Mar 4, 2022

Don't lose the plot.

Source: Ukrainian government
President Volodymyr Zelensky met with the Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte, in the Mariinskyi Palace, Kyiv on February 2, 2022. Source: Ukrainian government

There is a lot of noise. Try to ignore it.

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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It has been eight days since Putin's war in Ukraine began, and I'd like to issue a warning: Please don't lose the plot.

On one side is Vladimir Putin, a former spy and authoritarian leader who disappears dissidents, appears to have risen to power in part by bombing his own citizens, and believes a country of 40 million free Ukrainians belongs to him. He is "liberating" them from "nazis" by bombing Holocaust memorials, schools, kindergartens, hospitals, apartment buildings and civilian centers.

On the other side is Volodymyr Zelensky, a former television star who grew up in Soviet Ukraine and became president in a free and fair election. Zelensky is a Jew from a Russian-speaking family who wants Ukraine and its people to get to choose their own leaders, stay fully independent from Russia, and move forward allied with the West. He was elected in a landslide victory, in part because of these objectives. He has not attacked Russia, nor has he bombed Russian citizens, nor has he disappeared his political opposition.

This is the plot of this story.

Are there complicating factors? Sure. Plenty. Some worth discussing more than others.

Did Zelensky stoop to the political low of attempting to prosecute his predecessor? Yes, he did. Did NATO provoke Russia by expanding into eastern Europe? It depends who you ask. Does Ukraine have a history of corruption? Sure. Do some Ukrainians support unification with Russia? A few. Are there actually far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis in Ukraine? Yes; but there are some in basically every country, ours included, unfortunately. Do any of these things make Putin and Zelensky equal counterparts? No.

Don't lose the plot.

An authoritarian leader is invading a country with a fledgling democracy and 40 million innocent people. He is bombing civilians, lying to his own soldiers about the war they are in, and trying to cut off his own citizens from reliable information about the war he started. More than one million people have already been displaced by his war — it has only been a week. A city the size of Pittsburgh has just fallen, and its government leaders fear they might be executed in public. Ukrainians are living in a constant state of fear. Ordinary Russian citizens, meanwhile, are being crushed by sanctions, their businesses and savings destroyed overnight.

Don't lose the plot.

You may have seen the polls showing that Republicans think more highly of Putin than they do of Democrats. These polls might feel something close to aneurysm-inducing, and they should. Democrats are not worse than Putin. Joe Biden is not worse than Putin.

Yes, sure, these polls probably better reflect ignorance about Russia's leader than they do hatred Americans have for each other. Maybe, even, there is the mischievous responding effect in play. But it does not bode well.

Some conservatives, like blogger Matt Walsh, have turned their ire on the wrong protagonists.

"Americans fawn over Zelensky while he openly tries to push our country into a world war that will get millions of our people killed," Walsh, who has 800,000 followers, tweeted. "It's the most pathetic thing I've ever seen."

Zelensky is not trying to get Americans killed. He is trying to defend his country from an authoritarian leader who is indiscriminately bombing his civilians with a larger, better-funded military than his. He is pleading with the world for help. He is doing the same thing any rational, honorable elected person would do to protect his people.

Republican Congressman Matt Gaetz took time out of his busy schedule to tweet this:

Here is a thought — novel I know — when you're a sitting member of Congress, with a war in Europe breaking out, you probably shouldn't be spending your time trolling the president's chief medical adviser on Twitter. In fact, I'd say Dr. Fauci has precisely zero to do with Putin invading Ukraine, and instead, I'd humbly suggest that our tax dollars that pay your salary would be better used for the purpose of preventing World War III.

Thank you.

Please, for the love of G-d, don't lose the plot.

There is no need to make this war about that thing that you care about. It is not about your thing. It is about Ukraine.

It's not just Republicans who disapprove of Putin (81%) less than Biden (92%), either. In a similar Fox News poll, 87% of Democrats had a negative view of Trump and 85% had a negative view of Putin. Again: Name recognition matters, and just as with Republicans I'm sure that is at play here. And I'm glad 85% of Democrats recognize that Putin is not someone to idolize. But for the love of all things holy, neither Trump nor Biden deserve the same amount of scorn as Putin. Putin is much closer to Hitler than he is to any of our recent presidents.

Now, let's talk about some of the really uncomfortable things out there.

Yes, as many on the left point out, it's true: The U.S. has almost certainly killed thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians in the last 20 years. Yes, Biden sat idly by while Obama's drone wars were devastating the Middle East. Yes, Trump, like Putin, once not-so-subtly threatened nuclear war. Yes, we are funding arms for Saudi Arabia, who then goes and uses those arms to carry out the worst humanitarian crisis of our time in Yemen. Yes, coverage of this war looks different than others in recent memory.

All of this is true. And there are plenty of responses to these points. I'm tempted to make all of them. I would note, as a friend did, that civilian deaths caused by the U.S. military have generally resulted from negligent failure to follow protective policies. This is in contrast to when Putin drops cluster bombs on citizens, which is explicitly intended to cause civilian deaths and mass terror. Civilian deaths are the intended policy under Putin (a distinction similar to manslaughter vs. first degree murder).

But even if I did make that point, I'd just be falling into the trap, arguing about something that actually doesn't matter all that much when we are talking about what's happening in Ukraine.

Don't lose the plot.

Would Putin have invaded if Trump were president? Sure, no, maybe, I don't know. 62% of Americans apparently don't think so. I'm struggling to understand why. Trump treated Ukraine's president horribly and threatened to withhold military aid from him, even as Zelensky pleaded for help to stop Putin's aggression. I don't have many recollections of Trump uttering kind words about Zelensky, aside from calling him brave this week. Conversely, I can't even count the number of compliments he's thrown to Putin (including as recently as this week).

Would Putin have invaded if Trump were president? Maybe not. Maybe Trump's unpredictability made him crazy like a fox, and Putin would never have risked a hot war with the United States. Maybe, also, Putin could have walked into Ukraine without Trump lifting a finger to unite NATO or mobilize troops or supply Ukraine's military, and the cost for Putin would have been much less than the cost he's incurring now. Maybe Trump would have done nearly everything the same as Biden has. How would I know? How do you know? What does it matter now?

As coach Ron Rivera says: It's interesting. It's not important.

Don't lose the plot.

Don't lionize Putin. He is not a model for conservatism or Christianity or national pride. Don't obscure Putin. Our sins do not absolve him of his.

Putin is a war criminal. He is a pathological liar copying and pasting the same strategy he used in Syria, a terror campaign on innocents where anytime his army would kill civilians (and they killed a lot of them) he would claim the leaders of that country were "using civilians as human shields." He is now making the same claims about Ukraine. It is so obvious that I feel the urge to spit as I type what I am about to type but I will anyway: Ukraine is not using its citizens as human shields.

Ukrainians are, right now, either fleeing the country by the millions, hiding underground in subway stations, picking up arms to fight, or dying. That's what Ukrainians are doing.

Don't lose the plot.

We are in the early days of the war. It is week two. The fog of war is thick. Misinformation is rampant, and optimism about Ukraine's military — however valiant they are — is still being wildly overblown. For all the stories of Russian soldiers surrendering and tanks running out of fuel, the horrific reality is that Putin’s army has a 40 mile long convoy preparing to surround the capital and his forces have pushed 70 miles into contested territory in just over a week. His army is leveling major cities and has likely killed thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and hundreds of citizens, if not more. Over one million people have fled. And the Kremlin has the assurance that no other nation is coming to save Ukraine.

The cost to Putin may be much higher than he had hoped or expected, but it is still his war to win. His troops are still planning to circle Kyiv and take it. He is still planning to install a puppet regime and thinks he can rule from Moscow. He has proven himself willing to commit war crimes to get an edge. Even if he fails, his plans guarantee that many more will die. If he succeeds, there's a strong chance President Zelensky and his allies will be imprisoned, killed in the fighting or executed in a public square. This is not hyperbole and it’s hardly conjecture. They are already trying to assassinate him. There is no other way for Putin to get what he wants.

Ukraine is at war.

There is a lot of noise.

But do not make this any more complicated than it is.

An authoritarian leader has invaded a country that posed no threat to him because he believes that country, and its 40 million innocent citizens, belong to him. He told his soldiers they'd be greeted as liberators, and instead they are rightly being greeted with guns and Javelin anti-tank missiles. NATO did not make Putin launch this war. Biden did not. Trump did not. Ukraine did not.

Putin did.

Nobody is being de-nazified and nobody is being liberated. Civilians are being slaughtered. Children are being slaughtered. Watch the extremely graphic videos of what’s happening if that is what it takes to understand it.

Young Russian soldiers are fighting a war they didn't even realize they were being sent to. Fighters on both sides are dying, at first by the hundreds and now by the thousands. 18-year-old Ukrainian kids wearing kneepads are now headed to the front lines.

This is Putin's war. He chose it. And we should remain clear-eyed about this reality.

Don't lose the plot.

What you can do.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.