Ben Hodges, a former commanding general (United States Army Europe) and currently Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) has granted an interview to Belsat TV host Syarhei Pelyasa.
Is it possible that a war in Europe will start? How might it happen?
The biggest risk is a miscalculation by Russia that the NATO will not respond or that we cannot move fast to prevent them. If they believe that they can move faster than us in all domains, there is a risk that they will take a shot.
Could Russia launch the Crimean scenario (annexation) in Belarus?
I don’t know how real the possibility is. It appears that Belarus has attempted to push back on Russia, i.e. to not allow to deploy its base so far, even if Russia would very much like to do that. But of course, Belarus is so dependent on Russian economy, Russian energy sources, they are in a very difficult position. I think the West should be doing everything we can to support Belarus’ efforts for democracy, economy, to give them an option other than total suppression by Russia. This is important for Poland and Lithuania, but it is also important for Ukraine. Belarus has told Ukraine they will not let Russia invade Ukraine through its territory, this is important for the entire region.
We saw some neighbouring countries starting to distance themselves from Russian influence (Georgia, Ukraine), and the Kremlin’s answer was aggression. Will Russian green men come to Belarus if it opts for a democratic way?
Russia’s security depends on insecurity of the periphery. The last thing Russia wants to see is free nations with good economy, with people making their choices and having rising economic prosperity. Russia does not want them on the border because then their own people will start to think why life is so much better in Poland, Lithuania, Georgia, etc. But it is not the 18th or 19th century, when great powers had games trading away sovereignty of other countries for their own benefit. In modern times, nations get to choose, so the people of Belarus get to choose what kind of government or economy they want to have, and I think we should continue supporting those efforts while respecting Russian sovereignty but not accepting Russia’s disrespect for the sovereignty of its neighbours.
Unfortunately, US and Belarus have very limited diplomatic relations. As one of CEPA directors, which sources do you use to find information about the latest developments in Belarus in the field of security?
You are exactly right, we don’t know a lot about what is going on inside Belarus but I hope this will change in the coming months. More and more people are realizing that many Belarusians are looking westward. On any weekend, thousands of Belarusian women come to Vilnius to do shopping – they can feel how much better life is in a free democratic market economy. But they are still under such intensive pressure. I am anxious to go there myself; hopefully, in the near future I will have an opportunity to understand better what the dynamics are. I had some opportunities to speak with Belarusians including ambassadors, and they were anxious to talk about [joint military exercises] Zapad for example. They were the one to call for transparency, not the Russian Federation.
Let’s hypothesize: what will be the US response to Russia’s annexation of Belarus?
I could not speculate on how the US might react, this is hypothetical. I have no special insight that Russia plans to do this. Certainly, I hope they will not do that, it would be really significant and unnecessary escalation of tensions. Russia would have everything to lose; it would be impossible for Western countries to deal economically with Russia, I hope. If Russia violated the sovereignty of another nation the way they did in Ukraine, the EU would put sanctions in place. If Russia was dismissive of that and annex or invade another country, how could the world stand by? The risk is Russia might think that people will not do something about that. So, it is important the EU and other international bodies continue to make it clear that it is unacceptable to use force changing sovereign borders of European nations.
Belarusian opposition politician and former serviceman Mikalai Statkevich believes that deploying a US base to Poland will give Russia an opening to place its base in Belarus. He urges the US not to take such a step until Russia deploys its military base to Belarus. In his opinion, the vision of the US building up its military presence in Poland is enough to keep the Kremlin at bay. What do you think about that?
Poland, a terrific ally, they have done everything what should be done in terms of their own defense – modernization, continuing to improve quality of their military capabilities, cooperation, providing leadership. And this offer of Poland to the US [locating a US military base in its territory] is another example of a good ally willing to invest in deterrence It is important that the US take all things into consideration. As you may know, the US Congress passed in the latest defense authorization act which is now law a requirement for the Depatment of Defense to conduct a study of this offer, and they have to give its report no later than 1 March, 2019. The law specifies that the department’s study must take into account the impact on NATO, and this is the key. What is the impact on the cohesion of our alliance of putting in a permanent base in Poland? For sure, Russia will respond. My record is clear – I am not scared of the provocation of Russia. But the fact is that all of our allies will have to deal with the consequences. Whatever this response may be, all of our allies will have to deal with it. So, I think it is important that the US do the diplomatic work with all the allies to bring them along, to make the case. If this is the right thing to do, it will be so much more powerful if you have all of the alliance in support of this, similar to a very important historic step that was taken right here in Warsaw in 2016 at the NATO summit with the decision of all 28 nations to deploy Enhanced Forward Presence battle groups to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. That was so powerful! And we barely heard a pip from Russia because you had the entire alliance together.
But Warsaw said it was not enough to defend Poland…
But my point is the cohesion of the alliants that guarantees everybody’s security; so maintaining the cohesion of the alliants is critical. The study the Department of Defense will do requires to take into account impact on the alliants. I think that is the right strategic thing to do. They may determine – yes, so move forward in practical things to work on preserving the cohesion of our alliants. It will always be on the front of my mind to guarantee everybody’s security. On any given day more than 1,000 American soldiers are in Poland already – rotational forces, logisticians, rotational armour aviation, headquarters, soon we’ ll have missile defense So, there is already very strong US presence in Poland on a rotational basis. I understand why people want to have a permanent structure. I think there are probably ways to give improved sense of security but also without creating consequences that all of our allies will be forced to deal with unless we put them together.
You said soon there would anti-missile defense here; could you please specify?
Few years ago the US, Romania and Poland made a decision to place what we call Aegis Ashore systems. These are naval missile defense systems that are to be based on the ground instead of on a ship in Romania and Poland to protect allies from missile launches out of Iran. They are not adequate if there is a serious missile strike from Russia, to counter Russian threat, but they still represent a significant investment by the US.
How do you feel about the recent military simulation presented by defence24.pl, i.e. Russian army’s conceivable attack on Poland via the territory of Belarus?
Certainly, that is why Belarus is so important for all of us – it is a place that touches multiple NATO countries as well as our friend Ukraine, and this is why it is under such pressure from Russia. I do not know whether there is likelihood of the attack like this, but I do know that the more prepared we are, the more united and cohesed the alliance is, the less likely it is that russia will ever make that terrible miscalculation.
Did the US consider Belarus’ accession to NATO after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Is it possible now?
I have never heard about Belarus wanted to be part of NATO or EU, of course, Russia did not want that, but I think it is in a long-term interest of Belarus to figure out how to unleash the talent of the young people in a free and open society.
In your opinion, does the Belarusian nuclear power plant that is being built in Astravets with the help of Russia pose a threat to EU and NATO countries?
The danger is if you are not entirely sure about its safety. The other part that would concern me is a scenario of an accident: Russia comes with military forces, as they have done before, under the pretence of humanitarian purposes to secure the region, and then change the facts on the ground. I think Western neighbours should pay attention to this; it does not mean it is going to happen,but I think everybody should watch it closely.
Belsat.eu, picture by Reuters