Infrequently Raised Issues Concerning Taiwan Likely Influencing Decisions of Communist Party of China Leaders and PLA Commanders

Map of Taiwan (above). Note on the map that part of Taiwanese population lives on islands in the Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea, perilously close to the shore of Mainland China. Despite being a tacit ally, and over the years occasionally directly declared one by some hardline US politicans, Taiwan is understood internationally to be part of China, and Beijing refers to it as a province. China says it has held claim over the island since 239 AD. There could be no greater insult to Beijing than to hear Washington come close in words to declaring Taiwan to be an ally and within its sphere of influence and that maintaining its independence falls within US interests. It is uncertain how much longer People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping and other Communist Party of China leaders will be able to stomach what they likely perceive as the shameful global image of their new China, after literally centuries of subservience to Western powers, still unable to claim its own sovereign territory from them. Examined here is how this sentiment and others infrequently broached likely influence Party and People’s Liberation Army decisionmaking on Taiwan.

It is uncertain whether the US and its allies through their words and actions have successfully mitigated the People’s Republic of China’s plans to take control of Taiwan or Beijing is simply approaching the task very methodically, on its own schedule, leaving no appearance of feeling rushed to act militarily. What is clear however, under both circumstances, it is clear that perceptions in Beijing on either will ultimately determine how China will act. What those perceptions may prove to be is of concern among the US public. An April 3, 2021 Pew research study found that 89 percent of adults in the US “consider China a competitor or enemy rather than a partner.” The percentage of those who harbored “cold” feelings toward China increased from 46 percent in 2018 to 67 percent in 2021. During the same interval, poll participants in the US who held “very cold” feelings toward China more than doubled, from 23 percent to 47 percent. More than a few foreign and national security policy officials in the US and its allies, likely hope the status quo will hold fast. Imaginably, enough simple facts could be aggregated that might go some way to explain and support that position, which might be reasonably recognized as charitable. A temper of the soul wants to live in illusion. However, it must be accepted that convincing Beijing to surrender what it declares to be its sovereignty over Taiwan, may be akin to convincing a devoted mother to surrender her child. The Communist Party of China may even say its lead by an even deeper sense of a rightful custody. This is a very dangerous business and it appears less than likely that some peaceful resolution will be found to satisfy Beijing regarding Taiwan given how both sides have staked their respective interests. Peior est bello timor ipse belli. (Worse than war is the very fear of war.)

In attempting to inspire thinking beyond the typically raised geostrategic issues concerning US dominance in the Indo-Pacific and China’s challenge to that and the stature it has acquired as it continues to grow as a regional hegemon, and get beyond the geopolitical dynamics of East versus West, Chinese Communism versus capitalism, the eventual victory of the Communist Revolution worldwide, and so on, one might successfully discover that there are other aspects to consider in looking at key elements that drive the thinking of the Communist Party of China on Taiwan. Further thinking on matters is always possible.

The intent of greatcharlie with this essay is to offer a few new ideas that may stimulate others to peer more deeply into Beijing’s ongoing actions and intentions. Most were inspired following it’s reread of Robert Spalding’s Stealth War: How China Took Over While America’s Elite Slept (Portfolio, 2019), on which greatcharlie posted a book review on November 30, 2021. It is unlikely that all readers will find what greatcharlie presents as agreeable, this is most likely possible in the portions of the discussion that concerns how China may approach Taiwan militarily and the discussion on the possible influence of race and history upon thinking on the US by Communist Party of China leaders. However, sometimes making the effort to stimulate new ideas requires stepping a bit onto what might be deemed shaky ground. Praeterea qui alium sequitur nihil invenit, immo nec quaerit. (Besides, he who follows another not only discovers nothing but is not even investigating.)

People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping (above). There could be no greater standing insult to a more audacious and assertive China than to stand by while Washington declares Taiwan, China’s own province, to be an ally and within its sphere of influence and that maintaining its independence is in US interests. According to the facts as one knows them, the US and China since 1971 have had an implicit understanding that Washington would not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country, and China would take control of Taiwan by force. As the US since then has done as much as possible, short of recognition of Taiwan as an independent country, to provide support for the government in Taipei, one might reasonably sense that in the eyes of the Communist Party of China, the US, through its policy approaches toward the island, exercises its power over China. There is an art in the way Xi moves. If there is a way he can take control of Taiwan with acceptable loss by his calculus, he will very likely act.

Immediate Thoughts on US Regarding Taiwan That Likely Beat the Brains of Leaders in Beijing

Assessing the aggregate of sentiment expressed by the leadership of the Communist Party of China, one might posit that they believe their country’s stand, one-on-one with the US, which at one time for most of them appeared to be an indomitable power, is nothing less than heroic. At the same time, however, there is very likely some quiet recognition that Taiwan is a manifestation, a very apparent sign, of US dominance in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite being an tacit ally of the US, Taiwan is understood internationally to be part of China, and Beijing refers to it as a province. China says it has held claim over the island since 239 AD. There could be no greater insult to a more audacious and assertive China than to stand by while Washington comes close in words to declaring Taiwan to be an ally and within its sphere of influence and that maintaining its independence falls within US interests. The US approach on Taiwan has been conspicuously at variance to that taken toward China for decades on the economic front.

According to the facts as one knows them, the US and China have had an implicit understanding that Washington would not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country, and China would take control of Taiwan by force. It is an agreement that resulted from US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing in 1971. As the authorized version of the story goes, during talks with the People’s Republic of China First Premier Zhou Enlai, Kissinger agreed the US would “recognize the government in Beijing, not Taipei, as the only legitimate China.” During a November 15, 2021 virtual meeting between US President Joe Biden and Communist Party of China under People’s Republic of China President and Communist Party of China Party Secretary Xi Jinping, the issues of Taiwan’s status and security were broached. Reportedly, Biden underscored that the US was still committed to the “one China” policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the three Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances. However, he also explained that the US was strongly opposed to any unilateral efforts to change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

Given that the US for quite some time has been doing as much as possible, short of recognizing Taiwan as an independent country, to provide support for the government in Taipei, one might reasonably sense that in the eyes of the Communist Party of China, the US, through its policy approaches toward the island, exercises power over China. There may also be a belief within the Party that the US enjoys exercising that power. It is uncertain how much longer Xi and other Communist Party of China leaders will be able to stomach what they may likely perceive as the shameful image presented throughout the world of their new China, a supposed power, after literally centuries of subservience to Western powers, still unable to claim what is, by its own declarations, its own sovereign territory. All of China’s taunts of becoming the dominant power in the world appear to amount to nothing more than whistling in the wind. Certainly, regarding Taiwan, China does not display itself as the rising world power that it pretends to be. 

Surely, some foreign capitals have begun to believe Its military power and capabilities have been subject to hyperbole. Indeed, many in the world, watching it all transpire might be left with the impression that there is not a thing China can do about except lie back and take it, as unpleasurable as it may feel. An October 12, 2021 Newsweek article indicated that such feelings about the unlikelihood of China doing anything about Taiwan were recorded in a poll on the island. According to a public opinion survey released on September 29, 2021 by Taiwan’s opposition-run think tank, Intelligentsia Taipei, it was revealed that despite the apparent gathering shadows, 50.2 percent of respondents were little concerned about the prospect of war with China compared to 42.5 percent who were. Moreover, 58.8 percent believed a war with China was unlikely to happen in the next 10 years, compared to 17.6 percent who thought it was probable. A slender 2.2 percent were certain war was coming within this decade.

“Peace in Our Time”

Admirably discussed in Spalding’s Stealth War, are the matters of past US administrations’ blindness towards China’s actions and intentions and the importance of how Beijing assesses how Washington would respond to a move to retake Taiwan. In his search for a reason, a rationale, a purpose, for the current state of relations with China, Spalding, led by the data available to him explains it was the “errant” policy positions of former US administrations. At the core of those policies pursued, according to Spalding, was the misguided belief that economic development would lead the way to China’s transformation to a more democratic form of government and away from Communism. As he explains it, one is left to contemplate how such a horrifying blunder could continue on for so long. Attractive lies can worm their way into the intellect.

Regarding Beijing’s assessments on Washington’s most likely response to its taking control of Taiwan, pertinent is Spalding’s focus on how preceding US administrations perceived, constructed policies, and acted on China. It would appear that in current times, the way in which the US and its allies will respond to a move against Taiwan is how it will perceive China’s action toward its overall interests in the region. Despite what most might imagine, war may not be the obvious choice. Parsing out such concerning the US must be an ongoing process, an obsession, in Beijing at the moment. It would be part of the effort to determine how the US might react when presented with a situation as an assault on Taiwan.

Quod bellum oderunt, pro pace cum fide laborabant. (Because they hated war, they were working for peace with fidelity.) Presently 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, there must exist an opportunity to amend a position. Hypothetically, there may be an epiphany within logic and reason that leads one side to align itself with a view closely matching the other. The expectation is for senior policymakers to master the situation through their management of it. When this is the case, they can often be more precise, to an extent exact, in policy planning, formulation, and implementation. On the other hand, policymakers can sometimes be out of touch with the real situation and act on mere perceptions and perhaps faulty inferences. Errant consilia nostra, quia non habent quo derigantur; ignoranti quem portum petat nullus suus ventus est. (Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.)

There remains the real possibility that a train of atrocious, unimaginable, grave events may come to such a head that it might be impossible to wait even an hour before taking the correct action. Fighting the type of war that the US might be required to prosecute, defeat China, thwart China’s ambitions, drive it off and forever away from Taiwan might not be characteristic of certain leaders. In taking that course, there would be the potential for millions to die in China, unacceptable losses on the side of the US and its allies. Additionally, as grotesque as the thought may be, China could potentially level an unexpected, crippling blow to US naval and air forces could also result. Indeed, what might be hoped in Beijing to be a limited lighting war attack launched in the name of protecting China’s sovereignty, could become total war, a war of national survival. (Note that there is no intention by greatcharlie to put into question the personal qualities of the men and women who have honorably chosen to dutifully serve the people to the best of their abilities.) As noted in greatcharlie’s November 30, 2021 review of Stealth War, perhaps in Washington, a decision has already been made on how to proceed in such a contingency. Perhaps the decisions on the defense of Taiwan have been established as protocols. In defense of its ally, US political leaders may be obliged to comply with them. If no such protocols exist, in the end, it will boil down to what the US political leaders want from the situation, a war ending in a type of Pyrrhic victory with losses or a struggle resulting in some acceptable or tolerable new paradigm that allows for an Irenic victory, in which the two opposing sides find some resolution and at least a modicum of satisfaction. 

During the Cold War, US assessments of a possible conflict initiated by the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact satellites was a surprise attack across the Iron Curtain initiated with conventional weapons. As discussed in greatcharlie’s March 16, 2014 post entitled, “Obama Urges Putin to Pursue Diplomacy; After Crimea Is Firmly Under Russian Control, Perhaps He Will”, Bernard Brodie explained in his renowned work on military affairs and statecraft, War and Politics (Macmillan, 1973): “The attack might be general along the line, intended to wipe out NATO and take over Western Europe to the Pyrenees.” However, Brodie also suggested that “there might be some variation in diminished form, like what became known as the ‘Hamburg grab.’  In the latter instance, the Soviet forces would slice around the important city of Hamburg and then leave it up to us to try to take it back—which without large conventional forces we obviously could not do unless we were prepared for a nuclear holocaust.” In contemporary times, the question of how the US and its NATO allies might respond when Russian Federation forces marched in Crimea which was the sovereign territory of a NATO partner–not a Member State–in 2014. The manner in which the US responded on the Crimean matter could possibly have enormous implications concerning Beijing’s thinking on Taiwan.

Lex talionis. (The law of retaliation.) As far as one knows, central to arguments made in Beijing to take military action to gain and retain control of Taiwan, may very well be what was central to the argument on taking all available steps to subtly exploit the US investment in China’s possible development into a more democratic society; the character of the US political leadership. Indeed, as consideration of the character of US political leaders did much to place the US in the current challenging position with Beijing, it may influence a decision by Beijing to go to war. To that extent, the nature of the one who would make the decision in the US on how to respond to China’s aggression will make all of the difference.

People’s Liberation Army Ground Force General Li Zuocheng, Chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission (above). As far as one knows, central to arguments made in Beijing to take military action to gain and retain control of Taiwan, may very well be what was central to the argument on taking all available steps to subtly exploit the US investment in China’s possible development into a more democratic society; the character of the US political leadership. Indeed, as consideration of the character of US political leaders did much to place the US in the current challenging position with Beijing, it may influence a decision by Beijing to go to war. To that extent, the nature of the one who would make the decision in the US on how to respond to China’s aggression will make all of the difference.

Begrudging Acceptance of a New Paradigm?

Tacit and explicit threats of a military response to an assault by China on Taiwan may with difficulty be recognized as a failed effort at deterrence. Domino theories and arguments based on the like predicting China’s systematic conquest of one US ally in the Indo-Pacific region after another may fail to gain traction among the most senior decision makers in Washington. That case would be made that all along it was recognized that Taiwan’s case was quite different from that of sovereign countries in the region. If anything, in the face of Taiwan being grabbed by a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) blitzkrieg, regional allies will need to strengthen their military partnerships and coordination with the US more than ever. In the capitals in which wisdom is exalted, leaders will immediately recognize that reality.

Though very aggressive statements may be made and every coercive tool other than war, particularly economic, would surely be used, military action that may lead to devastating attacks on regional allies, increasing the loss of life, may not be seen as the best way to establish a new dynamic with a relative world power. China in control of Taiwan might be albeit reluctantly accepted as a new paradigm.

Possible War with China over Taiwan

Forecasts of all types have been made on how a conflict between China and US and its allies will ignite. Perchance there may be points in each of some value. Perhaps some are worthy of great consideration. Still, in the end, they may prove to be in the aggregate, a mass of mistaken theories, indicating that there is no certitude or uniform position established on how the PLA will come at Taiwan. For long-time China watchers and the newly interested, the near deluge of newspapers, magazine, and broadcast and online reports up to journal articles and scholarly studies on Taiwan has left available a mass of diverse assessments, making the possibility of twinkling out the most likely scenario from the pack far more difficult. Ficta voluptatis causa sint proxima veris. (Fictions should approximate the truth in order to please.)

Reuters’ Predictions

Warplanners of the armed forces of the US and its allies surely without fail have established in their professional judgment what they believe to be the most viable. There is a fairly popular theory discussed in the US newsmedia that the PLA is waging so-called gray-zone warfare against Taiwan, lending support to the theory that China’s effort to retake the self-governed territory is already underway. Gray-zone warfare reportedly includes: an almost daily campaign of threatening military exercises, aerial and naval patrols, and all manner of surveillance. China has also used sand dredgers to swarm Taiwan’s outlying islands. In response, the US and its allies have accelerated, weapons sales to Taiwan, Taiwanese regular and reserve forces have improved readiness, stockpiled munitions, organize for asymmetric warfare: It disperses and conceals hundreds of lethal, long-range missiles capable of striking at the PLA’s superior force of warships, aircraft and targets inside Chinese have been dispersed. Further reports indicate that military planners in China, the US, Taiwan, Japan and Australia are expectedly gaming out scenarios for how an attack should launch, how the island’s defenders should act, and what the likely outcome will be. As the attacker, experts recognize that China has a range of options. Options suggested include seizing Taiwan’s outlying islands such as Quemoy and Matsu and the remote Pratas Islands, military and economic blockades, or least likely, invasion. 

An intriguing November 5, 2021 Reuters online report entitled, “Reuters Investigates T-Day: The Battle for Taiwan,” examined some of the conflict scenarios. It is based on interviews with close to a dozen military strategists and 15 current and former military officers from Taiwan, the US, Australia and Japan and drawing from articles in US, Chinese, and Taiwanese military and professional journals and official publications.

It is assessed by many of Reuters‘ military experts that top PLA.commanders would likely convince Xi that an invasion, even under the most volatile circumstances, would be the biggest and most complex amphibious landing ever attempted, and is beyond the PLA’s capabilities. The alternative they foresee is an effort by China to launch a devastating air and missile attack on the island’s defenses. The military objective would be to destroy Taiwan’s military, demoralize the population and force Taipei to the negotiating table before the US and its allies can intervene.

Four PLA Dong Feng-26 (DF-26) ballistic missiles (above). The DF-46 missile is feet long, 44,000 pounds, and built to carry both conventional and nuclear warheads–was designed to obliterate aircraft carriers. It has a range of 2,500 miles, which means it can strike US warships in the western Pacific Ocean, including ships based in Japan. In order to deploy a carrier’s bombers on a mission in the South China Sea, a US aircraft carrier would have to come within the range of DF-26 and other missiles that would destroy it. The sheer amount of smaller, long-range ballistic missiles at China’s disposal and the blazing speed with which these weapons travel–six thousand miles in thirty minutes–pose, at the moment, an enormous threat to US warships.

What Must Be Remembered from Stealth War

In Stealth War, Spalding tosses into the debate on the defense of Taiwan the reality that China has thousands of precision warheads tied to a sophisticated command and control system. He expounds on this by pointing out that the Dong Feng-26 (DF-26) ballistic missile–46 feet long, 44,000 pounds, and built to carry both conventional and nuclear warheads–was designed to obliterate aircraft carriers. The DF-26 has a range of 2,500 miles, which means it can strike US warships in the western Pacific Ocean, including ships based in Japan. He gets across the idea that in order to deploy a carrier’s bombers on a mission in the South China Sea, the carrier would have to come within the range of DF-26 and other missiles that would destroy it. Though noting that the US Navy has SM-6 interceptor missiles, thought to be capable of destroying the DF-26, Spalding leaves no doubt that the sheer amount of smaller, long-range ballistic missiles at China’s disposal and the blazing speed with which these weapons travel–six thousand miles in thirty minutes–pose, at the moment, an enormous threat to US warships. To that extent, he writes: “It is conceivable that an undetected conflict might end in thirty seconds. Game over.” That is a hard saying.

Gnawing on the subject a little bit more, Spalding explains that when assessed from an economIc standpoint, the PLA constructed a $1 billion dollar missile system designed to destroy a $30 billion ship. Spalding says that there is no doubt our carriers are valuable and powerful machines. However, in plain English he also states that “their effectiveness in policing the Pacific is now extremely limited.” To that extent, ironically, the wrong message may have been repeatedly sent at an exorbitant cost. Again, introspectively, the value of the option for the US and its allies is the opportunity to rehearse cooperation, display joint power, and appreciate benefits of US leadership. Other than that and attendant technical accomplishments, in deterring China the move is valueless. In fact, no matter how necessary some action, some display would be in the face of challenges presented by Beijing to Taiwan, no greater support could be provided to the cluster of expressive hawks within the leadership in the Communist Party of China under Xi, mustering for a national war with the US.

The Digital Battlefield: A Decisive Factor?

Information and the technology used to generate, transmit, process, store, and manipulate it, has well become the primary means of obtaining an offensive or defensive advantage. Perhaps readers can cast their minds back to the era when strategists, tacticians, and military analysts were exploring the many possibilities resulting from its use in warfare. One article that greatcharlie recalls was entitled “Information Warfare: Good News and Bad News,” published in 1997 by then US Army Major Keith D. Anthony in Military Intelligence. In the 25-year-old article–which greatcharlie fortuitously discovered online, posted by the Federation of American Scientists, the author explained that military history is replete with examples of how information has been used in conflicts. He stated, “It has always been sought; sometimes it has even been used effectively, and sometimes it has been vital. The common thread, though, has been that physical engagements were still necessary to impose one’s will upon the enemy. Information warfare changes the rules.”

In the 1997 Military Intelligence article included the discussion of a translated “Military Forum” column by Zhang Feng and Li Bingyan, “Historical Mission of Soldiers Straddling 21st Century Roundup of ‘Forum for Experts on Meeting Challenge of the World Military Revolution’,” in Beijing Jiefangjunm, 2 January 1996. It reveals that over 25 years ago, the two authors recognized that this significant change had occurred in the nature of warfare, even calling it a military revolution. To that extent, one author explained, information technology is the nucleus and foundation of this revolution, for it is information and knowledge that bring change to the old practice that the military strength of an army was measured simply by the number of its armored divisions, air force wings, and aircraft carrier groups. He further stated that today, a number of invisible forces need to be taken into consideration, which include the calculation capacity, the telecommunications volume, and the reliability and real-time reconnaissance ability of relevant systems.

In the aforementioned 1996 conference paper on the burgeoning role of information technology in warfare, the notion of a digital wing of the PLA or intelligence services was nominal, only conceptualized. However, it soon became a reality. As Spalding explains in Chapter 5: “The Digital Battlefield”, in Stealth War, in making it so, it was determined that the PLA, an official security wing of the Communist Party of China, would become more than a national army, in the traditional sense of the term. Spalding goes on to explain that an organization, designated Unit 6139, became the PLA’s massive cyber warfare division. He deems it a politically sanctioned hostile military force built to prey on the West day in and day out. To that end, the PLA engages in digital assaults to access data that are both destructive–entrapping and disrupting the West by setting off digital landmines, raids, and intelligence operations–and constructive. The results of these operations–covertly harvested data–have allowed China to amass influence and power. In a political warfare mode, the goal of such work is to obtain and use influence to force other countries to cede to its way of looking at the world–how to organize society, what rights citizens should have, and encourage economic decisions that will benefit China

Spalding writes that by 2008, several published reports indicated that the Chinese government was paying tens of thousands of citizens 50 Chinese cents–the equivalent of 7 US cents–each to write an independent post promoting Party policy. By 2013, China’s state-run media reported that the propaganda wing of the Communist Party of China had hired 2 million “public opinion analysts.” Spalding assesses that number has climbed since, aided by an estimated 10 million student volunteers, who also engage in monitoring and disinformation work, both at home and on foreign websites. Meanwhile, the PLA’s force of hackers, continued to wander with near impunity, hidden, putting US counterintelligence in their shade, and continues to bombard US companies, government agencies, and political parties today

Perhaps it is bitter thIs, but an assault on Taiwan will be the occasion that among the near countless pieces of secret information, intellectual property, and actual technologies collected by China’s intelligence services, there was everything needed to thwart a successful defense of Taiwan. For the those wretched citizens and legal permanent residents of the US, who were accepted and ascended to positions of importance enough in their government, corporate, high-tech, or academic institutions to be sought out by Chinese intelligence officers and due to venal, self-interest, ideology, conspiracy, or dispaysment and love of homeland, chose to betray their country, as well as their organizations, colleagues and fellow citizens, perhaps there will be satisfaction knowing their villainy led to a prospective tragedy. For those whose responsibility was to halt the capture of key information and technologies that may have led to some tragic outcome and intercept Chinese intelligence officers who encouraged betrayal, there would surely be, among those really interested, a great burden of failure and loss, guilt and regret, to bear which could potentially take a lifetime to heal, if ever

Xi (above) during an inspection of the command center of PLA’s Joint Battle Command. The battle-dress camouflage uniform indicates that he is Commander-in-Chief of the PLA’s supreme Joint Battle Command. Xi is the long-time Chairman of the Central Military Commission. How China manages to pull Taiwan back in its fold permanently may not be as important to Xi as just getting hold of the island. Securing the island quickly with as few losses in personnel and material as possible, may require something a far cry from using the operational art, and acting with combined arms decisively to conquer territory. That may require both the complete destruction of the military capacity of Taiwan, and the complete and total destruction of property and eradication of those living there. A strategy of this type is known in military terms as a “battle of annihilation.” PLA commanders and warplanners would surely be prepared to execute such.

Pertinent Concerning Thinking of Communist Party of China Leadership and PLA Commanders about Taiwan

How China manages “to pull Taiwan back in its fold permanently” may not be as important to Xi as just getting hold of the island, again, as it is what the Communist Party of China “knows” to be China’s sovereign territory. There are military options available for reclaiming Taiwan that take a turn toward the sinister. Securing the island quickly with as few losses in personnel and material as possible, may require something a far cry from using the operational art, and acting with combined arms decisively to conquer territory. Achieving that military objective may require both the complete destruction of the military capacity of Taiwan, and the complete and total destruction of property and eradication of those living there. A strategy of this type is known in military terms as a “battle of annihilation.” PLA commanders and warplanners would surely be prepared to execute such.

Such thinking should not be deemed too fanciful or alien. To keep the discussion of the postulation brief, a model to ponder in order to better understand such an approach could be measured against how China’s military partner, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), has made the complete destruction of the capital of the Republic of Korea (South Korea), its most likely adversary, central to its defense. Indeed, it is well-accepted that North Korea has had an estimated 200,000 artillery pieces aimed at Seoul for quite some time. Ostensibly, the threat of the destruction of Seoul from the North Korean perspective was established as a deterrent to any thoughts the South Korea’s most powerful ally, the US, might have of invading and reuniting the island by force. Yet, from another perspective, the destruction of Seoul would avoid the need to capture it by ground assault. The decisionmakers and warplanners in Pyongyang have never been under any illusion that the government in Seoul would allow the North’s control of its capital and an urban battle similar to those witnessed during World War II in places such as Stalingrad (1942), Caen (1944), Manila (1945), Berlin (1945), to name only a few would delay offensive action and drain resources for initial attacks on other critical points as well as likely plans for decisive engagements in depth. With this in mind, it may not be as difficult to consider that thinking in Beijing concerning a PLA assault against Taiwan, mutatis mutandis, may be similar in concept to that of Pyongyang for Seoul. The destructive effort, of course, would be on a far larger scale. The defense of Taiwan will be ferocious. Its struggles against China’s opening attacks, however, would appear self-destructive and self-defeating. Ostensibly, the sheer weight and power of the PLA juggernaut as organized would overcome whatever defense Taiwan might have in place. On Taiwan, the scene would be nothing less than apocalyptic.

With regard to a likely decision to attack essentially all structures on Taiwan, it must be considered that the independently minded Taiwanese government falls into one of the categories of what the Communist Party of China declared to be the “five poisons.” Those five include: Uyghur advocates of the East Turkestan Independence Movement; Tibetan advocates of the Tibetan independence movement; believers of the Falun Gong; followers of China’s democracy movement; and, adherents of the Taiwan independence Movement. Looking at the matter from that angle, one might imagine leaders of the Communist Party of China long ago recognized that even if China captured the island and gained control of what remained of its civilian population, surely the work of re-education could far surpass the level of exertion put into the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and people of Hong Kong combined. Re-education indeed may have been assessed to be so difficult that it may not at all be a part of reconstruction and rejuvenation planning for the island. The sinister solution would be to mitigate the problem during the military assault. Those Taiwanese who might remain, the survivors, would most likely be relocated, probably dispersed. Far worse acts against the people–for instance the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution–blaze on the pages of Communist China’s history. The Communist Party of China’s leaders would likely be concerned that spectacle of re-education camps on the island, following a destructive assault, would hinder any post-assault diplomatic efforts to create normalcy and do much to put China’s claim to a world in jeopardy, especially given the world’s reaction to camps in Xinjiang.. Imaginably, Xi would want to avoid that after the military assault

Among those in the world rightly concerned with the circumstances of ethnic and religious minorities in China, the moral fiber of Xi has certainly been looked upon darkly by. As aforementioned, the Uyghurs, Tibetans, as well as Falun Gong and Christians are roughly handled, pressured to uncouple from their culture and traditions, philosophies, and religious tenants and assimilate into culture and beliefs of Chinese Communism. If Xi can be viewed as contorted morally on those issues and just for being able to direct state security organs to act monstrously against his own citizens on mainland China in the name of preserving the integrity of the Communist Movement and the country, and putting counterrevolutionaries and reactionaries, and organized and individual criminals, there should little doubt that Xi would do whatever he thought was necessary to gain and retain control of Taiwan.

Ethnic Uyghurs standing in formation in a secured facility (above). China’s Xinjiang region is home to around 10 million Uyghurs, Turkic Muslim people by identity. In a report released on April 19, 2021, Human Rights Watch accused the Chinese government of engaging in a systematic campaign of human rights violations against Uighur Muslims in northwestern Xinjiang, an autonomous region in the country. Up to 1 million people, or about 7 percent of the Muslim population in Xinjiang, have been incarcerated in an expanding network of “political re-education” camps, according to US officials and UN experts. One might imagine leaders of the Communist Party of China long ago recognized that even if China captured Taiwan and gained control of what remained of its civilian population, surely the work of re-education could far surpass the level of exertion put into the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and people of Hong Kong combined. Re-education indeed may have been assessed to be so difficult that it may not at all be a part of reconstruction and rejuvenation planning for the island when captured. The sinister solution would be to mitigate the problem during the military assault. Far worse acts against the people–for instance the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution–blaze on the pages of Communist China’s history.

Taiwan Pummeled?

The prospective unending aerial and naval bombardments and a long range missile onslaught from mainland China would not resemble what may already be expected and planned for. As aforementioned, there is the belief that attacks with firepower will be used not only to weaken Taiwanese forces, but destroy morale on the island and force the Taipei government to the negotiating table. However, that would take a considerable amount of time to achieve. There is a line of thinking characteristic of analyses of what is likely to happen in the event of a Chinese assault on Taiwan that leaves time available for friendly action. Sentiment should never serve as a substitute for true feeling and fact. One could be assured that the lapse of time between a prospective Chinese assault on Taiwan and the movements of the US and its allies in response has been factored into any strategy developed by PLA commanders and warplanners. Within that interval, whatever calculation of that time and distance has been predicted by PLA warplanners for the movements of their opposition, would likely be the time frame set for successful action. It would be that anticipated time frame the Communist Party of China will expect Taiwan to fall into its hands.

The bombardment of Taiwan hypothesized here would be of a size that would exponentially surpass even those witnessed during the earliest days of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001. More structures would likely be destroyed on Taiwan in the initial hours of the attack than had been built in its first 50 years. The number of lives lost on the island after a pummeling as foreseen might possibly be qualified as Biblical. 

The situation that Taiwanese military and security forces face brings to mind the French song and military march, “Le Régiment de Sambre et Meuse” by Robert Planquette and Paul Cezano. The lyrics concern a regiment that battled the Austrians in 1794 to defend the emerging French Republic. The march was composed in 1870 in an effort to raise patriotic feelings within the French public following their country’s defeat during the Franco-Prussian War. “Sambre et Meuse” is the name of a former French province that is now part of Belgium. In the fourth verse, the lyrics state: “Le nombre eut raison du courage / Un soldat restait – le dernier! / Il se défendit avec rage / Mais bientôt fut fait prisonnier. / En voyant ce héros farouche / L’ennemi pleura sur son sort / Le héros prit une cartouche / Jura, puis se donna la mort.” (Numbers prevailed over bravery. / A soldier was left standing. The last one! / He defended himself furiously, / but soon was taken prisoner. / Seeing this fierce hero, / the enemy took pity of his fate. / The hero loaded a cartridge, / cursed, then took his own life.) There is ample reason to believe China would do its worst in an effort to take control of Taiwan. If it takes untrimmed, the drastic, destructive course described here, it is likely that much as the “Régiment de Sambre et Meuse,” Taiwan as it exists today, after its capture by China, would attain immortality in memory, and perhaps also go on living only in verse. C’est une situation extrêmement désagréable.

Taiwanese soldiers in training (above). The bombardment of Taiwan hypothesized here would be of a size that would exponentially surpass even those witnessed during the earliest days of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001. More structures would likely be destroyed on Taiwan in the initial hours of the attack than had been built in its first 50 years. The number of lives lost on the island after it was pummeled might possibly be qualified as Biblical. Both pleas and demands for China to halt its action as well as fierce protests and condemnation from capitals world-wide and international and regional bodies would surely be expected and most likely be disregarded. Beijing doubtlessly would have some plan formulated well in advance to deal with such matters after Taiwan was firmly in China’s hands.

Assessing Beijing’s Likely Thinking Correctly

In greatcharlie’s February 26, 2021 post entitled, “Suggestions for Resolving the Conundrum of Chinese Intelligence Operations in the US: Fragments Developed from a Master’s Precepts,” included was an excerpt from an intriguing story by Clarice Lispector published in the Winter 2011 edition of the Paris Review, entitled, “A Story of Great Love.” Lispector writes a sentence that is conceptually germane as well to what is discussed here: “Once upon a time there was a girl who spent so much time looking at her hens that she came to understand their souls and their desires intimately.” The leaders of the Communist Party of China and PLA Joint Military Staff are certainly not hens. Still, the notion that deeper look into their respective thinking to include emotional concerns and reactions is surely valid, even if it requires giving room to intimations and “informed speculation” in the abstract. Here are a few thoughts on other ways in which Beijing may view the Taiwan matter through its lens.

Political and Economic Competition

Most often in US newsmedia commentary on China’s arguments on the difference between the US and itself, centrality is given to the difference in political systems. In a November 8, 2021 article in the Economist, it was explained that if all goes to plan for the Communist Party of China in 2022, political events in the US will ostensibly offer a study in contrasts that humiliates the US. The article suggests that China’s leaders, reading opinion polls, expect the Democratic Party to suffer a considerable set-back in the mid-term Congressional elections in November. Beijing hopes a divided government with all of its uncertainties, including gridlock, would be the possible result. If all of this transpired, supposedly China’s propaganda machine would be presented with a new chance to declare that “China enjoys order and prosperity thanks to one-party rule,” while US-style democracy “brings only chaos, dysfunction and decline.” Interestingly, if such is indeed their strategy, then the Communist Party of China’s propaganda wizards will likely find themselves moving down a blind alley. The outcome of this premeditated ideological collision would be nothing to signify.

If economics were the determining factor of a choice by the Communist Party of China to move on Taiwan, on its face there would be little chance of military action. Capitals world-wide and international and regional bodies would react harshly and the impact on China’s economy would be catastrophic. Recognizing that and hope Beijing could be brought back to reality, on the onset of an assault, both fiery demands for China to halt its action, some even accompanied by threats of military action. However, such would surely be expected and most likely be disregarded. Beijing doubtlessly would have formed a picture of what that period would look like and some plan formulated well in advance to deal with such matters after Taiwan was in China’s control. 

The Communist Party of China may calculate that China through its products and the production of those for others is sewn into the lives of nearly everyone in the world. Although foreign capitals, particularly those of highly industrialized countries, would strenuously condemn and do the maximum to isolate China, ensure its status as a pariah, they would not really want to do so. While they would take every measure possible to inflict pain and bring China to its knees, they would very unlikely cut themselves off from it for the long-term. Beijing would likely assess that political leaders in capitals world over would need to calculate what cutting their countries off from China would mean for their own economies, businesses, and institutions, as well as their own citizens’ pocketbooks. An improvement in relations sooner than later would be expected. Finely detailed plans for rejuvenating China’s economy have likely been formed and continuously updated and upgraded in case events move in the direction of war. However, until a positive change in relations got underway, the people of China would need to make do, but do so knowing that the Taiwan province was firmly in their hands.

Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Yang Jiechi (center), and People’s Republic of China Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left), in Anchorage, Alaska in March 2021. Communist Party of China leaders–though not being absolutely certain, greatcharlie will nevertheless go out on a slender thread here to ascribe the trait to Xi himself–appear to hold considerable animus toward the US. Of course, there have been waves of what has been dubbed anti-foreigner sentiment propagated by Communist Party of China leaders before. The primary case was China under Mao in the 1950s and 1960s. However, the issue of race as posited here is something different as the sentiment is not some political tool or mechanism for social control. It goes to self-esteem. self-worth, self-image. Indeed, an inner awareness, sentiment intérieur, of the racial dimension of China’s history with the US may attend Communist Party of China thoughts, beliefs, sensations, and passions, albeit very negative, toward it. To that extent, the impact on individual leaders, their attitudes and policies could possibly be strong.

Race and History

What is rarely broached is the Communist Party of China leadership’s thinking on the somewhat inviolable issue of race and history. Indeed, though seldom in the forefront of discussion and analyses, it may have a greater importance in thinking on China’s side than one might imagine. To that extent, it might influence decisionmaking on Taiwan as it concerns the US response. Further, it may influence the Party’s perceptions and actions in the face of rebuke and “punitive actions” from the US in the aftermath of Taiwan’s capture.

Communist Party of China leaders–though not being absolutely certain, greatcharlie will nevertheless go out on a slender thread here to ascribe the trait to Xi himself–appear to hold considerable animus toward the US. Of course, there have been waves of what has been dubbed anti-foreigner sentiment propagated by Communist Party of China leaders before. The primary case was China under Mao in the 1950s and 1960s. Things foreign were purged. The foreigner was the enemy. However, the issue of race as posited here is something different as the sentiment is not some political tool or mechanism for social control. It goes to self-esteem. self-worth, self-image. Indeed, an inner awareness, sentiment intérieur, of the racial dimension of China’s history with the US may attend Communist Party of China thoughts, beliefs, sensations, and passions, albeit very negative, toward it. To that extent, the impact on individual leaders could possibly be strong.

Perchance, on some far deeper level, the leadership of the Party may want to leave no doubt that the men calling shots today in China are not little coolies who came to the old West to labor on the railroads sporting shaved heads and queues–ponytail first worn by the Jurchen and Manchu peoples of Manchuria, and later was required to be worn by male subjects of Qing Chinai–an indication of submission, who unfortunately suffered incalculable indignities at the hands of their exploiting hosts.

Party leaders likely want to leave no doubt that China’s military is not the same lesser-skilled and equipped, albeit courageous force, that suffered atrocious losses nearly a century later during the Korean War. China, then under Mao Zedong chose to go into North Korea to support the Communist Movement led by Kim Il-sung, providing far more than their partners in the Soviet Union. Apocalyptic size casualty lists resulted from frontal assaults, human wave attacks, on hilltops dubbed by US forces with names such as the Ice Cream Cone, Punchbowl, Heartbreak Ridge, Hill Triangle, Hill Eerie, Jane Russell, Old Baldy, T-Bone, and Pork Chop. Although these battles are long forgotten to the great majority in the US, are doubtlessly firm in the minds of Communist Party of China leaders and one might imagine stories of relatives lost are likely still told within a sizable number of families in China, too!

Party leaders likely want to leave no doubt that they are aware of, what they may believe are, prevailing images and impressions of the Asian male, particularly the Chinese male, are in the West. Statistics may show that some change has occurred and more positive, politically acceptable images of Asians in the US and the West in general are now the norm. According to a new Pew Research Center survey produced in this era of COVID-19, the vast majority of Asian adults (81%) also say violence against them is increasing, far surpassing the share of all US adults (56%) who say the same. To go further, it appears to be the case empirically that negative impressions of the Asian male, and most relevant here, the Chinese male, have seemed to stick. Suffice it to say they are still often portrayed appallingly in Western entertainment media as amusing little men, most often comedic, socially inept, even pathetic, stubborn and suspicious, brash and insufferable, and exuding scattered energy.

An awareness of Western impressions of the Asian male as noted here appears to factor into thinking, planning, and action at many levels in international affairs. As reported in greatcharlie’s May 24, 2021 post entitled, “Food for Thought for US Companies Maintaining Robust Operations in China despite Beijing’s Strained Relations with Washington”, during a bilateral meeting in Anchorage, Alaska in March 2021 between a US delegation led by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, and a People’s Republic of China delegation led by the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Yang Jiechi, and People’s Republic of China Foreign Minister Wang Yi, there was a heated diplomatic exchange. As the story goes, Blinken started the meeting off by telling the delegation from China that the US intended to address “deep concerns” over the treatment of the Chinese citizens in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and the situation with Taiwan. However, Yang responded boldly, taking a bit of time to express sharp criticism of the US over what he described as its struggling democracy, poor treatment of minorities, and over its foreign and trade policies. Yang, as well as Wang when he spoke immediately after him, comported themselves with a certain astringency. Their words were unkind and ungenerous, ostensibly designed to embarrass the new administration in Washington.

A large part of communication comes down to tonality, how one sounds. The choice by Chinese officials to respond angrily was at the time explained by and large in the US newsmedia and foreign policy circles mainly to be a matter of expediency. Perhaps instead, the words of the Chinese officials reflect more what greatcharlie has previously described as the Communist Party of China’s unsheathed antipathy toward the US. One might not be going too far to state the words spoken by Yang, a senior member of the Communist Party of China. smacked of something more personal.

Sensibilities on race and history may also account in part for the popularity and acceptance of the Communist Party of China and the population in general of the recent compensating and repairing image of “Wolf Warrior” in the Chinese film industry. Released in 2015, “Wolf Warrior” presents the adventures of Leng Feng, a PLA special operations sniper who is as tough as nails, smart, and near invincible, who is also popular with females, including his special operations commander, the beautiful Long Xiaoyun. Its sequel, “Wolf Warrior 2,” released in 2017, was the highest grossing film of all time in China.

Stirring poster for the film “Wolf Warrior” (above). Sensibilities on race and history may also account in part for the popularity and acceptance of the Communist Party of China and the population in general of the recent compensating and repairing image of “Wolf Warrior” in the Chinese film industry. Released in 2015, “Wolf Warrior” presents the adventures of Leng Feng, a PLA special operations sniper who is as tough as nails, smart, and near invincible, who is also popular with females, including his special operations commander, the beautiful Long Xiaoyun. Its sequel, “Wolf Warrior 2,” released in 2017, was the highest grossing film of all time in China.

Perhaps the mere thought of these indignities, as well as others, super charges the desire among leaders of the Communist Party of China, at the far end of the spectrum of possibilities, to obliterate both the memory and the progenitors of the offenders, generally. As such, it might also be an attendant element of Xi thinking, it may not be too fanciful to believe that he would enthusiastically take on the West via an assault on Taiwan to do his part to forever wipe away the image of the little people of China who are available to be bullied and a country, despite its achievements is merely tolerated as a player on the international stage, and spoken of in foreign capitals as an annoyance or nuisance as much as anything else. Lessons of China’s Communist Movement perhaps suggest to him that the habit of a lifetime for many in the world of viewing the Chinese people in such a condescending way cannot be altered by anything except an appropriate display of force. Etiam sapientibus cupido gloriae novissima exuitur. (The desire for glory is the last infirmity to be cast off even by the wise.)

While one could imagine that thoughts of issues concerning race and history might often inflame even Xi’s sense with ardor to lash out with China’s newly minted military might. Yet, to the knowledge of greatcharlie, Xi is not at all known for being hotheaded or indiscreet when discussing national security issues or  foreign relations, at least not publicly. Surely, if such moments of madding fever have at all occurred, doubtlessly sangfroid and equanimity have prevailed over them. Any strong feelings are harnessed and redirected in calibrated ways in actions against the interests of what might be deemed in Beijing as the main opponent. From what has been presented publicly, it seems that national leaders who have talked with Xi have not encountered or have failed to discern any thinking or attitude of this kind. If he has been able to hold such within, perhaps it could be said that Xi, a complex man, perhaps has mastered the art of being all things to all people, but never at last to be a particular thing to anyone. What is also known publicly is that national leaders leave talks with Xi feeling they understand him and have handle on matters concerning China. Alas, they very seldom do. 

While the issue of race and history may be looked upon as a supposable issue and among those belonging to the far side of analyses on Communist Party of China thinking concerning a possible military assault on Taiwan or worse viewed to be of no-account. Some internationally may perceive this discussion as a projection of the dysfunction on race and ethnicity that has long-plagued the US. Nevertheless, race and history may indeed be a very impactful factor if the US hopes to negotiate an agreement with China that will help sustain the relative peace, slow the marshaling of forces and other requisite preparations on the mainland for an assault on Taiwan. The influence of thoughts about race and history, as partially outlined here, is surely within the bounds of possibility. Issues of race would not be some element alien to the consciousness and the decisionmaking of the leaders of the Communist Party of China. If one were only remotely aware of how the Communist Party of China has responded to the Tibetan, Uyghur, and other Muslims, as well as people of Christian faith and others, issues aforementioned in this essay, the claim could hardly be made that race would unlikely be an issue of concern to the Party’s leadership.

A fuller discussion or argument on these points will certainly not be presented here. Imaginably, there may be the urge among some reading what little has been discussed here to dismiss the matter as a possible peripheral issue, however, for all one knows the matter may very well factor into the thinking of the Communist Party of China leaders specifically on the Taiwan issue. That makes it worthy of consideration. All doors inside the thinking within the Communist Party of China leadership must be opened and the interiors that they open to must be fully examined.

A rare public expression of disapproval in Xi’s countenance (above). While one could imagine that thoughts of issues concerning race and history might often inflame even Xi’s sense with ardor to lash out with China’s newly minted military might. Yet, to the knowledge of greatcharlie, Xi is not at all known for being hotheaded or indiscreet when discussing national security issues or  foreign relations, at least not publicly. Surely, if such moments of madding fever have at all occurred, doubtlessly sangfroid and equanimity have prevailed during them. Any strong feelings are harnessed and redirected in calibrated ways in actions against the interests of what might be deemed in Beijing as the main opponent.

The Way Forward

Est tempus quando nihil, est tempus quando aliquid, nullum tamen est tempus in quo dicenda sunt omnia. (There is a time when nothing may be said, a time when something may be said, but no time when all things may be said.) While recognizing in current analyses that major challenges exist, it may be worth giving consideration to the idea that too much of what is intrinsic to the thinking of US policymakers and warplanners–at least on the surface for that cadre–is being projected on Xi, the Communist Party of China leadership, and the Chinese military command and warplanners. Perchance in Beijing, they would gladly accept that outcome as there would be nothing better than to have decision makers of their main opponent blind as beetles. They would relish discovering that those decision makers have been clouding and obscuring their own thinking and negating what may be a deeper awareness when the pieces of what is known are out together in the subconscious, absent thoughts of political leaders’ expectations. Of course, they indubitably hold themselves to the duty of speaking truth to power as Spalding has in Stealth War and throughout his military career, but they may be ignoring and obviating what may twinkle in their intuition and intimations, and as a result, some analyses perhaps are being driven in the wrong direction. There may be the chance that greatcharlie is ruminating on something here that some US warplanners may feel unable to say themselves under current circumstances. The odds are not enormously against this theory being a reality. Yet, entertaining a discussion of these issues would doubtlessly disrupt routine examinations and responses. That is a hard saying. Hopefully, there is currently no place for intransigence. Certainly, discernment is always required, but with regard to China, no precaution should be neglected.

In previous posts on Chinese intelligence operations in the US, greatcharlie has suggested that if firm understandings of how the Chinese operate in the US and lessons learned regularly are aggregated with thinking from outside he national security bureaucracies, new lines of sight may be opened into difficult problems by which old hands in the US counterintelligence services would surely find advantage by including in their analyses. Ostensibly, the thinking of those fromm the outside would not be biased by any existing theories and prescriptions. Perhaps a similar recommendation could be made on the matter of how China may move against Taiwan. Based on how things appear and continued lack of real success, it would seem greatcharlie’s cautious appeals for US counterintelligence services to seek assistance from certain recherché thinking individuals from outside the national security bureaucracies, who could possibly help to resolve the conundrum of the Chinese espionage storm, amounted to watering dead plants. One might reasonably get the impression the matter is just not a real emergency, not that important. Alas, with that track record as a measure, it seems unlikely there would be a belief that any step in the direction of seeking assistance from external sources on the Taiwan matter would accomplish anything greater. Somehow, left to their own devices, they may move from where they are to where they ought to be. Fata volentem ducunt, nolentem trahunt. (Fate leads the willing, and drags the unwilling.)

“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.