People's Weekly Brief: Who's Going to Stop Putin?

Just this past week my daughter’s middle school was shut down for the day due to a bomb threat. A bomb threat. To a middle school for fifth- through eighth-grade students. Apparently, some really moronic person (as of this column it isn’t public knowledge if the idiot was a child or an adult) sent a bomb threat to the school via e-mail.

The good news is that from a computer forensics point of view, the police usually are able to track down and identify where the e-mail originated. The bad news on that bomb threat-laden morning was that my daughter and I did not get the word. We stood outside waiting for the school bus, two uninformed putzes enjoying a crisp spring morning.

When the bus didn’t make an appearance, I loaded my kid into the car and drove her to school. When we arrived the parking lot was empty, so it did dawn on us that the school was closed… possibly due to a power outage, gas leak or unanticipated shortage of corn dogs.

I pulled up to the entrance of the school, my daughter ran up to the doors and saw one of the teachers inside, who opened the door and announced “…school’s closed, uhh, ‘cause of a bomb threat,” and shut the door.

We then left the premises. This, admittedly, is not how you want to envision the crisis management and notification plan working when the threat involves a possible explosive device. But we’ll dwell on that during a future PTA meeting.

As we drove away from ground zero, my kid was oddly impressed that her school was important enough to warrant a bomb threat. Sensing a timely parental teaching moment, I switched off the radio and glanced over at her.

“Sugar, first of all, Al Qaeda has not targeted your school, at least not yet, anyway. It’s likely some underage dipstick trying to get out of a test. Second, you call that a bomb threat?”

My daughter, sensing I was lapsing into a parental flashback, dove for her iPod (Author’s Note: I don’t receive fees for product placement, although it is something I’m willing to consider).

The screen went all wavy and the flashback music began: “When I was a kid, we had the bomb threat, now that was something, lemme tell you… yessirree, whoa, Nellie, we had ourselves a real threat back then…”

I have no idea why, whenever I start on a flashback with my daughter, I end up talking like Floyd the Barber.

Anyway, for those of us in a certain age bracket, assuming your memory hasn’t started to dim, you’ll remember the odd and not particularly comforting elementary school drill in which we all climbed under our desks or huddled in the coat closet as part of a nuclear attack exercise.

Now, I wasn’t a particularly bright child; I won’t lie to you and say how clever and precocious I was. In fact, my elementary school career was impressive only in its mediocrity. Nothing in my school habits at that time pointed to a future of stellar grades and academic accomplishment.

But even I, wallowing in my third-grade averageness, could see that squatting under my wood and metal desk was not going to protect me from the Soviets. Unfortunately, as a third-grader, your options for protesting school-mandated drills are limited. You pretty much go along to get along.

Looking back, the teachers clearly understood that they were engaged in a massive propaganda campaign, possibly sponsored by the manufacturers of those fine, nuke-deterring school desks.

I remember crouching under my desk on the linoleum floor, whispering to my pal Mark, with the classroom lights switched off. Apparently back in the 1960s, warheads were unable to function in the dark.

“Hey, did you bring your lunch?” I’d ask, hoping to organize a trade.

“Nah, I gotta buy it today,” was usually his answer. Mark’s mom was not much of a homemaker.

Then the conversation would take a turn for the serious. “Hey (Author’s Note: Until I turned 21 years old, I started every sentence with “Hey”), how come those Soviets wanna blow us up with some nookler whatchacallit?” Little did I know then that I was already speaking like I was presidential material.

Mark would look at me, all serious and concerned… “Dunno.”

Then the bell would ring and the principal would come on the intercom with her usual post-attack exercise announcement. She would thank us for our cooperation, tell us to return to our seats and often remind us that corn dogs were on the menu in the cafeteria.

My kid, realizing I had finished my flashback, which was so, like, ya’ know, boring, took off her iPod (see earlier Author’s Note) and asked, “Dad, are the Soviets still a threat?”

OK, she didn’t really ask that. It’s poetic license, or artistic leeway or making crap up, whatever the technical term is. Go with it, I’m trying to make a point here. If she had asked, I would have explained that a) We now call them Russians instead of Soviets since they reluctantly released their grip on the old empire, b) You can call a duck a goose but it still quacks like a duck (equation whereby duck = Soviet while goose = Russian) and c) the threat, while no longer nookler, is still a threat.

Regular readers of the People's Weekly Brief will know that my three favorite strong-arm dictators of the moment happen to be, in no particular order, Venezuelan President Chavez, Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Russian President Putin.

Frankly, Chavez and Ahmadinejad are run-of-the mill heavies compared to the sophistication, cunning and old school Soviet style of Putin.

While he doesn’t have us ducking for cover underneath our desks, he is raising significant concern with his consistent disregard for press freedoms, lack of interest in the rule of law, bullying of foreign investors and efforts to exert increasing influence over his neighbors.

I’m pretty sure that even the most naïve have given up on the idea that Putin is a change agent for democracy.

And why is he able to flex his middle-aged muscles?

As with his cohorts from Venezuela and Iran, Putin is doing the backstroke in a massive pool filled with petrodollars. Putin just happens to be smarter than Larry and Curly about how to use his energy advantage to further national interests.

Ask any foreign investor in the energy sector whether they’re comfortable with Putin’s nationalistic land grab for various oil and gas fields.

Publically, Shell, BP, Exxon and smaller companies talk nice about their cooperation with the Putin administration, even while they continue to lose control of legally licensed and paid for major holdings inside Russia.

Privately, they all concede that they have no option but to give in to Putin’s various demands as he continues to create a massive energy monopoly under the Gazprom brand name.

On the global stage, the European Union, and soon Asia, understand that upsetting Putin can impact the quality of living… everything from the availability of gas to the ability to heat your home. It must be difficult for Putin to run the entire country while keeping one hand on the oil and gas spigot.

His administration has bullied the oil majors into making a variety of concessions and will continue to do so as he pushes for energy dominance. Frankly, who’s going to stop him?

On one hand, we’ve all been so shortsighted in our energy planning over the years that we’re left with no options… it’s go along to get along when it comes to dealing with the oil-producing nations.

On the other hand, who’s going to complain if the oil majors get bullied? It’s a case of the bully picking on the unpopular kid. Trouble is, as the majors continue to cave in to Putin’s tactics and give up more and more in the name of holding on to some remnants of their investments, we all lose in terms of economic and national security.

Being an optimist, I think that we are finally getting serious about the need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Whether we are moving fast enough or in the right direction remains to be seen.

In the meantime, my daughter has a few more years of schooling to go, and I’m pretty sure she won’t have to do the nuclear attack drills from the old days. My concern is the nature of the new threats we face, including reliance on countries such as Russia for oil and gas. If we don’t sort it out soon, I suspect we’ll be chopping up the old school desks for firewood.

That’s just my opinion. Let me know your thoughts and comments, send your emails to Stay safe.

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Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.

Mike Baker is the Co-Founder of Diligence LLC, a leading global intelligence, security and risk management firm. Prior to starting Diligence, Mike spent over a decade and half with the CIA as a covert field operations officer. He is a regular contributor in the national and international media on intelligence, security, counterterrorism and political issues. He appears regularly on Fox News, as well as other major media outlets.