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Army provides 'gravitational pull' in Europe

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (July 15, 2015) -- Where America's Army goes in Europe, others follow, said the service's lead commander on the European continent.

Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, said when America's military shows up to training exercises in Europe, other nations follow suit, sending their own forces.

He said he sees that the "U.S. Army provides a sort of gravitational pull. If we go to an exercise, if we show up to something, other people come to it. That's a big return on a relatively small investment."

Hodges spoke during a media roundtable at the Pentagon, July 13.

Russia has occupied Crimea, Ukraine's sovereign territory, and sent weapons and soldiers to foment violent unrest in eastern Ukraine. Hodges said that Russians have between nine and 12 "battalion tactical groups" near Rostov, just 70 miles from the Ukrainian border - outside of where they are normally stationed. He said those units regularly rotate in and out of the area.

The Russian occupation of Crimea and alleged Russian support of rebels in Ukraine is unacceptable, Hodges said.

"What the west has agreed is that Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea, and the use of force inside eastern Ukraine, is unacceptable behavior in the 21st century," he said. "They used force to change the internationally-recognized sovereign border of a European country."

Now, he said, European nations are bolstering their militaries in response. Of the 20 nations of NATO, he said, four of those are now spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on their militaries. Several, including all three Baltic countries and Germany have increased spending on military as a percentage of their GDP.

"Nearly every country in Europe is increasing their defense spending," he said.

He also said that both the Germans and the Dutch are buying back tanks they had divested.

Hodges said he believes the commitment in Europe is "a positive response to U.S. presence there."

The U.S. Army has 30,000 Soldiers in Europe now and that the recent announcements of troop drawdowns in the Army - a reduction of 40,000 Soldiers, which will bring the Army's end strength to 450,000 - will not greatly affect the Army in Europe, Hodges said.

Additionally, the Army is committed to the European Reassurance Initiative, in increasing prepositioned stocks in the country for training and exercises, and is actively engaged in training with European partners.

In Ukraine, the Army continues to conduct military training with the Ministry of Interior's "national guard." A little more than 300 American Soldiers are there at Yavariv Training Center, near Lviv, conducting that training, which includes tactical tasks, medical training and survival in heavily contested electronic warfare environments.

Those forces will take a pause in their training by Americans to participate in the training Exercise Rapid Trident, and will afterward return to training with U.S. Soldiers.

MINSK AGREEMENT

Hodges said that as commander of U.S. Army Europe, one thing he would like to see is a successful implementation of the Minsk Agreement. That is not happening now, he said.

Part of that agreement, he said was that the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, or OSCE, was tasked with monitoring such things as the withdrawal of foreign armed groups and weapons from Ukrainian territory and also withdrawal of heavy weapons to create a buffer zone.

"On the Russian side, the Russians and the Russian-backed rebels have not allowed OSCE to do their mission, certainly not effectively or in a comprehensive way," he said. "The border between eastern Ukraine and Russia remains wide open, but unmonitored."

He said the amount of ammunition and supplies and equipment, which is flowing into eastern Ukraine, is significant and that makes it difficult to have confidence that Minsk can be successfully implemented.

"For me, what is most important is that we keep our great alliance together, that the EU [European Union] keeps the pressure on, and that we come to an agreement on - we the alliance - what do we want the security situation in Ukraine and the rest of Europe to look like," Hodges said. "Is it okay ... in the 21st century, to use force to change borders of European countries? I don't think it is."

He said what has proven successful in the past might prove successful now.

"Keeping the alliance together, keeping the sanctions in place, demonstrating a deterrent capability like we did for all those years when we had 300,000 American troops," he explained, as an example of a way ahead. "How do we achieve that same effect of assurance and deterrence? I think we do that by having capability and demonstrating ability to use that capability. That's what's going to be most important."