Is Putin going for the political kill this time? He’s run rings around the president in Syria before, but now there are abundant signs he might be preparing a flurry before Obama leaves office, a more ambitious hybrid operation that might be called a “Spring Offensive”.
To begin with Nolan Peterson of Newsweek say that “leaders in Washington and Kiev are bracing for the possibility” of “a Kremlin pivot back to supporting two breakaway separatist territories in eastern Ukraine” this spring. To Ukraine may be added a reopening of the Syria front. The Syrians and Russians announced that “they were preparing to launch a joint operation to liberate the country’s largest city Aleppo”. Opposition groups have been warning for weeks that the Kerry-brokered ceasefire was on the verge of collapse and the monitoring mission powerless to prevent rampant violations. They were essentially pleading for their lives because an encirclement of Aleppo would result in their destruction.
On over to Southwest Asia the Taliban have announced the start of their Spring Offensive. It’s called “‘Operation Omari’, named after the late Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar” and comes “just days after Secretary of State John Kerry visited Kabul and reaffirmed U.S. support for the national unity government led by President Ashraf Ghani.”
Ghani needs reassurance. CNN’s Nick Walsh reports that Afghan government troops deserted before the Taliban as they closed on the Helmand provincial capital. Walsh wrote “sometimes you know a war’s going badly when your enemy is right in front of you.”
About 3 miles outside the southern city of Lashkar Gah, Afghan soldiers can see a white flag. It’s not one of surrender — quite the opposite.
The flag belongs to the Taliban, and shows exactly how close the militant group is to the capital of Helmand province.
Despite Afghan government assurances that the army can hold and retake ground, the strategic province that hundreds of NATO troops — who have been in the country for the last 15 years — died fighting for is closer than ever to falling to the Taliban.
To stem the rout, US commanders are feeding Americans back into the Helmand fight for the nth time. The Washington Post says what makes this instance particularly humiliating was that Helmand was the Obama administration’s showcase withdrawal. The last time the press was asked to Helmand there was hoopla. Here was proof of “smart diplomacy”; here was evidence that “we don’t stupid stuff”. Now the troops are back with no real prospect of relief.
The last time the U.S.-led coalition brought a group of journalists here to Helmand province was in October 2014 to document the withdrawal of American and British troops, on a trip designed to signal that U.S. involvement in the war really was ending.
This week, coalition officials brought journalists back, as a way of saying “Never mind” — and to make the case that the United States may want to consider staying on.
After what was supposed to be a withdrawal from one of Afghanistan’s most restive provinces, about 500 soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division rushed back into Helmand in February. The Afghan army, left on its own, had failed to live up to expectations. Now, once again, U.S. forces are in place, trying to toughen up a force that remains too timid.
The worst scenario would be if China joins the push. David Larter of the Navy Times reported, “the U.S. military’s top commander in the Pacific is arguing behind closed doors for a more confrontational approach to counter and reverse China’s strategic gains in the South China Sea, appeals that have met resistance from the White House at nearly every turn.”
Adm. Harry Harris is proposing a muscular U.S. response to China’s island-building that may include launching aircraft and conducting military operations within 12 miles of these man-made islands, as part of an effort to stop what he has called the “Great Wall of Sand” before it extends within 140 miles from the Philippines’ capital, sources say. …
But the Obama administration, with just nine months left in office, is looking to work with China on a host of other issues from nuclear non-proliferation to an ambitious trade agenda, experts say, and would prefer not to rock the South China Sea boat, even going so far as to muzzle Harris and other military leaders in the run-up to a security summit.
“They want to get out of office with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of cooperation with China,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and defense strategy analyst with the Center for a New American Security.
The Washington Post carried a subsequent non-denial of the CinPac gag order. A close perusal of the WaPo article shows that Harris only asserts he can still speak to the president in private. There’s no indication that the president is convinced.
“Maintaining that trust is why senior military admirals and generals won’t discuss our counsel in public,” Harris said.
“During recent congressional testimony and press engagements in Washington just a few weeks ago, I was very public and candid about my concerns regarding many issues in the Indo-Asia-Pacific to include the fact that China’s militarization of the South China Sea is problematic. So any suggestion that ‘the White House has sought to tamp down’ on my talking about my concerns is patently wrong.”
Harris said that he is satisfied that his concerns and recommendations are “solicited, listened to and considered.”
Besides the obvious military movements there are disinformation operations which could be construed as supportive of a Russian push. Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post argues that Putin has cut the political ground out from under Ukraine by funding a campaign in far-right and far-left parties to reject the treaty of trade and cooperation between Kiev and Brussels. “How many of them were moved by Russian disinformation? It’s hard to say, though certainly there has been a lot of it in the Netherlands in recent years, and it accelerated in recent months.”
Applebaum notes that the Germans are alarmed by the Kremlin’s 5th Column. Putin’s black propagandists have not only been busy in Europe. There are indications the Panama Paper leaks may have been engineered by Putin too. Clifford Gaddy of Newsweek notes that the anonymous leaker who provided the document dump has all the earmarks of a Soviet Cold War operation. The motive for the leak is provided by Holman Jenkins in the Wall Street Journal, who notes the Panama Papers have had no effect on Putin, been suppressed in China, are no surprise in most Third World countries and have thus far only brought down the Icelandic premier (on NATO’s northern flank) and threaten to upend David Cameron. To the question cui bono, the answer must be Putin. Jenkins writes that in a world where “the distinction between criminal and politician is nonexistent” only Western politicians would feel the fallout from Panama.
As the leaks play out there could be chaos in Western capitals if the alliance is faced with a simultaneous push in several places. There’s no denying that the military is very worried about its ability to meet the fast developing threats. Military.com quotes the Army chief of staff as saying the service needs at least 220,000 more men to face the threats it is likely to face. However the Newsweek Ukraine article also points out that Obama has declared his determination to pursue “soft power” as described in the Obama Doctrine recently enunciated in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg.
That means Putin can expect to meet little or no organized resistance from the White House. If the statements of the Ayatollah Khamenei are indicators of enemy thinking, Putin has identified the American leadership as the center of gravity. Khamenei wrote that the US Armed Forces, though powerful, were “purely military” entities without any “religious and spiritual” foundation. Khamenei might have added they were without any strategic direction as well. Khamenei concludes that despite its vast strength the US is actually weak because it is paralyzed from within.
Putin will have long noted that US politicians are more concerned with narrow political agendas than national interest. For example, Obama sprang to the defense of Hillary Clinton’s insecure email server (“here’s what I know — Hillary Clinton was an outstanding secretary of state. She would never intentionally put America in any kind of jeopardy”) even as he admitted that the Libyan intervention was his administration’s “worst mistake“.
Obama would put an incompetent — like himself — in office because she didn’t mean to be incompetent.
Then there’s Bernie Sanders who vowed a “national ban on fracking”. “Last fall, Sanders introduced during sweeping legislation to ban the extract of any fossil fuels on federal lands, but in Binghamton, New York on Monday, the Vermont senator went even further, proposing a national ban on the controversial natural shale gas extraction technology.”
Just when America has achieved energy independence, Sanders wants to ban it.
Putin may not understand why America would go back to buying fuel from the Saudis and or why the Democratic Party would nominate a candidate who ran her secrets ops out of a bathroom, but he knows that’s what American politically correct leadership does. It does crazy things.
His advisers would have told him that the US elite lives in a fantasy world of Manhattan salons, Sunday morning talk shows and Hollywood opening nights. They would have explained to the former secret policeman that Global Warming, transgender bathrooms and safe spaces were for some incomprehensible reason the most important policy issues in the capital city of the world’s greatest power. They will have told him that the mayor of New York could ruin a city with impunity yet face a political crisis for making a politically incorrect joke.
And even if he doesn’t quite understand it, Putin will realize that a tremendous opportunity is open to him, that his Western counterparts are fools and therefore to be taken advantage of. Knowing this, Putin may try to take them to cleaners this Spring and see how far he can roll the the self-styled Best and the Brightest; discover how much he can extract from their pockets.
The danger to the world is he will try when with any reasonable president, Putin would never have tried at all.
Follow Wretchard on Twitter.
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