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


Russia and China’s Growing Military Interaction; Surprised?

Why does Russia place such emphasis and media attention on incredibly large military exercises with China?

Russia and China’s Growing Military Interaction; Surprised?

The drums are already rolling for the upcoming Russian “Vostok” (east) wargames commencing on September 11. With its focal point in the Trans-Baikal region of eastern Siberia adjoining Chinese Manchuria and Mongolia, this is a nationwide Russian military and societal event.

Touted by Russian minister of defense Sergei Shoigu as “unprecedented in scale, both in terms of area of operations and numbers of military command structure, troops, and forces involved,” Russian state press is declaring that up to three hundred thousand troops and one thousand aircraft will be involved, with the majority from the Eastern and Central Military Districts. This would be even larger than the near-legendary Zapad-81 maneuvers held in the western USSR during the depths of the Cold War.

Announcements about this type of event are not new to me. I’ve been to several of them. In July 2014, just before I departed Moscow as the U.S. defense attaché to Russia, news began to buzz concerning the upcoming Vostok 2014 wargames in the Far East. It was a tense time. Heralding new gray zone applications of so-called hybrid war, Ukraine’s Crimea had just been illegally annexed by Russia and battles raged between unattributed Russian regulars and beleaguered Ukrainian defenders across eastern Ukraine. At that time the upcoming Asian exercise was also billed as Russia’s largest military exercise since Soviet times, though its declared numbers turned out lower than proclaimed.

One important wrinkle this year is that reportedly up to 3,200 Chinese personal with ninety vehicles, including tanks and thirty fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, will participate. Most are coming from China’s Northern Command. This will be the first time the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will take part in this formerly purely Russian quadrennial Asia-oriented exercise. The bulk of participating Chinese personal have already transited from Manchuria into Russia, escorted by Russian military police to the Tsugol training range near Chita. The Mongolians have also sent a small contingent.

“From such it’s quite evident that the trajectory of Chinese-Russian relations have certainly improved since I encountered in 1997 a former Soviet T-54 tank gunner in Spassk, an old garrison town north of Vladivostok located on the eastern shore of sizable Lake Khanka. Besotted with vodka drunk from coffee cups in a gritty railway bar, the gnarled veteran spoke of the fierce Ussuri River border clashes in 1969 near Khabarovsk where he claimed his tank destroyed several Chinese vehicles – three men in his company also died. Other citizens in a familiar refrain complained of a major cross-border influx of Chinese traders and settlers, illegal Chinese logging, illicit fishing in Lake Khanka’s fresh waters where both nations share a common aquatic border, and poaching of the region’s revered Siberian Tigers. Despite local concerns of this nature, this was a period of improving diplomatic relations between the two nations, with China on a slow upward trajectory after the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and Boris Yeltsin’s diminished Russia still struggling to regain its footing after the USSR’s break-up in 1991.”

It is important to note that Russia has no territorial claims in Asia. Rather, she is a status quo power in the Far East. With substantially fewer conventional forces along the Sino-Russian border than the Cold War, she is essentially in a strategic defensive posture. Her nuclear deterrent is her regional guarantor while a sophisticated anti-access, aerial denial network centered on the nuclear ballistic missile submarine bastion in and around the Sea of Okhotsk makes attacking the overall region a thorny proposition.

Russia’s burgeoning “strategic partner” Beijing, however, is distinctly revisionist in its behavior in Asia and the Pacific, much as Russia aggressively conducts its business in the West. A key generational question is how Russia manages the rising, resource-hungry hegemon that is looming China—one that has far-reaching aspirations throughout Asia, including its announced Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that runs in part though former Soviet Central Asian regions. China, the only “great power” with a seemingly long-term national vision, has also declared its interest in a Polar Silk Road as well.

The Russia-China military relationship continues to evolve and is a logical progression following deepening political and economic ties. Pragmaticallym the Amur-Ussuri territorial disputes were diplomatically resolved in 2004–5, enabling enhanced military cooperation though long-term generational issues remain. While Chinese-Russian military activities have in the past been mostly symbolic and representational, they appear increasingly interactive. The PLA, not blooded since its brusque 1979 defeat by Vietnam, likely hopes to learn from Russia’s newly gained fighting expertise derived since 2014 in eastern Ukraine and Syria. What is key to determine is if their interaction evolves more ominously into interoperability exercises where substantial and varied forces can operate in tandem and jointly in coordinated operations.

Dating back to 2005, Russia and China have exercised modest forces together in a mostly “counterterrorist” role in Central Asia and in Russia as part of the Chinese-driven Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Notably, SCO Exercise Peace Mission 2018, involving China, Russia and six other nations, including newly added India and Pakistan, is currently underway in Chelyabinsk (just east of the Ural Mountains). Bilaterally, they have participated in several small scale naval exercises in the Baltics (2017), South China Sea (2016) and eastern Mediterranean (2015), where they have been mostly “show the flag” operations designed more to convey sharp signals abroad and show partner support. Presaging Vostok-18, Russian air transport and elite airborne units conducted a snap readiness exercise in August in likely preparation of deployment east for the exercise. Additionally, a widely publicized Russian naval exercise in the Mediterranean to support Syria operations will be ongoing with twenty-five vessels of various sizes and likely will be included in the overall Vostok-18 personnel count.

It is important to understand that the Russians have a declared four-year cycle with long-planned exercises rotating annually between four Military Districts: Zapad (Western), Vostok (Eastern), Kavkaz (Southern) and Tsentr (Center). They are widely advertised, command major media attention domestically and abroad, and numerous international military attaches are invited as observers as I was to Kavkaz (Black Sea region) in 2012 and Zapad (Kaliningrad) in 2013. These are much different than the potentially more dangerous and destabilizing unannounced “snap” readiness exercise that have proliferated in recent years. The newly established Northern Fleet Military District focused on Russia’s “High North” also sorties assets during these exercises. The ramp-up for these major “Cecil B. DeMille” type extravaganzas are widely choreographed and involve much more than just conducting maneuvers and a big concluding firepower demonstration. They are in fact, major Russian national endeavors involving many thousands of civilians and support personnel, such as railway troops that figure into the exercise’s overall numbers. They include marshalling and moving forces and supplies over Russia’s vast railway, air and immature road networks, mobilizing reserves, organizing logistics including medical facilities, laying tactical fuel pipelines, sortieing ships and even exercising nuclear command and control as occurred in last year’s Zapad 2018. Quarterbacking the effort will be senior leaders and general staff operating within Moscow’s new National Military Command Center. Amidst heavy media coverage, President Vladimir Putin will also assuredly visit the exercise. In sum, these are society-wide efforts in which the full civil-military go-to-war apparatus of the Russian state is exercised. This does not mean Russia wants war, but is preparing for such in a way that is difficult for our more liberal-democratic societies to comprehend.

Why does Russia place such emphasis and media attention on these large set-piece exercises? Why this expensive, resource burning annual effort that unnerves Russia’s neighbors while both motivating and unsettling Russian citizenry?

One way to tackle this dichotomy is to go back to fundamentals regarding a Russia that lives through a prism of real, perceived . . . and contrived . . . existential threats. When wondering what drives the Russians to their seemingly counterintuitive and even self-defeating xenophobic behaviors, we must remember to review their geography, history and demography from which flow the nature of their regime and resultant social system and economy. Today’s resource-rich Russia, with its relatively small, western-weighted population, is set within a gigantic eleven-time zone Eurasian landmass that was mostly cut from the hide of nations and civilizations by former Czarist and Soviet rulers over the past five hundred years or so. As such, Russia has immensely long terrestrial borders . . . think of them as exposed flanks . . . with the melting Arctic widening into a northern flank as well. Its approximately 145 million citizens are about 40 percent of the population of the United States (320 million), one-third of the European Union (500 million) and about one-ninth of China (1.3 billion). China’s ground border with Russia alone runs over 2,300 miles, and while not an issue today, much of Moscow’s Far East was annexed from a weak Qing dynasty in the mid-1800s. This demographic imbalance between Russia and China is starkly apparent in the Russian Far East and Siberia, and as domestic Chinese natural resources inexorably diminish could be a major factor in the years ahead.

Again, to remind, Russia—in part due to its own imperial and Soviet expansion—has throughout its millennia of history been at war along its borders with massive loss of life. She barely survived several bouts of near annihilation including the Mongols from which some Russians organically still retain a visceral phobia of the East. Bookending this medieval horror, within the lifetime of today’s older grandparents, came the merciless Nazis from the West, from whom a staggering twenty million to twenty-six million Soviets perished. These factors clearly play in how the Russian people view external threats and how the regime leverages these perceptions to help mobilize the population. They should not, however, be used, or accepted as a pretext for aggressive revisionist actions.

Challenges regarding its smaller population and sanctions hobbled finances mean that Russia is hard-pressed to field in peace-time a one-million active duty military force. Additionally, over 30 percent of its personnel consist of difficult to manage one-year conscripts. This main force competes with robust security services and an approximately 250,000-strong National Guard. While a considerable force, Russia’s vastness, and widespread military commitments in places like Syria, Eastern Ukraine, Transnistria, Armenia, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan rapidly diffuse it’s standing force, requiring major mobilization and training exercises such as this year’s Vostok-18 that will entail rapid shunting of forces across Russia’s colossal Eurasian landmass. This is a major reason Russia regularly drills as it does for potential war in a nationwide effort and why so much emphasis is put on territorial mobilization and defense.

All these factors reveal why it was absolute prudent, transactional foreign policy for China and Russia to resolve the border disputes that plagued their relations. While vulnerable to potential future problems including an increasing resource imbalance especially with oil and natural gas, both nations have bigger fish to fry, whether Russia’s issues to the west and south, and in China’s case, in the southeast Pacific, and with India to a lesser extent. Both needed calm borders and a more insulated trading relationship such as their massive $400 billion natural gas deal signed in 2014. Making increased military interaction more attractive is also the shared perception that the United States and its allies are squarely blocking their more autocratic aspirations and directly threatening their regimes. Neither have major allies or are part of a well-organized security alliance as is NATO. They are loath about being internationally isolated or contained, which explains why both, even while pursuing different agenda, are usually lockstep with each other on major security issues in the UN and other international fora.

Therefore, U.S. and allied policy regarding both Russia and China should continue to be strong and predictable focused on the specific issues that both challenge and benefit relations. Allies must be firmly defended and partners supported. Legal international boundaries and protocols must be respected and if need be enforced. What we should not do, however, is default toward treating both nuclear-tipped Russia and China as a conjoined threat thereby creating a future potential “self-fulfilling prophecy” where they could—especially if they perceive being isolated—temporally ally in some type of powerful, transactional pact. We should watch and learn from these military exercises, assure allies and partners, but not overreact to their actions and rhetoric nor appear to try to drive a wedge between them. The wedges are already there, those of the vast regions history, geography demography and resources which will inevitably play out in the generations ahead.

Brig. Gen. (retired) Peter Zwack writes from the Institute for National Security Studies within the National Defense University. He served as the United States Senior Defense Official and Attaché to Russia during contentious 2012-2014. Dating back to 1997, 2000 and 2012 he has traveled extensively throughout Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. These are his personal views and perspectives.

large National Interest 7 9 2018 0

These Are the High Stakes of the NATO and Trump-Putin Summits

Trump and America’s allies must stand firm while also not sleep-walking into war.

The summit between President Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin scheduled for July 16 in Helsinki is now a certainty. While all such encounters between the United States and Russia carry strategic weight, this one is crucial. The Russian meeting is preceded by Trump’s fraught attendance at the July 11–12 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit and a next-day visit to an uneasy United Kingdom. This means the Helsinki summit will climax what may prove to be the most-important six-day period so far this century. Every foreign power —not least, China—will watch closely.

President Vladimir Putin’s  obvious goal is to cement and extend his remarkable strategic achievements of the past several years. America’s goals are unclear.

This is a crisis, and it’s  time for both sides of America’s domestic political scene to display unity. The United States has its existential security priorities at stake. Washington needs a bipartisan approach to pursue genuine progress in relations with Russia, but also to minimize the prospect of irreparable damage inflicted by rogue behavior. Faced with a savvy, experienced and ruthless interlocutor such as Putin, the U.S. president and entire government must be on guard. Progress in spheres of mutual interest might be reassuring at home and to America’s nervous allies, but Washington dares not sweep away or minimize the core concerns regarding America’s long-term security —or that of its long-term, genuinely indispensable allies.

What occurs—or does not occur—initially at NATO will be closely monitored and analyzed on the eve of the U.S.-Russia Summit. This especially includes the atmosphere, mood, and the ability of America and its allies to continue and collectively plan for crises in long-term. The results of this assessment will inform Putin’s stance and negotiating position. Furthermore, this may be beyond the broad outlines Washington already anticipates. It certainly will play into the psychology of the meeting—the strategy and tactics of discussion, negotiation and diplomacy that go further than this one-on-one meeting. In fact, the Trump-Putin summit will inform U.S. foreign and domestic-policy over the foreseeable future.

As such, the significance of all three upcoming Trump encounters, especially NATO and Helsinki, make them now inextricably intertwined. If the President and his twenty-eight NATO counterparts can get through a surely spirited, frank but somehow collegial session it would level the playing field with Russia. This would be especially true if the NATO summit results in a message of unity and resolve, one that sends a powerful message to the Russians.

If Russia senses or worse sees publically manifested rancor and division among the NATO allies, then the Trump-Putin Summit will become inordinately perilous for NATO. The unity and steadiness of the Atlantic Alliance, one that has weathered numerous dramatic moments over its sixty-nine-year existence, would be in danger.

This is a potential bellwether, a strategic moment where much can go wrong. However, it is critical to focus on its potential benefits as well. The key is President Trump, will he stay disciplined and on message, and if he improvises, could any aspect of such be actually positive?

Right up front, any such Trump-Putin meeting must not minimize the deep issues and grievances between America and Russia. To be credible with an astute interlocutor such as Putin, at a minimum Trump must make more than a desultory mention of the 2016 electoral hacks, the war in Ukraine and the illegal Crimean annexation, corrosive cyber “gray zone” activities versus allies and America, and chemical weapons transgressions amplified by the latest Novichok nerve agent revelation in England. Furthermore, Trump should strongly reiterate the potential costs of any confirmed cyber intrusions into our upcoming November 2018 mid-term elections. In turn, he will have to be prepared to defend NATO’s peaceful enlargement, remind Putin why sanctions are in place and address phobic Russian perceptions of U.S. regime change efforts. Without addressing these, no credible discussion leading even to rudimentary transparency and minimal problem-solving can transpire on issues crying for coordinated attention such as the badly-atrophied Arms Control regimen, Ukraine, Syria, North Korea, Afghanistan, counterterrorism and the Arctic.

Much of my nearly four-decade career was oriented on the Soviet Union and Russia. My duty began as a young Cold War-era U.S. Army seco nd lieutenant as part of a nuclear-capable howitzer unit fixated on defending West Germany against a Soviet—Warsaw Pact onslaught (we never want to go back to that Dr. Strangelove world again!. My final posting was as the U.S Senior Military Attache to Moscow during tumultuous 2012-2014, where I have been working deeply and persistently on both hard and soft power aspects of Russia. As such I want to focus the rest of this short article on some stark security-focused aspects that beg highlighting because if America gets this wrong, both Washington and Moscow risk worse case inadvertently blowing each other and everyone else off the planet in a horrific 1914-esque “how did we get here moment?!”
It’s essential we review the fundamentals of why it is so important that these two men, the leaders of the world’s most lethal, nuclear-tipped nations, develop a relationship, as unsavory it may appear to some.

First and most frightening, heavily-armed U.S. and Russian military platforms continue to fly, cruise and face each other worldwide. This proximity, especially during tense times coupled with a dearth of military to military contacts to mitigate the dangers of a cyber-fast accident or incident risking regional or global catastrophe.

Therefore a hierarchy of pragmatic contact from strategic top to operational and even tactical down must be reestablished worldwide between America and Russia. Goodness will not flow from the bottom up but rather starts with the Presidents. Nothing of stabilizing consequence will occur without some relationship between the two. From such, the existing senior-level military contacts between Washington D.C., Brussels and Moscow could be expanded and reinforced. These conduits should be further built out to include U.S. and Russian military commanders and staffs world-wide, representing corresponding forces in the Indo-Pacific, Europe, Middle East, Arctic and strategic nuclear forces.

The familiarity and “de-demonization” that would come from frank, regular dialogue between these key interlocutors worldwide is especially important in an era when U.S., NATO and Russian operational leaders very rarely meet. Major changes in relationship, attitude or posture do not magically happen. Such require planned encounters between enabled interlocutors, face-to-face meetings bringing some semblance of a relationship even if stressed and distrustful. It is from such meeting that an understanding on key issues, if not agreement, can emerge along with some personal familiarity that helps to break-down this near-organic distrust. One does not want commanders who have never met trying to initially deconflict a fast-breaking crisis in distant regions far from Washington DC or Moscow.

Paradoxically these links were more robust during the depths of the Cold War. But thankfully the current deconfliction mechanism between Russia and U.S. forces in and around Syria provides a possible baseline from which to build. Looking back, as difficult as it was, we saw another example of this in mid-1990s Bosnia where U.S., NATO and Russian forces worked to contain the violence that had engulfed former Yugoslavia after its break-up.

Providing context for this discussion, I just spent two weeks in Russia visiting Moscow and two provincial cities in the hinterland. Throughout I spoke to numerous Russians veterans, thinktankers and academics, citizens and expats. The prospect of a Trump-Putin Summit was in the air but not confirmed. What I found was a proud, almost defiant Russia firmly supporting, despite occasional domestic demonstrations and flare-ups, a re-elected Putin who appears firmly and confidently in Russia’s saddle after eighteen years of power. The country was deeply absorbed in World Cup preparations, reveling in the completion of its eleven-mile Kerch Strait connector bridge from the Russian mainland to annexed Crimea, and state media was paying close attention to G7 discord and the just announced U.S. tariffs. The level of distrust toward the U.S. and West overall was even higher from my time in Moscow during 2014 and seemingly more mean-spirited too. This level of distrust and mean-spiritedness was also reflected in American views towards Russia. Particularly troubling was a discussion of potential war—amplified on late-night state-owned television—with the U.S. and the West that permeated not just through policy and political entities also through Russian society. The Russians do not want war, but are preparing militarily and societally for it in a way that it is difficult for our own distracted public to fathom.

Putin’s Russia seems to be muddling through and playing its weak economic and geostrategic hand unusually well and flexibly during these complex times. It appears to be adequately deflecting domestic backlash with its state-controlled media and constant denial of any substantive bad news and egregious acts. The sanctions regime was placed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and later transgressions. While those embargos remain quite irritating to Russian elites and slow down military modernization, they also seem no longer as convincingly coercive as they appeared between 2014–2016. Workarounds proliferate whether through foodstuffs grown locally in all-season greenhouses and Russia has increased imports from China, Central Asia, the Caucasus and even some from Europe. Russia is exercising its own resilience and, up to some difficult-to-define point, the Russian population—including the bulk of its youth—is on board and proud of their proclaimed toughness.

This is the environment in Russia and the source of Vladimir Putin’s strength and renewed confidence that serves as the backdrop to his meeting with President Trump. Moreover, Trump despite his own confidence represents a politically divided America, one that is the key member of an increasingly uncertain Alliance. The Russians were positive, in some quarters elated, when he won the Presidential election, but then disappointed when relations continued to worsen. My canvasing discerned that the Russian population, while wary, do want better relations with America and hope that Trump and Putin can achieve a favorable relationship and reduction in tensions. Notably, the Russian mainstream, perhaps as a manifestation of its totally different societies, does not fully understand the depths of American anger with its current regime, particularly over the Russian cyber intrusions into America’s cherished body politic during the 2016 presidential campaign.
In closing to borrow the famous line from Churchill, much of America’s relationship with Russia remains “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” The United States must come out of this summit with at least a small fraction of the tension-reducing points outlined above. In doing so, both sides would break down perception barriers and help demystify each other. Otherwise, if the summit fails to accomplish this, America and Russia are fated to continue living in an increasingly dangerous, hair-trigger world where over-reaction based on the miscalculation of threat and intention could ruin all that is dear to us.

Brig. Gen. (retired) Peter B. Zwack writes as the senior Russia-Eurasia fellow from the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. These are his own views and perspectives. He is publishing a personal memoir of his experiences in Russia— Swimming the Volga —later this year.

Image: Belarusian military jets fly during the Zapad 2017 war games near the village of Volka, Belarus September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Sergei Grits/Pool

Originally Published: National Interest on Monday, July 9, 2018 – 21:40
twtrW AP Pavel Golovkin Russia drills

Russia’s Looming Military Exercise: A 21st Century Trojan Horse?

Beginning Thursday, as many as 100,000 Russian and Belarusian troops will launch major military exercises along the border of three NATO countries.

Russia’s upcoming Zapad military exercise, which will simulate a response to an attempted overthrow of the Belarusian government by an insurgency unfriendly to Russia, has European countries and the United States on edge at a time when relations between the NATO alliance and Moscow are colder than ever.

Zapad has the potential to be the country’s largest military exercise since the Cold War – despite Russian claims that only roughly 13,000 troops will participate, Western defense officials have put forward estimates closer to 100,000. Many suspect the Russians may hold multiple, smaller, simultaneous exercises as unofficial parts of Zapad, to adhere to the letter, if not the spirit, of the official 13,000 limit.

Why 13,000? According to the Vienna document, an agreement among the nations of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe of which Russia is a member, any exercise involving more than 13,000 people – including both military and support personnel – requires that outside observers be allowed to attend. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week that Moscow’s offer to allow three international observers access is not sufficient.

What is of more concern than the actual numbers are NATO fears of Russian duplicity. Russia made similar assurances regarding troop numbers in 2013, ahead of the last Zapad exercise, but the number reached nearly 70,000 – and acted as a prelude to the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

So, is this Russian posturing or a true threat to NATO? According to experts, the exercises pose three major risks: potential positioning for a future attack, as in 2014; diversion for Russian activities elsewhere, such as in Syria and Ukraine; and an opportunity to signal to its Western rivals that it is once more a player on the global stage. None of these options are mutually exclusive, and all also carry the potential for miscommunication or miscalculation that leads to actual conflict.

The exercise comes at a time when the U.S. and Russia are exchanging diplomatic blows by expelling each other’s diplomats (because of the U.S. assertion that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election) and subtly challenging each other across the world from Syria to Afghanistan.

Former U.S. Senior Defense Official and Military Attaché to the Russian Federation, retired Brigadier General Peter Zwack, told The Cipher Brief, “I haven’t seen this level of distrust in my experience since 1999 – Kosovo. It is built on the 2014 crisis points and exacerbated by the very ugly activities – corruption and meddling – in our own body politic.” Given that level of tension, Zwack’s main concern surrounding Zapad is “an accident or an incident in this period of really serious distrust.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s primary objective seems clear: sending an indisputable message of strength to its Western neighbors and their NATO allies. In fact, the name Zapad, which means “West” in Russian, is quite literal – Belarus shares a western border with three NATO countries: Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Speaking to the BBC on Sunday, UK Defense Secretary Michael Fallon indicated that the message was not lost on Europe: “This is designed to provoke us, it’s designed to test our defenses, and that’s why we have to be strong,” he said. “Russia is testing us and testing us now at every opportunity.”

Indeed, the Russian First Guards Tank Army – the historic unit that fought back the German invaders in World War II along the Eastern Front and then went on to occupy Berlin during the Cold War – will participate in the exercise.

The message was certainly not lost on Russia’s eastern European neighbors either. General Jaroslaw Stróżyk, the former Polish Defense Attaché in the United States, told The Cipher Brief that “the major aim of Zapad-17 is to intimidate Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.”

Beyond messaging, the West will also be watching closely for signs that Russia may be leaving military equipment in Belarus as pre-positioning for a future attack on one of the bordering nations – making Zapad-17 a modern-day Trojan Horse.

The Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, General Tony Thomas, stated in July that “the great concern is that [the Russians] are not going to leave” Belarus after the conclusion of the exercise. “And that’s not paranoia,” he added.

Moreover, after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Syria, experts noted similarities between tactics used in those actions, such as the use of unmanned aerial systems, and maneuvers practiced in Zapad-13.

But that also creates an opportunity for NATO, according to Cipher Brief expert and former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service Steven Hall.  “There’s going to be the entire breadth of NATO collection capabilities aimed at Zapad to try to find out what the Russians are capable of,” he told The Cipher Brief.

So what does NATO have planned during the exercise?

According to NATO officials, the alliance will “closely monitor exercise Zapad-17 but we are not planning any large exercises during Zapad-17. Our exercises are planned long in advance and are not related to the Russian exercise.”

Instead, NATO will maintain normal military rotations, while carrying out previously scheduled exercises in Sweden, Poland, and Ukraine. Sweden, which is not a NATO member but is a member of the European Union, began its Aurora 17 exercise on Monday – which consists of 20,000 people from nine Western countries, including around 1,000 U.S. Marines, training to counter a hypothetical attack by Russia.

There will also be an additional six-week deployment of three companies of 120 paratroopers to each of the three Baltic countries for ‘low-level’ exercises. And, based on a 2016 agreement, four deployments of U.S., UK, German, and Canadian troops maintain an “Enhanced Forward Presence” in Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Estonia.

However, according to Zwack, NATO’s readiness needs to go beyond the military component. The alliance must be “absolutely ready” from a political and economic perspective as well, and prepared to lay down “mind-bending sanctions” if the Russians move beyond exercises to “a permanent dwell” in Belarus.

Russian adventurism, he believes, must have consequences that would put the Russian regime – and the monied interests that support that regime – at risk. It would need to be, according to Zwack, an existential threat to the controlling powers in Russia: in other words, “bad for business.”

But even if the exercise concludes without incident, the current climate is simply unsustainable, according to General Philip Breedlove, the former U.S. Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, who retired in 2016.

“I would hope that cooler heads and better judgment would prevail. But we can’t live in this way,” he told The Cipher Brief, adding, “The glib saying you often hear is ‘hope is not a strategy.’”

Originally Published: The Cipher Brief on Wednesday, September 13, 2017 – 22:30
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Zapad 2017: Should We Fear Russia’s Latest Military Dress Rehearsal?

The Russian military is now a sharpened policy tool of choice for an emboldened but strategically defensive regime that relies on preemption.

In mid-September, Russia will conduct Zapad “West” 2017, a major quadrennial military exercise that takes place near the borders of the Baltic States and Poland as well as inside independent Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Not since the end of the Cold War has a modern-day military exercise prompted as much speculation and concern as this Western-oriented display of Vladimir Putin’s machines of war.

The prospect of Zapad 2017 raises tantalizing and worrisome questions. Will it turn out to be a traditional preparedness operation, in which a wide array of heavy, light and specialist forces train for higher readiness? Or, will it prove to be a well-calculated first step toward inserting Russian forces permanently into its prickly ally Belarus? Or, could it be, as some fear, the dark prelude to a surprise invasion of neighboring NATO’s Baltic States?

Four years ago, I witnessed Zapad 2013. I was the senior U.S. Military Attache to Russia and part of a large contingent of Moscow-based international military attaches who were invited to observe the proceedings by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

After flying from Moscow in an aging Ilyushin aircraft, our attaché group arrived in tiny Kaliningrad, the former East Prussian Konigsberg, a militarized wedge of Russia between NATO allies Poland and Lithuania. There, we settled into bleachers overlooking broad beaches to watch the grand finale of Zapad 2013—a large “anti-terrorist” amphibious operation.

President Vladimir Putin in black raincoat arrived in an armada of black SUVs, accompanied by Belarusian strongman President Alexander Lukashenko and his son, Kolya. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu also attended. The men sat in the glassed-in VIP gallery above us. Both Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff, had been in their roles for less than a year, a result of major shake-ups in the Russian defense structure in late 2012. Tellingly, they both remain in place today.

The exercise began. In the distance, large indistinct gray forms on the water slowly approached us, veiled by early morning Baltic mists. Suddenly, red-starred fighter-bombers screamed past us overhead, followed by swarms of missile-laden helicopter gunships. “Terrorist” positions on the beach and behind were bombarded with firepower of all types. The air was filled with fiery flashes and ear-splitting booms. By then, the mysterious gray forms had revealed their identity: Polish-built “Ropucha” amphibious assault ships, Cold War holdovers. Near the shoreline, the ships rapidly disgorged amphibious armored personnel carriers laden with Russian marines who dismounted in the shallows and stormed the beach. Air transports flew high overhead loaded with paratroopers who did not jump due to the blustery winds.

Then, on the horizon, appeared the world’s largest military hovercraft, shrouded in a giant cloud of foam and mist, like some Mesozoic sea monster. The huge Zubr-class air-boat roared up onto the beach and disgorged more marines and vehicles. We gaped at the hovercraft’s immensity and its menacing array of weapons. After this memorable spectacle, President Putin popped out from the elevated command center above us, leaned over and said in English to our throng of attaches below, “I am glad you could come.” After shaking hands with a few Russian commanders, he was whisked away in his cavalcade of SUVs.

The carefully scripted display that morning was the culmination of a century’s worth of refinement of Russia’s traditional firepower-centric warfare. The muscle-flexing was meant to impress not only those of us on hand, but also Russia’s domestic population and the wider world. The exercise also was designed to intimidate Russia’s regional neighbors; I can only imagine what the Baltic, Polish and other eastern European attaches standing among us thought.

Yet even as we climbed down from the bleachers and waited for our ears to stop ringing, the deep-thinkers working for Russia’s general staff and intelligence services were already hard at work on a brand-new way of war. The world’s first glimpse of Putin’s new approach came just four months after Zapad 2013, in February 2014, when the collapse of the pro-Russian Ukrainian regime triggered a fast-moving chain of political and military events over a scant three years that shook and ultimately cracked the global post–Cold War order.

During that short period, the world witnessed a Russian military revolution on the same scale as our own U.S. “Revolution in Military Affairs” of the late-twentieth-century. In our revolution, technology was harnessed to sharpen and amplify the effects of firepower. We refined killing techniques, believing they would lead, inevitably, to victory. The new approach successfully deterred the late–Cold War Soviets and climaxed in the Desert Storm operation in Iraq a quarter century ago.

Unsurprisingly, the post-Soviet Russians intently studied our impressive performance on the battlefield and also watched carefully as we retooled for dealing with difficult counterinsurgencies. What they learned from us, and their own difficult experiences, led to a revised and nuanced approach to warfare—an approach used very effectively-in a “troika” of military operations between 2014–2017 in Ukraine’s Crimea, eastern Ukraine and Syria.

The Russians began by rethinking the concept of victory, and then worked backward to devise methods to achieve it. The result is an arsenal of asymmetric “influencers” that are difficult for free, open societies to combat in peacetime. The weapons range from a ruthless application of special operations through economic subversion, to cyber-assaults; from manipulated elections to the extensive use of disinformation and old-fashioned assassinations. Whereas the United States had the luxury of thinking in brilliant operational parts, the Russians—with far fewer resources—focused on the strategic whole to get the most bang for the buck.

Failure also played a role in Russia’s military reset. Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia was not the Russian military’s finest hour, and only succeeded due to massive advantages in manpower and firepower. Russia’s traditional military structures, leadership and training failed dismally. Vladimir Putin, the “new” Czar, already in power for eight years, was not happy. He brought in new leaders, and supported their “New Look” reforms, which ruthlessly cut and streamlined Russia’s bloated and largely Soviet-era military. The only assets left essentially unchanged were Russia’s formidable nuclear-capable forces, the key ingredient maintaining Russia’s superpower aspirations.

The first of the three applications of Putin’s new warfare approach was on display in the rapid and illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in March 2014. The move came on the heels of the Sochi Olympic Games and the bloodbath in Kiev’s Maidan Square that led to pro-Russian President Yanukovych’s hasty flight from Ukraine. The stealth operation was a major departure from what we had just witnessed at Zapad 2013. Aggressive and measured deployment of “little green men”—well-armed, nonattributed Russian special operations troops supporting local proxies—rapidly paralyzed Ukrainian resistance in Crimea and kept local ethnic Russian hotheads from fighting their Ukrainian and Tartar counterparts. Ukrainian governmental centers were seized without bloodshed while military bases were sealed off and allowed to peacefully surrender.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, my colleagues and I saw Russian state-owned television play patriotic movies about the Victorian-era Crimean War and World War II’s “Hero City” of Sevastopol. A coordinated disinformation campaign spewed forth invective about a (faux) NATO threat to the Crimea, planting the notion among the Russian populace that Putin’s preemptive invasion was justified.

Buoyed by success in Crimea, Putin’s second application of the new approach to warfare showcased the blending of special operations and conventional forces to support ethnic Russian separatists in the eastern Ukraine. The “hybrid” technique initially suppressed key ethnic Russian-heavy Ukrainian governmental and population centers. Major Ukrainian cities with large Russian populations such as Kharkiv, Mariupol and Odessa almost fell to Russian-steered “separatist” assaults. But the operation hit a major bump when separatists found themselves in unexpectedly tough and bloody fighting with a determined hodge-podge of Ukrainian government and volunteer forces. And many ethnic Russians in Ukraine refused to join Putin’s Russia—a miscalculation that took Moscow by surprise.

After a long summer of combat during which Russia never acknowledged its own forces fighting inside sovereign Ukraine, resurgent Ukrainian forces pressed the separatists into increasingly compressed pockets around Donetsk and Lugansk. In late August, undeclared main-force Russian units rolled across the border into eastern Ukraine to stave off an imminent separatist collapse and a colossal political setback for Putin. (His regime was already reeling from the ghastly, inadvertent separatist shoot down of a packed civilian Air Malaysia jetliner in mid-July 2014.)

Using much improved command and control, combat intelligence using drones and electronic warfare enabling precision fire strikes, Russian fires shattered the counter-attacking Ukrainian spearheads near Ilovaisk and restored a much diminished Russian separatist enclave. Throughout, the Russians maintained the somewhat inconvenient fiction that only volunteers were fighting, no main force units. In spite of less than perfect execution, the Russian campaign in eastern Ukraine marked the second major operation in which a wide range of Russian forces experimented with different tactics and techniques, gained valuable experience and combat-tested their equipment.

The third application of Putin’s new approach was Russia’s sharp-elbowed intervention into Syria in late September, 2015. Here, unlike Crimea or eastern Ukraine, Russian forces and firepower—for the first time since its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan—rapidly, robustly and unabashedly deployed outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union.

Equipped with increasingly well-coordinated command-and-control, intelligence and surveillance, joint air-ground operations, logistics and precision weapons (including strategic air platforms and long-range, air and sea-launched cruise missiles) Russia, despite some setbacks, deftly showed off its new-and-improved capabilities to a watching world. These have included a capacity to wage coalition operations with partners Syria, Iran and Hezbollah—a partnership that culminated in Syria’s bloody Grozny-style destruction of the ancient city of Aleppo, in full defiance of international law.

Although high-casualty “dumb” bombs and shells are still being heavily used in a way that ultimately may boomerang on the Russians, Syria remains the most visible application of the regime’s “New Generation Warfare,” employing a full spectrum of tactical-to-strategic nonnuclear capabilities, with assets that proudly, and loudly, carry Russia’s white, blue and red tricolor.

Especially worrisome for the world, the much-improved Russian military is now a sharpened policy tool of choice for an emboldened but strategically defensive regime that relies on preemption. A key danger is the country’s robust nuclear capability, which the Russian leadership may believe can be threatened tactically to intimidate some potential opponents into acquiescence.

Even so, Russia struggles to fully man a professional million-man standing military that competes with the nascent National Guard and robust security services for resources. Draftees still make up over a third of the force. Deploying social-media savvy draftees into questionable and extended cross-border actions is difficult. The nation is vast geographically, relatively sparse demographically, and currently hampered by high costs exacerbated by sanctions on its weak oil-based economy. Russia is also hampered by thousands of miles of inhospitable borders carved out of the hide of other nations and civilizations, as well as a small and diverse population of about 144 million citizens, most of whom are concentrated west of the Urals. Current and future Russian defense planners face a daunting challenge to create and sustain Eurasia-wide security.

To cope with manpower limits, more and more second-tier forces are being trained as well—buttressed by a growing pool of combat veterans and honed by an aggressive program of short notice “snap” and programmed readiness exercises. The Russians are increasingly taking a “whole of society” approach for their military exercises and overall defense preparedness. This includes stressing the country’s rail, road, port and aerial infrastructure, as well as its economic and banking sector. The Russian leadership seems to be psychologically and materially mobilizing their population for what some see as an inevitable war with the United States and its Allies. This does not mean the Russians want war, but it signals that the United States must do its utmost to recognize, limit and defuse Russian opportunism before it is harmful.

As Zapad “West” 2017 quickly approaches—with all its military eye candy and pyrotechnics—we must not be distracted from the long view. Developing a pragmatic dual-track policy toward the Russian Federation is paramount.

First, the United States must continuously and unambiguously underscore that it will always stoutly defend the sanctity of NATO, the core alliance of our civilization. The United States must also firmly support worldwide allies and partners while always upholding cherished U.S. principles. This is nonnegotiable and includes being ready, along with allies and partners, to respond globally to a possible worst-case scenario in which Russia invades the Baltics States or somewhere else along its long borders. Fortunately, Putin likely recognizes that it would be pure folly to commit naked aggression with his ultimately outmanned, outgunned, out-financed and “out-allied” nation. Putin and the moneyed interests of Russia know that a globally-condemned attack, even against non-NATO members, would be “bad for business” and could ultimately bring down a Russian regime that needs credible relations with the west to survive for future generations.

Instead, an emboldened Russia could choose to launch a stealth offensive by probing and non-attributable “gray zone” activities, particularly if it senses an exploitable division in NATO cohesion. More likely, such a tremendous gamble would be a preemptive reaction to what the Putin regime perceives as a serious existential threat, such as a collapse of a geographical buffer like Belarus, or suspicion that one or more foreign elements are trying to instigate regime change in Russia.

The greater risk for the world is a major accident or incident that somehow rapidly escalates into cyber-fast brinksmanship before cool heads can prevail. Such an event could happen anywhere, not just in the Baltic region or over Syria. That is where the second track of a dual-track policy is critical. Without ever condoning malign actions or acceding on sanctions, senior political and defense links between our countries need to be reinforced. We must better understand each other’s tautly stretched threat perspectives. We need to reenergize atrophied deconfliction conduits between U.S. and Russian global operational level commands, while reenergizing the withered arms control regime arms that should now include cyber constraints. Without these and other confidence-building measures that through contact seek a convergence of interests amidst today’s well-documented divergences, the dangerous trust-deficit between our two nuclear-tipped nations only increases.

The West—both NATO and the European Union—must prepare for the type of worst case, all-guns-blazing scenario that Zapad showcases every four years, but we must not stop there. It is Russia’s deceptive, stealthy and highly imaginative array of corroding, subverting, non-attributed operations that is every bit as dangerous as old-fashioned battlefield weaponry. When combined with Russia’s resurgent conventional capability, the full bag of tricks at Putin’s disposal shows a country preparing for potential conflict in ways difficult for our western societies to fathom.

Brigadier General Peter Zwack (ret.), former 2012-2014 U.S. Defense Attache to Russia, writes as the senior Russia-Eurasia Fellow within the Institute for National Security Studies at the National Defense University. These are his own views and not that of the U.S. government.

Image: Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter of the Russkiye Vityazi (Russian Knights) aerobatic team performs at the ARMY 2017 International Military-Technical Forum at the Kubinka airbase outside Moscow, Russia August 27, 2017. REUTERS/Andrey Volkov

NYT May 2018

The Quiet Americans

Can Washington’s “Russia hands” help explain why the post-Cold War relationship has gone off the rails?


The strangest Russian political scandal so far this year — a year that hasn’t lacked for them — revolves around a Belarusian escort named Anastasia Vashukevich, who goes by the name Nastya Rybka. Rybka, whose pseudonym means “little fish,” is a prolific Instagrammer, a teacher of “sex workshops” and the author of a how-to book, “Who Wants to Seduce a Billionaire?” She became famous in Russia this year for having chronicled, on Instagram, her 2016 affair with one particular billionaire, Oleg Deripaska. A few weeks later, she caught the world’s attention after she was arrested in Thailand in the middle of a sex workshop and then claimed, from the back of a police van, that she possessed information that could blow the investigation into Russian meddling in the American presidential election wide open.

This strange story included an intriguing detour into the recent history of United States foreign policy. One of Rybka’s initial posts on the Deripaska affair was a short audio clip from a conversation that took place on the oligarch’s yacht in August 2016. As they sailed off the coast of Norway, Rybka and Deripaska were joined by an influential Kremlin official named Sergei Eduardovich Prikhodko, and in the clip, Deripaska, who made his fortune during the violent aluminum wars of the 1990s, explains some things about geopolitics to Rybka, who was 26 at the time. “Our relations with America are bad,” Deripaska says. “Why? Because the person in charge of them is Sergei Eduardovich’s ‘friend’ — Nuland is what she is called. When she was young — about your age — she spent a month living on a Soviet whaling vessel. Ever since then, she’s hated our country.”

Deripaska was referring to Victoria Nuland, a longtime American government official and “Russia hand,” as Russia experts are sometimes known, who at the time of the video was assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia. Nuland had in fact, as Deripaska said, spent time aboard a Soviet vessel (fishing, not whaling) in the mid-1980s; whether she hated Russia ever after is a subject of some dispute. She spent three decades in various posts in the State Department and the White House. In 2013, as a newly confirmed assistant secretary of state, she became the point person for the increasingly fraught situation in Ukraine, where large protests against the president, following his decision to pull out of an economic agreement with the European Union, eventually led to his ouster. Early in the protests, Nuland was filmed handing out sandwiches, pastries and cookies to the demonstrators in what some viewed as a provocative show of solidarity. Later, as the government began to totter, she made a call that was intercepted and leaked online, most likely by Russian intelligence, in which she discarded the notion of working with the E.U. to resolve the crisis. “[Expletive] the E.U.,” she memorably said.

What was remarkable about the episode was the utter confidence with which Nuland seemed to speak for the United States and its policy. From the start of his administration, President Barack Obama had tried to lower tensions with Russia and refocus American attention on a rising China; he had made clear he wanted no part in the problems of the post-Soviet periphery. Yet in the middle of the uprising in Kiev, there was Nuland, encouraging protesters and insulting European allies. And after the call leaked, it was Nuland, as much as Obama, who came to personify American policy for everyday Russians — to the point that a professional sex coach like Rybka knows more about her biography than all but a handful of Americans.

During two decades, on and off, reporting in Russia and the post-Soviet states — in the turbulent ’90s, the wealthy but depressing aughts and finally during the eruption of violence in Ukraine — I occasionally heard people talk about how “the Americans” wanted this or that political outcome. The events in Ukraine demonstrated, or seemed to demonstrate, that behind the visible facade of changing presidents and changing policy statements and changing styles, “the Americans” were actually a small core of officials who not only executed policy but also effectively determined it. The continuing wars in Ukraine and Syria, the apparent Russian campaign of targeted assassinations on foreign soil, the widening gyre of sanctions and countersanctions and the still-festering question of Russian meddling in the 2016 election have made for the worst relations between the two countries since the 1980s. Understanding how to get out of this mess will require understanding how we got into it. There may be no better place to start than with the people inside the American government who have been working on the subject since 1991 — the Russia hands.

‘Some people say, “It’s not business as usual with the Russians.” But it’s never business as usual with the Russians!’

The abiding mystery of American policy toward Russia over the past 25 years can be put this way: Each administration has come into office with a stated commitment to improving relations with its former Cold War adversary, and each has failed in remarkably similar ways. The Bill Clinton years ended with a near-catastrophic standoff over Kosovo, the George W. Bush years with the Russian bombing of Georgia and the Obama years with the Russian annexation of Crimea and the hacking operation to influence the American election.

Some Russia observers argue that this pattern of failure is a result of Russian intransigence and revisionism. But others believe that the intransigent and unchanging one in the relationship is the United States — that the country has never gotten past the idea that it “won” the Cold War and therefore needs to spread, at all costs, the American way of life.

Last summer, a few months after the inauguration of President Trump, I began traveling to Washington to speak with Russia hands: those who had worked on Russia inside the State Department, the National Security Council or the Department of Defense. I interviewed hands who served in the government as far back as Jimmy Carter and up to the current administration; some served Republican presidents, others served Democrats, but a vast majority served both parties.

The government, as a rule, discourages specialization: Military officers and diplomats are constantly transferred from one post to another, from one region to the next. Still, specialists do emerge. Many but not all Russia hands have Ph.D.’s — in Russian history or political science or security studies. Others got their graduate education on the job. Nuland worked on the Soviet fishing trawler; Daniel Fried, her eventual close collaborator at the State Department, spent a semester as a live-in babysitter for an American Embassy family in Moscow. “Seeing Communism up close cures you of all your left-liberal illusions that the Cold War is a misunderstanding that can be cured through arms control and détente,” Fried says. “Communism up close is very ugly.” Some Russia hands started out as civil servants or military officers, others as academics pulled into government service after working as advisers on political campaigns.

The Russia hands have clear generational characteristics. Those who came of age at the height of the Cold War worked on Russia because it was America’s most important foreign-policy problem. Many of those who finished graduate school or officer-training school in the late ’80s or early ’90s bear the scars of having studied a subject that became seemingly irrelevant overnight. In 1989, Peter Zwack, now a retired brigadier general, was a young military-intelligence officer stationed in Germany, taking Russian language and politics courses. “I was waiting for them to come through the Fulda Gap,” he says, referring to a section of West Germany through which NATO planners expected the Soviets to push large mechanized formations. “We were outmanned. I thought we were outgunned.” But the Soviets never came, and for the next 20 years Zwack worked in the Balkans, then Afghanistan and South Korea, before finally returning to Russia in 2012 as defense attaché to the American Embassy.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States had to staff 14 new embassies in the post-Soviet republics. Many of the Foreign Service officers who emerged from these postings did so with a somewhat jaundiced view of Russia. “When you start looking at the Russians by the people who have been visited by the Russians,” says Fried, who spent a fair amount of time in Poland during his long career in the Foreign Service, “you tend to see it a different way.”

Finally, there is the younger generation, those 40 and under. These Russia hands are for the moment a rarer species. “If you were an ambitious young Foreign Service officer after 9/11, you wanted to get sent to some reconstruction team in Afghanistan or Iraq,” says Andrew Weiss, who worked on Russia at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and now runs the Russia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “You wanted to learn Arabic. If you were ambitious, you did not want to go to the embassy in Ukraine.”

As in other foreign-policy sectors, the Russia hands divide less along party lines than along foreign-policy philosophies: They are either “realists” or “internationalists.” Realists tend to be cautious about American overseas commitments and deferential toward state sovereignty; internationalists tend to be more inclined to universalist ideals like democracy and human rights, even where these are forced to cross borders. But the two supposed categories are blurred by a thousand factors, not least of which being that realists don’t like being called realists, because it suggests that they have no values, and internationalists don’t like to be called internationalists, as opposed to realists, because it suggests that they have no common sense. In the end, a vast internationalist middle, consisting of neoconservative Republicans and interventionist Democrats, predominates, with tiny slices of hard realists on the right and soft realists, or “neorealists,” on the left. And there are many shades of difference among all these people.

The longtime Russia hand Stephen Sestanovich, a veteran of the Reagan and Clinton administrations, says there are two kinds of Russia hands — those who came to Russia through political science and those who came to it through literature. The literature hands, he suggests, sometimes let their emotions get the best of them, while the political-science hands, like Sestanovich, are more cool and collected. Fried, who served in every administration from Carter to Obama, also thinks there are two kinds of Russia hands, though he draws a different dividing line: There are those, like himself, who “put Russia in context, held up against the light of outside standards and consequences.” These people tend to be tough on Russia. And then there are those “who take Russia on its own terms, attractive and wonderful but subject to romanticization.” These people tend to give Russia what Fried would consider a pass.

Then there are those, like Michael Kofman, a young Kiev-born military analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Va., who say that there only appear to be two kinds of Russia hands. “There are the nice missionaries who knock on your door and say, ‘Hey, have you heard the good news about democracy, freedom and liberalism?’ And then there are the crusaders who are trying to claim the heathen Eastern European lands for democracy and freedom. But they’re basically the same person; they’re two sides of the same coin.”

There are two kinds of Russia hands, or maybe there are six kinds of Russia hands, or maybe there is an infinite variety of Russia hands. And yet the mystery is this: After all the many different Russia hands who have served in the United States government, the country’s relations with Russia are as they have always been — bad.

The Cold War ended with a bang in the U.S.S.R. — new countries were forged, the ghosts of the past were confronted, a McDonald’s opened in Moscow’s Pushkin Square. In the United States, there was also much hope. A sometime Russia hand named Francis Fukuyama, then deputy director of policy planning at the State Department, even wrote an essay in which he wondered if we were entering a new post-historical era, when the great questions of how to order society had been settled and all would live in a stable, if boring, peace.

The first high-level Russia hand of the post-Cold War era was a man named Nelson Strobridge Talbott III, or Strobe for short. The scion of a prosperous Ohio family (his grandfather, the first Nelson Strobridge Talbott, was captain of the Yale football team in 1914), Talbott followed his forefathers to Yale, where he studied Russian literature and won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. There he found himself rooming with a wonky, gregarious Georgetown graduate named Bill Clinton. Talbott remained interested in Russia, writing his master’s thesis on Mayakovsky, translating Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs and then becoming a foreign correspondent — and eventually a columnist — for Time magazine. He was the first journalist to track down and interview Joseph Brodsky upon his exile to the West in 1972. “Looks like we lucked out,” Brodsky wrote in his diary. “He’s read me.” Talbott’s fundamental view of the U.S.S.R. was that it could be reasoned with; in the pages of Time, he regularly praised the virtues of arms control and détente, and was despised for it by more ardent Cold Warriors. When Clinton was elected president, Talbott came on to advise his old roommate on what Clinton believed to be his most pressing foreign-policy concern: the transformation of Russia into a viable, American-friendly democracy on the eastern edge of Europe.

‘The Russians took it as a sign that we were still against them. It was really hard to walk back from.’

Things did not turn out that way, and most of the reasons were internal to Russia. But the United States was not without its share of blame. The economic advice dispensed by the gurus of what was known as the Washington Consensus weakened an already vulnerable Russian state. Average Russian citizens saw their living standards and life expectancies drop. It was Talbott who offered one of the pithier critiques of the doctrine known as “shock therapy”: What the Russian people wanted, Talbott said, “was less shock and more therapy.” The remark led to one of the stormiest passages of his political career.

But he weathered it. During his tenure, the United States made one of the most momentous foreign-policy choices of the post-1991 era: the decision to expand NATO eastward, first into the former countries of the Warsaw Pact, then into the former republics of the Soviet Union itself. Talbott at first was opposed, or at least, as he now puts it, “deeply riven.” On one hand, the Eastern European countries, some of which were now led by heroic former dissidents, wanted very much to join the military alliance; on the other, the Russians warned Talbott — “with a mirthless smile,” as he later recalled — that NATO was to them a “four-letter word.” If the Cold War was really over, as the Americans kept saying it was, why expand a Cold War military alliance set up expressly to deter and contain the Soviet Union? But as much as Talbott loved Russia, there were clear advantages to securing the West’s gains. “If the leadership of a country has any view but the following,” Talbott told me last summer, “it’s not going to be the leadership of that county for very long. And that is: We do what we can in our own interest.” But the NATO question, Talbott admitted, was complicated. “Should we have had a higher, wiser concept of our real interests that would require us to hold back on what many people would say is our own current interest?”

At the time the debate was taking place — 1993 and 1994 — much of the State Department and the Pentagon took the anti-expansion view, arguing that it would needlessly antagonize Russia at a difficult moment in its post-Communist journey and that the alliance was unwieldy enough without incorporating three fledgling Eastern European democracies (not to mention, eventually, Romania). But there were some who disagreed. A small working group at RAND produced a report arguing for NATO expansion as key to the future of Eastern Europe. “We talked to the Poles, and they said: ‘If you don’t let us into NATO, we’re getting nuclear weapons. We don’t trust the Russians,’ ” one of the report’s authors, a former Air Force officer and Pentagon strategist named Richard L. Kugler, told me. “Then we talked to the Germans. They said: ‘The line of contact with the Russians now runs through Warsaw. If you don’t defend it, we will.’ We had a vision of a nuclear-armed Poland being fortified by German troops facing off with the Russians — I don’t think anyone wanted that!” The report was laughed at and rejected in some quarters — a State Department official supposedly threw it in the trash in front of one of its authors — but Fried, then at the National Security Council, started using it to lobby inside the administration for a more robust approach to expansion. Talbott initially resisted, but he and Clinton soon came around.

The decision on NATO was essentially made by early 1994, but it would take some years before the first countries joined the alliance, and in the meantime, relations between Russia and the United States steadily declined: Russia was angered by the NATO bombing of Bosnian Serb positions in 1995, by the American insistence that the Russians stop the sale of nuclear technology to Iran and especially by the 1999 NATO bombing — just a few weeks after the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland finally joined the alliance — of Belgrade. That conflict almost expanded when a small contingent of Russian troops seized the Pristina airport in Kosovo. If a British officer named James Blunt had not refused to act on an order from Gen. Wesley Clark to clear the airport, things might have turned out a lot worse. Blunt went on to fame as a rock musician with the hit song “You’re Beautiful,” but the Russia-United States relationship remained precarious.

The damage, in any case, was done. “We were so excited about the spread of democracy and the collapse of Communism,” says Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “There were all these countries saying, ‘Yes, please, take us into NATO with weapons that you’ll give us to defend ourselves from the Russians, who are going to be coming like they always do.’ And we said, ‘Well, the Russians aren’t coming, but yes, please, join us in democracy.’

“But the Russians took it as a sign that we were still against them. It was really hard to walk back from. From there on out, we were doing things that we kept saying, ‘We’re not doing this to hurt you,’ and that the Russians felt hurt them. We didn’t do it because we wanted to hurt them. We did it because we didn’t care if it hurt them.”

In the case of the centrist, Democratic Clinton administration, you might say that it was always going to be torn between hard internationalists like Fried and soft internationalists like Talbott. But what about the George W. Bush administration, which staffed itself with self-described realists? The answer turned out to be: more of the same. The main Russia hand in the Bush White House was Thomas Graham, a quiet, intense, scholarly former State Department official who was described by a colleague as “the smartest Russia hand ever produced by the Foreign Service.” Graham was known for his prickly independence. As a political officer at the United States Embassy in Moscow in the 1990s, he became so frustrated with the White House’s approach to Russia that he published a repudiation of it in a Russian newspaper, under his own name. But on Graham’s watch, the relationship soured even more. The United States invaded Iraq despite Russian objections; vocally supported the popular uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine, known as the Rose and Orange Revolutions; and then, in Georgia, gave moral and material support to the flamboyantly anti-Russian administration of Mikheil Saakashvili, who in turn sent troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan and the coalition in Iraq.

Factors external to Russia played a role here: The Sept. 11 attacks refocused American foreign policy around counterterrorism. “We had a long period of inattention because of the war on terror,” Weiss says. “It was a long period where anyone who banged his fist on the table and said: ‘Mr. President! Mr. President! Drop everything you’re doing killing bin Laden’s inner circle! We need to talk to you because Vladimir Putin is mad about blah blah blah!’ You can imagine how that did not rate.”

But it wasn’t just the fight against terrorism. The Soviet Union’s collapse and Russia’s subsequent weakness reconfigured the entire process of American decision-making. When I asked Graham about the decline in relations on his watch, he delivered a soliloquy about bureaucracy.

“The way the N.S.C. is structured,” he began, “the way the State Department is structured, is through a series of regional and functional bureaus. The question is always, Who takes the lead?” In Soviet times, when the entire foreign policy of the United States was oriented around countering the Soviet threat, the Russia hands frequently took the lead. In the post-Soviet era, with an increasingly irrelevant Russia, the reverse was true. “Russia was unique in that it’s a country that was a factor in almost all the major things the U.S. government did, but it wasn’t in any place the most important factor. So you’re working on missile defense: Russia is clearly an important player in missile defense. But that process is not led by the person who’s responsible for Russia policy; it’s led by the person who’s responsible for nonproliferation policy. If you come to energy, Russia is obviously an important player in global energy markets, but Russia is not the most important player in global energy markets. That’s the Saudis and OPEC. So when you come to an energy issue, the people who are in charge of energy run that.”

The same was true of the states of the former Soviet Union, which were now independent and the province of different regional desks at the State Department and the N.S.C. The most damaging episode in United States-Russia relations during Graham’s time at the N.S.C. was American cheerleading for the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in late 2004 and early 2005. Graham argued that the Russians saw the “color revolutions,” as the Rose and Orange Revolutions were known, as an outgrowth of American policy and feared that regime change would be coming to Russia next. But freedom was on the march, Graham was told: “ ‘All we’re doing is promoting democracy.’ ”

“But you’re the Russia expert,” I said.

“But Ukraine is not a Russia issue,” he said. “It’s a Ukrainian issue. There’s a bureau for European affairs that overseas Ukrainian issues.”

During the Orange Revolution, the Europe desk at the N.S.C. was run by Fried.

“My main contribution,” Graham summed up, “was preventing things from being worse than they could have been.”

Graham left government in 2007. Fried, his sometime nemesis, had become assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia and continued to push vocal American support of Western-leaning governments in former Soviet states, Georgia in particular. Nuland was the American ambassador to NATO. In April 2008, at a NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, the alliance announced over strong Russian objections that it intended to eventually admit Georgia and Ukraine. Four months later, deteriorating security conditions in South Ossetia, Georgia, provoked an emboldened Saakashvili into an attack on the breakaway region. Russian forces intervened, crushing the Georgian Army in less than a week.

The Georgian debacle — in which a non-NATO American ally was defeated by Russia and the United States was left with no plausible response — represented a low point. But the relationship was about to get much worse.

The next president, Barack Obama, was the rare American politician with a sense of the fallibility of American power. He opposed the Iraq war and spoke honestly about the crimes of the American empire. Yet he was also divided in his mind. A realist in most of his foreign-policy leanings, Obama chose as his chief Russia hand a Stanford political-science professor named Michael McFaul.

McFaul had spent years visiting Russia and writing about it. He was a Russophile, an advocate of more cooperative relations and a critic of the Bush administration’s unilateralism: in all this, a good fit for Obama. But he was also an avid internationalist and democracy promoter, who had speculated in a widely circulated 2005 essay on the seven “factors for success” required for color revolution — the implication being that more such revolutions were necessary and desirable. In 2008, McFaul proposed a “reset” in relations between the two countries. This became the administration’s policy, and for a while it worked. A new arms-control agreement was negotiated. Dmitri Medvedev, who succeeded Putin as president in early 2008, toured Silicon Valley. Russia joined the World Trade Organization. And a sprawling supply chain, called the Northern Distribution Network, was established to move supplies through Russia to NATO troops in Afghanistan. The existence of an alternate route gave the United States some leeway in its dealings with Pakistan. When Pakistan cut off the supply route in Afghanistan not long after the assassination of Osama bin Laden, NATO simply sent more through Russia.

But relations with Russia soon soured. The more liberal Medvedev years created an expectation on the part of some Russians that the country would open up; when Medvedev announced in 2011 that he was stepping aside, that Putin would be returning to the presidency and that this is what they had planned all along, there was a feeling of grievous disappointment. Three months later, spurred by a number of blatant falsifications in the national Duma elections, this disappointment erupted into the largest protests of the post-Soviet period. Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, voiced approval for the protests and expressed “serious concerns” about the voting irregularities. Her comments fed the Kremlin’s fears that the United States was somehow behind the demonstrations. McFaul, who arrived as ambassador to Russia in the midst of the protest wave, inflamed the situation further by taking a meeting with opposition leaders. He was never forgiven by the Russian authorities, who proceeded to harass him and his family and denounce him whenever possible as a foreign spy.

From there, the relationship grew increasingly strained. In the words of Paul Stronski, a Russia hand who joined the N.S.C. in 2012: “I was brought in to do reset, Part 2. Instead, I got Magnitsky, Snowden and Ukraine.” Magnitsky was the Magnitsky Act, which imposes sanctions on individuals engaged in human rights violations and corruption and was inspired by the death in prison of a Russian tax attorney, Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested after uncovering a huge corruption scheme. Snowden was Edward Snowden, who turned up in Moscow after orchestrating perhaps the most significant leak of American government documents since the Pentagon Papers. And Ukraine was, of course, Ukraine.

Ukraine was a catastrophe two decades in the making. Its government was as corrupt and ineffectual as any in the post-Soviet space; it produced neither oil nor gas to serve as a financial cushion, and it was divided between a Russian-leaning east and a Europe-leaning west. To make matters worse, it was also the host, at Sevastopol, of the Russian Black Sea fleet, whose long-term lease, during times of tension, tended to become a political football.

In the summer of 2013, with the shock of Snowden’s turning up in Moscow still fresh, Russian officials started making noise about an “association agreement” that Ukraine was about to sign with the European Union. To the Russians, the proposed agreement was a rejection of their own cherished customs’ union, the Eurasian Economic Union, as well as a concrete step toward European integration for a country with which it had profound, centuries-old connections. And European integration, the Russians believed, would eventually mean NATO membership: hostile troops on the Russian border and an end to the lease for the Russian fleet.

McFaul, still in Moscow, was one of the people to whom the Russians took these complaints. By his own account, he was dismissive of their concerns. First of all, he said, it wasn’t Russia’s business what Ukraine signed or didn’t sign. And second, he didn’t think the Russians should get all worked up. “We’re talking about an association agreement,” he told me. “That’s expansion of the E.U. maybe in the year 2040, 2050? Ask the Turks about their association agreement.” (Turkey signed a similar agreement with the E.U. in 1963 and still has not become a member.) It was just a piece of paper. But the Russians didn’t seem to think so. And neither, it would turn out, did the Ukrainians. When Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine, under intense Russian pressure, pulled out of the accord with the Europeans, people took to the streets.

Ukraine was a Ukraine issue, not a Russia issue, and so the burden of dealing with the expanding crisis there fell in the laps of a newly appointed ambassador, Geoffrey Pyatt, and the newly appointed assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, the old Russia hand Victoria Nuland. The daughter of Sherwin Nuland, the surgeon and Yale bioethicist, she fell in love with Russian culture after seeing a performance of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” when she was 12; she studied Russian history and politics at Brown, worked at a Soviet children’s camp and after that for an embassy family in Moscow. Then, eager for adventure and contact with real-live Russians, she did her tour on the Soviet fishing vessel (for seven months, not one). That experience taught her something about the planned economy: After 25 days of drinking and card-playing, the crew did five days of hard work to meet their monthly targets. She also says she learned “how to drink 10 shots of vodka and still get back to my cabin and put a chair under the doorknob. Things could get a little hairy when the boys were drunk.” She entered the Foreign Service in 1984. Over a long and eventful career, she witnessed the defense of the Russian White House during the attempted hard-line coup against Mikhail Gorbachev; served as Talbott’s chief of staff during the chaotic ’90s; worked as Dick Cheney’s deputy national security adviser in the years after Sept. 11 but “before Cheney became Cheney,” as she put it; and served as the State Department spokeswoman under Hillary Clinton. She was known inside successive administrations as a Russia hawk, but when asked if she hated the country, she drew a distinction between “Russian culture and the Russian people,” which she loves, and the Soviet strain she sees in Putin’s Russia, which she does not. “I deplore the way successive governments in Moscow — Soviet and Russian — have abused their own people, ripped them off, constrained their choices and made us the enemy to mask their own failings,” Nuland says. Hearing her speak with such conviction about governments that, in at least one case, no longer existed, you could understand how she had been over the years a very effective advocate inside several American administrations for her point of view.

In December 2013, with the protests in the center of Kiev just a few weeks old, Nuland traveled to Moscow and then to Kiev to try to defuse the crisis that had engulfed the Yanukovych government. She made little progress with the Kremlin, which was of the opinion that Yanukovych should simply clear the protesters from the streets. On her first night in Kiev, she was woken by members of her staff. The riot police brought out to contain the protests had formed a ring around them and were closing in. The demonstrators were desperately singing patriotic songs to keep up their spirits, but they were in mortal danger. Nuland got on the phone with Washington and worked to release a statement in Secretary of State John Kerry’s name, expressing “disgust” at the move on peaceful protesters. “After that,” Nuland says, “the singing grew louder”; the demonstrators on the square, she told me, were holding their phones in the air, “displaying the Kerry statement in Ukrainian and Russian.” The riot troops backed off.

‘Seeing Communism up close cures you of all your left-liberal illusions that the Cold War is a misunderstanding that can be cured through arms control and détente.’ The next morning, Nuland was to meet with Yanukovych. But first she wanted to visit the protest encampment, which, two weeks into its existence, had grown in both scope and moral authority. “In accordance with Slavic tradition, I wanted to bring something,” Nuland says. She took a large plastic bag filled with treats. Alongside Pyatt, she handed them out to the protesters, and thus was born one of the iconic images of the Ukraine crisis, immediately and widely circulated by the Kremlin’s media apparatuses — a powerful official, not a famous politician like Senator John McCain or Secretary of State John Kerry but a representative of the supposedly more neutral American policymaking bureaucracy, succoring revolutionaries in the center of Kiev. (Nuland points out that they also gave food to the riot police.) Two months later, as the Yanukovych government entered its terminal phase, Nuland’s “[Expletive] the E.U.” comment leaked out. For many Russians and Europeans, the line became emblematic of American arrogance.

A few weeks later, Yanukovych fled the country, and Russian troops annexed Crimea. In tandem with Fried, who had taken the newly established position of sanctions coordinator at the State Department, Nuland began drafting harsh sanctions against Putin’s inner circle, individuals involved in the invasion of Ukraine and eventually large Russian companies and banks. Fried told me that one senior State Department official thought this was pretty funny. He said to Fried, “Do the Russians realize that the two hardest-line people in the entire U.S. government are now in a position to go after them?”

The Russians may have realized this perfectly well. According to American intelligence agencies, two years after the sanctions went into effect, the Russians started feeding emails stolen from the servers of the Democratic National Committee to WikiLeaks and helping with their distribution.

Michael Kimmage is a soft-spoken professor of American intellectual history with a focus on the Cold War and an interest in Russia. In 2014, seized by what he says his wife still calls a midlife crisis, he left academia for a two-year fellowship on the policy-planning staff at the State Department. “I imagined showing up there and writing a memo that would change the course of history,” Kimmage recalls. “Then when I got there, I learned it wasn’t really like that. It’s much more like a Stendhal novel.” That is to say, both grand and comically banal. “You might have a brilliant idea, but then you have to go find out if it’s already being done. That takes a while. Then you find out it’s already being done. And it doesn’t work.”

Kimmage nonetheless found the experience enlightening, and he came away with the feeling that a lot of what the American government did had deep and sometimes invisible ideological sources. The apparent final triumph of liberal democracy in Europe in 1989 produced two powerful strains in American internationalist foreign-policy thinking, according to Kimmage — one radical, the other moderate. The radical strain, associated with the neocons, called for a universal democratization, by force if need be. This strain was (mostly) discredited in Iraq. But the other strain, which aimed to spread American-style democracy as far east as possible into Eurasia, has never been discredited. It is close to being the conventional wisdom in Washington, and it is carried forth, Kimmage suggests, by a certain sort of young person, typically a graduate of Yale or Georgetown, “who believes — perhaps by definition — in the virtues of American power.”

And yet there is, within the Russia-hand community, a small countervailing tendency. This new generation of Russia hands is deeply skeptical of the missionary impulse that has characterized American policy toward Russia for so long. Oliker is one, Kimmage another. There is also the military analyst Michael Kofman, at the Center for Naval Analyses, and Samuel Charap, at RAND, whose recent book on the events leading to the war in Ukraine, “Everyone Loses,” written with the Harvard political scientist Timothy Colton, lays out week by week the way in which American, European and Russian policy in 2012 and 2013 pushed Ukraine into a zero-sum choice, leading eventually to the collapse of the government and the dismemberment of the country. And there are others, some who prefer not to be named.

Despite some differences in politics, all are seeking a less chauvinistic approach to Russia policy. They are disgusted by American failures and want them to end. “I find the past 17 years of continuous warfare to be abnormal and abhorrent,” one of them wrote in an email. “It’s a real reflection on our policy community that they have placed their nation in this position.” In the harsh climate of Washington opinion, where an errant editorial could come back in the form of an angry senator reading it aloud at your confirmation hearing, they do what they can to push back. As a group, they have opposed sending weapons to Ukraine as an unnecessary escalation of the proxy war there — “We just lost a proxy war in Syria!” Kofman cried. “Why do we expect to do better in Ukraine?” — and are concerned about the current hype over a potential Russian incursion into the Baltics. Kofman compared American worries about a Russian invasion of the Baltics to equally far-fetched Russian worries about an American move into Belarus. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I’ve never heard anyone in Washington say: ‘Wow, Belarus. That’s real prime real estate. We should get that.’ By the same token, the Russians are amazed that we think they want to take the Baltics. They just find it incredible. They’re going to go into the Baltics — which they have no use for — and take on the world’s pre-eminent military alliance? It’s crazy.”

There is also a strong bureaucratic incentive to exaggerate the threat. “You might say it’s provided a new imperative to parts of the Pentagon that used to be focused on counterinsurgency in unpleasant places like Helmand Province” in Afghanistan, one skeptical Russia hand said. “Sitting in the Baltic States or Poland or Germany is a lot more pleasant. It’s kayf,” he said, using a Russian word meaning, approximately, “bliss.”

Kofman believes that some form of conventional deterrence on NATO’s eastern flank is useful, but he worries that it can turn into what international relations theorists call a “security dilemma,” wherein the actions you take to increase your security cause your adversary to feel threatened, so that it takes steps to increase its security, forcing you in turn to take further steps to increase yours, and so on, until war. “You have to be very careful where you put forces,” Kofman said. “You can’t start stacking units 20 minutes from St. Petersburg. Keep in mind Russia is the world’s pre-eminent Eurasian land power. They can put more ground forces in Russia, because that’s where they happen to live, than you can put in the Baltics, because that’s not where you live. That’s not a tough competition.”

These young Russia hands find the current political and news attention to Russia deeply frustrating, even as its sources are no mystery to them.

“I’m a Democrat,” said one Russia hand who spoke on the condition of anonymity so that he could comment openly. “And Russia contributed to the defeat of Secretary Clinton and, frankly, to our current national tragedy. It’s hard for me not to think about that.

“But the Democrats see this as a political opening. And the conversation has moved into politics. They don’t want to know what’s actually happening or what we should actually do. They want to beat Trump with this Russia thing.”

Oliker, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, makes a similar point: “It used to be you could explain things to people at great length and with nuance, and they would say: ‘Oh, how interesting. You’ve explained it so well, and now I understand better where the Russians are coming from.’ Of course,” she added, “they wouldn’t do any of it, because Russia was secondary or tertiary, and no one cared about Russia.

‘The threshold for bad stuff happening in the Russia-U.S. relationship is pretty high. Like, nuclear Armageddon. That’s low probability. But high impact.’ “Now everyone cares about Russia, and there’s no nuance.”

Charap, at RAND, says that the postelection political climate has made it impossible to work with Russia even on issues that would benefit both sides. “When the U.S. and Russia work together, they can accomplish things no two other countries can. The only reason we were able to kill bin Laden is that the Northern Distribution Network was set up! McFaul did that. And he had to deal with a lot of people saying: ‘Why are we talking to these people? They’re never going to stick to their agreements.’
“Even I was told once: ‘We don’t want to be chasing Russia.’ What is this, dating?”

The difference between these Russia hands and most others is less their analysis of Russia than their analysis of America. According to Oliker, what the United States should be focusing on is “managing hegemonic decline.” America’s vast overseas commitments need to be scaled down bit by bit, in a slow and responsible process. The amount of money spent on the United States military should be brought in line with historical norms and recalibrated to the country’s actual defense needs. Diplomacy (cheap, effective), rather than military might (expensive, deadly, counterproductive), needs to become America’s primary means of interacting with the world. So far, Oliker points out, the Trump administration is largely doing the opposite.

As for Russia, it’s a threat that needs to be handled, not exaggerated. “We have to talk to them,” Oliker says. “If we don’t talk to them, things are going to get a lot worse. Yes, they hacked our election. Did they invade Ukraine? Yup, they did that. But we talk to countries that do bad things all the time. We have to talk to them, and as we’re talking to them, we have to understand that they don’t think they’re evil. I was testifying on the Hill not long ago, and I was saying, ‘The Russians think they’re acting defensively.’ And the senators were like, ‘But we’ve explained to them over and over that we’re not a threat.’ Like, are you serious?”

Zwack, the retired brigadier general who once waited for the Soviets to break through the Fulda Gap and now teaches at the National Defense University, agrees. “Short of a shooting war, you have to find bridges,” he says. “Some people say, ‘It’s not business as usual with the Russians.’ But it’s never business as usual with the Russians! They’re the one nation on the planet that, on a bad day — they’ll go away, too — but they can take us off that planet. “The crisis might not happen in the Baltics or over Syria. It could happen in the Sea of Okhotsk. You’ve got all kinds of Russian military stuff out there; we’ve got military stuff; the Japanese have stuff. It takes one incident — an accident that, to someone threat-inclined, looks like a deliberate action. If those commanders can’t get on the phone or on email to say, ‘This is what it is,’ if the crisis has to now be resolved in Washington or Moscow, it may be too late.”

Charap, at RAND, puts it most succinctly: “The threshold for bad stuff happening in the Russia-U.S. relationship is pretty high. Like, nuclear Armageddon. That’s low probability,” he says. “But high impact.”
With Trump, the Russia relationship has taken some unprecedented turns: No other president has come into office suspected of being subject to blackmail by the Kremlin. Nor has any other presidential campaign been investigated for colluding with Russia to undermine American elections. But in other ways, the Trump presidency fits perfectly the pattern identified by the longtime Russia hand and Georgetown professor Angela Stent: an initial attempt to mend relations with Russia, followed by a plunge into a deeper crisis.

For the past year, the administration’s top Russia hand has been a British-born, Harvard-educated historian and policy analyst named Fiona Hill. A longtime fellow at the Brookings Institution, of which Strobe Talbott became president after the end of the Clinton administration, Hill is the author of “Mr. Putin,” a probing and not entirely unsympathetic biography of the Russian president. In that book, Hill and her co-author, Clifford Gaddy, advocate what another historian has called “strategic empathy,” trying to see the situation from the perspective of your adversary — in this case, Putin. This is the sort of move that more hawkish Russia hands like Fried have long counseled against. But it is unclear how much influence Hill has had on current policy. One report in The Washington Post indicated that the president at one point mistook her for administrative staff and yelled at her; another report in the same paper described her as heading up the recent American expulsion of Russian diplomatic personnel in response to the nerve-agent poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England.

There isn’t, in any case, much room to maneuver. Fried reached retirement age and left the State Department a few weeks into the Trump administration; Nuland, not yet of retirement age, stepped down the day before Trump’s inauguration. “To show up for work on Inauguration Day and have to do a 180 on U.S. policy toward NATO, Russia, Germany, Brexit — I just couldn’t do it,” she said. But their legacy lives on. Over the summer, and partly in response to the investigation of the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, Congress voted overwhelmingly to strip the president of his authority to release Russia from Fried’s and Nuland’s sanctions. Only Congress can now end the sanctions. In the words of one Russia hand, the congressional bill makes the United States-Russia confrontation “structural.” “The president is like a captain holding a wheel that isn’t attached to anything,” said the Russia hand.

In early March, I met to talk about Russia policy with a senior official in the current administration, who was not authorized to speak to the press and thus asked not to be identified. Nastya Rybka, the Instagramming Belarusian escort, had just been arrested in Thailand, but to my chagrin the official hadn’t even heard of her; instead, the official was focused on a speech Putin had just delivered in which he announced that Russia had supermissiles that could elude American defenses. “He is putting us on notice that we are not listening to him,” the official said of Putin and cautioned that we were at an inflection point in American relations with Russia. “We can’t just have half-cocked sanctions legislation. We can’t go around sanctioning everybody without thinking through the implications.
“We’re in a period where the Russians’ threat perception is causing them to think that they need to take pre-emptive, preventive, very aggressive action to get us to back off, or to make us incapable of having a concerted effort to be able to push back,” the official went on. “And if we don’t get our act together and try to tackle that, we’re not going to be able to change the trajectory of our relationship.” The word “trajectory” had a particularly resonant ring in the wake of Putin’s missile video.

Our time was over, and I walked back out onto the streets of the capital. A strong nor’easter had knocked out power and grounded flights all along the Eastern Seaboard. Schools, many businesses and parts of the federal government were shut down; the capital looked deserted. I wasn’t sure what to make of my meeting with the administration official. That the official was deeply knowledgeable and highly competent was without any doubt. But it was hard not to feel that in terms of the United States-Russia relationship, it was too little, too late. The official stressed to me that the decision to join the administration came out of wanting to head off a crisis: “When your house is on fire, you go put it out.” But this was now a fire that was going to burn for a very long time. In the Russia-hands community, some who had once been doves had become hawks, and those who had been hawks all along felt vindicated. The small contingent of dissidents was keeping a low profile. I asked one of them if he felt lonely. “I do feel lonely,” he said. “But I am not alone. It’s just that we have to speak more quietly.”

One of the first Russia hands trained by the United States government back in the 1920s was George Kennan. The government paid for his Russian lessons in Berlin, then posted him to Riga, the capital of newly independent Latvia, where he mixed with Russian émigrés and studied economic reports from the Soviet Union. When diplomatic relations were finally established between the United States and the U.S.S.R. in the 1930s, he helped set up the embassy in Moscow, and in the postwar era he was among the first to articulate clearly the nature of the Soviet threat. But he was also concerned that his home country not freak out. “Much depends,” he cautioned in his famous “long telegram” from 1946, “on health and vigor of our own society.”

That society now looks sick. The absence of nuance on the Russia question — the embrace of Russia as America’s new-old supervillain — is probably best understood as a symptom of that sickness. And even as both parties gnash their teeth over Russia, politicians and experts alike seem to be in denial about mistakes made in the past and the lessons to be learned from them. Many foreign-policy hands are eager to return to the Obama-era status quo, as if American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War had, until the evening of Nov. 8, 2016, been doing just fine. “I would give anything to have that world back,” said a Russia hand who has been critical of the old interventionist paradigm. But chances are, that world will come back soon enough. Wasn’t the idea, in the end, to change it?
Keith Gessen teaches journalism at Columbia University and is the author of the forthcoming novel “A Terrible Country.” This is his first article for the magazine.

A version of this article appears in print on May 13, 2018, on Page MM44 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: The Quiet Americans.


US and Russian Military Leaders Are Meeting Again, Breaking a Long and Dangerous Drought

Over three years had passed without direct senior-level contact between the world’s preeminent nuclear powers.

The military leaders of the world’s most lethal nuclear-tipped states met in February, the first such meeting in three years. The two generals got together again earlier this month, once more in relative obscurity that belied their meetings’ tremendous importance.

Long projected, but politically and geographically difficult to finalize, the Feb. 16 meeting was a personal first for Gen. Joseph Dunford and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, respectively the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Russia’s chief of the General Staff. They met in Baku, Azerbaijan, and frankly but cordially discussed the overall diminished state of U.S. and Russian military relations, the need for better communications between key leaders, and ways to deconflict military activities that could inadvertently put both countries at risk.

Then, — remarkably, considering the overall difficult state of U.S. and Russian relations — Dunford and Gerasimov met again on March 7. This time, their two days of talks were hosted by the Chief of the Turkish General Staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, in scenic Antalya. Serious discussions ensued in a conducive environment where the three senior generals also shared meals together. Their positions reflected the varied perspectives and hence different strategies their states pursued with a contentious array of regional allies, proxies, and adversaries that placed their forces in ever-closer, increasingly dangerous proximity in northern Syria, near the cities of Manbij and al Bab. This array includes Russians backing the Syrian government, the U.S. backing the Syrian Democratic Force comprising Arabs and Kurds, and Turks supporting Assad regime opposition while combating Kurdish fighters. All recognize the need to destroy ISIS and capture its de facto capital in Raqqa.

These important meetings occurred against the backdrop of a difficult and fractious U.S. political transition of power, made even thornier by Moscow’s disruptive cyber tampering with the recent U.S. presidential campaign, and a Russian resurgence beset by challenges internally and abroad.

Much else had changed since January 2014, when General Gerasimov and Gen. Martin Dempsey, then the JCS chair, met in Brussels to sign the now-canceled annual “Work Plan” of exchanges and exercises between the two militaries. As the senior U.S. military attache in Moscow at the time, I witnessed the entire meeting. While this encounter was also cordial, it reflected the steady post-“Reset” decline in relations that was occurring between our countries. The discussion addressed the deteriorating situation in Ukraine, as well as concerns about Afghanistan, Central Asia, Syria, missile defense, and the spread of Islamist extremist terror, all issues still of contemporary concern for both our nations. Additionally, both military leaders agreed for the need to continue military-to-military exchanges at different levels, an effort that understandably died in February 2014 after the pro-Russian Yanukovych regime in Ukraine collapsed, precipitating Russia’s stealth invasion and illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea and non-attributed operations supporting proxies in eastern Ukraine. Since then, the two militaries have barely communicated, mostly to deconflict air operations in and around Syria. Just a few terse phone calls were exchanged by the senior generals during these long three years. This lack of contact, less even than during the height of the Cold War, is dangerous to both nations vulnerable to a crisis at the speed of cyber.

Since Dempsey and Gerasimov last met in early 2014, the Russian military has evolved both materially and doctrinally, despite a major international sanctions regime, severe ruble inflation, and fallen oil prices emptying Russia’s coffers. The Russians have conducted three distinctly different military operations that have increased their military capability and its out-of-area presence while upping its overall stature in Russian society. Whether the initially surreptitious, almost bloodless invasion of “little green men” and illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, its non-attributed insertion of main force units into Eastern Ukraine and its bold, full blown intervention of high-level, strategically capable conventional assets into Syria, it is evident that President Vladimir Putin sees his improving military as an increasingly reliable policy tool for both coercion and defense. Its relative success the past three years has also been popular in Russia and reinforces the regime’s stature domestically.

The consequential period framed by these operations also reveal the vulnerability of the increasingly fragile post-Cold War order. Russian military actions — both conventional and difficult-to-attribute yet aggressive hybrid “gray zone” activities —have stretched and violated the norms of international law, as well as stressing stability-focused organizations such as the UN, EU, OSCE and NATO. Several European governments, beset by migration challenges and skillfully wielded, societally-corrosive Russian disinformation are adopting increasingly illiberal positions, while Russia declares the rise of a “post-West world order.”

This was the setting within which these powerful military leaders recently met in Baku and Antalya after three years of no direct contact. It is imperative that they continue, along with senior U.S. and Russian defense officials and key regional commanders, to find venues to frankly exchange views and perspectives, de-conflict actions and incidents, and directly relay, unfiltered, what they are thinking and doing. Relationships matter, especially during times of tension and serious institutional distrust.

Peter Zwack, who recently retired from the U.S. Army as a brigadier general, is the Senior Russia-Eurasia Fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute of National Security Studies. From 2012 to 2014, he was the U.S. senior U.S. defense attache to Russia. These are his personal views. 

Originally Published: Defense One, Sunday, March 19, 2017 – 21:30

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