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Romania must improve its road and rail network to ensure the efficiency of NATO operations, the former commander of the United States Army Europe, Benjamin (Ben) Hodges, stated in an interview for AGERPRES.

Retired General Lieutenant Ben Hodges is presently the Pershing Chair for Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and took part, last week in Bucharest, in an event that approached Romania's role in NATO, hosted by the Presidential Administration.

He spoke in the interview about Romania's role within NATO in the Black Sea region, but also about the need for the infrastructure in our country to be improved.

"Number one, we want to see the Black Sea region, as a region from a security standpoint, to get this region on the agenda for the NATO summit, to find ways to improve security and stability in the region. I think Romania is a leader in the region, it certainly is doing all it can to help provide security and stability here, modernization. It's an important part of NATO security," Hodges said.

The American General stated that the Romanian Ministry of Defence is doing all it can so that Romanian servicemen are well equipped, mentioning, in that context, that improving infrastructure is essential for Romania's role in NATO.

"I really want to see improvement in infrastructure here, because the Romanian Armed Forces, the Minister of Defence, is doing everything he can to make sure that Romanian soldiers are well-equipped, well-trained, he's got air missile defence, very good training areas. Again, General Ciuca has been such a visionary leader in that regard. What needs to be done now is to improve infrastructure - rail, highways, so that the rest of the Alliance can get here", he said.

He emphasized that, in case a crisis occurs, NATO forces must bring a lot of equipment and troops on the railroad, on the highways, over the Carpathian Mountains.

AGERPRES: Because you were here as a US commander in Europe, you were here for exercises, how long does it take for heavy military equipment to go through Romania, if you could give me an estimate?

Ben Hodges: Well, let me say it this way: at the conclusion of the Saber Guardian exercise, last year, we had equipment that was stuck in Romania for more than two months, trying to get it back to Germany. It's a combination of capacity, regulations... That really opened my eyes to the challenge. That is not all Romania's fault necessarily. The overall capacity for rail in Europe is inadequate to the task. It's a problem that happens up in Germany. But this tells you that there is not enough capacity. We want to highlight today that requirement, the need for Romanian infrastructure to improve. Now, the EU is working on this military mobility as a priority. (...) Romania needs to help, we want to help Romania highlight the infrastructure gaps. Another thing that US Army Europe did last year was a test, with putting a tank on the back of what we call an HET - a Heavy Equipment Transport - and drove it over the Carpathians, from Poland down to Mihail Kogalniceanu. It was very, very difficult. That highlighted the need to improve infrastructure.

AGERPRES: Does Romania stand out in terms of lack of infrastructure in the European Union?

Ben Hodges: No, this is a common challenge across Eastern Europe, frankly, once you get beyond Germany. Poland has done to improve its infrastructure over the last five to seven years. I was in the Czech Republic two weeks ago. They've had plenty of money from the EU but the process is just too slow. It requires a government leadership, whole of government effort to improve infrastructure, it's not just availability of money. There's the planning... and also getting the labor - construction companies and all the legal things. Same thing in the US, by the way, if you want to expand the highway it's somebody's land, so you know, with the permits and the environmental considerations and so on - this is not an easy task, but it's essential for security and stability in the region.

AGERPRES: I don't want to get stuck on the infrastructure discussion, but there were big investors in Romania that pointed out the lack of infrastructure, and almost nothing happened when you look at the figures. Do you think that a military "push" will help?

Ben Hodges: Well, yes, if you can connect the requirement - what does Romania need, what does NATO need, for different plans: what's coming? what do we think might have to come here? how long will it take? when do we need it? - and then you see the gaps. And then you realize - oh, we're going to have to increase rail capacity by 50% or by 100%, or identifying where you have bridges over your beautiful rivers that cannot hold a Leopard or an Abrams tank. You've got to make sure that bridging is capable of sustaining that kind of weight, not one time but hundreds of times.

AGERPRES: Do you have a timeframe for these sort of changes that you want to happen in Romania?

Ben Hodges: Well, the sense of urgency is driven by the threat. Russia is not going to sit around and say "okay, we'll give you ten years to get your infrastructure ready". So I would say we're probably ten years behind right now.

AGERPRES: When it comes to Romania.

Ben Hodges: Yes, yes. It's not that people were stupid. I don't think that we, the Alliance, and I, certainly, would not have thought of this as an issue until Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Then, all of a sudden, everybody, including in the European Union, was reminded that they invaded Georgia, they still have 10,000 troops sitting in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, they've invaded Ukraine, they preserved frozen conflicts around the Black Sea and they've threatened our allies in northern Europe. This is not a game.

AGERPRES: In an interview last year, for Richard Quest, you said something along the line 'Russia only understands the language of force'...

Ben Hodges: Yes, they only respect strength.

AGERPRES: Is the NATO Summit in Brussels going to approach this even more vigorously than before?

Ben Hodges: I think there are a couple of things Russia should be taking note of. The Summit is going to highlight NATO's adaptability, specifically with adaptation steps, with new commands that enhance the ability of the alliance to respond and to reinforce. This trans-Atlantic lines of communications headquarters will be based in Virginia and will make sure that we can cross the ocean. That's number one, and the second one would be the Joint Support and Enabling Command (JSEC), that will be based in Germany, led by the Germans, that will facilitate receiving reinforcements, pushing NATO forces to the east in response to a threat, or to prevent a crisis. These are two very, very important steps that I think will signal the continued cohesion of the Alliance and an increased capability necessary for deterrence. The other thing that should be clearly understood by the Russians is that the EU sanctions continue to be rolled over. Russia used a weapon of mass destruction on those two people in Salisbury, they are supporting Assad using chemical weapons against his own people. The West is not going to tolerate that.

AGERPRES: But then again, they say that they didn't do it, so is there also a war of statements?

Ben Hodges: Who has a better record of credibility, the Russian Government or the West? I think that with so many countries that kicked out Russian diplomats, and so many countries are sticking together in these sanctions, the French and British joining the United States on the strikes in Syria. I think that the credibility of Russia... when they say they didn't do it, just like they said they wouldn't go to Crimeea...

AGERPRES: A lot of messages coming from NATO and the countries involved in NATO have a lot to do with the fact that NATO should be ready to act, regardless of the area where a military conflict is happening. Is this kind of a reference towards what's happening in Syria now? Because the only NATO ally that is involved in Syria is Turkey.

Ben Hodges: When you say that the only NATO ally involved in Syria...

AGERPRES: ... with troops.

Ben Hodges: Well, I mean, The United States, France and the UK did a strike and there are Americans in Syria, in different capacities, other countries are involved, I'm not an expert on the specifics there. But I think the alliance is focused on the right thing, the collective security of its members. That doesn't mean that members of NATO won't do things outside [e.n. - the Alliance], and NATO still has the mission to Afghanistan. But my sense is that the focus is going to continue to be on collective security, and maybe the EU will be the lead, being the better sort of organization to deal with the challenges in Africa, for example, although the US worked with them there, and certain other areas, I don't know, but I'm not hearing about it either as a sort of "NATO thing in Syria".

AGERPRES: When the Secretary General of NATO Stoltenberg came to Romania and said that Romania is leading by example, and I think that he was referring to the fact that Romania already gives 2% of the GDP for defense, but there comes the problem of defense acquisitions, and also a lot of the Romanian authorities are talking about doing acquisitions, but also reinforcing the Romanian industry, and Romanian defense, construction industry. How does NATO approach this? Because Romania already had acquisitions from American firms, most of them, but there's also the question of building your own military?

Ben Hodges: I think the EU, with PESCO, is going to encourage the development of defense industries in Romania. I'm not against it at all, I'd love to see Romania become capable of being partners with the US, German, British, French, Italian, or their neighbors. What I care about it is the effect, the capability, and Romania is on the right path of modernization, I think it's been smart on how it's been investing that 2% - modernization, not just new equipment, but also procedures, organizations, training areas, the right kind of things, from my perspective. I think that that's also what the Secretary General meant when he said that Romania is leading by example, it's not just the amount, but how. I think there's a lot of potential for partnering or developing your own capabilities, I don't think those are incompatible.

AGERPRES: As a commander of the US Forces in Europe, how did you see the evolution of the Romanian military?

Ben Hodges: I remember when President Obama increased the number of US troops in Afghanistan, only two other allies did it, the UK and Romania. I'll never forget that. I was in Regional Command South, so Zabul was part of our responsability, and seeing Romanian troops' capabilities grow, I will never forget that. Secondly, seeing, under the leadership of General Ciuca, the expansion and capacity of the Cincu training area - that has been an amazing thing to watch. I remember when I first saw it, almost 5 years ago, and what's there today... Really, a vision and energy of General Ciuca, to create a good training capability is important. I've always thought that a good indicator of a really good organization is its ability to learn, to adapt, to grow, and that's what I see in Romanian military, and, again, the leadership of General Ciuca is... it's a learning organization, constantly trying to get better.

AGERPRES: What about in terms of human resources? How do you see the change in the specific Romanian servicemen, are they more trained? More aware of things that they were not aware of five years ago?

Ben Hodges: No doubt. The experience that the Romanian armed forces have gained in Afghanistan, for example, the exercises we've conducted over the last few years continue to increase in complexity and sophistication. I watched a Romanian river crossing exercise that was incredible.

AGERPRES: At Saber Guardian?

Ben Hodges: I had no idea, it was impressive, so I learned there. I think there's always room for continued growth and development, live fire exercises, I'd like to see them become more realistic, but again, with experience and confidence, it keeps getting better. I've seen a steady increase in that regard.

AGERPRES: NATO is gathering countries that have their own political issues, I'm talking about Poland, about Hungary. How are these things approached, because somehow, the political regime is linked to the military way the people act. Is it approached? If there's an authoritarian regime in an area, NATO will be more cautious in talking to them?

Ben Hodges: First of all, the alliance is made up of 29 different countries, nations, that are sworn to come to each other's defense. It's collective defense, that's the purpose of NATO, and I have confidence in all 29 members that each would come to the assistance of the other if it was asked and required, and you're looking at what we're doing now in Cincu, so that's happening. Almost every country in the alliance is represented in the Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group, for example, in the Baltic countries and in Poland. You've got soldiers from multiple nations that are in Romania, whether it is in the multinational brigades, or in the Division Southeast or the NATO Force Integration Unit, different headquarters and capabilities, and I think Romania would be a good location for continued development of NATO command structures and force structures. That's number one.

Number two, our liberal democracies, all of our institutions are under attack, all the time. Russia is doing all it can with this information, and whatever means they can to cause us to lose confidence in our institutions, and I'm talking about media, judicial system, electoral system, all the things that are hallmarks of a liberal democracy, they're under pressure, and when you don't have transparency in Government, when people don't have confidence, the Russians exploit that. The best way to ensure collective defense is to protect and preserve all of our institutions that make us strong. We've got such a better story to tell than the Russians do, but we've got to tell it. And what you're doing, the media, the free media, which is allowed to investigate and do things and hold our public leaders accountable, transparency where money goes, so the taxpayers know and can see where it's at, that's the best way to reduce corruption and for people to trust their Government, but the Russians exploit it when we don't have that, so part of our great alliance is based on having capable military, but it also rests on having institutions.

AGERPRES: Should NATO look outside itself? Because NATO members are protecting each other, but also Russia is gaining influence in areas that are outside NATO, first of all Syria. Is NATO looking outside and kind of negotiating getting involved?

Ben Hodges: I don't know, I'd be guessing on the specifics of the Alliance, how the Alliance looks at it, I don't know. But certainly members of the Alliance, the United States, obviously, has been concerned about what is happening in Syria. There's going to be not just from a humanitarian standpoint - hundreds of thousands of people have been killed, millions displaced there by the civil war - but we have friends in the region. We have an ally, Turkey, we have other countries in the region, Israel, obviously, and other Arab countries that are affected by this, so what is the strategy to make sure that we can get back to a stable environment, where so many people aren't killed and displaced, where we won't have this refugee problem that affects all of Europe, but you don't want to create a vacuum that is filled by Russia and Iran, which is exactly what they want to do. So what happens there does affect Europe, does affect the United States, so the strike by UK, France and US was warranted, was very well done, but that was a strike, that wasn't the strategy.

AGERPRES: After Russia, who is the second biggest enemy, because we are talking about enemies to NATO, in this particular region, in the Black Sea. Who is the second biggest enemy after Russia?

Ben Hodges: Russia is certainly the biggest threat - in the US national defence strategy, it talks about a return to great power, confrontation, so Russia and China, although two completely different sort of approaches. China looking to influence through economic means, information means, technology means, investments everywhere and they're very active and aggressive in that regard, so this is not something to disregard. Islamic extremism is of course a threat to everybody, although Romania seems to have done a very good job, you don't hear about those kinds of attacks and threats here, which is a good thing.

If you think about the Black Sea region itself, the sort of connection between what happens in the Black Sea and what happens in the Balkans. There's a connection to what happens in the Black Sea region and what happens in the Middle East. Somebody described to me yesterday that the Black Sea has a balcony that looks out into the Caucus in the Middle East, which is a very interesting metaphor, it is. And the Russians certainly use the Black Sea as a power projection platform for everything that they want to do into Syria, for example, and into the region. Someone used the expression "The Syrian Express" - Russian shipping, through the straits, to the Black Sea, down into the Mediterranean, but also from the Black Sea region into Serbia, for example, and places where Russia is attempting to influence, but the last thing that Russia wants, for example, is Serbia or other Balkan countries joining the EU. So, their ability to influence things in the Black Sea region has to be countered, and I think this is where Romania comes in, as a leader in the region: strong liberal democracy, quality, modernized military, young people that stay in Romania and allies that contribute, that's what we need.

AGERPRES: So we're actually talking about the decision of having an even more increase presence of NATO in the Black Sea region?

Ben Hodges: My hope is that's on the agenda for the NATO summit in July, specifically the Black Sea region, what's required to make sure. I hope that's on the agenda, it should be, and it's certainly what we'll be talking about today.

AGERPRES: Would you like to add something ?

Ben Hodges: I'm very proud of our organization, CEPA, the Center for European Policy Analysis has always been a leader amongst the think-tanks and organizations that focus on the Black Sea region, in fact that's what attracted me to CEPA when I left the Army, because I read the Black Sea report, that they done a couple of years ago, and I was impressed with it. And my own experience, with Romanian soldiers in the last several years is what attracted me to CEPA. I'm very proud that our organization is here today, hosted by the Office of the President, to have these panels and discussions about how we can Romania help lead in the Black Sea region, how can we elevate the profile of the Black Sea region as something that requires NATO focus, and I think we would probably do a study that would come up with recommendations on what is specific, substantive recommendations for what needs to be done. I'm proud that our organization is leading the way.

AGERPRES: Because the name of the conference is " A view from Bucharest" ... What's the view of Romania from Washington?

Ben Hodges: One of the way you could tell when the United States is interested in something, they put a lot of money in it and they put a lot of soldiers on it, and when you think about the investment that United States made with the European Deterrence Initiative - money invested in infrastructure, training areas, exercises and so on, and the fact that there are almost 1,000 American soldiers and personnel in Romania, on any given day, with the missile defense capabilities, logistical capabilities at Mihail Kogalniceanu, those are all examples of the importance granted by the United States, and that's just a tiny perspective of how the United States Army and the US European Command look at Romania. AGERPRES (RO - author: Oana Ghita, editor: Catalin Alexandru, EN - author: Catalin Cristian Trandafir, editor: Razvan-Adrian Pandea)

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