Modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, I am providing a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States this week.
Russian theater: The greatest show on Earth
No one, especially Vladimir Putin, considered the Russian election a nail-biter. He and the Central Election Commission may have gone through some of the motions of a democratic election — campaign speeches, letting opponents’ names appear on the ballot, urging Russians to go to the polls — but, much like previous elections, the outcome was all but guaranteed. This was Putin-esque theater, plain and simple, and with another six-year term stretching ahead of him, at least according to exit polls, we can expect the Russian threat matrix to expand.
Putin may feign dismay over Western sanctions and diplomatic repercussions after his attacks around the world, but his new term will probably mean more hostility.
Cybersecurity — penchant for penetration: With the news that Russia targeted American and European nuclear power plants and energy and water systems, we have one more indication that Putin views all infrastructure — whether election related or otherwise — as free for the taking. Putin seemingly has the ability to enter sensitive systems, poke around and lurk at will. This now public capability bolsters his image as omnipotent and omnipresent. We could expect a show of force from Putin any time to demonstrate his capability to wreak havoc, similar to his shutting off the lights in Ukraine in 2015 — and then, of course, denying it.
Hiding in plain sight — chemical weapons are not off limits: A tit-for-tat between Russia and the United Kingdom will likely continue this week after Theresa May’s response to Russia’s alleged use of a nerve agent against a former Russian double agent and his daughter. The UK took initial retaliatory steps and expelled Russian diplomats, among other measures.
And Putin, unsurprisingly, kicked out UK diplomats and seized some diplomatic properties. Putin doesn’t care about diplomatic fallout — he doesn’t need “diplomats” in the UK to gather information. He has other means to get intelligence. The brazenness of Putin’s attack could signal his willingness to use nerve agents in the future to send a clear message to any rogue agents and to signal to a global audience that he is willing and able to use chemical weapons wherever and whenever he pleases.
North Korea: Party planning is hard work
Since South Korean shuttle diplomacy resulted in a purported agreement for a face-to-face meeting between the United States and North Korea (the North Koreans have yet to publicly acknowledge that Kim wants to proceed with the meeting, but reporting has indicated the CIA is working with intel partners on the potential meeting), the devil may be in the details. While we wait for official word from Kim, his foreign minister spent three days in Sweden meeting the Swedish foreign minister and the Swedish Prime Minister. Sweden has offered to host a US-NK meeting, but it is unclear whether Kim would be willing to travel based on his deep paranoia about his safety.
If Kim really does want to meet, convincing him he’ll be safe outside his hermit kingdom will be a Herculean task. This is where Chinese President Xi Jinping or Putin could jump in and provide some assurances if they want to really give this diplomatic “breakthrough” a shot. If Kim doesn’t confirm his desire to meet or insists on meeting in an undesirable location like Pyongyang, the timeline for the talks could endlessly extend. Or, Kim could withdraw his offer and try to paint the United States as malleable and over-eager to score a win.
In the meantime, CNN is reporting that Finnish and South Korean officials have said that while Kim has not agreed to leave Pyongyang, representatives from North Korea, South Korea and the United States are set to meet in Finland. But US government officials are not currently scheduled to participate. If US officials are not at the talks in Finland, it is unclear how they could play into any official negotiations or an official meeting with Kim.
Expert discussions are sometimes used to inform government discussions, but they are also sometimes wholly independent. North Korea has not commented on this meeting in Finland. So the bottom line is we don’t know if this meeting will contribute to a diplomatic engagement.
Nixing the Iran deal will get cheers: Saudi Arabia is coming to town
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman is in Washington this week, and he will likely use his Oval Office visit to push for a harder stance against Iran. Saudi Arabia has been in a bitter fight with Iran across the Middle East, including in Yemen where its blockade — reportedly intended to isolate Iranian-backed Houthi rebels — has resulted in a humanitarian disaster
The crown prince compared the Supreme Leader of Iran to Adolf Hitler in a recent interview and said if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia will, too, kicking off a nuclear proliferation trend the United States has tried to prevent for decades.
Saudi Arabia also said late last year that Iran took advantage of the economic gain from lifted sanctions to continue its destabilizing behavior, so it will likely push for promises to reimpose sanctions, particularly with the knowledge that the United States is dissatisfied with the agreement and the new nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, shares a similar sentiment.
It may be worth mentioning to the crown prince that we value our security partnership deeply, but the reports that Saudi Arabia has agreed to buy a Russian air defense system raise alarm bells here in the United States, particularly as they could violate US sanctions on countries or companies doing business with designated Russian entities. Sanctions matter, whether on Iran or Russia, and if the United States is going to be tougher on Iran, the kingdom should turn a colder shoulder toward Moscow.
Merkel’s getting back to business
The recent announcement of US steel and aluminum tariffs, and comments about penalizing Mercedes Benz imports to the United States, was heard loud and clear in Germany. But it’s important to remember that Germany is our fifth largest trading partner, so taxing German automobiles could offset a lucrative relationship.
And Chancellor Angela Merkel, after a post-election coalition struggle, has finally succeeded in forming a government that is ready to get to work, including on the issue of US tariffs. She met with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Friday to talk about eurozone reforms. Merkel said eurozone countries need to stand united against threats to free trade, and the two leaders presented a road map to combat potential costs of such threats.
But Merkel also benefits from working with Washington, particularly on the issue of combating Russian aggression. She joined with the United States, France and the UK in condemning the chemical weapons attack in the UK and saying it is highly likely that Russia is responsible.
However, she cautioned that Germany needs to keep lines of communication with Russia open — and critics have said that Merkel is reticent to take a tougher stance on Putin because of Russian gas exports to Germany.
Nonetheless, Merkel’s position as the team captain of the eurozone hasn’t changed, particularly with Brexit diminishing the UK’s voice on the continent, so on all issues involving the eurozone and the United States, getting back to work with Germany is more important than ever.