Ask This General

Brigadier General Peter B. Zwack {Ret.}

peter b zwack




Russia Affairs
Eurasia Affairs
Joint Presentation
Keynote Address

Defense Attaché to Moscow 2012 – 2014

Global Fellow at The Kennan Institute
Woodrow Wilson International Center

University of Pennsylvania – Adjunct Fellow

Senior Russia-Eurasia Research Fellow
National Defense University 2015 – 2019


Breaking Down US-Russian Distrust With Time, Talk, and Meals

A recent session of the long-running Dartmouth Conference shows how non-governmental dialogue can ease tense relations.

I was a recent participant in the Dartmouth Conference, one of the few remaining Track 2 — that is, non-governmental — dialogues between the U.S. and Russia. Its results may be especially interesting in the wake of the recent victory of President-elect Donald Trump and for those paying close attention to the difficult relations between our two countries.

The oldest dialogue of its kind, the Conference has for 56 years enabled senior American and Russian citizens to seek mutual solutions to our shared political and geostrategic challenges. The three-day symposium I attended in late October was the 146th meeting under the Conference’s auspices.

One of a series of events on the Middle East, the meeting convened 10 bipartisan Americans and 10 Russians, included former ambassadors and diplomats, academicians, and business people, all with a wide range of experiences involving the overall U.S.-Russian relationship and the Middle East. While the main focus was on Syria, the overall Middle East, and Afghanistan, we also talked about greater global challenges facing the U.S.and Russia.

The discussions were frank and direct, with many disagreements. It was troubling, though not unexpected, to see how imperfectly these well-informed participants understood each other’s world views, priorities, and vital interests. The perception chasm between us was wide.

If this had been a transactional meeting of only a few hours, the chances of progress would have been slim. From my experience as a military diplomat, such meetings — especially between officials meeting each other for the first time and tied to official talking points — rarely produce much open dialogue.

But over the three days of our conference, during which we shared time and meals, discussions eventually turned toward the kind of frank problem-solving that can only transpire over a sustained period of contact. We ultimately hammered out several modest recommendations, a rare occurrence in the tense relations between our nations.

The recommendations looked for both major parties to find mutually acceptable “contact points” to explore working together, especially in the humanitarian realm in Syria. While not perfect, they are at least a starting point. From this, if there is progress, any nascent cooperation could possibly deepen into other sectors.

Several major strategic points became evident during these discussions and articulated by delegation heads in the final meeting.

First, neither the U.S. nor Russia has a vital, existential-threat-level interest in the complicated situation in or around Syria. Second, an accident or incident involving our militaries in or around Syria could inadvertently escalate into a dangerous existential threat risk involving our two nuclear-tipped countries. Third, sectarian allies and proxies including Iran and Saudi Arabia, will attempt to involve the U.S. and Russia in pursuit of their own parochial regional interests, without regard for overall strategic U.S and Russian interests. Finally, the group agreed on the need for continued support of the difficult mission to ensure a stable Afghanistan.

The findings and recommendations of the group were presented to senior officials in the U.S. State Department and counterparts in Moscow.

This example of sustained U.S.-Russia dialogue should be readopted – across key political and defense entities of both nations – by U.S. and Russian policy-makers as the new Trump administration comes into office. Such a sustained relationship-building, problem-solving approach coupling direct, frank dialog to actions, could reduce serious misperceptions and the high level of paralyzing distrust between our nations that has become so dangerous during these volatile times.

Peter Zwack, a retired Army brigadier general, writes from the Institute for National Strategic Studies within the National Defense University. From 2012 to 2014, he served as the United States’ senior defense official and attaché to Russia. He has traveled extensively throughout Eastern Siberia

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A Bright Spot in U.S.-Russian Relations

With the Trump administration soon entering office, it is important to highlight increasingly rare U.S.-Russian non governmental engagements.

I recently participated in the Carnegie Endowment-supported “Task Force on Regional Conflicts.” The topic was Syria, the Middle East and Afghanistan. Its goal was to develop several joint recommendations to forward to each government for consideration. Delegations included ambassadors, businessmen and academics, and the participants all had worked on aspects of U.S.-Russian, Middle Eastern and Afghan affairs.

A key observation was when groups armed with rigid talking points and preconceived, mistrustful perceptions initially meet, rarely is there any headway if the encounter is just for a few hours. For progress, such groups must be immersed for several days, including meals. Over time, familiarity and resultant understanding increase while mistrust erodes, enhancing credible problem-solving.

All concurred that Syria should present no existential threat to either nation but risks are increasing of an escalatory military accident or incident. Importantly, they agreed both nations are being exploited by sectarian interlocutors, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. In Afghanistan, interests mostly converge.

While not empowered, the fact that the group developed some joint recommendations received at a high level by both governments during a tense period of limited official contact made this a highly worthwhile effort.

Peter Zwack, Washington

The writer, a retired brigadier general, teaches at the National Defense University.

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A Reawakening Nuclear Nightmare

When lecturing, I often ask students and young officers if they have seen the movie “Dr. Strangelove.” About a third typically raise their hands. I then ask them what is the essence of good satire, and someone will eventually offer, “The truth?”

As crazy as Stanley Kubrick’s atomic-age cautionary tale was, that was the tension-edged atmosphere those of us older than 40 grew up with and remember.
Sadly, the dark cloud of nuclear Armageddon that had faded since the end of the Cold War following the break-up of the Soviet Union is looming once again.
Earlier this week, Russia made international headlineswith the unveiling of its RS-28 Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), fittingly nicknamed “Satan 2” after its monstrous SS-18 predecessor.
While massive Soviet-era nuclear weapons are nothing new, Russian media claim the Sarmat, with its 6,000-mile range, capability to avoid missile defense systems and 15 independently targeted warheads, can “wipe out parts of the Earth the size of Texas or France.”
What should we make of such statements?
This latest announcement is as much bluster and intimidation as a menacing statement of capability. Back in 2014, for example, Russian media star Dmitry Kiselyov remarked on state-controlled Channel 1 that Russia was the only country in the world “capable of transforming the U.S. into radioactive ash.”
That statement was further evidence that Russia sees its nuclear capability as its great superpower equalizer in a world where it lags in almost every category other than oil and natural gas, space, and exquisite fine arts like classical music and ballet.
As a result, and coupled with the thousands of deliverable nuclear weapons held by both the Russian Federation and United States, it is clear we live in an increasingly dangerous world in which geostrategic tension and disagreement is high, both nations are significantly modernizing nuclear capabilities and discussion of reducing arsenals is muted.
The reality is that our world’s immediate existential threat, namely the possibility of a nuclear holocaust that could erase our civilization, can’t be wished away.
Russia’s increasing brinkmanship regularly reminds the world of its lethal nuclear capability, while its aggressive probing of international boundaries and norms — including both physical territory and the cyber domain — appears recklessly defiant, marginalizing Russia further as an international pariah.
Meanwhile, the prospect of an in-flight or naval accident or incident dramatically increases with armed US and Allied aircraft and ships encountering similar Russian platforms over Syria, and contentious regions such as the Baltic and Black Sea.
All this is taking place against the backdrop of the withering of long-standing arms control regimens. The Nunn-Lugar’s Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program is gone, the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty has been canceled, the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) has been suspended, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is fraying and the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) and Open Skies treaty are being questioned.
This is important — and tragic — because besides reducing and regulating dangerous weapons and warheads, these treaties and conventions, built over decades of hard negotiation, were a key confidence-building measure during the Cold War and breakup of the Soviet Union. They involved legions of US and Russian diplomats, scientists and bureaucrats in near-daily contact. Whether they agreed or not, the process was fundamentally stabilizing as it also provided communication conduits between our distrustful nations.
Today, that confidence-building cushion is dangerously “bone-on-bone” and must be rejuvenated before the whole process collapses and we enter an all-out arms race.
But any discussion of nuclear challenges must include a step back to review what is driving Russia to these aggressive behaviors.
Certainly, the country’s immense 11-time-zone geography, with its vulnerable borders and difficult demographics, are factors. This, coupled with a difficult history that has included threats and invasions from virtually every direction, has meant Russia has developed a jaded, xenophobic view toward security along its vast periphery.
As a result, even peaceful NATO enlargement (of which I’ve always been an advocate) and rogue-nation-focused US missile defense have become tinder that fuels current revisionist Russia behavior.
This is why the United States and Russia must urgently reopen essential conduits and reestablish points of direct dialogue before we are inevitably engulfed by a cyber-fast crisis or incident. This must include senior diplomats and politicians, but also key operational military leaders on both sides that can frankly discuss issues and act as regional crisis “first responders.”
Considering the civilization-ending arsenals our nations possess, there is disturbingly inadequate contact.
Unfortunately, I fear that our population, distracted by the endless political election drama, is mostly oblivious to this growing threat. Meanwhile, fed by a steady diet of focused state-owned media, the Russian people, already on a psychological war-footing, are regularly reminded of perceived and mostly contrived existential threats to their society.
In 1982, my first assignment as a young lieutenant involved nuclear security for an atomic-capable field artillery unit. Our mission was to deploy to West Germany and, if need be, fire nuclear rounds up to 12 miles at Soviet invaders surging through the Fulda Gap.
We took this zero-defect nuclear responsibility extremely seriously. Back then, of course, nuclear deterrence ultimately worked for both nations. Today, though, mutual de-confliction and de-escalation mechanisms are nowhere near as robust as they were in the Cold War.
For anyone wanting to get a sense of the world so many experienced during the Cold War, I would recommend listening to a couple of numbers by Tom Lehrer, the 1960s Harvard bard of dark geostrategic satire — “So Long, Mom” and “We Will All Go Together When We Go.”
Yes, they are gallows humor. But they are also a reminder of a frightening world never experienced by our younger generations — one to which we never want to return.
Recently retired Brigadier General Peter Zwack is the Senior Russia-Eurasia Fellow for the National Defense University’s Institute for National Security Studies. He served as the senior US Defense Attache to Moscow from 2012-14. These are his personal views.
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In Aleppo, Echoes of Guernica and Global Disorder

Nearly 80 years ago, a shattered town rang a death knell for international order. We must not let it happen again.

In 1937, the Third Reich’s expeditionary Condor Legion obliterated the Spanish town of Guernica. This cynical proxy bombing, immortalized in Picasso’s iconic painting, was an early death knell of the League of Nations, and came to symbolize the violent rending of the post-WWI international order. Today, nations must act so that Aleppo does not become a Guernica for our own age.

The Russian and Syrian government assault on anti-regime rebels in Syria’s second-largest city goes far beyond any reasonable military action. This isn’t about the merits of the various rebel groups, or even ISIS, but about the hundreds of thousands of defenseless civilians trapped in the bombardment and crossfire.

Many, including myself, watched with concern Russia’s sharp-elbowed but controlled intervention a year ago on behalf of Assad’s Syrian regime. But Moscow has since behaved like a stressed gambler, doubling down by targeting Aleppo’s civilians, hospitals, and aid workers. This is not the measured use of “little green men” that characterized Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, but is rather akin to its brutal military bulldozing of Chechen Grozny in 2000.

Time is not on Russia’s side. The longer she is embroiled as a combatant in Syria, the more she is vulnerably exposed inside that fractious land — and also within a broader Sunni constellation that includes a significant proportion of Russia’s own population. As we have learned so painfully, bad things happen to foreign militaries entangled in Middle Eastern civil and sectarian wars. Perhaps that explains why Russia and the Syrian regime, with their Iranian and Hezbollah proxies, have pulled out all stops to obliterate the rebel resistance.

Judging from the positive reception that President Vladimir Putin received at the recent G20 summit in China, Russia appeared to be working out of its post-Crimea isolation. But that looks to have been temporary. A fleeting opportunity is being missed: Russia might have targeted ISIS in Syria, complementing the offensive launched by Iraqi and Kurdish forces against ISIS-held Mosul in neighboring Iraq. Or it might have accepted several UN-backed cease-fire proposals. Instead, it pressed a ruthless, lawless effort to force a decision in Aleppo.

There is a sense that Moscow has lost control of its own narrative. It is certainly losing its best chance to be a credible part of any lasting, globally-supported solution in Syria. Without such, it will be stuck, expensively alone with its proxies, in a seemingly endless civil war. Increasingly a pariah state, Russia may become committed to a future of economic and political isolation as the price for a higher-profile international standing built upon military excesses in Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Syria. If so, Moscow may become even more reactionary and aggressive, feeling it has little to lose.

Already, its military, improved but stretched, is increasingly a policy tool of choice. As this is written, Russia’s sole aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and its well-armed escorts are cruising in a highly publicized sortie toward the eastern Mediterranean. The flotilla will likely slip under Russia’s reinforced A2AD (anti-access, area denial) air-defense network in Syria and add its aerial and missile arsenal to the bombardment just days before the U.S. election. This follows the consecutive and likely coordinated deployments of S-300 air-defense missiles to Syria and the SS-26 Iskander short-range ballistic missile to Baltic Kaliningrad.

Will the largely loyal, but sanctions-strained Russian population, back this recklessly defiant course indefinitely? Only time will tell.

This is a crucial juncture for the international community, just as the 1930s were for the League of Nations. Global allies and partners must firmly hold the line against a revisionist Russia. Hard measures, mostly economic and political, must be added to dissuade Russia from further aggressive behavior. But at the same time, efforts must be redoubled to reestablish essential U.S.and Russian communications conduits between our nuclear-tipped militaries to ensure that operational leaders on both sides aren’t trying to contact each for the first time during a cyber-fast-breaking accident or incident. Credible political and military de-escalatory “off-ramps” will be critical over this increasingly tense period.

As one who came to appreciate the hardy Russian people and their distinct culture over three decades of interaction, I had hoped, and still do, that Russia, faced with firm boundaries and patient diplomacy, can find a way back to the international mainstream of law-abiding nations. Until then, Russia will reap what it sows.

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CNN Video Transcript


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tensions between Washington and the Kremlin are at one of the most dangerous points since the cold war. Vladimir Putin’s government is furious over an incendiary story by a U.S. government funded news agency Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports two U.S. officials with diplomatic passports were drugged last year in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The report sites a U.S. government official saying the two people were slipped a date rape drug at a bar and one of them had to seek treatment at a clinic. The State Department inquired about the alleged incident with the Russians.

MARK TONER, U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT DEPUTY SPOKESMAN: We are looking into it. We are investigating it just as we would any credible allegation.

TODD: The Russians are outraged over the allegation. The deputy foreign minister says Russian investigators responded quickly, but didn’t get the specifics they asked for from the U.S. embassy or even the victims’ names.

In a statement, the minister says, quote, “At the time, no Americans had sought treatment at any St. Petersburg medical institutions. If they had just been boozing at a hotel bar, they have only themselves to blame.”

[00:35:13] The State Department has wrapped up its complaints about what it says is a pattern of intimidation toward America’s diplomats in Russia.

TONER: Apartments broken into. You know, evidence left behind that people were in an apartment of a diplomat, this kind of stuff.

TODD: “The Washington Post” reported this summer that U.S. diplomats in Russia had furniture rearranged in their homes and said one diplomat reported someone defecated on his living room floor.

In June, an American diplomat was tackled by a Russian guard as he tried to enter the U.S. embassy in Moscow. The Kremlin said the guard was doing his job protecting the embassy from a potential threat.

U.S. officials say the harassment has gotten more intense since Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014.

Peter Zwack was the top military official at the U.S. embassy in Moscow then.

BRIG. GEN. PETER ZWACK, NATIONAL DEFENSE UNIVERSITY: Everywhere that we went, we had a sense that they knew where we were. We were being surveilled. You can have this feeling of constant very nervous tension.

TODD: If Putin’s government is harassing American diplomats, what’s his message?

MATTHEW ROJANSKY, WOODROW WILSON CENTER: That there aren’t any rules anymore. That you America have declared economic war on us, political war, you’re isolating us, you’re punishing us, and you’re signaling to us that you don’t have to take us seriously. So we’re going to use whatever weapons we have, asymmetric if necessary, to up the temperature.

TODD (on-camera): Russian officials have countered recent allegations of harassment by saying the same thing happens to their diplomats here in the United States. The Russian Foreign Ministry says U.S. security services have taken, quote, “unacceptable measures” against Russian officials in America, even sometimes putting psychological pressure on them in front of their families. State Department officials say those allegations are unfounded.

Brian Todd, CNN, Washington.


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