WASHINGTON -- Thirteen months after Russia began its occupation of Crimea, the United States and its European allies must remain steadfast against the threat such actions pose, the commander of U.S. Army Europe said here this week.
Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges told the Defense Writers Group at a March 17 breakfast that the Russian action of illegally annexing Crimea from Ukraine and its continuing threat to the eastern part of Ukraine is a game-changer on the continent.
Hodges said he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin's No. 1 objective is to create instability along Russia's the perimeter to carve out a sphere of influence for his country.
Putin's other objective is to splinter NATO, Hodges said, calling NATO's 28 nations the most successful alliance in the world. "I am sure that his objective is to put doubt in the minds of some members of the alliance" that other NATO members won't be there when they are needed, he said.
Atlantic Resolve Enables Cooperation
The United States and the rest of NATO are working to reassure all NATO allies bordering Russia, he noted, adding that Operation Atlantic Resolve is one of the tools in that effort. Hodges told reporters to think of Atlantic Resolve as a continuous series of exercises, with American troops operating with troops in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, demonstrating America's commitment to the defense of these NATO allies. Later this month, Atlantic Resolve exercises will expand to include Bulgaria and, later in the year, Romania, he said.
An airborne battalion from Vicenza, Italy, will jump into Romania and link up with a Stryker squadron coming by rail from Vilseck, Germany, Hodges said. "That will begin the introduction of [Operation Atlantic Resolve] into the south," he added.
U.S. Army Europe also is working with countries in NATO's Partnership for Peace program, including Georgia and Ukraine. Beginning next month, troopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade will train Ukrainian Interior Ministry troops, and in May, U.S. paratroopers and tankers will exercise in Georgia, Hodges said.
Using Diplomatic, Economic Pressures
Reporters pressed Hodges on whether the United States should provide weapons to Ukraine. He said he can see both sides of the argument, but that the focus should not be on the weapons decision. "The focus should be on what is the desired end state, and can we get there using diplomatic and economic pressures and support," he said.
Part of the issue is fighting the information war with Russia, the general noted. "President Putin [and] Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov are not burdened with the truth. They don't have a roomful of journalists checking on them," Hodges said. "They use information like they do artillery - lots of it, continuously.
"It's important that we figure out ... how do we engage in the information environment that retains public trust and survives scrutiny from media and from legislative bodies, yet counters that false narrative," he said.
Hodges said the command will continue to look for ways to work with allies. He stressed that the end game is to have Russia stop its aggression inUkraine and rejoin Europe. The world needs Russia to help in dealing with terrorism, North Korea and issues in the Arctic, he noted.
"President Putin keeps saying we're trying to isolate Russia," he said. "No, we're not. We want Russia involved."