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Surveillance: What Russia Does is Bluff

George Friedman, Geopolitical Futures Chairman, says that a great deal of what Russia does is a “bluff.” He spoke with Bloomberg Surveillance’s Tom Keene on the day of the meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.

|July 19, 2018

Tom Keene: This is the interview of the day. George Friedman, you know from Stratfor and of course his work with Geopolitical Futures, but maybe there’s not the George Friedman who at age seven wandered out of Hungary. Mr. Friedman joins us from Austin, Texas, this morning. George, what was it like when your family fled Hungary? Do you remember that as a child?

George Friedman: I remember very little of it. The Soviets had taken over the country. The borders were closed. Minefields everywhere. And my father was on a list to be arrested. So it was either get out, or get out. And we went across the Danube in a rubber boat with machine guns looking at us. Interesting time.

TK: Those are interesting times and that is a reality from the past. Do we need to be informed about machine guns on the Danube now? And particularly does the president need to have an understanding about machine guns on the Danube now, or is that a distant past?

GF: Well, the machine guns aren’t on the Danube. They’re in the Carpathian Mountains, potentially. They’re on the Polish border. But the Russians are not anywhere as strong as the Soviet Union was. And a great deal of what they do is bluff. Their economy is pretty close to a shambles. Their military is nothing compared to the American. There is, of course, a feeling of this super intelligence service that hacked our elections. Well, they stole some emails and they sent some Twitter and some Facebook stuff, but we need to keep this in perspective. The Russians have played their hand beautifully, making it appear on a global basis that they are a major power, but they are struggling.

TK: Should we put weight to the 12 officers that have been indicted? Do you agree with Mr. Mueller, this is an important item, or does Mr. Trump have points that maybe it’s overdone?

GF: Well, certainly the idea of indicting foreign intelligence officers now opens the door for American intelligence officers to be indicted in foreign countries, which you know, it’ll be tit for tat. But more importantly, I’m really interested in why Mueller, knowing that a summit meeting was coming, chose that time to issue the indictments. He probably had a reason. He probably had a good reason, why part of his investigation had to be done now. But it really reshaped the meeting between the American and the Russian presidents, and seems to have pushed [Trump] a little bit off the wall. He made a tweet this morning that was extraordinary, where he said the declining relations between the United States and Russia was due to the stupidity of American foreign policy in the past. That is a stunning statement for the president to make. It surely puts him in a bad position to negotiate.

TK: George, that’s right where I wanted to go, and folks, this is why this conversation with Mr. Friedman is so important, and we’ll have this out on our podcast, I hope, later at Apple and on Spotify. George Friedman, the bottom line is Mr. Pompeo has to pick up the pieces. Now, there was a feature article – full disclosure, folks, I can’t remember right now The New York Times or the Washington Post today – about Gen. Mattis running essentially a separate Pentagon European policy. Can our State Department run a separate policy from the president’s rhetoric, or is Mr. Pompeo tied at the hip, linked at the hip, with the president?

GF: I would put it this way: Gen. Mattis can run a foreign– a separate policy because U.S. military forces are overwhelmingly powerful, and he can do that. The United States, economically, is overwhelmingly powerful. These are the fundamental realities. Now, how the administration organizes itself is an interesting question, and an important question. But the most important thing to bear in mind is the relative power of the two countries. But it would seem very likely that Gen. Mattis, who has really had control over all military-political dimensions of foreign policy at this point, is kind of running the shop himself. The president delegates.

TK: Right. If you’re just joining us, with George Friedman, Geopolitical Futures. George, I want to go granular now, and I want you to inform our global audience, and in particular our American audience, about this area of Syria that is a focal point of tension between Russia, between their support of Syria, between Mr. Netanyahu in Israel, between Iran, and I guess with America as well. And this is the distance of Syria from the Israeli border, and what each of these parties want. What should America want about this most sensitive part of the Middle East?

GF: Well, put it in a broader context. The Iranians have managed to take a great deal of control in Iraq. They are the dominant force in Lebanon. They have become a significant force in Yemen, and they’re a very powerful force in Syria. What we’ve been seeing is Iran extending its power. Now, it’s thin on the ground. It’s not really powerful if it was challenged, but it’s there. And the Israelis are looking at them very close to their border, knowing that they can fire missiles, knowing that they could carry out covert operations, knowing that they can do all sorts of things. The Israelis want them back from the border. The Russians have agreed, sort of, that they would force them to go back from the border. But the question is, how far? Ten miles doesn’t make any difference to a missile. The real question is, here, the Iranians are now threatening Israeli national security. Netanyahu said yesterday that he and the president had a talk and they’re very close together. And this is likely to be the major issue – there are already substantial issues – at this summit.

TK: I did a TV special, George, last week it broadcast – folks, look for it out on Bloomberg Digital with Ian Bremmer and Robert Kaplan – and of course we talked about Marco Polo’s world, Kaplan’s new book, and the Eurasia, which I’m going to take from the Straits of Malacca all the way around to the Persian Gulf. Is there going to be a band of geography from Tehran to Beirut, I mean is that a new geography Americans have to get used to?

GF: Not really. We don’t have to get used to it, we just have to decide how to handle it.

TK: How do we handle it?

GF: Well, Iran is domestically unstable. There was an uprising over the weekend – Shiites throughout Iraq against the pro-Iranian government. So we have to understand, one, they have their footprint down. So do the Russians. Two, underneath it all, they’re not very strong.  So what has happened is as the U.S. has created a vacuum, it’s been filled by second-grade powers. We look at all of this. Watch China’s response to the American trade initiative, and it’s kind of weak and very nervous. The United States has to recognize the most important thing, which I think Trump sometimes doesn’t really deal with: We’re really very strong as a nation. And the ones we’re facing, like Russia, well that’s a third-world power. It lives off exported oil and it can’t control its price. Iran can spread if there’s no one resisting it, but it can easily be rolled back. And the Chinese have their own power. So I regard this Eurasian thing as a coalition of the weak. They can get together, they can do these things, but in the end, once the United States becomes coherent in its policy, there’s no question who the big guy on the block is.

TK: Well, this sounds like a conversation to continue. George Friedman, just brilliant on this day of Helsinki and the summit.

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