Trump Wants Good Relations with Russia, But if New Options on Ukraine Develop, He May Use One

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). To negotiate with Putin, US President Donald Trump and his advisers recognize that it is important to look well beyond his statements and optics and fully grasp what he wants. Putin seems to have Russia sitting on Ukraine and moving at a deliberate pace on the Minsk peace process. Moving slowly on the peace process has given him an upper hand to a degree, as other parties involved are required to respond to his whims. The Trump administration will unlikely tolerate that. New options are likely being developed.

The ideal geopolitical response to the global power crisis is a connection between US, and Russia. In 2017, the foreign policy efforts of the administration of US President Donald Trump evinced a desire not to isolate Russia, or allow engagement with it to fall off. He does not want to settle on a long-term stand-off in which peace, particularly in Europe, is placed at risk. He believes the US and Russia can be good neighbors on the same planet. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the renowned US foreign policy scholar and former US National Security Adviser, stated that sophisticated US leadership is sine qua non of a stable world order. Finding a way to establish an authentic positive relationship with Russia is a struggle US administrations have engaged in for a few decades. Trump said he would try to find the solution, and explained that he would give it his best effort. However, critics depicted Trump as being a naïve neophyte, outmatched by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. They warned of the dangers of Trump dealing with the sly, experienced Russian leader. Still, there is a greater reality about the entire situation. While the Trump administration remained outwardly positive about working with Putin, it was not in fact overly optimistic about that. Trump and foreign and national security policy officials in his administration were always well-aware of the fact that Putin and his government can more often than not be disingenuous. Yet, Putin is the duly elected president of Russia, and its head of state. Moreover, for now, Putin is the best leader available to keep Russia’s complex society somewhat stable. He has managed to contain extremist political elements that might seek war with Russia’s neighbors, NATO, or the US directly without thinking it through and he has suppressed morally void organized criminal elements that might wreak havoc globally.

One policy issue on which the administration has found Moscow disingenuous is Ukraine. Kiev is committed to a westward orientation. Yet, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has grabbed Crimea and has invested considerable effort in collecting territory in Eastern Ukraine. Some analysts in the West speculate that he might try to take all of Ukraine eventually through conflict. Ukraine in a particularly bad position vis-à-vis Russia  as it sits as metaphoric low hanging fruit in its “near abroad.” In 2014, it moved into Ukraine and grabbed Crimea. The Minsk Agreement, signed in Minsk, Belarus, on February 12, 2015, was supposed to have established a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine once signed. However, in the many months since its signing, a succession of violations have occurred in both the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, and consequently Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian separatist fighters have been killed. From the view of Washington, Putin has actually been the one who has figuratively dynamiting the peace process on Ukraine with the help of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed, independent, Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic

To negotiate with Putin, it is important to look beyond his statements and observable actions and fully grasp what he wants. On Ukraine, he seems to have Russia simply sitting on its territory as well as distorting the Minsk peace process. Moreover, by taking that approach, Putin has acquired an upper hand on the matter, requiring  other parties in the peace process to respond to his whims. The Trump administration will unlikely tolerate that. New options for Trump to consider may be developing now. Some them would very likely have been anathema in policy discussions on Ukraine in the administration of US President Barack Obama. As greatcharlie explained in a recent post, when Trump acts on an issue, his goal is to exploit success, preserve his freedom of action on immediate matters, and reduce vulnerability from action by his competitors. He acts in a manner designed to gain advantage, surprise, and momentum over his competitors, achieving results that would normally require far more time and would be more costly to the US. If on Ukraine there is daylight, and a chance for open field running via a new option, Trump may give it consideration. He might even use it. In that vein, Russia should not wait around to see what happens next. It might be best for Moscow to insist on some resolution on Ukraine at the negotiation table, using the Minsk Agreement, or even something different, before there are any considerable changes in the situation there. Equidem ad pacem hortari non desino; quae vel iniusta utilior est quam iustissimum bellum cum civibus. (As for one, I cease not to advocate peace. It may be on unjust terms, even so it is more expedient than the justest of civil wars.)
Map of Ukraine (above). Moscow views Ukraine as being part of its sphere of influence, its “near abroad”, and its hope would be to bring it into Russia’s fold, willing or unwilling. The US and other Western powers support Kiev’s desire to be an independent actor. Long before the mass protests in Kiev began in 2014, circles there were quite pro-Western and welcomed entrées from the EU to take a westward path.

Background on the Ukrainian Conflict

Russia views Ukraine as being part of its sphere of influence, its “near abroad”, and its hope would be to bring it into its fold, willing or unwilling. The US and other Western powers want to support Kiev’s desire to be an independent actor. Long before the mass protests in Kiev began, there were circles in Ukraine that were quite pro-Western and welcomed entrées from the EU for their country to take a westward path. Those circles were the foundation for the Orange Revolution of November 2004 to January 2005 after a questionable result of a November 21, 2004 presidential election run-off vote. Protesters engaged in civil resistance, civil disobedience and strike actions, and took control over Kiev’s main square, called the Maidan. They managed to force a revote through which their candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, won. Many government reforms made during Yushchenko’s term were reversed when the pro-Russian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych took office in 2010. Opposition political elements and a burgeoning civil society, were already engaged in a simmering political dispute with then President Yanukovych when he turned his back on a Western trade pact in 2014. Pro-European protesters once again took control over the Maidan. The peaceful protesters, who called their movement the Euromaidan Revolution, included participants from a wide spectrum of the society, but were all pro-European and anti-corruption. Violent neo-Nazi and ultra nationalist elements that attempted to insinuate themselves into movement. Their activities included blocking streets and attacking peaceful protesters. For three months, the Euromaidan Revolution protesters endured cold weather and murderous police crackdowns. In the third month, Yanukovych fled to Russia. Perhaps anticipating the fall of Yanukovych or simply implementing Russia’s version of a nuclear option on Ukraine, on February 27, 2014, Moscow rushed into Crimea with unidentifiable “green men”, military forces mainly from Vozdushno-desantnye Voyska Rossii ( Russian Airborne Troops) or VDV and the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU. They claimed to be Crimeans. In only a matter of days, Crimea was under Russian control. The US and EU took Putin to task for that bold military operation. Harsh sanctions were levied and Russia was cast out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies. Putin has held on to the territory and has continued to do so in the face of even tougher sanctions against Russian interests. He levied his own sanctions against US and EU products and even began heavily supporting separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine

However, as the US and EU responded to the Russian occupation of Crimea, another crisis arose in the east of Ukraine, in a region known as Donbass. Pro-Russian separatists in its Donetsk and Luhansk provinces took over entire towns and declare the independence of the territory captured. The Kiev government has sent the Ukrainian Army into those region to reclaim its sovereign territory.  The provinces would eventually declare themselves independent states: the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Western officials insist that Russia has actually been controlling both the civil administration of the self-proclaimed countries as well as the fighting. The Minsk Agreement was intended to create a ceasefire, yet thousands of violations were committed by both sides on a daily basis. The combatants have maintained fighting positions too close to one another. Tanks, mortars, artillery, and multiple launch-rocket systems could be found where they should not have been. Civilians living near the fighting have suffered greatly.
Russian Federation “green men” in Crimea, 2014 (above). Soon after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. Putin, perhaps anticipating his fall or simply implementing Moscow’s version of a nuclear option on Ukraine, rushed into Crimea with unidentifiable “green men”, military forces mainly from the VDV and GRU. They claimed to be Crimeans. In only a matter of days, Crimea was under Russian control.

The Minsk Agreement

Nulla res carius constat quam quae perilous empta est. (Nothing is so expensive as that which you have bought with pleas.) Under the Minsk Agreement, Ukraine, the Russian Federation, France, and Germany on February 11, 2015, agreed to a package of Measures to mitigate and eventually halt the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. It was a follow-on agreement to the unsuccessful Minsk Protocol, which was crafted to halt the war in Eastern Ukraine and was signed by the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic on September 5, 2014 under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Minsk Agreement’s terms included: an immediate ceasefire; a buffer zone separating heavy weapons of both sides, with a minimum buffer zone of 50km for 100mm artillery and up to 140km for rockets; effective verification by the OSCE; amnesty and release of all hostages and illegally detained people; safe access, storage, delivery, and distribution of humanitarian aid to the needy; restoration of government pensions and other welfare payments for civilians in the east; the restoration of Ukrainian control of the banking system in areas affected by the conflict, pull out of all foreign military formations, military equipment, and mercenaries from Ukraine under OSCE monitoring; the disarmament of illegal groups; full Ukrainian control over the eastern border, after local elections under Ukrainian law. There was supposed to be a constitutional deal on the future of Donetsk and Luhansk by the end of 2015 but that went nowhere. The direction which the region may turn will be determined either by the US, EU and Ukrainian Government, intent to keep all of the Donbass in Ukraine, albeit with part of its population reluctant to live under Kiev’s control or by Russia and pro-Russian separatists intent on establishing the region’s independence and tying it umbilically to Moscow. From the additional space in Ukraine he holds, Putin can exert his influence in the region.
Map of Fighting in Eastern Ukraine (above).The direction which Eastern Ukraine may turn will be determined either by the US, EU and Ukrainian Government, intent to keep all of it in Ukraine, albeit with part of its population reluctant to live under Kiev’s control or by Russia and pro-Russian separatists intent on establishing the region’s independence and tying it umbilically to Moscow. From the additional space in Ukraine he holds, Putin can exert his influence in the region.

Russia Has a Unique Perspective on Ukraine

While there is one authentic truth, there are usually at least two sides to every story. Russian perspectives and positions on Ukraine differ from those in Kiev and the capitals of the Western powers. In his answers to questions during a Moscow news conference on January 15, 2018, Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed up Moscow’s thinking on Ukraine .Lavrov explained that on a political level, Russia respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine but only within the boundaries that were designed after the referendum in Crimea and its reunification with the Russian Federation. He said Russia believes that it has a rightful claim to parts of Ukraine and need to save ethnic-Russian from harm is legitimate. He called attention to the fact that “By virtue of their referendum people in Crimea achieved independence and joined the Russian Federation of their own free will.” Lavrov also made a distinction between the Minsk Agreements and the Crimea issue. He said: “one has nothing to do with the other.”

Concerning the Minsk Agreement, Lavrov stated that “We  [Russia] are ready and interested in full compliance with the Minsk Agreements.” He pointed out that Putin has repeated that the Minsk Agreement must be implemented in full, without any exceptions. However, Lavrov explained that the problem with the Minsk Agreement is that Ukrainian leaders are not being made to perform tasks as required under the agreement. He indicated that Ukrainian leaders have been simply stalling by slowly mulling over how lines of the document should be read. He believes that as the agreement was formalized by the UN Security Council no room was left for quibbling over its terms. He was certain that allowing this behavior now will give Kiev the impetus to drag its feet when it finally came down to fulfilling the agreement. Lavrov explained that US and European officials have taken note of what he described as a “tactic” by Ukrainian leaders. He also alleged that Western officials have confirmed Kiev is trying to provoke the use of force in what he calls a “stand-off” as a means to divert attention away from their failure to perform the Package of Measures under the Minsk Agreement
Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (above). During a Moscow news conference on January 15, 2018, Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed up Moscow’s thinking on Ukraine. Lavrov explained that on a political level, Russia respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine but only within the boundaries that were designed after the referendum in Crimea and its reunification with the Russian Federation.

As for the Ukrainian government, Lavrov has explained that its officials have a lack of respect for international law.  He claimed that that lack of respect for international law was manifested in the actions of those same officials when they organized and supported the Euromaidan Revolution, which he called “Maidan”. An example of that disrespect Lavrov offers was the manner in which then opposition leaders, who Lavrov derisively refers to as “putschists”, reached an agreement with Yanukovych as Ukrainian President. Lavrov made clear that although the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland, and France certified the agreement, one day later, the opposition leaders nullified it. Lavrov further complained that EU foreign ministers had engaged in a deception in cooperation with opposition because the agreement they signed provided for the creation of a government of national accord. However, a “government of winners” was formed instead. Expatiating on events that followed, Lavrov noted that a Congress of People’s Deputies of the Southeast [of Ukraine] and Crimea was held in Kharkov. He noted that the deputies were elected in compliance with the Ukrainian Constitution. He explained that they decided to take control of their regions until law and order were restored in Ukraine. He notes that They did not use force against the opposition. He then pointed to a February 23, 2014 language law, that was never actually enacted, but nonetheless approved by the opposition. Lavrov says the law was a manifestation of the anti-Russian, Russophobic thinking of the opposition. Lavrov went on to explain that on February 26, 2014 [the day before the green men arrived in Ukraine], the opposition authorized that use of force by neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalists of the Right Sector, as well as Islamic militants of Hizb ut-Tahrir and a Wahhabite group to take the Crimean Supreme Council building by storm. Lavrov expressed the view that this further distanced Crimeans from illegitimate authorities in Kiev. He noted that of this was also in violation of international law, particularly the Budapest Memorandum, under which the Ukrainian government agreed not to support xenophobic sentiments  Lavrov stated: “I am convinced that the people of Crimea had no option but to defend their identity, their multi-national and multi-confessional culture against such thugs.”

Regarding the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, Lavrov explained that the Minsk Agreements refer to some districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Speaking about fulfilment of the commitments, he noted that among the Minsk Agreement’s first requirements, once hostilities have ceased and troops have been withdrawn, is the organization of direct consultations between the government of Ukrainian government and representatives of some districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Lavrov indicated that Kiev claims that it never made that commitment. He noted that Kiev has been resorting to various configurations in talks designed to demonstrate that it has not recognized or interacted with them, but only Russia, Germany, France, and the OSCE. Lavrov held out hope that the situation between Ukraine and Russia would not last. He quoted Putin as saying that “Russian-Ukrainian relations will improve once the Donbass issue is resolved.” Undoutedly, that means when it is resolved on Moscow’s terms. Quidem concessum est rhetoribus ementiri in historiis ut aliquid dicere possint argutius. (Indeed rhetoricians are permitted to lie about historical matters so they can speak more subtly.)
Trump (left) and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (right). Trump and his advisers have not naively underestimated Putin. The possibility that Putin would not make himself available for deals that would lead to resolutions of disputes and contentious issues that would satisfy the administration was undoubtedly among the big “what ifs” administration officials considered and planned for. Trump and those who could be called the “stone hearts” among his officials have not been surprised by anything Putin has done.

The Trump Administration Enters

Praemonitus, praemunitus. (Forewarned, forearmed.) The Trump administration came into office eager to engage Putin in order to improve relations, but did so with its eyes wide open. Trump’s vision and pronouncement of his intention to engage was wrongly viewed as a pro-Putin deference. Critics predicted disaster if Trump attempted to negotiate on things he did not really understand with the cunning, ruthless Russian leader. Trump also received words of caution about Putin from Members of Congress from his own Republican party. The repeated warnings remind of Act II of William Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of Julius Caesar, in which Caesar dismissed information concerning the conspiracy against him. He rebuffed Calpurnia pleas that he “not stir out of his house” on the Ides of March. He rejected augurers’ claim that the discovery that an animal sacrificed as an offering had no heart was a warning sign. In Act III, Caesar ignored a letter from Artemidorus outlining the conspiracy and identifying the conspirators, and a few lines further down, he was assassinated. The possibility that Putin would not make himself available for deals with Trump that would lead to resolutions of disputes and contentious issues that would satisfy the administration was undoubtedly among the big “what ifs” administration officials considered and planned for. Trump and those who could be called the “stone hearts” among his officials have not been surprised by anything Putin has done. They would hardly be naïve and sentimental about any US adversary or competitor, let alone Russia.

Honesta enim bonis viris, non occulta quaeruntur. (Honorable things, not secretive things, are sought by good men.) The jumping off point for attempting to establish better relations with Russia inevitably became getting clarification and reaching some resolution of the issue of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election. The Trump administration wanted answers due to its own concerns and wanted to respond to crushing domestic pressures to find out what happened. Putin was approached by Trump about the 2016 US Presidential Election meddling and the the possibility of rebuilding US-Russian relations and possibly creating a new era cooperation. If things had gone well, the stage would have been set, for better or worse, to move along the road from forgiveness,to acceptance, to restoration, and then rejoicing in Washington and Moscow. However, as sure as when the rain falls from the sky it hits the land, Putin would only offer denials about the meddling. Nevertheless, Trump listened very closely to Putin’s positions and ideas, and developed an understanding of his way of thinking. From those face to face contacts, Trump undoubtedly assessed that getting things done with Putin would require discerning misinformation, maneuvering past distractions, and driving to the heart of matters from which opportunities, open doors, could be found..

On Ukraine, the Trump administration clearly understood that provocative actions would have destabilized an already fragile situation. In addition to Trumps talks with Putin, there have been multiple talks between Tillerson and Lavrov during which Ukraine has been discussed in a fulsome way. Trump has left no doubt that he wanted Russia to leave Ukraine alone, and that is the position that the Russians are hearing from him, Tillerson and all other US officials. Trump gave foreign policy speech in Warsaw that made clear his administration’s objectives and principles. The Trump administration reaffirmed its support of Ukraine. Yet, even before that speech, Russian officials had begun to make claims that Trump’s words and actions were the causality for its attitude and behavior toward the new administration.
Trump (right) listening intently to Putin (left). During Trump’s meetings with Putin, there were friendly smiles and jocund pats on the back. It was a welcome change in US-Russian relations in terms of optics. However, Trump also listened carefully to Putin’s positions and ideas, and developed an understanding of his thinking. From those contacts, Trump assessed that getting things done with Putin would require discerning misinformation, maneuvering past distractions, and driving to the heart of matters from which opportunities, open doors, could be found

Russia’s Off-kilter Approach Toward Its Neighbors

Putin is clearly a clever tactician, but it is unclear whether he is equally shrewd strategist on the global stage. He has served as Russia’s leader as president and prime minister, one could discern through his expressed concepts and intentions, as well as his actions, that he may be leading Russia in retrograde toward the past, albeit  In his effort to maintain his grip on Russia, Putin has resurrected the old systems to control the populace with which he grew up with and is most familiar. That has essentially dragged systems in Russia back to a simulacrum of the Soviet-era domestically and Moscow’s sort of neo-Cold War approach geopolitically. Still, while armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, Russia may no longer have the capability to be flexible militarily and may be unable to be a decisive superpower in the world.

In two earlier posts, “Military Leaders Discuss Plans to Counter ISIS Beyond the Battlefield: While the West Plans, Russia Conquers ISIS in Syria” and “How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight in Syria: Can the US Policy on Syria Be Gauged by Their Success?”, greatcharlie mistakenly assessed that Russia entered the war in Syria determined  to shape the war on the ground and the war’s ultimate outcome given the military power it brought to bear on the problem and the sense of exigence expressed by Putin when he declared that Russia needed to act. Putin emphasized that Russia would attack ISIS, eventually driving it and other Islamic militant groups from Syria, and restoring Assad’s control over the country. That was not the case. Over time, it became clear that Russia lacked the capability to do that despite appearing to have the capacity. Russia also demonstrated a lack of will or desire  to do more and to increase its presence in Syria to enable its forces to act decisively. Perhaps one could glean much from what has happened in Syria to examine and assess Putin’s efforts in Ukraine. Despite any shortcomings observed in Russia’sees military performance in Syria, there can still be no doubt that it can still effecrively act as a divisive power. To that extent, Putin has tasked the Russian military and other security services with mission of eroding existing and burgeoning democracies wherever they sees them.

Indeed, as the EU and NATO expanded eastward, Putin decided to pull independent countries that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit. With the help of the military and security services, Putin would create something that did not preexist in many of those countries: ethnic-Russian communities forcefully demanding secession and sovereignty. That process usually begins with contemptuous murmurs against home country’s identity, language, and national symbols and then becomes a “rebel yell” for secession. It was seen in Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and more recently in Crimea, the Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine. Each time an ethnic-Russian space was carved out of a country, Putin gained a base from which he can exert his influence in that country. Still, despite the activities and some successes of pro-Russian political elements, in the larger territories of those former Soviet republics occupied by Russian Federation armed forces and elsewhere in the sphere of the former Eastern Bloc, political thinking of the people of those countries has not turned in agreement with Russia.
Russian tanks withdrawing from Ukraine (above). Mistakenly, greatcharlie assessed that Russia entered the war in Syria determined to shape the war on the ground and the war’s outcome given the military of power it brought to bear on the conflict and exigence expressed by Putin when he declared Russia’s need to act. Over time, it became clear that Russia lacked the capability to act decisively, although appearing to have the capacity. Russia also lacked the will or desire to do so. One might infer much from this with regard to Putin’s efforts in Ukraine.

Where is Russia Really Going with Ukraine?

Vera gloria radices agit atque etiam propagatur, ficta omnia celeroter tamquam flosculi decidunt nec simulatum potest quicquam esse diuturnum. (True glory strikes root, and even extends itself; all false pretensions fall as do flowers, nor can anything feigned be lasting.) Many Western military analysts have proffered that Putin’s moves in Ukraine would certainly be followed by many more, to reclaim former Soviet republics and more. Along with the capture of Crimea, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Putin’s determination to hold on in Eastern Ukraine served to substantiates such concern. From everything observed, Putin wants to make Russia better. Yet, it is unclear how Putin’s approach on Ukraine fits into his plans to make Russia better. It is unclear how Russia’s capture of Donetsk and Luhansk would do for Russia in any real respect. As mentioned earlier, despite his shortcomings, he is the best authentic option available to lead Russia for now.  Putin restored order in his country after the internal chaos of the 1990s. It was perhaps his initial career as an officer in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB, that made reestablishing the power of the state a central part of his efforts. (The KGB was the Soviet agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security.) Putin has been a figurative mother to Russia, nurturing it in the best way he knows how. That idea might face some disapproval from Russian citizens who feel shortchanged of their civil and human rights, as well as opportunities to fulfill their ambitions, and feel burdened by anxieties. Still, whenever, the metaphoric waves have gotten higher, Putin has kept his ship, Russia, right and steady.

Putin seems to be still playing the great power game in Europe, and would be disposed to playing it alone, with an “understood” opponent: the US. To some extent, that would support assessments by analysts and scholars in the West who believe Putin sees everything in terms of conspiracy. It may be that the Obama administration’s approach to Ukraine and other former Soviet republics irked Putin to the extent the he is now swinging after the bell colloquially. He may be stirring difficulties due to political expediency, soothing hardliners political elements at home. It is not completely clear why rather than seek agreements and what he feel are advantages from contact with the US, Putin seems determined to get into a scrap with the Trump administration.

If Donetsk and Luhansk were left in the hands of pro-Russian elements, it is questionable whether Russia would become stabilizing force in region along with its newly formed, Russia would be taking on a new, difficult situation akin to those in its Southern and North Caucasian provinces. Any resistance, peaceful or violent, would likely be dealt withh eavy handedly by Russia and its allies. Hopefully, Moscow would not assist security elements of the help Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic cleanse their new provinces of “troublemakers” or “non-citizens”.

Reconstruction in the Donetsk People’s Republic or the Luhansk People’s Republic would require a lot from Russia. Donetsk and Luhansk were net consumers of foreign imports and dependent on Russian gas before the conflict began. They sit in a region that is considered a rustbelt, needing to be refitted at the cost of billions of dollars Moscow may never have. Reconstruction in Eastern Ukraine will be another huge hurdle for Russia to overcome if its “pro-Russian allies” seceded and became Moscow’s “partners.”  Lacking any significant resources from the US and the rest of the international community to rebuild, the only viable long-term goal in Moscow would be to convert the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic into versions of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria. It would likely receive the recognition of very few countries, Russia’s allies, but not the US or major powers of Europe. The two quasi-countries would in many ways be shut off from the rest of the world. and may never see a postwar economic upturn. Observing the effects of few months of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns, Moscow might recognize that it truly cannot support them in a way that would allow for their rebuilding. An authentic assessment will be left to the economic experts, but there undoubtedly will be a great additional strain on Russia. The situation would only worsen if pressure was placed on Russia over Ukraine through future sanctions.

Ultra posse nemo obligatur. (No one is obliged beyond what he is able to do.) Putin very likely has considered what Russia would be like after he, as one might presume he accepts, is called to heaven. It would seem that now while on Earth, he is doing much to saddle future generations of Russians with two economically impoverished basket cases that they will need to care for, to pay for. Future generations may not appreciate that. In Donetsk and Luhansk, future generations might abandon their homelands for “the other Ukraine” or points further West. They might pour into Russia, for employment, a “better life.” In the future, a Russian leader might very well try to reverse what Putin is attempting in Ukraine due to financial strains caused. Taking on Donetsk and Luhansk might very well be a great miscalculation, another step toward sealing Russia’s fate as a second tier superpower.

Perhaps the type of success Putin really wants for Russia out of his reach, not by some fault of his own, but rather because it’s problems are so heavy, may run too deep. He may have run out of real answers to put Russia on real upward trajectory given the capabilities and possibilities of the country using all tools available to him. In a significant endeavor, there is always the potential to become lost. To that extent, consciously or unconsciously, Putin may simply be procrastinating, postponing an authentic look at the situation.
US Special Operations troops in Syria (above). The success that the US found in rallying the Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, as well as its success across the border with the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Security Forces, and the Kurdish Peshmerga against ISIS, may convince the US and Western allies to develop plans for a new initiative regarding Ukraine.

Has Putin Overplayed His Hand on Ukraine?

Culpa par odium exigit. (The offense requires a proportional reaction.) The US and European countries no longer appear ambivalent about committing to the requirements of European security, which in many respects can be costly and risky. The success that the US found in rallying the Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, as well as its success avross the border with the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Security Forces, and the Kurdish Peshmerga aainst ISIS, may convince the US and Western allies to develop plans for a new initiative regarding Ukraine. Rather than have talks on the status of Ukraine remain in stalemate at the negotiation table, one could surmise that the US might organize a vigorous overt and covert training and equipping of Armed Forces of Ukraine, particularly the Ukrainian Ground Forces That may in turn give those forces the capability to independently regain territory claimed by the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Kiev may, on its own volition, make use of its new arms and capabilities to do just that with such speed and power that nothing could be done rapidly in reaction. The Ukrainian Air Force could be used in ways to support friendly ground movement that has never witnessed before. Kiev has not recognized the the rebellious movements in Donetsk and Luhansk. It has not recognized the autonomy or the secession of those provinces. As far as Kiev is concerned, the entire territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces are still Ukraine’s sovereign territory. For Kiev, agreeing under the Minsk Agreement that the borders between Donbass and Russia, and border control must be administered by the Ukrainian government reflected its position, its belief. The US has asked Russia to take its forces out of Ukraine and hand Crimea back to Kiev’s full control. The reality is that getting the Russians out of Crimea, at least in the near term, may be impossible. However, getting them out of Eastern Ukraine is another thing altogether.

Moscow may be willing to seek some resolution on Ukraine at the negotiation table to halt the total collapse of the forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic forces and whatever units the Russian Federation might have mixed in with them. Ukraine is delicate issue in the Kremlin, but Putin and his advisers do not appear too far down the road to recurvate on it. It could be hypothesized that the collapse of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine would not play well politically at home. Rather than sit and bemoan the new situation, Putin may have no choice but to respond to it all in a way akin to the US response during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and be willing to invade Eastern Ukraine to retake that territory. Moscow could again use the argument that it must defend ethnic-Russian in Ukraine by request. Putin has abstained from more vigorous moves against Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In response to the collapse of the two pro-Russian states, Putin, taking an asymmetric approach, could lash out against the Baltics. Yet, all this being stated, Russia may not be so certain that it could sufficiently respond militarily, extrapolating from what was observed in Syria.

Again, the modest performance of Russian forces on the ground in Syria, in the aggregate, would seem to support the idea that they are ineffective, that they lack real capabilities in many areas. Nevertheless, committing them, despite deficiencies and possible losses, could still put Moscow in a better position to negotiate a satisfactory settlement ultimately. Nullum bellum suscipi a civitate optima nisi aut pro fide aut pro salute. (A war is never undertaken by the ideal state, except in defense of its honor or its safety.)

Ukrainian Ground Forces (above). Rather than cope with deadlocked talks on Ukraine, one could imagine the US organizing a vigorous overt and covert training and equipping of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. That may in turn give those forces the capability to independently, on its own volition, retake most or all of Eastern Ukraine now in the hands of pro-Russian separatists with such tempo and power that nothing could be rapidly done in reaction.

The Way Forward

In Act IV, scene ii of William Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John, John has already ordered the death of his nephew Arthur, who Philip, the King of France believes to be the rightful heir to the throne. As the play opens, messenger tells John that Philip insists that he abdicate to open the throne to Arthur or he will go to war with John to attain it for him. John thinks killing Arthur will solve his problems. but two of John’s followers and counselors, Salisbury and Pembroke, believe that killing Arthur would actually compound his problems. They saw no threat posed by Arthur and were concerned with the people’s reaction to killing him. In the scene, Pembroke tells Salisbury: “When workmen strive to do better than well, They do confound their skill in covetousness; And oftentimes excusing of a fault Doth make the fault the worse by the excuse, As patches set upon a little breach Discredit more in hiding of the fault Than did the fault before it was so patch’d. The US and EU can readily explain that they took Putin to task for that bold military operation. Certainly, one can assign reasons for the effort to include some of the following: to create a wider buffer with the West; to prevent Ukraine’s entry into NATO as no country occupied by Russian Federation armed forces has successfully done so; to secure territory with force in accord with terms of a geopolitical division of Eastern Europe to which NATO agreed in the 1990s; “to rescue” ethnic-Russian space in Donetsk and Luhansk from the violence of Ukrainian nationalists; or to set the stage for a much bigger military move elsewhere in Europe. The list could go on. Yet, regardless of their accuracy or fallaciousness, it is unclear how his current tact, for whatever reason, will genuinely benefit Russia in the long-term. Through both the Minsk peace process and multi level diplomatic efforts, the Trump administration has sought a mutually agreeable, sustainable solution on Ukraine. Still, Putin apparently sees no benefit to these exertions. In fact, he appears to be doubling up on his initial poor decision to make claim to Ukrainian territory. Such behavior was once referred to among US military thinkers as “reinforcing stupidity.”  Cutting closer to the bone, it all seems to be a display of power and pride by the Russian leader. Desire should obey reason, and wisdom for that matter. Being able to swing from the chandeliers, surging with power, is not satisfaction. Power without wisdom invariably collapses beneath its own weight. Kiev’s efforts along with those of the US and Western powers have gone nowhere. Harsh sanctions were levied and Russia was cast out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies. Putin has held on to the territory and has continued to do so in the face of even tougher sanctions against Russian interests. Putin levied his own sanctions against US and EU products and began more heavily supporting separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine

Putin must realize that he is no longer dealing with Obama. Under Trump, decision making on Ukraine will unlikely linger in the halls of inaction. It is difficult to determine what the US and EU could really achieve or gain from exerting further pressure against Russia over Ukraine through sanctions in the future. Putin is not budging. The hopes of some that a resolution could be found through the Minsk peace process are being shattered by Moscow. The Armed Forces of Ukraine should not be viewed a spent force. New US and EU efforts to train and equip its combat elements could change the equation on the ground dramatically. Kiev may soon be presented with new choices. Not to play into the most paranoid ruminations of some Kremlin officials, Kiev, determined to secure it sovereign territory,  it may take more robust and effective military action. While the opportunity and time exists, preparations and decisions on military movements should yield now to more robust and efficacious diplomatic efforts. Nam cum sint duo genera decertandi, unum per disceptationem, alternum per vim, cumque illud proprium sit hominis, hoc beluarum, confugiendum est ad posterius, si uti non licet superiore. (While there are two ways of contending, one discussion, the other by force, the former belonging properly to a man, the later to beasts, recourse must be had to the latter if there be no opportunity for employing the former.)

Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei about Fighting ISIS; Khamenei Is Counting on Suleimani, Not US Cooperation

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. An Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  He has achieved some success.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhrani said Iran would consider working with the US against ISIS if it sees the US begin to confront the terrorists.

According to a November 6, 2014 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei About Fighting Islamic States”, in October 2014, US President Barack Obama sent a highly confidential communication to Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The letter to Khamenei appeared directed at both bolstering the anti-ISIS campaign and prodding him toward a nuclear deal.  Those briefed on the letter familiarize the Wall Street Journal of its content.  Obama apparently wrote to Khamenei that expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) posed a threat to both the US and Iran, creating a common enemy for both countries. Obama stressed that both had the goal of defeating ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.  While Obama did not recognize Iran as the primary power in the region, as Tehran insists, he acknowledged in a way that Iran was “important” to his military and diplomatic campaign to push ISIS from territory it has gained in past months and dubbed the Islamic Caliphate.  Obama ostensibly sought to mitigate Tehran’s concerns over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  Although the US is arming and training Syrian opposition rebels, Obama apparently wrote in his letter that US military operations in Syria were not targeted at Assad or his security forces.  Those familiar with the letter explained Obama did not explicitly propose that the US and Iran coordinate their military activities.  However, they said there was a strong implication that coordination was desired.  Concerning the nuclear negotiations, Obama informed Khamenei that cooperation on ISIS was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council—the US, United Kingdom, France Russia, and China plus Germany) on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by November 24, 2014 deadline.  That point in the letter seemed to also imply cooperation would be more to Iran’s benefit.

News of Obama’s letter to Khamenei was somewhat confusing in the US given past statements by the administration on Iran.  When US National Security Adviser Susan Rice was asked on NBCNews “Meet the Press” on October 12, 2014, if Iran was providing help to the anti-ISIS coalition, she said “No!” Rice went on to state “We’re not in coordination or direct consultation with the Iranians about any aspects of the fight against ISIL [ISIS].  It is a fact that in Iraq, they are also supporting the Iraqis against ISIL [ISIS].  But we are not coordinating.  We’re doing this very differently and independently.”  Yet, despite Rice’s statement, Obama’s letter proposing the two countries cooperate in the anti-ISIS fight seems to be, at minimum, a move towards direct consultation with Tehran.  In the US Congress, Obama’s decision to send the letter revealed what the administration is saying about Iran may be different from its plans for Iran. Republican and Democrat Members of Congress are concerned that the administration is prepared to make far-reaching concessions to Tehran on a nuclear deal.  Members likely also sense the administration is uncertain of how to proceed regarding ISIS, having pledged not to commit ground troops for combat operations.  While willing to support the anti-ISIS fight with funding, they will likely wants to reign in what they see as Obama’s perilous approach toward Iran.

For leaders, discerning how to proceed on foreign policy is made more difficult in adverse circumstances.  Some choices that may appear wise are not.  Near desperation on wanting a situation to be a certain way has led many, well-intentioned leaders in error to project their “positive thinking” on that of a foreign counterpart, or worse, an adversary.  Such decisions are often supported by captivating assessments of positive outcomes not based in reality. Only a negative outcome would reveal the flaws of an approach for some.  Perhaps in its rush to respond to the ISIS problem, the Obama administration may have been blinded to the fact that it could be sending the wrong signals and creating conditions for future difficulties with Iran.  Qui totum vult totum perdit.  (He who wants everything, loses everything.)

Obama’s Letter: Cui bono?

Developing options for Obama has been vexing for administration officials and advisers. Obama has been adverse to taking military action. That has typically left a limited range of options that they have been able to present to Obama.  Even in situations where the use of force is almost absolutely necessary as with ISIS, officials and advisers likely presented options for actions that were light-weight, very small in scale, and calibrated precisely. The initial size and scope of the US anti-ISIS air campaign evinced that.  At the “human level,” among reasons sending a letter to Khamenei was determined acceptable may have been that letters had been sent to Khamenei in the past with satisfactory results.  (Indeed, the October letter marked at least the fourth time Obama has written Khamenei since taking office in 2009.)  Sending the letter was easy enough to do.  The option was a diplomatic tact and therefore more attractive to Obama than the “unappealing” military options already adopted for Iraq.  Discussion on the letter among officials and advisers fell outside the milieu of the unending military intervention debate in the White House.  Additionally, as previously discussed by, Obama has a predilection toward forgiving or, considering the overwhelming military power of the US, showing mercy toward an offending rogue actor.  The letter is one more example of that tack. The effort to bring Iran into the anti-ISIS fight as a partner, even nominally, certainly is in line with Obama’s policy of promoting multilateral cooperation, particularly regarding the  commitment of military forces.  His apparent obsession with making it work may be part of the impetus for his administration’s outreach to an unlikely ally. So far, the administration has not had much luck prodding its anti-ISIS coalition partners into ground combat operations against ISIS. In 2014, the Obama administration began insisting that the US would act only when multilateral approaches were available. The impression was given that this was a world in which once sufficient effort was made by the US to organize other nations, problems could be handled through cooperation. When ISIS was on the move, it seemed that the US State Department, in addition to “rearranging,” with good intentions, the Iraqi government, was most interested in gathering countries to become members of the “global coalition” to degrade and defeat ISIS. 

Qualifications for inclusion in that coalition were nominal. Of the sixty-two countries participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, the vast majority are not contributing militarily.  Many countries simply pledged their support.  As discussed in its October 25, 2014 post entitled, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against ISIS?; The Obama Administration Must Place Success Against ISIS Ahead of Creating the Appearance of a Broad Multilateral Effort”, the US has practically demanded more from some countries.  One country the US has pressured for action is Turkey. Although Turkey is a power in the Middle East region, the notion that Turkey, possessing far less military capabilities than the US would subordinate its own concerns and interests, to support and defend others under US pressure is flawed.  Turkey likely reached the same conclusions as the US about conditions for intervening in Iraq and Syria with ground troops.  In Syria, there would hardly be a Syrian opposition force with which Turkish troops could work.  If Turkey’s operations in Syria were to “creep” beyond destroying ISIS and the Assad regime was displaced, political leaders in Turkey would likely feel ambivalent about simply turning over a nation on its border, Syria, to the very dysfunctional Syrian opposition.  Even if Turkey controlled or greatly influenced the Syrian opposition, it is hard to see how taking on the stewardship of Syria, which would surely be a political, economic, and social basket case, would be to Turkey’s benefit.

Responses in Tehran to Obama’s Letter

The thinking on Obama’s letter in Tehran was certainly different than his administration must have hoped.  An adviser to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ali Khoram, speaking in Oman, confirmed to the Arabic daily, Asharq al-Aswat, that Obama reached out directly to Khamenei in a mid-October letter.  However, Khamenei’s foreign affairs adviser, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian State media that he was not aware of Obama’s outreach.  Khamenei’s web-site does not acknowledge receipt of the letter.  Obama’s letter, on its face, likely aggravated Khamenei, particularly to the extent that Obama did not render appreciation or even praise for the considerable effort and sacrifices already being made by Iran against ISIS.  That was a massive “oversight” if the goal of the letter was truly to promote cooperation at some level with Iran.  Using the anti-ISIS fight as a basis for dialogue with Khamenei perhaps had become a futile effort after he declared in October 2014 that “America, Zionism, and especially the veteran expert of spreading divisions—the wicked government of Britain—have sharply increased their efforts of creating divisions between the Sunnis and Shiites [Shi’a].”  He further stated, “They created al Qaeda and ‘Islamic State’ in order to create divisions and to fight against the Islamic Republic [Iran], but today, they have turned on them.”  It is possible that to Khamenei, the letter may have appeared more as a manifestation of Obama’s attitude than a response to a foreign policy problem.  Khamenei may have viewed the letter as an expression of Obama’s uncertainty over the US’s ability to shape the outcome of the anti-ISIS fight on his terms.  Khamenei, a spiritual, religious leader, likely sensed Obama’s inner-struggle over using the US military.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had already expressed ambivalence about continued communication between leaders in Washington and Tehran.  The Associated Press reported Rouhani stated in October 2014 that the time “wasn’t right” for another phone conversation or a meeting with Obama “because of the sensitivity that still exists between the two countries.”  The Associated Press also reported Rouhani as stating there must be substantive reasons with “high objectives” for conversations between world leaders.  If not, he said, “telephone calls are somewhat meaningless.”  Rouhani explained a phone conversation between leaders “would only be constructive and fruitful when it is done according to a precisely laid plan with precisely clearly stated objectives.” Otherwise, he said, “it will never be constructive or effective.”

Obama’s letter most likely did much to boost confidence among Iranian leaders, particularly the IRGC and political and religious hardliners that the US was not moving with an assured step and posed no threat to plans Iran has in Iraq or the region.  The failure of the US to act effectively and decisively in Iraq right away and the abysmal results shown for the nearly decade long US training program for the Iraqi Army and police forces very likely mitigated fears within all quarters in Tehran that the Obama administration might take military action against Iran or use Iraqi security forces to attack Iran.  Officials and advisers to Khamenei likely feel the fight with ISIS has caused Obama to consider what the US might face from the Iranian Armed Forces and other security elements globally if it attacked Iran’s nuclear program.  They certainly believe going to war with Iran would be a far greater enterprise for the US than fighting ISIS.  They probably feel certain that the US would never attack Iran while the anti-ISIS fight was raging.  They likely believe Obama would totally reject the idea of fighting Iran and ISIS simultaneously.

Iran’s Efforts in Iraq

Sitting right across the border from Iraq, Khamenei, Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hard-line political and religious leaders, saw an even greater danger from ISIS than the US did, and immediately attended to it.  Rouhani has stated “We’ve actually been the ones countering terrorism in the region for years.”  He also stated, “Had it not been for Iran’s timely assistance, many of the Iraqi cities would have fallen to the hands of these vicious terrorists.”  The Iranians were never going to wait and see what the US does next once ISIS was on the move. They needed to stop ISIS. Iranian leaders certainly realized that waiting could lead to tragic consequences.  ISIS had begun engaging in abuses and summary executions of civilians as well as captives.  Syria provided a reliable model to understand just how bad things can become for Iraqis in ISIS controlled territory.  Back on June 15, 2014, insurgent fighters from ISIS posted images purporting to show the execution of hundreds of Shi’a fighters.

Iranian military and security officials knew that ISIS could reach a level of strength that it could threaten to execute entire populations of towns and villages to deter attacks against its fighters.  ISIS would follow through with their threats without hesitation.  ISIS has since committed such acts in Iraq. The Iranians also knew ISIS would set up an Islamic state in captured territory, sustainable or not.  If ISIS managed to establish itself in Iraq, the Shi’a community in Iraq would not be the only ones at risk.  ISIS would surely attack Iran.

Iran has IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani handling the situation in Iraq. The eyes of Iran are on him.  The Sunday Times of London reported on June 15, 2014 that Suleimani travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. A senior Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  The Iraqi source also said Suleimani brought “light and medium weapons, rockets, heavy machine guns and lots of ammunition.”  Much publicity has been produced by the Iranian government over Suleimani’s presence on the ground in Iraq.  As it was predicted by, Suleimani began his operations against ISIS by using the Quds Force, which are IRGC special operations forces that he directly commands, and small numbers of other IRGC combat units.  Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel, supported by Quds Force troops increased intelligence collection through surveillance and reconnaissance in ISIS held territory.  By moving throughout Iraq, particularly in the so-called Islamic Caliphate, Iranian intelligence officers have gained information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and kept their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Iraqi peoples’ reaction to events. Positive links certainly have been established with commanders of Kurdish fighters and Iraqi security forces to make the process of gathering information about ISIS militants less complicated. Those contacts with the Iraqi security forces have reportedly also allowed for the collection of information on, and creation of informal communication with, US military and intelligence elements operating on the ground in Iraq.  Intelligence collected concerning ISIS has been utilized in the development of an operational plan. When necessary MOIS and Quds Force personnel, have been used tactically, fighting primarily alongside Kurdish fighters against ISIS.  Indeed, Iranian forces have done a lot of fighting, and they have gained the Kurds’ respect and confidence.  Suleimani ramped up the training and equipping of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen.  Battle-ready units have been deployed in defense of Shi’a dominated parts of Iraq and Holy Shrines.  Others are being sent directly into the combat against ISIS.  Suleimani has reportedly deployed Lebanese Hezbollah to Iraq to work with the Shi’a militias.  Truckloads of arms and equipment from Iran continuously flow to the Shi’a militiamen. Some supplies and weapons are being flown in.  Five Sukhoi-25 fighter-bombers were flown from Iran into Iraq for the Iraqi Air Force.

Once operating in the shadows, photos of IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (center) on the battlefield in Iraq have recently appeared in Iranian state media, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

How Iran Could Proceed

Iran is still not counting on the US to act on the ground in a muscular way against ISIS any time soon since it has just begun training “its Iraqis.”  In the meantime, Iran might opt to greatly increase its level of commitment in Iraq.  Back in June 2014, Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a lengthy interview with the Chinese CCTV network on June 19, 2014, stated, “We can do in Iraq what we did in Syria, meaning we are capable of providing the same type of training to the Iraqi Army that we have been able to provide the Syrian Army in confronting terrorists…We have much experience in this field.” That apparently meant having greater numbers of IRGC, Quds Force, and MOIS personnel pour into Iraq to join their comrades long since operating there.  The more Iran can accomplish against ISIS, the less the US will need to do.  There would also be less for US trained Iraqis to do.  Even with the specter of sectarian strife hanging over everything, Iran will be viewed among many average Iraqis as rescuers.

As discussed in’s June 30, 2014 post entitled “While the US Explored Talks with Iran on the Crisis in Iraq, Iran Acted, And May Do a Lot More!“, a  further increase in Iranian intervention might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country. Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, not coordinated with the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition, to destroy ISIS units being organized and armed for an attack or traveling. Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel away from urban areas could also face artillery onslaughts.  Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent.  They would provide Kurdish fighters, Shi’a militia, some Iraqi security forces, and all Iranian units in Iraq with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability that ISIS would be unable to match.  Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to support the advance and help control recaptured territory.

With Iraq’s consent, Iran could deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units.  A huge deficit in the Iranian effort if Suleimani’s plan is to defeat ISIS is close air support.  Regardless of the availability of artillery, close air support is the best, most rapid means to exploit tactical opportunities in the offense or defense.  It can provide fires, with appropriate ordinance, to destroy, disrupt, suppress, fix, harass, neutralize, or delay ISIS forces.  Iran’s fight against ISIS now is one-dimensional.

Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that Iran, just as the US, and just as Turkey, will not commit itself so heavily to Iraq without expecting to acquire even greater influence over it.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds, it is hard to see how Iran would not be able to shape the political, economic, and social situation in Iraq for years.  If the Iranians manage to shape the military situation on the ground in Iraq—and that could happen depending on the scale of its of intervention even though some Western analysts have expressed doubts, they will have much to gain.  Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region would be furthered.  Military and security officials may become the primary voice in the ear of Khamenei who still has a decision to make on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Way Forward

Unfortunately, on Iraq, as well as Syria, Obama really seems to be searching for answers. Some might derisively state he is paralyzed with uncertainty over what to do.  Given that possibility, Obama’s letter on ISIS likely satisfied Khamenei although he rejected it.  In the US, “cynics” among Obama’s political opponents hearing of the letter may have wanted to quote to their president the warning of conservative political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. that there is always a need to combat the devilish conceit that peace might issue from a concordance with evil.  Intimation of a willingness to do so can only lead to disaster. Devising foreign policy approaches requires that US decision makers to possess shrewd insights into human nature.  Obama, himself, must respond to issues not based on his personal needs, values, and principles, but those of the US.  His country’s needs must come before establishing his legacy.

As US National Security Adviser Susan Rice confirmed in October 2014, US forces and Iranian forces are both operating in Iraq to support local elements in their battle against ISIS.  The Iranian commander, Suleimani, does not have any friends in the US military given his activities against US forces during the Iraq War.  US military and intelligence officials would certainly like to get their hands on him.  However, as US and Iranian forces have been tasked to operate in the same space, it had to be expected that they would cross paths.  Informal cooperation between Suleimani’s Quds Force operatives and MOIS officers and US special operators and intelligence officers, albeit through the Iraqi security force intermediaries, has resulted.  For example, in the fight for Amerli, Iraqi security forces, Shi’a militiamen, and Iranian operators, maneuvered on the ground against ISIS fighters while US airpower struck ISIS targets with multiple airstrikes.  US and Iranian commanders “coordinated informally” by passing messages to each other through commanders of the Iraqi security forces in the fight.  Such professionally handled interactions will likely continue to occur.  While some cooperation agreement by national leaders might prove helpful, US and Iranian interactions in Iraq must be sorted out on the scene.

The Commander-in-chief’s confidence in US military commanders at the Pentagon and US Central Command and officers and enlisted men on the ground in Iraq is the most important factor in all of this.  Rather the send letters to Iranian leaders at this juncture, Obama would do more to enhance chances of success in Iraq by communicating with, and encouraging, his own fighters.  He should meet those he has sent to Iraq confidentially, perhaps even on the ground, and let them know directly how important they are to him and how important their mission is to the US.  He must let them know that he has complete confidence in their capabilities and that he is relying on them to successfully complete their mission.  German Field Marshal Walter Model, the controversial World War II battlefield genius, was known to use a line from Goethe to praise his finest officers: “Den lieb ich, der umogliches begehrt! (I love him who craves the impossible!)”  The special operators that were sent to Iraq to perform the advise-and-assist mission may not be able to perform the impossible.  However, knowing they have the full support and confidence of their commander-in-chief, they will do whatever is humanly possible to destroy ISIS and perform beyond any projections by analysts in or out of the military.  Significant achievements of those “quiet professionals” in Iraq could inspire the Iranians to reach out to the US regarding “coordination.”  After all, when Rouhani was asked in September whether Tehran could formally work with the US to tackle ISIS, he stated, “We can think about it if we see America start confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq.  We all should practically and verbally confront terrorist groups.”