The Russians are unlikely to be able to stop Ukraine’s decisive offensive on Kherson.
A retired American lieutenant general, former commander of US forces in Europe, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ben Hodges, in an interview with Charter97.org, assessed the situation on the fronts in Ukraine and the prospects for the Lukashenka regime.
— In the recent days, Lukashenka made a direct threat to the West, "They [the West] must understand that if they opt for escalation no helicopters or planes will save them," and then he added that "everything is ready", implying that Belarusian warplanes have been modified to carry nuclear weapons. Do statements like that bring the nuclear conflict one step closer, or it as just a bluff?
— First of all, it's irresponsible for Mr. Lukashenka to use language like that. It's unnecessary and it's also empty. When he talks about escalation, the West has not escalated — Russia is, who invaded Ukraine with Mr. Lukashenka's government. So, the notion that it's escalation by the West is empty rhetoric.
Secondly, I don't believe it for a second. The idea, that somehow air force from Belarus would carry a nuclear weapon to help Russia, seems to me so entirely unlikely, and I would expect that people of Belarus would rise up in a way to prevent that. I think also, people around Lukashenka know that it would be suicide for Belarus to participate in any sort of nuclear strike because the US and UK would not be able to stand by, they would have to respond to any use of nuclear weapons. So that's why I think it's very unlikely.
And then finally I say, it's irresponsible also given the reckless behavior of Russian troops around the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP) to talk about somehow using nuclear weapons while hundreds of millions of people are already concerned about the danger from ZNPP, is further reckless behavior by Mr. Lukashenka.
But he is continuing to play his game, trying to satisfy Moscow without having to actually do anything. I think this is part of that game.
— Looking from the Western and the Ukrainian side, as a general rule, Ukraine avoids open strikes on Russian territory. Does it seem to you as a correct strategy of not provoking Putin or is it too much reticence to him?
— I think there's been too much talk from the US and other Western capitals about not provoking the Kremlin or risking escalation to World War III. I think, we've seen that Russia is incapable of doing that with anything other than a nuclear weapon. And I don't believe it's plausible or likely that Russia would use a nuclear weapon inside Ukraine for the reasons I've already given.
I think that as far as Ukraine hitting targets inside Russia, certainly, if Russian aircrafts are taking off from an airfield inside Russia and murdering innocent Ukrainian civilians with missiles launched from inside Russia, then the Ukrainian General Staff, I think, could legitimately hit those targets. Of course, they'll have to make a political calculation about what would be the other effects of that, but in terms of a legitimate target those can be hit. And I would say also, and this would be a decision for Ukraine, if Russian aircraft taking off of Belarus and murdering innocent Ukrainian civilians then, I think, those become legitimate targets, but that that'll be a decision for Ukrainian General Staff.
I would expect that most people of Belarus are not happy that Russian aircrafts are flying out of Belarus and killing innocent Ukrainian civilians.
— The information about Kherson is very limited but could you explain why the events there are significant and which are things to watch for?
— We don't have a lot of information about what's happening in Kherson but we should not have a lot of information. The Ukrainian General Staff is doing a very good job protecting information, what we call OPSEC, operational security, because if we know it then the Russians would know it.
I think the Ukrainian General Staff has done a good job the last few weeks of setting the conditions, what we call shaping operations, setting the conditions for a counter offensive, whenever they're ready: destroying Russian logistics, destroying Russian headquarters, destroying Russian airfields and lines of communication, destroying Russian artillery and rockets and destroying bridges that would help Russian across the Dnipro River in and around Kherson. So, these are all important steps that have been taken. You'd also seen, partisan and special forces attacks against different infrastructure inside the occupied areas to include the assassination, for example, of the top collaborator in Kherson. I think we are going to see more and more of these things, which create fear, confusion in the rear, and we should watch for this. There's not enough of Russian forces to protect their own rear area. And so, this is an important part of Ukraine's preparation.
I would suspect, I don't know this, but I would suspect that they have also been building up forces for use in an eventual counter attack, resisting the temptation to push every new thing into the fight instead to marshal these forces, have them prepared for when it was time to launch when the conditions were right (and only the Ukrainian general staff will know when it's right for that). So, I think we're seeing probably something like this, but we won't know for, I think, a few more days.
Why is this significant? Number one, Kherson was the first capital city of an Oblast, that was captured. And we saw what Russia intends to do – they Russify everything: the ruble, the language, the culture. They’re eliminating every aspect of Ukrainian culture that they could and putting their own people in place. So, it's important to reverse that and especially to do this before any bogus referendum about the status of Kherson Oblast.
Secondly, potentially, thousands of Russian troops will be captured or destroyed inside this sort of pocket if Ukraine wants to do this. This would be a major blow to Russian forces and it would be impossible for the Kremlin to come up with a fairytale to explain it. You could be sure that Russian troops that are trapped in Kherson will not fight the way Ukrainian soldiers in Mariupol did — this will be a comparison of the fighting will and capabilities.
Third, if Kherson is eliminated as a Russian pocket, then the Ukrainians will have the ability to move HIMARS and other rocket launchers further to the East, much closer to Crimea. And so now you can envision the possibility of daily attacks on all the infrastructure, including the port in Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula. That will really make it very difficult for Russia to operate out of Crimea. The Black Sea Fleet is already hiding behind the peninsula and Ukraine does not even have a Navy. This [capture of Kherson] will make it very difficult for the Russians. And for sure you will not see any more Russian vacationers at the beach in Crimea
— Why do you think it's a difficult for Russia to draft 137,000 people to the war (as you've mentioned in one of your recent interviews)?
— First of all, I never believe any number that comes from Russia. The numbers for decades that they have reported how many troops they have, have always been inflated by 20-30%, false numbers all the time. This is a classic method of corruption — to claim more soldiers to draw salary, and then you pocket the difference. So, I don't believe any number.
Secondly, they already cannot fill the units that they have. There's no Russian unit that's full. So where are they going to get 137,000 new fresh bodies to step forward?
Yes, Russia has a population somewhere between 130 and 140 million. It's a shrinking population. It's not a healthy population. many young people are trying to get out of there. You notice that almost nobody comes [to the war] from Moscow or St. Petersburg. All the casualties come from ethnic regions outside of the two major Russian cities, because nobody wants to be in the Russian military. You saw the same videos I did of the people at the beach in Crimea. I saw a lot of young, healthy, fit people. Why were they not joined in the army if Crimea is holy land for them?
This is why I don't believe that they will ever be able to get that many people. And actually, I don't think they even intend to get that many people. It shows some of the confusion, I think, of what's going on inside the Kremlin.
All of us have seen videos about the terrible quality of the helmet that a Russian soldier carries, the terrible conditions, the inability of Russian logistics system to provide food and ammunition for their soldiers, medical care. If we see that, then the Russians are seeing that too and families are not going to want their son be put in that kind of a situation. So, that's another reason why I don't think we are going to see a lot of volunteers.
— What are your expectations of how this conflict will look like in the next six months?
— Because of the terrible logistics, Russians are exhausted. They cannot sustain any offensive operations. I don't think they are going to be able to stop a determined Ukrainian attack as long as the West sticks with Ukraine. I believe that we are going to see Russian forces pushed all the way back to the 23 February line by the end of this year. Think of the map: after six months with all the advantages and all of Russia's supposed military capability, look at the tiny little sliver of Ukraine that they control. And it's getting smaller. So, I think it is entirely plausible, that Ukraine pushes Russia back to the 23 February line by the end of this year.
And I believe that we will see Crimea return to Ukrainian sovereignty probably next year sometime with combination of military and diplomatic efforts. President Zelensky said, "This thing started with Crimea and it's going to end with Crimea." And I think that's exactly what all the Ukrainian people believe.
And I would say that the Lukashenka regime right now probably realizes that they handcuff themselves to a corpse; that they are probably trying to figure out how do they survive while getting some more distance yeah from the Kremlin.