Trump Says Putin Means It About Not Meddling: He Also Wants to Make Sure It Does Not Happen Again!

US President Donald Trump (above). After speaking in camera with Putin on the sideline of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Danang, Vietnam, Trump said that he had again asked Putin whether Russia meddled in the 2016 US Presidential Election, but his continued focus on the issue was insulting him. Although Trump faces attacks from critics due to perceived inaction, he has acted in a well-paced manner, taking calibrated steps to assure the defeat of any future election meddling, and make something positive out of a negative situation.

According to a November 11, 2017 New York Times article entitled “Trump Says Putin ‘Means It’ About Not Meddling”, US President Donald Trump expressed the view on Saturday, November 11th that he believed Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin was sincere in his denials of meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election. (A version of this article appears in print on November 12, 2017, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Putin’s Denials Of Interference Satisfy Trump.) The November 11th New York Times article suggested Trump felt Putin was sincere in his denials of Russia played any role in the US elections, and he called questions about Moscow’s meddling a politically motivated “hit job” that was hindering cooperation with Russia on life-or-death issues. After speaking in camera with Putin on the sideline of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Danang, Vietnam, Trump said that he had again asked whether Russia had meddled in the contest, but that the continued focus on the issue was insulting to Putin. Trump proffered that it was time to move past the issue so that the US and Russia could cooperate on confronting the nuclear threat from North Korea, resolving the Syrian civil war and working together on Ukraine. Trump told reporters traveling with him aboard Air Force One as he flew to Hanoi for more meetings that he asked Putin again about meddling in the US elections. According to Trump, “He said he didn’t meddle.” He went on to state: “You can only ask so many times. I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did.”

The New York Times reported that Trump did not answer a direct question about whether he believed Putin’s denials in Danang. In response, the New York Times offered the surmisal that Trump indicated he was far more inclined to accept the Putin’s assertions than those of his own intelligence agencies which have concluded the Russian president directed an elaborate effort to interfere in the vote. The article pointed out that the FBI, CIA, the National Security Agency, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence all determined that Russia meddled in the election. The next day, however, the New York Times explained Trump seemed to walk his comments back a bit, saying that he did not dispute the assessment of the nation’s key intelligence agencies that Russia had intervened in the 2016 presidential election.Trump said at a news conference in Hanoi alongside Vietnam’s president, Tran Dai Quang: “As to whether I believe it or not, I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership.”  He further stated: “I believe in our agencies. I’ve worked with them very strongly.”

Damnant quod non intellegent. (They condemn what they do not understand.) For critics to insist that Trump is malingering on the issue of Russia’s election meddling because he is not doing what they want him to do, is truly unfair. Trump is doing his job, and it would appear, certainly on foreign policy, that he is doing his job well, with a positive energy, and desire serve the US public. Critics who to demand for Trump to continually reproach and punish Putin over Russia’s election meddling have the luxury to do that away from the fray. They do not have the responsibilities of the president. Further, critics condemn him for having a somewhat nationalistic in tone. Yet, they turn away from the reality that if anyone would feel rage over the idea of another country interfering with the US election process, it would be him. As a responsibility of being US President, Trump must suppress those emotions and consider the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election in a way that it best serves US foreign policy. Despite any strong feelings, he must not engage in a vendetta to right a wrong, now past. Critics must accept that Trump does not intend to go to war with Russia over its election meddling. Moreover, he does not intend to pummel Russia with unending waves of sanctions, vengeful behavior which would best match the incessant cries of “foul” and figurative grunts and groans from critics due to the hurt the election meddling caused them. There is a foolhardiness to pursuing something that will lead to nothing. Trump would prefer to deal with the root causes of anger in Putin’s mind, in the minds of other senior Russian officials, that lead to a decision to undertake the risky operation in the first place. Trump understands that the true cure for the meddling problem and others is to develop a good relationship between Putin and himself and greatly improving relations between the US and Russia as a whole. Trump wants to work alongside certain countries, including Russia, to resolve urgent security issues such as North Korea, Syria, and Ukraine. On his recent foreign trip, Trump has kindled or strengthened his relationships with the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines and secured deals with their countries to improve trade the conditions of trade with them. When one develops a viewpoint, there is nothing unusual about the individual expatiating on it. Yet, somehow in their world, removed from making actual decisions and taking action, some critics have gone a bit too far. They insist that Trump acted in collusion with Russia achieve a victory he would want to win on his own and could win on his own. The suggestion that there is an authentic, direct link between Trump and Russia concerning the 2016 US Presidential Election will likely prove to have been sheer caprice. It would be appropriate to take a look at what Trump has been doing on the election meddling issue.  Moreover, it also would be fitting to examine possible underlying reasons why critics, in the face of Trump’s rather efficacious efforts, questioning his performance and have been so certain and have behaved so harshly toward him over allegations of actions by him that remain unproven. Id bonum cura quod vetustate fit melius. (Take care of the good since it improves with age.)

Trump (left) and US National Security Adviser US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster (right). Critics demand for Trump to continually reproach Putin over Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. If anyone would feel rage over the idea of another country interfering with the US election process, it would be Trump. Yet, as a responsibility of being US President, Trump must suppress those emotions and consider Russia’s election meddling in a way that best serves US foreign policy.

Trump’s Quiet Approach to Defeating Election Meddling by Russia

As a reminder of what the issue of Russia’s election meddling is all about, from June 2015 to November 2016, Russian hackers penetrated Democratic Party computers in the US, and gained access to the personal emails of Democratic officials, which in turn were distributed to the global media by WikiLeaks. Both the CIA and the FBI report the intrusions were intended to undermine the US election. Cyber gives Russia a usable strategic capability. If benefits from its use appear great enough, Moscow may want to risk additional attacks. Indeed, the US Intelligence Community concluded that Moscow will apply lessons learned from its “Putin-ordered campaign” directed at the 2016 US Presidential Election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes. The report of the January 16, 2017 US Office of the Director of National Intelligence entitled, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Election” presents the best publicized assessment by the US Intelligence Community of the Russian cyber attack during the 2016 US Presidential Election. It stated: “Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.” Russia, like its Soviet predecessor, has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on US presidential elections that have used intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin.

The English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead stated: “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order.” Trump is doing just that. Although Trump faces attacks from critics due to perceived inaction, he has acted in a well-paced manner, taking calibrated steps, to eliminate the possibility of any future Russian election meddling, and to make something positive out of an extraordinarily negative situation. Trump is aware that there are many lines of approach Russia can take to reach the US public. By examining recent actions by Trump, one can infer what he and his national security team have most likely deemed as “decisive points” to focus on in order to be most effective in impacting Russian behavior and reduce the possibility of future meddling. The following six points are very likely part of a suite of preventative measures employed by the administration.

1. Trump Tries to Sit on Russian Cyber Activities Against the US

Adversus incendiary excubias, nocturnos vigilesque commentus est. (Against the dangers of fires, he conceived of the idea of nightguards and watchmen.) On July 9, 2017, when Trump broached the issue of the Russia’s hacking of the 2016 Presidential Election, Putin apparently became a bit scratchy. Putin’s denial of the facts presented most likely signalled to Trump that he would be engaged in a argument without end on the hacking. Trump had to either move away from the issue or move laterally on it in some way.  Surely, Trump did not want to abandon the matter. As an immediate response to Putin’s denials on the matter, Trump then proposed forming a cyber security unit. According to Reuters on July 9, 2017, Trump wrote in the actual tweet about the cyber security unit: “Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe.”

The proposal for a joint cyber security unit did not simply materialize from thin air. On the one hand, it likely stemmed from Trump’s experience as a negotiator, his gaining of the conversation with his national security team, and his consideration of all the “what ifs” possible. It was also developed more during an intense discussion between Trump and Putin on how to remit Russian cyber warfare programs directed at the US and perhaps similar US programs aimed at Russia. It may have been the product of brainstorming by the two leaders. Trump’s proposal was never supposed to serve as a form retribution against Russia for its intrusions into the US democratic process. Surely, it was not created to be a final solution to the threat of hacking US election. Immediately after the bilateral meeting in Germany, it was revealed that forming such a joint cyber security unit with Russia was prohibited under US law. Yet, although creating an actual cyber security unit was out of bounds, the concept of bringing US and Russian cyber experts together in some way to talk about some cyber matters was not. Trump’s likely aim with the proposal was to create a situation in which US and Russian officials were talking about hacking. Ostensibly, those conversations would create goodwill, perhaps stimulate a more open discussion about the issue, and promote honest talks about the issue among senior officials. In that way, the proposal would have served as a confidence building measure.

Trump (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) in Hamburg. Trump does not intend to pummel Russia with unending waves of sanctions, vengeful behavior which would best match the incessant cries of “foul” and figurative grunts and groans from critics due to the hurt the election meddling caused them. There is a foolhardiness to pursuing something that will lead to nothing. Trump would prefer to deal with the root causes of anger in Putin’s mind that lead to a decision to undertake the operation in the first place.

2. Enhancing the US Surveillance Capability

US has the ability to monitor activities of Russian Federation intelligence organizations operating on the ground in the US, to include: Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR; the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU; and, the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB. Undoubtedly, Putin also well aware of this now. This capability was made public by the administration of US President Barack Obama in a June 23, 2017 Washington Post article that included a leaked account of that administration’s reaction to reports about ongoing Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 US Presidential Election. That article indicated that Obama was in a dark mood over the intelligence findings about Russian activities. The approaching transfer of power gave urgency to his National Security Council’s deliberations on how to retaliate against Russia. By mid-December 2016, Obama’s National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, was quoted as saying to senior national security officials: “We’re not talking anymore. We’re acting.” A senior national security official at the time told the Washington Post that Rice challenged them go to the “max of their comfort zones.” Economic sanctions, originally aimed only at the GRU were expanded to include the FSB. Four Russian intelligence officials and three companies with links to those services were also named as targets.

The Washington Post article, as an overt source to intelligences service worldwide, informed that the FBI had long lobbied to close two Russian compounds in the US–one in Maryland and another in New York–on the grounds that both were used for espionage and placed an enormous surveillance burden on the Bureau. The FBI was also responsible for generating a list of Russian operatives, that it had concluded, were working under diplomatic cover to expel, drawn from a roster the Bureau maintains of suspected Russian intelligence agents in the US. In the end, Rice submitted a plan to Obama calling for the seizure of both Russian facilities and the expulsion of 35 suspected spies. Obama signed off on the package and announced the punitive measures on December 29, 2016 while on vacation in Hawaii. Trump has undoubtedly increased FBI electronic and other technical monitoring and surveillance of Russian intelligence activities, and can increase it further. Interviews will invariably be conducted with senior leaders among Russian intelligence officers with official diplomatic cover. To the extent that it does not interfere with counterespionage operations, the FBI will conduct interviews with suspected Russian intelligence operatives working in the US with non-official cover.

3. Trump Seeks to Find Chemistry with Putin to Enhance Communication

Ad connectendas amicitias, tenacissimum vinculum, est morum smilitudo. (For cementing friendship, resemblance of manners is the strongest tie.) One must try to live a life based on a strong moral foundation. In foreign policy and diplomacy there must be some confidence in, some foundation of trust, among opposing parties that they are both trying to do the right thing. Diplomacy will not succeed, and relations will not flourish, if that is not the case. After his bilateral meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany during the G-20 Economic Summit, Trump emphasized that he raised allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election with Putin. Reuters reported on July 9, 2017 that Trump stated: “I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion…..” When Putin denied meddling, a US official at the time said that Trump expressed the view that both countries must agree to disagree on the issue and move on to other topics where they could work together. As mentioned earlier, after Trump spoke privately with Putin on the sideline of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Danang, Vietnam, Trump revealed he again asked Putin whether Russia had meddled in the contest, and that he gotten the impression that the continued focus on the issue was insulting to Putin. When Trump would ask Putin about Russia’s election meddling, he would likely speak to Putin with un voce de fil, a reserved voice, but with a power behind it that allows it be discerned in the balcony. Trump raised contentious issues with Putin, not to confront but show Putin that there was a need for the two to confide in one another about urgent and important issues if relations between the two countries were to transform. In terms of positive actions, this was a maximum effort.

Russian officials will normally vehemently deny launching cyber attacks. Russian officials almost never open up their covert intelligence operations. Putin has never publicly discussed them. Trump was undoubtedly advised of this fact by his national security team. Perhaps the best way to explain it all is to say that Putin’s denials are routine. Yet, among Trump’s critics, revelations about his response on Russian intelligence activities seems to overwhelm those who learn about it all. When Trump received Putin’s response, he was left with choices. Indeed, both he and Putin were aware of that. He could accept Putin’s denial, or create a hostile exchange by demanding he “tell the truth” as it is known in the US. Surely, there would be no positive or professional end to recreating the communication failures, diplomatic missteps, and delinquencies of the previous administration. Trump would most likely have stoked the same fires that led to a specious struggle of words between Obama and Putin and also ignited a miscalculated decision in Moscow to interfere with 2016 US Presidential Election which the US Intelligence Community assures took place. Actually, engaging in such actions would defy Trump’s own efforts to pull relations in a new direction and the action would best get described as counterintuitive. Trump has no intention of doing so. As the November 11, 2017 New York Times Trump said it was time to move past the issue so that the US and Russia could cooperate on confronting the nuclear threat from North Korea, solving the Syrian civil war and working together on Ukraine.

On June 10, 2015, Putin was asked by the editor-in-chief of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, “Is there any action that you most regret in your life, something that you consider a mistake and wouldn’t want to repeat ever again.” Putin stated, “I’ll be totally frank with you. I cannot recollect anything of the kind. It appears that the Lord built my life in a way that I have nothing to regret.” While he may not have regrets, Putin may at least be rethinking, reevaluating the operation that stirred so much trouble for the Obama administration and could have potentially destroyed his relations with the new Trump administration before it even started. Trump wants Putin to give that consider. Further, Trump is offering Putin the opportunity to have a unique, intimate relationship with Trump. With Trump, good things are possible if that is what Putin truly wants. Things done together will lead to goodness for both. Opposition, and to an extent, competition, must be replaced by unity. In amicitia nihil fictum est, nihil simulatum, et quidquid est verum et voluntarium. (In friendship there is nothing fictitious, nothing is simulated, and it is in fact true and voluntary.)

Putin (left) with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right). Russian officials will normally vehemently deny launching cyber attacks. Russian officials almost never open up their covert intelligence operations. Putin has never publicly discussed them. Trump was undoubtedly advised of this fact by his national security team. Perhaps the best way to explain it all is to say that Putin’s denials are routine.

4. Trump Seeks to Obviate Russia’s Penchant for Being Manipulate

The Obama administration never put together the right recipe for working well with Putin. To an extent, it was simply bad chemistry between the two leaders. Trump feels he can find the solution. True, the meeting between Trump and Putin will unlikely be a catalytic moment when opponents of Trump, political or otherwise, will see the method in his madness and appreciate his accomplishment. Moreover, when Russia behaves in ways that tear others from peace, it must still face consequences. However, Trump’s efforts evince his 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. Much as a warrior with power and know-how, and interact with Putin eye-to-eye, head-to-head, brain-to-brain. Through both strength and understanding, Trump believes the US and Russia can be good neighbors on the same planet. Yet, in what seemed to an effort to instigate further troubles for Trump, senior Russian officials provided an alternative account of his meeting with Putin in Danang, Vietnam. Almost mockingly, they asserted that Trump had accepted Putin’s denial of election interference and even said that some in the US were “exaggerating” Moscow’s role without proof. Their efforts at burlesque were in considerable variance with Putin’s response to efforts to connect Russia with the 2016 US election. Putin, sought to avoid the issue altogether, dismissing revelations that Russians had contacts with Trump’s campaign team. After the summit meeting, the Russian news media quoted Putin as saying: “I think that everything connected with the so-called Russian dossier in the United States is a manifestation of a continuing domestic political struggle.”  Putin told reporters in Danang, “It’s important that we find an opportunity, with our teams, to sit down at the level of presidents and talk through our complex relations.” He continued: “Our relations are still in crisis. Russia is ready to turn the page and move on.” Putin also commented that Trump comported himself at meetings “with the highest level of goodwill and correctness,” adding, “He is a cultured person, and comfortable discussing matters related to work.”

Putin’s contacts with the US have certainly not been about shutting the door. Yet, although he may very well have recognized opportunities to create a more positive relationship with the US, his senior advisers seem to be focusing upon the atmosphere of pure hatred and rejection propagated by the “counter-Trump milieu.” (In the US, many journalists, think tank scholars, other policy analysts, particularly former officials of the Obama administration, propagate a cult of ugliness directed at the US presidency. The mass of their combined efforts and the environment they create, is referred to by greatcharlie as the counter-Trump milieu.) They cannot help but recognize that there is an effort to separate Trump from the US public and create turmoil and frustration for him that Russia, for certain, does not have his hand in. They perhaps are suggesting to Putin that he should do nothing that might help Trump restore respect for the US presidency. A rationale for Putin advisers to take such a position is that it fits well with the idea of supporting their leader’s apparent desire of turning Russian into a simulacrum of the Soviet Union into more than a dream. It would accomplished through the capture of former Soviet republics that are now sovereign countries in Russia’s near abroad. The notion that Trump is a neophyte with regard to Washington politics may also be something they believe to be a tangible fact and perhaps even an advantage for Putin’s advisers to develop analyses of Trump’s thinking and action.

Fluctuat nec mergitur. (It is tossed by waves but it does not sink.) The reality is that Trump and his administration are in good nick. Putin might be genuinely engaged in a deliberate process of developing an amicable, constructive relationship with Trump. Trump never had a personal relationship with Putin before  he became US president. It is very clear that Putin is trying to understand his positions and his thinking in a granular way.  Putin’s adviser would do well to engage in a similar effort to develop greater insight on Trump. It would seem they have already run Trump through analyses for an uncongenial, combative relationship, as evinced by given words they expressed Danang. They should dig deeper than the surface, to understand where new linkages can be established. A conscious effort should be made to stay away from distortions propagated from the very emotional, often very irrational, counter-Trump milieu. Trump administration attempts to engage in confidence-building with Moscow should be viewed as perfect opportunities to discuss common ground that exists between the two countries from Moscow’s perspective. Advisers of the two leaders must have ongoing, frank discussions on the timing for presenting initiatives on issues before any bilateral talks. Such discussion would be the best way for them to inform their counterparts of rocky domestic political situations and other political obstacles, that may derail initiatives if not handled with precision. Additionally, discreet matters must be kept discreet. That is a key responsibility of both sides. Resolutions to issues are less likely be found if they are subtly expressed in condescending or patronizing way, even if it is simply an expression of crni humor or some other form of banal amusement. Gaining a perspective akin to that outlined here may demand the development of a duality in the thinking of Putin’s advisers, however, it would unlikely be deleterious to their efforts regarding the US. The more Trump pushes Russia in the right direction, the more Putin may push for better analyses, and better answers concerning the US. The more he pushes, the great chance Putin advisers may decide to see things in a way as discussed here. Intriguingly, although Trump’s approach toward Putin’s advisers is nonviolent, benign in fact, in military terms, it would be akin to “the attack in-depth.”

Trump (right) with Putin (left) in Danang. Trump understands that the true cure for the meddling problem and others is to develop a good relationship between Putin and himself and greatly improving relations between the US and Russia as a whole. Trump wants to work alongside certain countries, including Russia, to resolve urgent security issues such as North Korea, Syria, and Ukraine.

5. Trump Turns Refraining from Meddling into a Matter of Honor for Putin

Long before Putin became the President of the Russian Federation, he revealed that he both engaged in efforts to influence elections in other countries and personally felt the negative impact of election meddling in Russia. Putin outlined his experience influencing elections as a KGB officer in other countries Indeed, in Part 4 of his memoir, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000), Putin explains that in East Germany his work was “political intelligence,” which included obtaining information about political figures and the plans of the main opponent: NATO. (See greatcharlie’s book review of First Person.) In a precise statement of his intelligence activities, Putin intriguingly described them as follows: “The usual intelligence activities: recruiting sources of information, obtaining information, analyzing it, and sending it to Moscow. I looked for information about political parties, the tendencies inside those parties, their leaders. I examined today’s leaders and the possible leaders of tomorrow and the promotion of people to certain posts in the parties and the government. It was important to know who was doing what and how, what was going on in the foreign Ministry of a particular country, how they were constructing their policy on certain issues and in various areas of the world, and how our partners would react to disarmament talks. Of course, in order to obtain such information, you need sources. So recruitment of sources, procurement of information, and assessment and analysis were big parts of the job. It was very routine work.”

In Part 6 of First Person, Putin also goes into great detail about his work in the 1992 and 1996 mayoral elections in St. Petersburg following his resignation from the KGB. and a sense is provided of his acumen and instinct for work in the political sphere. In 1992, he played a definitive role in the election of his political mentor, Anatoly Sobchak, as the first popularly elected mayor of the city. Putin explains that as chair of the Leningrad City Council under an older system, Sobchak could have been removed by the council members at any moment. Putin felt Sobchak needed a more stable position. Sobchak finally agreed that the post of mayor had to be introduced. The decision to introduce the post of mayor was passed by the Leningrad City Council, by a margin of a single vote. However, from the experience of arranging Sobchak’s political victory, Putin was able to assess four years later that in order to win re-election, Sobchak would need “professional campaign managers and technicians–not just a guy who could finesse the deputies.” Putin saw that it was a whole new ball game. Campaign plans had to be adjusted to fit circumstances. Putin said that he told Sobchak right off, “You know, you’re on a completely different playing field now. You need specialists.” He agreed, but then he decided that he would conduct his own electoral campaign. He says: “You know, running a campaign, bringing in specialists–all of this costs money. And we didn’t have any. Sobchak had been under investigation for a year and a half on allegations that he had bought an apartment with city funds. But in fact, he did not have any money either for an apartment or for an election campaign. We were not extracting funds from the city budget. It never entered our heads to find the money we needed that way.” However, with regard to Sobchak’s opponent, Vladimir Anatolyevich Yakovlev, the former governor of Leningrad oblast (province), Putin said that he got the funds he needed at Moscow’s expense. He believed Yakovlev was supported by the very same people who orchestrated an ethics campaign against Sobchak. Putin described the critical junture in the campaign in the following way: “During the election campaign, someone sent an inquiry to the Prosecutor General’s office, asking whether Sobchak was involved in any criminal investigations. The very same day, the answer came back: Yes, three were two criminal cases under investigation. Naturally, they didn’t explain that he was a witness, not a suspect, in these cases. The reply from the Prosecutor General’s office was duplicated, and flyers were dropped over the city from a helicopter. The law enforcement agencies were interfering directly in a political contest.” The newly elected mayor of St. Petersburg, Yakovlev did not move Putin out of his office right away; but as soon as the presidential elections were over, he was asked rather harshly to free up the space. By that time, Putin had already turned down Yakolev’s offer to keep his post as deputy mayor. Putin said Yakolev made the offer through his people. Putin explained: “I thought it would be impossible to work with him.” However, Putin said what really made staying on a bad idea were attacks he against Yakolev during the campaign. Putin said: “I don’t remember the context now, but in a television interview, I had called him Judas. The word seemed to fit, and I used it.”

Trump knows Putin has personal experience in attempting to interfere with nation elections of other countries. He presumably knows this not only through First Person, but also reports provided by the US Intelligence Community, knows Putin disfavors such efforts given what happened to his mentor Sobchak. As mentioned earlier, Trump said, “Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.” Trump added: “I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.” There are pitfalls to relying on ones own moral barometer in the performance of diplomacy. Trump appears to have courageously taken that tact regarding Putin and the issue of Russia’s election meddling. Trump has not said that he agrees with Putin’s view, nor has he  let Putin off the hook. He will not forget what transpired. Yet, by refusing to publicly reproach Putin for not being more forthcoming over the election meddling in the US when he questioned him, Trump demonstrated that he understands the tough situation Putin is in regarding the meddling, now well-exposed. It would appear that the covert operation of election meddling was supposedly crafted to be plausibly deniable, allowing and, perhaps under Russian codes, requiring Putin to gainsay its existence. Trump appears to be holding out hope that his decision to be tolerant of Putin’s response has appealed to Putin’s sense of honor. Indeed, he likely hopes that it will be a factor in future interactions with Putin. At the same time, however, Trump is actually cutting off Putin from possible equivocation and outright denials. Putin’s future actions would be gauged off of denials of interference. Many in US foreign policy circles have absolutely no faith Putin as an honest broker. Yet, Trump’s expectations appear to manifest his nature as a visionary, his sense of imagination. Along with the sense of expectation is an intuition that what is expected will be more vital than what exists. Trump has no intention of recreating the failures, delinquencies of the previous administration. There is no logical purpose in stoking the fires the led to a childlike struggle of words that also likely ignited an adversarial decision that led to an attempt to interfere with 2016 US Election which the US Intelligence Community has confirmed. 

Trump’s critics have not covered themselves in glory. Their performance, though overwhelming, has been disjointed. It is difficult to imagine how presidential historians will judge how critics’ hammered Trump over the manner in which he is handling Russia’s election meddling, and allegations that Trump worked with Putin to secure Russia’s assistance in winning the 2016 US Presidential Election.

6. Trump Offers Business Opportunities to Mitigate Putin’s Desire to Punish the West

Certainly, Trump cannot know exactly what is in Putin’s heart. Putin is a calculator. Various US policy analysts and academics have hypothesized over the causality for the Russia’s misunderstandings and crises with the West over Eastern Europe during the past 25 years. Putin, himself, explained at the 2007 Munich Security Conference and many times since that former NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner had guaranteed that NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Moreover, he has pointed to the statements of German parliamentarian Egon Bahr who explained on June 26, 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” In a Bild interview on January 11, 2016, Putin pointed to what he described as a very concrete suggestion by Bahr on how that danger could be averted: “the USA, the Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structures.” When the Bild interviewer pointed out to Putin that under NATO’s rules and self-understanding it can accept free countries as members if they want to be members and meet certain requirements.  Putin responded, “Nowhere is it written that NATO had to accept certain countries. All that would have been required to refrain from doing so was political will. But people didn’t not want to.” Putin declared the reason for NATO’s lack of restraint was “NATO and the USA wanted complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone.”  

Bis interimitur qui suis armis perit. (He is doubly destroyed who perishes by his own arms.) Putin’s penchant for acting in that direction lead to his capture of territory in Georgia, capture of Crimea, and investment in Eastern Ukraine. Interestingly enough, Georgia and Ukraine are not NATO members, but in 2008 had been explicitly and publicly assured that they would be granted Membership Action Plans. By occupying those countries Putin has assured they would never join NATO in the near term. Indeed, no country will ever join NATO while being partly occupied by Russia. To that extent, part of Putin’s grand strategy entails halting NATO expansion while securing more territory in countries in its near abroad. The near abroad is what Moscow refers to as the territory surrounding Russia’s borders. Recall that Napoleon Bonaparte, in an effort to unite Europe under his rule, took an inexorable path to destruction. He became morally myopic. To that extent, as Victor Hugo stated: “Napoleon embarrassed God.” For Putin, now is a time for reflection and resolve. This may be the moment to genuinely improve Russia’s relations with the US.

There are several bargaining chips of differing value to both Trump and Putin. Trump managed to become US president doing what he wanted to do, having truly dominant knowledge of the desires of the majority of the US public and overall US political environment. He knows what he wants and what he can really do. Cooperation on counterterrorism, ISIS, climate change, and poverty may serve as a bargaining chips to get agreements on other issues. However, Greater bargaining chips might include: the return of Russia properties in the US, reconstruction assistance in Syria, peace-enforcement in Syria, making the Group of 7 the Group of 8 again with inclusion of Russia, economic sanctions, closing sanction loopholes, and lifting restrictions on the Exxon-Rosneft agreement through an exemption. Some of these actions may not appear plausible and could have a deleterious effect on the sanctions regime against Russia over it actions in Ukraine and create an uproar among the Europeans. However, Trump undoubtedly believes bold action, when appropriate, may be the very thing to turn situations around, modify Russian behavior, and get relations moving forward. When presidential action could immediately resolve matters, those issues may be hashed out at the table or it could be agreed to allow for  some additional consideration before giving a response. Trump must put “America First” but keep firmly in mind how his decisions and actions regarding Russia might impact European allies and partners. Given domestic political concerns, initial offerings from Putin may appear paltry. There is a real possibility that if he feels secure enough, Putin could offer much, particularly to loosen the US grip on Russia’s figurative economic throat. To date, a degree of good-faith bargaining and compromise between Washington and Moscow has occurred. There have been mutual peace offerings. However, refraining any interference with US elections cannot be part of any peace offering or any quid-pro-quo arrangement. Without any further inquiries about what exactly happened, Russia must stop engaging in such operations. If Russia crosses the line again, everything accomplished will be obliterated and all of the great possibilities will never be realized. Tragically, it would likely once again lock up the diplomatic process. Trump can assume that Putin knows this, too!

Trump (right) and Chinese President XI Jinping (left). On his recent foreign trip to Asia, Trump kindled or strengthened his relationships with the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines and secured deals with their countries to improve trade the conditions of trade with them. He helped US companies arrange over $250 billion in business deals while in Beijing.

Causality for Critics’ Relentless Attacks on Trump Despite His Discernable Efforts

For those longing for an end to the Obama administration and the many vicissitudes it faced on foreign policy, were heard shout to the effect of “Blessed be the Trump administration and health to all its parts.” However, many critics deemed Trump unfit for the president even before his election victory. The words “not presidential” were heard every time Trump spoke. Eventually, moves by Trump of any kind would elicit a range of reactions by those engaged in the broad, piquant, counter-Trump discourse.

Custos morum. (Guardian of morals.) Some critics seem to believe that they figurative hammers, designed to shape Trump into the instrument they want. While they may self-declare themselves repositories of the accumulated wisdom on US foreign policy, they are not. Moreover, they are not the stewards of US foreign policy. There other critics who apparently have found nothing desirable and everything loathsome about Trump. Oscillating, moving from one point to the other, critics of Trump have their own relentless logic. Whenever one of Trump’s efforts fail or whenever he makes a mistake, they were over the moon with joy. Short of pushing Trump out of office, it strikes one’s conscience to think that nothing would soothe them than to prescribe plunging Trump forevermore into the boiling cauldrons of Hell from the French playwright Mollière’s, École des femmes. Indeed, they seemed to have let their aggression toward Trump come alive inside of them. At times, admonitions and opprobrium expressed through all manner of writings, created the impression that some giant golem was struggling, fighting to escape their inner souls.

What is truly problematic is the reality that critics may have infiltrated and despoiled the psyche of many in the US, perhaps may have even destroyed the possibility for some to have confidence in future US administrations, both Republican and Democratic. Most of Trump’s critics are individuals with advanced degrees, apt to be eloquent enough on key issues concerning the purported “Trump threat.” The US public is open to eloquence. Further, the precept of being innocent until proven guilty has been forcefully pushed aside in the US newsmedia with regard to all matters related to Trump. Hopefully, in the end, the truth will be revealed to those who are confused and bewildered by it all, both among general the public and Trump’s critics. Certainly there were many personal reasons for critics to harbor such strong, negative opinions of Trump and efforts against him. Their efforts have inflamed passions globally. The administration might explain that concerns expressed about Trump’s approach to the presidency were a manifestation of critics own struggle to accept the change from the traditional to modernity. The old is replaced by Trump’s new way of doing things. It has been said that some attacks on Trump are being used to cultivate critics’ emotions on: US policies, Obama’s departure, and Hillary Clinton’s election loss. There is the possibility that their varied attacks may just be projections of character flaws that critics see in themselves. Even more, there is the notion that Trump’s victory has caused them so much emotional harm that there is a desire to strike back, to take vengeance. That is perhaps the idea most worthy of examination.

Trump (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe (right). Through meetings, Trump and Abe have kindled a good relationship. Seldom have Trump’s critics taken public inventory of themselves, and considered whether their thinking and actions are appropriate or representative of their own notions of good character. It would appear that even the most noble among them have not considered the impact of their attacks against Trump on US foreign policy.

Moral Responsibility and the Strike Back Emotion

There are many sources for the belief in moral responsibility. Many philosophy scholars today conclude that the deepest roots of our commitment to moral responsibility are found in powerful emotions. In The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility (MIT Press, 2015), philosopher Bruce Waller at Youngstown State University explains this strike back emotion is one of the main sources of our strong belief in moral responsibility.

Indeed, human beings are a punitive species, and share the strike back emotion with other animals. It has been hypothesized that since humans are social animals, and engage with one another to achieve goals, humans are well-disposed to punish those who seek advantage over themselves and others. Wrongdoing stirs formidable emotions in humans, even when it is done to others. In social groups or in societies, anger and resentment is raised toward those who take benefits to which they are not entitled. It almost universally leads to some form of punishment. Culpam poena, premit comes. (Punishment closely follows crime as its’ companion.)

Revenge can seem sweet, and retribution may bring satisfaction, but those feelings are often short-lived. Moreover, the emotional source of moral responsibility, the strike back desire, can create problems with regard to given other desired ends, such as future safety, reconciliation, and moral formation. Most psychotherapists would explain that vengefulness, itself, generally is the manifestation of a serious pathology. Vengeful desires and behavior can ensnare an individual in a vicious cycle of hatred and prevent any resolution of the original harmful experience. Most vengeful actions are based on the misconception that harm to the self can be undone or at least mitigated by harming the perpetrator, when, in fact, undoing of what has already been done is impossible. Ones injuries, pain, and emotional distress is never relieved or obviated. Rather, vengeful action could cause those hurts to smoulder. Sometimes, when the sense of moral justification is high, and the desire for vengeance becomes strong enough, individuals can become willing to sacrifice, violate laws, sustain injury, or even self-destruct, in order to punish a perpetrator. The only permanent solution is working through those feelings, as well as feelings of powerlessness.

Trump (left) with South Korean President Moon Jae-in (right). Trump knows the truth about his actions. While it should naturally disappoint him to hear critics shed doubt of the legitimacy of his election victory, he welcomes all light to shine brightly upon his campaign and election for the truth is stands in his corner. Trump’s critics at times have offered insufficient, inconsistent, or incongruous data, leaving huge gaps. At the same time, their efforts have inflamed passions globally.

Deciding that someone is responsible for an act, which is taken to be the conclusion of a judgment, is actually part of the process of assessing blame. If we start with a spontaneous negative reaction, then that can lead to hypothesizing that the source of the action is blameworthy and the start of an active desire to blame the perpetrator. That will shape ones interpretations of the available evidence to the extent that they support ones blame hypothesis. Evidence is highlighted that indicates negligence, recklessness, impure motives, or a faulty character. Any evidence that may contradict ones blame hypothesis is ignored. Rather than dispassionately judging whether someone is responsible, the spontaneous reaction of blameworthiness is validated. Trump’s critics display the reactive attitudes of resentment, indignation, blame, and moral anger toward: the results of the 2016 US Presidential Election; Trump as a person; and the litany of actions in which his campaign allegedly engaged to win the election.

Subjecting Trump to reactive attitudes should only be viewed as righteous and appropriate if Trump was found through Congressional oversight or the justice system to have committed some offense. So far, such evidence does not exist. Critics are only able to use purely backward-looking grounds to say their judgments, attitudes, or treatments are justified. There is a real possibility that critics will never find their legs in their efforts against Trump. In 2014, a set of 5 studies by Cory Clark and his colleagues found that a key factor promoting belief in free will, is a fundamental desire to blame and hold others morally responsible for their wrongful behaviors. In this respect, the many investigations underway in the US Congress, the Office of the Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, support the critics’ view that Trump is guilty and morally beneath them, and should be subjected to punishment. In the studies reported by Clark, evidence was found to suggest that greater belief in free will, is due to heightened punitive motivations. Interestingly, other researchers have found that ones moral evaluation of whether an action was deliberately done was impacted ones the like or dislike of the outcome of that action. Beyond that, there have also been studies that have found an “asymmetric understanding of the moral nature” of ones own actions and those of others, such that one judges ones own actions and motivations as morally superior to those of the average person. The Dutch philosopher Maureen Sie explained: “In cases of other people acting in morally wrong ways we tend to explain those wrongdoings in terms of the agent’s lack of virtue or morally bad character traits. We focus on those elements that allow us to blame agents for their moral wrongdoings. On the other hand, in cases where we ourselves act in morally reprehensible ways we tend to focus on exceptional elements of our situation, emphasizing the lack of room to do otherwise.” Seldom have Trump critics taken public inventory of themselves, and considered whether their thinking and actions are appropriate or representative of their notions of good character. It would appear that even the most noble among them have not considered the consequences of their attacks against Trump, particularly with regard to foreign policy.

Trump (left) with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang (right) The New York Times reported that Trump did not answer a direct question about whether he believed Putin’s denials while traveling to Hanoi Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Danang. Oddly,  the newspaper later offered the surmisal that Trump was far more inclined to accept the Putin’s assertions than those of his own intelligence agencies. There must be more thoughtful assays in their stories on the US president.

The Situation Appears To Be Developing as Trump Hoped

On November 21, 2017, just before leaving the Washington for the Thanksgiving holiday, Trump spoke with Putin by telephone for more than one hour. According to the White House, Trump and Putin affirmed their support for the Joint Statement of the United States and the Russian Federation issued at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit on November 11, 2017. Trump and Putin emphasized the importance of implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and supporting the UN-led Geneva Process to peacefully resolve the Syrian civil war, end the humanitarian crisis, allow displaced Syrians to return home, and ensure the stability of a unified Syria free of malign intervention and terrorist safe havens. Both leaders also discussed how to implement a lasting peace in Ukraine, and the need to continue international pressure on North Korea to halt its nuclear weapon and missile programs. Additionally, the two presidents affirmed the importance of fighting terrorism together throughout the Middle East and Central Asia and agreed to explore ways to further cooperate in the fight against ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations. True to the original wish Trump expressed for improving relations with Russia, his engagement with Putin moved beyond talking over again about Russia’s election meddling. It has turned toward positive communication and cooperation.

Trump with his family on the White House lawn (above). On November 21, 2017, just before leaving the Washington for the Thanksgiving holiday, Trump spoke with Putin by telephone for more than one hour. They discussed how US and Russia could cooperate on confronting the nuclear threat from North Korea, resolving the Syrian civil war, and working together on Ukraine. True to the wish he expressed for improving relations with Russia, Trump’s engagement with Putin has moved beyond Russia’s election meddling and is turning more toward cooperation.

The Way Forward

In Act III, Scene i of William Shakespeare’s Life of King Henry VIII, Queen Katherine is in her apartment when the arrival of Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeius is announced. Wolsey says he has not come to accuse her but to learn her thoughts on the dissolution of her marriage to King Henry and to offer advice. Katharine does not believe that they are on an honorable errand. The cardinals request to speak with her in a private room. However, Katherine lets them know that her the conscience is clear, and she has no problem speaking about the matter in a public room. Katherine states: “Speak it here: There’s nothing I have done yet, o’ my conscience, Deserves a corner: would all other women Could speak this with as free a soul as I do! My lords, I care not, so much I am happy Above a number, if my actions Were tried by every tongue, every eye saw ’em, Envy and base opinion set against ’em, I know my life so even. If your business Seek me out, and that way I am wife in, Out with it boldly: truth loves open dealing. Trump knows the truth about his actions. While it should naturally disappoint him to hear critics shed doubt of the legitimacy of his election victory, he welcomes all light to shine brightly upon his campaign and election for the truth is stands in his corner. Trump’s critics have not covered themselves in glory. Their performance, though overwhelming, has been disjointed. They offer insufficient, inconsistent, or incongruous data, leaving huge gaps. It is difficult to imagine how presidential historians will judge how critics’ hammered Trump over the manner in which he is handling Russia’s election meddling, and allegations that Trump worked with Putin to secure Russia’s assistance in winning the 2016 US Presidential Election. As their attacks take flights of fancy in the face of a contradictory reality, the critics will likely reduce themselves to nothing more than supernumeraries in this drama. One may disagree with the hypothesized impact of the strike back emotion on the attitudes and behavior of critics. Yet, one still can extrapolate from that much that could be useful in understanding the actions of Trump’s critics and in interpreting what impels their efforts. For those with a bent against Trump, it is not too late to modify their efforts. Critics may be able get from where they are with regard to Trump to where they need to be. There must be more thoughtful assays and greater balance in their examinations of the US president. Pride and ego must be subdued. They must subjugate lower passions to a higher reality.

Gloriosum est iniurias oblivisci. (It is glorious to forget the injustice.) Trump has not dismissed the Russian election meddling issue. He has not been delinquent on it. Trump is doing his job. He has been quietly taking calibrated steps to make something positive out of an extraordinarily negative situation. Many of those steps can be discerned. Due in part to the election meddling, Trump’s relationship with Putin is not yet ready to move past its fledgling stage and become cemented. That is perhaps one of the more apparent consequences of the decision in Moscow to interfere. Any belief that Trump’s decision to move on from election meddling in diplomatic talks at least resembles an aggressive display of passivism could not be further from the truth. Trump is unthreatened, and unmoved by notions proffered about Putin to the effect that he serves all things evil.  Putin’s cravings for power and territory could reassert themselves at any moment. If Putin’s ultimate goal is to receive payment in full for a debt he says NATO has owed Russia for nearly three decades and to have the US submit to his will, Trump will not allow that to happen. It is not completely certain, perhaps even a bit unlikely, that Trump has completely forgiven Putin. To forgive is not easy. It is not simple. There is no reason to forgive anyone unless it can be done with enough humility to inspire humility in the one who is forgiven. That is essentially what Trump is hoping for. Putin once mentioned God in discussing how He built his life. Everyone is indebted to God, none of us has enough to pay the debt. God is willing to forgive the debt, but the condition of the absolution is that everyone grant it to those around us.

Trump to Meet With Putin at G-20 Gathering: Trump Seeks an Authentic Relationship with Russia

US President Donald Trump (above). On July 7, 2017 at the Group of 20 economic summit meeting in Hamburg, Trump will have a bilateral meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Finding a way to establish an authentic, positive relationship with Russia is a struggle US administrations have engaged in for decades. Trump feels he can find the solution.Trump does not want to settle on a long-term stand-off in which peace, particularly in Europe, remains at risk. He believes the US and Russia can be good neighbors on the same planet.

According to a June 29, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Trump to Meet With Putin at G-20 Gathering Next Week,” it was formally announced by US National Security Adviser US Army Lieutenant General H.R McMaster that US President Donald Trump would meet Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin on July 7, 2017 on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit meeting in Hamburg, Germany. The article noted that the meeting would be the first between the two since Trump took office and would be the focal point of his second international trip. However, a subsequent July 5, 2017 New York Times article explained that a day before Trump was to leave Washington, the White House announced that the meeting with Putin would be a formal bilateral discussion, rather than a quick pull-aside at the economic summit that some had expected. The July 5th New York Times article went on to explain that the bilateral format benefitted both Trump and Putin. It called Putin a canny one-on-one operator who once brought a Labrador to a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel because he knew she was afraid of dogs. The article proffered Trump’s aides sought structure and predictability, and hoped that a formal meeting, with aides present and an agenda, will leave less room for improvisation and put the focus on pressing policy concerns that Trump is eager to address.

Ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes viros. (Fire provides proof of gold, misery, proof of strong men.) Both Trump and Putin clearly believe the moment to create positive change in US-Russia relations is now. In the face of all the opprobrium, both have shown a new determination to get on with making things right between the two countries. Trump plans to triumph over his skeptics, putting no power in their words. Of course, that process of building relations between their countries will take time. Still, each step brings the two sides closer together and improving one’s understanding of the other. The bilateral talks with Russia at the Group of 20 economic summit will mark a point of flexure in communications between the US and Russia. Finding a way to establish an authentic, positive relationship with Russia is a struggle US administrations have engaged in for a couple of decades. Trump feels he can find the solution. True, the meeting between Trump and Putin will unlikely be a catalytic moment when opponents of Trump, political or otherwise, will see the method in his madness and appreciate his accomplishment. Moreover, when Russia behaves in ways that tear others from peace, it must still face consequences. However, Trump’s efforts evince his 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, remains at risk. He believes the US and Russia can be good neighbors on the same planet. For this he should hardly be faulted. Pars magna bonitatis est veile fieri bonum. (Much of goodness consists in wanting to be good.)

US President Barack Obama and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). The Obama administration’s actions and reactions to Putin obscured what was already a difficult path to travel. The Obama administration never put together the right recipe for working well with Putin. When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were a neophyte and not a seasoned national leader. A war of words and rebuffs emerged between Washington and Moscow.

Background on US and Russia Relations

Infandum, regina, jubes renovare dolorem. (Sorrow too deep to tell, your majesty, you order me to feel and tell once more.) The Obama administration’s actions and reactions to Russia did much to further pollute and obscure what was already a difficult path to travel. The Obama administration never put together the right recipe for working well with Putin. When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were a neophyte and not a seasoned national leader. Old ills that were part of US-Russian relations resurfaced, and new ones arose, to include: Putin’s decision to allow US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and the US admonishment of Russia on human rights issues. Putin was still fuming over Operation Unified Protector, during which in 2011, multinational forces including the US, were placed under NATO command and imposed a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Putin felt NATO-led forces went beyond UN Security Council Resolution 1973’s mandate by helping local forces overthrow Gaddafi. Gaddafi had been a friend of the Soviet Union and Russia.

Perhaps the administration did not fully grasp just how poorly things were going with Putin. The Obama administration was confident enough to push agendas for nuclear arms reductions with Russia and the expansion of the EU and NATO just as the administration of US President George W. Bush had. Obama administration officials referred to the effort to attain further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office as a “signature effort.” The reduction of nuclear forces and reductions in conventional forces have been issues US and Russian leaders have dealt with for decades, but Obama was not going to resolve any nuclear issues with Putin. Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are not a mere policy issue or bargaining chip for Putin, but a means of survival for Russia. Putin had no intentions of acceding to proposals for deep cuts in its nuclear arsenal repeatedly sent to Moscow by the administration. The insistence of Obama administration officials to take such an aggressive approach in talks with Russia more than anything served to disrupt the US-Russia relationship. Efforts by US officials diplomats and officials to threaten and cajole, as Moscow perceived talks, were more than just displays of a lack of diplomatic tact and maturity, they were viewed as threatening. Relations with Putin and Russia fell to a very low point when the Obama administration cancelled a September summit meeting between Obama and Putin in 2013. The cancellation was in retaliation over Putin’s decision to reject the administration’s nuclear proposals. Administration officials lamented that Putin’s decision ended the president’s “signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.”

A spate of public rebuffs to Putin sullied ties further. The next year, during preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, there was a constant drum beat of doubt expressed by US security experts on the capability of the Russian security services to protect Sochi from terrorism. A leader’s public declaration of his decision not to attend has practically been a tradition among US and Russian leaders during a period of disagreement in international affairs. In addition to the Olympics, Obama would later decide not to attend the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allies, ending World War II in Europe. The celebration, hosted by Putin, was a time to recall the legacy of cooperation established during the war and a real example of what US-Russian cooperation could be in a common cause. It offered a chance for Obama to privately address his dispute with Putin. It was the best time for him to say that as with the alliance between their countries in World War II, relations between their countries now were important, bigger than both of them. Attending would have required Obama, as Rudyard Kipling would say, to “bite the bullet,” in terms of personal pride, but not in terms of his role as US president. By being absent, that day became one more reminder of the two leaders differences and their uncongenial relationship. A war of words between US and Russian officials was also problematic. Words of anger, mockery, hate, and aggression, do damage that is often difficult to repair. In the last days of his presidency, Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian suspected spies and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over their involvement in hacking U.S. political groups in the 2016 election.

All of this and more has made for a very rocky road for the Trump administration to travel. Initially, Moscow took the view that the Trump administration’s approach to Russia in any direction must reflect the desire to forge a new relationship, not just hammer out a deal. However, in the nascent days of the Trump administration, Moscow faced the predicament of not having a formal articulation of US foreign policy and immediate approaches from the Trump White House or State Department from which it could work, Moscow’s policy decisions concerning the US were based on assessments developed from the abstract by Russian foreign policy analysts of the Trump administration’s most likely Syria policy or greater Middle East policy. If anything,, Russian analysts might have gleaned and constructed his likely key foreign and national security policy concepts on which his decisions might be based from what Trump has stated. Even without a formal articulation of policy, The Trump administration has tried to be reasonable in its approach to Russia.

Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right). A decisive point in US-Russian relations came when Tillerson went into Russia on April 12, 2017 to talk with Putin and Lavrov. A significant achievement of those talks was an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Foreign Ministry officials charged with addressing smaller issues, which Lavrov called “irritants.” That has allowed Tillerson and Lavrov a freer hand to make progress in stabilizing relations.

The decisive point in relations between the Trump administration and Russia came when Tillerson went into Russia on April 12, 2017 to express concerns over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and Moscow’s continued insouciance toward Assad’s actions against his own people, non combatants. He wanted to learn firsthand the rationale behind Moscow’s willingness to endure international ridicule and rebuke in response to its friendship with the Assad regime, and what might prompt a decision to end that era. The Kremlin’s attitude toward the situation was manifested by the games played by the Russians before the meetings. For hours after Tillerson’s arrival in Moscow, it was uncertain if Putin would even meet with him because of the tense state of relations. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, held out the possibility of a meeting once Tillerson arrived, saying any meeting would depend on the nature of Tillerson’s talks at the Foreign Ministry. Tillerson, unfazed by any of those developments, went forward with his meeting Lavrov, the metronome of Russian foreign policy and diplomacy.  The meeting lasted for three hours. Tillerson eventually got the call to come meet with Putin, and left the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for Red Square around 5:00PM local time. That meeting lasted for two hours. A significant achievement of those talks was an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials charged with addressing smaller issues, which Lavrov called “irritants which have dogged our relations over the last couple of years,” and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship. That would allow Tillerson and Lavrov a freer hand to address urgent issues. They agreed to consider further proposals concerning the way forward in Syria; the respective allies and coalition partners of both countries would be consulted on the matter. There would be continued discussions directed at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict. Lavrov said Putin had agreed to reactivate an air-safety agreement, a de-confliction memorandum, concerning Russian Federation and US-led coalition air operations over Syria. Moscow suspended it after the US cruise missile strikes.

On June 18, 2017, a US FA-18 fighter (as above) shot down a Syrian Arab Army Su-22 fighter over Raqqa. After Russia said it would terminate deconfliction activity over the shoot down, Lavrov and Tillerson quelled the matter. Lavrov urged Tillerson to use his influence to prevent “provocations” against Syrian government forces in the conflict. The incident evinced how fickle Russia can be over cooperation. Joint activity can be held hostage to Moscow’s reactions to events. Cooperation must be established with protocols or a modus vivendi.

Is This Is the Moment?

Both Trump and Putin understand that the process of building a new US-Russia relationship will take time. Yet, Trump left little doubt that he is eager to meet Putin when the two visit Hamburg, Germany for the G-20 summit on June 7-8, 2017. Trump’s positive thinking has appeared to broaden his sense of possibility and open his mind up to more options. Trump and some others within his administration sense a great opportunity is being presented by his meeting with Putin and sought from the start to establish a full bilateral meeting. Trump wanted media access and all the typical protocol associated with such sessions. It was allegedly leaked to the US newsmedia that other officials at the State Department and National Security Counci sought to pared down that idea, recommending instead that Trump engage in a brief, informal “pull-aside” on the sidelines of the summit, or that the US and Russian delegations hold “strategic stability talks,” which would not include the presidents. In the end, Trump got what he wanted, a bilateral meeting with the Russians, formally organized. Trump and Putin talked informally by phone. During a May 2, 2017 phone conversation, they agreed to speed up diplomatic efforts designed to end the war in Syria. The White House described the phone call between the two leaders as a “very good one” and said they discussed the possibility of forming safe zones to shelter civilians fleeing the conflict. The US also agreed to send representatives to cease-fire talks the following month. Reportedly, Trump and Putin “agreed that the suffering in Syria has gone on for far too long and that all parties must do all they can to end the violence,” the White House said. It was their first conversation since the US launched a barrage of cruise missiles at a Syrian air base last month in response to a chemical attack that the Trump administration has said was carried out by Syrian forces. It was during the same phone conversation that Putin reportedly offered an olive branch to Trump: Both chief diplomats spoke then about arranging a meeting tied to a Group of 20 summit meeting in Germany this summer, the Kremlin said, according to the Russia-based Interfax news agency.

Both Trump and Putin understand that the process building a new US-Russia relationship will take time.Trump left little doubt that he is eager to meet Putin when the two visit Hamburg, Germany for the G-20 summit on June 7-8, 2017. Trump’s positive thinking has appeared to broaden his sense of possibility and open his mind up to more options. Trump senses he has been presented with a great opportunity. He seized that chance to establish a full bilateral meeting with hope of accomplishing a few things.

Following a May 11, 2017 meeting between Trump and Lavrov at the White House, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, on first face, expressed cautious optimism about the prospects for an improvement in U.S.-Russian, saying: “The conversation itself is extremely positive.” He further explained: “We have a lot of work ahead of us.” Progress seemed to have been derailed when on June 18, 2017, a US FA-18E Super Hornet fighter shot down a Syrian Arab Army Su-22 fighter in the southern Raqqa countryside, with Washington saying the jet had dropped bombs near US-led Coalition-friendly forces in Tabqh. On several occasions in weeks before, US-led Coalition fighter jets also struck pro-government forces to prevent them advancing from a U.S.-controlled garrison in southeastern Syria at a spot where the country’s borders join with Iraq and Jordan. By telephone on May 11, 2017, Lavrov and Tillerson discussed the need to cement the ceasefire regime in Syria, in particular on the basis of peace talks conducted in the Kazakh capital Astana. The Russian Federation Foreign Ministry explained Lavrov had urged Tillerson to use his influence to prevent “provocations” against Syrian government forces in the conflict. Lavrov and Tillerson agreed to continue contacts, particularly with regard to their bilateral agenda.

Putin would eventually fully express his own views on possible face-to-face meeting with Trump. In a call in program, “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin” that was broadcast on June15, 2017, Putin offered relatively anodyne statements about the Trump administration and a possible meeting with Trump. It was a big change from the aggressive statements of the past. It seemed that Putin was no longer nursing any wounds resulting from his combative relationship Obama. During the program, Putin responded to a question about engagement with the US on Syria as follows: “On the Syrian problem and the Middle East in general, it is clear to all that no progress will be made without joint constructive work. We hope greatly too for the United States’ constructive role in settling the crisis in southeast Ukraine. A constructive role, as I said. We see then that there are many areas in which we must work together, but this depends not only on us. We see what is happening in the United States today. I have said before and say again now that this is clearly a sign of an increasingly intense domestic political struggle, and there is nothing that we can do here. We cannot influence this process. But we are ready for constructive dialogue.” Putin continued by acknowledging that there were “areas in which we can work together with the United States. This includes, above all, control over non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We are the biggest nuclear powers and so our cooperation in this area is absolutely natural. This is an area of crucial importance and concerns not just the North Korean issue but other regions too.” The call-in program was meant for Russian viewers, however, Putin, seeking to reach international viewers, turned suddenly to the subjects of the Paris Agreement on climate change and poverty, tying them to US-Russian relations and insinuating that he would garner Trump’s cooperation on those issues. Putin explained: “Then there is the fight against poverty, fighting environmental damage and so on. We know the position the current US administration has taken on the Paris Agreement, but President Trump is not rejecting discussion on the issue. Cursing and trading barbs and insults with the US administration would be the worst road to take because we would reach no agreement at all in this case, but it makes no sense to seek agreements without the US, which is one of the biggest emitter countries. We must work together to fight poverty in the world. The number of people earning a minimum income has increased in Russia, but there is a disastrous situation in many parts of the world, and this is one of the sources of radicalism and terrorism, this poverty around the world, and we must decide together how to address this problem. Here, we must work with our other partners too, work with China, India and Europe.”

The aesthetics of Putin’s words on Russian television, welcoming interaction with Trump and expressing to the Russian public that he highly desired such talks, were astounding. Putin’s modus operandi in any exchange is to ensure he is the last man standing. So far, that has not been the case here. The change in temperament and dialogue perhaps  evinces that the desire for positive change in relations among Putin and his cabinet is analogous, mutatis mutandis, with that of the Trump and his administration.

The aesthetics of Putin’s words welcoming interaction with Trump and expressing to the Russian public that he highly desired such talks, were astounding. Putin’s modus operandi in any exchange is to ensure he is the last man standing. So far, that has not been the case here. The change in temperament and dialogue perhaps evinces that the desire for positive change in relations among Putin and his cabinet is analogous, mutatis mutandis, with that of the Trump and his administration. Trump’s positive thinking has appeared to broaden his sense of possibility and open his mind up to more options. Indeed, constructive, successful talks with Putin will allow Trump adjust to circumstances and perhaps become more fluid, more creative in his approach. It will certainly further diplomatic contacts between the US with Russia.

Summit Discussion Topics: A Few Samples (A Few Guesses)

Speaking initially about the planned meeting, McMaster expressed the president’s concept behind his effort which is to establish better relations with Russia by stating: “As the president has made clear, he’d like the United States and the entire West to develop a more constructive relationship with Russia but he has also made clear that we will do what is necessary to confront Russia’s destabilizing behavior.” Former Obama administration officials have offered their opinions about the Trump-Putin meeting. Among the more prominent were comments by Obama’s chief Russia specialist at the National Security Council in 2009 and his Ambassador to the Russian Federation Michael McFaul, in the familiar vein of seeking confrontation with Russia, told the New York Times that the meeting was a vital opportunity for Trump to show strength by calling out Putin sharply for the election meddling and to make it clear he is not fooled by Moscow’s misbehavior. McFaul was quoted as saying: “There is a sense in Moscow that Trump is kind of naïve about these things and just doesn’t understand.” He went on to instruct: “You don’t want your first meeting with Putin to create the appearance that you’re weak and naïve, and with some short, direct talking points, he could correct the record.” Veritatis simplex oratio est. (The language of truth is simple.)

Trump managed to become US president doing what he wanted to do, having truly dominant knowledge of the desires of the US public and overall US political environment. He knows what he wants and what he can really do. Ideally, if agreements are reached, they will be initial steps perhaps to unlock the diplomatic process on big issues. Already US State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry officials are working on nagging issues. The two leaders will likely acknowledge good existing agreements and make promises to continue to adhere to them. Where possible, it may be agreed to strengthen those good agreements. What has been observed in diplomatic exchanges so far between the US and Russia is a type of modus vivendi, a way of living, working together, between leaders and chief diplomats. After Putin granted Tillerson a meeting in Moscow after his talks with Lavrov, Trump granted Lavrov a meeting in Washington during a visit to meeting with Tillerson. It also indicated a willingness to establish a balance in negotiations or quid pro quo on issues when possible. Such seemingly small steps have been confidence building measures that have help lead to the meeting between presidents. Those small steps also supported an open line of communication between chief diplomats which is all importance as US and Russian military forces work in close proximity in Syria, Ukraine, and skies and waters in NATO, Canadian and US territory. If all goes well, there will certainly be more to follow. Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas. (Use what is yours without harming others.)

Russian Federation Army spetsnaz in Syria (above). Ostensibly, Russia went into Syria both to prop up Assad’s regime and engage in counterterrorism operations against ISIS, Al-Qaeda affiliates, and other Islamic militant groups. Putin has stated regarding Syria and the Middle East in general that progress would not be made without joint constructive work with the US. Genuine cooperation on counterterrorism requires information sharing and joint operations, but again, Russia can be fickle over cooperation.

1. Counterterrorism and a Joint US-Russia Counter ISIS Strategy

On counterterrorism specifically, Moscow apparently wanted to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria and wherever Russian interests are concerned. Russia claims it has been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces–Spetsnaz–and airpower. Russia’s dedication to counterterrorism was demonstrated by the strengthening of its terrorism laws in 2016. Genuine cooperation on counterterrorism requires not only information sharing, but joint operations. Yet, as evinced on military deconfliction in Syria, Russia can be fickle over cooperation. Joint activity has been held hostage to political reactions in Moscow due to other events. Establishing such cooperation must be based on protocols or modus vivendi, shielding it from such reactions.

2. Syria: Assad

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. On Syria, relations between the US and Russia are improving. By 2015, Assad appeared to lack the ability to remain in power against ISIS and perhaps US-backed Syrian Opposition forces, but the military situation began to turn after Russia, with the urging of Iran, moved its forces into Syria in September of that year and supported Syrian military operations. Assad can only be useful to Russia as a figurehead, a symbol of resistance to the opposition and ISIS. In time, it may make sense to Moscow to replace him with a leader who would be more acceptable among the Syrians. The transition from Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. Assad is at Russia’s disposition. A final decision on how to handle him will need to be made soon. Concerns over Russia’s thoughts on Assad and US concerns about the dangers posed by him must be broached.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov (seated left) and Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad (seated right). Currently, Assad is useful to Russia as a figurehead, a symbol of resistance to the opposition and ISIS. In time, it may make sense to Moscow to replace him with a leader who would be more acceptable among the Syrians. The transition from Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. Assad is at Russia’s disposition.

3. Syria: Deconfliction

After the US launched cruise missile strikes against Assad regime airbase on April 7, 2017 following the regime’s chemical attack on Syrian civilians, Moscow suspended air-safety a de-confliction memorandum. Following Tillerson’s meeting with Lavrov said Putin in April 2017, Russia agreed to reactivate air safety hotline created under the air-safety agreement concerning Russian Federation and US-led coalition air operations over Syria. When a US fighter jet shot down a Syrian fighter over the southern Raqqa countryside, the Russian Federation Defense Ministry said it would halt its use of the incident-prevention hotline. The hotline was established between US officers monitoring the war from an operations center at a base in Qatar and their Russian counterparts operating in Syria has been a lifesaving tool since it was set up soon after Russia entered Syria’s civil war in late 2015 to prop up President Bashar al-Assad. However, as with any prospective joint counterterrorism activity with Russia, deconfliction operations cannot be held hostage to political reactions in Moscow to other events. There must be some protocol or modus vivendi established which shields deconfliction operations to the whims of either country.

4. Syria: Reconstruction, Peace-enforcement, and Peace-building via Negotiations

Reconstruction will be another huge hurdle for Russia to overcome in Syria. Even if a modicum of economic aid were granted from the Western countries and international organizations as the UN, the World Bank, or international Monetary Fund, Syria may never see significant rebuilding or economic improvement. Russia has 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 and 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. Russia must negotiate US assistance in the reconstruction and peace-enforcement effort.

US Army Rangers moving through Syria (above). Reconstruction will be another huge hurdle for Russia to overcome in Syria. Even if a modicum of economic aid were granted from the Western countries and international organizations as the UN, the World Bank, or international Monetary Fund, Syria may never see significant rebuilding or economic improvement. US participation in those efforts may do much to encourage participation from Arab countries and Western countries as well.

5. Syria: Safe Zones and Immigration

Syrian refugees and the displaced fear returning to a society of arbitrary detentions, beatings, house searches, and robberies.  Most have lost heart that there will ever be a Syria of any good condition to which they can return. Talks between US and Russian special envoys for Syria and other officials are at an early stage of discussing the boundaries of the proposed de-escalation zone in Deraa province, on the border with Jordan, and Quneitra, which borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Washington has misgivings about the Astana talks and wants to forge a bilateral understanding with Moscow in an area of strategic interest to the US and its allies, Jordan and Israel. For Washington to back a deal, Russia would need have Iranian-backed militias to leave the area.  It may be difficult for Russia to rein in the growing involvement in the region of Iran and its allies. Russia must weigh that difficulty against US assistance with reconstruction.

6. North Korea

North Korea has vowed to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the US mainland. Most recently it tested what it claimed was an intercontinental ballistic missile. The US has explained to North Korean that it must stop its nuclear activity. The US has no interest in regime change. While the Trump administration has urged countries to downgrade ties with Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, a cross-border ferry service was launched in May 2017 between North Korea and neighboring Russia. Indeed, in recent years, Russia has rebuilt a close relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. In May, 2014, less than two months after the Crimea annexation and with Western nations seeking to punish Russia, Putin signed away 90 percent of North Korea’s $11 billion debt to Russia, an amount comparable with the debtor state’s GDP. The other 10 percent could be used for joint Russian-North Korean projects. That same year, Russia delivered 50,000 tons of wheat as humanitarian aid to North Korea. Clarification must be sought on Russia’s failure to cooperate with the international community on North Korea. Russia’s cooperation will likely need to be negotiated.

A North Korean missile test (above). North Korea has vowed to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the US mainland. Most recently it tested what it claimed was an intercontinental ballistic missile. While the Trump administration has urged countries to downgrade ties with Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Russia has continued to build a close relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

7. Afghanistan: Russia’s Activities

There have been reports from northern Afghanistan that Russia is supporting the Taliban by providing weapons and financing. Russia’s activities in Afghanistan is ostensibly intended to counter the spread of ISIS-affiliated militants in Central Asia and further challenge the US. Still, Russia is aware that the militant group has fought US and international forces since 2001. In April 2017, the commander of the US Central Command US Army General Joseph Votel told Congress that it was “fair to assume” Russia was [militarily] supporting the Taliban. The National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency, reports Russian intelligence agents have provided the Taliban with strategic advice, money and arms, including old anti-aircraft rockets. Russian support played a role in the Taliban’s advances in  Kunduz, where they have twice briefly seized the provincial capital. Clarification on Russia’s activity in Afghanistan must be provided. Russia’s cooperation in defeating US adversaries will likely need to be negotiated.

8. Ukraine: Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk

As the EU and NATO expanded eastward, Putin decided to pull independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit. Accomplishing that required Putin to create something that did not preexist in most near abroad countries: ethnic-Russian communities forcefully demanding secession and sovereignty. That process usually begins with contemptuous murmurs against home country’s identity, language, and national symbols and then becomes a “rebel yell” for secession. It was seen in Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and more recently in Crimea, the Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine. Each time an ethnic-Russian space was carved out of a country, Putin gained a base from which he can exert his influence in that country. European countries no longer appear ambivalent about committing to the costly requirements of collective security. The US may be able to influence Russia’s behavior, but Russia will likely want any negotiations to be part of comprehensive talks on Europe between the superpowers.

Satellite imagery of two tanks (125mm caliber) and 12 armored vehicles and infantry fighting vehicles ostensibly supplied by Russia in the Donetsk region of Ukraine (above). Russia’s annexing of Crimea and deployment of its military forces in Ukraine without Kiev’s consent was in violation of Article IV, paragraph 5 of the treaty. The US, NATO allies, and all other parties to the agreement recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine. The US has also called on Russia to remove its forces and equipment from eastern Ukraine.

9. Ukraine: Sanctions

Sanctions from the US and Europeans have put relations between Russia and the West at considerable risk. Putin rejects the idea that the Trump administration is pushing for additional sanction against Russia and has explained new sanctions are the result of an ongoing domestic political struggle in the US. He has proffered that if it had not been Crimea or some other issue, they would still have come up with some other way to restrain Russia. Putin has admitted that the restrictions do not produce anything good, and he wants to work towards a global economy that functions without these restrictions. However, repetitive threats of further sanctions from the US and EU could prompt Putin to consider means to shift the power equation. He may eventually feel his back is against the wall and may encourage him to act covertly to harm US and Western interests despite denials of doing so. When Russia behaves in ways that tear others from peace, it must still face consequences. However, the modification of that behavior could be rewarded. Sanctions could be used a powerful bargaining chip or a carrot in negotiations.

10. Russian Violations of Open Skies Treaty

The Treaty on Open Skies allows for states party to the treaty to conduct unarmed observation flights over the territory of other states to foster inter-military transparency and cooperation. The US, Canada, and 22 European countries including Russia signed the treaty in Helsinki on March 24, 1992. The US Senate ratified the treaty on November 3, 1993, and it entered into force on January 1, 2002. Today 34 countries are members of the Treaty on Open Skies. Russia has been accused of violating the spirit of the Treaty on Open Skies by restricting access to some sections of its territory. These limits include the denial of overflights over Chechnya or within 10 kilometers of its southern border with Georgia, a limitation on the maximum distances of flights over Kaliningrad, and altitude restrictions over Moscow. Russia has requested to upgrade to certain electro-optical sensors on its surveillance aircraft. The US could threaten to reject Russia’s requests until it again complies with the Open Skies Treaty.

A Russian Federation Tu-214R Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance plane (above). The Treaty on Open Skies allows for countries party to the treaty to conduct unarmed observation flights over the territory of other countries to foster inter-military transparency and cooperation. The US has complied with the treaty. Russia has violated the spirit of the treaty by restricting access to its territory. It has prohibited overflights over Chechnya or within 10 kilometers of its southern border with Georgia, set a limitation on the maximum distances of flights over Kaliningrad, and set altitude restrictions over Moscow.

11. Russian Violations of Conventional Nuclear Forces Treaty

In 2007, Russia suspended its implementation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Russia has continued to violate its treaty obligations and has made clear that it will not resume implementation of the treaty. On November 22, 2011, the US announced in Vienna, Austria that it was ceasing implementation of certain obligations under the treaty with regard to Russia. Similar announcements were made by NATO’S other members as well as Georgia and Moldova, but it did not impact Russian behavior. Russia continues to station its military forces in Georgia and Moldova without the consent of those countries. Russia’s annexing of Crimea and deployment of its military forces in Ukraine without Kiev’s consent was in violation of Article IV, paragraph 5 of the treaty. The US, NATO allies, and all other parties to the agreement recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine. The US has also called on Russia to remove its forces and equipment from eastern Ukraine. Clarification on Russia’s actions adverse to the treaty must be sought. Any possibility of its future compliance with the treaty can be discussed.

12. Russian Violations of the Intermediiate Nuclear Forces Treaty

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) eliminated and prohibits an entire class of missiles: nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The US remains in compliance with the INF. Reportedly, Russia has been developing missile systems in violation of the INF Treaty. As a counter move, the US has positioned weapons systems that are not prohibited by the INF Treaty in Europe. The US Air Force has deployed conventional B-52 and B-1 bombers periodically to Royal Air Force Fairford, a forward airbase in Britain. It has been suggested that Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles could be stockpiled there for potential use by the aircraft. Moscow would not like that. The US Navy could increase the presence of surface ships and submarines carrying conventionally armed sea-launched cruise missiles in the North Sea and other waters around northern Europe. The US Navy could consider home-porting several sea-launched cruise missile-capable warships at a European port, as it has done with Aegis-class destroyers based in Rota, Spain. The threat from Russian intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles to US allies in Europe and Asia is destabilizing. An effort to negotiate Russia’s return to compliance should be made.

A Russian Federation Iskander-M (SS-26) intermediate range missile (above). The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) eliminated and prohibits an entire class of missiles: nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Reportedly, Russia has been developing missile systems in violation of the INF Treaty. The threat from Russian intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles to US allies in Europe and Asia is destabilizing.

13. Nuclear Forces: New Deterrence Systems

The Russian Federation deploys an estimated 307 ICBMs which can carry approximately 1040 warheads. They represent only 40 percent of the country’s total arsenal of thermonuclear warheads. Russia has been developing an upgraded Topol-M variant, the more advanced Topol MR or SR-24 Yars. The Yars, is reportedly fitted with more advanced decoys and countermeasures than the Topol-M, and featuring a higher speed, has been specifically designed to evade Western anti-ballistic missile defense systems.Both Topol-M variants can be deployed from either missile silos or transporter-erector launchers. The more advanced Yars can reportedly be fitted with four to six multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles.The RS-28 Sarmat is the newest heavy liquid-propelled ICBM under development for the Russian Federation Armed Forces. In 2018, the Sarmat will replace older Soviet R-36M missiles, dubbed “Satan” by NATO, as the heavy silo-based component of the Russian nuclear forces.The Sarmat will have a dozen heavy thermonuclear warheads, each individually steerable during reentry. Those warheads are said to have advanced anti-missile countermeasures meant to beat the US Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense Shield. Both the US and Russia could discuss their intentions regarding nuclear force enhancement.

Russian Federation RT-2PM2 or “Topol-M” intercontinental ballistic missile (above). Russia has been developing an upgraded Topol-M variant, the more advanced Topol MR or SR-24 Yars. The more advanced Yars can evade Western anti-ballistic missile defense systems and can reportedly be fitted with four to six multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles. In 2018, the Sarmat will replace older Soviet R-36M (SS-18) missiles as the heavy silo-based component of the Russian nuclear forces. The Sarmat will have a dozen heavy thermonuclear warheads, each individually steerable during reentry.

14. Russian Aerial and Naval Intrusions

Among steps taken by Sergei Shoigu upon becoming Russian Federation Defense Minister April 5, 2012, he created a new corps, the Airspace Forces, and ordered and steadily increased Airspace Force bomber flights and Navy combat patrols. As a result, near the Baltic Sea, for example, Russian military aircraft near were intercepted by NATO jets 110 times in 2016. According to NATO, that number was lower than the 160 intercepts recorded in 2015 and the 140 in 2014. Still, this greatly exceeds the number of aerial encounters above the Baltic Sea before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. In 2013, NATO fighter jets intercepted Russian aircraft 43 times. NATO has explained Russian buzzing of Baltic airspace creates the risk for deadly mistakes. Russian military planes have been flying too close for comfort in Baltic and Nordic skies. The tension created could lead to dangerous accidents or initiate an escalation spiral. Russia must be convinced to halt its provocative aerial and Naval Intrusions as they serve little purpose if its true intent is to move toward peaceful relations with US.

15. Russian Cyber Attacks

In the past decade the Russian government has mounted more than a dozen significant cyber attacks against foreign countries, sometimes to help or harm a specific political candidate, sometimes to sow chaos, but always to project Russian power. The strategy of Russian intelligence, particularly Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR and its military counterpart Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU, has been to pair cyber attacks with online propaganda. It has since been refined and expanded by Russian intelligence. From June 2015 to November 2016, Russian hackers penetrated Democratic Party computers in the US, and gained access to the personal emails of Democratic Party officials, which in turn were distributed to the global media by WikiLeaks. Both the CIA and the FBI report the intrusions were intended to undermine the US election. Cyber gives Russia a usable strategic capability for active measures. If Russia sought to weaken NATO or harm US relations with Europe, cyber attacks could be launched. If potential benefits are great enough, the head of Russia’s SVR, Mikhail Naryshkin, may want to take the risk. Inquiries with Russia about cyber attacks will elicit denials. Russia must be convinced that future cyber attacks could derail efforts to build relations and will result in severe retaliation.

The head of Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR, Mikhail Naryshkin (above). In the past decade the Russian government has mounted more than a dozen significant cyber attacks against foreign countries to project Russian power. From June 2015 to November 2016, Russian hackers penetrated Democratic party computers in the US, and gained access to the personal emails of Democratic officials. Cyber gives Russia a usable strategic capacity. If potential benefits are great enough, Naryshkin may want to take the risk.

16. Russian Interference with US Satellites

Russia is developing the ability to approach, inspect and potentially sabotage or destroy satellites in orbit. For over two years, it has included three mysterious payloads in normal commercial satellite launches. Radar observations by the US Air Force and by amateur hobbyists revealed that after each commercial satellite was deployed, an additional small object would travel far away from the jettisoned rocket booster and later turn around and travel back. Some believe the objects named Kosmos-2491, Kosmos-2499 and Kosmos-2504, may not be a benign program. For years Russia and China have pushed for the ratification of a UN treaty banning space weapons. US officials and outside experts have rejected that treaty as a “disingenuous nonstarter.” The US has supported a European-led initiative to establish norms for appropriate behavior through the creation of a voluntary International Code of Conduct for Outer Space. It would be a first step, to be followed by a binding agreement. Concern over Russia’s development and deployment of capabilities to harm US satellites must be broached. Russia should be invited to sign on to the Code of Conduct for Outer Space or join an effort to develop a new treaty incorporating the most useful aspects of all proposed approaches and additional terms.Russia must be told that it will face consequences if it interferes with US satellites.

17. Russian Arctic Military Build-up

Russia assesses the Arctic is one of the most economically promising regions in the world. The Arctic Circle holds enormous reserves of hydrocarbons and other minerals; the region also provides the shortest path for transporting goods from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans. Russia claims that under international law norms, a substantial part of the territory in Arctic waters belongs to it. Russia observes that in addition to US Navy and US Air Force units, the US fields three ‘Arctic’ brigades in Alaska and special purpose Marines Corps units can be rapidly deployed to the north. The Canadian Army is viewed by Russia as being well-trained for action in the Arctic. Russia has taken note of Ottawa’s reorganization and reequipping its ranger units responsible for security in the Arctic region, and it recognizes Joint Task Force 2, an elite special operations unit of the Canadian Forces, is also prepared to conduct tasks in the Arctic. Further, Russia views the Norwegian Special Force “Rangers” as being especially honed for action in the Arctic. Russia notes that Oslo recently announced its creation of a new unit of special forces practically on the border with Russia. In response, Russia has deployed and specially equipped the 200th and 80th brigades to the Arctic. In 2015, Russia also opened the refurbished Soviet-era Alakurtti base located near the border with Finland in the Murmansk Region. A number of abandoned Soviet-era bases are being reopened and new one are being built. Russia’s fleet of nuclear-powered icebreaker’s is also being bolstered. Clarification on Russia’s activity in the Arctic must be provided. The Arctic units could be viewed as a maneuver force to support potential operations in northern Europe.

A Russian Federation Arctic units in training (above). Russia assesses the Arctic is one of the most economically promising regions in the world. Russia has deployed and specially equipped the 200th and 80th brigades to the Arctic. In 2015, Russia also opened the refurbished Soviet-era Alakurtti base located near the border with Finland in the Murmansk Region. A number of abandoned Soviet-era bases are being reopened and new one are being built. Russia’s fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers is also being bolstered.

Facilitating Deal Making

Issues on which presidential action could immediately resolve matters may be hashed out at the table or it could be mutually agreed to give some additional consideration such matters before giving a response. Both Trump and Putin could make mutual peace offerings. That certainly does not mean emptying oneself akin to oblation, but to do something to encourage good-faith bargaining and compromise. There are several bargaining chips of differing value to both parties. Cooperation on counterterrorism, ISIS, climate change, and poverty may serve as a bargaining chips to get agreements on other issues. However, greater bargaining chips might include: the return of Russian properties in the US, types of reconstruction assistance in Syria, peace-enforcement in Syria, making the Group of 7 the Group of 8 again with inclusion of Russia, some economic sanctions, leaving sanction loopholes open, and lifting restrictions on the Exxon-Rosneft agreement through an exemption. Some of these actions may not appear plausible and could have a deleterious effect on international consensus on sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine and create an uproar among the Europeans. However, Trump undoubtedly believes bold action may be the very thing that can pump blood into negotiations, modify Russian behavior, and get relations moving forward. Conversely, Putin may offer much, if he feels secure enough, to loosen the US grip on Russia’s figurative economic throat. Perhaps some of this might be left for meetings down the road.

Aliquis latet error. (Some trickery lies hidden.) There are those in the Trump administration that will not welcome a warming of ties with Russia such as US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Marine Corps General James Dunford. They perceive Russia as the “enemy at the gates” and a great concern. They are advocates for vigilance and extreme caution with regard to diplomacy with it. Needless to say, McMaster would not be remiss and let Trump begin the meeting without reviewing the “what ifs” and contingencies resulting from what could possibly be unexpectedly difficult meeting. Trump must be able to recognize when it is definitely time to look for the door. If along with success, there are big questions or complaints, it will important not to “cry foul” or even grunt. That might be perceived as weakness by Putin. If a matter is worthy of review, Tillerson will likely be able to sort it out with Lavrov. Indeed, Trump’s meeting with Putin could be a fulsome discussion of issues or an exchange of views on issues much of which senior diplomats could be tasked resolve over time.

Trump must put “America First” but keep firmly in mind how his decisions and actions regarding Russia might impact European allies and partners.There has been considerable anguish and disappointment over Trump’s prior statements on collective security in European capitals. Some European leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, perhaps unwittingly, have promoted such doubts with statements driven by political expedience. She has expressed the will to remain in a combative mode, promising days before the G-20 Summit to fight for free trade, press on with multilateral efforts to combat climate change and challenge Trump’s “America First” policies. Merkel stated: “These will not be easy talks,” She went further by explaining: “The differences are obvious and it would be wrong to pretend they aren’t there. I simply won’t do this.” Asked by journalists about Merkel’s comments, McMaster remarked that the US relationship with Germany was “as strong as ever” and played down the discord. He also noted: “Of course there are going to be differences in relations with any country, and we’ll talk frankly about those differences. The president enjoys those conversations.” For the moment, many Europeans will likely stand a bit uneasy and apprehensive about US intentions and actions until trust and confidence are eventually rebuilt. Europe is not just an acquaintance of the US. For decades, the US has served as Europe’s defacto guardian, key to its security. While Europe may not be Trump’s primary focus it is a prime concern.

The Way Forward

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet XCIV explains that the ability to restrain the expression of emotion, and refrain from revealing to the world via visage one’s authentic thoughts and true feelings were regarded as virtue or at least useful ability in that day. Such persons–often found in positions of leadership–tend to isolate their true selves, but Shakespeare indicates that does not diminish the virtue. Using a flowers sweet scent as a metaphor, he explains it’s scent is still sweet when wasted on the desert air. However, he explains that such virtue when corrupted is far worse than depraved behavior. It reads:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,

That do not do the thing they most do show,

Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,

Unmoved, cold, and to temptation show,

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces

And husband nature’s riches from expense;

They are the lords and owners of their faces,

Others but stewards of their excellence.

the summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,

Though to itself it only live and die,

But if that flower with base infection meet,

The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Trump has “advanced in age and wisdom and in grace with God and man.” Much as he may amuse himself through tweets to intemperate younger journalist, who, while projecting venomous comments toward him at the same time more often tickle him with their countenance, he is more than aware of his responsibility as the steward of his country’s security. He wants to establish peace and security for future generations: for his grandchildren and their posterity. Trump wants to do big things for his country, he sought the job of president for that reason. His efforts concerning Russia relations are noble.

Time, words, opportunity are things that in many circumstances come once, and never come back. One must make use of time available. It does not mean rush into things, but to be mindful that limits for preparation and action exist. Words can open doors and lead to resolution but can also damage. Banality and boastfulness so far has been avoided by the two sides. The similitude between the words of engagement used by Trump and Putin indicate there is reason for hope. Both time and words have served to create the opportunity for a positive connection between Trump and Putin. Surely, Trump cannot know what is in Putin’s heart. Putin is a calculator. Yet, Trump is unthreatened, and unmoved by notions proffered that Putin serves all things evil. If the ultimate goal of Moscow is to have the US submit to its will, Trump will not allow that to happen. He transmits no hint of doubt. Conversely, Putin must cope with his own uncertainties about Trump. One’s will acts upon what reason discerns. It is not self-justifying. Will is guided by intellect. To that extent, a genuine effort is being made and both sides appear to have the requisite he will. One would unlikely say everything has been elegantly done so far. However, some things can be smoothed out at the coming meeting, and a few more at all the subsequent ones. Success with Russia will change international affairs globally. Variatio detectat. (There is nothing like change.)

US Takes Sharper Tone on Russia’s Role in Syria: Despite Such Reports, the Future Holds Promise

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) and Russian Federation Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov (right). Reportedly, US President Donald Trump and Tillerson have sought to isolate Russia for backing the Syrian government after its chemical weapons attack in Idlib. They were also allegedly working to put international pressure on Moscow to change course. Yet, since the cruise missile strikes and bilateral talks, the situation regarding the US and Russia on Syria has actually improved. Change may be possible on US and Russian positions on more issues, but only through bold, determined diplomacy.

According to an April 12, 2017 New York Times article entitled “US Takes Sharper Tone on Russia’s Role in Syria,” US President Donald Trump and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have sought to isolate Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin for backing the Syrian government in the wake of its lethal chemical weapons attack on civilians. They were also reportedly working to build international pressure on Moscow to change course. In support of that conclusion, the article reports that on April 12, 2017, Tillerson came away from his meeting with Putin without reaching agreement on facts involving the chemical weapons assault in Syria or alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election. In describing the joint news conference with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov following the meeting with Putin, the April 12th New York Times article quotes Tillerson as saying, “There is a low level of trust between our countries.” It reports he further stated, “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.” Noting the level of tension surrounding the aftermath of the Syrian chemical weapons attack, the article asserts, a quick détente seemed a remote possibility. Further supporting that suggestion, the article reported that during a thirty minute news conference at the White House, Trump declared, “Right now, we’re not getting along with Russia at all–we may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia.” The point was additionally made in the article that events have sharply diverged from the meeting of the minds between the US and Russia that Trump frequently aspired to when he was campaigning, and there was no visible warming of the relationship. Yet, conversely, the same article explains that although Trump said the US-Russia relationship was failing, he held out hope that the two countries could come to terms, suggesting that Tillerson’s talks with Putin had gone better than expected. Although it highlighted occasions when the Trump administration in Washington, Moscow and New York, publicly chastised Putin, the article also indicated that the administration was privately working hard to “hash out” differences with him.

As greatcharlie affirmed in a previous post, the press, the news media, serves a free, effective democracy best, and is at its very best, when it unearths what is concealed or clarifies what may be confusing to the public about government actions. The press ensures power in a democracy remains in the hands of the people. Such efforts by the press are in great variance with reporting on Trump’s actions and intentions concerning the April 6, 2017 Tomahawk cruise missile strikes and relations with Russia on Syria. In the US, in particular, newsmedia pundits and policy analysts have meted out judgments of Trump’s decisions and actions akin to those once made “on the drumhead” for soldiers, an archaic type of summary military trial where only sentences were given and no interest was paid to evidence or arguments. (A drum is turned on its head and used as “the seat of justice.”) Another disquieting trend of news media criticism of Trump is to insist that he should follow some schedule and make certain decisions based on some template they apparently have in mind of how US presidents should act. (They would likely prefer a carbon copy of what they have found comfortable for nearly a decade.) A point of attack upon Trump’s actions is the idea that nothing he does can have real meaning or encourage a favorable outcome for US foreign policy because his administration’s actions have not been based on a coherent national policy or strategy, an articulated policy on the Middle East, and consequently, an identifiable policy on Syria.

The truth will always dispel falsehoods and misunderstandings. The reality is that following the US cruise missile strikes and Tillerson’s bilateral talks in Moscow, the situation in Syria was made somewhat better, and more importantly, US-Russia relations had turned in a positive direction. As the April 12th New York Times article alluded, Tillerson and Lavrov acknowledged in Moscow that actions have been taken by their respective countries which have irritated the other and they are taking steps to address that. Change may very well be possible in the respective positions of the US and Russia on certain issues, including Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. However, that will only happen through bold, determined diplomacy. Details of recent events and the Moscow talks are analyzed here to provide a better understanding of what has developed and what may come next. Ratio me ducet, non fortuna. (Reason, not luck, will lead me.)

Trump’s Alleged Policy Troubles

Festinare nocet, nocet cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit. (It is bad to hurry, and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.) Despite reports otherwise, Trump has actually taken a logical, prudent approach to foreign and national security policy. He is determined to make decisions that are true to promises he made during the campaign. He has initially sought to develop a firm understanding of what realistically can be done rather than have his team rapidly produce policies from analyses based on the abstract as a matter of political expedience. The source for Trump’s unorthodox exercise of due diligence on policy may likely be his experience as a builder. In that field of endeavor, Trump often may have greatly admired architectural designs of structures proposed to him, but he would invariably wait for engineering reports, cost estimates, and analyses of his business team before deciding on anything. It is an evolutionary process. The result of that approach has been the construction of some very impressive properties worldwide. Current and former generals serving in the Trump administration, well-versed in military history, might find parallel with this apparent concept very likely guiding their president’s thinking and the words of US General George Patton, Jr.: “One does not plan and then try to make circumstances fit the plans. One tries to make plans firmly the circumstances.” Out of necessity, Trump has energetically taken action on urgent issues; the strike in Syria is a prime example of that. Further, Trump, along with other senior administration officials, have held bilateral and multilateral talks with other countries in international organizations.

The practice of two prior presidential administrations was to make pronouncements on what could be done, poorly considering and matching possibilities with capabilities. They would then take action, the results of which were often failed foreign policy initiatives. An example of such an outcome was the notion promoted by the administration of US President George Bush in 2003 that US forces would enter Iraq and be greeted with cheers, open arms, and candy by Iraqis. Another example is the notion proffered by the administration of US President Barack Obama a decade later, that pronouncing “Assad must go” and supporting the Syrian Opposition Movement on the margins, would bring the Assad regime to negotiating table and its orderly release of the reigns of power would be arranged. Some might say their approaches were conventional. Nevertheless, they were wrong.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he was presenting the term as a concept, a guiding principle indicating his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. Still, it would be fallacious to apply this concept to Trump’s actions if he has witnessed grave harm come to any long-time ally,  partner or friend of the US, or innocent civilians of Syria, who he has suggested he would protect in safe zones if they returned home. Trump has a moral center, the values from which have a place in his foreign policy decision making.

The Better Angels of Trump’s Nature?

To liberally paraphrase the early Christian theologian and philosopher St. Augustine of Hippo, the defense of war is that it is using lethal force to stop others from committing evil or from inflicting evil upon people. The moral dilemma remains for us: as people who are ourselves sinful and living in a fallen world, our motivations for doing things can be misguided. Our sinful passions can control our behaviors which can lead us to act for wrong reasons and to accomplish sinful ends. Self-neglectful virtue melts all physical and ideological boundaries with a charity that gives hope to those perceived as the most helpless. After the chemical weapon attack in Idlib, Trump felt compelled to make a strong decision. Some policy analysts and news media pundits insist that it was made at the cost of contradicting certain principles, as America First, that he has firmly espoused. True, when Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he was presenting the term as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. Trump will unlikely be disposed to subordinating the interests of the US to the needs, wishes, or demands of any country. However, it would be fallacious for anyone to apply this concept to his actions if he has witnessed grave harm come to any long-time ally, partner, or friend of the US, or innocent Syrian civilians, who Trump has suggested he would protect in safe zones if they returned home. Trump has a moral center, the values from which have a place in his foreign policy decision making, a most recently his response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria. The better angels of his human nature took over. Trump’s words on the evening of the strikes in Syria signalled all of this. Trump explained: “My fellow Americans: On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians.  Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children.  It was a slow and brutal death for so many.  Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.  No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

The cruise missile strikes launched on April 6, 2017 by the Trump administration were calibrated to do only what was prescribed in response to Assad’s actions. Those engaged in its planning and execution can certainly hold their heads high. Yet, no paean, no song of praise or triumph, was heard from Trump at his residence Mar-a-Lago that evening. No celebrations took place at the White House or the Pentagon for that matter. Rather, Trump said: “Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.  We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world.  We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed.  And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail.”

Trump’s Military Experts Take Action

Undoubtedly, after learning of the Assad regime’s chemical attack, Trump undoubtedly asked his national security team to provide concrete answers on what to do in response. Trump did not simply vow to do something. He surely kept in mind Obama’s slow reaction in response to the Assad regime’s August 2013 crossing of a red line he drew on the use of chemical weapons. There was a chemical attack in a Damascus suburb and considerable evidence existed to support the accusation that Assad’s forces lainched it. Indeed, three days prior to the 2013 attack, the US had collected continuous streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence, revealing regime military activities allegedly associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack. Information gathered by the US from multiple streams clearly indicated that after those preparations were made, the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21st. Satellite detections, specifically, corroborated that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred–to include Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu’addamiyah. There was also the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, about ninety minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. The lack of flight activity or missile launches also led the US to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack.

Immediately following the cruise missile strike, US National Security Adviser, US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster left open the possibility that Trump will take further military action in Syria. Still, McMaster emphasized on “Fox News Sunday” on April 9, 2017: “We need some kind of political solution to that very complex problem.” He made it clear that finding a “political solution” to the Syrian crisis was what Trump wanted. McMaster further explained that Trump wants a worldwide response to Assad’s action that would include Assad allies Russia and Iran. Yet, McMaster clarified that remark by stating: “I’m not saying we are the ones to effect that change.” He then pointed to the fact that Russia and Iran “somehow think it’s OK to align with a murderous regime.” McMaster also affirmed on April 9th that the administration will try to simultaneously change the Assad regime and destroy the Islamic State terror group, entrenched in Syria. In an effort to clarify Trump’s foreign policy, McMaster said, “There has to be a degree of simultaneous action with some sequencing.”

US National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (above) has left open the possibility of further US military action in Syria. Perhaps members of Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center who provide combat service support for units that launch chemical attacks could be targeted by US strikes. The Trump administration could also let Assad feel “personal discomfort” for his actions. For example, an attack could damage facilities providing electric power to the neighborhood in which Assad lives through the use of non-lethal technologies such as electromagnetic pulse weapons.

Chemical Weapons and the Assad Regime

Syrian chemical weapons personnel who prepared chemical ordinance for the August 21, 2013, and the April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack included members of the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Center. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which is subordinate to the Syrian Arab Republic Ministry of Defense, is tasked with managing Syria’s chemical weapons program. According to French Intelligence, the organization is responsible for producing toxic agents for use in war, pinpointing Branch 450 as responsible for filling munitions with chemicals and ensuring the security of sites  where chemical agents are stockpiled. Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from August 18, 2013 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 near an area that the regime was known to mix chemical weapons, including sarin. On August 21st, a Syrian regime element  was surveilled preparing for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area. That element was using gas masks. US intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that any Syrian Opposition forces were planning to use chemical weapons.

A publicly released summary of the US intelligence community’s assessment of the April 4, 2017 chemical attack explains the Syrian regime maintains the capability and intent to use chemical weapons against the opposition prevent the loss of territory deemed critical to survival. It assessed that Damascus launched this chemical attack in response to a Syrian Opposition offensive in Northern Hamah Province that threatened key infrastructure. Senior regime military leaders were probably involved in planning the attack. According to the summary, a significant body of pro-opposition social media reports indicated that the chemical attack began in Khan Shaykhun at 6:55AM local time on April 4, 2017. The summary claimed further that the chemical agent was delivered by regime Su-22 fixed wing aircraft that took off from the regime controlled Shayrat Airfield. Reportedly, These aircraft were in the vicinity of Khan Shaykhun nearly 20 minutes before reports of the chemical attack began and were seen flying away from the area shortly after the attack. Additionally, the summary indicates personnel historically associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program were at Shayrat Airfield in late March making preparations for an upcoming attack in Northern Syria, and they were present at the airfield on the day of the attack.

A Possible Next Military Step

Much as the facilities, air assets, and personnel of Shayrat Airfield were targeted for cruise missile strikes, members of Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center who provided combat service support for units that launched the chemical attacks should be targeted by US strikes. Strikes on them should be executed not only as a consequence to their participation in the operation, but with the goal of removing them from the equation in Syria and obviating the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future. The facilities and equipment of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, from bases and offices, to trucks and gas masks should be destroyed to severely curtail the organization’s ability to support any chemical attacks in the future. US should be confident enough after attacks to assess numbers of remaining personnel only of a size enough to maintain stores of the ordinance until the time that perhaps an international body entering Syria at a later date might become engaged in its management. Under no circumstances should the US allow attacks to create a circumstance where Islamic militant forces could gain control of the chemical weapons at any site.

Further, according to US intelligence, Assad is the ultimate decision maker for Syria’s chemical weapons program.  If a direct attack upon is not a viable option, the Trump administration could as a minimum let Assad feel some “discomfort” for his actions and let him know how vulnerable he truly is. For example, a precision attack could be launched on the Syrian infrastructure designed to severely damage electric power in the neighborhood in which Assad lives. It could mean the use of non-lethal technologies such as electromagnetic pulse weapons that can seize all electric equipment of any kind in the vicinity. While the well-being of Assad and his family members should not be placed in danger, the attack should impact their daily lives. Such calibrated attacks would bring the consequences of Assad’s chemical attacks literally to his home. Assad’s neighbors will also know that the strike against their electricity and their normally well-protected living space came as a result of Assad’s use of chemical weapons. It is human nature to follow. It is human destruction that results from following the wrong leader.

Tillerson had previously met with Putin and senior Russian officials to secure oil deals while serving as the Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil. On June 21, 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors a foreigner can be bestowed by Russia after brokering a deal with the Russian state-owned energy giant Rosneft. However, Tillerson cannot, and will not, give any of that much importance now. At the April 12, 2017 meeting, Moscow discovered that as US Secretary of State, Tillerson is still very professional and he will approach issues with a businesslike pragmatism.

Can Tillerson Get a Handle on Russia?

Quid debemos cogitare? (What ought we think?) The Trump administration recognizes the Russian Federation’s significant presence in Syria and its influence with the Assad regime as well aa other countries that support it there. Its strong connection to the regime was enough to convince the Obama administration to accept Russia’s proposal to remove and destroy the Assad regime’s chemical weapons arsenal to avoid threatened military action by the US. Assad long ago was relegated to cameo appearances on the world stage via news media interviews. His cooperation could never be assured, and his treachery was assumed. Tillerson went into Russia to express concerns over Moscow’s continued insouciance toward Assad’s actions against his own people, non combatants. He wanted to learn firsthand the rationale behind Moscow’s willingness to endure international ridicule and rebuke in response to its friendship with the Assad regime, and what might prompt a decision to end that era. From Moscow’s perspective, the Trump administration’s approach to Russia in any direction must reflect the desire to hammer out a deal, not demand one. The insistence of Obama administration officials to take such an aggressive approach in talks with Russia more than anything served to disrupt the US-Russia relationship. Efforts by US officials diplomats and officials to threaten and cajole, as Moscow perceived talks, were more than just displays of a lack of diplomatic tact and maturity, they were viewed as threatening. Opinions expressed by former Obama administration officials on how the cruise missile strikes could be used as leverage in diplomatic talks with the Russian Federation appear to reflect the approach which Moscow found so unappealing. Antony Blinken, former US Deputy Secretary of State and Principal Deputy National Security Adviser in the Obama White House, reportedly told Reuters: “The US strike–ordered less than three days after the gas attack–could make it clear to Russia that the United States will hold Moscow accountable for Assad.”  Reuters also quoted Blinken as saying, “Tillerson ought to be ‘very matter of fact’ in his meetings, sending Russia a message that: “If you don’t rein him in, we will take further action.” Evelyn Farkas, a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia, assured Reuters that “Securing a Russian commitment on eliminating Assad’s chemical weapons is likely to be first on his agenda.”

For hours after Tillerson’s arrival in Moscow, it was uncertain if Putin would even meet with him because of the tense state of relations. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, held out the possibility of a meeting once Tillerson arrived, saying any meeting would depend on the nature of Tillerson’s talks at the Foreign Ministry. Tillerson, unfazed by any of those developments, went forward with his meeting Lavrov, the metronome of Russian foreign policy and diplomacy.  The meeting lasted for three hours. Tillerson eventually got the call to come meet with Putin, and left the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for Red Square around 5:00PM local time. That meeting lasted for two hours. All that is publicly known about the content of Tillerson’s April 12, 2017 meetings with Lavrov and Putin, has been gleaned from remarks and responses heard at the post meeting press conference. On April 6, 2017, Tillerson expressed the view that Russia had “failed in its responsibility” to remove Syria’s chemical weapons under a 2013 agreement, which he argued showed Russia was either complicit with the gas attacks or “simply incompetent.” At the April 12th press conference, a journalist’s’ question on the matter enabled Tillerson to clarify that statement. He replied: “With respect to Russia’s complicity or knowledge of the chemical weapons attack, we have no firm information to indicate that there was any involvement by Russia, Russian forces, into this attack. What we do know–and  we have very firm and high confidence in our conclusion–is that the attack was planned and carried out by the regime forces at the direction of Bashar al-Assad.” When Tillerson was asked about his conversations with President Putin on Syria, he replied: “Well, we did discuss at length the future role for Assad, whether it be in a future political process or not. Clearly, our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and they have again brought this on themselves with their conduct of the war these past few years. We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality. We do think it’s important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution. How that occurs, we leave that to the process going forward. We do not think one has to occur before the other can begin. And it will take a pace of its own. But the final outcome in our view does not provide for a role for the Assad–for Assad or for the Assad family in the future governance of Syria. We do not think the international community will accept that. We do not think the world will accept that.” Tillerson without question made it clear in his meetings that it would not be business as usual in US-Russian relations. His hope is to make things much better.

This was not Tillerson’s first meeting with Lavrov. On February 20, 2017, during the G-20 Meeting in Bonn, Germany, they met briefly and discussed what Tillerson referred to as “a range of issues of mutual concern.” Tillerson had met with Putin and senior Russian officials previously to secure oil deals while serving as the Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil. In appreciation of his efforts to broker a deal between ExxonMobil as the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft, on June 21, 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors a foreigner can be bestowed by Russia. (He was presented the award in St. Petersburg, Russia, along with the Chairman of ENI, an Italian multinational oil and gas company.) However, that occurred in the past. Tillerson is not, and will not, give any of that much importance now. At the April 12, 2017 meeting, Moscow discovered that as US Secretary of State, he is certainly not a Trump apparatchik. He approaches foreign policy issues with a businesslike pragmatism. He is very professional, very disciplined. He speaks frankly with a no-nonsense demeanor that might discomfit some. Tillerson barely registered a reaction when he was initially greeted by Lavrov with remarks denouncing the US missile strike on Syria as illegal and the accusation that the US was behaving unpredictably. When later asked by a Russian reporter how he would characterize the talks, Lavrov replied with a hint of both satisfaction and curiosity: “The State Secretary did not threaten me with sanctions. He didn’t threaten me with anything, actually. We frankly discussed the questions which were on our agenda . . . .”

A significant achievement of the talks was an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials charged with addressing smaller issues, which Lavrov called “irritants which have dogged our relations over the last couple of years,” and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship. That will allow Tillerson and Lavrov a freer hand to address urgent issues. They agreed to consider further proposals concerning the way forward in Syria; the respective allies and coalition partners of both countries would be consulted on the matter. There would be continued discussions directed at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict. Lavrov said Putin had agreed to reactivate an air-safety agreement, a de-confliction memorandum, concerning Russian Federation and US-led coalition air operations over Syria. Moscow suspended it after the US cruise missile strikes. Before its next contact with the Trump administration, Moscow will undoubtedly consider what cooperative role the US could play that would allow for the full exploitation of its capabilities in the anti-ISIS effort. Yet, if Moscow wants to cooperate with the Trump administration on Syria, it must create an environment that will facilitate such cooperation. For the moment, the transition of Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. If the Trump administration ever decided to cooperate with Russia on Syria, it would signal its acceptance of Assad’s presidency as it is Russia’s policy to fully support it. However, to believe that might happen is to deny reality. Assad is at Russia’s disposition. A final decision on how to handle him will need to be made soon.

Through the April 12, 2017 talks, an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials charged with addressing smaller issues of concern and help stabilize the relationship. They agreed to consider further proposals concerning the way forward in Syria and consult respective allies and coalition partners of both countries on the matter. Discussions directed at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict would be continued. Putin agreed to reactivate an air-safety agreement concerning Russian and US-led coalition air operations over Syria.

Russia: Beware of Assad

Secrete amicos admone, lauda palam. (Admonish your friends in secret, praise [them] openly.) No international conference, no guarantees from Russia to keep him in check, no surgical procedure even, could make Assad palatable to the West at this point, or to any government in the Middle East other than Iran. Assad should not be seen as Russia’s proxy. By 2015, Assad appeared to lack the ability to remain in power against ISIS and perhaps US-backed Syrian Opposition forces. The military situation began recurvate after Russia, with the urging of Iran, moved its forces into Syria in September 2015 and supported Syrian military operations. Assad can only be useful to Russia as a figurehead, a symbol of resistance to the opposition and ISIS. In time, it may make sense to his benefactors to him with a leader who would be more acceptable among the Syrians.

Reconstruction will be another huge hurdle for Russia to overcome. 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 likely be to convert Syria into a very large version of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Donetsk People’s Republic, and the Luhansk People’s Republic. It would receive the recognition of very few countries, but not the US or major powers of Europe. Syria would in many ways would be shut off from the rest of the world. Even if it received a decent amount of economic aid from the Western countries and international organizations as the UN, the World Bank, or international Monetary Fund, Syria may never see an economic upturn. After observing the effects of few months of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns, Damascus might recognize that Moscow truly cannot support Syria in a way that would allow for its rebuilding. The situation would only worsen if pressure was placed on Russia over Syria through future sanctions.

Looking at the situation through Assad’s prism, it clear that he does not like or accept the idea that he is a factotum, a convenient tool for Moscow and Tehran. He may very well be able to convince himself that his regime and his sect, the Alawites, are large enough and strong enough to deter any possible attempt by current power friends and military allies time remove him from power. Assad will not allow his reign to come to an ignominious end. There would be a final demonstration of his power. He will make a stand or lash out before he goes. His concealed stockpiles of chemical weapons would even allow him to strike his allies with some effect. Indeed, Assad may believe that having those weapons at hand may be playing a role in deterring the few allies he has from turning against him. People with the most absolute power in history have tried to hold on by their fingernails knowing when they let go, all will be gone. They have often self-destructed. Misused power is always built upon lies. Tyrannical figures redefine what exists into projections of their egos. There are no noble thoughts. They become wrapped up in themselves. Assad seems to find pleasure in what is evil. As time goes on, the more tragic he becomes as a figure. The cruise missile strikes by the Trump administration may very well have initiated a discourse in Moscow on how to: better handle the remnants of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and how to defeat their use against Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria. Such discussions would likely take place in tandem with any on preventing burgeoning, positive relations with the US from being ruined by Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons. Mali sunt in nostro numero et de exilo bonorum virorum cogitant. (There are evil men in our number [our midst] and they are thinking about the destruction of good men.)

Assad (above) will not allow his reign to come to an ignominious end. He will make a stand before he goes. Concealed stockpiles of chemical weapons would allow him strike out even at his allies with some effect. He may believe as long as he has such weapons at hand, he is able to deter the few allies that he has from turning against him. Given the threat his chemical weapons actually pose to Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria, Trump’s action may have started a discourse in Moscow on how to handle Assad weapons and prevent him from poisoning burgeoning relations with the US by using them.

The Way Forward

In Act I, Scene i of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, elderly King Lear in ancient Britain is deciding to give up his power and divide his realm amongst his three daughters, Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril. He declares the daughter who can profess her love for him the most will receive the largest share. While he hoped Cordelia, his favorite would win, she refuses to play, offering a desultory response. Enraged, Lear disowns Cordelia accepting the soupy, excessive declarations of Reagan and Goneril who consequently set out to kill him. Before leaving the palace with the King of France, Cordelia having an intimation of the danger her sisters posed to Lear, states: “Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides: Who cover faults, at last shame them derides. Well may you prosper!” The prognosis for the long-term survival of Assad’s presidency is not good. Today, many still believe Putin’s relationship with Assad is indissoluble. Quite often, Putin displays choreographed support for Assad. However, sometimes conditions can change to such a degree that one’s position must be altered. Patriotism permeates everything that Putin does. While not actually articulated, Putin has subtly promoted the concept of “Russia First”, a guiding principle similar in many ways to Trump’s “America First”. Putin will not subordinate the interests of the Russian people to those of another country, regardless of friendships, partnerships, or alliances. Putin would be remiss if he ignored big opportunities that would benefit Russia’s long-term interests. Assad would unlikely react well to even the prospect of a “shift” in his relationship with Russia.

Moscow apparently sought to steal a march on the incoming Trump administration by getting to know its likely senior officials, understanding Trump’s intentions, and predicting the administration’s movements in advance. Yet, deciphering Trump proved to be a difficult task. It appears what Moscow knew about the administration as it took the reigns of power amounted to guesswork or nonsense from poor sources. Much of what Moscow observed and encountered from the administration came as a surprise. Praise for Trump initially heard from certain political quarters in Moscow transformed into rebuke. Yet, through contacts between officials of both countries an authentic understanding of Trump began to take shape among Russian foreign policy decision makers and Putin. Those in Moscow au courant with the public discourse in the US on Trump know that harsh criticism is the “popular” reaction. They may also have discerned that the psychology of defective pride was in play when hearing those in the US considered foreign policy experts reproach Trump. Trump is not the imprudent actor those experts want him to be. Trump’s intellect is the type that builds modern cities. Moscow must ignore all the approbation in the background and prevent it from insinuating itself into analyses. That will facilitate Moscow’s efforts to sort things out regarding the Trump administration and become more comfortable in dealing with it. On Syria, relations between the US and Russia are improving. The US approach is not to elbow a better position for itself on the matter, but rather to have Russia acknowledge its responsibilities regarding the war-torn country. It is the most prestigious and powerful player fighting in support of the Syrian Government. As such, it must take on the role of guiding Syria to peace. Russia is not on the sidelines and not in a position to retreat in that direction. Although only Trump and and Putin can respectively prescribe duties to Tillerson and Lavrov, this is a matter that demands their cooperation. Whenever some resolution to the matter might be found, it is nearly certain that Assad will be the last to know about it. Haec omnia vulnera belli tibi nunc sananda sunt. (All these wounds of war must be healed by you now.)

Russia, Turkey and Others Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring: Moscow Asks US to Join Its Efforts, But How It Will Respond Is Unclear

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War-torn Damascus (above). Following Russian Federation-led peace talks between representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement on January 24, 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, Moscow’s envoy, Alexander Lavrentyev, welcomed the US to take a more active role in efforts to resolve the conflict. The administration of US President Donald Trump will act regarding Syria when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. Moscow appears eager to know Trump’s plans for Syria. It seems to be engaging in a bit of guessing on it.

According to a January 24, 2017 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Russia, Turkey and Iran Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring,” officials from the Russian Federation, Turkey, and Iran met in Astana, Kazakhstan for two days with representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement. On the second day, January 24, 2017, the officials agreed to jointly monitor a fragile ceasefire between the warring parties established on December 30, 2016. The latest deal was called a possible step toward a political solution to end the six-year war. The UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was also present at the January talks. At a news conference in Astana, de Mistura said, “When we came here to Astana, our immediate priority was to ensure the consolidation of the ceasefire.”  He went on to say that in the past that previous cease-fires broke down because of a lack of monitoring and agreement on how to implement them. Under the new agreement, the monitors are to ensure full compliance with the truce and prevent provocations, according to a joint statement issued by three sponsors. The arrangements for monitoring the cease-fire and enforcing it would be decided at later meetings. The Assad regime and Syrian opposition both said they supported the plan. However, significantly different views were expressed by the Assad regime and opposition rebels over what those systems to monitor and enforce should be. The parties planned to reconvene a month later in Geneva for UN-sponsored talks.

Russia, which supports the Assad regime, and Turkey, which supports some rebel groups, explained last week they hoped the talks would begin to map the outlines of a political settlement to end the conflict. As the talks progressed, however, both sides tempered expectations, saying the aim in Astana was to buttress the fragile truce as a foundation for more political talks later. The administration of former US President Barack Obama was a primary supporter of Syrian Opposition Movement and the effort by its armed rebels to shape events on the ground to force Assad regime to talks to discuss the transition to a new government. That effort has largely been unsuccessful. The new administration of US President Donald Trump did not push for a role in what were albeit at the Russian-led talks. Instead, the Trump administration chose not to send a delegation, and the US was represented by the US ambassador to Kazakhstan. Moscow’s envoy to the talks, Alexander Lavrentyev, told reporters that Russia would welcome the US taking a more active role in attempts to resolve the conflict. This was ostensibly an invitation for the Trump administration to fully participate in what Russia hopes will be on-going talks. Russia’s invitation “to take a more active role” on Syria appears to reveal a change of heart in the Kremlin on the US with the advent of the Trump administration. Perhaps it may even serve as evidence that at least on some foreign policy issues, Putin is not locked into a single intent, immutable. By the end of the Obama administration, the US-Russia relationship stood in ruins. So enervated was former US Secretary of State John Kerry, and other officials, with the search for common ground with Russia on Syria that the effort was essentially suspended.

While the invitation from Lavrentyev is laudable and was likely appreciated by the Trump administration, there is far more involved in repairing the broken relationship between the US and Russia than opening the door with an invitation to participate in Russian-led Syria talks. There is also far more to Syria than the talks. US administrations do not formulate their policies and action based on invitations or exchanges of short public statements but through the work of federal employees engaged in the daily task of analyzing situations, the development of policies and policy approaches, and the formal implementation of those policies through diplomacy, and when appropriate, the utilization of other tools of national power. That process has been somewhat disrupted by the resignation of the entire senior level of management officials at the US Department of State during the last week of January 2017. Reportedly, it was part of a spate of retirements by senior Foreign Service officers.  There was boldness going forward with Syria peace talks without the US and working with Turkey and others instead to secure a sustainable peace. However, it seems Russia has found that the dynamics of bringing the warring parties in Syria together for anything is daunting. What Russia may really be doing is inviting the Trump administration to further tie the US to the morass in Syria beyond the anti-ISIS fight. That would be a step of significant consequence, requiring considerable review. There has been some mumbling in the US news media and in social networks about an unverified draft executive order that indicates Trump plans to use the US military, in tandem with the State Department, to establish and protect refugee camps in Syria and neighboring countries. Syria was genuinely broached in a telephone conversation on January 28, 2017 between Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.  According to the Kremlin, the most tangible outcome of the phone call was an understanding that jointly fighting international terrorism was a priority and that the two countries should cooperate in Syria. While admitting that Syria was discussed, the White House characterized the call more casually as “a congratulatory call” initiated by Putin. The Trump administration will act regarding Syria, but it will do so when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. A policy with varied approaches to the many aspects of the Syria issue will eventually be articulated. However, most intriguing has been Russia’s interest in connecting with Trump on Syria rather than any other faced by both countries. That is the focus of the discussion here.

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups during the administration of US President Barack Obama then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially regarding the peace talks and postwar reconstruction in Syria. Now cooperation is somewhat uncertain.

Russia in Syria

On September 15, 2015, at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, Putin explained Russia’s military support and intervention in Syria.   He stated, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin explained the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syrian Opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.” Encouraged by advisers, Putin sensed not only a chance for Russia to shore up one of its remaining allies in the Middle East, but the chance to reassert Russia’s role as a global power. He was able to demonstrate that Russia could succeed where the Obama administration had floundered.

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, material, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount of Syrian territory back into 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. Russia has managed 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 leadership, and eviscerating its so-called Islamic Caliphate to the extent that the organization will never be able to resurrect itself. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Most recently, Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky was killed in Aleppo, Syria. Putin personally announced that Galitsky had suffered fatal wounds when a Russian military field hospital in Aleppo’s al-Furqan neighborhood was struck by artillery fire on December 2, 2016. According to the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, Galitsky was acting as a military adviser to the Syrian Arab Army during its rapid three-week advance through about 75 percent of East Aleppo. It was reported that Galitsky was due to be promoted to the rank of major-general on December 12, 2016.

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Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, materiél, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount territory back into the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Counted among those lost is Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky (above).

A Russian Invitation for Cooperation on Syria: A Lot to Consider

Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futura providere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we anticipate the future.) Certainly, Moscow would be very pleased if its interactions with the Trump administration could begin at a point where it had any positive, constructive interactions the administration of former US President Barack Obama. That would require ignoring the overall tenor of the relationship it has had with Washington on Syria and many other urgent and important issues. The Obama administration was unsupportive of Russia’s intervention from the get-go. On September 30, 2015, then 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.” Almost immediately after Russia began military operations in Syria in September 2015, Obama administration 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. Concerning Syria, on August 6, 2016, Obama went as far as to say about Putin and Russia: “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.”

In diplomacy, words and behavior matter absolutely, and there must be a certain amiability and gentleness in communications and interactions in order to create the environment for the development of mutual respect and understanding. It seems very uncharacteristic of Moscow in the midst of what Russian officials touted as a foreign policy success to invite the Trump administration to become more engaged with it on Syria. Still, even knowing it would mean sharing the limelight with the US, Russia appeared to have the desire to include the US in the process. To make perfunctory or platitudinous gesture for the US to become more engaged in Syria without any real desire for such cooperation could have potentially created a negative situation. The Russia could have convince the US to work with it, only to discover that the approaches of the two countries were not compatible. Far worse than both of those possibility would be the discovery that the invitation was a hoax. Certainly, Moscow had to expect that although Lavrentyev spoke with such comfortable words, it could not be acted upon immediately. Trump administration undoubtedly has it own thoughts and plans for Syria, but at the same time, it would very likely want to discern the full meaning of Russia’s “suggestion.” The decision was based on some rationale.

There is the possibility that Moscow’s invitation for the US join the Syria talks was a trial balloon floated off with the hope that if the Trump Administration might be interested in investing itself in Syria as part of its policy planning on the Middle East, counter terrorism, and possibly its Russia policy. Moscow seems very open to engagement. On counterterrorism, specifically, perhaps it would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. Russia has been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces–Spetsnaz–and airpower.

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A Russian Federation Tupolev Tu-22M3 bomber (above). Moscow appears very open to engagement with the Trump administration on counter terrorism. It seems Moscow would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. The Russian Federation Armed Forces have already been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces and airpower.

Leap of Faith?: No Firm Basis for Moscow’s Hopes on Trump and Syria

On one occasion, Putin has mentioned the 1973 comedy, science-fiction film from the Soviet Union, “Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession.” Putin would quote one of the film’s characters as saying to another: “How am I supposed to understand what you’re saying if you don’t say anything?” This really is the case with Moscow and Trump administration. To an extent, the January 28, 2017 telephone conversation between Trump and Putin confirmed essence of Lavrentyev’s statement in Astana. Yet, there were no details discussed that would indicate cooperation on Russia’s terms.  More specifically, the statement generated by the White House after the conversation noted that “The positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair.”  It stated further simply, “Both President Trump and President Putin are hopeful after today’s call the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern.”

There has been no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department. That makes it difficult to see what could have impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria. Lacking any formal statements from the Trump administration on Syria to analyze, it could very well be that some in the Kremlin have turned to US news media interpretations of political events and decisions of the Trump Administration. For example, on January 26, 2017, the Guardian reported: “Trump had earlier also appeared to fall into line with Russia’s approach towards Syria, which had been to bomb the anti-Assad opposition into submission, before turning its attention towards a mutual foe, ISIS.” As for taking an unconventional, high profile approach to diplomacy, it may have been an effort to match the idea popularly promoted in the US media that it is the Trump administration’s preferred foreign policy tack. When one is less certain about the objective truth, the possibility that one might be drawn elsewhere for answers increases.

In addition to the fact that no formal policy documents exist that could have caused Moscow to believe the Trump administration’s policy on Syria, once articulated, would be compatible with its own. No publicized contact has taken place between Trump administration and the Kremlin, particularly one that would even approximate a complex conversation on bilateral relations. As mentioned, there was the late-January 28, 2017 Trump-Putin telephone call. However, no other conversations during the campaign or in the period before Trump’s inauguration could have reasonably caused Moscow to be certain of what his administration’s policy approaches would be on Syria. Additionally, decisions that might be made by the Trump administration on Syria at this point would be made with every fact, every judgment, the US government has available. Eventually, a formal policy on Syria will be presented.  Verba volant, scripta manent. (Spoken words fly away, written words remain.)

Diplomacy via Public Statements: Russia’s Effort to Bypass the US Policymaking Process

It is unclear how Moscow thought Lavrentyev’s invitation would be processed within the US foreign policy apparatus. Most recently, there have been significant changes in the US Department of State. According to the Washington Post, on January 25, 2017, Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary for Management, Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, and the Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, Ambassador Gentry Smith resigned from their posts. In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr retired January 20, 2017, and the director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, Lydia Muniz, departed the same day. While the Trump might have eventually replaced these officials, career Foreign Service officers as them are crucial to the State Department’s many functions, particularly the implementation of an administration’s agenda.

Officials in the Kremlin or the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs should not hope to impact US foreign policy by just making statements and expecting a reaction. Foreign policy is still formulated at the White House and US Department of State as a result of a thorough examination of facts by policy analysts.In the current environment, the analytical process on Russia must be akin to a crucible in which social media rumors, falsehoods, and fake news must be burned off. Those facts are analyzed, with the concepts and intent of senior department officials and those of national leaders firmly in mind. Then others, enlightened with truths, based on real facts presented by the analysts, formulate policy options. US Department of State uses diplomacy to implement policies. Employees in other departments whose work concerns US external relations engage in a similar processes utilizing their particular tools of national power.  For example, in the US Department of Defense, employees formulate policies entailing the possible use of the military power. It is a daily enterprise in which thousands of federal employees are engaged. In verbis etiam tenuis cautusque serendis dixeris egregie, notum si callida verbum reddiderit iunctura novum. (When putting words together it is good to do it with nicety and caution, your elegance and talent will be evident if by putting ordinary words together you create a new voice.)

U.S. President Donald Trump walks through the Colonnade to the Oval Office after returning to the White House in Washington.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle, indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.”

A US-Russia Relationship on Syria:Thinking It Through in Moscow

Faced with the predicament of having no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department from which it could work, Moscow’s decision to authorize Lavrentyev’s  invitation may have been based on assessments developed from the abstract by Russian foreign policy analysts of the Trump administration’s most likely Syria policy or greater Middle East policy. If anything, from what Trump has stated, analysts admittedly might have gleaned and constructed his likely key foreign and national security policy concepts on which his decisions might be based. True, when Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented, “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.” It reads in part: “Peace through strength will be at the center of that foreign policy. This principle will make possible a stable, more peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground.” It further states: “Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. In addition, the Trump Administration will work with international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups, to expand intelligence sharing, and to engage in cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable propaganda and recruiting.”

It could very well be that policy analysts in Moscow, as much as policy analysts in other national capitals, may have used their analysis of the “America First Foreign Policy” to base conclusions on prospective Trump administration policies. Judgments made would need to have been deemed satisfactory enough to take action on. Given the statement’s mention of counterterrorism and the determination to pursue the issue vigorously, it would naturally follow that the judgments on which Russian analysts would have been most confident would concern counterterrorism and how it might relate to Syria. Absent this possibility, what impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria truly becomes a mystery.

Ut desint vires tamen est laudanda voluntas. (Even if it is beyond one’s power, the will [to try] is still worthy of praise.) Surely, Moscow would prefer that Western foreign policy analysts saved their ministrations for officials  of their own countries. Nevertheless, how Moscow may have perceived relations with the Trump administration on Syria before authorizing Lavrentyev’s invitation, what it perceived the US footprint in Syria would be following a renewed investment there, and how the US role might impact Russia, as well as its current partners on Syria is worth considering. If Russia’s decision on cooperating with the US on Syria was based on conclusions reached by Russian analyst as postulated here, it would be interesting to consider gaps that likely existed in their understanding of Trump’s concepts and prospective decisions on US foreign policy. The list of issues which Russian analysts would need to consider and for which they would need the right answers would be lengthy. Some of the important considerations for Moscow would likely have been: 1) bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria; 2) connecting on counterterrorism and safe zone; 3) establishing an understanding on Assad; 4) handling the Syrian rebels; 5) managing the peace talks; 6) getting the US to accept Iran’s role in Syria; 7) discerning US-Turkey cooperation; and, 8) postwar peace-enforcement and reconstruction.

1) Bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria

One could postulate that Russia’s interest in including the US in its Syria peace talks now is a display of newly found respect for the US Presidency, a very congenial welcome to the new administration with hope it would be perceived a sign of Moscow’s desire for improved relations, or an attempted appeal to the pride and ego of new US officials. While on the outside, Trump may appear to some as audacious, unpredictable, aggressive, on the inside Trump is thoughtful, disciplined, under control, and tough. The Kremlin might keep in mind is that much as Putin, Trump will hardly interested in diffusing tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back, an affected joviality to initiate dialogue. Trying to diffuse tension with Trump in this way is to play the minstrel. It will signal insecurity.

Russia has not provided a useful articulation of its hopes for relations with the Trump administration which would be helpful to the White House on some policy planning. It would also be helpful if Moscow articulated a reasonable cause for Russia’s decision to break contact with the Obama administration on Syria, or exclude the US in its talks in Astana. Anger is not an acceptable rationale but very often the basis for poor decisions. Moscow should realize that the Trump administration indeed represents a new beginning. It will seek better ties with other countries and better deals on anything negotiated by the Obama administration. Still, that does not necessarily mean everything that was Obama’s must be deracinated. Trump is very patriotic, and while he may not have agreed with Obama’s policies and approaches, he would certainly want other governments to display respect for a sitting US president. The reality is Russian behavior toward Obama Presidency at some level may factor into his perceptions of Russia.

It is unclear whether there are any other steps other than Lavrentyev’s invitation, planned to help bridge diplomatic gap between the US and Russia on Syria. Having taken the uncongenial and provocative step of excluding the US from its peace talks in Astana, and terminating discussions on Syria with the US, Russia’s attempt to revive what has been broken is being attempted with almost no diplomatic foundation to build upon. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry very likely explained to his counterpart Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin, himself, that reaching an agreement during the Obama administration on Syria and coordinating effectively under that agreement and others that might have been reached, would increase the possibility that US-Russian coordination at that level would be preserved by the next US administration. It would have been a simple statement of truth as much as an effort at fence mending. It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially on a postwar reconstruction and peace-enforcement mission in Syria.

A feasible point on which Russia might build new diplomatic relations on Syria would be US-Russian military coordination cooperation on Syria to ensure that the two countries’ air forces operate safely and that the risk of accidental confrontation or collision is minimized. 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. Russia might want to provide a positive assessment of the status of US-Russia air coordination on Syria.

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A US B-52H bomber (above) Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions regarding counterterrorism have been explicit. Trump is ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.

2) Connecting on counterrorism and safe zones

Given that diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia on Syria near the Obama administration’s terminus were discontinuous, it is difficult to see how Moscow would have any confidence that the Trump administration would be interested in diplomatic efforts on Syria that would bridge the gap. Prospective diplomatic efforts might include talks on the US role in the Russian-led Syria peace talks, a new US-Russia partnership in Middle East, or counterterrorism.  The draft executive order circulating on social media in January 2017 was first obtained and published by the Huffington Post, Trump envisioned establishing “safe zones” both inside Syria and in neighboring countries that will be used to “protect vulnerable Syrian populations” while they “await firm settlement” either elsewhere in Syria or in other countries. The document alludes to Trump’s controversial calls to prevent people fleeing the war-torn country from entering the US.  It further explained that  according to a draft executive order along with other steps with the goal of preventing future terrorist attacks in the US. Trump indicates he wants to see a plan by late April. The draft executive order was unverified.  Some believe Trump will likely withdraw the matter due to tough logistical and political challenges associated with it.

Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions with regard to counterterrorism may have been explicit enough. He appears ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.  As the capital of ISIS’ now dwindling Islamic Caliphate is located in Syria, it could be postulated that the country should hold some relevance regarding the administration’s foreign policy.  It could seen as  prospective rationale for Trump administration to invest time and effort on the political situation in Syria. Still, it would be difficult to discern solely from that angle what the administration’s interest and approaches to other aspects of the Syria issue might be.

It is uncertain whether Russia could establish a purely anti-ISIS linkage with the US on Syria or whether such a tie would be desirable. While the Trump-Putin telephone call albeit occurred after Lavrentyev made his statement,Moscow’s desire to make counterterrorism the foundation for establishing US-Russian relationship focus was reflected by the conversation. The aspect of the call that the Kremlin primarily focused on was counterterrorism. The Kremlin noted, “The presidents spoke in favor of setting up genuine coordination between Russian and American actions with the aim of destroying Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria.”

3) Handling the Syrian Opposition Rebels

It is uncertain how the Trump administration will respond to Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground. 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. For nearly five years, the rebels were, for the most part, a disappointment as a military force. Indeed, after the Obama administration took on what proved to be the thankless task of supporting the Syrian Opposition rebels on the ground, complaints were frequently heard from senior commanders of the Supreme Military Council, the opposition’s military wing and commanders of their forces in the field, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well. Their grievances belie the fact that the Syrian opposition military leaders, after four years of war, have failed to unify the many groups in the Free Syrian Army into a cohesive fighting force and have been unable, without foreign assistance, to enhance their fighters capabilities. Only with US direction were FSA units and People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party in the northeast Syria able to unite as the Syrian Democratic Forces. The rebels’ leaders had been remiss in devising their own plans for the effective use of their forces against ISIS and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. From the beginning of their movement, Syrian opposition leaders should have been mature enough, and worldly wise enough, to understand that neither US nor any other country owed them anything. The Syrian Opposition’s Supreme Military Council, and senior FSA commanders should have expected more from themselves before demanding so much of others. The chance that Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground in Syria and its political leaders would gain and retain the support of the Trump administration will be slim if their predilection toward being demanding and difficult to coordinate politically persists.

There are presently 500 US Special Operations troops in Syria training, equipping, and assisting Syrian Opposition rebels. Their help has allowed the rebels achieve some big things. The rebels march toward Raqqa is an example of that. Through the assistance of US Special Operations advisers, the rebels have been able to coordinate their movements with planners of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition air campaign. However, there is still no evidence that the rebels possess any capability to shape the overall struggle in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many rebels scattered around Syria, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

ISIS and other Islamic militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda, such as the former Jabhat al-Nusra and its reported offshoot Khorasan, have managed find advantage in the Syrian opposition’s failings throughout the war.  By attacking mainstream FSA units that were trying to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, the Islamic militants have succeeded in making the Syrian opposition’s situation far worse. On top of the damage caused by their attacks on the FSA, Islamic militant groups continue to commit countless atrocities against the Syrian people. The Islamic militant groups were never oriented toward Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government. ISIS has included territory they hold in Syria as part of a massive Islamic State, an Islamic Caliphate, crossing into Iraq that is solely under their control, ruled under Sharia law. A syncretistic merger of mainstream opposition and Islamic militant ideas on governance was never going to occur. Meanwhile, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups became stronger almost daily. Their strength has long since passed the point at which mainstream Syrian Opposition forces could independently contend with them.

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US Special Operations troops in Syria (above). With the help of 500 US Special Operations troops who were sent into Syria to train, equip, and assist them, the Syrian Opposition rebels have managed to achieve some things. Their march toward Raqqa is an example of that. However, there is still no evidence of a capability to shape the conflict in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many Syrian Opposition rebels, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

An authentic Russian assessment of the Syrian opposition rebels at this point could only be that they will not be able to shape the military situation on ground in a way to force Assad to talks for arranging his removal from office and setting up a transitional government. The rebels have lost many fighters, and a significant portion of their territorial gain. They clearly have not influenced Assad’s thinking or decision-making. From a Russian military perspective, there is not too much for the Trump administration to go into Syria to support. Russia has been effective at halting rebels efforts on the ground. In reality, the US has been the only obstacle to ensuring the rebels’ destruction by Russian Federation and Syrian Arab air power. Some analysts believe the Battle of Aleppo truly signaled the end for rebels. Russia apparently plans to remain in Syria at relatively high levels and continue to provide military assistance to Assad’s forces. Without any US assistance, there is no chance whatsoever that the rebels could keep fighting at all. Given that, the Moscow may find it difficult to believe that Trump administration would pump more time, blood, and money into the rebel effort.

4) Managing the Peace Talks

As there is no path for the Syrian Opposition Movement to secure a role in the Damascus government, Moscow may doubt that the Trump administration would be willing to negotiate for them at the Syrian peace talks. Pressing for the demand of the Obama administration that a transition government be created in Damascus and that Assad commit to stepping down would be unreasonable. Likewise, it might be considered unnecessary for the Trump administration to seek a settlement on territory. The Syrian Opposition Movement was a political movement not territorial one, in which an autonomous state is sought. The movement of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party, however, is a struggle for autonomy. To that extent, it may be an issue which the Trump administration could get behind.

On the other hand, despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow discovered in December 2016 and January 2017 that managing peace talks with the warring parties was not easy. There was difficulty getting the Syrian Opposition to agree to anyrhing. This was repeatedly the case when the Obama administration was involved. Moreover, during previous talks, foreign diplomats were required to devote a significant amount of time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. While the opposition delegation was formed mostly of rebel commanders rather than political leaders, it was still quick to reject proposal for direct talks with the Assad regime because of its continued bombardment of opposition-held areas. Russia drummed up political support for the talks in Astana, which appeared aimed at leveraging its rejuvenated ties with Turkey and to simply give Moscow a greater voice in efforts to broker a settlement. However, Russian officials have lowered expectations that a major breakthrough would result from its efforts. Making things worse, during the talks, fierce infighting between rebel groups erupted in Syria, pitting at least one faction that supported the talks against another that was excluded. The rebels went into the talks at their weakest point so far in the war and this new eruption of violence threatened to fracture the opposition even further. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks.

5) Establishing an Understanding on Assad

Before its next contact with the Trump administration, Moscow will undoubtedly consider what cooperative role the US could play that would allow for the full exploitation of its capabilities in the anti-ISIS effort. However, if Moscow wants to cooperate with the administration on Syria, it must create an environment that will facilitate such cooperation. There is the likelihood that Trump administration will not accept Assad. For the moment, the transition of Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. If the Trump administration by chance decided to cooperate with Russia on Syria at the moment, it would signal its acceptance of Assad’s presidency as it is Russia’s policy to fully support it. To believe that might happen is to deny reality. Russia must decide how it will negotiate on Assad before it discusses anything about Syria with the Trump administration.

If the Trump administration has no interest in working with Assad, it could hardly be expected that the administration would provide US financial assistance for Syria’s reconstruction, helping to rebuild his regime. Russia needs to assess whether there any strong motivation might exist for the Trump administration to be involved. At best, the administration would only give reconstruction consideration if it was presented with some opportunity, a role of clear benefit to the US. Alternatively, Moscow could make itself completely open to responding to the Trump administration’s wishes on Syria. Absent either, there would hardly be any point to pursuing the matter. Russian analysts should have assessed that Assad’s future would need to be an important factor in the Kremlin’s calculus on reconstruction.

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Despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow actually found that managing the peace talks was not easy. It faced particular difficulty keeping the Syrian Opposition together. It has repeatedly been the case during Syrian peace talks that foreign diplomats were required to devote much time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks. 

6) Getting the US to Accept Iran’s Role in Syria

Russian analysts should have assessed that the Trump administration may not want to work in conjunction with Iran on Syria. The Trump administration has explicitly indicated that it is an avid supporter of Israel, whose leaders have referred to Iran as an existential threat. Further, during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Trump expressed the desire to alter or scrap the Iran nuclear deal. His administration’s thinking and approach to the nuclear deal may impact its desire to participate in the Syria peace talks while Iran was present. Russia would also need to establish what Iran’s reaction would be to possible US involvement in the talks. Reportedly, Iran has made huge sacrifices in blood and money in Syria, and is still doing so. Its leaders will most likely feel that their country deserves standing greater, but certainly no less than the US on any issues concerning Syria. It is unclear whether the Russians would want to do anything to negatively affect the strong ties it has developed with Iran in order to establish cooperation with the US.

There are other matters that might greatly concern the Trump administration. At a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora” participate in the vote. He was betting that if Syrians around the world can participate in the vote, Assad will not be able to win, his regime likely has a limited degree of influence within Syria and the Syrian diaspora worldwide, including among refugees in massive camps in Jordan and Turkey or on their own elsewhere. As December 30, 2015 greatcharlie post explained, Russia and Iran would hardly allow the situation to slip from their hands so easily. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), IRGC-Quds Force, the Iranian Army, and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security would do much to influence the outcome on the battlefield but also will likely do much to help the Assad regime influence the result of elections despite UN monitors, by helping to “create support” for Assad and “coping” with regime opponents. Reportedly, the Assad regime and the Iranians have engaged in a bit of ethnic cleansing. For example, Sunnis in West Damascus were forced to resettle in Kefraya and Fua. Iraqi and Lebanese Shias among those who replace them. Shia residents in Kefraya and Fua have been moved to formerly Sunni areas near Damascus. The Trump administration will likely point to this matter and will unlikely approve of Iran’s actions.  Moscow will need to develop responses to Trump administration questions about that.

7) Discerning US-Turkey Cooperation

Russia analysts would likely assess for Moscow that if the US enters the fray on Syria, Turkey would be forced to establish a balance between the relations with Russia and the US. While Turkey has a new linkage with Russia on Syria, it has a strong linkage with the US, its long-time NATO ally, on Syria as a result of an agreement with the Obama administration to take on the role of supporting US-backed Syrian Opposition rebels. Moreover, how Turkey intended to proceed regarding its support of those US-backed rebels’ campaign is unknown. This issue will take on even greater importance if the Trump administration decided to reduce or halt financial support to Ankara that may have assisted Turkish military forces and intelligence services working with Syrian Opposition rebels.

Safe zones have been a core demand of the Syrian opposition and were central to Turkey’s Syria policy for much of the past five years. However, Ankara is apparently lukewarm about idea of new safe zones, believing that under its auspices, a sufficient safe zone has already created. Indeed, Turkey has set up its own zone of influence, a de facto safe zone, between the Kurdish enclaves of Jarablus and Irfin, which is aimed primarily at keeping Syrian Kurds from forming a presence along the entire length of its border with Syria, but is also being used as a refuge by some fleeing civilians. Russian analysts may have already assessed that if the US receives significant push back from Turkey on creating new safe zones in Syria, it may temper the Trump administration’s interest in investing the US further in the Syria situation. Countries as Turkey and Jordan would be critical to any plan to create safe zones in country because they would need a steady line of support in order to be sustained.

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Aleppo (above). US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict.There would hardly be any motivation for the Trump administration to provide US financial assistance for reconstruction of Syria for Assad. At best, Trump would only give reconstruction consideration if there was a clear benefit to the US. Unless Russia would be open to responding to US wishes on Syria, it is hard see what would draw the US to the enterprise.

8) Postwar Peace-Enforcement and Reconstruction

Russian analysts may have assessed that convincing US to cooperate on the Syria peace talks could create a possible path for for US participation at an important level in the country’s postwar peace-enforcement mission and possibly reconstruction.  It is a monumental task that lies ahead. 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 rejuvenation 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.

US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict. Surely, Russian Federation EMERCOM, developed and led by the current Russian Federation Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu for many years, would have an significant impact on that effort. However, without the financial wherewithal and expertise of the US, Russia’s investment in Syria might amount to nothing in the end. In 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). US participation in the peace-enforcement and reconstruction effort may also do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well. Russia, itself, has 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 was that courting those countries would make them more receptive to its’ calls to assist in finding a political solution for Syria. It was also hoped those countries would eventually be responsive to a campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. Still, there is sense of stability that may come from US participation in the Syria effort. Knowing the US and Russia were cooperating on the ground might create a sense of security among the other countries.

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The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things, but approaches matters in a way a bit different from previous administrations. Its intent is not to reject or break the US policymaking process, but the change still worries many. Government professionals will soon be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Once cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, policy statements on Syria and other issues will be produced.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Polonius is a Danish Lord and chief counselor to the king. In Act I Scene iii, his son Laertes is leaving home for France. While sending his son off, Polonius offers him advice on how to behave with integrity and practicality overseas. At the end of a long list of guidelines, Polonius tells Laertes: “This above all: to thine ownself be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Taking an unconventional approach can be called creative, but when it leads to successful outcomes, it must be considered effective. The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things and it is doing them in a way different from that of previous administrations. Change can be disturbing. On foreign policy, it is not the intent of the Trump administration to reject or break the policymaking process. Inevitably, professionals serving in government departments will be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Trump is aware of the very large foreign affairs and national security apparatus made available to a US president, and knows it is very capable. As its cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, the Trump administration will begin to produce policy statements not only on Syria, but many other issues as well. Moscow’s invitation for the Trump administration to join the Syria effort seems to indicate that Russia would prefer, and if possible encourage, the White House to circumvent the normal policymaking process. Taking approach will put Moscow on nothing but a bad road. Indeed, accomplishing anything that way will be impossible. Despite what may become a persistent voice from overseas, the administration will formulate its policies and advance them at its own pace.

Senators Reassure Wary Baltic Nations That US Won’t Abandon NATO: Meanwhile, Latvia Shapes Its Own Fate

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Latvian National Guard troops in small unit training (above). Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its fellow NATO Members, Estonia and Lithuania, to deter or fight Russia and Belarus. A huge military build-up supported by the US, the EU, and NATO has been a necessary step taken by leaders in Riga. However, they are also using diplomacy to search for common ground with Russia and Belarus, and recently signed a defense cooperation agreement with Minsk.

According to a December 27, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Senators Reassure Wary Baltic Nations That US Won’t Abandon NATO,” US Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Amy Klobuchar arrived in Tallinn, Estonia on December 27th to reassure Baltic countries that the US remained committed to their defense and to the NATO alliance. At the time, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had expressed concern that the new US President-elect Donald Trump might not uphold the longstanding US commitment to their defense from the Russian Federation and its military partner, Belarus. That notion was predicated on statements Trump made during the election campaign. At a December 27th news conference with Estonia’s Prime Minister Juri Ratas, McCain remarked, “I am convinced and certain that our relations, and the American relationship with NATO, will remain the same.”  He further stated, “Our relationship is more important than perhaps it’s been in a long time,” and said he would support a permanent US troop presence, not just a rotation. About 5,000 US troops have rotated through Estonia since April 2014. Other stops on the Senators’ trip were Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Georgia. Ojars Eriks Kalnins, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Latvian Parliament (Saeima) and a former Latvian ambassador to the US was interviewed by phone for the New York Times article. Kalnins noted that Congressional Democrats and Republicans had tried to reassure the Baltic States for months that US policy toward European security would not change. Kalnins expressed optimism, saying “Our hope is that his administration will come around to backing the ongoing policy toward NATO and the Baltics.” Interestingly, he went on to state, “I don’t think there is a plausible scenario for Russia invading the Baltics. To be honest, I’m more concerned about the fate of Ukraine.” Since the time of the Senators visit, Trump has sought to ameliorate his comments on NATO by saying in an interview with The Times of London and Bild that the alliance “is very important to me.” Duo lepores qui insequitur, neutrum capit. (Who chases two rabbits, catches neither.)

Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its fellow NATO Members in the Baltics to deter or fight Russia and its allies. Initiating a military build up supported by the US, the EU, and NATO, with urgency and diligence was a necessary and admirable course for the leadership in Riga to take. Since 2014, Latvia has one of the fastest growing defense budgets in the world. That growth will be sustained until 2018 and will be well over 2 percent GDP by then. Defense is a crucial issue for Latvia, however, there are other dimensions country of great importance to Latvians such as the economy. It problems require significant attention, too! The West has engaged in efforts to ensure Latvia received foreign economic assistance. It has stemmed some problem. Still, that help has essentially been a bromide for Latvia’s economic woes. Worse, it may have slowed Latvia on the road to self-directed stability. Some officials in Riga have developed a dependency on that aid, making plans around it, but not all have.

In addition to its own initiative, Latvia has been driven by the West’s friendly but insistent voice to devote so much attention, energy, and money to defense. As a result, its economy has become an ancillary story. The leadership in Riga is undoubtedly appreciative of the West’s assistance, but paramount to them, much as the leaders in any national capital, is maintaining their country’s solvency and unity. Not to be impolitic, but for Western countries working with Latvia, the true priority is their own interests. It is possible that in private, leaders in Riga might admit that they sense themselves as being confined on a path of succumbing to obligations stemming from its membership in regional military alliances. From a more extreme perspective, some leaders in Riga may want to overcome a nagging sense that Latvia has become Western powers’ “ball to play with.” Concerns among the Latvians and their Baltic neighbors over Western perceptions of them seemed to be manifested by their recent complaints over the use of the term “former Soviet republics” in the media to describe them. Riga is entitled to set its own national priorities, and with regard to security, devise its own military plans and diplomatic ones to quell both potential and real threats. That certainly does not mean leaders in Riga might have some interest in breaking away from any of its security arrangements. However, they apparently view it as reasonable to use diplomacy to search for common ground with Russia and Belarus, in tandem with their military build-up. Neither its Baltic neighbors nor other NATO members could truly welcome a decision by Latvia to take such an independent diplomatic tack. Yet, success would allow Riga to focus more on Latvia’s other problems and become less absorbed by defense. Riga has recently made diplomatic moves of some significance with Minsk and with Moscow. Non quia difficilia sunt non audemus sed quia non audemus difficilia sunt. (It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, but because we do not dare that things are difficult.)

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The Republic of Latvia is one of the three Baltic States in Northern Europe. It is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, and Belarus to the southeast. Although Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are sovereign countries, for decades they have maintained cooperative arrangements. They are linked today. Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its Baltic neighbors Yet, also of great importance to Latvians are economic woes besetting their country.

Latvia in Brief

The Republic of Latvia is one of the three Baltic States in Northern Europe. It is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, and Belarus to the southeast. Its coastline to the west on the Baltic Sea is 531 km and forms a maritime border with Sweden. Latvia has approximately 1,957,200 inhabitants and a total territory of 64,589 km2.  Latvia was originally established as a democratic parliamentary republic in 1918 on 18 November 1918. However, its de facto independence was interrupted during World War II. In 1940, the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, and re-occupied by the Soviets in 1944 to form the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic for fifty years. The “Singing Revolution” that started in 1987 called for the Baltic States emancipation from Soviet rule. It ended with the Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia on 4 May 1990, and restoring de facto independence on 21 August 1991. In Latvia, the central government in Riga, the capital, is supreme, and the administrative divisions only exercise powers delegated to them by the Central government. There are 118 administrative divisions, of which 109 are municipalities and 9 are cities.  Latvians and Livs are the indigenous people of Latvia. Latvian is the country’s official language. Despite foreign rule from the 13th to 20th centuries, the Latvian nation maintained its identity throughout the generations via the language and musical traditions. A demographic profile of Latvia provided by Index Mundi indicates Latvians comprise 61.1 percent of the population. As a consequence of the Soviet occupation,  ethnic Russians comprise 26.2 percent of the population, some of whom are non-citizens. Belarusians make up 3.5 percent of the population, Ukrainians represent 2.3 percent,   represent 2.2 percent, and Lithuanians are 1.3 percent. Remaining groups represent 3.4 percent of the population. Until World War II, Latvia had significant minorities of ethnic Germans and Jews. Latvia is historically predominantly Protestant Lutheran, except for the Latgale region in the southeast, which has historically been predominantly Roman Catholic. The Russian population has also brought a significant portion of Eastern Orthodox Christians. Latvia is a member of the EU, NATO, the UN, the Council of Europe, Organization Economic Cooperation and Development, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Council of Baltic Sea States, Nordic Baltic Cooperation, Nordic Investment Bank. For 2014, Latvia is listed 46th on the Human Development Index and as a high income country as of January 1, 2017.

At the Foundation of Baltic Unity

Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are often looked upon in the West as a matched set of three countries. To an extent, they are! Although each established its sovereignty separately, the three entered into a cooperative arrangement known as the trilateral Treaty on Concord and Cooperation, signed in Geneva on September 12, 1934. Turbulent events beginning at the start of World War II had all three Baltic States initially sucked into the Soviet Union, then invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, and finally re-occupied and reincorporated as Soviet republics. The West continued to recognize the sovereignty of the three countries. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic States signed the Declaration on Unity and Cooperation on May 12, 1990 in Tallinn, restoring cooperation between Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Pursuant to the Geneva Treaty, the Baltic Council was established in 1990. The Baltic Council of Ministers (BCM), formed at the meeting of Baltic Prime Ministers in Tallinn on June 13, 1994, established an institution of trilateral intergovernmental cooperation. There was also an Agreement on Baltic Parliamentary and Governmental cooperation signed in Tallinn on the same day. These agreements are at the foundation of what is known as Baltic unity.  When the Baltic States joined the EU and NATO, the BCM was reformed and adjusted to the changed environment. It still operates under the guidance of the Prime Ministers’ Council, and the Cooperation Council, which comprises the ministers of foreign affairs, and coordinates the activity of the Committees of Senior Officials (CSO). In accord with the Terms of Reference, the Committees of Senior Officials act in five areas of cooperation at the expert level. If necessary, Task Forces are established by the Prime Ministers’ Council. The Prime Ministers’ Council determines specific task to be performed by a Task Force within time parameters. The Secretariat arranges the activities of the BCM. The Secretariat is staffed by officers of the foreign ministries of the three Baltic States responsible for the countries cooperation. Under the initiative of the chairmanship of the BCM, the Secretariat does the preparatory work for the meetings of the Prime Ministers’ Council and Cooperation Council. The chairmanship starts at the beginning of every calendar year. The country with the chairmanship directs work done on all levels of cooperation. Perhaps 2016 was the best year for Latvia to engage in its daring and optimistic diplomacy with Belarus and Russia. Latvia held the BCM chairmanship and presided over the Baltic Assembly (BA).

The BA is an international organization established on November 8, 1991 aimed at promoting cooperation between the Baltic States’ parliaments. The BA works under a statute entered into force on October 31, 1993. The Protocol amending the Agreement on Baltic Parliamentary and Governmental Cooperation was signed on November 28, 2003 in Vilnius. The Baltic Council is an annual joint meeting held by the BCM and the BA. This meeting includes a session of the BA, a meeting between the Presidium of the BA and Cooperation Council of the BCM, and a meeting of the Cooperation Council of the BCM.  A report by the Chairman of the Cooperation Council to the BA session must be prepared on: cooperation between the Baltic States in the previous year; activities related to the resolutions adopted by the BA during the current year; and, plans for future cooperation. Although Latvia was open enough to engage in diplomatic efforts with Belarus and Russia while at the helm of the BCM and BA, its approach to those countries did not lead Estonia and Lithuania to take similar action. There was certainly no abatement of Estonia and Lithuania’s fears over Russian and Belarusian actions and intentions.

Latvia’s Poor Economy – A Special Problem

Albeit as a result of the precarious economic situation it has faced for nearly a decade, Latvia, to make use of a phrase from the Bundesliga, carries the red lantern among the Baltic States. From 1999 to 2007, Latvia had one of the highest GDP growth rates in Europe. However, the Latvian economy entered a phase of fiscal contraction during the second half of 2008 after an extended period of credit-based speculation and unrealistic appreciation in real estate values. Growth was mainly driven by growth of domestic consumption, financed by a serious increase of private debt, as well as a negative foreign trade balance. The prices of real estate, which were at some points growing by approximately 5 percent a month, were long perceived to be too high for the economy, which mainly produces low-value goods and raw materials. Ignoring recommendations from the IMF and others to break their peg to the euro and devalue the currency, the Latvians instead embarked on a brutal programme of “internal devaluation,” improving competitiveness by slashing wages and prices. After losing access to capital markets, and accepting a $10.5 billion bail-out from the IMF and the EU, the government implemented an austerity plan worth 17 percent of GDP over four years. Problems were exacerbated by the global economic crisis, shortage of credit and huge money resources used for the bailout of Parex bank. In 2008, Parex, then the second-largest bank in Latvia, was nationalized. In the end, Latvia had to take $2.35 billion in aid from the IMF for the bank’s bail out. The Latvian economy fell 18 percent in the first three months of 2009, the biggest fall in the EU.  The unemployment rate in Latvia rose sharply in this period from a low of 5.4 percent in November 2007 to over 22 percent. In April 2010, Latvia had the highest unemployment rate in the EU, at 22.5 percent. In July 2012, the IMF concluded that the First Post-Program Monitoring Discussions with the Republic of Latvia, announcing that Latvia’s economy was recovering strongly since 2010, following the deep downturn in 2008–09. However, while some in the West define Latvia as a success, others call it the best example of an apparent Western tendency to cloak disaster with positive statements. Net economic growth in Latvia had been nonexistent since 2006. Reportedly, the collapse was severe enough that Latvia still had not returned it to its pre-crisis peak of activity.  Latvia should have labeled a catastrophe. Even now, unemployment is around 9.5 percent, which is still high and real wages are about 5 percent smaller than they were back in 2007. Even more alarming for the country’s long-term economic prospects is loss of Latvia’s loss of more than 300,000 people since 2000. Its population has dropped from around 2.3 million to about 2 million. Many Latvians were prompted to seek out better opportunities in the rest of the EU due to the financial crisis.

In 2014 the GDP of Latvia was $31.3 billion and its GDP per capita was $23,500. Latvia is the 78th largest export economy in the world and the 34th most complex economy according to the Economic Complexity Index (ECI). Records indicate Latvia increased exports at an annualized rate of 12.3 percent, from $7.98 billion in 2009 to $14.3 billion in 2014. Imports stood at $17.2 billion, resulting in a negative trade balance of $2.93 billion. The top exports of Latvia are Refined Petroleum ($1.22 billion), Sawn Wood ($730 million), Crude Petroleum ($644 million), Hard Liquor ($556 million) and Broadcasting Equipment ($394 million), using the 1992 revision of the HS (Harmonized System) classification. Its top imports are Refined Petroleum ($2 billion), Broadcasting Equipment ($666 million), Petroleum Gas ($600 million), Cars ($599 million) and Packaged Medicaments ($519 million). The top export destinations of Latvia are Lithuania ($2.31 billion), Russia ($1.3 billion), Estonia ($938 million), Belarus ($854 million) and Germany ($851 million). The top import origins are Lithuania ($2.69 billion), Russia ($2.02 billion), Poland ($1.74 billion), Germany ($1.71 billion) and Estonia ($1.17 billion). The top import origins of Latvia are Lithuania ($2.69 billion), Russia ($2.02 billion), Poland ($1.74 billion), Germany ($1.71 billion) and Estonia ($1.17 billion).

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Most transit traffic in Latvia uses the ports of Riga, Liepāja, and Ventspils (above). Half the cargo is crude oil and oil products. In addition to road and railway connections, Ventspils is also linked to oil extraction fields and transportation routes of Russian Federation via a system of two pipelines. The Russian state-owned pipeline operator Transneft plans to halt oil product operations at Ventspils and Riga as of 2018. Its chief executive officer said by 2018 Russia’s cargo flow to the Baltic States will be zero.

Latvia’s transport sector is around 14 percent of GDP. Transit between Russia and Belarus is considerable. Three biggest ports of Latvia are located in Riga, Liepāja, and Ventspils. Most transit traffic uses them and half the cargo is crude oil and oil products. Ventspils is one of the busiest ports in the Baltic States. Along with its road and railway connections, Ventspils is also linked to oil extraction fields and transportation routes of Russian Federation via system of two pipelines from Polotsk, Belarus. Latvia operates Inčukalns underground gas storage facility, one of the largest underground gas storage facilities in Europe and the only one in the Baltic States. However, the future of Latvia’s transport and energy sectors appears uncertain. Riga has sought to meet EU regulations and reduce its dependence on energy supplies from Russia. However, that process has created the opportunity for Russia to essentially pull the rug from under Latvia. The Russian state-owned pipeline operator Transneft plans to halt oil product operations at Latvia’s ports of Ventspils and Riga as of 2018, and redirect volumes to the Russian Baltic Sea ports of Ust-Luga and Primorsk and the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. During a meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, on September 13, 2015, Transneft’s chief executive officer, Nikolai Tokarev, said, “We will re-orient the cargo turnover from the Baltic ports of Ventspils, Riga to our Baltic ports–of Ust-Luga and Primorsk–as well as to Novorossiisk.” Tokarev predicted turnover at Latvia’s ports would shrink to 5 million metric tons (mt) in 2016 from 9 million mt in 2015. He further stated “By 2018 we will reduce this cargo flow to the Baltic states to zero. We will fill up our ports, because there is capacity surplus.” Transneft plans to convert some of the pipeline capacity not being used for crude to transport oil products to Primorsk and Novorossiisk.

Currently, a former crude pipeline, the Yaroslav-Kirishi 2, is being converted to carry diesel to Primorsk and is due to be operational in October. The converted pipeline, which will run along the already functioning Kstovo-Primorsk trunk, will allow Transneft to expand the capacity of the so-called North, or Sever, diesel pipeline running to the Baltic port of Primorsk to 25 million mt per year from November 2017, earlier than the previously planned 2020. Russia exports only diesel via pipeline, with currently two pipelines shipping Euro 5, or 10 parts per million (ppm) max sulfur diesel, to the Baltic ports of Primorsk and Ventspils. Gasoil continues to be shipped by rail, but Baltic ports have become an outlet for a large proportion of all ultra low sulfur diesel supply to Northwest Europe. Last October, the pipeline to Ventspils fully switched to 10 ppm diesel flows. Russian products flows through the Baltic ports – Sillamae, Klaipeda, Riga, Tallinn, had all been shrinking. Russia halted crude exports via Ventspils more than a decade ago, but continued to ship gasoil and subsequently ULSD via the pipeline to the Latvian port. However, transshipment volumes through Ventspils Nafta Terminals on the Baltic Sea have also been dwindling. Ventspils, which is majority owned by trader Vitol, handled 4.29 million mt of oil products in the first half of the year, down 27.3 percent from a year earlier. Russian pipeline volumes continued their downward trend in the first half of 2016, with LatRosTrans transporting 2.4 million mt, down from 2.98 million mt in the first half of 2015. The terminal also handles products delivered by rail from Russia and Belarus. According to traders, it is now being filled with ultra low sulfur diesel.

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Latvia’s Incukalns underground gas storage facility (above) is one the largest in Europe. It was built during the Soviet era to meet the region’s needs, including northwestern Russia. However, Incukalns entered th 2016-2017 winter season one-third empty. Total injections have dropped to 1.25 billion cubic metres (bcm) from 1.6 bcm in 2015 and 1.9 bcm in 2014. At the end of the 2016 injection season, it had 1.53 bcm of gas in storage, the lowest level since 2000. The future of Latvia’s energy sector is uncertain.

Latvia’s gas utility, Latvijas Gaze is set to transfer part of its assets – including one of Europe’s largest underground gas storage facilities, Incukalns – to Latvia’s future gas grid and storage operator Conexus Baltic Grid, ahead of a planned market liberalisation in April 2017. The current owners of Latvijas Gaze – Russia’s Gazprom, Germany’s Uniper and Latvia’s Itera Latvija – which have a combined stake of slightly over 68 percent, will have to divest shares in Conexus by the end of 2017 due to legal requirements. Latvijas Gaze’s restructuring is a part of wider gas market reforms approved by the Latvian parliament in February 2016 in an effort to meet EU regulations. and reduce dependence on energy supplies from Russia. The European infrastructure fund Marguerite, which holds a 28.97 percent stake in Latvijas Gaze, plans to stay in Conexus after the restructuring, it told Reuters in an email. The fund declined to say whether it might want to increase its stake in Conexus. The storage facility, built during the Soviet era to meet the needs of the wider region, including northwestern Russia, is entering this winter season one-third empty. Gazprom and Estonian utility Eesti Gaas have not injected any new gas at Incukalns in 2016. Total injections have dropped to 1.25 billion cubic meters (bcm) from 1.6 bcm year ago and 1.9 bcm in 2014. At the end of the injection season, which runs from April until October, it had 1.53 bcm of gas in storage, the lowest level since at least 2000. This includes 0.2 bcm of gas Gazprom injected for Russia’s needs during the previous year. Estonian customers told Latvijas Gaze they could meet their needs by direct imports from Russia, while Gazprom said it also had no need to store more gas. While the drop in injections coincides with the Latvian parliament’s decision to end Gazprom’s supply monopoly, both Latvian officials and the Russian supplier said the reasons were economic. Russia has spare capacity to deliver gas to its St Petersburg region, previously also supplied from the Latvian storage facility, as it prepares to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany across the Baltic Sea. Ivars Scerbickis, head of Incukalns gas storage, said “Historically, Incukalns’ role has been indisputable in the region.” He went on to state, “Now it’s a challenge for us to keep it the same.”  Latvian officials hope that Gazprom will use Incukalns after market liberalisation to ensure security of supplies, especially during cold winters when demand spikes. Latvia may be hoping to acquire Finland and Poland as new customer when new gas links are built from Estonia and Lithuania by around 2020. Ibit, ibIt eo quo vis qui zonam perdidit. (The one who loses his money belt will go where you wish.)

Latvia: A Russian Military Target

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin finds causality for the misunderstandings and crises with the West over Eastern Europe in actions taken 25 years ago with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin explained at the 2007 Munich Security Conference and many times since that former NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner had guaranteed that NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Wall. Moreover, he has pointed to the statements of German parliamentarian Egon Bahr who explained on June 26, 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” In a Bild interview on January 11, 2016, Putin pointed to what he described as a very concrete suggestion by Bahr on how that danger could be averted: “the USA, the Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structures.” When the Bild interviewer pointed out to Putin that under NATO’s rules and self-understanding it can accept free countries as members if they want to be members and meet certain requirements.  Putin responded, “Nowhere is it written that NATO had to accept certain countries. All that would have been required to refrain from doing so was political will. But people didn’t not want to.” Putin declared the reason for NATO’s lack of restraint was “NATO and the USA wanted complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone.”

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right) and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left). Some Western analysts conclude Russia’s centuries old habit of devouring bordering countries puts Latvia and it Baltic neighbors at risk. Others say Putin seeks hegemony over them due to his beliefs about Russian nationhood and historical destiny. Putin says NATO guaranteed Russia that it would “not expand eastward” and it is doing so knowing it “will lead to Russia’s isolation.”

However, some Russia experts do not believe that Putin is driven by the failure of the West to honor its post-Cold War commitments to Russia. Hillary Appel of Claremont McKenna College asserts that Russia has a centuries old habit of devouring for bordering countries as the Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania  as a means of ensuring its physical control of their territory.  She explains that was Russia built its empire that way. It was a stratagem quite different from that of Britain and France, whose empires were built upon the conquest of distant, unconnected territories on other continents. Russia’s approach left it the largest country in the world geographically, even after the republics of its Soviet empire sought independence. Appel proffers that after ascending to power, Putin in words and deeds as both Prime minister and president refused to accept the further dissolution of Russian controlled territory, and through what she describes as tremendous brutality and violence in Chechnya, thwarting Chechen designs for independence.

Paul Miller of the University of Texas, explains that Putin is not driven by cold calculations of rational self-interest, because no human is. Putin believes hegemony over Russia’s near-abroad is necessary for Russian security because of his beliefs about Russian nationhood and historical destiny. Putin and his advisers are not mere nationalist. Miller believes Putin and his advisers may be driven by “peculiar form of Russian nationalism infused with religion, destiny, and messianism.” As part of that narrative, Russia is the guardian of Orthodox Christianity and has a mission to protect and expand the faith. Miller believes that a truly rational Russia would not see NATO and EU expansion as a threat, because the liberal order is open and inclusive and would actually augment Russia’s security and prosperity. If Putin and his advisers see the world through the prism of Russian religious nationalism, Miller states, “the West is inherently a threat because of its degeneracy and globalism.” Indeed, to them, Miller proffers, “NATO is not the benign guarantor of liberal order in Europe, but the hostile agent of the degenerate West and the primary obstacle to Russian greatness.” To that extent, Putin’s grand strategy, Miller says, requires breaking NATO and making the Article V mutual security guarantee meaningless.Putin has already succeeded in eroding NATO’s credibility. His last two targets, Georgia and Ukraine, were not NATO members, but in 2008 had been explicitly and publicly assured that they would be granted Membership Action Plans. By occupying those countries Putin has assured they would never join NATO in the near term as Miller asserts no country will ever join NATO while being partly occupied by Russia.

The Baltic States are NATO Members. Due to that, Miller explains that Putin would unlikely send large formations of uniformed Russian soldiers over the international border as even the most cautious NATO members will not ignore an overt conventional invasion. Miller believes Putin will instigate an ambiguous militarized crisis using deniable proxies, probably in the next two years. Miller outlined what might be observed as follows:  1) Perhaps many among the 25 percent of Latvians or Estonians who are ethnically Russian will begin rioting, protesting for their rights, claiming to be persecuted, and asking for “international protection;” 2) A suspiciously well armed and well trained “Popular Front for the Liberation of the Russian Baltics” will appear; 3) A few high-profile assassinations and bombings bring the Baltics to the edge of civil war. 4) A low-grade insurgency may emerge. 4) Russia will block all UN Security Council resolutions, but will offer its unilateral services as a peacekeeper; 5) The North Atlantic Council will meet. 6) Poland will lead the effort to invoke Article V, declare the Baltics under Russian attack, and rally collective defense against Russian aggression. 7) The Germans and French will fiercely resist. Everyone will look to the US to see which way the alliance leader tilts. 8) If the Alliance does not invoke Article V, NATO’s mutual security guarantee becomes functionally meaningless. 9) No NATO Member will put any faith in the treaty to guarantee it’s own defense against Russia in the future. Some Eastern European countries may choose to join up with Russia. 10) Others, starting with Poland, will begin arming to the teeth.

In January 2016, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the formation of a new Baltic command, which would have 60,000 troops—three motor rifle divisions—stationed near the western region of Russia, bordering Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In addition, Russia is expanding its Baltic Fleet and has deployed a new generation of surface-to-air missiles into the Kaliningrad region, bordering on Poland and Lithuania. Kaliber missiles can launch nuclear warheads. The Russian warships Serpukhov and Zeleny Dol were recently added to the Baltic Fleet, armed with long-range, new-generation cruise missiles. Russia even held four days of civil defense drills, involving 40 million Russian citizens, underscoring the country’s readiness for war. The most recent maneuvers by the Baltic Fleet involved a simulated attack on US warships in the Sea.

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Many in the Baltics feel they will fall prey to the same territorial ambitions Russia displayed in Crimea in 2014. Under a new State Defense Concept, Latvia’s defense budget will be increased to 2 percent of GDP by 2018. It earmarked 20 percent of the budget for purchasing new equipment.  It also states the Armed Forces in peacetime will number 17,500 men to include: 6,500 from the professional ranks; 8,000 from the National Guard troops; and, 3,000 from the reserves.

Latvia’s Response: 2016 State Defense Concept

Many in the Baltic States feel they will be next to fall prey to Russia’s territorial ambitions, which it demonstrated by annexing Crimea in 2014. When one hears the tempest swirl, it is rational to prepare a defense against the storm. At the core of Latvia’s national security concerns is the threat from Russia. Factors influencing that perspective include Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the clandestine war in eastern Ukraine, and Moscow’s heightened military force on patrol off the coasts of the Baltics and Western Europe. Western analysts conclude the Russia’s deployment of nuclear capable Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad province between Poland and Lithuania underscored Moscow’s efforts to intimidate the Baltics and the West. Much as all other European countries, Latvia must also devote new attention to the continuing encroachment of the ISIS threat from the Middle East. The developing security environment has driven Latvia to give greater attention to security policy and the strengthening of defense capabilities on the national and international levels. Membership in NATO and the EU play a decisive role in Latvia’s security policy, and Latvia is actively participating in these organizations as well as bilaterally with its allies in order to bolster its own security and the security of its region. In this regard, Riga accepts that it is in Latvia’s national interest to establish arrangements for a sustained NATO military presence on Latvian territory that in turn bolster both the deterrent posture and real defense of the alliance against the Russian threat. Of equal  importance is increasing the capabilities of NATO rapid reaction forces to better enable them to assist all member states in an emergency. Latvia welcomed the increase in the NATO Response Force (NRF) to 40,000 troops which are ready to respond in a few days’ time. Some 5,000 troops of the NRF serve in the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) which is ready respond to any Russian moves on Europe’s eastern front within hours. Latvia is one of six NATO members in which NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs) have been established. In an emergency, these units would be instrumental in facilitating the rapid deployment of military combat forces, ensuring that they could operate effectively on Latvia’s land and sea and in the air. Additionally, the NFIUs allow regional NATO Members to implement a coordinated program for military exercises.

In addition to conventional attack, Latvia, much as Paul Miller prognosticated, might be facing foreign efforts at subversion and insurgency, characteristic of hybrid warfare. Reportedly, Russia, using hybrid warfare, has sought to destabilize governments and societies by direct means and other elements as well. Those other elements may include cyber-attacks, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, intelligence operations, the application of coercion ranging from economic pressure to the leverage using energy supplies as an instrument, the use of disguised military personnel, and the use of terrorists and armed groups as proxies for various types of attacks. Plans for Latvia’s response to both the conventional and hybrid attacks have been coalesced in a new national security strategy, the 2016 State Defense Concept. The Concept specifies eight major challenges for Latvia’s security and measures to prevent them: external challenges, foreign intelligence and special services, military threats, threats to social unity, threats to information community, economic challenges, international terrorism and cyber-terrorism. Latvia’s priorities are to reinforce its borders, to improve its refugee policy and to prevent radicalization risks. To thwart threats posed by foreign intelligence and special services, the Concept indicated that Latvia should develop its national security and counterespionage services and should undertake preventive policies. The country should also develop public mass media, reduce the influence of Russian mass media specifically, control foreign investment, and ensure stable energy supplies. Since hybrid warfare can be used independently or in tandem with conventional military attacks, Latvia actively contributes to NATO and EU efforts to seek the most effective solutions to counter hybrid threats, including in the information space.

Latvia’s defense budget will be increased to 2 percent of GDP by 2018, according to the Concept. The strategy further states that the Latvian Armed Forces in peacetime will number 17,500 men which will include 6,500 from the professional ranks, 8,000 from the National Guard troops and 3,000 from the reserves. Moreover, 20 percent of the defense budget will be earmarked for the purchase of new equipment. Priorities concerning the armed forces included the strengthening the operational capability of the Latvian Armed Forces, the further integration of the National Guard within the Armed Forces, strengthening the Special Tasks Unit–special operations forces–as well as boosting early-warning capabilities, airspace surveillance and air defense. Finally, the document emphasizes the integration and regional cooperation of the three Baltic States’ militaries. On June 16, 2016, Latvia’s Saeima approved the government’s national security strategy.

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A Latvian soldier and Estonian soldier perform check their equipment (above). The Latvian Armed Forces’ priorities include bolstering its operational capabilities, the further integration of the National Guard within the Armed Forces, strengthening the Special Tasks Unit–special operations forces–as well as boosting early-warning capabilities, airspace surveillance and air defense. Emphasis is also being placed on the integration and regional cooperation of the Baltic States’ militaries.

NATO’s Commitments to Latvia and Its Baltic Neighbors

At the Summit Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government from July 8 to July 9 2016 in Warsaw, Poland, it was agreed that combat forces would be deployed into the three Baltic States and Poland. That force will consist of seven combat brigades, including three heavy armored brigades, backed up by air power and land fire. In February, a US battalion task force of about 900 soldiers from Viselk, Germany, accompanied by smaller United Kingdom and Romanian units, will be deployed to Orzysk, Poland. That force will be backed by United Kingdom Typhoon fighter jets, which will begin patrols over the Black Sea. They will be joined in Europe later by a brigade combat team from Fort Carson, Colorado equipped with tanks and other heavy equipment and a combat aviation brigade from Fort Drum, New York.  All of the US troops are scheduled to be in place by June 2017. The United Kingdom will send a battalion of 800 troops to Estonia. It will be supported by French and Danish troops starting from May 2017. Canada will send 450 troops to Latvia, who will joined by 140 troops from Italy. Germany has promised to send between 400 and 600 troops to Lithuania, along with forces from the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Croatia and Luxembourg. The deployment will cost NATO Member States $2.7 billion a year. The US Navy has deployed four Arleigh Burke class destroyers equipped with AEGIS missile defense systems to Rota, Spain. A separate land-based AEGIS system is being constructed in Romania on the Black Sea.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the troop contributions to a new 4,000-strong force in the Baltics and Eastern Europe were a measured response to what the alliance believes are some 330,000 Russian troops stationed on Russia’s western flank near Moscow. Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance remarked about the deployments, “What deterrence looks like is that it raises the threshold of risk (for Russia). It may be slight, but it is definitely there.” He further explained, “You can use the term ‘tripwire’ as descriptors, but what it really does is raise that calculus of risk. Do you take any steps against a NATO nation given that the alliance has decided to put in very credible combat forces?” Commenting about the armed forces of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania following a visit to the Baltic States in 2016, the commander of the US Special Operations Command, US Army General Raymond Thomas stated, “They’re scared to death of Russia.” He further stated, “They are very open about that. They’re desperate for our leadership.” Hannibal ad portas! (Hannibal is at the gates!)

Former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, United Kingdom General Sir Richard Shirreff, wrote a CNN assessment October 21, 2016, warned that if Russia puts one soldier across the borders of the Baltic States, it means war with NATO. Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania have been members of NATO since 2004 and are therefore protected under Article V of the Washington Treaty, the founding document of NATO, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. A Russian attack on the Baltic States puts the US at war with Russia—meaning nuclear war, because Russia integrates nuclear weapons into every aspect of its military doctrine. Shirreff stated pointedly, “And don’t think Russia would limit itself to the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Any form of nuclear release by the Russians would almost certainly precipitate nuclear retaliation by the United States.”

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Canadian Army troops (above). At the 2016 Summit Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government, it was agreed that NATO would deploy combat forces into the three Baltic States and Poland. Canada will send 450 troops to Latvia. They will be joined by 140 Italian troops. Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance said about the deployments, “What deterrence looks like is that it raises the threshold of risk (for Russia). It may be slight, but it is definitely there.”

Baltic Air Policing – “Latvia’s Air Power”

After the Baltic States joined NATO in 2004, the immediate commitment of alliance its three new members was nonstop policing of their airspace. Initially, Baltic Air Policing was conducted by NATO Member States on a three-month rotation from Lithuania’s First Air Force Base in Zokniai/Šiauliai International Airport, near the northern city of Šiauliai, and starting 2014 at the Ämari Air Base in Harju County, Estonia. Starting with the Turkish deployment, rotations changed to a four-month basis. Usual deployments consist of four fighter aircraft with between 50 and 100 support personnel. However, all member nations contribute in some form to the NATO Air policing, be it through the use of national aerial surveillance systems, air traffic management, interceptor aircraft or other air defence measures. NATO Air Policing requires making an Air Surveillance and Control System, an Air Command and Control structure and Quick Reaction Alert (Interceptor) aircraft continuously available.

Russian military aircraft near the Baltic Sea were intercepted by NATO jets 110 times in 2016. According to NATO, that number was lower than the 160 intercepts recorded in 2015 and the 140 in 2014. However, this greatly exceeds the number of aerial encounters above the Baltic Sea before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014; in 2013, NATO fighter jets intercepted Russian aircraft 43 times. Belgian Air Force Major General Thierry Dupont, commander of NATO’s Combined Air Operations Center, says that the number of intercepts has increased since 2014 because Russia is flying more aircraft in Baltic airspace, but also because the alliance has increased its air policing capabilities. The vast majority of the interceptions were made before any incursion into sovereign allied airspace, although over the last 12 months Estonia has reported at least six airspace violations by Russian jets. Moscow has denied the accusations. Dupont told Newsweek, “One of NATO’s roles is to preserve the integrity of the Allies’ airspace,” He further stated, “Missions like the Baltic Air Policing demonstrate NATO’s resolve and capability to ensure protection across Allies’ airspace, including those Allies that do not have their own Air Policing assets.”

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Two German Typhoon fighters performing Baltic Air Policing duties (above). When the Baltic States joined NATO in 2004, the alliance’s first visible commitment to them was policing their airspace. Belgian Air Force Major General Thierry Dupont, commander of NATO’s Combined Air Operations Center, stated: “Missions like the Baltic Air Policing demonstrate NATO’s resolve and capability to ensure protection across Allies’ airspace, including those Allies that do not have their own Air Policing assets.”

In War as I Knew It, US Army General George Patton explained, “We should not plan and then try to make circumstances fit those plans. Instead we should make plans to fit the circumstances.” Despite the Baltic Air Policing and beefed-up ground deployments opposites Russian forces in the Baltics and elsewhere, there are many Western defense analysts who believe that the NATO response is too weak, and, as the result, is an invitation for Russia to take aggressive action. Upon hearing that, some officials in Riga might begin to consider what can really been gained by its robust military build-up. In his assessment for CNN, Shirreff called for a much larger NATO deployment into the Baltics and Eastern Europe, one that would represent a credible deterrent, rather than a token force that could be over-run within hours. The Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, US Army General Curtis Scaparrotti has agreed with Shirreff, but has not specified the force size and composition required to provide a credible deterrent.

A RAND Corporation study prepared for US Department of Defense centered on several tabletop war games, based on the Russian deployments into the Crimea. The war games were played by US military officers and civilian officials over several months between 2014-2015. The game ended with a disastrous defeat for NATO in a matter of days. The study found that NATO forces being deployed to the Baltics, were small. Those forces lacked the vehicles and firepower to take on the Russian juggernaut of heavy tanks and mechanized vehicles opposite them. It indicated that NATO ground troops lacked anti-aircraft artillery to fend off Russian warplanes in a wartime scenario. According to the study, “By and large, NATO’s infantry found themselves unable even to retreat successfully and were destroyed in place.” Regarding US and allied air power, despite its ability to strike in depth against advancing Russian forces, destroying many in place and disrupting and delaying the attacks of others, US and allied air commanders would need to limit the number of aircraft dedicated to that mission and deploy them to negating the capabilities of Russia’s air defenses and provide air cover against Russian air attacks on rear areas. It was accepted that Russian forces would be able to smash through NATO defenses and drive on to Riga or Tallinn within 36 to 60 hours. The RAND study assessed that US and its allies would be left with three equally unpalatable options. NATO could launch a prolonged counter-offensive to take back the Baltic capitals; NATO could threaten Moscow with direct attack; or NATO could accept the outcome of the Russian lightning strikes and devise a long-term counter-strategy. The RAND study concluded that options one and two would lead to nuclear war; option three would result in a new Cold War that could eventually go hot. In discussing a possible way forward, the RAND study indicated that through “due diligence” and bolstering its defenses, NATO would send “a message to Moscow of serious commitment and one of reassurance to all NATO members and to all US allies and partners worldwide.” Esse quam videri. (To be rather than to seem.)

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A RAND study assessed that Russian Federation forces could smash through NATO defenses and drive on targets such as Riga or Tallinn within 36 to 60 hours, leaving the US and NATO Allies with three equally unpalatable options. NATO could launch a prolonged counter-offensive to take back the Baltic capitals; NATO could threaten Moscow with direct attack; or NATO could accept the outcome of the Russian strikes and devise a long-term counter-strategy.

Has Latvia Found a Self-Directed Path?

Animus in consulendo liber. (Free spirit to decide.) When he told the New York Times, “I don’t think there is a plausible scenario for Russia invading the Baltics,” Kalnins revealed much. Latvia serves as an element of what is essentially a militarized buffer between the West and possible aggression from the east.  However, Riga may want to dial down from the hardline stance it has been taking and no longer be almost singularly engrossed in military affairs. Regarding diplomacy, the most important mission of Latvian diplomats has been creating arrangements for a long-term NATO military presence in Latvia as a defense against any threats to its territory and bolster alliance defenses from the east as well. Apparently, Latvia’s leaders would like to use diplomacy to enhance established bilateral ties with Belarus and Russia. Before diplomatic efforts of this type actually began with Belarus, and to some degree with Russia, the Latvian Ministry of Defense publicly indicated that it would not exclude engaging in dialogue in order to promote trust between two countries.  Moreover, Riga seemed to hope delicate and simple talks with Belarus and Russia could have some palliative effect and convince them that Latvia and the other Baltic States pose no threat to their interests. Riga would certainly like for them to be assured that Latvia would not provide an prospective avenue upon which the West would invade Russia. An invasion from its direction was among attacks prognosticated by the Russian Federation General Staff in their Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation.

During an official visit to Latvia by the Belarusian Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov on December 5 to December 6, 2016, Latvia and Belarus signed an agreement on defense cooperation. Prior to the meeting, Latvian Defense Ministry announced that the text of the agreement that involved Latvia and Belarus would not be released, a standard practice. However, it was also indicated before the meeting that the agreement would concern defense cooperation between the Latvian Ministry of Defense and the Belarus Ministry of Defense. The goal would be to promote cooperation between both countries in the fields of international security and defense policy, airspace surveillance, arms control, NATO’s Partnership for Peace program activities, military medicine, as well as environmental protection, cultural and sports activities in the armed forces. Ravkov’s visit also included congenial meetings between Latvian Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis and Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics. The parties discussed a wide range of issues, including bilateral military cooperation. The Belarusian delegation also visited a school in the city of Cesis that trains instructors for the National Armed Forces of Latvia. While the two countries have enjoyed what the Latvian Defense Ministry described as “fruitful cooperation” since 2004, to include a series of exchange visits and inspections taking place on both sides of the border, the signing of the agreement represents the creation of a new dimension of that relationship.

Wary officials among Latvia’s Baltic neighbors and other NATO allies might be that the willingness of Belarus to engage bilaterally with Latvia was based on a hope that it could poach Latvia from the West’s reserve. However, there is no apparent leverage Belarus could use to pry Latvia from the BCM, EU, NATO, or any other Western based organizations. There should also be little fear that Latvia officials and experts might be contaminated from contact with their Belarusian counterparts. The willingness of Belarus to talk is more likely part of an effort by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to intensify fence mending efforts with the West. He managed to grab the attention of EU leaders in a positive way when he decided to free a number of political prisoners and host multiparty mediations in Minsk for the cease-fire in neighboring Ukraine. As of late, Belarusian diplomats have been pouring considerable energy in enhancing their country’s relations with the West, hoping to capitalize on Belarus’ newfound importance for regional stability. Suspicious officials among Latvia’s Baltic neighbors and other NATO allies might be that the willingness of Belarus to engage bilaterally with Latvia was based on a hope that it could pry from the West’s hand. However, it may be part of an effort by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to mend fences with the West. He managed to grab the attention of EU leaders in a positive way when he decided to free a number of political prisoners and host multiparty mediations in Minsk for the cease-fire in neighboring Ukraine. As of late, Belarusian diplomats have been pouring considerable energy in enhancing their country’s relations with the West, hoping to capitalize on Belarus’ newfound importance for regional stability. Lukashenko’s current perspective of the EU appears to be reflected in his statements in favor of dialogue with it.  On March 5, 2016, Lukashenko explained: “The Europeans . . . are ready to cooperate with us, including for the sake of security in Europe. We say to them that we’re always open to [talking].”

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From December 5 to December 6, 2016, Belarusian Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov made an official visit to Latvia. The visit included congenial meetings between Latvian Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis and Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics. Before Ravkov left, Latvia and Belarus signed an agreement on defense cooperation.

Regarding Russia, the Latvian Ministry of Defense said on December 8, 2016, its officials met with high-level Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials to talks in Riga. The meeting’s purpose was to discuss what the Latvian Ministry of Defense said were “serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country, including large-scale training on the Latvian border.” The original invitation for talks came from Russia.  In it, Latvian officials to go to Moscow to discuss regional security. Russia sent it to Latvia via its military attache in Riga on August 2016. Riga responded by sending a reply requesting that the Russians visit Riga for talks and using the same Russian Federation military attaché as a point of contact. In a statement issued on November 22, 2016, the Latvian Ministry of Defense explained, “Latvia has consistently pointed to the fact that Russian military activity in the border area, including the development of military infrastructure, raises serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country. Moreover, Russia conducts military exercises without telling its neighbors about their time and place. Therefore, the meeting would aim to achieve greater transparency from the neighboring country’s side.” The meeting’s genesis was an invitation for talks from Russia in August 2016.  In it, Latvian officials were asked to come to Moscow to discuss regional security. Russia sent the invite to Latvia through its military attaché in Riga. Latvia responded by sending a reply requesting that the Russians visit Riga for talks and using the same Russian Federation military attaché as a point of contact. According to a press release from the Latvian Ministry of Defense, “During the discussions, the parties exchanged views on the security situation in the border area. The Latvian side emphasized that Russian military activities, including large-scale military exercises, development of military infrastructure and the creation of new military units raise concerns about Russia’s intentions and long-term ambitions in the region.” It went on to state, “Also the Latvian side emphasized that most of Russia’s advanced capabilities and large-scale training Latvian border are geared towards attack rather than defense. The released further proffered, “Considering also unfriendly and sometimes hostile rhetoric with regard to Latvia, it creates the need for Latvia to seek additional security guarantees and to step up cooperation with its allies in response to Russian military activities. Taking into account developments in the last year, the Latvian side at the meeting asked for an explanation for the scale of military activities and offered ways to reduce tensions.”

With the aim of promoting mutual openness and trust in military matters, a press release from the Latvian Ministry of Defense stated “the Latvian side offered in addition to the existing provisions of arms control, resulting from the OSCE’s Vienna Document, one further arms control evaluation visit and one inspection of Latvian-Russian border areas . . . .” Latvia also reportedly called upon Russia “to declare its readiness for greater transparency in military activities, not only in words but also in deeds.” There was no mention of what such “deeds” might be. The Russian Federation Ministry of Defense announced that there was a meeting of Defense experts in Riga on December 8th but it did not elaborate on the substance of the talks. While immediate gains of the meeting with Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials were small relative to the product of the recent meetings and agreement with Belarusian Ministry of Defense officials, its importance must be measured by the fact that formal military cooperation between Russia and Latvia had been suspended since Russia’s 2014 action in Crimea. Officials agreed to continue the dialogue between defense ministry experts of both countries.

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Latvia (shaded gold) and its neighbors. The Latvian Ministry of Defense said on December 8, 2016, its officials met with high-level Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials to talks in Riga. The meeting’s aim was to discuss what the Latvian Ministry of Defense said were “serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country, including large-scale training on the Latvian border.” Russia announced defense experts met in Riga but gave no details on their talks.

The Way Forward

Threat identification and threat inflation are key elements in international affairs. As a result, over the last several decades, alarmism has been prominent in thinking about international security. However, deciding whether a threat is truly urgent and important is difficult, and has potential pitfalls. John Mueller of the CATO Institute explained that alarmism, when successfully generated, very frequently leads to two responses that are serially connected and often prove to be unwise, even dangerous. First, a threatening event is treated not as an aberration, but rather as a harbinger indicating that things have suddenly become much more dangerous, will remain so, and will become worse — an exercise that might be called “massive extrapolation.” Second, there is a tendency to lash out at the threat and to overspend to deal with it without much thought about alternative policies including ones that might advocate simply letting it be. Many in the Baltic States feel that they may fall prey to Russia’s territorial ambitions. The threat that Russia poses to the Baltic States is authentic, and when one hears the tempest swirl, it is rational to prepare a defense against the storm. Clearly, Riga believes that there are options other than simply preparing for all out war or appeasement, particularly given its economic circumstances. Stating that Latvia has the right decide how to proceed with its foreign and defense policy as well as its economic development may seem analogous to lending light to the sun. Still, while Riga has the freedom to act as it chooses, it may have felt, and may still feel, a bit constrained about moving confidently toward overtures and bilateral talks. In an apparent effort to show deference to those partners, it has moved in that direction at a deliberate pace. Talks and agreements may appear to some friends and foes alike as cracks in shield against potential Russian aggression. However, nothing that Latvian officials have ever said would lead anyone to think Riga would accept what might be called poor Russian behavior.

The renowned 19th century Prussian statesman, Otto von Bismarck has been quoted as saying: “A conquering army on the border will not be stopped by eloquence.” The renowned US conservative commentator and author, William F. Buckley, Jr. warned against the devilish conceit that peace might issue from concordance with evil.  While attending day school in London, Buckley coincidently passed through the airfield at Heston Aerodrome on the rainy evening of September 30, 1938 and saw United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wave a piece of paper announcing “Peace in our time.” It is uncertain what Latvia’s latest exercise of free its will–diplomacy with Belarus and Russia–might look like in the end. There is the chance that an enterprise of this type, undertaken by Riga could collapse in a big heap. Perhaps nothing will change. Yet, Riga might just get its diplomatic effort with Belarus and Russia just right. Right actions tend to make for good deeds. The on-going enterprise holds out the promise of great rewards. Faber est suae quisque fortunae. (Every man is the artisan of his own fortune.)

Unintentional Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says: Greater Care Is Required in Many Areas

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The US Central Command (CENTCOM) Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar (above). It is comprised of a joint US military and Coalition team that executes day-by-day combined air and space operations and provides rapid reaction, positive control, coordination, and deconfliction of weapons systems. On September 17, 2016, CAOC was monitoring a Coalition airstrike over Deir Ezzor when Russian Federation forces informed it that the attack was hitting a Syrian military position. The attack impacted a US diplomatic effort with Russia on Syria.

According to a November 29, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Unintentional Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says,” the US Department of Defense identified “unintentional” human mistakes as the causality for the US-led airstrikes that killed dozens of Syrian government troops in September 17, 2016. The strikes occurred as a deal to ease hostilities in Syria, brokered by the US and Russia, was unraveling. They particularly undercut US Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to coordinate the US and Russian air campaigns over Syria. Russian Federation military units, which were working closely with the forces of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad to fight ISIS and other rebels, said the attack had killed 62 Syrian troops and wounded more than 100. The attack marked the first time the US had engaged the Syrian military since it began targeting the ISIS in Syria and Iraq two years ago. It was determined as result of the investigation, led by US Air Force Brigadier General Richard Coe, that the attack was conducted under the “good-faith belief” that the targets were ISIS militants. It also concluded that the strikes did not violate the law of armed conflict or the rules for the US military. Danish, British and Australian forces also participated in the airstrike. Coe said, “In my opinion, these were a number of people all doing their best to do a good job.”

As Kerry was engaged in a crucial effort to persuade Russia to coordinate its air campaign in Syria with similar US efforts when the airstrike occurred, greatcharlie has been fogged-in over why the risky attack was ever ordered. In a previous post, greatcharlie stated that Russian Federation military commanders could benefit greatly from working alongside US air commanders and planners. It was also suggested that the US might provide a demonstration of its targeting and operational capabilities to encourage Russia’s cooperation. However, the errant attack was certainly not the sort of demonstration greatcharlie had in mind. On better days, US air commanders and planners have demonstrated a practically unmatched acumen in using air assets of the US-led coalition’s anti-ISIS air campaign to shape events on the ground in support of the goals of US civilian leaders. US air commanders and planners have very successfully conducted No-Fly Zones and sustained air campaigns over the past three decades, in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, where political goals endured, and in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Those experienced enough in life fully understand that it has its promises and disappointments. Whether events go well or negatively for one, an authentic truth is revealed in the outcome from which valuable, edifying lessons as well as new ideas can be extrapolated. The errant bombing of September 17, 2016 and findings of the investigation of it have come late in the administration of US President Barack Obama. Too little time is really available for lessons from the incident to influence any remaining decisions that the administration might make on Syria or military coordination and cooperation with Russia. The subsequent collapse of the negotiations on military coordination may have assured such decisions would not be required. Yet, for the incoming US administration, they may offer some useful hints on negotiating military coordination and cooperation with Russia on Syria or other countries on other issues if the opportunity arises. A few of those lessons are presented here with the hope they might mitigate the potential of an unfortunate military incident as witnessed in Syria that might also derail a crucial diplomatic effort. The overall hope is that the next administration will be tended by an honorable peace. Quidquid ages, prudenter agas et respice finem! (Whatever you do, do cautiously, and look to the end!)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leave after their bilateral meeting at the APEC Ministers Summit in Lima

The airstrike undercut US Secretary of State John Kerry’s (right) diplomatic effort with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) to coordinate the US and Russian air campaigns over Syria. Bringing Russia over to the US view was already dicey. A few days before the incident, the US and Russia exchanged charges of noncompliance with a ceasefire agreement reached on September 12th in Geneva.

This Was Not the Demonstration of US Capabilities Imagined

The Obama administration may not have actually been enthused about working with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin on Syria, but it recognized that Russia, with its considerable military investment in Syria, can play an important role in ending the war. To that extent, it sought to have Putin agree to have agreement crafted by Kerry and Lavrov to cooperate militarily. The agreement called for formation of a US-Russia Joint Implementation Center to coordinate strikes against ISIS as well as Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic militant forces after there had been seven consecutive days of reduced violence in the civil war and humanitarian aid had begun to flow to besieged communities in Syria. Bringing Russia over to the US view was already dicey enough. A few days before the incident, the US and Russia exchanged charges of noncompliance with the ceasefire agreement that Kerry and Lavrov reached on September 12, 2016 in Geneva.

On August 20, 2016, greatcharlie suggested the US could increase the value of its assistance through an actual demonstration of US capabilities to further encourage a change in Putin’s perspective on Kerry’s proposal on military cooperation. Included among recommendations was 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. The exact manner in which intelligence resources the US proposed to share with Russia and US military resources would have been of value to Russia could have been demonstrated by targeting and destroying a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria. Where possible, US airstrikes could have disrupted and destroyed developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Through a video of the attacks, Putin could have been shown how the unique capabilities of US weapons systems could enhance the quality of Russian airstrikes. He might also have been provided with US military assessments of those attacks.

The US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees US military operations in the Middle East, told the Russians in advance about the planned strike on an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province, calling it a “professional courtesy.” A senior US official said the Russians had acknowledged the message, thereby assuring they would the audience for the US attack. However, after the attack, the Russians had no reason to express appreciation or compliments to CENTCOM. The strike began in the early evening of the next day. According to Russia, two A-10s, two F-16 fighters, and drones of the US-led Coalition were deployed to attack the airfield. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were erroneously fired on a Syrian Arab Army unit. The attack went on for about 20 minutes, with the planes destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of people in the open desert, the official said. Then, an urgent call came into CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and 17 other nations.  The Russians relayed to the CAOC the disappointing news that the US strike was hitting Syrian forces. Four minutes later, the strikes were halted.

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A “bombed up” A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter (above). In the early evening of September 17, 2016, two pairs of Coalition A-10 and F-16 fighters along with drones were deployed to attack an airfield in Deir Ezzor. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were erroneously fired on a Syrian Arab Army position. The attack lasted about 20 minutes, with the fighters destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of Syrian troops in the open desert. If not halted, the entire Syrian unit might have been wiped out.

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. As aircrews cannot identify targets, bombs are dropped 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 injuries and the destruction of nonmilitary structures. US Permanent Representative to the UN, Samantha Power pointed to the issue of targetting by Russian Federation Air Force and Syrian Arab Air Force jets.  On September 17, 2016, Power stated the Syrian government, assisted by Russia, has tortured and bombed its people. She added, “And, yet, in the face of none of these atrocities has Russia expressed outrage, nor has it demanded investigations, nor has it ever called for . . . an emergency meeting of the Security Council” on a Saturday night or any other night.

Air intelligence provides commanders with information on enemy targets to the extent that visual searches of enemy targets is no longer required. Given the speed of fighters and the need to protect aircrews and aircraft from anti-aircraft weapons and other arms, flying at lower altitudes with the goal of identifying targets by visual search is no longer feasible. Even friendly forces are often required to mark targets with flags or smoke for their own safety. US air commanders ordered the attack in the proximity of Syrian forces, calculating that the conclusions of air intelligence about the target were accurate. Informing aircrews that they would be operating in close proximity to Syrian troops did not create any requirement for them to engage in a time consuming, very hazardous, visual search of the target before going into their attack. Nevertheless, as US Air Force Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, the commander of US Air Forces and Combined Forces Air Component in CENTCOM aptly explained, “In this instance, we did not rise to the high standard we hold ourselves to, and we must do better than this each and every time.”

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The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services use their intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of air commanders and planners. However, over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties in Syria are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade air defenses. Bombs are dropped where air intelligence reports state the enemy is located. Attacks in urban centers have resulted in civilian deaths and injuries and the destruction of nonmilitary structures.

Intelligence Analysts Erred

The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services proudly use their own intelligence tactics, techniques, 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, the summer of 2016 proved to be particularly difficult for Russian Federation forces and their allies as progress eastward toward Raqqa and Deir Ezzor was slowed. ISIS was able to apply pressure, infiltrating into areas retaken by the allies and launching counterattacks. The fight for Aleppo became a greater strain than anticipated. Beyond human intelligence collection–spies, the US gathers continuous signal and geospatial intelligence over Syria. Those multiple streams of intelligence could assist 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 already agreed that a map could be drawn up indicating where Islamic militant forces are positioned. They also agreed that US and Russian military personnel working in the same tactical room would jointly analyze the intelligence and select targets for airstrikes.

Reportedly, US surveillance aircraft had been watching the erroneously-labelled Syrian unit for several days. According to a redacted copy of a report that summarized the investigation, a drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province in eastern Syria on September 16, 2016, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The investigation found that those forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the Syrian government. On September 17, 2016, a CENTCOM official, who at the time requested anonymity because the incident was still being investigated, said military intelligence had already identified a cluster of vehicles, which included at least one tank, as belonging to ISIS. Coe stated, “In many ways, these forces looked and acted like the Daesh forces the coalition has been targeting for the last two years,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

In a statement on the investigation of the incident, CENTCOM outlined a number of factors that distorted the intelligence picture for the airstrike. Included among them were “human factors” such as “confirmation bias”; “improper labelling”; and invalid assumptions. The Syrian Arab Army unit observed at Deir Ezzor was wrongly identified or labelled as ISIS early in the analytical process. CENTCOM’s statement indicated that incorrect labelling colored later analysis and resulted in the continued misidentification of the Syrian unit on the ground as ISIS. Further, the statement laid out a series of changes to the targeting process that the Defense Department has already made to include more information-sharing among analysts. The US Air Force has independently placed its process for identifying targets under review.

Qui modeste paret, videtur qui aliquando imperet dignus esse. (The one who obeys with modesty appears worthy of being some day a commander.) What appears to have been needed at the time beyond issues concerning tactics, techniques, procedures and methods for conducting air operations was better coordination of its own diplomatic and military activities regarding Syria. As a sensible precaution, US air commanders and planners should have been informed that operations conducted at that time could have considerable positive or negative impact on US diplomatic efforts in Syria. (The publicized record of the investigation does not touch on this point.) The delicate nature of diplomacy would have been factored into planning, not shrugged off. Interference by civilian leaders in military units’ tactical operations is surely not desired by commanders. Yet, by failing to call attention to the unique political and diplomatic environment in which they were operating over Syria, the matter was left open to chance.

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MQ-1 Predator drone (above). Reportedly, US surveillance aircraft had been watching the erroneously-labelled Syrian military position for several days. A drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province on September 16, 2016, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The investigation found that those forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the Syrian government.

Confirmation Bias and Hormones: Decisionmaking on the Airstrikes

Decipimur specte recti. (We are deceived by the appearance of right.) In the conclusions of the US Defense Department’s investigation, causality for the incident was found to be in part the thinking of US air commanders and planners. It was determined to have been a bit off-kilter and confirmation bias was pointed to specifically. Confirmation bias is a result of the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When individuals desire a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are driven by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to cease collecting information when the evidence gathered at a certain point confirms the prejudices one would like to be true. After an individual has developed a view, the individual embraces any information that confirms it while ignoring, or rejecting, information that makes it unlikely. Confirmation bias suggests that individuals do not perceive circumstances objectively. An individual extrapolates bits of data that are satisfying because they confirm the individual’s prejudices. Therefore, one becomes a prisoner of one’s assumptions. The Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar has been quoted as saying “Fene libenter homines id quod volunt credunt,” which means, “Men readily believe what they want to believe.” Under confirmation bias, this is exactly the case.  Attempting to confirm beliefs comes naturally to most individuals, while conversely it feels less desirable and counterintuitive for them to seek out evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This explains why opinions survive and spread. Disconfirming instances must be far more powerful in establishing truth. Disconfirmation requires searching for evidence to disprove a firmly held opinion.

Cogitationem sobrii hominis punctum temporis suscipe. (Take for a moment the reasoning of a quiet man.) For the intelligence analyst, appropriately verifying one’s conclusions is paramount. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. This has been pointed to as a true manifestation of self-confidence: the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can serve a hypothesis and then gather information from each member in a way that allows the expression of independent assessments. A good example can found in police procedure. In order to derive the most reliable information from multiple witnesses to a crime, witnesses are not allowed to discuss it prior to giving their testimony. The goal is to prevent unbiased witnesses from influencing each other. US President Abraham Lincoln intentionally filled his cabinet with rival politicians who had extremely different ideologies. At decision points, Lincoln encouraged passionate debate and discussion.

At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, research is being done to better understand the biological basis for decisionmaking using lab experiments and biological data. Some of the findings of research scientist, Gideon Nave, who came to Wharton from the university’s neuroscience department, prove as relevant to this case as much as confirmation bias. Nave explains that the process of decision-making is influenced by their biological state. Factors that can influence that biological state naturally include hunger, sleep deprivation and stress. However, Nave is also looking deeper at the influence of hormones on decision-making. In dominant situations, different hormones fluctuate in people. For example, stress creates a clearly measurable biological stress response that consists of elevation of several hormones in our body. Nave has focused on noradrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol specifically affects decisionmaking.

In examining decisionmaking, Nave recognizes that people trade-off by people accuracy and speed when making decisions. Cortisol, Nave has found, influences people’s will to give the simple heuristic, or “gut answer” faster, as if they were under time pressure. There is a simple test Nave uses through which one can observe their own responses. It come in the form of a math word problem. There is a bat and a ball for the US sport baseball. Together, they cost $1.10. Now, the bat costs a dollar more than the ball. What’s the price of the ball? More often than not, individuals tested will give their intuitive answer. Indeed, as the ball is 10 cents, and the bat is $1 more, they typically believe it means that the bat is $1.10, so together the bat and ball would be $1.20. However, that would be incorrect. The correct answer is 5 cents and $1.05. When the answer 10 cents is given, it usually has not been thought through. There is no time limit set for providing an answer. There is no incentive offered by the tester for answering with speed. It seems the only real pressure is the desire of an adult, who may be paid for being correct at his or her job, and may be achievement oriented, to correctly answer what is an elementary school-level math woth word problem with speed and confidence.

In analysis at the tactical level, target identification can require splitting-hairs. Much as a bank teller dispensing cash, a mistake by an intelligence can lead to a crisis. Doubt and uncertainty can be mitigated with sufficient, timely redundant assessments. In a sensitive political and diplomatic environment as the one faced in Syria, the slightest uncertainty should have been cause enough to deliberate and think through a target’s identification. While normally action-oriented, in a sensitive political and diplomatic environment, the commander, for that brief period, could order unit commanders and planners exercising caution in targeting and launching attacks.

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In anew initial statement (above), CENTCOM, still uncertain, recognized the possibility that Syrian forces were hit in Deir Ezzor. For the intelligence analyst, verifying one’s conclusions is paramount. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. It requires the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can set a hypothesis and gather information from each member, allowing for the expression of independent assessments.

Ensuring the Right-hand and the Left-hand Know What the Head Wants

Perhaps civilian leaders in the Obama administration failed to fully consider or comprehend issues concerning measures used to identify and decide upon targets. Perhaps they were unaware that it was more important in that period of intense negotiations with Russia to minimize or simply avoid attacks on targets in close proximity to the forces of Russia and its allies. Under ordinary circumstances, the matter could reasonably be left for Russia commanders in the field to handle without concern for any implications in doing so. If in the future, an effort is made to demonstrate to Russia the best aspects of US capabilities and the benefits enjoyed by US-led Coalition partners in operations against ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic militant forces, some guidance regarding urgent political goals for that period, and the need for enhanced diligence and perhaps restraint in the conduct of operations must be issued. It was either determined or no thought was given to reviewing and approving relevant procedures and initiatives at a time when crucial diplomatic efforts needed to be, and should have been, supported.

Historia magistra vitae et testis temporum. (History is the teacher and witness of times.) During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian leaders recognized the need for enhanced diligence and perhaps restraint in the conduct of a Naval blockade of Cuba. The effort US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to inform US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral George Anderson of that resulted in a renowned angry exchange between them. The sources on which Graham Allison relied upon in the original edition of his seminal work on the crisis, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Little, Brown and Company,1971), claimed that the US Navy failed to implement the President John Kennedy’s orders to draw the blockade like we closer to Cuba ostensibly to give the Soviet Union’s calculating Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikita Khrushchev, more time to decide to half Soviet ships, and that Anderson resisted explaining to McNamara what procedures the Navy would use when intercepting the first Soviet ship to approach the line.

According to Allison’s account of the confrontation between McNamara and Anderson, US President John Kennedy was worried that the US Navy, already restive over the controls imposed on how the blockade of Cuba was to be executed, might “blunder into an incident.” McNamara was closely attuned to Kennedy’s worries and resolved to press the Navy leadership for additional information on its modus operandi. Confronting Anderson, McNamara minced no words: “Precisely what would the Navy do when the first interception occurred?” Anderson told him that he had already covered that same ground before the National Security Council, and the further explanation was unnecessary. This answer angered McNamara, proceeded to lecture Anderson on the political realities: “It was not the President’s design to shoot Russians but rather to deliver a political signal to Chairman Khrushchev. He did not want to push the Soviet leader into a corner; he did not want to humiliate him; he did not want to risk provoking him into a nuclear reprisal. Executing the blockade is a an act of war, one that involved the risk of sinking a Soviet vessel. The sole purpose of taking such a risk would be to achieve a political objective. But rather than let it come to that extreme end, we must persuade Chairman Khrushchev to pull back. He must not be ‘goaded into retaliation’.” Getting the feeling that his lecture did not sink in, McNamara resumed his detailed questioning. Whereupon Anderson, picked up the Manual of Naval Regulations, waved it in McNamara face and shouted, “It’s all in there!” McNamara retorted, “I don’t give a damn what John Paul Jones would have done. I want to know what you are going to do, now!”

Other sources that Allison utilized claimed that civilian leaders believed US antisubmarine warfare operations included using depth charges to force Soviet submarines to surface, raising the risk of inadvertent war. According to Richard Betts in American Force: Dangers, Delusions and Dilemmas in National Security (Columbia University Press, 2011). Subsequent research indicated that these stories were false. Indeed, Joseph Bouchard explains in Command in Crisis: Four Case Studies (Columbia University Press, 1991) that McNamara actually ordered antisubmarine procedures that were more aggressive than those standard in peacetime. Harried civilian leaders may not have fully comprehended the implications of all these technical measures, or may have had second thoughts. Nevertheless, the relevant procedures and initiatives did not escape their review and approval.

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US President John Kennedy (left) with US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (right). During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian leaders recognized the need for enhanced diligence in the conduct of a Naval blockade of Cuba. McNamara’s effort to inform the US Navy of that resulted in a renowned exchange between himself and the Chief of Naval Operations, US Navy Admiral George Anderson. Well before the errant Syria airstrike, civilian leaders should have told US air commanders and planners of their operations’ potential to impact crucial, ongoing US diplomatic efforts.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s comedy, The Tempest, Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, although forced to take refuge on an island for twelve years after his brother Antonio seized his title and property, refused to use his extraordinary powers, magic, to take revenge when the opportunity presented itself.  Prosperous remarks, “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” The best definitions of virtue can be found among teachings of various religions. However, to avoid being impolitic by choosing one religion and its tenants over others, its definition can be drawn from philosophy. From a philosophical perspective, virtue is well-defined by the “Golden Mean” proffered by Cleobulos of Lindos, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. The Golden Mean manifested an understanding that life is not lived well without following the straight and narrow path of integrity. That life of moderation is not what is popularly meant by moderation. The classical Golden Mean is the choice of good over what is convenient and commitment to the true instead of the plausible. Virtue is then the desire to observe the Golden Mean. Between Obama and Putin, no confidence, no trust, no love existed, and relations between the US and Russia have been less than ideal. Regarding the errant Syria airstrike, the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said it perhaps served as evidence of US support for ISIS and an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting the Syrian government which the US sought to remove. Churkin’s statement could be viewed as indicaing that insinuated into his thinking was the notion commonly held worldwide of the US as virtuous country, a notion proffered, promoted, and purportedly fashioned into its foreign policy. It appears that he, too, would have liked to believe US actions and intentions are guided by virtue. Yet, it would seem that was a hope unfulfilled as a result of the bombing Syrian troops, coupled with all the disagreements and disputes, trials and tribulations between the US and Russia, and led to his expression of so much disappointment and discouragement. Nihil est virtute pulchrius. (There is nothing more beautiful than virtue.)

The US must be a role model, a moral paragon as the world’s leader acting as virtuously as it speaks. The US leaders must act virtuously not just because others worldwide expect it, but rather because they should expect it of themselves. Diplomatic relations with Russia must be transformed in line with a new policy necessitating efforts to end misunderstandings and to exploit opportunities in which the two countries can coordinate and cooperate. However, achieving that will require the effective stewardship of US diplomatic, military, political, and economic activities by US leaders. Micromanagement can often result in mismanagement in certain situations. Still, in the midst of on-going efforts  to resolve urgent and important issues, US leaders must take steps to ensure that all acting on behalf of the US. They must thoroughly understand the concept and intent of the president, the implications of any actions taken individually or by their organizations, and perform their tasks with considerable diligence. All must make a reasonable effort to ensure errant actions are prevented. Melius est praevenire quad praeveniri. (Better to forestall than to be forestalled.)

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, reconstruction 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.