Brief Meditations on the Selection of Surovikin as Russia’s Overall Commander in Ukraine, His Capabilities, and Possibilities for His Success

Russian Federation General of the Army Sergei Surovikin (above). In an announcement on October 8, 2022, stated: “By the decision of the Defense Minister of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Sergei Surovikin has been appointed commander of the joint group of troops in the area of the special military operation.” At 56, Surovikin had already reached what normally would have been the pinnacle of a Russian officer’s career when he took command of Voyska Vozdushno-Kosmicheskoy Oborony, Rossijskoj Federacii (the Russian Federation Aerospace Defense Forces) in 2017. However, he has been called upon to take on further assignments to include his current one in response to the Russian Federation ever changing national security needs. He has now taken on a great challenge in Ukraine. To better understand this important change in command for Russian Federation forces in Ukraine, one must find out more about Surovikin, and even more, try to understand what is going on in the mind of the individual responsible for the invasion: Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian Federation’s Spetsial’noy Voyennoy Operatsii (Special Military Operation) of 2022 was born of ill will and bad intentions. Whatever sense of certainty Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin may have held concerning the ultimate success, perhaps even expectant of lightning success by  Vooruzhonnije Síly Rossíyskoj Federátsii or the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (hereinafter referred to as the Russian Federation Armed Forces) when he green-lit the invasion has doubtlessly fizzled down from flames to cinders. Clearly, he was dreadfully incognizant of what a discordant harmony of circumstances very likely could and would do his plans and hopes. Since the early days of success after February 24, 2022, nothing has been working well for the Russian Federation Armed Forces on the battlefield. At this point, res ad triarios venit, the matter has come to triarii. Triarii were the reserve soldiers of the Roman Army. When it reached the point in a war that they were called upon, most or all the front line troops had fallen. Putin in fact, mobilized all male Russian citizens eligible to serve on the front lines in Ukraine. Their performance has been something better than terrible. 

In other countries at war, facing such circumstances, leaders and their advisers come to recognize that intractable decisions, all very difficult ones, lie ahead. Among the choices, Putin could further escalate, resolve to hold any gains while minimizing further losses, negotiate inequitable peace terms, or simply withdraw. US President Richard Nixon found himself in a similar predicament, mutantis mutandis, regarding the US military operations in Southeast Asia. In the end, his Secretary of State “managed” to negotiate what was referred to as “peace with honor” with the North Vietnamese government. Selecting from the choices mentioned would be fine for other countries, however, Putin’s Russia is not like other countries. Still, finding a solution, given how things have panned out, is not simply a matter of satisfying one man’s thinking. The Kremlin is hearing ever increasing criticism for the abominable losses in Ukraine, particularly from elites with close ties to it. Nationalist and ultranationlist political parties and personalities began reacting to the situation in Ukraine with asperity. They, too, know the truth. The change in commander was ostensibly designed to send the message both inside Russia and worldwide that Russia still intends win and will emerge victorious in Ukraine. The Kremlin might hope to convince its perceived audience that with a few adjustments, albeit major changes, everything will be on track and the Kremlin has found the commander who will make things right. The impact of the change, at least around the world, has been akin to a misspelled placard at a protest. The time and energy in the Kremlin put into appointing Sergei Surovikin to direct the war and promote the change publicly as a new beginning, may have been a wasted effort.

Surely, foreign and national security policy bureaucracies worldwide have parsed out Surovikin’s appointment in the round and using logic, have reached their respective conclusions. Yet, what seems logical is not always right. To best understand this important change in command for Russian Federation forces in Ukraine one must learn more about Surovikin, and even more, try to understand what is going on in the rather unique mind of Putin. Whatever he does he does for  his ownly reason. Whatever he has done, invading Ukraine and suffering heavy losses for example, has never troubled him. Though nearly isolated, he does not appear to beweep Russia’s outcast state. Putin’s decisionmaking and probable moves must remain the subject of indispensable speculations and the development of prospective scenarios. 

As has been the pattern with preceding posts, historical examples are used to demonstrate that no matter how recherché and bizarre events have been in this present-day episode, which hopefully will somehow end diplomatically to the satisfaction of all parties involved, humankind has been beset and strained by parallel issues. Some examples reach back to Antiquity to provide apposite examples of thinking and behavior that most resemble that of Putin and his top acolytes on the Ukraine matter. Additional supportive examples are drawn from the Napoleonic era. In his satirical monthly magazine Les Guêpes (The Wasps), the 19th century French writer Alphonse Karr expressed the apt phrase: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” (The more things change, the more they remain the same.) How often is that the case.

Surovikin’s official Russian Federation Ministry of Defense photo (above). Surovikin has a reputation for being a hard-as-nails, no-nonsense commander who did not suffer subordinates lightly. Any feelings that he might have had, were never allowed to get in the way of his decisionmaking. In his military career, there were what could delicately be called “bumps in the road”, some small, some big, some very big. In each case, fate somehow stepped in and saw Surovikin through. In June 2021, Surovikin reached the rank of Generál Ármii (General of the Army), the second highest military rank in Russia, second only to a marshal. One year later, in June 2022, it was revealed that he was named the commander of the Army Group “South” of the Russian Armed Forces engaged in the special military operation. Four months later, it was announced that he would be commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine.

Some Background on Surovikin

In an announcement on October 8, 2022, stated: “By the decision of the defense minister of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Sergei Surovikin has been appointed commander of the joint group of troops in the area of the special military operation.” Note the announcement stated the Russian Federation Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, not Putin, made the decision. With the announcement, Surovikin became the first overall commander of Russian forces committed to Ukraine. With the aim of providing readers with a decent sense of Surovikin’s experience and expertise, greatcharlie has provided a tour d’horizon of his rather event filled military career.

Surovikin, age 56, was born in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk on October 11,1966. He is married and has two daughters. Reportedly, Surovikin stands about 5 feet 10 inches. While many sources state Surovikin is Orthodox Catholic, presumably meaning Russian Orthodox Catholic, the degree to which he is observant is unknown to greatcharlie. He has been awarded the Order of the Red Star, the Order of Military Merit and the Order of Courage three times. He was awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation. Surovikin had already reached what normally would have been the pinnacle of a Russian officer’s career when in 2017 he took command of Voyska Vozdushno-Kosmicheskoy Oborony, Rossijskoj Federacii (the Russian Federation Aerospace Defense Forces, hereinafter referred to as the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces). It was still a relatively new organization, established in 2015 when the decision was made by the Ministerstvo oborony Rossijskoj Federacii or Minoborony Rossii (the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense) to combine Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily Rossii, (the Russian Air Force), Voyska Vozdushno-Kosmicheskoy Oborony, (the Air and Missile Defense Forces), and Kosmicheskie Voyska Rossii, (the Russian Space Forces), were placed under one command. However, he has been called upon to take on further assignments to include his current one in response to the Russian Federation ever changing national security needs.

After graduating from the Omsk Higher Military School in 1987, Surovikin began his career serving as a lieutenant in the Voyská Spetsiálnogo Naznachéniya (Special Purpose Military Units) or spetsnaz. Spetsnaz units, a carry over from the days of the Soviet Union,  have been trained, and tasked as special forces and fielded in wartime as part of the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU. Not much has been offered at least in the mainstream or independent newsmedia on Surovikin’s work in spetsnaz. He reportedly served in spetsnaz during last stages of the War in Afghanistan, but the specific unit he was assigned to has not been identified. As is the case with special forces in most countries, the primary missions of spetsnaz are power projection (direct action), intelligence (reconnaissance), foreign internal defense (military assistance), and counterinsurgency.

By August 1991, Surovikin was a captain in the 1st Rifle Battalion in the 2nd Guards Tamanskaya Motor Rifle Division in August 1991 when the coup d’état attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was launched in Moscow by the self-proclaimed Gosudárstvenny Komitét Po Chrezvycháynomu Polozhéniyu (State Committee on the State of Emergency) or GKChP. Orders were sent down from the GKChP that would require Surovikin to send his mechanized unit into the tunnel on the Garden Ring. He drove his vehicles into barricades of a group of anti-coup protesters. A short time afterward, Surovikin was promoted to the rank of major. In 1995, he graduated from the renowned Frunze Military Academy. Surovikin participated in the Tajikistani Civil War where he commanded a motor rifle battalion. He then became chief of staff of the 92nd Motor Rifle Regiment, chief of staff and commander of the 149th Guards Motor Rifle Regiment and chief of staff of the 201st Motor Rifle Division. Whether due to qualifications, politics, or whatever might possibly be a factor under the Russian Federation’s system of government, Surovikin’s superior saw enough potential in him to prepare him for flag rank. In 2002, he graduated from Voyennaya Akademiya General’nogo Shtaba Vooruzhennykh Sil Rossijskoj Federacii (the Military Academy of the General Staff of the RussianFederation). He became commander of the 34th Motor Rifle Division at Yekaterinburg.

By this point in Surovikin’s career, he had acquired a reputation for being a hard as nails, no nonsense commander who did suffer subordinates lightly. Any feelings that he might have had, were never allowed to get in the way of his decisionmaking. In March 2004, Lieutenant Colonel Viktor Chibizov accused Surovikin of physically assaulting him for taking leave from his post to serve as an elections observer. In April 2004, Colonel Andrei Shtakal, the 34th Motor Rifle Division deputy division commander for armaments, shot himself in the presence of Surovikin and the district deputy commander after being severely dressed-down by Surovikin. A military prosecutor found no evidence of guilt in both cases. 

In 2004, according to the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense’s website, Surovikin commanded the 42nd Guards Motor Rifle Division stationed in Chechnya. He was the chief of staff of the 20th Guards Army from 2005. In April 2008, he made the meteoric rise to army commander. In November 2008, Surovikin became Chief of Glavnoe operativnoe upravlenie General’nogo štaba Vooružёnnyh sil Rossijskoj Federacii (the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Federation), essentially the General Staff’s think tank. In January 2010, he became chief of staff of the Volga–Urals Military District, which soon became part of the Central Military District. Reportedly, from November 2011, he headed the working group charged with creation of the Military Police. The Russian newsmedia indicated that Surovikin had already been selected to head the new organization. Though delayed as a result of the intervention of Voyennoy Prokuratury Rossiyskoy Federatsii (the  Russian Federation Military Prosecutor’s Office), apparently, the discussion on the potential creation of the Military Police stirred a parochial struggle between the Russian Federation Defense Ministry and the Military Prosecutor’s Office, Glavnoye upravleniye voyennoy politsii Minoborony Rossiyskoy Federatsii (the Main Directorate of the Military Police Ministry of Defense Russian Federation) with a strength of 20,000 was stood up. In October 2012, he became the chief of staff of the Eastern Military District. In October 2013, he was appointed commander of the district. On December 13, 2013, Surovikin was promoted to the rank of colonel general. 

In March 2017, Surovikin began his first of two tours in Syria. The first was supposed to last about three months. It was reportedly part of an effort by Moscow to provide first-hand combat experience to as many high-ranking officers as possible. However, on June 9, 2017, Surovikin was introduced to the newsmedia as the Commander of the Russian Federation Armed Forces deployed to Syria. The Russian Federation Defense Ministry repeatedly credited Surovikin with achieving critical gains in Syria, saying that Russian Federation Group of Forces in Syria and Syrian Arab Army forces “liberated over 98 percent” of the country under him. In a June 2022 Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper article explained that Surovikin received this unofficial nickname of “General Armageddon” from colleagues for “his ability to think outside the box and act tough.” in the fight against the Islamic terrorist group, ISIS, Surovikin is credited for directing the Syrian Arab Army when it lifted the siege of Deir al-Zour and directing the attack that recaptured Palmyra for the second and last time. On December 28, 2017 he was made a Hero of the Russian Federation for his leadership of the Group of Forces in Syria.

While all of that was transpiring, at the end of November 2017, It was the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense’s journal Krasnaya Zvezda that reported Surovikin’s appointment to Commander of the Aerospace Forces by a presidential decree of November 22, 2017. Interestingly, TASS made special note of the fact that Surovikin became the first combined-arms commander in the history of Russia and the Soviet Union to be put in charge of the Russian or Soviet Air Forces. According to a report published by RBK Group on November 2, 2017, Surovikin had been appointed Commander of the Aerospace Forces in spite of his initial objections.

From January to April 2019, Surovikin again took command of Russian military forces in Syria. It was during that period Surovikin directed the operation against Idlib which included countless air and ground attacks on civilian objects and infrastructure. A 2020 Human Rights Watch report states that Russian forces under his command struck Syrian “homes, schools, healthcare facilities, and markets – the places where people live, work, and study”.

In June 2021, Surovikin reached the rank of Generál Ármii (General of the Army), the second highest military rank in Russia, second only to a marshal. One year later, in June 2022, it was revealed that he was named the commander of the Army Group “South” of the Russian Armed Forces engaged in the special military operation. On October 8, 2022, it was announced that he would be commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine.

In Surovikin’s military career there were what could delicately be called “bumps in the road”, some small, some big, some very big. In each case, fate somehow stepped in and saw Surovikin through. As aforementioned, during the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt in Moscow, Surovikin was ordered to send his battalion into the tunnel on the Garden Ring. As a result of his action, three anti-coup demonstrators were killed. After the defeat of the coup, Surovikin was arrested and held under investigation for seven months. The charges were dropped without trial on December 10, 1991 because Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin concluded that Surovikin was only following orders. He was promoted to the rank of major afterwards. In September 1995, while Surovikin attended the Frunze Military Academy, he was sentenced to a year of probation by the Moscow garrison’s military court for illegally selling weapons. However, allegations were made that he had been framed. After an investigation, the conviction was overturned. It was concluded that Surovikin had provided a fellow student a pistol for use in a competition, unaware of its intended purpose. One might speculate that Surovikin either had such connections in very high places who were also benefiting from his sideshow that he was allowed to avoid any severe repercussions beyond a very public arrest or he managed to convince authorities that he was cured of his covetous mind.

On dit, there are supposedly whispers in Russia that that Surovikin reportedly had some business concerning the transporting of Syrian ore to Russia on the side. To date, no such rumor, however, has been substantiated or reported on by any mainstream newsmedia source.

Surovikin is an emblem to the Russian military for its “prowess.” The same was said to be true of Russian Federation General of the Army Aleksandr Dvornikov, who Putin appointed commander of the “special military operation” in Ukraine on April 9, 2022. Russian commanders at different levels have often been made to sound too good to be true, only to have their “gold complexions” dimmed in Ukraine. The latest announcement did not mention Russian Federation General of the Army Aleksandr Dvornikov, who Putin appointed commander of the “special military operation” in Ukraine on April 9, 2022. While some Western newsmedia sources insist Russian Army Colonel General Gennady Zhidko.was Surovikin’s predecessor, Moscow had not publicly specified that anyone had been placed in overall control of the operation until the announcement concerning his new command.

Surovikin, much as Dvornikov, had the opportunity to become familiar in Syria with the ways in which the US provides assistance to foreign forces on the battlefield. Moscow’s likely hope in that regard would be better understand how US and other NATO military minds might have special operations forces working in Ukraine, what to expect as a result of their “suggestions to the Ukrainian Armed Forces as to planning and operations,” and how to counter their assistance operations. If that were the case at all, perhaps Dvornikov never really discerned enough in Syria to exploit. He certainly failed grasp the role deception plays in US military operations and that failure played a role in opening captured territory up to rapid liberation by Ukrainian forces via a counteroffensive. Surovikin has the opportunity to demonstrate that he learned quite a bit more.

In March 2017, Surovikin (above) began the first of his two tours in Syria. The first was supposed to last only three months and was part of an effort by Moscow to provide first-hand combat experience to as many high-ranking officers as possible. However, on June 9, 2017, Surovikin was introduced to the newsmedia as the Commander of the Russian Federation Armed Forces deployed to Syria. The Russian Defense Ministry repeatedly credited Surovikin with achieving critical gains in Syria, saying that Russian and Syrian forces “liberated over 98 percent” of the country under him. In a June 2022 Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper article explained that Surovikin received this unofficial nickname of “General Armageddon” from colleagues for “his ability to think outside the box and act tough.” On December 28, 2017, he was made a Hero of the Russian Federation for his leadership of the Group of Forces in Syria.

Surovikin’s Appointment Shows the World Moscow Has a Handle on Ukraine

Fallaces sunt rerum species. (The appearances of things are deceptive.) As alluded to initially here, one could reach the conclusion at first blush that this change in command amounts to a bromide, an unoriginal idea intended to soothe or placate and have the illusion of problem solving. On the other hand, one might imagine the wisdom in putting a former Russian Federation Aerospace Force commander in charge are that air power will be better applied in Ukraine. Many in the Western newsmedia have assessed Surovikin’s appointment may have been an effort by the Kremlin to mitigate criticism from nationalists who have accused the army of mismanaging the war in Ukraine and of failing to use Russian military power overwhelmingly to force the government in Kyiv to submit. To that extent, close Putin ally and leader of Russia’s North Caucasus region of Chechnya, Raman Kadyrov, has publicly demanded that many top generals of the Russian Federation Armed Forces be sacked. Reportedly, many pro-Russia military bloggers have harshly criticized the prosecution of the war. 

Perhaps it would be reasonable to suspect that Surovikin came highly recommended for the Ukraine job by the same sort behind the scenes that likely lended him a helping hand whenever he landed himself in trouble in the past. Among Russians who welcomed the appointment of Surovikin was Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Gruppa Vagnera (Wagner Group), a private military company and a vocal critic of the military leadership. According to a statement put out by Concord, Prigozhin said publicly: “Surovikin is the most able commander in the Russian army.” He called Surovikin a “legendary figure, he was born to serve his motherland faithfully.” He noted: “Having received an order [in 1991], Surovikin was that officer who without hesitation got in his tank and went forward to save his country.” His appointment was also very vocally welcomed by Kadyrov,

However, Putin’s control and his choices and the relative influence of his inner circle was put succinctly in a January 12, 2020 interview in The New Yorker magazine of Masha Lipman, a Moscow-based political analyst who has written extensively on Putin’s regime. (The interview came on the heels of Putin’s proposals of Constitutional reforms that ultimately extended his years in power in Russia.) Asked about the degree of Putin’s control in Russia, Lipman responded: “The issue of control is tricky. If one talks about whether government management is efficient in Russia, then no, it is not. And Putin has repeatedly, over his very long time in office, spoken about the need to increase the productivity of labor and quite a few other very important goals. I wouldn’t say he has delivered so well on those. But, if we define control as control over the élite, over making the decisions, of course Putin’s fully in control. And the developments of the past few days are very clear and persuasive evidence of him being in control of making decisions.” Responding to a question about his moves at that time [Constitutional reforms], Lipman said; “This is a demonstration of how Putin is ultimately in charge and how he can make very important decisions by himself in an atmosphere of complete secrecy. We still do not know who was aware of what was in store for the country three or four days ago, and to what extent there is anyone who can actually challenge his decisions, even verbally.” Lipman continued: “Putin rarely consults with anyone, and, even if he does, it is done in a totally opaque way. He’s rarely explicit. Even if he consults with some people in his circle, people leave without having a clear idea of what his goal is and have to guess. Sometimes they guess right. Sometimes they guess wrong. Sometimes they try to curry favor and succeed, sometimes not. At the end of the day he is the ultimate decision-maker. And the strategy and the grand plans that he has for Russia, in their entirety, exist only in his mind.”

Given Lipman’s expert view and  the views that have been expressed by greatcharlie on Putin for quite some time–they may hold water for generous readers, it would only be reasonable to believe Putin naturally has morbid fear of anyone desiring to remove him from power. Equally naturally, he acts aggressively and often eccentricity to potential threats to his power, both real or imagined. No one should hope to get too close. Sometimes holding power too long breeds a familiarity that breeds contempt in many. Envy like fire always makes for the highest points. The Roman historian Titus Livius (59 B.C.-A.D. 17), known as Livy, provided in Greek, a history of Rome that begins with the earliest legends of Rome before the traditional founding in 753 B.C. through the reign of Emperor Caesar Augustus during his own lifetime. In Book XXXV, section 10 of that history Ad Urbe Condita (From the Founding of the City) (c. 28 B.C.), Livy discusses the campaign for consul that pitted Publius Cornelius Scipio, the son of Gnaeus, who had recently returned from Spain after performing great deeds, and his brother Lucius Quinctius Flamininus, who had commanded the fleet in Greece. Herodotus writes of the challenges facing Scipio: But the eyes of all men were turned upon Quinctius and Cornelius; for both were patricians, contending for one place, and recently-won military glory lent favor to each. But before all else, the brothers of the candidates11 increased their rivalry, since they were the two most celebrated commanders of their age. The greater fame was Scipio’s, and the greater it was, the more it was exposed to jealousy; that of Quinctius was fresher, inasmuch as he had triumphed that very year. There was also the fact that the other had been for about ten years constantly in the public eye, a fact which renders prominent men less venerated from sheer surfeit of seeing them: he had been consul for the second time after the defeat of Hannibal and censor . . . .”

Admittedly, greatcharlie went the long way about presenting this passage from Ad Urbe Condita. However, Livy admirably presents the depth of thinking that led to the challenge to the well-known, long-serving, heroic leader, Scipio, for a newcomer, who could only offer a list of promises and seem so willing, despite his record of service, to challenge the incumbent leader with no apparent reservations. Surely, if this could be used as any measure. Putin always has much to keep his eye on politically.

Putin launched the Ukraine War lacking a worthwhile strategy and recognition of what Russian Federation forces would come up against. What was seemingly completely missed or misunderstood was the degree of support from the US and NATO Member States that Kyiv would receive. No effort, that was apparent, was made to obviate the ability of the US and its NATO allies to supply Ukraine at will as part of the military strategy. From the start, conquering Kyiv was the focus as if Putin and the General Staff of the Russian Federation Armed Forces were blinded by rage. The door was left wide open between Poland and Ukraine. Such impetuous schemes and boldness are at first sight alluring, but are difficult to handle, and in the result disastrous.

Perhaps the real problem for Putin was not just that he relied on fortune, but was driven by blind ambition. What has likely been a reliable intuition that had served him well along the way and allowed him a leg-up in giving subjects light were darkened with regarding parsing out the many aspects of this massive enterprise in Ukraine. Polybius (c. 204-122 B.C.), the Greek “pragmatic historian,” and intriguingly an eyewitness to the siege and destruction of Carthage accompanying none other than Cornelius Scipio Aficanus as one of his commanders. In his noted work, The Histories, Polybius covers the period from 264 BC to 146 BC, focusing primarily on the years 220 BC to 167 BC, and detailing Ancient Rome’s conquest of Carthage, which allowed it to become the dominant force in the Mediterranean. In his discussion of the causes for the start of the Carthaginian War, the Second Punic War in Book I, section 8, Polybius cites the work of the Roman analyst Quintus Fabius Pictor (born c. 270 BC, fl. c. 215–200 BC) . Reportedly, this choice may have been based more in homage than irrefutability given concerns even in his time that his work on the Second Punic War (218–201 BC) on Carthage was highly partisan towards the Roman Republic, idealizing it as a well-ordered state loyal to its allies. Fabius was the earliest known Roman historian. His writings, presented in Greek and now mostly lost besides some surviving fragments, were highly influential on ancient writers. He participated in introducing Greek historiographical methods to the Roman world.

Polybius writes: “Fabius, the Roman annalist, says that besides the outrage on the Saguntines, a cause of the war was Hasdrubal’s ambition and love of power. He tells us how, having acquired a great dominion in Spain, he arrived in Africa and attempted to abolish the constitution of Carthage and change the form of government to a monarchy. The leading statesmen, however, got wind of his project and united to oppose him, upon which Hasdrubal, suspicious of their intentions, left Africa and in future governed Iberia as he chose, without paying any attention to the Carthaginian Senate. Hannibal from boyhood had shared and admired Hasdrubal’s principles; and on succeeding to the governor-generalship of Iberia, he had employed the same method as Hasdrubal. Consequently, he now began this war against Rome on his own initiative and in defiance of Carthaginian opinion, not a single one of the notables in Carthage approving his conduct towards Saguntum. After telling us this, Fabius says that on the capture of this city the Romans came forward demanding that the Carthaginians should either deliver Hannibal into their hands or accept war. Now if anyone were to pose the following question to this writer–how opportunity could have better favored the Carthaginians’ wishes or what could have been a juster act and more in their interest (since, as he says, they had disapproved Hannibal’s action from the outset) than to yield to the Roman demand, and by giving up the man who had caused the offense, with some show of reason to destroy by the hands of others the common enemy of their state and secure the safety of their territory, ridding themselves of the war that menaced them and accomplishing their vengeance by a simple resolution–if anyone, I say, were to ask him this, what would he have to say? Evidently nothing; for so far were they from doing any of the above things that after carrying on the war, in obedience to Hannibal’s decision, for seventeen years, they did not abandon the struggle, until finally, every resource on which they relied being now exhausted, their native city and her inhabitants stood in deadly peril.”

As an experienced judoka, Putin knows that there are occasions when one competitor is simply outmatched by another. It is hard to accept when one is the outmatched competitor or the competitor’s loyal supporter. Still, no matter how unpleasant, it is a reality that must be faced with level-headedness. It would seem Putin has not reached that conclusion yet.

(From left to right) Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Chief of the Russian Federation General Staff, Russian Federation General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, Putin, and Surovikin at a presentation on aerospace weapon systems. On first impression, one might imagine the wisdom in putting the former Russian Federation Aerospace Force commander in charge is that air power will be better applied in Ukraine. Many in the Western newsmedia have assessed Surovikin’s appointment may have been an effort by the Kremlin to mitigate criticism from nationalists who have accused the army of mismanaging the war in Ukraine and of failing to use Russian military power overwhelmingly. In a January 2020 interview in The New Yorker magazine of Masha Lipman, a Moscow-based political analyst who has written extensively on Putin’s regime, explained: “At the end of the day he is the ultimate decision-maker. And the strategy and the grand plans that he has for Russia, in their entirety, exist only in his mind.”

Surovikin’s Appointment Provides Putin with Some Relief Personally

Choice of Surovikin may have been made simply to provide some measure of relief for Putin. By appointing an overall commander, something that most senior military and political advisers in Moscow might have urged Putin to do earlier or had begun to do once things went poorly, the move would feel something far different than a bromide. Putin would be acting proactively, putting fresh eyes on the matter and hopefully a more successful line of thinking.

Imaginably, there are many things Surovikin can now do under his new title that he could not do as Commander of the Aerospace Forces or commander of the Army Group “South” of the Russian Armed Forces engaged in the special military operation. Perhaps it might be more directly the case that they see something in the way in which Surovikin thinks. Much as with the commanders of air, ground, naval, and space components of  armed forces worldwide, one might presume in the abstract that intelligence preparation of the battlefield, providing predictive intelligence at the right time for use in planning and executing operations, has been a critical aspect of the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces efforts to deliver information superiority to its chiefs, and wing and squadron commander’s operating forces over Ukraine. Perhaps in strategy sessions of the armed forces general staff on the Ukraine operation, he proved more familiar with the battlespace as it stands than his counterparts and was thereby tapped for the top Ukraine job. So, he was given the job.

Perhaps in a conversation, an opportunity as his interview with Surovikin for the Ukraine job, Putin expressed concerns about the outcome of the war and Surovikin offered words that provided some measure of relief for him. That would be the conversation leaders who were in desperate situations or facing uncertainty have had with commanders for centuries. In The Histories, Herotudus of Halicarnassus (c. 484 BC-c. 425 BC), the renowned Greek historian of the Hellenic period known for that aforementioned masterwork which mainly discusses the struggles between Greece and Persia. In Book VII, Chapter 234, section 1-3, Herotudus reconstructs a hypothetical conversation between the Persian King Xerxes, and his general and uncle,  Demaratus following the king’s conversation with counselors. He writes: “Xerxes then sent for Demaratus and questioned him, saying first, “Demaratus you are a good man. I hold that proven by the plain truth, for things have turned out no differently than you foretold. Now, tell me this: how many Lacedaemonians are left, and how many of them are warriors like these? or is it so with them all?” “My king,” said Demaratus, “the number of the Lacedaemonians is great, and so too the number of their cities. But what you would like to know, I will tell you: there is in Lacedaemon a city called Sparta, a city of about eight thousand men, all of them equal to those who have fought here; the rest of the Lacedaemonians are not equal to these, yet they are valiant men.” “And how, Demaratus,” answered Xerxes, “can we overcome those men with the least trouble to ourselves?” Come, disclose that to me, for you have been their king and know the plan and order of their counsels.”

Surely, Putin is aware that not even the threat or dismissal or assassination cannot coax brilliance on the battlefield from Russian Federation commanders who simply iack the faculty to do anything that could dramatically change the situation in Ukraine in Russia’s favor. Hoping Ukrainian commanders might drop some almighty clanger that will provide an advantage–friction in battle and that sort of thing–would be futile given they are doubtlessly being “advised” by the some of the best military minds that NATO’s 27 Member States can supply respectively. The assistance in terms of weapons systems, training, and gear alone from NATO Member States has been breathtaking. Putin must have accepted by now that the Russian Federation armed forces are just not good enough to successfully execute the special military operation he chose to launch on February 24, 2022. Perhaps he has muttered to himself in private that all the talent is I n the other side. The Russian Army rejoiced in reputation of the post-war and Cold War Soviet Army. it was an illusion. Putin fell for it. It is all very tragic, especially for the soldiers and civilians on both sides caught up in the fighting and dying.

An army can not change overnight. What Russian top commanders can do is ensure that the many parts of the Russian Federation’s Ground Forces, Aerospace Forces, and Naval Forces work to their utmost in harmony to achieve success, but that still might not be enough to change the course of things. One should hardly expect to observe any maneuvers by Russian commanders to represent “an ingenious jesting with [the operational] art.” The Russians unit commanders in Ukraine continue to feign good intentions by ordering the use of overwhelming brute force, incredulously pretending they can muster any approximating power of that kind the field, with the respective objectives of overcoming Ukrainian strength now in what Putin has just recently declared Russian Federation territory. All those commanders are actually doing is sending their troops, the bulk of which are frightfully ill-trained and inexperienced, to near certain defeat. Numerous newsmedia reports in the West, impossible for any following the Ukraine War story to have missed, tell of field grade level commanders, gung-ho on the war and Putin, and eager to make their mark and possibly catch the attention of leaders Moscow, have sent their troops into better than questionable assault on well-armed and well-positioned Ukrainian units. Such assaults are being repulsed at the cost of extraordinarily high tallies of killed and wounded. Some Russian Army companies and battalions have been obliterated in this way. Many of those zealous commanders have ended.up on casualty.lists themselves. Surely such actions may later be found to be a main ingredient of a recipe for what may turn out to be a great military disaster. There may likely be a decisive clash ahead that will mark the end of the Russian presence in Ukraine, and end the myth that Russia is a conventional military power impossible to reckon with, a challenge to the combined forces of NATO.

The situation for Surovikin might in the end parallel that of the singular circumstances surrounding the renowned author of The History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, (c. 460 BC–400 BC). Thucydides once was an Athenian general who was subsequently sacked and exiled following his failure to defend the Greek city of Amphipolis in Thrace. (During his exile, he began compiling histories and accounts of the war from various participants on all sides.) As fate would have it, Thucydides was ordered to go to Amphipolis in 424 because, by his own account in Book 4, chapter 105, section 1, of The History of the Peloponnesian War (hereinafter referred to as the Peloponnesian War):  “He possessed the right of working the gold mines in that part of Thrace, and thus had great influence with the inhabitants of the mainland” He wrote in Book I, chapter 104, section 4: “The general who had come from Athens to defend the place, sent to the other commander in Thrace, Thucydides son of Olorus, the author of this history, who was at the isle of Thasos, a Parian colony, half a day’s sail from Amphipolis” The renowned Spartan general Brasidas, aware that Thucydides was on Thasos and had established considerable influence with the people of Amphipolis, and concerned over possible reinforcements arriving by sea, acted quickly to offer moderate terms to the Amphipolitans for their surrender, which they accepted. Consequently, when Thucydides arrived at Amphipolis, the city had already fallen under Spartan control. As Amphipolis was of considerable strategic importance to Athens, reports were received with great alarm. Thucydides became the target popular indignation among the Athenians. As was the usual decision in such circumstances, Thucydides was exiled for his failure to “save” Amphipolis.

Memores acti prudentes futuri. (Mindful of what has been done, aware of what will be.) As it was Thucydides’ fate, one might wonder whether Surovikin has been given a fool’s errand, destined to receive a mark of dishonor for failing to complete a mission that had become moot before he had even journeyed out to perform it. Whatever Surovikin manages to do, he will have to cut it a bit fine given the rapid progress of Ukrainian forces in reducing Russian gains, and their well-demonstrated ability to do a lot more. Ukrainian commanders have proven themselves to be formidable opponents by displaying amazing knowledge of their battle space, foresight and agility acumen, managing to block in one place, counterattack in another, withdrawing their units when conditions were most favorable more often than demanding troops hold on to untenable positions until they were forced to retreat in order to survive or surrender. The ability of Ukrainian commanders to think fast and soundly has been key to their relative success as time is always of the essence. They relentlessly seek to take ground and gain and retain the initiative. More often than not weaker Ukrainian units have been pitted against stronger Russian ones, stronger at least on paper. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is quoted as saying: “Strategy is the art of making use of time and space. I am less concerned about the later than the former. Space we can recover, lost time never.” With continued expert advice and robust levels of assistance from the US and NATO, Ukrainian forces could potentially displace and destroy Russian forces at many points before winter sets in proper.

Putin (right) decorating Surovikin (left) with the Hero of the Russian Federation medal for his leadership of the Group of Forces in Syria. If one might consider the role politics might have played in the decision to appoint Surovikin commander of the joint group of troops in the area of the special military operation, it would seem on its face that Putin and the general should have a very harmonious relationship, hardly oil and water. Surovikin’s loyalty and reliability was apparent in his performance in Syria. Surovikin, obedient to the letter, followed through violently in Syria, getting the results that Putin demanded. Unlikely lost on Putin is the fact Surovikin, as a captain commanding an armored unit, was a defender of his beloved Soviet state in the truest sense during the 1991 coup d’état attempt launched by Soviet hardliners, driving through barricades erected by pro-democracy protesters. As noted in the discussion here on his military career, three men were killed in the clash, including one who was crushed.

The Role Played by Political Likes and Dislikes in Surovikin’s Appointment

In greatcharlie’s humble opinion, now is certainly not the best time in Moscow for anyone but Putin to worry about image or petty politics. It is a very odd situation that this persists in the midst of calamity. Even though there is a war going on in which Russia is not performing so well as an invader, image apparently still matters in Moscow. There are ceremonies, speeches in the Kremlin, scholarly foreign and national security policy conferences still being held around Russia all attendended via special invite only. For the elites, it is all more about status than security. The elites still want to improve their relative proximity to Putin and his inner circle. They want to know, who has what title, who is in charge of this or that, who has the lead, who takes orders from whom

To that extent, if one might consider the role of politics might have played in the decision to appoint Surovikin commander of the joint group of troops in the area of the special military operation, it would seem on its face that Putin and the general should have a very harmonious relationship, hardly oil and water. Surovikin’s loyalty and reliability was apparent in his performance in Syria. Surovikin, obedient to the letter, followed through violently in Syria, getting the results that Putin demanded. Unlikely lost on Putin is the fact Surovikin, as a captain commanding an armored unit, was a defender of his beloved Soviet state in the truest sense during the 1991 coup d’état attempt launched by Soviet hardliners, driving through barricades erected by pro-democracy protesters. As noted in the discussion here on his military career, three men were killed in the clash, including one who was crushed.

Certainly Surovikin is not starting from scratch, coming in from outside the centers of power. As mentioned, he served as the Commander of the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces, a rung few have reached since, as aforementioned, the Russian Air Force, the Air and Missile Forces, and the Space Forces were placed under his responsibility. Few have demonstrated the ability to manage as many operational organizations as he has. Although one might point out that the Russian Air Force at war in Ukraine is the one for which he was responsible for many years. Perhaps its performance has been the least impressive among the armed forces.

The suggestion should not be ignored that Putin may be looking at Surovikin as a possible replacement for Russian Federation General of the Army Valery Gerasimov as Chief of General’nyy shtab Vooruzhonnykh sil Rossiyskoy Federatsii (General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation), hereinafter referred to as the Russian Federation General Staff. To find support for that idea, one would only need to look at the condition of the Russian Federation Armed Forces and what the force he has been responsible for has produced in Ukraine. 

Gerasimov could be accused as having underperformed in keeping the armed forces prepared for war. On the eve of the special military operation’s launch, Russian forces situated near Ukraine’s border were still considered quite formidable. This belief was based not just on numbers and their fierce appearance, but on the assumption that Russia had undertaken the same sort of root-and-branch military reform that the US underwent in the 18-year period between Vietnam and its victory in the first Gulf War. Not all,, but many military analysts in the West speculated that the Russian operation would be something akin to a one act drama with an early curtain. The US Intelligence Community concluded that Kyiv would fall in days. Some European officials thought it might just hold out for a few weeks. 

However, starting on the first day of the of the invasion of Ukraine, all of the walls came down on the Russian Federation Armed Forces. Based on their overall performance in Ukraine, the forces that Russia sent into battle seemed almost counterfeit, poorly imitating what was expected by reputation. One could reasonably suggest  that in recent years their capabilities have been subject to hyperbole. As greatcharlie has stated in preceding posts, the Russian Federation General Staff was fortunate that they are not facing US forces. Copious amounts of supporting evidence for that argument has been presented on the battlefield daily in Ukraine. How the mighty have fallen. 

Negligentia sempre habet infortunam comitem. (Negligence always has misfortune for a companion.) Russian forces were not organized for war with precision. Units were not ready for battle. Soldiers had no idea of what to expect. Ukraine was allowed to use its strengths against Russian weaknesses. Ukraine’s smaller units were able to achieve relative superiority force on force initially in the field. One might have expected that occasionally good fortune would shine upon the relatively lightly-armed Ukrainian forces, and a Russian Army or Russian Naval Troops patrol rolling around or crossing into a danger zone might face ambush, a well-organized ambush, and losses would be suffered. With so many patrol ordered in the different avenues of attack by Russian forces, the greater the chance there would be losses. However, Ukrainian forces outrightly routed Russian units over and over on the battlefield and line of successes would force Russia to adjust its strategy.. The possibility of endsieg, victory against the odds, has become all the more real for the Ukrainians.

As discussed earlier to some extent, Putin surely felt the Russian Federation Armed Forces were well-trained and well-equipped to bring swift victory. To be fair, even to Putin, in practical terms, he mainly had the well-choreographed Zapad military and naval exercises to use as a measure of the Russian Federation armed forces effectiveness. The scenarios rehearsed in those exercises were apparently poor preparation for the invasion at hand. The scenarios rehearsed in those exercises were apparently poor preparation for the invasion at hand. There is also the issue that the Zapad exercises were not exactly all that they were made to appear to be in terms of demonstrating their actual strength and capabilities of the Russian armed forces, as well as the possibilities for their use. Imaginably, the truth was deliberately kept from Putin. No matter what was really going on at Zapad, their true value of the exercises can now be discerned by all. Military commanders simply during each exercise went through the motions with elaborate displays of firepower and mobility with little to no concern about how it would all come together in real world situations. The bigger and better Zapad exercises since 2017, lauded by the leadership of the Russian Federation armed forces, were surely “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Putin, himself, had regularly observed the Zapad exercises and everything seemed fine enough.

One NATO commander caught on to what had been happening at Zapad and other Russian military and naval exercises before the invasion and could predict Russian military action in Ukraine might prove for Moscow to be catastrophic. When he was commander of American naval forces in Europe and Africa, US Navy Admiral James Foggo had the duty to plan US military exercises recognized that planning the huge Russian exercises were enormous undertakings. As Russia was planning the Vostok exercises in September 2021 in Siberia, Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, declared it would be the largest since the Soviet Union’s Zapad exercise of 1981. It would involve 300,000 troops, 1,000 aircraft and 80 warships. However, Foggo discovered there was quite a bit of deception involved. Rather than actually field large numbers of soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, a company of troops (150 at most) at Vostok, for example, was inflated and counted as a battalion or even a regiment (closer to 1,000). Single warships were passed off as whole squadrons.

How spectacularly did the illusion created by Russian commanders disintegrate when challenged by reality! It is a sad lesson for commanders in all armies to learn from. Beyond the seemingly deliberate desire to create an illusion of capabilities, the impression left is that the Zapad hoax over the years is that a certain disinvoltura apparently plagued the Russian Federation Armed Forces commanders, that has manifested itself at the worst possible time in the worst possible way. Clearly, Gerasimov was the main one who fed Putin’s illusion concerning the capabilities and  readiness of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. Maybe Putin has reached a point at which he could see some benefit in making a change. The easiest way is to bring forward other faces from the Russian Federation General Staff. It is somewhat surprising that in the West, investigative journalists have not gotten the hint that Gerasimov is being slow-walked out the door and have not tried to pick up the scent of blood. Some may have. A good guess would be that Surovikin is being advanced piecemeal by Putin to where he wants him to be. Interestingly, the indications and implications of such would also be that Putin has the sense that he has a future as leader of Russia.

Removing Gerasimov would cause some stir, perhaps both plus and minus, even among Putin’s nationalist and ultranationalist following. He has been viewed as a very loyal Putin acolyte for nearly a decade. However, if Putin is acting in that direction, it would surely be “business as usual in the Kremlin” with regard to military commanders at all levels. Putin has already replaced a number of top commanders in its armed forces. In an October 8, 2022 story, RFE/RL expressed from available public reporting, a list of prominent Russian commanders that have been sacked. Reportedly, the head of Russia’s North Caucasus region of Daghestan, Sergei Melikov, wrote on Telegram on October 7, 2022, that North Caucasus native Lieutenant-General Rustam Muradov had replaced the commander of the Eastern Military District, Colonel-General Aleksandr Chaiko. The RBK news agency on October 7, 2022 cited sources close to the Russian military as saying Muradov replaced Chaiko without giving any details. Much of the Eastern Military District’s personnel are engaged in the special military operation in Ukraine, despite the fact that the district is based in Russia’s Far East. Muradov previously led troops in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, parts of which have been under Russia-backed separatists’ control since 2014. He also commanded Russian peacekeepers in Azerbaijan’s breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

An October 3, 2022 RBK report stated that the commander of the Western Military District, Colonel-General Aleksandr Zhuravlyov, had been replaced shortly after dramatic Russian losses in northeastern Ukraine in September and the strategic city of Lyman in the Donetsk region had been recaptured by Ukrainian forces. In September 2022, Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev replaced. General Dmitry Bulgakov as deputy defense minister in charge of logistics.  Curiously, Mizintsev is accused by the European Union of orchestrating a siege of the Ukrainian port of Mariupol early in the special military operation that reportedly killed thousands of civilians. In August 2022, state media outlets in Russia said the commander of the Black Sea fleet had been sacked after Ukraine carried out several successful attacks, including the sinking of Russia’s missile cruiser Moskva and the loss of eight warplanes in an attack on a Russian base in Crimea. As Ukraine continues to liberate settlements in its eastern region from occupying Russian troops, Moscow will likely continue to replace top commanders in its armed forces.

However, Putin apparently appreciates Gerasimov as a grand strategist, a military thinker of some talent. He has well-expressed in military terms the imaginings of Putin and his acolytes on the US ambition to conquer Russia for its abundant resources. Worth noting is the very strong and pertinent 2013 Military Statement a response to NATO expansion and Putin’s sense of vulnerability and belief that Russia stands vulnerable to the US “tricks.” In greatcharlie’s November 16, 2016 post entitled, “Belarus Allows Small Demonstrations Outside KGB Headquarters: As Belarus Curries Favor with the West, Can It Help Russia, Too?”, it was noted that on February 14, 2013 at a conference called “Russia’s Military Security in the 21st Century,” 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 parallels with Putin’s thinking on the Western threat to Russia are stark. 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. Putin accepted the threat assessment of the Russian Federation General Staff, and signed the Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation into law on January 29, 2013. The notion that Russian borders were being threatened by the US and NATO and adequate defensive measures are being taken has near controlled Russian military thinking since, culminating so far in this great blunder in Ukraine.

Suggestions that Shoigu has concerns over General Surovikin would be almost baseless. As Shoigu and Surovikin have interacted on countless occasions while he commanded Russian Federation Aerospace Forces. No friction between them has been publicly reported at least. Many new weapon systems critical to Russia’s strategic defense have been introduced by the Aerospace Forces under his leadership. One might in this case again harken back to 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union to give life to such a suggestion. At the time, Shoigu, fairly senior in the Russian Rescuers Corps, was a firm supporter of Boris Yeltsin, then President of the Russian Republic, leading protests against the coup d’etat that forced Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev from office. However, the fact that Surovikin and Shoigu were on opposing sides at that time should not hold any real value in any analysis. It is very unlikely that Shoigu has  borne some grudge against Surovikin over the matter. While greatcharlie cannot swear that Surovikin’s rise is nothing signify concerning Shoigu’s perch at the Ministry of Defense, any suggestion that Surovikin’s appointment has meaning in that direction would seem by the by. The truth is that Shoigu’s role in the rise of Putin and his place in the regime is quite firm and rather singular.

One might recall that in 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, who was serving as Minister of  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) or EMERCOM, and part of Yeltsin’s successful re-election campaign in 1996, was named the leader of the pro-president party. He was partnered with Alexander Karelin. 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 Yeltsin called Shoigu “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, 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. 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. Shoigu was neither in the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) or KGB nor worked in St. Petersburg with Putin. He has been able to make use of his own unique sensibilities to understand his leader’s thinking and feelings. An informed guess by greatcharlie is that Shoigu is unlikely going anywhere, anytime too soon.

As remarked earlier, it is not publicly known which particular aspects of Surovikin’s military background, as seen through the singular lenses of his superiors, took on significance in the decision to select him to tackle the “Ukraine conundrum.” Perhaps those aspects would not be those leaders of other countries might seek in an ideal overall commander of a military campaign. Recalling here how Putin acted in Chechnya when brand new to the post of Russian Federation President, it would not be difficult to understand why Surovikin, with his background, would be the commander he would want handling Ukraine.

One might wonder whether Surovikin (above) has been given a fool’s errand, destined to receive a mark of dishonor for failing to complete a mission that had become moot before he had even journeyed out to perform it. Whatever Surovikin manages to do, he will have to cut it a bit fine given the rapid progress of Ukrainian forces in reducing Russian gains, and their well-demonstrated ability to do a lot more. Ukrainian commanders have proven themselves to be formidable opponents by displaying amazing knowledge of their battle space, foresight and agility acumen, managing to block in one place, counterattack in another, They relentlessly seek to take ground and gain and retain the initiative. More often than not weaker Ukrainian units have been pitted against stronger Russian ones, stronger at least on paper.

Surovikin: The Prospective Savior of Russia?

It is very possible that Putin, Shoigu, Gerasimov, and the others on the Russian Federation General Staff authentically feel there is a real chance that under Surovikin’s command, Russian forces can beat back Ukrainian forces tearing through their lines, gain and retain the initiative, and somehow obviate the effects of US, NATO, and other foreign military assistance to Kyiv. The initial Western newsmedia commentaries of what Surovikin would bring to war as the new joint commander of Russian forces was that he would bring “his violent Syria playbook closer to home.” Reporting focused on a rush of heavy rocket attacks against civilian targets across Ukraine. Naturally, Surovikin’s main challenge in Ukraine, will be to solve the structural problems plaguing the Russian military as it faces fierce Ukrainian forces hell bent on liberating every speck of Ukrainian sovereign territory. Many Western Military experts have expressed that view.

Yet, equally naturally, Surovikin has the grand opportunity to apply his thinking–within the limits of the Russian government system–of what has been done wrong, what has been done right, and what can best be accomplished. As broached in-brief earlier, Surovikin may have expressed a singular interpretation of the battlespace. To be succinct and express it as it might still be taught in military educational institutions at the command and staff level, the battlespace is the mental picture a commander establishes in order to analyze and choose courses of action to apply his military assets in relation to time, tempo, and depth. Perhaps Surovikin’s superiors at this point are hoping that his way of thinking will make a difference on the battlefield and they may be turning to him as a last, best resort. Moreover, it could be that the results of the ongoing Ukrainian drive in fact proved Surovikin’s conceptual view of the situation in what was previously his southern front and his neighboring eastern front were correct. He may have expressed what turned out to be the best understanding of how factors as the strengths and weaknesses of Ukrainian forces to include new weapon systems being introduced via Western assistance. He may have sounded the alarm that firepower in particular would allow them “the upper hand” on the battlefield. He may have demonstrated a better understanding, reliable intimations, on how, where, and when to apply the combat power of Russian forces. He may have assessed the strengths and weaknesses of Russian forces and, since their power has dwindled so dramatically, how they could be more effectively and perhaps economically mustered, how those forces could be better protected, and how they might be able to take a stab at making some respectable gains more immediately. Much as noted previously, being commander of the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces, since 2017 has perchance allowed Surovikin to gain experience, an expertise in managing multidimensional aspects of warfare to create a harmonious or synergistic whole. To that extent, he conceivably would lend an expertise applicable to managing the multidimensional aspects of air, sea, space, land, and information operations in his planning and execution of military operations.

Concerning Russian Federation Aerospace Forces specifically, more than simply contributing to the Ukraine campaign as the situation stands as of this writing, they could play an effective role, indeed have a multiplier effect. With his experience as Commander of the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces, Surovikin presumably would know best how to manage all assets of the force to strike strategically and tactically to make a positive difference in the war effort. Strategically, destroying Ukraine’s ability to construct weapons and disrupting its supply of weapons from external sources would likely be a priority. Tactically, a priority would likely be coordinating efforts by Russian Federation Aerospace Force assets with ground forces currently facing great pressure or extremely challenging situations almost everywhere on the frontlines from well-armed, well-supplied, and highly-motivated Ukrainian forces.

Dediscit animus sero quod didicit diu. (The mind is slow in unlearning what it has been long learning.) For many, it might understandably be difficult to conceive exactly how under the same leadership, with an additional title, the situation could be altered for its better. With specific regard to the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces, large scale exercises of recent years appear to have been nothing more than staged acts, performances that presented illusions about the capabilities of its different branches. Indeed, those performances were full of sound and fury, but reality signified nothing. In the Ukraine campaign, the Russian Federation Aerospace Forces so far have had little impact to the degree that they were present. The Russian Federation Aerospace Forces have been near nonexistent relative to its size, supposed power, and the expectations of military analysts worldwide. Its best fighters and fighter-bombers have been regularly blasted out of the skies by Ukrainian forces using both pricey sophisticated air defense weapons systems gifted to Kyiv by Western powers and shoulder fired rockets operated by individual soldiers in the field. Russian Federation Ground Forces could be assessed as fighting much as one of a third tier power, seemingly lacking sophisticated aircraft and possessing no close air support assets, and they have resultantly suffered losses the same as an trained observer might expect of a type of third tier force against a high-tech force of a military superpower. In this case, it would appear that with the combined support of the US, the United Kingdom, EU, and NATO member countries, Ukraine, to a degree, is fighting much as that very sort of military superpower described. As greatcharlie has stated in preceding posts, one could only imagine the loss Russian Federation forces would have suffered if they had clashed directly with US forces. If any units sent into battle under that scenario would have been spared, it would have been purely a matter of happenstance.

Still, Putin would unlikely put all of his hopes in the hands of these military men. To go a bit further with the hypothetical, perhaps during one of his summit meetings and bilateral talks with Putin, People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping diplomatically and encouragingly shared the suggestion that he might adopt “a new way of thinking about warfare.” Perhaps he discussed the concept of combined warfare without boundaries emphasizing that a complementary level of energy be placed on matters that could not only greatly influence, but even more, have a decisive impact on its outcome. While it may also include the use of armed force, under the concept of combined warfare without boundaries prioritizes the use of non-military forms of warfare: psychological, media, information, technology, cyber, financial, political, social, and espionage. The aim of combined warfare without boundaries is to weaken the US internally and to exploit its vulnerabilities. Since under combined warfare without boundaries the battlefield is everywhere, everything can be weaponized. On a short list of things weaponized, Xi could have told Putin in this hypothetical situation that, optimistically, there still was time to put things right, but certainly there was no time to waste. It is all hypothetical, imagined from the abstract.

In the past, the activities undertaken as part of combined warfare without boundaries would have fallen under the category of intelligence. Perhaps, they still do. Intelligence services engage in open and clandestine, and covert activities, using appropriate tools and available resources, to create or exploit opportunities to act in support of the policies and the interests of their countries. As part of those activities, the everyday can often become weaponized. Putin is perhaps the most prominent Russian intelligence doyen around today having served in the KGB and as head of the FSB. He would very likely see value and potential in that tack, and would surely have a stream of ideas on what he could do away from the battlefield in a robust way. 

Under such a scenario, one could reasonably expect his mind to harken back to the heady days of the Cold War when he served as an officer in the KGB in the former Deutsche Democratische Republik (German Democratic Republic, also known as GDR or East Germany). Putin and his KGB comrades cooperated–“oversaw”–the work of their HVA counterparts who were infiltrating West Germany and countries beyond in the West to not only collect intelligence but to a great extent prepare as best as possible for a likely conflict between Warsaw Pact forces and NATO Member States in Central Europe. For 34 years, Generaloberst Markus Wolf was the very successful head of GDR’s foreign intelligence service Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung (the Main Directorate for Reconnaissance), commonly referred to as the HVA. With frightening efficiency, he developed an array of tactics, techniques, procedures and methods for operating against his Western opponents in advance of any eventual conflict in Europe between East and West, or to break down the societies of opponents of the Eastern Bloc. Throughout the Cold War, his agents poured into West Germany and when possible countries beyond, secured positions, reported about, and influenced the activities of a multitude of organizations in a broad spectrum of areas, social, political, diplomatic, military, commercial, financial, scholarly,  scientific, and informational. (For those interested in more on Wolf and the HVA, see the November 13 2019 greatcharlie post entitled Book Review: Markus Wolf, Man without a Face: The Autobiography of Communism’s Greatest Spymaster (Times Books, 1997) for a bit more detail on the matter.)

With a dearth of good ideas, some interest could possibly arise in mining benefit from what might seem as an outre thought on first impression. If such a hypothetical exchange on the matter of combined warfare without boundaries were at all true, and under such a scenario, Putin might have put any thought into the matter, he would likely have begun to think beyond the battlefield in a big way. Some might suggest that Putin already was engaged in such activities as observed in Russia’s hybrid warfare attacks in Europe which began in 2014.

Hybrid warfare has been associated with Gerasimov who developed what has been dubbed the Gerasimov doctrine. The Gerasimov Doctrine, an operational concept for Russia’s confrontation with the West, is also a whole-of-government concept that combines military power and soft power across many domains, transcending boundaries between peace and war. However, there is a distinction between combined warfare without boundaries and the Gerasimov Doctrine. When combined warfare without boundaries is applied, the purpose is not to prepare or support the use of force. What is accomplished by non-military means should offset the use of force. To that extent in Ukraine, what is transpiring on the battlefield should not be looked upon as determining the final outcome of the confrontation. 

In a robust application of some simulacrum of combined warfare without boundaries, alterations in a few aspects of Russia’s behavior would likely signal the change. There would likely be greater emphasis on garnering assistance from allies with the wherewithal to contribute assets of high value. That list of allies would likely include: China, Belarus, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Iran, and perhaps Cuba. Applying combined warfare without boundaries, top diplomats of Ministerstvo Inostrannykh del Rossijskoj Federacii (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Russian Federation) would approach each to secure the maximum level of assistance. Reports surfaced in September 2022, that Russia was in the process of buying millions of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea to use in Ukraine. That information was reportedly sourced from the US Department of Defense. In August 2022, US officials disclosed that Russia received shipments of Iranian-produced drones. 

Top diplomats would also be tasked with keeping the negotiations door open without leaning too far that way as to encourage bolder action on the battlefield by Kyiv and its NATO backers. It may be the case that when Western representatives approach Putin about peace, he may very well get the sense that he is slowly wearing down their countries and Ukraine. Thereby, his resolve to fight on may be strengthened.

As part of Putin’s twist on an hypothetical implementation by him of a combined warfare without limits strategy similar to that of China might be to green-light direct action of a calibrated nature in a top tier Western country whose foreign and national security bureaucracies surely will not be expecting but actually should have been prepared for once the Ukraine war ignited over some preposterous reasoning began.

Russian Federation intelligence services would be called upon to collect all they can on the level of will Western countries possess on investing in the war: concerns expressed in capitals on capping assistance expenditures, Ukraine’s use of all forms of assistance, and the effects of Moscow’s nuclear threats. Sweet to the ear of Putin would surely be any true Intelligence collected that shows some decay in the united front of the NATO Member States. As the situation stands now, it would seem illusory for the Kremlin to put hope in some deterioration of Western unity or loss of will or concern over the drain funding the war has had on national budgets or an actual pull back of support for Kyiv. Further, if the Russian Federation could hastily organize and task Its respective intelligence services to impact Western countries lined against it in some significant way as to influence events in Ukraine, there would unlikely be enough time to get any operations going before events on the battlefield rendered their fruits meaningless.

As for the Russian Federation Armed Forces, they would still be implored to hold on territory gained. However, in the use of their weapon systems, they would need to be a bit more creative. In the May 30, 2022 greatcharlie post entitled, “Putin the Protector of the Russian People or the Despoiler of Ukrainian Resources: A Look at War Causation and Russian Military Priorities in Ukraine”, it was suggested that ideally for Putin, inhabitants of Ukrainian cities and towns will be displaced due to Russian attacks at such a level that the cities and towns themselves would more or less resemble the southern portion of the city of Famagusta in Cyprus or the village of Oradour-sur-Glane in France. (Given results, it almost seems as if Russian engineering officers, artillery officers, air power officers, and ordnance officers, have drawn up plans for the systematic demolition of Ukrainian cities and towns, district by district, block by block, using ordnance fired from a variety of weapon systems.) The intermittent attacks on populated areas may indeed have some psychological warfare, punitive, or perhaps even a tactical purpose. Yet, something of far greater conception may be behind them. Perchance Russian commanders, as part of a preconceived plan, seek to displace Ukrainians from their homes, out of the cities and town through “massive evacuations” to make them easier to “manage,” easier to control. Surely, Putin would appreciate having the West finance and supply for their care on the other side of the Dnieper River. Destroying certain parts of cities and towns would also make them far less desirable. At the time of this writing, UN estimates are that over 4.1 million Ukrainians have moved into other countries. When Ukrainians move west, the better things become concerning Putin’s likely plans for Ukraine. In that same May 30, 2022 post, it was imagined that following the capture of Ukrainian cities and towns, “There might be the chance that citizens of the Russian homeland would be ‘invited’ to relocate and settle in those cities and towns to participate in their reconstruction and, particularly in the southeast, reside in cities and towns in order to reconstruct and work at ports on the Azov Sea and in the many mineral mines. Veterans of the military operation who were so inclined could be invited to relocate to the cities and towns they ‘liberated,’ in effect to enjoy the spoils of the war.”

Hypothetically under an overarching combined warfare without boundaries concept insisted upon by the Kremlin, Russian forces would act more directly to break the will of the Ukrainians throughout the country. While propaganda would likely have limited effect, there would be the possibility of attempting to break the morale of the Ukrainian people and as important, their will to fight on. To that extent, Ukrainian civilian infrastructure would be targeted with the purpose of terrorism the population, albeit the of terrorizing civilians in this manner would be a war crime. As of this writing, Russian forces reportedly have been bombing Ukraine’s critical civilian infrastructure, to include energy facilities. As put by Amnesty International, the intent of these attacks–somewhat in line of combined warfare without boundaries–is “to undermine industrial production, disrupt transportation, sow fear and despair, and deprive civilians in Ukraine of heat, electricity and water as the cold grip of winter approaches.”

Surovikin (center), Gerasimov (left), and Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy, Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff (right). It is very possible that Putin, Shoigu, Gerasimov, and the others on the Russian Federation General Staff authentically feel there is a real chance that under Surovikin’s command, Russian forces can beat back Ukrainian forces tearing through their lines, gain and retain the initiative, and somehow obviate the effects of US, NATO, and other foreign military assistance to Kyiv. It could be that the results of the ongoing Ukrainian drive in fact proved Surovikin’s conceptual view of the situation in what was previously his southern front and his neighboring eastern front were correct. He may have expressed what turned out to be the best understanding of how factors as the strengths and weaknesses of Ukrainian forces to include new weapon systems being introduced via Western assistance. He may have sounded the alarm that firepower in particular would allow them “the upper hand” on the battlefield. He may have demonstrated all along a better understanding, reliable intimations, on how, where, and when to apply the combat power of Russian forces. He may have assessed the strengths and weaknesses of Russian forces and, since their power has dwindled so dramatically, how they could be more effectively and perhaps economically mustered, how those forces could be better protected, and how they might be able to take a stab at making some respectable gains more immediately.

Surovikin: The Invaluable Multilateral Operations Expert

The renowned 19th century Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde explained: “To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect.” Surovikin surely gained experience with multilateral operations as a result of his experience in Syria. Ukraine has doubtlessly put him in contact with operational commanders of allies assisting Russia in various ways. Given the DPRK’s arms shipment to the Russian Federation Armed Forces and persistent murmurs of its troops assisting the Russian with the deployment of their troops, the DPRK’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) General Staff, with the permission of DPRK Chairman Kim Jung-un, by now surely has observers on the ground in Ukraine, examining everyday of the conflict and gleaning every lesson possible. Surely, those lessons learned will manifest in alterations of DPRK armed forces tactics, perhaps even the configuration of certain units, and use of their weapon systems to create whatever advantages they could possibly muster as well as mitigate any apparent weaknesses across the board. That might also include any structural changes their system of government might allow. From the Russian side, the work entailed in establishing interoperability with DPRK ordnance might be developed as a foundation for further areas and levels of cooperation. 

It was suggested at the time when the situation for the Russian forces in the Donbass began to seriously deteriorate that Kim might send 100,000 troops  of the KPA to Ukraine. On first impression, one might view such talk as part of Russia’s political warfare operations. If their suggested deployment should occur, the DPRK expeditionary force could potentially accomplish enough to offset the somewhat grandiose plans of Kyiv to raise a force of 1,000,000 soldiers to eradicate Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, to include the liberation of Crimea. The DPRK’s military is reported to be the world’s fourth largest, with nearly 1.3 million active personnel, and an additional 600,000 serve as reserve soldiers. Noteworthy is the fact that the DPRK has also offered to send over 1,000 workers to assist Russia in rebuilding postwar Ukraine. It has also been reported that Moscow would provide energy and grain in return for the deployment of DPRK troops. According to UN Resolution 2375, passed in 2017, countries are prohibited from supplying the DPRK all condensates and natural gas liquids (paragraph 13). UN Resolution 2397, passed in 2017, limits the annual amount of crude and refined petroleum that can be provided to North Korea (paragraphs 4 and 5). The former resolution also precludes any joint ventures or cooperative entities with North Korea (paragraph 18). The latter resolution reiterates the prohibition of any DPRK national from earning income in other states (paragraph 8). At this point, it would be unreasonable to think that such UN Resolutions have any meaning. Russian forces in Ukraine are already receiving the DPRK weapons shipments. As for prohibitions on the DPRK regarding arms shipments, its military assistance to Russia would also violate UN resolutions. UN Resolution 1718, passed in 2006, prohibits North Korean exports of heavy weapons, such as tanks, artillery, and missiles, and requires UN member states to prevent their transfer (paragraph 8). UN Resolution 1874 (paragraph 9), passed in 2009, and UN Resolution 2270 (paragraph 6), passed in 2016, expanded the export ban to include all DPRK arms, including small arms and light weapons, as well as “technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of such arms or materiel.” Further, under UN Resolution 2270, paragraph 8), the DPRK is also prohibited from any military exports that “support or enhance the operational capabilities of armed forces of another Member State.” Pyongyang has established a record of totally disregarding UN Resolutions.

Napoleon is quoted as saying: “Unity of command is essential to the economy of time. Warfare in the field was like a siege: by directing all one’s force to a single point a breach might be made, and the equilibrium of opposition destroyed.” If DPRK troops, conceivably a combined arms force, were deployed to Ukraine, they would likely be applied as a decisive unified force on the battlefield, rather than separating them into individual units and dole them out as replacements for battered and tattered Russian battalions  Under the latter scenario, the likely command, control, and communications problems might be enormous. Further, the fact that Russian and DPRK have not trained together, at least in recent years, in such great numbers, surely would almost immediately become apparent despite Surovikin’s best efforts. How he would manage that would likely require summoning up answers from the depths of his knowledge, experience and talent. Perhaps the common wisdom is that if Surovikin is hoping to make any decisive moves, they would be planned for the Spring of 2023. However, there is the possibility that he plans to act in the mid-to-late Winter when weather conditions might obviate advantages provided to Ukrainian forces through the use of drones. Astonishingly, Russian forces seem to lack the appropriate equipment to monitor the skies electronically or a frightful lack of competence to do so.

One might recall weather was a key factor in the planning of Germany’ Oberkommando der Wehrmacht for its Ardennes Offensive that was launched on December 16, 1944. As the attack was envisioned, a heavy winter storm would prevent Allied attempts to provide air support and resupply to beleaguered US troops caught head on in the German armored and mechanized rampage through Belgium and Luxembourg, determined to reach the sea at Antwerp. For several days during the offensive, considerable progress was made, causing a huge bulge westward on the US frontlines. The battle was thereby given the name the “Battle of the Bulge.” Eventually, the winter storm that was vital to the German advance cleared enough for Allied air assets to fly in and have a devastating impact against the German attackers. They also managed to deliver much needed supplies–manna from heaven–to US troops. Certainly, it is possible that the drone technology Ukrainian forces possess might be able to overcome any challenges caused by weather conditions. If not, such technologically equipped drones could perhaps be rapidly supplied to them by Western powers

Though DPRK troops hypothetically sent into Ukraine would certainly be prepared to do business and make a good showing on behalf of their Dear Respected Comrade [Kim], it is possible that the hypothesized DPRK force could unexpectedly find themselves caught in a situation with Ukrainian forces similar to what their Russian comrades had in Kyiv and Kharkiv. After all, this hypothetical DPRK expeditionary force, imaginably combined arms,  could hardly expect more close air support from the Russian Federation Aerospace Force than Russian troops have received. They might deploy their own fighters and attack helicopters and fly them out of Crimea or even the Donbas only to find the skies over Ukraine no safer than the Russian pilots had. A disastrous assistance effort to support an ally that comes to mind is that of the British Army which sent a force under Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore into Spain to support the United Kingdom’s Spanish allies against the forces of Napoleon in 1809 during the Peninsular War. The French campaign, initially led by Napoleon himself, defeated the Spanish armies. Moore attempted to attack the French force, a corps under Marshal of the Empire Jean de Dieu Soult with the objective of diverting it. The strength of Moore’s forces was 16,000, which included 15,000 infantry and 9 to 12 guns. Soult’s corps in near parity included 16,000 troops, of which 12,000 were infantry, 3,200 were cavalry. He also had 20 guns

When the plan as conceived failed. Moore withdrew his force, but Soult’s corps relentlessly pursued it. The British retreat, under harsh winter conditions, took Moore’s force across northern Spain while their rearguard fought off repeated French attacks. Both the British and French troops suffered from the severe weather. With the exception of the elite Light Brigade under Robert Craufurd, much of the British force suffered from a loss of order and discipline during the retreat. Having managed against tremendous odds to reach the port of Corunna on the northern coast of Galicia in Spain, a few days ahead of the French, Moore’s troops found their transport ships had not arrived. When the fleet arrived a couple of days later, Soult’s forces also arrived and launched an attack on the British who were embarking. The British had no choice but to fight another battle before leaving Spain, the Battle of Corunna. In the fight which took place on January 16, 1809. Moore’s force repeatedly repulsed attacks from Soult’s force until nightfall, when both sides disengaged. However, during the battle, Moore was mortally wounded, but he died after learning that his men had successfully repelled the French attacks. That night, British forces resumed their embarkation. The last troops sailed away in the morning under French cannon fire. Soult would capture the port cities of Corunna and Ferrol. The outcome of the withdrawal of British forces from Galicia was the fall of northern Spain to the French.

Perchance General Surovikin would also has the solution to avoid a similar catastrophe. Perhaps the hypothetical intervention by DPRK troops would more resemble that of the Prussians at the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. As it is fairly well-known, during the battle, over 30,000 Prussians under General Der Infanterie Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr Graf Bulow von Dennewitz and General-Leutnant Otto Karl Lorenz von Pirch shaped the outcome at the Battle of Waterloo. The Prussians desperately sought to capture the strategic point of Plancenoit on the right flank of Napoleon Bonaparte’s Army. Much of the Prussian’s fight against the 10,000 French defenders in Plancenoit was in the streets of the town itself. Though the battle at Plancenoit was to be hard fought, the Prussians eventually overran the French right, causing the French army to turn and flee. Their success sealed the fate of Napoleon. The Commander-in-Chief of the Prussian Army, Generalfeldmarschall Gerhard Leberecht von Blücher was famously to meet British Army Field Marshal The Duke of Wellington on the battlefield between 9:00PM and 10:00PM, close to the Belle-Alliance farm, where history records, the Prussian general conjured up in French: “Quelle affaire !” Given the battering the Allied army had received throughout the day, the relatively fresh Prussian troops were to take the lead in pursuing the fleeing French troops. The Prussians had neverthless lost 7,000 men. Napoleon’s carriage was to be seized by Prussian cavalry at Gemappes, and the routed French were to be given no quarter by the furious Prussian pursuit. Blücher’s advance guard was finally to reach the outskirts of Paris on June 29, 1815. With Napoleon’s abdication on June 22, 1815, the war would officially end upon the signature of the Convention of St-Cloud on July 3, 1815.  Surely, this would be the sort of outcome that Moscow and Pyongyang would be hoping for.

Surovikin (left), Shoigu (seated right), and Russian Federation Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy (center). Surovikin gained considerable experience with multilateral operations as a result of his experience in Syria. Ukraine has doubtlessly put him in contact with operational commanders of allies assisting Russia in various ways. Given the DPRK’s arms shipment to the Russian Federation Armed Forces and persistent murmurs of its troops assisting the Russian with the deployment of their troops, the DPRK General Staff, with the permission of Kim, by now surely has observers on the ground in Ukraine, examining everyday of the conflict and gleaning every lesson possible. Surely, those lessons learned would manifest in alterations of DPRK armed forces tactics, perhaps even the configuration of certain units, and use of their weapon systems to create whatever advantages they could possibly muster as well as mitigate any apparent weaknesses across the board. That might also include any structural changes their system of government might allow. From the Russian side, the work entailed in establishing interoperability with DPRK ordnance might be developed as a foundation for further areas and levels of cooperation. It was suggested at the time when the situation for the Russian forces in Ukraine began to seriously deteriorate that Kim might send 100,000 DPRK troops to Ukraine. Surely, Surovikin would be best suited to manage a multilateral effort with the DPRK.

The Way Forward

Ultimately, it was Putin who created the Ukraine War. Still, commanders are responsible for what was happening to young soldiers in the field. Surovikin expectedly understands the situation in Ukraine. He has been part of the military decisionmaking on the special military operation from its inception. The loss in troops and materiel in Ukraine even to the of top Russian Federation commanders’ eyes must also be absolutely astounding. They are after all only human. All of the ills of the forces they have led have been exposed to the world. The walls have come down. 

Included among root causes for troubles that have surfaced, with which Surovikin or anyone who might come after him must contend, are extremely poor soldier discipline and terrible fieldcraft. Training has likely been lax for decades. Leadership has likely been poor at the lower level leadership for just as long. It is unlikely that senior leaders were circulating or doing so in a meaningful way. One might presume there was a lack of standards particularly among the ground forces and very low morale. If morale was not low in the past, it is surely low now. Russian military technology appears crude as well as corroded in some cases. The world is not discovering how capable NATO has been to confront what was formally understood to be a Russian military juggernaut. Indeed, the world is seeing just how corroded the Russian system is and how that corroded system likely for years had grabbed hold of and mangled the armed forces. What has been manifested from that system in Ukraine has been a longtime in development. Weapons systems which are designed for US military and naval personnel to go to war and win must be robust. This approach is in stark contrast to that of the Russian Federation Armed Forces. An army that operates under the archaic notion that troops are expendable and can be casually sacrificed to achieve objectives will be overcome and overrun in the present era. No one should knowingly be sent to war without being given every chance with regard to their survival and the performance of their equipment.

The above are symptoms of an affliction of corruption that has beset and poisoned authoritarian regimes throughout history. Embezzlement becomes ubiquitous, the powerful feel entitled to spoils befitting their rise. And their countries are bled dry strength and wherewithal stealthily and it is all uncovered in unexpected crises. In every way, the Russian Federation Armed Forces appear to have all along been a paper tiger, emblematic of the very flawed government they serve. William Shakespeare, in Sonnet 66 (1609), provides a short list of ingredients that best describe the realities of authoritarian regimes so appropos concerning the thinly veiled current one of Russian Federation. In the third quatrain, he writes: “And art made tongue-tied by authority, / And folly, doctor-like, controlling skill, / And simple truth miscalled simplicity, / And captive good attending captain ill.”

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.)

Unintentional Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says: Greater Care Is Required in Many Areas

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The US Central Command (CENTCOM) Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar (above). It is comprised of a joint US military and Coalition team that executes day-by-day combined air and space operations and provides rapid reaction, positive control, coordination, and deconfliction of weapons systems. On September 17, 2016, CAOC was monitoring a Coalition airstrike over Deir Ezzor when Russian Federation forces informed it that the attack was hitting a Syrian military position. The attack impacted a US diplomatic effort with Russia on Syria.

According to a November 29, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Unintentional Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says,” the US Department of Defense identified “unintentional” human mistakes as the causality for the US-led airstrikes that killed dozens of Syrian government troops in September 17, 2016. The strikes occurred as a deal to ease hostilities in Syria, brokered by the US and Russia, was unraveling. They particularly undercut US Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to coordinate the US and Russian air campaigns over Syria. Russian Federation military units, which were working closely with the forces of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad to fight ISIS and other rebels, said the attack had killed 62 Syrian troops and wounded more than 100. The attack marked the first time the US had engaged the Syrian military since it began targeting the ISIS in Syria and Iraq two years ago. It was determined as result of the investigation, led by US Air Force Brigadier General Richard Coe, that the attack was conducted under the “good-faith belief” that the targets were ISIS militants. It also concluded that the strikes did not violate the law of armed conflict or the rules for the US military. Danish, British and Australian forces also participated in the airstrike. Coe said, “In my opinion, these were a number of people all doing their best to do a good job.”

As Kerry was engaged in a crucial effort to persuade Russia to coordinate its air campaign in Syria with similar US efforts when the airstrike occurred, greatcharlie has been fogged-in over why the risky attack was ever ordered. In a previous post, greatcharlie stated that Russian Federation military commanders could benefit greatly from working alongside US air commanders and planners. It was also suggested that the US might provide a demonstration of its targeting and operational capabilities to encourage Russia’s cooperation. However, the errant attack was certainly not the sort of demonstration greatcharlie had in mind. On better days, US air commanders and planners have demonstrated a practically unmatched acumen in using air assets of the US-led coalition’s anti-ISIS air campaign to shape events on the ground in support of the goals of US civilian leaders. US air commanders and planners have very successfully conducted No-Fly Zones and sustained air campaigns over the past three decades, in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, where political goals endured, and in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Those experienced enough in life fully understand that it has its promises and disappointments. Whether events go well or negatively for one, an authentic truth is revealed in the outcome from which valuable, edifying lessons as well as new ideas can be extrapolated. The errant bombing of September 17, 2016 and findings of the investigation of it have come late in the administration of US President Barack Obama. Too little time is really available for lessons from the incident to influence any remaining decisions that the administration might make on Syria or military coordination and cooperation with Russia. The subsequent collapse of the negotiations on military coordination may have assured such decisions would not be required. Yet, for the incoming US administration, they may offer some useful hints on negotiating military coordination and cooperation with Russia on Syria or other countries on other issues if the opportunity arises. A few of those lessons are presented here with the hope they might mitigate the potential of an unfortunate military incident as witnessed in Syria that might also derail a crucial diplomatic effort. The overall hope is that the next administration will be tended by an honorable peace. Quidquid ages, prudenter agas et respice finem! (Whatever you do, do cautiously, and look to the end!)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leave after their bilateral meeting at the APEC Ministers Summit in Lima

The airstrike undercut US Secretary of State John Kerry’s (right) diplomatic effort with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) to coordinate the US and Russian air campaigns over Syria. Bringing Russia over to the US view was already dicey. A few days before the incident, the US and Russia exchanged charges of noncompliance with a ceasefire agreement reached on September 12th in Geneva.

This Was Not the Demonstration of US Capabilities Imagined

The Obama administration may not have actually been enthused about working with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin on Syria, but it recognized that Russia, with its considerable military investment in Syria, can play an important role in ending the war. To that extent, it sought to have Putin agree to have agreement crafted by Kerry and Lavrov to cooperate militarily. The agreement called for formation of a US-Russia Joint Implementation Center to coordinate strikes against ISIS as well as Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic militant forces after there had been seven consecutive days of reduced violence in the civil war and humanitarian aid had begun to flow to besieged communities in Syria. Bringing Russia over to the US view was already dicey enough. A few days before the incident, the US and Russia exchanged charges of noncompliance with the ceasefire agreement that Kerry and Lavrov reached on September 12, 2016 in Geneva.

On August 20, 2016, greatcharlie suggested the US could increase the value of its assistance through an actual demonstration of US capabilities to further encourage a change in Putin’s perspective on Kerry’s proposal on military cooperation. Included among recommendations was providing Putin with a complete US military analysis of the setbacks Russia and its allies have faced in Syria, and the relative strengths and weakness versus their Islamic militant opponents. The exact manner in which intelligence resources the US proposed to share with Russia and US military resources would have been of value to Russia could have been demonstrated by targeting and destroying a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria. Where possible, US airstrikes could have disrupted and destroyed developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Through a video of the attacks, Putin could have been shown how the unique capabilities of US weapons systems could enhance the quality of Russian airstrikes. He might also have been provided with US military assessments of those attacks.

The US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees US military operations in the Middle East, told the Russians in advance about the planned strike on an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province, calling it a “professional courtesy.” A senior US official said the Russians had acknowledged the message, thereby assuring they would the audience for the US attack. However, after the attack, the Russians had no reason to express appreciation or compliments to CENTCOM. The strike began in the early evening of the next day. According to Russia, two A-10s, two F-16 fighters, and drones of the US-led Coalition were deployed to attack the airfield. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were erroneously fired on a Syrian Arab Army unit. The attack went on for about 20 minutes, with the planes destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of people in the open desert, the official said. Then, an urgent call came into CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and 17 other nations.  The Russians relayed to the CAOC the disappointing news that the US strike was hitting Syrian forces. Four minutes later, the strikes were halted.

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A “bombed up” A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter (above). In the early evening of September 17, 2016, two pairs of Coalition A-10 and F-16 fighters along with drones were deployed to attack an airfield in Deir Ezzor. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were erroneously fired on a Syrian Arab Army position. The attack lasted about 20 minutes, with the fighters destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of Syrian troops in the open desert. If not halted, the entire Syrian unit might have been wiped out.

In Syria over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade enemy air defenses. As aircrews cannot identify targets, bombs are dropped in areas where air intelligence reports the enemy is located. In attacking urban centers, that can result in collateral damage in the form of civilian deaths and injuries and the destruction of nonmilitary structures. US Permanent Representative to the UN, Samantha Power pointed to the issue of targetting by Russian Federation Air Force and Syrian Arab Air Force jets.  On September 17, 2016, Power stated the Syrian government, assisted by Russia, has tortured and bombed its people. She added, “And, yet, in the face of none of these atrocities has Russia expressed outrage, nor has it demanded investigations, nor has it ever called for . . . an emergency meeting of the Security Council” on a Saturday night or any other night.

Air intelligence provides commanders with information on enemy targets to the extent that visual searches of enemy targets is no longer required. Given the speed of fighters and the need to protect aircrews and aircraft from anti-aircraft weapons and other arms, flying at lower altitudes with the goal of identifying targets by visual search is no longer feasible. Even friendly forces are often required to mark targets with flags or smoke for their own safety. US air commanders ordered the attack in the proximity of Syrian forces, calculating that the conclusions of air intelligence about the target were accurate. Informing aircrews that they would be operating in close proximity to Syrian troops did not create any requirement for them to engage in a time consuming, very hazardous, visual search of the target before going into their attack. Nevertheless, as US Air Force Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, the commander of US Air Forces and Combined Forces Air Component in CENTCOM aptly explained, “In this instance, we did not rise to the high standard we hold ourselves to, and we must do better than this each and every time.”

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The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services use their intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of air commanders and planners. However, over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties in Syria are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade air defenses. Bombs are dropped where air intelligence reports state the enemy is located. Attacks in urban centers have resulted in civilian deaths and injuries and the destruction of nonmilitary structures.

Intelligence Analysts Erred

The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services proudly use their own intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners would certainly like to believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success without US assistance. However, the summer of 2016 proved to be particularly difficult for Russian Federation forces and their allies as progress eastward toward Raqqa and Deir Ezzor was slowed. ISIS was able to apply pressure, infiltrating into areas retaken by the allies and launching counterattacks. The fight for Aleppo became a greater strain than anticipated. Beyond human intelligence collection–spies, the US gathers continuous signal and geospatial intelligence over Syria. Those multiple streams of intelligence could assist Russian Federation commanders and planners in pinpointing ISIS and other Islamic militant groups on the ground even if they are dispersed. Air assets of the Russian Federation and its allies could destroy them, disrupt their attacks, and support ground maneuver to defeat them. In support of the proposal, Kerry and Lavrov already agreed that a map could be drawn up indicating where Islamic militant forces are positioned. They also agreed that US and Russian military personnel working in the same tactical room would jointly analyze the intelligence and select targets for airstrikes.

Reportedly, US surveillance aircraft had been watching the erroneously-labelled Syrian unit for several days. According to a redacted copy of a report that summarized the investigation, a drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province in eastern Syria on September 16, 2016, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The investigation found that those forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the Syrian government. On September 17, 2016, a CENTCOM official, who at the time requested anonymity because the incident was still being investigated, said military intelligence had already identified a cluster of vehicles, which included at least one tank, as belonging to ISIS. Coe stated, “In many ways, these forces looked and acted like the Daesh forces the coalition has been targeting for the last two years,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

In a statement on the investigation of the incident, CENTCOM outlined a number of factors that distorted the intelligence picture for the airstrike. Included among them were “human factors” such as “confirmation bias”; “improper labelling”; and invalid assumptions. The Syrian Arab Army unit observed at Deir Ezzor was wrongly identified or labelled as ISIS early in the analytical process. CENTCOM’s statement indicated that incorrect labelling colored later analysis and resulted in the continued misidentification of the Syrian unit on the ground as ISIS. Further, the statement laid out a series of changes to the targeting process that the Defense Department has already made to include more information-sharing among analysts. The US Air Force has independently placed its process for identifying targets under review.

Qui modeste paret, videtur qui aliquando imperet dignus esse. (The one who obeys with modesty appears worthy of being some day a commander.) What appears to have been needed at the time beyond issues concerning tactics, techniques, procedures and methods for conducting air operations was better coordination of its own diplomatic and military activities regarding Syria. As a sensible precaution, US air commanders and planners should have been informed that operations conducted at that time could have considerable positive or negative impact on US diplomatic efforts in Syria. (The publicized record of the investigation does not touch on this point.) The delicate nature of diplomacy would have been factored into planning, not shrugged off. Interference by civilian leaders in military units’ tactical operations is surely not desired by commanders. Yet, by failing to call attention to the unique political and diplomatic environment in which they were operating over Syria, the matter was left open to chance.

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MQ-1 Predator drone (above). Reportedly, US surveillance aircraft had been watching the erroneously-labelled Syrian military position for several days. A drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province on September 16, 2016, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The investigation found that those forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the Syrian government.

Confirmation Bias and Hormones: Decisionmaking on the Airstrikes

Decipimur specte recti. (We are deceived by the appearance of right.) In the conclusions of the US Defense Department’s investigation, causality for the incident was found to be in part the thinking of US air commanders and planners. It was determined to have been a bit off-kilter and confirmation bias was pointed to specifically. Confirmation bias is a result of the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When individuals desire a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are driven by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to cease collecting information when the evidence gathered at a certain point confirms the prejudices one would like to be true. After an individual has developed a view, the individual embraces any information that confirms it while ignoring, or rejecting, information that makes it unlikely. Confirmation bias suggests that individuals do not perceive circumstances objectively. An individual extrapolates bits of data that are satisfying because they confirm the individual’s prejudices. Therefore, one becomes a prisoner of one’s assumptions. The Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar has been quoted as saying “Fene libenter homines id quod volunt credunt,” which means, “Men readily believe what they want to believe.” Under confirmation bias, this is exactly the case.  Attempting to confirm beliefs comes naturally to most individuals, while conversely it feels less desirable and counterintuitive for them to seek out evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This explains why opinions survive and spread. Disconfirming instances must be far more powerful in establishing truth. Disconfirmation requires searching for evidence to disprove a firmly held opinion.

Cogitationem sobrii hominis punctum temporis suscipe. (Take for a moment the reasoning of a quiet man.) For the intelligence analyst, appropriately verifying one’s conclusions is paramount. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. This has been pointed to as a true manifestation of self-confidence: the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can serve a hypothesis and then gather information from each member in a way that allows the expression of independent assessments. A good example can found in police procedure. In order to derive the most reliable information from multiple witnesses to a crime, witnesses are not allowed to discuss it prior to giving their testimony. The goal is to prevent unbiased witnesses from influencing each other. US President Abraham Lincoln intentionally filled his cabinet with rival politicians who had extremely different ideologies. At decision points, Lincoln encouraged passionate debate and discussion.

At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, research is being done to better understand the biological basis for decisionmaking using lab experiments and biological data. Some of the findings of research scientist, Gideon Nave, who came to Wharton from the university’s neuroscience department, prove as relevant to this case as much as confirmation bias. Nave explains that the process of decision-making is influenced by their biological state. Factors that can influence that biological state naturally include hunger, sleep deprivation and stress. However, Nave is also looking deeper at the influence of hormones on decision-making. In dominant situations, different hormones fluctuate in people. For example, stress creates a clearly measurable biological stress response that consists of elevation of several hormones in our body. Nave has focused on noradrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol specifically affects decisionmaking.

In examining decisionmaking, Nave recognizes that people trade-off by people accuracy and speed when making decisions. Cortisol, Nave has found, influences people’s will to give the simple heuristic, or “gut answer” faster, as if they were under time pressure. There is a simple test Nave uses through which one can observe their own responses. It come in the form of a math word problem. There is a bat and a ball for the US sport baseball. Together, they cost $1.10. Now, the bat costs a dollar more than the ball. What’s the price of the ball? More often than not, individuals tested will give their intuitive answer. Indeed, as the ball is 10 cents, and the bat is $1 more, they typically believe it means that the bat is $1.10, so together the bat and ball would be $1.20. However, that would be incorrect. The correct answer is 5 cents and $1.05. When the answer 10 cents is given, it usually has not been thought through. There is no time limit set for providing an answer. There is no incentive offered by the tester for answering with speed. It seems the only real pressure is the desire of an adult, who may be paid for being correct at his or her job, and may be achievement oriented, to correctly answer what is an elementary school-level math woth word problem with speed and confidence.

In analysis at the tactical level, target identification can require splitting-hairs. Much as a bank teller dispensing cash, a mistake by an intelligence can lead to a crisis. Doubt and uncertainty can be mitigated with sufficient, timely redundant assessments. In a sensitive political and diplomatic environment as the one faced in Syria, the slightest uncertainty should have been cause enough to deliberate and think through a target’s identification. While normally action-oriented, in a sensitive political and diplomatic environment, the commander, for that brief period, could order unit commanders and planners exercising caution in targeting and launching attacks.

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In anew initial statement (above), CENTCOM, still uncertain, recognized the possibility that Syrian forces were hit in Deir Ezzor. For the intelligence analyst, verifying one’s conclusions is paramount. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. It requires the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can set a hypothesis and gather information from each member, allowing for the expression of independent assessments.

Ensuring the Right-hand and the Left-hand Know What the Head Wants

Perhaps civilian leaders in the Obama administration failed to fully consider or comprehend issues concerning measures used to identify and decide upon targets. Perhaps they were unaware that it was more important in that period of intense negotiations with Russia to minimize or simply avoid attacks on targets in close proximity to the forces of Russia and its allies. Under ordinary circumstances, the matter could reasonably be left for Russia commanders in the field to handle without concern for any implications in doing so. If in the future, an effort is made to demonstrate to Russia the best aspects of US capabilities and the benefits enjoyed by US-led Coalition partners in operations against ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic militant forces, some guidance regarding urgent political goals for that period, and the need for enhanced diligence and perhaps restraint in the conduct of operations must be issued. It was either determined or no thought was given to reviewing and approving relevant procedures and initiatives at a time when crucial diplomatic efforts needed to be, and should have been, supported.

Historia magistra vitae et testis temporum. (History is the teacher and witness of times.) During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian leaders recognized the need for enhanced diligence and perhaps restraint in the conduct of a Naval blockade of Cuba. The effort US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to inform US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral George Anderson of that resulted in a renowned angry exchange between them. The sources on which Graham Allison relied upon in the original edition of his seminal work on the crisis, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Little, Brown and Company,1971), claimed that the US Navy failed to implement the President John Kennedy’s orders to draw the blockade like we closer to Cuba ostensibly to give the Soviet Union’s calculating Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikita Khrushchev, more time to decide to half Soviet ships, and that Anderson resisted explaining to McNamara what procedures the Navy would use when intercepting the first Soviet ship to approach the line.

According to Allison’s account of the confrontation between McNamara and Anderson, US President John Kennedy was worried that the US Navy, already restive over the controls imposed on how the blockade of Cuba was to be executed, might “blunder into an incident.” McNamara was closely attuned to Kennedy’s worries and resolved to press the Navy leadership for additional information on its modus operandi. Confronting Anderson, McNamara minced no words: “Precisely what would the Navy do when the first interception occurred?” Anderson told him that he had already covered that same ground before the National Security Council, and the further explanation was unnecessary. This answer angered McNamara, proceeded to lecture Anderson on the political realities: “It was not the President’s design to shoot Russians but rather to deliver a political signal to Chairman Khrushchev. He did not want to push the Soviet leader into a corner; he did not want to humiliate him; he did not want to risk provoking him into a nuclear reprisal. Executing the blockade is a an act of war, one that involved the risk of sinking a Soviet vessel. The sole purpose of taking such a risk would be to achieve a political objective. But rather than let it come to that extreme end, we must persuade Chairman Khrushchev to pull back. He must not be ‘goaded into retaliation’.” Getting the feeling that his lecture did not sink in, McNamara resumed his detailed questioning. Whereupon Anderson, picked up the Manual of Naval Regulations, waved it in McNamara face and shouted, “It’s all in there!” McNamara retorted, “I don’t give a damn what John Paul Jones would have done. I want to know what you are going to do, now!”

Other sources that Allison utilized claimed that civilian leaders believed US antisubmarine warfare operations included using depth charges to force Soviet submarines to surface, raising the risk of inadvertent war. According to Richard Betts in American Force: Dangers, Delusions and Dilemmas in National Security (Columbia University Press, 2011). Subsequent research indicated that these stories were false. Indeed, Joseph Bouchard explains in Command in Crisis: Four Case Studies (Columbia University Press, 1991) that McNamara actually ordered antisubmarine procedures that were more aggressive than those standard in peacetime. Harried civilian leaders may not have fully comprehended the implications of all these technical measures, or may have had second thoughts. Nevertheless, the relevant procedures and initiatives did not escape their review and approval.

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US President John Kennedy (left) with US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (right). During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian leaders recognized the need for enhanced diligence in the conduct of a Naval blockade of Cuba. McNamara’s effort to inform the US Navy of that resulted in a renowned exchange between himself and the Chief of Naval Operations, US Navy Admiral George Anderson. Well before the errant Syria airstrike, civilian leaders should have told US air commanders and planners of their operations’ potential to impact crucial, ongoing US diplomatic efforts.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s comedy, The Tempest, Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, although forced to take refuge on an island for twelve years after his brother Antonio seized his title and property, refused to use his extraordinary powers, magic, to take revenge when the opportunity presented itself.  Prosperous remarks, “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” The best definitions of virtue can be found among teachings of various religions. However, to avoid being impolitic by choosing one religion and its tenants over others, its definition can be drawn from philosophy. From a philosophical perspective, virtue is well-defined by the “Golden Mean” proffered by Cleobulos of Lindos, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. The Golden Mean manifested an understanding that life is not lived well without following the straight and narrow path of integrity. That life of moderation is not what is popularly meant by moderation. The classical Golden Mean is the choice of good over what is convenient and commitment to the true instead of the plausible. Virtue is then the desire to observe the Golden Mean. Between Obama and Putin, no confidence, no trust, no love existed, and relations between the US and Russia have been less than ideal. Regarding the errant Syria airstrike, the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said it perhaps served as evidence of US support for ISIS and an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting the Syrian government which the US sought to remove. Churkin’s statement could be viewed as indicaing that insinuated into his thinking was the notion commonly held worldwide of the US as virtuous country, a notion proffered, promoted, and purportedly fashioned into its foreign policy. It appears that he, too, would have liked to believe US actions and intentions are guided by virtue. Yet, it would seem that was a hope unfulfilled as a result of the bombing Syrian troops, coupled with all the disagreements and disputes, trials and tribulations between the US and Russia, and led to his expression of so much disappointment and discouragement. Nihil est virtute pulchrius. (There is nothing more beautiful than virtue.)

The US must be a role model, a moral paragon as the world’s leader acting as virtuously as it speaks. The US leaders must act virtuously not just because others worldwide expect it, but rather because they should expect it of themselves. Diplomatic relations with Russia must be transformed in line with a new policy necessitating efforts to end misunderstandings and to exploit opportunities in which the two countries can coordinate and cooperate. However, achieving that will require the effective stewardship of US diplomatic, military, political, and economic activities by US leaders. Micromanagement can often result in mismanagement in certain situations. Still, in the midst of on-going efforts  to resolve urgent and important issues, US leaders must take steps to ensure that all acting on behalf of the US. They must thoroughly understand the concept and intent of the president, the implications of any actions taken individually or by their organizations, and perform their tasks with considerable diligence. All must make a reasonable effort to ensure errant actions are prevented. Melius est praevenire quad praeveniri. (Better to forestall than to be forestalled.)

Under Pressure Over Aleppo Siege, Russia Hints at Seeking Deal with US: Can Either Country Compromise?

US Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) are the central points of diplomatic interaction between the US and Russia. They have worked together on a variety of urgent and important issues concerning their countries. They are now slogging away trying to find a way for the US and Russia to jointly end the Syria War and establish peace. Kerry has proposed US-Russian military coordination with preconditions. However, to secure an agreement on it, Kerry must convince Putin, not Lavrov, to change Russia’s positions.

According to an August 15, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Under Pressure over Aleppo Siege, Russia Hints at Seeking Deal with US,” Russia suggested that it was close to an agreement on a military collaboration with the US to attack ISIS fighters in Aleppo, Syria as part of a solution to the unfolding humanitarian disaster there. US officials had no immediate comment on that claim. That joint effort would represent a new level of cooperation between the two countries which seek an end to the five-year-old Syria War. They support opposing sides. The New York Times reported foreign policy analysts believe Russia was negotiating in an attempt to avoid the appearance of blocking humanitarian aid to civilians in war-torn Aleppo by its airstrikes in Syria, Russian Federation Foreign Minister noted however, “It is of utmost importance that terrorists would not be getting reinforced with militants, guns, and munition [sic] supplies under the humanitarian aid disguise.” Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was the official who made the statement on the possible agreement. He explained in a measured way: “We are moving step by step closer to a plan—and I’m only talking about Aleppo here—that would really allow us to start fighting together to bring peace so that people can return to their homes in this troubled land.”

Russia and its Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led allies have faced significant setbacks on the battlefield as a result of their opponents’ abilities to capitalize on their inadequacies and mistakes. Russia will need to decide whether its actions will remain in the gap between contributing significantly to the efforts of allies fighting in support of the regime of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad and working with the US to act more effectively and more decisively against mutual Islamic militant opponents. The prospective agreement, to which Shoigu referred, would stem from military talks underway in Geneva. Those talks were set up as a result of a proposal proffered by US Secretary of State John Kerry to share intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. However, Putin and senior Russian officials seem to view the proposal less from how it will help end the war than how it may present the chance to get compromise from the US on Syria and promote Russia’s immediate objectives there. Kerry’s proposal has been put forward as the administration of US President Barack Obama comes to a close. Still, after eight years of contacts, a inordinate amount of obloquy has recently been hurled back and forth from officials in Washington to Moscow. Failure to get an agreement on coordination will undoubtedly make it more difficult for Russia to get an agreement from the US on reconstruction and peace-enforcement which would be important for Russia to have. Reconstruction in Syria will be a decades-long, very expensive effort. Russia will need to gather partners to help with its costs and its execution. A peace-enforcement mission, perhaps under UN auspices, will likely be needed to ensure that peace would be given a chance to take hold. Russia should keep in mind that the US has proven to be an invaluable partner in such complex reconstruction efforts and peace-enforcement missions worldwide in past years.

The Obama administration may not be enthused about working with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria, but it seems to recognize that Russia, with its considerable military investment in Syria, can play an important role in ending the war. Putin must recognize that much could be accomplished with US know-how and resources in both efforts. If he cannot recognize the good that cooperation would bring at first glance or simply refuses to make mutual compromises with the US to gain its assistance, what is left for the US is to get him to understand via diplomacy. US Secretary of State John Kerry has slogged away seeking the right approach to make that possible. A few recommendations are offered here. The Syria War appears to be getting worse. Experience may make US and Russian officials averse to finding compromise on military coordination on Syria. Pride and ego can also harden attitudes. If such influences cannot be set aside, the two sides may remain locked into their relative positions for a long while. Praeterita mutare non possumus, sed futuraprovidere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we can anticipate the future.)

Often poker faced in talks, US Secretary of State John Kerry, a statesman, speaks in a manner that is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. He is an agile thinker who seeks creative solutions to problems, often requiring him to be discreet. He worked well with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria in 2013. They worked on the same side during the Iran Nuclear Talks during two years of negotiations from 2013 to 2015. He may achieve similar success with Lavrov on Syria.

US Inaction Leads to Russian Action

Obama made it clear from the start that he was skeptical of using US military force in Syria. In a notable August 18, 2011 speech, Obama made the direct statement, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” There were many additional declarations, insisting that Assad step down. Yet, having taken that maximalist position, there was an unwillingness to act. Within the Obama administration, it was truly believed that Assad would simply fall away, but that did not occur. That led the Obama administration in 2012 to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement with its support in the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. However, the US effort in Syria was designed and recognized by many as work on the margins. Obama would begrudgingly authorize the creation of a US-led coalition to airstrikes against the ISIS juggernaut that ran through Iraq in 2014. Those operations against ISIS were expanded to include ISIS targets in Syria. Obama sent US special operations forces to Iraq to advise and train Iraqi Security Forces and Iraqi Kurd military formations. Still, there would be no US combat units sent to fight ISIS in Syria.

Putin, however, did what Obama said he never wanted to do in Syria. 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. He put a limited number of troops on the ground to protect Russia Federation military sites, and to serve as advisers and instructors for Syrian Arab Army units and volunteer units loyal to the regime. He would join Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led ground forces in battle against opponents using Russian Federation air power. Putin’s actions were mulled over, well-plotted, and implemented as to apply a calibrated amount of pressure on opponents of the Assad regime using measured amounts of military resources and controlling expenses. He was willing to accept a certain amount of risk in operations and was prepared to contend with some loss of personnel. Russia’s succor has benefitted Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led forces fighting on the ground not only in terms of military resources but also through guidance in the use of them.

Russia’s intervention did not mean an end to US-Russia diplomacy on Syria. Russia has supported talks between the Syrian Opposition and the Assad regime. Even before Russia went into Syria, Lavrov engaged in talks with the US to episodically establish a variety of cease-fires, nationwide and in specific provinces and negotiate humanitarian corridors. When Russian Federation military operations began, Moscow initially sought cooperation with Washington on Syria, but it was sought, however, solely on Russia’s terms. Those terms, in line with Putin’s concept for intervening in Syria, included providing diplomatic and military shelter to Assad and attacking, not only ISIS, but Western-backed rebel groups of the Free Syrian Army that oppose the Assad regime. Obama and other Western leaders sought to bring Putin into a US-led coalition. However, that would occur with the understanding that the goal of the coalition was the removal of Assad from power. Given the disparity between their positions, on November 27, 2015, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin,  played down the idea of cooperation at a Kremlin press conference. That announcement was surprisingly slow in coming given that the Obama administration was unsupportive of Russia’s intervention from the get-go. On September 30, 2015, US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter forecasted about Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, “The Russian approach here is doomed to fail.” Obama stated on October 2, 2015: “An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work.” Interestingly, Kerry was still authorized and ordered by Obama to negotiate some arrangement in which the US and Russia would coordinate in the ISIS fight.

Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has prying eyes that rarely turn away.  He has masterfully used diplomacy to turn policy into action in accord with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s concepts and intent. At this point, the Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry are well-versed on each other’s idiosyncrasies. They are able to gain insight from every inflexion, tone, and or change in voice.

Kerry-Lavrov Diplomacy

Diplomacy requires finding some middle ground, typically through some compromise, upon which an agreement can be reached and better relations can hopefully be built. Despite a divergence in interests, the US and Russia achieved early diplomatic success on Syria when an agreement was reached on a list of rules to ensure military aircraft from the US and Russia would not mistakenly run into or fire on one another as they conducted airstrikes. However, Kerry and Lavrov are the central points of diplomatic interaction between the US and Russia. Diplomatic success on Syria would eventually be achieved by them. They have worked together on a variety of urgent and important issues concerning their countries. They worked well together on the removal of chemical weapons from Syria in 2013. They worked on the same side during the Iran Nuclear Talks as the P5+1, the UN Security Council’s Permanent Five Members (the US, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China) plus Germany managed to construct an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program after nearly two years of negotiations from 2013 to 2015.   Often poker faced in talks, Kerry, a statesman, speaks in a manner that is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. He is an agile thinker who seeks creative solutions to problems, often requiring him to be discreet. Lavrov has prying eyes that rarely turn away.   He has masterfully used diplomacy to turn policy into action in accord with Putin’s concepts and intent. At this point, the two diplomats are well-versed on each other’s idiosyncrasies. They are able to develop insight from every inflexion, tone, and or change in voice. In oculis animus habitat. (In the eyes their character lives.)

A product of efforts by Kerry and Lavrov to find common interests among the warring parties in order to stop the violence in Syria was the December 18, 2015 UN Security Council vote on Resolution 2254 on Syria. It called for a ceasefire and a peace process that held the prospect of ending the Syria War. The resolution was agreed upon unanimously, 15-0, but sharp differences remained between the US and Russian positions. Russia’s key demand was that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad be allowed to remain in power. It is a position also supported by China and Iran. Removing Assad from power in Damascus remained a US requirement. Yet, the resolution made no mention of whether Assad would be able to remain in power or run in any future elections. UN Security Council Resolution on Syria 2254 essentially called for the following: a ceasefire had to be established and formal talks on a political transition had to start in early January 2016; groups seen as “terrorists,” including ISIS and the erstwhile Jabhat al-Nusra were excluded; “offensive and defensive actions” against such groups, referring to US-led and Russia airstrikes, could continue; UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was asked to report by January 18, 2016 on how to monitor the ceasefire; “credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance “ should be established within 6 months; free and fair elections” under UN supervision to be held within 18 months; and, the political transition should be Syrian led.

What followed Resolution 2254 was UN Security Council Resolution 2268, unanimously adopted on February 26, 2016. The new resolution, brokered by Kerry and Lavrov, called for an immediate “cessation of hostilities” in Syria upon which the Assad regime and the Syrian Opposition agreed.  Countries with influence on the parties agreed to press them to adhere to their commitments.. Then, on March 14, 2016, the Geneva Talks resumed. They were the first talks in two years and came at a time when a marked reduction in fighting was perceived. Still, what created real hope that the war might soon end was the surprise announcement by Putin on the same day as the resumption of the peace talks in Geneva that he was “ordering the withdrawal of the main part of our [Russia’s] military contingent” from Syria. Putin explained: “The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process.” He continued, “I believe that the task put before the defense ministry and the Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled.” Only the day before the announcement, Putin and Obama spoke by telephone, after which the Kremlin said the two leaders “called for an intensification of the process for a political settlement” to the conflict, but Assad’s future was not discussed. Putin’s decision pull his fprces put of Syria seemed to fall in line with that pledge. In addition to the withdrawal announcement, Russian Federation UN Permanent Representative Vitaly Churkin explained “Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria.” Regarding what lied ahead in Syria for Russian Federation forces, Churkin noted, “Our military presence will continue to be there, it will be directed mostly at making sure that the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, is maintained.”

If a feigned retreat by Putin was synchronized with the “cessation of hostilities” and used to manipulate opponents of Russia and its’ allies, the move was effective. Islamic militant groups that were not included in the ceasefire agreement engaged in firefights and fired artillery across battle lines prematurely seeking to better position themselves to exploit expected advantages resulting from Russia’s departure. Ire over the shaky ceasefire and the Assad regime’s violations of it reportedly drove some moderate Opposition fighters over to ISIS and other Islamic militant groups.

Putin’s “Feigned Retreat?”

Russia Federation forces withdrew from Syria, but estimates are that only 10 to 25 percent actually left. Moreover, Russian activity in Syria increased. Reuters reported the “Syrian Express,” the nickname given to the ships that have kept Russian forces supplied via the Black Sea Russian port of Novorossiysk to the Russian naval base at Tartus, Syria. It shipped more supplies, equipment, and munitions into Syria in the two weeks following Putin’s withdrawal announcement than it had two weeks prior. Russian Federation Air Force and the Syrian Arab Air Force continued to destroy the opponent’s units, material, and command, control, communication and intelligence, training facilities, and other targets. The ground forces of Russia’s allies remained active and returned a good portion of Syrian territory back to the Assad regime. Kerry and Lavrov carried on with their diplomatic efforts, but the ceasefire did not hold.

The Obama administration seemed to view Putin’s withdrawal announcement as a type of feigned retreat. The feigned retreat is a military tactic said to have been introduced to the West in the 8th century by the Frankish Duke and Prince Charles Martel. Under it, an army would pretend to withdraw or behave as if it has been routed in order to lure an opponent into a position of vulnerability. It was a difficult tactic to execute, requiring the use of well-trained soldiers. Once the opponent presses into the withdrawing army, undisciplined troops would panic and lose coherence, and the rout would become genuine. Charles Martel used the feigned retreat to defeat the army of Chilperic II and Ragenfrid of Neustria at Ambleve in 716. He attacked their army as they rested midday, he then feigned retreat to draw them from their wooded defensive positions into open ground where the situation was reversed. Charles Martel used the tactic again to draw an invading Islamic army into attacking at Poitiers in 732 by leaving his defenses relatively open. He did not construct pits and other obstacles and positioned his horsemen in a way to convince the Islamic army that it would not be enveloped if it charged in. The feigned retreat reportedly was used with moderate success by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

One might postulate that Putin’s feigned retreat included synchronizing his withdrawal announcement with the resumption of the Geneva talks, and while the “cessation of hostilities” was in effect. In that environment, opponents of Russia and its allies were perhaps considered more apt to be manipulated. The maneuver, if actually executed, appears to have worked. Mainstream opponents of Assad were unable to control the actions of some Islamic militants some of which they were tenuously aligned. Islamic militant groups, not included in the internationally sponsored ceasefire, engaged in firefights and fired artillery across battle lines, apparently seeking to immediately exploit Russia’s departure. Accusations of ceasefire violations were heard from all sides around Syria. Ire over the shaky ceasefire and the Assad regime’s violations of it reportedly drove some moderate Opposition fighters over to ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups. A coalition of Free Syrian Army units, Islamic militant groups already existed in the form of Jaysh al Fateh. The ceasefire became untenable once Russian Federation Air Force and Syrian Arab Air Force jets provided air support for Syrian Arab Army units and pro-Assad regime allies in those exchanges. Putin’s feigned retreat also ostensibly allowed Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian-led units to rearm and resupply for offensive action toward Palmyra.

The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services use their own intelligence tactics, technique, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of Russian Federation commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners certainly would like believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success, particularly by using air power, without US assistance. However, their concern over recent successes of their opponents and their failure to effectively respond to them indicates they are not so certain of their capabilities

Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds?

The perception of a feigned retreat of Russia from Syria did not make US-Russia diplomacy easier. US officials were already regularly reproaching Russia over its repeated airstrikes upon “moderate” anti-Assad groups while ostensibly seeking to attack ISIS. Obama’s disappointment could be discerned in his statements. On August 6, 2016, Obama admonished Putin over Russia’s actions in Syria by stating: “I’m not confident that we can trust the Russians or Vladimir Putin.” He continued: “Whenever you are trying to broker any kind of deal with an individual like that or a country like that, you have got to go in there with some skepticism.” Timeo danaos atque dana ferentes. (I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.)

Obama’s uncongenial words could be characterized as a shot across Russia’s bow and perhaps signaled fatigue over the diplomatic process with Russia had set in. However, in diplomacy, words and behavior matter absolutely. Kerry knows that diplomacy must be handled with a certain amiability and gentleness in order to create the environment for the development of mutual respect and understanding. In talks on Syria, he would hardly omit what some anonymous US officials have called “inconvenient facts” about Russian actions. He surely broaches such matters, but in way that avoids closing any doors and avoids igniting a negative exchange with Putin, Lavrov, or any official of the Russian Federation government. Regardless of any personal feelings he might have over an issue, he must maintain his balance in spite of them.

Russia will not be able to use its military wherewithal alone, at least in a limited way, to secure victory on its terms in Syria and “get out of Dodge.” Enough support exits for Islamic militancy in the world that a struggle over US and Russian interests in Syria is being overshadowed by the continuous rise of Islamic militant groups there. This was evident at Aleppo where Russia’s allies could not maintain their siege. Commanders of Islamic militant groups seem capable of constantly making adjustments and replenishing with fighters (as above) by the hundreds, creating a more vexing situation on the ground.

Kerry remains authorized and ordered to establish cooperation. Obama did indeed say with opprobrium, “The US remains prepared to work with Russia to try to reduce the violence and strengthen our efforts against ISIL [ISIS] and Al-Qaeda in Syria, but so far Russia has failed to take the necessary steps.” Kerry and Lavrov continued their diplomatic efforts, sponsoring the International Syria Support Group, a multinational effort seeking to create the conditions for peace talks. Moreover, remaining on the table was Kerry’s proposal offering to share US intelligence with Russia and coordinate airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, with the precondition that the Syrian Arab Air Force halt its airstrikes against mainstream Opposition military units. As mentioned earlier, senior US and Russian Federation military officials have been negotiating in Geneva over how they would coordinate under Kerry’s proposal as well as restore an overall ceasefire. The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services proudly use their own intelligence tactics, technique, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners would certainly like to believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success without US assistance. However, they have unquestionably been unsettled by the recent successes of their opponents and their failure to respond effectively to them. Beyond human intelligence collection—spies, the US gathers continuous signals and geospatial intelligence over Syria. Multiple streams could assist the Russian Federation commanders and planners in pinpointing ISIS and other Islamic militant groups on the ground even if they are dispersed. Air assets of the Russian Federation and its allies could destroy them, disrupt their attacks, and support ground maneuver to defeat them. In support of the proposal, Kerry and Lavrov have already agreed that a map could be drawn up indicating where Islamic militant groups are positioned. They also have agreed that US and Russian military personnel working in the same tactical room would jointly analyze the intelligence and select targets for airstrikes. Est modus in rebus. (There is a middle ground in things.)

Nevertheless, at this juncture, Kerry is not oriented primarily on drawing out compromise from Lavrov, Shoigu, or senior Russian military officials in Geneva. Indeed, Kerry knows he must convince Putin, himself, that it would be in Russia’s interest for him to change his position. Putin hardly believes that US assistance would have significant value to Russia. Regarding Syrian Arab Air Force airstrikes, Putin has said he has no control over what Assad does with his forces and has explained the Syrian leader does not trust the US. Much as Obama has negative impressions of Putin’s actions and intentions, Putin holds certain negative impressions of Obama. Putin may also feel uncertain about making any deals on Syria with one US leader now, only to face another in a few short months. Certainly, at the State Department, Defense Department, and other elements of the US foreign and defense policy establishment, legions of diplomats and officials are working on what was called in Ancient Rome a maremagnum, a complicated issue requiring the efforts of many to solve. As no approach has wangled compromise from Putin so far, new approaches are needed. Some alternative approaches are offered here.

The value of US assistance might be increased in Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin’s mind through a demonstration of US capabilities. The US could also demonstrate how US assistance would have value by using the intelligence resources it proposes to share with Russia in order to target and destroy a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, and disrupt and destroy developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Russian Federation officials could also be given a US battle damage assessment.

Recommendations

To help Putin countenance Kerry’s proposal, Kerry could explain that cooperation on intelligence and an airstrikes against Syria will speed the end of the conflict. Russia may not be able to use its military wherewithal alone, at least in a limited way, to secure victory on its terms in Syria and “get out of Dodge.” Enough support exits for Islamic militancy in the world that the struggle by the US and Russian over their respective interests in Syria is practically being overshadowed by the continuous rise of Islamic militant groups there. Commanders of Islamic militant groups seem capable of constantly making adjustments and replenishing with fighters by the hundreds, creating a more vexing situation on the ground. That was evident at Aleppo where Russia’s allies could not maintain their siege. Indeed, Putin could be reminded that on July 28, 2016, after a month of negotiations and immense pressure from Qatari and Turkish representatives, Jabhat al-Nusra announced that it broke with Al-Qaeda and had officially changed its name to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Almost immediately, reinforcements for Jabhat Fateh al-Sham began to flow into Syria from the border with Turkey. At least 100 new fighters arrived in Aleppo each day, together with numerous convoys carrying arms, ammunition, and supplies. During the effort to break the siege, Opposition forces and Islamic militant groups were observed fighting side by side under the banner of Jaysh al Fateh. Even after the siege was broken, it was explained in a briefing at the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, Russian Federation Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoi that about 7,000 Jabhat Fateh al-Sham fighters were massing south-west of Aleppo for over a week and still being joined by new fighters. Rudskoi said the fighters had tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery and vehicles with weapons mounted on them. Kerry could explain that the problem will grow exponentially over time as commanders of Islamic militant groups make further adjustments and reinforce by the hundreds, creating a new, more vexing situation on the ground. Kerry could point out that so far, Russian Federation Air Force has barely isolated the battlefield and has failed to deny their opponents reinforcements and supplies needed to win engagements. At best, its efforts could be measured by its contribution to the destruction in Syria to include civilian deaths and the obliteration of nonmilitary structures. As it was discovered after the destruction of the Abbey of Monte Cassino in Italy during World War II, Germans troops were afforded better concealment from Allied airstrikes and ground attacks in the structure’s debris. One might assume senior US military officers are discussing these matters with their Russian Federation counterparts in Geneva. However, these disconcerting facts about Russia’s Syria campaign may not have reached Putin.

To further encourage a change in Putin’s perspective on Kerry’s proposal, the US could increase the value of its assistance through an actual demonstration of US capabilities. That might be accomplished by providing Putin with a complete US military analysis of the setbacks Russia and its allies have faced in Syria, and the relative strengths and weakness versus their Islamic militant opponents. It might be demonstrated exactly how US intelligence resources it proposes to share with Russia and US military resources would have value to Russia by targeting and destroying a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, and disrupt and destroy developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Putin could be shown via video how the unique capabilities of US weapons systems could enhance the quality of air strikes. He could also be provided with US military assessments of those attacks.

Kerry might also seek to connect with Putin by reminding him that leaving Syria without at least initiating some complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement would be a mistake. That would create ideal conditions for the resurrection of ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, or the establishment of another Islamic militant group to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That was what occurred in Iraq after US forces departed, the problem in Libya with the removal of the regime of Muammar El-Ghaddafi, and it is a growing problem in Afghanistan. Putin must consider that cooperation between the US and Russia in the fight against Islamic militant groups would set the stage for close and effective cooperation between the two countries on a postwar reconstruction and peace-enforcement mission in Syria. Without it, Russia’s investment in Syria might amount to nothing in the end. In discussing postwar Syria, Kerry could give assurances on how the US will respond with regard to certain hot issues. For example, at a UN meeting in Vienna on November 14, 2015, Kerry proposed allowing all Syrians, “including members of the diaspora,” participate in national elections, betting that if Syrians around the world participated in it, Assad would lose. Putin was never going to standby for that and has used force, in addition to the fight against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, to best shape the situation in Syria to secure Russia’s interests. Mending that fence may require a very hard decision concerning Assad by the Obama administration. Further, Kerry could point to the international reconstruction effort launched in Bosnia in 1995 under the Dayton Peace Agreement and the creation of the multinational peace-enforcement force in support of the agreement’s implementation, I-FOR (Implementation Force). The US and Russia cooperated as members of that force and the follow-on force, S-FOR (Stabilization Force.).

By reaching an agreement now on Syria and conducting effective airstrikes against ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant group, there would be a greater chance that US-Russian coordination would be preserved by the next US administration. Further, that military cooperation might influence a US decision to assist at some important level in reconstruction and possible peace-enforcement mission in Syria. US participation in those efforts could encourage participation from other countries.

Regarding Russian concerns over the future of US leadership, Kerry could explain that Russia should act quickly now with the assurance that the US will be working directly to destroy ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. An agreement will at least allow for a US-Russian working relationship for few months, putting tremendous pressure on ISIS, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and other Islamic militant groups from the air. Kerry could emphasize the reality that reaching an agreement now on Syria and coordinating effectively under that agreement would increase the possibility that US-Russian coordination at that level would be preserved by the next US administration. Further, that cooperation could greatly influence a US decision to assist at an important level in postwar reconstruction and a possible peace-enforcement mission in Syria. Russia has recently 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. It is also hoped those countries would become 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.

Kerry’s words alone may no longer have any impact on Putin. To provide a new perspective on the proposal, Kerry could try to bring third parties that have some standing with Putin into the negotiation process. There are no national leaders who could serve as independent third party to address Kerry’s proposal with Putin. However, Kerry could perhaps seek assistance from Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church or Kirill Patriarch of Moscow and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church to speak to Putin. They could discuss the need to forgo placing primacy on national interests and focus on the global threat posed by ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, and the tragedy that has befallen the Syrian people. They cannot support war, but they can support collaboration between the US and Russia to halt the evil of Islamic militancy in Syria.

These approaches should not be presented as guesswork on the potential success US assistance may bring. Rather, they should be presented as hard facts to get Putin to see what is possible and change his perspective on cooperation. Finding success from the approaches presented here may be a long-shot. Kerry knows that you miss 100 percent of the shots you do not take.

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above) and senior Russian officials are apprehensive over US actions and intentions on Syria. However, many US officials have been expressing concerns about coordination with the Russians. They doubt Putin will compromise. They believe that Putin cannot be trusted. On Syria, it may be best for the US and Russia to work as partners. Choice itself is not good. It is the right use of choice that counts. Nothing could be worse than thinking of what might have been if things had been done thusly. Hopefully, that will not be the case for the US or Russia on Syria.

The Way Forward

Tot capita, tot sententiae. (So many heads, so many opinions.) Putin and other Russian officials are quite apprehensive of US actions and intentions on Syria. However, many US officials have been expressing concerns about coordination with the Russians. They doubt Putin will compromise. Moreover, they believe Putin cannot be trusted. Trusting Putin may be difficult for them, but trust us not so relevant in this case. Senior US and Russian military officials would be working together on targeting and sending down missions to unit commanders in a joint operations room. If some shift in Russian behavior, no matter how slight, is discerned by the watchful eyes of senior US military officials, the entire operation could be halted immediately. Under Obama’s concept, what seems most important to him is that a good faith effort at coordination be made. Besides, doing the job of targeting ISIS and groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham will be difficult enough as they are now intermingled with many mainstream Opposition units. Many US officials have expressed concern that sharing intelligence with Russia could result in revealing US intelligence sources, methods, and capabilities. Yet, deciding what to share and reveal is a puzzle that can be resolved. Putin seems attached to the Assad regime. However, given what has been reported on Kerry’s proposal, it does not include a precondition on Assad’s presidency.

The problem of Islamic militancy in Syria emerged during the struggle between Assad and the Opposition and given the international threat it poses, it is an urgent problem. US President Franklin Roosevelt did not easily accept Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union as an ally, but given the threat of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the choice was clear. On Syria, it might be best for the US and Russia vraft an agreement to coordinate their efforts. Choice itself is not good. It is the right use of choice that counts. Nothing could be worse than thinking of what might have been if things had been done thusly. Hopefully, that will not be the case for the US or Russia on Syria.

Military Leaders Discuss Plans to Counter ISIS Beyond the Battlefield: While the West Plans, Russia Conquers ISIS in Syria

A Russian-built BM-30 Smerch multiple rocket launcher (above) fires on ISIS’ positions in Syria. Despite airstrikes from a US-led anti-ISIS coalition, the impact of Western countries on the ISIS fight has been limited. Since September 2015, Russia, Iran, and Syria have been driving the true ISIS fight on the ground. Given their progress, many capitals have sought to get in on the planning for the creation of political, social, and economic conditions in Syria that will allow for its rebuilding. Yet, before broaching those matters, ISIS still must be defeated militarily.

According to a July 20, 2016 New York Times article entitled “Military Leaders Discuss Plans to Counter ISIS Beyond the Battlefield,” officials from the US and its’ coalition allies in the ISIS fight hammered out details in how to stabilize and govern the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, strongholds of ISIS, in the event that Iraqi and Syrian fighters retake the cities in the coming months. The French Defense Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was present at the meeting at Joint Base Andrews in the US state of Maryland, noted the many setbacks ISIS had suffered, pointing to its losses in Iraq as well as its loss of Qaiyara and Manbij in Syria. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated, “We need to destroy the fact and the idea that there can be a state,” adding that battlefield success in Iraq as well as Syria was “necessary.” After those statements, US General Joseph Votel, the commander of the US Central Command, explained that discussion at the meeting mostly centered on how to stabilize Mosul in Iraq, assuming Iraqi forces can take it back from ISIS. Focusing on Iraq at the Joint Base Andrews meeting was reasonable given the efforts of the US and its allies there. The need to resolve struggles for power among Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurdish groups is pressing. However, focusing on what might be done in Syria is somewhat surprising given that the US and its allies, despite US-led coalition airstrikes, are not playing the main role in the ISIS fight there. The fight in Syria is being driven by a Russian-led coalition.

Since September 2015, Russia, along with its Iranian and Syrian allies, have destroyed ISIS units, material, and command, control, communication and intelligence and training facilities and has return Syrian territory back to the hands of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. True, there are many foreign military forces operating in Syria, but the effort of Russia and its allies is a very visible, full-scale, multidimensional military operation. As its main objective, Russia seeks to shape events on the ground in Syria in order to “stabilize the legitimate authority” of Assad. Russia also seeks to defeat ISIS by annihilating its military formations in the field, eliminating its leaderhip, and eviscerating its so-called Islamic Caliphate to the extent that the organization will never be able to resurrect itself. Western complaints and commentary on Russia’s combat operations in Syria have been nonstop since its’ first sorties in country. The US and United Kingdom have constantly accused Russia of attacking mainly “moderate” anti-Assad groups, rather than ISIS. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, called Russia’s role a “game changer” and said “It has some very worrying elements.” Putin has ignored such insistent voices from the West. He would likely prefer Western governments saved their ministrations for their own operations on the margins in Syria.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has engaged in multiple talks with US Secretary of State John Kerry on Syria. They have discussed the possibility of acting jointly against ISIS. However, on the ground in Syria, Putin has decided to get on with the matter rather than allow it to languish in the halls of inaction. Russia has been on the move, propelling Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces forward rapidly. Yet, most recently, Russian Federation commanders and planners have noticed that their allies have faced difficulties in responding to new challenges from ISIS on the ground. Russia must resolve that problem. Much as officials at Joint Base Andrews acknowledged, the end of the war in Syria has begun to take on defined features. Questions exist over what type of peace will take shape in Syria. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin said that he fully grasps the challenges that lie ahead regarding the rebuilding of Syria. Putin explained, “We must act carefully, step by step, aiming to establish trust between all sides to the conflict.” He also explained that a new and effective government could be formed in Syria once such trust is finally built. Putin said that a political process is the only way to reach peace, and he claimed Assad “also agrees to such a process.” However, the war has not been won yet. Before fully broaching those matters, ISIS still must be defeated via the military operation and peace must be secured. Only then can the focus become creating political, social, and economic conditions that will allow for Syria’s rebuilding. Festinare nocet, nocet et 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.)

Disconcerting Breakdowns Among the Allies

Following the Battle of Palmyra, Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units, were at a point of high morale on the battlefield. The scent of victory was in the air. However, in that positive atmosphere, there was the danger for troops among the allies to feel too strong, lose their heads, become undisciplined, and fail to perform in a military fashion. ISIS seemed to have found an advantage in this situation. Indeed, ISIS units have displayed a surprising new capability to organize effective counterattacks. Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units were often unable to protect their forces.

Following the Battle of Palmyra, Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units were at a point of high morale on the battlefield. The scent of victory was in the air. However, in that positive atmosphere, there was the danger that troops among the allies would begin to feel too strong, become undisciplined, and fail to perform in a military fashion in combat. ISIS seemed to find an advantage in this situation. ISIS began to display the capability to organize effective counterattacks which the allies were unable to beat them back.

In tranquillo esse quisque gubernator potest. (Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.) The situation stood in great contrast to that in the days immediately after Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces captured Palmyra. The allies appeared to have coalesced as a team and it seemed possible that they would soon rush into Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. ISIS engagements units of the allies repeatedly developed into routs. ISIS showed no signs of having contingency plans for the loss of cities, towns, and villages in its so-called Islamic Caliphate. The allies did observe ISIS laying mines and setting booby traps on avenues of approach to their battle positions. However, counterattacks, which would be expected from a professional fighting force to regain territory or cover its’ withdrawal, were not seen. Since that time though, ISIS has learned how to retreat, and has repeatedly generated difficult situations for the allies.

Many of the top commanders and planners in ISIS are former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. In 2014, those Iraqis were behind the impressive capability of ISIS to move its units with a professional acumen. Their skills were seemingly brought to bear again when ISIS units came out of their battle positions all around Syria to push the allies back. There were even clashes with ISIS units around the main Jazal Field near Palmyra. Intense Russian Federation airstrikes were required to push ISIS back. Unexpected difficulties, friction, should be expected in any military operation. Yet, the problems that beset the allies to a large extent resulted from bad decisions and inadequate military moves. Syrian Arab Army commanders have been unable to avail themselves of Russian Federation air support and artillery. Iranian, and Iranian-led forces, specifically, continued to take a one-dimensional approach to ground maneuver in Syria much as it has in Iraq. Both forces had the ability to request support from Russian surveillance technologies, air power, and artillery, but those resources were not utilized to pound attacking ISIS units.

ISIS fighters (above) organize for an attack. As Russian, Iranian, Iranian-led, and Syrian forces began to take territory from ISIS, it seemed at first that the terrorist group had no contingency plans for losing territory in its so-called Islamic Caliphate. However, ISIS appears to have learned how to retreat. Many commanders and planners behind the movement of its’ forces across Iraq and Syria in 2014 were former officers of Saddam Hussein’s military or security services. Their acumen was brought to bear again when ISIS units came out of their defenses around Syria and pushed the allies back.

Shoigu Investigates

Experto credite. (Trust in one who has experience.) Russian Federation Defense Minister, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu arrived in Syria on June 18, 2016 to meet Assad and surely to examine the problem of increased ISIS infiltration and counterattacks. The added significance of Shoigu’s arrival was the fact that he is known as Putin’s “Do It” man. His ability to achieve success in almost any undertaking is the basis for what greatcharlie.com calls the “Shoigu factor.”  Once Shoigu allayed Assad’s concerns over ISIS’ new moves and Russia’s military cooperation with Syria, Shoigu likely discussed the problem in granular detail with the commander of the Russian Federation’s Military Expeditionary Group in Syria, Russian Federation Army Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov, and his air and ground commanders. Shoigu was concerned. He was well-aware that the allies would not be able to limp into Raqqa and Deir Ezzor while ISIS clawed their units to pieces with counterattacks.

Volo, non valeo. (I am willing but unable.) At first look,  Shoigu likely recognized how difficult it was for the three main allies perform with assorted forces under their control, each possessing varied degrees of size, strength, military capabilities, experience, and leadership. Regarding leadership, Shoigu likely discovered how much the acumen of militatry commanders among Russia’s allies differed. Those rdisparities and others should have been underscored and factored into planning, and when possible, compensated for. Instead, perhaps to promote goodwill and unity among the allies, they seemed to have been played down.   Indeed, there was probably plenty of head nodding in agreement in meetings between Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military officials when there was discussion on topics as how to win the war, the need to maximize advantages resulting from the inoperability of Russian-built weapons systems all of the allies used, the integration of ground and air capabilities, and the coordination of action against ISIS.

When Russian Federation military advisers and instructors began trainnig Syrian Arab Army troops in September 2015, they discovered that regular army units needed to be retrained from the squad, platoon, company, and battalion level. Shortages of competent officers and noncommissioned existed throughout the Syrian forces. Advisers and instructors did their best. However, deficiencies that were present before the Russians arrived, managed to resurface as ISIS began to put pressure on the allies via counterattacks.

Shoigu, himself, was likely part of a number of meetings of that type. As recently as June 9, 2016, Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General (Sartip-e Yekom) Hossein Dehghan welcomed Shoigu, and Syrian Arab Republic Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff of the Army and the Armed Forces Colonel General Fahd Jassem al-Freij for a meeting in Tehran. Shoigu stated prior to the meeting that topics discussed would include “priority measures in reinforcing the cooperation between the defense ministries of the three countries in the fight with the Islamic State” and Jabhat Al-Nusra. Yet, when ISIS applied pressure, infiltrating into areas retaken by the allies and by launching counterattacks, it was revealed that what was being proffered in theory at senior military meetings was not being translated into practice. Iranian, Iranian-led and Syrian Arab Army units could not act fully in a unified, coordinated way with Russian Federation forces in response to unexpected and creative maneuvers by ISIS. Effectively working alongside very sophisticated Russian Federation forces required an agility and flexibility in thinking that Syrian Arab Army commanders and paramilitary unit commanders did not possess. Unable to respond otherwise, they held fast to their own ideas for the command and control of their forces and their own plans and timetables for moving their forces against ISIS.

Interestingly when Russian Federation military advisers and instructors set out to train Syrian Arab Army troops in September 2015, they immediately discovered that regular army units, despite having a good amount of discipline and combat experience, needed to be retrained from the squad, platoon, company, and battalion level. Shortages of competent officers and noncommissioned officers existed throughout the Syrian Arab Army due to battle casualties and a large number of defections to both the Syrian Opposition forces and Islamic militant groups such as ISIS and Jabhat Al-Nusra. Platoons that supposedly held 20 to 30 troops held around 5 to 10 troops, the commander included. Even before the war, signalmen, gunners, engineers, and other military specialist for the most part were only assigned on paper. Russian Federation military advisers and instructors also discovered that there was the need to instruct Syrian Arab Army commanders on better coordinating actions at the brigade and division levels and among higher military authorities. Before Russian military advisers and instructors arrived, “maneuver” in Syrian Arab Army amounted to chaotic movements of companies, battalions, and paramilitary units. No single commander’s concept or operational plan guided them. Artillery and air units acted independently, ignorant of the positions or movements of friendly ground troops.

Troops of the pro-Assad paramilitary group, the Desert Falcons (above), are being addressed by their commanders. Military advisers and instructors not only trained Syria forces, but also distributed new field uniforms, flak vests, and protective helmets from their inventories. Before Russian military advisers and instructors arrived, “maneuver” in Syrian Arab Army amounted to chaotic movements of companies, battalions, and paramilitary units. Artillery and air units acted independently, ignorant of the positions or movements of friendly ground troops.

Regarding paramilitary units (shahibas) loyal to the Assad regime, it was observed that all of them needed to be retrained. That was a difficult task. Despite the fact that many troops in the paramilitary units had seen several years of war, few were aware of how to properly shoot and move on the battlefield. Few had any worthwhile physical training. Volunteer commanders were typically appointed by paramilitary unit members despite the fact that they had no training or experience in leading troops in battle, properly making appropriate decisions in complex military situations, as well as making decisions in everyday situations on the frontline. The discipline of paramilitary troops was a problem that reared its head when the paramilitary units manned checkpoints. A further problem was the unwillingness of paramilitary units to defend areas other than their hometowns. Paramilitary unit volunteers had to be provided basic training then instruction on fighting as part of part of a squad, platoon, company, and then the battalion. Iran, itself, had already deployed Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force (special forces) officers and advisers to Syria. They have mobilized pro-Assad paramilitary units into the 70,000 strong National Defense Forces to fight alongside the Syrian Arab Army, brought in Shi’a volunteer brigades from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.  Only Republican Guard and Special Forces units and a few mechanized brigades possessed satisfactory levels of readiness. Republican Guard units were well-equipped and staffed with professional soldiers and stood practically self-sufficient with organic artillery, airborne, and special purpose forces. Still, its units were only 70 percent manned at best.

Russian Federation military advisers and instructors, as well as those of the IRGC, and IRGC-Quds Force, were unlikely delinquent in their duty. They likely did their best to prepare Syrian Arab Army units for the fight to eject ISIS from their country given the troops and time available. Their solicitude extended to the distribution of new field uniforms, flak vests, and protective helmets from Russian inventories among the newly trained Syrian Arab Army units. Those units were also provided with new Russian vehicles to enhance their mobility. However, deficiencies that were present before the Russians arrived, resurfaced despite those efforts

Russian Federation Air Force Tu-22M3 bombers (above) strike ISIS targets in Syria. Russian Federation air power can hit ISIS hard, destroy its units, and delay and disrupt their movement. Iranian and Syrian forces must be able to fully avail themselves of that Russian military resource if the allies hope to defeat ISIS. When air power is synchronized with, compliments, and reinforces friendly ground movement, it can help drive friendly units forward.

Effects of the failure of Russia’s allies to avail themselves of Russian military resources included a decrease in the tempo of the allies’ offensive action and near loss of the initiative. It resulted in a need for more sorties during air support missions and increased firefights with ISIS, creating the potential for greater friendly casualties. Robust Russian Federation air power should have been used liberally all around Syria to delay and disrupt movement by ISIS units and when possible destroy them. Russian Federation air power should have been synchronized with, complimented, and reinforced movement by friendly ground forces.

Russian Federation commanders and planners are aware that in the fights for Aleppo, Idlib, and other urban centers, the ground forces of allies could do more than simply chisel away at enemy lines. Numerical advantages are rare on the frontlines in Syria, yet an attacker can economize in less active areas in order to develop local superiority at the point of his main effort. The attacker, after concentrating quickly, can strike hard at an unexpected place and time to throw the defender off balance. Once the attack is underway, the attackers’ chance of success can be improved if he moves fast, aggressively pressing every advantage, and if he capitalizes on opportunities to destroy the enemy’s forces and the overall coherence of his defense.

Russian Federation commanders and planners also know air power can greatly impact enemy moves in urban centers. If forced to move quickly in the face of Russian air power, an enemy commander would be allowed less time to ensure his unit’s concealment. It could cause him to move when conditions would not impede aircrews’ search of his unit. Rapid movement could also decrease the effectiveness of his air defense systems, allowing aircrews greater freedom to search for his unit, increasing the chance for it to be spotted. So far in Syria over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade enemy air defenses. When aircews cannot identify targets, airstrikes are made in areas where air intelligence reports the enemy is located. In attacking urban centers, that can result in collateral damage in the form of civilian deaths and injuring and the destruction of nonmilitary structures.

Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (above) arrived in Syria on June 18, 2016 to address the problems of increased ISIS infiltration and damaging counterattacks. In meetings with Russian Federation military commanders and planners, Shoigu surely explained that it was not feasible to wait for their Iranian and Syrian counterparts to communicate with them when they are on the attack or facing counterattacks. He undoubtedly directed them to better coordinate with their allies.

Shoigu’s Diagnosis

In his meetings with Russian Federation military commanders, Shoigu surely emphasized that it was not enough to simply stay in communication with Iranian and Syrian Arab Army commanders while they are on the attack or when they are facing counterattacks. Shoigu likely stressed that they had to maintain situational awareness, and authentically coordinate their actions with their allies and help them exploit opportunities created. There was also a shake up in the Russian Federation’s military command structure in Syria. Russian Federation Lieutenant General Aleksandr Zhuravlev replaced Dvornikov. Zhuravlev is known best for helping to plan the Palmyra offensive.

Chief of the Armed Forces General Staff of the Russian Federation, General of the Army Valery Gerasimov on March 28, 2016 stated Palmyra was “liberated thanks to the support of Russia’s air force and special operations forces.” It seems Russian Federation air power and spetsnaz will also be relied on to underpin the allies’ ultimate victory in Syria. Responding to the problem with resources available, Shoigu ordered increased air strikes and the increased deployment of Russian spetsnaz advisers among Syrian Arab Army units. The goal would be to improve the direction of artillery fires against ISIS counterattacks along the Syrian Arab Army’s axis of advance toward Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and in support of battle positions of allies all around Syria. Russia had already supplied Russian-built heavy artillery and multiple launch rocket systems to its allies, to include: 152-milimeter MTSA-B guns, BM-27 Uragan and BM-30 Smerch rocket launchers, and TOS-1A Solnitsa rocket launchers. Spetsnaz units could assist Syrian Arab Army units in coordinating ground assaults with air support and artillery fire, in building hasty defenses, and in improving unit security. By degrading enemy forces with fire in support of assaults, the goal is not to create attrition battles but to enable the successful, rapid maneuver of friendly forces.

Soon after Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made improvements in Syria, desired results seemed visible on the frontlines. The 60th Brigade of the Syrian Arab Army’s 11th Tank Division (above) supported by the 67th Brigade of the 18th Tank Division and the National Defense Forces were liberating points along the International Highway en route to the besieged city of Deir Ezzor. As they push forward, commanders of these Syrian units will be better able to coordinate with their Russian Federation counterparts and to avail themselves of Russian military resources.

Soon after Shoigu’s visit to Syria, improvements seemed visible on the frontlines. The 60th Brigade of the Syrian Arab Army’s 11th Tank Division supported by the 67th Brigade of the 18th Tank Division and the National Defense Forces were liberating towns and villages along the International Highway en route to the besieged city of Deir Ezzor. In Deir Ezzor’s Industrial District, the Syria Arab Army’s Special Task Force “Al Qassem Group” undertook the task of clearing the remaining ISIS fighters from the district’s streets. They joined the Republican Guard’s 104th Airborne Brigade and 137th Artillery Brigade of the 17th Reserve Division in the fight for Deir Ezzor. The Syrian Arab Army High Command also ordered a change in command of the 17th Reserve Division from Syrian Arab Army Major General Mohammed Khaddour to Syrian Arab Army Major General Hassan Mohammed.

Regarding fights in urban centers, it was reported from southern Aleppo that a mix of Iranian-led units, primarily Iraqi Shi’a militias such as Harakat An Nujba, Katayb Hezbollah, and Assaib Ahl Al Haqq — two of which are operating Russian-made T-90 main battle tanks acquired by the IRGC in early 2016 —launched repeated counterattacks against the Jaysh Al-Fateh coalition, and Free Syrian Army units. Allies loyal to the Assad regime to include private military companies such as Liwa Suqour As Sahra and Liwa Dir As Sahel, Shi’a militias such as Liwa Nussr Az Zawba’a and Quwwat Al Galilee as well as a Lebanese Hezbollah unit, have launched attacks in southern Aleppo. Meanwhile, the Russian Federation Air Force is engaged in a campaign in western Aleppo and targeting the towns of Hayyan, Anadan, Hreitan, Kfar Hamra and Ma’arat Al Artiq positioned along avenues of approach into northern and eastern parts of Aleppo city. Most recently, Russian Federation Air Force airstrikes have targeted Castello Road, the last route out of the Syrian opposition-held eastern part of the city. As for the Syrian Arab Air Force, it continues to hit targets in Idlib city, Ma’arat An Nauman and eastern Aleppo.

Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu led to questions about the progress of the Russian Federation Military Expeditionary Group in Syria. After his visit with Russian Federation commanders and planners, the decision was made to replace Russian Federation Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov with Russian Federation Lieutenant General Aleksandr Zhuravlev. Zhuravlev will oversee the allies’ capture of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor and the final destrustion of ISIS in Syria.

Retaining the Initiative to the End

In the April 6, 2016 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “How Russian Special Forces Are Shaping the Fight in Syria: Can the US Policy Failure on Syria Be Gauged by Their Success?,” it was stated that ISIS could potentially establish a redoubt east of Deir Ezzor along the Khabur and Euphrates Rivers, and Syria’s border with Iraq. The goal of that theoretical defensive line would be to forestall the ultimate collapse of the Islamic Caliphate in Syria and to inflict as many casualties among attacking forces as possible with a suicide defense. However, well-planned offensive action by Russia and its allies might serve to obviate that possibility. The military principle of offense prescribes that maintaining the initiative is the most effective and decisive way to dominate the battlefield. On the offensive, there must be an emphasis on the commander’s skilled combination of the elements of maneuver, firepower, protection, and intelligent leadership in a sound operational plan. The initiative must be retained. Moving forward, firepower, the allies’ greatest strength, must be used to its’ maximum advantage. Firepower can serve maneuver by creating openings in enemy defenses, but also destroy an enemy’s vital cohesion, his ability to fight, and effectively act. Indeed, one of the most important targets is the enemy’s mind. The allies should engage in actions that will sway moves by ISIS to enhance the opportunities to destroy it.

The drive against Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in a way resembles the circumstances in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The Israelis, after defeating the Syrians, pushed up to the Golan Heights at its northern border, and then executed an economy of force operation. Israel kept a portion of its forces on its border with Jordan, even though hostilities did not break-out between the two countries. Israeli forces in the Golan Heights conducted artillery attacks on Damascus with long range guns to give the impression that they were going to seize that city while sizeable Israeli forces were concentrated south against Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula to their southwest. After concentrating against Egyptian forces in the Sinai, Israeli forces threw their strength at Egyptian weakness, the gap between the Egyptian Second and Third Armies. The Israelis subsequently encircled the Third Army eliminating it as a threat to Israeli territory,

Before the final push against them begins, Russian military spetsnaz units could be positioned in the gap between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to perform the task of detecting and thwarting efforts by ISIS to establish lines of communication between the two cities. They could also be positioned to block ISIS infiltration into Syria from Iraq and territory now controlled by the Assad regime. Spetsnaz units could conduct raids, set up ambushes, and establish kill zones. They could operate vigorously at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

Much as with the Egyptian Second and Third Armies in the Sinai in 1973, ISIS units in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, albeit in a limited way, could move units into territory controlled by the Assad regime. They could also become hubs for the reestablishment of lines of communication between ISIS in Iraq and Syria. By hunkering down in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the face of an onslaught from Russia and its allies, ISIS can claim that it held on to the capital of its Islamic Caliphate. Raqqa, in particular, would likely become a symbol of resistance and power for ISIS to a greater extent than it is now and its narrative on the city’s defense would become an invaluable recruiting tool for the organization. For Assad to claim that he has retaken control of Syria, he must control urban centers and the surrounding areas of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and other cities such as Aleppo, Idlib, Latakia, Homs, Palmyra, Darra and certainly Damascus. For Putin to claim that it stabilizes the legitimate authority of Assad. Putin must destroy ISIS in Syria or, at a minimum, leave it scattered and tattered, reduced to a size and strength incapable of forcing Assad from power and unable to resurrect itself. If Raqqa and Deir Ezzor cannot be taken rapidly, Russia and its allies must encircle the cities. After assembling overwhelming force to direct against ISIS units, both cities could be attacked. Before that fight would get underway, spetsnaz units could be positioned in the gap between Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to perform the task of detecting and thwarting efforts by ISIS to establish lines of communication between the two cities. Spetnaz could also be positioned on known and suspected ISIS infiltration lanes into Syria from Iraq and lanes into territory now controlled by the Assad regime. They could block those lanes coconducting raids, setting up ambushes, and establishing kill zones for air strikes and artillery fire. Spetsnaz could operate vigorously at night when ISIS units might try to conceal their movement.

The loss rate of ISIS could be increased by having aerial platforms capable of stand-off attacks continuously engage ISIS defenses, and by stationing fighter jets and bombers in orbit 24-hours a day above ISIS locations identified by spetsnaz to engage in continuous strikes. They could also hit targets of opportunity identified by aircrews whenever they might be authorized to fly at lower altitudes.

The Way Forward

According to the Alexandrian Life of Aeschylus, as they walked on stage during the first performance of Eumenides, the chorus of furies was so hideous and frightening in appearance that “they caused young children to faint, patriarchs to urinate, and pregnant women to go into labor.” ISIS, during its grand entry on the world stage, in Syria and Iraq, put on full display its very bloody, murderous side. ISIS mercilessly murdered hundreds of military prisoners, foreign hostages, and innocent civilians. ISIS left no doubt that it is not only a terrorist organization, but a pagan death cult. While concerned about the rise of ISIS, Putin was never impressed with the group. In a speech on his deployment of Russian Federation forces to Syria, Putin remarked on ISIS’ behavior in a disdainful tone, saying, “We know how they do such things; how they kill people; how they destroy cultural monuments. . . .” In that same speech, Putin explained that in the ISIS fight, Russia would provide Assad and other allies “the necessary military and technical support.” Russia has done that and ISIS may soon be defeated in Syria.

Omne initium difficile est. (Every beginning is difficult.) Once Russia and its allies squeeze the life out of ISIS in Syria, they must not allow ISIS to resurrect itself. A capable military presence must be set up in Syria to keep ISIS out or at least under control. The success of the joint military efforts of Russia and its allies may provide the foundation for a peace enforcement mission in Syria and an eventual reconstruction effort. With reconstruction costs in mind, the possibility exists that Russia and its allies would cooperate with the US over what remains of the ISIS fight in Syria and the US-led fight against ISIS in Iraq. Among other possibilities, Iranian and Iranian-led forces, in support of the Assad regime and their Syrian Arab Army allies, could coordinate actions with units of their comrades in Iraq. Both forces fall under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani. Locking down the border will collaterally support the ISIS fight in Iraq. It was hypothesized in 2015 by the Middle East Institute that Syrian Kurds’People’s Protection Units (YPG) might be co-opted to help establish a security zone incorporating their own territory and some more along the border with Iraq to help keep ISIS out of the area and help maintain a sustainable peace. How Putin will proceed is uncertain, but right now, Russia is playing a central in Syria and he is free to decide as he pleases.