Commentary: Trump Withdraws US Troops from Syria: What Considerations Impelled His Decision?

The US military base in Al Asaliyah village near Manbij, in northern Syria (above). After US President Donald Trump announced that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria, critics and detractors surmised that he reached the decision from thin air, and hastily announced it at the end of 2018 in order to “check off” a campaign promise. It was also said Trump had disregarded US allies and friends in Syria. In truth, the decision was well-mulled over by US decision makers. Far more factors were part of the decision than the short-list reported in the US news media.

There was a storm of disagreement, and in some foreign policy circles in Washington, outrage, following the decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw US forces from Syria. Fault with the decision was supported by the claim that Trump was acting against the best advice of his top military commanders and other foreign and national security officials. It was also said that Trump was displaying a certain insouciance toward allies and friends on the ground in Syria, to include Kurdish Forces (the People’s Protection Units or YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (Arab and Assyrian fighters, as well high numbers of YPG units). Additionally, it was widely surmised that Trump reached the decision to withdraw US troops from thin air, and hastily announced the decision at the end of 2018 in order to “check off” a campaign promise. Some news media commentators even went as far as to claim that the decision signalled a new US isolationism and the beginning of a contraction under which certain US interests worldwide would be abandoned. In truth, the decision was thoroughly mulled over in a decision making meeting prior to being announced. Moreover, far more factors, in particular factors that tied to reality, were part of the decision, than the short-list reported in the news media. The aim here is to enumerate and examine, from an out of the box perspective, some of the likely considerations made by Trump and his aides and advisers prior to making the Syria decision public. Hopefully, the examination here will contribute in some way to the policy debate in the US on Syria.

The Syria situation was not a problem of Trump’s making. US President Barack Obama and other national leaders poorly interpreted information concerning an opposition movement that had organised against the regime of Syria Arab Republic President Bashar Al-Assad in March 2011. They believed that opposition movement made Assad regime ripe for change, however, opportunity was seen by Obama and his foreign and national security policy decision makers where there was none. The conclusion was that with a modicum support for the right opposition groups, the Assad regime would face collapse and be forced to the negotiation table, where Assad, himself, would agree to an orderly and immediate transition of power. Among a long list of negative consequences that have resulted from that policy approach have been: a seemingly never ending civil war in which millions of civilians have become casualties, millions more have been displaced, Russia and other countries who are potential adversaries of the US have strengthened their presence in Syria and increased their influence on the Assad regime; and, extraordinarily dangerous terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, have established strongholds. Along with the US, European and Middle Eastern countries, have invested troops and other resources in Syria in what has been a successful effort to destroy terrorist groups in particular.

The contradiction between the desire to continue the fight alongside allies and friends, (that resulted in what now appear to have been ill-advised promises by US officials that the US would remain in Syria), and the requirements of force protection and the need to respond to rapidly evolving geostrategic realities in the region, made the decision to withdraw undoubtedly agonizing. Trump, however, was not marginal about the matter. Some of Trump’s top advisers were very disappointed over where the final decision fell. A couple top officials, having determined that continuing to work in support of Trump’s choice would compromise their personal values, their consciences, resigned. Perhaps an effort to keep US allies and friends invested in Syria militarily or otherwise of the decision to withdraw, even in camera, was a missing step. However, the decision will not be judged right or wrong here. Homines enim cum rem destruere non possunt, iactationem eius incessunt. Ita si silenda feceris, factum ipsum, si laudanda non sileas, ipse culparis. (Such is the disposition of mankind, if they cannot blast an action, they will censure the parade of it; and whether you do what does not deserve to be taken notice of, or take notice yourself of what does, either way you incur reproach.)

The announced withdrawal of US military units from Syria came as a surprise when Trump first made it on Twitter and then with a public statement on the White House lawn. There was an immediate rush by critics and detractors of Trump to pure negatives on the decision such as calling it an abandonment of allies and friends in the field. Other observers, uncertain about the future of Syria and uncertain of the future course of the US in the region, joined in the chorus against the decision. As promises were made by US officials other than Trump to stand alongside and support allies and friends, did as much to convince many observers that the US commitment to Syria was essentially open-ended, the disappointment and harsh reactions were stronger when that belief was dashed. Yet, with an assessment made that the main mission of destroying ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria, and correlatively degrading their ability to act elsewhere, reaching toward its terminus, keeping US forces in the combat zones of Syria, keeping them in harm’s way, became questionable to Trump. All along, it was a calculated risk to deploy and allow US  forces to operate in Syria. Having spent months crossing his fingers concerning the well-being of US troops there, Trump made the decision to withdraw. Although US troops, themselves, expect to be in harm’s way whenever they are deployed in combat zones overseas, value judgments must be made by the civilian leadership on the returns or benefits from such dangerous deployments. It would seem Trump determined that the return on the US investment of troops in Syria, no longer justified placing their lives at risk. In making this decision, Trump likely felt some satisfaction knowing that he has robbed potential adversaries of the freedom to include an attack on US forces in Syria in their calculus of how they might hurt the US in the region.

US troops deployed in Syria are among the best trained in the US armed forces. As expected, they accomplished a tremendous amount. Yet, although extremely effectual in their performance, the size of their deployment, 2600 troops, is lean relative to those deployed in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq, or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Their numbers are also meager relative to the presence of potential adversaries in Syria. Expectations from those troops should not be placed too high. For those rightfully concerned with worldwide impressions of Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces, there should be an awareness that the force of 2600 troops was too few to do too much on the ground anyway. Change in Syria in the interest of the US and in a way that reflects US values would mean: allowing for the return of refugees and displaced persons; the establishment of transparent democratic governance in some form at the local, provincial, and national levels in Syria; providing all people of Syria with residences, more than just temporary shelters; an adequate, regular supply of sustenance; a means to sustain the delivery of sustenance; sufficient sources of potable water; continuous power and electricity; a highway and road systems that will allow for freedom of movement; reconstruction bridges, tunnels, airports, harbors, dams, parks, and waterways; schools for children; hospitals and health clinics; sanitation system; law enforcement at the local, provincial, and national level; a courts system; effectual employment bureaus, a secure banking system; the rebuilding of factories and other workplaces; an agribusiness development program; and, a multitude of other necessities that will support the development of a viable society. Given the size of the force, it would not be able to guarantee the top five items enumerated on this list, particularly the safety and security of Syrian returnees from the Assad regime and other potential adversaries. The Assad regime would invariably want all returnees to fold neatly under its cruel subjugation. There would also be the requirement of protecting the Syrian people from Islamic militant groups seeking to reestablish their Caliphate or some new Islamic State from which they could launch terrorist attacks globally.

There is a broader picture concerning US capabilities and capacity to conduct military-style operations. Wars can be fought even when formations of US troops are not present. Other less visible ways and means to support the Kurdish Forces and Syrian Democratic Forces can be provided by elements of the US intelligence community to include the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (“DIA”). Invariably, some US troops could be used covertly, in specialized technical role for those agencies. By integrating themselves among local military units, they can provide assistance in the form of supply, training, and guidance to local senior leaders, support special reconnaissance, aid local commanders with command and control of units, and engage in direct action when required. A few historical examples of the success of such operations include: CIA operations in Military Region 3 in South Vietnam; the employment of Special Forces Operational Detachments in Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait; operations in support of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Croatian Defense Council during both Operation Sana and Operation Oluja during Bosnia War; and, CIA and DIA operations in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Arguably, engaging in a covert operation with paramilitary trained case officers, special activities operators, and special forces soldiers working in tandem with local troops may not be as effective as having US military units perform tasks, but it is a viable option when the decision has been made to no longer make formal use of the US military. On the particular matter of providing forward control for airstrikes to defend allies and friends against attacks, resources would exist among operatives of those agencies on ground to perform that task. Moreover, with concentrations of US troops no longer on the ground in Syria, US air assets and the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition, while still maintaining parameters for safety for allies and friends, could pursue ground targets more vigorously with less concern that retribution from a malign actor against US troops would be possible. That retribution could take the form of a surprise military attack or an act of terrorism.

Many of the immediate impressions expressed about Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria ignored certain realities of the evolving situation in the Middle East. There is a broader picture of foreign and national security policy for the US and other countries in the region of which US troops deployed to Syria had become a part. To understand that bigger picture, one only needs to listen closely to the persistent anti-US grumblings voiced from the capitals of potential adversaries within the region. National leaders and other top officials of those countries insist more directly that they have the will and inclination to assert themselves in Syria. In addition to those grumblings are tests of missiles of considerable range and latent warnings concerning the reinitiation of an ostensibly dormant nuclear weapons program. Perhaps through miscalculation, they might decide to act against US forces not simply to destroy them, but rather as a means to force them out. Fresh in the minds of many in the region are the 1983 attack on the US Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon and the 1996 attack on US troops at the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and the responses by the US. Perhaps a few US political leader, though surely well-meaning, have forgotten that the enemy will have a say in the outcome of the best laid plans of Washington. (With all of the “what ifs” considered, force security has been optimized through the employment of a suite of tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods by US force commanders in Syria. Yet, only the clairvoyants can walk with an assured step in the opaqueness of the Levant. There, one must always expect the unexpected.) Lessons learned from past US military deployments to support allies in the region, which were also relatively limited in scope, have undoubtedly left Trump determined to avoid the disasters that US Presidents have faced in the past. It is far preferable for the US to act, not wait until it must react in response to such possibilities. Further, if Trump, using his experience with, and understanding of, other national leaders has felt vibrations, intimations that US forces were facing an increased danger from a certain direction in Syria, it would only be prudent him to be safe rather than sorry by moving those troops elsewhere. Correlatively, Trump would never be willing to take the chance of having the US plunged into a conflict on an adversaries terms.

The possibility must be considered that a clash between US forces and a prospective adversary on the ground in Syria could put US troops in real jeopardy. True, numbers are not everything, and the outcome of a military engagement that would include very capable US troops cannot be determined by simple bean counting. To avoid such clashes, since 2015, the US and Russia have maintained a “deconfliction line” to communicate the locations of their respective air and ground forces in Syria. Still, US troops have exercised their right to self-defense and clashes have occurred. When pro-Syrian regime fighters, mostly Russian mercenaries, attacked 40 US troops at their military base at a refinery near the town of Deir al-Zour in February 2018, around 200 of the attackers were killed. There were no US casualties. Despite that favorable outcome, circumstances may not stand in the favor of US troops on some other occasion. Russian military forces and the forces of other potential adversaries on the ground in Syria are actually formidable given their size and strength. They are close enough to US troops to pose a danger that should not be dismissed.

The order to withdraw US troops from Syria might have equated to the sounding of retreat if it had occurred following a very public threat from an adversary, or had occurred in the face of an adversary’s deployment of its forces on the ground precisely to threaten US forces. A decision not to withdraw in response to such military threats from adversaries would likely require the deployment of greater numbers of US troops in Syria and perhaps preparation for a larger war in the region. This consideration has rarely been a factor discussed by Trump’s critics and detractors and other observers in the US news media. However, it would only be a natural concern for any US president who has placed US troops in harm’s way. Quod dubites, ne feceris. (Never do a thing concerning the rectitude of which you are in doubt.)

As with other US troops in the region, US forces in Syria face a significant threat from attack by potential adversaries in the region with long-range artillery and rockets in country and precision rockets from their countries or other locations in the region in which their forces are operating. The spectrum of possible attacks indeed goes beyond frontal assaults on the several small US bases in Syria’s northeast. This consideration has also failed to find its way into the  commentaries of Trump’s critics and detractors and other observers in the US news media. The enemy has the ultimate say in how it might strike. Projections that fail to ascribe all probabilities and limit consideration to only some possibilities, perhaps the top five or top ten, while dismissing those they may feel are unlikely or de minimus, are flawed. To make a decision without the complete picture would be akin to walking down a blind alley.

There has always been the reality that Assad could attempt to strike US forces in Syria using his remaining chemical weapons stockpile, the same stockpile that the Russian Federation had confirmed that he had removed. Such an attack could be conducted as a suicide attack or “martyrdom operation”. Assad could potentially conduct such an attack even if his regime was placed in complete jeopardy. Assad is a study in miscalculation and irrationality especially when it comes to military action. A surprise chemical attack against a US base in Syria could have a devastating effect, harming a great number of troops. US troops have guarded against any effort by Assad to put his forces in positions near their bases. Away from the combat zone of Syria, comfort may be found in the thought that US forces could respond to such a chemical strike with an immediate, devastating strike upon the regime, essentially destroying it. Still, a massive retaliatory against the Assad regime would do little to help any US troops lost or injured in such an attack. The US certainly cannot rely upon Moscow to keep Assad in check regarding his chemical weapons. In reality, the door has been left open to his madness for some time. Non omnes eadem amant aut easdem cupiditates studiaque habent. (Not all men love the same things or have the same desires and interests.)

The notion that the presence of US troops in Syria should remain to serve as a barrier or trip wires in case of attacks against US allies and friends by potential adversaries and also by other US allies and friends is abhorrent. With regard to dealing with US allies, the capabilities of US diplomats should not be underrated to the extent that military force posed against allies must suffice for skilled negotiation. As for potential adversaries, it is uncertain what would be the fate of US forces if an adversary launched a swift, concerted attack with combined arms against them. It would appear that many US political leaders, policy analysts, and particularly Trump’s critics and detractors in the US news media are willing to wait and see what happens. Leaving US troops in Syria to continue as they have until the time that they might actually be attacked by an adversary could be called questionable judgment. It would essentially boil down to waiting around until casualties are suffered by US forces. Such thinking does not flow from the concept of America First. If having an available response in Syria is absolutely necessary, US military planners could develop a scheme, for example, to encamp US troops in nearby Iraq, Jordan, or perhaps even Turkey, arrange, determine ways to synchronize surprise deployments or powerful blows from vertical and ground assaults against an attacking force at a time and place of the choosing of US commanders. It might actually be a more effective way to place US forces in a position superior to that of an adversary in order to destroy it as effectually as possible.

If US troops in Syria were attacked in a concerted military way or were hit with some massive terrorist attack and losses were suffered, there is no guarantee that public support would exist nationally and that political will would exist in the US Congress for a large military build up in Syria and perhaps the start of a wider war in the region. Trump administration plans might very well be waylaid by a rebuff from the Congress given that control of the US House of Representatives has gone to the Democrats, the political party in opposition to Trump and his Republican Party, following the 2018 US Congressional Election. All indications are that the intention of the Democrats is to be activist, questioning decisions on foreign and national security policy of the US president and possibly uprooting some. (As these things go, the focus of Trump’s political foes would likely be the tragedy of the attack, itself, and why more consideration had not been given, and why more had not been done, to ensure their safety and security. It might be then that the decision of keeping US troops in Syria would be lambasted as questionable judgment given the mission was so limited.) It would seem best for Trump to act now to ensure the safety and security of US troops, rather than face what could very well be: a tragic situation of unknown consequences; the need to make a decision under duress on whether to remain and fight or withdraw; and, if he decides to remain, almost ensure that he will contend with an enormous political battle over the fight in Syria with Congress. To act now, by withdrawing US troops, rather than wait for an adversary to decide their fate, could be considered prudent. Iniqua raro maximis virtutibus fortuna parcit; nemo se tuto diu periculis offerre tam crebris potest, quem saepe transit casus, aliquando invenit. (Unrighteous fortune seldom spares the highest worth; no one with safety can long front so frequent perils. Whom calamity oft passes by she finds at last.)

Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and other regional actors, as well as European allies such as the United Kingdom and France, are already taking steps through airstrikes, ground incursions, raids, and other direct attacks to degrade well-known terrorist groups lurking in strongholds in Syria. Israel, in particular has focused also on placing severe limitations on the capabilities and capacity of a certain country that is also potential adversary of the US in the region. Yet, while such actions have been useful in curating the diverse ecosystem of military forces and terrorist groups on the ground, they have also increased the chances that those elements would attempt to lash out in retribution against US forces in Syria. Thus, as a result of the US troop presence in Syria, US allies have doubtlessly acted in a manner that would avoid precipitating such retribution. Planning for airstrikes in Syria, for example, was done by allies through the Coalition Air Operations Center at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and independently at their respective national air operations headquarters with US troops on the ground firmly in mind.

The primary and strongest US ally in the region, Israel, has been somewhat restrained in its operations in Syria against some longtime adversaries, who have been malign actors not only in the region, but around the world. Upon the departure of US troops from Syria, Israel will be provided an opportunity, a freer hand, to engage in more effectual and perhaps more robust action there. No longer hamstrung by the potential misstep of provoking its adversaries to strike against US forces ostensibly in retribution for its attacks, Israel may decide to finally crack the problem of the presence of its adversaries being based so close to its sovereign territory. With likely the same minimum of attention its operations in Syria have attracted so far in the global news media, Israel can engage in concentrated operations to degrade its adversaries and eliminate threats with a tempo and ferocity such that those adversaries could no longer face losses inflicted upon them. To borrow a phrase from former US President Richard Nixon, Israel will have the opportunity to “sock it to them!”  If those adversaries would choose to resist exiting Syria, in order to survive, they would very likely be required to redeploy in a way that would make them ineffective on the ground. Indeed, Israel might be able to create the type of environment in Syria that would cause pause among Islamic militant groups hoping to establish themselves in Syria. The extent to which the US might support or assist Israel with any efforts in Syria is uncertain. That would likely be decided sub rosa. However, the US would most likely step up and provide whatever might be possible. Turkey would also have a similar opportunity to respond more robustly against Islamic militant groups in Syria. Turkey’s military capabilities, though, are somewhat limited in comparison to those of Israel and its increased efforts would likely require incurring greater risks.

With regard to impressions the withdrawal of US troops from Syria might have made upon the global audience, few capitals worldwide would likely equate their sovereign countries, whose nationhood and history they extol, to the autonomous Kurdish areas in Syria. While feelings of empathy may be felt by national leaders toward the Kurds situation, most would hardly commit anything too significant from their own resources in support of them. In fact, some national leaders would likely agree with the notion that US troops should be kept out of harm’s way to avoid at least for now, a greater conflict in the region. Cito enim arescit lacrimal praesertim in alienis malis. (A tear quickly dries when shed for the misfortunes of others.)

The withdrawal of US troops from Syria will ostensibly eliminate all financial costs for the US related to that deployment. At the same time, Russia and other countries remaining in Syria will need to keep a robust military and security presence there in order to reasonably maintain control of the situation, or at control of that area referred to as “Useful Syria”. They would most likely need to engage in many more operations against Islamic militant groups to secure peace as such groups may attempt to violently reestablish themselves in the country. The job of “restoring Syria to its past glory” through reconstruction will be incredibly difficult as Russia and one of the countries remaining in Syria are contending with punishing sanctions for misdeeds on other matters. They would surely be precluded collecting the amount of financial resources necessary to engage in such an undertaking successfully. As months and possibly years pass, the effects of wind and rain will make bomb-damaged, dilapidated buildings and other derelict structures even less appealing to the eye. The same global audience whose views on the US troop withdrawal were a concern for Trump’s critics and detractors, would have an excellent opportunity to observe and assess what might be in-store for them if they too relied on the patronage of those countries. They could judge for themselves what leadership from those countries is really worth.

Removing the conventional US military footprint in Syria would place the responsibility to develop a complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement in the country squarely in the court of Russia and other countries who remain there. Any attempt to proceed without such a plan would be a huge blunder. Moving too slowly to repair Syria will allow ideal conditions to exist for an Islamic militant groups to attempt to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That is what occurred in Iraq after US forces were withdrawn. It was all pretty much foreseen by many US intelligence analysts. Unfortunately, the histories of Russia and other countries in Syria include no authentic success in such a reconstruction effort in contemporary times. As mentioned already, the economic circumstances of those countries are dire, shaped in great part by sanctions. That factor might do much to hinder them from gathering resources to engage in such an undertaking.

Conditions in Syria may not be optimal for the US, but Trump recognized that he was in a relatively favorable position to make the decision to withdraw, and he did so. Despite all of the bdelygmia, the decision appears to be the result of an in-depth examination of the realities of the Syria mission by Trump and his closest aides and advisers over time. The factors presented here reflect Trump’s pattern of well-considering the short-term and long-term interests of the US, before taking any steps. With so many actors on the stage in Syria doing so many disparate and discreet things, it is also possible that some rarefied, furtive bit of information marked “for the president’s eyes only” may have been behind the choice made. At the risk of unsettling readers by injecting in a bit of levity in the subject matter, one could say that Trump, the erstwhile owner of a plethora of casinos, is expert at knowing “when to hold up, when to fold up, when to walk away, and when to run!”

The Pivot to Asia: The Policy Shift That Called Putin’s Attention to Europe’s Unlocked Doors

For the administration of US President Barack Obama, the reset with Russia was a major foreign policy initiative. For three years, a business-like tenor existed in relations, making the administration comfortable enough in 2011 to turn its attention toward Asia under what it called the “pivot to Asia.” Its hopes were dashed when Vladimir Putin returned as Russian Federation president in 2012, seeking to restore Russia’s power and influence. Soon after, there were numerous disagreements between Obama and Putin particularly over Europe. Relations deteriorated, and Europe again faced a threat from Russia.

What is most noticeable about US-Russia relations today is the uncongenial relationship between US President Barack Obama and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. While that relationship may seem in perpetual retrograde, there initially was real potential for positive ties and real progress on a variety of issues if the interests of both countries were considered. The Obama administration approached Russia with the idea that the relationship between the two countries could be “reset.” The reset with Russia was one of the administration’s major foreign policy initiatives. Relations with Russian Federation President Dimitry Medvedev were positive. For three years, a relatively smooth and business-like tenor existed in relations with Russia. That contrasted with the contentious relations that followed the Georgian War in 2008 while Putin served as president. It boded well for Obama’s legacy over which White House officials publicly admitted being absorbed. With its Russia policy on track, the administration was comfortable enough to turn toward an even greater priority at the end of 2011 which was referred to as the “pivot to Asia.” Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained it all in an edifying discourse in the October 11, 2011 edition of Foreign Policy magazine.

In her essay entitled “America’s Pacific Century,” Clinton wrote: “In the next ten years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values. One of most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment—diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise—in the Asia Pacific region.” Bringing to memory the historic US commitment to Europe after World War II, Clinton declared: “At a time when the [Asia-Pacific] region is building a more mature security and economic architecture to promote stability and prosperity, [the] U.S. commitment there is essential. It will help build that architecture and pay dividends for continued American leadership well into this century, just as our post-World War II commitment to building a comprehensive and lasting transatlantic network of institutions and relationships has paid off many times over—and continues to do so. The time has come for the United States to make similar investments as a Pacific power, a strategic course set by President Barack Obama from the outset of his administration and one that is already yielding benefits.” The administration’s plans were ambitious and admirable, but its hopes for a benign pivot to Asia were soon dashed. Europe once again faced a threat from Russia. There were numerous actions and reactions by Obama and Putin particularly concerning Europe. Relations deteriorated. Omnia iam fient quae posse negabam! (Everything which I used to say could not happen, will happen now!)

Candidates in the 2016 US Presidential Campaign, perhaps already considering how to deal with Putin and formulating policy approaches for Russia for their possible administrations, should get beyond us-them simplicities and avoid conceptualizing prospective relations solely on where they are at this moment in time. Rather, the course of the collapse of US-Russia relations and how to repair, and avoid, policy missteps witnessed over the past eight years should be anatomized. Part of that process would entail fully understanding those mistakes. Some of them are reviewed here. Further, it is important to genuinely understand the thinking of Putin and his advisers on Russia’s relations with the US. A truncated analysis, in the abstract, of such thinking inside the Kremlin is also presented here.

Igniting Putin: A New Russian Threat Excites Europe

From 1945 to 1989, US geo-strategists assessed that if a new world war were to occur, the battleground would be Europe. However, in the first term of the Obama administration, it was assessed that Europe had become more tranquil. There was a crisis in the eurozone, but Europe remained the most prosperous and peaceful parts of the world. The threat from China was the new focus of geo-strategists. That threat was ostensibly the underlying rationale for the pivot to Asia. In Europe, the announcement of the pivot to Asia was greeted with ambivalence, even alarm. The Europeans understood the renewed commitment to Asia would come at their expense. Obama administration officials tried to prove that was not the case at the time. However, with planned defense cuts of $500 billion over the next decade and the expressed intent to avoid reducing expenditures in Asia, Europe would be the only place to make cuts. The costs were conceivably higher given the possibility budgetary pressures would increase. Key defense commitments in Europe at the time included a missile defense system being developed with a possible nuclear Iran in mind. The administration had already announced that it intends to withdraw two of the four US Army brigades deployed to Europe—with overall military spending on Europe set to decline by 15 percent. Yet, US Army units stationed in Germany were considered in the context of rotations to the Middle East or Africa, not combat in Europe. There remained the potential threat of a breakdown in relations with Russia which would put Europe’s security at risk, but it was practically considered de minimus, negligible. The Obama administration considered the possibility that if Putin returned to Russia’s presidency, he would seek to exert pressure against the West where and when he felt it would pay dividends. It is unlikely the administration foresaw things would go so badly.

Obama was at ease with Medvedev. He went as far as to declare a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries existed. He seemed to measure all possibilities on relations with Russia on his interactions with him. However, maintaining a constructive relationship with the Russian leader is not a personal matter; it is part of the business of being president. Both the US and Russia possess the unique and mutual capability to annihilate one another, and the world, with their nuclear arsenals. Talks between the leaders of the two countries build confidence, eliminate ambiguities about positions, and prevent guessing over actions, intentions, and motives. Talks allow leaders to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns they had within their own high-level relationship. A strong personal bond between leaders can develop, but it is not essential. When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the low yield of the reset and the underestimation of Russia as a potential threat became apparent. Putin returned to the Kremlin on a mission to restore Russia’s global power and influence. He was not interested in anything that might diminish or prevent that effort. Perhaps as a consequence of that, old ills that were part of US-Russian relations began to resurface, and new ones arose with frequency. Among them were: Putin’s decision to allow US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and the US admonishment of Russia on human rights issues. Putin fumed over Operation Unified Protector, during which multinational forces including the US, were placed under NATO command and imposed a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Putin felt NATO-led forces went beyond UN Security Council Resolution 1973’s mandate by helping local forces overthrow Gaddafi. Gaddafi, who had been a friend of the Soviet Union and Russia, was killed. The world saw how poor the relationship between Obama and Putin was after observing their body language when they met in Northern Ireland on June 17, 2013.

Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office and Sergei Ivanov (above). Ivanov is an anti-US ideologue. He believes the US has taken a foreign policy course aimed at holding on to US leadership in the world by means of the strategic containment of the growing influence of the Russian Federation and other centers of power.

How Relations with Putin Went Wrong Way

Perhaps the administration did not fully grasp just how poorly things were going with Putin. The Obama administration was confident enough to push agendas for nuclear arms reductions with Russia and EU and NATO expansion in Europe just as the administration of US President George W. Bush, his predecessor had. The administration referred to its effort to attain further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office as a “signature effort.” The reduction of nuclear forces and reductions in conventional forces have been issues US and Russian leaders have dealt with for decades, but Obama was not going to resolve any nuclear issues with Putin. Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are not a mere policy issue or bargaining chip for Putin, but a means of survival for Russia. Putin had no intentions of acceding to proposals for deep cuts in its nuclear arsenal repeatedly sent to Moscow by the administration. It was at this point in 2013 that relations with Putin and Russia truly began to collapse, falling to a very low point when the Obama administration cancelled a September summit meeting between Obama and Putin. The cancellation was in retaliation over Putin’s decision to reject the administration’s nuclear proposals. Administration officials lamented that Putin’s decision ended the president’s “signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.”

There were other very public affronts. The next year, during preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, there was a constant drum beat of doubt expressed by US security experts on the capability of the Russian security services to protect Sochi from terrorism. A leader’s public declaration of his decision not to attend has practically been a tradition among US and Russian leaders during a period of disagreement in international affairs. In addition to the Olympics, Obama would later decide not to attend the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allies, ending World War II in Europe. The celebration, hosted by Putin, was a time to recall the legacy of cooperation established during the war and a real example of what US-Russian cooperation could be in a common cause. It offered a chance for Obama to privately address his dispute with Putin. It was the best time for him to say that as with the alliance between their countries in World War II, relations between their countries now were important, bigger than both of them. Attending would have required Obama, as Rudyard Kipling would say, to “bite the bullet,” in terms of personal pride, but not in terms of his role as US president. By being absent, that day became one more reminder of the two leaders differences and their uncongenial relationship. Occasio aegre offertur, facile amittitur. (Opportunity is offered with difficulty, lost with ease.)

Between those years, the US and EU took Putin to task for his annexation of the Crimea. Harsh sanctions were levied and Russia was cast out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies. Even tougher sanctions against Russian interests were threatened by the US if aggression against Ukraine escalated. Putin responded to it all with sanctions against US and EU products. 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. Incursions of Russian bombers and fighters in NATO airspace and Russian warships in NATO waters were regularized. The only public bright spot in US-Russia relations was diplomacy between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, mainly on Syria and Iran. Still, that activity was more reflective of their countries’ roles on the UN Security Council, not the tenor of relations between Obama and Putin.

Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (above). In response to what Russian officials refer to as “NATO’s preparations along our borders,” Shoigu announced on January 12, 2016 that there would be a major military build-up along its border with Ukraine.

Putin’s Pushes Westward

The poor US relationship with Russia, just as much as the Ukraine crisis, affected Europe’s relationship with Russia concerning business, economics, and security. In the summer of 2013, the EU Council sharply condemned Russia’s mounting pressure on members of the EU Eastern Partnership, countries with association agreements with the EU. In 2012, the EU accounted for 52 percent of Russia’s exports, 68 percent of which consisted of fuel and energy. Following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the EU suspended virtually all cooperation. Still, Putin’s thinking on the EU was not positive even before the Ukraine crisis. Putin saw the EU as a project of deepening integration based on norms of business, law, and administration at variance from those emerging in Russia. Putin was also concerned that EU enlargement would become a means of excluding Russia from its “zones of traditional influence.” Certain Russian actions indicate Moscow actively seeks to encourage members to withdraw from the EU sphere and discourage countries joining it. Joint projects with European countries have allowed Russia to exploit their differences on political, economic and commercial issues creating a discordant harmony in the EU. As much as making money, a goal of such efforts has been to undermine EU unity on sanctions. The Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline, for example, has provided Putin with the means to disrupt, weaken European unity. A murmur exists in Europe that solidarity ends at the frontiers of some countries. Ad mores natura recurrit damnatos fixa et mutari nescia. (Human nature ever reverts to its depraved courses, fixed and immutable)

Regarding NATO, in an interview published on January 11, 2016 in Bild, Putin provided insight into his thinking then and now. During the interview, Putin quoted West German Parliamentarian Egon Bahr who stated in 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” Putin then quoted what he considered an edifying suggestion from Bahr on how to avert a future problem in Europe. According to Putin, Bahr proffered: “the USA, the then Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structure.” Putin claimed that the former NATO Secretary General Manfred Worner had guaranteed NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin perceives the US and EU as having acquitted themselves of ties to promises to avoid expanding further eastward, and arrogating for themselves the right to divine what would be in the best interest of all countries. He feels historians have ignored the machinations and struggles of people involved. Putin further stated: “NATO and the USA wanted a complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone. But they are sitting there, and we are talking about all these crises we would otherwise not have. You can also see this striving for an absolute triumph in the American missile defense plans.” Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas. (Fortunate is he who understands the causes of things.)

Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office and Foreign Policy Adviser Yuri Ushakov (above). Ushakov, much as Ivanov, is not a fan of the US. He was present at former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s meeting with Putin. Kissinger seemed to confirm many of the worst notions Putin and his advisers held on US thinking.

In the years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, many European countries cut their defense spending, allowed their military preparedness to drop, and reduced the NATO footprint in their own territories and in countries east to occasional drills and small exercises with former Warsaw Pact members. They stood unprepared to confront Russia. Some allowed fear and resignation to infiltrate their perceptions of the matter. They sought to veil the fact that they were intimidated by Putin, and seemingly tried to mollify him, speaking skeptically about the clear threat Russia posed. Others seemed to fear signaling a military reaction to Putin. Yet, they signaled insecurity by appearing ambivalent about committing to the costly requirements of collective security despite: the “Crimea-grab”; the Russian push in the Donbass; a looming threat to the Baltic States; Moscow’s threats to use nuclear weapons; and, Russian military air and naval incursions from Britain to Estonia. (It would be unconstructive to name specific countries regarding this point.)

Putin did not stand by while the EU and NATO expanded. He decided to pull independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit. Accomplishing that required Putin to create something that did not preexist in most near abroad countries: ethnic-Russian communities forcefully demanding secession and sovereignty. That process usually begins with contemptuous murmurs against home country’s identity, language, and national symbols and then becomes a “rebel yell” for secession. It was seen in Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and more recently in Crimea, the Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine. Each time an ethnic-Russian space is carved out of a country, Putin gains a base from which he can exert his influence in that country.

Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council Nikolai Patrushev (above). Patrushev is Russia’s most senior intelligence official. He asserts that the US has always sought to have levers of pressure on Russia by making use of NATO on its own terms and using its political and economic pressure to prevent vacillations by allies and partners.

Inside the Kremlin: Putin’s Advisers Speak

Audiatur et altera pars! (Let us hear the opposite side!) In February 2016, a doyen of US foreign policy, archetypal Cold Warrior, and master architect of détente, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, visited Russia in order to speak at the Gorchakov Foundation. While in Moscow, he met at the Kremlin with Putin, the Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office and Sergei Ivanov and the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office and Foreign Policy Adviser, Yuri Ushakov. Ivanov and Ushakov are anti-US ideologues. In his Gorchakov Foundation speech and his meeting at the Kremlin, Kissinger, albeit unintentionally, confirmed many of the worst notions Russian officials held on US thinking. Kissinger stated that “Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium, not primarily a threat to the United States.” Noting that “divisive issues” existed, Kissinger suggested that rather than establish its own sphere of influence near its border, Russia should share influence in its’ periphery with the West to avoid raising alarms around it. For example, he asserted that “Ukraine needs to be embedded in the structure of European and international security architecture in such a way that it serves as a bridge between Russia and the West rather than an outpost of either side.” To Putin and his advisers, Kissinger’s ideas were hardly acceptable. Enough examples of Moscow’s behavior exist to challenge the suggestion that some sea change in thinking at the Kremlin could occur. Consider the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. In a March 6, 2014, BBC.com article entitled, “Ukraine Crisis: Obama Urges Putin to Pursue Diplomacy,” it was reported Obama told Putin in a phone call that there was a solution available that suited all parties, involving talks between Kiev and Moscow, international monitors in Ukraine, and Russian forces returning to their bases. Yet, Putin would never entertain a solution that would “suit all parties.” What suits Russia in the near abroad was, and remains, Putin’s only concern.

When Kissinger went on to state that there must be a willingness “to move beyond the grievances and sense of victimization . . . ,” Putin and his advisers sat unruffled, but were surely irritated. They likely perceived Kissinger was being dismissive of their strong concerns over EU and NATO expansion eastward. His statement likely supported their perceptions that US officials have an instinctive need to assert moral authority over Russia.

Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev (above). Obama was put at ease when Medvedev was Russia’s president. Obama went as far as declaring a new era existed between the two former Cold War adversaries. Now Medvedev states: “NATO’s policies related to Russia remain unfriendly and opaque—one could go as far as to say we have slid back to a new Cold War.” Medvedev is not a friend of the US. He is Putin’s comrade.

During the final plenary session at the 12th Annual Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia on October 22, 2015, Putin mentioned the 1973 comedy, science-fiction film from the Soviet Union, “Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession.” Putin quoted one of the film’s characters as saying to another: “How am I supposed to understand what you’re saying if you don’t say anything?” Senior Russian political leaders and foreign and defense policy officials have recently made some unambiguous public statements about US, EU and Russian relations. Clearly, their statements were biased by the view that US holds an unyielding hostility toward Russia which is manifested in its policies and actions. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on February 13, 2016, Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, Putin’s political comrade, accused NATO of restarting the Cold War amid increased military maneuvers and troop deployments to Russia’s neighbors. Medvedev told the meeting of national leaders, senior defense officials, and top diplomats that sanctions imposed after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and new moves by NATO “only aggravate tensions.” He argued: “NATO’s policies related to Russia remain unfriendly and opaque—one could go as far as to say we have slid back to a new Cold War.” He went on to state: “On an almost daily basis, we’re called one of the most terrible threats either to NATO as a whole, or Europe, or to the United States.” Medvedev called for lifting sanctions imposed on Russia concerning Crimea, saying they are “a road that leads nowhere.” He suggested the West would only harm itself if it did not lift the sanctions soon. He warned: “The longer the sanctions continue, the more chances fade for Europeans to keep their positions in Russian markets as investors and suppliers.”

In his meeting with Putin, Ivanov, and Ushakov, Kissinger stated that Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium concerning what he dubbed “divisive issues” such as Ukraine. He suggested Russia should share influence in its declared near abroad with the West. He also explained there must be a willingness to move beyond grievances and sense of victimization. Putin and his advisers sat unruffled, but were surely irritated by his statements.

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: “. . . Washington has always sought to have levers of pressure on Russia. Thus, in 1974 the famous Jackson-Vanik Amendment was adopted, restricting trade relations with our country. It appeared to have completely lost its relevance immediately after the breakup of the USSR, but it was still in force right up to 2012, when the so-called “Magnitsky List” was promptly adopted in its place.” Referring to current US and EU sanctions against Russia, Patrushev explained: “The current sanctions are in the same category. The US administration’s activity in the Ukrainian sphere is taking place within the framework of an updated White House foreign policy course aimed at holding on to American leadership in the world by means of the strategic containment of the growing influence of the Russian Federation and other centers of power. In this context Washington is actively making use, on its own terms, of NATO’s potential, seeking to use political and economic pressure to prevent vacillations on the part of its allies and partners.”

In response to what Russian officials refer to as “NATO’s preparations along our borders,” on January 12, 2016, Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that there would be a major military build-up along its border with Ukraine. Shoigu reportedly stated: “the task of utmost importance for us this year is to form three new military divisions in the western direction.” Shoigu stressed that it was not only a necessity not just to form the bases but also to re-equip locations for permanent deployment, create appropriate training grounds, storage space for equipment and accommodations for personnel. Shoigu further explained that “special attention should be paid to monitoring and analysis of the military-political situation in the world, as well as timely responses to its changes.” One base is being constructed in the town of Boguchar in the Voronezh region, located 45 kilometers from the border of Ukraine’s Luhansk province, now the self-declared, independent Luhansk People’s Republic. The base would accommodate at least 5,000 troops and would be able to house 1,300 pieces of military equipment. A similar base will be constructed near the settlement of Valuiki in the Belgorod region, approximately 20 kilometers from Luhansk.

For the Obama administration, the end is closer than the beginning. Only so much can be done in the amount of time left to halt the trend downward, much less, turn things around with Putin or its Russia policy. The challenge of improving US-Russia relations will likely be left to the next US President. O si sic omnia. (Oh, would that all had been done or said thus.)

The Way Forward

A little more than four years after Clinton provided her 2011 discourse on the pivot to Asia, General Breedlove essentially assessed the path had not been paved for Europe to go without a US presence, US leadership, and significant US support. In the US European Command Posture Statement 2016 presented on February 25, 2016, Breedlove explained: “I cannot emphasize how important European nations, in particular our NATO Allies and Non-NATO Partners, are to ensuring America’s security and safety. Many of our most capable and willing allies and partners are in Europe, playing an essential role in promoting our vital interests and executing a full range of military missions . . . Europe is not the same continent it was when I took command, as new threats and challenges continue to emerge.” The grand notion of pivoting away from Europe to focus more on Asia withered once the clashes between Putin and Obama began. Some may parse out the collision of Obama and Putin as representing the natural balance of things as their worldviews are so divergent. Even if true, some syncretistic existence should have been established for the benefit of their countries and their people. Authentic geopolitical thinking was subsumed by a satisfying substitute for reality concerning long-term US-Russia relations. Indeed, decisions in the Obama administration on Putin and Russia were based on relations with Medvedev early-on and what was best for Obama’s legacy. That got the administration into trouble with Putin from the get-go. Relations languished in misunderstanding.

Discord obtains when things get mixed up. One might speculate, with levity, that Russia experts at the State Department, the Defense Department, and CIA, who understood Putin, were seemingly exiled to isolated garrets on the top floors of their headquarters buildings by the administration to keep their impressions out of the way. Hopefully, there is not an irreversible trend downward for US-Russia relations. Yet, the end is closer than the beginning for the Obama administration. Only so much can be done with time available to halt the slide, much less, turn things around. Improving US-Russia relations will be a challenge left for the next US administration. Kissinger suggested Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium. However, creating that global equilibrium will be tough as Russia will likely remain intransigent over its interests in what Putin calls the near abroad. Some recognition of Russia’s positions would be required to improve relations (although creating an arrangement in Europe that would satisfy Russia may not be possible at this point). Resetting relations would also require a new administration to recognize the limits of US power projection. How much the US will be able to handle in its sphere of influence in the future must be determined through a hard-headed assessment of possibilities based on capabilities both available and in development.

Russia Gloats, US Worries and France Vents Exasperation over Brexit: Can Obama Bolster EU Unity Despite Russian Pressures?

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin shouts back at cheering troops as he walks with Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during the 2015 Victory Day Parade in Moscow. Russia presented itself at the event as a country on the rise. Part of that rise apparently includes encouraging the fall of the EU and NATO. Russia has been accused of using military, economic, and political means to promote a discordant harmony among countries to undermine EU unity on sanctions and unity as a bloc.

According to a February 20, 2016 article in The Times in the United Kingdom entitled, “Russia Gloats, US Worries and France Vents Exasperation”, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is thought to be privately gleeful at the sight of discord within the EU over the possible decision by the British to exit the EU (Brexit). Indeed, the article states whatever undermines the EU—which Russia accuses of meddling in Ukraine and its former European Soviet satellite state—is good for Moscow. Reportedly, in Washington, the prospect of Brexit has set alarm bells ringing about the United Kingdom’s possible retreat to the European periphery, altering its special relationship with London.

In a January 31, 2016 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “In the State of the Union Address, Obama Confronts Americans’ Fears; They Want to See Success on Foreign Policy”, it was predicted that in 2016, Putin may want to maintain an environment of confrontation for the US and EU leaders. He supports countries behind many of the foreign policy problems that the administration of US President Barack Obama faces. Keeping all European allies unified and resolute could become more difficult as some may fear facing greater problems from him. Putin has looked deeply at the US and Europe, discerning many flaws, weaknesses in the transatlantic bond. He particularly noticed the lack of will among European political leaders to maintain it. The initial response to Putin’s battering rams, to include his moves in Ukraine, hybrid warfare threat to the Baltic States, and military build-up, was to bolster the barricades of Europe particularly in London and Berlin. Since then there have been cracks in the armor, precipitated by Putin’s maneuvers. In most cases, any damage to the European unity would appear self-inflicted by EU and NATO Members. In every case, Putin would be a beneficiary. Any member’s departure from the “Group of 28”, or NATO, would be a step in the wrong direction. The Obama administration is urging the EU not to retreat having achieved so much. Causality for this situation may be found in part in the administration’s plans for a “pivot to Asia”, its delinquency in responding to important issues on European policy, and its disastrous relations with Putin. Despite the challenging political, economic, and security issues with which some EU states are wrestling, the Obama administration can bolster European unity, and by-pass military, economic, and political obstacles Russia may be creating. The examples presented in this discussion provide kernels of some approaches. The Obama administration needs to support Europe in its search for answers to buttress unity. Its assistance should not be a mere search for the bromide of a public relations message. The administration should contribute approaches to effectively promote unity in accordance with the stated needs of European allies.

The migrant crisis in Europe began with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement in the summer of 2015 that Germany would stop expelling Syrian refugees and her agreement with Austria in September 2015 to welcome tens of thousands of migrants who were stuck in Hungary. Hungary rejected their asylum requests. Merkel’s actions were followed by a massive surge in asylum seekers travelling from Turkey to Greece and then up through the Balkans to Hungary, Austria, Germany and northern Europe. The result has been a humanitarian tragedy, and a political, social, and administrative nightmare for capitals created by an external source, but not Putin. Indeed, Putin has said the refugee crisis is “an internal problem of the EU” and added that Russia does not “interfere in these issues.” Given that Russia has had no discernible hand in the matter, the issue is not included in the discussion here.

NATO recently revealed that in 2013, two Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic bombers (as above) escorted by four Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters, came within 24 miles off the island of Gotland, 100 miles from Stockholm, and conducted mock nuclear attacks. The Swedish military was caught completely off-guard causing great concern among Swedish officials.

Stirring Disunity Militarily

Etiam fortes viros subitis terreri. (Even the bravest men are frightened by sudden terrors.)  Putin is genuinely on a mission to restore Russia’s global power and influence and to bring the independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Syria, Putin has shown the will to fight, even after red-lines were crossed and stern warnings were given. His threats of military action are not doubted. Russian intrusions into NATO airspace, flyovers and buzzing by military jets, interceptions at sea and other harassing actions in NATO waters, are designed to have a strong educational effect on leaders in Europe.

Sweden

It has been reported by NATO in February 2016 that the Russian Federation Air Force conducted a mock nuclear attack against Sweden during war games. The March 2013 exercise saw Russian aircraft cross the Gulf of Finland and approach Swedish airspace. The NATO report claimed that Russian military drills have now reached levels unseen since the height of the Cold War. During the military exercise on March 20, 2013, two Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic bombers escorted by four Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters came within 24 miles off the island of Gotland, 100 miles from Stockholm. They conducted dummy bombing runs against targets thought to include a military base in southern Sweden and the headquarters of the country’s signals intelligence agency outside Stockholm. The incident caused controversy at the time because the Swedish military was caught unprepared and to rely on Danish Air Force jets operating as part of NATO’s Baltic air policing mission to respond. Sweden has since remilitarized an old Cold War frontier base on the island of Gotland because of the rising threat from Russia. The Obama administration has sought to expand US military spending in Europe four-fold to about $3.4 billion in an effort to reassure allies unsettled by Russia’s military actions. Such efforts affirm the US commitment to Europe. Yet, Sweden and other NATO members must be dissuaded from the view that peace can exist without significant, tangible investment in Europe’s mutual defense. They must work cooperatively with the US to bolster Europe’s defense.

Norway

In its National Threat Assessment presented in February 2016, the Norwegian Police and Security Service (PST) reported that Russia is a threat to Norway. While presenting the report, the Head of PST Marie Benedicte Bjornland explained Russian Federation intelligence services have made targets of Norway’s capabilities in defense, security, and preparedness. Bjornland said, “Our assessment is that the aim of these activities is to facilitate Russian military dispositions in a future security policy scenario.” The PST report explains that such intelligence activities could ultimately threaten key Norwegian interests and the country’s control over its own territory. The report claims that intelligence operatives have been sent to Norway with official covers as diplomats at the embassy or consulates. The main task of those diplomats, as observed by PST, is to establish relations of trust with Norwegian government employees or any other individuals who can provide sensitive information. The PST report explained that such intelligence operatives also make use of other tools such as the extensive use of operations to spread information and propaganda and influence opinion in other countries with a view to weakening confidence in the authorities of the target state or sowing division between difference groups in the society or in different regions. The PST warned that these methods are particularly used during periods of tension concerning security, and Norway should prepare itself to cope with such methods. PST head Bjornland further explained that large scale digital espionage against Norway and Norwegian interests was already underway. Businesses and educational institutions would undoubtedly be targets of such attacks. Crux est si metuas quod vincere neques. (It is tormenting to fear what you can’t overcome.)

Above are Russian “green men” in Crimea in 2014. In its National Threat Assessment presented in February 2016, the Norwegian Police and Security Service (PST) reported that Russian Federation intelligence services have made targets of Norway’s capabilities in defense, security, and preparedness. Fear exists in Oslo that one morning green men may appear in Norway’s streets.

Denmark

In March 21, 2015, Russia went on a public relations offensive on the Baltic. Denmark was warned that if it joined the NATO’s missile defense shield, its navy would become a legitimate target for a Russian nuclear attack. The Russian Federation Ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin delivered that message during an interview with a Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. He was quoted as follows: “Denmark would be part of the threat against Russia. It would be less peaceful and relations with Russia would suffer. It is, of course, your own decision—I just want to remind you that your finances and security will suffer. At the same time Russia has missiles that certainly can penetrate the future global missile defense system.” Denmark’s Foreign minister, Martin Lidegaard, reacted strongly to the comments, calling the Russian ambassador’s statement “unacceptable.” However, Nicolai Wammen, Denmark’s Defense Minister went to pains to calm Russia, saying the move [toward a defense shield] is not targeted toward Russia but at “rogue states, terrorists organizations and others who would have the capacity to fire missiles at Europe and the United States.” Concerning such statements by Russian officials, NATO Supreme Allied Commander US Air Force General Philip Breedlove has already provided some answers which the Obama administration should echo. Breedlove 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.” Nord Stream-2 will include two new pipelines that will deliver an additional 44 billion cubic meters of gas annually from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Poland. Germany, the greatest consumer of Russian gas, supports Nord Stream-2. Some EU countries say it contradicts the sanctions policy against Russia, and accuse German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government of putting their country’s economic needs ahead of collective diplomacy.

Stirring Disunity Economically

Nihil tam muitium quod non expungari pecunia posit. (No fort is so strong that it cannot be taken with money.) Some EU countries have established new deals with Russia, an activity inconsistent with placing sanctions on Moscow over its behavior toward EU or EU-backed countries. Perhaps those states really believe such breakdowns in unity are unavoidable, especially regarding oil and gas. However, regardless of the genuine economic benefits of any deals with Russia, the economic carrots held by Moscow enable it to use EU and NATO members as tools against each other.

Germany

In September 2015, the Russian state owned gas giant, Gazprom, began preparing for the construction of Nord Stream-2. It will include two new pipelines that will deliver an additional 44 billion cubic meters of gas annually from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine, the Baltic States and Poland. Nord Stream-2 doubles the capacity of Nord Stream-1 built in 2011 which passes through Ukraine. Running the new pipeline through Ukraine was viewed unsafe. The new pipeline is especially important to Germany, the greatest consumer of Russian gas. Some EU countries fear the new pipeline will allow Germany to dominate the European gas market, Germany says politics should be left behind in the building of the pipeline. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker echoed that view saying the project should be considered not as a political issue, but as a commercial one. In December 2015, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was the first to speak out against the pipeline in the context of security saying it contradicted the sanctions policy against Russia. Italy also accused Germany of putting its economic needs ahead of the bloc’s collective diplomacy. (Note Italian firm Eni had large investment in a South Stream gas pipeline from Russia cancelled by Gazprom in 2014) Italian concerns over the Nord Stream-2 have since been quieted. A group of Eastern European countries sent a letter to the European Commission calling for it to block the Nord Stream-2. They are headed by Slovakia and Poland, who are believed to have initiated the campaign, and supported by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Greece. They say Nord Stream-2 goes against the EU energy diversification and security policies. Berlin might explain claims by other EU and NATO countries are small relative to the German commitment to European defense and security and its role as the EU’s economic engine. The Obama administration has not publicly admonished or discouraged Germany on Nord Stream-2. It could insist Germany demonstrate how the gas deal is a matter of energy security, not adverse  with sanctions policy, and maybe assist it in doing so. During the final plenary session at the 12th Annual Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia on October 22, 2016, Putin seemed to deliberately sow seeds of suspicion regarding the solidarity of two main members the EU with the other 26 members by saying: “I believe that the Federal Chancellor of Germany and the President of France are being sufficiently objective today, and though it is obvious for political reasons they support the current Kiev authorities, in my opinion they have a sufficiently fair assessment of the situation. They already have an understanding that the problems that have accumulated there are not only black and white—it is much more complicated.”

Observing Germany’s moves, other EU countries have rushed to strengthen ties with Russia. During a visit to Moscow in February 3, 2016, Austrian Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner confirmed Austria’s commitment to Russia’s Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline project to Europe at a meeting with Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev.

Austria

Observing Germany, other states contributing far less to the EU and NATO, have visited Putin, seeking to strengthen their business and economic linkages with Russia. During a visit to Moscow in February 3, 2016, Austrian Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner stated that EU sanctions against Russia have made no political progress and brought negative effects to Austria’s economy. Recent statements from Putin support the Vice Chancellor’s claim. Putin explained: “Concerning our possibilities on the international financial markets, the sanctions are severely harming Russia. But the biggest harm is currently caused by the decline of the prices of oil and gas, which we can partly compensate for elsewhere.” Putin added: “The trade balance, however, is still positive.” For Mitterlehner, the low impact of sanctions on Russia and their reverse impact on Austrian firms put the continued implementation of them in question. On that, Mitterlehner complained: “We have over a thousand companies doing business with Russia from Austria, and another 500 Austrian firms working in Russia. 40,000 employees are being affected.” He confirmed Austria’s commitment to Russia’s Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline project to Europe at a meeting with Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev.

Hungary

In a press conference at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on February 17, 2016, Putin referred to Hungary as an “old and faithful partner.” Orban returned with similar pleasantries, but contrary to thinking within the EU of which Hungary is a member, Orban also stated that the time for the automatic extension of the sanctions on Russia had passed, and that more EU countries are starting to oppose the restrictions on Moscow. Orban and Putin had signed a number of agreements two years earlier to include the expansion of Paks-2, Hungary’s only active nuclear power plant, built by the Soviet Union. The four Paks reactors are currently producing up to 50 percent of Hungary’s electricity. However, the remaining reactors will go off-line between 2032 and 2037, and Hungary would lose the bulk of its electricity. The €12.5 billion contract, partly aided by Moscow’s €10 billion loans, would add two new 1,200 megawatt reactors to nuclear power plant. The Orban and Putin also agreed to extend a gas deal which will see Russia supply Hungary until the end of 2019. About 85 percent of Hungary’s gas flows from Russia. Orban and Putin already signed a gas agreement in 2015 that replaced a 20 year contract that expired in December 2015. Under the agreement, Budapest is paying only for the gas it actually consumes, as opposed to the volume it contracts, making it a lucrative offer for the low-demand client. Putin said: “We are satisfied even despite a well-known drop in trade turnover. We are content with the nature of our relationship.” In 2015, Orban told Putin “Hungary needs Russia.” In 2014, Orban said Europe “shot itself in the foot” as the sanctions policy pursued by the West “causes more harm to us than to Russia.” Putin said that the Kremlin is convinced that the “normalization of Russia-EU ties will happen sooner or later.”

There is discernible frustration among Georgia’s elites and the public with the slow pace of Western integration. Russian propaganda has influenced Georgia’s disillusioned. Despite tension between Moscow and Tblisi, the prospect exists that Georgia might slow or suspend efforts toward greater Euro-Atlantic integration and abandon closer EU and NATO ties.

Stirring Disunity Politically

What galls the US and EU is the considerable effort they say Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has invested in grabbing territory in what he refers to as Russia’s “near abroad”. Each time an ethnic-Russian space is carved out of a country, Putin is provided with additional space from which he can exert his influence in the home country. In the Crimea and the Donbass in Ukraine, Russia moved in with its forces, under the causality of rescuing ethnic-Russian lives. So far, Russia has refrained from taking military action in other near abroad countries. However, Russia has used state-controlled media outlets to beam programs and reports into near abroad countries attacking the notion of European unity.  News stories on Europe on RT_com and Sputnik in particular are usually negative, designed to stoke cynicism citizens may feel toward their leaders. Eventually, such propaganda will be structured to drive citizens in those countries away from European economic and security structures. Vulpem pilum mutat, non mores. (A fox may change its hair, not its tricks.)

Georgia

In February 2016, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress that Georgia could reverse its strategic orientation toward the West under Russian pressure. The rethinking of its Euro-Atlantic orientation would be due in part to Russian efforts. According to Clapper, “even as Georgia progresses with reforms, Georgian politics will almost certainly be volatile as political competition increases. Economic challenges are also likely to become a key political vulnerability for the government before the 2016 elections. In 2008, Putin first tested NATO, moving against countries that are part of Russia’s “near abroad.” Pro-Russian separatists in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia, along with Russian Federation troops, fought a war for independence against the Georgian Government. Once peace was established between the warring parties by then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy, Russia occupied the two rebellious regions and continues to do so today. Russia also recognized their independence. There are now nearly 5,000 Russian Federation troops based in South Ossetia and 5,000 based in Abkhazia. There was little Georgia could do then, or can do now, to recover those regions, yet it had the support of the US, and the EU. The big change that has occurred is the growth of a discernible frustration among Georgia’s elites and the public with the slow pace of Western integration. Russian propaganda has also been effective in Georgia and the prospect exists that Tblisi might slow or suspend efforts toward greater Euro-Atlantic integration and abandon closer EU and NATO ties. That could occur despite the fact that tension between Tblisi and Moscow remains high. A similar assessment was made about Georgia in 2015, but the risk is now increasing. At best, Russia could ask Georgia to join a Russia-led customs union and sign up for the Moscow dominated Eurasian Economic Union. That might be countered by increased public visits by senior US and EU officials to hear Tblisi’s ideas on accelerating the pace of integration.

Moldova

In 2008, Putin forced Armenia to break off its agreements with the EU, and Moldova was placed under similar pressure. Moldovans in response elected a pro-EU government in 2009. It was a pro-EU government that in 2014, which against Russia’s wishes, signed an Association Agreement with the EU. However, Moldova entered 2016 without a government and mired in a deep political crisis following a corruption scandal which forced the ruling pro-EU government of Prime Minister Valeriu Strelet to resign in late October. Earlier revelations concerning the same scandal knocked down his predecessor, Chiril Gaburici, in June 2015. The crisis began early 2015 when it was discovered that over $1 billion, equivalent to about 15 percent of the country’s GDP, had disappeared from three Moldovan banks in 2014 following parliamentary elections. When Gaburici’s administration fell,  the question was raised whether leaders in Chisinau would ever be able to enact reforms needed to bring the country in line with EU standards. Despite the fact the a pro-European government was eventually approved by lawmakers, Moldovans engaged in street protests, discontented over its right wing and pro-Romania elements. Officials in power feared that if early elections were called, Moldovans would vote for representatives of the left, who are pro-Russian, and who seek to develop political and economic ties with Russia. In addition to other benefits such as trade, the coming to power of a pro-Russian government in Moldova would be a public relations coup for Moscow. It could claim that Moldova was a state that experienced all of the charms of European integration and decided to return to orient itself toward the tried and proven path toward Russia and long-established Russian markets.

Regarding Transnistria–an unrecognized republic which declared independence in 1990 and defended it in the War of Transnistria in 1992. It has been governed since as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, a pro-Russian government in Chisinau could help diffuse the crisis, but very likely in Moscow’s favor. To firm up agreements that ended the war, talks that include the US, EU, and Russia, are underway on the Transnistria Peace Settlement. Chisinau, along with Kiev, has blockaded Transnistria, preventing not only trade but the entry of citizens with Russian passports into its territory. After the War of Transnistria of 1992, the Russian Federation stationed 2,500 troops in the republic. Today, 1000 Russian Federation troops remain there ostensibly as peacekeepers. In 2014, Transnistria announced it hoped Russia would annex its territory into Russia following the Crimea referendum. As a sign of support, in 2015, Moscow had 400 Russian Federation troops there to hold military exercises using armored personnel carriers and live ammunition. Still, Moscow always considers the big picture, and apparently does not believe annexing Transnistria would be advantageous. It does not want the Transnistria issue to negatively impact its efforts to bring Moldova into its Eurasian Economic Union. Discernable steps to bring Moldova closer have included: the courtship of pro-Russian political elements; efforts to create stronger economic ties; and, diplomatic overtures on establishing a new security relationship. If Moldova moved closer to Russia, security risks might increase for Europe, especially with regard to Ukraine and Romania. In a calibrated way, the US and EU might invest directly into Moldovan communities, focusing on schools churches, community centers, and infrastructure projects. Supporting Moldovan economic growth by seeking more international markets for Moldovan goods and services worldwide might take some dtrains off of Chisinau. The US and EU could enable Moldova to better integrate itself militarily with Europe by providing its forces equipment and training from US and European military advisers. Diplomatic efforts could relax pressures on Chisinau from Ukraine and Romania.

It was the United Kingdom that raised European awareness of the importance of interventionist foreign and security policy and has kept the concept alive. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron has urged Europe to stand up to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and to potential threats elsewhere on the continent. Nothing would make Putin happier than seeing the United Kingdom give-up on its Western partners.

Brexit

Nothing would make Putin happier than seeing the United Kingdom give-up on its Western partners. It was the United Kingdom that raised European awareness of the importance of interventionist foreign and security policy and has kept the concept alive. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron has urged Europe to stand up to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and potential threats elsewhere on the continent. Cameron has been frank in expressing mutual positions of the Western powers to Putin in meetings. It has also been the United Kingdom that has argued for the liberalization of European markets and global free-trade in unison with the US. The Obama administration is agonizing over the possibility of the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU on its watch. It would create unsettling changes in the US dynamic with the United Kingdom and EU as well. It was on January 23, 2013 that Cameron made his renowned “Bloomberg speech”, in which he promised an in/out referendum on the United Kingdom’s EU membership. Cameron said the referendum would follow a period of negotiation with other EU countries on the internal working of the EU and the United Kingdom’s relationship to it. Those negotiations occurred, and despite some firm resistance from France, Cameron got most of what he wanted. Four main points sum it up: an opt out from the ambition of an “ever closer union” (The phase appeared in the Treaty of Rome, which the United Kingdom is not a signatory and the non binding preamble of the Treaty of Lisbon.); greater powers for national parliaments block EU legislation; safeguards to ensure the single market cannot be rigged in favor of eurozone members; and, reducing access to social benefits to EU nationals, which is tied to concerns about immigration. Next comes the national referendum on June 23, 2016. “In/out” campaigning is underway. During the Greek, news about the crisis on the Russian state news channel, Russia-24, was accompanied by the graphic declaring “Greece—almost over.” The Russian daily Kosmomolskaya Pravda ran the headline: “Greek tragedy. Divorce already near.” The Greek crisis was perceived then as just the start of the EU’s problems, suggesting Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Italy could be next if Greece left the eurozone. It should be expected that Russian media houses roll out similar coverage on Brexit.

Obama is counting on Cameron to capture the imagination of the United Kingdom and not let it recede further into the distance. The United Kingdom has been an important intermediary between the US and Europe. It is not near the center of European power, which is now concentrated around Germany and France. The United Kingdom has become weaker militarily and increasingly paralyzed by domestic issues. Washington fears that the United Kingdom is moving out of the international power game. Keeping an active United Kingdom in the EU is central to US efforts to keep Europe united. Obama might visit Cameron at Number 10 Downing Street to signify his support. Obama could ask Cameron then what exactly he can do as the US president to support the campaign to keep the United Kingdom in the EU. Cameron might just accept his offer and present Obama with a laundry list of requests. Nothing on that list should be subject to political bargaining. The special relationship between the US and the United Kingdom is genuine. By supporting Cameron, the Obama administration may leave the most positive legacy regarding US-United Kingdom relations since World War II.

Since Obama supports the campaign to keep the United Kingdom in the EU, perhaps he could visit London, and ask Cameron directly what he could do as the US president to assist him. If Cameron wants his help, he might just provide Obama with a laundry list of requests. Not one item should be subject to bartering. The special US relationship with the United Kingdom is real. By supporting Cameron on Brexit, the Obama administration may leave the most positive legacy regarding US-United Kingdom relations since World War II.

The Way Forward

The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was quoted as saying: “Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also.” It is good the Obama administration in its final year has taken an interest in European unity and pressures from Russia. The administration has clearly indicated that it is not conceding to anything that is difficult, uncertain, and perhaps even disconcerting in international affairs.

Among Europeans in 2015, Obama received strong support, although his ratings dropped slightly over the past seven years. To give an example, he has the confidence of 83 percent of France, 76 percent of the United Kingdom, and 73 percent of Germany. Yet, perhaps there may be less interest in what Obama says at this point. He is, after all, a lame duck president with months left in office.   Europeans may be transfixed on the very interesting candidates of the Election of 2016, pondering who the next US president will be. Perhaps pride may cause them to reject what Obama may offer. Yet, whether Europeans want to hear from Obama or accept his help or not, they must recognize the need to remain united and maintain the Atlantic bridge to the US. Outside of the EU, European countries would have a superficial existence, underestimating their destiny, dignity, and nature. To that extent, a dialogue with Obama about capabilities and possibilities for assisting their countries in 2016 should be sought.

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.

US and Allies Extend Iran Nuclear Talks by 7 Months: A Deal May Be Reached with Trust, But Not with Certainty

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Commander General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari (right) stands close to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left), at a ceremony. For hard-liners as Jafari, the failure to reach a deal by November 24th proved the West only wants Iran to surrender its nuclear program. Fears of US military action are gone. Hard-liners have gained even more of Khamenei’s attention on foreign policy.

According to a November 25, 2014 New York Times article entitled “U.S. and Allies Extend Iran Nuclear Talks by 7 Months”, the US and partners in the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council—the US, United Kingdom, France Russia, and China—plus Germany), to declare an extension for talks with Iran on its nuclear program until June 30, 2015. The extension came after a yearlong effort to reach a sustainable agreement with Iran to dismantle large parts of its nuclear infrastructure. There was no indication of why negotiators felt they could overcome political obstacles blocking a deal. Until very recently, negotiators from all sides insisted that the November 24, 2014 deadline for a deal was hard and fast.

The November 25th New York Times article explained the already extended high-level diplomacy over the Iranian nuclear program was arguably US President Barack Obama’s top foreign policy priority. The results on November 24th had to be a disappointment for him. Negotiators did not even agree on the framework for a comprehensive deal. In expressing hope that a deal could still be reached, US Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that a series of “new ideas surfaced” in the last several days of talks. He further stated “we would be fools to walk away,” because a temporary agreement curbing Iran’s program would remain in place while negotiations continued. Indeed, it has been reported that Iran has actually kept its end of the deal under the November 24, 2013 interim agreement, named the Joint Plan of Action, by reducing its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, not enriching uranium above a purity of 5 percent and not installing more centrifuges in addition to other things. In extending the interim agreement, Iran has ensured itself sanctions relief, bringing it $700 million a month in money formerly frozen abroad. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani appeared on Iranian national television with a message of both reassurance and resistance. He told Iranians that a deal would end sanctions, but also said “the centrifuges are spinning and will never stop.” The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has rejected US demands for the deep reductions in Iran’s enrichment capability. His view may not change before a March 1, 2015 deadline for reaching a political agreement, the first phase in the seven-month extension.

For the hard-liners in Iran, the failure to reach an agreement proved the US and its allies were not negotiating honestly and simply wanted to take away Iran’s nuclear program. Iranian moderates however, seem to realize an authentic agreement that includes the removal of sanctions and an acceptable modification of Iran’s nuclear activities can be reached. Yet, they likely also worry that the failure to reach an agreement coupled with the lackluster US reaction over events in Iraq and Syria has strengthened hard-liners’ resolve, and worse, strengthened their position and influence with Khamenei. Threats made by the Obama administration to take military action if negotiations fail now ring hollow. Western negotiators remain concerned over how Iran will proceed with or without a deal. A deal would need to be made with the prayer that Tehran will not announce one day that it has a weapon.

Zarif Wants An Agreement to Resolve the Nuclear Issue in Tehran

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, was upbeat before reporters at a press conference on November 25, 2014 in Vienna saying with a broad smile that he was optimistic that in the next few months a solution would be found. He was quoted as saying “We don’t need seven months.” Zarif directed his words at the US Congress saying Iran would not be ending all of its nuclear activities. He explained “If you are looking for a zero sum game in nuclear negotiations, you are doomed to failure.” He also revealed that the step by step removal of sanctions was a stumbling block in the talks. Zarif apparently argued to the end in the talks that the sanctions must be lifted permanently and almost immediately. For both Rouhani and Obama, the next seven months may be difficult to manage. Opponents of concessions of any kind have been gaining strength in both countries. It seems time has quickly passed since the summer of 2013 when considerable enthusiasm was created in Washington and other Western capitals over the potential of negotiations with Iran. Rouhani made an eloquent case for opening a dialogue with the US before and after his inauguration.  Skepticism expressed in the US came mainly from Kerry.  He made it clear that the warming a relations between the US and Iran did not mean that the US would back off its demands on Iran’s nuclear program.  Kerry was also unequivocal about his willingness to shut down any talks if he discerned an effort to stall, misdirect, or deceive through the process. However, as the process got underway, there was a perceptible shift in the US position.  US negotiators seemed to fall over themselves just to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.  Talk of military action against Iran’s nuclear program has become a distant memory.  Obama administration officials pleaded with Congress not to levy new sanctions against Iran because sanctions would not convince the Iranians to accede to US wishes.  Simply put, the White House wanted to reach a deal, and US officials did not really hide that fact. Zarif apparently recognized the change in US attitude.  He told the Iranian media, “There are indicators that John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].”

By that point, Zarif saw the real possibility of reaching an agreement with the P5+1 that Tehran could live with. He argued with hard-line elements in Tehran, including the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and hard-line political and religious leaders, that a deal would be beneficial to Iran. The hard-liners did not desire to engage in negotiations, particularly with the West and remained reluctant, but, in obedience to Khamenei, they did not oppose his efforts. Zarif assures that Iran neither needs nor simply wants a nuclear weapons capability. That is to the best of his knowledge. Zarif believes Iran’s size and strength and level of technological development makes it unnecessary to augment its power with nuclear weapons. Zarif believes the goal of Iran’s nuclear program was to produce fuel for its nuclear reactor. That argument has remained at the root of his efforts during the entire negotiation process.  In a US television interview in July 17, 2014, he explained that nuclear weapons would likely reduce Iran’s security and influence in its region.  He said “It doesn’t help anybody.”  He went on to state “The fact that everybody in the international community believes that mutual assured destruction, that is the way the United States, Russia and others, get, seek, peace and security, through having the possibility of destroying each other 100 times over, is simply mad.” Zarif argued: “Have they [nuclear weapons] made Pakistan safe? Have they made Israel safe? Have they made Russia safe? All these countries are susceptible. Now you have proof that nuclear weapons or no amount of military power makes you safe. So we need to live in a different paradigm. And that’s what we are calling for.” To prove Western claims about Iran’s nuclear program untrue, Zarif has proposed confidence-building measures and responded to proposals from the P5+1. However, firm limits to what he could commit to were set by Khamenei. As the November 24th deadline approached, Tehran apparently pulled the reign on Zarif tighter. Zarif undoubtedly recognized that other events in the region were having an impact on Khamenei’s thoughts on the negotiations. Threats of US military action had already dissipated. However, once the Obama administration displayed great reluctance to act militarily in Iraq in the face of monstrous actions by Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), fears were mitigated within all quarters in Tehran that the US would act militarily against Iran.  Obama’s October 2014 letter to Khamenei may have further substantiated that view. With less worry that failed negotiations would lead to war, leaders in Tehran, particularly Khamenei and the hard-liners, saw no need to deal away any more of Iran’s nuclear program.

Hard-liners Strengthen Their Position with Khamenei

From the prism of hard-line elements in Tehran, the negotiation process has been a contest of wills. IRGC Commander General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari stated: “All must help the negotiations team of our country and the foreign policy apparatus in order to create consensus and public unity at the current time in order to help them demand the fundamental rights of the nation of Iran in the nuclear field and stand against Arrogant [US] blackmail and greed during negotiations and meetings.” Yet, as the eagerness of the Obama administration to reach a deal became even apparent to them, the hard-liners watched, anticipating that the US would acquiesce to Iran’s demands. Previously, Iran contended with the administration of US President George W. Bush who threatened regime change and, hinted at a possible ground attack from Iraq. However, the Obama administration seemed less threatening and somewhat pliant to hard-liners. That perception was apparent iin the reaction of Jafari to the negotiations latest outcome. He explained “The Americans’ surrender to the authority of Iran is apparent by their behavior in the region and in the [nuclear] negotiations, and the issues of the enemy in combat with Iran were fully felt. Of course, their excesses in some cases are due to their fierce temper.” Jafari still expressed no genuine interest in reaching a deal with the P5+1. He stated, “The main elements of our power are in the hands of God and country. We should not seek our dignity and authority from the foreigners.”  He waxed on Iran’s potential to become a global power, and the need for a strategy to promote its interests and the Revolution worldwide. Jafari proffered, “Our problem is that we don’t have a broader outlook; the Supreme has also stressed this issue . . . If we don’t have a comprehensive and broader outlook, we will go wrong in all fields and decision-making, even the negotiations and nuclear issues.”

IRGC senior commanders have always looked with a bad eye at the size, power, and capabilities of the US military, and have wanted to surpass it in the Middle East and beyond. The IRGC and Iranian Armed Forces regularly declare their willingness to defend Iranian territory to the end and display Iran’s military capabilities. Jafari stated: “[The US and Israel] know well that they have been unable to take any military action against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and if they make any foolish move of this sort, there are many options on the table for Iran and deadly responses will be received.” Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi, stated, “With God’s grace, Iran’s army has transformed into a strong, experienced, and capable army twenty-five years after the [Iran-Iraq] war’s end, and is now considered a powerful army in Western Asia.” On Syria, the US has not interfered with Iran’s military forces on the ground and efforts to shape events there. Despite declaring red-lines on the use of chemical weapons in Syria and publicly accusing the Assad regime of using chemical weapons, the Obama administration expressed fears over placing “boots on the ground” and eventually declined to act.  That led IRGC commanders in particular to publicly deride the US as being indecisive and predict it would be pliant to Iran’s demands. IRGC Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani said of the US, “There was a day when the US used three options: political, economic, military.  Today they lie and say ‘we have forced Iran to negotiate with sanctions’ or the Islamic system is weaker.’  Really, today, the US has the most debt of any country in the world.  The US has also failed everywhere they have interfered militarily.  From a political perspective, they are not accepted anywhere in the world.  In a situation in which the US is considered the world’s greatest power, they are ruined in every dimension.”

In one of his early public statements on the Iraq, Khamenei said, “The Dominant System [US], using the remnants of Saddam’s regime as the primary pawns and the prejudiced takfiri elements as the infantry, is seeking to disrupt Iraq’s peace and stability and threaten its territorial integrity.” Hard-liners apparently had to convince Khamenei that the Obama administration did not have the situation under control and was not moving with an assured step. Much as Zarif seemingly recognized, hard-line military and security officials apparently concluded uniformly that the US has no intention of attacking Iran if the nuclear talks fail. The hard-liners appear to have convinced Khamenei that Obama’s reluctance to fight ISIS showed he would be even more reluctant to face the IRGC, Iranian Armed Forces, and other security elements globally if the US attacked Iran’s nuclear program.  The hard-liners also likely inferred from Obama’s reluctance he would not want to concurrently fight Iran and ISIS. Khamenei was able to see Iran was in, what Jafari would characterize as, a stronger position versus the US, even on the nuclear issue.

Jafari has always looked with a bad eye at the US military. He believes the US is in decline and wants Iran to acquire a broader outlook regarding its role in world affairs.

A maturing public relations apparatus in Khamenei’s office shaped official quotes from the Supreme Leader in response to the talks’ result. On Thursday November 27, 2014, Khamenei made it clear that he backed the extension of nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, and praised the negotiating team for its efforts. Khamenei expressed on his website, “For the same reasons I wasn’t against negotiations, I’m also not against the extension.” He characterized Iran’s negotiators as “hard-working and serious . . . [They] justly and honestly stood against words of force and bullying of the other side, and unlike the other side, they did not change their words every day.” In another message on his Twitter account, Khamenei stated “We accept fair and reasonable agreements. Where there’s bullying and excessive demands, all of Iran, people and officials, will not accept.”

However, in a more genuine manifestation of his feelings on the negotiations, Khamenei, in a November 25, 2014 meeting with Muslim clerics in Tehran, dismissed the diplomatic and economic pressure that world powers had brought to bear on his country over its nuclear ambitions. Khamenei said that the West had failed to bring Iran “to its knees.” On his website, he further stated that “In the nuclear issue, America and colonial European countries got together and did their best to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, but they could not do so—and they will not be able to do so.” Several Twitter posts from an account used by Khamenei’s office, accused the West of meddling in the Middle East and using Sunni militant groups to thwart the Arab Spring uprisings with intra-Muslim infighting, “in line with arrogant [US] goals.” Some of Khamenei’s November 27th statements actually lapsed into the same aggressive tone. Khamenei said the US would be the biggest loser if the extended talks failed. He remarked “Know that whether or not we reach a nuclear agreement, Israel becomes more insecure day by day.” He then proclaimed, “Our people are willing to maintain their authority and values, and will bear the economic pressure.” Khamenei has stated repeatedly that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon. However, his statement likely came with caveats. If Khamenei, as the steward of Iran’s national security, felt a weapon was necessary for Iran’s security, he would build it and expect the Iranian people to faithfully overcome any Western efforts in response.

The Danger That Lurks: Real or Imagined?

Before the nuclear talks began, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) obtained information suggesting Iranian leaders are not completely opposed to developing a nuclear weapon. In an internal 2009 IAEA document, most of which was published by Institute for Science and International Security, is a section titled “Statements made by Iranian officials.”  It states: “The Agency [IAEA] was informed that in April 1984 the then President of Iran, H.E. Ayatollah Khamenei declared, during a meeting of top-echelon political and security officials at the Presidential Palace in Tehran, that the spiritual leader Imam Khomeini had decided to reactivate the nuclear programme. According to Ayatollah Khamenei this was the only way to secure the very essence of the Islamic Revolution from the schemes of its enemies, especially the United States and Israel, and to prepare it for the emergence of Imam Mehdi. Ayatollah Khamenei further declared during the meeting, that a nuclear arsenal would serve Iran as a deterrent in the hands of God’s soldiers.” The November 2011 IAEA Safeguards Report described the emergence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program that peaked in 2002 and 2003, and then was abruptly halted. The IAEA report also presented information from UN Member States indicating aspects of this program continued or restarted after 2003 and may be on-going.

The concern among US and European negotiators is that hard-liners in Tehran are using the on-going nuclear talks to misdirect them, enabling elements of the Iranian government to pursue the covert weaponization of the nuclear program.  Continued progress with the nuclear program has been a feature of Iran’s negotiations with the West since such talks began with the Bush administration. Iran may have the capability to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the West within the parameters of Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility.  Rouhani and Zarif would take a path toward diplomacy to acquire concessions from the P5+1while the IRGC, the Ministry of Defense, and other government elements secretly develop the ability to create a nuclear weapon. According to a May 27, 2014 Wall Street Journal article, Western intelligence agencies discovered Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear device dated back to the late 1980s, at a Defense Ministry-linked physics research center in Tehran.  According to the IAEA, Iran consolidated its weaponization researchers in the 1990s under an initiative called “AMAD Plan,” headed by Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear engineer and senior member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).  The mission of AMAD Plan was to procure dual-use technologies, developing nuclear detonators and conducting high-explosive experiments associated with compressing fissile material, according to Western intelligence agencies.  AMAD Plan’s most intense period of activity was in 2002-2003, according to the IAEA, when Rouhani was Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.  The May 27th article asserted Fakhrizadeh has continued to oversee these disparate and highly compartmentalized activities under the auspices of Iran’s Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, known by its Persian acronym, SPND. Nulla tenaci, invia est via! (For the tenacious, no road is impossible!)

The Way Forward

While stumbling blocks are addressed, new approaches to ameliorate US concerns are being explored such as ways to provide the US with at least a year to discover if Iran was racing for a weapon, a standard that the US has set. Such steps could involve a combination of Iranian commitments to ship some of its nuclear stockpile to Russia, efforts to disconnect some of the country’s centrifuges in ways that would take considerable time to reverse, and limits on output that could be verified by international inspectors.   However, efforts in that direction may not amount to much in the current political environment, particularly in Iran and the US. When it was announced that no deal was reached and negotiations would be extended, lawmakers inthe Iranian Parliament erupted in chants “Death to America” after a lawmaker commenting on the deadline extension spoke of “the U.S.’s sabotaging efforts and its unreliability.” The lawmaker, Mohammad-Hassan Aboutorabi-Fard, who is the deputy speaker of the Parliament, said Iran had learned from the nuclear negotiations that it had a strong hand to play. “Today, we can speak to the U.S. and its allies with the tone of power,” he said in remarks quoted by the Fars News Agency. “A lesson can be taken from the recent nuclear talks that, for various reasons, the U.S. is not reliable.” The Republican controlled Congress really has no interest in restoring or improving relations with Iran while it has a nuclear program. Congressional Republicans have threatened to impose new sanctions on Iran regardless of whether such action interfered with the nuclear talks. Obama will no longer be able to rely on Democratic leaders in the Senate to bottle up legislation that would require new sanctions. Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the New York Times, “I don’t think Congress is going to sit still.” He further stated, “There is a fear the administration is being played for time, and there will be a desire to express that in some form of a sanctions bill.” Disapproval over the renewed sanctions relief that had brought Iran $700 million a month in money formerly frozen abroad may very well compel Congress to levy new sanctions. If the nuclear negotiations failed, any outrage expressed after such an occurrence would simply amount to lip service.  The use of military force would be unlikely given current circumstances in the Middle East and Obama’s disposition on it. There would be sanctions, but it is likely Tehran has already calculated what the consequences of such measures would be and how it could best mitigate their effects. Khamenei has assured that, if the extended talks fail, “the sky won’t fall to the ground.”

Evidence that the Iranian nuclear program has been militarized does not exist. Yet, despite what Zarif has argued, Khamenei and hard-line Iranian leaders may believe a nuclear weapon would make Iran more secure. At a minimum, they might seek the option to weaponize. Proceeding in that way would be very dangerous for Iran in the long-term. Iranian leaders know that when dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time. Term-limits set by the US Constitution prevent Obama for serving a third term. As greatcharlie.com has cautioned more than once, striking a balance between demands for relief from economic sanctions and the gradual cessation of the nuclear program may not be at issue for the next US president. To the extent the US is a staunch ally of Israel and to a similar extent, Saudi Arabia, the next US president might decide to ameliorate the US approach, requiring new concessions from Iran, to include an immediate halt of its nuclear activities. A new demand might be made for Iran to surrender its nuclear program or face military action.  If the current global perception that US leaders lack the will and power to act militarily still prevails in 2016, the next administration may not be able to compel outcomes on many issues with diplomacy or threats to use force. Favorable outcomes may result only from robust use of US military force.

An above average understanding of human nature and faith will be required to formulate a final decision on a deal under current circumstances. Clearly, some reasonable doubt exists, at least among Western partners in the P5+1, over whether the terms of a deal would be observed. With circumstances in the world seeming off-balance, George William Rutler, pastor of Saint Michael’s Church in New York City and author of Cloud of Witnesses, recently reminded greatcharlie.com of a live radio message by King George VI on New Year’s 1939, offering reassurance to his people. It would have an important effect on the listening public as they moved closer to war. King George VI acknowledged that there was uncertainty over what the new year would bring. He explained, “If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”   He went on to quote a poem from Minnie Haskins of the London School of Economics entitled “The Gate of the Year” (The Dessert 1908). It seems apropos to present that quote here at the end of 2014, given the situation the leaders of the P5+1 nations will face in 2015 over the nuclear negotiations.

“I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year:

‘Give me a light, that I may tread safely into the unknown!’

And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way’.”

Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei about Fighting ISIS; Khamenei Is Counting on Suleimani, Not US Cooperation

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. An Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  He has achieved some success.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhrani said Iran would consider working with the US against ISIS if it sees the US begin to confront the terrorists.

According to a November 6, 2014 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei About Fighting Islamic States”, in October 2014, US President Barack Obama sent a highly confidential communication to Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The letter to Khamenei appeared directed at both bolstering the anti-ISIS campaign and prodding him toward a nuclear deal.  Those briefed on the letter familiarize the Wall Street Journal of its content.  Obama apparently wrote to Khamenei that expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) posed a threat to both the US and Iran, creating a common enemy for both countries. Obama stressed that both had the goal of defeating ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.  While Obama did not recognize Iran as the primary power in the region, as Tehran insists, he acknowledged in a way that Iran was “important” to his military and diplomatic campaign to push ISIS from territory it has gained in past months and dubbed the Islamic Caliphate.  Obama ostensibly sought to mitigate Tehran’s concerns over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  Although the US is arming and training Syrian opposition rebels, Obama apparently wrote in his letter that US military operations in Syria were not targeted at Assad or his security forces.  Those familiar with the letter explained Obama did not explicitly propose that the US and Iran coordinate their military activities.  However, they said there was a strong implication that coordination was desired.  Concerning the nuclear negotiations, Obama informed Khamenei that cooperation on ISIS was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council—the US, United Kingdom, France Russia, and China plus Germany) on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by November 24, 2014 deadline.  That point in the letter seemed to also imply cooperation would be more to Iran’s benefit.

News of Obama’s letter to Khamenei was somewhat confusing in the US given past statements by the administration on Iran.  When US National Security Adviser Susan Rice was asked on NBCNews “Meet the Press” on October 12, 2014, if Iran was providing help to the anti-ISIS coalition, she said “No!” Rice went on to state “We’re not in coordination or direct consultation with the Iranians about any aspects of the fight against ISIL [ISIS].  It is a fact that in Iraq, they are also supporting the Iraqis against ISIL [ISIS].  But we are not coordinating.  We’re doing this very differently and independently.”  Yet, despite Rice’s statement, Obama’s letter proposing the two countries cooperate in the anti-ISIS fight seems to be, at minimum, a move towards direct consultation with Tehran.  In the US Congress, Obama’s decision to send the letter revealed what the administration is saying about Iran may be different from its plans for Iran. Republican and Democrat Members of Congress are concerned that the administration is prepared to make far-reaching concessions to Tehran on a nuclear deal.  Members likely also sense the administration is uncertain of how to proceed regarding ISIS, having pledged not to commit ground troops for combat operations.  While willing to support the anti-ISIS fight with funding, they will likely wants to reign in what they see as Obama’s perilous approach toward Iran.

For leaders, discerning how to proceed on foreign policy is made more difficult in adverse circumstances.  Some choices that may appear wise are not.  Near desperation on wanting a situation to be a certain way has led many, well-intentioned leaders in error to project their “positive thinking” on that of a foreign counterpart, or worse, an adversary.  Such decisions are often supported by captivating assessments of positive outcomes not based in reality. Only a negative outcome would reveal the flaws of an approach for some.  Perhaps in its rush to respond to the ISIS problem, the Obama administration may have been blinded to the fact that it could be sending the wrong signals and creating conditions for future difficulties with Iran.  Qui totum vult totum perdit.  (He who wants everything, loses everything.)

Obama’s Letter: Cui bono?

Developing options for Obama has been vexing for administration officials and advisers. Obama has been adverse to taking military action. That has typically left a limited range of options that they have been able to present to Obama.  Even in situations where the use of force is almost absolutely necessary as with ISIS, officials and advisers likely presented options for actions that were light-weight, very small in scale, and calibrated precisely. The initial size and scope of the US anti-ISIS air campaign evinced that.  At the “human level,” among reasons sending a letter to Khamenei was determined acceptable may have been that letters had been sent to Khamenei in the past with satisfactory results.  (Indeed, the October letter marked at least the fourth time Obama has written Khamenei since taking office in 2009.)  Sending the letter was easy enough to do.  The option was a diplomatic tact and therefore more attractive to Obama than the “unappealing” military options already adopted for Iraq.  Discussion on the letter among officials and advisers fell outside the milieu of the unending military intervention debate in the White House.  Additionally, as previously discussed by greatcharlie.com, Obama has a predilection toward forgiving or, considering the overwhelming military power of the US, showing mercy toward an offending rogue actor.  The letter is one more example of that tack. The effort to bring Iran into the anti-ISIS fight as a partner, even nominally, certainly is in line with Obama’s policy of promoting multilateral cooperation, particularly regarding the  commitment of military forces.  His apparent obsession with making it work may be part of the impetus for his administration’s outreach to an unlikely ally. So far, the administration has not had much luck prodding its anti-ISIS coalition partners into ground combat operations against ISIS. In 2014, the Obama administration began insisting that the US would act only when multilateral approaches were available. The impression was given that this was a world in which once sufficient effort was made by the US to organize other nations, problems could be handled through cooperation. When ISIS was on the move, it seemed that the US State Department, in addition to “rearranging,” with good intentions, the Iraqi government, was most interested in gathering countries to become members of the “global coalition” to degrade and defeat ISIS. 

Qualifications for inclusion in that coalition were nominal. Of the sixty-two countries participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, the vast majority are not contributing militarily.  Many countries simply pledged their support.  As greatcharlie.com discussed in its October 25, 2014 post entitled, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against ISIS?; The Obama Administration Must Place Success Against ISIS Ahead of Creating the Appearance of a Broad Multilateral Effort”, the US has practically demanded more from some countries.  One country the US has pressured for action is Turkey. Although Turkey is a power in the Middle East region, the notion that Turkey, possessing far less military capabilities than the US would subordinate its own concerns and interests, to support and defend others under US pressure is flawed.  Turkey likely reached the same conclusions as the US about conditions for intervening in Iraq and Syria with ground troops.  In Syria, there would hardly be a Syrian opposition force with which Turkish troops could work.  If Turkey’s operations in Syria were to “creep” beyond destroying ISIS and the Assad regime was displaced, political leaders in Turkey would likely feel ambivalent about simply turning over a nation on its border, Syria, to the very dysfunctional Syrian opposition.  Even if Turkey controlled or greatly influenced the Syrian opposition, it is hard to see how taking on the stewardship of Syria, which would surely be a political, economic, and social basket case, would be to Turkey’s benefit.

Responses in Tehran to Obama’s Letter

The thinking on Obama’s letter in Tehran was certainly different than his administration must have hoped.  An adviser to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ali Khoram, speaking in Oman, confirmed to the Arabic daily, Asharq al-Aswat, that Obama reached out directly to Khamenei in a mid-October letter.  However, Khamenei’s foreign affairs adviser, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian State media that he was not aware of Obama’s outreach.  Khamenei’s web-site does not acknowledge receipt of the letter.  Obama’s letter, on its face, likely aggravated Khamenei, particularly to the extent that Obama did not render appreciation or even praise for the considerable effort and sacrifices already being made by Iran against ISIS.  That was a massive “oversight” if the goal of the letter was truly to promote cooperation at some level with Iran.  Using the anti-ISIS fight as a basis for dialogue with Khamenei perhaps had become a futile effort after he declared in October 2014 that “America, Zionism, and especially the veteran expert of spreading divisions—the wicked government of Britain—have sharply increased their efforts of creating divisions between the Sunnis and Shiites [Shi’a].”  He further stated, “They created al Qaeda and ‘Islamic State’ in order to create divisions and to fight against the Islamic Republic [Iran], but today, they have turned on them.”  It is possible that to Khamenei, the letter may have appeared more as a manifestation of Obama’s attitude than a response to a foreign policy problem.  Khamenei may have viewed the letter as an expression of Obama’s uncertainty over the US’s ability to shape the outcome of the anti-ISIS fight on his terms.  Khamenei, a spiritual, religious leader, likely sensed Obama’s inner-struggle over using the US military.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had already expressed ambivalence about continued communication between leaders in Washington and Tehran.  The Associated Press reported Rouhani stated in October 2014 that the time “wasn’t right” for another phone conversation or a meeting with Obama “because of the sensitivity that still exists between the two countries.”  The Associated Press also reported Rouhani as stating there must be substantive reasons with “high objectives” for conversations between world leaders.  If not, he said, “telephone calls are somewhat meaningless.”  Rouhani explained a phone conversation between leaders “would only be constructive and fruitful when it is done according to a precisely laid plan with precisely clearly stated objectives.” Otherwise, he said, “it will never be constructive or effective.”

Obama’s letter most likely did much to boost confidence among Iranian leaders, particularly the IRGC and political and religious hardliners that the US was not moving with an assured step and posed no threat to plans Iran has in Iraq or the region.  The failure of the US to act effectively and decisively in Iraq right away and the abysmal results shown for the nearly decade long US training program for the Iraqi Army and police forces very likely mitigated fears within all quarters in Tehran that the Obama administration might take military action against Iran or use Iraqi security forces to attack Iran.  Officials and advisers to Khamenei likely feel the fight with ISIS has caused Obama to consider what the US might face from the Iranian Armed Forces and other security elements globally if it attacked Iran’s nuclear program.  They certainly believe going to war with Iran would be a far greater enterprise for the US than fighting ISIS.  They probably feel certain that the US would never attack Iran while the anti-ISIS fight was raging.  They likely believe Obama would totally reject the idea of fighting Iran and ISIS simultaneously.

Iran’s Efforts in Iraq

Sitting right across the border from Iraq, Khamenei, Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hard-line political and religious leaders, saw an even greater danger from ISIS than the US did, and immediately attended to it.  Rouhani has stated “We’ve actually been the ones countering terrorism in the region for years.”  He also stated, “Had it not been for Iran’s timely assistance, many of the Iraqi cities would have fallen to the hands of these vicious terrorists.”  The Iranians were never going to wait and see what the US does next once ISIS was on the move. They needed to stop ISIS. Iranian leaders certainly realized that waiting could lead to tragic consequences.  ISIS had begun engaging in abuses and summary executions of civilians as well as captives.  Syria provided a reliable model to understand just how bad things can become for Iraqis in ISIS controlled territory.  Back on June 15, 2014, insurgent fighters from ISIS posted images purporting to show the execution of hundreds of Shi’a fighters.

Iranian military and security officials knew that ISIS could reach a level of strength that it could threaten to execute entire populations of towns and villages to deter attacks against its fighters.  ISIS would follow through with their threats without hesitation.  ISIS has since committed such acts in Iraq. The Iranians also knew ISIS would set up an Islamic state in captured territory, sustainable or not.  If ISIS managed to establish itself in Iraq, the Shi’a community in Iraq would not be the only ones at risk.  ISIS would surely attack Iran.

Iran has IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani handling the situation in Iraq. The eyes of Iran are on him.  The Sunday Times of London reported on June 15, 2014 that Suleimani travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. A senior Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  The Iraqi source also said Suleimani brought “light and medium weapons, rockets, heavy machine guns and lots of ammunition.”  Much publicity has been produced by the Iranian government over Suleimani’s presence on the ground in Iraq.  As it was predicted by greatcharlie.com, Suleimani began his operations against ISIS by using the Quds Force, which are IRGC special operations forces that he directly commands, and small numbers of other IRGC combat units.  Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel, supported by Quds Force troops increased intelligence collection through surveillance and reconnaissance in ISIS held territory.  By moving throughout Iraq, particularly in the so-called Islamic Caliphate, Iranian intelligence officers have gained information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and kept their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Iraqi peoples’ reaction to events. Positive links certainly have been established with commanders of Kurdish fighters and Iraqi security forces to make the process of gathering information about ISIS militants less complicated. Those contacts with the Iraqi security forces have reportedly also allowed for the collection of information on, and creation of informal communication with, US military and intelligence elements operating on the ground in Iraq.  Intelligence collected concerning ISIS has been utilized in the development of an operational plan. When necessary MOIS and Quds Force personnel, have been used tactically, fighting primarily alongside Kurdish fighters against ISIS.  Indeed, Iranian forces have done a lot of fighting, and they have gained the Kurds’ respect and confidence.  Suleimani ramped up the training and equipping of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen.  Battle-ready units have been deployed in defense of Shi’a dominated parts of Iraq and Holy Shrines.  Others are being sent directly into the combat against ISIS.  Suleimani has reportedly deployed Lebanese Hezbollah to Iraq to work with the Shi’a militias.  Truckloads of arms and equipment from Iran continuously flow to the Shi’a militiamen. Some supplies and weapons are being flown in.  Five Sukhoi-25 fighter-bombers were from Iran into Iraq for the Iraqi Air Force.

Once operating in the shadows, photos of IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (center) on the battlefield in Iraq have recently appeared in Iranian state media, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

How Iran Could Proceed

Iran is still not counting on the US to act on the ground in a muscular way against ISIS any time soon since it has just begun training “its Iraqis.”  In the meantime, Iran might opt to greatly increase its level of commitment in Iraq.  Back in June 2014, Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a lengthy interview with the Chinese CCTV network on June 19, 2014, stated, “We can do in Iraq what we did in Syria, meaning we are capable of providing the same type of training to the Iraqi Army that we have been able to provide the Syrian Army in confronting terrorists…We have much experience in this field.” That apparently meant having greater numbers of IRGC, Quds Force, and MOIS personnel pour into Iraq to join their comrades long since operating there.  The more Iran can accomplish against ISIS, the less the US will need to do.  There would also be less for US trained Iraqis to do.  Even with the specter of sectarian strife hanging over everything, Iran will be viewed among many average Iraqis as rescuers.

As discussed in greatcharlie.com’s June 30, 2014 post entitled “While the US Explored Talks with Iran on the Crisis in Iraq, Iran Acted, And May Do a Lot More!“, a  further increase in Iranian intervention might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country. Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, not coordinated with the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition, to destroy ISIS units being organized and armed for an attack or traveling. Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel away from urban areas could also face artillery onslaughts.  Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent.  They would provide Kurdish fighters, Shi’a militia, some Iraqi security forces, and all Iranian units in Iraq with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability that ISIS would be unable to match.  Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to support the advance and help control recaptured territory.

With Iraq’s consent, Iran could deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units.  A huge deficit in the Iranian effort if Suleimani’s plan is to defeat ISIS is close air support.  Regardless of the availability of artillery, close air support is the best, most rapid means to exploit tactical opportunities in the offense or defense.  It can provide fires, with appropriate ordinance, to destroy, disrupt, suppress, fix, harass, neutralize, or delay ISIS forces.  Iran’s fight against ISIS now is one-dimensional.

Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that Iran, just as the US, and just as Turkey, will not commit itself so heavily to Iraq without expecting to acquire even greater influence over it.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds, it is hard to see how Iran would not be able to shape the political, economic, and social situation in Iraq for years.  If the Iranians manage to shape the military situation on the ground in Iraq—and that could happen depending on the scale of its of intervention even though some Western analysts have expressed doubts, they will have much to gain.  Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region would be furthered.  Military and security officials may become the primary voice in the ear of Khamenei who still has a decision to make on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Way Forward

Unfortunately, on Iraq, as well as Syria, Obama really seems to be searching for answers. Some might derisively state he is paralyzed with uncertainty over what to do.  Given that possibility, Obama’s letter on ISIS likely satisfied Khamenei although he rejected it.  In the US, “cynics” among Obama’s political opponents hearing of the letter may have wanted to quote to their president the warning of conservative political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. that there is always a need to combat the devilish conceit that peace might issue from a concordance with evil.  Intimation of a willingness to do so can only lead to disaster. Devising foreign policy approaches requires that US decision makers to possess shrewd insights into human nature.  Obama, himself, must respond to issues not based on his personal needs, values, and principles, but those of the US.  His country’s needs must come before establishing his legacy.

As US National Security Adviser Susan Rice confirmed in October 2014, US forces and Iranian forces are both operating in Iraq to support local elements in their battle against ISIS.  The Iranian commander, Suleimani, does not have any friends in the US military given his activities against US forces during the Iraq War.  US military and intelligence officials would certainly like to get their hands on him.  However, as US and Iranian forces have been tasked to operate in the same space, it had to be expected that they would cross paths.  Informal cooperation between Suleimani’s Quds Force operatives and MOIS officers and US special operators and intelligence officers, albeit through the Iraqi security force intermediaries, has resulted.  For example, in the fight for Amerli, Iraqi security forces, Shi’a militiamen, and Iranian operators, maneuvered on the ground against ISIS fighters while US airpower struck ISIS targets with multiple airstrikes.  US and Iranian commanders “coordinated informally” by passing messages to each other through commanders of the Iraqi security forces in the fight.  Such professionally handled interactions will likely continue to occur.  While some cooperation agreement by national leaders might prove helpful, US and Iranian interactions in Iraq must be sorted out on the scene.

The Commander-in-chief’s confidence in US military commanders at the Pentagon and US Central Command and officers and enlisted men on the ground in Iraq is the most important factor in all of this.  Rather the send letters to Iranian leaders at this juncture, Obama would do more to enhance chances of success in Iraq by communicating with, and encouraging, his own fighters.  He should meet those he has sent to Iraq confidentially, perhaps even on the ground, and let them know directly how important they are to him and how important their mission is to the US.  He must let them know that he has complete confidence in their capabilities and that he is relying on them to successfully complete their mission.  German Field Marshal Walter Model, the controversial World War II battlefield genius, was known to use a line from Goethe to praise his finest officers: “Den lieb ich, der umogliches begehrt! (I love him who craves the impossible!)”  The special operators that were sent to Iraq to perform the advise-and-assist mission may not be able to perform the impossible.  However, knowing they have the full support and confidence of their commander-in-chief, they will do whatever is humanly possible to destroy ISIS and perform beyond any projections by analysts in or out of the military.  Significant achievements of those “quiet professionals” in Iraq could inspire the Iranians to reach out to the US regarding “coordination.”  After all, when Rouhani was asked in September whether Tehran could formally work with the US to tackle ISIS, he stated, “We can think about it if we see America start confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq.  We all should practically and verbally confront terrorist groups.”

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

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

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

The Multilateral Gambit

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

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

Placing Partners under Pressure

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

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

Assessment

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