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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putin’s Purpose For Intervening in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Worried Are the Russians About ISIS?

Russia is the latest state actor to overtly intervene against ISIS in Syria, Russia’s fight with Islamic extremism did not begin in Syria. Russia has been combating Islamic extremist separatist groups for more than a decade since it broke the separatists’ control of Chechnya province in the North Caucasus Federal District during Putin’s first term. Insurgents from the group Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) say they are fighting to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia. A number of terrorist attacks have been enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in both the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. Hundreds of foreign fighters were drawn to Syria soon after ISIS intervened in Syria’s civil war. In June 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Free Syrian Army’s ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting FSA fighters to discover who among them were Islamic militants, the Russian law enforcement and intelligence service apparently possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of those militants. Even in his September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, Putin discussed the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin explained, “Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria?” Clearly, Putin has been concerned for a while that Syria will become a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. Yet, some allege the Russian Government actually created the circumstances for that to occur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Causality for the Dispute Between the West and Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hybrid Warfare and Other Russian Military Options

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commitments from NATO Allies Remain Uncertain

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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