A former top U.S. commander’s warning: NATO must do more to defeat the Russians

The general who recently led all U.S. forces in Europe speaks to Grid’s global editor about the state of the war.

As the war entered its second month, Grid spoke to an American general who until recently commanded all U.S. forces in Europe.

We asked Hodges about the state of the war, the Ukrainian resistance and the Russian military — its overall performance and reports of atrocities being committed against Ukrainian civilians. Hodges said the war has entered a critical phase, and that — for all the efforts NATO has made to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons — more needs to be done to push the Russians back.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Of course, a major reason is the incredible defense put up by Ukrainian armed forces and the resilience of the Ukrainian population. So you put that together, and that’s why they’ve culminated — what Napoleon called the “culmination point,” when the attacker no longer has the ability to continue offensive operations. So that’s why they have transitioned to a defensive posture. They’re withdrawing in some places, but they’re not withdrawing as in retreat, but to reposition, to focus on the Donbas region [in eastern Ukraine], the area that they really want to hang onto when it comes time to start negotiating whatever the outcome will be.

So it’s going to be bad days ahead for the people in the Donbas and the areas where the Russians do have pretty solid footing.

But the next three weeks I think are decisive if we in the West decide that we want to win. It’s got to be more than just avoiding Ukraine being defeated, but to actually win — by that I mean that the Russians get pushed all the way back to the pre-24th February line. That’s got to be the objective. Unfortunately, I don’t hear that coming from the [U.S.] administration or from the French and the Germans. And in the absence of that, I think the Russians will eventually get back up, and they’ll regroup. They’ll continue to kill Ukrainian civilians, and this is going to go on and on and on. We’ve got our foot on the Russian neck. Now go ahead and break it, so we can stop this. Or just go ahead and count on it going on and on and Russians wait for us to lose interest.

And then they need some medium-range air defense systems that will help them knock down cruise missiles. The Russian Air Force is not entering Ukrainian air space so much anymore because it’s very dangerous. But they’re able to launch their weapons from inside their own air space. So those are the kind of things that we know that they need, and I just don’t see the sense of urgency to give them those capabilities. If they had them, they would keep the Russians on the run and could drive them out of the areas where they have taken over, and it would give the Ukrainians the ability to go over to the offensive and sustain that.

It’s like we’ve talked ourselves out of doing certain things that I think we ought to be able to do, to impose our will on the Russians, to stop them from murdering thousands of innocent Ukrainian civilians the way that they’re doing right now. And so I don’t know how we stand by, just providing endless amounts of Javelins [anti-tank missiles]. That’s not going to stop Russian cruise missiles from flying into apartment buildings.

And I think the people at the far end of that long table in the Kremlin are probably asking, “Mr. President, what battlefield advantage do we gain if we use a chemical weapon?” Zero. They can’t kill any more than they’re already killing. Somebody might say, well, they could go ahead and finish Mariupol if they employed chemical weapons there — yes, that’s true, they might go ahead and kill the remaining 50,000 to 70,000 people that are still there. But the secretary-general of NATO has said if Russia uses chemical weapons, that puts this conflict in a whole new category. I take that to mean it would be impossible for us to stand outside and not do anything.

I think Srebrenica is still fresh in the minds of enough people, the place where in 1995 European soldiers under a U.N. mandate stood by while Bosnian Serb forces murdered 8,000 Bosnian men and boys. I don’t think we want to be a party to that kind of inaction and atrocity again.

I’m actually surprised that they have not done more to try to interdict these, other than that one strike to which you alluded. I think in this case, our guys and the Ukrainians have done a nice job of operational security. I mean, you don’t see pictures and reports and media wandering around looking at all the pallets of stuff, identifying where it’s at, which I think is helpful.

I mean, the Russians knew they were going to attack for months and months, and yet you’ve got soldiers that are issued rations that are long since expired. That’s corruption of the highest order — or just total gross incompetence. I mean, it’s wintertime, you’re sending troops to battle, and here’s your box of rations that expired three or four years ago? That’s unbelievable to me. So that’s an indicator of corruption and dereliction of duty and professional incompetence.

These generals that are being killed, that’s a result of two or three things. First, the Russian methodology for command and control is very tightly centralized, so decisions are made at the top. They do not want or encourage junior leaders to use initiative or make decisions down at the tactical level. And so when your plan begins to fall apart because of the nature of war, fog and friction and uncertainty, and because of stronger-than-anticipated resistance, then you have to have a very senior person come forward. And so a lot of senior officers are out there now, exposed or having to move up close to what’s going on to try and unravel the problems that normally should have been sorted out by a much more junior, lower-level commander. That’s certainly what we would do.

The other aspect of this, which reveals the lack of operational experience, is that these guys are talking on cellphones. On Ukrainian cell service. I remember when I saw President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy on Day Four of the war, walking around with the cellphone, and I thought, “How is he able to talk on a cellphone? How was the cell service still up?” I think the Russians deliberately didn’t take it down — because certainly they would have known how, but they didn’t take it down because they intended to use it themselves. They didn’t have confidence or didn’t have their own tactical network like we do, where you bring your network with you. And either out of arrogance or failure to appreciate how easily Ukrainians would be able to intercept and geolocate where they were on the phone, and then put a bomb on it, and that’s why so many of these guys are getting killed. It’s because of arrogance or lack of operational experience and understanding the danger of talking on the cellphone.

And then the Russians say, “OK, we’re ready to negotiate,” and they end up being rewarded with possession of big chunks of Ukrainian territory that they’ve taken, and Ukraine’s economy is in tatters, and it will be very difficult for the West to help them rebuild.

And there’s going to be a massive cleanup effort required. I mean, we already know that there’s radioactive materials lying around because of the genius Russian commanders who had troops digging in around Chernobyl, for example. And then there are likely tens of thousands of pieces of unexploded ordnance lying all over the place. You’ve got artillery ammunition, cruise missiles, rockets, where a large percentage of these things will not have detonated. So it’s going to be a massive cleanup effort before they can even start rebuilding towns.

I live in Frankfurt, Germany, and about every two or three months you’ll see a report of a bomb discovered from World War II. This is going to be in Ukraine for a very long time. And our chances of doing those things are much better if Ukraine ends up with its sovereignty restored and Russia not able to continue threatening Ukraine or any of its neighbors.

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