“Everyone Should Understand Why NATO Will Be Stronger With Ukraine” - Lieutenant General Ben Hodges
21 October, 2021
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges at The Riga Conference 2021 Olena Kurenkova

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges is the former Commanding General of United States Army Europe, now holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis. hromadske's Olena Kurenkova met with Lieutenant General Hodges on the margins of The Riga Conference, an annual platform for global decision-makers in the most vital issues in international relations, to discuss the global security issues Ukraine, as well as the EU and the US, face these days.


I’d like to start with the Afghan issue which is a highly hot topic here at the conference. You know it well from your experience: in August 2009 you became the director of operations of Regional Command South. Could you personally imagine to what extent the situation with the withdrawal of the allied troops would sharpen the conflict in Afghanistan?

I agree with the decision to withdraw. What I didn't like was the way it was done, without proper consultation with the allies. And of course, it makes us look unreliable. Emotionally, it was hard to watch.

We made several strategic mistakes beginning in 2002. Number one: we should have never gone to Iraq. The Bush administration changed or lost sight of the strategy. And then we got stuck in there and no administration, Bush’s, Obama’s or Trump’s explained to the American people and our allies what was going on.

The second big mistake was believing that Pakistan could be an ally. I also believed and I was totally wrong. And you can't have a strategy for Afghanistan, as if it was an island. If you talk to Afghanistan, you have to talk to Pakistan. And if you talk to Pakistan, you have to talk to India. And we didn't have a proper strategy for that.

And then the final mistake I mentioned: we had the wrong model for Afghan security forces. We tried to make them look like us, like Western societies, and which means lots of firepower, airpower, satellites, and contractors. When you take those away, then, of course, the model collapses. And the Taliban did not have airpower. They didn't have artillery, but yet they were able to do whatever. Plus, of course, the corruption in the Afghan government, Afghan soldiers were, like: what am I fighting for?

We should have designed something that was more in harmony with Afghan culture, tribes, something like that. But we've tried to make them look like us. I saw a lot of very good, high-quality Afghan officers. So it's not like they weren't capable. I think we just had the wrong model.

There’s a discussion that it's the Biden’s administration’s responsibility now and it has to pay attention to the further development in Afghanistan, where the power is seized by the Taliban.

Of course, we do, but we were not alone. This is important: everybody talks about the US doing this. Okay, we were part of the coalition. Surely, we should have done a better job of consultation. And of course, the United States was the lead, but we weren't alone. We absolutely incur a moral obligation to keep trying to protect people to get them out or to put pressure on the government of whatever kind of government ends up being there in Afghanistan. But we should be realistic, this is going to be very difficult.

And ideally, I think for the first couple of years, we're going to have to work through interlocutors, whether it's Turkey or Qatar, or Uzbekistan or Tajikistan to try and help get people out. But the people that need to get out, that's also the brainpower. And so the Taliban of course don't want to see all the doctors, electricians, craftsmen, technical experts leaving.

Taking the situation in Afghanistan into account, now the term "Biden's doctrine" concerning its foreign policy has emerged: it means that one can get rid of all the ballast that has accumulated in recent decades in the Middle East, and focus on combating key threats — China and Russia. What do you think of that?

When Biden was the vice president, he was against (staying in Afghanistan). So I think he showed up. I don't know this from personal conversation with him, obviously, only from what I read in here, and having some personal experience when I was working in the Pentagon back in 2011. He never wanted us to still be there. And so he had decided we're getting out. And, of course, the administration is looking at China, they're looking at all these things.

And when they say people, the American people are tired — but it was not even mentioned during the presidential debate or the campaign. So this is not about the American people being tired. And the amount of resources that were committed in Afghanistan did not detract zero from what we needed for China. So I think the reasoning was, he wanted to be done with it. But to be fair, the previous president Trump also tried.

He tried to negotiate with the Taliban.

Well, you have to negotiate. And so the fact that Trump talked to the Taliban, that by itself is not bad. What's bad is that he made an agreement: hey, you just stop killing Americans and we're gone. That's total surrender.

Biden’s policy differs from the policy of his predecessor, Donald Trump — he sees Russia and China not as the enemies, but clearly as the opponents. At the same time, he tries to construct a dialog. Does this strategy prove right, as for your opinion, over these months Biden being in power?

I was very hopeful in the beginning when President Biden came, especially after all the criticism of how the Trump administration dealt with the Kremlin, which I think deserved criticism. That was a disaster. But the Obama administration was also very soft on the Kremlin. And so when President Biden said, Ukrainian sovereignty is a priority for the United States, I thought: wow, okay. Sounds good, I like that. But then after the meeting with Putin, he tells the Germans don't worry when he waives the sanctions. Wait a minute, these are mixed signals.

And there's no strategy for the Black Sea region yet. I know they're working on something, but there's nothing yet. And if I'm sitting in the Kremlin, I'm watching all these signals and be like: Americans don't seem to be strong and focused on deterring Kremlin aggression. At least, I didn't feel that way.

There are still some positive things happening. And I think eventually we'll get it right. Part of the problem, of course, is that the Senate has not confirmed ambassadors and key people in offices in the State Department and Defense Department. That makes it difficult to get a strategy together. When it comes to China, I think the President has been much more firm. I also love this recent agreement with the Brits, and the Australians about the submarines.

At the end of the day, the United States needs the EU. For its diplomatic strength, and its economic strength. If we are really going to put pressure on the Kremlin, and on the Chinese Communist Party, we have to go along.

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges at The Riga Conference 2021

One of the key directions of US foreign policy now is developing efficient dialog and cooperation with Europe. And the decisions concerning Nord Stream-2 are perhaps part of this strategy, although it differs from what Ukraine expected.

Nobody should be surprised that the Kremlin uses gas as a weapon. I mean, how ridiculous if somebody thought that if we tell the Russians don't do it, they won't do it? I mean, this is what they do.

Do you mean, the US reaction doesn't define the future of the pipeline?

Well, what I mean is that Germany said: we will tell them, we won't allow the Kremlin to use gas as a weapon. But they already have. Look at what's been happening in the last few weeks with gas prices. And the Kremlin says: we will provide more gas, but you have to be friendly. That's a crime. Although, nobody should be surprised by it. And the United States, Germany are constantly getting surprised, like, oh, my God, look what they're doing.

And so we're going to have to fix that. But it will require the efforts of the US and the EU led by Germany and also the UK, because there's a lot of Russian money in London.

You mentioned Russia as one of the most important threats to European security, but talking about the general European security system. How do you perceive the statements made by the President of France Emmanuel Macron, who insists on the creation of the separate EU Armed Forces?

That's a total colossal waste of time and energy. NATO provides collective security for Europe. The French have always been able to go do whatever they want, they could always do whatever they want. The funny thing is the French cannot even do their operations in Africa without American logistical support and intelligent support. So this is a total charade for political reasons. If the EU together cannot stop Lukashenko from bringing in migrants from Iraq and then pushing them to the border.

I mean, where's your strategic autonomy? We have to spend money, we have to buy more transport aircraft, we have to put more satellites up, we have to do these things. If you're not doing that and just create another mail address for the European army or something, nobody takes it seriously. Anything that duplicates what already exists, is a waste.

But at the same time, what are the main threats to European security nowadays?

Number one, the biggest threat is the lack of political will to acknowledge that the Kremlin is an adversary, that the Chinese Communist Party is an adversary. You have to recognize that. Another threat is that our infrastructure is very vulnerable to cyber disruption. All of it, including in the US. Do I think that Russia is going to attack Lithuania? Latvia? No. Not in the conventional sense. But the threat is always there. Nuclear is always there. And the fact is that the West has not got really, really angry about what Russia does to Ukraine, that we have not punished them. The only real sanctions are put in place after they shot down the [Malaysian] airplane.

You mentioned that you would like Europe and the United States to make some brighter reaction to the actions of the Kremlin in Ukraine. What do you mean by that? 

Step number one: President Biden should tell everybody: hey, I don't have a strategy for the Black Sea region yet. But I have my best people working on it. And that strategy is going to include diplomatic pressure, working with all of our European allies, it's going to include economic investment. And it's going to include a significant increase in military preparations within the constraints of the Montreux convention. Obviously, it means we will have to fix our relationship with Turkey. And we have to think strategically, because we need the Black Sea too as a place to deter Russia, as well as Iran, and also to protect our allies and our friends in the Black Sea region.

Step two: we need to strengthen the bilateral relationship between the US and Ukraine right now. If you say “Ukraine”, people think of Giuliani, Trump and Hunter Biden's laptop.

But at least, Volodymyr Zelenskyy's visit to Biden in September was not bad.

It was good. It needed to happen. But the presidential visit is not a relationship. We need to get serious about relationships — cultural, diplomatic, and economic.

I want Ukraine to be a NATO member. I want Georgia to be a NATO member. But it's not ever going to happen until we have the US’ strategy for the region, until we have a strong bilateral relationship that we can then convince the Germans, the Dutch, the French and others, why NATO will be stronger with Ukraine than without it. That's the key. You have to overcome it. You know, just the US can't make it happen.