Feb 22, 2023

Biden's surprise Ukraine visit.

Biden walking with Ukraine's President Zelensky in Ukraine. Image: PBS News Hour YouTube
Biden walking with Ukraine's President Zelensky in Ukraine. Image: PBS News Hour YouTube

Biden covertly traveled to Ukraine, and then reaffirmed U.S. support.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, 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: 11 minutes.

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Biden visits Kyiv. Plus, a question about using AI with Tangle, an update on the adobe stacking, and a feel-good story to wash it all down.

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Coming along...

I got so many emails asking for continued updates on the adobe house that I can't reply to them all. But I am thrilled to report that after five days of nonstop work, we finished all four walls. I'll post more later this year as things advance — thank you for all the kind words of encouragement and the interest!


Quick hits.

  1. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up the contamination from its derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. (The deal)
  2. Jen Psaki, the former White House press secretary, is joining MSNBC to host a weekly series. (The show)
  3. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Gonzalez v. Google, a case challenging Section 230, which protects platforms like Facebook and YouTube from liability for what users post. (The arguments)
  4. Venture capitalist Vivek Ramaswamy, who wrote the book "Woke Inc.," announced he was running for president during an appearance on Tucker Carlson's Fox News show. (The campaign)
  5. President Biden implemented a new U.S.-Mexico border policy that restricts migrants by requiring them to first seek protection in the nations they pass through before being eligible to apply for U.S. asylum. (The rules)

Today's topic.

Biden's Kyiv visit. On Monday, President Biden made a surprise visit to the capital of Ukraine. It was the first time in the modern era that a president had traveled into a war zone not controlled by American forces. U.S. counterparts in Moscow were given notice about the trip before Biden departed.

In order to get him into the country, the president had to travel covertly to Kyiv while much of the press thought he was in Washington D.C., and spent more than nine hours taking a train into Ukraine from Poland. He spent 20 hours out of view before appearing in Kyiv, where he toured the city for about five hours. In total, it’s estimated he was on the ground in Ukraine for around 23 hours.

Word of his presence leaked before Biden’s departure. During his visit, he made stops around the city without any announcements to the public in Ukraine that he was there, spending some of his tour alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Because other European and American leaders had made the trip, U.S. officials determined that it would be safe enough for Biden to visit. Biden had visited Ukraine six times as vice president, but this trip — which took months of planning — was unlike any before it.

In a joint press conference, Biden and Zelensky emphasized the resilience of Ukraine and made the case for continuing to support their efforts against Russia. During the trip, he publicly announced $500 million of additional funding for Ukrainian arms. The package includes artillery ammunition, anti-armor systems and air surveillance radars.

"We've committed nearly 700 tanks and thousands of armored vehicles, 1,000 artillery systems, more than 2 million rounds of artillery ammunition, more than 50 advanced launch rocket systems, anti-ship and air defense systems, all to defend Ukraine," Biden said. "And that doesn't count the other half a billion dollars we're going to be, we're announcing with you today and tomorrow. That's going to be coming your way and that's just the United States in this piece."

The United States has now pledged $29.8 billion to Ukraine during the war. Biden did not mention fighter jets which Ukraine has requested from its U.S. and European allies.

“One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” Mr. Biden said.

Today, we're going to take a look at some opinions from the left and right about Biden's visit, then my take.


What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right were supportive of the trip, but concerned about the larger trajectory of the war.
  • Some are critical of the trip, saying we continue to inch toward a larger World War with Russia and China.
  • Others say Biden successfully removed Putin's hope that the U.S. may be wavering in its support.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board praised the visit, but worries about the new Russia-China axis developing.

"President Biden’s visit to Kyiv on Monday was an important symbolic display of American support for Ukraine, and credit to him for traveling into a war zone," the board said. "But the bigger Ukraine news in recent days may be the public alarms coming from U.S. officials that China could soon provide Russia with military aid. 'The concern that we have now is, based on information we have, that they’re considering providing lethal support,' Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CBS News on Sunday. 'And we’ve made very clear to them that that would cause a serious problem for us and in our relationship.' U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield went further on CNN, saying Chinese military aid 'would be a red line.'

"The U.S. says China has provided Russia with technical and economic support for the war, but so far not weapons. Mr. Blinken’s alarm about the prospect is warranted because it would exacerbate the conflict, add to the bloodshed, and make it harder for Ukraine to recapture occupied territory. It would also extend the war, further depleting the West’s weapons stockpiles that are already stretched after a year of backing Ukraine," the board said. "To put it more bluntly, arming Russia would be a new and explicit demonstration of China’s hostile intentions toward the U.S. and the West. It would certainly erase Beijing’s seeming desire since the Biden meeting with President Xi Jinping in Bali late last year to put U.S.-China relations on a better course. It would also require a firm U.S. response, which would have to include further economic decoupling."

On Fox News, Tucker Carlson warned that Biden continues to push the envelope forward toward World War III.

"If Russia ever joined forces with China, American global hegemony, its power would end instantly. You'd have the world's largest land mass and largest natural gas reserves, allied with the world's largest population and world's largest economy," Carlson said. "So, a Russia-China axis would be not just more powerful than the United States, but much more powerful. It would have the scale to control a lot of the world's economy and trade routes and raw materials. It could project military force that posturing aside, we actually don't have the power to stop. If Russia and China ever got together, it would be a brand-new world and the United States would be greatly diminished. Most Americans agree that would be bad.

"Thanks to Joe Biden's reckless and self-destructive response to the invasion of Ukraine a year ago this week, the economies of Russia and China are intertwined," he said. "The thing about economic ties, however, is that they lead inexorably to military ties. So, it shouldn't surprise you that China is actively helping Russia in the war against NATO, which we are leading. In other words, the country with more ships than any navy in the world has united with a country that has more nuclear armed ICBMs than any country in the world to fight us through proxy in Ukraine... Our leaders understand that their push for total war with Putin, which is unnecessary, could lead to the destruction of the West. They know that, but they're doing it anyway."

In The Atlantic, Eliot A. Cohen said Biden just destroyed Putin's last hope.

"While the president clearly intended to bolster the confidence of Ukraine, and the commitment of ambivalent Europeans and neo-isolationist Americans, his real audiences lay elsewhere, as his remarks about Western strength indicated," Cohen wrote. "Russia has cycled through a series of theories of victory in Ukraine—that Kyiv’s leaders would flee, that Ukraine’s population would not fight, that its army would be crumpled up by a sudden blitz or by grinding assaults. It has been reduced to one last hope: that Vladimir Putin’s will is stronger than Joe Biden’s. And Biden just said, by deed as well as word, 'Oh no it’s not.'

"This is a gut punch to Russia’s leader. The Russians received word of the trip, we are informed—and presumably the threat, stated or implied, that they would get a violent and overwhelming response if they attempted to interfere with it. For a leader obsessed with strength, like Putin, that is a blow," Cohen said. "His own people will quietly or openly ask, 'Why could we not prevent this?' And the answer, unstated, will have to be, 'Because we were afraid.' The visual contrast between an American president with his signature aviator sunglasses walking in sunny downtown Kyiv with the pugnacious and eloquent president of Ukraine and a Russian president who has yet to visit the war zone is also striking... No belligerent words from the Kremlin will change those visual images, which will be seen in Russia as well as around the world."


What the left is saying.

  • The left has praised the trip, arguing it sends a clear message to Putin, Russia and the world that the U.S. is behind Ukraine.
  • Some say Biden demonstrated bravery by going to Ukraine, and has diminished Putin with the trip.
  • Others argue that Biden and Putin's recent actions show there is no end to the war in sight.

In The Washington Post, Eugene Robinson said Putin "seriously misjudged" Biden's courage.

"As President Biden walked the streets of Kyiv on Monday beside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, air raid sirens began to wail," Robinson said. "A Russian fighter jet had reportedly taken off from Belarus, carrying the type of hypersonic missile that Ukraine’s defenders cannot shoot down. The two leaders did not flinch. Say what you want about Biden, he lacks neither courage nor resolve. His surprise visit to the Ukrainian capital might be the first time a sitting president has braved an active war zone — with no inviolable U.S. military cordon around him — since 1864, when Abraham Lincoln went to see the fighting at Fort Stevens, near the northern tip of the District of Columbia, and came under fire from Confederate sharpshooters.

"No one took a potshot or fired a missile at Biden. But to reach Kyiv he had to endure a 10-hour train ride from Poland — followed, after his visit with Zelensky, by another 10-hour journey back to safety," he wrote. "The president spent a full day exposed to potential Russian fire. What many people fail to understand about Biden, the oldest president in our history, is the extent to which he is guided by a sense of mission. He came out of retirement and ran for the White House only because he believed he had the unique ability, and thus the obligation, to save the nation from another four years of Donald Trump. And he has faced Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the same burden of duty imposed by history."

In CNN, Frida Ghitis said "in a war of unending surprises," Biden had another trick up his sleeve.

"The risky trip on Monday to an active war zone was not just a powerful symbol of American support, it was a shot in the arm to a population that has endured Russia’s devastating attacks on civilian apartment blocks, hospitals, schools and the power stations that provide heat and electricity. 'It’s just something unbelievable that at a time like this the President of the United States is coming to Kyiv,' Andrei Ketov, a 48-year-old Ukrainian service member, told CNN… Biden’s visit to Ukraine a year into the biggest war in Europe since World War II underscores just how badly Russian President Vladimir Putin miscalculated,” Ghitis said.

"Putin didn’t just misjudge Ukraine’s determination to resist and its revulsion with his claims that Ukraine is not a real country," she added. "He may have just bought into the Kremlin’s own malicious propaganda about the feebleness of America’s leadership — echoed and amplified by Biden’s political foes. Who could have imagined in 2022, when Ukraine’s situation looked so hopeless that the United States offered to evacuate Zelensky — and he famously refused — that a year later the Ukrainian people would have put up such a strong resistance, and the West would have given so much support for their efforts?"

In Vox, Jonathan Guyer said Biden and Putin's recent actions show the end of the war is a long way off.

"Speaking to a crowd of thousands in Warsaw, Poland, on Tuesday, Biden framed the war as a battle between democracy and autocracy, as he has consistently done for the past year," he wrote. "Hours earlier in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered his own address. He justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with some revisionist history, emphasized the massive quantity of weapons the West has provided Ukraine, and announced the withdrawal from an important arms control agreement with the United States. It’s a chilling indication that the stakes of this war are not just Ukraine’s future but the world’s future. The threat of a nuclear conflict always lingers in the background.

"In private, people reportedly expressed worry about the trajectory of the conflict. 'Worries about a prolonged war abounded,' Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security think tank wrote. 'Western support cannot remain at current levels indefinitely. Political support may ebb, stockpiles are dwindling, and populations could grow less generous over time. In a long war of attrition, Moscow might have the upper hand.' It reflects the discussion that needs to be had but isn’t happening publicly," Guyer said. "On Tuesday, though, you wouldn’t have known either Russia or the West is thinking about an end to the conflict any time soon. As [researcher Jade] McGlynn put it, 'The gulf in how this war is seen by both sides makes peace almost impossible.'"


My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • The visit appears to have been a jolt of positivity for Ukrainians, which makes me support it.
  • This does not mean everything about it is good, though.
  • Like many on the right, I share fears about the new Russia-China axis forming, and much of the world's non-committal stance on this issue.

There's something both remarkable and unsettling about it.

Obviously, Biden's visit was historic. It's hard to deny that. Historians will debate precisely how historic what he just did is, but there's no doubt that it's been at least 80 years since a president showed up in a war zone not controlled by U.S. forces. Yes, the trip was planned thoroughly, Russia was notified, and presumably every security measure possible was taken. But he still spent close to 20 hours on a train in a war zone, and another five walking around a city that has been under constant threat of air raids for a year. It was a gutsy trip, and one that reinforces the line the U.S. has been walking on the Ukraine issue.

It was also embarrassing for Russia. Russian journalist Sergey Mardan called it a "demonstrative humiliation of Russia" and influential bloggers across Russia bemoaned the fact that Biden simply walked into Kyiv without any fear of being attacked or killed. Some sarcastically pointed out the fact that the U.S. president visited Kyiv before the Russian president did, despite the fact Putin claims to control the city and said he'd take it over in a matter of weeks. They're right to notice the distinction. Imagine if, when this invasion began, I told you a year later it'd be President Biden walking the streets of Kyiv? Not many people would have believed that.

Perhaps most importantly, to me, the visit seems to have provided a jolt of hope and energy to Ukrainians. Again: Nothing in my mind matters more than the innocent civilians who are suffering the brunt of Putin's war, those who are under threat of constant bombardment, having their families killed, seeing their neighborhoods destroyed, living without power or water, all for what? The delusion that Ukraine belongs to Putin. For them, Biden's visit appeared to be inspiring, and that makes me supportive of the decision to go.

Yet none of this should obscure the other reality here, too, which is that this serves as an escalation and entrenchment moment for the war. It's not an escalation like Putin's — murdering civilians or threatening nukes, or the initial invasion of an independent state. But it's an escalation in that it raises the stakes of the conflict. If any mishap had taken place while Biden was there, or he had been threatened in any way, it would have been cause for a larger war. It was a taunt, too; one meant not just to show solidarity with Ukraine but explicitly to embarrass Putin. And it also served as a pledge: The U.S. is in this war for good, and we’ve passed another mile marker — Biden visiting Kyiv — without any clear plan about how to end it.

In the Western press, the commentary about the war is usually centered around the unification of the West that Biden has rallied. No doubt, there is truth there: Biden has done a masterful job pulling Europe together and strengthening the coalition against Russia. But the concern from many conservatives about the Russia-China axis is no small thing either.

And the larger picture is much murkier. Africa is divided over Russia, with many countries signaling support. Democracies across Latin America have mostly avoided taking a stance, and some have actually rejected calls for sending arms to Ukraine. Israel continues to walk an ambiguous line to the point of total incoherence. India, the world's largest democracy, has been reluctant to back Ukraine. All the while, China and Russia's economic and military ties continue to grow stronger. To put it plainly: This is not a black and white Russia versus the world scenario.

So, while I was in many ways impressed by Biden's visit and supportive of it because it served as a positive moment for the innocent Ukrainians suffering through this war, I was left feeling the same fears many commentators on the right are feeling. Fears this is another step toward a larger war, not towards the end of this one. Fears this kind of risky show of resilience will become more common, leaving more room for error. Fears that, while we have brought Europe into the fold, we continue to push our two most powerful adversaries toward each other, with much of the world unsure of where to stand, and the likelihood of larger conflict only rising.


Your questions, answered.

Q: I love reading your summaries of stories and relevant issues in the news as well as the “left”, “right” and “my take” sections. Summarizing vast amounts of information on a daily basis must be a lot of work. Do you ever use AI to help? If so, how do you use it? Thanks!

— Amy from Illinois

Tangle: I have never used AI for any of my work. My team and I have been chipping away at a piece on AI, and some of the new developments like ChatGPT, and how they may impact the future of the media and politics. But for now, this is still a 100% human enterprise (maybe that will be our slogan in 10 years?).

The reason is pretty simple: I don’t think AI makes Tangle better. Choosing summaries of the right and left is not just about collecting opinions, which any artificial intelligence could do. It's about collecting opinions that speak to each other, that broadly span the left-right spectrum, and that would be engaging to my audience. Obviously, I don't think an AI service could write my take, though it'd be a fun experiment to input everything I've ever written into a system and see what it spits out.

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Blindspot report.

Once a week, we present the Blindspot Report from our partners at Ground News, an app that tells you the bias of news coverage and what stories people on each side are missing.

The left missed a story about San Francisco considering an end to its sanctuary city rules.

The right missed a story about how changes to a U.S. school meal program helped reduce obesity among America's children.


Under the radar.

A Georgia grand jury has recommended multiple indictments against multiple people in its investigation into former President Donald Trump's alleged attempt to interfere in the election. Emily Kohrs, the foreperson of the grand jury, declined to reveal who was being charged and whether Trump was among them. The report was delivered to an Atlanta-area district attorney, who will determine how to proceed. A small portion of the document detailing the recommendations has been made public, which includes a conclusion that there was no evidence of election fraud in Georgia as well as a recommendation that perjury charges be pursued against several unnamed witnesses. USA Today has the latest.


Numbers.

  • 30,000-40,000. The estimated number of civilians who have died in Ukraine since the war began.
  • 180,000. The estimated number of Russian soldiers who have been killed or wounded since the war began, according to Norway’s defense chief.
  • 100,000. The estimated number of Ukrainian soldiers who have been killed or wounded since the war began, according to Norway’s defense chief.
  • 900. The length, in miles, of the current "active front" in the war.
  • $138 billion. The estimated cost of rebuilding Ukraine's infrastructure after the war.

The extras.

  • One year ago today, we were covering Russia and Ukraine being on the brink of war.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter: The video review of the 2024 electric corvette.
  • 58%. The percentage of Tangle readers who said John Fetterman should not be serving in Congress.
  • 22.3%. The percentage of Tangle readers who said John Fetterman should be serving in Congress.
  • 19.6%. The percentage who said they were unsure.
  • One non-political thing: 1 in 10 Americans are illegally pirating movies, sports and television.  
  • Take the poll: Are you supportive of Biden's trip to Ukraine? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

A daughter's viral TikTok video has sent her father's novel to the top of Amazon's best sellers list. Marguerite Richards was visiting her dad when she found out his novel Stone Maidens, published in 2012, still wasn't making any money. It was ranked 1,452nd on the mystery, thriller and suspense list for Amazon. She decided to help her dad, Lloyd Richards, and asked if she could make a quick video of him. Then she recorded a 16-second video of him working in the attic, and posted it to TikTok, a site her dad knew nothing about, with the message that she hoped to get him some sales. The video went viral, and a few days later, Richards’ novel was atop the best sellers list. The Washington Post has the story.


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