Commentary: The Hanoi Summit: What Kim Did Wrong and What Trump Is Doing Right

US President Donald Trump (left) and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un (right). Before the Hanoi Summit, Trump insisted that if he became unsatisfied with the meeting’s progress, he would walk away from the table. That was precisely what he did. It is not easy to comprehend what might have impelled Kim’s decision not reach a common understanding with Trump in order to create a denuclearization agreement. Yet, regardless of what drove Kim, the question of what will come of all the diplomatic work done to this point remains. Of particular interest might be how Trump might assess Kim’s actions and intentions in Hanoi’s aftermath.

The strains placed on both US President Donald Trump and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) Chairman Kim Jong-un in their February 27-28, 2019 meeting in Hanoi were quite significant. The intended outcome of the meeting, that primarily being an agreement on denuclearization and North Korea’s economic rejuvenation, would have been positive for both sides. Before Hanoi, Trump put considerable energy into considering the type of partnership with Kim that would be largely economic, and certainly serve the interests of the US and its regional allies. He remained optimistic despite being bombarded by the voices of pessimism heard from naysayers and dream killers of all political stripes. For Kim, moving North Korea along a path toward the economic miracle that Trump proposed would require a well-planned, monumental project to restructure the only world he and his people have known. Surely, it was worth the candle for both Trump.and Kim to make a go at it. However, it may very well be that Kim did not fully understand that everything North Korea is, and everything it has, was actually at stake. To that extent, North Korea may not have been properly invested in the move toward denuclearization. It appears even Kim’s purported percipience of Trump and US foreign and national security policy making was also lacking. (Perhaps that knowledge was simply not being properly applied in practice.) .

Trump insisted before the Hanoi Summit, much as he had before negotiations with other national leaders on agreements, that if he became unsatisfied the meeting’s progress, he would walk away from the table. That is precisely what he did. It is not easy to comprehend what might have impelled Kim’s decision not to reach a common understanding with Trump and create a denuclearization agreement. Given Kim’s human rights record, some might suggest may have been influenced by ingenious telepathy from Hell. Sardonics aside, the talk’s outcome provides indicia to support a few reasonable theories. Thinking outside of the box in order to find causality for Kim’s decision, one might conclude on a basic level, that the whole negotiation soon became too rich for his blood and rather than take a giant step forward and risk making the wrong choice, he held pat on his position. On a higher tier, one might assess that there may have been senior advisers in Pyongyang who convinced Kim that he could get Trump to eat out of his hand, and in a leap of faith, he tossed everything into an effort to twist Trump’s tail and get him to accept a deal shaped by North Korea’s terms. Additionally, there is the possibility that some self-doubt might have found a place in Kim’s thinking. Despite his leadership through iron rule, one might also politely conclude that Kim possesses a sort of 50-50 mentality. That would mean that Kim can see the potential of all arguments, even those made by the US. From that, it might be considered that he would typically need more time to reach a decision that would best suit North Korea long-term. In whatever way Kim may have been driven, the question now is what will come of all the diplomatic work done to this point. Of particular interest might be how Trump might assess Kim’s actions and intentions in the aftermath of Hanoi. Having apparently gotten things mixed up in Hanoi, hopefully Kim will not mess things up from this point on with Trump. Si sapis, alterum alteri misce: nec speraveris sine desperatione nec desperaveris sine spe. (If you are wise, mingle these two elements: do not hope without despair, or despair without hope.)

Is Kim Missing the Bigger Picture?

Right on the heels of the summit’s closing, Trump held a unilateral press conference in Hanoi on February 28, 2019, essentially to explain why an agreement could not be reached. Trump told reporters that the crux of the matter was sanctions. In summarizing the situation, Trump stated Kim wanted sanctions lifted to a degree in which they would be rendered ineffective. In exchange, Kim would be willing to denuclearize portions of critical areas. Yet, Trump said those testing areas Kim was willing to break down were not the ones the US wanted. They were hardly enough to elicit the cessation of sanctions. Since Kim held firm to that position, Trump explained that there was little choice but to walk away from that proposal. However, Trump never indicated the conversation on the denuclearization had been exhausted.

Indeed, Trump expressed the belief, “I think we’ll end up being very good friends with Chairman Kim and with North Korea, and I think they have tremendous potential.” He insisted that the US despite the outcome has not “given up on anything.” His sense that progress on denuclearization was bolstered by the fact that Kim even had an interest in closing down parts of the nuclear program. Additionally, Trump reminded that, “There’s no more testing. And one of the things, importantly, that Chairman Kim promised me last night is, regardless, he’s not going to do testing of rockets and nuclear. Not going to do testing.  So, you know, I trust him, and I take him at his word.  I hope that’s true.” As for how the parties might move forward with the diplomatic process following Hanoi, Trump explained: “In the meantime, we’ll be talking. Mike [Pompeo, US Secretary of State] will be speaking with his people. He’s also developed a very good relationship with the people — really, the people representing North Korea. I haven’t spoken to Prime Minister Abe yet. I haven’t spoken to President Moon of South Korea.  But we will, and we’ll tell them it’s a process and it’s moving along.”

There was no legitimate cause for any confusion in Pyongyang as to what Trump wants in return for a prospective partnership is the same prize that was at the root of his decision to talk with Kim: denuclearization, the end of long-range missile development, the continued return of US remains from the Korean War, and dependability. As one can see, progress made on some of these matters was mentioned by Trump during his Hanoi press conference. In exchange, Kim would be assured that economic pressure, sanctions, would be mitigated, and a robust path toward economic renewal, backed by the experience of Trump and the largess of the US would be initiated.

The Trump administration officials, particularly US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have sought to engage in very open, honest, and frank communications with their DPRK counterparts. That would include making inquiries regarding what is happening within the chambers of decision making of North Korea. From that information, the administration has been able to proceed with a good idea of whether success is possible. There have also been letters from Kim to Trump that have provided a sense of where things stand in North Korea regarding denuclearization. There was also no ambiguity over the fact that the Trump administration certainly does not want to give up the strengths and equities of its alliances with allies. Those ties that bind allies in the region are the same ties that assure unity when dealing with China. Alas, at the table, the maximum that Kim could possibly collect about Trump, in order to make a good decision on the deal offered, was put before him, for all answers concerning the US position, concept and intent, ultimately resided in Trump, himself. Kim and his aides and advisers in Pyongyang could not reasonably ask for anything more.

It would say much if Kim could not see that real empathy may have come from Trump, understanding how heavy a burden such a decision might be for the young leader. Previous deals with North Korea of great significance were last reached with his father, Kim Jong-un, and they crumbled under the insistent strain within North Korea, in Kim regime to pursue the goal of his father and grandfather, Kim Il-sung of developing nuclear weapons. That goal has been achieved.  There may still be the strain within Kim to ignite an economic development akin, or even beyond, the Chollima Movement, as initiated by Kim’s grandfather and hero, Kim Il-sung. There is much that needs to done in North Korea, and as Trump has repeated, great potential exists within its workforce.

Trump’s critics and detractors insisted that Trump was out of court to even attempt to reach agreement with Kim that would meet the requirement of serving the interests of the US and its allies in the region. Surely, the Trump administration would never surrender  the strengths and equities of its alliances with allies. Those ties that bind allies in the region are the same ties that assure unity when dealing with China. Those critics and detractors, upon discovering that Trump was unfazed by their persistent negative voices and was going to make the effort anyway, eventually turned to the standby criticism concerning any of Trump’s efforts on foreign and national security policy: he is unqualified. Further, they would also insist that behind everything Kim has done was a hostile DPRK plot, a “Red plot”, to lure Trump and the US to destruction.

The Snare of Insufficient Analysis

Attacks by critics and detractors of Trump have manifested more than elementary cynicism. The dark shadows of their machinations gathered as the Hanoi Summit came near. Their efforts did more more than serve to tear those in the US public who are supportive of Trump away from him. Despite claims from Trump’s political adversaries, and the usual critics and detractors that what was happening in Washington had no impact on what occurred in Hanoi, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it would seem that Pyongyang, unfortunately chose to do what was expedient. That meant believing Trump was stressed from the potential release of a final report of the Special Counsel to Investigate Russian Interference with the 2016 Presidential Election and Related Matters. There have been repeated insinuation that Trump faced the threat of investigations by the Deputy US Attorney for Southern District of New York and the New York State Attorney General. Pyongyang might have believed that Trump, caught in the wave of excitement concerning the 2020 US Presidential Campaign, mystifying reports of supposed gains by Democrats in polls versus Trump, and the reported mayhem that exists within the mainstream political parties. There may have been the belief that Kim could capitalize on some forecasted by the intelligence services on the impatience on the part of Trump. Reports commentaries, and opinion pieces in the US news media surely would have rung a bell for Kim’s aides and advisers and analysts in North Korea’s intelligence services. From that, it would follow that Trump’s political difficulties at home would likely distract him. If any of this was the case, it may explain why Pyongyang seemingly went all in on an effort to force Trump’s hand.

What Trump confidently knew, but Kim and his aides and advisers in Pyongyang would have unlikely been able to discern clearly, was that the hearings of the Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives and in camera testimony before the Intelligence Committee of the US House of Representatives in which Trump’s erstwhile attorney Michael Cohen testified, in essence amounted to vanity projects undertaken by political opponents of Trump in his rival Democratic Party. Although the hearings grabbed headlines in the US news media while Trump met with Kim in Hanoi, the new information gained from them was for the most part already widely known. As it has been repeatedly counseled by greatcharlie, reacting, and much worse, inferring how Trump’s mind moves on an issue from stories, iniquitous commentaries, and opinion pieces in the US news media. For the most part, US news media houses have done a complete job presenting themselves as Trump’s adversary, not simply critics and detractors. In either case, they are not playing the impartial watchdog role in which the fourth estate is supposed to serve.

Leaders often take unimaginable risks under stress. One could surmise that Kim must have been under some stress at home. Indeed, looking at Kim objectively, the question would be whether Kim was being ambitious or desperate in Hanoi. There is the possibility that in the intelligence services or the Workers’ Party of Korea, it may have posited that Trump could be manipulated into accepting a deal far less than he originally wanted. Lending support for the idea would be that Kim managed to secure a second meeting and that Kim was the actual master at the negotiation table with Trump, and he could take US President down whatever path he wanted. Although it may all sound like daylight madness, it is actually the sort of colorization of policy with delusional notions of an all powerful supreme leader that has underpinned many prior ham-handed decisions by Pyongyang. Nam qui peccare se nescit, corrigi non vult. (If one doesn’t know his mistakes, he won’t want to correct them.)

Kim’s 50-50 Personality?

One might theorize that Kim’s failure to return home with a constructive answer may not have driven as much by politics but by the possibility that he possesses a 50-50 personality. This is not intended as a disparagement or an affront. It is not to suggest that Kim is a mixed bag, or worse, indecisive. It does not mean Kim is regularly afflicted by the paralysis of analysis. The 50-50 personality is the one able to see beyond black and white to the grey areas of significance. Kim cannot be pegged as one extreme or the other. Kim’s trained ability to project calmness and authority in all circumstances publicly has little relation to what might be stirring within. In private, he may in reality be as much the introvert as the extrovert, he may entertain his sense of things as much as use a honed intuition. He may try to feel through issues and situations coupled with thinking them through ad infinitum. He may be willing to use his perception of matters taking into account his experience and much as making calibrated judgments based on available facts and methods of analysis.

New Problems or a Curious Attempt to Ignite Further Talks?

Kim has created an additional problem himself at this point. Reportedly, he has sought to reconstruct a disassembled testing facility for long range rockets at Tongchang-ri. On first blush, it certainly does seem there is nefarious purpose behind his actions. It is hard to see how anyone could view Kim as anything but an aggressor. Trump has invested in diplomacy to resolve matters in contention: North Korea’s nuclear program and its long range delivery systems. Tactical moves must have payoffs or they are useless exertions, often opening the door for opponent to act. Kim, having met Trump, should not be under any illusion that Trump would not respond fiercely to moves he might find aggressive and or threatening. Kim does not need to extrapolate and infer anything from overt or covert sources that his intelligence services may be relying upon to understand and predict Trump’s moves. The suspension of military exercises should not have signalled to Kim that Trump is not interested in a military option. As he indicated in words he has since set aside in the spirit of negotiating some resolution, North Korea’s aggression would met with “ fire and fury the world has never known!” Pardon greatcharlie’s freedom, but military exercises with conventional forces would hold less significance on the North Korea front if an attack conceived by Trump would include the use of scores of nuclear weapons.

Does Kim Really Know What Is Best for North Korea?

Even with the notion that he has a type of 50-50 mentality, and with all of his revolutionary zeal and his commitment to the Communist movement taken into consideration, Kim must realize that Trump’s deal was too good to pass on. Nevertheless, he did so. Looking at the matter purely from the perspective of an external observer, Kim made a big mistake. As a national leader concerned with his people’s real future and being much more than a functionary within the system, logic should have driven him toward it. One stands on shaky ground saying anything positive about Kim given the sensitivity of government agencies in the US to such comments, nonetheless, failing to engage Trump for a bit longer in Hanoi on the development of a fitting agreement for both parties was not a surprising error for a national leader who is new to such high stakes diplomacy. Errant consilia nostra, quia non habent quo derigantur; ignoranti quem portum petat nullus suus ventus est. (Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.)

A logical next step for Kim and his aides and advisers, if they are truly interested in, and dedicated to, this important diplomatic process, might be to try to get the toothpaste back into the tube. A sign that such an effort could already be underway might be official statements by the foreign ministry of North Korea insisting that there was a desire in Pyongyang for a partial denuclearization. Indeed, on February 28, 2019 in Hanoi, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho explained that Kim’s regime sought only “partial” sanctions relief in return for dismantling the North’s main enrichment capabilities for fissile material. As for continued negotiations, Ri stated, “It is difficult to say whether there might be a better agreement than the one based on our proposal at current stage.” He continued authoritatively, “Our principal stance will remain invariable and our proposal will never be changed, even though US proposes negotiation again in the future.” Ri also confirmed that the North would be willing to “permanently dismantle all the nuclear material production facilities” at the main Yongbyon nuclear site and allow U.S. nuclear experts to observe. He went on to complain that North Korea had sought an end to “sanctions that hamper the civilian economy, and the livelihood of all people in particular,” citing five out of 11 sanctions packages imposed by the UN Security Council. As mentioned earlier, sanctions relief along those lines would have amounted to a significant easing of the pressure on North Korea.

Although some somber and astute analysts might reach the conclusion that the foreign ministry’s bold, inaccurate statements, with their familiar antagonistic cadence, was simply a pretension, one more dramatic expression of Pyongyang. The odd hope of it all would appear to be influencing opinion among senior officials of the Workers Party of Korea and other elites of business circles of the society that Trump was not sincere about sanctions relief and he failed to respond to what is likely extolled in Pyongyang as Kim’s “generous offer”. It may very well have been the case that Pyongyang had the foreign ministry’s statement “locked and cocked” even before Kim left by train for Hanoi in the event that Trump would not accept the terms he planned to offer him.

The Agony of Negotiating with North Korea

It is interesting how North Korean officials have spoken so obstinately of Trump’s openhandedness toward their country. Perhaps Pyongyang has forgotten that Kim is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea. (That is unlikely something anyone in Pyongyang would ever say in Kim’s presence.) Among industrialized countries, ruling out the Russian Federation and China, few governments hold a favorable opinion of North Korea. Pyongyang should rest assured that a number of capable US allies have likely suggested in confidence that Trump should move on from diplomacy and simply use military force on North Korea and indicated the willingness to join that effort. Trump, the one that North Korean Foreign Ministry officials now criticize, is the national leader who truly has the military power to destroy North Korea, yet he has given it a chance to prove its positive intentions to the world. Trump has sought to create the circumstances in which the entire world could begin to think well of North Korea and consider ways to work well with it. Trump’s description of his contacts and communications with Kim and public statements about his friendship and chemistry with him, have made him far less the threat that deservedly made headlines with angry words and aggressive moves in 2017 when the administration began. Trump kept his promise to work directly with Kim on the diplomacy, although it would unlikely have gone any other way as he has become the administration’s talisman on bilateral diplomacy, trade talks, essentially every kind of dealmaking. More than half way through his term as of this writing, Trump has amassed a record of making things happen; getting things done.

Not under any circumstances would the reconstruction of the testing site fall under the category of a benign act. It would hard to see where Pyongyang, having had two bites at the diplomacy apple, might hope to have some understanding of its move to reconstruct it’s long-range rocket testing site in a positive way in Washington or anywhere in the US for that matter. In reconstructing the testing site, Kim is doing precisely what Trump said he did not want North Korea to do. Nonetheless, taking a second look at the matter of Kim’s move to reconstruct the testing site from another angle purely out of academic interest and with a dose of optimism, one could say that the effort, albeit poorly conceived, was designed to create a position of perceived strength and encourage Trump to talk with Kim again. After all, that step was less threatening than other available options to garner immediate attention, create urgency. Kim could have begun reconstruction on a shuttered nuclear facility or begun building a new one. Kim could have made unsubstantiated public claims of possessing new nuclear technologies to enrich uranium for weapons such as the ability to separate isotopes through laser excitation (“SILEX”). (Note, this is just a hypothetical. There is no effort here to suggest that North Korea possesses such capabilities.) For Pyongyang, the danger in engaging in such tricky stuff is that the wrong signal may be sent to Washington. By and large, Pyongyang has asked the Trump administration to be patient and to recognize that on the world stage, North Korea is going to display a lack of sophistication, savoir faire, and present itself as the isolated, authoritarian “hermit kingdom” it has always been. While it may have hoped to move things in a specific way, it is possible that what might be intended through such moves could be lost in the labyrinth. Perhaps even unknowingly, Pyongyang has placed its best hope in Trump’s willingness to interpret its moves in a somewhat positive way and view the diplomatic effort as being worth the trouble.

It is apparent that Trump along with those foreign and national security policy officials who were optimistic about a deal being reached on denuclearization with North Korea, reasoned that it would be worth giving Kim the benefit of doubt.  However, one could never be completely clear on how denuclearization would fit into the worldview of the Workers’ Party of Korea or Kim’s inner thinking. Shots have not been fired at anger across the border. There has been no testing over nuclear devices and no testing of long-range or short-range rockets. If a chance might be taken in the name of finding a peaceful agreement, right now is certainly the time to take them. It certainly would be a ashame if the positive spirit which had been discern in the White House from Kim’s thoughts, words, and deeds from Singapore until Hanoi, was simply imputed by the administration to greater degree than warranted. Admittedly, it is hard to understand why Pyongyang would at this point, hope for peace while reconstructing a testing facility for long-range rockets.

It is worth noting that in a more forceful, less grateful statement than Ri’s on February 28, 2019, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, explained: “The impression I got observing this summit from the side was that our chairman seems to have difficulty understanding the US way of reckoning.” Choe, offering her own assessment, declared: “I felt that our chairman has lost the will to engage in dealmaking, with the US saying that even a partial lifting of sanctions for the civilian economy is hard.” Conditions surely will not change through diplomacy if Pyongyang refuses to negotiate. If anything positive could be gleaned from Choe’s statement, itself, it is the fact that the harshest words were delivered by a vice foreign minister, not Kim or a very senior Workers’ Party of Korea official. That may have left the door open for Kim or a senior officials to walk back from those words, making diplomacy with the hope that cobbling together a denuclearization agreement might still be viable. Apparently, Trump mercifully brushed off pretentious statements by DPRK’s officials on their country’s power relative to that of the US, and the great disproportion between them with reality. It is difficult to determine how long Trump’s patience will last though. Given a third chance, Kim might goof again.

Trump certainly has not indicated that he feels the time has come to tie things off. It may be that Trump is more concerned with the prospect of millions of lives being lost if he does not give it every chance. When asked in Hanoi whether the bridge could be gapped between Kim’s desire to have all or a significant portion of sanctions removed and his desire to more significant denuclearization, he responded: “With time.  It’ll be bridged, I think, at a certain point.  But there is a gap.  We have to have sanctions.  And he wants to denuke, but he wants to just do areas that are less important than the areas that we want.  We know that — we know the country very well, believe it or not.  We know every inch of that country.  And we have to get what we have to get, because that’s a big — that’s a big give.” Oculis de homine non credo, habeo melius et certius lumen quo a falsis uera diiudicem: animi bonum animus inueniat. (I do not trust my eyes to tell me what a man is: I have a better and more trustworthy light by which I can distinguish what is true from what is false: let the mind find out what is good for the mind.)

Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS; An Agreement Is Needed on Assad

The Russians are coming! Stabilizing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a main reason for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send the Russian Federation Armed Forces into Syria, but defeating ISIS is also a priority. So far, that effort has been manifested in the use of air power and sea based missile strikes. However, use of special purpose forces, spetsnaz (as above), will likely be critical to the Russian effort. Spetsnaz can advise Russian allies, locate and designate targets for air strikes, and engage in direct action against ISIS to include locating and killing specific ISIS leaders and conducting raids and ambushes against ISIS units.

According to a November 27, 2015 Washington Post article entitled, “Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS in Syria,” Russia, after initially offering hope that Russia would cooperate with the US-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Syria, has played down that possibility. That position was made clear by Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, during a November 27th press conference at the Kremlin. For their part, US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have tried to bring Putin into a US-led coalition instead with an understanding that the goal of the coalition was the removal of Assad from power. French President François Hollande has traveled to both Washington and Moscow following a spate of horrific terrorist attacks tied to the militant group. As part of the effort to find middle ground between the US and Russia, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius floated the idea of using Assad’s forces against ISIS but only in the context of a political transition that would remove Assad from power.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has sought cooperation with Western countries, but solely on Russia’s terms. Those terms include providing diplomatic and military shelter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and attacking, not only ISIS, but Western-backed rebel groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that oppose the Assad regime. Ties between Russia and the West were further strained when Turkey, a NATO member, shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter that allegedly crossed into its airspace and ignored warnings. One Russian pilot was killed. Russian and Syrian forces rescued the navigator. A Russian Marine was killed during the rescue.

On January 28, 2015, Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged members of the Syrian Opposition Movement and representatives from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at peace talks in Moscow to join forces to combat the threat of terrorism. Lavrov said at the time, “We believe that the understanding by politicians and leading representatives of civil society of the necessity to join forces to combat this common threat (of terrorism) should become the key for the resurrection of the unity of the Syrian nation.”   Now required to come to terms with the West on Syria to create a unified front against ISIS, Lavrov finds himself in a similar impasse with his Western counterparts. For many senior officials in Russia, the stalemate with the US was expected not only due to a disagreement over Assad but due to a perceived unyielding US hostility toward Russia. This perspective has been manifested in Putin’s speeches and interviews. Variance can occasionally be discerned whenever Russia seeks to cultivates ties with the US for their usefulness. For example, as the Ukraine crisis began to escalate, an April 18, 2015 Reuters article reported Putin told Obama by telephone, “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.” Yet, only two days before on an annual TV phone-in show, Putin accused the US of trying to dominate world affairs and saying what it wanted was “not allies, but vassals.” This is the perspective that Putin’s paracletes in the Kremlin also espouse. In an interview with the official government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, the Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, one of Putin’s most important advisers and most senior intelligence official, Nikolai Patrushev, proffered that there is an unwavering US hostility toward Russia. He claims that hostility is due to Russia’s resistance to US efforts to achieve world hegemony and to control Russia’s immense natural resources in order to seal that hegemony. The idea that a US animus exists toward Russia and US policy is perfectly designed to promote it may be called an exaggeration. It may be viewed as typical of an intelligence official to find external causality for domestic events. Still, what is important is that Patrushev and others in Putin’s circle believe it.

Diplomacy requires finding some middle ground, typically through some compromise, upon which an agreement can be reached and better relations can hopefully be built. That was the case with the Iran Talks which ended in an agreement after nearly two years of negotiations. All sides are working very hard to understand the entire matter regarding Syria. If some middle ground can be found, it will concern the disposition of Assad. The solution is only temporarily hidden. Conditions can change, and possibilities will exist. However, regardless of his position on Assad, Putin says Russia is committed to the battle against ISIS in Syria. With or without cooperation from the US-led coalition, which Putin has called illegal, Russia must succeed.

By intervening in Syria with the Russian Federation Armed Forces, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin seeks to prevent Syria from becoming a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. However, he also seeks to protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin has no intention of allowing an ISIS presence in Syria of a size and strength capable of forcing Assad from power. Some complain that Russia has done little against ISIS. Yet, the manner and pace of Putin’s actions are likely influenced by concerns he would defeat ISIS only to allow the Syrian Opposition Movement to undercut Assad.

Putin’s Purpose For Intervening in Syria

Putin explained Russia’s military support and intervention in Syria in a speech at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, on September 15, 2015. In response to Western criticism of Russia’s actions, Putin stated, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin explained the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syria opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.”

Speaking to Western and Arab capitals, Putin stated, “We must sideline geopolitical ambitions, refrain from so-called double standards, from the policy of direct use of separate terrorist groups to achieve opportunistic goals, including the change of governments and regime that may be disagreeable to whomever.” Concerning Assad, Putin relayed that he might be willing to enter a power-sharing agreement with opposition but that the fight against terrorism was the priority. To that extent, Putin explained, “The Islamic State is providing ideological indoctrination and training to fighters from different countries including, unfortunately European countries and the Russian Federation, and many former Soviet republics. And of course, we are worried with the possibility of them returning to our territories.” However, despite what has been publicly outlined by Putin, some in the West believe his intervention in Syria was a way to end the isolation its has faced since the collapse of the pro-Russian Government in Kiev, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s support of pro-Russian separatist in The Donbass. The conversation ostensibly would shift away from it and creating circumstances for the easing of sanctions which have had an impact. Such perspectives reinforce Putin’s determination to avoid doing anything that could create the perception Russia was wilting before what he views as Washington’s effort to establish total dominance.   Encouraged by advisers, Putin sensed not only a chance for Russia to shore up one of its remaining allies in the Middle East, but the chance to reassert Russia’s role as a global power. He would demonstrate that Russia could succeed where the US had so far failed. That would be the real prize for Putin and his confidants. Exitus acta probat! (The result validates the deeds!)

Above are Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, Nikolai Patruchev. Reportedly, the military plan for providing increased support to Syria was pushed by the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Putin’s as well as Shoigu and Patrushev. Russia’s investigation into the possibility taking such action included engaging in high-level contacts with Iran on Syria. The result was a political agreement for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria.

On October 2, 2015, Bloomberg Business reported that the military plan for providing increased support to Syria was pushed by the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Putin, the Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and the head of the State Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev. Russia’s investigation into the possibility taking such action included engaging in high-level contacts with Iran on Syria. The result was a political agreement for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria. New support would be injected to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms would be set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is intriguingly allied with both Iran and the US. One operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad. Iran, itself, had already deployed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces, to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, brought in Shia volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria. On February 13, 2013, the initial IRGC commander in Syria, IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hassan Shateri, was assassinated. Afterward, renowned IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani took control of operations in Syria, frequently flying into Damascus.

Once the decision for the joint Iranian-Russian effort was made, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly directed Suleimani to visit Moscow to make necessary arrangements despite a UN travel ban on the IRGC set by the UN Security Council in 2007. Allegedly from July 24, 2015 to July 27, 2015, Suleimani held numerous meetings in Moscow covering regional and bilateral issues and the delivery of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles and other weapons. More importantly, Suleimani met with Putin and Shoigu. According to accounts of the meeting in Reuters, Suleimani outlined the deteriorating situation in Syria for Assad’s forces. He indicated that Syrian opposition was advancing toward the coast and posing a danger to the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect and threatening Tartus, where Russia maintains its only Mediterranean naval base. This alarmed the Russians, who could see that matters were in steep decline and there were real dangers to the regime. Suleimani then placed a map of Syria on the table and explained that there was still time to reclaim the initiative. Putin acted. Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur! (A friend in need is a friend indeed!)

Once the decision for the joint Iranian-Russian effort in Syria was made, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reportedly directed renowned Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) to visit Moscow to make necessary arrangements. Suleimani met with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. He outlined the deteriorating situation for the Syrian Armed Forces, but explained, using a map, that there was still time to reclaim the initiative.

How Worried Are the Russians About ISIS?

Russia is the latest state actor to overtly intervene against ISIS in Syria, Russia’s fight with Islamic extremism did not begin in Syria. Russia has been combating Islamic extremist separatist groups for more than a decade since it broke the separatists’ control of Chechnya province in the North Caucasus Federal District during Putin’s first term. Insurgents from the group Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) say they are fighting to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia. A number of terrorist attacks have been enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in both the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. Hundreds of foreign fighters were drawn to Syria soon after ISIS intervened in Syria’s civil war. In June 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Free Syrian Army’s ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting FSA fighters to discover who among them were Islamic militants, the Russian law enforcement and intelligence service apparently possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of those militants. Even 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, “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?” Clearly, Putin has been concerned for a while that Syria will become a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. Yet, some allege the Russian Government actually created the circumstances for that to occur.

Via rectum ad astra! (The path to success is through bad places!) Law enforcement and intelligence organizations globally use a variety of convoluted methods against subjects of investigations to include: buy and bust operations, using an informant to engage in clandestine conversations with subjects or act as an agent provocateur, sting operations, and plausibly deniable covert operations. The Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reports the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB, using an odd gambit known as provokatsiya, penetrating and co-opting terrorist groups, has actually influenced the hijrah or Islamic militant migration into Syria as a means to facilitate the pacification of the insurgency in North Caucasus. Using local intermediaries, FSB would allegedly arrange the departure of Islamic militants to Turkey where they would find their way into Iraq or Syria. The arrangements would be made under the condition that the Islamic militants would deal only with the FSB and none of they would not inform any of their Islamic militant confederates of their FSB sponsorship. It has been estimated that since this operation was undertaken, between 2000 and 3000 Russian Islamic militants have joined ISIS in the Middle East. (During an October 19, 2015 meetng with leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)–twelve former Soviet Republics, Putin, himself, said there were approximately 5,000 to 7,000 fighters from Russia and other CIS republics in ISIS.) The operation has supposedly allowed Russian countrrterrorism officials to take credit for the halving of terrorist violence in the North Caucasus since the Syrian civil war began. If Islamic extremists returned and began attacks, Russia, in theory, could claim ISIS was the cause for terrorism in the region.

The Novaya Gazeta article quotes sources in North Caucasus with ties to Islamic militants to support its claim. In investigating the Russian newspaper’s report, The Daily Beast learned from well-known Putin detractor, former KGB General Oleg Kalugin who said Russian intelligence had a long ignominious history of “pushing forward the more extremist elements and use their facilities to do the most damage to a local population.” The Daily Beast article also discussed parallels of the alleged operation and the reported strategy the Russian Government during the First and Second Chechen Wars. Islamic extremist warlords such as Shamil Basayev were co-opted by Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije (Russian Federation Main Intelligence Directorate) or GRU, in order to destroy the secular, democratic Chechen movement. Basayev proved to be a less of useful tool for the Kremlin when it was discerned that he wanted to create an emirate in the Caucasus. He was assassinated, but his efforts “cast a pall” on the secular separatist struggle and offered a cause for a scorched-earth Russian counterinsurgency campaign that resulted in Grozny’s destruction. History without fact is at best theory and at worst myth. If some provokatsiya operation helped create the threat ISIS now poses to Russia, its use was foolhardy. However, Russia’s focus now is defeating ISIS in Syria. Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines, quos ultra citraque nequit consistere rectum. (There is an optimal condition in all things. There are therefore precise boundaries beyond which one cannot find the right thing.)

Russia is the latest state actor to intervene in Syria, but Russia’s fight with Islamic extremist did not begin with Syria. Russia has been combatting Islamic extremist separatist groups for more than a decade since it broke the separatists’ control of Chechnya province in the North Caucasus Federal District during Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s first term. Islamic exfremist terrorist attacks have occurred since in both the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. After ISIS injected itself into the Syrian Civil War, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its ranks. Putin is concerned Syria will become the starting point for the movement of ISIS into Russia

In the Crimea, Russian Federation forces engaged in a stealth operation, referred to as hybrid warfare—the blend of unidentified troop, propaganda, and economic pressure the West says Russia used there. In The Donbass, the presence of a rather considerable number of Russian Federation forces has been denied by the Kremlin. However, in Syria, the actions of the Russian Federation Armed Forces are very visible and made very public. Indeed, the operation in Syria has become a testing ground for new weapons systems. Systems being utilized include the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter and the sea-based Kalibr cruise missile, of which several were launched from the Caspian Sea, more than 900 miles from their targets in Syria. Since air operations began, Russian fighter jets are conducting almost as many strikes daily as the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition has been carrying out each month in 2015. They have attacked targets in support of Syrian ground forces and presumably will provide close air support for an Iranian-led offensive.

In response to chatter from Western defense analysts about the new weapons that were revealed, Putin explained on state television, “It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist, that our defense industry is making them, that they are of high quality and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use.” Still, the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria may face challenges beyond those presented by ISIS and Western backed FSA fighters. Claims have been made that the Russian Federation Armed Forces are still trying to eliminate problems lingering from the “Wild West” environment of post-Soviet era. The problem was exacerbated by a lack of efficiency in the military investigations department. Officers have been accused of trading in travel warrant, stealing soldiers’ meals, and the extortion of pay from officers by commanders. Accusations of extortion in the distribution of supplementary pay in Army units have been investigated in every district and fleet. Murders, bribery, and drug trafficking have also been considerable problems. Efforts have been made to improve conditions and raise morale in the ranks. These problems could potentially manifest themselves in the poor performance of some units in Syria.

In response to chatter from Western analysts about new weapons used in Syria, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin explained on state television “It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist, that our defense industry is making them, that they are of high quality and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use.” Still, the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria could face challenges caused by problems lingering from the “Wild West” environment of the post-Soviet era unless units deployed there are selected based on their capability to perform with a high level of proficency.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov will surely be diligent in the deployment of forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces must not become bogged down in support of its allies, but ensure that the ISIS force in Syria is cut off and destroyed. If not, it may relocate and resurrect itself.

Russian air strikes could further target leaders of ISIS—and other rogue Islamic militant groups when identified. Command centers and other turmas, gathering places, of ISIS leaders, must be struck simultaneously to throw the groups into chaos and confusion and make it very difficult for them to regenerate.   The communications of ISIS should be either destroyed by drone strikes or disrupted by other technical means leaving surviving leaders with no control over their units. Once rudderless, the groups’ units would be unable to coordinate actions, unit cohesion would suffer, and they would become far less effective. Training centers must be destroyed. Fighting positions in front of the Russian allies could also be degraded with close air support as well as very heavy strikes by Russian ordinance. ISIS fighters must face certain death if they hold their positions.  When ISIS units are driven out of their positions, Russian allies must ensure any escape routes are blocked and kill or capture as many ISIS fighters as possible. Operating as independent units or as svodnye spetsialnye gruppy (combined special groups) or SSGs, Russian special purpose forces, spetsnaz, could go into ISIS controlled areas, locate, and kill specific ISIS fighters from Russia, or when directed, collect prisoners. Individual spetsnaz units and/or SSGs, in a special reconnaissance role, could locate and designate targets for air strikes in advance of contact by any ground forces by Russian allies. Russian attack helicopters, as well as spetsnaz serving as sharpshooters, could serve as over watch for Russian allies, ensuring that even small, unorganized bands of fighters of ISIS would not be able to engage in independent actions to disrupt the ground operations. When possible, strikes could be directed at diverting ISIS fighters of destroyed or displaced units away from the frontlines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units. Spetsnaz units could be issued GShG-7.62 rotary machine guns for the Syria mission to give them the capability to kill ISIS fighters at a high rate in kill zones, raids, and ambushes as well as destroy ISIS attacks. Spetsnaz units will likely need to operate at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov (above) will surely be diligent in the deployment of his forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces must not become bogged down in support of its allies, but also must ensure that the ISIS force in Syria is cut off and destroyed. If not, it may relocate and resurrect itself. Neither the Syrian Opposition nor the Syrian Armed Forces can defeat ISIS alone. The world wants Russia to act. Indeed, the civilized world is united in agreement that ISIS must be destroyed.

The Way Forward

Russia’s intervention in Syria has not received much support from Western capitals. To some degree, they have discouraged it. The US and United Kingdom have accused Russia of attacking mainly “moderate” anti-Assad groups, rather than ISIS. On October 12, 2015, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, called Russia’s role a “game changer” and said “It has some very worrying elements.” She was especially worried about recent violations of Turkish airspace by Russian jets. Turkey’s decision to shoot-down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet was undoubtedly the strongest manifestation of disapproval of Russian’s intervention given all accounts of what actually occurred and the excessive level of the response. Putin equated the action to being “stabbed in the back” given Russia’s commitment to defeating ISIS.

Putin went into Syria not only to fight ISIS, but to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. To that extent, he will neither allow an ISIS presence in Syria of a size and strength capable of forcing Assad from power, nor subsidize the efforts of the Syrian Opposition to maneuver with US and EU assistance to undercut Assad. There is a deadlock now with the West concerning Syria, but Putin has hope. Red-lines and deadlines have been set over and over by the Obama administration, but they have been overcome by opponents. Iran, once told it had to surrender its nuclear program, managed to retain a good amount of it after talks. Even Assad managed to quash the issue of airstrikes against his regime in September 2013 by unloading his chemical weapons arsenal. If the US and EU want a resolution on Syria, there is need for compromise. Surely, Putin expects that compromise to come from them. Neither the Syrian Opposition’s FSA nor the Syrian Armed Forces can defeat ISIS alone. If Russia, a military superpower, is truly committed to the destruction of ISIS in Syria, and not just doing things on the margins or posturing to influence a political outcome for Assad, the world wants Russia to act. Indeed, the civilized world is united in agreement that ISIS must be destroyed. To that extent, Russian Federation Armed Forces are a strong bargaining chip in negotiations concerning Syria. Putin will proceed carefully until others come to that realization or perhaps until his support for allies in Syria results in a favorable outcome for Assad.   Festinare nocet, nocet cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit. (It is bad to hurry, and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.)