Haley Remains Boldly Off-Message as Ambassador to UN: A Worrisome Story Quickly Overcome by Change

The US Permanent Representative to the UN Nikky Haley (above). Reportedly the US State Department was concerned a pattern of off-message statements and ad-libs by Haley would result in an inconsistent, incoherent US foreign policy message. Observers of the administration of US President Donald Trump saw her remarks as indicative of a broader trend of poor communications. Haley will now have more guidance via a new line of communication with Washington. On tough issues, perhaps US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could work closer with Haley.

According to a May 1, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Haley Remains Boldly Off-Message as Ambassador to UN”, US State Department diplomats drafted an email urging the Office of the Permanent Representative to the UN to ensure that the public statements of Nikky Haley, the US Permanent Representative to the UN, on high-profile issues are cleared by Washington. The request should not have come as a surprise to Haley. As the New York Times article reports, for quite some time, she has been boldly off-message much to the chagrin of Washington diplomats. The article stated her remarks “often go well beyond the carefully worded scripts crafted by the White House and State Department.” US diplomats were reportedly concerned that Haley’s words could result in an inconsistent, incoherent international message. An example given of her off-message utterances was her warning to Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad that “the days of your arrogance and disregard of humanity are over,” even as other top aides to US President Donald Trump insisted that his fate was a decision for the Syrian people. The article says further that Haley has pushed the notion of using human rights as a driver of foreign policy just as the Trump administration showed its willingness to work with leaders who have suppressed civil liberties, such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egypt’s Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi. Additionally, the article reports Haley did not even wait to take office before breaking with the Trump administration’s foreign policy stances. Indeed, the article points to Haley’s Senate confirmation hearing, where she diverged from the then president-elect’s talk of warmer relations with Moscow by bluntly accusing Russia of being complicit in war crimes in Syria.

Although Haley is member of Trump’s cabinet, her posting in New York falls under the State Department’s authority. Some anonymous administration officials, unauthorized to publicly discuss the policymaking process, have revealed that her staff frequently ignores the chain of command for policy matters. Haley’s deputy, Jon Lerner, a Republican pollster and strategist who helped coordinate the Never Trump movement during the campaign, is alleged to be in close contact with senior members of the US National Security Council staff. Haley’s off-message remarks and ad-libs, for some observers were indicative of a broader trend in the administration, with poor communications and tight inner-circle White House politics creating disunity on various issues.

Standing up against what she perceives as injustice clearly fits who Haley is. There is no better sign of a moral center. Even so, while she may have strong feelings about situations, Carl Von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian military thinker would perhaps explain that maintaining her balance in spite of having such strong feelings would better reflect upon the strength of her character. Passion fights, but reason rights. Falling in with the approaches of the State Department and correspondingly, the White House, should not soil Haley’s conscience. Through an improved line of regular communication with Washington, Haley will have the concept and intent of the president, real guidance, clear parameters, firmly in mind whenever she speaks. As an additional component of the effort to upgrade communication and synchronization between New York and Washington, perhaps US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson could work more closely with Haley, essentially as a mentor, a coach, particularly on tough issues. One should hardly consider oneself so knowledgeable upon taking the post of US Permanent Representative to the UN that there would be nothing to gain from an expert’s tutelage. There is always more to learn, to be prepared for. Without question, Haley understands that. Surely as the Secretary of State, Tillerson, when possible, should be expected to offer some guidance to diplomats in the field, from newly minted political officers to a cabinet-level ambassador. Vigilando, agendo, bene consulendo, prospera omnia cedunt. (By watching, by doing, by consulting well, these things yield all things prosperous.)

As the US Permanent Representative, Haley has taken charge and has been read in on everything. Haley has often been the first member of the Trump administration to weigh in on key foreign policy issues from military strikes on Syria to sanctions against Russia and how to approach human rights. The Haley operating on a world stage today is reportedly the same person she was as governor of South Carolina. Some of her foreign counterparts sense her responsibilities in the administration on foreign policy have been broadened.

Nikky Haley in Action

The Office of the Permanent Representative to the UN shapes US policy at the UN. It  works toward: formulating and implementing multilateral policy where possible; making the UN and its agencies more effective instruments for advancing the political, economic, social, legal, military, public diplomacy, and management interests of the US at the UN; and, addressing global needs. As the US Permanent Representative, Haley has been read in on everything and has taken charge. Often, she has been the first member of the Trump administration to weigh in on key foreign policy issues from military strikes on Syria to sanctions against Russia and how to approach human rights. The erstwhile governor of South Carolina is smart and self-confident, motivated and dedicated to her mission. She has proved willing to stand on moral high-ground, and when she has gone out on a limb, there has never been a hint of insecurity. Phil Cox, a political consultant who reportedly has known Haley since 2010 from his work with the Republican Governors Association, explained in a recent interview, “The Nikki Haley operating on a world stage today is the exact same person the people of South Carolina came to know and respect as governor.” Cox went on to state, “Since she was first elected governor, people have been talking about her taking the next step.” He further explained that Haley’s plain-spokenness comes as no surprise to anyone who tracked her work in South Carolina, starting with service in the State Legislature.

Haley has made many appearances on Sunday talk shows in the US and given interviews to several other television news outlets. Observers were particularly impressed when Haley, without Tillerson present, chaperoned the 14 members of the Security Council on a visit to the White House on April 24, 2017. A UN Security Council diplomat who was not authorized to speak about the meeting said it seemed to be designed to display Haley’s centrality in the administration and her access to Trump. She had not only taken charge of determining what the administration’s posture would be at the UN, but broadened her responsibilities, as the diplomat observed, on a range of foreign policy issues. One might go as far as to say there is the possibility that Haley might one day become Secretary of State if Tillerson should decide to step away from his post. Former Deputy Secretary of State and US Permanent Representative to the UN in the administration of US President George Bush, Zalmay Khalilzad has been quoted saying of Haley, “experience as a politician helps her in recognizing the importance of the message and the quality of the message.” Still, all of that being said, Haley is a novice diplomat who is now immersed in international politics of the highest level.

According to the New York Times, the email drafted by State Department diplomats, the Office of the US Permanent Representative to the UN was urged to rely on “building blocks” written by the department to prepare remarks for Haley. The request has being viewed as an apparent attempt to foster greater coherence in US foreign policy, Even more, State Department officials reportedly urged Haley’s aides to ensure her public remarks are cleared by Washington first. Reporters at the New York Times claiming to have read the email, quote it as saying her comments should be “re-cleared with Washington if they are substantively different from the building blocks, or if they are on a high-profile issue such as Syria, Iran, Israel-Palestine, or the D.P.R.K.” It could be speculated that this message may have been reinforced in a meeting with US National Security Adviser US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster during her visit to White House with UN Security Council diplomats on April 24, 2017.

As a result of the latest State Department request that Haley “check-in,” she should not feel as if she has been plugged into an electrical outlet every time she walks into the UN Security Council or the Secretariat in New York. She should not feel self-conscious over her every utterance to foreign counterparts. Clearing matters with White House should actually have a liberating effect. Instead of taking calculated risks daily, wondering if a statement might be in bounds or over the line, she can now proceed with even greater confidence. Washington’s decision actually should have come as good news for Haley. As a US official, Haley is still a free thinker. If she ever found herself unable to recurvate and accept the perspectives of the State Department, she could always tender her resignation. However, no one in the administration wants Haley to resign. Haley displays talent as a diplomat, and for the good of the US, it must be exploited. It would be impolitic to suggest Haley would ever need to be reminded of the obligations of her position. Logic will not fail Haley and she can accept certain realities.

Haley’s successes at the UN are the successes of the US, the administration, and the State Department. Her missteps, with all of their consequences, are ultimately the responsibility of Tillerson. When things go awry in an organization, it is presumed that whatever happened was tolerated by its leader. The harmony between Tillerson and Haley must be discernable in talks, policy statements, and policy management and observable in interactions. Haley needs Tillerson’s support, and he requires her cooperation to assure the smooth running of foreign policy. Ubi concordia, ubi victoria. (Where there is unity, there is victory.)

As a result of the latest State Department request that Haley “check-in,” she should not feel she has been plugged into an electrical outlet every time she walks into the UN Security Council or the Secretariat in New York. She should not feel self-conscious over her every utterance to foreign counterparts. Clearing matters with White House should actually have a liberating effect. Instead of taking calculated risks daily, wondering if a statement might be in bounds or over the line, she can now proceed with even greater confidence.

A Word of Caution

Gustos morum. (Guardian of morals.) One cannot change the world single-handedly, even as the US Permanent Representative to the UN. When attempting to get a handle on issues that have struck a chord with them morally, US permanent representatives to the UN very often have found themselves grappling with the recalcitrance, stubbornness of their foreign counterparts on UN Security Council. For many US permanent representatives, the UN Security Council would for them become something akin to a laboratory maze designed purposefully to frustrate. They undoubtedly would have liked to comfort their foreign counterparts with percussive maintenance to encourage them to adopt the US point of view. That was the unforgettable case with the Balkans from 1992 to 1995, when, for months on end, hardly anything audacious could be accomplished. Sadly, much of the history of the countless struggles US permanent representatives have faced has been forgotten. Their carefully-crafted, stirring words have fallen into oblivion.

A coupe en deux pieces in US diplomacy, in this case alleged between New York and Washington, is a serious matter. It could potentially crack the US ability to implement steady policy in manner that would satisfy, and draw other governments to its points of view. Maintaining unity requires constant consultation between Tillerson and Haley. Within many US newsmedia houses, ruminations about the two diplomats interactions will very likely result in further published tales about their alleged struggles for the ear of the White House. That perception will remain immutable among some. Serious analysts will certainly ignore such stories. However, for the sake of policy, the State Department, the US Mission to the UN, and the White House must not allow situations to be created that might create the impression such stories of disunity are true.

Accede ad ignem hunc, jam calesces plus satis. (Approach this fire and you will soon be too warm.) An additional concern arises over UN Security Council or other meetings with her foreign counterparts in New York. At the UN, the US Permanent Representative is the embodiment of the US government with all of its potential and its military, economic, political, social, communication tools. The US Permanent Representative is a focus of diplomatic attention, and also the focus of those considering how possibly to manipulate the US. For most foreign ministries, the UN Headquarters posting is cherished, and only the absolute best and brightest are sent to New York. They have usually proven themselves over and over again in other important postings. They are very capable, highly skilled diplomats. In some cases, the ties of those diplomats to their capitals typically may go beyond their ministries to personal connections at the highest levels of their respective country’s leadership and others among the power elite. In many cases, their countries have far less resources to develop opportunities for success on their own. Thus, they will try to push the US to use its wherewithal and capabities in a way that favors their countries positions. Partners, much as competitors, can push so hard with their respective agendas, they can appear somewhat threatening. There may even be bellicose exchanges. Haley, however, will most likely encounter untruthfulness by omission or commission from counterparts as means to influence her decisions in the handling of a crisis or close a deal. As horrible as it all may sound, the ability to perform such a task is a craft.

At the UN, the US Permanent Representative is the embodiment of the US with all of its potential and its military, economic, political, social, communication tools. The Permanent Representative is a focus of diplomatic attention, and also the focus of those considering how to manipulate the US. The governments of many of Haley’s foreign counterparts lack the resources to develop opportunities for success on their own. Thus, they will try to push the US to use its wherewithal and capabilities in a way that favors their respective countries’ positions.

Using Passion as a Guide

Ratio me ducet, non fortuna. (Reason, not luck, will lead me. [Reason will be my guide.]) If a senior US diplomat decides to place focus on a particular issue, warning and demanding action in official statements, the diplomat should know whether her words reflect the administration’s positions. There are pitfalls to striking out on ones own, relying on one’s own moral barometer alone in decisionmaking as a senior diplomat in an administration. The Classical Greek philosopher Plato described emotion and reason as two horses pulling an individual in opposite directions. He examined the two as part of his bid to explain inner conflict and psychological complexity in a systematic way. Plato’s explanation, watered-down in the discussion here, is that reason and desire are the cause of duality in man. Reason corresponds with virtue and morality–considered choices, discipline, self-control, and charity. Desire corresponds with immorality–immediate gratification of the senses, vulgarity and lack of forethought. Desire is the primordial, instinctive side of the human character. Reason concerns ones overall good. However, not all reasoning is good reasoning. Emotion relates to reason in a subordinate way and operates as a function of rationality. Much as desire, emotion responds to the object of impulse with neither the guidance of thought nor any system of regard for the overall good of the person as a whole. Still, this response ties itself to reason in order to act as a vehicle of motivation toward the ideal advanced by reason. When emotion connects with reason, it creates a force that in general conflicts with desire. When one senses being wronged by another, an emotion such as anger is aligned with ones reasoning as to what is right. Emotion that is tied to the feeling of being wronged might also compel one to withstand or subdue desires, such as withstanding hunger or cold. Thus, emotion acts on behalf of reason in opposition to desire even if it does not understand the ideal that the particular instance of reasoning aspires to.

Vincit qui se vincit. (He conquers who conquers himself.) True, emotions can also lead one to make choices that hurt one’s long-term interests by transforming goals and desires in the heat of the moment. Eventhough emotions do not last long, they can be powerful experiences that can make one do things that one will later regret. One might be angry today at a colleague and want to yell at him. Tomorrow, one could wish a more rational step had been taken regardless of how strong the desire was the day before. The same could be said of off-message remarks and ad-libs by a diplomat. Emotion has been described as a relevance detector in weighing the relative value of the options in making a decision and in choosing the one of greater value. How one reasons about choice options influences our emotional response as well. The common phrase ‘the glass half full or half empty’ captures the idea that our interpretation of an event alters our emotional reaction. A study examining gambling decisions found that thinking about each choice as one of a portfolio of choices lowered the arousal response to potential losses and thus loss aversion. 

Modern scientific tools are being used to parse out the interlacing of moral decision-making—peeking into the brain to see how emotion and reason really operate—shed light on these philosophical questions. The field of moral cognition, an interdisciplinary effort between researchers in social and cognitive psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience, has sought to accomplish that. Since the early 2000s, moral psychologists have been using experimental designs to assess people’s behavior and performance on certain tasks, along with fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans to glimpse the brain’s hidden activity, to illuminate the structure of moral thinking.

Harvard University Professor of Psychology and director of Harvard Moral Cognition Lab combined an iconic and thorny ethical thought experiment—the “trolley problem,” when you must decide whether or not you’d flip a switch, or push a man off a footbridge, to cause one person to die instead of five—with brain imaging back in 2001. Greene’s experiments, and others subsequent, have demystified the role that intuition plays in how one makes ethical tradeoffs. The experiments ultimately showed that moral decisions are subject to the same biases as other types of decisions. According to Greene, “our emotions, our gut reactions, evolved biologically, culturally, and through our own personal experiences because they have served us well in the past—at least, according to certain criteria, which we may or may not endorse.” Greene explained further: “The idea is not that they’re all bad, but rather that they’re not necessarily up to the task of helping us work through modern moral problems, the kinds of problems that people disagree about arising from cultural differences and new opportunities or problems created by technology, and so on.” All of this can be applied to the circumstances concerning Haley discussed here.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (above). Haley’s successes at the UN are the successes of the US, the administration, and the State Department. Her missteps are ultimately Tillerson’s responsibility. When things go awry in an organization, it is presumed that whatever happened was tolerated by its leader. The harmony between Tillerson and Haley must be discernable in talks, policy statements, and policy management and observable in interactions. Haley needs Tillerson’s support, and he requires her cooperation to assure the smooth running of foreign policy.

Tillerson as Mentor

Verba movent, exempla trahunt. (Words move people, examples compel them.) Some in the US newsmedia might scoff at the idea that Tillerson has some guidance to offer Haley. Most assessments and personal attacks against Tillerson in the US newsmedia explain that he is inexperienced in diplomacy. He has essentially been declared a neophyte, and lacks a background in diplomacy sufficient for him to serve as the chief US diplomat. Such judgments come not the result of solid research and analysis of Tillerson, but rather a blinding uncontrollable anger toward anything of or pertaining to Trump. Indeed, some observers have become so stirred within the counter-Trump milieu that they are unable think clearly and they feel the need to express the rage built up inside.  Those who are genuinely aware of Tillerson’s background would confidently agree that he is able to take on a mentoring role. What was always expected from Tillerson while he served as Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil and a long-time leading voice in business is clear thinking. He has brought that to the position of Secretary of State as well as a wealth of experience from numerous interactions with foreign governments. Indeed, at that time, he could interact with senior foreign officials on a level and in a way rarely enjoyed by US diplomats. When he was at ExxonMobil, foreign leaders, diplomats, and business giants were undoubtedly more relaxed in conversations with Tillerson, saying things US diplomats never would have heard. Those foreign officials and business leaders who spoke to Tillerson, perhaps never imagined him holding the position of Secretary of State. Haley could certainly benefit from his wealth of knowledge and experience.

Tillerson’s impressive capabilities as an orator were on display during his May 3, 2017 remarks to State Department employees in the Dean Acheson Auditorium. At first blush, some might refer to the compositional language of Tillerson’s oratory as old fashioned. However, there is a certain sense of artistic beauty to his work, long thought extant among chief US diplomats. His technique is extraordinarily sophisticated, reminiscent of the compositional technique in crafting of a choral, cantata, or sonata used by Johann Sebastian Bach, the German master composer and musician of the Baroque Period. There was a harmonic progression in his outline of policy to State Department employees. His stream of thought led pleasingly from one issue to another, with tension being created in discussing difficult issues and released with concrete options for action and answers to defeat problems. He does so progressively until he reaches his goal. Apparently understanding that he is most likely creating questions through some statements, he tries to provide answers that will satisfy different perspectives on an issue, indicating he has already considered those points of view, and signalling that he remains open to hearing more varied points of view. The discussion of one policy point, supports the discussion of others. This appears to be his manner of exploration and discourse, on bilateral, multilateral, and global issues that allows them to compliment each other. One can readily discern a pattern in his discussion which naturally will have an impact of facilitating the listeners absorbtion of his concepts. It also facilitates the understanding of Tillerson’s intent. There is little need to ask if he has a strategy for one clearly hears one being laid out in his words. He brings his points together, and they coalesce to form an impressive, clear, and edifying tapestry of foreign policy.

Concerning diplomacy, Tillerson’s technical command of it is also a product of his experience knowledge, intellectual depth, and meticulous attention to detail. Tillerson approaches foreign policy issues with a businesslike pragmatism. He is very professional, very disciplined. He speaks frankly with a no-nonsense demeanor that might unnerve some.

Tillerson (right) and Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left). Those who are genuinely aware of Tillerson’s background would confidently agree that he is able to take on a mentoring role. What was always expected from Tillerson while he served as Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil, and was a long-time leading voice in business, is clear thinking. He has brought that to the position of Secretary of State as well as a wealth of experience from numerous interactions with foreign governments.

How Tillerson and Haley Could Work Together

Tillerson could work together with Haley to ensure she will have fruitful multilateral meetings and constructive bilateral talks with her foreign counterparts. He could promote her use of building blocks for negotiations comparable to those once outlined by former US Secretary of State James Baker. Well over a decade ago, Baker, a renowned US statesman, explained that the building blocks would work well when properly applied through solid preparation and hard work. Included in Baker’s building blocks, and perhaps correspondingly Tillerson’s, were: 1) Understanding an opponent’s position; 2) Gaining trust through personal relationships; 3) Reciprocal confidence building; 4) Taking a pragmatic approach that does not sacrifice principles; 5) Being aware of timing; and 6) Maintaining a deep respect for the politics of the situation.

1) Understanding an Opponent’s Opimion

The ability to understand the other side’s position means finding out what is behind the other side’s opponent’s approach. By doing so, one has a better chance of reaching a successful conclusion. It requires being attentive to how the other side perceives issues, generally thinks no matter alien it may be to ones own, noticing patterns of behavior, some perhaps influenced by history and culture, and recognizing political constraints ones opposite may face. Baker called it having “the ability to crawl into the other guy’s shoes.”

2) Gaining Trust Through Personal Relationships

Building trust through personal relationships goes beyond written documents and treaties. Baker explained: “When both sides trust each other, even the most contentious talks can succeed. Negotiators can relax and explore the territory outside their formal negotiating positions. They can talk about their assumptions, strategies, and even fears. Haley could forge many new relations while working closely with her foreign counterparts on the UN Security Council. One should not, and certainly Haley would not, sacrifice her principles or US national interest in order to establish a trusting relationship interlocutor. Once she manages to achieve such ties, building trust at a personal level, Haley’s chances of success for engaging negotiations increase.

3) Reciprocal Confidence Building

Parallel, reciprocal confidence building is a method of confidence building that keeps the parties talking. It shows both sides they can negotiate. At the earliest stage, one could arrange a series small negotiations on issues that could be resolved quickly, reasonably, and amicably to assist in developing a dialogue. Baker explained that finding even a minor, common point of agreement, for example on the shape of the negotiating table, can serve to set the tone of the relationship. It also helps develop a dialogue, which is one of the most important aspects of negotiations.

Tillerson could work together with Haley to ensure she will have fruitful multilateral meetings and constructive bilateral talks with her foreign counterparts. He could promote her use of building blocks for diplomacy and negotiations. Included among those building blocks might be: 1) Understanding an opponent’s position; 2) Gaining trust through personal relationships; 3) Reciprocal confidence building; 4) Taking a pragmatic approach that does not sacrifice principles; 5) Being aware of timing; and 6) Maintaining a deep respect for the politics of the situation.

4) Taking a Pragmatic Approach That Does Not Sacrifice Principles.

Baker referred to “principled pragmatism,” as the art of the possible without the sacrifice of principle. While negotiation invariably requires some compromise. Still, compromise should not result in the sacrifice of one’s core principles. Working within the hard boundary between what is acceptable and what is not, one may deliberate with the hope of gaining a substantial part of what is sought rather than come away from negotiations with nothing. Baker explained: “Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good.”

5) Being Aware of Timing

Timing is the diplomatic art recognizing when to press a point and when to withdraw. Trying to accomplish negotiations when cirvumstances have been shaped by a recent, negative episode between the two parties makes success far less likely. A figurative tall wall could be built up between them. If time allows, one must search for an opening for positive action or attempt to create one. It calls to mind the three rules for any struggle: never hit without an opening; try to find an opening; and, when you find an opening, hit!

6) Maintaining a Deep Respect for the Politics of the Situation

Under the concept of maintaining a deep respect for the politics of the situation, Baker referred to two specific ideas by politics: “One is the noble art and science of winning election to public office . . . ‘Politics’ in the second sense is what occurs between elections, the process of turning ideas into policies.” To that extent, “politics” enters into every policy decision that a president or other public official makes. This relates back to the building blocks of understanding an opponent’s position and timing.

Tillerson likely sees Haley as part of his vision of an improved State Department and would hope as an important team player, her talents can be well-exploited in the performance of the department’s mission. Tillerson plans to restructure the US organism for diplomacy. In his May 3rd presentation, he explained his desire to better structure the department to perform its mission. By making the department a more agile, collaborative workplace, it would become a more diverse landscape of ideas and solutions. Urbem lateritiam invent, marmoream reliquit. (He found a city [the quote referred to Rome] of bricks and left a city of marble.)

Tillerson likely sees Haley as part of his vision of an improved State Department and would hope as an important team player, her talents can be well-exploited in the performance of the department’s mission. In his May 3rd presentation to department employees, Tillerson explained that he wants to better structure the US organism for diplomacy. By making the department a more agile, collaborative workplace, it would become a more diverse landscape of ideas and solutions.

The Way Forward

In Act I Scene ii of William Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice, Portia, a wealthy heiress in the city of Belmont, tells her lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, that she is weary of the world. Her deceased father’s will stipulates that Portia’s suitors must choose between three caskets, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead, in order to find the one that contains her portrait. However, Portia has an interest in Bassanio, who has visited once before. Not knowing how to repair her situation, Portia laments: “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree: such a hare is madness the youth, to skip o’er the meshes of good counsel the cripple.” According to news media reports, Haley was being led ostensibly by passion stirred over particular foreign policy issues. However, there was a need to recognize there is a measure in things. Caution had to be exercised. Other representatives on the Security Council viewed Haley as a source of authority on US policy. Their approaches to the US were being formulated based on her statements in that forum. For the State Department, as well as the White House, her words were not seen as authoritative. Haley was often too far off message relative to other senior members of the administration. Now calibrated by Washington, Haley can walk with an assured step as she delves into matters knowing with certainty, Tillerson, the White House, and Trump “have her back.”  She can project authentic power, for the public to see. It is hoped that through an effort by Tillerson, Haley’s role will be clearly defined and supported with his mentoring and coaching of her as a key team player.

An initial deposit of Haley’s interest in harmonizing her efforts with the White House and the State Department on policy was her joint appearance with Tillerson at the UN Security Council on April 28, 2017 where he made a presentation on the threat posed by North Korea’s increased missile and nuclear testing. Reporting about a schism between what is said in New York and Washington may be considered entertaining and the fodder for Trump administration critics. However, the entire matter of Haley being off message at the UN, while a bit ticklelish, will unlikely loom large in the story of the Trump administration. Fortunately, the problem was caught relatively early in the administration. One longs to hear the natural echoes of rebirth of US leadership in international affairs. In the first Vitaphone talking film, The Jazz Singer, the famous line of the film’s star, Al Jolson, “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” was recorded. The administration’s overall foreign policy message will improve now the Haley’s “message problem” has been resolved. As Tillerson continues to consider ways to improve the work of his department, the administration could certainly also say to the US public and the world on foreign policy: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

US Takes Sharper Tone on Russia’s Role in Syria: Despite Such Reports, the Future Holds Promise

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) and Russian Federation Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov (right). Reportedly, US President Donald Trump and Tillerson have sought to isolate Russia for backing the Syrian government after its chemical weapons attack in Idlib. They were also allegedly working to put international pressure on Moscow to change course. Yet, since the cruise missile strikes and bilateral talks, the situation regarding the US and Russia on Syria has actually improved. Change may be possible on US and Russian positions on more issues, but only through bold, determined diplomacy.

According to an April 12, 2017 New York Times article entitled “US Takes Sharper Tone on Russia’s Role in Syria,” US President Donald Trump and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have sought to isolate Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin for backing the Syrian government in the wake of its lethal chemical weapons attack on civilians. They were also reportedly working to build international pressure on Moscow to change course. In support of that conclusion, the article reports that on April 12, 2017, Tillerson came away from his meeting with Putin without reaching agreement on facts involving the chemical weapons assault in Syria or alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election. In describing the joint news conference with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov following the meeting with Putin, the April 12th New York Times article quotes Tillerson as saying, “There is a low level of trust between our countries.” It reports he further stated, “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.” Noting the level of tension surrounding the aftermath of the Syrian chemical weapons attack, the article asserts, a quick détente seemed a remote possibility. Further supporting that suggestion, the article reported that during a thirty minute news conference at the White House, Trump declared, “Right now, we’re not getting along with Russia at all–we may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia.” The point was additionally made in the article that events have sharply diverged from the meeting of the minds between the US and Russia that Trump frequently aspired to when he was campaigning, and there was no visible warming of the relationship. Yet, conversely, the same article explains that although Trump said the US-Russia relationship was failing, he held out hope that the two countries could come to terms, suggesting that Tillerson’s talks with Putin had gone better than expected. Although it highlighted occasions when the Trump administration in Washington, Moscow and New York, publicly chastised Putin, the article also indicated that the administration was privately working hard to “hash out” differences with him.

As greatcharlie affirmed in a previous post, the press, the news media, serves a free, effective democracy best, and is at its very best, when it unearths what is concealed or clarifies what may be confusing to the public about government actions. The press ensures power in a democracy remains in the hands of the people. Such efforts by the press are in great variance with reporting on Trump’s actions and intentions concerning the April 6, 2017 Tomahawk cruise missile strikes and relations with Russia on Syria. In the US, in particular, newsmedia pundits and policy analysts have meted out judgments of Trump’s decisions and actions akin to those once made “on the drumhead” for soldiers, an archaic type of summary military trial where only sentences were given and no interest was paid to evidence or arguments. (A drum is turned on its head and used as “the seat of justice.”) Another disquieting trend of news media criticism of Trump is to insist that he should follow some schedule and make certain decisions based on some template they apparently have in mind of how US presidents should act. (They would likely prefer a carbon copy of what they have found comfortable for nearly a decade.) A point of attack upon Trump’s actions is the idea that nothing he does can have real meaning or encourage a favorable outcome for US foreign policy because his administration’s actions have not been based on a coherent national policy or strategy, an articulated policy on the Middle East, and consequently, an identifiable policy on Syria.

The truth will always dispel falsehoods and misunderstandings. The reality is that following the US cruise missile strikes and Tillerson’s bilateral talks in Moscow, the situation in Syria was made somewhat better, and more importantly, US-Russia relations had turned in a positive direction. As the April 12th New York Times article alluded, Tillerson and Lavrov acknowledged in Moscow that actions have been taken by their respective countries which have irritated the other and they are taking steps to address that. Change may very well be possible in the respective positions of the US and Russia on certain issues, including Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. However, that will only happen through bold, determined diplomacy. Details of recent events and the Moscow talks are analyzed here to provide a better understanding of what has developed and what may come next. Ratio me ducet, non fortuna. (Reason, not luck, will lead me.)

Trump’s Alleged Policy Troubles

Festinare nocet, nocet cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit. (It is bad to hurry, and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.) Despite reports otherwise, Trump has actually taken a logical, prudent approach to foreign and national security policy. He is determined to make decisions that are true to promises he made during the campaign. He has initially sought to develop a firm understanding of what realistically can be done rather than have his team rapidly produce policies from analyses based on the abstract as a matter of political expedience. The source for Trump’s unorthodox exercise of due diligence on policy may likely be his experience as a builder. In that field of endeavor, Trump often may have greatly admired architectural designs of structures proposed to him, but he would invariably wait for engineering reports, cost estimates, and analyses of his business team before deciding on anything. It is an evolutionary process. The result of that approach has been the construction of some very impressive properties worldwide. Current and former generals serving in the Trump administration, well-versed in military history, might find parallel with this apparent concept very likely guiding their president’s thinking and the words of US General George Patton, Jr.: “One does not plan and then try to make circumstances fit the plans. One tries to make plans firmly the circumstances.” Out of necessity, Trump has energetically taken action on urgent issues; the strike in Syria is a prime example of that. Further, Trump, along with other senior administration officials, have held bilateral and multilateral talks with other countries in international organizations.

The practice of two prior presidential administrations was to make pronouncements on what could be done, poorly considering and matching possibilities with capabilities. They would then take action, the results of which were often failed foreign policy initiatives. An example of such an outcome was the notion promoted by the administration of US President George Bush in 2003 that US forces would enter Iraq and be greeted with cheers, open arms, and candy by Iraqis. Another example is the notion proffered by the administration of US President Barack Obama a decade later, that pronouncing “Assad must go” and supporting the Syrian Opposition Movement on the margins, would bring the Assad regime to negotiating table and its orderly release of the reigns of power would be arranged. Some might say their approaches were conventional. Nevertheless, they were wrong.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he was presenting the term as a concept, a guiding principle indicating his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. Still, it would be fallacious to apply this concept to Trump’s actions if he has witnessed grave harm come to any long-time ally,  partner or friend of the US, or innocent civilians of Syria, who he has suggested he would protect in safe zones if they returned home. Trump has a moral center, the values from which have a place in his foreign policy decision making.

The Better Angels of Trump’s Nature?

To liberally paraphrase the early Christian theologian and philosopher St. Augustine of Hippo, the defense of war is that it is using lethal force to stop others from committing evil or from inflicting evil upon people. The moral dilemma remains for us: as people who are ourselves sinful and living in a fallen world, our motivations for doing things can be misguided. Our sinful passions can control our behaviors which can lead us to act for wrong reasons and to accomplish sinful ends. Self-neglectful virtue melts all physical and ideological boundaries with a charity that gives hope to those perceived as the most helpless. After the chemical weapon attack in Idlib, Trump felt compelled to make a strong decision. Some policy analysts and news media pundits insist that it was made at the cost of contradicting certain principles, as America First, that he has firmly espoused. True, when Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he was presenting the term as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. Trump will unlikely be disposed to subordinating the interests of the US to the needs, wishes, or demands of any country. However, it would be fallacious for anyone to apply this concept to his actions if he has witnessed grave harm come to any long-time ally, partner, or friend of the US, or innocent Syrian civilians, who Trump has suggested he would protect in safe zones if they returned home. Trump has a moral center, the values from which have a place in his foreign policy decision making, a most recently his response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria. The better angels of his human nature took over. Trump’s words on the evening of the strikes in Syria signalled all of this. Trump explained: “My fellow Americans: On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians.  Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children.  It was a slow and brutal death for so many.  Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.  No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

The cruise missile strikes launched on April 6, 2017 by the Trump administration were calibrated to do only what was prescribed in response to Assad’s actions. Those engaged in its planning and execution can certainly hold their heads high. Yet, no paean, no song of praise or triumph, was heard from Trump at his residence Mar-a-Lago that evening. No celebrations took place at the White House or the Pentagon for that matter. Rather, Trump said: “Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.  We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world.  We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed.  And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail.”

Trump’s Military Experts Take Action

Undoubtedly, after learning of the Assad regime’s chemical attack, Trump undoubtedly asked his national security team to provide concrete answers on what to do in response. Trump did not simply vow to do something. He surely kept in mind Obama’s slow reaction in response to the Assad regime’s August 2013 crossing of a red line he drew on the use of chemical weapons. There was a chemical attack in a Damascus suburb and considerable evidence existed to support the accusation that Assad’s forces lainched it. Indeed, three days prior to the 2013 attack, the US had collected continuous streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence, revealing regime military activities allegedly associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack. Information gathered by the US from multiple streams clearly indicated that after those preparations were made, the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21st. Satellite detections, specifically, corroborated that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred–to include Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu’addamiyah. There was also the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, about ninety minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. The lack of flight activity or missile launches also led the US to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack.

Immediately following the cruise missile strike, US National Security Adviser, US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster left open the possibility that Trump will take further military action in Syria. Still, McMaster emphasized on “Fox News Sunday” on April 9, 2017: “We need some kind of political solution to that very complex problem.” He made it clear that finding a “political solution” to the Syrian crisis was what Trump wanted. McMaster further explained that Trump wants a worldwide response to Assad’s action that would include Assad allies Russia and Iran. Yet, McMaster clarified that remark by stating: “I’m not saying we are the ones to effect that change.” He then pointed to the fact that Russia and Iran “somehow think it’s OK to align with a murderous regime.” McMaster also affirmed on April 9th that the administration will try to simultaneously change the Assad regime and destroy the Islamic State terror group, entrenched in Syria. In an effort to clarify Trump’s foreign policy, McMaster said, “There has to be a degree of simultaneous action with some sequencing.”

US National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (above) has left open the possibility of further US military action in Syria. Perhaps members of Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center who provide combat service support for units that launch chemical attacks could be targeted by US strikes. The Trump administration could also let Assad feel “personal discomfort” for his actions. For example, an attack could damage facilities providing electric power to the neighborhood in which Assad lives through the use of non-lethal technologies such as electromagnetic pulse weapons.

Chemical Weapons and the Assad Regime

Syrian chemical weapons personnel who prepared chemical ordinance for the August 21, 2013, and the April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack included members of the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Center. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which is subordinate to the Syrian Arab Republic Ministry of Defense, is tasked with managing Syria’s chemical weapons program. According to French Intelligence, the organization is responsible for producing toxic agents for use in war, pinpointing Branch 450 as responsible for filling munitions with chemicals and ensuring the security of sites  where chemical agents are stockpiled. Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from August 18, 2013 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 near an area that the regime was known to mix chemical weapons, including sarin. On August 21st, a Syrian regime element  was surveilled preparing for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area. That element was using gas masks. US intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that any Syrian Opposition forces were planning to use chemical weapons.

A publicly released summary of the US intelligence community’s assessment of the April 4, 2017 chemical attack explains the Syrian regime maintains the capability and intent to use chemical weapons against the opposition prevent the loss of territory deemed critical to survival. It assessed that Damascus launched this chemical attack in response to a Syrian Opposition offensive in Northern Hamah Province that threatened key infrastructure. Senior regime military leaders were probably involved in planning the attack. According to the summary, a significant body of pro-opposition social media reports indicated that the chemical attack began in Khan Shaykhun at 6:55AM local time on April 4, 2017. The summary claimed further that the chemical agent was delivered by regime Su-22 fixed wing aircraft that took off from the regime controlled Shayrat Airfield. Reportedly, These aircraft were in the vicinity of Khan Shaykhun nearly 20 minutes before reports of the chemical attack began and were seen flying away from the area shortly after the attack. Additionally, the summary indicates personnel historically associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program were at Shayrat Airfield in late March making preparations for an upcoming attack in Northern Syria, and they were present at the airfield on the day of the attack.

A Possible Next Military Step

Much as the facilities, air assets, and personnel of Shayrat Airfield were targeted for cruise missile strikes, members of Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center who provided combat service support for units that launched the chemical attacks should be targeted by US strikes. Strikes on them should be executed not only as a consequence to their participation in the operation, but with the goal of removing them from the equation in Syria and obviating the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future. The facilities and equipment of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, from bases and offices, to trucks and gas masks should be destroyed to severely curtail the organization’s ability to support any chemical attacks in the future. US should be confident enough after attacks to assess numbers of remaining personnel only of a size enough to maintain stores of the ordinance until the time that perhaps an international body entering Syria at a later date might become engaged in its management. Under no circumstances should the US allow attacks to create a circumstance where Islamic militant forces could gain control of the chemical weapons at any site.

Further, according to US intelligence, Assad is the ultimate decision maker for Syria’s chemical weapons program.  If a direct attack upon is not a viable option, the Trump administration could as a minimum let Assad feel some “discomfort” for his actions and let him know how vulnerable he truly is. For example, a precision attack could be launched on the Syrian infrastructure designed to severely damage electric power in the neighborhood in which Assad lives. It could mean the use of non-lethal technologies such as electromagnetic pulse weapons that can seize all electric equipment of any kind in the vicinity. While the well-being of Assad and his family members should not be placed in danger, the attack should impact their daily lives. Such calibrated attacks would bring the consequences of Assad’s chemical attacks literally to his home. Assad’s neighbors will also know that the strike against their electricity and their normally well-protected living space came as a result of Assad’s use of chemical weapons. It is human nature to follow. It is human destruction that results from following the wrong leader.

Tillerson had previously met with Putin and senior Russian officials to secure oil deals while serving as the Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil. On June 21, 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors a foreigner can be bestowed by Russia after brokering a deal with the Russian state-owned energy giant Rosneft. However, Tillerson cannot, and will not, give any of that much importance now. At the April 12, 2017 meeting, Moscow discovered that as US Secretary of State, Tillerson is still very professional and he will approach issues with a businesslike pragmatism.

Can Tillerson Get a Handle on Russia?

Quid debemos cogitare? (What ought we think?) The Trump administration recognizes the Russian Federation’s significant presence in Syria and its influence with the Assad regime as well aa other countries that support it there. Its strong connection to the regime was enough to convince the Obama administration to accept Russia’s proposal to remove and destroy the Assad regime’s chemical weapons arsenal to avoid threatened military action by the US. Assad long ago was relegated to cameo appearances on the world stage via news media interviews. His cooperation could never be assured, and his treachery was assumed. Tillerson went into Russia to express concerns over Moscow’s continued insouciance toward Assad’s actions against his own people, non combatants. He wanted to learn firsthand the rationale behind Moscow’s willingness to endure international ridicule and rebuke in response to its friendship with the Assad regime, and what might prompt a decision to end that era. For Moscow’s perspective, the Trump administration’s approach to Russia in any direction must reflect the desire to hammer out a deal, not demand one. The insistence of Obama administration officials to take such an aggressive approach in talks with Russia more than anything served to disrupt the US-Russia relationship. Efforts by US officials diplomats and officials to threaten and cajole, as Moscow perceived talks, were more than just displays of a lack of diplomatic tact and maturity, they were viewed as threatening. Opinions expressed by former Obama administration officials on how the cruise missile strikes could be used as leverage in diplomatic talks with the Russian Federation appear to reflect the approach which Moscow found so unappealing. Antony Blinken, former US Deputy Secretary of State and Principal Deputy National Security Adviser in the Obama White House, reportedly told Reuters: “The US strike–ordered less than three days after the gas attack–could make it clear to Russia that the United States will hold Moscow accountable for Assad.”  Reuters also quoted Blinken as saying, “Tillerson ought to be ‘very matter of fact’ in his meetings, sending Russia a message that: “If you don’t rein him in, we will take further action.” Evelyn Farkas, a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia, assured Reuters that “Securing a Russian commitment on eliminating Assad’s chemical weapons is likely to be first on his agenda.”

For hours after Tillerson’s arrival in Moscow, it was uncertain if Putin would even meet with him because of the tense state of relations. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, held out the possibility of a meeting once Tillerson arrived, saying any meeting would depend on the nature of Tillerson’s talks at the Foreign Ministry. Tillerson, unfazed by any of those developments, went forward with his meeting Lavrov, the metronome of Russian foreign policy and diplomacy.  The meeting lasted for three hours. Tillerson eventually got the call to come meet with Putin, and left the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for Red Square around 5:00PM local time. That meeting lasted for two hours. All that is publicly known about the content of Tillerson’s April 12, 2017 meetings with Lavrov and Putin, has been gleaned from remarks and responses heard at the post meeting press conference. On April 6, 2017, Tillerson expressed the view that Russia had “failed in its responsibility” to remove Syria’s chemical weapons under a 2013 agreement, which he argued showed Russia was either complicit with the gas attacks or “simply incompetent.” At the April 12th press conference, a journalist’s’ question on the matter enabled Tillerson to clarify that statement. He replied: “With respect to Russia’s complicity or knowledge of the chemical weapons attack, we have no firm information to indicate that there was any involvement by Russia, Russian forces, into this attack. What we do know–and  we have very firm and high confidence in our conclusion–is that the attack was planned and carried out by the regime forces at the direction of Bashar al-Assad.” When Tillerson was asked about his conversations with President Putin on Syria, he replied: “Well, we did discuss at length the future role for Assad, whether it be in a future political process or not. Clearly, our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and they have again brought this on themselves with their conduct of the war these past few years. We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality. We do think it’s important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution. How that occurs, we leave that to the process going forward. We do not think one has to occur before the other can begin. And it will take a pace of its own. But the final outcome in our view does not provide for a role for the Assad–for Assad or for the Assad family in the future governance of Syria. We do not think the international community will accept that. We do not think the world will accept that.” Tillerson apparent made it clear in his meetings, that it will not be business as usual in US-Russian relations. His hope is to make things much better.

This was not Tillerson’s first meeting with Lavrov. On February 20, 2017, during the G-20 Meeting in Bonn, Germany, they met briefly and discussed what Tillerson referred to as “a range of issues of mutual concern.” Tillerson had met with Putin and senior Russian officials previously to secure oil deals while serving as the Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil. In appreciation of his efforts to broker a deal between ExxonMobil as the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft, on June 21, 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors a foreigner can be bestowed by Russia. (He was presented the award in St. Petersburg, Russia, along with the Chairman of ENI, an Italian multinational oil and gas company.) However, that occurred in the past. Tillerson is not, and will not, give any of that much importance now. At the April 12, 2017 meeting, Moscow discovered that as US Secretary of State, he is certainly not a Trump apparatchik. He approaches foreign policy issues with a businesslike pragmatism. He is very professional, very disciplined. He speaks frankly with a no-nonsense demeanor that might discomfit some. Tillerson barely registered a reaction when he was initially greeted by Lavrov with remarks denouncing the US missile strike on Syria as illegal and the accusation that the US was behaving unpredictably. When later asked by a Russian reporter how he would characterize the talks, Lavrov replied with a hint of both satisfaction and curiosity: “The State Secretary did not threaten me with sanctions. He didn’t threaten me with anything, actually. We frankly discussed the questions which were on our agenda . . . .”

A significant achievement of the talks was an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials charged with addressing smaller issues, which Lavrov called “irritants which have dogged our relations over the last couple of years,” and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship. That will allow Tillerson and Lavrov a freer hand to address urgent issues. They agreed to consider further proposals concerning the way forward in Syria; the respective allies and coalition partners of both countries would be consulted on the matter. There would be continued discussions directed at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict. Lavrov said Putin had agreed to reactivate an air-safety agreement, a de-confliction memorandum, concerning Russian Federation and US-led coalition air operations over Syria. Moscow suspended it after the US cruise missile strikes. Before its next contact with the Trump administration, Moscow will undoubtedly consider what cooperative role the US could play that would allow for the full exploitation of its capabilities in the anti-ISIS effort. Yet, if Moscow wants to cooperate with the Trump administration on Syria, it must create an environment that will facilitate such cooperation. For the moment, the transition of Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. If the Trump administration ever decided to cooperate with Russia on Syria, it would signal its acceptance of Assad’s presidency as it is Russia’s policy to fully support it. However, to believe that might happen is to deny reality. Assad is at Russia’s disposition. A final decision on how to handle him will need to be made soon.

Through the April 12, 2017 talks, an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials charged with addressing smaller issues of concern and help stabilize the relationship. They agreed to consider further proposals concerning the way forward in Syria and consult respective allies and coalition partners of both countries on the matter. Discussions directed at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict would be continued. Putin agreed to reactivate an air-safety agreement concerning Russian and US-led coalition air operations over Syria.

Russia: Beware of Assad

Secrete amicos admone, lauda palam. (Admonish your friends in secret, praise [them] openly.) No international conference, no guarantees from Russia to keep him in check, no surgical procedure even, could make Assad palatable to the West at this point, or to any government in the Middle East other than Iran. Assad should not be seen as Russia’s proxy. Without outside support, Assad was unable to keep himself in power against ISIS and perhaps the Syrian Opposition. The military situation began recurvate after Russia, with the urging of Iran, moved it forces into Syria in September 2015. Assad can only be useful to Russia as a figurehead, a symbol of resistance to the opposition and ISIS. In time, he may very well be replaced by a more acceptable leader among the Syrians.

Reconstruction will be another huge hurdle for Russia to overcome. Lacking any significant resources from the US and the rest of the international community to rebuild, the only viable long-term goal in Moscow would likely be to convert Syria into a large scale version of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Donetsk People’s Republic, and the Luhansk People’s Republic. It would receive the recognition of very few countries, but not the US or major powers of Europe. Syria would in many ways would be shut off from the rest of the world. Even if it received a decent amount of economic aid from the Western countries and international organizations as the UN, the World Bank, or international Monetary Fund, Syria may never see an economic upturn. After observing the effects of few months of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns, Damascus might recognize that Moscow truly cannot support Syria in a way that would allow for its rebuilding. The situation would only worsen if pressure was placed on Russia over Syria through future sanctions.

Looking at the situation through Assad’s prism, it clear that he does not like or accept the idea that he is a factotum, a convenient tool for Moscow and Tehran. He may very well be able to convince himself that his regime and his sect, the Alawites, are large enough and strong enough to deter any possible attempt by current power friends and military allies time remove him from power. Assad will not allow his reign to come to an ignominious end. There would be a final demonstration of his power. He will make a stand or lash out before he goes. His concealed stockpiles of chemical weapons would even allow him to strike his allies with some effect. Indeed, Assad may believe that having those weapons at hand may be playing a role in deterring the few allies he has from turning against him. People with the most absolute power in history have tried to hold on by their fingernails knowing when they let go, all will be gone. They have often self-destructed. Misused power is always built upon lies. Tyrannical figures redefine what exists into projections of their egos. There are no noble thoughts. They become wrapped up in themselves. Assad seems to find pleasure in what is evil. As time goes on, the more tragic he becomes as a figure. The cruise missile strikes by the Trump administration may very well have initiated a discourse in Moscow on how to: better handle the remnants of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and how to defeat their use against Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria. Such discussions would likely take place in tandem with any on preventing burgeoning, positive relations with the US from being ruined by Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons. Mali sunt in nostro numero et de exilo bonorum virorum cogitant. (There are evil men in our number [our midst] and they are thinking about the destruction of good men.)

Assad (above) will not allow his reign to come to an ignominious end. He will make a stand before he goes. Concealed stockpiles of chemical weapons would allow him strike out even at his allies with some effect. He may believe as long as he has such weapons at hand, he is able to deter the few allies that he has from turning against him. Given the threat his chemical weapons actually pose to Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria, Trump’s action may have started a discourse in Moscow on how to handle Assad weapons and prevent him from poisoning burgeoning relations with the US by using them.

The Way Forward

In Act I, Scene i of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, elderly King Lear in ancient Britain is deciding to give up his power and divide his realm amongst his three daughters, Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril. He declares the daughter who can profess her love for him the most will receive the largest share. While he hoped Cordelia, his favorite would win, she refuses to play, offering a desultory response. Enraged, Lear disowns Cordelia accepting the soupy, excessive declarations of Reagan and Goneril who consequently set out to kill him. Before leaving the palace with the King of France, Cordelia having an intimation of the danger her sisters posed to Lear, states: “Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides: Who cover faults, at last shame them derides. Well may you prosper!” The prognosis for the long-term survival of Assad’s presidency is not good. Today, many still believe Putin’s relationship with Assad is indissoluble. Quite often, Putin displays choreographed support for Assad. However, sometimes conditions can change to such a degree that one’s position must be altered. Patriotism permeates everything that Putin does. While not actually articulated, Putin has subtly promoted the concept of “Russia First”, a guiding principle similar in many ways to Trump’s “America First”. Putin will not subordinate the interests of the Russian people to those of another country, regardless of friendships, partnerships, or alliances. Putin would be remiss if he ignored big opportunities that would benefit Russia’s long-term interests. Assad would unlikely react well to even the prospect of a “shift” in his relationship with Russia.

Moscow apparently sought to steal a march on the incoming Trump administration by getting know its likely senior officials, understanding Trump’s intentions, and predicting its movements in advance. Yet, deciphering Trump proved to be a difficult task. It appears what Moscow knew about the administration as it took the reigns of power amounted to guesswork or nonsense from poor sources. Much of what Moscow observed and encountered from the administration came as a surprise. Praise for Trump initially heard from certain political quarters in Moscow transformed into rebuke. Yet, through contacts between officials of both countries an authentic understanding of Trump began to take shape among Russian foreign policy decision makers and Putin. Those in Moscow au courant with the public discourse in the US on Trump know that harsh criticism is the “popular” reaction. They may also have discerned that the psychology of defective pride in play when hearing those in the US considered foreign policy experts reproach Trump. Trump is not the imprudent actor those experts want him to be. Trump’s intellect is the type that builds modern cities. Moscow must ignore all the approbation in the background and prevent it from insinuating itself into analyses. That will facilitate Moscow’s efforts to sort things out regarding the Trump administration and become more comfortable in dealing with it. On Syria, relations between the US and Russia are improving. The US approach is not to elbow a better position for itself on the matter, but rather to have Russia acknowledge its responsibilities regarding the war-torn country. It is the most prestigious and powerful player fighting in support of the Syrian Government. As such, it must take on the role of guiding Syria to peace. Russia is not on the sidelines and not in a position to retreat in that direction. Although only Trump and and Putin can respectively prescribe duties to Tillerson and Lavrov, this is a matter that demands their cooperation. Whenever some resolution to the matter might be found, it is nearly certain that Assad will be the last to know about it. Haec omnia vulnera belli tibi nunc sananda sunt. (All these wounds of war must be healed by you now.)

Book Review: Vladimir Putin, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000)

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (above). First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000) recounts what can now be called Putin’s early years in the form of an oral history. Putin’s co-authors explained the book’s goal was to answer the complex question “Who is this Mr. Putin?” While it provides big pieces of the puzzle that is Putin in a historical context, one can also extrapolate from First Person much that would be useful in understanding Putin’s approach to the West and what guides his actions currently.

“He doth bestride the narrow world. Like a Colossus . . . .”  These words from Act I Scene iii of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar could certainly serve to describe a perspective that many in the West hold about Russian Federation President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Indeed, there is a certain sense of wonder about him, his power, his will. Western observers ranginging from think tank analysts, learned scholars, journalists, leaders and officials in national capitals, former diplomats with firsthand experience with the Russian president along with self-styled experts with a comparatively paltry knowledge of him, have engaged in endless examinations of Putin. Many are actually more akin to in ruthless vivisections. So popular is the exercise of analyzing Putin and proffering views of him that the mixed bag of his observers are fashionably referred to as “Putinologists.” Many would argue that harsh criticism of Putin for his actions at home and abroad is deservedly meted out. Some very likely declare Putin’s decisions and actions unnecessary or unacceptable, desiring to sail with the prevailing wind. Yet, one might also intuit that the most ferocious attacks on Putin, typically spoken or written at great distance from Moscow, signal an almost inexorable fear of him. Uncertainty can breed fear. Surely, many things about Putin are difficult to understand, and, consequently, are misunderstood.

In First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000), Putin, with the assistance of journalists Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timokova, and Andrei Kolesnikov, recounts what can now be called his early years. The book takes the form of an oral history instead a memoir or autobiography. It does not simply provide a history of events, organizing them more or less along a timeline. Putin’s co-authors explained the book’s goal was to answer the complex question “Who is this Mr. Putin?,” or at least bring the reader a little bit closer to understanding Russia’s “new president.” Putin was interviewed by his three co-authors on six separate occasions for approximately four hours at a time. They discussed his life. Whenever questions proved to be uncomfortable, too invasive, he would ask them to turn off the tape recorder.  The co-authors also interview his family members and people who knew him well or played an important role in his destiny. The book includes only the interviewers’ questions and the responses of Putin and his relatives and colleagues. His co-authors recognized the book’s format was unusual.  If questions caused either Putin or his relatives to reminisce or ponder, they were never interrupted. No editorial lines were added to the text. The interviews generally occurred late at night, around the dinner table. Once they were conducted at Putin’s office at the Kremlin. The co-authors met with Putin’s wife and with two daughters at his dacha. The 208 page book has nine “parts.” Those parts are organized as follows: The Son; The School Boy; The University Student; The Young Specialists; The Spy; The Democrat; The Bureaucrat; The Family Man; and, The Politician. Included in the book are several extraordinary personal photos of Putin and his immediate family. Photos of Putin taken closest to the time of publication show him before he had the eyes of the experienced, battle-scarred leader. His eyes appear similar to those of the very best students of a fine university, watching and peering, learning and discerning constantly in order to best prepare himself to lead Russia into the future.

First Person did not have to compete with other texts on Putin at the time of its publication. There was a fog of uncertainty that hampered the ability of observers to view power players in Russia beyond Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. Moreover, for a while after Yeltsin took power following the 1991 coup d’etat attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev by the Gang of Eight and the subsequent Second Russian Revolution, the selection process for officials in the Yeltsin government was a bit higgledy-piggledy at that stage. Officials in top positions would come and go. Putin’s name was among those that emerged in the midst of everything. He garnered modest media attention internationally. While it increased once he became acting president, it reached nothing close to his current prominence and celebrity. First Person was largely viewed in the West as a campaign biography. It was first published in the Russian newspaper Kommersant as such. A New York Times review of First Person stated, “The new Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, who is 47, has been a bit of a mystery man. Outside of his former colleagues in the KGB and in St. Petersburg city government, few had heard of him.” Interestingly, a review of the book in Foreign Affairs stated, “He offers little hint of the direction in which he intends to lead probably because he does not know.” First Person may have garnered interest beyond Russia hands around the world, but it did not make any best seller lists. Other books providing a picture of Putin’s activities before and just after he became president have been published, but those texts only tell Putin’s story in the third person. First Person provides a “first person” account of those events. By delving deep into the book, greatcharlie found that it prefigured the world leader that Putin would become. Reading First Person, it might even seem to some that for cosmic, preternatural, or even divine reasons, Putin was prepared, expected, not put in place by coincidence. First Person is rarely mentioned in present-day commentaries about Putin. The book’s important information should not lay inert, unread. First Person provides big pieces of the puzzle that is Putin in a historical context. Yet, one can also extrapolate much from it that would be useful in understanding Putin’s actions and in interpreting what guides his current approach to relations with the West.

Who is the Russian Leader?

Before delving into details of this very unique and edifying book’s discussion, it is necessary to offer a bit more about the world renowned national leader who is its author. A succession of political positions were thrust upon Putin shortly after he left the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. Once on the right path, he broke all sorts of records on his way to the top. In 1997, he served as head of the Main Control Directorate. In 1998, he was named first deputy head of the Presidential Administration, responsible for the regions. In 1998, he was ordered to serve as director of the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB. Later that same year, he was named Secretary of the Security Council. In August 1999, he was made prime minister. It was Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin’s unexpected resignation on New Year’s Eve 1999 that resulted in Putin’s elevation to the Kremlin. He then won the 2000 Russian Federation Presidential Election much to the surprise of Western experts. Putin did not inherit an ideal situation in Russia when he became president. While on his way to the top of the political heap, Putin saw how mesmerising “reforms” recommended to Yeltsin’s government by Western experts drastically impacted Russia’s economy in a way referred to somewhat euphemistically by those experts as “shock treatment.” Yeltsin was unaware that Western experts were essentially “experimenting” with approaches to Russia’s economic problems. His rationale for opening Russia up to the resulting painful consequences was not only to fix Russia’s problems but ostensibly to establish comity with the West. The deleterious effects of reform recommended by Western experts’ could be seen not only economically, but socially. In the West, alarming statistics were reported for example on the rise of alcoholism, drug addiction, birth defects, HIV/AIDS, a decreased birth rate, and citizens living below the poverty line. Glum faces on Russian officials who apparently sensed that the society, all of its institutions, was sliding downward, moving closer to the darker days of the Soviet era. Putin recognized that along with the trials created by the collapse of the Soviet Union and ensuing economic hardships Russia suffered, came a loss of prestige and the image of power. That loss was made worse by newsmedia reports from Russia’s second war in Chechnya which was brutal and at times seemed unwinnable. As Russia’s privation was publicized internationally, perceptions of Russia changed for the worst worldwide. However, Putin saw no need for Russia to lose its dignity as a result of its large step backward. Putin believed Russia would rise again, and that some acceptable substitute for the Soviet Union might be created. He never lacked faith about that. (In later years, Putin would not hesitate to inform leaders of countries that were once Soviet republics of his intention to bring them back under Moscow’s political, economic, and military influence.) Putin was loyal and obedient while he served Yeltsin, but saw him tarry too long as Russia strained in a state of collapse.

The English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead stated “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order. When Putin took power, the West expected him to give it nothing less than his unequivocal cooperation in a manner similar to his predecessor. Western capitals also expected Putin to be a bit wobbly taking on so much responsibility at a relatively early age. Yet, Putin knew his shoulders could bear the burden. He had no desire to be just a man of the moment in Russia. Much as Yeltsin, Putin, too, showed patience toward the West for a while, but he did not procrastinate. He took on the mission of breathing fresh breath into a country that was dying. He pushed ahead with plans “to save” Russia from disintegration and frustrate what he sensed were Western efforts to weaken it. Indeed, Putin did not believe congenial relations with the West were authentic given the many years of geopolitical struggle. Putin believed then, and believes now, that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. He believes Western governments are driven to create disorder in Russia and make it dependent of Western technologies. Still, Putin has shown that would prefer to outthink his rivals in the West rather than fight them. That notion has influenced his responses in contentious situations. It also accounts for the sustained peace with the US. In a September 11, 2013 New York Times op-ed, Putin took umbrage over the idea of “American exceptionalism.”  Putin is unlikely thrilled by the slogan “Make America Great Again,” or the concept “America First.” surely, the West is not Putin’s only concern, but relations with it affects Russia’s prestige and ability to act globally.

Putin was proactive as he tried to get a real handle on things. His challenges of the West were timed, calculated risks. Still, despite being measured in his approaches, in a few cases, he did gamble a bit. Former US President Calvin Coolidge explained plainly: “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers. It may not be difficult to store up in the mind a vast quantity of facts within a comparatively short time, but the ability to form judgments, requires the severe discipline of hard work and tempering heat of experience and maturity. There is a chorus of Putinologist who have proclaimed Putin’s style of management was shaped by his career as an officer in the KGB. For some time, greatcharlie agreed with that assessment. The KGB certainly had an impact on him. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. Putin’s experience as a KGB officer was also valuable in planning policy approaches and doing things as effectively as they were done at the tactical level in the field. Yet, through a reread of First Person, greatcharlie recognized as Putin admitted in the book, that his seven years of experience working the local government of St. Petersburg was good learning experience for both administrative and managerial work. To the extent that his civilian work experience in St. Petersburg and KGB service coalesced, as president, Putin has sought the assistance of a small group of men who served alongside him in St. Petersburg during his KGB career. As chief executive, Putin proved skillful in the handling the day to day operations of the government. He managed to shape his environment by developing approaches for issues such as combating terrorism, combating and controlling organized crime, curbing foreign influences, improving public safety, improving public health, business reform, invigorating industries, controlling oligarchs. To use a soft metaphor, Putin tilled the soil so that he could plant his plans and programs for Russia’s future with certainty that they would grow. He had a hand in everything, and his touch was heavy. Putin’s decisions were always well-informed, not by reading reports handed to him, but through his own research on anything in which he had an interest, and in international affairs, through good use of streams of intelligence. However, Putin also made good use of his intuition to discern his opponents’ thinking, and has paid heed to his intimations about their courses of action. More often than not, he hits the mark. Putin sought to take on qualified ministers, directors, and other officials to handle specialties. That effort was hampered to an extent during Putin’s early years in power given the need to respond to the wishes of certain patrons. Still, Putin never hesitated to fire those foisted upon him or his handpicked hires, whether former KGB or not, when they failed to perform. Putin has known what advice, prognostication, and proposals to accept in order to promote his efforts at home and internationally and develop a coherent set of policies. Since he brings his “A-game” to his office everyday, striving for perfection and hungering for improvement, and he expects the same from his cabinet. There are never any spectators, passengers along for the ride. All must be able to answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of issues they cover, because that is what Putin will ask for. At the present, Putin is probably working with the best cabinet he has ever crafted both in terms of the quality of their work and chemistry.

On domestic matters, Putin, when necessary, proved well-equipped to control, manipulate, and strong arm, seemingly endless groupings of aggressive political opponents. Indeed, early on as president, Putin effectively dealt with challenges posed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the extreme right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party of Russia. The challenges posed by them lessened every year afterward. With the support of allies, Putin eventually changed Russia’s direction and, to a degree, transformed it. Russia got back into the big power game, and began to take active measures to protect what was viewed in Moscow as its interests. Currently, public opinion on Putin in Russia is extraordinarily high. Polling from the Levada Center in September 2016 put him at a 82 percent approval rating. Initial efforts made by Putin in 2000 to secure Russia and improve its well-being were appreciated by fewer Russians. The cause, in part, was a skepticism about the intentions of national leaders, believing there was an imbalance in their thinking impelling them to tilt toward corruption as opposed to serving the national interest, which was their charge under the constitution. Convinced of the corrupt nature of national leaders, perhaps they would go as far as to say such behavior was immutable, and would accept the Western label “kleptocracy” to describe Russia. Some might also agree that the baneful shroud of tyranny has covered the country since the Soviet era. Although Putin restored order from turmoil in Russia, many in the West and in Russia’s opposition movement would say he accomplished this with little regard for human and political rights. They would certainly point to the deaths of the statesman, politician, journalist, and opposition political leader, Boris Nemtsov; journalist Anna Politkovskaya; and, former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. Attention might also be directed to the deaths of 36 generals and admirals from 2001 to 2016. No clear effort has made to dilute such reports, but in the majority of cases, the causes of death listed were listed as suicides, heart attacks, or unknown. Among those who died are former Russian Federation National Security Adviser and Army Major General Vladimir Lebed and the Head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation Russian Federation Army Colonel-General Igor Sergun. Yet, no matter what Putin may be doing domestically or internationally, in his mind, he is always honest to himself and justified as he performing the duty entrusted to him. On June 10, 2015, Putin was asked by the editor in chief of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, “Is there any action that you most regret in your life, something that you consider a mistake and wouldn’t want to repeat ever again.” Putin stated, “I’ll be totally frank with you. I cannot recollect anything of the kind. It appears that the Lord built my life in a way that I have nothing to regret.”

Patriotism permeates everything Putin does. It is hard to imagine how he would think any other way, given ideas on sacrifice for the motherland that Putin acquired from his parents, grandparents, and other family members. Yet, much of what he learned of his family’s valor was caught by him, not taught. He said: “when relatives would come to visit them in St. Petersburg, there would be long chats around the table, and I would catch some snatches, so many fragments of the conversation.” Putin’s grandfather was a cook for Josef Stalin and his father served gallantly in a NKVD battalion during World War II.

A Taste of What Lies within First Person

First Person does not simply provide a history of events, organizing them more or less on a timeline. What is most intriguing and very unique about First Person is what each chapter reveals about Putin’s thinking; what is in his mind. One is also provided with a cultural context in which to examine how Putin moved, lived during the years covered.

Putin: In the Beginning

In reading Part 1, one can begin to understand why patriotism permeates everything Putin does. However, given ideas on sacrifice for Mother Russia that Putin acquired from his parents, grandparents, and other relatives, it is hard to imagine how he would think any other way. According to Putin, much of what he learned about his family’s valor was caught by him and not taught directly to him. Indeed, he explains: “My parents didn’t talk much about the past, either. People generally didn’t, back then. But when relatives would come to visit them in St. Petersburg, there would be long chats around the table, and I would catch some snatches, so many fragments of the conversation.” Putin’s grandfather, whose name was Spiridon Ivanovich Putin, was a cook. However, after World War I he was offered a job in The Hills district on the outskirts of Moscow, where Vladimir Lenin and the whole Ulynov family lived. When Lenin died, his grandfather was transferred to one of Josef Stalin’s dachas. He worked there for a long period. It is assumed by many that due to his close proximity to Stalin, he was a member of the infamous state security apparatus, the Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (Peoples Commissariat of Internal Affairs) or NKVD. Putin notes his grandfather who came through the purges unscathed although few people who spent much time around Stalin did so. Putin also notes that his grandfather outlived Stalin, and in his later, retirement years, he was a cook at the Moscow City Party Committee sanatorium in Ilinskoye. As for Putin’s mother, Mariya Ivanovna Putina, née Shelomova, during the war, she refused to leave St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) as the Germans were blockading it, but was eventually taken out to Smolny by her brother when it became impossible for her to remain. Under gunfire and bombs, he extracted her and her baby, Albert, Putin’s brother, out. She put the baby in a shelter for children, which is where he came down with diphtheria and died. (Note that in the 1930s, Putin’s mother lost another son, Viktor, a few months after birth. Putin’s mother nearly died from starvation. In fact, when she fainted from hunger, people thought she had died, and laid her out with the corpses. With God’s grace, she awoke and began moaning. She managed to live through the entire blockade of Leningrad. It was nearly a decade later, on October 7, 1952 that she gave birth to the Russian President. (Note that the two names for Putin’s hometown, St. Petersburg and Leningrad, were used interchangeably by Putin during his interviews.)

It was also noted by Putin in Part 1 that his mother attended church and had him baptised when he was born. She kept his baptism a secret from his father, who was a party member and secretary of a party organization in his factory shop. Putin relates a story concerning her faith as well as his own in Part 1’s final paragraph. He explains: “In 1993, when I worked on the Leningrad City Council, I went to Israel as part of an official delegation. Mama gave me my baptismal cross to get it blessed at the Lord’s Tomb. I did as she said and then put the cross around my neck. I have never taken it off since.”

Putin’s mother, Mariya Ivanovna Putina, née Shelomova (above). Putin’s mother attended church and had him baptised when he was born. She kept it a secret from his father, who was a party member and secretary of a party organization in his factory shop. During World War II, her baby son came down with diphtheria and died, and she nearly died as well from starvation. She managed to live through the entire German blockade of Leningrad.

As for Putin’s father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, he was on the battlefield, serving in a NKVD demolitions battalion, engaged in sabotage behind the German lines. There were 28 members in his group. Recounting a couple of experiences during the war that his father shared with him, Putin explains that on one occasion after being dropped into Kingisepp, engaging in reconnaissance, and blowing up a munitions depot, the unit was surrounded by Germans. According to Putin, a small group that included his father, managed to break out. The Germans pursued the fighters and more men were lost. The remaining men decided to split up. When the Germans neared Putin’s father, he jumped into a swamp over his head and breathed through a hollow reed until the dogs had passed by. Only 4 of the 28 men in his NKVD unit returned home. Upon his return, Putin’s father was ordered right back into combat. He was sent to the Neva Nickel. Putin says the small, circular area can be seen, “If you stand with your back to Lake Ladroga, it’s on the left bank of the Neva River.” In his account of the fight, Putin explains German forces had seized everything except for this small plot of land, and Russian forces had managed to hold on to that plot of land during the long blockade. He suggests the Russians believed it would play a role in the final breakthrough. As the Germans kept trying to capture it, a fantastic number of bombs were dropped on nearly every part of Neva Nickel, resulting in a “monstrous massacre.” That considered, Putin explains that the Neva Nickel played an important role in the end. Dire necessitas. (Dire necessity.)

Putin was asked by an interviewer if he thought “we paid too high a price for that little piece of land?” Putin replied: “I think that there are always a lot of mistakes made in war. That’s inevitable. But when you are fighting, if you keep thinking that everybody around you is always making mistakes, you’ll never win. You have to take a pragmatic attitude. And you ave to keep thinking of victory. And they were thinking of victory then.” Victoria natura est insulens et superba. (Victory is by nature superb and insulting.)

Putin’s father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin (above).  Putin’s father engaged in sabotage behind the German lines in World War II. In First Person, Putin recounts a couple of stories about his father’s experiences during the war. Putin tells that on one occasion after being dropped into Kingisepp, engaging in reconnaissance, and blowing up a munitions depot, his father’s unit was surrounded by Germans. Less than 15 percent of its men returned to Russian lines. His father also fought at the Neva Nickel, described most often as a “monstrous massacre.”

Putin and the Martial Arts

Parva scintilla saepe magnam flamam excitat. (The sparkle often initiates a large flame.) In Part 2, readers learn from Putin he was not the best student in elementary school. By fifth grade he was known for acting out, preferring to spend more time playing in a courtyard behind his home than anything else. In his own words: “I was a hooligan.” “I really was a bad boy.” However, his teacher in elementary school, Vera Dimitrieva Gurevich, saw great promise in him. While he was receiving C grades, he could do much better. Indeed, she looked upon him as a classic underachiever who needed encouragement and a goal to focus on. He had to discover the connection between effort and achievement. Recounting a conversation with Putin’s father, she recalls saying to his father: “You have to have a talk with him. Let’s work on him together, you at home and I at school. He could be getting better than C’s. He catches everything on the fly.” Interestingly, Putin’s focus and performance in school improved and his bad behavior was more or less extinguished once he was introduced to the martial arts. Putin notes that he became involved with sports when I was 10 or 11.  As soon as it became clear that my pugnacious nature was not going to keep me king of the courtyard or school grounds, He first tried boxing, but in his words “didn’t last long there,” quickly getting his nose broken. After losing his “boxing bug,” he tried samba, a Soviet combination of judo and wrestling. He attended a class near his home. It was a very plain gym owned by the Trud athletic club. His trainer was Anatoly Semyonovich Rakhlin, a man who devoted his whole life to his art. Putin said Semyonovich played a decisive role in Putin’s life, believing that if he had not become involved in sports, he cannot say for certain how his life would have turned out.  At first Putin studied samba, then he moved to judo. Semyonovich had decided all the students would study it. Putin’s description of judo in the book manifests his love for the art. He explain: “Judo is not just a sport, you know. It’s a philosophy. It’s respect for your elders and for your opponent. It’s not for weaklings. Everything in judo has an instructive aspect. You come out onto the mat, you bow to one another, you follow ritual. It could be done differently, you know. Instead of bowing to your opponent, you could jab him in the forehead.”

Putin’s focus and performance in school improved and his bad behavior was more or less extinguished once he was introduced to the martial arts, more specifically, judo. Putin notes that he became involved with sports when he was 10 or 11.  His trainer was Anatoly Semyonovich Rakhlin, a man who devoted his whole life to his art. Putin said Semyonovich played a decisive role in his life, believing that if he had not become involved in sports, he could not say for certain how his life would have turned out.

Putin’s involvement in the martial arts had a direct impact on his lifestyle. While admitting that prior to studying judo he tried smoking a couple of times, but “ruled it out” when once he became engaged in sports. Putin says initially worked out every other day, then every day.  He says he soon had no time available for anything else. Regarding his thinking at the time, he explains: “I had other priorities; I had to prove myself in sports, achieve something for. I set goals. Sports really had a strong influence on me.” Qui studet optatam cursu contingere metam multa tulit fecitque puer, sudavit et alsit abstinuit Venere et Baccho. (He who wants to achieve his desired career goals, as a child must endure and do a lot of things, sweat a lot, and experience harsh cold, and refrain from Venus [goddess of love] and Bacchus [god of wine].)

However, his time training in the martial arts also allowed him to learn lessons about life and about people. In recounting one episode during his training that left a lasting impression on him, Putin explains: “Once we went to the gym with Leonid Ionovich, the senior coach from Trud. The karate kids were working out on the mat, although it was our turn. Leonid went up to their trainer and told him it was time for our class. The karate trainer didn’t even look his way–as if to say, get lost. Then Leonid, without saying a word, flipped him, squeezed him lightly, and dragged him off the mat. He had lost consciousness. Then Leonid turned to us and said “Go on in and take your places.” Putin said it was a manifestation of an attitude toward karate, but he could not help but learn from that one must have the will and the power to protect one’s interest, to take what is rightfully yours. The judo team was scheduled to use the mat and the coach made certain they did so. Periclum ex aliis facito tibi quod ex usu siet. (Draw from others the lesson that may profit yourself.)

Putin’s KGB Dream

In Part 2, Putin reveals that at an early age, he wanted to serve in intelligence. The genesis of the idea were books and spy movies such as Sword and the Shield. His prior interest as a youth was to become a pilot. That interest similarly stirred through the reading of literature and a subscription to an aviation journal. He became focused on attending the Academy of Civil Aviation. Even before he wanted to become a pilot, Putin desired to be a sailor. However, his desire to serve in intelligence was a bit different. Putin explained: “What amazed me most of all was how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not. One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people. At least, that’s the way I understood it.”  His family was dismayed, but not shattered by his decision. His father, given his experience, was aware of the grave nature of work in that field. Until they fully understood, his ambition, the strength of his will to achieve that goal, his parents discouraged Putin from pursuing his goal. Putin’s martial arts coach, Semyonovich, had gone to see them and told them that as an athlete, he could get into an Institute practically without passing exams. That led his parents to push him into going into an Institute. His agreed. He could not fathom  why Putin resisted. Another coach from the Trud Club, Leonid Ionovich, came to visit. As Putin explained it, “He was a clever guy.” Recounting an exchange with Ionovich over his career choice, Putin said the following: “‘Well,’ he [Ionovich] said to me, ‘Where are you going?’ Of course he already knew. He was just acting sly. I said, “To university.” “Oh, that’s great, good for you,” he said, “in what department?” Putin replied, “The law school.” Then coach Ionovich roared: “What? To catch people? What are you doing? You’ll be a cop. Do you understand?” Insulted, Putin yelled back, “I’m not going to be a cop” The use of his intellect to make a determination on his future, and will to push ahead on that track, his tenacity, would become the hallmarks of Putin’s approach to matters and how he sought to achieve objectives. Putin took “active measures” in the effort to reach his goal of joining the intelligence service. Remarkably, around the beginning of the ninth grade, Putin went into the office of the KGB Directorate to investigate the possibility of working there. He explains that employee came out to hear what he had to say. Putin says he told him, “I want to get a job with you.” The employee said: “That’s terrific, but there are several issues. First, we don’t take people who come to us on their own initiative. Second, you can come to us only after the Army or after some type of civilian higher education.” Putin inquired, “What kind of higher education?” “Any!” he said. Putin says he surmised the man probably wanted to get rid of me, but he nevertheless asked further “But what kind is preferred?” The man responded “Law school.” For Putin, “that was that.” He said: “From that moment on, I began to prepare for the law faculty of Leningrad University. And nobody could stop me.”

File photo of Putin as a young KGB officer (above). Putin reveals that at an early age, he wanted to serve in intelligence. The genesis of the idea were books and spy movies. Putin explained: “What amazed me most of all was how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not. One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people.” His mother and father, with the help of his coaches tried to dissuade him from his career choice to no avail. In ninth grade, Putin visited the KGB Directorate’s office to investigate the possibility of working there. A few years later, his dream surprisingly became a reality.

Putin’s KGB Recruitment

Grata superveniet, quae non sperabitur hora. (Welcome will arrive at the hour that was not hoped for.) In Part 4, Putin outlines his recruitment into the KGB and the initial activities in which he was engaged for the service. Putin admits that during all his years in university, he actually waited for the man at the KGB office to contact him. Alackaday, he began to give up hope. As Putin says he reasoned at the time: “It seemed that he had forgotten about me. After all, I had gone to see him as a school kid. Who would have thought that I could have such spunk? But I recalled that they didn’t like people to show their own initiative, so I didn’t make myself known. I kept quiet. Four years passed. Nothing happened. I decided that the case was closed, and I began to work out different options for finding employment either in the special prosecutor’s office or as an attorney. Both are prestigious fields.” However, when he was in his fourth year of university, a man came and asked Putin to meet with him. Putin said the man did not say who he was, but he immediately figured it out, because he said “I need to talk to you about your career assignment. I wouldn’t like to specify what it is yet.” Putin said he reasoned at the time: “If they didn’t want to say where, that meant it was there.”  Putin’s story about his recruitment goes on: “We agreed to meet right in the faculty vestibule. He was late. I waited for about 20 minutes. Well, I thought, what a swine! Or someone was playing a prank on me? And I decided to leave. Then suddenly he ran up, all out of breath. “I’m sorry,” he said. Putin notes that he like that.” Then Putin heard what must had been magical words: “It’s all arranged.” He went on to state: “Volodya [Close friends used the diminutives Volodya or Vovka instead of Vladimir when speaking to Putin], there is still a lot of time, but how would you feel if you were invited to work in the agencies?” Putin interestingly remarked: “I didn’t tell him that I had dreamed of this moment since I was a schoolboy. I didn’t tell him, because I remembered my conversation in the KGB office long ago: ‘We don’t take people who come in on their own initiative.’” Despite what was said that day in the vestibule, Putin heard nothing more. The man disappeared. Then, there was the odd day when Putin received a phone call; an invitation to the university’s personnel department. However, when Putin arrived at the employment commission there was some confusion. Putin explains that when reached his name, a representative from the department of law said, “Yes, we’re taking him into the bar.” Then an agent sitting in a corner of the room who was monitoring the students’ assignments suddenly awoke and said, “Oh, no.”  He went on to say: “That question has already been decided. We’re hiring Putin to work in the agencies of the KGB.”  Putin claims the agent said it out loud in front of the jobs assignment commission. Nevertheless, days later Putin was completing several application forms and papers. Ad posse, ad esse. (From possibility to reality.)

At first the KGB assigned Putin to the Secretariat of the Directorate, and then to the counterintelligence division, where he worked for about five months. When asked by the interviewers if work in the KGB was what he imagined it would be or what he was expecting, Putin said: “No, of course it wasn’t what I had imagined. I had just come from university, after all. And suddenly I was surrounded by old men who had been in their jobs during those unforgettable times. Some of them were just about to go into retirement.”  For Putin, as with most of his young colleagues, the KGB offered Putin a solid basis for believing that the Soviet system could be protected and sustained. The KGB, as a central organ of the government, ostensibly had the know-how and the resources to prevent the Soviet Union, and the contiguous countries of the Eastern bloc that it led, from falling into a chaotic condition. As a novice at the KGB, Putin’s intent was to be honest in his own convictions within the parameters of his mission. However, actual work with longtime agents put his beliefs to the test. Putin mentions one occasion of that. He explains: “One time a group was drafting a scenario. I was invited to join the meeting. I don’t remember the details, but one of the veteran agents said that the plan should be followed in such-and such a way. And I piped up: “No, that’s not right.” “What do you mean?” he said, turning to me. “It’s against the law,” I said. He was taken aback. “What law?” I cited the law, “But we have instructions,” he said. Once again I cited the law. The men in the room didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about. Without a trace of irony, the old fellow said, “For us, instructions are the main law.” And that was that. That’s how they were raised and that’s how they worked. But I simply couldn’t do things that way and it wasn’t just me. Practically all my peers felt the same way.” Ab honesto virum bonum nihil deterret. (Nothing deters a good man from the performance of his duties.)

Putin in the GDR (above). When asked by the interviewers if work in the KGB was what he imagined it would be or what he was expecting, Putin said: “No, of course it wasn’t what I had imagined. I had just come from university, after all. And suddenly I was surrounded by old men who had been in their jobs during those unforgettable times. Some of them were just about to go into retirement.” As a novice at the KGB, Putin’s intent was to be honest in his own convictions within the parameters of his mission. However, actual work with longtime agents put his beliefs to the test.

As for the remaining stages of Putin’s training, he explains in Part 4 that for several months, he “went through the formalities and knocked off some cases.” He was sent to agent training for six months. Putin noted that the school in Leningrad was not too exceptional. Once his superiors believed he had mastered the basics, Putin was sent to Moscow for field preparation. After completing his studies in Moscow, Putin returned to St. Petersburg and worked about six months in the counterintelligence division. In Part 5, Putin expounds on the type of work in which he was engaged for the greater part of his KGB career. He said that during his counterintelligence training,  officers from foreign intelligence began to notice him. He recounts: “They wanted to talk. First one conversation, then another, then a third and a fourth . . . Intelligence is always looking for more people for themselves, including people from the security agencies. They took people who were young and had certain appropriate qualities.” Putin was very pleased by their actions because he, just as everyone else, desired to work in foreign intelligence. It meant travel abroad under the conditions of the Soviet Union, and espionage was considered the white collar job in the agencies. Putin admitted that there were many people who exploited their position in order to trade in foreign goods. It was an unfortunate fact. Without hesitation, Putin agreed to go into intelligence. He was sent for special training in Moscow for one year. He then returned to Leningrad and worked in the “first department.” The first chief directorate is intelligence. It had subdivisions in all the large cities of the Soviet Union, including Leningrad. He worked there for approximately four and a half years, and then went to Moscow for training at the Andropov Red Banner Institute, which is now called the Academy of Foreign Intelligence.

Putin recognized from the start at the Red Banner that he was being prepared for Germany. It became especially clear once faculty began pushing him to study German. He said it was just a question of where: the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Putin explained that there were prerequisites for working in the FRG. An agent had to work in the appropriate department of the central office of the KGB. He had to languish there for one to three years. It was based on the individual. If an agent wanted to go to the GDR, he could go immediately. Putin chose the later. What might be of special interest of readers would be Putin’s description of his work in the GDR, particularly as it relates to NATO and political figures and political activities in the West. Putin said, “The work was political intelligence,” obtaining information about political figures and the plans of the main opponent: NATO. Interestingly, Putin says he never travelled  to the FRG to perform his tasks. In a more precise statement of his intelligence activities he intriguingly described them as follows: “The usual intelligence activities: recruiting sources of information, obtaining information, analyzing it, and sending it to Moscow. I looked for information about political parties, the tendencies inside those parties, their leaders. I examined today’s leaders and the possible leaders of tomorrow and the promotion of people to certain posts in the parties and the government. It was important to know who was doing what and how, what was going on in the foreign Ministry of a particular country, how they were constructing their policy on certain issues and in various areas of the world, and how our partners would react to disarmament talks. Of course, in order to obtain such information, you need sources. So recruitment of sources, procurement of information, and assessment and analysis were big parts of the job. It was very routine work.” Putin makes it all sound so routine, while in the West today, revelations about such intelligence activities by Russia tend to overwhelm those who are just learning about it all.

Putin described his work in the GDR as political intelligence: obtaining information about political figures and the plans of NATO. He sought information on political parties, tendencies within them, and their leaders. He examined: today’s leaders and the possible leaders of tomorrow; the promotion of people to certain posts, who was doing what and how, what was going on in a country’s Foreign Ministry; how it was constructing policy on key issues and regions globally; and, likely reactions of partners to the disarmament talks.

Putin’s Political Mentor: Anatoly Sobchak

Quidquid ages, prudenter agas et respice finem! (Whatever you do, do cautiously, and look to the end!) In Part 6, Putin reviews the intriguing course of events that led him to leave his beloved KGB and work in the local government of St. Petersburg. Putin had become somewhat disturbed by his fellow countrymen’s insouciance toward the decay of both order and humanism in the Soviet State when returned home from the GDR. He was offered a job in the central office in Moscow, but he turned it down. Putin explained to the interviewers: “I knew that there was no future to the system. The country didn’t have a future. And it would have been very difficult to sit inside the system and wait for it all to collapse around me.” At that time, the work, in which Putin and his colleagues were engaged, did appear no longer necessary given how he described it. Putin remarked: “What was the point of writing, recruiting, and procuring information? Nobody at Moscow Center was reading our reports. Didn’t we warn them about what was coming? Didn’t we provide them with recommendations on how to act? There was no reaction. Who wants to work for nothing? To spend years of your life–What for–just to get paid?” Putin went on further with examples: “Let’s say, for example, that my friends in the scientific and technical intelligence paid several million dollars for some information about an important scientific discovery. It would have cost our country billions of dollars to independently develop the same project. My friends could procure the information and send it to the Center. People there would look at it and say ‘Wonderful. Great information. Thanks. Kisses. We’ll recommend you guys for medals.’ But then they would not use the intelligence. They wouldn’t even try, because the technical level of our industry simply didn’t allow for it.” Putin admits that when he returned from the GDR in January 1990, he continued to work in the agencies, but he quietly considered a backup plan. In the forefront of his thinking was his two children, and his need to support them. After a few interesting turns, his fortune improved a bit after he was asked to go “undercover” at Leningrad State University (LGU). It was an assignment Putin was happy to take, as it would allow him to write his doctoral dissertation in international law, become familiar with LGU, and perhaps help him get a position there. In following, in 1990, he became the assistant for international liaison to Stanislav Petrovich Merkuriev, the president of LGU, and someone Putin described as a good man and brilliant academic. Putin was able to reestablish contact with many old friends from the law faculty. Several of them had stayed on there, defended their dissertations, and became instructors and professors. One of them asked him to help Anatoly Aleksandrovich Sobchak, the chair of the Leningrad City Council. Putin explained his thinking on the matter: “Sobchak needed someone good on his team. Apparently, he was surrounded by crooks. Would I go and work for him? “You know, I have to think about it,” I said. “I’m a KGB personnel officer, after all. And he doesn’t know that. I could compromise.” As for his KGB status, Putin was placed in the active reserves. He explains elsewhere in the book that it was in the reserves that he reached the rank of full colonel. “Just talk to him,” his university friend reportedly said. Sobchak was already a famous and popular person that Putin admitted to  observing what he did and said with great interest. He confessed that he did not like everything he saw, but Sobchak had gained his respect. Putin revealed that when Sobchak was a teacher at LGU, he had social connections to him. Putin said people had written that he was practically Sobchak’s favorite student. He dismisses that, saying he was just one of Sobchak’s lecturers for one or two semesters.

When Putin met Sobchak at his office in the Leningrad City Council, he explained the cause for his visit. Putin tells: “He was an impressive man, and said to me right off: ‘I’ll speak to Stanislav Petrovich Merkuriev. Come to work starting Monday. That’s it. We’ll make the agreement right now, and you’ll be transferred.” Putin told him that he would be would be happy to do that, but explained that he was not just an assistant to the president, and that he was also a staff officer of the KGB. Putin recalls, “He thought and thought, and then suddenly he said, ‘Well, screw it.’” Sobchak told Putin, “I need an assistant. Frankly, I’m afraid of going into the reception area. I don’t know who those people are.” Putin fully understood. Putin confirmed what he said his university friend had initially told him: “The people in Sobchak outer office–his cohorts–were harsh and rude in the best traditions of the Komsomol, the Soviet school. This disturbed the city council deputies and led to a conflict between Sobchak and the city council.” Putin then told Sobchak that he would be happy to come to work for him, but that I would first need to inform his managers at the KGB and resign from my post at LGU. Putin recognizes this as a delicate moment for it would be difficult to tell his managers of his intent to change jobs. As Putin recounts it: “I went to my boss and said, ‘Anatoly Aleksandrovich is proposing that I leave the university and go to work for him. If it’s impossible, I am ready to resign.’ They replied: ‘No. Why? Go and work there. There is no question about it.’” That surprised Putin. He surmised that his managers, “who were fairly subtle people and understood the situation,” did not impose any conditions on him. He remained formally listed in the security agencies, although he hardly set foot in the directorate building.

Putin (left) had become somewhat disturbed by his fellow countrymen’s insouciance toward the decay of both order and humanism in the Soviet State when returned home from the GDR. He was offered a job in the central office in Moscow, but I turned it down. Putin’s acceptance of an “undercover” assignment at Leningrad State University led to his entry into Russia’s political milieu via Anatoly Aleksandrovich Sobchak (right), the chair of the Leningrad City Council, and to his resignation from the KGB due to political pressures.

Recta conscientia traversum unguem non oportet discedere. (It is not advisable to move away from your conscience even the width of a fingernail.) Putin was also intrigued by the fact his managers never once tried to use him for operations. He says he thought they understood it would have been pointless. However, on one occasion my colleagues from the agencies tried to exploit Putin’s proximity to Sobchak. According to Putin, Sobchak would go on business trips and was frequently out of town. He would leave Putin in charge of the office. One day, he was in a big rush before a trip, and his signature was needed on a document that was incomplete. Sobchak could not wait for it. Sobchak then took three clean sheets of paper, put his signature at the bottom, and gave them to me, saying ‘Finish it up’ and left. That same evening, Putin recalls, his colleagues from the KGB came to see him. Putin explains: “We spoke about this and that, and then they mentioned how great it would be to have Sobchak’s signature on a certain document. Couldn’t we discuss it? But I was a seasoned person–I had survived so many years without a slip-up–and I sized up the situation right away. I took out the folder and showed them the blank sheets of paper with Sobchak signature. And they and I understood that this was testimony to the great degree of trust Sobchak had in me. ‘Can’t you see that this man trusts me?’ They immediately backed off. ‘No more questions,’ they said. ‘Sorry.’ And everything was nipped in the bud.” Putin noted that the situation was abnormal, and amusingly explained the salary he continued receiving from the KGB was greater than what he was receiving from the city council.

However, circumstances arose that forced Putin to consider writing a letter of resignation. Eventhough his experience with Russian politicians was brief, he learned fast. He understood that relations with the deputies in the city council would often turn down a bumpy road when they were lobbying were someone’s interests. Putin says he eventually had the following experience: “Once a deputy came up to me and said, ‘You know, we have to help so-and so. Could you do such and such?’ I had already put them off several times. One day he said to me, ‘There are bad people here–all sorts of enemies–and they’re sniffed out that you’re a KGB agent. You have to foil them. I’m prepared to help you, but you have to do me a favor.’” Putin realized that they would not leave him alone. To avoid what could have become endless attempts at manipulation, he made the difficult decision to write his letter of resignation. He was just sick and tired of that brazen blackmail. Difficile est longum subito deponere amorem. (It is difficult to suddenly give up a long love.)

In Part 6, Putin also goes into great detail about his work in the 1992 and 1996 mayoral elections in St. Petersburg and a sense is provided of his acumen and instinct for work in the political sphere. In 1992, he played a definitive role in Sobchak’s election as the first popularly elected mayor of the city. As chair of the Leningrad City Council under the old system, Sobchak could have been removed by the council members at any moment. He needed a more stable position. Sobchak finally agreed that the post of mayor had to be introduced. However, Putin explains that because he had fair conflictual relations with the majority of deputies on the council, it was not certain that the proposition would pass. Meanwhile, his public popularity was very high. Putin told the interviewers that the deputies knew that Sobchak would be elected mayor if they voted to introduce the post, and they did not want that. They liked the fact that they could always keep Sobchak on a hook. Putin says that he was directly involved in active measures to convince some of the deputies that it would be best for the city if it had a mayoral post. Putin says he also managed to mobilize the heads of the city districts. He notes that they did not have the right to vote, but they could influence their deputies. In the end, the objective was achieved through hard work. The decision to introduce the post of mayor was passed by the Leningrad City Council, by a margin of a single vote. Putin was also able to assess four years later after taking inventory of the his team’s capabilities and possibilities for success that in order to win re-election, Sobchak would need “professional campaign managers and technicians–not just a guy who could finesse the deputies.” Putin saw that it was a whole new ball game. Campaign plans had to be adjusted to fit circumstances.

Et monere et moneri proprium est verae amicitae. (It is a characteristic of true friendship to give advice and to receive it.) Putin said that he told Sobchak right off, “You know, you’re on a completely different playing field now. You need specialists.” He agreed, but then he decided that he would conduct his own electoral campaign. When interviewers asked Putin if overconfidence guided Sobchak’s decision, Putin said money could have been a factor. He says: “You know, running a campaign, bringing in specialists–all of this costs money. And we didn’t have any. Sobchak had been under investigation for a year and a half on allegations that he had bought an apartment with city funds. But in fact, he did not have any money either for an apartment or for an election campaign. We were not extracting funds from the city budget. It never entered our heads to find the money we needed that way.” However, with regard to Sobchak’s opponent, Vladimir Anatolyevich Yakovlev, the former governor of Leningrad oblast (province), Putin said that he got the funds he needed at Moscow’s expense. He believed Yakovlev was supported by the very same people who orchestrated the ethics campaign against Sobchak. Putin said at the time that Aleksandrovich Vasilyevich Korzhakov, who had been removed as head of the Presidential Security Service in 1996, played an active role against Sobchak. That was in accord to the information that Sobchak’s campaign had, as well as Oleg Nikolayevich Soskovets on Yeltsin’s 1996 Presidential Campaign. Putin said: “The law enforcement agencies were brought in later. They play very dirty.”  Putin outlines one of techniques used against Sobchak: “About a year and a half before elections, a commission came to St. Petersburg from Moscow. The commission had been appointed by the heads of three agencies: the FSB, the Interior Ministry, and the prosecutor’s office. They opened up real criminal cases and made Sobchak a witness in two of them. During the election campaign, someone sent an inquiry to the Prosecutor General’s office, asking whether Sobchak was involved in any criminal investigations. The very same day, the answer came back: Yes, three were two criminal cases under investigation. Naturally, they didn’t explain that he was a witness, not a suspect, in these cases. The reply from the Prosecutor General’s office was duplicated, and flyers were dropped over the city from a helicopter. The law enforcement agencies were interfering directly in a political contest.”

Putin goes into great detail about his work in the 1992 and 1996 mayoral elections in St. Petersburg. One gets a sense of his acumen and instinct for work in the political sphere. In 1992, he played a definitive role in Sobchak’s election as the first popularly elected mayor of the city. In 1996, Putin assessed that in order to win re-election, Sobchak would need professional campaign managers and technicians. He recognized it was a “whole new ballgame.” However, Sobchak decided to run his own campaign office. There were many missteps, and he lost the election.

Nihil æ grius quam disciplinam accipimus. (We receive nothing with so much reluctance as instruction.) After Sobchak decided to run his own campaign office, Putin says Sobchak’s wife, Lyudmila Borisovna, got involved. Sobchak pronounced her campaign manager. Putin said the campaign team tried to talk both of them out of this, because they were not convinced that everyone in the campaign office would be willing to take orders from her. A lot of time was lost debating who should run the campaign. Another Sobchak deputy,  Aleksei [Alexei] Kudrin, got involved. Sobchak asked Putin to continue to work in city affairs, leaving him to manage the economic activity of a city with a population of five million citizens during that period. At the last minute, between the first and second rounds, Kudrin and I tried to jump into the election fray, but it was hopeless. Putin says: “We really blew it on the election.”

For some time after Sobchak’s defeat in the mayoral elections, Putin says he stayed in his office in Smolny. The second round of presidential elections was underway, and he was working for the St. Petersburg headquarters of Yeltsin’s campaign. The newly elected mayor of St. Petersburg, Yakovlev did not move Putin out of his office right away; but as soon as the presidential elections were over, he was asked rather harshly to free up the space. By that time, Putin had already turned down Yakolev offer to keep my post as deputy mayor. Putin said he made the offer through his people. Putin explained: “I thought it would be impossible to work with him, and I conveyed that to him. Besides, during the campaign, I was the one who had initiated a statement signed by all the officials in the mayor’s office that we would all leave Smolny if Sobchak lost. It was important to express our solidarity, so that all the people who worked with Anatoly Aleksandrovich and his administration would realize that his defeat would be a defeat for them, too. It was a good stimulus to get the all involved in the struggle.” Moreover, Putin recalls: “We called a press conference and made a public statement, which I read. So, it was impossible for me to remain behind in the mayor’s office after Sobchak lost.”  However, Putin said what really made staying on with Yakovlev a bad idea was his attacks on him during the campaign. Putin said: “I don’t remember the context now, but in a television interview, I had called him Judas. The word seemed to fit, and I used it.” Western newsmedia headlines currently point to Putin’s alleged efforts to influence elections in their countries, including the US. However, Putin leaves no doubt that he was disgusted with Yakovlev due to his role in the grand effort to influence the election against Sobchak. It was a sound educational experience that Putin would never forget. In amicitia nihil fictum est, nihil quisquid est, id est verum et voluntarium. (In friendship there is nothing fictitious, nothing simulated, and it is in fact true and voluntary.)

After serving in the city government of St. Petersburg, and coping with a period of unemployment, Putin dashed to the top.  He served as head of the Main Control Directorate in 1997. He was named first deputy head of the Presidential Administration, responsible for the regions. He served as director of the Russian Federation Federal Security Service and then was named Secretary of the Security Council in 1998. In August 1999, he was made prime minister. It was Yeltsin’s unexpected resignation on New Year’s Eve 1999 that elevated Putin to Acting President of Russia.

In Part 7, Putin explains that he was unemployed for a few months after Sobchak lost the St. Petersburg elections. This was a big problem for Putin  especially since he had a family.  He explains: “The situation had to be resolved, one way or another. But the signals from Moscow were mixed; first they were asking me to come to work, then they weren’t.” It was at this point that Aleksei Alekseyevich Bolshakov, first deputy to the then Prime Minister of Russia, Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin, and fellow St. Petersburger, stepped forward to help Putin. He convinced Yeltsin’s Chief of Staff Pavel Pavlovich Borodin to bring Putin into the presidential administration. It was the first step in Putin’s rise upward toward the presidency. That part of the story is told in other pages of First Person. Indeed, one will find much more about Putin in the book.

All things considered, one could safely state that Putin is not everyone’s cup of tea. Nevertheless, what he presents about himself in First Person is intriguing, exciting,surprising, distressing, edifying, and enlightening. It is a book that takes the reader on a journey through the halls of power in Moscow. It is a story of intrigue and excitement as much as family values and humility. It discusses people and ideas that have moved events forward in Russia in the past and the present, all from Putin’s perspective. It is hard to imagine that Putin would ever write a remarkably detailed memoir of this type today. That remains to be seen, but we still have First Person to enjoy right now. Some of our readers may have came across First Person in syllabi during their undergraduate or graduate studies or in the libraries of their organizations. However, whether our readers have already read the book or never heard of it before, greatcharlie urges all to grab a copy and examine it using the prism of present day events. It will not disappoint.

By Mark Edmond Clark

A Worried Europe Finds Scant Reassurance on Trump: It May Be Provided Outside the Counter-Trump Milieu

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US President Donald Trump has not projected the sort of geniality toward Europe that would relax its leaders. Insecurity over populism and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has overwhelmed European leaders, officials, analysts, academicians, and journalists, but Trump seems to worry them almost equally. They do not get him. Perhaps the best hope now would be for European leaders and officials to step away from the current environment and try to quietly examine Trump from a different angle for the sake of transatlantic relations.

According to a February 19, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “A Worried Europe Finds Scant Reassurance on Trump’s Plans,” diplomats, generals, policy experts, and security officials traveled to the 2017 Munich Security Conference from all over the world seeking clues to US President Donald Trump’s ideas and intentions on foreign and defense policy, but left without much reassurance. The highest ranking members of the Trump administration that attended the conference, held from February 17th to February 19th, were US Vice President Mike Pence and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Both addressed the conference, but reportedly adhered to prepared statements. Pence’s presentation, in particular, was eagerly awaited. In his address, he explained that he carried a direct message of reassurance from Trump, but his words received little approval from keen observers of Washington present. R. Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor and former US Under Secretary of State gave Pence credit. Burns said, “The vice president said what he had to say, and I applauded.“ He went on to explain, “But there were very few specifics, and everyone noted that Mr. Pence did not once mention the European Union, which for most Europeans is the central institution, not NATO. Europe is going through a very tough time, and they expected a big public embrace of these institutions from the leader of the West, the United States.” Burns went on to explain, “They know that President Trump has repeatedly questioned the relevance of both NATO and the EU and has encouraged Brexit, and many Europeans fear he may work for a weakening of the EU itself.” He continued, noting, “All this ambivalence makes them very nervous, and it’s hard for Pence to overcome.” US Senator John McCain, referred to in the New York Times article as a conference regular, said that the administration was “in disarray,” and added,“The president, I think, makes statements and on other occasions contradicts himself. So we’ve learned to watch what the president does as opposed to what he says.”

Europe has managed to promote multilateral cooperation under difficult circumstances in the past 70 years. Perhaps the best example of that cooperation was the formation of NATO in 1949.  There was a sense of uncertainty, a degree of instability, and a real threat from the Soviet Union. Foreign policy and global strategy were not well-coordinated among Western capitals. However, with the leadership role of the US, but also with distinctive leading roles played by European countries, what is the now well-known as the Western perspective grew. Pragmatic and patient efforts were to coordinate the policies of Western European countries together with the US and Canada until a new system of European security was developed. Currently, there is increased anxiety in European capitals with regard to EU unity, a rise in populism, and the threat posed by Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and his armed forces. Uncertain of the new US administration’s intentions and plans regarding the support of Europe, European leaders and officials have been turning left and right, asking questions, searching for useful answers. Finding genuine, constructive answers in what could called a counter-Trump milieu has proven most difficult. Indeed, with all of the news media stories, and the nonstop rebuke of Trump by political opponents at home and pundits worldwide, there hardly seems space available in the current environment to introduce into the discourse other facts or evidence about the US president other facts or evidence about the Trump administration without obstruction.

Perhaps the best hope now would be for European leaders and officials to momentarily step back from the current discourse and during that pause, try to quietly examine Trump from a different angle for the sake of Europe. That reexamination might include new research and bilateral meetings with senior US officials. Europe must bridge the growing gap in relations with the US. False appearances and errors in judgment can be dispelled by the truth. To simply take the approach du jure, engage in groupthink, or succumb to the angry mob about Trump, is a misuse of intellect, a misuse of will. Demands cannot be so great, tied so much to the dignity of a nation or movement, or their own pride and ego, that European leaders and officials would allow themselves to become the impediment to finding a way to work with Trump. Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem. (Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even.)

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At the 2017 Munich Security Conference, US Vice President Mike Pence’s address was eagerly awaited. He offered reassurances from Trump. However, the Europeans wanted a public embrace of their institutions by the US, but they say it was not given. There hardly seems space available in the counter-Trump milieu in Europe for anyone to introduce other facts or evidence about Trump and his administration without obstruction.

Prominent Europeans’ Responses to Trump at Munich

Animus quod perdidt optat atque in præterita se totus imagine versat. (The mind yearns for what is gone and loses itself dreaming of the past.) National leaders are expected to project a certain geniality. In democracies, that geniality can boost a candidate’s appeal to the public in elections. Once in power, that geniality makes for great optics, and to a degree may still help shape public opinion, but the main task of a leader is to perform one’s duty and responsibilities well. Trump has not projected the sort of geniality toward Europe that would relax leaders in Brussels or any of the national capitals. There has been a tumultuous clamor in Europe over him. The most apparent causality for the Europeans are the ties of a few senior members of the Trump administration might have with the Russian president. Europe’s expression of  such irritation and concern exposed the considerable degree of insecurity, and to a degree, fear, that overwhelms the latest generation of European analysts, academicians, and journalists not only over populism, Putin, and Russian military power, but the US almost as much. They appear unable to read Trump and discuss him in a way that cannot seem to avoid use of obloquy. The nascent days of the Trump administration certainly contrast in this way with those of administration of US President Barack Obama. Obama seemed to specialize in studied ambiguity on foreign policy, speaking comfortable words to address urgent and important issues as well as outright provocations. It was in line with what then Vice President Joe Biden called “the new tone” of US foreign policy at the 2009 Munich Security Conference. The Obama administration held the promise of a kinder, more thoughtful US than was observed with the administration of his predecessor US President George Bush. Biden urged Europe to ramp up its efforts and partner with the US in an effort to re-establish a workable world order. Those early days with Obama in office appear sorely missed by the Europeans. However, waxing nostalgically about the Obama administration will not serve European leaders well. Moreover, with nostalgia, one more often remembers the best and filters out the worst. Some might recall that Europe voiced concern over how passively Obama responded to provocations such as Russia’s threat to deploy weapons against former Soviet republics and cut natural gas supplies to Europe, and Iran’s launch of a satellite and development enough uranium to fuel a nuclear bomb.  Now, concerns are being expressed about another US president’s response concerning European security.

When he addressed the 2017 Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to Washington who organizes the conference, queried whether Trump would: “continue a tradition of half a century of being supportive of the project of European integration, or is he going to continue to advocate EU member countries to follow the Brexit example? If he did that, it would amount to a kind of nonmilitary declaration of war. It would mean conflict between Europe and the United States. Is that what the U.S. wants? Is that how he wishes to make America great again?” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault expressed his displeasure with the fact that Pence had not sent a message of support for the EU, something Ischinger had suggested Pence provide before the conference. Elmar Brok, head of the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament and a party ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated, “Pence and Mattis and Tillerson can come here and talk about the importance of the transatlantic relationship and NATO–and that is all good.” However, Brok went on to state, “But we don’t know what’s coming on Twitter tomorrow morning.” Daniela Schwarzer, the director of the German Council on Foreign Relations stated without ornament, “People were not reassured.” She continued, “They think that Trump is erratic and incalculable. We all want to hear what we want to hear. But everyone knows that any Trump official could be gone tomorrow, or undercut in another tweet.” Still, Schwarzer intriguingly stated that words were also deeds. She explained, “What he says also changes reality.” In that vein, she proffered, “If you put NATO or the European Union into doubt, it changes their credibility and damages them.” Ulrich Speck, a foreign policy analyst at the Elcano think tank in Brussels, said the conundrum that former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger evoked when he famously asked who he should call when he wanted to talk to “Europe” seemed to have been “turned on its head.” Speck continued, “Now Europe is asking who it should call if it wants to talk to the United States.” One unnamed European diplomat reportedly likened the challenge of figuring out who to listen to in the Trump administration to the task of “Kremlinologists” during the Cold War. Major ignotarum rerum est terror.  (Apprehensions are greater in proportion as things are unknown.)

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US Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the 2017 Munich Security Conference (above). No benefit will be derived from undermining the US leadership when a response from the US against Russia might prove crucial to Europe’s well-being. European leaders and officials must recall that the ties between the US and Europe have a long history. It is a bond which no US administration would genuinely desire to ignore or want to break. In time, Europe will likely understand that the relationship is still of great value to the US and is appreciated.

News Media Reports and Their Possible Impact on the Matter

When one is less certain about the objective truth, the possibility that one might be drawn elsewhere for answers increases. Lacking any formal statements from the the Trump White House or State Department to analyze US policies, it appears that some in European capitals have turned to the US news media interpretations of political events and decisions of the Trump Administration. In the US, the news media serves as a watchdog over government power and political activity. It is a source from which the public can inform itself on the decisions and actions of elected leaders and appointed officials. The news media is at its best when it can provide the public with a look inside government bodies and operations. Its role in the society is sacrosanct. “Freedom of the press” is one the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the US Constitution listing specific prohibitions on government power. The implications of comments emanating from the Trump administration about the “fake news media” being the “enemy of the American people” are considerable. Ignoring the “fake,” Some have gone as far as to say that denunciation of the news media is the “greatest threat to democracy” they have seen. The news media, the unofficially recognized “Fourth Estate” or fourth branch of government given its importance to the democracy, is not the enemy of the US public. Such comments were unlikely fully considered before spoken, and eventually became fodder in an ongoing struggle between the Trump administration and certain US news media houses. It appears the aim of those grave words initially was to reject and certainly sting some in the news media in response to reports questioning the character of Trump administration officials, but not to be destructive, or to indict the news media as a whole. Events surrounding the Trump administration have gained increased attention. There is a reality that news media houses would like to present attention grabbing headlines to promote readership and viewership, which helps them fill advertising space and increases profit. Indeed, it must be noted that the news media, while a sentinel for democracy, is also a major industry, and managers in  houses seek to satisfy the appetites of their customer base. To patronize in order to connect with the customer is a business practice. In the case of reporting on Trump, most journalists in newspapers of record, to their credit, have written articles that are often measured in composition, providing ample qualifications alongside each postulation. Due to the doubts attached, it stands to reason that information presented in this way should neither be viewed as weighty nor reliable. Others have sought to convince readers that stories are bigger than they are. Such articles exaggerate the truth to the exclusion of it subtleties. Even more, some journalists’ judgments of matters they report about the Trump administration have often insinuated themselves into their articles. That approach on occasion has very likely served to inflame passions and appeal to the lower nature of many readers and viewers, domestically and internationally. What has been stated here may appear as a foray by greatcharlie into media criticism, but actually the intent is to highlight the current environment surrounding the US news media from which many European leaders and officials may be collecting information on the administration.

Recent examples of the type of reports described, include a February 16, 2017 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Spies Keep Intelligence From Donald Trump on Leak Concerns,”  stated: “US intelligence officials have withheld sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump because they are concerned it could be leaked or compromised, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter. The officials’ decision to keep information from Mr. Trump underscores the deep mistrust that has developed between the intelligence community and the president over his team’s contacts with the Russian government, as well as the enmity he has shown toward U.S. spy agencies.” The Wall Street Journal article further stated: “In some of these cases of withheld information, officials have decided not to show Mr. Trump the sources and methods that the intelligence agencies use to collect information, the current and former officials said. Those sources and methods could include, for instance, the means that an agency uses to spy on a foreign government.” However, within the article, the following qualification was provided: “A spokesman for the Office of Director of National Intelligence said: ‘Any suggestion that the U.S. intelligence community is withholding information and not providing the best possible intelligence to the president and his national security team is not true.’” Further clarity on the matter was provided in the article with the following: “It wasn’t clear Wednesday how many times officials have held back information from Mr. Trump. The officials emphasized that they know of no instance in which crucial information about security threats or potential plotting has been omitted.”

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German soldiers in formation (above). Lacking any formal statements from the the Trump White House or State Department to analyze US policies, some in European capitals may have turned to the US news media interpretations of political events and decisions of the Trump Administration. Some of those reports may served to inflame passions and convince them that their worst fears regarding US relations were being realized. That would include facing Russia alone.

In a February 14, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts with Russian Intelligence,” stated verbatim: “Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials. The New York Times article continued: “American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.” The article created greater intrigue with the following: “The officials said that one of the advisers picked up on the calls was Paul Manafort, who was Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman for several months last year and had worked as a political consultant in Ukraine. The officials declined to identify the other Trump associates on the calls. The article went on to explain: “The call logs and intercepted communications are part of a larger trove of information that the F.B.I. is sifting through as it investigates the links between Mr. Trump’s associates and the Russian government, as well as the hacking of the D.N.C., according to federal law enforcement officials. As part of its inquiry, the F.B.I. has obtained banking and travel records and conducted interviews, the officials said.”

In a similar way to the February 16th Wall Street Journal article, the February 14th New York Times article provided qualifications on this intriguing information, explaining: “The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.” The New York Times article also disclosed: “Mr. Manafort, who has not been charged with any crimes, dismissed the officials’ accounts in a telephone interview on Tuesday. ‘This is absurd,’ he said. ‘I have no idea what this is referring to. I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers, and I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation today.’ He added, ‘It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’” Additionally on the matter of contacts, the article continued: “Several of Mr. Trump’s associates, like Mr. Manafort, have done business in Russia. And it is not unusual for American businessmen to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly, in countries like Russia and Ukraine, where the spy services are deeply embedded in society. Law enforcement officials did not say to what extent the contacts might have been about business.” The article added: “The officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, the identity of the Russian intelligence officials who participated, and how many of Mr. Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians. It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself. There was also mention in the article of an FBI effort to assess the credibility of information contained in a dossier that was given to the bureau last year by a former intelligence operative of the United Kingdom. The New York Times article stated: “The dossier contained a raft of allegations of a broad conspiracy between Mr. Trump, his associates and the Russian government. It also included unsubstantiated claims that the Russians had embarrassing videos that could be used to blackmail Mr. Trump.” However, that information came with a qualification, which stated: “The F.B.I. has spent several months investigating the leads in the dossier, but has yet to confirm any of its most explosive claims.”

Even the February 19th New York Times article that impelled the writing of this greatcharlie post projected a negative tone. Some unfavorable judgments of the Trump administration infiltrated the article’s description of European responses to remarks made by US officials. The articled noted: “An audience anxious for signals about the Trump administration’s stances on NATO, the European Union, Germany and the Russia of President Vladimir V. Putin, whom Mr. Trump so openly admires, was only minimally soothed. It mostly heard boilerplate assurances about United States commitments of the kind that previous American administrations had rarely felt the need to give.”

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A NATO meeting in Brussels (above). There are considerable incongruences between what is being assumed today about the Trump administration’s approach to Europe and what has been US policy over 70 years. Europe should be hopeful over its future with the US, not anxious or intimidated. Years of success should not be forgotten by Europe over the prospect of working with the new US president to firm up some aspects of the relationship. 

Demonization and Confirmation Bias

Poenam irae saepe videmus. (We often see the penalty of anger.) In the February 19th New York Times article, Artis Pabriks, a former Latvian foreign and defense minister and now a member of the European Parliament, was quoted as saying “The Cold War was won not just by weapons but by propaganda and soft power.” Pabriks then offered the observation, “And on German television, Trump is a joke for everybody. We’re concerned also about American prestige.” In Western media, particularly social media, sites that encourage or present hostile assessments of celebrities, political figures, or those who may have drawn the spotlight to themselves for one reason or another, grab more attention than all other. The attention and approval one can gain from engaging such commentary has made it may in part help make it commonplace.  Indeed, there is a tendency for many, perhaps even most, to demonize those with whom there is disagreement. Demonization has often morphed into hatred. This behavior was both very apparent and very virulent in the 2016 Presidential Campaign. Going back as far as the 18th century, many said worse. Often such hostile talk led to duels. Still, the intensity and sheer volume of exchanges and reports of exchanges that jammed social media and news media streams made what was expressed not only pervasive, but practically unavoidable. The environment has not improved, but perhaps has become worse since then. There is still the punch and counterpunch between political opponents, pundits, and the news media, itself, with the Trump administration. Disagreements seem to have become endless feuds. For European leaders and officials, the danger lies in stepping into this struggle, taking one side or another in the exchange in the US  about the Trump administration because they believe the status of the US president falls with their interests and their constituencies want to know where they stand on such a popular and controversial, yet also delicate matter.

There are considerable incongruences between what is being assumed today about the Trump administration’s approach to Europe and what has been US policy over 70 years. Europe should be hopeful over its future with the US, not anxious or intimidated. Years of success should not be chucked out by Europe over the prospect of working with the US to firm up some aspects of the relationship. There are insistent efforts to advertise Trump’s perceived weaknesses. Some news media houses have approved stories that include unwarranted extrapolations. Only European leaders and officials would know what moves them to believe one thing or another about Trump. It may be experience, intuition, or mores. Despite the importance of relations with the US, it could be hypothesized that some may harbor negative beliefs in general about their ally. In any event, confirmation bias can be a result of the direct influence of desire on beliefs. Confirmation bias suggests that individuals do not perceive circumstances objectively. An individual extrapolates bits of data that are satisfying because they confirm the individual’s prejudices. Therefore, one becomes a prisoner of one’s assumptions. If European leaders and officials want certain ideas about Trump to be true, they end up believing them to be true. Such an error could have lead them to cease collecting information when the evidence gathered at a certain point confirms the prejudices they may feel are true. After developing that view, for the most part, they would embrace any information that confirms it while going as far as to ignore or reject information that makes it unlikely.

Attempting to confirm beliefs comes naturally to most individuals, while conversely it feels less desirable and counterintuitive for them to seek out evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This explains why opinions survive and spread. Disconfirming instances must be far more powerful in establishing truth. Disconfirmation requires searching for evidence to disprove a firmly held opinion. With regard to their understanding of the Trump administration, European leaders and officials must appropriately verify their conclusions. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. This has been pointed to as a true manifestation of self-confidence: the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can serve a hypothesis and then gather information from each member in a way that allows the expression of independent assessments.

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United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May and Trump (above). Political and social pressures to conform to a counter-Trump outlook may exist in Europe, but relations with the US are too important for European capitals to allow the situation to deteriorate so acutely. European leaders must not embrace any information that confirms any individual biases or prejudices they might have about Trump. The thinking that may have caused them not to consider alternatives must be subtracted.

Groupthink in Europe on Trump

With all of the news media stories, and his nonstop rebuke by political opponents at home and pundits worldwide, an environment that would welcome an unobstructed examination or public discussion of other facts or evidence about Trump is practically nonexistent. Antipathy may strong enough in some European leaders and officials that they may be disinclined to take a second look at anything pertaining to Trump. Indeed, among them may be cynics who are uninterested in the truth. They may wrongfully view any effort rectify the situation as obsequiousness in the face of US power, placing political pressure on colleagues who may want reconsider some issues. Some may claim seeking to work with Trump would pose some moral dilemma. However, such could exist only when one knows the objective truth, disapproves of the course of events and is constrained from conforming to external demands. Enumerated here are many of the symptoms of groupthink. Groupthink occurs when a group makes faulty decisions due to group pressures lead to a deterioration of ”mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.” The term was coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (Houghton Mifflin, 1972). Groups affected by groupthink will tend to ignore alternatives and take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups. Groups become especially vulnerable to groupthink when members are similar in background, the group is insulated from outside opinions, and there are no clear rules for decision making.

The eight symptoms of groupthink documented by Janis include: the illusion of invulnerability which creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks; a collective rationalization, by which group members shrug off warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions; a belief in inherent morality by which members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions; stereotyped views of “out-groups” or negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary; direct pressure on dissenters by which group members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views; self-censorship which thwarts the expression of doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus; the illusion of unanimity which creates the assumption that the majority view and judgments are unanimous; and, self-appointed “mindguards” who are group members that protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and decisions.

Decisions shaped by groupthink have a low probability of achieving successful outcomes.When the above symptoms, and such conditions by all indications exist to some degree among foreign policy officials in European capitals making decisions on the Trump administration, there is a reasonable chance that groupthink will happen. However, it does not need to be so. Groupthink occurs when groups are highly cohesive and when they are under considerable pressure to make a quality decision.  Within respective capitals that might be the case, but among countries cohesion is attenuated. The political and social pressures to conform to counter-Trump outlook may exist, but relations with the US relationship is too important for too many countries to inexcusably allow the situation to deteriorate so acutely.  European leaders and officials should drive themselves to realistically appraise courses of action available to them. Any carelessness and irrational thinking that led to the failure to consider all alternatives along the wrongful path to  groupthink must be subtracted.

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A US F-22 Raptor (above). Ensuring Europe’s well-being is in the interest of the US. If grave harm ever came to any US ally or partner in Europe, the impact in all quarters in Washington would be shattering. It would guarantee a devastating, immediate response by Trump.  Europe faces no danger of abandonment by the US despite how Trump or his senior officials may sound. Trump only speaks of pruning the leaves and branches of the tree, he does not want to poison the root.

European Leaders and Officials Must Act under Pressure

Diu in ista nave fui et propter tempestatem nubesque semper mortem expectabam. (I was on board that ship for a long while, and I was constantly expecting death on account of the storms and clouds.)  Among Trump’s immediate thoughts about Europe have been to make some changes with regard to security. The big issue is failure of some European countries to meet their financial commitments to NATO. In reality, some European countries have been remiss, consistently failing to meet a 2 percent GDP goal agreed to by alliance members. Trump wants to resolve that issue with the Europeans. However, Europe faces no danger of abandonment by the US despite how his words or those of his senior officials. To use a soft metaphor, Trump only speaks of pruning the leaves and branches of the tree, he does not want to poison the root. (Certainly, if Trump’s goal was to get Europe’s full attention with his statements, he has succeeded in that.) Yet, many in Europe have formed opinions that contrast with this reality. They may not be disposed to pursuing the truth, fearing what the truth may be. Worrying about US actions and intentions is a new type of stress, posing unfamiliar and unimaginable challenges.

University of Chicago Executive Vice Provost and Professor of Psychology, Sian Beilock, has spent years investigating how people perform under pressure and avoid failure. She has published more than 100 papers on the subject, and recently won the 2017 Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences for her research. Her most recent book, How the Body Knows Its Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2015), discusses what scientists have learned about the influence of body movement on brain activity. It includes tips such as pacing around a room for a creativity boost. At the Human Performance Laboratory, where she is director, Beilock and her colleagues explore the physiological mechanisms by which people buckle under pressure. They have measured the amount of cortisol in a person’s saliva to gauge stress levels and have used neuroimaging to see which areas of the brain are activated during high-pressure situations. Beilock has found that individuals are capable of making just about anything become a stressful, high-stakes activity. She explained, “Some of the greatest chokes are on the Olympic stage, but they also happen when you can’t say eloquently what you want to say in a meeting.” Overthinking often trips people up. “It’s paralysis by analysis,” Beilock says. Individuals can get confused when they think too much, worry too much, about what they are doing.

Beilock also tests subjects’ reaction times and accuracy at the Human Performance Laboratory to understand performance failure. She often includes golfers in her research. Many golf pros claim the sport is 90 percent mental making it an ideal forum for her research. At the professional level, some golfers fail to perform well in front of spectators. Beilock has found golfers easily become stressed when caused to think about the technical aspects of their swing. She explained,  if you really want to mess with a golfer’s game, you could just say, “That was a great shot! What were you doing with your elbow?” On her blog, Beilock calls attention to Bruce Ollstein, a former drill instructor and US Army Psychological Operations officer, who delved into the effects of stress on golfers in his book, Combat Golf: The Competitor’s Field Manual for Winning Against Any Opponent (Viking, 1996). Ollstein explains that a few choice words will typically have a deleterious effects on a golfer’s morale and performance. Among those methods, Ollstein listed: hand out some “gimmies”; plant seeds of doubt; leave them “hanging”; and, silence is golden.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Vice President Mike Pence (above). European leaders and officials must no longer fall prey to attention grabbing news stories about Trump, some of which have supported very wrong notions in Europe about his plans. They must be wary of experts who postulate on very important matters from the abstract. Additionally, they must guard against self-deception.

It may very well be that, albeit unintentionally, US foreign policy experts in discussing Trump with their European colleagues as well as with European leaders and officials, they may have had a deleterious effects on their perspective, morale, and performance. Leaders and officials may have been thrown a bit off-kilter, and delayed getting both involved and into a working rhythm with the Trump administration after learning of US news media reports and comments from the Obama administration in its waning days. Consider that from the start of 2016 Presidential Election, uncertainty was created about what a Trump victory would mean for Europe given some harsh campaign comments on NATO. It likely had a chilling effect on them. However, assurances also came from all quarters that former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would win the election. After the election there was more turmoil, and before the Europeans could formulate an approach to Trump, they encountered a flurry of reports detailing his inexperience and how unprepared he was to appropriately handle foreign policy decisionmaking. Doubts were expressed about his advisers perspectives and abilities. Questions were raised about Russia’s influence on the election result and Trump’s campaign. Stories were told of a war between Trump and the US Intelligence Community, and rumors swirled that Trump might face impeachment.

At Munich, US  foreign policy experts were reportedly making statements that perhaps may have unwittingly done even more to plant seeds of doubt and undermine the confidence of European leaders and officials in their abilities to reach out to, or work with, Trump. Consider the comments by Julianne Smith, a former principal Director of European and NATO Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Deputy National Security Adviser to former US Vice President Joe Biden in the February 19th New York Times. Smith reportedly explained people would be reassured “for about five hours, or maybe through the weekend.” What remains unresolved, she said, is who will come out on top in what she called a battle among the three centers of power in the White House: Trump, Bannon and White House Special Adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. On Pence, Derek Chollet, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Obama administration, who is now with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, proffered, “His [Pence’s] mission was always going to be hard, but it was made even more so by the questions about his lack of influence inside the White House.” As for beginning a story that has no end, and letting one “hang,” doubt was left by US experts at Munich left as to what lies ahead with the Trump administration.   Smith went on to explain in the New York Times that Europeans were disturbed when retired US Navy Vice Admiral Robert Harward turned down an offer to replace Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn because he would not be given autonomy over his staff.  She said, “Our allies don’t know who is their interlocutor and what phone number to call.” She went on to state, “And talk of hedging NATO commitment on financial contributions did rattle the alliance,” even if European members acknowledge that they need to pay more for collective defense. As for convincing the Europeans that Trump has basically been silent on his intentions and letting them dwell on their inabilities, anxieties, US experts explained to them that they were not told enough in Munich still to understand or plan for relations with the administration. The US historian and foreign policy commentator Robert Kagan dismissed Pence’s address in Munich as a “robotic salute to the man in power.” Although Pence tried to tackle the doubts of European leaders and officials head-on by explaining at the start that he was speaking for Trump, Kagan reportedly noted disapprovingly that he went on “to mention the president 19 times in the course of the 20-minute speech.”

U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a translation during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House in Washington

With a second look at Trump, European leaders and officials may recognize an intriguing duality. In business, he engaged in high stakes negotiations and hefty transactions, but also displayed talent as a builder, a man who created things.  Designing and constructing buildings was an art for Trump. As a media celebrity, he lived a life of high drama while he entertained. During the 2016 US Presidential Campaign, Trump’s capabilities seemed to coalesce in an interesting and effective way.

Knowing the Real Trump

Quid enim est stultius quam incerta pro certis habere, falsa pro veris? (What, indeed, is more foolish than to consider uncertainties as certain, falsehoods as truths?) The renowned 19th century Prussian statesman, Otto von Bismarck said “Politics is the art of the possible.” To better understand Trump and improve relations with the US, European leaders and officials must set aside their personal preferences. There are some solid reports that present positive perspectives on Trump. Those reports as well as any that may even appear feeble, must be examined. The analytical process in the current environment must be akin to a crucible in which irrelevancies are burned off and result is the truth. If European leaders and officials could disassociate themselves from the mixed, very often negative, signals emanating out the political milieu in the US, they might recognize an intriguing duality about Trump. In business, Trump for decades engaged in high stakes negotiations and hefty transactions. He displayed talent as a planner, manager, and builder, a man who created things. The German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling said, “Architecture is music in space, as it were a frozen music.” The architecture of Trump’s buildings and music would have things in common such as rhythm, texture, harmony, proportion, and dynamics. For Trump, designing and constructing buildings was an art. He could become lost in it. That was Trump’s world, too. As a media celebrity, he lived a life of high drama while he entertained and bedazzled. During the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Trump’s varied capabilities and interests appeared to coalesce in an interesting and, albeit, effective way. On the surface, Trump was self-confident, audacious, brash, and bombastic–some might add boorish, yet in his planning, he was humble, meticulous, perceptive, and innovative. European political leaders might take special note of how Trump, facing constant waves of invective, even calumny, dug deep inside himself and always found a way, leaving other candidates trailing in his wake. This stands in stark contrast to the notions of Trump’s alleged vacuity, which is more often deceitfully served up by a variety angry, aggressive, envious, and ambitious sources camped in all directions. They all certainly have reasons for their positions. The presidency represents a huge change for Trump and he continues to recurvate from being a very successful businessman and celebrity known worldwide to a more potent, more formal, and in many ways, more narrow role. Regarding all of the opprobrium, Trump has seen other winds and has faced other storms.  He has no reputation for faltering in adversity.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he was presenting the term as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. Trump will unlikely be disposed to subordinating the interests of the US to the wishes of any country. However, ensuring Europe’s well-being is in the interest of the US. If grave harm ever came to any US ally or partner in Europe, the impact in all quarters in Washington would be shattering. It will guarantee a devastating, immediate response by Trump. The Trump administration continues to evolve. Recently, US Army Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, a renowned military strategist and national security expert, became Trump’s new National Security Adviser. Looking toward the future with optimism, the US president will most likely find his stride very soon on relations with Europe. A new balance may be observed and perhaps many European leaders and officials will appreciate Trump’s very formidable, comprehensive capabilities. After all that has been said and done, some Europeans remain optimistic. Thomas Matussek, a former German ambassador to the United Kingdom and the UN, said that “people will be reassured to some degree, because they want to be.” He contrasted Trump and White House Special Adviser Stephen Bannon: “Trump’s not an ideologue, like Bannon, but pretty pragmatic and innovative, subject to discussion.” Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House, a London-based research institution, expressed optimism saying: “Trump does not come in with a fixed foreign-policy agenda on many issues, so there is contested space and room for influence and maneuver.” Niblett recalled Trump’s early “flip-flops” on Israel and NATO, but then explained: “Trump’s fixated on certain things, like trade and jobs and America’s place in the world, but there seems to be room for influence.” Artis Pabriks, a Latvian member of the European Parliament mentioned earlier, said that he trusted Mattis and McCain, and applauded the recent introduction of US and other NATO troops into the Baltic States and Poland.  He expected Trump will keep that policy approach in place.

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The Trump administration continues to evolve. Recently, US Army Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster (above), a renowned military strategist and national security expert, was named Trump’s National Security Adviser. Looking toward the future with optimism, Trump will likely find his stride soon on relations with Europe. A new balance may be observed and European leaders and officials may come to appreciate him. Many times, from bad beginnings, great friendships have sprung up.

The Way Forward

In Act I, Scene iv of William Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, Lucio, a man living the “sporting life” in Vienna, was urged to speak with Isabella, a St. Clare nun, about her brother Claudio’s arrest by Angelo, the very officious, upstanding acting executive of the city.  Lucio sought to convince Isabella that she could successfully use her wit and influence to have her brother released. In that effort, Lucio speaks to famous lines to Isabella: “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.” Man-made dilemmas are not mysteries, but puzzles. While one may be confused, or tested by a puzzle, they have solutions. For now, the solution to strengthening Europe’s relationship with the US is temporarily hidden, temporarily misunderstood. Talk about Trump in Europe has absorbed not only regional and national leaders and other officials, but the public’s attention in every country of the continent. Due to what will eventually be recognized as misunderstandings, there have been some bouts of words, albeit a bit attenuated, which have created some disturbance, hurt some feelings, caused some wounds, on both sides of the Atlantic, but they must be soothed and healed. European leaders and officials must act before a numbness sets in, before Europe is inured by the idea that it cannot work with the Trump administration, that it must face challenges such as a resurgent Russia alone. With obstinacy, they must seek to regularly engage with Trump and administration officials in rational, concrete discussions to find agreement or a satisfactory middle ground on issues.

The process of changing the current environment should begin with the application of the objective truth to analyses of the new US administration. Europe must reexamine what it knows about Trump. Being readily available, the US news media should naturally be seen as an open, overt source of information on Trump and his administration. However, not all news media houses produce news the same way. Mistakes are also made. While it albeit serves as a watchdog for the democracy, admittedly, some US news media have  propagated very negative perspectives of the Trump administration. European leaders and officials must not fall prey to attention grabbing lines about Trump, some of which have supported very wrong notions in Europe about his plans. They must also be wary of experts who postulate on very important matters from abstractions. Additionally, they must guard against self-deception. All of the plans and actions of European leaders and officials must be directed toward benefiting the lives of their people. Certainly this prescription cannot be more grievous than the danger of poor relations with the US.

Many times, from a bad beginning, great friendships have sprung up. Until Europe sets forth to establish firm ties with the Trump administration, there is only the prospect of receding into a gloomy world, in which the potential of the transatlantic relationship will be frozen. To escape from it, some might deny reality and create a substitute reality in which they might concede that the only prospect for peace is a concordance with their most likely adversary, Russia. The idea of wanting to turn desperately to false reality reminds of the poem Ode to a Nightingale by the English poet, John Keats. In this 1819 ode, Keats emphasizes the difference between the gloomy physical world and the dreamlike, spiritual world of the nightingale. In the fifth stanza, Keats stimulates the reader’s senses by describing that very fragrant, floral, gossamer imitation of reality:

“I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet

Wherewith the seasonable month endows

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;

White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;

Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;

And mid-May’s eldest child,

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.”

Russia, Turkey and Others Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring: Moscow Asks US to Join Its Efforts, But How It Will Respond Is Unclear

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War-torn Damascus (above). Following Russian Federation-led peace talks between representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement on January 24, 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, Moscow’s envoy, Alexander Lavrentyev, welcomed the US to take a more active role in efforts to resolve the conflict. The administration of US President Donald Trump will act regarding Syria when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. Moscow appears eager to know Trump’s plans for Syria. It seems to be engaging in a bit of guessing on it.

According to a January 24, 2017 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Russia, Turkey and Iran Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring,” officials from the Russian Federation, Turkey, and Iran met in Astana, Kazakhstan for two days with representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement. On the second day, January 24, 2017, the officials agreed to jointly monitor a fragile ceasefire between the warring parties established on December 30, 2016. The latest deal was called a possible step toward a political solution to end the six-year war. The UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was also present at the January talks. At a news conference in Astana, de Mistura said, “When we came here to Astana, our immediate priority was to ensure the consolidation of the ceasefire.”  He went on to say that in the past that previous cease-fires broke down because of a lack of monitoring and agreement on how to implement them. Under the new agreement, the monitors are to ensure full compliance with the truce and prevent provocations, according to a joint statement issued by three sponsors. The arrangements for monitoring the cease-fire and enforcing it would be decided at later meetings. The Assad regime and Syrian opposition both said they supported the plan. However, significantly different views were expressed by the Assad regime and opposition rebels over what those systems to monitor and enforce should be. The parties planned to reconvene a month later in Geneva for UN-sponsored talks.

Russia, which supports the Assad regime, and Turkey, which supports some rebel groups, explained last week they hoped the talks would begin to map the outlines of a political settlement to end the conflict. As the talks progressed, however, both sides tempered expectations, saying the aim in Astana was to buttress the fragile truce as a foundation for more political talks later. The administration of former US President Barack Obama was a primary supporter of Syrian Opposition Movement and the effort by its armed rebels to shape events on the ground to force Assad regime to talks to discuss the transition to a new government. That effort has largely been unsuccessful. The new administration of US President Donald Trump did not push for a role in what were albeit at the Russian-led talks. Instead, the Trump administration chose not to send a delegation, and the US was represented by the US ambassador to Kazakhstan. Moscow’s envoy to the talks, Alexander Lavrentyev, told reporters that Russia would welcome the US taking a more active role in attempts to resolve the conflict. This was ostensibly an invitation for the Trump administration to fully participate in what Russia hopes will be on-going talks. Russia’s invitation “to take a more active role” on Syria appears to reveal a change of heart in the Kremlin on the US with the advent of the Trump administration. Perhaps it may even serve as evidence that at least on some foreign policy issues, Putin is not locked into a single intent, immutable. By the end of the Obama administration, the US-Russia relationship stood in ruins. So enervated was former US Secretary of State John Kerry, and other officials, with the search for common ground with Russia on Syria that the effort was essentially suspended.

While the invitation from Lavrentyev is laudable and was likely appreciated by the Trump administration, there is far more involved in repairing the broken relationship between the US and Russia than opening the door with an invitation to participate in Russian-led Syria talks. There is also far more to Syria than the talks. US administrations do not formulate their policies and action based on invitations or exchanges of short public statements but through the work of federal employees engaged in the daily task of analyzing situations, the development of policies and policy approaches, and the formal implementation of those policies through diplomacy, and when appropriate, the utilization of other tools of national power. That process has been somewhat disrupted by the resignation of the entire senior level of management officials at the US Department of State during the last week of January 2017. Reportedly, it was part of a spate of retirements by senior Foreign Service officers.  There was boldness going forward with Syria peace talks without the US and working with Turkey and others instead to secure a sustainable peace. However, it seems Russia has found that the dynamics of bringing the warring parties in Syria together for anything is daunting. What Russia may really be doing is inviting the Trump administration to further tie the US to the morass in Syria beyond the anti-ISIS fight. That would be a step of significant consequence, requiring considerable review. There has been some mumbling in the US news media and in social networks about an unverified draft executive order that indicates Trump plans to use the US military, in tandem with the State Department, to establish and protect refugee camps in Syria and neighboring countries. Syria was genuinely broached in a telephone conversation on January 28, 2017 between Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.  According to the Kremlin, the most tangible outcome of the phone call was an understanding that jointly fighting international terrorism was a priority and that the two countries should cooperate in Syria. While admitting that Syria was discussed, the White House characterized the call more casually as “a congratulatory call” initiated by Putin. The Trump administration will act regarding Syria, but it will do so when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. A policy with varied approaches to the many aspects of the Syria issue will eventually be articulated. However, most intriguing has been Russia’s interest in connecting with Trump on Syria rather than any other faced by both countries. That is the focus of the discussion here.

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups during the administration of US President Barack Obama then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially regarding the peace talks and postwar reconstruction in Syria. Now cooperation is somewhat uncertain.

Russia in Syria

On September 15, 2015, at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, Putin explained Russia’s military support and intervention in Syria.   He stated, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin explained the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syrian Opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.” Encouraged by advisers, Putin sensed not only a chance for Russia to shore up one of its remaining allies in the Middle East, but the chance to reassert Russia’s role as a global power. He was able to demonstrate that Russia could succeed where the Obama administration had floundered.

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, material, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount of Syrian territory back into the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. True, there are many foreign military forces operating in Syria, but the effort of Russia and its allies is a very visible, full-scale, multidimensional military operation. Russia has managed to shape events on the ground in Syria in order to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. Russia also seeks to defeat ISIS by annihilating its military formations in the field, eliminating its leadership, and eviscerating its so-called Islamic Caliphate to the extent that the organization will never be able to resurrect itself. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Most recently, Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky was killed in Aleppo, Syria. Putin personally announced that Galitsky had suffered fatal wounds when a Russian military field hospital in Aleppo’s al-Furqan neighborhood was struck by artillery fire on December 2, 2016. According to the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, Galitsky was acting as a military adviser to the Syrian Arab Army during its rapid three-week advance through about 75 percent of East Aleppo. It was reported that Galitsky was due to be promoted to the rank of major-general on December 12, 2016.

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Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, materiél, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount territory back into the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Counted among those lost is Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky (above).

A Russian Invitation for Cooperation on Syria: A Lot to Consider

Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futura providere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we anticipate the future.) Certainly, Moscow would be very pleased if its interactions with the Trump administration could begin at a point where it had any positive, constructive interactions the administration of former US President Barack Obama. That would require ignoring the overall tenor of the relationship it has had with Washington on Syria and many other urgent and important issues. The Obama administration was unsupportive of Russia’s intervention from the get-go. On September 30, 2015, then US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter forecasted about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Almost immediately after Russia began military operations in Syria in September 2015, Obama administration officials were already regularly reproaching Russia over its repeated airstrikes upon “moderate” anti-Assad groups while ostensibly seeking to attack ISIS. Obama’s disappointment could be discerned in his statements. Concerning Syria, on August 6, 2016, Obama went as far as to say about Putin and Russia: “I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin.” He continued: “Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.”

In diplomacy, words and behavior matter absolutely, and there must be a certain amiability and gentleness in communications and interactions in order to create the environment for the development of mutual respect and understanding. It seems very uncharacteristic of Moscow in the midst of what Russian officials touted as a foreign policy success to invite the Trump administration to become more engaged with it on Syria. Still, even knowing it would mean sharing the limelight with the US, Russia appeared to have the desire to include the US in the process. To make perfunctory or platitudinous gesture for the US to become more engaged in Syria without any real desire for such cooperation could have potentially created a negative situation. The Russia could have convince the US to work with it, only to discover that the approaches of the two countries were not compatible. Far worse than both of those possibility would be the discovery that the invitation was a hoax. Certainly, Moscow had to expect that although Lavrentyev spoke with such comfortable words, it could not be acted upon immediately. Trump administration undoubtedly has it own thoughts and plans for Syria, but at the same time, it would very likely want to discern the full meaning of Russia’s “suggestion.” The decision was based on some rationale.

There is the possibility that Moscow’s invitation for the US join the Syria talks was a trial balloon floated off with the hope that if the Trump Administration might be interested in investing itself in Syria as part of its policy planning on the Middle East, counter terrorism, and possibly its Russia policy. Moscow seems very open to engagement. On counterterrorism, specifically, perhaps it would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. Russia has been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces–Spetsnaz–and airpower.

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A Russian Federation Tupolev Tu-22M3 bomber (above). Moscow appears very open to engagement with the Trump administration on counter terrorism. It seems Moscow would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. The Russian Federation Armed Forces have already been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces and airpower.

Leap of Faith?: No Firm Basis for Moscow’s Hopes on Trump and Syria

On one occasion, Putin has mentioned the 1973 comedy, science-fiction film from the Soviet Union, “Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession.” Putin would quote one of the film’s characters as saying to another: “How am I supposed to understand what you’re saying if you don’t say anything?” This really is the case with Moscow and Trump administration. To an extent, the January 28, 2017 telephone conversation between Trump and Putin confirmed essence of Lavrentyev’s statement in Astana. Yet, there were no details discussed that would indicate cooperation on Russia’s terms.  More specifically, the statement generated by the White House after the conversation noted that “The positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair.”  It stated further simply, “Both President Trump and President Putin are hopeful after today’s call the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern.”

There has been no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department. That makes it difficult to see what could have impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria. Lacking any formal statements from the Trump administration on Syria to analyze, it could very well be that some in the Kremlin have turned to US news media interpretations of political events and decisions of the Trump Administration. For example, on January 26, 2017, the Guardian reported: “Trump had earlier also appeared to fall into line with Russia’s approach towards Syria, which had been to bomb the anti-Assad opposition into submission, before turning its attention towards a mutual foe, ISIS.” As for taking an unconventional, high profile approach to diplomacy, it may have been an effort to match the idea popularly promoted in the US media that it is the Trump administration’s preferred foreign policy tack. When one is less certain about the objective truth, the possibility that one might be drawn elsewhere for answers increases.

In addition to the fact that no formal policy documents exist that could have caused Moscow to believe the Trump administration’s policy on Syria, once articulated, would be compatible with its own. No publicized contact has taken place between Trump administration and the Kremlin, particularly one that would even approximate a complex conversation on bilateral relations. As mentioned, there was the late-January 28, 2017 Trump-Putin telephone call. However, no other conversations during the campaign or in the period before Trump’s inauguration could have reasonably caused Moscow to be certain of what his administration’s policy approaches would be on Syria. Additionally, decisions that might be made by the Trump administration on Syria at this point would be made with every fact, every judgment, the US government has available. Eventually, a formal policy on Syria will be presented.  Verba volant, scripta manent. (Spoken words fly away, written words remain.)

Diplomacy via Public Statements: Russia’s Effort to Bypass the US Policymaking Process

It is unclear how Moscow thought Lavrentyev’s invitation would be processed within the US foreign policy apparatus. Most recently, there have been significant changes in the US Department of State. According to the Washington Post, on January 25, 2017, Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary for Management, Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, and the Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, Ambassador Gentry Smith resigned from their posts. In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr retired January 20, 2017, and the director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, Lydia Muniz, departed the same day. While the Trump might have eventually replaced these officials, career Foreign Service officers as them are crucial to the State Department’s many functions, particularly the implementation of an administration’s agenda.

Officials in the Kremlin or the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs should not hope to impact US foreign policy by just making statements and expecting a reaction. Foreign policy is still formulated at the White House and US Department of State as a result of a thorough examination of facts by policy analysts.In the current environment, the analytical process on Russia must be akin to a crucible in which social media rumors, falsehoods, and fake news must be burned off. Those facts are analyzed, with the concepts and intent of senior department officials and those of national leaders firmly in mind. Then others, enlightened with truths, based on real facts presented by the analysts, formulate policy options. US Department of State uses diplomacy to implement policies. Employees in other departments whose work concerns US external relations engage in a similar processes utilizing their particular tools of national power.  For example, in the US Department of Defense, employees formulate policies entailing the possible use of the military power. It is a daily enterprise in which thousands of federal employees are engaged. In verbis etiam tenuis cautusque serendis dixeris egregie, notum si callida verbum reddiderit iunctura novum. (When putting words together it is good to do it with nicety and caution, your elegance and talent will be evident if by putting ordinary words together you create a new voice.)

U.S. President Donald Trump walks through the Colonnade to the Oval Office after returning to the White House in Washington.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle, indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.”

A US-Russia Relationship on Syria:Thinking It Through in Moscow

Faced with the predicament of having no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department from which it could work, Moscow’s decision to authorize Lavrentyev’s  invitation may have been based on assessments developed from the abstract by Russian foreign policy analysts of the Trump administration’s most likely Syria policy or greater Middle East policy. If anything, from what Trump has stated, analysts admittedly might have gleaned and constructed his likely key foreign and national security policy concepts on which his decisions might be based. True, when Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented, “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.” It reads in part: “Peace through strength will be at the center of that foreign policy. This principle will make possible a stable, more peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground.” It further states: “Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. In addition, the Trump Administration will work with international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups, to expand intelligence sharing, and to engage in cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable propaganda and recruiting.”

It could very well be that policy analysts in Moscow, as much as policy analysts in other national capitals, may have used their analysis of the “America First Foreign Policy” to base conclusions on prospective Trump administration policies. Judgments made would need to have been deemed satisfactory enough to take action on. Given the statement’s mention of counterterrorism and the determination to pursue the issue vigorously, it would naturally follow that the judgments on which Russian analysts would have been most confident would concern counterterrorism and how it might relate to Syria. Absent this possibility, what impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria truly becomes a mystery.

Ut desint vires tamen est laudanda voluntas. (Even if it is beyond one’s power, the will [to try] is still worthy of praise.) Surely, Moscow would prefer that Western foreign policy analysts saved their ministrations for officials  of their own countries. Nevertheless, how Moscow may have perceived relations with the Trump administration on Syria before authorizing Lavrentyev’s invitation, what it perceived the US footprint in Syria would be following a renewed investment there, and how the US role might impact Russia, as well as its current partners on Syria is worth considering. If Russia’s decision on cooperating with the US on Syria was based on conclusions reached by Russian analyst as postulated here, it would be interesting to consider gaps that likely existed in their understanding of Trump’s concepts and prospective decisions on US foreign policy. The list of issues which Russian analysts would need to consider and for which they would need the right answers would be lengthy. Some of the important considerations for Moscow would likely have been: 1) bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria; 2) connecting on counterterrorism and safe zone; 3) establishing an understanding on Assad; 4) handling the Syrian rebels; 5) managing the peace talks; 6) getting the US to accept Iran’s role in Syria; 7) discerning US-Turkey cooperation; and, 8) postwar peace-enforcement and reconstruction.

1) Bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria

One could postulate that Russia’s interest in including the US in its Syria peace talks now is a display of newly found respect for the US Presidency, a very congenial welcome to the new administration with hope it would be perceived a sign of Moscow’s desire for improved relations, or an attempted appeal to the pride and ego of new US officials. While on the outside, Trump may appear to some as audacious, unpredictable, aggressive, on the inside Trump is thoughtful, disciplined, under control, and tough. The Kremlin might keep in mind is that much as Putin, Trump will hardly interested in diffusing tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back, an affected joviality to initiate dialogue. Trying to diffuse tension with Trump in this way is to play the minstrel. It will signal insecurity.

Russia has not provided a useful articulation of its hopes for relations with the Trump administration which would be helpful to the White House on some policy planning. It would also be helpful if Moscow articulated a reasonable cause for Russia’s decision to break contact with the Obama administration on Syria, or exclude the US in its talks in Astana. Anger is not an acceptable rationale but very often the basis for poor decisions. Moscow should realize that the Trump administration indeed represents a new beginning. It will seek better ties with other countries and better deals on anything negotiated by the Obama administration. Still, that does not necessarily mean everything that was Obama’s must be deracinated. Trump is very patriotic, and while he may not have agreed with Obama’s policies and approaches, he would certainly want other governments to display respect for a sitting US president. The reality is Russian behavior toward Obama Presidency at some level may factor into his perceptions of Russia.

It is unclear whether there are any other steps other than Lavrentyev’s invitation, planned to help bridge diplomatic gap between the US and Russia on Syria. Having taken the uncongenial and provocative step of excluding the US from its peace talks in Astana, and terminating discussions on Syria with the US, Russia’s attempt to revive what has been broken is being attempted with almost no diplomatic foundation to build upon. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry very likely explained to his counterpart Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin, himself, that reaching an agreement during the Obama administration on Syria and coordinating effectively under that agreement and others that might have been reached, would increase the possibility that US-Russian coordination at that level would be preserved by the next US administration. It would have been a simple statement of truth as much as an effort at fence mending. It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially on a postwar reconstruction and peace-enforcement mission in Syria.

A feasible point on which Russia might build new diplomatic relations on Syria would be US-Russian military coordination cooperation on Syria to ensure that the two countries’ air forces operate safely and that the risk of accidental confrontation or collision is minimized. Those talks were set up as a result of a proposal proffered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to share intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. Russia might want to provide a positive assessment of the status of US-Russia air coordination on Syria.

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A US B-52H bomber (above) Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions regarding counterterrorism have been explicit. Trump is ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.

2) Connecting on counterrorism and safe zones

Given that diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia on Syria near the Obama administration’s terminus were discontinuous, it is difficult to see how Moscow would have any confidence that the Trump administration would be interested in diplomatic efforts on Syria that would bridge the gap. Prospective diplomatic efforts might include talks on the US role in the Russian-led Syria peace talks, a new US-Russia partnership in Middle East, or counterterrorism.  The draft executive order circulating on social media in January 2017 was first obtained and published by the Huffington Post, Trump envisioned establishing “safe zones” both inside Syria and in neighboring countries that will be used to “protect vulnerable Syrian populations” while they “await firm settlement” either elsewhere in Syria or in other countries. The document alludes to Trump’s controversial calls to prevent people fleeing the war-torn country from entering the US.  It further explained that  according to a draft executive order along with other steps with the goal of preventing future terrorist attacks in the US. Trump indicates he wants to see a plan by late April. The draft executive order was unverified.  Some believe Trump will likely withdraw the matter due to tough logistical and political challenges associated with it.

Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions with regard to counterterrorism may have been explicit enough. He appears ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.  As the capital of ISIS’ now dwindling Islamic Caliphate is located in Syria, it could be postulated that the country should hold some relevance regarding the administration’s foreign policy.  It could seen as  prospective rationale for Trump administration to invest time and effort on the political situation in Syria. Still, it would be difficult to discern solely from that angle what the administration’s interest and approaches to other aspects of the Syria issue might be.

It is uncertain whether Russia could establish a purely anti-ISIS linkage with the US on Syria or whether such a tie would be desirable. While the Trump-Putin telephone call albeit occurred after Lavrentyev made his statement,Moscow’s desire to make counterterrorism the foundation for establishing US-Russian relationship focus was reflected by the conversation. The aspect of the call that the Kremlin primarily focused on was counterterrorism. The Kremlin noted, “The presidents spoke in favor of setting up genuine coordination between Russian and American actions with the aim of destroying Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria.”

3) Handling the Syrian Opposition Rebels

It is uncertain how the Trump administration will respond to Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground. The Obama administration in 2012 to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement with its support in the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. However, the US effort in Syria was designed and recognized by many as work on the margins. For nearly five years, the rebels were, for the most part, a disappointment as a military force. Indeed, after the Obama administration took on what proved to be the thankless task of supporting the Syrian Opposition rebels on the ground, complaints were frequently heard from senior commanders of the Supreme Military Council, the opposition’s military wing and commanders of their forces in the field, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well. Their grievances belie the fact that the Syrian opposition military leaders, after four years of war, have failed to unify the many groups in the Free Syrian Army into a cohesive fighting force and have been unable, without foreign assistance, to enhance their fighters capabilities. Only with US direction were FSA units and People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party in the northeast Syria able to unite as the Syrian Democratic Forces. The rebels’ leaders had been remiss in devising their own plans for the effective use of their forces against ISIS and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. From the beginning of their movement, Syrian opposition leaders should have been mature enough, and worldly wise enough, to understand that neither US nor any other country owed them anything. The Syrian Opposition’s Supreme Military Council, and senior FSA commanders should have expected more from themselves before demanding so much of others. The chance that Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground in Syria and its political leaders would gain and retain the support of the Trump administration will be slim if their predilection toward being demanding and difficult to coordinate politically persists.

There are presently 500 US Special Operations troops in Syria training, equipping, and assisting Syrian Opposition rebels. Their help has allowed the rebels achieve some big things. The rebels march toward Raqqa is an example of that. Through the assistance of US Special Operations advisers, the rebels have been able to coordinate their movements with planners of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition air campaign. However, there is still no evidence that the rebels possess any capability to shape the overall struggle in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many rebels scattered around Syria, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

ISIS and other Islamic militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda, such as the former Jabhat al-Nusra and its reported offshoot Khorasan, have managed find advantage in the Syrian opposition’s failings throughout the war.  By attacking mainstream FSA units that were trying to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, the Islamic militants have succeeded in making the Syrian opposition’s situation far worse. On top of the damage caused by their attacks on the FSA, Islamic militant groups continue to commit countless atrocities against the Syrian people. The Islamic militant groups were never oriented toward Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government. ISIS has included territory they hold in Syria as part of a massive Islamic State, an Islamic Caliphate, crossing into Iraq that is solely under their control, ruled under Sharia law. A syncretistic merger of mainstream opposition and Islamic militant ideas on governance was never going to occur. Meanwhile, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups became stronger almost daily. Their strength has long since passed the point at which mainstream Syrian Opposition forces could independently contend with them.

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US Special Operations troops in Syria (above). With the help of 500 US Special Operations troops who were sent into Syria to train, equip, and assist them, the Syrian Opposition rebels have managed to achieve some things. Their march toward Raqqa is an example of that. However, there is still no evidence of a capability to shape the conflict in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many Syrian Opposition rebels, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

An authentic Russian assessment of the Syrian opposition rebels at this point could only be that they will not be able to shape the military situation on ground in a way to force Assad to talks for arranging his removal from office and setting up a transitional government. The rebels have lost many fighters, and a significant portion of their territorial gain. They clearly have not influenced Assad’s thinking or decision-making. From a Russian military perspective, there is not too much for the Trump administration to go into Syria to support. The US has been the only obstacle to ensuring the rebels destruction by Russian Federation and Syrian Arab air power. Still, Russia has been effective in stalling rebel efforts on the ground. Some analysts believe the Battle of Aleppo truly signaled the end for rebels. Russia apparently plans to remain in Syria at relatively high levels and continue to provide military assistance to Assad’s forces. Without any US assistance, there is no chance whatsoever that the rebels could keep fighting at all. Given that, the Moscow may find it difficult to believe that Trump administration would pump more time, blood, and money into the rebel effort.

4) Managing the Peace Talks

As there is no path for the Syrian Opposition Movement to secure a role in the Damascus government, Moscow may doubt that the Trump administration would be willing to negotiate for them at the Syrian peace talks. Pressing for the demand of the Obama administration that a transition government be created in Damascus and that Assad commit to stepping down would be unreasonable. Likewise, it might be considered unnecessary for the Trump administration to seek a settlement on territory. The Syrian Opposition Movement was a political movement not territorial one, in which an autonomous state is sought. The movement of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party, however, is a struggle for autonomy. To that extent, it may be an issue which the Trump administration could get behind.

On the other hand, despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow discovered in December 2016 and January 2017 that managing peace talks with the warring parties was not easy. There was difficulty getting the Syrian Opposition to agree to anyrhing. This was repeatedly the case when the Obama administration was involved. Moreover, during previous talks, foreign diplomats were required to devote a significant amount of time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. While the opposition delegation was formed mostly of rebel commanders rather than political leaders, it was still quick to reject proposal for direct talks with the Assad regime because of its continued bombardment of opposition-held areas. Russia drummed up political support for the talks in Astana, which appeared aimed at leveraging its rejuvenated ties with Turkey and to simply give Moscow a greater voice in efforts to broker a settlement. However, Russian officials have lowered expectations that a major breakthrough would result from its efforts. Making things worse, during the talks, fierce infighting between rebel groups erupted in Syria, pitting at least one faction that supported the talks against another that was excluded. The rebels went into the talks at their weakest point so far in the war and this new eruption of violence threatened to fracture the opposition even further. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks.

5) Establishing an Understanding on Assad

Before its next contact with the Trump administration, Moscow will undoubtedly consider what cooperative role the US could play that would allow for the full exploitation of its capabilities in the anti-ISIS effort. However, if Moscow wants to cooperate with the administration on Syria, it must create an environment that will facilitate such cooperation. There is the likelihood that Trump administration will not accept Assad. For the moment, the transition of Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. If the Trump administration by chance decided to cooperate with Russia on Syria at the moment, it would signal its acceptance of Assad’s presidency as it is Russia’s policy to fully support it. To believe that might happen is to deny reality. Russia must decide how it will negotiate on Assad before it discusses anything about Syria with the Trump administration.

If the Trump administration has no interest in working with Assad, it could hardly be expected that the administration would provide US financial assistance for Syria’s reconstruction, helping to rebuild his regime. Russia needs to assess whether there any strong motivation might exist for the Trump administration to be involved. At best, the administration would only give reconstruction consideration if it was presented with some opportunity, a role of clear benefit to the US. Alternatively, Moscow could make itself completely open to responding to the Trump administration’s wishes on Syria. Absent either, there would hardly be any point to pursuing the matter. Russian analysts should have assessed that Assad’s future would need to be an important factor in the Kremlin’s calculus on reconstruction.

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Despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow actually found that managing the peace talks was not easy. It faced particular difficulty keeping the Syrian Opposition together. It has repeatedly been the case during Syrian peace talks that foreign diplomats were required to devote much time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks. 

6) Getting the US to Accept Iran’s Role in Syria

Russian analysts should have assessed that the Trump administration may not want to work in conjunction with Iran on Syria. The Trump administration has explicitly indicated that it is an avid supporter of Israel, whose leaders have referred to Iran as an existential threat. Further, during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Trump expressed the desire to alter or scrap the Iran nuclear deal. His administration’s thinking and approach to the nuclear deal may impact its desire to participate in the Syria peace talks while Iran was present. Russia would also need to establish what Iran’s reaction would be to possible US involvement in the talks. Reportedly, Iran has made huge sacrifices in blood and money in Syria, and is still doing so. Its leaders will most likely feel that their country deserves standing greater, but certainly no less than the US on any issues concerning Syria. It is unclear whether the Russians would want to do anything to negatively affect the strong ties it has developed with Iran in order to establish cooperation with the US.

There are other matters that might greatly concern the Trump administration. At a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora” participate in the vote. He was betting that if Syrians around the world can participate in the vote, Assad will not be able to win, his regime likely has a limited degree of influence within Syria and the Syrian diaspora worldwide, including among refugees in massive camps in Jordan and Turkey or on their own elsewhere. As December 30, 2015 greatcharlie post explained, Russia and Iran would hardly allow the situation to slip from their hands so easily. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), IRGC-Quds Force, the Iranian Army, and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security would do much to influence the outcome on the battlefield but also will likely do much to help the Assad regime influence the result of elections despite UN monitors, by helping to “create support” for Assad and “coping” with regime opponents. Reportedly, the Assad regime and the Iranians have engaged in a bit of ethnic cleansing. For example, Sunnis in West Damascus were forced to resettle in Kefraya and Fua. Iraqi and Lebanese Shias among those who replace them. Shia residents in Kefraya and Fua have been moved to formerly Sunni areas near Damascus. The Trump administration will likely point to this matter and will unlikely approve of Iran’s actions.  Moscow will need to develop responses to Trump administration questions about that.

7) Discerning US-Turkey Cooperation

Russia analysts would likely assess for Moscow that if the US enters the fray on Syria, Turkey would be forced to establish a balance between the relations with Russia and the US. While Turkey has a new linkage with Russia on Syria, it has a strong linkage with the US, its long-time NATO ally, on Syria as a result of an agreement with the Obama administration to take on the role of supporting US-backed Syrian Opposition rebels. Moreover, how Turkey intended to proceed regarding its support of those US-backed rebels’ campaign is unknown. This issue will take on even greater importance if the Trump administration decided to reduce or halt financial support to Ankara that may have assisted Turkish military forces and intelligence services working with Syrian Opposition rebels.

Safe zones have been a core demand of the Syrian opposition and were central to Turkey’s Syria policy for much of the past five years. However, Ankara is apparently lukewarm about idea of new safe zones, believing that under its auspices, a sufficient safe zone has already created. Indeed, Turkey has set up its own zone of influence, a de facto safe zone, between the Kurdish enclaves of Jarablus and Irfin, which is aimed primarily at keeping Syrian Kurds from forming a presence along the entire length of its border with Syria, but is also being used as a refuge by some fleeing civilians. Russian analysts may have already assessed that if the US receives significant push back from Turkey on creating new safe zones in Syria, it may temper the Trump administration’s interest in investing the US further in the Syria situation. Countries as Turkey and Jordan would be critical to any plan to create safe zones in country because they would need a steady line of support in order to be sustained.

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Aleppo (above). US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict.There would hardly be any motivation for the Trump administration to provide US financial assistance for reconstruction of Syria for Assad. At best, Trump would only give reconstruction consideration if there was a clear benefit to the US. Unless Russia would be open to responding to US wishes on Syria, it is hard see what would draw the US to the enterprise.

8) Postwar Peace-Enforcement and Reconstruction

Russian analysts may have assessed that convincing US to cooperate on the Syria peace talks could create a possible path for for US participation at an important level in the country’s postwar peace-enforcement mission and possibly reconstruction.  It is a monumental task that lies ahead. Leaving Syria without at least initiating some complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement would be a mistake. That would create ideal conditions for the rejuvenation of ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the establishment of another Islamic militant group to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That was what occurred in Iraq after US forces departed, the problem in Libya with the removal of the regime of Muammar El-Ghaddafi, and it is a growing problem in Afghanistan.

US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict. Surely, Russian Federation EMERCOM, developed and led by the current Russian Federation Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu for many years, would have an significant impact on that effort. However, without the financial wherewithal and expertise of the US, Russia’s investment in Syria might amount to nothing in the end. In the international reconstruction effort launched in Bosnia in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement and the creation of the multinational peace-enforcement force in support of the agreement’s implementation, I-FOR (Implementation Force). The US and Russia cooperated as members of that force and the follow-on force, S-FOR (Stabilization Force). US participation in the peace-enforcement and reconstruction effort may also do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well. Russia, itself, has sought stronger ties with Arab countries, bolstering economic ties with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait and diplomatic overtures with Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Russia’s hope was that courting those countries would make them more receptive to its’ calls to assist in finding a political solution for Syria. It was also hoped those countries would eventually be responsive to a campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. Still, there is sense of stability that may come from US participation in the Syria effort. Knowing the US and Russia were cooperating on the ground might create a sense of security among the other countries.

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The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things, but approaches matters in a way a bit different from previous administrations. Its intent is not to reject or break the US policymaking process, but the change still worries many. Government professionals will soon be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Once cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, policy statements on Syria and other issues will be produced.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Polonius is a Danish Lord and chief counselor to the king. In Act I Scene iii, his son Laertes is leaving home for France. While sending his son off, Polonius offers him advice on how to behave with integrity and practicality overseas. At the end of a long list of guidelines, Polonius tells Laertes: “This above all: to thine ownself be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Taking an unconventional approach can be called creative, but when it leads to successful outcomes, it must be considered effective. The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things and it is doing them in a way different from that of previous administrations. Change can be disturbing. On foreign policy, it is not the intent of the Trump administration to reject or break the policymaking process. Inevitably, professionals serving in government departments will be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Trump is aware of the very large foreign affairs and national security apparatus made available to a US president, and knows it is very capable. As its cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, the Trump administration will begin to produce policy statements not only on Syria, but many other issues as well. Moscow’s invitation for the Trump administration to join the Syria effort seems to indicate that Russia would prefer, and if possible encourage, the White House to circumvent the normal policymaking process. Taking approach will put Moscow on nothing but a bad road. Indeed, accomplishing anything that way will be impossible. Despite what may become a persistent voice from overseas, the administration will formulate its policies and advance them at its own pace.

Senators Reassure Wary Baltic Nations That US Won’t Abandon NATO: Meanwhile, Latvia Shapes Its Own Fate

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Latvian National Guard troops in small unit training (above). Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its fellow NATO Members, Estonia and Lithuania, to deter or fight Russia and Belarus. A huge military build-up supported by the US, the EU, and NATO has been a necessary step taken by leaders in Riga. However, they are also using diplomacy to search for common ground with Russia and Belarus, and recently signed a defense cooperation agreement with Minsk.

According to a December 27, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Senators Reassure Wary Baltic Nations That US Won’t Abandon NATO,” US Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Amy Klobuchar arrived in Tallinn, Estonia on December 27th to reassure Baltic countries that the US remained committed to their defense and to the NATO alliance. At the time, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had expressed concern that the new US President-elect Donald Trump might not uphold the longstanding US commitment to their defense from the Russian Federation and its military partner, Belarus. That notion was predicated on statements Trump made during the election campaign. At a December 27th news conference with Estonia’s Prime Minister Juri Ratas, McCain remarked, “I am convinced and certain that our relations, and the American relationship with NATO, will remain the same.”  He further stated, “Our relationship is more important than perhaps it’s been in a long time,” and said he would support a permanent US troop presence, not just a rotation. About 5,000 US troops have rotated through Estonia since April 2014. Other stops on the Senators’ trip were Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Georgia. Ojars Eriks Kalnins, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Latvian Parliament (Saeima) and a former Latvian ambassador to the US was interviewed by phone for the New York Times article. Kalnins noted that Congressional Democrats and Republicans had tried to reassure the Baltic States for months that US policy toward European security would not change. Kalnins expressed optimism, saying “Our hope is that his administration will come around to backing the ongoing policy toward NATO and the Baltics.” Interestingly, he went on to state, “I don’t think there is a plausible scenario for Russia invading the Baltics. To be honest, I’m more concerned about the fate of Ukraine.” Since the time of the Senators visit, Trump has sought to ameliorate his comments on NATO by saying in an interview with The Times of London and Bild that the alliance “is very important to me.” Duo lepores qui insequitur, neutrum capit. (Who chases two rabbits, catches neither.)

Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its fellow NATO Members in the Baltics to deter or fight Russia and its allies. Initiating a military build up supported by the US, the EU, and NATO, with urgency and diligence was a necessary and admirable course for the leadership in Riga to take. Since 2014, Latvia has one of the fastest growing defense budgets in the world. That growth will be sustained until 2018 and will be well over 2 percent GDP by then. Defense is a crucial issue for Latvia, however, there are other dimensions country of great importance to Latvians such as the economy. It problems require significant attention, too! The West has engaged in efforts to ensure Latvia received foreign economic assistance. It has stemmed some problem. Still, that help has essentially been a bromide for Latvia’s economic woes. Worse, it may have slowed Latvia on the road to self-directed stability. Some officials in Riga have developed a dependency on that aid, making plans around it, but not all have.

In addition to its own initiative, Latvia has been driven by the West’s friendly but insistent voice to devote so much attention, energy, and money to defense. As a result, its economy has become an ancillary story. The leadership in Riga is undoubtedly appreciative of the West’s assistance, but paramount to them, much as the leaders in any national capital, is maintaining their country’s solvency and unity. Not to be impolitic, but for Western countries working with Latvia, the true priority is their own interests. It is possible that in private, leaders in Riga might admit that they sense themselves as being confined on a path of succumbing to obligations stemming from its membership in regional military alliances. From a more extreme perspective, some leaders in Riga may want to overcome a nagging sense that Latvia has become Western powers’ “ball to play with.” Concerns among the Latvians and their Baltic neighbors over Western perceptions of them seemed to be manifested by their recent complaints over the use of the term “former Soviet republics” in the media to describe them. Riga is entitled to set its own national priorities, and with regard to security, devise its own military plans and diplomatic ones to quell both potential and real threats. That certainly does not mean leaders in Riga might have some interest in breaking away from any of its security arrangements. However, they apparently view it as reasonable to use diplomacy to search for common ground with Russia and Belarus, in tandem with their military build-up. Neither its Baltic neighbors nor other NATO members could truly welcome a decision by Latvia to take such an independent diplomatic tack. Yet, success would allow Riga to focus more on Latvia’s other problems and become less absorbed by defense. Riga has recently made diplomatic moves of some significance with Minsk and with Moscow. Non quia difficilia sunt non audemus sed quia non audemus difficilia sunt. (It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, but because we do not dare that things are difficult.)

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The Republic of Latvia is one of the three Baltic States in Northern Europe. It is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, and Belarus to the southeast. Although Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are sovereign countries, for decades they have maintained cooperative arrangements. They are linked today. Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its Baltic neighbors Yet, also of great importance to Latvians are economic woes besetting their country.

Latvia in Brief

The Republic of Latvia is one of the three Baltic States in Northern Europe. It is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, and Belarus to the southeast. Its coastline to the west on the Baltic Sea is 531 km and forms a maritime border with Sweden. Latvia has approximately 1,957,200 inhabitants and a total territory of 64,589 km2.  Latvia was originally established as a democratic parliamentary republic in 1918 on 18 November 1918. However, its de facto independence was interrupted during World War II. In 1940, the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, and re-occupied by the Soviets in 1944 to form the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic for fifty years. The “Singing Revolution” that started in 1987 called for the Baltic States emancipation from Soviet rule. It ended with the Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia on 4 May 1990, and restoring de facto independence on 21 August 1991. In Latvia, the central government in Riga, the capital, is supreme, and the administrative divisions only exercise powers delegated to them by the Central government. There are 118 administrative divisions, of which 109 are municipalities and 9 are cities.  Latvians and Livs are the indigenous people of Latvia. Latvian is the country’s official language. Despite foreign rule from the 13th to 20th centuries, the Latvian nation maintained its identity throughout the generations via the language and musical traditions. A demographic profile of Latvia provided by Index Mundi indicates Latvians comprise 61.1 percent of the population. As a consequence of the Soviet occupation,  ethnic Russians comprise 26.2 percent of the population, some of whom are non-citizens. Belarusians make up 3.5 percent of the population, Ukrainians represent 2.3 percent,   represent 2.2 percent, and Lithuanians are 1.3 percent. Remaining groups represent 3.4 percent of the population. Until World War II, Latvia had significant minorities of ethnic Germans and Jews. Latvia is historically predominantly Protestant Lutheran, except for the Latgale region in the southeast, which has historically been predominantly Roman Catholic. The Russian population has also brought a significant portion of Eastern Orthodox Christians. Latvia is a member of the EU, NATO, the UN, the Council of Europe, Organization Economic Cooperation and Development, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Council of Baltic Sea States, Nordic Baltic Cooperation, Nordic Investment Bank. For 2014, Latvia is listed 46th on the Human Development Index and as a high income country as of January 1, 2017.

At the Foundation of Baltic Unity

Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are often looked upon in the West as a matched set of three countries. To an extent, they are! Although each established its sovereignty separately, the three entered into a cooperative arrangement known as the trilateral Treaty on Concord and Cooperation, signed in Geneva on September 12, 1934. Turbulent events beginning at the start of World War II had all three Baltic States initially sucked into the Soviet Union, then invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, and finally re-occupied and reincorporated as Soviet republics. The West continued to recognize the sovereignty of the three countries. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic States signed the Declaration on Unity and Cooperation on May 12, 1990 in Tallinn, restoring cooperation between Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Pursuant to the Geneva Treaty, the Baltic Council was established in 1990. The Baltic Council of Ministers (BCM), formed at the meeting of Baltic Prime Ministers in Tallinn on June 13, 1994, established an institution of trilateral intergovernmental cooperation. There was also an Agreement on Baltic Parliamentary and Governmental cooperation signed in Tallinn on the same day. These agreements are at the foundation of what is known as Baltic unity.  When the Baltic States joined the EU and NATO, the BCM was reformed and adjusted to the changed environment. It still operates under the guidance of the Prime Ministers’ Council, and the Cooperation Council, which comprises the ministers of foreign affairs, and coordinates the activity of the Committees of Senior Officials (CSO). In accord with the Terms of Reference, the Committees of Senior Officials act in five areas of cooperation at the expert level. If necessary, Task Forces are established by the Prime Ministers’ Council. The Prime Ministers’ Council determines specific task to be performed by a Task Force within time parameters. The Secretariat arranges the activities of the BCM. The Secretariat is staffed by officers of the foreign ministries of the three Baltic States responsible for the countries cooperation. Under the initiative of the chairmanship of the BCM, the Secretariat does the preparatory work for the meetings of the Prime Ministers’ Council and Cooperation Council. The chairmanship starts at the beginning of every calendar year. The country with the chairmanship directs work done on all levels of cooperation. Perhaps 2016 was the best year for Latvia to engage in its daring and optimistic diplomacy with Belarus and Russia. Latvia held the BCM chairmanship and presided over the Baltic Assembly (BA).

The BA is an international organization established on November 8, 1991 aimed at promoting cooperation between the Baltic States’ parliaments. The BA works under a statute entered into force on October 31, 1993. The Protocol amending the Agreement on Baltic Parliamentary and Governmental Cooperation was signed on November 28, 2003 in Vilnius. The Baltic Council is an annual joint meeting held by the BCM and the BA. This meeting includes a session of the BA, a meeting between the Presidium of the BA and Cooperation Council of the BCM, and a meeting of the Cooperation Council of the BCM.  A report by the Chairman of the Cooperation Council to the BA session must be prepared on: cooperation between the Baltic States in the previous year; activities related to the resolutions adopted by the BA during the current year; and, plans for future cooperation. Although Latvia was open enough to engage in diplomatic efforts with Belarus and Russia while at the helm of the BCM and BA, its approach to those countries did not lead Estonia and Lithuania to take similar action. There was certainly no abatement of Estonia and Lithuania’s fears over Russian and Belarusian actions and intentions.

Latvia’s Poor Economy – A Special Problem

Albeit as a result of the precarious economic situation it has faced for nearly a decade, Latvia, to make use of a phrase from the Bundesliga, carries the red lantern among the Baltic States. From 1999 to 2007, Latvia had one of the highest GDP growth rates in Europe. However, the Latvian economy entered a phase of fiscal contraction during the second half of 2008 after an extended period of credit-based speculation and unrealistic appreciation in real estate values. Growth was mainly driven by growth of domestic consumption, financed by a serious increase of private debt, as well as a negative foreign trade balance. The prices of real estate, which were at some points growing by approximately 5 percent a month, were long perceived to be too high for the economy, which mainly produces low-value goods and raw materials. Ignoring recommendations from the IMF and others to break their peg to the euro and devalue the currency, the Latvians instead embarked on a brutal programme of “internal devaluation,” improving competitiveness by slashing wages and prices. After losing access to capital markets, and accepting a $10.5 billion bail-out from the IMF and the EU, the government implemented an austerity plan worth 17 percent of GDP over four years. Problems were exacerbated by the global economic crisis, shortage of credit and huge money resources used for the bailout of Parex bank. In 2008, Parex, then the second-largest bank in Latvia, was nationalized. In the end, Latvia had to take $2.35 billion in aid from the IMF for the bank’s bail out. The Latvian economy fell 18 percent in the first three months of 2009, the biggest fall in the EU.  The unemployment rate in Latvia rose sharply in this period from a low of 5.4 percent in November 2007 to over 22 percent. In April 2010, Latvia had the highest unemployment rate in the EU, at 22.5 percent. In July 2012, the IMF concluded that the First Post-Program Monitoring Discussions with the Republic of Latvia, announcing that Latvia’s economy was recovering strongly since 2010, following the deep downturn in 2008–09. However, while some in the West define Latvia as a success, others call it the best example of an apparent Western tendency to cloak disaster with positive statements. Net economic growth in Latvia had been nonexistent since 2006. Reportedly, the collapse was severe enough that Latvia still had not returned it to its pre-crisis peak of activity.  Latvia should have labeled a catastrophe. Even now, unemployment is around 9.5 percent, which is still high and real wages are about 5 percent smaller than they were back in 2007. Even more alarming for the country’s long-term economic prospects is loss of Latvia’s loss of more than 300,000 people since 2000. Its population has dropped from around 2.3 million to about 2 million. Many Latvians were prompted to seek out better opportunities in the rest of the EU due to the financial crisis.

In 2014 the GDP of Latvia was $31.3 billion and its GDP per capita was $23,500. Latvia is the 78th largest export economy in the world and the 34th most complex economy according to the Economic Complexity Index (ECI). Records indicate Latvia increased exports at an annualized rate of 12.3 percent, from $7.98 billion in 2009 to $14.3 billion in 2014. Imports stood at $17.2 billion, resulting in a negative trade balance of $2.93 billion. The top exports of Latvia are Refined Petroleum ($1.22 billion), Sawn Wood ($730 million), Crude Petroleum ($644 million), Hard Liquor ($556 million) and Broadcasting Equipment ($394 million), using the 1992 revision of the HS (Harmonized System) classification. Its top imports are Refined Petroleum ($2 billion), Broadcasting Equipment ($666 million), Petroleum Gas ($600 million), Cars ($599 million) and Packaged Medicaments ($519 million). The top export destinations of Latvia are Lithuania ($2.31 billion), Russia ($1.3 billion), Estonia ($938 million), Belarus ($854 million) and Germany ($851 million). The top import origins are Lithuania ($2.69 billion), Russia ($2.02 billion), Poland ($1.74 billion), Germany ($1.71 billion) and Estonia ($1.17 billion). The top import origins of Latvia are Lithuania ($2.69 billion), Russia ($2.02 billion), Poland ($1.74 billion), Germany ($1.71 billion) and Estonia ($1.17 billion).

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Most transit traffic in Latvia uses the ports of Riga, Liepāja, and Ventspils (above). Half the cargo is crude oil and oil products. In addition to road and railway connections, Ventspils is also linked to oil extraction fields and transportation routes of Russian Federation via a system of two pipelines. The Russian state-owned pipeline operator Transneft plans to halt oil product operations at Ventspils and Riga as of 2018. Its chief executive officer said by 2018 Russia’s cargo flow to the Baltic States will be zero.

Latvia’s transport sector is around 14 percent of GDP. Transit between Russia and Belarus is considerable. Three biggest ports of Latvia are located in Riga, Liepāja, and Ventspils. Most transit traffic uses them and half the cargo is crude oil and oil products. Ventspils is one of the busiest ports in the Baltic States. Along with its road and railway connections, Ventspils is also linked to oil extraction fields and transportation routes of Russian Federation via system of two pipelines from Polotsk, Belarus. Latvia operates Inčukalns underground gas storage facility, one of the largest underground gas storage facilities in Europe and the only one in the Baltic States. However, the future of Latvia’s transport and energy sectors appears uncertain. Riga has sought to meet EU regulations and reduce its dependence on energy supplies from Russia. However, that process has created the opportunity for Russia to essentially pull the rug from under Latvia. The Russian state-owned pipeline operator Transneft plans to halt oil product operations at Latvia’s ports of Ventspils and Riga as of 2018, and redirect volumes to the Russian Baltic Sea ports of Ust-Luga and Primorsk and the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. During a meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, on September 13, 2015, Transneft’s chief executive officer, Nikolai Tokarev, said, “We will re-orient the cargo turnover from the Baltic ports of Ventspils, Riga to our Baltic ports–of Ust-Luga and Primorsk–as well as to Novorossiisk.” Tokarev predicted turnover at Latvia’s ports would shrink to 5 million metric tons (mt) in 2016 from 9 million mt in 2015. He further stated “By 2018 we will reduce this cargo flow to the Baltic states to zero. We will fill up our ports, because there is capacity surplus.” Transneft plans to convert some of the pipeline capacity not being used for crude to transport oil products to Primorsk and Novorossiisk.

Currently, a former crude pipeline, the Yaroslav-Kirishi 2, is being converted to carry diesel to Primorsk and is due to be operational in October. The converted pipeline, which will run along the already functioning Kstovo-Primorsk trunk, will allow Transneft to expand the capacity of the so-called North, or Sever, diesel pipeline running to the Baltic port of Primorsk to 25 million mt per year from November 2017, earlier than the previously planned 2020. Russia exports only diesel via pipeline, with currently two pipelines shipping Euro 5, or 10 parts per million (ppm) max sulfur diesel, to the Baltic ports of Primorsk and Ventspils. Gasoil continues to be shipped by rail, but Baltic ports have become an outlet for a large proportion of all ultra low sulfur diesel supply to Northwest Europe. Last October, the pipeline to Ventspils fully switched to 10 ppm diesel flows. Russian products flows through the Baltic ports – Sillamae, Klaipeda, Riga, Tallinn, had all been shrinking. Russia halted crude exports via Ventspils more than a decade ago, but continued to ship gasoil and subsequently ULSD via the pipeline to the Latvian port. However, transshipment volumes through Ventspils Nafta Terminals on the Baltic Sea have also been dwindling. Ventspils, which is majority owned by trader Vitol, handled 4.29 million mt of oil products in the first half of the year, down 27.3 percent from a year earlier. Russian pipeline volumes continued their downward trend in the first half of 2016, with LatRosTrans transporting 2.4 million mt, down from 2.98 million mt in the first half of 2015. The terminal also handles products delivered by rail from Russia and Belarus. According to traders, it is now being filled with ultra low sulfur diesel.

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Latvia’s Incukalns underground gas storage facility (above) is one the largest in Europe. It was built during the Soviet era to meet the region’s needs, including northwestern Russia. However, Incukalns entered th 2016-2017 winter season one-third empty. Total injections have dropped to 1.25 billion cubic metres (bcm) from 1.6 bcm in 2015 and 1.9 bcm in 2014. At the end of the 2016 injection season, it had 1.53 bcm of gas in storage, the lowest level since 2000. The future of Latvia’s energy sector is uncertain.

Latvia’s gas utility, Latvijas Gaze is set to transfer part of its assets – including one of Europe’s largest underground gas storage facilities, Incukalns – to Latvia’s future gas grid and storage operator Conexus Baltic Grid, ahead of a planned market liberalisation in April 2017. The current owners of Latvijas Gaze – Russia’s Gazprom, Germany’s Uniper and Latvia’s Itera Latvija – which have a combined stake of slightly over 68 percent, will have to divest shares in Conexus by the end of 2017 due to legal requirements. Latvijas Gaze’s restructuring is a part of wider gas market reforms approved by the Latvian parliament in February 2016 in an effort to meet EU regulations. and reduce dependence on energy supplies from Russia. The European infrastructure fund Marguerite, which holds a 28.97 percent stake in Latvijas Gaze, plans to stay in Conexus after the restructuring, it told Reuters in an email. The fund declined to say whether it might want to increase its stake in Conexus. The storage facility, built during the Soviet era to meet the needs of the wider region, including northwestern Russia, is entering this winter season one-third empty. Gazprom and Estonian utility Eesti Gaas have not injected any new gas at Incukalns in 2016. Total injections have dropped to 1.25 billion cubic meters (bcm) from 1.6 bcm year ago and 1.9 bcm in 2014. At the end of the injection season, which runs from April until October, it had 1.53 bcm of gas in storage, the lowest level since at least 2000. This includes 0.2 bcm of gas Gazprom injected for Russia’s needs during the previous year. Estonian customers told Latvijas Gaze they could meet their needs by direct imports from Russia, while Gazprom said it also had no need to store more gas. While the drop in injections coincides with the Latvian parliament’s decision to end Gazprom’s supply monopoly, both Latvian officials and the Russian supplier said the reasons were economic. Russia has spare capacity to deliver gas to its St Petersburg region, previously also supplied from the Latvian storage facility, as it prepares to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany across the Baltic Sea. Ivars Scerbickis, head of Incukalns gas storage, said “Historically, Incukalns’ role has been indisputable in the region.” He went on to state, “Now it’s a challenge for us to keep it the same.”  Latvian officials hope that Gazprom will use Incukalns after market liberalisation to ensure security of supplies, especially during cold winters when demand spikes. Latvia may be hoping to acquire Finland and Poland as new customer when new gas links are built from Estonia and Lithuania by around 2020. Ibit, ibIt eo quo vis qui zonam perdidit. (The one who loses his money belt will go where you wish.)

Latvia: A Russian Military Target

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin finds causality for the misunderstandings and crises with the West over Eastern Europe in actions taken 25 years ago with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin explained at the 2007 Munich Security Conference and many times since that former NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner had guaranteed that NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Wall. Moreover, he has pointed to the statements of German parliamentarian Egon Bahr who explained on June 26, 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” In a Bild interview on January 11, 2016, Putin pointed to what he described as a very concrete suggestion by Bahr on how that danger could be averted: “the USA, the Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structures.” When the Bild interviewer pointed out to Putin that under NATO’s rules and self-understanding it can accept free countries as members if they want to be members and meet certain requirements.  Putin responded, “Nowhere is it written that NATO had to accept certain countries. All that would have been required to refrain from doing so was political will. But people didn’t not want to.” Putin declared the reason for NATO’s lack of restraint was “NATO and the USA wanted complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone.”

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right) and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left). Some Western analysts conclude Russia’s centuries old habit of devouring bordering countries puts Latvia and it Baltic neighbors at risk. Others say Putin seeks hegemony over them due to his beliefs about Russian nationhood and historical destiny. Putin says NATO guaranteed Russia that it would “not expand eastward” and it is doing so knowing it “will lead to Russia’s isolation.”

However, some Russia experts do not believe that Putin is driven by the failure of the West to honor its post-Cold War commitments to Russia. Hillary Appel of Claremont McKenna College asserts that Russia has a centuries old habit of devouring for bordering countries as the Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania  as a means of ensuring its physical control of their territory.  She explains that was Russia built its empire that way. It was a stratagem quite different from that of Britain and France, whose empires were built upon the conquest of distant, unconnected territories on other continents. Russia’s approach left it the largest country in the world geographically, even after the republics of its Soviet empire sought independence. Appel proffers that after ascending to power, Putin in words and deeds as both Prime minister and president refused to accept the further dissolution of Russian controlled territory, and through what she describes as tremendous brutality and violence in Chechnya, thwarting Chechen designs for independence.

Paul Miller of the University of Texas, explains that Putin is not driven by cold calculations of rational self-interest, because no human is. Putin believes hegemony over Russia’s near-abroad is necessary for Russian security because of his beliefs about Russian nationhood and historical destiny. Putin and his advisers are not mere nationalist. Miller believes Putin and his advisers may be driven by “peculiar form of Russian nationalism infused with religion, destiny, and messianism.” As part of that narrative, Russia is the guardian of Orthodox Christianity and has a mission to protect and expand the faith. Miller believes that a truly rational Russia would not see NATO and EU expansion as a threat, because the liberal order is open and inclusive and would actually augment Russia’s security and prosperity. If Putin and his advisers see the world through the prism of Russian religious nationalism, Miller states, “the West is inherently a threat because of its degeneracy and globalism.” Indeed, to them, Miller proffers, “NATO is not the benign guarantor of liberal order in Europe, but the hostile agent of the degenerate West and the primary obstacle to Russian greatness.” To that extent, Putin’s grand strategy, Miller says, requires breaking NATO and making the Article V mutual security guarantee meaningless.Putin has already succeeded in eroding NATO’s credibility. His last two targets, Georgia and Ukraine, were not NATO members, but in 2008 had been explicitly and publicly assured that they would be granted Membership Action Plans. By occupying those countries Putin has assured they would never join NATO in the near term as Miller asserts no country will ever join NATO while being partly occupied by Russia.

The Baltic States are NATO Members. Due to that, Miller explains that Putin would unlikely send large formations of uniformed Russian soldiers over the international border as even the most cautious NATO members will not ignore an overt conventional invasion. Miller believes Putin will instigate an ambiguous militarized crisis using deniable proxies, probably in the next two years. Miller outlined what might be observed as follows:  1) Perhaps many among the 25 percent of Latvians or Estonians who are ethnically Russian will begin rioting, protesting for their rights, claiming to be persecuted, and asking for “international protection;” 2) A suspiciously well armed and well trained “Popular Front for the Liberation of the Russian Baltics” will appear; 3) A few high-profile assassinations and bombings bring the Baltics to the edge of civil war. 4) A low-grade insurgency may emerge. 4) Russia will block all UN Security Council resolutions, but will offer its unilateral services as a peacekeeper; 5) The North Atlantic Council will meet. 6) Poland will lead the effort to invoke Article V, declare the Baltics under Russian attack, and rally collective defense against Russian aggression. 7) The Germans and French will fiercely resist. Everyone will look to the US to see which way the alliance leader tilts. 8) If the Alliance does not invoke Article V, NATO’s mutual security guarantee becomes functionally meaningless. 9) No NATO Member will put any faith in the treaty to guarantee it’s own defense against Russia in the future. Some Eastern European countries may choose to join up with Russia. 10) Others, starting with Poland, will begin arming to the teeth.

In January 2016, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the formation of a new Baltic command, which would have 60,000 troops—three motor rifle divisions—stationed near the western region of Russia, bordering Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In addition, Russia is expanding its Baltic Fleet and has deployed a new generation of surface-to-air missiles into the Kaliningrad region, bordering on Poland and Lithuania. Kaliber missiles can launch nuclear warheads. The Russian warships Serpukhov and Zeleny Dol were recently added to the Baltic Fleet, armed with long-range, new-generation cruise missiles. Russia even held four days of civil defense drills, involving 40 million Russian citizens, underscoring the country’s readiness for war. The most recent maneuvers by the Baltic Fleet involved a simulated attack on US warships in the Sea.

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Many in the Baltics feel they will fall prey to the same territorial ambitions Russia displayed in Crimea in 2014. Under a new State Defense Concept, Latvia’s defense budget will be increased to 2 percent of GDP by 2018. It earmarked 20 percent of the budget for purchasing new equipment.  It also states the Armed Forces in peacetime will number 17,500 men to include: 6,500 from the professional ranks; 8,000 from the National Guard troops; and, 3,000 from the reserves.

Latvia’s Response: 2016 State Defense Concept

Many in the Baltic States feel they will be next to fall prey to Russia’s territorial ambitions, which it demonstrated by annexing Crimea in 2014. When one hears the tempest swirl, it is rational to prepare a defense against the storm. At the core of Latvia’s national security concerns is the threat from Russia. Factors influencing that perspective include Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the clandestine war in eastern Ukraine, and Moscow’s heightened military force on patrol off the coasts of the Baltics and Western Europe. Western analysts conclude the Russia’s deployment of nuclear capable Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad province between Poland and Lithuania underscored Moscow’s efforts to intimidate the Baltics and the West. Much as all other European countries, Latvia must also devote new attention to the continuing encroachment of the ISIS threat from the Middle East. The developing security environment has driven Latvia to give greater attention to security policy and the strengthening of defense capabilities on the national and international levels. Membership in NATO and the EU play a decisive role in Latvia’s security policy, and Latvia is actively participating in these organizations as well as bilaterally with its allies in order to bolster its own security and the security of its region. In this regard, Riga accepts that it is in Latvia’s national interest to establish arrangements for a sustained NATO military presence on Latvian territory that in turn bolster both the deterrent posture and real defense of the alliance against the Russian threat. Of equal  importance is increasing the capabilities of NATO rapid reaction forces to better enable them to assist all member states in an emergency. Latvia welcomed the increase in the NATO Response Force (NRF) to 40,000 troops which are ready to respond in a few days’ time. Some 5,000 troops of the NRF serve in the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) which is ready respond to any Russian moves on Europe’s eastern front within hours. Latvia is one of six NATO members in which NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs) have been established. In an emergency, these units would be instrumental in facilitating the rapid deployment of military combat forces, ensuring that they could operate effectively on Latvia’s land and sea and in the air. Additionally, the NFIUs allow regional NATO Members to implement a coordinated program for military exercises.

In addition to conventional attack, Latvia, much as Paul Miller prognosticated, might be facing foreign efforts at subversion and insurgency, characteristic of hybrid warfare. Reportedly, Russia, using hybrid warfare, has sought to destabilize governments and societies by direct means and other elements as well. Those other elements may include cyber-attacks, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, intelligence operations, the application of coercion ranging from economic pressure to the leverage using energy supplies as an instrument, the use of disguised military personnel, and the use of terrorists and armed groups as proxies for various types of attacks. Plans for Latvia’s response to both the conventional and hybrid attacks have been coalesced in a new national security strategy, the 2016 State Defense Concept. The Concept specifies eight major challenges for Latvia’s security and measures to prevent them: external challenges, foreign intelligence and special services, military threats, threats to social unity, threats to information community, economic challenges, international terrorism and cyber-terrorism. Latvia’s priorities are to reinforce its borders, to improve its refugee policy and to prevent radicalization risks. To thwart threats posed by foreign intelligence and special services, the Concept indicated that Latvia should develop its national security and counterespionage services and should undertake preventive policies. The country should also develop public mass media, reduce the influence of Russian mass media specifically, control foreign investment, and ensure stable energy supplies. Since hybrid warfare can be used independently or in tandem with conventional military attacks, Latvia actively contributes to NATO and EU efforts to seek the most effective solutions to counter hybrid threats, including in the information space.

Latvia’s defense budget will be increased to 2 percent of GDP by 2018, according to the Concept. The strategy further states that the Latvian Armed Forces in peacetime will number 17,500 men which will include 6,500 from the professional ranks, 8,000 from the National Guard troops and 3,000 from the reserves. Moreover, 20 percent of the defense budget will be earmarked for the purchase of new equipment. Priorities concerning the armed forces included the strengthening the operational capability of the Latvian Armed Forces, the further integration of the National Guard within the Armed Forces, strengthening the Special Tasks Unit–special operations forces–as well as boosting early-warning capabilities, airspace surveillance and air defense. Finally, the document emphasizes the integration and regional cooperation of the three Baltic States’ militaries. On June 16, 2016, Latvia’s Saeima approved the government’s national security strategy.

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A Latvian soldier and Estonian soldier perform check their equipment (above). The Latvian Armed Forces’ priorities include bolstering its operational capabilities, the further integration of the National Guard within the Armed Forces, strengthening the Special Tasks Unit–special operations forces–as well as boosting early-warning capabilities, airspace surveillance and air defense. Emphasis is also being placed on the integration and regional cooperation of the Baltic States’ militaries.

NATO’s Commitments to Latvia and Its Baltic Neighbors

At the Summit Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government from July 8 to July 9 2016 in Warsaw, Poland, it was agreed that combat forces would be deployed into the three Baltic States and Poland. That force will consist of seven combat brigades, including three heavy armored brigades, backed up by air power and land fire. In February, a US battalion task force of about 900 soldiers from Viselk, Germany, accompanied by smaller United Kingdom and Romanian units, will be deployed to Orzysk, Poland. That force will be backed by United Kingdom Typhoon fighter jets, which will begin patrols over the Black Sea. They will be joined in Europe later by a brigade combat team from Fort Carson, Colorado equipped with tanks and other heavy equipment and a combat aviation brigade from Fort Drum, New York.  All of the US troops are scheduled to be in place by June 2017. The United Kingdom will send a battalion of 800 troops to Estonia. It will be supported by French and Danish troops starting from May 2017. Canada will send 450 troops to Latvia, who will joined by 140 troops from Italy. Germany has promised to send between 400 and 600 troops to Lithuania, along with forces from the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Croatia and Luxembourg. The deployment will cost NATO Member States $2.7 billion a year. The US Navy has deployed four Arleigh Burke class destroyers equipped with AEGIS missile defense systems to Rota, Spain. A separate land-based AEGIS system is being constructed in Romania on the Black Sea.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the troop contributions to a new 4,000-strong force in the Baltics and Eastern Europe were a measured response to what the alliance believes are some 330,000 Russian troops stationed on Russia’s western flank near Moscow. Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance remarked about the deployments, “What deterrence looks like is that it raises the threshold of risk (for Russia). It may be slight, but it is definitely there.” He further explained, “You can use the term ‘tripwire’ as descriptors, but what it really does is raise that calculus of risk. Do you take any steps against a NATO nation given that the alliance has decided to put in very credible combat forces?” Commenting about the armed forces of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania following a visit to the Baltic States in 2016, the commander of the US Special Operations Command, US Army General Raymond Thomas stated, “They’re scared to death of Russia.” He further stated, “They are very open about that. They’re desperate for our leadership.” Hannibal ad portas! (Hannibal is at the gates!)

Former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, United Kingdom General Sir Richard Shirreff, wrote a CNN assessment October 21, 2016, warned that if Russia puts one soldier across the borders of the Baltic States, it means war with NATO. Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania have been members of NATO since 2004 and are therefore protected under Article V of the Washington Treaty, the founding document of NATO, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. A Russian attack on the Baltic States puts the US at war with Russia—meaning nuclear war, because Russia integrates nuclear weapons into every aspect of its military doctrine. Shirreff stated pointedly, “And don’t think Russia would limit itself to the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Any form of nuclear release by the Russians would almost certainly precipitate nuclear retaliation by the United States.”

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Canadian Army troops (above). At the 2016 Summit Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government, it was agreed that NATO would deploy combat forces into the three Baltic States and Poland. Canada will send 450 troops to Latvia. They will be joined by 140 Italian troops. Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance said about the deployments, “What deterrence looks like is that it raises the threshold of risk (for Russia). It may be slight, but it is definitely there.”

Baltic Air Policing – “Latvia’s Air Power”

After the Baltic States joined NATO in 2004, the immediate commitment of alliance its three new members was nonstop policing of their airspace. Initially, Baltic Air Policing was conducted by NATO Member States on a three-month rotation from Lithuania’s First Air Force Base in Zokniai/Šiauliai International Airport, near the northern city of Šiauliai, and starting 2014 at the Ämari Air Base in Harju County, Estonia. Starting with the Turkish deployment, rotations changed to a four-month basis. Usual deployments consist of four fighter aircraft with between 50 and 100 support personnel. However, all member nations contribute in some form to the NATO Air policing, be it through the use of national aerial surveillance systems, air traffic management, interceptor aircraft or other air defence measures. NATO Air Policing requires making an Air Surveillance and Control System, an Air Command and Control structure and Quick Reaction Alert (Interceptor) aircraft continuously available.

Russian military aircraft near the Baltic Sea were intercepted by NATO jets 110 times in 2016. According to NATO, that number was lower than the 160 intercepts recorded in 2015 and the 140 in 2014. However, this greatly exceeds the number of aerial encounters above the Baltic Sea before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014; in 2013, NATO fighter jets intercepted Russian aircraft 43 times. Belgian Air Force Major General Thierry Dupont, commander of NATO’s Combined Air Operations Center, says that the number of intercepts has increased since 2014 because Russia is flying more aircraft in Baltic airspace, but also because the alliance has increased its air policing capabilities. The vast majority of the interceptions were made before any incursion into sovereign allied airspace, although over the last 12 months Estonia has reported at least six airspace violations by Russian jets. Moscow has denied the accusations. Dupont told Newsweek, “One of NATO’s roles is to preserve the integrity of the Allies’ airspace,” He further stated, “Missions like the Baltic Air Policing demonstrate NATO’s resolve and capability to ensure protection across Allies’ airspace, including those Allies that do not have their own Air Policing assets.”

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Two German Typhoon fighters performing Baltic Air Policing duties (above). When the Baltic States joined NATO in 2004, the alliance’s first visible commitment to them was policing their airspace. Belgian Air Force Major General Thierry Dupont, commander of NATO’s Combined Air Operations Center, stated: “Missions like the Baltic Air Policing demonstrate NATO’s resolve and capability to ensure protection across Allies’ airspace, including those Allies that do not have their own Air Policing assets.”

In War as I Knew It, US Army General George Patton explained, “We should not plan and then try to make circumstances fit those plans. Instead we should make plans to fit the circumstances.” Despite the Baltic Air Policing and beefed-up ground deployments opposites Russian forces in the Baltics and elsewhere, there are many Western defense analysts who believe that the NATO response is too weak, and, as the result, is an invitation for Russia to take aggressive action. Upon hearing that, some officials in Riga might begin to consider what can really been gained by its robust military build-up. In his assessment for CNN, Shirreff called for a much larger NATO deployment into the Baltics and Eastern Europe, one that would represent a credible deterrent, rather than a token force that could be over-run within hours. The Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, US Army General Curtis Scaparrotti has agreed with Shirreff, but has not specified the force size and composition required to provide a credible deterrent.

A RAND Corporation study prepared for US Department of Defense centered on several tabletop war games, based on the Russian deployments into the Crimea. The war games were played by US military officers and civilian officials over several months between 2014-2015. The game ended with a disastrous defeat for NATO in a matter of days. The study found that NATO forces being deployed to the Baltics, were small. Those forces lacked the vehicles and firepower to take on the Russian juggernaut of heavy tanks and mechanized vehicles opposite them. It indicated that NATO ground troops lacked anti-aircraft artillery to fend off Russian warplanes in a wartime scenario. According to the study, “By and large, NATO’s infantry found themselves unable even to retreat successfully and were destroyed in place.” Regarding US and allied air power, despite its ability to strike in depth against advancing Russian forces, destroying many in place and disrupting and delaying the attacks of others, US and allied air commanders would need to limit the number of aircraft dedicated to that mission and deploy them to negating the capabilities of Russia’s air defenses and provide air cover against Russian air attacks on rear areas. It was accepted that Russian forces would be able to smash through NATO defenses and drive on to Riga or Tallinn within 36 to 60 hours. The RAND study assessed that US and its allies would be left with three equally unpalatable options. NATO could launch a prolonged counter-offensive to take back the Baltic capitals; NATO could threaten Moscow with direct attack; or NATO could accept the outcome of the Russian lightning strikes and devise a long-term counter-strategy. The RAND study concluded that options one and two would lead to nuclear war; option three would result in a new Cold War that could eventually go hot. In discussing a possible way forward, the RAND study indicated that through “due diligence” and bolstering its defenses, NATO would send “a message to Moscow of serious commitment and one of reassurance to all NATO members and to all US allies and partners worldwide.” Esse quam videri. (To be rather than to seem.)

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A RAND study assessed that Russian Federation forces could smash through NATO defenses and drive on targets such as Riga or Tallinn within 36 to 60 hours, leaving the US and NATO Allies with three equally unpalatable options. NATO could launch a prolonged counter-offensive to take back the Baltic capitals; NATO could threaten Moscow with direct attack; or NATO could accept the outcome of the Russian strikes and devise a long-term counter-strategy.

Has Latvia Found a Self-Directed Path?

Animus in consulendo liber. (Free spirit to decide.) When he told the New York Times, “I don’t think there is a plausible scenario for Russia invading the Baltics,” Kalnins revealed much. Latvia serves as an element of what is essentially a militarized buffer between the West and possible aggression from the east.  However, Riga may want to dial down from the hardline stance it has been taking and no longer be almost singularly engrossed in military affairs. Regarding diplomacy, the most important mission of Latvian diplomats has been creating arrangements for a long-term NATO military presence in Latvia as a defense against any threats to its territory and bolster alliance defenses from the east as well. Apparently, Latvia’s leaders would like to use diplomacy to enhance established bilateral ties with Belarus and Russia. Before diplomatic efforts of this type actually began with Belarus, and to some degree with Russia, the Latvian Ministry of Defense publicly indicated that it would not exclude engaging in dialogue in order to promote trust between two countries.  Moreover, Riga seemed to hope delicate and simple talks with Belarus and Russia could have some palliative effect and convince them that Latvia and the other Baltic States pose no threat to their interests. Riga would certainly like for them to be assured that Latvia would not provide an prospective avenue upon which the West would invade Russia. An invasion from its direction was among attacks prognosticated by the Russian Federation General Staff in their Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation.

During an official visit to Latvia by the Belarusian Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov on December 5 to December 6, 2016, Latvia and Belarus signed an agreement on defense cooperation. Prior to the meeting, Latvian Defense Ministry announced that the text of the agreement that involved Latvia and Belarus would not be released, a standard practice. However, it was also indicated before the meeting that the agreement would concern defense cooperation between the Latvian Ministry of Defense and the Belarus Ministry of Defense. The goal would be to promote cooperation between both countries in the fields of international security and defense policy, airspace surveillance, arms control, NATO’s Partnership for Peace program activities, military medicine, as well as environmental protection, cultural and sports activities in the armed forces. Ravkov’s visit also included congenial meetings between Latvian Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis and Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics. The parties discussed a wide range of issues, including bilateral military cooperation. The Belarusian delegation also visited a school in the city of Cesis that trains instructors for the National Armed Forces of Latvia. While the two countries have enjoyed what the Latvian Defense Ministry described as “fruitful cooperation” since 2004, to include a series of exchange visits and inspections taking place on both sides of the border, the signing of the agreement represents the creation of a new dimension of that relationship.

Wary officials among Latvia’s Baltic neighbors and other NATO allies might be that the willingness of Belarus to engage bilaterally with Latvia was based on a hope that it could poach Latvia from the West’s reserve. However, there is no apparent leverage Belarus could use to pry Latvia from the BCM, EU, NATO, or any other Western based organizations. There should also be little fear that Latvia officials and experts might be contaminated from contact with their Belarusian counterparts. The willingness of Belarus to talk is more likely part of an effort by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to intensify fence mending efforts with the West. He managed to grab the attention of EU leaders in a positive way when he decided to free a number of political prisoners and host multiparty mediations in Minsk for the cease-fire in neighboring Ukraine. As of late, Belarusian diplomats have been pouring considerable energy in enhancing their country’s relations with the West, hoping to capitalize on Belarus’ newfound importance for regional stability. Suspicious officials among Latvia’s Baltic neighbors and other NATO allies might be that the willingness of Belarus to engage bilaterally with Latvia was based on a hope that it could pry from the West’s hand. However, it may be part of an effort by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to mend fences with the West. He managed to grab the attention of EU leaders in a positive way when he decided to free a number of political prisoners and host multiparty mediations in Minsk for the cease-fire in neighboring Ukraine. As of late, Belarusian diplomats have been pouring considerable energy in enhancing their country’s relations with the West, hoping to capitalize on Belarus’ newfound importance for regional stability. Lukashenko’s current perspective of the EU appears to be reflected in his statements in favor of dialogue with it.  On March 5, 2016, Lukashenko explained: “The Europeans . . . are ready to cooperate with us, including for the sake of security in Europe. We say to them that we’re always open to [talking].”

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From December 5 to December 6, 2016, Belarusian Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov made an official visit to Latvia. The visit included congenial meetings between Latvian Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis and Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics. Before Ravkov left, Latvia and Belarus signed an agreement on defense cooperation.

Regarding Russia, the Latvian Ministry of Defense said on December 8, 2016, its officials met with high-level Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials to talks in Riga. The meeting’s purpose was to discuss what the Latvian Ministry of Defense said were “serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country, including large-scale training on the Latvian border.” The original invitation for talks came from Russia.  In it, Latvian officials to go to Moscow to discuss regional security. Russia sent it to Latvia via its military attache in Riga on August 2016. Riga responded by sending a reply requesting that the Russians visit Riga for talks and using the same Russian Federation military attaché as a point of contact. In a statement issued on November 22, 2016, the Latvian Ministry of Defense explained, “Latvia has consistently pointed to the fact that Russian military activity in the border area, including the development of military infrastructure, raises serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country. Moreover, Russia conducts military exercises without telling its neighbors about their time and place. Therefore, the meeting would aim to achieve greater transparency from the neighboring country’s side.” The meeting’s genesis was an invitation for talks from Russia in August 2016.  In it, Latvian officials were asked to come to Moscow to discuss regional security. Russia sent the invite to Latvia through its military attaché in Riga. Latvia responded by sending a reply requesting that the Russians visit Riga for talks and using the same Russian Federation military attaché as a point of contact. According to a press release from the Latvian Ministry of Defense, “During the discussions, the parties exchanged views on the security situation in the border area. The Latvian side emphasized that Russian military activities, including large-scale military exercises, development of military infrastructure and the creation of new military units raise concerns about Russia’s intentions and long-term ambitions in the region.” It went on to state, “Also the Latvian side emphasized that most of Russia’s advanced capabilities and large-scale training Latvian border are geared towards attack rather than defense. The released further proffered, “Considering also unfriendly and sometimes hostile rhetoric with regard to Latvia, it creates the need for Latvia to seek additional security guarantees and to step up cooperation with its allies in response to Russian military activities. Taking into account developments in the last year, the Latvian side at the meeting asked for an explanation for the scale of military activities and offered ways to reduce tensions.”

With the aim of promoting mutual openness and trust in military matters, a press release from the Latvian Ministry of Defense stated “the Latvian side offered in addition to the existing provisions of arms control, resulting from the OSCE’s Vienna Document, one further arms control evaluation visit and one inspection of Latvian-Russian border areas . . . .” Latvia also reportedly called upon Russia “to declare its readiness for greater transparency in military activities, not only in words but also in deeds.” There was no mention of what such “deeds” might be. The Russian Federation Ministry of Defense announced that there was a meeting of Defense experts in Riga on December 8th but it did not elaborate on the substance of the talks. While immediate gains of the meeting with Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials were small relative to the product of the recent meetings and agreement with Belarusian Ministry of Defense officials, its importance must be measured by the fact that formal military cooperation between Russia and Latvia had been suspended since Russia’s 2014 action in Crimea. Officials agreed to continue the dialogue between defense ministry experts of both countries.

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Latvia (shaded gold) and its neighbors. The Latvian Ministry of Defense said on December 8, 2016, its officials met with high-level Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials to talks in Riga. The meeting’s aim was to discuss what the Latvian Ministry of Defense said were “serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country, including large-scale training on the Latvian border.” Russia announced defense experts met in Riga but gave no details on their talks.

The Way Forward

Threat identification and threat inflation are key elements in international affairs. As a result, over the last several decades, alarmism has been prominent in thinking about international security. However, deciding whether a threat is truly urgent and important is difficult, and has potential pitfalls. John Mueller of the CATO Institute explained that alarmism, when successfully generated, very frequently leads to two responses that are serially connected and often prove to be unwise, even dangerous. First, a threatening event is treated not as an aberration, but rather as a harbinger indicating that things have suddenly become much more dangerous, will remain so, and will become worse — an exercise that might be called “massive extrapolation.” Second, there is a tendency to lash out at the threat and to overspend to deal with it without much thought about alternative policies including ones that might advocate simply letting it be. Many in the Baltic States feel that they may fall prey to Russia’s territorial ambitions. The threat that Russia poses to the Baltic States is authentic, and when one hears the tempest swirl, it is rational to prepare a defense against the storm. Clearly, Riga believes that there are options other than simply preparing for all out war or appeasement, particularly given its economic circumstances. Stating that Latvia has the right decide how to proceed with its foreign and defense policy as well as its economic development may seem analogous to lending light to the sun. Still, while Riga has the freedom to act as it chooses, it may have felt, and may still feel, a bit constrained about moving confidently toward overtures and bilateral talks. In an apparent effort to show deference to those partners, it has moved in that direction at a deliberate pace. Talks and agreements may appear to some friends and foes alike as cracks in shield against potential Russian aggression. However, nothing that Latvian officials have ever said would lead anyone to think Riga would accept what might be called poor Russian behavior.

The renowned 19th century Prussian statesman, Otto von Bismarck has been quoted as saying: “A conquering army on the border will not be stopped by eloquence.” The renowned US conservative commentator and author, William F. Buckley, Jr. warned against the devilish conceit that peace might issue from concordance with evil.  While attending day school in London, Buckley coincidently passed through the airfield at Heston Aerodrome on the rainy evening of September 30, 1938 and saw United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wave a piece of paper announcing “Peace in our time.” It is uncertain what Latvia’s latest exercise of free its will–diplomacy with Belarus and Russia–might look like in the end. There is the chance that an enterprise of this type, undertaken by Riga could collapse in a big heap. Perhaps nothing will change. Yet, Riga might just get its diplomatic effort with Belarus and Russia just right. Right actions tend to make for good deeds. The on-going enterprise holds out the promise of great rewards. Faber est suae quisque fortunae. (Every man is the artisan of his own fortune.)

Unintentional Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says: Greater Care Is Required in Many Areas

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The US Central Command (CENTCOM) Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar (above). It is comprised of a joint US military and Coalition team that executes day-by-day combined air and space operations and provides rapid reaction, positive control, coordination, and deconfliction of weapons systems. On September 17, 2016, CAOC was monitoring a Coalition airstrike over Deir Ezzor when Russian Federation forces informed it that the attack was hitting a Syrian military position. The attack impacted a US diplomatic effort with Russia on Syria.

According to a November 29, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Unintentional Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says,” the US Department of Defense identified “unintentional” human mistakes as the causality for the US-led airstrikes that killed dozens of Syrian government troops in September 17, 2016. The strikes occurred as a deal to ease hostilities in Syria, brokered by the US and Russia, was unraveling. They particularly undercut US Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to coordinate the US and Russian air campaigns over Syria. Russian Federation military units, which were working closely with the forces of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad to fight ISIS and other rebels, said the attack had killed 62 Syrian troops and wounded more than 100. The attack marked the first time the US had engaged the Syrian military since it began targeting the ISIS in Syria and Iraq two years ago. It was determined as result of the investigation, led by US Air Force Brigadier General Richard Coe, that the attack was conducted under the “good-faith belief” that the targets were ISIS militants. It also concluded that the strikes did not violate the law of armed conflict or the rules for the US military. Danish, British and Australian forces also participated in the airstrike. Coe said, “In my opinion, these were a number of people all doing their best to do a good job.”

As Kerry was engaged in a crucial effort to persuade Russia to coordinate its air campaign in Syria with similar US efforts when the airstrike occurred, greatcharlie has been fogged-in over why the risky attack was ever ordered. In a previous post, greatcharlie stated that Russian Federation military commanders could benefit greatly from working alongside US air commanders and planners. It was also suggested that the US might provide a demonstration of its targeting and operational capabilities to encourage Russia’s cooperation. However, the errant attack was certainly not the sort of demonstration greatcharlie had in mind. On better days, US air commanders and planners have demonstrated a practically unmatched acumen in using air assets of the US-led coalition’s anti-ISIS air campaign to shape events on the ground in support of the goals of US civilian leaders. US air commanders and planners have very successfully conducted No-Fly Zones and sustained air campaigns over the past three decades, in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, where political goals endured, and in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Those experienced enough in life fully understand that it has its promises and disappointments. Whether events go well or negatively for one, an authentic truth is revealed in the outcome from which valuable, edifying lessons as well as new ideas can be extrapolated. The errant bombing of September 17, 2016 and findings of the investigation of it have come late in the administration of US President Barack Obama. Too little time is really available for lessons from the incident to influence any remaining decisions that the administration might make on Syria or military coordination and cooperation with Russia. The subsequent collapse of the negotiations on military coordination may have assured such decisions would not be required. Yet, for the incoming US administration, they may offer some useful hints on negotiating military coordination and cooperation with Russia on Syria or other countries on other issues if the opportunity arises. A few of those lessons are presented here with the hope they might mitigate the potential of an unfortunate military incident as witnessed in Syria that might also derail a crucial diplomatic effort. The overall hope is that the next administration will be tended by an honorable peace. Quidquid ages, prudenter agas et respice finem! (Whatever you do, do cautiously, and look to the end!)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leave after their bilateral meeting at the APEC Ministers Summit in Lima

The airstrike undercut US Secretary of State John Kerry’s (right) diplomatic effort with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) to coordinate the US and Russian air campaigns over Syria. Bringing Russia over to the US view was already dicey. A few days before the incident, the US and Russia exchanged charges of noncompliance with a ceasefire agreement reached on September 12th in Geneva.

This Was Not the Demonstration of US Capabilities Imagined

The Obama administration may not have actually been enthused about working with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin on Syria, but it recognized that Russia, with its considerable military investment in Syria, can play an important role in ending the war. To that extent, it sought to have Putin agree to have agreement crafted by Kerry and Lavrov to cooperate militarily. The agreement called for formation of a US-Russia Joint Implementation Center to coordinate strikes against ISIS as well as Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic militant forces after there had been seven consecutive days of reduced violence in the civil war and humanitarian aid had begun to flow to besieged communities in Syria. Bringing Russia over to the US view was already dicey enough. A few days before the incident, the US and Russia exchanged charges of noncompliance with the ceasefire agreement that Kerry and Lavrov reached on September 12, 2016 in Geneva.

On August 20, 2016, greatcharlie suggested the US could increase the value of its assistance through an actual demonstration of US capabilities to further encourage a change in Putin’s perspective on Kerry’s proposal on military cooperation. Included among recommendations was providing Putin with a complete US military analysis of the setbacks Russia and its allies have faced in Syria, and the relative strengths and weakness versus their Islamic militant opponents. The exact manner in which intelligence resources the US proposed to share with Russia and US military resources would have been of value to Russia could have been demonstrated by targeting and destroying a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria. Where possible, US airstrikes could have disrupted and destroyed developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Through a video of the attacks, Putin could have been shown how the unique capabilities of US weapons systems could enhance the quality of Russian airstrikes. He might also have been provided with US military assessments of those attacks.

The US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees US military operations in the Middle East, told the Russians in advance about the planned strike on an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province, calling it a “professional courtesy.” A senior US official said the Russians had acknowledged the message, thereby assuring they would the audience for the US attack. However, after the attack, the Russians had no reason to express appreciation or compliments to CENTCOM. The strike began in the early evening of the next day. According to Russia, two A-10s, two F-16 fighters, and drones of the US-led Coalition were deployed to attack the airfield. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were erroneously fired on a Syrian Arab Army unit. The attack went on for about 20 minutes, with the planes destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of people in the open desert, the official said. Then, an urgent call came into CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and 17 other nations.  The Russians relayed to the CAOC the disappointing news that the US strike was hitting Syrian forces. Four minutes later, the strikes were halted.

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A “bombed up” A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter (above). In the early evening of September 17, 2016, two pairs of Coalition A-10 and F-16 fighters along with drones were deployed to attack an airfield in Deir Ezzor. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were erroneously fired on a Syrian Arab Army position. The attack lasted about 20 minutes, with the fighters destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of Syrian troops in the open desert. If not halted, the entire Syrian unit might have been wiped out.

In Syria over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade enemy air defenses. As aircrews cannot identify targets, bombs are dropped in areas where air intelligence reports the enemy is located. In attacking urban centers, that can result in collateral damage in the form of civilian deaths and injuries and the destruction of nonmilitary structures. US Permanent Representative to the UN, Samantha Power pointed to the issue of targetting by Russian Federation Air Force and Syrian Arab Air Force jets.  On September 17, 2016, Power stated the Syrian government, assisted by Russia, has tortured and bombed its people. She added, “And, yet, in the face of none of these atrocities has Russia expressed outrage, nor has it demanded investigations, nor has it ever called for . . . an emergency meeting of the Security Council” on a Saturday night or any other night.

Air intelligence provides commanders with information on enemy targets to the extent that visual searches of enemy targets is no longer required. Given the speed of fighters and the need to protect aircrews and aircraft from anti-aircraft weapons and other arms, flying at lower altitudes with the goal of identifying targets by visual search is no longer feasible. Even friendly forces are often required to mark targets with flags or smoke for their own safety. US air commanders ordered the attack in the proximity of Syrian forces, calculating that the conclusions of air intelligence about the target were accurate. Informing aircrews that they would be operating in close proximity to Syrian troops did not create any requirement for them to engage in a time consuming, very hazardous, visual search of the target before going into their attack. Nevertheless, as US Air Force Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, the commander of US Air Forces and Combined Forces Air Component in CENTCOM aptly explained, “In this instance, we did not rise to the high standard we hold ourselves to, and we must do better than this each and every time.”

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The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services use their intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of air commanders and planners. However, over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties in Syria are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade air defenses. Bombs are dropped where air intelligence reports state the enemy is located. Attacks in urban centers have resulted in civilian deaths and injuries and the destruction of nonmilitary structures.

Intelligence Analysts Erred

The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services proudly use their own intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners would certainly like to believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success without US assistance. However, the summer of 2016 proved to be particularly difficult for Russian Federation forces and their allies as progress eastward toward Raqqa and Deir Ezzor was slowed. ISIS was able to apply pressure, infiltrating into areas retaken by the allies and launching counterattacks. The fight for Aleppo became a greater strain than anticipated. Beyond human intelligence collection–spies, the US gathers continuous signal and geospatial intelligence over Syria. Those multiple streams of intelligence could assist Russian Federation commanders and planners in pinpointing ISIS and other Islamic militant groups on the ground even if they are dispersed. Air assets of the Russian Federation and its allies could destroy them, disrupt their attacks, and support ground maneuver to defeat them. In support of the proposal, Kerry and Lavrov already agreed that a map could be drawn up indicating where Islamic militant forces are positioned. They also agreed that US and Russian military personnel working in the same tactical room would jointly analyze the intelligence and select targets for airstrikes.

Reportedly, US surveillance aircraft had been watching the erroneously-labelled Syrian unit for several days. According to a redacted copy of a report that summarized the investigation, a drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province in eastern Syria on September 16, 2016, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The investigation found that those forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the Syrian government. On September 17, 2016, a CENTCOM official, who at the time requested anonymity because the incident was still being investigated, said military intelligence had already identified a cluster of vehicles, which included at least one tank, as belonging to ISIS. Coe stated, “In many ways, these forces looked and acted like the Daesh forces the coalition has been targeting for the last two years,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

In a statement on the investigation of the incident, CENTCOM outlined a number of factors that distorted the intelligence picture for the airstrike. Included among them were “human factors” such as “confirmation bias”; “improper labelling”; and invalid assumptions. The Syrian Arab Army unit observed at Deir Ezzor was wrongly identified or labelled as ISIS early in the analytical process. CENTCOM’s statement indicated that incorrect labelling colored later analysis and resulted in the continued misidentification of the Syrian unit on the ground as ISIS. Further, the statement laid out a series of changes to the targeting process that the Defense Department has already made to include more information-sharing among analysts. The US Air Force has independently placed its process for identifying targets under review.

Qui modeste paret, videtur qui aliquando imperet dignus esse. (The one who obeys with modesty appears worthy of being some day a commander.) What appears to have been needed at the time beyond issues concerning tactics, techniques, procedures and methods for conducting air operations was better coordination of its own diplomatic and military activities regarding Syria. As a sensible precaution, US air commanders and planners should have been informed that operations conducted at that time could have considerable positive or negative impact on US diplomatic efforts in Syria. (The publicized record of the investigation does not touch on this point.) The delicate nature of diplomacy would have been factored into planning, not shrugged off. Interference by civilian leaders in military units’ tactical operations is surely not desired by commanders. Yet, by failing to call attention to the unique political and diplomatic environment in which they were operating over Syria, the matter was left open to chance.

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MQ-1 Predator drone (above). Reportedly, US surveillance aircraft had been watching the erroneously-labelled Syrian military position for several days. A drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province on September 16, 2016, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The investigation found that those forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the Syrian government.

Confirmation Bias and Hormones: Decisionmaking on the Airstrikes

Decipimur specte recti. (We are deceived by the appearance of right.) In the conclusions of the US Defense Department’s investigation, causality for the incident was found to be in part the thinking of US air commanders and planners. It was determined to have been a bit off-kilter and confirmation bias was pointed to specifically. Confirmation bias is a result of the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When individuals desire a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are driven by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to cease collecting information when the evidence gathered at a certain point confirms the prejudices one would like to be true. After an individual has developed a view, the individual embraces any information that confirms it while ignoring, or rejecting, information that makes it unlikely. Confirmation bias suggests that individuals do not perceive circumstances objectively. An individual extrapolates bits of data that are satisfying because they confirm the individual’s prejudices. Therefore, one becomes a prisoner of one’s assumptions. The Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar has been quoted as saying “Fene libenter homines id quod volunt credunt,” which means, “Men readily believe what they want to believe.” Under confirmation bias, this is exactly the case.  Attempting to confirm beliefs comes naturally to most individuals, while conversely it feels less desirable and counterintuitive for them to seek out evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This explains why opinions survive and spread. Disconfirming instances must be far more powerful in establishing truth. Disconfirmation requires searching for evidence to disprove a firmly held opinion.

Cogitationem sobrii hominis punctum temporis suscipe. (Take for a moment the reasoning of a quiet man.) For the intelligence analyst, appropriately verifying one’s conclusions is paramount. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. This has been pointed to as a true manifestation of self-confidence: the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can serve a hypothesis and then gather information from each member in a way that allows the expression of independent assessments. A good example can found in police procedure. In order to derive the most reliable information from multiple witnesses to a crime, witnesses are not allowed to discuss it prior to giving their testimony. The goal is to prevent unbiased witnesses from influencing each other. US President Abraham Lincoln intentionally filled his cabinet with rival politicians who had extremely different ideologies. At decision points, Lincoln encouraged passionate debate and discussion.

At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, research is being done to better understand the biological basis for decisionmaking using lab experiments and biological data. Some of the findings of research scientist, Gideon Nave, who came to Wharton from the university’s neuroscience department, prove as relevant to this case as much as confirmation bias. Nave explains that the process of decision-making is influenced by their biological state. Factors that can influence that biological state naturally include hunger, sleep deprivation and stress. However, Nave is also looking deeper at the influence of hormones on decision-making. In dominant situations, different hormones fluctuate in people. For example, stress creates a clearly measurable biological stress response that consists of elevation of several hormones in our body. Nave has focused on noradrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol specifically affects decisionmaking.

In examining decisionmaking, Nave recognizes that people trade-off by people accuracy and speed when making decisions. Cortisol, Nave has found, influences people’s will to give the simple heuristic, or “gut answer” faster, as if they were under time pressure. There is a simple test Nave uses through which one can observe their own responses. It come in the form of a math word problem. There is a bat and a ball for the US sport baseball. Together, they cost $1.10. Now, the bat costs a dollar more than the ball. What’s the price of the ball? More often than not, individuals tested will give their intuitive answer. Indeed, as the ball is 10 cents, and the bat is $1 more, they typically believe it means that the bat is $1.10, so together the bat and ball would be $1.20. However, that would be incorrect. The correct answer is 5 cents and $1.05. When the answer 10 cents is given, it usually has not been thought through. There is no time limit set for providing an answer. There is no incentive offered by the tester for answering with speed. It seems the only real pressure is the desire of an adult, who may be paid for being correct at his or her job, and may be achievement oriented, to correctly answer what is an elementary school-level math woth word problem with speed and confidence.

In analysis at the tactical level, target identification can require splitting-hairs. Much as a bank teller dispensing cash, a mistake by an intelligence can lead to a crisis. Doubt and uncertainty can be mitigated with sufficient, timely redundant assessments. In a sensitive political and diplomatic environment as the one faced in Syria, the slightest uncertainty should have been cause enough to deliberate and think through a target’s identification. While normally action-oriented, in a sensitive political and diplomatic environment, the commander, for that brief period, could order unit commanders and planners exercising caution in targeting and launching attacks.

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In anew initial statement (above), CENTCOM, still uncertain, recognized the possibility that Syrian forces were hit in Deir Ezzor. For the intelligence analyst, verifying one’s conclusions is paramount. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. It requires the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can set a hypothesis and gather information from each member, allowing for the expression of independent assessments.

Ensuring the Right-hand and the Left-hand Know What the Head Wants

Perhaps civilian leaders in the Obama administration failed to fully consider or comprehend issues concerning measures used to identify and decide upon targets. Perhaps they were unaware that it was more important in that period of intense negotiations with Russia to minimize or simply avoid attacks on targets in close proximity to the forces of Russia and its allies. Under ordinary circumstances, the matter could reasonably be left for Russia commanders in the field to handle without concern for any implications in doing so. If in the future, an effort is made to demonstrate to Russia the best aspects of US capabilities and the benefits enjoyed by US-led Coalition partners in operations against ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic militant forces, some guidance regarding urgent political goals for that period, and the need for enhanced diligence and perhaps restraint in the conduct of operations must be issued. It was either determined or no thought was given to reviewing and approving relevant procedures and initiatives at a time when crucial diplomatic efforts needed to be, and should have been, supported.

Historia magistra vitae et testis temporum. (History is the teacher and witness of times.) During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian leaders recognized the need for enhanced diligence and perhaps restraint in the conduct of a Naval blockade of Cuba. The effort US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to inform US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral George Anderson of that resulted in a renowned angry exchange between them. The sources on which Graham Allison relied upon in the original edition of his seminal work on the crisis, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Little, Brown and Company,1971), claimed that the US Navy failed to implement the President John Kennedy’s orders to draw the blockade like we closer to Cuba ostensibly to give the Soviet Union’s calculating Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikita Khrushchev, more time to decide to half Soviet ships, and that Anderson resisted explaining to McNamara what procedures the Navy would use when intercepting the first Soviet ship to approach the line.

According to Allison’s account of the confrontation between McNamara and Anderson, US President John Kennedy was worried that the US Navy, already restive over the controls imposed on how the blockade of Cuba was to be executed, might “blunder into an incident.” McNamara was closely attuned to Kennedy’s worries and resolved to press the Navy leadership for additional information on its modus operandi. Confronting Anderson, McNamara minced no words: “Precisely what would the Navy do when the first interception occurred?” Anderson told him that he had already covered that same ground before the National Security Council, and the further explanation was unnecessary. This answer angered McNamara, proceeded to lecture Anderson on the political realities: “It was not the President’s design to shoot Russians but rather to deliver a political signal to Chairman Khrushchev. He did not want to push the Soviet leader into a corner; he did not want to humiliate him; he did not want to risk provoking him into a nuclear reprisal. Executing the blockade is a an act of war, one that involved the risk of sinking a Soviet vessel. The sole purpose of taking such a risk would be to achieve a political objective. But rather than let it come to that extreme end, we must persuade Chairman Khrushchev to pull back. He must not be ‘goaded into retaliation’.” Getting the feeling that his lecture did not sink in, McNamara resumed his detailed questioning. Whereupon Anderson, picked up the Manual of Naval Regulations, waved it in McNamara face and shouted, “It’s all in there!” McNamara retorted, “I don’t give a damn what John Paul Jones would have done. I want to know what you are going to do, now!”

Other sources that Allison utilized claimed that civilian leaders believed US antisubmarine warfare operations included using depth charges to force Soviet submarines to surface, raising the risk of inadvertent war. According to Richard Betts in American Force: Dangers, Delusions and Dilemmas in National Security (Columbia University Press, 2011). Subsequent research indicated that these stories were false. Indeed, Joseph Bouchard explains in Command in Crisis: Four Case Studies (Columbia University Press, 1991) that McNamara actually ordered antisubmarine procedures that were more aggressive than those standard in peacetime. Harried civilian leaders may not have fully comprehended the implications of all these technical measures, or may have had second thoughts. Nevertheless, the relevant procedures and initiatives did not escape their review and approval.

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US President John Kennedy (left) with US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (right). During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian leaders recognized the need for enhanced diligence in the conduct of a Naval blockade of Cuba. McNamara’s effort to inform the US Navy of that resulted in a renowned exchange between himself and the Chief of Naval Operations, US Navy Admiral George Anderson. Well before the errant Syria airstrike, civilian leaders should have told US air commanders and planners of their operations’ potential to impact crucial, ongoing US diplomatic efforts.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s comedy, The Tempest, Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, although forced to take refuge on an island for twelve years after his brother Antonio seized his title and property, refused to use his extraordinary powers, magic, to take revenge when the opportunity presented itself.  Prosperous remarks, “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” The best definitions of virtue can be found among teachings of various religions. However, to avoid being impolitic by choosing one religion and its tenants over others, its definition can be drawn from philosophy. From a philosophical perspective, virtue is well-defined by the “Golden Mean” proffered by Cleobulos of Lindos, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. The Golden Mean manifested an understanding that life is not lived well without following the straight and narrow path of integrity. That life of moderation is not what is popularly meant by moderation. The classical Golden Mean is the choice of good over what is convenient and commitment to the true instead of the plausible. Virtue is then the desire to observe the Golden Mean. Between Obama and Putin, no confidence, no trust, no love existed, and relations between the US and Russia have been less than ideal. Regarding the errant Syria airstrike, the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said it perhaps served as evidence of US support for ISIS and an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting the Syrian government which the US sought to remove. Churkin’s statement could be viewed as indicaing that insinuated into his thinking was the notion commonly held worldwide of the US as virtuous country, a notion proffered, promoted, and purportedly fashioned into its foreign policy. It appears that he, too, would have liked to believe US actions and intentions are guided by virtue. Yet, it would seem that was a hope unfulfilled as a result of the bombing Syrian troops, coupled with all the disagreements and disputes, trials and tribulations between the US and Russia, and led to his expression of so much disappointment and discouragement. Nihil est virtute pulchrius. (There is nothing more beautiful than virtue.)

The US must be a role model, a moral paragon as the world’s leader acting as virtuously as it speaks. The US leaders must act virtuously not just because others worldwide expect it, but rather because they should expect it of themselves. Diplomatic relations with Russia must be transformed in line with a new policy necessitating efforts to end misunderstandings and to exploit opportunities in which the two countries can coordinate and cooperate. However, achieving that will require the effective stewardship of US diplomatic, military, political, and economic activities by US leaders. Micromanagement can often result in mismanagement in certain situations. Still, in the midst of on-going efforts  to resolve urgent and important issues, US leaders must take steps to ensure that all acting on behalf of the US. They must thoroughly understand the concept and intent of the president, the implications of any actions taken individually or by their organizations, and perform their tasks with considerable diligence. All must make a reasonable effort to ensure errant actions are prevented. Melius est praevenire quad praeveniri. (Better to forestall than to be forestalled.)