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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putin’s Purpose For Intervening in Syria

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

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

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

On October 2, 2015, Bloomberg Business reported that the military plan for providing increased support to Syria was pushed by the head of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Ivanov, a former KGB colleague of Putin, the Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, and the head of the State Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev. Russia’s investigation into the possibility taking such action included engaging in high-level contacts with Iran on Syria. The result was a political agreement for a joint Iranian-Russian military effort in Syria. New support would be injected to counter Assad’s accelerating losses. Joint operations rooms would be set up to bring the allies together, along with the Iraqi Government, which is intriguingly allied with both Iran and the US. One operations room is in Damascus and another is in Baghdad. Iran, itself, had already deployed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad shabihas (militias) into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces, to fight alongside the Syrian Armed Forces, brought in Shia volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Many IRGC officers and advisers have been killed fighting alongside their allies in Syria. On February 13, 2013, the initial IRGC commander in Syria, IRGC-Quds Force Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hassan Shateri, was assassinated. Afterward, renowned IRGC-Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani took control of operations in Syria, frequently flying into Damascus.

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

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

How Worried Are the Russians About ISIS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian air strikes could further target leaders of ISIS—and other rogue Islamic militant groups when identified. Command centers and other turmas, gathering places, of ISIS leaders, must be struck simultaneously to throw the groups into chaos and confusion and make it very difficult for them to regenerate.   The communications of ISIS should be either destroyed by drone strikes or disrupted by other technical means leaving surviving leaders with no control over their units. Once rudderless, the groups’ units would be unable to coordinate actions, unit cohesion would suffer, and they would become far less effective. Training centers must be destroyed. Fighting positions in front of the Russian allies could also be degraded with close air support as well as very heavy strikes by Russian ordinance. ISIS fighters must face certain death if they hold their positions.  When ISIS units are driven out of their positions, Russian allies must ensure any escape routes are blocked and kill or capture as many ISIS fighters as possible. Operating as independent units or as svodnye spetsialnye gruppy (combined special groups) or SSGs, Russian special purpose forces, spetsnaz, could go into ISIS controlled areas, locate, and kill specific ISIS fighters from Russia, or when directed, collect prisoners. Individual spetsnaz units and/or SSGs, in a special reconnaissance role, could locate and designate targets for air strikes in advance of contact by any ground forces by Russian allies. Russian attack helicopters, as well as spetsnaz serving as sharpshooters, could serve as over watch for Russian allies, ensuring that even small, unorganized bands of fighters of ISIS would not be able to engage in independent actions to disrupt the ground operations. When possible, strikes could be directed at diverting ISIS fighters of destroyed or displaced units away from the frontlines to locations where “kill zones” could be established. Russian air assets could support raids and ambushes by spetsnaz units. Spetsnaz units could be issued GShG-7.62 rotary machine guns for the Syria mission to give them the capability to kill ISIS fighters at a high rate in kill zones, raids, and ambushes as well as destroy ISIS attacks. Spetsnaz units will likely need to operate at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

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

The Way Forward

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

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

Russia Calls on US Military Tech to Counter Roadside Bombs at Olympics; An Act of Vigilance or Effort to Exploit? Go Figure?

Russian President Vladimir Putin sits near Sochi with good company, Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, and good tea.  Russians expect to host and enjoy the Olympic Games, violence free.  Fear mongering has been left to foreign critics.

In a February 3, 2014 USA Today article entitled, “Russian FSB Has Poor Record against Terrorists,” journalist Masha Charnay discusses the view expressed by many US security experts that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), which has the lead role in security for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, has a poor track record in Russia’s fight against home-grown terrorists.  For those who have dealt with the FSB, the notion that it could be considered ineffective in its security efforts would be debatable.  However, in the article, Charnay cites sources such as a study by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism of the University of Maryland, which asserts the frequency of terrorist attacks in Russia has been steadily increasing over the past two decades.  The National Consortium study also explains that most of the attacks have happened in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia federal republics, all of which have a significant presence of Islamic militants and are in the same region as Sochi.  The article’s author also spoke to Andrew Kuchins, the director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.  Kuchins was quoted as saying about the Islamic militants, “They’re Muslim jihadists, taking a page from Al-Qaeda.”   Kuchins’ comment, however, veils the reality that attacks from Islamic militants in Russia have been suicide attacks.  An attacker who is determined to self-destruct in an effort to destroy others is perhaps the most difficult to defend against.  Albeit, any individual within a society determined for whatever reason to commit suicide is very likely to succeed, unless you have prior knowledge of the attempt and the act can be pre-empted.  Proactively, security services might economically deploy personnel to prevent certain sites from being used for such purposes, particullarly by terrrosts, but unless the resources exist, no security force can truly be everywhere at once.

The reports and theories of US experts on the capability of the Russian security services to protect Sochi from terrorism cited in the USA Today article added to the voices of US officials who have been highly critical of security measures taken by the Russians for the Olympic Games and the level of cooperation from Russian security service officials with their counterparts from US security organizations such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Diplomatic Security Service.  That criticism intensified one month before the Games after two December terrorist bombings occurred in Volgograd, 690 km northeast of Sochi, that killed 34 civilians and injured many others, and after Russian authorities made it known that they aware of credible threats posed to the Games by Islamic militants, including the presence of “black widow” suicide bombers in the vicinity of Sochi.

For their part, the Russians have displayed great patience in the face of nearly endless criticisms leveled against the Games’ organizers.  Russian President Vladimir Putin and other authorities have confidence in the preparations made and capabilities of their security services to keep Sochi safe and secure.  As scheduled, Putin made his final review of preparations for Sochi by the first week of January.  It occurred just as the blitz of criticism from US officials began, very effectively creating concerns worldwide that the Games in Sochi were not safe to visit.  From the Russians’ perspective, everything that could be done had been done.  It seemed unlikely that the Russians would react to any events or criticism to the extent that it would divert them from their planned approach to the Games.  US officials and experts appeared to have incited the Russians, not to change their plans for Sochi, but on security matters beyond the Games.  By accepting the US offer for help, the Russians placed themselves in a position to potentially acquire the benefits of billions of dollars of US defense research in a secret weapons system and enhance Russia’s military capabilities without any expenditure of their own financial resources.  Those financial resources have been made more limited in Russia now as a result of its huge investment in the Games.  In response to the US offer to help, the Russians requested anti-improvised explosive device (IED) technology.  However it was not made to US political officials, who might have rushed to provide the system to the Russians perhaps to prove a point or out of political expedience.  The request was made to the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who dealt effectively with the matter.

The US Offer of “Full Assistance” to Russia

According to a January 21, 2014 Moscow Times article, the Russian request for anti-IED technology came on January 21, 2014, when the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, met in Brussels with his Russian counterpart, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov.  During their meeting, in the name of supporting Russian efforts to create a safe and secure Olympics, Dempsey made a nearly open-ended offer to Gerasimov to provide “full assistance” from the US military.  It is difficult to know whether there was some discussion that Dempsey would make this generous offer to help during any advance meetings between US and Russian military officials before the meeting of their chiefs.  If that was the case, all of the security services in Russia most likely would have come together to discuss what exactly should be requested from the US in response to its offer.  When the “green light” was given to respond favorably to the US offer, it most likely initiated a type of feeding frenzy among them.  Undoubtedly, FSB as well as the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, the Main Intelligence Directorate from the armed forces (GRU), and even the Ministry of the Interior likely had intelligence requirements (specific information) that they were determined to collect from the US.    

Some requests considered by the Russian security services may have been as simple as asking the US to cover the costs for the deployment of greater numbers of Russian security men in and around Sochi.  The Russians could have asked the US to provide all of the data the US has compiled on the activities of Islamic militants operating at home and abroad that the Russians may not possess.  Questionable requests may have been considered, such as obtaining the latest surveillance and encryption deciphering technology from the National Security Agency that would prevent Islamic militants from planning beyond the Russian authorities’ ability to monitor them and to increase the Russian security service capability to monitor workers and visitors in and around Sochi to better defend against attack.  Unreasonable requests might have included obtaining the names and locations of US intelligence officers and their Russian agents.  By providing that information, the Russian security services presumably would have released security officers from counter-intelligence activities against the US and allow them to be redeployed for protective security and intelligence gathering duties in Sochi.  However, that request, as absurd as it may seem, would likely have been be off-putting enough to the US officials that it would have dissuaded them from continuing to offer assistance or offer to cooperate with the Russians on Sochi.

The Response to Gerasimov’s Request

The eventual request for anti-IED technology was plausible to the extent that Islamic militants could have used roadside bombs against Russian government or civilian vehicle at the Games.  The funny thing is that Russian Islamic militants are more likely to carry out a martyrdom operation (suicide attack) than plant a roadside bomb and detonate it by remote control or cellphone.  (It could very well be that Islamic militants from outside Russia who might use IEDs are considered a threat to the Games.)  If the request was an attempt to exploit US concerns and generosity, that all stopped with Dempsey.  Dempsey was unfazed by Gerasimov’s request, and by his actions proved he has great situational awareness not only on the battlefield but also during diplomatic talks.  He knows very well that it took considerable effort and expense to the US military to develop and acquire the anti-IED technology to protect troops on patrol in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He fully understands the implications of just giving it away.  However, Dempsey was respectful of the Russians’ request.  He understood that it was after all the job of the Russian security services to seek advantages over potential adversaries, and an effort by the Russians to exploit the thinking among US political officials was predictable.  Regarding the entreaty for anti-IED technology by the Russians, Dempsey told the Armed Forces Press Service , “We would favorably consider requests from them.”  However, he also pointed out the likelihood of compatibility problems between US anti-IED technology and Russian equipment, something it seems the Russian security services or Gerasimov did not fully appreciate. 

 US anti-IED technology, according to a January 21, 2014 New York Times article, was designed to detect and disrupt cellphone or radio signals used by militants to detonate improvised explosives from a distance.  However, it also could muddle electronic signals, creating a situation where competing and overlapping systems cancelled out the effectiveness of other systems in use at the same time and in the same area.  As Dempsey explained, “If you are not careful, you can actually degrade capability, not enhance it.”  For that reason, Dempsey insisted on having US and Russian technical experts make certain that the US systems could be integrated into the communications networks and security systems being set in place by Russia.

After mitigating its negative connotations, Dempsey used the opportunity of the Russian request for anti-IED technology to emphasize the importance of military-to-military contacts between the US and Russia.  He emphasized the value of having the military chiefs even when at some points there are disagreements, whether political or diplomatic, that could prevent the “forward movement” in other parts of the relationship.  (See greatcharlie.com August 17, 2013 post entitled, “Ties Fraying, Obama Drops Putin Meeting; Cui Bono?”

 Assessment

This is greatcharlie.com’s last commentary on the 2014 Winter Olympic Games at Sochi.  Instead of sparking discussion about sports, the name Sochi, itself, has been politicized.  It is associated with criticisms from US officials over the inability of Putin and Russian authorities to meet the standards proffered for security.  However, in the final analysis, the Russians have done whatever possible to pre-empt and stop any violence at the Games.  The repeated proffering of predictions that an attack will occur and the complaints about what has been put in place to halt terrorism smacks more of fear mongering than an expression of concern or support.  Putin has achieved his objective, and Sochi is safe and secure.  A good bet for the Games would be that no attacks will occur and everything will go smoothly.  An even better bet is that after the Closing Ceremony on February 24th, those watching far from Sochi, those visiting the Games, and those athletes who are competing in them will be filled with the spirit of the Olympics, and anxiously awaiting the next Winter Olympic Games in four years.

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Obama, Putin Discuss Olympics Security in Call; Putin Has Got It Covered and He Will Keep His Promise to the Terrorists, Too!

Putin is determined to host a “safe and secure” Olympic Games in Sochi.  Russian security officials are using every tool at their disposal, leaving nothing to chance.

According to a January 21, 2014, Reuters article entitled, “Obama, Putin Discuss Olympics Security in Call,” US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin talked over the telephone about how best to have a “safe and secure” 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, as well as efforts to contain the Iranian nuclear program and the situation in Syria.  The article was based on a White House statement that gave few details about the telephone call.  However, in presenting the state of mind in Washington regarding  the Games, the Reuters article emphasized how US military and intelligence officials were spending a lot of time considering how the US could evacuate US citizens from the Sochi in case of a crisis.  It mentioned that the US State Department has issued a warning to US citizens planning to attend the Games, insisting that they remain vigilant about their security due to potential terrorist attacks.  Ostensibly, due to the threat of terrorism, Us officials are clearly view Sochi more in terms as a potential tragedy than as a premier sporting event. 

The threat to the Games that has caused US officials to express considerable concern in the media is an Islamic insurgency just over the Caucasus Mountains.  The insurgency, organized into a loose alliance of rebel groups known as Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), has been simmering more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term.  They seek to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia that includes Sochi.  In a video posted online in July, their Chechen-born leader, Doku Umarov, called for “maximum force” to prevent Russia from staging the Sochi Games.  The Associated Press reported in a January 19, 2014 article that the Islamic militant group Vilayat Dagestan claimed responsibility for two terrorist attacks in Volgograd in December 2013.  The attacks in Volgograd came on top of a number of other terrorist enumerated by the Russian law enforcement officials in the North Caucasus Federal District and the Southern Federal District.  Volgograd was also targeted in October 2013 when a suspected female suicide bomber killed six people on a bus.  Fearing a similar martyrdom operation, police in Sochi very recently have handed out fliers at area hotels warning of another woman they believe could be a terrorist and who may currently be in the city.  The flier asks workers to be on the lookout for Ruzanna “Salima” Ibragimova, described as the widow of a member of a militant group from the Caucasus region.  The woman, according to the flier, may be involved in organizing “a terrorist act within the 2014 Olympic region.”   Photos of Ibragimova have flooded television and social media reports from Sochi. She is being called a “black widow,” which are female terrorists from Chechen separatist groups.  Many are wives of insurgents killed by Russian government forces.  The black widows have reportedly carried out a number of high profile suicide bombings.

US officials have been critical of the reaction of Russian authorities to the recent violence.  They claim that measures being taken may not be sufficient.  On ABCNews “This Week” in January 19, 2013, Congressman Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, expressed concern about the preparations in Sochi, though he said he believed that “President Putin is taking this very seriously” and “taking all the precautions.”  In light of the recent deadly bombings by regional terrorist groups and the threats of additional attacks, McCaul said he thought that it was likely that attacks would occur somewhere in Russia during the Games.  McCaul stated that he would travel to Sochi to confer with security officials, in part to study their plans for evacuations in the event of an attack.  Congressman Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on the same Sunday program that US officials working with the Russians ahead of the Games had “found a departure of cooperation that is very concerning.”  Rogers, in a rebuff to Putin, stated with an estimated 15,000 US citizens planning to travel to Sochi for the Games, Russian security services should provide their “full cooperation.” 

As efforts to complete construction in Sochi before the Opening Ceremony on February 7th      continue, comments by US officials have built-up concern globally on whether the Olympic Games will be safe enough to participate in and visit.  Putin and Russian security officials likely have their own views on why US officials are adamant that attack will occur and Russia is not prepared, but they do not appear distracted by US criticism.  Russia is implementing a security plan formulated months before the Games and integrated into the overall approach to Russia’s security.  Russia has not been simply reacting to events.  Coordination with other nations may not be ideal, but circumstances beyond Sochi perhaps best account for that.  The threat of terrorism has become a concern in the planning of every major sporting event.  In the US, the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta were disrupted when two visitors were killed by a bomb set by a domestic terrorist.  Counter-terrorism has been a key aspect of Russia’s national security policy for many years.  Russian counter-terrorism and anti-terrorism efforts to defeat any terrorist threats directed at Sochi appear very sound; nothing appears to have been left to chance.  In a January 19, 2014 press conference, Putin explained: “The job of the Olympics host is to ensure security of the participants in the Olympics and visitors.  We will do whatever it takes.”  Through it all, Putin also intends to keep the promise made to Russia in his New Year address in which he stated: “We will strongly and decisively continue the battle against terrorists until their total annihilation.”  After the Olympics, it may be demonstrated that his considerable investment of resources to Sochi’s security greatly enhanced his ability to achieve that goal.

Defeating the Islamic Militant Threat to the Games

To guarantee for the Russian people that the Games will be a proud occasion, Putin has had his government put in place what officials and experts described as the most intensive security apparatus in the history of the event.  Russian law enforcement and other security services have promised to surround Sochi with a “ring of steel.”  According to Mark Galeotti of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, an expert on Russian security services, the security presence in Sochi was twice as large as that used during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, even though London’s population is more than 20 times that of Sochi.   As of this month, there have been reports that among the measures being taken for the Games, more than 5,500 video cameras will be in operation as part of the “Safe Sochi” policy. Of those, 309 will be manned by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).  The FSB has also had an outlay for their Plastun scout robots.  The devices are heavy with surveillance equipment: thermal imaging, cameras and devices that can detect a sniper’s scope.  Drones will be deployed, including the FSB’s Gorisont-Air S100, which can be easily weaponized.   The MVD has 421 Zala drones available.  The System of Operative Investigative Measures system (SORM) will be used to monitor spectators and athletes alike.  SORM-1 captures telephone and mobile phone telecommunications; SORM-2 intercepts Internet traffic; SORM-3 gathers information from all forms of communication and has a storage facility. FSB has control centers connected directly to operators’ computer servers.  To monitor particular phone conversations or Internet communications, an FSB agent only has to enter a command into the control center located  in the local FSB headquarters.  This system is allegedly duplicated across Russia.  In every Russian town, protected underground cables exist that connect the local FSB bureau with all Internet Service Providers and telecom providers in the region.  Electronic systems with far greater capabilities, concealed from the public, may also have been deployed to protect Sochi.  

Those technical capabilities are only part of preparations.  More than 50,000 security men will be on duty.  Most likely some of them will be in plain clothes, mingling with visitors.  There will likely be a greater security presence around certain teams and venues.  The regular forces have been augmented by a large deployment of Cossacks, the traditional horseback warriors who once patrolled Russia’s frontier, serving more recently in a public safety role in southern Russia. Several hundred have moved into the Olympic Village, joining the police on foot patrols and at checkpoints in their traditional uniforms.  Zones for population control will be established where bags, personal belongings, movements and credentials will be checked.  All visitors will need a Spectator Pass which they will acquire upon registering in Sochi. 

The response to the Volgograd attacks was part of the overall effort at securing the games. Immediately after those attacks, 4,000 policemen were dispatched to Volgograd, placing over 5,200 on the ground for what Russian authorities called an “Anti-Terrorism Whirlwind, ”  It was a display of what resources could be called upon and methods that could be used.  Russian MVD and FSB troops surround the homes of suspected militants and pull them out for arrest.  Further, security services have taken the step of striking with special service units swiftly and covertly against suspected terrorist groups, “likely being monitored,” before the opening ceremonies or during Sochi.  Strikes by special service units of the MVD and FSB, and perhaps the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), appear to be creating confusion and chaos within the leadership of the Islamic militant groups, leaving the groups rudderless and unable to resurrect themselves enough to direct any operations during the Olympic Games.  Raids against the leadership of Imarat Kavkaz reportedly resulted in the killing of Doku Umarov, the leader of the so-called Caucasus Emirate, who called for “maximum force” to prevent Russia from staging the Sochi Games.  Ramzan Kadyrov, the top Russian official in the Chechen Republic reported the information about Umarov’s death came from intercepted communications between other rebel leaders who were concentrated on finding his replacement.  The Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified source in Russian security agencies as saying they “can’t confirm Umarov’s death.”  However, additional messages posted on Chechen militant blog sites also suggested Umarov was killed in an operation by Russian special services troops.  (See greatcharlie.com on January 8, 2014 post entitled “Putin Vows to Annihilate the Terrorists, But Until the Winter Olympics Are Over, Other Steps Must Suffice.”)

Regarding Concerns About Cooperation

Security officials of the US, EU, and other countries may want to assist the Russians beyond liaising with officials, to include providing personnel and technical resources.  A contingent of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agents and State Department security officials will be in Sochi to attend to the security of the American contingent.  Yet, there was never real hope or that there would be significant cooperation between Russia and other countries on Sochi .  The Russian security services have never been known for their transparency.  Nearly everything they do is kept confidential and compartmentalized within the services as well.  In an unusual move, in 2013, the FSB announced it was monitoring the movements of Russian nationals traveling to Syria.  Other monitoring activities of the Russian security services were evinced when it was revealed by the Boston Globe that the Russians had warned the FBI about Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two ethnic Chechen brothers responsible for the terror bombing of the 2013 Boston Marathon, two years before the attack.  In the interview presented on the ABCNews Sunday morning program, “This Week” on January 19th, Putin, responding in part to concerns made by US officials over security preparations, explained if foreign athletes wanted to provide their own additional security, “there is nothing wrong with that,” as long as they coordinated with the Russian authorities. 

Yet, it is somewhat disingenuous for US officials to discuss coordination between the US and Russian intelligence and law enforcement services, even for the Olympic Games, without recognizing the problems that exist in the relationship.  There have been public displays of coordination on the Syrian chemical weapons removal, Geneva II talks between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian opposition coalition, the Iran nuclear talks.  However, the relationship is best marked by: disagreement on the reduction of nuclear force levels; Putin’s decision to allow National Securty Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; Putin’s “thought provoking” letter to the US public, published in the New York Times Op-Ed section; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the FBI in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and, most of all, the uncongenial personal relationship between Putin and Obama, resulting in the cancellation of last summer’s summit.  Further, there has always been a certain degree of mutual distrust between the US and Russian intelligence services, stemming from their Cold War rivalry and balanced through a modus vivendi in the field.  Sharing between organizations took a turn for the better after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, but then fell back into difficulty.

Threats to the US homeland were the cause for coordination between Russia and US services after September 11, 2001, but the security for the Sochi Games involves the protection of the Russian homeland.  For the Russians, it is a matter of national interest and national pride.  The Russians feel they have the best handle on the situation in the South Caucasus. Their understanding comes from years of hands on experience with the Islamic militant groups, uncovering complex networks of associated groups. They have created their own networks across their entire country, The Russians likely feel the understanding US or other nations’ security officials have on the security situation there is based on the abstract, gleaned from reports and studies.  Bringing US security officials to an situational awareness equal to that of Russian officials, who understand Islamic militant groups in the region from the inside, would require the use of more resources and precious time.  Efforts to support the Russians using technical means may exist, but it is likely some it duplicates Russian efforts already ongoing with the use of their own tools.   

More importantly, MVD and FSB authorities are very likely concerned that with so many, if not all, of their premium security assets being employed to protect the Games, US specal agents and case officers would be provided a unique opportunity to observe and collect data on the capabilities and effectiveness of the Russian security services.  Defeating that possibility would mean covering the US security presence in or around any secure facilities with counterintelligence resources that are needed for the Sochi anti-terrorism effort. 

Russian authorities may sense that US officials expressing their concerns over security for the Games may be projecting the fears and anxieties raised during their own efforts to protect the US homeland from attacks in the post-September 11th environment.  While Russian officials may not know or be able to intimate if or when an attack might be attempted at Sochi, they are neither uncertain, nor insecure about their ability to defeat anything that falls within their radar.  That is the best they can hope for.  From a more cynical Russian perspective, US concerns over security for the Games, especially among political officials, is that 2014 is an election year for the US Congress, and expressing concern over the Games servs to demonstrate a candidate’s willingness to protect US citizens and interests overseas.  Additionally, the Russians security officials may feel the attempt is being made to goad them into exposing their security tactics, techniques, and procedures as a result of comments by US officials or pundits regarding Russian capabilities.

“Annihilating the Terrorists”

Perhaps Putin could have attempted to eliminate the problem of terrorism from Islamic militant groups altogether by committing his security forces to large-scale operations a year or more before the Games.  Contrary to statements made by US officials, all along, the Russians have been very sensitive to the fact that any large-scale, federal district wide, counter-terrorism operations weeks before the Games could have possibly spoil the spirit of the Olympics, and create the impression that Sochi is not safe to visit. 

At the end of the Games, however, it is very likely that elevated use of sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups will leave the Russian government with the best understanding ever of regional Islamic terrorist groups.  It is possible that so much quality information will have been gathered and the security services situational awareness will be so enhanced that new, more effective operations against terrorist groups could be conducted by MVD, FSB, and possibly SVR special service groups.  (Note: These units and their capabilities are discussed in the January 8, 2014 greatcharlie.com post.)  Those operations might result in a decisive victory over the terrorist.  The operations of the`special sevice groups could be augmented by the use of regular military ground and air assets.  Their firepower could be directed to have a multiplier effect in the field.

Retired US General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the US Joint Special Operations Command, has offered hints on how to exploit situational awareness at a level which the Russians may have acquired while securing the Games.  When striking at a terrorist group’s network, the goal is to paralyze its nervous system.  Hitting it intermittently, or every other night, allow the opponent to become stronger, having become accustomed to resurrecting itself.  However, McChrystal indicated that if you strike at enough targets simultaneously, taking down key leaders, the group will be thrown into chaos and confusion and have a difficult time “regenerating.”  That will allow for decisive effects. 

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

To speed the process and achieve a high level of success, the Russians could adapt a form of “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze” (F3EA) developed by McChrystal.  Under the concept, security forces would understand who or what is a target, locate it, capture or kill it, take what intelligence one can from people and documents, analyze that, then go back out execute the same cycle again.  If Russian security forces would be able to act at a speed as fast as US special operators in Iraq under McChrystal ‘s command, decision-making would need to be de-centralized because of the high number of raids.  Subordinate elements must be allowed to operate quickly.  (See much more on McChrystal’s concepts in General Stanley McChrystal, My Share of the Task A Memoir Portfolio, 2013)

Not to advise Imarat Kavkaz or Islamic militant groups in the Caucasus, but if they have a goal to create an Islamic state in Russia, nothing would do more to ensure that hope will never be realized than attacking the Games.  An attack would be an international tragedy, a violation of the Russian people, and a personal affront to Putin.  Along with international outrage and condemnation, Russian authorities would most likely implement the most ferocious plans formulated as a response.  Assuredly, there would be endless capture and kill raids, and decisive military attacks against any strongholds established.  It is somewhat likely that Putin, outraged, would also consider the physical displacement of specific parts of the community from which the militant groups emanate and situating them in a various secure areas in different parts of Russia until such time the threat of terrorism posed to the Russian people could be sorted out.  Other nations and human rights groups might complain, but there would be little they could do to stop it.

Assessment

There is the possibility that concerns over security for the Olympic Games will be quelled only after it closes on February 27th without any incidents of violence.  Interestingly, Islamic militant groups posed a threat to the Russian government long before the Games were scheduled.  There may be legitimate concern behind much of the criticism.  However, there may very well be a political purpose behind the timing of some of it.    Perhaps the benefit of the generous investment of security resources on Sochi might be the creation of opportunities for Russian security officials to establish enduring security in the Caucasus.  Those groups that may seek to disrupt or halt the Games through terrorism might want to consider that the Games reach a level of national and historical importance and psychic benefit for the Russian people that Putin’s response would be unprecedented.  The purpose of any militant group cannot be served by eliciting Putin’s wrath.  Sochi is the wrong place and the wrong time for the militant groups to act.  Hopefully, from February 7th to February 23rd, peace, unity, and good sportsmanship will be the only things concerning the world at the Games.