A former Israeli national security advisor recently insisted that Russia shares Israel’s position that Iran is a “destabilizing force in the Middle East.” If this assertion was meant to pressure Moscow (or Tehran), it probably did not achieve its purpose. Russian President Vladimir Putin probably sees Iran’s problematic behavior as either irrelevant or, more likely, strategically useful. Russia’s primary goal is to defend its security interests, and for that purpose it has diplomatic relationships with the region’s key players, all of which are adept at causing geostrategic trouble.
If maintaining these relations has been a challenge, recent events in Russia’s immediate neighborhood have complicated its Middle East diplomacy. In the hierarchy of its security interests, Moscow’s top priority is ensuring that the internal politics of the 14 countries with which it shares a border do not pose a threat to Russia and, perhaps most of all, to Putin’s rule. Thus, it is the percolating conflict with the United States over Ukraine, and the early January protests in Kazakhstan, that are now commanding Moscow’s attention.
The tremors set off by these events have reached the Middle East and all the key states are taking note. Iran, Syria, Israel, and Turkey, as well as the Gulf Arab states, have one thing in common: they want to sustain relations with Moscow in ways that will enhance their diplomatic or military leverage. If intensifying regional conflicts (especially between Israel and Iran) have shaken this balancing act, the big geostrategic time bomb ticking in Ukraine, and the smaller one that has already exploded in Kazakhstan, are surely testing that capacity of Russia and its friends to work together. While this situation poses an equal test for Putin, his ability to juggle several burning candles should never be underestimated.
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
In November 2021, Moscow refloated a proposal for a “Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Region” that it had already proposed three times, the last of which was in 2019. At that point, the region’s escalating conflicts—stoked by President Donald Trump’s rejection of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and his “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran—ensured that Russia’s proposal would fall like a lead balloon. But the election of President Joe Biden provided an impetus for Moscow not only to relaunch its security proposals but also to offer its services as a mediator between the United States and Iran (and by implication, between Israel and Iran). Vitaly Naumkin, a senior scholar who apparently helped to mold Moscow’s collective Gulf security concept, insisted that the region was “fed up with what’s going on” and had reached a “sort of stalemate” that might open the door to diplomacy. His well-timed praise for the “leadership of President Biden” was designed to signal the White House that, as Naumkin put it to Newsweek, “We have one common threat, the threat of war.”
Moscow’s capacity to exercise influence partly rests on its ability to flex its military muscles while using its relations with multiple states to play the part of aspiring peacemaker.
Whether Russia was ever serious about its Gulf security proposal is less important than the geostrategic logic animating it. Moscow’s capacity to exercise influence partly rests on its ability to flex its military muscles while using its relations with multiple states to play the part of aspiring peacemaker. Because this role gives Russia leverage that Washington cannot match, Moscow has much to gain from ensuring that none of its friends limits its field of maneuver on the diplomatic stage.
Thus, during the JCPOA talks in Vienna, Russia has supported Iran while telegraphing its desire for Tehran to show some flexibility. This effort has provoked criticism from hard-liner pundits in Iran, one of whom has argued that a photo of Robert Malley, the US chief negotiator, talking with his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Ulyanov, is evidence of a US-Russian “conspiracy” to undermine Iranian interests.
Similarly, in the Middle East itself, Russia has been keen to ensure that Iran retains its fire power—and thus its ability to strike directly or through proxies at the United States and Israel—even as it has maintained an understanding with Israel that gives the Israelis diplomatic space, as well as air space, to strike their enemies in Syria when they identify an emerging threat and opportunity. Thus on December 28, when Israeli bombers struck a container complex in the port of Latakia (where Russia has a naval base), Moscow did not openly criticize Israel despite the potential threat that the attack posed to Russian troops. It was probably no coincidence that Putin and Israeli President Isaac Herzog reportedly talked on the phone only a few days before the incident. Their conversation surely touched on the deconfliction mechanism that Russia and Israel had forged under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, an arrangement that was renewed when Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Putin in Sochi on October 22, 2021. Iranian leaders, whose efforts to purchase Russia’s S-400 missile system (which Moscow has repeatedly ignored), must have been dismayed and yet not completely surprised by Moscow’s silence following the December 28 Israeli attack.
All the region’s key actors are well aware that Putin wants to display ruthlessness while showing that he is an influential leader who just wants Middle East rivals to get along.
In fact, all the region’s key actors are well aware that Putin wants to display ruthlessness while showing that he is an influential leader who just wants Middle East rivals to get along (with a little help from their friend in Moscow). The strategic challenge is now to factor into account Putin’s twin aims in ways that will not blow up in the faces of Iran, Israel, and Turkey.
US-Russian Tensions on Ukraine Muddy Middle East Waters
It would seem that the success of Moscow and its Middle East associates to balance their potentially conflicting interests partly hinges on Russia’s ability to sustain something of a fire wall between geostrategic threats erupting in its many backyards and intersecting conflicts in a region where it has vital security interests. Yet in reality, this fire wall is highly porous because Russia views its own presence in the Middle East—and in Syria especially—as vital to its wider geostrategic interests.
Indeed, apart from enabling Moscow to send its bombers into Libya, and thus manifest its clout in the Mediterranean theater, it seems that one purpose of the air bases that Russia maintains at Humaymim and Tartous in Syria is to point a strategic dagger toward NATO’s southern flank. Thus, Russia has not only deployed Tu-22M3 long-range bombers and MiG-31K fighter-interceptors with hypersonic missiles to its Humaymim Air Base, but on December 25, Moscow moved more than 20 aircraft and helicopters from that base to the airfields in Hasaka and Deir Ezzor in the east.
This move serves the twin purpose of supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime while telegraphing Russia’s capacity to make life difficult for NATO, particularly given Moscow’s public concerns about the potential expansion of NATO into other states—first and foremost of which is Ukraine. As the US-Russian conflict intensifies, the efforts of Russia’s rival Middle East friends to contain a possible fire in the Ukraine from reaching them is becoming more difficult. Indeed, Turkey and Israel provide telling examples of just how tricky this situation has become.
The Israeli/Russian/Syrian/Iranian Equation
Israel maintains close diplomatic relations with Ukraine. This 30-year official relationship was celebrated during the third annual meeting of the “Kyiv Jewish Forum,” which was held online on December 15-16, 2021. Headlining the meeting, which in 2021 was attended by some 83,000 online viewers, was none other than Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Israeli President Isaac Herzog. Their praise of Ukrainian-Israeli relations was no mere public relations stunt. The two countries signed a major trade agreement in January 2019. It is also reported that their military relationships have evolved and that Zelensky has signaled interest in purchasing Israel’s Iron Dome missile system. Israeli officials have been reticent to talk about specific details to avoid antagonizing Moscow.
Still, the importance of Ukrainian-Israeli relations was underscored by the visit of Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov to Israel in early December 2021. While the specifics of their discussions were not reported, Moscow surely took note of the meeting and is probably watching the Israel-Ukraine relationship closely. Indeed, Israeli officials report that Israel and Russia have an understanding that Israel will not upgrade its defense links with Ukraine; and in return, Russia will limit its arms sales to Iran. In late 2019, an advisor to Netanyahu asserted that Russia had cancelled a proposed missile sale to Iran and that Israel had reciprocated by twice promising not to sell weapons to Ukraine.
Israeli officials report that Israel and Russia have an understanding that Israel will not upgrade its defense links with Ukraine; and in return, Russia will limit its arms sales to Iran.
The above-mentioned December 28 Israeli attack in Syria, and the subsequent silence from Moscow, likely indicate that both countries still want to respect these red lines. Thus, the current Israeli government is expected to avoid any public steps that might suggest a major upgrading of its military relations with Kiev. Still, in 2019, Netanyahu’s government reportedly offered to serve as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. The escalating US-Russian conflict over Ukraine—not to mention Prime Minister Bennett’s efforts to improve US-Israeli relations—make it unlikely that Bennett’s government would try to renew Netanyahu’s grandiose proposal. But if Russia and the Biden Administration fail to agree on Ukraine, Moscow may suddenly find itself less inclined to restrain Iran in Syria, or to push Tehran to make concessions in the Vienna talks. One way or the other, the Ukraine crisis is complicating the three-way dance between Russia, Israel, and Iran.
While equally complex, the dance between Turkey, Russia, Syria, and Iran is also a function of Turkey’s specific strategic interests in Syria and beyond, all of which have already generated friction between Ankara, Moscow, and Tehran—even as all three have sustained the Russian-led Astana Process to work on a constitution for Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan envisions a future in which Syria’s citizens have some kind of voice, and that means creating space for Islamist leaders in the ongoing—and thus far unproductive—UN talks over a political settlement on Syria. This is not a goal that Moscow and Tehran share, particularly if—as Iranian leaders fear—it will open the door for Sunni jihadist forces. The very tenuous cease-fire in Idlib province pivots precariously around the effort to contain these conflicting goals and is now under pressure as the Islamic State (IS) tries to reassert its influence. Russia’s bombing on January 2 of IS targets near Idlib, in northwestern Syria, underscores the possibility of rekindling conflict between Moscow and Ankara, one that could occur if the organization gathers new strength.
These tensions will be amplified by Ankara’s open differences with Moscow on several fronts. It has backed Ukraine’s claim to Crimea and thus opposed Russia’s 2014 annexation of that territory and its people. Even more troubling for Moscow, Turkey—a member of NATO—backs Ukraine’s membership in the alliance. The fact that Turkey has sold TB2 drones to Ukraine has miffed Moscow, which surely knows that the drones helped Azerbaijan prevail over Armenian troops in last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh war.
Given these concerns, the December request by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu that Russia take a more moderate approach to the Ukraine conflict must have ruffled Moscow’s feathers. His admonition probably stung: “For any proposal to be accepted, it should be acceptable by both sides. Russia made some proposals. But maybe NATO seeks the same kind of guarantees from Russia.” He added that, “If Russia has any certain specific expectation or issue from Turkey regarding reducing tensions between Russia and NATO, Turkey will evaluate” the situation.
This exchange of views came some two weeks after Putin and Erdoğan had a phone conversation which, according to TASS Russian News Agency, was preceded by promises from a Kremlin spokesman that Turkish mediation might even be helpful, but only under certain conditions. He stated that “if Mr. Erdoğan will be able to use his influence to encourage Kiev to begin to comply with its commitments under the Minsk Package of Measures, Paris agreements and so on, it would be only welcomed.” In short, Moscow’s message is that unless Ankara backs its position, any offer by Turkey to mediate will be roundly, if diplomatically, rejected.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Erdoğan—who is under tremendous pressure at home in the wake of an escalating economic downturn—is unlikely to take steps that will further antagonize Moscow.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Erdoğan—who is under tremendous pressure at home in the wake of an escalating economic downturn—is unlikely to take steps that will further antagonize Moscow. But as with Israel, events in the Ukraine have made Turkey’s dance with Russia (and by implication, with Iran) much harder. Erdoğan’s challenge is to avoid stepping on his own toes.
US-Russian Talks Set the Tone
The efforts of Turkey, Israel, and Iran to manage relations with Moscow (and vice versa) could ultimately depend on the ongoing talks on Ukraine between the White House and the Kremlin. Russia’s demand that the Biden Administration renounce any plan for Ukrainian membership in NATO will complicate any bid to reach a compromise, a point underscored by Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent statement that Moscow’s demand is unacceptable to the United States and its NATO partners. Blinken is correct when he notes that Moscow must know that no such demand can possibly provide a path forward. But the exit ramp off the road to a more dangerous US-Russian collision is elusive at present.
In the meantime, the Ukrainian conflict will have ripple effects in the Middle East and in Vienna. Moscow could conclude that the dangers of failure in Vienna are too great and thus will still try to get Tehran to back down from some of its demands. But if the Ukraine situation gets any hotter, Russia might be disinclined to push Iran toward compromise. Moscow, which not so long ago envisioned itself as a peacemaker in the Middle East, now has far less space to leverage its relationships with the region’s rivals. The lesson seems to be that even if the United States no longer has the clout it once enjoyed in the region, the course of US-Russian relations remains vital to the prospects for peacemaking in the Middle East and other volatile regions of the globe.
Daniel Brumberg is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, and a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED). From 2008 through 2015 he also served as a Special Adviser at the United States Institute of Peace.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan attend the official welcome ceremony in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 15, 2019. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS
Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
Confiscating Russia’s sovereign assets is an act of economic war. Seizing and transferring these assets to Ukraine may make Washington feel virtuous, but it will not bring peace. Passage of this bill will only reinforce the view of hardliners in Moscow that Russia’s war lies not just with Ukraine, but really with the United States and the West. Any hope that the United States and Russia could work toward stabilizing or improving relations will subsequently be destroyed.
There is no justification for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but enacting this bill will make peace less likely. Ukrainians have courageously defended their country for nearly two years, but even Ukraine’s former top military commander General Valery Zaluzhny admits the war is now a stalemate.
Russia’s frozen assets could be used as a bargaining chip during negotiations, but once Congress provides the president the authority to seize Russian assets, there will be immense political pressure on him to carry out the policy to avoid looking weak. President Biden was recently pilloried by the media and members of my party for returning frozen Iranian assets in exchange for five American hostages. He is unlikely to make that decision again.
Confiscation will only convince Moscow that there is no negotiated settlement to be had with Ukraine. The result will be a destroyed Ukraine. More Ukrainian soldiers and civilians will die, and more cities and towns will be turned to rubble.
History is replete with examples of economic warfare turning into violent hostilities. Many historians believe the U.S. embargo of 1807, which was intended to punish France and England for their aggressions at sea, led to the War of 1812. Likewise, FDR’s decision to freeze Japan’s sovereign assets and implement an embargo on oil and gasoline exports led to Tokyo’s decision to attack Pearl Harbor.
The past teaches us the folly of embracing every proposed act of revenge. U.S. senators are duty-bound to ask whether our actions will ensure American security and prosperity. In regard to the REPO Act, the Russians already answered that question for us. Moscow says they will retaliate in kind against the United States and our allies, with some estimates claiming upward of $288 billion in Western assets that Moscow could confiscate.
Nicholas Mulder, an assistant professor of history at Cornell University, highlights the danger of the “destabilizing precedent that western countries would set by seizing assets to end a war they are not openly involved in.” Professor Mulder states that such an action “would broaden the coercive actions that states could take for disputes to which they are not a direct party.”
Confiscating Russia’s assets will also certainly convince other countries, including China, that the United States can no longer be trusted as the guarantor of the global economy. They will seek to move away from the dollar and hold their reserves in other currencies. This process of de-dollarization will be an unmitigated disaster as it will degrade America’s financial strength and ensure the prosperity Americans have come to expect is no longer attainable.
In addition, this bill will hand the Russians another tool to fuel resentment against the United States. American leaders speak of a “rules-based international order” but the theory that the United States can confiscate the assets of another country we are not at war with is legally dubious.
Professor Mulder argues that “economic reprisals are the prerogative of injured states, not of third parties.” Rather than compel respect for international law, our actions will demonstrate to our adversaries that we are flouting it. This bill will be used by the Kremlin to show the world that while Washington demands that others follow the rules, we are happy to break them whenever we see fit.
In a multipolar world, Washington can no longer expect to act with impunity, particularly when dealing with a nuclear power. We understood the serious dangers our country faced during the Cold War. But three decades of repeated foreign policy disasters proves that Washington’s foreign policy establishment is badly broken.
A good way to start on the road to fixing that broken foreign policy is rejecting this disastrous bill.
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Prabowo Subianto, running for president, in Bandung, Indonesia. (Shutterstock/Dhodi Syailendra)
(JAKARTA, INDONESIA) — Soon after voting ended in the world’s fourth-largest country and third-largest democracy, Prabowo Subianto is claiming a knock-out blow winning more than half the vote and the necessary number of provinces to eliminate both his challengers.
According to unofficial tallies, which have been historically accurate, Prabowo has garnered 58% of the vote in today's contest. The official count will not be announced until mid-March and his opponents have yet to concede defeat.
Nevertheless, highly popular incumbent president Joko Widodo (Jokowi)’s backing for the former special forces commander, and active undermining of his own party’s candidate Ganjar Pranowo, is a big reason for the ostensibly lopsided result. But the famously temperamental Prabowo’s clever rebranding as a cute and cuddly grandpa seems to have helped quite a bit, too.
Arriving in Jakarta just as the three-day “quiet period” was beginning spared me all the raucousness of the election campaigning. But the billboards of the three candidates — Anies Baswedan, Ganjar Pranowo, and Prabowo — were prominently plastered across the city. The few everyday folk I spoke to seemed to favor the former general. A young hotel housekeeper told me she voted for Prabowo (as did almost all her friends and family) as he was “a strong leader, and honest.” Reports here speak of the youth vote as being a big factor in the result.
Much of the U.S. commentary has pointed out that Prabowo was once banned from entering the U.S. for his links to a military unit accused of human rights atrocities. To that the feisty general might say: get over it. After all, the United States was forced to lift the ban on his entry after Jokowi — after beating Prabowo in a bitterly-fought election in 2019 — invited him to become his defense minister.
Now that Prabowo is likely to become president, such musings are chiefly academic. While my interlocutors in town seemed worried about democratic backsliding in the country (and this has been apparently underway for a couple of years), relatively few voters appear swayed by this concern. And in an increasingly multipolar world, Washington is less able to influence how other countries choose their leaders, and tell them how they should govern.
For his part, as president Jokowi has focused relentlessly on economic growth and domestic issues, though he also skillfully steered Indonesia’s G20 presidency in the turbulent wake of the Ukraine war. Under him Indonesia has not only prospered, but also put into place a tough industrial policy, including limiting or banning the export of certain valuable natural resources, such as nickel. This encourages these resources to be processed in-country, which helps grow and sustain economically valuable industries that require these resources, such as electric vehicle parts, thereby diversifying and strengthening the Indonesian economy.
The European Union has responded by taking him to the WTO, and the United States has not been exactly enthusiastic on these “downstreaming” policies. But China has played ball, building ore-processing plants in the country. Beijing has also built shiny new infrastructure, most prominently a new “Whoosh” bullet train from Jakarta to Bandung.
Meanwhile, Jakarta has not expressly taken sides in the U..S-China tussle. This is hardly surprising. Non-alignment (or bebas dan aktif — free and active — as the Indonesians call it in Bahasa) is a core Indonesian grand strategy principle. Indonesia was a foundational contributor to the idea of non-alignment in the Global South, with the famous 1955 Bandung conference being held there.
Even under the authoritarian leader Suharto, who tilted toward the United States, Indonesia maintained strong relations with arch-communist Vietnam. Though China was shunned by Suharto — and the Chinese-Indonesian minority treated poorly — it all seems in the rear-view mirror in today’s Indonesia. China is Indonesia’s biggest trade partner and among its biggest investors. Hoardings commemorating the Chinese new year are visible in parts of the city and the community is much better integrated than in the past.
Furthermore, when it comes to Russia, Indonesian social media has been rife with sympathy with Moscow on the Ukraine war.
What will Prabowo’s foreign policy be like? His past record indicates that the ex-general is much more a strong-willed, if volatile, pragmatist than an ideologue. Today, this means a continuation of Jokowi’s policy record of economic growth and the development of domestic industry and infrastructure. Thus business-friendly relations with Beijing, as also attempts to attract more American investment and trade, will continue.
Prabowo is also far more exposed in his youth to the world than was Jokowi when he was sworn in. The former general has lived in Europe and Singapore and was trained by the U.S. military. Which means that Indonesia under him could be somewhat more vocal on regional and international issues than it has been. Recall Prabowo’s bold play on a Ukraine peace plan at the United Nations last year.
Nevertheless, unless Washington makes a big deal of past human rights issues (unlikely), there are opportunities for incremental strengthening of ties. Military exercises between the two have been on an upswing lately. Indonesia has also softened its earlier opposition to AUKUS and refrained from joining BRICS, partly keeping relations with Washington in mind.
Trade relations are something to watch however, with Washington’s new focus on imposing labor standards on its major trading partners. This is not always welcome in Global South capitals which see lower labor costs as a comparative advantage. Unlike the United States these days, Indonesia is also very comfortable with trade integration. It was the most important ASEAN member leading the RCEP process and continues to lead in shaping the implementation of the world’s largest trade agreement.
Should there be a Republican in the White House next year, issues such as trade deficits could loom large. Indonesia also seeks a critical minerals agreement with the United States and hopes to benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act’s clean energy subsidies, but it will be a long haul to get there.
As long as Washington understands that Indonesia is committed to a non-aligned rise, there is much scope to deepen ties. Indonesians see their relations with other major powers as being defined on their own merits and not as a byproduct of any other relationship. That ought to be a good basis for moving forward.