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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian Cyber Attacks during the 2016 US Presidential Election

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

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

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

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

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

Reaching Agreements: Easier Said than Done

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

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

The US and EU took Putin to task for that bold military operation. Harsh sanctions were levied and Russia was cast out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies. Putin has held on to the territory and has continued to do so in the face of even tougher sanctions against Russian interests. He levied his own sanctions against US and EU products and even began heavily supporting separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine. In a March 18, 2014 speech declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin vented his anger at the US and EU, enumerating some Western actions that fostered contempt in Moscow. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice and false philanthropy of Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple their country; the expansion of NATO to include members of the Soviet Union’s own alliance, the Warsaw Pact; the erroneous Russian decision to agree to the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which he refers to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally. Ulterius ne tende odiis. (Go no further down the road of hatred.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confidence Building Measures: In Brief

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bad Reaction

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

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

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

Dumping the Cyber Security Unit Proposal

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

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. Many times already, he has indicated political moves, legislation might be possible, but the issue may be timing. A master negotiator, it is these concepts that will ostensibly guide him in his first “business meeting” with Putin. 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.)

Putin’s Next Target May Be Moldova, But His Goal Is to Increase Trade, Not Conquer via Military Action

cq373omweaey4-xA September 16, 2016 Wall Street Journal editorial explained the West should give greater concern to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s intentions in Moldova. It points to a referendum in the breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria calling for annexation by Russia. That referendum along with recent political unrest and mass protests (as seen above) make Moldova appear ripe for conquest. Russia is trying to create greater ties in Moldova, but its efforts should not be misconstrued as a prelude to hybrid warfare. Western analysts must overcome the predilection of viewing any Russian moves westward as a step toward war.

According to a September 13, 2016 Wall Street Journal editorial entitled “Putin’s Next Target,” while Western attention has been fixed in Ukraine as the field of Russian aggression in Europe, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is turning its attention to Moldova, where Moscow controls a breakaway territory called Transnistria. The editorial explains that a referendum was held in Transnistria on the 10th anniversary of its establishment in which 97.3 percent of residents demanded to be annexed by Russia. Transnistria’s president, Evgeniy Shevchuk further marked the occasion by issuing a decree asking Russia for full annexation, and announcing the formation of a committee to provide a plan for the harmonization of Transnistria law with Russian law by November. The Wall Street Journal editorial says the matter bears attention “less another Russian power play comes to pass.”

While the editorial notes Putin has been reticent about the decree, it also explains Putin has been flexing his military muscles in Transnistria. Drills were conducted by the Russian Federation’s peacekeeping force in Transnistria both in 2015 and 2016. Although Moscow promised in 2002 to remove its contingent of about 1,000 peacekeepers they remained in the territory. The Wall Street Journal surmises that those exercises and Shevchuk’s annexation decree may indicate Putin is testing the climate in the West for a potential next move. In response the Wall Street Journal says US and European leaders must telegraph that any effort to make permanent Russia’s occupation of Transnistria will be treated as an illegal encroachment on Moldovan sovereignty and trigger sanctions.

Evidence may exist within certain parameters to support the view of the Wall Street Journal that Moldova might be ripe for Putin’s taking. Western analysts, who think in line with the Wall Street Journal, have expressed concern that a prospective effort by Russia to take Moldova would come in the form of hybrid warfare—the blend of unidentified troops, propaganda and economic pressure. In addition to maintaining forces on Moldovan territory, for almost a year, pro-Russian political parties who receive support from Moscow, albeit along with considerable support from pro-EU, pro-Romanian parties, helped to organize mass anti-government protests which in 2015 and 2016 have involved tens of thousands of participants. The protests started after the three Molovan banks that had kept social security funds somehow lost $1 billion prior in November 2014. Pro-Russian political parties have also played a part in organization anti-government demonstrations, particularly in 2016. Throw on top everything the fact that Moldova as one of the poorest European countries has to deal with the pressing issues of overwhelming poverty, corruption, an inefficient legal system and widespread workforce migration to Russia and the EU. It may very well be true that Putin senses the West now lacks the determination to forcefully ensure its interests. Perhaps the West is doing less than it should to dissuade Russia from acting wherever it sees fit. Former Soviet republics and new Member States of NATO in Central and Eastern Europe fear the military might of Russia.

There are a number of analysts in the US and EU who have surmised that for the near future Russia will exercise restraint due to its weak economy, isolation from the West, and concerns that it would over-commit its military forces. Still, far more sense they have the advantage over Russia, and express a degree of certainty over what Putin’s intentions are. Concerning Moldova, that may account for what colloquially would be called a knee-jerk response to a more nuanced situation. The predilection of analysts to view any moves by Russia westward to establish greater political, economic, or military ties to a country as a prelude to war must be overcome. That will allow for more rationale policy approaches and more efficacious moves by the US, EU, and NATO. Acclinis falsis animus meliora recusat. (The mind intent upon false appearances refuses to admit better things.)
moldaviaMoldova was carved from Romania’s Bessarabia Province in 1940 by the Soviet Union as a consequence of its non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. After declaring its independence from the Soviet Union, power shifted between the Communist Party which has sought a strong linkage with Russia, and pro-Romanian, pro-European parties which have advocated for EU membership. Since 2009, efforts have been made to move westward, but a final choice on which way to turn has not been made.

Moldova: In Brief

In 1940, Moldova was carved from Romania’s Bessarabia Province by the Soviet Union as a consequence of its non-aggression agreement with Nazi Germany, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 23, 1939. Since then, Moldova has been home to three main ethnic groups, Moldovans, Russians, and Ukrainians. When Moldova became an independent country, power shifted between the Communist Party which has as a custom sought a strong linkage with Russia, and pro-European parties that have advocated for EU membership. In 2009, pro-European parties took firm control in Chisinau, and in 2014, Moldova signed of an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade to deepen political ties with Brussels and gradually integrate Moldova into the European Common Market. Exports increased, the economy grew, and, in response to reforms, including improving human rights, Moldovan citizens were entitled to travel visa-free into the EU. However, corrupt politics and a confusing, mazelike, parliamentary structure made it nearly impossible for Chisinau to recurvate in order to meet the requirements of EU ascension. After those initial days of change, little was done after to open up the country’s economy and its institutions. Moldova remains one of Europe’s poorest countries. Low incomes cause hundreds of thousands of Moldovans to seek a better life abroad.

Many Moldovans still look to the EU for answers. It accounts for the fact that the majority Moldovan voters in the past three parliamentary elections since 2009 have opted for liberal, pro-Western, and albeit, pro-Romanian governments. In that vein, many officials in Chisinau see Romania as a vital counterweight to Russian influence. Bucharest is generally recognized on the international stage as a representative of Moldova’s interests in the network of international organizations, as well as a source of financial air and the know-how necessary for the implementation of reforms. However, other Moldovans instead believe prosperity lies with Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union. The gap between social and political forces in the country progressively widened. Both sides seem to have temporarily united in response to the average Moldovans’ resentment toward the elite, the oil oligarchs. The disappearance of $1 billion from the country’s banks stoked that frustration. It well-illustrated the failure of Moldova’s leaders to protect their citizens’ interests. The news spread and caused the depreciation of the local currency, the leu.  Price increases and soaring interest rates were accompanied by the loss of purchasing power of the local population Official sources report that in 2015, the average salary in Moldova was just $250. Public finances were battered by the bail-out required to stabilize the banks. Occasio aegre offertur, facile amittitur. (Opportunity is offered with difficulty, lost with ease.

street_marketMoldovan street vendors (above). In 2009, pro-European parties took firm control. in Chisinau, and in 2014, Moldova signed of an EU Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade to deepen ties with Brussels and integrate Moldova into the European Common Market. Exports increased, the economy grew, and, in response to reforms, including improving human rights, Moldovan citizens were able to travel visa-free into the EU. Yet, after those initial days of change, little more was done to open up the country’s economy and institutions. Moldova remains one of Europe’s poorest countries.

In the spring of 2015 citizens already fed up with the disappearance of $1 billion from Moldovan banks, corruption, poverty, and immigration problems for twenty-five years since the breakaway from the Soviet Union, engaged in large-scale protests country-wide. The protests were organized in the Dignity and Truth Platform Party that was established in February 2015, particularly in response to the theft of funds from the banks. Dignity and Truth, has been led by lawyers, journalists, and members of Moldovan civil society. It sharply has criticized the authorities and simultaneously has supported the formation of an authentic pro-EU reformist government and pushing for the country’s EU integration. One protest was attended by over 100,000 citizens. Most recently, in August 2016, tensions boiled over during Moldova’s Independence Day parade.  Protesters clashed with police in the capital. One protester lamented: “We decided to celebrate this day in the manner because we do not at all feel free. People are poor, people leave the country. Those who have recently stolen a billion dollars from us, organize military parades, waste millions from the budget on it, which essentially means from our money in time crisis.”   Protesters also expressed anger against oil oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc’s influence in the government and called for early elections.
_85409796_028900060-1Mass protest in Chisinau, September 2015 (above). In Moldova, citizens already frustrated by corruption, poverty, and immigration problems for twenty-five years since the breakaway from the Soviet Union, engaged in large-scale protests country-wide since the spring of 2015. The protests were organized in the Dignity and Truth Platform Party that was established in February 2015, particularly in response to the theft of $1 billion in funds from the banks. Protests had included as many as 100,000 citizens. Tensions boiled over recently over Moldova’s 2016 Independence Day parade.

Moldova’soon Independent Republis: Transnistria and Gagauzia

Transnistria is located on the eastern side of the Dneister River and 450 miles along the Moldova-Ukraine border. The Slavic element of Russians and Ukrainians constitute nearly 60 percent of Moldova’s population. They speak Russian or Ukrainian or both. When the Moldovan Parliament ruled in 1989 that the official language of the republic was to be Romanian (Moldovan) written in the Latin script, and gave five years for non-Romanian citizens to learn it, Russian and Ukrainian speaking population of Transnistria registered their disapproval There was a sense that pan-Romanian nationalism was on the rise. That was when Transnistria region declared its independence from Moldova. Moldova rejected that declaration and engaged in a two year campaign to retake the territory. What followed was a series of clashes between the sides, culminating with a violent armed conflict into which the Russian Federation 14th Army, based in Moldova, was drawn in on the side of the breakaway republic. Two years later Moldova proved unable to retake the territory in a war that killed 1,500 people The number of war refugees was approximated at 120,000 and 150,000.   Transnistria emerged as a pro-Russian statelet. To maintain peace and security in the territory, a joint command structure and tri-lateral peacekeeping force, comprised of Russian, Moldovan, and Transnistrian units were established following Transnistria peace settlement on July 21, 1992,  In 1998, 10 Ukrainian observers joined the peacekeeping force. The Russia still maintains 1000 peacekeepers in the territory despite a 2002 promise by Moscow to remove them.. Since 2005, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU, the US, the Russian Federation, Ukraine, and Moldova and Transnistria have been engaged in a “5+2” process aimed at bringing the conflict between Moldova and Transnistria to an understanding consistent with Moldova’s territorial integrity while providing a special status for Transnistria

In 1990, fears that Moldova might seek to unify with Romania led the region to declare its independence, calling itself the Gagauz Republic, even before the Transnistria conflict erupted. Moreover, unlike Transnistria, fighting never broke out in Gagauz. A 1994 compromise between Chisinau and authorities in the Gagauzia’s capital, Comrat, led to the creation of the autonomous region of Gagauzia within Moldova. Initially, Moldova’s law on the status of Gagauzia gave the region the right to declare independence should Moldova “lose its sovereignty,” at the same time, meaning seek unification with Romania, but a 2003 amendment to the Moldova constitution abolished that right. declaring Gagauzia a “constituent and integral” part of Moldova. The Gagauz are Orthodox Christian people of Turkic origin who settled in the region nearly 800 years ago and are linguistically, ethically, and culturally distinct from their Moldovan, Romanian, and Ukrainian neighbors. Gagauzia, along with the remaining territory known as Bessarabia, became part of the Russian Empire following the Russo-Turkish War from 1806-1812. While other parts of the eventual Soviet Union saw a decent amount of ethnic integration, over 80 percent of the territory’s population remains Gagauz. Still, it’s population of 160,000 represents about 5 percent of Moldova’s total population. Gagauzia is not actually a congruous region. It includes all areas of Moldova in which the Gaguaz are over half the population, as well as parts of the country that have joined Gagauzia by referendum. Gagauzia’s boundaries have gone through several revisions since 1994. occupying just 5 percent of Moldova’s territory.
moldova-transnistria-gagauzia-mapTransnistria is an unrecognized republic which was declared in 1990. With Rusia’s assistance, it managed to prevent Moldova from reclaiming its territory in the War of Transnistria in 1992. Since the war ended, the Russian Federation has stationed 1000 peacekeepers there. Fighting never broke out in Gagauzia and Russia has no troops there. A 1994 compromise between Chisinau and local authorities in Comrat led to the creation of the autonomous of Gagauzia within Moldova. With a population of 160,000, it is a non-contiguous territory occupying 5 percent of Moldova’s territory.

Moldova’s Neighbors: Romania, Ukraine, and Russia

Since great portions of Moldova’s population are ethnically associated with its neighboring countries, neighboring governments have established lines into Moldova. Besides its traditional goals of consolidating its own position within the EU and NATO and bolstering its partnership with the US, Romania for years has declared that Moldova is a priority of its foreign policy. Romania’s policy aims toward Moldova include reinforcing its neighbor’s position within the system of Western institutions and improving its international linkages. In that vein, Romania has also tried to prevent any attempt to deepen Moldova’s integration in Russian structures, primarily the Eurasian Economic Union. That requires Bucharest to achieve its aims at the political and diplomatic levels, but also by increasing economic ties with Moldova.

Often the notion of Moldovan-Romanian unification is discussed by Romanian political leaders, However, for now, that is unrealistic for political, economic, and social reasons. In Bucharest, politicians would lose power and most would be deprived of career prospects, and established political and business interests would be jeopardized. Romanian policy towards Moldova, and by extension the two countries political relations, are most often shaped, among other factors, political pragmatism resulting from the desire to win the support of the Romanian electorate. Romania has managed to play a generally positive role in drawing Moldova toward Western structures and has been effective in its actions, its effectiveness in other areas of bilateral cooperation has been negligible. The technical support that Bucharest has provided is less than necessary, and infrastructure projects have been seriously delayed as a result of problems in coordinating actions among relevant ministries. This has led to a large breach between Bucharest’s frequent declarations of support for Moldova and actual results. Indeed, Romania has not implemented a coherent strategy toward Moldova. Its policy has essentially been a function of domestic, not foreign policy. Bucharest’s political objectives are often subordinated to rivalry among Romanian political parties.acba38cb4c3725a54cd1663c51b7d537

Moldova (shaded green above) and its neighbors. Romania for years has declared that Moldova is a foreign policy priority. Its policy aims for Moldova include reinforcing its position within Western institutions and improving its international links. Ukraine and Moldova have unresolved bilateral issues include long lasting property issues related to resorts inherited from the Soviet Union, a hydroelectric station, and an issue of border demarcation. Russia views Moldova as an integral part of its geopolitical and cultural space and invests a great deal in preserving and increasing its influence in the country.

For the Ukrainian government, relations with Moldova have been overshadowed by Kiev’s relations of with the US, the EU, and Russia. Chisinau has had to repeatedly deal with Ukrainian officials and experts who have perceived Moldova as being too small to influence regional developments and too weak to shape the agenda of the bilateral relations. However, such an approach has been proven false for a number of reasons. Despite Moldova’s diminutive size, relatively weak economy, and limited influence in the region, the Moldovan government is tough in negotiations. Bilateral issues that remain unresolved between Ukraine and Moldova include long lasting property issues related to resorts inherited from the Soviet Union, a hydroelectric station, and an issue of border demarcation. Left unresolved, these issues could potentially harm joint efforts for European integration, influence the 5+2 (Talks on the Transnistria conflict settlement, and joint participation in the regional projects,

Regarding Transnistria, since 2014, Ukraine has massed heavy weapons on the border with the statelet to deter the launch of a military campaign from it. Kiev gas also imposed limits on the transit of Transnistrian nationals and citizens of Russia, 200,000 of whom currently live in Transnistria. There are 500,000 ethnic Russians in Transnistria. When appointed in June 2015, the Governor of Ukraine’s Odessa Region Mikhail Saakashvili announced plans to reinforce Ukraine’s border with Transnistria. He stated at an Odessa news conference, “We have two major tasks—to reinforce the border and curb corruption. Drugs and weapons trafficking across the border means nothing good.” He also blamed Transnistrian authorities of destabilizing the situation in Ukraine.

The Wall Street Journal’s assay of the Russian Federaton’s Moldova policy was correct to the extent that it explained Moscow wants Moldova to remain in its sphere of influence. Putin wants Moldova to join his Eurasian Economic Union and not the EU. He considers Moldova to be an integral part of Russia’s geopolitical and cultural space and has invested heavily in preserving and increasing its influence in the country. It uses elements of soft power to gain control of assets and political opinion support.   Russian authorities can also manipulate Moldova through its dependence on Russian policies on gas supplies. Within the Russian speaking population of Moldova, sentiment has ostensibly been manipulated through the idea of Russkiy Mir (Russian World). True, the Moldovan heritage is not Slav. Still, Sovietization and Russification had an impact on the identity of many Moldovans.
630xnxd78c0b1-zelenye-chelovechki_628x420-jpg-pagespeed-ic_-xxvmhyzuga1“Green men” in Crimea (above). Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the explosion of violence in the Donetsk and Luhansk, exposed the challenge Chisinau faces in maintaining its border and interpreting Russia’s actions and intentions. The Wall Street Journal editorial noted Putin has been flexing his military muscles and testing the climate in the West for a potential next move. Considering this, it would not be completely unreasonable for Chisinau to consider that Moldova might be facing the threat from hybrid warfare.

The Hybrid Warfare “Threat” to Moldova

Accensa domo proxium, tua quoque periclitatur. (When the house of your neighbor is in flames, your own is in danger.) Moldova’s leaders do not speak to Russia with timidity, but they are realists concerning the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two counties, and signal that understanding in their measured actions. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the explosion of violence in the Donetsk and Luhansk, exposed the challenge Chisinau faces in maintaining its border and interpreting Russia’s actions and intentions. The Wall Street Journal editorial noted Putin has been flexing his military muscles and testing the climate in the West for a potential next move. Given these considerations, it would not be completely unreasonable or unwarranted for Chisinau to consider the possibility that Moldova might be facing the threat from subversion and insurgency, characteriistic of hybrid warfare. Elements of the tactic include::

A de-legitimization media campaign:

  1. The population’s preferences are influenced by altering their perceived needs

The political subversion stage:

  1. Front groups are created to gain public credibility
  2. The country’s institutions—particularly military and law enforcement—are infiltrated.
  3. Governmental power is corroded by fomenting riots, staging violent demonstrations, and generally igniting civil unrest.

The final stage:

  1. Legitimate power is replaced by the capture of government buildings by force and local law enforcement and military units are disabled.

Moscow has already punished Moldova for seeking closer ties with the West. Import bans were placed on Moldovan wines in 2013 and agricultural products in 2014, each time over health regulations and each time close to Moldovan EU summits and accords. New restrictions on remittances that Moldovan workers in Russia send home have also hampered economic growth. Remittances represent over 30 percent of Moldova’s GDP and up to 65 percent of them come from Russia. Once the Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement were signed with the EU in June 2014, prices of imported gas from Russia rose. Moldova is heavily dependent on imported energy and the Russian state-owned Gazprom is its main supplier of gas. To reduce Moldova’s dependency on Russian gas, a pipeline was constructed between the Romanian town of Iasi and Moldova town of Ungheni. Although the pipeline was ready for use, Chisinau, seemingly concerned over displeasing Moscow, announced in November 2015 that it had extended its gas contracts with Russia for another year. There are fears that tensions between the pro-Russia population and the pro-Romania Unionist which support reunification with could also make Moldova vulnerable and could provide Russia a plausible justification to intervene. Russian media which is widely available in Moldova, serves as a soft power instrument for wider dissemination of Russian official propaganda and anti-Western messages.
victory-day-transnistria-1-680x365-1Transnistrian troops on parade (above). Transnistria’s leaders in Tiraspol say Moldova and Ukraine have conspired to keep their country under an economic blockade. Russia accuses Moldova and Ukraine of squeezing Transnistria. Kiev denies any systematic actions against Moldova except suspending military cooperation after Moscow annexed Crimea and began supporting rebels in Eastern Ukraine. Still, Kiev has built up its forces on its border with Transnistria. Transnistria has mobilized its army reservists between 18 and 27. Its forces have participated in exercises with Russian Federation forces since 2015.

In his speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 13, 2016, Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev referred to the political crisis in Moldova as a major threat to European security.  Many nfluential Western politicians are of the same opinion. On August 10, 2015, Thorbjorn Jagland, the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, referred to Moldova as “an occupied state” and pointed out that the country could become the next issue for EU security. He stated: “Many in Moldova worry that Transnistria could become the next Crimea, an anxiety that has been further fueled by appeals for Russian protection from some of the province’s civic groups.”  Despite protests from Chisinau, in April 9, 2015, Russian forces conducted a drill in Transnistria. According to Russian news agencies, 400 Russian troops participated in exercises in Transnistria. They fired 100,000 rounds of ammunition. Again, on August 2016, Russian Federation forces stationed in Transnistria held a tank drill in the territory. Some Western analysts went as far as to say such exercises were intended to create the impression that Putin might take more dramatic action to subdue that defiant country. Western analysts also allege Putin was sending a warning to Moldovans to abandon their dreams of Western integration.

Russia accuses Moldova and Ukraine of squeezing Transnistria. Kiev denies any systematic actions against Tiraspol other than the suspension of military cooperation that followed Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and actions in eastern Ukraine. On June 12, 2015, Ukraine moved troops toward its border with Transnistria. Alarmed, Transnistria’s Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaly Ignatiev stated, “the situation here is very bad . . . Economic production is going down, foreign trade is shrinking, the security situation is equally alarming with our Moldovan partners holding military drills with NATO and the Ukrainian pressure mounting everyday.”  Transnistria’s leaders believe Moldova and Ukraine have conspired to keep their country under an economic blockade and have mobilized their republic’s army reservists between 18 and 27.

If Moldova faced Russian military intervention, it would unlikely be able to successfully respond. In terms of preparations by Chisinau, Moldovan forces initially began conducting a series of exercises ostensibly to prepare for a possible Russian attempt to seize its territory following Russian actions in Crimea and Donetsk and Luhansk. Those exercises, however, convinced few in Moldova that the country was at all prepared to efficaciously defend itself against hybrid warfare or any other type of attack. Those efforts made seemed more than anything else to be examples of “pokazuhka.”   In the Soviet Union, pokazuhka referred to performances by units designed by military commanders to create the appearance of troop combat readiness to impress superiors and gain commendations. Beyond such  window-dressing style training, Moldovan forces lacked military hardware, spare parts, fuel, munitions, body armor, food supplies, and light anti-tank weapons. The defense budget has been kept at $30 million, hovering between 0.3 and 0.6 GDP for the last several years. What Moldovan forces need to know is how to fight in densely populated urban and rural areas, train in the calibrated use of artillery avoid the self-destructive act of demolishing their own country’s infrastructure, and train to fight in an environment in which their opponent would restablish air superiority.
1026752708To prepare for possible Russian aggression, Moldovan forces initially began conducting a series of unilateral exercises. Those exercises, however, convinced few that Moldova was at all prepared to efficaciously defend itself against hybrid warfare or any other type of attack. Moldova soon received opportunities to train with NATO troops. Still, training and assistance to Moldova will be limited because it is not a full NATO member.

To help Moldova, a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, on July 25, 2015, about 800 troops from Moldova, the US, Romania, Poland, and Georgia took part in a joint military exercise in at the Balti military base in Moldova. The aim of exercise known as Joint Effort 2015 was to test the capabilities of the countries’ armed forces to cooperate. Moldova has since hosted additional military exercises since. Indeed, as part of the on-going cooperation between US and Moldovan defense forces, US, Moldovan, and Romanian troops conducted exercise Fire Shield 2016, a combined small arns, artillery training exercise at the Bulboaca Training Area, Moldova. The purpose of the exercise is to improve interoperability, explore concurrent training opportunities, and conduct safety training. Yet, training as well as assistance to Moldova will be limited because it is not a full-fledged NATO Member State. Moldova might receive some critical non-lethal equipment such as counter-battery radar, secure communications, and tactical drones. NATO could also intensify the training of Moldovan military forces in territorial defense However, none of that will truly make Moldova capable of deterring possible Russian aggression.

Pro-Europe national leaders in Chisinau pray to be part of the EU and NATO, but that possibly will not come right away. Granting Moldova NATO membership now, albeit hardly a possibility, or in the near future, may pose a set of problems that other member states may not ever want to deal with. Some in the West may even oppose arming Moldova, calculating that doing so would only cause Russia to inject more military forces in Transnistria. All of this means Chisinau should not feel certain of the US and EU commitment to help protect Moldova’s sovereignty and rights as an independent country. The administration of US President Barack Obama has indicated that the present and future challenge of US foreign policy is no longer to isolate and defeat an existential foe as Russia. Rather, it is creating a sustainable balance of power that advances the US interests by preserving peace and security and fostering collaboration among geopolitical rivals in addressing global transnational threats. It is difficult to assess how a new US administration will respond over Moldova.

Moldova: A False Positive for Hybrid Warfare Today

A false positive is an error in an evaluation process which leads one to conclude that a given condition has been fulfilled when it actually has not been fulfilled.  Russia certainly has exerted pressure on Moldova, but that may only be part of an effort to strengthen its diplomatic hand, not an overture to war. Russia is well-aware that cooperation stimulates economic growth and higher standards of living on both sides of a border by improving conditions for free trade and exchange. Russia believes that can be achieved by investment and integrating the region into the communication and transportation networks of its Eurasian Economic Union. Inter-border cooperation is understood to be a prerequisite of broader integration processes and improving relations between neighboring countries. It can serve as a mechanism for coping with the challenges and jolts resulting from the new divisions created between EU and Eurasian Economic Union countries. Domestic policy priorities and international and regional security issues can be harmonized through it. Inter-border cooperation can also serve to promote minority rights.
_87815849_3fc5bfe4-2a04-4658-9538-bea913051fcfIn July 16, 2016, Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip held important meetings with Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin in Moldova. The aim of the meeting was to tackle the bilateral cooperation agenda. Rogozin offered a proposal for invigorated contacts between Chisinau and Tiraspol that would allow for normal relations, “above all in economics.” They discussed the division of Moldova into zones of influence,” one looking toward the EU, the other looking toward the Eurasian Economic Union.

Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin made a two-day visit to Moldova on July 6, 2016, during which he had important meetings in Chisinau with Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip. The aim of the meeting was to allow the two officials to tackle the latest developments concerning the main elements on the bilateral cooperation agenda. Reports indicate Rogozin came at the invitation of Filip.  Filip emphasized Moldova’s interest in boosting the trade and investment relations with Russian partners and in particular, in the integration of Moldovan goods export to the Russian market. The Transnistria conflict settlement was also an important issue on the meeting agenda. Rogozin and Filip expressed support for the 5+2 talks, and welcomed the resumption of the discussion in this format. Additionally, the two officials discussed aspects of their countries’ cooperation in the migration sector, as well as in the cultural and humanitarian fields. They recognized the need to promote more governmental programs on developing ties in these cooperative areas.

Omne tulit punctum qui miscuit utile dulci. ([He] has gained every point who has combined [the useful with the] agreeable.) More detailed reports of the meeting between Rogozin and Filip, however, paint a more intriguing picture Rogozin explained Russia wanted to see invigorated contacts between Chisinau and Tiraspol aimed at a return to normal relations, “above all in economics.”   What the two officials most importantly discussed was the de facto division of “zones of influence” one looking toward the West and the EU and one looking toward the East and the Eurasian Economic Union. The formally unrecognized Transnistria and the autonomous Gagauzia would be part of the eastern zone. The arrangement would also allow for the free movement of people and goods between them and to the broader communities of which each is a part. Further, the division of zones of influence would ostensibly spread to all areas of life, including information policy and civic freedoms. Activities that would be perfectly legal in one zone in Moldova could possibly result in arrest in the other.
017627776_30300With regard to trade with Moldova, Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin has presented a proposal to Moldova that would result in a creative arrangement for Russia. As Moldova is not subject to EU sanctions, theoretically, Russia could move its goods into a proposed European zone in Moldova via Transnistria and Gagauzia and thus escape restrictions. Simultaneously, the territories would become points for the expansion of the Russian world. Given the need to ensure that those territories remain part of Moldova, Moscow would hardly consider annexing Transnistria or Gagauzia.

With regard to trade with Moldova, Rogozin proposed a creative arrangement. Moldova is not subject to sanctions. Thus, theoretically, Russia could move its goods into a proposed European zone in Moldova via Transnistria and Gagauzia and escape restrictions. Simultaneously, the territories would become points for the expansion of the Russian world. Since Russia would need to ensure that those territories remained part of Moldova, Moscow would hardly consider annexing Transnistria or Gagauzia. Interestingly, after meeting with Filip, Rogozin went into Tiraspol without the usual complaints from Chisinau about visits of Russian officials to Transnistria. Rogozin, for his part, did not meet with pro-Russian opposition figures or mention any broader political settlement. For some analysts, this has created the impression that in the course of preliminary meetings, Moscow and Chisinau had firmly agreed about the proposed economic arrangement

Since that visit by Rogozin to Moldova, Chisinau has implored the West to help provide relief from pressure by Moscow.  Filip stated on August 16, 2016, “Through elections and international agreements, we have steadfastly chosen the Euro-Atlantic community as our inspiration and destination, and the current government is dedicated to securing our EU path. Moscow is none too pleased, and that is why we need the help of Washington and other Western capitals to solidify our transition from several decades of communism into a free-market economy.” In coming presidential elections, Moldovans will make a choice whether to stay on the pro-Western path toward the EU or more closer to Russia’s orbit

The Way Forward

In Act II, Scene ii of William Shakespeare’s comedy, Trolius and Cressida, Hector, the Prince of Troy, a fierce warrior, and leader of the Trojan armies, states: “Modest doubt is call’d The beacon of the wise, the tent that searches To the bottom of the worst.” Searching for the worst, one might consider that if things do not go Russia’s way in Moldova’s coming presidential elections, Moscow could begin to quietly provide enhanced economic support to Transnistria and Gagauzia. That aid might take the form of a considerable amount of Russian rubles to encourage greater purchases of Russian goods. That aid might initially be cloaked. It could also continue to provide humanitarian aid using truck convoys. Russia could provide financial support to pro-Russian separatist political organizations. To encourage ethnic-Russians to remain in Transnistria and Gagauzia, Russia may assist directly in the infrastructure improvements in those territories, as well as focus on the construction of new schools, churches, community centers, and infrastructure projects that meet the needs of those communities. At the same time, Russia could enable pro-Russian separatists in Transnistria and Gagauzia as a hedge against any attempts to reverse gains made. Separatists could be enabled to defend themselves with training from Russian military advisers perhaps acting covertly and they could also be provided with new Russian armaments. Russia would unlikely withdraw its forces in Transnistria and could possibly increase the measure of those forces to create the capability to rush into restive Gagauzia if any fighting began there. It is easy to postulate such theories on possible moves by Moscow, they are unlikely to be observed in Moldova.  A decision against Russia’s interests in Moldova will not create an ultimate crisis for Moscow. The wisdom exists to resist war.

Nihil est incertus volgo. (Nothing is more uncertain than the favor of the crowd.) Moldova’s sovereignty is as important an issue in coming elections as the country’s economic future. Paramount in considering Rogozin’s proposal is that it would not only establish the defined interests of Moscow, but would also preserve Moldova’s unity, solvency. Despite imperfections in the proposal, it might best serve Moldova’s interests for the moment. To an extent, Rogozin’s proposal represents an effort at compromise by Moscow. Unable to bring all of Moldova into its Eurasian Economic Union, it seeks to create spheres of interest. It may very well be a signal from Moscow that it intends to stick with diplomacy to resolve its issues with Moldova. Despite veiled threats from some senior Russian Federation officials and apprehension among Moldovan officials, Chisinau signed the Association Agreement with the EU in 2014. Moldovan officials now appear somewhat concerned over Russia’s reaction to a possible vote by Moldovans to remain on a western track in coming presidential elections. If they vote to go West, it ironically may prove to have been Moscow’s adherence to a diplomatic tack on establishing zones of influence that created enough breathing space for them to feel unafraid to do so.

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

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

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

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

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

Igniting Putin: A New Russian Threat Excites Europe

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

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

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

How Relations with Putin Went Wrong Way

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

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

Between those years, the US and EU took Putin to task for his annexation of the Crimea. Harsh sanctions were levied and Russia was cast out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies. Even tougher sanctions against Russian interests were threatened by the US if aggression against Ukraine escalated. Putin responded to it all with sanctions against US and EU products. In a March 18, 2014 speech declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin vented his anger at the US and EU, enumerating some Western actions that fostered contempt in Moscow. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice and false philanthropy of Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple their country; the expansion of NATO to include members of the Soviet Union’s own alliance, the Warsaw Pact; the erroneous Russian decision to agree to the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which he refers to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally. Incursions of Russian bombers and fighters in NATO airspace and Russian warships in NATO waters were regularized. The only public bright spot in US-Russia relations was diplomacy between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, mainly on Syria and Iran. Still, that activity was more reflective of their countries’ roles on the UN Security Council, not the tenor of relations between Obama and Putin.

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

Putin’s Pushes Westward

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Kremlin: Putin’s Advisers Speak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

Big Guns in East Ukraine Fall Silent: Will the Donbass See Peace or Surreptitious Moves by Putin?

Pictured above is a sniper from the Azov Battalion of the National Guard of Ukraine on the front line in the Donbass. The Azov Battalion is a far-right neo-Nazi all volunteer infantry unit, armed by Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. The vicious fighting seen in the Donbass, Putin’s record of moves elsewhere, and portrayals of him cast doubt that peace can be found in the region. However, the prospect for peace still exists.

According to a September 1, 2015 Reuters article entitled “Big Guns in East Ukraine Fall Silent, Two More Die from Wounds in Kiev,” a fragile ceasefire agreed to by the Ukrainian Government and pro-Russian separatists on August 26, 2015, appears to have held. The agreement appealed to the human side of the belligerents, required a halt in fighting in recognition of the start of the school year on September 1st. The Minsk Agreement, signed on February 12, 2015, was supposed to have established just such a ceasefire once signed. However, following its signing, a succession of violations reportedly occurred in both the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts—administrative divisions—in which artillery and other weapons were used. Both sides accused the other of violations in which Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian separatist fighters were killed. The September 1st ceasefire was arranged under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The three-party Contact Group, which includes representatives of the Ukrainian Government, the Russian Government, and pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk hammered out the document.

The Minsk Agreement represents the beginning of the real peace in the Donbass region. Its terms include: an immediate ceasefire; a buffer zone separating heavy weapons of both sides, with a minimum buffer zone of 50km for 100mm artillery and up to 140km for rockets; effective verification by the OSCE; amnesty and release of all hostages and illegally detained people; safe access, storage, delivery, and distribution of humanitarian aid to the needy; restoration of government pensions and other welfare payments for civilians in the east; the restoration of Ukrainian control of the banking system in areas affected by the conflict, pull out of all foreign military formations, military equipment, and mercenaries from Ukraine under OSCE monitoring; the disarmament of illegal groups; full Ukrainian control over the eastern border, after local elections under Ukrainian law and a constitutional deal on the future of Donetsk and Luhansk by the end of 2015. For now, the contested areas will remain “bricked in.” The direction which the region may turn will be determined either by the US, EU and Ukrainian Government, intent to keep all of the Donbass in Ukraine, albeit with part of its population reluctant to live under Kiev’s control and by Russia and pro-Russian separatists intent on establishing the region’s independence and aligning it more closely with Moscow. What nettles the US, EU and the Ukrainian Government, now committed to a westward orientation, is the considerable effort they say Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has invested in grabbing territory in the Donbass and eventually all of Ukraine as it sits in Russia’s “near abroad.” To them, Putin has created something from nothing that preexisted: contemptuous murmurs against Ukrainian identity, language, and national symbols suddenly became rebel yells for secession. They feel Putin now has additional space in Ukraine from which he can exert his influence in the region. (The US, EU and Ukraine claim Putin illegally swallowed up Crimea in 2014.) Conversely, Putin insists the administration of US President Barack Obama caused the conflict in the Donbass. He remarked after meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry on May 12, 2015, “They [the US] should not have supported the anti-constitutionalists’ armed coup that led to a violent confrontation in Ukraine, a civil war in fact.” He also views US efforts in Ukraine as part of an attempt to isolate Russia. Facinus quos inquinant aequat. (Guilt equates all who share in guilt.)

Members of Putin’s comitatus such as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov have reportedly expressed the same sentiment that Russia is only acting in response to Western behavior toward it. Now that the parties appear to be adhering to the Minsk Agreement’s terms, and after a year and half of extremely violent battles and firefights, Moscow would unlikely use the same “hybrid warfare” approach—the blend of unidentified troops, propaganda and economic pressure—seen in Crimea, or some other military approach to capture the remainder of Donetsk and Luhansk. Due to the Minsk Agreement, Putin is no longer encumbered by having to do everything in secret. Putin may engage in diplomatic moves and decisive action in the Donbass akin to that seen in Georgia to gain firmer grip on pro-Russian separatist held territory.

In 2008, pro-Russian separatists in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia, along with Russian Federation troops, fought a war for independence against the Georgian Government. Once peace was established between the warring parties by then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy, Russia occupied the two rebellious regions and continues to do so today. Russia also recognized their independence. There was little Georgia could do to recover the regions, yet it had the support of the US, and the EU. On March 3, 2015, a Russian-South Ossetian Treaty of Alliance and Integration was signed, effectively granting Moscow control of South Ossetia’s foreign policy, border, and security. In November 2014, Putin signed a similar accord with Abkhazia entitled the Russia-Abkhazian Agreement of Alliance and Strategic Partnership which meant in practice Moscow is responsible for the customs, defense, and security of the breakaway republic. When the Russian-South Ossetian agreement was revealed, the EU Foreign Policy Coordinator Federica Mogherini declared, “The agreement undermined efforts to strengthen security and stability in the region.” She further stated, “This ‘treaty’—which includes references to a transfer of powers in some areas—clearly violates Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Some observers believe the treaty set the region up for annexation by Russia. Most recently, pro-Russian separatist security forces moved border fences in the South Ossetia and Abkahzia further into Georgia’s territory.  By parsing out the events observed in South Ossetia alone, a possible approach Putin might use in the Donbass is revealed. Three main steps of that approach could include: 1) securing territorial gains via humanitarian assistance; 2) legitimizing independence and Russian influence via “diplomacy”; and, 3) quiet expansion.

Above is a satellite image of Russian Federation weapon systems being moved into Ukraine. The US, EU, and Ukrainian Government accuse Russia of arming pro-Russian separatist forces in the Donbass. Given the Minsk Agreement, Putin would unlikely use the “hybrid warfare” approach seen in Crimea. He will no longer need to do things in secret. Putin may engage in diplomatic moves and decisive action to gain a firmer grip on the Donbass.

Securing Territorial Gains via Humanitarian Assistance

Et genus et formam Regina Pecunia donat. (Money like a queen bestows both rank and beauty.) In addition to economic support provided by Kiev to Donetsk and Luhansk in the near term under the Minsk Agreement, Russia may provide a considerable amount of aid in Russian rubles to the Donbass, perhaps initially cloaked. It could also continue to provide humanitarian aid using truck convoys. Russia could provide financial support to pro-Russian separatist political organizations. To encourage ethnic-Russians to remain in Donbass, Russia may assist directly in the reconstruction of ethnic-Russian communities, focusing on the robust reconstruction of schools churches, community centers, and infrastructure projects that meet the needs of those communities. Comparable aid would likely fail to reach ethnic-Ukrainian and other communities not linked to, or falling within the territorial lines of, the pro-Russian separatist movement. Nations aligned with Russia could be encouraged to provide recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent regions. Russia could enable pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk to defend themselves even better with new Russian armaments and training from Russian military advisers acting covertly given that under the Minsk Agreement, the two regions remain the sovereign territory of Ukraine. (The US, the EU, and Kiev have already accused Russia of arming the separatists.) Russia would unlikely withdraw its forces bordering the Donbass and could possibly increase the measure of those forces to create the capability to rush into the region to secure the peace if fighting resumed between the opposing parties.

In a similar way, Russia had already invested 43 billion rubles in South Ossetia and Abkhazia over the past six years. The border between South Ossetia and Georgia was closed, precluding the Georgian Government from influencing events in its former territory. Russia had considerable influence in the pro-Russian separatist political organizations. Western observers view South Ossetia leadership a puppet government under Moscow’s control. The ethnic-Georgians in South Ossetia drifted off. With the border closed, those who wanted to return could not. The loss of South Ossetians opposed to independence eliminated meant there were no opposing political movements, and internal security and stability could be maintained more easily. The presence of Russian troops in South Ossetia has obviated the possibility that Georgia might retake its territory. Russian troops there have remained on a war-time footing and have not moved to prewar locations as Georgian forces have. Moscow had Nicaragua, Nauru, and Venezuela join it in recognizing the independence of South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia.

What nettles the US, EU, and the Ukrainian Government is the considerable effort they say Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has invested in grabbing territory in the Donbass. They feel Putin now has space in Ukraine, in addition to Crimea, from which he can exert his influence in the region. Conversely, Putin insists the administration of US President Barack Obama caused the conflict in the Donbass.

Legitimizing Independence and Russian Influence via “Diplomacy”

Et mihi res, non me rebus subjungere conor. (I suit life to myself, not myself to life.) Even under the best conditions created for Kiev as the terms of the Minsk Agreement are fulfilled, Putin may still move to establish treaties with both the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” giving Russia control over their economic activity. Residents in both oblasts would be provided with easier access to Russian citizenship. If the balance of the two regions’ populations were to swing more heavily in the pro-Russian separatists favor, or even if not, Russia may formally guarantee that salaries of government workers in the Donbass would be paid by Russia, “to kindly take the financial strain off of Kiev.” Despite the terms of the Minsk Agreement, both the Donestsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic governments would be directed by Russia to push hard to turn border control over to Russia through talks, also ostensibly to make things more convenient for Kiev. Russia could formally take charge of the military operations of the pro-separatist security forces in Donetsk and Luhansk. A joint security zone could be created between Russia and the two “governments.”

Analogously, the Russian-South Ossetian Treaty of Alliance and Integration allowed Russia to formally take charge of South-Ossetia’s economy and military. South Ossetia will receive 9 billion rubles ($147 million or €140 million) in aid over three years. Government salaries and pensions were raised to a level comparable with those received in Russia’s North Caucasus. Putin himself stated a joint defense and security zone would be created between the two countries. South Ossetian leader Leonid Timorov explained: “Russia could guarantee security from Western reaction.” Border crossings for customs agencies would also be integrated. That was made easier because the border crossings with Georgia were already closed.

By parsing out the events observed in South Ossetia following its 2008 war for independence against the Georgian Government, a possible approach Putin might use in the Donbass is revealed. Three main steps of that approach could include: 1) securing territorial gains via humanitarian assistance; 2) legitimizing independence and Russian influence via “diplomacy”; and, 3) quiet expansion.

Quiet Expansion

Alitur vitium vivitque tegendo. (Vice is nourished by being concealed.) After a few short years of the ceasefire and other urgent and important matters may capture Kiev’s attention, pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk may find opportunities to encroach into territory perhaps no longer vigilantly guarded by the Ukrainian Armed Forces or volunteer units. If Russia and the new “people’s republics” were to reach some defense and security treaty by that time, Russian Federation troops would be able to stand beside pro-Russian separatist forces in the expanded territory. Russia could also begin to provide economic and humanitarian aid to those segments of Ukrainian held territory of the Donbass the Kiev may not be able to support sufficiently. Freedom of movement may allow for inhabitants of the region who have applied for Russian citizenship, or possess it, to move into heavily damaged villages and abandoned areas, where Ukrainian combatants have withdrawn. They could resettle and begin reconstruction in them. Russia could declare its intention to defend its “compatriots” entering those areas. Russian and pro-Russian separatist flags would soon be seen further eastward in the Donbass. When possible the expansion of pro-Russian territory may also be aimed at encompassing important infrastructure facilities, particularly gas and energy related sites, and key roadways.

Likewise in South Ossetia, Russian backed security forces reportedly moved a border fence with Georgia, taking more territory for Russian control. Those same security forces armed with assault rifles were also seen crossing into Georgian controlled territory and tearing down a Georgian flag. As a result of pro-Russian separatists moving border fences deeper into Georgia, some villages have been cut in half by Russian separatist forces. Reportedly, people have gone to sleep Georgian and have awakened as members of a breakaway territory. By moving one fence, pro-Russian separatists managed to place 1.6 km of the Baku-Supsa pipeline in the pro-Russian separatist territory. One fence was moved far enough to grab 500 meters of Georgia’s E60 Highway, which is the main road linking the Black Sea to Azerbaijan.

Ukrainian Government faces an economic crisis and a variety of other domestic difficulties to include challenges from a far-right neo-Nazi movement. The Donbass is a net consumer of foreign imports, is dependent on Russian gas, and is a rustbelt requiring trillions of dollars in investment. Those realities along with seeing the effects of a few years of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns in the Donbass may make Kiev less eager to wrestle with Moscow for the hearts and minds of its inhabitants.

The Way Forward

Omni mutantur nos et mutamur in illis. (All things change, and we change with them.) For Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, it will be torturous enough to lead an emerging European nation that is facing an economic crisis, and a variety of other domestic difficulties to include challenges from a far-right neo-Nazi movement. Keeping all of the Donbass in Ukraine is the cause of honor now. Yet, after focusing on additional issues over time, numbness may develop toward the intractable situation in the region. New moves by pro-Russian separatist and Russia in the Donbass may no longer be alarming enough to pierce that numbness. The Donbass is a net consumer of foreign imports and is dependent on Russian gas. It is considered a rustbelt needing to be refitted at the cost of trillions of dollars Kiev does not have. Despite receiving economic aid from the West, Ukraine, itself, may never see an economic upturn. After seeing the effects of a few years of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns in the Donbass, Kiev may no longer be eager to wrestle with Moscow for the hearts and minds of the oblasts’ inhabitants. The Ukrainian Armed Forces are not a spent force, but they could hardly surmount a genuine threat posed by Russian Federation Armed Forces. US and EU efforts to train and equip the Ukrainian Armed Forces cannot change that. Further regarding the West, it is difficult to determine how much pressure it would be willing to exert against Russia over Ukraine through sanctions in the future.

It has been said that the cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The analysis presented in here may appear cynical. It imputes on Putin a lust for power and the intent to simply acquire greater territory and control in Russia’s near abroad. However, Putin has been portrayed that way here for the purpose of debate. There is value in the Minsk Agreement. That value is a ceasefire, lives saved, and ability of the region’s inhabitants to contemplate peace. Adherence to the terms of the Minsk Agreement by Russia and pro-Russian separatists nudged by Russia is not a notional idea; it is reality. The Minsk Agreement and the September 1st ceasefire represent positive change and a genuine restart to diplomatic activity over the Donbass. Much more is required of the agreement’s signatories. Through regular communication via the Contact Group and the good offices of the OSCE, perhaps peace will develop in the Donbass.