How much of a threat does Russia pose to the U.S. in 2015?

Buck: Thanks for staying with us. We’ve talked a bit about national security threats that we’re expecting in 2015 coming out of the Middle East. We’ve talked about the philosophy of jihad and the Islamic State, Iran and its nukes or its quest for nukes, the war that continues in Afghanistan. So we’re going to move our focus now from the Middle East to what we could call Eurasia. We might even throw in some other dictators into the mix.

Let’s talk Russia-Ukraine for a second. It seems to me that if you had, and Jim, we’ll start with you, if you had told someone at the beginning of the year that Vladimir Putin would annex Crimea and run an insurgency in Eastern Ukraine and by the end of 2014 going into 2015 would have 80% support among his own people despite economic sanctions that have actually caused an imminent recession as well as all sorts of capital flight, people would say no way. That’s the reality we face, so what does that tell us about where we are right now going into a new year?

Jim: Well, we kind of actually came close to that. We did predict that Ukraine was going to be a flashpoint in 2014, so check the box there.

Buck: You mean you.

Jim: Well, me and Putin.

Buck: Jim is allowed to do a national security victory dance apparently, but I mean for the rest of the world that didn’t think Putin was going to go this…to the wall.

Jim: See, here’s the problem, right, so you keep saying the word Ukraine, and it’s not the Ukraine. It basically is unending from the Nordic down through the Adriatic. Putin is pushing everywhere, and so this is the big question in D.C., and this is the parlor game, right, is the economy has totally tanked. I don’t talk about how much the ruble has fallen anymore because it keeps falling, and I’m wrong when I say that, right? The economy is actually contracting. It’s in terrible, terrible shape, and the question is well, what’s going to happen? Is Putin going to get more or less dangerous?

So, the Council on Foreign Relations and the President of the United States would like you to believe well, Putin is going to be constrained now. Don’t pay attention to the rhetoric. He’s going to have to pull his horns in because he can’t afford this. First of all, there’s no evidence of that, but there’s lots of evidence for the opposite. He’s actually gotten more aggressive. You can find confrontations in the Nordic countries, in the Baltic countries, in Lithuania. He just gave Bulgaria a death sentence. He pulled the South Stream Pipeline. It was going to be their big economic boom. He just pulled that out from underneath them.

Buck: So he’s throwing punches all over the place, in different ways. Stephen, do you see that changing at all in 2015 or just getting worse?

Stephen: No, I think it’s going get worse, because the history teaches us that dictators don’t rise just when there are strong economies and don’t just start invading their neighbors when there are strong economies. It’s the sense of desperation. It’s the vacuum that’s occurring in their culture, so I think Putin’s going to be more dangerous because he’s going to start trying to use foreign endeavors to heal and outstrip the economic problems at home. So I think we’re going to be far more destabilized.

Sara: I don’t even think he really cares about the economic problems at home. I think he is very self-centered. He’s a narcissist, and I think he believes in what he has to do to expand what was for him the former Soviet empire. You know, this is where we misjudge. We always try to analyze people the way we see ourselves. I think that Putin does not see the world in that light.

And I remember at the very beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, I had spoken to the major archbishop who had come from Ukraine here. He had spoken with the vice president. I said what did you tell Vice President Biden? And he said to me I told Vice President Biden that Vladimir Putin was going to invade Ukraine. I told him that he will invade Ukraine this year, and he didn’t really believe him. And I think that the sense of like oh well, this is just not going to happen is still in the mind of this administration.

Buck: Putin has said that he refuses to be the bear that is chained down and given berries and honey; that in fact he must go out. This is actually what he says, so the bear is loose in 2015.

Sara: Without a shirt on.

Jim: There’s another part of this story that people really aren’t talking about, and it’s really the most insidious part, which is the disinformation and the propaganda that Moscow is shooting out everywhere. They fund environmental groups in Western Europe to protest against energy projects that compete with Russian energy projects. They complain about the rise of fascism in Western Europe, and then they fund the fascists, so they have fascists to complain about.

Buck: This is straight out of the KGB playbook, actually.

Jim: Absolutely. They are all over the place. Look, I would love for Putin to kind of, you know, call a timeout, but there’s just no evidence that that’s going to happen.

Buck: But Cuba is going to get much better in 2015, right, Jim? Cuba is going to be your…this is going…am I taking…? No, I am not taking him to his happy place. Tell me Cuba 2015, what does it look like? We’ve had the loosening of things. He’s tapping out on Cuba.

Jim: I mean, this is a really simple one. This notion is oh, we’re going to open up Cuba, and everything is going to be fine. Look, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, these countries know how to steal money. Any money that goes to their country, the government is going to take a piece of it, and it’s going to make them better and more powerful. And look at who their friends are—Russia, all the people that were on the map that we’re talking about.

Buck: Any country that’s in red there pretty much, with the exception of Israel, is a friend of…

Jim: The little funny shorthaired guy in North Korea with the haircut that just said he’s going to blow up the White House, that’s the guy that the Cubans tried to send arms to last year.

Buck: Right. Stephen, anything on Cuba?

Stephen: Yeah, you know, it’s intriguing to me that everything that we’ve been talking about is exactly what you would expect when U.S. foreign policy implodes, when we don’t know how to use our strength, and the one thing we tend to point at as any kind of victory is simply Barack Obama legacy hunting. Cuba is a Barack Obama legacy hunting. The rest of it though is what you would expect to happen when the U.S. simply does not show up, does not take strong steps, and does not use its defense apparatus the way it can. And so as a result, there’s a vacuum, and Putin is just stepping into it. He’s just feeding off of American weakness and playing that throughout the entire of Europe.

Sara: And Obama’s legacy hunting with every one of our enemies. He doesn’t try to legacy hunt with one of our allies, like try to build stronger relationships, try to reinforce certain areas of the world, try to lead. No, he leads from behind, and I think this is the problem that we’ve been seeing. This is why, just like Jim said, Cuba is going to take advantage of this. Why wouldn’t they? The Russians took advantage of us, and it wasn’t just in those areas of the world. I mean, how much has Russia been involved in Syria and Iraq and playing games with Iran?

Buck: And that’s an important part about Cuba too is that we said Cuba is friends with all these different countries, but there are relationships, for example, between Venezuela and Cuba that now that Cuba is in better shape, it will mean that the regime in Venezuela will be in better shape and vice versa, so by pushing in one place, you actually create a reaction elsewhere, and I think with the Maduro regime, we see people, there’s lines for people getting toilet paper and water in a country that has the largest oil reserves in the world.

It’s a shame that the administration threw a lifeline to Cuba because it’s not just for Cuba. It’s for all of Cuba’s buddies that they send doctors to and they send intelligence to. They have intelligence officers serving all over the world.

Jim: Yeah, well, it’s leading of a kind. You know, the first lemming off the cliff, he thought he was leading.

Buck: Well, there’s leading, and there’s leading. So, we’re going to talk a bit about threats coming from the east, from Asia, in 2015. Don’t go anywhere. We’ll be right back.

Front page image courtesy of the AP.

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