Trump Achieved More at Helsinki than Most Noticed: Putin Is Not a Challenge for Him

US President Donald Trump (left) and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right). Trump is attempting to repair a broken relationship between the US and Russia, and snuff out the danger that contentious interactions between the two countries poses. US President Barack Obama was barely on nodding terms with Putin by the end of his administration. Trump hoped to move to a higher level of understanding with Putin at Helsinki. He has not as yet given up on the idea that he will find some touch that would knock everything with Putin in the right direction.

One of the main pitfalls US President Donald Trump has faced while serving as president is that he must operate from Washington, which could be sardonically called occupied territory given the many power circles arrayed against him there. Indeed, Trump and members of his administration have been afflicted by hostile opposition and persecution. A very raw and destructive claim has been repeated by many elements of the US news media and certainly by critics and detractors among the pundits, that Trump is incompetent and there is no pattern or direction to action for the country from his administration. In terms of foreign policy, the administration characterized as being adrift. Perhaps “krise” is the word that would best describe the situation as depicted. The dislike of Trump is so intense in many media circles that it would not be melodramatic to assert that the ultimate goal of reporting has not been to correct Trump or improve his policy decisions, but rather to cause him to falter. Even many policy experts who would normally take a serious analytical approach to their critiques of Trump more often do less to inform in a balanced way, and rather, set out to tear him down. Such was the case concerning the July 16, 2018 Helsinki Summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Discussion of summit even before it began was rarely described other than harshly. Critics and detractors indicated that in order for Trump to impress them, which is not his job, they would expect to see nothing less from him at Helsinki than to approach Putin with a gritty teeth attitude, making bold accusations and great demands. Predictions made of Trump’s likely performance in the US news media were decidedly negative. After the summit, those same observers insisted that their ideas were confirmed. They characterized Trump as being subordinated by Putin.

There is always the danger of theorizing before facts are actually available. However, critics and detractors whose views were published in newspapers and magazines, broadcast on television, and posted online, were unconcerned with facts as pilloried Trump with their vitriol. Yet, in taking that approach, those observers of Trump made some pretty big wrong turns in their analyses Trump’s efforts in Helsinki. It might be worthwhile for them and all interested in Helsinki to take a step back, and look afresh at the matter, considering all facts, not just those that conveniently lend albeit tenuous support to a negative view. While what is offered here by greatcharlie may only be a worm’s eye view of an enormous matter and may not be able to change the perspectives of many. However, the purpose is provide an outside the box analysis of the meeting that may help contribute to the policy debate of US-Russia relations and stimulate fresh ideas. A number of aspects of the meeting that have not received much attention are examined. Some insights into how relations between Trump and Putin are evolving are also offered. For intelligence services worldwide, understanding the inner thinking of national leaders and their coteries of advisers, can be both a joy and a torment. For greatcharlie, examining the matter remains intriguing and has practically become a daily obsession. Confragosa in fastigium dignitatis via est. (It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.)

Any time the presidents of the US and Russia meet, it could be billed as a meeting of eagles. The two are leaders of the only military superpowers on Earth, both capable of omnicide through a single decision. What stands between all of the people of Earth and eternity is the vocabulary of the two men.

Matters Covered by Trump and Putin in Helsinki

Any time the presidents of the US and Russia meet, it could be billed as a meeting of eagles. The two are leaders of the only military superpowers on Earth, both capable of omnicide through a single decision. What stands between all of the people of Earth and eternity is the vocabulary of the two men. The Helsinki Summit began with a one-on-one meeting between Trump and Putin. Except for translators, no other advisers or aides were present. It was followed by a bilateral meeting with advisers and aides included. On the heels of those meetings, a joint press conference was held.  When it began, Trump spoke first, then graciously deferred to Putin by allowing him to provide a list of issues covered in their meeting.  For Trump, this was certainly a rational choice, reinforcing goodwill and strengthening his evolving rapport with Putin. Trump’s moderation was put on full display for the world to see. Moreover, Trump most likely wanted to avoid getting into a meaningless and unconstructive chicken-and-egg debate on whether a Russian report on what transpired during the summit was heard before the US presented its version.

The US news media made inquiries into why list came only from Putin and whether Trump agreed with the list. Some characterized Trump as being mysterious about what was discussed. Critics and detractors immediately claimed that their first blush impression that Putin would dominate Trump at the summit and run the meeting were confirmed. Rather than viewing what Putin offered as a manifest of topics covered, it was panned by reporters as a list of spoils that Putin took from the meeting. The general approach to US news media reporting of the meeting was negative. Moreover, only a modicum of fact was used to portray a maximum of knowledge, which ultimately revealed a lack of awareness among the reporters and no real ability to discern what happening before them. Their negative perspectives were reinforced when they were commingled with the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election and reports of continued Russian efforts to interfere with the US election system and democratic process. Insubstantial interconnections between Trump and Russia prior to the 2016 election were reported  once again and incredulously characterized as indicia of wrongdoing. Attempting one more time to ameliorate concerns on the election interference front, Trump acknowledge that issues concerning election interference were broached and addressed, but his desire was to move past what was done to what can be done immediately. For the US news media as well as critics and detractors, the immediate impression was that Trump’s statements were not solid enough, and simply interpreted his words negatively.

When Trump went on to make gracious statements to Putin, he was seen as again being reluctant to use the opportunity of these US-Russia meetings to criticize Putin for additional ills that go beyond election interference. Statements Trump made concerning Putin’s response clearly evinced a desire to move forward, however, by his own admission, he would recognized that he may have said what he did not want to say. Indeed, two days later, on July 18, 2018 at the White House, he admitted that he misspoke amidst his comments concerning Russian interference. Trump explained that he was moved by the spirit of the moment and insisted that it was not his intention to declare everything as being hunky dory.

The US news media also found Trump’s politeness toward Putin very disconcerting. Many observers still wonder whether it was simply politeness. Some critics and detractors found it nothing less than obsequious and alleged that it was due to timidity. Over the top theories in the US that Putin possesses some derogatory, even threatening information on Trump, kompromat, were written and spoken once more. Surely, if Trump had found it prudent, he would have had little problem in meeting the wishes of critics by admonishing Putin once again over election interference in furtive one-on-one session, the bilateral meeting, or publicly at the press conference. However, life experience had surely taught Trump that aggressively reproaching Putin at Helsinki would not bring satisfaction, not even for the short-term. Russia was wrong to act against US interests in the 2016 elections, but what was done is done. Trump can respond by taking punitive economic measures, sanctions, and expelling Russian diplomats and intelligence officials from the US, and padlocking Russian government facilities in the US. However, he also knows that Putin to the best of his ability has thought through, “gamed”, the possible consequences to his actions with his advisers. It appears that he stands ready to take his medicine and he is not overly concerned with retribution from the US short of acting on Russian sovereign territory or acting harshly against the interests of Russia and its allies. What might be wise for Trump to do beyond providing lip-service to Putin as suggested by critics and detractors, is close the door on future Russian activities against the US and as best as possible, build a positive relationship with Putin, and improve US relations with Russia. Although Trump certainly has some anger, bitterness, and resentment in his heart over what Putin and Russia have done, he knows behaving too aggressively would be short-sighted, and would only lengthen the distance he will need to travel to improve the US relationship with Russia. Trump will not sacrifice any benefits that might result from acting in a measured way. What critics and detractors have been demanding from Trump, to repeatedly confront Putin, is most telling of their own flawed understanding of the situation. Aggressively reproaching Putin would never be an effective plan for dealing with the Russian leader if positive results are desired. 

Putin has been rather ambiguous about what exactly he did during his time in the KGB. There have been no official revelations about the operations that he participated in during his career. However, from the time Putin entered the spot light, pundits in the US have done a good amount of creative thinking on Putin. A persona was steadily crafted for Putin, heavily influenced by colorful characters of spy novels, feature films, and television programs about espionage.

Trump also likely recognizes just how devastating the outcome of the wrongful Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 US Presidential Election was for Putin. Putin does not have too much to gloat about. Not only was the covert operation discovered, but a great number of those involved in it from the Russian intelligence and security services have been identified. Ironically, as Putin approved the effort to exploit gaps in the security of the US election system that would allow foreign penetration, he learned at the same time as the rest of the world that the US had broken into the systems of the Russian intelligence and security services to the extent that they could provide profiles of those involved beyond name, rank, and serial number. The whole world was fascinated by the fact that the US could detail the exact role that officers from Russia’s intelligence and security services each played in the operation. One could even surmise sardonically that the US had the ability to determine “when those officers were home and when they were not.” Indeed, it was Putin’s own intelligence and security services that had been successfully penetrated. While his intelligence and security services may very well be continuing their efforts to manipulate US elections, he may be on the verge of recognizing that the more his spies plug into the US system to do damage, the more US intelligence services and law enforcement is enabled to discover about Russian intelligence tactics, technique, procedures, and methods, leadership, personnel, and resources. 

To better understand what in part guides Trump’s thinking on foreign policy, one must keep in mind that in his “previous life”, he was foremost a land developer, a builder. To build a building one must have a design and plans from architects and engineers. However, the most important initial action must be to ensure that the structure will be stable will last by creating a strong foundation. That is a requirement that will never change. Those builders who have failed to recognize this have met with disaster. Now Trump, in his own way, is building a new foundation for US role in world. Trump was initially accused of thinking of Utopian possibilities on foreign policy: revising trade agreements; terminating long-standing but nonviable treaties; and, making better deals for the national interest and for US firms. Trump has sought to create an environment for peace, with the support of allies and through an authentic rapport with competitors and adversaries. To accomplish this, strategic concept on US foreign policy and diplomacy includes seeking open dialogue with decision makers from around the world, including those who may hold different views than his on how to approach issues but also place great value in the rule of law, democratic government, human rights, freedom of speech and free enterprise that underpin human progress.  He supports a rules-based international system and closer cooperation across borders to address geopolitical, economic and social challenges. So far, things that once seemed so impossible, now appear so simple and natural when handled by Trump. “Das Wunder Trump!” Trump’s foreign and national security policy efforts represent an invasion of new ideas, new approaches the political circles in the US have not been easily accepted, but one way or the other must submit to. Trump’s optimism, his nature as an “imagineer”, has driven him to at least take a crack at making things better.

With Putin, Trump is certainly not staring at his shoe laces. He is attempting to repair a broken relationship between the US and Russia, and snuff out the danger contentious interactions between the two countries poses. US President Barack Obama was barely in nodding terms with Putin. Trump has expressed the nice idea that the US and Russia could accomplish so much more positive things in the world if they could find a way to work together on issues in the transnational interest. With an optimism spurred by having found some areas of agreement and given the degree of mutual respect between Putin and himself, Trump hopes to move to a higher level of understanding with him at Helsinki. Trump has not as yet given up on the idea that he will find some touch that he could put on the situation that would knock everything in the right direction.

A long espoused criticism of Trump is that he has a self-enchantment with tyrants, strongmen, rogue leaders such as Putin. His comments about Putin even before Helsinki were decried by critics and detractors, and as well by many in the US news media, as being unduly pleasant and oleaginous, particularly in light of reports from the US Intelligence Community that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Trump dismisses the obloquy of critics. In fact, rather than finding Putin intoxicating, Trump has his own considerable reservations about him having had a number of disappointing experiences with him in the past year. Indeed, while engaged in diplomacy, the Trump administration has observed Russian moves such as continued interference in the US election system and the election systems of US allies and partners, Russian efforts to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the tightening of Moscow’s grip Crimea and the Donbass.

In the one-on-one session, Trump and Putin undoubtedly sought to present every issue discussed from the best advantage of their respective countries. Trump certainly understood that it had to be done without compromising conditions for finding agreement or resolution on them. Each issue needed to be presented with a certain amount of emphasis and pressure. Yet, nothing would be allowed to deviate far from Trump’s vision of what the US needed. After the one-on-one session, Trump surely better understood Putin’s thinking and intentions.

Trump is not relying on banal Hollywood depictions of the KGB or any other fictions to understand Putin. He wants to understand him in the rough. Searching for publicly available expressions from Putin about his thinking and reactions, Trump undoubtedly came across what Putin wrote in his 2000 memoir, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000). It would serve as an excellent starting point for anyone seeking to understand how Putin perceives himself and his relationships with others.

What Trump Knows about  Putin

It may very well be that following Helsinki, Putin surmised the Russian government was magnified in the eyes of its people and the world. He may have returned to Moscow and “tripped the light fantastic” over the way things turned out with Trump. That behavior would fit the US media version of Putin: an icy, former KGB officer who views the US, the West, and especially Trump with disdain. Undoubtedly, Putin is a shrewd, experienced operator, who always acts with purpose, remain focused on his intention, and has applied as much pressure necessary to maintain his grip on power in Russia. The manner in which Putin does his homework for meetings with other national leaders, such the summit with Trump in Helsinki, was previously explained in a February 28, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “A Russian Threat on Two Fronts: A New Understanding of Putin, Not Inadequate Old Ones, Will Allow the Best Response,”

For decades, Hollywood has presented spying as a tough, violent business, with a thousands twists everyday. However, while some intelligence officers may have exceptionally exciting careers, for the most part, life in the intelligence world is humdrum and far from that conjured in the minds of creative screenwriters. Inured with the imaginary version from feature films and television, it is perhaps difficult for outside observers to accept that reality. It is a reality that is unappealing, unappetizing for pundits for it spoils the fantasy the excitement, and fascination. Except for certain parts of his 2000 memoir, First Person, An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000), Putin has been rather ambiguous about what exactly he did during his time in the KGB. There have been no official revelations about the operations that he participated in during his intelligence career. However, from the time Putin entered the spot light, pundits have done their own share creative thinking on Putin. In this way, a persona was steadily crafted for Putin, heavily influenced by colorful characters of spy novels, feature films, television program about spying, that the pundits can understand.

In an almost amorous way, they ogle over Putin, as everything a KGB officer would be serving as the point of the spear of the ideological face-iff between East and West. They oddly insist that Putin is an amoral spy, a master of his craft always operating, making use of the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods of that job. A vision of Putin is very often created for readers and viewers by reporters as the officer still in the field, developing agents, tracking down intercepting, neutralizing and recruiting foreign spies, and engaging in “wet work”, assassinating the foes of the Soviet Union. Left alone in your den, he would very likely attempt to read your mail. One could easily be convinced by it all that Putin is still on the beat and that he never really left the service. By breathing so much of their own imaginations into their depictions of Putin, pundits and reporters also create a type of Walter Mitty experience for themselves, finding excitement in interviewing him, and even just covering him. Pundits and reporters may insist that there is nothing sporting, nothing good about Putin, but their depictions of him are often so passionate that they seemingly evince many are oddly enamored by him. When reporters as well as critics and detractors match “their Putin” against Trump, there is no contest. Putin wins hands down.

Res ipsa repperi facilitate nihil esse homini melius neque clementia. (I have learned by experience that nothing is more advantageous to a person than courtesy and compassion.) As opposed to wrongly characterizing Trump’s politeness to Putin as obsequiousness or subordination, it should have been given far higher meaning. It was clearly an exhibition of a higher order of social grace, his mastery of good manners and etiquette, should have been discerned as such. As mentioned, Trump came office with the intention of cauterizing long standing tensions, exacerbated by the previous administration’s mishandling of US Russia relations, and finding a way to create a genuine connection with Putin in order to establish a stronger bond bofh between the two leaders and two nations. It has been a bedeviling process. What observers were seeing was a truly inventive approach to Putin, which seems to have yielded some positive results.

In his own appraisal of Putin, Trump very likely recognized that he was somewhat vulnerable and reactive to slights. Typically, individuals feel slighted when they perceive that they not being given the respect they feel they deserve. Psychologists call slights “narcissistic injuries.” From what Putin wrote in First Person, his ego must be boosted by affirmation. He needs to know that others respect him and feel that he is important. Slights can have dangerous consequences. The usual response is to assert ones power and identity, to fight back in some way.

Trump’s Appraisal of Putin

Usus, magister egregius. (Experience, that excellent master.) Trump is not relying on banal Hollywood notions Putin the former KGB officer or any fictions to understand Putin. He wants to understand Putin, the individual, in the rough. Trump is not relying on banal Hollywood depictions of the KGB or any other fictions to understand Putin. He wants to understand him in the rough. Searching for publicly available expressions from Putin about his thinking and reactions, Trump undoubtedly came across what Putin wrote in First Person It indeed serves as an excellent starting point for anyone seeking to understand how Putin perceives himself and his relationships with others. In its review of First Person, greatcharlie recounts the segment in Part 4 of the book in which 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. He was beginning to feel discouraged. 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 liked that.” Then Putin heard what must had been magical words: “It’s all arranged.” He went on to state: “Volodya, 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.

In his appraisal of Putin, Trump very likely recognized that the Russian President is somewhat vulnerable and reactive to slights. Typically, individuals feel slighted when they perceive that they not being given the respect they deserve. That vulnerability points towards insecurity. Although one may not admit to having a fragile ego, it becomes apparent when ones sense of self is easily damaged. Often that vulnerability is caused by a basic sense of separateness and incompleteness. Somewhere along the path of life, one began viewing themselves as insignificant.  This may not exactly be the case for Putin, however, it would seem from what he wrote in First Person, his ego must be boosted by affirmation. He needs to know that others respect him and feel he is important. Psychologists call slights “narcissistic injuries.”  To go further, slights can harm one egos, make one feel belittled. They uncover ones latent sense of insignificance. Ultimately, slights of all kind can be reduced to the same basic feeling of being devalued or disrespected. Slights can have dangerous consequences. They can play on an individual’s’ mind for days, opening psychic wounds that are not easy to heal. The slight may be repeated in the mind. The hurt and humiliation may have a corrosive effect internally. The usual response is to assert ones power and identity, to fight back in some way: return the slight to the perpetrator other even violence.

More than once, in the face of harsh rebuffs from critics and detractors, Trump has expressed his concern over the way in which the Obama administration, on a regular basis and needlessly, slighted Putin. Surely, Putin has not been the most moral actor on the world stage. Nevertheless, the response to questionable moves by him should not have been to pressure him with slights, in an almost childlike way being fully aware of how adverse his reaction would be.

Recall What Occurred before Trump Took Office

More than once, in the face of harsh rebuffs from critics and detractors, Trump has expressed his concern over the way in which the Obama administration, on a regular basis and without need, slighted Putin. Surely, Putin has not been the most moral actor on the world stage. Nevertheless, the response to questionable moves by him should not have been to pressure him with slights, in an almost childlike way being fully aware of how adverse his reaction would be. Once the slights were made, there was always a follow-on effort to feign if there was surprise over his attitude and actions against US interests. Indeed, the Obama administration went out of its way to figuratively “poke the bear.” When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were a neophyte and not a seasoned national leader. Old ills that were part of US-Russian relations resurfaced, and new ones arose, to include: Putin’s decision to allow US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of the Russian Federation’s Foreign Intelligence Service officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and the US admonishment of Russia on human rights issues. Putin was still fuming over Operation Unified Protector, during which in 2011, multinational forces including the US, were placed under NATO command and imposed a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Putin felt NATO-led forces went beyond UN Security Council Resolution 1973’s mandate by helping local forces overthrow Gaddafi. Gaddafi had been a friend of the Soviet Union and Russia.

Perhaps Obama administration foreign policy advisers and experts did not fully grasp just how poorly things were going with Putin. The Obama administration was confident enough to push agendas for nuclear arms reductions with Russia and EU and NATO expansion in Europe just as the administration of US President George W. Bush, his predecessor had. The administration referred to its effort to transform US-Russian relations and achieve further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office as a “signature effort.” The reduction of nuclear forces and reductions in conventional forces have been issues US and Russian leaders have dealt with for decades, but Obama was not going to resolve any nuclear issues with Putin. Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are not a mere policy issue or bargaining chip for Putin, but a means of survival for Russia. Putin had no intentions of acceding to proposals for deep cuts in its nuclear arsenal repeatedly sent to Moscow by the administration. 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. Relations with Putin and Russia fell to a very low point when the Obama administration cancelled a September summit meeting between Obama and Putin in 2013. The cancellation was in retaliation over Putin’s decision to reject the administration’s nuclear proposals. Administration officials lamented that Putin’s decision ended the president’s “signature effort.”

A succession of public rebuffs to Putin sullied ties further. The next year, during preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, there was a constant drum beat of doubt expressed by US security experts on the capability of the Russian security services to protect Sochi from terrorism. Obama decided not to attend the Olympics and would later decide not to attend the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allies, ending World War II in Europe. The event, hosted by Putin, was a time to recall the legacy of cooperation established during the war and a real example of what US-Russian cooperation could be in a common cause. It offered a chance for Obama to privately address his dispute with Putin. It was the best time for him to say that as with the alliance between their countries in World War II, relations between their countries were important now and a greater matter than their personal issues. Obama’s absence that day became one more reminder of the two leaders differences and their uncongenial relationship. A war of words between US and Russian officials was also problematic. Words of anger, mockery, hate, and aggression, did damage that was nearly impossible to repair. In the last days of his presidency, Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 suspected Russian spies and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over their involvement in hacking US political groups in the 2016 election. All of this and more made for a very rocky road for the Trump administration to travel with Putin.

One could look at Putin and express the view that the problem during the Obama administration was his own fragility. However, that type of obstinate reaction would ignore the fact that Putin is the president of Russia and good diplomacy requires understanding your opposite much as Trump wants to do.

One could look at Putin and express the view that the problem during the Obama administration was his own fragility. However, that type of obstinate reaction would ignore the fact that Putin is the President of Russia and good diplomacy requires understanding your opposite much as Trump wants to do. To the extent that Trump sought a better way to interact with Putin in a graceful, subtle, yet deliberate way that would signal respect and understanding to a cautious, sensitive, and vulnerable Putin, he appears to have found the answer in Japanese culture.

How people interact with each other and display respect is a form of etiquette in the Japanese status system known as “kata”. It originates from ancient Japanese system. Kata rituals are not a suite of meaningless actions. The proper performance of kata provides observers with an indication of ones professional qualifications. People who use kata well are thought as people who can be trusted to understand their roles and function well within an organization or in the society. Direction and guidance in kata begins at grade school in Japan. Early on, students study “kanji” and must learn the exact stroke order for characters. If students do not write characters in the set way, regardless of whether there are easier ways to write them, they will not receive good grades on tests. Kata can be seen everywhere in Japanese society. The ritualistic exchange of business cards that businessmen visiting Japan wonder about and often worry about performing properly, is a form of kata. When shopping, store staff will wrap ones purchase neatly. That practice of careful wrapping is a type of ”kata” that demonstrates to the customer how important the purchase is to the store. If the purchase is a gift, the quality of wrapping indicate to the recipient that the gift comes from the heart. The sincerity of the giver is also placed on full display. In following with kata, the recipient would not open the gift with the presence of the giver. Rather, the recipient express his appreciation humbly and politely, setting the gift aside in a show of respect.

As a long shot, one might surmise that using a simulacrum of kata could have be helpful as a correlative benefit of his interactions with his close friend, the shrewd and adept Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe. On each occasion that Trump met with Abe, there could not have been a finer, more elegant, more dignified display of kata than that performed by the Japanese Prime Minister. To the extent that Trump recognized how much respect, goodwill, and friendship was communicated by Abe by his deliberate gestures, he became aware that through kata, he might convey to Putin that there is little reason to feel threatened and remain excessively guarded. Abe has already helped Trump by deciphering written responses from DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un and who could share the benefit of his own interactions with Putin on trade, security, and the disputed Kuril Islands or Northern Territories.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe (left) and Trump (right). On each occasion that Trump has met with Abe, there could not have been a finer, more elegant, more dignified display of kata than that performed by the Japanese Prime Minister. To the extent that Trump recognized how much respect, goodwill, and friendship was communicated by Abe by his deliberate gestures, he perhaps became aware that through a simulacrum of kata, he might convey to Putin that there is little reason to feel threatened and remain excessively guarded.

Putin indicated in First Person that his 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 that he 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 myself. I set goals. Sports really had a strong influence on me.” Putin immersed himself in the judo, and the culture from which it emanated. Putin, who today is a very experienced judoka and one very familiar with Japanese martial culture. It would have undoubtedly been hoped that he would pick up on Trump’s effort and that he would respond by being a tad more open with the Trump than he might be with other foreign leaders and certainly previous US presidents with whom he has met.

Additionally, with regard to Japan, Trump may have recalled his own complex business interactions in that country beginning in the late 1980s. Indeed, when Trump sought to reach to deals with Japanese firms, he found it all very ticklish. In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Trump explained: “I have great respect for what the Japanese have done with their economy, but for my money they are often very difficult to do business with. For starters, they come in to see you in groups of six or eight or even twelve, and so you’ve got to convince all of them to make any given deal. You may succeed with one or two or three, but it’s far harder to convince all twelve.” Trump fully understands that although Putin is the main authority in Russia, he must still respond to multifaceted influences.

Putin’s disposition at the start of the Helsinki Summit was unexpected. Indeed, his bearing was far from the usual sharp, strapping deportment of the Russian leader. After all, he had come to Helsinki to meet a big broth of a man as Trump and surely wanted to make a proper showing of himself. Sitting in the chair at the Finnish Presidential Palace was not the loose, athletic, virile Putin, who before meetings exudes confidence, high-energy, and a readiness to do business.

At the start of the Helsinki Summit, Putin was visibly not himself. Aside from a surprising delay in his arrival to the Finnish Presidential Palace, there seemed to be a problem with Putin’s state of health as he sat with Trump for the cameras. From the perspective of greatcharlie, as a layman, not a physician, there appeared to be considerable strain on Putin’s face, was not an act, an effort to relax Trump or illicit some reaction from him such as over reach, sensing that he had a advantage over him. Putin’s grimaces in discomfort were involuntary expressions. Further, there was a tightness in his face, while at the same time, his face was even puffy, nearly swollen in places. His eyes reflected strain, pain even. Even while immersing himself in ice water for a Russian Orthodox religious ceremony, less strain was seen on him. At one point, Putin even began gripping the lower portion of the left arm of the chair in which he sat.

What may have caused the apparent degradation in Putin health was the fact that just the day before, Putin was drenched with rain at the trophy presentation of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow. Medical experts generally reject the notion that rain makes one sick. Nevertheless, if, after being in the rain, one were to remain cold for long enough, the body’s immunity drops and one can become more susceptible to illness, Those already on the brink of getting sick with a cold, may find that the cold comes out after being caught in the rain because of lowered immunity.

Medical researchers have explained that laymen are usually able to recognize signs that another individual is acutely unwell. Some obvious signs of illness such as sneezing and coughing are easy to spot, but more subtle cues such as pale lips or droopy eyelids may help humans to tell when another person is sick. That appears to be the case even hours after an infection begins. John Axelsson is the co-author of a study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B that highlights the ways in which humans might use a host of early signals to avoid contracting infection from others. According to Axelsson, “We use a number of facial cues from other people and we probably judge the health in other people all the time.” The ability in humans to use a host of early signals to recognize sickness in other has apparently been developed to help them avoid contracting infection from others.

Putin was visibly not himself at the start of the Helsinki Summit. Aside from a surprising delay in his arrival to the Finnish Presidential Palace, there seemed to be a problem with Putin’s state of health. From the perspective of greatcharlie, as a layman, not a physician, it was not an act or some trick to relax Trump and illicit some reaction from him such as over reaching because he sensed that he had a advantage over him. Putin’s grimaces in discomfort were involuntary expressions.

What may have caused the degradation of Putin’s health was that just the day before, he was drenched with rain at the trophy presentation of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow. Medical experts generally reject the notion that rain makes one sick, calling it myth. However, they also explain that this is a common belief because when individuals get caught in the rain, often the body temperature drops and that may cause temporary sniffles, which is an immune system response. The only way the rain can almost assuredly make one sick is if the rain water contains germs that you swallow or fall into your eyes. If, after being in the rain, one were to remain cold for long enough, the body’s immunity might drop and one could become more susceptible to illness. Thus, the rain may aggravate ones immune system, Those already on the brink of getting sick with a cold, may find that the cold comes out after being caught in the rain because of lowered immunity. There is a lot on this subject, and all of it cannot be unpacked here.

There was a tightness in Putin face as he sat with Trump for the cameras in Helsinki. His face was even puffy, nearly swollen in places. His eyes reflected strain, pain even. Even while immersing himself in ice water for a Russian Orthodox religious ceremony, infinitely less strain was seen on him. At one point, Putin even began gripping the lower portion of the left arm of the chair in which he sat. It appeared as if he were attempting to steady himself, trying to maintain control.

Putin’s disposition was unexpected. Indeed, his bearing was far from his usual sharp, strapping deportment. He had come to Helsinki to meet Trump, a big broth of a man, and surely he wanted to make a proper showing of himself. This was certainly not the loose, athletic, virile Putin, who before meetings exudes confidence, high-energy, and a readiness to do business. Using Putin’s previous public appearances as a gauge, particularly those with Obama, he presented himself at the start of the Helsinki Summit in an unimpressive way. When he met with Obama while attending a G-8 Meeting in Northern Ireland in June 2013. there was a moment when Obama attempted to infuse a bit of levity into the situation by stating, “We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball and we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.” Instead of playing along, Putin retorted, “The president wants to relax me with his statement of age.”

Putin has never hesitated to take the “alpha male” role with leaders of other states and let them know his intentions either. In her excellent book, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, Karen Dawisha recounts the occasion when the new prime minister of a Central Asian country paid his first visit to Moscow. He met with Putin. After the cameras had left the room, Putin is said to have loosened his tie, leaned forward, and in a menacing snarl told the startled leader: “Listen here (slushay syuda), I decide everything. Don’t forget it.”

Using Putin’s previous public appearances as a gauge, particularly those with Obama, he presented himself at the start of the Helsinki Summit in an unimpressive way. When he met with Obama while attending a G-8 Meeting in Northern Ireland in June 2013. there was a moment when Obama attempted to infuse a bit of levity into the situation by stating, “We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball and we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.” Instead of playing along, Putin retorted, “The president wants to relax me with his statement of age.”

Having formulated a theory about Putin’s health given evidence of his apparent struggle with discomfort at the start of the summit, it must also be made clear that there was no evidence that he was planning to fall apart no matter how he might have felt. Putin will never shrink in the face of adversity.He hardened himself and likely hoped for the best. For Trump, thoroughly familiar with the fight game, Putin must have looked shockingly to him much as a boxer on the ropes and the one-on-one had not even begun. In some business situation, perhaps moving in to find some big advantage would have been the right call. However, this was a summit with Putin. Too much was a stake. He wanted reach agreements that Putin would adhere to and not disregard afterward. He wanted reach understandings with Putin that he would not later walk back from. He wanted to hear Putin to work with those understandings firmly in mind in the follow-on bilateral meeting and publicly adhere to those understandings in their joint press conference  Plus, as mentioned, a main focus of Trump’s intention was to develop a rapport with the Russian leader and tidy up relations Russia. That would not be accomplished by making slick moves that may satisfy ones ego but have a corrosive effect in the end. By end of meeting there was an obvious transformation in Putin’s condition.

Medicines such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or Tylenol can help the symptoms of colds, relieve the pain and can reduce the fever. For some individuals, there can be additional benefit from taking medications for congestion or cough such as antihistamine and decongestant combinations. It would appear that physicians had tried to address Putin’s condition. Any treatments likely had their effect as the summit moved on. At the joint press conference following the one-on-one and bilateral meetings, Putin emerged energized.

Medicines that can help the symptoms of colds are those that relieve the pain and can reduce the fever such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and Tylenol. For some individuals, there can be some additional benefit from taking medications for congestion or cough. Those medicines include antihistamine and decongestant combinations. It would appear that physicians had tried to address Putin’s condition before the summit. At the joint press conference following the one-on-one and bilateral meetings, Putin emerged energized, even satisfied. He was able to shake his discomfort.

Trump’s goal with Putin was to be unmistakably powerful, yet elegant in his approach. He would use just the right amount of muscle when necessary when broached issues with Putin. At the same time, he sought to find ways to connect with Russian leader, pave inroads into him, create a unique connection, find a chemistry between them. Despite his efforts to make things right, Trump may have received a negative message from Putin when the Russian leader presented him with an official football from the World Cup saying, “The ball is in your court.”

Putin and the Football: A Faux Pas?

Vita hominum altos recessus magnasque latebras habet. (Character lies more concealed, and out of the reach of common observation.) Trump has taken a huge step diplomatically with Putin by very publicly showing that he is willing to take time with Putin. He is giving him a chance to come around his way, hoping things will work out. There was no easy way to repair the relationship. He knew that it would definitely be a long row to hoe.

Trump wants something more than a cosmetic tie between himself and his Russian counterpart. In a media conscious culture, timidity easily takes the form of affected joviality, hoping to diffuse tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back and then the dialogue can begin. Any national leader who thinks the way to diffuse the tension with Putin is to play the minstrel will only signal his or her insecurity to the Kremlin. Trump’s goal with Putin was to be elegant in his approach, yet unmistakably powerful. His aim was likely to use just the right amount of muscle on any tough or even contentious issues that he broached with Putin. It would surely surprise critics and detractors if they were to discover there were times when Putin felt a bit stretched by Trump. Still, for Trump, the focus of the summit was not confrontation, as much finding ways to connect with Putin, pave inroads into him, create a unique positive connection, find a chemistry between them.

Despite his desire and efforts to make things right, Trump may have received a very disconcerting message from Putin when the Russian leader presented him with an official football from the World Cup saying, “The ball is in your court.”” Trump stated that he would give the present from Putin to his son Darren, and  tossed the ball to the First Lady, Melania Trump.

Although benign intent can be posited to Putin in presenting the ball to Trump, it could also be said that he displayed a lack of concern as to what would anger him. The ball presentation could be seen as evincing his willingness to mar what may have otherwise been a positive meeting. Observing closely, the ball presentation appeared off-putting to Trump. His countenance revealed disgust and disappointment in Putin.

It is impossible to truly know the reasoning behind Putin’s action with the ball. That is known only in the mind of Putin. As explained by greatcharlie in its February 18, 2018 post, “A Russian Threat on Two Fronts: A New Understanding of Putin, Not Inadequate Old Ones, Will Allow the Best Response,” Putin can display an enjoyment of life and good times, and be quite gregarious, outwardly happy, full of smiles. Putin undoubtedly understands the importance of having a sense of humor despite any difficulties he may face. Humor is beneficial for ones physical and emotional health. It reinforces ones relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. Physically, laughter can improve resistance to diseases by declining the stress hormones and increasing infection-fighting antibodies in the human body according to some research. Laughter can ease physical tension­ and help muscles relax. Emotionally, humor helps you to release stress and to keep an optimistic attitude. When one feels anxious or sad, a good laugh can lighten ones mood. The positive feelings emitted when one laughs will increase energy for the brain and body. That allows for greater focus and will allow one to look at the problems from less frightening perspectives. Humor helps one remain optimistic and humor communication boosts the emotional connection that will bring people closer together and increases happiness as well. Sharing a good-hearted laugh may serve in part to smooth out rough times. When Putin tells one of his many jokes, his sense of humor is evinced.

Although benign intent can be posited to what Putin did, there is also the possibility that in presenting the ball to Trump, a negative side of Putin was put on full display. Trump may of had that latter sense of it all. It was clear to all who observed closely that Trump’s reaction to the presentation was negative. His countenance revealed disgust and disappointment in Putin. It may not only have been negative act but it may also have revealed extraordinary lack of concern on Putin’s part as to what would anger Trump and evinced as willingness to mar what may have otherwise been a positive meeting. Critics and detractors of Putin would explain that it was all very characteristic of the Russian President.

Along with wise counsel from his senior foreign policy officials, everything that Trump learned about Putin at Helsinki will be used in his future calculations and actions concerning Russia. Improved relations with Putin and Russia would certainly be terrific. However, whether the matter concerns an intermediate range missile treaty, satellites, sanctions, Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, the Arctic, or anything else, Trump will press on, motivated by the reality that the US public is depending upon him to handle matters in their best interest, just as he has promised.

The Way Forward

In Act III, scene ii of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the Duke, the leader of Vienna, feigns leaving town on business in order to pose as a friar to observe goings-on in his absence. Lord Angelo, the temporary leader of Vienna, takes it upon himself to rid the city of brothels and unlawful sexual activity, believing there is too much freedom in Vienna.Through interviews and firsthand observations, the Duke discovered Angelo’s strict handling of matters, particularly the cases concerning two clowns, Elbow and Pompey, Isabella, Claudio and Juliet, Escalus and Mistress Overdone. Resolved to punish Angelo for his behavior, at this point in the play, The Duke offers a soliloquy on how he will use trickery to make Angelo pay for his sins. He states: “He who the sword of heaven will bear/ Should be as holy as severe;/ Pattern in himself to know,/ Grace to stand, and virtue go;/ More nor less to others paying/ Than by self-offences weighing./ Shame to him whose cruel striking/ Kills for faults of his own liking!/ Twice treble shame on Angelo,/ To weed my vice and let his grow!/ O, what may man within him hide,/ Though angel on the outward side!/ How may likeness made in crimes,/ Making practise on the times,/ To draw with idle spiders’ strings/ Most ponderous and substantial things!/ Craft against vice I must apply:/ With Angelo to-night shall lie/ His old betrothed but despised;/ So disguise shall, by the disguised,/ Pay with falsehood false exacting,/ And perform an old contracting.”  Putin has a tendency to behave in ways to convince that in his heart “he deviseth to do evil.” The presentation of the World Cup football was a bad idea. Hopefully, he is aware that Trump will not simply forget the matter and push the incident down. Trump may not have been able to figuratively stop that bird, that incident from flying over his head, but he can prevent that same bird from creating a nest in his hair. Putin hopefully learned quickly at Helsinki to refrain from pulling such stunts in the future, no matter how “well-intentioned.” Putin should also understand after the Helsinki Summit that Trump will never react well to bad ideas or ultimatums cloaked as proposals. Everything that Trump has learned about Putin with regard to Helsinki will be of great value to him. Along with the wise counsel from his senior foreign policy officials, the information will be used appropriately in his future calculations and actions concerning Russia. Improved relations with Putin and Russia would certainly be terrific. For now, it apparently remains a goal of the US President. However, whether the matter concerns an intermediate range missile treaty, satellites, sanctions, Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, or anything else, Trump will press on, motivated by the reality that the country is depending upon him to handle matters in its best interest, just as he has promised. He will keep “America First”. Ornat haec magnitudo animi, quae nihil ad ostentationem, omnia ad conscientiam refert recteque facti non ex populi sermone mercedem, sed ex facto petit. (To all this, his illustrious mind reflects the noblest ornament; he places no part of his happiness in ostentation, but refers the whole of it to conscience; and seeks the reward of a virtuous action, not in the applauses of the world, but in the action itself.)

Understanding Putin Necessitates Getting Beyond Humor and Rumors

In the West, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is considered a celebrity. That has certain drawbacks. Among them, he has become a bit of an amusement. Often, humor and rumor is used to discuss Putin publicly. In popular Western culture, more distortions than realities are known about the Russian leader. Putin is far from the ordinary guy. He is a serious, savvy national leader who possesses a political acumen honed over two decades.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin certainly knows the West better than the West knows him, but the perception in the West appears to be the opposite. In the West, Putin is considered a celebrity, but that has certain drawbacks. As with most celebrities, in the West, Putin has become a bit of an amusement. He is the subject of humor and rumor in comedy clubs, prime time television, and social media.   What the US public has primarily gleaned from it all is that Putin is dictatorial and ruthless, and that oddly enough stirs the imagination of many. Since genuine facts about Putin are mostly absent in the public, Western political commentators and media pundits have allowed themselves to be more opinionated about him. Although greatcharlie encourages participation by policy aficionados worldwide in the debate on issues, big and small, we also urge a mature, thoughtful examination of those issues. Sapiens nihil affirmat quod non probat. (A wise man states as true nothing he does not prove.)

Given so many were willing to present opinions on Putin in public and that so many urgent and important crises in international affairs involve Russia, a new group of observers trying to get into the head of the 62-year-old Russian leader have had their analyses and theories intertwined with those of long-trusted sources of information and expertise. Those alternative sources have influenced the policy debate on Russia. The burgeoning practice of thinking outside-the-box in an attempt to get in Putin’s head is referred to as “Putinology.” It is not unusual now to hear offbeat reports of a study done by a lead researcher at the US Naval War College in 2008 that concluded Putin had Asperger’s Syndrome, basing on an analysis that linked his movements on videos to his state of mind. Speculation over Putin’s whereabouts for 10 days in March 2015 became a major news story worldwide. Some sources argued Putin was likely the subject of a coup. Others claimed that his girlfriend had given birth in Switzerland. There were even reports suggesting he had health problems. Putin laughed it all off in a television appearance. Much has also been made of The Adoration of the Kings (1510-1515), a painting by the 16th century Flemish painter, Mabuse (once known as Jan Gossaert) allegedly features Putin’s likeness. That is significant because Mabuse is a name the 16th century physician and clairvoyant, Michel de Nostradamus, in his renowned quatrains, used to prompt the identification of the Anti-Christ.

Western political leaders, perhaps due to political expedience and pandering to popular opinion, popular culture, have often gotten into the act of hurling anathemas at Putin. It was particularly noticeable during preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.   There was a constant drum beat of doubt expressed on the capability of the Russian security services to protect Sochi from terrorism. In response to Putin’s moves in Ukraine and a perceived threat Russia poses to NATO allies in the Baltic States and Poland, criticism from Western political leaders has been rather vitriolic, perhaps with the hope Putin would be wounded by such opprobrium. Proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris. (It is human nature to hate a person whom you have injured.)

As a political leader, himself, Putin is far from the ordinary guy. Those seeking a more accurate picture of him should know that he is serious and savvy.  He possesses a political acumen honed over two decades as a national leader. Great guile has been displayed in his maneuvers to gain and retain political power and to amass a vast fortune. Putin presents himself as being able to take on Russia’s burdens and dominate situations on behalf of the Russian people. His accomplishments appear very impressive. This is true, more so, when moral good is not part of the calculus. Some would say the record shows Putin has operated in his own country with little regard for human and political rights. Key members of Russia’s opposition movement have been slain. Historians may debate whether greatness encompasses those who accomplish bad as well as good things. Using the lens of moral indifference, one can call many great because they have affected the world dolorously: Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan Attila the Hun, Napoleon Bonaparte, Josef Stalin, Adolf Hitler, and others. This is not to say Putin is in the same company as them.

Above is a painting by the 16th century artist, Mabuse, entitled, The Adoration of the Kings, which allegedly features Putin’s likeness. Nostradamus, in his quatrains, used the name Mabuse to prompt the Anti-Christ’s identification. It is an example of the unconventional “facts” being offered about Putin. The less certain Western political commentators and media pundits are about Putin, the easier it is for them to substitute illusion for reality.

The authentic Putin appears private. He keeps what is personal close to himself. He also appears quite humble in his private life. Putin’s humility may be one of the secrets to his success. Humble men are honest about themselves. The humble recognize their failings, but capitalize on their own talents. Those who are proud build themselves up as false Gods. They will always have an eye on what others think of them. The humble have disdain for the opinions of others.   Putin is well-aware that he has “very often” been taken by the “lesser angels of his nature.” That is not intended to mean Putin has been taken by divine beings or demons. It simply refers to what were apparently negative outcomes in the struggle between virtue and vice within Putin. Knowing their own strengths and weaknesses, and capabilities and the possibilities for their success in an endeavor, the humble usually manage to accomplish great things.

When speaking about what is important to him, Putin does not use throw away lines. He is straight forward and to the point. When he was declared the winner of the 2012 Russian Federation Presidential Election, Putin publicly wept. It is impossible to know what was happening inside Putin to bring that on, but his emotional expression was clearly genuine. Putin knows just how big he is, and also likely knows exactly how far he can go. He is undoubtedly very conscious of what his rise has cost him personally. Curae leves loquuntur ingentes stupent. (Slight griefs talk, great ones are speechless.)

There is little prospect for a mea culpa, penance, or contrition from Putin. 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.” In a type of self-autopsy, 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.” Putin, interestingly, did not attempt to claim that God’s goodness flows through him.

Putin already knows that no one’s arms would be outstretched to receive him even if he were to amend his life. He knows that he would only face retribution, as Victor Yanukovych of Ukraine, Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, and so on. Perhaps Putin also realizes that those who have held absolute power over others in history are usually found in the end holding on to power by their fingernails, knowing if they let go they will be destroyed. When challenged, they more often self-destruct rather than face retribution. With that in mind, Putin may have little choice but to stay on top until the end.

Book Review: Karen Dawisha, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (Simon & Shuster, 2014)

In writing Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, Karen Dawisha provides a wake-up call for those who have failed to recognize Putin’s Russia for what it has become. She concludes Russia is a deeply corrupt country led by a “thieving regime,” veiling its actions with the half-truth of attempting to restore Russia to greatness. She supports her view with a very detailed, weighty analysis.

Many have tried to peer into the life Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin to gain insight into his actions. Much of the new information that emerges is more often gossip and speculation. For example, recently there were reports of a study done by a lead researcher at the US Naval War College in 2008 that concluded Putin had Asperger’s Syndrome, basing on an analysis that linked his movements on videos to his state of mind. After avoiding the spotlight for ten days, Putin appeared on television, laughing off rumors that suggested he had health problems, he had been subject to a coup, and that his 31-year-old girlfriend had given birth in Switzerland. In June 2001, President George W. Bush stated about Putin: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy and we had a very good dialogue.” Yet, despite such publicly reported misunderstandings and even academic analyses that viewed Putin as forging democracy in Russia, occasionally studies are produced that offer real insight and new information on the Russian president. Putin’s Kleptocracy is the latter.

In her book, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (Simon & Schuster, 2014), Karen Dawisha discusses how Putin, who has wielded national power in Russia since 2000, has been conscientious about his work, not only in governance but in amassing fortunes for himself and his circle. In writing Putin’s Kleptocracy, Dawisha ostensibly provides a wake-up call for those who have failed to recognize Putin’s Russia for what it has become. She concludes Russia is a deeply corrupt country led by a thieving regime, veiling its actions with the half-truth of attempting to restore Russia to greatness. She supports her view with a very detailed, weighty analysis.

Dawisha is the Walter B. Havinghurst Professor of Political Science at the Department of Political Science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and the director of the Havinghurst Center for Russian and Post Soviet Studies. She was an adviser to the British House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee and as an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, she was a member of the Policy Planning Staff and the Bureau of Political Military Affairs at the US State Department. Dawisha also served as a Professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland and had served as the Director of its Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies. From 1979 to the present, she has written five previous books, written numerous journal articles, and edited eight volumes on Russian, Post-Soviet, and Soviet politics.

Dawisha tells the reader about a sullied and corrupted Russia that is in agony and suffering. It is a Russia that is rotting politically, economically, morally. However, while her discussion of the spoliation of Russia is trenchant, it is also quite riveting. Reaching as far as she could with the sources available, Dawisha, with great detail, painstakingly enumerates the lies, deceptions, and activities of Putin and his associates as they amassed huge fortunes cleaning out the coffers of the Russian government and strong-arming oligarchs (a few ultra-wealthy business leaders) for “donations.” Readers will need to decide for themselves whether her argument is convincing. Dawisha does not approach her book with an open and balanced perspective on the subject matter. If Dawisha were Russian, she would certainly be firmly ensconced in the opposition movement. One learns about Putin as Russian oppositionists would want the world to know about him.

Dawisha paints a picture in Putin’s Kleptocracy of Putin and his circle living in opulence, as average citizens live in a Russia where houses and apartments are shabby, streets look like an amusement park the morning after the night before. The reader can visualize Putin and his circle cleaning out Russia’s coffers, while closing the public space and denying citizens the rights of free press, assembly, and speech.

To write Putin’s Kleptocracy, Dawisha spent almost eight years studying archival sources, the accounts of Russian insiders, the results of investigative journalism in the US, the United Kingdom, Germany, Finland, France, and Italy, and all of this was backed by extensive interviews with Western officials who served in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and were consulted on background. Dawisha consulted with and used many accounts by opposition figures, Russian analysts, and exiled figures who used to be part of the Kremlin elite. Dawisha also relied on the work of Russian journalists who many of whom she says have died for this story. Dawisha tells readers how their work has largely been scrubbed from the Internet, or infected with viruses attached to online documents, leading to computers crashes. Whole runs of critical Russian newspapers have disappeared from Russian libraries. Dawisha also made use of the dump of non-redacted cables from WikiLeaks which she calls “a very regrettable but also a completely fascinating source of information.” Sapiens nihil affirmat quod non probat. (A wise man states as true nothing he does not prove.)

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the authentic face of the Russian government has been Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin restored order in Russia after the internal chaos of the 1990s, reestablishing the power of the state. His style of management was undoubtedly shaped by his initial career as an officer from 1975 to 1991 in 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. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. However, his style was not shaped in terms of his use of KGB tradecraft. (Tradecraft refers generally to skills used in clandestine service to include efforts to manipulate opponents.) It was shaped as a result of his continued close association with a small group of men who served alongside him during his KGB career, particularly a few who served in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) with him. These men are known as siloviki (power men). Finding siloviki, particularly retirees of the KGB, and the present day security service, Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB, in high places in Russia is not unusual. At the pinnacle are men among them who came from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg. These men come from a community of families whose “roots” go back to the beginnings of the Communist Party and its first political police known as the Cheka. Putin’s Cheka heritage includes both a father and grandfather who served in the security service. He was raised in the Chekisty (Chekist) community, attending schools and a university Chekists’ progeny typically attended.

It was in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the Chekists were asked to take control of the currency the Communist Party had accumulated. There were Central Committee decrees ordering such activity. Dawisha cites an August 23, 1990 decree which authorized: “urgent measures on the organization of commercial and foreign economic activities of the party” and laying out the need for an autonomous channel into the Party cash box . . . the final objective is to build a structure of invisible party economics . . . a very narrow circle of people have been allowed access to this structure . . . .”  Dawisha makes the connection between this period when KGB officers heard the clarion call of the Communist Party to loot state coffers and Putin’s start in politics at the local level in his hometown of St. Petersburg. As head of the St. Petersburg Committee for Foreign Liaison, a job he received through KGB patronage, Putin began working with a tight knit circle of Chekists.  Grabbing money became their métier, and they worked hard at it. In St. Petersburg, Putin obeyed his patrons and proved himself to be reliable.  He also gained a solid understanding of the linkages between organized crime, which is of a special breed in Russia, bureaucrats, and former KGB officials. (While in St. Petersburg, he befriended an attorney named Dimitry Medvedev.) Putin rose to deputy-mayor, but his work in St. Petersburg was halted after six years when his boss lost his bid for reelection. In the course of less than two years though, Putin rose from being an out-of-work deputy mayor to head of the FSB. A year later, Putin was the prime minister. Six months after that, he was Russian Federation President.

Much was said about reestablishing Russia as a Great Power and passing and upholding new laws for the Russian people when Putin became Russian Federation President in 2000. However, Dawisha is convinced that from the beginning, the goal of Putin and his circle of former KGB colleagues was to create an authoritarian regime ruled by a close-knit cabal with embedded plans, interests, and capabilities.

Putin brought his circle of Chekists with him to the presidency. Putin declared that he was determined to save Russia from disintegration, and frustrate those he perceives as enemies that might weaken it. He would not be satisfied until Russia’s global power and influence are restored and the independent states of the former Soviet Union are brought back under Moscow’s political, economic, and military (security) influence. Putin did not hesitate to let the leaders of those states know his intentions either. Dawisha recounts the story of when the new prime minister of a Central Asian country paid his first visit to Moscow. He met with Putin. After the cameras had left the room, Putin is said to have loosened his tie, leaned forward, and in a menacing snarl told the startled leader: “Listen here (slushay syuda), I decide everything. Don’t forget it.” Dawisha would not deny that returning Russia to Great Power (if not superpower) status was a goal of Putin and his circle. She points out that Putin and his circle also promised to pass and uphold laws to protect, promote, cement, and sustain democratic institutions. However, Dawisha insists that the goal of Putin and his circle was to acquire large amountd of money. She is convinced that their goal from the start was to create an authoritarian regime ruled by a close-knit cabal with embedded plans, interests, and capabilities. She goes as far as to state democracy was used as decoration rather than direction. Dawisha explains Putin and his circle managed to establish what they internally call a sistema that serves the purpose of creating a unified and stable authoritarian state that allows individuals close to Putin and his associates to benefit personally from the unparalleled plundering of Russia’s vast natural resources. Political leaders close to Putin have become multimillionaires, and oligarchs around them have become billionaires. Their power and wealth can be maintained as long as they do not challenge Putin politically. The state absorbs the risk, provides state funds for investment, and gives Putin and those close to him massive monetary rewards. However, Putin stands at the top of the heap. Dawisha says he has acquired over twenty official residences, fifty-eight planes, and four yachts, and $700,000 in wrist watches. She estimates Putin’s holdings in the commodity-trading firm, Gunvot, at $40 billion. Having acquired so much, Dawisha explains Putin and his circle have never sought to use any of it to assist ordinary Russians. Even money earmarked for the Sochi Olympics was diverted to the pockets of the bureaucratic and political elite. Russia’s elites continue to maximize their gains by keeping domestic markets open for their predation while minimizing their own personal risk by depositing profits in secure Western bank accounts. By 2013, the gap between Russia’s rich and poor was larger than in any other major country, and twice that of Western Europe. Radix malorum est cupiditas! (Greed is the root of evils!)

Dawisha paints a picture in Putin’s Kleptocracy of Putin and his cronies living in opulence, as average citizens live in a Russia where houses and apartments are shabby, streets look like an amusement park the morning after the night before. The reader can visualize Putin and his circle cleaning out the coffers, while closing the public space and denying citizens the rights of free press, assembly, and speech. Dawisha says, in Putin’s Russia, the law has lost its meaning. True, Putin has built a legalistic system, but this system serves to control, channel, and coerce the middle class and the broader elite while at the same time allowing the inner core to act with impunity along what has been called Putin’s “vertical of power,” according to the adage “For my friends anything, for my enemies, the law!”

To deal with the perspectives of Russian people, Putin engaged in what Dawisha calls a charm offensive. She points to the success he had using “gimmicks” such as the election of Dimitry Medvedev as Russian President. Putin presents himself as Russia’s “strong man.” having the ability to take on the country’s burdens and dominate situations. The state’s near control over the entire media space facilitates getting out that narrative.

Dawisha suggests that from the moment Putin took power in 2000, Russia ceased to be a place where democratic dreamers could flourish, and provides a record that shows Putin governed with little regard for human and political rights. Dawisha claims there has been targeted repression, with nonviolent demonstrators being sentenced to either prison or indefinite psychiatric treatment. Despite the best efforts of Putin’s political opponents, journalists, and activists and NGOs, to the average Russian, oppositionists represent chaos, disorder, not reform or progress. Perhaps it is easy for the slothful human nature to take what is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. To deal with the perspectives of Russian people as all this has been happening, Putin from the beginning engaged in what Dawisha calls a charm offensive. Dawisha leaves no doubt that she feels those willing to believe that Putin could provide a road to democracy in Russia had really been left in the cradle intellectually. She points to the success he had using “gimmicks” such as the election of Dimitry Medvedev as Russian President. She proffers that was a “public relations maneuver” to create the illusion that Russia remained a burgeoning democracy despite all the behavior of Putin and his circle indicated the contrary. So comfortable was US President Barack Obama with Medvedev that he went as far as to declare a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries existed. (Some of Putin’s smaller gimmicks such as using the Ketchum public relations firm, which the Russian government already allegedly had an estimated $1.935 contract, to place an Op-Ed in the New York Times to impact US public opinion on Syria, Russia, and Obama, failed miserably.) Putin depicts himself as Russia’s “strong man,” having the ability to take on Russia’s burdens and dominate situations on behalf of the Russian people. The state’s near control over the entire media space facilitates getting that narrative out. Yet, Dawisha certainly recognizes that Putin has been bolstered not only by illusions but by the internal logic of the system which has strengthened Putin’s power over those who contest him politically. Manual control trumps institutions; instructions and understandings are greater than law; and, money is above everything. This system has satisfied the wealthy, the business community (energy sector), the military, and the other security services. When Putin faces international condemnation for actions overseas, the impression is created that he is sacrificing himself for Russia.

Although Dawisha focuses more directly on Putin’s rise financially, from her discussion, a picture emerges of Putin in the abstract as an individual with significant capabilities. Great guile is displayed in his maneuvers to attain political power and a vast fortune. That is stated without cynicism. When moral good is not part of the calculus, Putin’s accomplishments appear very impressive. Through Dawisha’s close examination of Putin’s activities, one can discern both a simplicity and complexity about him. The simplest shape in geometry is the circle. Yet, when one tries to duplicate it, great difficulty is usually encountered. The circle’s complexity is revealed. Publicly, Putin may very well be all things negative that Dawisha says he is. Beyond Dawisha’s discussion of Putin’s avarice, malfeasance, and aggressive actions, one gets a sense of his human side from the book. There is a state generated image of Putin and an authentic Putin, who appears humble in private. His humility may be one of the secrets to his success. Humble men are honest about themselves. The humble recognize their failings, but capitalizes on their talents. Those who are proud build themselves up as false Gods. They will always have an eye on what others think of them. The humble have disdain for the opinions of others. For this reason, it is unlikely Putin lamented over what Dawisha has written about him. Putin is well-aware that he has “very often” been taken by the “lesser angels of his nature.” Knowing their own strengths and weaknesses, and capabilities and the possibilities for their success in an endeavor, the humble can accomplish great things. Putin keeps what is personal close to himself. When speaking about what is important to him, Putin does not use throw away lines. He is straight forward and to the point. Dawisha recounts the evening when he was declared the winner of the 2012 Russian Federation Presidential Election and Putin publicly wept. It is impossible to know what was happening inside Putin to bring that on, but his emotional expression was clearly genuine. Dawisha believes Putin and his circle could never have imagined amassing so much success and power. However, Putin undoubtedly knows how big he really is and what his rise has cost him, personally. While Dawisha believes there will be no end to Putin’s appetite for money and power, Putin likely knows exactly how far he can go. Veritas vos liberabit. (The truth shall make you free.)

Although Dawisha focuses more directly on Putin’s rise financially, from her discussion, a picture emerges of Putin as an individual with significant capabilities. Great guile is displayed in his maneuvers to attain political power and a vast fortune. When moral good is not part of the calculus, Putin’s accomplishments appear very impressive.

Throughout the remainder of Putin’s Kleptocracy, further evidence is provided by Dawisha on bribe taking from Russian and foreign companies seeking business deals and permits; rigged privatization deals designed to enrich associates who would later serve as money sources for Putin and his circle; stories of payoffs from inflated no-bid contracts for state projects; illicit exports of raw materials purchased at state-subsidized prices and sold for far lower prices; money laundering; election fixing; the intimidation, and alleged elimination of potential whistle-blowers and a lot more. Dawisha puts faces on those who allegedly engaged in such illicit activities, along with naming firms involved, and the amounts pilfered. There absolutely more than enough to satisfy those interested in news about Putin’s Russia.

There is also much to that can be learned from Putin’s Kleptocracy given what it provides on Putin and current political environment in Russia, and the economic, political, and social histories of Russia and the Soviet Union. Dawisha’s book is a real page turner, and one that will be difficult to pull away from. Its countless stories of illicit activities are incredibly intriguing. Putin’s Russia has been the subject of many greatcharlie.com posts. It is a pleasure to be able to introduce many our readers to a truly well-written, well-researched book on the subject. Without hesitation, greatcharlie.com highly recommends Putin’s Kleptocracy to its readers. They are guaranteed to read it more than once. For some practicioners, Putin’s Kleptocracy may even serve as a reference. It is a book greatcharlie.com readers, regardless of their degree of interest in the subject, will greatly appreciate acquiring.

By Mark Edmond Clark

 

Russia Tells Iraq It’s “Ready” to Support Fight Against ISIS; But Russia Must Take “Direct Action” in Iraq and Syria for the Sake of Its Own Security

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin greets members of Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group). Russia has pledged to support Iraq and Syria in the fight against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. However, the threat to Russian security posed by Russian citizens in those groups makes action by Putin in those countries imperative.

According to a September 26, 2014 NBCNews.com report entitled, “Russia Tells Iraq It’s ‘Ready’ to Support Fight Against ISIS”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the pledge to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York that Russia would help support Iraqi in the fight against ISIS. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated through the Itar-Tass state-run news agency that “During the meeting, Lavrov confirmed Russia’s support for Iraq’s independence, territory integrity, and sovereignty.” The Russian Foreign Ministry further stated “Moscow is ready to continue supporting Iraq in its efforts in fighting the terrorist threat, and, first of all, the one from the Islamic State.” On September 19th, Ilya Rogachev, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for New Challenges and Threats, told the Interfax news agency that Russia still declines to participate in the US-led effort against Islamic militant groups in Iraq or Syria. However, Russia pledges to continue its aid to Iraq, Syria, and other nations that are fighting terrorists. Indeed, in the form of a sillitude he explained, “The anti-ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant used interchangeably with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)] coalition is not a club party—we do not expect any invitations and we are not going to buy tickets.” Apparently, the Russian government has not amended its position even though the first round of US-led airstrikes on Islamic militant groups that began on September 23rd obviated its contention that the air strikes would be used as a pretext to attack the armed forces or any other elements of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The air strikes actually hit a range of target including leaders, command and control centers, communications facilities, training camps, and supply depots of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, the Al-Qaeda linked Khorasan Group, and its parent organization, the Al-Nusra Front. While the US executed the majority of the strikes from bombers, fighters, cruise missiles, and drones, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar in the second and third wave of attacks in the strike formation and through reconnaissance flights. The US began air strikes against ISIS in Iraq on August 8th.

The Khorasan Group, a collection of seasoned Al-Qaeda operatives, that the West feels poses a direct threat to targets in Europe and the US, should be of particular interest to Russia. Its members include several fighters from Chechnya, as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen are included among its members. Khorasan’s leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, fought against Russian forces in Chechnya and was trained there in the use of firearms, anti-aircraft weapons, and explosive.

Since the initial days of the Syrian conflict, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin made it clear that he had no plans to intervene on the ground in Syria with Russian forces. At the same time, he made it clear last year that he was following the movement of Russians and Europeans to Syria very closely, and was concerned about their capabilities and possibilities for action against Russia. Surely, the conscience of the Russian people has been struck while watching the Islamic militants move through Syria as well as Iraq. Some may recall the ruthlessness of Nazi forces in the rear areas as they moved through Russia during World War II. Unlike some Western countries, Putin has not been compelled to respond with force to the anguish and outrage of Russian citizens, after witnessing a public execution of a Russian citizen by extremist Islamic militants in Syria or Iraq. Putin wants Russia to look strong, but sitting on the sidelines and relying on the US to manage the entire situation does not allow Russia to look strong. Interestingly, standing aside practically amounts to a conceit that US leadership and support for countries, militarily, financially, or politically can ensure positive things are accomplished internationally, and that the importance of the US is unmatched on the world stage. That is precisely the perspective of the US that Putin has tried so hard to knock down in speeches and published statements. It is also a gamble. ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, and its off-shoot, Khorasan pose a genuine threat to the Russian homeland. They have declared that. Only force will have a sustained impact and strong educational effect on these groups. Some of Putin’s advisers may counsel that using force in Iraq and Syria would prove ineffective and pointless. Others may reject the idea fearing Western condemnation and retribution over unilateral intervention by Russia. Yet, if a search and destroy operation by Russian military or other security organizations against Russian elements in Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria will make Russia more secure, it should be undertaken. Virtus tentamine gaudet! (Strength welcomes the challenge!) 

Russia and Islamic Militant Groups

Putin has been continuously engaged in an effective fight against Islamic militant groups in Russia. Counter-terrorism has been a key aspect of Russia’s national security policy for many years due in great part to longstanding security problems the government has faced from the Islamic insurgency near the Caucasus Mountains. The insurgency, organized into a loose alliance of rebel groups known as Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), has been simmering more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term. They seek to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia. That group posed the greatest threat to the Olympic Games in Sochi.

The possibility that Russian fighters from these groups that have fought in Iraq and Syria may return home to engage in terrorist activities remains one of Putin’s greatest concerns. Back in June 21, 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, Putin made the claim that 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters. The London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization estimates that the number of Russian fighters in Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria, including those in the field now and those that have returned home, is around 800. Putin has not provided any new estimates publicly. 

In his September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, Putin discussed the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin explained, “There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world. Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

Taking Action

Assad and Abadi would most likely give their consent for Russia to conduct operations in their countries and provide Russia valuable support in its efforts. Finding Russian citizens in Iraq and Syria among reportedly over 30,000 fighters of ISIS may be akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Yet again, the potential benefit of thwarting potential attacks in Russia by extremists Islamic militants underscores the efficacy of such an undertaking. Given the degree of difficulty involved, Russia should use special forces units from the Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB, Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group) and Directorate V of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Vympel) groups. Russia could also employ Zaslon (Barrier), a special services group of the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR. Of the many special service groups established in Russia, Alpha Group and Vympel are the most well-known and respected. Alpha Group, an elite stand alone sub unit of Russia’s special services, is a dedicated counter-terrorism task force of the FSB. It primarily prevents and responds to violent acts in public transportation and buildings. Vympel is officially tasked with protecting Russia’s strategic installations, however it is also available for extended police duties, paramilitary applications, and covert operations in Russia or abroad. The profile and capabilities of both units have increased, and they have taken over and consolidated roles and personnel from other organizations. Over many years, Alpha Group has acquired a reputation for using ruthless methods in response to terrorist acts. Zaslon has not been publicly recognized by the Russian government. Zaslon personnel are said to be former spetsnaz troops and serve under the sole command of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headquarters in Yasenevo, on the outskirts of Moscow. In his book Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces Since 1991 (Osprey, 2013), Mark Galeotti, of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, explains that Zaslon has been linked with everything from assassinations abroad to gathering up documents and technology that the Russian government did not want the US to seize when Baghdad fell. In Syria, Galeotti suspects Zaslon may be providing additional support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel, and is likely already earmarked to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to share if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse.

Air strikes should continue to disperse ISIS fighters as they try to avoid certain death from US bombs and cruise missiles. Perhaps operating as mixed “combined special groups” (svodnye spetsialnye gruppy (mixed special groups) or SSGs, Russian special operations forces could go into ISIS and Al-Nusra Front controlled areas and kill Russian elements or when the opportunity presents itself, collect prisoners. If ordered by Putin to present a plan for such an operation, senior Russian special services’ planners will more than likely produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies in a manner that neither analysts nor the potential opponent could foresee. In Syria, for example, Russia special services’ efforts might entail some of the following steps. Russian special services should exploit all of its intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to assist in locating rouge Russian elements on the ground in Syria. FSB and other Russian intelligence and security services apparently already possessed files on the identities of Russians who have traveled to Syria. Support from FSB operating in areas of Russia from which the suspected nationals originate will also support Alpha Group, Vympel, and Zaslon operations. With assistance from the Syrian military intelligence services, Mukhabarat, Russian special services could interact with Syrian citizens to collect granular information on the Islamic militant groups including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and its combat and nonlethal resources. Russian special services may benefit from liasing with elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force. From that work, an effective operational plan can be developed. Russian special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means would be used to monitor the locations, daily movements, and activities of the hostile Islamic militant groups. Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points of Islamic militants could be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance. Penetrating the Islamic militant groups, if Russia’s SVR has not already done so, would unlikely be helpful and would place any assets engaged in that effort at risk, especially once direct action is taken against those groups. All of that would be done while trying not to cross paths with US-led air assets.

Eventual strikes against Russian targets in the Islamic militant groups must be executed swiftly and covertly. Retired US General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the US Joint Special Operations Command, has offered hints on how to exploit situational awareness which were summarized in the January 7, 2014 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “Obama, Putin discuss Olympics Security in Call; Putin Has Got It Covered and He Will Keep His Promise to the Terrorists, Too!” When striking at a terrorist group’s network, the goal is to paralyze its nervous system. Hitting it intermittently, or every other night, allows the opponent to become stronger, having become accustomed to resurrecting itself. However, McChrystal explains that if you strike at enough targets simultaneously, taking down key leaders, the group will be thrown into chaos and confusion and have a difficult time “regenerating.” That will allow for decisive effects.

Units also can be better utilized as a result of excellent situational awareness. As McChrystal explained “Traditionally, if we did a raid and we thought we were going to need 20 commandos, to actually be on the target, we might take 120, because we had to put security around the site to protect it from enemy reinforcements, and we might have to put a support section and a command and control section there because you need all those things to account for the unexpected. But when you have very good situational awareness and good communications, you only send the 20, because your security comes from being able to see, and then you can maneuver forces if you need them. So suddenly, the 120 commandos aren’t doing one raid; their doing six raids, simultaneously, and you start to get the ability to do 300 raids a month.”

To speed the process and achieve a high level of success, the Russians could adapt a form of “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze” (F3EA) developed by McChrystal. Under the concept, security forces would understand who or what is a target, locate it, capture or kill it, take what intelligence one can from people and documents, analyze that, then go back out execute the same cycle again. If Russian security services want to act at a speed as fast as US special operators in Iraq under McChrystal ‘s command, decision-making would need to be de-centralized because of the high number of raids. Subordinate elements must be allowed to operate quickly. It is very likely that FSB has been using sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups, likely to engage in terrorist acts, has been on-going. Such surveillance efforts could also be used to develop leads for the operation.

Assessment

On September 11, 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated on a Voice of America radio broadcast that the administration of US President Barack Obama was disappointed by Russia’s initial reaction to the president’s speech on ISIS, which indicated the group represented a direct threat to Russia itself. Kerry explained in his view Russia must join the international fight against ISIS. Prompting by the Obama administration will unlikely cause Putin change his position and join the multinational effort against Islamic militants groups in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, it would more likely cause him to turn away from it. Yet, clear headed, practical choices must be made on Iraq and Syria in the Kremlin. As a result of US-led air strikes, there are opportunities being created for Russia in Iraq and Syria to enhance its security. Putin, his military commanders, and senior security officials know the capabilities of specific individuals and units in Russia, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what the real possibility for success of any given operation would be. They must also recognize the real possibility for success in enhancing Russia’s security if Russian special services acted in Iraq and Syria against Russian targets.

Of course, if Putin targeted Russian members of Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria, he would be contributing immensely to the international effort against those groups. Indeed, in addition to the Chechen members of Khorasan, a number of the senior leaders of ISIS are Chechen. An ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani is one of ISIS’ most prominent commanders and at one point was the face of the group. Putin demands that Russia should be recognized as a world power, but Russia also must act in a manner consistent with that title. While he has shown a willingness to intervene in the former Soviet republics bordering Russia, Putin has certainly not had Russian forces gallivanting outside of its region, attempting to secure Russian interests. Taking action in Iraq and Syria as proposed here would be more about establishing Russia’s security than posturing. Yet, as result of the action, Putin would demonstrate not only to the Russian people, but to the world, he is a leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues. Putin would be able to show the Russian people and the world, that Russia is a global power.

Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group; US Must Act in Iraq Now to Eclipse Such Stars!

Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria military commander, Omar al-Shishani, is an ethnic Chechen and one of the many Russians and Europeans fighters that Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in 2013 were going into Syria and becoming part of a dangerous, internationalized Islamic militant group.

According to a July 2, 2014, Washington Post article entitled, “Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group, “ a young, red-bearded ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani has rapidly become one of the most prominent commanders and was the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda linked group as it recently overwhelmed Iraqi security forces and took control of large swaths of Iraq. Al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is an ethnic Chechen from the Caucasus nation of Georgia, specifically from the Pankisi Valley, a center of Georgia’s Chechen community and a stronghold for militants. He is also one of the hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, hardened from years of wars with Russia in the Caucasus region.

Al-Shishani has been the group’s military commander in Syria, leading it on an offensive to take over a broad stretch of territory leading to the Iraq border. Al-Shishani surfaced in Syria in 2013 with his nom de guerre, which means “Omar the Chechen” in Arabic, leading an Al-Qaeda-inspired group called “The Army of Emigrants and Partisans,” which included a large number of fighters from the former Soviet Union. A meeting was soon organized with al-Baghdadi in which al-Shishani pledged loyalty to him, according to Lebanon’s al-Akhbar newspaper, which follows jihadi groups. He first showed his battlefield prowess in August 2013, when his fighters proved pivotal in taking the Syrian military’s Managh air base in the north of the country. Rebels had been trying for months to take the base, but it fell soon after al-Shishani joined the battle, said an activist from the region, Abu al-Hassan Maraee. He may have risen to become the group’s overall military chief, a post that has been vacant after the Iraqi militant who once held it—known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari—was killed in the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June. ISIS began as Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, and many of its top leaders are Iraqi. But after it intervened in Syria’s civil war last year, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its operations in Syria. Now with victories on the two sides of the border, the two branches are swapping fighters, equipment and weapons to an even greater extent than before, becoming a more integrated organization. Its declaration of the caliphate—aspiring to be a state for all Muslims—could mean an even greater internationalization of its ranks. Interestingly enough, in June 2013, at conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters.

US power is not only measured by its size, but its moral behavior in the world. The virtues of the US have stood out in the world in the presence of vice. While grave errors in foreign policy decision making during the administration of former US President George W. Bush have been very apparent, the history of US foreign policy did not begin and end in those eight years. There is a greater history of success in US foreign and defense policy and decision making which must not be forgotten. For years as a leader in world affairs, the US has set the standard for performance in international affairs. Its behavior on the world stage manifested US values and principles. Discussion of the ability of the US to meet that standard does mean waxing nostalgically of the past. If it put its mind to it, the administration of US President Barack Obama could very well meet that standard today. What has been promoted instead is a type of international philanthropy proffered by the current administration that scoffs at military power, without realistic alternative options. In speeches, press conferences, and interviews of Obama and administration officials, the discourse on foreign policy appears more as form of pastoral guidance, helping the US public understand and accept a new, less active role of the US in the world. For some in the US public, less desirous of military intervention overseas given the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, expressions of a reformed approach to foreign policy has been seductive and caused some satisfaction. This approach has also helped to guide the establishment of the defense posture, by providing a further rationale for dramatic cuts in the US military and its capabilities. However, the notion that the US can remain dominant in world affairs by doing nothing is false. In the long run that would require reaching agreements with evil maniacs or turning a blind-eye toward their acts to maintain peace. Lately, when US interests or the interest of an ally or partner have been threatened, questions over the availability of the military means to limit that behavior usually arise. That has been the case regarding ISIS in Iraq. Superficial discussions of facts, use of sensationalism, sophistic arguments on military power, and intellectualized explanations of recent events veiled the growing problem of ISIS in Iraq as well as Syria. The Obama administration has taken the US down a path, requiring it to respond or tolerate Iraq’s unraveling and the emergence of ISIS. Obama has explained that the US isis still the world’s leader. However, the US must act in a manner consistent with that title if the administration wishes to retain it

Managing News on the Islamic Militant Problem in Syria

The situation in Syria was presented as urgent issue by Obama administration officials, yet manageable. Once the anti-regime movement in Syria became an armed struggle, the US considered various ways to support the opposition. Multilateral approaches were taken toward organizing opposition political groups as well as their fighters on the ground   Among steps taken was the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella group for the multitude of different opposition fighting units. Its leadership was placed under the Supreme Military Council. As a possible military response in support of policy goals, the idea of the US launching kinetic strikes against targets in Syria was bandied about. However, there was an understanding established that such strikes would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground, and there was the risk of civilian causalities and US losses. Indeed, the idea of “boots on the ground” was soundly rejected from the start. Eventually, it was reasoned that the FSA, with US supplied arms and training would advance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pressure him into stepping down at the negotiation table. Pressing this issue with US Congress, the Obama administration sent it senior foreign and defense policy officials to Capitol Hill to promote the matter with relevant committees. Yet, Members of Congress were skeptical of the feasibility of that approach. US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told Congress on September 3, 2013, that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day.” However, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4, 2013. McCaul asked Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul then explained, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”

The administration’s public assessments were captivating and satisfying enough for those who chose not to look deeply and those who chose simple answers. Yet, evidence of the true nature of the situation in Syria was being presented from other sources (i.e., nongovernment policy analysts, journalists, as well as pundits). That information, while not rejected by the administration, was never confirmed. Instead, the administration stated the realities about the Islamic militant presence and growing strength was said to be unavailable. Administration officials proffered the idea that it could not gain a full picture of what was happening on the ground. For the US public, this was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. For whatever reasons, perhaps the national elections for the presidency and the Congress were among them, the conscience of the US public appears to have been deemed too delicate for the reality of the situation. There apparently was some fear that a type of upheaval within the US public over Syria would have occurred. However, the truth was not inaudible to the public’s ears. The perpetuation of the inaccuracy that the situation was under control would lead to disappointment for the US public. Indeed, the truth would eventually overwhelm the superficial assessments being offered.

It is now accepted that unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, Islamic militant groups as ISIS never intended to cease their struggle with the Assad regime under any peace agreement. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the Syrian opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces have been directed toward creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups have only wanted to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law. Indeed, before the new Islamic Caliphate was established, in towns and villages of rather large segments of Syria that ISIS and rogue Islamic militant groups control, they have imposed a strict form of Sharia law on inhabitants. Infractions of that law have resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrian citizens. Syrian military personnel and regime supporters are rarely spared by the rogue Islamic fighters. ISIS, while still viewed as part of opposition forces, began regularly attacking more moderate Islamic militant groups and secular units. As the FSA was not truly successful at all on the ground, the added pressure of an additional struggle with ISIS helped to derail the Syria effort of the administration of US President Barack Obama. The US effort in Syria hinged on how it would respond to the Islamic militant presence. The Obama administration needed to see this truth early on. Yet, the administration seemingly closed its eyes to this fact. Without military action, US policy could not be advanced. The administration appeared willing to let the entire Syrian situation fall into stalemate while continuing a small, ineffective assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers and military exercise, avoiding military action, and allowing Assad to remain in power.

Sensationalism: The Threat to the Homeland From Syria

Soon enough there was a shift in perspective from the administration. The presence of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria was recognized as a danger, but far beyond the Middle East. At a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing held on January 29, 2014, Committee Chairman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, stated: “Because large swaths of the country . . . of Syria are beyond the regime’s control or that of the moderate opposition, this leads to the major concern of the establishment of a safe haven and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations. Not only are fighters being drawn to Syria, but so are technologies and techniques that pose particular problems to our defenses.” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center testified the same day to Senator Feinstein’s committee that “a permissive environment, extremist groups like Al-Nusra and the number of foreign fighters combine to make Syria a place that we are very concerned about—in particular, the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Syria to the West.” The National Director for Intelligence, James Clapper, in his testimony that day explained succinctly, “What’s going on in there [Syria], and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very, worrisome.” Given such grim assessments from senior US officials, a decision to take action in Syria would seem inevitable.

These synoptic assessments of potential attacks on the US came from the same sources that had minimized the capabilities and possibilities of the Islamic militants only a few short months before. Evidence of the problem was not being rejected by Obama administration officials, it was, to some extent, being sensationalized. Alerts to threats from Islamic militant groups, even those that were Al-Qaeda linked, no longer create real urgency in the US public. Such alerts came so regularly during the Bush administration that to some degree the US public became desensitized to them.   Moreover, for many in the US public, media reports of such threats came as interesting stories or amusements. Interest was heightened, only to be doused by the next things that came along. In January 2014, the “next things” were events surrounding Super Bowl XLVIII, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and pop singer Miley Cyrus.

Wielding US Power in the Middle East

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, at one point gravely concerned over the course the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, lamented about the Obama administration’s handling of US foreign policy. He explained that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.” Fabius was disappointed and discouraged by “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.” Fabius stated a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and his perception of a “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion. Yet, despite such pleas from close allies as the French regarding his administration’s approach to foreign policy, Obama confirmed the worst assumptions made by Fabius in his May 28, 2014 Commencement Address at West Point. Obama explained: “For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” Obama further explained that there was a need for: “a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al-Qaeda leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of US personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi. So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.”

Through this mellifluous speech about multilateral approaches to threat to peace and stability and terrorism in particular, Obama presented a world where problems could be handled through cooperation. This is not a new idea. Regional alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, and the Organization of American States were created to bring resources of nations together to cope with the “Communist threat.” Even on terrorism, multilateral approaches were viewed as required when modern-era counterterrorism was established during the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan. Yet, the idea that the US can today rely upon multilateral solutions requiring joint action with allies and partners who themselves face drastic military cuts and economic difficulties is unwise. No Western European state with real military capabilities will go into Iraq now, to take on risks while fighting ISIS, especially when its political leaders feel that issue does not fall within their interests. Obama spoke of a hesitancy of the US to act militarily, yet assumes others in the region possessing far less capabilities than the US would subordinate their own interests. concerns, and limitations, to support and defend others. Most states are aware that warfare lately has been asymmetric and not set piece engagements to win quickly. Obama presents this notion of multilateralism to a US public confused about the contrast between the certitude with which Obama speaks, and regular breakdowns in administration foreign policy initiatives that they witness.

The US must look strong. In past cases, what others have thought about the US has deterred them from hostile action. Relative peace was maintained through strength. US diplomacy has been supported in many cases by the credible threat of force. The failure of Obama administration to project authentic US strength globally is not subject to rationalization by its officials. ISIS is unconcerned with US military power and possible US intervention. Among such unenlightened, uncivilized, violent men, reason has little place. Hoping that they might eventually establish some concordance with the government to work toward peace and stability in Iraq and obey international law is absurd. Only the use of force will have a strong educational effect upon them. Given that, the administration’s approach is questionable.

Intellectualization of the Iraq Crisis

ISIS and other insurgent groups have rapidly advanced through the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq. In a matter of days, they have captured several cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and are driving on Baghdad from two directions. It has declared the captured territory the Islamic Caliphate. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, recently appeared in public to make that declaration. As for US airstrikes to reduce ISIS controlled territory, military experts have explained that they would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground. The idea of multilateral action was dead from the start.

Although Obama explained that the goal is to prevent ISIS from achieving a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter, he proffered that the issue goes beyond security assistance. Confronted with this unacceptable situation, Obama has rationalized that part of the challenge is the lack of representation of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds in the Iraqi government. Obama blames divisions for Iraq’s inability to cope with ISIS. Administration officials, at least publicly, have focused not on the ISIS assault, but rather on the idea that from the chaos, they can cobble together a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad. In Obama’s view the formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis. Obama believes leaders who can govern with an inclusive agenda will be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis. It is difficult to understand why the Obama would believe the type of representative government he seeks for Iraq could be designed at the point of an ISIS gun. The majority of Sunnis, Shi’as, and Kurds would never genuinely subsume their interests to satisfy the US regardless of the circumstances. The fact that Maliki came to power evinces the limited US understanding of Iraq’s political situation.

The Way Forward

Obama has been pilloried with scathing criticisms from his Republican Members of Congress and other political rivals over his handling of Syria, Iraq, and the crisis with ISIS. Many of Obama’s harshest critics are former officials from the Bush administration who were themselves directly responsible for plunging the US, unprepared and off-balance, into the Middle East. Polls on the US public’s satisfaction with the Obama administration’s handling of foreign policy rely on snap judgments of a sample of the population. It is easy to say things. Yet, a mature examination of the innermost feelings of the US public would likely yield that there is great disappointment over the handling of US foreign policy.

Obama does not want the US military to intervene on the ground in the Syria. However, the conscience of the US public has been struck by news media reports that ISIS fighters have moved en mass with near impunity through Iraq, a country in which the US, for over eight years, invested so much blood and treasure. Watching reports on mass executions and the establishment of a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, many are left with a vapid, noncommittal sadness. Hearing the Obama administration claim that there is little the US can do just makes things worse. Leaving the Iraqis to their own devices against what has appeared as an unstoppable blitzkrieg will somehow return to haunt the US. There is a sense of “Minatur innocentibus qui parcit nocentibus” (He threatens the innocent who spares the guilty). In the long-run, the US public will not concede to this situation. The US public seeks to meet the fullness of its humanity. Where there is a need to act in the name of humanity to defend civilization against darkness, they expect action. That is how the US, as the world’s leader, is expected to behave.

Russia Is Ousted From Group of 8 by US and Allies: Things Aren’t Improving on Ukraine, But Maybe General Dempsey Can Change That

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, is cast in the same mold of a long line of senior military leaders who have effectively advised US presidents in time of crisis.

According to a March 24, 2014, New York Times article entitled “Russia Is Ousted from Group of 8 by US and Allies,” US President Barack Obama and other leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies cast Russia out of their organization to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for his annexation of Crimea.  The leaders also threatened tougher sanctions against Russian interests if Putin escalates aggression against Ukraine.   When asked to discuss such efforts to compel a change in course by Russia, Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have literally shrugged their shoulders.  Other Russian officials have scoffed and mocked such measures with great bluster.  Where possible, Putin has taken parallel actions against US and other Western interests in Russia. 

Though it seems Putin may be content with his military achievements so far, US officials, policy experts, journalists, as well as pundits outside of the policy making process, insist upon ratcheting up the situation, publicly declaring that an even greater threat exists from Putin.  Indeed, they pessimistically imagine Putin engaging in further aggression, ostensibly attempting to also annex territories of various former Soviet republics in which ethnic-Russian populations dominate, using the pretext of self-determination with those groups.  In doing so, they perhaps unwittingly have suggested Putin’s actions may mirror former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s efforts to grab ethnic-Serbian held territory in break-away Yugoslav republics to form a “Greater Serbia.”

Putin is astute enough to realize Crimea may be more than enough for Russia to handle.  As former US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage recently commented at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event, “We’re going to see if Crimea becomes a small bone in Putin’s throat.”  In that vein, the US and its Western partners will have their hands full, too, trying to build Ukraine up economically, politically, socially, and militarily. Russian media reports remain rife with suspicions and accusations of US involvement in the collapse of the regime in Kiev that was friendly to Moscow.  They emphasize to the Russian people that their country has an upper hand in the situation.  One news anchor in Moscow reminded Russian viewers that “Russia is still the only country in the world capable of turning the U.S.A. into radioactive ash.”

On the positive side, meetings between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who have regularly worked together on other urgent and important issues for both countries, have already begun.  Every effective channel reportedly has been opened by the US to express a message to Russians of US concerns about Ukraine.  However, there seems to be a notion held by Putin and Russian officials in their heightened state of alert that any efforts to find common ground with the US would amount to appeasement.  Expressions of US positions have been interpreted as US demands, eliciting a reflex response by Moscow not only to reject those positions, but any proposals drawn from them.  Communications are now somewhat mangled.  All important telephone conversations between Obama and Putin have been reduced to bristling confrontations between the two.  By all accounts, the conversations very likely would have been a finger-wagging sessions between Putin and Obama if they had taken place face to face.  The situation remains tense and dangerous.

Thinking outside of the box, handling the Russians, even with very apparent political and diplomatic aspects of the problem, might be facilitated with more input from a member of the US national security team who had recent success in negotiating with senior Russian military officials on critical defense matters.  That individual is US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.  In addition to knowing what the most concerning Russian military capabilities and possibilities for action might be, his professional military experience, depth of knowledge, understanding of history, insights and worldliness, make him someone Obama perhaps could rely on more heavily for advice on the Ukrainian crisis.  Indeed, as a senior military officer he may possesses the capability of being effective in advising Obama in such crises in a way perhaps not possible for other presidential advisers at the moment.

Dempsey was recommended for the job of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Gates had already nominated Dempsey to be the Army Chief of Staff. In his recent book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf, 2014), Gates explains that Dempsey had commanded forces in Iraq and command in Iraq or Afghanistan was a quality he wanted in the next chairman.  Gates also thought Dempsey had also performed superbly as the deputy commander and acting commander of the US Central Command.  When notifying Dempsey of his decision to nominate him as chairman, Gates explained to Dempsey that he was well-equipped to face the challenges of the budget, to lead the chiefs as a team, to maintain cohesion, and to help a new secretary of defense manage the relationship between the military services and the president.  Obama has clearly been very satisfied with Dempsey, selecting him twice as chairman.

Dempsey has dealt with a challenging agenda since assuming his present post.  Most relevant in the Ukraine crisis has been Dempsey’s part of the process of ensuring sustained positive US-Russian relations.  Dempsey recently demonstrated his ability to manage line of communication and promote constructive conversations with the Russians when he met with General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on January 21, 2014, in Brussels.  In that long-scheduled meeting, Dempsey displayed solid judgment and diplomatic acumen to advance an agenda for bilateral military relations.  The two generals produced a workable agreement that detailed 67 activities on which the armed forces of the US and Russia would continue to cooperate, despite pre-existing political and diplomatic problems and new concerns that arose over security assistance at the Sochi Olympic Games.  Indeed, the meeting came amidst a blitz of criticism leveled against Putin and organizers of the Games by US officials.  Those criticisms served to create the impression worldwide that the Games in Sochi were not safe to visit. The comments were almost perfectly designed to evoke the worst reaction possible from the Russians. 

Upon seeing Gerasimov, Dempsey likely noted he was a tough general, but not totally devoid of charm. As recounted through press reports of the Moscow Times, RT, RIA Novosti, Interfax, and other Russian press offices and of the American Forces Press Service (AFPS), Reuters, and the New York Times, Dempsey sought cooperation from Gerasimov through encouraging him to consider their unique situation as commanders of the most powerful military forces in the world.  Both were well aware of the esoteric, advanced, and frightening technologies that could be brought to bear in war and the need to maintain peace and stability in their nations’ relations and throughout the world.  Cooperation was the best way to achieve that end.  Dempsey was quoted as saying, “I think we have an opportunity to advance the relationship on areas of common interest.” Issues such as the US missile defense system, vehemently opposed by Moscow, were discussed.  However, Dempsey noted to Gerasimov’s apparent appreciation that Russia was a vital partner to NATO providing supply lines for its mission in Afghanistan, agreeing to allow the movement of nonlethal material to and from the war zone through Russian territory.  That rail and road network is becoming increasingly important as protests in Pakistan choke efforts to use the more convenient supply lines there.  Dempsey reassured Gerasimov about US and NATO efforts to ensure stability in Afghanistan after the departure of the International Security Assistance Force at the end of 2014.  Gerasimov asked for regular updates on the US and NATO effort to train, advise, and equip Afghan National Security Forces, as well as Afghanistan’s ability to maintain and control transportation lines in and out of the country. In an AFPS interview, Dempsey was quoted as stating: “We agree that a stable Afghanistan that is not a sanctuary for terrorism is in our common interests.”

By the end of the meeting, Gerasimov was comfortable enough to endorse “regular contacts” between their militaries as “quite useful.”  Pointing to the less than congenial political and diplomatic relations between the US and Russia, Dempsey said it was important for the militaries “not to foreclose on conversations, even if at some points there are disagreements that prevent the forward movement” in other parts of the relationship whether political or diplomatic.  There could be no better time to consider using of that effective line of communication than now.

At the same meeting, to ensure a safe and secure Olympics, Dempsey made a nearly open-ended offer to Gerasimov to provide “full assistance” from the US military, echoing an offer made to Putin by phone that same week.  Gerasimov’s reaction of expressing a need for anti-IED technology was plausible to the extent that Islamic militants could have used roadside bombs against Russian government or civilian vehicle at the Games.  However, Russian Islamic militants were viewed as more likely to carry out a martyrdom operation (suicide attack) than plant a roadside bomb and detonate it at a distance.  If Gerasimov hoped to exploit US concerns and generosity, that all stopped with Dempsey.  He understood the implications of just giving it away, nonetheless, Dempsey remained quite respectful of the Russians’ request.  He understood that it was after all the job of the Russian security services to seek advantages over potential adversaries, and the effort to exploit the thinking among US political officials should have been expected.  There was a guarantee that Dempsey despite Gerasimov’s push for US technology would be guided foremost by his duty to defend the US.  Abiding by that, Dempsey seemingly, instinctively stood his ground against Russian appeals “in the interest of improving military cooperation and communication” while truly seeking to further military ties likely more earnestly than his Russian counterpart.

Dempsey’s insight on working with military elements of the Russian government could help his president through this crisis.  Dempsey may very likely be able to demonstrate that there is a way to deal with Russians even under current conditions.  He may be able to bring Russia to the diplomatic table, despite the very militaristic and aggressive mindset in which Russian leaders are currently steeped.  In a pinch, he may very-well act as a brake on any possible runaway breakdown in US-Russian communications. 

However, to be most effective in providing perspective and military advice from the chiefs for Obama on Ukraine, Dempsey would need to heed lessons from his experience with Obama on Syria in August 2013.  From that experience, Dempsey likely foresaw difficulties advisers would have in getting Obama to rapidly come to terms with any plans or proposals offered on Ukraine.  Providing a range of military option to effectively achieve objectives based on the president’s concepts, would be not be sufficient enough with Obama.  On Syria, Dempsey was initially tasked with providing advice and viable options for calibrated military strikes in response to Obama’s expressed goal of deterring and degrading Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. In his Rose Garden statement, Obama took comfort in Dempsey’s advice, stating confidently: “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose.  Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.”  Yet, Obama was actually driven to resolve the crisis not by military action, but in a manner that would allow his worldview—that problems can be solved at the diplomatic table using reason and logic—to win through.  Unable to quickly find that handle to the situation, uncertainty and indecisiveness ultimately prevailed.  Obama was apparently paralyzed by fears of a bitter scenario that would have the US and the region embroiled in a larger conflict as a result of such action.  That was coupled by his concerns over the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against Assad regime.  Not knowing how best to respond, Obama strayed from a path of assertive and decisive action which most likely would have achieved all military goals and had a strong educational effect on Assad.  After making very shrill accusations that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had crossed his red-line by using chemical weapons, Obama made the now world renown decision not to take military action.  Obama settled for a deal Russia proposed and negotiated with the US to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.

Seeing how wrenching and difficult the decision making process on Syria was for his president, Dempsey surely understands that to ensure advice to Obama on Ukraine would be effective, the advice of the chiefs on military aspects of the situation would need to go in tandem with helping Obama remain strong and of good courage in the face of daunting circumstances.  Fears of greater problems stimulate the imagination, can lead to a pessimistic outlook on the future, and often cause a leader to deviate from a path.  Remaining confident a resolute when a crisis is brewing is made more difficult in a dispute such as the one between the US and Russia on Ukraine, when party seems determined to maintain an environment unfavorble for communication.  Dempsey’s advice in that respect would need to be direct and personal.  An example of how Dempsey might proceed would be to first put matters in perspective by discussing Ukraine from the context of the military stalemate that has existed between the US and Russia during and since the Cold War based in part on first-hand experience as a US Army officer.  Following that, Dempsey could assist Obama in understanding the calculated risks and possible outcomes of a variety of diplomatic and military initiatives with Russia given assessments made both in the past and present to make the situation more controllable for his president.  Consideration of what is possible to do and what will likely be faced would also facilitate reaching decisions on options to help bring Putin and Russian officials to a point where negotiation on the issues might be possible.  That is the advice Obama apparently wants foremost.  Along the way, Dempsey could continually assure Obama that he has the full support of the military chiefs.  He could assist Obama in mulling over possible courses of action to ensure a sharpening of his perception and clarity of direction.

Boiled down, Dempsey’s role would be that of mentor or coach for Obama, who apparently is still trying to understand how to manage US military capabilities, leveraging US strength through diplomacy and engaging in decision making on the use of force to deter and defeat opponents.  Putin and Russian officials may discern “tweaks” in Obama administration’s message and communications prompted by Dempsey, and respond favorably to a request to negotiate.

The Way Forward

The US and its European partners have met to discuss and level sanctions and other economic actions against Russian interests in retribution to the Crimea-grab and to deter Russian efforts to further destabilize a weak Ukraine.  However, Putin has executed plans to annex Crimea and a return to the status quo ante will not occur.  For Obama’s advisers, finding ways to bring Russia to the diplomatic table, given the confrontational attitude of Putin and Russian leaders, has been challenging.  However, resolving the Ukraine crisis may more importantly require bringing Obama to see and understand that it requires a certain agility to develop solutions for coping with opponents whose thinking is different from his own.  “Might doesn’t make right,” an utterance recently heard from Obama, is not best philosophy to which one might subscribe when dealing with real aggression.  This is particularly true for the US which predicates its ability to engage effectively in diplomacy worldwide on its capability to enforce its policies and protect its interests with considerable military power.

Advisers such as Susan Rice, Antony Blinken, Wendy Sherman, and Samantha Power, in addition to well-experience officials as Joe Biden, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John Brennan, certainly have a great deal to offer to Obama.  Yet, results show that they, most likely for various important reasons, have been unable able to reach Obama over the Ukraine crisis in a manner that has allowed him to appear truly in control of the situation.  There is a certain “human element” to advising leaders in time of crisis. In recent history, a line of remarkable senior military officers have very effectively served their presidents in a manner described here. Included among them are: Maxwell Taylor, Brent Scowcroft, Stansfield Turner, Alexander Haig, Colin Powell, and James Jones.  Dempsey was recommended as chairman based on his military experience.  That same military experience made him “expert” in encouraging, advising, and coaching fellow commanders in difficult circumstances.  Dempsey’s counsel would truly help his president in dealing with Putin and the Russians beyond the battlefield or even the diplomatic table.  Hopefully, Obama will somehow come to understand the benefits that would come from more fully utilizing Dempsey, and seek “greater” counsel from him soon.

Russia Calls on US Military Tech to Counter Roadside Bombs at Olympics; An Act of Vigilance or Effort to Exploit? Go Figure?

Russian President Vladimir Putin sits near Sochi with good company, Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, and good tea.  Russians expect to host and enjoy the Olympic Games, violence free.  Fear mongering has been left to foreign critics.

In a February 3, 2014 USA Today article entitled, “Russian FSB Has Poor Record against Terrorists,” journalist Masha Charnay discusses the view expressed by many US security experts that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), which has the lead role in security for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, has a poor track record in Russia’s fight against home-grown terrorists.  For those who have dealt with the FSB, the notion that it could be considered ineffective in its security efforts would be debatable.  However, in the article, Charnay cites sources such as a study by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism of the University of Maryland, which asserts the frequency of terrorist attacks in Russia has been steadily increasing over the past two decades.  The National Consortium study also explains that most of the attacks have happened in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia federal republics, all of which have a significant presence of Islamic militants and are in the same region as Sochi.  The article’s author also spoke to Andrew Kuchins, the director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.  Kuchins was quoted as saying about the Islamic militants, “They’re Muslim jihadists, taking a page from Al-Qaeda.”   Kuchins’ comment, however, veils the reality that attacks from Islamic militants in Russia have been suicide attacks.  An attacker who is determined to self-destruct in an effort to destroy others is perhaps the most difficult to defend against.  Albeit, any individual within a society determined for whatever reason to commit suicide is very likely to succeed, unless you have prior knowledge of the attempt and the act can be pre-empted.  Proactively, security services might economically deploy personnel to prevent certain sites from being used for such purposes, particullarly by terrrosts, but unless the resources exist, no security force can truly be everywhere at once.

The reports and theories of US experts on the capability of the Russian security services to protect Sochi from terrorism cited in the USA Today article added to the voices of US officials who have been highly critical of security measures taken by the Russians for the Olympic Games and the level of cooperation from Russian security service officials with their counterparts from US security organizations such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Diplomatic Security Service.  That criticism intensified one month before the Games after two December terrorist bombings occurred in Volgograd, 690 km northeast of Sochi, that killed 34 civilians and injured many others, and after Russian authorities made it known that they aware of credible threats posed to the Games by Islamic militants, including the presence of “black widow” suicide bombers in the vicinity of Sochi.

For their part, the Russians have displayed great patience in the face of nearly endless criticisms leveled against the Games’ organizers.  Russian President Vladimir Putin and other authorities have confidence in the preparations made and capabilities of their security services to keep Sochi safe and secure.  As scheduled, Putin made his final review of preparations for Sochi by the first week of January.  It occurred just as the blitz of criticism from US officials began, very effectively creating concerns worldwide that the Games in Sochi were not safe to visit.  From the Russians’ perspective, everything that could be done had been done.  It seemed unlikely that the Russians would react to any events or criticism to the extent that it would divert them from their planned approach to the Games.  US officials and experts appeared to have incited the Russians, not to change their plans for Sochi, but on security matters beyond the Games.  By accepting the US offer for help, the Russians placed themselves in a position to potentially acquire the benefits of billions of dollars of US defense research in a secret weapons system and enhance Russia’s military capabilities without any expenditure of their own financial resources.  Those financial resources have been made more limited in Russia now as a result of its huge investment in the Games.  In response to the US offer to help, the Russians requested anti-improvised explosive device (IED) technology.  However it was not made to US political officials, who might have rushed to provide the system to the Russians perhaps to prove a point or out of political expedience.  The request was made to the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who dealt effectively with the matter.

The US Offer of “Full Assistance” to Russia

According to a January 21, 2014 Moscow Times article, the Russian request for anti-IED technology came on January 21, 2014, when the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, met in Brussels with his Russian counterpart, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov.  During their meeting, in the name of supporting Russian efforts to create a safe and secure Olympics, Dempsey made a nearly open-ended offer to Gerasimov to provide “full assistance” from the US military.  It is difficult to know whether there was some discussion that Dempsey would make this generous offer to help during any advance meetings between US and Russian military officials before the meeting of their chiefs.  If that was the case, all of the security services in Russia most likely would have come together to discuss what exactly should be requested from the US in response to its offer.  When the “green light” was given to respond favorably to the US offer, it most likely initiated a type of feeding frenzy among them.  Undoubtedly, FSB as well as the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the Main Intelligence Directorate from the armed forces (GRU), and even the Ministry of the Interior likely had intelligence requirements (specific information) that they were determined to collect from the US.    

Some requests considered by the Russian security services may have been as simple as asking the US to cover the costs for the deployment of greater numbers of Russian security men in and around Sochi.  The Russians could have asked the US to provide all of the data the US has compiled on the activities of Islamic militants operating at home and abroad that the Russians may not possess.  Questionable requests may have been considered, such as obtaining the latest surveillance and encryption deciphering technology from the National Security Agency that would prevent Islamic militants from planning beyond the Russian authorities’ ability to monitor them and to increase the Russian security service capability to monitor workers and visitors in and around Sochi to better defend against attack.  Unreasonable requests might have included obtaining the names and locations of US intelligence officers and their Russian agents.  By providing that information, the Russian security services presumably would have released security officers from counter-intelligence activities against the US and allow them to be redeployed for protective security and intelligence gathering duties in Sochi.  However, that request, as absurd as it may seem, would likely have been be off-putting enough to the US officials that it would have dissuaded them from continuing to offer assistance or offer to cooperate with the Russians on Sochi.

The Response to Gerasimov’s Request

The eventual request for anti-IED technology was plausible to the extent that Islamic militants could have used roadside bombs against Russian government or civilian vehicle at the Games.  The funny thing is that Russian Islamic militants are more likely to carry out a martyrdom operation (suicide attack) than plant a roadside bomb and detonate it by remote control or cellphone.  (It could very well be that Islamic militants from outside Russia who might use IEDs are considered a threat to the Games.)  If the request was an attempt to exploit US concerns and generosity, that all stopped with Dempsey.  Dempsey was unfazed by Gerasimov’s request, and by his actions proved he has great situational awareness not only on the battlefield but also during diplomatic talks.  He knows very well that it took considerable effort and expense to the US military to develop and acquire the anti-IED technology to protect troops on patrol in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He fully understands the implications of just giving it away.  However, Dempsey was respectful of the Russians’ request.  He understood that it was after all the job of the Russian security services to seek advantages over potential adversaries, and an effort by the Russians to exploit the thinking among US political officials was predictable.  Regarding the entreaty for anti-IED technology by the Russians, Dempsey told the Armed Forces Press Service , “We would favorably consider requests from them.”  However, he also pointed out the likelihood of compatibility problems between US anti-IED technology and Russian equipment, something it seems the Russian security services or Gerasimov did not fully appreciate. 

 US anti-IED technology, according to a January 21, 2014 New York Times article, was designed to detect and disrupt cellphone or radio signals used by militants to detonate improvised explosives from a distance.  However, it also could muddle electronic signals, creating a situation where competing and overlapping systems cancelled out the effectiveness of other systems in use at the same time and in the same area.  As Dempsey explained, “If you are not careful, you can actually degrade capability, not enhance it.”  For that reason, Dempsey insisted on having US and Russian technical experts make certain that the US systems could be integrated into the communications networks and security systems being set in place by Russia.

After mitigating its negative connotations, Dempsey used the opportunity of the Russian request for anti-IED technology to emphasize the importance of military-to-military contacts between the US and Russia.  He emphasized the value of having the military chiefs even when at some points there are disagreements, whether political or diplomatic, that could prevent the “forward movement” in other parts of the relationship.  (See greatcharlie.com August 17, 2013 post entitled, “Ties Fraying, Obama Drops Putin Meeting; Cui Bono?”

 Assessment

This is greatcharlie.com’s last commentary on the 2014 Winter Olympic Games at Sochi.  Instead of sparking discussion about sports, the name Sochi, itself, has been politicized.  It is associated with criticisms from US officials over the inability of Putin and Russian authorities to meet the standards proffered for security.  However, in the final analysis, the Russians have done whatever possible to pre-empt and stop any violence at the Games.  The repeated proffering of predictions that an attack will occur and the complaints about what has been put in place to halt terrorism smacks more of fear mongering than an expression of concern or support.  Putin has achieved his objective, and Sochi is safe and secure.  A good bet for the Games would be that no attacks will occur and everything will go smoothly.  An even better bet is that after the Closing Ceremony on February 24th, those watching far from Sochi, those visiting the Games, and those athletes who are competing in them will be filled with the spirit of the Olympics, and anxiously awaiting the next Winter Olympic Games in four years.

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