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Russia is the only existential threat


An interview with US Commanding General Hodges

Despite the heightened threat from North Korea, the Alliance mustn’t lose sight of the fact that Russia is the only existential threat to Europe and the US, declares the Commanding General in charge of US troops in Europe.

Interviewed as Russia and its ally Belarus hold the Zapad-2017 war games, following similar ones in 2009 and 2013 which served as distractions and preparation for the invasions of Georgia, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges says: “There are multiple threats all around us, of course, which is part of why our NATO alliance is so important. Of course Russia, and its behaviour over the last three years, is the only nation that really possesses the ability, the capability, to destroy a European country or the United States with its nuclear weapons. In terms of an existential threat: that’s Russia.”

He adds,” Now it’s not likely, but that’s a part of it.”

Zapad, which is Russian for “West”, is causing heightened anxiety in the North American Treaty Organisation (NATO) for many reasons. They are the largest war games in years – although the Russians insist troop numbers are under the 13,000 beyond which foreign observers have the right to participate, NATO members like Estonia estimate the numbers at around 100,000. Meanwhile, the state of Russian-NATO relations is at a low, communications between the two camps to avoid misunderstandings have declined considerably and rumours are rife that the Russians are considering leaving behind troops in Belarus or annexing it outright on the back of disagreements with its ruler Alexander Lukashenka.

At a 2016 summer summit in Warsaw, NATO upped the military stakes on the back of Russia’s actions. It feared that its troops were too far back from a potential war front. Moving from what it called an assurance to a deterrence strategy, European and US troops are now closer to the border in the Baltic states and Poland. For instance, there are 800 British troops in Estonia, Canadians in Latvia and Germans in Lithuania, part of NATO’s forward presence, although “the foot is tapping on the brake to avoid anything provocative as no one wants a war with Russia,” says Hodges.

NATO armies, including the US, have been under financial pressure for a number of years. The top US army commander in Europe is philosophical about the resulting trade-offs, no doubt helped by having experienced many different twists and turns in policy over a 37-year career. Reports that the ever-diminishing British army may end up with only 65,000 troops don’t faze him: “I would say the British army has the same challenge that the American army has: not enough resources to do everything that it’s asked to do.”

He sings the praises of the British army leaders for making the most of their funds, while pointing out possible parallels with the US: “We reduced the size of the US army to pay for modernisation and readiness and now we’re having to grow the army back up and increase the size to meet all the requirements, so the price will be paid somewhere else.” In fact, in his trademark southern drawl, he points out that the UK is launching two magnificent aircraft carriers but “I don’t know if they have enough sailors to man both aircraft carriers.”

Hodges, whose family home was spared the destructive ire of Hurricane Irma, is more concerned with the many impediments to moving troops and equipment around NATO countries. These range from bridges too weak to take the weight of Challenger tanks to bureaucratic processes appropriate to peacetime only. Already in 2015 he called for the military equivalent of a Schengen zone – in essence the ability to move forces freely through all European nations without the current red tape restrictions -a move seconded this year by Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert. Yet no advances appear to have been made on this front.

If we had only three days to send a formation to Poland, it has to be be done under peace time conditions and we will be way too late to the party,” he warns.

Treading carefully to avoid any criticism of President Donald Trump, whose public berating of NATO country heads of government at his first NATO summit in May made the Alliance look weak and in disarray, Hodges makes the point that prior US Presidents also complained about burden sharing. In a rather more positive tone than his President, who lambasted 23 of the member nations for not paying what they should for their defence, the General notes that the 2014 commitment to spend 2% of GDP was to be reached a decade later in 2024 and yet “almost every nation in the Alliance has moved either towards that two percent, has achieved it, or at least has stopped that decline. That’s very important because that demonstrates commitment towards collective security.”

US economic ties with Europe are five times what they are with any other region in the world,” he points out.

The General, due to retire next year, is concerned about balancing the need for more cyber security to counteract Russian and other attacks, with the need for interoperability between the troops of different countries. “No doubt, it’s undisputed, that Russia is putting pressure on nations, individuals, or organisations through the use of cyber… The cyber domain is on the front of everybody’s minds,” he says.

Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, has said that a cyberattack against a member by another state could trigger a collective military response under Article V.

Hodges, whose career encompasses time spent fighting in Iraq and as Director of Operations in Kandahar, Afghanistan, is sanguine about another nation involved in cyberattacks against the Alliance: Turkey. This is despite an official German security report accusing the NATO member of interference in the German elections due later this month, as well as other policy moves by President Erdogan which are not in keeping with an ally.

The fact is we are more effective as an alliance with Turkey than we would be without Turkey. It’s been a loyal member of the Alliance since it joined in 1952. It has a very good professional military. The geographic location, obviously, on the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the eastern Mediterranean. It’s essential for the alliance for so much that we have to do in that part of the world,” he says, adding some caveats: “It is a challenge. I think that Turkey knows that their future is with the West. They may buy weapons from Russia, they may depend on Russia for energy, as does half of Europe, but their real, true economic prosperity depends on the West, not Russia.

Having been involved in NATO at various points in his career, he sounds relatively unconcerned, if not blasé, about internal divergences. “So, look, each member of NATO irritates other members; the United States irritates people; Germany irritates people; the UK irritates. That’s kind of the nature of a coalition.”

On the Korean front, he is very concerned, and sees China as key. “China has the most important role here. China does not want a war in Korea because they will inherit all the debris and the disaster that would fall out from it. But I also don’t think that China wants a unified Korea that would possibly become an American ally the way South Korea is. So, they’ve got to figure out their role,” he says.

Earlier this week, the UN Security Council, which includes China and Russia, voted unanimously to boost sanctions against North Korea. How well these are being respected is another matter.

Meanwhile, Hodges dismisses as misguided a headline-grabbing open letter signed by over 100 tech entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk calling for the United Nations to ban the development and use of killer robots like drones. Their precision significantly reduces civilian and military casualties, while any ban would mean that terrorists and enemies would use them: “So I don’t know what good, in terms of real effect, would come out of that.”

Interviewed after a breakfast briefing to the Worshipful Company of International Bankers, a City of London livery company, as part of reaching out to the public, the General is philosophical, and endearingly humble, about his stellar 37-year career. “I’ve made about every mistake you can make seriously and not get sacked,” he muses.” I’ve been forgiven for losing equipment, getting lost, failing a mission, those kinds of things.”

At a time when there has been a mass erosion of institutional legitimacy in the US and other NATO countries, the fact that the military can hold its head high is due in no small measure to men like General Ben Hodges.