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

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

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

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

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

Russia and Islamic Militant Groups

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

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

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

Taking Action

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

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

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

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

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

Assessment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background: Putin and the US

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

The Chekists share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken their homeland, create disorder, and make it dependent of Western technologies. They feel that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. The Chekists are resentful of the West’s success over the Soviet Union in the Cold War. As Putin himself has publicly expressed, the Chekist consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. That loss did not mean a loss of dignity or the will to act. Anti-Western sentiment became so strong that it has created a siege mentality among the Chekists. In his March 18, 2014 speech declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin spoke not only as the voice of Russia, but the voice of the Chekists. He enumerated some of the actions taken by the West that have fostered contempt in Moscow. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice from Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple their country; the expansion of NATO to include members of the Soviet Union’s own alliance, the Warsaw Pact; the erroneous Russian decision to agree to the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which he refers to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally. Putin is determined to save Russia from disintegration, and frustrate those he perceives as enemies that might weaken it. He will not be satisfied until Russia’s global power and influence are restored and the independent states of the former Soviet Union are brought back under Moscow’s political, economic, and military (security) influence.

Even prior to the op-ed’s publishing, the downward spiral of Russia’s relations with the Obama administration was evinced  by: Putin’s decision to allow National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2010; counter allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and the US admonishment of Russia on human rights issues. Despite these and other negative connections, the White House sent Putin proposals on a variety of issues, some in which he had already expressed disinterest. They insisted that he agree to reductions that would be made in both nations’ nuclear arsenals.

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

Summit Cancellation 2013: The Catalyst

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

The Op-Ed

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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