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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump Pushes ahead with Putin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putin Pushed ahead with Trump

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advisers and Aides Are Involved in There Special Ways

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

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

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

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

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

Critics and Detractors Remain Ineffective Dream-Killers

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

Commentary: Mueller’s Investigation Has Angered Putin, Not as It Concerns Trump, But as It Concerns Russia’s Intelligence Community

Special Counsel Robert Mueller (above). US President Donald Trump is not the only national leader greatly concerned over the Special Counsel’ Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election interference. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is concerned, not over the investigation into collusion and obstruction, but for the considerable damage the investigation has done to Russia’s intelligence efforts in the US.

The important matter of interference by Russian Federation intelligence apparatus in the 2016 US Presidential Election and continued interference in the US election system at federal and state levels will continue to have primacy in the minds of all branches of the US government and in the US news media. The investigation of former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Robert Mueller’s Office of Special Counsel into the matter, to the extent that it includes an examination into possible collusion and obstruction by now US President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and his White House, has been a source aggravation for the national leader. Trump insists that no wrongful activity at all has taken place, and any claims to the contrary are a hoax. However, Trump is not the only national leader greatly concerned over the investigation into Russia’s election interference. Indeed Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is concerned, less for the investigation into collusion and obstruction, which he certainly would know were valid or not, than for the significant damage the investigation has done to Russia’s intelligence efforts in the US.

Russia’s election interference, confirmed and revealed by the US intelligence community and political leaders on the national level. Perhaps the election gambit, a black operation conducted by Russian Federation intelligence, could be curiously viewed as an predictable move by Putin. The history of Putin’s earliest dabblings politics indicate that he finds election meddling to be an anathema. It is likely in part for this reason that he saw it as the best weapon to use against the US as its government was being led by then US President Barack Obama, an individual that he unquestionably despised. However, the Kremlin has officially and vehemently denied any interference in the US elections. Officials, such as Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Presidential Press Secretary Dmitri Peskov, have gone as far as to say that the insistence from various US sources that the meddling took place is a manifestation of some mild form of hysteria or paranoia.

The election interference story has been kept in the eye of the US public due to a strong, steady drum beat of reports about it in the US news media. To Trump’s dismay, what has been publicly broadcast, printed, and posted about Trump has primarily sought to prove his alleged collaboration with Russian efforts. Indeed, there have been unprecedented explosions of chaotic hatred and bitterness in the daily discourse on Trump. Some critics and detractors not only allege, but go as far as to insist, that within the tangled mess of Russian interference, evidence exists that supports a prima facie case of collusion and obstruction by Trump. However, investigators have not given any hints that they believe evidence available serves as indicia of a crime committed by the US president.

The machine of unfettered media commentary has sucked anyone close enough into its vortex. Most recently, the ire of those dissatisfied with Trump, has turned on Deputy Attorney General, Rod Rosenstein. Rosenstein, once a darling of Trump critics and detractors, was celebrated for, among other things, his appointment of a Special Counsel to investigate Russian election interference while he served as Acting Attorney General, his steadfast support of the work of the Office of Special Counsel, his refusal to terminate Mueller, and his insistence that he would remain and act impartially regarding the Mueller’s investigation in accord with Federal law. Then, surprisingly, extraordinary anti-Trump statements were attributed to him in the US news media. According to a September 21, 2018 New York Times article, Rosenstein suggested that he should secretly wear a device to record Trump in meetings to expose chaos in the White House. He is alleged to have contemplated asking members of the executive branch, Cabinet members, to be available to help invoke the 25th Amendment of the US Constitution to remove Trump from office.

What is seen and understood by the US public is what is available. Except for reports from the administration itself, much of what is reported in print, on the air, and online is essentially the same. Nevertheless, there can be a resulting sense of separation from the what is happening in Washington, what the administration is doing. Polemic commentaries have found flaw and have thrown suspicion at the smallest efforts to the greatest efforts of the Trump campaign and sully the efforts, and damn the mere existence, of his administration. Positing views, opinions, judgments is not a wrong. Rather, in the US, free thinking is a right. Critics and detractors still get to say what they want to say, and Trump has been pounded harder by them than the German 7th Army and 5th Panzer Army in the Falaise Pocket in France during World War II. However, to use the platform of the news media to promote a singular view of the administration’s foreign policy is wrong. Opinion should never substitute for impartial, balanced reporting of the news, coloring what the the public reads, hears, and sees. It would seem that creating an incomplete impression of what Trump and his administration are doing on behalf of the people speaks to a negative quality of one’s heart.

Mueller was appointed Special Counsel to Investigate Russian Interference with the 2016 Presidential Election and Related Matters on May 17, 2017. For those who rejected Trump, Mueller became an instant hero. He was portrayed as a manly, dashing, and audacious guardian who wore a cloak of good deeds. It has been the hope of Trump’s critics and detractors that investigators and analysts are passionately moving methodically winding through some tortuous route that will land them on Trump’s doorstep. Mueller has a team of 17 lawyers.  In just under a year, his investigation has cost just under $16.7 million. From the start, Mueller was not interested in little pokes at the Trump administration. Every bite has had a lot of venom in it. Concerning Trump, himself, the Office of the Special Counsel had been happily bobbing through everything, looking for something that could potentially make itself available for wider exploitation. It is stuff for the investigators and analysts that compose that office to engage in such work.

Among its accomplishments, Mueller’s office has issued more than 100 criminal counts against 32 people. Those ensnared in the investigation include: Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, pleaded guilty to lying to FBI about conversations with a Russian ambassador; Paul Manafort, the former 2016 presidential campaign chairman for Trump, was convicted of financial fraud; Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign adviser, pleaded guilty to financial fraud and lying to the FBI; Alex van der Zwaan pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about conversations with Rick Gates; Sam Patten, a lobbyist linked to Paul Manafort, pleaded guilty to failing to register to work for a foreign entity; George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with people he believed were working on behalf of Russians; Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, has pleaded guilty to tax evasion and bank fraud; and, Richard Pinedo, who sold bank accounts online, pleaded guilty to identity fraud

There is hardly reason for Trump to apportion blame to himself for the completely independent actions of associates who were supposedly advising Trump and had committed their questionable actions on their own volition, to a greater extent long before joining the Trump campaign. Trump has hired a number of attorneys who have come and gone, each having ample opportunity to get their boots dirty in the mire created by the rather peculiar investigation. Those attorneys currently working with Trump, and those who have moved on, agree that there is nothing that would indicate Trump conspired with any Russian officials or otherwise to interfere with 2016 US Presidential Election and he has done nothing to obstruct the investigation at any point. They uniformly insist that all answers that Mueller might have about collusion or interference can be found in the interviews that his investigators have conducted with witnesses, including senior White House aides and Trump administration officials. They further state that the truth can be found in the more than 1.4 million documents turned over to the Office of Special Counsel by the White House.

On dit, to the satisfaction of the Trump administration, there may now be hope that those investigators and analysts are getting wise to the nature of the misadventure they have undertaken with regard to the “Trump Front.” The final report of the Office of Special Counsel may eventually indicate that  Trump was never enmeshed in the coils of anything wrongful, illegal, unpatriotic. Unfortunately he has had to suffer through the process of disproving a negative, a disgrace manufactured by his adversaries.

True, unless one is deeply involved in the work of the Office of Special Counsel, it is really impossible to know exactly what is genuinely being done within. Even Trump’s chief advisers, way above in the rarified air, have undoubtedly been left in the dark about what is happening. As they do not mix too much with the professionals, they are unlikely privy even to leaks or rumors about the investigation spoken within the rank and file of their organizations. Of the few authentic facts that have been revealed about the work of Mueller’s office is the degree of dissatisfaction that has come from chasing leads specifically concerning Trump that were actually concocted for the purposes of political rivals within the US, with the goal to discredit the Trump presidential campaign. Beyond the impact that the discovery of many new found truths on the attitudes, behavior, and purpose of actions by some in the US intelligence industry upon Mueller’s investigation, there have been terminations, redeployments, and decisions made by senior personnel not to remain in their respective services. A particularly high level of activity of this sort has been observed in the FBI.

Make no mistake, Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign and the White House is a big deal, nit only for the administration, but the US and the world. Yet, looking at some additional authentic facts about the work of the Office of Special Counsel made public, it seems that Mueller on the balance, may be less concerned with Trump than his erstwhile adversaries in the Russian Federation’s intelligence apparatus. The Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU; the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR; and, the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB, represent an unmistakable threat to the US. Much as many observers in the US note that Putin’s decisions and actions are likely influenced by his prior work in the intelligence industry, Mueller, too, may draw from his prior practice of hunting down Russian intelligence operatives in the US. Pardon greatcharlie’s freedom, but Mueller may have the intent to complete unfinished business in defeating their known capabilities to harm the US. All of this runs contrary to what big stories in the US news media contend about Mueller’s singular aim to bring down the US President.

Note that Included on the list of those charged by Mueller’s office are thirteen Russian nationals and three Russia related companies for conspiracy to defraud the US and conspiracy to commit bank fraud and identity theft. Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian Federation Army trained linguist and associate of Paul Manafort, has been charged with obstruction of justice. Additionally, twelve Russian Federation intelligence officers of the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU, have been charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the US, identity theft, conspiracy to launder money.

Mueller, the former FBI Director and FBI Special Agent, knows that by putting focus on a “miracle operation” as the election interference in the US, which amounted to a direct act of provocation, he has placed great pressure on the GRU, SVR, and FSB operatives in the US as well as those acting against US interests inside Russia or in other overseas locations. Many of their bread and butter operations on the ground in the US were likely knocked out or toned down in the attempt to evade the prying eyes of Mueller’s office and any other entities on the prowl. Assuredly, Russian intelligence officers working on any portfolio even remotely connected with operations against the US, the number one target of Russian intelligence, are among the best of the best available. Every time such individuals are identified and neutralized, a devastating blow is leveled against Russia’s intelligence industry. Kleig lights have been figuratively directed at some very shadowy intelligence leaders. They were stripped of their anonymity before the whole world via indictments.

Mueller still has an opportunity to do more damage to Russian intelligence efforts in the US and strike in depth against the Russian intelligence apparatus. He is doing everything possible to exploit the Kremlin’s calamitous lack of moderation. The full reach of Mueller suspicions against Russian intelligence have not been made known. This subject is rarely broached in the news media. Perhaps many reporters have missed or have been unable to synthesise what has been occurring. That is curious, because in relative proportion, Mueller’s efforts against Russian intelligence have been far more devastating than what he truly accomplished against former members of the Trump campaign.

It is not all good news though. To the extent the something positive in defense of the US has been done, Mueller’s efforts can be appreciated in all political and foreign policy circles in Washington. Yet, the damage to the US psyche, the psychological damage to members of the administration, and blemish his effort placed on the Trump presidency has also been substantial.

Not that he considers the mostly freewheeling US news media as a useful overt source of intelligence, but Putin perhaps finds it a bit disconcerting that despite all of the chatter in the US news media about the Trump presidency marked for death as Mueller’s office is hot on his trail, it is his intelligence services are actually under far greater pursuit by the Office of Special Counsel. In news media interviews about the Mueller investigation, Putin has sought to subtly discredit the work of Mueller’s office by characterizing it as both illegal and illegitimate. When asked his opinion of what was going on with the Office of Special Counsel by Chris Wallace of Fox News just one day before the Helsinki Summit, Putin was clearly ready to speak. At first, he slyly expressed disinterest in what he described as an “operation.” However, he then explained that Mueller’s investigation simply amounted to internal political games of “dirty methods and political rivalry” in the US and that a nefarious effort was underway to make the US-Russian relations hostage to it. He then expressed the erroneous belief that the US Congress had appointed Mueller and not then Acting Attorney General Rosenstein. He would further incorrectly state: “It is for Congress that appointed him to do this, to assess his performance.” He then expressed the idea that a US court had declared the Mueller appointment as outside due process and an infringement on legislation. While Putin’s view has no bearing on how Mueller will proceed, he undoubtedly hopes that something might be done to defeat it before more damage is done to Russia’s intelligence operations in the US. Mueller’s efforts come on top of damage being done through the counterintelligence efforts of the FBI, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), Cyber Command, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and others. Their work against Russia surely intensified once its election interference was detected.

When assigned the opera Nabucco, Giuseppe Verdi, who was grieving from a set of very grave personal tragedies, felt impelled to compose its music after reading the sorrowful, haunting, and beautiful words of the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”: “Va, pensiero, sull’ali, dorate. (Fly, thought, on golden wings.)” The text expresses a people’s longing to return to a home that they know has been destroyed and pain that thinking of it caused. The longing of critics and detractors, beyond those who do not like Trump for personal, irrational, or other reasons, for a return to the type of presidency that they knew under Obama or a world in which Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, consciously or unconsciously, colors their perspectives of Trump and his administration. For the most part, in the US news media, the apparent desire to return to the past or have different president in place, distorts reporting on the Mueller investigation. It has done so to the point that effective, balanced reporting of events has become atypical. Thoughts that blind critics and detractors to reality must be allowed to “fly away on golden wings.” If the case were different, the US public, rather than viewing Mueller’s investigation as an attack on Trump, would recognize that a good portion of the Office of Special Counsel’s efforts have envenomed the soil in which the Russian intelligence might of hoped to plant future operations, or resurrect old ones, in the US. Such work by Mueller’s team could be said to amount to defacto retribution for Russia’s election meddling. As stated earlier, Trump has good reason to be concerned for he would prefer not to have anything depict his administration in a bad light. That concern certainly goes beyond some ostensible vain interest over his legacy. Much more still will be heard from him, his legal team, and administration surrogates. In the end, to the considerable chagrin of many, final judgments on the matter will most likely be found in his favor.

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 fil di voce, 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 are 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 struggles 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 Counsel 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 Signs Russian Sanctions into Law: Tillerson Stands Side-by-Side with Him on the New Law and US Policy

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (above). When US President Donald Trump signed legislation on August 2, 2017 imposing sanctions on Russia, he asserted that the law included “clearly unconstitutional provisions.” Tillerson stated in complete solidarity with Trump that the law should not have been passed and will harm US foreign policy efforts. Tillerson’s fidelity to Trump is unquestionable. Yet, what will determine Tillerson’s success as Secretary of State is not only his loyalty but the many dimensions of his capabilities.

According to an August 2, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Trump Signs Russian Sanctions into Law, With Caveats”, US President Donald Trump signed legislation on August 2, 2017 imposing sanctions on Russia and limiting his own authority to lift them, but asserted that the measure included “clearly unconstitutional provisions,” leaving open the possibility that he might not enforce them as lawmakers intended. The legislation reflected deep skepticism among Members of the US Congress from both parties about Trump’s congenial approach to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin and ensure  Russia would not avoid consequences for its annexation of Crimea, military intervention in Eastern Ukraine, and intrusion into the 2016 US Presidential Election. Before Trump signed the measure, Russia retaliated for the seizure of two Russian diplomatic properties and expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats by the administration of US President Barack Obama by seizing two US diplomatic properties in Russia and reducing the US Embassy staff by 755 members. That action was deliberately taken before the bill was signed to ensure it would be seen as a response to Congress, not to Trump. After Trump signed the measure, the Kremlin’s reaction was mild. Kremlin Press Secretary, Dmitri Peskov, stated: “De facto, this changes nothing.” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on August 1, 2017 stated in complete harmony with Trump saying that lawmakers should not have passed the sanctions legislation. He stated: “The action by the Congress to put these sanctions in place and the way they did, neither the president nor I are very happy about that.” He continued: “We were clear that we didn’t think it was going to be helpful to our efforts . . . .” Yet, Tillerson could accept the reality of the situation. He went on to state: “but that’s the decision they made. They made it in a very overwhelming way. I think the president accepts that.”

Those wishing the current administration success for the sake of the US and the sake of the world felt Trump hit the jackpot on December 12, 2016 when he announced Tillerson would serve as his Secretary of State. The 64 year old native of Texas had just rounded off a 41 year career at ExxonMobil as Chief Executive Officer. Critics rushed in to say Tillerson lacked diplomatic experience despite the global nature of his duties for ExxonMobil which among other tasks included: negotiating contracts; settling major disagreements with overseas clients and partners; overseeing operations; and managing emergencies. At this point, Tillerson has found his stride as Secretary of State. Initially, he tried to shield the foreign policy making process and get his efforts off to a great start by safeguarding his organization, and eliminating his mind from the disparagement, opprobrium, and destructive accusations being hurled at the administration.He would not say or do anything to involve himself in that fracas However, strenuous efforts were made by critics of the administration to tug Tillerson down into the web of intrigue. Remaining distant from all of that cacaphonous background noise proved to be impossible. Tillerson has accepted that reality, and has managed to cope with any unfounded and unwarranted ridicule. Moreover, he has had some success in allaying concerns of foreign leaders and counterparts with whom he has met by presenting them with a genuine, logical picture of Trump’s concepts and intent, and the administration’s foreign policy.

Indeed, Tillerson, through the strength of his character and the confidence he creates, has provided incentive for foreign leaders and his counterparts to recurvate away from any hastily and mistakenly devised adversarial approaches they may have considered taking with the US. What may determine the size of Tillerson’s footprint in the administration are certain traits he has shown as Secretary of State. Owing in part to his constancy and tremendous value to Trump, Tillerson will continue to receive his encouragement to make full use of the many dimensions of his capabilities along the lines of excellence in his post. For Tillerson, one important measure of success will be improving the way in which the US Department of State will perform its job in the future. With Trump’s backing, his plans to transform his organization will be realized. Vigilando, agendo, bene consulendo, prospera omnia cedunt. (By watching, by doing, by consulting well, these things yield all things prosperous.)

Tillerson (right) and Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi (left). Tillerson was initially declared a neophyte by critics. They proffered that he lacked sufficient experience in diplomacy to serve as Secretary of State. Tillerson has actually performed superbly as the chief US diplomat. In meetings with foreign leaders and counterparts, he digs beyond the surface to discern where stronger linkages can be established. Those insights have helped him develop resolutions to issues.

Becoming a Great Secretary of State

Every US Secretary of State in contemporary times has added his or her own touch to the job, creating something unique about their tenure. Nonetheless, there are a few things that cause certain chief diplomats to stand out from others according to Aaron David Miller in his renowned December 4, 2012 Bloomberg commentary, “Four Traits Make a Great Secretary of State.”

First among Miller’s four requisite traits, boiled down to the bones here, is having a negotiator’s mindset. Indeed, an effective Secretary of State can conduct negotiations, defuse crises and tackle issues that a reasonable person might consider intractable. The Secretary of State must know how to make a deal, to have a sense for timing and to know when an opportunity has revealed itself, and then know how to reach a final agreement.

Second, to the extent that it supports deal making, it is important for the Secretary of State to have a cogent, coherent worldview, ostensibly infused with the policies of the US administration.

Third, the Secretary of State must be assured of the president’s full support. Ostensibly, all presidents have supported their Secretaries of State, but that support can vary in degree. A Secretary of State must have support critical to success.  The renowned statesman, former US Secretary of State James Baker, once remarked that the Secretary must be “the president’s man at the State Department,” with real authority, power, and credibility.

Fourth, the president must indicate publicly and internationally, through words and deeds, that the Secretary of State is a trusted confidante. If an apparent gap exists in the relationship between Secretary of State and the president, or if it is clear that the Secretary of State has not been given the power to handle urgent and important issues, the power as the president’s chief diplomatic will be diminished.

Tillerson Has the Negotiatior’s Mindset; He Has Developed a Coherent Worldview

Virum mihi, Camena, insece versutum. (Tell me, O’ Muse, of the skillful man.) Tillerson approaches negotiations with foreign counterparts with a businesslike  pragmatism. He is very disciplined. He speaks frankly with a no-nonsense demeanor that might discomfit some. At the April 12, 2017 meeting with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov,  Tillerson barely registered a reaction when he was initially greeted by Lavrov with remarks denouncing the US missile strike on Syria as illegal and the accusation that the US was behaving unpredictably. When later asked by a Russian reporter how he would characterize the talks, Lavrov replied with a hint of both satisfaction and curiosity: “The State Secretary did not threaten me with sanctions. He didn’t threaten me with anything, actually. We frankly discussed the questions which were on our agenda . . . .” In the actual talks, ideas jump from Tillerson’s head, Pallas-like, to shift their course in his favor. He conquers all obstacles seemingly by the shear force of his cerebration. Posside sapientiam, quia auro mellor est. (Possessing wisdom is better than owning gold.)

Searching the archives of US newsmedia houses for reports on the foreign policy of the Trump administration, one would already find a multitude of inequitable, negative assessments, against Tillerson. Those reports would typically explain that he is inexperienced in diplomacy. They essentially declare him a neophyte, lacking a background in diplomacy sufficient enough for him to serve as the chief US diplomat. It was proffered by some observers that without the labored reasonings of experts, Tillerson’s intuitions would be uninspired. Such assessments were made for more harsh by the fact that such experts had not yet been appointed to many senior positions at the State Department. Critics appeared assured that Tillerson would languish in inaction on the seventh floor of the State Department headquarters. As it has turned out, those grim conclusions have approximated to slander against Tillerson. While some critics, albeit, would immediately point to the fact that he is still seeking to fill all senior positions in his organization, Tillerson has performed superbly and admirably as Secretary of State. That is best evinced by the expressions of approval and appreciation he has received from the president.

In decision making, the renowned Greek scholar and philosopher, Socrates, would refer to an inner voice or his daimon. The devil works his way through people and events. Yet,  unlike the noble pagan Socrates, Tillerson is a religious man who worships one God: God the Father. As such, he is aware of truth beyond the secular scale. Using the intellect and the will, one makes decisions. They are happy decisions when one is certain of their goodness. One engages in moral behavior when acting upon the desire to create goodness. In the development of relations with other countries, Tillerson is using what could described as a calm acceleration. Tillerson will convey US positions in bilateral meetings with foreign leaders and counterparts, but he will also seek to understand his interlocutor’s positions in a granular way. Tillerson is aware of the need to dig beneath the surface to understand where new, stronger, linkages can be established. He encourages his interlocutors to be frank about their concerns. He wants to hear how things look through their lenses. Understandings resulting from direct contact have allowed Tillerson to develop greater insight into issues concerning countries. Those insights in turn facilitate the development resolutions to issues of mutual interest. Additionally, Tillerson understands how to keep discreet matters confidental. Resolutions to difficult or nagging issues are less likely be found if they are contested over publicly. Secrete amicos admone, lauda palam. (Admonish your friends in secret; praise [them] openly.)

Tillerson displays a much appreciated wit and savoir faire in meetings, telephone calls, and statements with foreign leaders and counterparts. He will demonstrate that can be engaged in constructive, mutually satisfying dialogue. He will try to get to know his interlocutor and try to develop an amicable relationship. Among some he meets, there is often a preexisting relationship resulting from business contacts he had with them while he worked for ExxonMobil. As a top US business leader, he would often interact with senior foreign officials on a level and in a way rarely enjoyed by even senior US diplomats. Foreign leaders, officials, and business giants as well, were typically more relaxed in conversations with Tillerson then, even telling him things discreetly that US diplomats never would have heard. Some of those relationships became somewhat personal. Those relationships could possibly serve now as foundations for building trust beyond written documents and treaties while he is Secretary of State. Such relationships could allow Tillerson and an interlocutor to relax and explore territory outside their formal negotiating positions; discuss certain assumptions, strategies, and even fears. However, Tillerson would never sacrifice his principles to save a personal relationship with an interlocutor. A personal relationship through past business interactions will never serve to sway Tillerson in any way in US decision making in favor of another country’s needs. Tillerson can of course recognize the difference between an hackneyed exhibition of “adoration” for him and adoration directed at the US pocketbook through him. Tillerson’s sole interests now is performing his duty to his country under the guidance of the Trump administration’s policies, serving the people of the US, and obeying the US Constitution. Tillerson undoubtedly makes that perfectly clear in meetings when necessary.

Tillerson has already travelled to all corners of the world as Secretary of State, serving as Trump’s emissary at all international forums, negotiating treaties and other international agreements, and conducting everyday, face-to-face diplomacy.  As of this point, Tillerson has traveled 93,207.5 miles, traveled 35 days, and visited 17 countries. Non viribus et celeritate corporum magna gerimus, sed sapientia et sententia et arte. (We accomplish important things not with the strength and quickness of our bodies, but by intelligence and thought and skill.)

Tillerson (left) and United Kingdom Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (right). Through his contacts with foreign leaders and his counterparts, Tillerson has been able to transmit an authentic understanding of his thoughts and concerns on issues relevant to their countries, the policy positions of the US, and concepts and objectives of Trump to them. He encourages them to express their interests, share their concerns. He wants to hear how things look through their lenses.

Trump Supports His Secretary of State; Trump Insists Tillerson Is a Confidante

Quidquid dicendium est, libere dicam. (Whatever must be said, I shall say freely.) A quality that Trump liked about Tillerson when he selected him to be his Secretary of State is that he will roll over on his back and play nice in the face of controversy or challenges. To that extent, Tillerson has naturally had some disagreements with the White House over issues of importance to him. On those occasions, he does not speak in a roundabout way; he speaks directly. He chose his words carefully. They were proclamations of the truth meant to dispell wrong ideas and incorrect steps. For example, Tillerson voiced concern over being unable to make independent decisions about staffing at the State Department and about the organization in general. He reportedly expressed his displeasure with Johnny DeStefano, the head of the Office of Presidential Personnel, for torpedoing proposed nominees to senior State Department posts and for questioning his judgment. Tillerson complained that the White House was leaking damaging information about him to the news media, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Above all, he made clear that he did not want DeStefano’s office to “have any role in staffing” and “expressed frustration that anybody would know better” than he about who should work in his department–particularly after the president had promised him autonomy to make his own decisions and hires, according to a senior White House aide familiar with the conversation.

Tillerson lobbied Trump to allow the US to remain a signatory to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change,The 195-nation accord signed by US President Barack Obama set a goal of keeping the earth from warming by more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. Tillerson’s argument was that leaving the agreement would diminish US influence in encouraging other countries to reduce their emissions, aides said. He did not argue that it would affect efforts to reduce US emissions. Nonetheless, Trump acted against Tillerson’s advice on the agreement, believing the US would be able to broker a new new agreement that would not put US businesses and workers at a disadvantage with developing economies like China and India. The majority of other signatory countries rejected the idea of renegotiating the accord. German Chancellor Angela Merkel led the chorus of leaders of countries that are allies, partners, and friends of the US, indeed spoke harshly about Trump’s decision to shun international consensus on the world’s most pressing issues and fanned fears that it was reflective of a greater US decision to abdicate its global leadership role. Journalists depicted Trump’s climate reversal as a challenge to Tillerson, who they alleged was very visibly trying to establish his credibility as the primary advocate of US foreign policy in the administration. Tillerson called Trump’s action a “policy decision.” He insisted the US could be proud of its “terrific record” in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, even before the Paris Agreement  took effect late last year. He tried to provide some perspective on the decision by stating: “I don’t think we’re going to change our ongoing efforts to reduce those emissions in the future.”

Tillerson had to contend with a very public coupe en deux pieces between the US Mission to the UN and the State Department. The statements of Trump administration’s US Permanent Representative to the UN,  Nikki Haley, a fellow Cabinet member, were deemed too far off message relative to other senior members of the administration. Other representatives on the UN Security Council began to view Haley as a source of authority on US policy. One foreign diplomat made the erroneous observation at the time that Haley had not only taken charge of determining what the administration’s posture would be at the UN, but broadened her responsibilities on a range of foreign policy issues. Their approaches to the US were being formulated based on her statements in that forum. It was all seen as a serious matter with the potential harm the US ability to implement steady policy in manner that would satisfy, and draw other governments to its points of view. An email sent from State Department diplomats to the Office of the US Permanent Representative to the UN urged the Mission to rely on “building blocks” written by the department to prepare remarks for Haley. Haley’s aides were also urged to ensure that her public remarks were “re-cleared with Washington,” especially if they were substantively different from the building blocks, or if they were on a high-profile issue such as Syria, Iran, Israel-Palestine, or the North Korea.

Additionally, Tillerson has reportedly been a bit uneasy about Trump’s use of Twitter or a speech to establish foreign policy that is in variance with his best advice. Yet, all of that being stated, Tillerson’s fidelity to his president remains beyond question. No matter how the president might decide on an issue, Tillerson has stood side-by side with him. He never has backed away or tried to stand in the middle of road.

Tillerson has spent considerable time with Trump. He is confident of Trump’s support for him. Trump, has left no doubt that he is very satisfied with Tillerson. The day will very unlikely arrive when Tillerson will say his efforts have been futile and then abandon his post. In his years at ExxonMobil, Tillerson was never known to have left tasks unfinished. Tillerson has spoken publicly about his commitment to service and the call he heard to take on the role of chief diplomat. On July 21, 2017, Tillerson remarked:  “I’m still developing myself as a values-based servant leader, and this new opportunity that I have to serve our country has provided me with new ways of learning … so it gives me a chance to grow as a leader.” Having that mindset allows Tillerson to heal any exasperation,any sense of futility that he may feel. Vincit qui se vincit. (He conquers, who conquers himself.)

Tillerson (left) and Trump (right). Tillerson has spent considerable time with Trump. He is confident of Trump’s support for him. Trump, has left no doubt that he is very satisfied with Tillerson. Tillerson will unlikely say one day that his efforts have been futile and then abandon his post. In his years at ExxonMobil, Tillerson was never known to have left tasks unfinished. Tillerson has spoken publicly about his commitment to service and the call he heard to take on the job of Secretary of State.

Coping with the Unparalleled Criticism of the Administration and Himself

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?) Even before Trump was sworn in as president, stories swirled in the newsmedia about alleged lurid activities of administration officials to gain Russia’s assistance in order to defeat Trump’s main competitor in the 2016 US Presidential Election, former Senator Hillary Clinton. Those allegations set off a number of official investigations of former campaign staff and a few administration officials. There was a Congressional investigation open to public view; an investigation by a Special Counsel appointed by the US Department of Justice which closed even to Trump; and assays were very likely initiated by certain watchdog organizations within the US intelligence community. Trump has stirred the pot a bit on the investigations through his use of Twitter and teasing voracious journalists, hungry for every morsel of news about his thinking and the inner working of the White House on the Russia matter. He once hinted about possessing recordings of important conversations on the matter with a very senior law enforcement. He later admitted that did no such recordings existed As time has passed, many public allegations made against Trump were also collapsed by the truth.

Tillerson wanted to avoid that whole cabaret. He took a few temporary steps in order to protect his serenity of mind and put all his attention on the sizable responsibilities of his new job. Tillerson stayed far from the limelight. He had no desire to be the man of the moment. He did not appear in front of both reporters and TV cameras to confirm his place as the nation’s chief diplomat unlike many of his predecessors during the past 6 decades, or spend much time with journalist before or after meetings with foreign leaders and counterparts. Journalists were surprised when they were told by the State Department they would not be allowed onboard his plane during a diplomatic trip to Japan, South Korea, and China. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who met with Tillerson over lunch during the first week of March 2017 acknowledged: “The normal tendency when you come into that job [Secretary of State] is to increase your visibility and to show that you are present and in charge.” Kissinger went on to explain: “He [Tillerson] wanted to first inform himself of all the nuances. I was impressed by the confidence and self-assurance that he showed.” Ultimately, Tillerson could not avoid, and was certainly not spared from, disharmonious contacts with the US newsmedia similar to those that other Cabinet members and White House officials were encountering. Critics were aflutter at Tillerson’s every move during the first few months of his tenure. They would often report that he was absent at meetings with foreign leaders at the White House.

Before Trump was inaugurated, stories swirled in the newsmedia about alleged activities of campaign staff and administration officials to gain Russia’s assistance to defeat Trump’s rival in the 2016 US Presidential Election. He took a few steps to protect his serenity of mind and fix his attention on his new job’s responsibilities. He did not appear in front of journalists and TV cameras to confirm his place as chief diplomat. Ultimately, he could not avoid difficult newsmedia contacts.

Critics tried to drag Tillerson into the Russia matter. They wildly assert that while serving as Chief Executive Officer at ExxonMobil, he developed unusually close ties to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Those ostensibly could have allowed him to garner Russia’s assistance for Trump. Attempts to substantiate the nature of the alleged relationship focused on Putin’s decision to award Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors a foreigner can be bestowed by Russia. In reality, the medal awarded on June 21, 2013 was in appreciation for efforts Tillerson made as Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil to broker a deal between the company and the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft. Tillerson was presented with the medal in St. Petersburg, Russia on the same dais with the Chairman of ENI, an Italian multinational oil and gas company. Such accusations are simply surmisals reflective of a blinding, uncontrollable anger found within a counter-Trump milieu. It is a discourse, not formally organized but possessing defined elements (e.g.,  certain TV news programs and editorial sections of newspapers and magazines, websites, blogs, chat rooms, and podcasts) in which participants, observers of the administration, direct rage at anything pertaining to Trump. It originated in the US but is now engaged in globally. It becomes exhausting to watch from the outside. In fairness, it may very well be that those who develop such reports about Tillerson on the Russia matter are ostensibly not driven by the intention to do harm. However, that benignancy is often difficult to detect. Within reason, one could more easily perceive it all as an ominous effort to neutralize a senior member of the US diplomatic, political, military, and economic decision making apparatus. By mid-2017, allegations about links between Tillerson and the Russia matter faded a bit. Despite the unpleasantness of it all, Tillerson was not left appearing cold and muddled. He remained sanguine. He kept his dignity intact. Superanda omnis fortuna ferendo est. (Every misfortune is to be subdued by patience.)

About 6 months into his job, when Tillerson decided to spend 6 days–July 21-July 26, 2017–out of the public view, certain news media houses, very likely hoping for a news splash, propagated stories about Tillerson’s coming resignation. US State Department Bureau of Public Affairs Spokesperson Heather Nauert said that he was, “taking a little time off.” She continued, “He does have the ability to go away for a few days on his own … just taking a little time off.” She also said: “He’s got a lot of work. He just came back from that mega-trip from overseas–as you all well know, many of you were there for the G-20, and his other travel as well, so he’s entitled to taking a few days himself.”

The attention of the US newsmedia would then shift from the idea that Tillerson was tendering his resignation to the possibility that he had taken time off to réfléchir, think it over. Reports that Tillerson planned to resign, like a vampire, rose again after his short holiday. The State Department tried to push back on them. At a department’s briefing on July 25, 2017,  Spokesperson Heather Nauert said “That is false,” when asked about the rumors.  Nauert continued by saying: “The secretary has been very clear: He intends to stay here at the State Department. We have a lot of work that is left to be done ahead of us. He recognizes that. He’s deeply engaged in that work.” She added: “He does, however, serve at the pleasure of the president, just as any Cabinet official.”

However, the magnitude and tempo of misleading reports of Tillerson’s dissatisfaction and desire to resign reached a crescendo loud enough that on July 26, 2017, he was driven to respond to the issue.  Normally, Tillerson would consider responding to the newsmedia over such a matter as counterproductive. However, he no doubt recognized that the broadcasting and publishing of surmisals about his plans would soon begin to have chilling effect on his relationships with foreign leaders and his counterparts and impact US foreign policy efforts in general. It would only be natural for foreign capitals to wonder what it was ithat the US newsmedia knew that they did not know. When asked by reporters at the State Department whether he was considering leaving his post, Tillerson declared, “I’m not going anywhere.”  When pressed with the follow-up question of how long he would stay on, Tillerson turned and smiled, saying, “As long as the president lets me.” Asked about his relationship with President Donald Trump, Tillerson said simply, “Good.”

Tillerson (left), US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (center), and US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford (right) It may be that those who develop false and contemptuous reports about Tillerson on the Russia matter have no intention to do harm, but that benignancy is often difficult to detect. One could also view it as an effort to neutralize a senior member of the US diplomatic, political, military, and economic decision making apparatus.

With Trump’s Support, Tillerson Will Make His Mark

In Ulysses, Alfred Lloyd Tennyson wrote: “Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven,that which we are, we are, One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Ahead of this nascent period of the administration, into what may be the first of possibly two terms for Trump, Tillerson would like to introduce some considerable changes to the organization that he leads. The personal and working relationship between Trump and Tillerson will determine whether the Secretary of State will be able to execute an ambitious plan to revamp his department; a significant effort that will viewed as an important part of Trump’s legacy as president. Tillerson announced his plans to restructure the US organism for diplomacy during his May 3, 2017 presentation to the rank and file of the department in its Dean Acheson Auditorium. He explained his desire to make the department a more agile, collaborative workplace. It would become a more diverse landscape of ideas and solutions.

Tillerson remarked that the Department of State was the first cabinet created and chartered under the Constitution, and the Secretary of State was the first cabinet position chartered and created under the Constitution. He assured the department’s rank and file that during his tenure, they would carve out their increment of the department’s living history. Tillerson understands that in planning this transformation, he should not try make circumstances fit plans, but rather plans should be developed to fit circumstances. Tillerson explained that he had no preconceived notions of the outcome of this effort. He was not bringing a solution to the department. His plan is not to tear things down but craft ways to improve on what is already being done. Tillerson explained that once he acquired an understanding of how work is effectively done at the department and then put an organizational structure in place to support that process. Verum et factum convertuntur. (The true and the made are interchangeable. [One can know with certainty only what he has created himself.])

Tillerson at the Acheson Auditorium at the State Department (above). Tillerson would like to introduce some changes to the organization that he leads. The personal and working relationship between Trump and Tillerson will determine whether he will be able to execute his ambitious plan to revamp his department; an audacious effort that will be seen as an important part of Trump’s legacy. His plan is not tear down, but improve on what is being done.

The Way Forward

In Act V, Scene vii of William Shakespeare’s play, The Life of King Henry the Fifth, events surrounding King Henry’s invasion of France have reached their climax. Having captured the town of Harfleur, the English force prepares for a decisive battle at Agincourt. King Henry and one of his captains, Fluellen, reminisce about how the King’s great uncle, Edward the Black Prince, once defeated the French nearby. Fluellen reminds the King that just as he, his birthplace was in Wales and declares his pride over being the King’s fellow countryman. Fluellen states: “By Jeshu, I am your majesty’s countryman, I care not who know it; I will confess it to all the ‘orld: I need not to be ashamed of your majesty, praised be God, so long as your majesty is an honest man.” Tillerson respects his president and is loyal to him. He likes his job and is striving to perform it successfully. Through his contacts with foreign leaders and his counterparts, Tillerson has been able to convey his thoughts and concerns on issues relevant to both countries, the policy positions of the US, and Trump’s concepts and intent. He encourages them to express their interests and share their concerns. What is voiced does not lie inert in some report. Tillerson uses it to formulate policy approaches to those countries and develop resolution to issues. Following direct contact with Tillerson, foreign leaders and officials, who have undoubtedly sought to keep themselves au courant with the public discourse in the US on Trump, would realize that they have acquired almost nothing useful from reports developed from the abstract that were laced with inferred and interpolated information, conceptualizations, and fabrications from the counter-Trump milieu. They undobtedly ignore, or give far less weight to reporting of identifiable critics toward the Trump administration. That very likely has already had the effect of facilitating their efforts to sort out issues of mutual concern with the US and making them more comfortable in their dealings with the Trump administration. Illa argumenta visa sunt et gravia et certa. (Those arguments seemed both weighty and reliable.)

Tillerson learned many things in 41 years as he moved up the ranks in ExxonMobil. One thing Tillerson learned well was how to be a team player. His approach is not, in a parochial way, to elbow a better position for his organization on a policy matter, but rather to garner acknowledgement of his organization’s responsibility for US diplomacy and its primary role in formulating and implementing US foreign policy. His approach is not designed to merely better the aesthetics of his organization. An interior designer could best do that. Tillerson would like to enhance capabilities department wide and heighten its prestige globally as the premier foreign policy establishment. Correlatively, the department’s heightened prestige will be a reflection of its accomplishments.  The State Department will not be on the sidelines in the Trump administration and it will not retreat from diplomatic challenges because previous administrations have called them intractable or conundrums. Resolutions to issues will be found by Tillerson’s people. Ad utilitatem vitae omnia consilia factaque nobis regenda sunt. (All our plans and actions must be directed by us to the benefit of our life.)

Trump Backtracks on Cyber Unit With Russia: His Proposal Was Flawed, But His Thinking Is on Target

US President Donald Trump (above). Trump has engaged in negotiations for decades. In his face to face bilateral meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, Trump was allowed the chance to adjust to circumstances, become more fluid in his thinking, more creative in his approach. His proposal for a joint cyber security unit, while scoffed at, and albeit, not viable under US law, appeared to be a product of his willingness to consider the full range of options. Moreover, as a confidence building measure, it may have had a positive impact on Putin.

According to a July 10, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Trump Backtracks on Cyber Unit With Russia After Harsh Criticism”, US President Donald Trump, on July 10, 2017, backtracked on his push for a cyber security unit with Russia, tweeting that he did not think it could happen, hours after his proposal was harshly criticized by Republicans who said Moscow could not be trusted. The New York Times article explained the idea was a political non-starter. It was immediately scorned by several of Trump’s fellow Republicans, who questioned why the US would work with Russia after Moscow’s reported meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election. The episode over the proposal unfolded on July 9, 2017 after his bilateral meeting with Putin in Hamburg, Germany during the G-20 Economic Summit. Trump emphasised 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…..” 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.”

When Trump broached the the issue of the Russia’s hacking of the 2016 Presidential Election and his discussion with 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. The proposal for a joint cyber security unit apparently stemmed from 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 more fulsome, honest talks about the issue among senior officials. In that way, the proposal certainly would have served as an effective confidence building measure.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines an apologist as a person who offers an argument in defense of something controversial. That is not the intent here. The OED defines an analyst as someone who conducts analyses. Foreign policy analysts scrutinize facts and data and interpret them, often in different ways. Given what is publicly known about Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit, the analysis here explains that although flawed, it is the sort of unconventional product that can result from intense negotiations aimed at coping with a seemingly intractable issue. The troublesome issue in this case is Russia’s intrusions into the 2016 US Presidential Election with all of its considerable security and political implications. It is also explained here that Trump’s proposal reveals a bit about his negotiating style. Trump clearly becomes target-oriented in his talks, and will make smaller agreements to build his interlocutor’s trust in him. From congruences Trump discerns in his interlocutor’s thinking and his own, he will try to craft a mutually satisfying agreement that, of course, ensures he will get what he wants. At this stage, Trump is still trying to get answers from Russia about the election issue and mollify the anxieties of various constituencies in the US over the negotiations, while hard at work trying to improve relations with Russia. Using his skills and experience, he seems to be swimming in the right direction. Audacibus annue coeptis. (Look with favor upon a bold beginning.)

Over the past decade, Russia 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. 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. Russian officials deny engaging in such operations.  Russian officials almost never open up their covert intelligence efforts.

Russian Cyber Attacks during the 2016 US Presidential Election

As it was discussed in the July 6, 2017 greatcharlie post entitled “Trump to Meet with Putin at G-20 Gathering: Trump Seeks an Authentic Relationship with Russia”, over the past decade, Russia 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 Russian strategy is typically to pair cyber attacks with online propaganda. That approach has 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 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. 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.

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. The Russian operation to influence the 2016 US Presidential Election demonstrated a marked escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of  Moscow’s longstanding desire and effort to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order. US Intelligence Community assesses that Putin, himself, ordered the influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s objectives were: to undermine public faith in the US democratic process; to denigrate former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and, to harm her electability and potential presidency.  The US Intelligence Community further assessed that Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for then President-elect Trump. In following, it also assessed Putin and the Russian Government aspired to aid President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. The approach the Russia took to operation reportedly evolved over the course of the campaign given its understanding of the US electoral prospects of the two main candidates. The Intelligence Community concluded that once it appeared to Moscow that Clinton would likely win the election, the Russian operation began to focus more on undermining her future presidency. It was uncovered by Intelligence Community that the influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blended 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.”

The Intelligence Community has declared that much as its Soviet predecessor, Russia has a history of conducting covert influence campaigns focused on US presidential elections, using Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR intelligence officers and agents and press placements to disparage candidates perceived as hostile to the Kremlin. Russia’s intelligence services conducted cyber operations against targets associated with the 2016 US were Presidential Election, including targets associated with both major US political parties, were conducted by Russian intelligence services. The Intelligence Community assessed with high confidence that the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU used the Guccifer 2.0 persona and DCLeaks.com to release US victim data collected in cyber operations publicly, in exclusives to media outlets, and transmitted material to WikiLeaks. Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. US Department of Homeland Security assessments in the report explain that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying. The Russia’s state-run propaganda machine Russia Today contributed to the influence campaign by serving as a platform for Kremlin messaging to Russian and international audiences.  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.

Testifying before the US Senate Intelligence Committee on June21, 2017, Jeanette Manfra, the US Department of Homeland Security’s acting deputy Undersecretary of Cyber Security revealed that 21 US state election systems were targeted as part of Russia’s wide-ranging operation to influence the 2016 elections. She explained that a small number state election systems were also breached but there was no evidence any votes were manipulated. Manfra noted that the elections are resilient to hacking in part because they are decentralized and largely operated on the state and local level. Nevertheless, the hacking of state and local election databases in 2016 was more extensive than previously reported. According to Time, there was at least one successful attempt to alter voter information. Reportedly in Illinois, more than 90% of the nearly 90,000 records stolen by Russian state actors contained driver’s’ license numbers, and a quarter contained the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers.

According to the US Intelligence Community, 21 US state election systems were targeted as part of Russia’s wide-ranging operation to influence the 2016 elections. A small number state election systems were also breached but there was no evidence any votes were manipulated. However, there was at least one successful attempt to alter voter information.  In Illinois, more than 90% of the nearly 90,000 records stolen by Russian state actors contained driver’s license numbers, and a quarter contained the last four digits of voters’ Social Security numbers.

Reaching Agreements: Easier Said than Done

Before the Trump-Putin bilateral meeting, what had been observed in diplomatic exchanges 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 US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson a meeting in Moscow after his talks with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei 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. US State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry officials are also working together to resolve nagging issues that could serve to harm efforts to foster good relations. Such seemingly small steps helped to build confidence in both Washington and Moscow that the prospect for change was real, and it lead to the arrangement of a 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, fighting continues in Ukraine, and aerial and naval intrusions remain constant in skies and waters in NATO, Canadian and US territory. If all went well, there will certainly be more to follow.

All of that being stated, the successful formulation and execution of such small steps is a daunting in public. When Putin initially took power on January 1, 2000, the West expected him to give it nothing less than his unequivocal cooperation in a manner similar to his predecessor, Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. Western capitals also expected Putin to be a bit wobbly taking on so much responsibility at a relatively early age. Yet, Putin knew his shoulders could bear the burden. He had no desire to be just a man of the moment in Russia. Much as Yeltsin, Putin, too, showed patience toward the West for a while, but he did not procrastinate. He took on the mission of breathing fresh breath into a country that was dying. He pushed ahead with plans “to save” Russia from disintegration and frustrate what he sensed were Western efforts to weaken it. Indeed, Putin did not believe congenial relations with the West were authentic given the many years of geopolitical struggle. Putin believed then, and believes now, that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. He believes Western governments are driven to create disorder in Russia and make it dependent of Western technologies. Still, Putin has shown that would prefer to outthink his rivals in the West rather than fight them. That notion has influenced his responses in contentious situations. After the period of a term away from the presidency during which he served as his country’s prime minister, Putin was reelected for a third term on March 4, 2012. He clased repeatedly with US President Barack Obama and seemed to act more aggressively. The Russian military move that stood out was the annexation of the Crimea.

The US and EU took Putin to task for that bold military operation. Harsh sanctions were levied and Russia was cast out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies. Putin has held on to the territory and has continued to do so in the face of even tougher sanctions against Russian interests. He levied his own sanctions against US and EU products and even began heavily supporting separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine. 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. Ulterius ne tende odiis. (Go no further down the road of hatred.)

Given the many years of geopolitical struggle, Putin was unconvinced congenial relations between Russia and the West could exist authentically. He believed the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. After Putin was reelected for a third term, he clashed repeatedly with US President Barack Obama. Putin became more aggressive; took more military action. After traveling a bumpy road with the Obama administration, Moscow hoped Trump’s approach to Russia in any direction would reflect the desire not just for new deals, but a new US-Russia relationship.

Trump’s Negotiating Style: It’s Similar to the “Harvard Way”

Parva scintilla saepe magnam flamam excitat. (The sparkle often initiates a large flame.) Given Trump’s gift for agile maneuver against opposite parties in negotiations and his ability to mask his approach, if he chooses to do so, his decisions cannot be forecasted with exactitude. Trump, a self-admitted master of the art of the deal.  His negotiating “tactics, techniques, procedures and methods” Trump appears to have used that were likely developed a tad via his graduate business education at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania along with heavy dose of experience gained after nearly five decades of business negotiations. His concepts appear similar to those promoted by Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation. Such concepts ostensibly guided him in his first “business meeting” with Putin. They include the following: promoting creativity by breaking problems into smaller components; by doing so, you can build a multi-issue business negotiation out of what might appear to be a single-issue deal; using multiple issues to make valuable tradeoffs and facilitate a good-faith negotiation; collecting important information by asking lots of questions and listening carefully to the answers; impressing the other side with your flexibility by putting forth several different proposals at the same time; contemplate unconventional deal-structuring arrangements to bridge the gap between what the seller wants and what the buyer can afford; exploring a contingent contract to help overcome differences in beliefs about future events and outcomes; creating even more value in business negotiations by adding conditions to your deal such as “I’ll do X if you do Y”; and, engaging in “mind games” like brainstorming to facilitate creative problem solving and unexpected solutions.

Trump surely had high hopes before and during his meeting with Putin. He likely would argue then, and would argue now, that bold action, when appropriate, would be the very thing to turn situations around. Ideally, if big agreements were reached, they could help modify Russian behavior, and get relations moving forward. Yet, Trump is also pragmatic and recognizes that plans must fit circumstances and circumstances cannot be created or imagined to fit plans. Trump understood that there would likely need to be initial, relatively small steps perhaps to unlock the diplomatic process on big issues. He would also seek to gauge actions and reactions of his interlocutor, Putin. If he discerned a positive way forward, his sense of possibility would broaden and he would open his mind up to more options. When Trump broached the issue of Russian cyber attacks and eventually presented his proposal, his goal was not to mollify Putin, but rather provide an opportunity for all sides to “clear the air” on the issue of Russia’s hacking of 2016 US Presidential Election but he was unable to receive anything other than denials. Trump is not happy about Russia’s interference with the 2016 Presidential Election both as a patriotic citizen and as a candidate in that election. He may not completely agree that Russia’s action greatly impacted his election victory, but he recognizes that the aesthetics of the intrusion over time could diminish his accomplishment in some minds, particularly among his supporters. Trump understood Putin would likely deny Russia had any connection to the election intrusion, but he undoubtedly believed it was worth a try to have him confirm what most in the US believe.

As Trump and Putin did not have a relationship established prior to the meeting, they did not possess the requisite degree of trust that would allow them to relax and explore the territory outside their formal negotiating positions. They could not talk about their assumptions, strategies, and even fears. They had to work in the abstract from reports of others’ observations and analyses about their respective interlocutors.

The ability of Trump in his negotiations with Putin, to restrain the expression of emotion, in this case anger, perhaps even rage, and not to publish to the world by changes of countenance those thoughts and feelings, was critical if relations were to move forward. To exist is to change, to change is to mature, to mature is to recreate oneself endlessly. Admitting errors, missteps, is a sign of maturity and wisdom. One evolves as a result of recognizing ones mistakes. The mature one has moved from the passive voice to the active voice–that is when one stops saying, “It got lost” and begins saying, “I lost it.” The bilateral meeting between Trump and Putin was a promising moment in relations between the US and Russia. In an advanced, mature way of thinking, a presidential way of thinking in 2017, Trump sought some temporary step on the issue of Russia’s intrusion into the 2016 US Presidential Election by taking into consideration the relative strengths of the positions and capabilities of all sides. Trump understands the peace that can be achieved must be the focus. The focus must not be how much each side can destroy the other through cyber warfare but rather how to end cyber as a mutual threat. One cannot solve a problem with the same thinking one used when one created the problem. Mens sibi conscia recti. (A mind conscious of its own rectitude.)

The Flawed Cyber Proposal: A Telling Product of the Negotiation Process

Six building blocks for diplomatic negotiations were superbly outlined by the renowned US statesman, former US Secretary of State James Baker over a decade ago. Baker explained that the building blocks worked well when properly applied through solid preparation and hard work. The building blocks included: 1) Understanding an opponent’s position; 2) Gaining trust through personal relationships; 3) Reciprocal confidence building; 4) Taking a pragmatic approach that does not sacrifice principles; 5) Being aware of timing; and 6) Maintaining a deep respect for the politics of the situation.

As Trump and Putin did not have a relationship established prior to the meeting, they did not possess the requisite degree of trust that would allow them to relax and explore the territory outside their formal negotiating positions. They could not talk about their assumptions, strategies, and even fears. They had to work in the abstract from reports that presented observations and analyses of others about their respective interlocutors. With specific regard to reciprocal confidence building, both leaders demonstrated that they could negotiate. Baker suggested that at the earliest stage, one could arrange a series small negotiations on issues that could be resolved quickly, reasonably, and amicably to assist in developing a dialogue. Baker explained that finding even a minor, common point of agreement, for example on the shape of the negotiating table, can serve to set the tone of the relationship. It also helps develop a dialogue, which is one of the most important aspects of negotiations.

Former US Secretary of State James Baker (above). Six excellent building blocks for diplomatic negotiations were outlined by former US Secretary of State James Baker over a decade ago. Baker explained that they worked well when properly applied through solid preparation and hard work. Included among them were: 1) Understanding an opponent’s position; 2) Gaining trust through personal relationships; 3) Reciprocal confidence building; 4) Taking a pragmatic approach that does not sacrifice principles; 5) Being aware of timing; and 6) Maintaining a deep respect for the politics of the situation.

Confidence Building Measures: In Brief

Perhaps the best definition for confidence building measures was provided by Simon Mason and Siegfried Matthias, in their seminal article, “Confidence Building Measures (CBMS) in Peace Processes” published in Managing Peace Processes: Process Related Questions. A Handbook for AU Practitioners, Volume 1 (African Union and the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, 2013). They define confidence building measures as series of actions that are negotiated, agreed, and implemented by parties in a dispute in order to build confidence without specifically focusing on the root causes of the dispute.

Confidence building measures are designed to build confidence. Confidence is a psychological state, whereby actors make themselves vulnerable and ready to take risks based on the expectation of goodwill and positive behavior from a counterpart. Confidence building measures can prevent a dispute or larger problem from escalating even if the negotiating process is to be started in the short term. Preventing escalation has value in itself and may also allow the negotiation process to begin again later on. Mason and Matthias intriguingly note that confidence building measures can prevent parties from escalating even when there is a denial of any problems or tensions that could escalate. Successful negotiations require risk taking by the parties. That is why a minimum degree of confidence is needed for negotiations to even start. For negotiating parties, confidence building measures are attractive because they are seen as a low-cost and low-risk activities, since they can be implemented with limited resources and calculated risks. The negotiating parties, themselves, must craft confidence building measures to fit their specific case. If not, what is agreed to will not be owned by the parties, and will not serve to build trust. Confidence building measures must also be reciprocal in nature. One party should not feel that it is going out on a limb without the other also doing so. To assist in ensuring confidence is sustained and agreements are appropriately implemented, confidence building measures concerning communication should be put in place.

In an incremental approach to confidence building measures, a series of agreements are used to slowly tackle the more difficult core issues later on. Under this approach, confidence building measures become stepping stones or a pathway to greater agreements. Indeed, agreements on confidence building measures early on generally build trust and interest in negotiating more complex agreements at a later stage. In this sense, confidence building measures create opportunities for parties to collaborate on something that is not strategically important to them and, in so doing, build the trust needed to subsequently discuss important strategic issues. Confidence building measures pull parties away from the obstacle they are blocked on. Once confidence exists, it is then easier to address the obstacles. Mason and Matthias use the metaphor of steps of a ladder also highlights the incremental nature of building trust which takes time and an accumulation of small steps. That is referred to by some as the confidence building process.

Mason and Matthias caution parties negotiating confidence building measures that wider constituencies may view a negotiation process with suspicion before, during, and after negotiations, and may not be willing to accept deals made. Individuals from those constituencies typically will not be present at the negotiation or understand how agreements were arrived at. Plans for responding to the wider constituencies’ concerns must be considered. A mutual understanding that one party made need to break away from a confidence building measure must exist. An agreement could be negotiated that allows the parties an amount of time in which they could communicate to one another about the need to break away from a confidence building measure. Working together on such a matter in itself could build confidence, create some degree of trust.

US military personnel in Cyber Command (above). There is no doubt with regard to the legal barriers to Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the US Department of Defense, which is the parent organization of the US National Security Agency and the US Cyber Command, from using any funds for bilateral military cooperation with Russia. However, the mere fact that Trump offered to work jointly with Russia to sort out a cyber matter, and thought of creating an organization for that, seems to have had a positive impact on Putin.

Even though Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit was flawed, the dialogue among US and Russian cyber experts that might have resulted from it could have helped to develop a mutual understanding about the harmful effects of cyber activities and potential consequences, to include proportional asymmetric responses. Experts from the US side in any hypothetical liaison team would have likely been very experienced, highly qualified US personnel from the US National Security Agency and Cyber Command, and perhaps the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State, the primary US agency most major cyber negotiations. They might have caused Russia to halt its cyber operations against the US by helping to establish a modus vivendi, or way both countries could live together while possessing this significant strategic capability. One could speculate even further that talks may have even resulted in the very near-term suspension of any cyber attacks underway, or a reduction in the intensity or tempo of such attacks that have been sourced to Russia and perhaps some that have not as yet been identified as such. Trump’s proposal, encouraging talks, although flawed legally, ideally could have inspired both countries to move forward toward a greater agreement.

A Bad Reaction

As it was explained earlier, wider constituencies represented by negotiating parties may view the process with suspicion. In that vein, political allies and adversaries alike in the US rejected Trump’s proposal for a joint cyber security unit. There was an immediate rebuff from several Republicans, who questioned why the US would work at all with Russia after Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. US Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican, stated on the US Sunday morning news program “Meet the Press”: “It’s not the dumbest idea I have ever heard but it’s pretty close.” On Twitter, US Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican, immediately criticized Trump’s cyber proposal. Rubio wrote: “While reality and pragmatism requires that we engage Vladimir Putin, he will never be ally or reliable constructive partner.” He further stated: “Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with [Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-] Assad on a “Chemical Weapons Unit.” US Senator John McCain of Arizona, a Republican who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, recognized Trump’s desire to move forward with Russia. However , McCain further explained on the US Sunday morning talk show “Face the Nation”: “There has to be a price to pay.” McCain went on to state: “Vladimir Putin … got away with literally trying to change the outcome … of our election.” He also added: “There has been no penalty.” US Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN’s Sunday morning program, “State of the Union”, that Russia could not be a credible partner in a cyber security unit. Schiff stated: “If that’s our best election defense, we might as well just mail our ballot boxes to Moscow,” Schiff added. A former US Secretary of Defense in the administration of US President Barack Obama, Ashton Carter, told CNN: “This is like the guy who robbed your house proposing a working group on burglary.”

There is no doubt with regard to the legal barriers to Trump’s proposal for a joint US-Russian cyber security unit. The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the US Department of Defense, which is the parent organization of the US National Security Agency and the US Cyber Command, from using any funds for bilateral military cooperation with Russia. The purpose of the law is avoid providing Moscow with insight into US cyber capabilities. In the US, it has been long-believed that Moscow is averse to revealing any of its cyber capabilities.

Multiple proposals will be presented in the process of improving US-Russian relations. Trump’s cyber proposal was one of many tabled by him during his bilateral meeting with Putin. As Trump tweeted, success was achieved in other areas. For example, Trump and Putin agreed over a ceasefire for southwest Syria that was set to begin on midday, July 9, 2017. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it showed the US and Russia were able to work together in Syria and that they would continue to do so.

Dumping the Cyber Security Unit Proposal

It was only hours after Trump’s proposal for the joint US-Russian cyber security unit was harshly criticized by Republicans who said Moscow could not be trusted that he backtracked on it. He tweeted: “The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn’t mean I think it can happen. It can’t.”

Even without being implemented, the fact that Trump offered to work jointly with Russia to sort out a cyber matter, and thought of creating an organization to do so, may have had a positive impact on Putin’s thinking. Putin can choose cautious cooperation or subterfuge, which many in foreign policy circles would call his penchant. In his dealings with Trump, it seems to some degree Putin has chosen cooperation. Indeed, it must be noted that Putin discussed Trump’s proposal and was apparently open to some type of interaction between cyber experts of both countries. Recall also that Trump initially tweeted that Putin entertained the proposal. As Putin has the final say on all foreign policy matters in Russia, he established that Russia at the moment has an interest in reaching an understanding on cyber. Trump’s July 7, 2017 cyber proposal is dead. However, as the process of building relations between the US and Russia, there is a real chance that a new, better crafted proposal on cyber, within bounds legally, may surface, perhaps even from Moscow. Only time will tell.

Multiple proposals will be presented in the process of improving US-Russian relations. Trump’s cyber proposal was one of many tabled by him during his bilateral meeting with Putin. As Trump tweeted, success was achieved in other areas  For example, Trump and Putin agreed over a ceasefire for southwest Syria that started on midday, July 9, 2017. Tillerson said it showed the US and Russia were able to work together in Syria and that they would continue to do so. Tillerson announced some key understandings brokered in the meeting amounted to success. He explained: “We had a very lengthy discussion regarding other areas in Syria that we can continue to work together on to de-escalate the areas and the violence, once we defeat ISIS.” Tillerson also said the US and Russia would “work together towards a political process that will secure the future of the Syrian people.”

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s play, The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth, while King Henry away from the throne, the Duke of York, urged by Warwick, sat on it. Just then, Henry arrives with followers. Henry tells York to step away, but York announces an alleged claim to the crown against the King’s hereditary possession. Henry convinces York to wait to be crowned after he dies. Henry’s nobles are astonished that he disinherited his own son. Queen Margaret arrives and is struck by the news. York, at home, is convinced by Richard’s sons Edward and Richard, and his follower Montague to take the throne right away. A war for succession ensues. After several horrific battles, the opposing sides massed for a final engagement. In Act V, Scene iv of the play, Margaret leading Henry’s supporters gives a final stirring speech, summoning courage and the fighting spirit. On the plains near Teaksbury she states: “Great lords, wise men ne’er sit and wail their loss, but cheerly seek how to redress their harms. What though the mast be now blown overboard, the cable broke, the holding-anchor lost and half our sailors swallow’d in the flood? Yet lives our pilot still. Is’t meet that he should leave the helm and like a fearful lad with tearful eyes add water to the sea and give more strength to that which hath too much, whiles, in his moan, the ship splits on the rock, which industry and courage might have saved? Ah, what a shame! Ah, what a fault were this!” As Trump engages in efforts to improve relations with Putin and Russia, his opponents and a few fellow Republicans seem to feel the US is staring into a dangerous, dark abyss. They place little faith in Trump, and no trust or hope in Putin. Conversely, Trump, in thinking about the potential for improving relations, likely conjures panoramic views of endless vistas. While Trump’s critics would associate the disturbing sound of a dissonant flute with Trump’s effort to rebuild relations with Russia, Trump seeks to create a harmony between the US and Russia that even Johann Sebastian Bach would find sublime. The entire matter seems to enthral him. He remains optimistic and is pushing ahead in the face of considerable obstacles, the majority of which are actually unrelated to his efforts with Putin.

Trump has engaged in negotiations for decades. In his face to face bilateral meeting with Putin, Trump was allowed the chance to adjust to circumstances, become more fluid in his thinking, and more creative in his approach. Trump’s sense of possibilities was broadened. His proposal for a joint cyber security unit, while scoffed at, and, albeit, not viable under US law, undoubtedly resulted from his willingness to consider the full range of options. As a confidence building measure, it may very well have had a positive impact on Putin’s thinking without even being implemented.  Reports about the actual Trump-Putin meeting indicate both leaders had a good sense of one another’s positions but they also sought find out more about one another’s approaches. By doing so, both provided themselves with a better chance of reaching a successful conclusion. Both were attentive to how the other perceived issues, no matter alien that view may have been to their own. They noticed patterns of behavior, some perhaps influenced by history and culture, and recognized political constraints the other faced. Both Trump and Putin tried to crawl into one another’s shoes. As time moves on, that effort may very well assist the two leaders in building a relations that will facilitate the building of ties between the US and Russia. Durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis. (Endure, and keep yourselves for days of happiness.)

US Takes Sharper Tone on Russia’s Role in Syria: Despite Such Reports, the Future Holds Promise

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) and Russian Federation Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov (right). Reportedly, US President Donald Trump and Tillerson have sought to isolate Russia for backing the Syrian government after its chemical weapons attack in Idlib. They were also allegedly working to put international pressure on Moscow to change course. Yet, since the cruise missile strikes and bilateral talks, the situation regarding the US and Russia on Syria has actually improved. Change may be possible on US and Russian positions on more issues, but only through bold, determined diplomacy.

According to an April 12, 2017 New York Times article entitled “US Takes Sharper Tone on Russia’s Role in Syria,” US President Donald Trump and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have sought to isolate Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin for backing the Syrian government in the wake of its lethal chemical weapons attack on civilians. They were also reportedly working to build international pressure on Moscow to change course. In support of that conclusion, the article reports that on April 12, 2017, Tillerson came away from his meeting with Putin without reaching agreement on facts involving the chemical weapons assault in Syria or alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election. In describing the joint news conference with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov following the meeting with Putin, the April 12th New York Times article quotes Tillerson as saying, “There is a low level of trust between our countries.” It reports he further stated, “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.” Noting the level of tension surrounding the aftermath of the Syrian chemical weapons attack, the article asserts, a quick détente seemed a remote possibility. Further supporting that suggestion, the article reported that during a thirty minute news conference at the White House, Trump declared, “Right now, we’re not getting along with Russia at all–we may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia.” The point was additionally made in the article that events have sharply diverged from the meeting of the minds between the US and Russia that Trump frequently aspired to when he was campaigning, and there was no visible warming of the relationship. Yet, conversely, the same article explains that although Trump said the US-Russia relationship was failing, he held out hope that the two countries could come to terms, suggesting that Tillerson’s talks with Putin had gone better than expected. Although it highlighted occasions when the Trump administration in Washington, Moscow and New York, publicly chastised Putin, the article also indicated that the administration was privately working hard to “hash out” differences with him.

As greatcharlie affirmed in a previous post, the press, the news media, serves a free, effective democracy best, and is at its very best, when it unearths what is concealed or clarifies what may be confusing to the public about government actions. The press ensures power in a democracy remains in the hands of the people. Such efforts by the press are in great variance with reporting on Trump’s actions and intentions concerning the April 6, 2017 Tomahawk cruise missile strikes and relations with Russia on Syria. In the US, in particular, newsmedia pundits and policy analysts have meted out judgments of Trump’s decisions and actions akin to those once made “on the drumhead” for soldiers, an archaic type of summary military trial where only sentences were given and no interest was paid to evidence or arguments. (A drum is turned on its head and used as “the seat of justice.”) Another disquieting trend of news media criticism of Trump is to insist that he should follow some schedule and make certain decisions based on some template they apparently have in mind of how US presidents should act. (They would likely prefer a carbon copy of what they have found comfortable for nearly a decade.) A point of attack upon Trump’s actions is the idea that nothing he does can have real meaning or encourage a favorable outcome for US foreign policy because his administration’s actions have not been based on a coherent national policy or strategy, an articulated policy on the Middle East, and consequently, an identifiable policy on Syria.

The truth will always dispel falsehoods and misunderstandings. The reality is that following the US cruise missile strikes and Tillerson’s bilateral talks in Moscow, the situation in Syria was made somewhat better, and more importantly, US-Russia relations had turned in a positive direction. As the April 12th New York Times article alluded, Tillerson and Lavrov acknowledged in Moscow that actions have been taken by their respective countries which have irritated the other and they are taking steps to address that. Change may very well be possible in the respective positions of the US and Russia on certain issues, including Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. However, that will only happen through bold, determined diplomacy. Details of recent events and the Moscow talks are analyzed here to provide a better understanding of what has developed and what may come next. Ratio me ducet, non fortuna. (Reason, not luck, will lead me.)

Trump’s Alleged Policy Troubles

Festinare nocet, nocet cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit. (It is bad to hurry, and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.) Despite reports otherwise, Trump has actually taken a logical, prudent approach to foreign and national security policy. He is determined to make decisions that are true to promises he made during the campaign. He has initially sought to develop a firm understanding of what realistically can be done rather than have his team rapidly produce policies from analyses based on the abstract as a matter of political expedience. The source for Trump’s unorthodox exercise of due diligence on policy may likely be his experience as a builder. In that field of endeavor, Trump often may have greatly admired architectural designs of structures proposed to him, but he would invariably wait for engineering reports, cost estimates, and analyses of his business team before deciding on anything. It is an evolutionary process. The result of that approach has been the construction of some very impressive properties worldwide. Current and former generals serving in the Trump administration, well-versed in military history, might find parallel with this apparent concept very likely guiding their president’s thinking and the words of US General George Patton, Jr.: “One does not plan and then try to make circumstances fit the plans. One tries to make plans firmly the circumstances.” Out of necessity, Trump has energetically taken action on urgent issues; the strike in Syria is a prime example of that. Further, Trump, along with other senior administration officials, have held bilateral and multilateral talks with other countries in international organizations.

The practice of two prior presidential administrations was to make pronouncements on what could be done, poorly considering and matching possibilities with capabilities. They would then take action, the results of which were often failed foreign policy initiatives. An example of such an outcome was the notion promoted by the administration of US President George Bush in 2003 that US forces would enter Iraq and be greeted with cheers, open arms, and candy by Iraqis. Another example is the notion proffered by the administration of US President Barack Obama a decade later, that pronouncing “Assad must go” and supporting the Syrian Opposition Movement on the margins, would bring the Assad regime to negotiating table and its orderly release of the reigns of power would be arranged. Some might say their approaches were conventional. Nevertheless, they were wrong.

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 his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. Still, it would be fallacious to apply this concept to Trump’s actions if he has witnessed grave harm come to any long-time ally,  partner or friend of the US, or innocent civilians of Syria, who he has suggested he would protect in safe zones if they returned home. Trump has a moral center, the values from which have a place in his foreign policy decision making.

The Better Angels of Trump’s Nature?

To liberally paraphrase the early Christian theologian and philosopher St. Augustine of Hippo, the defense of war is that it is using lethal force to stop others from committing evil or from inflicting evil upon people. The moral dilemma remains for us: as people who are ourselves sinful and living in a fallen world, our motivations for doing things can be misguided. Our sinful passions can control our behaviors which can lead us to act for wrong reasons and to accomplish sinful ends. Self-neglectful virtue melts all physical and ideological boundaries with a charity that gives hope to those perceived as the most helpless. After the chemical weapon attack in Idlib, Trump felt compelled to make a strong decision. Some policy analysts and news media pundits insist that it was made at the cost of contradicting certain principles, as America First, that he has firmly espoused. True, 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 needs, wishes, or demands of any country. However, it would be fallacious for anyone to apply this concept to his actions if he has witnessed grave harm come to any long-time ally, partner, or friend of the US, or innocent Syrian civilians, who Trump has suggested he would protect in safe zones if they returned home. Trump has a moral center, the values from which have a place in his foreign policy decision making, a most recently his response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria. The better angels of his human nature took over. Trump’s words on the evening of the strikes in Syria signalled all of this. Trump explained: “My fellow Americans: On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians.  Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children.  It was a slow and brutal death for so many.  Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.  No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

The cruise missile strikes launched on April 6, 2017 by the Trump administration were calibrated to do only what was prescribed in response to Assad’s actions. Those engaged in its planning and execution can certainly hold their heads high. Yet, no paean, no song of praise or triumph, was heard from Trump at his residence Mar-a-Lago that evening. No celebrations took place at the White House or the Pentagon for that matter. Rather, Trump said: “Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.  We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world.  We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed.  And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail.”

Trump’s Military Experts Take Action

Undoubtedly, after learning of the Assad regime’s chemical attack, Trump undoubtedly asked his national security team to provide concrete answers on what to do in response. Trump did not simply vow to do something. He surely kept in mind Obama’s slow reaction in response to the Assad regime’s August 2013 crossing of a red line he drew on the use of chemical weapons. There was a chemical attack in a Damascus suburb and considerable evidence existed to support the accusation that Assad’s forces lainched it. Indeed, three days prior to the 2013 attack, the US had collected continuous streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence, revealing regime military activities allegedly associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack. Information gathered by the US from multiple streams clearly indicated that after those preparations were made, the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21st. Satellite detections, specifically, corroborated that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred–to include Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu’addamiyah. There was also the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, about ninety minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. The lack of flight activity or missile launches also led the US to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack.

Immediately following the cruise missile strike, US National Security Adviser, US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster left open the possibility that Trump will take further military action in Syria. Still, McMaster emphasized on “Fox News Sunday” on April 9, 2017: “We need some kind of political solution to that very complex problem.” He made it clear that finding a “political solution” to the Syrian crisis was what Trump wanted. McMaster further explained that Trump wants a worldwide response to Assad’s action that would include Assad allies Russia and Iran. Yet, McMaster clarified that remark by stating: “I’m not saying we are the ones to effect that change.” He then pointed to the fact that Russia and Iran “somehow think it’s OK to align with a murderous regime.” McMaster also affirmed on April 9th that the administration will try to simultaneously change the Assad regime and destroy the Islamic State terror group, entrenched in Syria. In an effort to clarify Trump’s foreign policy, McMaster said, “There has to be a degree of simultaneous action with some sequencing.”

US National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (above) has left open the possibility of further US military action in Syria. Perhaps members of Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center who provide combat service support for units that launch chemical attacks could be targeted by US strikes. The Trump administration could also let Assad feel “personal discomfort” for his actions. For example, an attack could damage facilities providing electric power to the neighborhood in which Assad lives through the use of non-lethal technologies such as electromagnetic pulse weapons.

Chemical Weapons and the Assad Regime

Syrian chemical weapons personnel who prepared chemical ordinance for the August 21, 2013, and the April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack included members of the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Center. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which is subordinate to the Syrian Arab Republic Ministry of Defense, is tasked with managing Syria’s chemical weapons program. According to French Intelligence, the organization is responsible for producing toxic agents for use in war, pinpointing Branch 450 as responsible for filling munitions with chemicals and ensuring the security of sites  where chemical agents are stockpiled. Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from August 18, 2013 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 near an area that the regime was known to mix chemical weapons, including sarin. On August 21st, a Syrian regime element  was surveilled preparing for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area. That element was using gas masks. US intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that any Syrian Opposition forces were planning to use chemical weapons.

A publicly released summary of the US intelligence community’s assessment of the April 4, 2017 chemical attack explains the Syrian regime maintains the capability and intent to use chemical weapons against the opposition prevent the loss of territory deemed critical to survival. It assessed that Damascus launched this chemical attack in response to a Syrian Opposition offensive in Northern Hamah Province that threatened key infrastructure. Senior regime military leaders were probably involved in planning the attack. According to the summary, a significant body of pro-opposition social media reports indicated that the chemical attack began in Khan Shaykhun at 6:55AM local time on April 4, 2017. The summary claimed further that the chemical agent was delivered by regime Su-22 fixed wing aircraft that took off from the regime controlled Shayrat Airfield. Reportedly, These aircraft were in the vicinity of Khan Shaykhun nearly 20 minutes before reports of the chemical attack began and were seen flying away from the area shortly after the attack. Additionally, the summary indicates personnel historically associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program were at Shayrat Airfield in late March making preparations for an upcoming attack in Northern Syria, and they were present at the airfield on the day of the attack.

A Possible Next Military Step

Much as the facilities, air assets, and personnel of Shayrat Airfield were targeted for cruise missile strikes, members of Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center who provided combat service support for units that launched the chemical attacks should be targeted by US strikes. Strikes on them should be executed not only as a consequence to their participation in the operation, but with the goal of removing them from the equation in Syria and obviating the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future. The facilities and equipment of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, from bases and offices, to trucks and gas masks should be destroyed to severely curtail the organization’s ability to support any chemical attacks in the future. US should be confident enough after attacks to assess numbers of remaining personnel only of a size enough to maintain stores of the ordinance until the time that perhaps an international body entering Syria at a later date might become engaged in its management. Under no circumstances should the US allow attacks to create a circumstance where Islamic militant forces could gain control of the chemical weapons at any site.

Further, according to US intelligence, Assad is the ultimate decision maker for Syria’s chemical weapons program.  If a direct attack upon is not a viable option, the Trump administration could as a minimum let Assad feel some “discomfort” for his actions and let him know how vulnerable he truly is. For example, a precision attack could be launched on the Syrian infrastructure designed to severely damage electric power in the neighborhood in which Assad lives. It could mean the use of non-lethal technologies such as electromagnetic pulse weapons that can seize all electric equipment of any kind in the vicinity. While the well-being of Assad and his family members should not be placed in danger, the attack should impact their daily lives. Such calibrated attacks would bring the consequences of Assad’s chemical attacks literally to his home. Assad’s neighbors will also know that the strike against their electricity and their normally well-protected living space came as a result of Assad’s use of chemical weapons. It is human nature to follow. It is human destruction that results from following the wrong leader.

Tillerson had previously met with Putin and senior Russian officials to secure oil deals while serving as the Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil. On June 21, 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors a foreigner can be bestowed by Russia after brokering a deal with the Russian state-owned energy giant Rosneft. However, Tillerson cannot, and will not, give any of that much importance now. At the April 12, 2017 meeting, Moscow discovered that as US Secretary of State, Tillerson is still very professional and he will approach issues with a businesslike pragmatism.

Can Tillerson Get a Handle on Russia?

Quid debemos cogitare? (What ought we think?) The Trump administration recognizes the Russian Federation’s significant presence in Syria and its influence with the Assad regime as well aa other countries that support it there. Its strong connection to the regime was enough to convince the Obama administration to accept Russia’s proposal to remove and destroy the Assad regime’s chemical weapons arsenal to avoid threatened military action by the US. Assad long ago was relegated to cameo appearances on the world stage via news media interviews. His cooperation could never be assured, and his treachery was assumed. Tillerson went into Russia to express concerns over 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. From Moscow’s perspective, the Trump administration’s approach to Russia in any direction must reflect the desire to hammer out a deal, not demand one. 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. Opinions expressed by former Obama administration officials on how the cruise missile strikes could be used as leverage in diplomatic talks with the Russian Federation appear to reflect the approach which Moscow found so unappealing. Antony Blinken, former US Deputy Secretary of State and Principal Deputy National Security Adviser in the Obama White House, reportedly told Reuters: “The US strike–ordered less than three days after the gas attack–could make it clear to Russia that the United States will hold Moscow accountable for Assad.”  Reuters also quoted Blinken as saying, “Tillerson ought to be ‘very matter of fact’ in his meetings, sending Russia a message that: “If you don’t rein him in, we will take further action.” Evelyn Farkas, a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia, assured Reuters that “Securing a Russian commitment on eliminating Assad’s chemical weapons is likely to be first on his agenda.”

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. All that is publicly known about the content of Tillerson’s April 12, 2017 meetings with Lavrov and Putin, has been gleaned from remarks and responses heard at the post meeting press conference. On April 6, 2017, Tillerson expressed the view that Russia had “failed in its responsibility” to remove Syria’s chemical weapons under a 2013 agreement, which he argued showed Russia was either complicit with the gas attacks or “simply incompetent.” At the April 12th press conference, a journalist’s’ question on the matter enabled Tillerson to clarify that statement. He replied: “With respect to Russia’s complicity or knowledge of the chemical weapons attack, we have no firm information to indicate that there was any involvement by Russia, Russian forces, into this attack. What we do know–and  we have very firm and high confidence in our conclusion–is that the attack was planned and carried out by the regime forces at the direction of Bashar al-Assad.” When Tillerson was asked about his conversations with President Putin on Syria, he replied: “Well, we did discuss at length the future role for Assad, whether it be in a future political process or not. Clearly, our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and they have again brought this on themselves with their conduct of the war these past few years. We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality. We do think it’s important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution. How that occurs, we leave that to the process going forward. We do not think one has to occur before the other can begin. And it will take a pace of its own. But the final outcome in our view does not provide for a role for the Assad–for Assad or for the Assad family in the future governance of Syria. We do not think the international community will accept that. We do not think the world will accept that.” Tillerson without question made it clear in his meetings that it would not be business as usual in US-Russian relations. His hope is to make things much better.

This was not Tillerson’s first meeting with Lavrov. On February 20, 2017, during the G-20 Meeting in Bonn, Germany, they met briefly and discussed what Tillerson referred to as “a range of issues of mutual concern.” Tillerson had met with Putin and senior Russian officials previously to secure oil deals while serving as the Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil. In appreciation of his efforts to broker a deal between ExxonMobil as the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft, on June 21, 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors a foreigner can be bestowed by Russia. (He was presented the award in St. Petersburg, Russia, along with the Chairman of ENI, an Italian multinational oil and gas company.) However, that occurred in the past. Tillerson is not, and will not, give any of that much importance now. At the April 12, 2017 meeting, Moscow discovered that as US Secretary of State, he is certainly not a Trump apparatchik. He approaches foreign policy issues with a businesslike pragmatism. He is very professional, very disciplined. He speaks frankly with a no-nonsense demeanor that might discomfit some. Tillerson barely registered a reaction when he was initially greeted by Lavrov with remarks denouncing the US missile strike on Syria as illegal and the accusation that the US was behaving unpredictably. When later asked by a Russian reporter how he would characterize the talks, Lavrov replied with a hint of both satisfaction and curiosity: “The State Secretary did not threaten me with sanctions. He didn’t threaten me with anything, actually. We frankly discussed the questions which were on our agenda . . . .”

A significant achievement of the 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 will 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. Before its next contact with the Trump administration, Moscow will undoubtedly consider what cooperative role the US could play that would allow for the full exploitation of its capabilities in the anti-ISIS effort. Yet, if Moscow wants to cooperate with the Trump administration on Syria, it must create an environment that will facilitate such cooperation. For the moment, the transition of Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. If the Trump administration ever decided to cooperate with Russia on Syria, it would signal its acceptance of Assad’s presidency as it is Russia’s policy to fully support it. However, to believe that might happen is to deny reality. Assad is at Russia’s disposition. A final decision on how to handle him will need to be made soon.

Through the April 12, 2017 talks, an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials charged with addressing smaller issues of concern and help stabilize the relationship. They agreed to consider further proposals concerning the way forward in Syria and consult respective allies and coalition partners of both countries on the matter. Discussions directed at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict would be continued. Putin agreed to reactivate an air-safety agreement concerning Russian and US-led coalition air operations over Syria.

Russia: Beware of Assad

Secrete amicos admone, lauda palam. (Admonish your friends in secret, praise [them] openly.) No international conference, no guarantees from Russia to keep him in check, no surgical procedure even, could make Assad palatable to the West at this point, or to any government in the Middle East other than Iran. Assad should not be seen as Russia’s proxy. By 2015, Assad appeared to lack the ability to remain in power against ISIS and perhaps US-backed Syrian Opposition forces. The military situation began recurvate after Russia, with the urging of Iran, moved its forces into Syria in September 2015 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 his benefactors to him with a leader who would be more acceptable among the Syrians.

Reconstruction will be another huge hurdle for Russia to overcome. Lacking any significant resources from the US and the rest of the international community to rebuild, the only viable long-term goal in Moscow would likely be to convert Syria into a very large version of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Donetsk People’s Republic, and the Luhansk People’s Republic. It would receive the recognition of very few countries, but not the US or major powers of Europe. Syria would in many ways would be shut off from the rest of the world. Even if it received a decent amount of economic aid from the Western countries and international organizations as the UN, the World Bank, or international Monetary Fund, Syria may never see an economic upturn. After observing the effects of few months of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns, Damascus might recognize that Moscow truly cannot support Syria in a way that would allow for its rebuilding. The situation would only worsen if pressure was placed on Russia over Syria through future sanctions.

Looking at the situation through Assad’s prism, it clear that he does not like or accept the idea that he is a factotum, a convenient tool for Moscow and Tehran. He may very well be able to convince himself that his regime and his sect, the Alawites, are large enough and strong enough to deter any possible attempt by current power friends and military allies time remove him from power. Assad will not allow his reign to come to an ignominious end. There would be a final demonstration of his power. He will make a stand or lash out before he goes. His concealed stockpiles of chemical weapons would even allow him to strike his allies with some effect. Indeed, Assad may believe that having those weapons at hand may be playing a role in deterring the few allies he has from turning against him. People with the most absolute power in history have tried to hold on by their fingernails knowing when they let go, all will be gone. They have often self-destructed. Misused power is always built upon lies. Tyrannical figures redefine what exists into projections of their egos. There are no noble thoughts. They become wrapped up in themselves. Assad seems to find pleasure in what is evil. As time goes on, the more tragic he becomes as a figure. The cruise missile strikes by the Trump administration may very well have initiated a discourse in Moscow on how to: better handle the remnants of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and how to defeat their use against Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria. Such discussions would likely take place in tandem with any on preventing burgeoning, positive relations with the US from being ruined by Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons. Mali sunt in nostro numero et de exilo bonorum virorum cogitant. (There are evil men in our number [our midst] and they are thinking about the destruction of good men.)

Assad (above) will not allow his reign to come to an ignominious end. He will make a stand before he goes. Concealed stockpiles of chemical weapons would allow him strike out even at his allies with some effect. He may believe as long as he has such weapons at hand, he is able to deter the few allies that he has from turning against him. Given the threat his chemical weapons actually pose to Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria, Trump’s action may have started a discourse in Moscow on how to handle Assad weapons and prevent him from poisoning burgeoning relations with the US by using them.

The Way Forward

In Act I, Scene i of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, elderly King Lear in ancient Britain is deciding to give up his power and divide his realm amongst his three daughters, Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril. He declares the daughter who can profess her love for him the most will receive the largest share. While he hoped Cordelia, his favorite would win, she refuses to play, offering a desultory response. Enraged, Lear disowns Cordelia accepting the soupy, excessive declarations of Reagan and Goneril who consequently set out to kill him. Before leaving the palace with the King of France, Cordelia having an intimation of the danger her sisters posed to Lear, states: “Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides: Who cover faults, at last shame them derides. Well may you prosper!” The prognosis for the long-term survival of Assad’s presidency is not good. Today, many still believe Putin’s relationship with Assad is indissoluble. Quite often, Putin displays choreographed support for Assad. However, sometimes conditions can change to such a degree that one’s position must be altered. Patriotism permeates everything that Putin does. While not actually articulated, Putin has subtly promoted the concept of “Russia First”, a guiding principle similar in many ways to Trump’s “America First”. Putin will not subordinate the interests of the Russian people to those of another country, regardless of friendships, partnerships, or alliances. Putin would be remiss if he ignored big opportunities that would benefit Russia’s long-term interests. Assad would unlikely react well to even the prospect of a “shift” in his relationship with Russia.

Moscow apparently sought to steal a march on the incoming Trump administration by getting to know its likely senior officials, understanding Trump’s intentions, and predicting the administration’s movements in advance. Yet, deciphering Trump proved to be a difficult task. It appears what Moscow knew about the administration as it took the reigns of power amounted to guesswork or nonsense from poor sources. Much of what Moscow observed and encountered from the administration came as a surprise. Praise for Trump initially heard from certain political quarters in Moscow transformed into rebuke. Yet, through contacts between officials of both countries an authentic understanding of Trump began to take shape among Russian foreign policy decision makers and Putin. Those in Moscow au courant with the public discourse in the US on Trump know that harsh criticism is the “popular” reaction. They may also have discerned that the psychology of defective pride was in play when hearing those in the US considered foreign policy experts reproach Trump. Trump is not the imprudent actor those experts want him to be. Trump’s intellect is the type that builds modern cities. Moscow must ignore all the approbation in the background and prevent it from insinuating itself into analyses. That will facilitate Moscow’s efforts to sort things out regarding the Trump administration and become more comfortable in dealing with it. On Syria, relations between the US and Russia are improving. The US approach is not to elbow a better position for itself on the matter, but rather to have Russia acknowledge its responsibilities regarding the war-torn country. It is the most prestigious and powerful player fighting in support of the Syrian Government. As such, it must take on the role of guiding Syria to peace. Russia is not on the sidelines and not in a position to retreat in that direction. Although only Trump and and Putin can respectively prescribe duties to Tillerson and Lavrov, this is a matter that demands their cooperation. Whenever some resolution to the matter might be found, it is nearly certain that Assad will be the last to know about it. Haec omnia vulnera belli tibi nunc sananda sunt. (All these wounds of war must be healed by you now.)

Russia, Turkey and Others Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring: Moscow Asks US to Join Its Efforts, But How It Will Respond Is Unclear

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War-torn Damascus (above). Following Russian Federation-led peace talks between representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement on January 24, 2017 in Astana, Kazakhstan, Moscow’s envoy, Alexander Lavrentyev, welcomed the US to take a more active role in efforts to resolve the conflict. The administration of US President Donald Trump will act regarding Syria when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. Moscow appears eager to know Trump’s plans for Syria. It seems to be engaging in a bit of guessing on it.

According to a January 24, 2017 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Russia, Turkey and Iran Agree on Syria Truce Monitoring,” officials from the Russian Federation, Turkey, and Iran met in Astana, Kazakhstan for two days with representatives of Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Opposition Movement. On the second day, January 24, 2017, the officials agreed to jointly monitor a fragile ceasefire between the warring parties established on December 30, 2016. The latest deal was called a possible step toward a political solution to end the six-year war. The UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura was also present at the January talks. At a news conference in Astana, de Mistura said, “When we came here to Astana, our immediate priority was to ensure the consolidation of the ceasefire.”  He went on to say that in the past that previous cease-fires broke down because of a lack of monitoring and agreement on how to implement them. Under the new agreement, the monitors are to ensure full compliance with the truce and prevent provocations, according to a joint statement issued by three sponsors. The arrangements for monitoring the cease-fire and enforcing it would be decided at later meetings. The Assad regime and Syrian opposition both said they supported the plan. However, significantly different views were expressed by the Assad regime and opposition rebels over what those systems to monitor and enforce should be. The parties planned to reconvene a month later in Geneva for UN-sponsored talks.

Russia, which supports the Assad regime, and Turkey, which supports some rebel groups, explained last week they hoped the talks would begin to map the outlines of a political settlement to end the conflict. As the talks progressed, however, both sides tempered expectations, saying the aim in Astana was to buttress the fragile truce as a foundation for more political talks later. The administration of former US President Barack Obama was a primary supporter of Syrian Opposition Movement and the effort by its armed rebels to shape events on the ground to force Assad regime to talks to discuss the transition to a new government. That effort has largely been unsuccessful. The new administration of US President Donald Trump did not push for a role in what were albeit at the Russian-led talks. Instead, the Trump administration chose not to send a delegation, and the US was represented by the US ambassador to Kazakhstan. Moscow’s envoy to the talks, Alexander Lavrentyev, told reporters that Russia would welcome the US taking a more active role in attempts to resolve the conflict. This was ostensibly an invitation for the Trump administration to fully participate in what Russia hopes will be on-going talks. Russia’s invitation “to take a more active role” on Syria appears to reveal a change of heart in the Kremlin on the US with the advent of the Trump administration. Perhaps it may even serve as evidence that at least on some foreign policy issues, Putin is not locked into a single intent, immutable. By the end of the Obama administration, the US-Russia relationship stood in ruins. So enervated was former US Secretary of State John Kerry, and other officials, with the search for common ground with Russia on Syria that the effort was essentially suspended.

While the invitation from Lavrentyev is laudable and was likely appreciated by the Trump administration, there is far more involved in repairing the broken relationship between the US and Russia than opening the door with an invitation to participate in Russian-led Syria talks. There is also far more to Syria than the talks. US administrations do not formulate their policies and action based on invitations or exchanges of short public statements but through the work of federal employees engaged in the daily task of analyzing situations, the development of policies and policy approaches, and the formal implementation of those policies through diplomacy, and when appropriate, the utilization of other tools of national power. That process has been somewhat disrupted by the resignation of the entire senior level of management officials at the US Department of State during the last week of January 2017. Reportedly, it was part of a spate of retirements by senior Foreign Service officers.  There was boldness going forward with Syria peace talks without the US and working with Turkey and others instead to secure a sustainable peace. However, it seems Russia has found that the dynamics of bringing the warring parties in Syria together for anything is daunting. What Russia may really be doing is inviting the Trump administration to further tie the US to the morass in Syria beyond the anti-ISIS fight. That would be a step of significant consequence, requiring considerable review. There has been some mumbling in the US news media and in social networks about an unverified draft executive order that indicates Trump plans to use the US military, in tandem with the State Department, to establish and protect refugee camps in Syria and neighboring countries. Syria was genuinely broached in a telephone conversation on January 28, 2017 between Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.  According to the Kremlin, the most tangible outcome of the phone call was an understanding that jointly fighting international terrorism was a priority and that the two countries should cooperate in Syria. While admitting that Syria was discussed, the White House characterized the call more casually as “a congratulatory call” initiated by Putin. The Trump administration will act regarding Syria, but it will do so when it chooses, in an appropriate, measured way. A policy with varied approaches to the many aspects of the Syria issue will eventually be articulated. However, most intriguing has been Russia’s interest in connecting with Trump on Syria rather than any other faced by both countries. That is the focus of the discussion here.

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups during the administration of US President Barack Obama then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially regarding the peace talks and postwar reconstruction in Syria. Now cooperation is somewhat uncertain.

Russia in Syria

On September 15, 2015, at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, Putin explained Russia’s military support and intervention in Syria.   He stated, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin explained the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syrian Opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.” Encouraged by advisers, Putin sensed not only a chance for Russia to shore up one of its remaining allies in the Middle East, but the chance to reassert Russia’s role as a global power. He was able to demonstrate that Russia could succeed where the Obama administration had floundered.

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, material, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount of Syrian territory back into the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. True, there are many foreign military forces operating in Syria, but the effort of Russia and its allies is a very visible, full-scale, multidimensional military operation. Russia has managed to shape events on the ground in Syria in order to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. Russia also seeks to defeat ISIS by annihilating its military formations in the field, eliminating its leadership, and eviscerating its so-called Islamic Caliphate to the extent that the organization will never be able to resurrect itself. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Most recently, Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky was killed in Aleppo, Syria. Putin personally announced that Galitsky had suffered fatal wounds when a Russian military field hospital in Aleppo’s al-Furqan neighborhood was struck by artillery fire on December 2, 2016. According to the Russian state-owned RIA Novosti news agency, Galitsky was acting as a military adviser to the Syrian Arab Army during its rapid three-week advance through about 75 percent of East Aleppo. It was reported that Galitsky was due to be promoted to the rank of major-general on December 12, 2016.

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Since September 2015, Russia, along with its allies, have destroyed ISIS units, materiél, command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has returned a considerable amount territory back into the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. In the process, the fighting has claimed some of the Russian Federation Armed Forces’ most capable soldiers. Counted among those lost is Russian Federation Army Colonel Ruslan Galitsky (above).

A Russian Invitation for Cooperation on Syria: A Lot to Consider

Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futura providere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we anticipate the future.) Certainly, Moscow would be very pleased if its interactions with the Trump administration could begin at a point where it had any positive, constructive interactions the administration of former US President Barack Obama. That would require ignoring the overall tenor of the relationship it has had with Washington on Syria and many other urgent and important issues. The Obama administration was unsupportive of Russia’s intervention from the get-go. On September 30, 2015, then US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter forecasted about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Almost immediately after Russia began military operations in Syria in September 2015, Obama administration officials were already regularly reproaching Russia over its repeated airstrikes upon “moderate” anti-Assad groups while ostensibly seeking to attack ISIS. Obama’s disappointment could be discerned in his statements. Concerning Syria, on August 6, 2016, Obama went as far as to say about Putin and Russia: “I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin.” He continued: “Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.”

In diplomacy, words and behavior matter absolutely, and there must be a certain amiability and gentleness in communications and interactions in order to create the environment for the development of mutual respect and understanding. It seems very uncharacteristic of Moscow in the midst of what Russian officials touted as a foreign policy success to invite the Trump administration to become more engaged with it on Syria. Still, even knowing it would mean sharing the limelight with the US, Russia appeared to have the desire to include the US in the process. To make perfunctory or platitudinous gesture for the US to become more engaged in Syria without any real desire for such cooperation could have potentially created a negative situation. The Russia could have convince the US to work with it, only to discover that the approaches of the two countries were not compatible. Far worse than both of those possibility would be the discovery that the invitation was a hoax. Certainly, Moscow had to expect that although Lavrentyev spoke with such comfortable words, it could not be acted upon immediately. Trump administration undoubtedly has it own thoughts and plans for Syria, but at the same time, it would very likely want to discern the full meaning of Russia’s “suggestion.” The decision was based on some rationale.

There is the possibility that Moscow’s invitation for the US join the Syria talks was a trial balloon floated off with the hope that if the Trump Administration might be interested in investing itself in Syria as part of its policy planning on the Middle East, counter terrorism, and possibly its Russia policy. Moscow seems very open to engagement. On counterterrorism, specifically, perhaps it would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. Russia 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.

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A Russian Federation Tupolev Tu-22M3 bomber (above). Moscow appears very open to engagement with the Trump administration on counter terrorism. It seems Moscow would like to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria. The Russian Federation Armed Forces have already been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces and airpower.

Leap of Faith?: No Firm Basis for Moscow’s Hopes on Trump and Syria

On one occasion, Putin has mentioned the 1973 comedy, science-fiction film from the Soviet Union, “Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession.” Putin would quote 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?” This really is the case with Moscow and Trump administration. To an extent, the January 28, 2017 telephone conversation between Trump and Putin confirmed essence of Lavrentyev’s statement in Astana. Yet, there were no details discussed that would indicate cooperation on Russia’s terms.  More specifically, the statement generated by the White House after the conversation noted that “The positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair.”  It stated further simply, “Both President Trump and President Putin are hopeful after today’s call the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern.”

There has been no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department. That makes it difficult to see what could have impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria. Lacking any formal statements from the Trump administration on Syria to analyze, it could very well be that some in the Kremlin have turned to US news media interpretations of political events and decisions of the Trump Administration. For example, on January 26, 2017, the Guardian reported: “Trump had earlier also appeared to fall into line with Russia’s approach towards Syria, which had been to bomb the anti-Assad opposition into submission, before turning its attention towards a mutual foe, ISIS.” As for taking an unconventional, high profile approach to diplomacy, it may have been an effort to match the idea popularly promoted in the US media that it is the Trump administration’s preferred foreign policy tack. When one is less certain about the objective truth, the possibility that one might be drawn elsewhere for answers increases.

In addition to the fact that no formal policy documents exist that could have caused Moscow to believe the Trump administration’s policy on Syria, once articulated, would be compatible with its own. No publicized contact has taken place between Trump administration and the Kremlin, particularly one that would even approximate a complex conversation on bilateral relations. As mentioned, there was the late-January 28, 2017 Trump-Putin telephone call. However, no other conversations during the campaign or in the period before Trump’s inauguration could have reasonably caused Moscow to be certain of what his administration’s policy approaches would be on Syria. Additionally, decisions that might be made by the Trump administration on Syria at this point would be made with every fact, every judgment, the US government has available. Eventually, a formal policy on Syria will be presented.  Verba volant, scripta manent. (Spoken words fly away, written words remain.)

Diplomacy via Public Statements: Russia’s Effort to Bypass the US Policymaking Process

It is unclear how Moscow thought Lavrentyev’s invitation would be processed within the US foreign policy apparatus. Most recently, there have been significant changes in the US Department of State. According to the Washington Post, on January 25, 2017, Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary for Management, Assistant Secretary of State for Administration Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond, and the Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, Ambassador Gentry Smith resigned from their posts. In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Gregory Starr retired January 20, 2017, and the director of the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, Lydia Muniz, departed the same day. While the Trump might have eventually replaced these officials, career Foreign Service officers as them are crucial to the State Department’s many functions, particularly the implementation of an administration’s agenda.

Officials in the Kremlin or the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs should not hope to impact US foreign policy by just making statements and expecting a reaction. Foreign policy is still formulated at the White House and US Department of State as a result of a thorough examination of facts by policy analysts.In the current environment, the analytical process on Russia must be akin to a crucible in which social media rumors, falsehoods, and fake news must be burned off. Those facts are analyzed, with the concepts and intent of senior department officials and those of national leaders firmly in mind. Then others, enlightened with truths, based on real facts presented by the analysts, formulate policy options. US Department of State uses diplomacy to implement policies. Employees in other departments whose work concerns US external relations engage in a similar processes utilizing their particular tools of national power.  For example, in the US Department of Defense, employees formulate policies entailing the possible use of the military power. It is a daily enterprise in which thousands of federal employees are engaged. In verbis etiam tenuis cautusque serendis dixeris egregie, notum si callida verbum reddiderit iunctura novum. (When putting words together it is good to do it with nicety and caution, your elegance and talent will be evident if by putting ordinary words together you create a new voice.)

U.S. President Donald Trump walks through the Colonnade to the Oval Office after returning to the White House in Washington.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle, indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.”

A US-Russia Relationship on Syria:Thinking It Through in Moscow

Faced with the predicament of having no formal articulation of a Syria policy and immediate approaches for its implementation by the Trump White House or State Department from which it could work, Moscow’s decision to authorize Lavrentyev’s  invitation may have been 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, from what Trump has stated, analysts admittedly might have gleaned and constructed his likely key foreign and national security policy concepts on which his decisions might be based. True, when Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address, he was not presenting a policy plan for any region. Rather, he presented, “America First” as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. An explanation of the concept was posted on the White House website on January 20, 2017 as the “America First Foreign Policy.” It reads in part: “Peace through strength will be at the center of that foreign policy. This principle will make possible a stable, more peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground.” It further states: “Defeating ISIS and other radical Islamic terror groups will be our highest priority. To defeat and destroy these groups, we will pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. In addition, the Trump Administration will work with international partners to cut off funding for terrorist groups, to expand intelligence sharing, and to engage in cyberwarfare to disrupt and disable propaganda and recruiting.”

It could very well be that policy analysts in Moscow, as much as policy analysts in other national capitals, may have used their analysis of the “America First Foreign Policy” to base conclusions on prospective Trump administration policies. Judgments made would need to have been deemed satisfactory enough to take action on. Given the statement’s mention of counterterrorism and the determination to pursue the issue vigorously, it would naturally follow that the judgments on which Russian analysts would have been most confident would concern counterterrorism and how it might relate to Syria. Absent this possibility, what impelled Russia to suggest greater US involvement in Syria truly becomes a mystery.

Ut desint vires tamen est laudanda voluntas. (Even if it is beyond one’s power, the will [to try] is still worthy of praise.) Surely, Moscow would prefer that Western foreign policy analysts saved their ministrations for officials  of their own countries. Nevertheless, how Moscow may have perceived relations with the Trump administration on Syria before authorizing Lavrentyev’s invitation, what it perceived the US footprint in Syria would be following a renewed investment there, and how the US role might impact Russia, as well as its current partners on Syria is worth considering. If Russia’s decision on cooperating with the US on Syria was based on conclusions reached by Russian analyst as postulated here, it would be interesting to consider gaps that likely existed in their understanding of Trump’s concepts and prospective decisions on US foreign policy. The list of issues which Russian analysts would need to consider and for which they would need the right answers would be lengthy. Some of the important considerations for Moscow would likely have been: 1) bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria; 2) connecting on counterterrorism and safe zone; 3) establishing an understanding on Assad; 4) handling the Syrian rebels; 5) managing the peace talks; 6) getting the US to accept Iran’s role in Syria; 7) discerning US-Turkey cooperation; and, 8) postwar peace-enforcement and reconstruction.

1) Bridging the diplomacy gap on Syria

One could postulate that Russia’s interest in including the US in its Syria peace talks now is a display of newly found respect for the US Presidency, a very congenial welcome to the new administration with hope it would be perceived a sign of Moscow’s desire for improved relations, or an attempted appeal to the pride and ego of new US officials. While on the outside, Trump may appear to some as audacious, unpredictable, aggressive, on the inside Trump is thoughtful, disciplined, under control, and tough. The Kremlin might keep in mind is that much as Putin, Trump will hardly interested in diffusing tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back, an affected joviality to initiate dialogue. Trying to diffuse tension with Trump in this way is to play the minstrel. It will signal insecurity.

Russia has not provided a useful articulation of its hopes for relations with the Trump administration which would be helpful to the White House on some policy planning. It would also be helpful if Moscow articulated a reasonable cause for Russia’s decision to break contact with the Obama administration on Syria, or exclude the US in its talks in Astana. Anger is not an acceptable rationale but very often the basis for poor decisions. Moscow should realize that the Trump administration indeed represents a new beginning. It will seek better ties with other countries and better deals on anything negotiated by the Obama administration. Still, that does not necessarily mean everything that was Obama’s must be deracinated. Trump is very patriotic, and while he may not have agreed with Obama’s policies and approaches, he would certainly want other governments to display respect for a sitting US president. The reality is Russian behavior toward Obama Presidency at some level may factor into his perceptions of Russia.

It is unclear whether there are any other steps other than Lavrentyev’s invitation, planned to help bridge diplomatic gap between the US and Russia on Syria. Having taken the uncongenial and provocative step of excluding the US from its peace talks in Astana, and terminating discussions on Syria with the US, Russia’s attempt to revive what has been broken is being attempted with almost no diplomatic foundation to build upon. Former US Secretary of State John Kerry very likely explained to his counterpart Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Putin, himself, that reaching an agreement during the Obama administration on Syria and coordinating effectively under that agreement and others that might have been reached, would increase the possibility that US-Russian coordination at that level would be preserved by the next US administration. It would have been a simple statement of truth as much as an effort at fence mending. It should have behooved Putin to consider how significant cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups then might set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries in the next administration, especially on a postwar reconstruction and peace-enforcement mission in Syria.

A feasible point on which Russia might build new diplomatic relations on Syria would be US-Russian military coordination cooperation on Syria to ensure that the two countries’ air forces operate safely and that the risk of accidental confrontation or collision is minimized. Those talks were set up as a result of a proposal proffered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to share intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. Russia might want to provide a positive assessment of the status of US-Russia air coordination on Syria.

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A US B-52H bomber (above) Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions regarding counterterrorism have been explicit. Trump is ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.

2) Connecting on counterrorism and safe zones

Given that diplomatic efforts between the US and Russia on Syria near the Obama administration’s terminus were discontinuous, it is difficult to see how Moscow would have any confidence that the Trump administration would be interested in diplomatic efforts on Syria that would bridge the gap. Prospective diplomatic efforts might include talks on the US role in the Russian-led Syria peace talks, a new US-Russia partnership in Middle East, or counterterrorism.  The draft executive order circulating on social media in January 2017 was first obtained and published by the Huffington Post, Trump envisioned establishing “safe zones” both inside Syria and in neighboring countries that will be used to “protect vulnerable Syrian populations” while they “await firm settlement” either elsewhere in Syria or in other countries. The document alludes to Trump’s controversial calls to prevent people fleeing the war-torn country from entering the US.  It further explained that  according to a draft executive order along with other steps with the goal of preventing future terrorist attacks in the US. Trump indicates he wants to see a plan by late April. The draft executive order was unverified.  Some believe Trump will likely withdraw the matter due to tough logistical and political challenges associated with it.

Even without a formal articulation of its foreign and national security policies, the Trump administration’s intentions with regard to counterterrorism may have been explicit enough. He appears ready to respond to terrorists groups with varied means to include stealthy, covert special operations raid executed with surgical precision to airstrikes of unimaginable destructive power.  As the capital of ISIS’ now dwindling Islamic Caliphate is located in Syria, it could be postulated that the country should hold some relevance regarding the administration’s foreign policy.  It could seen as  prospective rationale for Trump administration to invest time and effort on the political situation in Syria. Still, it would be difficult to discern solely from that angle what the administration’s interest and approaches to other aspects of the Syria issue might be.

It is uncertain whether Russia could establish a purely anti-ISIS linkage with the US on Syria or whether such a tie would be desirable. While the Trump-Putin telephone call albeit occurred after Lavrentyev made his statement,Moscow’s desire to make counterterrorism the foundation for establishing US-Russian relationship focus was reflected by the conversation. The aspect of the call that the Kremlin primarily focused on was counterterrorism. The Kremlin noted, “The presidents spoke in favor of setting up genuine coordination between Russian and American actions with the aim of destroying Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria.”

3) Handling the Syrian Opposition Rebels

It is uncertain how the Trump administration will respond to Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground. The Obama administration in 2012 to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement with its support in the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. However, the US effort in Syria was designed and recognized by many as work on the margins. For nearly five years, the rebels were, for the most part, a disappointment as a military force. Indeed, after the Obama administration took on what proved to be the thankless task of supporting the Syrian Opposition rebels on the ground, complaints were frequently heard from senior commanders of the Supreme Military Council, the opposition’s military wing and commanders of their forces in the field, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well. Their grievances belie the fact that the Syrian opposition military leaders, after four years of war, have failed to unify the many groups in the Free Syrian Army into a cohesive fighting force and have been unable, without foreign assistance, to enhance their fighters capabilities. Only with US direction were FSA units and People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party in the northeast Syria able to unite as the Syrian Democratic Forces. The rebels’ leaders had been remiss in devising their own plans for the effective use of their forces against ISIS and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. From the beginning of their movement, Syrian opposition leaders should have been mature enough, and worldly wise enough, to understand that neither US nor any other country owed them anything. The Syrian Opposition’s Supreme Military Council, and senior FSA commanders should have expected more from themselves before demanding so much of others. The chance that Syrian Opposition Movement rebels on the ground in Syria and its political leaders would gain and retain the support of the Trump administration will be slim if their predilection toward being demanding and difficult to coordinate politically persists.

There are presently 500 US Special Operations troops in Syria training, equipping, and assisting Syrian Opposition rebels. Their help has allowed the rebels achieve some big things. The rebels march toward Raqqa is an example of that. Through the assistance of US Special Operations advisers, the rebels have been able to coordinate their movements with planners of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition air campaign. However, there is still no evidence that the rebels possess any capability to shape the overall struggle in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many rebels scattered around Syria, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

ISIS and other Islamic militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda, such as the former Jabhat al-Nusra and its reported offshoot Khorasan, have managed find advantage in the Syrian opposition’s failings throughout the war.  By attacking mainstream FSA units that were trying to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, the Islamic militants have succeeded in making the Syrian opposition’s situation far worse. On top of the damage caused by their attacks on the FSA, Islamic militant groups continue to commit countless atrocities against the Syrian people. The Islamic militant groups were never oriented toward Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government. ISIS has included territory they hold in Syria as part of a massive Islamic State, an Islamic Caliphate, crossing into Iraq that is solely under their control, ruled under Sharia law. A syncretistic merger of mainstream opposition and Islamic militant ideas on governance was never going to occur. Meanwhile, ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups became stronger almost daily. Their strength has long since passed the point at which mainstream Syrian Opposition forces could independently contend with them.

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US Special Operations troops in Syria (above). With the help of 500 US Special Operations troops who were sent into Syria to train, equip, and assist them, the Syrian Opposition rebels have managed to achieve some things. Their march toward Raqqa is an example of that. However, there is still no evidence of a capability to shape the conflict in a way now that would put real pressure on Assad. For many Syrian Opposition rebels, everyday is fight for survival as they hope for a miracle.

An authentic Russian assessment of the Syrian opposition rebels at this point could only be that they will not be able to shape the military situation on ground in a way to force Assad to talks for arranging his removal from office and setting up a transitional government. The rebels have lost many fighters, and a significant portion of their territorial gain. They clearly have not influenced Assad’s thinking or decision-making. From a Russian military perspective, there is not too much for the Trump administration to go into Syria to support. Russia has been effective at halting rebels efforts on the ground. In reality, the US has been the only obstacle to ensuring the rebels’ destruction by Russian Federation and Syrian Arab air power. Some analysts believe the Battle of Aleppo truly signaled the end for rebels. Russia apparently plans to remain in Syria at relatively high levels and continue to provide military assistance to Assad’s forces. Without any US assistance, there is no chance whatsoever that the rebels could keep fighting at all. Given that, the Moscow may find it difficult to believe that Trump administration would pump more time, blood, and money into the rebel effort.

4) Managing the Peace Talks

As there is no path for the Syrian Opposition Movement to secure a role in the Damascus government, Moscow may doubt that the Trump administration would be willing to negotiate for them at the Syrian peace talks. Pressing for the demand of the Obama administration that a transition government be created in Damascus and that Assad commit to stepping down would be unreasonable. Likewise, it might be considered unnecessary for the Trump administration to seek a settlement on territory. The Syrian Opposition Movement was a political movement not territorial one, in which an autonomous state is sought. The movement of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party, however, is a struggle for autonomy. To that extent, it may be an issue which the Trump administration could get behind.

On the other hand, despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow discovered in December 2016 and January 2017 that managing peace talks with the warring parties was not easy. There was difficulty getting the Syrian Opposition to agree to anyrhing. This was repeatedly the case when the Obama administration was involved. Moreover, during previous talks, foreign diplomats were required to devote a significant amount of time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. While the opposition delegation was formed mostly of rebel commanders rather than political leaders, it was still quick to reject proposal for direct talks with the Assad regime because of its continued bombardment of opposition-held areas. Russia drummed up political support for the talks in Astana, which appeared aimed at leveraging its rejuvenated ties with Turkey and to simply give Moscow a greater voice in efforts to broker a settlement. However, Russian officials have lowered expectations that a major breakthrough would result from its efforts. Making things worse, during the talks, fierce infighting between rebel groups erupted in Syria, pitting at least one faction that supported the talks against another that was excluded. The rebels went into the talks at their weakest point so far in the war and this new eruption of violence threatened to fracture the opposition even further. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks.

5) Establishing an Understanding on Assad

Before its next contact with the Trump administration, Moscow will undoubtedly consider what cooperative role the US could play that would allow for the full exploitation of its capabilities in the anti-ISIS effort. However, if Moscow wants to cooperate with the administration on Syria, it must create an environment that will facilitate such cooperation. There is the likelihood that Trump administration will not accept Assad. For the moment, the transition of Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. If the Trump administration by chance decided to cooperate with Russia on Syria at the moment, it would signal its acceptance of Assad’s presidency as it is Russia’s policy to fully support it. To believe that might happen is to deny reality. Russia must decide how it will negotiate on Assad before it discusses anything about Syria with the Trump administration.

If the Trump administration has no interest in working with Assad, it could hardly be expected that the administration would provide US financial assistance for Syria’s reconstruction, helping to rebuild his regime. Russia needs to assess whether there any strong motivation might exist for the Trump administration to be involved. At best, the administration would only give reconstruction consideration if it was presented with some opportunity, a role of clear benefit to the US. Alternatively, Moscow could make itself completely open to responding to the Trump administration’s wishes on Syria. Absent either, there would hardly be any point to pursuing the matter. Russian analysts should have assessed that Assad’s future would need to be an important factor in the Kremlin’s calculus on reconstruction.

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Despite glowing reports on what had been achieved in Astana, Moscow actually found that managing the peace talks was not easy. It faced particular difficulty keeping the Syrian Opposition together. It has repeatedly been the case during Syrian peace talks that foreign diplomats were required to devote much time acting as mediators to hold the Syrian Opposition’s diverse groups together. Moscow may very well sense that it needs the assistance of the US to manage the talks. 

6) Getting the US to Accept Iran’s Role in Syria

Russian analysts should have assessed that the Trump administration may not want to work in conjunction with Iran on Syria. The Trump administration has explicitly indicated that it is an avid supporter of Israel, whose leaders have referred to Iran as an existential threat. Further, during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Trump expressed the desire to alter or scrap the Iran nuclear deal. His administration’s thinking and approach to the nuclear deal may impact its desire to participate in the Syria peace talks while Iran was present. Russia would also need to establish what Iran’s reaction would be to possible US involvement in the talks. Reportedly, Iran has made huge sacrifices in blood and money in Syria, and is still doing so. Its leaders will most likely feel that their country deserves standing greater, but certainly no less than the US on any issues concerning Syria. It is unclear whether the Russians would want to do anything to negatively affect the strong ties it has developed with Iran in order to establish cooperation with the US.

There are other matters that might greatly concern the Trump administration. At a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Kerry is said to have proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora” participate in the vote. He was betting that if Syrians around the world can participate in the vote, Assad will not be able to win, his regime likely has a limited degree of influence within Syria and the Syrian diaspora worldwide, including among refugees in massive camps in Jordan and Turkey or on their own elsewhere. As December 30, 2015 greatcharlie post explained, Russia and Iran would hardly allow the situation to slip from their hands so easily. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), IRGC-Quds Force, the Iranian Army, and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security would do much to influence the outcome on the battlefield but also will likely do much to help the Assad regime influence the result of elections despite UN monitors, by helping to “create support” for Assad and “coping” with regime opponents. Reportedly, the Assad regime and the Iranians have engaged in a bit of ethnic cleansing. For example, Sunnis in West Damascus were forced to resettle in Kefraya and Fua. Iraqi and Lebanese Shias among those who replace them. Shia residents in Kefraya and Fua have been moved to formerly Sunni areas near Damascus. The Trump administration will likely point to this matter and will unlikely approve of Iran’s actions.  Moscow will need to develop responses to Trump administration questions about that.

7) Discerning US-Turkey Cooperation

Russia analysts would likely assess for Moscow that if the US enters the fray on Syria, Turkey would be forced to establish a balance between the relations with Russia and the US. While Turkey has a new linkage with Russia on Syria, it has a strong linkage with the US, its long-time NATO ally, on Syria as a result of an agreement with the Obama administration to take on the role of supporting US-backed Syrian Opposition rebels. Moreover, how Turkey intended to proceed regarding its support of those US-backed rebels’ campaign is unknown. This issue will take on even greater importance if the Trump administration decided to reduce or halt financial support to Ankara that may have assisted Turkish military forces and intelligence services working with Syrian Opposition rebels.

Safe zones have been a core demand of the Syrian opposition and were central to Turkey’s Syria policy for much of the past five years. However, Ankara is apparently lukewarm about idea of new safe zones, believing that under its auspices, a sufficient safe zone has already created. Indeed, Turkey has set up its own zone of influence, a de facto safe zone, between the Kurdish enclaves of Jarablus and Irfin, which is aimed primarily at keeping Syrian Kurds from forming a presence along the entire length of its border with Syria, but is also being used as a refuge by some fleeing civilians. Russian analysts may have already assessed that if the US receives significant push back from Turkey on creating new safe zones in Syria, it may temper the Trump administration’s interest in investing the US further in the Syria situation. Countries as Turkey and Jordan would be critical to any plan to create safe zones in country because they would need a steady line of support in order to be sustained.

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Aleppo (above). US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict.There would hardly be any motivation for the Trump administration to provide US financial assistance for reconstruction of Syria for Assad. At best, Trump would only give reconstruction consideration if there was a clear benefit to the US. Unless Russia would be open to responding to US wishes on Syria, it is hard see what would draw the US to the enterprise.

8) Postwar Peace-Enforcement and Reconstruction

Russian analysts may have assessed that convincing US to cooperate on the Syria peace talks could create a possible path for for US participation at an important level in the country’s postwar peace-enforcement mission and possibly reconstruction.  It is a monumental task that lies ahead. Leaving Syria without at least initiating some complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement would be a mistake. That would create ideal conditions for the rejuvenation of ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the establishment of another Islamic militant group to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That was what occurred in Iraq after US forces departed, the problem in Libya with the removal of the regime of Muammar El-Ghaddafi, and it is a growing problem in Afghanistan.

US cooperation on reconstruction would be most desirable after any conflict. Surely, Russian Federation EMERCOM, developed and led by the current Russian Federation Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu for many years, would have an significant impact on that effort. However, without the financial wherewithal and expertise of the US, Russia’s investment in Syria might amount to nothing in the end. In the international reconstruction effort launched in Bosnia in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement and the creation of the multinational peace-enforcement force in support of the agreement’s implementation, I-FOR (Implementation Force). The US and Russia cooperated as members of that force and the follow-on force, S-FOR (Stabilization Force). US participation in the peace-enforcement and reconstruction effort may also do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well. Russia, itself, 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 was that courting those countries would make them more receptive to its’ calls to assist in finding a political solution for Syria. It was also hoped those countries would eventually be responsive to a campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. Still, there is sense of stability that may come from US participation in the Syria effort. Knowing the US and Russia were cooperating on the ground might create a sense of security among the other countries.

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The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things, but approaches matters in a way a bit different from previous administrations. Its intent is not to reject or break the US policymaking process, but the change still worries many. Government professionals will soon be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Once cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, policy statements on Syria and other issues will be produced.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Polonius is a Danish Lord and chief counselor to the king. In Act I Scene iii, his son Laertes is leaving home for France. While sending his son off, Polonius offers him advice on how to behave with integrity and practicality overseas. At the end of a long list of guidelines, Polonius tells Laertes: “This above all: to thine ownself be true. And it must follow, as the night the day. Thou canst not then be false to any man.” Taking an unconventional approach can be called creative, but when it leads to successful outcomes, it must be considered effective. The Trump administration, in its nascent days, has set out to accomplish many things and it is doing them in a way different from that of previous administrations. Change can be disturbing. On foreign policy, it is not the intent of the Trump administration to reject or break the policymaking process. Inevitably, professionals serving in government departments will be put to work implementing numerous administration policies. Trump is aware of the very large foreign affairs and national security apparatus made available to a US president, and knows it is very capable. As its cabinet members and senior executives of the various departments are seated, the Trump administration will begin to produce policy statements not only on Syria, but many other issues as well. Moscow’s invitation for the Trump administration to join the Syria effort seems to indicate that Russia would prefer, and if possible encourage, the White House to circumvent the normal policymaking process. Taking approach will put Moscow on nothing but a bad road. Indeed, accomplishing anything that way will be impossible. Despite what may become a persistent voice from overseas, the administration will formulate its policies and advance them at its own pace.