Will Putin Start a Nuclear War? – Interview With Ben Hodges
Putin is unlikely to use nuclear weapons, and mobilization in Russia won’t be a game-changer, Retired U.S. General Ben Hodges has said in an interview with Tetiana Popova. He added that big changes are likely to take place in Russia soon, with the main one being regime change.
Read the full interview below:
Hi General! Thank you for agreeing to this interview. The first question: about two years ago, you told me in the interview that the territories from Mariupol to Crimea were under special threat, and that Putin was interested in this particular land corridor to Crimea and water supply to Crimea. In his speech on Oct. 14 Putin confirmed, “We needed that corridor and water.”
Thus, from the very beginning this was the price for the operation while Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkiv were just a distraction, just a second variant the Ukrainian army should pay attention to. Is it true?
Yes, I think for sure the priority has always been Crimea, to ensure access to Crimea and the sustainability of Crimea. Water, land access – all of these are a priority for the Kremlin so that they can maintain the illegal possession of the Crimean Peninsula.
But after all, the officers who were in Kyiv (I don’t know if you read this in the Washington Post) – they wrote about the FSB officer who was responsible for the operation, who was in Kyiv Region, and he even tried to choose a flat in Kyiv Region with a good view, and some officers were wearing suits for the parade. Were they not aware? Were they misled about the real goal of the operation?
No, in Kyiv. We know the stories that Russian officers and soldiers were preparing for a parade in Kyiv.
Yeah, OK. Look, for sure the Kremlin made several strategic miscalculations. They wanted to destroy Ukraine as a state, they wanted to destroy the idea of Ukraine as a state. But they had a real objective of course, to get Crimea and to ensure the sustainability of Crimea, but in fact to also get rid of Ukraine or get rid of the government of President Zelensky and get some idea that they would be more amenable, let’s say. That would have been the outcome. The first miscalculation that the Kremlin made was that they had huge advantage over Ukraine, what we call force advantage, and that they would be able to accomplish all of their military tasks in just a few days, almost like Budapest or Prague during the Cold War. That’s what they expected. The second miscalculation that they made, of course, was that the West would not care, because we had shown that we were not willing to do much after Georgia, after Crimea, after Syria and so they probably thought that we would continue to not react very strongly. The third miscalculation that they made was that whatever pain or punishment they had it would be worth it because the gain would be so much. And finally, they believed that not only would they destroy Ukraine but that they would also break NATO. So, these were the four strategic miscalculations about the Kremlin. They’ve had to change their goals, at least the public goals, every time they were stopped – stopped outside Kyiv, then the counteroffensive, and now they are getting ready to evacuate Kherson. So, I think we’re going to hear that the goal was always just Crimea.
How do you like the pace, the methods of the counteroffensive that the Armed Forces of Ukraine are doing in the east and south? Do you think it’s because of the training they have in accordance with NATO standards, or due to the weapons?
The successful counter-offensive by the Armed Forces of Ukraine is a combination of several factors. Yes, of course, I am happy that the United States and the UK have helped with providing intelligence, with providing certain weapons, certain capabilities, but this is also the result of very professional and patient planning and execution by the Ukrainian General Staff, very good, professional operational security. We mean no more about what Russia’s doing than we do about Ukraine, which is exactly how it should be. The performance of the soldiers and the junior officers has been superb. The Ukrainian style of command where leaders at lower levels are able to make decisions based on opportunity is completely different from the Russian method of command which is a very vertical, centralized and unwieldy method of command. And we know that the war is a test of will as it is a test of logistics, and it’s clear that the Ukrainian soldiers and the Ukrainian people have superior will to what we’re seeing from Russian soldiers and, of course, Russian people.
I saw that you again signed a letter demanding that Ukraine be provided with more serious weapons. Do you agree that arming Ukraine to defeat Russia is much cheaper for the West than allowing the Putin regime to survive, win and continue to expand to other countries? Doesn’t the West understand this, or are there other reasons for extending the terms of military assistance? What kind of weapons do you think we need and urgently need to be provided?
Well, the first thing is that we the West needs to say: we want Ukraine to win. Stop talking about “we want Russia to lose” or “we don’t want Ukraine to lose” and all these kinds of words. Why do we have trouble saying that we want Ukraine to win, to regain all of its territory? Now, of course, part of this is there is still concern in the White House and in other Western capitals that somehow, if the Kremlin sees that it’s going to lose Crimea, for example, or if the Ukrainian forces were able to hit targets inside Russia, this would lead to some kind of escalation. I don’t believe it. Russia does have thousands of nuclear weapons and I take the threats very seriously, but I think it’s very unlikely that they would use the nuclear weapon because of all the negative consequences they would have to face. And I think the Kremlin and the Russian General Staff know this. So I think it’s unlikely that they would escalate to a nuclear conflict if they lost or were about to lose Crimea. So we should stop deterring ourselves. And the sooner Ukraine is able to accomplish its objectives of the total restoration of its legal boundaries of 1991the sooner this killing ends, the sooner this whole war ends, and it could start rebuilding. But by not enabling Ukraine with weapons such as ATACMS or additional capabilities that would allow them to totally defeat the Russian forces, in my view, that drags this out, which is to the advantage of the Kremlin.
But we are speaking not only about ATACMS. We are also speaking about F-16 [fighters]. As far as I know, there is no political will in the White House about sharing even old F-16s with Ukraine. Why?
I don’t know that of course, other than it’s the same thing that I’ve said earlier: concern about Russia escalating to the next level, to World War III. I disagree with that philosophy, as I’ve tried to describe to you. I disagree with that. Of course, I’m not only inside there. I don’t know all the arguments that are going on, but I know that the White House has done a fantastic job on so many things. In this particular case they have overestimated the threat of escalation and it caused us to deter ourselves. And of course, our European allies have also stopped short of providing everything necessary for Ukraine to win. Now, Ukraine is still going to win. It’s a matter of how much longer does this go on. I think helping Ukraine win would actually reduce the amount of killing and destruction.
These [recent] terrorist rocket attacks on critical infrastructure and peaceful cities, also drone attacks. One the first day the attacks started it was eighty-three missiles and twenty-four Shaded drones. Only half of them were shot down by the Ukrainian air defense. What should be done to increase the percentage of drones and rockets being destroyed?
Well, once again, the Armed Forces of Ukraine are showing how innovative and savvy they are to achieve that level of shooting down drones and missiles. It’s impressive. And particularly when you don’t have necessarily the latest weapon designed specifically to do that. It does appear to me that the West is responding very quickly to get more air defense capabilities into Ukraine. This is important. But of course the best way to stop this is going to the source: to capture the territory or destroy the areas from which they are launching these drones. Of course, a lot of them are coming from Crimea. But if Ukraine is able to identify where they come from inside Russia or inside Belarus, they should of course be allowed and enabled to hit those as well. Otherwise, they’ll continue to murder innocent Ukrainian people, so Ukraine always has the right to defend itself and we should be helping them. But we should also be looking at ways to stop the delivery from Iran. Now, this is much more complicated than it sounds. And I think there are probably certain efforts under way that would help either through economic or diplomatic or military means to reduce or stop the flow of these drones from Iran into Russia. I imagine that there’s this transaction between Russia and Iran that will not be good for anybody in the neighborhood in the Middle East. There’s a lot of nations, including Israel, that have an interest in stopping this. So, I imagine that there are people that are working on that. Now, of course, Russia, using these missile strikes is intended to break the will of the Ukrainian people. That’s not going to happen. The Ukrainian people have already demonstrated that their will cannot be broken. Of course, the targeting of infrastructure that produces energy ahead of the winter – that’s obviously done to make cities uninhabitable during wintertime. I anticipate that the Ukrainian people who were so resilient or found the ways to adapt and to do with this until the use of these missiles and drones can’t be stopped. In October, it’s so obvious that Russia is losing, that they are desperate, they have suffered huge casualties, they have failed on every aspect of their “special military operation”, they are preparing for the evacuation of Kherson, and even General Surovikin [the recently installed commander of all Russian forces invading Ukraine] is talking about it. They are preparing to evacuate civilians, which means to… that’s another problem: they are going to kidnap and deport Ukrainian people. This is another subject we’re going to stay on top of.
Not only people, but children, they are going to kidnap children.
I know that. That’s what I’m talking about – over a million. Children are people too, so I’m with you. What I’m saying is that there are still people in the West that cannot imagine or cannot accept the idea that Russia is going to be defeated, that somehow they can’t be defeated, or that Putin deserves an offer or something like that. So, I use every opportunity I have to try and explain that yes, Ukraine is going to win, yes, Russia is going to be defeated, and we should get used to the idea that Russia is not entitled to any of Ukraine’s territory, they’re not entitled to kidnap adults and children from Ukraine and disperse them around Russia. And so the West has got to stick together here. I believe this is the last winter, the last winter that Russia is going to be able to disrupt European economies with gas, because everybody has begun to move away, even Ukraine is moving away from total reliance on Russian gas as energy. So, it’ll be a different story next year. And actually, as I look at this situation, as Dr. Snyder said “for Russia it’s bad to lose in Ukraine, but it will be much worse to lose in Russia.” And I think that some of the power brokers see that the wheels are coming off, and that they are going to start to pull back some of their private armies, if you will, to protect themselves from the inevitable transition of power that I think is going to happen inside Russia within the next several months.
Interesting. About mobilization: how much can it help the Russians at the frontline now, when they just started to bring untrained forces to the frontline and in spring, when they will be able to bring more trained personnel?
Well, of course by harrowing thousands of untrained, poorly equipped, unprepared men they can actually get to the front they are hoping that this will bear some time to slow down the Ukrainian advance and to extend the conflict, so that they can prepare for the springtime. I think this whole mobilization idea is a catastrophe for the Kremlin. Obviously, for the people it’s made clear that Putin is losing control inside Russia. Half a million Russian men of military age left Russia to avoid mobilization. That tells you the Russian people have no stomach for this fight, they don’t want to be there, and so thousands of men who were grabbed from university, from their apartment, from wherever they were are going to be sent to their death, and that’s what happening. And the Kremlin does not care about how many people die in the process. I do not believe they will have any kind of significant operational effect against what Ukraine is doing.
Obviously, Putin only knows how to raise the stakes. When he began to lose the war here, he announced partial mobilization. Then he will announce full mobilization or in reality do full mobilization. If he loses here with mobilized people, can he also use non-conventional weapons, and how can the West prevent a global catastrophe, or at least a catastrophe in Ukraine in case of a tactical nuclear attack?
The Russians do not have the ability to continue to raise more troops, I mean the logistical infrastructure, the training, the places, the helmets, the boots, all this stuff. They don’t have enough. They are getting ready to have to release people, because they have the next wave of normal conscription that is about to arrive. They are not prepared because of years of corruption. They are not prepared to do this. So, I would not alarm your viewers, but talking about full mobilization, they can’t. They can’t, and people are not going to show up. We’ve already seen this. I’m less concerned there. And as I’ve already said, I don’t believe they are going to use a nuclear weapon because there is no advantage to it. And I think the Kremlin and the General Staff know that if they use a nuclear weapon, as my president said, the American response will be “decisive and very painful”, and I think people around Putin realize that there will be life after him. And for a tactical nuclear weapon the entire Russian chain of command will be involved, and I don’t they are going to be willing to support this. So, I think it’s unlikely.
And the last question. Will Belarus enter this war because they are already deploying new troops?
No. Belarus is not going to enter this war. Lukashenka knows his military is even less competent than the Russian military, and that they will be destroyed in the first days, and then he won’t have them and his own hold of power will be at great risk, so I seriously doubt that Belarus will actively, physically enter the conflict. They will probably continue to allow Russia to do things inside Belarus, but at some point the people of Belarus will say, “This is enough.” So, I think it’s unlikely.
Thank you, general. It was always a pleasure to speak to you.
OK, thank you very much. Please be safe.
Thank you. Bye.