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Ukraine is relying on the U.S. to address its weapons shortage


To get a better sense of the state of the battlefield in Ukraine and how Ukraine's weapons supplies are holding up as the conflict enters its third year, we reached out to retired General Ben Hodges. He's a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe. Welcome to the program.

BEN HODGES: Thank you very much for the privilege.

RASCOE: What's the state of Ukrainian stockpiles now, and what type of weapons do they need?

HODGES: Well, in the two years since the large-scale invasion by Russia, Ukraine has expended enormous amounts of ammunition and weapons. And at this point, they are very, very low on artillery ammunition and on the long-range precision weapons, which could really make a difference.

RASCOE: In terms of shortages, what's been the impact on the battlefield?

HODGES: Well, what we're seeing now is the Russians obviously can tell that Ukrainians are running low because the Russians are receiving a lot less Ukrainian artillery fire against themselves. And they also - of course, they're aware that the aid package from the U.S. has been delayed now for months, and they can also read that European countries are scrambling to find more ammunition to send. So the Russians see that. Therefore they are increasing the pressure, hoping to overwhelm Ukrainian defenders in several different places, as they did in Avdiivka just last week.

RASCOE: Are Europeans able to step in and fill the gap if the U.S. can't provide that aid and provide the ammunition that Ukraine needs?

HODGES: I think they can provide a lot of it. Actually, the combined contributions of Europe exceeds what the United States has provided. So they are doing a lot, and if you could get all of them focused on this as a priority, you know, there is a lot of capacity for production of ammunition inside Europe. You will have seen just the other day that President Pavel of the Czech Republic had managed to find several hundred thousand rounds of artillery ammunition, and now Canada, the Czech Republic and one or two other countries have stepped forward to say that they would pay for it to get it there.

Eight-hundred-thousand rounds is a lot, but that's probably about a fifth of what is needed to help them get through the next few months. I'm not going to say that they're going to run out, but when you're in this kind of level of large-scale warfare where Russians are launching anywhere from 10 to 20,000 rounds per day against Ukrainian defenders, the defenders have to be able to shoot back enough to force Russian artillery to move or to destroy the artillery. This is totally avoidable. That's the part that's so frustrating, Ayesha, is that we don't have to be in this situation. If the Congress had acted months ago, we would not be having this conversation. If our European allies had also acted quicker, we would not be in this situation.

RASCOE: Well, what do you say to those who would say - given the failure of Ukraine's counteroffensive last year, there are critics who say what we need now is negotiations and not more weapons. What are your thoughts on that?

HODGES: I would say, first of all, anybody that thinks that you can negotiate in good faith with Russia has never read a history book or has no clue of what this conflict is about. The Russians have never lived up to any agreement unless they were absolutely forced to. But to make the case, there's three reasons why this war is important for us. No. 1, American prosperity depends on European prosperity. Europe is our biggest trading partner. If Europe is not stable and secure, if there is a war there, it disrupts energy supplies. It disrupts food. All of these things affect our prosperity.

No. 2, if Russia is successful and knocks out Ukraine and - they will do what they have said they were going to do, which is they will continue on against NATO countries. President Putin has made this very clear publicly - places like Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia. And so if Ukraine is not successful, the likelihood of the United States being in a war with Russia because of our NATO obligations - 'cause this would be NATO countries - you're going to have American troops back in another European ground war.

And then finally China - the Chinese are watching to see if we, the United States and the West, are we really serious when we talk about the rules-based international order? That means freedom of navigation, respect for sovereignty, for borders, respect for human rights, respect for international law. If we don't have the will and the capability to defend those things in Europe against Russia, then I think the Chinese will not be impressed at all with anything that we say about Taiwan or the South China Sea.

RASCOE: That's retired General Ben Hodges. Thank you so much for joining us.

HODGES: Thank you so much for the privilege.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.