Building Relations between Trump and Putin: Getting beyond the “Getting to Know You” Stage

US President Donald Trump (left) shakes hands with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right) in Paris at the 100th Anniversary of World War I Armistice. Trump began the process of engaging Putin by looking beyond outward appearance, seeking to discover what is in his heart, and grasping the necessities of his positions fully. After every encounter and after being read-in on every new report, Trump would assess where things stood. At this point, Trump undoubtedly would like to push further out from the “getting to know you” stage in his efforts.

According to an Associated Press story reported on October 26, 2018 in the New York Times, US National Security Adviser John Bolton stated that same day that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been invited to visit Washington next year. The article entitled, “US Official Says Putin Invited to Visit Washington Next Year”, quoted Bolton as saying, “that “We have invited President Putin to Washington after the first of the year for, basically, a full day of consultations.” Bolton, speaking in Tblisi, Georgia, did not offer any date for the meeting. Still, it is generally understood by US and Russian officials concerned that the Washington meeting would likely take place in early 2019. The proposed meeting It would be Putin’s first trip to the US since 2015 when he met with US President Barack Obama. It is unclear whether Putin would come to  the White House to meet Trump. Other options likely include: Camp David, Mar-A-Lago, and the Trump National Golf Club. Putin’s last visit to the White House was in 2005 when he met with US President George Bush. The proposed 2019 meeting would not be the first between Trump and Putin following the July 12, 2018 Helsinki Summit. On November 2, 2018, Yuri Ushakov, Aide to the President of the Russian Federation responsible for International Affairs, announced from the Kremlin that Trump and Putin would hold substantive meeting at G-20 in Argentina. Ushakov told reporters the meeting on the sidelines of the G-20, taking place over November 30, 2018 and December 1, 2018 would be “lengthy and substantive.” In Argentina, the two presidents would likely talk more about Trump’s recent decision to pull the US out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). Trump has stated that Russia is not abiding by the treaty and that the US needs to build up its nuclear arsenal to meet the threats of the Russians and the Chinese. Russia, on the other hand, has contended it is in compliance with the accord.

Plus tamen tibi et viva vox et convictus quam oratio proderit; in rem praesentem venias oportet, primum quia homines amplius oculis quam auribus credunt, deinde quia longum iter est per praecepta, breve et efficax per exempla. (Of course, however, the living voice and the intimacy of a common life will help you more than the written word. You must go to the scene of action, first, because men put more faith in their eyes than in their ears, and second, because the way is long if one follows precepts, but short and helpful, if one follows patterns.) Immediately after Helsinki, a second Trump-Putin meeting in Washington was initially bandied about between Trump and his advisers and aides, but it was put on hold. Trump’s insistence on meeting with Putin is a manifestation of his desire to begin a new era of US-Russia relations with cooperation and partnership with the Russian President. Trump’s expectations do not appear too great or out of order. However, he understands that he must put considerable effort into the process creating positive relations. The Trump administration has amassed a number of foreign policy successes, to name a few: the destruction of ISIS’ so-called “Islamic Caliphate” and destruction of ISIS as a fighting force; the liberation of Iraq; the strengthening of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel; the suspension of DPRK nuclear weapons and missile testing; gaining big increases in NATO spending; and, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Those successes have hardly been acknowledged by his many critics and detractors who have not as yet turned away from their predictions that the Trump administration would rendezvous with failure and catastrophe on foreign policy. While unable to criticize Trump over his performance during the summit meetings because they were not present, critics and detractors, many in the US news media, and members of his own party, heavily criticized his performance at a follow-on joint press conference. Many of them, upon hearing Trump’s comments, alleged that he was siding with Putin and accepting his denials on Russia’s election interference over the conclusions of US intelligence officials who say Russia certainly did so meddle, ostensibly to benefit Trump.

As it was explained in the September 30, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “Trump Achieved More at Helsinki than Most Noticed: Putin Is Not a Challenge for Him“, Helsinki was not the great disaster for Trump that most critics and detractors assert it was. Trump most likely wants to make the correct adjustments in his approach, exploit success already achieved by finding more points at which their thoughts touch. As he prepares to meet Putin in Argentina and considers how to shape the meeting in Washington in 2019 will take, greatcharlie look at some of the considerations unique to this ongoing diplomatic process with Putin. As he observes Putin’s moves during the process such as forming the delegation for talks and toning down his hostile rethoric on the US that was regularly heard during his interactions with Obama and has carried over to his administration. Trump also has kept a watchful eye on Putin use his conventional military forces and his nuclear forces. Trump knows a lost cause and would certainly be willing to declare his efforts with Putin as such if that becomes the case. Still, Trump is very likely heartened by the fact that through their meetings and telephone calls since 2017, he understands Putin better and that there is a chemistry developing between them. As long as his efforts continue to bear fruit, he can remain sanguine and as best as possible, continue to shut out the array hostile voices attacking him, Concerning Putin’s interest in improving relations, there is the hope that Putin has learned a bit more about Trump, not just through contacts, but also through misjudgments and missteps, such as Putin’s gifting of the football at Helsinki press conference. Faux pas! Optimistically, the result of these developments will be a fruitful, edifying, and satisfying set of future meetings in which some important and urgent transnational, regional, and bilateral matters may be resolved. Accomplishing that would be one more promise to the US public kept. Eo animo quidque debetur quo datur, nec quantum sit sed a quali profectum voluntate perpenditur. (Our feeling about every obligation depends in each case upon the spirit in which the benefit is conferred; we weigh not the bulk of the gift, but the quality of the good-will which prompted it.)

Trump is very likely heartened by the fact that through their meetings and telephone calls since 2017, he understands Putin better and that there is a chemistry developing between them. As long as his efforts continue to bear fruit, he can remain sanguine, continue to shut out the hostile voices. There is the hope that Putin has learned more about Trump. Optimistically, the result of these developments will be a fruitful, edifying, and satisfying future meetings in which important and urgent transnational, regional, and bilateral matters may be resolved.

Trump Pushes ahead with Putin

Trump began engaging Putin well-aware that Putin is not a moral paragon. He was surely familiar with varied reports from nongovernmental organizations, civil society watchdogs in Russia, journalists, and US government agencies that indicate a considerable number abuses of civil and human rights have occurred under Putin’s reign. Activists in Russia would explain that the soul of the Russian people has grieved during the nearly years of Putin’s rule. Putim’s grip on the Russian public is strong, and he is utilizing all the old security systems with which he is most familiar. In the West, some analysts would not go as far as to call Putin a modern day tyrant, but they would still call him an awful man. Civil rights and human rights are issues that no US President, the leader of free world, could ever eschew concerning Russia or any other country for that matter. Trump would certainly be willing to discuss civil rights and human rights issues concerning Russia with Putin. Indeed, he most likely has already shared his perspectives with him on: how reported government abuses within Russia have left the world a very negative impression of the country as a whole; why it is difficult for anyone to see Russia as a decent constitutional society; why considerable doubt exists in the minds of top Russia hands and his close advisers and aides that Russia could ever be a honest broker and good partner in tackling transnational issues; and, how tough it will be for Russia to ever overcome such views on its own. Trump, knowing Putin as he does now, would be the one US president who could reach Putin on matter without simply prodding him with the “high road” and ensuring nothing good would be achieved. (This is another matter in which the lack of a viable plan of action is most telling of the critics and detractors flawed understanding of the situation.)

It would be gossamer fantasy to belIeve that Putin would metaphorically wake and  smell the coffee, simply clear his head, reason everything out, decide to forgive and forget, and see the advantage of cooperating fully with Trump. To that extent, it is difficult to determine exactly where the Kremlin is on developing better relations. Trump apparently senses that a general change in the approach toward Putin will create new conditions that will stimulate positive reactions by the Russian leader. Peelng back the layers of negativity from US-Russian interactions with the previous US administration, he has tried to create a clean slate and has offered to work with Putin fairly and with mutual respect. With any luck, Putin will eventually recognize what Trump is doing and recognize the great opportunity that lies before him to let Russia be seen as doing some good for the world. While it would only be natural to remain somewhat skeptical about his progress with Putin, it seems that he gotten his attention and has him thinking about what he is saying.  According to the renowned Ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “Appearances to the mind are of four kinds. Things either are what they appear to be; or they neither are, nor appear to be; or they are, and do not appear to be; or they are not, and yet appear to be. Rightly to aim in all these cases, is the wise man’s task.” Putin can be counselled but, of course, in the end he must come to the right understanding of the matter on his own.

Trump certainly does not desire to lure Putin to his way of thinking or manipulate him in any way. Even if Putin’s desire is to seek better ties only for the purpose of doing more wrong, Trump would not seek in a similar way to take some type of advantage of Putin to score some short-term victory. Trump also does not want to commit any errors or missteps with Putin that would result in creating opportunities for him to harm US interests or gain some major advantage over the US that could spell catastrophe. Trump’s goal is to create something best for the long-term, to genuinely transform the relationship between the US and Russia. All of his efforts must not result in the type of understandings and set of agreements that would fall apart with the coming of a new administration, Republican or Democrat.

Trump began the process of engaging Putin by looking beyond outward appearance, seeking to discover what is in his heart, and grasping the necessities of his positions fully. After every encounter with Putin and after being read-in on every new report received from government agencies responsible for studying those encounters, Trump would assess where things stood, look for ways to move things forward and if possible, identify issues on which he might be able to do some real open field running to advance his cause. With that, Trump would then look within himself to design the next best steps he would  take with the Russian leader, steps with which he would feel most comfortable. At the same time that he was working with Putin, Trump was learning about other competitors, rivals, and adversaries in the same way. For example, he has interacted positively with President Xi Jinping of China, and is cautiously optimistic about how the relationship will shake out. He met with Kim Jong-un of the DPRK. He has spoken with leaders who have gone some distance to appear problematic for US policy such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. His interactions with them have led to real improvements in relations with those respective countries. He contended with the initial recalcitrance of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. However, relations steadily improved with both. The US Mexico, Canada Agreement proved that with the right words, the right touch, their respective disagreements could be overcome. Those leaders looked at the repercussions of an new agreement, what their respective countries might lose, what they might gain. Consideration of the needs of their people and the national interests came to the fore. Surely, Trump has grown considerably in wisdom about many leaders and on how to proceed on policy since his contact with them. Trump has options regarding his approach to Putin beyond diplomacy, but it appears his choice is to continue trying to find a way to work with him. A rough road often leads to great things. Thomas Paine, the US political theorist and revolutionary, wrote in his pamphlet series The Crisis in December 23, 1776, “the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

It would be gossamer fantasy to belIeve that Putin would metaphorically wake and smell the coffee, simply clear his head, reason everything out, decide to forgive and forget, and see the advantage of cooperating fully with Trump. To that extent, it is difficult to determine exactly where the Kremlin is on developing better relations. Peeling back any layers of negativity from US-Russian interactions with the previous US administration, he has created a clean slate and has offered to work together with Putin fairly and with mutual respect.

At this point, Trump undoubtedly would like to push further out from the “getting to know you” stage in his efforts with Putin. In every meeting with Putin so far, Trump has broached important and urgent issues ranging from, Syria, Ukraine, nuclear forces, ISIS, terrorism in general, energy, economic sanctions, and perhaps Magnitsky. In Argentina, the two presidents may discuss Trump’s recent decision to pull the US out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The INF prohibits the US and Russia from possessing, producing, or deploying ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of between 500 kilometers and 5,500 kilometers. On October 20, 2018, Trump explained to reporters following a rally in Nevada, “Russia has not, unfortunately, honored the agreement. So we’re going to terminate the agreement and we’re going to pull out.”

On October 22, 2018 at the White House, Trump made similar statements concerning his decision to withdraw from the INF as a result of Moscow’s alleged violations and a need to respond to China’s nuclear buildup. He told reporters that “Russia has not adhered to the agreement . . . . Until people come to their senses — we have more money than anybody else, by far. We’ll build it up.” Trump added: “Until they come to their senses. When they do, then we’ll all be smart and we’ll all stop.” When asked by reporters if that was a threat to Putin, Trump replied: “It’s a threat to whoever you want. And it includes China, and it includes Russia, and it includes anybody else that wants to play that game. You can’t do that. You can’t play that game on me.” China was never a party to the 1987 INF, which was signed by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev four years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Trump explained that China should be included in the accord. Nearly 2,700 short- and medium-range missiles were eliminated by the US and the Soviet Union under the INF treaty, but China has been building up its capabilities to field the same kinds of weapons. It is estimated that nearly 95 percent of China’s missiles would violate the INF treaty if Beijing were a signatory. Additionally, Trump stated that Russia was not abiding by the treaty, and that the US needed to build up its nuclear arsenal to meet the threats of Russia and China. The Kremlin has claimed it has only acted in accord with the treaty’s terms.

Even if Putin’s desire is to seek better ties only for the purpose of doing more wrong, Trump would not seek in a similar way to take some type of advantage of Putin to score some short-term victory. Trump also does not want to commit any errors or missteps with Putin that would result in creating opportunities for him to harm US interests or gain some major advantage over the US that could spell catastrophe. Trump’s goal is to create something best for the long-term, to genuinely transform the relationship between the US and Russia.

Putin Pushed ahead with Trump

Simulatio delet veritatem, sine qua nomen amicitiae valere non potest. (Pretense obliterates the truth, without which the name of friendship cannot survive.) Putin has repeatedly said that improvements in US-Russian ties have been thwarted by US political infighting, but voiced hope that Trump could eventually move to repair the fractured relations. Earlier this month, the Russian leader said “playing the Russian card” was a convenient instrument in US politics ahead of the midterm election in November 2018. However, that view is not very precise. Causality aside, it was Russia that drove into Crimea and later interfered with the 2016 US Elections. Putin’s statement skirts these gargantuan issues. The Kremlin has left little doubt that over the years, officials their have not learned much about the actual multifaceted inner workings of the US government and the dynamics of US politics. It was likely that a misunderstanding of how the system worked in the US that may have led officials there to believe that they could ever influence a US Election, not only while US intelligence services and law enforcement agences were watching over everything, but with so many in the US with considerable interests staked on the election’s outcome, and not be detected. The covert operation was discovered and responded to with expulsions and closures of Russian Federation facilities. So much was discovered about the operation that Putin was left with little ability to plausibly deny his knowledge of those particular activities of Russia’s intelligence services.

Putin is likely well aware now that he cannot live off the intellectual support of any of his subordinates when it comes to dealing with Trump and the US. At the dawn of the Trump administration, Putin appears to have been egged on by certain advisers in his cabinet who harbored strong anti-Western and believed Trump could be pressed on certain issues. They likely want to create the impression that they had an easy handle on things.Since that time, a few of them, such as the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for military and space industries, Dmitry Rogozin, have been removed from his Cabinet. However, there is still room for advisers with a mindset that is very suspicious of US actions and intentions. Consider that of the figurative high priest of Russian Federation security, Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB. Bortnikov is not well-known for his contributions to Russia’s foreign policy making and stays out from the public eye. Unknown to greatcharlie is the degree to which Putin might refer to him on foreign policy beyond how an issue might relate to state security. Yet, he is a confidant of Putin, as his trust in Bortnikov has been sustained. Bortnikov would only see traps in what Trump offers. If the attempt at subversion cannot be easily seen, Bortnikov would only assume that it is cloaked. Counsel from other key advisers such as Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev are two members of Putin’s inner circle that are also figurative deep-wells of skepticism and paranoia concerning the US. As part of Patrushev’s mantra, the US constantly seeks to have levers of pressure on Russia and contain his country’s growing influence as means to hold on its waning global leadership. Some might disagree with the notion that Shoigu is very hardline as he most often presents himself as an elegant, dignified general officer, who speaks cordial and measured words. Yet, statements and military strategic concepts produced by his Defense Ministry leave no doubt that he views the US as a serious threat to Russia and it’s interests and everything possible must be done to mitigate that threat which is directed from points 360 degrees around Russia with a deterrence posture and if necessary respond as violently and shrewdly as possible to that threat with all resources available. His Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation, signed into law by Putin on January 29, 2013, expresses his country’s defense needs in this fashion. (Shoigu is certainly a man that Trump should keep one eye on.) The key for Putin is to well-manage how much the appraisals of Shoigu and Patrushev should be allowed to insinuate into Russia’s foreign policy making concerning the US. There would be little hope relations could advance in a positive direction if no limits were put on their influence. Theirs is the sort of thinking that might have more value on foreign policy matters concerning other Western countries and the rest of the world. Their verbiage would certainly be of better use in communicating the message that Putin’s aim is to restore Russia to greatness to his political supporters, his wily political adversaries, and mostly hidden, influential elites domestically. Perhaps an answer that might best explain how Putin manages all of his responsibilities as Russian Federation President in any given day would need to be drawn from “metaphysics”. Certain natural talents, unique to Putin, are always in play.  Managing relations with the US as led by the Trump administration, with all of the new approaches and its more businesslike way thinking, has required a lot more effort than likely anticipated. If the Russian President could pardon greatcharlie’s freedom, so far, there has been little sophistication in the moves he and his advisers and aides have made with regard to the US.

What would likely be useful to Putin and his Kremlin advisers and aides would be to make a strenuous effort to move away from the thinking they found necessary during the Obama administration. At that time, they ostensibly sought to assert Russia’s power and identity, to fight back against what they perceived were Obama administration efforts to hurt and humiliate Putin and their country. Looking at Russia’s annexation of Crimea and it’s 2016 US Election interference, it would seem incredulous to consider Putin as a victim. He could easily be called the aggressor in both instances. However, it could be, as Trump has posited, that moves by Obama and his administration directed at reigning in Putin, executed with type of adolescent exuberance by many his administration’s officials, backfired immensely. Behavioral scientist, psychologists, and psychiatrists in the US foreign and national security policy establishment, looking at Putin, very likely understood and explained that there would be a considerable negative reaction from Putin to any “narcissistic injuries” or slights. This issue was covered in greatcharlie’s September 30, 2018 post entitled, “Trump Achieved More at Helsinki than Most Noticed: Putin Is Not a Challenge for Him“. When Putin reacted, and that reaction included in part the capture of Crimea and the 2016 Election interference, it was in ways completely unexpected by the Obama administration. One could posit harshly that the Obama administration found was it was looking for when it poked the “Russian bear”. Undoubtedly, Putin also has his government behavioral scientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists analyzing Obama. It is very likely that they, along with Putin, concluded with certitude, that beyond economic sanctions and dismissals of diplomats and intelligence officials, Obama would do precious little in response that would be comparable to the election interference and certainly he would not do anything more aggressive. In fact, the Obama administration was repeatedly caught completely “flat-footed” and totally unprepared to cope with the consequences of its poor relations with Putin. Gladiator in arena consillium capit. (The gladiator is formulating his plan in the arena.)

No joy! Former US President Barack Obama (left) and Putin (right). What would likely be useful to Putin and his Kremlin advisers and aides would be to make a strenuous effort to move away from the thinking they found necessary during the Obama administration. At that time, they ostensibly sought to assert Russia’s power and identity, to fight back against what they perceived were Obama administration efforts to hurt and humiliate Putin and their country.

Within the Kremlin, the psychic wounds of its winter actions with the Obama administration may not be soon forgotten. To that extent, they must be given a chance to heal. Putin is the one who must lead the way in Russia. It is a clear aim of Trump’s diplomatic efforts to provide Putin with the necessary space and and calibrated amount of pressure needed to help create the conditions for change. A foundation must be created from which constructive change in support of US and Russian respective and mutual interests. To achieve that, both sides would need to reach some mutual understanding of what is reality and what is truth. Hyperbole would no longer have a place at the table. Sciant quae optima sunt esse communia. (The best ideas are common property.)

Reaching that type of mutual understanding within the Kremlin would not only require Putin’s wishes and his will, but also the supportive efforts of thoughtful advisers such as: Ushakov; Sergey Lavrov, Russian Federation Foreign Minister; Anton Siluanov, Russian Federation Finance Minister; Dmitry Peskov, Press Secretary for the Russian Federation President; and Russian Federation Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The counsel of Ushakov, Lavrov, and Peskov was visibly relied upon by Putin at Helsinki. They are the sort of thinkers who are able to breathe the fresh air of Realpolitik into their analyses. Theirs is a unique ability in an environment of authoritative men in which assessments offered are colored by nationalistic-based theorizing and unoriginal, unimaginative ideas. Perhaps at times, Putin may feel somewhat limited or smothered by such thinking. He may desire a higher order thinking that would result in solid concepts and viable policy options. This is not to state that Ushakov, Lavrov, and Peskov are not any less nationalistic or patriotic than others in Putin’s immediate advisory circle. Rather it would only mean that when it comes the big picture, their thinking is a bit more incisive, of a higher order, than the others. Overall success for both sides will be signalled by contradictions in traditional ways of thinking and acting on both sides. Recede in te ipse quantum potes; cum his versare qui te meliorem facturi sunt, illos admitte quos tu potes facere meliores. Mutuo ista fiunt, et homines dum docent discunt. (Withdraw into yourself, as far as you can. Associate with those who will make a better man of you. Welcome those whom you yourself can improve. The process is mutual; for men learn while they teach.)

For the moment, it may very well be that Putin has little genuine interest in adhering to existing agreements or would likely hold fast to any new ones eventually reached. Certainly, that is understood by the Trump administration. For that reason, along with existing attitudes, biases, about Russia and the Soviet Union from the past, entrees from Putin, new steps, will still at first blush be suspected as chicken feed, deception, until they have been highly scrutinized and determined otherwise. To build confidence and eventually some degree of trust, both sides must approach each other, beginning on small issues, with honesty, morality, and even fidelity. Yet, they must also retain the ability to verify that promised steps are actually taken. That is the fascinating type of cooperation actually seen between the space programs of both countries. It is interesting that despite the cooperation that exists between the two countries on a big issue as space, they remain far apart on foreign and national security policy. Trump’s insistence on talks generates real hope for change.

In an intriguing July 17, 2018 article Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that in an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio, Aleksei Venediktov, a foreign policy scholar and the radio station’s editor in chief, offered an interesting perspective on how the line up of advisers who sat at the table with Trump and Putin at Helsinki revealed the two countries’ differing agendas. He concluded that the delegations showed the main US concerns at Helsinki were strategic security and election interference, while Putin’s concerns were Syria and “public relations.”

Advisers and Aides Are Involved in There Special Ways

In an interview on Ekho Moskvy radio, Aleksei Venediktov, a foreign policy scholar and the radio station’s editor in chief, offered an interesting perspective on how the line up of advisers who sat at the table with Trump and Putin at Helsinki revealed the differing agendas of the two countries. Venediktov analyzed the seating arrangements as follows: “On the Russian side at that lunch . . . there was, of course, Lavrov and [US Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo. They are equals. But further down sat Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.” Venediktov went on to note: “Then there was, of course, the ambassador to the United States, [Anatoly] Antonov and the director of the Foreign Ministry’s North America department, Georgy Borisenko.” He added: “I would draw attention to the fact that none of these people directly deal with security or global strategy, not counting the foreign minister . . . . Not one person in the Russian delegation did this work full-time. [Nikolai] Patrushev of the Security Council wasn’t there. The defense minister wasn’t there. The head of the General Staff wasn’t there. No one.” Discussing the US delegation, Venediktov stated: “If you remove Pompeo and [US Ambassador to Russia Jon] Huntsman, then we see that there is the president’s national-security adviser, [John] Bolton, and senior adviser to the national-security adviser on Russia affairs, Fiona Hill. And, and this is important, we see White House Chief of Staff John Kelly . . . You can see how these delegations differ. John Bolton is in charge of global security. Fiona Hill is in charge of security issues between Russia and the United States. And John Kelly is in charge of the interference in the [US presidential] election. Domestic politics. That is what John Kelly does. You can see how the delegations are at cross-purposes. Different agendas, differing delegation compositions. On one side, security experts. On the other, people from the Foreign Ministry.” Venediktov concluded that the delegations showed that the main US concerns at Helsinki were strategic security and the election interference, while Putin’s concerns were Syria and “public relations.” He concluded: “Peskov — that’s public relations,” adding, “Peskov is about selling the summit results.”

It may be as Venediktov as posited that Putin’s contacts with Trump serve some limited public relations purpose. He may be simply building himself up on the international stage by creating the optics of having some equivalence to the US President. On the other hand, there could still be a variety of other reasons for the composition of the Russian delegation at Helsinki. Much as greatcharlie mentioned earlier, Putin may believe the counsel of Ushakov, Lavrov, and Peskov, is most useful in his talks with Trump as their thinking on the US is more incisive, and that mindset may have been evinced in the composition of his Helsinki delegation. It is possible that Putin may be showing deference to the Foreign Ministry and top officials such as the Russian Federation Ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov and the director of the Foreign Ministry’s North America department, Georgy Borisenko, given their knowledge about the US is not politically based, is erudite, and they have authentic expertise in US affairs. Perhaps Putin’s selection could be an expression of his effort to keep the reactions and words of Shoigu and Patrushev, away from the observant, probing eyes of Trump and his advisers and aides, knowing how strong the anti-US sentiments of those two are. A suspicious mind might suggest Putin deliberately limited the access of certain advisers to Trump and other US officials as a form of information control. Advisers absent from the talks would have less ability to later gauge, influence, or question Putin’s policy approaches with the US. Their views would be limited, inferred from the abstract. They would remain reliant on Putin’s appraisals of the situation. It is possible that Putin’s choices may simply reflect the routine management of his team, for example, he may have selected one adviser over an another based on their schedules or there may have been an urgent need to have his other key advisers cover important matters that fell within their portfolios, that he could not personally attend to. Lastly, there is the possibility that the composition of the delegation could have been the result of a combination of all of these possibilities as well as many others. A certain amount of caution and paranoia is programmed into the Russian leader’s decision making in general. However, Putin’s actions regarding the delegations composition were unlikely an effort to signal that he questioned the loyalty of Shoigu or Patrushev. He knows that their allegiance is strong. Both men would prefer to sleep at his doorstep than rest in their own homes.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton (left) and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (right) in Moscow. Just as their figurative “kings go forth” to resolve matters, top foreign and national security policy officials of both governments have met to discuss and find answers to important and urgent matters. Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had a call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following Helsinki. Bolton had meetings in Moscow with Putin and Lavrov, as well as Shoigu and Patrushev who were absent in Helsinski.

The respective advisers and aides of Trump and Putin have worked feverishly to set up meetings between the two leaders. Yet, just as their figurative “kings go forth” to resolve matters, advisers and aides, who are the top foreign and national security policy officials in both governments, have met to discuss and find answers important and urgent matters. As it happened, Lavrov had a call with Pompeo following Helsinki. In a statement from the Russian Federation Foreign Ministry, the two diplomats discussed “acute issues on the international agenda and bilateral ties in the context of preparations for planned contacts between the presidents.” More intriguing were contacts between Bolton and Putin and Lavrov, as well as Shoigu and Patrushev in Moscow between October 22,2018 and October 23, 2018. Long before meeting Bolton, Shoigu and Patrushev were surely read-in on all available profiles to include any classified case files on him. They also likely took a good look at his many essays, articles, and editorials on policy, reviewed the greater portion of Bolton’s presentations and panel discussions at policy conferences, and read ttanscripts of his interviews with the US and foreign news media, at academic institutions, and by think tanks. While Bolton is not Trump, both Shoigu and Patrushev likely hoped to gain insight from him into the inner thinking of the administration on foreign and national security policy making: the thinking behind its conceptualization of new policies and how issues, events, and crises are analyzed. From that, they might get a better sense of the possibilities and capabilities of the administration as its presently staffed. Reportedly, US plans for withdrawal from the treaty were discussed in talks with both officials as well as with Putin and Lavrov. He explained to the Russians that the US decision to pull out of the treaty was logical given that Russia has been violating it and other countries, including China, Iran, and the DPRK are free to develop weapons that would be prohibited under the agreement. He explained that US did not intend to restrict itself of INF while other were not. Bolton also told the Russians that the INF, a bilateral treaty of the Cold War was outdated because technologies have changed and geostrategic realities have changed.

Bolton (left) and Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev (right). Bolton has reportedly discussed US plans for withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in his meetings with Shoigu and Patrushev, as well as with Putin and Lavrov. He explained that the US decision was logical given that Russia has been violating it and countries including China, Iran, and the DPRK, can develop weapons the treaty prohibits. Bolton also explained that technologies and geostrategic realities made the treaty outdated.

Critics and Detractors Remain Ineffective Dream-Killers

Negative perspectives of political rivals, critics, and detractors of Trump have not been mitigated since Helsinki, In fact the October 26, 2018 New York Times article reminded that Trump was widely criticized in the aftermath of Helsinki for failing to publicly denounce Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election and alleged that Trump seemingly accepted Putin’s denials of such activity. Indeed, reports alleging that his administration has performed poorly on foreign policy serve more than adequately as an impediments, and perhaps even prevents, many in the US public from recognizing what he has actually achieved. There is unlikely much that Trump could ever do directly to relieve critics and detractors of their more creative than fact based impressions of Putin as a “super spook” still on the beat. No matter what success might be achieved by Trump at Helsinki or on any issue on the foreign policy front, it would not overcome existing impressions of critics and detractors. US Vice President Mike Pence and Trump advisers and aides such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and White House Press Secretary Sarah Saunders have explained fervently that Trump has been wholeheartedly engaged in an effort to advance the interests of the US public in his meetings and negotiations with his foreign counterparts. Trump’s plans for handling the meeting diligently were worked out with his high qualified foreign and national security policy team. They were executed along the lines of excellence. However, lacking confidence that Trump would do things right in Helsinki, Trump’s political opponents warned him about having an overly friendly meeting with Putin, particularly after Trump had picked trade battles with longtime US allies. A NATO meeting ahead of the Putin summit was widely panned as being contentious after Trump pressed members of the alliance to increase their defense spending.

Just days before the first summit, Democrats in Congress urged Trump in a letter to hold Putin accountable for Russia’s destabilization efforts, including election meddling, support for the Syrian regime and the annexation of Crimea. US Senate Democrats Robert Menendez, Dick Durbin, Mark Warner, and Jack Reed wrote to Trump: “While there is a place for dialogue between nations on disagreements and common challenges, such as reducing nuclear dangers, we are deeply concerned that your Administration continues to send mixed messages regarding the Russian security threat.” They added: “During your meeting with President Putin, we ask that you convey that there will be clear consequences for Russia’s interference in democratic processes in the United States and elsewhere, its support for violence and bloodshed in Ukraine and Syria, and the illegal occupation of Crimea.”

If Trump had thought it prudent, he would have had little problem meeting the demands of critics and detractors by repeatedly and enthusiastically admonishing Putin over election interference in the two leaders furtive meetings or publicly. However, the reality is that the steps Trump’s political opponents and other critics and detractors suggest that he take, would never be part of an effective plan for dealing with Putin. Their approaches would guarantee disaster and a set back with Russian leader who is very reactive to slights and who may respond negatively in a very disproportionate way, raising the stakes for everyone. This was discovered by the Obama administration but oddly denied as a reality. Moving in retrograde, back to the disasterous “my way or the highway”, “bullying” approach to the somewhat sensitive Putin used by the Obama administration, which was what US Senate Democrats were recommending, was undoubtedly recognized by Trump as the recipe for disaster. Indeed, the letter amounted to an exposition of the Obama administration’s unsuccessful policy. Consilio melius contendere atque vincere possumus quam ira. (We can compete and prevail better through wisdom than through anger.)

Under Trump’s leadership, US foreign and national security policy, in its spirit, is brand new. Trump will not be soft on Russia. He will act with determination when he sees the need to promote or defend US interest against moves by Moscow. However, while he is in office, he will as best as possible, create space for the US and Russia to do great things together. Hopefully, the process of trying to find a very positive, working relationship with Putin will not in the long run become the equivalent of trying find a way to sleep on the top of a flagpole.

The Way Forward

In Act 1 scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing, Leonato, a kindly, respectable nobleman in the Italian town of Messina, shares his house with his daughter, Hero, his niece, Beatrice, and his elderly brother, Antonio, who is Beatrice’s father. Leonato welcomes a few friends home from a war as the play begins, to include They include: Don Pedro, a prince who is a close friend of Leonato;  Claudio, a young nobleman; Benedick, a wit; and, Don Pedro’s illegitimate brother, Don John who is sullen and bitter. Almost immediately upon arriving at Leonato’s home, Claudio quickly falls in love with Hero and decide to be married. Through at trick, they manage in the weeks before the wedding to bring together Beatrice and Benedick who knew each other in the past. However, Don John decides to create problems for the others. He acknowledges that his actions against them, as well as his brother, are inspired by jealousy and envy and his bad nature in general when he states: “I had rather be a canker in a hedge than a rose in his grace, and it better fits my blood to be disdained of all than to fashion a carriage to rob love from any: in this, though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain. I am trusted with a muzzle and enfranchised with a clog; therefore I have decreed not to sing in my cage. If I had my mouth, I would bite; if I had my liberty, I would do my liking: in the meantime let me be that I am and seek not to alter me.” The predominant amount of evidence available in abstract indicates that Putin has the propensity to devise to do evil. Any negative actions taken by Putin during the process of building better relations with Trump and the US would hardly be sudden considerations. Sin is conceived long before sin on committed. Putin’s attitude and behavior toward the US could be considered, not completely, but to a great degree to be the result of a further trust lost during the Obama administration. Actions have consequences and can have rippling effects over time.

When one side in a relationship feels offended or wronged, things will rarely return to normal or even cool off until there is some recognition of the offense or wrong by the offender. Even if the offense or wrong has been forgiven, even after the offender has humbled himself or herself, the relationship may no longer be viable or have room for growth. Much as a broken pot, a relationship can be put together again but it may not hold water the same. In a situation in which a party has been offended or feels wrongly done in some extreme way, it will usually take time before trust is rebuilt. Regarding Russia, Trump came into office refusing to be held captive to the failed approach that the Obama administration took. He would not persist in the same behavior of engaging in very real, needling slights. Under Trump’s leadership, US foreign and national security policy, has a new spirit. There is a better to build better relations with countries around the world. That certainly does not mean Trump will be soft on any countries or on any issue. He will as best as possible, create space for the US and other countries to do great things together. When he sees the need to promote or defend US interest against moves by another country, including Russia, he will act with determination. This may be a key to success of Trump’s approach to Putin. Hopefully, the process of trying to find a very positive, working relationship with Putin will not in the long run become the equivalent of trying to find a way to sleep on the top of a flagpole. Recto actio non erit, nisi recta fuit voluntas, ab hac enim est actio. Rursus, voluntas non erit recta, nisi habitus animi rectus fuerit, ab hoc enim est voluntas. (An action will not be right unless the intention is right, for from it comes the action. Again, the intention will not be right unless the state of the mind has been right, for it proceeds the intention.)

Belarus Allows Small Demonstrations Outside KGB Headquarters: As Belarus Curries Favor with the West, Can It Help Russia, Too?

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (left) with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (right). Putin wants to keep the Republic of Belarus within his country’s sphere of influence. Yet, due to regional security concerns, Belarus has gained new importance in the West. Lukashenko, once called Europe’s last dictator, is being approached by the EU and US. He has responded by trying to strengthen ties with them. Some Western analysts conclude Putin will not react well to this development. However, Belarus’s ties to the EU could actually enable its ally Russia to circumvent sanctions through a creative trade arrangement.

According to an October 29, 2016 article in the New York Times entitled, “Belarus Allows Small Demonstrations Outside KGB Headquarters,” dozens of demonstrators held a gathering in front of the headquarters building of Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) or KGB in Minsk to commemorate the 1937 execution of over 100 members of the Belarusian intelligentsia under the orders of the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Union Josef Stalin. The demonstrators also protested continuing repression in Belarus.  The demonstration was not authorized, however the police did not interfere. The annual commemoration provides the Belarusian public a rare opportunity to show disapproval for the government led by President Alexander Lukashenko. Nikolai Statkevich ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 Belarusian Presidential Election and was imprisoned for five years afterward. The New York Times article quoted him as stating: The fear of repression haunts Belarus as before. Today’s authorities are ideological heirs of those times.”

The EU and US now seem to be approaching Lukashenko with outstretched arms. Lukashenko, once the target of profound obloquy in the West and whose government was called “Europe’s last dictatorship” in 2005 by then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is now covered with good words to the extent that his past iron fisted actions have nearly been cloaked. Belarus, in response to EU and US overtures, has engaged in a vigorous effort to curry favor and strengthen ties with them. The question of whether Lukashenko can genuinely recurvate westward after being oriented so long toward Russia has been responded to by some EU leaders with rather Delphine statements.

Putin wants Belarus to remain in Russia’s sphere of influence. He wants to keep Belarus in the Central Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Some Western foreign and defense policy analysts would quickly point out that Lukashenko has never been disposed to completely subordinating the interests of Belarus to that of Russia, or of the West for that matter. Pedictably, those Western analysts have concluded Putin, their bête noire, likely perceives Lukashenko as being disloyal, and suggest that he could react aggressively. Such analyses simply signal a fear of Russian military power. They also signal a fear that when the interests of any country in Russia’s sphere of interest is detectably at odds with those of the Kremlin, a “second Crimea” may be in the making. Crimea happened. Putin acted aggressively. However, Crimea should not be the baseline to gauge Putin’s thinking and actions going forward. Putin does not act impulsively; he acts with purpose. He can well-distinguish between what he wants for the moment and what he wants most. Putin does not want to have Russia defined as a rogue country with a military that is nothing more than an army of conquest. Having built solid relations with Minsk, especially with regard to security, for over a score of years, it is hard to imagine Moscow attempting to militarily intimidate or actually attack Belarus over its contacts with the EU. Extrapolations perpetuating such notions are counterintuitive. In fact, Putin has hardly reacted. He may very well recognize some potential in his ally’s new EU contacts for Russia to circumvent economic sanctions via a creative trade arrangement.

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Belarus is a 207,600 square kilometer, landlocked country, bordered by the Russian Federation to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. When Putin took office, he viewed Russia’s relations with Belarus as unsatisfactory and improved them. Belarus’s strategic importance to Russia increased following regional events such as NATO’s creep into the post-Soviet space, and the “Color Revolutions.” Belarus and Russia have had a few political and economic rows. Still, the two countries are staunch allies.

Belarus: In Brief

The Republic of Belarus is a 207,600 square kilometer, landlocked country, bordered by the Russian Federation to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. Its capital is Minsk. While the borders of Belarus were set at the end of World War II, they were shaped mostly when some territory of the Second Polish Republic was reintegrated into them after the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. During World War II, Belarus lost about a third of its population and more than half of its economic resources. The Soviet Union redeveloped the republic in the post-war years. On July 27, 1990, the Parliament of the Belarus declared the republic’s sovereignty, and on August 25, 1991, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus declared itself an independent country. Since 1994, Alexander Lukashenko has served as the President of Belarus. His leadership was widely criticized in the West. Lukashenko perpetuated a number of Soviet-era policies, to include state ownership of large sections of the economy. For years, political opposition was violently suppressed. Elections in Belarus were declared rigged by the international community.  The country’s rating under The Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index was the lowest in Europe until 2014. Freedom House assessed Belarus under Lukashenko as “not free.”  It was labelled “repressed” in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. In the Press Freedom Index for 2016 of Reporters Without Borders, it was ranked 157th out of 180 countries.

Belarus’s Ties to Russia

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly formed Russian Federation tried to control the post-Soviet space by creating the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on December 8, 1991. However, Belarus, much as other republics in the CIS, began drifting away from Russia, which at that time was attempting to cultivate Western relations and save its broken economy. In the early 1990s, Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin was concerned that his country’s involvement with Belarus might put its bridge building efforts with the West at risk. Yet, while Russia was fixed on improving relations, Western capitals discerned Russia’s inability to act effectively. NATO began to expand east. Stung and threatened by what he perceived as an effort by the West to isolate it from the European environment by grabbing up Central and Eastern European countries and former Soviet republics, Yeltsin sought to improve ties with Belarus. Relations between the two countries became so congenial that in the mid-1990s, following Lukashenko’s rise to power, Yeltsin concluded Belarus would be an ideal candidate for integration with Russia. After signing the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation with Belarus, Yeltsin declared that “the two nations [had] shared a common historical experience over many centuries.” That, he explained, “created the basis for signing the treaty and other documents on deeper integration of our two countries. Among all CIS countries, Belarus has the greatest rights to such a relationship due to its geographical location, its contacts with Russia, our friendship and the progress of its reforms.” One year after April 2, 1996 when the integration process was launched, the Union of Belarus and Russia was established. It culminated with the founding of the Union State between Belarus and Russia on December 8, 1999. When Putin took office, he determined that the status of the relations with Belarus was unsatisfactory and criticized the Union State Treaty. He sought to put real content into it. He formulated a policy genuinely directed at realizing unification. His proposal was to complete unification either in a federation model which meant that Belarus would join the Russian Federation, or build a union which is similar to the EU. However, Belarus rejected those approaches and there was no change. Still, Putin did not abandon the idea of unification completely. The next goal became integration. The strategic importance of Belarus to Putin increased as a result of international events, to include. NATO’s activity in the post-Soviet space; the decision of many Eastern European countries to orient westward; a US plan to deploy a missile defense system in Poland or the Czech Republic; and, the “Color Revolutions.”

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Russia’s share of Belarus’s international trade is 48 percent. In 2015, $17.1 billion in Russian exports went to Belarus. More than half of Belarus’s purchases from Russia are in crude oil alone–reportedly $9 billion in 2015. Disagreements over profits and payments from the energy trade led to the Gas Wars of 2004, 2007, and 2010. In the 2010 row, Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev and Russian energy giant Gazprom claimed Belarus owed Russia $200 million in gas arrears for that year. Belarus demanded transit fees owed by Russia. The matter was resolved and went away.

Considering that integration with Belarus would be costly, it is reported that Moscow sought to maximize gains from it. Its goals became to reduce the economic burden which Belarus laid on its economy, and to take over Belarus’s energy transit infrastructure. That tack spurred many of the political and economic rows. Among those conflicts was a disagreement that arose when Lukashenko accused Russia of offering a $500 million loan to Minsk on the condition that it recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Lukashenko angrily retorted that the position of Belarus was not for sale. Regarding the close military cooperation between Belarus and Russia, Lukashenko compared Belarus’s population of 10 million people as a human shield for Russia against the West. That service, he said, “was not free.” The Milk War erupted in July 2009 when Russia banned all dairy imports from Belarus, explaining that they did not comply with new regulations. Belarus accused Russia of using the ban for political reasons, but Russia denied that. In a statement presented by his press service, Lukashenko lashed out, stating: “Economy serves as the basis for our common security. But if Belarus’s closest CSTO ally is trying . . . to destroy this basis and de facto put the Belarusians on their knees, how can one talk about consolidating collective security in the CSTO space?” Lukashenko acted by refusing to attend the 2009 CSTO summit in Moscow. The CSTO, Putin’s counterweight to NATO, groups Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in a security arrangement. Shortly afterward, Russia lifted the ban and Belarus resumed importing of dairy products to Russia. Additionally, there were the Gas Wars of 2004, 2007, and 2010. In the 2010 Gas War, a dispute arose over a claim by Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev and Russian energy giant Gazprom claimed that Belarus owed $200 million in Russia gas arrears for supplies it had used that year. Belarus then demanded transit fees owed by Russia. A resolution was found and the matter quietly went away.

The EEU is an economic integration bloc of post-Soviet republics. It succeeded the erstwhile Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in January 2015. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan joined the EEU later that year. The bloc coordinates policies of its member states in key industries. In that spirit of coordination, the argument between Belarus and Russia over the price of natural gas was resolved, although the two sides have apparently not yet reached a consensus on the scale of the price discount (if any) or the mechanism of its delivery to Belarus. Russia’s share of Belarus’s international trade is 48 percent. In 2015, $17.1 billion in Russian exports went to Belarus. More than half of its purchases from Russia are in crude oil alone–reportedly $9 billion in 2015. Of Belarus’s overall exports, 39 percent is directed to Russia. Those imports from Belarus totaled only $10.4 billion. For the most part it sells Russia value-added goods in return. Aside from trucks and industrial machines, Belarus sells processed foods. A network of Belarusian grocery stores operates in major Russian cities.

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Above is an assembly line at the Minsk Motor Plant. Nearly a third of Belarus’s overall trade is with its second largest trading partner, the EU. Belarusian exports to the EU are dominated by mineral fuels. Chemicals, agricultural products, machinery and textiles form a much lower share. While the EU has withdrawn trade preferences for Belarus, the potential to greatly expand trade exists.

The Strong Military Linkage Between Belarus and Russia

Although there have been some setbacks in the political and economic integration of Belarus and Russia, the military-integration process between them has been successful. Cooperation with Belarus fits snuggly within Putin’s vision for geopolitical order in the post–Cold War world. Putin has never accepted the expansion of the EU and NATO into Central and Eastern Europe. It was practically guaranteed that Putin would push back against what he might call an intrusion into Russia’s near abroad. The near abroad is what Moscow refers to as the territory surrounding Russia’s borders. The term was reportedly popularized by former Russian Federation Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev in the early 1990s. For centuries, Russia has sought to ensure its physical security through its control over neighboring territory. For Putin, the term represents a concept akin to the Monroe Doctrine.

On February 14, 2013 at a conference entitled “Russia’s Military Security in the 21st Century,” the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, provided a glimpse of Russia’s official assessment of future wars it may face as outlined in the top secret Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation. The impact of Putin’s thinking on the Western threat to Russia is apparent. The Russian Federation General Staff believes future conflicts will be “Resource Wars.” Indeed, they conclude the depletion of energy resources will soon become an ultimate world crisis and overtake regions. Severe shortages of oil, gas and other natural resources would cause their prices to steeply rise. Russia’s senior military leaders believe outside powers, primarily the US and its allies, may invade their country from several directions to physically grab territory and its resources. The Kremlin has accepted the threat assessment of the the Russian Federation General Staff. Putin signed the Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation into law on January 29, 2013. The plan guided Russia’s defense spending in 2016 which exceeded 6 percent of Russia’s GDP, along with national security and federal law enforcement budgets totaling an additional 3 percent. The plan guided the Russian military build-up in the Arctic, the Pacific, the Baltic, in Crimea and on the Ukrainian border. The Syria expedition is also part of that picture. To rehearse the defense against the West, Russian Federation Defense Minister, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu, announced massive strategic military exercises Zapad 2017, scheduled to take place in September 2017. He said that the joint exercise, which would include Russian and Belarusian forces, will be the “main military event of 2017.” Further, the two countries armed forces will cooperate in over 130 events and measures. Shoigu explained: “The US and NATO are actively increasing their offensive potential, building new bases and developing military infrastructure, undermining international stability, and attempting to impose their will by economic sanctions and use of military force. A propaganda information war is raging.” Shoigu further stated that Russian borders were being threatened and adequate defensive measures are being taken.

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Belarus (shaded in green), Russia (shaded in violet), and their neighbors. Providing a glimpse of the top secret Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation, on February 14, 2013, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, explained the depletion of oil, gas and other natural resources will become an ultimate world crisis by 2030. Russia’s senior military leaders believe outside powers, primarily the US and its allies, may invade Russia from several directions to grab its land and resources. Lukashenko insists that Belarus will remain part of Russia’s defense.

Ubi concordia, ibi victoria! (Where there is unity, there is victory.) To a great degree, Russian and Belarusian regional security approaches have been harmonized. Lukashenko has pledged that Belarus will be an integral part of the Russian Federation’s defense. Indeed, he has gone as far as to say that the army of Belarus, the modernization of which was nearly completed, was ready to defend Russia’s western border. According to RIA Novosti, Lukashenko declared: “We, together with the Russian people, the Russians, will defend our common homeland in the highly important for Russian western direction. We will be dying in this direction to defend Belarus and Russia.” Lukashenko has referred to the Belarus population as 10 million human shields in the defense of Russia. Lukashenko further stated that the Belarusian Army will be able to show resistance to any aggressor.  Prior to those statements, Lukashenko told the Belarus Parliament that he would not allow the country’s opposition to depict Russia in the image of an enemy. Lukashenko declared to the Belarus Parliament: “The Russians are our brothers, with whom we have been living for a very long time.”

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Putin (right) and Russian Federation Defense Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu (left). Putin signed the Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation into law on January 29, 2013. The plan guided Russia’s defense spending in 2016 which exceeded 6 percent of Russia’s GDP, along with national security and federal law enforcement budgets totaling an additional 3 percent. The plan guided the Russian military build-up in the Arctic, the Pacific, the Baltic, in Crimea and on the Ukrainian border. The Syria expedition is also part of that picture. Shoigu announced that massive military exercises would be held by Russia and Belarus in 2017 to rehearse their joint defense against the West.

A New Military Doctrine for Belarus

Following deliberations in the Belarusian Parliament, Lukashenko signed a new edition of the country’s military doctrine into law. While the doctrine, updated for the first time since 2002, does not directly identify the countries which serve as a threat to Belarus, it is hinted in no uncertain terms that NATO is its most likely adversary. Indeed, according to Paragraph 11.3 of the doctrine, direct military threats to Belarus include “the expansion (or creation) of military-political alliances in the European region in which the Republic of Belarus is not included,” and attempts by such alliances to carry out “global functions.” Meanwhile, Paragraph 11.4 alludes to the threat posed by “the strengthening of the offensive capabilities of states (or coalitions of states), including the unilateral establishment of strategic missile defense systems, precision-guided weaponry equipped with non-nuclear warheads for attacks against the military forces and infrastructure of the Republic of Belarus,” and other measures “leading to a disruption of the existing balance of forces, as well as the building up of military infrastructure by states bordering Belarus.” There is an emphasis on the dangers of “missile defense” and cruise missiles disrupting the existing balance of forces in the region. (The new doctrine surely refers to NATO and the ongoing buildup of its’ forces in Eastern Europe, including US missile defense system deployed in Romania and Poland.) In addition to direct military threats, the new Belarusian military doctrine discusses military-political, military-strategic and military-economic threats to the country. When presenting an earlier draft of the doctrine for parliamentary deliberation, Belarusian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov explained that “a particular emphasis was placed on the negative trends associated with the development of the concept of ‘Color Revolutions,’ and mechanisms aimed at changing the constitutional order and violating state’s territorial integrity by provoking internal armed conflicts.” Those mechanisms would include the use of private military forces, and “hybrid warfare.”

Months before the new doctrine’s promulgation, Lukashenko, while discussing priorities for the armed forces on October 31, 2015, directed his government to focus on developing special operation forces, rapid response forces, intelligence and control systems. Those military elements are best equipped to defeat intelligence-gathering efforts of adversaries and fight diversionary groups and illegal armed formations both in urban areas as well as the countryside. Minsk harbors suspicions that an effort might be afoot to topple Lukashenko. It views Ukraine, not Russia, as a possible hybrid warfare threat.

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Belarusian troops (above). Following deliberations in Parliament, Lukashenko signed Belarus’s new military doctrine into law. The doctrine, updated for the first time since 2002, does not directly identify the countries which serve as a threat to Belarus, but it is apparent that NATO is deemed the greatest military threat. Accordingly, Lukashenko declared: “We, together with the Russian people, the Russians, will defend our common homeland in the highly important for Russia western direction. We will be dying in this direction to defend Belarus and Russia.”

A New Military Doctrine for Belarus

Following deliberations in the Belarusian Parliament, Lukashenko signed a new edition of the country’s military doctrine. While the doctrine, updated for the first time since 2002, does not directly identify the countries which serve as a threat to Belarus, it is hinted in no uncertain terms that NATO is its most likely adversary. Indeed, according to Paragraph 11.3 of the doctrine, direct military threats to Belarus include “the expansion (or creation) of military-political alliances in the European region in which the Republic of Belarus is not included,” and attempts by such alliances to carry out “global functions.” Meanwhile, Paragraph 11.4 alludes to the threat posed by “the strengthening of the offensive capabilities of states (or coalitions of states), including the unilateral establishment of strategic missile defense systems, precision-guided weaponry equipped with non-nuclear warheads for attacks against the military forces and infrastructure of the Republic of Belarus,” and other measures “leading to a disruption of the existing balance of forces, as well as the building up of military infrastructure by states bordering Belarus.” There is an emphasis on the dangers of “missile defense” and cruise missiles disrupting the existing balance of forces in the region. (The new doctrine surely refers to NATO and the ongoing buildup of its’ forces in Eastern Europe, including US missile defense system deployed in Romania and Poland.) In addition to direct military threats, the new Belarusian military doctrine discusses military-political, military-strategic and military-economic threats to the country. When presenting an earlier draft of the doctrine for parliamentary deliberation, Belarusian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov explained that “a particular emphasis was placed on the negative trends associated with the development of the concept of ‘Color Revolutions,’ and mechanisms aimed at changing the constitutional order and violating state’s territorial integrity by provoking internal armed conflicts.” Those mechanisms would include the use of private military forces, and “hybrid warfare.”

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Belarusian special forces in training (above). In the new Belarusian military doctrine, emphasis is placed on trends associated with the development of the concept of “Color Revolutions,” and methods aimed at provoking internal conflicts to destabilize the country and violate its territorial integrity. A year ahead of the doctrine’s promulgation, Lukashenko directed his government to further develop special operation forces, rapid response forces, intelligence and control systems: elements best equipped to defeat intelligence-gathering and fight diversionary groups and illegal armed formations.

Months before the new doctrine’s promulgation, Lukashenko, while discussing priorities for the armed forces on October 31, 2015, directed his government to focus on developing special operation forces, rapid response forces, intelligence and control systems. Those military elements are best equipped to defeat intelligence-gathering efforts of adversaries and fight diversionary groups and illegal armed formations both in urban areas as well as the countryside. Minsk harbors suspicions that an effort might be afoot to topple Lukashenko. Officials there view Ukraine, not Russia, as a possible hybrid warfare threat.

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The EU welcomed Lukashenko’s desire to have Belarus play a constructive role in the region by hosting four-party peace negotiations on Ukraine, as well as his decision to maintain political distance from Russia over Georgia, Ukraine and Turkey. The EU called for further human-rights advances by Lukashenko. EU ministers have encouraged Belarus to develop a “vibrant civil society” with more freedom for the media. They have held out the prospect of more trade, economic aid and fast-tracked visas for Belarusians traveling to the EU. Still, many wonder if Lukashenko’s efforts are authentic.

Minsk and Brussels: A Rapprochement?

Some experts have said that it was Lukashenko who began making overtures to the West following Russia’s seizure of Crimea, considerable economic troubles in Belarus, and a degree of instability in Eastern Europe. He managed to grab the attention oF EU leaders in a positive way when he decided to free a number of political prisoners and host multiparty mediations in Minsk for the cease-fire in neighboring Ukraine. EU governments, claiming that they based their decision on content and merit of Lukashenko’s efforts, suspended sanctions on Belarus’s leaders in October 2014. In February 2015, EU foreign ministers terminated sanctions, removing asset freezes and travel bans on 170 officials, including Lukashenko. Three Belarusian companies were also taken off the EU blacklist. The EU maintains an arms embargo and sanctions against four people suspected of being involved in the disappearance of dissidents in the 1990s. Lukashenko responded by intensifying fence mending efforts with the West. As of late, Belarusian diplomats have been pouring considerable energy in enhancing their country’s relations with the West, hoping to capitalize on Belarus’ newfound importance for regional stability. Their approach is bicameral. On the one hand, they seek to develop bilateral cooperation with specific EU countries. On the other hand, they want to develop cooperation with the EU as an institution focusing on the Eastern partnership, a dialogue on modernization, and visa issues. Lukashenko’s current perspective of the EU appears to be reflected in his statements in favor of dialogue with it.  On March 5, 2016, Lukashenko explained: “The Europeans . . . are ready to cooperate with us, including for the sake of security in Europe. We say to them that we’re always open to [talking].” EU and US delegations continue to visit Minsk, but results have been thin. The US has expressed hope not only for improved cooperation on trade, but also on non-proliferation and combating human trafficking.

Praetio prudentia praestat. (Prudence supplies a reward.) Commenting on Belarus, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, remarked, “This is clearly not a rosy or perfect picture . . . but when we see significant, even if limited steps, in what we feel is the right direction, we feel it is right to encourage them.” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke of the “beginnings” of a thaw with Belarus, and concluded, “It’s worth testing in such a situation how much willingness and reciprocity there is on the Belarus side.” Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told reporters, “This is an experiment.” He went on to state: “As a neighbor of Belarus, we are pleased as we hope this will improve relations with the EU and of course with Poland.” While the EU leaders allege they had no intention of prying Belarus from Putin’s hand, that nonetheless was viewed as possible. The EU called for further human-rights advances by Lukashenko. Indeed, in a statement, the EU ministers encouraged Belarus to develop a “vibrant civil society” with more freedom for the media. They held out the prospect of more trade, economic aid and fast-tracked visas for Belarusians traveling to the EU. Lukashenko will take what is offered, but what he really wants from EU countries is financial assistance. Belarus’s international reserves are at the lowest since 2011. Although there has been some direct private investment from the US in Belarus, its development has been relatively slow given the uncertain pace of reform. The US has encouraged Belarus to conclude and adhere to agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the program of macroeconomic stabilization and related reform measures. As of this writing, the International Monetary Fund is still deciding whether it should provide Belarus with a $3 billion, 10-year loan.

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Above are Russian “green men” in Ukraine. In the West, every new statement, every move by Minsk concerning its armed forces, has taken on additional significance in the context of Belarus-Russia relations.  Western analysts still insist that Belarus faces the threat of hybrid warfare from Russia. They conclude that Moscow will monitor Belarus’s improving relations with the West, looking for any signs of a serious loosening of ties with Russia.

Are Problems Between Belarus and Russia Becoming Inexorable?

Ad connectendas amicitas, tenacissimum vinculum est morum similitudo. (For cementing friendship, resemblance of manners is the strongest tie.) At the Third Forum of Russian and Belarusian Regions on June 9, 2016, Putin explained: “In a collaborative effort, Russia and Belarus work to deepen integration processes in Eurasia. As members of the Union State, we are carrying out about 40 programs and are jointly developing advanced technology programmes, primarily, for the aerospace industry, satellite navigation, geological exploration, and agriculture.” Putin further stated: “We are forming the Eurasian Economic Union’s common market for goods, services, capital, and labour, thereby facilitating sustainable economic growth of the member countries and enhancing the competitiveness of our producers on domestic and foreign markets.”  

Some interesting statements have been made by Belarusian officials concerning their country’s security relationship with Russia. There is the example of Belarusian Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov, who, speaking on February 23, 2016, stated that security of the country relied also on military cooperation not only with Russia and members of the CSTO. He also underlined Minsk’s “strategic” military cooperation with China and “aspiration to develop a constructive dialogue with NATO in order to strengthen international and regional security.” An interview of Belarus’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei with the Polish daily, Rzeczpospolita, on October 17, 2016, has been called significant because it was titled “We Are Not Dependents of Russia.” In the West, every new statement, every move by Minsk concerning its armed forces has taken on additional significance in the context of Belarus-Russia relations. When Shoigu announced that a “joint military organization of the Union State” would be created starting in 2016, including notional unification of the two countries’ armed forces, it appeared Belarus-Russia military ties were further strengthening. Yet, in the West, it was viewed by some analysts as a unilateral statement by Russia, and an effort to save face and show the world that the relationship was still intact. Western analysts note that there was no comment from Belarus on the joint military organization of the Union State. There is a perception in the West that Russia routinely announces joint initiatives with Belarus which have not been endorsed by Minsk. When an announcement of a joint air defence system was made in Russia, Belarus did not comment on it, at least publicly. Reportedly, that same week, Belarus TV broadcasted an extended feature on the country’s Air Defense Troops without once mentioning the new military agreement with Russia. Although the general in charge of the Belarusian Air Force has been nominated as the commander for the “joint system,” Western analysts saw the move simply as a face-saver for Minsk. The lack of reaction by Belarus was said to signal Minsk’s disapproval of the effort by Moscow to control the provision of its security. When Belarus needed to purchase modern fighter aircraft to upgrade its ageing air force, Moscow announced instead that Belarus would be hosting a Russian airbase. Western analysts insist that Moscow pressured Lukashenko for the airbase. However, he insisted upon and arranged the aircraft purchase.

Alter ipso amicus. (A friend is another self.) Some Western analysts have concluded that Russia will observe Belarus’s improving relations with the West, looking for any serious threat to its ties. Yet, that idea conflicts with the reality that Putin considers Belarus to be an integral part of Russia’s geopolitical and cultural space. Moscow has invested heavily in preserving and increasing its influence in the country. Lukashenko has no plans to have Belarus abandon Russia. If some drop in the strength of Belarus’s ties to Russia has occurred, it is negligible.From 2008 to 2010, Putin neither acted violently nor took a hostile tone toward what he perhaps regarded as a recalcitrant, yet typical Lukashenko, with his dalliance toward the West and he has no intentions of reacting aggressively toward Belarus now. Putin knows Lukashenko could never stand by wistfully in the face of Russian decisions impacting Belarus. Putin would never allow Russia to be directed by a foreign capital either. Clashing with Lukashenko is the last thing Putin would want. This may especially be true because Belarus might be able to provide Putin with the possibility to overcome EU sanctions related to Ukraine.

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Moldova, just as Belarus, is not subject to EU sanctions. Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin has proposed that Moldova allow Russia to move its goods into a “European zone” in the pro-Russia autonomous regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia as a way for Russia to circumvent EU imposed sanctions. As long as Belarus is not subject to sanctions and the EU is open to trade with it, hypothetically, Russia could move its goods into Belarusian territory, and then have the its goods sold to the West as Belarusian goods, thereby escaping restrictions.

Putin’s Possible Move Regarding Belarus?

US and EU sanctions against Russia over Crimea’s annexation will not go away unless Russia returns the region to Ukraine. Russian Federation Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev remarked at a press conference on November 11, 2016, “Our position is that sanctions will remain unchanged.” Just as the Baltic States were never recognized as part of the Soviet Union by the West. Crimea will always be recognized as part of Ukraine, not Russia. As it was explained in the September 30, 2016 greatcharlie.com post entitled “Putin’s Next Target May Be Moldova, But His Goal Is to Increase Trade, Not Conquer via Military Action,” Russia is well-aware that cooperation stimulates economic growth and higher standards of living on both sides of a border by improving conditions for free trade and exchange. Inter-border cooperation is understood to be a prerequisite of broader integration processes and improving relations between neighboring countries. It can serve as a mechanism for coping with the challenges and jolts resulting from the new divisions created between EU and EEU countries.

As long as Belarus is not subject to sanctions and the EU is open to trade with it, hypothetically, Russia could move its goods into Belarusian territory, and then have its goods sold in the West as Belarusian goods, thereby escaping restrictions. Much as with oil and gas pipelines, Belarus would essentially serve as a relay or refining point for Russian goods targeted for Western markets. For that to even become a possibility, it would certainly be in Russia’s interest to see Belarus improve its relations with the EU, particularly with regard to trade and investment. Belarus could be handsomely remunerated with percentages of profits made or perhaps with greater subsidies on imports of Russian resources. There are certainly limits to the level of Russian products Belarus could absorb for sale to the West. Resale of Russian goods at value added prices would murder the project. Russia certainly could not attempt to move goods into EU countries via Belarus at a level equal to anything it might achieve by trading with them directly. Moscow and Minsk would surely set parameters for the bilateral deal. However, the smallest level would surely be far more than Russia could sell as long as sanctions are in place. Trading an EEU partner’s goods externally in this manner may very well be covered in the economic bloc’s trade provisions. Beyond profit, benefits of this trade arrangement would include: the preservation of Belarus’ brotherly relationship with Russia; Lukashenko’s would have no need to be concerned that the sovereignty of Belarus and its interests were not being respected; and, collective arrangements with Russia such as EEU and CSTO will remain intact. Indeed, Belarus would remain in Russia’s sphere of interest. Note that Belarus is among the few states in Europe that has not asked for membership in the EU. While Belarus has strove for better contacts with EU lately, it has simultaneously sought to further its economic and political ties with Russia.

In many ways, this hypothetical trade arrangement between Belarus and Russia would resemble the creative arrangement Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin proposed for trade with Moldova. Moldova is not subject to EU sanctions. Thus, theoretically, Russia could move its goods into a proposed European zone in Moldova via the pro-Russia autonomous regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia and avoid restrictions. A trade arrangement of this type between Belarus and Russia would also resemble the Outward Processing Trade regime that the EU introduced for Belarus. That regime raised import quota amounts for textiles and clothing manufacturers within the EU thus allowing them to produce garments in Belarus that will return to the EU after processing. Additionally, the arrangement would resemble the somewhat awkward way in which some Belarusian firms have been relabelling food from EU countries and selling them in Russia thereby avoiding Russian sanctions. Probae est in segetem sunt deteriorem datae fruges, tamen ipsae suaptae enitent. (A good seed, planted even in poor soil, will bear rich fruit by its own nature.)

What Might Encourage Putin and Lukashenko to Take This Course?

What might encourage Lukashenko and Putin to seek this arrangement is the fact that after Russia, the main trading partner of Belarus is the EU. Nearly, a third of the country’s overall trade is with the EU. That trade could most likely be expanded with a nuanced cultivation. Belarusian exports to the EU are dominated by mineral fuels. Chemicals, agricultural products, machinery and textiles form a much lower share. While the EU withdrew its trade preferences to Belarus under the Generalized Scheme of Preferences in 2007 in response to Belarus’ violations of the core principles of the International Labour Organization, exports from Belarus to the EU did not cease. The decision only required Belarus to pay import tariffs at the standard non-preferential rate. Trade was also promoted through the Outward Processing Trade regime,which was mentioned earlier.

Lukashenko stands on terrain high enough to survey the liabilities involved in moving closer to the West. Voices in the West have indicated that not all are impressed with Lukashenko’s positive words and a perceived unwarranted rapprochement to Belarus. Even when EU ministers decided to lift most sanctions against Belarus in 2015, they said concern remained “with the situation of human rights in Belarus.” Ministers called on Minsk to abolish the death penalty and implement Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) recommendations on democracy before the 2015 Belarusian Parliamentary Elections. An OSCE report said October’s election showed Belarus had a “considerable way go to” on democratic standards, noting the absence of safeguards against multiple voting, limited choice available to voters and the uneven playing field between Lukashenko and his political opponents. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus, Mikloś Haraszti, stated after the 2015 Belarusian Presidential Election that he had seen no changes in “the dismal human rights situation.” Drawing the EU closer to improve the position of Belarus and in turn improve the trade situation for Russia, would require Minsk to engage in very nuanced interactions with Brussels and EU capitals. Lukashenko and Putin would also need to be concerned that in working to soothe EU concerns over human rights and good governance, they might inadvertently trigger EU leaders to request that Lukashenko step down from power to ensure Belarus would be governed by an authentic pro-EU, pro-democracy leadership. That request could soon become an insistent voice for regime change.

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Drawing the EU closer to improve the position of Belarus and in turn improve the trade situation for Russia, would require Minsk to engage in very nuanced interactions with Brussels and EU capitals. However, Lukashenko and Putin would also need to be concerned that in working to soothe EU concerns over human rights and good governance, they might trigger EU leaders to request that Lukashenko step down from power to ensure Belarus would be governed by an authentic pro-EU, pro-democracy leadership. That request could soon become an insistent voice for regime change.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s comedy, All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena, a physician’s daughter, chooses to marry Bertram, a man of high social position in the French court, but he rejects her love. In response, Helena engages in a plot to wed Bertram by employing what has come to be known as the “Bed Trick.” As she begins to execute her plan in Act 3, Scene 7, Helena states: “Why, then tonight, Let us assay our plot: which, if it speed, Is wicked meaning in lawful act; Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact: But let’s about it.” A trade arrangement between Belarus and Russia as outlined here will likely cause discomfort for those who reasonably demand compliance with imposed sanctions. There is nothing inherently wrong with finding and exploiting a loophole in a regulation, business contract, or sanctions. One must have the will to seize the opportunity.

As the leader of a world power, Putin fully understands that his policies should make the Russian people hopeful for the future, not anxious or intimidated. Negative outlooks only advertise the limits one has. Reacting negatively to growing Euro-Belarus ties would not be useful. Inter-border cooperation has greatly assisted in harmonizing domestic policy priorities and international and regional security issues between Belarus and Russia. Inter-border cooperation between Belarus and Russia, albeit from different perspectives, is a prerequisite for improving the relations of both countries with the EU. (The EU is drawing closer to Belarus due to the nature of its ties to Russia. Russia may move closer to Belarus to exploit its improved ties to the EU.) Belarus is already a priority for Russia’s diplomatic, military, political, and economic resources. If Putin senses that he can, with Lukashenko’s cooperation, exploit the rapprochement between the EU and Belarus to circumvent imposed sanctions, that tack could eventually be accepted by Moscow as a mechanism for coping with problems stemming from the divisions between EU and EEU countries. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moldova: In Brief

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

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

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

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

Moldova’soon Independent Republis: Transnistria and Gagauzia

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

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

Moldova’s Neighbors: Romania, Ukraine, and Russia

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hybrid Warfare “Threat” to Moldova

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

A de-legitimization media campaign:

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

The political subversion stage:

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

The final stage:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moldova: A False Positive for Hybrid Warfare Today

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Igniting Putin: A New Russian Threat Excites Europe

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

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

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

How Relations with Putin Went Wrong Way

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

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

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

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

Putin’s Pushes Westward

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Kremlin: Putin’s Advisers Speak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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