Why occupied Crimea is a trap for Russian forces rather than a fortress? Will Russia use nukes against Ukraine? How long will this war last? The US Lieutenant General, the former commanding general of the US Army in Europe, Ben Hodges answers these and other questions in his interview with Euromaidan Press.
Ukraine will liberate Crimea by the end of August 2023 – US Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges
— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) January 4, 2023
Euromaidan Press: You have been extremely accurate with the analysis of the situation in Ukraine over the past ten months. Early before you suggested that the Ukrainian army may deoccupy Melitopol and Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine in January 2023. Is that correct?
Ben Hodges: What I said was that the Ukrainian General Staff will spend the next two months pounding away at the Russian logistics and transportation networks leading into Crimea. Of course, you know there are only two ways to get to Crimea: over the Kerch Bridge or the land bridge, which runs from Rostov (Russia) through Mariupol and Melitopol and Crimea.
So, I think it is a part of the preparation for the decisive phase of the campaign, which will be the liberation of Crimea. Ukrainian forces are going to spend a lot of time knocking out or disrupting the logistical networks that are important for Crimea. That includes Melitopol and Mariupol. Ukrainian forces are already hitting targets inside Melitopol to sever that land bridge. That is going to be a critical part that leads or sets the conditions for the liberation of Crimea, which I expect will be finished by the end of August.
Euromaidan Press: What makes you think that the Ukrainian Army may liberate Melitopol this winter? It seems like a lot of work to do.
Ben Hodges: I did not say that they can liberate Melitopol. What I said is that they would continue to hit the transportation network that goes through Melitopol because the key, the decisive part is Crimea. That is the decisive part of the entire campaign. In order to do that, they have to be able to disrupt Russian logistics that go through Melitopol.
Crimea is the decisive part of the entire campaign.
Euromaidan Press: So, in your opinion, the liberation of Crimea has already started with the operation aimed at disrupting the communication lines in Melitopol and Mariupol, right?
Ben Hodges: Well, I am not going to say liberation, but I am going to say the disruption with HIMARS, drones, and partisans. Constant disruption of transport. That is the key so that the Russians cannot move new equipment, people, and supplies into Crimea. In other words, the Ukrainian General Staff has to isolate Crimea from external support, which means continuing to block or destroy the Kerch Bridge and continuing to block the land bridge that runs through Mariupol and Melitopol.
Euromaidan Press: In this case, we have to expect new Ukrainian strikes at the Crimean Bridge soon, right?
Ben Hodges: Yes. I think that the Russians, of course, are working as fast as they can to repair that bridge. I do not know how much longer, but probably it will be several more weeks before it is ready again. And I am sure that the General Staff is looking for other ways to revisit that bridge.
Euromaidan Press: How do you think what weapons the Ukrainian Army used to strike at the Crimean bridge before?
People used to talk about Crimea as if it was some fortress. But actually, I think it is a trap for the Russian forces there.
Ben Hodges: I still do not know for sure. I have seen the reports that it was a truck, that it was a drone, who knows. But whatever it was, it was devastating and impressive. That is what first showed me the vulnerability of Crimea. Before this, people talked about Crimea as if it was some fortress. But actually, I think it is a trap for the Russian forces there.
Euromaidan Press: Yes, it is a pretty isolated area. If you disrupt the communication lines leading to Crimea, the Russians will be trapped there.
Ben Hodges: Because also the Black Sea Fleet is terrified of Ukrainian anti-ship missiles. That is why the Black Sea Fleet hardly even comes out. Just think about that. Ukraine does not even have a Navy anymore, and yet the Russian Black Sea Fleet does not want to go out and lose any more ships. So, they stay very close to Crimea. In my view, they are not much help in protecting Crimea.
Euromaidan Press: Do you think that we have already passed the point of no return in the Russian-Ukrainian war after the de-occupation of Kherson?
Ben Hodges: I would say that the Ukrainian forces have achieved irreversible momentum. There is no going back to where Russia has a big advantage all of a sudden. I just do not see any way for Russia to turn this around. Of course, there are many more months of hard fighting ahead. Russians will continue to murder innocent people.
Even if they manage to mobilize another 300,000 troops, we already know that they are not going to be an effective combat force. They are a mass, it is still a lot of people with weapons, but I am unimpressed with what I have seen so far. Russians have still not fixed many problems that they have within their command structure and their logistics. They are still not doing what we call “joint operations” where the air force supports the ground force. So, as long as the West continues to provide Ukraine with what we said we would do, I think it will not be possible for Russia to change the momentum. They may achieve victories in different villages and settlements, but they are not going to change the direction of this war.
Euromaidan Press: If Russia mobilizes one million people, for instance, is there any chance they can launch large-scale offensive operations and attack Kyiv again, in your opinion?
Lukashenko has to decide: does he want to be handcuffed to a corpse, which is the Russian Federation, or does he want to preserve his own power and have some flexibility for the post-conflict time?
Ben Hodges: I am sure they want to do that. But, first of all, they are not going to find one million people. Half a million people left Russia back in September rather than be mobilized. So, they are not going to find that. And even if they did find 500,000 or 300,000 men, they do not have the equipment and logistics for them, or the trainers or the places… You cannot just magically put hundreds of thousands of people on the battlefield.
I am still not convinced that Lukashenko is going to actively support this. He is not a good person, but he is not stupid. And I think he can see the direction this is going. He has to decide: does he want to be handcuffed to a corpse, which is the Russian Federation, or does he want to preserve his own power and have some flexibility for the post-conflict time? So, I am not convinced he is in that. I think Belarus has about 10 battalions, and he knows that they would be destroyed very early if they went into battle against Ukraine.
I do not think that the people of Belarus actually want to fight against the people of Ukraine either. I just do not see that. But that is not to say that Russia won’t try another invasion. Of course, not now. There are so many intelligence resources that Ukraine has and that Ukraine’s friends have that would be watching for this. Thus, Ukraine would be able to see if something like that was happening.
Euromaidan Press: We were talking about the operation to deoccupy Crimea, which is closely connected to Ukrainian strikes at Russian communication lines in Melitopol and Zaporizhzhia Oblast at large, but how about Kherson Oblast? Will it be more difficult for the Ukrainian Army to launch offensive operations in Kherson Oblast on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River? As crossing the river is an obstacle and Russians have already created fortifications in that area. How do you see the developments in that direction?
Everything is working towards isolation and liberation of Crimea
Ben Hodges: That is a good point. First of all, the Ukrainian General Staff has impressed me with how thorough, methodical, and professional they are. They would not waste people’s lives doing a river crossing anywhere without correct preparations. Secondly, if you think of the direction of Kherson as the right wing of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, and then the fighting that is up in Luhansk and Donetsk as the left wing, everything is working towards isolation and liberation of Crimea.
The forces that are in Kherson right now do not have to cross the river. They are in a place where they can launch long-range strikes against Russian defenses. I have seen videos from Ukrainian drones of these trenches that are on the east bank of the Dnipro River. These are open and easy-to-see defenses with no overhead cover. These are terrible defenses. And, of course, the people that will be in them are the untrained, recently mobilized soldiers. That is whom they put there.
So, when and where Ukraine is ready to cross the river, if they decide to do that anywhere, they will have done all the right preparations, I am confident. When it is time, it will be time. It is not isolated. What is happening in Kherson will be connected to what is happening up in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Euromaidan Press: What does Ukraine need to win this war sooner and get back all occupied territories under Ukrainian control? What weapons does Ukraine lack to achieve that?
Ukraine needs longer-range ATACMS, tanks, and drones or manned aircraft to hit targets deep inside the Russian-controlled areas and go after the bases, from which Russian missile attacks are being launched.
Ben Hodges: The three things that would be most useful are exactly what President Zelenskyy has asked for. The longer-range ATACMS, which has a 300-km range, could already be hitting targets inside Crimea now. Tanks, like Abrams tanks or Leopard. Of course, there are challenges for these, but still, these are capabilities that would be very useful for the next time when there is an offensive operation. And then I think Ukraine needs either drones or manned aircraft to provide the long-range capability to hit targets deep inside the Russian-controlled areas, as well as to be able to go after the bases, from which these missile attacks are being launched.
ATACMS and tanks for Ukraine would be a proper answer of the West to Russian mobilization—adviser at Zelenskyy's office and former negotiator with Russia Mykhailo Podoliak https://t.co/teuxj1n5Xc
— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) September 24, 2022
Euromaidan Press: Russian officials hinted at the possible use of nukes against Ukraine if Ukraine attacks Crimea. Ukraine targets Russian military infrastructure in Crimea on a regular basis now and nothing happens. Seems like Russia is running out of options to respond. How do you think why does the US government refuse to give long-range ATACMS missiles to Ukraine? Does the United States fear any escalatory steps from Russia or are there any other factors that may influence such a decision?
The risk of Russia using a nuclear weapon should be taken seriously but I think it is very unlikely because using a nuclear weapon would not change the battlefield to the advantage of Russia.
Ben Hodges: This is very frustrating for me and for many other people that support Ukraine. Our government does so much but yet there is this last little bit that they seem unwilling to do. I can only imagine that they are overly concerned about possible escalation by Russia, which only means nuclear because Russia has nothing else it can do. The risk of Russia using a nuclear weapon should be taken seriously but I think it is very unlikely because using a nuclear weapon would not change the battlefield to the advantage of Russia. They do not have anything they can use to exploit whatever they did.
I do think the Russian General Staff believes President Biden when he said that there would be catastrophic consequences. So, I think that people around Putin know that there really would be catastrophic consequences and they do not want that to happen. That is why I think it is just unlikely that they would actually do this [use nukes against Ukraine].
There may be other factors. Something about China. I do not know. I think the US President was incorrect when he said that he did not want to risk breaking up the cohesion of NATO. I am not buying that. I do not think that there is a risk of Germany, France, or somebody else walking away if the US provides ATACMS, for example.
Euromaidan Press: Western allies of Ukraine seem to have some kind of psychological barrier when it comes to the delivery of tanks and fighter jets to Ukraine. Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz made it clear that Germany will send tanks to Ukraine only if other NATO countries do the same. What is the best option for Ukraine: American tanks Abrams or German tanks Leopard? And is it possible for the United States to send a small batch of tanks Abrams to Ukraine to urge Germany to do the same?
Ben Hodges: Whether it is German, American, or French tanks, Ukrainian soldiers will learn how to operate them very quickly. There is no doubt about that. So, it is not a training issue. It will take time to build up the maintenance support for Abrams or Leopards. But do not let that be an excuse, let’s get on with it.
Finally, I think there is some policy reason. The idea of tanks being perceived as offensive weapons that might lead to some unintended consequences. I completely disagree with that thinking. I have been an advocate for providing these things for a long time. Eventually, what always happens: we hesitate, then we do it. And there is never escalation from the Russian side because the Russians know that we are deterring ourselves and they just have to mention the possibility, and people are overreacting to it.
Euromaidan Press: Let’s talk about Bakhmut, which is the hottest part of the war map these days. How much do Russian attacks on the city reduce the capability of the Ukrainian forces to launch counteroffensive operations in other areas this winter? How the winter campaign may look for both sides, in your opinion?
Ben Hodges: It is impressive what Ukrainian soldiers have accomplished in and around Bakhmut and what a huge price Russian soldiers are paying for the vanity of progression. That is what this is about. Of course, Putin does not care how many of his soldiers are killed. They were released from prison. They are untrained. There are all kinds of different people. But at some point, they will run out of bodies.
There is no strategic or significant operational advantage for the Russians if they capture Bakhmut. Of course, they could say: we captured something, we finally liberated something. But in terms of real significance, I do not see it. It may be there but I cannot see it. I am more interested in what Ukrainian forces do in other places, like the direction of Kreminna and Sievierodonetsk.
Ukraine will never be secure or able to rebuild its economy as long as Russia controls Crimea
Euromaidan Press: Calls on Ukraine to enter the negotiations with Russia have resumed after Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive in Kherson, most recently voiced by the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs Staff General Mark Milley. They are refused by Ukrainian officials. What would be the right for Ukraine to enter the negotiations with Russia if any, in your opinion?
Ben Hodges: After Crimea is liberated.
Euromaidan Press: You said that Crimea would be liberated in August 2023, is that correct?
Ben Hodges: By the end of August, that is correct.
Euromaidan Press: How long do you think this war will last?
Ben Hodges: That I do not know, but Ukraine will never be secure or safe or able to rebuild its economy as long as Russia controls Crimea, so that is the key. Once Ukraine has Crimea back, then I think there would be so much internal friction inside the Kremlin that they would start eating themselves.
Interview by Serge Havrylets for Euromaidan Press.