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 even 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.

Obama Urges Putin to Pursue Diplomacy; After Crimea Is Firmly Under Russian Control, Perhaps He Will

Russian troops, well-trained and very capable, moved rapidly into Crimea and achieved the military objectives set for them by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

According to a March 6, 2014, NBCNews.com report entitled, “Ukraine Crisis: Obama Urges Putin to Pursue Diplomacy,” Russian President Vladimir Putin stuck to his position on the escalating crisis in Ukraine, saying Moscow must not ignore calls for help from Russian speakers in the country.  During a lengthy call with President Barack Obama on March 6, 2014, Putin said Ukraine’s government came to power as the result of an “unconstitutional coup” and was “imposing an entirely illegitimate decision onto Crimea and the eastern and southeastern regions of Ukraine.  Russia cannot ignore calls for help on this matter and is responding accordingly in full compliance with international law.“  Additionally, on March 6th, the parliament of the semi-autonomous and largely pro-Moscow region of Crimea decided to break away from Ukraine and join Russia, and set the date for a referendum on the subject for March 16th.   The White House earlier said that President Barack Obama had told Putin that the Russian incursion into Crimea was a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and that the US and its European allies had “taken several steps in response.”  A March 6th BBC.com article entitled, “Ukraine Crisis: Obama Urges Putin to Pursue Diplomacy,” reported Obama told Putin 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.  This was the second telephone call between the two leaders on Ukraine in less than a week.

In Ukraine, Putin is in the process of executing what was known during the Cold War as the “Hamburg grab.”  In Europe, the common characteristics of US assessments of a possible conflict initiated by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact satellites was a surprise attack across the Iron Curtain with conventional weapons.  As Bernard Brodie explained in renown work on military affairs and statecraft, War and Politics (Macmillan, 1973): “The attack might be general along the line, intended to wipe out NATO and take over Western Europe to the Pyrenees, or there might be some variation in diminished form, like what became known as the ‘Hamburg grab.’  In the latter instance, the Soviet forces would slice around the important city of Hamburg and then leave it up to us to try to take it back—which without large conventional forces we obviously could not do unless we were prepared for a nuclear holocaust.”  Unlike Hamburg, Ukraine, even more, Crimea, falls within what Russia once called its “near abroad.”  However, the same as with Hamburg, trying to take Crimea back from Russia without triggering a nuclear war would likely be impossible.  Putin in his March 6th telephone call reportedly told Obama that US-Russian relations “should not be sacrificed due to disagreements over individual, albeit extremely significant, international problems.”

Obama and his advisers should have understood that they would unlikely persuade Putin to respond favorably and reverse course as a result of a couple of telephone conversations.  Putin would hardly look past all that has transpired in his interactions with Obama.  A break occurred between the leaders over a US proposal for nuclear reductions a few short months ago, which was an uncharacteristic aspect in US-Russian relations in recent history.  When Obama came to office, he had established a very positive relationship with Putin’s protégé, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.  Obama had become so confident in his relations with Russia based on his successes with Medvedev that he declared a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries.  Obama made the mistake of believing his positive relationship between Obama and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would transfer to his relationship with Putin.  Interaction between the two leaders became tense very fast.  True, there have been public displays of coordination between the US and Russia on foreign policy.  They include the formulation and implementation of a plan for Syrian chemical weapons removal; the Geneva II talks between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition coalition; and, the Iran nuclear talks.  However, the relationship is best marked by: Putin’s decision to allow NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; Putin’s “thought provoking” letter to the US public, published in the New York Times Op-Ed section; and ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the FBI in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks.  Things really soured on August 7, 2013 when Obama cancelled a Moscow summit meeting set for September.  Washington sent arms reduction proposals to Moscow seeking steep reductions in its nuclear forces, but Putin refused to consider them concerned with the efficacy of taking such an audacious step.

Putin’s rejection of the proposals, as one unidentified senior administration US official told the New York Times, ended Obama’s “signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.”   An unidentified administration official also informed the New York Times that “this decision was rooted in a much broader assessment and deeper disappointment.”  That source went on to state, “We just didn’t get traction with the Russians.  They were not prepared to engage seriously or immediately on what we thought was the very important agenda before us.”  The reduction of nuclear forces and reductions in conventional forces have been issues US and Russian leaders have dealt with for decades.  Yet, because they had a contentious relationship, Obama and Putin were unlikely to be the ones to resolve any nuclear issue.  There was really a personality clash between the two leaders.  Obama prefers to solve problems at the diplomatic table using reason and logic, and insists on trying to convince Putin to accept his point of view based on the quality of his arguments.  Obama’s tact evinces a refusal by him to recognize that Putin sees the world differently.  Andrei Piontovsky, executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow was quoted on August 7, 2013 in the New York Times article as saying, “Putin sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.”  He went on to state, “Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness.”  The notion that a “legacy quest” drove the Obama administration to use the summit as a platform to push forward its political agenda and secure an historic agreement  with Russia on arms control, more than perturbed Putin.  Pushing Putin to accept proposals on nuclear force reductions in which he was not at all interested would never achieve anything positive.  Insisting the September summit be used to deal with such proposals was a doomed effort.   (See August 17, 2013, greatcharlie.com post, “Ties Fraying, Obama Drops Putin Meeting; Cui Bono?”)

Obama should have understood that maintaining a constructive relationship with the Russian leader is not a personal matter; it is part of the business of being president.  During the Cold War, despite proxy wars and other confrontations and conflicts, of high and low gradients, along the course of the Cold War, both states, while possessing the unique and mutual capability to annihilate one another and the world with their nuclear arsenals, did not.  Even during the most troubled times, relations between US and Russian leaders were maintained through a difficult process of summit meetings.  Such Cold War meetings may also have been distasteful for leaders on either side to undergo.  Summit talks built confidence, eliminated ambiguities about positions, and prevent and guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Talks allowed leaders to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns they had within their own high-level relationship.  The eventual establishment of a “red-phone” or direct communication between the White House and the Kremlin contributed greatly to maintenance of global peace and security.

One cannot help but imagine that relations between the US and Russia would be completely different if Obama had not cancelled the September 2013 summit and focused not on just proposals, but rather on establishing a better relationship with Putin.  Obama had the opportunity to use “encouragement”, through regular telephone calls, messages, and meetings, to promote even subtle change in Russia’s approach on issues. That might even have allowed for a greater chance, well in advance of the Ukraine crisis, to find ways in which Russia, working with the US, could promote its interests.  Speaking by telephone only when difficult or contentious issues arise, especially when relations are already uncongenial, is akin to a divorced couple communicating by telephone to discuss divergent opinions on important child custody issues.  If there is a very negative history, or contentious break-up, despite their best efforts, the couple will bring animus to the conversation.  That animus may find its way into the discussion in the form of tense talk and hostile comments.  The result will not be a solution, but greater disagreement and frustration.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has established a constructive dialogue with Putin.   Merkel told Obama early on in the crisis, that she sensed Putin had lost touch with reality having spoken with him by telephone.  That was very troubling news.  Putin may very well be having hubristic thoughts on Russian power.  The military operation in Ukraine transpired on the heels of the successful 2014 Winter Olympics Games in Sochi while there was still a sense of renewed national identity, national pride, and patriotism among Russians.  However, Putin seems to have gone a step further.  On the March 9, 2014 broadcast of the NBCNews program, “Meet the Press”, senior diplomatic correspondent Andrea Mitchell reported that she learned from well-sourced reports that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Russian National Security Council, and economic advisers were “clueless” of Putin’s plans for Ukraine.  Putin allegedly made the decision to move into Ukraine having discussed the issue with three “old buddies” from KGB days in the 1970s and 1980s.  As events developed in Kiev, Putin understood that he still had strong cards to play, and he used one, moving into Crimea, to gain an advantage in what is a negative situation for Russia.  He seemingly annexed Crimea in return for the loss of a friendly government and Russian influence in Ukraine.  (Interestingly, when Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov responded to a US offer to assist with the Sochi Games security, he requested anti-improvised explosive device technology, although it was difficult to see why such US-tech would be needed to defeat attacks the Russian government had never faced from domestic Islamic militant groups.  Perhaps Gerasimov was actually considering the technology to defeat an insurgency his forces might face in a coming push into Ukraine!)

As the West pushes back, US and European officials have flooded the media with talk of not only sanctions but also shrill responses on the use of force.  However, there is no quick fix for Putin’s “Crimea grab.”  Sanctions may support Western goals in this crisis, but against Russia they may be double-edged given significant investments of large US and European firms there.  What is more, proposing the use of force against Russia, against Putin, may very well be akin to proposing a rush to doomsday.  Putin will respond aggressively to any threat to Russia.

While the title “Strongman of Russia” surely fits Putin, he is not a fanatic.  He knows that after the dust settles regarding Crimea, peace and stability must be established.  Recall that he said it was unnecessary to sacrifice US-Russian relations over an independent international issue.  this The solution to the Ukrainian crisis will unlikely to be truly satisfactory to the US and the Europeans.  Putin will not back away from Crimea and it will likely go the way of East Prussia for the Germans and North Cyprus for Greek Cypriots.  Crimea will not return to Kiev’s control in the foreseeable future. What is most important at this juncture is a reset of the conversation between the US and Russia.  Meetings between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who have regularly worked together of other urgent and important issues for both countries, have already begun.  However, every effective back channel should also be opened, and leaders such as Merkel, should be sought out to serve as third-party envoys for Obama and Putin if communication breaks down.  There is much to discuss about: the meaning of events in Ukraine for the US, its European partners, and Russia respectively; what comes next in Ukraine politically, economically, socially, and militarily; and, other urgent and important issues on which the US and Russia must cooperate.  Hopefully, further talks between the US and Russian officials and diplomats on Ukraine’s future will be successful, and constructive talks between Obama and Putin will occur soon on a more frequent basis.