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), granted an interview to Belsat TV host Alina Koushyk.
Russia’s pressure on Belarus is prompting the USA and other countries to be more active, LTG (Ret.) Hodges notes. According to him, the Kremlin would pay a high diplomatic and economic price if it occupied Belarus. Is the country’s sharing the Crimean fate really imminent? What way can the US help Alyaksandr Lukashenka rebuff Russia’s threat? Do the military crave for waging wars? What conclusions can one draw from the Russian history?
Alina Koushyk: General Hodges, thank you very much for finding time for us.
Ben Hodges: This is very important to speak with the professional journalists, you have an important job. Free media is necessary to challenge in shedding light on what is going on helping educate the public.
Last year, many made notice of stepping up of the US-Belarus relations. Does Washington have any military and security interests there?
The interest of the United State in Belarus is not about the military, the interest of the US has always been in seeing people being free, enjoying liberty, seeing young people develop their potential and we have always believed that open societies always generate better economic potential. So, that is the principal interest. I was very happy that former Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell came to Belarus; he believes – and I completely agree – that even with nations you may have disagreements about certain things, foreign policies, it is worth trying to have relationship.
We have watched Belarus President Lukashenka talk about independence, sovereignty, the lack of alternative sources of energy.
I heard him publicly say ‘thank you Russia, but we don’t need your help, we can defend ourselves’.
These are important steps. And I think the West is more secure when we do not have Russian Federation troops based in Belarus. So, if President Lukashenka is able to withstand the pressure to allow them to be stationed in Belarus, it lowers the threat concerns of Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine. I think that is a good thing. If we can find a way to do this without Russia thinking we are trying to pull Belarus away, it is about choice that Belarus has to made, that s not true at all! But if we can help with economic support, investments, other normalizing relations, then maybe President Lukashenka can withstand that pressure.
Do you believe Belarus can defend itself?
I think it would be very difficult if Russia decided to use force in some way to occupy Belarus. I mean that would make it impossible for any other countries in Europe that try to apologize for Russia saying Russia is misanderstood we need to work with them. If Russian did that in Belarus the way it did in Ukraine, it would be very very difficult for European countries to maintain normal ties with Russia. So, I think Russia will pay quite a price economically and diplomatically, if they do that.
Do you believe that Ukrainian scenario is real in Belarus?
Of course, absolutely. By the way, it is a big difference between being ‘possible’ and ‘likely’. As for the possibility – they built infrastructure there, inside Belarus, and they have bases on the border of Belarus. My study of Russian history for the last three hundred years tells me they would not hesitate to use force, if they told they needed to.
Russia is pushing Belarus towards closer integration, which many call ‘incorporation’. Is stepping up of the US-Belarus relations linked with this process?
No, I don’t think we do this as a reaction to what Russia is doing. Russia’s pressure is what calls us to be more active, to do more. Of course, it is not just the United States, I mean other countries as well. China invested significantly into Belarus. Before Secretary Mitchell arrived in Minsk (I think it was a week before you had the Munich Security Conference Core Group meeting), the fact that we all have to think of the Minsk process, Minsk Agreement was very impressive. Germany and France have worked hard to come up with an agreement between Ukraine, Russian-led separatists and Russians. This is important for Belarus.
I was in the army for 37 years. No soldier wants conflict. Nobody wants peace and stability more than the military. I am trying to be realistic about what the possibilities are. I do believe that Russia respects strength and despises weakness. And so, sticking together in the West, we can actually prepare normal relationships. If we look weak or fractured, Russia exploits that. It is in the interest of the West that Belarus is able to maintain a degree of independence and sovereignty, even though it has very strong economic and cultural ties with Russia.
The interview was part of Belsat TV show ‘World and Us’ 25.10.2019