gen. Ben Hodges:

I think that British intelligence probably has the best numbers. That is usually what I depend on, rely on, and they work with Bellingcat and organizations like that who only count destroyed tanks and vehicles if they have video evidence of it. They can geo-locate it, so those are good reliable numbers. I think it is not unusual that units will report enemy killed or vehicles destroyed because you may have two or three guys reporting that they destroyed the same vehicle, for example, or three different people were shooting at the same helicopter or individual or whatever it is. And of course, sometimes people assume, well, we destroyed the tank so obviously the whole crew was killed, or we destroyed this so that probably had five people, so there is a lot of estimating that goes on.

And it certainly has happened in the U.S. military where you make assumptions, and so I for that reason try to stay away from a body count because it is not helpful necessarily in pure assessment of the campaign of where we are. It does provide some important insight when you start thinking, okay, they report 25,000 killed, probably, let us say, 15,000 or 17,000. That is mostly fighters, so infantry, tankers, truck drivers, and artillery, and so that is going to be a pretty significant percentage of their overall ability to fight.

But what I really look for is capabilities, you know? Can we start taking units off the board? As certain battalion tactical groups or headquarters or artillery battalions, as we know that those get taken off the board, then you start getting a better sense of the impact, of what effects you are having, and how well are the Russians doing on repairing what gets damaged or what breaks down. I do not have a good sense for that yet.

Robert R. Reilly:

Well, has anything in the way in which this war has developed changed how we might think of how weapons are deployed, for instance, armor? I think the tanks can be counted and Russia seems to have enough. And of course, Ukraine has too lost a great deal of armor. Does the vulnerability of armor in this situation surprise you? Are the anti-tank weapons being used in a more effective way or are the weapons themselves better? I mean some of them are old style anti-tank [weapons].

Gen. Ben Hodges:

This is a great question and I think it is very important that people do not rush to conclusions about the future character of war based on what we have seen in two months of combat in this situation. So let us take that on because there will be people that will say, aha, I told you, no more tanks, it is over. Well, then we might as well say no more battleships, or I mean no more warships because a ship was sunk, or you might as well say, well, no more jets because a bunch of them got shot down by people who we did not think had air defense. The point is [we should not rush to conclusions].

Let us go to tanks, and I am not a tanker, by the way, so I do not have an emotional attachment to this, but every commander wants to have what we call protected mobile firepower, the ability to move large caliber weapons quickly to support attacks or to knock down targets. So, there is always going to be a need for that, whether it looks like an Abrams tank, or a German Leopard, or a British Challenger, or something different, you are always going to need that capability.

So why have the Russian tanks been so badly damaged?

First and foremost, terrible, terrible tactical employment. The video that every one of us has seen where you are looking down the road and it shows a cluster of Russian tanks, moving through this village where there are trees and houses on both sides. What do you not see? You do not see any infantry. You would never move a column of tanks through close terrain like that that you did not already control, so there should have been infantry dismounts, soldiers moving through the woods exactly for the reason to protect them until they got through this area. Instead, what you see is tanks just moving, and plus they are all clustered up and you have got Ukrainians firing anti-tank weapons from less than 150 meters.

That is incredible, and so it was poor tactics, which is a reflection on their training and also because they do not have good sergeants. Good sergeants would never allow them to get clustered up like that and would never have allowed a new young officer to make such a poor tactical employment.

The other thing is the design, you know. It has been one of the interesting sort of sub-subplots of all of this. Why are there so many examples where the turret on the Russian tank gets literally blown off, this sort of jack-in-the-box thing, and you see it laying on the road next to it? What a horrible way to die for the members of the crew, but it is because of the Russian tank design. Since the T-34 in World War II, they have never placed value on crew protection. It was all about the gun and how fast can it move, so protecting the crew was not so critical.

So the way the tank rounds are stored in that turret, they are not protected, and so [if] you get hit with a Javelin or an NLAW, you are going to have sparks flying, metal inside the tank, and then you are going to set off all the other ammunition that is inside that tank. That is why you have these horrible secondary explosions that blow the turret off whereas [with] American tanks, German tanks, the ammunition is still very dangerous, but the ammunition is stored in a way where you have got some protection and you do not necessarily get these secondary explosions. Crew members can survive. So, when people say that is it for tanks, yeah, that is it for tanks that are poorly designed or not properly employed.

Robert R. Reilly:

And any reflections on artillery and air power?

Gen. Ben Hodges:

Great one. We have not seen ammunition consumption like this since I guess in Vietnam. Obviously, they in certain places would have expended huge amounts of artillery ammunition, but we have no recent experience in the last 50 years with shooting artillery like that. I mean incredible amounts. Just recently there was an announcement [that] the United States is providing 90 howitzers, 155-millimeter howitzers, and 180,000 rounds of artillery. I thought that is great, that is like five or six battalions’ worth of artillery, that is a lot. And then 180,000 rounds, that is a lot.

But then I started thinking, doing the math. That is enough for like three weeks of intense combat, and then it is gone, so that means hopefully the next 180,000 rounds are already on the train or on a boat somewhere headed towards the front because they are going to need it. The amount of ammunition that is being consumed, artillery, rockets, Stingers is enormous, and I think we are in danger of running out here.

So that is why the Department of Defense, of course, is talking to industry; how fast can you ramp up? And also, this is going to be something that our leaders are going to have to take into account. I understand why people do not want to buy a lot of ammunition and have it sit in storage somewhere. It is very expensive and you hope you are never going to use it. I can tell you right now the United States does not have enough ammunition of any of the stuff that we would need if we were involved in this conflict. There is not enough, so you have got to make decisions about how much ammunition do you think you are going to need, what is your estimate. We do not have enough Patriot missiles, for example. The actual interceptor that a patriot system launches is not enough.

Robert R. Reilly:

I am reminded of an occasion some years ago when I was talking with a member of the Russian Duma, and I said I had been looking at pictures of Berlin in 1945 and how completely devastated the city was by Russian artillery. And I said I have also seen recent pictures of Grozny, and you seem to have done the same thing to Grozny as you did to Berlin. For some reason he took offense at that. I do not know, I thought I made a rather objective observation on my part. So, when [people look at] the damage that the Russians have been doing to cities in Ukraine, the destruction of Mariupol and so forth, I mean a lot of people are shocked, but it struck me as sort of Russian military standard operating procedure. Is that just a cynical observation or a correct one?

Gen. Ben Hodges:

That is correct. It is medieval. I mean if they are not able to achieve their objective with a rapid maneuver, then they go back to, alright, we are just going to destroy, destroy, destroy. They are not fussed with international law, or law of land warfare, or respect or concern about civilian casualties. That is very clear. The fact that Putin has awarded the Guards distinction to this brigade that was responsible for the murder of these people in Bucha [demonstrate this]. I mean he gives them the highest award a unit can get. [The highest award] is to get the designation Guards. That is the culture.

Now, who is the guy that they put – supposedly put – in charge of the whole thing? General Vornikov. He was in Syria, where they used chemical weapons on civilians, so you were exactly right to compare Grozny to Berlin in terms of destruction, and that was deliberate, and that is what they have done in Mariupol. That is what they have tried to do in all these other cities, but that that has limits. Clearly, I mean we know from how the Brits wrote out the blitz in World War II. We know how the Germans, German citizens, for years, despite massive bombing by the U.S. and Royal Air Force in World War II, actually increased their aircraft production.

So, this approach at the end of the day is not going to be effective, particularly if the United States and our allies stay committed to helping Ukraine win. We are going to give them the things that they can begin to disrupt or destroy the Russian rockets and artillery and what is launching these cruise missiles. That is when it is really going to turn and I think the Secretary [of Defense Lloyd Austin] is saying about helping them win, that is going to open the door to the capabilities that will really make that difference.

Robert R. Reilly:

We have heard the word nuclear bandied about in the press and also by senior Russian officials. Sre you worried that Russia is going to escalate, particularly in mind of the statements made by our Secretary of Defense [and] by the President himself that lead Russia to believe that we are very near crossing the line into belligerent status? First of all, are you concerned about nuclear weapons since Russia is the largest nuclear power in the world and they claim to have new nuclear weapons that could be employed? That certainly ups the ante in terms of terror, but is there really a military application in this war where they would be of use?

Gen. Ben Hodges:

Very insightful question, Bob. Yes, of course, I worry about Russia [and] the potential use of a nuclear weapon. I take the threat seriously, and the Kremlin has shown that they have no humanitarian streak. I mean if they think they need to do it, they will do it. Their doctrine says that if the survival of the state is at risk, then they will use a nuclear weapon, so that is out there.

Robert R. Reilly:

But how would they use it?

Gen. Ben Hodges:

Well, that is what I am coming to. I do not believe it is likely. There is no battlefield advantage to be gained by using a tactical nuclear weapon. You know, they could destroy another city. There is not much more damage they could do to Mariupol, but [although] there is no real battlefield advantage, the West would have to respond. We could not ‘not respond’ for several reasons, and I will come to that in a second, but if I am right, the West would have to respond. Now the tables have really turned on Russia. Now they are going to lose everything. And our response, by the way, does not have to be a nuclear response. This does not automatically mean a nuclear escalation. In fact, the response that I would favor would be about four or five days of the sky full of F-35s, destroying what is left of Russian land forces inside Ukraine or maybe the Black Sea Fleet, so really hammering their capability.

And of course, this would have been communicated to the Kremlin ahead of time. Do not make this terrible mistake. If you use a nuclear weapon, here is the response that you are going to get. It is going to be this, or this, or this, or this, or this, so that there is a degree of ambiguity, but [make it] very clear that there will be a response and it will be devastating for Russian Federation forces. And if they call our bluff, if they say, well, we will see, and then they do it, then we have to respond.

If we do not respond, then of course, North Korea, Iran, China will have all learned a big lesson that the United States is not willing to take a chance on a nuclear conflict, and so therefore we deter ourselves from doing what needs to be done. And then we are all in a much, much worse and more difficult place. So, that is why I think that the West – and I keep saying the West. This would not be a U.S.-only response. I do not know that we would get all 30 nations of NATO to agree on what the response may be, but for sure the U.S. would do this in consultation and coordination with our allies.

Robert R. Reilly:

General, you made a very interesting statement about Russian doctrine and that is if the very existence of the state is imperiled, then escalate, including to the nuclear level. By articulating our aims as we have in respect to Russia, as Secretary Austin said to significantly weaken Russia so it could never undertake such an operation as it has in Ukraine, or from other officials in the administration, that the solution is regime change or at least change of the president, with President Putin’s identifying himself as the state in a way, couldn’t that moment come sooner rather than later through the pressure of the way in which we have begun to talk about this? That takes us beyond limited aims inside Ukraine, and it is about affecting the very character, existence of the Russian leadership.

Gen. Ben Hodges:

So that is the dilemma, trying to anticipate how might the President of the Russian Federation react. I do not think he is crazy. I think he is actually more rational. He is cold-hearted, evil, and brutal, but not crazy, and so I do not believe that he wants to be the Nero of Russia, you know, to destroy his own empire. I think that people around him also are thinking that there will be life after Putin at some point, and I do not know that he has the ability or would be allowed to just start giving the order and start the process to employ nuclear weapons. I am not sure that those around him would stand by.

Now, I personally do not like to be in a conversation about regime change because it almost never turns out well when it is initiated by us or somebody else. This is up to the Russian [people]. Russia is a sovereign nation too, and the Russian people have to decide whether or not they are satisfied with what they have got, but I do not think we should be talking about regime change no matter how evil that guy is. And I would agree with all that President Biden has said, but it should not and is not the policy of the United States to actively foment or enable regime change.

Now, this notion of weakening Russia so that it can no longer threaten its neighbors is a difficult one. You know, I live in Frankfurt, Germany, and I think a lot of people in Germany and some other European countries are very uneasy with this, that that is going too far. I find it a terrific, desired end state, but I do not think it should be stated as policy. I think we can achieve the effect by doing three or four things.

First of all, we have got to keep the unity of the alliance together, all 30, and hopefully with today’s announcement by Finland – and I anticipate in the next three or four days [an] announcement by Sweden that they want to join the alliance, [we will maintain our unity]. Keeping that unity is so important. so that means concerns that other nations have about policy decisions by us have to be taken into account. We want to protect that [unity], and that is the only reason that Putin would use a nuclear weapon, I believe, to create a situation where other nations will say that is it, I am done. Sorry, Ukraine, I am not interested in being part of a nuclear conflict over those guys. That is their problem, so that would be the reason he might use a nuclear weapon, and so keeping the alliance together is essential.

Number two, reducing the vulnerabilities of our societies is a critical part of this. We have got to be able to limit Russia’s ability to cause chaos in our elections, to cause us to lose trust in our institutions, to disable our networks, our digital networks, our fuel systems, and so on, so this is an important part of limiting that. We have got to work on that.

We have got to maintain ready forces, of course. You have got to continue to invest in having the best possible defenses for the alliance, and also security agreements with partners in the region that would deter Russia from invading or attacking. Obviously, adding Sweden and Finland would make a lot of progress in that area.

The last thing I would say is that the Black Sea region needs a strategy. You know, we talk about Ukraine as if it is an island, and for years the conversation was whether or not to give them Javelin or it got wrapped up in American politics. We need a strategy for the region where we repair our relationship with our ally Turkey, where Romania becomes the center of gravity for U.S. and NATO deterrence efforts, Georgia opens up as the portal between Europe and Eurasia and we get economic development going east-west across the Black Sea and we start investing in this region, and we keep the pressure on Russia to live up to international law. Right now, you know, they scoff at it. That is how we weaken their ability to threaten their neighbors, by doing those things and, of course, the sanctions remain in place that we have been talking about until they completely withdraw from Ukraine.

Robert R. Reilly:

General, in our last few minutes I would like to ask you about the instruments of national power as this subject applies to this war, which is the economy. And of course, Ukraine’s economy has been wrecked. I saw someone predict a 30 percent decline in GDP this year. Diplomacy: negotiations have stopped at least for the time. We have discussed the military in some detail, but information: you already mentioned cyber. In fact, because of the deftness with which Russians have conducted cyber-attacks in Europe and the United States, are you surprised that they have not undertaken something more effective in striking back both in Europe and, indeed, the United States as we saw a summer or two ago, they could shut down a pipeline on the east coast, or you know, supposedly. We are never sure if Russians did that or not. [It is] likely they may have. I always anticipated that Putin would strike back by doing something like that. Is that another overestimation of Russian capabilities?

Gen. Ben Hodges:

I do not [know]. It could be. I too have been very surprised. When I saw President Zelensky walking around with his cell phone on about day four, I thought, oh, how cool, and then I thought how in the hell is his phone working? I mean I could not believe it. And even the guys in Mariupol are still sending out video and talking. How is that? How have the Russians not shut down all of that? And I can only believe it is either they do not actually have the capability we thought they did, or they have decided that they need the cell service themselves for their own communications, or some other reason. I do not know.

But that this has been, I think, an oversight on their part. We would have if, it was reversed, U.S. forces would have shut down communications, power, all those things in the first minutes, and we would have gotten that right. They have not done it. I was talking to somebody the other day about the electronic warfare capability that the Russians have. I mean they have some very, very good stuff, but just having it does not make you effective using it unless you practice, unless you have trained. And what we learned is that, yes, they have these long-range jammers and all this, but they turned it off because it was disrupting their own communications. That is a dead giveaway that they have not worked through the how, how do you employ it in support of operations? So thankfully and hopefully, they do not fix it, they do not fix this too quickly.

Robert R. Reilly:

Another aspect of information is the war of ideas and Russia has had a fair amount of experience in that area, as did the predecessor Soviet Union. At least one thing that has surprised me greatly is the fact that Ukraine has basically wiped the floor in this area of the war of ideas, or you call it public diplomacy communications, with Russia. Was that also a surprise?

Gen. Ben Hodges:

Well, this is probably a good one to end on. President Zelensky personally – I mean [this is] a reminder of the example of positive leadership. I mean him getting out there, personally being around soldiers, being around his people, communicating very aggressively. He knew to reach out to all the different legislatures from around the world, people he needs support. He is taking great personal risk. Compare that to the leadership style of the guy who sits at the end of a long table from his advisors, who until this victory day thing on the 9th had not been seen out in public very much. So, you have got examples of good and bad leadership.

But also, what are they fighting for? You know, [for] the Russians the whole thing was is a fairy tale, to de-Nazify Ukraine, to liberate it somehow. They are not liberating anybody, but that that was the tale that they needed to tell their own people. Instead, what they really wanted was to make sure that Ukraine [does not progress. Ukraine] was a democratic nation, the last two presidential elections were totally fair and free elections, nobody has challenged the legitimacy of those elections, and getting more and more Western in their orientation. That is the last thing he wanted on the border of Russia, it is for his people to see that, to see Ukraine becoming so prosperous and enjoying these freedoms. That is what he was scared of, not NATO encirclement. That was a total fairy tale, so in other words, they are fighting for a lie. What they were fighting for was a totally false reason, a false narrative. Ukrainians are fighting for their families. They are they are defending their home villages. I mean I have seen so many videos of soldiers kind of saying my family is in the village behind me, you know, they are they are in the trench line. I mean that is powerful motivation.

Robert R. Reilly:

I am sorry if I just ask one other question.

Gen. Ben Hodges:


Robert R. Reilly:

If Finland does join NATO, Russia has made it as clear concerning that as they did concerning Ukraine that they will take military measures because that so exposes them along that 800-mile border. Do you take that seriously or can you discount their capability of doing so because of the poor performance in Ukraine?

Gen. Ben Hodges:

Yeah, they do not have [a credible response]. I mean what are they going to do, you know? They rolled out a couple of nuclear weapons a few weeks ago to remind the Finns, hey, we have nukes. The Finns had 10 farmers on tractors and drove towards the Russian border. I mean that was the Finnish response. This is the fairy tale that now, all of a sudden, Russia is going to be threatened by Finland. You know, this is where we have got to keep competing in the information domain.

When Russia was on its knees, when the Soviet Union came apart and became apart, what did we do? We began disarming immediately. You remember President Clinton talking about the peace dividend? I mean all of us started. [The] American U.S. Army in Europe went from 300,000 down to 30,000 in just a decade and a half. I mean we started disarming the German Bundeswehr, the British Army.

We did not send one tank, one aircraft, one vehicle into Russia when it was on its knees, so this is where we have got to continue. Keep the alliance together, keep hammering away on this false narrative from the Kremlin that somehow it is our fault that they are threatened, and instead focus on reaching Russian citizens. Giving them the truth is just as important as giving Ukrainians weapons.

Robert R. Reilly:

General, I want to thank you very much for joining us at Westminster Institute again today. We very much appreciate your time and your remarks on the subject of how the war in Ukraine is being fought. I encourage our audience to go to the Westminster Institute website or to our YouTube channel to see what other offerings we have on the subject of Ukraine and Russia, as well as China, the Middle East, and other subjects. Thank you for joining us today. I am Robert Reilly.