Book Review: George William Rutler, Hints of Heaven: The Parables of Christ and What They Mean for You (Sophia Institute Press, 2014)

Above from left to right: Saint Demetrios, a senior officer in the Roman Army; Saint George, Commander of the Guard of Roman Emperor Diocletian; Saint Procopius, a commander in the Roman Army; and, Saint Artemius, a senior commander in the Roman Army. All were martyred for proclaiming and defending their Christian faith. Along with their faith and devotion to God, the Parables of Christ were a likely source of comfort for them as they endured persecution and torture. In many countries today, the Parables comfort military personnel, diplomats, policy analysts, and political leaders coping with turbulent situations.

In writings and public discussions about foreign and defense policy, often absent is consideration of what is an essential part of the lives of many military personnel, diplomats, policy analysts, and political leaders. That element is their faith, devotion to God. It may not be easily discerned, for they usually will not wear their faith on their sleeves. It was a factor most apparent in the thinking of Christianity’s warrior saints; Roman soldiers dedicated to their duties but dedicated more to God’s truth and defending Christianity. Among the first recognized were: Saint Demetrios of Thessaloniki, a high ranking officer in the Roman Army, who considered himself a soldier of Christ first and a soldier second. He was martyred in 306 A.D. by Emperor Maximian; Saint George of Lydda, who was a military officer, a Tribune, in the Guard of Emperor Diocletian. He denounced the persecution of Christians, defended Christianity was martyred by Diocletian for testimony to his faith in 303 A.D; Saint Procopius of Jerusalem, a commander in the Roman Army who turned away from the military and declared himself a soldier of Christ after defending the Christians of Alexandria and Jerusalem. He was martyred by Emperor Diocletian in 303 A.D.; and, Saint Artemius of Antioch, a general of the Roman Empire and Imperial Prefect of Roman Egypt. He was accused of persecuting pagans and demolishing pagan temples and idols in Alexandria, and was recalled and martyred by Emperor Julian the Apostate in 362 A.D.

In Hints of Heaven: The Parables of Christ and What They Mean for You (Sophia Institute Press, 2014), Father George William Rutler offers readers a chance to understand Christ’s teachings from the Gospels using His favorite vehicle, the parable. It was the profound spiritual advice of these teachings that provided those martyrs and multitudes, a guide for living, bringing them closer to God. The Parables comforted those Christians, helping them understand that despite persecution, the difficulties and trials of life, a road to heaven exists. That encouragement, along with the power of their faith and devotion to God, helped them summon the courage to triumph over the inhumanities put before them. To better understand how in many countries today the Parables comfort military personnel, diplomats, policy analysts, and political leaders coping with turbulent situations, and to acquire for oneself a different way to look at those situations, Hints of Heaven is the perfect book to read.

Reared in the Episcopal tradition in New Jersey and New York, Rutler was an Episcopal priest for nine years, and the youngest Episcopal rector in the country when he headed the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, Pennsylvania. However, in 1979, he was received into the Catholic Church and was sent to the North American College in Rome for seminary studies. A graduate of Dartmouth, Rutler also took advanced degrees at the Johns Hopkins University and the General Theological Seminary. He holds several degrees from the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, including the Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology, and studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In England, in 1988, the University of Oxford awarded him the degree Master of Studies. From 1987 to 1988 he was a regular preacher to the students, faculty, and townspeople of Oxford. Thomas More College and Christendom College awarded him honorary doctorates. For ten years he was also National Chaplain of Legatus, the organization of Catholic business leaders and their families, engaged in spiritual formation and evangelization. A board member of several schools and colleges, he is Chaplain of the New York Guild of Catholic Lawyers, Regional Spiritual Director of the Legion of Mary (New York and northern New Jersey) and has long been associated with the Missionaries of Charity, and other religious orders. He was a university chaplain for the Archdiocese. Rutler has lectured and given retreats in many nations, frequently in Ireland and Australia. Since 1988, EWTN has broadcasted Rutler’s television programs worldwide. Rutler has made documentary films in the US and the United Kingdom, contributes to numerous scholarly and popular journals and has published 18 books, referred to by some as classics, on theology, history, cultural issues, and the lives of the saints.

Rutler’s Hints of Heaven assembles the traditional count of twenty-four Parables of Jesus Christ found in the Gospels of the New Testament written by three of Christ’s Apostles: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel written by the Apostle John presents metaphors, but no parables. Rutler defines a parable as a similitude, employing a brief narrative in order to reach a spiritual lesson. He wants readers to understand how special the Parables are. He notes they are unlike other Eastern parables, and certainly unlike what he calls “the lesser stuff” found in current “spiritual best sellers” as they are not exotic. They do not distort or exaggerate nature in the way fables do. He says: “Kings are kings, but not wizards, and rich men are rich, but not omnipotent.” Rutler emphasizes, however, that the Parables are what Christ said they are: hints of heaven. He says that because the glory of heaven is too great for us to bear just now, Christ uses parables as delicate, veiled indicators of “our true homeland.” Hints of Heaven is masterfully written. Rutler again displays his remarkable command of the English language.

In reviewing Rutler’s Hints of Heaven, greatcharlie.com recognized that to convey a sense of religiousness makes oneself spooky to some. Writing publicly, one of course opens oneself up to constructive criticism at best and obloquy at worst. Still, a discussion tied to faith might be feared by readers on its face as being one more expression of neurotic religiosity. The majority of greatcharlie.com’s readers are primarily interested in foreign and defense policy and that presents an extra challenge in discussing the Parables. In Hints of Heaven, Rutler presents the Parables in a way that value can be found in them, certainly as spiritual guidance, but also in a way that facilitates their use in examing current international affairs. That hopefully will create interest in Hints of Heaven among those who might not consider the book ordinarily or come across the Parables at all. Vocatus atque non vocatus Deus aderit. (Called or not called, God will be present.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson has been quoted as saying: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” For the spiritual, conscience is formed by God’s truth. God’s truth creates order. In addition to knowing God’s truth, one must embody His truth which is inspired by love. The truth is a great treasure, a beautiful and satisfactory explanation of the world and heaven that should speak to the individual. One should love God, love one’s neighbor, and remain virtuous by choice because it is the right thing to do. The worship of God raises one up to Him. Having faith should never mean simply succumbing to a series of obligations. Nothing seems more illogical at first to the minds of many who would consider themselves enlightened than God’s truth. They are unable to understand anything beyond familiar physical formulas. For many, God’s presence is obscured by tragic events and popular personalities boastful of their own appearance, abilities or worth who encourage the same behavior of others. Indeed, popular culture can interdict true worship by fashion and by pseudo-sophistication. Feeling empty, some individuals turn to a substitute, feel good religiosity that is easy, comfortable, and assuring. Illusions that approximate the truth, even fantasies, find acceptance. The German-American actress, singer, and agnostic, Marlene Dietrich, said during a London tour, “You can’t live without illusions, even if you must fight for them . . . .” Taking the wrong path in search of a way to worship has been said to create a neurosis, as one is deprived of what one is meant to do and to be. Causa latet, vis est notissima. (The cause is hidden, but the force is very well known.)

In the Catholic Church, leaders have indicated that far more is involved in the behavior just described than choosing to accept or reject God’s truth. Individuals are being influenced, inspired by evil.   Many among those who might consider themselves enlightened are disinclined to accept the existence of evil. Still, it exists. Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina explained “The evil spirits, because of their pride, anger, and envy, will attempt to turn your gaze away from God through their temptations or harassments, so that every thought and action you engage in might be in opposition to what the Lord desires for you.” Even if one accepts that evil exists, one needs to beware of its subtlety. Saint John Paul II explained: “Spiritual combat . . . is a secret and interior art, an invisible struggle in which [we] engage everyday against the temptations, the evil suggestions that the demon tries to plant in [our] hearts.”

Five months before the fall of Mosul in 2014, US President Barack Obama had dismissed ISIS in an interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick as the ‘jay-vee’ squad of terrorists.” It is important that countries intervening against evil be certain of their motivations and intentions. Having the will to act is not enough. Accepting that good and evil, angels and demons, exist is also not enough. Evil can quiet all suspicions, making everything appear normal and natural to those with the best intentions.

Few national governments and other power centers today likely factor in evil when analyzing international events and formulating and implementing their foreign and defense policies. US President Franklin Roosevelt accepted spiritual combat between good and evil, angels and demons as a reality. He believed that World War II, which albeit began for mixed reasons, could only be understood in its essential dynamic as spiritual combat between forces of great good and palpable evil. He viewed German Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler as a demonic force propelling the conflict. His plans were spelled out in Mein Kampf. Roosevelt found a like-minded partner in United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In Roosevelt’s mind, Allied forces would not fight as armies of conquest but as a force to defeat evil. Roosevelt’s belief that the war represented a battle against the forces of evil was well-expressed in his National Address and Prayer during the Invasion of Normandy, France by the Allies on June 6, 1944. Roosevelt prayed: “With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace—a peace invulnerable to the scheming of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil.” Churchill many times before then had signaled his belief in the demonic nature of Hitler and his evil works. In his renowned “Their Finest Hour” speech of June 18, 1940, Churchill included the following: “Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”

US President Franklin Roosevelt accepted spiritual combat between good and evil as a reality. He believed that World War II, which albeit began for mixed reasons, could only be understood in its essential dynamic as spiritual combat between forces of great good and palpable evil. He viewed German Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler as a demonic force propelling the conflict. Roosevelt found a like-minded partner in United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Roosevelt saw Allied armies as a force to defeat evil.

As Roosevelt understood, and it remains so today, the use of lethal force by countries, to fight wars, to halt evil actions or the infliction of evil upon people is not contrary to God’s truth. However, it is important that countries intervening against evil be certain of their motivations and intentions. Having the will to act is not enough. Accepting that good and evil, angels and demons, exist is also not enough. Evil can quiet all suspicions, making everything appear normal and natural to those with the best intentions. One must look deeper to discern flaws, to see what is lacking.

Following each Parable presented in Hints of Heaven, Rutler provides a short discussion. He explains their meaning and often explains how their lessons have surfaced in history. Readers can contemplate how the lessons of the Parables allow for their own assays of events in today’s world; the machinations and conduct of leaders and officials. Consider these assays of current events using Rutler’s presentation of the following Parables in Hints of Heaven: “The Wicked Husbandmen”; “The Unmerciful Servant”; and, “The Rich Fool”.

In the Parable of “The Wicked Husbandmen,” tenant farmers acted on the fantasy of taking possession of a vineyard, engaging in evil acts hold it from the owner. They were executed. European countries have kept their doors open to migrants seeking better lives. Yet, the migrant wave from the Middle East, North Africa, and Central and Southwest Asia have put that practice in question. Islamic terrorist attacks have heightened European concerns over migrants. Europe’s response has included measured steps on immigration. Future attacks may result in grave steps to ensure public safety.

The Wicked Husbandmen

“Hear another parable. ‘There was a house holder who planned a vineyard, and set a hedge around it, and dug a wine press in it, and built a tower, and let it out to tenants, and went into another country. When the season of fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants, to get his fruit; and the servants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first; and they did the same to them. Afterward he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ And they took him and cast him out of the vineyard, and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?’ They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.’ Jesus said to them, Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected, has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? ‘Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it. And he who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on any one, it will crush him.’ ”

Concerning this Parable, Rutler explains that as tenant farmers, the husbandmen gradually assumed proprietary airs over the vineyard. They acted on the fantasy becoming its owners. In the end, they were executed. For years, countries in Western Europe have kept their doors open to people seeking better lives for themselves and their families. Procedures exist for governments to handle all types of migrants, including asylum seekers, war refugees, and guest workers. Recognizing the plight of those people, European governments have been resolute about maintaining their countries immigration programs despite the mounting pressures of illegal immigration and the social and political backlash from some citizens. The recent wave of migrants from the Middle East, North Africa, and Southwest Asia, seeking to capitalize on Europe’s open doors, has created a crisis. Solutions have been sought including diplomacy with Turkey to help stem the tide of migrants. Recent terrorist attacks in Europe by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) have heightened public concerns. Having compassion toward migrants, it has been discouraging for the European public to discover that there are some, who, rather than expressing gratitude to the people of their adoptive countries, instead speak with invective about their new homes, new compatriots. Europeans must sadly accept that terrorists desperate to strike violently in their cities have infiltrated their countries by hiding among migrants. Those open to engaging in terrorist activities are a negligible fraction of Europe’s immigrant communities. Even so, such makes political leaders appear naïve and inept, and action has been demanded of them. European political leaders have acted with measured steps. Most European countries have joined the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition which is launching airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and training and equipping local forces in those countries contending with ISIS. Information sharing on terrorist groups among European intelligence and law enforcement entities has also increased. If more attacks such as those seen in Brussels, Paris, London, or Madrid should happen in Europe, a harder look will be given to immigration, not to harm migrants, but as a matter of public safety, to protect innocent citizens. Responses could include the suspension of Europe’s immigration programs, the termination of visas and citizenship for some, and possible deportations. Salus populi suprema lex. (The safety of the people is the supreme law.)

In the Parable of “The Wicked Servant,” a servant, whose lord forgave him of his indebtedness, refused to act similarly toward another servant indebted to him. The situation in Syria continues to shift in Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad’s favor with the help of Russia and Iran. A deal allowing Assad to remain in power for some period in Damascus, once improbable, could become reality. That decision could be rationalized by the realization that Syria’s reconstruction must get underway. Still, if vengeance would likely color Assad’s reign after a deal is reached, it might be better not to enter into any agreement with him at all.

The Unmerciful Servant

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the reckoning, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents; and as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him the lord of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But that same servant, as he went on, came upon one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him by the throat he said, ‘Pay what you owe me.’ So his fellow servant fell down and besought him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison till he should pay the debt. When he fellow servants saw what he had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgive you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you!’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay his debt. So should my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Regarding this Parable, Rutler says: “Forgiveness is not an easy platitude offered to the smug; nor is it an aggressive display of pacifism.” He goes on to state: “There is no reason to forgive anyone unless it is done with enough humility to inspire humility in the one who is forgiven.” Despite how impolitic it may sound, the easiest way to handle Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad’s removal would be to eliminate him “covertly” as has been the case with key leaders of Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Khorasan, Abu-Sayyaf, Abu-Shabab, Hezbollah, and Hamas; the list goes on. Certainly, Assad is not immortal. However, as the elected leader of a sovereign state, Assad has been given an intriguing degree of recognition and respect. Military action against his regime by the US and European powers has been predominantly on the margins. The purpose of training and equipping of Syrian Opposition rebels forces and Kurdish forces in Syria was to push Assad to the negotiating table where it was hoped he would have agreed to step down. Until September 2015, that was beginning to look possible due to additional pressures Assad’s forces were feeling from Islamic militant groups such as ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra. However, in September 2015, the Russian Federation and Iran stepped up their assistance to Assad to include group troops and massive air support. The situation on the battlefield has been reversed seemingly obviating the need for Assad to concede anything at negotiations set up under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Success on the battlefield may also help to shape the political situation in Syria enough to impact national elections envisaged under that resolution. If the situation continues to shift in Assad’s favor with the help of Russia and Iran, and an agreement allowing Assad to remain in power for at least some period in Damascus, once deemed improbable in the West, might become a possibility. That decision could be rationalized by the realization that Syria’s reconstruction must get underway. However, Assad’s predilection for violence against civilians landed him on a list of war crimes suspects that was handed to the International Criminal Court in 2014. If retribution and sheer vengeance colors Assad’s reign after peace is established, it might be better not to enter any agreement with him at all. Rather than influencing Assad from the battlefield, perhaps leaving him to rebuild Syria using his own devices and the wherewithal of his benefactors in Russia, Iran, and China, might do more to force him into new negotiations and concessions. In exchange for Western assistance, Assad could be required to take verifiable steps to alter his country’s political system. He may be forced to extinguish his appetite for violence against his people and depart earlier. Avarus animus nullo satiatur lucro. (A greedy mind is satisfied with no amount of gain.)

In the Parable of “The Rich Fool”, a wealthy man saw fit to build larger barns in which to store a bumper crop of grain never thinking to share with the needy. Immigration policies and programs of prosperous, industrialized Western countries demonstrate their goodwill and willingness to share in their success with the world. They have benefitted multitudes. Still, many citizens of those countries are angered that they have not shared in their countries’ success. Often, they are under paid, underemployed, worried about keeping their jobs, or languishing in hated jobs. They want political leaders to respond to them.

The Rich Fool

“The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops. And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all of my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ ‘So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God’.”

About this Parable, Rutler explains that the rich fool denies himself the happiness that comes from giving happiness to God, even though God does not need more happiness. Saint Augustine’s counsel helps one understand that the rich fool’s barns should have been “the bosoms of the needy, the houses of widows, the mouths of orphans and widows.”   In prosperous, industrialized Western countries, steady progress has allowed their citizens the chance to enjoy a standard of living most in other countries lack and desire. Immigration policies and programs of those Western countries demonstrate their goodwill and willingness to share in their success with the world. In recent years, multitudes have benefitted from those policies and programs. The high influx of legal immigrants has caused governments to continually consider ways to absorb them without straining services and infrastructure. Illegal immigrants have also strained those countries’ structures creating a debate among political leaders, domestic policy analysts, and law enforcement on how to act. Yet, an unsettling concern is the increased grumbling among citizens, the tax-payers of prosperous countries who, by any measure, have not enjoyed in their countries’ success. In the US, they have been dubbed “the disaffected.” Often, they are under paid, underemployed, worried about keeping their jobs, are a salary away from disaster, and languish in jobs they hate. Some feel that despite family ties, service and sacrifice in wars, and years of allegiance to their countries, they are being bypassed by newcomers. They want political leaders to respond to their needs, before responding to those of others abroad. A robust effort by US political leaders to resolve problems forestalling many citizens from sharing in their country’s success would well-exhibit the country’s goodwill toward its own people. On April 25, 2016, US President Barack Obama spoke on this issue in Hannover, Germany, saying: “Countries should not have to choose between responding to crises and investing in their people. So we need to pursue reforms to position us for long-term prosperity, and support demand and invest in the future. All of our countries, for example, could be investing more in infrastructure. All of our countries need invest in science and research and development that sparks new innovation and new industries. All of our countries have to invest in our young people, and make sure that they have the skills and the training and the education they need to adapt to this rapidly changing world.” Responding to the “disaffected” has also been a theme of candidates in the 2016 US Presidential Campaign. Candidates claim to have answers. Perhaps the one elected will respond to their needs. Divitiae effundendo magis quam coacervando, melius nitent: siquidem avaritia semper odiosos, claros largitas facit. (Wealth shines in spending, not amassing: to be close-fisted is hateful, to be open-handed splendid.)

A Very Satisfying, Very Valuable Read!

As mentioned initially, for greatcharlie.com’s readers, Hints of Heaven would not be a customary book selection as it does not directly concern foreign and defense policy. Still, reading Hints of Heaven will allow those primarily interested in international affairs to take a look at many urgent and important issues from a different and intriguing lens. This book is guaranteed to be an enjoyable respite, a very satisfying, very valued, read. There is nothing disappointing about it. Without reservations, greatcharlie.com recommends Hints of Heaven to its readers.

By Mark Edmond Clark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia Goes In

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

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

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

The Palmyra Battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Possibilities: Battle of Annihilation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caliphate Redoubt in Syria?

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

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.