Building Relations between Trump and Putin: Getting beyond the “Getting to Know You” Stage

US President Donald Trump (left) shakes hands with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right) in Paris at the 100th Anniversary of World War I Armistice. Trump began the process of engaging Putin by looking beyond outward appearance, seeking to discover what is in his heart, and grasping the necessities of his positions fully. After every encounter and after being read-in on every new report, Trump would assess where things stood. At this point, Trump undoubtedly would like to push further out from the “getting to know you” stage in his efforts.

According to an Associated Press story reported on October 26, 2018 in the New York Times, US National Security Adviser John Bolton stated that same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been invited to visit Washington next year. The article entitled, “US Official Says Putin Invited to Visit Washington Next Year”, quoted Bolton as saying, “that “We have invited President Putin to Washington after the first of the year for, basically, a full day of consultations.” Bolton, speaking in Tblisi, Georgia, did not offer any date for the meeting. Still, it is generally understood by US and Russian officials concerned that the Washington meeting would likely take place in early 2019. The proposed meeting It would be Putin’s first trip to the US since 2015 when he met with US President Barack Obama. It is unclear whether Putin would come to  the White House to meet Trump. Other options likely include: Camp David, Mar-A-Lago, and the Trump National Golf Club. Putin’s last visit to the White House was in 2005 when he met with US President George Bush. The proposed 2019 meeting would not be the first between Trump and Putin following the July 12, 2018 Helsinki Summit. On November 2, 2018, Yuri Ushakov, Aide to the President of the Russian Federation responsible for International Affairs, announced from the Kremlin that Trump and Putin would hold substantive meeting at G-20 in Argentina. Ushakov told reporters the meeting on the sidelines of the G-20, taking place over November 30, 2018 and December 1, 2018 would be “lengthy and substantive.” In Argentina, the two presidents would likely talk more about Trump’s recent decision to pull the US out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Trump has stated that Russia is not abiding by the treaty and that the US needs to build up its nuclear arsenal to meet the threats of the Russians and the Chinese. Russia, on the other hand, has contended it is in compliance with the accord.

Plus tamen tibi et viva vox et convictus quam oratio proderit; in rem praesentem venias oportet, primum quia homines amplius oculis quam auribus credunt, deinde quia longum iter est per praecepta, breve et efficax per exempla. (Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word. You must go to the scene of action, first, because men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears, and second, because the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns.) Immediately after Helsinki, a second Trump-Putin meeting in Washington was initially bandied about between Trump and his advisers and aides, but it was put on hold. Trump’s insistence on meeting with Putin is a manifestation of his desire to begin a new era of US-Russia relations with cooperation and partnership with the Russian President. Trump’s expectations do not appear too great or out of order. However, he understands that he must put considerable effort into the process creating positive relations. The Trump administration has amassed a number of foreign policy successes, to name a few: the destruction of ISIS’ so-called “Islamic Caliphate” and destruction of ISIS as a fighting force; the liberation of Iraq; the strengthening of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel; the suspension of DPRK nuclear weapons and missile testing; gaining big increases in NATO spending; and, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Those successes have hardly been acknowledged by his many critics and detractors who have not as yet turned away from their predictions that the Trump administration would rendezvous with failure and catastrophe on foreign policy. While unable to criticize Trump over his performance during the summit meetings because they were not present, critics and detractors, many in the US news media, and members of his own party, heavily criticized his performance at a follow-on joint press conference. Many of them, upon hearing Trump’s comments, alleged that he was siding with Putin and accepting his denials on Russia’s election interference over the conclusions of US intelligence officials who say Russia certainly did so meddle, ostensibly to benefit Trump.

As it was explained in the September 30, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “Trump Achieved More at Helsinki than Most Noticed: Putin Is Not a Challenge for Him“, Helsinki was not the great disaster for Trump that most critics and detractors assert it was. Trump most likely wants to make the correct adjustments in his approach, exploit success already achieved by finding more points at which their thoughts touch. As he prepares to meet Putin in Argentina and considers how to shape the meeting in Washington in 2019 will take, greatcharlie look at some of the considerations unique to this ongoing diplomatic process with Putin. As he observes Putin’s moves during the process such as forming the delegation for talks and toning down his hostile rethoric on the US that was regularly heard during his interactions with Obama and has carried over to his administration. Trump also has kept a watchful eye on Putin use his conventional military forces and his nuclear forces. Trump knows a lost cause and would certainly be willing to declare his efforts with Putin as such if that becomes the case. Still, Trump is very likely heartened by the fact that through their meetings and telephone calls since 2017, he understands Putin better and that there is a chemistry developing between them. As long as his efforts continue to bear fruit, he can remain sanguine and as best as possible, continue to shut out the array hostile voices attacking him, Concerning Putin’s interest in improving relations, there is the hope that Putin has learned a bit more about Trump, not just through contacts, but also through misjudgments and missteps, such as Putin’s gifting of the football at Helsinki press conference. Faux pas! Optimistically, the result of these developments will be a fruitful, edifying, and satisfying set of future meetings in which some important and urgent transnational, regional, and bilateral matters may be resolved. Accomplishing that would be one more promise to the US public kept. Eo animo quidque debetur quo datur, nec quantum sit sed a quali profectum voluntate perpenditur. (Our feeling about every obligation depends in each case upon the spirit in which the benefit is conferred; we weigh not the bulk of the gift, but the quality of the good-will which prompted it.)

Trump is very likely heartened by the fact that through their meetings and telephone calls since 2017, he understands Putin better and that there is a chemistry developing between them. As long as his efforts continue to bear fruit, he can remain sanguine, continue to shut out the hostile voices. There is the hope that Putin has learned more about Trump. Optimistically, the result of these developments will be a fruitful, edifying, and satisfying future meetings in which important and urgent transnational, regional, and bilateral matters may be resolved.

Trump Pushes ahead with Putin

Trump began engaging Putin well-aware that Putin is not a moral paragon. He was surely familiar with varied reports from nongovernmental organizations, civil society watchdogs in Russia, journalists, and US government agencies that indicate a considerable number abuses of civil and human rights have occurred under Putin’s reign. Activists in Russia would explain that the soul of the Russian people has grieved during the nearly years of Putin’s rule. Putim’s grip on the Russian public is strong, and he is utilizing all the old security systems with which he is most familiar. In the West, some analysts would not go as far as to call Putin a modern day tyrant, but they would still call him an awful man. Civil rights and human rights are issues that no US President, the leader of free world, could ever eschew concerning Russia or any other country for that matter. Trump would certainly be willing to discuss civil rights and human rights issues concerning Russia with Putin. Indeed, he most likely has already shared his perspectives with him on: how reported government abuses within Russia have left the world a very negative impression of the country as a whole; why it is difficult for anyone to see Russia as a decent constitutional society; why considerable doubt exists in the minds of top Russia hands and his close advisers and aides that Russia could ever be a honest broker and good partner in tackling transnational issues; and, how tough it will be for Russia to ever overcome such views on its own. Trump, knowing Putin as he does now, would be the one US president who could reach Putin on matter without simply prodding him with the “high road” and ensuring nothing good would be achieved. (This is another matter in which the lack of a viable plan of action is most telling of the critics and detractors flawed understanding of the situation.)

It would be gossamer fantasy to belIeve that Putin would metaphorically wake and  smell the coffee, simply clear his head, reason everything out, decide to forgive and forget, and see the advantage of cooperating fully with Trump. To that extent, it is difficult to determine exactly where the Kremlin is on developing better relations. Trump apparently senses that a general change in the approach toward Putin will create new conditions that will stimulate positive reactions by the Russian leader. Peelng back the layers of negativity from US-Russian interactions with the previous US administration, he has tried to create a clean slate and has offered to work with Putin fairly and with mutual respect. With any luck, Putin will eventually recognize what Trump is doing and recognize the great opportunity that lies before him to let Russia be seen as doing some good for the world. While it would only be natural to remain somewhat skeptical about his progress with Putin, it seems that he gotten his attention and has him thinking about what he is saying.  According to the renowned Ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “Appearances to the mind are of four kinds. Things either are what they appear to be; or they neither are, nor appear to be; or they are, and do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be. Rightly to aim in all these cases, is the wise man’s task.” Putin can be counselled but, of course, in the end he must come to the right understanding of the matter on his own.

Trump certainly does not desire to lure Putin to his way of thinking or manipulate him in any way. Even if Putin’s desire is to seek better ties only for the purpose of doing more wrong, Trump would not seek in a similar way to take some type of advantage of Putin to score some short-term victory. Trump also does not want to commit any errors or missteps with Putin that would result in creating opportunities for him to harm US interests or gain some major advantage over the US that could spell catastrophe. Trump’s goal is to create something best for the long-term, to genuinely transform the relationship between the US and Russia. All of his efforts must not result in the type of understandings and set of agreements that would fall apart with the coming of a new administration, Republican or Democrat.

Trump began the process of engaging Putin by looking beyond outward appearance, seeking to discover what is in his heart, and grasping the necessities of his positions fully. After every encounter with Putin and after being read-in on every new report received from government agencies responsible for studying those encounters, Trump would assess where things stood, look for ways to move things forward and if possible, identify issues on which he might be able to do some real open field running to advance his cause. With that, Trump would then look within himself to design the next best steps he would  take with the Russian leader, steps with which he would feel most comfortable. At the same time that he was working with Putin, Trump was learning about other competitors, rivals, and adversaries in the same way. For example, he has interacted positively with President Xi Jinping of China, and is cautiously optimistic about how the relationship will shake out. He met with Kim Jong-un of the DPRK. He has spoken with leaders who have gone some distance to appear problematic for US policy such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. His interactions with them have led to real improvements in relations with those respective countries. He contended with the initial recalcitrance of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and erstwhile Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. However, relations steadily improved with both. The US Mexico, Canada Agreement proved that with the right words, the right touch, their respective disagreements could be overcome. Those leaders looked at the repercussions of an new agreement, what their respective countries might lose, what they might gain. Consideration of the needs of their people and the national interests came to the fore. Surely, Trump has grown considerably in wisdom about many leaders and on how to proceed on policy since his contact with them. Trump has options regarding his approach to Putin beyond diplomacy, but it appears his choice is to continue trying to find a way to work with him. A rough road often leads to great things. Thomas Paine, the US political theorist and revolutionary, wrote in his pamphlet series The Crisis in December 23, 1776, “the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

It would be gossamer fantasy to belIeve that Putin would metaphorically wake and smell the coffee, simply clear his head, reason everything out, decide to forgive and forget, and see the advantage of cooperating fully with Trump. To that extent, it is difficult to determine exactly where the Kremlin is on developing better relations. Peeling back any layers of negativity from US-Russian interactions with the previous US administration, he has created a clean slate and has offered to work together with Putin fairly and with mutual respect.

At this point, Trump undoubtedly would like to push further out from the “getting to know you” stage in his efforts with Putin. In every meeting with Putin so far, Trump has broached important and urgent issues ranging from, Syria, Ukraine, nuclear forces, ISIS, terrorism in general, energy, economic sanctions, and perhaps Magnitsky. In Argentina, the two presidents may discuss Trump’s recent decision to pull the US out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The INF prohibits the US and Russia from possessing, producing, or deploying ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of between 500 kilometers and 5,500 kilometers. On October 20, 2018, Trump explained to reporters following a rally in Nevada, “Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement. So we’re going to terminate the agreement and we’re going to pull out.”

On October 22, 2018 at the White House, Trump made similar statements concerning his decision to withdraw from the INF as a result of Moscow’s alleged violations and a need to respond to China’s nuclear buildup. He told reporters that “Russia has not adhered to the agreement . . . . Until people come to their senses — we have more money than anybody else, by far. We’ll build it up.” Trump added: “Until they come to their senses. When they do, then we’ll all be smart and we’ll all stop.” When asked by reporters if that was a threat to Putin, Trump replied: “It’s a threat to whoever you want. And it includes China, and it includes Russia, and it includes anybody else that wants to play that game. You can’t do that. You can’t play that game on me.” China was never a party to the 1987 INF, which was signed by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev four years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Trump explained that China should be included in the accord. Nearly 2,700 short- and medium-range missiles were eliminated by the US and the Soviet Union under the INF treaty, but China has been building up its capabilities to field the same kinds of weapons. It is estimated that nearly 95 percent of China’s missiles would violate the INF treaty if Beijing were a signatory. Additionally, Trump stated that Russia was not abiding by the treaty, and that the US needed to build up its nuclear arsenal to meet the threats of Russia and China. The Kremlin has claimed it has only acted in accord with the treaty’s terms.

Even if Putin’s desire is to seek better ties only for the purpose of doing more wrong, Trump would not seek in a similar way to take some type of advantage of Putin to score some short-term victory. Trump also does not want to commit any errors or missteps with Putin that would result in creating opportunities for him to harm US interests or gain some major advantage over the US that could spell catastrophe. Trump’s goal is to create something best for the long-term, to genuinely transform the relationship between the US and Russia.

Putin Pushed ahead with Trump

Simulatio delet veritatem, sine qua nomen amicitiae valere non potest. (Pretense obliterates the truth, without which the name of friendship cannot survive.) Putin has repeatedly said that improvements in US-Russian ties have been thwarted by US political infighting, but voiced hope that Trump could eventually move to repair the fractured relations. Earlier this month, the Russian leader said “playing the Russian card” was a convenient instrument in US politics ahead of the midterm election in November 2018. However, that view is not very precise. Causality aside, it was Russia that drove into Crimea and later interfered with the 2016 US Elections. Putin’s statement skirts these gargantuan issues. The Kremlin has left little doubt that over the years, officials their have not learned much about the actual multifaceted inner workings of the US government and the dynamics of US politics. It was likely that a misunderstanding of how the system worked in the US that may have led officials there to believe that they could ever influence a US Election, not only while US intelligence services and law enforcement agences were watching over everything, but with so many in the US with considerable interests staked on the election’s outcome, and not be detected. The covert operation was discovered and responded to with expulsions and closures of Russian Federation facilities. So much was discovered about the operation that Putin was left with little ability to plausibly deny his knowledge of those particular activities of Russia’s intelligence services.

Putin is likely well aware now that he cannot live off the intellectual support of any of his subordinates when it comes to dealing with Trump and the US. At the dawn of the Trump administration, Putin appears to have been egged on by certain advisers in his cabinet who harbored strong anti-Western and believed Trump could be pressed on certain issues. They likely want to create the impression that they had an easy handle on things.Since that time, a few of them, such as the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for military and space industries, Dmitry Rogozin, have been removed from his Cabinet. However, there is still room for advisers with a mindset that is very suspicious of US actions and intentions. Consider that of the figurative high priest of Russian Federation security, Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB. Bortnikov is not well-known for his contributions to Russia’s foreign policy making and stays out from the public eye. Unknown to greatcharlie is the degree to which Putin might refer to him on foreign policy beyond how an issue might relate to state security. Yet, he is a confidant of Putin, as his trust in Bortnikov has been sustained. Bortnikov would only see traps in what Trump offers. If the attempt at subversion cannot be easily seen, Bortnikov would only assume that it is cloaked. Counsel from other key advisers such as Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev are two members of Putin’s inner circle that are also figurative deep-wells of skepticism and paranoia concerning the US. As part of Patrushev’s mantra, the US constantly seeks to have levers of pressure on Russia and contain his country’s growing influence as means to hold on its waning global leadership. Some might disagree with the notion that Shoigu is very hardline as he most often presents himself as an elegant, dignified general officer, who speaks cordial and measured words. Yet, statements and military strategic concepts produced by his Defense Ministry leave no doubt that he views the US as a serious threat to Russia and it’s interests and everything possible must be done to mitigate that threat which is directed from points 360 degrees around Russia with a deterrence posture and if necessary respond as violently and shrewdly as possible to that threat with all resources available. His Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation, signed into law by Putin on January 29, 2013, expresses his country’s defense needs in this fashion. (Shoigu is certainly a man that Trump should keep one eye on.) The key for Putin is to well-manage how much the appraisals of Shoigu and Patrushev should be allowed to insinuate into Russia’s foreign policy making concerning the US. There would be little hope relations could advance in a positive direction if no limits were put on their influence. Theirs is the sort of thinking that might have more value on foreign policy matters concerning other Western countries and the rest of the world. Their verbiage would certainly be of better use in communicating the message that Putin’s aim is to restore Russia to greatness to his political supporters, his wily political adversaries, and mostly hidden, influential elites domestically. Perhaps an answer that might best explain how Putin manages all of his responsibilities as Russian Federation President in any given day would need to be drawn from “metaphysics”. Certain natural talents, unique to Putin, are always in play.  Managing relations with the US as led by the Trump administration, with all of the new approaches and its more businesslike way thinking, has required a lot more effort than likely anticipated. If the Russian President could pardon greatcharlie’s freedom, so far, there has been little sophistication in the moves he and his advisers and aides have made with regard to the US.

What would likely be useful to Putin and his Kremlin advisers and aides would be to make a strenuous effort to move away from the thinking they found necessary during the Obama administration. At that time, they ostensibly sought to assert Russia’s power and identity, to fight back against what they perceived were Obama administration efforts to hurt and humiliate Putin and their country. Looking at Russia’s annexation of Crimea and it’s 2016 US Election interference, it would seem incredulous to consider Putin as a victim. He could easily be called the aggressor in both instances. However, it could be, as Trump has posited, that moves by Obama and his administration directed at reigning in Putin, executed with type of adolescent exuberance by many his administration’s officials, backfired immensely. Behavioral scientist, psychologists, and psychiatrists in the US foreign and national security policy establishment, looking at Putin, very likely understood and explained that there would be a considerable negative reaction from Putin to any “narcissistic injuries” or slights. This issue was covered in greatcharlie’s September 30, 2018 post entitled, “Trump Achieved More at Helsinki than Most Noticed: Putin Is Not a Challenge for Him“. When Putin reacted, and that reaction included in part the capture of Crimea and the 2016 Election interference, it was in ways completely unexpected by the Obama administration. One could posit harshly that the Obama administration found was it was looking for when it poked the “Russian bear”. Undoubtedly, Putin also has his government behavioral scientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists analyzing Obama. It is very likely that they, along with Putin, concluded with certitude, that beyond economic sanctions and dismissals of diplomats and intelligence officials, Obama would do precious little in response that would be comparable to the election interference and certainly he would not do anything more aggressive. In fact, the Obama administration was repeatedly caught completely “flat-footed” and totally unprepared to cope with the consequences of its poor relations with Putin. Gladiator in arena consillium capit. (The gladiator is formulating his plan in the arena.)

No joy! Former US President Barack Obama (left) and Putin (right). What would likely be useful to Putin and his Kremlin advisers and aides would be to make a strenuous effort to move away from the thinking they found necessary during the Obama administration. At that time, they ostensibly sought to assert Russia’s power and identity, to fight back against what they perceived were Obama administration efforts to hurt and humiliate Putin and their country.

Within the Kremlin, the psychic wounds of its winter actions with the Obama administration may not be soon forgotten. To that extent, they must be given a chance to heal. Putin is the one who must lead the way in Russia. It is a clear aim of Trump’s diplomatic efforts to provide Putin with the necessary space and and calibrated amount of pressure needed to help create the conditions for change. A foundation must be created from which constructive change in support of US and Russian respective and mutual interests. To achieve that, both sides would need to reach some mutual understanding of what is reality and what is truth. Hyperbole would no longer have a place at the table. Sciant quae optima sunt esse communia. (The best ideas are common property.)

Reaching that type of mutual understanding within the Kremlin would not only require Putin’s wishes and his will, but also the supportive efforts of thoughtful advisers such as: Ushakov; Sergey Lavrov, Russian Federation Foreign Minister; Anton Siluanov, Russian Federation Finance Minister; Dmitry Peskov, Press Secretary for the Russian Federation President; and Russian Federation Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The counsel of Ushakov, Lavrov, and Peskov was visibly relied upon by Putin at Helsinki. They are the sort of thinkers who are able to breathe the fresh air of Realpolitik into their analyses. Theirs is a unique ability in an environment of authoritative men in which assessments offered are colored by nationalistic-based theorizing and unoriginal, unimaginative ideas. Perhaps at times, Putin may feel somewhat limited or smothered by such thinking. He may desire a higher order thinking that would result in solid concepts and viable policy options. This is not to state that Ushakov, Lavrov, and Peskov are not any less nationalistic or patriotic than others in Putin’s immediate advisory circle. Rather it would only mean that when it comes the big picture, their thinking is a bit more incisive, of a higher order, than the others. Overall success for both sides will be signalled by contradictions in traditional ways of thinking and acting on both sides. Recede in te ipse quantum potes; cum his versare qui te meliorem facturi sunt, illos admitte quos tu potes facere meliores. Mutuo ista fiunt, et homines dum docent discunt. (Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.)

For the moment, it may very well be that Putin has little genuine interest in adhering to existing agreements or would likely hold fast to any new ones eventually reached. Certainly, that is understood by the Trump administration. For that reason, along with existing attitudes, biases, about Russia and the Soviet Union from the past, entrees from Putin, new steps, will still at first blush be suspected as chicken feed, deception, until they have been highly scrutinized and determined otherwise. To build confidence and eventually some degree of trust, both sides must approach each other, beginning on small issues, with honesty, morality, and even fidelity. Yet, they must also retain the ability to verify that promised steps are actually taken. That is the fascinating type of cooperation actually seen between the space programs of both countries. It is interesting that despite the cooperation that exists between the two countries on a big issue as space, they remain far apart on foreign and national security policy. Trump’s insistence on talks generates real hope for change.

In an intriguing July 17, 2018 article Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio, Aleksei Venediktov, a foreign policy scholar and the radio station’s editor in chief, offered an interesting perspective on how the line up of advisers who sat at the table with Trump and Putin at Helsinki revealed the two countries’ differing agendas. He concluded that the delegations showed the main US concerns at Helsinki were strategic security and election interference, while Putin’s concerns were Syria and “public relations.”

Advisers and Aides Are Involved in There Special Ways

In an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio, Aleksei Venediktov, a foreign policy scholar and the radio station’s editor in chief, offered an interesting perspective on how the line up of advisers who sat at the table with Trump and Putin at Helsinki revealed the differing agendas of the two countries. Venediktov analyzed the seating arrangements as follows: “On the Russian side at that lunch . . . there was, of course, Lavrov and [US Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo. They are equals. But further down sat Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.” Venediktov went on to note: “Then there was, of course, the ambassador to the United States, [Anatoly] Antonov and the director of the Foreign Ministry’s North America department, Georgy Borisenko.” He added: “I would draw attention to the fact that none of these people directly deal with security or global strategy, not counting the foreign minister . . . . Not one person in the Russian delegation did this work full-time. [Nikolai] Patrushev of the Security Council wasn’t there. The defense minister wasn’t there. The head of the General Staff wasn’t there. No one.” Discussing the US delegation, Venediktov stated: “If you remove Pompeo and [US Ambassador to Russia Jon] Huntsman, then we see that there is the president’s national-security adviser, [John] Bolton, and senior adviser to the national-security adviser on Russia affairs, Fiona Hill. And, and this is important, we see White House Chief of Staff John Kelly . . . You can see how these delegations differ. John Bolton is in charge of global security. Fiona Hill is in charge of security issues between Russia and the United States. And John Kelly is in charge of the interference in the [US presidential] election. Domestic politics. That is what John Kelly does. You can see how the delegations are at cross-purposes. Different agendas, differing delegation compositions. On one side, security experts. On the other, people from the Foreign Ministry.” Venediktov concluded that the delegations showed that the main US concerns at Helsinki were strategic security and the election interference, while Putin’s concerns were Syria and “public relations.” He concluded: “Peskov — that’s public relations,” adding, “Peskov is about selling the summit results.”

It may be as Venediktov as posited that Putin’s contacts with Trump serve some limited public relations purpose. He may be simply building himself up on the international stage by creating the optics of having some equivalence to the US President. On the other hand, there could still be a variety of other reasons for the composition of the Russian delegation at Helsinki. Much as greatcharlie mentioned earlier, Putin may believe the counsel of Ushakov, Lavrov, and Peskov, is most useful in his talks with Trump as their thinking on the US is more incisive, and that mindset may have been evinced in the composition of his Helsinki delegation. It is possible that Putin may be showing deference to the Foreign Ministry and top officials such as the Russian Federation Ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov and the director of the Foreign Ministry’s North America department, Georgy Borisenko, given their knowledge about the US is not politically based, is erudite, and they have authentic expertise in US affairs. Perhaps Putin’s selection could be an expression of his effort to keep the reactions and words of Shoigu and Patrushev, away from the observant, probing eyes of Trump and his advisers and aides, knowing how strong the anti-US sentiments of those two are. A suspicious mind might suggest Putin deliberately limited the access of certain advisers to Trump and other US officials as a form of information control. Advisers absent from the talks would have less ability to later gauge, influence, or question Putin’s policy approaches with the US. Their views would be limited, inferred from the abstract. They would remain reliant on Putin’s appraisals of the situation. It is possible that Putin’s choices may simply reflect the routine management of his team, for example, he may have selected one adviser over an another based on their schedules or there may have been an urgent need to have his other key advisers cover important matters that fell within their portfolios, that he could not personally attend to. Lastly, there is the possibility that the composition of the delegation could have been the result of a combination of all of these possibilities as well as many others. A certain amount of caution and paranoia is programmed into the Russian leader’s decision making in general. However, Putin’s actions regarding the delegations composition were unlikely an effort to signal that he questioned the loyalty of Shoigu or Patrushev. He knows that their allegiance is strong. Both men would prefer to sleep at his doorstep than rest in their own homes.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton (left) and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (right) in Moscow. Just as their figurative “kings go forth” to resolve matters, top foreign and national security policy officials of both governments have met to discuss and find answers to important and urgent matters. Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had a call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following Helsinki. Bolton had meetings in Moscow with Putin and Lavrov, as well as Shoigu and Patrushev who were absent in Helsinski.

The respective advisers and aides of Trump and Putin have worked feverishly to set up meetings between the two leaders. Yet, just as their figurative “kings go forth” to resolve matters, advisers and aides, who are the top foreign and national security policy officials in both governments, have met to discuss and find answers important and urgent matters. As it happened, Lavrov had a call with Pompeo following Helsinki. In a statement from the Russian Federation Foreign Ministry, the two diplomats discussed “acute issues on the international agenda and bilateral ties in the context of preparations for planned contacts between the presidents.” More intriguing were contacts between Bolton and Putin and Lavrov, as well as Shoigu and Patrushev in Moscow between October 22,2018 and October 23, 2018. Long before meeting Bolton, Shoigu and Patrushev were surely read-in on all available profiles to include any classified case files on him. They also likely took a good look at his many essays, articles, and editorials on policy, reviewed the greater portion of Bolton’s presentations and panel discussions at policy conferences, and read ttanscripts of his interviews with the US and foreign news media, at academic institutions, and by think tanks. While Bolton is not Trump, both Shoigu and Patrushev likely hoped to gain insight from him into the inner thinking of the administration on foreign and national security policy making: the thinking behind its conceptualization of new policies and how issues, events, and crises are analyzed. From that, they might get a better sense of the possibilities and capabilities of the administration as its presently staffed. Reportedly, US plans for withdrawal from the treaty were discussed in talks with both officials as well as with Putin and Lavrov. He explained to the Russians that the US decision to pull out of the treaty was logical given that Russia has been violating it and other countries, including China, Iran, and the DPRK are free to develop weapons that would be prohibited under the agreement. He explained that US did not intend to restrict itself of INF while other were not. Bolton also told the Russians that the INF, a bilateral treaty of the Cold War was outdated because technologies have changed and geostrategic realities have changed.

Bolton (left) and Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev (right). Bolton has reportedly discussed US plans for withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in his meetings with Shoigu and Patrushev, as well as with Putin and Lavrov. He explained that the US decision was logical given that Russia has been violating it and countries including China, Iran, and the DPRK, can develop weapons the treaty prohibits. Bolton also explained that technologies and geostrategic realities made the treaty outdated.

Critics and Detractors Remain Ineffective Dream-Killers

Negative perspectives of political rivals, critics, and detractors of Trump have not been mitigated since Helsinki, In fact the October 26, 2018 New York Times article reminded that Trump was widely criticized in the aftermath of Helsinki for failing to publicly denounce Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election and alleged that Trump seemingly accepted Putin’s denials of such activity. Indeed, reports alleging that his administration has performed poorly on foreign policy serve more than adequately as an impediments, and perhaps even prevents, many in the US public from recognizing what he has actually achieved. There is unlikely much that Trump could ever do directly to relieve critics and detractors of their more creative than fact based impressions of Putin as a “super spook” still on the beat. No matter what success might be achieved by Trump at Helsinki or on any issue on the foreign policy front, it would not overcome existing impressions of critics and detractors. US Vice President Mike Pence and Trump advisers and aides such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Saunders have explained fervently that Trump has been wholeheartedly engaged in an effort to advance the interests of the US public in his meetings and negotiations with his foreign counterparts. Trump’s plans for handling the meeting diligently were worked out with his high qualified foreign and national security policy team. They were executed along the lines of excellence. However, lacking confidence that Trump would do things right in Helsinki, Trump’s political opponents warned him about having an overly friendly meeting with Putin, particularly after Trump had picked trade battles with longtime US allies. A NATO meeting ahead of the Putin summit was widely panned as being contentious after Trump pressed members of the alliance to increase their defense spending.

Just days before the first summit, Democrats in Congress urged Trump in a letter to hold Putin accountable for Russia’s destabilization efforts, including election meddling, support for the Syrian regime and the annexation of Crimea. US Senate Democrats Robert Menendez, Dick Durbin, Mark Warner, and Jack Reed wrote to Trump: “While there is a place for dialogue between nations on disagreements and common challenges, such as reducing nuclear dangers, we are deeply concerned that your Administration continues to send mixed messages regarding the Russian security threat.” They added: “During your meeting with President Putin, we ask that you convey that there will be clear consequences for Russia’s interference in democratic processes in the United States and elsewhere, its support for violence and bloodshed in Ukraine and Syria, and the illegal occupation of Crimea.”

If Trump had thought it prudent, he would have had little problem meeting the demands of critics and detractors by repeatedly and enthusiastically admonishing Putin over election interference in the two leaders furtive meetings or publicly. However, the reality is that the steps Trump’s political opponents and other critics and detractors suggest that he take, would never be part of an effective plan for dealing with Putin. Their approaches would guarantee disaster and a set back with Russian leader who is very reactive to slights and who may respond negatively in a very disproportionate way, raising the stakes for everyone. This was discovered by the Obama administration but oddly denied as a reality. Moving in retrograde, back to the disasterous “my way or the highway”, “bullying” approach to the somewhat sensitive Putin used by the Obama administration, which was what US Senate Democrats were recommending, was undoubtedly recognized by Trump as the recipe for disaster. Indeed, the letter amounted to an exposition of the Obama administration’s unsuccessful policy. Consilio melius contendere atque vincere possumus quam ira. (We can compete and prevail better through wisdom than through anger.)

Under Trump’s leadership, US foreign and national security policy, in its spirit, is brand new. Trump will not be soft on Russia. He will act with determination when he sees the need to promote or defend US interest against moves by Moscow. However, while he is in office, he will as best as possible, create space for the US and Russia to do great things together. Hopefully, the process of trying to find a very positive, working relationship with Putin will not in the long run become the equivalent of trying find a way to sleep on the top of a flagpole.

The Way Forward

In Act 1 scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing, Leonato, a kindly, respectable nobleman in the Italian town of Messina, shares his house with his daughter, Hero, his niece, Beatrice, and his elderly brother, Antonio, who is Beatrice’s father. Leonato welcomes a few friends home from a war as the play begins, to include They include: Don Pedro, a prince who is a close friend of Leonato;  Claudio, a young nobleman; Benedick, a wit; and, Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, Don John who is sullen and bitter. Almost immediately upon arriving at Leonato’s home, Claudio quickly falls in love with Hero and decide to be married. Through at trick, they manage in the weeks before the wedding to bring together Beatrice and Benedick who knew each other in the past. However, Don John decides to create problems for the others. He acknowledges that his actions against them, as well as his brother, are inspired by jealousy and envy and his bad nature in general when he states: “I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any: in this, though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking: in the meantime let me be that I am and seek not to alter me.” The predominant amount of evidence available in abstract indicates that Putin has the propensity to devise to do evil. Any negative actions taken by Putin during the process of building better relations with Trump and the US would hardly be sudden considerations. Sin is conceived long before sin on committed. Putin’s attitude and behavior toward the US could be considered, not completely, but to a great degree to be the result of a further trust lost during the Obama administration. Actions have consequences and can have rippling effects over time.

When one side in a relationship feels offended or wronged, things will rarely return to normal or even cool off until there is some recognition of the offense or wrong by the offender. Even if the offense or wrong has been forgiven, even after the offender has humbled himself or herself, the relationship may no longer be viable or have room for growth. Much as a broken pot, a relationship can be put together again but it may not hold water the same. In a situation in which a party has been offended or feels wrongly done in some extreme way, it will usually take time before trust is rebuilt. Regarding Russia, Trump came into office refusing to be held captive to the failed approach that the Obama administration took. He would not persist in the same behavior of engaging in very real, needling slights. Under Trump’s leadership, US foreign and national security policy, has a new spirit. There is a better to build better relations with countries around the world. That certainly does not mean Trump will be soft on any countries or on any issue. He will as best as possible, create space for the US and other countries to do great things together. When he sees the need to promote or defend US interest against moves by another country, including Russia, he will act with determination. This may be a key to success of Trump’s approach to Putin. Hopefully, the process of trying to find a very positive, working relationship with Putin will not in the long run become the equivalent of trying to find a way to sleep on the top of a flagpole. Recto actio non erit, nisi recta fuit voluntas, ab hac enim est actio. Rursus, voluntas non erit recta, nisi habitus animi rectus fuerit, ab hoc enim est voluntas. (An action will not be right unless the intention is right, for from it comes the action. Again, the intention will not be right unless the state of the mind has been right, for it proceeds the intention.)

Commentary: Too Much for Too Long?: Critics’ Attacks on Trump’s Foreign Policy and the US News Media’s Attendant Self-Destruction

US President Donald Trump (right) has had many foreign policy successes. His diplomatic efforts with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) would be among them. Using a maximum pressure campaign of sanctions, coordinating with South Korean and Japanese allies, and garnering help from China and Russia, Trump got North Korea to suspend nuclear and missile testing, brought home three US prisoners, and convinced North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un (left) to meet for denuclearization talks. Trump said the talks achieved much. Critics opined widely in the US news media that Trump accomplished nothing.

A significant segment of the US public, with a sense of trust, although somewhat diminished over recent years, still avails itself of the news media to understand what is happening in their world, internationally, nationally, and locally. Journalists cover areas across a gamut within those sets of the news to include: business and finance, sports, weather, science, education, fine arts, literature, style and fashion, entertainment and celebrity, food and wine, and travel. (It is possible that some areas were missed off the list.) In news related to foreign affairs and diplomacy, national security and defense, international and national, the news media serves as the eyes and ears of the US public in realms that are generally inaccessible. What is immediately apparent in the way in which stories are being reported and commented upon lately is the great degree that it deviates from well-established standards of professional practice of the past. That would include informing truthfully about people and events, reporting facts and not simply offering opinion. In particular, the quality of mainstream news media efforts devoted to foreign affairs and diplomacy, national security and defense, has degraded significantly. That change has especially been apparent during the administration of US President Donald Trump. There is an “us-them” approach to taken toward anything the Trump administration does. Reporters and pundits in the broadcast media have gone beyond the point of being gadflies. Primacy is given to an effort to shape the thinking of the public, as well as provoke Trump, with daily stories that harshly criticize him, gainsay his administration’s decisions and actions, and chastize administration personnel from senior advisers to middle level staff. Words used are beyond hostile and aggressive. The distance that many journalists are willing to travel away from past norms is unknown. Into the second year of his first term in office, the news media remains all Trump, all the time. Journalists discuss hypotheticals sometimes with only a tenuous connection with the realities to ongoing events instead of informing the US public of facts from solid reporting and analysis based on studied patterns of decision making. The facts offered are more often bleached to the point of being superficial. Deeper dives into facts are avoided, and gaps are filled with opinions. The conclusion of an empirical analysis by discerning, reasonable laymen. who have kept close track of news media coverage over the past decade or longer, would undoubtedly be that there has been a sea change in the way things are done. Recall how US news media reports during the 2016 Presidential Election Campaign were filled with opinions on how Trump would lose the race, while facts correctly pointing to the real potential of his victory were set aside for the most  part.)

As Trump is attacked repeatedly without relief, one wonders what are the genuine ends that his critics seek to reach. They could easily critique Trump. without being so destructive. It would seem that there is some collective understanding by journalist that since Trump is allegedly such despicable a person, so unfit for the presidency that as members of the “Fourth Estate”, the guardians of democracy, it is their duty to protect the US public, the society, by hindering his path. With that concept and intent, the news media has gone about using its position in the society to set the agenda for the national and international discourse on Trump. That type of haughtiness makes the whole cabaret of news media behavior toward Trump more disconcerting. Perhaps the preponderance of those working as journalists remain so against Trump’s election victory that they continue fight against him, forming a resistence, completely contrary to the purported duty of those in the profession to report the news and not make it. The words “resist” and “resistance” have been uttered by broadcast news reporters and anchors more than once in recent times. The phrase “all the news that is fit to print” still holds. However, the definition of what is fit has clearly changed. The entire movement in a new direction could be a reflection of a more understanding that the news media is an industry, engaged in business. The pursuit and high tempo production of juicy, high-value stories that decry Trump, appears designed to glean a significant audience, and make news programs, newspapers, journals, more attractive for paid advertising. Est omnino iniquum, sed usu receptum, quod honesta consilia vel turpia, prout male aut prospere cedunt, ita vel probantur vel reprehenduntur. (It is the usual though inequitable method of the world, to pronounce an action to be either right or wrong, as it is attended with good or ill success.)

What is also being witnessed is a self-destructive act. Journalists and news media outlets reduce themselves to a status so low that, despite their ability to sway opinion, they become supernumeraries in the larger story of the Trump administration’s progress. The once great leviathans of the deep that US news media outlets have reduced themselves to goldfish in an aquarium. It would be hard to argue that the mantle of being the impartial reporters of people and events has not been surrendered by journalists. Readers and viewers are told, with half-concealed pathos, that the news media is still a neutral voice. That may very well remain the overt policy at most US news media outlets and the guidance most journalists claim to follow, but in both cases, it is regularly ignored. Under the older way of doing things, personal opinions of journalists on Trump and his administration’s actions would be kept personal unless those opinions were published on opinion pages or in editorials or broadcasted as specifically commentaries. In a previous post, greatcharlie essentially called for the wholesale rejection of US news media as an overt sources of intelligence for foreign diplomatic and intelligence services attempting to better understand Trump as it would cause more confusion than order in analytical processes that could support more effective diplomacy with the administration. In this post, greatcharlie takes a brief look with some despair at the issue and offers some understanding of the slow, downward spiral of standards in journalism and the US news media and an understanding why many journalists no longer report and editorialize on Trump from a neutral perspective, but from a popular counter-Trump point of view. Multi famam, conscientiam pauci verentur. (The truth is, the generality of mankind stand in awe of public opinion, while conscience is feared by the few.)

Trump and the US News Media

After Trump won the 2016 US Presidential Election, Trump, forever the optimist, expected much from the presidency. Among those things, he would have liked to have been embraced by the country. However, he was rejected by an endless list of critics. As critics’ attacks hold the US public’s attention day after day, managers and producers in newsrooms insist that reporters and anchors push even harder to garner even more attention. To the extent that the public has been captivated by stories about Trump, he might be called the luckiest thing to come the way of US media outlets. Some of Trump’s critics are convinced that he does not really want to do well for the US public or the world. Trump is depicted more and more as the ultimate and absolute evil. Against Trump, more critics than not engage in “violent and disorderly forms of speaking: slander, defamation, insult, vituperation, malediction, and curse.” In doing so, critics transmit pessimism. However, they abuse the privilege of their position in the society to display a type of recklessness and irrationality. It certainly is nothing smooth, elegant, beautiful, or classy about it. It is very unattractive. As greatcharlie has asserted often in its posts concerning the news media, this would all prove to be very destabilizing for the society as whole. They make very unconstructive statements being fully aware that the consequence of them might be to harm the trust that many in the US public have in Trump. They may have even infiltrated and despoiled the psyche of quite a few, and perhaps may have even destroyed the possibility for some to have confidence in future US administrations. Indeed, if it were only a select few critics, perhaps it could be presumed that some strong psychological disturbance was the cause for their reports and commentaries. Their words could be dismissed. However, the number of critics is great, and there are far more than a few attacks. The onslaught of attacks against Trump are so intense that critics can step away from the firing line and allow others carry on the attack. They can then return later, rested, re-energized, and ready to unleash more destructive attacks on the US President. The ranks of Trump’s critics actually extend beyond the US news media to include: think tank scholars, other policy analysts, particularly former officials of the administration of US President Barack Obama. Still, it is via the news media that all of the critics views are transmitted.

While it may appear at times that many journalists and other critics are developing their attacks on Trump by building whimsy upon whimsy, they would vehemently deny that. Indeed, they would explain that certain “data points” have lead them to reach negative conclusions about him, reveal dangers that he poses. Of course, the critics, themselves, determine what data points are important enough to look at. Despite their insistence, experienced analysts would recognize that even with the often cherry picked facts of critics’ data points could certainly mean many other things. Other, more developed conclusions could be reached if those data points were studied more intently. Critics’ reactions to Trump remind one more adolescent rebellion than more edifying, staid efforts of journalists not so long ago. Pressured to provide in depth, constructive analysis and options on policy issues in a challenging, consequential setting, the honest among them would very likely admit that they could not do it. Although many critics may not be able to truly shed light on matters, they can still cast a shadow through their reports, commentaries, broadcasts, and blog posts 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.)

Trump did not ascend to the presidency only to have the US simply to sit back and hope only a well-heeled, politically “useful” segment of the society prospered. That was the pattern in previous administrations. When they tried to be proactive, they failed. After September 11, 2001, there was the necessary but poorly prosecuted military intervention in Afghanistan where initial success was squandered, and years with little genuine efforts by the administration to achieve victory. There was a non-judicious use of US power based on the silly notion of using a Western model to transform societies in the Middle East, marked by the disastrous Iraq War. Sizing up the competence of US decision makers, Russia moved forces into Georgia, and inroads were made in pulling some former Soviet republics back to Moscow’s control. There was a poorly conceived plan for nuclear arms reduction and an attempted pivot to Asia based on the flawed belief that the Russian Federation under President Vladimir Putin was no longer a threat to the West. Russia wholly rejected the notion of cutting nuclear arms and when he found the doors of Eastern Europe open, he decided to walk right into Ukraine. Russia directed threats at the Baltic States, conducted hybrid warfare campaigns against other former Soviet republics and Eastern European countries, and undertook the bold move of meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election Campaign. Trump will not allow the US to sit and atrophy. He wants to take on the unfinished business of the US concerning foreign policy. He has had a number of objectively recognized successes. Perhaps first among was his efforts on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Trump managed to cause North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile testing, release three US prisoners, and bring the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-un to a summit meeting in Singapore on denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. It was mainly the result of maximum pressure campaign that included harsh economic sanctions, close coordination with South Korean and Japanese allies and apparent help from China and Russia. On NATO, Trump encouraged Member States to increase spending following harsh admonishments of them for being delinquent in keeping their forces strong enough to field an effective defense against its most likely adversary, Russian. On March 5, 2018, NATO allies reported an increase in their overall military spending for a second straight year to 2.42 percent of gross national product. On ISIS, it was reported on April 5, 2018 by US Marine Corps Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie Jr., Director of the Joint Staff, that the US and its coalition partners in Iraq and Syria has led to near defeat of the so-called “Islamic Caliphate” and the methodical reduction of the massive swath of territory it grabbed in Iraq and Syria during the Obama administration. Chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White explained further that “(We are) very close to reaching an end state against the caliphate.” These accomplishments are only a few from long list of successes.

Initially for Trump, there was undoubtedly some hurt as he likely felt attacks were coming from all sides; and they were. Indeed, the intention of critics has been to hurt Trump. Psychological torture is always the most successful and painful for the individual. There was always the danger that as a normal human being, he could have become a misanthrope, so angered by what was being said. It is difficult to imagine critics did not know Trump would have been made to feel cornered, cut off, isolated. Trump was depicted within the society by critics as something wrong, abnormal, an untouchable. To maintain his balance, Trump appears to have engaged in an internal juggling act. The military would call it economy of force, bringing up strength when and where he needs it, and devoting less energy where it is not needed immediately. He apparently manages to find some peace and calm in his quarters at the White House. It is an environment of “friendly superiority” away from the savagery of critics, even if only for brief moments. He has occasionally found other opportunities for relaxation through visits to Mar-A-Largo, Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, Trump National Doral Golf Club, and Trump Tower. Now, well over a year since his inauguration, the best efforts of his critics have left Trump somewhat untouched for the most part. Indeed, what critics might have noticed lately is that Trump has been reacting less to critics’ attacks, and typically responds in a way to promote his  own perspectives, positions, and policies. In addition to rallies and press conferences, he does that work on Twitter. While critics may dwell on inaccuracies or typos which are undoubtedly the result of Trump’s attempts to fit all he wants to say in limited character space, the important elements to take away from his tweets is that they represent his own unfiltered words, his direct line of communication with the US public.

To the disappointment of critics, the job of president has begun to fit Trump. It has all occurred under the persistent shadow of an investigation alleged collusion with Russia on the 2016 Presidential Election. The investigation has been insisted upon not only by critics, but also full-fledged rivals. Trump swears none of the accusations are true, and has declared the whole matter a witch hunt. Secunda felices, adversa magnos probent. (Prosperity proves men to be fortunate, while it is adversity which makes them great.)

Where Is the US News Media Headed?

In the US, the news media serves as a watchdog over government power and political activity. It is a source from which the public can inform itself on the decisions and actions of elected leaders and appointed officials. The news media is at its best when it can provide the public with a look inside government bodies and operations. Its role in the society is sacrosanct. “Freedom of the press” is one the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the US Constitution listing specific prohibitions on government power. A study released by the Pew Research Center on June 18, 2018, it was concluded that the US public has difficulty sorting through fact and opinion in the US news media reports. In the study, conducted in February and March of 2018, 5,035 survey participants aged 18 and above were asked to identify statements of fact versus opinions in news stories. The research indicated that only 26 percent were able to correctly identify all five factual statements. On opinions, about 35 percent were able to correctly identify all five statements. Nearly 25 percent were incorrect most or all of the time in the identification process. Amy Mitchell, Director of Journalism Research at the Pew Research Center explained that participants’ ability to classify statements as factual or opinion varied widely based on ones political awareness, trust in the news media, “digital savviness” or degree to which one is confident in using digital devices and the internet, and “political savviness.” According to Mitchell, the study also found that when Americans call a statement “factual” they overwhelmingly also think it is accurate. They tend to disagree with factual statements they incorrectly label as opinions. Unusquisque mavult credere quam iudicare. (Everyone prefers to believe than to think.)

Taking the tack of reporting only parts of a story, promoting a particular viewpoint, hoping to shape in agreement with it, is improper. In the past, there were no special circumstances that would have made it correct to do so. It is not posited here that all journalists and all news media outlets engage in this practice. To posit that all members of any group behave in the same way would be incorrect unless they behave in the same way by design. Members of military honor guard close order drill teams, synchronized swimming teams, and some factory assembly line teams are a few examples of that. The desire here is not generalize to the point of displaying a prejudice or bias about the journalism profession or the news media or express stereotypes about both today. The purpose is to consider certain relatively new changes in standards of practice among professionals that catch the eye.

The Influence of the Internet on Journalism

On the burgeoning internet in the early 1990s, standards for presenting information were somewhat lax to say the least. That was usually the immediate perception of those who used it via the big providers at the time: AOL,Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google. Numerous grammatical errors and inaccuracies could be found on websites of all kinds, as well as the blogs, a set in which greatcharlie became a part in May 2013. There was even an understanding that one could write email messages with little concern over grammar and spelling. Things did not improve once social media arrived on the scene. Writing devolved further. Writers began using contractions, nonstandard contractions, acronyms, other abbreviations, and symbols. The danger that the loose standards of the Internet posed to conventional journalism was not recognized. As the internet gained popularity, users allowed the standards and practices of the internet found its way into communications of all types at work and at home. The ways of the internet impacted work product in mainstream media outlets. Indeed, bad writing habits could be found just about everywhere. What was also prevalent was the presentation of opinion as fact as in online studies, reports, articles, and commentaries. Some online sites did not reference sources or use any facts in their work. Opinions, themselves, were presented in the news. (Caveat: While all of this only provides the flavor of what happened, the full story is far worse.)

In its nascent stage as a media tool, the internet was viewed somewhat as novelty by professionals in all fields, to include managers of news bureaus and newsrooms and television news producers. Those senior leaders were mainly of an older generations as were the senior executives of the news media outlets in which they worked. They were all unaware of the internet and all its power and potential, did not realize what was happening. The Internet would evolve exponentially in a short period of time. To understand what the many young go-getters who were behind the evolving online services were up to in the early 1990s, US Senator John McCain formed a bipartisan “Internet Caucus” in the US Congress. The countless, quirky online news media sites of all sizes that were developed on the Internet became a real competitors for the attention of the public. A broad, diverse, but mostly youthful audience began getting its news from the Internet sources. Only so much could be accomplished by “the old guard” adhering to long held standards while hoping to hold on to their audience. Just over a decade after the online competition’s massive footprint became evident everywhere. They began making huge cuts in their workforces. Fewer reporters were kept on staff, overseas news bureaus faced severe reductions in staffs or were closed altogether. Covering the news the old way had become expensive. The possibility that  new technologies could present benefits for their field were investigated. Oportet privatis utilitatibus publicas, mortalibus aeternas anteferre, multoque diligentius muneri suo consulere quam facultatibus. (A man must rate public and permanent, above private and fleeting advantages and study how to render his benefaction most useful, rather than how he may bestow it with least expense.)

Mainstream news media outlets rushed to create places for themselves online but it was an anxiety filled effort as their sites, carrying the mastheads of their venerable newspapers of record, revered broadcast television networks, and cable news networks floated in an ocean of seemingly infinite sites. Senior executives believed a solution for the mainstream media was to acquire, merge, or enter cooperative arrangements with the online competitors thereby covering matters beyond the news. There was certainly a flap of that activity in the late 1990s. Yet, despite steps taken, senior executives of mainstream news media outlets recognized that they were fighting a losing battle. At a certain point, it appears that since the mainstream could not beat the wave of online news services doing things representative of their buttoned down way of thinking. They would dedicate a portion of their efforts on the internet to directly compete with their burgeoning technological rival for the attention of the US public. In the presentation of their website sites, blogs, and stories, the mainstream news media outlets modelled their products after the many news sites online. It was a period of confusion across the profession in which senior executives saw that their inherent uncertainty and hesitation over departing from its normal ways of doing things was in an odd way a “liability.” The resistance to change would not allow it to compete with the new online threat. The response of many forward thinking at that moment in the industry was allow some latitude for shedding its “old fashioned” identity. That identity, however, was built upon the adherence to its firm standards of professional practice.

There was opposition to what was transpiring. Although the transformation of the profession and its practices seemed inevitable, some well-experienced journalists and grizzled, seen-it-all editors and producers were not ready to toss out everything that had been established. Indeed, away from the eyes of the public there was an internal resistance by some journalists, editors, and producers to maintain the status quo and convince their colleagues that it was imperative to do so. Despite their intransigence, the winners of that apparent, yet publicly unseen Kulturkampf in the US news media were those in the profession who were ready to engage in ways that previously would have been absolute anathema in the profession. Veteran journalists might suggest that multifarious crises in leadership and changes in leadership along the way in the big US news media outlets further aggravated matters and sped the departure from old practices to the new.

The trust developed over decades with the US public, the covenant of the free press with people, not to fail in its duty to keep them informed in the way mainstream news media outlets and the renowned freelance journalists of the past, became a patrimony squandered by spendthrift heirs. The new focus would be based on narrow interest in grabbing headlines to promote readership and viewership, and to fill advertising space and increase their profits. After all, new office buildings, new technologies, and marketing cost money. Those journalists who will adhere to convention, will only report facts as they come and in rightful context, will remain neutral, and will refuse to deviate from that course, may not be able to produce reports with enough “umph” to compete with the visceral, personal opinion-laden, stories of journalists working without restraint. Wrong is wrong, even if everyone is doing what is wrong, and right is right even if no one is doing what is right. Still, some would claim that is too easy to say outside of context, and therein may lie the problem. Too many journalists are willing to engage in a type of relativism about issues. Too many who see what is wrong are willing to settle as well.

What Might Come Next?

Difficile est tenere quae acceperis nisi exerceas. (It is difficult to retain what you may have learned unless you should practice it.) Debating whether standards should be upheld, regarding Trump or any matter, would have been considered novel in the profession not so long ago. Journalist, editors, and producers knew that they were expected to hold themselves to high standards. When the news is edited for the purpose of manipulating opinion it becomes propaganda, or worse, disinformation. As the profession developed, evolved, the need to apply standards to ensure that the reported news remained authentic news had been addressed by those who were responsible for developing news reporting as a profession; the firmament of great journalists of past eras. Standards are as essential an element to reporting as knowing the who, what, when, where, why of a story. Where one might appreciate hearing the matter still hashed out are lively discussions in ethics classes at journalism departments of colleges and universities. However, once away from the safety of the halls of their schools, the gap between theory and praxis, text and the world, becomes most apparent. There was a time when journalism was a calling. For the those who accepted it as such, there was a recognition that they had to remain obedient to standards. In moments of doubt when new journalists are uncertain how to proceed, it would be great if they would acknowledge, believe, that the profession is greater than themselves.

In professions, novices or journeymen typically model themselves on their precursors. New journalists starting at the bottom of the list read, hear, watch, and perhaps even admire some long-time highly esteemed figures in the US news media. For this reason, veteran journalists must serve as examples, ready to support neophytes in how to do things right or when they have gotten things wrong. This should be done not only as part of the process of mentoring and on-the-job  professional development, but for the sake of the profession. The decision of veteran journalists to deviate from convention would certainly give new journalists the impression that they too have license to depart from the established course when covering Trump, leaving behind old standards, codes, tenets, in favor of an unrestrained, laissez-faire approach to reporting and commentary. Indeed, the professionals who came before them have made themselves most notable for their role in the disassembly of the standards of professional practice for journalism. New journalists may be agreeable to a philosophy that journalism is a business and cost benefit analysis, and knowing whether a broad audience will be reached, must be part of decision making on what stories run. Doing what feels right whether adhering to standards or not, would be fine, as long its meets business criteria. In numero ipso est quoddam magnum collatumque consilium, quibusque singulis iudicii parum, omnibus plurimum. (A certain large collective wisdom resides in a crowd, as such; and men whose individual judgement is defective are excellent judges when grouped together.)

Among new journalists willing to escape or to reject convention, there is also the impetus of trying to avoid being crushed under the weight of huge student loan payments, mortgages, college tuition, and some have expensive choices for entertainment and costly personal interests. Add to that the fact that most young journalists despite protestations to the contrary, are vertically oriented, seeing a path upward. For a young journalist, remaining part of workplace may often be just a matter of falling in line with what is expected, or acknowledging what is the style du jour. Although one may begin at the bottom of the list, once one is recognized as a team player, easy to work with, more opportunities to might be provided for one to participate in collaborative efforts. Fruitful group effort makes ones activities at a workplace much sweeter. In the era of Trump, new journalist are more likely to garner favorable attention as a team player and rise in standing, if they can manage to display some Innate sense of how to present him as a certain kind of leader. What can likely be expected in the future of the administration are efforts to create an image of Trump, much as a character in a play, with bits and pieces of fact included in their depiction. They can then convey anything negative about that character that they want.

The direction that the profession is turning toward might loosely be dubbed “Libertine journalism.” The ideals, beliefs, aims of a past era are not just being shed, but rejected, for the new. Presently, there is no evidence in news outlets that self-constraints exist on what can be said about Trump. As things continue in this fashion, the regulatory mechanism for their work will typically be open minded managers with a sedated style of supervision might be limited to meeting copy deadlines and remaining strict on word length. Peers of young tyro would certainly offer guidance to the extent that they would likely admonish and ostricize them if they failed to attack Trump thoroughly. New journalists may rarely find themselves genuinely at odds with managers on the way their stories are written as there appears to be little gap between what editors and producers they think and what US media outlets in which they have found employment have been doing. It appears at some once renowned news media outlets, particularly in broadcast media, that constraints do not exist at all.  The free press has become free wielding. Yet, it cannot called anarchic. While the creative side of the outlets may be in flux, the administrative, bureaucratic side of them remain intact. Unfortunately for the US public, the consumer, whose interests the news media purports to serve, trying to recognize the difference between fact and opinion, even what is right and wrong will become more difficult to discern. The mainstream news media will very likely be forever shaped or poisoned, depending on ones perspective, by this change. Multi famam, conscientiam pauci verentur. (The truth is, the generality of mankind stand in awe of public opinion, while conscience is feared only by the few.)

Can the Old Form of Journalism Be Resuscitated?

In the Induction of William Shakespeare’s The Second part of King Henry the Fourth, the idea of Rumour takes human form, painted full of tongues, and breaks the fourth wall by  speaking to the audience before the castle at Warkworth. He tells of his devilish work of playing on the anxieties across the known world, telling lies, generating falsehoods, encouraging guesswork, igniting suspicion, and flavoring speculation that could only mislead those aware of his presence. The result is misfortune for those fall victim to his stories. As an introduction to the play, Rumour tells how contrary to the truth that King Henry who has won the war and ended the rebellion led by Hotspur and his allies at Shrewsbury, he has spread word Hotspur has killed the King and as Prince Hal was killed, too! Rumour describes his efforts as follows: “Open your ears; for which of you will stop The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks? I, from the orient to the drooping west, Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold The acts commenced on this ball of earth: Upon my tongues continual slanders ride, The which in every language I pronounce, Stuffing the ears of men with false reports. I speak of peace, while covert enmity Under the smile of safety wounds the world: And who but Rumour, who but only I, Make fearful musters and prepared defence, Whiles the big year, swoln with some other grief, Is thought with child by the stern tyrant war, And no such matter? Rumour is a pipe Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures And of so easy and so plain a stop That the blunt monster with uncounted heads, The still-discordant wavering multitude, Can play upon it. But what need I thus My well-known body to anatomize.” The similarity in the practice of Shakespeare’s Rumor and practices of many journalists and US news media today is striking. As initially mentioned, opinion has replaced fact in news reports. Opinions themselves are not threatening. The way in which they are being used is problematic. Opinions can be developed by the interpreting facts collected and inferring things from that information. It is akin to trying to find the missing piece of ring and using facts available to conceptualize, hypothesize within reasonable probability, what that missing piece might look like. There are quantitative and qualitative means used in some fields to help one reach useful conclusions. Opinions can also be formed from prejudices, self-serving ideas, incorrect assumptions, and surmisal, and offered up much as rumors.

The US public should be deeply concerned about the collapse of standards of professional practice in journalism, particularly when it comes to covering Trump’s foreign policy. Many in the US public have become less certain that the news media serves their interests. If new and veteran journalists and senior executives of new media outlets were forced to face the reality that the news media as it is now is not serving the needs of the public, there would most likely demurrals from some and certainly hot-blooded, vehement expressions of outrage from others. Trump appears to have triggered the worst attitudes and behaviors, the worst instincts in journalists. His presidency has oddly presented an opportunity for them to cut loose, engaging in independent thinking on what is relatively right and wrong and reaching conclusions at odds with professional standards. They respond to Trump with their worst instincts. While his foreign policy successes can reasonably be seen as improving the position of the US and peace and security globally, they are reported as placing the country and the world one footstep from Hell. Trump is inspired by the challenge of dealing with what he sees as the languid condition of US foreign policy. So far, there is no indication that his work is directed at the annihilation of everything as some critics have proffered. There is perhaps little to no chance for Trump to cultivate the affections of the US news media. One may disagree with Trump, but that is no reason to tear everything apart, play a big role in sullying the office of the presidency, and disassemble all that was once special and sacrosanct about journalism profession.

The profession as it is now could serve as a metaphor for the social man who has lost his way in the society with an overt focus on wealth, power, celebrity, pleasure, immediate gratification, rather truth, beauty, and goodness. Trying to protect it may appear futile more than ever before. In his 1734 work, An Essay on Man, Alexander Pope stated that “hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Perhaps the saving grace for profession may take the form of a new movement by new journalists, themselves to restore things as they were. Perhaps the old form of journalism can be resuscitated. To reach that point, however, new journalists in particular, veterans too if they choose, must undertake journeys of introspection to understand the phenomenon of what their profession has become, who they have become as professionals, and what their priorities really are. One must not ignore the possibilities of ones own character. One can always become much more. Becoming much more may be within ones reach. With hope, there might be a check in their spirit of some journalists that might help remind them that things are being done the wrong way and a correction is needed. What is in ones heart will determine the path one chooses. Vita hominum altos recessus magnasque latebras habet. (Character lies more concealed, and out of the reach of common observation.)

Trump Wants Good Relations with Russia, But if New Options on Ukraine Develop, He May Use One

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). To negotiate with Putin, US President Donald Trump and his advisers recognize that it is important to look well beyond his statements and optics and fully grasp what he wants. Putin seems to have Russia sitting on Ukraine and moving at a deliberate pace on the Minsk peace process. Moving slowly on the peace process has given him an upper hand to a degree, as other parties involved are required to respond to his whims. The Trump administration will unlikely tolerate that. New options are likely being developed.

The ideal geopolitical response to the global power crisis is a connection between US, and Russia. In 2017, the foreign policy efforts of the administration of US President Donald Trump evinced a desire not to isolate Russia, or allow engagement with it to fall off. He does not want to settle on a long-term stand-off in which peace, particularly in Europe, is placed at risk. He believes the US and Russia can be good neighbors on the same planet. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the renowned US foreign policy scholar and former US National Security Adviser, stated that sophisticated US leadership is sine qua non of a stable world order. Finding a way to establish an authentic positive relationship with Russia is a struggle US administrations have engaged in for a few decades. Trump said he would try to find the solution, and explained that he would give it his best effort. However, critics depicted Trump as being a naïve neophyte, outmatched by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. They warned of the dangers of Trump dealing with the sly, experienced Russian leader. Still, there is a greater reality about the entire situation. While the Trump administration remained outwardly positive about working with Putin, it was not in fact overly optimistic about that. Trump and foreign and national security policy officials in his administration were always well-aware of the fact that Putin and his government can more often than not be disingenuous. Yet, Putin is the duly elected president of Russia, and its head of state. Moreover, for now, Putin is the best leader available to keep Russia’s complex society somewhat stable. He has managed to contain extremist political elements that might seek war with Russia’s neighbors, NATO, or the US directly without thinking it through and he has suppressed morally void organized criminal elements that might wreak havoc globally.

One policy issue on which the administration has found Moscow disingenuous is Ukraine. Kiev is committed to a westward orientation. Yet, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has grabbed Crimea and has invested considerable effort in collecting territory in Eastern Ukraine. Some analysts in the West speculate that he might try to take all of Ukraine eventually through conflict. Ukraine in a particularly bad position vis-à-vis Russia  as it sits as metaphoric low hanging fruit in its “near abroad.” In 2014, it moved into Ukraine and grabbed Crimea. The Minsk Agreement, signed in Minsk, Belarus, on February 12, 2015, was supposed to have established a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine once signed. However, in the many months since its signing, a succession of violations have occurred in both the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, and consequently Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian separatist fighters have been killed. From the view of Washington, Putin has actually been the one who has figuratively dynamiting the peace process on Ukraine with the help of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed, independent, Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic

To negotiate with Putin, it is important to look beyond his statements and observable actions and fully grasp what he wants. On Ukraine, he seems to have Russia simply sitting on its territory as well as distorting the Minsk peace process. Moreover, by taking that approach, Putin has acquired an upper hand on the matter, requiring  other parties in the peace process to respond to his whims. The Trump administration will unlikely tolerate that. New options for Trump to consider may be developing now. Some them would very likely have been anathema in policy discussions on Ukraine in the administration of US President Barack Obama. As greatcharlie explained in a recent post, when Trump acts on an issue, his goal is to exploit success, preserve his freedom of action on immediate matters, and reduce vulnerability from action by his competitors. He acts in a manner designed to gain advantage, surprise, and momentum over his competitors, achieving results that would normally require far more time and would be more costly to the US. If on Ukraine there is daylight, and a chance for open field running via a new option, Trump may give it consideration. He might even use it. In that vein, Russia should not wait around to see what happens next. It might be best for Moscow to insist on some resolution on Ukraine at the negotiation table, using the Minsk Agreement, or even something different, before there are any considerable changes in the situation there. Equidem ad pacem hortari non desino; quae vel iniusta utilior est quam iustissimum bellum cum civibus. (As for one, I cease not to advocate peace. It may be on unjust terms, even so it is more expedient than the justest of civil wars.)
Map of Ukraine (above). Moscow views Ukraine as being part of its sphere of influence, its “near abroad”, and its hope would be to bring it into Russia’s fold, willing or unwilling. The US and other Western powers support Kiev’s desire to be an independent actor. Long before the mass protests in Kiev began in 2014, circles there were quite pro-Western and welcomed entrées from the EU to take a westward path.

Background on the Ukrainian Conflict

Russia views Ukraine as being part of its sphere of influence, its “near abroad”, and its hope would be to bring it into its fold, willing or unwilling. The US and other Western powers want to support Kiev’s desire to be an independent actor. Long before the mass protests in Kiev began, there were circles in Ukraine that were quite pro-Western and welcomed entrées from the EU for their country to take a westward path. Those circles were the foundation for the Orange Revolution of November 2004 to January 2005 after a questionable result of a November 21, 2004 presidential election run-off vote. Protesters engaged in civil resistance, civil disobedience and strike actions, and took control over Kiev’s main square, called the Maidan. They managed to force a revote through which their candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, won. Many government reforms made during Yushchenko’s term were reversed when the pro-Russian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych took office in 2010. Opposition political elements and a burgeoning civil society, were already engaged in a simmering political dispute with then President Yanukovych when he turned his back on a Western trade pact in 2014. Pro-European protesters once again took control over the Maidan. The peaceful protesters, who called their movement the Euromaidan Revolution, included participants from a wide spectrum of the society, but were all pro-European and anti-corruption. Violent neo-Nazi and ultra nationalist elements that attempted to insinuate themselves into movement. Their activities included blocking streets and attacking peaceful protesters. For three months, the Euromaidan Revolution protesters endured cold weather and murderous police crackdowns. In the third month, Yanukovych fled to Russia. Perhaps anticipating the fall of Yanukovych or simply implementing Russia’s version of a nuclear option on Ukraine, on February 27, 2014, Moscow rushed into Crimea with unidentifiable “green men”, military forces mainly from Vozdushno-desantnye Voyska Rossii ( Russian Airborne Troops) or VDV and the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU. They claimed to be Crimeans. In only a matter of days, Crimea was under Russian control. The US and EU took Putin to task for that bold military operation. Harsh sanctions were levied and Russia was cast out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies. Putin has held on to the territory and has continued to do so in the face of even tougher sanctions against Russian interests. He levied his own sanctions against US and EU products and even began heavily supporting separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine

However, as the US and EU responded to the Russian occupation of Crimea, another crisis arose in the east of Ukraine, in a region known as Donbass. Pro-Russian separatists in its Donetsk and Luhansk provinces took over entire towns and declare the independence of the territory captured. The Kiev government has sent the Ukrainian Army into those region to reclaim its sovereign territory.  The provinces would eventually declare themselves independent states: the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Western officials insist that Russia has actually been controlling both the civil administration of the self-proclaimed countries as well as the fighting. The Minsk Agreement was intended to create a ceasefire, yet thousands of violations were committed by both sides on a daily basis. The combatants have maintained fighting positions too close to one another. Tanks, mortars, artillery, and multiple launch-rocket systems could be found where they should not have been. Civilians living near the fighting have suffered greatly.
Russian Federation “green men” in Crimea, 2014 (above). Soon after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. Putin, perhaps anticipating his fall or simply implementing Moscow’s version of a nuclear option on Ukraine, rushed into Crimea with unidentifiable “green men”, military forces mainly from the VDV and GRU. They claimed to be Crimeans. In only a matter of days, Crimea was under Russian control.

The Minsk Agreement

Nulla res carius constat quam quae perilous empta est. (Nothing is so expensive as that which you have bought with pleas.) Under the Minsk Agreement, Ukraine, the Russian Federation, France, and Germany on February 11, 2015, agreed to a package of Measures to mitigate and eventually halt the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. It was a follow-on agreement to the unsuccessful Minsk Protocol, which was crafted to halt the war in Eastern Ukraine and was signed by the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic on September 5, 2014 under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Minsk Agreement’s terms included: 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; safe access, storage, delivery, and distribution of humanitarian aid to the needy; restoration of government pensions and other welfare payments for civilians in the east; the restoration of Ukrainian control of the banking system in areas affected by the conflict, pull out of all foreign military formations, military equipment, and mercenaries from Ukraine under OSCE monitoring; the disarmament of illegal groups; full Ukrainian control over the eastern border, after local elections under Ukrainian law. There was supposed to be a constitutional deal on the future of Donetsk and Luhansk by the end of 2015 but that went nowhere. The direction which the region may turn will be determined either by the US, EU and Ukrainian Government, intent to keep all of the Donbass in Ukraine, albeit with part of its population reluctant to live under Kiev’s control or by Russia and pro-Russian separatists intent on establishing the region’s independence and tying it umbilically to Moscow. From the additional space in Ukraine he holds, Putin can exert his influence in the region.
Map of Fighting in Eastern Ukraine (above).The direction which Eastern Ukraine may turn will be determined either by the US, EU and Ukrainian Government, intent to keep all of it in Ukraine, albeit with part of its population reluctant to live under Kiev’s control or by Russia and pro-Russian separatists intent on establishing the region’s independence and tying it umbilically to Moscow. From the additional space in Ukraine he holds, Putin can exert his influence in the region.

Russia Has a Unique Perspective on Ukraine

While there is one authentic truth, there are usually at least two sides to every story. Russian perspectives and positions on Ukraine differ from those in Kiev and the capitals of the Western powers. In his answers to questions during a Moscow news conference on January 15, 2018, Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed up Moscow’s thinking on Ukraine .Lavrov explained that on a political level, Russia respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine but only within the boundaries that were designed after the referendum in Crimea and its reunification with the Russian Federation. He said Russia believes that it has a rightful claim to parts of Ukraine and need to save ethnic-Russian from harm is legitimate. He called attention to the fact that “By virtue of their referendum people in Crimea achieved independence and joined the Russian Federation of their own free will.” Lavrov also made a distinction between the Minsk Agreements and the Crimea issue. He said: “one has nothing to do with the other.”

Concerning the Minsk Agreement, Lavrov stated that “We  [Russia] are ready and interested in full compliance with the Minsk Agreements.” He pointed out that Putin has repeated that the Minsk Agreement must be implemented in full, without any exceptions. However, Lavrov explained that the problem with the Minsk Agreement is that Ukrainian leaders are not being made to perform tasks as required under the agreement. He indicated that Ukrainian leaders have been simply stalling by slowly mulling over how lines of the document should be read. He believes that as the agreement was formalized by the UN Security Council no room was left for quibbling over its terms. He was certain that allowing this behavior now will give Kiev the impetus to drag its feet when it finally came down to fulfilling the agreement. Lavrov explained that US and European officials have taken note of what he described as a “tactic” by Ukrainian leaders. He also alleged that Western officials have confirmed Kiev is trying to provoke the use of force in what he calls a “stand-off” as a means to divert attention away from their failure to perform the Package of Measures under the Minsk Agreement
Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (above). During a Moscow news conference on January 15, 2018, Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed up Moscow’s thinking on Ukraine. Lavrov explained that on a political level, Russia respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine but only within the boundaries that were designed after the referendum in Crimea and its reunification with the Russian Federation.

As for the Ukrainian government, Lavrov has explained that its officials have a lack of respect for international law.  He claimed that that lack of respect for international law was manifested in the actions of those same officials when they organized and supported the Euromaidan Revolution, which he called “Maidan”. An example of that disrespect Lavrov offers was the manner in which then opposition leaders, who Lavrov derisively refers to as “putschists”, reached an agreement with Yanukovych as Ukrainian President. Lavrov made clear that although the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland, and France certified the agreement, one day later, the opposition leaders nullified it. Lavrov further complained that EU foreign ministers had engaged in a deception in cooperation with opposition because the agreement they signed provided for the creation of a government of national accord. However, a “government of winners” was formed instead. Expatiating on events that followed, Lavrov noted that a Congress of People’s Deputies of the Southeast [of Ukraine] and Crimea was held in Kharkov. He noted that the deputies were elected in compliance with the Ukrainian Constitution. He explained that they decided to take control of their regions until law and order were restored in Ukraine. He notes that They did not use force against the opposition. He then pointed to a February 23, 2014 language law, that was never actually enacted, but nonetheless approved by the opposition. Lavrov says the law was a manifestation of the anti-Russian, Russophobic thinking of the opposition. Lavrov went on to explain that on February 26, 2014 [the day before the green men arrived in Ukraine], the opposition authorized that use of force by neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalists of the Right Sector, as well as Islamic militants of Hizb ut-Tahrir and a Wahhabite group to take the Crimean Supreme Council building by storm. Lavrov expressed the view that this further distanced Crimeans from illegitimate authorities in Kiev. He noted that of this was also in violation of international law, particularly the Budapest Memorandum, under which the Ukrainian government agreed not to support xenophobic sentiments  Lavrov stated: “I am convinced that the people of Crimea had no option but to defend their identity, their multi-national and multi-confessional culture against such thugs.”

Regarding the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, Lavrov explained that the Minsk Agreements refer to some districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Speaking about fulfilment of the commitments, he noted that among the Minsk Agreement’s first requirements, once hostilities have ceased and troops have been withdrawn, is the organization of direct consultations between the government of Ukrainian government and representatives of some districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Lavrov indicated that Kiev claims that it never made that commitment. He noted that Kiev has been resorting to various configurations in talks designed to demonstrate that it has not recognized or interacted with them, but only Russia, Germany, France, and the OSCE. Lavrov held out hope that the situation between Ukraine and Russia would not last. He quoted Putin as saying that “Russian-Ukrainian relations will improve once the Donbass issue is resolved.” Undoutedly, that means when it is resolved on Moscow’s terms. Quidem concessum est rhetoribus ementiri in historiis ut aliquid dicere possint argutius. (Indeed rhetoricians are permitted to lie about historical matters so they can speak more subtly.)
Trump (left) and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (right). Trump and his advisers have not naively underestimated Putin. The possibility that Putin would not make himself available for deals that would lead to resolutions of disputes and contentious issues that would satisfy the administration was undoubtedly among the big “what ifs” administration officials considered and planned for. Trump and those who could be called the “stone hearts” among his officials have not been surprised by anything Putin has done.

The Trump Administration Enters

Praemonitus, praemunitus. (Forewarned, forearmed.) The Trump administration came into office eager to engage Putin in order to improve relations, but did so with its eyes wide open. Trump’s vision and pronouncement of his intention to engage was wrongly viewed as a pro-Putin deference. Critics predicted disaster if Trump attempted to negotiate on things he did not really understand with the cunning, ruthless Russian leader. Trump also received words of caution about Putin from Members of Congress from his own Republican party. The repeated warnings remind of Act II of William Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of Julius Caesar, in which Caesar dismissed information concerning the conspiracy against him. He rebuffed Calpurnia pleas that he “not stir out of his house” on the Ides of March. He rejected augurers’ claim that the discovery that an animal sacrificed as an offering had no heart was a warning sign. In Act III, Caesar ignored a letter from Artemidorus outlining the conspiracy and identifying the conspirators, and a few lines further down, he was assassinated. The possibility that Putin would not make himself available for deals with Trump that would lead to resolutions of disputes and contentious issues that would satisfy the administration was undoubtedly among the big “what ifs” administration officials considered and planned for. Trump and those who could be called the “stone hearts” among his officials have not been surprised by anything Putin has done. They would hardly be naïve and sentimental about any US adversary or competitor, let alone Russia.

Honesta enim bonis viris, non occulta quaeruntur. (Honorable things, not secretive things, are sought by good men.) The jumping off point for attempting to establish better relations with Russia inevitably became getting clarification and reaching some resolution of the issue of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election. The Trump administration wanted answers due to its own concerns and wanted to respond to crushing domestic pressures to find out what happened. Putin was approached by Trump about the 2016 US Presidential Election meddling and the the possibility of rebuilding US-Russian relations and possibly creating a new era cooperation. If things had gone well, the stage would have been set, for better or worse, to move along the road from forgiveness,to acceptance, to restoration, and then rejoicing in Washington and Moscow. However, as sure as when the rain falls from the sky it hits the land, Putin would only offer denials about the meddling. Nevertheless, Trump listened very closely to Putin’s positions and ideas, and developed an understanding of his way of thinking. From those face to face contacts, Trump undoubtedly assessed that getting things done with Putin would require discerning misinformation, maneuvering past distractions, and driving to the heart of matters from which opportunities, open doors, could be found..

On Ukraine, the Trump administration clearly understood that provocative actions would have destabilized an already fragile situation. In addition to Trumps talks with Putin, there have been multiple talks between Tillerson and Lavrov during which Ukraine has been discussed in a fulsome way. Trump has left no doubt that he wanted Russia to leave Ukraine alone, and that is the position that the Russians are hearing from him, Tillerson and all other US officials. Trump gave foreign policy speech in Warsaw that made clear his administration’s objectives and principles. The Trump administration reaffirmed its support of Ukraine. Yet, even before that speech, Russian officials had begun to make claims that Trump’s words and actions were the causality for its attitude and behavior toward the new administration.
Trump (right) listening intently to Putin (left). During Trump’s meetings with Putin, there were friendly smiles and jocund pats on the back. It was a welcome change in US-Russian relations in terms of optics. However, Trump also listened carefully to Putin’s positions and ideas, and developed an understanding of his thinking. From those contacts, Trump assessed that getting things done with Putin would require discerning misinformation, maneuvering past distractions, and driving to the heart of matters from which opportunities, open doors, could be found

Russia’s Off-kilter Approach Toward Its Neighbors

Putin is clearly a clever tactician, but it is unclear whether he is equally shrewd strategist on the global stage. He has served as Russia’s leader as president and prime minister, one could discern through his expressed concepts and intentions, as well as his actions, that he may be leading Russia in retrograde toward the past, albeit  In his effort to maintain his grip on Russia, Putin has resurrected the old systems to control the populace with which he grew up with and is most familiar. That has essentially dragged systems in Russia back to a simulacrum of the Soviet-era domestically and Moscow’s sort of neo-Cold War approach geopolitically. Still, while armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, Russia may no longer have the capability to be flexible militarily and may be unable to be a decisive superpower in the world.

In two earlier posts, “Military Leaders Discuss Plans to Counter ISIS Beyond the Battlefield: While the West Plans, Russia Conquers ISIS in Syria” and “How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight in Syria: Can the US Policy on Syria Be Gauged by Their Success?”, greatcharlie mistakenly assessed that Russia entered the war in Syria determined  to shape the war on the ground and the war’s ultimate outcome given the military power it brought to bear on the problem and the sense of exigence expressed by Putin when he declared that Russia needed to act. Putin emphasized that Russia would attack ISIS, eventually driving it and other Islamic militant groups from Syria, and restoring Assad’s control over the country. That was not the case. Over time, it became clear that Russia lacked the capability to do that despite appearing to have the capacity. Russia also demonstrated a lack of will or desire  to do more and to increase its presence in Syria to enable its forces to act decisively. Perhaps one could glean much from what has happened in Syria to examine and assess Putin’s efforts in Ukraine. Despite any shortcomings observed in Russia’sees military performance in Syria, there can still be no doubt that it can still effecrively act as a divisive power. To that extent, Putin has tasked the Russian military and other security services with mission of eroding existing and burgeoning democracies wherever they sees them.

Indeed, as the EU and NATO expanded eastward, Putin decided to pull independent countries that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit. With the help of the military and security services, Putin would create something that did not preexist in many of those 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 was carved out of a country, Putin gained a base from which he can exert his influence in that country. Still, despite the activities and some successes of pro-Russian political elements, in the larger territories of those former Soviet republics occupied by Russian Federation armed forces and elsewhere in the sphere of the former Eastern Bloc, political thinking of the people of those countries has not turned in agreement with Russia.
Russian tanks withdrawing from Ukraine (above). Mistakenly, greatcharlie assessed that Russia entered the war in Syria determined to shape the war on the ground and the war’s outcome given the military of power it brought to bear on the conflict and exigence expressed by Putin when he declared Russia’s need to act. Over time, it became clear that Russia lacked the capability to act decisively, although appearing to have the capacity. Russia also lacked the will or desire to do so. One might infer much from this with regard to Putin’s efforts in Ukraine.

Where is Russia Really Going with Ukraine?

Vera gloria radices agit atque etiam propagatur, ficta omnia celeroter tamquam flosculi decidunt nec simulatum potest quicquam esse diuturnum. (True glory strikes root, and even extends itself; all false pretensions fall as do flowers, nor can anything feigned be lasting.) Many Western military analysts have proffered that Putin’s moves in Ukraine would certainly be followed by many more, to reclaim former Soviet republics and more. Along with the capture of Crimea, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Putin’s determination to hold on in Eastern Ukraine served to substantiates such concern. From everything observed, Putin wants to make Russia better. Yet, it is unclear how Putin’s approach on Ukraine fits into his plans to make Russia better. It is unclear how Russia’s capture of Donetsk and Luhansk would do for Russia in any real respect. As mentioned earlier, despite his shortcomings, he is the best authentic option available to lead Russia for now.  Putin restored order in his country after the internal chaos of the 1990s. It was perhaps his initial career as an officer in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB, that made reestablishing the power of the state a central part of his efforts. (The KGB was the Soviet agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security.) Putin has been a figurative mother to Russia, nurturing it in the best way he knows how. That idea might face some disapproval from Russian citizens who feel shortchanged of their civil and human rights, as well as opportunities to fulfill their ambitions, and feel burdened by anxieties. Still, whenever, the metaphoric waves have gotten higher, Putin has kept his ship, Russia, right and steady.

Putin and a Moscow seem to be still playing the great power game in Europe, and happy to play it alone. To an extent, that would support assessments by analysts and scholars in the West who believe Putin sees everything in terms of conspiracy. It may be that the Obama administration’s approach to Ukraine and other former Soviet republics irked Putin to the extent the he is now swinging after the bell colloquially. He may be stirring difficulties due to political expediency, soothing hardliners political elements at home. It is not completely clear why rather than seek agreements and what he feel are advantages from contact with the US, Putin seems determined to get into a scrap with the Trump administration.

If Donetsk and Luhansk were left in the hands of pro-Russian elements, it is questionable whether Russia would become stabilizing force in region along with its newly formed, Russia would be taking on a new, difficult situation akin to those in its Southern and North Caucasian provinces. Any resistance, peaceful or violent, would likely be dealt withh eavy handedly by Russia and its allies. Hopefully, Moscow would not assist security elements of the help Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic cleanse their new provinces of “troublemakers” or “non-citizens”.

Reconstruction in the Donetsk People’s Republic or the Luhansk People’s Republic would require a lot from Russia. Donetsk and Luhansk were net consumers of foreign imports and dependent on Russian gas before the conflict began. They sit in a region that is considered a rustbelt, needing to be refitted at the cost of billions of dollars Moscow may never have. Reconstruction in Eastern Ukraine will be another huge hurdle for Russia to overcome if its “pro-Russian allies” seceded and became Moscow’s “partners.”  Lacking any significant resources from the US and the rest of the international community to rebuild, the only viable long-term goal in Moscow would be to convert the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic into versions of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria. It would likely receive the recognition of very few countries, Russia’s allies, but not the US or major powers of Europe. The two quasi-countries would in many ways be shut off from the rest of the world. and may never see a postwar economic upturn. Observing the effects of few months of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns, Moscow might recognize that it truly cannot support them in a way that would allow for their rebuilding. An authentic assessment will be left to the economic experts, but there undoubtedly will be a great additional strain on Russia. The situation would only worsen if pressure was placed on Russia over Ukraine through future sanctions.

Ultra posse nemo obligatur. (No one is obliged beyond what he is able to do.) Putin very likely has considered what Russia would be like after he, as one might presume he accepts, is called to heaven. It would seem that now while on Earth, he is doing much to saddle future generations of Russians with two economically impoverished basket cases that they will need to care for, to pay for. Future generations may not appreciate that. In Donetsk and Luhansk, future generations might abandon their homelands for “the other Ukraine” or points further West. They might pour into Russia, for employment, a “better life.” In the future, a Russian leader might very well try to reverse what Putin is attempting in Ukraine due to financial strains caused. Taking on Donetsk and Luhansk might very well be a great miscalculation, another step toward sealing Russia’s fate as a second tier superpower.

Perhaps the type of success Putin really wants for Russia out of his reach, not by some fault of his own, but rather because it’s problems are so heavy, may run too deep. He may have run out of real answers to put Russia on real upward trajectory given the capabilities and possibilities of the country using all tools available to him. In a significant endeavor, there is always the potential to become lost. To that extent, consciously or unconsciously, Putin may simply be procrastinating, postponing an authentic look at the situation.
US Special Operations troops in Syria (above). The success that the US found in rallying the Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, as well as its success across the border with the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Security Forces, and the Kurdish Peshmerga against ISIS, may convince the US and Western allies to develop plans for a new initiative regarding Ukraine.

Has Putin Overplayed His Hand on Ukraine?

Culpa par odium exigit. (The offense requires a proportional reaction.) The US and European countries no longer appear ambivalent about committing to the requirements of European security, which in many respects can be costly and risky. The success that the US found in rallying the Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, as well as its success avross the border with the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Security Forces, and the Kurdish Peshmerga aainst ISIS, may convince the US and Western allies to develop plans for a new initiative regarding Ukraine. Rather than have talks on the status of Ukraine remain in stalemate at the negotiation table, one could surmise that the US might organize a vigorous overt and covert training and equipping of Armed Forces of Ukraine, particularly the Ukrainian Ground Forces That may in turn give those forces the capability to independently regain territory claimed by the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Kiev may, on its own volition, make use of its new arms and capabilities to do just that with such speed and power that nothing could be done rapidly in reaction. The Ukrainian Air Force could be used in ways to support friendly ground movement that has never witnessed before. Kiev has not recognized the the rebellious movements in Donetsk and Luhansk. It has not recognized the autonomy or the secession of those provinces. As far as Kiev is concerned, the entire territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces are still Ukraine’s sovereign territory. For Kiev, agreeing under the Minsk Agreement that the borders between Donbass and Russia, and border control must be administered by the Ukrainian government reflected its position, its belief. The US has asked Russia to take its forces out of Ukraine and hand Crimea back to Kiev’s full control. The reality is that getting the Russians out of Crimea, at least in the near term, may be impossible. However, getting them out of Eastern Ukraine is another thing altogether.

Moscow may be willing to seek some resolution on Ukraine at the negotiation table to halt the total collapse of the forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic forces and whatever units the Russian Federation might have mixed in with them. Ukraine is delicate issue in the Kremlin, but Putin and his advisers do not appear too far down the road to recurvate on it. It could be hypothesized that the collapse of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine would not play well politically at home. Rather than sit and bemoan the new situation, Putin may have no choice but to respond to it all in a way akin to the US response during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and be willing to invade Eastern Ukraine to retake that territory. Moscow could again use the argument that it must defend ethnic-Russian in Ukraine by request. Putin has abstained from more vigorous moves against Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In response to the collapse of the two pro-Russian states, Putin, taking an asymmetric approach, could lash out against the Baltics. Yet, all this being stated, Russia may not be so certain that it could sufficiently respond militarily, extrapolating from what was observed in Syria.

Again, the modest performance of Russian forces on the ground in Syria, in the aggregate, would seem to support the idea that they are ineffective, that they lack real capabilities in many areas. Nevertheless, committing them, despite deficiencies and possible losses, could still put Moscow in a better position to negotiate a satisfactory settlement ultimately. Nullum bellum suscipi a civitate optima nisi aut pro fide aut pro salute. (A war is never undertaken by the ideal state, except in defense of its honor or its safety.)

Ukrainian Ground Forces (above). Rather than cope with deadlocked talks on Ukraine, one could imagine the US organizing a vigorous overt and covert training and equipping of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. That may in turn give those forces the capability to independently, on its own volition, retake most or all of Eastern Ukraine now in the hands of pro-Russian separatists with such tempo and power that nothing could be rapidly done in reaction.

The Way Forward

In Act IV, scene ii of William Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John, John has already ordered the death of his nephew Arthur, who Philip, the King of France believes to be the rightful heir to the throne. As the play opens, messenger tells John that Philip insists that he abdicate to open the throne to Arthur or he will go to war with John to attain it for him. John thinks killing Arthur will solve his problems. but two of John’s followers and counselors, Salisbury and Pembroke, believe that killing Arthur would actually compound his problems. They saw no threat posed by Arthur and were concerned with the people’s reaction to killing him. In the scene, Pembroke tells Salisbury: “When workmen strive to do better than well, They do confound their skill in covetousness; And oftentimes excusing of a fault Doth make the fault the worse by the excuse, As patches set upon a little breach Discredit more in hiding of the fault Than did the fault before it was so patch’d. The US and EU can readily explain that they took Putin to task for that bold military operation. Certainly, one can assign reasons for the effort to include some of the following: to create a wider buffer with the West; to prevent Ukraine’s entry into NATO as no country occupied by Russian Federation armed forces has successfully done so; to secure territory with force in accord with terms of a geopolitical division of Eastern Europe to which NATO agreed in the 1990s; “to rescue” ethnic-Russian space in Donetsk and Luhansk from the violence of Ukrainian nationalists; or to set the stage for a much bigger military move elsewhere in Europe. The list could go on. Yet, regardless of their accuracy or fallaciousness, it is unclear how his current tact, for whatever reason, will genuinely benefit Russia in the long-term. Through both the Minsk peace process and multi level diplomatic efforts, the Trump administration has sought a mutually agreeable, sustainable solution on Ukraine. Still, Putin apparently sees no benefit to these exertions. In fact, he appears to be doubling up on his initial poor decision to make claim to Ukrainian territory. Such behavior was once referred to among US military thinkers as “reinforcing stupidity.”  Cutting closer to the bone, it all seems to be a display of power and pride by the Russian leader. Desire should obey reason, and wisdom for that matter. Being able to swing from the chandeliers, surging with power, is not satisfaction. Power without wisdom invariably collapses beneath its own weight. Kiev’s efforts along with those of the US and Western powers have gone nowhere. Harsh sanctions were levied and Russia was cast out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies. Putin has held on to the territory and has continued to do so in the face of even tougher sanctions against Russian interests. Putin levied his own sanctions against US and EU products and began more heavily supporting separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine

Putin must realize that he is no longer dealing with Obama. Under Trump, decision making on Ukraine will unlikely linger in the halls of inaction. It is difficult to determine what the US and EU could really achieve or gain from exerting further pressure against Russia over Ukraine through sanctions in the future. Putin is not budging. The hopes of some that a resolution could be found through the Minsk peace process are being shattered by Moscow. The Armed Forces of Ukraine should not be viewed a spent force. New US and EU efforts to train and equip its combat elements could change the equation on the ground dramatically. Kiev may soon be presented with new choices. Not to play into the most paranoid ruminations of some Kremlin officials, Kiev, determined to secure it sovereign territory,  it may take more robust and effective military action. While the opportunity and time exists, preparations and decisions on military movements should yield now to more robust and efficacious diplomatic efforts. Nam cum sint duo genera decertandi, unum per disceptationem, alternum per vim, cumque illud proprium sit hominis, hoc beluarum, confugiendum est ad posterius, si uti non licet superiore. (While there are two ways of contending, one discussion, the other by force, the former belonging properly to a man, the later to beasts, recourse must be had to the latter if there be no opportunity for employing the former.)

Merkel, After Discordant G-7 Meeting, Is Looking Past Trump: But Trump Will Not Look Past Europe or NATO

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) made the stunning insinuation after meetings in Europe with US President Donald Trump (right) that he is not a reliable partner on which Germany and the Continent can depend. Months before, Trump’s cabinet members travelled to Europe and stress he is behind Europe and NATO and committed to Article 5, which requires all members to come to the defense of any country in the alliance that is attacked. When it comes to the trans-Atlantic relationship and NATO, any claim that the US cannot be counted upon is fallacious.

According to a May 28, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Merkel, After Discordant G-7 Meeting, Is Looking Past Trump,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hailed as Europe’s most influential leader, made the stunning comment after three days of trans-Atlantic meetings that US President Donald Trump is not the reliable partner her country and the Continent can depend upon. The May 28th Times article quotes Merkel’s as stating: “The times in which we could rely fully on others — they are somewhat over,” adding, “This is what I experienced in the last few days.” Merkel went on to state: “We have to know that we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans.” Her strong comments represented a potentially seismic shift in trans-Atlantic relations, as she has concluded without reservation that the US is now less willing to intervene overseas. The Times article explains that Merkel was personally disappointed that Trump declined to publicly endorse NATO’s doctrine of collective defense or to agree to common European positions on global trade, dealing with Russian aggression or mitigating the effects of climate change. Supposedly, Merkel had been already somewhat unnerved as a result of her meetings in Washington with Trump March 17-18, 2017. Through her statements, which were made while on the campaign trail in Munich, Merkel seemingly called upon voters to get accustomed to Germany’s more active role in Europe and its greater involvement in crises on the Continent and global ones that can affect Europe’s future. Merkel is seeking a fourth term as Chancellor ahead of parliamentary elections in September 2017. The Times article elaborates that Trump campaigned on a platform of trade protectionism, nationalism and skepticism about multilateralism, and climate change, on which most European leaders disagree with him. The article also notes that Europeans rely upon NATO for their ultimate defense and are more concerned than Trump about an increasingly aggressive Russia.

Merkel’s comments were truly an expression of angst. Her words would lead one to believe that the current period, rather than being of change, and reinvigoration, is languid and dissolute. Yet, as a result of her statement, she may have also stirred concerns in the capitals of other NATO countries over how they will defend themselves against their most likely opponent, Russia, and handle other matters, without the US. They perhaps lack her confidence on how things will proceed. There may even be some speculation over what information Merkel really has on Trump’s commitment to Europe, thereby billowing rumors and suspicion within the alliance.  As the Trump administration is still relatively new, allowance could be made for caution among Merkel and her senior advisers. The advent of misunderstandings in bilateral and regional policy approaches is a recurring motif in burgeoning relations between two countries particularly when long-standing approaches to each other might change a bit and a new political leadership in one or both countries has taken power. However, some of Trump’s officials travelled to Europe months before his visit and stressed that he is fully behind Europe, NATO and committed to Article 5, which requires all members to come to the defense of any country in the alliance that is attacked. Clearly, their efforts were not completely effective. Despite any doubts that have been expressed in Europe, when it comes to NATO and the trans-Atlantic relationship, any claims that the US can no longer be counted upon are fallacious.

Merkel should have considered waiting a moment and taking inventory of what has transpired so far instead of turning so quickly in a negative direction. Upon the “heat and flame of her distemper,” Merkel should have “sprinkled cool patience.” Indeed, what has been apparent in Merkel’s contacts with Trump, at least from what she has said, is the existence of a personal struggle between leaders. The genuine job at hand for the Chancellor is to do what best serves the interest of the German people. Berlin should reorient on the matter actually at hand which is the relationship of Germany, and to an extent Europe, with the US. What has been apparent in Merkel’s contacts with Trump, at least from what she has expressed, is the existence of a personal struggle between leaders. Ways must be found for Merkel to respond and engage her country’s most powerful ally and cope with what she may view as the current US administration’s “unconventional” approach to policy matters concerning Europe. German policymakers, foreign policy analysts, and diplomats must find an explanation for these perceived anomalies. It may seem odd to state this about such long-time allies, but confidence-building measures and other efforts to build trust are really needed at this point. Resources should be diverted to that end. There is, in reality, nothing so mysterious about Trump that should have led Merkel to make what was tantamount to a concession statement about her failed efforts to create a linkage with Trump to her satisfaction. Merkel must work with Trump. For her, that may not be easy or pleasant, but it does not have to be. It must be, however, a task performed well. Cuiusvis est errare nullius nisi insipientes, in error perseverare. (To err is inherent in every man, but to persist in error takes a fool.)

Reacting to Trump as she did in the end may not provide the satisfying experience Merkel wanted. She may have difficulty with Trump, but that does not mean other leaders might wish to work with him and might appreciate his efforts to rejuvenate NATO. Suggesting the US would no longer be part of the European security structure very likely ignited fears within some NATO countries just west of Russia’s border that interestingly enough form a type of buffer zone between Russia and Germany. They may not feel confident about making a new security arrangement under Berlin’s leadership.

Merkel’s Decision to Speak Out

It is hard to see how so much discord could have possibly developed between Trump and Merkel given that the two leaders have barely interacted. The best evidence of Merlel’s attitude toward Trump can be found in her statements. Trump has also received glares from her. For his part though, Trump has repeatedly stated that he has had good conversations with the German Chancellor. One could hardly claim such words are traces of a combative dymamic. Merkel’s reaction to Trump could very well have been influenced to some degree by the ubiquitous counter-Trump milieu. That milieu has done much to distort perspectives of many in Europe and the US on Trump. In it, self-defined experts on the US presidency preach of what should be expected from Trump, how he should perform, and why he has done practically everything wrong, everyday. Similarly, self-defined experts on Trump offer false insights concerning his private life and his life as president. Included also in the milieu are sensational stories from the US newsmedia of alleged illegal activities by Trump and almost daily predictions that his administration is on the verge of collapse. The counter-Trump milieu propagates a cult of ugliness directed at Trump and the US. It inflames passions globally, appealing to the lower nature of individuals. Admonishing and castigating Trump, to the point of self-dehumanization, has become a commonplace practice. With many in Europe subsumed by the counter-Trump milieu, it might be expected and expedient for political leaders there to use ideas from that “popular source” in speeches about the US president. However, one must take care to whom one listens. Utilizing ideas and conclusions from that milieu, patronizing and demeaning national and international audiences with that material, resultingly drawing the eye away from the truth, is wrong. Generosus equus non curat canem latrantem. (The well-educated horse ignores the barking dog.)

Certainly, Merkel’s words disappointed many in Washington, as no one there believes the situation between the US and Germany, NATO, or Europe is balanced on a knife’s edge. If Trump were asked whether he thought NATO was necessary, he would say it is. (Relatedly, 80% of the US public supports NATO.) However, if one were to ask him three additional times afterward, he would unlikely give an answer. That is Trump. When Trump offers criticism about NATO, his intent is to be constructive, not destructive; he is not at all signalling that his support for NATO has diminished. A main criticism is Trump’s belief that NATO allies have been “coddled” by the US for too long, leading leaders of some NATO countries to feel comfortable about repeatedly missing the agreed spending target of 2% GDP on defense. Progress was made on that matter by the administration of US President Barack Obama in 2016. That year, a majority of delinquent countries spent their required share. It may very well be that Trump, being cautious with NATO allies, is concerned that efforts by them to pay their fair share may have been a gesture of goodwill for the moment, and efforts might fall off. Ever the businessman, Trump is undoubtedly keeping a ledger on contributions by NATO allies, but he means well.

If Trump were asked whether he thought NATO was necessary, he would say it is. However, if one were to ask him three additional times afterward, he would unlikely give an answer. That is Trump. Trump supports NATO, but he also believes the US has “coddled” it’s allies for too long, causing some to feel comfortable about missing the agreed spending target of 2% GDP on defense. In 2016, progress was made progress on the matter. Yet, Trump may be concerned efforts by allies to pay their fair share may have been a momentary gesture of goodwill and might fall off.

Major ignotarum rerum est terror. (Apprehensions are greater in proportion as things are unknown.) In the midst of a political campaign, Merkel most likely wanted to be heard taking a strong pro-Europe stance and create the optics of being the Continent’s leader by speaking about Trump and the US in such a shocking way. However, promoting the idea that the US under Trump’s leadership is not committed to Europe was a mistake and could have dire consequences. For example, Berlin may be certain of how Germany might respond in terms of its security without the US, but other European countries may not feel as confident about creating a new security arrangement under Berlin’s leadership. Merkel may have difficulty with Trump, but they might wish to work with him and might appreciate his efforts to rejuvenate NATO and members participate fully in the collective defense of Europe with his brand of leadership. Suggesting that the US would no longer be part of the European security structure may very well have ignited fears within some European capitals over the immediate threat they feel from Russian Federation forces. NATO countries just west of Russia’s border form a de facto buffer zone between Russia and Germany. Completely unable to face a massive Russian military juggernaut alone, they want the help of the US. Leaders of those allies would not even consider risking their countries’ security over Merkel’s disappointment and disapproval of Trump. Fear is a powerful emotion. Once generated, it can lead to increased suspicion and even rampant paranoia among NATO allies over Russia’s slightest moves. In the worst case scenario, it could lead to some countries to seek bilateral arrangements with Russia to protect themselves. Hopefully, it will not lead to the militarization of any countries. Germany and those countries that might line up behind It, do not have the equivalent military power of the US and would be unable to respond to Russia. They would unlikely be able to jointly develop such a capability or be very willing to jointly finance it either. The Kremlin is well aware of this. Hopefully, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is not as certain that US support for Europe and NATO is as shaky as Merkel insists.

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.” Merkel and other European leaders who are concerned about Trump’s plans and the US commitment to Europe will find that they must demand greater patience from themselves at this juncture. Merkel can still take a step back to evaluate the situation and reshape her approach. Berlin should be willing to engage in a deliberate process of developing an amicable, constructive relationship with the new US leader. Merkel and Trump never had a personal relationship before he took office. An initial effort should have been made by Merkel to get to know the new US president better. Indeed, rather than have the Chancellor run up to Trump and begin pressing her positions, she could have simply talked with him in order to understand his positions in a granular way. By doing so, she would have developed greater insight on him. In support of the Chancellor’s efforts with Trump, analysts and policy makers in Berlin must dig deeper than the surface to understand where new linkages can be established. A conscious effort should be made to stay away from distortions brewed up in the counter-Trump milieu. If the Trump administration attempts to engage in confidence-building with Berlin, Merkel and her advisers should view it as an opportunity. Those occasions would be perfect time to discuss the common ground the exists between the two countries from Berlin’s perspective. Advisers of the two leaders must have frank discussions on the timing for presenting initiatives on issues before any bilateral talks. It would be the best way for the advisers to inform their counterparts of relative, sensitive, domestic politics tied to a situation. Very importantly, discreet matters discussed, must be kept discreet. Resolutions to troubling issues are less likely be found if they are contested over publicly. Parva scintilla saepe magnam flamam excitat. (The sparkle often initiates a large flame.)

What Is on Merkel’s Mind?

There is the possibility that Merkel’s response to Trump is a manifestation of not only her disappointment, but an unconscious disapproval of him as well. Merkel apparently feels that her inability to get along with Trump, is due to some flaw in him. To her, Trump is at fault. When she met with Trump, Merkel sought a number of guarantees and held certain expectations for their discussion. Naturally, the goal would be to shape circumstances so they would best favor her positions and Germany’s interests. Merkel has a good reputation for being able to bring foreign leaders and political leaders in her own country to her position using a mix of both straight talk and congeniality. It is a reputation she can truly be proud of. When those guarantees were not received and those expectations were not met, it was likely very disappointing and somewhat hurtful to her. Merkel then rather quickly decided to publicly declare Trump was taking the US in a new direction away from Europe and NATO. With authority, and albeit some vengeance, she sounded the alarm that Europe must be prepared to find its way forward without the US. Other European leaders with a more positive assessment of Trump, or even undecided about him, would somehow need to reconcile with Merkel’s vehement statements. Pride, a sense of self-regard, of self-importance, can cause one to take counsel of the lesser angels of one’s nature. Pride can block the truth. An egocentricity stemming from pride can lead one to believe one is at the center of everyone’s cosmos. One can become bound up with oneself. Not to be impolitic, but one should not make choices using a confused ego.

Although Merkel wanted to take a strong stance and create the optics of leadership, Germany and those countries that might line up behind It, do not have the military power of the US. At best, they would be unable do much successfully against a juggernaut of Russian Federation forces. Russia is well aware of that. Hopefully, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is not as certain that US support for Europe and NATO is as shaky as Merkel insists.

The discussion of Merkel’s decisions and actions regarding Trump here relates well with scientific research on the desire of individuals to retaliate, to punish others’ bad behavior, no matter how mild, and even at personal cost. Research shows how such desires can skew decision making. Current theories suggest there are two dominant systems people use to understand and assess risk: the “analytic system” and the “experiential system.” The “analytic system” involves conscious and deliberate cognitive processes that employ various algorithms and normative rules to produce logical, reason-oriented, behavior. In contrast, the “experiential system” uses past experiences, emotion-related associations, and intuitions when making decisions. The experiential system relies more on unconscious rather than conscious processes. Images and associations, linked by experience to emotion and affect (a feeling that something is good or bad), are depended upon. The experiential system represents risk as a feeling that tells us whether it is safe to walk down this dark street or drink this strange-smelling water. The independence of cognition and emotion, and the conflict between rational and emotional reasoning is the subject of continuous debate.

Paul Slovic, President of Decision Research and Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon, suggests that these two systems must work in collaboration in order for the decision-maker to reach a rational decision. Most models of decision-making assume the process to be rational, which would exclude the possibility of emotion playing a role, other than of a hindrance. Other models take the valence-based approach and evaluate negative and positive effects on behavior, without specifying the emotion. This has led to a limited understanding of how specific emotions, especially those present in an individual in risky and uncertain situations, contribute to the decision-making process.

Using scanning devices that measure the brain’s activity, scientists have gotten a glimpse at how the different parts of our brain collaborate and compete when we make decisions. Brian Knutson, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, used a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to watch subjects’ brains as they reacted to the prospect of receiving money in the Ultimatum game, an economic game evaluating decision-making under ambiguous circumstances  In this game, two players have the task of splitting a sum of money. The first player, the “proposer”, makes an offer of how to split the money. The second player, the “responder”, accepts or rejects the offer. If the responder accepts the offer, then the money is split in accordance with the proposal. However, if the “responder” rejects the offer, then neither one wins the game and neither one gets any money. The standard economic solution is that “some money is better than no money, so one should always accept the offer.” In reality, behavioral research has shown that low offers (20% of total) have a 50% chance of being rejected. Based on participant reports, they rejected low offers because of anger (negative emotion) felt due to the unfairness of the offer, and they wanted to punish the other player in some way. The unfair offers induced conflict between the cognitive motive to accept the offer and the emotional motive to reject the offer.

When she met with Trump, Merkel sought a number of guarantees and held certain expectations for their discussion. Naturally, her goal was to shape circumstances so they would best favor her positions and Germany’s interests. When those guarantees were not received and those expectations were not met, it was likely very disappointing and somewhat hurtful to her. Merkel then rather quickly and surprisingly decided to publicly declare Trump was taking the US in a new direction away from Europe and NATO. Her move was not inn the best interests of the West.

Alan Sanfey, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Arizona, and colleagues also used fMRI scans to look into people’s brains while they played the same Ultimatum game. Sanfey’s brain scans of people feeling vengeful in these games illustrate how (at least in part) a sense of moral disgust manifests in the brain. Indeed, Sanfey mapped what appeared to be a struggle between emotion and reason as each sought to influence the players’ decisions by tracking the activity of the anterior insula and the prefrontal cortex. As offers became increasingly unfair, the anterior insula, a part of the brain involved in negative emotions including anger and disgust, became more and more active, as if registering growing outrage. Meanwhile, an area of the prefrontal cortex involved in goal orientation–in the case, making money–was also busy assessing the situation. Sanfey’s brain scans indicated that when the disgusted anterior insula was more active than the rational goal-oriented prefrontal cortex—in a sense, when it was shouting louder—the players rejected the offer. When the prefrontal cortex dominated, the players took the money.

University of Zurich researchers Dominique J.F. de Quervain, Ernst Fehr, and colleagues successfully used medical technology twice to catch an engagement between the emotional and reasoning parts of the brain. During an Ultimatum-like game, they examined subjects with a Positron Electron Tomography scanner, a device that employs a radioactive substance used by cells, usually a sugar, to image activity in the brain. The researchers found certain reward circuits in the brain’s striatum activated when players anticipated, and then actually punished, ill-behaved partners. Even more, the greater the activation of the striatum, the greater the subjects’ willingness to incur costs for the opportunity to deliver punishment. At the same time, the researchers saw activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, the deliberative part of the higher brain that is thought to weigh risks and rewards. Interestingly, these same brain regions, the reward-seeking striatum and the deliberative prefrontal cortex, both of which are activated by the pleasing possibility of revenge, also light up when people anticipate giving rewards to partners who cooperate. Though the players’ behaviors are opposite, one set bestowing a reward versus the other set exacting punishment, their brains react in the same way in eager anticipation of a satisfying social experience. Decipimur specte recti. (We are deceived by the appearance of right.)

Reportedly, during his first visit to NATO on March 30, 2017, Tillerson won applause for morning and lunchtime remarks from allied ministers about the need for strength and unity in dealing with Putin. Tillerson statements included: “The US commitment to NATO is strong and this alliance remains the bedrock for trans-Atlantic security.” He also said: “We understand that a threat against one of us is a threat against all of us, and we will respond accordingly.” He added: “The president supports NATO. The US Congress supports NATO.”

Assurances to Europe from High Places

Trump’s Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, and National Security Adviser, H. R. McMaster are undoubtedly dismayed by the expression of doubt by a close ally of the US commitment to European Security and the trans-Atlantic partnership. In only a few short months, they have made numerous statements expressing the administration’s commitment to NATO and commitment Article 5. For the majority of their adult lives, Tillerson, Mattis, and McMaster have spent countless hours considering the status of Europe either militarily or economically. Mattis and McMaster were not only concerned with NATO but worked long and hard to develop ways, and rehearsed plans, to ensure its defense and deterrence of opponents. They have worked alongside NATO allies in it’s European security zone, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. They are all aware of the occasional need for the hand holding of allies through tough issues. As life-long leaders, they could accept that bringing allied leaders to understand, despite to the contrary, that they can remain confident over the US commitment to NATO and Article 5 might require an amount of “hand-holding.” In doing so, it can be delicately said they have displayed compassionate empathy for their allies. Training, teaching, coaching, mentoring are skills they have honed to near perfection as business and military leaders. However, as life-long managers, they are also results oriented. After providing assurances of the US commitment to Europe repeatedly over a period of time, they too may become strained by the persistent voices of leaders of a few NATO countries who question it. One must quit drilling once oil has been struck.

Reportedly, during his first visit to NATO on March 30, 2017, Tillerson won applause for lunchtime remarks about the need for strength and unity in dealing with Putin. Tillerson, ever able as a communicator, reached the European ministers, who were skeptical of US intentions beforehand, with statements in the morning session such as: “The US commitment to NATO is strong and this alliance remains the bedrock for transatlantic security.” He went on to say: “The United States is committed to ensuring NATO has the capabilities to support our collective defense.” He added: “We understand that a threat against one of us is a threat against all of us, and we will respond accordingly.” He then definitely stated: “The president supports NATO. The US Congress supports NATO.” However, it was during a lunch that Tillerson received applause. During that session, one minister suggested that a two-tier approach might be taken with Russia, adding that “it takes two to tango.” In response, Tillerson said: “Sure, you can dance with Russia and you might also gain something out of it. But for sure you cannot tango with [Sergei] Lavrov because he is not allowed to dance that one.” The ministers present understood that implied there was only one man in charge in Russia. Explaining how Tillerson was received, one European NATO ambassador said: “With an ovation, I mean it literally. This is not metaphorically speaking. He actually got applause.” NATO Secretar General Jens Stoltenberg indicated Tillerson left no doubt that ties between European NATO members and the US were “rock solid.”

In a special May 28, 2017 CBS News broadcast of “Face the Nation”, US Sevretary of Defense James Mattis (above) was asked about Trump’s thoughts on the value of NATO, Mattis explained that in his initial job interview with the president, he brought up his questions about NATO. Mattis said his response was: “if we didn’t have NATO that he would want to create it because it’s a defense of our values, it’s a defense of democracy.” Mattis said Trump nominated him almost immediately after he spoke profoundly in support of NATO.

On March 21, 2017, Mattis and Stoltenberg met at the Pentagon to discuss the key role the alliance plays in trans-Atlantic security and to review preparations for the special meeting of NATO heads of state and government in May. Before his meeting with Stoltenberg, Mattis said the trans-Atlantic bonds built on a legacy of common commitments and common defense continue to get stronger. During the meeting, Mattis and Stoltenberg reportedly discussed ways to encourage allies to assume a more equitable share of alliance security and defense responsibilities. Stoltenberg expressed his gratitude to Mattis for the secretary’s “strong support for trans-Atlantic unity and trans-Atlantic bond and the NATO alliance.” He also stated: “I think we all understand that in times of turmoil, in times of uncertainty, the need for strong international institutions like NATO is even greater.” He continued: “so therefore we need to adapt, we need to strengthen NATO in response to the challenges and the unpredictability we see surrounding us today.” In a special May 28, 2017 CBS News broadcast of “Face the Nation”, Mattis also discussed NATO. When asked about Trump’s thoughts on the value of NATO, Mattis explained that in his initial interview for his post, Trump asked questions about the alliance him about the alliance. Mattis explained his response was: “if we didn’t have NATO that he would want to create it because it’s a defense of our values, it’s a defense of democracy.” Mattis recognized that Trump was very open to that view. Mattis was intrigued by the fact and said: “Obviously, he [Trump] had to make a decision about whether or not he was going to nominate me to be the Secretary of Defense. And although I immediately showed him that my view on that was rather profoundly in support of NATO, he at that point nominated me.”

At the end of the G-7 Summit in Sicily on May 27, 2017, McMaster explained with certitude that Trump backed NATO’s mutual defense doctrine. McMaster was being pressed by journalists on matter of allied disappointment over Trump failure to  make explicit reference to it during his visit to NATO Headquarters in Brussels. The US newsmedia has emphasized that Trump, during the 2016 US Presidential Campaign, appeared to called Article 5 into question by suggesting that NATO members who did not pay their fair share for the alliance may not deserve to benefit from it. McMaster added: “I think it’s extraordinary that there would be an expectation that the president would have to say explicitly that he supports Article 5. Of course he does.” McMaster then went on to say: “He [Trump] did not make a decision not to say it.” He continued: “It was implicit in the speech. There was no decision to not put it in there. It is a matter of fact that the United States, the president, stands firmly behind our Article 5 commitments under NATO.”

At the end of the G-7 Summit in Sicily, on May 27, 2017, US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster explained with certitude that Trump backed NATO’s mutual defense doctrine. McMaster added: “I think it’s extraordinary that there would be an expectation that the president would have to say explicitly that he supports Article 5. Of course he does.” He also said: “It is a matter of fact that the United States, the president, stands firmly behind our Article 5 commitments under NATO.”

The Way Forward

In Act 2, Scene iii of William Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago, the Venetian General Othello’s ensign, having expressed hatred for his commander over a promotion, sets out to destroy his reputation and his marriage. He has included a willing young officer, Roderigo, in his plot. Roderigo is supposed to take Othello’s wife, Desdemona, away from him, but begins to doubt his ability to perform that task. Seeking to encourage Roderigo, Iago tells him the following: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees? Thou know’st we work by wit, and not by witchcraft; And wit depends on dilatory time.” While Merkel’s statement that the US can no longer be depended upon by Europe may be superficially plausible, it is completely wrong. Surely, leaders in the capitals of all NATO countries do not feel as she does about Trump or the US commitment. Offering negative perspectives and proffering hostile words about both may have served to quench excitement and spirit for some of them about his administration. That was not very sporting of Merkel. There is a long obscured road for Europe to travel between wanting go it alone without the US and actually doing so. Europe may not be able to walk that path with the assured step as Merkel says. A lot of unpredictable and unpleasant incidents in terms of working together and coping with adversaries could occur along the way. The difficulty Merkel and others are having with regard to understanding and accepting that the Trump administration is committed to Europe and NATO calls attention to need for policy statements. They create a cogency and predictability about US intentions for working with allies and its intentions for responding to certain actions by adversaries. (That is something the administration might consider.) From her prism, Merkel may observe puzzling elements of Trump’s approach that are contradictory to her logic. However, all puzzles have their solutions for they are created by man and not true mysteries. No matter what the situation, saying anything that might initiate the erosion of the decades old trans-Atlantic collective defense structure cannot be justified. Videbat esse notitia bona id temporis. (It seemed to be a good idea at the time.)

Certainly, it would have been superb if Trump and Merkel, during their first meeting, had agreed on everything, and relations between the US and Germany moved along swimmingly. However, that did not happen. Merkel must accept working with the circumstances she has and not the circumstances that she would like to have. On the path to improving ties, confidence and trust between the Trump administration and Europe must be established. That work will not require that the two countries start from scratch, but it will be a new beginning. It will be work akin to that in which a product develops over time, albeit not too much time. By adding a good dose of patience from European capitals, faith in the trans-Atlantic partnership, and friendship, success is practically assured.

Under Pressure Over Aleppo Siege, Russia Hints at Seeking Deal with US: Can Either Country Compromise?

US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) are the central points of diplomatic interaction between the US and Russia. They have worked together on a variety of urgent and important issues concerning their countries. They are now slogging away trying to find a way for the US and Russia to jointly end the Syria War and establish peace. Kerry has proposed US-Russian military coordination with preconditions. However, to secure an agreement on it, Kerry must convince Putin, not Lavrov, to change Russia’s positions.

According to an August 15, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Under Pressure over Aleppo Siege, Russia Hints at Seeking Deal with US,” Russia suggested that it was close to an agreement on a military collaboration with the US to attack ISIS fighters in Aleppo, Syria as part of a solution to the unfolding humanitarian disaster there. US officials had no immediate comment on that claim. That joint effort would represent a new level of cooperation between the two countries which seek an end to the five-year-old Syria War. They support opposing sides. The New York Times reported foreign policy analysts believe Russia was negotiating in an attempt to avoid the appearance of blocking humanitarian aid to civilians in war-torn Aleppo by its airstrikes in Syria, Russian Federation Foreign Minister noted however, “It is of utmost importance that terrorists would not be getting reinforced with militants, guns, and munition [sic] supplies under the humanitarian aid disguise.” Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was the official who made the statement on the possible agreement. He explained in a measured way: “We are moving step by step closer to a plan—and I’m only talking about Aleppo here—that would really allow us to start fighting together to bring peace so that people can return to their homes in this troubled land.”

Russia and its Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led allies have faced significant setbacks on the battlefield as a result of their opponents’ abilities to capitalize on their inadequacies and mistakes. Russia will need to decide whether its actions will remain in the gap between contributing significantly to the efforts of allies fighting in support of the regime of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad and working with the US to act more effectively and more decisively against mutual Islamic militant opponents. The prospective agreement, to which Shoigu referred, would stem from military talks underway in Geneva. Those talks were set up as a result of a proposal proffered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to share intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. However, Putin and senior Russian officials seem to view the proposal less from how it will help end the war than how it may present the chance to get compromise from the US on Syria and promote Russia’s immediate objectives there. Kerry’s proposal has been put forward as the administration of US President Barack Obama comes to a close. Still, after eight years of contacts, a inordinate amount of obloquy has recently been hurled back and forth from officials in Washington to Moscow. Failure to get an agreement on coordination will undoubtedly make it more difficult for Russia to get an agreement from the US on reconstruction and peace-enforcement which would be important for Russia to have. Reconstruction in Syria will be a decades-long, very expensive effort. Russia will need to gather partners to help with its costs and its execution. A peace-enforcement mission, perhaps under UN auspices, will likely be needed to ensure that peace would be given a chance to take hold. Russia should keep in mind that the US has proven to be an invaluable partner in such complex reconstruction efforts and peace-enforcement missions worldwide in past years.

The Obama administration may not be enthused about working with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria, but it seems to recognize that Russia, with its considerable military investment in Syria, can play an important role in ending the war. Putin must recognize that much could be accomplished with US know-how and resources in both efforts. If he cannot recognize the good that cooperation would bring at first glance or simply refuses to make mutual compromises with the US to gain its assistance, what is left for the US is to get him to understand via diplomacy. US Secretary of State John Kerry has slogged away seeking the right approach to make that possible. A few recommendations are offered here. The Syria War appears to be getting worse. Experience may make US and Russian officials averse to finding compromise on military coordination on Syria. Pride and ego can also harden attitudes. If such influences cannot be set aside, the two sides may remain locked into their relative positions for a long while. Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futuraprovidere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we can anticipate the future.)

Often poker faced in talks, US Secretary of State John Kerry, a statesman, speaks in a manner that is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. He is an agile thinker who seeks creative solutions to problems, often requiring him to be discreet. He worked well with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria in 2013. They worked on the same side during the Iran Nuclear Talks during two years of negotiations from 2013 to 2015. He may achieve similar success with Lavrov on Syria.

US Inaction Leads to Russian Action

Obama made it clear from the start that he was skeptical of using US military force in Syria. In a notable August 18, 2011 speech, Obama made the direct statement, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” There were many additional declarations, insisting that Assad step down. Yet, having taken that maximalist position, there was an unwillingness to act. Within the Obama administration, it was truly believed that Assad would simply fall away, but that did not occur. That led the Obama administration in 2012 to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement with its support in the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. However, the US effort in Syria was designed and recognized by many as work on the margins. Obama would begrudgingly authorize the creation of a US-led coalition to airstrikes against the ISIS juggernaut that ran through Iraq in 2014. Those operations against ISIS were expanded to include ISIS targets in Syria. Obama sent US special operations forces to Iraq to advise and train Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi Kurd military formations. Still, there would be no US combat units sent to fight ISIS in Syria.

Putin, however, did what Obama said he never wanted to do in Syria. In September 2015, Putin took the option of solving the conflict in Syria on his terms using a strong military hand. He explained that Russian Federation forces were sent into Syria both to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad and to fight ISIS. He put a limited number of troops on the ground to protect Russia Federation military sites, and to serve as advisers and instructors for Syrian Arab Army units and volunteer units loyal to the regime. He would join Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led ground forces in battle against opponents using Russian Federation air power. Putin’s actions were mulled over, well-plotted, and implemented as to apply a calibrated amount of pressure on opponents of the Assad regime using measured amounts of military resources and controlling expenses. He was willing to accept a certain amount of risk in operations and was prepared to contend with some loss of personnel. Russia’s succor has benefitted Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces fighting on the ground not only in terms of military resources but also through guidance in the use of them.

Russia’s intervention did not mean an end to US-Russia diplomacy on Syria. Russia has supported talks between the Syrian Opposition and the Assad regime. Even before Russia went into Syria, Lavrov engaged in talks with the US to episodically establish a variety of cease-fires, nationwide and in specific provinces and negotiate humanitarian corridors. When Russian Federation military operations began, Moscow initially sought cooperation with Washington on Syria, but it was sought, however, solely on Russia’s terms. Those terms, in line with Putin’s concept for intervening in Syria, included providing diplomatic and military shelter to Assad and attacking, not only ISIS, but Western-backed rebel groups of the Free Syrian Army that oppose the Assad regime. Obama and other Western leaders sought to bring Putin into a US-led coalition. However, that would occur with the understanding that the goal of the coalition was the removal of Assad from power. Given the disparity between their positions, on November 27, 2015, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin,  played down the idea of cooperation at a Kremlin press conference. That announcement was surprisingly slow in coming given that the Obama administration was unsupportive of Russia’s intervention from the get-go. On September 30, 2015, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter forecasted about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Interestingly, Kerry was still authorized and ordered by Obama to negotiate some arrangement in which the US and Russia would coordinate in the ISIS fight.

Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has prying eyes that rarely turn away.  He has masterfully used diplomacy to turn policy into action in accord with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s concepts and intent. At this point, the Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are well-versed on each other’s idiosyncrasies. They are able to gain insight from every inflexion, tone, and or change in voice.

Kerry-Lavrov Diplomacy

Diplomacy requires finding some middle ground, typically through some compromise, upon which an agreement can be reached and better relations can hopefully be built. Despite a divergence in interests, the US and Russia achieved early diplomatic success on Syria when an agreement was reached on a list of rules to ensure military aircraft from the US and Russia would not mistakenly run into or fire on one another as they conducted airstrikes. However, Kerry and Lavrov are the central points of diplomatic interaction between the US and Russia. Diplomatic success on Syria would eventually be achieved by them. They have worked together on a variety of urgent and important issues concerning their countries. They worked well together on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria in 2013. They worked on the same side during the Iran Nuclear Talks as the P5+1, the UN Security Council’s Permanent Five Members (the US, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China) plus Germany managed to construct an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program after nearly two years of negotiations from 2013 to 2015.   Often poker faced in talks, Kerry, a statesman, speaks in a manner that is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. He is an agile thinker who seeks creative solutions to problems, often requiring him to be discreet. Lavrov has prying eyes that rarely turn away.   He has masterfully used diplomacy to turn policy into action in accord with Putin’s concepts and intent. At this point, the two diplomats are well-versed on each other’s idiosyncrasies. They are able to develop insight from every inflexion, tone, and or change in voice. In oculis animus habitat. (In the eyes their character lives.)

A product of efforts by Kerry and Lavrov to find common interests among the warring parties in order to stop the violence in Syria was the December 18, 2015 UN Security Council vote on Resolution 2254 on Syria. It called for a ceasefire and a peace process that held the prospect of ending the Syria War. The resolution was agreed upon unanimously, 15-0, but sharp differences remained between the US and Russian positions. Russia’s key demand was that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be allowed to remain in power. It is a position also supported by China and Iran. Removing Assad from power in Damascus remained a US requirement. Yet, the resolution made no mention of whether Assad would be able to remain in power or run in any future elections. UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 essentially called for the following: a ceasefire had to be established and formal talks on a political transition had to start in early January 2016; groups seen as “terrorists,” including ISIS and the erstwhile Jabhat al-Nusra were excluded; “offensive and defensive actions” against such groups, referring to US-led and Russia airstrikes, could continue; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was asked to report by January 18, 2016 on how to monitor the ceasefire; “credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance “ should be established within 6 months; free and fair elections” under UN supervision to be held within 18 months; and, the political transition should be Syrian led.

What followed Resolution 2254 was UN Security Council Resolution 2268, unanimously adopted on February 26, 2016. The new resolution, brokered by Kerry and Lavrov, called for an immediate “cessation of hostilities” in Syria upon which the Assad regime and the Syrian Opposition agreed.  Countries with influence on the parties agreed to press them to adhere to their commitments.. Then, on March 14, 2016, the Geneva Talks resumed. They were the first talks in two years and came at a time when a marked reduction in fighting was perceived. Still, what created real hope that the war might soon end was the surprise announcement by Putin on the same day as the resumption of the peace talks in Geneva that he was “ordering the withdrawal of the main part of our [Russia’s] military contingent” from Syria. Putin explained: “The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process.” He continued, “I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and the Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled.” Only the day before the announcement, Putin and Obama spoke by telephone, after which the Kremlin said the two leaders “called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement” to the conflict, but Assad’s future was not discussed. Putin’s decision pull his fprces put of Syria seemed to fall in line with that pledge. In addition to the withdrawal announcement, Russian Federation UN Permanent Representative Vitaly Churkin explained “Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria.” Regarding what lied ahead in Syria for Russian Federation forces, Churkin noted, “Our military presence will continue to be there, it will be directed mostly at making sure that the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, is maintained.”

If a feigned retreat by Putin was synchronized with the “cessation of hostilities” and used to manipulate opponents of Russia and its’ allies, the move was effective. Islamic militant groups that were not included in the ceasefire agreement engaged in firefights and fired artillery across battle lines prematurely seeking to better position themselves to exploit expected advantages resulting from Russia’s departure. Ire over the shaky ceasefire and the Assad regime’s violations of it reportedly drove some moderate Opposition fighters over to ISIS and other Islamic militant groups.

Putin’s “Feigned Retreat?”

Russia Federation forces withdrew from Syria, but estimates are that only 10 to 25 percent actually left. Moreover, Russian activity in Syria increased. Reuters reported the “Syrian Express,” the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian forces supplied via the Black Sea Russian port of Novorossiysk to the Russian naval base at Tartus, Syria. It shipped more supplies, equipment, and munitions into Syria in the two weeks following Putin’s withdrawal announcement than it had two weeks prior. Russian Federation Air Force and the Syrian Arab Air Force continued to destroy the opponent’s units, material, and command, control, communication and intelligence, training facilities, and other targets. The ground forces of Russia’s allies remained active and returned a good portion of Syrian territory back to the Assad regime. Kerry and Lavrov carried on with their diplomatic efforts, but the ceasefire did not hold.

The Obama administration seemed to view Putin’s withdrawal announcement as a type of feigned retreat. The feigned retreat is a military tactic said to have been introduced to the West in the 8th century by the Frankish Duke and Prince Charles Martel. Under it, an army would pretend to withdraw or behave as if it has been routed in order to lure an opponent into a position of vulnerability. It was a difficult tactic to execute, requiring the use of well-trained soldiers. Once the opponent presses into the withdrawing army, undisciplined troops would panic and lose coherence, and the rout would become genuine. Charles Martel used the feigned retreat to defeat the army of Chilperic II and Ragenfrid of Neustria at Ambleve in 716. He attacked their army as they rested midday, he then feigned retreat to draw them from their wooded defensive positions into open ground where the situation was reversed. Charles Martel used the tactic again to draw an invading Islamic army into attacking at Poitiers in 732 by leaving his defenses relatively open. He did not construct pits and other obstacles and positioned his horsemen in a way to convince the Islamic army that it would not be enveloped if it charged in. The feigned retreat reportedly was used with moderate success by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

One might postulate that Putin’s feigned retreat included synchronizing his withdrawal announcement with the resumption of the Geneva talks, and while the “cessation of hostilities” was in effect. In that environment, opponents of Russia and its allies were perhaps considered more apt to be manipulated. The maneuver, if actually executed, appears to have worked. Mainstream opponents of Assad were unable to control the actions of some Islamic militants some of which they were tenuously aligned. Islamic militant groups, not included in the internationally sponsored ceasefire, engaged in firefights and fired artillery across battle lines, apparently seeking to immediately exploit Russia’s departure. Accusations of ceasefire violations were heard from all sides around Syria. Ire over the shaky ceasefire and the Assad regime’s violations of it reportedly drove some moderate Opposition fighters over to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups. A coalition of Free Syrian Army units, Islamic militant groups already existed in the form of Jaysh al Fateh. The ceasefire became untenable once Russian Federation Air Force and Syrian Arab Air Force jets provided air support for Syrian Arab Army units and pro-Assad regime allies in those exchanges. Putin’s feigned retreat also ostensibly allowed Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led units to rearm and resupply for offensive action toward Palmyra.

The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services use their own intelligence tactics, technique, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of Russian Federation commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners certainly would like believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success, particularly by using air power, without US assistance. However, their concern over recent successes of their opponents and their failure to effectively respond to them indicates they are not so certain of their capabilities

Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds?

The perception of a feigned retreat of Russia from Syria did not make US-Russia diplomacy easier. US officials were already regularly reproaching Russia over its repeated airstrikes upon “moderate” anti-Assad groups while ostensibly seeking to attack ISIS. Obama’s disappointment could be discerned in his statements. On August 6, 2016, Obama admonished Putin over Russia’s actions in Syria by stating: “I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin.” He continued: “Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.” Timeo danaos atque dana ferentes. (I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.)

Obama’s uncongenial words could be characterized as a shot across Russia’s bow and perhaps signaled fatigue over the diplomatic process with Russia had set in. However, in diplomacy, words and behavior matter absolutely. Kerry knows that diplomacy must be handled with a certain amiability and gentleness in order to create the environment for the development of mutual respect and understanding. In talks on Syria, he would hardly omit what some anonymous US officials have called “inconvenient facts” about Russian actions. He surely broaches such matters, but in way that avoids closing any doors and avoids igniting a negative exchange with Putin, Lavrov, or any official of the Russian Federation government. Regardless of any personal feelings he might have over an issue, he must maintain his balance in spite of them.

Russia will not be able to use its military wherewithal alone, at least in a limited way, to secure victory on its terms in Syria and “get out of Dodge.” Enough support exits for Islamic militancy in the world that a struggle over US and Russian interests in Syria is being overshadowed by the continuous rise of Islamic militant groups there. This was evident at Aleppo where Russia’s allies could not maintain their siege. Commanders of Islamic militant groups seem capable of constantly making adjustments and replenishing with fighters (as above) by the hundreds, creating a more vexing situation on the ground.

Kerry remains authorized and ordered to establish cooperation. Obama did indeed say with opprobrium, “The US remains prepared to work with Russia to try to reduce the violence and strengthen our efforts against ISIL [ISIS] and Al-Qaeda in Syria, but so far Russia has failed to take the necessary steps.” Kerry and Lavrov continued their diplomatic efforts, sponsoring the International Syria Support Group, a multinational effort seeking to create the conditions for peace talks. Moreover, remaining on the table was Kerry’s proposal offering to share US intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, with the precondition that the Syrian Arab Air Force halt its airstrikes against mainstream Opposition military units. As mentioned earlier, senior US and Russian Federation military officials have been negotiating in Geneva over how they would coordinate under Kerry’s proposal as well as restore an overall ceasefire. The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services proudly use their own intelligence tactics, technique, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners would certainly like to believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success without US assistance. However, they have unquestionably been unsettled by the recent successes of their opponents and their failure to respond effectively to them. Beyond human intelligence collection—spies, the US gathers continuous signals and geospatial intelligence over Syria. Multiple streams could assist the Russian Federation commanders and planners in pinpointing ISIS and other Islamic militant groups on the ground even if they are dispersed. Air assets of the Russian Federation and its allies could destroy them, disrupt their attacks, and support ground maneuver to defeat them. In support of the proposal, Kerry and Lavrov have already agreed that a map could be drawn up indicating where Islamic militant groups are positioned. They also have agreed that US and Russian military personnel working in the same tactical room would jointly analyze the intelligence and select targets for airstrikes. Est modus in rebus. (There is a middle ground in things.)

Nevertheless, at this juncture, Kerry is not oriented primarily on drawing out compromise from Lavrov, Shoigu, or senior Russian military officials in Geneva. Indeed, Kerry knows he must convince Putin, himself, that it would be in Russia’s interest for him to change his position. Putin hardly believes that US assistance would have significant value to Russia. Regarding Syrian Arab Air Force airstrikes, Putin has said he has no control over what Assad does with his forces and has explained the Syrian leader does not trust the US. Much as Obama has negative impressions of Putin’s actions and intentions, Putin holds certain negative impressions of Obama. Putin may also feel uncertain about making any deals on Syria with one US leader now, only to face another in a few short months. Certainly, at the State Department, Defense Department, and other elements of the US foreign and defense policy establishment, legions of diplomats and officials are working on what was called in Ancient Rome a maremagnum, a complicated issue requiring the efforts of many to solve. As no approach has wangled compromise from Putin so far, new approaches are needed. Some alternative approaches are offered here.

The value of US assistance might be increased in Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s mind through a demonstration of US capabilities. The US could also demonstrate how US assistance would have value by using the intelligence resources it proposes to share with Russia in order to target and destroy a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, and disrupt and destroy developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Russian Federation officials could also be given a US battle damage assessment.

Recommendations

To help Putin countenance Kerry’s proposal, Kerry could explain that cooperation on intelligence and an airstrikes against Syria will speed the end of the conflict. Russia may not be able to use its military wherewithal alone, at least in a limited way, to secure victory on its terms in Syria and “get out of Dodge.” Enough support exits for Islamic militancy in the world that the struggle by the US and Russian over their respective interests in Syria is practically being overshadowed by the continuous rise of Islamic militant groups there. Commanders of Islamic militant groups seem capable of constantly making adjustments and replenishing with fighters by the hundreds, creating a more vexing situation on the ground. That was evident at Aleppo where Russia’s allies could not maintain their siege. Indeed, Putin could be reminded that on July 28, 2016, after a month of negotiations and immense pressure from Qatari and Turkish representatives, Jabhat al-Nusra announced that it broke with Al-Qaeda and had officially changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Almost immediately, reinforcements for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham began to flow into Syria from the border with Turkey. At least 100 new fighters arrived in Aleppo each day, together with numerous convoys carrying arms, ammunition, and supplies. During the effort to break the siege, Opposition forces and Islamic militant groups were observed fighting side by side under the banner of Jaysh al Fateh. Even after the siege was broken, it was explained in a briefing at the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, Russian Federation Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoi that about 7,000 Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters were massing south-west of Aleppo for over a week and still being joined by new fighters. Rudskoi said the fighters had tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery and vehicles with weapons mounted on them. Kerry could explain that the problem will grow exponentially over time as commanders of Islamic militant groups make further adjustments and reinforce by the hundreds, creating a new, more vexing situation on the ground. Kerry could point out that so far, Russian Federation Air Force has barely isolated the battlefield and has failed to deny their opponents reinforcements and supplies needed to win engagements. At best, its efforts could be measured by its contribution to the destruction in Syria to include civilian deaths and the obliteration of nonmilitary structures. As it was discovered after the destruction of the Abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy during World War II, Germans troops were afforded better concealment from Allied airstrikes and ground attacks in the structure’s debris. One might assume senior US military officers are discussing these matters with their Russian Federation counterparts in Geneva. However, these disconcerting facts about Russia’s Syria campaign may not have reached Putin.

To further encourage a change in Putin’s perspective on Kerry’s proposal, the US could increase the value of its assistance through an actual demonstration of US capabilities. That might be accomplished by providing Putin with a complete US military analysis of the setbacks Russia and its allies have faced in Syria, and the relative strengths and weakness versus their Islamic militant opponents. It might be demonstrated exactly how US intelligence resources it proposes to share with Russia and US military resources would have value to Russia by targeting and destroying a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, and disrupt and destroy developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Putin could be shown via video how the unique capabilities of US weapons systems could enhance the quality of air strikes. He could also be provided with US military assessments of those attacks.

Kerry might also seek to connect with Putin by reminding him that leaving Syria without at least initiating some complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement would be a mistake. That would create ideal conditions for the resurrection of ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the establishment of another Islamic militant group to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That was what occurred in Iraq after US forces departed, the problem in Libya with the removal of the regime of Muammar El-Ghaddafi, and it is a growing problem in Afghanistan. Putin must consider that cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups would set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries on a postwar reconstruction and peace-enforcement mission in Syria. Without it, Russia’s investment in Syria might amount to nothing in the end. In discussing postwar Syria, Kerry could give assurances on how the US will respond with regard to certain hot issues. For example, at a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Kerry proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora,” participate in national elections, betting that if Syrians around the world participated in it, Assad would lose. Putin was never going to standby for that and has used force, in addition to the fight against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, to best shape the situation in Syria to secure Russia’s interests. Mending that fence may require a very hard decision concerning Assad by the Obama administration. Further, Kerry could point to the international reconstruction effort launched in Bosnia in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement and the creation of the multinational peace-enforcement force in support of the agreement’s implementation, I-FOR (Implementation Force). The US and Russia cooperated as members of that force and the follow-on force, S-FOR (Stabilization Force.).

By reaching an agreement now on Syria and conducting effective airstrikes against ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant group, there would be a greater chance that US-Russian coordination would be preserved by the next US administration. Further, that military cooperation might influence a US decision to assist at some important level in reconstruction and possible peace-enforcement mission in Syria. US participation in those efforts could encourage participation from other countries.

Regarding Russian concerns over the future of US leadership, Kerry could explain that Russia should act quickly now with the assurance that the US will be working directly to destroy ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. An agreement will at least allow for a US-Russian working relationship for few months, putting tremendous pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups from the air. Kerry could emphasize the reality that reaching an agreement now on Syria and coordinating effectively under that agreement would increase the possibility that US-Russian coordination at that level would be preserved by the next US administration. Further, that cooperation could greatly influence a US decision to assist at an important level in postwar reconstruction and a possible peace-enforcement mission in Syria. Russia has recently sought stronger ties with Arab countries, bolstering economic ties with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait and diplomatic overtures with Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Russia’s hope is by courting those countries they would become more receptive to its’ calls for a political solution in Syria. It is also hoped those countries would become responsive to an eventual campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. However, US participation in those efforts may do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well.

Kerry’s words alone may no longer have any impact on Putin. To provide a new perspective on the proposal, Kerry could try to bring third parties that have some standing with Putin into the negotiation process. There are no national leaders who could serve as independent third party to address Kerry’s proposal with Putin. However, Kerry could perhaps seek assistance from Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church or Kirill Patriarch of Moscow and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church to speak to Putin. They could discuss the need to forgo placing primacy on national interests and focus on the global threat posed by ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, and the tragedy that has befallen the Syrian people. They cannot support war, but they can support collaboration between the US and Russia to halt the evil of Islamic militancy in Syria.

These approaches should not be presented as guesswork on the potential success US assistance may bring. Rather, they should be presented as hard facts to get Putin to see what is possible and change his perspective on cooperation. Finding success from the approaches presented here may be a long-shot. Kerry knows that you miss 100 percent of the shots you do not take.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above) and senior Russian officials are apprehensive over US actions and intentions on Syria. However, many US officials have been expressing concerns about coordination with the Russians. They doubt Putin will compromise. They believe that Putin cannot be trusted. On Syria, it may be best for the US and Russia to work as partners. Choice itself is not good. It is the right use of choice that counts. Nothing could be worse than thinking of what might have been if things had been done thusly. Hopefully, that will not be the case for the US or Russia on Syria.

The Way Forward

Tot capita, tot sententiae. (So many heads, so many opinions.) Putin and other Russian officials are quite apprehensive of US actions and intentions on Syria. However, many US officials have been expressing concerns about coordination with the Russians. They doubt Putin will compromise. Moreover, they believe Putin cannot be trusted. Trusting Putin may be difficult for them, but trust us not so relevant in this case. Senior US and Russian military officials would be working together on targeting and sending down missions to unit commanders in a joint operations room. If some shift in Russian behavior, no matter how slight, is discerned by the watchful eyes of senior US military officials, the entire operation could be halted immediately. Under Obama’s concept, what seems most important to him is that a good faith effort at coordination be made. Besides, doing the job of targeting ISIS and groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will be difficult enough as they are now intermingled with many mainstream Opposition units. Many US officials have expressed concern that sharing intelligence with Russia could result in revealing US intelligence sources, methods, and capabilities. Yet, deciding what to share and reveal is a puzzle that can be resolved. Putin seems attached to the Assad regime. However, given what has been reported on Kerry’s proposal, it does not include a precondition on Assad’s presidency.

The problem of Islamic militancy in Syria emerged during the struggle between Assad and the Opposition and given the international threat it poses, it is an urgent problem. US President Franklin Roosevelt did not easily accept Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union as an ally, but given the threat of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the choice was clear. On Syria, it might be best for the US and Russia vraft an agreement to coordinate their efforts. Choice itself is not good. It is the right use of choice that counts. Nothing could be worse than thinking of what might have been if things had been done thusly. Hopefully, that will not be the case for the US or Russia on Syria.

Military Leaders Discuss Plans to Counter ISIS Beyond the Battlefield: While the West Plans, Russia Conquers ISIS in Syria

A Russian-built BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launcher (above) fires on ISIS’ positions in Syria. Despite airstrikes from a US-led anti-ISIS coalition, the impact of Western countries on the ISIS fight has been limited. Since September 2015, Russia, Iran, and Syria have been driving the true ISIS fight on the ground. Given their progress, many capitals have sought to get in on the planning for the creation of political, social, and economic conditions in Syria that will allow for its rebuilding. Yet, before broaching those matters, ISIS still must be defeated militarily.

According to a July 20, 2016 New York Times article entitled “Military Leaders Discuss Plans to Counter ISIS Beyond the Battlefield,” officials from the US and its’ coalition allies in the ISIS fight hammered out details in how to stabilize and govern the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, strongholds of ISIS, in the event that Iraqi and Syrian fighters retake the cities in the coming months. The French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was present at the meeting at Joint Base Andrews in the US state of Maryland, noted the many setbacks ISIS had suffered, pointing to its losses in Iraq as well as its loss of Qaiyara and Manbij in Syria. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated, “We need to destroy the fact and the idea that there can be a state,” adding that battlefield success in Iraq as well as Syria was “necessary.” After those statements, US General Joseph Votel, the commander of the US Central Command, explained that discussion at the meeting mostly centered on how to stabilize Mosul in Iraq, assuming Iraqi forces can take it back from ISIS. Focusing on Iraq at the Joint Base Andrews meeting was reasonable given the efforts of the US and its allies there. The need to resolve struggles for power among Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish groups is pressing. However, focusing on what might be done in Syria is somewhat surprising given that the US and its allies, despite US-led coalition airstrikes, are not playing the main role in the ISIS fight there. The fight in Syria is being driven by a Russian-led coalition.

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its Iranian and Syrian allies, have destroyed ISIS units, material, and command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has return Syrian territory back to the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. True, there are many foreign military forces operating in Syria, but the effort of Russia and its allies is a very visible, full-scale, multidimensional military operation. As its main objective, Russia seeks to shape events on the ground in Syria in order to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. Russia also seeks to defeat ISIS by annihilating its military formations in the field, eliminating its leaderhip, and eviscerating its so-called Islamic Caliphate to the extent that the organization will never be able to resurrect itself. Western complaints and commentary on Russia’s combat operations in Syria have been nonstop since its’ first sorties in country. The US and United Kingdom have constantly accused Russia of attacking mainly “moderate” anti-Assad groups, rather than ISIS. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, called Russia’s role a “game changer” and said “It has some very worrying elements.” Putin has ignored such insistent voices from the West. He would likely prefer Western governments saved their ministrations for their own operations on the margins in Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has engaged in multiple talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria. They have discussed the possibility of acting jointly against ISIS. However, on the ground in Syria, Putin has decided to get on with the matter rather than allow it to languish in the halls of inaction. Russia has been on the move, propelling Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces forward rapidly. Yet, most recently, Russian Federation commanders and planners have noticed that their allies have faced difficulties in responding to new challenges from ISIS on the ground. Russia must resolve that problem. Much as officials at Joint Base Andrews acknowledged, the end of the war in Syria has begun to take on defined features. Questions exist over what type of peace will take shape in Syria. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin said that he fully grasps the challenges that lie ahead regarding the rebuilding of Syria. Putin explained, “We must act carefully, step by step, aiming to establish trust between all sides to the conflict.” He also explained that a new and effective government could be formed in Syria once such trust is finally built. Putin said that a political process is the only way to reach peace, and he claimed Assad “also agrees to such a process.” However, the war has not been won yet. Before fully broaching those matters, ISIS still must be defeated via the military operation and peace must be secured. Only then can the focus become creating political, social, and economic conditions that will allow for Syria’s rebuilding. Festinare nocet, nocet et cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit.  (It is bad to hurry and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.)

Disconcerting Breakdowns Among the Allies

Following the Battle of Palmyra, Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units, were at a point of high morale on the battlefield. The scent of victory was in the air. However, in that positive atmosphere, there was the danger for troops among the allies to feel too strong, lose their heads, become undisciplined, and fail to perform in a military fashion. ISIS seemed to have found an advantage in this situation. Indeed, ISIS units have displayed a surprising new capability to organize effective counterattacks. Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units were often unable to protect their forces.

Following the Battle of Palmyra, Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units were at a point of high morale on the battlefield. The scent of victory was in the air. However, in that positive atmosphere, there was the danger that troops among the allies would begin to feel too strong, become undisciplined, and fail to perform in a military fashion in combat. ISIS seemed to find an advantage in this situation. ISIS began to display the capability to organize effective counterattacks which the allies were unable to beat them back.

In tranquillo esse quisque gubernator potest. (Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.) The situation stood in great contrast to that in the days immediately after Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces captured Palmyra. The allies appeared to have coalesced as a team and it seemed possible that they would soon rush into Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. ISIS engagements units of the allies repeatedly developed into routs. ISIS showed no signs of having contingency plans for the loss of cities, towns, and villages in its so-called Islamic Caliphate. The allies did observe ISIS laying mines and setting booby traps on avenues of approach to their battle positions. However, counterattacks, which would be expected from a professional fighting force to regain territory or cover its’ withdrawal, were not seen. Since that time though, ISIS has learned how to retreat, and has repeatedly generated difficult situations for the allies.

Many of the top commanders and planners in ISIS are former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. In 2014, those Iraqis were behind the impressive capability of ISIS to move its units with a professional acumen. Their skills were seemingly brought to bear again when ISIS units came out of their battle positions all around Syria to push the allies back. There were even clashes with ISIS units around the main Jazal Field near Palmyra. Intense Russian Federation airstrikes were required to push ISIS back. Unexpected difficulties, friction, should be expected in any military operation. Yet, the problems that beset the allies to a large extent resulted from bad decisions and inadequate military moves. Syrian Arab Army commanders have been unable to avail themselves of Russian Federation air support and artillery. Iranian, and Iranian-led forces, specifically, continued to take a one-dimensional approach to ground maneuver in Syria much as it has in Iraq. Both forces had the ability to request support from Russian surveillance technologies, air power, and artillery, but those resources were not utilized to pound attacking ISIS units.

ISIS fighters (above) organize for an attack. As Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces began to take territory from ISIS, it seemed at first that the terrorist group had no contingency plans for losing territory in its so-called Islamic Caliphate. However, ISIS appears to have learned how to retreat. Many commanders and planners behind the movement of its’ forces across Iraq and Syria in 2014 were former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. Their acumen was brought to bear again when ISIS units came out of their defenses around Syria and pushed the allies back.

Shoigu Investigates

Experto credite. (Trust in one who has experience.) Russian Federation Defense Minister, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu arrived in Syria on June 18, 2016 to meet Assad and surely to examine the problem of increased ISIS infiltration and counterattacks. The added significance of Shoigu’s arrival was the fact that he is known as Putin’s “Do It” man. His ability to achieve success in almost any undertaking is the basis for what greatcharlie.com calls the “Shoigu factor.”  Once Shoigu allayed Assad’s concerns over ISIS’ new moves and Russia’s military cooperation with Syria, Shoigu likely discussed the problem in granular detail with the commander of the Russian Federation’s Military Expeditionary Group in Syria, Russian Federation Army Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov, and his air and ground commanders. Shoigu was concerned. He was well-aware that the allies would not be able to limp into Raqqa and Deir Ezzor while ISIS clawed their units to pieces with counterattacks.

Volo, non valeo. (I am willing but unable.) At first look,  Shoigu likely recognized how difficult it was for the three main allies perform with assorted forces under their control, each possessing varied degrees of size, strength, military capabilities, experience, and leadership. Regarding leadership, Shoigu likely discovered how much the acumen of militatry commanders among Russia’s allies differed. Those rdisparities and others should have been underscored and factored into planning, and when possible, compensated for. Instead, perhaps to promote goodwill and unity among the allies, they seemed to have been played down.   Indeed, there was probably plenty of head nodding in agreement in meetings between Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military officials when there was discussion on topics as how to win the war, the need to maximize advantages resulting from the inoperability of Russian-built weapons systems all of the allies used, the integration of ground and air capabilities, and the coordination of action against ISIS.

When Russian Federation military advisers and instructors began trainnig Syrian Arab Army troops in September 2015, they discovered that regular army units needed to be retrained from the squad, platoon, company, and battalion level. Shortages of competent officers and noncommissioned existed throughout the Syrian forces. Advisers and instructors did their best. However, deficiencies that were present before the Russians arrived, managed to resurface as ISIS began to put pressure on the allies via counterattacks.

Shoigu, himself, was likely part of a number of meetings of that type. As recently as June 9, 2016, Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Dehghan welcomed Shoigu, and Syrian Arab Republic Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff of the Army and the Armed Forces Colonel General Fahd Jassem al-Freij for a meeting in Tehran. Shoigu stated prior to the meeting that topics discussed would include “priority measures in reinforcing the cooperation between the defense ministries of the three countries in the fight with the Islamic State” and Jabhat Al-Nusra. Yet, when ISIS applied pressure, infiltrating into areas retaken by the allies and by launching counterattacks, it was revealed that what was being proffered in theory at senior military meetings was not being translated into practice. Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units could not act fully in a unified, coordinated way with Russian Federation forces in response to unexpected and creative maneuvers by ISIS. Effectively working alongside very sophisticated Russian Federation forces required an agility and flexibility in thinking that Syrian Arab Army commanders and paramilitary unit commanders did not possess. Unable to respond otherwise, they held fast to their own ideas for the command and control of their forces and their own plans and timetables for moving their forces against ISIS.

Interestingly when Russian Federation military advisers and instructors set out to train Syrian Arab Army troops in September 2015, they immediately discovered that regular army units, despite having a good amount of discipline and combat experience, needed to be retrained from the squad, platoon, company, and battalion level. Shortages of competent officers and noncommissioned officers existed throughout the Syrian Arab Army due to battle casualties and a large number of defections to both the Syrian Opposition forces and Islamic militant groups such as ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra. Platoons that supposedly held 20 to 30 troops held around 5 to 10 troops, the commander included. Even before the war, signalmen, gunners, engineers, and other military specialist for the most part were only assigned on paper. Russian Federation military advisers and instructors also discovered that there was the need to instruct Syrian Arab Army commanders on better coordinating actions at the brigade and division levels and among higher military authorities. Before Russian military advisers and instructors arrived, “maneuver” in Syrian Arab Army amounted to chaotic movements of companies, battalions, and paramilitary units. No single commander’s concept or operational plan guided them. Artillery and air units acted independently, ignorant of the positions or movements of friendly ground troops.

Troops of the pro-Assad paramilitary group, the Desert Falcons (above), are being addressed by their commanders. Military advisers and instructors not only trained Syria forces, but also distributed new field uniforms, flak vests, and protective helmets from their inventories. Before Russian military advisers and instructors arrived, “maneuver” in Syrian Arab Army amounted to chaotic movements of companies, battalions, and paramilitary units. Artillery and air units acted independently, ignorant of the positions or movements of friendly ground troops.

Regarding paramilitary units (shahibas) loyal to the Assad regime, it was observed that all of them needed to be retrained. That was a difficult task. Despite the fact that many troops in the paramilitary units had seen several years of war, few were aware of how to properly shoot and move on the battlefield. Few had any worthwhile physical training. Volunteer commanders were typically appointed by paramilitary unit members despite the fact that they had no training or experience in leading troops in battle, properly making appropriate decisions in complex military situations, as well as making decisions in everyday situations on the frontline. The discipline of paramilitary troops was a problem that reared its head when the paramilitary units manned checkpoints. A further problem was the unwillingness of paramilitary units to defend areas other than their hometowns. Paramilitary unit volunteers had to be provided basic training then instruction on fighting as part of part of a squad, platoon, company, and then the battalion. Iran, itself, had already deployed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad paramilitary units into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces to fight alongside the Syrian Arab Army, brought in Shi’a volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.  Only Republican Guard and Special Forces units and a few mechanized brigades possessed satisfactory levels of readiness. Republican Guard units were well-equipped and staffed with professional soldiers and stood practically self-sufficient with organic artillery, airborne, and special purpose forces. Still, its units were only 70 percent manned at best.

Russian Federation military advisers and instructors, as well as those of the IRGC, and IRGC-Quds Force, were unlikely delinquent in their duty. They likely did their best to prepare Syrian Arab Army units for the fight to eject ISIS from their country given the troops and time available. Their solicitude extended to the distribution of new field uniforms, flak vests, and protective helmets from Russian inventories among the newly trained Syrian Arab Army units. Those units were also provided with new Russian vehicles to enhance their mobility. However, deficiencies that were present before the Russians arrived, resurfaced despite those efforts

Russian Federation Air Force Tu-22M3 bombers (above) strike ISIS targets in Syria. Russian Federation air power can hit ISIS hard, destroy its units, and delay and disrupt their movement. Iranian and Syrian forces must be able to fully avail themselves of that Russian military resource if the allies hope to defeat ISIS. When air power is synchronized with, compliments, and reinforces friendly ground movement, it can help drive friendly units forward.

Effects of the failure of Russia’s allies to avail themselves of Russian military resources included a decrease in the tempo of the allies’ offensive action and near loss of the initiative. It resulted in a need for more sorties during air support missions and increased firefights with ISIS, creating the potential for greater friendly casualties. Robust Russian Federation air power should have been used liberally all around Syria to delay and disrupt movement by ISIS units and when possible destroy them. Russian Federation air power should have been synchronized with, complimented, and reinforced movement by friendly ground forces.

Russian Federation commanders and planners are aware that in the fights for Aleppo, Idlib, and other urban centers, the ground forces of allies could do more than simply chisel away at enemy lines. Numerical advantages are rare on the frontlines in Syria, yet an attacker can economize in less active areas in order to develop local superiority at the point of his main effort. The attacker, after concentrating quickly, can strike hard at an unexpected place and time to throw the defender off balance. Once the attack is underway, the attackers’ chance of success can be improved if he moves fast, aggressively pressing every advantage, and if he capitalizes on opportunities to destroy the enemy’s forces and the overall coherence of his defense.

Russian Federation commanders and planners also know air power can greatly impact enemy moves in urban centers. If forced to move quickly in the face of Russian air power, an enemy commander would be allowed less time to ensure his unit’s concealment. It could cause him to move when conditions would not impede aircrews’ search of his unit. Rapid movement could also decrease the effectiveness of his air defense systems, allowing aircrews greater freedom to search for his unit, increasing the chance for it to be spotted. So far in Syria over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade enemy air defenses. When aircews cannot identify targets, airstrikes are made in areas where air intelligence reports the enemy is located. In attacking urban centers, that can result in collateral damage in the form of civilian deaths and injuring and the destruction of nonmilitary structures.

Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (above) arrived in Syria on June 18, 2016 to address the problems of increased ISIS infiltration and damaging counterattacks. In meetings with Russian Federation military commanders and planners, Shoigu surely explained that it was not feasible to wait for their Iranian and Syrian counterparts to communicate with them when they are on the attack or facing counterattacks. He undoubtedly directed them to better coordinate with their allies.

Shoigu’s Diagnosis

In his meetings with Russian Federation military commanders, Shoigu surely emphasized that it was not enough to simply stay in communication with Iranian and Syrian Arab Army commanders while they are on the attack or when they are facing counterattacks. Shoigu likely stressed that they had to maintain situational awareness, and authentically coordinate their actions with their allies and help them exploit opportunities created. There was also a shake up in the Russian Federation’s military command structure in Syria. Russian Federation Lieutenant General Aleksandr Zhuravlev replaced Dvornikov. Zhuravlev is known best for helping to plan the Palmyra offensive.

Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov on March 28, 2016 stated Palmyra was “liberated thanks to the support of Russia’s air force and special operations forces.” It seems Russian Federation air power and spetsnaz will also be relied on to underpin the allies’ ultimate victory in Syria. Responding to the problem with resources available, Shoigu ordered increased air strikes and the increased deployment of Russian spetsnaz advisers among Syrian Arab Army units. The goal would be to improve the direction of artillery fires against ISIS counterattacks along the Syrian Arab Army’s axis of advance toward Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and in support of battle positions of allies all around Syria. Russia had already supplied Russian-built heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems to its allies, to include: 152-milimeter MTSA-B guns, BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and TOS-1A Solnitsa rocket launchers. Spetsnaz units could assist Syrian Arab Army units in coordinating ground assaults with air support and artillery fire, in building hasty defenses, and in improving unit security. By degrading enemy forces with fire in support of assaults, the goal is not to create attrition battles but to enable the successful, rapid maneuver of friendly forces.

Soon after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made improvements in Syria, desired results seemed visible on the frontlines. The 60th Brigade of the Syrian Arab Army’s 11th Tank Division (above) supported by the 67th Brigade of the 18th Tank Division and the National Defense Forces were liberating points along the International Highway en route to the besieged city of Deir Ezzor. As they push forward, commanders of these Syrian units will be better able to coordinate with their Russian Federation counterparts and to avail themselves of Russian military resources.

Soon after Shoigu’s visit to Syria, improvements seemed visible on the frontlines. The 60th Brigade of the Syrian Arab Army’s 11th Tank Division supported by the 67th Brigade of the 18th Tank Division and the National Defense Forces were liberating towns and villages along the International Highway en route to the besieged city of Deir Ezzor. In Deir Ezzor’s Industrial District, the Syria Arab Army’s Special Task Force “Al Qassem Group” undertook the task of clearing the remaining ISIS fighters from the district’s streets. They joined the Republican Guard’s 104th Airborne Brigade and 137th Artillery Brigade of the 17th Reserve Division in the fight for Deir Ezzor. The Syrian Arab Army High Command also ordered a change in command of the 17th Reserve Division from Syrian Arab Army Major General Mohammed Khaddour to Syrian Arab Army Major General Hassan Mohammed.

Regarding fights in urban centers, it was reported from southern Aleppo that a mix of Iranian-led units, primarily Iraqi Shi’a militias such as Harakat An Nujba, Katayb Hezbollah, and Assaib Ahl Al Haqq — two of which are operating Russian-made T-90 main battle tanks acquired by the IRGC in early 2016 —launched repeated counterattacks against the Jaysh Al-Fateh coalition, and Free Syrian Army units. Allies loyal to the Assad regime to include private military companies such as Liwa Suqour As Sahra and Liwa Dir As Sahel, Shi’a militias such as Liwa Nussr Az Zawba’a and Quwwat Al Galilee as well as a Lebanese Hezbollah unit, have launched attacks in southern Aleppo. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation Air Force is engaged in a campaign in western Aleppo and targeting the towns of Hayyan, Anadan, Hreitan, Kfar Hamra and Ma’arat Al Artiq positioned along avenues of approach into northern and eastern parts of Aleppo city. Most recently, Russian Federation Air Force airstrikes have targeted Castello Road, the last route out of the Syrian opposition-held eastern part of the city. As for the Syrian Arab Air Force, it continues to hit targets in Idlib city, Ma’arat An Nauman and eastern Aleppo.

Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu led to questions about the progress of the Russian Federation Military Expeditionary Group in Syria. After his visit with Russian Federation commanders and planners, the decision was made to replace Russian Federation Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov with Russian Federation Lieutenant General Aleksandr Zhuravlev. Zhuravlev will oversee the allies’ capture of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and the final destrustion of ISIS in Syria.

Retaining the Initiative to the End

In the April 6, 2016 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight in Syria: Can the US Policy Failure on Syria Be Gauged by Their Success?,” it was stated that ISIS could potentially establish a redoubt east of Deir Ezzor along the Khabur and Euphrates Rivers, and Syria’s border with Iraq. The goal of that theoretical defensive line would be to forestall the ultimate collapse of the Islamic Caliphate in Syria and to inflict as many casualties among attacking forces as possible with a suicide defense. However, well-planned offensive action by Russia and its allies might serve to obviate that possibility. The military principle of offense prescribes that maintaining the initiative is the most effective and decisive way to dominate the battlefield. On the offensive, there must be an emphasis on the commander’s skilled combination of the elements of maneuver, firepower, protection, and intelligent leadership in a sound operational plan. The initiative must be retained. Moving forward, firepower, the allies’ greatest strength, must be used to its’ maximum advantage. Firepower can serve maneuver by creating openings in enemy defenses, but also destroy an enemy’s vital cohesion, his ability to fight, and effectively act. Indeed, one of the most important targets is the enemy’s mind. The allies should engage in actions that will sway moves by ISIS to enhance the opportunities to destroy it.

The drive against Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in a way resembles the circumstances in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The Israelis, after defeating the Syrians, pushed up to the Golan Heights at its northern border, and then executed an economy of force operation. Israel kept a portion of its forces on its border with Jordan, even though hostilities did not break-out between the two countries. Israeli forces in the Golan Heights conducted artillery attacks on Damascus with long range guns to give the impression that they were going to seize that city while sizeable Israeli forces were concentrated south against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula to their southwest. After concentrating against Egyptian forces in the Sinai, Israeli forces threw their strength at Egyptian weakness, the gap between the Egyptian Second and Third Armies. The Israelis subsequently encircled the Third Army eliminating it as a threat to Israeli territory,

Before the final push against them begins, Russian military spetsnaz units could be positioned in the gap between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to perform the task of detecting and thwarting efforts by ISIS to establish lines of communication between the two cities. They could also be positioned to block ISIS infiltration into Syria from Iraq and territory now controlled by the Assad regime. Spetsnaz units could conduct raids, set up ambushes, and establish kill zones. They could operate vigorously at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

Much as with the Egyptian Second and Third Armies in the Sinai in 1973, ISIS units in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, albeit in a limited way, could move units into territory controlled by the Assad regime. They could also become hubs for the reestablishment of lines of communication between ISIS in Iraq and Syria. By hunkering down in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the face of an onslaught from Russia and its allies, ISIS can claim that it held on to the capital of its Islamic Caliphate. Raqqa, in particular, would likely become a symbol of resistance and power for ISIS to a greater extent than it is now and its narrative on the city’s defense would become an invaluable recruiting tool for the organization. For Assad to claim that he has retaken control of Syria, he must control urban centers and the surrounding areas of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and other cities such as Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Homs, Palmyra, Darra and certainly Damascus. For Putin to claim that it stabilizes the legitimate authority of Assad. Putin must destroy ISIS in Syria or, at a minimum, leave it scattered and tattered, reduced to a size and strength incapable of forcing Assad from power and unable to resurrect itself. If Raqqa and Deir Ezzor cannot be taken rapidly, Russia and its allies must encircle the cities. After assembling overwhelming force to direct against ISIS units, both cities could be attacked. Before that fight would get underway, spetsnaz units could be positioned in the gap between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to perform the task of detecting and thwarting efforts by ISIS to establish lines of communication between the two cities. Spetnaz could also be positioned on known and suspected ISIS infiltration lanes into Syria from Iraq and lanes into territory now controlled by the Assad regime. They could block those lanes coconducting raids, setting up ambushes, and establishing kill zones for air strikes and artillery fire. Spetsnaz could operate vigorously at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

The loss rate of ISIS could be increased by having aerial platforms capable of stand-off attacks continuously engage ISIS defenses, and by stationing fighter jets and bombers in orbit 24-hours a day above ISIS locations identified by spetsnaz to engage in continuous strikes. They could also hit targets of opportunity identified by aircrews whenever they might be authorized to fly at lower altitudes.

The Way Forward

According to the Alexandrian Life of Aeschylus, as they walked on stage during the first performance of Eumenides, the chorus of furies was so hideous and frightening in appearance that “they caused young children to faint, patriarchs to urinate, and pregnant women to go into labor.” ISIS, during its grand entry on the world stage, in Syria and Iraq, put on full display its very bloody, murderous side. ISIS mercilessly murdered hundreds of military prisoners, foreign hostages, and innocent civilians. ISIS left no doubt that it is not only a terrorist organization, but a pagan death cult. While concerned about the rise of ISIS, Putin was never impressed with the group. In a speech on his deployment of Russian Federation forces to Syria, Putin remarked on ISIS’ behavior in a disdainful tone, saying, “We know how they do such things; how they kill people; how they destroy cultural monuments. . . .” In that same speech, Putin explained that in the ISIS fight, Russia would provide Assad and other allies “the necessary military and technical support.” Russia has done that and ISIS may soon be defeated in Syria.

Omne initium difficile est. (Every beginning is difficult.) Once Russia and its allies squeeze the life out of ISIS in Syria, they must not allow ISIS to resurrect itself. A capable military presence must be set up in Syria to keep ISIS out or at least under control. The success of the joint military efforts of Russia and its allies may provide the foundation for a peace enforcement mission in Syria and an eventual reconstruction effort. With reconstruction costs in mind, the possibility exists that Russia and its allies would cooperate with the US over what remains of the ISIS fight in Syria and the US-led fight against ISIS in Iraq. Among other possibilities, Iranian and Iranian-led forces, in support of the Assad regime and their Syrian Arab Army allies, could coordinate actions with units of their comrades in Iraq. Both forces fall under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani. Locking down the border will collaterally support the ISIS fight in Iraq. It was hypothesized in 2015 by the Middle East Institute that Syrian Kurds’People’s Protection Units (YPG) might be co-opted to help establish a security zone incorporating their own territory and some more along the border with Iraq to help keep ISIS out of the area and help maintain a sustainable peace. How Putin will proceed is uncertain, but right now, Russia is playing a central in Syria and he is free to decide as he pleases.

How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight in Syria: Can the US Policy on Syria Be Gauged by Their Success?

During the fight for Palmyra, Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) took a photo (above) from the cellphone of a Russian spetsnaz officer reportedly killed in combat and posted it on the internet, apparently attempt to shame Russian forces fighting in Syria or claim some type victory. Instead, by posting the photo, they gave the whole world a glimpse of a few of the courageous Russians who have been gallantly fighting the scourge of ISIS. At Palmyra, Russia was seen fulfilling its promise to defeat ISIS and support Assad.

According to a March 29, 2016 Washington Post article entitled, “How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight In Syria,” Russian special forces (spetsnaz) operating on the front have remained mostly out of the public eye, but with the seizure of Palmyra in the Eastern Homs Province that is no longer the case. The article asserts Russian spetsnaz have come to the forefront of Russia’s Syria narrative because the battle for Palmyra plays into the rhetoric that Russia intervened to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Chris Kozak, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War was quoted in the article as saying involvement of spetsnaz in Palmyra “looks great.” He further stated, “. . . their involvement against opposition groups in Aleppo or Latakia doesn’t fit the narrative.” The Washington Post reports it is unclear when Russian spetsnaz began operations in Syria, though prior to Russia’s intervention there, Russian troops had long helped advise and train Syrian forces. Michael Kofman, an analyst focused on Russian military operations at the Washington think tank, the Center Naval Analyses (CNA), told the Washington Post that Russia operates several spetsnaz units in Syria, to include Zaslon, KSO, and detachments of reconnaissance teams. Zaslon is a special purpose group of the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR made up from former spetsnaz troops. For some time, Zaslon has been in Syria providing support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel and standing ready to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to lose if Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse. KSO or Special Operations Forces Command is the Russian Federation’s equivalent to the US Joint Special Operations Command.

As it was explained in November 30, 2015 greatcharlie.com post entitled “Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS in Syria; An Agreement IS Needed on Assad,” use of special purpose forces, spetsnaz, would likely be critical to the Russian effort. Spetsnaz can advise Russian allies, locate and designate targets for air strikes, and engage in direct action against ISIS to include locating and killing specific Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) leaders and conducting raids and ambushes against ISIS units. Kofman says, “Russian special forces are doing a lot of the targeting for Russian airstrikes and a lot of advising for the Syrians.” He said they also provide most of the intelligence on the ground for Russian airpower and help run Syrian operations. Spetsnaz appear to be participating in combat alongside Syrian troops at the tactical level. Kofman told the Washington Post that spetsnaz and advisers on the front line have helped Syrian troops and Assad’s allies consolidate gains and take ground, despite the hype surrounding the detachment of Russian aircraft in the country. He called them the glue that is helping the Syrians fight as a much more capable army.

Dum tempus habemus, operemur bonum. (While we have the time, let us do good.) The massive presence of ISIS in Syria created a predicament for both the Assad regime and the Syrian Opposition. ISIS was eventually recognized internationally as a bloody, murderous terrorist organization, murdering military prisoners, foreign hostages, and innocent civilians. Although the Assad regime supported by Russia and the Syrian Opposition was supported by US, and work was being done on the margins, neither superpower appeared willing or able to do what is necessary to support their Syrian beneficiaries. That all changed in September 2015, when Russia, following Iran, intervened militarily support to Assad. Many worldwide discovered for the first-time that Russia, just as the US, has very capable airpower assets and special forces.   US President Barack Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Yet, absent a robust US effort with the Syrian Opposition to counter Putin’s move, Russia and its allies found themselves with room for some real open field running in Syria. Indeed, Russia has been on the move, propelling Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces forward rapidly. The success of spetsnaz units and other Russian forces in Syria has pressed the US to try to mitigate the damage of the prospective “loss” of Syria and failed policy of containing Assad until he could be removed at the negotiation table. The success of spetsnaz provides an interesting measure to gauge the collapse of that policy on the ground.

The Russian state media highly publicized the return of Russian Federation Air Force jets from Syria after Putin’s surprise withdrawal order on March 14, 2016. A percentage of Russian Federation forces were withdrawn. However, Putin had no intentions of abandoning Assad. What occurred at Palmyra should have served to dispel such rumors. The “Syrian Express”, the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian Federation forces supplied in Syria, shipped more equipment and supplies to the Russian naval base at Tartus in the two weeks following Putin’s withdrawal announcement than it had two weeks prior.

Russia Goes In

Russian Federation forces entered Syria under the leadership of Russian Federation Army Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov in September 2015. Dvornikov formerly held the post of First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Central Military District. Supposedly few in Moscow knew Dvornikov had been assigned to Syria and details of combat operations developed and executed under his command remain classified. In an official interview with Rossiyskaya Gazeta in March 23, 2016, Dvornikov explained the situation facing his Russian Military Group in Syria upon arrival in-country as follows: “The terrorists who numbered more than 60,000 occupied around 70 percent of territory of Syria. Gangs had seized control of the major cities of Idlib. Palmyra, and Raqqa. The terrorists controlled a large part of the suburbs of Homs and Damascus, conducted large scale offensives in the province of Latakia and were preparing to surround and capture Aleppo. And the key Damascus-Aleppo highway, joining the south and north of the country, was under constant threat of blockade by the militants. On top of that, the government troops were exhausted after 4 years of hostilities and were holding off the terrorist offensives with great difficulty. The population was leaving the country en masse.” In addition to gloomy Russian assessments, alarms were sounded by Russia’s ally Iran. Allegedly from July 24, 2015 to July 26, 2015, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani held numerous meetings in Moscow. More importantly, Suleimani met with Putin and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. According to accounts of the meeting in Reuters, Suleimani outlined the Assad regime’s crumbling situation in Syria. He explained that Syrian Opposition forces were advancing toward the coast, threatening the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect and endangering Tartus, where Russia maintains its only Mediterranean naval base. This reportedly alarmed the Russians who already understood matters were in steep decline militarily for the Assad regime. Suleimani then placed a map of Syria on the table and explained why there was still time to reverse the situation. Ratio et consilium propriae ducis arte. (Reason and deliberation are the proper skills of a general.)

After Russian Federation forces began operations in Syria, there was a change compared with things antecedent on the ground. In his Rossiyskaya Gazeta interview, Dvornikov outlined advances made by Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces: “Taking control of key regions of the northeast of the province of Aleppo seriously affected the militants’ supply lines and the transfer of reinforcements from Turkey through the corridor between Jarabulus and Azaz. This created the conditions for the crushing defeat of ISIS to the north of Aleppo. What do we have now? We have the liberation of the Kuweires airbase as well as a number of settlements that had been under terrorist control for more than three years. The militants have been completely driven out of the province of Latakia. Coastal areas, in which a significant part of the population of Syria is concentrated, have been cleansed of the terrorists.” With regard to the Hama, Homs, and Damascus provinces, Dvornikov told Rossiyskaya Gazeta: “These provinces are located in the central part of the country. And, for the most part they have been cleared of illegal armed groups. Now a most active process of reconciliation is going on there. From a military point of view, it is very important that the major roads in Syria are under the control of government forces. Generally speaking, during the military operation, Syrian troops—with air support—liberated 400 populated areas. The potential of terrorist groups was halved, they lost the initiative and the territory controlled by them was reduced by 10,000 square kilometers.” Per ardua, ad astra. (Through adversity to the stars.)

Russian Federation forces entered Syria under the leadership of Russian Federation Army Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov (above) in September 2015. Dvornikov formerly held the post of First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Central Military District. Supposedly, few in Moscow knew Dvornikov had been assigned to Syria. Dvornikov revealed in an interview that Palmyra’s capture would open up the road to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, create conditions for reaching and controlling the border with Iraq, and re-establish control over three large oil and gas fields which had previously served as a source of income for ISIS.

The Palmyra Battle

The total number of troops involved in the fight for Palmyra from the Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian coalition of forces was over 5000. Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov has been diligent in the deployment of forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces have been deployed economically, to avoid being bogged down in support of its allies, but also to ensure ISIS could be destroyed and prevented from relocating and resurrecting itself. Russia deployed significant numbers of ground forces to work in coordination with air assets. Russian units operating TOS-1 and BM-30 Smerch heavy multiple rocket launcher systems as well as Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships were utilized in support of operations to retake Palmyra.

The Russian state media highly publicized the return of planes from Syria after Putin’s surprise withdrawal order on March 14, 2016. It was not a hoax. Russian Federation forces were withdrawn however, as analysts informed AFP, the withdrawal was very limited, with estimates ranging between 10 and 25 percent of its forces in Syria. However, Russian activity seemed to have increased. Reuters reports the “Syrian Express,” the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian forces supplied via the Black Sea Russian port of Novorossiysk to the Russian naval base at Tartus, has shipped more equipment and supplies to Syria in the two weeks following Putin’s withdrawal announcement than it had two weeks prior. Just before the assault on Palmyra, Russia publicly admitted, for the first time since it launched operations in Syria in September 2015 that spetsnaz were on the ground as part of the offensive.

Spetsnaz units have locating and designating ISIS targets for airstrikes in advance of contact with them by Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian ground forces. Russian attack helicopters, as well as spetsnaz serving as sharpshooters, serve as over watch for forces Russian allies, ensuring that even small, unorganized bands of fighters of ISIS would not be able to engage in independent actions to disrupt the ground operations. Dvornikov explained: “. . . Two thousand terrorists, originally coming from the Russian Federation—were destroyed on Syrian territory. Of these, 17 were field commanders.” By targeting Russian members of Islamic militant groups in Syria, Russian forces contributed immensely to the safety and security of their country and its citizens and the international effort against those Islamic militant groups as well. Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff of the Russian Federation, Valery Gerasimov on March 28, 2016 said Palmyra was “liberated thanks to the support of Russia’s air force and special operations forces.”

Offering an example of the type of fighting in which Russian forces have been engaged, a Russian spetsnaz officer, Aleksandr Prokhorenko, was killed while directing airstrikes upon himself when surrounded by ISIS fighters near Palmyra according to the Russian military on March 24, 3016. (He reportedly had been working in Syria for just a week.) ISIS took a photo allegedly from his cellphone and posted it on the internet in an apparent attempt to shame Russian forces fighting in Syria or claim some type victory. (The causality is really unknown. The thinking behind ISIS decisions is hard to decipher.) Instead, by posting the photo, the world was given a glimpse of a few of the courageous Russians who have been fighting gallantly against the scourge of ISIS in Syria. Certainly, most people in the world are united in thinking ISIS must be destroyed. Quem metuit quisque perisse cupit. (Everyone wishes that the man whom he fears would perish.)

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Mohammad Jafar Assadi (above) as the IRGC commander in Syria. Russian-Iranian military cooperation on Syria was established in July 2015. Iran has deployed several thousand (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria, mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the National Defense Forces to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, and brought in Shi’a volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah units from Lebanon.

Concerning Syrian forces, many of them, to include nearly 1000 Syrian Marines and National Defense Forces militiamen, were brought up to Palmyra from Latakia, Aleppo, Qunetta Provinces. This movement of troops was enabled by the “cessation of hostilities” that began on February 27, 2016 that stemmed from the Geneva III Peace Talks on Syria. Those forces linked-up with hundreds of fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’a militias, and even Afghan Shi’a Liwa al-Fatimiyoun. Iran deployed the IRGC to support coalition forces in the operation. Russian-Iranian military cooperation on Syria came into effect via an agreement in July 2015. Both countries agreed to inject support into the Syrian Armed Forces to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms have been set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is supportive of Iran’s actions in Syria. (One joint operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad.) Iran, itself, had already deployed several thousand Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces, to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, brought in Shia volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria. After a meeting in Tehran between Putin and Iran’s Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on November 23, 2015, the decision was made to step up coordination between the two countries on Syria. A senior Iranian official told Reuters, “What was agreed was Iran and Russia would pursue one policy which will benefit Tehran, Moscow, and Damascus.” Reportedly, Khamenei appointed IRGC Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Mohammad Jafar Assadi as the IRGC commander in Syria. He is known as Abu Ahmad in Syria.

Large deliveries of Russian heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems also had an impact on the frontlines of the Syrian Army, Hezbollah, and the Shia militias. That equipment included: 152-milimeter MTSA-B guns, BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and TOS-1A Solnitsa rocket launchers.

The offensive proceeded as a three pronged frontal assault similar to previous regime directed operations against Palmyra in the Eastern Homs Province, displaying little to none of the sophisticated operational design that characterized the recent campaign in Aleppo Province. Dvornikov explained in his Rossiyskaya Gazeta interview that the capture of Palmyra would “open up the road to (IS strongholds) Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and create conditions for reaching and taking control of the border with Iraq.” Syria’s military on Sunday also confirmed that the battle for Raqqa—the de facto capital of the jihadists—is the plan. Dvornikov also noted that “control was re-established over three large oil and gas fields, which had previously served as a source of income for the terrorists.” As important, a barrier has been created for several critical regime-held oil and natural gas fields that provide electricity to Western Syria. Further, ISIS’ ability to project force into Western Syria from the Euphrates River Valley was reduced.

Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces have not been holding on anywhere. After Palmyra, they pushed onward toward Deir Ezzor province, an Islamic state bastion. They also pushed toward the so-called capital of the Islamic Caliphate, Raqqa, and other ISIS-held towns along the way.

Possibilities: Battle of Annihilation?

Despite laying mines and setting booby traps for advancing Russian-led forces, it seems learning how to retreat has been a difficult experience for ISIS. One might have expected counterattacks to cover its withdrawal. Assad regime troops have not been holding on anywhere and after Palmyra, they pushed onward toward Deir Ezzor province, an Islamic State bastion. They also pushed toward the so-called capital of the Islamic Caliphate, Raqqa, and other ISIS-held towns along the way. The day following Palmyra’s capture, a Syrian military source said “The army was concentrated around Al-Qurayatayn.”

Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military planners and commanders, of what is essentially a Russian-led coalition, must recognize that beyond Palmyra, fights with ISIS could become more intense as ISIS fighters observe their so-called Islamic Caliphate being reduced. This may be especially true for the battles of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.  ISIS fighters will be desperate to hold on to their Caliphate and demonstrate their will to resist and the capabilities of their group knowing the world would watching. The effects of such intensified efforts must be mitigated.

Russian air assets, along with air assets of its allies, should engage in a feeding-frenzy against ISIS. ISIS fighting positions in front of the Russian allies must continue to be degraded with close air support as well as unrelenting artillery onslaughts. ISIS fighters must face certain death if they hold their positions or be killed or captured once driven out of their positions. In tandem with the hot pursuit of ISIS by Russian and allied forces on the ground, airstrikes could support efforts to divert fighters of destroyed or displaced ISIS units away from their lines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. The attrition rate of ISIS should be increased by having aerial platforms that allow for stand-off attacks with anti-personnel weapons remain in near 24-hour use on targeted defenses and targets of opportunity such as isolated ISIS units in the desert.

The tempo and volume of Russian air strikes targeting ISIS leaders—and other rogue Islamic militant groups when identified—should be increased exponentially. Command centers and any gathering places of ISIS leaders, must not be allowed to exist. If possible, they should be struck simultaneously to throw the groups into chaos and confusion and make it very difficult for them to regenerate. Locations hit by airstrikes where ISIS might attempt to recover anything equipment or gear must be hit again to halt those recovery efforts. The communications of ISIS should be either destroyed or disrupted by other technical means permanently destroying any surviving leaders’ abilities to control over their units. Known and suspected assembly areas and rally points for ISIS units must be attacked from the air. In units left rudderless, acting without coordination, hopefully unit cohesion will begin to suffer, and they will lose their effectiveness completely. Small unit leaders should be left with the choice to allow their fighters to die in place or make a dash for the Euphrates, where along with other units, they should be consumed through a coordinated plan by Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces for annihilating any last ditch defense. Life should be made unlivable for ISIS in Syria.

Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units. Spetsnaz units should be issued portable GShG-7.62 rotary machine guns to give them the capability to kill ISIS fighters at a high rate in kill zones, raids, and ambushes as well as destroy any ISIS counterattacks. Spetsnaz units will likely need to operate vigorously at night when ISIS fighters might try to conceal movement. As directed by Moscow, individual spetsnaz units, in a special reconnaissance role, could continue to go into ISIS controlled areas, locate, and kill specific ISIS fighters from Russia, or when directed, take prisoners. Some spetsnaz must be dedicated to fighting other Islamic militant groups in Syria such as the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.

Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military planners and commanders likely recognize that beyond Palmyra, fights with ISIS could become more intense, as ISIS fighters observe their so-called Islamic Caliphate being reduced. This may be especially true for the battles of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.   ISIS fighters will be desperate to hold on to their Caliphate and demonstrate the capabilities and will of their terrorist group. The effects of such intensified efforts must be mitigated.

Caliphate Redoubt in Syria?

Six months after US and United Kingdom forces landed in Normandy in June 1944 during World War II, it was thought by senior German military commanders and hypothesized by Allied military planners that the Nazi government would be moved to a mountainous area of southern Germany and Austria. From there, a determined force could hold out for some time, complicating the situation for any occupying force in Germany. Allied planners referred to that area hypothetical defensive zone as the National Redoubt. It was discussed among German military planners as the Alpenfestung. While the idea of the Alpenfestung was investigated, it was never created. Instead, rumors were deliberately spread by a special unit set up by the German Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels to keep a redoubt idea alive. Yet, not being complacent, Allied military commanders ordered bombing raids to reduce locations that would be critical to operating the redoubt. It is difficult to say what ISIS leaders would do if Raqqa and Deir Ezzor fell. While there are no mountain ranges on the line of march of Russia and its allies to set up an Islamic Caliphate redoubt in Syria as imposing as the one conjured up by both sides in Germany, luck might have it that Iraqi military commanders in ISIS might try to set up a “line of death” east of Deir Ezzor along the Khabur and Euphrates Rivers, and Syria’s border with Iraq. The goal of that theoretical defensive line would be to forestall the ultimate collapse of the Islamic Caliphate in Syria and to inflict as many casualties among Russian-led forces as possible with a suicide defense. Real luck would come if reinforcements were rushed in where available in Iraq. (Though, US-led, and Iranian-led, forces have caused ISIS inside Iraq considerable problems, making any effort to move units from there to reinforce a redoubt in Syria dubious.) If Russian-led forces observe a redoubt being formed, it would present them with the opportunity to deal a tremendous blow against ISIS from which it would never recover. With overwhelming firepower, using every means of combat support and reconnaissance and surveillance for targeting available, the entire ISIS force could be annihilated. All ISIS commanders, planners and fighters in the defense would need to be destroyed much as near entire Japanese forces were destroyed following island battles in the Pacific during World War II. Acribus initiis, incurioso fine. (Zealous at the commencement, careless toward the conclusion.)

Russian air assets, along with those of Russia’s allies, should engage in a feeding-frenzy against ISIS. ISIS fighting positions in front of the Russian allies must continue to be degraded with close air support as well as unrelenting artillery onslaughts. Airstrikes could be directed at diverting ISIS fighters of destroyed or displaced groups away from the frontlines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. Targets of opportunity in the desert should be destroyed. Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units.

The Way Forward

When Putin went into Syria in September 2015, he did so not only to fight ISIS, but to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. To that extent, he wanted to defeat ISIS or, at a minimum, reduce its presence in Syria to a size and strength incapable of forcing Assad from power, nor subsidize efforts of the Syrian Opposition Movement to maneuver with US and EU assistance to undercut Assad. So far in Syria, Putin has effectively left no doubt with the Russian people, but also the world, that he is a leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues and that Russia is a global power. The ejection of ISIS from Palmyra was a major achievement on top of all of its success in Syria. Russia was seen fulfilling its promise of defeating ISIS and supporting Assad. News of the event has garnered unenthused recognition from the Washington and European capitals.

Ad mores natura damnatos fixa et mutari nescia. (Human nature ever reverts to its depraved courses, fixed and immutable.) Some might speculate that Putin may choose to forestall backing the attacks on Raqqa and Deir Ezzor as the UN Talks in Geneva may reach a result that would keep Assad in power and serve Russia’s interest. However, Putin’s decision making manifests a sense of pessimism regarding human nature. Interactions with the West have been a struggle, Russia is still being sanctioned over Ukraine. Putin most likely expects to encounter some machinations from Western capitals that would cause Russia’s interests to be subordinated by their own. He very likely felt he had encountered something of that nature during UN Talks on Syria in Vienna on November 14, 2015 when Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora,” participate in the national elections. Kerry seemed to be betting that if Syrians around the world participated in the vote, Assad would never be able to remain in office. In part to counter such moves, Putin has sought to significantly shape the situation on the ground by supporting the combat operations of Syrian Armed Forces along with forces Iran has brought to, or organized in, Syria. Once all of Russia’s goals on the ground are achieved, Putin would seek to finalize some political arrangement for Syria. What may be shaping up is a race by the US-led and Russian-led anti-ISIS camps to take Raqqa and to establish their will in Syria.