In the first week of the war in Ukraine, retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges dared to predict that Russia would reach its limits in about a month’s time. Undoubtedly he knows his craft pretty well. He served as commanding general of the United States Army Europe based in Wiesbaden, Germany between 2014 and 2018. Today he holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington. As the war has just reached the one-month mark, General Hodges spoke to Kathimerini about his initial prediction and what’s next.
Early in the war you predicted that Russia would reach its “culminating point” after a month. What is that? Has it been happening now?
[The Prussian general and military theorist of the early 19th century] Carl von Clausewitz developed the idea of the “culminating point” to highlight the decisive point after which an army cannot continue advancing. And I think, yes, it is happening now. Russia has stalled everywhere. They’ve even been pushed back in a few places. Even if Mariupol eventually falls I don’t see the possibility of them being able to restart their momentum in any significant way. Their logistical problems are not going to be solved anytime soon. Their manpower issues continue. Almost 20,000 soldiers have been killed or wounded. That’s a large part of their force.
Are you suggesting that Russia has already been defeated?
Reaching culminating point doesn’t mean that they have been defeated. It does not mean that they will not continue murdering innocent Ukrainians. But I don’t believe that they will have the ability to capture Odessa. And I am sure that they do not have the ability to capture Kyiv. The Russians know that they are in trouble, and also we should add that’s not going to get better for another two or three months from a weather standpoint.
The reason that I have emphasized this is because, according to Clausewitz, reaching culminating point creates opportunity. There’s an opportunity for us in terms of providing an incentive to increase, to accelerate the delivery of capabilities that Ukrainians need. It is also an opportunity to reach out to the Russian population – on April 1, 130,000 Russian families will be required to send their son to become a conscript in the Russian Army. And so if we could reach some of these families and say: “Look, your son is going to be cannon fodder in the Russian Army, fighting in a war in Ukraine. For what do you really want your son to go be a conscript and be cannon fodder?”
OK, but what’s after this culminating point? Is it peace talks or a chemical attack?
They will probably try to regain momentum but I don’t think that’s going to be feasible. They will probably begin to consolidate, strengthen the hold on what they have. They will try to capture Mariupol. Then I think they will look for the best negotiating position they can get.
Do you exclude a biological or chemical attack?
They are considering it. I don’t doubt it. Putin has used nerve agent on his own people, on his own opposition. But now the question will be, “For what reason?” The Russians know that if they use chemical weapons it will be very difficult for Western countries not to get more actively involved and that will only be a bad outcome for Russia. And then of course, you might ask me, “How about nuclear weapons?”
You read my mind…
OK, but I would reply with the same question: For what purpose? I’m sure the Kremlin does not want to have a fight against NATO. And I think the people supporting Putin have to be thinking that there should be life after Putin there. There should be life after this crisis is over.
We should bear in mind that they consider Ukraine as part of Russia.
If that is the case, why are they actively murdering thousands of their own people?
Because for them it’s like a civil war.
If that is the case, then they will have to figure out how they’re going to deal with the consequences. That’s why I think we are in the decisive phase. The world, including the Russians, should get reminded that this is about democracy versus autocracy. This is ridiculous that we’re being so hesitant and worried about escalation when the Russians do escalate. They create their own pretexts for doing whatever they want to do. We do not want another Srebrenica, where soldiers stayed on the other side and allowed people to be murdered, but I’m afraid that if we don’t do more, that’s what it’s going to be.
What does it mean to “do more” to help Ukraine?
Ιf we want to stop the killing and the destruction of cities, we need to focus our efforts on helping Ukraine. For example, we should give them a weapon system that puts a hole in a Russian ship that launches missiles against cities.
Do you predict a prolonged war?
For sure, it’s going to go on through the rest of this year.
But the cost is accumulating for the West as well. The cost of living is climbing and growth is tanking. And what about the looming food crisis?
This is this is actually a very serious problem. People in the Middle East and in Africa and even in China depend on grain that comes from Ukraine. We should deal with this problem as well with the problem of the refugee crisis. You know, Ukraine may not be able to join the EU anytime soon. But the EU has to join Ukraine immediately to help start rebuilding. Otherwise, the millions of refugees, over 3 million, are going to suffer and more will come into the EU countries, like 5 or 6 million. We’ve got to help these people get back home.