3 February 2022 (Thursday)

16:00 – 17:15

Speakers:

Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben Hodges holds the Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies in the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), which he joined in 2018. He graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1980 and was commissioned in the Infantry. He commanded units at the Company, Battalion, and Brigade levels in the 101st Airborne Division, including operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Apart from that, General Hodges has also served in variety of Joint and Army Staff positions. His last military assignment was as Commanding General, United States Army Europe from 2014 to 2017. In 2018, he retired from the U.S. Army

Roland Freudenstein, Vice President and Head of GLOBSEC Brussels

Meeting Abstract

The aim of this exclusive closed-door was to bring new perspective on current theme of escalating tensions between NATO Allies, Ukraine and Russia. This event addressed the following issues:

  • Russian military mobility capabilities, transportation, and military logistics.
  • Possible future scenarios of the escalation of tension in Ukraine, Russian interference in what form.
  • How can Ukraine defend itself from attack and what type of material support is needed to raise its defences?

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Recent visit to Ukraine

Opening remarks were focused on General Hodges’ takeaways from his recent visit to Ukraine. As part of a visiting US delegation, General Hodges had the chance to experience the atmosphere in Kiev and talk with several Ukrainian parliamentarians as well representatives of government including a telephone call with President Zelensky. The important message is that Kiev is not cracking under pressure, life continues as usual, but there is certainly awareness and wariness. For most Ukrainians the question of a potential Russian invasion is not new, they have lived with this threat for the last eight years.

According to the General, President Zelensky’s attitude was an unexpected surprise. He is full of energy and aware of the fact that not only his government but his whole country is at acute risk. Specifically, the Ukrainian economy is under immense strain, its business and foreign investors are facing the uncertainty that is potentially ruinous. In the light of his publicly announced ambition to expand the army, he further elaborated that what Ukraine needs are not foreign troops, but instead support with the economy. A know-how to face down a threat like Russia, but not wreck the economy is the ideal policy prescription the Ukrainian President is looking for. On the new territorial defense forces, the comment was that it is still very early days. Overall, the visit to Ukraine was concerning, but encouraging.

What would a Russian attack possibly look like?

To begin with, it is important to recognize that the Ukrainian army is not the same as it was in 2014. Furthermore, its people are also much more determined to resist any possible invasion. There are two competing narratives when considering the actual possibility of the invasion. One is of the technological and numerical superiority of the Russian army that possess the capabilities to divide the country in half and occupy any or all parts at will. The second is that although Ukraine does tend to organize things at the last minute and only when pressured the human cost that Ukraine will be able to inflict will be intolerable to Russia. There are of course past examples of Ukrainian determination and bravery, as well as episodes of Russia’s brutal way of waging war. The important thing will be timing. This is not due to the weather; Russian military equipment is built to withstand and function under harsh climate conditions. Rather it is a question of waiting for the Olympics to conclude. There is a track record of this behavior in the past, when the annexation of Crimea happened shortly after the Sochi Olympics in 2014. The third factor will be the completion of exercises in Belarus and the ongoing series of naval exercises.

The most likely scenario is a limited offensive, for example, to create a land bridge to Crimea, or to seize the port of Mariupol. The objective would not only be to seize territory, but it would be to wreck the Ukrainian economy. By denying Ukraine access to one of its strategic ports and forcing it to pay an exorbitant price in men, materiel and treasure trying to defend its hold, this Russian tactic would inflict massive havoc. Such a limited offensive would undoubtedly be followed up by intense cyber-attacks and disinformation campaigns. As well as possible sabotage and disruptive attacks on communication centers and transport hubs. There are rumors that some subversive groups were already apprehended by Ukrainian security forces. This limited campaign could fall below some NATO Allies’ threshold for applying further sanctions. While at the same time having a devastating effect on the will and the ability of Ukraine to pay for its own defense.

Russia continues to maintain an advantage in naval and air power in the event of an open conflict. However, it is a different matter when it comes to ground fighting and most notably in urban fighting. That is why it is unlikely that anyone seriously considers seizing Kiev as in the face of a determined citizenry and experienced land forces. Seizing and holding any major urban center will require a substantial number of troops. Undoubtedly capturing a city like Mariupol would very likely cause major sanctions, perhaps even shut down of Nord Stream 2 as well as result in the expulsion of Russia from the international banking system.

Another possible scenario could be limited perimeter military action along the Luhansk and Donetsk separatist republics. Again, this avenue would be accompanied by sabotage, subversion, disinformation and cyberattacks. All designed to hurt the Ukrainian economy as much as possible, rather than attempting any actual land grab.

On the geopolitical scene US Secretary of State is working overtime to make his threats credible that any violation of the current border will be acknowledged and consequently punished by sanctions. In opposition, President Putin is counting on the divided reaction of NATO Allies and will structure his next steps accordingly.

When considering the various domestic opinions of NATO Allies on possible courses of action a repeated claim is one that Crimea was always Russian, and the Russian narrative of being threatened by NATO, while preposterous from the NATO perspective, is very legitimate for Russian leaders. It is after all the prerogative of each country to determine what it feels threatened by. Recent experiences of many democratic countries are nothing to boast about, as for example the 6 January 2021 episode in Washington DC. Overall, there is diminished credibility by many democratic regimes to speak and lead by example.

What is an actual threat to President Putin is not 30,000 US soldiers in Germany or NATO bases in Romania or Lithuania. It is rather the idea of a free, democratic, and successful Ukraine. Because that directly undermines Russian narrative of NATO being a threat and western values of democracy, free market and openness being sources of weakness.

Furthermore, it is important to highlight the value of deploying US troops to eastern flank countries, close to the border with Ukraine and Russia. The threefold reasons are:

  • It demonstrates US is taking the threat seriously and is willing to engage in an open ended (and costly) deployment of troops
  • It is a signal to Allies, that they too have a part to play and that it is time get serious
  • It is a clear message to the Kremlin ‘do not do anything that has a potential to spillover’

Meaning there can be no accidental incursions crossing borders of NATO Allies regardless of whether they are on the eastern flank or not. It is encouraging that these messages are underlined by concrete steps, such as NATO response force remaining on high alert.

Role of China

According to the General, it is unlikely that China will try to extract some form of strategic advantage against the US as they remain distracted in Europe. The reason being that the current European crises does not affect US military assets in the Pacific. The CCP will be watching and assessing the ability, or inability, of NATO and specifically the US to deter Russia and assume heavy costs. Despite this, given China’s recent military activity and equipment modernization, policymakers should not underestimate the growing Chinese military muscle and therefore the possibility of a kinetic conflict in the Pacific theatre in the next five years.

Weapons shipments

The current arms shipments received by Ukraine do not only possess symbolic value, but they also hold high-value military value. Giving relatively simple weapons systems to Ukrainian soldiers that had no such capabilities before. They are able to do more on the battlefield. Weapon systems such as anti-air or anti-tank man-portable missiles are a great force multiplier for ordinary Ukrainian soldiers. Although Ukrainians are some of the most tech-savvy soldiers and possess an ability to quickly learn complex weapon systems, such as the Patriot anti-air system, it still requires months of proper training which is time Ukraine may not have. Consequently, less complex systems might be preferable. There is no doubt that Russia retains the escalation advantage, but as was discussed earlier that may count for little in a limited conflict.

Can pressure be maintained?

Unlike western states, where heads of government are subject to elections and prevailing opinions, Russia has a clear political decision-making advantage. The Russian leader is not accountable to the Russian Duma the same way as for example the American President or the German Chancellor is to their respective parliamentary assemblies. The sensitivity towards domestic public attitudes, but also to economic pressures is much less in Russia than it is for western allied states. It is possible for President Putin to maintain the military buildup and exerting diplomatic and economic pressure on Ukraine for a considerably extended amount of time.

In the meantime, the support of international institutions like the World Bank and the IMF will be crucial for keeping the Ukrainian economy afloat. Although even without the crises there is a lot to be done in Ukraine to improve its economic stability and performance.

As the conflict simmers, time is on the Russian side, as keeping and escalating the pressure even without firing a shot hurts Ukraine. At the same it opens the window for Russia to continue influencing events in the west, through disinformation, sowing doubt in the public opinion and politicians, undermining democratic regimes and bringing doubt to the merits of multiparty systems. An example of this is the support of AfD protests in Germany. It’s not that Russia agrees with the policy positions of the AfD but that it is a welcome tool to amplify disunity in Germany.

What are the predictions for the near future?  

US – Despite the unfavorable situation in the Congress and upcoming mid-term elections, the White House efforts vis-à-vis supporting Ukraine both diplomatically and militarily will continue.

Ukraine – The performance of economy will be critical in maintaining the will and the ability for the country to adequately defend itself. Moreover, in addition to leading with a cool temperament, President Zelensky will have to find a way to simultaneously expand the army while finding new sources of funding to pay for it.

President Putin – Should he engage in any sort of conflict, policymakers should hope that he will suffer at home and on the international stage, and eventually accept a diplomatic solution and desist from intimidating Ukraine.