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

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

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

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

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

Putin Has Said Some Interesting Things about the Soviet Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

The KGB Factor

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

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

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

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

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

On Putin’s KGB Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do Russians Want to Go Back to Soviet Days?

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

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

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

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

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

The World Does Not Miss the Soviet Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Has Putin Established in Russia?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Troubling Manifestations

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

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

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

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

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

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

Un Grand Défi

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

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

Book Review: Donald P. Gregg, Pot Shards: Fragments of a Life Lived in CIA, the White House, and the Two Koreas (Vellum, 2014)

Pot Shards presents the life and times of Ambassador Donald P. Gregg (above), an individual who contributed greatly to US foreign and national security policy. Readers are taken on a journey through Northeast and Southeast Asia and halls of power in Washington, DC. Readers will discover how much Gregg valued others and his value to humanity.

The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training (ADST) is an independent, non-profit organization that advances the understanding of diplomacy and supports the training of foreign affairs personnel through a variety of programs and activities. As part of its Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, it has prepared thousands of transcripts of interviews recorded with US Foreign Service veterans.  These excellent oral histories present the realities of diplomacy to include thought provoking, sometimes absurd, and often horrifying stories from which valuable lessons can be drawn.  In April 2014, ADST graciously authorized greatcharlie.com to present the oral history of Ambassador Donald P. Gregg, an authentic intelligence professional and consummate diplomat.  In July 2014, Gregg published his extraordinary, must read memoirs entitled, Pot Shards: Fragments of a Life Lived in CIA, the White House, and the Two Koreas (Vellum, 2014).  It is part of ADST-DACOR’s Diplomats and Diplomacy Series. (DACOR is an organization of foreign affairs professionals.)

Donald Gregg was an employee of the US government for forty-three years, working in the fields of intelligence and diplomacy.  Gregg served in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for thirty-one years from 1951 to 1982.  Paramilitary trained and airborne trained, he spent most of his career in assignments overseas and advising the most senior leaders of the CIA.  He was assigned to Japan, Burma, Vietnam, and Korea.  He was special assistant to the Ambassador of Korea from 1973 to 1975.  Gregg also served as a member of the White House National Security Council staff from 1979 to 1982. Upon retirement from CIA, Gregg became National Security Adviser to US Vice President George H.W. Bush from 1982 to 1989, and US Ambassador to the Republic of Korea from 1989 to 1993.  Outside of government, Gregg served as a senior consultant to Goldman Sachs, the chairman and president of The Korea Society in New York, and he currently serves as the chairman of the Pacific Century Institute in Los Angeles.  Gregg was born in New York. He enlisted in the US Army upon graduation from high school in 1945.  He received training as a cryptanalyst and reached the rank of sergeant.  He went on to attend Williams College from 1947 to 1951, majoring in Philosophy.  Gregg has received numerous awards from CIA, the US Department of Defense and the South Korean government and five honorary degrees from American and foreign colleges.  Gregg has visited the North Korea several times and advocates for the normalization of relations between that country and the US.

On its face, Pot Shards is a significant contribution to the record of the US experience in the Far East written by a major player, an intelligence icon.  Pot Shards covers some weighty matters regarding intelligence, diplomacy, and defense policy.  Some of the issues and events discussed by Gregg have never been revealed in other texts. Gregg could have limited the book to the audience of policy scholars, analysts, historians, intelligence professionals and veterans and all those familiar with the subject matter.  However, he presents Pot Shards in a way that everyone can understand and enjoy at some level.  There is much in Pot Shards that would especially thrill those beguiled by spy novels and films and spy craft enthusiasts.  Yet, what makes Pot Shards most exciting is the story of the man: Donald Gregg.  With good humor, he recounts many satisfying exploits, but also reveals vicissitudes and trials he faced.

Individuals that Gregg mentions in Pot Shards are those with whom he had continuous contact as managers, mentors, and friends. Some of are well known, “foreign policy celebrities,” such as Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, Creighton Abrams, Richard Helms, William Colby,  Harold Brown, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard Holbrooke, and Richard Allen. Others may be remembered only by a few.  Gregg sheds light on their impact and exactly how their ideas ignited events from the inside. Moreover, Gregg indicates those individuals helped him develop a greater understanding of the world and other ways of thinking, allowing him to become something that he perhaps would not have been without them.

In Cloud of Witnesses, George Rutler examines sixty-six individuals, who have influenced his life, based on what Aristotle would refer to as their ethos (an honest use of talent), logos (an honest use of mind), and pathos (an honest involvement in the suffering of the world).  That would be the best way to examine Gregg’s presentation of his life and career.  At Williams College, Gregg was influenced by the thinking of Professor John William Miller, the head of the Philosophy Department, who taught him the simple definition of morality, “Never treat another human being as an object.”  Gregg explained that he has tried to live by that definition.  Gregg was also influenced by Miller’s interest in people taking action and being defined by, and held responsible for, the actions they took.  Miller taught him that “Man does not have a nature, he has a history,” Gregg recalled Miller urged his students to act upon what they believed in and to “cut behind appearance toward reality.”

It was clear from many anecdotes in Pot Shards that Gregg has had a genuine interest in people.  He has looked beyond differences, avoiding being caught up with race, ethnicity, or other things which had been used particularly in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s to determine how one should relate with another.  For example, when he first came to Washington, he would enjoy going to jazz clubs which catered to African-American patrons.  That was notable because Washington, DC at the time was a segregated city. Serving in the military at a young age, he learned about different men and different behaviors, and witnessed racial and ethnic prejudice which repulsed him.  In Kai Bird’s excellent work, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames, it was indicated that racial and ethnic prejudice was apparent at CIA.  It was manifested in the casual and official discussions of some, and even worse, in decision making.  That was certainly not Gregg’s way.  His type of clearheaded, solid judgments resulting from giving situations and individuals a deeper look, was always needed.  Virtue shines in the presence of vice.

Having served as a cryptanalyst in the US Army, Gregg was sought by the National Security Agency in the middle of his senior year at Williams.  However, the recruiter rather than take Gregg suggested he join CIA.  Gregg knew little of the CIA and what it did.  However, the recruiter, with what Gregg now thinks was a bit of cynicism said, “Oh, they jump out of airplanes and are going to save the world!” That attracted Gregg, and initiated his thirty-one year career with the Agency.  Gregg has provided an incredibly intriguing discussion of his paramilitary training at CIA and the others he met during it. Gregg makes it clear in that discussion though, that so-called “good old days” in CIA were not always so good.  There were crazy events. Some people were not best serving the needs of CIA or their country. Managers who were very most often former OSS officers tried to recreate approaches taken by their former organization in German and Japanese held territory in Europe and Asia.   Often proposals for covert operations were based on questionable judgment and scant research.  Real possibilities for success were not fully considered by decision makers.  They were praised and approved by management as displaying a “Gung-Ho”, “Go Get ’em”, motivated attitude.  Yet, those operations more often resembled suicide missions.  Gregg found himself on such an assignment.

In March 1952, Gregg was assigned to fly to Bangkok, Thailand, where he would pick up a group of North Vietnamese whom he would train in sabotage and small unit tactics at a secret base. Following the completion of the training, Gregg and his team would be parachuted into North Vietnam.  Gregg spoke neither Vietnam nor French, and knew nothing of Vietnam or its history, and he was far from a veteran saboteur or guerilla leader. Gregg discovered an attractive post-debutante in her mid-thirties was the Vietnam plans officer and he had heard her say that her “Vietnam plan” had been accepted.  A cocktail party was given to celebrate the occasion, but Gregg was not invited.  When Gregg met his team, they turned out to be totally untrained Vietnamese with whom he had no way of communicating.  Gregg said they looked childlike.  Later he further learned that they were ethnic-Vietnamese from Thailand and had never set foot in Vietnam.  The potential for disaster was enormous. Gregg had no intention of backing out, but the truth behind the operation eventually revealed, and things worked out for the best. The operation was exposed as a fraud.  It turned out that a corrupt principal agent had hoodwinked CIA officers in Bangkok and had “taken the money and run.”  The mission was cancelled.

However, Pot Shards does not serve as some expression of some longstanding of primal doubt.  Gregg never moved about stating “Something is rotten in the Agency.”  Readers discover that through coping with those problems he learned not only what to do, but more importantly, “how not to do it.”  Gregg could recognize what was good, as good.  Gregg also worked with many in CIA who were true professionals.  He modeled his own management and decision making style in part from theirs. Gregg’s loyalty to his country and conviction toward duty was surpassed by no other.  He is proud of his years in CIA. So much of that experience was central to his personal life.  Through CIA, he met some life-long friends.  Through CIA, he met his wife.

Gregg makes it clear that his wife Margaret (“Meg”) has been central to his life.  A fortuitous encounter while hailing a taxi at Washington, DC’s Union Station set off of chain of interesting events that led to their life-long partnership.  Unbeknownst to Gregg, Meg, fluent in Russian, was actually Gregg’s superior in the Operations branch at CIA when they met.  However, as Gregg makes clear he was irresistibly taken by her combination of beauty, intellect, and charm, which made her something supreme to him.  Whether accompanying him in Japan, Korea, or Burma or remaining back in the US with their three children while Gregg served in Vietnam, she was the rock on which Gregg was able to build a career while raising a family. Relating the course of their marriage, Gregg leaves no doubt that meeting Meg was the best luck he ever had.

As Gregg rose through the ranks at CIA, he saw more clearly how many policies that drove CIA activities were not carefully considered and constructed. Gregg saw how euphonious policy speeches by political officials would often be based on captivating assessments of positive outcomes and capabilities of foreign partners not based in reality. He could see that near desperation on wanting a situation to be certain way led many, even the well-intentioned, to project their thinking on that of senior foreign counterpart, or worse, an adversary.  Only a negative outcome would reveal the error of a flawed approach for some.  In the early years of the US involvement in Vietnam Gregg witnessed this.  Gregg recalled accompanying US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to Vietnam in 1963. McNamara was told by General Paul Harkins, who commanded the US Military Assistance Command in Vietnam (MACV) that “We will be out of here with a military victory in six months.”  McNamara was disturbed by the unrealistic reporting, and told US President Lyndon Johnson that things were really not as good as Harkins’ people seemed to think they were.  Gregg also recalled a war game in 1964 on the use of airpower in the North Vietnam.  He participated with: General Maxwell Taylor, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; General Earl Wheeler, US Army Chief of Staff; General Curtis LeMay, US Air Force Chief of Staff; John McCone, CIA Director; and, in the presence of McGeorge Bundy, the National Security Adviser.  Gregg, as the CIA representative of the Blue Team, gave CIA’s analysis of the plan to bomb North Vietnam.  Gregg described the rationale of the plan and then proceeded to explain why it would fail.  The rest of that story will not be spoiled here.  One will have to read Pot Shards to discover what the response to Gregg was from the many powerful men in the room.  Gregg’s description of it all makes the moment palpable.

Writing about his second tour in Vietnam, Gregg provides good lessons on how to function effectively as a manager or leader under extremely adverse circumstances.  His lessons hold true for professions beyond intelligence for they primarily concern human nature and the wonders and realities of human interaction.  There were many difficult experiences that were a part of that period.  One evening Gregg received a frantic call from a member of his crew who he described as a gifted and committed paramilitary officer, with several tough tours under his belt.  The officer had married a Vietnamese war widow with children and lived in her Bien Hoa apartment.  He had just returned from a mission to find one of his children “desperately ill.”  Gregg rushed to the officer’s apartment with medical assistance in tow.  Yet, by the time he arrived, he found the tragic scene of a beautiful young girl, eight years old, lying silent and still, with her frightened siblings and anguished mother, who was being comforted by the officer.  The girl was confirmed dead and the officer asked Gregg to take her away.  Gregg picked up the child and walked out.  Doing so reminded him of carrying his own small daughters Lucy and Alison to bed after they had fallen asleep. He searched for an answer on how to handle the situation.  This was a CIA matter and had to be kept confidential.  Gregg eventually decided to bring the child to the emergency room of the US Army hospital at Long Binh, where US Army Military Police told him where to go to have the body cared for.

In this segment of Pot Shards, there are also fascinating stories of Gregg’s exploits in combat.  He was in the thick of things as CIA Regional Officer in Military Region 3 (War Zone D).  There are accounts of Gregg managing paramilitary operations and interrogations of his crew.  He flew with forward controllers, directing fire support for US and allied troops.  He described radio communications from battles, the descriptions of which bring the reader right to the scene.  Gregg’s efforts were appreciated by US and allied commanders he worked with such as: General James Hollingsworth (US);  General John McGiffert (US); General Nguyen Van Minh (South Vietnam); General Jangnai Sohn (Korea); and General Roh Tae-woo (Korea); Colonel Nguyen Cong Vinh (South Vietnam); and, Colonel Bach Van Hien (South Vietnam).

On his second tour, Gregg could still see how different ideas, among policy and decision makers, about what was truly happening in there impacted the decisions being made and the lessons the US military as well as other security organizations as CIA, were learning from the experience.  At the very end of his tour in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams hosted a lunch for Gregg at his MACV Headquarters in Saigon, a place where he had been excoriated in the past.  At lunch, Gregg sat next to Abrams and six or eight of his subordinates.  He felt Abrams was the best of the three commanders the US sent to Vietnam.  Knowing Abrams had been in Vietnam for some time, Gregg asked him how long it had actually been.  Abrams proudly responded, “Six years.”  Gregg then asked him how he kept going, and Abrams stated, “Well, I keep learning things.”  Gregg then politely asked him what he had learned so far, and Abrams replied that just finished reading Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place, an account of the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Abrams said that he “now” understood Fall’s reasoning as to why the French had failed to reestablish their colonial rule in Vietnam.  When Gregg asked “How did Fall explain it,” Abrams explained, “Fall said that the French lost because they failed to politically organize the terrain.  I think I understand that now, but I would not have understood that a year ago.”  Gregg had no response to that, but explained that when he later saw pictures of heavy US battle tanks, named after Abrams, crashing around Iraq and Afghanistan, he thought of Abrams’ answer.

Through his achievements in Vietnam, Gregg developed a reputation in CIA as a very wise and capable officer.  He knew how to present ideas and concepts to develop agreement or consensus on issues. Bringing his thoughts to precise declarations took skill.  This was one of the many skills that Gregg honed through interactions with a number of accomplished professionals.  One who helped Gregg elevate his capabilities while he served in his next overseas assignment as CIA Station Chief in Seoul, was US Ambassador Philip Habib.  Habib was gruff and outspoken.  However, by Gregg’s account, he understood people well and was an excellent diplomat for whom he developed tremendous respect.  Gregg indicates that it was Habib’s maneuvering that help to save the life of liberal South Korean politician, Kim Dae-jung, after he had been kidnapped from his Tokyo hotel room by the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA).  Habib never accused the Korean President Park Chung-hee of ordering the kidnapping but sent a message to him explaining that the US was aware of the action and hoped he could do everything to keep Kim alive.  This allowed Park a chance to avoid direct embarrassment and contrive a story in which he accused rogue elements of the Korean government had alone committed the act, and in which he took credit for saving Kim.  Gregg said Habib’s astute handling of the situation kept Kim alive and allowed Park to save face.  Gregg explained saving face was always a major concern in Asia.  Habib’s actions allowed Washington’s relations with Seoul to improve.

Gregg completed his career at CIA on a high note at the US National Security Council.  He had achieved success maintaining an ethic of his own, a moral code.  There was goodness living inside a good man.  He saw the greater good that would result from his actions against Communism.  Gregg was invited to join the administration of US President Ronald Reagan as the National Security Adviser to then Vice President George H.W. Bush.  His job made use of all of his skills and experience from CIA.  During those six years with Bush, Gregg traveled to 65 countries.  Along with those visits came his attendance at endless formal events.  Gregg recounts some of rather unusual happenings at such gatherings, providing readers with a gift bag of humorous stories.  Yet, while in the Reagan administration, his self-image was put to the test.  Gregg dedicates a chapter to a painful period of that service: IranContra, which was the purported attempt by the administration to sell surplus arms to Iran in exchange for it to ensure the release of US hostages being held in Lebanon.  Claims that Gregg was involved with that matter were invalidated.  Gregg’s account of it all is captivating.

As Ambassador to South Korea in the administration of President George H.W. Bush, Gregg successfully made use of his experience at CIA as well as the White House.  However, Gregg did not tap into his training as an intelligence officer to manipulate Korean officials or simulate closeness with Koreans he met.  There was no deception at all. Gregg was genuine, natural, in his interactions and that is what helped him gain their respect and confidence.  There was a type of communion between Gregg and many of his senior Korean counterparts.  One of the issues Gregg was determined to confront as ambassador was the continuing negative note in US-South Korean relations over the alleged US involvement in the Kwanju Uprising of 1980.  Then Korean President Chun Doo-hwan had brutally cracked down on protests in Kwanju in the wake of the arrest of Kim Dae-jung on charges of treason. At least two hundred Koreans were killed in the streets.  Chun claimed that the US had fully supported his actions.  That was not true, but by the time Gregg arrived in Korea as ambassador, hostility toward the US was still strong in the city.  The US Cultural Center in Kwangju was often attacked with fire bombs by rioters trying to drive the US out.  Gregg after consulting with others, including Kim Dae-jung, went to Kwangju in January 1990.  While there, Gregg met with six leaders of anti-US groups for over three hours.  Gregg explained that he came to Kwangju to lessen the hostility that the people in the city seemed to hold for the US.  Gregg explained to them that the US was not connected at all to the incident, and many of the actions by the US at that time, such as moving an aircraft carrier to Pusan were not a show of support for Chun. That particular move was meant to signal to North Korea not to intervene.  The anti-US protesters believed the US was close to Chun administration, but Gregg let it be known that there was general distaste for it.  In that vein, Gregg explained, that at the time, the Reagan administration had agreed to receive Chun at the White House if Chun agreed to lift the death sentence imposed on Kim Dae-jung, and to release him from prison.  Most important in the conversation was Gregg’s apology over the fact the US had remained silent for so long on the Kwangju issue.  Gregg diffused the hostility toward the US and attacks on the Cultural Center in Kwangju stopped.  Gregg explained his first visit to Kwangju was deeply valuable in showing him how Koreans can hold feelings of han (deep-seated resentment) when they are dealing with events caused by others and which they feel are unjustified, immoral, and unfair.  When Gregg made his first visit to Pyongyang in April 2002, he explains that he encountered the same feelings of han that he had encountered in Kwangju twelve years before.  However, he notes that lessons learned in Kwangju were helpful as he tried to establish a dialogue and some degree of trust between his North Korean hosts and himself.  Ambassador Philip Habib certainly would have been proud of Gregg’s performance.

There is much more in Pot Shards to enjoy!  It is a book one will want to read again and again.

Quam bene vivas referre, non quam diu!  (It is how well you live that matters, not how long!)  There have been a few stories written about Gregg in books, articles, in anecdotal form.  Many were written in the troubled time of the Iran-Contra Affair.  Pot Shards presents the true life and times of Gregg, an individual who contributed greatly to US foreign and national security policy. Readers are taken on a journey through Northeast and Southeast Asia and halls of power in Washington, DC.  Readers will also discover how much Gregg valued others and his value to humanity.  Gregg continues to make a valuable contribution to US foreign and defense policy efforts as a private citizen.  Pot Shards is an absolute pleasure to read.  Without reservation, greatcharlie.com highly recommends Pot Shards to everyone.

By Mark Edmond Clark

Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against ISIS?; The Obama Administration Must Place Success Against ISIS Ahead of Creating the Appearance of a Broad Multilateral Effort

Almost immediately after United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron received approval from Parliament to have the Royal Air Force join the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, Tornado bombers, as the one pictured above, began engaging in highly effective airstrikes in Iraq. While some nations as the United Kingdom have contributed significantly to the anti-ISIS air campaign, the efforts of many other partners in the 60 nation coalition have been negligible or nonexistent militarily.

According to an October 22. 2014 Foreign Policy article entitled, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against the Islamic State?”, as the administration of US President Barack Obama ramps up its campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), it is also trying to present itself as acting with the support of a broad range of partner nations. The article notes the US State Department lists more than 60 countries as members of the “global coalition” to degrade and defeat ISIS. However, the qualifications for inclusion in that coalition are nominal. While many countries have pledged military or humanitarian support, the State Department indicates that “simply exposing the true nature” of ISIS can qualify a nation for the coalition. Western coalition partners continue participating in airstrikes in Iraq, however, the Pentagon has not discussed the participation of Arab partners. To date, few countries have joined the US for airstrikes within Syria since October 14, 2014, following a week of apparently US-only strikes there. The US Central Command noted in its daily statement on October 21, 2014, that “out of respect for participating nations, US Central Command will defer to partner nations to publicly comment on their airstrikes” against ISIS.  Of the 60 countries participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, the vast majority are not contributing militarily. The October 22nd Foreign Policy article alleges that US claimed that there were even commitments from coalition partners of ground troops to fight ISIS, but those offers never materialized.

The Multilateral Gambit

It was in 2014 that the Obama administration really began insisting that the US would act only when multilateral approaches were available. The impression was given that this was a world in which once sufficient effort was made by the US to organize other nations, problems could be handled through cooperation. As it was explained in the greatcharlie.com post, ” Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group; US Must Act in Iraq Now to Eclipse Such Stars!”, organizing multinational efforts to resolve foreign and defense policy issues is not a new idea. Regional alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, and the Organization of American States were created to bring resources of nations together to cope with the “Communist threat.” Even on terrorism, multilateral approaches were viewed as required when modern-era counterterrorism was established during the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan. Yet, the idea that the US can today rely upon multilateral solutions requiring joint action with allies and partners who themselves face drastic military cuts and economic difficulties is unwise.

Understanding the importance of the campaign against ISIS, United Kungdom Prime Minister gained approval from Parliament to have the Royal Air Force participate in the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. The Royal Air Force almost immediately engaged in airstrikes against ISIS. However, no Western state such as the United Kingdom, which is already fighting ISIS from the air and possesses a genuine capability to engage in land warfare, would willingly or robustly go into Iraq or Syria. Indeed, national leaders of Western states would not want to assume the risks of intervening with ground troops now, especially when most of those leaders truly feel that level of commitment would not “exactly” be within their nation’s interests. Despite the terrorist attack in Canada and thwarted attacks in Australia, in many capitals, the loyal opposition and many  policy experts have taken the position that their governments have overstated the international threat from ISIS. Those criticisms have also placed restraints on just how much national leaders can do.

Placing Partners under Pressure

Oddly, the Obama administration also appears to have requested Western allies and coalition partners commit their armed forces to military action in Iraq and Syria even though the administration would not make a similar commitment of US forces. That approach was unrealistic.  Obama publicly indicated a hesitancy to act militarily in both Iraq and Syria. As a rationale for its hesitancy to commit the US military, Pentagon officials  explained “the US military is taking a defensive, not offensive, approach” to ISIS. On October 22, 2014, The Washington Post reported that the US determined newly trained mainstream Syrian opposition fighters will not be able to capture strategically important towns from ISIS, without the support of forward-deployed US combat troops. Alternatively, those mainstream opposition fighters will only be assigned to defend already-controlled territory. According to Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby, the current train-and-equip program for the Syrian opposition would seek to strengthen appropriately vetted elements of its fighting force, Free Syrian Army, to enable them to counter ISIS; strengthen the moderate opposition so that they can better defend themselves and territory; and promote the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria.” One country the US has pressured for action against ISIS is Turkey. Although Turkey is a power in the Middle East region, the notion that Turkey, possessing far less capabilities than the US would subordinate their own concerns and interests, to support and defend others under US pressure is curious. Turkey likely reached the same  conclusions  as the US about conditions for engaging militarily in Iraq and Syria. There would hardly be a Syrian opposition force with which Turkish troops could work. If Turkey’s operations in Syria “creeped” beyond destroying ISIS and it effectively displaces the Assad regime, political leaders in Turkey would likely feel ambivalent about simply turning over a nation on its border, Syria, to the very dysfunctional Syrian opposition. Even if Turkey controlled or greatly influenced the Syrian opposition, it is hard to see how taking on what would be the political, economic, and social basket case as Syria would be to Turkey’s benefit now.

Given the diminutive size and inappreciable impact of contributions by many coalition partners, as outlined in the October 22nd Foreign Policy  article, it would seem as beneficial to the Obama administration not to publicize the relative efforts of coalition partners as it would be for the partners themselves. Such information may create doubt over just how much the world is really behind the US in the anti-ISIS effort. In any event, more will certainly need to be done by the Obama administration to defeat ISIS than simply promote the simulacrum of a broad multilateral effort. If coalition partners are not carrying as much of the burden as may have been hoped, but perhaps should have been expected, the US must step up its own efforts. That would mean allowing military planners not to simply devise the best plans feasible under constraints set by the Obama administration. Civilian control and political guidance without question is necessary. However, provided with everything they actually need, and working within well calibrated parameters established US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey–who is unquestionably honor bound, US military planners, using their expertise based on careers that include continuous professional education and training and considerable experience, would undoubtedly develop far more effective plans for the use of airpower. Hamstringing the US military by insisting it develop war plans based on some illusion within the Obama administration that some proportional level of multilateral cooperation will ever materialize, will practically ensure operations against ISIS, although  will not yield the desired outcome: the destruction of ISIS. The Obama administration appears to be attempting mulgere hircum! (To milk a male goat!; To attempt the impossible!)

Assessment

The comedian and late night talk show host in the US, David Letterman, said “every military operation has to have a name so people can get behind it and they now have a name for the war against ISIS: ‘Operation Hillary’s Problem’.” The US-led anti-ISIS operation’s true name is Operation Inherent Resolve. Ostensibly, the Obama administration is fully committed to defeating ISIS right now and not leaving the job to his predecessor. Yet, the fight against ISIS is more than just an operation. It is a war being fought against a barbaric adversary. Its leaders and fighters are deluded by the conceit that they are fighting for God. The decision to take action against ISIS was laudable and represented the heights of US foreign policy which in the Obama administration has at times seemed full of contradictions. Likewise, the insistence on presenting the veil of multilateral action when the US is doing the bulk of the heavy lifting in the US-led coalition against ISIS represents the depths of US foreign policy. It creates the impression that the US military effort is driven more by political expedience than the best military approach possible. Looking good is not as important as being good. Doing what is necessary to win this war must have priority over all other interests. The US and it coalition partners may be on the same team, but the Obama administration must accept that the US will need to both block and carry the ball over the goal line and not hide the fact it is doing so.

Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group; US Must Act in Iraq Now to Eclipse Such Stars!

Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria military commander, Omar al-Shishani, is an ethnic Chechen and one of the many Russians and Europeans fighters that Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in 2013 were going into Syria and becoming part of a dangerous, internationalized Islamic militant group.

According to a July 2, 2014, Washington Post article entitled, “Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group, “ a young, red-bearded ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani has rapidly become one of the most prominent commanders and was the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda linked group as it recently overwhelmed Iraqi security forces and took control of large swaths of Iraq. Al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is an ethnic Chechen from the Caucasus nation of Georgia, specifically from the Pankisi Valley, a center of Georgia’s Chechen community and a stronghold for militants. He is also one of the hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, hardened from years of wars with Russia in the Caucasus region.

Al-Shishani has been the group’s military commander in Syria, leading it on an offensive to take over a broad stretch of territory leading to the Iraq border. Al-Shishani surfaced in Syria in 2013 with his nom de guerre, which means “Omar the Chechen” in Arabic, leading an Al-Qaeda-inspired group called “The Army of Emigrants and Partisans,” which included a large number of fighters from the former Soviet Union. A meeting was soon organized with al-Baghdadi in which al-Shishani pledged loyalty to him, according to Lebanon’s al-Akhbar newspaper, which follows jihadi groups. He first showed his battlefield prowess in August 2013, when his fighters proved pivotal in taking the Syrian military’s Managh air base in the north of the country. Rebels had been trying for months to take the base, but it fell soon after al-Shishani joined the battle, said an activist from the region, Abu al-Hassan Maraee. He may have risen to become the group’s overall military chief, a post that has been vacant after the Iraqi militant who once held it—known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari—was killed in the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June. ISIS began as Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, and many of its top leaders are Iraqi. But after it intervened in Syria’s civil war last year, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its operations in Syria. Now with victories on the two sides of the border, the two branches are swapping fighters, equipment and weapons to an even greater extent than before, becoming a more integrated organization. Its declaration of the caliphate—aspiring to be a state for all Muslims—could mean an even greater internationalization of its ranks. Interestingly enough, in June 2013, at conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters.

US power is not only measured by its size, but its moral behavior in the world. The virtues of the US have stood out in the world in the presence of vice. While grave errors in foreign policy decision making during the administration of former US President George W. Bush have been very apparent, the history of US foreign policy did not begin and end in those eight years. There is a greater history of success in US foreign and defense policy and decision making which must not be forgotten. For years as a leader in world affairs, the US has set the standard for performance in international affairs. Its behavior on the world stage manifested US values and principles. Discussion of the ability of the US to meet that standard does mean waxing nostalgically of the past. If it put its mind to it, the administration of US President Barack Obama could very well meet that standard today. What has been promoted instead is a type of international philanthropy proffered by the current administration that scoffs at military power, without realistic alternative options. In speeches, press conferences, and interviews of Obama and administration officials, the discourse on foreign policy appears more as form of pastoral guidance, helping the US public understand and accept a new, less active role of the US in the world. For some in the US public, less desirous of military intervention overseas given the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, expressions of a reformed approach to foreign policy has been seductive and caused some satisfaction. This approach has also helped to guide the establishment of the defense posture, by providing a further rationale for dramatic cuts in the US military and its capabilities. However, the notion that the US can remain dominant in world affairs by doing nothing is false. In the long run that would require reaching agreements with evil maniacs or turning a blind-eye toward their acts to maintain peace. Lately, when US interests or the interest of an ally or partner have been threatened, questions over the availability of the military means to limit that behavior usually arise. That has been the case regarding ISIS in Iraq. Superficial discussions of facts, use of sensationalism, sophistic arguments on military power, and intellectualized explanations of recent events veiled the growing problem of ISIS in Iraq as well as Syria. The Obama administration has taken the US down a path, requiring it to respond or tolerate Iraq’s unraveling and the emergence of ISIS. Obama has explained that the US isis still the world’s leader. However, the US must act in a manner consistent with that title if the administration wishes to retain it

Managing News on the Islamic Militant Problem in Syria

The situation in Syria was presented as urgent issue by Obama administration officials, yet manageable. Once the anti-regime movement in Syria became an armed struggle, the US considered various ways to support the opposition. Multilateral approaches were taken toward organizing opposition political groups as well as their fighters on the ground   Among steps taken was the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella group for the multitude of different opposition fighting units. Its leadership was placed under the Supreme Military Council. As a possible military response in support of policy goals, the idea of the US launching kinetic strikes against targets in Syria was bandied about. However, there was an understanding established that such strikes would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground, and there was the risk of civilian causalities and US losses. Indeed, the idea of “boots on the ground” was soundly rejected from the start. Eventually, it was reasoned that the FSA, with US supplied arms and training would advance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pressure him into stepping down at the negotiation table. Pressing this issue with US Congress, the Obama administration sent it senior foreign and defense policy officials to Capitol Hill to promote the matter with relevant committees. Yet, Members of Congress were skeptical of the feasibility of that approach. US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told Congress on September 3, 2013, that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day.” However, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4, 2013. McCaul asked Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul then explained, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”

The administration’s public assessments were captivating and satisfying enough for those who chose not to look deeply and those who chose simple answers. Yet, evidence of the true nature of the situation in Syria was being presented from other sources (i.e., nongovernment policy analysts, journalists, as well as pundits). That information, while not rejected by the administration, was never confirmed. Instead, the administration stated the realities about the Islamic militant presence and growing strength was said to be unavailable. Administration officials proffered the idea that it could not gain a full picture of what was happening on the ground. For the US public, this was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. For whatever reasons, perhaps the national elections for the presidency and the Congress were among them, the conscience of the US public appears to have been deemed too delicate for the reality of the situation. There apparently was some fear that a type of upheaval within the US public over Syria would have occurred. However, the truth was not inaudible to the public’s ears. The perpetuation of the inaccuracy that the situation was under control would lead to disappointment for the US public. Indeed, the truth would eventually overwhelm the superficial assessments being offered.

It is now accepted that unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, Islamic militant groups as ISIS never intended to cease their struggle with the Assad regime under any peace agreement. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the Syrian opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces have been directed toward creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups have only wanted to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law. Indeed, before the new Islamic Caliphate was established, in towns and villages of rather large segments of Syria that ISIS and rogue Islamic militant groups control, they have imposed a strict form of Sharia law on inhabitants. Infractions of that law have resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrian citizens. Syrian military personnel and regime supporters are rarely spared by the rogue Islamic fighters. ISIS, while still viewed as part of opposition forces, began regularly attacking more moderate Islamic militant groups and secular units. As the FSA was not truly successful at all on the ground, the added pressure of an additional struggle with ISIS helped to derail the Syria effort of the administration of US President Barack Obama. The US effort in Syria hinged on how it would respond to the Islamic militant presence. The Obama administration needed to see this truth early on. Yet, the administration seemingly closed its eyes to this fact. Without military action, US policy could not be advanced. The administration appeared willing to let the entire Syrian situation fall into stalemate while continuing a small, ineffective assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers and military exercise, avoiding military action, and allowing Assad to remain in power.

Sensationalism: The Threat to the Homeland From Syria

Soon enough there was a shift in perspective from the administration. The presence of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria was recognized as a danger, but far beyond the Middle East. At a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing held on January 29, 2014, Committee Chairman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, stated: “Because large swaths of the country . . . of Syria are beyond the regime’s control or that of the moderate opposition, this leads to the major concern of the establishment of a safe haven and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations. Not only are fighters being drawn to Syria, but so are technologies and techniques that pose particular problems to our defenses.” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center testified the same day to Senator Feinstein’s committee that “a permissive environment, extremist groups like Al-Nusra and the number of foreign fighters combine to make Syria a place that we are very concerned about—in particular, the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Syria to the West.” The National Director for Intelligence, James Clapper, in his testimony that day explained succinctly, “What’s going on in there [Syria], and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very, worrisome.” Given such grim assessments from senior US officials, a decision to take action in Syria would seem inevitable.

These synoptic assessments of potential attacks on the US came from the same sources that had minimized the capabilities and possibilities of the Islamic militants only a few short months before. Evidence of the problem was not being rejected by Obama administration officials, it was, to some extent, being sensationalized. Alerts to threats from Islamic militant groups, even those that were Al-Qaeda linked, no longer create real urgency in the US public. Such alerts came so regularly during the Bush administration that to some degree the US public became desensitized to them.   Moreover, for many in the US public, media reports of such threats came as interesting stories or amusements. Interest was heightened, only to be doused by the next things that came along. In January 2014, the “next things” were events surrounding Super Bowl XLVIII, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and pop singer Miley Cyrus.

Wielding US Power in the Middle East

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, at one point gravely concerned over the course the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, lamented about the Obama administration’s handling of US foreign policy. He explained that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.” Fabius was disappointed and discouraged by “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.” Fabius stated a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and his perception of a “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion. Yet, despite such pleas from close allies as the French regarding his administration’s approach to foreign policy, Obama confirmed the worst assumptions made by Fabius in his May 28, 2014 Commencement Address at West Point. Obama explained: “For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” Obama further explained that there was a need for: “a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al-Qaeda leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of US personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi. So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.”

Through this mellifluous speech about multilateral approaches to threat to peace and stability and terrorism in particular, Obama presented a world where problems could be handled through cooperation. This is not a new idea. Regional alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, and the Organization of American States were created to bring resources of nations together to cope with the “Communist threat.” Even on terrorism, multilateral approaches were viewed as required when modern-era counterterrorism was established during the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan. Yet, the idea that the US can today rely upon multilateral solutions requiring joint action with allies and partners who themselves face drastic military cuts and economic difficulties is unwise. No Western European state with real military capabilities will go into Iraq now, to take on risks while fighting ISIS, especially when its political leaders feel that issue does not fall within their interests. Obama spoke of a hesitancy of the US to act militarily, yet assumes others in the region possessing far less capabilities than the US would subordinate their own interests. concerns, and limitations, to support and defend others. Most states are aware that warfare lately has been asymmetric and not set piece engagements to win quickly. Obama presents this notion of multilateralism to a US public confused about the contrast between the certitude with which Obama speaks, and regular breakdowns in administration foreign policy initiatives that they witness.

The US must look strong. In past cases, what others have thought about the US has deterred them from hostile action. Relative peace was maintained through strength. US diplomacy has been supported in many cases by the credible threat of force. The failure of Obama administration to project authentic US strength globally is not subject to rationalization by its officials. ISIS is unconcerned with US military power and possible US intervention. Among such unenlightened, uncivilized, violent men, reason has little place. Hoping that they might eventually establish some concordance with the government to work toward peace and stability in Iraq and obey international law is absurd. Only the use of force will have a strong educational effect upon them. Given that, the administration’s approach is questionable.

Intellectualization of the Iraq Crisis

ISIS and other insurgent groups have rapidly advanced through the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq. In a matter of days, they have captured several cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and are driving on Baghdad from two directions. It has declared the captured territory the Islamic Caliphate. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, recently appeared in public to make that declaration. As for US airstrikes to reduce ISIS controlled territory, military experts have explained that they would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground. The idea of multilateral action was dead from the start.

Although Obama explained that the goal is to prevent ISIS from achieving a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter, he proffered that the issue goes beyond security assistance. Confronted with this unacceptable situation, Obama has rationalized that part of the challenge is the lack of representation of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds in the Iraqi government. Obama blames divisions for Iraq’s inability to cope with ISIS. Administration officials, at least publicly, have focused not on the ISIS assault, but rather on the idea that from the chaos, they can cobble together a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad. In Obama’s view the formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis. Obama believes leaders who can govern with an inclusive agenda will be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis. It is difficult to understand why the Obama would believe the type of representative government he seeks for Iraq could be designed at the point of an ISIS gun. The majority of Sunnis, Shi’as, and Kurds would never genuinely subsume their interests to satisfy the US regardless of the circumstances. The fact that Maliki came to power evinces the limited US understanding of Iraq’s political situation.

The Way Forward

Obama has been pilloried with scathing criticisms from his Republican Members of Congress and other political rivals over his handling of Syria, Iraq, and the crisis with ISIS. Many of Obama’s harshest critics are former officials from the Bush administration who were themselves directly responsible for plunging the US, unprepared and off-balance, into the Middle East. Polls on the US public’s satisfaction with the Obama administration’s handling of foreign policy rely on snap judgments of a sample of the population. It is easy to say things. Yet, a mature examination of the innermost feelings of the US public would likely yield that there is great disappointment over the handling of US foreign policy.

Obama does not want the US military to intervene on the ground in the Syria. However, the conscience of the US public has been struck by news media reports that ISIS fighters have moved en mass with near impunity through Iraq, a country in which the US, for over eight years, invested so much blood and treasure. Watching reports on mass executions and the establishment of a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, many are left with a vapid, noncommittal sadness. Hearing the Obama administration claim that there is little the US can do just makes things worse. Leaving the Iraqis to their own devices against what has appeared as an unstoppable blitzkrieg will somehow return to haunt the US. There is a sense of “Minatur innocentibus qui parcit nocentibus” (He threatens the innocent who spares the guilty). In the long-run, the US public will not concede to this situation. The US public seeks to meet the fullness of its humanity. Where there is a need to act in the name of humanity to defend civilization against darkness, they expect action. That is how the US, as the world’s leader, is expected to behave.