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

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

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

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

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

Background: Putin and the US

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

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

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

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

Summit Cancellation 2013: The Catalyst

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

The Op-Ed

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

Russia Is Ousted From Group of 8 by US and Allies: Things Aren’t Improving on Ukraine, But Maybe General Dempsey Can Change That

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, is cast in the same mold of a long line of senior military leaders who have effectively advised US presidents in time of crisis.

According to a March 24, 2014, New York Times article entitled “Russia Is Ousted from Group of 8 by US and Allies,” US President Barack Obama and other leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies cast Russia out of their organization to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for his annexation of Crimea.  The leaders also threatened tougher sanctions against Russian interests if Putin escalates aggression against Ukraine.   When asked to discuss such efforts to compel a change in course by Russia, Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have literally shrugged their shoulders.  Other Russian officials have scoffed and mocked such measures with great bluster.  Where possible, Putin has taken parallel actions against US and other Western interests in Russia. 

Though it seems Putin may be content with his military achievements so far, US officials, policy experts, journalists, as well as pundits outside of the policy making process, insist upon ratcheting up the situation, publicly declaring that an even greater threat exists from Putin.  Indeed, they pessimistically imagine Putin engaging in further aggression, ostensibly attempting to also annex territories of various former Soviet republics in which ethnic-Russian populations dominate, using the pretext of self-determination with those groups.  In doing so, they perhaps unwittingly have suggested Putin’s actions may mirror former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s efforts to grab ethnic-Serbian held territory in break-away Yugoslav republics to form a “Greater Serbia.”

Putin is astute enough to realize Crimea may be more than enough for Russia to handle.  As former US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage recently commented at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event, “We’re going to see if Crimea becomes a small bone in Putin’s throat.”  In that vein, the US and its Western partners will have their hands full, too, trying to build Ukraine up economically, politically, socially, and militarily. Russian media reports remain rife with suspicions and accusations of US involvement in the collapse of the regime in Kiev that was friendly to Moscow.  They emphasize to the Russian people that their country has an upper hand in the situation.  One news anchor in Moscow reminded Russian viewers that “Russia is still the only country in the world capable of turning the U.S.A. into radioactive ash.”

On the positive side, meetings between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who have regularly worked together on other urgent and important issues for both countries, have already begun.  Every effective channel reportedly has been opened by the US to express a message to Russians of US concerns about Ukraine.  However, there seems to be a notion held by Putin and Russian officials in their heightened state of alert that any efforts to find common ground with the US would amount to appeasement.  Expressions of US positions have been interpreted as US demands, eliciting a reflex response by Moscow not only to reject those positions, but any proposals drawn from them.  Communications are now somewhat mangled.  All important telephone conversations between Obama and Putin have been reduced to bristling confrontations between the two.  By all accounts, the conversations very likely would have been a finger-wagging sessions between Putin and Obama if they had taken place face to face.  The situation remains tense and dangerous.

Thinking outside of the box, handling the Russians, even with very apparent political and diplomatic aspects of the problem, might be facilitated with more input from a member of the US national security team who had recent success in negotiating with senior Russian military officials on critical defense matters.  That individual is US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.  In addition to knowing what the most concerning Russian military capabilities and possibilities for action might be, his professional military experience, depth of knowledge, understanding of history, insights and worldliness, make him someone Obama perhaps could rely on more heavily for advice on the Ukrainian crisis.  Indeed, as a senior military officer he may possesses the capability of being effective in advising Obama in such crises in a way perhaps not possible for other presidential advisers at the moment.

Dempsey was recommended for the job of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Gates had already nominated Dempsey to be the Army Chief of Staff. In his recent book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf, 2014), Gates explains that Dempsey had commanded forces in Iraq and command in Iraq or Afghanistan was a quality he wanted in the next chairman.  Gates also thought Dempsey had also performed superbly as the deputy commander and acting commander of the US Central Command.  When notifying Dempsey of his decision to nominate him as chairman, Gates explained to Dempsey that he was well-equipped to face the challenges of the budget, to lead the chiefs as a team, to maintain cohesion, and to help a new secretary of defense manage the relationship between the military services and the president.  Obama has clearly been very satisfied with Dempsey, selecting him twice as chairman.

Dempsey has dealt with a challenging agenda since assuming his present post.  Most relevant in the Ukraine crisis has been Dempsey’s part of the process of ensuring sustained positive US-Russian relations.  Dempsey recently demonstrated his ability to manage line of communication and promote constructive conversations with the Russians when he met with General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on January 21, 2014, in Brussels.  In that long-scheduled meeting, Dempsey displayed solid judgment and diplomatic acumen to advance an agenda for bilateral military relations.  The two generals produced a workable agreement that detailed 67 activities on which the armed forces of the US and Russia would continue to cooperate, despite pre-existing political and diplomatic problems and new concerns that arose over security assistance at the Sochi Olympic Games.  Indeed, the meeting came amidst a blitz of criticism leveled against Putin and organizers of the Games by US officials.  Those criticisms served to create the impression worldwide that the Games in Sochi were not safe to visit. The comments were almost perfectly designed to evoke the worst reaction possible from the Russians. 

Upon seeing Gerasimov, Dempsey likely noted he was a tough general, but not totally devoid of charm. As recounted through press reports of the Moscow Times, RT, RIA Novosti, Interfax, and other Russian press offices and of the American Forces Press Service (AFPS), Reuters, and the New York Times, Dempsey sought cooperation from Gerasimov through encouraging him to consider their unique situation as commanders of the most powerful military forces in the world.  Both were well aware of the esoteric, advanced, and frightening technologies that could be brought to bear in war and the need to maintain peace and stability in their nations’ relations and throughout the world.  Cooperation was the best way to achieve that end.  Dempsey was quoted as saying, “I think we have an opportunity to advance the relationship on areas of common interest.” Issues such as the US missile defense system, vehemently opposed by Moscow, were discussed.  However, Dempsey noted to Gerasimov’s apparent appreciation that Russia was a vital partner to NATO providing supply lines for its mission in Afghanistan, agreeing to allow the movement of nonlethal material to and from the war zone through Russian territory.  That rail and road network is becoming increasingly important as protests in Pakistan choke efforts to use the more convenient supply lines there.  Dempsey reassured Gerasimov about US and NATO efforts to ensure stability in Afghanistan after the departure of the International Security Assistance Force at the end of 2014.  Gerasimov asked for regular updates on the US and NATO effort to train, advise, and equip Afghan National Security Forces, as well as Afghanistan’s ability to maintain and control transportation lines in and out of the country. In an AFPS interview, Dempsey was quoted as stating: “We agree that a stable Afghanistan that is not a sanctuary for terrorism is in our common interests.”

By the end of the meeting, Gerasimov was comfortable enough to endorse “regular contacts” between their militaries as “quite useful.”  Pointing to the less than congenial political and diplomatic relations between the US and Russia, Dempsey said it was important for the militaries “not to foreclose on conversations, even if at some points there are disagreements that prevent the forward movement” in other parts of the relationship whether political or diplomatic.  There could be no better time to consider using of that effective line of communication than now.

At the same meeting, to ensure a safe and secure Olympics, Dempsey made a nearly open-ended offer to Gerasimov to provide “full assistance” from the US military, echoing an offer made to Putin by phone that same week.  Gerasimov’s reaction of expressing a need for anti-IED technology was plausible to the extent that Islamic militants could have used roadside bombs against Russian government or civilian vehicle at the Games.  However, Russian Islamic militants were viewed as more likely to carry out a martyrdom operation (suicide attack) than plant a roadside bomb and detonate it at a distance.  If Gerasimov hoped to exploit US concerns and generosity, that all stopped with Dempsey.  He understood the implications of just giving it away, nonetheless, Dempsey remained quite respectful of the Russians’ request.  He understood that it was after all the job of the Russian security services to seek advantages over potential adversaries, and the effort to exploit the thinking among US political officials should have been expected.  There was a guarantee that Dempsey despite Gerasimov’s push for US technology would be guided foremost by his duty to defend the US.  Abiding by that, Dempsey seemingly, instinctively stood his ground against Russian appeals “in the interest of improving military cooperation and communication” while truly seeking to further military ties likely more earnestly than his Russian counterpart.

Dempsey’s insight on working with military elements of the Russian government could help his president through this crisis.  Dempsey may very likely be able to demonstrate that there is a way to deal with Russians even under current conditions.  He may be able to bring Russia to the diplomatic table, despite the very militaristic and aggressive mindset in which Russian leaders are currently steeped.  In a pinch, he may very-well act as a brake on any possible runaway breakdown in US-Russian communications. 

However, to be most effective in providing perspective and military advice from the chiefs for Obama on Ukraine, Dempsey would need to heed lessons from his experience with Obama on Syria in August 2013.  From that experience, Dempsey likely foresaw difficulties advisers would have in getting Obama to rapidly come to terms with any plans or proposals offered on Ukraine.  Providing a range of military option to effectively achieve objectives based on the president’s concepts, would be not be sufficient enough with Obama.  On Syria, Dempsey was initially tasked with providing advice and viable options for calibrated military strikes in response to Obama’s expressed goal of deterring and degrading Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. In his Rose Garden statement, Obama took comfort in Dempsey’s advice, stating confidently: “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose.  Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.”  Yet, Obama was actually driven to resolve the crisis not by military action, but in a manner that would allow his worldview—that problems can be solved at the diplomatic table using reason and logic—to win through.  Unable to quickly find that handle to the situation, uncertainty and indecisiveness ultimately prevailed.  Obama was apparently paralyzed by fears of a bitter scenario that would have the US and the region embroiled in a larger conflict as a result of such action.  That was coupled by his concerns over the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against Assad regime.  Not knowing how best to respond, Obama strayed from a path of assertive and decisive action which most likely would have achieved all military goals and had a strong educational effect on Assad.  After making very shrill accusations that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had crossed his red-line by using chemical weapons, Obama made the now world renown decision not to take military action.  Obama settled for a deal Russia proposed and negotiated with the US to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.

Seeing how wrenching and difficult the decision making process on Syria was for his president, Dempsey surely understands that to ensure advice to Obama on Ukraine would be effective, the advice of the chiefs on military aspects of the situation would need to go in tandem with helping Obama remain strong and of good courage in the face of daunting circumstances.  Fears of greater problems stimulate the imagination, can lead to a pessimistic outlook on the future, and often cause a leader to deviate from a path.  Remaining confident a resolute when a crisis is brewing is made more difficult in a dispute such as the one between the US and Russia on Ukraine, when party seems determined to maintain an environment unfavorble for communication.  Dempsey’s advice in that respect would need to be direct and personal.  An example of how Dempsey might proceed would be to first put matters in perspective by discussing Ukraine from the context of the military stalemate that has existed between the US and Russia during and since the Cold War based in part on first-hand experience as a US Army officer.  Following that, Dempsey could assist Obama in understanding the calculated risks and possible outcomes of a variety of diplomatic and military initiatives with Russia given assessments made both in the past and present to make the situation more controllable for his president.  Consideration of what is possible to do and what will likely be faced would also facilitate reaching decisions on options to help bring Putin and Russian officials to a point where negotiation on the issues might be possible.  That is the advice Obama apparently wants foremost.  Along the way, Dempsey could continually assure Obama that he has the full support of the military chiefs.  He could assist Obama in mulling over possible courses of action to ensure a sharpening of his perception and clarity of direction.

Boiled down, Dempsey’s role would be that of mentor or coach for Obama, who apparently is still trying to understand how to manage US military capabilities, leveraging US strength through diplomacy and engaging in decision making on the use of force to deter and defeat opponents.  Putin and Russian officials may discern “tweaks” in Obama administration’s message and communications prompted by Dempsey, and respond favorably to a request to negotiate.

The Way Forward

The US and its European partners have met to discuss and level sanctions and other economic actions against Russian interests in retribution to the Crimea-grab and to deter Russian efforts to further destabilize a weak Ukraine.  However, Putin has executed plans to annex Crimea and a return to the status quo ante will not occur.  For Obama’s advisers, finding ways to bring Russia to the diplomatic table, given the confrontational attitude of Putin and Russian leaders, has been challenging.  However, resolving the Ukraine crisis may more importantly require bringing Obama to see and understand that it requires a certain agility to develop solutions for coping with opponents whose thinking is different from his own.  “Might doesn’t make right,” an utterance recently heard from Obama, is not best philosophy to which one might subscribe when dealing with real aggression.  This is particularly true for the US which predicates its ability to engage effectively in diplomacy worldwide on its capability to enforce its policies and protect its interests with considerable military power.

Advisers such as Susan Rice, Antony Blinken, Wendy Sherman, and Samantha Power, in addition to well-experience officials as Joe Biden, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John Brennan, certainly have a great deal to offer to Obama.  Yet, results show that they, most likely for various important reasons, have been unable able to reach Obama over the Ukraine crisis in a manner that has allowed him to appear truly in control of the situation.  There is a certain “human element” to advising leaders in time of crisis. In recent history, a line of remarkable senior military officers have very effectively served their presidents in a manner described here. Included among them are: Maxwell Taylor, Brent Scowcroft, Stansfield Turner, Alexander Haig, Colin Powell, and James Jones.  Dempsey was recommended as chairman based on his military experience.  That same military experience made him “expert” in encouraging, advising, and coaching fellow commanders in difficult circumstances.  Dempsey’s counsel would truly help his president in dealing with Putin and the Russians beyond the battlefield or even the diplomatic table.  Hopefully, Obama will somehow come to understand the benefits that would come from more fully utilizing Dempsey, and seek “greater” counsel from him soon.

Politics and a Ruptured Tendon Didn’t Faze the Lead US Negotiator, But They’ve Likely Fed into Iranian Perceptions of US Frailty

In a December 1, 2013 article in the New York Times entitled, “Politics and a Ruptured Tendon Don’t Faze Lead Iran Negotiator,” it was reported that US Under Secretary of State, and lead US negotiator with Iran, Wendy Sherman, fell and ruptured a tendon in her finger.  She was on her way to brief highly skeptical Members of Congress about the deal she was negotiating in secretive talks with the Iranians.  The article explained that Sherman simply packed her finger in ice right after her fall, went into a secure room, and continued her briefing to Congress on uranium enrichment levels and current intelligence on Iran.  Only afterward did she go to an emergency room.  The White House used the incident as an opportunity to influence perceptions of Sherman in the Congress and in Iran. She was called “focused” and “tenacious.”  Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken, who has coordinated Iran strategy, was quoted as saying, “She’s not the kind to pay attention to pain.”  While Members of Congress may have been impressed by reports of the very dutiful public servant’s dsiplay of physical toughness, the White House had little chance of using poaitive spin to influence perceptions of Sherman in Iran. 

In Iran, Sherman’s injury may very well have fed into a perception that the US government, has become weaker; somewhat frail, and willing to compromise when previous US administrations never would have. A specious notion of the flexibility displayed by the Obama administration in talks with Iran represented a type of frailty appears to have become dogma among hardliners in Tehran.  It has compelled many Iranian officials to publicly deride the US government as being indecisive and pliant to Iran’s demands at Geneva.  The recently signed interim accord represented nothing less than conquest over the US within certain power centers.  Conversely, US officials, particularly US Secretary of State John Kerry, Sherman, and Blinken have remained discreet and have refrained from making many public remarks about Iran and the Geneva talks.  Yet, the jabs have been not been one-sided.  Political pundits in the US, without much public rebuke or challenge from Obama administration officials, have characterized Iran’s chief negotiator, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, as being humbled by the negotiation process.  They have claimed Iran was driven to accept the recent accord constructed in talks with the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China.  (We now know there were also on-going, dual-track, bilateral talks between the US and Iran.)

In his public statements, Zarif has directly challenged the view that Iran caved in to US demands.  Moreover, he has made statements that unquestionably play into the sense that Iran “got one over” on the US and the West.  He appears extremely confident that he will reach all of Iran’s goals through the negotiation.  Nothing Zarif has said varies much from statements made by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders, and hardline political and religious leaders.  However, Zarif must be careful not to lean so far to satisfy superiors and hardliners with his public statements that he erodes existing trust Western negotiators have in him.  More importantly, he must be careful not to forge ahead, by taking steps shaped by dogma and public boasts.  That could lead to unintended consequences for Iran in the near future.

At first Zarif’s remarks seemed to be an attempt to publicly hash out difficult issues in negotiation.  Following the initial Geneva meeting between US and Iranian negotiators early in October 2013, Zarif requested a new proposal from the US, dismissing a February proposal from the Obama administration to presented to Iran.to which it did not respond.  However, soon afterward, the main concern in Zarif’s public statements became Iran’s right to enrich uranium.  Included among them was the “trial balloon” Zarif released of including the provision in the interim agreement by which the P5+1 would not need to recognize Iran’s right to enrich to remedy a stalemate on its language.  Zarif told the ISNA news agency, “Not only do we consider that Iran’s tight to enrich is unnegotiable, but we see no need for that to be recognized as ‘a right’. because this right is inalienable and all countires must respect that .” 

Once the November 23, 2013 agreement was reached in Geneva, Zarif’s comments seemed more assertive.  On Twitter, Zarif insisted that Iran retained its right to enrich despite comments to the contrary from US officials and political pundits.  He tweeted, “The right to enrichment emanates from the inalienable right in NPT, defined by 2010 NPT Review Conference to include fuel cycle activities.”  He stated that according to the 2010 NPT Review, “each country’s policies and choices with regard to peaceful nuclear energy including its fuel cycle policies should be respected.”  He further stated that the “US and all other E3+3 joined the 2010 consensus at the NPT Review Conference.  The right was first recognized by consensus in 1978 SSODI [Special Session on Disarmament].”  His statement was compelling, nevertheless, that issue was no longer being debated.  Iran agreed in the new accord to freeze the expansion of its nuclear activities, and refrain from uranium enrichment above low-level purity, including 20 percent.  Zarif appeared to be pointing out that the interim accord was at all not in line with the terms of international agreements Iran to which was already committed on nuclear technology and that Iran did not necessarily need to adhere to the new interim accord.

After the interim accord was reached, the official IRNA news agency quoted Zarif as saying in Tehran, “Iran will decide the level of enrichment according to its needs for different purposes.”  He made it clear that “Only details of the enrichment activities are negotiable” referring to the final accord.  According to the Fars news agency, Zarif stated “We have always said we will not allow anyone to determine our needs.”  He went on to state “But we are prepared to negotiate about it.”  However, the US, Britain, France, and Germany hope the final agreement will scale back Iran’s uranium enrichment activities, which could be redirected at producing highly enrich uranium for creating a nuclear device.  Zarif’s statements again indicated that although he helped cobble and sign the interim accord, however the decision on how Iran would proceed on the issues covered by the accord was open to the judgement of Islamic Republic’s leadership.  Choppy waters may lie ahead for the Geneva talks given Zarif’s intriguing representations of facts and their ambiguous statements about Iran’s rights after signing the interim accord.  

In a letter regarding the Geneva talks from Rouhani to Khamenei published in the Iranian news media, Rouhani stated “The first step advanced an acknowledgement of Iran’s nuclear rights and right to enrich by world powers—who tried to deny them for years—and opened a path for the next steps to protect the technological and economic advances of the country.”  Before and after his election, Rouhani insisted that Iran be treated as an equal in its relations with the US.  To support the dialogue between nations, the Obama administration approached bilateral talks with Iran based on this notion of equality.  In reality, however, thie two states are not equal.  In spite of steep cuts ib the size of the US armed forces by the Obama administration and economic woes, the US remains a nuclear armed superpower.  As a nation, the US is strong and certainly not a push over.  Despite the claims of some political pundits, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a nuclear weapons program or a few devices will not deter a US attack.

Zarif’s superiors in Tehran want economic sanctions lifted and the ability to use their nuclear program as they choose.  However, Zarif, a true diplomat, is astute enough to know that Geneva will not be a “slam dunk.”  He must know that significant sanctions relief would be difficult, if not impossible to realize, without a significant and permanent change regarding Iran’s nuclear program.  Further, despite what might be thought in Tehran, the true focus of the Geneva process is not sanctions, but Iran’s potential development and use of nuclear weapons.  Talks about nuclear weapons concern nuclear war, and for that reason, the talks to some degree regard the very survival of Iran as a nation.  

For nearly six decades, the US has been engaged in nuclear talks, initially with the Soviet Union, and with Russia and North Korea since.  Those talks have concerned issues such as the size of nuclear forces, production of weapons, and testing.  Known better as as arms control talks when concerning the Russians, they have been important enough that summit meetings often become part of the process.  Public discussion of furtive aspects of such negotiations is typically negligible.  That should also be the case for the Geneva talks.

Perhaps the Obama administration has made significant concessions to reach an historic” agreement.  It could very well be that Zarif and the Iranian leadership have scored one on the White House.  Yet, the president, his cabinet, and his staff are caretakers of the US government.  A new administration will govern in the US in three years.  It would be a tragedy for the new administration to discover, after coming to office, that the Geneva negotiations were, as Khamenei indicated, “an artificial maneuver and utilized various methods to achieve various goals and ideals of the Islamic system.”  The incoming president’s response to a bad agreement reached now, or breached one, may be severe.  Given the list of prospective candidates for the 2016 US presidential election, it is almost certain that the requisite political will to take action will exist.  It would be in everyone’s interest for Zarif not to exploit problems he may perceive in the Obama administration, but rather, negotiate unequivocal terms Iran truly intends to keep.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (at right) confers with the Head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization (IAEO) Ali Akbar Salehi (at left), at the November 25, 2013 IAEO Basij Conference.  Salehi was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s foreign minister.  Before taking that post, Salehi served as head of the IAEO for a year.  Prior to that, Salehi was Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency.  Both officials know what is at stake in Geneva.  Surely, Zarif hopes they will still be able to smile at the end of the negotiations.