by Joe Shea
July 28, 2014
UP IN THE AIR
There's a funny thing about the red "hot line" phone on the President's desk in the Oval Office. It never rings unexpectedly; the diplomats on both side of it set up the timing of the call.
All the President has to do is pick it up. If he wants, his executive secretary will tell him a few seconds in advance that it's going to ring.
If not, he just picks it up.
The funny thing about the phone is when it rings, it seems to ring in a place called forever, a dream state that lasts just a moment. Of course, it isn't a dream. The dreamy state passes quickly and the phone is always picked up after the first ring. Only one person is ever on the other side. It is always the leader of Russia.
Since the protocol for these calls is always the same regardless of who is leader of either nation, the small talk is brief. Things of moment and historic import have to be discussed.
So it was when President Vladimir Putin called President Barack Obama on July 17, 2014.
While there was not a great deal at stake for either man, the world was watching the two of them and that upped the ante, so to speak.
Putin was angry and unhappy about the new sanctions the President of the United States had levied on economic ties between the two countries the day before. They were going to cost some of his most loyal and powerful supporters a great deal of money.
Their exports and imports were tied up. Bank transfers weren't going through. All their dollar assets were frozen. They were upset with him partly because they couldn't push him around without the power of all those resources.
It was their own fault, Putin knew. Their funds had become overbalanced on the dollar side. They were sulking and contemptuous of him because he wasn't being tough enough, Russian enough. And that was reason enough to be upset with President Barack Hussein Obama.
Just how upset, however, no one would know until the phone call had ended.
President Obama explained his decision to levy the new sanctions, occasioned by the recent deaths of Ukrainian troops and the downing of at least two troop-transport planes. And some 40,000 Russian troops were massed on Ukraine's border.
The Russians hadn't hidden their tracks very well in the pro-Russian separatist takeover of half a dozen cities in the eastern Ukraine, and Putin hadn't kept his promise to pull the separatists back from the brink of all-out war. He'd made a mockery of a peace agreement negotiated with Secretary of State John Kerry.
And now new peace negotiations were either utterly unproductive or badly stalled; it was hard to tell which. President Obama was feeling pressure from the Pentagon and some in Congress to do more and do it quickly.
Sanctions were the least disruptive approach, the President believed. If Putin was forced to think twice, they might slow down the Russian juggernaut. They could stop an invasion and yet not lead to more fighting than there already was. They might save a lot of lives.
And the CIA hoped the sanctions might separate Putin from his billionaires; in fact, they were precisely aimed at those relationships. Unlike a lot of lesser apparatchiks, Putin was not wealthy as a result of his public life and career; the intelligence establishment thought the man might be a better and weaker partner if he could be wedged away from them.
A lot could be gained if the relationship was less strained. After all, the two nations still had much in common, not least an antipathy to Islamic terrorism.
"It's better than asking NATO or the UN to send in peacekeepers, isn't it, Mr. Presiden?" the American President asked. "It's better than putting our antimissile batteries in Poland, like the Pentagon wants. Or giving the Ukraine more sophisticated SAMs (surface-to-air missiles) than your B-U-Ks, like Congress wants," he said, referrting to the not-quite-equivalent Russian missiles.
"Perhaps we have not given them any B-U-Ks," said Putin, unconvincingly. He didn't think America's leader heard his deeper undertone of anger; he was not anxious to give his game away.
"But is this what you promised me when you told me that if re-elected you would have 'more flexibility'? Putin asked. "Is this the 'flexibility' you were referring to?"
"It's a lot more 'flexible' than George Bush would've been," President Obama replied. "It gives you a chance to save face. You would not be able to do that if we took those other steps. Then it would come down to a fight, and I don't think you want that, Mr. President," he told the Russian.
The Russian president privately acknowledged the truth of that, and waved an aide over to him. From another man, seated at a desk across the grand, elegant office at a large computer monitor, the aide brought a yellow Post-It note.
On it was written, "0:02:40."
"But this process, the sanctions, it leaves a great deal up in the air, doesn't it?" Putin asked. President Obama felt the tone of the conversation subtly shift. The State Department briefing notes hadn't covered an eventuality in which the Russian President admitted any uncertainty about the course of their mutual relations. He had to wait and hear more before he responded.
"We can't know what will happen in every case, Mr. President. Some of our bankers may have to default on some of their loans from your largest banks. Some commodities now available to Europe - and the Ukraine - may become unavailable.
"The oil markets won't like that," Putin said. He noted with some chagrin that President Bush would have reacted. President Obama didn't.
"I think we're prepared to live with any such consequences," the American replied, a little relieved that the tone in Putin's voice had seemed to turn away from threat.
In Moscow, the Russian President waved his aide over again. The small, furtive man brought another Post-It note from the quiet man at the monitor. This one said, "0:01:40."
"I wish that you would reconsider the potential cost of these measures, Mr. President. I mean the cost to both of us. They are too dangerous to leave up in the air. Economists have no model from which they can calculate."
President Obama risked an interruption. "I think our economists could help you with that," he said. In fact, the economists knew down to the dollar the exact cost of each sanction to each of the entire circle of billionaires surrounding the Russian president. They were alarming numbers.
"I can have that sent right over," he said.
"That information would be most welcome, Mr. President," Putin replied politely. As he waved, the small aide came over again. The man was under five feet, four inches tall. The Post-it note he carried weighed a thousand tons.
"0:00:40," it said.
Putin briefly rubbed his index finger against his left temple. The gray hair had just started sprouting there.
"You are giving me gray hairs, Mr. President," he said.
"I have quite a few of those myself," the American President answered, a slight chuckle in his voice.
"But these are not joking matters, Mr. President. I must say, with all due respect, I do not think your solution is going to turn out to be the stranglehold on our economy you expect. I will not allow it. These sanctions may turn out to be dangerous for both of us," Putin said.
Putin's voice grew deeper. "I beg you, sir, with all my heart, to reconsider at least some of these new sanctions." He tried to sound as though he really meant it; he felt the billionaires were not his friends, anyway. They were his jailers.
Another note came. It said, "0:00:20."
"I'm afraid that is not one of the options that our State Department is offering, Mr. President. I can modify them in name, perhaps, but not in substance. Perhaps it would help your government for us to do that. They will not be so ready to blame you if we call them something else - 'interim measures,' or something."
"But the substance would not change?" Putin asked. The Post-It note said 0:00:05." Putin raised his hand in the air made a fist, as though he were about to allow a sickle to fall.
The American president was silent for a few seconds, and then replied.
"I'm afraid not," Mr. President, the American said. Putin swiftly let his hand slice thrpough the air and fall. There was a flurry of activity at the desk with the monitor. Then all was quiet again.
"I suppose we have nothing more to speak about this morning, Mr. President," Putin said.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Mr. President," the American leader replied.
A military aide, a tall three-star general, appeared at the door when it opened and walked in quickly to the President's desk.
"A military aide is on the phone with me at this moment," President Obama said.
The President pushed a button and put the Russian leader on speaker. On the other end, a third aide noted the jump in resistance on his monitor. Putin looked at the man and he nodded back.
"Can it wait a second, General?" President Obama asked.
"Yes, sir. Of course, sir," the military man replied.
"One moment, Mr. President," the Russian president said. "I am getting quite a disturbing news report. It seems an airliner, a Malaysian passenger jet, has crashed near Donetsk, in the eastern Ukraine."
The President looked at the furrowed brow of the major general in front of him. The general nodded.
"I think we may be getting the same news, Mr. President," President Obama said. "If true, this is a terrible tragedy," hoping that his voice conveyed at least a hint of menace. "I am told that there are likely no survivors. It's not exactly clear why it crashed."
"Well, I suppose we both have our homework to do, Mr. Obama. I am sure we will speak again," Putin said.
"I'm sure we will, Mr. Putin. I will look forward to it. Good day."
The President of Russia didn't sleep well that night. His ex-wife, Lyudmila, had rarely seen him toss and turn for an hour after he hit the pillow. He usually slept well; like most spies, he'd trained himself to fall asleep whenever the opportunity was presented. She had wished she knew the trick.
Again and again, a nightmare returned from the Russian president's childhood in Leningrad. If he didn't fall asleep, his father would warn him, rats that hide near the grain in the kitchen would come out to feast on him; they wouldn't bother him if he was asleep.
"They are nice and don't want to wake you," he would say. "If you are awake, you have to chase them away."
Over and over, he dreamed a big, dark one had snuck under his blanket and was eating away at his protuberant bellybutton. Each time the dream began, Putin awoke with a start, then fell back asleep a few seconds later. Then the rat would start to chew on his stomach again.
Ib the Oval Office, tHe President turned looked up at the general.
"Any idea what happened?"
"We think Russian SAMs near Donetsk shot it down, Mr. President. That's what the heat signatures are saying."
The President slowly absorbed that information, instantly running his conversation with Vladimir Putin back, from beginning to end.
One phrase stuck in his mind.
"Where did the missile come from, General?"
"We think it was a from a Russian B-U-K battery near Donetsk, sir," he replied.
The President briefly pressed a single yellow button on his telephone. He dismissed the general and his new press secretary came in.
"Hmm," the President mused, now talking soft;y to himself, slightly above a whisper. "'Up in the air,'" he said.
"Sir?" the press secretary asked.
The President cleared his throat and stared at the press secretary. He wasn't quite used to this new man yet.
"I think we need a statement," the President responded. "'Regret the loss of life' and 'doing our utmost to learn the cause.' Say that 'We believe the Russians may have been involved.' He thought again.
"No," he said, "say 'the pro-Russian separatists and Russian-made arms may have been involved,' or something like that. 'We're investigating that possibility.' It's tentative," he said. "And say, 'I have spoken with the Russian President, we expressed condolences, etc.'"
"Got it, Mr. President," The press secretary said. He left.
The President looked at the red telephone again, shaking his head a little.
"Up in the air," he said aloud to himself, a bit ruefully. Had he missed a clue? How?
He felt slightly sick to his stomach, so he went back to work. There was a lot to do, and it calmed his gut.
Write Joe Shea at email@example.com.