US National Security Adviser John Bolton will be visiting Moscow in the coming week to try and lay groundwork for a meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin next month. Trump will be in Europe then for a NATO summit in Brussels, and then a state visit to Great Britain. The proposed mini-summit of sorts between the two leaders is the latest attempt by the White House to build a friendlier relationship with Russia. Earlier this month at the G7 Summit in Quebec, Trump tried unsuccessfully to convince the other members to readmit Russia, which was suspended in 2014 following its annexation of Crimea. Relations between the US and Russia have been cold for quite some time, though there has been a large amount of backchannel discussion between the two nations over security concerns, namely Syria.
It is worth noting that there are no plans to include European leadership in a potential July talks. The exclusion of EU members, and NATO allies sends a blunt message to Europe about the reemergence of US leadership on the global stage, and the current state of relations between the United States and Europe. The Trump administration does not intend to be encumbered by European actions and interests, or be bound by a lack of consensus among its European allies. Right now, Washington and Europe have significant disagreements on a host of issues including security, trade, and immigration. There’s little chance an overall agreement could be reached right now on how to approach Russia.
Therefore, the United States sees fit to take the lead.
An expanded US military presence on NATO’s Eastern Flank will be a major topic of discussion next month at the NATO summit. In recent weeks, a number of NATO member-states let it be known they would welcome additional US troops on their soil. Last Friday Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Slovakia called for a discussion on increasing the NATO military presence in the region. The hope is for talks to take place at the NATO summit. Norway and Poland have gone beyond this. Both nations have been vocal in their desire for US troops to be permanently based in their countries. At present, US troops are deployed in both nations on a rotational basis.
Norway intends to ask the US to double the number of troops currently on Norwegian soil. There are 330 US Marines there at present. Oslo would like to see that number increased to 700, and for the troops to be stationed closer to the Russian border than the present rotation of troops. Russia responded sharply to the Norwegian plan, promising there will be ‘consequences’ if Oslo and Washington move forward with the plan. The Russian embassy in Oslo released a statement saying a rise in the number of US troops in Norway “could lead to rising tensions and trigger an arms race, destabilizing the situation in northern Europe.”
Poland has taken it a step farther. Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak has held discussions with US officials about a permanent US military presence in Poland. The present US military setup there is centered on the periodic rotation of a US armored brigade. Warsaw wants to build on that and have an entire US armored division permanently based in Poland. In the view of Poland’s senior military officials, and politicians, having a US armored division stationed on Polish territory would be the ultimate hedge against future Russian aggression. As a sign of their willingness to bring a deal together, the Polish government is offering $2 billion to be placed towards building an infrastructure for a permanent US military presence.
On Friday the Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, announced the reactivation of the US 2nd Fleet, which was the US Navy fleet responsible for operations in the North Atlantic until it was deactivated in 2011. Its AOR, and operations were taken over by the 6th Fleet, which covered both the Mediterranean and Atlantic during the time. The move has been expected for some time now. As relations between the United States and Russia began their downward trend after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russian naval activity in the North Atlantic increased. In the later years of the Obama tenure, the US Navy began to take a hard look at the possibility of standing up 2nd Fleet once again. The prospect did not begin to gain momentum until 2017 when the Trump administration and then-new Secretary of Defense James Mattis began to take a hard look at the US military and the changing geopolitical realities around the world
Richardson alluded to that in his remarks. “Our National Defense Strategy makes clear that we’re back in an era of great power competition as the security environment continues to grow more challenging and complex.” This move is a clear indication that the Pentagon has placed a high priority in countering Russia’s heightened military activity. A large part of this strategy includes a US pivot back to Europe and the North Atlantic.
Increased Russian naval activity in the Atlantic over the last 2-3 years has been a concern for NATO as well as the US Navy. In a nod to the Cold War days and SACLANT, NATO’s new Atlantic Command will join the 2nd Fleet as being headquartered in Norfolk.
Western air and missile strikes against chemical weapon production and storage facilities in Syria have ended. The strikes were successful in both military and political terms. Bomb damage assessments indicate that every site targeted was effectively destroyed. The Trump administration, through its actions and the end result, has reestablished and reinforced the credibility of red line threats. The predictions, and warnings that Western military action in Syria would bring about a Third World War have been fully discredited. Despite all that Russia has invested in Syria, and the staunch support it has given to Bashar al-Assad, Moscow is not prepared to start a major war simply to save Syria.
Friday night’s military action has also helped bring about the emergence of an official US strategy vis-à-vis Syria. Destroying ISIS, long the primary objective of US efforts in Syria, is now mated with the preventing Assad from using chemical weapons again. President Trump’s stated goal to remove US troops as quickly as possible can still be achieved. ISIS is on its last legs, and before long a US ground presence will not be essential. If Assad opts to use chemical weapons in the fighting again, any US and Western response will come exclusively from air and naval assets.
Russia’s next move remains a mystery. Vladimir Putin does not like to lose, so it is highly probable he will craft a response aimed at reminding the United States, Britain, and France that Russia remains a force to be dealt with. Since the situation in Syria remains sensitive and fluid, Russia’s countermove will not happen there. It could come in Ukraine, or Eastern Europe, and take the form of diplomatic pressure, heightened military maneuvers and activity, or shadow operations such as cyber strikes against the civilian infrastructures in the Baltic States. Cyber strikes would be the perfect tool to be used if Moscow wants to highlight the vulnerability of Western interests in the region. After all, the US-led strikes against Syria served to highlight just how vulnerable the Russian position in Syria is.
Then there are the numerous other proxy wars going on in Syria that will be affected by the West’s actions. It will be interesting to see how Iran, Israel, and Turkey react, and how Friday’s strikes will affect their respective plans for Syria.
Attention is focused on Washington DC today as the world waits to see how the United States chooses to respond to the suspected chemical weapons attack in Douma, Syria on 7 April. This morning it was announced that President Trump will not be attending the Summit of the Americas in Peru, or traveling to Bogota, Columbia afterwards as planned. Instead, the president will remain in Washington to “oversee the American response to Syria and to monitor developments around the world” according to the White House. This recent development has increased speculation that US military action could be coming soon. Reports that Trump has been in consultation with London and Paris suggest a broader Western military response is possible as well.
In fact, the possibility of British involvement at the very least is growing. A short time ago I spoke to an associate of mine who lives a short distance away from RAF Akrotri, the British airbase on Cyprus. He verified that the level of activity there has increased over the past few hours and shows no sign of dropping off. Right now I am trying to obtain more information from him. If I do, I will pass it along.
On the military front, numerous reports surfaced yesterday that the destroyer USS Donald Cook was moving into waters near Syria, and Russian aircraft were conducting low level flights nearby. The Pentagon denied the reports and they were never confirmed by any major independent media outlets. If Cook is in the vicinity of Syria it makes sense for Russian aircraft to harass any potential TLAM shooters, and keep a close eye on them as the situation unfolds. It should also be noted that given the range of the TLAM, Cook does not have to be anywhere close to the Syrian coastline. She could launch cruise missiles from practically anywhere in the Mediterranean. However, given political considerations and such, it does make sense to volley TLAMs as close to Syria as the situation allows.
It is mid-afternoon here in the eastern United States and there is much happening with regards to Syria from Washington to Europe, and the Med. I’ll try and post another update early in the evening and offer some thoughts about if or when military action against the Syrian government might begin.