Justin Huggler reports for The Telegraph, April 18, 2015, that Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges, Commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, warns that NATO must remain united in the face of a “real threat” from Russia:
“It’s not an assumption. There is a Russian threat. You’ve got the Russian ambassador threatening that Denmark will be a nuclear target if it participates in any missile defense program. And when you look at the unsafe way Russian aircraft are flying without transponders in proximity to civilian aircraft, that’s not professional conduct.”
Gen. Hodges spoke to the Telegraph on the sidelines of a military debriefing after an exercise to move live Patriot missiles 750 miles across Europe by road and deploy them on the outskirts of Warsaw. The sight of a US military convoy crossing the German-Polish border more than 20 years after the end of the Cold War made international headlines and brought traffic to a standstill as people posed for selfies beside the troops.
Pointing to recent Russian decisions to move Iskandar ballistic missiles to its Kaliningrad enclave, between Lithuania and Poland, and long-range nuclear-capable bombers to Crimea, Gen. Hodges said the intention of the highly visible deployment of Patriot missiles to Poland was to send a signal:
“That’s exactly what it was about, reassuring our allies. I don’t think a military confrontation is inevitable. But you have to be militarily ready in order to enable effective diplomacy. The best insurance we have against a showdown is that NATO stands together.”
Since taking over command of the US army in Europe last year, Gen. Hodges has found himself on the front line of an increasingly nervous stand-off with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Eastern European countries are looking to NATO, and the US in particular, for reassurance that they will not be left to face Russian aggression alone.
A year after the Obama administration pulled its last battle tank out of Europe, the US is sending hundreds of tanks and heavy fighting vehicles back to the continent, and Gen. Hodges is in the middle of talks over where to position them. He has also assumed command at a time when many Western European countries are cutting their military budgets, and relying ever more on the US for their defense. “I think the question for each country to ask is: are they security consumers or security providers?” Gen Hodges said. “Do they bring capabilities the alliance needs?”
In recent years, while Western countries have been cutting their defense budgets, Russia has been spending heavily on modernizing its military.
Gen. Hodges said the recent involvement of Russian forces in fighting in eastern Ukraine has shown that they have made huge advances, particularly in electronic warfare: “We’re not interested in a fair fight with anyone. We want to have overmatch in all systems. I don’t think that we’ve fallen behind but Russia has closed the gap in certain capabilities. We don’t want them to close that gap.”
But he doesn’t think this is the start of a new Cold War:
“That was a different situation, with gigantic forces and large numbers of nuclear weapons. The only thing that is similar now is that Russia and NATO have different views about what the security environment in Europe should be. I don’t think it’s the same as the Cold War. We did very specific things then that are no longer relevant. We don’t need 300,000 soldiers in Europe. Nobody can afford that any more. We want to see Russia back in the international community and cooperating against Islamic terrorism and on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. That’s different from the Cold War. I’m sure they’re not going to line up Russian tanks and go rolling into another country. They don’t want a military confrontation with NATO. Our alliance is the most successful alliance in history and it has a lot of capability.”
Gen Hodges has an easy manner with the men under his command, making jokes and asking the opinions of the most junior privates, as well as senior officers. He has combat experience as a brigade commander in Iraq, but in his current role he has to deal with different challenges.
Hodges believes Russia will not risk an open attack on a NATO member for fear the alliance will invoke Article V of its treaty, under which an attack on one member is an attack on all. Instead, the danger is that Russia will seek to put pressure on NATO members on its borders through other means, such as information, economic pressure, and border violations. He points to the large Russian-speaking populations in the Baltic countries, and the economic power Russia has as a major consumer of eastern European agricultural produce, as possible avenues Russian president Vladimir Putin may try to exploit.
But Hodges is confident that NATO will remain united in the face of Russian aggression:
“If President Putin’s objective is to fracture the alliance, then he’s going about it the wrong way. At the Wales summit there was a unity of the alliance I have not seen before, and it came about because of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and its use of force to change the borders of a sovereign country, Ukraine. It was a direct response to Russia’s behaviour in Crimea.”
Is Gen. Hodges not aware that last December, Hungary, which joined NATO in 1997, accused the United States of instigating a new Cold War against Russia and declared Hungary will not participate?
Pointing to recent moves by traditionally neutral Sweden and Finland to cooperate more closely on defense with NATO members Norway, Denmark and Iceland, Hodges observes:
“Nobody’s trying to join Russia. There’s no country scurrying to get under Russia’s protective umbrella. Why do so many countries want to join the EU or NATO? It’s about values. They want security and prosperity. Russia wants to make it difficult for countries that were affiliated with the USSR or the Warsaw Pact to join the West. The way they see it they’re entitled to a role, to a sphere of influence. I think the position of the West is that this idea of a sphere of influence is not applicable in the 21st century. In the 21st century countries have the right to decide for themselves what is right for them and what kind of country they want to be. They’ve made the European choice. That’s what this is all about.”
Since taking up his command, Gen Hodges has been outspoken over the Russian threat in a way that is rare for a serving general. Admitting that “I understand my role” as carrying out, not making, policy for the U.S. or the NATO alliance, Hodges nevertheless has chosen to speak out because he fears Russia is going unchallenged in the information war:
“We talk about DIME: diplomacy, information, military and economy. An important aspect of how Russia operates is how they use information. They use information the way they use infantry and missiles. They’re not burdened by the truth. Most of the independent media has left Russia and a large percentage is government-owned or -dominated. They don’t have to worry about congressional or parliamentary oversight. There’s a constant bombardment of information.”
In his last interview before his death on Monday, Günter Grass, the Nobel-winning German author, said he feared that humanity was “sleepwalking” towards another World War. But Gen. Hodges disagrees:
“I think we were sleepwalking a few years ago when we thought Russia wanted to be a part of the international community. They were with us in Bosnia. We actually have a mechanism for them to cooperate with NATO. But I think we’re wide-awake now.”
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