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

Death of the GRU Commander

An American general remembers Russia’s complex military intelligence chief, who shaped the Ukraine incursion — and worked hard to bridge the East-West gap.

In February 2014, contact ceased between U.S. and Russian military intelligence as part of an overall shutdown of defense relations in the wake of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. It was the right policy move at the time, but it’s time to get U.S. and Russian military leaders, including intelligence officials, talking to each other again.

One unlikely and subtle advocate of the value of personal communications was the chief of Russian military intelligence, Igor Sergun, who died suddenly on Jan. 3 of a probable heart attack. Recently promoted to Colonel General, Sergun was only 58 years old, young even for an overworked, highly stressed Russian male. An experienced special operations veteran who made his name in the restive Northern Caucasus, Sergun became GRU chief in 2011, later becoming one of the troublingly imaginative architects of Russia’s hybrid, proxy aggression in Ukraine.

I’m frankly unsure how to feel about his death. As a career U.S. Army military intelligence officer, and our senior military attaché to Russia from 2012 to 2014, I met with General Sergun and his staff several times for extended periods. I found him soft-spoken, unassuming, complex, erudite and nuanced. And I learned that even as Sergun relentlessly directed global intelligence operations against our interests, he — paradoxically — also viewed constant confrontation with the U.S. and West as not in Russia’s best long-term interest.

Before U.S.–Russia relations collapsed, Sergun facilitated increased contact between our countries’ military intelligence leaders. During 2012-13, I watched as U.S. and Russian intelligence chiefs from strategic regional and global commands discreetly met in cities across Russia: Khabarovsk in the east, Rostov in the south, and also Sochi, just before the 2014 Winter Olympics. These meetings — which were often the first face-to-face interactions between these senior U.S. and Russian MI officers — always entailed straightforward, cordially hardnosed discussions that intelligence officers understood from a world of black and gray, and rarely white, as traditional adversaries, often foes. Clearly, both sides entered cautiously, but increasingly saw substantive talks emerge on carefully cleared topics.

Never lost or conceded was our unwavering support for our allies, and partners such as Ukraine, who ideally should want us to engage with Russia. But such meetings were invaluable opportunities for both sides to explain why they disagreed on issues such as Syria, the Arab Spring, missile defense and Ukraine. Consequently both sides began to discover issues on which we did agree: radical Sunni Islam, the need for a stable Afghanistan and Central Asia, global terrorism, looming demographic challenges, and future global resource competition.

Perhaps the highest-profile visit came in June 2013, when Sergun invited Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, for a three-day visit to Moscow. Following a trail carefully blazed by several predecessors, Flynn laid a wreath at Russia’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and visited the GRU’s ultra-modern headquarters outside Moscow. There he gave a unique hour-long address on leadership and intelligence to a conference room full of young GRU officers who, judging by their questions, clearly had never before encountered an American intelligence general.

Finally, Flynn hosted an unprecedented dinner for his counterpart in my residence at the U.S. Embassy. The GRU director arrived with two generals and an interpreter. It must have been bemusing for them to go through U.S. Embassy security onto U.S. soil for the first time. Always inquisitive, Sergun showed particular interest in a colorful Leroy Neiman print titled “Red Square.” The customary toasts were hoisted, though Sergun himself was a modest drinker. The last toast called for making “the airlocks fit,” an allusion to the extraordinary Apollo–Soyuz link-up in 1975 during the heart of the Cold War, and an allegory for improving relations. He liked that. All departed with U.S. Embassy baseball caps for their children. The following night Sergun hosted our U.S. delegation at the venerable Sovietsky Hotel, where he gave us a personal tour of Stalin’s time-warped suite upstairs.

General Sergun clearly placed a high value on these exchanges, which showed his desire to do more than simply learn about our military capabilities and intent. If I were Russian, obsessed by real and perceived existential threat, uneasy about the viability of my vast northern nation of demographically challenged citizens, I would be seriously worried. I believe these next-generation geostrategic concerns helped drive Sergun and other senior leaders toward these engagements with us.

My last contact with Sergun occurred in late 2013, just months before relations broke. I requested a meeting to deliver a message, and this powerful intelligence general arrived in short notice in modest street clothes. He took my message and we talked briefly about a planned visit to the United States with some of his senior GRU officers. That idea, of course, went stillborn when Russia invaded Crimea.

So where do we go from here? The status quo, despite some minor improvement, remains quite negative. We must find meaningful ways to talk and work with Russian military counterparts on geo-strategic concerns of mutual interest, of which there are plenty. Despite disagreements and frustrating disinformation, we must persist in this. Nations, especially ones that are traditional confrontational competitors that can existentially threaten each other, must constantly and intensively communicate via different channels and echelons, including sensitive military and intelligence conduits. This is hardly weakness or supplication; rather it displays strength, confidence and prudence, and it shows we are comfortable in our own skin.

Certainly we collectively can learn that much from the complex Colonel General Sergun.

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:

putin defense one pic

It’s High Time for US, Russian Militaries to Start Meeting Again

It is increasingly dangerous in this cyber-fast world for the nuclear-tipped nations to have such a dearth of contact. 

In January 2014, the U.S. and Russia’s highest military leaders and their staffs met in Brussels to discuss important security issues. The turmoil in Kyiv’s Maidan Square was intensifying, and the Sochi Olympics and Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s ouster were just weeks away. That was the last time senior U.S. and Russian military leaders met face-to-face — and the end of several years of active, though guarded, engagement between our militaries. It is of urgent importance, particularly in the wake of the horrific attacks in Paris, that our two countries reopen these conduits.

As U.S. defense attaché to Russia, I attended that meeting between Gen. Martin Dempsey, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, still the chief of the Russian General Staff. The discussions, though laced with disagreements over Syria, missile defense and Ukraine, remained cordial, and included mutual concerns such as militant Sunni Islam, Afghanistan-Central Asia, and counterproliferation.

But less than six weeks later, both sides shut down almost all government-to-government contact after Russia illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea. Since then, such ties have been limited to sporadic high-level diplomacy, the Moscow Link Presidential “hot line,” and some anti-terrorist, space, and arms control functions.

Our silence and international sanctions were meant to serve notice to Moscow that it had crossed the wrong Rubicon. But that Brussels meeting, unbelievably, was almost two years ago. It’s way past time for senior U.S. and Russian defense leaders and staffs to start meeting again. While never discounting Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and their sharp-elbowed entry into Syria, it is increasingly dangerous in this cyber-fast world for both our nuclear-tipped nations to have such a dearth of contact.

The reopening of conduits between senior military commanders with regional and global responsibilities would not be “business as usual.” Rather it would be hardnosed practical business: adding some human familiarity at key command-and-control nodes that might keep a sudden accident or incident from flashing into catastrophe. In a fast-breaking crisis, you want leaders who already know each other. And over time, these linkages might help us move beyond these sour political times, and rebuild the kind of relationships that will allow our countries to work on global challenges where we have areas of common interest.

The Obama administration should give Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the new CJCS, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the political green light to meet for the first time with their Russian counterparts, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Gerasimov.

Indeed, the Syrian imbroglio presents an opportunity. In the wake of the Paris attacks, it appears that the Russian and U.S. positions in regard to the Syrian regime’s end state and the fate of President Assad are more nuanced than even a month ago. France is also now aggressively involved. Senior diplomats are talking more and the headquarters of the U.S.-led coalition now has a link with the Russians to improve operational safety and communications over Syria. The confirmed destruction over the Sinai by ISIS of the Russian civilian Metrojet airliner also urges more consultation.

There are valid arguments against renewed dialog with the Russian military at this troubled juncture in our relations. Some may suggest a resumption of contacts will merely reward Moscow for their aggressive international behaviors. Others will say we’ll look like supplicants. And others will wonder of what use it might be to talk with people who deceive us. As one exasperated senior U.S. official told me during the thinly veiled Crimean invasion, “It’s frustrating to know that the Russians know that we know they are lying to us. Why bother?”

We should bother because without a dialog of any consequence our strategic defense relationship will be even more dangerous and prone to hair-trigger miscalculation or misunderstanding. Without patient dialog, even if unsatisfying, there will be little chance of better understanding each other’s perspectives and identifying points of convergence within the mud of divergence. Without contact, we both continue to demonize each other while hardening our populations. It’s better agreeing to disagree than having no discussion at all. Without direct dialog between our senior defense leaders we cannot even begin to consider a more mutually cooperative and secure future.

Peter B. Zwack served as the senior U.S. defense official and attaché to Russia from 2012-14. Recently retired from the Army as a brigadier general, Zwack is a visiting scholar at Georgetown University.

Link to original publication:

Huff post pic

With Paris, ISIS Has Declared War on Us. Here’s How We Should Respond.

Huff post pic

Posted: 11/19/2015 7:40 pm EST Updated: 11/19/2015 8:59 pm EST

The ISIS attack in Paris was an attack on our global community. This will not end. We have to face this fact. The target of these attackers was non-combatant innocents. They will attack again. As much as we abhor the idea of more ground action in the Middle East, this is going to take concerted, long-term international military and civil action. It will involve major forces committed long-term in the nexus area encompassing ISIS root areas predominately in Iraq and Syria.

This will not end. We have to face this fact.

If asked to give advice as a recently retired military officer, this is what I’d suggest:

1. Back France. Fully support France if it invokes NATO Article 5 (an attack on one member is an attack on all). Though unlikely, if it were to do as such, it would pull the considerable military and moral power of NATO’s 28 nations together to focus indivisibly on this emergent existential threat. Article 5 was last invoked on behalf of the U.S. after 9/11.

2. Build a global force. If NATO Article 5 is not invoked, then under a U.N. Security Council Resolution (but unilaterally as a coalition of the willing if vetoed or blocked), build an international expeditionary force, including the U.S., Russia, France and a coalition of the willing including separate NATO allies, Arab, regional, some G-20 and other supporting partner nations. Asian and African nations with ISIS-linked challenges should also participate. This force would move into ISIS-dominated areas and crush the obvious ISIS fighters. Always with Arab entities in the lead, it then would remain in the region with strong civilian-military presence (U.N., NGOs etc.) for as long as it takes to create the conditions for credible governance that include providing security, stability, justice, education and jobs, all seeding the ground for religious and social moderation. This would surely be a difficult, initially nasty, expensive and unpopular decade-long endeavor. As one who has deployed, I can tell you that our military is tired, and ideally would not want to return to this region in force, but current events make it imperative as long as it is with allies and partners.

3. Work with Moscow. Make Russia an integral part of the coalition despite its support for Assad and aggression in Ukraine. Despite our complete disapproval of its initial targeting focus against non-ISIS rebels, Russia is squarely and aggressively in the region and also suffered a major tragedy with the destruction of its civilian Metrojet over the Sinai. Here, despite Assad, we have core concerns that converge. This could bridge us toward much needed, better cooperation in the future.

4. ISIS and the hate it spawns is the #1 threat emanating from this region. It also is a huge driver for the major refugee/migrant flow engulfing Europe that must be staunched. While never condoning the Assad regime’s ruthless actions against its own population, eradicating ISIS, and drying up its violent, exported hate-filled swamp should be our #1 priority. Finding a way to moderate the Baathist regime and easing Assad out should be a dual track. Killing the Syrian regime would create even more chaos in the region — what, who would fill the vacuum? The anti-Assad rebel factions have to understand this fact despite the terrible combatant and civilian losses they have taken. ISIS, and any other faction that joins in its deranged actions, is now our #1 priority.

5. Unambiguously tell the several Sunni nations playing the conflict both ways that simply, ISIS is our #1 threat. The same goes for Iran — with its support for Hezbollah — that is also fighting ISIS and engaged in a proxy Sunni-Shiite sectarian conflict with Sunni nations, with Iraq, Syria and Yemen as its focal points. This all is devilishly complex and defies clean, easy solutions, however, the transnational aspect of this crisis warrants decisive international action. It can’t be solved regionally.

6. Support Kurdish statehood. Even with their competing factions, the Kurds have repeatedly proven that they deserve their own state that should be carved out of broken, obsolete Iraqi and Syrian borders. Our important allies, the Turks, also attacked by ISIS and caught in this regional horror, have to understand this and would need international border security guarantees, including from any new Kurdish state, to even remotely consider such an option. Iran also would have a major stake in this.

7. Remain moderate and inclusive. Finally, and crucially, while firmly protecting borders and maintaining internal security, our nations must strive to remain domestically moderate and inclusive.

ISIS has declared war on all of us. We have to take decisive collective action now.

‪Bottom line: To do any of this will require a fresh, “realpolitik” look at the region. We wanted out of the region. The region has come to us, as shown by the ghastly attack in Paris, and recent others, including Ankara and Beirut. ISIS has declared war on all of us. We have to take decisive collective action now with the global mechanisms available to us and aggressively meet this existential challenge to our core belief systems and way of life.

Recently retired Brigadier General Peter Zwack‬ is a visiting scholar at Georgetown University and served as the U.S. Defense Attache to the Russian Federation from 2012-2014.


By Peter B. Zwack – – Thursday, April 2, 2015

Seventy years ago this April 25, American and Soviet military met as wartime allies against Nazi Germany in the closing days of World War II in an obscure and now long-forgotten place on the Elbe River called Torgau.

This was a truly special embrace of men in arms in a terribly costly but just war against the most hideous existential threat the modern world had ever known. It brought about a bond between wartime allies that shortly thereafter was lost and abandoned in the Cold War.

It looks increasingly likely that we will not mutually commemorate the 70th anniversary of that symbolic event, which is now less than month away. If we pull back and reflect for a moment, is this what both sides really want? Clearly today’s sour political environment makes it hard to imagine the current active duty military leaders of the United States and the Russian Federation standing together in commemoration with the few remaining veterans of that heady 1945 moment.

Failure to do anything, however, at least with low-key delegations, would be more than a disservice to the memory of the defeat of Nazi Germany. It would also mean missing out in a seriously needed opportunity for the U.S. and Russian militaries to publicly meet in a timely, positive occasion and begin to ameliorate the increasingly sharp and dangerous edges that have emerged in our relations. As significant as the Second World War is in our national consciousness, it looms even larger in the Russian consciousness.

This is not based on naive nostalgia or sentimentality. I personally continue to be appalled by the Vladimir Putin regime’s reckless, predatory behavior. Regardless, there is a pressing need to develop and rebuild direct confidence-building venues between our nuclear-tipped militaries across different strategic and operational levels. Reminiscent of the Cold War, warplanes and ships are increasingly challenging territorial boundaries, risking serious accidents or incidents. The laws of probability dictate that things may go badly wrong, even if that is not the explicit intention of either side. In this warp-speed, cyber-enabled world, inadvertent brinksmanship could lead to a horrific 1914 style “how did we get here” scenario. Near-zero contact between our active militaries, especially now, is just plain dangerous. Even frustrating, unsatisfactory discussions in content and message are better than none at all.

I frankly don’t know if either side politically could countenance even a modest initiative, such as having former World War II comrades-in-arms meet April 25 on the Elbe. I know it certainly won’t be possible during the highly politicized and exceedingly martial and triumphal May 9 VE Day celebrations in Moscow. My instinct is that most European nations, including potential host country Germany, would support such a Torgau proposal. especially if focused on introspectively commemorating and not triumphantly celebrating. Some allies and partners with World War II links could also be invited, as well as some of the former Soviet states. The main emphasis, however, should be Russia and the United States, whose soldiers shook hands together on that fateful, promising day 70 years ago.

Some will surely say that proposing any joint Russia-U.S. commemoration such as Torgau during this geopolitically contentious period would cast the United States and the West as appeasing supplicants and imply acquiescence to Russia’s continuing malign actions in Ukraine. I respectfully disagree. Participating in such a symbolic, commemorative event would not infer any easing of sanctions on Russia, or if the political decision is made, delay increased defensive support to hard-pressed and outgunned Ukraine. Reassurance for nervous, deserving regional allies must continue with defense-oriented exercises, such as Atlantic Resolve.

There will be almost no World War II veterans left from any side to meet for a 75th or 80th commemoration. Even with so little time left to organize, we should modestly commemorate the U.S.-Soviet link-up at Torgau for them and the memory of their peers. Ideally, military leaders from Russia and the United States should be present. However, as a minimum, our nations should provide the funding, travel and medics to help volunteering veterans, some barely ambulatory, to attend such a defining event in Germany. Time is short.

We should also do this to assure future generations that we did all we could to ease the world back from a deceptively dangerous spiral that potentially poses an existential threat to us all.

• Peter B. Zwack, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, served in Moscow from 2012 to 2014 as the U.S. senior defense official and attache to the Russian Federation.

All rights reserved © Peter B Zwack