US gen, military expert Ben Hodges: ‘Russia should make Lukashenka stop’ (interview)

We, the West, should be prepared for the Lukashenka regime’s collapse,” said the American general, who visited Belarus and met with its leader in 2018. How has his attitude to the situation in our country changed? What Belarusian issues are the Pentagon’s matter of concern and what scenarios should the West consider? What are the odds of the migration crisis’ turning into a military conflict? One can find the answers in Belsat TV anchorman Siarhei Pelesa’s interview with US Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ben Hodges, who previously commanded US forces in Iraq and Europe. Currently, he holds a key position in the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

S.P.: Is Belarus in the sphere of Russian interests or not according to the U.S.?

B.H.: Yes, Belarus is entirely in the sphere of what Russia claims as its area of influence. It is a frontier almost. Integration of Belarusian militaries with Russian militaries is almost total. The air defense network of Belarus is integrated with Russian air defense and so Russia, the Kremlin, pays very close attention to what happens in Belarus.

S.P.: How has the perception of the situation around Belarus, I mean your perception, changed since you visited my country and met Lukashenka? It was about three years ago.

B.H.: I have to say I’m very disappointed. I’m not naive. When I was there three years ago I had some hope that I was hearing and seeing from the government was a desire to maintain sovereignty, independence. I mean Lukashenka even said: “We do not need Russian missiles, we can defend ourselves”. I was hopeful that sort of construct would remain but couple of things have happened in the last two years. That had, I’m afraid, change the dynamics in a way that people are no longer deceived that Lukashenka, number one – fraud the elections, treatment of the protesters who challenged the legitimacy of the elections. I mean the brutality and imprisonment of so many people. That got everybody changing. The second thing was seizure or forced landing of the Ryanair flight where the journalists, young man, was pulled out of the airplane. That was shocking, I think, to everybody. Obviously it was intended signal to any other opposition people outside Belarus that they could be grabbed. The third thing was your Olympic athlete, world-class athlete was treated so that she sought asylum here in Poland. Those three things have put it in a different category. So to say as willing to believe Belarus is trying to maintain some sort of independence. .

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S.P.: This question is about the border crisis. How do you see the situation on the border of Belarus with the European Union in the context of this migration crisis last few months?

B.H.: This border crisis added to the scepticism about the people of the regime in Minsk. I mean, how cruel to use people as a weapon to undermine the European Union as well as to undermine Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Latvia. This is not an isolated thing. This is part of an overall effort by Lukashenka. But also he would not be doing it without Kremlin’s permission because nothing flies in there without Kremlin knowing about it. As I said the air defense network is so integrated. So there is no way this is happening without Kremlin’s at least tacit support. I think, we in the West have got to have a better messaging. Right now it looks like cruelty.

S.P.: What to do with that? What can you advise to the European Union?

B.H.: The European Union has the economic power and the diplomatic power if it gets all of its members together to tell the Kremlin: “You need to make him stop!” That is not happening not in a forceful way. So Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, which are defending the frontier, that is the sovereign boundary of the European Union. It looks to me they have been left on their own. I mean there have been some statements from Brussels, but nothing powerful, nothing of the messaging. So you have got people inside Poland, inside other countries, that are complaining that somehow Polish Armed Forces are being cruel or something like that. That is not the case. Of course, there is an effort in Iraq to turn it off at the source. Again the EU has the economic and diplomatic power to make this happen. But I think, in the first few months the nation’s have been left on their own.

S.P.: Is this crisis or how it is officially called Lukashenka’s hybrid activities, have the potential to develop into something more dangerous, dangerous enough to make it worrying about in the Pentagon?

B.H.: Look, this weaponization of the refugees happens during the same time with Zapad exercise. That is not accident. I mean that all of these things are parts of Russia’s new generation warfare. Some people call it hybrid, some people call it is below the line. Regardless… It demonstrates that Russians always have war, not necessarily that means only cinetic, but their mindset always at war we were not. We do not have that mindset. I can not believe how cruel to do that. They do not have a problem doing it. Until we get the same mindset, it is not just a competition, no kidding. They want to destabilize and undermine all of our institutions and split to create the problems between the allies. That is a war. We have got to get the same mindset. Yes, the Pentagon is worrying about that.

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S.P.: There are thousands of American soldiers here in Poland. Do you think there is a danger that this crisis may draw into something more serious? I mean maybe not open war but border incidents, shooting, provocations? Do you think American troops can be involved in this somehow? It sounds unlikely but different things happen in history.

B.H.: I never met anyone who predicted that Russia will invade Georgia, Crimea, all these things. I mean I live in Germany and people are constantly amazing why would the Russians do this? It makes no sense. Of course, it makes no sense from my prospective but if you look from their prospective it is normal business for them. Constantly undermining, constantly threatening, constantly using force and gas, threat of nuclear strikes to intimidate people across the border. Their leadership openly talks about Poland, Ukraine, Georgia as even not rogue countries but “ours”. This is how it is done. Too many people in western Europe are not willing to believe that. That is why we are getting surprised. Do I anticipate that there will be large open cinetic conflict? No. We want to keep it unlikely. The way you keep it unlikely is the coordination with NATO, with all our partners inseparable that there is no doubt we are committed to each other. Civilian leaders demonstrating that we are prepared to do what is necessary. We have to fight in the information space, in the diplomatic space and legal space. We have to fight there. It is the right term fight. Otherwise there is a potential for terrible miscalculation about Kremlin.

S.P.: My last question about Lukashenka and Putin, about the integration between Russia and Belarus. What do you think about it? How do you assess the relations between Lukashenka and Putin now after failed Belarusian revolution? Do you think Washington is seriously considering full-fledged Russian military presence in Belarus near future?

B.H.: I think that has always been my concern that you would have Russian forces permanently stationed in Belarus because it raises the risks for Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and also for Ukraine. That is a concern. I have always been of a mind that whatever it takes to work with the regime of Lukashenka enough for him to feel that he can keep Russian permanent presence out. I’m less confident that he is going to do it in the future. I mean Lukashenka has been in Russia six times already this year, two times, I think, just in the last month. He has no other ways to go obviously. I mean he did not have a lot of other options. I think, we, the West, should be prepared, we should be thinking through what happens if, I’m not sure it is going to happen, there is a collapse. I mean East Berlin has collapsed and surprised everybody. Other places also collapsed.

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S.P.: The migration crisis was also a surprise.

B.H.: Exactly. Have we thought what happens if there was either annexation by Russia or Lukashenka’s regime collapses in the event if high-level officials defect, break away or do something? Are we prepared for that? Whether it is a massive movement of citizens in Belarus or massive deployment of Russian troops or some other thing that happens. Nuclear power plant in Astravets – the Lithuanians understandably are very concerned about it. So there is a lot of things to consider. Have we planned for that?

S.P.: I think that last 15-20 years shows that Putin acts everywhere where he has support for his actions – southern Ossetia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine, Transnistria. However, I’m sure, they knew it in Kremlin, there is no high-level of support for integration in Belarusian society – last elections shown it. That is why I think they will try to enter softly, step by step.

B.H.: Yes, I would agree with You. This is not about trying to pull Belarus to the West. It is about protecting European citizens, their safety, their health, their freedom. I think we should be prepared to help without trying to cause something.

S.P.: Sir, I have a small gift for you. It is a chevron of Belarusian Armed Forces in the beginning of nineties when Belarus was free. I hope one day under this white-red-white flag, which is a part of the U.S. flag as you know, we will be allies of the United States as our neighbors are – Ukraine, Baltic states and Poland.

B.H.: Thank you very much. That is really cool!

The interview was part of the episode of Belsat TV news show Prasviet (World and Us). 14.10.21

Photo: Kacper Pempel / Reuters / Forum