Mr. President, don’t let Kim take advantage of you
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:
North Korea: Kim’s already doing a victory lap
With just weeks until the summit in Singapore, and ahead of your meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Tuesday, we assess that the North Koreans believe you are convinced that the meeting might move forward — despite North Korea’s change in rhetoric, tone and position.
Kim likely heard your previous remarks indicating that you wouldn’t meet with him if you didn’t think it was going to be “fruitful,” but after you publicly announced the date and location of the summit, Kim may think you’re locked in and try to push you around ahead of the meeting.
In fact, Kim may already feel victorious in light of recent US policy shifts:
- Perceived US backtracking on preconditions: After North Korea announced that it would not unilaterally denuclearize, press secretary Sarah Sanders and National Security Adviser John Bolton said we would still go to a meeting, abandoning our earlier calls for North Korea to show a commitment to denuclearization before you would sit down with Kim. We confirmed that we aren’t calling the meeting off despite Kim’s backtracking. The North Koreans will probably read this change in our meeting preconditions as a victory.
- He wants more: The North Koreans likely also took note of your public remarks that the US has not given up anything in talks with Pyongyang, and they may try to get you to show some leg before Singapore. Their threats to walk away from the summit once they assessed you were committed to going may be designed to get concessions from you — reports that the US, South Korea and Japan are shifting planned flights of B-52 bombers so they would not fly over the Korean Peninsula may be viewed as such a concession, particularly as the Pentagon won’t publicly deny a connection.
Russia: When silent means deadly
Vladimir Putin is likely enjoying watching the United States and our allies disagree over major policy decisions like Iran. He’ll probably try to manipulate any distance between us. He’s been relatively quiet on our decision to withdraw from the Iran deal and on efforts to negotiate with North Korea, but silence could be deadly. Putin is likely working behind the scenes to achieve his overall mission of undermining our credibility. And he’s been busy.
- Solidify staying power: On the heels of Putin’s third inauguration as President, we are tracking a Russian constitutional amendment that would allow him to run again in 2024. We expect that it will pass — what Putin wants, Putin gets, so we may be stuck with Putin for the long haul.
- Build up the military: He spent much of last week in Sochi where he met with his top military brass to discuss plans for Russian military modernization. He released details on some of these plans, and the details were aimed, at least in part, at us. After his invincible missile display pre-election, he’s going to continue these public shows of force to remind us, and the world, that he’s still building up Russian conventional forces.
- Build illegal bridges: Despite international condemnation of his invasion and annexation of Crimea, Putin literally built a bridge to the illegally occupied territory and publicly inaugurated it last week. The Kerch bridge — the longest in Europe at 19 kilometers — links Russia with Crimea and is a physical reminder that Putin does not plan to leave Crimea anytime soon.
- Remind us who’s boss: Putin hosted President Bashar Assad last week, the third publicly acknowledged visit by Assad to Russia since the war began in 2011. In a macabre statement after the meeting, the Russian government cited “improving” stability on the ground and support for a political process, despite recent chemical attacks and ongoing violence. We assess that this visit was timed partially to show that, despite US and Israeli strikes within Syria, Russia remains committed to keeping Assad in power and backing his every move.
- Warming up to our friends: Germany and Russia have had their differences, largely related to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. But, when Putin welcomed Angela Merkel last week, he presented her with flowers ahead of their discussion on how to coordinate initiatives like the Iran deal and the Nord Stream 2 energy deal — both issues that we, not Russia, are the outlier on. We should expect Putin to continue to try to cozy up to our allies on issues where we’ve gone a different direction.
Iran: The enemy of my enemy is now my friend
After Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif’s meetings with our allies last week on the Iran deal, Iran is probably feeling some more pressure. The clock on US sanctions is ticking, and Total announced that it’s putting its $2 billion gas project in Iran on hold. The Iranian regime will likely try to get our European allies to pressure us for sanctions waivers or, at the least, some kind of public statements that can assuage companies’ concerns over ongoing business in Iran.
If their efforts don’t bear fruit soon, we will probably see Iranians use threats about what will happen if they aren’t able to continue participating in the global economy, to some degree. We haven’t heard much from China and Russia yet on how they’re reacting to our Iran deal pullout, but if things don’t go well with the Europeans, we should expect Iran to try to leverage Xi Jinping and Putin.
This is all a win for Putin. Your withdrawal from the Iran deal, Mr. President, pits you against your allies, which is positive for Putin because a more isolated US is a weaker US to him. And, if Iranian oil does go offline, that’s a win for the Russian economy because the price of oil will rise, and oil revenues are the foundation of Russia’s economy. The recent oil price rally means that Russia is expected to run a budget surplus this year for the first time since 2011.
Venezuela: So-called elections
The Venezuelan regime staged another show on Sunday and is calling it a presidential election. We don’t need a vote count: President Nicolas Maduro will win, and we assess that he will use this rubber stamp of a so-called election victory to tighten his grip domestically and to try to blame the United States for the political and economic crises plaguing Venezuela.
Struggling with severe food and medicine shortages, soaring crime rates and extreme hyperinflation, 1.6 million people fled the country between 2015-2017. It’s going from bad to worse, and we should expect the situation to continue to deteriorate.
Maduro has one challenger, Henri Falcon, but the main opposition coalition in Venezuela is boycotting the election, claiming that it’s rigged. And, even if the regime goes through some of the motions of an election process, we’ve already said we won’t recognize the results of election — along with several other countries — because they are not transparent or fair.
On Friday, we announced new sanctions against the Maduro regime over links to the drug trade and corruption. These sanctions build on previous measures tied to Venezuela’s human rights abuses, persecution of political opponents, curtailment of press freedoms and more. Maduro used this as an excuse to turn the spotlight on the US and “imperialist aggressions,” saying that the United States was trying to “sabotage the elections.”
Maduro and his cronies are likely waiting to see if the United States imposes more sanctions on Venezuela, including efforts to curtail its oil exports. We assess that China and India, which account for 40% of Venezuela’s oil sales, will encourage the US not to take any drastic moves, particularly in light of a reduction in Iranian oil sales.