Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President's Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues the President needs to know to make informed decisions.
Here's this week's briefing:
Russia threat matrix: Putin unleashes Satan, and it's a blaze of glory
Russia didn't take a time-out last week despite pressure from the international community to stop its global bullying campaign.
In the ongoing and escalating aftermath of the Skirpal poisoning, Russia responded to the international community's historic expulsion of Russian diplomats by expelling diplomats from at least 23 countries. We can expect some additional responses by Russian President Vladimir Putin -- he matched the US and UK responses almost to a tee (60 Russians expelled from the US and 1 diplomatic property seized = 60 Americans expelled from Russia and 1 diplomatic property seized; 23 Russians expelled from the UK = 23 UK diplomats expelled from Russia.) Putin likes to show that he has the upper hand, so he may still try to publicly exhibit his disdain for the international response to Skirpal by upping the ante -- even just slightly. There's reporting that he may kick out additional UK diplomats, for example, which would move beyond parity of response.
Meanwhile, Putin ended the week in a missile-driven blaze of glory -- a literal, public explosion of Russian power. On Friday, the Russian government released footage of the successful test of the "Satan-2" intercontinental ballistic missile (during a pre-election speech, Putin had mentioned an invincible missile that could evade air defenses alongside visuals of a strike against Miami).
This footage was also released a day after Putin announced his post-Skirpal diplomatic expulsions and property seizures and should be considered part of Putin's response to Skirpal.
The footage of Satan-2 was likely meant to show the ongoing sophistication of Russia's missile program and how little Putin is deterred from pursuing more advanced capabilities in the wake of reporting that you, Mr. President, noted that he was taking a more moderate tone and talking about de-escalating the nuclear arms race. This feels and smells like Putin-style manipulation. We can either choose to ignore it, publicly rebuke this escalation or identify some kind of asymmetric response.
Readouts from your recent call with Putin included references to a potential meeting on the arms race, and the Satan-2 test is a clear sign that Putin is developing missiles and developing them well. He probably doesn't expect the US to show off its own missile capabilities right now, so he's using this "Satanic" show of force as a sign of his own power.
Despite the Kremlin's statement last month that it wants to curb an arms race, this test flouts any practical moves to lower the bilateral temperature. Putin probably expects us to take this lying down because of what he perceives as our desire to de-escalate tensions with Russia.
Syria draw-down: Applause from the wrong crowd
Actions have consequences, and so do words (especially from presidents). After your comments that the US would "be coming out of Syria like very soon" and the news that the Administration has frozen funds for Syrian relief efforts, celebrations likely started in some key places, but for the wrong reasons.
Whether we are actually drawing down, or just mentioning it more blithely, reactions are likely to be strong:
- Syrian people: Almost 500,000 Syrians have died since the war begin seven years ago, and in the first two months of 2018 alone, 1,000 children were reportedly killed or injured in intensifying violence. A US withdrawal, and halt of relief funding, would leave the Syrian people at the mercy of the regime. Assad and his supporters have attacked civilians with a macabre mix of tools, including aerial bombs and chemical weapons. Absent US engagement, the Syrian people likely assess that the regime will increase its gruesome attacks on civilians under the guise of rooting out extremists.
- Russia: Putin has been trying to position himself as the rainmaker in Syria. He's been supporting the regime from the get-go, and more recently hosted a summit with Turkey and Iran on the Syrian conflict -- despite the fact that he is far from an unbiased mediator -- and he's reportedly hosting another one on April 4. A US withdrawal would mean more room for Russia to step in and increase its support for the regime. Russia may have showed some restraint recently (after Russian forces were killed in US air strikes) to avoid direct confrontation with American forces, but if the US signals an upcoming withdrawal, all bets may be off.
- Turkey: This US ally has been engaged in a bitter fight against the Syrian Kurdish forces that we have allied with to fight ISIS. And, if we are going to withdraw, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will likely plan to escalate his attacks against the Syrian Kurds. Giving Erdogan advance warning that we may abandon the Syrian Kurds will embolden him and allow him to plan further onslaughts against the Kurds, to the detriment of our Kurdish allies on the ground.
- Iran: Like Russia, Iran has been supporting Assad since war broke out, and would love us to leave Syria. Along with Russia, the narrative that the US is abandoning the Syrian people would be a gift to the regime in Tehran and give it more room to operate in Syria.
- ISIS: Showing our potential withdrawal cards this early on could tell ISIS that its best bet is to just wait us out. If we are, in fact, going to withdraw, holding our cards closer to our chest can help avoid giving ISIS any kind of heads-up that it can use to reconstitute and plan ahead.
Kim Jong Un's 'mystery train' tour: Additional venues may be scheduled
Kim Jong Un remains an enigma, but the hermit king's profile is starting to fill out. His likes include mystery trains, bright lights and global attention. His dislikes include any mention that his nuclear program is illegal, accusations of human rights abuses or generally menacing behavior.
Kim had a successful visit to China, where he was treated to a state visit by his patron, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and he's set for his next tour stop in South Korea on April 27, where he will meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. The Japanese have expressed an interest in meeting with Kim after a Trump-Kim meeting, and Kim's social calendar could fill up very quickly. Putin loves hosting dictators (he hosted Assad in Russia a few months ago) and has offered to mediate between the US and North Korea, so a Russian invitation to Kim wouldn't be surprising.
Meanwhile, little international attention has been paid to the fact that his illegal programs have not slowed down during this recent PR campaign, although the UN Security Council did announce new measures against North Korea last week, blacklisting several entities that are violating UN sanctions. Missile tests have been put on hold, but nuclear activity has not. So, while countries may roll out the red carpet when Kim gets to town, the threat from North Korea has not decreased.
In other words, there's a real possibility that countries will still line up to host Kim. And Kim will be able to then claim that his global 'mystery tour' schedule means he needs to extend the timeline for any denuclearization steps.
Kim shouldn't fool anyone -- his extended mystery train tours aren't a cover for making nuclear progress while getting global attention and affection. We should urge any country thinking about inviting Kim for a visit to insist on North Korean actions that merit a visit rather than just the opportunity to host a brutal, nuclear-armed dictator.
Let's make Kim work for his dinner, so to speak.
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