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Q&A: Russia’s Nuclear Weapons More Effective as Propaganda, Retired US Lieutenant General Says

FILE - In an image from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Oct. 26, 2022, a Yars intercontinental ballistic missile is test-fired as part of Russia's nuclear drills from a launch site in Plesetsk, northwestern Russia.

With troops stalled in eastern Ukraine, Russia has increasingly resorted to routine airstrikes on Ukrainian cities and towns, a strategy aimed at exhausting Ukraine economically and morally.

As part of its hybrid warfare, the Kremlin has been boosting its anti-U.S. and anti-Ukraine rhetoric, amplified by Russia’s multibillion-dollar foreign broadcasting media.

One of the Kremlin’s most effective propaganda narratives is threatening to use nuclear weapons if the West continues aiding Ukraine.

Last week, after the United States, Britain, Germany and Poland announced they would send battle tanks to Ukraine, Russia again resorted to nuclear threats, with former President Dmitry Medvedev predicting World War III and a clash of nuclear powers from which no nation will emerge alive.

Retired Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, believes the likelihood of Russia using a nuclear weapon is very low. He spoke with VOA on January 24 from Frankfurt, Germany.

A screenshot from a VOA interview with Retired Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, speaking from Frankfurt, Germany, Jan. 24, 2023.
A screenshot from a VOA interview with Retired Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, speaking from Frankfurt, Germany, Jan. 24, 2023.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VOA: What role does the use of disinformation and propaganda play in Russia's war against Ukraine?

Retired Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges: The Russians have always used disinformation as part of what they do. And they have realized that we in the West are very vulnerable to disinformation and even conspiracy theories, because so many people here have lost confidence and trust in the government and in our institutions. We, the West, have failed to live up to our own talking points. I mean, we sat back and did nothing because we couldn't believe that any average person would trust the nonsense that comes from the Kremlin criminals. It’s so absurd and so obviously false. We failed to act, and we failed to hold them accountable. Also because we were willing to keep using cheap Russian gas.

VOA: One of the most discussed topics in relation to the aid the U.S. and its allies are giving Ukraine is the Russian threat of nuclear escalation. Many people in the U.S. and in Europe have said they fear such a scenario is possible. Why do you think Russia can use the “looming nuclear war” narrative so effectively?

Hodges: Look, they have been threatening to use nuclear weapons for years. And certainly since their so-called special military operations started 11 months ago, they threatened nuclear weapons every time when we give Ukraine something. But each time when we finally make the decision to go ahead and provide the next level of aid, Russia doesn't do anything because they can't do anything.

VOA: So, should we just ignore those threats?

Hodges: I'd say we take them seriously because they do have thousands of nuclear warheads, and they clearly do not care how many innocent people are killed. But the likelihood of them using a nuclear weapon, I think, is actually very low. I think that they believed President [Joe] Biden, when he said there would be catastrophic consequences for Russia if they used a nuclear weapon. I think they believe him, and they also know that the use of a nuclear weapon will not give them any battlefield advantage. It won't change things on the ground, will not make them better for Russia. But if they do use nuclear weapons, then it's going to be over for the Russian Black Sea Fleet and for the Russian forces in Ukraine. And I think the Russian General Staff knows this. Their weapons are only useful when they threaten it, because they can see how many of us are terrified that they might actually do it.

VOA: You previously mentioned that Russia is throwing more and more people into the meat grinder. And are there signs of a new mobilization? How will the influx of newly mobilized affect this war?

Hodges: Well, I think that this is a substitute for having an actual strategy for winning the war. They realize that they cannot defeat Ukraine, and so what they're doing is attempting to keep trading bodies for time, in hopes that the West will finally lose the will to keep supporting Ukraine. They were launching missiles into towns and cities and destroying power grids. That also was part of this attempt to drag out the conflict. That has not worked. You don't hear too much about missiles hitting power grids anymore.

And so now, the idea that they can just keep sending bodies there appears to be the only strategy they have. They now try to somehow get the Ukrainians and the West worried that the Russians are going to launch a huge offensive out of Belarus. With what? I don't believe they have the logistics or the armed forces or even the artillery that could support such an offensive.

VOA: Russia is losing many people, but Ukraine is losing people, too. This meat grinder works both ways as the war drags on. What can and must the West do to boost Ukraine's ability to finish this war?

Hodges: You are right that Ukraine has suffered a lot of casualties, but nowhere near the scale of Russia. And Ukraine fortunately does not have a manpower problem yet. They still have 2 million people of military age who are ready to come forward. I think manpower will not be the issue. But for Ukraine to win, the West, led by the United States, needs to decide that we want them to win. And for some reason, our leadership has not been willing to say we want Ukraine to win. I hear, "We don't want Ukraine to lose," or "We want Ukraine to be successful." But nobody says, "We want Ukraine to win, and we're going to do everything possible and needed to make sure it happens."

VOA: How and when do you see this war ending?

Hodges: I believe if the West gives Ukraine what they need, which is long-range precision weapons, and continues supporting the Russian sanctions, then I think they can liberate Crimea by the end of August. And then they can turn to the rest of Donbas. But Crimea is the decisive terrain. That's what matters the most.

VOA: Why?

Hodges: Well, because without Crimea, Ukraine will never be safe or secure and never be able to rebuild their economy. Even if they liberated 100% of Donbas, if Russia sits in Crimea, they can still disrupt traffic going in and out of Odesa, launch airstrikes on Ukrainian cities. In a couple of years, they'll start the war again. That's why it's essential that Ukraine liberates Crimea.