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25 February 2023

Ben Hodges: “The only hope the Russians have is that the West loses the will to keep supporting Ukraine”

The former commanding general of the US Army in Europe on why the future of the West could be decided on the Black Sea.

By Jeremy Cliffe

As we look at the sheaves spread across a table in Munich’s Bayerischer Hof Hotel, the former commanding general of the US Army in Europe explains that this is no ordinary map. That much is clear. We are all used to Europe depicted as a political and geographic whole, spanning from Ireland to Istanbul and from Lisbon to Murmansk. But Lieutenant General (Retired) Ben Hodges’ map is centred on the Black Sea. It documents not Europe as a whole, but the interstitial territories where the continent abuts Asia and the Middle East; the crossroads of Western civilisation taking in Athens, Istanbul, Jerusalem and Kyiv; the pivot of so many global conflicts and contests today. 

Hodges explains how the map came into being. Between 2012 and 2014 he served as the first-ever commander of Nato’s Allied Land Command, a new headquarters for the alliance’s territorial forces established at İzmir on Turkey’s Aegean coast. He recalls asking a fellow senior Nato officer at an event in Ankara how things were. “I wake up in the morning,” came the reply, “and I’ve got Russia to the north; Iran, Iraq and Syria to the south; the Caucasus to the east; and the Balkans to the west. That’s a hell of a neighbourhood.” Hodges recounts how he “kind of laughed about it. I thought: yeah, of course. You know, he didn’t see himself at the bottom of the map the way [those places] are on every map in Europe.” On a later trip to London, he visited a cartographer and commissioned a chart that reflected that reality.

[See also: The backlash against Vladimir Putin’s war strategy begins]

Now it is laid out in front of us, its folds well worn, its edges softened from years of movement, and annotated with scratchy pen marks. “Little [eastern Ukrainian] towns like Bakhmut or Lyman or Kreminna,” says Hodges as we talk, on the margins of the Munich Security Conference (MSC), about the war. “I write those on there. Look at that little mark there by Zaporizhzhia. I have a Ukrainian friend we invited and he got a pass [from the Ukrainian government] to come to our house in Frankfurt for Thanksgiving. He’s back killing enemies of his country right now. But he [made that mark and] said: ‘Yeah, right there.’” 

Hodges grew up in northern Florida and speaks with a southern US lilt. He has a gentle sense of humour. During our discussion in Munich, a smartly dressed fellow pokes his head around the door of our grand meeting room and asks if we are waiting for the Greek prime minister. “No, but if he’s bringing chow, we’ll wait,” retorts Hodges. He served in South Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq. But he is also a consummate American-European. He worked as aide-de-camp to Nato’s supreme Allied commander Europe during the peak of the Balkan wars in the 1990s, before returning to the continent for his role in İzmir in 2012 and in 2014 – just as Russia began its years-long assault in Ukraine – taking the lead of the US Army in Europe, just as Russia began its years-long assault in Ukraine – a role he would hold until 2018. Now retired from the army and living with his German wife in her home country (on the “limes”, as he likes to put it, the old line marking the eastern frontier of the Roman empire), Hodges has made a new career as a public defender of Atlanticism in an age where it has appeared increasingly in question.  

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He endorsed Joe Biden in the 2020 US election and that same year co-authored Future War and the Defence of Europe, a book that warned of the fragility of Europe’s security order in passages prescient of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine little more than a year later. As one who consistently voiced confidence in the transatlantic alliance and allies like Ukraine when others doubted them, he would be entitled a certain smugness about the unexpected resilience that both have shown over the past 12 months. And Hodges does indeed note that many now see things the way he does – observing, by way of example, that Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Mitt Romney last year pushed through legislation requiring the US administration to create its first ever Black Sea strategy. But he is in no mood to gloat.  

Rather, Hodges is concerned that defeatist thinking – or lack of confidence – could undermine Western support for Ukraine in the potentially decisive second year of the war. The mood from leaders speaking on the MSC’s main stage is assured, but in its corridors and meeting rooms concerns are evident. Can Ukraine really win? Will the transatlantic alliance hold? Does Russia not have the depth and gristle to survive a prolonged, attritional war?  

To such questions, Hodges offers sinew-stiffening resolve. He swiftly dispatches the notion, prevalent among some Europeans, that US commitment to Ukraine and Europe is time-limited or growing weak. “We know that our best and most reliable allies all come from Europe, as well as Canada and Australia,” he notes, pointing to “the largest bipartisan congressional delegation to come to Munich” at this year’s MSC. “This morning, I spoke with several members of [that] delegation and also listened to [Republican] Senator [Mitch] McConnell and he said: ‘We came here to disabuse our European friends of the idea that the Republicans don’t care about Europe or Nato or Ukraine.’” When I ask about the possibility of a second Trump term from 2025, Hodges is doubtful both of its likelihood (“I think Americans eventually get a little bit tired of so much bragging”) and of its impact (“Even during the Trump administration, the number of troops permanently stationed in Germany went up”).  

What, then, I ask, of the more thoughtful Republican scepticism about Europe? That voiced by figures like the former deputy assistant secretary of defence Elbridge Colby, who argue that the US cannot sustain commitments to Europe and Asia simultaneously? Here Hodges pauses and acknowledges “my friend ’Bridge”, but proceeds to set out a different analysis: that, in fact, American commitments to Europe are remarkably modest for the benefits they bring. Even with the recent troop increases, he notes, the US has just 100,000 troops in Europe: “That only just fills up Wembley Stadium or the University of Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.”  

Yet for this small footprint, he goes on to argue, the US gets outsized benefits, including not only a free Europe but also a base for American operations across Eurasia and Africa, and a major role in the Mediterranean (and thus the passage between the Indian and Atlantic Oceans). “Everything that the US has in Europe would fit inside Fort Hood, Texas, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina.” I note that even the US investment in protecting Ukraine is remarkably small for the impact it has had, and Hodges agrees: “Protecting all of our European allies, our Nato allies, from the biggest threat they face with not a single guy in uniform, man or woman, actually in Ukraine seems like a pretty good deal.” 

We turn to Ukraine’s self-defence. “I believe they could liberate Crimea by the end of the summer if we gave them everything that they needed,” says Hodges. This contradicts some in the West who consider Crimea – annexed by Russia during its initial military move against Ukraine in 2014 – a matter for peace talks, and the occupied Donbas a more legitimate target. But flattening out his map on the table with the back of one hand, Hodges explains why they are wrong and why the peninsula should be Kyiv’s, and thus the West’s, top priority.  

First, he says, it is a launch pad for sending drones and missiles into the rest of Ukraine and will remain so as long as it is under Russian control. If the Kremlin retains control, under any ceasefire it will become a base for Russian forces to regroup, rearm and launch a new attack on Ukraine within a few years. And second – Hodges slides his index finger across the country’s Black Sea coast on his map – without Crimea, Ukraine will not properly control its southern flank. As a result, its exports and economic future will be stifled: “Ukraine will never be able to rebuild its economy as long as Russia controls Crimea.” And without proper economic recovery the country will not be able to draw back the millions of Ukrainians who have fled, and thus set itself on a stable, democratic, prosperous path. 

Hodges is clear about what such a Ukrainian operation might entail. Ukraine would need to establish “economy of force” where Russia is attacking, in locations like Bakhmut in Donbas – minimising the forces needed to hold off or delay the advance of the great numbers of Russian troops being thrown at that battle. Then it would need to identify what the Prussian general and theorist Carl von Clausewitz called the “culmination point”, or the stage at which an enemy overreaches and starts to crumble. Hodges illustrates this with a downward dip of his hand and a whistling sound, adding that correctly identifying this point was what enabled the Ukrainians to achieve their astonishing counter-offensive around Kharkiv last September.  

[See also: Russia must lose this war]

Finally Ukraine would need to use that moment, perhaps in the late spring, to gather together its forces – including the new high-tech tanks en route from the West – to punch through the Russian lines “on a very narrow front” to the Black Sea coast. This would sever the Russian land bridge to Crimea, enable Ukraine to close in on the peninsula and put it within reach of its Himars rocket launchers and other artillery. If it could achieve that, it would change the course of the war – and with it, European history.  

I counter with the standard arguments against encouraging Ukraine to take Crimea back: the peninsula holds a particular place in the Russian imagination and losing it might prompt Vladimir Putin to use nuclear force. But Hodges pushes back politely on both points. He warns against overstating ordinary Russians’ commitment to the conflict: “When somebody says that Crimea is a holy land for them… for holiday, maybe, but not [to the point where they are] willing to put on a uniform.” And Hodges notes that where tactical nuclear weapons may have had a theoretical use during the Cold War, “to hit a place where you could create a gap in Nato defences”, there would be no equivalent benefit for Russia today, while it would incur an immense international cost (including the opprobrium of China, its one powerful ally). “So much downside for little upside. In fact, I can’t even think of an upside.” 

And what, I ask, about the widely cited argument that Russia simply has more troops and time to throw at the conflict? The former commanding general of the US Army in Europe declares himself staggered at the poor quality of the Russian operations, working his way through the litany of failure, service by service. The army, he says, is “incoherent”. Of the leading figures behind the war effort – including the head of the Wagner militia group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, and the Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov – Hodges says: “These guys hate each other. So, thankfully, they will never fix their command structure to have a joint unified command. And because their soldiers don’t want to be there, I see no bright spots on the horizon for the Russian side.”  

He is equally withering about the Russian navy, its Black Sea flagship sunk by the Ukrainians last April, and even more so about its air force: “If you think about what we were doing before the Normandy invasion, the Royal Air Force and US Air Force were bombing the hell out of trains, disrupting their ability to move stuff around and preventing the Wehrmacht from being able to react to the landing once it happened – the Russians have not yet hit a single train bringing equipment from Poland. How the hell can that be?” He concludes emphatically: “The only hope the Russians have is that the West loses the will to keep supporting Ukraine.” 

Our meeting draws to a close. It is time to make way for the Greek prime minster. I survey Hodges’ bespoke map of the Black Sea world one last time before he folds it up, and cannot but think that Halford Mackinder would have approved. The Victorian “founding father of geopolitics” had argued that the fate of world power turned primarily on control of the tumultuous region comprising what is today eastern Ukraine, the Caucasus and the surrounding regions – the lands displayed on that well-handled sheet of paper. His, of course, was a vastly different world from ours. But as Ben Hodges’ compelling arguments show: different world, same map.  

Read more:

Will Ukraine run out of ammunition?

Ukraine Diary: A year on, Russia’s war has failed to break our spirit

The unravelling of Vladimir Putin

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This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission