Germany has finally announced it will allow Leopard Tanks to be exported to Ukraine. And the U.S. will send a token force of M1-Abrams tanks.
This potentially changes the course of the war in Ukraine from holding Russia back, to defeating Russian forces including in the Crimea.
It's a major escalation of the conflict because Europe and America see no way out of this war, but to defeat Russia. Escalate to de-escalate can mean many things in the months to come in Ukraine.
Back Story host Dana Lewis talks to the former U.S. Army Commander in Europe, Ret Lt. Gen Ben Hodges who says the allies are scared to defeat Russia, but must do so.
I don't think the joint staff really believes that Ukraine can defeat Russia. And so because of that, they, they stop short of saying, let's give them this, let's give them this. And because I think they also have an exaggerated , uh, perception of the risk of Russia using a nuclear weapon.Speaker 2:
Hi everyone, and welcome to another edition of backstory. I'm Dana Lewis. As I record this, Germany is finally announcing it will provide leopard or leopard tanks to Ukraine, and it will allow other European countries, which own leopards to do the same. America will also send a few dozen M one Abrams tanks. A few hundred tanks could be on the frontline in Ukraine. Within months, they will, according to my guests this week, retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, change the battlefield and help Ukraine towards victory. And that's a key word, victory, because up until now, a lot of Western countries have said, okay, stop Russia. But they've not quite said they want Russia to lose because of fear of what that might mean. Retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges is the former commander of US Army Europe, and he joins us now from Germany. Hi , Ben .Speaker 1:
Hey , good morning, Dana .Speaker 2:
And you've, you've taken on a new role now , uh, with human rights first. I mean, what , what is the focus?Speaker 1:
So I joined human rights first this past summer because , um, I wanted to broaden my perspective on certain things beyond just traditional defense and security issues. And frankly, because I was concerned about the rise of extremism, not only in Europe, but even in our own country back in the, in the States. And so human rights first gives me the, the chance as a senior advisor to stay focused on , uh, Russia's aggression and , and , uh, Europe, but also to , uh, weigh in on those matters about protecting our own democracy at home.Speaker 2:
You are in the epicenter of this debate now , uh, Germany, over the question of whether to supply leopard two tanks or not. Maybe yes. Uh, maybe no, maybe rain. Maybe snow. It goes on and on. And it looks like maybe Germany's about to get on with this. They're at least advertising that they're about to make a decision.Speaker 1:
So , uh, last Friday , uh, at the, the meeting of the Ramstein contact group , uh, Germany missed a great opportunity to clarify not just about tanks, but about their strategic view of the world, about, you know, their role , uh, in contributing to stability and security in Europe. Uh, first week on the job for the new defense minister was a global stage, was been a perfect opportunity to say , um, yes, of course, not only are we gonna do everything we can for as long as it takes, which is what Chancellor Schulz has said, they could have specifically said, for now, we are willing to at least allow other nations to have layards to donate them or give them to Ukraine if they want, as we continue to review our own policy instead , uh, the new defense minister said, I'm not a strategist, I'm the minister, which that's not a great , uh, way to start, but of course, if you are the defense minister, of course you have to be a strategist. And then secondly, he said that we are going to start, we need to count and get accountability of what we have <laugh> . So after eight years of this war and one year of the special military operation, the German Defense Ministry doesn't know how many tanks they have and what their status is. I mean, that, that really , uh, lays bare . What we've all suspected is that the , uh, the German , uh, defense ministry does not have the culture of readiness, even though their officers know how to do this. The civilian leadership there. And, and the bottom line is that , um, Germany still lacks self-confidence. And so they , um, when it comes to defense type issues, and, and , um, you know, so the Chan Bundes counselor has to deal with internal politics inside his party. And , uh, so they come across as hesitating, uncertain. To be fair, the United States also has stopped short of a fullthroated. We want Ukraine to win. And so that allows Germany to hide a little bit behind , um, the USSpeaker 2:
General Petraeus . Uh , you know, your , your former commander when you were in the hundred first Airborne , um, he , he said that the US message was unhelpful. Um, that yes, the M one Abram tanks from America would probably be unhealth , uh, would be unhelpful to Ukraine because of the, the maintenance the jet fuel needed. It's, it's just not the tank for the moment, but he said, look, if if the US in giving a dozen or 14 tanks , uh, would be enough to give Germany some self-confidence about supplying the tanks, then it should, should just do it.Speaker 1:
E exactly. This, this is the United States. And, and what, what I hear coming from the Pentagon, unfortunately too much, not just from the White House, but from the Pentagon, is , um, you know , they stopped short of saying, we want Ukraine to win, and therefore we're gonna give everything that they need. Um , the closest that , uh, secretary Austin is , is able to come. Now, of course, part of this, he , he couldn't be on a pretty tight leash from the White House, but he said, we, we want Ukraine to be successful. What , what does that mean? Successful at what? And , and, and then the chairman who, who I've known for many years, a very, very good smart professional soldier, you know, keeps talking about, you know, Ukraine should negotiate. I don't know, I don't think it that they could eject Russia. I mean, he, first of all, I disagree with him. Second of all , um, the chairman talking about negotiation is that's, that's not his role. And , and so, but this has revealed to me that , uh, I don't think the joint staff really believes that Ukraine can defeat Russia. And so because of that, they, they stop short of saying, let's give them this, let's give them this. And because I think they also have an exaggerated , uh, perception of the risk of Russia using a nuclear weapon. And I think they also were , are thinking in very traditional conventional terms. You know, there was a huge debate in World War ii. Eisenhower decided to push the broad front . So you had US forces in a broad front from north to south, rather than focusing , um, for a, a penetration that would've brought about a quicker result. And I think that the joint staff thinks like Eisenhower did in that regard of a broad front versus a decisive operation that would isolate and liberate Crimea and then take care of all the rest later.Speaker 2:
I mean, you often speak about isolating and penetrating into Crimea by Ukraine, and a lot of people are scared when they hear that. I mean , hear that, that question of should they enable Ukraine to take back the Crimea because they fear that the Crimea probably is never gonna be taken back by Ukraine because Russia will do anything and everything. And you talk about nuclear blackmail, everything to defend Crimea, and that there is not a decision making diplomatic , um, de decision making that's, that's been taken that yes, Crimea eventually is a goal that Ukraine should have.Speaker 1:
Crimea is the decisive terrain. Ukraine will never be safe or secure, nor will it ever be able to rebuild its economy. As long as Russia controls Crimea . I mean, when you just look at the map, you can see if they sit in Crimea , they can reach all of Southern Ukraine. Uh, they can disrupt any traffic going in and out of Odessa or the Nero. And certainly they'll continue to block anything going up into Aza Sea. So where Ukraine has two , uh, major seaports, bear , Danskin , Mariupol , both of which of course right now are occupied by Russian forces. So as long as they sit in Crimea , they're gonna be able to keep doing this. They'll wait a couple years for us to lose interest, and then they'll pick, pick back up where they left off. So , uh, I, it would be a significant mistake for Kiev to agree to any kind of negotiation where Russia retains Crimea, especially because I think that they can liberate Crimea by the end of this summer. Now, yes , um, there are people that say, oh , this is a red line for the Kremlin . You know, we've been hearing that the Kremlin was gonna escalate if we provided javelin, if we provided Stinger, if we provided high Mars , if we provided Patriot, if we provided Bradley, none, none, none, none, none. Um, and I think that , um, if we think, if we think differently about C Crimea not as a , a big blue arrow that's going to go and , and attack it in the old fashioned way, but instead isolating it by , uh, destroying the two, the only two links that connect Crimea back to Russia, one obviously is the K bridge . And notice the Russians did not do anything after the Kch bridge was severely damaged. I mean, they , they couldn't escalate after that. They're trying to repair it, and maybe they'll have it repaired by March, but I'm sure the Ukrainians will revisit that K bridge again. And then the other line of communication is the so-called land bridge that runs from ov down through Marial , Mela topa to Crimea , sever both of those with long range precision fires. And then you start making Crimea untenable, there's nowhere to hide. Sevastopol , zaki , all the big places attacks , uh, ground lodge , small diameter bombs, gray eagle, that place becomes untenable. The Russians won't be able to operate from there.Speaker 2:
So as an , as an army general who spent your entire retired life,Speaker 1:
Retired who spent your entire life commanding forces, if I told you, go and fight , uh, Lieutenant General Hodges, send your men in there and defeat that enemy, but don't take their major launchpad where they , uh, re-arm , um, regroup , um, and, and actually attack from what ? I mean, what would you say to me?Speaker 1:
I would say , uh, whoever gave me that order has failed to remember history. I mean, we went through that in Vietnam where the , uh, the vie and the North Vietnamese had a sanctuary , um, outside of Vietnam , uh, where the North Koreans had sanctuary and where the Taliban had sanctuary in Pakistan. So , uh, what we have done is in effect, create sanctuary for the Russians by limiting the weapons we provide to , uh, 90 kilometers the gimler rocket that's or missile that's fired by high Mars 90 kilometers. So anything beyond 90 kilometers of where high Mar is located is in effect sanctuary. And , and I'm , I'm not talking about just inside Russia or Belarus, I'm talking about Crimea . And so Russia has sanctuary from which they're able to launch these Iranian drones, airstrikes , uh, the black seed fleet sells out , um, and launches caliber missiles. And, and so , uh, and of course they've got gigantic logistics , uh, sites in , in Crimea as well.Speaker 2:
Does providing tanks in inevitably they're gonna come, I think whether agree come directly from Germany or whether they come from some of the other nations in Europe, the, the Leopard Anglia parts as they're, as they're called. Do you think that they will change the , the battlefield? Are they a key here?Speaker 1:
Yes, because the , uh, armored force, well, let me lemme step back. I think that Ukrainian general staff realizes that they can pretty much hold Russia with what they have already. O obviously at great costs . But after five months, Russians have not been able to take Bach mo , right? So doing what we would doctrinally call economy of force, holding that back, that gi that should give the Ukrainian general staff the confidence that they can build up a large armored force that is trained logistically ready . And it's built around , uh, Ukrainian armored vehicles, plus captured Russian vehicles and increasingly western armored vehicles. And probably something in the strength, in the strength of a division, an armored division. So three or four brigades , uh, that would be used in a , uh, a penetration of these linear Russian defenses between , um, the , uh, Nero River and Mario Opal , or Zizia or Mela Topo with the , with the objective being to isolate Crimea . So drive direct towards sea of Aza , and, and now you have severed with land forces that land bridge , uh, and then in there you exploit that, then you can bring in high Mars and you can start pounding away on Crimea.Speaker 2:
And what's the danger if you don't do it? What , what's the danger of this debate just continues on and time becomes a very muscular factor for big Russia, which is recruiting and re-arming and, and thinking about its own offensive. And there are all sorts of rumors about one that's coming.Speaker 1:
Yeah. Um , I, I think you raise a very important point that the longer this goes on , um, the more Ukrainians are lost, more innocent people are killed. Um, I, I am skeptical about the ability of Russia to, to start all over here , um, that there is talk about a Russian offensive, about a new mobilization, but , um, you know, that was such a cluster last September. I don't know if they've repaired or fixed all the problems of last falls , uh, partial mobilization. Uh, we'll see , um, having thousands of troops, of course , uh, does not equal a real threat if they're not backed up by more artillery tanks, you know, those other kind of , uh, combat capabilities. Um, and I don't know what they've got still in the, in the locker , uh, that they can bring out. Um, so I'm, at this point, I'm skeptical about the, the reality of a major Russian threat that could, that could seriously call change the dynamics on the ground. But the problem with time is not that Ukraine will lose the will, but that the west loses the will. And so I think , uh, the Ukrainians are looking at the calendar and they see , here's an opportunity we could liberate Crimea by the end of August. That's the decisive bit . And then we can turn our attention to what's left in Donbas . And of course, once Crimea is gone, there will be a lot of , uh, internal issues going on inside Russia. And I think the willingness of people to continue fight and die and Danes and lu hunts for Russia will drop off dramatically.Speaker 2:
Two, two really interesting tweets from the Lithuanian , uh, foreign minister. And I, you know, I love little Lithuania because they're pretty bold and they've led the debate on so much of this. But Landsberg came out and said, one , um, if we fully and finally accept that Russia has to lose in order for us to avoid future wars, then I believe that all the other questions about sup support for Ukraine will become much easier to answer. Yes . And then he came back to this time question that you and I just talked about. You said, the longer we discuss how Ukraine should or should not be helped, the more Putin can build up his armed forces and murder civilians. That is why we need to overcome our fear of victory and act . Now. Is there a fear of victory, do you think?Speaker 1:
I think there , um, the way he said it is, is more articulate than I could have said it. But yes, I think , uh, people are in disbelief or they're worried like, oh my God, we Ukraine might actually win. Then what? And , uh, you , that would call into question a lot of different beliefs that many people have had for decades. So , uh, I think it is important that we should get our heads around the idea that Ukraine can win and will win, and let's do what's necessary to make that happen as soon as possible. So a fear of victory is actually very, very clever. And I think the White House has a fear of victory because , um, they're not sure what comes next.Speaker 2:
Does Germany have a fear of victory, do you think too? And that's why they can't quite decide whether to start pushing tanks across the border into Ukraine?Speaker 1:
I think it's, it's not so much fear of victory on the German side. I think it's a fear of themselves. I think they don't trust themselves. Um, you know, I hear all the different things about history, about , um, um, guilt a about all this other nonsense that is , um, and I call it nonsense because there was a period of about 20 years where we had a massive German bundes fair , 14 divisions, thousands of art . So this, you know, fear of , uh, military, this is newfound and um, or newly rediscovered. And so , um, they've got to decide if Germany, the Germans have to decide if they really do value , uh, international rules-based order, human rights , um, international law, then they have to take a stand. I mean, Germany has benefited from this more than anybody since the end of the war, this, this whole international order. And so if they're not willing to defend it, then we run the risk of losing it.Speaker 2:
Last question to you. You were, I think, more than anybody I know , um, the, the person who called this right pre February 24th, 2000 , uh, and , and 22 , uh, while so many people were debating whether Russia would actually pull the trigger, Ben Hodges in , in interviews that you and I did, even, even prior , uh, you know, several months prior, you said Russia's gonna do it, Russia's gonna go across the border. Here we are a year later, Ben. Um, did , did this go exactly the way you, you thought it would because this has been months and months longer than anybody probably thought that the war would go on? I thought it would be short.Speaker 1:
Of course it didn't go exactly. Cause I thought it would , um, and you're being generous. I was sure the Russians would attack, but I did not believe they would attack in such, like from five different directions and that they would go all in like that because it wasn't necessary. I didn't think that for them to accomplish what their objectives were, nonetheless. Uh ,Speaker 2:
Well , you , you may be saying that they attacked badly and you didn't think that they would attack so badly and do such a bad job. Okay . You did , you did predict they would roll into Ukraine.Speaker 1:
Yes, absolutely. Um, the , um, I think I would've expected us to have acted faster by now. Really? I mean, this incrementalism by the administration , uh, and they think they're doing it right. I mean, they, they think, I , I , I've seen people commenting this is working, you know, it's, you know, we're, we're not putting too much on Ukrainians too fast. And there's a kind of a condescending attitude that comes outta Washington, towards, towards Ukraine, and the Ukrainians are <laugh> that they don't have anything else to prove. They, they have demonstrated they can do just about anything. Maybe it's not clean. It , maybe it's wasteful in certain, in certain cases, but I mean, they're fighting for their life. And , um, I think that , uh, you know, when somebody from the Pentagon talks about, oh , you know, we don't wanna burden them with the huge fuel consumption of a , a Abrams, or they're not ready for this, or it'll take too long to train on that, come on. I mean, we, but it's because we have not, we, the administration and the , and the Pentagon have not accepted that yes, Ukraine is gonna win and that Russia is not going to use a nuclear weapon.Speaker 2:
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges retired. Thank you so much, sir.Speaker 1:
Thanks you once again, diner for the privilege.Speaker 2:
Okay. And I hate to tell you this, but the clock is ticking the doomsday clock on Tuesday. The bulletin of Atomic Scientists reset the symbolic Armageddon timepiece, 90 seconds until midnight. And that's the closest it's ever been in its 75th history. Thanks for listening to Backstory this week and share this podcast. I'm Dana Lewis and I'll talk to you again soon.