Feb 22, 2022

Ukraine and Russia on the brink.

Ukraine and Russia on the brink.

The last 48 hours have been a wave of negative developments.

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: 13 minutes

In today's edition, we were planning to run an issue on rising violent crime rates in the U.S. and some of the surrounding arguments. This is, in my view, an incredibly important topic — but one that was worth waiting a day to cover in order to give another update on the very fluid situation in Ukraine. I think the developments over the weekend were important enough, and worthy enough of immediate coverage, to bump the crime issue back a day.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin meeting with US President Joseph Biden (via videoconference) in December. Photo: Presidential Executive Office of Russia
President of Russia Vladimir Putin meeting with US President Joseph Biden (via videoconference) in December. Photo: Presidential Executive Office of Russia

Correction.

In Thursday's Numbers section, I wrote that Russia expelled John Sullivan, the deputy U.S. ambassador to Russia. In fact, Russia had expelled Bart Gorman, who is the #2 ranked diplomat in Russia and the actual deputy U.S. Ambassador. Sullivan is the Ambassador, the #1 ranked envoy in Russia, and remains in Moscow.

A separate clarification: We also referred to NATO as a "post-Soviet" alliance — which is both true and also an odd and misleading descriptor. NATO was formed after World War II (in 1949), not after the fall of the Soviet Union (1991), though it was specifically designed to rebut Soviet aggression and lasted through the collapse of the Soviet Union into the present day. This is an odd one, because it isn't totally factually incorrect in the sense that NATO is "post-Soviet," but it is incorrect that it was formed after the fall of the Soviet Union. It appears I somehow cut and pasted a line about a post-Soviet world order and left that qualifier in front "NATO." Either way, it was a silly error that snuck into the newsletter, so I’m going to tally it.

These are the 54th and 55th Tangle corrections in its 136-week history, and the first corrections since February 14th. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.


Quick hits.

  1. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has endorsed Harriet Hageman, the Trump-backed Liz Cheney challenger, in Wyoming's congressional race. (The endorsement)
  2. Nicholas Kristof, the former New York Times opinion writer, has dropped out of Oregon's governor race after the State Supreme Court ruled he was ineligible due to not meeting the state's three-year residency requirement. (The ruling)
  3. Former police officer Kim Potter was sentenced to two years in prison for fatally shooting Daunte Wright during a traffic stop last year. (The sentence)
  4. The National Archives says it found classified information in the box of documents that former President Trump took to Mar-a-Lago. (The story)
  5. Former President Trump's new social media app, Truth Social, appeared in the App Store. (The launch)

Today's topic.

Ukraine and Russia. Yesterday, Vladimir Putin announced that he was recognizing the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) as independent states. The DNR and LNR sit inside the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, and it’s unclear what borders Putin will recognize as legitimate. Together, the DNR and LNR are controlled by Russia-backed separatists and were created after Russia instigated a separatist war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. They represent about one-third of the total territory of Donetsk and Luhansk. During his speech, Putin said "Ukraine has never had its own authentic statehood" and demanded that "those who captured and are holding on to power in Kyiv" immediately "cease military action."

Ukraine has been an independent state for more than 30 years, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and has held democratic elections including the one that ushered in its current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who has aligned himself with the west. Ukraine has had five different presidents during Putin’s rein in Russia. Putin's proclamation of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states is considered his largest escalation yet, and is likely his justification for war. He delivered the speech on Russian state television, insisting that he was sending "peacekeepers" into the region and that “all responsibility for continued bloodshed will lay solely on the Ukrainian leadership."

Shortly after, European Union officials said Russian troops and military equipment began moving into eastern parts of Ukraine. Many fear this is an attempt to provoke a larger military escalation. U.S. officials began to address this development by describing the movement as an “invasion” on Tuesday morning.

Now, President Biden and the western alliances are faced with a difficult choice. French President Emmanuel Macron had organized a summit between Biden and Putin's administrations that now may be on ice, though some are still hopeful for a diplomatic solution. Over the weekend, U.S. and European officials assured the world they were on the same page during the Munich Security Conference.

If Biden follows through on his threat to institute the harshest sanctions he can, he'll have little leverage besides the threat of military intervention, which he's assured the American people and European allies he won't take. Congress is in recess this week, but President Biden responded to Putin's speech by barring U.S. investment or trade with Donetsk and Luhansk and said more sanctions were coming today.

Early Tuesday morning, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which was set to carry natural gas from Russia to Germany, was canceled. The European Union and the United Kingdom promised to institute new sanctions on Tuesday as well.

Ukraine's President Zelensky urged his citizens to remain calm and pointed to Ukraine's allies who are standing strong. “Ukraine is within its internationally recognized borders, and will remain so. Despite any statements and actions of the Russian Federation," he said. "We are not afraid of anything or anyone.”

Below, rather than our usual structure, we're going to look at a few takes from the U.S. and a few takes from abroad.


Agreed.

Most writers on the left, right, and from abroad agree that this is a major escalation. They criticize Putin for his speech, and urge Biden to take swift and decisive action to ensure there are serious consequences for Russia. However, there is some debate about how Biden should move forward.


What U.S. writers are saying.

The Washington Post editorial board said this is the way the postwar and post Cold War world ends.

"By the time he was done speaking, Mr. Putin had not only broadcast his intent to disrupt institutions that have kept the peace in Europe, mostly, after 1945 but also laid out the ideological basis for launching a war — even if he did not quite declare it," the board wrote. "The key point was to recognize two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, and thus to discard any pretense of respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity. More ominous, given his subsequent dispatch of 'peacekeeping' troops over the border into the regions, was Mr. Putin’s demand that 'those who seized and hold power in Kyiv' cease hostilities, or else 'all responsibility for the possible continuation of the bloodshed will be entirely on the conscience of the regime ruling on the territory of Ukraine.' War looming, he had this warning to those who helped oust a Kremlin-backed regime in Ukraine in 2014: 'We know their names, and we will find them and bring them to justice.'

"The truth is that Ukraine is a member state of the United Nations, whose security Russia itself undertook to respect 28 years ago, in exchange for Ukraine’s nuclear disarmament," the board said. "Ukraine has not been waging 'genocide' against a Russian-speaking ethnic minority, as Mr. Putin alleged, but defending itself from a 2014-2015 Russian destabilization campaign that created the breakaway regions and engineered the seizure of Ukraine’s strategic Crimean region on the Black Sea. Mr. Putin’s pseudo-history about the kinship of Russians and Ukrainians ignores those facts. His true reason for targeting Ukraine is not Russian national security but to preserve his own power in Moscow, which would be threatened by a successful democratic experiment in a former Soviet republic of Ukraine’s size and cultural importance."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called out "cracks" in the West's resolve, doubting the Biden-Putin summit organized by French President Emmanuel Macron would do much good.

"As for a Biden-Putin summit, the Russian dictator is in control of events as his forces are poised for a blitzkrieg," the board said. "He wants to extort concessions that will make Kyiv subordinate to the Kremlin and weaken NATO’s defenses. Either would be humiliating acts of appeasement that would invite more aggression later. On Monday the Kremlin cast doubt on plans for a summit, as it continues its propaganda operations claiming Ukrainian aggression. A summit is beside the point after Mr. Putin’s decision Monday to formally recognize Ukraine’s two breakaway regions as independent states. He also sent Russian troops across the Ukraine border into Donetsk and Luhansk, which should trigger the 'massive consequences' Mr. Biden has promised.

"Yet the White House seemed unsure in its response Monday evening, including whether this was even an invasion, and its initial sanctions were limited to blocking American trade and investment in 'the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.' So Russia invades Ukraine, and the U.S. decides to sanction part of Ukraine rather than Russia," the board said. "That display of weakness won’t deter Mr. Putin."

Josh Rogin said the West celebrated its "unity" at the Munich Security Conference this weekend, but one person wasn't buying it: Ukraine's president.

"But this well-orchestrated chorus was interrupted abruptly Saturday afternoon when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took the stage and pointed out that this 'unity' left his country largely alone to face down 150,000 Russian troops. In effect, Zelensky asked the assembled dignitaries a simple question: What is the point of a European security architecture that doesn’t seem willing or able to do the one thing for which it was constructed — namely, to prevent war?" Rogin wrote. "He accused the West of appeasing Russian President Vladimir Putin by holding back support for Ukraine in the many years it has been under constant Russian attack. He reminded Europeans that a major war in Ukraine will not stay in Ukraine. He pointed out that no U.S. or European leader could actually name the 'swift and severe' sanctions that are supposed to scare Putin into backing down, or what exactly would trigger them.

"Zelensky laid out a long list of things the West should do to increase its support for Ukraine before, not after, a potential attack," Rogin wrote. "They included imposing some sanctions on Russia, delivering more weapons (including more sophisticated ones), providing Ukraine with more economic and financial support as its economy suffers, and making affirmative statements about Ukraine’s progress toward joining NATO and the E.U. He accused the West of abandoning the security guarantees it made to Ukraine in 1994 in exchange for Kyiv giving up its nuclear weapons."

The New York Times editorial board made the case that it is wise to hold off on the most severe sanctions.

"Though hawks like Senator Lindsey Graham are demanding crushing sanctions now, the potent punishment threatened by the United States and NATO — which is likely to include severely limiting financial transactions with major Russian banks; restricting the sale of technologies needed by Russian industries; closing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline; and personal sanctions on Mr. Putin and his lieutenants — would become useless as a deterrent once ordered, making a full invasion more likely," the board wrote. "Recognizing the separatists in the 'peoples’ republics' of Donetsk and Luhansk is not tantamount to that invasion. The separatists control only partial zones of the provinces they claim, and their enclaves have been under effective Russian control since the low-intensity conflict erupted in 2014."


From abroad.

Andriy Zagorodnyuk, the former Ukrainian defense minister, wrote that the West must leave Putin with little doubt about the cost of his moves.

"We believe, even with the very short time available, that it is still possible to stop Putin from starting war," he said. "But that largely depends on the steps made by world leaders in the next day or two... World leaders need to demonstrate to Putin that this will not be a quick victorious war, but a disaster that will lead to Russian political isolation, sanctions that will destroy its economy, and a humiliating military defeat. Ultimately, it could mark the end of Putin’s political career, leaving his place in history as the architect of Russia’s decline instead of a period of grandeur. The steps the west could take to persuade him of this are clear. Sanctions must be imposed to stop Russia having an active role in the global economy. Russia makes a lot of money from the west, its business people reside in the UK, US and Europe, it is a member of western capital markets, a major supplier of commodities, and enjoys the perks of that involvement. At the same time, it violently challenges the very principles upon which western democracies are founded. Russian society needs to understand that the west will stop it. The sanctions must not just be hard, they must be devastating.

"Ukraine has been fortunate to have partners (the US and UK as well as several other supporting nations) supplying hundreds of tons of equipment to destroy Russian capabilities on ground," he added. "Ukraine has never requested and does not require western troops to come to Ukraine to fight. It has hundreds of thousands of skilled servicepeople. But it does need equipment. We are on the right path: I believe Ukraine already has more anti-tank weapons than Russia has tanks. A ground invasion would be a disaster for Russia, but western leaders need to tell Putin that he is guaranteed to fail. That will be the greatest deterrent and now is the crucial moment for him to be told."

Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition politician, said it's not just the West that doesn't want a war — a lot of Russians don't either. Kara-Murza pointed to numerous statements, petitions, and criticisms of going to war signed by well-known Russian cultural figures like rock musicians, authors, tennis stars, and the last remaining opposition party in Russia.

"On Sunday, police brutally dispersed a group of demonstrators who came to Moscow’s Pushkin Square, the traditional site of dissident rallies since the Soviet era, to denounce Vladimir Putin’s presumptive attack on Ukraine," Kara-Murza wrote. "The weekend protest was only the latest in the growing chorus of voices within Russia itself opposing Putin’s threats to Ukraine — a trend that has been underreported by international media, leaving many Westerners with the impression that everyone in Russia supports the war. This is certainly not the case.

"For all the difficulties of measuring public opinion in an authoritarian state — where all television networks are controlled by the government and where many people are understandably hesitant to share their political views with pollsters or other strangers — the available surveys point to the strong unpopularity of a military attack on Ukraine among Russian citizens at large," he wrote. "Most Russians neither favor sending troops to Ukraine nor buy into the Kremlin’s narrative of treating the West as an enemy. Whether domestic opposition to the war in Russia can have any practical effect is far from certain. What is certain is that by raising their voices against yet another Kremlin aggression, members of Russia’s cultural elite, acting in the best traditions of Russian and Soviet intelligentsia, are upholding the nation’s honor in the same way the seven demonstrators who protested on Red Square against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia did in August 1968."


My take.

I'll be straight with you: I have no idea what the best course of action is from the West. I just don't. The Wall Street Journal editorial board insists Biden should empty the tank and bring the most crushing sanctions possible on Russia now, as Zelensky has requested. The New York Times editorial board insists keeping his powder dry is the only true deterrent. Putin marches on.

Because the U.S. punditry has gotten so much wrong about war in the last twenty years, I'm inclined here to ignore many of them and focus on the voices from abroad. Ukraine's former defense minister, as quoted above, seems to believe strongly that acting against Putin now is the wisest move. Make him feel the financial hell that's coming and perhaps he backs off. The logic is easy to follow and, whatever your position, it seems pretty hard to argue that what we're doing now is serving as much of a deterrent (a lot can change in a weekend). Vladimir Kara-Murza made a compelling case that many Russians don't want war either, which is a stunningly obvious notion that we should all spend time reminding ourselves (and Putin) of.

The whole thing is just deeply upsetting — and feels as if there is no going back from where it is now. I don’t think it has totally set in how bad this could get, what it will mean, and the horrors we may witness. While there is broad agreement on what Putin is doing (see above), the discourse in the U.S. has become so absurd in places that I've almost started to tune it out. Our choices are not “send our kids into war” or “do nothing.” I was curious to hear the take from the most powerful television host in America but was instead left baffled as Tucker Carlson absurdly equated Zelensky and Putin as "tyrants" over the weekend. He insisted that Ukraine was little more than a corrupt autocracy that has bought off U.S. lobbyists and made the Biden family rich.

As I've said before: There is no equating Ukraine and Russia here. Putin is a former KGB agent and a literal authoritarian who has murdered or poisoned most of his political opposition and disappeared critical journalists. He made clear his view that Ukraine belongs to Russia, and his intent is to take it back by force, the will of the people on either side be damned. Zelensky is a former comedian who was best known for starring in a television show about accidentally becoming Ukraine's president and then won the support of his people in an actual election and actually became Ukraine's president.

Putin and Zelensky are not "both tyrants." Ukraine, surely, has had its issues with corruption, but in recent years — and unlike Russia — they’ve attempted to deal with it openly. Hunter Biden did make hundreds of thousands of dollars "working" for a Ukrainian energy company and of course there are Ukrainian lobbyists advocating for friendly foreign policy. But none of that is a good reason to stand idly by as Russia starts a war that could kill tens of thousands of civilians, create millions of refugees and destabilize Europe — nor do they make Zelensky the same as Putin, or Ukraine's government as corrupt as Russia's.

The Ukrainian people stand ready. A recent poll shows more than a third of Ukrainians are ready to volunteer themselves to fight if Russia invades. Ukrainian moms are discussing whether to put stickers on their children with their blood types as they send them off to school, fearful of an attack coming any day. The nation is bracing, and Zelensky is demanding we follow through on our promise to support his country with weapons, sanctions against Russia and a unified front. I certainly hope we follow through.


Your questions, answered.

Q: How has the abortion ban in Texas increased services in NM, OK, AR and LA? What is the resulting barometer to measure the law's "success?"

— "Blue Texan," from Dallas, Texas.

Tangle: This is a great question. In early February, news reports started breaking that abortions in Texas had dropped by 60% after its new restrictive law was implemented. I think, for Texas's pro-life residents, politicians and activists, this is seen as an unequivocal win.

However, to your point, the impact of this appears to be widespread. In New Mexico, abortion hotlines have changed their first question to inquire whether the caller is from Texas. Planned Parenthood said an average of 8.8 women from Texas got abortions in New Mexico every week before the law went into effect, and in the first week after it was enacted they had 20 women and 64 more scheduled. Abortion providers in Oklahoma said they saw a "massive influx" — going from 12 Texas patients in August to 130 in September.

Emily Wales, interim president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, said they went from seeing about 50 patients from Texas at their clinics in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma in the fall of 2020 to more than 1,000 in the fall of 2021 (after the law went into effect). While the data are a little murky, similar news stories from Louisiana and Arkansas are widespread. Of course, we also have no idea how many abortions are being performed illegally in Texas, though history would suggest they are almost certainly happening.

In sum, I’m not entirely sure how anti-abortion advocates would view the drop in Texas and the rise in other places, but I suspect the major reduction in abortions in Texas is a win — and viewed as proof of the impact this legislation can have.

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.

Americans are tuning out the news. A new poll from Gallup and the Knight foundation found that Americans — especially young Democrats — are checking out on national news. In November of 2020, 70% of Democrats aged 18-34 said they were paying a great deal of attention to the national news. Today, that number is down to 24%. More broadly, just 34% of Democrats say they are paying a great deal of attention to the news, while 40% of Republicans and 29% of independents say they are. All of those numbers are down significantly from 2020. Axios has the story.


Numbers.

  • 2/22/22. Today's date.
  • 73%. The percentage of Americans who are estimated to be immune from Omicron, according to the Associated Press.
  • 25,000 to 50,000. The estimated number of civilians the U.S. says could die because of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  • 1 million to 5 million. The estimated number of refugees the U.S. estimates could be created because of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
  • Five. The number of Russian banks sanctioned by the United Kingdom.
  • Three. The number of Russian oligarchs sanctioned by the United Kingdom.

Have a nice day.

One of the greatest challenges California's winemakers face is pest control. Keeping rodents like gophers and mice away from their grapes can be a big challenge, and most vineyards have taken to using rodenticides to keep the pests away. But at Humboldt State University, researchers are now promoting a much more environmentally friendly, natural approach: owls. The researchers have placed 300 owl nesting boxes throughout vineyards in Napa Valley and documented the impact the owls have had on the pest populations. So far, the barn owls appear to be keeping gophers out but are having more trouble with mice. Still, they're reducing the use of rodenticides in Napa Valley, which is seen as a huge win for public health advocates who say the chemicals can also kill birds and other animals that eat the rodents — nevermind the potential impact on the vineyards. Eco Watch has the story.


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