Why Putin Laments the Soviet Union’s Demise and His Renewed “Struggle” with the US: A Response to an Inquiry from Students

When Putin occasionally grieves publicly over the Soviet Union’s demise and expresses pro-Soviet sentiments, some confusion usually ensues among listeners worldwide. Putin, just being himself, certainly does not make it easy for anyone to understand him. Still, he is not beyond human knowledge, comprehension, and speech. A group of university students in the US inquired with greatcharlie on Putin’s expressions concerning the Soviet Union following a lively seminar debate. It was decided that this post would be used to provide a response to their inquiry. Hopefully, what is at the root of Putin’s stance on the Soviet Union has been figuratively dug up for them to see.

In late-May 2019, greatcharlie received an intriguing message from some undergraduate students of a university in the US concerning recurrent comments of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, lamenting the Soviet Union’s demise. There had apparently been a very lively debate in their political science seminar on Putin’s “often public lamentations over the dissolution of the Soviet Union, his insistence that it had many positive attributes and that as a superpower, it played a valuable role globally.” The students’ solicitation of greatcharlie’s thoughts on the matter was flattering. It was even more stirring to see them express great interest in international affairs and Russian politics in particular. Another subject was selected for greatcharlie’s June post.  However, rather than simply suggest a few books and journal articles to supplement their seminar debate, it was decided that this post would be used to provide a response to the students’ inquiry. Undergraduate and graduate students represent a significant portion of greatcharlie’s audience. The hope of greatcharlie is that by responding in this way, these intrepid students and others reading the blog will be encouraged to further pursue their international affairs studies and to continue reaching out beyond their classroom lessons to augment their knowledge base.

Confusion over one’s thinking can often issue from imprudently offering enthusiasms on a subject. When Putin occasionally offers pro-Soviet sentiments, some confusion usually ensues among listeners. Putin, just being himself, does not make it easy for anyone to understand him. Yet, Putin is not beyond human knowledge, comprehension, and speech. It would be counterintuitive not to accept that when Putin acts at any level, he does so with purpose and that purpose can be uncovered. What is at the root of Putin’s nostalgic, pro-Soviet position is figuratively dug up for them to see from this somewhat informal, multidirectional examination. Hopefully, it discusses a few valuable points perhaps not covered in the inquiring students’ seminar. Further, from this examination, insights were generated on the Russian Federation President’s intentions and actions that will contribute to the foreign policy debate internationally. Nulla tenaci invia est via. (For the tenacious no road is impassable.)

What has been striking about those occasions when Putin spoke so fondly of the Soviet Union and lamented its collapse was the very public nature of his expressions. Even in those dire initial days in office, Putin rarely offered comments off the cuff that could possibly produce a marked impression. True, expressions of sentimentality as they related to feelings of patriotism were heard from him before. Still, he avoided uttering sentiments that stemmed from truly personal feelings. If Putin was at all comfortable with publicly bemoaning the demise of the Soviet Union, it was because he thought it was the best thing to do on each occasion.

Putin Has Said Some Interesting Things about the Soviet Union

When Putin first began publicly discussing his feelings about the Soviet Union, he provided a rare glimpse of how thoughts coalesced in his consciousness. Only a few years earlier Putin had become a full-fledged political man, a deputy mayor of St Petersburg, and then suddenly found himself at the very top, learning his way through the Kremlin jungle, domestic politics, and the larger world of global international affairs. Prior to his statements about the Soviet Union, Putin left no doubt that the essence of his thinking was akin to a “Russia First” concept. On August 16, 1999, the members of the State Duma, the Russian Federation’s Parliament, met to approve Putin’s candidacy of a prime minister. He was President Boris Yeltsin’s fifth premier in 16 months. In his speech to the Duma, Putin stated with spirit: “Russia has been a great power for centuries, and remains so. It has always had and still has legitimate zones of interest . . . We should not drop our guard in this respect, neither should we allow our opinion to be ignored.” Being Yeltsin’s choice, Putin was dutifully confirmed as prime minister without much been made in support of, or against, his nationalistic stance. His strong patriotic tone was heard again in a statement made in Part 5, “The Spy” of Putin’s memoir First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000) page 80. One of the interviewers preparing the book, notes that she asked him, “Did you suffer when the Berlin Wall fell?”, he explained: “Actually, I thought the whole thing was inevitable. I only really regretted that the Soviet Union had lost its position in Europe, although intellectually I understood that a position built on walls and dividers cannot last. But I wanted something different to rise in its place. And nothing different was proposed. That’s what hurt. They just dropped everything and went away.”

Even so, only after a few short months as acting president and as the elected president, Putin, with the apparent aim of keeping the Russian Federation a welcomed player on the international stage, began taking a nuanced approach in issuing statements. When Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin departed in 1999, he left his young, hand-picked successor, Putin, with a rather dire situation economically, socially, and politically. Through strenuous efforts, Putin managed to halt what was once the country’s downward spiral toward abject ruin. Yet, after leveling things off, he hoped to move forward with plans and programs to improve living standards for average Russians and conditions around the country as a whole. At Kremlin press conferences, official government meetings and events, political rallies,  presentations at universities, policy think tanks, scholarly journals, and other institutions, Putin expressed his desire to create something better for the Russian people. Reading through Putin’s December 31, 1999 essay, “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium”, that appeared on the website of the Russian Federation on December 31, 1999, he clearly believed, boiled down to the bones, that the key to Russia’s progress would be a successful effort to maximize the performance potential of the Russian people. That became his stated aim. He would focus on those factors that have brought some level of success and advancement, and attempt to amplify them to create some change.

Putin also was interested in acquiring Western investment into his economically troubled country to provide the people with the support they needed. For a while, he seemed to stoke Western approval of the Russian Federation with his words. However, he also made a number of half-turns away from a pro-Western position that really evinced there was a duality in thinking. As an example, on March 5, 2000, Putin made a statement to the effect that he did not rule out having the Russian Federation join NATO. However, he stressed that it would only do so “when Russia’s views are taken into account as those of an equal partner.” After stating that he could not imagine Russia being isolated from Europe, Putin went further on NATO to state: “it is hard for me to visualize NATO as an enemy.” Putin’s nuanced language was apparent, too, when very publicly broaching the issue of the Soviet Union’s fall. He remarked: “Whoever does not miss the Soviet Union has no heart, whoever wants it back has no brain.” Putin’s efforts were successful to the extent that statements as these caused the West, if not to drop its guard, certainly to take a more relaxed view of him and his intentions. It would seem even then, that his true feelings and intentions would have readily identified him as a Russian nationalist. In that same vein, those pro-Western statements ran counter to the strong nature of his later statements of near adoration of the Soviet Union.

Soon enough, that nuanced bit of his statements that provided a touch of goodwill to the West was dropped. The collapse of the Soviet Union was publicly discussed by Russian Federation officials with the apparent goal of amplifying the message to world of how badly Russian people suffered as a result and that consideration might be given to increasing any efforts to invest in and generally assist their country. It also had the purpose of letting the Russian people know that their government was aware of their plight. No deception was being used then to hide deficiencies in the system which was the practice under Soviet rule. On April 25, 2005, Putin stated: “Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.” In process of repairing things, however, Putin encountered significant obstacles that primarily concerned the capabilities and capacity of the Russian people to get beyond only making changes here and there for the better, and get behind efforts at making real progress. The product of his efforts could be characterized as rather anemic. There was still an uneasiness in Russia when Putin began as president. Morale was low, fruitful activity was sparse, and new, useful ideas were absent. One might posit that faced with disappointment and discontent over immediate results of his own efforts over the years, he has been able to manage his greatest concern which is not to allow the country to roll backward. That was probably a nightmare that likely nearly suffocated him many nights at the time. In order to stabilize the situation, he apparently decided to turn toward something that felt familiar and safe. Eventually, Putin’s goal became to develop some simulacrum of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics or the Soviet Union. Sustainability was less likely a concern given the exigent circumstance of a need for immediate answers. On March 2, 2018, Putin issued his most direct comment to date about the Soviet collapse. Taking questions from supporters in Russia’s European exclave of Kaliningrad, Putin was asked what Russian historical event he would like to change. Putin immediately answered, “The collapse of the Soviet Union.”

What has been striking about those occasions when Putin spoke so fondly of the Soviet Union and lamented its collapse was its very public nature. Putin has never been anything akin to some wandering preacher, expressing his convictions about matters. Even in those dire early days in office, Putin, who emerged from the secret world of Soviet intelligence, rarely offered comments off the cuff that could produce a marked impression. True, expressions of sentimentality as it related to feelings of patriotism were certainly heard from Putin before. Still, Putin is a man who has typically avoided uttering sentiments genuinely stemming from personal feelings, which in this case was his grief over loss of the Soviet Union. If he ever slipped up and revealed blithely his inner feelings on a matter, he would have moved quickly to preserve the confidentiality of such statements. If Putin was at all comfortable with publicly bemoaning the demise of the Soviet Union, it was clearly because he thought it was the best thing to do on each occasion.

Typically after hearing Putin’s worldview was shaped by his service in the KGB, the imagination runs wild among many in the West. Putin is more likely visualized as being still on the beat, working in the exotic and mysterious segment of the organization that engaged in kidnappings, harsh interrogations, relocations of citizens to prisons and internment camps, paramilitary operations, and assassinations. With tongue in cheek, Putin has fueled exaggerated Western characterizations of himself by posing in photos as a stern man of action, training his sights on targets with pistols, sniper rifles, and other weapons.

The KGB Factor

An immediate impression of Putin’s words might reasonably be that he and most likely many others who were part of the Soviet apparat continued to adhere to their “unique reality” about the Soviet Union. Indeed, his statements were true to life with respect to the commitment to the Soviet system by hardline, old guard, former apparatchiks, which includes Communist Party functionaries or government bureaucrats, nomenklatura or high ranking management, and dead-enders among former rank and file Soviet citizens. For all those from the same water in which Putin swam, each time anyone referenced the Soviet Union in such a positive manner, there would doubtlessly be agreement that it was the full version. For them, such words from Putin likely ring patriotic bells. It strikes greatcharlie as hopelessly derivative to remind readers that Putin’s decisions and actions have been influenced by his life in the Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security, initialized from Russian and better known as the KGB. It was Soviet agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. Nonetheless, it is a reality and an important factor that should be examined first.

A seemingly infinite number of primary and secondary sources exist on the KGB. However, an intriguing Cold War era description of the KGB that greatcharlie has referred to often is a concise November 13, 1982 New York Times article entitled, “KGB Praised By Some Feared By Many”. The article explained that the KGB was the most widely feared instrument of the Soviet Government. It measured the strength of the KGB at 90,000 or so staff officers inside the Soviet Union to guard against internal security threats and run the political prisons. Along the country’s borders, 175,000 of border troops patrol its 41,800 miles of frontiers. Outside of the country, the article noted that its scientific-technical operatives sweep Western countries seeking the latest secret inventions, while its ”illegals” try to penetrate foreign intelligence operations. The article explains further that the first Communist secret service, the All-Russian Extraordinary Commission for Combatting Counterrevolution, Speculation and Sabotage, mainly referred to under the acronym Cheka, virtually copied the Czarist secret police organization and even co-opted some of its more capable officers. The Cheka’s founder, Feliks Dzerzhinsky, was quoted as saying, ”Trust is good, but control is better,” and, in 1918, ”We stand for organized terror.” In its earlier years, the article states, the Soviet secret police acquired a reputation as an instrument of mass terror: beginning in the 1920s as the organizer and supplier at home of huge concentration camps where millions perished; in the 1930s as Soviet Premier Josef Stalin’s executor of huge purges of the party and the Red Army officer corps; and, in the late 1940s and 1950s, as the perpetrator of assassinations of opponents abroad. The latter killings were performed by a group specialized in what Soviet intelligence reportedly  called ”wet affairs”. In the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death on March 5,1953, the KGB was accused of trying a coup in the Kremlin, using secret police troops. Its chief, Lavrenti P. Beria, was seized by his party comrades and executed. The article notes that it was not until 20 years later that the KGB recapture the degree of respect it once held in the Soviet Union when its director, Yuri Andropov, was elected to the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo.

Citing a common perspective of Western intelligence specialists then, the article states that the KGB, while retaining excellent abilities in traditional espionage was devoting greater resources to acquiring Western military and industrial technology. In fact, in the decade before the article was written, the KGB has acquired the plans of American spy satellites, advanced radar, computer source codes and conventional weapon innovations. It posits that those acquisitions could have been attributed to Andropov. It was under his supervision the KGB became a type of office for technology transfer from the West, in addition to its conventional tasks, such as penetrating the coderooms of the NATO alliance. The article further explains that the KGB, to the envy of foreign intelligence services, was able to retain key personnel for many decades, providing a kind of continuity particularly valuable in counterintelligence. The article quoted an assessment of the KGB by James J. Angleton, retired head of the CIA’s counterintelligence branch, a controversial figure, yet sacred cow US intelligence. Angleton simply stated: “I wish we had their continuity.”

Interestingly, the New York Times article’s treatment of the KGB had an almost prosecutorial tone. Still, there should not be any misunderstanding that among those who were or potentially could have been victims of the KGB in the Soviet Union and abroad, the organization was not by any means viewed as the “good guys”. its actions were not misunderstood. However, while it is a bit one-sided, the article manifests prevailing Western impressions of the KGB at the time, It hopefully allows one to gain a sense of the tension and tenor of the geopolitical struggle between East and West during the Cold War as late as the 1980s.

In First Person, Putin, himself, left little doubt that his service in the KGB was a crucial feature of his life. Having had a rather successful career in the renowned security organization, Putin certainly has memories of an existence quite different from most Russians in the Soviet Union. Indications are that members of the KGB managed to skirt many of tribulations most Soviet citizens endured as a result of his service. Moreover, they were able to enjoy certain privileges. Putin found great value in what the Soviet Union was able to provide for him in terms of a livelihood and in terms of self-respect. He has great reason to be thankful to it.

On Putin’s KGB Perspective

Ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem. (Into the truth through shadows and images.) Typically after hearing Putin’s worldview was shaped by his service in the KGB, the imagination runs wild among many in the West. Putin is more likely visualized as being still on the beat, working in the exotic and mysterious segment of the organization that engaged in kidnappings, harsh interrogations, relocations of citizens to prisons and internment camps, paramilitary operations, and assassinations. While embellished to a considerable degree, that remains the “commercialized”, Hollywood version of the KGB officer, popular in the West during the Cold War. It was certainly a great departure from reality. Essentially, for Putin, they paint a portrait of someone who does not exist. Some appear so satisfied seeing Putin as such, they do not seem interested in getting the picture straight. With tongue in cheek, Putin has fueled exaggerated characterizations of himself by posing in photos as a stern man of action, training his sights on targets with pistols, sniper rifles, and other weapons. A fair appraisal of Putin’s career would be that he was good at his work and that he well-impressed his colleagues and superiors alike. Certainly, he could be dashing and audacious when necessary, but moreover he was honorable and discreet, using his wits and memory. He progressed gradually and fruitfully with agents he recruited. As a result of his many successes, he received promotions up to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Similar to most of his young colleagues, the KGB offered Putin a solid basis for believing that the Soviet system could be protected and sustained. The KGB, as a central organ of the government, ostensibly had the know-how and the resources to prevent the Soviet Union, and the contiguous countries of the Eastern bloc that it led, from falling into a chaotic condition.

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and theologian noted: “Our life always expresses the result of our dominant thoughts.”  In his bildungsroman, First Person. Putin, himself, left little doubt that his service in the KGB was a crucial feature of his life. The officers of the KGB were the tried and true protectors of the Soviet Union. The organization was praised by the Communist leadership as the country’s ”sword and shield”. The KGB certainly had the trust of its customers. At the same time, the KGB, was an indispensable instrumentality of the government to the extent it was the means through which it subjected the Russian people to terrible conditions believing that there was little chance that those conditions would fully effect its members. Indications are that KGB officers managed to skirt many of the tribulations most Soviet citizens endured as a result of his service. Moreover, they were able to enjoy certain privileges. Having had a rather successful career in the renowned security organization, Putin certainly has memories of an existence quite different from most Russians in the Soviet Union. Putin found great value in what the Soviet Union was able to provide for him in terms of a livelihood and in terms of self-respect. For those reasons alone, he has great reason to be thankful to it. In Part 3, “The University Student” of First Person, Putin states about himself: “I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education.” Ubi bene, ibi patria.  (Homeland is where your life is good.)

It must be mentioned that Karen Dawisha, in Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia? (Simon & Shuster, 2014), insists that there was more than an emotional connection between former KGB officers and the Soviet Union. Dawisha explains that in the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the Chekists were asked to take control of the currency that the Communist Party had accumulated. There were Central Committee decrees ordering such activity. Dawisha cites an August 23, 1990 decree which authorized: “urgent measures on the organization of commercial and foreign economic activities of the party” and laying out the need for an autonomous channel into the Party cash box . . . the final objective is to build a structure of invisible party economics . . . a very narrow circle of people have been allowed access to this structure . . . .”  Dawisha makes the connection between this period when KGB officers heard the clarion call of the Communist Party to loot state coffers and Putin’s start in politics at the local level in his hometown of St. Petersburg. As head of the St. Petersburg Committee for Foreign Liaison, a job he received through KGB patronage, Putin began working with a tight knit circle of Chekists.  Grabbing money became their métier, and they worked hard at it. In St. Petersburg, Putin obeyed his patrons and proved himself to be reliable.  He also gained a solid understanding of the linkages between organized crime, which is of a special breed in Russia, bureaucrats, and former KGB officials. (While in St. Petersburg, he befriended an attorney named Dmitry Medvedev.) When his boss, Alexander Sobchak lost his bid for reelection as St. Petersburg’s mayor, Putin was out of a job. Yet, in the course of less than two years though, Putin rose from being an out-of-work deputy mayor to head of the FSB. A year later, Putin was the prime minister. Six months after that, he was Russian Federation President. On April 2, 2015, greatcharlie posted a review of Putin’s Kleptocracy. There is far too much to follow along that argument to unpack here. However, Dawisha does an excellent job of providing evidence to support her thesis. It could very well be an important part of the larger picture of Putin, the KGB, and governance in the Russian Federation.

Why a KGB Veteran Is Likely to Follow His Former Institution’s Line of Thinking

Surely, those who joined the KGB would say that they had answered the call to serve their nation in the security service. Some likely found a home, that offered employment security, a steady salary a place to belong to, a place where they will be taken care of, and an ordered life. That would not be considered irregular. The same could be said of those who have sought military careers or foreign service careers. Yet, as a result of more than a “collective consciousness” about defending the homeland, and given the unique nature of their work, a bond would form among KGB personnel and their families to the extent that a sort of mini society existed in the service. There may be some evidence that KGB officers, having an innate sense for being discreet, were mainly repressed people. Unable to express love within family or in close circles, the repressed have a habit of investing emotionally into larger organizations. Their love can be put into an institution, which in the case of Putin and his colleagues, was the KGB. The intelligence service, that closed off part of the intelligence officer’s life, becomes his family. For some, it becomes their raison d’etre. That type of linkage can lead to difficulties upon retirement and separation from organization. That makes associations of retired intelligence professional all the more important by creating links to the organization in which they served. The more contentment officers found in the KGB, the more settled and satisfied they became with their lives. Through the KGB, they got the picture of their lives straight.

Putin rose meteorically through the newly formed Russian Federation Government under Yeltsin almost as if his life had been mapped out by providence. He found support and guidance from former KGB colleagues from St. Petersburg which is both his hometown and where got his start in politics at the local level. Many have since become officials in Putin’s government, political leaders, and key business leaders with whom Putin remains in close contact. In the KGB, these former officers are affectionately referred to as Chekists. They come from a community of families whose “roots” go back to the beginnings of the Communist Party and its first political police known as the Cheka. Among the aforementioned cadre of government officials, political leaders, and business leaders with whom Putin has surrounded himself are men who came from Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg were mostly Cheka. Putin’s own Cheka heritage includes both a father and grandfather who served in the security service. He was in fact raised in the Chekisty (Chekists) community, attending schools and a university Chekists’ progeny typically attended. With a loyal and effective team, Putin could stay ahead of troublesome political and business leaders that would disrupt his plans more often than not to the extent they would enable themselves to achieve their own self-aggrandizing, short term goals. However, by surrounding himself with like-minded Chekists of his “KGB family”, retaining his prevailing Chekist beliefs that aspects of the Soviet Union provides a good model for Russia to itself build upon has been made easier for Putin.

While it might be viewed as daylight madness in the West, some former Soviet citizens in Russia imagine the Soviet Union as a better place than it was. Moreover, these Russians, who miss the past, even crave it, warts and all, were not all from among those who were privileged in the Soviet system. Those who were not privileged seem to discount just how shabby the majority of their lives were under that system. According to a December 19, 2018 Levada Center poll, more Russians regretted the breakup of the Soviet Union then than at any other time since 2004.

Is Putin in Touch with His Fellow Russians Regarding the Soviet Union?

His KGB life aside, Putin must be able recall that the Soviet Union was not satisfying for all Russians. Even in First Person, Putin admits that housing conditions for his family in St. Petersburg were far less than perfect, nevertheless, they still lived better than many. For those not so enthusiastic with the Soviet system, Putin’s pro-Soviet sentiments likely reminded of the ugliness of a not so distant past. The majority of Russians were unable to obtain positions equivalent in prominence and power as Putin held. Surely, they did enjoy the relatively staid and secure life that came with it. While it was more “democratic” to claim that Soviet citizens had equal access to education, opportunity, housing, sustenance, health care, social welfare, and other programs, efforts by the Soviet system in that direction were more cosmetic than consequential in establishing the type of society to which they made claim. All of those services, while satisfying when made available and were of appropriate quality, hardly reflected an effort by the Soviet government to respond to the will of the people.

Under the authorized description of the Soviet system, it was a so-called classless society. However, it assuredly was economically stratified, and could be visualized in terms of concentric circles. The quality of life for citizens in the society would degrade sharply as one looks outward from the center all the way to those circles at the end where citizens struggled daily to survive. Those who occupied the center circle were the nomenklatura, the country’s leaders and power elites at the top. Those moguls lived in luxury relative to other citizens, and enjoyed the best things that Russia had to offer. Outside of the nomenklatura, the standard of living was passable for Soviet citizens from what would approximate “middle-class”. Those were usually the apparatchiks of the Soviet system, full-size functionaries of the Communist Party or the Soviet government apparat (apparatus). Apparatchiks were also those who worked in any bureaucratic  position or position of political responsibility. In many cases, they were lucky enough to be employed under the “self-management” concept positions, which required employees to evaluate the quality of their own productivity. However, that virtual middle-class was never completely comfortable for they , too, could suffer the effects of housing shortages, rationing, corruption, and other inconveniences. In some cases, they had to pay their superiors in order to keep their positions. This was even true in some parts of the military

Russian citizens living under a lower standard encountered those same problems and more with far greater intensity. They often suffered periods of rationing and privation. Some fell into a state of penury, a reality that the Soviet system desperately sought to conceal. They were forced to make the most of nothing. Those citizens emerged from the Soviet system holding a worldview, infiltrated by pessimism. They fully experienced the self-serving, self-enriching, behavior of national leaders for whom they were simply statistics.

Of the many Russians émigrés who escaped the Soviet Union during the Cold War, some who were activists or associated with activist organizations, were labelled anti-social elements when they lived there, and the Soviet government was likely happy to rid the country of them. There were some defectors, and some who managed to immigrate in order to take advantage of Western educational and professional training programs, getting away from the Soviet Union. What these groups typically had in common though, was the manner in which they spoke with disdain about of the Soviet system once they arrived overseas. They generally told stories with unmitigated rancor of an abominable government security apparatus that abused power, had neighbors spy on neighbors, obliterated all aspects of privacy, and made freedom something that could only be enjoyed in dreams. They could vividly recount their difficult lives in a manner that would bring the walls down. Very often, Soviet intelligence services would troll émigré communities in the West, to recruit and develop agents abroad using the threat of harming family members still living in the Soviet Union if cooperation was not provided.

Immediately after the Soviet Union’s collapse, tens of thousands of detailed facts, intriguing anecdotes, and classified debriefings collected on furtive actions taken by the KGB were collected from the archives (vaults) of what was once called 2 Fellx Dzerzhinsky Square Moscow, the headquarters and prison of the KGB. With that information, and insights such those discussed here, there is enough to assess today, as it had been at the time of the Soviet Union’s demise, that the inability of the government to find an efficacious way to meet its all important responsibility to provide for and ensure the well-being of its citizenry, that led to the country’s downfall. Despite all of the alleged promise and dogma uttered about the “great socialist system”, the results confirmed that the Soviet concept was never viable. Despite all appearances, the country for years was slowly being strangled by many ills from within. While not easily stirred by the transfer from one national leader to another, at some level, Russians surely had expected that the rather shrewd, worldly-wise young ex-KGB man, Putin, might be the elixir their country needed. Many may have hoped that he would be able to present a concept for change to overcome what was before. It certainly would not have expected that Putin main focus would be to use Russia as a platform from which the supposed splendor and the power of the Soviet Union could be reestablished

As Putin, himself, acknowledged, the average Russian citizen had little idea beyond the US and the European Union to find examples of what they quietly wanted to be after the Soviet Union collapsed. Even in that case, they had absolutely no idea what it would really take to reach such heights. They also had little knowledge of how to discern what would indicate a political leader has the qualifications or capabilities to put the country on a path to advance there successfully. Steps in that direction were made. Russia was made a member of what became the G8 and G20. It would become the key member of NATO’s Partnership-for-Peace and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It participated in UN peacekeeping and peace-enforcement missions mandated by resolutions. After the 1990s, there was the image of Russia acquiring a place at the main table with the top industrialized countries despite its precarious situation economically, socially, politically, and militarily. As a policy, Russia sought to incorporate itself into the international system of regulating foreign economic operations, particularly the World Trade Organization. However, paying careful attention to Putin’s words when he was acting President, the impression is created that finding a true path toward comity with the West was not actually on his mind. Putin explained in his very revealing essay, “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium”: “Russia will not become a second edition of say the US or Britain, where liberal values have deep historic traditions. Our state and its institutions and structures have always played an exceptionally important role in the life of the country and its people. For Russians a strong state is not an anomaly to be gotten rid of. Quite the contrary, it is a source of order and the main driving force of any change.”

Do Russians Want to Go Back to Soviet Days?

In the West, one might expect that concerns or fears would be so universal among all Russian citizens over any wording that would even hint some form of the Soviet Union would be reanimated in Russia. That uneasiness clearly would not be based on unreason and paranoia, but rather upon the experience of having lived so shabbily under its system. Conceivably as a result of the experience many Russians had enduring dissatisfaction in the Soviet Union and living with the limitations and inconveniences of daily life in the Russian Federation, they had become expert in keeping a sense of proportion. The follow-on to the Soviet system was supposed to be the great Russian liberalization. However, that was not the case.

There are occasionally some significant grumblings about Putin’s governance. Protest rallies become considerably more intense than perambulating demonstrators near election dates. Flaps of clashes with police and the security services by more politically active segments of the population have been predicted by Western experts, and reported in the Western media, as spelling the beginning of the end for Putin. Nevertheless, Putin remains. Interestingly, Putin has been ridiculed and denounced in the news media. Further, there has been television programming in the Russian Federation that has lampooned Putin much to his dissatisfaction. However, he hardly dealt with any problems of considerable intensity from his core constituency or, relatively, from the majority of Russians countrywide. They have not really exhorted Putin to try harder. They keep within the margins. Perhaps the old adage “go with what you know” could be applied, for it best suits the situation for the Russian people regarding their country’s path and its leadership. To the extent that they will continue have any order in their country, average Russians believe that they can at best rely upon Putin. That begrudging sense of being somewhat satisfied has been just enough to bring Putin victory in election after election. One might say therein lies a sort of duplicity on their part. Still, in an even bigger way, the Russian people are really gambling on Putin’s mortality. The possibilities of who might come to power from other powerful political forces in Russia is hair raising. Via trita, via tuta. (Beaten path, safe path.)

While it might be viewed as daylight madness in the West, some former Soviet citizens in Russia imagine the Soviet Union as a better place than it was. Moreover, these Russians, who miss the past, even crave it, warts and all, typically are not all from among those who were privileged in the Soviet system. That is quite intriguing because those who were not privileged seemingly discount just how shabby the majority of their lives were under that system. They are the dead-enders. It is posited here that in some cases, such pro-Soviet elements apparently focus upon and magnify aspects of Soviet life that they may have enjoyed from the totality of their experiences and then determined that it was as a result of the benefits of being Soviet. To be more precise, it appears that as a result of some psychological transference, what defined their private existence somehow became what universally defined their existence under the Soviet system. Those positive, pleasant aspects of Soviet life may actually have been things such as good times had among family, friends and colleagues that in reality are common to people all over the world, transcending citizenship or nationality. Perhaps in Soviet terms, it could be chalked up to humanism. While being a Soviet citizen may have been a common experience, what they had even more in common was their humanity. It was the US philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer, John Dewey, who stated: “Time and memory are true artists; they remould reality nearer to the heart’s desire.”

Statistical evidence of such pro-Soviet thinking among former rank and file Soviet citizens was provided by a poll published on December 19, 2019 by the Levada Center, a Russian independent, nongovernmental polling and sociological research organization. According to that poll, more Russians regret the breakup of the Soviet Union at that moment in time more so than any other since 2004. The poll was conducted between November 18, 2018 and November 28, 2018, surveyed 1,600 people nationwide. When asked whether they regret the 1991 Soviet collapse, 66 percent of respondents answered “yes”. That represented an increase of 58 percent from 2017, and is the highest proportion since 2004, the last year of Putin’s first term. Reportedly, 25 percent of respondents said they did not regret the Soviet breakup, the lowest proportion since 2005, and 9 percent said they could not answer. Interestingly, Levada found that Russians’ concerns about their economic security today were among the main reasons for the increase in the number voicing regret. Indeed, a Levada pollster explained that 52 percent of respondents named the collapse of the Soviet Union’s “single economic system” as the main thing they regretted. The peak of regret over the Soviet collapse came in 2000, when 75 percent of Russian polled by Levada answered “yes” to the same question. At the same time, 36 percent said they miss the “feeling of belonging to a great power,” and 31 percent lamented mistrust and cruelty in society.

US and Soviet armor units face-off at Checkpoint Charlie on the Friedrichstrasse in Berlin October 27-28, 1961 (above) For nearly 50 years, the West struggled against efforts by the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc countries to spread the Communist philosophy that underpinned their governments. An almost universal belief in the West was that the way of life on its side was elevated well-above the Communist world. The West always emphasized its moral superiority, but that never needed to be done in a sententious way. The tragic nature of the situation for the people in the East, revealed widely in West through newsmedia stories, spoke for itself.

The World Does Not Miss the Soviet Union

An examination of the Soviet Union’s position in the world cannot be made by only weighing how the government administered the domestic affairs of the country against the preferences of quondam citizens. Those who speak nostalgically before the world about their own positive version of the Soviet Union, such as Putin, typically engage in an act of omission by airbrushing its realities. The impression is given that its collapse was the result of some benign decision among its republics to succeed to pursue their own aims. They omit, albeit intentionally, that the failed country not only posed problems for its own citizenry, but particularly after World War II, it posed a threat to the world. To be frank, the history of Soviet behavior is atrocious. The people of countries that stand just outside of its sphere of influence but close enough to feel threatened, and the people of border countries that are former Soviet republics, many of which in some way have been victimized by Russian Federation transgression, would unlikely ever think or say anything positive about the Soviet Union. The haunting spectre of the departed Soviet Union has helped to form negative impressions of the Russian Federation. Surely, one should not, using a broad brush, condemn the people of a country for the acts of their government. It was the Soviet government that ruled by fear and terror and was the anathema. As for the Soviet people, they were most often appreciated around the world. Many significant contributions were made by the Soviet people to the arts, mathematics, sciences, engineering, philosophy,  that were remarkable. Some space could reasonably be granted for former Soviet citizens wax about the loss of a homeland and those good days that existed. Still, looking at the pertinent facts, the greater realities about the Soviet Union cannot be denied.

Running through the basics of the Cold War, one would learn that in the postwar period, the Soviet Union essentially replaced Germany as occupiers large areas of Eastern Europe, to include Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. In a very powerful speech in Fulton, Missouri in March 5,1946, the then former United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill would say that those countries were locked behind an “Iron Curtain.” In those countries, a process of “Sovietization” began. Soviets operatives worked behind the scenes to establish puppet governments that would serve as an extension of Moscow’s rule. These governments had the initial appearance of being democratic but in reality were not. Local Communists were gathered into a coalition party then handed power, usually after coups or rigged elections. All political parties, other than the Communist Party, were dissolved. Leaders of the Soviet-dominated countries would lie about or deny realities about what was occuring in their societies. As a result of Soviet efforts, an “Eastern Bloc” and “Soviet Bloc” had been established. US officials agreed that the best defense against the Soviet threat was a strategy called “Containment” formulated by the US diplomat George Kennan. In his famous February 22, 1946 “Long Telegram” from Moscow outlining the policy, Kennan explained that the Soviet Union was “a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with the US there can be no permanent modus vivendi [agreement between parties that disagree]”; as a result, the only choice for the US was the “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” US President Harry Truman agreed with Kennan and stated before the US  Congress on March 12,1947, “It [Containment] must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation . . . by outside pressures.” In his speech, Truman also asked Congress for $400 million in military and economic assistance for Greece and Turkey to counter Soviet meddling in those countries. The Containment Policy would shape US foreign policy for the next four decades.

Direct confrontation came when the Soviet Union cut all road and rail links to West Berlin, allegedly in response to a decision by the US, the United Kingdom, and France to merge their occupation sectors of the city. With no access to any sustenance, the US and United Kingdom flew in tons of food and supplies by air transports in what was known as the Berlin Airlift. Elsewhere in the world, North Korean forces, trained, equipped, and supported by the Soviet Union, invaded South Korea. Led by the US, UN forces collectively responded. The fighting was halted on July 27, 1953. Pro-Soviet Russians, might point to the fact that actions taken by Russia in the period capsulated here were the result of Stalin, who many Russians decry as a corrupt despot who sullied the grand ideals of the revolution. However, in the years that followed his death in 1953, the commitment of Moscow to the revolutionary and expansionist paradigm continued. Under Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union, despite calls for peaceful coexistence and desire to reopen ties with the West, firmed the Soviet Union’s grip over its empire and increased its support of Third World Communist movements. On May 14, 1955, the Soviet Union and seven of its European satellites sign a treaty establishing the Warsaw Pact, a mutual defense organization that put the Soviets in command of the armed forces of the member states. The military alliance was named the Warsaw Pact because the treaty was signed in Warsaw. Warsaw Pact countries included the Soviet Union, Albania, Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria as members. Similar to NATO, by treaty, Warsaw Pact members were required to come to the defense of any member attacked by an outside force. The force was initially set up a unified military command under Soviet Army Marshal Ivan Konev.

Soviet efforts to maintain a tight grip over its empire were highlighted by the quelling of protests against Communist rule in 1956 culminating with Soviet tanks successfully taking control of Budapest on November 10, 1956. On August 15, 1961, the Soviet Union initiated the construction of a wall between East Berlin under Soviet control and West Berlin under US, United Kingdom, and French control. The border between East and West Germany were also sealed by fencing. A decision by Khrushchev to construct a Soviet intermediate range nuclear armed missile base in Cuba, led to a blockade of the island country and strenuous demands from US President John Kennedy that the missile be removed. As the US prepared to invade Cuba, negotiations between Khrushchev and Kennedy, initially through back channels, led to an October 28, 1962 agreement to remove the weapons.

Khrushchev legacy was not one of diplomacy, but rather brinkmanship the nearly led more than once to nuclear war. On October 15, 1964, Khrushchev was removed from office. His successor Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev led the Soviet Union for nearly two decades. Brezhnev also wanted to launch a new era of negotiation with the West, labeled détente by US Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger in the administration of US President Richard Nixon. However, under his leadership, the Soviet Union never ceased its military buildup and pressed its efforts to expand Communism into Africa, Asia, and Latin America. From July 1965 to April 1975, the Soviet Union supplied North Vietnam and the Communist Viet Cong in South Vietnam with everything from rifles to fighter jets in war against the South Vietnamese government which the US and its Southeast Asia Treaty Organization allies supported with troops and materiél. The result was the intensification of fighting and prolonging the wreckage of human lives. On August 20, 1968, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed efforts by Czech President Alexander Dubcek to initiate reform programs, known as the “Prague Spring”. Dubcek was arrested when he refused to halt his efforts. On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. On December 30, 1980, the Solidarność (Solidarity) Movement in Poland was crushed with the imposition of Martial Law. It was finally under Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, who in attempting to reform the Soviet Union under perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), destabilized it to the point of collapse.

For nearly 50 years, the West struggled against the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc countries to spread the Communist philosophy that underpinned their governments. Its defense against those Soviet ideals was simply referred to as anti-Communism. Societies in the West were somewhat disparate, with loosely associated forms of freedom, and democracy in most of its countries must have appeared disorderly from the East, with up roars over government decisions and actions, demands for justice and social progress, and political rivalries that played out publicly. Yet, they still took on an amiable form. Moreover, it was well-accepted by those in the West that their world and way of life was worthy of protecting. Militarily, the means was collective defense. Those who were part of that struggle, using the white hat black hat symbolism of the Western film genre of the 20th century, saw themselves as the white hats representing all that was good, admirable, and honorable and viewed the Soviet and Soviet Bloc operators as the black hats, the villains. One was either on the right side or the wrong side. Using familiar terms of today concerning human interactions in societies to explain Communism, it posed a threat to individual freedom, inclusiveness, and tolerance. An almost universal belief in the West was that the way of life on its side was elevated well-above the Communist world. The West’s moral superiority was always emphasized, but it never needed to be presented in a sententious way. The tragic nature of the situation for the people in the East, revealed widely in West when occasional newmedia stories told what was happening there, really spoke for itself. US President Ronald Reagan, getting to the root of the differences between East and West in his renowned June 12, 1987 “Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate” explained: “The totalitarian world produces backwardness because it does such violence to the spirit, thwarting the human impulse to create, to enjoy, to worship. The totalitarian world finds even symbols of love and of worship and affront.” (Attempting to boil down to the bones the Cold War to provide an accurate, comprehensive summary of ideas and events felt a bit Sisyphean. Too much occurred. There were too many episodes, too many flaps of diplomacy and periods of aggression and war, to synthesize. If a sense for the monumental geopolitical struggle was created, this synopsis has served its purpose. Hopefully, the information has also provided some factual counterbalance to pro-Soviet statements recounted here.)

Primarily through the state run media, Putin has created a public persona of being a caring and empathetic leader, a friend to animals, but more importantly, the tough and virile vanguard of the Russian people, land, and culture.  He established that image brilliantly through televised conversations with Russian citizens. Putin appears attuned to the concerns of average Russians especially through televised conversations. There is an art to being a man that one is not. Perhaps Putin has mastered that. Russians have never seen the coming of a new day, but rather an ongoing dark night, a black void they have stared into for decades.

What Has Putin Established in Russia?

Primarily through the state run media, Putin has created a public persona of being a caring and empathetic leader, a friend to animals, but more importantly, the tough and virile vanguard of the Russian people, land, and culture.  He established that image brilliantly through televised conversations with Russian citizens countrywide. Putin appears attuned to the concerns of average Russians especially through televised conversations. There is an art to being a man that one is not. Perhaps Putin has mastered that. Indeed, it would not be out of court to say that despite what one might perceive at first blush, Putin seems, in practice, oblivious to the economic realities those conversations revealed. If the Russian people were to take a careful look over their shoulders today, they undoubtedly might recognize that nothing spectacular has been accomplished at home on their behalf by his government. There is no interest in disparaging any of Putin’s exertions, but many Western analysts and other observers would agree that Russians never seen the coming of a new day in their country, but rather just the ongoing dark night, a black void which they have stared into for decades. It might be stated with confidence that in a general sense they are not content. The reality that their lives have hovered in an endless limbo seems to be suppressed by most.

It may very well be that by the time Putin reached the top of the power pyramid, such people skills, his ability to understand others he is not associated with became a bit seared. Perhaps proper focus has not been placed on the people’s thinking and the ability to perceive their needs. Even his intuition regarding experiences of other Russians and where many were at a given moment seem darkened from disuse. A gentleman must always adapt to his circumstances. To a great degree, what has emerged in the Russian Federation is indeed Putin’s version of the Soviet Union. Although the struggle to establish global Communism is absent, Putin certainly has included imagery from the Soviet Union in his new Russia. It would seem that some methods well-used during the Soviet era to maintain social order and population control, were implemented by Putin in response to the fragility of the society and that the Russian Federation remains vulnerable to collapse. It is also assured that many of Putin’s former KGB colleagues would find ample opportunities to make use of their dark and unusual skill sets.

Once again, the old adage “go with what you know” seems to fit well, in this case with the Putin’s thinking. Of course, such explanations do not provide an excuse or a defense for his actions. The following list includes only a few of those elements: utilization of prison camps, “gulags”, in Eastern Russia, to detain reactionaries and other undesirable elements; the suppression of political opposition; assassinations of political opposition leaders; assassinations of journalists; the padlocking of media houses, newspapers the broadcast, publish, and post stories exposing what they perceive as questionable or even corrupt activities of Putin’s administration; and, the expulsion of “undesirable organizations” such as foreign and international religious, human rights, and civil society organizations and termination of their programs. There are also: massive military parades before the Russian Federation’s leadership; fiery anti-Western speeches at rallies; military deployments into other countries (e.g., Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, Moldova, Georgia, and Belarus) the occupation and annexation of the territories of sovereign neighboring countries; the sudden death, murders, suicides of senior diplomats, senior military officers, senior intelligence officials, senior law enforcement officials, and senior officials of other security related services; the arrest and prosecution of Russians who are international business elites, known better as oligarchs, who have fallen into disfavor with the Kremlin; regularly renaming and repeating policy conferences, trade shows, and exhibitions of technology created to highlight Russian intellect, ingenuity, and advancements; the hosting international amateur sporting tournaments in Russia as a means to showcase the country; and, reported violations by Russian Federation national sports teams of rules and regulations of international sporting associations, including the International Olympic Committee. Ad mores natura recurrit damnatos fixa et mutari nescia. (Human nature ever reverts to its depraved courses, fixed and immutable)

Being the solitary decider in Russia, and being in the harness leadership for so long, one might theorize that speaking so nostalgically of the Soviet Union might be part of the process of Putin imagining an easier existence. Surely, searching for an efficacious way to meet the needs of all Russians has doubtlessly been a considerable psychic drain along with the stresses and anxieties of other matters in which he has been engaged daily. He may never have publicly exhibited strong emotions when looking at the unappealing conditions in which many Russians live, yet as Russian Federation President, he must maintain his balance in spite of them.

Putin Knows How Much Progress Is Really Possible in the Russian Federation

There is rarely a single reason for anything, and that certainly applies to Putin’s claims about the Soviet Union. With no intention of being whimsical, it might be worthwhile to consider that theories on what may have influenced Putin other than his KGB background, can also be joined by others built on his additional dimensions. It should not be thought that analysis from another direction might even compromise theories already proffered on Putin’s pro-Soviet comments. After all, the hope and primary goal of this examination remains reaching the actual state of the matter. Putin may not necessarily be so dedicated to other foreign and domestic matters that he has not tried to develop a clearer vision for Russia and has not sought to respond at all to the echoes of those suffering economically in his country. It might be reasonable to doubt that Putin would be completely unable to see the world through the prism of average Russians. That would run counter to expectations of what should be among the suite of skills possessed by a KGB officer in the field. Interestingly, in Part 3, “The University Student”, a close friend notes that he once asked Putin about his work in the KGB. Putin cleverly replied, “I’m a specialist in human relations.”

Putin might very likely reject the idea that being in the intelligence service of the KGB seared his conscience and left him indifferent toward the situation of fellow Russians or cause him to disregard their well-known plight. Moreover, he would most likely reject the idea that members of the KGB thought to help the Soviet government subject the Russian people to “unappealing conditions.” It may very well be that a heartbreaking value judgment was made. Putin may have viewed it as unconstructive to turn his attention fully in the direction of the troubled state of affairs of the Russian people because his ability to be fruitful has been simply too limited. From the start, he knew that the job of Russian Federation President involved achieving monumental tasks. So much wrong had to be made right. Being the solitary decider in Russia, and being in the harness of leadership for so long, one might theorize that speaking so nostalgically of the Soviet Union at this point might be part of the process of Putin imagining an easier existence. Surely, searching for an efficacious way to meet the needs of all Russians has been beyond peradventure a considerable psychic drain in tandem with the stresses and anxieties caused by other matters in which he has been engaged daily. Psychologically, the aggregate disappointment and agony could have become so magnified in his mind and everything would become unmanageable. Being the true professional that he is, Putin knows that he needs to stay focused on the larger picture. He must avoid losing himself in the labyrinth. He must not allow himself to be over matched by difficulties. He has never publicly exhibited strong emotions when looking at the unappealing conditions in which many Russians live. However, as Russian Federation President, he must maintain his balance in spite of them

The Russian Federation government’s limited capabilities and capacity to resolve those domestic problems for some time, in fact, is not necessarily the result of Putin’s leadership being remiss. Certain inadequacies that have harmed output, seem to be intrinsic to the Russian system. Among them are included: unreliable governance at the republic, krai, and oblast levels, poor execution economic policies, banking and financial disarray, low moral in the workplace, alcoholism, drug abuse, mismanagement, corruption, and criminality. With focus has been placed on Putin’s efforts to extol cherry picked “virtues” of the Soviet Union, little attention is given to other comments that he made during his first months of service as a national leader. He often spoke the truth about the ills of collapsed superpower, and often explained that lingering problems from the Soviet era made getting the Russian Federation moving forward very difficult, if not impossible. A statement to this effect from Putin can also be found in his December 31, 1999 essay, “Russia at the Turn of the Millenium”. He stated: “We had to pay for the Soviet economy’s excessive focus on the development of the raw materials and defence industries, which negatively affected the development of consumer production and services. We are paying for the Soviet neglect of such key sectors as information science, electronics and communications. We are paying for the absence of competition between producers and industries, which hindered scientific and technological progress and prevented the Russian economy from being competitive in the world markets. This is the cost of the brakes and the bans put on Russian initiatives and enterprises and their personnel. Today we are reaping the bitter fruit, both material and mental, of the past decades.” It is hypothesized in a January 31, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “Trump Wants Good Relations with Russia, But if New Options on Ukraine Develop, He May Use One”, that the type of success Putin really wants for Russia out of his reach, not by some fault of his own, but rather because it’s problems are so heavy, and may run too deep. He may have run out of real answers to put the Russian Federation on real upward trajectory given the capabilities and possibilities of the country using all tools available to him.

Even militarily, Russian Federation efforts to create an aura of technological modernity have fallen short. Its latest high tech, 5th generation fighters and hypersonic missile reflect the measure up only to the latest developments in the West nearly two decades past. The US move to lasers, 6th generation fighters that hardly resemble anything the world has seen before, and hypersonic systems that it has already has been developing almost the point of deployment, ensure that the Russian arsenal will pale in comparison with the US for some time to come.

Given all of that, it is very likely that Putin arrived at the conclusion that he had little choice but to simply do things as he saw fit with available resources to create the best circumstances possible. Unable to move steadily and safely in a new direction, Putin apparently saw the best option as creating a copy old order with all of its power and prestige. As aforementioned, sustainability was not at issue. He likely took this step originally as a temporary measure, to allow him time to chisel something better. That would certainly be in following with Putin’s modus operandi. However, in the end, in spite of many improvements, the country moved so much in the direction of the old order, the familiar for the Russian people, that it became figuratively “heavier” and more difficult way of being to transition from. If Putin learned anything from his KGB work, it was that sacrifice is required in nearly every endeavor. Many Russians have failed to benefit from his efforts. Indeed, there is a tendency for some to suffer while others benefit. Yet, those who continually fail to benefit have unlikely been forgotten. Imputing the best intentions on Putin, he will eventually use his full powers as president to make amends to them at some point, if time and opportunity will allow. Though the people may very well be uplifted at that point in the future, until then, they will be left twisting in the wind. Si sapis, alterum alteri misce: nec speraveris sine desperatione nec desperaveris sine spe. (If you are wise, mingle these two elements: do not hope without despair, or despair without hope.)

US President Donald Trump (left) and Putin (right) in Helsinki, July 16, 2018. The vengeful thinking which prevailed during Russia’s struggles with the Obama administration likely initially insinuated itself into the Kremlin’s planning and actions concerning the Trump administration. However, the situation had clearly changed. Trump explained that he wanted to work with Putin to achieve things globally that could best be done jointly. In response, Putin has insisted upon playing a version of the great power game with the US mirroring the geopolitical struggle between it and the Soviet Union. He has promoted what greatcharlie has labeled un grand défi, a grand challenge against the Trump administration.

Troubling Manifestations

It is important here to point out a unique aspect of Putin’s KGB world. Enlarging on a point made earlier about Chekists, they share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent of Western technologies. They feel that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. As heard in Putin’s public statements, Chekists consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. Fully xenophobe and suspicious, Putin was determined to save Russia from disintegration, and frustrate those he saw as enemies that might weaken it. In many respects, Putin has conformed to what might be expected of a Chekist. Although he would seem to be much more than average, he appeared to have been poured into same mold as all the others. Putin has actually stated publicly that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. While on his way to the top of the political heap in the new Russian Federation, Putin saw how mesmerising “reforms” recommended to Yeltsin’s government by Western experts unmistakably negatively impacted Russia’s economy in a way referred to somewhat euphemistically by those experts as “shock treatment.” Yeltsin was unaware that Western experts were essentially “experimenting” with approaches to Russia’s economic problems. His rationale for opening Russia up to the resulting painful consequences was not only to fix Russia’s problems but ostensibly to establish comity with the West. The deleterious effects of reform recommended by Western experts’ could be seen not only economically, but socially.  In another statement made while he was acting President in 1999, Putin diplomatically explained the consequences of relying upon foreign experts for assistance. He stated: “The experience of the 90s demonstrates vividly that merely experimenting with abstract models and schemes taken from foreign textbooks cannot assure that our country will achieve genuine renewal without any excessive costs. The mechanical copying of other nations’ experience will not guarantee success, either.”

Some Have Said Putin’s US Policy Manifests His Revanchist Mindset

When character and behavior are brought together, one uncovers motivation. In the summer of 2013, the EU Council sharply condemned Russia’s mounting pressure on members of the EU Eastern Partnership, countries with association agreements with the EU. In 2012, the EU accounted for 52 percent of Russia’s exports, 68 percent of which consisted of fuel and energy. Following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the EU suspended virtually all cooperation. Still, Putin’s thinking on the EU was not positive even before the Ukraine crisis. Putin saw the EU as a project of deepening integration based on norms of business, law, and administration at variance from those emerging in Russia. Putin was also concerned that EU enlargement would become a means of excluding Russia from its “zones of traditional influence.” Certain Russian actions, to include election meddling, indicate Moscow actively seeks to encourage members to withdraw from the EU sphere and discourage countries joining it. Joint projects with European countries reportedly allowed Russia to exploit their differences on political, economic and commercial issues creating a discordant harmony in the EU. As much as making money, a goal of such efforts has been to undermine EU unity on sanctions. The Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline, for instance, has provided Putin with the means to disrupt, and potentially weaken, European unity. A murmur exists in Europe that solidarity ends at the frontiers of some countries.

Regarding NATO, in an interview published on January 11, 2016 in Bild, Putin provided insight into his thinking then and now. During the interview, Putin quoted West German Parliamentarian Egon Bahr who stated in 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” Putin then quoted what he considered an edifying suggestion from Bahr on how to avert a future problem in Europe. According to Putin, Bahr proffered: “the USA, the then Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structure.” Putin claimed that the former NATO Secretary General Manfred Worner had guaranteed NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin perceives the US and EU as having acquitted themselves of ties to promises to avoid expanding further eastward, and arrogating for themselves the right to divine what would be in the best interest of all countries. He feels historians have ignored the machinations and struggles of people involved. Putin further stated: “NATO and the USA wanted a complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone. But they are sitting there, and we are talking about all these crises we would otherwise not have. You can also see this striving for an absolute triumph in the American missile defense plans.” Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas. (Fortunate is he who understands the causes of things.)

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

A greater part of the foreign policy matters upon which Putin, seemingly in revanchist mode, felt cause to be laser focused was the geostrategic competition with the US. By the time his third term as Russian Federation President began, Putin left little doubt that the Russian Federation would assert itself in the world and he would ensure that Russia would never fall victim to business and financial experts and multinational corporations. Hostile feelings toward the US seemingly came to a head during the administration of US President Barack Obama. The details that contentious period are too sizable to unpack here (The most recent posts in which greatcharlie has outlined those many episodes in detail include: “Commentary: Trump and Putin: A Brief Look at the Relationship after Two Years”; Building Relations between Trump and Putin: Getting beyond the “Getting to Know You” Stage; “Trump Achieved More at Helsinki than Most Noticed: Putin Is Not a Challenge for Him”; and “Ties Fraying, Obama Drops Putin Meeting; Cui Bono?”.) Crimea was likely just the first step among what would likely have been far worse actions leading even to war had the interregnum between Democrat and Republican administrations had not occurred in 2016.

Un Grand Défi

One might theorize that the sort of vengeful thinking which prevailed during the Russian Federation’s struggles with the Obama administration, initially insinuated itself into the Kremlin’s planning and actions concerning the Trump administration. However, the situation clearly changed with the arrival of the Trump administration. Putin and his aides and advisers should have recognized that. It was never the stated intention of the Trump administration to engage in a protracted, geostrategic competition with Russia. That is still the case despite the entreaties of some advisers. It was the expressed intention of candidate Trump during the 2016 Presidential Campaign to improve relations with Russia. As US President, Trump made it clear that he wanted to try to work with Putin and achieve things globally that could best be accomplished jointly. Trump has been graceful in his overtures to the Russian leader, focusing on finding ways to connect with Putin on issues, creating a unique positive connection as leaders of nuclear superpowers, and finding a chemistry between them.

Clearly, the Russian Federation has not been threatened by any unprovoked aggressive or outright hostile offensive actions on the geostrategic landscape by the Trump administration. In reality, with the current political environment in the US, sounding the alarm over what might be identified as revanchist behavior by Putin might have served Trump well in at least an attempt to mollify critics and detractors. Nonetheless, without such provocation, Putin, has insisted upon playing a version of the great power game with the US that would mirror the geopolitical struggle between it and the Soviet Union. Accordingly, he has propagated what greatcharlie is labeling un grand défi, a grand challenge against the Trump administration. The benefit from un grand défi that Putin stands to gain is that it helps him create the appearance that the Russia Federation is a world leader and superpower. Indeed, despite all of Putin’s other maneuverings, the Russian Federation is only able to seen as a superpower when it is interacting with the US or measured against it. Correspondingly, as long as the Russian Federation is competing geostrategically in a discernable form of rivalry with the US, it can retain a strong place for itself at the grand table of military superpowers, although it stands a far off second to the US. Further, from what is detectable, that military tie in Putin’s mind also allows the Russian Federation, by a slender thread, to set a place for itself among the world’s economic powers, although it is not one. (As a measure of goodwill from the West, Russia was once welcomed on the G7. Putin wrecked that by conquering Crimea.) Alas, any unvarnished assessment would confirm that without tying itself to the US, any claims by Moscow of being a true world leader would simply appear self-styled, and could not be substantiated. Unless there is something or someone who could change Putin’s mind otherwise, doubtlessly as a matter of policy, he will continue to create a competitive environment with the US, leaving US Presidents with little choice but to meet any challenges posed by the Russian Federation. Curiously, it may very well be that Putin, living the Judo Ichidai, likely appreciates being in a “struggle” with the US. Odimus accipitrem quia semper vivit in armis. (We hate the hawk because he always lives in arms.)

Thus far, Putin has shown himself to be very intelligent man. All of the factors pulling him away from positive relations with the US seem to have caused Putin to metaphorically miss his exit along the road of diplomacy. The truth about the Trump administration and its good intentions should have reached Putin and made an impression, if only subconsciously. It is difficult to believe that Putin genuinely does not understand what Trump has been doing and that he does not recognize the great opportunity that lies before him to let Russia do some good in the world. By now it should be clear to Putin that Trump will not rise to grab the bait and begun some contentious back and forth between Washington and Moscow. As a consequence of  un grand défi he purposefully designed and promoted to compete as a soi-disant “superpower” with the Trump administration, Putin must contend with the missed opportunities for progress and advancement of the Russian people by insisting the two countries remain essentially divorced from each other. Those realities seemingly make Putin’s own effort at keeping Russia on top both counterintuitive and somewhat Quixotic.

It does not appear possible to ascribe any basis for objectivity for Putin’s view that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented a great loss for him, the Russian people, and the world. His coruscating flashes of pro-Soviet sentiment have naturally confounded to the world given that the Soviet Union was a country that failed its people and its collapse was nothing less than fated. It may very well be that through such recurring statements about the Soviet Union, Putin is not revealing any deeply personal feelings. His statements appear to have served a purpose in terms of his leadership, governance, and national image.

The Way Forward

By approaching the matter of Putin’s nostalgia romanticising of the Soviet era from a couple different directions and arguing matters from varied angles, it is hoped that the undergraduates who contacted greatcharlie, it has provided an edifying journey of exploration on their inquiry. It is also hoped that this essay was also satisfying for greatcharlie’s other regular readers. The purpose of greatcharlie’s examination was to simply consider Putin’s reiterative statements of praise for the Soviet Union. It does not appear possible to ascribe any basis for objectivity for Putin’s view that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented a great loss for him, the Russian people, and the world. His coruscating flashes of pro-Soviet sentiment have naturally confounded to the world given that the Soviet Union was a country that failed its people and its collapse was nothing less than fated. It may very well be that through such recurring statements about the Soviet Union, Putin is not revealing any deeply personal feelings. His statements appear to have served a purpose in terms of his leadership, governance, and national image. Patriotism, national identity, national pride, history, and culture are powerful ideas to organize a country’s population around. Focus upon them, often allows tricky leaders to distract from the internal with external The argument is made that the cause of Russia’s problems is the outside world, not internal difficulties, lack of capabilities, mismanagement, corruption, criminality, and so on. Nemo mortalium omnibus horis sapit. (Of mortal men, none is wise at all times.)

For the past two decades, great wells of anger have stored up among Putin and senior Kremlin officials toward the US for a variety of reasons. That has made finding a moderate path more difficult.  At the same time, as a practical matter, the Russian Federation’s contentious interactions with the US create a tie to it that could imaginably support the claim that a superpower competition exists. As greatcharlie posits here, without interacting with the US or being measured against it on a geopolitical matter for example, the Russian Federation would simply appear as a self-styled superpower, unable to substantiate the title in any way except by ostensibly harkening back to historical examples of the superpower rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union. Indeed, the Russian Federation can only steal a modicum of the “superpower light” radiating from the US. It has precious little ability to generate any light of its own in that respect. Thereby, negative interactions need to be regularized and promoted by Putin. Under such circumstances, engaging positive interactions with the Russian Federation will prove very difficult for the Trump administration. However, Putin should not believe that he has found some sweet spot from which he can take on the US without any real consequences. There are also inherent dangers that stem from un grand défi Putin has inflicted upon the US. It could very well open the door to unmanageable disagreements and potential clashes. Fortunately, the Trump administration has shown little interest in rising to take Putin’s unappetizing bait. Whenever Trump feels he needs to act in response to Putin’s moves, it will be at a time, at a place, in a manner of his choosing, most likely with some degree of impunity, and when necessary covertly with plausible deniability. In that respect, although he has promoted un grand défi, Putin has in reality only established pas de problème, or no problem at all.

Things could certainly be better for the Russian people. The “golden mean”, a middle way, could very likely be found to create positive relations with the US that would bring real benefits to the Russian Federation. Moving in that direction would certainly mean doing more than just putting a toe in the water. Still, as long as the Russian people are satisfied, as a few polls and studies indicate, attempting to judge from the outside what would be best for them seems unmerited. Putin’s actions appear to illicit some uniquely Russian reactions. Putin does not need to turn back the clock and resurrect the Soviet Union because it has not really moved too far away from what was in a functional sense. Actions that have resulted in economic sanctions and have prevented the Russian economy from participating in competitive world markets, attendantly hinder genuine scientific and technological progress. The potential of Russian enterprises and people consequently remains locked in. It is almost assured that bitter fruit will be reaped in the future by moving forward in such a troubled way. Occasio aegre offertur, facile amittitur. (Opportunity is offered with difficulty, lost with ease.)

US-Led Military Strikes in Syria Were a Success: Was a Correlative Political Warfare Success Achieved, Too?

Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad (left) and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right). Given all that transpired in Syria surrounding the US, United Kingdom, and French military strikes, Putin, Assad and their respective senior advisers may very well have begun to ask questions about future of relations between their countries. Relations between Moscow and Damascus may have begun moving in a new direction to the dissatisfaction and disappointment of Putin, and the dismay and anger of Assad.

Correlative effects can result from airstrikes, cruise missile strikes, drone strikes, and artillery attacks. Those effects could include damage to surrounding structures, or could mean unfortunate harm to civilians, in or near a target struck. Correlative effects can sometimes include shaping the attitude and behavior of an opponent targeted, his ability think, what he thinks, his ability to fight, and even his interactions with individuals with which he is allied or tenuously unified can be others. A correlative result of the April 13, 2018 US, United Kingdom, and French military strikes in Syria may have been a hard blow upon the ties between Russia and Syria. Indeed, perhaps far more was accomplished by that US-led coalition than the Trump administration could have imagined. On April 13, 2018, US military forces, acting in coordination with military forces from the United Kingdom and France, took decisive action against the chemical weapons infrastructure of the Syria Arab Republic. It was in response to an April 7, 2018 chemical weapons attack against his own citizens in Douma. According to the Trump administration, the US has vital national interests in averting a worsening catastrophe in Syria, and specifically deterring the use and proliferation of chemical weapons. The military strikes took out “the heart” of the Syrian chemical weapons enterprise, but there were other facilities that were not struck due to concerns about civilian casualties. He declined to say exactly how much of the chemical weapons program was taken out. US Defense Secretary James Mattis explained that the strikes were “a one-time shot.” US Marine Corps Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, the director of the Joint Staff, explained in an April 18, 2018 press conference at the Pentagon that the US carefully plotted out the strength, length of time, and target set of the strikes. Efforts were made to minimize the potential for chemical weapons to leak out of the facilities, with McKenzie saying “we believe we successfully mitigated” the risk. He explained that while it is possible that some material and people were moved from the site in the lead-up to the attack, there were certain pieces of equipment that the regime would not have been able to relocate. McKenzie acknowledged that the three sites did not represent the totality of the Syrian chemical weapons program known to the US. However, McKenzie and Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White emphasized that future strikes in the region could not be ruled out, saying that it is entirely up to the Assad regime. They went on to explain that the use of chemical weapons in the future could lead to more strikes.

After everything, Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad sits ostensibly in relative safety and comfort in Damascus as the leader of all of Syria, even though he only controls a small part of the country’s territory. He only holds on to that with the assistance of Russia and Iran. Even more, he wields as much power as Russia will grant him to wield. To observers, there appears to be a blindness in Moscow about Assad. Yet, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is well aware of his Syrian counterpart’s merits and deficits. He has an intellectual understanding of Assad, his habits, his ways. Indeed, at this point, Putin, with albeit some effort, very likely can track his thoughts, and likely has intimations about his moves whenever he thinks about Syria. For some, the optics of their interactions would support the idea that Assad is something akin to a ventriloquist’s dummy for Putin. Others would insist that they have a strong personal bond. Imdeed, there are Western foreign policy analysts and scholars would go as far as to say the relationship with Assad is indissoluble. Putin would likely assert that the two men simply have a better than average friendly rapport based on mutual interests and military, diplomatic, and economic arrangements. It would be practically impossible for the truly experienced not to see that in their relationship, Putin is the top, the leader, the senior party and Assad is the bottom, the follower, the junior party. Often, Putin displays choreographed support for Assad. When relationships are built on mutual interests and useful arrangements, and not a higher bond, sometimes conditions can change to such a degree that the relationship might be altered or ended.

Given all that transpired in Syria surrounding the US, United Kingdom, and French military strikes. Putin, Assad and their senior advisers may very well have begun to ask questions about future of relations between their countries. The interior thoughts, emotions officials in Moscow and Damascus play an important role in all that is happening with Syria. There was nothing but negative feedback for Assad regarding Putin. Assad likely had no doubt that Putin would stand with him against the West. Yet, as the Western military strikes were executed on April 13, 2018, Assad watched as Putin did nothing. The lesson for Assad was that he should not be so trusting of Russia and his other somewhat powerful allies. After all, when desires action from them, he has almost no way to aafely shape their behavior. While Assad did not publicly brood over what transpired on April 13th, he was likely resentful and bitter about it. Postulating that the military strikes in Syria were designed to have the effect of sowing seeds of mistrust and dissent between Russia and Syria would go a bit beyond conjecture. However, there may have been coincidental, correlative political warfare effects resulting from the April 13th military strikes. A glut of information about Assad is held by the intelligence services of the US, United Kingdom, and France. Amid what has been collected is undoubtedly information about the dynamics of Assad’s relationship with Putin. It may confirm that their relationship is now a bit different. The tons of information coming in from Syria may be at a constipation point. Information of that sort may not have been synthesised yet. Nothing has been made public or provided newsmedia reports on whether the April 13, 2018 military strikes had either a deliberate or correlative effect of rocking the boat between Moscow and Damascus has been produced. Still, one can ruminate, outside of the box, that a ball may have begun rolling in a new direction to the dissatisfaction and disappointment of Putin, and the dismay and anger of Assad. The possibility that the relationship may take a new direction is briefly examined here. Opinionis enim commenta delet dies, naturae judicia confirmat. (Time destroys the figments of the imagination, while confirming judgments of nature [God].)

Assad (left) and Putin (right). From all that is publicly known, scoring a political warfare victory was not part of the concept and intent of the US. Unless one was involved in the planning of the military strike, it would be impossible to posit with certainty that some consideration was given to how the military strikes would affect the Russia-Syria relationship. Still the features of a political warfare effort, even if coincidental, are discernible.

Detecting Political Warfare

Again, from all that is publicly known, scoring a political warfare victory was not part of the concept and intent of the US and did not factor into the planning of the military strikes in Syria. Unless one was involved in the planning of the military strike, it would be impossible to posit with certainty that some consideration was given to how the military strikes would affect the Russia-Syria relationship. Still the features of a political warfare effort, even if coincidental, are discernible. Under a definition offered by the RAND Corporation, political warfare consists of the international use of one or more of the implements of power–diplomatic, information, military, and economic–to affect the political composition of decision making within a state. Political warfare is often, yet not necessarily, carried out covertly, but must be carried out outside the context of traditional war. In the broadest sense, it could take the form of anything other than military operations. It could for example include: economic subversion, propaganda–not tied to the military effort, psychological warfare–as part of a military effort; conditional aid to a state; aid to political parties; aid to resistance groups; political accommodation; and, assassination. Renown security affairs analyst Brian Jenkins of the RAND Corporation explains that political warfare reverses the famous dictum of the 19th century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz that “war is the extension of politics by other means,” political warfare is the extension of armed conflict by other means. Political warfare does not focus exclusively on enemies who are at large or end with their capture. It targets those on their way in to enemy ranks, those who might be persuaded to quit, and those in custody. Political warfare sees the enemy not as a monolithic force, but as a dynamic population of individuals whose grievances, sense of humiliation, and desire for revenge, honor, status, meaning, or mere adventure propel them into jihad and resistance. Political warfare accepts no foe as having irrevocably crossed a line, but sees enemy combatants as constantly calibrating and recalibrating their commitment. It sees every prisoner not merely as a source of operational intelligence, but as a potential convert. Political warfare is infinitely flexible and ferociously pragmatic. It accepts local accommodations to reduce violence, offers amnesties to induce divisions and defections, and cuts deals to co-opt enemies.

Until recently, things have typically gone relatively well between Putin and Assad. There has rarely been reason for them to think too negatively of one another. However, as circumstances develop in which their perspectives grow in variance on matters of mutual concern. The atmosphere has already changed a bit. It will change even more if Assad decides to use chemical weapons again. Common wisdom in the West is that Assad would unlikely use chemical weapons again, not because his known chemical capability has been denigrated, not because he has been punished him excessively, but because Assad, according to Western thinking, Assad has already won the war with the assistance of Russia and Iran. Dropping more chemical weapons would have no strategic value any Western military analysts can think of. Moreover, it would not make sense to incur the wrath of the US and other Western powers as a result of using such weapons. All of that being stated, it appears the West must learn over and over again that Assad thinks differently than most national leaders, and military analysts as well. Assad has embraced his role as a tyrant. He is concerned mainly with holding power. In his conscious or unconscious mind, he may be haunted by the fear of facing retribution for violent acts ordered in defense of his power and atrocities committed against his own people. Everyone does not think the same and Assad is a perfect example of that. Putin, however, is certainly aware of how different Assad is.

The chief foreign linkage of Syria under Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, before him, have been the Russian Federation and the Soviet Union, respectively. The present Assaf has been useful to Russia as a figurehead, a symbol of resistance to the Syrian opposition, ISIS and Islamic terrorist groups  and the West.  He is undoubtedly viewed in Moscow as Putin’s man, and his ball to play with. It was the strength and realities of those ties between Damascus and Moscow  that were poorly considered when the US injected itself in Syria in support of the anti-Assad opposition movement during the Arab Spring in 2011. By the Fall 2015, Assad appeared to lack the ability to remain in power against ISIS and perhaps US-backed Syrian Opposition forces. The military situation began recurvate after Russia, with the urging of Iran, moved its forces into Syria in September 2015 and supported Syrian military operations.

It is interesting how Putin and Assad, two men from desperate backgrounds have established a very positive relationship that goes beyond mutual courtesy and civility. Putin rose from humble beginnings, raised by a mother and father who respectively managed to survive the siege of Leningrad and violent battles during World War II. Assad, on the other hand, was the privileged, eldest son of the former President of Syria, General Hafez Al-Assad, who ruled from 1971 to 2000. Putin completed his studies in law at Leningrad University before embarking on a successful career in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. Along with the well-earned praise of his colleagues and positive evaluations from his superiors, he had a record of service that led others to support his rise to the pinnacle of power in Russia. Assad was educated as a doctor, trained as a surgeon, and lived a comforrable life in London before being called home to take the reigns in Syria after his father’s death. Indeed, one man, Putin, was self-made, with his knowledge and capabilities shaped and polished by every obstacle and adversity he managed to overcome. The other man, Assad, had everything in life laid out in front of him, and there were few character shaping struggles. Ignis aurum probat, miseria fortes viros. (Fire provides proof of gold, misery, proof of strong men.)

In crafting a fruitful relationship with Assad, Putin seems to have handled him much as he would have handled an operative during his days in the intelligence industry. During his one-on-one contacts with Assad he has likely spent time motivating, befriending, briefing, advising, counselling, debriefing, and perhaps paying and welfaring him. It has served to establish the bridge between them. It is the sort of interaction to which Putin is attracted. It has helped to shape the dynamic and apparent congenial nature of their exchanges. It is likely that somewhere, Putin keeps notes that are part of a personal study of Assad. At age 65, Putin as a man and a leader, and in terms of capabilities and shrewdness, is far more advanced than Assad who is 52. For Putin, there certainly would be advantage in maintaining the relationship as is, if he can. There is an expediency in working with something, someone that you understand, who has been predictable. It is hard to imagine Putin might be overly concerned with Assad’s feelings. Yet, while Putin might only relate to other leaders much as strangers on a train, his relationship with Assad has been something more. In all the years until this point, whenever he met with Assad, they likely simply picked up wherever they leave off. Assad was granted a ticket to the high table international affairs by Putin. Contrarily, Assad cannot do much independently to enhance Putin’s life.

Putin (left) and Assad (right). In crafting a fruitful relationship with Assad, Putin seems to have handled him much as he would have handled an operative during his days in the intelligence industry. During his one-on-one contacts with Assad, he has likely spent time motivating, befriending, briefing, advising, counselling, debriefing, and perhaps paying him. It has served to establish a bridge between them.

Putin almost never fails to publicly cover Assad’s actions that reach the world’s gaze. He has supported Assad with strong words, diplomatic maneuvering at the UN and bilaterally with a handful of receptive countries, mostly it neighbors. He has of course, supported him by deploying Russian military forces to his country to protect his regime. Moscow’s initial response to the Assad’s chemical attacks in Douma was a grand denial that the Assad regime had anything to do with it. Russia, a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, sought to fight fire with oil, giving credence to the idea that Assad did not and would not use chemical weapons and the entire matter was a hoax. This was made worse by Russia’s futile attempt make the investigation of the chemical attacks a joint venture in which Russia would work alongside the UN Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) at the site of the attack and in their research labs. It must not be forgotten that Assad should not have access to chemical weapons at all, but an intriguing diplomatic tact taken by Moscow in 2013 left the door open to that. On September 14, 2013, Moscow and Washington reached an agreement under which Russia guaranteed Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile and all equipment for producing, mixing, and filing chemical weapons would be destroyed before the end of the first half of 2014. The OPCW would implement the agreement.  The genesis of the agreement was an August 21, 2013 chemical attack by the Assad regime against several towns of the Ghouta agricultural belt to the West and East of Damascus.  Reportedly the administration of US President Barack Obama was nearing a decision to launch US-led punitive strikes against Syria. A suggestion was made by the US Secretary of State John Kerry stated offhandedly at a press conference on September 9, 2013 that the US might not conduct military strikes if Assad placed Syria’s enture chemical weapons stockpile under international control within a week. Hours after that statement, Russian Federation Foreign Minister managed to have Syrian Arab Republic Foreign Minister Walid Muallem agree to the idea. On April 13, 2018, and back on April 6, 2017, the Trump administration, based on clear and convincing evidence took action against Assad contrary to decision of the Obama administration when it had the opportunity. Most importantly, however, action had to be taken because both Russia and Syria clearly failed to meet their responsibility under the 2013 agreement. There has been little no mention of the September 14, 2013 agreement by Moscow or Damascus after the April 13, 2018 chemical attacks. Moreover, rather expressing of concern over the use of chemical weapons, as could be expected, prevarications emanated from Moscow and Damascus concerning the attacks.

Moscow also made false claims that the majority of cruise missiles fired into Syria were shot down. Russian news outlets, as well as social media from the region, had claimed as many as 70 percent of coalition weapons were shot down by Syrian or Russian air defenses. But the Russian systems did not attempt to intercept the incoming weaponry, and the Syrian system launched around 40 surface to air missiles after the last targeted weapon hit its target, Referring to this type of activity by Moscow as information warfare perhaps gives it too much respectability as its purpose is to position it as master of the mob: anti-US, anti-EU, anti-West, and pro-Russian elements worldwide. Even Moscow must realize that in each case, all of its falsehoods would be overcome by the truth over time. Assad clearly had no concern over having frightful clouds hang over himself for atrocities committed before and during the Syrian War. There is not much that could further vulgarize his reputation. From experience of the Soviet Union as well as that of their own Russian Federation, officials in Moscow should have learned that the wounds Russia’s image suffers from such antics are all self-inflicted, deleterious, and all very unnecessary. Russia is reduced to a level akin to a “Fourth World” dictatorship, a so-called “Banana Republic”, when it prevaricates on matters concerning the US.

Every time Moscow distorts the truth, it confirms the worst about itself. The ugly image many policy makers, decision makers, and analyst in the West long since have had seared in their minds about Russia are reinforced. Few anywhere in the world can be confident what’ Moscow says is true, except those willing to be deceived. When Putin and his officials make claims on other occasions to the effect that Russia is a land of the mind, this questionable behavior, along with a lot of other things, puts that notion in doubt.

Intriguingly, Moscow puts significant effort into improving its image as a world leader, yet undermines that effort by backing Assad and destroying its image in the minds of many. There are consequences to the way one lives. He who walks with wise men will be wise, but a companion of fools will be destroyed. On April 11, 2018, Trump wrote on Twitter: “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”, referring to Moscow’s alliance with Assad. Assad, by his actions, has repeatedly immobilized Putin. He is left unable to smoothly move on to better things. If there are future chemical attacks by Assad, it is uncertain what the future of his relationship with Putin will be. A number possible scenarios exist based on questions Putin and Assad might ask themselves as well as steps they might take as the situation between them develops. Those steps would likely fall under the category of political warfare.

US President Donald Trump (above). It is intriguing to observe Moscow put significant effort into improving its image as a world leader, and then undermine that effort by lending unwavering support to Assad after he has acted against the norms of civilized world. On April 11, 2018, Trump wrote on Twitter: “You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”, referring to Moscow’s tie with Assad. By his actions, Assad immobilizes Putin, leaving him unable to move on to better things.

Is Assad Worth the Trouble?: Scenario for Putin

Due to flaws in his government, his own deficiencies as a leader, and perhaps a lack of empathy, Assad failed to spare the people of the old ills of war and crime. Without the support of Putin and Russia, one could reasonably conclude that Assad would have been brushed aside awhile ago. Indeed, in 2015, Assad appeared to lack the ability to remain in power against both ISIS and other Islamic terrorist groups and the US-backed Syrian Opposition forces. Policy makers and decision makers in Moscow and Tehran doubted Assad could hold on to power in Damascus without assistance. They mainly feared the real possibility that Syria would fall in the hands of ISIS. One could only imagine what would have been needed to regain and retain control of the country if ISIS had forced the regime out of Damascus. Putin provided a rational for Russia’s intervention in Syria in a speech at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe Tajikistan, on September 15, 2015. In response to Western criticism of Russia’s move, Putin explained, “We support the government of Syria in its opposition to terrorist aggression. We have provided and will provide necessary military and technical support and call on other nations to join us.” Putin noted the exodus of refugees toward Europe and the crisis in Syria was a result of the support foreign powers provided the Syria opposition rebels. He said, “I would like to note that people are fleeing Syria because of the military actions that were largely imposed externally by deliveries of weapons and other special equipment. People are fleeing to escape the atrocities committed by terrorists.” Putin went on to state, “[The refugees] are fleeing from radicals, above all. And if Russia had not supported Syria, the situation in this country would have been worse than in Libya, and the stream of refugees would have been even greater.”

Speaking to Western and Arab capitals, Putin declared, “We must sideline geopolitical ambitions, refrain from so-called double standards, from the policy of direct use of separate terrorist groups to achieve opportunistic goals, including the change of governments and regime that may be disagreeable to whomever.” Concerning Assad, Putin relayed that he might be willing to enter a power-sharing agreement with opposition but that the fight against terrorism was the priority. To that extent, Putin explained, “The Islamic State is providing ideological indoctrination and training to fighters from different countries including, unfortunately European countries and the Russian Federation, and many former Soviet republics. And of course, we are worried with the possibility of them returning to our territories.” As explained in a December 30, 2015 greatcharlie post, commanders of the Russian Federation Armed Forces reportedly believed the military objective of any ground operations in Syria should first be to create a regime stronghold in what is referred to as “Useful Syria” (Suriya al-Mufida) from Damascus up to Aleppo through Homs. That would require Russia and its allies to sweep up the Western part of Syria. The objective was to take pressure off Latakia, a pro-Assad, Alawite heartland and locale of an important airfield and take pressure off Tartus, a long-time Soviet Naval port passed on to the Russian Federation Navy. It is key for the delivery of military material to Russian and Syrian forces and important for the conduct of military operations in support of Syria. After reaching Latakia, Russia and its allies would turn toward Idlib. Part of the force could have pushed farther north to gain control of the Syrian-Turkish border west of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) territory, blocking the US coalition and ISIS from access to it. In an additional phase of their offensive, Russia and its allies would press eastward. A key objective was to take Palmyra from ISIS and the oil and gas resources around it. Russia began to gain control of the situation on the ground in Syria soon after deploying significant forces there in September 2015. At this point, the fight to secure “Useful Syria” has essentially been won. Syria, however, is still reliant upon a military and security umbilical cord tied from Moscow to Damascus.

Discord obtains when things get mixed up. Assad would likely disagree with any assessment that described him as a follower, or stated that his existence is contingent upon Russian power. He would likely describe himself as partner with Putin and other leaders and that Syria is working jointly with its allies. It is imaginable that Assad believes he is delegating part of the job of using military power to defeat Syria’s enemies to Russia and others. For Assad, all arrows point his way, for he almost always thinks and acts in terms of self-interest. Assad would likely proffer that Syria in the aggregate has the capability and capacity fend off threats to its security. Trouble comes when Assad sets out to confirm his thinking with heinous acts of violence, such as the chemical weapons attacks, which he knows are antithetical to norms of the civilized world, counter international law, and in defiance of demands made of his regime by the UN Security Council through resolutions. Assad apparently has much to prove to his fellow countryman, to other regional leaders, to his allies such as Russia, and the rest of the world. When he has lashed out, and he has done so regularly during the war, he proves that he is truly a despot. Errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum. (To err is human, to persist in it, is diabolical.)

Assad (left), Putin (center), and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (right). Commanders of the Russian Federation Armed Forces reportedly believed the military objective of any ground operations in Syria should first be to create a regime stronghold in what is referred to as “Useful Syria.” Once Russian forces moved into Syria in September 2015, the military situation began to recurvate. The fight to secure “Useful Syria” has essentially been won. Syria, however, is still reliant upon a military and security umbilical cord with Russia.

In Syria, the Assad regime, through an unending propaganda campaign, projects an image of its president in a way in which he is in firm control. That image also serves to assure the Syrian people that they still live in a sovereign state and that they have control over their own destiny. That image is completely inaccurate. Yet, there is little in Syria to interfere with that imaginative process as the government has strict control over media. True, Syrians can see that Putin has provided thousands of Russian advisers, troops and airmen who are engaged in daily operations to fend off and destroy the regimes adversaries. Yet, Syrians supportive of the Assad regime would likely assure that the tie between their leader and Putin was unbreakable. Rather than feel threatened, they, in fact, welcome Russia’s presence and taken refuge in the umbrella of the added security provided by the Russians. They are happy to believe they need not fear for their survival as long Putin and Russia are working hand in hand with their country. Simultaneously, those same Syrian’s would argue that Assad is still the real power in Syria. Moreover, they are likely ignorant or unconcerned with the problems Assad’s actions have caused Russia. Vivit et est vitae nescius ipse suae. (Man lives in ignorance of his own life.)

Assad very likely believes his self-crafted, virtual image truly mirrors his real life. Looking at newsmedia video clips of Assad in Damascus, one might be bemused by the artificial size of his life. Syria is an authoritarian regime ruled by Assad much as, but albeit far less orderly and competently than his father before him. Politically, Syria is an odd hybrid, a quasi-national socialist, Islamic state. Assad is accepted by his beloved Alawites as well as elites from his own Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, other like-minded political groupings, business leaders, and leadership of the Armed forces and the security services. The People’s Council–the national legislature of Syria–and the Syrian judicial system cannot even provide a fig leaf of democracy for Assad regime. Syria’s elites appear satisfied with conditions in “Useful Syria”. It is something akin to a kingdom of gold for them. The coffers of Syria have serve the purposes of the elites and Assad. It is a type of larceny Assad inherited from his father. Those in Syria who have money, power are celebrities, heroes of the society, having what the majority can never attain. The Presidential Palace on Mount Mezzah is emblematic of Assad’s efforts to provide a venir of prosperity and power over a broken country in unimaginable suffering has visited countless homes.

None could doubt at this point that the life, happiness of the common man means nothing in Assad’s Syria. Assad does not have the type of government that elevates human beings. Assad has never used his words or events in the outside world to encourage Syrian to raise themselves up, to be more, to accomplish more. Assad uses words to stimulate nationalism, to cause Syrians to accept that the source of their country’s problems is the aggressive, greedy, external world, the West as opposed to any cause that comes from within, such as himself. An appropriate understanding among all Syrians about of what is happening in Syria will never be obtained as long as they are fed contradictory or insufficient facts. Even if the “have nots” in proximity of elites demanded some changes, an almost inexhaustible number of agencies among the security services would subdue them, punish those who do not revere the masters of their society. When the war is over, Syrians who can, would like to love the simpler lives they had once before. Syrians want to return to Assad’s version of peace and tranquility: the peace of submission to the regime; the tranquility of working in a secure position within the narrow confines of the regime’s dictates. Assad’s vision for future of Syria is most likely based on self-interest, his own well-being. The hope that anchors him is that he will remain in power, and the problems that have seized him since the civil war in Syria began in 2011 would eventually go away. Est enim unum ius quo deuincta est hominum societas et quod lex constituit una, quae lex est recta ratio imperandi atque prohibendi. Quam qui ignorat, is est iniusta s, siue est illa scripta uspiam siue nusquam. (For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is right reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions. Whoever neglects this law, whether written or unwritten, is necessarily unjust and wicked.)

Perhaps it would not be judged as a fair comparison, but compared with countries in the West, Syria could hardly be viewed as a normal, functioning, sovereign country. A sovereign country that cannot defend its borders is not authentically sovereign. Moreover, Syria could be labelled derelict given the condition of most of its towns and cities. To Putin, who, unlike Assad, is thinking realistically about the future of Syria, it is very apparent that reconstruction in Syria will be another huge hurdle to overcome. The bellwether of Syria’s future condition can be observed in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Donetsk People’s Republic, and the Luhansk People’s Republic. Lacking any significant resources from the US and the rest of the international community to rebuild, that would be the only viable long-term condition that Syria could reach with Moscow’s assistance alone. Syria would simply become a larger version of those political, economic, and social disasters. Few other countries or international organizations appear willing to dive in to help Syria with signigicant financial assistance or investment. Few countries are in a rush to reopen or fully staff their embassies in Syria. They most lilely believe there would no benefit, but only difficulties in working with Assad. As a result, the Syrian people are shut off from those in the rest of the world who might be able to truly help them.

Optimists would hold out some hope that the situation would improve. However, no international conference, no guarantees from Russia to keep him in check, no surgical procedure even, could make Assad palatable to the West at this point, or to any government in the Middle East other than Iran. Manipulations that might ordinarily knock things back on track with Assad would likely have been exhausted or be seen as useless. It may be safe to say the Assad will never develop, never change. Luckily for Moscow, Assad is actually at its disposition. Given the strong influence Russia has on the Assad regime’s main elements of his power, the Syrian Arab Armed Forces and the security services, at the very least, the effort might be made to remder Assad’s presidency symbolic. In a more virile approach, Russia, perhaps in sync with Syria’s foreign benefactors, might seek to replace Assad with a leader who would be more acceptable among the Syrians, more palatable for themselves. As far as Assad’s well-being was concerned, the basing arrangements for Russian naval, air, and ground forces, and the relationship developed with Putin would no longer have meaning.

Assad would likely disagree with any assessment that would describe him as a follower, or that his existence is contingent upon Russian power. He would likely describe himself as partner with Putin and other leaders and that Syria is working jointly with its allies. It is imaginable that Assad believes he is delegating part of the job of using military power to defeat Syria’s enemies to Russia and others. For Assad, all arrows point his way, as he nearly always thinks and acts in self-interest.

Keep the Status Quo or Assert Himself?: Scenario re Assad

So far, Assad has been able to have his cake and eat it, too! He has defiantly launched chemical weapons against his own people, while savoring the general protection and support of Russia and others. How long this situation will last is uncertain. Surely, the Russians will have a say in that. There are still a lot of hand shakes and pats on the back from Putin meant to encourage. Yet, a handshake or pat on the back cannot supplant rejection. It cannot correct a problem or resolve a serious disagreement.

If Assad were to sense an undercurrent of dissention toward him inside Syria, he would undoubtedly physically thin out the ranks of those he would deem potential plotters and replace them immediately with a more loyal sort. He would do so taking care not disturb the defined ecosystem of power elites, sending the message that he demands loyalty but avoid starting another uprising particularly among those who have supported him.

Such events would certainly catch the attention of the Russians. Assad might conclude that Moscow may see some benefit in aiding an group of Syrian elites willing to remove him. An “organic rebellion” that could remove Assad would be more agreeable to Putin and elites in Russia who might have already concluded that his removal will lead to more beneficial outcome of Russia’s investment there. He may fear that removing him under such conditions might be more understandable to tyrants in rogue regimes worldwide who may also rely upon Russia to back them with military force, some level of economic wherewithal or payments. However, Assad would not willingly step aside for a successor albeit selected by friendly, outside power, even if he had some say in who would replace him. He surely would not sit idly by as the plot developed to put his reign to an end.

Looking at the US, United Kingdom, and French military strikes in the aggregate, it somewhat understandable that some analysts doubt that Assad and his advisers in Damascus would be so spun up by them. The US-led coalition has conducted airstrikes in Syria against ISIS and targets threatening coalition ground forces for many months. The Israeli Air Force has conducted regular strikes in Syria so precise and effective and with impunity, that one could say with some humor that the Israelis were using parts of Syria as a bombing range. The issue is that the military strikes of April 13th were the second time the US has deliberately attacked Syrian targets and the second time Russia did not act. That is the rub. Prior to the Western military strikes, Russia urged the US to avoid taking military action in response to an alleged chemical attack in Syria. On April 10, 2018, the Russian Federation Permanent Representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzia stated: “I would once again beseech you to refrain from the plans that you’re currently developing.” He warned Washington that it will “bear responsibility” for any “illegal military adventure.” A threat from Moscow to down US missiles came from the Russian Federation’s Ambassador to Lebanon, Alexander Zasypkin, who said his comments were based on previous statements by Putin and the Chief of Staff of the Russian Federation Armed Forces General Valery Gerasimov. The Russian Federation Armed Forces stated on March 13, 2018, that it would respond to any US strike on Syria by targeting any missiles and launchers involved. However, Russian air defense systems did not attempt to intercept the incoming weaponry, and the Syrian system launched around 40 surface to air missiles after the last targeted weapon hit its target, according to the Pentagon. The Pentagon noted that the S-400 systems were not turned off, simply not activated, leaving open the option their radar systems were used to tracking incoming threats but the weapons systems were not fired. The fact that those systems were active but not used may serve as evidence that the deconfliction line between the US and Russia, which was used to urge Russia not to escalate the situation, had been effective.

Within his own close circle in Damascus, it may very well be that Assad’s grievances are well-expressed. There may be lung busting exertions of his sense of being betrayed once again by Putin, driven by a nagging sense at this juncture that his relationship with him does not have much future. Assad may wish to take matters into his own hands. Seeing Assad interact with Russian emissaries in Damascus, he left little evidence of being riled emotionally by actions by his benefactors. The Interfax News Agency quoted Natalya Komarova, governor of Russia’s autonomous Khanty-Mansiysk district, made it a point to state: “President Assad was in absolutely positive spirits. He is in a good mood.,” To date, Assad has not publicly proffered any fevered dreams of conspiracy about the military strikes. His own officials and advisers are likely impressed by a type of controlled schizophrenia he displays. Nevertheless, the April 13th military strikes, and events surrounding them, may have set the stage for counteractions by Assad. It may very well be that Assad will launch additional chemical attacks to demonstrate that his regime does not feel threatened by US power, prove to himself that he is not being led by the nose by Putin, and ironically to pull Russia deeper into the situation as it has sought to full back by failing to act April 13th. To foreign policy and military analyst, it may all seem irrational, and that would be a reasonable response. Still, everyone does not think the same. Assad, the trained surgeon, has done so much that would be deemed improbable, it would seem counterintuitive to assume he will act in accord within any norms in the future. Scenarios for other ways in which Assad might seek retribution might include the following:

1) Assad might decide to establish some simulacrum of the US Lend-Lease arrangements of World War with China. Under it, China could possibly build its own military base or port. Assad could receive guarantees of significant assistance from China in Syria’s reconstruction efforts. China could also agree to provide Syria advanced command, control, communication and surveillance systems and agree to allow Syrian forces create garrisons and store Syrian military hardware on its new bases. Assad’s goal in that hypothetical situation would not be to allow a build-up in Syria by China that would establish it as a counterbalance to Russian military power. Assad’s goal in allowing a enough of a build-up that would lead Putin to better the value and importance of his ties to Syria. A decision by Assad to reach out to China might be viewed as injudicious given the possible consequences. Chinese ambitions in Syria might be difficult for Damascus to tame. The opportunity to build bases so close to Europe would present an I exhaustive list of possibilities for Chinese military planners. Putin may overreact to the decision and strongly suggest that Assad to rescind the invitation to China creating a genuine, visible rift between the two countries. Under circumstance, for Assad it would simply be a existential choice to create some counterbalance to Russia power in his country or at least convince Putin that he was willing to do so in order to better position himself with the Russian leader.

2) Assad may attempt to strike US or other Western troops with chemical weapons. Assad may seek to do this even if a suicide mission is required. While he and his advisers may view the operation as risky. Yet, they may also wrongfully believe that as long as the US-led coalition’s response does not result in a direct attack against him,  they may view it as a calculated risk. If Russia decides not to respond in defense of it ally, Syria, Assad might be able to convince himself that he has proved at least to the Syrian people in Useful Syria that he is strong and that he can do powerful things. The US has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria, supporting the ongoing US-led Coalition mission to defeat ISIS militants that remain in the region. The April 13th military strikes have created some concern at the Pentagon that those troops could be vulnerable to retaliation from Syrian forces. Efforts by Assad to put his forces in a position near US-led coalition ground forces must be scrutinized and keep in the coalition’s cross-hairs. If multiple streams of intelligence indicate those forces pose a danger, they should be pushed back or destroyed. There is always the possibility and the danger of miscalculation by Assad. As long as Assad thinks rationally, logically, this scenario could never materialize, as he would be deterred by the thought that an attack on US or another coalition ground forces would be met by an immediate, devastating military response. The targets of the US attacks would hardly be limited to the forces that launched them. Attempts at deconfliction for such attacks might be made, but they would take place regardless of whose forces might be nearby or mixed in with Syrian forces. Depending the response of Russia if its forces were caught in the middle of it all, Assad might manage to drag Moscow into what was likely the worst nightmare it thought of when it deployed its forces to Syria.

If Assad wants to maintain conditions that will allow the march of time to move forward in his favor, he should be reluctant to bother Putin about matters surrounding the April 13th chemical attacks. Doing so would very likely raise even greater concern in Putin. Assad’s circumspection itself may have already awakened Putin’s curiosity. Putin, after all, is super observant. It is a quality that stirs admiration from some and or elicits terror in others. If any one could detect a hint of anger or dissention in the eyes, in mannerisms, in bearing and deportment, in the words of another, it would be Putin. If he manages to discern a new uneasiness in Assad, that might trigger Putin to take steps against him or at least begin peering into the regime with a nearly zoological interest in its main players, searching for a plot against its main ally. Yet again, it may be that Assad is not worried at all about Putin’s reaction. Rather, Assad’s primary concern may be managing Putin’s behavior. Assad may believe that he has been successfully doing that. A mistake in that possible “management effort”, however, would be to attempt to convince Putin that he can count on him. It would be an even bigger mistake for Assad to try to get the pulse of Putin, to find out what he is thinking about him. No one should ever ask Putin if he loves them. The answer in nearly every case would be “No!”

If Assad wants to maintain conditions that will allow the march of time to move forward in his favor, he should be reluctant to bother Putin about matters surrounding the April 13th chemical attacks. Doing so would very likely raise even greater concern in Putin. Assad’s circumspection itself may have already garnered Putin’s curiosity. Putin, after all, is super observant. If he manages to discern a new uneasiness in Assad, intimate trouble, it might cause him to take steps against him.

Is It Time to Wrap Things Up with Assad?: Scenario re Putin

Fata volentem, ducunt, nolentem trahunt. (Destiny carries the willing man, and drags the unwilling.) Moscow entered into all of its deals with Assad, strengthened links to him, with its eyes open. Putin would unlikely have engaged with Assad in a search for areas of common ground on handling chemical weapons. Putin is not conciliatory. He very likely set rules for Assad on the matter. However, leaving the door open for Assad somehow to use the weapons has come back to haunt him. Given what has transpired, Putin surely can reasonably be viewed as being complicit in Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Yet, while Putin may find Assad’s attitude toward those in the West, in the Middle East, and in his own country who oppose him to be understandable, he may also view his approach as reckless.

Syria is broken, and with someone such as Assad at its helm, hardly any outside of the country, capable of supporting its reconstruction, would be willing to do so. In Moscow, there must be some authenticity in its examination of Assad and what it will be able to do with him in the future. Putin most likely sees that there is nothing about Assad that would indicate he can be transformative, creative, or productive. After the April 2017 cruise missile strikes by the Trump administration, a discourse should have been initiated in Moscow on how to better handle the remnants of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and how to defeat their use against Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria. If Putin can truly discern what billows in Assad’s mind, he may have already made the decision to move against him. Finding a leader or group of very senior leaders among elements of power in Syria may not be too difficult. Most in Damascus who are in the best position to know what is happening in Syria understand they live in privileged times. They may not speak of, or whisper, about being called on to be part of a change in leadership. Still, they may be considering where they will stand and how they will act if the situation arose.

To this point, nothing has been stated to indicate that there was anything time sensitive about Putin’s relationship with Assad. Syria’s standing internationally has not been good to say the least. Assad has not used any time or exploited any opportunities to make improvements in his situation. It is unknown whether Assad is ignorant, willfully ignores, or perhaps even suppresses thoughts about reconstruction, something Russia, by jumping into Syria may have committed itself to as a duty. Assad does not appear emotionally devastated by what has befallen his country. This was observed in his very congenial newsmedia appearances the day after the April 13, 2018 military strikes.

Assad is not a shy man, and is unlikely frozen in fear contemplating what Putin might respond the fact that he has rocked the boat so thoroughly. Even if only unconsciously, though, he likely has felt an elevated level of concern over his future since April 7, 2018 chemical attacks. Putting himself in Assad’s shoes, perhaps Putin could imagine that Assad is feeling a bit betrayed by his unwillingness to deter or defeat the Western military strikes in Syria, no matter how unreasonable that would have been. Putin can be sure Assad knows him well enough to realize that expressing his disappointment through impotent snarling will accomplished nothing useful or good. Yet, he also may sense that in the long run that Assad may not be truly able to move on. Putin might consider that when one is angry for a long time, one in a way becomes comfortable with that anger. Soon that anger becomes so familiar that the individual forgets feeling any other way. Assad is a calculator, although he albeit uses an odd calculus. Sed tamen ira procul absit, cum qua nihil recte fiery nec, considerate potest. (But still anger ought be far from us, for nothing is able to be done rightly not judiciously with anger.)

Putting himself in Assad’s shoes, perhaps Putin could imagine that Assad is feeling a bit betrayed by his unwillingness to deter or defeat the Western military strikes in Syria, no matter how unreasonable that would have been. Putin can be sure Assad knows him well enough to realize that expressing his disappointment through impotent snarling would have accomplished nothing useful or good.

Putin may eventually need to make a decision if Assad cannot restrain himself from using chemical weapons again. As mentioned earlier, It is possible that Putin has already has plan for responding to Assad’s future actions. Big issues likely remaining are exactly when and how to set things up. It is also possible that given the gravity of the decision to remove Assad from power, he has not made a final decision. He may prefer to mull things over until he is left with no choice. To decide exactly how to proceed, Putin would unlikely need to refer to any notes or look among huge piles of information collected from Syria to find pieces that answered his questions. He would only need his knowledge, experience, insights, intuition, and instincts. Putin would review what Russia really wants with Syria, what its goals are. He would then need to thoroughly consider how exactly removing Assad will better able Russia to reach those goals. Putin may decide to give Assad the benefit of doubt. He knows the margin between being very clever and being very stupid is very thin. If in some odd way, alien to most reasonable thinkers, the goal of Assad’s behavior only been to strengthen his position with Putin and ensure Russia’s investment and commitment to his well-being and the well-being of the country.

However, if Assad seems to be on the road to doing something spectacular, going astray and lashing out against its long time ally, Putin would invariably choose to act first and decisively. Assad would not have any lobby available to advocate for him in the Kremlin. Money is short in Russia. Decision makers would hardly sign on to allowing Syria to languish without end in a difficult and dangerous situation given the moves of its leadership. While Assad created an image of himself as a strong leader in Damascus, in Moscow, a portrait has most likely been painted that depicts him a being bad for the long-term interests of Russia and Syria. Russia never had the intention of sacrificing its own image to make Assad look good. As mentioned earlier, Assad has no problem with acting in a way that makes Russia look bad. Among likely steps Putin would consider are the following three:

1) After some convincing, have Assad voluntary depart Syria to begin exile somewhere in Russia. The Syrian people would be informed via a video recording that Assad is completely fine and well-aware for, and it was necessary to move him to Russia due to an imminent threat from Western powers to capture him and usher him to the Hague for War Crimes trial. Once, in Russia, it could be said Assad would never be surrendered to anyone and, that he would indeed be returned to Syria once Russia resolves the matter. In the meantime, the Syrian people would have an interim, acting president. In fact, Assad would never return to Syria. If Putin were to ask Assad to leave Damascus, he would have no need to ask twice. Damascus would become a far more dangerous place for him if he does not go.

2) Through a coup de main, Putin could have Assad suddenly captured and relocated to an undisclosed site in Russia. This would be done after making appropriate arrangements furtively with Syrian military officers, security service officials, and other elites in Damascus. Again, he could be brought to an undisclosed location in Russia. After some He would be strongly encouraged to made a video recording for broadcast in Syria indicating that he is safe, doing well, and was brought to Syria’s main ally, Russia, temporarily for his own safety. The specific threat Assad would not need to be disclosed. For security reasons, the source of the information would not revealed. Forcing Assad to leave would be an alternative to having him eliminated.

3) There is the possibility that after appropriate arrangements have been made again with Syrian military officers, security service officials, and other elites, Assad might be assassinated. Russia would be the arbiter of the matter with likely nods from Iran and Turkey,

With Assad removed, Putin would move quickly to install his successor. It would be necessary for Russia to have a central figure, a strongman, one in charge in Syria to assure it has a central conduit through which it could impose its will. Assad’s successor, certainly an Alawite, would be enabled to hold a degree of power similar to that Assad held as long as Russia remains in strength in Syria, and is willing to mitigate pressure placed on the regime from Islamic extremist groups as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, and the battered and tattered Syria Opposition forces as well. The change, no matter how necessary or expected, would be traumatizing to many in Damascus and in every capital that has supported him. It would be the end of a sad story concerning the misuse of power, the poor stewardship of a country. Moscow would likely dub the successor’s acting presidency as a caretaker government. Only with the insistence of the US and other P5 Members, would new elections be held.to replace him.  The acting Leader’s presidency would be tainted by the irregular nature of his installment. At the UN Security Council, there would be reminders of Resolution 2254 (2015) concerning free and fair elections in Syria. Moscow would dance around it claiming there that new constitution had not been drafted as also required under the resolution. Moreover, Moscow would explain that conditions were not right for elections as the war was not over. Meanwhile, it would argue Syria was on the right path and seek aid for its reconstruction.

A more tense relationship may eventually ensue if possible future military strikes from a US-led coalition, or even Israel, are met with inaction by Russia. If Assad is able to detect real trouble from his benefactor, he might draw back, and walk back any statements. However, if he fears for his life, anything is possible.

Will He Bite the Hand That Saved Him?: Scenario re Assad

Although Putin has not heard grumblings from Mount Mezzah, he surely recognizes that his relationship with Assad has not been not perfect since the April 13th missile strikes. Putin cannot be sure that Assad accepts that he is concerned with him or Syria or that he has any real compassion for what has befallen his regime. Putin knows that he too would feel somewhat betrayed by any ally who promised to stand by him against an adversary, yet did nothing during an attack. Putin may sense that Assad, after constantly hearing rhetoric from Moscow about curbing the power and defeating its adversary, the US, has not seen any significant efforts in that direction even when opportunities present themselves, such as the April 13th military strikes. Putin cannot deny that he completely and correctly, abandoned his ally in the face of US diplomatic pressure and military power. Under such circumstances, Putin’s promise after the April 13th missile strikes to provide Assad with new, high performance weapons amounted to a bromide. It could not resolve problems facing the Russia-Syria relationship.

It seems unlikely that Assad will remain quiet if there were future Western military strikes in response to his further use of chemical weapons or other dark moves, and as on April 13th, Russia fails to act. Conspiracy theories are an element as ubiquitous as rumors in statements of officials and common conversation among citizens within rogue, authoritarian regimes. It is a corrupted version of thinking out of box preferred mostly because it typically points to behavior of external elements, enemies and false friends, as causality for a regimes disappointments and failures. Assad and his advisers may be discussing whether Russia even considered defending Syria from the military strikes of the US, the United Kingdom, and France. Some might postulate in confidential meetings that Russia may have been hoping the US would destroy Syria’s remaining chemical weapons inventory. Assad and his advisers know that Moscow was in contact with Washington in the days and hours before the military strike. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff USMC General James Dunford explained that normal deconfliction channels were used to deconflict the airspace that we were using. Dunford further explained that the US did not coordinate targets or any plans with the Russians. Yet, in Moscow, the head of a Russian parliamentary defense committee, Vladimir Shamanov, said Russia was in direct contact with the US Joint Chiefs of Staff about the situation. Hearing this view from Russia would likely satisfy Damascus as it would support surmisals there that Russia assisted the US in identifying targets as the Russians certainly did not use any countermeasures interfere with US efforts to target sites. In an inner monologue, Assad may ponder whether the failure of Russia to act may mean that there was some truth to expressions made by Moscow and Washington in 2017 that there was a new, cooperative era in US-Russia relations. That would contradict what Russia insists in private, and what is strongly hinted public statements, that the US is its adversary. Assad could conclude that in the crafting of the April 13th military strikes, Russia had a figurative vote!

A more tense relationship may eventually ensue if possible future military strikes are met with more inaction by Russia. It is in that environment that Putin would very likely consider moving against Assad. He would most likely act without warning. If Assad is able to detect trouble, he would draw back, and walk back any statements. However, if he fears for his life, he will likely act. Indeed, there could be a final demonstration of his power. He will make a stand or lash out with vigor before he goes. His concealed stockpiles of chemical weapons might even allow him to strike any erstwhile allies with some effect.

Surely, Assad comprehends that Russia commands great power. However, Assad may also feel that there are limits to Putin’s ability to respond to his aggressive moves. Putin would be remiss not to explore whether that is Assad’s thinking. Assad may believe even now that as long as he has chemical weapons and has demonstrated a willingness to use them, he can deter the few allies he has from turning against him. People with the most absolute power in history have tried to hold on by their fingernails knowing when they let go, all will be gone. They have often self-destructed. Misused power is always built upon lies. Tyrannical figures redefine what exists into projections of their egos. There are no noble thoughts. They become wrapped up in themselves. Assad seems to find pleasure in what is evil. As time goes on, the more tragic he becomes as a figure.

Surely, Assad comprehends that Russia commands great power. However, Assad may also feel that there are limits to Putin’s ability to respond to his aggressive moves. Assad may believe that as long as he has and has demonstrated a willingness to use chemical weapons, he can deter the allies he has from turning against him. He could also use them in a final self-destructive act. Putin would be remiss not to consider that possibility.

The Way Forward

In Act I, scene iv, of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Generals Macbeth and Banquo have already defeated two separate invading armies, from Ireland and Norway. Following that, they encounter three witches as they cross a moor. The witches prophecy that Macbeth will be made thane of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland, and Banquo, will beget a line of Scottish kings. Once the witches vanish, Macbeth and Banquo speak skeptically of their prophecies. However, some of King Duncan’s men arrive to thank the generals for their victories and tell Macbeth, just as the witches prophesized, that he has been named thane of Cawdor. The previous thane was executed for betraying Scotland by fighting for the Norwegians. Arriving at King Duncan’s castle, Macbeth and Banquo profess their loyalty and gratitude toward him. King Duncan announces Malcolm will be named heir to his throne. Macbeth declares his joy but notes to himself that Malcolm, the Prince of Cumberland, stood between him and the crown the witches also said he would have. Standing aside, Macbeth says to himself: “The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap, For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires; Let not light see my black and deep desires: The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be, Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.” Regarding the military strikes from the US, United Kingdom, and France, the most effective way for Assad to deal with the matter and maintain the status quo is accept that what happened, has happened, and no matter how upsetting it might be, it cannot be changed. Retribution is not a reasonable or rational option. Creating difficulties in Syria’s relationship with Russia by advancing the idea will only lead to additional problems  does not need. Negative feedback from the Assad regime’s experience when it fought alone in Syria without Russia assistance may have helped convinced Assad not to make waves. Still, as the situation on the ground has changed somewhat with the US-led coalition’s efforts against ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and other Islamic militant groups, he may feel that regime forces are in a better position to do more by themselves. Syrian elites and some average citizens may be welcoming, supportive of the Russian partnership and presence at the moment. However, after observing the effects of few months of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns, they may eventually recognize that Moscow cannot support “Useful Syria” in a way that would allow for its rebuilding. The situation would only worsen if pressure was placed on Russia over Syria through future sanctions.

If Assad continues launching chemical attacks, Russia will need to keep justifying his actions and its failure to control him. It may very well be that Putin has developed a negative outlook on Assad, particularly concerning his reliability and trustworthiness. Given Assad’s nature, perhaps Putin has foreseen that the time will come to wrap things up with him. Assad’s wrongs have been too big to successfully cover up using the usual public relations methods. His inadequacies have become stark. Russia is not dealing with a brush fires in Syria, but a serial arsonist in Assad. Syria exists in a condition that the Syrian people would not have too much difficulty moving forward and getting past Assad’s loss. They have been doing that for seven years now. They have faced one tragedy after another. Many Syrians may have been concerned about Assad’s safety after the April 13th military strikes. They only knew he was safe when they saw him on national television the next morning. If the Syrian people were to learn that Assad was gone, those outside of the regime’s good graces in Syria, those displaced, and those who live as refugees worldwide would likely roar and dance in celebration. Those in Useful Syria would be very likely be disappointed, distraught, and likely some in the North Mezzah and Ar Rabwah neighborhoods where he has resided, would be devastated. Still, the old, Assad, would be replaced by the new. With little choice otherwise, all Syrians would move on to the next phase. Omnia autem quae secundum naturam fiunt sunt habenda in bonis. (Whatever befalls in accordance with Nature [God’s will] should be accounted good.)

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

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

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

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

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

Background on the Ukrainian Conflict

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

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

The Minsk Agreement

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

Russia Has a Unique Perspective on Ukraine

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

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

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

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

The Trump Administration Enters

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

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

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

Russia’s Off-kilter Approach Toward Its Neighbors

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

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

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

Where is Russia Really Going with Ukraine?

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

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

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

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

Ultra posse nemo obligatur. (No one is obliged beyond what he is able to do.) Putin very likely has considered what Russia would be like after he, as one might presume he accepts, is called to heaven. It would seem that now while on Earth, he is doing much to saddle future generations of Russians with two economically impoverished basket cases that they will need to care for, to pay for. Future generations may not appreciate that. In Donetsk and Luhansk, future generations might abandon their homelands for “the other Ukraine” or points further West. They might pour into Russia, for employment, a “better life.” In the future, a Russian leader might very well try to reverse what Putin is attempting in Ukraine due to financial strains caused. Taking on Donetsk and Luhansk might very well be a great miscalculation, another step toward sealing Russia’s fate as a second tier superpower.

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

Has Putin Overplayed His Hand on Ukraine?

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

Vast Exercise Demonstrated Russia’s Growing Military Prowess: Unfit for Counter-Trump Narrative, Critics Dismiss Story

A column of the 1st Tank Guards Army at the Borisovsky range during Zapad 2017 (above). During Zapad 2017, a military exercise, Russian Federation forces in Belarus and in Russia near the Baltic region were joined by forces in the Arctic and Far East, the Black Sea, close to Ukraine’s borders and in the Abkhazia region of Georgia, to rehearse defensive tactics against a “terrorist force.” Critics of US President Donald Trump, who have tied anything Russia related to an alleged nefarious link between him and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, hardly reacted to Zapad 2017. Moral relativism seems to be at play in their thinking.

According to an October 1, 2017 New York Times article entitled “Vast Exercise Demonstrated Russia’s Growing Military Prowess”, details were provided on a major military exercise named Zapad 2017, held jointly by the Russian Federation and Belarusian armed forces from September 14 to September 20, 2017. Reportedly, Russian and Belarusian troops in Belarus and Russian troops near Russia’s Baltic region were joined in the exercise by Russian troops in the Arctic and Far East, the Black Sea, close to Ukraine’s borders and in the Abkhazia region of Georgia. Western military officials discerned from the exercise that Russia had made significant strides in their ability to conduct the sort of complex, large-scale operations, using drones and other new technology, that would be part of any all-out war with the US in Europe. The October 1st New York Times article explained that the military exercise, planned for many months, was part of a larger effort by Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin to showcase Russia’s military prowess as it tries to reassert itself as a world power. Before Zapad started, US and Baltic military officers expressed fears that the maneuvers could be used as a pretext to increase Russia’s military presence in Belarus, a central European nation that borders three critical NATO allies: Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. The commander of US Army in Europe, US Army Lieutenant General Frederick Hodges was quoted in the article as saying: “Zapad forced us to get smarter about how to share intelligence.”

The October 1, 2017 New York Times article, albeit was one of the few in the mainstream media that recognized that the massive exercise even took place. Synoptic reports about Zapad appeared in the US newsmedia, particularly in print. Many newsmedia houses simply reprinted stories via Reuters and the Associated Press. There was very little mention of Trump in stories. At first blush, one might argue that newsmedia coverage, stories and commentary, should focus upon what sells papers, magazines, and advertising space, what stories can grab interest and gain traction. Stories that support a popular counter-Trump narrative that Trump lacks the competence to be president and with the advent of his administration, tyranny’s bloody banner has been raised, have been selling for a long season. One could hypothesize that most US newsmedia houses believed Zapad 2017 was not a story that would sell, and was not an event of great consequence in the big picture even given the enormity of the seven-day Russian exercise. What makes the tepid coverage or lack of coverage of the exercise especially intriguing is its variance from the the now normal massive US newsmedia coverage of Trump’s alleged ties to Putin and Russia, to include secret back channels to Moscow, to questionable contacts, and worst of all, to secret deals and promises to perform favors for foreign leaders if Trump reached the presidency. The purported rationale for that alleged activity was to lay the foundation for lucrative business deals for Trump’s business concern in Russia as well as to acquire Russia’s help to win the 2016 US Presidential Election. Beyond such efforts to manipulate the 2016 US Presidential Election results, Russia’s armed forces have in recent years captured Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine, deployed troops to Syria, rattled the Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia with snap exercises, and buzzed NATO planes and ships. The question, ‘What about Russia?”, has been written and spoken countless times when critics have sought to find fault with Trump. The modus operandi has been to look for wrongdoing, some fault, to hover at his elbow once he awakes every morning. On Zapad 2017, critics resembled a referee missing a foul in a championship match. Moreover, Trump, with the goal of stirring things up and ending the status quo, has been tough on NATO Members and creating some grievances among them, one might expect critics would turn the issue, despite Trump’s ostensibly noble intentions, into something akin to  a pocket full of firecrackers.

What appears to have influenced the manner in which critics covered Zapad 2017 was their recognition of the exercise as an incongruency, failing to fit their typical narrative on Trump. Indeed, critics mostly chalked up Zapad 2017 as being outré; outside their vision of the alleged, nefarious lien d’affaire between Trump and Putin. In fact, Zapad 2017 contradicts it. Rather than just label it all brustschmerzangst, strange and just wrong, one could assess from the tame response of critics to Zapad 2017 evinces that a sort of moral relativism is at play in their thinking. That moral relativism has allowed critics to cherry pick matters that solely support what they perceive as “Trump the Bad”, whose thinking and actions are well outside the country’s sensus communis, the society’s basic beliefs and values. In that vein, they have focused so intensely on surmised ties between the Trump administration and Russia. They have argued the existence of those ties with such certitude that they, perhaps unconsciously, ignore the reality that Russia has not fully relaxed its posture militarily toward the US, or the West since Trump was elected. Looking at Zapad 2017 a bit closer reveals alleged illegal foreign contacts and secret deals, real or not, did nothing to temper Moscow’s behavior toward the US. Looking at Zapad 2017 closer one might also be better able to discern that given Moscow’s attitude and behavior toward the administration of US President Barack Obama and the generally acknowledged steps Moscow took to impact the 2016 US Presidential Campaign, only now, with Trump, is there a real possibility to create positive change in the US-Russia relationship as well as ignite an authentic bolstering of European security. Ab actu, ad posse valet illatio. (From what has happened we may infer what will happen.)

Looking at Zapad 2017 closer reveals alleged foreign contacts and secret deals, real or not, did nothing to temper Russia’s behavior toward the US. Rather, looking at Zapad 2017 and matters surrounding it closer, one can discern that given Moscow’s resulting attitude and behavior toward the administration of US President Barack Obama after interaction with it and bold steps apparently taken by Moscow to impact the 2016 US Presidential Campaign, only now, with Trump, is there a real possibility to create positive change in US-Russia relations as well as bolster European security.

The term “moral relativism” is understood in a variety of ways. Most often it is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but rather, relative to the moral standard of a person or group of persons. Sometimes ‘moral relativism’ is connected with how one should think about or act towards those with whom one morally disagrees. The most common position is that one should tolerate them. The view that there are some objective moral truths is one of a variety of philosophical arguments against moral relativism. Other arguments against relativism includes the idea that arguments offered in favor of relativism are simply flawed, shortsighted. Various ways of understanding moral relativism exist. Under metaethical moral relativism it is understood that objective grounds for preferring the moral values of one culture over another in reality do not exist. Individuals tend to believe that the “right” moral values are the values that exist in their own culture. Indeed, moral choices made by societies are shaped by their unique beliefs, customs, and practices. Under descriptive moral relativism, often referred to as cultural relativism, it is recognized that moral standards are culturally defined. Certainly, there may be a few values that seem nearly universal, such as honesty and respect. However, evaluations of moral standards around the world indicate many differences appear across cultures. Normative moral relativism is the idea that all societies should accept each other’s differing moral values. However, if one society accepts political corruption, another society does not need to accept it. In fact, the other society could rightfully condemn that corruption.

Since US news media houses have taken such a firm stand against Trump, one is more likely to observe even experienced and formerly reliable journalists posit and argue things that simply cannot be. Self-serving explanations, opinions are relied upon. It is all actually outside of standard practice and norms within the US society. In the US, under the law, one is supposedly presumed innocent until proven guilty. While that concept may hold true in the legal system, in the so-called court of public opinion, individuals are often presented as being bad or guilty in a deliberately entertaining way through surmisal, guesswork, with supporting evidence of rumors, innuendo, equivocation, and occasionally outright lies. Hours of airtime and volumes of commentary are spent by the US news media analyzing hypothetical situations, unreality. Critics who may have the US public’s ear must respect and honor, not abuse, the public trust. In the US, the news media serves as a watchdog over government power and political activity. It is a source from which the public can inform itself on the decisions and actions of elected leaders and appointed officials. The news media is at its best when it can provide the public with a look inside government bodies and operations. Its role in the society is sacrosanct. “Freedom of the press” is one the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the US Constitution listing specific prohibitions on government power. Taking the tack of reporting only parts of the story, promoting a particular viewpoint, hoping to shape in agreement with it, is never right. There are no special circumstances which would make it correct to do so. Moral relativism should not guide, impact journalists thinking and behavior. Journalists should report the truth as they encounter it, not as they want it to be. When stories such as Zapad 2017, they must still be energetically covered, especially when they cast doubt of their perspectives of Trump. There has been a dearth of such stories so far. The US public is not only reactive to opprobrium, invective, banal amusement, but is also open to eloquence.

Facts Concerning Zapad 2017 Trump’s Critics Ignored Likely Due to Moral Relativism

Zapad 2017 was an exercise that was designed to have a sound educational effect on the Obama administration and a prospective administration of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That in itself seems worthy of news media attention at the present. Moscow was very concerned that troubles with Washington would continue with the advent of an administration led by former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Indeed, as part of an assessment completed by the US Intelligence Community on the possible effort by Russia to influence the US Presidential Election of 2016, it was concluded that Putin took affirmative steps to avoid the nightmare scenario of Clinton victory by ordering an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s objectives were: to undermine public faith in the US democratic process; to denigrate former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; and, to harm her electability and potential presidency. The US Intelligence Community further assessed that Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for then President-elect Trump. In following, it also assessed Putin and the Russian Government aspired to aid President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. Praetenta mutare non possimus sed futura providere debemos. (We cannot change the past, but we can anticipate the future.)

Zapad fits neatly into the story of US-Russia relations for nearly a decade. The whole matter also looms large in the story of the Obama administration. The genesis of Zapad 2017 was the desire by Moscow to take steps in the midst of a descending spiral of uncongenial relations with the US against Russia’s interests. Indeed, there was nothing ambiguous then or now about Moscow’s approach to the US. Putin has never accepted the expansion of the EU and NATO into Central and Eastern Europe. It was practically guaranteed that Putin would push back against what he might call an intrusion by the West into Russia’s near abroad. The near abroad is what Moscow refers to as the territory surrounding Russia’s borders. The term was reportedly popularized by former Russian Federation Foreign Minister Andrey Kozyrev in the early 1990s. For centuries, Russia has sought to ensure its physical security through its control over neighboring territory. For Putin, the term represents a concept akin to the Monroe Doctrine. Upon returning to the presidency of the Russian Federation in 2011, Putin began the process of increasing Russian military manpower by 25 percent to 850,000 between 2011 and mid-2014. Russia supposedly has about 2.5 million active reservists out of a total population of 143 million. It ranks second, behind the US, on the list of countries with conventional warfighting capabilities. Expenditures on defense, and the related category of national security and law enforcement, accounts for 34 percent of Russia’s budget which is more than twice in comparison with 2010. The US only spent 18 percent, or $615 billion of its budget in 2014 on defense and international security. Explaining his concept for achieving this growth, Putin told senior military commanders and defense industry executives at a meeting in Sochi on May 12, 2015, “We can and must do for the defense industry what we did for Sochi.” Putin was referring to the $50 billion spent in to host the 2014 Winter Olympics there. He went on to state, “All questions relating to adequate resource allocation have been resolved.” Putin would seek to exert pressure against the West where and when he felt it would pay dividends.

The Obama administration approached Russia with the idea that the relationship between the two countries could be “reset.” The reset with Russia was one of the administration’s major foreign policy initiatives. Relations with Russian Federation President Dimitry Medvedev were positive. For three years, a relatively smooth and business-like tenor existed in relations with Russia. That contrasted with the contentious relations that followed the Georgian War in 2008 while Putin served as president. It boded well for Obama’s legacy over which White House officials publicly admitted being absorbed. With its Russia policy on track, the administration was comfortable enough to turn toward an even greater priority at the end of 2011 which was referred to as the “pivot to Asia.” Then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained it all in an edifying discourse in the October 11, 2011 edition of Foreign Policy magazine. The very substance of the ambitions is merely the shadow of a dream. Putin undoubtedly took great interest in these Europe’s force reductions and the Obama administration’s decision to also make steep reductions in US conventional forces. Those cuts left the US less able to project power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies. As noted in the greatcharlie.com post entitled “As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way; In Putin’s View, Obama’s Doing Just Fine”, in 2013, the US withdrew its last two heavy armored brigades from Germany. Tank units anchored the US military presence on the ground in Europe for 70 years. US military leaders have considered withdrawing the last squadron of F-15C air superiority fighters from England. When Putin received the Obama administration’s proposals in 2013 calling for steep reductions in nuclear forces, he may have discerned that for the Obama administration, the US nuclear arsenal was merely a political bargaining chip, but not a military tool. Putin rejected the administration’s proposals.

Putin (left) and Obama (right). 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. The actions and reactions of the Obama administration to Russia did much to further pollute and obscure what was already a difficult path to travel regarding US-Russia relations. Hell called Hell. One misstep led to another.

Cuiusvis est errare nullius nisi insipientes, in error perseverare. (To err is inherent in every man, but to persist in error takes a fool.) Having taken on Putin on the nuclear issue, Obama kept pushing into more troubling waters. His administration moved along the path humiliate him. It was hard for Obama administration staff, perhaps due to their youthful exuberance, to recognize that words cannot return. The administration predominantly staffed with eager, youthful officials who very often displayed an arrogance that seemingly drove them to convince the world they were the center of the cosmos. One should not allow one’s ego to run away from one. One certainly should not make choices with a confused ego. The Obama administration never put together the right recipe for working well with Putin. The actions and reactions of the Obama administration to Russia did much to further pollute and obscure what was already a difficult path to travel regarding US-Russia relations. Hell called Hell. One misstep led to another. It all seemed a bit barky. 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. On the world stage, Putin will never allow Russia to be perceived as wilting before what he views as Washington’s effort to establish total dominance. He would resist and counter pressures. One matter to which Putin gave primacy to getting the US and EU to take into account Russia’s interests on Ukraine and other issues.

In Ukraine, Putin insisted that he was only acting in response to Western behavior toward Russia. Speaking at a conference in Moscow on April 16, 2015, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu explained: “The United States and its allies have crossed all possible lines in their drive to bring Kiev into their orbit. That could not have failed to trigger our reaction.” The Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, General Valery Gerasimov stated at the same conference, “Considering themselves the winners of the Cold War, the United States decided to reshape the world to fit its needs.” He further explained, “It’s clear that measures taken by NATO to strengthen the bloc and increase its military capabilities are far from being defensive.” Nonetheless, nothing Russian officials might say would dissuade most in the US and EU from believing Putin is driving events forward. After alienating Putin by preventing him from further participation in the G-8, and hitting many of his close associates, their business interests, and Russian industries with sanctions, the US and EU expected him to back off of Ukraine and Eastern European states. Yet, those who believed sanctions and other coercive means, and deploying small sets of US forces to the Baltic States and Poland would modify Putin’s behavior were in the cradle intellectually. Sanctions from the US and Europeans, which posed a serious economic threat to Russia despite any heroic claims otherwise by Putin, put relations between Russia and the West, built largely on economic cooperation, at considerable risk. It is unlikely the administration foresaw things would go so badly. It has been proven that humans cannot control events too long. This is not without application to the circumstances examined here. Historia magistra vitae et testris temporum. (History is the teacher, the witness of times.)

A Newsweek map of Russian Federation armed forces deployed against the West (above). By 2015, NATO Members acknowledged that Russia posed a genuine threat to the well-being of their countries. The RAND Corporation prepared a study for the US Department of Defense on the outcome of Russian military move against the Baltic States. The study was based on war games played by US military officers and civilian officials over several months between 2014-2015. The game ended with a disastrous defeat for NATO in a matter of days.

NATO Responds?

NATO Members were flabbergasted by their gross miscalculations about Putin and Russia. By 2015, they were willing to acknowledge that Russia posed a genuine threat to the well-being of their countries. The RAND Corporation prepared a study for the US Department of Defense on a possible Russia move against the Baltic States. The study centered on several tabletop war games played by US military officers and civilian officials over several months between 2014 and 2015. The games incorporated tactics used Russia when it deployed forces into the Crimea. The games ended with a disastrous defeat for NATO in a matter of days. The study found that NATO forces deployed to the Baltics were small, and lacked the vehicles and firepower to take on the Russian juggernaut of heavy tanks and mechanized vehicles opposite them. The study indicated that NATO ground troops lacked anti-aircraft artillery to fend off Russian warplanes in a wartime scenario. More specifically, regarding the outcome reached under the study’s scenario, “By and large, NATO’s infantry found themselves unable even to retreat successfully and were destroyed in place.” Regarding US and allied air power, despite its ability to strike in depth against advancing Russian forces, destroying many in place and disrupting and delaying the attacks of others, US and allied air commanders would need to limit the number of aircraft dedicated to that mission and deploy them to negating the capabilities of Russia’s air defenses and provide air cover against Russian air attacks on rear areas. It was accepted that Russian forces would be able to smash through NATO defenses and drive on to Riga or Tallinn within 36 to 60 hours. The RAND study assessed that US and its allies would be left with three equally unpalatable options. NATO could launch a prolonged counter-offensive to take back the Baltic capitals; NATO could threaten Moscow with direct attack; or NATO could accept the outcome of the Russian lightning strikes and devise a long-term counter-strategy. RAND asserted that options one and two would lead to nuclear war; option three would result in a new Cold War that could eventually go hot. In discussing a possible way forward, it was RAND’s judgement that through “due diligence” and bolstering its defenses, NATO would send “a message to Moscow of serious commitment and one of reassurance to all NATO members and to all US allies and partners worldwide.”

Initially, Europe’s requests for support from the US to counter a perceived growing threat from Russia were met by mediocre responses by the Obama administration. The world witnessed the vicissitudes that hammered the Obama administration on foreign policy. The situation in the Middle East was particularly dire then. The Obama administration often failed to acknowledge how bad problems really were. It settled upon bromides, with a seductive kind of superficiality, to very challenging situations, which later prove to be shallow entrapments. At the NATO Defense Ministers Meetings on June 24, 2015, participants decided on air, maritime, and special forces components of an enhanced 40,000 strong NATO Response Force (NRF). Ministers took measures to speed up political and military decision-making, including authority for NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, Europe to prepare troops for action as soon as a political decision is made. Ministers approved a new concept of advance planning. They also finalized details on the six small headquarters being set up in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, “They will each consist of around 40 people, and will play a key role in planning, exercises, and assisting potential reinforcement.” Ministers additionally decided to establish a new Joint Logistics Headquarters, to facilitate the rapid movement of forces when necessary.  Directly on Russia, Stoltenberg stated, “We are carefully assessing the implications of what Russia is doing, including its nuclear activities.” He added that NATO is working on how to deal with hybrid threats, including through close cooperation with the European Union. To avoid misperceptions of NATO’s actions, Stoltenberg explained, “We do not seek confrontation, and we do not want a new arms race.” He stressed, “we want to keep our countries safe… this is our job.”

True, increases in defense spending were seen even during the Obama administration in 2016. That year, a majority of delinquent countries spent their required share in the face of Putin’s build-up and enhancement of Russian forces and his operation in Ukraine. Yet, even then, allies agreed to spend only the required 2 percent of economic output on defense every year by 2024 and reverse a trend that saw military research spending in the European Union fall by more than 20 billion euros ($23 billion) since 2006. Still, only four of NATO’s 27 European members–Greece, Britain, Poland and Estonia–met the spending target in 2016. Romania would also do so in 2017, followed by Latvia and Lithuania in 2018.

Troops of the new German Army (above). At a NATO Defense Ministers Meeting in June 2015, in response to Russia’s move into Ukraine, participants decided on air, maritime, and special forces components for an enhanced 40,000 strong NATO Response Force. Ministers took measures to speed up political and military decision-making. Ministers also approved a new concept of advance planning, and finalized details on the six small headquarters being set up in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania.

What Is the Zapad Exercise?

Deterrence is created when the doubt of success or fear is generated in the mind of an adversary over a potential response to a attack. In addition to the doubt and fear created, there must be an ample demonstration of the capability to respond efficaciously. The Zapad exercise was first conducted by Russia in 2009, and again in 2013. Traditionally, during Zapad, Russia displays new tactics and technologies. The expressed reason for Zapad 2013 was the rehearsal of Russia’s defense against armed terrorists moving in from the Baltic. The Zapad 2013 exercise was called a counterterrorism training exercise. However, tying Zapad 2013 to counterterrorism was a public relations farce, akin to dressing up a clumsy stumble as a brisé volé. In 2009, the exercise ended with a mock nuclear strike on Sweden. In 2013, the exercise ended with a mock nuclear strike on Poland. In Zapad 2017, ended with the test launch of RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missiles–two were real, one was an electronic simulation.

However, when Russian Federation Defense Minister, General of the Army Sergei Shoigu announced Zapad 2017 on November 21, 2016, he did not outline it in a way that made it resemble counterterrorism exercise. Indeed, he stated that the joint exercise, which would be the “main military event of 2017.” During Zapad, he stated Russian and Belarusian armed forces would cooperate in over 130 events and measures. Shoigu explained: “The US and NATO are actively increasing their offensive potential, building new bases and developing military infrastructure, undermining international stability, and attempting to impose their will by economic sanctions and use of military force. A propaganda information war is raging.” Shoigu further stated that Russian borders were being threatened and adequate defensive measures are being taken. Shoigu words reflected Putin’s intent of never allowing Russia to be perceived as wilting before what he views as Washington’s effort to establish total dominance. Putin and his advisers were also compelled to resist and counter pressures. He wanted the US and EU to take into account Russia’s interests on Ukraine and other issues. Zapad 2017 would be emblematic of that perspective, full of sound, fury and ferocity that would cause trembling in the capitals of European powers. Interestingly, the raison d’etre settled upon for Zapad 2017, however, was counterterrorism and it was finally labelled as a counterterrorism exercise. Yet, after the inauguration of Trump on January 20, 2017, Zapad 2017 then became an exercise directed at an administration that was already out of power and a prospective administration that never took power. Indeed, the exercise was a response to a feud that has ended. Inevitably, there was a change in thinking in Moscow in response to Trump’s approach of seeking to improve relations with Russia was made. Nevertheless, Moscow was unable to fully discern what the change from Obama to Trump on not only European defense, and redesign Zapad 2017’s to meet immediate circumstances, reduce cost, and the size and scope of the exercise early on. Obama certainly did not leave matters in Europe better than he found them in 2008 or in the best shape possible when Trump entered the White House.

Putin holds binoculars while observing Zapad 2017 exercises with senior commanders (above). The genesis of Zapad 2017 was the desire by Moscow to take steps in the midst of a descending spiral of uncongenial relations with the US. The Obama administration never put together the right recipe for working well with Putin. Putin never accepted the expansion of the EU and NATO into Central and Eastern Europe. Putin pushed backed against what he viewed as the West’s intrusion into territory surrounding Russia’s borders.

A Brief Review of ZAPAD 2017

The Russian Federation Ministry of Defense claimed that around 13,000 service personnel participated in Zapad 2017. However, most observers believed the exercise was quite a bit larger. London’s Royal United Services Institute reported some independent estimate around 70,000 troops were involved. Boiled down to the bones, the drafted drill scenario for Zapad 2017 was a covert, foreign incursion into western Belarus, which some Western military analysts such as Mathieu Boulègue of the Chatham House, say greatly resembled Russia’s tactics in Crimea, while combat involved a series of measures honed in Syria. In the very early stage of Zapad 2017, the aim was to raise combat readiness among the deployed force groupings, moving troops, deploying command-and-control assets, as well as organizing interactions among these forces and affording force protection. Under that scenario, Russian airborne units are sent for reconnaissance and to repel the enemy incursion. Indeed, reportedly, aviation and air-defense units from the 6th Army Air Force and Air Defense in the Western Military District conducted various tactical episodes aimed at repelling “massive air strikes” by a conventional opponent. Pilots also worked on striking ground targets and providing escort for bombers. Operational-tactical and other tactical missiles were used during this process. The Russian Federation Aerospace Forces conducted sorties mainly using Su-27, Su-35, Su-30SM and MiG-31 fighters to destroy enemy aircraft, while Su-34 bombers struck infrastructure, columns of armored vehicles, and enemy command-and-control nodes; an Su-24MR jet was used for reconnaissance to transmit the coordinates of ground targets. Newly observed in this phase of Zapad 2017 was use of a suite of high-tech equipment to support the arrival of paratrooper forces, to include radio and electronic capabilities and the integration of drones. Drones were regularly spotted in the sky during Zapad 2017. The speed and reliability of its own data links and communication systems was tested in a scenario where speed was primary requirement, as opposed to the need in the past for greater forces.

The Russian Federation Army then prepared for ground attack with aerial and naval support. This type of multidimensional warfighting, tying an artillery-enabled ground assault with air support, is now called Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities. A multilayer air-defense bubble, similar to the Russian A2/AD assets used in Syria, was constructed. Russian air-defense systems were forward deployed from their bases in the Western Military District, including S-300s, S-400s and Pantsir-S1s. The simulation that ensued targeted enemy cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles and aircraft. In Kaliningrad, similar activity among Russian naval assets was reported.. Corvettes in the Baltic Fleet were used to strike aerial, naval and coastal targets, implying an A2/AD mission. In this case, the air attack was simulated by Su-24 attack aircraft alongside Ka-27 anti-submarine-warfare helicopters. Other Russian A2/AD components featured in this phase of Zapad 2017 included the Iskander-M, a nuclear and conventional tactical ballistic missile. Iskander strikes were reported at training ranges, including a 480-kilometer strike against a target at a training range in Kazakhstan from units in the Central Military District, as well as a variety of cruise missiles fired from air, land and sea. The Missile and Artillery Troops, a Branch of Arms in the Ground Forces, serving as the primary means of destroying enemy forces by conventional and nuclear fires, were in action throughout Zapad. Those forces also used the older Tochka-U system, which is in the process of being fully replaced by the Iskander-M. The Iskander’s appearance in Russian exercises is assumed to indicate the rehearsal for a tactical nuclear weapons strike. In Zapad 2017, the Iskander was mainly conventional in its support of A2/AD. Moreover, the Russian missile forces appear to have rehearsed the use of a cruise missile that can be mounted on the Iskander platform, greatly extending the system’s strike range well beyond 500 km. Then, as mentioned, all of these activities during Zapad 2017 were squeezed between 3 test launches of the RS-24.

Russian tanks and BRDM-2s (above). Although Zapad 2017 was called a defense drill and a counterterrorism operation, in a very overt way, the tactics switched into an offensive against a conventional military force on its heels. The ground air operations rehearsed in Zapad 2017 were an expression of Russia’s objective of establishing dominance to prevent long wars, thwart and deter strikes at new points, and avoid escalation. The drill was all about NATO, and it really showed.

Although Zapad 2017 was called a defense drill, in a very overt way, the tactics switched midway into an offensive against a conventional military force on its heels. As mentioned earlier, it was not a counterterrorism operation. The ground air operations rehearsed in Zapad 2017 were an expression of Russia’s objective of establishing dominance to prevent long wars, thwart and deter strikes at new points, and avoid escalation. Boulègue of Chatham House told Newsweek: “The drill was all about NATO, and it really showed.” In the end, the whole cabaret of Zapad 2017 competed for attention of general staff with Al Nusra attack in force in Syria requiring heavy use of Russian air assets. Ironically, that was a more authentic counterterrorism operation.

Where Does All of This Leave Trump?

Clearly, in his last spell of contact with the US, Putin found no joy. The commitment to resources to Zapad 2017 despite the benign intentions expressed, is worthy of note given emphasis made by US newsmedia of how Russia wanted to make Trump look good. The forward movement of Russian Federation armed forces in a westward direction, in a military exercise translated into English means “west”, was of concern for US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff US Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, and US National Security Adviser Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, and all other senior members of the Trump administration’s national security team. In September 2017, while Trump’s national security team was heavily immersed on North Korea, supporting partners heavily engaged on the ground in Syria and Iraq, and dealing with the implication of events in Charlottesville, they were also closely watching Zapad 2017. They worked with NATO allies and other European partners on the matter, and conducted significant multinational drills that coincided with the Russian exercise. The October 1st New York Times article explained that US Secretary of Defense James Mattis ordered that a wider array of European partners have access to classified US information during the exercise to simulate conditions during combat. The sangfroid shown by the Trump administration has allowed to engage in sober analysis of Zapad 2017 and all of its elements.

By letting Zapad 2017 come and go from the scene, Trump made it clear that he did not see the need to stoke the fires between the US and Russia that were set during the Obama administration. He preferred to let those fires die out on their own. Trump’s response to Zapad 2017 was also a manifestation of his desire to soften anti-US sentiment in Russia and anti-Russian sentiment in the US. Trump’s believes hope was that normative behavior and positive relations between the US and Russia could be established by working to surmount contentious issues. Trump came into the Oval Office believing the moment had arrived to create positive change in US-Russia relations. Rebus angustis animosus atque fortis appare; sapienter idem contrahes vento nimium secundo turgida vela. (Appear strong and firm in steep affairs; likewise, you will wisely shorten your sails swollen in a too favorable wind.)

Trump (left) and Putin (left) at G20 in July 2017. The sangfroid shown by the Trump administration in response to Zapad 2017 has allowed for a sober analysis of all of its elements. Trump made it clear that he did not see the need to stoke the fires between the US and Russia that were set during the Obama administration. He would prefer to let those fires die out on their own. Trump wants his administration to focus on creating positive change and congenial ties between the US and Russia by surmounting contentious issues.

All of this draws focus to Trump’s intriguing, positive duality on Russia and Europe. Trump fully understands that NATO is absolutely necessary, contrary to the song and dance of wondering if he knew what NATO was and whether he thought it was truly obsolete much as he gestured essentially out of political expedience during the 2016 US Presidential Campaign. Trump wanted to stir things up, draw attention to the issue, and express ideas favorable to his political base, which is what politicians do when campaigning. Once he became US President, Trump’s intended to be constructuve, not destructive via his criticisms about NATO. Trump apparently never intended to truly signal that he did not support for NATO or understand its importance. Though his “constructive criticism”, Trump ostensibly sought to hone thinking among leaders of NATO Member States and encourage the polishing of their best ideas in support of collective defense.

Yet, Trump, before and after becoming US President, also expressed his genuine belief that NATO allies have been “coddled” by the US for too long, causing leaders of NATO allies to feel comfortable repeatedly missing the agreed spending target of 2% GDP on defense. On April 12, 2017, the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with Trump in Washington to discuss his concerns about NATO. Stoltenberg was able to convey that a new spirit of unity and commitment that prevailed among NATO Members. Stoltenberg, in turn, would discover that Trump’s sentiments were noble contrary to what critics were stating. In an hour long meeting in the Oval Office, Trump and Stoltenberg discussed ways in which the NATO Secretary General planned to get member countries to increase military spending to bolster the alliance. Stoltenberg listened to Trump’s concept to accomplish the same, and saw no mysterious elements to Trump’s approach. It was at that Oval Office meeting that Trump explained that NATO was a “bulwark of international peace and security.” He went as far as to say that the alliance was increasing cooperation to stem terror attacks, among other steps. During a news conference with Stoltenberg, Trump added: “I said it [NATO] was obsolete. It is no longer obsolete.”

Rerum concordia discors. (The concord of things through discord.) Invited to the unveiling of a memorial to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US at the new NATO headquarters building in Brussels, on May 24, 2017, Trump intensified his accusations that NATO allies were not spending enough on defense. Trump did say during the ceremony that the US “will never forsake the friends who stood by our side.” However, he focused far more on Europe’s drop in defense spending since the end of the Cold War. Standing before a piece of the wreckage of the World Trade Center, Trump stated: “Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying for their defense.” Trump added before the leaders of other NATO countries: “This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States, and many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years.” Stoltenberg, having previously talked with Trump in Washington, was not surprised by anything Trump said. In fact, Stoltenberg defended Trump, saying that although he was “blunt” he had “a very plain and clear message on the expectations” of allies. Trump had the impact both he and Stoltenberg apparently wanted upon NATO Members. While critics ratcheted up reports and commentaries on how Trump embarrassed himself and was tearing NATO apart, Stoltenberg explained that Trump ignited a new drive in NATO to authentically build up defense.

Trump (right) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (left). Invited to the unveiling of a memorial to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US at the new NATO headquarters building in Brussels, on May 24, 2017, Trump intensified his accusations that NATO allies were not spending enough on defense. Having met with Trump in Washington, Stoltenberg was not surprised by anything he said. Stoltenberg defended Trump, saying although he was “blunt,” he had “a very plain and clear message on the expectations” of allies.

Speaking in Brussels a month later on June 28, 2017, Stoltenberg explained that 23 of NATO’s 29 allies planned to lift spending that year. He would add that for the first time, NATO governments will produce national plans showing how they would reach the 2024 spending pledge, focusing not just on spending increases but also monitoring troop contributions to missions and acquiring technology such as precision-guided munitions. The new figures were part of a broader rise in military spending in Europe. The US committed billions more in dollars to return troops and heavy weaponry to the continent to deter Russia. The EU sought to do its part by setting up a multi-billion-euro defense fund. Stoltenberg explained: “We have really shifted gears, the trend is up and we intend to keep it up.” On the nature of the force build up, Stoltenberg stated: “It’s more about high-end forces, heavier forces and more ready forces, meaning we need forces that are fully equipped, fully manned and fully trained.” Beyond increasing the levels of heavy weapons and gear for troops in strategically positioned bases and standing watch on NATO’s borders, Stoltenberg further stated that the increase in funds would be spent on more military exercises, training and equipment and to allowing NATO troops to deploy at ever faster notice, as well to pay salaries and pensions. There remained a curiosity for where Trump stood in response to Putin’s attitudes and expressions toward the West. Some confusion and bewilderment resulted particularly from ideas publicly expressed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Trump was unwilling to stand with Europe against Russia. While still disagreeing with Trump on some policy areas, Merkel has since expressed far more positive perspectives regarding him and European security. Post proelia praecima. (After the battles came the rewards.)

Trump reiterated his support of NATO on July 6, 2017 in Krasiński Square in Warsaw, the site of the 1944 uprising against the Nazis. In that magnificently melodramatic setting commemorating resistance against a cruel foreign occupier, Trump suggested that a lack of collective resolve could doom the transatlantic alliance which had endured the Cold War. Trump painted a picture of the West facing existential challenges and needed to “defend our civilization” from terrorism, bureaucracy and the erosion of traditions. As an example of resolve, Trump pointed to Poland, which in the last century endured occupations by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union twice. Trump explained: “The story of Poland is the story of a people who have never lost hope, who have never been broken, and who have never forgotten who they are.” It was noted in the European newsmedia that in his speech, Trump for the first time “stood by” Article V of the NATO Charter, a provision requiring NATO Members to come to each others defense once under attack.  Yet, Trump kept up the pressure on those NATO Members who were “failing to meet their full and fair financial obligations on defense spending.” Trump expressed the view that his tough criticism of NATO Members who had not met the target of raising defense spending to 2% of GDP was paying off, with billions more being committed to defense across Europe. In a powerful expression of the need for alliance unity through use of the rhetorical technique of anaphora, Trump stated: “The fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to defend our borders? Do we have the desire and courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?” What should have been of particular interest to the US newsmedia was Trump’s criticism of Russia. He accused Moscow of “destabilising activities in Ukraine and elsewhere,” and declared that Putin was supporting “hostile regimes including Syria and Iran.” It is worth noting that all of this transpired before Zapad 2017. Trump’s leadership of NATO and his demand for Europe’s vigilance in the face of military threat from Russia is certainly worthy of attention. By ignoring such facts, critics lend credence to the allegation that they display a consistent disregard of genuine facts about Trump’s efforts which are inconsistent with their counter-Trump narrative. Quid enim est stultius quam incerta pro certis habere, falsa pro veris? (What, indeed, is more foolish than to consider uncertainties as certain, falsehoods as truths?)

Trump reiterated his support of NATO on July 6, 2017 in Krasiński Square in Warsaw. In his speech, Trump suggested then that a lack of collective resolve could doom the transatlantic alliance which had endured the Cold War. Trump painted a picture of the West facing existential challenges. Critics noted that in his speech, Trump for the first time “stood by” Article V of the NATO Charter, a provision requiring NATO Members to come to each others defense once under attack.

The Way Forward

In Act II, scene iii of William Shakespeare’s play, Othello, Iago, the ensign of the Venetian General Othello, delivers his first soliloquy, declaring his hatred for Othello, his suspicion that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia, and his determination to destroy him. He lays out his plan to cheat his supposed ally, Roderigo out of his money, to convince Othello that a loyal soldier, Cassio has slept with his wife, Desdemona, and to use Othello’s honest and unsuspecting nature to bring him to his demise. Iago states: “I have told thee often, and I re-tell thee again and again, I hate the Moor: my cause is hearted; thine hath no less reason. Let us be conjunctive in our revenge against him: if thou canst cuckold him, thou dost thyself a pleasure, me a sport. There are many events in the womb of time which will be delivered.” Former US President Jimmy Carter was quoted in the New York Times on October 21, 2017 as saying: “I think the media have been harder on Trump than any other president certainly that I’ve known about.” He added: “I think they feel free to claim that Trump is mentally deranged and everything else without hesitation.” Indeed, at the present, the opportunity to attack Trump is rarely missed by his critics. Their ranks actually extend well beyond the US newsmedia to include: think tank scholars, other policy analysts, particularly former officials of the Obama administration. That has had a multiplier effect when advanced alongside the efforts of journalists among his critics, ensuring that through prose, and even verse, there would be a more than ample stream of bdelygmia. Critics seem determined to throw Trump into loneliness and pain. Yet, they may ultimately discover that Trump has reserves of strength unlike most men which was proven through his business career. Indeed, much as Nebuchadnezzar brought Sgadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the furnace, stunned by their impunity in the face a tremendous flames, critics may discover in the end, that Trump will endure, survive, and overcome the flames of their best attacks. Trump’s ties to Russia, real and imagined, are a primary focus of attacks by his critics. Yet, Trump’s critics did not try to tie him to Zapad 2017, despite the massive display of Russian military power. Zapad 2017 should have transmitted the idea that Putin is not a new friend of the US, Trump in particular. Regarding Putin, he undoubtedly notices is the atmosphere of pure hatred and rejection propagated by the counter-Trump milieu. He surely recognizes that there is an effort to separate Trump from the US public and create turmoil and frustration which he, for certain, does not have his hand in.

In alio pediculum, intericinum non vides. (You see a louse on someone else but not a tick on yourself.) However, the contradiction that Zapad 2017 presents has not left Trump’s critics figuratively cold and muddled intellectually. Rather, moral relativism seems to be in play. The Catholic priest and theologian Father George Rutler explains that “It does not require genius to sense that all relations in the creation are harmonious. Only because of celestial harmony is there a human intuition that wrong is wrong and right is right. Beyond that intuition one must animate the intellect, use natural law, to parse things out. In classical philosophy, natural law is the universal, practical obligatory judgments of reason, knowable by all men and binding them to do good and avoid evil. The renowned Greek Philosopher Plato considered ignorance and confusion as the opposites of harmony. The goal of the torrent of anger from critics is certainly not bring a happy harmony to a dissonant world. Having promoted themselves figuratively as the defenders of US wisdom. They must find out for themselves who lives within them. Rather than follow the pack and do what is wrong, surmount that impulse and have the courage to do what is right. There appears to be a purpose to Trump which the majority of his many critics do not understand but will ultimately discover. Indeed, by God’s chance, as he toils, performing his duties as president in peace and in war, Trump’s intended course will no longer be a mystery to those who have been bewildered by the counter-Trump milieu.  Opinions expressed by critics about his efforts could also eventually change. In the face of staggering contradiction, an internal discord might obtain within quite a few critics. Many critics may become uncertain as to their true ends. Some may discover that their feelings of indignation and despair over Trump were inauthentic.Consideration may come and whip the offending Adam out of them. All that was said and done by critics may be looked upon curiously as a type of avant-garde expression. Perhaps then critics might finally offer a gesture of goodwill for the moment, and their efforts to hurt may slowly fall off and be replaced by righteous efforts to be constructive. In commenting on self mastery and the good or virtuous life, Aristotle is quoted as stating: “I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies, for the hardest victory is the victory over oneself.”

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

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

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

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

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

Background on US and Russia Relations

Infandum, regina, jubes renovare dolorem. (Sorrow too deep to tell, your majesty, you order me to feel and tell once more.) The Obama administration’s actions and reactions to Russia did much to further pollute and obscure what was already a difficult path to travel. The Obama administration never put together the right recipe for working well with Putin. When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were a neophyte and not a seasoned national leader. Old ills that were part of US-Russian relations resurfaced, and new ones arose, to include: Putin’s decision to allow US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and the US admonishment of Russia on human rights issues. Putin was still fuming over Operation Unified Protector, during which in 2011, multinational forces including the US, were placed under NATO command and imposed a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Putin felt NATO-led forces went beyond UN Security Council Resolution 1973’s mandate by helping local forces overthrow Gaddafi. Gaddafi had been a friend of the Soviet Union and Russia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is This Is the Moment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Syria: Assad

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

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

3. Syria: Deconfliction

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

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

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

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

5. Syria: Safe Zones and Immigration

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

6. North Korea

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

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

7. Afghanistan: Russia’s Activities

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

8. Ukraine: Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk

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

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

9. Ukraine: Sanctions

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

10. Russian Violations of Open Skies Treaty

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

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

11. Russian Violations of Conventional Nuclear Forces Treaty

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

12. Russian Violations of the Intermediiate Nuclear Forces Treaty

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

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

13. Nuclear Forces: New Deterrence Systems

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

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

14. Russian Aerial and Naval Intrusions

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

15. Russian Cyber Attacks

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

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

16. Russian Interference with US Satellites

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

17. Russian Arctic Military Build-up

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

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

Facilitating Deal Making

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

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

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

The Way Forward

William Shakespeare’s Sonnet XCIV explains that the ability to restrain the expression of emotion, and refrain from revealing to the world via visage one’s authentic thoughts and true feelings were regarded as virtue or at least useful ability in that day. Such persons–often found in positions of leadership–tend to isolate their true selves, but Shakespeare indicates that does not diminish the virtue. Using a flowers sweet scent as a metaphor, he explains it’s scent is still sweet when wasted on the desert air. However, he explains that such virtue when corrupted is far worse than depraved behavior. It reads: “They that have power to hurt and will do none, / That do not do the thing they most do show, / Who, moving others, are themselves as stone, / Unmoved, cold, and to temptation show, / They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces / And husband nature’s riches from expense; / They are the lords and owners of their faces, / Others but stewards of their excellence. / the summer’s flower is to the summer sweet, / Though to itself it only live and die, / But if that flower with base infection meet, / The basest weed outbraves his dignity: / For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds; / Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” Trump has “advanced in age and wisdom and in grace with God and man.” Much as he may amuse himself through tweets to intemperate younger journalist, who, while projecting venomous comments toward him at the same time more often tickle him with their countenance, he is more than aware of his responsibility as the steward of his country’s security. He wants to establish peace and security for future generations: for his grandchildren and their posterity. Trump wants to do big things for his country, he sought the job of president for that reason. His efforts concerning Russia relations are noble.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump’s Alleged Policy Troubles

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

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

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

The Better Angels of Trump’s Nature?

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

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

Trump’s Military Experts Take Action

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

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

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

Chemical Weapons and the Assad Regime

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

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

A Possible Next Military Step

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

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

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

Can Tillerson Get a Handle on Russia?

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

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

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

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

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

Russia: Beware of Assad

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Belarus: In Brief

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

Belarus’s Ties to Russia

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

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

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

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

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

The Strong Military Linkage Between Belarus and Russia

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

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

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

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

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

A New Military Doctrine for Belarus

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

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

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

A New Military Doctrine for Belarus

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

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

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

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

Minsk and Brussels: A Rapprochement?

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

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

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

Are Problems Between Belarus and Russia Becoming Inexorable?

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

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

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

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

Putin’s Possible Move Regarding Belarus?

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

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

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

What Might Encourage Putin and Lukashenko to Take This Course?

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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