(Includes a case study of events in Syria in Autumn 2015, when Obama took Putin seriously and avoided an armed clash.)
President Joe Biden will get it wrong again if he heeds advisers telling him he can send heaps of more lethal weaponry into Ukraine without much risk of open hostilities with Russia.
Like Biden, the Russians do not want that. That’s why they spent last week warning there will be "unpredictable consequences" from surge-supplying billions of dollars-worth of weapons to Ukraine. (See Scott Ritter and me on Ukraine: "Russian ‘Incoming’ To Destroy Weapons Coming In."
As Scott and I pointed out yesterday, one "consequence" seems entirely predictable. And if we are correct in saying the Russians can be counted on to destroy most of that additional weaponry – Biden’s all-consuming attempt to appear strong vis-à-vis Putin will fall flat (with dire Dem damage). The optics – those that slip by the "Patriot defenses" of the corporate media – are likely to be a PR disaster. Worse still, at that point, Washington hawks (many of whom fully expect the above scenario) will be able to argue even more strongly that Biden needs to "do more."
Here’s the Problem
What Establishment Washington seems unable to grasp is:
– Ukraine is a "must win" for Moscow, which sees it as an existential threat to Russian security; and
– If Putin falters, it is a good bet China will come to his aid, and the U.S. will be faced with the prospect of a two-front war. The Chinese know all too well that they are next in line for the tender ministrations of NATO/East. Indeed, it is no secret that, in the Pentagon’s eyes, China remains enemy #1. The Pentagon’s "2022 National Defense Strategy" issued two and a half weeks ago gives pride of place to a perceived threat from China, as in:
"The Defense priorities are:
1. Defending the homeland, paced to the growing multi-domain threat posed by the People’s Republic of China." …
(In contrast, Russia doesn’t make it onto the list of the top four "Defense priorities."
Joe Biden was Vice President when President Barack Obama stepped out of character and actually reined in the military – expressly to avoid a military clash with Russia over Syria in the fall of 2015. One must hope that Biden remembers it. Putin surely does, for it offered all sorts of lessons with respect to what a US president can do – and the political limits on his power. Putin talked about those lessons at the time. Later, in a June 2021 speech, as Ukraine heated up, Putin noted yet again:
I am sure that it [US policy towards Russia] is primarily impacted by the domestic political processes. Russia-US relations have to a certain extent become hostage to the internal political processes that are taking place in the United States.
U.S.-Russia maneuvers during September/October 2015 were so instructive that I composed a brief chronology. What follows is extracted from that summary. Ironically, the most aggressive hawks President Biden faces now do not seem to be in the Pentagon; top military leaders seem sensible enough to want to avoid taking on Russia – or, worse still, bothRussia and China.
Chronology from 2015, Syria
September 28, 2015: At the UN, Putin tells Obama Russia will start air strikes in Syria; invites Obama to join Russia in air campaign against ISIS; Obama tells Kerry to get together with Lavrov to "deconflict" US and Russian flights over Syria, and then to work hard for a lessening of hostilities and political settlement in Syria – leading to marathon negotiations.
September 30, 2015: Russia starts airstrikes both against ISIS and in support of Syrian forces against rebels in Syria.
October 1, 2015 to September 9, 2016: Kerry and Lavrov labor hard to introduce ceasefire and some kind of political settlement. Finally, a limited ceasefire is signed September 9, 2016 – with the explicit blessing of both Obama and Putin.
September 12, 2016: The limited ceasefire goes into effect; provisions include SEPARATING THE SO-CALLED "MODERATE" REBELS FROM THE, WELL, "IMMODERATE ONES." Kerry had earlier claimed that he had "refined" ways to accomplish the separation, but it did not happen; provisions also included safe access for relief for Aleppo.
September 17, 2016: US Air Force bombs fixed Syrian Army positions killing between 64 and 84 Syrian army troops, with about 100 others wounded — evidence enough to convince the Russians that the Pentagon was intent on scuttling meaningful cooperation with Russia AND FELT FREE TO DO SO AND THEN MERELY SAY OOPS, WITH NO ONE BEING HELD ACCOUNTABLE!
September 26, 2016: We can assume that what Lavrov has told his boss in private is close to his uncharacteristically blunt words on Russian NTV on September 26. (In public remarks bordering on the insubordinate, senior Pentagon officials a few days earlier had showed unusually open skepticism regarding key aspects of the Kerry-Lavrov agreement – like sharing intelligence with the Russians (a key provision of the deal approved by both Obama and Putin).
Here’s what Lavrov said on September 26:
"My good friend John Kerry … is under fierce criticism from the US military machine. Despite the fact that, as always, [they] made assurances that the US Commander in Chief, President Barack Obama, supported him in his contacts with Russia (he confirmed that during his meeting with President Vladimir Putin), apparently the military does not really listen to the Commander in Chief."
Lavrov went beyond mere rhetoric. He specifically criticized JCS Chairman Joseph Dunford for telling Congress that he opposed sharing intelligence with Russia, "after the agreements concluded on direct orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama stipulated that they would share intelligence. … It is difficult to work with such partners. …"
September 29, 2016: KERRY’S HUBRIS-TINGED FRUSTRATION:
Kerry’s whining reflects naiveté accompanied by hubris-on-steroids. Apparently Victoria Nuland, Samantha Power, Susan Rice, Netanyahu, et al. had told Kerry it would be easy to "align things" in the Middle East. In stentorian remarks betraying senatorial, sartorial ignorance, as well as what the Chinese used to call "great-power chauvinism," Kerry indicates that he thought he could "align forces" using the misbegotten policies the US has pursued in the Middle East over the past four, and many more, years.
And so, this is how Kerry started off his remarks at an open forum arranged by the Atlantic magazine and the Aspen Institute on September 29, 2016. (I was there and could hardly believe it; made me think that some of these stuffed shirts actually believe their own rhetoric about being "indispensable.")
Syria is as complicated as anything I have ever done in my public life in the sense that there are probably about six wars going on at the same time: Kurds against Kurds, Kurds against Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sunni, Shia, everybody against ISIS, people against Assad, Al-Nusra…this is a mixed up sectarian and civil war and strategic and proxies, so it is very difficult to be able to align forces."
October 1, 2016: Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova warns on Russian TV: "If the US launches a direct aggression against Damascus and the Syrian Army, it would cause a terrible, tectonic shift not only in the country, but in the entire region." She warned of those whose "logic is ‘why do we need diplomacy’ … when there is power … and methods of resolving a problem by power. We already know this logic; there is nothing new about it. It usually ends with one thing – full-scale war."
(The New York Times avoided reporting this.)
October 6, 2016:
Russian defense spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov warns that Russia is prepared to shoot down unidentified aircraft – including any stealth aircraft – over Syria. It is a warning that should be taken seriously. Experts differ as to whether the advanced air defense systems already in Syria can bring down stealth aircraft, but it would be a mistake to dismiss this warning out of hand. Besides, Konashenkov added, in a telling ex-ante, extenuating-circumstance vein, that Russian air defense "will not have time to identify the origin" of the aircraft.
October 7, 2016:
John Kerry calls for Russia and the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad to be investigated for "war crimes" in relation to strikes carried out by Syrian and Russian warplanes against the Islamist militias.
October 12, 2016: Here is a summary of my remarks on RT:
The way we reconstruct events over the past several days is the following:
Obama realizes that this is getting dangerous; tells Kerry, "Enough already with the War-Crimes charges;" Obama tells Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, "Enough with the insubordination; rein in your air force cowboys. We are going to do the only sensible thing on Syria; namely, resume talks Saturday (October 15) in Lausanne, Switzerland, at the foreign minister level." The US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Iran will take part.
October 15, 2016: Kerry flies to Geneva, where other invitees also gather. But, alas, apparently, Obama was not able to hammer out and get his various top advisers to agree on a new approach. In any event, Kerry arrives WITHOUT NEW INSTRUCTIONS. An embarrassment; most gatherers go back home.
Probably the only somewhat useful outcome of this strange sequence of events is the clarity with which Obama signaled Putin that he is, indeed, taking seriously Putin’s stern message (via Zakharova and Gen. Konashenkov), and really would prefer not to have US aircraft shot down over Syria (to the extent it is in Obama’s power to prevent this).
October 27, 2016: Putin speaks at the Valdai International Discussion Club
So how did the “growing trust," that Russian President Vladimir Putin once wrote (in the September 11, 2013 NY Times op-ed) marked his “working and personal relationship with President Obama," change into deep distrust and saber-rattling? At Valdai Putin spoke of the “feverish” state of international relations and lamented:
“My personal agreements with the President of the United States have not produced results.” He [Putin] complained about “people in Washington ready to do everything possible to prevent these agreements from being implemented in practice"; and, referring to Syria, Putin decried the lack of a “common front against terrorism after such lengthy negotiations, enormous effort, and difficult compromises.” (Emphasis added)
(See also my Baltimore Sun Op-Ed of October 30 for more detail.)
Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, a publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. His 27-year career as a CIA analyst includes serving as Chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch and preparer/briefer of the President’s Daily Brief. He is co-founder of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS).