Trump Says Putin Means It About Not Meddling: He Also Wants to Make Sure It Does Not Happen Again!

US President Donald Trump (above). After speaking in camera with Putin on the sideline of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Danang, Vietnam, Trump said that he had again asked Putin whether Russia meddled in the 2016 US Presidential Election, but his continued focus on the issue was insulting him. Although Trump faces attacks from critics due to perceived inaction, he has acted in a well-paced manner, taking calibrated steps to assure the defeat of any future election meddling, and make something positive out of a negative situation.

According to a November 11, 2017 New York Times article entitled “Trump Says Putin ‘Means It’ About Not Meddling”, US President Donald Trump expressed the view on Saturday, November 11th that he believed Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin was sincere in his denials of meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election. (A version of this article appears in print on November 12, 2017, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Putin’s Denials Of Interference Satisfy Trump.) The November 11th New York Times article suggested Trump felt Putin was sincere in his denials of Russia played any role in the US elections, and he called questions about Moscow’s meddling a politically motivated “hit job” that was hindering cooperation with Russia on life-or-death issues. After speaking in camera with Putin on the sideline of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Danang, Vietnam, Trump said that he had again asked whether Russia had meddled in the contest, but that the continued focus on the issue was insulting to Putin. Trump proffered that it was time to move past the issue so that the US and Russia could cooperate on confronting the nuclear threat from North Korea, resolving the Syrian civil war and working together on Ukraine. Trump told reporters traveling with him aboard Air Force One as he flew to Hanoi for more meetings that he asked Putin again about meddling in the US elections. According to Trump, “He said he didn’t meddle.” He went on to state: “You can only ask so many times. I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did.”

The New York Times reported that Trump did not answer a direct question about whether he believed Putin’s denials in Danang. In response, the New York Times offered the surmisal that Trump indicated he was far more inclined to accept the Putin’s assertions than those of his own intelligence agencies which have concluded the Russian president directed an elaborate effort to interfere in the vote. The article pointed out that the FBI, CIA, the National Security Agency, and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence all determined that Russia meddled in the election. The next day, however, the New York Times explained Trump seemed to walk his comments back a bit, saying that he did not dispute the assessment of the nation’s key intelligence agencies that Russia had intervened in the 2016 presidential election.Trump said at a news conference in Hanoi alongside Vietnam’s president, Tran Dai Quang: “As to whether I believe it or not, I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted with their leadership.”  He further stated: “I believe in our agencies. I’ve worked with them very strongly.”

Damnant quod non intellegent. (They condemn what they do not understand.) For critics to insist that Trump is malingering on the issue of Russia’s election meddling because he is not doing what they want him to do, is truly unfair. Trump is doing his job, and it would appear, certainly on foreign policy, that he is doing his job well, with a positive energy, and desire serve the US public. Critics who to demand for Trump to continually reproach and punish Putin over Russia’s election meddling have the luxury to do that away from the fray. They do not have the responsibilities of the president. Further, critics condemn him for having a somewhat nationalistic in tone. Yet, they turn away from the reality that if anyone would feel rage over the idea of another country interfering with the US election process, it would be him. As a responsibility of being US President, Trump must suppress those emotions and consider the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 election in a way that it best serves US foreign policy. Despite any strong feelings, he must not engage in a vendetta to right a wrong, now past. Critics must accept that Trump does not intend to go to war with Russia over its election meddling. Moreover, he does not intend to pummel Russia with unending waves of sanctions, vengeful behavior which would best match the incessant cries of “foul” and figurative grunts and groans from critics due to the hurt the election meddling caused them. There is a foolhardiness to pursuing something that will lead to nothing. Trump would prefer to deal with the root causes of anger in Putin’s mind, in the minds of other senior Russian officials, that lead to a decision to undertake the risky operation in the first place. Trump understands that the true cure for the meddling problem and others is to develop a good relationship between Putin and himself and greatly improving relations between the US and Russia as a whole. Trump wants to work alongside certain countries, including Russia, to resolve urgent security issues such as North Korea, Syria, and Ukraine. On his recent foreign trip, Trump has kindled or strengthened his relationships with the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines and secured deals with their countries to improve trade the conditions of trade with them. When one develops a viewpoint, there is nothing unusual about the individual expatiating on it. Yet, somehow in their world, removed from making actual decisions and taking action, some critics have gone a bit too far. They insist that Trump acted in collusion with Russia achieve a victory he would want to win on his own and could win on his own. The suggestion that there is an authentic, direct link between Trump and Russia concerning the 2016 US Presidential Election will likely prove to have been sheer caprice. It would be appropriate to take a look at what Trump has been doing on the election meddling issue.  Moreover, it also would be fitting to examine possible underlying reasons why critics, in the face of Trump’s rather efficacious efforts, questioning his performance and have been so certain and have behaved so harshly toward him over allegations of actions by him that remain unproven. Id bonum cura quod vetustate fit melius. (Take care of the good since it improves with age.)

Trump (left) and US National Security Adviser US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster (right). Critics demand for Trump to continually reproach Putin over Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. If anyone would feel rage over the idea of another country interfering with the US election process, it would be Trump. Yet, as a responsibility of being US President, Trump must suppress those emotions and consider Russia’s election meddling in a way that best serves US foreign policy.

Trump’s Quiet Approach to Defeating Election Meddling by Russia

As a reminder of what the issue of Russia’s election meddling is all about, from June 2015 to November 2016, Russian hackers penetrated Democratic Party computers in the US, and gained access to the personal emails of Democratic officials, which in turn were distributed to the global media by WikiLeaks. Both the CIA and the FBI report the intrusions were intended to undermine the US election. Cyber gives Russia a usable strategic capability. If benefits from its use appear great enough, Moscow may want to risk additional attacks. Indeed, the US Intelligence Community concluded that Moscow will apply lessons learned from its “Putin-ordered campaign” directed at the 2016 US Presidential Election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes. The report of the January 16, 2017 US Office of the Director of National Intelligence entitled, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Election” presents the best publicized assessment by the US Intelligence Community of the Russian cyber attack during the 2016 US Presidential Election. It stated: “Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.” Russia, like its Soviet predecessor, has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on US presidential elections that have used intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin.

The English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead stated: “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order.” Trump is doing just that. Although Trump faces attacks from critics due to perceived inaction, he has acted in a well-paced manner, taking calibrated steps, to eliminate the possibility of any future Russian election meddling, and to make something positive out of an extraordinarily negative situation. Trump is aware that there are many lines of approach Russia can take to reach the US public. By examining recent actions by Trump, one can infer what he and his national security team have most likely deemed as “decisive points” to focus on in order to be most effective in impacting Russian behavior and reduce the possibility of future meddling. The following six points are very likely part of a suite of preventative measures employed by the administration.

1. Trump Tries to Sit on Russian Cyber Activities Against the US

Adversus incendiary excubias, nocturnos vigilesque commentus est. (Against the dangers of fires, he conceived of the idea of nightguards and watchmen.) On July 9, 2017, when Trump broached the issue of the Russia’s hacking of the 2016 Presidential Election, Putin apparently became a bit scratchy. Putin’s denial of the facts presented most likely signalled to Trump that he would be engaged in a argument without end on the hacking. Trump had to either move away from the issue or move laterally on it in some way.  Surely, Trump did not want to abandon the matter. As an immediate response to Putin’s denials on the matter, Trump then proposed forming a cyber security unit. According to Reuters on July 9, 2017, Trump wrote in the actual tweet about the cyber security unit: “Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe.”

The proposal for a joint cyber security unit did not simply materialize from thin air. On the one hand, it likely stemmed from Trump’s experience as a negotiator, his gaining of the conversation with his national security team, and his consideration of all the “what ifs” possible. It was also developed more during an intense discussion between Trump and Putin on how to remit Russian cyber warfare programs directed at the US and perhaps similar US programs aimed at Russia. It may have been the product of brainstorming by the two leaders. Trump’s proposal was never supposed to serve as a form retribution against Russia for its intrusions into the US democratic process. Surely, it was not created to be a final solution to the threat of hacking US election. Immediately after the bilateral meeting in Germany, it was revealed that forming such a joint cyber security unit with Russia was prohibited under US law. Yet, although creating an actual cyber security unit was out of bounds, the concept of bringing US and Russian cyber experts together in some way to talk about some cyber matters was not. Trump’s likely aim with the proposal was to create a situation in which US and Russian officials were talking about hacking. Ostensibly, those conversations would create goodwill, perhaps stimulate a more open discussion about the issue, and promote honest talks about the issue among senior officials. In that way, the proposal would have served as a confidence building measure.

Trump (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) in Hamburg. Trump does not intend to pummel Russia with unending waves of sanctions, vengeful behavior which would best match the incessant cries of “foul” and figurative grunts and groans from critics due to the hurt the election meddling caused them. There is a foolhardiness to pursuing something that will lead to nothing. Trump would prefer to deal with the root causes of anger in Putin’s mind that lead to a decision to undertake the operation in the first place.

2. Enhancing the US Surveillance Capability

US has the ability to monitor activities of Russian Federation intelligence organizations operating on the ground in the US, to include: Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR; the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU; and, the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB. Undoubtedly, Putin also well aware of this now. This capability was made public by the administration of US President Barack Obama in a June 23, 2017 Washington Post article that included a leaked account of that administration’s reaction to reports about ongoing Russian efforts to meddle in the 2016 US Presidential Election. That article indicated that Obama was in a dark mood over the intelligence findings about Russian activities. The approaching transfer of power gave urgency to his National Security Council’s deliberations on how to retaliate against Russia. By mid-December 2016, Obama’s National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, was quoted as saying to senior national security officials: “We’re not talking anymore. We’re acting.” A senior national security official at the time told the Washington Post that Rice challenged them go to the “max of their comfort zones.” Economic sanctions, originally aimed only at the GRU were expanded to include the FSB. Four Russian intelligence officials and three companies with links to those services were also named as targets.

The Washington Post article, as an overt source to intelligences service worldwide, informed that the FBI had long lobbied to close two Russian compounds in the US–one in Maryland and another in New York–on the grounds that both were used for espionage and placed an enormous surveillance burden on the Bureau. The FBI was also responsible for generating a list of Russian operatives, that it had concluded, were working under diplomatic cover to expel, drawn from a roster the Bureau maintains of suspected Russian intelligence agents in the US. In the end, Rice submitted a plan to Obama calling for the seizure of both Russian facilities and the expulsion of 35 suspected spies. Obama signed off on the package and announced the punitive measures on December 29, 2016 while on vacation in Hawaii. Trump has undoubtedly increased FBI electronic and other technical monitoring and surveillance of Russian intelligence activities, and can increase it further. Interviews will invariably be conducted with senior leaders among Russian intelligence officers with official diplomatic cover. To the extent that it does not interfere with counterespionage operations, the FBI will conduct interviews with suspected Russian intelligence operatives working in the US with non-official cover.

3. Trump Seeks to Find Chemistry with Putin to Enhance Communication

Ad connectendas amicitias, tenacissimum vinculum, est morum smilitudo. (For cementing friendship, resemblance of manners is the strongest tie.) One must try to live a life based on a strong moral foundation. In foreign policy and diplomacy there must be some confidence in, some foundation of trust, among opposing parties that they are both trying to do the right thing. Diplomacy will not succeed, and relations will not flourish, if that is not the case. After his bilateral meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany during the G-20 Economic Summit, Trump emphasized that he raised allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election with Putin. Reuters reported on July 9, 2017 that Trump stated: “I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election. He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion…..” When Putin denied meddling, a US official at the time said that Trump expressed the view that both countries must agree to disagree on the issue and move on to other topics where they could work together. As mentioned earlier, after Trump spoke privately with Putin on the sideline of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Danang, Vietnam, Trump revealed he again asked Putin whether Russia had meddled in the contest, and that he gotten the impression that the continued focus on the issue was insulting to Putin. When Trump would ask Putin about Russia’s election meddling, he would likely speak to Putin with un voce de fil, a reserved voice, but with a power behind it that allows it be discerned in the balcony. Trump raised contentious issues with Putin, not to confront but show Putin that there was a need for the two to confide in one another about urgent and important issues if relations between the two countries were to transform. In terms of positive actions, this was a maximum effort.

Russian officials will normally vehemently deny launching cyber attacks. Russian officials almost never open up their covert intelligence operations. Putin has never publicly discussed them. Trump was undoubtedly advised of this fact by his national security team. Perhaps the best way to explain it all is to say that Putin’s denials are routine. Yet, among Trump’s critics, revelations about his response on Russian intelligence activities seems to overwhelm those who learn about it all. When Trump received Putin’s response, he was left with choices. Indeed, both he and Putin were aware of that. He could accept Putin’s denial, or create a hostile exchange by demanding he “tell the truth” as it is known in the US. Surely, there would be no positive or professional end to recreating the communication failures, diplomatic missteps, and delinquencies of the previous administration. Trump would most likely have stoked the same fires that led to a specious struggle of words between Obama and Putin and also ignited a miscalculated decision in Moscow to interfere with 2016 US Presidential Election which the US Intelligence Community assures took place. Actually, engaging in such actions would defy Trump’s own efforts to pull relations in a new direction and the action would best get described as counterintuitive. Trump has no intention of doing so. As the November 11, 2017 New York Times Trump said it was time to move past the issue so that the US and Russia could cooperate on confronting the nuclear threat from North Korea, solving the Syrian civil war and working together on Ukraine.

On June 10, 2015, Putin was asked by the editor-in-chief of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, “Is there any action that you most regret in your life, something that you consider a mistake and wouldn’t want to repeat ever again.” Putin stated, “I’ll be totally frank with you. I cannot recollect anything of the kind. It appears that the Lord built my life in a way that I have nothing to regret.” While he may not have regrets, Putin may at least be rethinking, reevaluating the operation that stirred so much trouble for the Obama administration and could have potentially destroyed his relations with the new Trump administration before it even started. Trump wants Putin to give that consider. Further, Trump is offering Putin the opportunity to have a unique, intimate relationship with Trump. With Trump, good things are possible if that is what Putin truly wants. Things done together will lead to goodness for both. Opposition, and to an extent, competition, must be replaced by unity. In amicitia nihil fictum est, nihil simulatum, et quidquid est verum et voluntarium. (In friendship there is nothing fictitious, nothing is simulated, and it is in fact true and voluntary.)

Putin (left) with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right). Russian officials will normally vehemently deny launching cyber attacks. Russian officials almost never open up their covert intelligence operations. Putin has never publicly discussed them. Trump was undoubtedly advised of this fact by his national security team. Perhaps the best way to explain it all is to say that Putin’s denials are routine.

4. Trump Seeks to Obviate Russia’s Penchant for Being Manipulate

The Obama administration never put together the right recipe for working well with Putin. To an extent, it was simply bad chemistry between the two leaders. Trump feels he can find the solution. True, the meeting between Trump and Putin will unlikely be a catalytic moment when opponents of Trump, political or otherwise, will see the method in his madness and appreciate his accomplishment. Moreover, when Russia behaves in ways that tear others from peace, it must still face consequences. However, Trump’s efforts evince his desire not to isolate Russia, or allow engagement with it to fall off. He does not want to settle on a long-term stand-off in which peace, particularly in Europe, is placed at risk. Much as a warrior with power and know-how, and interact with Putin eye-to-eye, head-to-head, brain-to-brain. Through both strength and understanding, Trump believes the US and Russia can be good neighbors on the same planet. Yet, in what seemed to an effort to instigate further troubles for Trump, senior Russian officials provided an alternative account of his meeting with Putin in Danang, Vietnam. Almost mockingly, they asserted that Trump had accepted Putin’s denial of election interference and even said that some in the US were “exaggerating” Moscow’s role without proof. Their efforts at burlesque were in considerable variance with Putin’s response to efforts to connect Russia with the 2016 US election. Putin, sought to avoid the issue altogether, dismissing revelations that Russians had contacts with Trump’s campaign team. After the summit meeting, the Russian news media quoted Putin as saying: “I think that everything connected with the so-called Russian dossier in the United States is a manifestation of a continuing domestic political struggle.”  Putin told reporters in Danang, “It’s important that we find an opportunity, with our teams, to sit down at the level of presidents and talk through our complex relations.” He continued: “Our relations are still in crisis. Russia is ready to turn the page and move on.” Putin also commented that Trump comported himself at meetings “with the highest level of goodwill and correctness,” adding, “He is a cultured person, and comfortable discussing matters related to work.”

Putin’s contacts with the US have certainly not been about shutting the door. Yet, although he may very well have recognized opportunities to create a more positive relationship with the US, his senior advisers seem to be focusing upon the atmosphere of pure hatred and rejection propagated by the “counter-Trump milieu.” (In the US, many journalists, think tank scholars, other policy analysts, particularly former officials of the Obama administration, propagate a cult of ugliness directed at the US presidency. The mass of their combined efforts and the environment they create, is referred to by greatcharlie as the counter-Trump milieu.) They cannot help but recognize that there is an effort to separate Trump from the US public and create turmoil and frustration for him that Russia, for certain, does not have his hand in. They perhaps are suggesting to Putin that he should do nothing that might help Trump restore respect for the US presidency. A rationale for Putin advisers to take such a position is that it fits well with the idea of supporting their leader’s apparent desire of turning Russian into a simulacrum of the Soviet Union into more than a dream. It would accomplished through the capture of former Soviet republics that are now sovereign countries in Russia’s near abroad. The notion that Trump is a neophyte with regard to Washington politics may also be something they believe to be a tangible fact and perhaps even an advantage for Putin’s advisers to develop analyses of Trump’s thinking and action.

Fluctuat nec mergitur. (It is tossed by waves but it does not sink.) The reality is that Trump and his administration are in good nick. Putin might be genuinely engaged in a deliberate process of developing an amicable, constructive relationship with Trump. Trump never had a personal relationship with Putin before  he became US president. It is very clear that Putin is trying to understand his positions and his thinking in a granular way.  Putin’s adviser would do well to engage in a similar effort to develop greater insight on Trump. It would seem they have already run Trump through analyses for an uncongenial, combative relationship, as evinced by given words they expressed Danang. They should dig deeper than the surface, to understand where new linkages can be established. A conscious effort should be made to stay away from distortions propagated from the very emotional, often very irrational, counter-Trump milieu. Trump administration attempts to engage in confidence-building with Moscow should be viewed as perfect opportunities to discuss common ground that exists between the two countries from Moscow’s perspective. Advisers of the two leaders must have ongoing, frank discussions on the timing for presenting initiatives on issues before any bilateral talks. Such discussion would be the best way for them to inform their counterparts of rocky domestic political situations and other political obstacles, that may derail initiatives if not handled with precision. Additionally, discreet matters must be kept discreet. That is a key responsibility of both sides. Resolutions to issues are less likely be found if they are subtly expressed in condescending or patronizing way, even if it is simply an expression of crni humor or some other form of banal amusement. Gaining a perspective akin to that outlined here may demand the development of a duality in the thinking of Putin’s advisers, however, it would unlikely be deleterious to their efforts regarding the US. The more Trump pushes Russia in the right direction, the more Putin may push for better analyses, and better answers concerning the US. The more he pushes, the great chance Putin advisers may decide to see things in a way as discussed here. Intriguingly, although Trump’s approach toward Putin’s advisers is nonviolent, benign in fact, in military terms, it would be akin to “the attack in-depth.”

Trump (right) with Putin (left) in Danang. Trump understands that the true cure for the meddling problem and others is to develop a good relationship between Putin and himself and greatly improving relations between the US and Russia as a whole. Trump wants to work alongside certain countries, including Russia, to resolve urgent security issues such as North Korea, Syria, and Ukraine.

5. Trump Turns Refraining from Meddling into a Matter of Honor for Putin

Long before Putin became the President of the Russian Federation, he revealed that he both engaged in efforts to influence elections in other countries and personally felt the negative impact of election meddling in Russia. Putin outlined his experience influencing elections as a KGB officer in other countries Indeed, in Part 4 of his memoir, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000), Putin explains that in East Germany his work was “political intelligence,” which included obtaining information about political figures and the plans of the main opponent: NATO. (See greatcharlie’s book review of First Person.) In a precise statement of his intelligence activities, Putin intriguingly described them as follows: “The usual intelligence activities: recruiting sources of information, obtaining information, analyzing it, and sending it to Moscow. I looked for information about political parties, the tendencies inside those parties, their leaders. I examined today’s leaders and the possible leaders of tomorrow and the promotion of people to certain posts in the parties and the government. It was important to know who was doing what and how, what was going on in the foreign Ministry of a particular country, how they were constructing their policy on certain issues and in various areas of the world, and how our partners would react to disarmament talks. Of course, in order to obtain such information, you need sources. So recruitment of sources, procurement of information, and assessment and analysis were big parts of the job. It was very routine work.”

In Part 6 of First Person, Putin also goes into great detail about his work in the 1992 and 1996 mayoral elections in St. Petersburg following his resignation from the KGB. and a sense is provided of his acumen and instinct for work in the political sphere. In 1992, he played a definitive role in the election of his political mentor, Anatoly Sobchak, as the first popularly elected mayor of the city. Putin explains that as chair of the Leningrad City Council under an older system, Sobchak could have been removed by the council members at any moment. Putin felt Sobchak needed a more stable position. Sobchak finally agreed that the post of mayor had to be introduced. The decision to introduce the post of mayor was passed by the Leningrad City Council, by a margin of a single vote. However, from the experience of arranging Sobchak’s political victory, Putin was able to assess four years later that in order to win re-election, Sobchak would need “professional campaign managers and technicians–not just a guy who could finesse the deputies.” Putin saw that it was a whole new ball game. Campaign plans had to be adjusted to fit circumstances. Putin said that he told Sobchak right off, “You know, you’re on a completely different playing field now. You need specialists.” He agreed, but then he decided that he would conduct his own electoral campaign. He says: “You know, running a campaign, bringing in specialists–all of this costs money. And we didn’t have any. Sobchak had been under investigation for a year and a half on allegations that he had bought an apartment with city funds. But in fact, he did not have any money either for an apartment or for an election campaign. We were not extracting funds from the city budget. It never entered our heads to find the money we needed that way.” However, with regard to Sobchak’s opponent, Vladimir Anatolyevich Yakovlev, the former governor of Leningrad oblast (province), Putin said that he got the funds he needed at Moscow’s expense. He believed Yakovlev was supported by the very same people who orchestrated an ethics campaign against Sobchak. Putin described the critical junture in the campaign in the following way: “During the election campaign, someone sent an inquiry to the Prosecutor General’s office, asking whether Sobchak was involved in any criminal investigations. The very same day, the answer came back: Yes, three were two criminal cases under investigation. Naturally, they didn’t explain that he was a witness, not a suspect, in these cases. The reply from the Prosecutor General’s office was duplicated, and flyers were dropped over the city from a helicopter. The law enforcement agencies were interfering directly in a political contest.” The newly elected mayor of St. Petersburg, Yakovlev did not move Putin out of his office right away; but as soon as the presidential elections were over, he was asked rather harshly to free up the space. By that time, Putin had already turned down Yakolev’s offer to keep his post as deputy mayor. Putin said Yakolev made the offer through his people. Putin explained: “I thought it would be impossible to work with him.” However, Putin said what really made staying on a bad idea were attacks he against Yakolev during the campaign. Putin said: “I don’t remember the context now, but in a television interview, I had called him Judas. The word seemed to fit, and I used it.”

Trump knows Putin has personal experience in attempting to interfere with nation elections of other countries. He presumably knows this not only through First Person, but also reports provided by the US Intelligence Community, knows Putin disfavors such efforts given what happened to his mentor Sobchak. As mentioned earlier, Trump said, “Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.” Trump added: “I think he is very insulted by it, which is not a good thing for our country.” There are pitfalls to relying on ones own moral barometer in the performance of diplomacy. Trump appears to have courageously taken that tact regarding Putin and the issue of Russia’s election meddling. Trump has not said that he agrees with Putin’s view, nor has he  let Putin off the hook. He will not forget what transpired. Yet, by refusing to publicly reproach Putin for not being more forthcoming over the election meddling in the US when he questioned him, Trump demonstrated that he understands the tough situation Putin is in regarding the meddling, now well-exposed. It would appear that the covert operation of election meddling was supposedly crafted to be plausibly deniable, allowing and, perhaps under Russian codes, requiring Putin to gainsay its existence. Trump appears to be holding out hope that his decision to be tolerant of Putin’s response has appealed to Putin’s sense of honor. Indeed, he likely hopes that it will be a factor in future interactions with Putin. At the same time, however, Trump is actually cutting off Putin from possible equivocation and outright denials. Putin’s future actions would be gauged off of denials of interference. Many in US foreign policy circles have absolutely no faith Putin as an honest broker. Yet, Trump’s expectations appear to manifest his nature as a visionary, his sense of imagination. Along with the sense of expectation is an intuition that what is expected will be more vital than what exists. Trump has no intention of recreating the failures, delinquencies of the previous administration. There is no logical purpose in stoking the fires the led to a childlike struggle of words that also likely ignited an adversarial decision that led to an attempt to interfere with 2016 US Election which the US Intelligence Community has confirmed. 

Trump’s critics have not covered themselves in glory. Their performance, though overwhelming, has been disjointed. It is difficult to imagine how presidential historians will judge how critics’ hammered Trump over the manner in which he is handling Russia’s election meddling, and allegations that Trump worked with Putin to secure Russia’s assistance in winning the 2016 US Presidential Election.

6. Trump Offers Business Opportunities to Mitigate Putin’s Desire to Punish the West

Certainly, Trump cannot know exactly what is in Putin’s heart. Putin is a calculator. Various US policy analysts and academics have hypothesized over the causality for the Russia’s misunderstandings and crises with the West over Eastern Europe during the past 25 years. Putin, himself, explained at the 2007 Munich Security Conference and many times since that former NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner had guaranteed that NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Moreover, he has pointed to the statements of German parliamentarian Egon Bahr who explained on June 26, 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” In a Bild interview on January 11, 2016, Putin pointed to what he described as a very concrete suggestion by Bahr on how that danger could be averted: “the USA, the Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structures.” When the Bild interviewer pointed out to Putin that under NATO’s rules and self-understanding it can accept free countries as members if they want to be members and meet certain requirements.  Putin responded, “Nowhere is it written that NATO had to accept certain countries. All that would have been required to refrain from doing so was political will. But people didn’t not want to.” Putin declared the reason for NATO’s lack of restraint was “NATO and the USA wanted complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone.”  

Bis interimitur qui suis armis perit. (He is doubly destroyed who perishes by his own arms.) Putin’s penchant for acting in that direction lead to his capture of territory in Georgia, capture of Crimea, and investment in Eastern Ukraine. Interestingly enough, Georgia and Ukraine are not NATO members, but in 2008 had been explicitly and publicly assured that they would be granted Membership Action Plans. By occupying those countries Putin has assured they would never join NATO in the near term. Indeed, no country will ever join NATO while being partly occupied by Russia. To that extent, part of Putin’s grand strategy entails halting NATO expansion while securing more territory in countries in its near abroad. The near abroad is what Moscow refers to as the territory surrounding Russia’s borders. Recall that Napoleon Bonaparte, in an effort to unite Europe under his rule, took an inexorable path to destruction. He became morally myopic. To that extent, as Victor Hugo stated: “Napoleon embarrassed God.” For Putin, now is a time for reflection and resolve. This may be the moment to genuinely improve Russia’s relations with the US.

There are several bargaining chips of differing value to both Trump and Putin. Trump managed to become US president doing what he wanted to do, having truly dominant knowledge of the desires of the majority of the US public and overall US political environment. He knows what he wants and what he can really do. Cooperation on counterterrorism, ISIS, climate change, and poverty may serve as a bargaining chips to get agreements on other issues. However, Greater bargaining chips might include: the return of Russia properties in the US, reconstruction assistance in Syria, peace-enforcement in Syria, making the Group of 7 the Group of 8 again with inclusion of Russia, economic sanctions, closing sanction loopholes, and lifting restrictions on the Exxon-Rosneft agreement through an exemption. Some of these actions may not appear plausible and could have a deleterious effect on the sanctions regime against Russia over it actions in Ukraine and create an uproar among the Europeans. However, Trump undoubtedly believes bold action, when appropriate, may be the very thing to turn situations around, modify Russian behavior, and get relations moving forward. When presidential action could immediately resolve matters, those issues may be hashed out at the table or it could be agreed to allow for  some additional consideration before giving a response. Trump must put “America First” but keep firmly in mind how his decisions and actions regarding Russia might impact European allies and partners. Given domestic political concerns, initial offerings from Putin may appear paltry. There is a real possibility that if he feels secure enough, Putin could offer much, particularly to loosen the US grip on Russia’s figurative economic throat. To date, a degree of good-faith bargaining and compromise between Washington and Moscow has occurred. There have been mutual peace offerings. However, refraining any interference with US elections cannot be part of any peace offering or any quid-pro-quo arrangement. Without any further inquiries about what exactly happened, Russia must stop engaging in such operations. If Russia crosses the line again, everything accomplished will be obliterated and all of the great possibilities will never be realized. Tragically, it would likely once again lock up the diplomatic process. Trump can assume that Putin knows this, too!

Trump (right) and Chinese President XI Jinping (left). On his recent foreign trip to Asia, Trump kindled or strengthened his relationships with the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines and secured deals with their countries to improve trade the conditions of trade with them. He helped US companies arrange over $250 billion in business deals while in Beijing.

Causality for Critics’ Relentless Attacks on Trump Despite His Discernable Efforts

For those longing for an end to the Obama administration and the many vicissitudes it faced on foreign policy, were heard shout to the effect of “Blessed be the Trump administration and health to all its parts.” However, many critics deemed Trump unfit for the president even before his election victory. The words “not presidential” were heard every time Trump spoke. Eventually, moves by Trump of any kind would elicit a range of reactions by those engaged in the broad, piquant, counter-Trump discourse.

Custos morum. (Guardian of morals.) Some critics seem to believe that they figurative hammers, designed to shape Trump into the instrument they want. While they may self-declare themselves repositories of the accumulated wisdom on US foreign policy, they are not. Moreover, they are not the stewards of US foreign policy. There other critics who apparently have found nothing desirable and everything loathsome about Trump. Oscillating, moving from one point to the other, critics of Trump have their own relentless logic. Whenever one of Trump’s efforts fail or whenever he makes a mistake, they were over the moon with joy. Short of pushing Trump out of office, it strikes one’s conscience to think that nothing would soothe them than to prescribe plunging Trump forevermore into the boiling cauldrons of Hell from the French playwright Mollière’s, École des femmes. Indeed, they seemed to have let their aggression toward Trump come alive inside of them. At times, admonitions and opprobrium expressed through all manner of writings, created the impression that some giant golem was struggling, fighting to escape their inner souls.

What is truly problematic is the reality that critics may have infiltrated and despoiled the psyche of many in the US, perhaps may have even destroyed the possibility for some to have confidence in future US administrations, both Republican and Democratic. Most of Trump’s critics are individuals with advanced degrees, apt to be eloquent enough on key issues concerning the purported “Trump threat.” The US public is open to eloquence. Further, the precept of being innocent until proven guilty has been forcefully pushed aside in the US newsmedia with regard to all matters related to Trump. Hopefully, in the end, the truth will be revealed to those who are confused and bewildered by it all, both among general the public and Trump’s critics. Certainly there were many personal reasons for critics to harbor such strong, negative opinions of Trump and efforts against him. Their efforts have inflamed passions globally. The administration might explain that concerns expressed about Trump’s approach to the presidency were a manifestation of critics own struggle to accept the change from the traditional to modernity. The old is replaced by Trump’s new way of doing things. It has been said that some attacks on Trump are being used to cultivate critics’ emotions on: US policies, Obama’s departure, and Hillary Clinton’s election loss. There is the possibility that their varied attacks may just be projections of character flaws that critics see in themselves. Even more, there is the notion that Trump’s victory has caused them so much emotional harm that there is a desire to strike back, to take vengeance. That is perhaps the idea most worthy of examination.

Trump (left) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe (right). Through meetings, Trump and Abe have kindled a good relationship. Seldom have Trump’s critics taken public inventory of themselves, and considered whether their thinking and actions are appropriate or representative of their own notions of good character. It would appear that even the most noble among them have not considered the impact of their attacks against Trump on US foreign policy.

Moral Responsibility and the Strike Back Emotion

There are many sources for the belief in moral responsibility. Many philosophy scholars today conclude that the deepest roots of our commitment to moral responsibility are found in powerful emotions. In The Stubborn System of Moral Responsibility (MIT Press, 2015), philosopher Bruce Waller at Youngstown State University explains this strike back emotion is one of the main sources of our strong belief in moral responsibility.

Indeed, human beings are a punitive species, and share the strike back emotion with other animals. It has been hypothesized that since humans are social animals, and engage with one another to achieve goals, humans are well-disposed to punish those who seek advantage over themselves and others. Wrongdoing stirs formidable emotions in humans, even when it is done to others. In social groups or in societies, anger and resentment is raised toward those who take benefits to which they are not entitled. It almost universally leads to some form of punishment. Culpam poena, premit comes. (Punishment closely follows crime as its’ companion.)

Revenge can seem sweet, and retribution may bring satisfaction, but those feelings are often short-lived. Moreover, the emotional source of moral responsibility, the strike back desire, can create problems with regard to given other desired ends, such as future safety, reconciliation, and moral formation. Most psychotherapists would explain that vengefulness, itself, generally is the manifestation of a serious pathology. Vengeful desires and behavior can ensnare an individual in a vicious cycle of hatred and prevent any resolution of the original harmful experience. Most vengeful actions are based on the misconception that harm to the self can be undone or at least mitigated by harming the perpetrator, when, in fact, undoing of what has already been done is impossible. Ones injuries, pain, and emotional distress is never relieved or obviated. Rather, vengeful action could cause those hurts to smoulder. Sometimes, when the sense of moral justification is high, and the desire for vengeance becomes strong enough, individuals can become willing to sacrifice, violate laws, sustain injury, or even self-destruct, in order to punish a perpetrator. The only permanent solution is working through those feelings, as well as feelings of powerlessness.

Trump (left) with South Korean President Moon Jae-in (right). Trump knows the truth about his actions. While it should naturally disappoint him to hear critics shed doubt of the legitimacy of his election victory, he welcomes all light to shine brightly upon his campaign and election for the truth is stands in his corner. Trump’s critics at times have offered insufficient, inconsistent, or incongruous data, leaving huge gaps. At the same time, their efforts have inflamed passions globally.

Deciding that someone is responsible for an act, which is taken to be the conclusion of a judgment, is actually part of the process of assessing blame. If we start with a spontaneous negative reaction, then that can lead to hypothesizing that the source of the action is blameworthy and the start of an active desire to blame the perpetrator. That will shape ones interpretations of the available evidence to the extent that they support ones blame hypothesis. Evidence is highlighted that indicates negligence, recklessness, impure motives, or a faulty character. Any evidence that may contradict ones blame hypothesis is ignored. Rather than dispassionately judging whether someone is responsible, the spontaneous reaction of blameworthiness is validated. Trump’s critics display the reactive attitudes of resentment, indignation, blame, and moral anger toward: the results of the 2016 US Presidential Election; Trump as a person; and the litany of actions in which his campaign allegedly engaged to win the election.

Subjecting Trump to reactive attitudes should only be viewed as righteous and appropriate if Trump was found through Congressional oversight or the justice system to have committed some offense. So far, such evidence does not exist. Critics are only able to use purely backward-looking grounds to say their judgments, attitudes, or treatments are justified. There is a real possibility that critics will never find their legs in their efforts against Trump. In 2014, a set of 5 studies by Cory Clark and his colleagues found that a key factor promoting belief in free will, is a fundamental desire to blame and hold others morally responsible for their wrongful behaviors. In this respect, the many investigations underway in the US Congress, the Office of the Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, support the critics’ view that Trump is guilty and morally beneath them, and should be subjected to punishment. In the studies reported by Clark, evidence was found to suggest that greater belief in free will, is due to heightened punitive motivations. Interestingly, other researchers have found that ones moral evaluation of whether an action was deliberately done was impacted ones the like or dislike of the outcome of that action. Beyond that, there have also been studies that have found an “asymmetric understanding of the moral nature” of ones own actions and those of others, such that one judges ones own actions and motivations as morally superior to those of the average person. The Dutch philosopher Maureen Sie explained: “In cases of other people acting in morally wrong ways we tend to explain those wrongdoings in terms of the agent’s lack of virtue or morally bad character traits. We focus on those elements that allow us to blame agents for their moral wrongdoings. On the other hand, in cases where we ourselves act in morally reprehensible ways we tend to focus on exceptional elements of our situation, emphasizing the lack of room to do otherwise.” Seldom have Trump critics taken public inventory of themselves, and considered whether their thinking and actions are appropriate or representative of their notions of good character. It would appear that even the most noble among them have not considered the consequences of their attacks against Trump, particularly with regard to foreign policy.

Trump (left) with Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang (right) The New York Times reported that Trump did not answer a direct question about whether he believed Putin’s denials while traveling to Hanoi Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Danang. Oddly,  the newspaper later offered the surmisal that Trump was far more inclined to accept the Putin’s assertions than those of his own intelligence agencies. There must be more thoughtful assays in their stories on the US president.

The Situation Appears To Be Developing as Trump Hoped

On November 21, 2017, just before leaving the Washington for the Thanksgiving holiday, Trump spoke with Putin by telephone for more than one hour. According to the White House, Trump and Putin affirmed their support for the Joint Statement of the United States and the Russian Federation issued at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit on November 11, 2017. Trump and Putin emphasized the importance of implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and supporting the UN-led Geneva Process to peacefully resolve the Syrian civil war, end the humanitarian crisis, allow displaced Syrians to return home, and ensure the stability of a unified Syria free of malign intervention and terrorist safe havens. Both leaders also discussed how to implement a lasting peace in Ukraine, and the need to continue international pressure on North Korea to halt its nuclear weapon and missile programs. Additionally, the two presidents affirmed the importance of fighting terrorism together throughout the Middle East and Central Asia and agreed to explore ways to further cooperate in the fight against ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations. True to the original wish Trump expressed for improving relations with Russia, his engagement with Putin moved beyond talking over again about Russia’s election meddling. It has turned toward positive communication and cooperation.

Trump with his family on the White House lawn (above). On November 21, 2017, just before leaving the Washington for the Thanksgiving holiday, Trump spoke with Putin by telephone for more than one hour. They discussed how US and Russia could cooperate on confronting the nuclear threat from North Korea, resolving the Syrian civil war, and working together on Ukraine. True to the wish he expressed for improving relations with Russia, Trump’s engagement with Putin has moved beyond Russia’s election meddling and is turning more toward cooperation.

The Way Forward

In Act III, Scene i of William Shakespeare’s Life of King Henry VIII, Queen Katherine is in her apartment when the arrival of Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeius is announced. Wolsey says he has not come to accuse her but to learn her thoughts on the dissolution of her marriage to King Henry and to offer advice. Katharine does not believe that they are on an honorable errand. The cardinals request to speak with her in a private room. However, Katherine lets them know that her the conscience is clear, and she has no problem speaking about the matter in a public room. Katherine states: “Speak it here: There’s nothing I have done yet, o’ my conscience, Deserves a corner: would all other women Could speak this with as free a soul as I do! My lords, I care not, so much I am happy Above a number, if my actions Were tried by every tongue, every eye saw ’em, Envy and base opinion set against ’em, I know my life so even. If your business Seek me out, and that way I am wife in, Out with it boldly: truth loves open dealing. Trump knows the truth about his actions. While it should naturally disappoint him to hear critics shed doubt of the legitimacy of his election victory, he welcomes all light to shine brightly upon his campaign and election for the truth is stands in his corner. Trump’s critics have not covered themselves in glory. Their performance, though overwhelming, has been disjointed. They offer insufficient, inconsistent, or incongruous data, leaving huge gaps. It is difficult to imagine how presidential historians will judge how critics’ hammered Trump over the manner in which he is handling Russia’s election meddling, and allegations that Trump worked with Putin to secure Russia’s assistance in winning the 2016 US Presidential Election. As their attacks take flights of fancy in the face of a contradictory reality, the critics will likely reduce themselves to nothing more than supernumeraries in this drama. One may disagree with the hypothesized impact of the strike back emotion on the attitudes and behavior of critics. Yet, one still can extrapolate from that much that could be useful in understanding the actions of Trump’s critics and in interpreting what impels their efforts. For those with a bent against Trump, it is not too late to modify their efforts. Critics may be able get from where they are with regard to Trump to where they need to be. There must be more thoughtful assays and greater balance in their examinations of the US president. Pride and ego must be subdued. They must subjugate lower passions to a higher reality.

Gloriosum est iniurias oblivisci. (It is glorious to forget the injustice.) Trump has not dismissed the Russian election meddling issue. He has not been delinquent on it. Trump is doing his job. He has been quietly taking calibrated steps to make something positive out of an extraordinarily negative situation. Many of those steps can be discerned. Due in part to the election meddling, Trump’s relationship with Putin is not yet ready to move past its fledgling stage and become cemented. That is perhaps one of the more apparent consequences of the decision in Moscow to interfere. Any belief that Trump’s decision to move on from election meddling in diplomatic talks at least resembles an aggressive display of passivism could not be further from the truth. Trump is unthreatened, and unmoved by notions proffered about Putin to the effect that he serves all things evil.  Putin’s cravings for power and territory could reassert themselves at any moment. If Putin’s ultimate goal is to receive payment in full for a debt he says NATO has owed Russia for nearly three decades and to have the US submit to his will, Trump will not allow that to happen. It is not completely certain, perhaps even a bit unlikely, that Trump has completely forgiven Putin. To forgive is not easy. It is not simple. There is no reason to forgive anyone unless it can be done with enough humility to inspire humility in the one who is forgiven. That is essentially what Trump is hoping for. Putin once mentioned God in discussing how He built his life. Everyone is indebted to God, none of us has enough to pay the debt. God is willing to forgive the debt, but the condition of the absolution is that everyone grant it to those around us.

Trump to Meet With Putin at G-20 Gathering: Trump Seeks an Authentic Relationship with Russia

US President Donald Trump (above). On July 7, 2017 at the Group of 20 economic summit meeting in Hamburg, Trump will have a bilateral meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Finding a way to establish an authentic, positive relationship with Russia is a struggle US administrations have engaged in for decades. Trump feels he can find the solution.Trump does not want to settle on a long-term stand-off in which peace, particularly in Europe, remains at risk. He believes the US and Russia can be good neighbors on the same planet.

According to a June 29, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Trump to Meet With Putin at G-20 Gathering Next Week,” it was formally announced by US National Security Adviser US Army Lieutenant General H.R McMaster that US President Donald Trump would meet Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin on July 7, 2017 on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit meeting in Hamburg, Germany. The article noted that the meeting would be the first between the two since Trump took office and would be the focal point of his second international trip. However, a subsequent July 5, 2017 New York Times article explained that a day before Trump was to leave Washington, the White House announced that the meeting with Putin would be a formal bilateral discussion, rather than a quick pull-aside at the economic summit that some had expected. The July 5th New York Times article went on to explain that the bilateral format benefitted both Trump and Putin. It called Putin a canny one-on-one operator who once brought a Labrador to a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel because he knew she was afraid of dogs. The article proffered Trump’s aides sought structure and predictability, and hoped that a formal meeting, with aides present and an agenda, will leave less room for improvisation and put the focus on pressing policy concerns that Trump is eager to address.

Ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes viros. (Fire provides proof of gold, misery, proof of strong men.) Both Trump and Putin clearly believe the moment to create positive change in US-Russia relations is now. In the face of all the opprobrium, both have shown a new determination to get on with making things right between the two countries. Trump plans to triumph over his skeptics, putting no power in their words. Of course, that process of building relations between their countries will take time. Still, each step brings the two sides closer together and improving one’s understanding of the other. The bilateral talks with Russia at the Group of 20 economic summit will mark a point of flexure in communications between the US and Russia. Finding a way to establish an authentic, positive relationship with Russia is a struggle US administrations have engaged in for a couple of decades. Trump feels he can find the solution. True, the meeting between Trump and Putin will unlikely be a catalytic moment when opponents of Trump, political or otherwise, will see the method in his madness and appreciate his accomplishment. Moreover, when Russia behaves in ways that tear others from peace, it must still face consequences. However, Trump’s efforts evince his desire not to isolate Russia, or allow engagement with it to fall off. He does not want to settle on a long-term stand-off in which peace, particularly in Europe, remains at risk. He believes the US and Russia can be good neighbors on the same planet. For this he should hardly be faulted. Pars magna bonitatis est veile fieri bonum. (Much of goodness consists in wanting to be good.)

US President Barack Obama and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). The Obama administration’s actions and reactions to Putin obscured what was already a difficult path to travel. The Obama administration never put together the right recipe for working well with Putin. When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were a neophyte and not a seasoned national leader. A war of words and rebuffs emerged between Washington and Moscow.

Background on US and Russia Relations

Infandum, regina, jubes renovare dolorem. (Sorrow too deep to tell, your majesty, you order me to feel and tell once more.) The Obama administration’s actions and reactions to Russia did much to further pollute and obscure what was already a difficult path to travel. The Obama administration never put together the right recipe for working well with Putin. When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were a neophyte and not a seasoned national leader. Old ills that were part of US-Russian relations resurfaced, and new ones arose, to include: Putin’s decision to allow US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and the US admonishment of Russia on human rights issues. Putin was still fuming over Operation Unified Protector, during which in 2011, multinational forces including the US, were placed under NATO command and imposed a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Putin felt NATO-led forces went beyond UN Security Council Resolution 1973’s mandate by helping local forces overthrow Gaddafi. Gaddafi had been a friend of the Soviet Union and Russia.

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 the expansion of the EU and NATO just as the administration of US President George W. Bush had. Obama administration officials referred to the 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. The insistence of Obama administration officials to take such an aggressive approach in talks with Russia more than anything served to disrupt the US-Russia relationship. Efforts by US officials diplomats and officials to threaten and cajole, as Moscow perceived talks, were more than just displays of a lack of diplomatic tact and maturity, they were viewed as threatening. Relations with Putin and Russia fell to a very low point when the Obama administration cancelled a September summit meeting between Obama and Putin in 2013. 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.”

A spate of public rebuffs to Putin sullied ties further. 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. A war of words between US and Russian officials was also problematic. Words of anger, mockery, hate, and aggression, do damage that is often difficult to repair. In the last days of his presidency, Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian suspected spies and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over their involvement in hacking U.S. political groups in the 2016 election.

All of this and more has made for a very rocky road for the Trump administration to travel. Initially, Moscow took the view that the Trump administration’s approach to Russia in any direction must reflect the desire to forge a new relationship, not just hammer out a deal. However, in the nascent days of the Trump administration, Moscow faced the predicament of not having a formal articulation of US foreign policy and immediate approaches from the Trump White House or State Department from which it could work, Moscow’s policy decisions concerning the US were based on assessments developed from the abstract by Russian foreign policy analysts of the Trump administration’s most likely Syria policy or greater Middle East policy. If anything,, Russian analysts might have gleaned and constructed his likely key foreign and national security policy concepts on which his decisions might be based from what Trump has stated. Even without a formal articulation of policy, The Trump administration has tried to be reasonable in its approach to Russia.

Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right). A decisive point in US-Russian relations came when Tillerson went into Russia on April 12, 2017 to talk with Putin and Lavrov. A significant achievement of those talks was an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Foreign Ministry officials charged with addressing smaller issues, which Lavrov called “irritants.” That has allowed Tillerson and Lavrov a freer hand to make progress in stabilizing relations.

The decisive point in relations between the Trump administration and Russia came when Tillerson went into Russia on April 12, 2017 to express concerns over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and Moscow’s continued insouciance toward Assad’s actions against his own people, non combatants. He wanted to learn firsthand the rationale behind Moscow’s willingness to endure international ridicule and rebuke in response to its friendship with the Assad regime, and what might prompt a decision to end that era. The Kremlin’s attitude toward the situation was manifested by the games played by the Russians before the meetings. For hours after Tillerson’s arrival in Moscow, it was uncertain if Putin would even meet with him because of the tense state of relations. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, held out the possibility of a meeting once Tillerson arrived, saying any meeting would depend on the nature of Tillerson’s talks at the Foreign Ministry. Tillerson, unfazed by any of those developments, went forward with his meeting Lavrov, the metronome of Russian foreign policy and diplomacy.  The meeting lasted for three hours. Tillerson eventually got the call to come meet with Putin, and left the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for Red Square around 5:00PM local time. That meeting lasted for two hours. A significant achievement of those talks was an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials charged with addressing smaller issues, which Lavrov called “irritants which have dogged our relations over the last couple of years,” and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship. That would allow Tillerson and Lavrov a freer hand to address urgent issues. They agreed to consider further proposals concerning the way forward in Syria; the respective allies and coalition partners of both countries would be consulted on the matter. There would be continued discussions directed at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict. Lavrov said Putin had agreed to reactivate an air-safety agreement, a de-confliction memorandum, concerning Russian Federation and US-led coalition air operations over Syria. Moscow suspended it after the US cruise missile strikes.

On June 18, 2017, a US FA-18 fighter (as above) shot down a Syrian Arab Army Su-22 fighter over Raqqa. After Russia said it would terminate deconfliction activity over the shoot down, Lavrov and Tillerson quelled the matter. Lavrov urged Tillerson to use his influence to prevent “provocations” against Syrian government forces in the conflict. The incident evinced how fickle Russia can be over cooperation. Joint activity can be held hostage to Moscow’s reactions to events. Cooperation must be established with protocols or a modus vivendi.

Is This Is the Moment?

Both Trump and Putin understand that the process of building a new US-Russia relationship will take time. Yet, Trump left little doubt that he is eager to meet Putin when the two visit Hamburg, Germany for the G-20 summit on June 7-8, 2017. Trump’s positive thinking has appeared to broaden his sense of possibility and open his mind up to more options. Trump and some others within his administration sense a great opportunity is being presented by his meeting with Putin and sought from the start to establish a full bilateral meeting. Trump wanted media access and all the typical protocol associated with such sessions. It was allegedly leaked to the US newsmedia that other officials at the State Department and National Security Counci sought to pared down that idea, recommending instead that Trump engage in a brief, informal “pull-aside” on the sidelines of the summit, or that the US and Russian delegations hold “strategic stability talks,” which would not include the presidents. In the end, Trump got what he wanted, a bilateral meeting with the Russians, formally organized. Trump and Putin talked informally by phone. During a May 2, 2017 phone conversation, they agreed to speed up diplomatic efforts designed to end the war in Syria. The White House described the phone call between the two leaders as a “very good one” and said they discussed the possibility of forming safe zones to shelter civilians fleeing the conflict. The US also agreed to send representatives to cease-fire talks the following month. Reportedly, Trump and Putin “agreed that the suffering in Syria has gone on for far too long and that all parties must do all they can to end the violence,” the White House said. It was their first conversation since the US launched a barrage of cruise missiles at a Syrian air base last month in response to a chemical attack that the Trump administration has said was carried out by Syrian forces. It was during the same phone conversation that Putin reportedly offered an olive branch to Trump: Both chief diplomats spoke then about arranging a meeting tied to a Group of 20 summit meeting in Germany this summer, the Kremlin said, according to the Russia-based Interfax news agency.

Both Trump and Putin understand that the process building a new US-Russia relationship will take time.Trump left little doubt that he is eager to meet Putin when the two visit Hamburg, Germany for the G-20 summit on June 7-8, 2017. Trump’s positive thinking has appeared to broaden his sense of possibility and open his mind up to more options. Trump senses he has been presented with a great opportunity. He seized that chance to establish a full bilateral meeting with hope of accomplishing a few things.

Following a May 11, 2017 meeting between Trump and Lavrov at the White House, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, on first face, expressed cautious optimism about the prospects for an improvement in U.S.-Russian, saying: “The conversation itself is extremely positive.” He further explained: “We have a lot of work ahead of us.” Progress seemed to have been derailed when on June 18, 2017, a US FA-18E Super Hornet fighter shot down a Syrian Arab Army Su-22 fighter in the southern Raqqa countryside, with Washington saying the jet had dropped bombs near US-led Coalition-friendly forces in Tabqh. On several occasions in weeks before, US-led Coalition fighter jets also struck pro-government forces to prevent them advancing from a U.S.-controlled garrison in southeastern Syria at a spot where the country’s borders join with Iraq and Jordan. By telephone on May 11, 2017, Lavrov and Tillerson discussed the need to cement the ceasefire regime in Syria, in particular on the basis of peace talks conducted in the Kazakh capital Astana. The Russian Federation Foreign Ministry explained Lavrov had urged Tillerson to use his influence to prevent “provocations” against Syrian government forces in the conflict. Lavrov and Tillerson agreed to continue contacts, particularly with regard to their bilateral agenda.

Putin would eventually fully express his own views on possible face-to-face meeting with Trump. In a call in program, “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin” that was broadcast on June15, 2017, Putin offered relatively anodyne statements about the Trump administration and a possible meeting with Trump. It was a big change from the aggressive statements of the past. It seemed that Putin was no longer nursing any wounds resulting from his combative relationship Obama. During the program, Putin responded to a question about engagement with the US on Syria as follows: “On the Syrian problem and the Middle East in general, it is clear to all that no progress will be made without joint constructive work. We hope greatly too for the United States’ constructive role in settling the crisis in southeast Ukraine. A constructive role, as I said. We see then that there are many areas in which we must work together, but this depends not only on us. We see what is happening in the United States today. I have said before and say again now that this is clearly a sign of an increasingly intense domestic political struggle, and there is nothing that we can do here. We cannot influence this process. But we are ready for constructive dialogue.” Putin continued by acknowledging that there were “areas in which we can work together with the United States. This includes, above all, control over non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We are the biggest nuclear powers and so our cooperation in this area is absolutely natural. This is an area of crucial importance and concerns not just the North Korean issue but other regions too.” The call-in program was meant for Russian viewers, however, Putin, seeking to reach international viewers, turned suddenly to the subjects of the Paris Agreement on climate change and poverty, tying them to US-Russian relations and insinuating that he would garner Trump’s cooperation on those issues. Putin explained: “Then there is the fight against poverty, fighting environmental damage and so on. We know the position the current US administration has taken on the Paris Agreement, but President Trump is not rejecting discussion on the issue. Cursing and trading barbs and insults with the US administration would be the worst road to take because we would reach no agreement at all in this case, but it makes no sense to seek agreements without the US, which is one of the biggest emitter countries. We must work together to fight poverty in the world. The number of people earning a minimum income has increased in Russia, but there is a disastrous situation in many parts of the world, and this is one of the sources of radicalism and terrorism, this poverty around the world, and we must decide together how to address this problem. Here, we must work with our other partners too, work with China, India and Europe.”

The aesthetics of Putin’s words on Russian television, welcoming interaction with Trump and expressing to the Russian public that he highly desired such talks, were astounding. Putin’s modus operandi in any exchange is to ensure he is the last man standing. So far, that has not been the case here. The change in temperament and dialogue perhaps  evinces that the desire for positive change in relations among Putin and his cabinet is analogous, mutatis mutandis, with that of the Trump and his administration.

The aesthetics of Putin’s words welcoming interaction with Trump and expressing to the Russian public that he highly desired such talks, were astounding. Putin’s modus operandi in any exchange is to ensure he is the last man standing. So far, that has not been the case here. The change in temperament and dialogue perhaps evinces that the desire for positive change in relations among Putin and his cabinet is analogous, mutatis mutandis, with that of the Trump and his administration. Trump’s positive thinking has appeared to broaden his sense of possibility and open his mind up to more options. Indeed, constructive, successful talks with Putin will allow Trump adjust to circumstances and perhaps become more fluid, more creative in his approach. It will certainly further diplomatic contacts between the US with Russia.

Summit Discussion Topics: A Few Samples (A Few Guesses)

Speaking initially about the planned meeting, McMaster expressed the president’s concept behind his effort which is to establish better relations with Russia by stating: “As the president has made clear, he’d like the United States and the entire West to develop a more constructive relationship with Russia but he has also made clear that we will do what is necessary to confront Russia’s destabilizing behavior.” Former Obama administration officials have offered their opinions about the Trump-Putin meeting. Among the more prominent were comments by Obama’s chief Russia specialist at the National Security Council in 2009 and his Ambassador to the Russian Federation Michael McFaul, in the familiar vein of seeking confrontation with Russia, told the New York Times that the meeting was a vital opportunity for Trump to show strength by calling out Putin sharply for the election meddling and to make it clear he is not fooled by Moscow’s misbehavior. McFaul was quoted as saying: “There is a sense in Moscow that Trump is kind of naïve about these things and just doesn’t understand.” He went on to instruct: “You don’t want your first meeting with Putin to create the appearance that you’re weak and naïve, and with some short, direct talking points, he could correct the record.” Veritatis simplex oratio est. (The language of truth is simple.)

Trump managed to become US president doing what he wanted to do, having truly dominant knowledge of the desires of the US public and overall US political environment. He knows what he wants and what he can really do. Ideally, if agreements are reached, they will be initial steps perhaps to unlock the diplomatic process on big issues. Already US State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry officials are working on nagging issues. The two leaders will likely acknowledge good existing agreements and make promises to continue to adhere to them. Where possible, it may be agreed to strengthen those good agreements. What has been observed in diplomatic exchanges so far between the US and Russia is a type of modus vivendi, a way of living, working together, between leaders and chief diplomats. After Putin granted Tillerson a meeting in Moscow after his talks with Lavrov, Trump granted Lavrov a meeting in Washington during a visit to meeting with Tillerson. It also indicated a willingness to establish a balance in negotiations or quid pro quo on issues when possible. Such seemingly small steps have been confidence building measures that have help lead to the meeting between presidents. Those small steps also supported an open line of communication between chief diplomats which is all importance as US and Russian military forces work in close proximity in Syria, Ukraine, and skies and waters in NATO, Canadian and US territory. If all goes well, there will certainly be more to follow. Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas. (Use what is yours without harming others.)

Russian Federation Army spetsnaz in Syria (above). Ostensibly, Russia went into Syria both to prop up Assad’s regime and engage in counterterrorism operations against ISIS, Al-Qaeda affiliates, and other Islamic militant groups. Putin has stated regarding Syria and the Middle East in general that progress would not be made without joint constructive work with the US. Genuine cooperation on counterterrorism requires information sharing and joint operations, but again, Russia can be fickle over cooperation.

1. Counterterrorism and a Joint US-Russia Counter ISIS Strategy

On counterterrorism specifically, Moscow apparently wanted to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria and wherever Russian interests are concerned. Russia claims it has been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces–Spetsnaz–and airpower. Russia’s dedication to counterterrorism was demonstrated by the strengthening of its terrorism laws in 2016. Genuine cooperation on counterterrorism requires not only information sharing, but joint operations. Yet, as evinced on military deconfliction in Syria, Russia can be fickle over cooperation. Joint activity has been held hostage to political reactions in Moscow due to other events. Establishing such cooperation must be based on protocols or modus vivendi, shielding it from such reactions.

2. Syria: Assad

In September 2015, Putin took the option of solving the conflict in Syria on his terms using a strong military hand. He explained that Russian Federation forces were sent into Syria both to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad and to fight ISIS. On Syria, relations between the US and Russia are improving. By 2015, Assad appeared to lack the ability to remain in power against ISIS and perhaps US-backed Syrian Opposition forces, but the military situation began to turn after Russia, with the urging of Iran, moved its forces into Syria in September of that year and supported Syrian military operations. Assad can only be useful to Russia as a figurehead, a symbol of resistance to the opposition and ISIS. In time, it may make sense to Moscow to replace him with a leader who would be more acceptable among the Syrians. The transition from Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. Assad is at Russia’s disposition. A final decision on how to handle him will need to be made soon. Concerns over Russia’s thoughts on Assad and US concerns about the dangers posed by him must be broached.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov (seated left) and Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad (seated right). Currently, Assad is useful to Russia as a figurehead, a symbol of resistance to the opposition and ISIS. In time, it may make sense to Moscow to replace him with a leader who would be more acceptable among the Syrians. The transition from Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. Assad is at Russia’s disposition.

3. Syria: Deconfliction

After the US launched cruise missile strikes against Assad regime airbase on April 7, 2017 following the regime’s chemical attack on Syrian civilians, Moscow suspended air-safety a de-confliction memorandum. Following Tillerson’s meeting with Lavrov said Putin in April 2017, Russia agreed to reactivate air safety hotline created under the air-safety agreement concerning Russian Federation and US-led coalition air operations over Syria. When a US fighter jet shot down a Syrian fighter over the southern Raqqa countryside, the Russian Federation Defense Ministry said it would halt its use of the incident-prevention hotline. The hotline was established between US officers monitoring the war from an operations center at a base in Qatar and their Russian counterparts operating in Syria has been a lifesaving tool since it was set up soon after Russia entered Syria’s civil war in late 2015 to prop up President Bashar al-Assad. However, as with any prospective joint counterterrorism activity with Russia, deconfliction operations cannot be held hostage to political reactions in Moscow to other events. There must be some protocol or modus vivendi established which shields deconfliction operations to the whims of either country.

4. Syria: Reconstruction, Peace-enforcement, and Peace-building via Negotiations

Reconstruction will be another huge hurdle for Russia to overcome in Syria. Even if a modicum of economic aid were granted from the Western countries and international organizations as the UN, the World Bank, or international Monetary Fund, Syria may never see significant rebuilding or economic improvement. Russia has sought stronger ties with Arab countries, bolstering economic ties with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait and diplomatic overtures with Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Russia’s hope is by courting those countries they would become more receptive to its’ calls for a political solution in Syria and responsive to an eventual campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. However, US participation in those efforts may do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well. Russia must negotiate US assistance in the reconstruction and peace-enforcement effort.

US Army Rangers moving through Syria (above). Reconstruction will be another huge hurdle for Russia to overcome in Syria. Even if a modicum of economic aid were granted from the Western countries and international organizations as the UN, the World Bank, or international Monetary Fund, Syria may never see significant rebuilding or economic improvement. US participation in those efforts may do much to encourage participation from Arab countries and Western countries as well.

5. Syria: Safe Zones and Immigration

Syrian refugees and the displaced fear returning to a society of arbitrary detentions, beatings, house searches, and robberies.  Most have lost heart that there will ever be a Syria of any good condition to which they can return. Talks between US and Russian special envoys for Syria and other officials are at an early stage of discussing the boundaries of the proposed de-escalation zone in Deraa province, on the border with Jordan, and Quneitra, which borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Washington has misgivings about the Astana talks and wants to forge a bilateral understanding with Moscow in an area of strategic interest to the US and its allies, Jordan and Israel. For Washington to back a deal, Russia would need have Iranian-backed militias to leave the area.  It may be difficult for Russia to rein in the growing involvement in the region of Iran and its allies. Russia must weigh that difficulty against US assistance with reconstruction.

6. North Korea

North Korea has vowed to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the US mainland. Most recently it tested what it claimed was an intercontinental ballistic missile. The US has explained to North Korean that it must stop its nuclear activity. The US has no interest in regime change. While the Trump administration has urged countries to downgrade ties with Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, a cross-border ferry service was launched in May 2017 between North Korea and neighboring Russia. Indeed, in recent years, Russia has rebuilt a close relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. In May, 2014, less than two months after the Crimea annexation and with Western nations seeking to punish Russia, Putin signed away 90 percent of North Korea’s $11 billion debt to Russia, an amount comparable with the debtor state’s GDP. The other 10 percent could be used for joint Russian-North Korean projects. That same year, Russia delivered 50,000 tons of wheat as humanitarian aid to North Korea. Clarification must be sought on Russia’s failure to cooperate with the international community on North Korea. Russia’s cooperation will likely need to be negotiated.

A North Korean missile test (above). North Korea has vowed to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the US mainland. Most recently it tested what it claimed was an intercontinental ballistic missile. While the Trump administration has urged countries to downgrade ties with Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Russia has continued to build a close relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

7. Afghanistan: Russia’s Activities

There have been reports from northern Afghanistan that Russia is supporting the Taliban by providing weapons and financing. Russia’s activities in Afghanistan is ostensibly intended to counter the spread of ISIS-affiliated militants in Central Asia and further challenge the US. Still, Russia is aware that the militant group has fought US and international forces since 2001. In April 2017, the commander of the US Central Command US Army General Joseph Votel told Congress that it was “fair to assume” Russia was [militarily] supporting the Taliban. The National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency, reports Russian intelligence agents have provided the Taliban with strategic advice, money and arms, including old anti-aircraft rockets. Russian support played a role in the Taliban’s advances in  Kunduz, where they have twice briefly seized the provincial capital. Clarification on Russia’s activity in Afghanistan must be provided. Russia’s cooperation in defeating US adversaries will likely need to be negotiated.

8. Ukraine: Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk

As the EU and NATO expanded eastward, Putin 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 was carved out of a country, Putin gained a base from which he can exert his influence in that country. European countries no longer appear ambivalent about committing to the costly requirements of collective security. The US may be able to influence Russia’s behavior, but Russia will likely want any negotiations to be part of comprehensive talks on Europe between the superpowers.

Satellite imagery of two tanks (125mm caliber) and 12 armored vehicles and infantry fighting vehicles ostensibly supplied by Russia in the Donetsk region of Ukraine (above). Russia’s annexing of Crimea and deployment of its military forces in Ukraine without Kiev’s consent was in violation of Article IV, paragraph 5 of the treaty. The US, NATO allies, and all other parties to the agreement recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine. The US has also called on Russia to remove its forces and equipment from eastern Ukraine.

9. Ukraine: Sanctions

Sanctions from the US and Europeans have put relations between Russia and the West at considerable risk. Putin rejects the idea that the Trump administration is pushing for additional sanction against Russia and has explained new sanctions are the result of an ongoing domestic political struggle in the US. He has proffered that if it had not been Crimea or some other issue, they would still have come up with some other way to restrain Russia. Putin has admitted that the restrictions do not produce anything good, and he wants to work towards a global economy that functions without these restrictions. However, repetitive threats of further sanctions from the US and EU could prompt Putin to consider means to shift the power equation. He may eventually feel his back is against the wall and may encourage him to act covertly to harm US and Western interests despite denials of doing so. When Russia behaves in ways that tear others from peace, it must still face consequences. However, the modification of that behavior could be rewarded. Sanctions could be used a powerful bargaining chip or a carrot in negotiations.

10. Russian Violations of Open Skies Treaty

The Treaty on Open Skies allows for states party to the treaty to conduct unarmed observation flights over the territory of other states to foster inter-military transparency and cooperation. The US, Canada, and 22 European countries including Russia signed the treaty in Helsinki on March 24, 1992. The US Senate ratified the treaty on November 3, 1993, and it entered into force on January 1, 2002. Today 34 countries are members of the Treaty on Open Skies. Russia has been accused of violating the spirit of the Treaty on Open Skies by restricting access to some sections of its territory. These limits include the denial of overflights over Chechnya or within 10 kilometers of its southern border with Georgia, a limitation on the maximum distances of flights over Kaliningrad, and altitude restrictions over Moscow. Russia has requested to upgrade to certain electro-optical sensors on its surveillance aircraft. The US could threaten to reject Russia’s requests until it again complies with the Open Skies Treaty.

A Russian Federation Tu-214R Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance plane (above). The Treaty on Open Skies allows for countries party to the treaty to conduct unarmed observation flights over the territory of other countries to foster inter-military transparency and cooperation. The US has complied with the treaty. Russia has violated the spirit of the treaty by restricting access to its territory. It has prohibited overflights over Chechnya or within 10 kilometers of its southern border with Georgia, set a limitation on the maximum distances of flights over Kaliningrad, and set altitude restrictions over Moscow.

11. Russian Violations of Conventional Nuclear Forces Treaty

In 2007, Russia suspended its implementation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Russia has continued to violate its treaty obligations and has made clear that it will not resume implementation of the treaty. On November 22, 2011, the US announced in Vienna, Austria that it was ceasing implementation of certain obligations under the treaty with regard to Russia. Similar announcements were made by NATO’S other members as well as Georgia and Moldova, but it did not impact Russian behavior. Russia continues to station its military forces in Georgia and Moldova without the consent of those countries. Russia’s annexing of Crimea and deployment of its military forces in Ukraine without Kiev’s consent was in violation of Article IV, paragraph 5 of the treaty. The US, NATO allies, and all other parties to the agreement recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine. The US has also called on Russia to remove its forces and equipment from eastern Ukraine. Clarification on Russia’s actions adverse to the treaty must be sought. Any possibility of its future compliance with the treaty can be discussed.

12. Russian Violations of the Intermediiate Nuclear Forces Treaty

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) eliminated and prohibits an entire class of missiles: nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The US remains in compliance with the INF. Reportedly, Russia has been developing missile systems in violation of the INF Treaty. As a counter move, the US has positioned weapons systems that are not prohibited by the INF Treaty in Europe. The US Air Force has deployed conventional B-52 and B-1 bombers periodically to Royal Air Force Fairford, a forward airbase in Britain. It has been suggested that Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles could be stockpiled there for potential use by the aircraft. Moscow would not like that. The US Navy could increase the presence of surface ships and submarines carrying conventionally armed sea-launched cruise missiles in the North Sea and other waters around northern Europe. The US Navy could consider home-porting several sea-launched cruise missile-capable warships at a European port, as it has done with Aegis-class destroyers based in Rota, Spain. The threat from Russian intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles to US allies in Europe and Asia is destabilizing. An effort to negotiate Russia’s return to compliance should be made.

A Russian Federation Iskander-M (SS-26) intermediate range missile (above). The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) eliminated and prohibits an entire class of missiles: nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Reportedly, Russia has been developing missile systems in violation of the INF Treaty. The threat from Russian intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles to US allies in Europe and Asia is destabilizing.

13. Nuclear Forces: New Deterrence Systems

The Russian Federation deploys an estimated 307 ICBMs which can carry approximately 1040 warheads. They represent only 40 percent of the country’s total arsenal of thermonuclear warheads. Russia has been developing an upgraded Topol-M variant, the more advanced Topol MR or SR-24 Yars. The Yars, is reportedly fitted with more advanced decoys and countermeasures than the Topol-M, and featuring a higher speed, has been specifically designed to evade Western anti-ballistic missile defense systems.Both Topol-M variants can be deployed from either missile silos or transporter-erector launchers. The more advanced Yars can reportedly be fitted with four to six multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles.The RS-28 Sarmat is the newest heavy liquid-propelled ICBM under development for the Russian Federation Armed Forces. In 2018, the Sarmat will replace older Soviet R-36M missiles, dubbed “Satan” by NATO, as the heavy silo-based component of the Russian nuclear forces.The Sarmat will have a dozen heavy thermonuclear warheads, each individually steerable during reentry. Those warheads are said to have advanced anti-missile countermeasures meant to beat the US Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense Shield. Both the US and Russia could discuss their intentions regarding nuclear force enhancement.

Russian Federation RT-2PM2 or “Topol-M” intercontinental ballistic missile (above). Russia has been developing an upgraded Topol-M variant, the more advanced Topol MR or SR-24 Yars. The more advanced Yars can evade Western anti-ballistic missile defense systems and can reportedly be fitted with four to six multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles. In 2018, the Sarmat will replace older Soviet R-36M (SS-18) missiles as the heavy silo-based component of the Russian nuclear forces. The Sarmat will have a dozen heavy thermonuclear warheads, each individually steerable during reentry.

14. Russian Aerial and Naval Intrusions

Among steps taken by Sergei Shoigu upon becoming Russian Federation Defense Minister April 5, 2012, he created a new corps, the Airspace Forces, and ordered and steadily increased Airspace Force bomber flights and Navy combat patrols. As a result, near the Baltic Sea, for example, Russian military aircraft near were intercepted by NATO jets 110 times in 2016. According to NATO, that number was lower than the 160 intercepts recorded in 2015 and the 140 in 2014. Still, this greatly exceeds the number of aerial encounters above the Baltic Sea before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. In 2013, NATO fighter jets intercepted Russian aircraft 43 times. NATO has explained Russian buzzing of Baltic airspace creates the risk for deadly mistakes. Russian military planes have been flying too close for comfort in Baltic and Nordic skies. The tension created could lead to dangerous accidents or initiate an escalation spiral. Russia must be convinced to halt its provocative aerial and Naval Intrusions as they serve little purpose if its true intent is to move toward peaceful relations with US.

15. Russian Cyber Attacks

In the past decade the Russian government has mounted more than a dozen significant cyber attacks against foreign countries, sometimes to help or harm a specific political candidate, sometimes to sow chaos, but always to project Russian power. The strategy of Russian intelligence, particularly Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR and its military counterpart Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU, has been to pair cyber attacks with online propaganda. It has since been refined and expanded by Russian intelligence. From June 2015 to November 2016, Russian hackers penetrated Democratic Party computers in the US, and gained access to the personal emails of Democratic Party officials, which in turn were distributed to the global media by WikiLeaks. Both the CIA and the FBI report the intrusions were intended to undermine the US election. Cyber gives Russia a usable strategic capability for active measures. If Russia sought to weaken NATO or harm US relations with Europe, cyber attacks could be launched. If potential benefits are great enough, the head of Russia’s SVR, Mikhail Naryshkin, may want to take the risk. Inquiries with Russia about cyber attacks will elicit denials. Russia must be convinced that future cyber attacks could derail efforts to build relations and will result in severe retaliation.

The head of Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR, Mikhail Naryshkin (above). In the past decade the Russian government has mounted more than a dozen significant cyber attacks against foreign countries to project Russian power. From June 2015 to November 2016, Russian hackers penetrated Democratic party computers in the US, and gained access to the personal emails of Democratic officials. Cyber gives Russia a usable strategic capacity. If potential benefits are great enough, Naryshkin may want to take the risk.

16. Russian Interference with US Satellites

Russia is developing the ability to approach, inspect and potentially sabotage or destroy satellites in orbit. For over two years, it has included three mysterious payloads in normal commercial satellite launches. Radar observations by the US Air Force and by amateur hobbyists revealed that after each commercial satellite was deployed, an additional small object would travel far away from the jettisoned rocket booster and later turn around and travel back. Some believe the objects named Kosmos-2491, Kosmos-2499 and Kosmos-2504, may not be a benign program. For years Russia and China have pushed for the ratification of a UN treaty banning space weapons. US officials and outside experts have rejected that treaty as a “disingenuous nonstarter.” The US has supported a European-led initiative to establish norms for appropriate behavior through the creation of a voluntary International Code of Conduct for Outer Space. It would be a first step, to be followed by a binding agreement. Concern over Russia’s development and deployment of capabilities to harm US satellites must be broached. Russia should be invited to sign on to the Code of Conduct for Outer Space or join an effort to develop a new treaty incorporating the most useful aspects of all proposed approaches and additional terms.Russia must be told that it will face consequences if it interferes with US satellites.

17. Russian Arctic Military Build-up

Russia assesses the Arctic is one of the most economically promising regions in the world. The Arctic Circle holds enormous reserves of hydrocarbons and other minerals; the region also provides the shortest path for transporting goods from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans. Russia claims that under international law norms, a substantial part of the territory in Arctic waters belongs to it. Russia observes that in addition to US Navy and US Air Force units, the US fields three ‘Arctic’ brigades in Alaska and special purpose Marines Corps units can be rapidly deployed to the north. The Canadian Army is viewed by Russia as being well-trained for action in the Arctic. Russia has taken note of Ottawa’s reorganization and reequipping its ranger units responsible for security in the Arctic region, and it recognizes Joint Task Force 2, an elite special operations unit of the Canadian Forces, is also prepared to conduct tasks in the Arctic. Further, Russia views the Norwegian Special Force “Rangers” as being especially honed for action in the Arctic. Russia notes that Oslo recently announced its creation of a new unit of special forces practically on the border with Russia. In response, Russia has deployed and specially equipped the 200th and 80th brigades to the Arctic. In 2015, Russia also opened the refurbished Soviet-era Alakurtti base located near the border with Finland in the Murmansk Region. A number of abandoned Soviet-era bases are being reopened and new one are being built. Russia’s fleet of nuclear-powered icebreaker’s is also being bolstered. Clarification on Russia’s activity in the Arctic must be provided. The Arctic units could be viewed as a maneuver force to support potential operations in northern Europe.

A Russian Federation Arctic units in training (above). Russia assesses the Arctic is one of the most economically promising regions in the world. Russia has deployed and specially equipped the 200th and 80th brigades to the Arctic. In 2015, Russia also opened the refurbished Soviet-era Alakurtti base located near the border with Finland in the Murmansk Region. A number of abandoned Soviet-era bases are being reopened and new one are being built. Russia’s fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers is also being bolstered.

Facilitating Deal Making

Issues on which presidential action could immediately resolve matters may be hashed out at the table or it could be mutually agreed to give some additional consideration such matters before giving a response. Both Trump and Putin could make mutual peace offerings. That certainly does not mean emptying oneself akin to oblation, but to do something to encourage good-faith bargaining and compromise. There are several bargaining chips of differing value to both parties. Cooperation on counterterrorism, ISIS, climate change, and poverty may serve as a bargaining chips to get agreements on other issues. However, greater bargaining chips might include: the return of Russian properties in the US, types of reconstruction assistance in Syria, peace-enforcement in Syria, making the Group of 7 the Group of 8 again with inclusion of Russia, some economic sanctions, leaving sanction loopholes open, and lifting restrictions on the Exxon-Rosneft agreement through an exemption. Some of these actions may not appear plausible and could have a deleterious effect on international consensus on sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine and create an uproar among the Europeans. However, Trump undoubtedly believes bold action may be the very thing that can pump blood into negotiations, modify Russian behavior, and get relations moving forward. Conversely, Putin may offer much, if he feels secure enough, to loosen the US grip on Russia’s figurative economic throat. Perhaps some of this might be left for meetings down the road.

Aliquis latet error. (Some trickery lies hidden.) There are those in the Trump administration that will not welcome a warming of ties with Russia such as US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Marine Corps General James Dunford. They perceive Russia as the “enemy at the gates” and a great concern. They are advocates for vigilance and extreme caution with regard to diplomacy with it. Needless to say, McMaster would not be remiss and let Trump begin the meeting without reviewing the “what ifs” and contingencies resulting from what could possibly be unexpectedly difficult meeting. Trump must be able to recognize when it is definitely time to look for the door. If along with success, there are big questions or complaints, it will important not to “cry foul” or even grunt. That might be perceived as weakness by Putin. If a matter is worthy of review, Tillerson will likely be able to sort it out with Lavrov. Indeed, Trump’s meeting with Putin could be a fulsome discussion of issues or an exchange of views on issues much of which senior diplomats could be tasked resolve over time.

Trump must put “America First” but keep firmly in mind how his decisions and actions regarding Russia might impact European allies and partners.There has been considerable anguish and disappointment over Trump’s prior statements on collective security in European capitals. Some European leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, perhaps unwittingly, have promoted such doubts with statements driven by political expedience. She has expressed the will to remain in a combative mode, promising days before the G-20 Summit to fight for free trade, press on with multilateral efforts to combat climate change and challenge Trump’s “America First” policies. Merkel stated: “These will not be easy talks,” She went further by explaining: “The differences are obvious and it would be wrong to pretend they aren’t there. I simply won’t do this.” Asked by journalists about Merkel’s comments, McMaster remarked that the US relationship with Germany was “as strong as ever” and played down the discord. He also noted: “Of course there are going to be differences in relations with any country, and we’ll talk frankly about those differences. The president enjoys those conversations.” For the moment, many Europeans will likely stand a bit uneasy and apprehensive about US intentions and actions until trust and confidence are eventually rebuilt. Europe is not just an acquaintance of the US. For decades, the US has served as Europe’s defacto guardian, key to its security. While Europe may not be Trump’s primary focus it is a prime concern.

The Way Forward

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet XCIV explains that the ability to restrain the expression of emotion, and refrain from revealing to the world via visage one’s authentic thoughts and true feelings were regarded as virtue or at least useful ability in that day. Such persons–often found in positions of leadership–tend to isolate their true selves, but Shakespeare indicates that does not diminish the virtue. Using a flowers sweet scent as a metaphor, he explains it’s scent is still sweet when wasted on the desert air. However, he explains that such virtue when corrupted is far worse than depraved behavior. It reads:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,

That do not do the thing they most do show,

Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,

Unmoved, cold, and to temptation show,

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces

And husband nature’s riches from expense;

They are the lords and owners of their faces,

Others but stewards of their excellence.

the summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,

Though to itself it only live and die,

But if that flower with base infection meet,

The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Trump has “advanced in age and wisdom and in grace with God and man.” Much as he may amuse himself through tweets to intemperate younger journalist, who, while projecting venomous comments toward him at the same time more often tickle him with their countenance, he is more than aware of his responsibility as the steward of his country’s security. He wants to establish peace and security for future generations: for his grandchildren and their posterity. Trump wants to do big things for his country, he sought the job of president for that reason. His efforts concerning Russia relations are noble.

Time, words, opportunity are things that in many circumstances come once, and never come back. One must make use of time available. It does not mean rush into things, but to be mindful that limits for preparation and action exist. Words can open doors and lead to resolution but can also damage. Banality and boastfulness so far has been avoided by the two sides. The similitude between the words of engagement used by Trump and Putin indicate there is reason for hope. Both time and words have served to create the opportunity for a positive connection between Trump and Putin. Surely, Trump cannot know what is in Putin’s heart. Putin is a calculator. Yet, Trump is unthreatened, and unmoved by notions proffered that Putin serves all things evil. If the ultimate goal of Moscow is to have the US submit to its will, Trump will not allow that to happen. He transmits no hint of doubt. Conversely, Putin must cope with his own uncertainties about Trump. One’s will acts upon what reason discerns. It is not self-justifying. Will is guided by intellect. To that extent, a genuine effort is being made and both sides appear to have the requisite he will. One would unlikely say everything has been elegantly done so far. However, some things can be smoothed out at the coming meeting, and a few more at all the subsequent ones. Success with Russia will change international affairs globally. Variatio detectat. (There is nothing like change.)

A Worried Europe Finds Scant Reassurance on Trump: It May Be Provided Outside the Counter-Trump Milieu

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US President Donald Trump has not projected the sort of geniality toward Europe that would relax its leaders. Insecurity over populism and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has overwhelmed European leaders, officials, analysts, academicians, and journalists, but Trump seems to worry them almost equally. They do not get him. Perhaps the best hope now would be for European leaders and officials to step away from the current environment and try to quietly examine Trump from a different angle for the sake of transatlantic relations.

According to a February 19, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “A Worried Europe Finds Scant Reassurance on Trump’s Plans,” diplomats, generals, policy experts, and security officials traveled to the 2017 Munich Security Conference from all over the world seeking clues to US President Donald Trump’s ideas and intentions on foreign and defense policy, but left without much reassurance. The highest ranking members of the Trump administration that attended the conference, held from February 17th to February 19th, were US Vice President Mike Pence and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Both addressed the conference, but reportedly adhered to prepared statements. Pence’s presentation, in particular, was eagerly awaited. In his address, he explained that he carried a direct message of reassurance from Trump, but his words received little approval from keen observers of Washington present. R. Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor and former US Under Secretary of State gave Pence credit. Burns said, “The vice president said what he had to say, and I applauded.“ He went on to explain, “But there were very few specifics, and everyone noted that Mr. Pence did not once mention the European Union, which for most Europeans is the central institution, not NATO. Europe is going through a very tough time, and they expected a big public embrace of these institutions from the leader of the West, the United States.” Burns went on to explain, “They know that President Trump has repeatedly questioned the relevance of both NATO and the EU and has encouraged Brexit, and many Europeans fear he may work for a weakening of the EU itself.” He continued, noting, “All this ambivalence makes them very nervous, and it’s hard for Pence to overcome.” US Senator John McCain, referred to in the New York Times article as a conference regular, said that the administration was “in disarray,” and added,“The president, I think, makes statements and on other occasions contradicts himself. So we’ve learned to watch what the president does as opposed to what he says.”

Europe has managed to promote multilateral cooperation under difficult circumstances in the past 70 years. Perhaps the best example of that cooperation was the formation of NATO in 1949.  There was a sense of uncertainty, a degree of instability, and a real threat from the Soviet Union. Foreign policy and global strategy were not well-coordinated among Western capitals. However, with the leadership role of the US, but also with distinctive leading roles played by European countries, what is the now well-known as the Western perspective grew. Pragmatic and patient efforts were to coordinate the policies of Western European countries together with the US and Canada until a new system of European security was developed. Currently, there is increased anxiety in European capitals with regard to EU unity, a rise in populism, and the threat posed by Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and his armed forces. Uncertain of the new US administration’s intentions and plans regarding the support of Europe, European leaders and officials have been turning left and right, asking questions, searching for useful answers. Finding genuine, constructive answers in what could called a counter-Trump milieu has proven most difficult. Indeed, with all of the news media stories, and the nonstop rebuke of Trump by political opponents at home and pundits worldwide, there hardly seems space available in the current environment to introduce into the discourse other facts or evidence about the US president other facts or evidence about the Trump administration without obstruction.

Perhaps the best hope now would be for European leaders and officials to momentarily step back from the current discourse and during that pause, try to quietly examine Trump from a different angle for the sake of Europe. That reexamination might include new research and bilateral meetings with senior US officials. Europe must bridge the growing gap in relations with the US. False appearances and errors in judgment can be dispelled by the truth. To simply take the approach du jure, engage in groupthink, or succumb to the angry mob about Trump, is a misuse of intellect, a misuse of will. Demands cannot be so great, tied so much to the dignity of a nation or movement, or their own pride and ego, that European leaders and officials would allow themselves to become the impediment to finding a way to work with Trump. Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem. (Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even.)

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At the 2017 Munich Security Conference, US Vice President Mike Pence’s address was eagerly awaited. He offered reassurances from Trump. However, the Europeans wanted a public embrace of their institutions by the US, but they say it was not given. There hardly seems space available in the counter-Trump milieu in Europe for anyone to introduce other facts or evidence about Trump and his administration without obstruction.

Prominent Europeans’ Responses to Trump at Munich

Animus quod perdidt optat atque in præterita se totus imagine versat. (The mind yearns for what is gone and loses itself dreaming of the past.) National leaders are expected to project a certain geniality. In democracies, that geniality can boost a candidate’s appeal to the public in elections. Once in power, that geniality makes for great optics, and to a degree may still help shape public opinion, but the main task of a leader is to perform one’s duty and responsibilities well. Trump has not projected the sort of geniality toward Europe that would relax leaders in Brussels or any of the national capitals. There has been a tumultuous clamor in Europe over him. The most apparent causality for the Europeans are the ties of a few senior members of the Trump administration might have with the Russian president. Europe’s expression of  such irritation and concern exposed the considerable degree of insecurity, and to a degree, fear, that overwhelms the latest generation of European analysts, academicians, and journalists not only over populism, Putin, and Russian military power, but the US almost as much. They appear unable to read Trump and discuss him in a way that cannot seem to avoid use of obloquy. The nascent days of the Trump administration certainly contrast in this way with those of administration of US President Barack Obama. Obama seemed to specialize in studied ambiguity on foreign policy, speaking comfortable words to address urgent and important issues as well as outright provocations. It was in line with what then Vice President Joe Biden called “the new tone” of US foreign policy at the 2009 Munich Security Conference. The Obama administration held the promise of a kinder, more thoughtful US than was observed with the administration of his predecessor US President George Bush. Biden urged Europe to ramp up its efforts and partner with the US in an effort to re-establish a workable world order. Those early days with Obama in office appear sorely missed by the Europeans. However, waxing nostalgically about the Obama administration will not serve European leaders well. Moreover, with nostalgia, one more often remembers the best and filters out the worst. Some might recall that Europe voiced concern over how passively Obama responded to provocations such as Russia’s threat to deploy weapons against former Soviet republics and cut natural gas supplies to Europe, and Iran’s launch of a satellite and development enough uranium to fuel a nuclear bomb.  Now, concerns are being expressed about another US president’s response concerning European security.

When he addressed the 2017 Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to Washington who organizes the conference, queried whether Trump would: “continue a tradition of half a century of being supportive of the project of European integration, or is he going to continue to advocate EU member countries to follow the Brexit example? If he did that, it would amount to a kind of nonmilitary declaration of war. It would mean conflict between Europe and the United States. Is that what the U.S. wants? Is that how he wishes to make America great again?” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault expressed his displeasure with the fact that Pence had not sent a message of support for the EU, something Ischinger had suggested Pence provide before the conference. Elmar Brok, head of the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament and a party ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated, “Pence and Mattis and Tillerson can come here and talk about the importance of the transatlantic relationship and NATO–and that is all good.” However, Brok went on to state, “But we don’t know what’s coming on Twitter tomorrow morning.” Daniela Schwarzer, the director of the German Council on Foreign Relations stated without ornament, “People were not reassured.” She continued, “They think that Trump is erratic and incalculable. We all want to hear what we want to hear. But everyone knows that any Trump official could be gone tomorrow, or undercut in another tweet.” Still, Schwarzer intriguingly stated that words were also deeds. She explained, “What he says also changes reality.” In that vein, she proffered, “If you put NATO or the European Union into doubt, it changes their credibility and damages them.” Ulrich Speck, a foreign policy analyst at the Elcano think tank in Brussels, said the conundrum that former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger evoked when he famously asked who he should call when he wanted to talk to “Europe” seemed to have been “turned on its head.” Speck continued, “Now Europe is asking who it should call if it wants to talk to the United States.” One unnamed European diplomat reportedly likened the challenge of figuring out who to listen to in the Trump administration to the task of “Kremlinologists” during the Cold War. Major ignotarum rerum est terror.  (Apprehensions are greater in proportion as things are unknown.)

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US Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the 2017 Munich Security Conference (above). No benefit will be derived from undermining the US leadership when a response from the US against Russia might prove crucial to Europe’s well-being. European leaders and officials must recall that the ties between the US and Europe have a long history. It is a bond which no US administration would genuinely desire to ignore or want to break. In time, Europe will likely understand that the relationship is still of great value to the US and is appreciated.

News Media Reports and Their Possible Impact on the Matter

When one is less certain about the objective truth, the possibility that one might be drawn elsewhere for answers increases. Lacking any formal statements from the the Trump White House or State Department to analyze US policies, it appears that some in European capitals have turned to the US news media interpretations of political events and decisions of the Trump Administration. In the US, the news media serves as a watchdog over government power and political activity. It is a source from which the public can inform itself on the decisions and actions of elected leaders and appointed officials. The news media is at its best when it can provide the public with a look inside government bodies and operations. Its role in the society is sacrosanct. “Freedom of the press” is one the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the US Constitution listing specific prohibitions on government power. The implications of comments emanating from the Trump administration about the “fake news media” being the “enemy of the American people” are considerable. Ignoring the “fake,” Some have gone as far as to say that denunciation of the news media is the “greatest threat to democracy” they have seen. The news media, the unofficially recognized “Fourth Estate” or fourth branch of government given its importance to the democracy, is not the enemy of the US public. Such comments were unlikely fully considered before spoken, and eventually became fodder in an ongoing struggle between the Trump administration and certain US news media houses. It appears the aim of those grave words initially was to reject and certainly sting some in the news media in response to reports questioning the character of Trump administration officials, but not to be destructive, or to indict the news media as a whole. Events surrounding the Trump administration have gained increased attention. There is a reality that news media houses would like to present attention grabbing headlines to promote readership and viewership, which helps them fill advertising space and increases profit. Indeed, it must be noted that the news media, while a sentinel for democracy, is also a major industry, and managers in  houses seek to satisfy the appetites of their customer base. To patronize in order to connect with the customer is a business practice. In the case of reporting on Trump, most journalists in newspapers of record, to their credit, have written articles that are often measured in composition, providing ample qualifications alongside each postulation. Due to the doubts attached, it stands to reason that information presented in this way should neither be viewed as weighty nor reliable. Others have sought to convince readers that stories are bigger than they are. Such articles exaggerate the truth to the exclusion of it subtleties. Even more, some journalists’ judgments of matters they report about the Trump administration have often insinuated themselves into their articles. That approach on occasion has very likely served to inflame passions and appeal to the lower nature of many readers and viewers, domestically and internationally. What has been stated here may appear as a foray by greatcharlie into media criticism, but actually the intent is to highlight the current environment surrounding the US news media from which many European leaders and officials may be collecting information on the administration.

Recent examples of the type of reports described, include a February 16, 2017 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Spies Keep Intelligence From Donald Trump on Leak Concerns,”  stated: “US intelligence officials have withheld sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump because they are concerned it could be leaked or compromised, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter. The officials’ decision to keep information from Mr. Trump underscores the deep mistrust that has developed between the intelligence community and the president over his team’s contacts with the Russian government, as well as the enmity he has shown toward U.S. spy agencies.” The Wall Street Journal article further stated: “In some of these cases of withheld information, officials have decided not to show Mr. Trump the sources and methods that the intelligence agencies use to collect information, the current and former officials said. Those sources and methods could include, for instance, the means that an agency uses to spy on a foreign government.” However, within the article, the following qualification was provided: “A spokesman for the Office of Director of National Intelligence said: ‘Any suggestion that the U.S. intelligence community is withholding information and not providing the best possible intelligence to the president and his national security team is not true.’” Further clarity on the matter was provided in the article with the following: “It wasn’t clear Wednesday how many times officials have held back information from Mr. Trump. The officials emphasized that they know of no instance in which crucial information about security threats or potential plotting has been omitted.”

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German soldiers in formation (above). Lacking any formal statements from the the Trump White House or State Department to analyze US policies, some in European capitals may have turned to the US news media interpretations of political events and decisions of the Trump Administration. Some of those reports may served to inflame passions and convince them that their worst fears regarding US relations were being realized. That would include facing Russia alone.

In a February 14, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts with Russian Intelligence,” stated verbatim: “Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials. The New York Times article continued: “American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.” The article created greater intrigue with the following: “The officials said that one of the advisers picked up on the calls was Paul Manafort, who was Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman for several months last year and had worked as a political consultant in Ukraine. The officials declined to identify the other Trump associates on the calls. The article went on to explain: “The call logs and intercepted communications are part of a larger trove of information that the F.B.I. is sifting through as it investigates the links between Mr. Trump’s associates and the Russian government, as well as the hacking of the D.N.C., according to federal law enforcement officials. As part of its inquiry, the F.B.I. has obtained banking and travel records and conducted interviews, the officials said.”

In a similar way to the February 16th Wall Street Journal article, the February 14th New York Times article provided qualifications on this intriguing information, explaining: “The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.” The New York Times article also disclosed: “Mr. Manafort, who has not been charged with any crimes, dismissed the officials’ accounts in a telephone interview on Tuesday. ‘This is absurd,’ he said. ‘I have no idea what this is referring to. I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers, and I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation today.’ He added, ‘It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’” Additionally on the matter of contacts, the article continued: “Several of Mr. Trump’s associates, like Mr. Manafort, have done business in Russia. And it is not unusual for American businessmen to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly, in countries like Russia and Ukraine, where the spy services are deeply embedded in society. Law enforcement officials did not say to what extent the contacts might have been about business.” The article added: “The officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, the identity of the Russian intelligence officials who participated, and how many of Mr. Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians. It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself. There was also mention in the article of an FBI effort to assess the credibility of information contained in a dossier that was given to the bureau last year by a former intelligence operative of the United Kingdom. The New York Times article stated: “The dossier contained a raft of allegations of a broad conspiracy between Mr. Trump, his associates and the Russian government. It also included unsubstantiated claims that the Russians had embarrassing videos that could be used to blackmail Mr. Trump.” However, that information came with a qualification, which stated: “The F.B.I. has spent several months investigating the leads in the dossier, but has yet to confirm any of its most explosive claims.”

Even the February 19th New York Times article that impelled the writing of this greatcharlie post projected a negative tone. Some unfavorable judgments of the Trump administration infiltrated the article’s description of European responses to remarks made by US officials. The articled noted: “An audience anxious for signals about the Trump administration’s stances on NATO, the European Union, Germany and the Russia of President Vladimir V. Putin, whom Mr. Trump so openly admires, was only minimally soothed. It mostly heard boilerplate assurances about United States commitments of the kind that previous American administrations had rarely felt the need to give.”

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A NATO meeting in Brussels (above). There are considerable incongruences between what is being assumed today about the Trump administration’s approach to Europe and what has been US policy over 70 years. Europe should be hopeful over its future with the US, not anxious or intimidated. Years of success should not be forgotten by Europe over the prospect of working with the new US president to firm up some aspects of the relationship. 

Demonization and Confirmation Bias

Poenam irae saepe videmus. (We often see the penalty of anger.) In the February 19th New York Times article, Artis Pabriks, a former Latvian foreign and defense minister and now a member of the European Parliament, was quoted as saying “The Cold War was won not just by weapons but by propaganda and soft power.” Pabriks then offered the observation, “And on German television, Trump is a joke for everybody. We’re concerned also about American prestige.” In Western media, particularly social media, sites that encourage or present hostile assessments of celebrities, political figures, or those who may have drawn the spotlight to themselves for one reason or another, grab more attention than all other. The attention and approval one can gain from engaging such commentary has made it may in part help make it commonplace.  Indeed, there is a tendency for many, perhaps even most, to demonize those with whom there is disagreement. Demonization has often morphed into hatred. This behavior was both very apparent and very virulent in the 2016 Presidential Campaign. Going back as far as the 18th century, many said worse. Often such hostile talk led to duels. Still, the intensity and sheer volume of exchanges and reports of exchanges that jammed social media and news media streams made what was expressed not only pervasive, but practically unavoidable. The environment has not improved, but perhaps has become worse since then. There is still the punch and counterpunch between political opponents, pundits, and the news media, itself, with the Trump administration. Disagreements seem to have become endless feuds. For European leaders and officials, the danger lies in stepping into this struggle, taking one side or another in the exchange in the US  about the Trump administration because they believe the status of the US president falls with their interests and their constituencies want to know where they stand on such a popular and controversial, yet also delicate matter.

There are considerable incongruences between what is being assumed today about the Trump administration’s approach to Europe and what has been US policy over 70 years. Europe should be hopeful over its future with the US, not anxious or intimidated. Years of success should not be chucked out by Europe over the prospect of working with the US to firm up some aspects of the relationship. There are insistent efforts to advertise Trump’s perceived weaknesses. Some news media houses have approved stories that include unwarranted extrapolations. Only European leaders and officials would know what moves them to believe one thing or another about Trump. It may be experience, intuition, or mores. Despite the importance of relations with the US, it could be hypothesized that some may harbor negative beliefs in general about their ally. In any event, confirmation bias can be a result of the direct influence of desire on beliefs. Confirmation bias suggests that individuals do not perceive circumstances objectively. An individual extrapolates bits of data that are satisfying because they confirm the individual’s prejudices. Therefore, one becomes a prisoner of one’s assumptions. If European leaders and officials want certain ideas about Trump to be true, they end up believing them to be true. Such an error could have lead them to cease collecting information when the evidence gathered at a certain point confirms the prejudices they may feel are true. After developing that view, for the most part, they would embrace any information that confirms it while going as far as to ignore or reject information that makes it unlikely.

Attempting to confirm beliefs comes naturally to most individuals, while conversely it feels less desirable and counterintuitive for them to seek out evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This explains why opinions survive and spread. Disconfirming instances must be far more powerful in establishing truth. Disconfirmation requires searching for evidence to disprove a firmly held opinion. With regard to their understanding of the Trump administration, European leaders and officials must appropriately verify their conclusions. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. This has been pointed to as a true manifestation of self-confidence: the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can serve a hypothesis and then gather information from each member in a way that allows the expression of independent assessments.

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United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May and Trump (above). Political and social pressures to conform to a counter-Trump outlook may exist in Europe, but relations with the US are too important for European capitals to allow the situation to deteriorate so acutely. European leaders must not embrace any information that confirms any individual biases or prejudices they might have about Trump. The thinking that may have caused them not to consider alternatives must be subtracted.

Groupthink in Europe on Trump

With all of the news media stories, and his nonstop rebuke by political opponents at home and pundits worldwide, an environment that would welcome an unobstructed examination or public discussion of other facts or evidence about Trump is practically nonexistent. Antipathy may strong enough in some European leaders and officials that they may be disinclined to take a second look at anything pertaining to Trump. Indeed, among them may be cynics who are uninterested in the truth. They may wrongfully view any effort rectify the situation as obsequiousness in the face of US power, placing political pressure on colleagues who may want reconsider some issues. Some may claim seeking to work with Trump would pose some moral dilemma. However, such could exist only when one knows the objective truth, disapproves of the course of events and is constrained from conforming to external demands. Enumerated here are many of the symptoms of groupthink. Groupthink occurs when a group makes faulty decisions due to group pressures lead to a deterioration of ”mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.” The term was coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (Houghton Mifflin, 1972). Groups affected by groupthink will tend to ignore alternatives and take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups. Groups become especially vulnerable to groupthink when members are similar in background, the group is insulated from outside opinions, and there are no clear rules for decision making.

The eight symptoms of groupthink documented by Janis include: the illusion of invulnerability which creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks; a collective rationalization, by which group members shrug off warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions; a belief in inherent morality by which members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions; stereotyped views of “out-groups” or negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary; direct pressure on dissenters by which group members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views; self-censorship which thwarts the expression of doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus; the illusion of unanimity which creates the assumption that the majority view and judgments are unanimous; and, self-appointed “mindguards” who are group members that protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and decisions.

Decisions shaped by groupthink have a low probability of achieving successful outcomes.When the above symptoms, and such conditions by all indications exist to some degree among foreign policy officials in European capitals making decisions on the Trump administration, there is a reasonable chance that groupthink will happen. However, it does not need to be so. Groupthink occurs when groups are highly cohesive and when they are under considerable pressure to make a quality decision.  Within respective capitals that might be the case, but among countries cohesion is attenuated. The political and social pressures to conform to counter-Trump outlook may exist, but relations with the US relationship is too important for too many countries to inexcusably allow the situation to deteriorate so acutely.  European leaders and officials should drive themselves to realistically appraise courses of action available to them. Any carelessness and irrational thinking that led to the failure to consider all alternatives along the wrongful path to  groupthink must be subtracted.

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A US F-22 Raptor (above). Ensuring Europe’s well-being is in the interest of the US. If grave harm ever came to any US ally or partner in Europe, the impact in all quarters in Washington would be shattering. It would guarantee a devastating, immediate response by Trump.  Europe faces no danger of abandonment by the US despite how Trump or his senior officials may sound. Trump only speaks of pruning the leaves and branches of the tree, he does not want to poison the root.

European Leaders and Officials Must Act under Pressure

Diu in ista nave fui et propter tempestatem nubesque semper mortem expectabam. (I was on board that ship for a long while, and I was constantly expecting death on account of the storms and clouds.)  Among Trump’s immediate thoughts about Europe have been to make some changes with regard to security. The big issue is failure of some European countries to meet their financial commitments to NATO. In reality, some European countries have been remiss, consistently failing to meet a 2 percent GDP goal agreed to by alliance members. Trump wants to resolve that issue with the Europeans. However, Europe faces no danger of abandonment by the US despite how his words or those of his senior officials. To use a soft metaphor, Trump only speaks of pruning the leaves and branches of the tree, he does not want to poison the root. (Certainly, if Trump’s goal was to get Europe’s full attention with his statements, he has succeeded in that.) Yet, many in Europe have formed opinions that contrast with this reality. They may not be disposed to pursuing the truth, fearing what the truth may be. Worrying about US actions and intentions is a new type of stress, posing unfamiliar and unimaginable challenges.

University of Chicago Executive Vice Provost and Professor of Psychology, Sian Beilock, has spent years investigating how people perform under pressure and avoid failure. She has published more than 100 papers on the subject, and recently won the 2017 Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences for her research. Her most recent book, How the Body Knows Its Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2015), discusses what scientists have learned about the influence of body movement on brain activity. It includes tips such as pacing around a room for a creativity boost. At the Human Performance Laboratory, where she is director, Beilock and her colleagues explore the physiological mechanisms by which people buckle under pressure. They have measured the amount of cortisol in a person’s saliva to gauge stress levels and have used neuroimaging to see which areas of the brain are activated during high-pressure situations. Beilock has found that individuals are capable of making just about anything become a stressful, high-stakes activity. She explained, “Some of the greatest chokes are on the Olympic stage, but they also happen when you can’t say eloquently what you want to say in a meeting.” Overthinking often trips people up. “It’s paralysis by analysis,” Beilock says. Individuals can get confused when they think too much, worry too much, about what they are doing.

Beilock also tests subjects’ reaction times and accuracy at the Human Performance Laboratory to understand performance failure. She often includes golfers in her research. Many golf pros claim the sport is 90 percent mental making it an ideal forum for her research. At the professional level, some golfers fail to perform well in front of spectators. Beilock has found golfers easily become stressed when caused to think about the technical aspects of their swing. She explained,  if you really want to mess with a golfer’s game, you could just say, “That was a great shot! What were you doing with your elbow?” On her blog, Beilock calls attention to Bruce Ollstein, a former drill instructor and US Army Psychological Operations officer, who delved into the effects of stress on golfers in his book, Combat Golf: The Competitor’s Field Manual for Winning Against Any Opponent (Viking, 1996). Ollstein explains that a few choice words will typically have a deleterious effects on a golfer’s morale and performance. Among those methods, Ollstein listed: hand out some “gimmies”; plant seeds of doubt; leave them “hanging”; and, silence is golden.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Vice President Mike Pence (above). European leaders and officials must no longer fall prey to attention grabbing news stories about Trump, some of which have supported very wrong notions in Europe about his plans. They must be wary of experts who postulate on very important matters from the abstract. Additionally, they must guard against self-deception.

It may very well be that, albeit unintentionally, US foreign policy experts in discussing Trump with their European colleagues as well as with European leaders and officials, they may have had a deleterious effects on their perspective, morale, and performance. Leaders and officials may have been thrown a bit off-kilter, and delayed getting both involved and into a working rhythm with the Trump administration after learning of US news media reports and comments from the Obama administration in its waning days. Consider that from the start of 2016 Presidential Election, uncertainty was created about what a Trump victory would mean for Europe given some harsh campaign comments on NATO. It likely had a chilling effect on them. However, assurances also came from all quarters that former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would win the election. After the election there was more turmoil, and before the Europeans could formulate an approach to Trump, they encountered a flurry of reports detailing his inexperience and how unprepared he was to appropriately handle foreign policy decisionmaking. Doubts were expressed about his advisers perspectives and abilities. Questions were raised about Russia’s influence on the election result and Trump’s campaign. Stories were told of a war between Trump and the US Intelligence Community, and rumors swirled that Trump might face impeachment.

At Munich, US  foreign policy experts were reportedly making statements that perhaps may have unwittingly done even more to plant seeds of doubt and undermine the confidence of European leaders and officials in their abilities to reach out to, or work with, Trump. Consider the comments by Julianne Smith, a former principal Director of European and NATO Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Deputy National Security Adviser to former US Vice President Joe Biden in the February 19th New York Times. Smith reportedly explained people would be reassured “for about five hours, or maybe through the weekend.” What remains unresolved, she said, is who will come out on top in what she called a battle among the three centers of power in the White House: Trump, Bannon and White House Special Adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. On Pence, Derek Chollet, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Obama administration, who is now with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, proffered, “His [Pence’s] mission was always going to be hard, but it was made even more so by the questions about his lack of influence inside the White House.” As for beginning a story that has no end, and letting one “hang,” doubt was left by US experts at Munich left as to what lies ahead with the Trump administration.   Smith went on to explain in the New York Times that Europeans were disturbed when retired US Navy Vice Admiral Robert Harward turned down an offer to replace Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn because he would not be given autonomy over his staff.  She said, “Our allies don’t know who is their interlocutor and what phone number to call.” She went on to state, “And talk of hedging NATO commitment on financial contributions did rattle the alliance,” even if European members acknowledge that they need to pay more for collective defense. As for convincing the Europeans that Trump has basically been silent on his intentions and letting them dwell on their inabilities, anxieties, US experts explained to them that they were not told enough in Munich still to understand or plan for relations with the administration. The US historian and foreign policy commentator Robert Kagan dismissed Pence’s address in Munich as a “robotic salute to the man in power.” Although Pence tried to tackle the doubts of European leaders and officials head-on by explaining at the start that he was speaking for Trump, Kagan reportedly noted disapprovingly that he went on “to mention the president 19 times in the course of the 20-minute speech.”

U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a translation during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House in Washington

With a second look at Trump, European leaders and officials may recognize an intriguing duality. In business, he engaged in high stakes negotiations and hefty transactions, but also displayed talent as a builder, a man who created things.  Designing and constructing buildings was an art for Trump. As a media celebrity, he lived a life of high drama while he entertained. During the 2016 US Presidential Campaign, Trump’s capabilities seemed to coalesce in an interesting and effective way.

Knowing the Real Trump

Quid enim est stultius quam incerta pro certis habere, falsa pro veris? (What, indeed, is more foolish than to consider uncertainties as certain, falsehoods as truths?) The renowned 19th century Prussian statesman, Otto von Bismarck said “Politics is the art of the possible.” To better understand Trump and improve relations with the US, European leaders and officials must set aside their personal preferences. There are some solid reports that present positive perspectives on Trump. Those reports as well as any that may even appear feeble, must be examined. The analytical process in the current environment must be akin to a crucible in which irrelevancies are burned off and result is the truth. If European leaders and officials could disassociate themselves from the mixed, very often negative, signals emanating out the political milieu in the US, they might recognize an intriguing duality about Trump. In business, Trump for decades engaged in high stakes negotiations and hefty transactions. He displayed talent as a planner, manager, and builder, a man who created things. The German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling said, “Architecture is music in space, as it were a frozen music.” The architecture of Trump’s buildings and music would have things in common such as rhythm, texture, harmony, proportion, and dynamics. For Trump, designing and constructing buildings was an art. He could become lost in it. That was Trump’s world, too. As a media celebrity, he lived a life of high drama while he entertained and bedazzled. During the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Trump’s varied capabilities and interests appeared to coalesce in an interesting and, albeit, effective way. On the surface, Trump was self-confident, audacious, brash, and bombastic–some might add boorish, yet in his planning, he was humble, meticulous, perceptive, and innovative. European political leaders might take special note of how Trump, facing constant waves of invective, even calumny, dug deep inside himself and always found a way, leaving other candidates trailing in his wake. This stands in stark contrast to the notions of Trump’s alleged vacuity, which is more often deceitfully served up by a variety angry, aggressive, envious, and ambitious sources camped in all directions. They all certainly have reasons for their positions. The presidency represents a huge change for Trump and he continues to recurvate from being a very successful businessman and celebrity known worldwide to a more potent, more formal, and in many ways, more narrow role. Regarding all of the opprobrium, Trump has seen other winds and has faced other storms.  He has no reputation for faltering in adversity.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he was presenting the term as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. Trump will unlikely be disposed to subordinating the interests of the US to the wishes of any country. However, ensuring Europe’s well-being is in the interest of the US. If grave harm ever came to any US ally or partner in Europe, the impact in all quarters in Washington would be shattering. It will guarantee a devastating, immediate response by Trump. The Trump administration continues to evolve. Recently, US Army Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, a renowned military strategist and national security expert, became Trump’s new National Security Adviser. Looking toward the future with optimism, the US president will most likely find his stride very soon on relations with Europe. A new balance may be observed and perhaps many European leaders and officials will appreciate Trump’s very formidable, comprehensive capabilities. After all that has been said and done, some Europeans remain optimistic. Thomas Matussek, a former German ambassador to the United Kingdom and the UN, said that “people will be reassured to some degree, because they want to be.” He contrasted Trump and White House Special Adviser Stephen Bannon: “Trump’s not an ideologue, like Bannon, but pretty pragmatic and innovative, subject to discussion.” Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House, a London-based research institution, expressed optimism saying: “Trump does not come in with a fixed foreign-policy agenda on many issues, so there is contested space and room for influence and maneuver.” Niblett recalled Trump’s early “flip-flops” on Israel and NATO, but then explained: “Trump’s fixated on certain things, like trade and jobs and America’s place in the world, but there seems to be room for influence.” Artis Pabriks, a Latvian member of the European Parliament mentioned earlier, said that he trusted Mattis and McCain, and applauded the recent introduction of US and other NATO troops into the Baltic States and Poland.  He expected Trump will keep that policy approach in place.

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The Trump administration continues to evolve. Recently, US Army Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster (above), a renowned military strategist and national security expert, was named Trump’s National Security Adviser. Looking toward the future with optimism, Trump will likely find his stride soon on relations with Europe. A new balance may be observed and European leaders and officials may come to appreciate him. Many times, from bad beginnings, great friendships have sprung up.

The Way Forward

In Act I, Scene iv of William Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, Lucio, a man living the “sporting life” in Vienna, was urged to speak with Isabella, a St. Clare nun, about her brother Claudio’s arrest by Angelo, the very officious, upstanding acting executive of the city.  Lucio sought to convince Isabella that she could successfully use her wit and influence to have her brother released. In that effort, Lucio speaks to famous lines to Isabella: “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.” Man-made dilemmas are not mysteries, but puzzles. While one may be confused, or tested by a puzzle, they have solutions. For now, the solution to strengthening Europe’s relationship with the US is temporarily hidden, temporarily misunderstood. Talk about Trump in Europe has absorbed not only regional and national leaders and other officials, but the public’s attention in every country of the continent. Due to what will eventually be recognized as misunderstandings, there have been some bouts of words, albeit a bit attenuated, which have created some disturbance, hurt some feelings, caused some wounds, on both sides of the Atlantic, but they must be soothed and healed. European leaders and officials must act before a numbness sets in, before Europe is inured by the idea that it cannot work with the Trump administration, that it must face challenges such as a resurgent Russia alone. With obstinacy, they must seek to regularly engage with Trump and administration officials in rational, concrete discussions to find agreement or a satisfactory middle ground on issues.

The process of changing the current environment should begin with the application of the objective truth to analyses of the new US administration. Europe must reexamine what it knows about Trump. Being readily available, the US news media should naturally be seen as an open, overt source of information on Trump and his administration. However, not all news media houses produce news the same way. Mistakes are also made. While it albeit serves as a watchdog for the democracy, admittedly, some US news media have  propagated very negative perspectives of the Trump administration. European leaders and officials must not fall prey to attention grabbing lines about Trump, some of which have supported very wrong notions in Europe about his plans. They must also be wary of experts who postulate on very important matters from abstractions. Additionally, they must guard against self-deception. All of the plans and actions of European leaders and officials must be directed toward benefiting the lives of their people. Certainly this prescription cannot be more grievous than the danger of poor relations with the US.

Many times, from a bad beginning, great friendships have sprung up. Until Europe sets forth to establish firm ties with the Trump administration, there is only the prospect of receding into a gloomy world, in which the potential of the transatlantic relationship will be frozen. To escape from it, some might deny reality and create a substitute reality in which they might concede that the only prospect for peace is a concordance with their most likely adversary, Russia. The idea of wanting to turn desperately to false reality reminds of the poem Ode to a Nightingale by the English poet, John Keats. In this 1819 ode, Keats emphasizes the difference between the gloomy physical world and the dreamlike, spiritual world of the nightingale. In the fifth stanza, Keats stimulates the reader’s senses by describing that very fragrant, floral, gossamer imitation of reality:

“I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet

Wherewith the seasonable month endows

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;

White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;

Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;

And mid-May’s eldest child,

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.”

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Putin’s Response to the West

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

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

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

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

Confabulating on Putin

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

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

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

The Downturn in Relations Began Well Before Ukraine

Dimitry Medvedev was Russian Federation President when Obama came to office. Obama seemed to measure all possibilities on relations with Russia on his interactions with him. So comfortable was Obama with Medvedev that he went as far as to declare a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries existed. Senior Russia analysts in the US government could have confirmed that Putin, who at the time was serving as Russia’s Prime Minister, was the real power in Moscow. Yet, that truth was given little consideration. Instead, Putin was treated by Obama as the “odd man out”. Little was done to build a relationship with him. When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were a neophyte and not a seasoned national leader. Old ills that were part of US-Russian relations resurfaced, and new ones arose, to include: Putin’s decision to allow US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and the US admonishment of Russia on human rights issues. Putin was still fuming over Operation Unified Protector, during which in 2011, multinational forces including the US, were placed under NATO command and imposed a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Putin felt NATO-led forces went beyond UN Security Council Resolution 1973’s mandate by helping local forces overthrow Gaddafi. Gaddafi had been a friend of the Soviet Union and Russia. The world recognized how poor the relationship between Obama and Putin was after observing their body language during a June 17, 2013 meeting in Northern Ireland. A spate of public rebuffs to Putin sullied ties further.

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

There were other public affronts. The next year, during preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, there was a constant drum beat of doubt expressed by US security experts on the capability of the Russian security services to protect Sochi from terrorism. US officials were highly critical of security measures taken by the Russians for the Games and the level of cooperation officials from Russian security service officials showed toward counterparts from US security organizations. There were endless dalliances into clairvoyance evinced by predictions of terrorist attacks. It smacked more of fear mongering than anything else. Obama administration and other US officials knew the Winter Olympics would have been a proud occasion for Putin and the Russian people. Sochi provided Putin the chance to present his resurgent Russia in the best light possible. The Russian people would have the opportunity to tap into the power of Russia’s renewed greatness. Putin displayed great patience in the face of mordant criticisms leveled against the Games’ organization and even personal rebuffs to him. Putin achieved his objective, and Sochi was safe and secure. However, what occurred was not forgotten. Empta dolore experientia docet! (Experience teaches when bought with pain!)

By 2014, Putin’s anger toward the US as well as the Europeans metastasized. In his March 18, 2014 speech declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin enumerated some Western actions that fostered contempt in Moscow. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice and false philanthropy of Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple their country; the expansion of NATO to include members of the Soviet Union’s own alliance, the Warsaw Pact; the erroneous Russian decision to agree to the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which he refers to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally. Soon, there were regular incursions of Russian bombers and fighters in NATO airspace and Russian warships in NATO waters.

No Immediate Military Solution

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

Russia Tells Iraq It’s “Ready” to Support Fight Against ISIS; But Russia Must Take “Direct Action” in Iraq and Syria for the Sake of Its Own Security

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin greets members of Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group). Russia has pledged to support Iraq and Syria in the fight against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. However, the threat to Russian security posed by Russian citizens in those groups makes action by Putin in those countries imperative.

According to a September 26, 2014 NBCNews.com report entitled, “Russia Tells Iraq It’s ‘Ready’ to Support Fight Against ISIS”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the pledge to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York that Russia would help support Iraqi in the fight against ISIS. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated through the Itar-Tass state-run news agency that “During the meeting, Lavrov confirmed Russia’s support for Iraq’s independence, territory integrity, and sovereignty.” The Russian Foreign Ministry further stated “Moscow is ready to continue supporting Iraq in its efforts in fighting the terrorist threat, and, first of all, the one from the Islamic State.” On September 19th, Ilya Rogachev, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for New Challenges and Threats, told the Interfax news agency that Russia still declines to participate in the US-led effort against Islamic militant groups in Iraq or Syria. However, Russia pledges to continue its aid to Iraq, Syria, and other nations that are fighting terrorists. Indeed, in the form of a sillitude he explained, “The anti-ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant used interchangeably with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)] coalition is not a club party—we do not expect any invitations and we are not going to buy tickets.” Apparently, the Russian government has not amended its position even though the first round of US-led airstrikes on Islamic militant groups that began on September 23rd obviated its contention that the air strikes would be used as a pretext to attack the armed forces or any other elements of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The air strikes actually hit a range of target including leaders, command and control centers, communications facilities, training camps, and supply depots of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, the Al-Qaeda linked Khorasan Group, and its parent organization, the Al-Nusra Front. While the US executed the majority of the strikes from bombers, fighters, cruise missiles, and drones, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar in the second and third wave of attacks in the strike formation and through reconnaissance flights. The US began air strikes against ISIS in Iraq on August 8th.

The Khorasan Group, a collection of seasoned Al-Qaeda operatives, that the West feels poses a direct threat to targets in Europe and the US, should be of particular interest to Russia. Its members include several fighters from Chechnya, as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen are included among its members. Khorasan’s leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, fought against Russian forces in Chechnya and was trained there in the use of firearms, anti-aircraft weapons, and explosive.

Since the initial days of the Syrian conflict, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin made it clear that he had no plans to intervene on the ground in Syria with Russian forces. At the same time, he made it clear last year that he was following the movement of Russians and Europeans to Syria very closely, and was concerned about their capabilities and possibilities for action against Russia. Surely, the conscience of the Russian people has been struck while watching the Islamic militants move through Syria as well as Iraq. Some may recall the ruthlessness of Nazi forces in the rear areas as they moved through Russia during World War II. Unlike some Western countries, Putin has not been compelled to respond with force to the anguish and outrage of Russian citizens, after witnessing a public execution of a Russian citizen by extremist Islamic militants in Syria or Iraq. Putin wants Russia to look strong, but sitting on the sidelines and relying on the US to manage the entire situation does not allow Russia to look strong. Interestingly, standing aside practically amounts to a conceit that US leadership and support for countries, militarily, financially, or politically can ensure positive things are accomplished internationally, and that the importance of the US is unmatched on the world stage. That is precisely the perspective of the US that Putin has tried so hard to knock down in speeches and published statements. It is also a gamble. ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, and its off-shoot, Khorasan pose a genuine threat to the Russian homeland. They have declared that. Only force will have a sustained impact and strong educational effect on these groups. Some of Putin’s advisers may counsel that using force in Iraq and Syria would prove ineffective and pointless. Others may reject the idea fearing Western condemnation and retribution over unilateral intervention by Russia. Yet, if a search and destroy operation by Russian military or other security organizations against Russian elements in Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria will make Russia more secure, it should be undertaken. Virtus tentamine gaudet! (Strength welcomes the challenge!) 

Russia and Islamic Militant Groups

Putin has been continuously engaged in an effective fight against Islamic militant groups in Russia. Counter-terrorism has been a key aspect of Russia’s national security policy for many years due in great part to longstanding security problems the government has faced from the Islamic insurgency near the Caucasus Mountains. The insurgency, organized into a loose alliance of rebel groups known as Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), has been simmering more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term. They seek to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia. That group posed the greatest threat to the Olympic Games in Sochi.

The possibility that Russian fighters from these groups that have fought in Iraq and Syria may return home to engage in terrorist activities remains one of Putin’s greatest concerns. Back in June 21, 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, Putin made the claim that 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters. The London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization estimates that the number of Russian fighters in Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria, including those in the field now and those that have returned home, is around 800. Putin has not provided any new estimates publicly. 

In his September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, Putin discussed the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin explained, “There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world. Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

Taking Action

Assad and Abadi would most likely give their consent for Russia to conduct operations in their countries and provide Russia valuable support in its efforts. Finding Russian citizens in Iraq and Syria among reportedly over 30,000 fighters of ISIS may be akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Yet again, the potential benefit of thwarting potential attacks in Russia by extremists Islamic militants underscores the efficacy of such an undertaking. Given the degree of difficulty involved, Russia should use special forces units from the Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB, Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group) and Directorate V of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Vympel) groups. Russia could also employ Zaslon (Barrier), a special services group of the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR. Of the many special service groups established in Russia, Alpha Group and Vympel are the most well-known and respected. Alpha Group, an elite stand alone sub unit of Russia’s special services, is a dedicated counter-terrorism task force of the FSB. It primarily prevents and responds to violent acts in public transportation and buildings. Vympel is officially tasked with protecting Russia’s strategic installations, however it is also available for extended police duties, paramilitary applications, and covert operations in Russia or abroad. The profile and capabilities of both units have increased, and they have taken over and consolidated roles and personnel from other organizations. Over many years, Alpha Group has acquired a reputation for using ruthless methods in response to terrorist acts. Zaslon has not been publicly recognized by the Russian government. Zaslon personnel are said to be former spetsnaz troops and serve under the sole command of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headquarters in Yasenevo, on the outskirts of Moscow. In his book Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces Since 1991 (Osprey, 2013), Mark Galeotti, of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, explains that Zaslon has been linked with everything from assassinations abroad to gathering up documents and technology that the Russian government did not want the US to seize when Baghdad fell. In Syria, Galeotti suspects Zaslon may be providing additional support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel, and is likely already earmarked to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to share if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse.

Air strikes should continue to disperse ISIS fighters as they try to avoid certain death from US bombs and cruise missiles. Perhaps operating as mixed “combined special groups” (svodnye spetsialnye gruppy (mixed special groups) or SSGs, Russian special operations forces could go into ISIS and Al-Nusra Front controlled areas and kill Russian elements or when the opportunity presents itself, collect prisoners. If ordered by Putin to present a plan for such an operation, senior Russian special services’ planners will more than likely produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies in a manner that neither analysts nor the potential opponent could foresee. In Syria, for example, Russia special services’ efforts might entail some of the following steps. Russian special services should exploit all of its intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to assist in locating rouge Russian elements on the ground in Syria. FSB and other Russian intelligence and security services apparently already possessed files on the identities of Russians who have traveled to Syria. Support from FSB operating in areas of Russia from which the suspected nationals originate will also support Alpha Group, Vympel, and Zaslon operations. With assistance from the Syrian military intelligence services, Mukhabarat, Russian special services could interact with Syrian citizens to collect granular information on the Islamic militant groups including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and its combat and nonlethal resources. Russian special services may benefit from liasing with elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force. From that work, an effective operational plan can be developed. Russian special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means would be used to monitor the locations, daily movements, and activities of the hostile Islamic militant groups. Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points of Islamic militants could be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance. Penetrating the Islamic militant groups, if Russia’s SVR has not already done so, would unlikely be helpful and would place any assets engaged in that effort at risk, especially once direct action is taken against those groups. All of that would be done while trying not to cross paths with US-led air assets.

Eventual strikes against Russian targets in the Islamic militant groups must be executed swiftly and covertly. Retired US General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the US Joint Special Operations Command, has offered hints on how to exploit situational awareness which were summarized in the January 7, 2014 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “Obama, Putin discuss Olympics Security in Call; Putin Has Got It Covered and He Will Keep His Promise to the Terrorists, Too!” When striking at a terrorist group’s network, the goal is to paralyze its nervous system. Hitting it intermittently, or every other night, allows the opponent to become stronger, having become accustomed to resurrecting itself. However, McChrystal explains that if you strike at enough targets simultaneously, taking down key leaders, the group will be thrown into chaos and confusion and have a difficult time “regenerating.” That will allow for decisive effects.

Units also can be better utilized as a result of excellent situational awareness. As McChrystal explained “Traditionally, if we did a raid and we thought we were going to need 20 commandos, to actually be on the target, we might take 120, because we had to put security around the site to protect it from enemy reinforcements, and we might have to put a support section and a command and control section there because you need all those things to account for the unexpected. But when you have very good situational awareness and good communications, you only send the 20, because your security comes from being able to see, and then you can maneuver forces if you need them. So suddenly, the 120 commandos aren’t doing one raid; their doing six raids, simultaneously, and you start to get the ability to do 300 raids a month.”

To speed the process and achieve a high level of success, the Russians could adapt a form of “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze” (F3EA) developed by McChrystal. Under the concept, security forces would understand who or what is a target, locate it, capture or kill it, take what intelligence one can from people and documents, analyze that, then go back out execute the same cycle again. If Russian security services want to act at a speed as fast as US special operators in Iraq under McChrystal ‘s command, decision-making would need to be de-centralized because of the high number of raids. Subordinate elements must be allowed to operate quickly. It is very likely that FSB has been using sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups, likely to engage in terrorist acts, has been on-going. Such surveillance efforts could also be used to develop leads for the operation.

Assessment

On September 11, 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated on a Voice of America radio broadcast that the administration of US President Barack Obama was disappointed by Russia’s initial reaction to the president’s speech on ISIS, which indicated the group represented a direct threat to Russia itself. Kerry explained in his view Russia must join the international fight against ISIS. Prompting by the Obama administration will unlikely cause Putin change his position and join the multinational effort against Islamic militants groups in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, it would more likely cause him to turn away from it. Yet, clear headed, practical choices must be made on Iraq and Syria in the Kremlin. As a result of US-led air strikes, there are opportunities being created for Russia in Iraq and Syria to enhance its security. Putin, his military commanders, and senior security officials know the capabilities of specific individuals and units in Russia, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what the real possibility for success of any given operation would be. They must also recognize the real possibility for success in enhancing Russia’s security if Russian special services acted in Iraq and Syria against Russian targets.

Of course, if Putin targeted Russian members of Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria, he would be contributing immensely to the international effort against those groups. Indeed, in addition to the Chechen members of Khorasan, a number of the senior leaders of ISIS are Chechen. An ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani is one of ISIS’ most prominent commanders and at one point was the face of the group. Putin demands that Russia should be recognized as a world power, but Russia also must act in a manner consistent with that title. While he has shown a willingness to intervene in the former Soviet republics bordering Russia, Putin has certainly not had Russian forces gallivanting outside of its region, attempting to secure Russian interests. Taking action in Iraq and Syria as proposed here would be more about establishing Russia’s security than posturing. Yet, as result of the action, Putin would demonstrate not only to the Russian people, but to the world, he is a leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues. Putin would be able to show the Russian people and the world, that Russia is a global power.

“A Plea for Caution” One Year Later; The New York Times Op-Ed That Revealed Much about Putin

In his September 2013 New York Times op-ed, Russian President Vladimir Putin did not suggest any real steps to create opportunities for international cooperation or greater peace and security. He seemingly wanted to stir mistrust worldwide toward US efforts in foreign affairs. It would be disingenuous for US President Barack Obama’s administration to deny its behavior toward Putin likely influenced his decision to write it.

In a September 11, 2013 New York Times op-ed, Russian President Vladimir Putin provided a commentary on US-Russian relations that appeared to be a rebuttal to US President Barack Obama’s August 10, 2013 speech on the possible US military response to the chemical use by the President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Putin’s objective with the op-ed was to reach the US public through the back channel of the news media. That was made clear when he stated, “Recent events surrounding Syria have prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.” Yet, Putin failed to realize that while he sought to promote Russia’s positions and arguments in the media, attempting to cope with policy analysts and popular pundits, hostile to his statements, on their “home court”, would be a mistake. Global media is still dominated by the West. Moreover, among those people interested in foreign and defense policy in the West and worldwide, very few would ever take the position that Russia was equal imilitarily, economically, or politically to the US and its Western partners. Far more people worldwide might accept negative perspectives of Russia given its human rights and civil rights history, and the authoritarian nature of the Soviet Union from which it had emerged. Changing such perceptions of Russia would be difficult to accomplish with one op-ed.

What made the op-ed even less likely to receive approval was the manner in which Putin presented his facts and arguments. He does not present a discussion based on Russia’s genuine concerns about the impact of military action. Putin displayed more tack than tact in his commentary. There was no romantic fuzziness in his words. There is no soft spot. It is not some lush, soupy appeal.  The op-ed lacks the moral eloquence of Obama’s speeches. Manifested in the text, however, was the fact that Putin is tough and has no time to be a sentimentalist. Putin was well-aware that he was communicating with citizens of an, albeit, adversarial government. Despite his best intentions, his recognition of the fact that he is not the best friend of the US public–and he likely does not care to be–managed to infiltrate his statements.

Putin accomplished very little with the op-ed. Since the time it was published, the atmosphere in international affairs has not improved, mutual trust has not been strengthened, and US-Russian relations have worsened. Putin has made major moves in Ukraine contrary to US wishes, and he has warned the West that Russia still has nuclear arms. If anything, his op-ed serves as a marker, indicating a genuine downturn in US-Russian relations had occurred. A look at events surrounding his decision to publish the commentary sheds light on how US-Russia relations fell to current levels, but also  seems to provide hope that a constructive dialogue between Obama and Putin could still develop.

Background: Putin and the US

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the authentic face of the Russian government has been Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin restored order in Russia after the internal chaos of the 1990s, reestablishing the power of the state. Many would note the record shows he accomplished this with little regard for human and political rights. Putin is conscientious about his work, and has become quite experienced in governance and wielding national power. His style of management is undoubtedly shaped by his initial career as an officer in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. Putin has been advised and assisted by a small group of men who served alongside him during his KGB career. These men are known as siloviki (power men). Finding siloviki, particularly retirees of the KGB, and the present day security service, Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB, in high places in Russia is not unusual. A quarter of Russia’s senior bureaucrats, particularly in the armed forces and the security services, are siloviki. At the pinnacle are men who came from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg. The “roots” of the families those men come from go back to the beginnings of the Communist Party and its first political police known as the Cheka. Putin’s Cheka heritage includes both a father and grandfather who served in the security service. Putin attended the schools and auniversity Chekisty (Chekist) progeny typically attended.

The Chekists share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken their homeland, create disorder, and make it dependent of Western technologies. They feel that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. The Chekists are resentful of the West’s success over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. As Putin himself has publicly expressed, the Chekist consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. That loss did not mean a loss of dignity or the will to act. Anti-Western sentiment became so strong that it has created a siege mentality among the Chekists. In his March 18, 2014 speech declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin spoke not only as the voice of Russia, but the voice of the Chekists. He enumerated some of the actions taken by the West that have fostered contempt in Moscow. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice from 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. Putin is determined to save Russia from disintegration, and frustrate those he perceives as enemies that might weaken it. He will not be satisfied until Russia’s global power and influence are restored and the independent states of the former Soviet Union are brought back under Moscow’s political, economic, and military (security) influence.

Even prior to the op-ed’s publishing, the downward spiral of Russia’s relations with the Obama administration was evinced  by: Putin’s decision to allow 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; counter allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and the US admonishment of Russia on human rights issues. Despite these and other negative connections, the White House sent Putin proposals on a variety of issues, some in which he had already expressed disinterest. They insisted that he agree to reductions that would be made in both nations’ nuclear arsenals.

Putin rejected the nuclear arms proposals due mainly to his concerns over the efficacy of taking such an audacious step. To him, the proposals called for staggering reductions. He views nuclear weapons as a means to assure Russia’s survival. It is unlikely that a Chekist would ever reduce Russia’s nuclear arsenal to a level demanded by the White House. Perhaps positive signals from Obama’s discussions on nuclear arms reductions with the erstwhile Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave administration officials and advisers the idea that Putin would follow-up by accepting proposals on it. Obama felt he had a strong relationship with Medvedev. Obama seemed to measure all possibilities on relations with Russia on his interactions with him. So comfortable was Obama with Medvedev that he went as far as to declare a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries existed. There were more than enough senior Russia analysts in the US government who could have confirmed Putin, who at the time was serving as Russia’s Prime Minister, was the real power in Moscow. However, Obama administration officials and advisers did not appear to give any deep consideration to this matter. Since Medvedev was Russia’s president, Obama saw him as the authority with whom he needed to be concerned. He treated Putin as “the other guy.” Obama did little to build a positive relationship with him. When he returned to the Russian presidency for a third term, what Obama knew about him was mostly in the abstract.

Summit Cancellation 2013: The Catalyst

Obama administration officials and advisers were clearly unprepared to hear or accept Putin’s final rejection of their nuclear arms reduction proposals and reacted poorly to it. They seemed driven to achieve objectives for their president without consideration of the efficacy of their approach. Whether they even thought Putin’s concerns over nuclear arms reduction proposals were genuine is not clear. However, Putin’s decision was viewed within the Obama administration as ending their president’s “signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.”   With the apparent goal of retaliating against Putin over his refusal to accept its nuclear proposals, on August 7, 2013, Obama cancelled a Moscow summit meeting with Putin set for September. It was an amateurish and dangerous response by the administration to Putin. Yet, the decision meant much more than blocking the meeting. For Putin, the summit with the US president would be an important part of his effort to show that under his leadership, Russia has returned to the world stage as a global power. As an outcome of the actual talks with Obama, Putin likely hoped to demonstrate that he is a strong leader who is able to respond effectively to the US on security issues. During the event in Moscow, Putin would also receive the chance to present his resurgent Russia in the best light possible. Obama administration officials and advisers knew the summit meeting would have been a proud occasion for Putin and the Russian people. However, they were out to prove that it was in control of the situation. They sought to bring to light what they believed was the reliance of Russian leaders on US standing and capabilities to elevate a country that was practically an economic basket case and a shadow of its former self as a military power. Boiled down, they felt Russia needed the US, but the US did not need Russia. So, they scrapped the summit. Publicly, Obama administration’s officials and advisers made things worse by publicly explaining that the meeting was cancelled because was not seen as an effective use of the president’s time. An August 8, 2013 New York Times article quoted US Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes as stating, “We weren’t going to have a summit for the sake of appearance, and there wasn’t an agenda that was ripe.” Officials and advisers tossed in comments about Putin’s rejection of the proposal. An unidentified source for the same August 8th article stated, “We just didn’t get traction with the Russians. They were not prepared to engage seriously or immediately on what we thought was the very important agenda before us.” That source went on to state, “this decision was rooted in a much broader assessment and deeper disappointment.” Yet, despite these thinly veiled excuses, it was generally understood that the cancellation appeared was a consequence of Putin’s refusal to consider the proposals for extreme nuclear reductions. From it, came seasons of disappointment. Memores acti prudentes future! (Mindful of what has been done, aware of what must be!)

The Op-Ed

By cancelling the summit, Obama administration officials and advisers played into the worst anti-Western strain of Chekist thought. Putin saw the US decision as a form of rejection, a personal affront, and an effort to humiliate him. In Moscow, the anger, bitterness, and hostility that grew in Putin over the cancellation, along with a lot of other things, was likely palpable. Putin had his own set of options. As Obama’s approval ratings on foreign policy had dropped precipitously during the year to a bit less than 39.8 percent by the end of August, Putin may have perceived that he had a shot of reaching a disappointed US public with a special message.  The Russian Federation government had a contract with the Ketchum public relations firm that included placing favorable news items about Russia in US newsmedia outlets. Putin used the firm to place his op-ed in the New York Times. In writing his editorial, Putin, in part, seemed to be utilizing a bit of old KGB tradecraft in writing the piece. (Tradecraft refers generally to skills used in clandestine service to include efforts to manipulate opponents.) Much of what he proffered was a distorted view of circumstances.

Putin began by offering a discussion of certain truths about the US-Russian relations as allies during World War II and adversaries during the Cold War. He recounts that the veto power given the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council was established to create consensus on issues of peace and war. He explained that if states were to bypass the UN Security Council and take military action without authorization, as the Obama administration indicated it was prepared to do in August 2013, that UN’s relevance would be placed in jeopardy. As a result the UN would suffer the fate of the League of Nations. However, in further discussion of the UN, Putin engages in something akin to introjection, claiming qualities typically identified with, and exemplified by, the US. Having been successful in constructing a peaceful solution on Syria’s chemical weapons issue, Putin portrays Russia as a beacon of light in international affairs, and promoter of transnationalism, multilateral solutions, and the maintenance of international peace and security. Putin explained, “From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos.” While he should be commended for expressing these sentiments, it has actually been the US, particularly the Obama administration, which, for the most part, has shown great reverence for international law. Obama, himself, would undoubtedly prefer to solve problems at the diplomatic table using reason and logic, due process, and rule of law. Putin, on the other hand, has what former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called “a zero-sum worldview.” Contrary to Obama’s belief in the importance of win-win relationships among nations, Putin sees all transactions as win-lose; if one party benefits, the other must lose. Gaining and retaining power is Putin’s goal.

Putin goes on to explain, “The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.” Here, Putin provides a veiled reference to the Operation Unified Protector, when multinational forces under NATO command imposed a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi under UN Security Council Resolution 1973. (The military operation to enforce the UN Security Council Resolution was initially led by the US under Operation Odyssey Dawn.) In Putin’s view, Western-led forces went beyond their mandate to aid anti-Gaddafi forces, and their actions led to his overthrow. Gaddafi had been a friend of the Soviet Union and Russia. Despite the fact that the action against him was taken under a UN Security Council resolution, to Putin, it represented one more instance of the West trampling on Russia’s interests. However, looking at Russia’s actions, Putin was not in a position to admonish anyone about international law and the use of force. In 2008, Putin invaded Georgia, and Russian troops still occupy the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. He forced Armenia to break off its agreements with the EU, and Moldova is under similar pressure. In November 2013, using economic influence and political power, he drove then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to abort an agreement Ukraine had with the EU that would have pulled it toward the West. Once the Ukrainian Parliament removed Yanukovych, Putin grabbed Crimea.

In appraising the use of force by the US, Putin engages in a type of projection, imputing some of the dominant traits of his own handling of foreign policy on the Obama administration. He goes as far as to blame the US for efforts by some nations to acquire nuclear weapons. Putin explains: “It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States. Is it in America’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.” The truth is that Obama has been averse to taking military action, contrary to former US President George W. Bush who was perceived as having the US take pre-emptive military action at the slightest whiff of aggression. Obama’s policy of restraint matches the public mood. Developing proposals for military action has been very difficult for administration officials and advisers.  In situations where the use of force is almost absolutely necessary, officials and advisers have presented options for action that are lightweight, very small in scale and calibrated precisely. Putin’s discussion of Obama as being interventionist is shear fantasy.   While obama has been involved in situations worldwide as a leader on the internation stage, its ill-advised action in Libya was its only authentic intervention. Note that it is Putin who now appears poised to move further into Ukraine.

Even if a US audience was not receptive to his message, Putin likely assumed the hyperbole in his commentary would serve to impress many people in other countries who are ill-disposed toward the US and its policies. appreciative of his efforts to admonish it. Undoutedly, his words were likely captivating and satisfying enough for those who choose not to look deeply and those who choose simple answers. Many realities are erased and the past is written off. He then writes on the past a new story, a substitute for reality. The op-ed seemed to be “sabotaged” by his comments concerning “American exceptionalism” that was rejected and much derided within all circles in the US; and, by his discouraging words concerning US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. If someone claiming to be a Chekist were ever to offer encouraging words about the spirit of US public or US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, he would most likely be an imposter! Creating even more discord, Putin explained that US action could place multilateral efforts on Iran and Israel-Palestine at risk.

The one part of Putin’s op-ed deserving real consideration was his discussion of the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin succinctly analyzes the emerging threat. He reported, “There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world. Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.” Putin again seemed to be using skills acquired during his KGB days to develop a strong report on the emerging threat of Islamic militant groups such as Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). Still, he also seemed to be providing a glimpse of what was being discussed in the Kremlin on developments in Syria, as well as Iraq. His prognostication about the growth of the Islamic militant groups has been on the mark to the extent that the ISIS threat has not reached the shore of the US or Europe. Yet, few in the US focused on Putin’s important comments on Islamic militant groups. His questionable discussion of other issues distracted US readers from anything constructive he had to state.

The Way Forward

In his op-ed, Putin does not suggest any real steps that would help create possibilities for international cooperation or greater peace and security.   Indeed, it was not constructed to improve things. Putin essay better served to stir mistrust worldwide toward US efforts in foreign affairs. It would be disingenuous for the Obama administration to deny that its approach to Putin, prior to the op-ed, played a likely role in his decision to write it. Put basely, the Obama administration officials and advisers treated Putin as if he was “their ball to play with.” They lashed out at Putin in a very public way on many occasions, and Putin saw the op-ed as a means to respond to those incidents “publicly.” Unfortunately, rather than use the op-ed to discuss his dissatisfaction and concerns about US actions, he prevaricated and made a number of remarks the US public would only find offensive. Once those points were highlighted in the US newsmedia by political pundits and policy analysts, few in the US public would read it or give it thought after “hearing” what was in it. Putin will unlikely write an op-ed again in a US newspaper given his experience with the first. However, it is likely, given the current course of US-Russian relations, Putin’s future communications with the US public will be far less “congenial.”