VOA: General Hokanson, thank you for this opportunity. First, I would like to know what is the purpose of your visit to Albania. Maybe some specific issue that you have discussed with Albanian authorities?
General Hokanson: So, my visit here is really to reinforce our exceptional bilateral relationship. As the Chief of the National Guard, we have had a long-term relationship between the New Jersey National Guard and the Albanian military. And really, when you look at the support that we get from Albania as the United States and as NATO, it’s a great opportunity to come here, and thank you, to your country, for many of the things that you have done. Also, it’s a chance to visit your beautiful country. And so every opportunity I have, it’s good to do this in person and mention to your leaders, how important Albania is to the United States.
VOA: You mentioned the New Jersey National Guard. What have the Albanian forces, Armed Forces benefited from this partnership so far? Where is it focused?
General Hokanson: If you look at the partnership, I think it not only benefits Albania’s military but also the United States’ military. We see these as mutually beneficial relationships. By our soldiers and airmen training together, we get a chance to share many of the things that we have learned, but also, we learned a lot from your soldiers and airmen, particularly about the environment that they operate in.
If you go back to 1995, when New Jersey first started training with Albania, it was formalized under our State Partnership Program in 2001. And since that time, we’ve conducted 500 training exchanges which has been extremely beneficial to both of us. And when you look at that time, since 2001, Albania has gone forward to become a NATO ally in 2009 and is now a great supporter, not only of everything that’s going on regionally within the Balkans, but also globally. Particularly the support you’ve given to Ukraine along with the United States. And also our opportunities to work together at Defender 21, Defender 23and now looking forward to Defender 25.
VOA: Yes, your visit coincides with the launch exercise of Defender 23, which for the second time Albania is one of the host countries. How important is this for Albania and its armed forces?
General Hokanson: It’s absolutely important. When you look at being a NATO ally and the responsibilities and the expectations there, the ability to train at Defender 23 and then in the future in Defender 25, it allows the U.S., Albania, and other NATO allies to work on interoperability – their ability to work together in joint operations in case there’s ever a need for them to do that.
By doing these exercises together, we train, we learn to work side by side with each other. And I think it makes both our armed forces and our NATO allies much stronger.
VOA: For more than a year, the world has been concerned about the Russian aggression in Ukraine. The Balkans are seen as a weak link due to Russian influence in the region. You are also a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In your view, how endangered are the still fragile balances in the Balkans?
General Hokanson: So, when we look at Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and just the disaster that they’re creating, the humanitarian disaster, we look at Albania and their strong support, really right from the beginning. I think for all of us, our militaries we’re there to protect the sovereignty of our nation, to protect our citizens. And I think standing up together, particularly as we’ve seen with Albania, to say that we do not agree with this aggression and we’ll stand up against it. The support we’re providing Ukraine, I think, sets a very good example that we are for the sovereignty of nations and the defense of their territorial borders and really the protection of their citizens.
VOA: General Hokanson, since we are talking about the Balkans, are you concerned about the recent developments in Kosovo where the U.S. has a military presence within the KFOR? Because the United States decided to stop Kosovo’s participation in Defender 23 and the war in Serbia? Those days, as Ambassador Hill told to the Voice of America in an interview yesterday.
General Hokanson: So, when we look at it, any time there’s a concern over violence, we’re very concerned with that. Obviously, our number one priority is peace and stability in the region, and it appears from all indications that everything’s being de-escalated. I know there is ongoing dialogue. I think it’s very important for all leaders to be transparent, in their conversations. And really, we want to focus on that peace and stability in the region so that our citizens can prosper, and our countries can prosper.
And anything that detracts from that is something we all should be concerned about. But it appears to me that the leaders are having a conversation and we’ve seen a reduction in violence, and we’re hoping that we can continue that. And obviously, the importance of KFOR, not only the United States but other nations’ forces, is there to help maintain the peace.
VOA: General Hokanson, thank you very much for this interview.
General Hokanson: Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here in your beautiful country and I’m looking forward to my next couple of days.