CNBC. This is the claim of Philip Breedlove, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. Given that one mind can contain only so many points of view, it’s good that Breedlove has the kind of mindset that fosters hyper vigilance. This, along with leadership, analytic capability, and capacity to act, are the marks of military excellence and good generalship.
It could be true. If a robotic fly operated by western intelligence, flitting around Putin’s dacha, overhears such conversation, a fact unknown to open sources would be established. But working from open sources, we cannot presuppose the fly. And we must avoid the indulgence of imagined insight, the mind-ware flaw of conspiracy enthusiasts.
Discerning the motives of the adversary, or frenemy, as the current case may be, is not the province of generalship. In these practical times, it may not be anybody’s job. In World War II, axis leaders were psychoanalyzed by members of the intelligence community. The current license holders are the “policy mavens”, who are remarkably bad at it .
Breedlove’s statements of the facts are informed by the best intelligence about ISIS infiltration and general strain on the social and economic fabric of Europe. But even if Russia is responsible for the symptoms Breedlove describes, “weaponization”, which in this instance is synonymous with intent, does not follow. Neither does it follow if we decide that at this moment, Russia is an adversary, not a frenemy. Establishment of cause-and-effect is more difficult than mere association.
If you are an open source maven, this is important. Unless producing intelligence is part of your job description, your insights are not driven by demand, but by opportunity. For the maven, the occasional astonishing insight is the result of a mental network, a composition of facts, opinions, and prior insights, all maintained with exquisite mental hygiene. Every so often, it will gel, but for this to happen, you have to keep your mental house in order.
To professionals, it applies in a different way. The game of nations is not football, where concentration on team spirit, and short-term vilification of the other team gets the adrenaline going. In the perpetual game, the best blood is ice water. Human lives are a terrible thing to tally, but even in Syria, distinctions must be made.
In August 2014, the UNHCR reported 3 million refugees. The Russian intervention began on September 30, 2015. The current UNHCR tally is 4,194,554. Numerous knowledgeable observations attribute to the Russian bombings the characteristics of atrocities. So it can be assumed that Russian bombs made the problem worse. But they did not originate it. It began with the original Assad regime barrel bombs, the tool of the minority Alawite regime with long tradition of control by massacre of the Sunni majority. And note, if the Sunni majority had the upper hand, it is likely, given the traditions of the area, that they would indulge in the joys of massacre.
This is an opportunity to accumulate intelligence capital. Make your moral judgment, and then clear your mind. Two closely associated questions serve to focus.
- Breedlove’s assertion, put as a question, is “Are the Russians weaponizing refugee flow?”
- To what extent are Russian atrocities in Syria intentional?
The short answer to the second question is, entirely. But that answer negates all the complexities of Russian decision making, which, if refined to the probable, are valuable capital for future insights. Russians, including the elite, are not immoral people. Possibly conditioned by history and the present, they make choices currently considered by the West as immoral. Yet most of them, excepting those brutes in the middle and the bottom who “are merely following orders”, must rationalize their actions with their consciences. Unlike the Axis of World War II, the Russians are not so different from us.
The historical record of the not-so-distant past contains loopholes-of-record. Keep the Loophole List handy:
- Will “it” shorten the War?
- Will “it” save our lives?
- Is “it” a military necessity, i.e., to win versus lose?
- Is “it” necessary to Save the World?
- Übermensch — It’s the right thing to do so because the leader’s morals are his own creation.
The worst of the above is Übermensch, for whom an atrocity can be a mere matter of convenience. It would be the worst indictment. For Syria, which of the above would come closest to exculpation? There may be a solution that reads like a waterboarding memo.
Undoubtedly, these blend. If, in comparison to the occasional and unintentional but bloody accidents of Western forces, the Russians are capable of systemic atrocities, the difference between us can be measured in years. In 1919, a British leader wrote (towards the bottom of the page):
I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. We have definitely adopted the position at the Peace Conference of arguing in favour of the retention of gas as a permanent method of warfare. It is sheer affectation to lacerate a man with the poisonous fragment of a bursting shell and to boggle at making his eyes water by means of lachrymatory gas.
I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes. The moral effect should be so good that the loss of life should be reduced to a minimum. It is not necessary to use only the most deadly gasses: gasses can be used which cause great inconvenience and would spread a lively terror and yet would leave no serious permanent effects on most of those affected.
This is from “(Churchill papers: 16/16) 12 May 1919 War Office.” The word lachrymatory, implying tear gas, has been used to exculpate Winston Churchill from the serious charge. But close to the top of the page, his World War II memo, list item “3”, contains:
3. I want a cold-blooded calculation made as to how it would pay us to use poison gas, by which I mean principally mustard. We will want to gain more ground in Normandy so as not to be cooped up in a small area. We could probably deliver 20 tons to their 1 and for the sake of the 1 they would bring their bomber aircraft into the area against our superiority, thus paying a heavy toll.
Since many readers are probably partial to Churchill versus current Russian personalities, it’s a good mental exercise to try apportioning the elements of the Loophole List to Churchill’s imagined mental processes. It will help with the Russians.
Harry S. Truman has been treated well by history for the use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Which elements of the Loophole List apply? It is probably disturbing to compare this to Russian bombing in Syria. But the comparison is too educational to avoid. The acts then and now are similar in consequence. Moral differentiation relies entirely on motive. Is the difference that the Russian involvement in Syria is purely elective, while World War II was not?
In evolution of moral values as they apply to war, the West and Russia are separated by a maximum of 70 years. Vietnam may reduce it. If “failure to act” is valid, the years become a handful.
In the minds of the Russians, the Loophole List, and these factors combine to answer the two questions:
- Limitations of Russian military technology.
- Rules of Engagement and the Laws of War.
- Desperation and demographics.
What are the Russians thinking? Construct for maximal coherence. Winnow for the simplicity of Occam’s Razor. If we can avoid our own prejudices, we can get close.
To be continued shortly.