Archive for the ‘use of force’ Category

Update on Putin and Syria

Wednesday, November 25th, 2015

Update: Cut-off of provision of electricity to the Crimea, and the downing of a Russian plane by Turkey on November 24, 2015

Two events have now pushed relations with Putin to a dangerous edge.

The first is sabotage by Ukrainian activists of the high tension electrical network in the Ukraine which supplies rhe Crimea with some 75-80% of its electrical power. The Crimea is cut off from electricity and has largely gone dark, a dramatic fact widely reported on Russian television and in the Russian media.


“Crimeans Putting On Brave Faces, But Frustration Mounting Over Blackout,” RFE/RL, November 25, 2015.

The second is the shooting down by a Turkish aircraft of a Russian military aircraft attacking the positions of “moderate” anti-Assad insurgents close to the border with Turkey, after the Russian aircraft entered Turkish airspace, according to Turkey.

Any attack by Russian forces on Turkish territory in response could potentially trigger the collective self-defense obligations contained in Article 5 of the NATO treay. Turkey is a member.

The moment is extremely perilous, because based on his past actions Putin can be expected to react to these events in a sharp and potentially dangerous manner. NATO and the West need to prepare, now, a forceful but calibrated response to any action Putin might take in response to these two events

All leaders should now focus on de-escalating the military tensions between Turkey and NATO forces, on the one hand, and Russian forces on the other.

Otherwise, the world could easily stumble into an escalating military confrontation between Russia and NATO, which would have the potential of leading to nuclear war.

This would be wildly irrational, of course.

As was the onset of the First World War in 1914.

Mistakes, unintended consequences of organizational routines, and pure accidents can have a decisive impact on world events.

It is folly to have the air forces of Russia, the United States, and other countries conducting bombing operations in Syria under a non-unified command. The mere idea of successfully “deconflicting” air missions conducted by Russia and other countries is based on an illusion of precision that does not exist in the real world.

Instead of continuing this dangerous pattern over Syria, the United States, the West, Turkey and the Arab states need to stop trying to paper over the hard conflicts which exist between Russia, al-Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran, on the one hand, and the United States, France, Arab forces, and Turkey, on the other.

The goal of Western policy should be to halt Russian attacks on “moderate” insurgents who are challenging al-Assad. This involves a direct clash between Russian and Western interests. The West has enormous economic powers at its command to use in dealing with Putin. It should use them, to secure a change on the ground, while avoiding endless negotiations with al-Assad and Russia aimed at achieving the wholly illusory goal of a “negotiated solution” to the Syrian conflict.

Negotiations without a change in Russian policy on the ground in Syria–not in verbal formulations, but in actions–will only help Russia as it seeks to destroy the “moderate” insurgents who threaten al-Assad, while helping him to consolidate his hold on power in the area he controls.

Russia is complicit in the commission by al-Assad of crimes against humanity and war crimes on a massive scale, and is responsible itself under international law for the commission of these crimes. The U.S., the E.U. and other countries should impose strong economic sanctions against Russia until it ceases its complicity in the commission of these crimes. Such actions would be permissible as lawful countermeasures under international law.

In Syria, as in the Ukraine, the time has finally come for the United States and its allies to stand up to and to push back against Russia and Vladimir Putin.

The Trenchant Observer

Thinking clearly about Putin and Syria

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

Barack Obama, John Kerry and other Western leaders should always bear in mind wiho Vladimir Putin is, and what he has done in the last four years with respect to Syria, the Crimea, the eastern Ukraine, and in challenging NATO at every turn. Nor should they forget his probable role in the assassination in Moscow of his leading opponent, Boris Nemtsov, on February 27, 2015.

They should never forget that Putin and Russia pose a direct challenge and continuing assault on the post-World War II international legal and security order, anchored by the United Nations Charter and its prohibition in Article 2 (4) of the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.

The United Nations Charter is the cornerstone of the framework of international law and institutions which govern relations between states.  They protect not only the territorial integrity of states but also guarantee the observance of fundamental human rights such as the right to life, the physical integrity of the human person, due process of law, free speech, and the right to participate in government.

Putin by his “annexation” of the Crimea and ongoing invasion and occupation of the eastern Ukraine stands in opposition to all of that.

Since Russia’s and China’s veto of a mild U.N. Security Council resolution on February 4, 2012, Russia has played a dirty game in Syria.

Russia has done everything it could to support Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime, which has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity on a massive scale. These crimes, which are ongoing, have resulted in the deaths of 250,000 to 300,000 Syrians, displaced millions of refugees, and helped to create the space in which ISIS has been allowed to grow and thrive.

The massive war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by al-Assad, with Russia’s complicity and support, have constituted an important element in the appeal of ISIS which has drawn tens of thousands of suporters from around the world to join its cause.

The U.N. peace process in Syria, which followed the Arab League’s 2011 peace process, was first headed by Kofi Annan in 2012, and subsequently led to two Geneva peace conferences.  It has served principally to provide Western countries with a pretext for not using force to bring al-Assad’s atrocities to an end, and Russia with a diplomatic vehicle to maintain him in power.

The idea of a negotiated solution to the multi-sided civil war in Syria is a pure illusion, under current circumstances.  This is the case even more so now than when Kofi Annan offered his “castles in the sky”, which  succeeded only in forestalling any significant use of force by the West to halt al-Assad’s atrocities.

“There can be no military solution in Syria, only a negotiated outcome” has been the mantra of those unwillng to take effective action against al-Assad. It worked for the Russians up until recently, when the growing threat of ISIS became manifest with the seizure of Ramadi and Mosul in Iraq, and most recently with deadly attacks on foreign soil and against a Russian airliner in Paris, Beirut, and on the Sinai peninsula.

Francois Hollande now seeks to build an international military coalition against ISIS with the Russians, following the November 13 bombings in Paris.

This is the same Hollande who was ready to sell NATO down the river with his insistence on the sale of two Mistral-class warships to Russia even after Russian “annexation” of the Crimea and in the face of its ongoing invasion of the eastern Ukraine.

It is the same Francois Hollande who with Angela Merkel negotiated a deal with Putin in October, in the so-called “Normandy format”, which removed the December 31, 2015 deadline for the withdrawal of all foreign fighters from the eastern Ukraine which had been established under the terms of the Minsk II Agreement of February 12, 2015.

There is of course already a coalition against ISIS, but one which Barack Obama has not led effectively in carrying out urgent military actions.

Hollande, at least, is trying to lead a coalition of states willing to take forceful military action. The extent to which he is playing the Russian game and/or is a dupe of Putin must be carefully and constantly analyzed, however, given his obvious interest in the lifting of EU sanctions against Russia.  In any event, Hollande will have to coordinate with the Americans.

Washington and NATO, for their part, should be extremely wary of any close cooperation with the Russians. Putin’s goal is to maintain Bashar al-Assad in power and to block any military actions against his regime by holding out illusions of “a political solution”.  At the same time, he seeks to undermine Western solidarity for upholding the economic sanctions imposed against Russia in response to its seizure of the Crimea and its ongoing invasion of the eastern Ukraine.

The West does not need Russia to take down ISIS. They don’t need Russia to secure “a political solution” in Syria, because such a solution is a pure illusion, and will remain one until facts on the ground have changed, including an end to Russia’s support of al-Assad and its attacks on non-ISIS insurgents seeking to overthrow him.

Above all, the West must resolutely resist any temptation to enter into an agreement with Putin that would lead toward a lifting of sanctions against Russia in exchange for Russian “cooperation” in resolving the Syrian conflict.

The Trenchant Observer

REPRISE: Veterans’ Day, 2011: “Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?”

Wednesday, November 11th, 2015

First published, November 11, 2011

My uncle died in a field in northern France with a German bullet in his head. To him, and all the other veterans of America’s wars, I am immensely grateful for his, and their, sacrifice.

The Vision of Peace After World War II

At the end of World War II, the leaders of the world had a clear vision of the horrors of war, and acted with resolution to bring wars to a halt through the creation of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945, and by codifying the international law governing the use of force in Article 2 paragraph 4 and Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. Article 2 paragraph 4 prohibited the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of members of the organization, a prohibition later extended to include all states. Article 51 provided for an exception in the case of an “armed attack”. These provisions have become customary international law and, importantly, also aquired the status of jus cogens or peremptory law from which there can be no exception or derogation by agreement.

A Vision of Perpetual War

Unfortunately, President Barack Obama and the United States are currently embarked on a policy based on the assumption of perpetual war. The implementation of this policy includes targeted assassinations through drone strikes and other means, the establishment of new drone bases throughout the northern part of Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, and the development of new generations of drones some of which are as small as insects.

This policy has been implemented with little regard for the international law governing the use of force, and even less regard for the duty of the United States to contribute to the development of international law and institutions that can help ensure the security of the United States and other countries in the future.

These actions indicate that the United States has no current vision of peace as an overriding goal to be achieved, and no coherent strategy for actually achieving this objective.

Without the goal of peace, we are not likely to take the actions necessary to achieve peace, or to give those actions the urgent priority they should receive.

Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing?

In these circumstances, one is reminded of Pete Seeger’s famous song entitled “Where have all the flowers gone?” For the lyrics, click here.

Pete Seeger’s performance of this song is available on YouTube here.

See also,, “Grandpa’s War – A Veteran’s Day Post,” November 11, 2011, which contains recollections of America’s recent wars, and a link to a clip of Pete Seeger singing ” Where have all the flowers gone” with a moving montage of photographs evoking American experiences of war, created by the TheSpadecaller in 2008.

Joan Baez, in a more recent performance of the song, can be found on YouTube here.

Marlene Dietrich’s recording of this song in English is also found on YouTube here.

For Dietrich’s performance of the song in French, see “Qui peut dire ou vont les fleurs?” here.

For her performance of the German version of this song, see “Sag mir wo die Blumen sind”, here.

Marlene Dietrich, in a version of perhaps her most famous song, “Lili Marleen”, written in 1915 and later a hit among troops on both sides during World War II, takes us back to November 11, 1918 and the terrible war that preceded the armistice on that day. Her recording of the song, in English, is found on YouTube here. The original German version of the song is found here.

Obama’s Vision of Perpetual War and International Law

In his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech in Oslo, on December 10, 2009, President Obama said:

In the wake of such destruction (World War II), and with the advent of the nuclear age, it became clear to victor and vanquished alike that the world needed institutions to prevent another world war. And so, a quarter century after the United States Senate rejected the League of Nations – an idea for which Woodrow Wilson received this prize – America led the world in constructing an architecture to keep the peace: a Marshall Plan and a United Nations, mechanisms to govern the waging of war, treaties to protect human rights, prevent genocide, restrict the most dangerous weapons.

I do not bring with me today a definitive solution to the problems of war. What I do know is that meeting these challenges will require the same vision, hard work, and persistence of those men and women who acted so boldly decades ago. And it will require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace.

We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth: We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.

To begin with, I believe that all nations – strong and weak alike – must adhere to standards that govern the use of force. I – like any head of state – reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation. Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don’t.

Closely parsed, these statements are full of contradictions, as when President Obama affirms:

(1) “We will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations – acting individually or in concert – will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”
(2) “To begin with, I believe that all nations – strong and weak alike – must adhere to standards that govern the use of force.”
(3) “I – like any head of state – reserve the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend my nation”; and
(4) “Nevertheless, I am convinced that adhering to standards, international standards, strengthens those who do, and isolates and weakens those who don’t.”

Affirmation (1) accepts violent conflict as inevitable. (2) states that all nations must adhere to the norms that govern the use of force. (3) states that he, the president, “like any head of state”, reserves the right to act unilaterally if necessary to defend his nation. And (4) states he is convinced adhering to “international standards” strengthens those who do.

These contradictions in Obama’s thinking, it is submitted, have contributed to the incoherence of U.S. foreign policy, particularly when measured against the requirements of international law, and the historical burden of strengthening international law and building better international institutions, which is no less important today than it was in 1945.

Reading these excerpts and the whole speech reveals that the president does not have a clear vision of peace as the goal, or a strategy on how to achieve that goal. While he pays lip service to observing international law, he insists that he has the paradoxical right–“like any head of state”–to violate it if necessary, in his view. So much for the concept of international law governing the use of force.

Without the clear and overriding goal of peace or a strategy for achieving peace, it is hard to see how we and other nations can view as the highest priority taking the steps necessary to achieve peace.

President Obama and the United States currently seem to have no overarching vision of peace, or strategy for achieving peace. As a result, their policies and actions are not guided by the pursuance of this goal in a strategic sense, but rather only by the demands of meeting with expediency the challenges of the moment.

By way of contrast, consider, if you will, the vision of the founders of the United Nations in 1945, particularly as set forth in the Preamble and Articles 1, 2, and 51 of the Charter.

We in the United States, like citizens in other countries, need a strong vision of peace and a coherent strategy for achieving it. Consequently, we need a president who has such a vision, and is guided by it.

The Trenchant Observer

Putin’s playing “chicken” in Syria and the risk of escalation to nuclear war

Thursday, October 8th, 2015


With reports of Russian aircraft having forced American planes to change course in order to avoid a collision, the risks of escalation in Syria to nuclear war have suddenly become quite palpable.


Bürgerkrieg in Syrien Syrien: US-Jet muss ausweichen; Über Syrien sind sich Kampfflugzeuge aus Russland und Amerika so nah gekommen, dass die US-Maschine ausweichen musste. Offiziell ist von “mindestens einem Zwischenfall” die Rede,” Der Spiegel, 8. Oktober 2015 (10:14 Uhr).

There is nothing more dangerous than the leader of a nuclear power like Russia, Vladimir Putin, having determined that his adversary, Barack Obama, is a wimp. But unfortunately, this seems to have occurred. Moreover, the perception is not limited to Putin or Russia.

Russian warplanes have also recently entered Turkish airspace, from which they were escorted by Turkish planes. Turkey is a member of NATO, and an armed attack on Turkey under Article 5 of the NATO Treaty is to be treated as an armed attack on all members, requiring military actions in collective self-defense.

Could Russia with its incursion into Turkish airspace have been testing NATO’s readiness to apply Article 5? The answer to this question has obvious implications for the security of the Baltic members of NATO, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, all former territories of the Soviet Union.


“Putin’s power in the Kremlin and his dangerous nuclear and other threats,” The Trenchant Observer, March 26, 2015, reproduced below.

“Russia was prepared for nuclear showdown with West during Crimea takeover, Putin asserts in film,” The Trenchant Observer, March 15, 2015.

“Strategy beyond the Ukraine: It’s time to start thinking about the risks of nuclear war with Russia, and of appeasement,” The Trenchant Observer, February 8, 2015.

“The Elephant in the Room: Reflections on the nuclear deterrent and the Ukraine,” The Trenchant Observer, December 1, 2014.


“REPRISE: Putin’s power in the Kremlin and his dangerous nuclear and other threats,” The Trenchant Observer, March 26, 2015, reproduced below.

For a particularly incisive analysis of Vladimir Putin and the threat he represents, see

Eric Morse, “The deadly chaos behind Putyin’s mysterious acts,” The Globe and Mail, March 24 2015 (2:02 PM EDT).

Eric Morse is co-chair of security studies at the Royal Canadian Military Institute in Toronto.

Vladimir Putin has become the most dangerous man in the world.

With direct control over Russia’s nuclear weapons, unchecked by the collective leadership represented by the Politburo in Soviet times, engaged in dismantling the arms control security architecture built up since the Cuban Mssile Crisis in October, 1962, brandishing nuclear threats in an increasingly open manner, Vladimir Putin appears to be subject to no internal controls within Russia.

Engaging in highly provocative military probes of NATO airspace, conducting large-scale military maneuvers on an almost continuing basis, and articulating a vision of military conquest and annexation with increasing boldness, Putin is acting in dangerous ways which could result in a incident leading to an escalating military conflict with NATO countries.

Especially significant has been his endorsement, little commented on in the Western media, of the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.  That agreement, concluded on August 23, 1939, included not only a non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin, but also the division andoccupation of Poland by the two countries and the takeover by the Soviet Union of the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, as well as parts of Finland and Romania.  A week later, on August 23, 1939, World War II began with the German inasion of Poland.

At the same time, the Boris Nemtsov assassination on February 27, 2015 has highlighted the ties between Vladimir Putin and the Chechen leader, Ramsan Kadyrov, who has at his command some 15,000-20,000 Chechen fighters, who constitute  a kind of personal militia operating outside of the regular security structures within Russia. Among the “volunteers” and regular forces which entered the eastern Ukraine from Russia were many such Chechen fighters.

The West is left with the urgent challenge of figuring out how to deal effectively with the most dangerous man on the planet, and then resolutely implementing the actions that are required.

In the Ukraine, appeasement has not worked.

Even the adoption in September of  tough economic sanctions did not stop Putin and his puppets from conquering more territory in the Donbas and threatening to take Mariupol in violation of the Minsk Protocol and ceasefire agreed on September 5. Now, following the recognition of those gains and the weakening of other provisions in the original Minsk Protocol in the Minsk II agreement signed on February 12, the credible threat of sending “lethal” arms to the Ukraine, and of further sanctions including exclusion from the SWIFT international payments system, may be helping to restrain Putin from moving at this time on Mariupol. That port city would give separatist-controlled territories in the Donbas an outlet to the sea, and its conquest would constitute an important advance toward establishing a land bridge to the Crimea.

But Putin can bide his time, waiting for disunity within the EU, NATO, or Europe and the U.S., before making his next strategic move.

Putin manifestly has been and will continue to be engaged in an all-out campaign to challenge and weaken NATO and the EU, executed relentlessly, 24/7, on many different fronts.

What seems clear is that he is steering Russia on a path that could lead to a nuclear confrontation with the West. Were that to occur, without any internal checks on Putin’s behavior, and in the absence of the confidence-building measures and arms control restraints which have existed until the very recent past, the situation could become even more dangerous than that which existed during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

NATO and the West can no longer ignore the Russian threat to their security, responding lethargically while seeking refuge in illusions that with Putin anything resembling a return to “business as usual” is possible.

Rather, a long-term strategy of containment of Russia must be adopted, and quickly implemented. Only then (whether before or after Putin has passed from the scene) might there be any chance of Russia returning to the international community of civilized nations which seek to guarantee their security within the framework of the Unied Nations Charter and respect for international law.

That strategy of containment should eschew further appeasement but include renewed efforts to shore up the arms control measures achieved in the past, and joint efforts with Russia to secure new agreements that might reduce the risk of nuclear war, whether accidental or resulting from deliberate actions.


See also the following article quoting a Canadian minister, Chris Alexander, who in addition to accurately pointing out that Putin is behaving like a terrorist, also alludes to the origins of the Ukraine crisis as lying in the responses of the U.S. and other countries to events in Syria. This is a key point, as readers who have followed Russian actions in Syria and reactions from the West are probably already aware.

David Pugliese (Postmedia News), “Putin is behaving like a terrorist’: Cabinet minister’s speech on Ukraine sparks social media battle with Russia,” National Post, March 25, 2015 (Updated 3:50 PM ET)

The Trenchant Observer

Ukraine summit on October 2 with Putin in Paris: Remember who you are talking to

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

See Benoît Vitkine, “Un sommet sur l’Ukraine à Paris dans l’ombre de la Syrie, Le Monde, le 1 Octobre 2015 (à 10h53 – Mis à jour le 01.10.2015 à 16h16).

On Friday, October 2, Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel and Petro Poroshenko will meet with Vladimir Putin in Paris in what has come to be known as the “Normandy format” (France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia). Somehow, without supervision or formal coordination, Hollande and Merkel have come to speak for all of Europe and NATO in seeking to secure implementation of the Minsk I and Minsk II protocols, signed on September 5, 1914 and February 12, 2015, respectively.

The Minsk Protocol was originally entered into on September 5, 2014 in an obvious attempt by Putin to avoid the imposition of third-stage or sectoral sanctions by the EU. His effort failed in terms of achieving that immediate objective, but has succeeded in deterring EU members from adopting even further sanctions against Russia in response to its ongoing violations of the ceasefire and other provisions of the Minsk II agreement.

On the ground, Russia has continued its military invasion of the eastern Ukraine which is now ruled by Putin’s puppets, who are entirely dependent on Russian financial, military and other support.

Over 8,000 people have been killed since Russia began its invasion of the Donbas in April, 2014.

Putin has now ordered his puppets in Donetsk and Luhansk to observe a truce agreed upon on September 1, 2015. For the first time since the original Minsk Protocol a year ago, the truce has generally held.

Building on this “success”, France and Germany, in particular, seek in Paris to make further progress in implementing the other provisions of Minsk II. French President François Hollande has now called for a lifting of the EU sanctions against Russia, while CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partner, the SPD, has through its leader in the Bundestag, Sigmar Gabriel, made an outspoken appeal for such action.

Putin’s goal is clearly to achieve a lifting of the EU sanctions when they come up for renewal in January, 2016. Merkel, for her part, is under pressure from the SPD to lift the sanctions, while at the same time she is under strong pressure from the leader of her CSU partner, CSU Chairman and Bavarian Minister-President Horst Seehofer, who has sharply criticized her policy on refugees and other migrants.

Notably, she had strong praise for Gerhard Schroeder at a recent ceremony launching a new biography of the former SPD Chancellor, who happens to be Putin’s business partner, friend, and chief apologist in Germany.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, for his part, is seeking to maintain strong EU financial and political support for the Ukraine, while opposing any easing of the sanctions. His ultimate goal is EU membership for his country. Concessions to the “separatists” evoke strong opposition at home.

The summit therefore includes two parties, Russia and France, who are openly calling for a lifting of the sanctions against Russia, and a third led by Angela Merkel whose political future may hang in the balance. Seehofer could oppose her in the selection process for the candidate of the CDU/CSU alliance in the next elections, whereas if she lost CSU support in congress she might need to rely on the SPD to remain in office.

Into this mix the perfidious Mr. Putin will enter with the goal of allowing just enough Minsk II progress to give those in the EU who favor a lifting of sanctions sufficient ammunition to achieve their goal.

He can make some “concessions” to implementing the other provisions of Minsk II, while ensuring that the provisions that call for a withdrawal of all foreign forces and restoration of control of the border to the Ukraine by December 31, 2015, are subjected to new conditions whose fulfillment he controls.

Paris and Berlin may have already paved the way for such concessions. Vitkine reports,

La solution de compromis élaborée par Paris et Berlin prévoit que le scrutin pourra se tenir dans les territoires séparatistes à une date différente du reste de l’Ukraine, mais bien en conformité avec le droit ukrainien, et sous la supervision de l’Organisation pour la sécurité et la coopération en Europe (OSCE). Pour convaincre les séparatistes d’accepter ce compromis, Paris et Berlin ont obtenu une concession de Kiev : que deux autres points très sensibles de cette feuille de route de Minsk – le retour du contrôle ukrainien sur la frontière russo-ukrainienne et le retrait des groupes armés de la région – n’interviennent qu’en toute fin de processus.

In the end, Putin will be negotiating for a Minsk III agreement which changes the terms of Minsk II (as Minsk II changed the terms of Minsk I), so that he will remain in control of the eastern Ukraine, with his soldiers and other forces staying in place in the Donbas while the border with Russia remains open.

We should keep a very watchful eye on what is being negotiated in Paris. Putin, if successful, will have solidified the “frozen conflict” in the Ukraine, retaining the levers of control, while the EU sanctions are lifted (with a parallel lifting of sanctions by the U.S. likely to follow).

Putin is a master chess player. While all attention is now on the Russian military intervention in Syria, the biggest game–which involves upholding international law and the U.N. Charter, and the freedom of the Ukraine to eventually join the European Union–will be playing out in Paris on Friday, and in the corridors of power in Europe where pacifism and appeasement toward Putin and Russia appear to be ascendant once again.

Europeans and Americans, and particularly the French and Germans, need to bear in mind who Putin is, what Russia’s policies of unbridled nationalism and military aggression have wrought and portend, and the fundamental threat that Putin and Russia pose to the existing international political and legal order, not only in Europe but throughout the world.

The Trenchant Observer

Afghanistan as the U.S. withdraws: Kunduz in the North falls to the Taliban

Tuesday, September 29th, 2015


In a very serious blow to Afghan security forces, the Taliban succeeded in the last two days in taking the major northern city of Kunduz, which sits at the crossroads of access to other cities and provinces in the North.

The fall of Konduz is emblematic of the situation in many parts of the country, where the Taliban continue to expand their control of the countryside.


Joseph Goldstein and Mijib Mashalsept, “Afghan Crisis Grows as Push to Retake Kunduz from Taliban Fails,” New York Times, September 29, 2015.

Gordon Lubold, Margherita Stancati, and Habib Khan Totakhil, “Taliban Offensive in Afghanistan Tests U.S.; Surge by militants adds fuel to arguments that Obama administration should rethink troop withdrawal,” Wall Street Journal, Updated September 29, 2015 (9:34 p.m. ET).

For earlier incidents and the questions they raised, see

“Afghanistan: Suicide Attack on Contractor DAI Compound in Kunduz / Selbstmord Anschlag auf US-Hilfsorganisation DAI,” The Trenchant Observer, July 3, 2010.

“Afghanistan–A Hint of Future Collapse? Hand-off to Afghan Forces, as Taliban Seize Control around Mazar-e-Sharif,” The Trenchant Observer, August 5, 2011.

The Trenchant Observer

The last international lawyer, or so it seemed

Sunday, September 27th, 2015

It was a curious time, when the world fell apart and no one noticed.

Ideas and institutions that men had died to defend no longer seemed important.

The experience of two world wars in the 20th century had left their lessons burned indelibly into the hearts and minds of those who had fought and lived through them, but now they were forgotten.

Or if not forgotten, they were at least drained of their urgent content, reduced to mere intellectual incantations, rote formulations which no longer engaged the heart or the will to take individual and collective action in their defense.

The growth in the 20th century of international law, whose most basic principles were enshrined in the United Nations Charter in 1945, had lost momentum in the world of actions. Left behind was a hollowed-out edifice of principles which all major nations had once subscribed to, and still accepted verbally perhaps, but no longer felt obliged to defend through actions and not just words.

The cornerstone of the U.N. Charter, contained in Article 2 paragraph 4, was the prohibition of the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.

There were other principles of international law of fundamental importance. One was pacta sunt servanda (“treaties are to be observed”).

Another, even more fundamental principle in international law, without which international law could not operate in the real world, was the principle that states (countries) must acknowledge actions of which they are the author. This principle is in fact implicit in the existence and operation of any legal system, whether international or domestic.

A further obligation under international law was that states must offer public legal justifications for their actions. In questions involving the use of force, such justifications were explicitly required by Article 51 of the U.N. Charter.

Other international legal principles protecting human rights had been contained in multilateral treaties and customary international law, as well as the U.N. Charter.

However, as the whole system of international law governing fundamental aspects of relations among states had weakened, so too had the legal bulwarks supporting international human rights obligations.

This had led to a world in which leaders seemed unaware of, or oblivious to, any need to uphold fundamental norms of international law and the U.N. Charter.

At the United Nations General Assembly annual meeting in New York in September, 2015, the world’s attention was drawn not to a General Assembly resolution condemning Russian military conquest and “annexation” of the Crimea in 2014, or the ongoing Russian invasion of the eastern region of the Ukraine, but on what Vladimir Putin, the invading conqueror, might say in his address to the General Assembly.

Nor was the world’s attention drawn to the massive war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against the Syrian people by Bashar al-Assad, with the legal and moral complicity of Russia and Iran which backed him to the hilt with money, weapons, advisers and even combat personnel, or to Putin’s current military intervention in Syria enabling al-Assad to continue the commission of these crimes.

Rather, world attention focused on the meeting between Barack Obama and Putin and speculation on the kind of “deal” the West might strike with Putin to cover over the fiasco of their defeat in Syria and Iraq.

The Nuremberg Principles seemed to have been forgotten.

International law itself seemed to have given way to a new system of “might makes right”, the kind of system that had led to two world wars in the 20th century.

Everywhere international law, particularly the international law governing the use of force and that guaranteeing fundamental human rights, had been forgotten.

While President Obama in his General Assembly speech on September 28 did use the words “international law”–a rare occasion during his presidency, he did so with an awkwardness and also other words that revealed his discomfort with the term.

Moreover, harking back to his Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech in 2009, he also declared,

I lead the strongest military that the world has ever known, and I will never hesitate to protect my country or our allies, unilaterally and by force where necessary.

–Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Obama to the United Nations,” September 28, 2015.

Indeed, the Trenchant Observer, an international lawyer who had followed these events and knew about 20th century European history, often felt alone.

While he knew there were others who shared his views, their voices were no longer heard outside specialists’ circles. They were no longer heard in the public arena where amid the tumult and shouting public opinion is formed.

Nor did they seem to be heard in the councils of government when decisions to take actions were being made.

Even the current American president rarely mentioned international law and, judging by his actions and not merely his words, held international law–particularly its binding nature which could constrain his freedom of action–in low regard.

Obama’s muddled references to international law in his U.N. Address were a welcome improvement but in the end were only words in a speech, when it is actions that count.

The action heard much more clearly than the words in his speech was that he met with Vladimir Putin, the presumptive war criminal who had invaded the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine, and who was now taking vigorous military action that would enable Bashar al-Assad to continue the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria.

The Observer couldn’t avoid the feeling at times that he was alone in his belief in the critical importance of international law and how ignoring it had much to do with all of the chaos he saw unfolding in the world.

He had become “the last international lawyer”, or so it seemed.

The Trenchant Observer

Obama-Putin meeting at UN: The resurgence of pacifism and appeasement toward Putin and Russia in Europe and the U.S.

Thursday, September 24th, 2015


Julia Smirnova, “Die wundersame Rückkehr des Wladimir Putin In der New Yorker UN-Woche drängt Putin ins Zentrum der Weltbühne. Durch die aktive Rolle im Syrienkonflikt hofft der Kreml-Chef auf seine Rehabilitierung. Warum er auf einmal wieder salonfähig ist,” Die Welt, 25. September 2015 (15:54 Uhr).

Peter Baker and Michael R. Gordon, “White House Says President Obama and Vladimir Putin Will Meet Next Week,” New York Times, September 24, 2015.


Vladimir Putin and Russia are driving events and decisions in the Middle East and the Ukraine far faster than the U.S., NATO and Europe can devise coherent policies and strategies to counter them.

One has the impression that Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have a broad strategy which they are implementing with vigor, taking full advantage of the policy disarray they see on the part of the West, which in fact no one is leading.

It is like they see the whole chessboard, nimbly moving their pieces around at will, constantly keeping their opponents off balance, while the U.S., NATO and Europe can only focus on one move at a time.

In two weeks the U.S. has moved from trying to block military shipments to new Russian air bases in Syria, to accepting these Russian strategic and military moves with passivity while “thinking about” whether U.S. interests and Russia’s overlap in Syria.

In the same time period they have moved from a policy of demanding Bashar al-Assad leave office as a condition for any political settlement in Syria, to openly accepting that he will not have to leave “on the first day or in the first month”.

In a word, they have caved in to the Russian position, not having anticipated Russia’s major military move into the country, in coordination with Iran.

At the same time, France has agreed to sell to Egypt the two Mistral-class warships originally sold to Russia, whose delivery was blocked following the Russian invasions of the Crimea and the Donbas region in the eastern Ukraine. It would be interesting to see Russia’s role in the deal, which includes the prospect of selling Russian helicopters for the two Midstral-class warships to Egypt. One has to ask, moreover, where the money for the warships is coming from, Moscow or the Gulf States?

France and Russia have settled the financial details in the dispute over non-delivery of the Mistrals, without France having to pay any penalties. An appreciative Francois Hollande has started calling for a lifting of the EU sanctions imposed on Russia because of its aggression against the Ukraine.

This week Angela Merkel appeared together with former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Putin’s leading and most shameless apologist in Germany, on the occasion of the presentation of a biography of Schroeder. Merkel was full of praise for Schroeder, downplaying their differences in foreign policy.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the leader of the SPD, Sigmar Gabriel, has just come out with a full-throated appeal for an end of EU sanctions against Russia.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama now appear willing to negotiate with al-Assad over the future of Syria, as Russian military forces move into the country to militarily ensure his survival.

Suddenly Barack Obama has plans to meet with Putin on the sidelines during the upcoming session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, in a visit that shows all the signs of being thoroughly unprepared. It was first announced in Moscow, and appears to have been requested by Putin. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, is quoted as saying that the two presidents will talk about the Ukraine “if there is time”.

Given the antipathy between the two men, one would have thought that Obama’s advisers would have done their utmost to avoid a meeting between them, particularly one without the usual policy planning and broad government preparations for a summit.

In the meantime, Putin has directed his puppets in the eastern Ukraine to observe the Minsk II ceasefire, which has been holding for several weeks now.

The outlines of the Western appeasement of Putin are starting to emerge.

In exchange for Putin’s bringing al-Assad to the negotiating table and working toward a political settlement in Syria, provided the cease-fire continues to hold in the eastern Ukraine, EU sanctions against Russia will be greatly eased, with the Americans acting in parallel.

The West will in effect accept and tacitly acknowledge the Russian conquest of the Crimea, and will accept the “frozen conflict” in the eastern Ukraine, with the Russians keeping troops and irregular forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, while continuing to control the open border between the eastern Ukraine and Russia.

Putin wins, in Syria and in the Ukraine, while the harshest sanctions are lifted in response to the ceasefire holding, without full implementation of the Minsk II agreement’s provisions.

The impact on the U.N. Charter prohibition of the use of force is likely to be great.

Whether this acceptance of military aggression by Russia in the Ukraine and its fruits will have any impact on China in the East and South China Seas appears to be a question that has not been seriously considered by Obama or the other appeasers of Putin in Europe.

The U.N. Charter’s prohibition of the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state (Article 2 paragraph 4) will have lost much of its deterrent force, with Russia having annexed the Crimea, frozen the conflict in the eastern Ukraine through ongoing military invasion, and through military intervention having ensured the hold on power of Bashar al-Assad, a leader who has committed some of the greatest war crimes and crimes against humanity since World War II.

In Syria, Putin is building Russian military bases and introducing combat aircraft and other combat forces, shifting the military balance of power in the region. All of this Russia is doing before a supine and leaderless West.

This is the deal with Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad that Barack Obama, François Hollande, and Angela Merkel are cooking up.

Only if those with a memory of the last four years in Syria, the last two years in the Ukraine, and the most basic norms of the United Nations Charter and international law speak up, and mobilize, will this disaster be avoided.

The Trenchant Observer

David Petraeus offers clear policy suggestions on Syria and Iraq in testimony before Senate Armed Services Committee (video and transcript)

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

“U.S. Policy in the Middle East, C-Span, September 22, 2015.

Former CIA Director and General David Petraeus (Ret.) testified at a hearing on U.S. policy toward the Middle East and combating ISIS* in the region. He talked about his support for military enclaves in Syria and for greater military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS. He also gave his assessment of the Russian military build-up in Syria and of the Iran nuclear agreement. 

At the beginning of his testimony, General Petraeus apologized for what what he called his “serious mistake” of sharing classified information with his biographer, with whom he also had an extramarital affair.

* The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAISH/DAESH in Arabic is a militant group that has called itself the Islamic State.

the transcript of Petraeus’ testimony, and the C-Span video, are found here.

the Trenchant Observer

Who is Putin? Proof of Russian military aggression in the Ukraine

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2015

A stellar team from a leading German newspaper, Die Welt, have now assembled a powerful narrative of Russian aggression in the eastern Ukraine or Donbas region including the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.

While other newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal hide behind “he said, she said” formulas, always noting that Russia denies allegations by NATO and the West of military intervention in the Donbas, Die Zeit and its reporters have for a long time simply reported the facts.

As Vladimir Putin now makes a bold military and strategic move to establish Russian military bases in Syria while shoring up the Bashar al-Assad regime, it is useful to bear in mind who Putin is and the nature of his challenge to the existing international political and legal order, and balance of military forces.

Putin is an adversary, not a friend or partner, and anyone who imagines they will benefit from collaborating with him—so long as Russia occupies conquered territory in the Crimea and continues its invasion of the eastern Ukraine, will be sorely disappointed. Above all, the West needs to rip its blinders off, and see Putin and Russia for the determined adversaries which they have become.

For the facts regarding the Russian invasions of the Ukraine, see

Jörg Eigendorf und Julia Smirnova, “Die Beweise für Russlands Eingreifen in der Ukraine Satellitenbilder, Fotos und Filme sprechen dafür, dass Russland die Separatisten unterstützt hat. Wir haben die wichtigsten Beweise und Indizien für russisches Eingreifen zusammengestellt und geprüft, Die Welt, 15.September, 2015.

We should have no illusions about who Putin is or what his and Russia’s intentions are.

He is not our friend and not a trustworthy partner. Nor will he ever be.

The above account of the Russian invasion of the Donbas, revealing unbridled Russian nationalism and policies of military aggression, drives this point home.

We need to wake up.

As Lech Walensa put it, “How can we win, when (Putin) is boxing and we are playing chess?”

The Trenchant Observer