Editor’s Note: Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She served on President Obama’s National Security Council from 2009-2013 and at the Treasury Department under President Bush. Follow her on Twitter @sam_vinograd. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. This commentary has been updated to reflect the news.
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 about to make informed decisions.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
North Korea: Beware of North Korean bait
While we work to finalize the substantive conditions for your meeting with Kim Jong Un, there are a lot of North Korean balls in the air.
The status of three Americans detained in North Korea is garnering attention, particularly after your Twitter message telling your followers to “stay tuned,” and Rudy Giuliani’s statements on their potential release.
The hostages’ homecoming would be a welcome and positive step, but it is low cost for North Korea in terms of their strategic position and nuclear program.
The logistical details of your meeting with President Kim, Mr. President, are also grabbing headlines, particularly after you said that a date and location for the summit have been set.
South Korean President Moon is scheduled to meet with you in Washington on May 22, so the betting pools are putting your summit with Kim sometime in June. The “where” and “when” of the summit is getting a lot of attention alongside the “why.”
Confusion around potential US force reductions on the Korean peninsula broke out after it was reported that you asked for troop reduction options from the Pentagon. John Bolton responded that the report was “utter nonsense.”
Clearing up this confusion – and any more that breaks out – can take time away from preparing substantively for the summit. North Korea gains the upper hand if we lose our focus.
Kim may also be trying to goad you into a public exchange to take your attention away from the work at hand. On Sunday, North Korea reverted back to some of its previous PR tactics and said Washington was “misleading public opinion” by claiming that its “complete denuclearization” pledge was due to US sanctions or pressure.
They also said that Kim’s “boldness, patriotism and leadership” contributed to the potential diplomatic breakthrough between the US and North Korea. Kim knows that you have credited your pressure campaign with getting him to the table and probably thinks he can throw you off by trying to steal your thunder.
The North Koreans have traded public insults and escalatory rhetoric with you before, and they may be trying to throw you off. They know there’s a lot of real work to do, and sowing confusion or anger on our side may be a tactic to distract you and gain the upper hand in any upcoming negotiation.
Russia: The Czar wants to be loved
Putin’s presidential inauguration – for his fourth presidential term – is on Monday, and we can already read the Russian headlines praising him. With at least six more years in power ahead of him, we assess that Putin will use his inauguration as a springboard to double down on quieting any domestic discontent so that he can focus on what he does best (causing trouble).
Putin has limited the ability of Russians to legally protest and arrested those that do, including on Saturday when police detained about 1,600 demonstrators protesting against him. The main opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, who was barred from running in the last election, helped organize the demonstrations in about 90 locations in Russia, and he was among those arrested at the protest in Moscow. The protests don’t represent a strategic threat to Putin, but are a sign that (surprise, surprise) not everyone is behind Putin’s ongoing reign.
After his inauguration, we can expect the government to further limit the rights of Russians to organize and demonstrate. Putin wants to at least appear beloved.
Putin will also continue to limit free expression. We know that propaganda is king inside Putin’s Russia. On the surface, there’s media variety in Russia, but most media outlets are controlled or influenced by the state, and there is “limited access to critical or independent coverage and diverse political viewpoints.”
Many media outlets are propaganda outlets, not platforms for free expression. While Putin has said that Russians are “right to speak” about issues like “low incomes, faults with the health care system, housing, utilities,” that’s mostly hot air, and actual coverage of any complaints will be limited.
Israel and Iran: The clock is ticking
With under a week left until you are due to certify the Iran deal, tensions with Iran, and between Iran and Israel, are becoming even higher. Iran has said that US demands to change the deal are unacceptable, and we could see a US withdrawal ignite a series of escalatory measures by Iran against the United States in the region.
We may also concurrently see Israeli measures against Iran predicated on fears that Iran will restart its nuclear program and concerns over Iran’s ongoing malign behavior in the Middle East. On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu warned that Israel is “determined to stop Iran’s aggression in its early stages, even if it … involves a conflict.” Israel has reportedly struck a series of Iranian-linked targets in Syria over the last several years – some reports claim as recently as last week.
Last week, a bill passed in the Israeli Knesset that could signal Netanyahu is preparing for war, soon. The bill gave the Prime Minister the authority to declare war “in extreme circumstances” by consulting only the Minister of Defense, as opposed to the full cabinet as previously required.
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These “extreme circumstances” aren’t specified, which does give the Prime Minister a broader mandate. Iran is viewed as Israel’s primary security threat, including its proxies in countries like Syria and Lebanon. It’s possible that we will see an upcoming escalation in Israel’s military operations against Iran.
When Netanyahu meets with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday he is expected to discuss Iran, the nuclear agreement, and the situation in Syria, all of which are potential flashpoints for Israeli action. He may warn Putin that, absent changes in situation, Israel may be changing its approach.