Resolving the Ukraine Crisis: How Better Understanding Putin and the Subtle and Profound Undercurrent Influencing His Thinking on the West Might Help

Russian Federation President Vladimir (above) at the International military-technical forum “Army-2021” at the Patriot Congress and Exhibition Centre, Moscow, August 2021. Putin ostensibly wants the US and its allies to understand that their military activities in Ukraine, too near Russia’s borders, are moving very close to a red line for him. Ostensibly to achieve that, he has massively built-up Russia Federation military forces perilously close to the border with Ukraine. Some in the West believe Putin intends to do a lot more than just build up military forces defensively and negotiate. Multiple analyses of Western foreign and national security policy bureaucracies have concluded that he plans to invade Ukraine. In that way, the current situation concerning Ukraine has become an inflexion point in US-Russian relations. Still, more appears to be involved here than Putin just being the Putin he has been over four US administrations. If the US is to get a real handle on relations with him, not just a perceived one, a more useful understanding of the man will be required. To that extent, what may lie beneath the surface of Putin, the person, will be briefly scratched a bit here.

Regarding the massive build-up of Russia Federation military forces perilously close to the border of its neighbor, Ukraine, and alarming activities that may indicate those forces will invade it soon, Washington and Moscow continue to wave their fists at each other. Moscow has denied having any intention to attack Ukraine and has explained away its buildup of troops as being a defensive measure. By building up military forces near Ukraine, which is all he has actually done physically at this stage, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin ostensibly would like to cause the US and its allies to understand that their military activities in Ukraine, too near the Russian Federation (hereinafter referred to as Russia), are moving very close to a red line for him. Putin insists that the US and its allies provide Russia with signed guarantees to refrain from expanding NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia and limiting their military activity near Russia’s borders, particularly in and around Ukraine. However, some in the West believe that Putin intends to do a lot more than just build up military forces defensively and negotiate. Reportedly, multiple analyses of Western foreign and national security policy bureaucracies have concluded that he plans to invade Ukraine. In that way, the current situation concerning Ukraine has become an inflexion point in US-Russian relations. Ukraine was a flashpoint during the administration of US President Barack Obama in February and March of 2014. It was then that Crimea, Ukraine, was quietly and orderly captured by Russian troops dubbed “the green men.” The Obama administration was similarly at odds with Russia over Syria, mutants mutandis.

Putin seems to enjoy being seen fighting the good fight against Russia’s old adversaries the US and its allies.On the other side of the coin, dealing with Russian moves, Russian aggression, has become more tiresome for US administrations and Western capitals as much as anything else. Yet, Putin has not challenged the US mainly as a result of some domestic political consideration, or even less likely boredom or some vanity. Putin did not move so many troops to Russia’s western border because that area is more commodious than the locations they were previously based. Assuredly, Putin harbors negative thoughts and feelings toward the US and choices made by decision-makers that concern Russia in a significant way. Asked to bend: retreat back away from a matter, it is unlikely that he would without acquiring “concessions” from the US and its allies. He has issued preconditions concerning an agreement on “NATO expansion” already. (Perhaps he did not issue preconditions before entering any talks because he even realized that would be going a bit too far.) One would imagine he entered into this venture thinking, hoping he could potentially get what he wanted without having Russian forces fire a shot. it does not appear that Putin and his advisers are not too far down the road to change course. However, greatcharlie agrees that he would probably go into Ukraine if at some moment he feels it is, as it likely would have been determined by him along with his advisors and war planners in advance, to be the right time to do so. One would do no more than justice to Putin by presuming he long contemplated his military moves before cutting orders to get them rolling. He is certainly not moving step by step in what might be described as a hot-headed manner. Still, the larger decision to act as he has regarding Ukraine may very well be the result of a miscalculation. It is the unsought, undesirable job of the West to help him see that.

Inquiry into the fruit of things requires consideration of how Putin may view the situation. Russia has been led by Putin and his thinking from the posts of president and prime minister since 2000. A positive relationship with Russia has not been maintained by the US. There are many patterns apparent in his repeated confrontations with the West. Some eyes in the West appear somewhat closed to what may be happening with the Russian Federation President from the inside. What currently plagues the relationship is more than Putin just being the Putin he has been over five US administrations. The threat of the use of force, even mutual destruction, underlies Washington’s diplomacy with Moscow. The idea being that a somewhat expansionist, yet plainly aggressive, Putin can be made to behave as desired by placing a club at the end of the path he is traveling. He is ostensibly put in a position to act reasonably before he reaches it. It would go a long way to explain the somewhat unbroken string of unsuccessful interactions of US administrations with him, if the problem is that no useful perspective of why Putin has responded so aggressively has been developed. If the US is to get a real handle on relations with him, not just a perceived one, a more useful understanding of the man will be required. To that extent, what may lie beneath the surface of the intractable Putin, the man, will be briefly scratched a bit here. New light is shed on the man by using a different lens. There may be something about his inner self repeatedly being manifested and must be looked at from the correct angle. The aim is not to shoot down other analyses, but hopefully to add to them in a way to figuratively help put the reticle of some analysts on the bulls-eye. Offering what may be a few missing links might create an improved understanding of Putin and his actions, lifting thinking on Putin, to a degree, up from the region of the commonplace. Periclum ex aliis facito tibi quod ex usu siet. (Draw from others the lesson that may profit yourself.)

The Russians are coming! A mixed formation of Russian attack and transport helicopters moving toward their target during the Zapad 2021 military exercise. (above). If Putin decides to go into Ukraine, firepower, astronomically massed, from ground, air, and possibly from sea assets, would likely be used to destroy Ukrainian forces in the field, and in depth as far back as units held in reserve or even on training bases. Relentless fire from air and ground would be utilized to support the movement of forces inside Ukraine. What might have been identified as the front line of Ukraine’s defense would figuratively become a map reference for Hell. Imaginably, the main objective of the deployment of Russian forces would be to create a sufficient buffer in Ukraine between Russian and “ever expanding NATO forces.” In performing this task, Russian forces would ensure territory and forces that might remain in Kyiv’s control would be of less utility to NATO as potential a launching pad for a ground attack on Russia and could not be used as part of a larger strategy to contain Russia at its own border.

The Situation: What Could Russian Forces Do?

From what can be gathered about the situation, the US Intelligence Community has concluded that the Kremlin could be planning a multifront offensive involving up to 175,000 troops. An estimated 100,000 Russian troops have already been deployed near the Russia-Ukraine border. Satellite imagery has revealed a buildup of Russian tanks and artillery as well as other gear near the border, too. Reportedly, online disinformation activity regarding Ukraine also has increased in the way it did in the run-up to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. According to the New York Times, the most evident scenario given the scale of troop movements on the ground is a Russian invasion of Ukraine may not be to conquer the entire country but to rush forces into the breakaway regions around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, or to drive all the way to the Dnieper River. Purportedly at the Pentagon, “five or six different options” for the extent of a Russian invasion are being examined. Suffice it to say, Moscow calls such assessments of Russia’s intentions slanderous ravings. Russia denies it is planning an invasion and, in turn, accused the West of plotting “provocations” in Ukraine. Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who unfortunately does not exactly have a watertight record for tying her statements to reality, laid it on thick in the newsmedia, alleging Western and Ukrainian talk of an imminent Russian attack was a “cover for staging large-scale provocations of their own, including those of military character.” It is really disempowering to put out such a message. 

If Putin decides to go in, firepower, astronomically massed, from ground, air, and possibly the sea assets, would most likely be used to destroy Ukrainian forces in the main battle area and in depth as far back as units held in reserve or even on training bases. Relentless fire from air and ground would be utilized to support the movement of forces inside Ukraine. What might have been identified as the front line of Ukraine’s defense would figuratively become a map reference for Hell. Russian forces would most likely be deployed in a way to prevent the resurrection of Ukrainian forces in areas which Russian forces have captured. As for reinforcements or reserves, the rest of Russia’s armed forces would be right across the border in Russia. Imaginably, the main objective of the deployment of Russian forces would be to create a sufficient buffer in Ukraine between Russian and “ever expanding NATO forces.” In performing this task, Russian forces would ensure territory and forces that might remain in Kyiv’s control would be of less utility to NATO as potential a launching pad for a ground attack on Russia and could not be used as part of a larger strategy to contain Russia at its own border.

A stern fact is that the Ukrainians will hardly receive enough military aid from partners and friends, particularly Javelin handheld anti-tank rockets and Stinger handheld antiaircraft rockets, fast enough in the short-term to check a well-coordinated, rapid advance of heavy Russian forces. In the most favorable assessment, they might be able to supply them with enough to hurt Russian forces and perhaps “tear off an arm.” Having experience in contending with somewhat recent Western efforts to assist Russia’s adversaries and those its allies in Syria, Georgia, and Ukraine militarily, perhaps a special task force has been organized and assigned in advance, among other things, to: monitor the delivery, stockpiling of Javelins, Stingers and other weapons systems shipped to Ukrainian forces; maintain real-time knowledge of the distribution and location of those weapons; destroy those weapons systems; and, destroy or support actions by other Russian military units to destroy Ukrainian military units to which those weapons were distributed. That hypothetical task force would also likely be tasked to monitor–covertly surveil the intelligence activities and military operations of–Western countries as they relate to supplying Ukraine with special military capabilities. As for an insurgency in captured areas after an invasion, doubtlessly Russian security services have some sinister plan to cope with that contingency that will not be speculated upon here.

Amat victoria curam. (Victory loves preparation. [Victory favors those who take pains.]) As aforementioned, Putin is hardly acting on impulse, making it up as he goes along. Evidently, Putin believed acting now militarily would best serve Russian interests as he perceives them, not knowing whether the opportunity would present itself again. His decision suggests to the mind that events have apparently moved in some way that enough boxes were ticked off to allow a well-thought out plan based on facts, calculations, possible opposition moves, and predicted outcomes, to be green-lit. To that wise, one might presume any and every coercive economic measure possibly levied against Russia by the West would doubtlessly be anticipated by him. One also might presume he has some plan, stratagem, to counter such steps short-term and long-term. Watching the West interact with Ukraine since the collapse of the government led by his stern ally former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 as a result of Euromaidan, the Revolution of Dignity, Putin likely feels more and more that he is being “rock souped.” Surely, from his lens, the military dimension of the relationship remains at the forefront of Western expansion eastward. NATO forces are creeping closer to Russia’s border, and the government in Kyiv is hopelessly pulled further away from Moscow’s reach. Putin might believe any reasonable observer would accept and agree with his thinking about a threat from the West, and that his logically reached perception has actually been fostered by Western actions.

Ukrainian troops training with the FGM-148 Javelin, a handheld, shoulder-fired precision missile system designed to destroy tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as hovering helicopters (above). The Ukrainians would hardly receive military aid from partners and friends fast enough in the short-term to check a well-coordinated, rapid advance of heavy Russian forces. In the most favorable assessment, they might be able to supply them with enough to hurt Russian forces and perhaps “tear off an arm.” Having experience in contending with somewhat recent Western efforts to assist Russia’s adversaries and those its allies in Syria, Georgia, and Ukraine militarily, perhaps a special task force has been organized and assigned in advance, among other things, to handle all aspects of that matter. As for a post-invasion insurgency, surely Russian security services have some sinister plan to cope with that contingency that will not be speculated upon here.

Admittedly, it is surprising how much Putin has done to signal that he is considering a move into Ukraine. However, there is surely an art that moves Putin’s mind. One might presume that as he initially staked the situation with regard to the US, almost nothing communicated through telephone conversations or bilateral talks alone would be enough to compel the US to act as he wished. The potential use of military force could not exist as an abstraction, being left to the imagination of Western national leaders and their advisers. With a build-up military force, he could illustrate, convince US decisionmakers that the threat of military action was real.

Surely Moscow closely observed events as they developed in the border crisis between India and China. Although it has been repeated as of late that China backed down to India on the matter of the border crisis in which occasional gunfire was exchanged and lives were lost. The common wisdom is that the aggressive moves it made with ease against India placed China in a situation which in the long run would prove too consuming, too difficult to handle and contrary to national interest, particularly such an approach can have an impact economically. There was also too little gain for China both geostrategically or geopolitically as compared to the potential loss suffered from such an investment. 

An odd advantage that Putin has is that the US will act in a fairly predictable fashion. There is less for him to fear of some random, unexpected decision from the US than the US may fear about such a choice made by him. Placed in a trying position, which Putin surely hopes he has done, a certain reality would need to be faced by US decisionmakers. Conceivably, he would expect the top military officers and officials at the Pentagon (US Department of Defense) to see the situation straight. Indeed, he may be hoping the Pentagon would be the voice of reason, the source that will explain that the real possibility exists for the situation to get out of control if the US were to commit itself too heavily to Ukraine’s defense. That would seem especially true if US decisionmakers contemplated having to act if both Russia moved on Ukraine and China moved on Taiwan almost simultaneously. That is a real possibility despite how fanciful it may sound. Tremendous pressure would be placed on the available military resources of the US and its allies. It would seem unlikely to Putin that decisiommakers in Washington would sink themselves deeper into a situation in which only bad choices were left available. C’est comme ça! However, Putin still cannot be absolutely certain that Washington would parse out the situation as he has. He has the task of showing it this perspective and convincing it to acquiesce to at least most of his demands.

The clever bit for Putin would be to determine what military action by NATO, if any, would be taken to physically halt a Russian advance into Ukraine. To that extent, Putin may have assessed that with regard to Ukraine, as well with Taiwan, policies of past eras are no longer viable under current circumstances. The military forces of Russia have been transformed. Insofar as Putin is concerned, unless the US planned to transport the bulk of its armed forces into Ukraine and nearby, any challenge by the US and its allies that included military action would mean recklessly placing some small set of their forces in great peril. Russia would not back down once hostilities were initiated. Again, fighting along its own border would allow Russia countless advantages to bear on its prospective opponent. It would truly be absolute madness for Washington to commit its forces to the fight without some clear way to win or create some acceptable circumstance they could not have achieved without firing a shot. Ironically, in the name of global peace and security, to avoid a nuclear Armageddon, it would need to let its declared partners in Kyiv fall. Even though the US public today is uninterested in starting foreign wars, if the Biden administration commits the US to a fight that would have an uncertain purpose and outcome, it would garner great attention from the public and very likely fail to get its approval. To the extent that these considerations factor in Putin’s calculus, he would most likely find Washington’s stated position on Ukraine to be unrealistic and unreasonable. It only makes sense as long as Moscow does not act.

If efforts at peace fail, it is not completely clear to greatcharlie whether Putin would want all of Ukraine or just some of it: Donetsk and Luhansk for instance. If he wants more, his plans may likely include capturing Kyiv and establishing a new Ukrainian government. That would take up an enormous amount of time, resources, effort, and political capital. Putin seems too shrewd to rush into something as colossal as administering Ukraine. Still, no one is infallible. Putin has been known to miscalculate. It was a gross miscalculation to interfere with the US elections in 2016, an action Putin has repeatedly denied despite the fact that direct proof of Russian meddling has been presented on by US intelligence and law enforcement organizations. If Putin acts militarily in Ukraine and successfully captures enough territory to his content–at least on paper he should be able to with some ease, he would again be looked upon as a shining hero among supporters. The effort by NATO and the West in general to deter him would be depicted as a debacle. If he fails to make gains against the Ukrainians and capture sufficient territory, the failure would be an enormous defeat for Putin. It is possible that the rippling effect of such a prospective defeat would lay the groundwork for his departure as Russia’s leader.

US President Joe Biden (left center) and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right). As aforementioned, Putin is hardly acting on impulse, making it up as he goes along. Evidently, Putin believed acting now militarily would best serve Russian interests as he perceives them, not knowing whether the opportunity would present itself again. His decision suggests to the mind that events have apparently moved in some way that enough boxes were ticked off to allow a well-thought out plan based on facts, calculations, possible opposition moves, and predicted outcomes, to be green-lit. To that wise, one might presume any and every coercive economic measure possibly levied against Russia by the West would doubtlessly be anticipated by him. One also might presume he has some plan to counter such steps short-term and long-term.

The View from the US

In remarks before meeting with his Infrastructure Implementation Task Force on January 20, 2022, US President Joe Biden laid out his position on a potential invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. Biden, who would not expect to speak idly on such a grave matter or any matter, for that case, stated: “I’ve been absolutely clear with President Putin.  He has no misunderstanding.  If any–any–assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.  But–and it would be met with severe and coordinated economic response that I’ve discussed in detail with our allies, as well as laid out very clearly for President Putin. But there is no doubt–let there be no doubt at all that if Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price. It is also not the only scenario we need to be prepared for: Russia has a long history of using measures other than overt military action to carry out aggression in paramilitary tactics, so-called “gray-zone” attacks, and actions by Russian soldiers not wearing Russian uniforms. Remember when they moved into the Donbas with “Little Green Men”?  They weren’t–they were dealing with those who were Russian sympathizers and said that Russia had no–nobody in there. Well, that includes “Little Green Men” in uniforms, as well as cyberattack. We have to be ready to respond to these as well–and decisively–in a united way, with a range of tools at our disposal.” Très, très fort!

During a two hour videolink call concerning Ukraine and other disputes on December 21, 2021, Biden also warned Putin that the West would impose “strong economic and other measures” on Russia if it invades Ukraine. Putin complained NATO is attempting to “develop” Ukrainian territory. He demanded guarantees that NATO would not expand farther eastward. Although there were no breakthroughs, the two sides agreed upon continuing communications. In greatcharlie’s December 31, 2021 post entitled, “Infrequently Discussed Issues Regarding Taiwan Likely Influencing Decisions of Communist Party of China Leaders and PLA Commanders,” it was explained that from Washington’s perspective, the door must be left open to type of contrition in diplomacy. Within time perceived to be available as conflict appears to draw near, there must exist an opportunity to amend a position. In theory, there may be an epiphany within logic and reason that leads one side to align itself with a view closely matching the other. Despite expressing concerns that Putin may invade Ukraine at any moment, there may still be some in Washington who assess and intuit, correctly or incorrectly, that since action has not been taken, with all of the tactical benefits such a surprise move would garner, it may not be taken. The delay In smashing into Ukraine may be a true lack of desire on the part of Putin to bear the burden of administering more of that country. There is the off chance that Putin may have some doubts about the military capabilities of Russian forces. The capture of Ukrainian territory may be quick and dirty but may leave unexpected problems in its aftermath. Given the way in which Biden spoke of sanctions, it is possible, despite what greatcharlie has already suggested here on this matter, that Putin may be worried about economic retaliation from the West. (Russia does not have much to shield itself from economic retaliation as compared to China, bound to the West with its products and production capabilities. The energy it provides to Europe and Nord Stream 2 are the more meaningful cards for Moscow to play. With concern to that, during the administration of US President Donald Trump, the US offered Europ a fairly decent alternative source of energy worthy of consideration.)

Putin usually plays his cards close, making it difficult to know whether some resolution might be found through a more open dialogue. No doubt officials in Western capitals are mindful of being too attached to diplomacy in coping with Putin. Each is doubtlessly versed enough in history to hark back to this infamous statement which likely has an expected chilling effect on efforts to work with him: “As long as war has not begun, there is always hope. For the present I ask you to await as calmly as you can the events of the next few days. As long as war has not begun, there is always hope that it may be prevented, and you know that I am going to work for peace to the last moment.” These words were spoken by United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on September 27, 1938, during an address to the British people as concerns of war rose as negotiations between German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and himself. The tragic outcome of that effort is well-known. 

For Washington, Moscow’s actions have far greater implications than the progress of US-Russian relations. As Blinken also explained during his January 8, 2022 CNN appearance: “There are large principles at stake that go to the fundamentals of international peace and security.” He went on to note that the US is joined by international partners “to make it clear to Russia that this aggression will not be accepted, will not be tolerated.” An additional step in knocking down the idea that this crisis stands as a problem between Washington and Moscow has already been taken by the US. On January 9, 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated very clearly on CNN: “It’s hard to see making actual progress, as opposed to talking, in an atmosphere of escalation with a gun to Ukraine’s head. So, if we’re actually going to make progress, we’re going to have to see de-escalation, Russia pulling back from the threat that it currently poses to Ukraine.” In effect, he expressed the view that despite intercession of the US and its allies, this matter remains Kyiv’s problem mainly. Looking at the crisis in that way makes it something akin to Ukraine’s “Reichenbach Falls”, the moment where Arthur Conan Doyle’s great fictional detective character, Sherlock Holmes, from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, originally published as twelve short stories in the Strand Magazine (1891), was confronted by his archrival Professor James Moriarty after repeatedly disrupting his criminal schemes. As the story initially went, Holmes met his end in combat with him. It was revealed in subsequent installments of the series appearing in the Strand that Holmes survived the fight, his resurrection being demanded of Doyle by the magazine’s editors to satisfy a readership made much distraught over his demise. One might hope fate will allow Ukraine to survive this crisis intact, yet there is nothing fictional about this situation. Moreover, Putin is a far more powerful opponent for Ukraine than Moriarty was to Holmes.

Putin (right) seated in a conference room at the Kremlin during a videolink call with Biden (on screen left). During a two hour videolink concerning Ukraine and other disputes on December 21, 2021, There were no breakthroughs, but the two sides agreed to continue communications. From Washington’s perspective, the door must be left open to type of contrition in diplomacy. Within time perceived to be available as conflict draws near, there must exist an opportunity to amend a position. In theory, there may be an epiphany within logic and reason that leads one side to align itself with a view closely matching the other. There is the off chance Putin may have some doubts as to the military capabilities of Russian forces. The capture of Ukrainian territory may be quick and dirty but may leave unexpected problems in its aftermath. Given the way in which Biden spoke of sanctions, Putin may very well be worried about economic retaliation from the West.

Some Key Issues for Negotiation as the Situation Stands

Washington wants to avoid a conflict in Ukraine. For Washington, success in resolving the Ukraine crisis for the moment would imaginably mean, in brief, crafting an agreement with Russia that will relax tensions, strengthen the sovereignty of Ukraine, enhance the security of Ukraine, and ensure Russia remains committed to whatever agreement is reached. Ukrainians must be allowed to enjoy full control and use of their own territory. Ukraine would retain self-determination as a sovereign state. If Ukraine wants to join NATO that wish will be protected. (Perhaps with some disagreeable yet necessary minor alteration in the short-term.) Russia would need to take action assented to in an agreement that would confirm it has no aggressive intention. Any action that may have prompted accusations by both sides that the other was moving back to the adversarial thinking of the Cold War and the paradigm of East-West spheres of influence of the past must be addressed. Lending some further context for Washington’s efforts to negotiate with Moscow on Ukraine, Blinken, also stated during his January 9, 2022 interview on CNN that, “It’s also not about making concessions. It’s about seeing whether, in the context of dialogue and diplomacy, there are things that both sides, all sides can do to reduce tensions.” 

Recognizably, neither the US nor any government in the West wants to jump through hoops to satisfy Russia. They would all doubtlessly agree they have no reason to give up anything they have. They are not bothering Russia and Russia should not be bothering them. Even if some agreement were constructed with Moscow that they could accept, they would want to know how Russia would be held to the terms of the signed document. They would be skeptical over Russia’s willingness to adhere with anything to which it might be remotely disagreeable in the long-run. Plus ça change! All would likely agree that force should not need to be relied upon to hold Moscow to it. There is the likelihood many NATO allies and neighboring countries to Russia might sign an agreement with Russia, but would be hesitant to do so. If the US sought some collective agreement concerning the situation with Ukraine, those countries may see it as too much to ask or a manifestation of naiveté by leading powers less threatened by Russia. Some capitals would likely respond to the suggestion with reproach. Even more, they may believe the constant struggles with Russia that have created their anxieties among them about negotiating with Moscow. US officials would be up against that sort of reception and more if it sought to create some consensus among the Europeans on constructing a comprehensive agreement with Russia. Perchance if the situation is approached with a degree of gentleness and patience–“with diplomacy”–their efforts may bear fruit.

Yet, given these and other considerations that would shape a diplomatic effort in this crisis, to get a firm handle on this matter, the primary focus, as postulated here, must be placed on Putin. All that has transpired, all of the preconceived management of this crisis from the Russian side, has been the manifestation of his vigorous and masterful mind. Formulating the best response diplomatically will mean better understanding him and how he thinks. For US policymakers, decisionmakers and negotiators, finding a way, within reason, within acceptable parameters of US values and interests, to satisfy Putin and themselves will be no mean feat.

Putin (center) flanked by Russian Federation Minister of Defense, General of the Army Sergey Shoigu (right) and Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov (left). Recognizably, neither the US nor any government in the West wants to jump through hoops to satisfy Russia regarding Ukraine. Even if some agreement were constructed with Moscow, all would remain skeptical over Russia’s willingness to adhere with anything to which it might be remotely disagreeable in the long-run. To get a handle on this matter, the primary focus, as postulated here, must be placed on Putin. All that has transpired, all of the preconceived management of this crisis from the Russian side, has been the manifestation of his vigorous and masterful mind. Formulating the best response diplomatically will mean better understanding him and how he thinks. For US policymakers, decisionmakers and negotiators, finding a way, within reason, within acceptable parameters of US values and interests, to satisfy Putin and themselves will be no mean feat.

Some Common Wisdom Regarding Putin

Many Western political leaders and senior foreign and national security policy officials have claimed to have the ability to look into Putin’s soul. The reviews of their skills have been mixed. US President George Bush provided the following statement on the matter on June 18, 2016: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country. And I appreciated so very much the frank dialogue.” However, given his former work in the intelligence industry, his decades of experience in politics and as a national leader, Putin is the one who has mastered such an art. While he is never publicly vocal with his findings concerning other national leaders he meets, his conclusions are best manifested by the actions he takes as they regard their interests.

Every US official Putin meets likely for him becomes the avatar of Western duplicity. He will always be distrustful, and will simply study the individual seeking to gain a sense from his or her words, the nature of the conversation among the most senior US officials on Ukraine. To this extent, each conversation informs his next move, not due to its content, but due to what he perceives to lie behind their words. In many ways times have changed for Russia, and more dramatically for Putin. Russia can not exactly match the US as a global power. It cannot exactly match the power of the US even militarily. However, its capabilities have increased and it can do more things in the world now than a decade or two ago. It would appear that Putin so badly wants to get that point across.

It was never the case that Putin could have been shaped into the Russian leader Washington wanted. Moreover, Putin was never a man to be trifled with. However, these were among many ideas about Putin perhaps carried over from the tail-end of the Clinton administration, over two decades ago, when the then young president was establishing himself both at home and abroad. Perhaps it accounts for the manner in which those officials in the Obama administration approached Putin, dismissing him to a degree as something akin to a potentate, a footnote in their dealing with a Russia that was a shadow of its former self during the Soviet era in nearly every respect. There is a popular saying among many in the younger generation that “to compete, one must compare.” Officials in the Obama administration saw no comparison between the power Russia had maintained following the Soviet Union’s collapse, and the US which was at the time, and remains, the preeminent power in the world. Putin would likely posit that Washington has done more than enough since the Obama administration to push him to act as he has.

It remains a trend to look at Putin superficially. Interestingly, it allows everyone to have an equal shot at analyzing him and his moves. To that extent, time is spent, near idly, discussing how bad a person he is. (One very senior US official referred to Putin as “a killer” In May 2021.) At the core of even such unremarkable analyses must be something about the whole authentic enough to give it true weight. Yet, aspects of such analyses are often not quite logical. It is fascinating to see how simple facts may go some way to explain what might be recognized at best as a charitable position. As seasoned analysts would tell, if that product is simulated, conclusions that result from it will be inauthentic. What is left to examine amounts to a mere perception of what is going on in Putin’s mind and in his camp as compared to the hard facts. Using conclusions that result from such analyses will never allow policymakers and other senior officials to approach him in the right way. Even logical opinions are not the equivalent of fact. Truth is not an opinion. In the defense of some analysts, adhering to such a limited, official approach to Putin could hardly be described as neglectful. Perhaps considerations outside of what is generally accepted are avoided in fear of being castigated for devoting time and effort to trivialities. There must be something stronger that lends an understanding of his state of mind

Another problem arises when such views, despite all that is wrong about them, are adopted unconsciously by senior policy officials or worm their way into analyses, and even worse, as a possible result of that contamination, more apposite aspects may fail to receive sufficient or any treatment. It is hardly deliberate. They may appear as trifles, made imperceptible by the fact that they are notions, too commonplace in the mind to raise concern. Nonetheless, they are damaging much as the microscopic virus that can fell a world class athlete.

The West’s position on Putin as it stands today is that Putin has a mind to have Russia serve as the follow-on to the Soviet Union and claim its status and glory as a power. The enterprise has faced some rough patches over the years, but has progressed nonetheless. Putin’s actions in countries formerly aligned with the Soviet Union or were under its influence decades ago have been his targets and he has managed to get the attention and response from the West led by the US, the adversary of the erstwhile Soviet Union. It sounds bad enough for his neighbors, the West, and all others interested in maintaining stability and security in their countries, regions, and the world. Yet, in taking that tack, he has to an extent guaranteed Russia would remain stuck, limited to being a only simulacrum of the Soviet Union, a shadow of the past. Granted, Russia may be seen as possessing formidable military forces, with new weapons developments and declarations of the intention to defend its territory and its interests, but not a country that was advancing politically, economically, or socially, seeking to elevate to something better. Not to offend, but perhaps that was the best he could ever expect from his people.

Putin (right) and US President Bill Clinton (left) at the G8 Summit in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan, in July 2000. When Putin became Russian Federation President, he took the seat created for Yeltsin at the G8. Perhaps the other G8 leaders felt that it was important to keep Russia in the G8 for the same reasons it was brought in but also hoped that keeping Putin in their circle might stir and help sustain a great desire within him to make Russia a country “like to one more rich in hope.” Other national leaders of the G8 may have thought that Putin would passively acquire an appreciation of their world, imagine the potential of a rejuvenated Russia fitting into their world, and acquire similarities with them. However, their eyes appear to have been closed to what was happening with Putin and Russia and why the move was nearly doomed to fail to ameliorate East-West tension in the long run due to his personality, no offense intended.

Missteps in Responding to Putin Somewhat Downplayed

The formal inclusion of the new Russian Federation in the high realms of international politics following the collapse of the Soviet Union was nobly attempted. A seat in the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council was inherited from the erstwhile Communist state. As important, Russia began to engage in separate meetings with leaders of the intergovernmental group of the leading economic powers, the G7, in 1994 while Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin was in office. Russia formally joined the group in 1997 at the invitation of US President Bill Clinton and United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair. This noble step was ostensibly taken in the name of international peace and security. Surely, inviting Russia to join the G7 was more than a friendly gesture and a fresh start. Membership would plug Russia into the international order, forestalling any burgeoning sense that if left isolated, control in Moscow might fall fully into the hands of organized crime groups, and so would Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Russia membership would more importantly plug the G7 countries vis-à-versa into Moscow in a structured way, creating an effective, stable line of communication and political and economic influence.

When Putin became Russian Federation President, he took the seat created for Yeltsin at the G8. Perhaps the other G8 leaders felt that it was important to keep Russia in the G8 for the same reasons it was brought in but also hoped that keeping Putin in their circle might stir and help sustain a great desire within him to make Russia a country “like to one more rich in hope.” Other national leaders of what became the G8 may have thought that Putin would passively acquire an appreciation of their world, imagine the potential of a rejuvenated Russia fitting into their world, and acquire similarities with them. However, their eyes appear to have been closed to what was happening with Putin and Russia and why the move was nearly doomed to fail to ameliorate East-West tension in the long run due to his personality, no offense intended.

At the G8, national leaders would come to the big table committed to having a positive impact in not only economic affairs, but world affairs in general. The existing seven members–the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Germany, France and Italy, plus the EU–were bound by shared values as open, democratic and outward-looking societies. Russia was not a country completely devoid of desirable things, Russia possessed natural resources, particularly oil and gas which the energy industries of the other powers coveted. Certainly, Russia retained the power to destroy with its nuclear arsenal and the residue of the once powerful Soviet military. However, Russia was hardly developed enough to participate in that way as a member. 

As for Putin, he had not as yet grabbed all reins of power firmly in Russia, much as he tightly grips them today. It is not inconceivable that his political qualities were not fully scrutinized by any member state. However, more pertinently, Putin was unlikely ready to manage Russia’s stake at the G8 when first began participating in leaders’ summits. Looking into Putin’s inner-being, it is possible that Putin, though in his own way appreciating the status G8 membership bestowed Russia and him, he likely felt well-out of his comfort zone and despite his ego, felt somewhere inside that the manner in which Russia acquired G8 membership was counterfeit. For Putin to be satisfied, Russia would need to possess membership on his terms, legitimate terms. Further, within group meetings, Putin presented himself with grace and charm befitting his position. If Putin ever got the idea that Western leaders enjoyed observing him outside of his comfort zone or disrespected him in any way, he would conclude that something akin to a schoolboy prank was being played on him and he would unlikely be able to hide his anger in his countenance. It may seem an odd thought, but it does not appear so fanciful when one considers how he currently perceives NATO. Perchance Putin could imagine, in the abstract, that the other technologically advanced countries used G8 meetings as a stage, and he would be seated before them as they flaunted their economic power and progress while giving the impression in occasional off-handed comments and perhaps unconscious condescending behavior toward him that they imagine everything about Russia being tawdry and slipshod, particularly its goods and services, and would describe its industrial centers resembling a carnival the day after the night before. Perhaps such thinking could be said to have some validity given that such was essentially the case in early post-Soviet Russia. Putin had already brought to the table a sense within himself that Russia remained vulnerable to Western plans and intentions. That sensibility seemed to stick regardless of all else good that came his way through the G8. The whole G8 experience, overall, may have left a bad taste in his mouth. Other group leaders could not have guessed that outcome.

Further reflecting his hot and cold impressions about the other industrial powers, although Russia was suspended from the G8, Russia delayed announcing a decision to permanently withdraw from the G8 until 2017. Surely, Putin had great concerns over the perceptions in Russia and around the world of the decision of the G7 countries. Putin appears to have had a morbid fear that the G7 countries were exercising power over Russia and himself. That would not do. By waiting, Putin retained control of that situation by choosing when Russia would depart and then exist in the substitute reality that his country had not been pushed out of the organization and marginalized. As far as he was concerned, Russia was still a member of the club of the most powerful countries. Despite everything, that recognition remained an aspiration of his. It is an apparent odd duality. Satisfying Putin’s desire for Russia to possess the ability to discuss world problems with the leaders of the most influential countries, was Russia’s continued membership in the G20–the Group of 20, in essence a group of finance ministers and central bank governors from 19 of the world’s largest economies, including those of many developing nations, along with the EU. While the G7 existed for the top-tier industrialized countries, the G20, formed in 1999, provided a forum for the discussion of international financial matters that included those emerging economies which at the time began to represent a larger part of the global economy. The G20’s aim is to promote global economic growth, international trade, and regulation of financial markets. As of 2021 there are 20 members in the group to include Putin’s erstwhile G8 partners, the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, and the EU, and also Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey and his Russia. To all appearances, as a G20 member, Russia plausibly retains authority in world governance. 

Una idea perplexina. (The idea is strange to us.) Intriguingly,  Putin did not attend the G20 summit in Rome in October 2021, informing the organization that his decision was due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. Not to take precaution in these times would be short-sighted, but for Putin to abstain from physically attending a G20 leaders summit could indicate that the organization, for at least that moment, may have less meaning for him. Putin participated in the summit in Rome via videolink, but the optics were hardly favorable. Reportedly, Putin coughed quite a bit during the meeting creating questions in the minds of others about his condition. That seemed unusual for a man who exudes strength and robustness. (Hopefully, Putin was not feeling any real discomfort.) It was a small matter, a trifle, but perhaps it will later be discovered that it was small in the way that small movements of a needle would indicate an earthquake on a seismograph.

One must add to this story the influence of the destructive impact of the West on the Russian economy and the country’s efforts to “build back better” immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union on Putin’s thinking. As discussed in the June 18, 2019 greatcharlie post entitled, “Why Putin Laments the Soviet Union’s Demise and His Renewed “Struggle” with the US: A Response to an Inquiry from Students,” Putin would doubtlessly explain that under Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. Putin, while ascending to the top in the new Russian Federation, saw how mesmerizing “reforms” recommended to Yeltsin’s government by Western experts unmistakably negatively impacted Russia’s economy in a way referred to somewhat euphemistically by those experts as “shock treatment.” Yeltsin was unaware that Western experts were essentially “experimenting” with approaches to Russia’s economic problems. His rationale for opening Russia up to the resulting painful consequences was not only to fix Russia’s problems but ostensibly to establish comity with the West. The deleterious effects of reform recommended by Western experts’ could be seen not only economically, but socially.  In another statement made while he was acting President in 1999, Putin diplomatically explained the consequences of relying upon foreign experts for assistance. He stated: “The experience of the 90s demonstrates vividly that merely experimenting with abstract models and schemes taken from foreign textbooks cannot assure that our country will achieve genuine renewal without any excessive costs. The mechanical copying of other nations’ experience will not guarantee success, either.” Once fully ensconced as Russia’s leader, he would publicly state that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. He also brought that sensibility to the G7 table with him. 

One might go as far as to say apparently none of the negative perspectives, memories that Putin held regarding the West were revealed. He concealed them with sangfroid and equanimity. Yet, he likely thought of them by day and nursed them by night. Inclusion was not enough to stem those feelings or his responses to Western moves albeit in Russia’s direction. Once power changed hands in Ukraine, and a series of measures that enhanced US influence were taken, Putin responded robustly. The promotion of a struggle between ethnic Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk with the fledgling democratic Ukrainian government was followed by the greater step of Russia’s seizing and annexing Crimea, then the sovereign territory of Ukraine. His actions resulted in Russia being placed back into what was supposed to be isolation; it was put out of the G8–now once again the G7–and hit with many punitive economic measures. Both Putin and Russia have seemingly survived it all.

Putin (left) United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron (center) and US President Barack Obama (right) at the G8 Summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland in June 2013. Putin was unlikely ready to manage Russia’s stake at the G8 when first began participating in leaders’ summits. Looking into Putin’s inner-being, it is possible that Putin, though appreciating the status G8 membership bestowed Russia and him, he likely felt well-out of his comfort zone and despite his ego, felt somewhere inside that the manner in which Russia acquired G8 membership was counterfeit. Perchance Putin could imagine that the other technologically advanced countries used G8 meetings as a stage, and he would be seated before them as they flaunted their economic power and progress while giving the impression in occasional off-handed comments and perhaps unconscious condescending behavior toward him, He already brought to the table a sense within himself that Russia remained vulnerable to Western plans and intentions. The whole G8 experience may have left a bad taste in his mouth.

Putin from a Different Lens

What one might gather from this part of the story is that more than anxiety and dissatisfaction with US policies and moves, there is apparently a real sense of vulnerability in Putin toward the US and its allies. It has been a subtle and profound undercurrent in his decisionmaking and approaches toward them. Often, that sense of vulnerability has been exacerbated by efforts from Washington to make diplomatic inroads with countries Putin seems to feel belong to Russia. Note how every step taken eastward by the US in Europe, as innocuous as each may have appeared to Washington’s eyes, has led to hyper-vigilance–for example, increased intelligence and surveillance activity and aerial and naval incursions in the territory of NATO Members–and military action by Moscow. Though it has been listened to with skeptical ears in the West, Putin has said that US moves evoke his actions.

In a December 21, 2021 Washington Post opinion piece entitled, “Putin Wants Us To Negotiate over the Heads of Our Allies. Washington Shouldn’t Fall for It”, the former US Ambassador to the Russian Federation Michael McFaul lists what he identifies as Russian actions and policies undermining European security. McFaul included the following on that list: Russia well-maintains troops and weapons from the territory of the Republic of Moldova; Russia has recognized the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries; Russia caotured and annexed Crimea and well-supports the separatist movements in eastern Ukraine; Russia has deployed SS-26 Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad and maintains them in other deployment locations; Russia has placed tactical nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad; Russia has engaged in assassination operations, such as those conducted in the European cities of London, Moscow, Salisbury, Berlin and Tomsk; and, Russia has aided remaining European dictators who kill and arrest Europeans exercising freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. One can only imagine Putin’s inner-dialogue as he took each step.

Cast one’s mind back to Putin’s greatest expression of vulnerability in March 18, 2014 speech declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He vented his anger at the US and EU, enumerating some Western actions that fostered contempt in Moscow. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice and false philanthropy of 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 referred 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. Conceivably, the aggregate of US moves eastward in Europe over time have truly rattled Putin and could potentially push him over the edge. That must always be considered. If the actual intention is to irritate Putin, then there will be no firm peace ever reached while he runs Russia.

Putin (above) in an office in the Senate Building at the Kremlin. In state-to-state talks between the US and Russia concerning Ukraine a structure has been established in which talks are held in rank order. Biden communicates with Putin, and Blinken communicates with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. On both sides, the possibility exists that a set of reactions and responses to the positions and personas have already been formed. It would only be human to color anything truly novel added to the dialogue with considerations of what had already been said. Accordingly, it might be useful to enlist an envoy who could deliver the message that will end Putin’s sense of vulnerability and give immediate legitimacy to a call for multi-party negotiations for a comprehensive agreement on European security. That individual would need to have considerable standing with Putin to deliver that message.

What Might Be Done Regarding Putin To End This Crisis?

More than once has Putin associated himself with the ideas of “West German” Parliamentarian Egon Bahr on East-West competition. Discussing NATO in an interview published on January 11, 2016 in Bild, Putin provided insight into his thinking then and now. During the interview, Putin quoted Bahr who stated in 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” Putin then quoted what he considered an edifying suggestion from Bahr on how to avert a future problem in Europe. According to Putin, Bahr proffered: “the USA, the then Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structure.” Putin claimed that the former NATO Secretary General Manfred Worner had guaranteed NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin perceives the US and its allies as having broken their promises to avoid expanding further eastward, and doing only what is best for their own interest in the name of all countries. Putin told his interviewer: “NATO and the USA wanted a complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone. But they are sitting there, and we are talking about all these crises we would otherwise not have.”

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat inchoare longam. (Life’s short span forbids us to enter on far reaching hopes.) Whatever it is that Putin wants to achieve, he must move faster than time wastes life. Time is not on Putin’s side. National leaders and political figures in power now in the capital of those countries of the former Eastern bloc which Putin so dearly covets to develop Russian influence are individuals of the last generation that even briefly lived while the Soviet Union had considerable influence, sway in their countries. Coming generations will only know the Soviet Union from history books. They will unlikely as a pattern, by inertia, due to insouciance  simply seek as their predecessors seek to connect with Moscow. The benefits of connection to the West will be well understood by them. Relatives who in the past decades who immigrated West would likely have some influence on their understanding of those benefits. Russia simply will not compare, offer anything they would desperately want to invest in their future. Russia itself represents the past, and how bad things were, something no one should reasonably want to be like or be part of.

As greatcharlie ruminated on in its January 18, 2018 post entitled, “Trump Wants Good Relations with Russia, But if New Options on Ukraine Develop, He May Use One,” Putin very likely has considered what Russia would be like after he, as one might presume he accepts, is “called to heaven” or perhaps elsewhere, goodness knows. It would seem that now while on Earth, he is on course regarding Ukraine to saddle future generations of Russians with a country or parts of it that are still economically, socially, and politically challenged that they will need to care for, to pay for. Future generations may not appreciate that. In Donetsk and Luhansk, future generations might abandon their homelands for “the other Ukraine” or points further West. They would unlikely pour into Russia for employment, a “better life.” In the future, a Russian leader might very well try to reverse whatever Putin seems to be attempting in Ukraine due to financial strains caused, or–not to be offensive–out of decency. Taking on Donetsk and Luhansk might very well be viewed in the future as a grave miscalculation, another step toward sealing Russia’s fate as a second tier superpower. It is greatcharlie’s assessment that future generations of Russians will not want to hold on to Ukraine as leaders of Putin’s generation, with an idea to reestablish Russia to resemble the Soviet Union. This reality may have value in negotiations with Putin. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) meeting at Hotel Wilson in Geneva, Switzerland. January 21, 2022. For their next diplomatic step with Moscow, US policymakers, decisionmakers and negotiators must find a way for the two sides to work together in similar positive ways to create an outcome in which they both have a mutual and balanced influence on the situation. For instance, perhaps ways in which Ukraine could be helped along the way by both the West and Russia in tandem through an agreement that would also promote the maintenance of good neighborly relations and support the establishment of strong, positive relationships overseas without anyone being irritated. Washington and Moscow could engage in an exploratory dialogue during which suggestions could be sought on how the two sides could get from where they are to where they want to be.

A Possible Way Ahead in Diplomacy

For their next diplomatic step with Moscow, US policymakers, decisionmakers and negotiators must find a way for the two sides to work together in similar positive ways to create an outcome in which they both have a mutual and balanced influence on the situation. For instance, perhaps ways in which Ukraine could be helped along the way by both the West and Russia in tandem through an agreement that would also promote the maintenance of good neighborly relations and support the establishment of strong, positive relationships overseas without anyone being irritated. Engaging in what in essence would be an exploratory dialogue, transparent and frank, between Washington and Moscow on such matters would be the first step. In that dialogue, suggestions could also be sought from Moscow on how the two sides could get from where they are to where they want to be. If the US and Russia can cooperate on matters concerning the International Space Station, surely they can cooperate on an Earthly matter as Ukraine. N’est-ce pas vrai?

In theory, enough compromise might result from the collective talks to result in an agreement that would satisfy hopes and mitigate fears on all sides. Perhaps it would become the paradigm for peace in Europe that would remain until that time a new generation of Russia leadership that would share the values of other open, democratic and outward-looking societies. After the agreement is reached, Putin would need to feel freer and be able to stand upright. The US and its allies, the EU, NATO, the OSCE, the UN, and especially Ukraine would be on a long list of those who would need to be satisfied with the plan for negotiating with Russia and the resultant argument. Creating consensus and acquiring agreement across the board on everything negotiated with Russia will take time but that course must be taken. Besides, if one is to believe Putin, and accept that he has no plans to invade Ukraine, then there is no real need to rush.

In state-to-state talks between the US and Russia concerning Ukraine a structure has been established in which talks are held in rank order. Biden communicates with Putin, and Blinken communicates with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. On both sides, it is possible that a set of reactions and responses to the positions and personas have already been formed. It would only be human to color anything truly novel added to the dialogue with considerations of what had already been said. Accordingly, it might be useful to enlist an envoy who could deliver the message that will end Putin’s sense of vulnerability and give immediate legitimacy to a call for multi-party negotiations for a comprehensive agreement on European security. That individual would need to have considerable standing with Putin to deliver that message. It could be a former US President, German Chancellor, or European President or Prime Minister that Putin seemed to favor. Perhaps a small multinational delegation of doyens rather than a single doyen could meet with Putin. He may appreciate that. The immediate task of whoever meets Putin would be agreement to cease actions threatening Ukraine and publicly making demands for that would require its government to surrender self-determination and freedom to associate with other countries as Kyiv saw fit. The appropriate alternative suggested would be to discuss all issues. Putin would need to be convinced that everything Moscow, he, might deem pertinent could be hashed out at the suggested multi-party talks. The theme of the conversation would essentially be “Let us do everything the right way this time.” Again, Putin may appreciate that.

As for any agreement reached through multi-party talks, if Putin accepts that approach to diplomacy, more than simple guarantees must be insisted upon. Apparently, Lavrov presented a rather one-sided draft treaty to Blinken when they met in Geneva on January 21, 2022. That will not do. It was a rather incommesurate and hasty approach to the situation given its enormity. The effort to maintain Ukraine’s security, Russia’s security, Europe’s security must not only be comprehensive, it must be a dynamic process. Not to get into too much detail,, but as a comprehensive agreement, a new agreement would supersede the existing Minsk Agreement, although its terms could be referenced. Reasonably, terms of a new agreement could be built upon terms of the Minsk Agreement when directly related. Of course, the decision on that, as with everything else, is completely in the hands of the negotiating parties. All issues concerning Crimea and existing sanctions could be disassociated from these talks. Those talks could continue in their current venue. Again, the choice there is completely in the hands of the negotiating parties.

The negotiation process might require parties to take some the following steps, among many others: construct detailed plans of action on every key area as mutually recognized, each issue of contention, must be formulated to ensure greater clarity not confusion; create a security zone could be created within which zero tolerance of isolation of the agreement would be established; create firm timetables for actions as reducing the number of destabilizing forces near border; create a security zone could be created within which zero tolerance of isolation of the agreement would be established; create firm timetables for the suspension for refraining from existing actions such as military exercises; reduce the scope and scale of military exercises near the Russia-Ukraine border despite perceptions of whether they are threatening or benign; establish liaison offices in the security zone on both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian border could be created staffed by Russian and Ukrainian officers and military advisers if desired by either party; organize limited but comprehensive aerial surveillance over the security zone would be organized and appropriately scheduled; establish multiple military and diplomatic committees each with responsibilities in key areas of the agreement and respectively staffed with appropriate expertise and authority could be created to review plans for action in key established under the main agreement or hash out nagging issues could possibly exist; organize and schedule direct Ukraine-Russia talks, in a multiparty forum, at the ministerial level and deputies just below to include NATO Members and non-NATO Members in European countries neighboring Ukraine can be created.

It would be crucial to eliminate all ambiguities at the negotiating table through multilayered agreements if necessary as the process moves along. Pull all loose threads detected at the negotiating table may include using scenarios and hypotheticals. Whether a negotiating path as suggested will create stability in Europe right away, greatly improve Ukraine’s security and remove Russia’s fears, perhaps even through some very creative steps, remains to be seen. Nil sine magno vita labore dedit mortalibus. (Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work.)

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky (center) visiting his country’s eastern frontline in December 2021 (center). On January 9, 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed the view on CNN that in the end, despite the vigorous efforts of the to correct the situation, this matter is mainly Kyiv’s problem and the Ukrainians have a Russian “gun to their head.” Viewing the crisis in that way makes it something akin to Ukraine’s “Reichenbach Falls”, the moment where Arthur Conan Doyle’s great fictional detective character, Sherlock Holmes was confronted by his archrival Professor James Moriarty after repeatedly disrupting his criminal schemes. As the story initially went, Holmes met his end in combat with him. It was revealed in subsequent installments of the series appearing in the Strand Magazine that Holmes survived the fight, his resurrection being demanded of Doyle by the magazine’s editors to satisfy their readership. One might hope fate will allow Ukraine to survive this crisis intact, yet there is nothing fictional about this situation.

The Way Forward

Non enim parum cognosse, sed in parum cognito stulte et diu perseverasse turpe est, propterea quod alterum communi hominum infirmitati alterum singulari cuiusque vitio est attributum. (For it is not having insufficient knowledge, but persisting a long time in insufficient knowledge that is shameful; since the one is assumed to be a disease common to all, but the other is assumed to be a flaw to an individual.) Putin does not seek to make Russia first in Europe nor match the power and position of the US in the world. Russia lacks the wherewithal, the resources,, and a lot of other things required to accomplish such objectives. However, Putin does want to control what he claims to be in Russia’s “near abroad”: the former Soviet republics on its border. As the US and its European allies become more engaged with them, it becomes less likely that he will be able to accomplish that goal either. If the US and its allies were not enough trouble for Putin, his “friends” in Beijing have been knocking on the doors of those near abroad governments, making enticing, huge offers, which Moscow cannot match, to invest in their economies and support industrial and infrastructure development as a way to enhance ties–albeit perhaps not always in a legitimate way. Unfortunately for Putin, he was unable to shape Russia’s position in the world positively over the past two decades, by transforming the country to be a contributing member as an advanced industrialized, economic power, and present Russia as anything close to an alternative as a partner to its neighbors. Russia remained a country from which villainy of some sort was expected more than anything else. Unable to sway the capitals of bordering former Soviet republics to Russia’s camp, it would seem he made the decision a while back to use brute force. US decision-makers should not simply expect Putin to get a hold of himself, and get a grip concerning the use of greater military force in Ukraine. He already moved on Crimea, so for many, no points could be argued that would convince them that he would not do more. The capture of Crimea may have actually been only the first phase in a plan of far greater conception concerning Ukraine.

Washington wants to avoid a conflict in Ukraine. For Washington, success in resolving the Ukraine crisis would likely mean crafting a sustainable agreement with Russia, within acceptable parameters of US values and interests, and that is the rub. Some national leaders in Europe might go as far as to say aggression simply resides in Putin and it is too late for any worthwhile diplomacy with him. They may need to overcome an anxiety over the history of Russian behavior before altering their thinking on that. Still, at the same time, no responsible party involved in this matter wants war. Given how Putin thinks, more than aggression and dissatisfaction with US policies and moves inform his actions. A real sense of vulnerability in Putin toward the US and its allies has been a subtle and profound undercurrent in his decisionmaking and approaches toward them. That sense of vulnerability is intensified by Washington’s efforts to make diplomatic inroads with countries Putin seems to feel belong to Russia. Putin has actually said that US moves evoke his actions, which thereby are actually reactions. That is hardly something he, or any military commander, would want to admit or to accept.

As suggested here, US policymakers, decisionmakers and negotiators must find a way for the two sides to work together in similar positive ways to create an outcome in which they both have a mutual and balanced influence on the situation. For instance, perhaps ways in which Ukraine could be helped along the way by both the West and Russia in tandem through an agreement that would also promote the maintenance of good neighborly relations and support the establishment of strong, positive relationships overseas without anyone being irritated. Some, despite everything presented here, albeit in brief, might contend that there is little obvious room for compromise from either side. However, the referee has not yet blown the whistle for full-time. It has always been greatcharlie’s contention that smart people are usually able with the appropriate amount of effort to find answers to problems. A posse ad esse. (From possibility to actuality.)

Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against ISIS?; The Obama Administration Must Place Success Against ISIS Ahead of Creating the Appearance of a Broad Multilateral Effort

Almost immediately after United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron received approval from Parliament to have the Royal Air Force join the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, Tornado bombers, as the one pictured above, began engaging in highly effective airstrikes in Iraq. While some nations as the United Kingdom have contributed significantly to the anti-ISIS air campaign, the efforts of many other partners in the 60 nation coalition have been negligible or nonexistent militarily.

According to an October 22. 2014 Foreign Policy article entitled, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against the Islamic State?”, as the administration of US President Barack Obama ramps up its campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), it is also trying to present itself as acting with the support of a broad range of partner nations. The article notes the US State Department lists more than 60 countries as members of the “global coalition” to degrade and defeat ISIS. However, the qualifications for inclusion in that coalition are nominal. While many countries have pledged military or humanitarian support, the State Department indicates that “simply exposing the true nature” of ISIS can qualify a nation for the coalition. Western coalition partners continue participating in airstrikes in Iraq, however, the Pentagon has not discussed the participation of Arab partners. To date, few countries have joined the US for airstrikes within Syria since October 14, 2014, following a week of apparently US-only strikes there. The US Central Command noted in its daily statement on October 21, 2014, that “out of respect for participating nations, US Central Command will defer to partner nations to publicly comment on their airstrikes” against ISIS.  Of the 60 countries participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, the vast majority are not contributing militarily. The October 22nd Foreign Policy article alleges that US claimed that there were even commitments from coalition partners of ground troops to fight ISIS, but those offers never materialized.

The Multilateral Gambit

It was in 2014 that the Obama administration really began insisting that the US would act only when multilateral approaches were available. The impression was given that this was a world in which once sufficient effort was made by the US to organize other nations, problems could be handled through cooperation. As it was explained in the greatcharlie.com post, ” Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group; US Must Act in Iraq Now to Eclipse Such Stars!”, organizing multinational efforts to resolve foreign and defense policy issues is not a new idea. Regional alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, and the Organization of American States were created to bring resources of nations together to cope with the “Communist threat.” Even on terrorism, multilateral approaches were viewed as required when modern-era counterterrorism was established during the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan. Yet, the idea that the US can today rely upon multilateral solutions requiring joint action with allies and partners who themselves face drastic military cuts and economic difficulties is unwise.

Understanding the importance of the campaign against ISIS, United Kungdom Prime Minister gained approval from Parliament to have the Royal Air Force participate in the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. The Royal Air Force almost immediately engaged in airstrikes against ISIS. However, no Western state such as the United Kingdom, which is already fighting ISIS from the air and possesses a genuine capability to engage in land warfare, would willingly or robustly go into Iraq or Syria. Indeed, national leaders of Western states would not want to assume the risks of intervening with ground troops now, especially when most of those leaders truly feel that level of commitment would not “exactly” be within their nation’s interests. Despite the terrorist attack in Canada and thwarted attacks in Australia, in many capitals, the loyal opposition and many  policy experts have taken the position that their governments have overstated the international threat from ISIS. Those criticisms have also placed restraints on just how much national leaders can do.

Placing Partners under Pressure

Oddly, the Obama administration also appears to have requested Western allies and coalition partners commit their armed forces to military action in Iraq and Syria even though the administration would not make a similar commitment of US forces. That approach was unrealistic.  Obama publicly indicated a hesitancy to act militarily in both Iraq and Syria. As a rationale for its hesitancy to commit the US military, Pentagon officials  explained “the US military is taking a defensive, not offensive, approach” to ISIS. On October 22, 2014, The Washington Post reported that the US determined newly trained mainstream Syrian opposition fighters will not be able to capture strategically important towns from ISIS, without the support of forward-deployed US combat troops. Alternatively, those mainstream opposition fighters will only be assigned to defend already-controlled territory. According to Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby, the current train-and-equip program for the Syrian opposition would seek to strengthen appropriately vetted elements of its fighting force, Free Syrian Army, to enable them to counter ISIS; strengthen the moderate opposition so that they can better defend themselves and territory; and promote the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria.” One country the US has pressured for action against ISIS is Turkey. Although Turkey is a power in the Middle East region, the notion that Turkey, possessing far less capabilities than the US would subordinate their own concerns and interests, to support and defend others under US pressure is curious. Turkey likely reached the same  conclusions  as the US about conditions for engaging militarily in Iraq and Syria. There would hardly be a Syrian opposition force with which Turkish troops could work. If Turkey’s operations in Syria “creeped” beyond destroying ISIS and it effectively displaces the Assad regime, political leaders in Turkey would likely feel ambivalent about simply turning over a nation on its border, Syria, to the very dysfunctional Syrian opposition. Even if Turkey controlled or greatly influenced the Syrian opposition, it is hard to see how taking on what would be the political, economic, and social basket case as Syria would be to Turkey’s benefit now.

Given the diminutive size and inappreciable impact of contributions by many coalition partners, as outlined in the October 22nd Foreign Policy  article, it would seem as beneficial to the Obama administration not to publicize the relative efforts of coalition partners as it would be for the partners themselves. Such information may create doubt over just how much the world is really behind the US in the anti-ISIS effort. In any event, more will certainly need to be done by the Obama administration to defeat ISIS than simply promote the simulacrum of a broad multilateral effort. If coalition partners are not carrying as much of the burden as may have been hoped, but perhaps should have been expected, the US must step up its own efforts. That would mean allowing military planners not to simply devise the best plans feasible under constraints set by the Obama administration. Civilian control and political guidance without question is necessary. However, provided with everything they actually need, and working within well calibrated parameters established US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey–who is unquestionably honor bound, US military planners, using their expertise based on careers that include continuous professional education and training and considerable experience, would undoubtedly develop far more effective plans for the use of airpower. Hamstringing the US military by insisting it develop war plans based on some illusion within the Obama administration that some proportional level of multilateral cooperation will ever materialize, will practically ensure operations against ISIS, although  will not yield the desired outcome: the destruction of ISIS. The Obama administration appears to be attempting mulgere hircum! (To milk a male goat!; To attempt the impossible!)

Assessment

The comedian and late night talk show host in the US, David Letterman, said “every military operation has to have a name so people can get behind it and they now have a name for the war against ISIS: ‘Operation Hillary’s Problem’.” The US-led anti-ISIS operation’s true name is Operation Inherent Resolve. Ostensibly, the Obama administration is fully committed to defeating ISIS right now and not leaving the job to his predecessor. Yet, the fight against ISIS is more than just an operation. It is a war being fought against a barbaric adversary. Its leaders and fighters are deluded by the conceit that they are fighting for God. The decision to take action against ISIS was laudable and represented the heights of US foreign policy which in the Obama administration has at times seemed full of contradictions. Likewise, the insistence on presenting the veil of multilateral action when the US is doing the bulk of the heavy lifting in the US-led coalition against ISIS represents the depths of US foreign policy. It creates the impression that the US military effort is driven more by political expedience than the best military approach possible. Looking good is not as important as being good. Doing what is necessary to win this war must have priority over all other interests. The US and it coalition partners may be on the same team, but the Obama administration must accept that the US will need to both block and carry the ball over the goal line and not hide the fact it is doing so.

NATO’s New Missions Won’t Solve Ukraine Crisis; A Military Response to “Russia’s Moves” Must Exist, But There Is Still Room for Diplomacy

US soldiers (above) training for combat operations. To respond to possible “Russian moves” against its Member States in Eastern Europe, NATO is organizing a new Rapid Reaction Force that will include US units. Political leaders of all NATO Member States must think deeply about situations that the use of the new force may create.

According to a September 7, 2014 Reuters article entitled, “NATO’s New Missions Won’t Solve Ukraine, Iraq Crises”, NATO leaders emerged from a summit in Wales with a plan to protect eastern members from a resurgent Russia, a pledge to reverse the decline in their defense spending, and a Western coalition to combat Islamic militants in Iraq. Ways were sought to use NATO’s military power to avert additional moves by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin against vulnerable Eastern European Member States. Senior alliance officials sought to reassure those countries that there are teeth behind the pledge (contained in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, NATO’s founding document) that an attack on one Member State will be considered an attack on all. A key decision made at the summit was to create a new NATO Rapid Reaction Force of some 5,000 troops assembled from existing national high-readiness forces based at home. It would eventually be deployable within 48 hours’ notice, instead of up to several weeks now, to deter an aggressor in a crisis. It will be supported with logistics and equipment pre-positioned in Eastern European countries closer to Russia. The new force may also be used for expeditionary missions outside the NATO Treaty area. (Such operations would be subject to a unanimous political decision of the 28-nation NATO Council and to national caveats limiting what troops can do abroad.) A “Readiness Action Plan” was also adopted to shield former Soviet bloc Central and Eastern European countries that joined the alliance in the last 15 years by modernizing military infrastructure, further pre-positioning equipment and supplies, rotating air patrols and holding regular joint exercises on their soil.

Before the NATO Summit, seven NATO allies planned to create a new rapid reaction force of at least 10,000 soldiers as part of plans to boost NATO defenses in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. The aim was to create a division sized joint expeditionary force for rapid deployment and regular exercises. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron was expected to announce the creation of the force at the NATO Summit. The United Kingdom-led force would include an air and naval units as well as ground troops. Countries involved include Denmark, Latvia, Estonia, Norway, and the Netherlands—Canada also expressed an interest in taking part. Political leaders of these countries apparently became uncertain and impatient regarding US efforts to mitigate the threat of further Russian advances westward. At the summit, the force’s size was reduced to a level short of what Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania wanted. Yet, after US President Barack Obama spoke in Estonia on the eve of the summit, underlining the US commitment to defend the Baltic States, they were accepting of the change.

Yet, the September 7th Reuters article notes that despite ringing declarations of resolve, the US-led alliance cannot fix the conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists. Questions remain about the allies’ plan to create a Rapid Reaction Force and their aim of raising defense budgets to 2 percent of national output over a decade. Both are subject to political caveats. Most analysts say the main security problems on NATO’s eastern flank lie less in a Russian military threat to its allies than instability in non-aligned former Soviet republics between NATO and Russia. Coping with a Russian military push there, may require more than 5,000 NATO troops.

NATO appears to be in a situation similar to what it faced during the Cold War. Yet, continuous draw downs of Member State forces since that time has left it without robust military capabilities and harmed its ability to transmit, by actions, a message that would deter Russia from further advances. Now that Putin and Russia are on the move, it is not feasible for NATO to create an effective defense through a Rapid Reaction Force, the prepositioning of materials, and exercises that could reestablish a deterrent from the new Rapid Reaction Force now as if before the draw downs never occurred. Nunc pro tunc! (Now for then!)   The United Kingdom and France bolstered Europe’s defense with their own nuclear arsenals. As in the past, the mere consideration of the use of force against Russia brings the world closer to World War III. A diplomatic solution to the current crisis in Europe may exist. It would require NATO Member States, despite all that has transpired to date, to engage in a new process of communicating with Russia through diplomacy, not with sanctions and new plans to use force.

NATO’s New Rapid Reaction Force

As US and NATO officials have tried to quickly respond to the evolving crisis in Ukraine, they have noted an alarming pattern of behavior by Putin. While Putin emerged as the dominant power in Moscow, Russia was hardly realistically judged by the West. Indeed, wishful thinking of NATO Member States’ political leaders of a post-Cold War compliant Russia ruled. At the end of the NATO Summit in 1990, there was even hope of establishing a strategic partnership between NATO and Russia. Caution was not exercised. A reversal of such good fortune was viewed as unlikely. With a sense of near certitude over Russian actions and intentions, they made staggering cuts in their forces and NATO Member States failed to meet defense spending goals.   Political leaders of NATO Member States must accept that their assumptions about Russia were wrong. Any plans of working with Russia were scrubbed in May 2014. (The NATO-Russia Council created in 2002 has not been formally shut-down).

Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, NATO members have taken a number of short-term steps to reinforce the security of allies in Eastern Europe who are worried about Putin’s assertiveness. 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 is 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. The words of the NATO Summit declaration pulsate for the education of all both West and East. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated that the new Rapid Reaction Force “will ensure that we have the right forces and the right equipment in the right place, at the right time.” Troops would be regularly rotated and equipment and supplies, including weapons, ammunition and fuel, would be pre-positioned in Eastern Europe. Rasmussen explained it would also require command and control and logistics experts, “so this force can travel light but strike hard if needed.” Russia’s “aggressive behavior,” he said, will mean “a more visible NATO presence in the East for as long as required.”

However, much work will be required for NATO to rejuvenate itself. Over the years, several NATO Member States have been nonchalant about failing to meet their defense spending pledges. 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. This uneven 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, the United Kingdom and the US. France, Turkey, and Greece fell just shy of the 2 percent goal, while other major countries such as Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have fallen well behind. 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.

Longstanding Members of the NATO have cut their military forces dramatically. The United Kingdom and France have reduced warships in their arsenals to the point that they have contemplated sharing a single aircraft carrier. The United Kingdom, traditionally the closest and most reliable US military partner plans to reduce its regular ground forces to just 82,000 troops. Germany is in the process of reducing its armed forces from 250,000 in 2010 to 185,000 active duty planned for in 2017. The Dutch have eliminated their heavy tank forces. Putin undoubtedly took great interest in these force reductions and the Obama administration’s decision to also make steep reductions in US conventional forces. Those cuts have left the US less able to project power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies. As noted in the greatcharlie.com post entitled “As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way; In Putin’s View, Obama’s Doing Just Fine”, in 2013, the US withdrew its last two heavy armored brigades from Germany. Tank units anchored the US military presence on the ground in Europe for 70 years. US military leaders have considered withdrawing the last squadron of F-15C air superiority fighters from England. When Putin received the Obama administration’s proposals in 2013 calling for steep reductions in nuclear forces, he may have discerned that for the Obama administration, the US nuclear arsenal was merely a political bargaining chip, but not a military tool. US Army Chief of Staff, General Ray Odierno, stated “Over the last several years we’ve allowed our capabilities in NATO to slip.” He further explained: “So now we have to rebuild those capabilities. We need to understand where they reside, and what countries have which capabilities. We have to have more military exercises, improved [military] interoperability, and we need to reassure our Eastern partners in NATO that we are serious about [our commitments].”

Lessons from the Past

Throughout the Cold War, the US and its NATO allies stood ready to defend against Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces along the Inter-German border dividing the Federal Republic of Germany and German Democratic Republic as well as Czechoslovakia. In the 1980s, for example, the NATO Alliance filed 750,000 troops of which 200,000 were from the US Army. The objective of the Western defense was to halt any attempt to push westward beyond Germany. It was understood that the Soviets and their partners held a numerical advantage in conventional forces, particularly in heavy armored and mechanized units. Under the attrition-oriented forward defense strategy, NATO forces would use units present and, if possible reinforcements from the US, to fight and defeat the advancing force. If they failed, it was also understood that tactical nuclear weapons would be used to prevent a breakthrough beyond Germany. The threatened use of strategic nuclear forces ostensibly was also used to deter 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. By the 1980s, the introduction of the US AirLand Battle Strategy with its emphasis on greater mobility and maneuver, the use of attacks in depth, and use of weapons systems that served as combat multipliers, greatly enhanced the possibility for Western success against a Soviet and Warsaw Pact advance. 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 ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges from Europe in the same period, there still existed an understanding that tactical nuclear weapons could be employed by other means to halt a possible breakthrough of advancing Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces. (It should be noted the Soviet and Warsaw Pact doctrine called for the use a chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons to support their conventional forces.)

Western military theorists of the past hardly could have imagined that against a potentially aggressive Russian force, sufficient highly-mobile armored and mechanized NATO forces would be not be based in Europe to meet it. While 5,000 NATO troops in a Rapid Reaction Force may appear to political leaders at the NATO Summit to be sufficient to deter or combat Russian forces which could presumably be well reinforced from within Russia. Further, halting any additional US troop reductions in Europe and rejuvenating “Reforger Exercise” (Return of Forces to Germany), that rehearsed the reinforcement of forces in Europe through the deployment of large units from the US, may send a signal that the West is becoming more assertive regarding Russia’s actions in Ukraine. It may deter Russia from possible action against the 15 other former Soviet Republics elsewhere along its border, particularly those that are now NATO Members States. Yet, sending signals to Russia in this way may do little to improve the situation. So far, Russia has been most effective at sending signals to other former Soviet republics contemplating stronger military or economic ties to the West. In addition to acting in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia has created fears that it may stir-up “frozen conflicts” in Moldova or between Armenia and Azerbaijan to stop those countries from moving closer to the West.

Some Considerations Regarding the Rapid Reaction Force

It would be counter-intuitive to believe the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation or senior officers of security organizations as the Main Intelligence Directorate, considering how to cope with the NATO Rapid Reaction Force, would in an aggressive act, use the same tactics seen in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk in Ukraine. When NATO prepared to offer a path to membership to Georgia in 2008, Russia sent troops to reinforce peacekeepers in the Russian-speaking, breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. After a five-day conflict with outmatched Georgian forces supported by the West, Russia recognized the independence of the breakaway regions, where Russian troops remain. Georgia’s potential membership disappeared from the NATO agenda, Late 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to forgo an Accession Agreement with the EU and join Putin’s Eurasian Union. After months of violent demonstrations by Ukrainian citizens, Yanukovych fled Ukraine. Putin intervened militarily, sending in “green men” to take control of key points in Crimea, leading to its annexation. Reports from Western news media sources indicate Russian forces similarly infiltrated the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces of eastern Ukraine to join rebel forces of “New Russia”.

Russia may rush in with troops massed along the border of a neighboring state with heavy armored and mechanized units, highly mobile infantry, combat service units, and combat service support units. However, as a matter of speed and surprise, Russia may rapidly deploy forces from based well inside Russia to key points in a neighboring state. In the best case scenario for NATO, the Rapid Reaction Force, in response to intelligence reports of a Russian threat, would be deployed to a NATO Member State in advance of any significant movement of Russian forces into it. The NATO Rapid Reaction Force would be able to set up its defenses, make use of prepositioned systems and ordinance, and air power would be made available to support dynamic defensive actions and negate opportunities for Russian forces to overwhelm units. Russian political leaders would need to choose whether to clash with the NATO Rapid Reaction Force or retreat unable to secure its objectives without displacing a multinational NATO troops. Perhaps the Russian decision would rest on how soon and how large would reinforcements arrive to support the Rapid Reaction Force before it could inflict catastrophic losses upon it. In 1999, Russia found itself in this very situation without prepositioned weapons and ordinance in Kosovo in the aftermath of NATO’s Operation Allied Force to expel Yugoslav Army units and irregular forces from the Serbian province. Then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was viewed as a partner of Russia. As NATO ground forces under the command of then British Army Lieutenant General Sir Michael Jackson reached Pristina, Russian airborne forces that were deployed in northeastern Bosnia as part of the Stabilization Force, rushed ahead to Pristina International Airport to secure the airfield on which several Russian fighters had landed. Jackson did not try to displace the force as ordered by his superior US Army General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (NATO’s commanding general). Jackson famously said, “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.” Jackson established a rapport with the Russian commanders. It was revealed that Russia, blocked from participating in NATO’s peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, decided to create a role for itself. Unable to move or be reinforced, the Russia relented, but it was agreed Russian troops could serve independently as peacekeepers.

If NATO Rapid Reaction Force cannot get to the Member State first, Russian forces would likely try to displace, destroy any local opposition with a superior force before NATO arrived, and quickly secure key points on the territory of a neighboring state. The NATO Rapid Reaction Force must clash with the Russian force if the objective is to displace it from key points or to expel it. Before NATO sent the force in, political leaders of Member States would need to decide in advance whether the Rapid Reaction Force would fire the shot to likely start World War III. Sending in the NATO Rapid Reaction Force to link up with local forces heavily engaged with Russian forces would guarantee NATO and Russian forces would clash. To get in country, the NATO Rapid Reaction Force would need to hope Russian forces, in preparation for their deployment to a neighboring state, would not destroy air bases and other facilities from which fighter support and transports could land in reasonable proximity to their targets.   Russia would be able to provide air cover and close air support for Russian troops. Russia would surely have air assets available to bring up reserve units and logistical support.

If Putin ordered a Russian force, overwhelming in size and combat power, to quickly engage the NATO Rapid Reaction Force on the ground, it might be futile for the NATO Rapid Reaction Force to attempt to handle it, even if the absolute maximum amount of pre-positioned weapon systems and ordinance were made available. The Rapid Reaction Force would at best be able to courageously hold on until a stronger NATO conventional force arrived to reinforce it and strike back and expel Russia from the country under attack. Again, Russia would most likely create a non-permissive environment for reinforcement. To the extent air power might be used against the Russian force, Russia may also use powerful conventional weapons to destroy NATO forces and support capabilities in the area of the neighboring state. If NATO forces were unable to halt and expel the Russian advance, new options would be needed. It would not be acceptable for the allies to simply retreat. As in the Cold War, the use of tactical nuclear weapons to repel the Russian force might be considered. The Rapid Reaction Force could be publicly declared a trip wire to trigger their use. Europe would once again face the prospect of becoming a nuclear battlefield. The use of strategic weapons in response to Russian aggression could also be threatened.

The Way Forward

Initially having ruled out military action, the West’s primary means to respond to Putin’s support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and elsewhere has been economic sanctions and political exclusion. However, despite their dependence on Russian gas and the economic consequences for trade with Russia, along with the US, EU countries have adopted a fourth round of sanctions. Through NATO, Western powers now seek to reassert themselves militarily. While the title “Strongman of Russia” surely fits Putin, he is not a fanatic. He would undoubtedly prefer to establish peace and security in Ukraine and in Russia’s other neighboring states, without further conflict and further economic, political, and military expense. It may still be viable to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis. One clearheaded option may be to organize a summit meeting between a delegation of leaders from NATO Member States and Putin in Moscow or some other neutral location. Perhaps not all of the leaders from NATO Members States should attend the summit. The goal would not be to overwhelm Putin with numerical superiority, but to transmit NATO concerns and find some solutions. It might be best if a delegation of leaders from senior NATO Member States. Foreign secretaries could attend. However, as a summit meeting, it might be best if the leaders themselves hashed things out alone in a daylong session. They would have a real opportunity to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns they had at the highest-level and build confidence. A way to work together to satisfy Western and Russian interests may be found. If that is not achieved, at least leaders would remove any ambiguity about where things are headed.

For leaders of NATO Member States in particular, decisions would no longer need to be based on an understanding of “where Putin’s thinking is” in the abstract. For those leaders, speaking face to face, leaders would be given a chance to sense the other’s thinking and feelings. Everything the other says or how the other reacts to statements is important to know. Every inflexion, tone, and change in the other’s voice provided some insight as to what was on a leader’s mind. Speaking by telephone, when difficult or contentious issues arise, especially when relations are already uncongenial, is not the best option. Without seeing the other party, the call can become tense. Animus may find its way into the discussion in the form of terse comments. The result would not be a solution, but greater disagreement and frustration.

Pride and ego can block the truth, and lead one to reject all evidence of a problem. Political advisers of NATO leaders would explain that a summit with Putin would allow him to show that under his leadership, Russia has returned to the world stage as a global power. The meeting would have been a proud occasion for Putin and the Russian people and that Russia that he was a strong leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues and that he had control over the Ukrainian situation.  If the summit were held in Moscow, Putin would likely receive the chance to present his resurgent Russia in the best light possible. Yet, whatever public relations benefit or image boost Putin might gain through a summit would be trumped by the having the leaders reach a satisfactory diplomatic outcome.

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 between US presidents and their Russian counterparts may have been distasteful for leaders on either side to undergo. However, leaders understood that maintaining a constructive relationship was not a personal matter; it was their duty. Despite proxy wars and other confrontations and conflicts along the course of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union, while possessing the unique and mutual capability to annihilate one another and the world with their nuclear arsenals, did not. With a strong diplomatic action taken now, hopefully the issue of mutual annihilation will not become a major concern all over again.

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.