VILNIUS – Retired US General Ben Hodges says Lithuania's new president should try to convince Belarus not to accept Russian troops.
In an exclusive interview with BNS Lithuania, the former commanding general of the United States Army Europe (USAREUR) also underlined that it would be very important for Dalia Grybauskaite's successor to keep close ties with NATO allies and ensure good conditions for American troops to come to Lithuania.
– LITHUANIA ELECTS A NEW PRESIDENT IN MAY. WHAT WILL BE THE BIGGEST INTERNATIONAL CHALLENGES THAT HE OR SHE WILL FACE?
– I think the new Lithuanian president will have to continue working on integration with allies, with its neighbors. Lithuania's security is based on its own efforts to defend itself, Article 3 in the Washington Treaty, and make itself indigestible from a perspective of a potential Russian adversary.
But its survival also depends on being well integrated with its neighbors Poland and Latvia, Germany and other allied forces that would be in the region. And I think the relationship with Germany and the relationship with Poland are so important and worth the attention and effort of the new president.
– WHAT CAN WE EXPECT IN LITHUANIA'S RELATIONSHIP WITH RUSSIA AND BELARUS?
– I think it's in the interest of Lithuania, as well as Poland and Latvia, that there are no Russian troops in Belarus. So even though there is skepticism about the direction of President Lukashenko, some people refer to it as the cyclical behavior that he has to balance between the Russian Federation and the West... Regardless, no doubt, of course he is, given their geography and their economy and their history, but its still strategically the benefit of the West, especially Poland, Lithuania and Latvia that there are no Russian ground forces based in Belarus. And I think that the new president will want to do all, everything possible to keep it that way. So finding a way to enable support, encourage President Lukashenko to keep the Russians out without doing something that appears as if we are trying to pull Belarus away from Russia, that will be a challenge, but I think, something that is worthwhile.
Russia, clearly, a great nation, culture, history and important part of all the big issues facing all of us, with climate change, with Islamic extremism, energy, I mean, this will be the fact for a long time. And until Lithuania is able to be completely free of dependence on Russia for electricity or gas you gonna have to have a state-to-state kind of relationship that reduces the risk of conflict and which enables everybody in the neighborhood to be able to prosper.
– ALL TOP CANDIDATES FAVOR AMERICAN MILITARY PRESENCE IN THE REGION. HOW SHOULD THEY ACT TO ACHIEVE THIS GOAL?
– I expect the United States will continue to keep thousands of troops stationed in Europe. Right now we have around five thousand that are rotational forces that operate in Poland, Lithuania, Romania, I mean all eastern flank of the alliance. I see this is gonna continue, the Congress completely supports it, the amount of money each year for the European Deterrence Initiative is a substantial amount of money. This is a necessary part of our contribution to the collective security. I anticipate that this is going to continue.
I think what we want is logisticians, air defense, communicators, intelligence, transport – these are the kind of things that enable rapid reinforcement, so it is necessary to have them in place and in the U.S. Army most of these capabilities are actually in our reserve component, which are ideally suited for rotational employment. So I think continuing on the path of excellent host nation support and encouraging the U.S. to provide logistics and air defense and those kinds of things. Not just say – we want permanent presence. I don't think that is a winning argument. Let's say – these are the capabilities we need from the U.S., and talk about these capabilities and then I think you can have a better chance of being able to get there.
- WHAT DO YOU THINK WOULD BE THE RIGHT STRATEGY FOR COUNTRY LIKE LITHUANIA TOWARDS CHINA?
- Well, China clearly is a peer competitor to the United States. It's a rising power. The leadership of the Chinese communist party, President Xi has made sure that he can be president forever. They are investing a lot of money into the One Belt One Road initiative to have infrastructure literally around the world. And with the shrinking of the polar ice cap China is increasingly looking to travel over the top of the world. It shaves weeks off the transit time, so this will be important for commerce.
All of us, including the United States are going to deal with China and it's gonna continue. We want to. But the West has got to keep pressure on China to hold them accountable that they conduct business in a way that's acceptable. This continuous theft of technology, the inability of Western companies to operate fairly in China – that's all got to stop. The West has got to work together to make them compete in a fair, transparent and legal way. Right now they don't do it.
Everybody in Lithuania owns something that was manufactured in China and it had to sail through the South China Sea. And now China has taken the claim to the entire South China Sea, despite claims by Philippines and Vietnam and other countries. They have converted islands into basically aircraft carriers. I think, unfortunately, based on their language and this sort of activity we are moving towards a potential crisis between the United States and China. So the West has really got to stick together to keep diplomatic pressure and economic pressure on China so that we don't have an unnecessary conflict.
Ben Hodges led the United States Army Europe (USAREUR) in 2014-2017, and currently works for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).