In a meeting with the senior staff of the FSB, President V V Putin outlined the threats facing Russia and the contours of a deal that he might do with US President Donald Trump. Whilst Trump battles the US intelligence community and the US élite, the foreign leader he most wants to deal with… Putin… addressed the senior staff of the FSB, Russia’s counter-terrorism and counter-intelligence agency, an organisation he once headed.
Whilst it’s all too tempting to contrast President Putin’s complete control of his government and intelligence services with President Trump’s struggle to achieve mastery over his own, one should resist that temptation. President Putin didn’t always have the undisputed mastery of his government and intelligence services that he has now. Only in 2003, following the arrest of the once all-powerful oligarch M B Khodorkovsky, and the subsequent expulsion from the government of individuals like former Chairman of the Government M M Kasyanov and former Minister of Foreign Affairs I S Ivanov (men beholden to Khodorkovsky and other oligarchs), did President Putin achieve the undisputed control of the Russian government and intelligence services that he has now.
The US and Russian political systems differ profoundly from each other, and one shouldn’t press the parallel between President Putin’s struggle with the oligarchs and President Trump’s current struggle with the US élite too far. Nonetheless, it does show one important fact that those frustrated by some of President Trump’s recent actions need to bear in mind… mere possession of the office of President in any political system doesn’t automatically translate into control of the government. A President who really wants to become the master of his government… as opposed to being a mere cypher for his bureaucracy… has to fight to achieve it. However, if President Putin didn’t always have the undisputed control of his government and intelligence services, he certainly has it now, and his meeting with the senior staff of the FSB serves to illustrate the fact. The meeting however also illustrates two other things:
- the pressure Russia has been under
- what President Putin and Russia actually want from US President Trump and the deal they want to make with him
On the question of the pressure Russia has been under, during his meeting with the FSB President Putin made this quite extraordinary comment:
Counterintelligence services also face greater demands today. Operational data show that foreign intelligence services’ activity in Russia hasn’t decreased. Last year, our counterintelligence services put a stop to the work of 53 foreign intelligence officers and 386 agents.
It bears saying that over the course of the hysterical scandal in the USA about the DNC and Podesta leaks, the fake “Trump Dossier”, and the telephone conversation between the Russian ambassador and General Flynn, so far, they’ve arrested not a single person or charged anyone with anything. Yet, here we have President Putin blandly saying that over the same period that this wave of hysteria and scandal has been underway in the USA, the FSB in Russia “stopped the work of 53 foreign intelligence officers and 386 agents”. This astonishing claim (imagine the FBI announcing it had uncovered 386 foreign agents working in the USA in the space of a single year) isn’t merely made calmly and almost in passing, with no special emphasis given to it, but it attracted almost no publicity, either from the Russian media or internationally.
President Putin’s comments on the pressure Russia has been under also highlight a further point… unlike the USA and the EU, Russia… with no assistance from the West… fought a home-grown Jihadist insurgency on its own soil. It proved remarkably successful in doing so, so that whereas when Putin became President Jihadists physically controlled large areas of Russian territory, today, they barely control any, reduced to a sporadically functioning (but still dangerous) terrorist movement. Nonetheless, as President Putin said, there’s no room for complacency or relaxation in the struggle against them:
The events and circumstances I mentioned require our security and intelligence services, especially the FSB, to concentrate their utmost attention and effort on the paramount task of fighting terrorism. We’ve already seen that our intelligence services dealt some serious blows to terrorists and their accomplices. Last year’s results confirm this… the number of terrorism-related crimes decreased. Preventive work has brought results. The FSB and other security agencies, with the National Antiterrorist Committee as coordinator, prevented 45 terrorism-related crimes, including 16 planned terrorist attacks. You deserve special gratitude for this. You need to continue your active efforts to identify and block terrorist groups’ activity, eliminate their financial base, prevent the activities of their emissaries from abroad and their dangerous activity on the internet, and take into account in this work Russian and international experience in this area. The murder of our ambassador to Turkey was a terrible crime that particularly highlighted the need to protect our citizens and missions abroad. I ask you to work together with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the SVR to take additional measures to ensure their safety. Our priorities include firmly suppressing extremism. Security methods must go hand-in-hand with constant preventive work. It’s essential to prevent extremism from drawing young people into its criminal networks and to form an overall firm rejection of nationalism, xenophobia, and aggressive radicalism. In this context, of great importance is an open dialogue with civil society institutions and figures from Russia’s traditional religions.
Again, one is astonished to hear President Putin calmly say that his anti-terrorist agencies prevented 16 planned terrorist attacks on Russian territory in one year, as this was something everyday and normal. One has to ask what Western country has to face a terrorist assault on this scale. Over and above these “traditional” threats to Russia, Russia must also face the threat of cyberattacks, something openly talked about by former US President Obama and former US Vice-President Biden. Putin’s comments about this to the FSB are especially interesting in that they effectively confirm… although they don’t quite say… that although individual Russian agencies are responsible for ensuring their own cybersecurity, the FSB has overall responsibility for protecting Russia’s cybersecurity as a whole:
I’d like to note that the number of cyberattacks on official information resources tripled in 2016 compared to 2015. In this context, each agency must develop its segment of the state system for detecting and preventing cyberattacks on information resources and eliminating their consequences.
Whilst these comments give a clear idea of the range of the FSB’s work… showing once again that it’s an internal security agency and not an agency tasked with collecting foreign intelligence… President Putin took the opportunity of his meeting with the senior staff of the FSB to touch on foreign policy questions:
The global situation hasn’t become any more stable or better over the past year. On the contrary, many existing threats and challenges only became acuter. The military-political and economic rivalry between global and regional policy makers and between individual countries increased. We see bloody conflicts continue in a number of countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. International terrorist groups, essentially terrorist armies, receiving tacit and sometimes even open support from some countries, take an active part in these conflicts. The NATO summit last July in Warsaw declared Russia the main threat to the alliance for the first time since 1989, and NATO officially proclaimed containing Russia its new mission. With this aim, NATO continues its expansion. This expansion was already underway earlier, but now they believe they have even-more-serious reasons for doing so. They stepped up the deployment of strategic and conventional arms beyond the national borders of the principal NATO member states. They provoke us constantly and try to draw us into a confrontation. We see continued attempts to interfere in our internal affairs in a bid to destabilise the social and political situation in Russia itself. We also saw the recent serious flare-up in the southeast Ukraine (sic). This escalation pursues the clear aim of preventing the Minsk Agreements from going ahead. The current Ukrainian authorities are obviously not seeking a peaceful solution to this very complex problem; they decided to opt for the use of force instead. What’s more, they speak openly about organising sabotage and terrorism, particularly in Russia. Obviously, this is a matter of great concern.
These comments highlight Russia’s key areas of priority and it’s striking how far they differ from those Western commentators continuously attribute to them. There isn’t a word here about lifting sanctions, dissolving NATO or the EU, “treating Russia as an equal to the USA” on the global stage, recognising a Russian sphere of interest in Eastern Europe, “restoring the USSR”, conquering the Baltic States, or even arms control. Instead, Russia’s stated priorities are those I identified in my article of 19 January 2017:
- ending NATO expansion especially into the territories of the former USSR
- ending the West’s deployment of anti-ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe (“the deployment of strategic and conventional arms beyond the national borders of the principal NATO member states”)
- ending the West’s régime-change policy, first and foremost as it pertains to Russia (“we see continued attempts to interfere in our internal affairs in a bid to destabilise the social and political situation in Russia itself”)
As I discussed in my 19 January article, in theory, it shouldn’t be difficult for President Trump to agree to all these things if he wants to do a deal with Russia because none of them affects the USA’s essential interests. Setting out these central Russian concerns shows how a deal between Russia and a Donald Trump administration might be possible. None of Russia’s concerns on any one of these issues affects Western security or impinges on the USA’s national interests. Trump called NATO “obsolete” and expressed indifference about the EU’s future. He’s clearly uninterested in expanding either into the territory of the former USSR, so he has no reason to feel that he’s making any serious concession by agreeing not to do so. Similarly, Trump has already forsworn the whole policy of régime-change. If so, then, he already agrees with Russia on this issue too.
The major sticking point will be arms control, with trust badly damaged because of Obama’s actions, with Russia almost certainly insisting on the dismantling of the anti-ballistic missile systems in Eastern Europe in return for nuclear weapons cuts. Indeed, Trump homed in on the issue of arms control in his interview with The London Times and Bild-Zeitung. However, securing an agreement to dismantle anti-ballistic missile systems in the teeth of what is likely to be furious opposition from US Congressional leadership, much of the Republican Party, and the powerful US armaments lobby, will be a titanic challenge. A complex and difficult negotiation lies ahead. Even the assumption Trump will succeed in consolidating his control of the US government is open to question, it’s far from clear he’d succeed. However, there’s one overwhelming point that argues in its favour… any objective assessment sees that what Russia wants from Trump is in the USA’s interest for him to give.
The USA loses nothing by agreeing to the things Russia wants because they in no way threaten the USA’s security or that of its allies. On the contrary, the pursuit of the grand geopolitical strategies of the neocons, with the policies of NATO expansion, anti-ballistic missile deployment, and regime-change that go with them, have brought the USA to an impasse. It is in the USA’s interest and in the interests of the USA’s allies to yield on them. Trump’s comments show that he has at least some understanding of this fact. We’ll have to wait and see how great that understanding is and whether he’d be able to put it into practise.
If he can do a deal on these fundamental issues, it isn’t difficult to see how he could also do a deal on the Ukraine, the issue that many people (wrongly, in my opinion) treat as a sticking point. As it happens, it isn’t at all difficult to see how one could do a deal on the Ukraine. In his comments to the senior staff of the FSB Putin made it clear that Russia wants the complete implementation of the Minsk Accords. Of course, that’s precisely what various officials of the Trump administration… Pence, Mattis, Tillerson, Haley, and of course Trump himself… also say. Given that this is so, provided the good will was there, it shouldn’t be difficult to agree on a deal on the Ukraine involving the complete implementation of the Minsk Accords. Everyone knows that the true reason that such a deal hasn’t happened up to now isn’t that Russia doesn’t want it. Instead, there’s no good will on the part of the Western powers, who’ve colluded with the Ukraine’s noncompliance with the Minsk Accords. Were this to change… it’d be something that’d be easy to do since everyone says that they want to see the Minsk Accords implemented… a breakthrough could quickly happen. Of course, it’s true that the Ukraine, at least in its present form, would be unlikely to survive the full implementation of the Minsk Accords. That’s why the Ukraine refuses to implement them. However, that isn’t something that… based on his own words… ought to concern President Trump. The key point is that if President Trump genuinely wants a deal on the Ukraine, the elements for it are all already there.
If Russia… as Putin’s comments to the senior staff of the FSB show… isn’t actually asking for very much (and nothing that President Trump should, in theory, find it impossible to concede)… it’s offering (as Putin’s comments to the FSB also show) what’s been on the table for a long time… coöperation in the fight against Jihadist terrorism, an issue that President Trump says is his foreign policy priority:
You must also work to take our counterterrorism coöperation with partners abroad to a new level, despite the difficulties that we see in various areas of international life. Of course, it’s a priority to intensify work with our partners in organisations such as the UN, the CSTO, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It’s in our common interests to restore dialogue with the US intelligence services and with other NATO member countries. It wasn’t our fault that these ties ended. It wasn’t our fault that they didn’t develop. It’s very clear that all responsible countries and international groups should work together on counterterrorism because even simply exchanging information on terrorists’ financing channels and sources and on people involved in or suspected of links with terrorism can substantially improve the results of our common efforts.
Rarely in the history of international relations have the contours of a deal been easier to see… Russia is asking Trump for what he should have no trouble giving, and in return, they actually want to give him exactly the thing he says he wants. The biggest sticking point isn’t the Ukraine but anti-ballistic defence, although even on this issue, with the necessary goodwill, it should be possible to finesse some sort of agreement, probably based on the old 1970s concept of arms limitation and not the contemporary one of arms reduction. Whether we’d do the deal is another matter. Not only is it unclear whether Trump realises how easy the deal he wants with the Russians is, but he has to face down his many critics who don’t want a deal at all. However, the outlines of a deal, if he wants one, are there.
21 February 2017