Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges, Pershing Chair of Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Voice of America’s Ia Meurmishvili that NATO has reacted strongly to Russia’s aggression, and that the Alliance has not been as strong as it is now for a long time. LTG Hodges also spoke about Russia-NATO relations, upcoming NATO summit, the Black Sea region security and Georgia’s defense concept.
LTG Hodges’s last military assignment was a Commander of the United States Army in Europe from 2014 to 2017.
Ia Meurmishvili anchors Voice of America Georgian Service’s weekly show Washington Today and can be followed on Twitter @iameurmishvili or on Facebook /ia.meurmishvili.
In a broad stroke, how would you describe the NATO-Russia relations?
The Alliance has reacted in a very strong and clear way to Russia’s aggression, to Russia’s unwillingness to act in a responsible way that you would expect from a great nation, with violations of international law, attempts to disrupt the international order, attacks on all of our institutions, our electoral processes, our judiciary, trying to create distrust between the members of NATO, as well as between the members of the European Union. This is exactly what Russia would like to do.
Russia wants to be seen and treated as a great power. They think that the only way they can do that, is if they undermine the Alliance and undermine the European Union. So, they use a combination of military, misinformation, economic pressure, energy – all of which are parts of their array of capabilities that they employ in different combinations, different ways to achieve the [desired] effect. Anything that tears the cohesion of the Alliance, and the cohesion of the European Union, is what they are [aiming at].
The Alliance has responded very clearly and very strongly, as also has the European Union. The EU sanctions are being kept ever since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. Starting from the Wales Summit in 2014 and then through the Warsaw Summit in 2016, NATO has either increased deterrence capabilities or what we will see at this summit in July in Brussels, adaptation that improves the responsiveness and the ability to reinforce. The Alliance is stronger now than it has been for a long time. It might not be perfect as lots of challenges remain, but it is more united than I have seen for a long time.
Do you think the renewed strength of the Alliance is effecting Russia’s self perception and their views on other nations?
I think what they recognize is that the Alliance is working very hard to regain its capabilities, and it should see improved cooperation between the European Union and NATO. I think they are looking for other places where they can try to continue and create stress between the members of the Alliance and the European Union. We have significantly improved capabilities in the Baltic region. There has been a lot of attention on that in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland. All of those countries are exceeding their two percent GDP on investment in defense. They host exercises, participate in trainings, they have serious realistic planning for their own defense as well as within collective defense. What the Alliance has to do now is to achieve the same level of integrated defense further in the south, in the Black Sea region with Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, the three NATO allies, as well as with very important friends like Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova. Increasing the forward presence and the defensive capabilities in the Black Sea region is just as important as it is in the Baltics.
I think the Russians recognize that the Black Sea region is very important for them. It is a launching pad for everything they are doing in the Middle East, in Syria and the eastern Mediterranean. I think they see the region in a strategic way. So it is just as important for the Alliance to be strong there as it is in the Baltics.
The third area is in the Balkans. There is no doubt that they are investing a lot of effort, money, energy to make sure that no additional countries in the Western Balkans can join the European Union or certainly not join the Alliance.
Russia exploits corruption, they exploit any cracks in the liberal democracies, and the institutions that we care about.
Do you think Russia has improved its conventional capabilities? What are your observations after Zapad 2017?
Clearly Russia has embarked on a modernization effort, which is not illegal by the way. All of us are doing that, and they started it back in 2007.
But they have worked hard to make sure that the entire nation is prepared for the conflict. So it is more than just military modernization and exercises. The last Zapad exercise had a much broader scope than just the troops in the field. Something I have always admired about their exercises is that they use exercises to test concepts, whether it is a new command structure or new systems, not just to demonstrate things but to actually test the concepts. That is why you see improvements between exercises, which of course is the purpose for doing this.
Their ability to move a lot of stuff really far and fast has always impressed me. They have the advantage of what we call the freedom of maneuver on interior lines. They can move around inside Russia on rail and air unhindered very quickly. It allows them to mass wherever they might want to along their border with allied or friendly nations. They do that pretty fast. We have got to be able to match or exceed their speed in order to be an effective deterrent.
They have tried out some new command structures in the last Zapad, which are not quite ready for prime time, but they learned from that exercise and they will make necessary adjustments there.
They also successfully got everybody to look at Belarus as if that was Zapad 2017, and that was, of course, not all of Zapad. That was a tiny portion, maybe 15 percent of what actually was involved in Zapad series of exercises.
In the meanwhile, it was up in northern Russia where most of the really serious live fire training was going on, and where they continued to practice working on the use of unmanned aerial systems, drones connected to long range fires. They have got quite good at that. Of course, they have been able to practice that in Ukraine and in Syria.
That is what I would observe from Zapad. I would also say this was the best intelligence sharing I have seen by the West for a long time. Everybody was leaning into this exercise, wanting to observe and learn. Many people were worried that this was going to be a Trojan horse type opportunity. So, everybody really leaned into it to watch and pay attention. For us, that should be the standard in intelligence sharing all the time.
Georgia is in a very difficult neighborhood. How can the country navigate this very complicated geopolitical environment?
There are two or three aspects to this. First of all, I think the United States has been very clear about its support for Georgia. The visit of our Vice President last summer, and the decision to provide Javelin, which is the best antitank weapon system in the world, are important manifestations of the U.S. commitment to Georgia.
The defensive construct of making yourself indigestible is an important one. I think that is the way the leadership and the Georgian military – the Minister, the Chief of Defense, two great men – are making sure that Georgia is indigestible for an extended period of time. That helps deter Russia at least long enough before the assistance could arrive, which I would expect. That is an important part of their planning for preparations for organizing the exercises. The other aspect is that Georgia is part of the Black Sea region, and having a regional approach to its security is important as well, both with NATO countries but also good friends like Ukraine, Moldova, and others who live around the Black Sea and depend on the Black Sea.
I think that is how we approach Russia from the south in terms of security. When Russia looks toward the Black Sea, they should see you now together with six other nations, working together, sharing intelligence, doing maritime operations on the Black Sea. These are the things that would significantly improve Georgia’s security.
Do you think the Black Sea security will be discussed at the upcoming NATO Summit?
I hope so. I think that by addressing the Black Sea region versus individual countries we actually have a better chance of a meaningful discussion on how the Alliance looks at security of the Black Sea region. The Black Sea is important not only because of what it represents for Russia as a launching platform, but also when you think of how Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea has potentially moved the territorial waters and boundaries around, and how many nations in NATO depend on the Danube River which empties into the Black Sea, this begins to have more impact than just who is right about Crimea.
I think, the Alliance ought to take a look at the Black Sea region with the same fidelity, the same energy, same attention that it does with the Baltic.
As I understand, the assistance from the United States enables better capabilities to patrol their territorial waters. How do you evaluate their capabilities?
Within their means, they are doing that. There is military capability, but the intelligence sharing is also really important. A critical part of deterrence is the speed – the speed of decision, assembly, and recognition of what is happening. The countries like Georgia will know faster than the United States would ever know. So, Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova should be talking to each other, sharing intelligence and information – that to me is just as important for the security of the Black Sea region as purchasing different kinds of equipment.
You have been working with the Georgians for a few years. How would you assess their progress?
Well, one thing that has remained constant is the quality of their soldiers. I have been impressed when I saw them in Afghanistan. They are hard, tough, very dependable soldiers. I have met some great young officers who are innovative, creative, and who understand what their challenges are. That is important. And that is the best investment that Georgia can make – to continue producing quality men and women, who are willing to serve. That is more important than any piece of equipment.
The concept of defense – get that right first and then focus on what equipment you need. So, you have to understand how you want to fight and then purchase equipment and organize yourself based on your concept of defense. I think, Georgia is in the right place in that regard as well. I think, it was smart to meet with Estonia and Finland to talk to them because they have exactly the same challenges. Those right on the border with the ‘bear’ have been attacked before. They have rapid mobilization programs and capabilities without much time, and I think Georgia is smart to take a look at other allies that have similar strategic challenges.