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

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

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

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

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

Igniting Putin: A New Russian Threat Excites Europe

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

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

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

How Relations with Putin Went Wrong Way

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

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

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

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

Putin’s Pushes Westward

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Kremlin: Putin’s Advisers Speak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

Ukraine, Rebels Reach Preliminary Deal to Broaden Weapons Withdrawal; No Progress in Repairing US, EU Relations with Russia

Two pro-Russia, separatist fighters in Eastern Ukraine (above) hold their position in a gun battle. Ukraine is a main source of tension between the West and Russia. The US and EU accuse Russia of arming the separatists and sending troops to Ukraine. Russia says the US engineered a coup which led to the conflict. The US and EU placed restrictions on Russia’s trade and economic activities in reaction. Russia took “retaliatory, protective measures.”

According to a July 21, 2015 Reuters article entitled “Ukraine, Rebels Reach Preliminary Deal to Broaden Weapons Withdrawal,” the Contact Group involving Ukraine, Russia, and the pro-Russia separatist of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions agreed to extend the pull back of weapons in East Ukraine to include tanks and smaller weapons systems. The meeting was held in Minsk, Belarus under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). More than 6,500 people have been killed in fighting which began in April 2014 between Ukrainian government forces and the pro-Russia separatists. Under the Minsk Ceasefire Plan of February 12, 2015, weapons under 100mm should have been withdrawn already. However, both sides accuse the other of continually using heavy artillery fire and report causalities almost daily. The Minsk Ceasefire Plan requires in part: an immediate ceasefire; a buffer zone separating heavy weapons of both sides, with a minimum buffer zone of 50km for 100mm artillery and up to 140km for rockets; effective verification by the OSCE; amnesty and release of all hostages and illegally detained people; restoration of government pensions and other welfare payments for civilians in the east; and, full Ukrainian control over the eastern border, after local elections under Ukrainian law and a constitutional deal on the future of Donetsk and Luhansk by the end of 2015.

Ukraine is a main source of tension between Russia and the West. The West has criticized Russia for annexing the Crimean peninsula and has accused Russia of arming rebels in eastern Ukraine. Russian opposition activists published a report, originally compiled by slain Russian statesman and politician, Boris Nemtsov, alleging that 220 Russian soldiers had died in two key battles in eastern Ukraine. However, Russia denies arming the rebels or sending troops there. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin holds the US responsible for the conflict. He remarked, “They [the US] should not have supported the anti-constitutionalists’ armed coup that in the end led to a violent confrontation in Ukraine, a civil war in fact.” It was also seen as an effort to isolate Russia. As discussed in the July 16, 2015 greatcharlie post entitled “Russia Is Top US National Security Threat Says General Dunford; That Should Make It the Top Priority for US Diplomacy,” some European leaders made efforts to resolve issues with Putin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko worked with Putin to devise the February 12, 2015 Minsk Ceasefire Plan. Yet, they have made little significant progress otherwise regarding Europe. There have been intermittent contacts between US President Barack Obama and Putin, but relations seem best handled by their chief diplomats, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

On May 12, 2015, Kerry spent four hours with Putin for what Kerry characterized as a “frank meeting” at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. Kerry also spoke four hours with Lavrov. It was Kerry’s first visit to Russia since May 2013. Both sides, face to face, fully presented their positions. Lavrov said Russia was ready to co-operate with the US but only on an “equal basis” and without coercion. He commented on the Russian Foreign Ministry website that attempts to pressure Russia through sanctions would only lead to a “dead end.” Kerry said it was critically important that the Minsk Ceasefire Plan be fully implemented in eastern Ukraine. He stated that US and EU sanctions against Russia could only be scaled down “if and when” that happens.

It is uncertain whether full compliance will be reached. It seems almost equally uncertain resolution can be found soon to revive soured relations between Russia and the West. Making the best military preparations possible through NATO is necessary. Still, it may not be useful for the US and EU to pressure Russia militarily as options available to NATO fail to provide real advantages. Many Western political leaders seem unwilling to commit to a costly, long term, concerted military build-up to deter what NATO alleges are Russian plans to push westward. That almost assures limitations will exist in NATO ability to use its collective military power. Putin is aware of those limitations. The US and EU should place even greater emphasis on resolving problems with Russia through diplomacy. Pushing toward military action may create conditions for matters to escalate beyond any rationale actors’ liking. Ducunt volentem fata, no lentem trahunt. (Fate leads the willing soul, but drags along the unwilling one.)

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is seen here with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. European leaders have sought to resolve issues with Putin. Merkel, French President François Hollande, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko forged the Minsk Ceasefire Plan with him, but little else has been achieved regarding Europe. Pressuring Russia militarily may not be useful. More emphasis must be placed on resolving issues diplomatically.

Causality for the Dispute Between the West and Russia

The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus said, “We are too much accustomed to attribute to a single cause that which is the product of several, and the majority of our controversies come from that.” It may be mistaken causality to find some great plan in all that has occurred between Russia and the West. As explained, Putin insists that he is only acting in response to Western behavior toward Russia. Speaking at a conference in Moscow on April 16, 2015, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu explained: “The United States and its allies have crossed all possible lines in their drive to bring Kiev into their orbit. That could not have failed to trigger our reaction.” The Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov stated at the same conference, “Considering themselves the winners of the Cold War, the United States decided to reshape the world to fit its needs.” He further explained, “It’s clear that measures taken by NATO to strengthen the bloc and increase its military capabilities are far from being defensive.” Nonetheless, nothing Russian officials might say could dissuade most in the US and EU from believing Putin is driving events forward.

After studying Putin’s actions in Ukraine, including his seizure of Crimea, the National Defense Academy of Latvia concluded that Russia’s ultimate aim is to introduce “a state of permanent war as the natural condition in national life.” The governor of Odessa, Ukraine, Mikheil Saakashvili, who was appointed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, has proffered: “There is no way that they [Russia] will not go into the Baltics next. There is no way they will not revisit Georgia or Azerbaijan. Putin is obsessed with the idea of testing NATO—this was clear in my long conversations with him.” NATO Supreme Allied Commander US Air Force General Philip Breedlove explained “there must still be a dialogue with Russia, but conversations with the country must be done from a position of strength.” In his view, Russia broke with a policy two decades long of cooperation and embarked on what he called “a far different course.” He described that course as one “that shifts the relationship between Russia and the West from strategic cooperation to one of strategic competition. This is not a temporary aberration, but the new norm, according to Breedlove. US Air Force Secretary Deborah James, in addressing Russian actions, said “The biggest threat on my mind is what’s happening with Russia and the activities of Russia.” She further stated, “It’s extremely worrisome on what’s going on in the Ukraine.”

While trying to formulate and implement approaches to the situation with Russia, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter also decried Putin’s actions. Carter said, “One of [Putin’s] stated views is a longing for the past and that’s where we have a different perspective on the world and even on Russia’s future.” Carter declared, “The United States will not let Russia drag us back to the past.” Carter accused Moscow of trying to re-create a Soviet-era sphere of influence. He went on to state, “We’d like to see us all moving forward, Europe moving forward, and that does not seem to be his stated perspective.” Carter encouraged Europe to keep up the sanctions—which he called the best tool—for as long as it takes to change Russia’s calculations. Commune periculum concordian parit. (Common danger begets unity.)

Carter insisted that NATO “will not rely on the Cold War playbook,” citing instead a combination of military and non-military tools, including sanctions. Indeed, US officials say Ukraine has illustrated the importance of being able to counter “hybrid warfare”, the blend of unidentified troops, propaganda and economic pressure that the West says Russia has used there. In June 2015, Carter confirmed that the US would contribute special operations forces, intelligence and other high-end military assets to a new NATO Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) as part of the 40,000 troop strong NATO Response Force (NRF). The VJTF will be a multinational brigade with up to five battalions, about 5,000 troops, supported by air, maritime, and special operations assets. Some elements will be able to move in 2 to 3 days based on warnings and indicators of a potential threat. The VJTF’s purpose, in part, is to deter any future actions by Russia. The US support would include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets—which can include drones or manned aircraft—as well as special operations forces, logistical expertise and high-end US military assets. Carter also said it would include airlift and precision joint fire capabilities, which could include anything from land-based artillery to air support or naval firepower.

In an ordered universe, one expects every action to have an equal and opposite reaction. Using life experience or empirical testing, one might predict reactions from certain actions. One expects to see patterns. Yet this is a world that is also bit off kilter. After alienating Putin by preventing him from further participation in the G-8, and hitting many of his close associates, their business interests, and Russian industries with sanctions, the US and EU expected him to back off of Ukraine and Eastern European states. Yet, those who believed sanctions and other coercive means, and deploying small sets of US forces to the Baltic States and Poland would modify Putin’s behavior are in the cradle intellectually. On the world stage, Putin will never allow Russia to be perceived as wilting before what he views as Washington’s effort to establish total dominance. He will resist and counter pressures. He wants the US and EU to take into account Russia’s interests on Ukraine and other issues. Soothing Putin’s ego cannot be the goal of talks. However, reestablishing normative behavior and positive relations by surmounting contentious issues must be. For talks to work, all issues must be tabled and hashed out.

On May 15, 2015, the Telegraph published a map of Russian incursions in NATO airspace and waters since September 2014. The map indicates Russia probed every approach to Western targets. NATO jets scrambled and warships sped to meet the intruders. The incursions are partly Putin’s response to support the US and EU has given Kiev, especially military assistance, and NATO’s deployment of forces in the Baltic States and Poland.

Hybrid Warfare and Other Russian Military Options

US officials say Ukraine has illustrated the importance of being able to counter “hybrid warfare,” the blend of unidentified troops, propaganda and economic pressure that the West says Russia has used there. Yet, it would be somewhat unlikely that Shoigu, Gerasimov, or senior officers of security organizations such as the Director of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate, Lieutenant General Igor Sergun, in considering how to cope with the NRF and smaller VJTF, would again use the tactics seen in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk in Ukraine. It would be counter-intuitive for them to use the tactic which NATO is best organized to oppose. If instead of a hybrid attack, Putin ordered a Russian force, overwhelming in size and combat power, to quickly engage the VJTF on the ground, it might be futile for the VJTF or NRF to attempt to handle it, even if the absolute maximum amount of pre-positioned weapon systems and ordinance were made available.

In the best case scenario for NATO, Russia could rush into a neighboring country using with heavy armored and mechanized units, highly mobile infantry, combat service units, and combat service support units painstakingly massed along their mutual border. That approach would provide NATO with warning and sufficient time to react. Indeed, using time available, the VJTF could deploy to a NATO ally in advance of any significant Russian movement. The VJTF would be able to set up its defenses, making use of prepositioned systems and ordinance. Air power would be made available to support dynamic defensive actions and negate opportunities for Russian forces to overwhelm units. Preparations to move the NRF and reinforcements from all NATO allies would get underway. Putin would need to choose whether to clash with the VJTF or retreat unable to secure its objectives without displacing the NATO force. Perhaps his decision would rest on how soon the NRF and reinforcements would arrive to support the force before the Russians inflicted catastrophic losses upon it. Establishing surprise and minimizing resistance are among the main advantages of using hybrid warfare. To achieve those advantages again, Russia may not engage in a large, very visible build-up at its border and transport troops by truck. Instead, it might rapidly deploy forces from bases well inside Russia, prepped under the guise of military exercises, and fly them into a neighboring state, massing at key points.

Before NATO deployed the VJTF or NRF, political leaders among the Allies would need to decide in advance whether those forces would fire the shot to likely start World War III. Sending the VJTF into an ally’s territory to link up with local forces already engaged with Russian forces would guarantee NATO and Russian forces would clash. If the objective is to independently displace Russian forces from key points or to expel it, the VJTF will again be required to fight Russian forces. To get in country, the VJTF and NRF would need to hope Russian forces would not destroy air bases and other facilities upon which NATO fighter support and jet and helicopter transports deliver reinforcements and materiel. If the VJTF cannot get to the targeted ally’s territory first, Russia would likely try to destroy or displace the ally’s forces by massing numerically superior forces and firepower, quickly securing key points. Air cover and close air support for Russian troops could be flown in from the Russia. Russian reserve units and logistical support could also be brought in quickly from Russia.

Regarding NATO’s reinforcement of the VJTF and NRF or efforts to retake territory, Russia would most likely create a non-permissive environment for that. It would be impossible for NATO to execute landings in Europe similar to those at Normandy during Operation Overlord in 1944. Although NATO air power might be used to destroy the Russian force, the Russians might also use air power and powerful conventional weapons to destroy the VJTF and follow-on NRF and interdict reinforcement from neighboring states. If NATO forces proved unable to halt and expel the Russian force, options other than retreat would be needed. As in the Cold War, the use of tactical nuclear weapons to destroy the Russian force—which is not being advocated here—might be considered. The VJTF could be publicly declared a trip wire to trigger their use. Protocols on using the weapons would need to be drawn up and approved by the Allies. Europe would again face the prospect of becoming a nuclear battlefield.

In pace, ut sapiens, aptarit idonea bello. (In peace, like a wise man, he appropriately prepares for war.) Since Washington has decided to cut 40,000 troops from the US Army’s ranks by 2017, the US will not be able to cover any gaps in NATO’s strength without earmarking a sizeable portion of its forces primarily for that task. There are 65,000 US military personnel from all branches of the armed forces in Europe; 38,000 are stationed in Germany. Those numbers continually drop. For the US Army, a drawdown of forces has already meant cutting 10,000 soldiers—including two brigade combat teams—from Europe. Another 1,700 soldiers will be cut over the next three years as part of the latest round of reductions, leaving about 30,000 soldiers forward stationed in Europe. US Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno has noted the deleterious effect that the new cuts will have on US forces in Europe which are already being reduced. Working apparently within parameters of what is politically feasible, Odierno developed plans to position an additional stockpile of heavy equipment in Germany large enough to supply one combat brigade. It would include tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. It would facilitate the deployment of US units in a crisis. The new stockpile would supplement the smaller sets of armored and mechanized equipment, self-propelled howitzers, and other gear—enough to arm one combat brigade also—that the US Defense Secretary pledged to position in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Romania and Poland. Carter said that equipment will be moved around Europe for training and exercises. Odierno also expressed the intent to designate the entire US 4th Infantry Division as a regionally aligned force for Europe. That would mean the division’s combat, combat support, and combat service support units would regularly deploy to Europe to engage in military exercises. The division’s intelligence officers would be able to focus on the actions and intentions and the relative strengths and weaknesses of Russian forces. The division’s planners would become more familiar with allied capabilities. Only one brigade, the 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team of the US 3rd Infantry Division is aligned to Europe.

Western military planners of a few decades past could have hardly imagined that against a potentially aggressive Russian force, sufficient armored and mechanized forces would not be based in Europe to meet it. During the Cold War, the US and its NATO allies stood ready to halt a Soviet and Warsaw Pact attack across the Inter-German border dividing the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia.

In the 1980s, the NATO Alliance fielded 750,000 troops of which 200,000 were from the US Army. At that same time, the US AirLand Battle doctrine, emphasizing maneuver and mobility, air-ground coordination, and the attack in depth was introduced. To defeat Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces, new weapons were deployed in Europe to enhance US combat power and have a multiplier effect on the battlefield. NATO would fight to win.

Commitments from NATO Allies Remain Uncertain

As noted in a September 19, 2014 greatcharlie post, Western military planners of a few decades past could have hardly imagined that against a potentially aggressive Russian force, sufficient armored and mechanized NATO forces would not be robustly deployed in Europe to meet it. Throughout the Cold War, the US and its NATO allies stood ready to repel a Soviet and Warsaw Pact attack across the Inter-German border dividing the Federal Republic of Germany, the German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia. The US Army reached an all-time high in troop strength in Europe since the postwar period of 277,342 in 1962. Yet, the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact comrades held a constant numerical advantage over NATO in conventional forces, particularly in heavy armored and mechanized units. Under a long-held attrition-oriented forward defense strategy, NATO would fight with units based in Europe, and reinforcements from the US, to keep advancing Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces from driving west beyond Germany, perhaps forcing a stalemate. If NATO failed to halt that force, which was a likely scenario given their adversary’s size, power, and mobility, tactical nuclear weapons would be employed to prevent a breakthrough. The threatened use of strategic nuclear forces also purportedly served to dissuade Soviet and Warsaw Pact leaders from believing any successful advance would at all be tolerated and the US was fully committed to Western Europe’s defense. In the 1980s, the NATO Alliance fielded 750,000 troops of which 200,000 were from the US Army. In those years, the US AirLand Battle Strategy was introduced. It had an emphasis on greater mobility and maneuver, the use of attacks in depth, and use of new weapons systems as the Abrams tank, the Bradley infantry fighting vehicle, the Multiple Launch Rocket System, the Blackhawk helicopter, the Apache attack helicopter, and the A-10 and F-15 fighter jets. They served as combat multipliers, greatly enhancing NATO’s mobility, combat power and chances for success against its likely opponent. The battle would no longer be confined to the Inter-German border, but deep within Soviet and Warsaw Pact territory. Although Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional, ground launched, intermediate range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles from Europe in the same period, tactical nuclear weapons could still be employed by other means to halt a possible breakthrough of advancing Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces. (Soviet and Warsaw Pact doctrine called for using chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons to support their conventional forces.)

The 19th century author, poet, and playwright, Oscar Wilde, said “A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Some European political leaders appear skeptical about the threat Russia poses or at least a bit ambivalent about committing themselves to the costly and dangerous requirements of collective security. Despite the “Crimea-grab,” the alleged covert invasion of Ukraine, the looming threat to the Baltic States, threats made to use nuclear weapons, and Russian military air and naval incursions from Britain to Estonia, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg explained in a speech reported by the Atlantic Council, overall defense spending among NATO allies declined in 2014. He explained that 5 allies were expected to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense and these allies are Estonia, Greece, Poland, the United Kingdom and the US. Of NATO’s 28 allies, 18 are expected to increase their defense spending in real terms, but even that is arguable. In the United Kingdom for example, The Times (of London) reports that while United Kingdom’s Defense Secretary Michael Fallon noted his country’s commitment was “comfortably over 2 percent,” a change in the way spending is calculated was the cause for some of that ‘comfortable’ margin. Stoltenberg admitted that overall, it was expected that total NATO defense expenditure would decrease in 2015 by 1.5 percent, which follows years of steady decline in defense spending especially among European NATO Allies. Although the NRF is now 40,000 strong, and the VJTF will field around 5,000 troops, if NATO Allies lack the political will to meet their spending commitments, perhaps it is possible they may lack the will to use the VJTF to block or engage Russian forces when the hour arrives. A Baltic state or Ukraine may face eminent threat of a Russian attack, but the VJTF and NRF may only be poised for “sitzkrieg,” making no effort against Russian moves. Sitzkrieg was a term that marked the period at the start of World War II when there was no military action by the United Kingdom and France in support of their ally, Poland, while Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union overran it. Putin could hardly do more to divide NATO as some allies, worried over military risks, budgets, and domestic political considerations, are quietly doing themselves. Cito enim arescit lacrima, praesertim in alienis malis. (A tear is quickly dried when shed for the misfortunes of others.)

Russian officials say they are retaliating against the US engineered coup in Kiev which helped ignite the separatist rebellion in Donbass, and the US-led eastward expansion of NATO that ignored Russian interests. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (above) stated: “The United States and its allies have crossed all possible lines in their drive to bring Kiev into their orbit. That could not have failed to trigger our reaction.”

The Way Forward

Putin is a shrewd, seasoned national leader, who, though his actions, both good and bad, has evinced significant capabilities. Putin seems to direct Russia effortlessly, even though nothing Putin does is simple. Experts at anything, including national leadership, typically provide little indication of labor. After all, the greatest art is to appear to have no art. Conversely, the amateur displays great agony when attempting anything. Breedlove recently said NATO must challenge Russia’s current policies and demonstrate that Putin’s current approach will not be allowed to damage security. He further stated the alliance must also deter Russia “by carefully shaping Moscow’s choices and managing Putin’s confidence.” Breedlove was undoubtedly expressing his genuine view. However, while his words may soothe political leaders in European capitals, Putin may believe sufficient evidence exists to contradict them.

Committing to collective defense by deeds, not words, has been an agonizing process for some NATO Allies. Additionally agonizing has been Obama’s decision making on using US military power. Too many speeches and statements have been made by Obama on why US military power should be withheld in other situations. Putin likely doubts Obama would be willing to engage Russia militarily, particularly in nuclear exchange that would result in millions deaths and incalculable destruction. Putin could calculate that if he pushes hard enough, Obama might eventually back away from further tough talk and harsh economic actions. Yet, Putin also knows he would later need to interact with a new US administration in 2017. Its response to Russian moves may be more assertive. A Kremlin adviser once said Putin has a fundamental interest in trying to resume normal relations with the US. Perhaps the best answer for all sides is to find a diplomatic resolution to the dispute now. If not, all that is being done now may only be the run up to the nuclear holocaust that capable leaders have avoided for several decades.

Russia Is Top US National Security Threat Says General Dunford; That Should Make It the Top Priority for US Diplomacy

Pictured are Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (2nd right), Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu (left), Black Sea Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Aleksander Vitko (2nd left), and the Director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) Alexander Bortnikov.  Putin, rejects any criticism over Russia’s actions in Ukraine or anything else. He says Russia was targeted by the West with sanctions and he had to respond with retaliatory, protective measures.

According to a July 9, 2015 Reuters article entitled, “Russia Is Top US National Security Threat: Gen. Dunford,” US Marine Corps Commandant General Joseph Dunford says Russia is at the top of the list of security concerns for the US. Dunford was speaking at his US Senate confirmation hearing to become the next US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Reuters quoted Dunford as saying, “If you want to talk about a nation that could pose an existential threat to the United States, I’d have to point to Russia. And if you look at their behavior, it is nothing short of alarming.” Relations between Russia and the West have taken a sharp turn downward since Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Political leaders among the NATO Allies are uncertain of what Putin is trying to achieve with his actions in Ukraine, his moves in the Baltic States, positioning of Russian rocket forces near Poland, or his considerable military build-up. The Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (the military commander of NATO), US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, told a US Congressional Committee in April 2015, “We cannot fully grasp Putin’s intent.” Breedlove further stated, “What we can do is learn from his actions, and what we see suggests growing Russian capabilities, significant military modernization and an ambitious strategic intent.” NATO conducted several exercises to show Putin its intent to respond to aggression.

Sanctions from the US and Europeans have put relations between Russia and the West, built largely on economic cooperation, at considerable risk and pose a serious economic threat to Russia despite any heroic claims otherwise by Putin. 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 do more than put his forces on parade or use his forces covertly despite his denials of doing so. The escalating war of words between US and Russian officials is also problematic. Words of anger, mockery, hate, and aggression, do damage that can be difficult to repair. The world has witnessed the vicissitudes faced by the Obama administration in foreign policy. The administration often fails to acknowledge how dire problems really are. It tends to settle upon bromides, with a seductive kind of superficiality, to very challenging situations, which later prove to be shallow entrapments. Some resolution must be found to current problems in relations with Russia. In order to respond diplomatically to Putin, the genuine motivation for his actions must be uncovered. Formal diplomatic talks could be established between the US and EU with Russia not in an attempt to mollify him, but provide opportunities for all sides to “clear the air” on those issues and others and work together to mutually satisfy interests. Negotiations can be based on the relative strengths of the positions and capabilities of all sides. The peace that can be achieved must be the focus not how much each side can destroy through warfare. In the US and in the EU, all other elements of foreign and defense policy must serve to effectively support that diplomacy. Good use must be made of time available before situations change. The door to opportunity might remain open for a brief period. O si sic omnia! (Oh would that all had been done or said thus!)

Whenever Putin now hears NATO threaten to use force against Russia, albeit defensively, he responds with an enigmatic face. Even though NATO took steps such as maneuvers or force redeployments were taken in response to Crimea or ostensibly a perceived Russian threat to Eastern Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Poland, Putin likely expected NATO Allies to continue making steep military cuts and fail to meet their military commitments.

Putin’s Response to the West

Putin and his advisers have heard explanations from the US and EU that sanctions were a means to halt its annexation of Crimea, its activities in Ukraine, a response to the downing of Malaysian Airline Flight MH117, and as a means to push all parties to the negotiating table. Putin, however, rejects any criticism of Russia’s actions over Ukraine or anything else. He explains that the deterioration of relations with the West was “not our choice.” He has proffered. “It was not we who introduced restrictions on trade and economic activities. Rather we were the target and we had to respond with retaliatory, protective measures.”

Having been a P5+1 partner with China as well as the main Western powers that levied sanctions against it, the US, United Kingdom, France, and Germany during the nuclear negotiations with Iran, Putin and his advisers have undoubtedly learned how to more effectively handle the West on issues as Ukraine. Observing the decision making of Western powers up close on Iran, Putin can likely better predict Western responses in certain situations. Beyond what Russia gleaned from the Iran talks, Putin has looked deeply at the US and Europe, discerning many flaws, weaknesses in the transatlantic defense. He has watched it decay due to Western political leaders’ lack the will to maintain it. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, NATO members became weary of investing financial resources in a deterrent force that faced no threat. Putin tested NATO, acting unabashedly in the face of the alliance by moving against countries that are part of Russia’s “near abroad.” In 2008, Putin forced Armenia to break off its agreements with the EU, and Moldova was placed under similar pressure. That same year, Putin invaded Georgia. Russian troops still occupy the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. Whenever NATO threatens to use force against Russia now, albeit defensively, Putin responds with an enigmatic face. Even though maneuvers and force redeployments were made and sanctions were imposed in response to Russian moves as in Crimea or a perceived threat to Eastern Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Poland, Putin expected Allies to continue making steep military cuts and fail to meet their NATO military commitments.

Tanquam ex ungue leonem! (From the claw we may judge a lion.) Since 2011, uniformed military manpower has declined in every Western nation, but Russian military manpower has increased by 25 percent to 850,000 between 2011 and mid-2014. Russia supposedly has about 2.5 million active reservists out of a total population of 143 million. It ranks second, behind the US, on the list of countries with conventional warfighting capabilities. Expenditures on defense, and the related category of national security and law enforcement, accounts for 34 percent of Russia’s budget which is more than twice in comparison with 2010. The US only spent 18 percent, or $615 billion of its budget in 2014 on defense and international security. Explaining his concept for achieving this growth, Putin told senior military commanders and defense industry executives at a meeting in Sochi on May 12, 2015, “We can and must do for the defense industry what we did for Sochi.” Putin was referring to the $50 billion spent in to host the 2014 Winter Olympics there. He went on to state, “All questions relating to adequate resource allocation have been resolved.” Putin has a penchant to display power. Most recently it has been lurid. With its conventional forces rejuvenated, Russia is on the march again, seizing territory in albeit a piecemeal fashion. Putin has likely assessed war with Russia is the last thing US and EU political leaders want. He has seemingly gauged his moves sensing just how far he can go with them. He may believe he can later legitimize acquisitions via talks with the West.

Putin emerged from the Communist system of the Soviet Union. Not to be impolitic, but those emerging from that system often hold a view, infiltrated by pessimism, that the world is filled with dangers and potential enemies. To Putin, only naiveté could cause one to believe relations with the West would always be congenial given the previous years of geopolitical struggle. Aspects surrounding his career in the Soviet Union’s KGB certainly reinforced that perspective.

Confabulating on Putin

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin has been the authentic face of the Russian government. Putin restored order in his country after the internal chaos of the 1990s, reestablishing the power of the state. Putin emerged from the Communist system of the Soviet Union. Not to be impolitic, but those emerging from that system often hold a view, infiltrated by pessimism, that the world is filled with dangers and potential enemies.  To Putin,  only naiveté could cause one to believe relations with the West would always be congenial given the previous years of geopolitical struggle. Given its approach to Putin, there is every indication that many in the West believed positive relations with Russia would endure despite pushing Western demands its leaders. Putin style of management was undoubtedly shaped by his initial career as an officer from 1975 to 1991 in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. However, his style was not shaped in terms of his use of KGB tradecraft. It was shaped as a result of his continued close association with a small group of men who served alongside him during his KGB career, particularly a few who served in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) with him. They are called siloviki (power men). Finding siloviki, particularly retirees of the KGB, and the present day security service, Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB, in high places in Russia is not unusual. At the pinnacle are men among them who came from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg. These men come from a community of families whose “roots” go back to the beginnings of the Communist Party and its first political police known as the Cheka. Putin’s Cheka heritage includes both a father and grandfather who served in the security service. He was raised in the Chekisty (Chekist) community, attending schools and a university Chekists’ progeny typically attended. That left an imprint on him. Putin got his start in politics at the local level in his hometown of St. Petersburg. As head of the St. Petersburg Committee for Foreign Liaison, a post he received through KGB patronage, Putin began working with a tight knit circle of Chekists.  Putin rose to deputy-mayor, but his work in St. Petersburg was halted after six years when his boss lost his bid for reelection. Yet, in two years, he rose from being an out-of-work deputy mayor to head of the FSB. A year later, Putin was the prime minister. Six months later, he was Russian Federation President.

Chekists share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent of Western technologies. They feel that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. As heard in Putin’s public statements, Chekists consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. Putin says that he is determined to save Russia from disintegration, and frustrate those he perceives as enemies that might weaken it. He also wants to bring the independent states of the former Soviet Union back under Moscow’s political, economic, and military (security) influence. Putin does not hesitate to let the leaders of those states know his intentions either. Although Putin managed to restore order from turmoil in Russia, many would note that he accomplished this with little regard for human and political rights. There is a significant opposition movement to Putin in Russia, lead by individuals such as the slain statesman and politician, Boris Nemtsov. Yet, Putin’s words have also resonated with many Russians. Convinced Russia is in a struggle with the US, the Economist states 81 percent of Russians see the US as a threat. The EU is also viewed as such.

When Putin began his third term as Russian Federation President, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were the neophyte, not a seasoned leader. Old ills that were part of US-Russian relations resurfaced and news ones arose. A series of deliberate public rebuffs to Putin sullied ties further. Putin’s anger metastasized. Soon enough, regular intrusions by Russian military aircraft in NATO airspace and Russian warships in NATO waters began.

The Downturn in Relations Began Well Before Ukraine

Dimitry Medvedev was Russian Federation President when Obama came to office. Obama seemed to measure all possibilities on relations with Russia on his interactions with him. So comfortable was Obama with Medvedev that he went as far as to declare a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries existed. Senior Russia analysts in the US government could have confirmed that Putin, who at the time was serving as Russia’s Prime Minister, was the real power in Moscow. Yet, that truth was given little consideration. Instead, Putin was treated by Obama as the “odd man out”. Little was done to build a relationship with him. 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. The world recognized how poor the relationship between Obama and Putin was after observing their body language during a June 17, 2013 meeting in Northern Ireland. A spate of public rebuffs to Putin sullied ties further.

Positive signals from Obama’s discussions on nuclear arms reductions with Medvedev likely gave administration officials the idea that Putin would also consider proposals on it. Putin firmly expressed disinterest, but administration officials smugly insisted that Putin agree to reductions in both nations’ nuclear arsenals. Putin then out rightly rejected their proposals. Obama administration officials were unprepared to receive Putin’s final rejection of the proposals and reacted poorly. Putin’s decision was viewed within the Obama administration as ending the president’s “signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.”   With the apparent goal of retaliating against Putin over his decision on its nuclear proposals, on August 7, 2013, the White House cancelled a September summit meeting in Moscow for Obama and Putin. It was a trite, and amateurish response. Administration’s officials explained their decision to cancel behind lightweight rhetoric regarding the effective use of the president’s time. An August 8, 2013 New York Times article quoted US Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes as stating, “We weren’t going to have a summit for the sake of appearance, and there wasn’t an agenda that was ripe.” Commenting on his rejection of the proposal, Putin was likened to l’enfant terrible. An unidentified source told for the same August 8th article stated, “We just didn’t get traction with the Russians. They were not prepared to engage seriously or immediately on what we thought was the very important agenda before us.” That source went on to state, “this decision was rooted in a much broader assessment and deeper disappointment.” Putin and his advisers were further convinced that the US and EU did not respect Russia as a power, even militarily. Aching to be taking seriously in the US public, among other reasons, Putin soon after wrote a September 11, 2013, op-ed in the New York Times entitled, “A Plea for Caution”. He challenged popular views on foreign policy and national-identity held in the US.

There were other 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. US officials were highly critical of security measures taken by the Russians for the Games and the level of cooperation officials from Russian security service officials showed toward counterparts from US security organizations. There were endless dalliances into clairvoyance evinced by predictions of terrorist attacks. It smacked more of fear mongering than anything else. Obama administration and other US officials knew the Winter Olympics would have been a proud occasion for Putin and the Russian people. Sochi provided Putin the chance to present his resurgent Russia in the best light possible. The Russian people would have the opportunity to tap into the power of Russia’s renewed greatness. Putin displayed great patience in the face of mordant criticisms leveled against the Games’ organization and even personal rebuffs to him. Putin achieved his objective, and Sochi was safe and secure. However, what occurred was not forgotten. Empta dolore experientia docet! (Experience teaches when bought with pain!)

By 2014, Putin’s anger toward the US as well as the Europeans metastasized. In his March 18, 2014 speech declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin enumerated 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. Soon, there were regular incursions of Russian bombers and fighters in NATO airspace and Russian warships in NATO waters.

No Immediate Military Solution

At the NATO Defense Ministers Meetings on June 24, 2015, participants decided on air, maritime, and special forces components of an enhanced 40,000 strong NATO Response Force (NRF). Ministers took measures to speed up political and military decision-making, including authority for NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe to prepare troops for action as soon as a political decision is made. Ministers approved a new concept of advance planning. They also finalized details on the six small headquarters being set up in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “They will each consist of around 40 people, and will play a key role in planning, exercises, and assisting potential reinforcement.” Ministers additionally decided to establish a new Joint Logistics Headquarters, to facilitate the rapid movement of forces when necessary.  Directly on Russia, Stoltenberg stated, “We are carefully assessing the implications of what Russia is doing, including its nuclear activities.” He added that NATO is working on how to deal with hybrid threats, including through close cooperation with the European Union. To avoid misperceptions of NATO’s actions, Stoltenberg explained, “We do not seek confrontation, and we do not want a new arms race.” He stressed, “we want to keep our countries safe… this is our job.”

However, despite promises, Allies must have the requisite political will to give meaning to those words and any plans. The reality is that US outlays on security are three times that of the other 27 partners combined, even though the US gross domestic product (GDP) is smaller than their total GDP. The disparity in burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability—and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security. Since Washington has decided to cut 40,000 troops from the US Army’s ranks by 2017, the US will not be able to cover any gaps in NATO’s strength without earmarking a sizeable portion of its forces primarily for that task. Although the NRF is now 40,000 strong, the political will of NATO Allies to use it to block or engage Russian forces must exist. While a Baltic state or Ukraine may face the eminent threat of a Russian attack, the NRF may only be poised for “sitzkrieg”, taking no aggressive action and making no effort to even deter potential Russian action. If instead of a hybrid attack, Putin ordered a Russian force, overwhelming in size and power to the NRF, to attack a target, it might be futile for the NRF to try to halt it, even with the maximum amount of pre-positioned weapon systems and ordinance available. The NRF might try to survive against the Russian leviathan until more NATO forces arrived to reinforce it and ideally expel Russia from the country under attack. However, Russia would not make reaching the NRF easy. A Normandy style landing to reinforce the NRF would hardly be possible. NATO air power might be able to stave off the Russian force, but air, land, and sea elements could mass from bases in Russia and use powerful conventional weapons to destroy forces engaged and reinforcements.

The path to the repair of US-Russian relations perhaps can be created by Kerry and Lavrov. Both men have the confidence of their respective presidents. Both have a strong interest in improving ties. Indications are that they have an ongoing dialogue on a variety of issues and have formed a good relationship. The US and the EU must continue work to directly with Russia, not shun it, to forge better ties and tackle hard issues.

The Way Forward

This is not greatcharlie’s first descant on Putin. Unlike other handschuhschneeballwerfer who have scrutinized Putin from a safe distance, the intent here is not to abuse. The goal has been to objectively examine thinking behind Putin’s actions to construct ways to engage with him. If what Putin says is true, and his continued aggressive moves have been spurred by Western responses, there may be room for the resolution of this dispute. Negotiating with Putin certainly would not be an indication of timidity, fear, or duplicity. Indeed, when speaking to Putin, the US and EU must demand respect for their positions and the rights of sovereign states. However, the views and rights of Russia must also be equally acknowledged and respected. Equity and some degree of equanimity among all sides to any talks must be promoted. There must be the will to act fairly and justly toward each other, to include an immediate cessation of hostile acts. That would mean halting Russian intrusions into NATO airspace, flyovers and buzzing by military jets, interceptions at sea and other harassing actions in NATO waters. Further deployments of NATO land forces must be paused. Negotiating requires setting aside anger over what has transpired, but does not obviate the need to discern one another’s actions to avoid deceit or trickery.

Some European leaders have made contact with Putin and tried to resolve some issues with him, but they have had little success. There have been intermittent congenial contacts between Obama and Putin. For example, on July 4, 2015, Putin called Obama to mark Independence Day and express his confidence in US-Russia relations. On June 25, 2015, Putin called Obama reportedly to discuss the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, but Obama also voiced concern over Russia’s support for separatists operating in eastern Ukraine. On February 10, 2015, Obama called Putin to urge him to accept a diplomatic peace plan for Ukraine presented by France and Germany in Belarus. Nevertheless, a more substantial contact between the US and Russia occurred on May 12, 2015 when US Secretary of State John Kerry held four hours of talks with Putin in addition to four hours talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.  In what Kerry characterized as a “frank meeting” with Putin, the Russian president gave detailed explanations of Russia’s positions. Their talks covered Iran, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. The eight hours of talks were a welcome development. It was Kerry’s first visit to Russia since the Ukraine crisis began in early 2014. Kerry stated on Twitter, “it was important to keep the lines of communication open between the US and Russia as we address important global issues such as Syria and Iran.” Lavrov said the talks helped Russia and the US improve mutual understanding.  Perhaps a path to repairing relations can be created by Kerry and Lavrov. There is no intrinsic guarantee diplomacy will work. However, both men have the confidence of their respective presidents. Both have a strong interest in improving US-Russia relations, and Russia’s overall relationship with the West. Indications are that they have an ongoing dialogue on a variety of issues and have also formed a good relationship. The US and the EU must continue work to directly with Russia, not shun it, to forge better ties and tackle hard issues.