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 @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 to make informed decisions.
Here’s this week’s briefing:
As you plan for a potential meeting with President Vladimir Putin in July, we are providing you with an assessment of the ongoing threat from Russia and the issues you should consider before sitting down with him.
Threat assessment: Hot and heavy
The threat from Russia is growing. It is continuing its operation both in the United States and abroad. Reaffirming what he and other members of your Cabinet have said repeatedly, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats stated publicly that “Russia is attempting to influence the midterm elections in the United States.” As we get closer to the November elections, we have no indication that this threat is diminishing or that we are sufficiently prepared to combat threats to the election from physical voting infrastructure, social media or cyberhacks.
The intelligence community (IC) previously assessed that Russia has a “longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order.” The IC also assessed that Russia’s 2016 election interference “demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.”
Based on that pattern of behavior, the closer we get to the midterm elections, the more dangerous we can expect the Russian attacks to be.
Externally, as Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated last week, Putin still aims to “diminish the appeal of the western democratic model and attempts to undermine America’s moral authority.” Mattis noted has Putin’s “proven willing to use conventional and irregular power in violation of international norms.” He shared a high-level snapshot of what Putin is trying to do to us and our image globally through misinformation, disinformation, proxy fighters and, in the case of Crimea, direct military invasion.
The view from Moscow: Smooth sailing
We assess that Putin considers the Singapore summit a smashing Russian success. He believes that you accomplished his mission in Singapore – to de-escalate tensions and normalize North Korea on the world stage. Putin could do this himself, but with you in the lead, he takes none of the heat for supporting a dictator. And he probably thinks that your approach to dealing with Kim bodes well for him – if you do meet this summer.
- Premature adulation: Your description of Kim Jong Un as “very smart” and a “great negotiator” is a win for Putin. Showering praise on an enemy, in the midst of an ongoing attack, (Homeland Security said last week that North Korea is engaged in malicious cyber behavior against us) is a positive sign for any meeting that he has with you because he thinks you’ll praise him, and, like North Korea, Russia is attacking us as we speak.
- Provocative behavior: In Singapore, Kim averted any military strike or enhanced military engagement on the Korean Peninsula – in large part thanks to your announcement that we would stop joint military exercises with South Korea, which he referred to as “very provocative.” Putin and his Cabinet have been vehemently opposed to a military solution to the North Korea conflict (Putin doesn’t want to run the risk of having more US troops near to Russia or having a Kim successor installed who is pro-American). He has said our military operations “do not contribute to easing tensions,” and insisted that the only way to resolve the crisis is through dialogue. He has suggested that calling off the exercises would help moderate Kim’s behavior.
- Happy hands: Your “common courtesy” salute of a North Korean general, and your team’s statement that it was not a mistake, are a likely signal to Putin that if you do meet and he brings one of his generals, he can expect the same. Your happy hands moment was a victory for North Korea and for Russia because it gestured, literally and figuratively, your willingness to salute individuals who are part of attacks against the US or violators of international law (Kim’s entourage in Singapore probably included individuals who have worked on his pet projects like developing weapons of mass destruction, cyberattacks and more). Putin likely assesses that you are willing to show respect for foreign counterparts even if they are attacking the United States or our interests, not to mention, in North Korea’s case, torturing their own people.
- Don’t sweat the small stuff: Your approach to raising human rights with Kim – you said you didn’t go after Kim on human rights because you are trying to avert nuclear war – is also viewed as a victory in Moscow. Putin is involved in a range of malign and abhorrent behavior, from his election attacks in the US and on our allies, to his support for “animal Assad,” and so on. Your focus on the nuclear portfolio – and willingness to downplay other complex issues with Kim – signals to Putin that you will be amenable to doing the same thing with him. Putin can purport to want to work with you on one specific low-cost issue so that you don’t bring up any others – for fear of upsetting negotiations with him. He’ll manipulate your desire to claim success.
For all of these reasons, and more, Putin will push to meet you face to face. If he can get you to smile standing next to him, then he’ll consider himself a winner because, in his mind, you will look manipulated and weak.
Putin will likely try to see you when you travel to Europe for the NATO summit, so that he can juxtapose NATO’s focus on countering malign Russian activities with a bilateral meeting between the US and Russia – a meeting that could include mutual statements of respect and admiration. He wants that moment and will do everything he can to orchestrate, script and capture it.