Trump Wants Good Relations with Russia, But if New Options on Ukraine Develop, He May Use One

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). To negotiate with Putin, US President Donald Trump and his advisers recognize that it is important to look well beyond his statements and optics and fully grasp what he wants. Putin seems to have Russia sitting on Ukraine and moving at a deliberate pace on the Minsk peace process. Moving slowly on the peace process has given him an upper hand to a degree, as other parties involved are required to respond to his whims. The Trump administration will unlikely tolerate that. New options are likely being developed.

The ideal geopolitical response to the global power crisis is a connection between US, and Russia. In 2017, the foreign policy efforts of the administration of US President Donald Trump evinced a desire not to isolate Russia, or allow engagement with it to fall off. He does not want to settle on a long-term stand-off in which peace, particularly in Europe, is placed at risk. He believes the US and Russia can be good neighbors on the same planet. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the renowned US foreign policy scholar and former US National Security Adviser, stated that sophisticated US leadership is sine qua non of a stable world order. Finding a way to establish an authentic positive relationship with Russia is a struggle US administrations have engaged in for a few decades. Trump said he would try to find the solution, and explained that he would give it his best effort. However, critics depicted Trump as being a naïve neophyte, outmatched by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. They warned of the dangers of Trump dealing with the sly, experienced Russian leader. Still, there is a greater reality about the entire situation. While the Trump administration remained outwardly positive about working with Putin, it was not in fact overly optimistic about that. Trump and foreign and national security policy officials in his administration were always well-aware of the fact that Putin and his government can more often than not be disingenuous. Yet, Putin is the duly elected president of Russia, and its head of state. Moreover, for now, Putin is the best leader available to keep Russia’s complex society somewhat stable. He has managed to contain extremist political elements that might seek war with Russia’s neighbors, NATO, or the US directly without thinking it through and he has suppressed morally void organized criminal elements that might wreak havoc globally.

One policy issue on which the administration has found Moscow disingenuous is Ukraine. Kiev is committed to a westward orientation. Yet, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has grabbed Crimea and has invested considerable effort in collecting territory in Eastern Ukraine. Some analysts in the West speculate that he might try to take all of Ukraine eventually through conflict. Ukraine in a particularly bad position vis-à-vis Russia  as it sits as metaphoric low hanging fruit in its “near abroad.” In 2014, it moved into Ukraine and grabbed Crimea. The Minsk Agreement, signed in Minsk, Belarus, on February 12, 2015, was supposed to have established a ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine once signed. However, in the many months since its signing, a succession of violations have occurred in both the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, and consequently Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian separatist fighters have been killed. From the view of Washington, Putin has actually been the one who has figuratively dynamiting the peace process on Ukraine with the help of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed, independent, Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic

To negotiate with Putin, it is important to look beyond his statements and observable actions and fully grasp what he wants. On Ukraine, he seems to have Russia simply sitting on its territory as well as distorting the Minsk peace process. Moreover, by taking that approach, Putin has acquired an upper hand on the matter, requiring  other parties in the peace process to respond to his whims. The Trump administration will unlikely tolerate that. New options for Trump to consider may be developing now. Some them would very likely have been anathema in policy discussions on Ukraine in the administration of US President Barack Obama. As greatcharlie explained in a recent post, when Trump acts on an issue, his goal is to exploit success, preserve his freedom of action on immediate matters, and reduce vulnerability from action by his competitors. He acts in a manner designed to gain advantage, surprise, and momentum over his competitors, achieving results that would normally require far more time and would be more costly to the US. If on Ukraine there is daylight, and a chance for open field running via a new option, Trump may give it consideration. He might even use it. In that vein, Russia should not wait around to see what happens next. It might be best for Moscow to insist on some resolution on Ukraine at the negotiation table, using the Minsk Agreement, or even something different, before there are any considerable changes in the situation there. Equidem ad pacem hortari non desino; quae vel iniusta utilior est quam iustissimum bellum cum civibus. (As for one, I cease not to advocate peace. It may be on unjust terms, even so it is more expedient than the justest of civil wars.)
Map of Ukraine (above). Moscow views Ukraine as being part of its sphere of influence, its “near abroad”, and its hope would be to bring it into Russia’s fold, willing or unwilling. The US and other Western powers support Kiev’s desire to be an independent actor. Long before the mass protests in Kiev began in 2014, circles there were quite pro-Western and welcomed entrées from the EU to take a westward path.

Background on the Ukrainian Conflict

Russia views Ukraine as being part of its sphere of influence, its “near abroad”, and its hope would be to bring it into its fold, willing or unwilling. The US and other Western powers want to support Kiev’s desire to be an independent actor. Long before the mass protests in Kiev began, there were circles in Ukraine that were quite pro-Western and welcomed entrées from the EU for their country to take a westward path. Those circles were the foundation for the Orange Revolution of November 2004 to January 2005 after a questionable result of a November 21, 2004 presidential election run-off vote. Protesters engaged in civil resistance, civil disobedience and strike actions, and took control over Kiev’s main square, called the Maidan. They managed to force a revote through which their candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, won. Many government reforms made during Yushchenko’s term were reversed when the pro-Russian presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych took office in 2010. Opposition political elements and a burgeoning civil society, were already engaged in a simmering political dispute with then President Yanukovych when he turned his back on a Western trade pact in 2014. Pro-European protesters once again took control over the Maidan. The peaceful protesters, who called their movement the Euromaidan Revolution, included participants from a wide spectrum of the society, but were all pro-European and anti-corruption. Violent neo-Nazi and ultra nationalist elements that attempted to insinuate themselves into movement. Their activities included blocking streets and attacking peaceful protesters. For three months, the Euromaidan Revolution protesters endured cold weather and murderous police crackdowns. In the third month, Yanukovych fled to Russia. Perhaps anticipating the fall of Yanukovych or simply implementing Russia’s version of a nuclear option on Ukraine, on February 27, 2014, Moscow rushed into Crimea with unidentifiable “green men”, military forces mainly from Vozdushno-desantnye Voyska Rossii ( Russian Airborne Troops) or VDV and the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU. They claimed to be Crimeans. In only a matter of days, Crimea was under Russian control. The US and EU took Putin to task for that bold military operation. Harsh sanctions were levied and Russia was cast out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies. Putin has held on to the territory and has continued to do so in the face of even tougher sanctions against Russian interests. He levied his own sanctions against US and EU products and even began heavily supporting separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine

However, as the US and EU responded to the Russian occupation of Crimea, another crisis arose in the east of Ukraine, in a region known as Donbass. Pro-Russian separatists in its Donetsk and Luhansk provinces took over entire towns and declare the independence of the territory captured. The Kiev government has sent the Ukrainian Army into those region to reclaim its sovereign territory.  The provinces would eventually declare themselves independent states: the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Western officials insist that Russia has actually been controlling both the civil administration of the self-proclaimed countries as well as the fighting. The Minsk Agreement was intended to create a ceasefire, yet thousands of violations were committed by both sides on a daily basis. The combatants have maintained fighting positions too close to one another. Tanks, mortars, artillery, and multiple launch-rocket systems could be found where they should not have been. Civilians living near the fighting have suffered greatly.
Russian Federation “green men” in Crimea, 2014 (above). Soon after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. Putin, perhaps anticipating his fall or simply implementing Moscow’s version of a nuclear option on Ukraine, rushed into Crimea with unidentifiable “green men”, military forces mainly from the VDV and GRU. They claimed to be Crimeans. In only a matter of days, Crimea was under Russian control.

The Minsk Agreement

Nulla res carius constat quam quae perilous empta est. (Nothing is so expensive as that which you have bought with pleas.) Under the Minsk Agreement, Ukraine, the Russian Federation, France, and Germany on February 11, 2015, agreed to a package of Measures to mitigate and eventually halt the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. It was a follow-on agreement to the unsuccessful Minsk Protocol, which was crafted to halt the war in Eastern Ukraine and was signed by the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic on September 5, 2014 under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The Minsk Agreement’s terms included: an immediate ceasefire; a buffer zone separating heavy weapons of both sides, with a minimum buffer zone of 50km for 100mm artillery and up to 140km for rockets; effective verification by the OSCE; amnesty and release of all hostages and illegally detained people; safe access, storage, delivery, and distribution of humanitarian aid to the needy; restoration of government pensions and other welfare payments for civilians in the east; the restoration of Ukrainian control of the banking system in areas affected by the conflict, pull out of all foreign military formations, military equipment, and mercenaries from Ukraine under OSCE monitoring; the disarmament of illegal groups; full Ukrainian control over the eastern border, after local elections under Ukrainian law. There was supposed to be a constitutional deal on the future of Donetsk and Luhansk by the end of 2015 but that went nowhere. The direction which the region may turn will be determined either by the US, EU and Ukrainian Government, intent to keep all of the Donbass in Ukraine, albeit with part of its population reluctant to live under Kiev’s control or by Russia and pro-Russian separatists intent on establishing the region’s independence and tying it umbilically to Moscow. From the additional space in Ukraine he holds, Putin can exert his influence in the region.
Map of Fighting in Eastern Ukraine (above).The direction which Eastern Ukraine may turn will be determined either by the US, EU and Ukrainian Government, intent to keep all of it in Ukraine, albeit with part of its population reluctant to live under Kiev’s control or by Russia and pro-Russian separatists intent on establishing the region’s independence and tying it umbilically to Moscow. From the additional space in Ukraine he holds, Putin can exert his influence in the region.

Russia Has a Unique Perspective on Ukraine

While there is one authentic truth, there are usually at least two sides to every story. Russian perspectives and positions on Ukraine differ from those in Kiev and the capitals of the Western powers. In his answers to questions during a Moscow news conference on January 15, 2018, Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed up Moscow’s thinking on Ukraine .Lavrov explained that on a political level, Russia respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine but only within the boundaries that were designed after the referendum in Crimea and its reunification with the Russian Federation. He said Russia believes that it has a rightful claim to parts of Ukraine and need to save ethnic-Russian from harm is legitimate. He called attention to the fact that “By virtue of their referendum people in Crimea achieved independence and joined the Russian Federation of their own free will.” Lavrov also made a distinction between the Minsk Agreements and the Crimea issue. He said: “one has nothing to do with the other.”

Concerning the Minsk Agreement, Lavrov stated that “We  [Russia] are ready and interested in full compliance with the Minsk Agreements.” He pointed out that Putin has repeated that the Minsk Agreement must be implemented in full, without any exceptions. However, Lavrov explained that the problem with the Minsk Agreement is that Ukrainian leaders are not being made to perform tasks as required under the agreement. He indicated that Ukrainian leaders have been simply stalling by slowly mulling over how lines of the document should be read. He believes that as the agreement was formalized by the UN Security Council no room was left for quibbling over its terms. He was certain that allowing this behavior now will give Kiev the impetus to drag its feet when it finally came down to fulfilling the agreement. Lavrov explained that US and European officials have taken note of what he described as a “tactic” by Ukrainian leaders. He also alleged that Western officials have confirmed Kiev is trying to provoke the use of force in what he calls a “stand-off” as a means to divert attention away from their failure to perform the Package of Measures under the Minsk Agreement
Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (above). During a Moscow news conference on January 15, 2018, Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed up Moscow’s thinking on Ukraine .Lavrov explained that on a political level, Russia respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine but only within the boundaries that were designed after the referendum in Crimea and its reunification with the Russian Federation.

As for the Ukrainian government, Lavrov has explained that its officials have a lack of respect for international law.  He claimed that that lack of respect for international law was manifested in the actions of those same officials when they organized and supported the Euromaidan Revolution, which he called “Maidan”. An example of that disrespect Lavrov offers was the manner in which then opposition leaders, who Lavrov derisively refers to as “putschists”, reached an agreement with Yanukovych as Ukrainian President. Lavrov made clear that although the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland, and France certified the agreement, one day later, the opposition leaders nullified it. Lavrov further complained that EU foreign ministers had engaged in a deception in cooperation with opposition because the agreement they signed provided for the creation of a government of national accord. However, a “government of winners” was formed instead. Expatiating on events that followed, Lavrov noted that a Congress of People’s Deputies of the Southeast [of Ukraine] and Crimea was held in Kharkov. He noted that the deputies were elected in compliance with the Ukrainian Constitution. He explained that they decided to take control of their regions until law and order were restored in Ukraine. He notes that They did not use force against the opposition. He then pointed to a February 23, 2014 language law, that was never actually enacted, but nonetheless approved by the opposition. Lavrov says the law was a manifestation of the anti-Russian, Russophobic thinking of the opposition. Lavrov went on to explain that on February 26, 2014 [the day before the green men arrived in Ukraine], the opposition authorized that use of force by neo-Nazi and ultra-nationalists of the Right Sector, as well as Islamic militants of Hizb ut-Tahrir and a Wahhabite group to take the Crimean Supreme Council building by storm. Lavrov expressed the view that this further distanced Crimeans from illegitimate authorities in Kiev. He noted that of this was also in violation of international law, particularly the Budapest Memorandum, under which the Ukrainian government agreed not to support xenophobic sentiments  Lavrov stated: “I am convinced that the people of Crimea had no option but to defend their identity, their multi-national and multi-confessional culture against such thugs.”

Regarding the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, Lavrov explained that the Minsk Agreements refer to some districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Speaking about fulfilment of the commitments, he noted that among the Minsk Agreement’s first requirements, once hostilities have ceased and troops have been withdrawn, is the organization of direct consultations between the government of Ukrainian government and representatives of some districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Lavrov indicated that Kiev claims that it never made that commitment. He noted that Kiev has been resorting to various configurations in talks designed to demonstrate that it has not recognized or interacted with them, but only Russia, Germany, France, and the OSCE. Lavrov held out hope that the situation between Ukraine and Russia would not last. He quoted Putin as saying that “Russian-Ukrainian relations will improve once the Donbass issue is resolved.” Undoutedly, that means when it is resolved on Moscow’s terms. Quidem concessum est rhetoribus ementiri in historiis ut aliquid dicere possint argutius. (Indeed rhetoricians are permitted to lie about historical matters so they can speak more subtly.)
Trump (left) and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (right). Trump and his advisers have not naively underestimated Putin. The possibility that Putin would not make himself available for deals that would lead to resolutions of disputes and contentious issues that would satisfy the administration was undoubtedly among the big “what ifs” administration officials considered and planned for. Trump and those who could be called the “stone hearts” among his officials have not been surprised by anything Putin has done.

The Trump Administration Enters

Praemonitus, praemunitus. (Forewarned, forearmed.) The Trump administration came into office eager to engage Putin in order to improve relations, but did so with its eyes wide open. Trump’s vision and pronouncement of his intention to engage was wrongly viewed as a pro-Putin deference. Critics predicted disaster if Trump attempted to negotiate on things he did not really understand with the cunning, ruthless Russian leader. Trump also received words of caution about Putin from Members of Congress from his own Republican party. The repeated warnings remind of Act II of William Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of Julius Caesar, in which Caesar dismissed information concerning the conspiracy against him. He rebuffed Calpurnia pleas that he “not stir out of his house” on the Ides of March. He rejected augurers’ claim that the discovery that an animal sacrificed as an offering had no heart was a warning sign. In Act III, Caesar ignored a letter from Artemidorus outlining the conspiracy and identifying the conspirators, and a few lines further down, he was assassinated. The possibility that Putin would not make himself available for deals with Trump that would lead to resolutions of disputes and contentious issues that would satisfy the administration was undoubtedly among the big “what ifs” administration officials considered and planned for. Trump and those who could be called the “stone hearts” among his officials have not been surprised by anything Putin has done. They would hardly be naïve and sentimental about any US adversary or competitor, let alone Russia.

Honesta enim bonis viris, non occulta quaeruntur. (Honorable things, not secretive things, are sought by good men.) The jumping off point for attempting to establish better relations with Russia inevitably became getting clarification and reaching some resolution of the issue of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election. The Trump administration wanted answers due to its own concerns and wanted to respond to crushing domestic pressures to find out what happened. Putin was approached by Trump about the 2016 US Presidential Election meddling and the the possibility of rebuilding US-Russian relations and possibly creating a new era cooperation. If things had gone well, the stage would have been set, for better or worse, to move along the road from forgiveness,to acceptance, to restoration, and then rejoicing in Washington and Moscow. However, as sure as when the rain falls from the sky it hits the land, Putin would only offer denials about the meddling. Nevertheless, Trump listened very closely to Putin’s positions and ideas, and developed an understanding of his way of thinking. From those face to face contacts, Trump undoubtedly assessed that getting things done with Putin would require discerning misinformation, maneuvering past distractions, and driving to the heart of matters from which opportunities, open doors, could be found..

On Ukraine, the Trump administration clearly understood that provocative actions would have destabilized an already fragile situation. In addition to Trumps talks with Putin, there have been multiple talks between Tillerson and Lavrov during which Ukraine has been discussed in a fulsome way. Trump has left no doubt that he wanted Russia to leave Ukraine alone, and that is the position that the Russians are hearing from him, Tillerson and all other US officials. Trump gave foreign policy speech in Warsaw that made clear his administration’s objectives and principles. The Trump administration reaffirmed its support of Ukraine. Yet, even before that speech, Russian officials had begun to make claims that Trump’s words and actions were the causality for its attitude and behavior toward the new administration.
Trump (right) listening intently to Putin (left). During Trump’s meetings with Putin, there were friendly smiles and jocund pats on the back. It was a welcome change in US-Russian relations in terms of optics. However, Trump also listened carefully to Putin’s positions and ideas, and developed an understanding of his thinking. From those contacts, Trump assessed that getting things done with Putin would require discerning misinformation, maneuvering past distractions, and driving to the heart of matters from which opportunities, open doors, could be found

Russia’s Off-kilter Approach Toward Its Neighbors

Putin is clearly a clever tactician, but it is unclear whether he is equally shrewd strategist on the global stage. He has served as Russia’s leader as president and prime minister, one could discern through his expressed concepts and intentions, as well as his actions, that he may be leading Russia in retrograde toward the past, albeit  In his effort to maintain his grip on Russia, Putin has resurrected the old systems to control the populace with which he grew up with and is most familiar. That has essentially dragged systems in Russia back to a simulacrum of the Soviet-era domestically and Moscow’s sort of neo-Cold War approach geopolitically. Still, while armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, Russia may no longer have the capability to be flexible militarily and may be unable to be a decisive superpower in the world.

In two earlier posts, “Military Leaders Discuss Plans to Counter ISIS Beyond the Battlefield: While the West Plans, Russia Conquers ISIS in Syria” and “How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight in Syria: Can the US Policy on Syria Be Gauged by Their Success?”, greatcharlie mistakenly assessed that Russia entered the war in Syria determined  to shape the war on the ground and the war’s ultimate outcome given the military power it brought to bear on the problem and the sense of exigence expressed by Putin when he declared that Russia needed to act. Putin emphasized that Russia would attack ISIS, eventually driving it and other Islamic militant groups from Syria, and restoring Assad’s control over the country. That was not the case. Over time, it became clear that Russia lacked the capability to do that despite appearing to have the capacity. Russia also demonstrated a lack of will or desire  to do more and to increase its presence in Syria to enable its forces to act decisively. Perhaps one could glean much from what has happened in Syria to examine and assess Putin’s efforts in Ukraine. Despite any shortcomings observed in Russia’sees military performance in Syria, there can still be no doubt that it can still effecrively act as a divisive power. To that extent, Putin has tasked the Russian military and other security services with mission of eroding existing and burgeoning democracies wherever they sees them.

Indeed, as the EU and NATO expanded eastward, Putin decided to pull independent countries that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit. With the help of the military and security services, Putin would create something that did not preexist in many of those countries: ethnic-Russian communities forcefully demanding secession and sovereignty. That process usually begins with contemptuous murmurs against home country’s identity, language, and national symbols and then becomes a “rebel yell” for secession. It was seen in Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and more recently in Crimea, the Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine. Each time an ethnic-Russian space was carved out of a country, Putin gained a base from which he can exert his influence in that country. Still, despite the activities and some successes of pro-Russian political elements, in the larger territories of those former Soviet republics occupied by Russian Federation armed forces and elsewhere in the sphere of the former Eastern Bloc, political thinking of the people of those countries has not turned in agreement with Russia.
Russian tanks withdrawing from Ukraine (above). Mistakenly, greatcharlie assessed that Russia entered the war in Syria determined to shape the war on the ground and the war’s outcome given the military of power it brought to bear on the conflict and exigence expressed by Putin when he declared Russia’s need to act. Over time, it became clear that Russia lacked the capability to act decisively, although appearing to have the capacity. Russia also lacked the will or desire to do so. One might infer much from this with regard to Putin’s efforts in Ukraine.

Where is Russia Really Going with Ukraine?

Vera gloria radices agit atque etiam propagatur, ficta omnia celeroter tamquam flosculi decidunt nec simulatum potest quicquam esse diuturnum. (True glory strikes root, and even extends itself; all false pretensions fall as do flowers, nor can anything feigned be lasting.) Many Western military analysts have proffered that Putin’s moves in Ukraine would certainly be followed by many more, to reclaim former Soviet republics and more. Along with the capture of Crimea, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, Putin’s determination to hold on in Eastern Ukraine served to substantiates such concern. From everything observed, Putin wants to make Russia better. Yet, it is unclear how Putin’s approach on Ukraine fits into his plans to make Russia better. It is unclear how Russia’s capture of Donetsk and Luhansk would do for Russia in any real respect. As mentioned earlier, despite his shortcomings, he is the best authentic option available to lead Russia for now.  Putin restored order in his country after the internal chaos of the 1990s. It was perhaps his initial career as an officer in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB, that made reestablishing the power of the state a central part of his efforts. (The KGB was the Soviet agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security.) Putin has been a figurative mother to Russia, nurturing it in the best way he knows how. That idea might face some disapproval from Russian citizens who feel shortchanged of their civil and human rights, as well as opportunities to fulfill their ambitions, and feel burdened by anxieties. Still, whenever, the metaphoric waves have gotten higher, Putin has kept his ship, Russia, right and steady.

Putin and a Moscow seem to be still playing the great power game in Europe, and happy to play it alone. To an extent, that would support assessments by analysts and scholars in the West who believe Putin sees everything in terms of conspiracy. It may be that the Obama administration’s approach to Ukraine and other former Soviet republics irked Putin to the extent the he is now swinging after the bell colloquially. He may be stirring difficulties due to political expediency, soothing hardliners political elements at home. It is not completely clear why rather than seek agreements and what he feel are advantages from contact with the US, Putin seems determined to get into a scrap with the Trump administration.

If Donetsk and Luhansk were left in the hands of pro-Russian elements, it is questionable whether Russia would become stabilizing force in region along with its newly formed, Russia would be taking on a new, difficult situation akin to those in its Southern and North Caucasian provinces. Any resistance, peaceful or violent, would likely be dealt withh eavy handedly by Russia and its allies. Hopefully, Moscow would not assist security elements of the help Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic cleanse their new provinces of “troublemakers” or “non-citizens”.

Reconstruction in the Donetsk People’s Republic or the Luhansk People’s Republic would require a lot from Russia. Donetsk and Luhansk were net consumers of foreign imports and dependent on Russian gas before the conflict began. They sit in a region that is considered a rustbelt, needing to be refitted at the cost of billions of dollars Moscow may never have. Reconstruction in Eastern Ukraine will be another huge hurdle for Russia to overcome if its “pro-Russian allies” seceded and became Moscow’s “partners.”  Lacking any significant resources from the US and the rest of the international community to rebuild, the only viable long-term goal in Moscow would be to convert the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic into versions of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria. It would likely receive the recognition of very few countries, Russia’s allies, but not the US or major powers of Europe. The two quasi-countries would in many ways be shut off from the rest of the world. and may never see a postwar economic upturn. Observing the effects of few months of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns, Moscow might recognize that it truly cannot support them in a way that would allow for their rebuilding. An authentic assessment will be left to the economic experts, but there undoubtedly will be a great additional strain on Russia. The situation would only worsen if pressure was placed on Russia over Ukraine through future sanctions.

Ultra posse nemo obligatur. (No one is obliged beyond what he is able to do.) Putin very likely has considered what Russia would be like after he, as one might presume he accepts, is called to heaven. It would seem that now while on Earth, he is doing much to saddle future generations of Russians with two economically impoverished basket cases 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 might pour into Russia, for employment, a “better life.” In the future, a Russian leader might very well try to reverse what Putin is attempting in Ukraine due to financial strains caused. Taking on Donetsk and Luhansk might very well be a great miscalculation, another step toward sealing Russia’s fate as a second tier superpower.

Perhaps the type of success Putin really wants for Russia out of his reach, not by some fault of his own, but rather because it’s problems are so heavy, may run too deep. He may have run out of real answers to put Russia on real upward trajectory given the capabilities and possibilities of the country using all tools available to him. In a significant endeavor, there is always the potential to become lost. To that extent, consciously or unconsciously, Putin may simply be procrastinating, postponing an authentic look at the situation.
US Special Operations troops in Syria (above). The success that the US found in rallying the Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, as well as its success across the border with the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Security Forces, and the Kurdish Peshmerga against ISIS, may convince the US and Western allies to develop plans for a new initiative regarding Ukraine.

Has Putin Overplayed His Hand on Ukraine?

Culpa par odium exigit. (The offense requires a proportional reaction.) The US and European countries no longer appear ambivalent about committing to the requirements of European security, which in many respects can be costly and risky. The success that the US found in rallying the Syrian Democratic Forces against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, as well as its success avross the border with the Iraqi Army, Iraqi Security Forces, and the Kurdish Peshmerga aainst ISIS, may convince the US and Western allies to develop plans for a new initiative regarding Ukraine. Rather than have talks on the status of Ukraine remain in stalemate at the negotiation table, one could surmise that the US might organize a vigorous overt and covert training and equipping of Armed Forces of Ukraine, particularly the Ukrainian Ground Forces That may in turn give those forces the capability to independently regain territory claimed by the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Kiev may, on its own volition, make use of its new arms and capabilities to do just that with such speed and power that nothing could be done rapidly in reaction. The Ukrainian Air Force could be used in ways to support friendly ground movement that has never witnessed before. Kiev has not recognized the the rebellious movements in Donetsk and Luhansk. It has not recognized the autonomy or the secession of those provinces. As far as Kiev is concerned, the entire territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces are still Ukraine’s sovereign territory. For Kiev, agreeing under the Minsk Agreement that the borders between Donbass and Russia, and border control must be administered by the Ukrainian government reflected its position, its belief. The US has asked Russia to take its forces out of Ukraine and hand Crimea back to Kiev’s full control. The reality is that getting the Russians out of Crimea, at least in the near term, may be impossible. However, getting them out of Eastern Ukraine is another thing altogether.

Moscow may be willing to seek some resolution on Ukraine at the negotiation table to halt the total collapse of the forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic forces and whatever units the Russian Federation might have mixed in with them. Ukraine is delicate issue in the Kremlin, but Putin and his advisers do not appear too far down the road to recurvate on it. It could be hypothesized that the collapse of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine would not play well politically at home. Rather than sit and bemoan the new situation, Putin may have no choice but to respond to it all in a way akin to the US response during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and be willing to invade Eastern Ukraine to retake that territory. Moscow could again use the argument that it must defend ethnic-Russian in Ukraine by request. Putin has abstained from more vigorous moves against Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In response to the collapse of the two pro-Russian states, Putin, taking an asymmetric approach, could lash out against the Baltics. Yet, all this being stated, Russia may not be so certain that it could sufficiently respond militarily, extrapolating from what was observed in Syria.

Again, the modest performance of Russian forces on the ground in Syria, in the aggregate, would seem to support the idea that they are ineffective, that they lack real capabilities in many areas. Nevertheless, committing them, despite deficiencies and possible losses, could still put Moscow in a better position to negotiate a satisfactory settlement ultimately. Nullum bellum suscipi a civitate optima nisi aut pro fide aut pro salute. (A war is never undertaken by the ideal state, except in defense of its honor or its safety.)

Ukrainian Ground Forces (above). Rather than cope with deadlocked talks on Ukraine, one could imagine the US organizing a vigorous overt and covert training and equipping of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. That may in turn give those forces the capability to independently, on its own volition, retake most or all of Eastern Ukraine now in the hands of pro-Russian separatists with such tempo and power that nothing could be rapidly done in reaction.

The Way Forward

In Act IV, scene ii of William Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John, John has already ordered the death of his nephew Arthur, who Philip, the King of France believes to be the rightful heir to the throne. As the play opens, messenger tells John that Philip insists that he abdicate to open the throne to Arthur or he will go to war with John to attain it for him. John thinks killing Arthur will solve his problems. but two of John’s followers and counselors, Salisbury and Pembroke, believe that killing Arthur would actually compound his problems. They saw no threat posed by Arthur and were concerned with the people’s reaction to killing him. In the scene, Pembroke tells Salisbury: “When workmen strive to do better than well, They do confound their skill in covetousness; And oftentimes excusing of a fault Doth make the fault the worse by the excuse, As patches set upon a little breach Discredit more in hiding of the fault Than did the fault before it was so patch’d. The US and EU can readily explain that they took Putin to task for that bold military operation. Certainly, one can assign reasons for the effort to include some of the following: to create a wider buffer with the West; to prevent Ukraine’s entry into NATO as no country occupied by Russian Federation armed forces has successfully done so; to secure territory with force in accord with terms of a geopolitical division of Eastern Europe to which NATO agreed in the 1990s; “to rescue” ethnic-Russian space in Donetsk and Luhansk from the violence of Ukrainian nationalists; or to set the stage for a much bigger military move elsewhere in Europe. The list could go on. Yet, regardless of their accuracy or fallaciousness, it is unclear how his current tact, for whatever reason, will genuinely benefit Russia in the long-term. Through both the Minsk peace process and multi level diplomatic efforts, the Trump administration has sought a mutually agreeable, sustainable solution on Ukraine. Still, Putin apparently sees no benefit to these extertions. In fact, he appears to be doubling up on his initial poor decision to make claim to Ukrainian territory. Such behavior was once referred to among US military thinkers as “reinforcing stupidity.”  Cutting closer to the bone, it all seems to be a display of power and pride by the Russian leader. Desire should obey reason, and wisdom for that matter. Being able to swing from the chandeliers, surging with power, is not satisfaction. Power without wisdom invariably collapses beneath its own weight. Kiev’s efforts along with those of the US and Western powers have gone nowhere. Harsh sanctions were levied and Russia was cast out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies. Putin has held on to the territory and has continued to do so in the face of even tougher sanctions against Russian interests. Putin levied his own sanctions against US and EU products and began more heavily supporting separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine

Putin must realize that he is no longer dealing with Obama. Under Trump, decision making on Ukraine will unlikely linger in the halls of inaction. It is difficult to determine what the US and EU could really achieve or gain from exerting further pressure against Russia over Ukraine through sanctions in the future. Putin is not budging. The hopes of some that a resolution could be found through the Minsk peace process are being shattered by Moscow. The Armed Forces of Ukraine should not be viewed a spent force. New US and EU efforts to train and equip its combat elements could change the equation on the ground dramatically. Kiev may soon be presented with new choices. Not to play into the most paranoid ruminations of some Kremlin officials, Kiev, determined to secure it sovereign territory,  it may take more robust and effective military action. While the opportunity and time exists, preparations and decisions on military movements should yield now to more robust and efficacious diplomatic efforts. Nam cum sint duo genera decertandi, unum per disceptationem, alternum per vim, cumque illud proprium sit hominis, hoc beluarum, confugiendum est ad posterius, si uti non licet superiore. (While there are two ways of contending, one discussion, the other by force, the former belonging properly to a man, the later to beasts, recourse must be had to the latter if there be no opportunity for employing the former.)

Trump to Meet With Putin at G-20 Gathering: Trump Seeks an Authentic Relationship with Russia

US President Donald Trump (above). On July 7, 2017 at the Group of 20 economic summit meeting in Hamburg, Trump will have a bilateral meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Finding a way to establish an authentic, positive relationship with Russia is a struggle US administrations have engaged in for decades. Trump feels he can find the solution.Trump does not want to settle on a long-term stand-off in which peace, particularly in Europe, remains at risk. He believes the US and Russia can be good neighbors on the same planet.

According to a June 29, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Trump to Meet With Putin at G-20 Gathering Next Week,” it was formally announced by US National Security Adviser US Army Lieutenant General H.R McMaster that US President Donald Trump would meet Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin on July 7, 2017 on the sidelines of the Group of 20 economic summit meeting in Hamburg, Germany. The article noted that the meeting would be the first between the two since Trump took office and would be the focal point of his second international trip. However, a subsequent July 5, 2017 New York Times article explained that a day before Trump was to leave Washington, the White House announced that the meeting with Putin would be a formal bilateral discussion, rather than a quick pull-aside at the economic summit that some had expected. The July 5th New York Times article went on to explain that the bilateral format benefitted both Trump and Putin. It called Putin a canny one-on-one operator who once brought a Labrador to a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel because he knew she was afraid of dogs. The article proffered Trump’s aides sought structure and predictability, and hoped that a formal meeting, with aides present and an agenda, will leave less room for improvisation and put the focus on pressing policy concerns that Trump is eager to address.

Ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes viros. (Fire provides proof of gold, misery, proof of strong men.) Both Trump and Putin clearly believe the moment to create positive change in US-Russia relations is now. In the face of all the opprobrium, both have shown a new determination to get on with making things right between the two countries. Trump plans to triumph over his skeptics, putting no power in their words. Of course, that process of building relations between their countries will take time. Still, each step brings the two sides closer together and improving one’s understanding of the other. The bilateral talks with Russia at the Group of 20 economic summit will mark a point of flexure in communications between the US and Russia. Finding a way to establish an authentic, positive relationship with Russia is a struggle US administrations have engaged in for a couple of decades. Trump feels he can find the solution. True, the meeting between Trump and Putin will unlikely be a catalytic moment when opponents of Trump, political or otherwise, will see the method in his madness and appreciate his accomplishment. Moreover, when Russia behaves in ways that tear others from peace, it must still face consequences. However, Trump’s efforts evince his desire not to isolate Russia, or allow engagement with it to fall off. He does not want to settle on a long-term stand-off in which peace, particularly in Europe, remains at risk. He believes the US and Russia can be good neighbors on the same planet. For this he should hardly be faulted. Pars magna bonitatis est veile fieri bonum. (Much of goodness consists in wanting to be good.)

US President Barack Obama and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). The Obama administration’s actions and reactions to Putin obscured what was already a difficult path to travel. The Obama administration never put together the right recipe for working well with Putin. When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were a neophyte and not a seasoned national leader. A war of words and rebuffs emerged between Washington and Moscow.

Background on US and Russia Relations

Infandum, regina, jubes renovare dolorem. (Sorrow too deep to tell, your majesty, you order me to feel and tell once more.) The Obama administration’s actions and reactions to Russia did much to further pollute and obscure what was already a difficult path to travel. The Obama administration never put together the right recipe for working well with Putin. When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were a neophyte and not a seasoned national leader. Old ills that were part of US-Russian relations resurfaced, and new ones arose, to include: Putin’s decision to allow US 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, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and the US admonishment of Russia on human rights issues. Putin was still fuming over Operation Unified Protector, during which in 2011, multinational forces including the US, were placed under NATO command and imposed a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Putin felt NATO-led forces went beyond UN Security Council Resolution 1973’s mandate by helping local forces overthrow Gaddafi. Gaddafi had been a friend of the Soviet Union and Russia.

Perhaps the administration did not fully grasp just how poorly things were going with Putin. The Obama administration was confident enough to push agendas for nuclear arms reductions with Russia and the expansion of the EU and NATO just as the administration of US President George W. Bush had. Obama administration officials referred to the effort to attain further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office as a “signature effort.” The reduction of nuclear forces and reductions in conventional forces have been issues US and Russian leaders have dealt with for decades, but Obama was not going to resolve any nuclear issues with Putin. Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are not a mere policy issue or bargaining chip for Putin, but a means of survival for Russia. Putin had no intentions of acceding to proposals for deep cuts in its nuclear arsenal repeatedly sent to Moscow by the administration. The insistence of Obama administration officials to take such an aggressive approach in talks with Russia more than anything served to disrupt the US-Russia relationship. Efforts by US officials diplomats and officials to threaten and cajole, as Moscow perceived talks, were more than just displays of a lack of diplomatic tact and maturity, they were viewed as threatening. Relations with Putin and Russia fell to a very low point when the Obama administration cancelled a September summit meeting between Obama and Putin in 2013. The cancellation was in retaliation over Putin’s decision to reject the administration’s nuclear proposals. Administration officials lamented that Putin’s decision ended the president’s “signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.”

A spate of public rebuffs to Putin sullied ties further. The next year, during preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, there was a constant drum beat of doubt expressed by US security experts on the capability of the Russian security services to protect Sochi from terrorism. A leader’s public declaration of his decision not to attend has practically been a tradition among US and Russian leaders during a period of disagreement in international affairs. In addition to the Olympics, Obama would later decide not to attend the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allies, ending World War II in Europe. The celebration, hosted by Putin, was a time to recall the legacy of cooperation established during the war and a real example of what US-Russian cooperation could be in a common cause. It offered a chance for Obama to privately address his dispute with Putin. It was the best time for him to say that as with the alliance between their countries in World War II, relations between their countries now were important, bigger than both of them. Attending would have required Obama, as Rudyard Kipling would say, to “bite the bullet,” in terms of personal pride, but not in terms of his role as US president. By being absent, that day became one more reminder of the two leaders differences and their uncongenial relationship. A war of words between US and Russian officials was also problematic. Words of anger, mockery, hate, and aggression, do damage that is often difficult to repair. In the last days of his presidency, Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian suspected spies and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over their involvement in hacking U.S. political groups in the 2016 election.

All of this and more has made for a very rocky road for the Trump administration to travel. Initially, Moscow took the view that the Trump administration’s approach to Russia in any direction must reflect the desire to forge a new relationship, not just hammer out a deal. However, in the nascent days of the Trump administration, Moscow faced the predicament of not having a formal articulation of US foreign policy and immediate approaches from the Trump White House or State Department from which it could work, Moscow’s policy decisions concerning the US were based on assessments developed from the abstract by Russian foreign policy analysts of the Trump administration’s most likely Syria policy or greater Middle East policy. If anything,, Russian analysts might have gleaned and constructed his likely key foreign and national security policy concepts on which his decisions might be based from what Trump has stated. Even without a formal articulation of policy, The Trump administration has tried to be reasonable in its approach to Russia.

Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right). A decisive point in US-Russian relations came when Tillerson went into Russia on April 12, 2017 to talk with Putin and Lavrov. A significant achievement of those talks was an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Foreign Ministry officials charged with addressing smaller issues, which Lavrov called “irritants.” That has allowed Tillerson and Lavrov a freer hand to make progress in stabilizing relations.

The decisive point in relations between the Trump administration and Russia came when Tillerson went into Russia on April 12, 2017 to express concerns over the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons and Moscow’s continued insouciance toward Assad’s actions against his own people, non combatants. He wanted to learn firsthand the rationale behind Moscow’s willingness to endure international ridicule and rebuke in response to its friendship with the Assad regime, and what might prompt a decision to end that era. The Kremlin’s attitude toward the situation was manifested by the games played by the Russians before the meetings. For hours after Tillerson’s arrival in Moscow, it was uncertain if Putin would even meet with him because of the tense state of relations. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, held out the possibility of a meeting once Tillerson arrived, saying any meeting would depend on the nature of Tillerson’s talks at the Foreign Ministry. Tillerson, unfazed by any of those developments, went forward with his meeting Lavrov, the metronome of Russian foreign policy and diplomacy.  The meeting lasted for three hours. Tillerson eventually got the call to come meet with Putin, and left the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for Red Square around 5:00PM local time. That meeting lasted for two hours. A significant achievement of those talks was an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials charged with addressing smaller issues, which Lavrov called “irritants which have dogged our relations over the last couple of years,” and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship. That would allow Tillerson and Lavrov a freer hand to address urgent issues. They agreed to consider further proposals concerning the way forward in Syria; the respective allies and coalition partners of both countries would be consulted on the matter. There would be continued discussions directed at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict. Lavrov said Putin had agreed to reactivate an air-safety agreement, a de-confliction memorandum, concerning Russian Federation and US-led coalition air operations over Syria. Moscow suspended it after the US cruise missile strikes.

On June 18, 2017, a US FA-18 fighter (as above) shot down a Syrian Arab Army Su-22 fighter over Raqqa. After Russia said it would terminate deconfliction activity over the shoot down, Lavrov and Tillerson quelled the matter. Lavrov urged Tillerson to use his influence to prevent “provocations” against Syrian government forces in the conflict. The incident evinced how fickle Russia can be over cooperation. Joint activity can be held hostage to Moscow’s reactions to events. Cooperation must be established with protocols or a modus vivendi.

Is This Is the Moment?

Both Trump and Putin understand that the process of building a new US-Russia relationship will take time. Yet, Trump left little doubt that he is eager to meet Putin when the two visit Hamburg, Germany for the G-20 summit on June 7-8, 2017. Trump’s positive thinking has appeared to broaden his sense of possibility and open his mind up to more options. Trump and some others within his administration sense a great opportunity is being presented by his meeting with Putin and sought from the start to establish a full bilateral meeting. Trump wanted media access and all the typical protocol associated with such sessions. It was allegedly leaked to the US newsmedia that other officials at the State Department and National Security Counci sought to pared down that idea, recommending instead that Trump engage in a brief, informal “pull-aside” on the sidelines of the summit, or that the US and Russian delegations hold “strategic stability talks,” which would not include the presidents. In the end, Trump got what he wanted, a bilateral meeting with the Russians, formally organized. Trump and Putin talked informally by phone. During a May 2, 2017 phone conversation, they agreed to speed up diplomatic efforts designed to end the war in Syria. The White House described the phone call between the two leaders as a “very good one” and said they discussed the possibility of forming safe zones to shelter civilians fleeing the conflict. The US also agreed to send representatives to cease-fire talks the following month. Reportedly, Trump and Putin “agreed that the suffering in Syria has gone on for far too long and that all parties must do all they can to end the violence,” the White House said. It was their first conversation since the US launched a barrage of cruise missiles at a Syrian air base last month in response to a chemical attack that the Trump administration has said was carried out by Syrian forces. It was during the same phone conversation that Putin reportedly offered an olive branch to Trump: Both chief diplomats spoke then about arranging a meeting tied to a Group of 20 summit meeting in Germany this summer, the Kremlin said, according to the Russia-based Interfax news agency.

Both Trump and Putin understand that the process building a new US-Russia relationship will take time.Trump left little doubt that he is eager to meet Putin when the two visit Hamburg, Germany for the G-20 summit on June 7-8, 2017. Trump’s positive thinking has appeared to broaden his sense of possibility and open his mind up to more options. Trump senses he has been presented with a great opportunity. He seized that chance to establish a full bilateral meeting with hope of accomplishing a few things.

Following a May 11, 2017 meeting between Trump and Lavrov at the White House, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, on first face, expressed cautious optimism about the prospects for an improvement in U.S.-Russian, saying: “The conversation itself is extremely positive.” He further explained: “We have a lot of work ahead of us.” Progress seemed to have been derailed when on June 18, 2017, a US FA-18E Super Hornet fighter shot down a Syrian Arab Army Su-22 fighter in the southern Raqqa countryside, with Washington saying the jet had dropped bombs near US-led Coalition-friendly forces in Tabqh. On several occasions in weeks before, US-led Coalition fighter jets also struck pro-government forces to prevent them advancing from a U.S.-controlled garrison in southeastern Syria at a spot where the country’s borders join with Iraq and Jordan. By telephone on May 11, 2017, Lavrov and Tillerson discussed the need to cement the ceasefire regime in Syria, in particular on the basis of peace talks conducted in the Kazakh capital Astana. The Russian Federation Foreign Ministry explained Lavrov had urged Tillerson to use his influence to prevent “provocations” against Syrian government forces in the conflict. Lavrov and Tillerson agreed to continue contacts, particularly with regard to their bilateral agenda.

Putin would eventually fully express his own views on possible face-to-face meeting with Trump. In a call in program, “Direct Line with Vladimir Putin” that was broadcast on June15, 2017, Putin offered relatively anodyne statements about the Trump administration and a possible meeting with Trump. It was a big change from the aggressive statements of the past. It seemed that Putin was no longer nursing any wounds resulting from his combative relationship Obama. During the program, Putin responded to a question about engagement with the US on Syria as follows: “On the Syrian problem and the Middle East in general, it is clear to all that no progress will be made without joint constructive work. We hope greatly too for the United States’ constructive role in settling the crisis in southeast Ukraine. A constructive role, as I said. We see then that there are many areas in which we must work together, but this depends not only on us. We see what is happening in the United States today. I have said before and say again now that this is clearly a sign of an increasingly intense domestic political struggle, and there is nothing that we can do here. We cannot influence this process. But we are ready for constructive dialogue.” Putin continued by acknowledging that there were “areas in which we can work together with the United States. This includes, above all, control over non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We are the biggest nuclear powers and so our cooperation in this area is absolutely natural. This is an area of crucial importance and concerns not just the North Korean issue but other regions too.” The call-in program was meant for Russian viewers, however, Putin, seeking to reach international viewers, turned suddenly to the subjects of the Paris Agreement on climate change and poverty, tying them to US-Russian relations and insinuating that he would garner Trump’s cooperation on those issues. Putin explained: “Then there is the fight against poverty, fighting environmental damage and so on. We know the position the current US administration has taken on the Paris Agreement, but President Trump is not rejecting discussion on the issue. Cursing and trading barbs and insults with the US administration would be the worst road to take because we would reach no agreement at all in this case, but it makes no sense to seek agreements without the US, which is one of the biggest emitter countries. We must work together to fight poverty in the world. The number of people earning a minimum income has increased in Russia, but there is a disastrous situation in many parts of the world, and this is one of the sources of radicalism and terrorism, this poverty around the world, and we must decide together how to address this problem. Here, we must work with our other partners too, work with China, India and Europe.”

The aesthetics of Putin’s words on Russian television, welcoming interaction with Trump and expressing to the Russian public that he highly desired such talks, were astounding. Putin’s modus operandi in any exchange is to ensure he is the last man standing. So far, that has not been the case here. The change in temperament and dialogue perhaps  evinces that the desire for positive change in relations among Putin and his cabinet is analogous, mutatis mutandis, with that of the Trump and his administration.

The aesthetics of Putin’s words welcoming interaction with Trump and expressing to the Russian public that he highly desired such talks, were astounding. Putin’s modus operandi in any exchange is to ensure he is the last man standing. So far, that has not been the case here. The change in temperament and dialogue perhaps evinces that the desire for positive change in relations among Putin and his cabinet is analogous, mutatis mutandis, with that of the Trump and his administration. Trump’s positive thinking has appeared to broaden his sense of possibility and open his mind up to more options. Indeed, constructive, successful talks with Putin will allow Trump adjust to circumstances and perhaps become more fluid, more creative in his approach. It will certainly further diplomatic contacts between the US with Russia.

Summit Discussion Topics: A Few Samples (A Few Guesses)

Speaking initially about the planned meeting, McMaster expressed the president’s concept behind his effort which is to establish better relations with Russia by stating: “As the president has made clear, he’d like the United States and the entire West to develop a more constructive relationship with Russia but he has also made clear that we will do what is necessary to confront Russia’s destabilizing behavior.” Former Obama administration officials have offered their opinions about the Trump-Putin meeting. Among the more prominent were comments by Obama’s chief Russia specialist at the National Security Council in 2009 and his Ambassador to the Russian Federation Michael McFaul, in the familiar vein of seeking confrontation with Russia, told the New York Times that the meeting was a vital opportunity for Trump to show strength by calling out Putin sharply for the election meddling and to make it clear he is not fooled by Moscow’s misbehavior. McFaul was quoted as saying: “There is a sense in Moscow that Trump is kind of naïve about these things and just doesn’t understand.” He went on to instruct: “You don’t want your first meeting with Putin to create the appearance that you’re weak and naïve, and with some short, direct talking points, he could correct the record.” Veritatis simplex oratio est. (The language of truth is simple.)

Trump managed to become US president doing what he wanted to do, having truly dominant knowledge of the desires of the US public and overall US political environment. He knows what he wants and what he can really do. Ideally, if agreements are reached, they will be initial steps perhaps to unlock the diplomatic process on big issues. Already US State Department and Russian Foreign Ministry officials are working on nagging issues. The two leaders will likely acknowledge good existing agreements and make promises to continue to adhere to them. Where possible, it may be agreed to strengthen those good agreements. What has been observed in diplomatic exchanges so far between the US and Russia is a type of modus vivendi, a way of living, working together, between leaders and chief diplomats. After Putin granted Tillerson a meeting in Moscow after his talks with Lavrov, Trump granted Lavrov a meeting in Washington during a visit to meeting with Tillerson. It also indicated a willingness to establish a balance in negotiations or quid pro quo on issues when possible. Such seemingly small steps have been confidence building measures that have help lead to the meeting between presidents. Those small steps also supported an open line of communication between chief diplomats which is all importance as US and Russian military forces work in close proximity in Syria, Ukraine, and skies and waters in NATO, Canadian and US territory. If all goes well, there will certainly be more to follow. Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas. (Use what is yours without harming others.)

Russian Federation Army spetsnaz in Syria (above). Ostensibly, Russia went into Syria both to prop up Assad’s regime and engage in counterterrorism operations against ISIS, Al-Qaeda affiliates, and other Islamic militant groups. Putin has stated regarding Syria and the Middle East in general that progress would not be made without joint constructive work with the US. Genuine cooperation on counterterrorism requires information sharing and joint operations, but again, Russia can be fickle over cooperation.

1. Counterterrorism and a Joint US-Russia Counter ISIS Strategy

On counterterrorism specifically, Moscow apparently wanted to secure a pledge from the Trump administration that it would work directly with Russia to destroy Islamic militant groups in Syria and wherever Russian interests are concerned. Russia claims it has been able to put significant pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups using its special operations forces–Spetsnaz–and airpower. Russia’s dedication to counterterrorism was demonstrated by the strengthening of its terrorism laws in 2016. Genuine cooperation on counterterrorism requires not only information sharing, but joint operations. Yet, as evinced on military deconfliction in Syria, Russia can be fickle over cooperation. Joint activity has been held hostage to political reactions in Moscow due to other events. Establishing such cooperation must be based on protocols or modus vivendi, shielding it from such reactions.

2. Syria: Assad

In September 2015, Putin took the option of solving the conflict in Syria on his terms using a strong military hand. He explained that Russian Federation forces were sent into Syria both to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad and to fight ISIS. On Syria, relations between the US and Russia are improving. By 2015, Assad appeared to lack the ability to remain in power against ISIS and perhaps US-backed Syrian Opposition forces, but the military situation began to turn after Russia, with the urging of Iran, moved its forces into Syria in September of that year and supported Syrian military operations. Assad can only be useful to Russia as a figurehead, a symbol of resistance to the opposition and ISIS. In time, it may make sense to Moscow to replace him with a leader who would be more acceptable among the Syrians. The transition from Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. Assad is at Russia’s disposition. A final decision on how to handle him will need to be made soon. Concerns over Russia’s thoughts on Assad and US concerns about the dangers posed by him must be broached.

Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov (seated left) and Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad (seated right). Currently, Assad is useful to Russia as a figurehead, a symbol of resistance to the opposition and ISIS. In time, it may make sense to Moscow to replace him with a leader who would be more acceptable among the Syrians. The transition from Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. Assad is at Russia’s disposition.

3. Syria: Deconfliction

After the US launched cruise missile strikes against Assad regime airbase on April 7, 2017 following the regime’s chemical attack on Syrian civilians, Moscow suspended air-safety a de-confliction memorandum. Following Tillerson’s meeting with Lavrov said Putin in April 2017, Russia agreed to reactivate air safety hotline created under the air-safety agreement concerning Russian Federation and US-led coalition air operations over Syria. When a US fighter jet shot down a Syrian fighter over the southern Raqqa countryside, the Russian Federation Defense Ministry said it would halt its use of the incident-prevention hotline. The hotline was established between US officers monitoring the war from an operations center at a base in Qatar and their Russian counterparts operating in Syria has been a lifesaving tool since it was set up soon after Russia entered Syria’s civil war in late 2015 to prop up President Bashar al-Assad. However, as with any prospective joint counterterrorism activity with Russia, deconfliction operations cannot be held hostage to political reactions in Moscow to other events. There must be some protocol or modus vivendi established which shields deconfliction operations to the whims of either country.

4. Syria: Reconstruction, Peace-enforcement, and Peace-building via Negotiations

Reconstruction will be another huge hurdle for Russia to overcome in Syria. Even if a modicum of economic aid were granted from the Western countries and international organizations as the UN, the World Bank, or international Monetary Fund, Syria may never see significant rebuilding or economic improvement. Russia has sought stronger ties with Arab countries, bolstering economic ties with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Kuwait and diplomatic overtures with Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt. Russia’s hope is by courting those countries they would become more receptive to its’ calls for a political solution in Syria and responsive to an eventual campaign by Russia to gain financial support for Syria’s reconstruction. However, US participation in those efforts may do much to encourage participation from those Arab countries and Western countries as well. Russia must negotiate US assistance in the reconstruction and peace-enforcement effort.

US Army Rangers moving through Syria (above). Reconstruction will be another huge hurdle for Russia to overcome in Syria. Even if a modicum of economic aid were granted from the Western countries and international organizations as the UN, the World Bank, or international Monetary Fund, Syria may never see significant rebuilding or economic improvement. US participation in those efforts may do much to encourage participation from Arab countries and Western countries as well.

5. Syria: Safe Zones and Immigration

Syrian refugees and the displaced fear returning to a society of arbitrary detentions, beatings, house searches, and robberies.  Most have lost heart that there will ever be a Syria of any good condition to which they can return. Talks between US and Russian special envoys for Syria and other officials are at an early stage of discussing the boundaries of the proposed de-escalation zone in Deraa province, on the border with Jordan, and Quneitra, which borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Washington has misgivings about the Astana talks and wants to forge a bilateral understanding with Moscow in an area of strategic interest to the US and its allies, Jordan and Israel. For Washington to back a deal, Russia would need have Iranian-backed militias to leave the area.  It may be difficult for Russia to rein in the growing involvement in the region of Iran and its allies. Russia must weigh that difficulty against US assistance with reconstruction.

6. North Korea

North Korea has vowed to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the US mainland. Most recently it tested what it claimed was an intercontinental ballistic missile. The US has explained to North Korean that it must stop its nuclear activity. The US has no interest in regime change. While the Trump administration has urged countries to downgrade ties with Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, a cross-border ferry service was launched in May 2017 between North Korea and neighboring Russia. Indeed, in recent years, Russia has rebuilt a close relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. In May, 2014, less than two months after the Crimea annexation and with Western nations seeking to punish Russia, Putin signed away 90 percent of North Korea’s $11 billion debt to Russia, an amount comparable with the debtor state’s GDP. The other 10 percent could be used for joint Russian-North Korean projects. That same year, Russia delivered 50,000 tons of wheat as humanitarian aid to North Korea. Clarification must be sought on Russia’s failure to cooperate with the international community on North Korea. Russia’s cooperation will likely need to be negotiated.

A North Korean missile test (above). North Korea has vowed to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of hitting the US mainland. Most recently it tested what it claimed was an intercontinental ballistic missile. While the Trump administration has urged countries to downgrade ties with Pyongyang over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, Russia has continued to build a close relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

7. Afghanistan: Russia’s Activities

There have been reports from northern Afghanistan that Russia is supporting the Taliban by providing weapons and financing. Russia’s activities in Afghanistan is ostensibly intended to counter the spread of ISIS-affiliated militants in Central Asia and further challenge the US. Still, Russia is aware that the militant group has fought US and international forces since 2001. In April 2017, the commander of the US Central Command US Army General Joseph Votel told Congress that it was “fair to assume” Russia was [militarily] supporting the Taliban. The National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency, reports Russian intelligence agents have provided the Taliban with strategic advice, money and arms, including old anti-aircraft rockets. Russian support played a role in the Taliban’s advances in  Kunduz, where they have twice briefly seized the provincial capital. Clarification on Russia’s activity in Afghanistan must be provided. Russia’s cooperation in defeating US adversaries will likely need to be negotiated.

8. Ukraine: Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk

As the EU and NATO expanded eastward, Putin decided to pull independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit. Accomplishing that required Putin to create something that did not preexist in most near abroad countries: ethnic-Russian communities forcefully demanding secession and sovereignty. That process usually begins with contemptuous murmurs against home country’s identity, language, and national symbols and then becomes a “rebel yell” for secession. It was seen in Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and more recently in Crimea, the Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine. Each time an ethnic-Russian space was carved out of a country, Putin gained a base from which he can exert his influence in that country. European countries no longer appear ambivalent about committing to the costly requirements of collective security. The US may be able to influence Russia’s behavior, but Russia will likely want any negotiations to be part of comprehensive talks on Europe between the superpowers.

Satellite imagery of two tanks (125mm caliber) and 12 armored vehicles and infantry fighting vehicles ostensibly supplied by Russia in the Donetsk region of Ukraine (above). Russia’s annexing of Crimea and deployment of its military forces in Ukraine without Kiev’s consent was in violation of Article IV, paragraph 5 of the treaty. The US, NATO allies, and all other parties to the agreement recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine. The US has also called on Russia to remove its forces and equipment from eastern Ukraine.

9. Ukraine: Sanctions

Sanctions from the US and Europeans have put relations between Russia and the West at considerable risk. Putin rejects the idea that the Trump administration is pushing for additional sanction against Russia and has explained new sanctions are the result of an ongoing domestic political struggle in the US. He has proffered that if it had not been Crimea or some other issue, they would still have come up with some other way to restrain Russia. Putin has admitted that the restrictions do not produce anything good, and he wants to work towards a global economy that functions without these restrictions. However, repetitive threats of further sanctions from the US and EU could prompt Putin to consider means to shift the power equation. He may eventually feel his back is against the wall and may encourage him to act covertly to harm US and Western interests despite denials of doing so. When Russia behaves in ways that tear others from peace, it must still face consequences. However, the modification of that behavior could be rewarded. Sanctions could be used a powerful bargaining chip or a carrot in negotiations.

10. Russian Violations of Open Skies Treaty

The Treaty on Open Skies allows for states party to the treaty to conduct unarmed observation flights over the territory of other states to foster inter-military transparency and cooperation. The US, Canada, and 22 European countries including Russia signed the treaty in Helsinki on March 24, 1992. The US Senate ratified the treaty on November 3, 1993, and it entered into force on January 1, 2002. Today 34 countries are members of the Treaty on Open Skies. Russia has been accused of violating the spirit of the Treaty on Open Skies by restricting access to some sections of its territory. These limits include the denial of overflights over Chechnya or within 10 kilometers of its southern border with Georgia, a limitation on the maximum distances of flights over Kaliningrad, and altitude restrictions over Moscow. Russia has requested to upgrade to certain electro-optical sensors on its surveillance aircraft. The US could threaten to reject Russia’s requests until it again complies with the Open Skies Treaty.

A Russian Federation Tu-214R Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance plane (above). The Treaty on Open Skies allows for countries party to the treaty to conduct unarmed observation flights over the territory of other countries to foster inter-military transparency and cooperation. The US has complied with the treaty. Russia has violated the spirit of the treaty by restricting access to its territory. It has prohibited overflights over Chechnya or within 10 kilometers of its southern border with Georgia, set a limitation on the maximum distances of flights over Kaliningrad, and set altitude restrictions over Moscow.

11. Russian Violations of Conventional Nuclear Forces Treaty

In 2007, Russia suspended its implementation of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe. Russia has continued to violate its treaty obligations and has made clear that it will not resume implementation of the treaty. On November 22, 2011, the US announced in Vienna, Austria that it was ceasing implementation of certain obligations under the treaty with regard to Russia. Similar announcements were made by NATO’S other members as well as Georgia and Moldova, but it did not impact Russian behavior. Russia continues to station its military forces in Georgia and Moldova without the consent of those countries. Russia’s annexing of Crimea and deployment of its military forces in Ukraine without Kiev’s consent was in violation of Article IV, paragraph 5 of the treaty. The US, NATO allies, and all other parties to the agreement recognize Crimea as part of Ukraine. The US has also called on Russia to remove its forces and equipment from eastern Ukraine. Clarification on Russia’s actions adverse to the treaty must be sought. Any possibility of its future compliance with the treaty can be discussed.

12. Russian Violations of the Intermediiate Nuclear Forces Treaty

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) eliminated and prohibits an entire class of missiles: nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. The US remains in compliance with the INF. Reportedly, Russia has been developing missile systems in violation of the INF Treaty. As a counter move, the US has positioned weapons systems that are not prohibited by the INF Treaty in Europe. The US Air Force has deployed conventional B-52 and B-1 bombers periodically to Royal Air Force Fairford, a forward airbase in Britain. It has been suggested that Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles could be stockpiled there for potential use by the aircraft. Moscow would not like that. The US Navy could increase the presence of surface ships and submarines carrying conventionally armed sea-launched cruise missiles in the North Sea and other waters around northern Europe. The US Navy could consider home-porting several sea-launched cruise missile-capable warships at a European port, as it has done with Aegis-class destroyers based in Rota, Spain. The threat from Russian intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles to US allies in Europe and Asia is destabilizing. An effort to negotiate Russia’s return to compliance should be made.

A Russian Federation Iskander-M (SS-26) intermediate range missile (above). The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) eliminated and prohibits an entire class of missiles: nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Reportedly, Russia has been developing missile systems in violation of the INF Treaty. The threat from Russian intermediate-range ground-launched cruise missiles to US allies in Europe and Asia is destabilizing.

13. Nuclear Forces: New Deterrence Systems

The Russian Federation deploys an estimated 307 ICBMs which can carry approximately 1040 warheads. They represent only 40 percent of the country’s total arsenal of thermonuclear warheads. Russia has been developing an upgraded Topol-M variant, the more advanced Topol MR or SR-24 Yars. The Yars, is reportedly fitted with more advanced decoys and countermeasures than the Topol-M, and featuring a higher speed, has been specifically designed to evade Western anti-ballistic missile defense systems.Both Topol-M variants can be deployed from either missile silos or transporter-erector launchers. The more advanced Yars can reportedly be fitted with four to six multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles.The RS-28 Sarmat is the newest heavy liquid-propelled ICBM under development for the Russian Federation Armed Forces. In 2018, the Sarmat will replace older Soviet R-36M missiles, dubbed “Satan” by NATO, as the heavy silo-based component of the Russian nuclear forces.The Sarmat will have a dozen heavy thermonuclear warheads, each individually steerable during reentry. Those warheads are said to have advanced anti-missile countermeasures meant to beat the US Anti-Ballistic Missile Defense Shield. Both the US and Russia could discuss their intentions regarding nuclear force enhancement.

Russian Federation RT-2PM2 or “Topol-M” intercontinental ballistic missile (above). Russia has been developing an upgraded Topol-M variant, the more advanced Topol MR or SR-24 Yars. The more advanced Yars can evade Western anti-ballistic missile defense systems and can reportedly be fitted with four to six multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles. In 2018, the Sarmat will replace older Soviet R-36M (SS-18) missiles as the heavy silo-based component of the Russian nuclear forces. The Sarmat will have a dozen heavy thermonuclear warheads, each individually steerable during reentry.

14. Russian Aerial and Naval Intrusions

Among steps taken by Sergei Shoigu upon becoming Russian Federation Defense Minister April 5, 2012, he created a new corps, the Airspace Forces, and ordered and steadily increased Airspace Force bomber flights and Navy combat patrols. As a result, near the Baltic Sea, for example, Russian military aircraft near were intercepted by NATO jets 110 times in 2016. According to NATO, that number was lower than the 160 intercepts recorded in 2015 and the 140 in 2014. Still, this greatly exceeds the number of aerial encounters above the Baltic Sea before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. In 2013, NATO fighter jets intercepted Russian aircraft 43 times. NATO has explained Russian buzzing of Baltic airspace creates the risk for deadly mistakes. Russian military planes have been flying too close for comfort in Baltic and Nordic skies. The tension created could lead to dangerous accidents or initiate an escalation spiral. Russia must be convinced to halt its provocative aerial and Naval Intrusions as they serve little purpose if its true intent is to move toward peaceful relations with US.

15. Russian Cyber Attacks

In the past decade the Russian government has mounted more than a dozen significant cyber attacks against foreign countries, sometimes to help or harm a specific political candidate, sometimes to sow chaos, but always to project Russian power. The strategy of Russian intelligence, particularly Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR and its military counterpart Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU, has been to pair cyber attacks with online propaganda. It has since been refined and expanded by Russian intelligence. From June 2015 to November 2016, Russian hackers penetrated Democratic Party computers in the US, and gained access to the personal emails of Democratic Party officials, which in turn were distributed to the global media by WikiLeaks. Both the CIA and the FBI report the intrusions were intended to undermine the US election. Cyber gives Russia a usable strategic capability for active measures. If Russia sought to weaken NATO or harm US relations with Europe, cyber attacks could be launched. If potential benefits are great enough, the head of Russia’s SVR, Mikhail Naryshkin, may want to take the risk. Inquiries with Russia about cyber attacks will elicit denials. Russia must be convinced that future cyber attacks could derail efforts to build relations and will result in severe retaliation.

The head of Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR, Mikhail Naryshkin (above). In the past decade the Russian government has mounted more than a dozen significant cyber attacks against foreign countries to project Russian power. From June 2015 to November 2016, Russian hackers penetrated Democratic party computers in the US, and gained access to the personal emails of Democratic officials. Cyber gives Russia a usable strategic capacity. If potential benefits are great enough, Naryshkin may want to take the risk.

16. Russian Interference with US Satellites

Russia is developing the ability to approach, inspect and potentially sabotage or destroy satellites in orbit. For over two years, it has included three mysterious payloads in normal commercial satellite launches. Radar observations by the US Air Force and by amateur hobbyists revealed that after each commercial satellite was deployed, an additional small object would travel far away from the jettisoned rocket booster and later turn around and travel back. Some believe the objects named Kosmos-2491, Kosmos-2499 and Kosmos-2504, may not be a benign program. For years Russia and China have pushed for the ratification of a UN treaty banning space weapons. US officials and outside experts have rejected that treaty as a “disingenuous nonstarter.” The US has supported a European-led initiative to establish norms for appropriate behavior through the creation of a voluntary International Code of Conduct for Outer Space. It would be a first step, to be followed by a binding agreement. Concern over Russia’s development and deployment of capabilities to harm US satellites must be broached. Russia should be invited to sign on to the Code of Conduct for Outer Space or join an effort to develop a new treaty incorporating the most useful aspects of all proposed approaches and additional terms.Russia must be told that it will face consequences if it interferes with US satellites.

17. Russian Arctic Military Build-up

Russia assesses the Arctic is one of the most economically promising regions in the world. The Arctic Circle holds enormous reserves of hydrocarbons and other minerals; the region also provides the shortest path for transporting goods from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans. Russia claims that under international law norms, a substantial part of the territory in Arctic waters belongs to it. Russia observes that in addition to US Navy and US Air Force units, the US fields three ‘Arctic’ brigades in Alaska and special purpose Marines Corps units can be rapidly deployed to the north. The Canadian Army is viewed by Russia as being well-trained for action in the Arctic. Russia has taken note of Ottawa’s reorganization and reequipping its ranger units responsible for security in the Arctic region, and it recognizes Joint Task Force 2, an elite special operations unit of the Canadian Forces, is also prepared to conduct tasks in the Arctic. Further, Russia views the Norwegian Special Force “Rangers” as being especially honed for action in the Arctic. Russia notes that Oslo recently announced its creation of a new unit of special forces practically on the border with Russia. In response, Russia has deployed and specially equipped the 200th and 80th brigades to the Arctic. In 2015, Russia also opened the refurbished Soviet-era Alakurtti base located near the border with Finland in the Murmansk Region. A number of abandoned Soviet-era bases are being reopened and new one are being built. Russia’s fleet of nuclear-powered icebreaker’s is also being bolstered. Clarification on Russia’s activity in the Arctic must be provided. The Arctic units could be viewed as a maneuver force to support potential operations in northern Europe.

A Russian Federation Arctic units in training (above). Russia assesses the Arctic is one of the most economically promising regions in the world. Russia has deployed and specially equipped the 200th and 80th brigades to the Arctic. In 2015, Russia also opened the refurbished Soviet-era Alakurtti base located near the border with Finland in the Murmansk Region. A number of abandoned Soviet-era bases are being reopened and new one are being built. Russia’s fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers is also being bolstered.

Facilitating Deal Making

Issues on which presidential action could immediately resolve matters may be hashed out at the table or it could be mutually agreed to give some additional consideration such matters before giving a response. Both Trump and Putin could make mutual peace offerings. That certainly does not mean emptying oneself akin to oblation, but to do something to encourage good-faith bargaining and compromise. There are several bargaining chips of differing value to both parties. Cooperation on counterterrorism, ISIS, climate change, and poverty may serve as a bargaining chips to get agreements on other issues. However, greater bargaining chips might include: the return of Russian properties in the US, types of reconstruction assistance in Syria, peace-enforcement in Syria, making the Group of 7 the Group of 8 again with inclusion of Russia, some economic sanctions, leaving sanction loopholes open, and lifting restrictions on the Exxon-Rosneft agreement through an exemption. Some of these actions may not appear plausible and could have a deleterious effect on international consensus on sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine and create an uproar among the Europeans. However, Trump undoubtedly believes bold action may be the very thing that can pump blood into negotiations, modify Russian behavior, and get relations moving forward. Conversely, Putin may offer much, if he feels secure enough, to loosen the US grip on Russia’s figurative economic throat. Perhaps some of this might be left for meetings down the road.

Aliquis latet error. (Some trickery lies hidden.) There are those in the Trump administration that will not welcome a warming of ties with Russia such as US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Marine Corps General James Dunford. They perceive Russia as the “enemy at the gates” and a great concern. They are advocates for vigilance and extreme caution with regard to diplomacy with it. Needless to say, McMaster would not be remiss and let Trump begin the meeting without reviewing the “what ifs” and contingencies resulting from what could possibly be unexpectedly difficult meeting. Trump must be able to recognize when it is definitely time to look for the door. If along with success, there are big questions or complaints, it will important not to “cry foul” or even grunt. That might be perceived as weakness by Putin. If a matter is worthy of review, Tillerson will likely be able to sort it out with Lavrov. Indeed, Trump’s meeting with Putin could be a fulsome discussion of issues or an exchange of views on issues much of which senior diplomats could be tasked resolve over time.

Trump must put “America First” but keep firmly in mind how his decisions and actions regarding Russia might impact European allies and partners.There has been considerable anguish and disappointment over Trump’s prior statements on collective security in European capitals. Some European leaders, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, perhaps unwittingly, have promoted such doubts with statements driven by political expedience. She has expressed the will to remain in a combative mode, promising days before the G-20 Summit to fight for free trade, press on with multilateral efforts to combat climate change and challenge Trump’s “America First” policies. Merkel stated: “These will not be easy talks,” She went further by explaining: “The differences are obvious and it would be wrong to pretend they aren’t there. I simply won’t do this.” Asked by journalists about Merkel’s comments, McMaster remarked that the US relationship with Germany was “as strong as ever” and played down the discord. He also noted: “Of course there are going to be differences in relations with any country, and we’ll talk frankly about those differences. The president enjoys those conversations.” For the moment, many Europeans will likely stand a bit uneasy and apprehensive about US intentions and actions until trust and confidence are eventually rebuilt. Europe is not just an acquaintance of the US. For decades, the US has served as Europe’s defacto guardian, key to its security. While Europe may not be Trump’s primary focus it is a prime concern.

The Way Forward

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet XCIV explains that the ability to restrain the expression of emotion, and refrain from revealing to the world via visage one’s authentic thoughts and true feelings were regarded as virtue or at least useful ability in that day. Such persons–often found in positions of leadership–tend to isolate their true selves, but Shakespeare indicates that does not diminish the virtue. Using a flowers sweet scent as a metaphor, he explains it’s scent is still sweet when wasted on the desert air. However, he explains that such virtue when corrupted is far worse than depraved behavior. It reads:

They that have power to hurt and will do none,

That do not do the thing they most do show,

Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,

Unmoved, cold, and to temptation show,

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces

And husband nature’s riches from expense;

They are the lords and owners of their faces,

Others but stewards of their excellence.

the summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,

Though to itself it only live and die,

But if that flower with base infection meet,

The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;

Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Trump has “advanced in age and wisdom and in grace with God and man.” Much as he may amuse himself through tweets to intemperate younger journalist, who, while projecting venomous comments toward him at the same time more often tickle him with their countenance, he is more than aware of his responsibility as the steward of his country’s security. He wants to establish peace and security for future generations: for his grandchildren and their posterity. Trump wants to do big things for his country, he sought the job of president for that reason. His efforts concerning Russia relations are noble.

Time, words, opportunity are things that in many circumstances come once, and never come back. One must make use of time available. It does not mean rush into things, but to be mindful that limits for preparation and action exist. Words can open doors and lead to resolution but can also damage. Banality and boastfulness so far has been avoided by the two sides. The similitude between the words of engagement used by Trump and Putin indicate there is reason for hope. Both time and words have served to create the opportunity for a positive connection between Trump and Putin. Surely, Trump cannot know what is in Putin’s heart. Putin is a calculator. Yet, Trump is unthreatened, and unmoved by notions proffered that Putin serves all things evil. If the ultimate goal of Moscow is to have the US submit to its will, Trump will not allow that to happen. He transmits no hint of doubt. Conversely, Putin must cope with his own uncertainties about Trump. One’s will acts upon what reason discerns. It is not self-justifying. Will is guided by intellect. To that extent, a genuine effort is being made and both sides appear to have the requisite he will. One would unlikely say everything has been elegantly done so far. However, some things can be smoothed out at the coming meeting, and a few more at all the subsequent ones. Success with Russia will change international affairs globally. Variatio detectat. (There is nothing like change.)

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

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

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

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

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

Trump’s Alleged Policy Troubles

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

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

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he was presenting the term as a concept, a guiding principle indicating his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. Still, it would be fallacious to apply this concept to Trump’s actions if he has witnessed grave harm come to any long-time ally,  partner or friend of the US, or innocent civilians of Syria, who he has suggested he would protect in safe zones if they returned home. Trump has a moral center, the values from which have a place in his foreign policy decision making.

The Better Angels of Trump’s Nature?

To liberally paraphrase the early Christian theologian and philosopher St. Augustine of Hippo, the defense of war is that it is using lethal force to stop others from committing evil or from inflicting evil upon people. The moral dilemma remains for us: as people who are ourselves sinful and living in a fallen world, our motivations for doing things can be misguided. Our sinful passions can control our behaviors which can lead us to act for wrong reasons and to accomplish sinful ends. Self-neglectful virtue melts all physical and ideological boundaries with a charity that gives hope to those perceived as the most helpless. After the chemical weapon attack in Idlib, Trump felt compelled to make a strong decision. Some policy analysts and news media pundits insist that it was made at the cost of contradicting certain principles, as America First, that he has firmly espoused. True, when Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he was presenting the term as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. Trump will unlikely be disposed to subordinating the interests of the US to the needs, wishes, or demands of any country. However, it would be fallacious for anyone to apply this concept to his actions if he has witnessed grave harm come to any long-time ally, partner, or friend of the US, or innocent Syrian civilians, who Trump has suggested he would protect in safe zones if they returned home. Trump has a moral center, the values from which have a place in his foreign policy decision making, a most recently his response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria. The better angels of his human nature took over. Trump’s words on the evening of the strikes in Syria signalled all of this. Trump explained: “My fellow Americans: On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians.  Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children.  It was a slow and brutal death for so many.  Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.  No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

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

Trump’s Military Experts Take Action

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

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

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

Chemical Weapons and the Assad Regime

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

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

A Possible Next Military Step

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

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

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

Can Tillerson Get a Handle on Russia?

Quid debemos cogitare? (What ought we think?) The Trump administration recognizes the Russian Federation’s significant presence in Syria and its influence with the Assad regime as well aa other countries that support it there. Its strong connection to the regime was enough to convince the Obama administration to accept Russia’s proposal to remove and destroy the Assad regime’s chemical weapons arsenal to avoid threatened military action by the US. Assad long ago was relegated to cameo appearances on the world stage via news media interviews. His cooperation could never be assured, and his treachery was assumed. Tillerson went into Russia to express concerns over Moscow’s continued insouciance toward Assad’s actions against his own people, non combatants. He wanted to learn firsthand the rationale behind Moscow’s willingness to endure international ridicule and rebuke in response to its friendship with the Assad regime, and what might prompt a decision to end that era. From Moscow’s perspective, the Trump administration’s approach to Russia in any direction must reflect the desire to hammer out a deal, not demand one. The insistence of Obama administration officials to take such an aggressive approach in talks with Russia more than anything served to disrupt the US-Russia relationship. Efforts by US officials diplomats and officials to threaten and cajole, as Moscow perceived talks, were more than just displays of a lack of diplomatic tact and maturity, they were viewed as threatening. Opinions expressed by former Obama administration officials on how the cruise missile strikes could be used as leverage in diplomatic talks with the Russian Federation appear to reflect the approach which Moscow found so unappealing. Antony Blinken, former US Deputy Secretary of State and Principal Deputy National Security Adviser in the Obama White House, reportedly told Reuters: “The US strike–ordered less than three days after the gas attack–could make it clear to Russia that the United States will hold Moscow accountable for Assad.”  Reuters also quoted Blinken as saying, “Tillerson ought to be ‘very matter of fact’ in his meetings, sending Russia a message that: “If you don’t rein him in, we will take further action.” Evelyn Farkas, a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia, assured Reuters that “Securing a Russian commitment on eliminating Assad’s chemical weapons is likely to be first on his agenda.”

For hours after Tillerson’s arrival in Moscow, it was uncertain if Putin would even meet with him because of the tense state of relations. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, held out the possibility of a meeting once Tillerson arrived, saying any meeting would depend on the nature of Tillerson’s talks at the Foreign Ministry. Tillerson, unfazed by any of those developments, went forward with his meeting Lavrov, the metronome of Russian foreign policy and diplomacy.  The meeting lasted for three hours. Tillerson eventually got the call to come meet with Putin, and left the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for Red Square around 5:00PM local time. That meeting lasted for two hours. All that is publicly known about the content of Tillerson’s April 12, 2017 meetings with Lavrov and Putin, has been gleaned from remarks and responses heard at the post meeting press conference. On April 6, 2017, Tillerson expressed the view that Russia had “failed in its responsibility” to remove Syria’s chemical weapons under a 2013 agreement, which he argued showed Russia was either complicit with the gas attacks or “simply incompetent.” At the April 12th press conference, a journalist’s’ question on the matter enabled Tillerson to clarify that statement. He replied: “With respect to Russia’s complicity or knowledge of the chemical weapons attack, we have no firm information to indicate that there was any involvement by Russia, Russian forces, into this attack. What we do know–and  we have very firm and high confidence in our conclusion–is that the attack was planned and carried out by the regime forces at the direction of Bashar al-Assad.” When Tillerson was asked about his conversations with President Putin on Syria, he replied: “Well, we did discuss at length the future role for Assad, whether it be in a future political process or not. Clearly, our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and they have again brought this on themselves with their conduct of the war these past few years. We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality. We do think it’s important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution. How that occurs, we leave that to the process going forward. We do not think one has to occur before the other can begin. And it will take a pace of its own. But the final outcome in our view does not provide for a role for the Assad–for Assad or for the Assad family in the future governance of Syria. We do not think the international community will accept that. We do not think the world will accept that.” Tillerson without question made it clear in his meetings that it would not be business as usual in US-Russian relations. His hope is to make things much better.

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

A significant achievement of the talks was an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials charged with addressing smaller issues, which Lavrov called “irritants which have dogged our relations over the last couple of years,” and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship. That will allow Tillerson and Lavrov a freer hand to address urgent issues. They agreed to consider further proposals concerning the way forward in Syria; the respective allies and coalition partners of both countries would be consulted on the matter. There would be continued discussions directed at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict. Lavrov said Putin had agreed to reactivate an air-safety agreement, a de-confliction memorandum, concerning Russian Federation and US-led coalition air operations over Syria. Moscow suspended it after the US cruise missile strikes. Before its next contact with the Trump administration, Moscow will undoubtedly consider what cooperative role the US could play that would allow for the full exploitation of its capabilities in the anti-ISIS effort. Yet, if Moscow wants to cooperate with the Trump administration on Syria, it must create an environment that will facilitate such cooperation. For the moment, the transition of Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. If the Trump administration ever decided to cooperate with Russia on Syria, it would signal its acceptance of Assad’s presidency as it is Russia’s policy to fully support it. However, to believe that might happen is to deny reality. Assad is at Russia’s disposition. A final decision on how to handle him will need to be made soon.

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

Russia: Beware of Assad

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

Belarus Allows Small Demonstrations Outside KGB Headquarters: As Belarus Curries Favor with the West, Can It Help Russia, Too?

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (left) with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko (right). Putin wants to keep the Republic of Belarus within his country’s sphere of influence. Yet, due to regional security concerns, Belarus has gained new importance in the West. Lukashenko, once called Europe’s last dictator, is being approached by the EU and US. He has responded by trying to strengthen ties with them. Some Western analysts conclude Putin will not react well to this development. However, Belarus’s ties to the EU could actually enable its ally Russia to circumvent sanctions through a creative trade arrangement.

According to an October 29, 2016 article in the New York Times entitled, “Belarus Allows Small Demonstrations Outside KGB Headquarters,” dozens of demonstrators held a gathering in front of the headquarters building of Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) or KGB in Minsk to commemorate the 1937 execution of over 100 members of the Belarusian intelligentsia under the orders of the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Union Josef Stalin. The demonstrators also protested continuing repression in Belarus.  The demonstration was not authorized, however the police did not interfere. The annual commemoration provides the Belarusian public a rare opportunity to show disapproval for the government led by President Alexander Lukashenko. Nikolai Statkevich ran against Lukashenko in the 2010 Belarusian Presidential Election and was imprisoned for five years afterward. The New York Times article quoted him as stating: The fear of repression haunts Belarus as before. Today’s authorities are ideological heirs of those times.”

The EU and US now seem to be approaching Lukashenko with outstretched arms. Lukashenko, once the target of profound obloquy in the West and whose government was called “Europe’s last dictatorship” in 2005 by then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, is now covered with good words to the extent that his past iron fisted actions have nearly been cloaked. Belarus, in response to EU and US overtures, has engaged in a vigorous effort to curry favor and strengthen ties with them. The question of whether Lukashenko can genuinely recurvate westward after being oriented so long toward Russia has been responded to by some EU leaders with rather Delphine statements.

Putin wants Belarus to remain in Russia’s sphere of influence. He wants to keep Belarus in the Central Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Some Western foreign and defense policy analysts would quickly point out that Lukashenko has never been disposed to completely subordinating the interests of Belarus to that of Russia, or of the West for that matter. Pedictably, those Western analysts have concluded Putin, their bête noire, likely perceives Lukashenko as being disloyal, and suggest that he could react aggressively. Such analyses simply signal a fear of Russian military power. They also signal a fear that when the interests of any country in Russia’s sphere of interest is detectably at odds with those of the Kremlin, a “second Crimea” may be in the making. Crimea happened. Putin acted aggressively. However, Crimea should not be the baseline to gauge Putin’s thinking and actions going forward. Putin does not act impulsively; he acts with purpose. He can well-distinguish between what he wants for the moment and what he wants most. Putin does not want to have Russia defined as a rogue country with a military that is nothing more than an army of conquest. Having built solid relations with Minsk, especially with regard to security, for over a score of years, it is hard to imagine Moscow attempting to militarily intimidate or actually attack Belarus over its contacts with the EU. Extrapolations perpetuating such notions are counterintuitive. In fact, Putin has hardly reacted. He may very well recognize some potential in his ally’s new EU contacts for Russia to circumvent economic sanctions via a creative trade arrangement.

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Belarus is a 207,600 square kilometer, landlocked country, bordered by the Russian Federation to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. When Putin took office, he viewed Russia’s relations with Belarus as unsatisfactory and improved them. Belarus’s strategic importance to Russia increased following regional events such as NATO’s creep into the post-Soviet space, and the “Color Revolutions.” Belarus and Russia have had a few political and economic rows. Still, the two countries are staunch allies.

Belarus: In Brief

The Republic of Belarus is a 207,600 square kilometer, landlocked country, bordered by the Russian Federation to the northeast, Ukraine to the south, Poland to the west, and Lithuania and Latvia to the northwest. Its capital is Minsk. While the borders of Belarus were set at the end of World War II, they were shaped mostly when some territory of the Second Polish Republic was reintegrated into them after the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. During World War II, Belarus lost about a third of its population and more than half of its economic resources. The Soviet Union redeveloped the republic in the post-war years. On July 27, 1990, the Parliament of the Belarus declared the republic’s sovereignty, and on August 25, 1991, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarus declared itself an independent country. Since 1994, Alexander Lukashenko has served as the President of Belarus. His leadership was widely criticized in the West. Lukashenko perpetuated a number of Soviet-era policies, to include state ownership of large sections of the economy. For years, political opposition was violently suppressed. Elections in Belarus were declared rigged by the international community.  The country’s rating under The Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index was the lowest in Europe until 2014. Freedom House assessed Belarus under Lukashenko as “not free.”  It was labelled “repressed” in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. In the Press Freedom Index for 2016 of Reporters Without Borders, it was ranked 157th out of 180 countries.

Belarus’s Ties to Russia

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly formed Russian Federation tried to control the post-Soviet space by creating the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) on December 8, 1991. However, Belarus, much as other republics in the CIS, began drifting away from Russia, which at that time was attempting to cultivate Western relations and save its broken economy. In the early 1990s, Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin was concerned that his country’s involvement with Belarus might put its bridge building efforts with the West at risk. Yet, while Russia was fixed on improving relations, Western capitals discerned Russia’s inability to act effectively. NATO began to expand east. Stung and threatened by what he perceived as an effort by the West to isolate it from the European environment by grabbing up Central and Eastern European countries and former Soviet republics, Yeltsin sought to improve ties with Belarus. Relations between the two countries became so congenial that in the mid-1990s, following Lukashenko’s rise to power, Yeltsin concluded Belarus would be an ideal candidate for integration with Russia. After signing the Treaty of Friendship, Good-Neighborliness and Cooperation with Belarus, Yeltsin declared that “the two nations [had] shared a common historical experience over many centuries.” That, he explained, “created the basis for signing the treaty and other documents on deeper integration of our two countries. Among all CIS countries, Belarus has the greatest rights to such a relationship due to its geographical location, its contacts with Russia, our friendship and the progress of its reforms.” One year after April 2, 1996 when the integration process was launched, the Union of Belarus and Russia was established. It culminated with the founding of the Union State between Belarus and Russia on December 8, 1999. When Putin took office, he determined that the status of the relations with Belarus was unsatisfactory and criticized the Union State Treaty. He sought to put real content into it. He formulated a policy genuinely directed at realizing unification. His proposal was to complete unification either in a federation model which meant that Belarus would join the Russian Federation, or build a union which is similar to the EU. However, Belarus rejected those approaches and there was no change. Still, Putin did not abandon the idea of unification completely. The next goal became integration. The strategic importance of Belarus to Putin increased as a result of international events, to include. NATO’s activity in the post-Soviet space; the decision of many Eastern European countries to orient westward; a US plan to deploy a missile defense system in Poland or the Czech Republic; and, the “Color Revolutions.”

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Russia’s share of Belarus’s international trade is 48 percent. In 2015, $17.1 billion in Russian exports went to Belarus. More than half of Belarus’s purchases from Russia are in crude oil alone–reportedly $9 billion in 2015. Disagreements over profits and payments from the energy trade led to the Gas Wars of 2004, 2007, and 2010. In the 2010 row, Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev and Russian energy giant Gazprom claimed Belarus owed Russia $200 million in gas arrears for that year. Belarus demanded transit fees owed by Russia. The matter was resolved and went away.

Considering that integration with Belarus would be costly, it is reported that Moscow sought to maximize gains from it. Its goals became to reduce the economic burden which Belarus laid on its economy, and to take over Belarus’s energy transit infrastructure. That tack spurred many of the political and economic rows. Among those conflicts was a disagreement that arose when Lukashenko accused Russia of offering a $500 million loan to Minsk on the condition that it recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Lukashenko angrily retorted that the position of Belarus was not for sale. Regarding the close military cooperation between Belarus and Russia, Lukashenko compared Belarus’s population of 10 million people as a human shield for Russia against the West. That service, he said, “was not free.” The Milk War erupted in July 2009 when Russia banned all dairy imports from Belarus, explaining that they did not comply with new regulations. Belarus accused Russia of using the ban for political reasons, but Russia denied that. In a statement presented by his press service, Lukashenko lashed out, stating: “Economy serves as the basis for our common security. But if Belarus’s closest CSTO ally is trying . . . to destroy this basis and de facto put the Belarusians on their knees, how can one talk about consolidating collective security in the CSTO space?” Lukashenko acted by refusing to attend the 2009 CSTO summit in Moscow. The CSTO, Putin’s counterweight to NATO, groups Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in a security arrangement. Shortly afterward, Russia lifted the ban and Belarus resumed importing of dairy products to Russia. Additionally, there were the Gas Wars of 2004, 2007, and 2010. In the 2010 Gas War, a dispute arose over a claim by Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev and Russian energy giant Gazprom claimed that Belarus owed $200 million in Russia gas arrears for supplies it had used that year. Belarus then demanded transit fees owed by Russia. A resolution was found and the matter quietly went away.

The EEU is an economic integration bloc of post-Soviet republics. It succeeded the erstwhile Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan in January 2015. Armenia and Kyrgyzstan joined the EEU later that year. The bloc coordinates policies of its member states in key industries. In that spirit of coordination, the argument between Belarus and Russia over the price of natural gas was resolved, although the two sides have apparently not yet reached a consensus on the scale of the price discount (if any) or the mechanism of its delivery to Belarus. Russia’s share of Belarus’s international trade is 48 percent. In 2015, $17.1 billion in Russian exports went to Belarus. More than half of its purchases from Russia are in crude oil alone–reportedly $9 billion in 2015. Of Belarus’s overall exports, 39 percent is directed to Russia. Those imports from Belarus totaled only $10.4 billion. For the most part it sells Russia value-added goods in return. Aside from trucks and industrial machines, Belarus sells processed foods. A network of Belarusian grocery stores operates in major Russian cities.

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Above is an assembly line at the Minsk Motor Plant. Nearly a third of Belarus’s overall trade is with its second largest trading partner, the EU. Belarusian exports to the EU are dominated by mineral fuels. Chemicals, agricultural products, machinery and textiles form a much lower share. While the EU has withdrawn trade preferences for Belarus, the potential to greatly expand trade exists.

The Strong Military Linkage Between Belarus and Russia

Although there have been some setbacks in the political and economic integration of Belarus and Russia, the military-integration process between them has been successful. Cooperation with Belarus fits snuggly within Putin’s vision for geopolitical order in the post–Cold War world. Putin has never accepted the expansion of the EU and NATO into Central and Eastern Europe. It was practically guaranteed that Putin would push back against what he might call an intrusion into Russia’s near abroad. The near abroad is what Moscow refers to as the territory surrounding Russia’s borders. The term was reportedly popularized by former Russian Federation Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev in the early 1990s. For centuries, Russia has sought to ensure its physical security through its control over neighboring territory. For Putin, the term represents a concept akin to the Monroe Doctrine.

On February 14, 2013 at a conference entitled “Russia’s Military Security in the 21st Century,” the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, provided a glimpse of Russia’s official assessment of future wars it may face as outlined in the top secret Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation. The impact of Putin’s thinking on the Western threat to Russia is apparent. The Russian Federation General Staff believes future conflicts will be “Resource Wars.” Indeed, they conclude the depletion of energy resources will soon become an ultimate world crisis and overtake regions. Severe shortages of oil, gas and other natural resources would cause their prices to steeply rise. Russia’s senior military leaders believe outside powers, primarily the US and its allies, may invade their country from several directions to physically grab territory and its resources. The Kremlin has accepted the threat assessment of the the Russian Federation General Staff. Putin signed the Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation into law on January 29, 2013. The plan guided Russia’s defense spending in 2016 which exceeded 6 percent of Russia’s GDP, along with national security and federal law enforcement budgets totaling an additional 3 percent. The plan guided the Russian military build-up in the Arctic, the Pacific, the Baltic, in Crimea and on the Ukrainian border. The Syria expedition is also part of that picture. To rehearse the defense against the West, Russian Federation Defense Minister, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu, announced massive strategic military exercises Zapad 2017, scheduled to take place in September 2017. He said that the joint exercise, which would include Russian and Belarusian forces, will be the “main military event of 2017.” Further, the two countries armed forces will cooperate in over 130 events and measures. Shoigu explained: “The US and NATO are actively increasing their offensive potential, building new bases and developing military infrastructure, undermining international stability, and attempting to impose their will by economic sanctions and use of military force. A propaganda information war is raging.” Shoigu further stated that Russian borders were being threatened and adequate defensive measures are being taken.

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Belarus (shaded in green), Russia (shaded in violet), and their neighbors. Providing a glimpse of the top secret Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation, on February 14, 2013, the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, explained the depletion of oil, gas and other natural resources will become an ultimate world crisis by 2030. Russia’s senior military leaders believe outside powers, primarily the US and its allies, may invade Russia from several directions to grab its land and resources. Lukashenko insists that Belarus will remain part of Russia’s defense.

Ubi concordia, ibi victoria! (Where there is unity, there is victory.) To a great degree, Russian and Belarusian regional security approaches have been harmonized. Lukashenko has pledged that Belarus will be an integral part of the Russian Federation’s defense. Indeed, he has gone as far as to say that the army of Belarus, the modernization of which was nearly completed, was ready to defend Russia’s western border. According to RIA Novosti, Lukashenko declared: “We, together with the Russian people, the Russians, will defend our common homeland in the highly important for Russian western direction. We will be dying in this direction to defend Belarus and Russia.” Lukashenko has referred to the Belarus population as 10 million human shields in the defense of Russia. Lukashenko further stated that the Belarusian Army will be able to show resistance to any aggressor.  Prior to those statements, Lukashenko told the Belarus Parliament that he would not allow the country’s opposition to depict Russia in the image of an enemy. Lukashenko declared to the Belarus Parliament: “The Russians are our brothers, with whom we have been living for a very long time.”

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Putin (right) and Russian Federation Defense Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu (left). Putin signed the Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation into law on January 29, 2013. The plan guided Russia’s defense spending in 2016 which exceeded 6 percent of Russia’s GDP, along with national security and federal law enforcement budgets totaling an additional 3 percent. The plan guided the Russian military build-up in the Arctic, the Pacific, the Baltic, in Crimea and on the Ukrainian border. The Syria expedition is also part of that picture. Shoigu announced that massive military exercises would be held by Russia and Belarus in 2017 to rehearse their joint defense against the West.

A New Military Doctrine for Belarus

Following deliberations in the Belarusian Parliament, Lukashenko signed a new edition of the country’s military doctrine into law. While the doctrine, updated for the first time since 2002, does not directly identify the countries which serve as a threat to Belarus, it is hinted in no uncertain terms that NATO is its most likely adversary. Indeed, according to Paragraph 11.3 of the doctrine, direct military threats to Belarus include “the expansion (or creation) of military-political alliances in the European region in which the Republic of Belarus is not included,” and attempts by such alliances to carry out “global functions.” Meanwhile, Paragraph 11.4 alludes to the threat posed by “the strengthening of the offensive capabilities of states (or coalitions of states), including the unilateral establishment of strategic missile defense systems, precision-guided weaponry equipped with non-nuclear warheads for attacks against the military forces and infrastructure of the Republic of Belarus,” and other measures “leading to a disruption of the existing balance of forces, as well as the building up of military infrastructure by states bordering Belarus.” There is an emphasis on the dangers of “missile defense” and cruise missiles disrupting the existing balance of forces in the region. (The new doctrine surely refers to NATO and the ongoing buildup of its’ forces in Eastern Europe, including US missile defense system deployed in Romania and Poland.) In addition to direct military threats, the new Belarusian military doctrine discusses military-political, military-strategic and military-economic threats to the country. When presenting an earlier draft of the doctrine for parliamentary deliberation, Belarusian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov explained that “a particular emphasis was placed on the negative trends associated with the development of the concept of ‘Color Revolutions,’ and mechanisms aimed at changing the constitutional order and violating state’s territorial integrity by provoking internal armed conflicts.” Those mechanisms would include the use of private military forces, and “hybrid warfare.”

Months before the new doctrine’s promulgation, Lukashenko, while discussing priorities for the armed forces on October 31, 2015, directed his government to focus on developing special operation forces, rapid response forces, intelligence and control systems. Those military elements are best equipped to defeat intelligence-gathering efforts of adversaries and fight diversionary groups and illegal armed formations both in urban areas as well as the countryside. Minsk harbors suspicions that an effort might be afoot to topple Lukashenko. It views Ukraine, not Russia, as a possible hybrid warfare threat.

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Belarusian troops (above). Following deliberations in Parliament, Lukashenko signed Belarus’s new military doctrine into law. The doctrine, updated for the first time since 2002, does not directly identify the countries which serve as a threat to Belarus, but it is apparent that NATO is deemed the greatest military threat. Accordingly, Lukashenko declared: “We, together with the Russian people, the Russians, will defend our common homeland in the highly important for Russia western direction. We will be dying in this direction to defend Belarus and Russia.”

A New Military Doctrine for Belarus

Following deliberations in the Belarusian Parliament, Lukashenko signed a new edition of the country’s military doctrine. While the doctrine, updated for the first time since 2002, does not directly identify the countries which serve as a threat to Belarus, it is hinted in no uncertain terms that NATO is its most likely adversary. Indeed, according to Paragraph 11.3 of the doctrine, direct military threats to Belarus include “the expansion (or creation) of military-political alliances in the European region in which the Republic of Belarus is not included,” and attempts by such alliances to carry out “global functions.” Meanwhile, Paragraph 11.4 alludes to the threat posed by “the strengthening of the offensive capabilities of states (or coalitions of states), including the unilateral establishment of strategic missile defense systems, precision-guided weaponry equipped with non-nuclear warheads for attacks against the military forces and infrastructure of the Republic of Belarus,” and other measures “leading to a disruption of the existing balance of forces, as well as the building up of military infrastructure by states bordering Belarus.” There is an emphasis on the dangers of “missile defense” and cruise missiles disrupting the existing balance of forces in the region. (The new doctrine surely refers to NATO and the ongoing buildup of its’ forces in Eastern Europe, including US missile defense system deployed in Romania and Poland.) In addition to direct military threats, the new Belarusian military doctrine discusses military-political, military-strategic and military-economic threats to the country. When presenting an earlier draft of the doctrine for parliamentary deliberation, Belarusian Defense Minister Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov explained that “a particular emphasis was placed on the negative trends associated with the development of the concept of ‘Color Revolutions,’ and mechanisms aimed at changing the constitutional order and violating state’s territorial integrity by provoking internal armed conflicts.” Those mechanisms would include the use of private military forces, and “hybrid warfare.”

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Belarusian special forces in training (above). In the new Belarusian military doctrine, emphasis is placed on trends associated with the development of the concept of “Color Revolutions,” and methods aimed at provoking internal conflicts to destabilize the country and violate its territorial integrity. A year ahead of the doctrine’s promulgation, Lukashenko directed his government to further develop special operation forces, rapid response forces, intelligence and control systems: elements best equipped to defeat intelligence-gathering and fight diversionary groups and illegal armed formations.

Months before the new doctrine’s promulgation, Lukashenko, while discussing priorities for the armed forces on October 31, 2015, directed his government to focus on developing special operation forces, rapid response forces, intelligence and control systems. Those military elements are best equipped to defeat intelligence-gathering efforts of adversaries and fight diversionary groups and illegal armed formations both in urban areas as well as the countryside. Minsk harbors suspicions that an effort might be afoot to topple Lukashenko. Officials there view Ukraine, not Russia, as a possible hybrid warfare threat.

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The EU welcomed Lukashenko’s desire to have Belarus play a constructive role in the region by hosting four-party peace negotiations on Ukraine, as well as his decision to maintain political distance from Russia over Georgia, Ukraine and Turkey. The EU called for further human-rights advances by Lukashenko. EU ministers have encouraged Belarus to develop a “vibrant civil society” with more freedom for the media. They have held out the prospect of more trade, economic aid and fast-tracked visas for Belarusians traveling to the EU. Still, many wonder if Lukashenko’s efforts are authentic.

Minsk and Brussels: A Rapprochement?

Some experts have said that it was Lukashenko who began making overtures to the West following Russia’s seizure of Crimea, considerable economic troubles in Belarus, and a degree of instability in Eastern Europe. He managed to grab the attention oF EU leaders in a positive way when he decided to free a number of political prisoners and host multiparty mediations in Minsk for the cease-fire in neighboring Ukraine. EU governments, claiming that they based their decision on content and merit of Lukashenko’s efforts, suspended sanctions on Belarus’s leaders in October 2014. In February 2015, EU foreign ministers terminated sanctions, removing asset freezes and travel bans on 170 officials, including Lukashenko. Three Belarusian companies were also taken off the EU blacklist. The EU maintains an arms embargo and sanctions against four people suspected of being involved in the disappearance of dissidents in the 1990s. Lukashenko responded by intensifying fence mending efforts with the West. As of late, Belarusian diplomats have been pouring considerable energy in enhancing their country’s relations with the West, hoping to capitalize on Belarus’ newfound importance for regional stability. Their approach is bicameral. On the one hand, they seek to develop bilateral cooperation with specific EU countries. On the other hand, they want to develop cooperation with the EU as an institution focusing on the Eastern partnership, a dialogue on modernization, and visa issues. Lukashenko’s current perspective of the EU appears to be reflected in his statements in favor of dialogue with it.  On March 5, 2016, Lukashenko explained: “The Europeans . . . are ready to cooperate with us, including for the sake of security in Europe. We say to them that we’re always open to [talking].” EU and US delegations continue to visit Minsk, but results have been thin. The US has expressed hope not only for improved cooperation on trade, but also on non-proliferation and combating human trafficking.

Praetio prudentia praestat. (Prudence supplies a reward.) Commenting on Belarus, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, remarked, “This is clearly not a rosy or perfect picture . . . but when we see significant, even if limited steps, in what we feel is the right direction, we feel it is right to encourage them.” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke of the “beginnings” of a thaw with Belarus, and concluded, “It’s worth testing in such a situation how much willingness and reciprocity there is on the Belarus side.” Polish Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told reporters, “This is an experiment.” He went on to state: “As a neighbor of Belarus, we are pleased as we hope this will improve relations with the EU and of course with Poland.” While the EU leaders allege they had no intention of prying Belarus from Putin’s hand, that nonetheless was viewed as possible. The EU called for further human-rights advances by Lukashenko. Indeed, in a statement, the EU ministers encouraged Belarus to develop a “vibrant civil society” with more freedom for the media. They held out the prospect of more trade, economic aid and fast-tracked visas for Belarusians traveling to the EU. Lukashenko will take what is offered, but what he really wants from EU countries is financial assistance. Belarus’s international reserves are at the lowest since 2011. Although there has been some direct private investment from the US in Belarus, its development has been relatively slow given the uncertain pace of reform. The US has encouraged Belarus to conclude and adhere to agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the program of macroeconomic stabilization and related reform measures. As of this writing, the International Monetary Fund is still deciding whether it should provide Belarus with a $3 billion, 10-year loan.

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Above are Russian “green men” in Ukraine. In the West, every new statement, every move by Minsk concerning its armed forces, has taken on additional significance in the context of Belarus-Russia relations.  Western analysts still insist that Belarus faces the threat of hybrid warfare from Russia. They conclude that Moscow will monitor Belarus’s improving relations with the West, looking for any signs of a serious loosening of ties with Russia.

Are Problems Between Belarus and Russia Becoming Inexorable?

Ad connectendas amicitas, tenacissimum vinculum est morum similitudo. (For cementing friendship, resemblance of manners is the strongest tie.) At the Third Forum of Russian and Belarusian Regions on June 9, 2016, Putin explained: “In a collaborative effort, Russia and Belarus work to deepen integration processes in Eurasia. As members of the Union State, we are carrying out about 40 programs and are jointly developing advanced technology programmes, primarily, for the aerospace industry, satellite navigation, geological exploration, and agriculture.” Putin further stated: “We are forming the Eurasian Economic Union’s common market for goods, services, capital, and labour, thereby facilitating sustainable economic growth of the member countries and enhancing the competitiveness of our producers on domestic and foreign markets.”  

Some interesting statements have been made by Belarusian officials concerning their country’s security relationship with Russia. There is the example of Belarusian Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov, who, speaking on February 23, 2016, stated that security of the country relied also on military cooperation not only with Russia and members of the CSTO. He also underlined Minsk’s “strategic” military cooperation with China and “aspiration to develop a constructive dialogue with NATO in order to strengthen international and regional security.” An interview of Belarus’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vladimir Makei with the Polish daily, Rzeczpospolita, on October 17, 2016, has been called significant because it was titled “We Are Not Dependents of Russia.” In the West, every new statement, every move by Minsk concerning its armed forces has taken on additional significance in the context of Belarus-Russia relations. When Shoigu announced that a “joint military organization of the Union State” would be created starting in 2016, including notional unification of the two countries’ armed forces, it appeared Belarus-Russia military ties were further strengthening. Yet, in the West, it was viewed by some analysts as a unilateral statement by Russia, and an effort to save face and show the world that the relationship was still intact. Western analysts note that there was no comment from Belarus on the joint military organization of the Union State. There is a perception in the West that Russia routinely announces joint initiatives with Belarus which have not been endorsed by Minsk. When an announcement of a joint air defence system was made in Russia, Belarus did not comment on it, at least publicly. Reportedly, that same week, Belarus TV broadcasted an extended feature on the country’s Air Defense Troops without once mentioning the new military agreement with Russia. Although the general in charge of the Belarusian Air Force has been nominated as the commander for the “joint system,” Western analysts saw the move simply as a face-saver for Minsk. The lack of reaction by Belarus was said to signal Minsk’s disapproval of the effort by Moscow to control the provision of its security. When Belarus needed to purchase modern fighter aircraft to upgrade its ageing air force, Moscow announced instead that Belarus would be hosting a Russian airbase. Western analysts insist that Moscow pressured Lukashenko for the airbase. However, he insisted upon and arranged the aircraft purchase.

Alter ipso amicus. (A friend is another self.) Some Western analysts have concluded that Russia will observe Belarus’s improving relations with the West, looking for any serious threat to its ties. Yet, that idea conflicts with the reality that Putin considers Belarus to be an integral part of Russia’s geopolitical and cultural space. Moscow has invested heavily in preserving and increasing its influence in the country. Lukashenko has no plans to have Belarus abandon Russia. If some drop in the strength of Belarus’s ties to Russia has occurred, it is negligible.From 2008 to 2010, Putin neither acted violently nor took a hostile tone toward what he perhaps regarded as a recalcitrant, yet typical Lukashenko, with his dalliance toward the West and he has no intentions of reacting aggressively toward Belarus now. Putin knows Lukashenko could never stand by wistfully in the face of Russian decisions impacting Belarus. Putin would never allow Russia to be directed by a foreign capital either. Clashing with Lukashenko is the last thing Putin would want. This may especially be true because Belarus might be able to provide Putin with the possibility to overcome EU sanctions related to Ukraine.

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Moldova, just as Belarus, is not subject to EU sanctions. Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin has proposed that Moldova allow Russia to move its goods into a “European zone” in the pro-Russia autonomous regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia as a way for Russia to circumvent EU imposed sanctions. As long as Belarus is not subject to sanctions and the EU is open to trade with it, hypothetically, Russia could move its goods into Belarusian territory, and then have the its goods sold to the West as Belarusian goods, thereby escaping restrictions.

Putin’s Possible Move Regarding Belarus?

US and EU sanctions against Russia over Crimea’s annexation will not go away unless Russia returns the region to Ukraine. Russian Federation Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev remarked at a press conference on November 11, 2016, “Our position is that sanctions will remain unchanged.” Just as the Baltic States were never recognized as part of the Soviet Union by the West. Crimea will always be recognized as part of Ukraine, not Russia. As it was explained in the September 30, 2016 greatcharlie.com post entitled “Putin’s Next Target May Be Moldova, But His Goal Is to Increase Trade, Not Conquer via Military Action,” Russia is well-aware that cooperation stimulates economic growth and higher standards of living on both sides of a border by improving conditions for free trade and exchange. Inter-border cooperation is understood to be a prerequisite of broader integration processes and improving relations between neighboring countries. It can serve as a mechanism for coping with the challenges and jolts resulting from the new divisions created between EU and EEU countries.

As long as Belarus is not subject to sanctions and the EU is open to trade with it, hypothetically, Russia could move its goods into Belarusian territory, and then have its goods sold in the West as Belarusian goods, thereby escaping restrictions. Much as with oil and gas pipelines, Belarus would essentially serve as a relay or refining point for Russian goods targeted for Western markets. For that to even become a possibility, it would certainly be in Russia’s interest to see Belarus improve its relations with the EU, particularly with regard to trade and investment. Belarus could be handsomely remunerated with percentages of profits made or perhaps with greater subsidies on imports of Russian resources. There are certainly limits to the level of Russian products Belarus could absorb for sale to the West. Resale of Russian goods at value added prices would murder the project. Russia certainly could not attempt to move goods into EU countries via Belarus at a level equal to anything it might achieve by trading with them directly. Moscow and Minsk would surely set parameters for the bilateral deal. However, the smallest level would surely be far more than Russia could sell as long as sanctions are in place. Trading an EEU partner’s goods externally in this manner may very well be covered in the economic bloc’s trade provisions. Beyond profit, benefits of this trade arrangement would include: the preservation of Belarus’ brotherly relationship with Russia; Lukashenko’s would have no need to be concerned that the sovereignty of Belarus and its interests were not being respected; and, collective arrangements with Russia such as EEU and CSTO will remain intact. Indeed, Belarus would remain in Russia’s sphere of interest. Note that Belarus is among the few states in Europe that has not asked for membership in the EU. While Belarus has strove for better contacts with EU lately, it has simultaneously sought to further its economic and political ties with Russia.

In many ways, this hypothetical trade arrangement between Belarus and Russia would resemble the creative arrangement Russian Federation Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin proposed for trade with Moldova. Moldova is not subject to EU sanctions. Thus, theoretically, Russia could move its goods into a proposed European zone in Moldova via the pro-Russia autonomous regions of Transnistria and Gagauzia and avoid restrictions. A trade arrangement of this type between Belarus and Russia would also resemble the Outward Processing Trade regime that the EU introduced for Belarus. That regime raised import quota amounts for textiles and clothing manufacturers within the EU thus allowing them to produce garments in Belarus that will return to the EU after processing. Additionally, the arrangement would resemble the somewhat awkward way in which some Belarusian firms have been relabelling food from EU countries and selling them in Russia thereby avoiding Russian sanctions. Probae est in segetem sunt deteriorem datae fruges, tamen ipsae suaptae enitent. (A good seed, planted even in poor soil, will bear rich fruit by its own nature.)

What Might Encourage Putin and Lukashenko to Take This Course?

What might encourage Lukashenko and Putin to seek this arrangement is the fact that after Russia, the main trading partner of Belarus is the EU. Nearly, a third of the country’s overall trade is with the EU. That trade could most likely be expanded with a nuanced cultivation. Belarusian exports to the EU are dominated by mineral fuels. Chemicals, agricultural products, machinery and textiles form a much lower share. While the EU withdrew its trade preferences to Belarus under the Generalized Scheme of Preferences in 2007 in response to Belarus’ violations of the core principles of the International Labour Organization, exports from Belarus to the EU did not cease. The decision only required Belarus to pay import tariffs at the standard non-preferential rate. Trade was also promoted through the Outward Processing Trade regime,which was mentioned earlier.

Lukashenko stands on terrain high enough to survey the liabilities involved in moving closer to the West. Voices in the West have indicated that not all are impressed with Lukashenko’s positive words and a perceived unwarranted rapprochement to Belarus. Even when EU ministers decided to lift most sanctions against Belarus in 2015, they said concern remained “with the situation of human rights in Belarus.” Ministers called on Minsk to abolish the death penalty and implement Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) recommendations on democracy before the 2015 Belarusian Parliamentary Elections. An OSCE report said October’s election showed Belarus had a “considerable way go to” on democratic standards, noting the absence of safeguards against multiple voting, limited choice available to voters and the uneven playing field between Lukashenko and his political opponents. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus, Mikloś Haraszti, stated after the 2015 Belarusian Presidential Election that he had seen no changes in “the dismal human rights situation.” Drawing the EU closer to improve the position of Belarus and in turn improve the trade situation for Russia, would require Minsk to engage in very nuanced interactions with Brussels and EU capitals. Lukashenko and Putin would also need to be concerned that in working to soothe EU concerns over human rights and good governance, they might inadvertently trigger EU leaders to request that Lukashenko step down from power to ensure Belarus would be governed by an authentic pro-EU, pro-democracy leadership. That request could soon become an insistent voice for regime change.

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Drawing the EU closer to improve the position of Belarus and in turn improve the trade situation for Russia, would require Minsk to engage in very nuanced interactions with Brussels and EU capitals. However, Lukashenko and Putin would also need to be concerned that in working to soothe EU concerns over human rights and good governance, they might trigger EU leaders to request that Lukashenko step down from power to ensure Belarus would be governed by an authentic pro-EU, pro-democracy leadership. That request could soon become an insistent voice for regime change.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s comedy, All’s Well That Ends Well, Helena, a physician’s daughter, chooses to marry Bertram, a man of high social position in the French court, but he rejects her love. In response, Helena engages in a plot to wed Bertram by employing what has come to be known as the “Bed Trick.” As she begins to execute her plan in Act 3, Scene 7, Helena states: “Why, then tonight, Let us assay our plot: which, if it speed, Is wicked meaning in lawful act; Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact: But let’s about it.” A trade arrangement between Belarus and Russia as outlined here will likely cause discomfort for those who reasonably demand compliance with imposed sanctions. There is nothing inherently wrong with finding and exploiting a loophole in a regulation, business contract, or sanctions. One must have the will to seize the opportunity.

As the leader of a world power, Putin fully understands that his policies should make the Russian people hopeful for the future, not anxious or intimidated. Negative outlooks only advertise the limits one has. Reacting negatively to growing Euro-Belarus ties would not be useful. Inter-border cooperation has greatly assisted in harmonizing domestic policy priorities and international and regional security issues between Belarus and Russia. Inter-border cooperation between Belarus and Russia, albeit from different perspectives, is a prerequisite for improving the relations of both countries with the EU. (The EU is drawing closer to Belarus due to the nature of its ties to Russia. Russia may move closer to Belarus to exploit its improved ties to the EU.) Belarus is already a priority for Russia’s diplomatic, military, political, and economic resources. If Putin senses that he can, with Lukashenko’s cooperation, exploit the rapprochement between the EU and Belarus to circumvent imposed sanctions, that tack could eventually be accepted by Moscow as a mechanism for coping with problems stemming from the divisions between EU and EEU countries. 

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

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

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

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

Political Ties That Bind Shoigu and Putin: In Brief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shoigu As Adviser To Putin

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

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

Shoigu, Tuva, and Paranoia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shoigu As Defense Minister: The Shoigu Factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

The Pivot to Asia: The Policy Shift That Called Putin’s Attention to Europe’s Unlocked Doors

For the administration of US President Barack Obama, the reset with Russia was a major foreign policy initiative. For three years, a business-like tenor existed in relations, making the administration comfortable enough in 2011 to turn its attention toward Asia under what it called the “pivot to Asia.” Its hopes were dashed when Vladimir Putin returned as Russian Federation president in 2012, seeking to restore Russia’s power and influence. Soon after, there were numerous disagreements between Obama and Putin particularly over Europe. Relations deteriorated, and Europe again faced a threat from Russia.

What is most noticeable about US-Russia relations today is the uncongenial relationship between US President Barack Obama and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. While that relationship may seem in perpetual retrograde, there initially was real potential for positive ties and real progress on a variety of issues if the interests of both countries were considered. The Obama administration approached Russia with the idea that the relationship between the two countries could be “reset.” The reset with Russia was one of the administration’s major foreign policy initiatives. Relations with Russian Federation President Dimitry Medvedev were positive. For three years, a relatively smooth and business-like tenor existed in relations with Russia. That contrasted with the contentious relations that followed the Georgian War in 2008 while Putin served as president. It boded well for Obama’s legacy over which White House officials publicly admitted being absorbed. With its Russia policy on track, the administration was comfortable enough to turn toward an even greater priority at the end of 2011 which was referred to as the “pivot to Asia.” Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained it all in an edifying discourse in the October 11, 2011 edition of Foreign Policy magazine.

In her essay entitled “America’s Pacific Century,” Clinton wrote: “In the next ten years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values. One of most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment—diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise—in the Asia Pacific region.” Bringing to memory the historic US commitment to Europe after World War II, Clinton declared: “At a time when the [Asia-Pacific] region is building a more mature security and economic architecture to promote stability and prosperity, [the] U.S. commitment there is essential. It will help build that architecture and pay dividends for continued American leadership well into this century, just as our post-World War II commitment to building a comprehensive and lasting transatlantic network of institutions and relationships has paid off many times over—and continues to do so. The time has come for the United States to make similar investments as a Pacific power, a strategic course set by President Barack Obama from the outset of his administration and one that is already yielding benefits.” The administration’s plans were ambitious and admirable, but its hopes for a benign pivot to Asia were soon dashed. Europe once again faced a threat from Russia. There were numerous actions and reactions by Obama and Putin particularly concerning Europe. Relations deteriorated. Omnia iam fient quae posse negabam! (Everything which I used to say could not happen, will happen now!)

Candidates in the 2016 US Presidential Campaign, perhaps already considering how to deal with Putin and formulating policy approaches for Russia for their possible administrations, should get beyond us-them simplicities and avoid conceptualizing prospective relations solely on where they are at this moment in time. Rather, the course of the collapse of US-Russia relations and how to repair, and avoid, policy missteps witnessed over the past eight years should be anatomized. Part of that process would entail fully understanding those mistakes. Some of them are reviewed here. Further, it is important to genuinely understand the thinking of Putin and his advisers on Russia’s relations with the US. A truncated analysis, in the abstract, of such thinking inside the Kremlin is also presented here.

Igniting Putin: A New Russian Threat Excites Europe

From 1945 to 1989, US geo-strategists assessed that if a new world war were to occur, the battleground would be Europe. However, in the first term of the Obama administration, it was assessed that Europe had become more tranquil. There was a crisis in the eurozone, but Europe remained the most prosperous and peaceful parts of the world. The threat from China was the new focus of geo-strategists. That threat was ostensibly the underlying rationale for the pivot to Asia. In Europe, the announcement of the pivot to Asia was greeted with ambivalence, even alarm. The Europeans understood the renewed commitment to Asia would come at their expense. Obama administration officials tried to prove that was not the case at the time. However, with planned defense cuts of $500 billion over the next decade and the expressed intent to avoid reducing expenditures in Asia, Europe would be the only place to make cuts. The costs were conceivably higher given the possibility budgetary pressures would increase. Key defense commitments in Europe at the time included a missile defense system being developed with a possible nuclear Iran in mind. The administration had already announced that it intends to withdraw two of the four US Army brigades deployed to Europe—with overall military spending on Europe set to decline by 15 percent. Yet, US Army units stationed in Germany were considered in the context of rotations to the Middle East or Africa, not combat in Europe. There remained the potential threat of a breakdown in relations with Russia which would put Europe’s security at risk, but it was practically considered de minimus, negligible. The Obama administration considered the possibility that if Putin returned to Russia’s presidency, he would seek to exert pressure against the West where and when he felt it would pay dividends. It is unlikely the administration foresaw things would go so badly.

Obama was at ease with Medvedev. He went as far as to declare a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries existed. He seemed to measure all possibilities on relations with Russia on his interactions with him. However, maintaining a constructive relationship with the Russian leader is not a personal matter; it is part of the business of being president. Both the US and Russia possess the unique and mutual capability to annihilate one another, and the world, with their nuclear arsenals. Talks between the leaders of the two countries build confidence, eliminate ambiguities about positions, and prevent guessing over actions, intentions, and motives. Talks allow leaders to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns they had within their own high-level relationship. A strong personal bond between leaders can develop, but it is not essential. When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the low yield of the reset and the underestimation of Russia as a potential threat became apparent. Putin returned to the Kremlin on a mission to restore Russia’s global power and influence. He was not interested in anything that might diminish or prevent that effort. Perhaps as a consequence of that, old ills that were part of US-Russian relations began to resurface, and new ones arose with frequency. Among them were: Putin’s decision to allow US 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, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and the US admonishment of Russia on human rights issues. Putin fumed over Operation Unified Protector, during which multinational forces including the US, were placed under NATO command and imposed a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Putin felt NATO-led forces went beyond UN Security Council Resolution 1973’s mandate by helping local forces overthrow Gaddafi. Gaddafi, who had been a friend of the Soviet Union and Russia, was killed. The world saw how poor the relationship between Obama and Putin was after observing their body language when they met in Northern Ireland on June 17, 2013.

Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office and Sergei Ivanov (above). Ivanov is an anti-US ideologue. He believes the US has taken a foreign policy course aimed at holding on to US leadership in the world by means of the strategic containment of the growing influence of the Russian Federation and other centers of power.

How Relations with Putin Went Wrong Way

Perhaps the administration did not fully grasp just how poorly things were going with Putin. The Obama administration was confident enough to push agendas for nuclear arms reductions with Russia and EU and NATO expansion in Europe just as the administration of US President George W. Bush, his predecessor had. The administration referred to its effort to attain further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office as a “signature effort.” The reduction of nuclear forces and reductions in conventional forces have been issues US and Russian leaders have dealt with for decades, but Obama was not going to resolve any nuclear issues with Putin. Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are not a mere policy issue or bargaining chip for Putin, but a means of survival for Russia. Putin had no intentions of acceding to proposals for deep cuts in its nuclear arsenal repeatedly sent to Moscow by the administration. It was at this point in 2013 that relations with Putin and Russia truly began to collapse, falling to a very low point when the Obama administration cancelled a September summit meeting between Obama and Putin. The cancellation was in retaliation over Putin’s decision to reject the administration’s nuclear proposals. Administration officials lamented that Putin’s decision ended the president’s “signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.”

There were other very public affronts. The next year, during preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, there was a constant drum beat of doubt expressed by US security experts on the capability of the Russian security services to protect Sochi from terrorism. A leader’s public declaration of his decision not to attend has practically been a tradition among US and Russian leaders during a period of disagreement in international affairs. In addition to the Olympics, Obama would later decide not to attend the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allies, ending World War II in Europe. The celebration, hosted by Putin, was a time to recall the legacy of cooperation established during the war and a real example of what US-Russian cooperation could be in a common cause. It offered a chance for Obama to privately address his dispute with Putin. It was the best time for him to say that as with the alliance between their countries in World War II, relations between their countries now were important, bigger than both of them. Attending would have required Obama, as Rudyard Kipling would say, to “bite the bullet,” in terms of personal pride, but not in terms of his role as US president. By being absent, that day became one more reminder of the two leaders differences and their uncongenial relationship. Occasio aegre offertur, facile amittitur. (Opportunity is offered with difficulty, lost with ease.)

Between those years, the US and EU took Putin to task for his annexation of the Crimea. Harsh sanctions were levied and Russia was cast out of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies. Even tougher sanctions against Russian interests were threatened by the US if aggression against Ukraine escalated. Putin responded to it all with sanctions against US and EU products. In a March 18, 2014 speech declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Putin vented his anger at the US and EU, enumerating some Western actions that fostered contempt in Moscow. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice and false philanthropy of Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple their country; the expansion of NATO to include members of the Soviet Union’s own alliance, the Warsaw Pact; the erroneous Russian decision to agree to the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which he refers to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally. Incursions of Russian bombers and fighters in NATO airspace and Russian warships in NATO waters were regularized. The only public bright spot in US-Russia relations was diplomacy between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, mainly on Syria and Iran. Still, that activity was more reflective of their countries’ roles on the UN Security Council, not the tenor of relations between Obama and Putin.

Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (above). In response to what Russian officials refer to as “NATO’s preparations along our borders,” Shoigu announced on January 12, 2016 that there would be a major military build-up along its border with Ukraine.

Putin’s Pushes Westward

The poor US relationship with Russia, just as much as the Ukraine crisis, affected Europe’s relationship with Russia concerning business, economics, and security. In the summer of 2013, the EU Council sharply condemned Russia’s mounting pressure on members of the EU Eastern Partnership, countries with association agreements with the EU. In 2012, the EU accounted for 52 percent of Russia’s exports, 68 percent of which consisted of fuel and energy. Following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the EU suspended virtually all cooperation. Still, Putin’s thinking on the EU was not positive even before the Ukraine crisis. Putin saw the EU as a project of deepening integration based on norms of business, law, and administration at variance from those emerging in Russia. Putin was also concerned that EU enlargement would become a means of excluding Russia from its “zones of traditional influence.” Certain Russian actions indicate Moscow actively seeks to encourage members to withdraw from the EU sphere and discourage countries joining it. Joint projects with European countries have allowed Russia to exploit their differences on political, economic and commercial issues creating a discordant harmony in the EU. As much as making money, a goal of such efforts has been to undermine EU unity on sanctions. The Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline, for example, has provided Putin with the means to disrupt, weaken European unity. A murmur exists in Europe that solidarity ends at the frontiers of some countries. Ad mores natura recurrit damnatos fixa et mutari nescia. (Human nature even reverts to its depraved courses, fixed and immutable)

Regarding 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 West German Parliamentarian Egon 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 EU as having acquitted themselves of ties to promises to avoid expanding further eastward, and arrogating for themselves the right to divine what would be in the best interest of all countries. He feels historians have ignored the machinations and struggles of people involved. Putin further stated: “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. You can also see this striving for an absolute triumph in the American missile defense plans.” Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas. (Fortunate is he who understands the causes of things.)

Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office and Foreign Policy Adviser Yuri Ushakov (above). Ushakov, much as Ivanov, is not a fan of the US. He was present at former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s meeting with Putin. Kissinger seemed to confirm many of the worst notions Putin and his advisers held on US thinking.

In the years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, many European countries cut their defense spending, allowed their military preparedness to drop, and reduced the NATO footprint in their own territories and in countries east to occasional drills and small exercises with former Warsaw Pact members. They stood unprepared to confront Russia. Some allowed fear and resignation to infiltrate their perceptions of the matter. They sought to veil the fact that they were intimidated by Putin, and seemingly tried to mollify him, speaking skeptically about the clear threat Russia posed. Others seemed to fear signaling a military reaction to Putin. Yet, they signaled insecurity by appearing ambivalent about committing to the costly requirements of collective security despite: the “Crimea-grab”; the Russian push in the Donbass; a looming threat to the Baltic States; Moscow’s threats to use nuclear weapons; and, Russian military air and naval incursions from Britain to Estonia. (It would be unconstructive to name specific countries regarding this point.)

Putin did not stand by while the EU and NATO expanded. He decided to pull independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit. Accomplishing that required Putin to create something that did not preexist in most near abroad countries: ethnic-Russian communities forcefully demanding secession and sovereignty. That process usually begins with contemptuous murmurs against home country’s identity, language, and national symbols and then becomes a “rebel yell” for secession. It was seen in Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and more recently in Crimea, the Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine. Each time an ethnic-Russian space is carved out of a country, Putin gains a base from which he can exert his influence in that country.

Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council Nikolai Patrushev (above). Patrushev is Russia’s most senior intelligence official. He asserts that the US has always sought to have levers of pressure on Russia by making use of NATO on its own terms and using its political and economic pressure to prevent vacillations by allies and partners.

Inside the Kremlin: Putin’s Advisers Speak

Audiatur et altera pars! (Let us hear the opposite side!) In February 2016, a doyen of US foreign policy, archetypal Cold Warrior, and master architect of détente, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, visited Russia in order to speak at the Gorchakov Foundation. While in Moscow, he met at the Kremlin with Putin, the Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office and Sergei Ivanov and the Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Executive Office and Foreign Policy Adviser, Yuri Ushakov. Ivanov and Ushakov are anti-US ideologues. In his Gorchakov Foundation speech and his meeting at the Kremlin, Kissinger, albeit unintentionally, confirmed many of the worst notions Russian officials held on US thinking. Kissinger stated that “Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium, not primarily a threat to the United States.” Noting that “divisive issues” existed, Kissinger suggested that rather than establish its own sphere of influence near its border, Russia should share influence in its’ periphery with the West to avoid raising alarms around it. For example, he asserted that “Ukraine needs to be embedded in the structure of European and international security architecture in such a way that it serves as a bridge between Russia and the West rather than an outpost of either side.” To Putin and his advisers, Kissinger’s ideas were hardly acceptable. Enough examples of Moscow’s behavior exist to challenge the suggestion that some sea change in thinking at the Kremlin could occur. Consider the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. In a March 6, 2014, BBC.com article entitled, “Ukraine Crisis: Obama Urges Putin to Pursue Diplomacy,” it was reported Obama told Putin in a phone call that there was a solution available that suited all parties, involving talks between Kiev and Moscow, international monitors in Ukraine, and Russian forces returning to their bases. Yet, Putin would never entertain a solution that would “suit all parties.” What suits Russia in the near abroad was, and remains, Putin’s only concern.

When Kissinger went on to state that there must be a willingness “to move beyond the grievances and sense of victimization . . . ,” Putin and his advisers sat unruffled, but were surely irritated. They likely perceived Kissinger was being dismissive of their strong concerns over EU and NATO expansion eastward. His statement likely supported their perceptions that US officials have an instinctive need to assert moral authority over Russia.

Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev (above). Obama was put at ease when Medvedev was Russia’s president. Obama went as far as declaring a new era existed between the two former Cold War adversaries. Now Medvedev states: “NATO’s policies related to Russia remain unfriendly and opaque—one could go as far as to say we have slid back to a new Cold War.” Medvedev is not a friend of the US. He is Putin’s comrade.

During the final plenary session at the 12th Annual Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia on October 22, 2015, Putin mentioned the 1973 comedy, science-fiction film from the Soviet Union, “Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession.” Putin quoted one of the film’s characters as saying to another: “How am I supposed to understand what you’re saying if you don’t say anything?” Senior Russian political leaders and foreign and defense policy officials have recently made some unambiguous public statements about US, EU and Russian relations. Clearly, their statements were biased by the view that US holds an unyielding hostility toward Russia which is manifested in its policies and actions. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on February 13, 2016, Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, Putin’s political comrade, accused NATO of restarting the Cold War amid increased military maneuvers and troop deployments to Russia’s neighbors. Medvedev told the meeting of national leaders, senior defense officials, and top diplomats that sanctions imposed after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and new moves by NATO “only aggravate tensions.” He argued: “NATO’s policies related to Russia remain unfriendly and opaque—one could go as far as to say we have slid back to a new Cold War.” He went on to state: “On an almost daily basis, we’re called one of the most terrible threats either to NATO as a whole, or Europe, or to the United States.” Medvedev called for lifting sanctions imposed on Russia concerning Crimea, saying they are “a road that leads nowhere.” He suggested the West would only harm itself if it did not lift the sanctions soon. He warned: “The longer the sanctions continue, the more chances fade for Europeans to keep their positions in Russian markets as investors and suppliers.”

In his meeting with Putin, Ivanov, and Ushakov, Kissinger stated that Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium concerning what he dubbed “divisive issues” such as Ukraine. He suggested Russia should share influence in its declared near abroad with the West. He also explained there must be a willingness to move beyond grievances and sense of victimization. Putin and his advisers sat unruffled, but were surely irritated by his statements.

In an interview with the official government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, the Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, one of Putin’s most important advisers and most senior intelligence official, Nikolai Patrushev, proffered: “. . . Washington has always sought to have levers of pressure on Russia. Thus, in 1974 the famous Jackson-Vanik Amendment was adopted, restricting trade relations with our country. It appeared to have completely lost its relevance immediately after the breakup of the USSR, but it was still in force right up to 2012, when the so-called “Magnitsky List” was promptly adopted in its place.” Referring to current US and EU sanctions against Russia, Patrushev explained: “The current sanctions are in the same category. The US administration’s activity in the Ukrainian sphere is taking place within the framework of an updated White House foreign policy course aimed at holding on to American leadership in the world by means of the strategic containment of the growing influence of the Russian Federation and other centers of power. In this context Washington is actively making use, on its own terms, of NATO’s potential, seeking to use political and economic pressure to prevent vacillations on the part of its allies and partners.”

In response to what Russian officials refer to as “NATO’s preparations along our borders,” on January 12, 2016, Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that there would be a major military build-up along its border with Ukraine. Shoigu reportedly stated: “the task of utmost importance for us this year is to form three new military divisions in the western direction.” Shoigu stressed that it was not only a necessity not just to form the bases but also to re-equip locations for permanent deployment, create appropriate training grounds, storage space for equipment and accommodations for personnel. Shoigu further explained that “special attention should be paid to monitoring and analysis of the military-political situation in the world, as well as timely responses to its changes.” One base is being constructed in the town of Boguchar in the Voronezh region, located 45 kilometers from the border of Ukraine’s Luhansk province, now the self-declared, independent Luhansk People’s Republic. The base would accommodate at least 5,000 troops and would be able to house 1,300 pieces of military equipment. A similar base will be constructed near the settlement of Valuiki in the Belgorod region, approximately 20 kilometers from Luhansk.

For the Obama administration, the end is closer than the beginning. Only so much can be done in the amount of time left to halt the trend downward, much less, turn things around with Putin or its Russia policy. The challenge of improving US-Russia relations will likely be left to the next US President. O si sic omnia. (Oh, would that all had been done or said thus.)

The Way Forward

A little more than four years after Clinton provided her 2011 discourse on the pivot to Asia, General Breedlove essentially assessed the path had not been paved for Europe to go without a US presence, US leadership, and significant US support. In the US European Command Posture Statement 2016 presented on February 25, 2016, Breedlove explained: “I cannot emphasize how important European nations, in particular our NATO Allies and Non-NATO Partners, are to ensuring America’s security and safety. Many of our most capable and willing allies and partners are in Europe, playing an essential role in promoting our vital interests and executing a full range of military missions . . . Europe is not the same continent it was when I took command, as new threats and challenges continue to emerge.” The grand notion of pivoting away from Europe to focus more on Asia withered once the clashes between Putin and Obama began. Some may parse out the collision of Obama and Putin as representing the natural balance of things as their worldviews are so divergent. Even if true, some syncretistic existence should have been established for the benefit of their countries and their people. Authentic geopolitical thinking was subsumed by a satisfying substitute for reality concerning long-term US-Russia relations. Indeed, decisions in the Obama administration on Putin and Russia were based on relations with Medvedev early-on and what was best for Obama’s legacy. That got the administration into trouble with Putin from the get-go. Relations languished in misunderstanding.

Discord obtains when things get mixed up. One might speculate, with levity, that Russia experts at the State Department, the Defense Department, and CIA, who understood Putin, were seemingly exiled to isolated garrets on the top floors of their headquarters buildings by the administration to keep their impressions out of the way. Hopefully, there is not an irreversible trend downward for US-Russia relations. Yet, the end is closer than the beginning for the Obama administration. Only so much can be done with time available to halt the slide, much less, turn things around. Improving US-Russia relations will be a challenge left for the next US administration. Kissinger suggested Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium. However, creating that global equilibrium will be tough as Russia will likely remain intransigent over its interests in what Putin calls the near abroad. Some recognition of Russia’s positions would be required to improve relations (although creating an arrangement in Europe that would satisfy Russia may not be possible at this point). Resetting relations would also require a new administration to recognize the limits of US power projection. How much the US will be able to handle in its sphere of influence in the future must be determined through a hard-headed assessment of possibilities based on capabilities both available and in development.

Big Guns in East Ukraine Fall Silent: Will the Donbass See Peace or Surreptitious Moves by Putin?

Pictured above is a sniper from the Azov Battalion of the National Guard of Ukraine on the front line in the Donbass. The Azov Battalion is a far-right neo-Nazi all volunteer infantry unit, armed by Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. The vicious fighting seen in the Donbass, Putin’s record of moves elsewhere, and portrayals of him cast doubt that peace can be found in the region. However, the prospect for peace still exists.

According to a September 1, 2015 Reuters article entitled “Big Guns in East Ukraine Fall Silent, Two More Die from Wounds in Kiev,” a fragile ceasefire agreed to by the Ukrainian Government and pro-Russian separatists on August 26, 2015, appears to have held. The agreement appealed to the human side of the belligerents, required a halt in fighting in recognition of the start of the school year on September 1st. The Minsk Agreement, signed on February 12, 2015, was supposed to have established just such a ceasefire once signed. However, following its signing, a succession of violations reportedly occurred in both the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts—administrative divisions—in which artillery and other weapons were used. Both sides accused the other of violations in which Ukrainian soldiers and pro-Russian separatist fighters were killed. The September 1st ceasefire was arranged under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The three-party Contact Group, which includes representatives of the Ukrainian Government, the Russian Government, and pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk hammered out the document.

The Minsk Agreement represents the beginning of the real peace in the Donbass region. Its terms include: an immediate ceasefire; a buffer zone separating heavy weapons of both sides, with a minimum buffer zone of 50km for 100mm artillery and up to 140km for rockets; effective verification by the OSCE; amnesty and release of all hostages and illegally detained people; safe access, storage, delivery, and distribution of humanitarian aid to the needy; restoration of government pensions and other welfare payments for civilians in the east; the restoration of Ukrainian control of the banking system in areas affected by the conflict, pull out of all foreign military formations, military equipment, and mercenaries from Ukraine under OSCE monitoring; the disarmament of illegal groups; full Ukrainian control over the eastern border, after local elections under Ukrainian law and a constitutional deal on the future of Donetsk and Luhansk by the end of 2015. For now, the contested areas will remain “bricked in.” The direction which the region may turn will be determined either by the US, EU and Ukrainian Government, intent to keep all of the Donbass in Ukraine, albeit with part of its population reluctant to live under Kiev’s control and by Russia and pro-Russian separatists intent on establishing the region’s independence and aligning it more closely with Moscow. What nettles the US, EU and the Ukrainian Government, now committed to a westward orientation, is the considerable effort they say Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has invested in grabbing territory in the Donbass and eventually all of Ukraine as it sits in Russia’s “near abroad.” To them, Putin has created something from nothing that preexisted: contemptuous murmurs against Ukrainian identity, language, and national symbols suddenly became rebel yells for secession. They feel Putin now has additional space in Ukraine from which he can exert his influence in the region. (The US, EU and Ukraine claim Putin illegally swallowed up Crimea in 2014.) Conversely, Putin insists the administration of US President Barack Obama caused the conflict in the Donbass. He remarked after meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry on May 12, 2015, “They [the US] should not have supported the anti-constitutionalists’ armed coup that led to a violent confrontation in Ukraine, a civil war in fact.” He also views US efforts in Ukraine as part of an attempt to isolate Russia. Facinus quos inquinant aequat. (Guilt equates all who share in guilt.)

Members of Putin’s comitatus such as Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov have reportedly expressed the same sentiment that Russia is only acting in response to Western behavior toward it. Now that the parties appear to be adhering to the Minsk Agreement’s terms, and after a year and half of extremely violent battles and firefights, Moscow would unlikely use the same “hybrid warfare” approach—the blend of unidentified troops, propaganda and economic pressure—seen in Crimea, or some other military approach to capture the remainder of Donetsk and Luhansk. Due to the Minsk Agreement, Putin is no longer encumbered by having to do everything in secret. Putin may engage in diplomatic moves and decisive action in the Donbass akin to that seen in Georgia to gain firmer grip on pro-Russian separatist held territory.

In 2008, pro-Russian separatists in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia, along with Russian Federation troops, fought a war for independence against the Georgian Government. Once peace was established between the warring parties by then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy, Russia occupied the two rebellious regions and continues to do so today. Russia also recognized their independence. There was little Georgia could do to recover the regions, yet it had the support of the US, and the EU. On March 3, 2015, a Russian-South Ossetian Treaty of Alliance and Integration was signed, effectively granting Moscow control of South Ossetia’s foreign policy, border, and security. In November 2014, Putin signed a similar accord with Abkhazia entitled the Russia-Abkhazian Agreement of Alliance and Strategic Partnership which meant in practice Moscow is responsible for the customs, defense, and security of the breakaway republic. When the Russian-South Ossetian agreement was revealed, the EU Foreign Policy Coordinator Federica Mogherini declared, “The agreement undermined efforts to strengthen security and stability in the region.” She further stated, “This ‘treaty’—which includes references to a transfer of powers in some areas—clearly violates Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Some observers believe the treaty set the region up for annexation by Russia. Most recently, pro-Russian separatist security forces moved border fences in the South Ossetia and Abkahzia further into Georgia’s territory.  By parsing out the events observed in South Ossetia alone, a possible approach Putin might use in the Donbass is revealed. Three main steps of that approach could include: 1) securing territorial gains via humanitarian assistance; 2) legitimizing independence and Russian influence via “diplomacy”; and, 3) quiet expansion.

Above is a satellite image of Russian Federation weapon systems being moved into Ukraine. The US, EU, and Ukrainian Government accuse Russia of arming pro-Russian separatist forces in the Donbass. Given the Minsk Agreement, Putin would unlikely use the “hybrid warfare” approach seen in Crimea. He will no longer need to do things in secret. Putin may engage in diplomatic moves and decisive action to gain a firmer grip on the Donbass.

Securing Territorial Gains via Humanitarian Assistance

Et genus et formam Regina Pecunia donat. (Money like a queen bestows both rank and beauty.) In addition to economic support provided by Kiev to Donetsk and Luhansk in the near term under the Minsk Agreement, Russia may provide a considerable amount of aid in Russian rubles to the Donbass, perhaps initially cloaked. It could also continue to provide humanitarian aid using truck convoys. Russia could provide financial support to pro-Russian separatist political organizations. To encourage ethnic-Russians to remain in Donbass, Russia may assist directly in the reconstruction of ethnic-Russian communities, focusing on the robust reconstruction of schools churches, community centers, and infrastructure projects that meet the needs of those communities. Comparable aid would likely fail to reach ethnic-Ukrainian and other communities not linked to, or falling within the territorial lines of, the pro-Russian separatist movement. Nations aligned with Russia could be encouraged to provide recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent regions. Russia could enable pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk to defend themselves even better with new Russian armaments and training from Russian military advisers acting covertly given that under the Minsk Agreement, the two regions remain the sovereign territory of Ukraine. (The US, the EU, and Kiev have already accused Russia of arming the separatists.) Russia would unlikely withdraw its forces bordering the Donbass and could possibly increase the measure of those forces to create the capability to rush into the region to secure the peace if fighting resumed between the opposing parties.

In a similar way, Russia had already invested 43 billion rubles in South Ossetia and Abkhazia over the past six years. The border between South Ossetia and Georgia was closed, precluding the Georgian Government from influencing events in its former territory. Russia had considerable influence in the pro-Russian separatist political organizations. Western observers view South Ossetia leadership a puppet government under Moscow’s control. The ethnic-Georgians in South Ossetia drifted off. With the border closed, those who wanted to return could not. The loss of South Ossetians opposed to independence eliminated meant there were no opposing political movements, and internal security and stability could be maintained more easily. The presence of Russian troops in South Ossetia has obviated the possibility that Georgia might retake its territory. Russian troops there have remained on a war-time footing and have not moved to prewar locations as Georgian forces have. Moscow had Nicaragua, Nauru, and Venezuela join it in recognizing the independence of South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia.

What nettles the US, EU, and the Ukrainian Government is the considerable effort they say Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has invested in grabbing territory in the Donbass. They feel Putin now has space in Ukraine, in addition to Crimea, from which he can exert his influence in the region. Conversely, Putin insists the administration of US President Barack Obama caused the conflict in the Donbass.

Legitimizing Independence and Russian Influence via “Diplomacy”

Et mihi res, non me rebus subjungere conor. (I suit life to myself, not myself to life.) Even under the best conditions created for Kiev as the terms of the Minsk Agreement are fulfilled, Putin may still move to establish treaties with both the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” giving Russia control over their economic activity. Residents in both oblasts would be provided with easier access to Russian citizenship. If the balance of the two regions’ populations were to swing more heavily in the pro-Russian separatists favor, or even if not, Russia may formally guarantee that salaries of government workers in the Donbass would be paid by Russia, “to kindly take the financial strain off of Kiev.” Despite the terms of the Minsk Agreement, both the Donestsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic governments would be directed by Russia to push hard to turn border control over to Russia through talks, also ostensibly to make things more convenient for Kiev. Russia could formally take charge of the military operations of the pro-separatist security forces in Donetsk and Luhansk. A joint security zone could be created between Russia and the two “governments.”

Analogously, the Russian-South Ossetian Treaty of Alliance and Integration allowed Russia to formally take charge of South-Ossetia’s economy and military. South Ossetia will receive 9 billion rubles ($147 million or €140 million) in aid over three years. Government salaries and pensions were raised to a level comparable with those received in Russia’s North Caucasus. Putin himself stated a joint defense and security zone would be created between the two countries. South Ossetian leader Leonid Timorov explained: “Russia could guarantee security from Western reaction.” Border crossings for customs agencies would also be integrated. That was made easier because the border crossings with Georgia were already closed.

By parsing out the events observed in South Ossetia following its 2008 war for independence against the Georgian Government, a possible approach Putin might use in the Donbass is revealed. Three main steps of that approach could include: 1) securing territorial gains via humanitarian assistance; 2) legitimizing independence and Russian influence via “diplomacy”; and, 3) quiet expansion.

Quiet Expansion

Alitur vitium vivitque tegendo. (Vice is nourished by being concealed.) After a few short years of the ceasefire and other urgent and important matters may capture Kiev’s attention, pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk may find opportunities to encroach into territory perhaps no longer vigilantly guarded by the Ukrainian Armed Forces or volunteer units. If Russia and the new “people’s republics” were to reach some defense and security treaty by that time, Russian Federation troops would be able to stand beside pro-Russian separatist forces in the expanded territory. Russia could also begin to provide economic and humanitarian aid to those segments of Ukrainian held territory of the Donbass the Kiev may not be able to support sufficiently. Freedom of movement may allow for inhabitants of the region who have applied for Russian citizenship, or possess it, to move into heavily damaged villages and abandoned areas, where Ukrainian combatants have withdrawn. They could resettle and begin reconstruction in them. Russia could declare its intention to defend its “compatriots” entering those areas. Russian and pro-Russian separatist flags would soon be seen further eastward in the Donbass. When possible the expansion of pro-Russian territory may also be aimed at encompassing important infrastructure facilities, particularly gas and energy related sites, and key roadways.

Likewise in South Ossetia, Russian backed security forces reportedly moved a border fence with Georgia, taking more territory for Russian control. Those same security forces armed with assault rifles were also seen crossing into Georgian controlled territory and tearing down a Georgian flag. As a result of pro-Russian separatists moving border fences deeper into Georgia, some villages have been cut in half by Russian separatist forces. Reportedly, people have gone to sleep Georgian and have awakened as members of a breakaway territory. By moving one fence, pro-Russian separatists managed to place 1.6 km of the Baku-Supsa pipeline in the pro-Russian separatist territory. One fence was moved far enough to grab 500 meters of Georgia’s E60 Highway, which is the main road linking the Black Sea to Azerbaijan.

Ukrainian Government faces an economic crisis and a variety of other domestic difficulties to include challenges from a far-right neo-Nazi movement. The Donbass is a net consumer of foreign imports, is dependent on Russian gas, and is a rustbelt requiring trillions of dollars in investment. Those realities along with seeing the effects of a few years of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns in the Donbass may make Kiev less eager to wrestle with Moscow for the hearts and minds of its inhabitants.

The Way Forward

Omni mutantur nos et mutamur in illis. (All things change, and we change with them.) For Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, it will be torturous enough to lead an emerging European nation that is facing an economic crisis, and a variety of other domestic difficulties to include challenges from a far-right neo-Nazi movement. Keeping all of the Donbass in Ukraine is the cause of honor now. Yet, after focusing on additional issues over time, numbness may develop toward the intractable situation in the region. New moves by pro-Russian separatist and Russia in the Donbass may no longer be alarming enough to pierce that numbness. The Donbass is a net consumer of foreign imports and is dependent on Russian gas. It is considered a rustbelt needing to be refitted at the cost of trillions of dollars Kiev does not have. Despite receiving economic aid from the West, Ukraine, itself, may never see an economic upturn. After seeing the effects of a few years of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns in the Donbass, Kiev may no longer be eager to wrestle with Moscow for the hearts and minds of the oblasts’ inhabitants. The Ukrainian Armed Forces are not a spent force, but they could hardly surmount a genuine threat posed by Russian Federation Armed Forces. US and EU efforts to train and equip the Ukrainian Armed Forces cannot change that. Further regarding the West, it is difficult to determine how much pressure it would be willing to exert against Russia over Ukraine through sanctions in the future.

It has been said that the cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The analysis presented in here may appear cynical. It imputes on Putin a lust for power and the intent to simply acquire greater territory and control in Russia’s near abroad. However, Putin has been portrayed that way here for the purpose of debate. There is value in the Minsk Agreement. That value is a ceasefire, lives saved, and ability of the region’s inhabitants to contemplate peace. Adherence to the terms of the Minsk Agreement by Russia and pro-Russian separatists nudged by Russia is not a notional idea; it is reality. The Minsk Agreement and the September 1st ceasefire represent positive change and a genuine restart to diplomatic activity over the Donbass. Much more is required of the agreement’s signatories. Through regular communication via the Contact Group and the good offices of the OSCE, perhaps peace will develop in the Donbass.