Belarus has recently lifted a cap on the number of US diplomats allowed in the country. In November 2018, Wess A. Mitchell, a top US diplomat on Europe, and a group of American security experts visited Minsk. Belsat TV host Syarhei Pelyasa has interviewed 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), who was among them. What was he doing on the bank of the Berezina? What are his impressions of meetings with president Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Belarusian ministers?
Some years ago, CEPA was among the first thinktanks to focus on the issue of the so-called Suwalki corridor. Now we are talking in Vilnius, it is just a few dozen kilometres from the place that plays a crucial role in the security of the region. You visited Belarus; in your opinion, does it pose a threat to NATO countries and Suwalki corridor in particular?
I was so happy to get my first opportunity to finally visit Belarus in November, see this beautiful country, meet people – not just in the government, but also private citizens. It was a great emotional experience, which was also good for my education. I was fortunate to be with the group of other American security experts, we were able to visit, spend time talking to officials in the ministry of defense, ministry of foreign affairs and of course, I had the great privilege to meet president Lukashenka. I also had a chance to visit couple of historical places that was special for me – the crossing site of Berezina river where Napoleon’s army was trying to retreat, and Polish and Lithuanian troops and Swiss troops [were screening them].
I wonder why you opted for this very place…
I am a little bit of a history nerd. I like to find places where soldiers or leaders do things that are examples of innovation taking risk, great courage or small group of soldiers changes the upcome.
I collected a stone from the place to use it as an example with my soldiers, to say this is an example of courage innovation and so on.
And of course, there were so many stories around the river crossing that I wanted to see the place.
I broke in when you were sharing impressions of your stay in Belarus…
No problem. The other was the museum of the Great Patriotic war. I was blown away with the quality of the museum exhibits, especially the exhibits on the partisans – men and women of Belarus had done fighting. It was inspirational. I really enjoyed my visit to the museum.
What impressed me was Belarus’ determination to learn to be self-reliant and sovereign, to continue demonstrating it.
Belarus does not have to make a choice between the West and Russia. I mean the historical and ciltural ties, not just economic. Nobody in the West is trying to create a separation. nothing good will come out of there.
I was impressed with the attitudes that I heard about self-reliance and sovereignty. You mentioned the Suwalki corridor; the fact that Belarus has managed to tell the Russian Federation ‘we can defend ourselves, we do not need Russian troops here’ is very important and it reduces the risk of a confrontation for everybody. Belarus helps to proteсt a big part of Ukraine’s border as well by no Russian troops being there.
In an interview with Russian media, Belarusian Defense Minister Andrey Raukou said that there was no need to respond to would-be establishing Fort Trump in Poland and that no one was going to deploy a US division, but a brigade group. He is aware of the latest information provided by Western analysts, including CEPA.
Nobody should be surprised that the defense minister would be well-informed. I had the priviledge to meet the Defense Minister and Belarus is well served by him, just as Belarus is well served by very skilled diplomats and the Minister of Foreign Affairs as well.
Minister of Defense is correct: I mean there is no need for a reaction to Polish offer, The US is studying the proposal.
Poland is a great ally of us, but this is obvious – whatever NATO has in Poland, Lithuania is a zero threat to Belarus. There were invited there because people do not trust the Russian Federation leadership. That’ is why they are there; that is why Belarus’ maintaining its sovereignty and self-reliance is such a good thing for stability and security in the whole region.
Most meetings in Minsk were held behind closed doors. I realize that the details are off the record, but could you share your impressions of meetings with Lukashenka and the ministers? Do you trust them when they talk about security issues?
I departed Belarus with great appreciation for the strategic challenge that the government has. I was impressed with the repeated determination ‘We are sovereign self-reliant, we do not need Russian troops here to defend us’ that impressed me. And again, I was not surprised, but impressed with professionalism and intellect of the Foreign Minister and the Defense Minister.
Photo: Krystian Dobuszynski / NurPhoto via ZUMA Press / FORUM