Russia Is Creating Three New Divisions to Counter NATO’s Planned Expansion: Does Shoigu’s Involvement Assure Success for Putin?

Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (above) has the task of reinforcing his country’s western flank against NATO. Successful actions in Ukraine and Syria, along with other achievements, have earned Shoigu the reputation as Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s “Do It” man. Creating three new divisions and other measures will likely achieve what is intended: obviate NATO’s recent steps in its east and further shift the status quo between Russian Federation and NATO forces in Russia’s favor.

According to a May 4, 2016 Wall Street Journal article entitled “Russia Is Creating Three New Divisions to Counter NATO’s Planned Expansion along Its Eastern Flank,” Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced at a April 27, 2016 ministry meeting presented on state television: “The Defense Ministry is taking a series of measures to counter the expansion of NATO forces in direct proximity to the Russian border.” A central aspect of those measures is the creation of three new divisions—about 30,000 troops. Shoigu said the cause for the force increase was to counter NATO plans to boost its troop presence along its eastern flank with Russia, to include sending four battalions—about 4,000 troops—to Poland and the Baltic States. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg explained at a news conference in Mons, Belgium that the intent of NATO’s planned troop build-up was defensive. He called the planned deployment a response to an assertive Russia that has shown the will to change borders with force as in Ukraine in 2014.

Beyond the debate over causality for the relative build-ups, it is more important for NATO to know that Shoigu has been given the task of reinforcing Russia’s western flank. Successful actions in Ukraine and Syria, along with other achievements, have earned Shoigu the reputation as Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s “Do It” man. Bean counting forces may be enough for some to make assessments on the relative strengths and weaknesses of Russian Federation and NATO forces. However, any assay of likely outcomes of Russia’s effort to form three new divisions west would be flawed if it did not give higher meaning to Shoigu’s direct involvement. Shoigu will likely achieve what is intended: obviate NATO’s recent steps in its east and shift the dynamic between Russian Federation and NATO forces in Russia’s favor. A look at Shoigu’s background explains why the “Shoigu factor” makes that a real possibility.

Political Ties That Bind Shoigu and Putin: In Brief

With an engineering degree from Krasnoyarsk Polytechnical Institute in 1977, Shoigu joined the Russian government in 1990. He participated in several successful construction projects. His success caught the attention of the Communist Party leadership in 1990. He was placed on the Architecture Committee, but then assumed the leadership of the Russian Rescuers Corps, a new corps of rescue workers. Emergencies in Russia include droughts, forest fires, Islamic militant bombings, and hostage dramas. The Russian Rescue Corps was formed by a directive decision of the Presidium of the Supreme Council of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in the aftermath of the 1988 Armenian earthquake and the Chernobyl disaster. However, these big developments in Shoigu’s career as a rescue worker coincided with the momentous collapse of the Soviet Union.

During the collapse, Shoigu became a firm supporter of Boris Yeltsin. When things settled a bit, he continued performing his duties in the Russian Rescuers Corps. It was re-established as the State Committee for Extraordinary Situations, known EMERCOM internationally, responding to crises in the Soviet Union. Russia and the “near abroad,” to include mediating conflicts in South Ossetia, Chechnya, and in nearby Tajikistan. In 1994, the State Committee became part of the Russian Federation government as the Ministestvo po Delam Grazhdanskoy Oborony, Chrezvychainym Situatsiyam i Likvidtsil Posledstviy Bedstviy (Ministry of the Russian Federation for Affairs for Civil Defense, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters Emergency Situations also known as the Ministry for Emergency Situations). Yeltsin, the Russian Federation President, made Shoigu its minister. In 1994, he made Shoigu a major general in the Russian Federation Army and a member of Russia’s Security Council. In the 1990s, Shoigu wanted to focus on his duties in the Russian Rescuers Corps, re-established as the State Committee for Extraordinary Situations (known as EMERCOM internationally). Yet, during Soviet Union’s collapse, Shoigu became a firm supporter of Boris Yeltsin. He later aided Yeltsin during an attempted coup d’etat in 1991, came to the rescue of Yeltsin in the constitutional crisis in 1993, and was part of Yeltsin’s successful re-election campaign in 1996. He was made leader of the pro-Yeltsin Unity Bloc in 1999.

Despite Shoigu’s desire to make emergency work his focus after the tumultuous events of 1990, those events became a starting point from which he was drawn further into national politics. Shoigu rushed to Yeltsin’s aid during an attempted coup d’etat in 1991. Shoigu also came to the rescue of Yeltsin in the constitutional crisis in 1993. Shoigu was part of Yeltsin’s successful re-election campaign in 1996. By 1999, Yeltsin became acutely aware that he was losing power in Russia, and his supporters were shifting to the opposition. Taking steps to ensure his legacy with less than a year left in office, Yeltsin, with the help of political allies, created a new party, with a new face, loyal to him: Unity. Shoigu, then Minister of Emergency Situations, was named the leader of the pro-president party. He was partnered with Alexander Karelin. Shoigu by then was seen as someone “who saves people” more than a politician. Karelin, a triple Olympic gold wrestling champion, was politically connected but also a symbol of Russian strength. Unity was promoted as a party of common sense, not political but honest and strong using that strength to help people in misfortune. Elements of Unity’s economic policy were akin to Thatcherism. It included, for example, the promotion of low inflation, the small state and free markets via tight control of the money supply, and privatization. That said, Unity also supported the reliance on powerful police and security structures and media control. After parliamentary elections in 1999, Unity took a commanding position in the Duma. Having secured some control of the Duma, Yeltsin sought a successor for the presidency. While he spoke of Shoigu as “our greatest star,” he chose Putin.

Yeltsin first saw promise in Putin when he selected him on July 25, 1998 to serve as head of the Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB.   At the time, Putin was an unemployed deputy-mayor from St. Petersburg. He served at the FSB until August 9, 1999, when Yeltsin called him to the post of acting prime minister. Late that same month, there was a bomb blast in a luxury shopping mall by Red Square which was the first in a series of blast resulting in casualties. In September 1999, there were apartment bombings in Moscow, Buinaksk, in Dagestan, and Volgodonsk, in Rostov. They collectively killed 300 Russian civilians and wounded hundreds more that were reportedly the responsibility of Chechen Islamic militants. Putin acted forcefully against the mall bombing, the apartment immolations, and a bold Islamic militant incursion from Dagestan into Chechnya, led by Shamil Basayev. The first of 100,000 troops were sent to the northern Caucasus within weeks. In a famous September 24, 1999 speech, Putin spoke with determination in explaining his approach to defeating terrorism: “We will pursue the terrorist everywhere. If they are in an airport, then, in an airport, and forgive me, if we catch them in the toilet, then we will waste them in the outhouse . . . The issue has been resolved once and for all.” Putin marked his rise in power by acting viciously against terror. Shoigu’s Unity Party then served as the instrument for Putin’s rise to the presidency. The Unity Party eventually entered into an alliance with the Fatherland-All Russia political bloc. The Party later morphed into United Russia, the country’s current ruling party that rubber stamps Putin’s initiatives in the Duma. By 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin became acutely aware that he was losing power in Russia. Taking steps to ensure his legacy with less than a year left in office, Yeltsin, with the help of political allies, created a new party loyal to him: Unity Bloc. After parliamentary elections in 1999, Unity took a commanding position in the Duma. Having secured some control of the Duma, Yeltsin sought a successor for the presidency. While he spoke of Shoigu as “our greatest star,” he chose Vladimir Putin.

Mea mihi conscientia pluris est quam omnium sermo. (My conscience means more to me than all speech.)  Although he was Unity’s leader, Shoigu had no presidential aspirations. Given the tempestuous environment in Russia politically, economically, socially, and militarily at the time, it made sense. Putin was far better equipped to control, manipulate, and strong arm, seemingly endless groupings of political adversaries during that time of many sinful capers. Indeed, Putin was particularly well-equipped to deal with the likes of Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the far right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party of Russia, men who better understood the lash than words of peace. Perhaps to signal the acceptance of his role, Shoigu gave Putin a black Labrador retriever, “Koni.” After ceding power to Putin, Shoigu gave even more. He became the model upon which Putin’s image as the new leader of Russia was formed. Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser, told The Economist that the administration deliberately crafted Putin’s image in part on Shoigu’s: “Putin was supposed to be a rescuer, too.”

Putin was lornful over the Soviet Union’s collapse. As his presidency grew out of its infancy, Putin was determined to save Russia from further disintegration, and frustrate those he perceived as enemies aiming to weaken it. He would not be satisfied until Russia’s global power and influence was restored and the independent states of the former Soviet Union were brought back under Moscow’s political, economic, and military (security) influence. Putin believed that the greatest danger to Russia came from the West. He saw Western governments as being driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent of Western technologies. He felt then and now that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. Often Putin would publicly lament about the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, calling it the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. Russia’s economic collapse, in the view of many Russians, was worsened by the destructive advice and false philanthropy of Western business and economic experts. They believe Western suggestions on ways Russia should conduct its affairs domestically and internationally only served to cripple their country. Experts in the West spoke lightheartedly of Russia as a dying super power, lacking the wherewithal to do anything serious politically, economically, socially, or militarily. In The Guardian at the time, Russia was referred to as “an immature, fledgling democracy which in eight years has gone from one party politics to no-party politics, from communism to fantasy.” Yet, in the hallowed eyes of a so-called dying Russia, life was spying in the form of Putin and like-minded officials. Putin restored order after the internal chaos of the 1990s, becoming the face of the government. Once the heady events surrounding the Soviet Union’s collapse subsided, Shoigu focused on advancing the Ministry of Emergency Situations to achieve all possibilities. For nearly 22 years, Shoigu was present at all major and many minor disasters in Russia. His strong, almost stoic comportment at events, along with his precise, short orders and comments to the newsmedia, radiated a sense of confidence that Russians appreciated. He skillfully navigated Russia’s bureaucracy, accruing power, popularity without making real enemies.

While Putin advanced Russia’s interests his own way, both at home and globally, Shoigu made the most of his own capabilities and effectively advanced the Ministry of Emergency Situations to achieve all possibilities. His ministry became a service with many responsibilities. For nearly 22 years, Shoigu was present at all major and many minor disasters in Russia, standing stoically, with barely a muscle moving in his face. His comportment at events, along with his precise, short orders and comments to the newsmedia, radiated a sense of confidence that Russians appreciated. By skillfully navigating Russia’s Byzantine bureaucracy, he has accrued power and popularity without making any genuine enemies. Even former notables such as Boris Berezovsky appear to have respected Shoigu. Evgeny Minchenko, an analyst who studies the Russian elite, told The Economist: “There’s no one else like him in the ruling class.” He added, “It’s an absolutely unprecedented story. By the 2000s, the Ministry of Emergency Situations grew into a 350,000 strong operation with its own special forces.” Omnia mea mecum porto. (All that is mine I carry with me [My wisdom is my greatest wealth].)

Shoigu As Adviser To Putin

Putin’s management style was likely shaped by his short term in politics in St. Petersburg as the protégé of Mayor Anatoly Sobchak. Putin became his deputy in 1994.   However, his style was surely most influenced during his initial career as an officer from 1975 to 1991 in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. With a strong, self-assured, authoritative, no nonsense personality, most advisers’ interactions with him have varied. They may occasionally antagonize the overworked leader even with important or urgent situation reports. Shoigu, however, who was never in the KGB or along with Putin in St. Petersburg, has been able to make use of his own unique sensibilities to understand his leader’s thinking and feelings. Every word Putin has said, his reactions to statements, have informed Shoigu’s understanding of him. Every inflexion, tone, and change in Putin’s voice has provided Shoigu with some insight into what his president was sensing. Added to this is Shoigu’s humble, self-effacing persona and intellectual acuity. It should not be implied from this that Shoigu has not interacted with an “inclement” Putin. After facing Putin’s “larger” voice, he likely tries to salvage whatever may be constructive from such encounters. Surely at times, Shoigu may have his own strong feelings about situations. Nevertheless, as Carl Von Clausewitz, the 19th century Prussian military thinker perhaps would have explained, the ability to maintain his balance in spite of them is a reflection of Shoigu’s strength of character. Some may view Shoigu’s behavior as a manipulation. However, Putin has remained in power by confounding insincerity, and he does not suffer fools lightly. Having observed him closely, Putin obviously feels Shoigu well-serves his needs. Et monere at moneri proprium est verae amitcitiae. (It is a characteristic of friendship to give advice and to receive it.) During significant crises, it is very important for Putin, as much as any other national leader, to have an adviser who fully understands his needs. The encouragement of another, a paraclete, may prove comforting. When Putin and Shoigu talk, Putin perhaps feels free to “clear the air” with him over issues Russia is facing.

Critics at home and abroad whose obloquy should have distracted, disrupted, or diverted Putin, have mainly served as sandpaper to refine his positions. Since his initial rise to power, Putin has become skilled in implementing what critics have called “charm offensives,” explaining his ideas and actions in a manner that is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. Sometimes, however, such moves are not enough. Indeed, during significant crises, it is very important for Putin, as much as any other national leader, to have an adviser who fully understands his needs. The encouragement of another, a paraclete, may prove comforting. When Putin and Shoigu talk, Putin perhaps feels free to “clear the air” with him over issues Russia is facing. Of course, Putin would rather tell Shoigu what is to be feared than what he fears for always he is Putin. Shoigu has never used Putin’s confidence in him and strength of his position among advisers to become a haustyrann. Rather, Shoigu also has been able to understand the mood and reactions of Putin’s other capable cabinet members and policy advisers in certain situations, to ensure real cooperation and effective action. It likely accounts, in part, for Shoigu’s refulgence among them.

Shoigu, Tuva, and Paranoia

Shoigu, born on May 21, 1955, was raised in the town of Chadan in southern Siberia, near the Altai Mountains, in a little known Republic of Tuva. His mother was ethnic Russian and his father was ethnic Tuvan. He had a liking for sports, backyard brawls, and risky stunts, such as hopping the ice flows across the powerful Yenisei River. Such high jinks earned him the nickname Shaitan (Satan). Tuvans are among the ancient peoples living in Central Asia. The cultural roots of ancient Tuvans, Uigars, and Kyrgyzians form the basis of Tuvan culture. The traditional religions of Tuvans are Buddhism and shamanism. It is regarding shamanism that for some Russians discord obtains. Shamanism is a practice shrouded in darkness, in which mystery is emphasized and obscurantism is cultivated; as a result, it stirs up fear. Shoigu’s rearing in Tuva at best would only circumstantially suggest, against actual facts, that he might adhere to shamanism.

On May 9, 2015, during celebrations of the 70th Anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, Russian television cameras fixed on a black convertible carrying Shoigu into Red Square. Shoigu, in full-dress uniform, crossed himself as he passed beneath one of the Kremlin towers. The highly unusual gesture was seemingly designed to allay any questions about the half-Tuvan, half-Russian’s Christianity. Before that, in 2008, during an interview on the Ekho Moskvy radio station, Shoigu stated that he was baptized in the Orthodox faith at the age of 5. Questions over Shoigu’s faith are perhaps the only thing the very popular defense minister must countenance. Shoigu has never done anything to cause concern.  It is not a wish of to ignite a debate on concerns a modest few Russians might have on Shoigu’s faith. Delving deeper into the matter may appear as engaging a bit of apophasis (for one to say one will not say what one is going to say). However, Shoigu is a central figure in Russian politics. Ignoring this aspect of his background would weaken the discussion about him here.

An assortment of beliefs and practices claiming the ability to travel from the secular to the “spirit world” for the purpose of spiritual contacts is covered by the term shamanism. Those contacts can also supposedly be achieved through channeling and the use of spirits coming in the form of animals. It is further claimed that practitioners can take on those shapes themselves. Shamanism requires the use of the archaic techniques of ecstasy, developed independent of any religious philosophy. Ecstasy is a prophetic exaltation or rapture characteristic of shamanism and visionary states. Those states can be naturally induced with entheogenic plants and herbal concoctions. They can be artificially induced by breath control, fasting, meditation, drumming, and other shamanic and yogic practices. Entheogens come in many forms but most commonly from plants known as psychoactive drugs. The use of hallucinogenic plants and herbal concoctions can result for example in visions of demons, distant persons, landscapes, or detailed enactments of recent unsolved crimes. Shamanistic medicinal practices include the application of various ancient witchcraft techniques. Those treated with such can be drawn into deeper, darker occult practices. They can also open a door to evil spirit possession and other forms of occult bondage. Its rituals and methods can lead to intense physical pain and afflictions, temporary insanity, emotional depression, and powerful spiritual torment. How Shoigu’s alleged adherence to shamanism might tie into his role in government or as Putin’s adviser is uncertain.

Putin knows that there are those Russians who will do such things as react superstitiously toward Shoigu. He has vacationed in Tuva with Shoigu many times since. Putin would like Russians to replace any unfounded superstitions about Shoigu and Tuva with authentic truths and worthier ideas.

Putin knows that there are those Russians who will do such things as react superstitiously toward Shoigu. However, Putin has not been dismissive of the problem. He has taken on issues surrounding Shoigu’s Tuvan roots with some guile. Putin went on a fishing trip to Tuva with Shoigu and Prince Albert II of Monaco in 2007. He has vacationed in Tuva with Shoigu many times since. Putin would like Russians to replace any unfounded superstitions about Shoigu and Tuva with authentic truths and worthier ideas. Putin wants all Russian citizens to be part of their country’s rise to greatness. Divisions based on race, ethnicity, religion and origin hinder that.

Much as the orator, poet, and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, concluded about his Ancient Rome, Putin similarly believes loyalty to the Russian Federation must take precedence over any other collectivity: social, cultural, political, or otherwise. As noted by Clifford Ando in Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (University of California Press, 2013) in the hierarchy of allegiances outlined by Cicero, “loyalty toward Rome occupied a superordinate position: her laws and her culture provided the normative fabric that would, to borrow a phrase of Rutilius Namatianus [Poet, Imperial Rome, 5th Century], ‘create from distinct and separate nations a single fatherland’.” Likewise, Russia’s laws and culture provide the normative fabric from which a united country is created from diverse peoples. Possession of citizenship should be the basis to cause individuals to identify with the concerns of others in widely disparate populations among Russia’s republics. Putin wants Russians to be in a “Russian state of mind,” a mental state created when diversity, creativity, and optimism coalesce. A citizen’s attitude, perspective, outlook, approach, mood, disposition, and mindset should stand positively Russian.

Shoigu As Defense Minister: The Shoigu Factor

Appointed on February 15, 2007, former Russian Federation Defense Minister, Anatoly Serdyukov launched a much needed reform effort to make the Russian Federation Armed Forces more effective. However, Serdyukov ran afoul of the defense industry and senior military commanders with failed procurement programs, efforts to import foreign weapons systems as the France’s Mistral aircraft carrier, and purges and unit reorganizations. In addition, there were a series of highly publicized corruption scandals in the ministry. On November 6, 2012, Putin tore Shoigu away from a very short stint as the elected Governor of Moscow Oblast that began on April 5, 2012 and put the armed forces in his hands.

Evidence of the “Shoigu factor” became apparent as soon as Shoigu started the job. While essentially preserving Serdyukov’s reforms, and harnessing expenditures, Shoigu improved military readiness. He created a new corps, the Airspace Forces. He created eight new operational task forces, twenty-five divisions, and fifteen new brigades. He improved the control system of the armed forces by creating the National Defense Control Center of the Russian Federation. Shoigu ordered soldiers to wear socks instead of cloth foot-wraps (portyaniki). He had Army commanders increase snap inspections and military exercises. Long-range Airspace Force bomber flights and Navy combat patrols steadily increased.  Morale in the armed forces picked-up as a result of these measures and others. Upon becoming Defense Minister, Shoigu improved the control system of the armed forces by creating the National Defense Control Center of the Russian Federation. Within the ranks, Shoigu ordered Army troops to wear socks instead of cloth foot-wraps (portyaniki). He had Army commanders increase snap inspections and military exercises. Long-range Air Force bomber flights and Navy combat patrols steadily increased. These and other measures enhanced military readiness and rejuvenated morale in the armed forces.

Quemad moeum gladis nemeinum occidit, occidentis telum est. (A sword is never the killer, it is a tool in a killer’s hands.) The views of Putin and Shoigu on “the threat” the West poses to Russia are in sync. Shoigu told the TASS news agency in October 2015, “Russia’s sovereignty, which is secured by its army and navy, will always be the obstacle against which during the 1,152 years of Russia’s existence many Western rulers have broken their teeth.” Russia’s strategy toward NATO is based on the premise its’ intent is hostile. Aerial and naval probes into NATO’s defense zones have wreaked havoc on the sense of security of some Member States. In Syria, Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, Russia has been able to boldly and effectively project power. In Syria, Russia Federation Armed Forces have used new weapons systems, including: the sea-based Kalibr 3M-14 cruise missile, launched from surface ships and submarines from as far as 1500 kilometers away from their targets; the air launched KH-101 cruise missile; and, the Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighter. On December 19, 2015, Putin stated: “We see how efficiently our pilots and intelligence agents coordinate their efforts with various kinds of forces—the army, navy, and aviation; how they use the most modern weapons.” Putin continued, “I want to stress that these are by far not all of our capabilities,” adding, “We have more military means. And, we will use them—if need be.” Other military means Shoigu is working on include: greater use of military spetznaz (special service troops) to train allies and support their combat operations, the RS-28 Sarmat Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the RS-26 ICBM, and the PAK-FA T-50. The spetsnaz unit of the Russian Airborne Troops and the Special Brigade of the Serbian Army (above) engage in a joint exercise in Serbia. Putin has discussed their presence in Ukraine. Spetznaz can provide a spectrum of military capabilities to include: advising Russian allies, providing airborne and special operations training, and directly supporting combat operations. Their capabilities have been displayed in Syria. Spetznaz have also provided training to Russian Federation allies in its near abroad.

Spetznaz can advise Russian allies through special operations training and during combat by assisting in the location and designation of targets for air strikes, and engage in direct action by locating, capturing or killing specific leaders and other specific personnel, destroying military facilities leaders and conducting raids and ambushes, and destroying military facilities, and infrastructure, as well as protecting Russian and allied facilities, assisting in providing medical services, and coordinating the distribution of equipment to allies. Their capabilities have been displayed in Syria. Putin has referred to their presence in Ukraine. Spetznaz have also provided training to allies of the near abroad as Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Mongolia and as far west as Serbia. The RS-28 “Sarmat” is the newest heavy liquid-propelled ICBM under development for the Russian Federation Armed Forces. In 2018, the Sarmat will replace older Soviet R-36M (SS-18) missiles dubbed “Satan” by NATO, as the heavy silo-based component of the Russian nuclear forces. The Sarmat’s twelve heavy thermonuclear warheads will be infividually stearable during reentry.

The Russian Federation deploys an estimated 307 ICBMs which can carry approximately 1040 warheads. They represent only 40 percent of the country’s total arsenal of thermonuclear warheads. The RS-28 Sarmat is the newest heavy liquid-propelled ICBM under development for the Russian Federation Armed Forces. In 2018, the Sarmat will replace older Soviet R-36M (SS-18) missiles, dubbed “Satan” by NATO, as the heavy silo-based component of the Russian nuclear forces. The Sarmat will use the same silos as the Satan, but modified for its specifications. The silos would also be equipped with additional active anti-missile systems that would protect them from a pre-emptive strike. The Sarmat will have a dozen heavy thermonuclear warheads, each individually steerable during reentry. Those warheads are said to have advanced anti-missile countermeasures meant to beat the US Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense Shield. It is speculated that they would have a conventional variant similar to the US Advanced Hypersonic Weapon and could be used as a precision intercontinental weapon in a non-nuclear conflict.

Referred to as a “doomsday weapon”, the new road-mobile RS-26 ICBM (above) has a potential range of 11,000 kilometers. It can continuously change trajectory, and is far more accurate than current ballistic missiles. It’s four multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) are supersonic and carry 300 kiloton warheads.

The RS-26 is a new road-mobile ICBM. It has a potential range of 11,000 kilometers. Its booster stage is down to under five minutes giving NATO little time to register its launch. Far more accurate than current ballistic missiles, the RS-26 travels along a continuously changing trajectory. Its four multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs) of the RS-26 carry 300 kiloton thermonuclear warheads and are supersonic. Once fired, they can continuously change course. In Russia, the RS-26 has been referred to as a “doomsday weapon”. Prior to 2010, no mobile Russian Federation ICBMs carried MIRVs. The Russian ICBM force is significantly smaller than the US force of 400 ICBMs. Yet, Russian military planners seek to compensate for this by ensuring all of their ICBMs carry MIRVs by 2020. The PAK-FA T-50 stealth fighter appears quite capable and is a big upgrade for the Russian Federation Airspace Force. The first production models of the stealth fighter will purportedly be put into service in 2016.

The PAK-FA T-50 stealth fighter appears quite capable and viewed in many Western defense circles a big upgrade for the Russian Federation Airspace Force. The first production models of the stealth fighter will purportedly be put into service in 2016. In addition to its stealth capability, PAK-FA will hold 12 types of missiles, some of which will be hypersonic and designed to fit into the fighter’s bays in order not to interfere with its stealth characteristics. It reportedly has the advantage of sensor data fusion along with very advanced avionics.The essence of the “Shoigu factor” is that once he is given a military mission, he never fails. Shoigu will surely have three new Russian Federation Army divisions set up before Putin meets the new US President. As power plays, rivalries and intrigues in the Kremlin are speculated upon in the West with enthusiasm, and as more pursue the practice dubbed “Putinology”, at the Kremlin, officials carefully watch the West and act, and on their faces, there are no smiles.

The Way Forward

In November 2013, a year after he took the helm of the Ministry of Defense, the state-run pollster VTsIOM conducted a survey on the attitudes of Russians toward Shoigu. At the time, 46 percent said that they respected him, 35 percent said that they trusted him, and 15 percent said that they sympathized with him. The poll was conducted among 1600 people with the margin of error not exceeding 3.4 percent. In fact, according to polls by the Independent Levada Center, for the last three years, Russians have named Shoigu “Person of the Year” behind only Putin. Last month, Shoigu took second place behind Putin in a rating of Russian officials and politicians in which respondents were asked to choose several names from a list as the most trustworthy leaders. Shoigu was chosen by 26 percent of respondents, ahead of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was named by 21 percent. Putin was chosen by 60 percent of respondents. Polls were conducted among 1600 respondents with a margin of error not exceeding 3.4 percent.

Commentary on Shoigu in the Western media tends to include speculation over a nonexistent ambition to ascend to the pinnacle of power in Russia. Some journalists and pundits in the Western newsmedia seem to be projecting their own sensibilities upon Shoigu. Such stories are more entertaining than newsworthy. Shoigu is real, not some amusement. Despite his political capital and support from the Russian public, he has consistently stayed away from politics. He has never forgotten that he serves the Russian Federation and his president. The big story about Shoigu is that once given a military mission, he never fails. That is the essence of the “Shoigu factor.” He will surely have three new Russian Federation Army divisions set up before Putin meets the new US President. There is a popular misconception that Putin, Shoigu, and other Kremlin officials are “asking” for the West’s respect. On the contrary, they believe the West “needs” to respect Russia. As power plays, rivalries and intrigues in the Kremlin are speculated upon in the West with enthusiasm, and as more pursue the practice dubbed “Putinology,” at the Kremlin, officials carefully watch the West and act, and on their faces, there are no smiles.

NATO’s New Missions Won’t Solve Ukraine Crisis; A Military Response to “Russia’s Moves” Must Exist, But There Is Still Room for Diplomacy

US soldiers (above) training for combat operations. To respond to possible “Russian moves” against its Member States in Eastern Europe, NATO is organizing a new Rapid Reaction Force that will include US units. Political leaders of all NATO Member States must think deeply about situations that the use of the new force may create.

According to a September 7, 2014 Reuters article entitled, “NATO’s New Missions Won’t Solve Ukraine, Iraq Crises”, NATO leaders emerged from a summit in Wales with a plan to protect eastern members from a resurgent Russia, a pledge to reverse the decline in their defense spending, and a Western coalition to combat Islamic militants in Iraq. Ways were sought to use NATO’s military power to avert additional moves by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin against vulnerable Eastern European Member States. Senior alliance officials sought to reassure those countries that there are teeth behind the pledge (contained in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, NATO’s founding document) that an attack on one Member State will be considered an attack on all. A key decision made at the summit was to create a new NATO Rapid Reaction Force of some 5,000 troops assembled from existing national high-readiness forces based at home. It would eventually be deployable within 48 hours’ notice, instead of up to several weeks now, to deter an aggressor in a crisis. It will be supported with logistics and equipment pre-positioned in Eastern European countries closer to Russia. The new force may also be used for expeditionary missions outside the NATO Treaty area. (Such operations would be subject to a unanimous political decision of the 28-nation NATO Council and to national caveats limiting what troops can do abroad.) A “Readiness Action Plan” was also adopted to shield former Soviet bloc Central and Eastern European countries that joined the alliance in the last 15 years by modernizing military infrastructure, further pre-positioning equipment and supplies, rotating air patrols and holding regular joint exercises on their soil.

Before the NATO Summit, seven NATO allies planned to create a new rapid reaction force of at least 10,000 soldiers as part of plans to boost NATO defenses in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. The aim was to create a division sized joint expeditionary force for rapid deployment and regular exercises. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron was expected to announce the creation of the force at the NATO Summit. The United Kingdom-led force would include an air and naval units as well as ground troops. Countries involved include Denmark, Latvia, Estonia, Norway, and the Netherlands—Canada also expressed an interest in taking part. Political leaders of these countries apparently became uncertain and impatient regarding US efforts to mitigate the threat of further Russian advances westward. At the summit, the force’s size was reduced to a level short of what Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania wanted. Yet, after US President Barack Obama spoke in Estonia on the eve of the summit, underlining the US commitment to defend the Baltic States, they were accepting of the change.

Yet, the September 7th Reuters article notes that despite ringing declarations of resolve, the US-led alliance cannot fix the conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists. Questions remain about the allies’ plan to create a Rapid Reaction Force and their aim of raising defense budgets to 2 percent of national output over a decade. Both are subject to political caveats. Most analysts say the main security problems on NATO’s eastern flank lie less in a Russian military threat to its allies than instability in non-aligned former Soviet republics between NATO and Russia. Coping with a Russian military push there, may require more than 5,000 NATO troops.

NATO appears to be in a situation similar to what it faced during the Cold War. Yet, continuous draw downs of Member State forces since that time has left it without robust military capabilities and harmed its ability to transmit, by actions, a message that would deter Russia from further advances. Now that Putin and Russia are on the move, it is not feasible for NATO to create an effective defense through a Rapid Reaction Force, the prepositioning of materials, and exercises that could reestablish a deterrent from the new Rapid Reaction Force now as if before the draw downs never occurred. Nunc pro tunc! (Now for then!)   The United Kingdom and France bolstered Europe’s defense with their own nuclear arsenals. As in the past, the mere consideration of the use of force against Russia brings the world closer to World War III. A diplomatic solution to the current crisis in Europe may exist. It would require NATO Member States, despite all that has transpired to date, to engage in a new process of communicating with Russia through diplomacy, not with sanctions and new plans to use force.

NATO’s New Rapid Reaction Force

As US and NATO officials have tried to quickly respond to the evolving crisis in Ukraine, they have noted an alarming pattern of behavior by Putin. While Putin emerged as the dominant power in Moscow, Russia was hardly realistically judged by the West. Indeed, wishful thinking of NATO Member States’ political leaders of a post-Cold War compliant Russia ruled. At the end of the NATO Summit in 1990, there was even hope of establishing a strategic partnership between NATO and Russia. Caution was not exercised. A reversal of such good fortune was viewed as unlikely. With a sense of near certitude over Russian actions and intentions, they made staggering cuts in their forces and NATO Member States failed to meet defense spending goals.   Political leaders of NATO Member States must accept that their assumptions about Russia were wrong. Any plans of working with Russia were scrubbed in May 2014. (The NATO-Russia Council created in 2002 has not been formally shut-down).

Since Russia annexed Crimea in March, NATO members have taken a number of short-term steps to reinforce the security of allies in Eastern Europe who are worried about Putin’s assertiveness. Putin’s actions have been in line with his vision of a resurgent Russia at the center of an orbit of compliant neighbors. This concept is manifested in his proposal for a “Eurasian Union,” an economic alliance that would include former Soviet Republics such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and, most notably, Ukraine. The words of the NATO Summit declaration pulsate for the education of all both West and East. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated that the new Rapid Reaction Force “will ensure that we have the right forces and the right equipment in the right place, at the right time.” Troops would be regularly rotated and equipment and supplies, including weapons, ammunition and fuel, would be pre-positioned in Eastern Europe. Rasmussen explained it would also require command and control and logistics experts, “so this force can travel light but strike hard if needed.” Russia’s “aggressive behavior,” he said, will mean “a more visible NATO presence in the East for as long as required.”

However, much work will be required for NATO to rejuvenate itself. Over the years, several NATO Member States have been nonchalant about failing to meet their defense spending pledges. US outlays on security are three times that of the other 27 partners combined, even though the US gross domestic product (GDP) is smaller than their total GDP, a longstanding US concern about NATO defense spending. This uneven burden threatens NATO’s integrity, cohesion and capability—and ultimately, both European and transatlantic security.   Only four of the NATO partners met their agreed target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense in 2013—Estonia, Greece, the United Kingdom and the US. France, Turkey, and Greece fell just shy of the 2 percent goal, while other major countries such as Germany, Italy and the Netherlands have fallen well behind. The failure of European leaders to invest money and capabilities into their armed forces has left them unable to influence outcomes on issues such as Ukraine.

Longstanding Members of the NATO have cut their military forces dramatically. The United Kingdom and France have reduced warships in their arsenals to the point that they have contemplated sharing a single aircraft carrier. The United Kingdom, traditionally the closest and most reliable US military partner plans to reduce its regular ground forces to just 82,000 troops. Germany is in the process of reducing its armed forces from 250,000 in 2010 to 185,000 active duty planned for in 2017. The Dutch have eliminated their heavy tank forces. Putin undoubtedly took great interest in these force reductions and the Obama administration’s decision to also make steep reductions in US conventional forces. Those cuts have left the US less able to project power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies. As noted in the post entitled “As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way; In Putin’s View, Obama’s Doing Just Fine”, in 2013, the US withdrew its last two heavy armored brigades from Germany. Tank units anchored the US military presence on the ground in Europe for 70 years. US military leaders have considered withdrawing the last squadron of F-15C air superiority fighters from England. When Putin received the Obama administration’s proposals in 2013 calling for steep reductions in nuclear forces, he may have discerned that for the Obama administration, the US nuclear arsenal was merely a political bargaining chip, but not a military tool. US Army Chief of Staff, General Ray Odierno, stated “Over the last several years we’ve allowed our capabilities in NATO to slip.” He further explained: “So now we have to rebuild those capabilities. We need to understand where they reside, and what countries have which capabilities. We have to have more military exercises, improved [military] interoperability, and we need to reassure our Eastern partners in NATO that we are serious about [our commitments].”

Lessons from the Past

Throughout the Cold War, the US and its NATO allies stood ready to defend against Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces along the Inter-German border dividing the Federal Republic of Germany and German Democratic Republic as well as Czechoslovakia. In the 1980s, for example, the NATO Alliance filed 750,000 troops of which 200,000 were from the US Army. The objective of the Western defense was to halt any attempt to push westward beyond Germany. It was understood that the Soviets and their partners held a numerical advantage in conventional forces, particularly in heavy armored and mechanized units. Under the attrition-oriented forward defense strategy, NATO forces would use units present and, if possible reinforcements from the US, to fight and defeat the advancing force. If they failed, it was also understood that tactical nuclear weapons would be used to prevent a breakthrough beyond Germany. The threatened use of strategic nuclear forces ostensibly was also used to deter Soviet and Warsaw Pact leaders from believing any successful advance would at all be tolerated and the US was fully committed to Western Europe’s defense. By the 1980s, the introduction of the US AirLand Battle Strategy with its emphasis on greater mobility and maneuver, the use of attacks in depth, and use of weapons systems that served as combat multipliers, greatly enhanced the possibility for Western success against a Soviet and Warsaw Pact advance. The battle would no longer be confined to the Inter-German border, but deep within Soviet and Warsaw Pact territory. Although Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional ground launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges from Europe in the same period, there still existed an understanding that tactical nuclear weapons could be employed by other means to halt a possible breakthrough of advancing Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces. (It should be noted the Soviet and Warsaw Pact doctrine called for the use a chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons to support their conventional forces.)

Western military theorists of the past hardly could have imagined that against a potentially aggressive Russian force, sufficient highly-mobile armored and mechanized NATO forces would be not be based in Europe to meet it. While 5,000 NATO troops in a Rapid Reaction Force may appear to political leaders at the NATO Summit to be sufficient to deter or combat Russian forces which could presumably be well reinforced from within Russia. Further, halting any additional US troop reductions in Europe and rejuvenating “Reforger Exercise” (Return of Forces to Germany), that rehearsed the reinforcement of forces in Europe through the deployment of large units from the US, may send a signal that the West is becoming more assertive regarding Russia’s actions in Ukraine. It may deter Russia from possible action against the 15 other former Soviet Republics elsewhere along its border, particularly those that are now NATO Members States. Yet, sending signals to Russia in this way may do little to improve the situation. So far, Russia has been most effective at sending signals to other former Soviet republics contemplating stronger military or economic ties to the West. In addition to acting in Georgia and Ukraine, Russia has created fears that it may stir-up “frozen conflicts” in Moldova or between Armenia and Azerbaijan to stop those countries from moving closer to the West.

Some Considerations Regarding the Rapid Reaction Force

It would be counter-intuitive to believe the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation or senior officers of security organizations as the Main Intelligence Directorate, considering how to cope with the NATO Rapid Reaction Force, would in an aggressive act, use the same tactics seen in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk in Ukraine. When NATO prepared to offer a path to membership to Georgia in 2008, Russia sent troops to reinforce peacekeepers in the Russian-speaking, breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. After a five-day conflict with outmatched Georgian forces supported by the West, Russia recognized the independence of the breakaway regions, where Russian troops remain. Georgia’s potential membership disappeared from the NATO agenda, Late 2013, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych decided to forgo an Accession Agreement with the EU and join Putin’s Eurasian Union. After months of violent demonstrations by Ukrainian citizens, Yanukovych fled Ukraine. Putin intervened militarily, sending in “green men” to take control of key points in Crimea, leading to its annexation. Reports from Western news media sources indicate Russian forces similarly infiltrated the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces of eastern Ukraine to join rebel forces of “New Russia”.

Russia may rush in with troops massed along the border of a neighboring state with heavy armored and mechanized units, highly mobile infantry, combat service units, and combat service support units. However, as a matter of speed and surprise, Russia may rapidly deploy forces from based well inside Russia to key points in a neighboring state. In the best case scenario for NATO, the Rapid Reaction Force, in response to intelligence reports of a Russian threat, would be deployed to a NATO Member State in advance of any significant movement of Russian forces into it. The NATO Rapid Reaction Force would be able to set up its defenses, make use of prepositioned systems and ordinance, and air power would be made available to support dynamic defensive actions and negate opportunities for Russian forces to overwhelm units. Russian political leaders would need to choose whether to clash with the NATO Rapid Reaction Force or retreat unable to secure its objectives without displacing a multinational NATO troops. Perhaps the Russian decision would rest on how soon and how large would reinforcements arrive to support the Rapid Reaction Force before it could inflict catastrophic losses upon it. In 1999, Russia found itself in this very situation without prepositioned weapons and ordinance in Kosovo in the aftermath of NATO’s Operation Allied Force to expel Yugoslav Army units and irregular forces from the Serbian province. Then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic was viewed as a partner of Russia. As NATO ground forces under the command of then British Army Lieutenant General Sir Michael Jackson reached Pristina, Russian airborne forces that were deployed in northeastern Bosnia as part of the Stabilization Force, rushed ahead to Pristina International Airport to secure the airfield on which several Russian fighters had landed. Jackson did not try to displace the force as ordered by his superior US Army General Wesley Clark, the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (NATO’s commanding general). Jackson famously said, “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.” Jackson established a rapport with the Russian commanders. It was revealed that Russia, blocked from participating in NATO’s peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, decided to create a role for itself. Unable to move or be reinforced, the Russia relented, but it was agreed Russian troops could serve independently as peacekeepers.

If NATO Rapid Reaction Force cannot get to the Member State first, Russian forces would likely try to displace, destroy any local opposition with a superior force before NATO arrived, and quickly secure key points on the territory of a neighboring state. The NATO Rapid Reaction Force must clash with the Russian force if the objective is to displace it from key points or to expel it. Before NATO sent the force in, political leaders of Member States would need to decide in advance whether the Rapid Reaction Force would fire the shot to likely start World War III. Sending in the NATO Rapid Reaction Force to link up with local forces heavily engaged with Russian forces would guarantee NATO and Russian forces would clash. To get in country, the NATO Rapid Reaction Force would need to hope Russian forces, in preparation for their deployment to a neighboring state, would not destroy air bases and other facilities from which fighter support and transports could land in reasonable proximity to their targets.   Russia would be able to provide air cover and close air support for Russian troops. Russia would surely have air assets available to bring up reserve units and logistical support.

If Putin ordered a Russian force, overwhelming in size and combat power, to quickly engage the NATO Rapid Reaction Force on the ground, it might be futile for the NATO Rapid Reaction Force to attempt to handle it, even if the absolute maximum amount of pre-positioned weapon systems and ordinance were made available. The Rapid Reaction Force would at best be able to courageously hold on until a stronger NATO conventional force arrived to reinforce it and strike back and expel Russia from the country under attack. Again, Russia would most likely create a non-permissive environment for reinforcement. To the extent air power might be used against the Russian force, Russia may also use powerful conventional weapons to destroy NATO forces and support capabilities in the area of the neighboring state. If NATO forces were unable to halt and expel the Russian advance, new options would be needed. It would not be acceptable for the allies to simply retreat. As in the Cold War, the use of tactical nuclear weapons to repel the Russian force might be considered. The Rapid Reaction Force could be publicly declared a trip wire to trigger their use. Europe would once again face the prospect of becoming a nuclear battlefield. The use of strategic weapons in response to Russian aggression could also be threatened.

The Way Forward

Initially having ruled out military action, the West’s primary means to respond to Putin’s support of pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and elsewhere has been economic sanctions and political exclusion. However, despite their dependence on Russian gas and the economic consequences for trade with Russia, along with the US, EU countries have adopted a fourth round of sanctions. Through NATO, Western powers now seek to reassert themselves militarily. While the title “Strongman of Russia” surely fits Putin, he is not a fanatic. He would undoubtedly prefer to establish peace and security in Ukraine and in Russia’s other neighboring states, without further conflict and further economic, political, and military expense. It may still be viable to seek a diplomatic solution to the crisis. One clearheaded option may be to organize a summit meeting between a delegation of leaders from NATO Member States and Putin in Moscow or some other neutral location. Perhaps not all of the leaders from NATO Members States should attend the summit. The goal would not be to overwhelm Putin with numerical superiority, but to transmit NATO concerns and find some solutions. It might be best if a delegation of leaders from senior NATO Member States. Foreign secretaries could attend. However, as a summit meeting, it might be best if the leaders themselves hashed things out alone in a daylong session. They would have a real opportunity to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns they had at the highest-level and build confidence. A way to work together to satisfy Western and Russian interests may be found. If that is not achieved, at least leaders would remove any ambiguity about where things are headed.

For leaders of NATO Member States in particular, decisions would no longer need to be based on an understanding of “where Putin’s thinking is” in the abstract. For those leaders, speaking face to face, leaders would be given a chance to sense the other’s thinking and feelings. Everything the other says or how the other reacts to statements is important to know. Every inflexion, tone, and change in the other’s voice provided some insight as to what was on a leader’s mind. Speaking by telephone, when difficult or contentious issues arise, especially when relations are already uncongenial, is not the best option. Without seeing the other party, the call can become tense. Animus may find its way into the discussion in the form of terse comments. The result would not be a solution, but greater disagreement and frustration.

Pride and ego can block the truth, and lead one to reject all evidence of a problem. Political advisers of NATO leaders would explain that a summit with Putin would allow him to show that under his leadership, Russia has returned to the world stage as a global power. The meeting would have been a proud occasion for Putin and the Russian people and that Russia that he was a strong leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues and that he had control over the Ukrainian situation.  If the summit were held in Moscow, Putin would likely receive the chance to present his resurgent Russia in the best light possible. Yet, whatever public relations benefit or image boost Putin might gain through a summit would be trumped by the having the leaders reach a satisfactory diplomatic outcome.

Even during the most troubled times, relations between US and Russian leaders were maintained through a difficult process of summit meetings. Such Cold War meetings between US presidents and their Russian counterparts may have been distasteful for leaders on either side to undergo. However, leaders understood that maintaining a constructive relationship was not a personal matter; it was their duty. Despite proxy wars and other confrontations and conflicts along the course of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union, while possessing the unique and mutual capability to annihilate one another and the world with their nuclear arsenals, did not. With a strong diplomatic action taken now, hopefully the issue of mutual annihilation will not become a major concern all over again.

Obama Signs Bill That Bars Iran’s UN Envoy: Hopefully, the Rejection of Abutalebi Hasn’t Jeopardized the Nuclear Talks

The bill that US President Barack Obama signed into law on April 18th blocks any individual from entering the US, including a Member State’s appointee to the UN, who has been found to have been engaged in espionage or terrorist activity against the US and its allies or if that person may pose a threat to national security.

According to an April 18, 2014 New York Times report entitled, “Obama Signs Bill That Bars Iran’s Envoy,” US President Barack Obama signed into law the bill that prevents the granting of a US visa for Iranian diplomat Hamid Abutalebi.  The bill, itself, was unanimously passed by US House of Representatives and approved by the US Senate on April 10th.  The vote in Congress was supposed to send what sponsors called a blunt rejoinder to the Iranian government for having selected a nominee who played a role, however minor, in the 1979 American hostage crisis in Tehran.  Iranian officials have said Abutalebi’s appointment was decided months ago, but it is still believed by US experts that hardliners in Iran urged Abutalebi’s appointment as Iran’s UN permanent representative to create controversy, snuff out reconciliation efforts, and halt the nuclear talks.  Compassion and sympathy should be felt toward the former embassy staff members who suffered during the hostage crisis.  Yet, while Iran might decide upon a candidate based on domestic political considerations, it is not useful for the US officials to reject an Iranian candidate based on domestic political considerations.  Given all that has been articulated so well by the Obama administration the possibilities that could come from newly established diplomatic engagement between the US and Iran, his decision to block the visa does not appear rise up to that same positive spirit.  Obama’s support for the Congressional legislation, that banned Abutalebi and dredged up the many visceral issues associated with the hostage crisis, makes the administration’s statements in support of building better ties seem more as mere lip service to the process rather than a genuine effort. 

What remains to be seen is whether a strong enough communion exists among US and Iranian officials that would allow them to overcome such stumbling blocks as a disputed appointment to the UN.  Unless Iran can use legal means and negotiations with the US to reverse the decision on Abutalebi, the ship has likely sailed on the issue of his appointment.  Before Obama signed the Congressional bill, an April 10th New York Times article informed that some US specialists on Iran said optimistically that despite the sharp language, they did not forsee the dispute over Abutalebi sabotaging the broader efforts at achieving a nuclear agreement.  Cynics, waging a “legislative war” against Iran, are unable to see the value of the improved relations and idealist are unable to discern the capability of provocative statements and acts to effectively derail the nuclear negotiation process. Yet, perhaps this might be a case when cynics and idealists alike in the US are unable to fully discern the situation before them.  In the end, to avoid war and to ensure greater confidence that what is happening both in Iran and the US is known, both cynics and idealists must oddly come together, along with pragmatists, to help establish a sustainable agreement satisfactory to all.  Such steps taken now will facilitate efforts to maintain the agreement by its future stewards.

The Concerns Over Abutalebi

This episode regarding Abutalebi is not the case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing.  In Iran, the selection of Abutalebi to replace the current permanent representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN, Mohammad Khazee, hardly could have been made without input from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.  It was undoubtedly tacitly supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and hardline political and religious leaders.  However, when the selection of Abutalebi was made in Tehran, even if months ago, it had to be recognized then, as it is quite apparent now, that his selection would cause a strong response within official Washington, given his connection to the infamous capture of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. In the US, the decision to withhold a visa from Abutalebi gained impetus in the US Congress after legal representatives of the 52 embassy staff members of the captured US embassy in Tehran reported that he was among the revolutionaries, some of whom engaged in acts of mental and physical abuse against many of them during the 444-day hostage crisis.  Misgivings about Abutalebi rapidly built among Members of Congress and were manifested in a bill to prohibit him from entering the US.  Given the significant progress made in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program both in Geneva as well as back channel talks between US and Iranian officials, it was incumbent upon Obama to fully weigh blocking one Iranian diplomat, albeit with a problematic history, against paving a smooth course toward an historic agreement with Iran before placing his signature on it.

Abutalebi is a veteran diplomat who began working in the Iranian Foreign Ministry in the early 1980s.  He has held key European postings in the past.  He served as Iran’s ambassador to Italy, Belgium, and Australia. Abutalebi is said to be connected to circles close to Rouhani as well as former President Akbar Hashem Rafsanjani.  In September 2013, Abutalebi was appointed as deputy director of Rouhani’s political affairs office.  He also headed the Central Asian branch at the research center of the Expediency Council lead by Rafsanjani.  Abutalebi is said to be close to former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist.

Abutalebi stated that while he was a part of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, the student group that occupied the US embassy in November 1979, he was not among the core group of student activists and was not inside the embassy during the crisis.  Nothing stated or reported indicates Abutalebi’s actions 35 years ago were of an egregious nature.  In fact, Abutalebi claims he was Ahvaz during the occupation of the US embassy.  It was only when he came back to Tehran that he was asked to help with some translation and he accepted to do it.  Abutalebi was quoted on the Iranian Khabaronline website as stating “I did the translation during news conference when female and also African-American employees of the embassy were released.”

Yet, Abutalebi’s explanation of his involvement in the embassy seizure was never relevant to US officials.  A spokesman and attorney from the legal team representing former hostages who have made compensation claims, Alan Madison, admitted that very little concrete information was available about Abutalebi’s role in the hostage-taking. Madison stated, “After 34 years, it’s difficult to say this was a central character or this was a tangential character. But he was there, and it’s our understanding that having been a participant, he still has some political credibility with some of those folks in Iran.”  Madison also presented a statement from former hostage, Barry Rosen that explained, “It’s a disgrace if the USG (U.S. government) accepts Abutalebi’s Visa as Iranian Ambassador to the U.N.”

The Abutalebi Case Shows US-Iran Relationship Requires Far More Work

Relations between the US and Iran remain far from perfect, however they are at a new stage as a result of the nuclear negotiations.  The talks have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts, through close contact, to acquire a better understanding of each other.  Much of what has been learned since surely contradicts Iranian leaders’ prior assessments of capabilities and possibilities regarding the US.  For the US and Iran, the improved understanding of mutual positions was further strengthened by back channel talks, some conducted by officials from the US National Security Council. Indeed, progress has been made of the nuclear issue and sanctions.  Key Iranian leaders at this point may be able to see, even with the most powerful revolutionary slogans in mind, the real possibilities of a final agreement. US Secretary of State John Kerry, the senior US authority on diplomacy, admits that Iran has kept its end of a deal reached on November 24, 2013.  On February 24, 2014, Kerry stated Iran had reduced its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, not enriching uranium above a purity of 5 percent and not installing more centrifuges in addition to other things.  Kerry explained that “They [the Iranians] are in the middle of doing all the things that they are required to do.”

However, cynics ignore such truths.  The truth, itself, is seemingly viewed as treason for those against the change in relations between the US and Iran.  Despite progress, enough US and Iranian leaders have not moved forward at all in their thinking and they seem determined to have a negative impact on the negotiation process.  As the IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari has stated, “Anti-Westernism is the principle characteristic of the Islamic Republic.”  On the Geneva talks, Khamenei from the beginning made statements such as: “We had announced previously that on certain issues, if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with the Satan [US] to deter its evil.” In the US, it remains dogma among policy analysts and think tank scholars to view Iran as determined to pursue nuclear weapons through its nuclear program.  The idea that nuclear talks may be the path for new, positive relations between the US and Iran, probably will not gain acceptance among cynics until a final agreement is achieved.  Even then, some will cling to doubts.

Given emnity that surfaced in both Tehran and Washington over the matter of Abutalebi’s selection as Iran’s permanent representative to the UN, it is clear that hardliners in Tehran or Members of Congress persist in viewing policy goals and approaches giving primacy to information developed in the abstract long before the negotiations began.  A new understanding of each other’s ideas on issues and intentions should have been developed given the months of talks between the US and Iran.  If a more positive understanding of respective concepts and intentions is not reached soon, the failure of the direct talks will practically be ensured.  Moreover, with a limited understanding of a counterpart’s thinking, cynics significantly lessen the possibilty of achieving their own policy goals.

The Way Forward

Despite what idealist may hope, how Obama handled this matter will determine what type of confidence he builds among leaders in Tehran.  Having stood with what Iranian officials see as the banality of Congress’ rejection of Abutalebi over his nearly indiscernible role in the US embassy seizure, Tehran may use the signing of the bill to gauge whether Obama would challenge Congress on other issues concerning US-Iran relations, to include the nuclear talks.  Although Obama cannot prevent Congress from passing sanctions or force Congress to remove them, he could greatly curtail or remove sanctions over the nuclear program under a final deal by waiving them until he leaves office if he chooses.  The Iranians probably recognized that was the most they could expect.  Now, even that outcome has been put into question.

At the UN, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, other senior officials, and even UN Member States most friendly with the US, would unlikely require or expect Iran to repeatedly present candidate after candidate until one would finally be found acceptable to the US.  Some of those friendly states have already accepted Abutalebi as an ambassador in their capitals.  The bill that Obama signed into law blocks any individual from entering the US who has been found to have been engaged in espionage or terrorist activity against the US and its allies or if that person may pose a threat to national security.  From the information that has been presented about Abutalebi so far, it does not seem that by his mere presence in New York City as Iran’s UN permanent representative, he poses any threat to the US.  Interestingly, Abutalebi’s actions during the embassy takeover were undoubtedly far less egregious than that of some diplomats past and present from states whose forces have engaged in combat against the US military since World War II, including China (The Korean War 1950-1953), Vietnam (The Vietnam War 1964-1973), Cuba (Grenada, Operation Urgent Fury  1983), Serbia (Operation Allied Force, 1999), Montenegro (Operation Allied Force, 1999), or Iraq (The Gulf War 1991 and The Iraq War, 2003-2011).  Except in the case of Cuba, the US has normalized relations with those states.  There is plenty of literature available that explains known or detected members of the intelligence services in the UN Missions, embassies, or consulates of states such as Russia, China, or the North Korea are, more often than not, granted visas and not expelled from the US as persona non grata.  Perhaps it should be considered by Congress that if Abutalebi is kept from assuming his post as Iran’s UN permanent representative, perhaps out of spite and due to extraordinary pressure from hardliners, Tehran might just send a new appointee, a very capable government official outside of the Foreign Ministry, who may have a less obvious profile but later may be discovered to have committed acts against the US and interests.

Rather than just deciding on whether to accept or reject the Congressional bill on Abutalebi, Obama could have used the situation as an opportunity to demonstrate what good things can come from thoughtful, direct presidential involvement in foreign policy efforts.  His personal involvement in US policy on Iran should always result in the injection of fresh thinking to the process to keep things moving forward.  The same should be expected of Rouhani.

The nuclear negotiations have meaning for present and future US-Iran relations.  Will and intellectual power is required to recognize the benefit of constructing a satisfactory and sustainable agreement.  True, a healthy dose of cynicism must exist in the process despite the best intentions.  However, the cynics must not be allowed to win the day.  For them, relations between the US and Iran appears to boil down into a competition over who has the upper hand in the relationship outside of the military sphere. Idealists would likely agree that a deal can be reached without the assistance of Iranian hardline political and religious leaders and the US Congress, yet it cannot be successfully concluded without their help.  Perhaps a focus could be placed on encouraging cynics on both sides.  As a result, they just might be helped to see, in a new way, the possibility of an agreement, and appreciate its value would be akin to that of a pearl of great price.