Feb 17, 2022

An update on Ukraine-Russia.

An update on Ukraine-Russia.

Are things getting better or worse?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

The tension in Ukraine. Plus, a reader question about the leverage Biden has over members of Congress.

File:Volodymyr Zelensky in a working visit to the State of Israel, January 2020. XIV.jpg
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visiting Israel. Photo: Кабінет Міністрів України

Tomorrow: Kamala.

Where has the vice president been? What has she been doing? What is her role in the administration and is she the heir apparent to Joe Biden in 2024? I’ve been getting a bunch of questions like this, so I thought it'd be fun to dive in tomorrow in our subscribers-only Friday edition. Keep an eye out for this story in your inbox and feel free to share it with friends when you receive it.

Friday editions are for members only. If you want to become a Tangle member and get Friday editions, click here.


Quick hits.

  1. The Senate confirmed Robert Califf by a 50-46 vote to lead the Food and Drug Administration. Four Democrats defected, saying Califf's ties to the pharmaceutical industry worried them. (The approval)
  2. President Biden ordered the release of White House visitor logs to the House committee investigating the January 6 riot. (Biden release)
  3. Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez was arrested in Honduras after U.S. officials called for his extradition on drug trafficking and weapons charges. (The call)
  4. Federal agencies will run out of money tomorrow night as the Senate works to clear a procedural hurdle to pass a measure keeping the government open until March 11. (The showdown)
  5. Three members of the San Francisco Board of Education were ousted amid a debate over remote learning and changes to admissions for the city's most elite high school. (The fight)

Today's topic.

Russia and Ukraine. We have covered the situation in Ukraine twice in the last two months. First, we did an explainer of Ukraine and Russia. Then, on January 25, we published an issue on the rising tensions in Ukraine. I suggest reading one or both of those if you missed our previous coverage.

In short, the world is watching this story because Russian President Vladimir Putin has amassed 150,000 troops along Ukraine's border. Russia and Ukraine have been engaged in a kind of trench warfare in Donbas, the eastern region of Ukraine, for years. But Russia's latest troop build-up signals to many the potential for a full-scale war or invasion. Putin's stated motivations are a desire to keep Ukraine from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a post World War II western alliance, though more broadly many believe his goal is to "return" Ukraine to Russia, given his view that Ukraine really is a part of the Russian empire, just as it was part of the Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wants to maintain Ukraine's independence while also working to contain Putin's aggressive expansionist tendencies. Because joining NATO requires unanimous consent, and nations like Germany may oppose the addition, Ukraine seems unlikely to be able to join the alliance even if it wants to. In the meantime, the U.S. has been supplying Ukraine's military with weapons and funding to help defend itself, and recently sent an additional 3,000 troops to eastern Europe (bringing the total to just shy of 5,000) to provide refugee support in the event Russia does invade. Biden has also pledged to inflict damaging sanctions that would debilitate the Russian economy if they invade.

On Tuesday, reports began breaking that Russia was removing some troops from parts of the Ukrainian border, a signal that they may be moving toward diplomacy. On Wednesday, however, U.S. officials and NATO leaders said they were still looking for proof that Vladimir Putin was open to a diplomatic resolution and was actually pulling troops back from Ukraine's border. President Biden said the 150,000 troops remain near the border and "very much in a threatening position."

Zelensky is reportedly considering holding a referendum that would keep his country from joining NATO, to hand a key concession to Putin with the hope that he may back down, though Zelensky's public comments have contradicted that reporting. This morning, pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian soldiers exchanged allegations of breaches in a ceasefire, and U.S. officials claimed Russia is actually adding troops on the border, not removing them.

Below, we'll take a look at some commentary on the latest developments from the left and right, then my take.


Agreed.

There is actually a good deal of alignment on the left and right. In both parties, the consensus is that we should exert pressure on Russia and prevent them from invading Ukraine in any way possible. Both parties seem intent on avoiding a war. And both parties have more populist wings that criticize our involvement at all, areas where progressives and the populist right align.


What the left is saying.

  • The left gives credit to Biden for navigating this crisis, and says his diplomacy appears to be working.
  • Many say the cost of avoiding the war is worth the investment.
  • Some criticize the U.S. for attempting to reassert itself internationally when we have issues to solve at home.

Thomas Friedman asked if "sleepy Joe Biden" is "making Putin blink?"

"If Vladimir Putin opts to back away from invading Ukraine, even temporarily, it’s because Joe Biden — that guy whose right-wing critics suggest is so deep in dementia he wouldn’t know Kyiv from Kansas or AARP from NATO — has matched every Putin chess move with an effective counter of his own," Friedman wrote. "Putin has been on such a run of outmaneuvering the West and destabilizing our politics that it is easy to overrate him. It is also hard to believe a word that comes out of his mouth. But if Putin was sincere when he said Tuesday that he was 'ready to continue on the negotiating track' to ensure that Ukraine never joins NATO and was also pulling back some of his menacing forces — U.S. officials say there’s no sign of that yet — it’s because Biden’s statecraft has given Putin pause.

"Specifically, the Biden team has mobilized enough solidarity among the NATO allies, enough advanced defensive arms transfers to Ukraine and enough potentially biting economic sanctions on Russia to put into Putin’s mind the only thought that matters: 'If I go ahead with a full-scale invasion and it goes bad — wrecking Russia’s economy and resulting in Russian soldiers returning home in body bags from a war with fellow Slavs — could it lead to my own downfall?'"

Andriy Zagorodnyuk wrote that deterring Putin may be expensive, but it’s much cheaper than war.

"From a Russian perspective, therefore, the stakes in the current confrontation could hardly be higher and a dramatic military escalation cannot be ruled out. Putin regards the loss of Ukraine as a potentially decisive setback for Russian national interests and is prepared to pay a very high price to prevent this from happening. To counter this, the West must convince the Kremlin that it is also willing to pay a far higher price than anticipated in order to defend Ukraine from attack.

“The international response to Putin’s recent saber-rattling has so far focused on the threat of massive sanctions along with increased military support for Ukraine. These sensible policies must now be clarified and dramatically enhanced,” Zagorodnyuk wrote. “There is still time to send the right messages to Moscow, particularly in terms of detailing the personal sanctions Putin and his inner circle can expect in the event of an invasion. Above all else, deliveries of military equipment must be rapidly and significantly increased. While Ukraine has welcomed numerous plane loads of arms from the country’s partners in recent weeks, Russia’s unchanged posture suggests that the amount and type of weapons entering Ukraine has failed to deter Putin. Rather than regarding this military aid as an expense, Western governments should view it as an investment. The return on this investment will be regional stability.”

But in The Nation, a more skeptical Andrew Bacevich said all of this is really about re-establishing a facade of American exceptionalism.

"Who in their right mind would identify with a nation that has in the not-so-distant past engaged in a costly and arguably illegal war in one country (Iraq), while waging a 20-year-long war in another (Afghanistan) that ended in humiliating defeat?" he wrote. "In what sense does a nation that loses over 900,000 of its citizens to a pandemic, whose dysfunctional central government annually spends trillions more than it takes in, and that cannot even control its own borders qualify as exceptional? Can a nation in which the richest 1 percent control 16 times more wealth than the bottom 50 percent be deemed exceptional? Or one in which a major political party characterizes violent insurrection as 'legitimate political discourse'? As for a nation that elects Donald Trump president and may do so again: The term 'exceptional' hardly seems appropriate.

"'Reckless,' 'incompetent,' 'alienated,' 'extravagantly wasteful,' and 'deeply confused' more accurately describe our predicament," he wrote. "How to get out of the political, cultural, and economic mess in which we find ourselves—yes, how to make America great again—is the overarching question of the day. Those eager for a showdown with Russia over Ukraine offer one answer to that question: Putting a brutal bully in his place will go far toward restoring American exceptionalism’s lost luster. It’s 'wag the dog' in modified form: militarized assertiveness in faraway places promising a shortcut to redemption. Don’t believe it."


What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right say we need to hold Putin accountable and keep him from a full scale invasion of Ukraine.
  • But some say we have no business dictating what happens in Ukraine or Russia.
  • Others argue there are no pro-war calls on either side, just a call to use our best diplomatic tools to prevent Putin's advancement.

In the Wall Street Journal, Holman Jenkins advised against letting Putin off the hook in Ukraine.

"Mr. Putin would be invading Ukraine purely as a political solution," Jenkins wrote. "He can plainly see how NATO is constituted, an alliance of pacifist countries with no desire for war or even a desire to spend on their militaries. NATO poses no threat to Russia. His real concern, undisclosed by the Kremlin, not listed in its implausible and unactionable 'negotiation' documents presented to the U.S., is of a democratic Ukraine attached to the West becoming free and prosperous... The impact on Russia of invading Ukraine would be so disastrous, the only reason Mr. Putin and his cronies might nevertheless proceed is because they see no other way to assure continuation of their own rule and privileges for another decade.

"Mr. Putin has been living a more dangerous life than appreciated. His regime’s attempted murder of its most prominent critic, Alexei Navalny, was an infamous screw-up; Mr. Navalny escaped and then came back voluntarily to be arrested, making Mr. Putin the protector and cultivator of the man most likely to preside over his regime’s liquidation. Mr. Putin’s lackey having been overthrown in Ukraine, Ukraine is rapidly attaching itself to the West. His lackey in Belarus had to be rescued from a voter revolt. His lackey in Kazakhstan had to be propped up with Russian troops last month," he added. "You might wonder of politicians in any country whether they really love their country or just crave power. In the West, we render this question moot with a routinized process of regime change, reallocating power continually on the basis of results. The nature and record of the Putin regime speaks for itself."

In The American Conservative, Rod Dreher wrote about "the new world order."

"Look, I don’t want Russia to invade Ukraine either, and am literally praying on and off throughout the day for peace," he said. "The Ukrainian people have had to suffer horribly at the hands of Moscow over the last century, and I don’t want them to suffer more. But this is the new world order we live in: a post-American world order, in which the United States is a diminished power on the world stage. One of my interlocutors this week pointed out that the French in particular don’t want this Ukraine war, and that the French tried to warn the US administration to stay out of Iraq back in the early 2000s. 'Yes, and we hated them for it,' I replied. 'But they were correct.'

"It is so difficult for Americans to come to terms with the idea that we are no longer what we were," he wrote. "Many of us react to this Russia-Ukraine thing with jerking knees. Liberals can’t believe that we are going to allow the thuggish Putin to get away with brutalizing a sovereign country. Conservatives hearken back to Cold War simplicities, and rail against 'defeatism'. Both sorts of hawks squawk 'Munich!' as a way of closing off deliberation about the wisdom of risking war with Russia over Ukraine. Again, if you were around in the early 2000s and paying attention, this Munich thing showed up a lot in debates over the wisdom of going to war with Iraq... None of this, mind you, is to say that Russia is right to invade, or to threaten to invade, Ukraine. It is rather to say that I find it impossible to see what America’s vital interest is in risking war with Russia to try to prevent this from happening. It is not in America’s interest to rattle its saber in this part of the world."

David French criticized an anti-war movement when there is no pro-war side in this conflict.

"A strange thing is happening online and over the airwaves—one of the strangest I’ve ever seen," he wrote. "The old left and the new right are launching a vigorous anti-war movement in response to a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine when there is no pro-war movement. There is not a single national leader who is arguing that the United States should deploy to Ukraine and fight the Russians. President Biden has ruled it out. The GOP isn’t demanding that the president send troops to Kyiv. But you’d never know it from the rhetoric.

"Support for crippling sanctions, including blocking the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, that would kneecap the Russian economy along with supplying weapons that could inflict real damage on Russian forces is far from a call for war. It’s an effort to tell Russia that war would be too costly to wage, even if our boots aren’t on the ground," French wrote. "Russia is testing the West. Vladimir Putin knows we’re not going to fight for Ukraine. He knows he can take Ukraine. But what he doesn’t know is whether his conquest will be worth the cost. And here’s the fundamental reality—the ‘leave Russia alone’ position is the position most likely to lead to conflict, to enable a war that will kill thousands and inevitably inflict unintended consequences on Europe and the world."


My take.

First, I’d like to reiterate what I've said before: The most important thing here is what the Ukrainian people want.

I don't doubt for a moment the critics’ assertion that, for some in the foreign policy establishment, this showdown is about reasserting "American greatness" on the world stage. But motivations are less important than the outcome here. There are, fundamentally, two simple sides to this issue. On one side is a belief that Russia has a "right" to dictate what happens in Ukraine (generally, Putin, China, some pro-Russia separatists and citizens in Ukraine are on this side). On the other side is a belief that the Ukrainian people should determine their own future (generally, the U.S., Europe, NATO, the Ukrainian government and many Ukrainian citizens are on this side).

Putin's determination to go to war is, fundamentally, about ensuring that he doesn't "lose" Ukraine to the west, a blemish that he knows would live on his historical record forever. Our motivations to stop him — whether it’s reaching for American assertiveness, stuffing the pockets of the military industrial complex, or a genuine concern and obligation to the Ukrainian people — are less relevant to me than actually stopping him.

From the American perspective, our goal should be to do everything we possibly can — save engaging in an actual shooting war — to prevent Putin from invading. I am staunchly anti-war, and was equally outspoken about the need to withdraw from Afghanistan in the pages of this newsletter. I generally use my platform here to advocate for a version of America that leans into diplomacy, keeps our troops safely out of harm's way, and attempts to model a functioning democracy for the world.

But being anti-war does not mean minding our own business.

In this case, the best way to prevent a war is actually to stick our nose into another part of the world and make it clear we're watching. Credit where credit is due: That's precisely what Biden is doing. Many conservatives, even Biden's biggest critics, are acknowledging that he is navigating this crisis deftly. And he is. So far. Blasting out Russian troop movements to the world, arming Ukraine, pulling every sanction we have in the book, speaking directly to the Russian people, all of it is undermining Putin's power and the faith Putin's advisers have in his brilliance. And, tentatively, it's working.

Zagorodnyuk argues well that the cost of preventing a war is much cheaper than the cost of allowing one, even if we never send our soldiers into Ukraine. That's a critical point a lot of anti-war populists seem to overlook. If we were to do nothing, and Russia were to invade, it would not just roil global markets, set off a massive refugee crisis and de-stabilize eastern Europe, it would also force our hand to give aid, protect more traditional European allies and manage the fallout. Not to mention potentially emboldening China. Stopping that now with military aid and sanctions is well worth the price of admission.

Again, there’s still a stronger point to be made: Let’s stop worrying about what Putin wants and start asking what Ukrainians want. Mychailo Wynnyckyj has made that point really well here, in a piece we’ve linked to before. “After all, Russian aggression is itself a reaction to Ukrainian agency,” he writes. “Putin’s war only makes sense when viewed in the context of Ukraine’s own efforts to embrace a democratic future as part of the Euro-Atlantic community, while the present invasion threat is a direct response to eight long years of Ukrainian defiance.”

The recent developments are certainly better than what we saw a few months ago. Still, this is by no means over — even U.S. and NATO advisers are being clear they are not sure Russia is really in retreat. But for Putin's sake, for our sakes, and for Ukraine's sake, we should hope they are.


Your questions, answered.

Q: What "leverage" does the executive branch have over Congress members when negotiating legislation i.e. Biden and Manchin? A lot of people frame it as if the president is in charge of other elected members of their party, which by the very nature of our process is obviously untrue, especially if the president is unpopular with that member's constituents. Besides publicly shaming them, is there any funding or government benefits they could threaten to hold up?

— Bill, Wayne, NJ

Tangle: Great question. There are certainly federal programs that the executive branch can dangle (or take away) in negotiations, but the truth is most of the leverage comes from other legislators in Congress. The federal government provided about $750 billion in federal grants in 2019. That's for everything from transportation to health care.

Off the top of my head I struggle to think of a grant program Biden could unilaterally end without also hurting other members of Congress, so if he wanted to pressure Manchin into moving his position on something, the best thing to do would be to get other members of Congress behind a pressure point — something the president is perfectly capable of doing. Threatening federal funding is actually a bit dangerous, politically, for a president, because the media would obviously notice and call him on what is basically open extortion (not that this is uncommon in Congress).

Aside from executive orders, one of the most powerful tools the president does have is the power of the veto. Which is important. Biden could, privately, threaten to veto major legislation Manchin cares about if he doesn't step in line on another bill. He could also get party leadership to include certain amendments to legislation and threaten the veto if they aren't included. There are lots of ways to cut it, but you're generally right that his leverage can be overstated at a time when he is weak politically.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

Earlier this week, nine families of Sandy Hook victims settled for $73 million with Remington, the maker of the gun used in the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that killed 20 first graders and six adults in 2012. This marks the first time a manufacturer has agreed to a settlement, a major turning point in a long battle activists have been fighting to hold gun manufacturers accountable for violence in the U.S. Remington, which filed for bankruptcy in 2020, was long expected to be protected by federal laws. But the Sandy Hook parents maneuvered around the law protecting gun companies from litigation by successfully arguing that their marketing of the weapon violated Connecticut consumer law. Jury selection was supposed to begin in September, and this case is the first damages award of this magnitude against a U.S. gun manufacturer based on a mass shooting. President Biden encouraged other families who were victims of gun violence to replicate the effort. The New York Times has the story.


Numbers.

  • 620. The distance, in miles, of the journey from Ukraine's borders back to permanent deployments that Russian troops are alleged to be making.
  • 150,000. The current estimates of how many Russian troops are along Ukraine's border.
  • 13,000. The estimated number of people who have died since 2014 in fighting in Donbas, the eastern region of Ukraine.
  • #2. The ambassadorial ranking of Bart Gorman, our deputy U.S. ambassador to Russia, who was expelled from Russia this morning.
  • 11,000. The total number of U.S. troops expected to be in Poland and Romania by the end of the week.
  • 80,000. The total number of U.S. troops in Europe.

Have a nice day.

Ok, first the bad news: Florida's manatees are dying at an alarming rate, largely from starvation. Now the good news: Humans are trying to do something about it. A new program in Florida is working to feed literally tons of lettuce a week to manatees, and state wildlife officials say the program is showing signs of success. An average of 350 manatees a day are now coming to eat the greens in a temporary response station along Florida's east coast. Roughly 20,000 pounds of vegetation is being fed to the manatees a week, primarily romaine and butter leaf lettuce. CNN has the good news.


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