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:
In advance of your meeting with President Vladimir Putin, we are providing you with our best analysis of his top agenda items. He likely took note of your comment that your meeting may be the "easiest" part of your trip to Europe and probably interprets that statement as your desire to talk generally about hot button issues without getting too into the details.
Putin wants to make this "easy" for you because he likely knows that addressing the issues in a way that helps US national security interests will require difficult, detailed conversations. He may try to present these issues as simple and easy, but he has a complex hidden agenda that's all about pulling a fast one on you.
Double D: Putin wants to deny and disparage Russian attacks on the US
In your meeting, Putin will likely want to pre-emptively raise Russia's ongoing cyber and information warfare attacks on the United States and make them a priority agenda item so he can deny involvement and disparage others -- especially Democrats -- for making them a bilateral irritant.
As you know, Russia's attacks aren't limited to the 2016 election. They continue to attack our election infrastructure, to manipulate media via information warfare (Russian media outlet RT, for example, had to register as a Russian foreign agent with the Department of Justice because we assess it is a propaganda arm of the Kremlin) and to try to sow divisions through every means possible.
Putin knows that you have publicly committed to raising Russia's interference in the 2016 election during your meeting, and that you even previewed his likely denial. He is also aware that just last week Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats rang the alarm bells regarding Russia's ongoing attacks on the United States. So, he knows you are under pressure to mention Russian attacks.
But he thinks he's off the hook when it comes to more punishment, particularly because you said publicly that all you can do is tell him, "Don't do it again." So "raising" the issue is OK with Putin, since he'll deny it again and he believes you won't push him much further.
Be aware that whenever he's confronted about bad behavior, he blames someone else, just like he's doing in the case of the Russian chemical weapons attack in the United Kingdom. So, he may try that this time around, too, claiming a false flag operation by another party and using that as a hook to suggest working together to identify and confront the threat. His strategy will likely involve disparaging domestic forces in the United States as the reason the relationship has deteriorated (just like Russia blamed political forces in the United States for the latest round of DOJ indictments), echoing and re-enforcing similar comments you made a few days ago.
He may even suggest another working group to examine cyberinterference because it makes him look less guilty; victims don't typically have working groups with their attackers while still being attacked.
It's all part of his strategy to steer your attention away from punishing Russia any further and to show the world that you take his word at face value despite strong evidence against him and the assessments of, well, everyone else.
Syria: Don't fall for Putin's offer for a three-way (it's not!)
After seven years of war, Putin knows that Syria is one of the most complex issues on the agenda.
He knows that you implemented strikes in Syria against chemical weapons facilities but also that you are considering withdrawing US forces in Syria who are there to fight ISIS. Putin wants to persuade you to leave Syria, so that he, Iran and President Bashar al-Assad have full control.
So, he'll want to make it "easy" for you and will likely suggest that he mediate a three-way deal among the United States, Iran and Syria, putting himself in a position to really shape the negotiated outcome. As you know, Putin is far from an unbiased mediator based on his strong support for Assad, but he'll try to obfuscate the fact that he's actively involved in the conflict and helping the regime. Of course, the reality is that this is more of a four-way, with Russia playing a critical role in the ongoing conflict.
A Russia-brokered solution would likely include Assad staying in power, Iran agreeing to limit its activities in Syria (we do not judge that their word is credible because using Syria as a base for operations is important to them, and they want to placate us even less after you withdrew from the Iran deal), Assad signing another pretend ceasefire and agreeing to stop war crimes like using chemical weapons.
Putin will frame this as a strong basis for the United States to exit Syria. He'll say the other parties will continue to fight ISIS because they, too, want to get rid of terrorists. This may sound easy, but it would be a catastrophe for the Syrian people, who the regime continues to murder, and it would give Russia and Iran free rein to pursue a number of objectives, including preventing state collapse and a security vacuum or the potential rise of a more pro-American, Syrian leader who would undoubtedly curtail their activities on the ground.
Putin knows that you and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have a close relationship, and it may not be a coincidence that he hosted Netanyahu in Moscow late last week to discuss a deal on Syria (limiting Iran's influence while allowing Assad to stay) followed by a meeting with the Iranians. He's lining up his chess pieces, and hoping you'll easily agree to what he'll market as a win-win solution.
Crimea: Putin wants you to give it up and put the issue to bed
Putin's digging in deeply on Crimea, and he knows that even though you decided to arm Ukraine -- a direct move to counter Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine -- you've been reticent to blame him for invading a sovereign country. Instead, you've blamed President Barack Obama for allowing Russian actions and pointing out that Russian is widely spoken in Crimea. Putin interprets this as a sign that this isn't a deal breaker issue for you, so he'll want to address it.
Putin will probably try to make Crimea -- as well as Russia's activities in eastern Ukraine -- an easy out for you. He'll say that he'll promise not to invade another country and that because Crimea didn't happen under your watch, you two should put the invasion in the past. He wants you to say you're OK with Russia staying in Crimea and, in effect, give it up. He may even ask you to stop arming Ukraine.
Nonproliferation: Putin is gunning for opening up US arms
Arms control has been on about every Russian agenda for decades, and Putin is going to put it front and center, especially during your initial one-on-one meeting, when you reportedly plan not to have national security adviser John Bolton (an arms control expert) in the room. He'll try to get general agreement on some complex nonproliferation issues when you're alone, without your experts.
More than anything, Putin wants you to open US arms to Russian eyes; he wants more intelligence and information on our weapons systems. In other words, he wants us to limit the number of weapons we have and our ability to use them.
In 2013, Putin and Obama signed the New START Treaty, which caps both countries' deployed strategic nuclear weapons and deployed nuclear launchers while providing for data exchanges, verification, on-site access and other compliance mechanisms. There are public rumors about the possibility of extending New START past its current 2021 expiration date in an effort to further enlarge the umbrella of nuclear predictability that the New START Treaty currently provides -- it diminishes one risk, the nuclear one, on the agenda.
He also knows we are tracking Russia's violation of another arms control agreement -- the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF treaty) -- and development of new weapons like its new underwater long-range nuclear torpedo. Because everything with Putin is a tit-for-tat, he'll pre-empt any accusations you make about Russian treaty violations by claiming that the US missile defense system in Romania and Poland can launch weapons banned by the INF Treaty. He'll do this because he may actually want to make a deal -- negotiate extending New START and persuade you to open up our arms, to each other, i.e. sharing information on our weapons systems.
His ultimate agenda item is not just to diminish the risk of nuclear war, however. It's also to give Russia the upper hand. He will probably try to do this by agreeing to the need for arms control negotiations -- but will focus on areas that would directly help him, including getting rid of US weapons or missile defense systems in Eastern Europe that would be used against Russia.
And anything he can do to limit NATO expansion or capabilities is a major win for him, so he could try to link an agreement on arms control to you acquiescing to put NATO expansion on ice.