A Link between Trump’s June 2018 Letters to European Allies and His July 2018 Summit with Putin: A View from Outside the Box

US President Donald Trump (right) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) at the G7 meeting in Charlevoix. Trump believes NATO should deploy a combined force under its collective security arrangement that truly has the capability and capacity to deter, and if necessary, fight and defeat attacks from all directions, but especially an attack from their most likely adversary: Russia. He believes the time to rebuild NATO is now. The degree to which the Europeans invest in the build up of their defense will impact how Trump will handle situations concerning Europe with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.

The renowned US foreign policy scholar and former US National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, stated that sophisticated US leadership is sine qua non of a stable world order. US President Donald Trump has set forth to serve in the leadership role as prescribed. Serving that role entails meeting with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin to discuss matters concerning the world’s strongest nuclear powers and the threat posed by Russia to European security. As the leader of West, he must also serve as the steward of NATO and ensure transatlantic security is effectively maintained. On its face, there is a link between these matters as concerns of the president. However, the tie is much greater.

Trump plans to meet with Putin both one-on-one and in a formal meeting with delegations of aides in Helsinki, Finland on July 16, 2018. The meeting will be the first formal summit talks between them. They have met previously on the sidelines of conferences. They have also had a number of telephone conversations. The decision by the two leaders to have summit meeting was actually reached through phone conversations on March 20, 2018 and April 2, 2018. US National Security Adviser John Bolton explained in an televised interview, “The goal of this meeting really is for the two leaders to have a chance to sit down, not in the context of some larger multilateral meeting, but just the two of them, to go over what is on their mind about a whole range of issues.” In a conversation with reporters aboard Air Force One on June 29, 2018, Trump said that he planned to talk to Putin about everything. He further stated: “We’re going to talk about Ukraine, we’re going to be talking about Syria, we’ll be talking about elections. And we don’t want anybody tampering with elections. We’ll be talking about world events. We’ll be talking about peace. Maybe we talk about saving billions of dollars on weapons, and maybe we don’t.” (There is also a good chance that the ears of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un will be burning once the one-on-one session is underway.) At the same time news broke about the planned summit, reports that Trump sent letters in June 2018 to several European leaders concerning NATO surfaced. The letters also arrived one month before the July 11-12, 2018 NATO Summit in Brussels. Trump purportedly explained in the letters that after more than a year of public and private complaints that allies have not done enough to share the burden of collective security. Trump hinted that in response, he might consider a significant modification in how US forces are deployed in Europe. The letters have indeed been the latest figurative ladle Trump has used to stir billows in the pot with European leaders. While most might view it as doubtful, Trump means well, and at least from his perspective, he has done everything for all the right reasons. Indeed, a closer look at the situation, or a look at the situation from outside the box, indicates that the situation is not as bad as it may seem to other European leaders and their advisers.

Trump wants to get a handle on the important matter of Europe’s defense and transatlantic collective security. He wants to actually do something about the threat that Russia poses to Europe, and contrary to everything critics have stated, make NATO a genuine defense against potential Russian aggression posed by Putin or any other leaders. Trump believes the time to rebuild NATO is now. He would like to have European leaders move away from staid thinking and somewhat superficial action on their security, and deploy a combined force under NATO’s collective security arrangement that truly has the capability and capacity to deter, and fight and win if deterrence fails. The rather restrained efforts of the Europeans so far will have a direct impact on how he might handle situations concerning Europe with Putin. Trump wants them to stop making it so difficult for him to work with them. The purpose here is to take a deeper look, from outside the box, at Trump’s approach to enhancing Europe’s defense and transatlantic security. It illustrates that main task for Trump is not simply to garner increases in spending on NATO, but encourage the Europeans to change their relatively relaxed perspectives and take more energetic approaches toward their own security. Quid ergo? non ibo per priorum vestigia? ego vero utar via vetere, sed si propiorem planioremque invenero, hanc muniam. Qui ante nos ista moverunt non domini nostri sed duces sunt. Patet omnibus veritas; nondum est occupata; multum ex illa etiam futuris relictum est. (What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.)

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). Finding a way to establish an authentic positive relationship with Russia is a struggle US administrations have engaged in for a few decades. Trump said he would give his best effort to finding a solution.  He does not want to settle on a long-term stand-off in which peace, particularly in Europe, is placed at risk. Trump has already met with Putin and by Putin’s admission, he and Trump regularly discuss matters by phone. However, everything is not perfect yet; rough patches exist.

Trump-Putin Summit: A Chance to Investigate Possibilities

Finding a way to establish an authentic, positive relationship with Russia is a struggle US administrations have engaged in for a few decades. Trump said he would give his best effort to finding a solution.  He does not want to settle on a long-term stand-off in which peace, particularly in Europe, is placed at risk. Trump logically concluded that accomplishing these things would first require establishing a positive relationship with Putin. Trump has already met him and so far their chemistry has been good. By Putin’s admission, he and Trump regularly discuss matters by phone. However, everything is not perfect; many rough patches exist. In assessing the possibility of improving relations with Russia, albeit in the abstract, Trump has taken a good look inside. He has not missed what has been happening there. He is aware that Russia is an authoritarian regime with all of the authoritarian tendencies at home and abroad. That authoritarianism is harnessed by a quest for economic development. Commingled with that is the politicization of local economic activity. What creates the slightest possibility that economic development may pan out in some way is the fact that Russia is oil rich. Still, that possibility has been dampened somewhat by the reality that Russia is a criminalized state. In terms of foreign policy, the goal of authoritarian Russia is to supplant Western power, diminish Western influence, and weaken stability promoted by the West. Russia has also sought to increase its influence in Eastern and Central Europe. In the previous US administration, that region was not a priority. The previous US administration introduced policy approaches such as “Pivot to Asia” and the “reset with Russia” which sent the wrong signals to Moscow. Russia had kept its sights on the region. It was have very senior leaders visit the region frequently.To the extent that it could, Russia would invest in infrastructure, provide military assistance, and support pro-Russian political parties and movements. Occasional visits from US officials supported a perception in Washington that is was engaged. The vacuum created by the delinquency of the previous US administration in the region was filled by Russia.

After Moscow grabbed Crimea and began to shape Eastern Ukraine, the US made it clear that it did not accept what occurred and set clear boundaries for Russia in Ukraine. Expectations were laid out. Still, Russia has continued to engage in aggressive behavior. Over 10,000 Ukrainians have been killed in the struggle in Donetsk and Luhansk. In the Trump administration, no doubt has been left in public statements and messaging. Sanctions remain in place. The US is willing to engage with Russia where there are shared interests. Counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation are examples of that. However, nefarious Russian moves, as seen in Montenegro, Moldova, Bulgaria, and threatening language toward States as Macedonia, Norway, and Finland, have drawn and will prompt harsh language from the US. Russia has even sought to antagonize Trump through efforts such as boasting about the strength of Russia’s arsenal and using computer graphics to illustrate the ability of hypersonic weapons to reach his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. Trump broached that matter with Putin during his phone call with him on March 20, 2018. US efforts to counter Russian moves have not only included pressing for greater burden sharing on defense, but also weakening support for Nord Stream II.

An additional factor for Trump to consider is the influence of Russia’s intelligence industry–the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security from Russia’s Soviet past, the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB; the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR; and, the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU–has on the society. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia really became a criminal country. By successfully navigating through the banality, incompetence, and corruption of the Soviet government, the intelligence industry managed to stand on top of all that was good, the bad, and ugly in the new Russia. Intelligence officers have  always been fully aware of what was transpiring in their country. Soviet intelligence officers recognized when the collapse of their country was underway. Yet, they viewed it as a duty to keep the truth from the people. Information control was also used as the justification for such action. Prevaricating remains part of the government’s life system and survival system. Perhaps the primary goal of such mendacity now is to “make Russia great again.” When the truth plays a role, it is misused. Facts are distorted to cloak some scheme. The truth will many times threaten Moscow’s efforts. When Russian untruthfulness is encountered by the West on issues great and minor, often the response is surprise and disappointment. Confronting Moscow on the truth will not bring a satisfactory result. There will be no admissions, no confessions, no mea culpas. That being said, Trump should still meet with the leader who sits on top of it all to find out what is happening in Russia.

As explained in a February 28, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “A Russian Threat on Two Fronts: A New Understanding of Putin, Not Inadequate Old Ones, Will Allow the Best Response,” Putin prepares for his meetings or any other official contacts in advance, by mining available information about his scheduled interlocutors and by considering all possible angles of how they might challenge him and how he would explain himself in a plausible, satisfying way. Such is the nature of politics as well as diplomacy. Putin is super observant. It is a quality that stirs admiration from some and or elicits terror in others. If any one could detect a hint of anger or dissention in the eyes, in mannerisms, in bearing and deportment, in the words of another, it would be Putin. Usus, magister egregius. (Experience, that excellent master.)

A long espoused, jejune criticism of Trump is that he has a self-enchantment with tyrants, strongmen, rogue leaders such as Putin. His comments about Putin have been decried by critics as being unduly pleasant and oleaginous particularly in light of reports from the US Intelligence Community that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Trump dismisses the obloquy of critics. In reality, Trump, rather than finding Putin intoxicating, has developed his own reservations about him having had a number of disappointing experiences with him in the past year. Indeed, while engaged in diplomacy, the Trump administration has observed hostile Russian moves such as continued interference n US elections, as well as those of other countries, efforts to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the effort to tighten Moscow’s grip Crimea and the Donbass. Nevertheless, with optimism spurred by having found some areas of agreement and given the degree of mutual respect between Putin and himself, Trump still seeks to engage Russia in a way that will improve relations long-term. As one cause for the summit meeting, Trump hopes he might find some touch that he could put on the situation to knock everything into the right direction. As another cause for the summit, Trump is investigating the degree to which Putin is a threat to European defense and transatlantic collective security. Much as it is the case in any legitimate investigation, Trump, is interviewing its subject: Putin. Trump also has system of evaluation people developed from his experience as a business negotiator. Trump has an understanding of human nature, and even sympathy for human frailty. One of his greatest strengths is his capacity for listening. However, when necessary, he can be stubborn and stone-hearted. After the one-on-one session, Trump will better understand Putin’s thinking and intentions from what he hears and what he does not hear. Through well-crafted questions, he should collect enough information to satisfy his own concerns. His skilled observations of Putin’s behavior will also serve to inform. Surely, Trump is fully aware the Putin will attempt to glean information from him. Res ipsa repperi facilitate nihil esse homini melius neque clementia. (I have learned by experience that nothing is more advantageous to a person than courtesy and compassion.)

Trump aboard the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier (above) To immediately field a NATO force that would be genuinely capable of deterring and if necessary fight, repel, and defeat Russian forces the US would need to cover any gaps in NATO’s strength, earmarking a sizeable portion of its forces primarily for that task. Trump cannot rightly increase US spending and invest more US troops in NATO, if the Europeans intend to simply sit back and let the US carry the load, and potentially cut back on defemsr. The Europeans can build stronger armies and field more advanced weapon systems.

Trump Sought to Energize, Not Antagonize with His Letters

The US commitment to NATO is extant. Even after all that has been said, Trump absolutely understands that NATO is essential to the defense of the US and its interests in Europe. Although Trump has not made a grand display of his concern, he actually sees Russia not only as a competitor, but as a genuine threat. The US  will take the lead in handling Russia during his administration, but he wants the European to genuinely stand beside the US in its efforts. In 2017, the Trump administration explained that taking the lead internationally and advancing US military, political and economic strength is a vital US interest. To that extent, the Trump administration has promised to greatly increase the capabilities and capacity of the US military. Additionally, it has sought to bolster US power by strengthening its alliances and its partnerships with economically thriving partners. It has done so while ensuring that those alliances and partnerships are based on mutual respect and shared responsibility. In the US National Security Council’s summary under, ”Preserve Peace Through Strength”, steps the administration stated it would take were outlined as follows: “We will rebuild America’s military strength to ensure it remains second to none. America will use all of the tools of statecraft in a new era of strategic competition–diplomatic, information, military, and economic—to protect our interests. America will strengthen its capabilities across numerous domains–including space and cyber–and revitalize capabilities that have been neglected. America’s allies and partners magnify our power and protect our shared interests. We expect them to take greater responsibility for addressing common threats. We will ensure the balance of power remains in America’s favor in key regions of the world: the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East.” Trump’s letters to European leaders manifested his determination to get them to significantly increase their military expenditures, make NATO an authentic deterrent to potential Russian aggression, and along the way, take greater responsibility for addressing common threats. Some might find it confusing, but the letters also evinced the degree to which Trump is genuinely concerned about the well-being of Europe and NATO. According to the New York Times, the actual number of letters sent by Trump has not been revealed. The White House explained that it does not comment on presidential correspondence. Other sources apparently informed the New York Times that at least a dozen were sent. Supposedly, recipients included: Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, Belgium, Norway, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain.

Each letter reportedly echoed Trump’s complaint that the NATO allies are not living up to the commitment they made at their Wales summit meeting in 2014 to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on national defense. US National Security Adviser John Bolton said in an televised interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that “The president wants a strong NATO.” He went on to state: “If you think Russia’s a threat, ask yourself this question: Why is Germany spending less than 1.2 percent of its GNP? When people talk about undermining the NATO alliance, you should look at those who are carrying out steps that make NATO less effective militarily.” However, shortly before the letters were sent, Europeans officials sought to defend their respective failures to meet the 2 percent pledge. German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, for example, said Germany will increase defense spending to 1.5 percent of GDP by 2024. She further explained that Germany and all NATO allies, however, only committed to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. In her view, there was no pledge in the text of the 2014 Wales Summit Declaration to spend at least 2 percent by 2024. At Wales, it was only agreed that NATO countries aim to move toward the 2 percent guideline within a decade. Some military analysts argue that tying defense spending to GDP makes no sense. Moreover, it leads to issues concerning changes in GDP, a country’s respective spending on defense, and how a country’s defense budget is spent. Semper autem in fide quid senseris, non quid dixens, cognitandum. (A promise must be kept not only in the letter but in the spirit.)

Excerpts of Trump’s letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel was shared with the New York Times by someone who saw it. Trump allegedly wrote to Merkel: “As we discussed during your visit in April, there is growing frustration in the United States that some allies have not stepped up as promised.”  He continued: “The United States continues to devote more resources to the defense of Europe when the Continent’s economy, including Germany’s, are doing well and security challenges abound. This is no longer sustainable for us.” Regarding frustration over NATO in the US, Trump explained: “Growing frustration is not confined to our executive branch. The United States Congress is concerned, as well.” Trump also posited in the letter that Germany deserves blame for the failure of other NATO countries to spend enough, writing: “Continued German underspending on defense undermines the security of the alliance and provides validation for other allies that also do not plan to meet their military spending commitments, because others see you as a role model.” Most likely in a further effort to light a fire under the Europeans, the Trump administration made it known that the US had been analyzing a large-scale withdrawal of US forces from Germany.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis expressed concern over the direction that the United Kingdom was moving regarding defense in his own letter to the United Kingdom’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. The United Kingdom has cut defense spending over the past decade in line with an austerity program that has also seen cuts to domestic spending. London and Paris still field far and away the most powerful militaries in Europe. While Mattis noted that the United Kingdom, a NATO allies that has met the alliance’s target of 2 percent spending of GDP on the military, he insisted it was not good enough for a country of its status. Regarding the United Kingdom’s global role, Mattis proffered that it “will require a level of defense spending beyond what we would expect from allies with only regional interests.” Mattis went on to state: “I am concerned that your ability to continue to provide this critical military foundation … is at risk of erosion.” Supporting his position, Mattis explained: “The reemergence of the great power competition requires that we maintain vigilance and the ability to operate across the full combat spectrum, notably at the high end.” He continued: “While we must sustain military capabilities to deter, and win if deterrence fails . . . we must also improve and enhance those capabilities if we’re to carry out our obligations to future peace.” As part of process of turning the situation around, Mattis asked for a “clear and fully funded, forward defense blueprint” from the United Kingdom. Mattis stated that “It is in the best interest of both our nations for the UK to remain the U.S. partner of choice.” However, he noted that France was increasing its spending, and wrote: “As global actors, France and the U.S. have concluded that now is the time to significantly increase our investment in defense.” Some Members of Parliament have called for spending to increase to 2.5 or 3 percent of national output from 2 percent.

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis (left) and Gernan Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (right). Shortly before Trump sent letters to European leaders, a number of European officials have sought to defend their respective failures to meet the 2 percent pledge. Von der Leyen, for example, said Germany will increase defense spending to 1.5 percent of GDP by 2024. She further explained that Germany and all NATO allies, however, only committed to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. In her view, there was no pledge at Wales to “spend at least 2 percent by 2024.”

An Awful Experience for the Europeans

In his first book, De Officiis (on Duties) written in 44 B.C., the renowned Roman orator and statesman of Roman Republic, Marcus Tullius Cicero explained that individuals do not exist to be in constant antagonistic contest. Instead, individuals exist to help each other in peaceful cooperation to the mutual benefit of all. He stated: “Consequently, we ought in this to follow nature as our leader, to contribute to the common stock the things that benefit everyone together and, by exchange of dutiful services, by giving and receiving effort and means, to bind fast the fellowship of men with each other.” Europeans leaders unlikely sensed from his inauguration Day on January 20, 2017, that working with Trump would not be a passeggiata. However, there appears to be more than the usual occasions of disappointment and discord with their ally across the Atlantic. Trump’s statements directed toward European leaders on NATO has resulted in an emotional mangle. Real feelings of trepidation exist among them. When national leaders are fogged in on an issue and cannot get a handle on a situation in a satisfying way, there is an anxiety, a sense of panic that ensues. Not being able to answer big questions on foreign policy, especially when they are dealing with such a powerful and influential country as the US will often obstruct, even thwart efforts to formulate and implement policies, strategies, and nuanced approaches.

The popular response of European leaders toward Trump has been to react intemperately and to figuratively march against him, banners of their countries flying. They are well-aware that by reproaching Trump, they will be feted in their respective national news media and within the public of their countries. However, the small benefits derived from pleasing crowds at home is far outweighed by the bigger picture of their countries respective relationships with the US. Many European leaders have not looked beyond the surface by trying to better discern Trump’s words and deeds, by ratcheting up diplomatic and other contacts with US, and devising fresh approaches to work better with the Trump administration. They have failed to view these quarrels as opportunities to develop new, better, enriching paths to take with the US.  What they have done is create the danger of driving their countries’ relations with the US down to lower points. A notable exception to all of this has been German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Although still bearing the brunt of Trump’s admonishments of the Europeans, her approach to Trump has evolved in a very sophisticated, constructive way. She now takes a solution oriented, not a reactionary, approach to issues at hand, taking a hopeful tone with Trump and encouraging him to consider what she is relaying . On the matter of trade, she has offered thoughtful options particularly on economic issues that could mitigate an exchange of harsh tariffs. Merkel is aware that when there are confrontations between European leaders and Trump, “in the heat of battle”, a tigerish performance will be seen from him. That has only had a deleterious effect on relations with US, decelerating the process of finding solutions to issues. Merkel will very likely accomplish much as she moves in a methodical way toward the US president. Given the attitudes and behavior of some European leaders toward him, Trump undoubtedly appreciates the sangfroid and steadfastness displayed by Merkel, and the good rapport he has been developing with her.

Trump’s own responses on social media to reactions in European capitals to his admonishments, not only by letter, but via official statements and messaging, represent his immediate perceptions and his frustration that his counterparts are not seeing issues in the same way he does. At a deeper level, Trump is most likely very disappointed that such discord has been obtained as a result of his words. His goal is certainly not to defeat or lay seize to his allies on the issue of of defense spending. The European allies are definitely not his foes and not perceived as such by him in the slightest way. His actions are not part of some decision to engage in endless campaigns of finger wagging against European allies to achieve some strange, vacuous sense of  superiority over them as has been suggested by some critics. Words have flown back and forth, and critics have described it as chaos. However, order could still be found in that so-called chaos. There is structure underpinning every foreign policy tack taken by Trump.

When deciding to approach European leaders on what he believes NATO must do to defeat that threat, Trump clearly did not feel the situation would allow for some longer term effort in which he would try to cultivate their affections. Trump’s letters to European leaders evince that he doubts they are ready to act on their own volition in a way that cause any real strain. Trump also apparently feels that time is the essence and that facts, not sentiment, support that view. Those NATO Members whose borders are closest to Russia sense the threat. However, it appears that the farther west NATO Members are situated from that virtual “boundary line” with Russia, the weaker their sense of immediate emergency becomes. European leaders may fulminate against Russia in public speeches, creating the optics of being resolute on defense during election campaign or otherwise. Yet, they are less energetic in using their countries’ tools of national power–military, diplomatic, economic, political, and information–to make the situation better. Trump may complain but, they will still hesitate to invest in defense. It may very well be that the alarms set off by Russia’s move into Crimea have been somewhat quieted and nerves are less frayed in capitals over what occurred. Still, Russia has not gone away.

The conceptual sixth-generation US fighter, the F-X (above). Trump has not made a grand display of his concern, but he likely sees Russia as a threat, not just a competitor. In 2017, the Trump administration explained that the US would take the lead internationally and advance US military, political and economic strength. The capabilities and capacity of the US military would be greatly increased. New fighters such as the F-X would be built. Alliances and partnerships based on mutual respect and shared responsibility would also be strengthened.

A Deeper Dive Regarding Trump’s Concerns

Quod dubites, ne feceris. (Never do a thing concerning the rectitude of which you are in doubt.) Likely uppermost in Trump’s mind is how he would ever be able to make progress on NATO when the mindset, the psyche of the allied leaders, evinces a somewhat limited interest in genuinely making the situation better. By all that is being said by national leaders, it sounds as if they want a strong defense, but they are acting quite differently. Indeed, Trump hears Europeans complain about Russian actions and potential actions in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and even the Baltic States, a fellow NATO Member. However, complaining and repositioning a modicum of forces will not allow Trump to legitimately tell Putin how energized and prepared NATO Members are ready to act against any aggression especially when its members still will not meet politically agreed goals of spending. Their will and readiness to act must real if their efforts are to have any meaning in the military sense, not the domestic political sense.

Trump is frustrated by the fact that the wrong signals are being sent to Putin by the casual attitude and relaxed behavior of the Europeans. Putin has little reason to be impressed with NATO. The Europeans can be assured that he watching events far more carefully than they would like. He has noticed the degree to which European leaders actually care for Ukraine. Perhaps European leaders would argue that they are providing arms and advisers to Ukraine and have bolstered the defense of the Baltic States and have had their armed forces participate in greater numbers in NATO exercises as well. However, looking good by doing a few good things is not the same as being good, by doing everything at the levels required. Putin may very well be wondering whether European leaders may go soft if he “supports” pro-Russian activity deeper or elsewhere in that Ukraine, if he takes more of Georgia, if he builds up its military and naval bases in Kaliningrad, or if he positions Russian ground forces in a way that threatens the Suwalki Gap. Putin has been engaged in a campaign of probes, investigating, testing the resolve of European leaders with aerial and naval intrusions into NATO airspace and waters. Such prospective moves on the ground would make the Russian threat three dimensional, and leave little doubt in the minds of NATO military analysts that his campaign of probes would best serve the purpose of preparing for military action. To field a NATO force genuinely capable of deterring and if necessary fight, repel, and defeat Russian forces, the US itself would need to cover any gaps in NATO’s strength, earmarking a sizeable portion of its forces primarily for that task.

Trump cannot rightly increase US spending, invest more US troops in NATO, if the Europeans intend to simply sit back and let the US carry the load, and potentially cut back and actually do less. That would hardly be in the interest of the US, especially when the Europeans could build stronger armies and field more advanced weapon systems and gear. What would likely happen is that the Europeans would let the US do all the heavy lifting. The US military cannot be allowed to be a surrogate army for the Europeans.

Given NATO’s current capabilities and capacity, in reality, it may not be able to successfully defend any threatened territory. Trump wants to know why any European leader would think that he should deploy US troops overseas in a somewhat likely untenable defense of countries, particularly when those countries are not fully committed to their own security. Trump wants Europeans leaders to see and understand his position. European leaders successfully transmitted the message that they want Trump and US government to be more understanding of the political considerations that has hamstrung them from taking robust action on NATO. However, they have not publicly expressed empathy or compassion for the position of the US. Recognizing the need to bolster NATO on the ground in Europe, and the great value it has placed in its ties to European allies, the US had consistently bit the bullet over many years and committed its military wherewithal to Europe knowing the Europeans would not do their fair share. Omnes sibi malle melius esse qualm alteri.  (It is human nature that every individual should wish for his own advantage in preference to that of others.)

When deciding how to approach European leaders on what he believes NATO must do to defeat the threat posed by Russia, Trump apparently did not feel the situation would allow for a long term effort in which he would try to cultivate their affections. Trump’s letters to European leaders evince that he doubts they are ready act on their own volition in a way that cause any real strain. Trump seems to feel that time is of the essence and that facts, not sentiment, support his view. On a deeper level, Trump is likely disappointed that such discord was obtained as a result of his words.

Although he has not been a politician for long, Trump has discovered much since his full immersion into the world of politics.  It would seem that based on what he has learned so far, which can be added to the considerable experience in human interactions that  he has already acquired, he most likely has a sense that political expediency, not pragmatic thinking, not a genuine concern about national defense, could inevitably be shaping their sense of reality.  Trump understands that those leaders are under pressure to find more money for health, education, the police, immigration, financial pressure created by economically weaker EU members. They will offer explanations, arguments, and occasionally nod the heads and agree that more must be done, then return to doing whatever is expedient. Therefore, Trump is pushing the Europeans hard on the matter. Trump is aware of the fact that while it is a commendable decision, it is not an easy decision for a citizen to engage in the process to become a national leader. Perhaps is could decision could be driven by a calling for some to serve the respective interest of their people and their countries. The job itself, for those who do it well, can become a living sacrifice. The business of politics can be heteroclite. Horse trading is at the very heart of interactions between politicians. If the opportunity arises, they will negotiate preferred conditions, protect and possibly improve the status of their political realms, better things for their constituents and their benefactors, secure their interests. It is often during that negotiating process that things can get mixed up. What is declared a satisfactory outcome becomes relative to the situation. This point can be sardonically illustrated as follows: Politicians may accept as true that the sum of 2 plus 2 equals 4, but after horse trading, many might be willing to agree that the sum is 5! Something that is not quite right is accepted as the new reality. During the next opportunity to negotiate, 2 plus 2 might equal 4 again! This is not corruption, it is simply nature of give and take that is part of the job. “You can’t always get what you want!  Yet, given that apparent mindset, what is evinced from the decisions by European leaders on defense is more style than substance, full of sound and fury that signifies nothing to a threatening adversary. Utque in corporibus sic in imperio gravissimus est morbus, qui a capite diffunditur. (It is in the body politic, as in the natural, those disorders are most dangerous that flow from the head.)

Trump has a sense that European military commanders are well-aware that greater efforts are needed by their respective countries in order provide for an authentic defense of Europe. Moreover, they know the matter is not black and white and cannot be corrected by simply increasing spending. An approach to defense, genuinely based on the idea of deterring an opponent, and fight and defeat the opponent if deterrence fails, must exist. However, they are subordinated to civilian authority, political leadership. Defense officials and military commanders that may insist on expressing such concerns, in the past have been rebuffed, scorned, called paranoid is potentially destabilizing, creating undue uncertainty and insecurity in the minds of the public. They may also be admonished for unnecessarily creating concerns among potential enemies or direct threats to potential adversaries which leaders hope to relax by being cautious and calibrated in their decisions on defense. Denied what they need to succeed by political leaders, their civilian authorities, absent a decision to resign from their respective armed forces, military commanders have little choice but to submit to that authority and fight and likely fail with whatever is given to them. This behavior was evinced in NATO discussions on considering how to organize the NRF and smaller VJTF. In the creation of the force, the well-considered, educated assumption was made that Russia, advancing westward militarily once more, would again use the tactics seen in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, and in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk in Ukraine. In the best case scenario for NATO, it would be alerted before Russian forces rushed into a neighboring country using heavy armored and mechanized units, highly mobile infantry, combat service units, and combat service support units, by observing it painstakingly massing along the mutual border with the country or countries it threatens. However, it would be counter-intuitive for Russian military commanders to do that. It would be similarly counter-intuitive for Russia to use the hybrid warfare tactic which NATO is best organized to oppose in any future moves. In the Zapad 2017 exercises, Russian forces displayed the capability to rapidly mass and quickly and successfully engage an opposing force. If instead of a hybrid attack, Putin ordered a Russian force, truly overwhelming in size and combat power, to rapidly mass and roll into a neighboring country and quickly engage and drive through elements the VJTF on the ground, it might be futile for the VJTF or NRF fly into a non permissive environment in an attempt to reinforce those vastly outnumbered or overrun elements. The quantity of pre-positioned weapon systems and ordinance that made available to it might be of little consequence. NATO forces deployed on the ground must be of sufficient size and power that such a move by Russia would be unthinkable.

Trump is frustrated by the fact that the wrong signals are being sent to Putin by the casual attitude and relaxed behavior of the Europeans. Putin has little reason to be impressed with NATO. The Europeans can be assured that he watching events far more carefully than they would like. Putin may be wondering whether European leaders may go soft if he “supports” pro-Russian activity deeper orelsewhere in that Ukraine, if he takes more of Georgia, if he builds up military and naval bases in Kaliningrad, or if he positions ground forces in a way that threatens the Suwalki Gap.

The Europeans Must Take a Winning Perspective Regarding Their Defense

Meminimus quanto maiore animo honestatis fructus in conscientia quam in fama reponatur. Sequi enim gloria, non appeti debet (I am sensible how much nobler it is to place the reward of virtue in the silent approbation of one’s own breast than in the applause of the world. Glory ought to be the consequence, not the motive of our actions.) Trump seeks to accomplish much for Europe. Some of his goals would have been unheard of in the past. His effort to achieve them is not a mirage. Critics have so desperately tried to convince the world he seeks to do more harm than good. A common, casual, and dastardly way to take down a patriotic citizen of any country is to bring one’s loyalty into question. To the extent that the ongoing investigations into alleged collusion of the 2016 US Presidential Campaign and the Russian Federation government that impression has been created. Even if the outcome of it all goes Trump’s way, the impression of wrongdoing will likely stick to some degree in the US public.

Trump has the will to persevere, to continue until he gets the outcome he wants. Perhaps Trump’s approach is a bit unconventional. Yet, additionally,, there is also an optimism about Trump. He imagines the positive. He anticipates success in what he does. If Trump’s goals for European defense and transatlantic collective security are achieved, and it is very likely they will be, European capitals will appreciate all of it.

Trump is well-aware that being a NATO Member State does not simply mean fulfilling certain obligations of the collective security arrangement, such as: posting an ambassador to the headquarters; attending ministerial meetings; leaders summits; “paying dues” as critics purposely misconstrued his words; committing some troops to occasional military exercises; allowing officers and troops to take advantage of education programs; and other activities. NATO is considerably more than an arrangement that provides for a combined military force designed to deter, and if necessary fight and defeat its most likely adversary: Russia. NATO is an expression of European solidarity. It is essentially an expression of the ties of Western countries as a family. Indeed, the US from the beginning was colonized by many of the same Western countries it now helps to defend. There is in many cases a common history, traditions, culture and well as common values and beliefs. Unity among them in NATO is based on common values and interests. There is no rational reason turn it all asunder. The US, Canada, the European countries, and now Colombia, must stick together and work through issues together as a transatlantic family. Families can always heal over an issue. Things can always get better in a family, especially when good thinkers are engaged on a matter.

Even in family relationships, there are always irritants. Little issues can linger and nag, negative statements are magnified. The role that the US plays on the NATO family should not be minimized or taken for granted. Under U.S. leadership for nearly 70 years, the alliance has accomplished great things while regional peace and security was maintained.. Responding to US leadership certainly does not require submission, subjugation, kowtow, even simply showing deference. It also does not entail expecting the US to carry Europe, or at least it should not. Hopefully, in European capitals, a sense of being entitled to heavy US assistance does not exist. Europe has brought itself up since the end of World War II, through the Cold War, and to the present with US help. Europe now must truly stand side by side with the US, facing forward and not standing behind or in the shadow of their powerful ally. A decision to make that adjustment would truly demonstrate that US efforts on European defense and transatlantic collective security are appreciated and being built on and not simply being taken advantage of. Many leaders in European capitals have shown no indication that they understand or are even trying to understand how things look from the other side of the Atlantic. That kind of broader perspective is not apparent in the public statements and messaging. If those leaders perspectives can change a bit, and the effort is made to work alongside the US as real partners and not as dependents, the security picture will become better for everyone. Trump is likely quietly optimistic about that.

Many European leaders have provided no indication that they understand or are even trying to understand how European defense and transatlantic collective security looks from the other side of the ocean. A broader perspective is not apparent in their public statements or messaging. If those leaders perspectives can change a bit, and the effort is made to work alongside the US as real partners and not as dependents, the security picture will become better for everyone. Trump is likely quietly optimistic about that.

The Way Forward

In Act IV, Scene iii of William Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of Julius Caesar, civil war has broken out and Octavius and Mark Antony are in Rome setting forth to retaliate against all who plotted against Caesar. Brutus and Cassius, who were among Caesar’s assassins, are camped with an army away from Rome, hoping to finish their work of reclaiming the Republic.  Brutus and Cassius are in their tent, formulating a strategy to defeat the army of Octavius and Antony. Cassius suggests waiting for Octavius and Antony move to nearby Philippi, hoping the march will wear out their army, making them less effective if they tried to attack their camp. out along the way. Brutus fears Octavius and Antony may gain more followers during that march and believed their own army was at its peak and needed to strike immediately to exploit that advantage. Brutus states: “Under your pardon. You must note beside, That we have tried the utmost of our friends, Our legions are brim-full, our cause is ripe: The enemy increaseth every day; We, at the height, are ready to decline. There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat; And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.” On occasion, Trump will appear driven in a particular situation by the idea that bold action, when appropriate, can turn situations around. His goal is to exploit success, preserve his freedom of action on immediate matters, and reduce vulnerability from action by his competitors. He acts in a manner designed to gain advantage, surprise, and momentum over his competitors, achieving results that would normally require far more time and would be more costly to the US. This has been observed repeatedly in his interactions with foreign leaders. Trump’s discernment of events and situations as well as his planning and execution of actions against competitors greatly resembles what military thinkers define as maneuver. He rushes to place himself in superior position in order to overcome and defeat his opponents efforts. Trump wants to deal with European defense and transatlantic collective security and the Russian threat to Europe while he is president. He feels that now is the time to act. Unlike his predecessors, he does not want to pass the problem on to another president after his second term ends. He likely sensse that as time passes, the matter will only become more urgent.

For Trump, a robust military build up is the best answer to deal with the Russian threat to Europe. He is also trying his best to connect with Putin to change his perspective and establish long-term peace and stability for Europe. Putin will readily exhibit an openness to diplomacy and his words create the impression that he can be flexible, However, Trump knows that may all be lip service. Given Putin’s record of behavior even during the short span of his administration, it is difficult to trust that Putin will behave. As a next step, if diplomacy does not bring satisfactory results fast enough Trump might boldly push back on Russian advances, reclaiming territory for partners as Ukraine and Georgia. That might inform Putin that he will not be allowed to have a free hand in Europe under his watch and that his latest acquisitions in Europe are vulnerable. However, Trump would still need to wait until sufficient military power in place to thwart attempts by Russia to respond militarily before such moves could ever be executed. That brings the matter back to the Europeans. Right now, European leaders do not seem too interested in building up sufficient military power to defend themselves. Some European leaders are willing to adhere to a position on defense, even if it is wanting, and then fully accepted it as satisfactory because it was determined to be the best or only recourse available. Trump’s letters have called those leaders  out on that behavior. Trump is unwilling to simply accept the status quo. In his view, the time for half-measures has come to an end. Europeans must open their minds to new facts and thoughts. New perspectives on defense must arrive in their thinking.

There is said to be a temper of the soul that wants to live in illusion. Militarily, it has accounted for the limited war in Korea, the war of attrition in Vietnam, the liberation of Iraq, and many errors in between. Some European leaders have turned the reality of what is happening concerning European defense on its head by positing that whatever they might commit to NATO is all it really needs from them. However, the danger their countries face is real. Just as Trump sees opportunity in the moment, they should discern the opportunity that Trump presents. His words may discomfit and it may feel as if he is moving the goalposts. However, he is really offering an invitation. It is an invitation to rise up, to accomplish more, to be more. Hopefully, the Europeans will be willing to accept it. Iniqua raro maximis virtutibus fortuna parcit; nemo se tuto diu periculis offerre tam crebris potest; quem saepe transit casus, aliquando invenit. (Unrighteous fortune seldom spares the highest worth; no one with safety can long front so frequent perils. Whom calamity oft passes by she finds at last.)

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

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

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

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

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

Background on the Ukrainian Conflict

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

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

The Minsk Agreement

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

Russia Has a Unique Perspective on Ukraine

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

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

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

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

The Trump Administration Enters

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

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

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

Russia’s Off-kilter Approach Toward Its Neighbors

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

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

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

Where is Russia Really Going with Ukraine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Has Putin Overplayed His Hand on Ukraine?

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

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

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

Kerry Presses Iran to Prove Its Nuclear Program Is Peaceful; The White House Presses Kerry to Make a Deal

In a November 18, 2013 Reuters article entitled “Kerry Presses Iran to Prove Its Nuclear Program Peaceful,” Lesley Wroughton reported that US Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to lower expectations for the next round of talks in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program. Kerry’s comments, which were made at a press conference in Washington DC, ran counter to the optimism expressed after the previous round of talks one week before.  Currently, the talks seek to reach an interim agreement to allow time to negotiate a comprehensive, permanent agreement that would end a ten year impasse and provide assurances to the US, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China that Iran’s nuclear program will not produce weapons.  Wroughton quoted Kerry as stating “I have no specific expectations with respect to the negotiation in Geneva except that we will negotiate in good faith and we will try to get a first-step agreement.”  Wroughton reported Kerry hoped “Iran will understand the importance of coming there prepared to create a document that can prove to the world this is a peaceful program.”  Kerry declined to discuss details of the proposal under discussion.  Kerry was also reported as stating: “I am not going to negotiate that in public.  We all need to be respectful of each others’ processes here and positions—and so it’s best to leave that negotiation to the negotiating table.”

The restraint Kerry wisely displayed by refusing to discuss the substance of upcoming talks contrasted greatly with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s public discussion of the talks.  On November 17, 2013, Zarif presented his idea for overcoming the stumbling block of enrichment in the upcoming round of negotiations.  The US argues that Iran does not intrinsically have the right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Iran claims that it retains that right.  To get around this sticking point, Zarif reportedly explained to the ISNA news agency in Iran, “Not only do we consider that Iran’s right to enrich is unnegotiable [sic], but we see no need for that to be recognized as ‘a right,’ because this right is inalienable and all countries must respect that.”  In Zarif’s statement lies a major problem concerning trust among the negotiating parties.  Unless the necessary work is done on uranium enrichment at the talks in Geneva to a concrete agreement, the negotiations may be in jeopardy.  Moreover, unless the US takes a consistent course of assertive diplomacy toward Iran, it will most likely end up with an agreement it does not really want and may not be sustainable.  Even if a nuclear agreement of some type is preferred by the Obama administration over military response or further economic sanctions, the best agreement possible within the interests of the US and its allies still must be sought.

Geneva: An Assertive Posture Morphs into Acquiescence

There was considerable expectation created in Washington over the potential of negotiations with Iran given the eloquent case Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made for opening a dialogue with the US before and after his inauguration.  There was also skepticism expressed in the US, mainly by Kerry.  He made it clear that the warming a relations between the US and Iran did not mean that the US would back off its demands on Iran’s nuclear program.  Kerry was also unequivocal about his willingness to shut down any talks if he discerned an effort to stall, misdirect, or deceive through the process.  When Zarif suggested that the US should bring proposals to an October bargaining session, Kerry bristled and rejected the idea, stated at a press conference that the Islamic Republic still had not responded to the last offer put forth by the US, Russia, and others in February.  In some quarters of the US government, the increased requests for proposals and other deliverables from the US by Iran and the effort to shift nuclear away from bilateral engagement with the US talks to broader negotiations with the Europeans and Russia was itself an Iranian effort to stall the negotiations.

However, as the process got underway, there was a perceptible shift in the US position.  US negotiators seemed to fall over themselves just to reach a nuclear deal with Iran.  Talk of military action against Iran’s nuclear program became a distant memory.  Regarding the use of further economic sanctions, the Obama administration officials made it clear to the US Congress that they would not convince the Iranians to accede to US wishes.  The White House wanted to reach a deal.  Things proceeded in this way regardless of any further skepticism or even doubts Kerry might possess over Iran’s intentions and actions.  Kerry, a discreet and honorable man, who is bound by a sense of loyalty to his president as a secretary of state and to Obama personally, was prepared to press forward as directed.  The veil of skepticism that draped initial US efforts to establish dialogue with Iran was lifted.  Zarif apparently recognized the change in US attitude.  He was correct when he declared in the Iranian media, “There are indicators that John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].”

According to a November 18, 2013, New York Times article, weeks before the Geneva meeting at which hopes for an accord first soared and then sank, the US and Iran had opened a quiet two-way negotiation on a six-month interim deal. Officials close to Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, told the New York Times that those bilateral discussions had produced an agreed US-Iranian text (with caveats) by the time the Geneva talks opened. When French officials became cognizant of it they were distressed.

When the US delegation arrived in Geneva on November 7, 2013, they explained that they wanted to construct a deal that would freeze the Iranian nuclear program, to buy some time to negotiate a more ambition deal, and to stop two separate methods of developing a bomb: one involving uranium and, the other plutonium.  In return, the Iranians would receive modest relief from sanctions, but not what they desperately desire, the ability to again sell oil around the world.  That would come only later as part of a final agreement that would require the Iranians to dismantle much of their nuclear infrastructure.  Talk at the bargaining table focused on those three areas: The heavy-water plant at Arak that the Iranians are building, where the outline agreement seemed to allow continued construction; language that appeared to concede prematurely an Iranian “right to enrich” or something close to it; and, what measures exactly Iran would take to dispose of its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium.  France, gravely concerned with all that had transpired, sought to close any loopholes.  French changes to the proposed agreement proved unacceptable to the Iranian delegation

The Way Forward: US Allies Are Flummoxed

According to a November 19, 2013, New York Times article, based on what is known about the agreement, it neither froze the Iranian program nor rolled it back.  Rather, only some elements are frozen, and the rollbacks in the initial agreement are relatively minor.  Iran would continue adding to its stockpile of low-enriched uranium, meaning uranium enriched to reactor grade or less than 5 percent purity.  The US maintains that the overall size of Iran’s stockpile would not increase.  The November 19th article also explained that the reason for that is Iran would agree to convert some of its medium enriched uranium—fuel enriched to 20 percent purity is bomb grade—into an oxide form that is on the way to becoming reactor fuel.  Yet, that process can be easily reversed.

Based on the US effort, the French are convinced that the US seems a bit disinterested in the Middle East.  French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius expressed his dismay in a recent speech, stating: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.”  He suggested this explained “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 further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in American public opinion.  He was concerned that no state could replace the US on the world stage.  Fabius lamented 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.”

In other Western capitals, the foreign policy of the Obama administration is driven by US President Barack Obama’s desire to establish his legacy.  The perception of a “legacy quest” approach taken by Obama and his administration on foreign policy has more than perturbed Putin.  In many capitals around the world, this signaled the US may be willing to make risky concessions in talks to reach agreements.

The Israelis are the most vocal critics of the proposed agreement and alarmed by its terms.  Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to the agreement has been reported by some Israeli analysts as being both substantive and political.  Reportedly, he truly believes that a deal lifting sanctions without fully halting enrichment and dismantling centrifuges would be a terrible mistake.  Netanyahu speaks as if he had some type of “intimation” based on his “dominant knowledge” of the Middle East, that Iran was engaged in a major deception.  Some Israeli security analysts disagree with Netanyahu’s views.  Yet, the weight of maintaining the security of Israel falls on his shoulders.  Perhaps it would behoove Netanyahu to consider that the US decision may have been impacted by his own uncongenial relationship with Obama despite the strong ties between the US and Israel.  He should consider the possibility that difficulties the Obama administration has had getting Israel to agree on Arab-Israeli peace process, Palestine, the occupation, settlements and other issues has influenced US actions.  Netanyahu must not be dismissive of the stinging memory of what some US analysts have described as a manipulation of the Bush administration policymakers by Israeli security officials on the Iraq issue.  Israeli intelligence findings, claims and pleas regarding Iraq supported the invasion that led to a very difficult period in US foreign and defense policy and a national nightmare for the American people.  There is also the somewhat expedient argument that Israel has “cried wolf” too often.

Divergence in Outlook

Two of the most imminent members of the foreign policy establishment, former US national security adviser in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former national security adviser in the administrations of Presidents Gerald R. Ford and George H. W. Bush and US Air Force lieutenant general, Brent Scowcroft, issued a joint statement on November 18, 2013.  They explained, “should the United States fail to take this historic opportunity, we risk failing to achieve our nonproliferation goal and losing the support of allies and friends while increasing the probability of war.”  They repeated Obama’s central argument, “Additional sanctions now against Iran with the new the view to extracting even more concessions in the negotiations will risk undermining or even shutting down the negotiations.”

The joint statement was significant, given the knowledge and experience of Brzezinski and Scowcroft in international affairs.  However, while they centered their argument on negotiating in support of nuclear nonproliferation and to avoid the need for war, in Iran the argument for negotiations centered on the economic harm resulting from US coercive diplomacy.  The goal of the negotiations from Tehran’s view is not as much to find compromise on its nuclear program as it is to gain some compromise from the US on economic sanctions.  The nuclear program is seen by the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as well as hardline political leaders and clerics, rightfully Iran’s to keep, and a necessity, even though it was the pursuit of the essentials for a nuclear capacity that has made Iran much poorer.

Assessment: A Lack of Confidence

There is a sense among US allies that negotiations with Iran have reached this point as result of the White House’s desire to seek political expedient solutions rather than well-considered approaches based on analysis.  To date, no publicly released US government data has indicated that Iran intends to develop a nuclear weapon.  Yet opinion among US allies who have assessed the situation falls mostly on the side that there are too many loopholes in the proposed agreement, and Iran could potentially run in the open field toward developing a nuclear device at will.  Israel in particular has been very vocal about its concerns over US attitude and effort regarding the Geneva negotiation process.  Iran is not pleased by Netanyahu’s statements regarding its negotiation efforts, but has left it to the US to manage its relationship with Israel on the matter.  To Iran’s satisfaction, the US has essentially ignored Israel’s concerns, as well as resisted calls for caution from allies, and has pushed forward with the Geneva talks and the current proposed interim agreement.

In addition to his joint statement with Brent Scowcroft on the Obama administration’s efforts in Geneva, Zbigniew Brzezinski used Twitter o November 19, 2013, to proffer that Obama and Kerry were the best foreign policy team since President George H. W. Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker.  However, to be forthright, there are differences.  George H. W. Bush was elected to two terms as a Member of the US House of Representatives much as Obama was a elected to one term as a Member of the US Senate.  Yet, Bush also served as a diplomat (US Ambassador to the UN), an intelligence expert (Director of the CIA), and, a US Navy aviator (a combat torpedo bomber pilot in World War II).  Together with Secretary Baker, his chief diplomat, was amassed a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience that has not been matched since.  This is in stark contrast with the understanding of world affairs in the abstract from intelligence and the first-hand reports of others which Obama has acquired.  That may be the source of much concern in Paris, other European capitals, Tel Aviv and within the US Congress.

Indeed, there may very well be doubt whether Obama is able to fully synthesize the issues at hand concerning Iran’s nuclear program beyond the pure legalities of it.  At this point, the French appear to have appraised the Obama administration as unwilling to use military action to respond to Iran’s nuclear program.  The Iranians, themselves, may have also concluded that Obama was not predisposed toward declaring war regardless of how they might proceed.  The Iranians essentially see Obama as lacking the will to fight.  Given that perspective, eliminating sanctions, even if for six months would be preferred maintain the status quo.  While its figures were debunked by the US State Department given sanctions relief would be in effect for only six months and not a year, Israel continues to state the proposed deal would directly erase $15 billion to $20 billion of what was $100 billion the current sanctions are costing Iran annually, and lead to relief of up to $40 billion because of indirect effects.  In the meantime, with whatever short-term concessions on sanctions that might be allowed, the hardliners in Iran, particularly IRGC commanders, who are unfortunately convinced Obama is timorous, given recent declarations, may see a golden opportunity to develop a nuclear device.  Perhaps they believe what they would undoubtedly characterize as their “bold and decisive action,” could be reconciled with rest of the world through the negotiation powers of the Iranian Foreign Ministry.  They would call it all a spectacular victory for the Islamic Republic.  Whether the world truly faces that possibility remains to be seen.