Ukraine, Rebels Reach Preliminary Deal to Broaden Weapons Withdrawal; No Progress in Repairing US, EU Relations with Russia

Two pro-Russia, separatist fighters in Eastern Ukraine (above) hold their position in a gun battle. Ukraine is a main source of tension between the West and Russia. The US and EU accuse Russia of arming the separatists and sending troops to Ukraine. Russia says the US engineered a coup which led to the conflict. The US and EU placed restrictions on Russia’s trade and economic activities in reaction. Russia took “retaliatory, protective measures.”

According to a July 21, 2015 Reuters article entitled “Ukraine, Rebels Reach Preliminary Deal to Broaden Weapons Withdrawal,” the Contact Group involving Ukraine, Russia, and the pro-Russia separatist of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions agreed to extend the pull back of weapons in East Ukraine to include tanks and smaller weapons systems. The meeting was held in Minsk, Belarus under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). More than 6,500 people have been killed in fighting which began in April 2014 between Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russia separatists. Under the Minsk Ceasefire Plan of February 12, 2015, weapons under 100mm should have been withdrawn already. However, both sides accuse the other of continually using heavy artillery fire and report causalities almost daily. The Minsk Ceasefire Plan requires in part: an immediate ceasefire; a buffer zone separating heavy weapons of both sides, with a minimum buffer zone of 50km for 100mm artillery and up to 140km for rockets; effective verification by the OSCE; amnesty and release of all hostages and illegally detained people; restoration of government pensions and other welfare payments for civilians in the east; and, full Ukrainian control over the eastern border, after local elections under Ukrainian law and a constitutional deal on the future of Donetsk and Luhansk by the end of 2015.

Ukraine is a main source of tension between Russia and the West. The West has criticized Russia for annexing the Crimean peninsula and has accused Russia of arming rebels in eastern Ukraine. Russian opposition activists published a report, originally compiled by slain Russian statesman and politician, Boris Nemtsov, alleging that 220 Russian soldiers had died in two key battles in eastern Ukraine. However, Russia denies arming the rebels or sending troops there. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin holds the US responsible for the conflict. He remarked, “They [the US] should not have supported the anti-constitutionalists’ armed coup that in the end led to a violent confrontation in Ukraine, a civil war in fact.” It was also seen as an effort to isolate Russia. As discussed in the July 16, 2015 greatcharlie post entitled “Russia Is Top US National Security Threat Says General Dunford; That Should Make It the Top Priority for US Diplomacy,” some European leaders made efforts to resolve issues with Putin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko worked with Putin to devise the February 12, 2015 Minsk Ceasefire Plan. Yet, they have made little significant progress otherwise regarding Europe. There have been intermittent contacts between US President Barack Obama and Putin, but relations seem best handled by their chief diplomats, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

On May 12, 2015, Kerry spent four hours with Putin for what Kerry characterized as a “frank meeting” at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. Kerry also spoke four hours with Lavrov. It was Kerry’s first visit to Russia since May 2013. Both sides, face to face, fully presented their positions. Lavrov said Russia was ready to co-operate with the US but only on an “equal basis” and without coercion. He commented on the Russian Foreign Ministry website that attempts to pressure Russia through sanctions would only lead to a “dead end.” Kerry said it was critically important that the Minsk Ceasefire Plan be fully implemented in eastern Ukraine. He stated that US and EU sanctions against Russia could only be scaled down “if and when” that happens.

It is uncertain whether full compliance will be reached. It seems almost equally uncertain resolution can be found soon to revive soured relations between Russia and the West. Making the best military preparations possible through NATO is necessary. Still, it may not be useful for the US and EU to pressure Russia militarily as options available to NATO fail to provide real advantages. Many Western political leaders seem unwilling to commit to a costly, long term, concerted military build-up to deter what NATO alleges are Russian plans to push westward. That almost assures limitations will exist in NATO ability to use its collective military power. Putin is aware of those limitations. The US and EU should place even greater emphasis on resolving problems with Russia through diplomacy. Pushing toward military action may create conditions for matters to escalate beyond any rationale actors’ liking. Ducunt volentem fata, no lentem trahunt. (Fate leads the willing soul, but drags along the unwilling one.)

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is seen here with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. European leaders have sought to resolve issues with Putin. Merkel, French President François Hollande, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko forged the Minsk Ceasefire Plan with him, but little else has been achieved regarding Europe. Pressuring Russia militarily may not be useful. More emphasis must be placed on resolving issues diplomatically.

Causality for the Dispute Between the West and Russia

The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus said, “We are too much accustomed to attribute to a single cause that which is the product of several, and the majority of our controversies come from that.” It may be mistaken causality to find some great plan in all that has occurred between Russia and the West. As explained, Putin insists that he is only acting in response to Western behavior toward Russia. Speaking at a conference in Moscow on April 16, 2015, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu explained: “The United States and its allies have crossed all possible lines in their drive to bring Kiev into their orbit. That could not have failed to trigger our reaction.” The Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov stated at the same conference, “Considering themselves the winners of the Cold War, the United States decided to reshape the world to fit its needs.” He further explained, “It’s clear that measures taken by NATO to strengthen the bloc and increase its military capabilities are far from being defensive.” Nonetheless, nothing Russian officials might say could dissuade most in the US and EU from believing Putin is driving events forward.

After studying Putin’s actions in Ukraine, including his seizure of Crimea, the National Defense Academy of Latvia concluded that Russia’s ultimate aim is to introduce “a state of permanent war as the natural condition in national life.” The governor of Odessa, Ukraine, Mikheil Saakashvili, who was appointed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, has proffered: “There is no way that they [Russia] will not go into the Baltics next. There is no way they will not revisit Georgia or Azerbaijan. Putin is obsessed with the idea of testing NATO—this was clear in my long conversations with him.” NATO Supreme Allied Commander US Air Force General Philip Breedlove explained “there must still be a dialogue with Russia, but conversations with the country must be done from a position of strength.” In his view, Russia broke with a policy two decades long of cooperation and embarked on what he called “a far different course.” He described that course as one “that shifts the relationship between Russia and the West from strategic cooperation to one of strategic competition. This is not a temporary aberration, but the new norm, according to Breedlove. US Air Force Secretary Deborah James, in addressing Russian actions, said “The biggest threat on my mind is what’s happening with Russia and the activities of Russia.” She further stated, “It’s extremely worrisome on what’s going on in the Ukraine.”

While trying to formulate and implement approaches to the situation with Russia, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter also decried Putin’s actions. Carter said, “One of [Putin’s] stated views is a longing for the past and that’s where we have a different perspective on the world and even on Russia’s future.” Carter declared, “The United States will not let Russia drag us back to the past.” Carter accused Moscow of trying to re-create a Soviet-era sphere of influence. He went on to state, “We’d like to see us all moving forward, Europe moving forward, and that does not seem to be his stated perspective.” Carter encouraged Europe to keep up the sanctions—which he called the best tool—for as long as it takes to change Russia’s calculations. Commune periculum concordian parit. (Common danger begets unity.)

Carter insisted that NATO “will not rely on the Cold War playbook,” citing instead a combination of military and non-military tools, including sanctions. Indeed, US officials say Ukraine has illustrated the importance of being able to counter “hybrid warfare”, the blend of unidentified troops, propaganda and economic pressure that the West says Russia has used there. In June 2015, Carter confirmed that the US would contribute special operations forces, intelligence and other high-end military assets to a new NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) as part of the 40,000 troop strong NATO Response Force (NRF). The VJTF will be a multinational brigade with up to five battalions, about 5,000 troops, supported by air, maritime, and special operations assets. Some elements will be able to move in 2 to 3 days based on warnings and indicators of a potential threat. The VJTF’s purpose, in part, is to deter any future actions by Russia. The US support would include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets—which can include drones or manned aircraft—as well as special operations forces, logistical expertise and high-end US military assets. Carter also said it would include airlift and precision joint fire capabilities, which could include anything from land-based artillery to air support or naval firepower.

In an ordered universe, one expects every action to have an equal and opposite reaction. Using life experience or empirical testing, one might predict reactions from certain actions. One expects to see patterns. Yet this is a world that is also bit off kilter. After alienating Putin by preventing him from further participation in the G-8, and hitting many of his close associates, their business interests, and Russian industries with sanctions, the US and EU expected him to back off of Ukraine and Eastern European states. Yet, those who believed sanctions and other coercive means, and deploying small sets of US forces to the Baltic States and Poland would modify Putin’s behavior are in the cradle intellectually. On the world stage, Putin will never allow Russia to be perceived as wilting before what he views as Washington’s effort to establish total dominance. He will resist and counter pressures. He wants the US and EU to take into account Russia’s interests on Ukraine and other issues. Soothing Putin’s ego cannot be the goal of talks. However, reestablishing normative behavior and positive relations by surmounting contentious issues must be. For talks to work, all issues must be tabled and hashed out.

On May 15, 2015, the Telegraph published a map of Russian incursions in NATO airspace and waters since September 2014. The map indicates Russia probed every approach to Western targets. NATO jets scrambled and warships sped to meet the intruders. The incursions are partly Putin’s response to support the US and EU has given Kiev, especially military assistance, and NATO’s deployment of forces in the Baltic States and Poland.

Hybrid Warfare and Other Russian Military Options

US officials say Ukraine has illustrated the importance of being able to counter “hybrid warfare,” the blend of unidentified troops, propaganda and economic pressure that the West says Russia has used there. Yet, it would be somewhat unlikely that Shoigu, Gerasimov, or senior officers of security organizations such as the Director of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate, Lieutenant General Igor Sergun, in considering how to cope with the NRF and smaller VJTF, would again use the tactics seen in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk in Ukraine. It would be counter-intuitive for them to use the tactic which NATO is best organized to oppose. If instead of a hybrid attack, Putin ordered a Russian force, overwhelming in size and combat power, to quickly engage the VJTF on the ground, it might be futile for the VJTF or NRF to attempt to handle it, even if the absolute maximum amount of pre-positioned weapon systems and ordinance were made available.

In the best case scenario for NATO, Russia could rush into a neighboring country using with heavy armored and mechanized units, highly mobile infantry, combat service units, and combat service support units painstakingly massed along their mutual border. That approach would provide NATO with warning and sufficient time to react. Indeed, using time available, the VJTF could deploy to a NATO ally in advance of any significant Russian movement. The VJTF would be able to set up its defenses, making use of prepositioned systems and ordinance. Air power would be made available to support dynamic defensive actions and negate opportunities for Russian forces to overwhelm units. Preparations to move the NRF and reinforcements from all NATO allies would get underway. Putin would need to choose whether to clash with the VJTF or retreat unable to secure its objectives without displacing the NATO force. Perhaps his decision would rest on how soon the NRF and reinforcements would arrive to support the force before the Russians inflicted catastrophic losses upon it. Establishing surprise and minimizing resistance are among the main advantages of using hybrid warfare. To achieve those advantages again, Russia may not engage in a large, very visible build-up at its border and transport troops by truck. Instead, it might rapidly deploy forces from bases well inside Russia, prepped under the guise of military exercises, and fly them into a neighboring state, massing at key points.

Before NATO deployed the VJTF or NRF, political leaders among the Allies would need to decide in advance whether those forces would fire the shot to likely start World War III. Sending the VJTF into an ally’s territory to link up with local forces already engaged with Russian forces would guarantee NATO and Russian forces would clash. If the objective is to independently displace Russian forces from key points or to expel it, the VJTF will again be required to fight Russian forces. To get in country, the VJTF and NRF would need to hope Russian forces would not destroy air bases and other facilities upon which NATO fighter support and jet and helicopter transports deliver reinforcements and materiel. If the VJTF cannot get to the targeted ally’s territory first, Russia would likely try to destroy or displace the ally’s forces by massing numerically superior forces and firepower, quickly securing key points. Air cover and close air support for Russian troops could be flown in from the Russia. Russian reserve units and logistical support could also be brought in quickly from Russia.

Regarding NATO’s reinforcement of the VJTF and NRF or efforts to retake territory, Russia would most likely create a non-permissive environment for that. It would be impossible for NATO to execute landings in Europe similar to those at Normandy during Operation Overlord in 1944. Although NATO air power might be used to destroy the Russian force, the Russians might also use air power and powerful conventional weapons to destroy the VJTF and follow-on NRF and interdict reinforcement from neighboring states. If NATO forces proved unable to halt and expel the Russian force, options other than retreat would be needed. As in the Cold War, the use of tactical nuclear weapons to destroy the Russian force—which is not being advocated here—might be considered. The VJTF could be publicly declared a trip wire to trigger their use. Protocols on using the weapons would need to be drawn up and approved by the Allies. Europe would again face the prospect of becoming a nuclear battlefield.

In pace, ut sapiens, aptarit idonea bello. (In peace, like a wise man, he appropriately prepares for war.) Since Washington has decided to cut 40,000 troops from the US Army’s ranks by 2017, the US will not be able to cover any gaps in NATO’s strength without earmarking a sizeable portion of its forces primarily for that task. There are 65,000 US military personnel from all branches of the armed forces in Europe; 38,000 are stationed in Germany. Those numbers continually drop. For the US Army, a drawdown of forces has already meant cutting 10,000 soldiers—including two brigade combat teams—from Europe. Another 1,700 soldiers will be cut over the next three years as part of the latest round of reductions, leaving about 30,000 soldiers forward stationed in Europe. US Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno has noted the deleterious effect that the new cuts will have on US forces in Europe which are already being reduced. Working apparently within parameters of what is politically feasible, Odierno developed plans to position an additional stockpile of heavy equipment in Germany large enough to supply one combat brigade. It would include tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. It would facilitate the deployment of US units in a crisis. The new stockpile would supplement the smaller sets of armored and mechanized equipment, self-propelled howitzers, and other gear—enough to arm one combat brigade also—that the US Defense Secretary pledged to position in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland. Carter said that equipment will be moved around Europe for training and exercises. Odierno also expressed the intent to designate the entire US 4th Infantry Division as a regionally aligned force for Europe. That would mean the division’s combat, combat support, and combat service support units would regularly deploy to Europe to engage in military exercises. The division’s intelligence officers would be able to focus on the actions and intentions and the relative strengths and weaknesses of Russian forces. The division’s planners would become more familiar with allied capabilities. Only one brigade, the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team of the US 3rd Infantry Division is aligned to Europe.

Western military planners of a few decades past could have hardly imagined that against a potentially aggressive Russian force, sufficient armored and mechanized forces would not be based in Europe to meet it. During the Cold War, the US and its NATO allies stood ready to halt a Soviet and Warsaw Pact attack across the Inter-German border dividing the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia.

In the 1980s, the NATO Alliance fielded 750,000 troops of which 200,000 were from the US Army. At that same time, the US AirLand Battle doctrine, emphasizing maneuver and mobility, air-ground coordination, and the attack in depth was introduced. To defeat Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces, new weapons were deployed in Europe to enhance US combat power and have a multiplier effect on the battlefield. NATO would fight to win.

Commitments from NATO Allies Remain Uncertain

As noted in a September 19, 2014 greatcharlie post, Western military planners of a few decades past could have hardly imagined that against a potentially aggressive Russian force, sufficient armored and mechanized NATO forces would not be robustly deployed in Europe to meet it. Throughout the Cold War, the US and its NATO allies stood ready to repel a Soviet and Warsaw Pact attack across the Inter-German border dividing the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia. The US Army reached an all-time high in troop strength in Europe since the postwar period of 277,342 in 1962. Yet, the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact comrades held a constant numerical advantage over NATO in conventional forces, particularly in heavy armored and mechanized units. Under a long-held attrition-oriented forward defense strategy, NATO would fight with units based in Europe, and reinforcements from the US, to keep advancing Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces from driving west beyond Germany, perhaps forcing a stalemate. If NATO failed to halt that force, which was a likely scenario given their adversary’s size, power, and mobility, tactical nuclear weapons would be employed to prevent a breakthrough. The threatened use of strategic nuclear forces also purportedly served to dissuade Soviet and Warsaw Pact leaders from believing any successful advance would at all be tolerated and the US was fully committed to Western Europe’s defense. In the 1980s, the NATO Alliance fielded 750,000 troops of which 200,000 were from the US Army. In those years, the US AirLand Battle Strategy was introduced. It had an emphasis on greater mobility and maneuver, the use of attacks in depth, and use of new weapons systems as the Abrams tank, the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, the Multiple Launch Rocket System, the Blackhawk helicopter, the Apache attack helicopter, and the A-10 and F-15 fighter jets. They served as combat multipliers, greatly enhancing NATO’s mobility, combat power and chances for success against its likely opponent. The battle would no longer be confined to the Inter-German border, but deep within Soviet and Warsaw Pact territory. Although Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional, ground launched, intermediate range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles from Europe in the same period, tactical nuclear weapons could still be employed by other means to halt a possible breakthrough of advancing Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces. (Soviet and Warsaw Pact doctrine called for using chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons to support their conventional forces.)

The 19th century author, poet, and playwright, Oscar Wilde, said “A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Some European political leaders appear skeptical about the threat Russia poses or at least a bit ambivalent about committing themselves to the costly and dangerous requirements of collective security. Despite the “Crimea-grab,” the alleged covert invasion of Ukraine, the looming threat to the Baltic States, threats made to use nuclear weapons, and Russian military air and naval incursions from Britain to Estonia, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg explained in a speech reported by the Atlantic Council, overall defense spending among NATO allies declined in 2014. He explained that 5 allies were expected to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense and these allies are Estonia, Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom and the US. Of NATO’s 28 allies, 18 are expected to increase their defense spending in real terms, but even that is arguable. In the United Kingdom for example, The Times (of London) reports that while United Kingdom’s Defense Secretary Michael Fallon noted his country’s commitment was “comfortably over 2 percent,” a change in the way spending is calculated was the cause for some of that ‘comfortable’ margin. Stoltenberg admitted that overall, it was expected that total NATO defense expenditure would decrease in 2015 by 1.5 percent, which follows years of steady decline in defense spending especially among European NATO Allies. Although the NRF is now 40,000 strong, and the VJTF will field around 5,000 troops, if NATO Allies lack the political will to meet their spending commitments, perhaps it is possible they may lack the will to use the VJTF to block or engage Russian forces when the hour arrives. A Baltic state or Ukraine may face eminent threat of a Russian attack, but the VJTF and NRF may only be poised for “sitzkrieg,” making no effort against Russian moves. Sitzkrieg was a term that marked the period at the start of World War II when there was no military action by the United Kingdom and France in support of their ally, Poland, while Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union overran it. Putin could hardly do more to divide NATO as some allies, worried over military risks, budgets, and domestic political considerations, are quietly doing themselves. Cito enim arescit lacrima, praesertim in alienis malis. (A tear is quickly dried when shed for the misfortunes of others.)

Russian officials say they are retaliating against the US engineered coup in Kiev which helped ignite the separatist rebellion in Donbass, and the US-led eastward expansion of NATO that ignored Russian interests. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (above) stated: “The United States and its allies have crossed all possible lines in their drive to bring Kiev into their orbit. That could not have failed to trigger our reaction.”

The Way Forward

Putin is a shrewd, seasoned national leader, who, though his actions, both good and bad, has evinced significant capabilities. Putin seems to direct Russia effortlessly, even though nothing Putin does is simple. Experts at anything, including national leadership, typically provide little indication of labor. After all, the greatest art is to appear to have no art. Conversely, the amateur displays great agony when attempting anything. Breedlove recently said NATO must challenge Russia’s current policies and demonstrate that Putin’s current approach will not be allowed to damage security. He further stated the alliance must also deter Russia “by carefully shaping Moscow’s choices and managing Putin’s confidence.” Breedlove was undoubtedly expressing his genuine view. However, while his words may soothe political leaders in European capitals, Putin may believe sufficient evidence exists to contradict them.

Committing to collective defense by deeds, not words, has been an agonizing process for some NATO Allies. Additionally agonizing has been Obama’s decision making on using US military power. Too many speeches and statements have been made by Obama on why US military power should be withheld in other situations. Putin likely doubts Obama would be willing to engage Russia militarily, particularly in nuclear exchange that would result in millions deaths and incalculable destruction. Putin could calculate that if he pushes hard enough, Obama might eventually back away from further tough talk and harsh economic actions. Yet, Putin also knows he would later need to interact with a new US administration in 2017. Its response to Russian moves may be more assertive. A Kremlin adviser once said Putin has a fundamental interest in trying to resume normal relations with the US. Perhaps the best answer for all sides is to find a diplomatic resolution to the dispute now. If not, all that is being done now may only be the run up to the nuclear holocaust that capable leaders have avoided for several decades.

Kerry Says Iran, World Powers Closer than Ever to Historic Nuclear Deal: Putin Has Learned Much from This Process

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (center) with Russian Federation Defense Minister and General of the Army Sergei Shoigu (left) and the commander of the Western Military District Colonel General Anatoly Sidorov (right). Through Russia’s participation in the Iran Talks, Putin learned much about decision making among the Western powers from the inside and likely feels better able to deal with them diplomatically and militarily.

According to an April 27, 2015 Reuters article entitled, “Kerry Says Iran, World Powers Closer than ever to Historic Nuclear Deal,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told the 191 parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at conference at the UN that the P5+1 was very near to a deal with Iran that would end a 12-year-old stand-off.   Kerry was quoted as saying on April 27th, “We are, in fact, closer than ever to the good, comprehensive deal that we have been seeking, and if we can get there, the entire world will be safer.” He stated further, “If finalized and implemented, [an agreement] will close off all of Iran’s possible pathways to the nuclear material required for a nuclear weapon and give the international community the confidence that it needs to know that Iran’s nuclear program is indeed exclusively peaceful.” Yet, despite progress made, Kerry emphasized “the hard work is far from over and some key issues remain unresolved.”

Such sober comments underlining the considerable amount of negotiating still required to reach a final nuclear deal have come as a reality check for many following the April 2, 2015 announcements by parties to the talks, with flourish, that parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran’s nuclear program were agreed upon. The appearance of reaching a nuclear deal was as potent as actually reaching a final concordance for some. This was particularly true in Iran where ordinary citizens celebrated in the streets after the framework nuclear deal was reached. Public reaction within P5+1 nations was imperceptible. However, there was a significant reaction among foreign and defense policy analysts and others interested in the talks. Their comments were kind of lush, a bit soupy. Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association declared, “The parameters agreed upon by the United States, the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany with the Islamic Republic of Iran promises to lead to one of the most consequential and far reaching nuclear nonproliferation achievements in recent decades.” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies affirmed, “[T]he proposed parameters and framework in the Proposed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has the potential to meet every test in creating a valid agreement over time . . . It can block both an Iranian nuclear threat and a nuclear arms race in the region, and it is a powerful beginning to creating a full agreement, and creating the prospect for broader stability in other areas.” Joe Cirincione, President of Ploughshares Fund proclaimed, “The agreement does three things. It blocks all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb. It imposes tough inspections to catch Iran should it try to break out, sneak out or creep out of the deal. And it keeps our coalition united to enforce the deal. Under this deal, Iran has agreed to rip out two-thirds of its centrifuges and cut its stockpile of uranium gas by 97 percent. It will not be able to make any uranium or plutonium for a bomb. Many of the restrictions in the agreement continue for 25 years and some . . . last forever.”

Etiam sapientibus cupido gloriae novissima exuitur. (The desire for glory is the last infirmity to be cast off even by the wise.) Every step toward a final deal has brought US President Barack Obama closer to the legacy-defining foreign policy achievement he has sought. Obama’s desire to establish his legacy during his second term office has been a subject regularly discussed among White House officials and US political pundits. Yet, it is uncertain whether a final agreement can be reached and whether it would hold. The notion of how the P5+1, particularly the US, would likely respond to a violation of the treaty by Iran has gone through a transformation process during the negotiations. It was once understood that the US would inevitably decide to stop Iran from moving closer to developing a nuclear warhead by force of arms. Senior Obama administration foreign and defense policy officials made it clear that military intervention was “on the table.” Threats of regime change and of imposing a US form of democracy on Iran by the administration of US President George W. Bush were still ringing in Iranian leaders’ ears when the Iran Talks began. The idea of being attacked by the US became engrained in the psyche of Iran’s leadership, offsetting any idea Obama lacked the will to take military action following the Syria gas attacks debacle. Tehran’s views have changed since then.

Fas est et ab hoste doceri. (It is right to learn even from an enemy.) The P5+1 has served to present a united front to cope with the common danger of a nuclear armed Iran. However, the coalition has not been truly united. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has actually exploited the comity between Russia and its P5+1 partners to protect Russian interests. (The other P5+1 partners may very likely be aware of this.) Putin did not want the P5+1 to take military action against Iran, Russia’s strongest Middle East partner. During the Iran Talks, Russia and Iran made unilateral deals on matters from agriculture to weapon systems. The talks have helped Moscow better understand how Western powers approach issues as Iran’s nuclear program, making Russia better able to handle the West on issues as Ukraine. Russia, as Iran, is coping with Western economic sanctions. Putin has heard many threats to use force against Russia, albeit defensively, through NATO. However, Putin responds to such threats with an enigmatic face. Putin has Russia on the march, seizing territory in a piecemeal fashion, but he undoubtedly has a sense of how far he can go. Observing the decision making of Western powers up close on Iran, Putin likely believes military action against a capable opponent is the last thing Western political leaders want. (It is the last thing he wants, too!) To that extent, he also likely believes that after he has acquired enough, he will be able to legitimize Russia’s acquisitions through talks.

Initial Russian Concerns about Possible US Military Strikes in Iran

As a Member of the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council, Russia’s role as a party to the nuclear negotiation was essential, but it was also rather extraordinary given its ties to Iran. Russia had a very positive, congenial relationship with Iran unlike Western states in the P5+1. Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan stated “Iran and Russia are able to confront the expansionist intervention and greed of the US through cooperation, synergy and actuating strategic potential capacities.” When the Iran Talks began, Russia was actually working closely with Iran in support of its longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who Western members of the P5+1 opposed. However, despite Iran’s close business and economic ties or ongoing military cooperation with Russia, albeit limited, could not guarantee the US would refrain from moving against its strongest partner in the Middle East. For that reason, Putin likely had genuine concern that Iran would become a target of massive US military action if the Iran Talks did not succeed when they began. Putin had not forgotten that close cooperation between Russia and authorities in Tripoli and Damascus did not deter the Obama administration from promoting and supporting insurrection against them. Under UN Security Council Resolution 1973, multinational forces under NATO command went beyond imposing a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to Gaddafi as part of Operation Unified Protector. Gaddafi’s regime fell and he was killed. In Syria, the Obama administration responded in support of the Syria Opposition Movement which bloomed during the so-called Arab Spring. The removal of Assad and his regime was the Obama administration’s goal.

Moreover, before the Iran Talks began and during the negotiations, Obama and officials in his administration were unambiguous about plans to act militarily against Iran over its nuclear program. According to a March 14, 2013 article in the Times of Israel, Obama explained that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in just over a year and diplomatic efforts have just less than that to halt Iran’s drive to the bomb. The Times of Israel determined Obama was intimating that if diplomatic efforts failed this year or early next year, the US would be forced to carry out military action against Iran. Obama also reportedly explained that he had been “crystal clear” that a nuclear-armed Iran was a “red-line,” and that the US was committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon with which it could threaten Israel or trigger a regional arms race. In a September 15, 2013 article in the Guardian, Obama sought to shore up the potency of US deterrence against Iran warning that he was still prepared to take military action against the Iranian nuclear program, which he described as “much closer to our core interests” than Syria’s chemical weapons. A February 26, 2014, Reuters article reported Kerry told a group of reporters that the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action. Kerry also left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if the diplomatic talks broke down. The Reuters article further explained that when Obama stated all options are on the table with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, he was using diplomatic code for the possibility of military action.

During the talks, urgency was placed on having Iran allow rigorous monitoring measures to remain in place to ensure any movement toward a nuclear weapon would be detected and the West could intervene. If Iran could be kept from moving close to a nuclear weapon, Western leaders could avoid facing the decision to respond militarily to its existence.

Western Allies Prefer Sanctions Over US-Led Military Action

As the nuclear negotiations progressed, it became more apparent to Putin and Russian foreign and defense policy officials that despite their insecurities about US intentions, the threat of military action was a fiction. Russia’s European counterparts in the P5+1 coalition began expressing doubts about the willingness of the US to use military force against Iran. The French were perhaps the first to publicly appraise Obama as unwilling to use military action to respond to Iran’s nuclear program. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius tried to outline what he thought were the reasons for Obama’s tack in a 2013 speech. He stated: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.” He suggested this explained “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 further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in American public opinion. Fabius lamented 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.” According to a May 2, 2014 Reuters article German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program must be given a chance, but she also said “If Iran does not meet its obligations, or does not meet them adequately, we remain ready to take back the current limited suspension of sanctions.” Merkel’s statement diverged considerably from those of Obama and Kerry who indicated a US readiness to act militarily if negotiations failed. The reluctance of Germany to support US military action sent a message to Russia that there was no unity in the West on it. Sanctions remain the greatest threat European leaders alone can pose to Iran if the talks failed. Only the US can effectively act with force against a nuclear capable Iran, but Obama would never want to go it alone against Iran.

In sessions leading to April 2, 2015, urgency was placed on having Iran agree to keep rigorous monitoring measures to remain in place not just throughout the long duration of the agreement but even after the core limits of the agreement expire. That would ensure any movement toward nuclear weapons will be detected and providing the opportunity to intervene decisively to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. There was an apparent belief that if Iran was kept from moving secretly toward a nuclear bomb, Western leaders could avoid facing the decision to respond to its existence. As long as Obama was uncertain military action would achieve all objectives based on his concepts, Putin could imagine Obama refusing to go to war.

Israeli F-16 jets flying in formation. US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told Israel’s diplomatic reporters that a military operation against Iran would not stop its nuclear program. She explained “the best option is a diplomatic negotiated solution.” For Putin, Sherman’s words ended all guessing on US intentions with Iran.

Military Action Is Sidelined

Ultra vires! (Beyond ones powers!) Guessing over US intentions ended when Putin and his foreign and defense policy officials heard US officials confirm that in which Moscow could not be certain. On April 13, 2015, Haaretz reported US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told Israeli reporters that a military operation against Iran would not stop its nuclear program. She stated, “A military strike by Israel or the US would only set back the nuclear program by two years.” She said further, “You can’t bomb their nuclear know-how, and they will rebuild everything. The alternatives are there but the best option is a diplomatic negotiated solution.” She noted, “There is no difference [between the US and Israel] on the concern about the Iranian nuclear program but on the way to deal with it.” Despite fears expressed in 2013 that Iran would soon have a nuclear weapons, Sherman explained that the US and Israeli intelligence communities agree Iran is not close to producing one and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has made no decision to produce one. Sherman said, “They don’t have enough fissile material and don’t have delivery system or weapon per se.” She proffered, “It would take them a considerable period of time to get all that.”

Even the tone in the US Congress softened. Congress drafted a bill that would require that the administration send the text of a final accord, along with classified material, to Congress as soon as it is completed. Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner stated “Congress absolutely should have the opportunity to review this deal.” He explained further, “We shouldn’t just count on the administration, which appears to want a deal at any cost.” The focus of most observers was the fact that the bill would halt the lifting of sanctions pending a thirty day Congressional review, and culminates in a possible vote to allow or forbid the lifting of sanctions imposed by Congress in exchange for the dismantling of much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Actually, if Congress rejects the final agreement, Obama could still veto its legislation. It would take only 34 senators to sustain the veto, meaning Obama could lose upward of a dozen Democratic senators and still prevail. However, what was most important about the bill for Putin was that Congress accepted more sanctions as means to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not war.

Putin operates within a practically all-male, nationalist, power-oriented environment in the Kremlin. He sees Obama is confident in the better side of human nature, and likely views that as a weakness. Putin undoubtedly wants to find ways to exploit the benign, less aggressive side of Obama to the greatest degree possible before the end of his second term.

Reality Check Concerning Putin

Unlike the diverse group of cabinet-level officials and policy makers and analysts that advise Obama, Putin operates within a practically all-male, nationalist, power-oriented environment in the Kremlin. In thinking about Obama, Putin undoubtedly recognizes his US counterpart wants to be an honest broker. He sees Obama is confident in the better side of human nature, and operates under the notion that issues in foreign affairs can be resolved at the negotiating table. Given that, Putin and his advisers undoubtedly view Obama in a way akin to renowned United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s “boneless wonder.” Putin very likely hopes to exploit the benign, less aggressive side of Obama to the greatest degree possible before the end of his second term. Putin and Obama are very different men. After the Soviet Union’s collapse and internal chaos of the 1990s, Putin restored order in Russia by reestablishing the power of the state some might say with little regard for human and political rights. Putin’s style of management was shaped by his initial career as an officer 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. Putin has been assisted by a small group of men who served alongside him during his KGB career. These men are referred to as siloviki (power men). At the pinnacle were those who came from a community of families in Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg whose “roots” go back to first political police of the Communist Party known as the Cheka. Putin’s Cheka heritage includes a father and grandfather who served in the security service. He went to schools and a university Chekisty (Chekist) community progeny typically attended.

Chekists share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent on Western technologies. They feel that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. As Putin has noted in public statements, Chekists consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. In a March 18, 2014 speech, Putin enumerated some actions taken by the West that have fostered his contempt. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice from Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple their country; the expansion of NATO to include members of the Soviet Union’s own alliance, the Warsaw Pact; the erroneous Russian decision to agree to the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which he refers to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally.

Paradoxically, the aggressive behavior Putin attributes to the US has been displayed by him time and again. In 2008, Putin forced Armenia to break off its agreements with the EU, and Moldova was placed under similar pressure. That same year, Putin invaded Georgia. Russian troops still occupy the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. In November 2014, Putin signed a Russia-Abkhazia Treaty of Alliance and Integration which meant in practice Moscow is responsible for the customs, defense, and security of the separatist republic. In March 2015, Putin signed the Russian-South Ossetian Treaty of Alliance and Integration which has similar terms. Georgia has no chance of regaining its territories. In November 2013, using economic influence and political power, he drove then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to abort a deal Ukraine had with the EU that would have pulled it toward the West. When the Ukrainian Parliament removed Yanukovych, Putin grabbed Crimea. Such moves legitimize NATO’s worries.

Putin’s uncongenial attitude toward the West was very apparent while the Iran Talks were still underway. Incursions by Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers (as the one shown above) in US and European airspace prompted the scrambling of fighter jets. Russia also sold its S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran.

Lessons Learned Through the Iran Talks Putin May Be Applying

This uncongenial attitude Putin has harbored toward the West was apparent during the Iran Talks. Perhaps he was testing his P5+1 partners. In August 2014, Russia signed a deal with Iran that undermined Western-led sanctions against the two countries. The memorandum of understanding between the two governments envisaged wider economic cooperation to include closer ties in the oil and gas sector, construction and rebuilding of generating capacity, development of a power supply network infrastructure, machinery, consumer goods, and agriculture. It laid the foundation for a multi-billion dollar deal between Moscow and Tehran, the so-called oil-for-goods contract. In addition to that contract, there was the sale of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile to Iran. The S-300 would neutralize any possibility that Israel could take unilateral action against Iran. That would remain the case until the Israeli Air Force receives F-35 fighters from the US. Only the US Air Force’s small fleet of B-2 stealth bombers would have a chance of hitting Iranian targets properly now. If the US and Europe repeatedly threaten and levy sanctions, Putin and his advisers may take audacious steps. Sensing his back is up against the wall, and unable to project strength otherwise, Putin might seek to deter further Western action by making extraordinary threats to use Russian military power. The Russian Ambassador to Denmark threatened that the Danes would become a target of Russian nuclear weapons if they participated in any missile defense program. Danish jets scrambled 58 times in 2014 to head off Russian aircraft. Russian strategic nuclear bombers also conducted numerous incursions into northwestern US air defense identification zones. Incursions by Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers and intelligence-gathering jets in US and European airspace have prompted the scrambling of fighter jets. Russian military aircraft have been flying without transponders over Europe close to civilian aircraft. Putin warned Russia was developing new strategic nuclear weapons that would catch the West by surprise. Russia has moved Iskandar ballistic missiles to its Kaliningrad enclave between Lithuania and Poland and long-range, nuclear-capable bombers to Crimea.

An April 18, 2015 Reuters article stated Putin recently softened his anti-US rhetoric only a week after accusing the US of trying to dominate world affairs and saying what it wanted was “not allies, but vassals.” Putin reportedly said on April 18th, “We have disagreements on several issues on the international agenda. But at the same time there is something that unites us, that forces us to work together.” He then stated, “I mean general efforts directed at making the world economy more democratic, measured, and bilateral, so that the world order is more democratic. We have a common agenda.” Similarly, the BBC reported that on March 6, 2014, after seizing Crimea, Putin told Obama by telephone that US-Russian “relations should not be sacrificed due to disagreements over individual, albeit extremely significant, international problems.” Regarding Crimea, Putin said Russia could not “ignore calls for help and acts accordingly, in full compliance with international law.” Given Obama’s record on the use of force, and what Russia observed during the Iran Talks, Putin may have calculated he has pushed hard enough, and he now can reap a negotiated resolution from Obama. Perhaps Putin assessed that as with Iran, talks might provide him with the chance to achieve many objectives.

The Way Forward

Fene libenter homines id quod volunt credunt. (Men readily believe what they want to believe.) The decay of Europe’s defense came as a result of a lack of commitment of the European countries, and to an extent the US, to the stewardship of NATO, militarily. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, NATO members became weary of investing financial resources in a deterrent force that did not face an apparent threat. There was no change in thinking despite Putin’s aggressive stance and actions against countries that are part of Russia’s “near abroad.” To surmount the impact of what the Western capitals were seeing, they ignored what they saw, made massive military cuts, and failed to meet their military commitments to NATO.

Non mihi, non tibi, sed nobis! (Not for you, not for me, but for us!) Meetings between NATO allies can no longer simply amount to rhetorical conversations about collective security in Europe, pledges to do more, and proposals to rearrange the meager military resources currently available to face the vast, mobile, hard-hitting Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Decisions must be made now on what will done in the face of a confrontation with Russia over future aggressive moves against Ukraine or any other sovereign state in Europe. Too many ambiguous political speeches and statements on US military power have already been made to create doubt over whether the US might respond at all. There must be clear discussions on a mutually acceptable political rationale for military action, despite its difficulties and horrors, must be established between the US and the Europe. US and European leaders must confirm now what they will commit and exactly how they will act together militarily. In a manner loud enough for Putin to hear, Obama, in particular, must continually confirm at the UN, in NATO, and in its members’ respective capitals that Europe can count on US support if a military confrontation becomes imminent.

Merkel Says Russia Sanctions Do Not Preclude Dialogue: Such Pragmatic Thinking Could Lead to Positive Outcomes

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (above) understands that continued uncongenial relations between the EU and Russia could lead to a larger conflict involving NATO. Longstanding linkages between EU states and Russia, put at risk by mutual sanctions, could serve as the basis for an improvement in relations and positive outcomes on contentious issues such as Ukraine that will satisfy all parties involved.

According to an October 16, 2014 Reuters article entitled, “Merkel Says Russia Sanctions Do Not Preclude Dialogue” German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated in a speech in Parliament on Thursday that sanctions against Russia over Ukraine were necessary but they did not preclude dialogue with Moscow.  Merkel spoke ahead of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan. ASEM is a summit concerning the creation of responsible partnership between Asia and Europe on sustainable economic growth and development. However, meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss urgent and important issues will be high on Merkel’s agenda and the agendas other EU leaders. The German leader described the situation in Ukraine as “very difficult”. but will undoubtedly broach the matter with Putin. ASEM will be the first occasion for EU leaders to have contact with Putin in months.

EU leaders remain greatly concerned with the alarming pattern of behavior displayed by Putin. He annexed Crimea and the will unlikely be a return to status quo ante. He has supported Russian speaking compatriots throughout the former Soviet republics. Beyond Crimea, he has branded the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern and southern Ukraine ” New Russia”. They have been occupied by armed separatist fighters led by Russian citizens that have managed to acquire tanks, missiles, and other heavy weapons which the Ukrainian government and the West have said could only come from Russia. They have violently clashed with the Ukraine’s armed forces. Putin’s actions have been in line with his vision of a resurgent Russia at the center of an orbit of compliant neighbors. This concept was manifested in his proposal for a “Eurasian Union,” an economic alliance that would include former Soviet republics such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and most notably Ukraine.

Putin seems determined, perhaps for political reasons or due to character, to maintain an environment of confrontation. For EU leaders, coping with a counterpart in diplomacy who is aggressive in both words and deeds makes remaining confident and resolute that a solution can be found to the current crisis more difficult. Fears likely exist among some EU leaders that Putin will pose even greater problems in the future. The weight of maintaining Europe security falls squarely on the shoulders of the EU leaders. They are the stewards of their countries. In her statement, Merkel appears to be reminding fellow EU leaders that although times are troubled, relations between the EU and Russia must exist. A positive line of communication with Russia must be maintained not as a personal matter, but as a duty. She understands that continued uncongenial relations between the EU and Russia could lead to a larger conflict involving NATO. Desired outcomes can develop from such contacts. Merkel is showing by example that EU leaders must remain strong and of good courage in the face of daunting circumstances. Audentis fortuna adiuvat! (Fortune favors the bold!)

Much needs to be discussed in meetings between EU leaders and Putin such as: the meaning of events in Ukraine with regard to long-term Russian behavior there; Putin’s plans for states along Russia’s border; and vital economic issues on which the EU and Russia must cooperate. Most likely many issues will not be covered. Nevertheless, firsthand experience speaking with Putin will be of great value. EU leaders and Putin would have the chance to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns they have of the recent course of relations. Decisions would no longer need to be based on an understanding of Putin’s thinking in the abstract. Leaders would remove any ambiguity over where things are headed. They would better understand the risks and likely outcomes of possible diplomatic or military initiatives regarding Russia.

Hopefully, meetings between EU leaders and Putin will be successful and regular communication between them, with US President Barack Obama included, can be established soon. Finding ways to work with Putin to construct a solution on Ukraine and a variety of other issues will require a certain agility as his thinking appears somewhat different from there own. However, EU leaders must remember that they regularly display such agility jousting with political opponents in their own capitals and negotiating with each other in Brussels. If  those talents could be brought to bare, much would likely be accomplished by them. Perhaps longstanding linkages between EU states and Russia, put at risk by mutual sanctions, could serve as the basis for an improvement in relations and positive outcomes on contentious issues such as Ukraine that will satisfy all parties involved.

A mantra of greatcharlie.com has been that although the title “Strongman of Russia” surely fits Putin, he is not a maniac. He would likely prefer to establish peace and security in Ukraine and in Russia’s other neighboring states without conflict and further economic, political, and military expense if possible. It is still worthwhile to seek a diplomatic solution to the current crisis. It is good to see that EU leaders have the desire, the will, to look for one.

Merkel Says Give Iran Talks a Chance, But Be Ready to Act if Needed; However, the US and Europe Must Decide How They Will “Act” Together

Pictured above is the launch of an Iranian Shahab long-range missile. The fear that nuclear-tipped Shahab missiles might strike Europe in part has kept the option of US military action on the table regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

According to a May 2, 2014 Reuters article by Krista Hughes entitled “Merkel: Give Iran Talks a Chance, But Ready to Act if Needed,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that sanctions could still be reinstated against Iran if needed, but negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have to be given a chance.  Merkel reinforced that statement by saying, “If Iran does not meet its obligations, or does not meet them adequately, we remain ready to take back the current limited suspension of sanctions.”  She then went on to state Iran must comply with an interim deal under which Tehran agreed to limit parts of its nuclear work in return for the easing of some sanctions.

The Geneva nuclear negotiations have been moving very slowly, but progress has been made.  That is why Merkel and other Western leaders have publicly asked for patience with the process. Insisting that the negotiations be rushed will result in the process becoming a forced public performance, perfunctory in nature, with no real chance for success.  What is sought by the West is a transformation in the thinking of Iran’s leadership. Interestingly enough, the new dialogue between Iran and the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Member States of the UN Security Council—US, Britain, France, Russia, and China—plus Germany) has built confidence, eliminated many ambiguities about positions, and lessened the guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Even more, there have been hints that Iranian leaders may be able to see the real possibilities of a final agreement. Iran’s adherence to the interim deal has been a good first step and could mean Iranian leaders sense the promise of a peace agreement.  A negotiated agreement on Iran’s nuclear program would be a treasure of great value reached as a result of the hard work of diplomats and officials of all parties involved.  Yet, the bitter scenario of Iran backing out of the process after all that has been achieved remains a real prospect.  All parties went into negotiations knowing that reaching a final deal was far from a fait accompli.

Merkel was expressing strong language regarding the potential response of leveling harsh sanctions against Iran if the Geneva process failed.  Yet, her response hardly matches the February 26, 2014 statement made by US Secretary of State John Kerry that “the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action.”  His statement left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if diplomatic talks were to breakdown.  There is a considerable divergence in thinking between Merkel and Kerry when they indicate they are ready to take action.  Sanctions may indeed have the potential to be very harmful and could possibly turn Iran into an “economic basket case.”  However, military action would be calibrated to destroy Iran’s nuclear program to the greatest extent possible.  The apparent reluctance of Germany to support US military action sends a message to some in Iran that there is a schism between the US and Europe on the Iran’s nuclear program, and the US would need to go it alone against its nuclear program.  Clearly, Germany, much as other European states, does not appear fully committed to its own defense against the potential threat Iran can pose to Europe.  If European leaders do not feel the collapse of the talks would warrant a military strikes against Iran, let it be.  However, if military response is desired, European leaders should standby the US, and avoid contradicting its policy in public statements.  They should explore ways to effectively support, encourage, and affirm US action.

European Security and Iran

A little over a decade ago, there was a consistent view among leaders of Germany, France, and Britain, regarding their Iran nuclear dossiers which was, “Iran wants a nuclear weapon and only a strong, consistent approach will stop it.”  European states were frightened then by reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) stating Iran was trying then to create a Plutonium capacity, had built a heavy water facility, and was engaged in laboratory research for Uranium-238, and had worked with Uranium-239, which could detonate spontaneously.  Iran also had done research on Polonium 2010, a high neutron source which can eject neutrons, and is an element for nuclear devices. While some European countries used Polonium 2010 in laboratories as part of their fundamental research, Iran at the time had no fundamental research. Iran was also engaged in detonics research, especially catastrophic blasts.  Moreover, Iran had a rapidly growing ballistic missile research program, and had the capability with its Shahab-3 missiles to place 1 ton 1500km to reach inside Turkey and Israel.  It was developing the capability to reach Greece, and its Shahab-5 missile eventually would be able to reach Russia and Western Europe.  For the Europeans, the primary way to cope with the Iranian threat was through negotiations. Germany, France, and Britain, as Members of the European Union, were dubbed the “EU-3” in their talks with Iran.  It is somewhat unclear even at that time whether European leaders were ever fully behind military action.  However, the negotiations between Iran and the EU-3 had begun during the administration of US President George W. Bush, who seriously threatened military action against Iran.  He dubbed Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil,” and indicated the US would attack Iran to protect the Europeans and other friends from nuclear armed Iranian missiles.

Based on Merkel’s latest comments, it seems the Europeans are willing to step away from a truly tough approach to Iran.  The comments are reflective of European attitude of wanting security but not wanting to invest in it. Interestingly, according to US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, European friends and allies within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have failed to meet their defense spending pledges.  Hagel noted that US outlays on security are three times that of the other 27 partners combined, even though the US gross domestic product (GDP) is smaller than their total GDP, a longstanding US concern about NATO defense spending.  Hagel is correct when he explains that “This lopsided burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability—and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security.”  Only four of the NATO partners met their agreed target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in 2013—Estonia, Greece, Britain and the US. France and Turkey fell just shy of the 2 percent goal.  The failure of European leaders to invest money and capabilities into their armed forces has left them unable to influence outcomes on issues such as Ukraine and Syria, and militarily irrelevant regarding Iran.  If the Europeans are reluctant to meet their 2 percent commitments for defense under the NATO, there is little chance they would boost their military capabilities to respond to the possible challenge of Iran.

European Criticism of the US

In addition to what could be seen as lethargy among the Europeans regarding defense, there is a sense among them that in its foreign policy, the Obama administration seeks politically expedient solutions rather than well-considered approaches based on analyses. The French seem convinced that the US was becoming disinterested in the Middle East.  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed his dismay with the US in a November 2013 speech, stating: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.”  For him, that explained “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 further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion.  Fabius lamented 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.”  In other Western capitals, there is a view that US foreign policy is driven by Obama’s desire to establish his legacy.  The perception that Obama is taking a “legacy quest” approach has more than perturbed Russian President Vladimir Putin.  In many capitals around the world, this signaled the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements.  All of these criticisms coalesce to create the impression in some parts of the world, even Europe, that the US government under Obama’s leadership is weak and willing to compromise when previous US administrations would not.

The sense of uncertainty about US intentions and capabilities led the British Parliament to vote down Prime Minister David Cameron’s request that British force join the US in military action against the Syrian government for its use of chemical weapons.  What created real upheaval among European leaders were revelations by US National Security Agency whistleblower, Edward Snowden, that the US engaged in electronic surveillance to monitor the communications of European leaders, including their personal cellphone conversations.  Expressions of outrage and criticisms over US actions were strong enough to evoke the worst reaction possible from Obama.  Yet, for his part, he has displayed great calm.  While he speaks with a golden tongue about European friends and allies, he knows that forgiveness will not be felt any time soon.  He likely senses European leaders will be difficult to work with for a while.

Nevertheless, the heaviness of maintaining Europe’s defense falls squarely on the shoulders of each respective country’s leaders.  They are the stewards of their country’s national security.  There is no desire to send anyone on a “guilt trip,” but the need to voice rage should be tempered by the demands of European security.  No benefit will be received from undermining the US leadership when a response from Obama against Iran might prove critical to Europe’s wellbeing. US support for the defense of Europe should not be taken for granted.  It has value and must be appreciated.

The Realities of the Military Option and the “Collaborative” Approach

A breakdown of the nuclear negotiations would be a weighty matter and impossible for the Europeans to handle effectively alone.  Statements about sanctions and conveying outrage after such an occurrence would simply amount to lip service.  The Iranians are capable of calculating what the consequences of such measures would be, and would try to mitigate the effects of them as best as possible.  The Europeans would need to support diplomacy with the threat force, but that cannot be achieved without US cooperation.  No state can replace the US on the world stage.

If the European leaders fully agree with taking action, they may find it necessary to press the matter forward with the US.  Despite stating that the military option remains on the table, the Obama administration might find it difficult to decide on military action against Iran.  The White House may calculate that attacking Iran preemptively to protect Europe is not a viable option because the costs for the US are too high.  Obama’s foreign policy agenda is rife with challenging issues, including Syria and Ukraine.  After fully considering what a US attack on Iran will mean for their countries, European leaders must examine ways in which their relationships with Obama might promote a decision to proceed.  They should consider taking a more cooperative, supportive approach with him to ensure the matter is moved forward.

None of this is intended to suggest European leaders embark on an approach akin to manipulation.  Rather, they should engage in a collaborative effort with Obama.  European leaders must embrace the reality that the US holds the lion’s share of military power in the West and it is the only country that would contend with Iran if it poses a threat to Europe (even though Britain and France have nuclear forces of their own).  To that extent, the US has the greatest stake in the success of the Geneva talks in the West because a breakdown in the nuclear negotiations could lead it to war.  Although backchannels and bilateral talks between the US and Iran may be a source of consternation for European leaders, they must remain patient while the US finds its way through the process.

There must also be forthright discussions with the US on a mutually acceptable rationale for military action and the difficulties of taking military action.  They must be willing to ask the US to guarantee that it will stand with them to the extent that it would act preemptively to protect European territory; if that is what they want. European leaders must consider how they can work in partnership with the US to the greatest extent possible to formulate and implement a plan for responding against Iran.  They must make it known at the UN, in NATO, and in their respective countries capitals, that the US can count on their support.  If military action is deemed necessary, Obama should be encouraged to rise up to meet the situation.

The Way Forward

If the Geneva nuclear negotiations breakdown, the Europeans can either hope for the best or support military action.  Sanctions are the greatest threat European leaders alone can pose to Iran if the Geneva talks fail.  However, cutting off business deals will unlikely serve their security needs regarding Iran.  Even if European leaders were to agree that a military response is necessary, the truth is no European country has the capability to act.  A united European front in support of a military response would not help either.  The only country capable of attacking Iran to protect Europe is the US.  The US pledge to defend its European partners and allies is unwavering.  Yet, the prospect of a new war is abhorrent to the Obama administration.

It is uncertain whether pre-emptive action would be taken by the US despite having the ability to respond militarily to Iran’s program.  For Obama, the alternative exists of waiting to see if Iran will take action with a newly developed, long predicted, nuclear capability. That could have devastating consequences for Europe.  Ensuring US action will prove to be daunting.  The Europeans will need to team-up with the US and support its Iran policy. European leaders must guarantee they will stand by the US if military action becomes necessary.  Contradictory statements on Iran policy emanating from the US and Europe do not foster a perception of unity.  Unity is crucial and it will help ensure the continent remains secure.  Given the low cost that would be incurred by a collaborative and supportive approach with the US on military action, if talks fail, it would hardly make sense not to try this tact.

Obama Urges Putin to Pursue Diplomacy; After Crimea Is Firmly Under Russian Control, Perhaps He Will

Russian troops, well-trained and very capable, moved rapidly into Crimea and achieved the military objectives set for them by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

According to a March 6, 2014, NBCNews.com report entitled, “Ukraine Crisis: Obama Urges Putin to Pursue Diplomacy,” Russian President Vladimir Putin stuck to his position on the escalating crisis in Ukraine, saying Moscow must not ignore calls for help from Russian speakers in the country.  During a lengthy call with President Barack Obama on March 6, 2014, Putin said Ukraine’s government came to power as the result of an “unconstitutional coup” and was “imposing an entirely illegitimate decision onto Crimea and the eastern and southeastern regions of Ukraine.  Russia cannot ignore calls for help on this matter and is responding accordingly in full compliance with international law.“  Additionally, on March 6th, the parliament of the semi-autonomous and largely pro-Moscow region of Crimea decided to break away from Ukraine and join Russia, and set the date for a referendum on the subject for March 16th.   The White House earlier said that President Barack Obama had told Putin that the Russian incursion into Crimea was a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and that the US and its European allies had “taken several steps in response.”  A March 6th BBC.com article entitled, “Ukraine Crisis: Obama Urges Putin to Pursue Diplomacy,” reported Obama told Putin there was a solution available that suited all parties, involving talks between Kiev and Moscow, international monitors in Ukraine, and Russian forces returning to their bases.  This was the second telephone call between the two leaders on Ukraine in less than a week.

In Ukraine, Putin is in the process of executing what was known during the Cold War as the “Hamburg grab.”  In Europe, the common characteristics of US assessments of a possible conflict initiated by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact satellites was a surprise attack across the Iron Curtain with conventional weapons.  As Bernard Brodie explained in renown work on military affairs and statecraft, War and Politics (Macmillan, 1973): “The attack might be general along the line, intended to wipe out NATO and take over Western Europe to the Pyrenees, or there might be some variation in diminished form, like what became known as the ‘Hamburg grab.’  In the latter instance, the Soviet forces would slice around the important city of Hamburg and then leave it up to us to try to take it back—which without large conventional forces we obviously could not do unless we were prepared for a nuclear holocaust.”  Unlike Hamburg, Ukraine, even more, Crimea, falls within what Russia once called its “near abroad.”  However, the same as with Hamburg, trying to take Crimea back from Russia without triggering a nuclear war would likely be impossible.  Putin in his March 6th telephone call reportedly told Obama that US-Russian relations “should not be sacrificed due to disagreements over individual, albeit extremely significant, international problems.”

Obama and his advisers should have understood that they would unlikely persuade Putin to respond favorably and reverse course as a result of a couple of telephone conversations.  Putin would hardly look past all that has transpired in his interactions with Obama.  A break occurred between the leaders over a US proposal for nuclear reductions a few short months ago, which was an uncharacteristic aspect in US-Russian relations in recent history.  When Obama came to office, he had established a very positive relationship with Putin’s protégé, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.  Obama had become so confident in his relations with Russia based on his successes with Medvedev that he declared a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries.  Obama made the mistake of believing his positive relationship between Obama and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would transfer to his relationship with Putin.  Interaction between the two leaders became tense very fast.  True, there have been public displays of coordination between the US and Russia on foreign policy.  They include the formulation and implementation of a plan for Syrian chemical weapons removal; the Geneva II talks between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition coalition; and, the Iran nuclear talks.  However, the relationship is best marked by: Putin’s decision to allow NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; Putin’s “thought provoking” letter to the US public, published in the New York Times Op-Ed section; and ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the FBI in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks.  Things really soured on August 7, 2013 when Obama cancelled a Moscow summit meeting set for September.  Washington sent arms reduction proposals to Moscow seeking steep reductions in its nuclear forces, but Putin refused to consider them concerned with the efficacy of taking such an audacious step.

Putin’s rejection of the proposals, as one unidentified senior administration US official told the New York Times, ended Obama’s “signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.”   An unidentified administration official also informed the New York Times that “this decision was rooted in a much broader assessment and deeper disappointment.”  That source went on to state, “We just didn’t get traction with the Russians.  They were not prepared to engage seriously or immediately on what we thought was the very important agenda before us.”  The reduction of nuclear forces and reductions in conventional forces have been issues US and Russian leaders have dealt with for decades.  Yet, because they had a contentious relationship, Obama and Putin were unlikely to be the ones to resolve any nuclear issue.  There was really a personality clash between the two leaders.  Obama prefers to solve problems at the diplomatic table using reason and logic, and insists on trying to convince Putin to accept his point of view based on the quality of his arguments.  Obama’s tact evinces a refusal by him to recognize that Putin sees the world differently.  Andrei Piontovsky, executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow was quoted on August 7, 2013 in the New York Times article as saying, “Putin sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.”  He went on to state, “Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness.”  The notion that a “legacy quest” drove the Obama administration to use the summit as a platform to push forward its political agenda and secure an historic agreement  with Russia on arms control, more than perturbed Putin.  Pushing Putin to accept proposals on nuclear force reductions in which he was not at all interested would never achieve anything positive.  Insisting the September summit be used to deal with such proposals was a doomed effort.   (See August 17, 2013, greatcharlie.com post, “Ties Fraying, Obama Drops Putin Meeting; Cui Bono?”)

Obama should have understood that maintaining a constructive relationship with the Russian leader is not a personal matter; it is part of the business of being president.  During the Cold War, despite proxy wars and other confrontations and conflicts, of high and low gradients, along the course of the Cold War, both states, while possessing the unique and mutual capability to annihilate one another and the world with their nuclear arsenals, did not.  Even during the most troubled times, relations between US and Russian leaders were maintained through a difficult process of summit meetings.  Such Cold War meetings may also have been distasteful for leaders on either side to undergo.  Summit talks built confidence, eliminated ambiguities about positions, and prevent and guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Talks allowed leaders to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns they had within their own high-level relationship.  The eventual establishment of a “red-phone” or direct communication between the White House and the Kremlin contributed greatly to maintenance of global peace and security.

One cannot help but imagine that relations between the US and Russia would be completely different if Obama had not cancelled the September 2013 summit and focused not on just proposals, but rather on establishing a better relationship with Putin.  Obama had the opportunity to use “encouragement”, through regular telephone calls, messages, and meetings, to promote even subtle change in Russia’s approach on issues. That might even have allowed for a greater chance, well in advance of the Ukraine crisis, to find ways in which Russia, working with the US, could promote its interests.  Speaking by telephone only when difficult or contentious issues arise, especially when relations are already uncongenial, is akin to a divorced couple communicating by telephone to discuss divergent opinions on important child custody issues.  If there is a very negative history, or contentious break-up, despite their best efforts, the couple will bring animus to the conversation.  That animus may find its way into the discussion in the form of tense talk and hostile comments.  The result will not be a solution, but greater disagreement and frustration.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has established a constructive dialogue with Putin.   Merkel told Obama early on in the crisis, that she sensed Putin had lost touch with reality having spoken with him by telephone.  That was very troubling news.  Putin may very well be having hubristic thoughts on Russian power.  The military operation in Ukraine transpired on the heels of the successful 2014 Winter Olympics Games in Sochi while there was still a sense of renewed national identity, national pride, and patriotism among Russians.  However, Putin seems to have gone a step further.  On the March 9, 2014 broadcast of the NBCNews program, “Meet the Press”, senior diplomatic correspondent Andrea Mitchell reported that she learned from well-sourced reports that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Russian National Security Council, and economic advisers were “clueless” of Putin’s plans for Ukraine.  Putin allegedly made the decision to move into Ukraine having discussed the issue with three “old buddies” from KGB days in the 1970s and 1980s.  As events developed in Kiev, Putin understood that he still had strong cards to play, and he used one, moving into Crimea, to gain an advantage in what is a negative situation for Russia.  He seemingly annexed Crimea in return for the loss of a friendly government and Russian influence in Ukraine.  (Interestingly, when Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov responded to a US offer to assist with the Sochi Games security, he requested anti-improvised explosive device technology, although it was difficult to see why such US-tech would be needed to defeat attacks the Russian government had never faced from domestic Islamic militant groups.  Perhaps Gerasimov was actually considering the technology to defeat an insurgency his forces might face in a coming push into Ukraine!)

As the West pushes back, US and European officials have flooded the media with talk of not only sanctions but also shrill responses on the use of force.  However, there is no quick fix for Putin’s “Crimea grab.”  Sanctions may support Western goals in this crisis, but against Russia they may be double-edged given significant investments of large US and European firms there.  What is more, proposing the use of force against Russia, against Putin, may very well be akin to proposing a rush to doomsday.  Putin will respond aggressively to any threat to Russia.

While the title “Strongman of Russia” surely fits Putin, he is not a fanatic.  He knows that after the dust settles regarding Crimea, peace and stability must be established.  Recall that he said it was unnecessary to sacrifice US-Russian relations over an independent international issue.  this The solution to the Ukrainian crisis will unlikely to be truly satisfactory to the US and the Europeans.  Putin will not back away from Crimea and it will likely go the way of East Prussia for the Germans and North Cyprus for Greek Cypriots.  Crimea will not return to Kiev’s control in the foreseeable future. What is most important at this juncture is a reset of the conversation between the US and Russia.  Meetings between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who have regularly worked together of other urgent and important issues for both countries, have already begun.  However, every effective back channel should also be opened, and leaders such as Merkel, should be sought out to serve as third-party envoys for Obama and Putin if communication breaks down.  There is much to discuss about: the meaning of events in Ukraine for the US, its European partners, and Russia respectively; what comes next in Ukraine politically, economically, socially, and militarily; and, other urgent and important issues on which the US and Russia must cooperate.  Hopefully, further talks between the US and Russian officials and diplomats on Ukraine’s future will be successful, and constructive talks between Obama and Putin will occur soon on a more frequent basis.