Playing Chess with Russia and Iran

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The WSJ reports that the US just doesn’t get Vladimir Putin (even while explaining that Putin is legitimately miffed that US and its allies conducted regime change after claiming they wouldn’t in Libya).

The tension between the two powers has been aggravated by a series of miscalculations and misunderstandings. U.S. officials acknowledge they have struggled to understand Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent. Russia, for its part, bristles at what it sees as the U.S. tendency to use humanitarian abuses as cover to remove regimes it doesn’t like, such as in Libya.

It then lists all the big toys Putin’s got in the Mediterranean.

Mr. Assad’s arsenal of advanced Russian-made weapons systems, including a recent shipment of upgraded Yakhont antiship missiles, has made Pentagon planning for the strikes more difficult, U.S. officials say. As a precaution, the U.S. Navy is keeping its destroyers far from the Syrian and Lebanese coast lines and out of range, the officials say. Lebanon is home to Syria’s close ally, Hezbollah, which also has sophisticated antiship rockets.

As of Thursday, Russia had two warships, two support vessels and three amphibious troop and equipment movers off the Syrian coast, which U.S. officials say they believe are tracking American military movements in the area to share with the Syrian regime. U.S. officials say they believe Russian satellites and radar sites are also feeding information to the Syrian regime.

Given their professed inability to understand Putin, and given the extent of the military show of force he’s making, then why the hell are they so sure this won’t spin out of control?

Here’s one potential worst case scenario.

If the Obama administration takes authorization from Congress and moves directly towards military action against Syria, the lack of a coalition is a significant condition that increases the strategic risk to the United States. Iran and Syria will recognize that this may be the only opportunity they will ever have to take on the United States without a broader coalition of support, and as such see this as their best opportunity to strike. In stepping through Red Team’s calculations, consider how exposed the US truly is.

1) The United States has no coalition, so a targeted, direct strike against the United States in “self defense” significantly limits the degree to which the international community will respond in support of the US. The UK vote highlights that politically, the rest of the world does not stand with a belligerent United States in a unilateral military action.
2) The United States is strategically and politically exposed and military forces throughout the region are spread thin. There are no troops in Iraq. Sequestration has significantly degraded the capacity of the US military across the entire Department of Defense towards fielding an effective reserve. Political cover by Russia and China will be available to Syria after the the US attacks.
3) Military objectives by Blue Team are not well defined, while military objectives by Red Team are well defined. All evidence suggests the leadership of the United States does not take seriously the threat of counterstrike. Russia has openly stated they will provide intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance to help Syria, and that presumably would also be for support of military action in counterstrike.
4) Successful counterstrike against the United States will be celebrated regionally, resulting in significant restrictions of movement within the region by US military forces and a collapse of US political credibility broadly. Local pressure can be exploited by red team on regional military installations to restrict movement of US assets in the region.

When I take the red team perspective of action unfolding in the Middle East, if I am Iran and Syria supported by Russia, my calculation is that I may never have a better opportunity to change the regional security conditions and balance of power in the Middle East than the opportunity being presented in this situation unfolding. By throwing every military asset possible in attack of the surface action group of 4 destroyers in the Mederterranian Sea, and throwing the entire armed forces of Iran against the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group off the coast of Pakistan, the entire US policy for the Middle East would be dead in the water if Iran and Syrian attacks were to be successful. As red team, I would attack these targets specifically because they are sovereign US targets and don’t inherently escalate tensions by giving any other nation a reason to join in.


Is Europe going to seriously come to the aid of a belligerent US who got smacked for attacking another nation without a coalition, any legitimate alliance, or a UNSC resolution? The NATO alliance clause doesn’t protect the US under the scenario unfolding in Syria. Remember, gas prices across the world will triple – or more, in the first 24 hours on the threat of escalation, so the gravity of the situation will hit the wallet of an happy American population as well.  Where is the support for the US coming from? If you think the US has a reserve force ready to deploy in the US, you don’t understand the impact of sequestration on the US military at all.

I would add two things to this scenario.

First, at a very minor level, I think war on Syria may lead international partners to bag on a number of our sanctions regimes, starting with Iran. Just today OFAC rolled out penalties against some people it says served as front companies for Iran, at the same time insisting it would ensure that Iran doesn’t bypass sanctions.

“Our sanctions on Iran’s oil sales are a critically important component of maintaining pressure on the Iranian Government, and we will not allow Iran to relieve that pressure through evasion and circumvention,” said Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen.  “We will continue to target those individuals and entities that devise schemes to evade our sanctions.”

But going to war in Syria without any sanction from the UN effectively tells the international community to fuck off. And there are a lot of countries — most notably China and India — that would welcome an excuse to start importing a lot more oil from Iran; if oil prices continue to rise, that urge will only become stronger. If the US is busy conducting unilateral action against Syria, what would prevent a bunch of countries from ending their adherence to our sanctions?

That would just serve to totally reverse our efforts to weaken Iran in comparison with the Saudis in the region.

Then there are Russia’s options. Consider: if the government has any reason at all to believe that Russia — either via coercive or consensual means — has obtained what is on Edward Snowden’s computers or in his head, there is a very good chance they know all of Saudi Arabia’s cyber vulnerabilities (to say nothing of our own). That’s because, as part of the Technical Cooperation Agreement signed in January, we’re now partnering with the Kingdom on cybersecurity. And Booz already got a chunk of that business. While Russia might avoid deliberately striking us in a cyberattack, Saudi Arabia might make an easier target (not least because they’re the ones drumming up Assad’s ouster in the first place). And if you can compromise Saudi oil production, it will quickly put the US in a very fragile spot.

We don’t know what Iran and Russia plan to do here. One thing we do know, though: they’re both shrewder than the people who caught themselves in this red line trap. That ought to raise more alarm about going forward.

33 replies
  1. P J Evans says:


    the gravity of the situation will hit the wallet of an happy American population as well

    I would expect that to be unhappy American population.

    We seem to have a worse-than-usual case of ‘our leaders are bigger and stupider warmongers than yours’. It’s not going to be fun while they’re playing four-year-olds-with-nukes.

  2. JohnT says:

    Dunno if they’re still there, but

    Chinese Warships Tour the Mediterranean

    And something to keep in mind

    US Navy, GAO at Odds Over Carrier Issues

    WASHINGTON — Concerns and criticisms about the past, present and future of the US Navy’s new Gerald R. Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers permeate a report released Sept. 5 from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.

  3. JThomason says:

    Given their professed inability to understand Putin, and given the extent of the military show of force he’s making, then why the hell are they so sure this won’t spin out of control?

    Who is on the verge of spinning out of control again?

  4. orionATL says:

    you know i think?

    i think these folks – kerry, powers, obama, hegel –

    simply aren’t sufficiently experienced or knowledgeable to handle our complex international relations.

    i exclude general dempsey because he does have decades of experience together with the typical american military leader’s very caution opinions about using american military force. for every petraeus or macarther in our history, there have been many more shinseki’s and marshall’s.

    but the civilian leadership? i just don’t sense strategic competence at all.

  5. Bay State Librul says:


    You just made a strange case for military leadership in lieu of civilian leadership. We need civilian leadership to balance
    military interests, I thought. Personally, I happened to place more faith in Hegel rather than McNamara or Rumsfeld….

  6. JThomason says:

    It amazes me how easily the Elites in DC have move beyond the institutions and principle which were solidified during the cold war: the Constitutional requirements for warrants to conduct electronic surveillance, the Geneva Convention, the role of the UN in checking military aggression with consensus. And now the Constitutional procedure for going to war is in the breach. It was as if the good will the US had accrued after the fall of the Soviet Union was of no consequence and our principles tactical rather than moral in nature. How quickly the power vacuum was filled with dreams of power and how quickly the legitimacy of that power has evaporated in the heat of aggressive militaristic zeal.

    The squandering of the potential for a Renaissance in Europe really began with Clinton’s heavy-handedness in Kosovo and of course escalated in the absurdity of attacking Iraq in response to 9/11. The US has lost the ability to sell the reasonableness of its intentions to other world actors. The limitations intended in the Constitutional system have been gamed into irrelevance. Russia has been in an oil boom for nearly two decades and its experience in the 20th Century certainly gives a certain general understanding at what is at stake in global politics. The US has not attempted to broach a boundary of such strategic interest as Syria is to Russia in its adventures in the post-Soviet era. The Western gains in Poland, the Ukraine and Belarus should not be taken for granted but these were not had by adventurism. How quickly the natural alliance against Al Queda that Russia shares is overlooked in this cynical party of using these mercenaries for tactical purposes as was done in the 90’s in Southeastern Europe. Its hardens these radicals into effective tactical actors and gives them access to weapons. In the end it is the Emperium that is the enemy of Islam, Islam arouse historically in response to Western adventurism, and that is likely to be undone by aligning in sectarian wars that are the out growth of tribal uncertainty.

    The commercial gains that are available in Russia and the former Soviet states is squandered in this shortsightedness. There obviously is a strategic reality in the notions of balances of power, but supporting Al Queda in Syria when the causus belli in Afghanistan arose of this states fostering forces with a kindred identity creates the kind of hypocrisy that render a civil rational society impossible.

    We may indeed be on the cusp of a cultural sea change. I hope that we can remember to be kind to one another.

  7. scribe says:

    @JThomason: you conclude:

    I hope that we can remember to be kind to one another.

    The clowns running this show have come up their entire lives being told they’re the smartest, wisest, most handsome, most briliant people in the room (or even the world), that their plans always come out well, that if things get fucked up it’s someone else’s fault, and that they cannot fail (and if they do, they still get a social promotion). At the same time, they look to history and see the great achievements of the past occupants of their offices and know, deep down, that there is no way they can match them.

    It’s similar to the sales growth numbers problem. If last year, sales increased from 100 to 200, a 100% gain, then to match that percentage (and people only look at percentages) this year, sales have to be 400. That’s just to match last year and avoid getting fired. All well and good, but there comes a point when you can’t do any better. They cannot match the achievements of the past for two reasons. They aren’t up to the job, and the chalenges of the past were existential. Today’s challenges – not even 9/11 – never were existential. The existential problems – climate change, getting off the oil addiction, productively employing at fair remuneration the generations now suffering from the economic devastation the knucklehead policies of the last 30 years caused, weeding out the economic frauds causing that devastation, and the others we discuss at some length – these knuckleheads nod at, mouth some fine words, and then ignore.

    These knuckleheads think that, because “We’re Americans”, they can do no wrong.

    They’re wrong. And when things go to crap, they’ll take it out on people innocent of anything other than being around. Not themselves – the real guilty actors. It will not have kindness as one of its attributes.

  8. der says:

    As I see it a wise strategy for Putin is to move a couple of regiments into Syria at Assad’s request. Then do nothing. Take the bullets from the guns, missiles off line, play volleyball and drink vodka. On the cyber end send unencrypted, unsecure messages out that he’s expecting that the U.S. would kill Russian advisers just for helping Assad secure rogue chemical weapons because Obama is a war monger.

    But Obama is not a god, he’s following the playbook of all great leaders, because St. Petreaus needs to know who’s fucking with who. That whole Pentagon is cautious meme is crap, generals by nature are looking for the next fight, to test the newest toy, to beat down the KGB girly-men who are hard to understand. You know what I mean boyz, wink, wink.

  9. JThomason says:

    @scribe: The Russians have Stalingrad as a point of reference. We were so quick to judge their atrocities arising out of WWII but had no corollary in experience. I am not sure that the discipline arising out of Stalingrad is widely considered. So not really my conclusion, merely my hope.

    Many Russians outside of Moscow yet hold a fondness for the American people arising out of the WWII alliance. As an additional note in enlarging the significance of this context, I will merely suggest that Gen. Dempsey is the only figure in recent memory on our National stage who expresses any modicum of cognizance of the tragedy of military action. A policy of defensive military deployments is rooted in such a sense. Obviously political ascendancy as you suggest does not necessarily instill this virtue.

  10. orionATL says:


    and what a point of reference stalingrad was and remains for russians when it comes to war.

    patriotism and heroism, to be sure, but everywhere, death.

    just short of 2,000,000 soldiers AND civilians died in those 15 months. general paulus approached stalingrad with an army of about a million soldiers; when he surrendered 15 months later he had only 91,000 soldiers left.

    by not so precise contrast, our most terrible war, our civil war, saw the death of about 1.6 million soldiers in it’s entire 4 years.

  11. emptywheel says:

    @der: Interesting suggestion. Of course Putin claims to know the big attack was caused by the rebels. If he really believes that (no idea if he does or not), then he’d be stupid to send his own men in.

  12. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    EW, your comments about Snowden got me thinking.

    I wonder what the trigger was for his going when he did? I mean, there he is, in a position where he has access to the crown jewels of information, apparently undetected, and able to access each day’s new jewel at will. So why go when he did?

    Did he become aware of plans for war that were imminent and this discovery pushed him to move?

    Pure speculation on my part, but has anyone heard him describe what was the final trigger event that caused him to move on the day he did rather than wait just a few more days, weeks, months?

    And to speculate further, if the discovery of plans for imminent war were the trigger, is it not likely that we will only find out after the war has commenced. To reveal this information beforehand would unquestionably move him from the position of whistleblower to traitor, would it not?

    I wonder what is being held back as too sensitive to reveal now that may come out once the deed is done and the sensitivity diminished?

  13. orionATL says:


    the 1.6 million figure is stuck in my head. but i cannot find what attaches ot it.

    apparently the number of soldiers killed from both sides (battlefield+other) ranges from about 620k to as much as 850k.

    finding numbers for civilian deaths is proving harder. maybe there’s a lesson there, too.

  14. Snoopdido says:

    I cannot vouch for the credibility of their information nor their sources, but Pat Lang of the Sic Semper Tyrannis blog is one of the signatories of this “VIPS Warning to POTUS on Syria intelligence” – Obama Warned on Syrian Intel –

    Worth a read.

    The signatories:

    For the Steering Group, Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity

    Thomas Drake, Senior Executive, NSA (former)

    Philip Giraldi, CIA, Operations Officer (ret.)

    Matthew Hoh, former Capt., USMC, Iraq & Foreign Service Officer, Afghanistan

    Larry Johnson, CIA & State Department (ret.)

    W. Patrick Lang, Senior Executive and Defense Intelligence Officer, DIA (ret.)

    David MacMichael, National Intelligence Council (ret.)

    Ray McGovern, former US Army infantry/intelligence officer & CIA analyst (ret.)

    Elizabeth Murray, Deputy National Intelligence Officer for Middle East (ret.)

    Todd Pierce, US Army Judge Advocate General (ret.)

    Sam Provance, former Sgt., US Army, Iraq

    Coleen Rowley, Division Council & Special Agent, FBI (ret.)

    Ann Wright, Col., US Army (ret); Foreign Service Officer (ret.)

  15. Greg Bean (@GregLBean) says:

    And a further thought, while I’m talking out of my ass, I wonder why Snowden used the example that he could read President Obama’s emails.

    That would just be coincidence, right? I mean, he wouldn’t do that, would he? And what he learned by not doing that wouldn’t have been so unsettling as to result in a trigger causing him to move when he did, would it? Surely not.

  16. readerOfTeaLeaves says:

    @scribe: Beautifully put, scribe.

    I think most eWheelies would be interested in Col. Pat Lang’s new post, about the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) attempting to warn Obama (and Congress) that their intel professionals may be giving them terrible advice, which Snoopdodo links to in a comment above.

    Their full statement is a doozy, at Consortiumnews.

    But I agree with scribe’s analysis: this mess is being pushed by people who don’t believe they can fuck up. And when they do, they’ll be the last to take any responsibility.

  17. George Capehart says:

    @JThomason: “As an additional note in enlarging the significance of this context, I will merely suggest that Gen. Dempsey is the only figure in recent memory on our National stage who expresses any modicum of cognizance of the tragedy of military action.” I would like to add Colin Powell to that list. Here is an analysis of the Powell Doctrine applied to Syria . . .

  18. John Casper says:

    W/R/T Yakhont SS-N-26 ship-killers, depending on the trajectory, they claim a top speed of 2.6 mach and a top range of 300km. That’s almost a kilometer/sec.

    U.S. ships will have precious little time to react. I expect Russia/Syria to sprinkle dummy rockets in liberally with a passel of SS-N-26’s.

    “US officials confirm Israeli strike on Yakhont missiles in Syria”

    Maybe Obama figures the only way to get the GOP to raise the debt ceiling is to get in a war with Syria.

  19. Lavocat says:

    I think anyone who has read “The Guns Of August” should be a frightened insomniac by now. Lots of adverse military assets in a small area of the eastern Med with lots of weirdness going on. Not good. Not good at all.

    And this post does not even consider the military assets of Hezbollah and Israel, when push comes to shove. On that note, one wonders where Israel’s one nuclear submarine is currently patrolling. Any guesses?

    Add miscalculations, brinkmanship, and the fog of war and you’ve got a whole lotta pain potentially headed our way.

    We’ve got too many civilians with Dungeons and Dragons experience and not enough military experience. This should be fun (not!).

  20. P J Evans says:

    @John Casper:
    Maybe Obama figures the only way to get the GOP to raise the debt ceiling is to get in a war with Syria

    Great. We have a president who’s playing chicken with Congress, and using everyone else as the potential victim. Can someone explain to him that that’s a sucker’s game?

  21. orionATL says:


    “…. That whole Pentagon is cautious meme is crap, generals by nature are looking for the next fight, to test the newest toy, to beat down the KGB girly-men who are hard to understand. You know what I mean boyz, wink, wink. ..”

    you are seriously wrong.

    the best of american military leadership KNOW that war is always to be the last resort.

    they are not politician’s general-toys.

  22. Tom in AZ says:

    @JohnT: Yes, he is, and his constant attempt to be President has got to be a stick up O’s butt. As for these meetings, I think he is one of the few to go home and actually hand the mike over to his electorate. I don’t see a lot of video of others, unless someone leaks it. But I’m not actively searching either.

  23. JThomason says:


    I was on a flight between Stockholm and Moscow six years ago. The flight was delayed and I ended up sitting next to a retired Russian submarine commander. He was showing me his favorite pictures on his lap-top, like the one of his new SUV and the one of him and Putin at a submarine para-scope.

    One of the things he got to talking about were the Trans-Atlantic banquets with both retired Russian and retired US submariners where their ability to “keep the peace” was celebrated. It was a remarkable experience. Why so glib you might ask. The commander was as I said Russian and he had some time off. Nuff said.

    Edit: I guess I didn’t say it, but now I have cause I fixed it.

  24. orionATL says:



    what a great story. i didn’t know cross-national military fraternization like this existed. good for them!

    those submarine commanders and sailors know what war could do. i fear the folks in the whitehouse haven’t a clue – except for occasional viewing of what bradley manning termed “war porn”.

  25. orionATL says:

    @Phil Perspective:


    hint: not disputing, i really don’t know.

    most signatories are well-known critics of d.c. style “insider war” – aka sneak attacks on the american people using congress as a shield.

  26. JThomason says: (Now there’s a snap shot).

    But there was no joint statement on Syria, despite a 20-minute one-on-one talk between Obama and Putin on the sidelines of the summit on Friday, following a tense group discussion on the civil war over dinner late on Thursday.

    “We hear one another, and understand the arguments but we don’t agree. I don’t agree with his arguments, he doesn’t agree with mine,” Putin told a closing news conference dominated by questions about Syria.

  27. JThomason says:

    As for the Iranian question (found this posted by somebody at MOA):

    ***in fact, under the U.S ‘s Iran policy lies in his classic defense doctrine. In other words, Iran is the application area of the U.S ‘s defense strategy.İf we remember that, the U.S defense strategy was based on prevention of the emergence of a rival superpower to itself and its domination in the MiddleEast region that could create a world power with its rich sources.

  28. Antifa says:

    @John Casper: Obama’s sudden drive to attack right away, and announcing in advance through his own words and through Kerry that they don’t need permission from Congress has me convinced he got an ultimatum from Israel — We’re going to hit Iran before October — are you in or out?”

    So the nearest and soonest excuse that could be found was seized upon — some dead Syrian civilians who may or may not have died of sarin gas, which there is no longer any way of proving came from whom? The chain of evidence is not there to prove whodunnit.

    Rather than let Israel start a general war which we will get dragged into, Obama hopes to take control of the situation and accomplish regime change in Syria, let Israel punish both Iran and Hamas in southern Lebanon, and then the shooting stops after a few days and we win.

    What he hasn’t considered, apparently, is that Iran has promised for years to close the Persian Gulf to all oil shipments if it is attacked. What losing 20% of the world’s daily oil diet will do to Western economies is too bleak to contemplate.

    What is clear is that when Iran lobs missiles into Israel, the Saudi oilfields, and sinks a couple oil tankers in the Gulf we will have little choice but to engage Iran with nukes and boots on the ground.

    This thing will get completely out of anyone’s control so fast there won’t even be time to say, Oh, %%$#$!”

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