As the White House decides whether to arm Ukrainian troops in their fight against pro-Russia rebels, the commander of the U.S. Army in Europe told NBC News that “just providing weapons is not a strategy.”
Lt Gen Ben Hodges said Ukraine’s troops are in urgent need of some military equipment and training, but that a peaceful political solution – not a military one - would be most desirable way to end the conflict.
“Diplomatic pressure, economic pressure, those are all parts of a strategy,” Hodges said. “Most important is to identify what kind of relationship we want to have with Russia.”
Ashton Carter, who is expected to be confirmed as the new secretary of defense, last week told the U.S. Senate committee that he would consider increased American military assistance to Ukraine, including lethal weapons.
"The nature of those arms, I can't say right now," Carter said at his Senate confirmation hearing. "But I incline in the direction of providing them with arms, including, to get to what I'm sure your question is, lethal arms."
“It is definitely much broader than talking about weapons and lethal aid,” Hodges said at the headquarters of USAREUR in Wiesbaden, Germany. “I believe there has to be a political solution to this ultimately.”
After a recent visit to Kiev, which included time at a military hospital, Hodges laid out some of the short term goals and stressed the immediate need for additional medical training, “both at the point of wound, as well as evacuation,” Hodges said.
The U.S. military will also be able to “help with how to operate in a heavily contested electronic warfare environment”, as Ukrainian troops are faced with difficulties to operate on radios, cell phones, and other non-secure means of communications. “The [Ukrainians] are being jammed endlessly by Russian capabilities,” Hodges explained.
Hodges also said that Ukrainian forces require adequate protection from Russian artillery fire, which could be achieved with better counter-mortar radar that can detect artillery and rockets. “They are getting hammered by Russian artillery. They are targeted by drones, Russian UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], they get hit by Russian and rebel artillery, rocket launchers, so there are some things I think we can do to help train them,” Hodges said.
The senior military leader expects military training exercises in Eastern Europe to increase significantly in frequency, volume and complexity this year. In June, Exercise Saber Strike is scheduled to bring about 6,000 soldiers from a dozen nations to Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
And, starting in March, U.S. Army Europe soldiers with the 173rd Airborne Brigade will travel to western Ukraine to provide training to three battalions of the Ukrainian National Guard security forces as part of a State Department initiative.
“These Ukraine troops will help with rear area security, site protection, infrastructure protection,” General Hodges said.
On Friday, Hodges is scheduled to join other high-ranking military officials at the annual Munich Security Conference. Twenty heads of state, up to 60 foreign and defense ministers, as well as a large number of international security experts will discuss topics such as the Ukraine conflict, Islamist terror and the wider "collapse of the global order" at the 3-day conference.