Opinion is divided over what the recent actions of Russia in Ukraine and its recent deployment of forces to Syria signify. The Kremlin has been in the news lately not only because of its continued “hybrid warfare” in Eastern Europe but also because of its sudden descent upon Syria.
Fred Kaplan thinks Barack Obama is running rings around Vladimir Putin. In a Slate article titled “Desperate in Damascus”, Kaplan writes “the portrayal of Vladimir Putin as a grand chess master, shrewdly rebuilding the Russian empire through strength and wiles, is laughable. … His annexation of Crimea has proved a financial drain. His incursion into eastern Ukraine … has stalled.” In a word Kaplan believes there’s nothing to worry about. “We are not seeing the resumption of a global East–West Cold War but rather the complication of a regional sectarian civil war.”
Holding the diametrically opposite point of view is Eerik-Niiles Kross, a former director of Estonian intelligence and a veteran of the Coalition Provisional Authority effort to rebuild Iraq’s Ministry of Defense and military intelligence. He argues that Obama has fallen head first into a “well-constructed trap for the White House and for Europe.” He basically asserts in Politico that Putin helped create ISIS and that moreover the Cold War is now back. Kross accuses Washington of refusing to face the facts, preferring instead to live in a dream world. Kross writes:
Russia created the conflict in Ukraine. Their military support for Assad fuels a bloody civil war and a refugee crisis from Syria. Russian efforts have also materially aided in the creation of the Islamic State—the wealthiest, best-armed terrorist network in history. …
Russia—eager to protect its military foothold on the Mediterranean and on the southern flank of NATO—was quick to line up against U.S. policy and supply Assad with arms, military advisers, intelligence and political support. After Syria deployed chemical weapons against rebels and civilians in August 2013, Russia brokered a deal with the U.S. to save Assad from outside military intervention. …
By the time the chemical weapons deal was signed, the nature of the war in Syria had changed. Before the 2014 Sochi Olympics—as Russia … moved military assets into the region for the seizure of Crimea—there were rumors, now confirmed by Russian investigative journalists, that Russia was actively exporting fighters from the North Caucasus to Syria. … Local FSB officers, sometimes with the help of local intermediaries and community leaders, encouraged and aided jihadis to leave Russia for the fighting in the Middle East, in many cases providing documents that allowed them to travel. …
The western front of ISIL was led by Russian-speakers; the eastern commanders included disenfranchised Soviet/Russian-trained Saddam-era Sunni military officers. From the beginning, their efforts were closely coordinated. There were reports from Kurdish forces of Russian operatives at secret outposts in the desert….
Both in Ukraine and in Syria, Russia created chaos to become the center of all U.S. policy options in the Middle East and Europe—or so it would have the U.S. believe. Absent real leadership on U.S. foreign policy, the Kremlin has been successful at manipulating what they view as an indecisive and disinterested U.S. president into caving to their demands.
A less blistering assessment was offered by former CIA Director and CENTCOM Commander David Petraeus. The disgraced general broke his silence before a Senate committee to deliver what the press called a ‘scathing’ attack on Obama Middle Eastern policy. Petraeus argues that Obama had no options in Syria because he refused to create any. Worse, the administration has refused to face the wider fact that his policy with Russia has failed and the Cold War threatens to restart — one end of it being in Syria.
The way Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times put it was that “his most severe criticism was that the United States and its partners had done little to build up military leverage against the Assad government sufficient to bring about a political solution to the bloody conflict.” That inaction created a vacuum and left the door open for Russia. “Mr. Petraeus said, “Russia’s recent military escalation in Syria is a further reminder that when the U.S. does not take the initiative, others will fill the vacuum — often in ways that are harmful to our interests.”
The actual transcript of Petraeus’ testimony was more forceful than the anodyne NYT account suggests. “Syria is in truth a geopolitical Chernobyl that is just spewing instability, violence and extremism,” Petraeus said. “Not just in the immediate region, although that’s very obvious with the effect on Iraq and a number of the other countries around Syria, but it’s extending all the way of course into Europe, certainly, and of course the attraction for would-be extremists is all the way felt in places as far away as Australia and the United States.”
The CNN coverage of the testimony emphasized the Russian connection. In an article titled “Petraeus accuses Putin of trying to re-establish Russian Empire”. Jamie Crawford writes “One of America’s top former generals compared the situation in Syria Tuesday to a historic nuclear disaster, implicitly criticizing the U.S. for allowing it to worsen, and accused Russia’s President of trying to re-establish an empire.”
“Russia’s recent military escalation in Syria is a further reminder that when the U.S. does not take the initiative, others will fill the vacuum, often in ways that are harmful to our interest,” Petraeus said.
Russian moves in Syria are designed to bolster and hold on to their naval base and airstrip along the Mediterranean coast of Syria, and shore up the al-Assad regime in order to preserve Russian influence in the Middle East, Petraeus said.
“I think that what Vladimir Putin would like to do is resurrect the Russian empire,” he said.
Some say the jury on what Putin is up to is still out.
Michael Crowley of Politico reports that the administration is presently “perplexed” by the Russian actions and does not know how to interpret them. “A month after Russia began sending military equipment and personnel into Syria, Obama administration officials still haven’t figured out exactly why Vladimir Putin escalated Russia’s involvement in the conflict or developed a response to the Russian leader’s ambitions outside his borders.”
U.S. officials are trying to determine what Putin is up to, and how his buildup — which now includes dozens of aircraft — might impact U.S. efforts to broker a peace settlement that could end Syria’s disastrous civil war.
“The reality is we need to know more about what their intentions are,” said a senior administration official.
Confusion about Putin’s motives have plagued the Obama administration ever since the Russian leader first moved into Crimea in March of last year, creating a national security crisis for President Barack Obama that remains on slow boil.
And “slow boil” means very slow. David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post, says the Kurdish forces are marking time while the Obama administration decides what to do next — if it is going to do anything at all. “While the Obama administration haggles over its Syria strategy, a Kurdish militia that claims more than 25,000 battle-hardened fighters is poised several dozen miles north of the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa — ready to roll toward the extremists’ sanctuary.”
Several U.S. officials say that a White House decision to approve expanded aid has been expected for more than a week. Deliberations were complicated by debate over Russia’s recent military moves in Syria, which Moscow describes as an effort to join the fight against the extremists.
“Analysis paralysis” is how one frustrated U.S. official describes the slow process of approval. Advocates argue that after recent setbacks for a U.S. “train and equip” mission for Syrian moderate forces, the Kurds are the best option against the extremists: Air support wouldn’t risk significant U.S. casualties, nor would it violate existing U.S. understandings with Turkey, nor would it threaten the Russians. ..
Syria has been a nightmare for U.S. policymakers partly because the order of battle there is so tangled. The rampaging YPG is backed by our adversary, Iran, but mistrusted by our ally, Turkey. The United States says it wants to work for a diplomatic settlement with help from Russia, which is now sending a significant new military force into northern Syria. Meanwhile, progress on the so-called “southern front,” has been hamstrung by Jordan’s reluctance to topple President Bashar al-Assad until it’s clearer who will succeed him.
Not prominently reported in the news but germane to the general question was a Russian warning to the US, reported in the Atlantic Council, that Russia would “take countermeasures against the Pentagon’s decision to station new nuclear weapons inside Germany’s territory.” The Atlantic Council cites a journalistic source who reports that “the U.S. Air Force would station a minimum of 20 B61-12 nuclear bombs in Germany moving into the third quarter of 2015, as per a defense budget decision made last year.” It notes from Reuters that the Russian response would probably consist of the deployment of “Iskander ballistic missiles to its enclave of Kaliningrad” in retaliation.
The B-61 mod 12 is a life extension package to existing warheads that are getting old. “The B61 is a variable yield bomb (0.3 to 340 kiloton yield in various versions and settings) designed for carriage by high-speed aircraft.” In the event the B61s cannot be used the USAF may have to resort to the megaton range B83 which can only be carried on B2 Spirit bombers.
Also lurking beneath the fold is a UPI report that A-10s have arrived at “the Amari Air Base in Estonia on Monday as part of the effort to deter Russian aggression in Syria” — a peculiar expression to say the least, considering that Estonia is not in the Middle East. The general impression does not support the belief that peace is busting out all over; indeed an air of menace is swirling about.
The “analysis paralysis” of the administration must soon be broken by the rush of events. Reuters reports that a second Russian army base is being built on the border of Ukraine. “The bases are part of a Russian military buildup along a new line of confrontation with the West, running from the Black Sea in the south to the Baltic in the north, which carries echoes of the Cold War-era ‘Iron Curtain’.” All 28 EU member states “agreed to beef up controls at the 28-nation bloc’s outer borders to stem the influx of migrants.”
What the import of these developments are, only time will tell. It may be, as Fred Kaplan argues, the last flash of a collapsing Putin before the masterful diplomacy of Barack Obama. Or it could as Kross maintains, be part of Vladimir Putin’s plan to achieve “the destruction of the post-WWII architecture of the West.” Or it could be something in between. Whichever it turns out to be, it hardly seems a case of business as usual.
David Petraeus’ testimony and the unexpected resignation of retired General John Allen from his position of point man to the lead the fight on ISIS suggest that the professionals are deeply worried. Nobody is sleeping well.
Allen’s stepping down from the envoy role would occur a little more than a year after he stepped into the position. The administration officials that spoke to Bloomberg insisted that Allen’s decision to step down was largely due to his wife’s health, as she suffers from an auto-immune disorder.
However, the timing of Allen’s resignation coincides with a series of setbacks for the White House’s anti-ISIS campaign. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the head of US Central Command, which leads the anti-ISIS coalition effort, told Congress last week that only “four or five” US trained rebels were still fighting in Syria, despite a goal of training 5,400 rebels a year.
Although the Obama foreign policy has been characterized as unsuccessful, it can hardly be called uneventful. His tenure in office has seen what seems at times like the loss of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War victory. If Kross is right, Putin aims to go further and actually take Franklin Roosevelt’s triumph in 1945 away also. It is certainly a time to ponder, unless like Fred Kaplan, one believes the world is in the hands of top men.
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