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

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

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

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

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

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

The Situation: What Could Russian Forces Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The View from the US

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

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

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

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

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

Some Key Issues for Negotiation as the Situation Stands

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

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

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

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

Some Common Wisdom Regarding Putin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missteps in Responding to Putin Somewhat Downplayed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putin from a Different Lens

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

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

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

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

What Might Be Done Regarding Putin To End This Crisis?

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

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

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

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

A Possible Way Ahead in Diplomacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

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

George VI’s Royal Christmas Message of 1939: Words of Hope for Humankind in Tumultuous Times

George VI, King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth, seated at a table before two microphones and wearing the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet (above). The staged photo was taken on September 3, 1939 at the Royal residence at Buckingham Palace. It resembles a similar scene on December 25, 1939 at the Royal country house at Sandringham, when George VI delivered the Royal Christmas Message via radio. His message was so inspiring that it established the broadcast as an annual tradition. During his message, the King shared four lines from Minnie Haskins’ poem “God Knows” which since has been popularly referred to as “At the Gate of the Year” or “The Gate of the Year.”

King George VI of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth, never imagined being king nor had any ambitions to be monarch. Born Albert Frederick Arthur George, he was second in line to the throne to his brother, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David. As a consequence of the decision of his brother, crowned Edward VIII, to abdicate on December 10, 1936 in order to marry Wallis Simpson, a US citizen and socialite, who was twice divorced. Despite his misgivings, George VI became the very king of that his people needed in the tumultuous years of World War II. He established himself as a true leader in broadcast speeches in 1939. Among the most memorable was his Christmas message in which he recited lines from the poem “God Knows” written by Minnie Haskins in 1908 and expanded in 1912. The poem has been popularly referred to since George VI’s 1939 message as “At the Gate of the Year” or “The Gate of the Year.” As all countries whether facing challenges from external or internal elements peering into the New Year, there must the same degree of hope, as expressed by George VI, that they will see their way through to a positive, prosperous, and peaceful 2020. In a post published on December 8, 2014, greatcharlie shared the lines spoken by George VI in the Royal Christmas Message, broadcasted in 1939. Cognizant that the people of many countries will continue to face crises from varied internal and external sources going into 2020 and desiring to offer words of comfort, greatcharlie is again presenting the lines from George VI’s Christmas message along with some background that will hopefully help put the speech in context.

Traveling back to the Fall of 1939, one finds Germany under Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler already on the march in Europe, overwhelming neighboring countries. Through the Anschullus of March 12, 1938, Germany annexed Austria. Under Hitler’s threat to start a war with Czechoslovakia, United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier capitulated to Hitler’s whims and signed the Munich Agreement of September 29, 1938, allowing Germany to freely occupy Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland from October 1, 1938 to October 10, 1938. The agreement sent all of the wrong signal to Hitler. In Hitler’s view, might made right. Will stood in place of reason. After seeing how easily the United Kingdom and France ceded to his will on the Sudetenland, he was convinced he could pursue his plans of conquest without real opposition from the other European powers. The Munich Agreement was a consequence of a dreadful policy of appeasement. The notion was that through diplomacy and agreements, Hitler could be contained. The main aim of the policy was to keep the United Kingdom out of harm’s way, out of another war, before Hitler’s pursuit of the sovereign territory of other countries truly got to a gallop. However, rather than mollify Hitler, he was emboldened by the appeasement policy and essentially encouraged him to pursue his ambitions.

The main proponents of appeasement in Parliament were the Tories, led by Chamberlain. However, there was divergence among political leaders on the manner in which to cope with Hitler. Although he too was a conservative Member of the House of Lords, Winston Churchill challenged Chamberlain’s assertions about Hitler. He saw Hitler as a positive serpent who would not adhere to any agreement that might be reached with him. From a bad mind only bad designs could be expected. Churchill suggested that an abundance of caution should be exercised with Hitler, and that considerable preparations should be made to deal with him militarily. Opponents of Churchill’s point of view, characterized him as a warmonger, and gratuitously reminded everyone that he was the mastermind of debacle at Gallipoli during World War I. The reality was that Hitler posed more than a danger to Europe, but an existential threat to civilization. Very publicly, Hitler expressed a belief that the German people were a special Aryan race, and thus superior to all others. Even darker and more foreboding was Hitler’s insistence that it was the German people’s destiny to rule over the lesser people of the world. He declared that the German people’s confinement to the limits of Germany frustrated their ability to flourish, and exercise their will and power. Up from the ashes of defeat after the World War I, Hitler promised that under his leadership, the German people would reach the height of their greatness to include world domination. Yet, despite this and more, Chamberlain, Edward Wood, Lord Halifax, who became his Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in February 1938, Nevile Henderson, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Germany, Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s closest advisor and head of the British Civil Service, and many others, saw nothing but what they pleased. They failed to draw rational inferences from what Hitler was saying and doing.

Much as Churchill warned, Hitler proved too dodgy for Chamberlain and Lord Halifax to understand. Chamberlain’s diplomacy with Hitler failed. The remainder of Czechoslovakia was occupied by Hitler’s Army. With Germany’s invasion of Poland, the United Kingdom was plunged into war a very sinister adversary. Churchill would eventually assume the proud place as prime minister that his merits had won him on May 10, 1940. Yet, as 1939 ended, Chamberlain was still prime minister. Making amends for the sin of appeasing fascism proved impossible for Chamberlain. He would never be absolved of his responsibility for the crisis. Among the people of the United Kingdom, the prayer was that God by some gracious change would restore the situation to the condition it was in before Hitler and Germany went on the march.

Although Chamberlain and his following among Members of Parliament were left dazed and confused over events on the continent, George VI was determined to stand upright and with sangfroid in the face of danger. He was ready to bear whatever fate might bring with a firm and equal mind, resolved and confident. The radio broadcast of the Royal Christmas message was tradition had been started in 1932 by George V, the father of George VI. In his Christmas message in 1939, George VI raised his gaze toward what is most important to monarchs of the modern era, the people of the United Kingdom and across the Commonwealth. He would offer a message of reassurance and encouragement. He wanted them not to surrender to despair but rather to hold fast and stay strong. There was a potential obstacle to his aims. George VI suffered from a speech impediment, a stutter, and severe anxiety over public speaking. His struggle to overcome that problem was immortalized in the 2011 American Academy Award-winning film for Best Picture, “The King’s Speech.” Yet, on December 25, 1939, George VI rose to the occasion. The message was broadcasted from the Royal Residence at Sandringham, England. The King’s 5 feet 9 inch frame was immaculately dressed in the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet as he sat before two microphones. While he could not be seen by listeners, on that day, in the minds of his subjects, George VI stood about 8 feet tall. He superbly united king and country in a common cause.

George VI began his nine minute Christmas message by explaining that while no one wanted war, others who sought conquest insisted upon tearing their country away from peace. He informed that they were at war with a very different enemy whose evil ideas were contrary to those of the civilized world. He stated: “it is the tragedy of this time that there are powerful countries whose whole direction and policy are based on aggression and the suppression of all that we hold dear for mankind.” On the point, he went on to say: “We feel in our hearts that we are fighting against wickedness, and this conviction will give us strength from day to day to persevere until victory is assured.”

Speaking to soldiers and sailors in France and across the Commonwealth, he offered words of inspiration reminding them that they in the thoughts of everyone. While so much was expected of them, the king let them know that he had confidence in them that the people were aware that they were serving with valor, and he knew those would soon face battle would do the same. George VI relayed: “The gallant Air Force, which, in cooperation with the Navy is our sure shield of defence. They are daily adding laurels to those that their fathers won.” He continued: “I would send a special word of greeting to the armies of the Empire, to those who have come from afar, and in particular to the British Expeditionary Force. Their tasks is hard.” On that point, he remarked further: “They are waiting, and waiting is a trial of nerve and discipline. But I know that when the moment comes for action they will prove themselves worthy of the highest traditions of their great Service.”

Speaking across the territories of the Commonwealth  creating hope but also tempering expectations. He explained: “I believe from my heart that the cause which binds together my peoples and our gallant and faithful Allies is the cause of Christian civilisation.” Going further, he urged the people to remain resolved to stand together no matter what comes. George VI entreated: “A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”

Added at the end of his broadcast was its most memorable aspect when the King read lines from the Haskins poem. As the story is often told, his 13-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, shared the poem with him. However, according to the Telegraph, contrary to popular belief, the poem was brought to the attention of the King by Queen Elizabeth. The lines were recited again at her own funeral 63 years later. The poem was from a collection, The Desert, published in 1908. Neither the poem nor its author were popular at the time. The few lines recited by the King were chosen to stand on their own. The remaining lines do not possess such a compelling quality.

George VI introduced the poem in his message by stating: “I feel that we may all find a message of encouragement in the lines which, in my closing words, I would like to say to you:

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,

‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’

And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.’ ”

George VI concluded his speech with the blessing: “May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all.” Hopefully, the blessing of George VI has managed to echo through the years to our time, and it is greatcharlie’s wish to all of its readers in particular that all will be well and that all will receive the very best of everything in the new year.

Senators Reassure Wary Baltic Nations That US Won’t Abandon NATO: Meanwhile, Latvia Shapes Its Own Fate

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Latvian National Guard troops in small unit training (above). Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its fellow NATO Members, Estonia and Lithuania, to deter or fight Russia and Belarus. A huge military build-up supported by the US, the EU, and NATO has been a necessary step taken by leaders in Riga. However, they are also using diplomacy to search for common ground with Russia and Belarus, and recently signed a defense cooperation agreement with Minsk.

According to a December 27, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Senators Reassure Wary Baltic Nations That US Won’t Abandon NATO,” US Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Amy Klobuchar arrived in Tallinn, Estonia on December 27th to reassure Baltic countries that the US remained committed to their defense and to the NATO alliance. At the time, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had expressed concern that the new US President-elect Donald Trump might not uphold the longstanding US commitment to their defense from the Russian Federation and its military partner, Belarus. That notion was predicated on statements Trump made during the election campaign. At a December 27th news conference with Estonia’s Prime Minister Juri Ratas, McCain remarked, “I am convinced and certain that our relations, and the American relationship with NATO, will remain the same.”  He further stated, “Our relationship is more important than perhaps it’s been in a long time,” and said he would support a permanent US troop presence, not just a rotation. About 5,000 US troops have rotated through Estonia since April 2014. Other stops on the Senators’ trip were Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, and Georgia. Ojars Eriks Kalnins, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Latvian Parliament (Saeima) and a former Latvian ambassador to the US was interviewed by phone for the New York Times article. Kalnins noted that Congressional Democrats and Republicans had tried to reassure the Baltic States for months that US policy toward European security would not change. Kalnins expressed optimism, saying “Our hope is that his administration will come around to backing the ongoing policy toward NATO and the Baltics.” Interestingly, he went on to state, “I don’t think there is a plausible scenario for Russia invading the Baltics. To be honest, I’m more concerned about the fate of Ukraine.” Since the time of the Senators visit, Trump has sought to ameliorate his comments on NATO by saying in an interview with The Times of London and Bild that the alliance “is very important to me.” Duo lepores qui insequitur, neutrum capit. (Who chases two rabbits, catches neither.)

Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its fellow NATO Members in the Baltics to deter or fight Russia and its allies. Initiating a military build up supported by the US, the EU, and NATO, with urgency and diligence was a necessary and admirable course for the leadership in Riga to take. Since 2014, Latvia has one of the fastest growing defense budgets in the world. That growth will be sustained until 2018 and will be well over 2 percent GDP by then. Defense is a crucial issue for Latvia, however, there are other dimensions country of great importance to Latvians such as the economy. It problems require significant attention, too! The West has engaged in efforts to ensure Latvia received foreign economic assistance. It has stemmed some problem. Still, that help has essentially been a bromide for Latvia’s economic woes. Worse, it may have slowed Latvia on the road to self-directed stability. Some officials in Riga have developed a dependency on that aid, making plans around it, but not all have.

In addition to its own initiative, Latvia has been driven by the West’s friendly but insistent voice to devote so much attention, energy, and money to defense. As a result, its economy has become an ancillary story. The leadership in Riga is undoubtedly appreciative of the West’s assistance, but paramount to them, much as the leaders in any national capital, is maintaining their country’s solvency and unity. Not to be impolitic, but for Western countries working with Latvia, the true priority is their own interests. It is possible that in private, leaders in Riga might admit that they sense themselves as being confined on a path of succumbing to obligations stemming from its membership in regional military alliances. From a more extreme perspective, some leaders in Riga may want to overcome a nagging sense that Latvia has become Western powers’ “ball to play with.” Concerns among the Latvians and their Baltic neighbors over Western perceptions of them seemed to be manifested by their recent complaints over the use of the term “former Soviet republics” in the media to describe them. Riga is entitled to set its own national priorities, and with regard to security, devise its own military plans and diplomatic ones to quell both potential and real threats. That certainly does not mean leaders in Riga might have some interest in breaking away from any of its security arrangements. However, they apparently view it as reasonable to use diplomacy to search for common ground with Russia and Belarus, in tandem with their military build-up. Neither its Baltic neighbors nor other NATO members could truly welcome a decision by Latvia to take such an independent diplomatic tack. Yet, success would allow Riga to focus more on Latvia’s other problems and become less absorbed by defense. Riga has recently made diplomatic moves of some significance with Minsk and with Moscow. Non quia difficilia sunt non audemus sed quia non audemus difficilia sunt. (It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare, but because we do not dare that things are difficult.)

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The Republic of Latvia is one of the three Baltic States in Northern Europe. It is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, and Belarus to the southeast. Although Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are sovereign countries, for decades they have maintained cooperative arrangements. They are linked today. Latvia is fully blended in the mix of defense preparations with its Baltic neighbors Yet, also of great importance to Latvians are economic woes besetting their country.

Latvia in Brief

The Republic of Latvia is one of the three Baltic States in Northern Europe. It is bordered by Estonia to the north, Lithuania to the south, Russia to the east, and Belarus to the southeast. Its coastline to the west on the Baltic Sea is 531 km and forms a maritime border with Sweden. Latvia has approximately 1,957,200 inhabitants and a total territory of 64,589 km2.  Latvia was originally established as a democratic parliamentary republic in 1918 on 18 November 1918. However, its de facto independence was interrupted during World War II. In 1940, the country was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany in 1941, and re-occupied by the Soviets in 1944 to form the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic for fifty years. The “Singing Revolution” that started in 1987 called for the Baltic States emancipation from Soviet rule. It ended with the Declaration on the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia on 4 May 1990, and restoring de facto independence on 21 August 1991. In Latvia, the central government in Riga, the capital, is supreme, and the administrative divisions only exercise powers delegated to them by the Central government. There are 118 administrative divisions, of which 109 are municipalities and 9 are cities.  Latvians and Livs are the indigenous people of Latvia. Latvian is the country’s official language. Despite foreign rule from the 13th to 20th centuries, the Latvian nation maintained its identity throughout the generations via the language and musical traditions. A demographic profile of Latvia provided by Index Mundi indicates Latvians comprise 61.1 percent of the population. As a consequence of the Soviet occupation,  ethnic Russians comprise 26.2 percent of the population, some of whom are non-citizens. Belarusians make up 3.5 percent of the population, Ukrainians represent 2.3 percent,   represent 2.2 percent, and Lithuanians are 1.3 percent. Remaining groups represent 3.4 percent of the population. Until World War II, Latvia had significant minorities of ethnic Germans and Jews. Latvia is historically predominantly Protestant Lutheran, except for the Latgale region in the southeast, which has historically been predominantly Roman Catholic. The Russian population has also brought a significant portion of Eastern Orthodox Christians. Latvia is a member of the EU, NATO, the UN, the Council of Europe, Organization Economic Cooperation and Development, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Council of Baltic Sea States, Nordic Baltic Cooperation, Nordic Investment Bank. For 2014, Latvia is listed 46th on the Human Development Index and as a high income country as of January 1, 2017.

At the Foundation of Baltic Unity

Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are often looked upon in the West as a matched set of three countries. To an extent, they are! Although each established its sovereignty separately, the three entered into a cooperative arrangement known as the trilateral Treaty on Concord and Cooperation, signed in Geneva on September 12, 1934. Turbulent events beginning at the start of World War II had all three Baltic States initially sucked into the Soviet Union, then invaded and occupied by Nazi Germany, and finally re-occupied and reincorporated as Soviet republics. The West continued to recognize the sovereignty of the three countries. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Baltic States signed the Declaration on Unity and Cooperation on May 12, 1990 in Tallinn, restoring cooperation between Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Pursuant to the Geneva Treaty, the Baltic Council was established in 1990. The Baltic Council of Ministers (BCM), formed at the meeting of Baltic Prime Ministers in Tallinn on June 13, 1994, established an institution of trilateral intergovernmental cooperation. There was also an Agreement on Baltic Parliamentary and Governmental cooperation signed in Tallinn on the same day. These agreements are at the foundation of what is known as Baltic unity.  When the Baltic States joined the EU and NATO, the BCM was reformed and adjusted to the changed environment. It still operates under the guidance of the Prime Ministers’ Council, and the Cooperation Council, which comprises the ministers of foreign affairs, and coordinates the activity of the Committees of Senior Officials (CSO). In accord with the Terms of Reference, the Committees of Senior Officials act in five areas of cooperation at the expert level. If necessary, Task Forces are established by the Prime Ministers’ Council. The Prime Ministers’ Council determines specific task to be performed by a Task Force within time parameters. The Secretariat arranges the activities of the BCM. The Secretariat is staffed by officers of the foreign ministries of the three Baltic States responsible for the countries cooperation. Under the initiative of the chairmanship of the BCM, the Secretariat does the preparatory work for the meetings of the Prime Ministers’ Council and Cooperation Council. The chairmanship starts at the beginning of every calendar year. The country with the chairmanship directs work done on all levels of cooperation. Perhaps 2016 was the best year for Latvia to engage in its daring and optimistic diplomacy with Belarus and Russia. Latvia held the BCM chairmanship and presided over the Baltic Assembly (BA).

The BA is an international organization established on November 8, 1991 aimed at promoting cooperation between the Baltic States’ parliaments. The BA works under a statute entered into force on October 31, 1993. The Protocol amending the Agreement on Baltic Parliamentary and Governmental Cooperation was signed on November 28, 2003 in Vilnius. The Baltic Council is an annual joint meeting held by the BCM and the BA. This meeting includes a session of the BA, a meeting between the Presidium of the BA and Cooperation Council of the BCM, and a meeting of the Cooperation Council of the BCM.  A report by the Chairman of the Cooperation Council to the BA session must be prepared on: cooperation between the Baltic States in the previous year; activities related to the resolutions adopted by the BA during the current year; and, plans for future cooperation. Although Latvia was open enough to engage in diplomatic efforts with Belarus and Russia while at the helm of the BCM and BA, its approach to those countries did not lead Estonia and Lithuania to take similar action. There was certainly no abatement of Estonia and Lithuania’s fears over Russian and Belarusian actions and intentions.

Latvia’s Poor Economy – A Special Problem

Albeit as a result of the precarious economic situation it has faced for nearly a decade, Latvia, to make use of a phrase from the Bundesliga, carries the red lantern among the Baltic States. From 1999 to 2007, Latvia had one of the highest GDP growth rates in Europe. However, the Latvian economy entered a phase of fiscal contraction during the second half of 2008 after an extended period of credit-based speculation and unrealistic appreciation in real estate values. Growth was mainly driven by growth of domestic consumption, financed by a serious increase of private debt, as well as a negative foreign trade balance. The prices of real estate, which were at some points growing by approximately 5 percent a month, were long perceived to be too high for the economy, which mainly produces low-value goods and raw materials. Ignoring recommendations from the IMF and others to break their peg to the euro and devalue the currency, the Latvians instead embarked on a brutal programme of “internal devaluation,” improving competitiveness by slashing wages and prices. After losing access to capital markets, and accepting a $10.5 billion bail-out from the IMF and the EU, the government implemented an austerity plan worth 17 percent of GDP over four years. Problems were exacerbated by the global economic crisis, shortage of credit and huge money resources used for the bailout of Parex bank. In 2008, Parex, then the second-largest bank in Latvia, was nationalized. In the end, Latvia had to take $2.35 billion in aid from the IMF for the bank’s bail out. The Latvian economy fell 18 percent in the first three months of 2009, the biggest fall in the EU.  The unemployment rate in Latvia rose sharply in this period from a low of 5.4 percent in November 2007 to over 22 percent. In April 2010, Latvia had the highest unemployment rate in the EU, at 22.5 percent. In July 2012, the IMF concluded that the First Post-Program Monitoring Discussions with the Republic of Latvia, announcing that Latvia’s economy was recovering strongly since 2010, following the deep downturn in 2008–09. However, while some in the West define Latvia as a success, others call it the best example of an apparent Western tendency to cloak disaster with positive statements. Net economic growth in Latvia had been nonexistent since 2006. Reportedly, the collapse was severe enough that Latvia still had not returned it to its pre-crisis peak of activity.  Latvia should have labeled a catastrophe. Even now, unemployment is around 9.5 percent, which is still high and real wages are about 5 percent smaller than they were back in 2007. Even more alarming for the country’s long-term economic prospects is loss of Latvia’s loss of more than 300,000 people since 2000. Its population has dropped from around 2.3 million to about 2 million. Many Latvians were prompted to seek out better opportunities in the rest of the EU due to the financial crisis.

In 2014 the GDP of Latvia was $31.3 billion and its GDP per capita was $23,500. Latvia is the 78th largest export economy in the world and the 34th most complex economy according to the Economic Complexity Index (ECI). Records indicate Latvia increased exports at an annualized rate of 12.3 percent, from $7.98 billion in 2009 to $14.3 billion in 2014. Imports stood at $17.2 billion, resulting in a negative trade balance of $2.93 billion. The top exports of Latvia are Refined Petroleum ($1.22 billion), Sawn Wood ($730 million), Crude Petroleum ($644 million), Hard Liquor ($556 million) and Broadcasting Equipment ($394 million), using the 1992 revision of the HS (Harmonized System) classification. Its top imports are Refined Petroleum ($2 billion), Broadcasting Equipment ($666 million), Petroleum Gas ($600 million), Cars ($599 million) and Packaged Medicaments ($519 million). The top export destinations of Latvia are Lithuania ($2.31 billion), Russia ($1.3 billion), Estonia ($938 million), Belarus ($854 million) and Germany ($851 million). The top import origins are Lithuania ($2.69 billion), Russia ($2.02 billion), Poland ($1.74 billion), Germany ($1.71 billion) and Estonia ($1.17 billion). The top import origins of Latvia are Lithuania ($2.69 billion), Russia ($2.02 billion), Poland ($1.74 billion), Germany ($1.71 billion) and Estonia ($1.17 billion).

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Most transit traffic in Latvia uses the ports of Riga, Liepāja, and Ventspils (above). Half the cargo is crude oil and oil products. In addition to road and railway connections, Ventspils is also linked to oil extraction fields and transportation routes of Russian Federation via a system of two pipelines. The Russian state-owned pipeline operator Transneft plans to halt oil product operations at Ventspils and Riga as of 2018. Its chief executive officer said by 2018 Russia’s cargo flow to the Baltic States will be zero.

Latvia’s transport sector is around 14 percent of GDP. Transit between Russia and Belarus is considerable. Three biggest ports of Latvia are located in Riga, Liepāja, and Ventspils. Most transit traffic uses them and half the cargo is crude oil and oil products. Ventspils is one of the busiest ports in the Baltic States. Along with its road and railway connections, Ventspils is also linked to oil extraction fields and transportation routes of Russian Federation via system of two pipelines from Polotsk, Belarus. Latvia operates Inčukalns underground gas storage facility, one of the largest underground gas storage facilities in Europe and the only one in the Baltic States. However, the future of Latvia’s transport and energy sectors appears uncertain. Riga has sought to meet EU regulations and reduce its dependence on energy supplies from Russia. However, that process has created the opportunity for Russia to essentially pull the rug from under Latvia. The Russian state-owned pipeline operator Transneft plans to halt oil product operations at Latvia’s ports of Ventspils and Riga as of 2018, and redirect volumes to the Russian Baltic Sea ports of Ust-Luga and Primorsk and the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. During a meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, on September 13, 2015, Transneft’s chief executive officer, Nikolai Tokarev, said, “We will re-orient the cargo turnover from the Baltic ports of Ventspils, Riga to our Baltic ports–of Ust-Luga and Primorsk–as well as to Novorossiisk.” Tokarev predicted turnover at Latvia’s ports would shrink to 5 million metric tons (mt) in 2016 from 9 million mt in 2015. He further stated “By 2018 we will reduce this cargo flow to the Baltic states to zero. We will fill up our ports, because there is capacity surplus.” Transneft plans to convert some of the pipeline capacity not being used for crude to transport oil products to Primorsk and Novorossiisk.

Currently, a former crude pipeline, the Yaroslav-Kirishi 2, is being converted to carry diesel to Primorsk and is due to be operational in October. The converted pipeline, which will run along the already functioning Kstovo-Primorsk trunk, will allow Transneft to expand the capacity of the so-called North, or Sever, diesel pipeline running to the Baltic port of Primorsk to 25 million mt per year from November 2017, earlier than the previously planned 2020. Russia exports only diesel via pipeline, with currently two pipelines shipping Euro 5, or 10 parts per million (ppm) max sulfur diesel, to the Baltic ports of Primorsk and Ventspils. Gasoil continues to be shipped by rail, but Baltic ports have become an outlet for a large proportion of all ultra low sulfur diesel supply to Northwest Europe. Last October, the pipeline to Ventspils fully switched to 10 ppm diesel flows. Russian products flows through the Baltic ports – Sillamae, Klaipeda, Riga, Tallinn, had all been shrinking. Russia halted crude exports via Ventspils more than a decade ago, but continued to ship gasoil and subsequently ULSD via the pipeline to the Latvian port. However, transshipment volumes through Ventspils Nafta Terminals on the Baltic Sea have also been dwindling. Ventspils, which is majority owned by trader Vitol, handled 4.29 million mt of oil products in the first half of the year, down 27.3 percent from a year earlier. Russian pipeline volumes continued their downward trend in the first half of 2016, with LatRosTrans transporting 2.4 million mt, down from 2.98 million mt in the first half of 2015. The terminal also handles products delivered by rail from Russia and Belarus. According to traders, it is now being filled with ultra low sulfur diesel.

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Latvia’s Incukalns underground gas storage facility (above) is one the largest in Europe. It was built during the Soviet era to meet the region’s needs, including northwestern Russia. However, Incukalns entered th 2016-2017 winter season one-third empty. Total injections have dropped to 1.25 billion cubic metres (bcm) from 1.6 bcm in 2015 and 1.9 bcm in 2014. At the end of the 2016 injection season, it had 1.53 bcm of gas in storage, the lowest level since 2000. The future of Latvia’s energy sector is uncertain.

Latvia’s gas utility, Latvijas Gaze is set to transfer part of its assets – including one of Europe’s largest underground gas storage facilities, Incukalns – to Latvia’s future gas grid and storage operator Conexus Baltic Grid, ahead of a planned market liberalisation in April 2017. The current owners of Latvijas Gaze – Russia’s Gazprom, Germany’s Uniper and Latvia’s Itera Latvija – which have a combined stake of slightly over 68 percent, will have to divest shares in Conexus by the end of 2017 due to legal requirements. Latvijas Gaze’s restructuring is a part of wider gas market reforms approved by the Latvian parliament in February 2016 in an effort to meet EU regulations. and reduce dependence on energy supplies from Russia. The European infrastructure fund Marguerite, which holds a 28.97 percent stake in Latvijas Gaze, plans to stay in Conexus after the restructuring, it told Reuters in an email. The fund declined to say whether it might want to increase its stake in Conexus. The storage facility, built during the Soviet era to meet the needs of the wider region, including northwestern Russia, is entering this winter season one-third empty. Gazprom and Estonian utility Eesti Gaas have not injected any new gas at Incukalns in 2016. Total injections have dropped to 1.25 billion cubic meters (bcm) from 1.6 bcm year ago and 1.9 bcm in 2014. At the end of the injection season, which runs from April until October, it had 1.53 bcm of gas in storage, the lowest level since at least 2000. This includes 0.2 bcm of gas Gazprom injected for Russia’s needs during the previous year. Estonian customers told Latvijas Gaze they could meet their needs by direct imports from Russia, while Gazprom said it also had no need to store more gas. While the drop in injections coincides with the Latvian parliament’s decision to end Gazprom’s supply monopoly, both Latvian officials and the Russian supplier said the reasons were economic. Russia has spare capacity to deliver gas to its St Petersburg region, previously also supplied from the Latvian storage facility, as it prepares to build the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to Germany across the Baltic Sea. Ivars Scerbickis, head of Incukalns gas storage, said “Historically, Incukalns’ role has been indisputable in the region.” He went on to state, “Now it’s a challenge for us to keep it the same.”  Latvian officials hope that Gazprom will use Incukalns after market liberalisation to ensure security of supplies, especially during cold winters when demand spikes. Latvia may be hoping to acquire Finland and Poland as new customer when new gas links are built from Estonia and Lithuania by around 2020. Ibit, ibIt eo quo vis qui zonam perdidit. (The one who loses his money belt will go where you wish.)

Latvia: A Russian Military Target

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin finds causality for the misunderstandings and crises with the West over Eastern Europe in actions taken 25 years ago with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin explained at the 2007 Munich Security Conference and many times since that former NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner had guaranteed that NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Wall. Moreover, he has pointed to the statements of German parliamentarian Egon Bahr who explained on June 26, 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” In a Bild interview on January 11, 2016, Putin pointed to what he described as a very concrete suggestion by Bahr on how that danger could be averted: “the USA, the Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structures.” When the Bild interviewer pointed out to Putin that under NATO’s rules and self-understanding it can accept free countries as members if they want to be members and meet certain requirements.  Putin responded, “Nowhere is it written that NATO had to accept certain countries. All that would have been required to refrain from doing so was political will. But people didn’t not want to.” Putin declared the reason for NATO’s lack of restraint was “NATO and the USA wanted complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone.”

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Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right) and Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left). Some Western analysts conclude Russia’s centuries old habit of devouring bordering countries puts Latvia and it Baltic neighbors at risk. Others say Putin seeks hegemony over them due to his beliefs about Russian nationhood and historical destiny. Putin says NATO guaranteed Russia that it would “not expand eastward” and it is doing so knowing it “will lead to Russia’s isolation.”

However, some Russia experts do not believe that Putin is driven by the failure of the West to honor its post-Cold War commitments to Russia. Hillary Appel of Claremont McKenna College asserts that Russia has a centuries old habit of devouring for bordering countries as the Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania  as a means of ensuring its physical control of their territory.  She explains that was Russia built its empire that way. It was a stratagem quite different from that of Britain and France, whose empires were built upon the conquest of distant, unconnected territories on other continents. Russia’s approach left it the largest country in the world geographically, even after the republics of its Soviet empire sought independence. Appel proffers that after ascending to power, Putin in words and deeds as both Prime minister and president refused to accept the further dissolution of Russian controlled territory, and through what she describes as tremendous brutality and violence in Chechnya, thwarting Chechen designs for independence.

Paul Miller of the University of Texas, explains that Putin is not driven by cold calculations of rational self-interest, because no human is. Putin believes hegemony over Russia’s near-abroad is necessary for Russian security because of his beliefs about Russian nationhood and historical destiny. Putin and his advisers are not mere nationalist. Miller believes Putin and his advisers may be driven by “peculiar form of Russian nationalism infused with religion, destiny, and messianism.” As part of that narrative, Russia is the guardian of Orthodox Christianity and has a mission to protect and expand the faith. Miller believes that a truly rational Russia would not see NATO and EU expansion as a threat, because the liberal order is open and inclusive and would actually augment Russia’s security and prosperity. If Putin and his advisers see the world through the prism of Russian religious nationalism, Miller states, “the West is inherently a threat because of its degeneracy and globalism.” Indeed, to them, Miller proffers, “NATO is not the benign guarantor of liberal order in Europe, but the hostile agent of the degenerate West and the primary obstacle to Russian greatness.” To that extent, Putin’s grand strategy, Miller says, requires breaking NATO and making the Article V mutual security guarantee meaningless.Putin has already succeeded in eroding NATO’s credibility. His last two targets, Georgia and Ukraine, were not NATO members, but in 2008 had been explicitly and publicly assured that they would be granted Membership Action Plans. By occupying those countries Putin has assured they would never join NATO in the near term as Miller asserts no country will ever join NATO while being partly occupied by Russia.

The Baltic States are NATO Members. Due to that, Miller explains that Putin would unlikely send large formations of uniformed Russian soldiers over the international border as even the most cautious NATO members will not ignore an overt conventional invasion. Miller believes Putin will instigate an ambiguous militarized crisis using deniable proxies, probably in the next two years. Miller outlined what might be observed as follows:  1) Perhaps many among the 25 percent of Latvians or Estonians who are ethnically Russian will begin rioting, protesting for their rights, claiming to be persecuted, and asking for “international protection;” 2) A suspiciously well armed and well trained “Popular Front for the Liberation of the Russian Baltics” will appear; 3) A few high-profile assassinations and bombings bring the Baltics to the edge of civil war. 4) A low-grade insurgency may emerge. 4) Russia will block all UN Security Council resolutions, but will offer its unilateral services as a peacekeeper; 5) The North Atlantic Council will meet. 6) Poland will lead the effort to invoke Article V, declare the Baltics under Russian attack, and rally collective defense against Russian aggression. 7) The Germans and French will fiercely resist. Everyone will look to the US to see which way the alliance leader tilts. 8) If the Alliance does not invoke Article V, NATO’s mutual security guarantee becomes functionally meaningless. 9) No NATO Member will put any faith in the treaty to guarantee it’s own defense against Russia in the future. Some Eastern European countries may choose to join up with Russia. 10) Others, starting with Poland, will begin arming to the teeth.

In January 2016, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the formation of a new Baltic command, which would have 60,000 troops—three motor rifle divisions—stationed near the western region of Russia, bordering Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In addition, Russia is expanding its Baltic Fleet and has deployed a new generation of surface-to-air missiles into the Kaliningrad region, bordering on Poland and Lithuania. Kaliber missiles can launch nuclear warheads. The Russian warships Serpukhov and Zeleny Dol were recently added to the Baltic Fleet, armed with long-range, new-generation cruise missiles. Russia even held four days of civil defense drills, involving 40 million Russian citizens, underscoring the country’s readiness for war. The most recent maneuvers by the Baltic Fleet involved a simulated attack on US warships in the Sea.

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Many in the Baltics feel they will fall prey to the same territorial ambitions Russia displayed in Crimea in 2014. Under a new State Defense Concept, Latvia’s defense budget will be increased to 2 percent of GDP by 2018. It earmarked 20 percent of the budget for purchasing new equipment.  It also states the Armed Forces in peacetime will number 17,500 men to include: 6,500 from the professional ranks; 8,000 from the National Guard troops; and, 3,000 from the reserves.

Latvia’s Response: 2016 State Defense Concept

Many in the Baltic States feel they will be next to fall prey to Russia’s territorial ambitions, which it demonstrated by annexing Crimea in 2014. When one hears the tempest swirl, it is rational to prepare a defense against the storm. At the core of Latvia’s national security concerns is the threat from Russia. Factors influencing that perspective include Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the clandestine war in eastern Ukraine, and Moscow’s heightened military force on patrol off the coasts of the Baltics and Western Europe. Western analysts conclude the Russia’s deployment of nuclear capable Iskander missiles to its Kaliningrad province between Poland and Lithuania underscored Moscow’s efforts to intimidate the Baltics and the West. Much as all other European countries, Latvia must also devote new attention to the continuing encroachment of the ISIS threat from the Middle East. The developing security environment has driven Latvia to give greater attention to security policy and the strengthening of defense capabilities on the national and international levels. Membership in NATO and the EU play a decisive role in Latvia’s security policy, and Latvia is actively participating in these organizations as well as bilaterally with its allies in order to bolster its own security and the security of its region. In this regard, Riga accepts that it is in Latvia’s national interest to establish arrangements for a sustained NATO military presence on Latvian territory that in turn bolster both the deterrent posture and real defense of the alliance against the Russian threat. Of equal  importance is increasing the capabilities of NATO rapid reaction forces to better enable them to assist all member states in an emergency. Latvia welcomed the increase in the NATO Response Force (NRF) to 40,000 troops which are ready to respond in a few days’ time. Some 5,000 troops of the NRF serve in the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) which is ready respond to any Russian moves on Europe’s eastern front within hours. Latvia is one of six NATO members in which NATO Force Integration Units (NFIUs) have been established. In an emergency, these units would be instrumental in facilitating the rapid deployment of military combat forces, ensuring that they could operate effectively on Latvia’s land and sea and in the air. Additionally, the NFIUs allow regional NATO Members to implement a coordinated program for military exercises.

In addition to conventional attack, Latvia, much as Paul Miller prognosticated, might be facing foreign efforts at subversion and insurgency, characteristic of hybrid warfare. Reportedly, Russia, using hybrid warfare, has sought to destabilize governments and societies by direct means and other elements as well. Those other elements may include cyber-attacks, disinformation and propaganda campaigns, intelligence operations, the application of coercion ranging from economic pressure to the leverage using energy supplies as an instrument, the use of disguised military personnel, and the use of terrorists and armed groups as proxies for various types of attacks. Plans for Latvia’s response to both the conventional and hybrid attacks have been coalesced in a new national security strategy, the 2016 State Defense Concept. The Concept specifies eight major challenges for Latvia’s security and measures to prevent them: external challenges, foreign intelligence and special services, military threats, threats to social unity, threats to information community, economic challenges, international terrorism and cyber-terrorism. Latvia’s priorities are to reinforce its borders, to improve its refugee policy and to prevent radicalization risks. To thwart threats posed by foreign intelligence and special services, the Concept indicated that Latvia should develop its national security and counterespionage services and should undertake preventive policies. The country should also develop public mass media, reduce the influence of Russian mass media specifically, control foreign investment, and ensure stable energy supplies. Since hybrid warfare can be used independently or in tandem with conventional military attacks, Latvia actively contributes to NATO and EU efforts to seek the most effective solutions to counter hybrid threats, including in the information space.

Latvia’s defense budget will be increased to 2 percent of GDP by 2018, according to the Concept. The strategy further states that the Latvian Armed Forces in peacetime will number 17,500 men which will include 6,500 from the professional ranks, 8,000 from the National Guard troops and 3,000 from the reserves. Moreover, 20 percent of the defense budget will be earmarked for the purchase of new equipment. Priorities concerning the armed forces included the strengthening the operational capability of the Latvian Armed Forces, the further integration of the National Guard within the Armed Forces, strengthening the Special Tasks Unit–special operations forces–as well as boosting early-warning capabilities, airspace surveillance and air defense. Finally, the document emphasizes the integration and regional cooperation of the three Baltic States’ militaries. On June 16, 2016, Latvia’s Saeima approved the government’s national security strategy.

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A Latvian soldier and Estonian soldier perform check their equipment (above). The Latvian Armed Forces’ priorities include bolstering its operational capabilities, the further integration of the National Guard within the Armed Forces, strengthening the Special Tasks Unit–special operations forces–as well as boosting early-warning capabilities, airspace surveillance and air defense. Emphasis is also being placed on the integration and regional cooperation of the Baltic States’ militaries.

NATO’s Commitments to Latvia and Its Baltic Neighbors

At the Summit Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government from July 8 to July 9 2016 in Warsaw, Poland, it was agreed that combat forces would be deployed into the three Baltic States and Poland. That force will consist of seven combat brigades, including three heavy armored brigades, backed up by air power and land fire. In February, a US battalion task force of about 900 soldiers from Viselk, Germany, accompanied by smaller United Kingdom and Romanian units, will be deployed to Orzysk, Poland. That force will be backed by United Kingdom Typhoon fighter jets, which will begin patrols over the Black Sea. They will be joined in Europe later by a brigade combat team from Fort Carson, Colorado equipped with tanks and other heavy equipment and a combat aviation brigade from Fort Drum, New York.  All of the US troops are scheduled to be in place by June 2017. The United Kingdom will send a battalion of 800 troops to Estonia. It will be supported by French and Danish troops starting from May 2017. Canada will send 450 troops to Latvia, who will joined by 140 troops from Italy. Germany has promised to send between 400 and 600 troops to Lithuania, along with forces from the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, Croatia and Luxembourg. The deployment will cost NATO Member States $2.7 billion a year. The US Navy has deployed four Arleigh Burke class destroyers equipped with AEGIS missile defense systems to Rota, Spain. A separate land-based AEGIS system is being constructed in Romania on the Black Sea.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the troop contributions to a new 4,000-strong force in the Baltics and Eastern Europe were a measured response to what the alliance believes are some 330,000 Russian troops stationed on Russia’s western flank near Moscow. Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance remarked about the deployments, “What deterrence looks like is that it raises the threshold of risk (for Russia). It may be slight, but it is definitely there.” He further explained, “You can use the term ‘tripwire’ as descriptors, but what it really does is raise that calculus of risk. Do you take any steps against a NATO nation given that the alliance has decided to put in very credible combat forces?” Commenting about the armed forces of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania following a visit to the Baltic States in 2016, the commander of the US Special Operations Command, US Army General Raymond Thomas stated, “They’re scared to death of Russia.” He further stated, “They are very open about that. They’re desperate for our leadership.” Hannibal ad portas! (Hannibal is at the gates!)

Former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, United Kingdom General Sir Richard Shirreff, wrote a CNN assessment October 21, 2016, warned that if Russia puts one soldier across the borders of the Baltic States, it means war with NATO. Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania have been members of NATO since 2004 and are therefore protected under Article V of the Washington Treaty, the founding document of NATO, which states that an attack on one is an attack on all. A Russian attack on the Baltic States puts the US at war with Russia—meaning nuclear war, because Russia integrates nuclear weapons into every aspect of its military doctrine. Shirreff stated pointedly, “And don’t think Russia would limit itself to the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Any form of nuclear release by the Russians would almost certainly precipitate nuclear retaliation by the United States.”

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Canadian Army troops (above). At the 2016 Summit Meeting of NATO Heads of State and Government, it was agreed that NATO would deploy combat forces into the three Baltic States and Poland. Canada will send 450 troops to Latvia. They will be joined by 140 Italian troops. Canada’s Chief of the Defence Staff, General Jonathan Vance said about the deployments, “What deterrence looks like is that it raises the threshold of risk (for Russia). It may be slight, but it is definitely there.”

Baltic Air Policing – “Latvia’s Air Power”

After the Baltic States joined NATO in 2004, the immediate commitment of alliance its three new members was nonstop policing of their airspace. Initially, Baltic Air Policing was conducted by NATO Member States on a three-month rotation from Lithuania’s First Air Force Base in Zokniai/Šiauliai International Airport, near the northern city of Šiauliai, and starting 2014 at the Ämari Air Base in Harju County, Estonia. Starting with the Turkish deployment, rotations changed to a four-month basis. Usual deployments consist of four fighter aircraft with between 50 and 100 support personnel. However, all member nations contribute in some form to the NATO Air policing, be it through the use of national aerial surveillance systems, air traffic management, interceptor aircraft or other air defence measures. NATO Air Policing requires making an Air Surveillance and Control System, an Air Command and Control structure and Quick Reaction Alert (Interceptor) aircraft continuously available.

Russian military aircraft near the Baltic Sea 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. However, 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. Belgian Air Force Major General Thierry Dupont, commander of NATO’s Combined Air Operations Center, says that the number of intercepts has increased since 2014 because Russia is flying more aircraft in Baltic airspace, but also because the alliance has increased its air policing capabilities. The vast majority of the interceptions were made before any incursion into sovereign allied airspace, although over the last 12 months Estonia has reported at least six airspace violations by Russian jets. Moscow has denied the accusations. Dupont told Newsweek, “One of NATO’s roles is to preserve the integrity of the Allies’ airspace,” He further stated, “Missions like the Baltic Air Policing demonstrate NATO’s resolve and capability to ensure protection across Allies’ airspace, including those Allies that do not have their own Air Policing assets.”

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Two German Typhoon fighters performing Baltic Air Policing duties (above). When the Baltic States joined NATO in 2004, the alliance’s first visible commitment to them was policing their airspace. Belgian Air Force Major General Thierry Dupont, commander of NATO’s Combined Air Operations Center, stated: “Missions like the Baltic Air Policing demonstrate NATO’s resolve and capability to ensure protection across Allies’ airspace, including those Allies that do not have their own Air Policing assets.”

In War as I Knew It, US Army General George Patton explained, “We should not plan and then try to make circumstances fit those plans. Instead we should make plans to fit the circumstances.” Despite the Baltic Air Policing and beefed-up ground deployments opposites Russian forces in the Baltics and elsewhere, there are many Western defense analysts who believe that the NATO response is too weak, and, as the result, is an invitation for Russia to take aggressive action. Upon hearing that, some officials in Riga might begin to consider what can really been gained by its robust military build-up. In his assessment for CNN, Shirreff called for a much larger NATO deployment into the Baltics and Eastern Europe, one that would represent a credible deterrent, rather than a token force that could be over-run within hours. The Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, US Army General Curtis Scaparrotti has agreed with Shirreff, but has not specified the force size and composition required to provide a credible deterrent.

A RAND Corporation study prepared for US Department of Defense centered on several tabletop war games, based on the Russian deployments into the Crimea. The war games were 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. The study found that NATO forces being deployed to the Baltics, were small. Those forces lacked the vehicles and firepower to take on the Russian juggernaut of heavy tanks and mechanized vehicles opposite them. It indicated that NATO ground troops lacked anti-aircraft artillery to fend off Russian warplanes in a wartime scenario. According to the study, “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. The RAND study concluded 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, the RAND study indicated 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.” Esse quam videri. (To be rather than to seem.)

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A RAND study assessed that Russian Federation forces could smash through NATO defenses and drive on targets such as Riga or Tallinn within 36 to 60 hours, leaving the US and NATO Allies 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 strikes and devise a long-term counter-strategy.

Has Latvia Found a Self-Directed Path?

Animus in consulendo liber. (Free spirit to decide.) When he told the New York Times, “I don’t think there is a plausible scenario for Russia invading the Baltics,” Kalnins revealed much. Latvia serves as an element of what is essentially a militarized buffer between the West and possible aggression from the east.  However, Riga may want to dial down from the hardline stance it has been taking and no longer be almost singularly engrossed in military affairs. Regarding diplomacy, the most important mission of Latvian diplomats has been creating arrangements for a long-term NATO military presence in Latvia as a defense against any threats to its territory and bolster alliance defenses from the east as well. Apparently, Latvia’s leaders would like to use diplomacy to enhance established bilateral ties with Belarus and Russia. Before diplomatic efforts of this type actually began with Belarus, and to some degree with Russia, the Latvian Ministry of Defense publicly indicated that it would not exclude engaging in dialogue in order to promote trust between two countries.  Moreover, Riga seemed to hope delicate and simple talks with Belarus and Russia could have some palliative effect and convince them that Latvia and the other Baltic States pose no threat to their interests. Riga would certainly like for them to be assured that Latvia would not provide an prospective avenue upon which the West would invade Russia. An invasion from its direction was among attacks prognosticated by the Russian Federation General Staff in their Plan of Defense of the Russian Federation.

During an official visit to Latvia by the Belarusian Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov on December 5 to December 6, 2016, Latvia and Belarus signed an agreement on defense cooperation. Prior to the meeting, Latvian Defense Ministry announced that the text of the agreement that involved Latvia and Belarus would not be released, a standard practice. However, it was also indicated before the meeting that the agreement would concern defense cooperation between the Latvian Ministry of Defense and the Belarus Ministry of Defense. The goal would be to promote cooperation between both countries in the fields of international security and defense policy, airspace surveillance, arms control, NATO’s Partnership for Peace program activities, military medicine, as well as environmental protection, cultural and sports activities in the armed forces. Ravkov’s visit also included congenial meetings between Latvian Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis and Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics. The parties discussed a wide range of issues, including bilateral military cooperation. The Belarusian delegation also visited a school in the city of Cesis that trains instructors for the National Armed Forces of Latvia. While the two countries have enjoyed what the Latvian Defense Ministry described as “fruitful cooperation” since 2004, to include a series of exchange visits and inspections taking place on both sides of the border, the signing of the agreement represents the creation of a new dimension of that relationship.

Wary officials among Latvia’s Baltic neighbors and other NATO allies might be that the willingness of Belarus to engage bilaterally with Latvia was based on a hope that it could poach Latvia from the West’s reserve. However, there is no apparent leverage Belarus could use to pry Latvia from the BCM, EU, NATO, or any other Western based organizations. There should also be little fear that Latvia officials and experts might be contaminated from contact with their Belarusian counterparts. The willingness of Belarus to talk is more likely part of an effort by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to intensify fence mending efforts with the West. 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. 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. Suspicious officials among Latvia’s Baltic neighbors and other NATO allies might be that the willingness of Belarus to engage bilaterally with Latvia was based on a hope that it could pry from the West’s hand. However, it may be part of an effort by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to mend fences with the West. 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. 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. 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].”

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From December 5 to December 6, 2016, Belarusian Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov made an official visit to Latvia. The visit included congenial meetings between Latvian Minister of Defense Raimonds Bergmanis and Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkevics. Before Ravkov left, Latvia and Belarus signed an agreement on defense cooperation.

Regarding Russia, the Latvian Ministry of Defense said on December 8, 2016, its officials met with high-level Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials to talks in Riga. The meeting’s purpose was to discuss what the Latvian Ministry of Defense said were “serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country, including large-scale training on the Latvian border.” The original invitation for talks came from Russia.  In it, Latvian officials to go to Moscow to discuss regional security. Russia sent it to Latvia via its military attache in Riga on August 2016. Riga responded by sending a reply requesting that the Russians visit Riga for talks and using the same Russian Federation military attaché as a point of contact. In a statement issued on November 22, 2016, the Latvian Ministry of Defense explained, “Latvia has consistently pointed to the fact that Russian military activity in the border area, including the development of military infrastructure, raises serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country. Moreover, Russia conducts military exercises without telling its neighbors about their time and place. Therefore, the meeting would aim to achieve greater transparency from the neighboring country’s side.” The meeting’s genesis was an invitation for talks from Russia in August 2016.  In it, Latvian officials were asked to come to Moscow to discuss regional security. Russia sent the invite to Latvia through its military attaché in Riga. Latvia responded by sending a reply requesting that the Russians visit Riga for talks and using the same Russian Federation military attaché as a point of contact. According to a press release from the Latvian Ministry of Defense, “During the discussions, the parties exchanged views on the security situation in the border area. The Latvian side emphasized that Russian military activities, including large-scale military exercises, development of military infrastructure and the creation of new military units raise concerns about Russia’s intentions and long-term ambitions in the region.” It went on to state, “Also the Latvian side emphasized that most of Russia’s advanced capabilities and large-scale training Latvian border are geared towards attack rather than defense. The released further proffered, “Considering also unfriendly and sometimes hostile rhetoric with regard to Latvia, it creates the need for Latvia to seek additional security guarantees and to step up cooperation with its allies in response to Russian military activities. Taking into account developments in the last year, the Latvian side at the meeting asked for an explanation for the scale of military activities and offered ways to reduce tensions.”

With the aim of promoting mutual openness and trust in military matters, a press release from the Latvian Ministry of Defense stated “the Latvian side offered in addition to the existing provisions of arms control, resulting from the OSCE’s Vienna Document, one further arms control evaluation visit and one inspection of Latvian-Russian border areas . . . .” Latvia also reportedly called upon Russia “to declare its readiness for greater transparency in military activities, not only in words but also in deeds.” There was no mention of what such “deeds” might be. The Russian Federation Ministry of Defense announced that there was a meeting of Defense experts in Riga on December 8th but it did not elaborate on the substance of the talks. While immediate gains of the meeting with Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials were small relative to the product of the recent meetings and agreement with Belarusian Ministry of Defense officials, its importance must be measured by the fact that formal military cooperation between Russia and Latvia had been suspended since Russia’s 2014 action in Crimea. Officials agreed to continue the dialogue between defense ministry experts of both countries.

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Latvia (shaded gold) and its neighbors. The Latvian Ministry of Defense said on December 8, 2016, its officials met with high-level Russian Federation Ministry of Defense officials to talks in Riga. The meeting’s aim was to discuss what the Latvian Ministry of Defense said were “serious questions about the intentions of the neighboring country, including large-scale training on the Latvian border.” Russia announced defense experts met in Riga but gave no details on their talks.

The Way Forward

Threat identification and threat inflation are key elements in international affairs. As a result, over the last several decades, alarmism has been prominent in thinking about international security. However, deciding whether a threat is truly urgent and important is difficult, and has potential pitfalls. John Mueller of the CATO Institute explained that alarmism, when successfully generated, very frequently leads to two responses that are serially connected and often prove to be unwise, even dangerous. First, a threatening event is treated not as an aberration, but rather as a harbinger indicating that things have suddenly become much more dangerous, will remain so, and will become worse — an exercise that might be called “massive extrapolation.” Second, there is a tendency to lash out at the threat and to overspend to deal with it without much thought about alternative policies including ones that might advocate simply letting it be. Many in the Baltic States feel that they may fall prey to Russia’s territorial ambitions. The threat that Russia poses to the Baltic States is authentic, and when one hears the tempest swirl, it is rational to prepare a defense against the storm. Clearly, Riga believes that there are options other than simply preparing for all out war or appeasement, particularly given its economic circumstances. Stating that Latvia has the right decide how to proceed with its foreign and defense policy as well as its economic development may seem analogous to lending light to the sun. Still, while Riga has the freedom to act as it chooses, it may have felt, and may still feel, a bit constrained about moving confidently toward overtures and bilateral talks. In an apparent effort to show deference to those partners, it has moved in that direction at a deliberate pace. Talks and agreements may appear to some friends and foes alike as cracks in shield against potential Russian aggression. However, nothing that Latvian officials have ever said would lead anyone to think Riga would accept what might be called poor Russian behavior.

The renowned 19th century Prussian statesman, Otto von Bismarck has been quoted as saying: “A conquering army on the border will not be stopped by eloquence.” The renowned US conservative commentator and author, William F. Buckley, Jr. warned against the devilish conceit that peace might issue from concordance with evil.  While attending day school in London, Buckley coincidently passed through the airfield at Heston Aerodrome on the rainy evening of September 30, 1938 and saw United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wave a piece of paper announcing “Peace in our time.” It is uncertain what Latvia’s latest exercise of free its will–diplomacy with Belarus and Russia–might look like in the end. There is the chance that an enterprise of this type, undertaken by Riga could collapse in a big heap. Perhaps nothing will change. Yet, Riga might just get its diplomatic effort with Belarus and Russia just right. Right actions tend to make for good deeds. The on-going enterprise holds out the promise of great rewards. Faber est suae quisque fortunae. (Every man is the artisan of his own fortune.)