Trump Has Spoken, the Ball Is in Kim Jong-un’s Court, But This Is Not a Game

A US B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber (above). The B-2 is a long-range strike asset of the US Air Force. It can penetrate deep into enemy territiry and drop a conventional or nuclear payload without being detected.

North Korea manifests a stubbornness reflective of the disposition of Kim Jong-un, the Chairman of the Workers Party of Korea and the Supreme Leader of Democratic People Republic of North Korea. Lately, the country has made itself practically unavailable for direct diplomatic contact. Soon enough, it will be discovered whether Pyongyang is so determined to build a nuclear arsenal, whether the current issue is tied so much, in Kim’s view, to North Korea’s dignity, that efforts to reach an agreement will be impeded. During Kim’s years in power, Kim and his government in Pyongyang has sought to create the appearance of being dangerous and savage. There are boundaries beyond which one cannot return.

As reported in the US newsmedia, US President Donald Trump stated that there would be  forceful retaliation from the US if aggressive action is taken by the North Korea against the US territory of Guam and US allies. Trump said the US military is “locked and loaded” and that Kim “will regret it fast” if action is taken. Trump has reassured the residents on the US territory of Guam, by saying “I feel that they will be very safe,” despite Kim’s threats to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) toward the island. Trump revealed that in a telephone call with a key player in the Northeast Asia, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, that both leaders reiterated “their mutual commitment to the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Nothing aggressive that North Korea is doing will be rewarded. Rather, there will only be the harshest of consequences. Kim must understand that Trump has not made a half hearted vow to do something. Make no mistake, Trump has the requisite will to act.

The Trump administration has tried to be reasonable with North Korea. Recall that Trump, with a positive mindset, tried to reach out to Kim. He tried to see the world through King Jong-un lens. Trump publicly expressed the view that it must have been difficult for Kim to take on so much responsibility at a relatively early age following his father, Kim Jong-Il. Trump even suggested that he would be willing to meet with Kim to communicate head to head, brain to brain. A resolution might have been crafted from Kim’s elaborations on what troubles him. It was a sincere search for common ground. Kim did not budge in Trump’s direction. Rather, Trump was with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in Florida on February 11, 2017 when the North Korea fired an intermediate range missile into the Sea of Japan. It seemed that efforts with North Korea were becoming a struggle against the inevitable. Trump urged China, North Korea’s economic lifeline, to assist in reducing tensions by talking frankly with Pyongyang.  The administration’s contact with China has resulted in a degree of solidarity from it. China voted to place sanctions against North Korea under UN Security Council Resolution 2371. However, at least initially, that effort did not appear to do too much to stop Kim.

Normally, It would expected that the US and any potential or true adversaries would be at a sparring stage at this early point of the administration, feeling each other out. There was really no need for big moves, big challenges. In Northeast Asia, the Trump administration has acted in a measured way. Trump was sowing seeds for solid growth in relations with Japan, South Korea, and China. The Trump administration expressed the desire for improved relations with Russia, but that tact has been famously admonished by critics. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was doing an admirable job as chief diplomat, consulting bilaterally and multilaterally with allies and friends on urgent and important issues. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis invested himself in Asia the same way, discussing ways to improve and giving assurances on security arrangements. Questions on issues of multilateral concern that can be handled in the UN Security Council were fielded well by Nikki Haley. Their dialogues with foreign leaders and counterparts have been complex. Despite what one might read in a US Government 101 undergraduate course, there was no indication, no hint of parochialism associated with the actions of either department secretary or staff. There was no concern that one was poaching on the others reserve. Personal preferences, especially for Mattis who has no love for the North Korean regime, were put aside. There are active back channels to Pyongyang. They were used to secure the release of Otto Wambier, a student from the University of Virginia from a North Korean prison.

Kim Jong-un stands on terrain high enough to be able to survey the liabilities and salutary prospects of war with the US. Rather than looking out upon vistas of possibilities, Kim is staring into cold, dark abyss. He has allowed his ego to run away from him. He may soon find himself moving from hubris to humiliation. The North Korean people live in a country with conditions that no one anywhere would envy. They know the world through Kim’s lies, his deceptions. They hear his substitute truth designed to seduce. Those North Koreans who believe his gossamer fantasies have been left in the cradle intellectually. Often North Koreans are ordered to put their love for their Great Leader and their country on display for the world see and the security apparatus to judge.

North Korean generals may recognize, albeit only through intuition and intimation, that their country is considerably vulnerable to the US. However, the Intelligence in Pyongyang, undoubtedly politicized, is probably murky about what the US can really do and Trump’s will to fight. That, along with the survival instinct, enables them to remain fully committed to the lie that North Korea has the military wherewithal to take on the a military superpower. Kim only has power in the world that the world has allowed him. It could be said that he is the invention of those who have been dilatory. Right now, it seems Kim believes that he can delay negotiating with international community until after he develops a nuclear capable rocket force able reach the US. That possible ploy could result in a dark tragedy for him and the North Korean people. Trump has made it very clear that he does not want North Korea to develop a nuclear force. Deterring that force once it has been developed is not in Trump’s plans.

Misused power is always built upon lies. Indeed, tyrants redefine what exists into projections of their egos. There are no noble thoughts. They become wrapped up in themselves. One wrapped up in oneself becomes a small package. Kim has a history of mocking what is good, and finding pleasure in what is evil. As time goes on, the more tragic the tyrants becomes as a figure. Kim may not wait for his reign to come to an ignominious end at the hands of Trump without some demonstration of his power. He may seek to make some grand stand. Tyrannical figures have often self-destructed when their power appeared to be slipping from their hands.

The manner in which North Korea is presented in the US newsmedia has greatly impacted the US public’s impression of it. North Korea is presented in the US news media as odd and mystifying. Well-known representations of North Korea’s mystification include: Kim, who is shown as a curious little man with a curious choice of hair style; North Korea’s testing of short and long range rockets and nuclear warheads; and, videos of massive parades of uniformed military and weapons systems and citizens’ patriotic demonstrations in Pyongyang. Kim rules with an iron fist. Within the tyrannical government, maintaining secrecy, obscurity, are key elements of its mechanism of control over the populace. The North Korean regime is essentially a cult of darkness. Kim and his subordinate leaders in Pyongyang relish rule by violence killing, death. Death is exalted, the nuclear program, rocket program are means being developed to support its ends. Mystification is also what Hollywood uses to help generate fear and horror, to make films spooky. In our culture, timidity easily takes the form of affected joviality, hoping to diffuse tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back, and then let the dialogue begin. That may work with victims of evil, but not with evil regimes as the one in North Korea.

The fact that Kim has test launched ICBMs that can reach the Continental US, and has expressed the intention of aiming the next test launch of missiles dangerously close to the US territory of Guam is not their primary concern. Rather, they accuse Trump of ratcheting up the situation with his “fire and fury” rhetoric. Those critics were many of the same who harped on the fact that Europeans, who Trump declined to join on the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and who he called out for being long-time beneficiaries of US largesse and having failed to meet their obligations for defense spending, are reviled by what they view as Trump’s gaucheness. Trump’s touch with common humanity in no way detracts from his dignity. Further, despite what may be dubbed his outbursts on Twitter, he is aware that anger blinds and chokes, knows what he is doing. Trump ostensibly feels that if he is going to be damned by critics, on North Korea or other issues, he might as well be damned for doing what he feels is right and being who he really is.

There is said to be a temper of the soul that wants to live in illusion exists. In the opinion of most of Trump’s critics, lots of things should be done, omitted, changed, and corrected by him. There are endless calls for a diplomatic solution from many of Trump supporters, but mostly from his critics. That demand in itself is misleading. All viable diplomatic angles are being examined by Trump and his foreign and national security policy advisers. Tillerson can handle negotiations with any country, any leader, that is now a proven fact. Yet, an option may be to send a doyen from the foreign policy field, knowledgeable of the situation on the Korean Peninsula, to develop conditions talks. China can be offered great incentives to use its influence with North Korea more efficaciously, to halt tests and make a deal. Beijing certainly has an interest in preserving its strategic buffer to the US. Still, in the end, it all depends on Kim.

If Trump is given cause to use overwhelming US military power to resolve the North Korean problem, the same critics will likely relentlessly remark that he created desolation and called it peace. Anyone in a position of moral authority who thinks it possible to diffuse tension between good and evil by playing the minstrel, only signals his own insecurity. The prospect of war on the Korean Peninsula may be so horrifying, so unnerving to some that, consciously or unconsciously, they become disposed to underestimating Kim’s capacity for evil. In such situations, even some experienced and reliable analysts might say things that cannot be. They begin to reject possibilities without hearing others. They will rely upon on self-serving explanations and surmisals. One must process in the mind what one sees to surmount what one sees. Previous administrations derived scant tranquility through negotiation with North Korea. They submitted to the fantasy that Kim wanted peace. Kim prospered by establishing for him a pattern of success that helped build his self-confidence in dealing with US. Scant To ignore evil as a real problem is to leave oneself defenseless. Even if the US made a deal with Kim, his craving for a nuclear capable rocket force could soon reassert itself. Leaders often sign agreements and do nothing afterward.

The safety of the people is the supreme responsibility of a national leader. The US and its allies did not ignite this episode by threatening North Korea. North Korea has boldly posed a significant threat to US territory and allies with ICBMS, intermediate range rockets, and nuclear warheads  It is unfortunate that different philosophies, Kim’s being a defective one, kept him from responding to the initial overture made by Trump toward his regime. Kim’s heart may very well be hardened by a belief that the greatest danger to North Korea,comes from the US, However, Trump will not moan over any of that. There was nothing Delphic about Trump’s statement about responding to aggression from North Korea. He is well aware of the importance of clarity of expression in diplomatic communication. He says what he means. He wants as much information as possible, no matter how feeble in order to be read in on everything. In days ahead, the world may see the best of human accomplishments in diplomacy or the worst of human foibles. Victory by the US and its allies through military action is not in doubt. However, victory by nature can be superb and insulting, given its costs.

Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS; An Agreement Is Needed on Assad

The Russians are coming! Stabilizing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was a main reason for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send the Russian Federation Armed Forces into Syria, but defeating ISIS is also a priority. So far, that effort has been manifested in the use of air power and sea based missile strikes. However, use of special purpose forces, spetsnaz (as above), will 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 ISIS leaders and conducting raids and ambushes against ISIS units.

According to a November 27, 2015 Washington Post article entitled, “Russia Plays Down Idea of Coalition with West to Strike ISIS in Syria,” Russia, after initially offering hope that Russia would cooperate with the US-led coalition against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) in Syria, has played down that possibility. That position was made clear by Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, during a November 27th press conference at the Kremlin. For their part, US President Barack Obama and other Western leaders have tried to bring Putin into a US-led coalition instead with an understanding that the goal of the coalition was the removal of Assad from power. French President François Hollande has traveled to both Washington and Moscow following a spate of horrific terrorist attacks tied to the militant group. As part of the effort to find middle ground between the US and Russia, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius floated the idea of using Assad’s forces against ISIS but only in the context of a political transition that would remove Assad from power.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has sought cooperation with Western countries, but solely on Russia’s terms. Those terms include providing diplomatic and military shelter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and attacking, not only ISIS, but Western-backed rebel groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that oppose the Assad regime. Ties between Russia and the West were further strained when Turkey, a NATO member, shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter that allegedly crossed into its airspace and ignored warnings. One Russian pilot was killed. Russian and Syrian forces rescued the navigator. A Russian Marine was killed during the rescue.

On January 28, 2015, Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged members of the Syrian Opposition Movement and representatives from the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at peace talks in Moscow to join forces to combat the threat of terrorism. Lavrov said at the time, “We believe that the understanding by politicians and leading representatives of civil society of the necessity to join forces to combat this common threat (of terrorism) should become the key for the resurrection of the unity of the Syrian nation.”   Now required to come to terms with the West on Syria to create a unified front against ISIS, Lavrov finds himself in a similar impasse with his Western counterparts. For many senior officials in Russia, the stalemate with the US was expected not only due to a disagreement over Assad but due to a perceived unyielding US hostility toward Russia. This perspective has been manifested in Putin’s speeches and interviews. Variance can occasionally be discerned whenever Russia seeks to cultivates ties with the US for their usefulness. For example, as the Ukraine crisis began to escalate, an April 18, 2015 Reuters article reported Putin told Obama by telephone, “We have disagreements on several issues on the international agenda. But at the same time there is something that unites us, that forces us to work together.” Yet, only two days before on an annual TV phone-in show, Putin accused the US of trying to dominate world affairs and saying what it wanted was “not allies, but vassals.” This is the perspective that Putin’s paracletes in the Kremlin also espouse. In an interview with the official government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, the Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, one of Putin’s most important advisers and most senior intelligence official, Nikolai Patrushev, proffered that there is an unwavering US hostility toward Russia. He claims that hostility is due to Russia’s resistance to US efforts to achieve world hegemony and to control Russia’s immense natural resources in order to seal that hegemony. The idea that a US animus exists toward Russia and US policy is perfectly designed to promote it may be called an exaggeration. It may be viewed as typical of an intelligence official to find external causality for domestic events. Still, what is important is that Patrushev and others in Putin’s circle believe it.

Diplomacy requires finding some middle ground, typically through some compromise, upon which an agreement can be reached and better relations can hopefully be built. That was the case with the Iran Talks which ended in an agreement after nearly two years of negotiations. All sides are working very hard to understand the entire matter regarding Syria. If some middle ground can be found, it will concern the disposition of Assad. The solution is only temporarily hidden. Conditions can change, and possibilities will exist. However, regardless of his position on Assad, Putin says Russia is committed to the battle against ISIS in Syria. With or without cooperation from the US-led coalition, which Putin has called illegal, Russia must succeed.

By intervening in Syria with the Russian Federation Armed Forces, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin seeks to prevent Syria from becoming a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. However, he also seeks to protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin has no intention of allowing an ISIS presence in Syria of a size and strength capable of forcing Assad from power. Some complain that Russia has done little against ISIS. Yet, the manner and pace of Putin’s actions are likely influenced by concerns he would defeat ISIS only to allow the Syrian Opposition Movement to undercut Assad.

Putin’s Purpose For Intervening in Syria

Putin explained Russia’s military support and intervention in Syria in a speech at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, on September 15, 2015. In response to Western criticism of Russia’s actions, Putin stated, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin explained the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syria opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.”

Speaking to Western and Arab capitals, Putin stated, “We must sideline geopolitical ambitions, refrain from so-called double standards, from the policy of direct use of separate terrorist groups to achieve opportunistic goals, including the change of governments and regime that may be disagreeable to whomever.” Concerning Assad, Putin relayed that he might be willing to enter a power-sharing agreement with opposition but that the fight against terrorism was the priority. To that extent, Putin explained, “The Islamic State is providing ideological indoctrination and training to fighters from different countries including, unfortunately European countries and the Russian Federation, and many former Soviet republics. And of course, we are worried with the possibility of them returning to our territories.” However, despite what has been publicly outlined by Putin, some in the West believe his intervention in Syria was a way to end the isolation its has faced since the collapse of the pro-Russian Government in Kiev, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and Russia’s support of pro-Russian separatist in The Donbass. The conversation ostensibly would shift away from it and creating circumstances for the easing of sanctions which have had an impact. Such perspectives reinforce Putin’s determination to avoid doing anything that could create the perception Russia was wilting before what he views as Washington’s effort to establish total dominance.   Encouraged by advisers, Putin sensed not only a chance for Russia to shore up one of its remaining allies in the Middle East, but the chance to reassert Russia’s role as a global power. He would demonstrate that Russia could succeed where the US had so far failed. That would be the real prize for Putin and his confidants. Exitus acta probat! (The result validates the deeds!)

Above are Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, Nikolai Patruchev. Reportedly, the military plan for providing increased support to Syria was pushed by the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Putin’s as well as Shoigu and Patrushev. Russia’s investigation into the possibility taking such action included engaging in high-level contacts with Iran on Syria. The result was a political agreement for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria.

On October 2, 2015, Bloomberg Business reported that the military plan for providing increased support to Syria was pushed by the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Putin, the Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and the head of the State Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev. Russia’s investigation into the possibility taking such action included engaging in high-level contacts with Iran on Syria. The result was a political agreement for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria. New support would be injected to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms would be set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is intriguingly allied with both Iran and the US. One operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad. Iran, itself, had already deployed 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. On February 13, 2013, the initial IRGC commander in Syria, IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hassan Shateri, was assassinated. Afterward, renowned IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani took control of operations in Syria, frequently flying into Damascus.

Once the decision for the joint Iranian-Russian effort was made, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reportedly directed Suleimani to visit Moscow to make necessary arrangements despite a UN travel ban on the IRGC set by the UN Security Council in 2007. Allegedly from July 24, 2015 to July 27, 2015, Suleimani held numerous meetings in Moscow covering regional and bilateral issues and the delivery of Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles and other weapons. More importantly, Suleimani met with Putin and Shoigu. According to accounts of the meeting in Reuters, Suleimani outlined the deteriorating situation in Syria for Assad’s forces. He indicated that Syrian opposition was advancing toward the coast and posing a danger to the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect and threatening Tartus, where Russia maintains its only Mediterranean naval base. This alarmed the Russians, who could see that matters were in steep decline and there were real dangers to the regime. Suleimani then placed a map of Syria on the table and explained that there was still time to reclaim the initiative. Putin acted. Amicus certus in re incerta cernitur! (A friend in need is a friend indeed!)

Once the decision for the joint Iranian-Russian effort in Syria was made, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reportedly directed renowned Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) to visit Moscow to make necessary arrangements. Suleimani met with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. He outlined the deteriorating situation for the Syrian Armed Forces, but explained, using a map, that there was still time to reclaim the initiative.

How Worried Are the Russians About ISIS?

Russia is the latest state actor to overtly intervene against ISIS in Syria, Russia’s fight with Islamic extremism did not begin in Syria. Russia has been combating Islamic extremist separatist groups for more than a decade since it broke the separatists’ control of Chechnya province in the North Caucasus Federal District during Putin’s first term. Insurgents from the group Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate) say they are fighting to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia. A number of terrorist attacks have been enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in both the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. Hundreds of foreign fighters were drawn to Syria soon after ISIS intervened in Syria’s civil war. In June 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Free Syrian Army’s ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting FSA fighters to discover who among them were Islamic militants, the Russian law enforcement and intelligence service apparently possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of those militants. Even in his September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, Putin discussed the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin explained, “Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria?” Clearly, Putin has been concerned for a while that Syria will become a starting point for the movement of ISIS fighters into Russia. Yet, some allege the Russian Government actually created the circumstances for that to occur.

Via rectum ad astra! (The path to success is through bad places!) Law enforcement and intelligence organizations globally use a variety of convoluted methods against subjects of investigations to include: buy and bust operations, using an informant to engage in clandestine conversations with subjects or act as an agent provocateur, sting operations, and plausibly deniable covert operations. The Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta reports the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB, using an odd gambit known as provokatsiya, penetrating and co-opting terrorist groups, has actually influenced the hijrah or Islamic militant migration into Syria as a means to facilitate the pacification of the insurgency in North Caucasus. Using local intermediaries, FSB would allegedly arrange the departure of Islamic militants to Turkey where they would find their way into Iraq or Syria. The arrangements would be made under the condition that the Islamic militants would deal only with the FSB and none of they would not inform any of their Islamic militant confederates of their FSB sponsorship. It has been estimated that since this operation was undertaken, between 2000 and 3000 Russian Islamic militants have joined ISIS in the Middle East. (During an October 19, 2015 meetng with leaders of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)–twelve former Soviet Republics, Putin, himself, said there were approximately 5,000 to 7,000 fighters from Russia and other CIS republics in ISIS.) The operation has supposedly allowed Russian countrrterrorism officials to take credit for the halving of terrorist violence in the North Caucasus since the Syrian civil war began. If Islamic extremists returned and began attacks, Russia, in theory, could claim ISIS was the cause for terrorism in the region.

The Novaya Gazeta article quotes sources in North Caucasus with ties to Islamic militants to support its claim. In investigating the Russian newspaper’s report, The Daily Beast learned from well-known Putin detractor, former KGB General Oleg Kalugin who said Russian intelligence had a long ignominious history of “pushing forward the more extremist elements and use their facilities to do the most damage to a local population.” The Daily Beast article also discussed parallels of the alleged operation and the reported strategy the Russian Government during the First and Second Chechen Wars. Islamic extremist warlords such as Shamil Basayev were co-opted by Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije (Russian Federation Main Intelligence Directorate) or GRU, in order to destroy the secular, democratic Chechen movement. Basayev proved to be a less of useful tool for the Kremlin when it was discerned that he wanted to create an emirate in the Caucasus. He was assassinated, but his efforts “cast a pall” on the secular separatist struggle and offered a cause for a scorched-earth Russian counterinsurgency campaign that resulted in Grozny’s destruction. History without fact is at best theory and at worst myth. If some provokatsiya operation helped create the threat ISIS now poses to Russia, its use was foolhardy. However, Russia’s focus now is defeating ISIS in Syria. Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines, quos ultra citraque nequit consistere rectum. (There is an optimal condition in all things. There are therefore precise boundaries beyond which one cannot find the right thing.)

Russia is the latest state actor to intervene in Syria, but Russia’s fight with Islamic extremist did not begin with Syria. Russia has been combatting Islamic extremist separatist groups for more than a decade since it broke the separatists’ control of Chechnya province in the North Caucasus Federal District during Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s first term. Islamic exfremist terrorist attacks have occurred since in both the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District. After ISIS injected itself into the Syrian Civil War, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its ranks. Putin is concerned Syria will become the starting point for the movement of ISIS into Russia

In the Crimea, Russian Federation forces engaged in a stealth operation, referred to as hybrid warfare—the blend of unidentified troop, propaganda, and economic pressure the West says Russia used there. In The Donbass, the presence of a rather considerable number of Russian Federation forces has been denied by the Kremlin. However, in Syria, the actions of the Russian Federation Armed Forces are very visible and made very public. Indeed, the operation in Syria has become a testing ground for new weapons systems. Systems being utilized include the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter and the sea-based Kalibr cruise missile, of which several were launched from the Caspian Sea, more than 900 miles from their targets in Syria. Since air operations began, Russian fighter jets are conducting almost as many strikes daily as the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition has been carrying out each month in 2015. They have attacked targets in support of Syrian ground forces and presumably will provide close air support for an Iranian-led offensive.

In response to chatter from Western defense analysts about the new weapons that were revealed, Putin explained on state television, “It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist, that our defense industry is making them, that they are of high quality and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use.” Still, the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria may face challenges beyond those presented by ISIS and Western backed FSA fighters. Claims have been made that the Russian Federation Armed Forces are still trying to eliminate problems lingering from the “Wild West” environment of post-Soviet era. The problem was exacerbated by a lack of efficiency in the military investigations department. Officers have been accused of trading in travel warrant, stealing soldiers’ meals, and the extortion of pay from officers by commanders. Accusations of extortion in the distribution of supplementary pay in Army units have been investigated in every district and fleet. Murders, bribery, and drug trafficking have also been considerable problems. Efforts have been made to improve conditions and raise morale in the ranks. These problems could potentially manifest themselves in the poor performance of some units in Syria.

In response to chatter from Western analysts about new weapons used in Syria, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin explained on state television “It is one thing for the experts to be aware that Russia supposedly has these weapons, and another thing for them to see for the first time that they do really exist, that our defense industry is making them, that they are of high quality and that we have well-trained people who can put them to effective use.” Still, the Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria could face challenges caused by problems lingering from the “Wild West” environment of the post-Soviet era unless units deployed there are selected based on their capability to perform with a high level of proficency.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov will surely be diligent in the deployment of forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces must not become bogged down in support of its allies, but ensure that the ISIS force in Syria is cut off and destroyed. If not, it may relocate and resurrect itself.

Russian air strikes could further target leaders of ISIS—and other rogue Islamic militant groups when identified. Command centers and other turmas, gathering places, of ISIS leaders, must be struck simultaneously to throw the groups into chaos and confusion and make it very difficult for them to regenerate.   The communications of ISIS should be either destroyed by drone strikes or disrupted by other technical means leaving surviving leaders with no control over their units. Once rudderless, the groups’ units would be unable to coordinate actions, unit cohesion would suffer, and they would become far less effective. Training centers must be destroyed. Fighting positions in front of the Russian allies could also be degraded with close air support as well as very heavy strikes by Russian ordinance. ISIS fighters must face certain death if they hold their positions.  When ISIS units are driven out of their positions, Russian allies must ensure any escape routes are blocked and kill or capture as many ISIS fighters as possible. Operating as independent units or as svodnye spetsialnye gruppy (combined special groups) or SSGs, Russian special purpose forces, spetsnaz, could go into ISIS controlled areas, locate, and kill specific ISIS fighters from Russia, or when directed, collect prisoners. Individual spetsnaz units and/or SSGs, in a special reconnaissance role, could locate and designate targets for air strikes in advance of contact by any ground forces by Russian allies. Russian attack helicopters, as well as spetsnaz serving as sharpshooters, could serve as over watch for 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. When possible, strikes could be directed at diverting ISIS fighters of destroyed or displaced units away from the frontlines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units. Spetsnaz units could be issued GShG-7.62 rotary machine guns for the Syria mission to give them the capability to kill ISIS fighters at a high rate in kill zones, raids, and ambushes as well as destroy ISIS attacks. Spetsnaz units will likely need to operate at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov (above) will surely be diligent in the deployment of his forces to Syria, maintaining a sizeable, capable reserve for operations elsewhere. Russian Federation forces must not become bogged down in support of its allies, but also must ensure that the ISIS force in Syria is cut off and destroyed. If not, it may relocate and resurrect itself. Neither the Syrian Opposition nor the Syrian Armed Forces can defeat ISIS alone. The world wants Russia to act. Indeed, the civilized world is united in agreement that ISIS must be destroyed.

The Way Forward

Russia’s intervention in Syria has not received much support from Western capitals. To some degree, they have discouraged it. The US and United Kingdom have accused Russia of attacking mainly “moderate” anti-Assad groups, rather than ISIS. On October 12, 2015, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, called Russia’s role a “game changer” and said “It has some very worrying elements.” She was especially worried about recent violations of Turkish airspace by Russian jets. Turkey’s decision to shoot-down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet was undoubtedly the strongest manifestation of disapproval of Russian’s intervention given all accounts of what actually occurred and the excessive level of the response. Putin equated the action to being “stabbed in the back” given Russia’s commitment to defeating ISIS.

Putin went into Syria not only to fight ISIS, but to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. To that extent, he will neither allow an ISIS presence in Syria of a size and strength capable of forcing Assad from power, nor subsidize the efforts of the Syrian Opposition to maneuver with US and EU assistance to undercut Assad. There is a deadlock now with the West concerning Syria, but Putin has hope. Red-lines and deadlines have been set over and over by the Obama administration, but they have been overcome by opponents. Iran, once told it had to surrender its nuclear program, managed to retain a good amount of it after talks. Even Assad managed to quash the issue of airstrikes against his regime in September 2013 by unloading his chemical weapons arsenal. If the US and EU want a resolution on Syria, there is need for compromise. Surely, Putin expects that compromise to come from them. Neither the Syrian Opposition’s FSA nor the Syrian Armed Forces can defeat ISIS alone. If Russia, a military superpower, is truly committed to the destruction of ISIS in Syria, and not just doing things on the margins or posturing to influence a political outcome for Assad, the world wants Russia to act. Indeed, the civilized world is united in agreement that ISIS must be destroyed. To that extent, Russian Federation Armed Forces are a strong bargaining chip in negotiations concerning Syria. Putin will proceed carefully until others come to that realization or perhaps until his support for allies in Syria results in a favorable outcome for Assad.   Festinare nocet, nocet cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit. (It is bad to hurry, and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.)

Putin Vows to Annihilate Terrorists, But Until the Winter Olympics Are Over, Other Steps Must Suffice

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the 2014 Winter Olympics Games in Sochi will provide an excellent opportunity to showcase his resurgent Russia in the best light possible.  However, much has happened to prevent that goal from being achieved. Within Russia, concerns have mounted over the cost for hosting the Olympic Games, with some estimates stating it has surpassed $50 billion.  Outside of Russia, there has been a significant, negative reaction to Putin signing a law in June 2013, banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” and imposing fines on those holding gay pride rallies.   Several world leaders have responded by declining to attend the Games, including US President Barack Obama, whose relationship with Putin remains less than congenial.  However, both in Russia and worldwide, all with interest in the Games, are concerned with security at the event given the most recent terrorist attacks in Volgograd, some 690 km northeast of the Sochi Olympic Park.  Of all of the issues that have arose, Putin has been most responsive to the attacks.  In his televised New Year address, Putin stated, “We will confidently, fiercely and consistently continue the fight against terrorists until their complete annihilation.”  For the Russian people, any statement less forceful than that from Putin would have been unexpected and unacceptable.  There is an issue, however, over the degree to which Putin will actually retaliate for the attacks.  Moreover, it is uncertain that any action against the terrorist group allegedly responsible will prevent new attacks before or during the Games.  Perhaps a key factor in the organization of a significant response by the Russian government is timing.

There were two terrorist attacks in Volgograd in December 2013.  On December 29th, a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a crowded railway station, killing at least 17 and wounding many others.  On December 30th, another bomber detonated explosives on an electric trolleybus, killing 14 and critically wounding several more.  An Investigative Committee spokesperson stated identical explosives were used in both bombings, establishing a link between them.  The attacks in Volgograd came on top of a number of other terrorist enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District.  Volgograd was also targeted in October 2013 when a suspected female suicide bomber killed six people on a bus.  While nobody claimed responsibility for the December attacks either through a message or manifesto to authorities, the violence underscored Russia’s vulnerability to insurgents more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term.  The insurgents suspected, from the group Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), say they are fighting to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia that includes Sochi.  In a video posted online in July, the group’s Chechen-born leader, Doku Umarov, called for “maximum force” to prevent Russia from staging the Games.

While the Games will go on as planned and nations will send their teams to compete, the Volgograd attacks have still had a strong effect on the psyche of the Russian people and on Putin himself.  Given the increased sense of patriotism and nationalism found among the Russian people, most are proud of the fact the Games are being held in Russia and are hoping for a successful event.  However, those hopes have been moderated by fears that more attacks will occur before the Games start.  They are relying on Putin’s reputation for being a strong leader and very capable of responding firmly on security issues.  They are relying upon him to guarantee the Games will be a glorious occasion for them.  Putin, himself, is certainly unintimidated by terrorists from Russia or anywhere else.  However, having dedicated a great amount of government resources, especially from the security services, to the Games, and being fully aware of his reputation as a strong leader, for Putin, the attacks were a personal affront.  The attacks appear to discredit his effort to prove Russia is on the rise again and suffering the fate of lesser states.  For that, he will be unforgiving.  With the leaders of other world powers absent, at Sochi, Putin would have the spotlight to himself on the world stage.   What a tragic figure Putin would be, if he had to stand alone at the Olympic Park, explaining a devastating terrorist attack.

Under the circumstances, Putin must thoroughly respond to the attacks.  To some degree, the security services have acted.  When cars, stores, homes, and marketplaces are bombed, Russian Interior Ministry (MVD) and Federal Security Service (FSB) troops surround the homes of suspected militants and pull them out for arrest.  It has been said that those troops have bombed homes when relatives have refused to turn suspects over.  After the Volgograd attacks, 4000 policemen were dispatched to Volgograd, placing over 5,200 on the ground for what Russian authorities called an “Anti-Terrorism Whirlwind.”  Over 1,500 buildings were searched and more than 1,000 people were searched.  Several dozen have been detained for resisting arrests for not having documents allowing them to carry weapons.  The internal troops (VV) of the Ministry of Interior have already been heavily engaged in operations in North Caucasus.  Those VV units that genuinely conduct operations are from the ten Independent Special Designation Brigades (OBrON).  These specialized forces fight local rebels and control protests.  The short-term, specific operations OBrON carry out differentiate the VV forces from the regular army, which is trained and equipped to fight long-term conflicts.  Such services provided by the VV are not without cost.  Whenever people have been arrested and interrogated, policemen are often killed in retaliation.

Putin is dedicated to preventing any further terrorist attacks.  It is uncertain that any response against the group allegedly responsible will prevent future attacks before or during the Games.  The raids undertaken, although significant, were not as robust as might have been expected given the likely desperation and paranoia felt among security service officials over a possible Sochi attack.  However, federal district wide, large scale operations weeks before the Games will mar them, and erase any impression that Sochi is safe to visit.  Putin’s entire investment of Russia’s resources would be wasted.  Moreover, a full-scale attack upon terrorist groups now may lead to a full-scale nihilistic response from them.  That type of conflict, regardless of whether Russian authorities might destroy the terrorist groups in the process, could lead to a drastic decision by the International Olympic Committee to cancel, postpone, or relocate the Games.

It is very likely sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups, likely to engage in terrorist acts, has been on-going.  Hitting those groups may disrupt those monitoring efforts, by destroying leads before they yield their potential. That would be counter-intuitive.  Losing lines into to those groups now would create major security problems.  (If the attackers in Volgograd were completely off the radar, that likely created a conundrum for Russian security officials.  The attackers operations would have been pre-planned.  They would have been set up to move independently on specific dates, times, and locations without the communication of orders.  To defeat such attacks, anti-terrorism efforts must peak just before the Games begin and remain heightened until they end to defeat lone operatives.)

A better time for the security services to strike against suspected terrorist groups would be just days before the opening ceremonies or during Sochi.  Communications must be destroyed or disrupted.  There must be confusion and chaos within the leadership.  The groups must stand rudderless.  The strikes must be of sufficent strength to prevent the groups from resurrecting themselves enough to conduct any operations during the Games.  Strikes of this nature would likely be executed swiftly and covertly against terrorist elements being monitored.  Very capable special service troops would most likely be called upon to carry out such a task.  Of the many special service groups established in Russia, the most well-known and respected are Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group) and Directorate V of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Vympel).  Alpha Group, an elite stand alone sub unit of Russia’s special services, is a dedicated counter-terrorism task force of the FSB.  It primarily prevents and responds to violent acts in public transportation and buildings.  Vympel is officially tasked with protecting Russia’s strategic installations, however it is also available for extended police duties, paramilitary applications, and covert operations in Russia or abroad.  The profile and capabilities of both units have increased, and they have taken over and consolidated roles and personnel from other organizations.  During the Soviet era, Alpha Group acquired a reputation for using ruthless methods in response to terrorist acts.  In Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God (Georgetown University Press, 2013),  Matthew Levitt recounts different versions of how Soviet authorities used Alpha Group in response to the 1985 kidnappings of four Soviet diplomats in Beirut, Lebanon.  After one of the Soviet hostages was shot and dumped near a stadium in West Beirut, Alpha Group sought the help of Druze informants to identify the kidnappers, their clans, and their families. One account has Alpha Group kidnapping a relative of the hostage taking organization, cutting off his ear, and sending it to his family.  In another account, Alpha Group abducted one of the kidnapper’s brothers and sent two of his fingers home to his family in separate envelopes.  A third version has Alpha Group kidnapping a dozen individuals tied to the kidnapping group, one of them being a relative of its leader. The relative was castrated, shot in head, had his testicles stuffed in his mouth, and shipped to the group with a letter promising a similar fate for the eleven other captives if the Soviet hostages were not released.  That same evening, the three diplomats, in bad condition, appeared at the gates of the Soviet embassy.

There is also the possibility that Russian authorities may utilize their most capable assets in response to the terrorist attacks.  In his book Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces Since 1991 (Osprey, 2013), Mark Galeotti of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs discusses Zaslon (Barrier), a special services group not officially recognized by the Russian government.  Zaslon personnel are said to be former spetsnaz troops and serve under the sole command of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headquarters in Yasenevo, on the outskirts of Moscow.  Galeotti explains that Zaslon has been linked with everything from assassinations abroad to gathering up documents and technology that the Russian government did not want the US to seize when Baghdad fell.  In Syria, Galeotti suspects Zaslon may be providing additional support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel, and would likely be ordered to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to share if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse.  As part of Putin’s full court press on security for Sochi, Zaslon has likely already been included among those special services units called in to provide both anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism capabilities.  An outstanding scholar at the University of Utrecht, Ralph Ladestein, shared a picture with greatcharlie.com in November 2013 that, as he explained, showed Russian special service troops in Syria.  The picture is below.

Are these Zaslon troops operating in Syria? The message written on the wall of the structure in the background (translated by Ladestein) reads, “Syria for Assad!”

By the end of the Games, it is possible that so much information will have been gathered as a result of the concentration of security resources to the anti-terrorism effort that new, more effective operations against terrorist groups could simply be conducted by MVD and FSB.  Necessity could lead to the consideration of innovative approaches toward blunting the capabilities of the terrorists perhaps by using precision strikes with military firepower and directed attacks by special service troops.  Some new ideas may come as a result of Russian security officials working closely with foreign security officials from participating states.  After examining the situation in the North Caucasus, those foreign security officials may likely offer suggestions on how lessons from their own experiences in counter-terrorism to could be applied to reduce or defeat any security threats.  Additionally, with the Games over, Putin will have the flexibility to respond to the terrorists on a far larger scale if he chooses

If after the closing ceremonies, Sochi is known for being the Black Sea resort on the edge of the Caucasus Mountain range where the 2014 Winter Olympic Games were superbly organized, the Russian people will be very satisfied.  If after the Games, an impressed world audience has a sense that Russia is a world power on the rise again, with great capabilities and possibilities, Putin would be elated.  However, if a terrorist attack is attempted or successfully carried out in Sochi, for Russia, it will be a disaster.  Russia will be viewed as a questionable choice by the International Olympic Committee for the Games and the country’s reputation for being stifled by authoritarianism, insecurity and uncertainty will endure.

Despite personal or political views of Putin and his decisions regarding the Winter Olympic Games, no one should have any interest in seeing Sochi struck by a terrorist attack.  Anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism by the Russian security services should be supported by all states, including the US.  While security officials of the US, EU, and other countries may liaise and provide some assistance, everything possible should be done to prevent an attack, including the supply of personnel and technical resources.  A secure and successful event would not only be in Russia’s interest, but also the transnational interest.