Trump Backtracks on Cyber Unit With Russia: His Proposal Was Flawed, But His Thinking Is on Target

US President Donald Trump (above). Trump has engaged in negotiations for decades. In his face to face bilateral meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, Trump was allowed the chance to adjust to circumstances, become more fluid in his thinking, more creative in his approach. His proposal for a joint cyber security unit, while scoffed at, and albeit, not viable under US law, appeared to be a product of his willingness to consider the full range of options. Moreover, as a confidence building measure, it may have had a positive impact on Putin.

According to a July 10, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Trump Backtracks on Cyber Unit With Russia After Harsh Criticism”, US President Donald Trump, on July 10, 2017, backtracked on his push for a cyber security unit with Russia, tweeting that he did not think it could happen, hours after his proposal was harshly criticized by Republicans who said Moscow could not be trusted. The New York Times article explained the idea was a political non-starter. It was immediately scorned by several of Trump’s fellow Republicans, who questioned why the US would work with Russia after Moscow’s reported meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election. The episode over the proposal unfolded on July 9, 2017 after his bilateral meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany during the G-20 Economic Summit. Trump emphasised that he raised allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election with Putin. Reuters reported on July 9, 2017 that Trump stated: “I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion…..” As an immediate response to Putin’s denials on the matter, Trump then proposed forming a cyber security unit. According to Reuters on July 9, 2017, Trump wrote in the actual tweet about the cyber security unit: “Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe.”

When Trump broached the the issue of the Russia’s hacking of the 2016 Presidential Election and his discussion with Putin apparently became a bit scratchy. Putin’s denial of the facts presented most likely signalled to Trump that he would be engaged in a argument without end on the hacking. Trump had to either move away from the issue or move laterally on it in some way.  Surely, Trump did not want to abandon the matter. The proposal for a joint cyber security unit apparently stemmed from an intense discussion between Trump and Putin on how to remit Russian cyber warfare programs directed at the US and perhaps similar US programs aimed at Russia. It may have been the product of brainstorming by the two leaders. Trump’s proposal was never supposed to serve as a form retribution against Russia for its intrusions into the US democratic process. Surely, it was not created to be a final solution to the threat of hacking US election. Immediately after the bilateral meeting in Germany, it was revealed that forming such a joint cyber security unit with Russia was prohibited under US law. Yet, although creating an actual cyber security unit was out of bounds, the concept of bringing US and Russian cyber experts together in some way to talk about some cyber matters was not. Trump’s likely aim with the proposal was to create a situation in which US and Russian officials were talking about hacking. Ostensibly, those conversations would create goodwill, perhaps stimulate a more open discussion about the issue, and promote more fulsome, honest talks about the issue among senior officials. In that way, the proposal certainly would have served as an effective confidence building measure.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines an apologist as a person who offers an argument in defense of something controversial. That is not the intent here. The OED defines an analyst as someone who conducts analyses. Foreign policy analysts scrutinize facts and data and interpret them, often in different ways. Given what is publicly known about Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit, the analysis here explains that although flawed, it is the sort of unconventional product that can result from intense negotiations aimed at coping with a seemingly intractable issue. The troublesome issue in this case is Russia’s intrusions into the 2016 US Presidential Election with all of its considerable security and political implications. It is also explained here that Trump’s proposal reveals a bit about his negotiating style. Trump clearly becomes target-oriented in his talks, and will make smaller agreements to build his interlocutor’s trust in him. From congruences Trump discerns in his interlocutor’s thinking and his own, he will try to craft a mutually satisfying agreement that, of course, ensures he will get what he wants. At this stage, Trump is still trying to get answers from Russia about the election issue and mollify the anxieties of various constituencies in the US over the negotiations, while hard at work trying to improve relations with Russia. Using his skills and experience, he seems to be swimming in the right direction. Audacibus annue coeptis. (Look with favor upon a bold beginning.)

Over the past decade, Russia has mounted more than a dozen significant cyber attacks against foreign countries, sometimes to help or harm a specific political candidate, sometimes to sow chaos, but always to project Russian power. From June 2015 to November 2016, Russian hackers penetrated Democratic Party computers in the US, and gained access to the personal emails of Democratic Party officials. Russian officials deny engaging in such operations.  Russian officials almost never open up their covert intelligence efforts.

Russian Cyber Attacks during the 2016 US Presidential Election

As it was discussed in the July 6, 2017 greatcharlie post entitled “Trump to Meet with Putin at G-20 Gathering: Trump Seeks an Authentic Relationship with Russia”, over the past decade, Russia has mounted more than a dozen significant cyber attacks against foreign countries, sometimes to help or harm a specific political candidate, sometimes to sow chaos, but always to project Russian power. The Russian strategy is typically to pair cyber attacks with online propaganda. That approach has been refined and expanded by Russian intelligence. From June 2015 to November 2016, Russian hackers penetrated Democratic Party computers in the US, and gained access to the personal emails of Democratic officials, which in turn were distributed to the global media by WikiLeaks. Both the CIA and the FBI report the intrusions were intended to undermine the US election. Cyber gives Russia a usable strategic capability. If benefits from its use appear great enough, Moscow may want to risk additional attacks. Russian officials will normally vehemently deny launching cyber attacks. Russian officials almost never open up their covert intelligence operations. Putin has never publicly discussed them.

The report of the January 16, 2017 US Office of the Director of National Intelligence entitled, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Election” presents the best publicized assessment by the US Intelligence Community of the Russian cyber attack during the 2016 US Presidential Election. The Russian operation to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election demonstrated a marked escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of  Moscow’s longstanding desire and effort to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order. US Intelligence Community assesses that Putin, himself, ordered the influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s objectives were: to undermine public faith in the US democratic process; to denigrate former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and, to harm her electability and potential presidency.  The US Intelligence Community further assessed that Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for then President-elect Trump. In following, it also assessed Putin and the Russian Government aspired to aid President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. The approach the Russia took to operation reportedly evolved over the course of the campaign given its understanding of the US electoral prospects of the two main candidates. The Intelligence Community concluded that once it appeared to Moscow that Clinton would likely win the election, the Russian operation began to focus more on undermining her future presidency. It was uncovered by Intelligence Community that the influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blended covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.”

The Intelligence Community has declared that much as its Soviet predecessor, Russia has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on US presidential elections, using Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin. Russia’s intelligence services conducted cyber operations against targets associated with the 2016 US were Presidential Election, including targets associated with both major US political parties, were conducted by Russian intelligence services. The Intelligence Community assessed with high confidence that the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data collected in cyber operations publicly, in exclusives to media outlets, and transmitted material to WikiLeaks. Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. US Department of Homeland Security assessments in the report explain that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying. The Russia’s state-run propaganda machine Russia Today contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.  The US Intelligence Community concluded that Moscow will apply lessons learned from its “Putin-ordered campaign” directed at the 2016 US Presidential Election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.

Testifying before the US Senate Intelligence Committee on June21, 2017, Jeanette Manfra, the US Department of Homeland Security’s acting deputy Undersecretary of Cyber Security revealed that 21 US state election systems were targeted as part of Russia’s wide-ranging operation to influence the 2016 elections. She explained that a small number state election systems were also breached but there was no evidence any votes were manipulated. Manfra noted that the elections are resilient to hacking in part because they are decentralized and largely operated on the state and local level. Nevertheless, the hacking of state and local election databases in 2016 was more extensive than previously reported. According to Time, there was at least one successful attempt to alter voter information. Reportedly in Illinois, more than 90% of the nearly 90,000 records stolen by Russian state actors contained driver’s’ license numbers, and a quarter contained the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers.

According to the US Intelligence Community, 21 US state election systems were targeted as part of Russia’s wide-ranging operation to influence the 2016 elections. A small number state election systems were also breached but there was no evidence any votes were manipulated. However, there was at least one successful attempt to alter voter information.  In Illinois, more than 90% of the nearly 90,000 records stolen by Russian state actors contained driver’s license numbers, and a quarter contained the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers.

Reaching Agreements: Easier Said than Done

Before the Trump-Putin bilateral meeting, what had been observed in diplomatic exchanges between the US and Russia is a type of modus vivendi, a way of living, working together, between leaders and chief diplomats. After Putin granted US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a meeting in Moscow after his talks with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Trump granted Lavrov a meeting in Washington during a visit to meeting with Tillerson. It also indicated a willingness to establish a balance in negotiations or quid pro quo on issues when possible. US State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry officials are also working together to resolve nagging issues that could serve to harm efforts to foster good relations. Such seemingly small steps helped to build confidence in both Washington and Moscow that the prospect for change was real, and it lead to the arrangement of a meeting between presidents. Those small steps also supported an open line of communication between chief diplomats which is all importance as US and Russian military forces work in close proximity in Syria, fighting continues in Ukraine, and aerial and naval intrusions remain constant in skies and waters in NATO, Canadian and US territory. If all went well, there will certainly be more to follow.

All of that being stated, the successful formulation and execution of such small steps is a daunting in public. When Putin initially took power on January 1, 2000, the West expected him to give it nothing less than his unequivocal cooperation in a manner similar to his predecessor, Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. Western capitals also expected Putin to be a bit wobbly taking on so much responsibility at a relatively early age. Yet, Putin knew his shoulders could bear the burden. He had no desire to be just a man of the moment in Russia. Much as Yeltsin, Putin, too, showed patience toward the West for a while, but he did not procrastinate. He took on the mission of breathing fresh breath into a country that was dying. He pushed ahead with plans “to save” Russia from disintegration and frustrate what he sensed were Western efforts to weaken it. Indeed, Putin did not believe congenial relations with the West were authentic given the many years of geopolitical struggle. Putin believed then, and believes now, that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. He believes Western governments are driven to create disorder in Russia and make it dependent of Western technologies. Still, Putin has shown that would prefer to outthink his rivals in the West rather than fight them. That notion has influenced his responses in contentious situations. After the period of a term away from the presidency during which he served as his country’s prime minister, Putin was reelected for a third term on March 4, 2012. He clased repeatedly with US President Barack Obama and seemed to act more aggressively. The Russian military move that stood out was the annexation of the Crimea.

The US and EU took Putin to task for that bold military operation. Harsh sanctions were levied and Russia was cast out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies. Putin has held on to the territory and has continued to do so in the face of even tougher sanctions against Russian interests. He levied his own sanctions against US and EU products and even began heavily supporting separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine. In a March 18, 2014 speech declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin 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 refers to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally. Ulterius ne tende odiis. (Go no further down the road of hatred.)

Given the many years of geopolitical struggle, Putin was unconvinced congenial relations between Russia and the West could exist authentically. He believed the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. After Putin was reelected for a third term, he clashed repeatedly with US President Barack Obama. Putin became more aggressive; took more military action. After traveling a bumpy road with the Obama administration, Moscow hoped Trump’s approach to Russia in any direction would reflect the desire not just for new deals, but a new US-Russia relationship.

Trump’s Negotiating Style: It’s Similar to the “Harvard Way”

Parva scintilla saepe magnam flamam excitat. (The sparkle often initiates a large flame.) Given Trump’s gift for agile maneuver against opposite parties in negotiations and his ability to mask his approach, if he chooses to do so, his decisions cannot be forecasted with exactitude. Trump, a self-admitted master of the art of the deal.  His negotiating “tactics, techniques, procedures and methods” Trump appears to have used that were likely developed a tad via his graduate business education at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania along with heavy dose of experience gained after nearly five decades of business negotiations. His concepts appear similar to those promoted by Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation. Such concepts ostensibly guided him in his first “business meeting” with Putin. They include the following: promoting creativity by breaking problems into smaller components; by doing so, you can build a multi-issue business negotiation out of what might appear to be a single-issue deal; using multiple issues to make valuable tradeoffs and facilitate a good-faith negotiation; collecting important information by asking lots of questions and listening carefully to the answers; impressing the other side with your flexibility by putting forth several different proposals at the same time; contemplate unconventional deal-structuring arrangements to bridge the gap between what the seller wants and what the buyer can afford; exploring a contingent contract to help overcome differences in beliefs about future events and outcomes; creating even more value in business negotiations by adding conditions to your deal such as “I’ll do X if you do Y”; and, engaging in “mind games” like brainstorming to facilitate creative problem solving and unexpected solutions.

Trump surely had high hopes before and during his meeting with Putin. He likely would argue then, and would argue now, that bold action, when appropriate, would be the very thing to turn situations around. Ideally, if big agreements were reached, they could help modify Russian behavior, and get relations moving forward. Yet, Trump is also pragmatic and recognizes that plans must fit circumstances and circumstances cannot be created or imagined to fit plans. Trump understood that there would likely need to be initial, relatively small steps perhaps to unlock the diplomatic process on big issues. He would also seek to gauge actions and reactions of his interlocutor, Putin. If he discerned a positive way forward, his sense of possibility would broaden and he would open his mind up to more options. When Trump broached the issue of Russian cyber attacks and eventually presented his proposal, his goal was not to mollify Putin, but rather provide an opportunity for all sides to “clear the air” on the issue of Russia’s hacking of 2016 US Presidential Election but he was unable to receive anything other than denials. Trump is not happy about Russia’s interference with the 2016 Presidential Election both as a patriotic citizen and as a candidate in that election. He may not completely agree that Russia’s action greatly impacted his election victory, but he recognizes that the aesthetics of the intrusion over time could diminish his accomplishment in some minds, particularly among his supporters. Trump understood Putin would likely deny Russia had any connection to the election intrusion, but he undoubtedly believed it was worth a try to have him confirm what most in the US believe.

As Trump and Putin did not have a relationship established prior to the meeting, they did not possess the requisite degree of trust that would allow them to relax and explore the territory outside their formal negotiating positions. They could not talk about their assumptions, strategies, and even fears. They had to work in the abstract from reports of others’ observations and analyses about their respective interlocutors.

The ability of Trump in his negotiations with Putin, to restrain the expression of emotion, in this case anger, perhaps even rage, and not to publish to the world by changes of countenance those thoughts and feelings, was critical if relations were to move forward. To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to recreate oneself endlessly. Admitting errors, missteps, is a sign of maturity and wisdom. One evolves as a result of recognizing ones mistakes. The mature one has moved from the passive voice to the active voice–that is when one stops saying, “It got lost” and begins saying, “I lost it.” The bilateral meeting between Trump and Putin was a promising moment in relations between the US and Russia. In an advanced, mature way of thinking, a presidential way of thinking in 2017, Trump sought some temporary step on the issue of Russia’s intrusion into the 2016 US Presidential Election by taking into consideration the relative strengths of the positions and capabilities of all sides. Trump understands the peace that can be achieved must be the focus. The focus must not be how much each side can destroy the other through cyber warfare but rather how to end cyber as a mutual threat. One cannot solve a problem with the same thinking one used when one created the problem. Mens sibi conscia recti. (A mind conscious of its own rectitude.)

The Flawed Cyber Proposal: A Telling Product of the Negotiation Process

Six building blocks for diplomatic negotiations were superbly outlined by the renowned US statesman, former US Secretary of State James Baker over a decade ago. Baker explained that the building blocks worked well when properly applied through solid preparation and hard work. The building blocks included: 1) Understanding an opponent’s position; 2) Gaining trust through personal relationships; 3) Reciprocal confidence building; 4) Taking a pragmatic approach that does not sacrifice principles; 5) Being aware of timing; and 6) Maintaining a deep respect for the politics of the situation.

As Trump and Putin did not have a relationship established prior to the meeting, they did not possess the requisite degree of trust that would allow them to relax and explore the territory outside their formal negotiating positions. They could not talk about their assumptions, strategies, and even fears. They had to work in the abstract from reports that presented observations and analyses of others about their respective interlocutors. With specific regard to reciprocal confidence building, both leaders demonstrated that they could negotiate. Baker suggested that at the earliest stage, one could arrange a series small negotiations on issues that could be resolved quickly, reasonably, and amicably to assist in developing a dialogue. Baker explained that finding even a minor, common point of agreement, for example on the shape of the negotiating table, can serve to set the tone of the relationship. It also helps develop a dialogue, which is one of the most important aspects of negotiations.

Former US Secretary of State James Baker (above). Six excellent building blocks for diplomatic negotiations were outlined by former US Secretary of State James Baker over a decade ago. Baker explained that they worked well when properly applied through solid preparation and hard work. Included among them were: 1) Understanding an opponent’s position; 2) Gaining trust through personal relationships; 3) Reciprocal confidence building; 4) Taking a pragmatic approach that does not sacrifice principles; 5) Being aware of timing; and 6) Maintaining a deep respect for the politics of the situation.

Confidence Building Measures: In Brief

Perhaps the best definition for confidence building measures was provided by Simon Mason and Siegfried Matthias, in their seminal article, “Confidence Building Measures (CBMS) in Peace Processes” published in Managing Peace Processes: Process Related Questions. A Handbook for AU Practitioners, Volume 1 (African Union and the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2013). They define confidence building measures as series of actions that are negotiated, agreed, and implemented by parties in a dispute in order to build confidence without specifically focusing on the root causes of the dispute.

Confidence building measures are designed to build confidence. Confidence is a psychological state, whereby actors make themselves vulnerable and ready to take risks based on the expectation of goodwill and positive behavior from a counterpart. Confidence building measures can prevent a dispute or larger problem from escalating even if the negotiating process is to be started in the short term. Preventing escalation has value in itself and may also allow the negotiation process to begin again later on. Mason and Matthias intriguingly note that confidence building measures can prevent parties from escalating even when there is a denial of any problems or tensions that could escalate. Successful negotiations require risk taking by the parties. That is why a minimum degree of confidence is needed for negotiations to even start. For negotiating parties, confidence building measures are attractive because they are seen as a low-cost and low-risk activities, since they can be implemented with limited resources and calculated risks. The negotiating parties, themselves, must craft confidence building measures to fit their specific case. If not, what is agreed to will not be owned by the parties, and will not serve to build trust. Confidence building measures must also be reciprocal in nature. One party should not feel that it is going out on a limb without the other also doing so. To assist in ensuring confidence is sustained and agreements are appropriately implemented, confidence building measures concerning communication should be put in place.

In an incremental approach to confidence building measures, a series of agreements are used to slowly tackle the more difficult core issues later on. Under this approach, confidence building measures become stepping stones or a pathway to greater agreements. Indeed, agreements on confidence building measures early on generally build trust and interest in negotiating more complex agreements at a later stage. In this sense, confidence building measures create opportunities for parties to collaborate on something that is not strategically important to them and, in so doing, build the trust needed to subsequently discuss important strategic issues. Confidence building measures pull parties away from the obstacle they are blocked on. Once confidence exists, it is then easier to address the obstacles. Mason and Matthias use the metaphor of steps of a ladder also highlights the incremental nature of building trust which takes time and an accumulation of small steps. That is referred to by some as the confidence building process.

Mason and Matthias caution parties negotiating confidence building measures that wider constituencies may view a negotiation process with suspicion before, during, and after negotiations, and may not be willing to accept deals made. Individuals from those constituencies typically will not be present at the negotiation or understand how agreements were arrived at. Plans for responding to the wider constituencies’ concerns must be considered. A mutual understanding that one party made need to break away from a confidence building measure must exist. An agreement could be negotiated that allows the parties an amount of time in which they could communicate to one another about the need to break away from a confidence building measure. Working together on such a matter in itself could build confidence, create some degree of trust.

US military personnel in Cyber Command (above). There is no doubt with regard to the legal barriers to Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the US Department of Defense, which is the parent organization of the US National Security Agency and the US Cyber Command, from using any funds for bilateral military cooperation with Russia. However, the mere fact that Trump offered to work jointly with Russia to sort out a cyber matter, and thought of creating an organization for that, seems to have had a positive impact on Putin.

Even though Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit was flawed, the dialogue among US and Russian cyber experts that might have resulted from it could have helped to develop a mutual understanding about the harmful effects of cyber activities and potential consequences, to include proportional asymmetric responses. Experts from the US side in any hypothetical liaison team would have likely been very experienced, highly qualified US personnel from the US National Security Agency and Cyber Command, and perhaps the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State, the primary US agency most major cyber negotiations. They might have caused Russia to halt its cyber operations against the US by helping to establish a modus vivendi, or way both countries could live together while possessing this significant strategic capability. One could speculate even further that talks may have even resulted in the very near-term suspension of any cyber attacks underway, or a reduction in the intensity or tempo of such attacks that have been sourced to Russia and perhaps some that have not as yet been identified as such. Trump’s proposal, encouraging talks, although flawed legally, ideally could have inspired both countries to move forward toward a greater agreement.

A Bad Reaction

As it was explained earlier, wider constituencies represented by negotiating parties may view the process with suspicion. In that vein, political allies and adversaries alike in the US rejected Trump’s proposal for a joint cyber security unit. There was an immediate rebuff from several Republicans, who questioned why the US would work at all with Russia after Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. US Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, stated on the US Sunday morning news program “Meet the Press”: “It’s not the dumbest idea I have ever heard but it’s pretty close.” On Twitter, US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, immediately criticized Trump’s cyber proposal. Rubio wrote: “While reality and pragmatism requires that we engage Vladimir Putin, he will never be ally or reliable constructive partner.” He further stated: “Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with [Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-] Assad on a “Chemical Weapons Unit.” US Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, recognized Trump’s desire to move forward with Russia. However , McCain further explained on the US Sunday morning talk show “Face the Nation”: “There has to be a price to pay.” McCain went on to state: “Vladimir Putin … got away with literally trying to change the outcome … of our election.” He also added: “There has been no penalty.” US Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN’s Sunday morning program, “State of the Union”, that Russia could not be a credible partner in a cyber security unit. Schiff stated: “If that’s our best election defense, we might as well just mail our ballot boxes to Moscow,” Schiff added. A former US Secretary of Defense in the administration of US President Barack Obama, Ashton Carter, told CNN: “This is like the guy who robbed your house proposing a working group on burglary.”

There is no doubt with regard to the legal barriers to Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the US Department of Defense, which is the parent organization of the US National Security Agency and the US Cyber Command, from using any funds for bilateral military cooperation with Russia. The purpose of the law is avoid providing Moscow with insight into US cyber capabilities. In the US, it has been long-believed that Moscow is averse to revealing any of its cyber capabilities.

Multiple proposals will be presented in the process of improving US-Russian relations. Trump’s cyber proposal was one of many tabled by him during his bilateral meeting with Putin. As Trump tweeted, success was achieved in other areas. For example, Trump and Putin agreed over a ceasefire for southwest Syria that was set to begin on midday, July 9, 2017. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it showed the US and Russia were able to work together in Syria and that they would continue to do so.

Dumping the Cyber Security Unit Proposal

It was only hours after Trump’s proposal for the joint US-Russian cyber security unit was harshly criticized by Republicans who said Moscow could not be trusted that he backtracked on it. He tweeted: “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t.”

Even without being implemented, the fact that Trump offered to work jointly with Russia to sort out a cyber matter, and thought of creating an organization to do so, may have had a positive impact on Putin’s thinking. Putin can choose cautious cooperation or subterfuge, which many in foreign policy circles would call his penchant. In his dealings with Trump, it seems to some degree Putin has chosen cooperation. Indeed, it must be noted that Putin discussed Trump’s proposal and was apparently open to some type of interaction between cyber experts of both countries. Recall also that Trump initially tweeted that Putin entertained the proposal. As Putin has the final say on all foreign policy matters in Russia, he established that Russia at the moment has an interest in reaching an understanding on cyber. Trump’s July 7, 2017 cyber proposal is dead. However, as the process of building relations between the US and Russia, there is a real chance that a new, better crafted proposal on cyber, within bounds legally, may surface, perhaps even from Moscow. Only time will tell.

Multiple proposals will be presented in the process of improving US-Russian relations. Trump’s cyber proposal was one of many tabled by him during his bilateral meeting with Putin. As Trump tweeted, success was achieved in other areas  For example, Trump and Putin agreed over a ceasefire for southwest Syria that started on midday, July 9, 2017. Tillerson said it showed the US and Russia were able to work together in Syria and that they would continue to do so. Tillerson announced some key understandings brokered in the meeting amounted to success. He explained: “We had a very lengthy discussion regarding other areas in Syria that we can continue to work together on to de-escalate the areas and the violence, once we defeat ISIS.” Tillerson also said the US and Russia would “work together towards a political process that will secure the future of the Syrian people.”

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s play, The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth, while King Henry away from the throne, the Duke of York, urged by Warwick, sat on it. Just then, Henry arrives with followers. Henry tells York to step away, but York announces an alleged claim to the crown against the King’s hereditary possession. Henry convinces York to wait to be crowned after he dies. Henry’s nobles are astonished that he disinherited his own son. Queen Margaret arrives and is struck by the news. York, at home, is convinced by Richard’s sons Edward and Richard, and his follower Montague to take the throne right away. A war for succession ensues. After several horrific battles, the opposing sides massed for a final engagement. In Act V, Scene iv of the play, Margaret leading Henry’s supporters gives a final stirring speech, summoning courage and the fighting spirit. On the plains near Teaksbury she states: “Great lords, wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss, but cheerly seek how to redress their harms. What though the mast be now blown overboard, the cable broke, the holding-anchor lost and half our sailors swallow’d in the flood? Yet lives our pilot still. Is’t meet that he should leave the helm and like a fearful lad with tearful eyes add water to the sea and give more strength to that which hath too much, whiles, in his moan, the ship splits on the rock, which industry and courage might have saved? Ah, what a shame! Ah, what a fault were this!” As Trump engages in efforts to improve relations with Putin and Russia, his opponents and a few fellow Republicans seem to feel the US is staring into a dangerous, dark abyss. They place little faith in Trump, and no trust or hope in Putin. Conversely, Trump, in thinking about the potential for improving relations, likely conjures panoramic views of endless vistas. While Trump’s critics would associate the disturbing sound of a dissonant flute with Trump’s effort to rebuild relations with Russia, Trump seeks to create a harmony between the US and Russia that even Johann Sebastian Bach would find sublime. The entire matter seems to enthral him. He remains optimistic and is pushing ahead in the face of considerable obstacles, the majority of which are actually unrelated to his efforts with Putin.

Trump has engaged in negotiations for decades. In his face to face bilateral meeting with Putin, Trump was allowed the chance to adjust to circumstances, become more fluid in his thinking, and more creative in his approach. Trump’s sense of possibilities was broadened. His proposal for a joint cyber security unit, while scoffed at, and, albeit, not viable under US law, undoubtedly resulted from his willingness to consider the full range of options. As a confidence building measure, it may very well have had a positive impact on Putin’s thinking without even being implemented.  Reports about the actual Trump-Putin meeting indicate both leaders had a good sense of one another’s positions but they also sought find out more about one another’s approaches. By doing so, both provided themselves with a better chance of reaching a successful conclusion. Both were attentive to how the other perceived issues, no matter alien that view may have been to their own. They noticed patterns of behavior, some perhaps influenced by history and culture, and recognized political constraints the other faced. Both Trump and Putin tried to crawl into one another’s shoes. As time moves on, that effort may very well assist the two leaders in building a relations that will facilitate the building of ties between the US and Russia. Durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis. (Endure, and keep yourselves for days of happiness.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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