Resolving the Ukraine Crisis: How Better Understanding Putin and the Subtle and Profound Undercurrent Influencing His Thinking on the West Might Help

Russian Federation President Vladimir (above) at the International military-technical forum “Army-2021” at the Patriot Congress and Exhibition Centre, Moscow, August 2021. Putin ostensibly wants the US and its allies to understand that their military activities in Ukraine, too near Russia’s borders, are moving very close to a red line for him. Ostensibly to achieve that, he has massively built-up Russia Federation military forces perilously close to the border with Ukraine. Some in the West believe Putin intends to do a lot more than just build up military forces defensively and negotiate. Multiple analyses of Western foreign and national security policy bureaucracies have concluded that he plans to invade Ukraine. In that way, the current situation concerning Ukraine has become an inflexion point in US-Russian relations. Still, more appears to be involved here than Putin just being the Putin he has been over four US administrations. If the US is to get a real handle on relations with him, not just a perceived one, a more useful understanding of the man will be required. To that extent, what may lie beneath the surface of Putin, the person, will be briefly scratched a bit here.

Regarding the massive build-up of Russia Federation military forces perilously close to the border of its neighbor, Ukraine, and alarming activities that may indicate those forces will invade it soon, Washington and Moscow continue to wave their fists at each other. Moscow has denied having any intention to attack Ukraine and has explained away its buildup of troops as being a defensive measure. By building up military forces near Ukraine, which is all he has actually done physically at this stage, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin ostensibly would like to cause the US and its allies to understand that their military activities in Ukraine, too near the Russian Federation (hereinafter referred to as Russia), are moving very close to a red line for him. Putin insists that the US and its allies provide Russia with signed guarantees to refrain from expanding NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia and limiting their military activity near Russia’s borders, particularly in and around Ukraine. However, some in the West believe that Putin intends to do a lot more than just build up military forces defensively and negotiate. Reportedly, multiple analyses of Western foreign and national security policy bureaucracies have concluded that he plans to invade Ukraine. In that way, the current situation concerning Ukraine has become an inflexion point in US-Russian relations. Ukraine was a flashpoint during the administration of US President Barack Obama in February and March of 2014. It was then that Crimea, Ukraine, was quietly and orderly captured by Russian troops dubbed “the green men.” The Obama administration was similarly at odds with Russia over Syria, mutants mutandis.

Putin seems to enjoy being seen fighting the good fight against Russia’s old adversaries the US and its allies.On the other side of the coin, dealing with Russian moves, Russian aggression, has become more tiresome for US administrations and Western capitals as much as anything else. Yet, Putin has not challenged the US mainly as a result of some domestic political consideration, or even less likely boredom or some vanity. Putin did not move so many troops to Russia’s western border because that area is more commodious than the locations they were previously based. Assuredly, Putin harbors negative thoughts and feelings toward the US and choices made by decision-makers that concern Russia in a significant way. Asked to bend: retreat back away from a matter, it is unlikely that he would without acquiring “concessions” from the US and its allies. He has issued preconditions concerning an agreement on “NATO expansion” already. (Perhaps he did not issue preconditions before entering any talks because he even realized that would be going a bit too far.) One would imagine he entered into this venture thinking, hoping he could potentially get what he wanted without having Russian forces fire a shot. it does not appear that Putin and his advisers are not too far down the road to change course. However, greatcharlie agrees that he would probably go into Ukraine if at some moment he feels it is, as it likely would have been determined by him along with his advisors and war planners in advance, to be the right time to do so. One would do no more than justice to Putin by presuming he long contemplated his military moves before cutting orders to get them rolling. He is certainly not moving step by step in what might be described as a hot-headed manner. Still, the larger decision to act as he has regarding Ukraine may very well be the result of a miscalculation. It is the unsought, undesirable job of the West to help him see that.

Inquiry into the fruit of things requires consideration of how Putin may view the situation. Russia has been led by Putin and his thinking from the posts of president and prime minister since 2000. A positive relationship with Russia has not been maintained by the US. There are many patterns apparent in his repeated confrontations with the West. Some eyes in the West appear somewhat closed to what may be happening with the Russian Federation President from the inside. What currently plagues the relationship is more than Putin just being the Putin he has been over five US administrations. The threat of the use of force, even mutual destruction, underlies Washington’s diplomacy with Moscow. The idea being that a somewhat expansionist, yet plainly aggressive, Putin can be made to behave as desired by placing a club at the end of the path he is traveling. He is ostensibly put in a position to act reasonably before he reaches it. It would go a long way to explain the somewhat unbroken string of unsuccessful interactions of US administrations with him, if the problem is that no useful perspective of why Putin has responded so aggressively has been developed. If the US is to get a real handle on relations with him, not just a perceived one, a more useful understanding of the man will be required. To that extent, what may lie beneath the surface of the intractable Putin, the man, will be briefly scratched a bit here. New light is shed on the man by using a different lens. There may be something about his inner self repeatedly being manifested and must be looked at from the correct angle. The aim is not to shoot down other analyses, but hopefully to add to them in a way to figuratively help put the reticle of some analysts on the bulls-eye. Offering what may be a few missing links might create an improved understanding of Putin and his actions, lifting thinking on Putin, to a degree, up from the region of the commonplace. Periclum ex aliis facito tibi quod ex usu siet. (Draw from others the lesson that may profit yourself.)

The Russians are coming! A mixed formation of Russian attack and transport helicopters moving toward their target during the Zapad 2021 military exercise. (above). If Putin decides to go into Ukraine, firepower, astronomically massed, from ground, air, and possibly from sea assets, would likely be used to destroy Ukrainian forces in the field, and in depth as far back as units held in reserve or even on training bases. Relentless fire from air and ground would be utilized to support the movement of forces inside Ukraine. What might have been identified as the front line of Ukraine’s defense would figuratively become a map reference for Hell. Imaginably, the main objective of the deployment of Russian forces would be to create a sufficient buffer in Ukraine between Russian and “ever expanding NATO forces.” In performing this task, Russian forces would ensure territory and forces that might remain in Kyiv’s control would be of less utility to NATO as potential a launching pad for a ground attack on Russia and could not be used as part of a larger strategy to contain Russia at its own border.

The Situation: What Could Russian Forces Do?

From what can be gathered about the situation, the US Intelligence Community has concluded that the Kremlin could be planning a multifront offensive involving up to 175,000 troops. An estimated 100,000 Russian troops have already been deployed near the Russia-Ukraine border. Satellite imagery has revealed a buildup of Russian tanks and artillery as well as other gear near the border, too. Reportedly, online disinformation activity regarding Ukraine also has increased in the way it did in the run-up to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. According to the New York Times, the most evident scenario given the scale of troop movements on the ground is a Russian invasion of Ukraine may not be to conquer the entire country but to rush forces into the breakaway regions around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, or to drive all the way to the Dnieper River. Purportedly at the Pentagon, “five or six different options” for the extent of a Russian invasion are being examined. Suffice it to say, Moscow calls such assessments of Russia’s intentions slanderous ravings. Russia denies it is planning an invasion and, in turn, accused the West of plotting “provocations” in Ukraine. Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who unfortunately does not exactly have a watertight record for tying her statements to reality, laid it on thick in the newsmedia, alleging Western and Ukrainian talk of an imminent Russian attack was a “cover for staging large-scale provocations of their own, including those of military character.” It is really disempowering to put out such a message. 

If Putin decides to go in, firepower, astronomically massed, from ground, air, and possibly the sea assets, would most likely be used to destroy Ukrainian forces in the main battle area and in depth as far back as units held in reserve or even on training bases. Relentless fire from air and ground would be utilized to support the movement of forces inside Ukraine. What might have been identified as the front line of Ukraine’s defense would figuratively become a map reference for Hell. Russian forces would most likely be deployed in a way to prevent the resurrection of Ukrainian forces in areas which Russian forces have captured. As for reinforcements or reserves, the rest of Russia’s armed forces would be right across the border in Russia. Imaginably, the main objective of the deployment of Russian forces would be to create a sufficient buffer in Ukraine between Russian and “ever expanding NATO forces.” In performing this task, Russian forces would ensure territory and forces that might remain in Kyiv’s control would be of less utility to NATO as potential a launching pad for a ground attack on Russia and could not be used as part of a larger strategy to contain Russia at its own border.

A stern fact is that the Ukrainians will hardly receive enough military aid from partners and friends, particularly Javelin handheld anti-tank rockets and Stinger handheld antiaircraft rockets, fast enough in the short-term to check a well-coordinated, rapid advance of heavy Russian forces. In the most favorable assessment, they might be able to supply them with enough to hurt Russian forces and perhaps “tear off an arm.” Having experience in contending with somewhat recent Western efforts to assist Russia’s adversaries and those its allies in Syria, Georgia, and Ukraine militarily, perhaps a special task force has been organized and assigned in advance, among other things, to: monitor the delivery, stockpiling of Javelins, Stingers and other weapons systems shipped to Ukrainian forces; maintain real-time knowledge of the distribution and location of those weapons; destroy those weapons systems; and, destroy or support actions by other Russian military units to destroy Ukrainian military units to which those weapons were distributed. That hypothetical task force would also likely be tasked to monitor–covertly surveil the intelligence activities and military operations of–Western countries as they relate to supplying Ukraine with special military capabilities. As for an insurgency in captured areas after an invasion, doubtlessly Russian security services have some sinister plan to cope with that contingency that will not be speculated upon here.

Amat victoria curam. (Victory loves preparation. [Victory favors those who take pains.]) As aforementioned, Putin is hardly acting on impulse, making it up as he goes along. Evidently, Putin believed acting now militarily would best serve Russian interests as he perceives them, not knowing whether the opportunity would present itself again. His decision suggests to the mind that events have apparently moved in some way that enough boxes were ticked off to allow a well-thought out plan based on facts, calculations, possible opposition moves, and predicted outcomes, to be green-lit. To that wise, one might presume any and every coercive economic measure possibly levied against Russia by the West would doubtlessly be anticipated by him. One also might presume he has some plan, stratagem, to counter such steps short-term and long-term. Watching the West interact with Ukraine since the collapse of the government led by his stern ally former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 as a result of Euromaidan, the Revolution of Dignity, Putin likely feels more and more that he is being “rock souped.” Surely, from his lens, the military dimension of the relationship remains at the forefront of Western expansion eastward. NATO forces are creeping closer to Russia’s border, and the government in Kyiv is hopelessly pulled further away from Moscow’s reach. Putin might believe any reasonable observer would accept and agree with his thinking about a threat from the West, and that his logically reached perception has actually been fostered by Western actions.

Ukrainian troops training with the FGM-148 Javelin, a handheld, shoulder-fired precision missile system designed to destroy tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as hovering helicopters (above). The Ukrainians would hardly receive military aid from partners and friends fast enough in the short-term to check a well-coordinated, rapid advance of heavy Russian forces. In the most favorable assessment, they might be able to supply them with enough to hurt Russian forces and perhaps “tear off an arm.” Having experience in contending with somewhat recent Western efforts to assist Russia’s adversaries and those its allies in Syria, Georgia, and Ukraine militarily, perhaps a special task force has been organized and assigned in advance, among other things, to handle all aspects of that matter. As for a post-invasion insurgency, surely Russian security services have some sinister plan to cope with that contingency that will not be speculated upon here.

Admittedly, it is surprising how much Putin has done to signal that he is considering a move into Ukraine. However, there is surely an art that moves Putin’s mind. One might presume that as he initially staked the situation with regard to the US, almost nothing communicated through telephone conversations or bilateral talks alone would be enough to compel the US to act as he wished. The potential use of military force could not exist as an abstraction, being left to the imagination of Western national leaders and their advisers. With a build-up military force, he could illustrate, convince US decisionmakers that the threat of military action was real.

Surely Moscow closely observed events as they developed in the border crisis between India and China. Although it has been repeated as of late that China backed down to India on the matter of the border crisis in which occasional gunfire was exchanged and lives were lost. The common wisdom is that the aggressive moves it made with ease against India placed China in a situation which in the long run would prove too consuming, too difficult to handle and contrary to national interest, particularly such an approach can have an impact economically. There was also too little gain for China both geostrategically or geopolitically as compared to the potential loss suffered from such an investment. 

An odd advantage that Putin has is that the US will act in a fairly predictable fashion. There is less for him to fear of some random, unexpected decision from the US than the US may fear about such a choice made by him. Placed in a trying position, which Putin surely hopes he has done, a certain reality would need to be faced by US decisionmakers. Conceivably, he would expect the top military officers and officials at the Pentagon (US Department of Defense) to see the situation straight. Indeed, he may be hoping the Pentagon would be the voice of reason, the source that will explain that the real possibility exists for the situation to get out of control if the US were to commit itself too heavily to Ukraine’s defense. That would seem especially true if US decisionmakers contemplated having to act if both Russia moved on Ukraine and China moved on Taiwan almost simultaneously. That is a real possibility despite how fanciful it may sound. Tremendous pressure would be placed on the available military resources of the US and its allies. It would seem unlikely to Putin that decisiommakers in Washington would sink themselves deeper into a situation in which only bad choices were left available. C’est comme ça! However, Putin still cannot be absolutely certain that Washington would parse out the situation as he has. He has the task of showing it this perspective and convincing it to acquiesce to at least most of his demands.

The clever bit for Putin would be to determine what military action by NATO, if any, would be taken to physically halt a Russian advance into Ukraine. To that extent, Putin may have assessed that with regard to Ukraine, as well with Taiwan, policies of past eras are no longer viable under current circumstances. The military forces of Russia have been transformed. Insofar as Putin is concerned, unless the US planned to transport the bulk of its armed forces into Ukraine and nearby, any challenge by the US and its allies that included military action would mean recklessly placing some small set of their forces in great peril. Russia would not back down once hostilities were initiated. Again, fighting along its own border would allow Russia countless advantages to bear on its prospective opponent. It would truly be absolute madness for Washington to commit its forces to the fight without some clear way to win or create some acceptable circumstance they could not have achieved without firing a shot. Ironically, in the name of global peace and security, to avoid a nuclear Armageddon, it would need to let its declared partners in Kyiv fall. Even though the US public today is uninterested in starting foreign wars, if the Biden administration commits the US to a fight that would have an uncertain purpose and outcome, it would garner great attention from the public and very likely fail to get its approval. To the extent that these considerations factor in Putin’s calculus, he would most likely find Washington’s stated position on Ukraine to be unrealistic and unreasonable. It only makes sense as long as Moscow does not act.

If efforts at peace fail, it is not completely clear to greatcharlie whether Putin would want all of Ukraine or just some of it: Donetsk and Luhansk for instance. If he wants more, his plans may likely include capturing Kyiv and establishing a new Ukrainian government. That would take up an enormous amount of time, resources, effort, and political capital. Putin seems too shrewd to rush into something as colossal as administering Ukraine. Still, no one is infallible. Putin has been known to miscalculate. It was a gross miscalculation to interfere with the US elections in 2016, an action Putin has repeatedly denied despite the fact that direct proof of Russian meddling has been presented on by US intelligence and law enforcement organizations. If Putin acts militarily in Ukraine and successfully captures enough territory to his content–at least on paper he should be able to with some ease, he would again be looked upon as a shining hero among supporters. The effort by NATO and the West in general to deter him would be depicted as a debacle. If he fails to make gains against the Ukrainians and capture sufficient territory, the failure would be an enormous defeat for Putin. It is possible that the rippling effect of such a prospective defeat would lay the groundwork for his departure as Russia’s leader.

US President Joe Biden (left center) and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right). As aforementioned, Putin is hardly acting on impulse, making it up as he goes along. Evidently, Putin believed acting now militarily would best serve Russian interests as he perceives them, not knowing whether the opportunity would present itself again. His decision suggests to the mind that events have apparently moved in some way that enough boxes were ticked off to allow a well-thought out plan based on facts, calculations, possible opposition moves, and predicted outcomes, to be green-lit. To that wise, one might presume any and every coercive economic measure possibly levied against Russia by the West would doubtlessly be anticipated by him. One also might presume he has some plan to counter such steps short-term and long-term.

The View from the US

In remarks before meeting with his Infrastructure Implementation Task Force on January 20, 2022, US President Joe Biden laid out his position on a potential invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces. Biden, who would not expect to speak idly on such a grave matter or any matter, for that case, stated: “I’ve been absolutely clear with President Putin.  He has no misunderstanding.  If any–any–assembled Russian units move across the Ukrainian border, that is an invasion.  But–and it would be met with severe and coordinated economic response that I’ve discussed in detail with our allies, as well as laid out very clearly for President Putin. But there is no doubt–let there be no doubt at all that if Putin makes this choice, Russia will pay a heavy price. It is also not the only scenario we need to be prepared for: Russia has a long history of using measures other than overt military action to carry out aggression in paramilitary tactics, so-called “gray-zone” attacks, and actions by Russian soldiers not wearing Russian uniforms. Remember when they moved into the Donbas with “Little Green Men”?  They weren’t–they were dealing with those who were Russian sympathizers and said that Russia had no–nobody in there. Well, that includes “Little Green Men” in uniforms, as well as cyberattack. We have to be ready to respond to these as well–and decisively–in a united way, with a range of tools at our disposal.” Très, très fort!

During a two hour videolink call concerning Ukraine and other disputes on December 21, 2021, Biden also warned Putin that the West would impose “strong economic and other measures” on Russia if it invades Ukraine. Putin complained NATO is attempting to “develop” Ukrainian territory. He demanded guarantees that NATO would not expand farther eastward. Although there were no breakthroughs, the two sides agreed upon continuing communications. In greatcharlie’s December 31, 2021 post entitled, “Infrequently Discussed Issues Regarding Taiwan Likely Influencing Decisions of Communist Party of China Leaders and PLA Commanders,” it was explained that from Washington’s perspective, the door must be left open to type of contrition in diplomacy. Within time perceived to be available as conflict appears to draw near, there must exist an opportunity to amend a position. In theory, there may be an epiphany within logic and reason that leads one side to align itself with a view closely matching the other. Despite expressing concerns that Putin may invade Ukraine at any moment, there may still be some in Washington who assess and intuit, correctly or incorrectly, that since action has not been taken, with all of the tactical benefits such a surprise move would garner, it may not be taken. The delay In smashing into Ukraine may be a true lack of desire on the part of Putin to bear the burden of administering more of that country. There is the off chance that Putin may have some doubts about the military capabilities of Russian forces. The capture of Ukrainian territory may be quick and dirty but may leave unexpected problems in its aftermath. Given the way in which Biden spoke of sanctions, it is possible, despite what greatcharlie has already suggested here on this matter, that Putin may be worried about economic retaliation from the West. (Russia does not have much to shield itself from economic retaliation as compared to China, bound to the West with its products and production capabilities. The energy it provides to Europe and Nord Stream 2 are the more meaningful cards for Moscow to play. With concern to that, during the administration of US President Donald Trump, the US offered Europ a fairly decent alternative source of energy worthy of consideration.)

Putin usually plays his cards close, making it difficult to know whether some resolution might be found through a more open dialogue. No doubt officials in Western capitals are mindful of being too attached to diplomacy in coping with Putin. Each is doubtlessly versed enough in history to hark back to this infamous statement which likely has an expected chilling effect on efforts to work with him: “As long as war has not begun, there is always hope. For the present I ask you to await as calmly as you can the events of the next few days. As long as war has not begun, there is always hope that it may be prevented, and you know that I am going to work for peace to the last moment.” These words were spoken by United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on September 27, 1938, during an address to the British people as concerns of war rose as negotiations between German Chancellor Adolf Hitler and himself. The tragic outcome of that effort is well-known. 

For Washington, Moscow’s actions have far greater implications than the progress of US-Russian relations. As Blinken also explained during his January 8, 2022 CNN appearance: “There are large principles at stake that go to the fundamentals of international peace and security.” He went on to note that the US is joined by international partners “to make it clear to Russia that this aggression will not be accepted, will not be tolerated.” An additional step in knocking down the idea that this crisis stands as a problem between Washington and Moscow has already been taken by the US. On January 9, 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated very clearly on CNN: “It’s hard to see making actual progress, as opposed to talking, in an atmosphere of escalation with a gun to Ukraine’s head. So, if we’re actually going to make progress, we’re going to have to see de-escalation, Russia pulling back from the threat that it currently poses to Ukraine.” In effect, he expressed the view that despite intercession of the US and its allies, this matter remains Kyiv’s problem mainly. Looking at the crisis in that way makes it something akin to Ukraine’s “Reichenbach Falls”, the moment where Arthur Conan Doyle’s great fictional detective character, Sherlock Holmes, from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, originally published as twelve short stories in the Strand Magazine (1891), was confronted by his archrival Professor James Moriarty after repeatedly disrupting his criminal schemes. As the story initially went, Holmes met his end in combat with him. It was revealed in subsequent installments of the series appearing in the Strand that Holmes survived the fight, his resurrection being demanded of Doyle by the magazine’s editors to satisfy a readership made much distraught over his demise. One might hope fate will allow Ukraine to survive this crisis intact, yet there is nothing fictional about this situation. Moreover, Putin is a far more powerful opponent for Ukraine than Moriarty was to Holmes.

Putin (right) seated in a conference room at the Kremlin during a videolink call with Biden (on screen left). During a two hour videolink concerning Ukraine and other disputes on December 21, 2021, There were no breakthroughs, but the two sides agreed to continue communications. From Washington’s perspective, the door must be left open to type of contrition in diplomacy. Within time perceived to be available as conflict draws near, there must exist an opportunity to amend a position. In theory, there may be an epiphany within logic and reason that leads one side to align itself with a view closely matching the other. There is the off chance Putin may have some doubts as to the military capabilities of Russian forces. The capture of Ukrainian territory may be quick and dirty but may leave unexpected problems in its aftermath. Given the way in which Biden spoke of sanctions, Putin may very well be worried about economic retaliation from the West.

Some Key Issues for Negotiation as the Situation Stands

Washington wants to avoid a conflict in Ukraine. For Washington, success in resolving the Ukraine crisis for the moment would imaginably mean, in brief, crafting an agreement with Russia that will relax tensions, strengthen the sovereignty of Ukraine, enhance the security of Ukraine, and ensure Russia remains committed to whatever agreement is reached. Ukrainians must be allowed to enjoy full control and use of their own territory. Ukraine would retain self-determination as a sovereign state. If Ukraine wants to join NATO that wish will be protected. (Perhaps with some disagreeable yet necessary minor alteration in the short-term.) Russia would need to take action assented to in an agreement that would confirm it has no aggressive intention. Any action that may have prompted accusations by both sides that the other was moving back to the adversarial thinking of the Cold War and the paradigm of East-West spheres of influence of the past must be addressed. Lending some further context for Washington’s efforts to negotiate with Moscow on Ukraine, Blinken, also stated during his January 9, 2022 interview on CNN that, “It’s also not about making concessions. It’s about seeing whether, in the context of dialogue and diplomacy, there are things that both sides, all sides can do to reduce tensions.” 

Recognizably, neither the US nor any government in the West wants to jump through hoops to satisfy Russia. They would all doubtlessly agree they have no reason to give up anything they have. They are not bothering Russia and Russia should not be bothering them. Even if some agreement were constructed with Moscow that they could accept, they would want to know how Russia would be held to the terms of the signed document. They would be skeptical over Russia’s willingness to adhere with anything to which it might be remotely disagreeable in the long-run. Plus ça change! All would likely agree that force should not need to be relied upon to hold Moscow to it. There is the likelihood many NATO allies and neighboring countries to Russia might sign an agreement with Russia, but would be hesitant to do so. If the US sought some collective agreement concerning the situation with Ukraine, those countries may see it as too much to ask or a manifestation of naiveté by leading powers less threatened by Russia. Some capitals would likely respond to the suggestion with reproach. Even more, they may believe the constant struggles with Russia that have created their anxieties among them about negotiating with Moscow. US officials would be up against that sort of reception and more if it sought to create some consensus among the Europeans on constructing a comprehensive agreement with Russia. Perchance if the situation is approached with a degree of gentleness and patience–“with diplomacy”–their efforts may bear fruit.

Yet, given these and other considerations that would shape a diplomatic effort in this crisis, to get a firm handle on this matter, the primary focus, as postulated here, must be placed on Putin. All that has transpired, all of the preconceived management of this crisis from the Russian side, has been the manifestation of his vigorous and masterful mind. Formulating the best response diplomatically will mean better understanding him and how he thinks. For US policymakers, decisionmakers and negotiators, finding a way, within reason, within acceptable parameters of US values and interests, to satisfy Putin and themselves will be no mean feat.

Putin (center) flanked by Russian Federation Minister of Defense, General of the Army Sergey Shoigu (right) and Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov (left). Recognizably, neither the US nor any government in the West wants to jump through hoops to satisfy Russia regarding Ukraine. Even if some agreement were constructed with Moscow, all would remain skeptical over Russia’s willingness to adhere with anything to which it might be remotely disagreeable in the long-run. To get a handle on this matter, the primary focus, as postulated here, must be placed on Putin. All that has transpired, all of the preconceived management of this crisis from the Russian side, has been the manifestation of his vigorous and masterful mind. Formulating the best response diplomatically will mean better understanding him and how he thinks. For US policymakers, decisionmakers and negotiators, finding a way, within reason, within acceptable parameters of US values and interests, to satisfy Putin and themselves will be no mean feat.

Some Common Wisdom Regarding Putin

Many Western political leaders and senior foreign and national security policy officials have claimed to have the ability to look into Putin’s soul. The reviews of their skills have been mixed. US President George Bush provided the following statement on the matter on June 18, 2016: “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country. And I appreciated so very much the frank dialogue.” However, given his former work in the intelligence industry, his decades of experience in politics and as a national leader, Putin is the one who has mastered such an art. While he is never publicly vocal with his findings concerning other national leaders he meets, his conclusions are best manifested by the actions he takes as they regard their interests.

Every US official Putin meets likely for him becomes the avatar of Western duplicity. He will always be distrustful, and will simply study the individual seeking to gain a sense from his or her words, the nature of the conversation among the most senior US officials on Ukraine. To this extent, each conversation informs his next move, not due to its content, but due to what he perceives to lie behind their words. In many ways times have changed for Russia, and more dramatically for Putin. Russia can not exactly match the US as a global power. It cannot exactly match the power of the US even militarily. However, its capabilities have increased and it can do more things in the world now than a decade or two ago. It would appear that Putin so badly wants to get that point across.

It was never the case that Putin could have been shaped into the Russian leader Washington wanted. Moreover, Putin was never a man to be trifled with. However, these were among many ideas about Putin perhaps carried over from the tail-end of the Clinton administration, over two decades ago, when the then young president was establishing himself both at home and abroad. Perhaps it accounts for the manner in which those officials in the Obama administration approached Putin, dismissing him to a degree as something akin to a potentate, a footnote in their dealing with a Russia that was a shadow of its former self during the Soviet era in nearly every respect. There is a popular saying among many in the younger generation that “to compete, one must compare.” Officials in the Obama administration saw no comparison between the power Russia had maintained following the Soviet Union’s collapse, and the US which was at the time, and remains, the preeminent power in the world. Putin would likely posit that Washington has done more than enough since the Obama administration to push him to act as he has.

It remains a trend to look at Putin superficially. Interestingly, it allows everyone to have an equal shot at analyzing him and his moves. To that extent, time is spent, near idly, discussing how bad a person he is. (One very senior US official referred to Putin as “a killer” In May 2021.) At the core of even such unremarkable analyses must be something about the whole authentic enough to give it true weight. Yet, aspects of such analyses are often not quite logical. It is fascinating to see how simple facts may go some way to explain what might be recognized at best as a charitable position. As seasoned analysts would tell, if that product is simulated, conclusions that result from it will be inauthentic. What is left to examine amounts to a mere perception of what is going on in Putin’s mind and in his camp as compared to the hard facts. Using conclusions that result from such analyses will never allow policymakers and other senior officials to approach him in the right way. Even logical opinions are not the equivalent of fact. Truth is not an opinion. In the defense of some analysts, adhering to such a limited, official approach to Putin could hardly be described as neglectful. Perhaps considerations outside of what is generally accepted are avoided in fear of being castigated for devoting time and effort to trivialities. There must be something stronger that lends an understanding of his state of mind

Another problem arises when such views, despite all that is wrong about them, are adopted unconsciously by senior policy officials or worm their way into analyses, and even worse, as a possible result of that contamination, more apposite aspects may fail to receive sufficient or any treatment. It is hardly deliberate. They may appear as trifles, made imperceptible by the fact that they are notions, too commonplace in the mind to raise concern. Nonetheless, they are damaging much as the microscopic virus that can fell a world class athlete.

The West’s position on Putin as it stands today is that Putin has a mind to have Russia serve as the follow-on to the Soviet Union and claim its status and glory as a power. The enterprise has faced some rough patches over the years, but has progressed nonetheless. Putin’s actions in countries formerly aligned with the Soviet Union or were under its influence decades ago have been his targets and he has managed to get the attention and response from the West led by the US, the adversary of the erstwhile Soviet Union. It sounds bad enough for his neighbors, the West, and all others interested in maintaining stability and security in their countries, regions, and the world. Yet, in taking that tack, he has to an extent guaranteed Russia would remain stuck, limited to being a only simulacrum of the Soviet Union, a shadow of the past. Granted, Russia may be seen as possessing formidable military forces, with new weapons developments and declarations of the intention to defend its territory and its interests, but not a country that was advancing politically, economically, or socially, seeking to elevate to something better. Not to offend, but perhaps that was the best he could ever expect from his people.

Putin (right) and US President Bill Clinton (left) at the G8 Summit in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan, in July 2000. When Putin became Russian Federation President, he took the seat created for Yeltsin at the G8. Perhaps the other G8 leaders felt that it was important to keep Russia in the G8 for the same reasons it was brought in but also hoped that keeping Putin in their circle might stir and help sustain a great desire within him to make Russia a country “like to one more rich in hope.” Other national leaders of the G8 may have thought that Putin would passively acquire an appreciation of their world, imagine the potential of a rejuvenated Russia fitting into their world, and acquire similarities with them. However, their eyes appear to have been closed to what was happening with Putin and Russia and why the move was nearly doomed to fail to ameliorate East-West tension in the long run due to his personality, no offense intended.

Missteps in Responding to Putin Somewhat Downplayed

The formal inclusion of the new Russian Federation in the high realms of international politics following the collapse of the Soviet Union was nobly attempted. A seat in the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council was inherited from the erstwhile Communist state. As important, Russia began to engage in separate meetings with leaders of the intergovernmental group of the leading economic powers, the G7, in 1994 while Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin was in office. Russia formally joined the group in 1997 at the invitation of US President Bill Clinton and United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair. This noble step was ostensibly taken in the name of international peace and security. Surely, inviting Russia to join the G7 was more than a friendly gesture and a fresh start. Membership would plug Russia into the international order, forestalling any burgeoning sense that if left isolated, control in Moscow might fall fully into the hands of organized crime groups, and so would Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Russia membership would more importantly plug the G7 countries vis-à-versa into Moscow in a structured way, creating an effective, stable line of communication and political and economic influence.

When Putin became Russian Federation President, he took the seat created for Yeltsin at the G8. Perhaps the other G8 leaders felt that it was important to keep Russia in the G8 for the same reasons it was brought in but also hoped that keeping Putin in their circle might stir and help sustain a great desire within him to make Russia a country “like to one more rich in hope.” Other national leaders of what became the G8 may have thought that Putin would passively acquire an appreciation of their world, imagine the potential of a rejuvenated Russia fitting into their world, and acquire similarities with them. However, their eyes appear to have been closed to what was happening with Putin and Russia and why the move was nearly doomed to fail to ameliorate East-West tension in the long run due to his personality, no offense intended.

At the G8, national leaders would come to the big table committed to having a positive impact in not only economic affairs, but world affairs in general. The existing seven members–the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Germany, France and Italy, plus the EU–were bound by shared values as open, democratic and outward-looking societies. Russia was not a country completely devoid of desirable things, Russia possessed natural resources, particularly oil and gas which the energy industries of the other powers coveted. Certainly, Russia retained the power to destroy with its nuclear arsenal and the residue of the once powerful Soviet military. However, Russia was hardly developed enough to participate in that way as a member. 

As for Putin, he had not as yet grabbed all reins of power firmly in Russia, much as he tightly grips them today. It is not inconceivable that his political qualities were not fully scrutinized by any member state. However, more pertinently, Putin was unlikely ready to manage Russia’s stake at the G8 when first began participating in leaders’ summits. Looking into Putin’s inner-being, it is possible that Putin, while in his own way appreciating the status G8 membership bestowed Russia and him, felt well-out of his comfort zone and despite his ego, felt that the manner in which Russia acquired G8 membership was counterfeit. For Putin to be satisfied at that time, Russia would need to possess membership on his terms, legitimate terms. Within G8 meetings, Putin presented himself with grace and charm befitting his position. If Putin ever got the idea then that Western leaders enjoyed observing him outside of his comfort zone or disrespected him in any way, he would unlikely be able to hide his anger in his countenance and dwell on lashing out in some big way. Perchance at some point Putin might have imagined that the other technologically advanced countries used G8 meetings as a stage to lampoon Russia. He would be seated before them as they flaunted their economic power and progress while giving the impression in occasional off-handed comments and perhaps in unconscious condescending behavior toward him, that they imagine everything about Russia being tawdry and slipshod, particularly its goods and services, and would describe its industrial centers resembling a carnival the day after the night before. Perhaps such thinking could be said to have some validity given that such was essentially the case in early post-Soviet Russia. Putin had already brought to the table a sense within himself that Russia remained vulnerable to Western plans and intentions. That sensibility seemed to stick regardless of all else good that came his way through the G8. The G8 experience overall may have left a bad taste in his mouth. It is likely other group leaders may not have imagined that would be the outcome.

As a result of Euromaidan, power changed hands in Ukraine, and a series of measures that enhanced Western influence were taken. Putin responded robustly. The escalation of a struggle between ethnic Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk with the fledgling democratic Ukrainian government was followed by the greater step of Russia’s seizing and annexing Crimea. Crimea, at time was the sovereign territory of Ukraine, and most national capitals say it still is. Putin’s actions resulted in Russia being placed back into what was supposed to be isolation; it was put out of the G8 and hit with many punitive economic measures. Both Putin and Russia have seemingly survived it all. Although Russia was suspended from the G8–once again the G7, Russia delayed announcing a decision to permanently withdraw from the group until 2017.

Further reflecting his hot and cold impressions about the other industrial powers, although Russia was suspended from the G8, Russia delayed announcing a decision to permanently withdraw from the G8 until 2017. Surely, Putin had great concerns over the perceptions in Russia and around the world of the decision of the G7 countries. Putin appears to have had a morbid fear that the G7 countries were exercising power over Russia and himself. That would not do. By waiting, Putin retained control of that situation by choosing when Russia would depart and then exist in the substitute reality that his country had not been pushed out of the organization and marginalized. As far as he was concerned, Russia was still a member of the club of the most powerful countries. Despite everything, that recognition remained an aspiration of his. It is an apparent odd duality. Satisfying Putin’s desire for Russia to possess the ability to discuss world problems with the leaders of the most influential countries, was Russia’s continued membership in the G20–the Group of 20, in essence a group of finance ministers and central bank governors from 19 of the world’s largest economies, including those of many developing nations, along with the EU. While the G7 existed for the top-tier industrialized countries, the G20, formed in 1999, provided a forum for the discussion of international financial matters that included those emerging economies which at the time began to represent a larger part of the global economy. The G20’s aim is to promote global economic growth, international trade, and regulation of financial markets. As of 2021 there are 20 members in the group to include Putin’s erstwhile G8 partners, the US, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, and the EU, and also Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Turkey and his Russia. To all appearances, as a G20 member, Russia plausibly retains authority in world governance. 

Una idea perplexina. (The idea is strange to us.) Intriguingly,  Putin did not attend the G20 summit in Rome in October 2021, informing the organization that his decision was due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. Not to take precaution in these times would be short-sighted, but for Putin to abstain from physically attending a G20 leaders summit could indicate that the organization, for at least that moment, may have less meaning for him. Putin participated in the summit in Rome via videolink, but the optics were hardly favorable. Reportedly, Putin coughed quite a bit during the meeting creating questions in the minds of others about his condition. That seemed unusual for a man who exudes strength and robustness. (Hopefully, Putin was not feeling any real discomfort.) It was a small matter, a trifle, but perhaps it will later be discovered that it was small in the way that small movements of a needle would indicate an earthquake on a seismograph.

One must add to this story the influence of the destructive impact of the West on the Russian economy and the country’s efforts to “build back better” immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union on Putin’s thinking. As discussed in the June 18, 2019 greatcharlie post entitled, “Why Putin Laments the Soviet Union’s Demise and His Renewed “Struggle” with the US: A Response to an Inquiry from Students,” Putin would doubtlessly explain that under Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. Putin, while ascending to the top in the new Russian Federation, saw how mesmerizing “reforms” recommended to Yeltsin’s government by Western experts unmistakably negatively impacted Russia’s economy in a way referred to somewhat euphemistically by those experts as “shock treatment.” Yeltsin was unaware that Western experts were essentially “experimenting” with approaches to Russia’s economic problems. His rationale for opening Russia up to the resulting painful consequences was not only to fix Russia’s problems but ostensibly to establish comity with the West. The deleterious effects of reform recommended by Western experts’ could be seen not only economically, but socially.  In another statement made while he was acting President in 1999, Putin diplomatically explained the consequences of relying upon foreign experts for assistance. He stated: “The experience of the 90s demonstrates vividly that merely experimenting with abstract models and schemes taken from foreign textbooks cannot assure that our country will achieve genuine renewal without any excessive costs. The mechanical copying of other nations’ experience will not guarantee success, either.” Once fully ensconced as Russia’s leader, he would publicly state that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. He also brought that sensibility to the G7 table with him. 

One might go as far as to say apparently none of the negative perspectives, memories that Putin held regarding the West were revealed. He concealed them with sangfroid and equanimity. Yet, he likely thought of them by day and nursed them by night. Inclusion was not enough to stem those feelings or his responses to Western moves albeit in Russia’s direction. Once power changed hands in Ukraine, and a series of measures that enhanced US influence were taken, Putin responded robustly. The promotion of a struggle between ethnic Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk with the fledgling democratic Ukrainian government was followed by the greater step of Russia’s seizing and annexing Crimea, then the sovereign territory of Ukraine. His actions resulted in Russia being placed back into what was supposed to be isolation; it was put out of the G8–now once again the G7–and hit with many punitive economic measures. Both Putin and Russia have seemingly survived it all.

Putin (left) United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron (center) and US President Barack Obama (right) at the G8 Summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland in June 2013. Putin was unlikely ready to manage Russia’s stake at the G8 when first began participating in leaders’ summits. Looking into Putin’s inner-being, it is possible that Putin, though appreciating the status G8 membership bestowed Russia and him, he likely felt well-out of his comfort zone and despite his ego, felt somewhere inside that the manner in which Russia acquired G8 membership was counterfeit. Perchance Putin could imagine that the other technologically advanced countries used G8 meetings as a stage, and he would be seated before them as they flaunted their economic power and progress while giving the impression in occasional off-handed comments and perhaps unconscious condescending behavior toward him, He already brought to the table a sense within himself that Russia remained vulnerable to Western plans and intentions. The whole G8 experience may have left a bad taste in his mouth.

Putin from a Different Lens

What one might gather from this part of the story is that more than anxiety and dissatisfaction with US policies and moves, there is apparently a real sense of vulnerability in Putin toward the US and its allies. It has been a subtle and profound undercurrent in his decisionmaking and approaches toward them. Often, that sense of vulnerability has been exacerbated by efforts from Washington to make diplomatic inroads with countries Putin seems to feel belong to Russia. Note how every step taken eastward by the US in Europe, as innocuous as each may have appeared to Washington’s eyes, has led to hyper-vigilance–for example, increased intelligence and surveillance activity and aerial and naval incursions in the territory of NATO Members–and military action by Moscow. Though it has been listened to with skeptical ears in the West, Putin has said that US moves evoke his actions.

In a December 21, 2021 Washington Post opinion piece entitled, “Putin Wants Us To Negotiate over the Heads of Our Allies. Washington Shouldn’t Fall for It”, the former US Ambassador to the Russian Federation Michael McFaul lists what he identifies as Russian actions and policies undermining European security. McFaul included the following on that list: Russia well-maintains troops and weapons from the territory of the Republic of Moldova; Russia has recognized the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries; Russia caotured and annexed Crimea and well-supports the separatist movements in eastern Ukraine; Russia has deployed SS-26 Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad and maintains them in other deployment locations; Russia has placed tactical nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad; Russia has engaged in assassination operations, such as those conducted in the European cities of London, Moscow, Salisbury, Berlin and Tomsk; and, Russia has aided remaining European dictators who kill and arrest Europeans exercising freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. One can only imagine Putin’s inner-dialogue as he took each step.

Cast one’s mind back to Putin’s greatest expression of vulnerability in March 18, 2014 speech declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He vented his anger at the US and EU, enumerating some Western actions that fostered contempt in Moscow. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice and false philanthropy of Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple their country; the expansion of NATO to include members of the Soviet Union’s own alliance, the Warsaw Pact; the erroneous Russian decision to agree to the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which he referred to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally. Conceivably, the aggregate of US moves eastward in Europe over time have truly rattled Putin and could potentially push him over the edge. That must always be considered. If the actual intention is to irritate Putin, then there will be no firm peace ever reached while he runs Russia.

Putin (above) in an office in the Senate Building at the Kremlin. In state-to-state talks between the US and Russia concerning Ukraine a structure has been established in which talks are held in rank order. Biden communicates with Putin, and Blinken communicates with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. On both sides, the possibility exists that a set of reactions and responses to the positions and personas have already been formed. It would only be human to color anything truly novel added to the dialogue with considerations of what had already been said. Accordingly, it might be useful to enlist an envoy who could deliver the message that will end Putin’s sense of vulnerability and give immediate legitimacy to a call for multi-party negotiations for a comprehensive agreement on European security. That individual would need to have considerable standing with Putin to deliver that message.

What Might Be Done Regarding Putin To End This Crisis?

More than once has Putin associated himself with the ideas of “West German” Parliamentarian Egon Bahr on East-West competition. Discussing NATO in an interview published on January 11, 2016 in Bild, Putin provided insight into his thinking then and now. During the interview, Putin quoted Bahr who stated in 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” Putin then quoted what he considered an edifying suggestion from Bahr on how to avert a future problem in Europe. According to Putin, Bahr proffered: “the USA, the then Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structure.” Putin claimed that the former NATO Secretary General Manfred Worner had guaranteed NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin perceives the US and its allies as having broken their promises to avoid expanding further eastward, and doing only what is best for their own interest in the name of all countries. Putin told his interviewer: “NATO and the USA wanted a complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone. But they are sitting there, and we are talking about all these crises we would otherwise not have.”

Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat inchoare longam. (Life’s short span forbids us to enter on far reaching hopes.) Whatever it is that Putin wants to achieve, he must move faster than time wastes life. Time is not on Putin’s side. National leaders and political figures in power now in the capital of those countries of the former Eastern bloc which Putin so dearly covets to develop Russian influence are individuals of the last generation that even briefly lived while the Soviet Union had considerable influence, sway in their countries. Coming generations will only know the Soviet Union from history books. They will unlikely as a pattern, by inertia, due to insouciance  simply seek as their predecessors seek to connect with Moscow. The benefits of connection to the West will be well understood by them. Relatives who in the past decades who immigrated West would likely have some influence on their understanding of those benefits. Russia simply will not compare, offer anything they would desperately want to invest in their future. Russia itself represents the past, and how bad things were, something no one should reasonably want to be like or be part of.

As greatcharlie ruminated on in its January 18, 2018 post entitled, “Trump Wants Good Relations with Russia, But if New Options on Ukraine Develop, He May Use One,” Putin very likely has considered what Russia would be like after he, as one might presume he accepts, is “called to heaven” or perhaps elsewhere, goodness knows. It would seem that now while on Earth, he is on course regarding Ukraine to saddle future generations of Russians with a country or parts of it that are still economically, socially, and politically challenged that they will need to care for, to pay for. Future generations may not appreciate that. In Donetsk and Luhansk, future generations might abandon their homelands for “the other Ukraine” or points further West. They would unlikely pour into Russia for employment, a “better life.” In the future, a Russian leader might very well try to reverse whatever Putin seems to be attempting in Ukraine due to financial strains caused, or–not to be offensive–out of decency. Taking on Donetsk and Luhansk might very well be viewed in the future as a grave miscalculation, another step toward sealing Russia’s fate as a second tier superpower. It is greatcharlie’s assessment that future generations of Russians will not want to hold on to Ukraine as leaders of Putin’s generation, with an idea to reestablish Russia to resemble the Soviet Union. This reality may have value in negotiations with Putin. 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) meeting at Hotel Wilson in Geneva, Switzerland. January 21, 2022. For their next diplomatic step with Moscow, US policymakers, decisionmakers and negotiators must find a way for the two sides to work together in similar positive ways to create an outcome in which they both have a mutual and balanced influence on the situation. For instance, perhaps ways in which Ukraine could be helped along the way by both the West and Russia in tandem through an agreement that would also promote the maintenance of good neighborly relations and support the establishment of strong, positive relationships overseas without anyone being irritated. Washington and Moscow could engage in an exploratory dialogue during which suggestions could be sought on how the two sides could get from where they are to where they want to be.

A Possible Way Ahead in Diplomacy

For their next diplomatic step with Moscow, US policymakers, decisionmakers and negotiators must find a way for the two sides to work together in similar positive ways to create an outcome in which they both have a mutual and balanced influence on the situation. For instance, perhaps ways in which Ukraine could be helped along the way by both the West and Russia in tandem through an agreement that would also promote the maintenance of good neighborly relations and support the establishment of strong, positive relationships overseas without anyone being irritated. Engaging in what in essence would be an exploratory dialogue, transparent and frank, between Washington and Moscow on such matters would be the first step. In that dialogue, suggestions could also be sought from Moscow on how the two sides could get from where they are to where they want to be. If the US and Russia can cooperate on matters concerning the International Space Station, surely they can cooperate on an Earthly matter as Ukraine. N’est-ce pas vrai?

In theory, enough compromise might result from the collective talks to result in an agreement that would satisfy hopes and mitigate fears on all sides. Perhaps it would become the paradigm for peace in Europe that would remain until that time a new generation of Russia leadership that would share the values of other open, democratic and outward-looking societies. After the agreement is reached, Putin would need to feel freer and be able to stand upright. The US and its allies, the EU, NATO, the OSCE, the UN, and especially Ukraine would be on a long list of those who would need to be satisfied with the plan for negotiating with Russia and the resultant argument. Creating consensus and acquiring agreement across the board on everything negotiated with Russia will take time but that course must be taken. Besides, if one is to believe Putin, and accept that he has no plans to invade Ukraine, then there is no real need to rush.

In state-to-state talks between the US and Russia concerning Ukraine a structure has been established in which talks are held in rank order. Biden communicates with Putin, and Blinken communicates with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. On both sides, it is possible that a set of reactions and responses to the positions and personas have already been formed. It would only be human to color anything truly novel added to the dialogue with considerations of what had already been said. Accordingly, it might be useful to enlist an envoy who could deliver the message that will end Putin’s sense of vulnerability and give immediate legitimacy to a call for multi-party negotiations for a comprehensive agreement on European security. That individual would need to have considerable standing with Putin to deliver that message. It could be a former US President, German Chancellor, or European President or Prime Minister that Putin seemed to favor. Perhaps a small multinational delegation of doyens rather than a single doyen could meet with Putin. He may appreciate that. The immediate task of whoever meets Putin would be agreement to cease actions threatening Ukraine and publicly making demands for that would require its government to surrender self-determination and freedom to associate with other countries as Kyiv saw fit. The appropriate alternative suggested would be to discuss all issues. Putin would need to be convinced that everything Moscow, he, might deem pertinent could be hashed out at the suggested multi-party talks. The theme of the conversation would essentially be “Let us do everything the right way this time.” Again, Putin may appreciate that.

As for any agreement reached through multi-party talks, if Putin accepts that approach to diplomacy, more than simple guarantees must be insisted upon. Apparently, Lavrov presented a rather one-sided draft treaty to Blinken when they met in Geneva on January 21, 2022. That will not do. It was a rather incommesurate and hasty approach to the situation given its enormity. The effort to maintain Ukraine’s security, Russia’s security, Europe’s security must not only be comprehensive, it must be a dynamic process. Not to get into too much detail,, but as a comprehensive agreement, a new agreement would supersede the existing Minsk Agreement, although its terms could be referenced. Reasonably, terms of a new agreement could be built upon terms of the Minsk Agreement when directly related. Of course, the decision on that, as with everything else, is completely in the hands of the negotiating parties. All issues concerning Crimea and existing sanctions could be disassociated from these talks. Those talks could continue in their current venue. Again, the choice there is completely in the hands of the negotiating parties.

The negotiation process might require parties to take some the following steps, among many others: construct detailed plans of action on every key area as mutually recognized, each issue of contention, must be formulated to ensure greater clarity not confusion; create a security zone could be created within which zero tolerance of isolation of the agreement would be established; create firm timetables for actions as reducing the number of destabilizing forces near border; create a security zone could be created within which zero tolerance of isolation of the agreement would be established; create firm timetables for the suspension for refraining from existing actions such as military exercises; reduce the scope and scale of military exercises near the Russia-Ukraine border despite perceptions of whether they are threatening or benign; establish liaison offices in the security zone on both sides of the Ukrainian-Russian border could be created staffed by Russian and Ukrainian officers and military advisers if desired by either party; organize limited but comprehensive aerial surveillance over the security zone would be organized and appropriately scheduled; establish multiple military and diplomatic committees each with responsibilities in key areas of the agreement and respectively staffed with appropriate expertise and authority could be created to review plans for action in key established under the main agreement or hash out nagging issues could possibly exist; organize and schedule direct Ukraine-Russia talks, in a multiparty forum, at the ministerial level and deputies just below to include NATO Members and non-NATO Members in European countries neighboring Ukraine can be created.

It would be crucial to eliminate all ambiguities at the negotiating table through multilayered agreements if necessary as the process moves along. Pull all loose threads detected at the negotiating table may include using scenarios and hypotheticals. Whether a negotiating path as suggested will create stability in Europe right away, greatly improve Ukraine’s security and remove Russia’s fears, perhaps even through some very creative steps, remains to be seen. Nil sine magno vita labore dedit mortalibus. (Life grants nothing to us mortals without hard work.)

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky (center) visiting his country’s eastern frontline in December 2021 (center). On January 9, 2022, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed the view on CNN that in the end, despite the vigorous efforts of the to correct the situation, this matter is mainly Kyiv’s problem and the Ukrainians have a Russian “gun to their head.” Viewing the crisis in that way makes it something akin to Ukraine’s “Reichenbach Falls”, the moment where Arthur Conan Doyle’s great fictional detective character, Sherlock Holmes was confronted by his archrival Professor James Moriarty after repeatedly disrupting his criminal schemes. As the story initially went, Holmes met his end in combat with him. It was revealed in subsequent installments of the series appearing in the Strand Magazine that Holmes survived the fight, his resurrection being demanded of Doyle by the magazine’s editors to satisfy their readership. One might hope fate will allow Ukraine to survive this crisis intact, yet there is nothing fictional about this situation.

The Way Forward

Non enim parum cognosse, sed in parum cognito stulte et diu perseverasse turpe est, propterea quod alterum communi hominum infirmitati alterum singulari cuiusque vitio est attributum. (For it is not having insufficient knowledge, but persisting a long time in insufficient knowledge that is shameful; since the one is assumed to be a disease common to all, but the other is assumed to be a flaw to an individual.) Putin does not seek to make Russia first in Europe nor match the power and position of the US in the world. Russia lacks the wherewithal, the resources,, and a lot of other things required to accomplish such objectives. However, Putin does want to control what he claims to be in Russia’s “near abroad”: the former Soviet republics on its border. As the US and its European allies become more engaged with them, it becomes less likely that he will be able to accomplish that goal either. If the US and its allies were not enough trouble for Putin, his “friends” in Beijing have been knocking on the doors of those near abroad governments, making enticing, huge offers, which Moscow cannot match, to invest in their economies and support industrial and infrastructure development as a way to enhance ties–albeit perhaps not always in a legitimate way. Unfortunately for Putin, he was unable to shape Russia’s position in the world positively over the past two decades, by transforming the country to be a contributing member as an advanced industrialized, economic power, and present Russia as anything close to an alternative as a partner to its neighbors. Russia remained a country from which villainy of some sort was expected more than anything else. Unable to sway the capitals of bordering former Soviet republics to Russia’s camp, it would seem he made the decision a while back to use brute force. US decision-makers should not simply expect Putin to get a hold of himself, and get a grip concerning the use of greater military force in Ukraine. He already moved on Crimea, so for many, no points could be argued that would convince them that he would not do more. The capture of Crimea may have actually been only the first phase in a plan of far greater conception concerning Ukraine.

Washington wants to avoid a conflict in Ukraine. For Washington, success in resolving the Ukraine crisis would likely mean crafting a sustainable agreement with Russia, within acceptable parameters of US values and interests, and that is the rub. Some national leaders in Europe might go as far as to say aggression simply resides in Putin and it is too late for any worthwhile diplomacy with him. They may need to overcome an anxiety over the history of Russian behavior before altering their thinking on that. Still, at the same time, no responsible party involved in this matter wants war. Given how Putin thinks, more than aggression and dissatisfaction with US policies and moves inform his actions. A real sense of vulnerability in Putin toward the US and its allies has been a subtle and profound undercurrent in his decisionmaking and approaches toward them. That sense of vulnerability is intensified by Washington’s efforts to make diplomatic inroads with countries Putin seems to feel belong to Russia. Putin has actually said that US moves evoke his actions, which thereby are actually reactions. That is hardly something he, or any military commander, would want to admit or to accept.

As suggested here, US policymakers, decisionmakers and negotiators must find a way for the two sides to work together in similar positive ways to create an outcome in which they both have a mutual and balanced influence on the situation. For instance, perhaps ways in which Ukraine could be helped along the way by both the West and Russia in tandem through an agreement that would also promote the maintenance of good neighborly relations and support the establishment of strong, positive relationships overseas without anyone being irritated. Some, despite everything presented here, albeit in brief, might contend that there is little obvious room for compromise from either side. However, the referee has not yet blown the whistle for full-time. It has always been greatcharlie’s contention that smart people are usually able with the appropriate amount of effort to find answers to problems. A posse ad esse. (From possibility to actuality.)

Commentary: Will the Real Dong Jingwei Please Stand Up?: Comparing Features of Popular Images of China’s MSS Vice Minister

People’s Republic of China Vice Minister for counterintelligence of the Ministry of State Security Dong Jingwei (far right), and People Republic of China Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi (center), were among five Chinese officials attending the 16th Meeting of the Security Council Secretaries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Member States on June 23, 2021. On June 23, 2021, officials of the People’s Republic of China Embassy in Washington presented this photograph of Dong’s very public appearance at the Shanghai meeting as proof that he is in China despite rumors that he had defected to the US four months before. The point at issue is whether the photograph presents the real Dong.

In June 2021, rumors had taken flight concerning the alleged defection of Dong Jingwei, the People’s Republic of China Vice Minister for counterintelligence of Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó Guójiā Ānquán Bù (Ministry for State Security of the People’s Republic of China) or the MSS–China’s relative equivalent to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Dong was alleged to have defected in mid-February, flying from Hong Kong to the US with his daughter, Dong Yang. After arriving safely into US hands, Dong allegedly provided government officials with information about the Wuhan Institute of Virology that purportedly impacted the position of the administration of US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, by late June 2021, US officials began reaching out to the news anonymously to say reports of Dong’s defection were not true. and hinting that he remained in China. The mainstream news magazine Newsweek reported on June 22, 2021 that it was informed by a US government official that reports about Dong’s defection “are not accurate,” without elaborating. A second US government source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the rumors were “absolutely untrue.” Although reticent about the rumors for the longest time, on June 23, 2021, officials of the People’s Republic of China Embassy in Washington informed that Dong made a recent public appearance despite claims that he had defected to the US four months before. Curiously, the photograph has not been widely accepted as incontrovertible proof of Dong’s identity, that he still resides in China, or that he did not defect among many independent China-watchers.

Before the controversy of the rumored defection, one would have had great difficulty finding Dong Jingwei’s name anywhere it might even be expected. Two resources for such information that greatcharlie’s will reach for first are: Peter Mattis and Matthew Brazil, Chinese Communist Espionage: An Intelligence Primer (United States Naval Institute Press, 2019), and I. C. Smith and Nigel West, Historical Dictionary of Chinese Intelligence (Historical Dictionaries of Intelligence and Counterintelligence) (Scarecrow, 2012). Following the blow-up of the defection story, numerous articles online have appeared and online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia and Britannica, have developed enough information to provide decent–though some were not so verifiable–biographies of him. As was noted in greatcharlie’s June 30, 2021 post entitled The Defection That Never Was: Meditations on the Dong Jingwei Defection Hoax,” never before has Dong’s name, or any other senior MSS counterintelligence official’s name, been bandied about in the US or global newsmedia in the manner it has been lately.

What would imaginably now be a greater issue for inquiring minds than Dong’s biography, is the matter of his actual image, how he actually looks. A number of photographs of him have cropped up along with the many new articles, but two particular images of Dong have been very popular. As the two images have far more similar features than dissimilar, one could very easily understand how it might present a challenge for many to distinguish between their facial features of the individuals in the photographs. Yet, both photographs, in reality, display enough distinct aspects to allow one to discern fairly significant differences between them. If they are photographs of two different men, one may actually be Dong. Here, greatcharlie gives making comparisons between the two images of Dong the old college try.

The June 16, 2021 tweet from the US based, Chinese pro-democracy activist, Han Lianchao. In the now famous tweet, Han stated he heard a rumor from an associate that Dong Jingwei had defected to the US. Han’s tweet was picked up the next day by SpyTalk, an online news site offering reports on national security topics, with an emphasis on US intelligence operations. SpyTalk’s analysis was then widely reported and discussed mainly by conservative newsmedia outlets, and gradually reported by some in the mainstream newsmedia. Along with Han’s commentary was the popularized photograph allegedly of Dong Jingwei.

The first image mentioned above was made available widely via Twitter on June 16, 2021 as a result of being in a photograph attached to a tweet by the US based, Chinese pro-democracy activist, Han Lianchao. In the now famous tweet, Han stated he heard a rumor from an associate that Dong had defected to the US. Han’s tweet was picked up the next day by SpyTalk, an online news site offering reports on national security topics, with an emphasis on US intelligence operations. SpyTalk’s analysis was then widely reported and discussed mainly by conservative newsmedia outlets, and gradually reported by some in the mainstream newsmedia.

The second fairly popular image is included with his biography in Wikipedia. The individual in the Wikipedia photograph appears to be the same individual in the photograph that the Chinese government released of Dong attending the 16th Meeting of the Security Council Secretaries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Member States on June 23, 2021. He is the same individual in a photograph taken when Dong was part of a delegation led by Chen Yixin, Secretary-General of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, to attend the second round of a bilateral high-level security dialogue in Berlin on Sept. 21, 2018. In the photograph, Dong is first from the left. It is alleged to be the earliest publicly available photograph of Dong after he began serving as Vice Minister for counterintelligence in the MSS. Dong took on the position of Vice Minister in April 2018. 

A photograph taken when Dong Jingwei (far left) was part of a delegation led by Chen Yixin, Secretary-General of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, to attend the second round of a bilateral high-level security dialogue in Berlin on Sept. 21, 2018. It is alleged to be the earliest publicly available photograph of Dong serving as Vice Minister for counterintelligence in the MSS. Dong took on the position of Vice Minister in the MSS in April 2018.

Si parva licet componere magnis. (If we may compare small things with great.) By placing the photograph of Dong from greatcharlie’s June 30th post beside the photograph from his biography in Wikipedia, using only the naked eye, one can find clear distinctions in at least seven areas of their respective faces. To allow readers to follow along with comparisons of facial features, the June 30, 2021 greatcharlie post photograph is included here as Figure 1. The Wikipedia photograph is included here as Figure 2. A chart that identifies parts of the human face is included here as Figure 3. Readers should refer to that chart to locate points of the face mentioned in Figures 1 and 2. The seven specific points on the face address include: philtrum; philtral columns; philtral dimple; nasolabial grooves; nasal septum; mentolabial sulcus; and, facial marks.

Figure 1 

Dong Jingwei June 16, 2021 Twitter Photograph

Figure 2 

Dong Jingwei Wikipedia Biography Photograph

Figure 3 

Face Chart

Philtrum

The philtrum on the individual in Figure 1 forms a visually straight canal with the philtral columns formed in straight lines from the nasal septum to the top of the lip. They are somewhat thick on both left and right. The canal of the philtrum appears relatively symmetric in its depth and width to the corresponding height and width of each philtral column. On the individual in Figure 2, the philtral columns appear shorter than those of the individual in Figure 1. They are separated enough to form the philtrum into a wider and somewhat deeper canal than that of the individual in Figure 1. 

Philtral columns

Although they are not marked on the chart in Figure 3–greatcharlie apologizes for that omission, the two columns of the philtrum running from the septum of the nose to the top of the upper lip are called the philtral columns. At the point the philtral columns touch the top of the upper lip–known more precisely as the vermilion border–in Figure 1, two delta shaped points form. Those delta shaped points are not present on the upper lip of the individual in Figure 2. On the individual in Figure 2, the philtral columns contact the upper lip in a way to form a horseshoe or “U” shape. The upper lip, itself–as aforementioned, called the vermillion–forms only moderate curves at the points on which the philtral columns contact it.

Philtral dimple

The philtral dimple, not marked in the chart in Figure 3–again, our apologies–is the gap between the two philtral columns where they contact the upper lip. On the individual in Figure 1, the philtral dimple is pronounced between what are visually two triangle shaped points, both left and right at the base of the philtral columns. On the individual in Figure 2, the philtral dimple is a far less pronounced facial feature.

Nasolabial grooves

The nasolabial grooves on the individual in Figure 1 are very pronounced both right and left. They begin at a point above the wings of the nose appearing to make contact with the dorsum of the nose. The nasolabial grooves on the individual do not contact the wings of the nose. They stretch in near straight lines down and to the left and down and to the right, reaching just outside the edge of the angles of the mouth. The nasolabial grooves on the individual in Figure 2 are not as long as that of the individual in Figure 1. They curve inward and contact the top of the wings of the nose of the individual. Although the nasolabial grooves are not as pronounced on the individual in Figure 2 as those of the individual in Figure 1, where they become more apparent is closer to the wings of the nose. They are somewhat deeper and the skin around them appears thicker than that for Figure 1.

Nasal septum

The nasal septum at the point where it contacts the philtrum on the individual in Figure 1 is thin. The point at which the nasal septum contacts the philtrum On the individual in Figure 2 is somewhat thick. The nasal septum also appears shorter to some degree. The individual in Figure 1 appears clean shaven beneath the nasal septum and over the philtrum to the upper lip. The individual in Figure 2, in all photos available publicly, maintains very slight hair growth, perhaps a deliberate, modest “designer stubble,” beneath the nasal septum, covering the philtrum down to the top of the upper lip and across to the angles of the mouth.

Mentolabial sulcus

On the individual in Figure 1, the mentolabial sulcus, the line or furrow formed between the base of the lower lip and the base of the chin, is prominent. There is an apparent blemish–mole, birthmark, scratch, bruise–beneath the mentolabial sulcus along its right edge, at a point just inside “the line.” The mentolabial sulcus on the individual in Figure 2 is barely perceptible. It has a somewhat curved shape. The chin on the individual in Figure 1 appears somewhat “U” shaped. The chin on the individual in Figure 2 appears more “bow” shaped. The length between the base of the lower lip and the base of the chin is shorter on the individual in Figure 2 than on the individual in Figure 1.

Facial marks

On the individual in Figure 1, there is a mole, birthmark, slight injury (scratch or bruise), beneath the mentolabial sulcus, beneath and just inside the right edge of it, not making contact with the line itself. On the individual in Figure 2, there are no similar marks on the face.

Finally, the most obvious difference between the two men is that one in Figure 1 wears eyeglasses. The individual in Figure 2 does not wear eyeglasses. It is possible, however, that the individual in Figure 2 does wear eyeglasses, but simply removes them when taking photographs.

Additional Observations Concerning Photographs

Signs of Aging

Eheu fugaces labuntur anni. (Alas, the fleeting years slip by.) What might be perceived beyond the physical about how two individuals in the photographs projected themselves at the moment their pictures were taken is that they are respectively professional, intelligent, well-minded, well-dressed, well-groomed, Chinese officials. However, from what information is publicly known, and what one may accept as true about Dong is that he is currently 57 years old, reportedly being born on November 18, 1963, one can attempt to correctly perceive aspects of his physical condition, too! To that extent, one might consider how age might impact the appearance of the real Dong.

There are many who really do not begin showing signs of aging until a bit later than 57. (By no means does one become “past one’s prime” or “over the hill” after reaching age 57!) Yet, there are some fairly common, and commonly understood, changes in appearance that normally occur. As one ages, the appearance of the face and neck typically changes. Loss of muscle tone and thinning skin can often give the face a flabby or drooping appearance. The skin also tends to dry out and the underlying layer of fat shrinks so that your face no longer has a plump, smooth surface. To some extent, wrinkles cannot be avoided. If readers would look back at the two photographs of individuals both identified as Dong in Figures 1 and 2, they will notice that the individual in Figure 2 has a rather plump, smooth surface. There are no wrinkles or furrows visible on the face. There is considerable muscle tone in the face in all three photos of him presented here, most prominently along the jaw. The individual in Figure 1, exhibits the more dried skin that comes with age. The visage of the individual is strong but there is no pronounced muscle tone. (It must be noted that in another photograph included here below in which the same individual identified as Dong in Figure 1 is seen, slight furrows can be discerned on his forehead.)

Sun exposure and cigarette smoking are likely to make them develop more quickly. However, there is no way for greatcharlie to determine whether the individual in the photograph is a heavy smoker or is regularly exposed to the sun. There is no way available for greatcharlie to determine whether these factors relate to the individual in Figure 1 either.

In another sign of aging, the number and size of dark spots on the face increase as well. It was noted earlier that there is a blemish on the right side of the face of the individual in Figure 1. However, there is no available way for greatcharlie to determine when that individual acquired the blemish. There are no discernible spots on the face of the individual in Figure 2.

With aging, the loss of bone mass in the jaw reduces the size of the lower face and makes your forehead, nose, and mouth more pronounced. The nose may lengthen slightly. In both Figures 1 and 2, there is no indication of the loss of bone mass in the jaw. The noses of the individuals in Figures 1 and 2 do not appear to have suffered ill-effects of age such lengthening. In fact, the skin on both noses appears rather smooth and plump.

A common transformation due to aging is for the fat from the eyelids to settle into the eye sockets. This can create the appearance of sunken eyes. make. The lower eyelids can slacken and bags can develop under your eyes. The weakening of the muscle that supports the upper eyelid can make the eyelids droop. This may limit vision. There is nothing to indicate any of these aspects have impacted the appearance of either individual in Figure 1 or 2. As the individual in Figure 1 wears eyeglasses, any effects on his eyes may have been influenced by them. (It must be noted that in another photograph included here below in which the same individual identified as Dong in Figure 1 is seen, it appears that there is a hint of bags under the eyes detectable through his eyeglass lenses.)

A most apparent sign of aging is gray hair on the scalp, and gray hair on the scalp, and on the eyebrows and eyelashes as well. One the individual in Figure A, there is no ability to determine whether he has gray hair in his eyebrows or eyelashes. Except for the hair above his forehead, one cannot see the hair on his scalp to determine if there is gray hair. (It must be noted that in a photograph included here below in which the same individual identified as Dong in Figure 1 is seen, his hair parted on the left side of scalp, revealing what appears to be gray hair.) The individual in Figure 2, on the other hand, clearly has no gray hair in his scalp, eyelashes, or eyebrows. In fact, as aforementioned, there is slight hair growth on his upper lip. It is decidedly black giving him a very youthful appearance. To that extent, the individual in Figure 2 appears to be younger than the individual in Figure 1, and perhaps younger than 57-years-old.

Countenance of the Face

Duriora genti corpora, stricti artus, minax vultus et major animi vigor. (Hardy frames, close-knit limbs, fierce countenances, and a peculiarly vigorous courage, mark the tribe.) In addition the changes in the face that come with aging, one’s work can be manifested in the countenance, too! As explained in greatcharlie’s June 30, 2021 post, the primary mission of MSS counterintelligence is the infiltration of all the foreign special service operations: intelligence and counterintelligence services, as well as law enforcement organizations worldwide to protect China’s citizens, secrets and technology from foreign spies. Counterintelligence may very well be the greatest manifestation of the paranoia business, but it, as all other elements of the intelligence industry, requires wisdom, reason, and logic to be performed well. If progress through interviews or interrogations of the subject of an investigation indicates that an investigator is on the right track, there will be an attempt to find another door inside to open and pass through in order to get deeper on matters. Such technique is honed and polished over the years. 

John le Carré, the renowned author of espionage novels of the United Kingdom who served in both the Security Service, MI5, and the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, during the 1950s and 1960s, speaks to this point in The Secret Pilgrim (Alfred L. Knopf, 1990) when his main character, George Smiley a senior and well experienced intelligence officer for The Circus–MI6 in nearly every respect, tells a group of probationary intelligence officers in the fictional foreign IntellIgence training school in Sarratt that he was the one who debriefed his arch rival from Moscow Center, the headquarters of foreign intelligence service of the Soviet Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) or KGB.  He was known only by the name, Karla, and was captured in Delhi after escaping the US. Explaining to the trainees in general about the nature of interrogations, Smiley says at times they are “communions between damaged souls.” However, when MSS managers have determined the situation demands rough treatment, imaginably compelled by some exigent circumstance, and when the decision will align with the thinking and plans of the Communist Party of China leadership, surely coercive measures will be employed to include forms of torture. That work surely takes its toll, often manifesting its pull on the countenance of those who have engaged in it. The aphorism is quite appropriate here: “L’habit ne fait pas le moine.” Still, perception might lead the reasonable to choose the individual in the photograph of Figure 1 to someone more apparently carrying such a burden based on appearance, and perhaps a bit of intuition. Ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi. (The face is a picture of the mind as the eyes are its interpreter.)

An image of Dong Jingwei matching that from the June 16, 2021 Twitter photograph (above). If these popular photographs of Dong in Figures 1 and 2 presented here are actually of two different men so be it. This practice may turn out to be of greater use by China’s intelligence services than anyone outside of the country might have imagined. However, there remains the real possibility that both photographs exist to completely deceive observers, and Dong’s true image is not present in either of them. If that is the case then in the possible effort to conceal his identity, Dong has done the thing completely.

Concealing an Intelligence Chief’s Identity: Not an Uncommon Practice

The idea of a director, senior executive, or key operations manager of an intelligence service taking steps to conceal his or her identity would not be unique in the annals of secret intelligence. Turning to a handful of examples, in greatcharlie’s November 13, 2019 post entitled, “Book Review: Markus Wolf, Man without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster (Times Books, 1997),” it was explained that Markus Wolf, chief of the foreign intelligence service Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance), commonly referred to as the HVA of the erstwhile Deutsch Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic) or GDR, lived a life in relative obscurity, brilliantly concealing his presence and the footprint of his organization as both operated against the West. His memoir’s title, Man without a Face, was a direct reference to the fact that at one point, Western intelligence services only had a blurred photograph of Wolf while he attended the Nuremberg Trials from which elements within the CIA managed to identify him in 1959. Unable to collect an up-to-date photograph from which to identify Wolf afterward, for a long-time he was referred to among Western intelligence services as the “man without a face.” As the story goes, only after a GDR defector, Werner Stiller, identified Wolf in a photograph in 1979 for the counterintelligence element of West Germany’s Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (Office for the Protection of the Constitution) or BfV did that change. The photograph of Wolf was captured by Säpo, Sweden’s National Security Service, during a visit he made with his wife to Stockholm in 1978.

At the time Stephen Dorril wrote his authoritative book, MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service (Free Press, 2000), Richard Dearlove, then head of the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service–colloquially known as M16–was virtually unknown. A contemporary photograph was not published in the newsmedia. According to a BBC report, when Stella Rimington in 1992 was named the first female chief of the United Kingdom’s Security Service–known colloquially as MI5–her neighbors finally discovered what she did. Even her children learned of true occupation for the first time. No official photographs accompanied her name at that time. However, later, official photos of her were provided after photographers managed to take what was described as “a very blurry picture of her out shopping.”

Sidelights

If these popular photographs allegedly of Dong in Figures 1 and 2 here are actually of two different men so be it. It may turn out that using decoys may be a practice in greater use by China’s intelligence services than anyone outside of the country might have imagined. Perchance as a result of the Dong defection matter, it has been brought to light to the world all at once. The sense of security the practice may create perhaps brings comfort to those who would otherwise be under the chronic stress caused by adversaries attempts to surveil and monitor their activities by a variety of means. 

There remains the real possibility that both photographs exist to completely deceive observers, and Dong’s true image is not present in either of them. If that is the case, then in the possible effort to conceal his identity, Dong has done the thing completely. The two photographs focused upon here will continue to be published perhaps until another plausible image, or perchance another two or more, of Dong surface at some time and via some source of Beijing’s choosing.

A quote from Arthur Conan Doyle cited in greatcharlie’s June 30th post on Dong’s rumored defection might be worth repeating here. In “Adventure IV. The Boscombe Valley Mystery” of his twelve short stories in Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes published in the Strand Magazine (1891), his main character, Holmes, states: “Circumstantial evidence is a very tricky thing. It may seem to point very straight to one thing, but if you shift your own point of view a little, you may find it pointing in an equally uncompromising manner to something entirely different.”

The Way Forward

Omne ignotum pro magnifico. (Everything unknown seems magnificent.) Without pretension, greatcharlie states that it does not have any information that would allow it to judge which photograph holds Dong’s true image. As promised, greatcharlie has only sought to parse out a few possibilities here. What is presented are simply perceptions based on observations made of less than a handful of photographs. Certainly in China, there are more than a few people in the MSS, MPS, the State Council, and the Communist Party of China who know exactly what Dong looks like and which of the two photographs, if either, depicts him. It may very well be that the causality for the use of mixed images of Dong is based on an effort to increase security. However, just as greatcharlie, a nonpracticioner, “amateur sleuthhound”–as one reader sardonically  referred to the editor–has examined two reported images of Dong in photographs, Expert, professional analysts in US and other allied intelligence services have doubtlessly examined all of the photographs out there that purportedly include Dong using AI and other advanced technologies, and have reached to their own conclusions. Thus, despite any possible efforts to conceal Dong’s identity, they likely have a fair idea of how Dong looks, too!

As greatcharlie has noted in previous posts, in our ordered universe, it is expected that everything will follow its design. Order in the human mind is established by patterns that one can decipher. With the smattering of facts, evidence, and insights available, one can still postulate, and see if a theory formulated on what the whole Dong episode was all about can be confirmed by facts through investigation. It may not always be a tidy process. Wary of the moves Chinese intelligence can make, some might contend the matter of the varied images of Dong may actually be part of some recherché plan to create greater mystery around his identity. Imaginably, it would be viewed as a subplot hanging from a greater MSS disinformation plot to foster a bizarre defection rumor. On the other hand, some might go as far as to assert a more fanciful theory such as the leadership of MSS, in an effort to impress Communist Party of China leaders ahead of, and during, the Centennial of the Communist Party of China the decided to provide a modest demonstration of the organization’s capabilities. Thus,, MSS may have decided to have a little fun with US counterintelligence services by “just messing with them” as the saying goes, making certain that Party’s leaders were in on the joke. The whole matter has certainly had quite a meretricious effect worldwide. Of course, such a move would hardly be a schema, and perhaps the last thing one should expect from MSS. Still, though it may be improbable, it is all the same conceivable. One can be assured that similar overimaginative assessments, judgments concerning the Dong defection episode will continue to be made and published primarily online. Their creation will be driven by the fact that for inquiring minds, the curious, the enthusiasts demand more answers on the matter. In Areopagitica (1644), the great 17th century English poet and intellectual, John Milton, explains: “Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making.”

Food for Thought for US Companies Maintaining Robust Operations in China despite Beijing’s Strained Relations with Washington

The Great Wall of China (above) actually consists of numerous walls built over two millennia across northern China and southern Mongolia. The most extensive version of the wall dates from the Ming dynasty. Despite the Great Wall’s construction, China has always been relatively open to contact and trade with foreigners. The Communist Party of China would explain that due to such openness, in more recent times, China was the victim of Western “imperialist,” “capitalist” countries that reaped huge benefits from it. Many foreign companies currently operate in China, but their host, quite different from the past, is a world power. The Communist Party calls China’s success the vindication of an ancient civilization after a ‘century of humiliation.” China desires to take the title of the dominant power in the world and in its quest has created a challenging situation with the US. US companies in China must closely watch how US-China relations “progress,” and well-consider what prospective outcomes could mean for them.

Many in the US government’s foreign and national security policy bureaucracies and the US Congress with the responsibility to monitor what China is doing apparently do not want to tell too much about its actions and intentions and what its intelligence services are doing against the US, possibly for fear of metaphorically frightening the horses,  the US public. The Communist Party of China has at least demonstrated to itself that it had all the cleverness to outwit, outmaneuver, and surpass some preceding US administrations in its quest to establish the People’s Republic as the world’s dominant power. China’s accomplishments in that direction are now recognized by many policy experts as being far more significant than once realized. Relatively recent, popular books on US-China relations cut to the foundation of that which was perhaps previously satisfying and assuring in US policy circles about Beijing’s actions and intentions. While is far from exhaustive, among list of such books that greatcharlie has read or reread on the matter are: Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (Henry Holt and Company, 2015); Steven Mosher, Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order (Regnery Publishing, 2017); Robert Spalding, Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept (Portfolio, 2019); and, Bill Gertz, Deceiving the Sky: Inside Communist China’s Drive for Global Supremacy (Encounter Books, 2019). Those with a keen interest in what has popularly been called “The China Threat” surely possess copies of one or more of these texts and likely have frequently made a long arm for copies in their libraries for reference. Though recognizing their popularity, greatcharlie would not dare hint at some rank or order of them for it would only open the door to judgments of its choices which is beside the matter. For its April 30, 2021 post, greatcharlie reviewed Gertz’s Deceiving the Sky. Of course, a treasure trove of excellent, recent academic books on US-China relations have been presented by university press and think tank publishers, which includes a few greatcharlie has appreciated and recommends: Michael E. O’Hanlon and James Steinberg, A Glass Half Full?: Rebalance, Reassurance, and Resolve in the U.S.-China Strategic Relationship (Brookings Institution Press, 2017); Elizabeth Economy, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the Chinese State (Oxford University Press, 2018); Clyde Prestowitz, The World Turned Upside Down: America, China, and the Struggle for Global Leadership (Yale University Press, 2021); and, Ryan Hass, Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence (Yale University Press, 2021).

Despite readily discernible differences of each text, their respective discussions harmonize on the point that China is in the midst of implementing a strategy to supplant the US as the world’s dominant power. Some say the deadline for this takeover is 2049, the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, but others believe it may come earlier. (Some policy circles in the US have assessed dispiritedly that it has happened already.) To that extent, on an additional common point, the authors explain how preceding US administrations, with an apparent tinge of romanticism, misguidedly believed that the US could somehow guide and manage China’s industrialization, trade and overall economic development and thereby impact its political and social development. They also explain how, in some instances, the US government has unwittingly assisted China in achieving its goal of world dominance. In fact, each author essentially declares that China is a national security challenge for the US and its allies. China has made that very clear by building island seabases to secure claims of sovereignty over waters in the South China Sea, conduct overflights of the airspace and naval incursions into the waters of US allies in the region, regularly organize parades of their latest weapon systems, and marches of tens of thousands of men, stupefying to the eyes. The authors by in large suggest that the US should implement a more competitive strategy toward China, as it really is, to get a handle on it, by using all instruments of national power and urging US allies in Asia and outside to do the same. The efforts of the aforementioned authors, and many authors of notable books not discussed here, to expose China for the danger they believe it poses is driven not by antipathy but rather by evidence. There is materiality on the balance of negative probabilities which they have dug up in their research and revealed in their works. 

Given what generally presented, it would appear that China may not be the safest country for US companies to operate in at the present. Being steeped in matters concerning China, and they certainly are, one might presume that senior executives of firms there have already formed positions. Perhaps the best answer for senior executives of US companies is to consider moving their operations to a country that presents no risk or at a minimum, far less risk than China at the moment while the opportunity still exists. Yet, as many US companies are operating robustly in China, clearly moving out is not the course that all senior executives would agree upon. With un fil di voce, greatcharlie, cautiously takes on the task of shining some light on why they would continue operating in China despite problems their firms could face as a result of a collapse in US-China relations or even conflict between the two countries. Some not so subtle changes in attitudes and behaviors of Chinese officials toward the US in recent times are examined to develop insights on specific reactions that should be expected from Beijing. The possibility is considered that Beijing may have plans to make their companies targets of its wrath in the event such dark days come. Simply with the possibility of trouble on the horizon, it would seem their respective companies will soon become targets of China’s public security and intelligence services in very apparent ways. Along with think tank scholars, academics, policy analysts, and military and diplomatic officials, journalists, and students that would hopefully be an interested audience for this essay, greatcharlie would hope that senior executives of US companies with considerable operations in China, might take note as it directly concerns their efforts. Absent from the discussion is any mention of the identities of companies that have placed themselves in, or may have in some way fallen into, a somewhat precarious position in China as greatcharlie believes that information is immaterial, away from the heart of the matter. As for the senior executives of US companies, they are only referred to in the third person as the sole goal here is to touch upon the likely prospective broad range of thinking among them, not to throw the spotlight upon anyone. Make no mistake, greatcharlie is not offering any business advice to anyone. It is stated without pretension that such would be out of its province, and any impressions of the kind caused by this writing should not be given flight. The aim is to provide a look at some important issues from a new angle, provoke thought, and contribute to the greater discourse on the matter at hand. Non enim parum cognosse, sed in parum cognito stulte et diu perseverasse turpe est, propterea quod alterum communi hominum infirmitati alterum singulari cuiusque vitio est attributum. (For it is not having insufficient knowledge, but persisting a long time in insufficient knowledge that is shameful; since the one is assumed to be a disease common to all, but the other is assumed to be a flaw to an individual.)

People’s Liberation Army forces on parade in Beijing (above). In the past, US administrations believed the US could somehow guide and manage China’s industrialization, trade and overall economic development and thereby impact its political and social development. Some scholars assert that in certain instances, the US government unwittingly assisted China in achieving its goal of becoming the world’s dominant power. China is surely a national security challenge for the US and its allies now. It has made that very clear by building island seabases to secure claims of sovereignty over waters in the South China Sea, conduct overflights of the airspace and naval incursions into the waters of US allies in the region, regularly organize, parades of their latest weapon systems, and marches of tens of thousands of men, stupefying to the eyes.

“Perfidious Communist China”

“Perfidious Albion” is the nickname that French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte would use to acidulously refer to his arch rival Great Britain, which he considered to be treacherous in international affairs, distrustful of foreigners, and had a knack for frustrating his plans. Albion is a literary or poetic term most often used for Britain or England of Ancient or historical times. The term, “Le perfid Albion,” was said to have been first used by Augustin-Louis, Marquis de Ximenès, the 18th century French poet and playwright. In the same vain that the term, “Perfidious Albion,” was used by Napoleon, perhaps the term, “Perfidious Communist China,” could be used in Washington in reference to China as US leaders must remain suspicious and distrustful of it. Leaders of the Communist Party of China do not leave any room for doubt that they are determined to bring down the US in order to claim the title of dominant power in the world. Moreover, they are clearly willing to use whatever jiggery-pokery it takes and use, so far within tolerable limits, the aggression needed to achieve that goal. 

Becoming the world’s dominant power may not seem to some as a worthy pursuit for a developed, industrialized country. The US essentially fell into the role and has held it as a matter of events, fate, and necessity, though arguably some political leaders in the early years of the 20th century, such as President Theodore Roosevelt, envisioned the country reaching the top. Many countries and national leaders in the past two centuries that sought the mantle can now be found upon what former US President Ronald Reagan in 1982 referred to as the “ash heap of history.” Yet, it is the Communist Party of China’s pursuit nonetheless, and Beijing seems to be moving inexorably toward that goal. The strategy to reach its objective apparently from the start was far larger in conception than some in US foreign and defense policy and business circles still appear willing to consider. 

The words of the Chinese officials have begun to reflect the Communist Party of China’s unsheathed antipathy toward the US. The Party, itself, might explain the words of the Chinese officials rightfully manifest the tone of a country once victimized, yet not demoralized by Western “imperialist,” “capitalist” countries that reaped benefits from it. (Truth be told, by the late 1800s, China was “carved up like a melon” by foreign powers competing for spheres of influence over trade and territory.)  The Party line is that China’s success is the vindication of an ancient civilization after a “century of humiliation.” Their words have the flavor of officials from a country that has been executing a clearly defined strategy to unseat the US as the world’s dominant power. It often smacks of something personal for members of the Communist Party of China. With regard to the officials and diplomats of the People’s Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs, this behavior was briefly discussed in the June 30, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “Commentary: China’s Coronavirus Tack Includes More Abrupt Officials and Political Warfare; Its Diplomatic Tool Must Endure the Consequences.”

Such qualities in Chinese officials words could be ascribed to those expressed by the People’s Republic of China delegation led by the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Yang Jiechi, and People’s Republic of China Foreign Minister Wang Yi at bilateral meeting with a US delegation in Anchorage, Alaska in March 2021. The US delegation led by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan. Blinken, indeed, started the meeting off by telling the delegation from China that the US intended to address “deep concerns” over the treatment of the Chinese citizens in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and the situation with Taiwan. However, Yang responded boldly, taking a bit of time to express sharp criticism of the US over what he described as its struggling democracy, poor treatment of minorities, and over its foreign and trade policies.

Yang’s words of reproach and his demeanor were completely out of character for an opening statement, particularly a very public one, for a bilateral meeting between industrialized powers. If the matter were not so serious and the prospects for improved relations between the two countries so grim, it might have been characterized as satire and marked down as a response. Needless to say concerning the speeches given by the two senior officials of the Chinese delegation in Anchorage, bon mot, they were not! Previously, there was an apparent Chinese doctrine of moderation in talks with other countries. Calmness and authority was once shown not only in diplomacy but in all circumstances by officials. This more assertive approach as of late has pulled Chinese officials from their more traditional conservative, stolid posture.

Overall, Yang, as well as Wang when he spoke immediately after him, comported themselves with an astringency which some critics would agree uncloaked the true nature of the regime. Certainly, as discussed in greatcharlie’s April 30, 2021 post, one could not help but get the impression by the vexatious words used lately by Chinese negotiators that all talks and perhaps the overall situation with the US, something even more is going on with Beijing’s thinking. It may very well be that leaders of the Communist Party of China have been satisfied enough with its accomplishments and ongoing progress towards surpassing the US that they have approved behavior by officials in interactions with foreign counterparts that would indicate the transition of power has already occurred. In the New American Bible, it is written in Luke 6:45: “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”

In its April 30, 2021 post, greatcharlie also postulates that the Chinese officials appear to be presenting themselves as symbols of national resistance to US power. The Chinese officials wanted not just the US delegation, but the world to pay heed to their exhortations concerning the US. Such public behavior is part of what is known as united front work under Communist Party of China. During the current rule of the People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping, united front work calls for the never-ending, enthusiastic promotion of the Communust Movement, the Communist Party of China, Xi, and the People’s Republic, and a lot of other things. The Communist Party of China is happy to foster animus toward the US wherever it may be found in the world as well as cause foment over such where it can. James Baldwin, the 20th century US novelist, playwright, essayist, poet, and activist, rightly recognized in his fascinating September 23, 1979 New York Times interview: “The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

The future situation is not entirely clear. One might reasonably suspect that while Beijing wants a peaceful resolution to the most stressing geopolitical issues it faces with regard to the US, it is uncertain whether they would even imagine accepting a balanced one. Real success for Beijing may very likely mean achieving some major advantages across issues in contention with the US. Looking at the extreme alternative, measuring what it might lose against what it might gain in some limited use of force, its judgments are likely balanced on perceptions of the will of the US to act and to sacrifice in such a way to actually protect its interests and allies in the region. Another factor included in the forecasts of Beijing’s moves would perhaps be the temperament of Xi. Conflict of any kind would have a dreadful impact on US companies in China. The lead up to any turn for the worse would likely mean problems for their operations and their employees in-country. As would be expected, some US companies have moved out or have expressed plans to move out. Other companies appear to be tiptoeing in the same direction. Still, there are those firms that are not just reluctant, but unwilling to take a new course. 

People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping (above). In an April 30, 2021 post, greatcharlie postulates that the Chinese officials appear to be presenting themselves on the world stage as symbols of national resistance to US power. That was apparent during a bilateral meeting in Anchorage , Alaska in March 2021. Chinese officials wanted not just the US delegation, but the world to pay heed to their exhortations concerning the US. Such public behavior is part of what is known as united front work. Under the current rule of the People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping, Chinese officials appear required to engage in a never-ending, enthusiastic promotion of the Communust Movement, the Communist Party of China, Xi, and the People’s Republic, and a lot of other things.

Do Not Rely on Beijing’s Goodwill!

Knowing what is wrong is not as great as knowing how to fix the problem. Moreover, one must accept there is a problem and be willing to fix it. In his philosophical and autobiographical treatise, “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and of Seeking Truth in the Sciences” (1637), the renowned 17th French philosopher René Descartes wrote: “And thus, the actions of life often not allow any delay, it is a truth very certain that, when it is not in our power to determine the most true opinions we ought to follow the most probable.” In the small hours of the morning, one might imagine US executives look within to find the truest answer to how to proceed given all that they have been informed of respectively. 

What greatcharlie has discovered in its own research and the voluminous scholarly sources that support the view that danger lies ahead is that from the aggregate of respective discussions in recent books and other publications in this vein, this idea can be confidently drawn by business executives in question, too! More so, executives sophisticated enough to create a successful space for their companies in China have sufficient information available to them even beyond what outside experts offer, to include reports from the US government, that would allow them to grasp the potential impact of decisions they might make. Undoubtedly, capable and diligent regional specialists in their own companies have collected and presented similar information on the dangers of remaining in China. Everything asserted about the threat Beijing poses to US companies can be substantiated by a history of necessary commiserations between company senior executives and decision-makers of the Communist Party of China.

Yet, while it is most apparent that China’s recent past clearly is not without stain, that fact appears to be by the by to those senior executives of US companies working robustly in China who choose to remain. They will not allow their minds to be biased by theories and suspicions suggested by those who do not have the type of investment at stake in China as their respective companies. They are unwilling to condescend to what they would call fear mongering about the Communist Party of China. China appears to have won many of them and those in that number will hear nothing against it. In this discussion, greatcharlie leaves aside any suggestion that the continued investment by US companies in China is the result of some urge among their senior executives to act in a knowingly dangerous way, l’appel du vide. What those business executives may believe is that in their own assessments of Beijing, they have the advantage of being well informed through what they might characterize as their own most informative, “regular” contacts and “substantive” conversations with officials of Chinese government bureaucracies and leaders of the Communist Party of China. They may believe their relationships with them are strong, bien entretenue. Many appear willing and some comforted by refusing to look beyond what Beijing presents about itself. In that respect, some have become metaphorically tone deaf to warnings concerning all urgent matters now underway. It was expressed by Aristophanes in Clouds (423 BC): “To invoke solely the weaker arguments and yet triumph is a talent worth more than a hundred thousand drachmae.”

As for Beijing’s guile and maneuvering, some of the senior executives even at this point would doubtlessly declare that the evidence that has publicly presented on its malign actions and intentions as something akin to an albeit a peculiar rag bag of singular happenings. Ironically, they might sarcastically note that some new wrinkle of China’s malevolence comes to light practically “every ten seconds” as the 20th century US humorist Sam Levenson might remark to defuse the tension caused by the subject.

In A Mountain of Crumbs: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster, 2010), Elena Gorokhova recounts growing up under the Communist government of the Soviet Union in the 1960s, and tells of her discovery of the hidden truths about adulthood and her country’s profound, brazen lies. Gorokhova recounts: “The rules are simple: they lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know they’re lying but they keep lying anyway, and we keep pretending to believe them.” The regime in Communist China operates in a similar deceitful fashion both at home and abroad. There are doubtlessly many more aspects of Beijing’s thinking and behavior that have not as yet been discerned or at least publicly reported. They may become known only after a situation literally blows up. One might state that within the Communist Party of China, the powers of evil are exalted, anything negative is possible. 

The latest word from the US Intelligence Community is that the US supply chain from China now faces real threat. There are a few normal factors that can affect US supply chains, including production shortages, trade disruptions and natural disasters. However, the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) has warned that “actions by foreign adversaries to exploit vulnerabilities in US supply chains pose unique counterintelligence and security threats.” According to the NCSC, foreign adversaries are increasingly using companies and trusted suppliers as “attack vectors” against the US for espionage, information theft and sabotage. Officials warned that those actions compromise the products and services that “underpin America’s government and industry” and warned of the effects–“lost intellectual property, jobs, economic advantage, and reduced military strength.”

What is shared by the US government on Beijing’s plans and intention toward companies foreign working in China should be fully heeded by US companies. Beijing would of course become indignant claiming Western arrogance would lead accusers to say an idea was stolen. Perhaps Chinese government spokespersons would rely upon words similar to those of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional character Sherlock Holmes, who in “The Adventure of the Dancing Men,” the third story of 13 in the The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905), stated: “What one man can invent, another can discover.” 

Simple facts can go some way to explain what might be recognized as a charitable position. To that extent, distortions of truth from Beijing or other trusted or favored sources are far more satisfying as a result of an infatuation with a present preoccupation. In arguments, the business executives will mistakenly grab the nearest evidence to hand that would uniquely support their perspective. What they might characterize as the “stirring of alarm” would likely be inexplicable to those who have not abandoned the idea that China acts in goodwill. They would likely assert that China’s sense of a rivalry between itself and the US is natural given geopolitical, geostrategic, economic considerations alone. Indeed, among those reluctant to accept what present evidence insists upon, one might find that almost every decision to carry on with their current business plans in China is likely founded upon a mix of reality and imagination.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal on March 26, 2021, in the weeks that surrounded the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Chinese leaders waged an information campaign aimed at the US business community. It included a flurry of speeches, letters and announcements. Of special note was a February 2021 speech by the Communist Party of China’s  foreign policy director, Yang, to a virtual audience of US business leaders and former government officials. Initially laying out a very positive situation for investment and trade opportunities in China, he then offered the stern warning that Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan are “red lines” that anyone from the US should remain silent about. He also made the demand that the business community lobby the new Biden-Harris administration to reverse Trump administration policies toward China which he excoriated. 

Without the intent of being folsom, greatcharlie states that there are highly qualified individuals that serve as senior executives at companies. In their respective fields, these professionals are generally known and admired for their astute judgments, being steady and reliable, and having keen minds and the laudable capacity to reason. Finding answers to such situations were what the executives were hired for. Being incommoded by the regulations of China’s bureaucracies would by no means be new to them and they would expect to find a way to work around any problems. Their thoughts would remain focused on optimizing their respective companies’ investments in China. That would be the vintage way of thinking, so to speak.

One might go as far as to suppose that some US business executives may feel that if accomplishing that meant being under some recherché obligation to Beijing, they would accept that. They doubtlessly would expect to gain additional favor from the Communist Party of China through such loyalty. As a bonus of taking such a step, they might believe they would be taking the steps that would allow them to avoid a serious dilemma in the near future. (Such would hardly be a schema Beijing would feel obligated to follow, and indeed, something one should not plan for.) One might expect to occasionally hear expressions of appreciation from US companies to the most senior leaders of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people for their “magnanimity.” In fact, they have been heard. Those companies could do no greater service for Beijing than to take such a course. Those in the US outraged by China’s overall behavior toward the US and its allies would very likely call it a perverse allegiance.

Perhaps conditions for some companies were never idyllic to start, and any new circumstances that arise are just one more hurdle to overcome. One might suppose that for senior executives of US companies in China, navigating any problems that have arisen so far has been a bit similar to white water rafting. It is a challenge, but in the end overall satisfying. To speak more in metaphors, senior executives of most US companies still operating in China likely feel that they successfully managed the disturbed sea of those relations by monitoring essential currents and will achieve further success by navigating them intelligently. Indeed, in many cases having spent years inveigling their way into many meetings with Communist Party of China leaders and government officials they likely feel that have created links with them near equal to those that exist between those same Party leaders and officials that the executives of China’s state-run companies. They are likely confident that as a result of those linkages, their companies’ investments In China are to the greatest extent possible shielded from any possible troubles in relations between Beijing and Washington. In corporate conference rooms and meetings with Communist Party of China or other government officials, any dark imaginings of Beijing’s behavior evaporate fastest. Conceivably, ideas and attitudes expressed In those same conference rooms of US companies are very likely encapsulated with the quip: “I will believe it when I see it.” There may very well be companies planning to simply carry on even under the worst circumstances should it come to that. 

Yet, many have doubtlessly assessed that contrary to the reports of experts, they have so far had no reason to regret, nor do they believe they shall have any reason to regret their speculation in China. Until they are caused to accept anything to the contrary, one could imagine certain senior executives of US companies would happily seek to remain in their offices in China. The claim that Beijing could turn against them in some profound way may simply be a counterfactual. Perchance senior executives still engaged in robust operations in China believe Beijing’s intentions are the best and would refer to all of the negative talk of Beijing’s intentions as slander. Presumably, senior executives of US companies, having minimized in their own minds the danger that China presents, might suggest to other senior executives whose companies are similarly invested in China, that no one should get ahead of oneself in reaction to what they may have heard or observed of those companies that have moved out. Perhaps the retention of that mindset, a certain stubbornness among some, may be a prime obstacle in convincing them to open their eyes. Assuming that all have the best intentions at heart, one might believe that differences in thinking among senior executives of US companies are mostly a matter of clarification 

There are situations in which even the most accomplished business executives might find themselves helpless. No US firm should count upon the goodwill of Beijing to help see them through the storm of greatly deteriorated relations, or the catastrophe of a clash, between the US and China. Beijing time and again has proven that it is unworthy of such trust. Most US companies operating in China or have an extremely close relationship with Party leaders and government officials, they should not expect that they would be able to just carry-on as they have been no matter what. By the mere fact that they are Western companies representing Western capitalism, there would be a fairly good chance that they would fall afoul of the Communist regime in Beijing. That has been a reality all along.

To be as frank as possible, the Communist Party of China has no love for them. Without a shadow of doubt, many Party leaders yearn to reach that day in the future when China can show its true colors, declare broad powers over all foreign companies and severely alter terms of any signed agreements to immensely favor its own interests, if a firm is allowed to remain in China at all. Surely they believe there would be more than one parallel Chinese firm of its respective industry to replace just about every foreign entity, except those as the National Basketball Association (NBA), and could take on their markets even in the US.

Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Yang Jiechi (above). In the weeks that surrounded the inauguration of US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Chinese leaders waged an information campaign aimed at the US business community. It included a flurry of speeches, letters and announcements. Of special note was a February 2021 speech by the Communist Party of China’s foreign policy director, Yang, to a virtual audience of US business leaders and former government officials. Initially laying out a very positive situation for investment and trade opportunities in China, he then offered the stern warning that Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan are “red lines” that anyone from the US should remain silent about. He also made the demand that the business community lobby the new Biden-Harris administration to reverse Trump administration policies toward China which he excoriated.

Recent Displays of Beijing’s Tactfulness toward Foreign Companies

The renowned English philosopher and physician, John Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), wrote: “I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.” There have been a few  fresh events in China concerning foreign companies operating there over the grave issue of members of China’s Uyghur ethnic minority from the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) in China’s far west, being used as forced labor in factories. They may provide some clues as to the sort of subterfuge and sophistry senior executives of US companies still operating in China should expect, and perhaps things even more intense. (In citing news articles concerning these events, greatcharlie felt some reluctance given a few US companies are directly mentioned in them and that information is central to understanding the events that occurred. However, to the extent that these incidents were well-supported in the news media, the sense that anything fresh about the firms was being revealed was mitigated.)

In an extensive new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a think-tank founded by Australia’s government, between 2017 and 2019, the Chinese government relocated at least 80,000 Uyghurs from Xinjiang in western China to factories across the country where they work “under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour.” The report further explains that the manufacturers using these transported Uyghurs supply at least 83 international companies making everything from footwear to electronics. Regarding the Uyghurs, the Chinese Communist Party is waging a targeted campaign against Uyghur women, men, and children, and members of other Turkic Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang, China. Abuses have included coercive population control through forced abortion, forced sterilization, and involuntary implantation of birth control; the detention of more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups in internment camps; forced labor in facilities nearby or affiliated with the internment camps; the destruction and closure of mosques and other religious sites, prevention of youths from participating in religious activities, forced political indoctrination or “re-education.” 

Beijing has denied all of these claims, declaring them to be unjust aspersions. It has stated that rather than running forced labor camps, it is providing vocational training, and that its measures are needed to fight extremism. Recall that Xinjiang was an issue broached by Blinken at the bilateral talks in Anchorage. In January, Washington had banned Xinjiang cotton used widely by clothing producers for Western markets. The US, the European Union, United Kingdom, and Canada have imposed sanctions on Chinese officials for alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang in March 2020. . China retaliated with sanctions on European lawmakers and institutions.

According to a March 27, 2021 Bloomberg report, Hennes & Mauritz AB (H&M), the Swedish multinational, expressed the view in March 2021 statements that it’s “deeply concerned by reports from civil society organizations and media that include accusations of forced labor and discrimination of ethnoreligious minorities.” It was a risky move for H&M given that China is one of the five biggest markets for the company in terms of revenue with 5.2% of the group’s total sales in 2020. The company had opened 505 stores in China as of November 30, 2020. The company’s access to China, the Communist Party of China, and to customers was put on the line. Almost immediately, H&M encountered what was characterized as backlash over its statements from the company concerning issues surrounding Xinjiang. The company quickly removed its statement on Xinjiang from its website, on a separate link on its homepage expressing the same stance on Xinjiang cotton remained active.

Authors of the news story notably recognized that China’s response to H&M was markedly stronger than its previous pushback when foreign brands crossed political lines. Xi had already set a red line on the issue of China’s human rights record, and foreign companies surely understood at that point that addressing the issue in any way would mean picking a side. In a briefing in Beijing, Gao Feng, a spokesman for the Chinese Commerce Ministry, essentially proscribed H&M’s statements as slanderous ravings. He reportedly said: “We can’t tolerate any forces bringing shame on and tarnishing the pure and flawless Xinjiang cotton.” He went on to state: “Chinese consumers have acted in response to the so-called business decisions made by some companies based on false information. We hope the relevant companies will respect market laws, correct wrong practices, and avoid the politicization of commercial issues.”

As would be expected, H&M’s statement was blasted by organizations such as the Communist Youth League and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on social media. However, there was also rising outcry and calls for a boycott on Chinese social media against an undated H&M statement over its website that also expressed concern about reports of forced labor in Xinjiang. At least six stores in the lower-tiered cities of Urumqi, Yinchuan, Changchun and Lianyunang have been shut down by the owners of the properties, according to mall operators in those areas who were contacted by Bloomberg. Local media have reported more closures and pictures showing H&M’s brand billboards being removedThe global clothing retailer’s outlets have also vanished on Apple Maps and Baidu Maps searches.

Adverse effects from the H&M’s statement about forced labor in the contentious region of Xinjiang have spread to other Western brands that have voiced their views on the matter. DW News noted that the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) declared in October 2020 that it was suspending cotton sourced from Xinjiang for the 2020-2021 fashion season, also citing concerns over that region’s human rights. BCI, formed in 2009 and based in Geneva, Switzerland  states that it was formed to make global cotton production better for the people who produce it, better for the environment it grows in and better for the sector’s future. Its goal is to transform cotton production worldwide by developing Better Cotton as a sustainable mainstream commodity. Members include US-based Nike, Germany-based Adidas, Japan-based Fast Retailing, as well as China-based ANTA. Certainly, BCI members would not comment idly on such a grave matter or any matter for that case.

As foreign companies speak out concerning Xinjiang and forced labor, they are being targeted for treatment. China’s government-aligned English language newspaper the Global Times cited Burberry and New Balance as having made “cutting remarks” about Xinjiang cotton two years ago. It also cited the brand Zara as having expressed a “zero-tolerance approach towards forced labor.” ANTA, a Chinese shoe brand announced it was quitting BCI and would continue buying Xinjiang cotton–prompting a spike in its share prices on Hong Kong’s Han Seng Index.

Chinese social media users expressed umbrage against Western sanctions over alleged abuses of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province by ostracizing further global clothing and footwear brands. DW News quoted one “netizen” as stating: “If you boycott Xinjiang cotton, we’ll boycott you. Either Adidas quits BCI, or get out of China.” Social media posts in China have reportedly also mentioned the Japanese and US brands Uniqlo and Gap but it was unclear whether the people posting messages were private citizens or government plants online. Two popular Chinese television stars, Wang Yibo and Tan Songyun, reportedly said they would end promotional work for Nike over remarks it made in 2020. China’s People’s Daily newspaper began a social media campaign via the microblog Weibo, using a slogan translating as “I support Xinjiang cotton. Citing Reuters, DW News explained many Chinese online users said they would instead support local Asian brands such as Li Ning and ANTA, prompting share price surges in Hong Kong. The US government has called attention to China’s state-run social media campaign and boycott against foreign companies that refuse to use cotton from Xinjiang. State Department deputy spokeswoman Jalina Porter stated that tactic amounts to a state-run “corporate and consumer boycott.”

Taking a closer look at what has been directed at Nike, according Reuters it faces rather a singular social media storm in China over its statement concerning Xinjiang Indeed, anger with Nike reportedly erupted on Chinese social media late immediately after China’s netizens spotted a statement from the sporting goods giant saying it was “concerned” about reports of forced labour in Xinjiang and that it does not use cotton from the region. There is a well-known love affair among the Chinese people and basketball shoes worn by NBA players. It was no small matter. 

Topics around the Nike statement were among the highest trending on China’s Twitter-like social media Weibo the day it was revealed and the social media backlash had a wider fallout. It was in direct response to Nike’s statement concerning Xinjiang and social media criticism on social media, that the agency representing actor Wang Yibo stated on Weibo that he has terminated his contract as a representative for Nike. It was not apparent when exactly Nike had put out the statement. It did not have a date on it. Nike explained in the statement: “We are concerned about reports of forced labor in, and connected to, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).” It also stated: “Nike does not source products from the XUAR and we have confirmed with our contract suppliers that they are not using textiles or spun yarn from the region.” To prevent further interference, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the state-run Global Times urged Western companies to be “highly cautious” and not to “suppress China’s Xinjiang” in a social media post. To do so, Hu anticipated, would “undoubtedly arouse the anger of the Chinese public,” he added. He did not single out any companies.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the 18th century philosopher, writer, and co)mposer of the then independent Calvinist city-state of Geneva, explained in The Social Contract (1762): “Virtue is a state of war, and to live in it we have always to combat with ourselves.” Naturally, foreign companies operating in China will attempt ameliorate and perhaps resolve Xinjiang controversy or any other with Beijing, senior executives of those companies be assured that the Communist Party of China’s memory of even temporary disrespectful acts and what its leaders may perceive as betrayal through declarations of concerns on what are in reality documented human rights abuses, substantiated by Western government sources, will be long.

A heavily secured industrial park in Xinjiang, China (above). In a report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, between 2017 and 2019, the Chinese government relocated at least 80,000 Uyghurs from Xinjiang in western China to factories across the country where they work “under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour.” The report also explains that manufacturers using these transported Uyghurs supply at least 83 international companies making everything from footwear to electronics. The Chinese Communist Party is waging a targeted campaign against Uyghur women, men, and children, and members of other Turkic Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang, China. Abuses have included coercive population control through forced abortion, forced sterilization, and involuntary implantation of birth control; the detention of more than one million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, ethnic Kyrgyz, and members of other Muslim minority groups in internment camps. Beijing has denied such claims.

Experience Speaks?

Memores acti prudentes futuri. (Mindful of what has been done, aware of what will be.) As aforementioned, with consideration of a full range of facts on the current situation between the US-China, to include many discussed here, as well as other key business considerations, some US companies have accepted that the risks are too great to remain and rather than wait for a crisis to arise. To the senior executives of those companies, China’s true, malevolent nature appears to be self-evident. Aware of those practices first-hand, they watch likely in horror as other US companies confidently stroll into the Chinese tangles from which they avoided or feel they escaped. Hope undoubtedly remains even among those companies that have already left that Xi and the Communist Party of China are not intending anything tragic. Any positive prospects for their future reinvestment in China surely rest upon what comes next with Xi and the Biden-Harris administration.

Those with a turn of mind to commit themselves to a defense of China’s behavior as a “competitor” of the US, and commit to even greater investment there, may eventually find themselves obliged to be a bit more obedient to Beijing’s wishes if events cause the authoritarian Chinese government to make its true self clear to them. If that day comes, the sense of the scale of its malignant being and purpose will likely be overwhelming. Those dead-enders, though they would hardly see themselves as such, will discover just how masterful Beijing has been at deception, offering satisfying explanations and signing agreements that really had no meaning. 

Some senior executives whose companies remain in China may already fear doing anything to subvert Beijing and incurring its wrath upon their respective interests. Others will perhaps be paralyzed to act in a crisis having been sufficiently instilled with fearfulness over a perception that the Chinese government will become noisy and rough. Even then, reaching a low point but not yet bottom, it would not be too late to accept the loss, as wise business executives sometimes must do, and move out.

Fallaces sunt rerum species. (The appearances of things are deceptive.) The security of US companies, all foreign companies, working in China, is a subject greatcharlie previously broached on the individual employees of those companies might face. Certainly, security offices of any US companies whose executives and staff frequently visit China should have long since arranged opportunities to brief those employees on problems they could possibly face in China. Such briefings might include the discussion of ways to subtly execute defensive measures to defeat Ministry of Public Security (MPS), Ministry of State Security (MSS), PLA Joint Staff Department human intelligence groups, and any Communist Party of China intelligence organs (e.g., the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the super secret and malignant International (Liaison) Department, the United Front Work Department, and the Propaganda Department) from capturing information that meets their organizations’ immediate intelligence requirements as well as whatever information that managers of those spy organizations may deem useful otherwise.

What was presented in the discussion of the December 13, 2020 greatcharlie post entitled, “Meditations and Ruminations on Chinese Intelligence: Revisiting a Lesson on Developing Insights from Four Decades Ago” on security precautions employees of foreign companies must take in China seems worthy of review as background. The discussion is preclosed here. Only the more apposite points are presented.

As discussed, the foreign visitor is always a potential target for province and municipal offices of MPS and MSS. The capability of Chinese authorities to use technological means to keep a close eye on foreigners and detect, apprehend, and deal with those who protest and oppose the government has been enhanced immensely. Two sensational articles in the New York Times, “A Surveillance Net Blankets China’s Cities, Giving Police Vast Powers” dated December 17, 2019, and “Inside China’s Dystopian Dreams: A.I., Shame and Lots of Cameras,” dated July 8, 2018, well lay out the increased use of technology in MPS and MSS surveillance efforts. Reportedly, as part of Xi’s effort to have the security services take on a greater role in China, he has launched a major upgrade of their surveillance capabilities. China, as a result, has become the world’s largest market for security and surveillance technology. It is reported that almost 300 million cameras have been installed in the country. Government contracts are supporting research and development into technologies that track faces, clothing and even a person’s gait. MPS officers on the beat have been observed using experimental gadgets such as facial-recognition glasses. In Zhengzhou, police and security services can use software to create lists of people. They can create virtual alerts when a targeted  individual approaches a specific location. They can acquire updates on people every hour or every day, and monitor anyone with whom those people have met, particularly if there exists a report that one or both individuals have committed an infraction.  Yet, while the new technology may ostensibly provide police and security services with a way to track criminals, it also improves their means to crack down on sympathizers of the protest movement in Hong Kong, critics of the Communist Party of China, and critics of the police and security services, themselves. Worse, it better enables the police and security services to target migrant workers who travel from the countryside to fill China’s factories and ethnic minority groups as the Uyghurs.

On the street, the surveillance of foreigners will typically be relatively light, calibrated to ensure utilization of an optimal number of officers and informants in the role of surveillance operatives in the field. Doing so also facilitates the monitoring process. The more surveillance one uses the more reports that must be reviewed to find one aggregate picture of what occurred. MPS counterintelligence officers will regularly collect and closely review reports on a foreigner’s behavior via informants among neighbors in the vicinity of their residence and locals among colleagues at work. They would be interested in knowing if they have engaged in behaviors that would make them open to recruitment. Their attitudes toward China and its system would be important. The friendships they have made would be of interest. From the reports of informants and technical surveillance, assessments of what type of temptations could be used, if necessary, to bring them to China’s side based on observations of the foreigner’s lifestyle. 

In its December 13th post, greatcharlie additionally cites Articles 9, 11, 12, and 13 of the National Security Law of the People’s Republic of China, as adopted at the 15th session of the Standing Committee of the Twelfth National People’s Congress to explain that for citizens of the People’s Republic of China, the motivations of money ideology, conspiracy, and excitement do not factor in such a decision to come to call of their country’s intelligence services. The law requires them to do so. If any motivations at all could be said to factor in a Chinese citizen’s decision to obey the direction of an intelligence service, expectedly the Communist Party of China would list faith and adherence to the ideals of the Communist Revolution, the Communist Party of China, patriotism, and the homeland. Supposedly, revolutionary zeal drives the heart of China as “one beating heart.”

Since that writing, the NCSC provided, on Twitter, three articles from China’s National Intelligence Law of 2017, Cybersecurity Law of 2016, and, National Security Law of 2015. NCSC explained its aim in doing so was to help those entering an agreement with a company based in China better understand the legal landscape and that Chinese companies will provide data they obtain or information stored on their networks to China’s state security apparatus upon request. More directly, the NCSC wants US citizens to better understand by its message that Chinese companies and citizens are required to assist in intelligence efforts against them by law. Under Article 7 of the PRC’s National Intelligence Law (2017), NCSC cites: “All organizations and citizens SHALL support, assist, and cooperate with national intelligence efforts in accordance with the law, and shall protect national work secrets they are aware of.” Under Article 28 of the PRC’s Cybersecurity Law (2016), it cites, “Network operators SHALL provide technical support and assistance to public security and national security organs that are safeguarding and investigating criminal activities in accordance with the law.” Under Article 77 of the PRC’s National Security Law (2015), it cites, “Citizens and organizations SHALL provide the following obligations for safeguarding national security,” and then cites section specifically (5), which instructs: “Provide national security authorities, public security authorities, and military authorities with needed support and assistance.”

The foreign businessman, scientist, engineer, academic or any other type of professional  working closely with a Chinese counterpart in China may not be aware that he or she is being monitored by that same friendly colleague. It should be expected. When told, it may be so emotionally shocking to outsiders  that it may very well be near impossible to believe. Perhaps refusing to accept that reality is the only way a foreigner can continue to function comfortably in China. In any event, it is the responsibility of the Chinese citizen to engage in such activity under the National Security law. To that extent, friendship with Chinese colleagues may never be authentic as there is an element to the interaction between the foreigner and the Chinese citizen that is cloaked. China comes first. The foreigner is inconsequential to that reality. Ordinary people doing a little this and a little that for the MPS as well as the MSS is a norm.

Although it has not as yet become a commonplace problem, if a foreigner visiting China for the purpose of business or tourism, accepts  documents, notebooks, and books, the traveler might discover quite surprisingly that he or she is carrying items that contain sensitive data the possession of which could be considered criminal. Those illicit materials would have been presented to the traveler intentionally, perhaps even by a Chinese citizen with whom the traveler may have a positive personal relationship, almost certainly at the behest of MPS or MSS. It was said somewhere that it is terrible to find an enemy in a friend, but it is much worse not to find a friend in a friend. (Given the uncertainty of what may result from contact with Chinese intelligence and counterintelligence units, ordinary Chinese citizens typically will not seek out contact with them nor independently engage in activity with foreigners outside of the workplace on matters related to their work. They will focus on true personal relationships on personal matters, human interests.)

One must also be very cautious about accepting recording devices or recorded materials, or any devices, thumb drives, dvds, or materials that may include video or audio recordings unless one can be absolutely certain as to their contents. Documents contained in any of these media may prove to be government documents concerning confidential matters, and not any run-of-the-mill confidential matters at that. One must immediately open the documents and read them before those who presented them using a laptop or tablet. The review of the recordings posthaste could be passed off as an affected display of ebullience and appreciation of the gift and wonderment about what it holds. 

As things stand, from year to year, the situation has not gotten better in terms of stability and safety. If troubles between the US and China ever begin to arise with regularity, such as detainments of employees of US companies, one might expect some form of ransom will be discreetly demanded by Chinese officials with a warning not to acknowledge their villainy to the world. More than just an aggressive act, it would be an expression of Beijing’s power over those companies, designed to work in the psyche of the US business executives. If a US companies is resolute about remaining in China, it would to be willing to accept that the situation could change rapidly for the worse, new ground rules could be put in for operating in a flash, and it would know without doubt who is really in charge. They would need to accept that ties back to the US would have little meaning to Beijing. The Communist Party of China would surely delight in exercising such power over Western “capitalist” guests. The door opening in that direction of what is outlined here can already be heard creaking.

President Xi in his People’s Liberation Army uniform on parade (above). It would be more than likely that if a military conflict between the US and China arose on the greater world stage, Beijing would lash out at available US targets right at home such as US companies and their employees. Indeed, when leaders of Communist Party of China are exhausted of tricks and manipulations, they often turn to the cane. If US companies were to face such a situation, the matter would need to be put right by senior executives of those companies at the crisis point, if at all possible.

Prospective Problems Ahead

ata volentem ducunt, nolentem trahunt. (Fate leads the willing, and drags the unwilling.) As US companies, by their own devices, continue to entangle themselves in meshes with Beijing, they may be grooming themselves to become subject to its machinations. An impregnable collection of evidence already indicates that Beijing’s desire to control Western business communities attitudes and behavior toward nearly anything Chinese. Perhaps one day US companies will awaken to the true character of the Communist Party of China and the Chinese government after it is too late. Once any extraordinary conduct is exhibited by Beijing toward one or more US companies  it would be almost impossible for the US government to chuck itself in the mix in a calibrated way that mitigates such steps as opposed to exacerbating the situation.

As it was explained in the 14th century by the English lawyer, author, and statesman, Saint Thomas More, “What is deferred is not avoided.” Caught in such a conundrum, it would be best if US companies had already laid plans to respond to such a contingency well in advance of it. It would be the only way to have a fighting chance of getting some handle on it. Complete consideration of Beijing’s immoral side must be part of that assessment. Exactly how business executives might intend to put the matter right on their side under such circumstances is unknown. In spite of contingency planning, it is hard to see from greatcharlie’s vantage point what cards US business executives could realistically play to sway Beijing in such a crisis. They would be in a weak position to negotiate relief from Beijing. Perhaps it was in the process of planning for such a contingency, that senior executives of such companies along with their security offices recognized that it was time to leave.

Conceivably, the senior executives of some US companies in China might hold the idea that they might serve as “go-betweens,” neutral emissaries, who, while loyal to their US homeland, are also loyal and responsive to their Chinese hosts, and assist in finding some settlement between the US and China during a conflict. The idea would unlikely interest Beijing in wartime. Despite any notions senior executives might have of their ties to China and relationship with leaders of the Communist Party of China, during a war, they would most certainly be tagged as enemy aliens, perhaps dangerous enemy aliens, and handled with due care by MPS and Party security organs. In an atrocious yet very possible scenario, they may be tasked to perform high profile duties against their will for the Party’s Propaganda Department. United Work Department and International Department operatives might force them without compunction to any point resembling a front line of the conflict to demonstrate the senior executives recognition that China was on the correct side of the struggle and any of its actions against the US were righteous. Chinese security services might force them to visit foreign capitals, accompanied of course, to give speeches on how the US allegedly may have wrongfully threatened China’s interest and caused the conflict. One could imagine a hundred possibilities and none of them would be good for the senior executives. At about that point, the business executives will have the truest and fullest understanding of the Communist Party of China.

Interestingly enough, any decision by Beijing  to take steps against one or more US companies would undoubtedly be a measure decided upon in its own contingency planning in the event of a sudden ratcheting up of contentious relations with Washington. To that extent, what might happen to US companies stranded in China in such circumstances would assuredly be a fixed fate. Leaders of the Communist Party of China, under such circumstances, would hardly be inveigled by the platitudes of foreign business executives to be more lenient toward their companies. Any Party leaders would feel both angered and shamed if that perception was created about them within the Party’s membership. It is imaginable that such a bargaining effort would be responded to violently.

Essentially, any breakdown in relations between the US and China, or worse, a military conflict, would have an unfortunate effect upon the position of US companies operating there. More than likely, it would cause Beijing to lash out at available US targets right at home such as those US companies and their employees. Indeed, when the brains of the leadership of Communist Party of China are exhausted of tricks and manipulations, they have often turned to the cane. If US companies were to face such a situation, the matter would need to be put right by senior executives of those companies at the crisis point, if at all possible.

The Way Forward

Aligning the suppositions offered here on thinking over remaining in China with specific senior executives of US companies operating in China undoubtedly would not be too difficult for numerous investigative journalists if they preferred to do so. Yet, as mentioned on the outset of this post, their identities are immaterial with regard to the objective here which was to provide a picture of the challenging circumstances that those business executives face particularly from China’s public security and intelligence services, shed light upon what they are likely discussing among their counsels, and present insights on the decisions they have reached given the paths they have taken.

If credit might be given to their line of thinking of those US business executives resolute about remaining in China, it might be provided by F. Scott Fitzgerald in a February 1936 Esquire magazine essay entitled, “The Crack-Up.” Fitzgerald explains: “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible” come true.” However, it cannot be denied that those executives are placing their respective companies’ interests in a vulnerable position by remaining on the ground in China. Some might call that a calculated risk. 

Worrisome is the possibility that some may be unable to fully grasp the effect of their own actions. If placed in a trying position by external events as a collapse in US-China relations or a military conflict between the two, it is hard to imagine how US business executives would preserve their respective companies’ operations in China or more generally, how they would actually act. They may very well be placing themselves in what could become a serious dilemma. Concerning those executives laser focused on the bottomline–some might say they should be, they might do better to employ their minds on the matter of the well-being of their employees and equities in China before there is some tumultuous event. Perhaps some would say greatcharlie is over-egging the pudding here. However, greatcharlie hopes only to be of some material assistance.

The world exists in an ordered universe and one expects everything to follow that design. There are patterns one can discern that establish order in the human mind. Illusion must never be chosen over fact. Any senior executive of a US firm operating in China should have already been sufficiently aware of how Beijing is acting. Sentiment is a poor substitute for true feeling and fact. Ignorance more often than not dissolves into tragedy. While they are in a position to reexamine the facts, they should do so while there is still time available. Qui ipse si sapiens prodesse non quit, nequiquam sapit. (A wise man whose wisdom does not serve him is wise in vain.)

Commentary: There Is still the Need to Debunk the Yarn of Trump as “Russian Federation Spy”

The current director of the Russian Federation’s Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR, Sergey Naryshkin (above). US President Donald Trump’s adversaries have tried endlessly to uncloak some nefarious purpose in his legitimate effort to perform his duties, which has been akin to seeking long shadows at high noon. Some in the opposition Democratic Party have gone as far as to offer dangerous fantasies that Trump and officials in his administration are operatives of the Russian Federation. The notion that Russian Federation foreign intelligence officers would not only approach, but even more, attempt to recruit Trump, is daylight madness. No one knows that better than Naryshkin and the directors of the other Russian Federation intelligence services. It is more than likely that in the 2020 US Presidential Election, the outcome will go Trump’s way. Unfortunately, many of the ludicrous allegations, having been propagated for so long and with prodigious intensity by his adversaries, will likely stick to some degree for some time.

From what has been observed, critics and detractors, actual adversaries of US President Donald Trump, within the US news media and among scholars, policy analysts, political opponents, and leaders of the Democratic Party, have exhibited a practically collective mindset, determined to find wrong in him as President and as a person. His presidency was figuratively born in the captivity of such attitudes and behavior and they remain present among those same circles, four years later. Trump’s adversaries have tried endlessly to uncloak some nefarious purpose in his legitimate effort to perform his duties, which has been akin to seeking long shadows at high noon. Many of those engaged in such conduct have garnered considerable notoriety. Specific individuals will not be named here. When all is considered, however, those notables, in reality, have only left a record littered with moments of absolute absurdity. That record might break their own hearts, if they ever took a look over their shoulders. In developing their attacks on Trump, his adversaries have built whimsy upon whimsy, fantasy upon fantasy. One stunt that became quite popular was to make an angry insinuation of Trump’s guilt in one thing or another, and attach the pretense of knowing a lot more about the matter which they would reveal later, in an childlike effort to puff themselves up. Ita durus eras ut neque amore neque precibus molliri posses. (You were so unfeeling that you could be softened neither by love nor by prayers.)

Of the many accusations, the worst was the claim, proffered with superfluity, that Trump and his 2016 US Presidential Campaign were somehow under the control of the Russian Federation and that he was the Kremlin’s spy. The entire conception, which developed into much more than a nasty rumor, a federal investigation to be exact, was daylight madness. (It is curious that anyone would be incautious enough to cavalierly prevaricate on hypothetical activities of the very dangerous and most ubiquitous Russian Federation foreign intelligence services in the first place.) Before the matter is possibly billowed up by Trump’s adversaries again in a desperate effort to negatively shape impressions about him, greatcharlie has made the humble effort to present a few insights on the matter that might help readers better appreciate the absolute fallaciousness of the spy allegation.

With regard to the yarn of Trump as Russian Federation spy, his adversaries sought to convince all that they were comfortable about accusing Trump of being such because they had the benefit of understanding all that was necessary about the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods of the Russian Federation’s Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR, Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU, and, the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB. However, it was frightfully obvious that the whole subject was well outside the province of those self-declared experts. Whenever they made statements concerning how Russian Federation foreign intelligence services operated, no doubt was left that they did not have a clue as to what they were talking about. It actually appeared that everything they knew about it all was gleaned from James Bond and Jason Bourne films, as well as streaming television programs about spying. That fact was made more surprising by the fact that Members of both chambers of the US Congress who were among Trump’s political adversaries actually can get facts about how everything works through briefings from the US Intelligence Community. They even have the ability to get questions answered about any related issue by holding committee hearings. Those on the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, in particular, can get themselves read-in on a good amount of available intelligence on an issue. The words and actions of many political leaders leaves open the real possibility that they were intentionally telling mistruths about Trump with the goal of deceiving the US public. That would simply be depraved and indefensible. As one should reasonably expect, there are stark differences between the banal amusements of Hollywood and the truths about spying.

Imaginably as part of their grand delusion, Trump’s adversaries would claim the reason why Russian Federation foreign intelligence would want to recruit him would be to establish an extraordinary, unprecedented level of access to, and influence upon, US policymaking, decisionmaking, and top secret information. In considering how Russian Federation foreign intelligence senior executives and managers would likely assess Trump as a recruitment prospect, purely out of academic interest, one of the first steps would be a genuine examination of his traits. Among the traits very likely to be ascribed to Trump that would obviate him as an intelligence recruitment target would include: his extroverted personality; his gregarious, talkative nature; his high energy; his desire to lead and be in command at all times; his oft reported combustible reactions to threats or moves against him, his family, or their interests; his strong intellect; his creativity; his curious, oftentimes accurate intuition; his devotion to the US; and his enormous sense of patriotism. To advance this point furthrr, if Russian Federation foreign intelligence senior executives and managers were to theoretically ruminate on just these traits while trying to reach a decision on recruiting him, they would surely conclude that an effort to get him to betray his country would fail miserably. Indeed, they would very likely believe that an attempted recruitment would more than likely anger Trump. They would also have good reason to fear that he would immediately contact federal law enforcement and have the intelligence officers, who approached him, picked up posthaste. If any of the lurid negative information that his adversaries originally alleged was in the possession of the Russian Federation intelligence services–all which has since been totally debunked–were used by Russian Federation intelligence officers to coerce him, Trump might have been angered to the point of acting violently against them. (This is certainly not to state that Trump is ill-tempered. Rather, he has displayed calmness and authority in the most challenging situations in the past 4 years.) Whimsically, one could visualize Russian Federation intelligence officers hypothetically trying to coerce Trump, being immediately reported by him and picked up by services of the US Intelligence Community or federal law enfiecement, and then some unstable senior executives and managers in Yasenevo would go on to publicize any supposed embarassing information on him. That would surely place the hypothetical intercepted Russian Federation intelligence officers in far greater jeopardy with the US Department of Justice. They could surrender all hope of being sent home persona non grataCorna cervum a periculis defendunt. (Horns protect the stag from dangers.)

Perhaps academically, one might imagine the whole recruitment idea being greenlit by senior executives and managers of the Russian Federation foreign intelligence services despite its obvious deficiencies. Even if they could so recklessly throw caution to the wind, it would be beyond reason to believe that any experienced Russian Federation foreign intelligence officer would want to take on an assuredly career-ending, kamikaze mission of recruiting Trump and “running” him as part of some magical operation to control the US election and control the tools of US national power. As a practical matter, based on the traits mentioned here, no Russian Federation intelligence officer would have any cause to think that Trump could be put under his or her control. Not likely having a truly capable or experienced officer step forward to take on the case would make the inane plot Trump’s adversaries have speculated upon even less practicable. Hypothetically assigning some overzealous daredevil to the task who might not fully grasp the intricacies involved and the nuance required would be akin to programming his or her mission and the operation for failure. (Some of Trump’s adversaries declare loudly and repeat as orbiter dictum the ludicrous suggestion that Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin was his intelligence “handler.” No one in the Russian Federation foreign intelligence mens sana in corpore sano, and as an existential matter, would ever suggest that Putin should involve himself in such an enterprise. The main reason for that being because he is Putin, and that means far more in the Russian Federation than outsiders might be able to comprehend.) One could go even a step further by pointing out that in order to make his adversaries’ notional plot work, Russian Federation foreign intelligence senior executives and managers conceivably involved would need to determine how to provide Trump with plenty tutoring along the way given that Trump had no experience whatsoever with the work involved in the sort complicated conspiracy as his adversaries have envisioned. Such notional work would require the impossible, Trump’s “obedience,” and even more, plenty of covert contact, thereby greatly increasing the chance that any Russian Federation foreign intelligence officers involved would be noticed and caught.

Politically, for Russian Federation foreign intelligence service senior executives and managers, there will always be a reluctance to make new problems for the Kremlin. If proper Russian Federation foreign intelligence officers under this scenario were actually caught attempting to recruit Trump, US-Russian relations would be put in a far worse place than where they were before the theoretical operation was executed. If the matter of recruiting Trump were ever actually brought up at either SVR or GRU headquarters, it would imaginably be uttered only as an inappropriate witticism at a cocktail reception filled with jolly chatter or during some jovial late night bull session with plenty of good vodka on hand. Even under those circumstances, experienced professionals would surely quiet any talk about it right off. Unquestionably, few on Earth could be more certain that Trump was not a Russian Federation operative than the Russian Federation foreign intelligence services, themselves. For the Russians, watching shadowy elements of the US Intelligence Community work hard to destroy an innocent man, the President of the US nevertheless, must have been breathtaking.

Information that may appear to be evidence for those with preconceptions of a subject’s guilt very often turns out to be arbitrary. One would not be going out on shaky ground to suggest that a far higher threshold and a more finely graded measure should have been used by the US Intelligence Community to judge the actions of the President of the US before making the grave allegation that the country’s chief executive was functioning as a creature of a hostile foreign intelligence service. Initiating an impertinent federal investigation into whether the US President was a Russian Federation intelligence based primarily on a negative emotional response to the individual, and based attendantly on vacuous surmisals on what could be possible, was completely unwarranted, could reasonably be called unlawful, and perhaps even be called criminal. Evidence required would imaginably include some indicia, a bona fide trail of Russian Federation foreign intelligence tradecraft leading to Trump. The hypothetical case against him would have been fattened up a bit by figuratively scratching through the dust to track down certain snags, hitches, loose ends, and other tell-tale signs of both a Russian Federation foreign intelligence operation and presence around or linked to him.

To enlarge on that, it could be expected that an approach toward Trump by Russian Federation foreign intelligence officers under the scenario proffered by his adversaries most likely would have been tested before any actual move was made and authentic evidence of that initial effort would exist. Certain inducements that presumably would have been used to lure Trump would have already been identified and confirmed without a scintilla of doubt by US counterintelligence services and law enforcement as such. To suggest that one inducement might have been promising him an election victory, as his adversaries have generally done, is farcical. No reasonable or rational Republican or Democrat political operative in the US would ever be so imprudent as to offer the guarantee of an election victory to any candidate for any local, state, or national office. Recall how the good minds of so many US experts failed to bring victory to their 2016 Presidential candidates, to their 2018 midterm Congressional candidates, and to their 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates. Anyone who would believe that the Russian Federation Intelligence Community would be more certain and better able, to put a candidate into national office in the US than professional political operatives of the main political parties would surely be in the cradle intellectually. Martin Heidegger, the 20th century German philosopher in What Is Called Thinking? (1952), wrote: “Das Bedenklichste in unserer bedenklichen Zeit ist, dass wir noch nicht denken.” (The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.)

Trump came to the Oval Office somewhat contemptuous of orthodox ways of doing things in Washington. He referred to those elements of the system in Washington that were shackled to traditional, politically motivated ways of doing things as “the swamp.”  Trump said he would do things his way and “drain the swamp.” To an extent, as US President, that was his prerogative. Trump was new to not just politics in general, but specifically national politics, new to government, new to foreign policy and national security making, and new to government diplomacy. (This is certainly no longer the case with Trump for he has grown into the job fittingly.) For that reason, and as their patriotic duty, directors and senior managers in the US Intelligence Community should have better spent their time early on in Trump’s first term, developing effective ways of briefing the newly minted US President with digestible slices of information on the inherent problems and pitfalls of approaching matters in ways that might be too unorthodox. More effective paths to doing what he wanted could have been presented to him in a helpful way. With enormous budgets appropriated to their organizations by the US Congress, every now and then, some directors and senior managers in the US Intelligence Community will succumb to the temptation of engaging in what becomes a misadventure. If money had been short, it is doubtful that the idea of second guessing Trump’s allegiance would have even glimmered in their heads. Starting a questionable investigation would most likely have been judged as being not worth the candle.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s superlative sleuth, Sherlock Holmes, had occasion to state: “To a great mind, nothing is too little.” It should be noted that Russian Federation foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services almost certainly have kept their ears perked hoping to collect everything reported about the painstaking work of elements of the US Intelligence Community first to prevent, then to bring down, Trump’s Presidency. Indeed, they have doubtlessly taken maximum advantage of the opportunity to mine through a mass of open source information from investigative journalists, various investigations by the US Intelligence Community, the US Justice Department, and varied US Congressional committees, in order to learn more about how US counterintelligence services, in particular, operate. Strands of hard facts could be added to the existing heap of what Russian Federation foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services had already collected about the deplorable enterprise. Previous analyses prepared in the abstract on other matters were also very likely enhanced considerably by new facts. Indeed, Russian Federation foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services very likely have been able to extrapolate, make inferences about, and more confidently conceptualize what was revealed to better their understanding of the activities of the US Intelligence Community in their own country, both past and present. Sadly, that may have helped to pose greater challenges and dangers for US intelligence officers, operatives, and informants.

The illustrious John Milton’s quip, “Where more is meant than meets the ear, “ from “Il Penseroso” published in his Poems (1645), aptly befits the manner in which words and statements are often analyzed in the intelligence industry. When those senior executives and managers formerly of the US Intelligence Community who were involved in the plot against Trump and are now commentators for broadcast news networks, offer their versions of the whole ugly matter on air, there is always something for Yasenevo to gain. Despite the best efforts of those former officials to be discreet during their multiple on air appearances, there have doubtlessly been one or more unguarded moments for each when a furtive tidbit that they wanted to keep concealed was revealed as they upbraided Trump. Moreover, their appearances on air have surely provided excellent opportunities to study those former officials and to better understand them and their sensibilities. Such information and observations doubtlessly have allowed Russian Federation foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services to flesh out psychological profiles constructed on them over the years. (Although it seems unlikely, some could potentially return to government in the future. It has been said that “Anything can happen in cricket and politics.”) Moreover, Russian Federation foreign intelligence and counterintelligence services have also likely been allowed to use that information and observations, to put it in the bland language of espionage, as a means to better understand specific US intelligence and counterintelligence activities that took place during the years in which those errant US senior executives and managers involved in the plot against Trump were in their former positions.

To journey just a bit further on this point, Russian Federation foreign intelligence and counterintelligence additionally had a chance to better examine specific mistakes that they respectively made in their operations versus the US, using revelations from investigations into the plot against the Trump administration. That information would have most likely inspired audits in Yasenevo to better assess how closely its foreign intelligence officers, operatives, and informants have been monitored and how US counterintelligence has managed to see many Russian Federation efforts straight. Whether these and other lessons learned have shaped present, or will shape future, Russian Federation foreign intelligence operations in the US is unknown to greatcharlie. Suffice it to say that there were most likely some adjustments made.

Trump has absolutely no need to vindicate himself concerning the “hoax” that insisted he was in any way linked to the Russia Federation for it is just too barmy. Trump has the truth on his side. Nothing needs to be dressed-up. He has been forthright. Regarding the Russian Federation, Trump has stood against, pushed back on, and even defeated its efforts to advance an agenda against the US and its interests. Those who have tried to suggest otherwise are lying. The normative hope would be that Trump’s adversaries actually know the truth and for their own reasons are acting against it. In Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad wrote: “No man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape the grim shadow of self-knowledge.” It seems, however, that Trump’s adversaries, refusing to accept reality, have replaced it with a satisfying substitute reality by which they may never find the need to compromise their wrongful beliefs. In the US, one is presumed innocent until proven guilty, has a right to due process, and upholding the rights of the citizen is paramount. For the most part, US citizens understand these ideas and are willing to defend those rights. As such, there has actually been a very poor reaction among US citizens toward the aggressive posture Trump adversaries have taken toward him. It is still a possibility that in the 2020 US Presidential Election, the outcome will go Trump’s way. Unfortunately, the many abominable, false stories of his wrongdoing will likely stick to him to some degree for some time. Opinionem quidem et famam eo loco habeamus, tamquam non ducere sed sequi debeat. (As for rumor and reputation let us consider them as matters that must follow not guide our actions.)