The former top U.S. Army commander in Europe said Russian battlefield tactics in eastern Ukraine show sophisticated integration of drones, electronic warfare, and mortar and artillery, posing major challenges for Ukrainian forces.
Retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges also said on Jan. 24 that U.S. and European allies should do more to publicize Russia’s capabilities on the ground in eastern Ukraine, including the region historically known as the Donbas.
Hodges, who retired as commander of the U.S. Army’s European forces last year, made the comments in Washington, at the Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government agency charged with monitoring human rights in Europe and elsewhere.
The United States and its NATO allies have helped train and supply the Ukrainian armed forces since the outbreak of fighting in eastern Ukraine in April 2014. About 250 U.S. soldiers are helping in the training, Hodges said, plus Canadians and other NATO allies.
In all, more than 10,000 people have been killed and more than 1 million displaced in the conflict pitting Ukrainian forces against Russia-backed separatists.
Russia has repeatedly denied its forces have been involved, or that it has supplied weaponry or equipment, assertions that independent observers and journalists have largely debunked.
Hodges said the recent U.S. decision to supply Ukraine with more sophisticated weaponry, including Javelin anti-tank weapons, was important for persuading the Russians to negotiate an end to the conflict.
“There has to be a diplomatic solution to this,” he said. “Russia has to, at some point, agree to stop supporting the separatists or pull out to allow the re-establishment” of Ukrainian control of its border with Russia.
Electronic warfare capability
In eastern Ukraine, Hodges said, there are about 35,000-40,000 Russia-backed fighters, and around 4,000-5,000 are actual Russian military officers or commanders.
He said many of the tanks and vehicles operated by both Ukrainian and Russia-backed forces are now covered with reactive armor, a specialized type of plating designed to protect against rocket-propelled grenades and weapons other than small arms.
He also said Russia-backed commanders have honed tactics that include using drones, artillery, and electronic warfare. That’s allowed Russians forces, for example, to eliminate Ukrainian mortars and artillery units. He said one Ukrainian unit that was using a U.S.-supplied radar was taken out by Russian rocket fire with surprising speed.
“The [Russian] electronic warfare capability; again that’s something we never had to worry with that in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Ukrainians live in this environment,” he said. “So you cannot speak on a radio or any device that’s not secure because it’s going to be jammed or intercepted or worse, it’s going to be found and then it’s going to be hit.”
“Certainly we have the capability to show everybody what Russia is specifically doing in the Donbas, that would be helpful to keep pressure on Russia, to live up to what they’ve said they’re going to do,” he said.