Feb 24, 2022

It's happening.

It's happening.

Russia has invaded.

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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Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine.

That's the lede.

The details are, somehow, even more horrifying.

The Washington Post put it like this: “Russia launched a broad attack on Ukraine from multiple directions early Thursday, bombarding cities, towns and villages and advancing toward the capital, Kyiv, as Ukrainian forces tried to stem the onslaught of Russian ground forces and air power.”

A flurry of reports started around 5 p.m. EST last night. First, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky made a dramatic, televised speech, pleading with Russia to avoid war. "The Ukrainian people want peace," he said. Shortly after, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a full-scale invasion was "imminent" and that our intelligence agencies believed a military incursion was hours, not days, away. At 9:59 p.m. EST, I got a text from Markian Kuzmowycz, a Ukrainian disinformation researcher who has contributed to Tangle, saying "Putin just released a video declaring war on Ukraine." By 10:30 p.m. EST, The New York Times push notification was out: Putin had announced the decision to carry out a "special military operation" in eastern Ukraine.

What happened next didn't take long. Russia began initiating strikes with long range missiles across Ukraine, targeting airports, ammunition depots, warehouses and radar centers. Then, the 190,000 soldiers that had reportedly been amassing along Ukraine's border began to march forward. The ground push came from Belarus, Kharkiv and up from Crimea (which Putin annexed in 2014).

This morning, a large Russian air assault took place on Antonov International airport, which is just outside the capital of Kyiv.

It's tough to properly put into words what is happening, but it is safe to say this is the worst case scenario. Just two days ago, Putin said he was sending "peacekeepers" into eastern Ukraine. By 3:30 a.m. on Thursday, this was a visual of all the confirmed Russian attacks in Ukraine — with the "peacekeeper" area circled in yellow — and further attacks still ongoing:

Here is a screenshot from a video of the attack on the airport:

The reports have become scattershot and are coming from every corner of the country.

Russian forces were "pouring in" from Crimea, reportedly reaching 60 kilometers inside Ukraine. Footage of traffic jams across the country became widespread as Ukrainians fled to the border attempting to leave the country.  Then there were the truly startling images of fighter jets engaging each other over suburban Ukraine. It was surreal.

Ukraine's president responded with a call to fight. "We will give weapons to anyone who wants to defend the country. Be ready to support Ukraine in the squares of the city,” he said.

By early morning, the first reports of dead soldiers began. Russian planes were being downed. Ukrainian planes were being downed. Then the horrifying images (graphic content warning) of the dead soldiers started. A video of a cyclist being hit by an artillery shell in Uman. The images of Russian soldiers raising the flag over a hydroelectric power plant in Kahkova. The faces of young Russian soldiers who were captured by the Ukrainian military. These are the faces of boys, not men.

And this is war.

Hundreds are already reported dead on both sides. Many thousands surely will be by the end of the week, if not the day. This is war, and it is here.

A normal Tangle newsletter did not feel sufficient today. But I’ll do my best to tell you what I think, and to tell you what others think, and to make sure that you leave this piece understanding where we are.

It should first be said that a lot of people did not think this would happen. Our foreign policy "experts" have been raked over the coals for being wrong so many times that it's easy to understand the public’s skepticism. They were wrong about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria. They've ignored atrocities by Saudi Arabia and been feeble on the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and they thought the Afghan government could stand for months or even years on its own two feet.

But they were absolutely right about this. They warned again and again that Putin's ultimate plan was to retake Ukraine, and that his every move was a step toward reestablishing a Russian empire that spanned the previous Soviet states. To doubt this now would require a level of delusion that is tough to put into words. It turns out the 190,000 soldiers on the border of Ukraine were not a trick. They were not a mirage or a negotiating tactic or saber rattling. They were a man preparing to go to war against his neighbor.

In a way, it is confounding to think we convinced ourselves there was any ambiguity here. We saw hundreds of thousands of soldiers on the border and asked if what we were witnessing was merely a “military exercise” or really what it looked like. Two days ago, Putin declared two regions of Ukraine independent Russian states, and then sent Russian soldiers in, and President Biden rightly called it an invasion. But the media crew that has made a living off of being heterodox thinkers or questioning the mainstream narrative immediately jumped on this declaration.

"The definition of the term 'invasion' is being curiously muddled. Does it now mean any time a foreign military force enters another sovereign territory without authorization? I don't remember many people declaring that the US 'invaded' Pakistan during the Bin Laden raid in 2011," Michael Tracey tweeted.

Glenn Greenwald, a writer I have often admired, followed suit: "The problem is that the CIA told the U.S. media to tell everyone that they knew exactly what Putin was saying and deciding, and that he had decided on a full invasion of Ukraine, so they have to call it an 'invasion' otherwise this whole media/government act will seem like a fraud," he said.

Does it count as an invasion now?

This whole shtick is a good reminder that being heterodox is in and of itself an ideology, if you become so committed to it that you cannot see what is plainly in front of your face. Many on the left and right — from Tucker Carlson to Saagar Enjeti to Krystal Ball to Aaron Mate — suggested we were being lied to when our intelligence agencies told us what was right there for the world to see. Sometimes, in fact more often than not, the mainstream narrative is the one most rooted in truth. That's why it is mainstream.

How we got here is another question.

I've tried explaining the history behind this moment but the general thrust is this: Putin believes Ukraine is a breakaway state, one that belongs to Russia, even though Ukrainians are more than 30 years into their independence. They've had five presidents in the time Putin has been in office, and their current President, Volodymyr Zelensky, won a fair and free election after a career as a comedian on television.

Ukrainians have fought for independence and seem inclined to be aligned with the west. Many want to live in a democracy. Even in the most contested regions, they simply want security. Putin views this want as a threat to Russia’s future — and has viewed NATO's expansion of influence in eastern Europe as a threat to his own influence. Putin, and some of his supporters, have made the case that all he really wanted was a pledge Ukraine would never formally join NATO, an action that would give them the military protection of the western alliances. But this invasion is proof positive that it is — and has always been — something much greater than that.

There is plenty of blame to go around.

Some have pointed to three decades of warnings that, by building NATO bases near Russia and courting former Soviet states, we were always going to force Russia's hand. One widely shared quote today came from George Kennan, the American diplomat largely credited for helping contain the Soviet Union, from 20 years ago:

"I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves. Don't people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime... of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong."

Kennan's point was that, in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States made a mistake by expanding NATO into Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, all nations that had formerly been part of the Soviet Union or in its sphere of influence. Once they joined NATO, the United States was obligated to defend them, and at a time when Russia was weak and NATO was strong this decision was seen by Russia as an act of aggression. In 2016, former defense secretary Bill Perry said this:

“In the last few years, most of the blame can be pointed at the actions that Putin has taken. But in the early years I have to say that the United States deserves much of the blame. Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in Eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia... At that time, we were working closely with Russia and they were beginning to get used to the idea that NATO could be a friend rather than an enemy … but they were very uncomfortable about having NATO right up on their border and they made a strong appeal for us not to go ahead with that.”

Some have even equated it, however unrealistically, to the idea of Russia putting troops and bases in Canada and then demanding that we not view it as an act of aggression.

Caitlin Johnstone, a fierce critic of the "U.S. empire," has said we created this problem. Her argument is both that the U.S. is much worse than Russia — given the wars we've launched ourselves, and the death and destruction we left behind — and that we essentially poked the bear. "The US is the very last government on this entire planet who has any business talking about respecting the sovereignty of other nations. Absolute dead last," she writes. "It's not actually legitimate to constantly violate international law all around the world and then cry when another nation does it.” Today, she tweeted that “It's not 'sad' that NATO powers didn't make the very easy and completely reasonable concessions needed to prevent this. It's not 'unfortunate' or 'regrettable.' It's enraging. It deserves nothing but pure, unadulterated, white hot rage.”

The blame spans the decades and administrations. As Alexander Vindman recently wrote, in 2004, under Bush, the West could have embraced Ukraine's Western aspirations, accelerated an EU Association Agreement and a NATO membership plan, and helped protect Ukraine. In 2014, under Obama, Putin annexed Crimea after Ukrainians forced out the Russian lackey running their country. We could have responded by investing in a "strategic security partnership with Ukraine that would have made the costs of a Russian offensive prohibitively high. Yet none of this came to pass."

Under Trump, the posture towards Ukraine was scattered and inconsistent. The former president infamously threatened to withhold military aid while bluntly asking Ukraine to launch an investigation into the Biden family. Trump's sporadic praise for Putin, which has continued from his 2016 campaign into this morning, was viewed as deleterious for Ukraine's standing on the world stage. For many of Trump's supporters on the right, Ukraine is now viewed as a corrupt nation, indistinguishable from Russia — despite their obvious differences.

And now there is Biden. As recently as December, the Biden administration was holding off on a $200 million package of military assistance for Ukraine that was desperately needed. They declined to provide advanced weapons systems to Ukraine. They attempted to rally NATO allies to the defense, but with the threat of U.S. military might off the table, it appears it has done little to deter Putin. The sanctions, to many, came too late — or are still not yet adequate. However you cut it, the combination of the Biden vice presidency and presidency has now overseen the annexation of Crimea and a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

As Vindman put it:

"U.S. leaders cannot absolve themselves of guilt by claiming they did all they could to prevent another invasion; they offered a necessary response, not a sufficient one. Like every administration since the end of the Cold War, Joe Biden’s fell victim to wishful thinking about the Kremlin’s ambitions in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s basic commitment to international norms. In doing so, the Biden administration continued the decades-long practice of allowing deterrence to erode. The paths to prevention were not taken."

Or, as Ukrainian MP Alexey Goncharenko put it: Ukraine is the only nation over the course of history to ever give up its nuclear arsenal, which was the third biggest in the world in 1994, with guarantees from the U.S., United Kingdom and the Russian Federation on its security. “Where are these guarantees?” he asked. “Now we are bombed and killed.”

It's hard to imagine what happens next. There are glimmers of hope: Protests against the war breaking out in Russia, or early assessments that the Ukrainian military is holding strong and the Russian will to fight is overestimated.

But as I've been writing this newsletter, the bad news has also continued to pour in. Russian troops are trying to capture the Chernobyl plant, lord knows why. But the fighting is taking place not far from the plant, and fears are rising quickly that nuclear waste may be disturbed. Independent journalists in Ukraine are reporting that Russia's goal is to occupy the territories and remove Ukrainian authorities, then attempt to have its puppet government sign a bilateral agreement with Russia. It's not hard to imagine a world where there are mass arrests or, worse, executions.

As troops have moved in, there have also been disturbing reports of cyber attacks. Ukrainian websites have been knocked off line, and some Ukrainian soldiers have reported receiving mass text messages encouraging them to flee or surrender, in an attempt to degrade their morale. Russian warplanes seem to be expanding beyond simply strategic targets, too. One video shows a warplane launching missiles as it does a fly-by over a residential area, with the cries of a young child in the background. It is truly, unambiguously, horrible.

And the potential for things to worsen is very real.

What are the odds this spills into other European countries? If Putin is willing to invade Ukraine, what about Lithuania? Its government has already declared a state of emergency. What about Poland or the Czech Republic? If the U.S. decides to completely remove Russia from the global banking world, as some have speculated they will, the Russian government would view it as an act of war. Then what?

China, of course, watches and waits. The same foreign policy experts who warned of this pending invasion have said, unambiguously and repeatedly, that our reaction to this would factor into China's decision on whether to attempt an invasion of Taiwan, an independent state they also view as a breakaway nation. With the U.S. and NATO standing firm that their soldiers will not enter Ukraine, will China view this as an opportunity to make its move?

On a personal note, I am sickened.

There is blame to go around, yes. And we could spend days or weeks or months or years writing about American imperialism or Biden's weakness or Trump's incompetence or the ineffectiveness of NATO and the United Nations and all the organizations and people we've been told would stop this. In the end all of this will be mostly noise.

This is Putin's war. It belongs to him. The idea that a pledge from Ukraine not to join NATO would have stopped this is farcical. Putin clearly wanted much more than that — he also wanted nearly every former Soviet nation to leave NATO, and he wanted Ukraine to submit to his rule. He did not have to invade — Russia's security was not being threatened. He leads a nuclear armed state with a huge land mass and a giant, well-funded military. Nobody was trying to take his country down or kill him or his people. Ukraine certainly couldn't have done so.

Ukraine wanted independence, not war. They wanted the right to choose their own leaders, not fighter jets in suburban neighborhoods. They wanted security, not a class of oligarchs deciding how the country will be run.

War is a terrible, tragic thing. For Russia, the brunt of this war will fall onto the shoulders of young soldiers — baby faced "men" who are 17 or 18, 19 or 20, who will go die for something they almost certainly don’t understand. In Ukraine, it will be all hands on deck. Fathers, mothers, teenagers and grandparents will stand side by side with their military. They will take up arms and fight and many of them will die violent deaths. This will be the result of Putin's decision to invade, based on the absurd notion that a nation of 40 million free Ukrainians belongs to him.

Globally, democracy continues its descent. It has declined for 16 straight years. Only one in five people now live in a free country.

Ukraine is a beacon — a nation trying to determine its own fate in the modern world, to leave its corrupt past behind, to usher in an era of self-governance and self-determination. This is not fluff or propaganda: It is reality. The people are taking up arms to fight a war they will almost surely lose, because they believe so strongly in a future where their country functions more like a Western democracy, and less like Russia.

Let their fight be a reminder of the good fortune those of us in free nations have, and a reminder that, however flawed and broken we sometimes seem, there are — right now — millions of people willing to die for a chance to live in a country committed to the ideals of democracy, the kind of democracy the United States helped usher into the modern world.

Now we watch. And pray. And hope that Ukraine can stand.

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Today is a tough day. And no sign off feels sufficient.

Tomorrow, I'm planning to publish a members-only edition on why you should vote — even if it's true that your vote "doesn't count." I'm tying this piece to the upcoming 2022 midterm elections, which actually begin next week in Texas (primaries are here!)

Depending on how things develop, I may also return to what is happening in Ukraine.

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