North Korea’s abrupt walk back from its plan to bracket Guam with ballistic missile is being viewed by some foreign policy analysts and diplomats as a positive step in the continuing US-North Korea standoff. Respectively, the collective hope is that Kim Jong Un’s move will present an opportunity for the US, Japan, and South Korea to explore a diplomatic avenue and lower the temperature on what is still a volatile situation. In an outward sense, the pause is a constructive step as it offers a cooling period for Washington and Pyongyang following last week’s exchange of heated rhetoric. What becomes of it remains to be seen, though it is not reasonable to assume North Korea will use the opportunity to defuse the situation.
There is concern that Kim’s about face could be a calculated move to lower the scrutiny and pressure his regime is contending with. Every tool that he used on the Obama administration with considerable success has failed to budge the Trump administration from its position. Threats of launching a missile strike directly on the United States never provoked anything more than a bomber flyover, and a call for strategic patience during the later years of Obama’s presidency. From the time Kim Jong Un took power until Barack Obama left the White House the United States did not take any decisive action against North Korea either diplomatically, militarily, or on the sanctions front. Things have been different with President Trump, to say the least.
Perhaps Kim needs time to conjure up a new strategy that will put North Korea back in a position of strength. Or, more ominously, maybe he is deliberately lowering tensions as he prepares to lash out at the United States in another form. There is growing speculation in US military and intelligence circles that the North could choose to launch a cyberattack rather than a volley of ballistic missiles. North Korea is one of the most notorious cyber villains in the world and has been behind cyberattacks on US companies before. It could use a cyberattack to harm not only individual US companies or government agencies, but the US economy as a whole.
At any rate, North Korea’s announcement today changes little for the moment. Pyongyang’s intentions with regards to Guam have been altered, but it still possesses nuclear weapons, and long range ballistic missiles able to reach US territory. That is the core of the standoff with the United States. Threats to launch missiles in the vicinity of Guam, and sardonic rhetoric are nothing more than window dressing for the moment.
The US Army is returning to Europe in force. Treads on the ground instead of boots, if you will.
Following almost two years of preparation and planning, the first elements of a US Army armored brigade are arriving in Poland. In a scenario that practically nobody in the world could’ve foreseen happening in 1989 without the aid of NATO winning a land war in Europe against the Warsaw Pact, US forces will be deployed to Eastern Europe. The deployment is not a permanent one per se. Some interpretations of the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act argue that it prohibits the permanent stationing of US troops in Eastern Europe. The agreement, however, holds no stipulations concerning the placing of equipment. Consequently, the equipment will remain in place and US troops will be rotated in periodically, every nine months or so.
Moscow’s reaction to the arrival of the US troops was predictably negative. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman denounced the move, stating: “We perceive it as a threat. These actions threaten our interests, our security. Especially as it concerns a third party building up its military presence near our borders. It’s [the US], not even a European state.” For the moment, the rhetoric appears to be the only card Russia is playing. There are no signs of a countermove being planned in the Kremlin. Next Friday Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States and Putin is likely waiting to see the direction US-Russia relations take before deciding if a countermove will be necessary.
The first rotation of US soldiers is coming from the 3rd Brigade Combat Team/4th Infantry Division based at Fort Colorado and consists of 3,500-4,000 troops. The first contingent of men and equipment will be stationed in Zagan, Poland which is also home to the Polish 11th Armored Cavalry Division, also a heavy maneuver unit like the 3/4th ID. It’s ranges and training areas will be put to good use and permit US and Polish tankers to train together regularly. After the brigade is entirely in Europe it will fan out to other bases across NATO’s eastern flank, giving other member-nations concrete indications of the US commitment to Europe’s security.
This move comes three years after the last US armor departed the continent. Budget constraints forced the last two permanently stationed heavy maneuver brigades to be shipped home. In the wake of this deployment, US defense planners might be looking at permanently returning tank-heavy forces back to Germany as the next step should US-Russia relations continue to deteriorate through 2017.
On the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru this weekend, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin had what will probably be the final in-person discussion between the two before Obama leaves office on January 20, 2017. The talk was only four minutes long and predictably Aleppo was a major talking point. The Syrian government unleashed a massive air and artillery bombardment of rebel-held sections of the city last week in preparation for ground attacks by regime forces, which began on Friday. Civilian casualties from the bombings have been high with 240 confirmed deaths as of this morning. Yesterday, a family of six was killed by a barrel bomb reportedly laced with chlorine gas. Hospitals in the rebel-controlled section of Aleppo were also targeted. Over the past few days five have been struck and damaged severely. Airstrikes on Friday also knocked the last functioning hospital in the eastern part of the city out of commission. There are now no operational medical centers in eastern Aleppo.
On the meeting, a White House official released the following statement: “On Syria, the president noted the need for Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov to continue pursuing initiatives, together with the broader international community, to diminish the violence and alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.”
The offensive against Aleppo has been strictly a Syrian-only operation. Russian forces have not taken part in the strikes or effort on the ground. Moscow has stated that it is concentrating its military efforts in a neighboring province.
The situation in Ukraine was another topic touched on. Obama urged Putin to keep the Minsk agreements from collapsing and reminded him of the West’s commitment to maintaining the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine. Following a brief flare up of tensions and fighting in August, the situation in Ukraine has been relatively calm ever since. While Russia is moving quickly to bring about a favorable conclusion to the situation in Syria there are no indications that a similar move is expected with regards to Ukraine. Putin appears satisfied to let the situation remain in limbo until it will be possible to broach the subject with the Trump administration in 2017.
With President Obama’s final trip to Europe underway, the reality is setting in that this trip is greatly overshadowed by the results of last Tuesday’s US Presidential Election. The reality that Donald J. Trump will be the next President of the United States has dropped a heavy blanket of uncertainty across the continent. Try as they might, many Europeans do not know what to make of Donald Trump. His campaign promises and the lack of detailed policies have unnerved European leaders and citizens alike. On the surface, Trump appears to be a leader prepared to disconnect the US from Europe in many regards. His position on issues such as the Syrian Refugee Crisis and debt relief for nations like Greece appear to contrast sharply with those of many European leaders. His insistence that America’s NATO partners pay their fair share towards defense leads many on the other side of the Pond to wonder just how solidly a Trump administration will support the alliance in a time of crisis.
Personally, I do not think Europeans have much to worry about. Yet that is another post for another time.
As it stands right now, Obama’s farewell trip has transformed from a promulgation of his foreign policy legacy to a mission of reassurance. The first stop was Greece where the main talking point has been Greek debt relief and not Trump. Obama is expected to throw his support behind “meaningful debt relief” for Athens. In 2015 the EU flirted with the prospect of a possible ‘Grexit.’ At one point it seemed more probable than not that Greece would withdraw or be removed from the EU and abandon the Euro. Fortunately for Europe, Alexis Tsipras did not drive his nation off the edge of the cliff and into the unknown. He begrudgingly accepted the stringent and somewhat humiliating austerity terms offered up to set Greece on the road to recovery. Unfortunately, Greece’s economy is not yet sustainable and will not be without further debt relief.
Tsipras is hoping that Obama can help persuade Germany to move forward with additional debt relief for Greece. The Greek Prime Minister has made debt relief a priority, calling for a new agreement by the end of 2016. His popularity at home has plummeted from enforcing measures he once swore would never have his support. Additional debt relief might be his only realistic chance to avoid being swept out of office at some point in 2017, and ironically, Obama is the last card he has left to play.
When President Obama arrives in Berlin on Wednesday Greece will be one of the subjects on the list. However, with the prospect of Donald Trump looking as if it will dominate talks between Obama and Merkel, there is no guarantee that additional debt relief for Greece will be discussed in depth or acted upon in the future.
While people here in the United States recover from the raucous election season and start coming to terms with the reality that Donald J. Trump will be the 45th President of the United States, the Russian military is preparing for the final assault on Aleppo. It was widely anticipated that no major effort would be made by Syrian and Russian forces until after the US election had concluded. Now, as expected, that offensive is likely just days away from beginning.
In the Eastern Mediterranean the Russian battlegroup spearheaded by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, and the nuclear powered battlecruiser Pytor Velikiy has arrived off of Syria and is preparing to begin combat operations. Aircraft from the carrier have begun conducting reconnaissance flights in the Aleppo area. Interaction flights around Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia have been underway for the past four days as aircrews from the Kuznetsov work to familiarize themselves with air operations over Syrian airspace.
At the same time, activity has been increasing at Engels Air Base, outside of Saratov, Russia. Engels is home to Tu-95 Bear and Tu-160 strategic bombers. This morning TASS reported that those bombers are being readied for imminent strikes on targets in Syria. The crews have been placed on ‘combat readiness,’ while the aircraft and munitions are being prepared for the upcoming sorties. TASS has also reported that the bombers are being armed with cruise missiles.
This is the period of opportunity which I mentioned in previous the previous post. Between now and 20 January, 2017 Russia will have an opening to expand operations in Syria without having to concern itself with inciting a decisive response from the United States. With the transition period underway in Washington, the Obama administration is not in a position to take major action in Syria and run the risk of worsening the situation for the incoming Trump administration. Vladimir Putin also needs to be cautious. He has a free hand in Syria, but taking similar action in Ukraine or Eastern Europe would invite a strong US and Western response, transition period or not.