A line of men are shown wearing Ukrainian military fatigues and holding flag poles.

Ukrainian army veterans attend a rally marking Defender of Ukraine Day in Kyiv, Ukraine, Oct. 14, 2020.

Credit:

Efrem Lukatsky/AP

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine started more than seven years ago when Russia annexed the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula. Now, the two countries are at war in eastern Ukraine.

The so-called “frozen conflict” has heated up again. Fighting is escalating in eastern Ukraine despite a ceasefire, and there have been reports of military buildup in Crimea and on the Russian side of the border. Host Carol Hills speaks with Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, the commanding general of the US Army in Europe until 2017.

TRANSCRIPT:

Carol Hills:
For the past seven years, Russia and Ukraine have been engaged in what's called a 'frozen conflict.' Now it’s heating up again. Fighting is escalating in eastern Ukraine despite a cease fire. There have also been reports of military buildup on the Russian side of the border. Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges was the commanding general of the US Army in Europe until 2017. He's now retired and is with the Center for European Policy Analysis, and he joins us from Frankfurt, Germany.

Gen. Hodges, earlier this week, the US military's European Command raised its watch level from possible crisis to potential imminent crisis in response to Russia's deployment of additional troops near its border with Ukraine. What does that change in status mean?

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges:
Well, what it would most likely mean, and of course, some of the specific steps that would be taken would not be something I'd want to discuss in public, but the kind of things it would mean would be increased patrolling by air and naval forces, increased focus of intelligence collection on certain areas, also a heightened awareness, if you will, inside not only the US headquarters that are around Europe, but also even within the embassies to be paying attention to what's going on out there. And just also, I believe, is a test of the new Biden administration to see if the Biden administration is serious about Ukrainian sovereignty.

Carol Hills:
So in your opinion, how worried should Ukrainians and by extension, Europe be by what looks like a Russian escalation?

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges:
Well, I think the Ukrainians are worried that, frankly, Germany and France have not done enough to put pressure on the Kremlin to follow international law. And I really do believe that the Germans and the French have got to be the lead here. The Germans and the French are the ones that are involved in the formal Normandy format, which is intended to bring about a peaceful resolution of the fighting in eastern Ukraine. And they, frankly, don't seem to do a whole lot to put any pressure on the Kremlin. So Ukrainians are wondering, can they really count on European friends to help?

Carol Hills:
Now, Ukraine is not part of NATO, however, the US provides Ukraine with lethal weapons and helps train Ukrainian forces. You are part of that effort in the past. Would the US aid Ukraine if its sovereignty is threatened by Russia?

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges:
Well, that's a great question. And of course, the administration has not specified what it means when it says Ukrainian sovereignty is a priority. But I would anticipate there would be all sorts of calls for diplomatic pressure, condemnation — but something that hurts.

Carol Hills:
Can you ever imagine a situation where there would be US boots on the ground should there be a lot more escalation from Russia?

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges:
Well, of course, we do have — technically — boots on the ground out in western Ukraine at the training area in Yavoriv, near the city of Lviv — almost 200 Americans and about 150 Canadians. But I know what you really mean is actually being involved in conflict. I can imagine it, but I don't see it as likely. I think we would do everything we could first to try and support Ukrainian sovereignty short of deploying troops there. And I think that's what the Kremlin, you know, their own calculus is like, OK, how far can we go before the US really does do something, whether it's militarily or economically?

Carol Hills:
Well, I think after Russia's successful takeover of Crimea, is there a situation where anyone would really intervene on behalf of Ukraine in a direct way? I mean, that seems like this kind of awful lesson. Russia can just kind of do what it wants.

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges:
Yeah, you're exactly right. We continue, and I say ‘we,’ this is the collective West, not just the United States, we continue to allow ourselves to be surprised that the Russians would actually use force against a European country. And we should stop being surprised that they only respect strength. We've got to push back. That's why even though some people wet themselves when President Biden said, yes, of course, Putin's a killer, that's exactly what needs to be done. And of course, you got to back that up.

Carol Hills:
Now, my final question is, if you were on the National Security Council advising President Biden on the Ukraine crisis, what advice would you give him?

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges:
So three things. First of all, be very clear to the Kremlin that what's going on is unacceptable. You have to say things very clearly in a very public way. Number two, need to announce that we are developing a strategy for the entire Black Sea region, that it is strategically vital to the United States and to our allies and that we're going to put resources on that strategy. So to tell them, we're not just going to sit back and shake a fist at them. And then the third thing is I would advise the president that he needs to call up Chancellor Merkel and President Macron tonight and say, OK, you two have got to put pressure on Putin and get him in line.

Carol Hills:
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges was the commanding general of the US Army in Europe until 2017. He's been speaking to us from Europe about the escalating military tension between Russia and Ukraine. Thanks a lot.

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges:
Thank you for the privilege.

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