Should we facilitate the transfer?
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.”
Today's read: 12 minutes.
We're covering the fighter jets Poland wants to send to Ukraine (via the United States). Plus, a reader question about the Supreme Court and my bias.
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- Brent Renaud, a widely acclaimed American war journalist and documentarian, was shot and killed by Russian forces in Ukraine. (The tragedy)
- Actor Jussie Smollett was sentenced to 150 days in jail for staging a hate crime against himself in the winter of 2019. (The sentence)
- President Biden said the U.S. will join G7 and the European Union in calling for a suspension of normal trade relations with Russia, a change that will raise tariffs on many Russian products. (The decision)
- Saudi Arabia executed 81 people in a single day for crimes ranging from murder to membership in extremist groups. It was the largest known mass execution in the kingdom's modern history. (The executions)
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Poland's fighter jets. Last week, the Pentagon rejected an offer from Poland to transfer MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, despite initially signaling it would support the plan. The dramatic public back and forth started when Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was going to give the plan the "green light" during a CBS News interview. But Polish authorities later clarified that their intent was to pass the planes to the U.S. for transfer, not deliver the planes themselves, as Blinken seemed to imply.
As news broke of the plan, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby described it as not “tenable," and some U.S. officials seemed blindsided by the offer to transfer the planes. Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly the MiG-29, which is Soviet-made, so the transfer could theoretically have had an immediate boost.
President Joe Biden explained the hesitancy during a Democratic retreat last weekend.
“The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and planes or tanks or trains going in with American pilots and American crews — just understand, don’t kid yourself, no matter what you all say — that’s called World War III. Okay. Let’s get it straight here guys," Biden said.
Had the plan been executed, the planes would have first been flown to the U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and then either transported or flown into Ukraine by NATO pilots. Poland would have transferred 28 jets to Ukraine via the United States, which then would have sent replacement F-16 fighter jets to the Polish air force. But concerns about whether this move would be deemed an escalation, or if the Russian military may strike the planes en route to Ukraine, ultimately led the Biden administration to back off. Russia has said that supporting Ukraine’s air force would be the same as joining the war, and could be cause for retaliation.
The offer came at a time when Ukraine was pleading for more air support from NATO allies. Superiority in the sky is going to be key to the outcome of this conflict, and Russia's invasion has been slowed substantially by its inability to establish that superiority. In the meantime, Russia has continued its heavy bombing of civilian targets, military outposts, and even hospitals — all of which has made the pleas more and more urgent from Ukraine's president and military leaders.
Three major Ukrainian cities have been under continuous shelling for weeks, with entire blocks completely destroyed by Russian fighter jets. On Sunday, 35 people were killed and 134 were injured when Russian missiles bombarded a military facility in western Ukraine just 15 miles from the border of Poland, a NATO ally. Ukrainian spokespeople say more than 2,200 civilians have been killed in the city of Mariupol alone.
The United States' decision to decline the offer immediately became a contentious issue, with many on the right criticizing it and many on the left supporting it.
Below, we'll take a look at some of the arguments, then my take.
What the right is saying.
- The right criticizes the decision, saying the Biden administration continues to project weakness.
- Some say Biden's administration once again looks chaotic, and it continues to broadcast its plans widely.
- Others say the fighter jets would have clearly made a difference.
In American Greatness, Dan Gelernter said Poland went from saying it was delivering the planes, to not, to delivering them again, all because of chaotic U.S. diplomacy.
"Why would Poland make this announcement all of a sudden, right before an apparent reversal?" he asked. "Because just the day before that, Secretary of State Antony 'Genius' Blinken gave an interview to CBS in which he said that they’d given Poland the 'green light' to send fighter planes to Ukraine. 'In fact,' Blinken continued cheerfully, 'we’re talking with our Polish friends right now about what we might be able to do to backfill their needs if, in fact, they choose to provide these fighter jets to the Ukrainians. What can we do? How can we help to make sure that they get something to backfill the planes that they are handing over to the Ukrainians?'
"Now, if you were Poland, in secret negotiations with both Ukraine and the United States to send military aid to Ukraine, but in such a way that you didn’t immediately get attacked by Russia, how would you feel if the American secretary of state suddenly blurted all this out on national television?" Gelernter asked. "Faced with this astonishing interview, it’s no wonder Poland felt compelled to contradict the 'rumors' immediately to avoid worse fallout... People used to make fun of Donald Trump for projecting 'strategic ambiguity,' but that’s exactly what you should do in a world of adversaries and potential adversaries. Putin wanted to invade Ukraine, but he didn’t know what Trump would do in response. The uncertainty was great, therefore Putin’s risk was great."
The Wall Street Journal editorial board said the fiasco keeps getting worse.
"The White House is now confirming that the decision went all the way up to President Biden, who vetoed the jet delivery lest it provoke Vladimir Putin and risk escalating the war," the board wrote. "The logic seems to be that sending lethal anti-aircraft and antitank weapons won’t provoke the Russian, but 28 fixed-wing aircraft would. That distinction is hard to parse, especially when the Pentagon is also saying that the Ukrainians don’t need the jets because their other weapons are more effective. So sending less lethal aircraft will lead to World War III, but not arms that are really deadly?
"The bigger problem is the message this fiasco sends to Mr. Putin about NATO. The essence of credible deterrence is making an adversary believe that taking certain actions will draw a response," it added. "By so ostentatiously not sending the fighters, and saying the reason is fear of escalation, Mr. Biden is telling the Russian what he doesn’t have to worry about. Instead of deterring Mr. Putin, Mr. Biden is letting the Russian deter the U.S. This is becoming a pattern with the Commander in Chief... Meanwhile, Mr. Putin is escalating his Ukraine assault in any case. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted Thursday that the Russians deliberately targeted the maternity hospital in Mariupol. Mr. Putin knows what NATO won’t do to stop him."
In National Review, Jim Geraghty questioned how the gain from the MiG-29's could be so low, as the Biden administration claims.
"Ukraine started the war with perhaps as many as 112 combat aircraft, and now has at least 36, and perhaps as many as 100," Geraghty said. "But this makes another comment from Kirby yesterday implausible: 'We assess that adding aircraft to the Ukrainian inventory is not likely to significantly change the effectiveness of the Ukrainian Air Force relative to Russian capabilities. Therefore, we believe that the gain from transferring those MiG-29s is low.'
"Clearly, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky and his country’s military see it differently. It is simple math," he wrote. "In a fight against an invading Russian army, would you rather have 36 MiG-29s, or add Poland’s 28 jets and have 64 MiG-29s available to patrol the skies and attack invading Russians? Adding Poland’s jets would nearly double the amount of MiG-29s that Ukraine can bring to the fight."
What the left is saying.
- The left mostly supports Biden's decision, saying it will keep the U.S. from pushing Putin into escalating the war.
- Some express concern that supplying these weapons and planes would prolong the war and increase the number of civilian deaths.
- Others have said this public back and forth was an "error" by the U.S.
In The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill said the U.S. could prolong the war with more weapons transfers.
“Unless the desired outcome is a full-spectrum war between Russia and the U.S.-NATO bloc, Western nations — particularly the U.S. — must ask themselves whether the current course of action is more or less likely to facilitate an end to the horrifying violence being imposed on Ukraine’s civilian population," Scahill wrote. "If the Western position is that Russia must publicly admit that it is criminal and wrong, and if such a confession is a precondition to any negotiation, then flooding Ukraine with even more weapons is a logical move — especially if you believe that Putin is insane and wants to bring the world to nuclear war and annihilation if he is not able to seize Ukraine.
"If, however, the aim is to end the horrors as swiftly as possible, then we require a serious analysis of the impact such large-scale weapons shipments will have on the fate of Ukrainian civilians and the prospects for an end to the invasion," he added. "The tragic reality is that escalation by the U.S. and NATO will not achieve that, certainly not without grave costs, and could lead to an even worse catastrophe for Ukrainian civilians, if not a wider global conflict. In that case, the only beneficiaries will be those who are now winning the war in Ukraine: the weapons manufacturers and arms dealers."
In Vox, Ellen Ioanes explained that a jet transfer would be "much riskier than supplying more ground weapons of the type the US and other NATO countries have already provided."
"The proposal Poland floated on Tuesday, however, would have involved the US more directly than the plan initially backed by Blinken," Ioanes wrote. "Poland’s updated plan would have sent the MiG-29s to Ukraine via the US’s Ramstein Air Base in Germany, which also houses NATO’s Allied Air Command headquarters. Such a move could have more directly linked both parties to Ukraine’s war effort... That added level of risk appears to have ultimately sunk the deal, though as Politico’s Alexander Ward and Joseph Gedeon point out, Poland could still unilaterally deliver the jets if it wishes to do so.
"Even then, though, there are questions about the impact of such a transfer," Ioanes added. "US and NATO officials have said that 28 additional jets might not prove materially significant in the current context, where Russia has more modern aircraft, and Ivo Daalder, the former US ambassador to NATO, told Vox on Sunday that there could be technical issues as well... Beyond concerns of escalation regarding other types of assistance — like fighter jets — US officials say they believe the continuing flow of weapons is the best way to back Ukraine in its fight against Russia."
The Washington Post editorial board said Russia's targeting of hospitals was vile, backed our support of Ukraine, but said the fracas over the jets was an "error."
"Ukraine and its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, are determined to resist. For the United States and its NATO allies, the challenge is how best to help," the board said. "In that respect, the Biden administration committed its first error of alliance leadership by signaling that it would support the transfer of NATO-member Poland’s Russian-made fighter planes to Ukraine — then nixing the idea as too likely to risk direct NATO-Russia conflict. This conveyed confusion and prompted public criticism from Mr. Zelensky. 'This is not ping-pong, this is about human lives,' he said.
"Fortunately, Ukraine continues to receive large supplies of other defensive munitions from NATO — including new, sophisticated anti aircraft systems from Britain, a kind of second-best air defense solution in lieu of the Polish planes," the board wrote. "Its ground weapons and Turkish-made drones have destroyed hundreds of Russian tanks, artillery systems, planes and vehicles, according to one independent account. Thanks to international support, and its own valor, Ukraine’s defenses are still mostly holding. Now, its forces have received a fresh supply of reasons to fight — from Russia, at Mariupol."
Something has happened in the conversation about these jets that has produced a sense — for some — that if only we would deliver them Ukraine could prevail.
I'm not about to make that argument. I'm unsure if 28 of these fighter jets would make a huge difference, but it is basically modern warfare 101 to understand that owning the skies is critical to winning a war of this kind. It seems unlikely these jets would give Ukraine that air superiority given what they are up against. At the same time, it seems likely that the assistance would significantly improve the current position they are in.
The right's arguments here are simply more persuasive to me. Yes, as Scahill points out, delivering these kinds of weapons could prolong the war. That's actually kind of the point. It would be an unmitigated disaster if Putin takes Kyiv, a situation that would probably result in the imprisonment or execution of President Zelensky, a new puppet regime being put in power, an incredible amount of instability on Europe's eastern border, and then an all-out civil war inside Ukraine.
It would also reinforce Putin's delusion that he could continue to retake former Soviet states, and he could feasibly begin plotting his next target. Even if he "stopped" at Ukraine, the idea that allowing Putin to have Ukraine would somehow result in less war and less civilian death is not convincing to me at all. It would simply turn all of Ukraine into a guerilla war state, with a (heavily) armed civilian resistance for years to come.
And the Biden administration's parsing of delivering planes versus delivering anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles seems spurious. As I said last week, our extreme fear of "escalations" in a war where Putin is openly bombing hospitals, threatening nuclear war and blowing up bases 15 miles from NATO's borders is the definition of projecting weakness. Telling the world what Putin's army was doing at every move was brilliant strategy, and I give the Biden administration credit for it. Telling the world what we won't do at every turn is bad strategy, and we should stop doing that.
Also, we don't need to ask if this would help or make a difference. Zelensky is pleading for the planes. He, the leader of Ukraine's army, is saying that it would make a difference. If Putin were to decide to bomb the transport or engage the planes, then that would be Putin's escalation, not ours. If Putin were to respond in that manner, that would force us to decide what the next steps were to prevent a nuclear catastrophe or World War III, which is everyone’s great fear. We've already drawn a red line at instituting a no-fly zone, and even though I'm skeptical of the common wisdom there I think that is a good red line. But supplying the Ukrainian air force with planes they can fly that day? Against an adversary that is bombing maternity wards and killing civilians by the thousands? Yeah, I'm on board.
At some point, we need to drop the contradictory concerns about what constitutes an escalation with Russia versus a response to their escalations. We've drawn our lines: We won't have a no-fly zone, we'll protect NATO, and we won't put boots on the ground in Ukraine. Putin has said anyone assisting Ukraine would be viewed as engaging in the war. He said cutting Russia off from the banking system would be an act of war. We've done both and there have been no repercussions. What makes everyone think Putin would shoot down NATO or American flown planes in a war he is already barely winning while his country spirals into ruin? It would be a much bigger risk than simply allowing the delivery, and we'd be simultaneously fulfilling our promise to protect Ukraine (even if we don't have a legal obligation to do so).
So I say give Ukraine the planes, give them a shot, and be able to say a few years from now we did all the things we could — save engaging in a hot war with a nuclear power — to offer a boost to a country that deserves our help.
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Your questions, answered.
Q: Why is a conservative court considered a “threat”? Your liberal bias shows up more and more. You can’t claim the middle ground if you’re constantly leaning left. You will soon have only liberal readers that are as “woke” as you are.
— Dave, Eagle Point, Oregon
Tangle: I don't think a conservative court is a "threat." In Tangle's March 8th edition (which this question responds to), I addressed a reader asking "how big of a threat" the current court "realistically poses for issues such as women's and ethnic minority rights." After explaining that the current court may not be as predictable as folks think, and that conservative courts often drift toward the center, I said:
So, how big is the threat? I think it's very hard to predict. I've found some of the court’s recent rulings concerning, but some Americans of all stripes feel that way during every Supreme Court term. I think the suggestion the court has been hijacked by alt-right, Nazi-adjacent ideologues is as ridiculous as it sounds.
This isn't me saying a conservative court is a threat. It's me expressing skepticism about the foundation of the question and explaining that there are always Americans who feel threatened by the make-up of SCOTUS. I am certain I will criticize this court at times, given its strong ideological slant. But that doesn't mean I think it is the existential threat many others do.
Another thing: That same issue prompted many criticisms from liberal readers, who claimed I was describing the court in too benign a fashion and criticized me for my conservative bias. I'm not a centrist, and I certainly have left or right biases on plenty of issues, but my challenge to readers is that it's often the case when you are sensing my bias that you are really expressing your own.
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A story that matters.
According to a new Axios-Ipsos poll, trust in the Centers for Disease Control is driven primarily by where people get their news. The poll confirms the hypothesis that one’s source for news consumption had a greater impact on how Americans handled Covid-19 than race, education or even political affiliation. 66,185 U.S. adults were surveyed across 63 waves of polling from March 2020 to February 2022. Those who watched CNN or MSNBC had the highest trust in the CDC throughout the pandemic, typically above 80%. Those who watched local/other news were in the middle, usually around 60%. And those who watched Fox News or conservative media outlets had the lowest level of trust, which is less than 20% today. Axios has the breakdown.
- 579. The number of civilian deaths in Ukraine that have been confirmed by the United Nations, including 42 children (the U.N. believes the real number is much higher).
- 2,200. The number of civilian deaths in Mariupol alone, according to local officials.
- 15 miles. The distance a large contingent of Russian forces now is from Kyiv, the capital.
- Seven. The number of Ukrainian hospitals destroyed by Russian forces, according to Ukraine's health minister.
- 1,300. The number of Ukrainian soldiers who have been killed in the war, according to President Zelensky.
- March 21. The date the nomination hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson will begin.
Have a nice day.
Bismack Biyombo, an NBA star on the Phoenix Suns, said he is planning to donate his entire NBA season’s salary to building a hospital in his native Democratic Republic of the Congo. Biyombo had taken time away from the NBA to mourn his father Francis, who died last year, and now wants to honor him with a hospital. "I think once my Dad passed, the love of the game kind of fell a little bit because he was my everything — my friend, my business partner, my mentor and everything," Biyombo said in a video. "I wanted to make this year about my Dad because my Dad spent most of his life making his life about me, my brothers, my sisters and [serving] people." CNN has the story.
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