Dec 9, 2021

The Ukraine situation.

The Ukraine situation.

Is a Russian invasion coming?

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: 11 minutes.

We're covering the threat Russia poses to Ukraine, what we should do about it, and how it came to be. Plus, a reader question about publishing the names of mass shooters.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo World Economic Forum
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo World Economic Forum

See you tomorrow?

In tomorrow's Tangle, I'm going to do something I almost never do: I'm going to publish 19 predictions about the future of politics. While I typically try to avoid political prognostication (and generally will continue to, going forward), I thought it'd be fun just this once to publish and then track a set of predictions about the future. Just to test how well I can see what’s coming. The post is for subscribers only, so if you want to receive it, you need to become a subscriber.

Quick hits.

  1. President Biden opened the first White House "summit for democracy" today, including 110 countries who joined to promote democratic principles. (The summit)
  2. The House of Representatives passed a bill that would ban imports from Xinjiang, China, because of concerns over the treatment of ethnic minorities. (The vote)
  3. The United Kingdom, Canada and Australia have joined the United States' diplomatic boycott of the Olympics in Beijing. (The boycott)
  4. The late Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) will lie in state in the Capitol today. (The memorial)
  5. 50 Republicans and two Democrats in the Senate voted to repeal President Biden's testing and vaccine mandates, but the repeal faces steep odds in the House and a certain veto from President Biden. (The vote)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Ukraine. Last week, news outlets in the U.S. began reporting that intelligence officials had determined Vladimir Putin was considering a "military action" in Ukraine — possibly an invasion — that could begin as early as 2022. The intelligence finding estimated Russia was planning to deploy as many as 175,000 troops and almost half of them were already present along Ukraine's border.

In response, President Joe Biden pledged to make it "very, very difficult" for Putin to take any military action, and then held a two-hour video conference with Putin in which U.S. officials say Biden issued a warning about the economic penalties that would come down if a large-scale invasion took place.

The history: Ukraine used to be a part of the Soviet Union, the expansive socialist state that fell apart in 1991 and gave way to modern-day Russia. Russia and Ukraine share historical ties — including linguistic and cultural overlap — but have also become distinct. Today, Ukraine is a nation about the size of Texas that sits in Eastern Europe, sharing a 1,200-mile border with Russia. Its population is around 44 million. Over the last decade, rather than functioning as a proxy for Russia, Ukraine has instead moved toward the West, instituting a functioning democracy and aligning itself with many European and North American allies.

Much of that shift began in earnest in 2014. That year, Ukraine's Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a deal to integrate more directly with the European Union. The decision caused widespread protests in Ukraine. Russia supported Yanukovych during the civil unrest that followed, which he attempted to put down with force. U.S. and European allies backed the protesters. Eventually, Yanukovych was run out of Ukraine. Not long after, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, a small but valuable territory in southern Ukraine that sits on the Black Sea, where Russia has long held military bases.

Today, Ukraine is led by President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has positioned himself as the key to limiting Putin's efforts to expand his influence. In so doing, he's asked for support from the U.S. and other western allies. For Putin, who wants to expand Russia's influence and territory, this is a big problem.

The context: Putin's decision to place soldiers on the border is widely viewed as an overt threat to Zelensky — change your posture with the West or face a large-scale invasion. Russia has already occupied part of Eastern Ukraine and annexed Crimea, with devastating consequences. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was formed to counter the Soviet Union during the Cold War, is open to welcoming Ukraine to NATO, and Zelensky (and Ukrainians) have a shared desire to join. Putin opposes the idea, and has called for “legal guarantees” that NATO will never expand east into Ukraine.

It's also true that Russia is suffering from a host of its own domestic struggles. Covid-19 surges, inflation, stagnant wages and street protests against Putin's leadership have been widespread in the last couple of years. Historically, it's common for strongmen leaders to rally nationalistic pride with military action in times of crisis. Some foreign policy experts believe that may be motivating Putin’s actions now. The Kremlin has called it “hysteria” and insisted Russia has no plans to invade.

Ukraine and Russia have been locked in a kind of trench warfare along the border for years, exchanging gunfire as recently as this week. Russia has also mounted several propaganda campaigns inside Ukraine, and used cyber attacks against its military, government and power sectors. It is also propping up pro-Russian separatists in Donbas, a region of Eastern Ukraine that borders Russia. If Russia were to launch a full-scale military invasion, Ukraine would be vastly outgunned — and surrounded on three sides.

What's the U.S. got to do with it? The U.S. has supplied military support to Ukraine in recent years, training its soldiers and helping overhaul its armed forces, making it more prepared for an invasion or Russian aggression than ever before. Because Ukraine sits between Russia and Europe, it's a critical territory, and the fact that its current leader has embraced democracy and the West is a major opportunity for the U.S. to limit Putin's power and support a burgeoning democracy. The U.S. could also threaten Russia (as the Biden administration says it did this week) with sanctions that would further cripple its economy in the event Putin attempted to invade Ukraine.

Given Biden's wariness of war, and the fact Ukraine has not requested the U.S. put boots on the ground, it's unlikely our soldiers would ever get involved in a Russia-Ukraine war. But our support could help deter Putin.

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions to the latest tension from the right and left, including some common ground, then my take.


Both the left and right have condemned Putin and expressed support for Ukraine's autonomy. Fundamentally, Putin does not believe Ukraine has the right to exist as an independent state, and most American pundits do. While Putin has received some favorable coverage from conservative commentators like Tucker Carlson or far-left pundits like Max Blumenthal, most have urged the U.S. to remain steadfast in its support of Ukraine.

What the right is saying.

  • Biden has been too soft on Russia since entering office, especially in how he handled the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
  • Biden must remain steadfast in support of Ukraine's independence.
  • The withdrawal from Afghanistan has left allies questioning our commitments.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board criticized Biden for not selling more weapons to Ukraine or marshaling more support from allies.

"Mr. Biden came to office promising to talk tough against Mr. Putin, unlike Mr. Trump, but his actions have been weaker," the board wrote. "He withdrew U.S. sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Europe, even as he tries at every turn to restrict U.S. oil and gas production. Higher global energy prices empower Mr. Putin and Iran.

"The American press has forgotten about Afghanistan, but the rest of the world hasn’t," the board wrote. "Direct cause and effect are hard to know, but it seems increasingly likely that Mr. Biden’s catastrophic withdrawal from Afghanistan has raised doubts among adversaries about U.S. commitments and the President’s judgment. They aim to take advantage."

William Galston said it is critical to understand Putin's narrative to fully grasp the threat.

"An independent Ukraine is for Vladimir Putin what the Treaty of Versailles was for Hitler —a historical injustice imposed on a defeated nation at its moment of greatest weakness, to be reversed as soon as circumstances allow," Galston wrote. "Mr. Putin’s master narrative rests on his interpretation of more than 1,000 years of Russian history, from which he derives a conclusion: Russians and Ukrainians are 'one people—a single whole,' speaking variants of one language, professing a common faith, sharing a common culture, whose separation results from a divide-and-rule strategy pursued for centuries by Russia’s enemies. He attributes the idea of the Ukrainian people as a separate nation to 19th century 'Polish elites' and Malorussian ('Little Russian') intellectuals, a theory concocted with 'no historical basis' and subsequently adopted by Austro-Hungarian authorities for their own purposes before World War I.

"Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, picking up speed after Ukraine’s 'Orange Revolution' in 2004 and 2005, Mr. Putin charges, Russia’s enemies in the West have conspired with right-wing and neo-Nazi Ukrainians to create an 'anti-Russia project' whose purpose is to drive a wedge between Russia and Ukraine," Galston wrote. "Although the two countries are 'natural complementary economic partners' that have long developed as a 'single economic system,' the West has used loans and grants to cut Ukraine off from Russia and subordinate it to foreign economic interests."

In The Washington Examiner, Janusz Bugajski said Biden's "attempts to placate Moscow and dissuade it from another invasion of Ukraine will not have the intended effect."

"The Kremlin does not accept the existence of an independent Ukrainian state that aspires to Western integration," Bugajski wrote. "The primary purpose of Russia’s military buildup along Ukraine’s borders is to convince Washington to push Kyiv into accepting Russian-directed autonomous regions on its territory that will block its Western progress. Washington, Brussels, and Berlin must appear to the Kremlin as the Three Kings bearing geostrategic gifts.

"The first gift has been the acceptance of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to help Moscow strangle Ukraine economically, deprive it of substantial energy transit fees, increase Europe’s dependence on Moscow’s energy supplies, and deepen the European Union’s susceptibility to geopolitical blackmail," Bugajski wrote. "Biden’s second gift to Putin may well be Ukraine’s territories. Moscow is ratcheting up the threat of invasion to convince Biden to pressure Ukraine into major concessions... Biden’s third gift to Putin, with French and German applause, could paradoxically be what many analysts feared during the Trump administration. It would entail a 'grand bargain' between the U.S. and Russia whereby in return for 'stability and predictability,' Moscow would be allowed to exert 'privileged influence' over its former conquests."

What the left is saying.

  • The threat of an invasion is real, and the U.S. needs to rally European allies to the defense.
  • Biden must remain steadfast in support of Ukraine's independence.
  • It's worth exploring some concessions to avoid an all-out war.

In CNN, Frida Ghitis said Putin's actions may be shrouded in a fog, but "his track record is clear."

"If he's allowed to advance his goals without serious consequences, he will continue to escalate his foreign policy of bullying and intimidation," Ghitis wrote. "In 2014, as 'little green men,' dressed in unmarked military uniforms deployed across Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, Putin denied they were his forces -- until Russia took control of the territory and annexed it.  Anyone who paid attention to how Russia stole that strategic peninsula from a sovereign country knows how much weight to give the Kremlin's words now. As US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noted, 'We've seen this playbook.'

"Part of Moscow's playbook includes creating a justification for an attack, and that part of the strategy is already moving forward," she added. "When Russia attacked Ukraine in the past, capturing Crimea and supporting pro-Russian separatists in Donbas, the region of Ukraine adjacent to Russia, the Kremlin claimed it was doing it to defend ethnic Russians living under Ukrainian rule. Putin is already deploying the argument for a future assault. An elaborate information operation, among other propaganda points, paints Ukrainian leaders as puppets of the West."

In The Washington Post, David Ignatius wrote about the huge risks Putin would face if he launched an invasion.

"Beyond the battle against uniformed troops and intelligence operatives, Putin would probably face a prolonged guerrilla war from Ukrainian militias," Ignatius wrote. "Knowledgeable sources estimate that more than 400,000 pro-Kyiv Ukrainians have received at least some training since Russia’s 2014 incursion, and that there are at least 1 million weapons in private hands, including AK-47s and other automatic weapons looted from government stores. As many as 15 militia groups are spread throughout the country — some virulently right-wing, but all capable of causing havoc for Moscow (and probably Kyiv, too).

"Putin would face immediate battlefield risks, but the longer-term consequences could be far worse, even if he installed a government subservient to Moscow. If Biden followed through on his threats, Russia’s economy would be wrecked," Ignatius wrote. "A Russia that went to war in Ukraine would have only China as a reliable ally. That might console Putin, but it should panic Chinese President Xi Jinping. The China-Russia axis would cement a 'decoupled' world in which the United States and the technologically advanced democracies would have a huge, and probably lasting, advantage over Moscow and Beijing."

In Slate, Fred Kaplan said that Biden should test Putin's intentions.

"The caveats are these: OK, we guarantee that Ukraine will not be let into NATO and that no U.S. weapons capable of threatening Russia will be deployed 'in close vicinity to Russian territory' (as Putin put it in his Kremlin speech). But, in exchange, Russia will pull its troops and heavy military equipment out of Ukraine and away from the border; some sort of truly neutral international peacekeeping force will move in to replace them; and Russia will pledge not to interfere with Ukraine’s internal politics," Kaplan wrote.

My take.

This isn't my area of expertise, and the Ukraine-Russia history here should be viewed as a solid primer, though far from exhaustive. Still, I think the reactions to Putin's military build up on the border of Ukraine are instructive.

For one, it's worth abandoning some of the U.S.-centric view of this conflict. I was particularly perturbed by the absurd Tucker Carlson monologue on Fox News, in which he insisted Putin was simply defending his borders and demanded the U.S. refuse to send troops to fight Russia in Ukraine. I'm often enthusiastic about the right-wing anti-war coalition Carlson regularly drums up, but the idea that Putin's military pressure is as simple as "defending his borders" is a cut and paste from Russian state propaganda, which should not be regurgitated on U.S. networks without the context of Putin's track record.

More importantly, though, is the fact that nobody is suggesting the U.S. send its troops to Ukraine. Biden isn't hankering for a war ( he's been trying to exit them, however ham-handedly), nor is the U.S. public, and nor is the Ukrainian government asking us to come fight for them. They've been fighting their own war, against a superior military force, for years. The proxy war in east Ukraine alone has left over 13,000 dead. Ukrainians have sacrificed a great deal in the effort to keep Putin out and keep their fledgling democracy alive.

For Biden, this is close to home. He ran point on Ukraine diplomacy as vice president, and he undoubtedly wants to see it continue moving in the direction it is now. And for us, that should be the part that matters a great deal, too. Democracy is in retreat across the globe, and even here in the U.S. it's facing plenty of its own challenges.

Ukraine, however large a challenge it faces from corruption or political factionalism, has long been fighting for democracy, for a view of the world where people get to choose their leaders and rely on a government that serves them. Putin's insistence that Russia and Ukraine are "one" is built on a belief that Ukraine belongs to him, which it doesn't. It belongs to the Ukrainian people, who are attempting to determine their own path forward.

The least we can do, in the West, is stand with them. We don't need to (and shouldn't) go to war for the cause, and nobody is suggesting we do. What it does mean is that the threat of economic sanctions, the committed resources of diplomacy and military training and support are all worthwhile. It's an ideal worth standing up for. Especially at a time when so many authoritarian leaders are on the march forward.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Isaac I'm a subscriber - just wondering if you'd consider not putting the name of shooters anywhere in your content? Please look at the Daily Wire's policy on that. I think you could really contribute by making people aware of this and helping reduce the notoriety some of these people are looking for.

— Greg, Waymouth, MA

Tangle: This is an excellent policy, and one Tangle has actually implemented in the past. In reflecting on yesterday's post, I think it was a mistake both to name the shooter and to publish the mugshot of the shooter (and his parents).

In my head, I rationalized the decision since the parents weren't the actual shooters and because, in this case, the shooter did not seem motivated by fame or politics (there was no manifesto or publicly stated intent, as there too often is). That being said, I believe the contagion effect is real, and in past coverage I've actually explained that as why Tangle often doesn't publish the names of mass shooters.

In this case I think it was a lapse of judgment, but love the idea of a full-throated commitment to this policy going forward, and will try to implement it.

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.

The IRS is about to send out December's Child Tax Credit, but what happens in January is now up to Congress. Lawmakers will have to renew the program, which was pushed through without any support from Republicans, before it lapses next month. Millions of households have been receiving up to $300 per month for children under the age of 6 and up to $250 for kids ages 6-17 since July. If the Senate passes Biden's climate-change and social spending bill as it was drafted in the House, the payments would continue through 2022. But Congress needs to renew them before Christmas to ensure they go uninterrupted. The Wall Street Journal has the story.

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Have a nice day.

I guess this one could be viewed as scary news for the pessimist, but I think it's awesome: NASA has officially launched its "next generation" asteroid impact monitoring system, dubbed Sentry II. The system is a new monitoring algorithm that will help NASA monitor tens of thousands of near-earth asteroids — and then project their trajectory. "Popular culture often depicts asteroids as chaotic objects that zoom haphazardly around our solar system, changing course unpredictably and threatening our planet without a moment’s notice. This is not the reality," NASA said. "Asteroids are extremely predictable celestial bodies that obey the laws of physics and follow knowable orbital paths around the Sun." The system comes as NASA is also testing an "asteroid defense" system, where a spacecraft is used to intentionally collide with an asteroid and push its trajectory away from earth. NASA has the story.

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