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Ben Hodges: «It’s essential that Ukraine wins»

In this episode of Ukraine Calling, host Brian Bonner engages in a thought-provoking discussion with retired General Ben Hodges, the former commander of U.S. forces in Europe. As the war in Ukraine continues, topics ranging from the pressing issue of conscription to logistical challenges and delays in Western aid take center stage.

Ben Hodges: «It’s essential that Ukraine wins»
Estimated Reading Time: 24 minutes

The issue of conscription

Brian Bonner: Thank you for joining Ukraine Calling. I’m Brian Bonner, your host, and today we have a great interview with General Ben Hodges, the former commander of U.S. forces in Europe.

Well, let’s jump in. The issue is heating up, and I know you’ve got thoughts about this. I would just like to open this way: Are we at the crisis stage in terms of a shortage of manpower? What do you think should be done about it, and what do you think Ukraine will be doing about it?

Ben Hodges: I think that it’s worrying when you read reports from commanders who are in the fight, saying that they are running low on people. And as always, young leaders are typically the ones who suffer the highest proportion of casualties because they are, in fact, out in the front. The population of Ukraine is more than adequate to meet the manpower requirements. My estimate is that there are over 2 million Ukrainian women and men who are in what we would typically consider military age between 18 and 30, something like that.

So it’s not like there are not enough women and men that could meet the requirements, it’s why aren’t they in uniform? Why aren’t they being attracted to join the services? So it seems to me there’s not a personnel problem, but there’s a personnel system problem that has to be solved by civilian authorities.

Brian Bonner: Well, that has many elements. That goes back to the shortage of equipment, as you know, of munitions, which the U.S. is not helping on right now. But back to conscription, you know that in Ukraine, they ban most men, from 18 to 60, from leaving the country, but mandatory conscription does not take effect until the person is 27. Russia this year has dropped that age to 18. If you remember at the beginning of the war, President Zelenskyy said that Ukraine is going to need to be a “big Israel” because Russia as an enemy is never going to go away. So we have to reorder society along military lines. If that’s true, Israel also takes people at the age or 18. Turkey takes people at 20. Isn’t Ukraine going to have to match that at some point?

Ben Hodges: Thank you for giving me an opportunity to at least address these. Ultimately, it is a decision for the Ukrainian people, Ukraine, and the government to make. This is not the problem for the commander or the chief of the general staff to decide. This is a civilian political authority topic that has to be agreed upon between the government and the Rada.

First of all, I understand the reluctance because there are so many casualties, and people will be concerned about losing a generation of Ukrainian men and women who would be there. So, that is a concern. I’ve reached out to several dear Ukrainian friends whose assessments I value, and they have talked about that concern. If you go for 26, 27-year-olds, chances are they will have had a chance to at least start a family. So there’s a strategic human aspect to this, to the problem.

The second thing is there’s a difference between mobilization, conscription, and volunteers. An 18-year-old can volunteer already. So there are younger men and women in the services, but it’s the mandatory, the conscription part where the age is 27. The number that shocked me the most was that the average age was 43. I remember where I was at the age of 43, I had just finished being a battalion commander, and I could already see the difference between myself and my young captains and lieutenants and sergeants, physically, it became very difficult.

So for a sustained conflict, the average age of your soldiers is anywhere near 40 – that’s tough. I live here in Frankfurt, Germany. I know that in Germany, Poland, Romania, some of the Baltic countries, there are tens of thousands of Ukrainians, military age, who are here. And I think that they are reluctant to go back to Ukraine to serve. Not because they don’t love their country but because they have no confidence that they will be properly trained and equipped and put in a unit that’s ready to fight. Instead, they are concerned that they’ll just be fed into the carnage the way Russian conscripts are.

Part of the task of the government here is to make sure that every woman and every man who joins the military is properly trained. And it’s not something you can do in two or three weeks. We’re talking about four months to properly train somebody who’s just coming into the force so that they can do all the basic tasks and then put them into a unit, a full-up unit, not individual fill holes in a unit that’s in the front line, but put them into a new unit that’s being organized and trained to go in.

So that’s part of the challenge that they have to address. And then I think thousands of people would, in fact, come in and join. And if they were confident that their family would be taken care of if something happened to them.

The last thing I’d say, and then I will pause or go back to you, Brian, is the Israeli model. This is an interesting model. It is about total defense. Everybody knows that the survival of the country depends on everybody having a role to play, whether it’s in uniform or a strong, resilient society and working in the defense industry. But that requires the leadership to build that culture within the country. And I’m not sure that that culture exists yet, not as a society-wide culture.

Of course, you’ve got to have people that can man the critical industries. Are women given the opportunity to do everything in Ukraine? There are thousands of women who are in the military. Has the government opened up every possibility for women who want to be, assuming they can meet the physical requirements, to be in infantry or tank forces? This is a human resource. It has to be optimized.

Brian Bonner: Before I leave the age, does the army have studies on which men or soldiers are most effective? I would assume it’s 18 to 30.

Ben Hodges: Of course, it depends on what your task is. The average age of the U.S. Army in Vietnam was 19. Of course, that was a conscript army. But you don’t want sergeants that are 19. You want sergeants and officers who are a few years older, have some experience, and have different responsibilities. But if you’re talking about members of a squad or members of a crew in a tank or a howitzer, you can have a lower age. But in places where you need physical endurance, 18 to 30 generally is a very good window.

Particularly young men and women are physically at their peak. In the U.S. Army, we talk about how long it takes to grow a sergeant major. A command sergeant major, that’s usually somewhere in the 18 to 20 years in service, where they have started as a young private, worked their way up to the top of the enlisted rank. Or a battalion commander – comes in the army as a lieutenant at the age of probably 21. And after 20 years, he or she’s done all that, and they’re ready to be a battalion commander.

Brian Bonner: But one of the questions is, at what point does this become a political liability for Ukraine in terms of getting continued flows of international aid? There are enough people already trying to find reasons not to help Ukraine. And if people latch onto this idea that, well, they’re not taking people until the age of 27, so it’s ludicrous for Western nations to even contemplate sending troops there if Ukraine is not willing to act like it’s a nation fighting for its survival.

Ben Hodges: I hear it more and more now that people start talking about it. It undermines support, potentially, for Ukraine. When I hear constantly from my Ukrainian friends or supporters like, why is it the U.S. fault that we’re dying on the battlefield? It’s the Congress’ fault that we’re dying on the battlefield. Yes, I’m extremely unhappy that Congress has failed to do its duty. I’m extremely unhappy that the President has failed to clearly identify that it is a strategic objective for the United States that Ukraine wins this war.

But it starts to wear a little bit thin when you see that Ukraine is not willing to do everything necessary to have everybody in the fight that is needed. So this does run the risk of undermining some support for Ukraine. And then, of course, I know President Zelensky has worked hard at rooting out corruption and combating the perception of corruption. The sacking of several recruiting officers back a few months ago was a positive thing in that it illustrates he is going after corruption. But it also is a reminder that in many systems where you have some kind of recruiting or conscription service, people will try to buy their way out of it or to try to get out of it.

That was one of the major problems with our draft during the war in Vietnam was that it ended up being only the poorest, most unlucky people who were drafted because others found a way out. Either got a doctor like former President Trump to claim that they had some medical issue or they had university exceptions, all sorts of things. So fairness is an important part of any conscription system as well.

Brian Bonner: I know you know German, so you can tell me if the Wall Street Journal is right or wrong. But this leak of these top German military officials talking about Ukraine, 38 minutes that Russia leaked, you have there the head or the chief of the German Air Force saying, look, even if we give Ukraine 100 out of the 600 Taurus long-range cruise missiles that we have, yes, they can knock out the Kerch Bridge and some other high-value targets, but it’s not going to change the course of the war because they just don’t have, likely don’t have, the ground troops or a follow-up offensive.

That was interesting to me because it showed, you know, the calculations that Western allies are making and why they’ve been hesitant, as you’ve complained about for more than two years, to give Ukraine what it needs. How do you read that?

Ben Hodges: So I was struck, struck by that. First of all, the whole incident, is very unfortunate. On the one side, it shows that serious minded people in the German Bundeswehr and in Germany are looking for ways to deliver Taurus. I mean, even the foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, is publicly saying we have got to come up with a way to get Taurus to Ukraine. Long-range precision weapons, that capability, whatever type it is, is a capability that will neutralize Russia’s advantage en masse, as well as make Crimea untenable for Russian forces. So this is a critical capability.

So I was heartened by the fact that at least people like General Gerhardt were looking at, in anticipation, what would we have to do to get Taurus to the Ukrainians. But you’re right in that even he was, in his mind, thinking, okay, Ukrainians don’t have enough troops to actually liberate Crimea, for example. The fact that that’s in his consideration is damaging because he is a professional warrior thinking that you can imagine how others might be thinking as well. And so this feeds the narrative that Ukraine has got to negotiate. You know, there’s no way.

Now, this is where I disagree with General Gerhardt and many others and say there’s no way that Ukraine can win. Of course, Ukraine can win. Absolutely. In fact, it’s essential that Ukraine wins. We’ve been at this war. Ukraine has been at war for 10 years, not two years, 10 years. And after 10 years, with Russia having every advantage, they still only control about 19% of Ukraine.

The Russian Air Force has failed the two most important tasks of any Air Force, which is air superiority. And interdict your opponent’s lines of communication. They failed both of those tasks. About a third of the Black Sea fleet has been destroyed. And they’re beginning to move back from Sevastopol because they see how vulnerable they are. And then, of course, as we well know, over half a million Russian soldiers were killed and wounded, and all the equipment lost.

And that’s without us, U.S. and Germany in particular, committing to Ukraine winning. So if we would clearly identify that our strategic objective, the U.S is for Ukraine to win, because it’s in our interest, we’d be providing what was needed, and we’d be in a different place. But regardless, Ukraine is going to have to fix this personnel system exactly for the reasons that you pointed out.

Brian Bonner: Listen, I’ve been told by members of parliament, they actually approved legislation last year to lower the conscription age to 25. And that’s the age in which they found consensus, apparently. And that gives about 400,000 more into the eligible pool. Zelensky didn’t sign it. This year, as you know, one of the reasons for the falling out between him and General Zaluzhnyi was over the need for troop mobilization. Zelensky’s said, I need more evidence that we need 500,000. And anyway, that’s $13 billion, where are we going to get this money? So he ordered General Syrskyi, Zaluzhnyi’s replacement, to conduct an audit. Ukraine has a million people mobilized, but apparently, no more than 300,000 have seen combat duty. What are the other 700,000 doing?

That audit is still going on. Parliament is waiting for that. It all looks to me like politicians kicking the can down the road. Does it look like that to you? And what are they afraid of? I mean, they’ve hinted at that. They know that this could be very unpopular. And they’re not really ready for the consequences, nor is there a particular campaign that’s publicly viewable about why guys need to sign up.

Ben Hodges: So this does take leadership, political leadership, people to explain to the population, look, this is why we’ve got to do this. This is what we’re doing. And I think most people in every country, including the United States, when the president and other senior leaders can explain what’s at stake, why we’re doing this, and here’s how we’re going to do it, then most people generally say, okay, but if they don’t trust that they’re getting the whole story or that the system is fair, then there will be reluctance.

And it’s a fair question to ask, like, wait a minute, you’ve got a million people in uniform. Why is it that you have some units that have not even been in the fight yet? This is a job for the ministry and for the military to demonstrate that they can manage the resources that they have, not just throwing more bodies at the problem, but proper management of a rotation. You know, we, of course, in the United States, we have congressional oversight of everything that we do. We are constantly having to demonstrate to Congress where the money goes, where the people are. And during the years in Iraq and Afghanistan, we were constantly rotating units.

That was a massive management challenge to make sure that as troops, as units were formed up to go to Iraq or Afghanistan, they were properly trained, they had everything they needed. And units coming out were, you know, they had to go through a process as well before they were dispersed across the army for other requirements. So I think it is a good idea that the army or the military is required to do an audit to make sure you’ve got accountability. Where is everybody? And is everybody doing their part?

Ten years into the war, but Ukraine wasted eight years, in my view, institutionally. I mean, there should be mountains of artillery ammunition everywhere, equipment. But those eight years between 2014 and 2022 were not properly utilized to get ready for an expansion of the conflict. And that includes modernizing the personnel system, getting accountability of everybody, thinking through how we will expand if we have to fight Russia in a more direct way, which of course, is what happened two years ago.

Brian Bonner: If you take the government’s numbers at face value, is it out of whack that a million people are in the armed forces and only 300,000 have seen frontline duty? Or is that normal?

Ben Hodges: There is, of course, in every military. I mean, if you have a million troops, that’s not a million infantry soldiers with a rifle. You have what’s called the institutional army, the people that run the logistics, the training and education centers, the administrative, all the things that are required to put troops into the field, to build combat power, whether it’s infantry, artillery, armor units, air defense, medical units, all of that. And we always talk about the tooth-to-tail ratio.

So you’re typically going to have a bigger tail in modern armies for the tooth-to-tail ratio. So you’re typically going to have a bigger tail in modern armies for the tooth part, if you will. Because of the enormous amount of manpower required for logistics and transport and so on. Where it might be out of whack is if you’ve got part of your tooth that has never been in the fight. I was a little surprised if that’s true, that’s got to be fixed immediately. Because a unit that’s been in the fight non-stop for several months, physically as well as psychologically begins to degrade.

So you’ve got to have a unit rotation. We did that in World War II. Even in that kind of fighting we still had units who would be pulled out of the line to rest, to do what we call reconstitution. I’m sure General Syrskyi’s team will figure out: okay, we’ve got way too many people doing this function, while we’ve got artillery units that are undermanned or infantry units that are undermanned. So there may be some repurposing of some functions. What can you do? Hand over to commercial. We rely a lot on commercial transportation for example, instead of tying up manpower in there.

Brian Bonner: That there’s another issue that is starting to generate public protests and loud protests from the soldiers who say listen: I’ve been fighting here for 2+ years. There are even a few dwindling numbers who have been fighting for 10 years. And I can’t get out. This is like, I referred to it as the hellish version of Hotel California.

Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of parliament who I talked to about this issue, proposes amendments where soldiers have six months at the front and then two months break, six months at the front, and a maximum of 18 months at the front. Again, this is a military question: what’s the optimal ratio or the time spent before you need a break?

Ben Hodges: Well, I know Oleksiy and that his proposal is not a bad proposal. Most European armies, when they were with us in Iraq or Afghanistan, would use six or seven months as the amount of time that they were deployed into theater. Now, the U.S. army carried the bulk of the load in both theaters. We had to grow the size of the Army to provide the number of brigades required to do that. And we were on a one-year rotation.

And then what goes on inside that time, whether it’s six months or seven months or a year, in some units, you know, you might hear gunfire every day. In others, you might go the entire year and only hear the occasional rocket landing at Ken Hart Airfield, for example. So it’s, the intensity is not the same. The impact is not the same on every soldier. But in general, as I look back on my experience, I did two-one year tours in Iraq, and I did 15 months in Afghanistan.

Depending on the job and position you’re in, if you’re in an infantry or aviation unit, that’s seven months. That’s about enough. And then you’ve got to come out. If you’re a staff officer, or you’re doing logistics or intelligence, having more time there is important because understanding the theater you’re in is important.

So I agree with the idea that six months is about enough if you’re in an infantry or armor or artillery unit and then come out of there. But that means, this is why it comes back to manpower. If you’re going to do a rotation, you’ve got to have enough troops and enough units so that you can rotate. I would disagree with pulling individuals out of a unit at six months. You want the unit to come in and go back. And then you need to have a training base. Who’s training the new guys coming in on basic stuff as well as on new equipment? These need to be obviously experienced soldiers.

Ukrainian losses on the battlefield

Brian Bonner: This is another sticky situation. Zelensky finally put a number on the Ukrainian war dead, 31,000. Promptly rejected, I think, by many Ukrainians, who think that the American estimate from last August of 70,000 dead is more accurate. And they give reasons. They say he didn’t talk about missing in action. And under Ukrainian law, relatives of slain soldiers get a $400,000 payment. We know the Ukrainian government is cash-strapped. Their theory is that we’re not counting some of the dead because we just don’t have the money to pay. Do you have any light to shed on that situation?

Ben Hodges: I believe that in democratic societies, transparency and integrity are extremely important. I’m reluctant to question either side’s numbers because I have nothing on which I could make my own assessment. And then it makes you question, well, what about the numbers that you’re saying about the dead Russians? You know, we don’t trust what our own government says. Then I’ll become less confident in the numbers about how many enemies are killed or wounded or lost as well.

At the end of the day, for a democratic country to be successful in a war, you have to have the support of the population. And in whatever way, whether it’s paying taxes, providing their sons and daughters, working in the industry, all the other things required in a total defense, whole of society, war for survival. Now, I would always advocate for transparency. You know, in the U.S. and in most Western countries, we’ve got journalists all over the place. And we have very transparent systems for casualties, for killed and wounded.

You see the president every time an American soldier is brought back home, you’ll have a general officer or maybe even the president, as we just saw at Dover, when the remains are returned back home to the States. That’s not a practical thing to do in Ukraine because of the numbers. But the point is that transparency is very important.

Brian Bonner: Right. I mean, I remember when I was at the Kyiv Post, we tried to; fortunately, the casualty numbers were low enough that we could get the pictures and names of most of the guys and some women who were killed at the front. Now, it’s just, it’s just, there’s just too many and too much secrecy. Not even members of parliament can tell you how many are killed. 

Ben Hodges: Soldiers feel confident when they go into a battle that not only that they’re in a good unit, that they’re properly equipped, they’ve got the best chance to survive, but they also know that if they’re injured, there’s an extensive medical system that will get them off the battlefield quickly. You get first aid and echelon care, and you’ve got a good chance of survival.

But you also have confidence if you know that you are killed or you’re so terribly wounded that you eventually succumb to your wounds, that you’re not going to be left out there and that your family will be notified and your family will be taken care of. That’s an important part of the psychology of soldiers.

And so if soldiers begin to believe that the government is not going to take care of their family, then I think that undermines their fighting quality.

Support of Ukraine from the West

Brian Bonner: I’m coming to an end, and I welcome your thoughts on things I didn’t ask about, because I know you just came from America and got a lot of impressions. But I’m sitting here in Kyiv, and I participated or went to all the second-year anniversaries, and we had a veritable roster of VIPs from America and all over the world, and Americans from Pompeo to Brian Fitzpatrick to other supporters of Ukraine, members of Congress were saying, listen, don’t worry, Kyiv, the money is coming. Are you that confident? And what do they know that the rest of us don’t know?

Ben Hodges: During the Munich Security Conference, I heard three different Republican members of Congress also speak optimistically that it was going to happen, but it hasn’t happened yet. Speaker (Mike) Johnson appears to be completely under the thumb of a candidate. There’s no practical reason why he would delay when the majority of Republicans in Congress support aid. Stand fast; the majority or almost every Democrat supports aid.

So I would put this in part on Mr. Johnson and on Mr. Trump, that this continues to be blocked despite overwhelming support. I also have to put part of the blame on the (Biden) administration, though. The administration has not made this a priority in terms of public communications of explaining why it’s in America’s interest.

And so because the president has failed to talk about Ukraine winning and why it’s in our interest, it’s good for America. He left the door open for the right-wing extremists in American politics to grab the narrative, to make, turn this into a choice somehow about America’s southern border vs. helping Ukraine case. This is surprising for the president, who has 50 years of political experience, to have failed. He and his team have failed to make the case. And I think that’s partly why we are where we are.

Eventually, they’ll find workarounds. And also, frankly, Europe is a part of this as well. The Europeans have been as slow or slower than the U.S. to deliver things that are out there. You know, President (Petr) Pavel, the Czech Republic, the other day, of course, you know, he announced 800,000 rounds. Some of that may start to show up in a few weeks. This is a year too late. Not too late. It’s a year late. But I do think that finally, the big wheels of industry are turning and they’re finding ammunition and they’re finding the political will to get it there. So we’ll be in a better place, at least logistically, by, I don’t know, I don’t want to put a date on it, but in the next few months.

Brian Bonner: Let’s hope so. As you can see, Russia is taking advantage of the delays. They’re on them, taking advantage. They’re moving ahead. Do you assess that they can make a big breakthrough?

Ben Hodges: Well, of course, they have untrained bodies. That’s why they have such huge casualties because they just push people into the meat grinder and they’ve got artillery ammunition.

And so this is old-fashioned attrition, an attempt to overwhelm Ukrainian defenders with mass. And so that’s going to continue. But that’s different from breakthroughs. I mean, I don’t see that they have a large mobile formation that could exploit what they accomplished at Avdiivka. That could then get on the move and start heading towards Kharkiv or Kyiv or other major cities in the way that the old Soviet doctrine with operational maneuver groups.

Because that would require trained armored formations without the necessary logistics to keep them going. I’m not sure that that’s there, even if they continue to achieve local tactical successes in different places. I could be wrong, but I haven’t seen evidence that they’ve got this big formation that could do that.

Brian Bonner: Let’s hope you’re right. Finally, do you agree that the $60 billion is basically just enough to keep Ukraine in the fight for another year? It’s not enough to turn the tide.

Ben Hodges: Well, the problem is, with all these aid packages, they’re not tied to a strategy. I, here’s our objective, what do you need? We’re going to provide what’s needed. Instead, the supporters are doing what they can to get aid, but we have not organized for victory. And, you know, what’s happening, Russia’s attack on Ukraine is part of a larger global challenge that the U.S. and our allies face. You’ve got Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Hamas’ attack on Israel. That was not a coincidence.

This is Iran, Russia’s best ally, supporting Hamas and also with the Houthis in the Red Sea. This is all about Iran. So that’s another part of a strategic hole. And then, of course, China’s watching to see if we have the political will, the industrial capacity, and the military capability to address these challenges—the way the allies did in the Second World War.

And I think this is where we should think strategically and say, okay, we have to address all these. Let’s get organized. Russia first, just the way Churchill and Roosevelt said Germany first in 1942. Russia first, and then Iran is isolated, and China will be deterred because they’re like, whoa, the West does have the ability to do that. But instead what you hear about is we’re with you for as long as it takes. Nobody even believes that anymore. And because we don’t have a strong narrative about our strategic approach, you’ve got extremists who are able to grab the narrative in an election year. And the Russians, of course, exploit the hell out of this.


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