WASHINGTON (Jan. 29, 2015) -- A peaceful political solution, not a military one, would be the most desirable way to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine and bring normality to the region, said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commander of U.S. Army Europe, or USAREUR.

Hodges spoke at a Pentagon media roundtable via video teleconference from Wiesbaden, Germany, Jan. 29.

He was very clear as to who is fomenting trouble in the region.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine is between legitimate Ukrainian forces and "Putin's proxies," he said, referring to rebel forces supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin. He added that Crimea should also be returned to Ukraine, where it legitimately belongs.

"The quality of the equipment that the proxies are using, the volume of ammunition they have, this is not something the militia could assemble in the basements of their homes," he said. "The quality of rockets, the number of armored vehicles has doubled since the Minsk [Protocol] was signed in September [2014]."

Putin has two objectives, Hodges said. "One, moving boundaries and changing borders … and the second objective is fracturing the [NATO] alliance," he said. Because Ukraine is not a NATO country, it puts a lot of pressure on the alliance about what action to take.

The severity of the situation in Ukraine and surrounding countries is evident, he said, noting that "well over 5,000 people have died in this conflict" thus far.

UKRAINE'S CAPABILITIES

Hodges outlined a few of the challenges faced by Ukrainian forces.

The Ukrainians need protection from Russian artillery, he said. This could be achieved by having a better ability to counter-fire. "The U.S. has provided them with lightweight counter-mortar radar, which is good for detecting the point-of-origin for incoming mortars," but a different type is required for artillery and rockets, which are causing most of the casualties.

There's a whole system to counter-fire, he said, meaning it's not simply a single component. Once a rocket or artillery round is detected, something needs to be done about it, he said. "That's an area where there are materiel and training requirements," Hodges said.

Another weakness Ukraine faces is their electronic warfare capability, which Hodges characterized as operating in a "heavily contested environment."

He explained that "it's very difficult for Ukrainian forces to operate on radios, telephones, and other non-secure means of communications because their opponents have exceptional jamming capabilities."

In other words, he said, even if mortars or rockets are detected, "it's hard to do something about them when you can't communicate."

Another area of vulnerability is unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, threats, he said.

The rebels have Russian-provided UAVs that give them detection capabilities to target Ukrainian forces, he said. That's a big reason they've suffered a lot of casualties from heavy artillery and rockets.

Lastly, while the quality of medical capabilities are good, capacity is not adequate for the number of casualties Ukraine is experiencing, Hodges said, having personally visited medical facilities in Kiev, Ukraine's capital.

Also, "we can help them with combat lifesaver training," he said, meaning Army medics have a future role.

ERI BUYING READINESS

The United States is using European Reassurance Initiative, or ERI, money to improve ranges, railheads, airfields, and capabilities to conduct training and deployment, Hodges said. "We're not spending that money on barracks and we have no intention of creating small American forward operating bases, also known as FOBs, or outposts.

"When Soldiers deploy for Operation Atlantic Resolve, they live in host-nation barracks and use host-nation dining facilities alongside the soldiers of host nations," he continued.

Going forward, exercises in Eastern Europe will increase significantly in frequency, volume and complexity and sophistication, he predicted.

This year, there will be Soldiers involved in exercises stretching from Estonia all the way down to Bulgaria as well as Georgia and Ukraine, Hodges said.

In June, Exercise Saber Strike will involve about 6,000 soldiers from a dozen nations and will take place in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

STAGING EQUIPMENT

The Army is committed to sending a full brigade combat team of equipment to Europe, consisting of about 220 M1 Abram tanks, Bradleys, other fighting vehicles, plus a battalion of Paladin self-propelled howitzers, as well as engineer and support vehicles, he said, referring to the equipment prepositioning endeavor known as European Activity Set.

"That's a significant commitment by the Army to provide this capability" to USAREUR, Hodges said.

Troops using this equipment would be drawn from regionally aligned forces that rotate in from various units. In March, these forces will be a brigade from the 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Georgia, he said.

Some of the equipment is already in Germany and the rest will arrive in increments throughout this year, Hodges said. The ultimate location of the prepositioned equipment has yet to be determined, as talks with host nations are still in progress.

COALITION EMPHASIS

Hodges welcomed German Brig. Gen. Markus Laubenthal as the first foreign national military officer to hold the post of chief of staff, USAREUR. Laubenthal appeared with Hodges at the video teleconferencing.

Among Laubenthal's many important duties are directing the USAREUR staff and participating in the planning of USAREUR activities in its area of operations, Hodges said.

In future operations, U.S. forces will be part of a coalition, and it "makes a lot of sense having a senior German officer as part the headquarters," Hodges said. "I'm proud of what he means for our headquarters."

Incidentally, Hodges visited Ukraine and Latvia last week. His visit included Maidan Square in Kiev, where protests occurred a little more than a year ago, calling for closer European integration. "What an amazing setting that is," Hodges said, indicating it left an indelible impression on him.

"What struck me was the earnestness of Ukrainian civilian leadership and military leadership to address their challenges," Hodges said. "They know there's a perception of corruption and inefficiencies that occurred in the past. The current leadership I met impressed me with their desire to get that right, to fix their institutions as well as address the very real threat they face from the Russian-backed rebels."

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