Jan 25, 2022

Ukraine, Russia and rising tension.

Ukraine, Russia and rising tension.

The world is preparing for a disaster.

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.

The rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia. Plus, a question about electing presidents by popular vote and some important quick hits.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Photo: The Presidential Press and Information Office
Russia's President Vladimir Putin. Photo: The Presidential Press and Information Office

Quick hits.

  1. Military troops in Burkina Faso have taken control of the government, detaining the president and announcing a suspension of the country's constitution. (The takeover)
  2. An Atlanta prosecutor looking into whether Donald Trump and others committed crimes by pressuring Georgia election officials has been granted a special purpose grand jury. (The investigation)
  3. President Biden was caught cursing at Fox News reporter Peter Doocy on a hot mic, calling him a "stupid son of a bitch" for a question about inflation. Biden later called Doocy to apologize. (The hot mic)
  4. A federal court struck down Alabama's new Congressional map, ordering state lawmakers to draw a new one with two, rather than one, districts that are likely to elect Black representatives. (The map)
  5. The Omicron wave is beginning to recede across the U.S., but deaths are now as high as they were during the Delta wave last summer (averaging over 2,000 per day). (The numbers)

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. And Russia. On Saturday, the U.S. embassy in Ukraine requested the evacuation of all non-essential staff, including families of U.S. diplomats, amid increasing fears of an imminent Russian invasion. NATO allies deployed troops and military equipment to the Baltic sea, and the European Union set out plans for loans and grants worth more than $1.3 billion dollars to Ukraine. The U.S. Pentagon ordered as many as 8,500 troops to prepare for deployment in Eastern Europe. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, said the troops would not be authorized to enter Ukraine but would be deployed for "contingency operations'' like evacuation efforts.

The moves come in response to a Russian troop build up along Ukraine's border and intelligence reports that Russia is planning an invasion. Russia has so far denied such plans. The latest assessment by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry estimates there are 127,000 Russian troops in the region.

In early December, we covered the history of Ukraine and Russia and what is behind this latest tension. Putin has placed soldiers on the border of Ukraine and Belarus, in part, as a threat to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has aligned himself with the West and is key to limiting Putin's regional power and expansion. NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) membership is enshrined in the Ukrainian constitution and Zelensky has supported such a move, but Russia has insisted that NATO provide guarantees it won't give membership to Ukraine. Putin has also demanded NATO stop military exercises in Ukraine and other former Soviet states. The U.S., NATO and its allies have rejected those demands, saying states are free to associate with any other states they choose.

Last week, de-escalation talks between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ended after 90 minutes and failed to bridge the gaps on either side, though they agreed to continue them this week. The U.S. has since threatened the use of a novel "export control" if Russia invades, which would deprive Russia of semiconductors. The move could upend multiple Russian industries and deprive citizens of some smartphones and video game tablets. It's the same tool that nearly crippled the Chinese tech giant Huawei.

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions from the left and right, a view from abroad, and then my take. Reminder: It's worth re-visiting our Russia-Ukraine explainer if you have not yet read it.


What the left is saying.

  • The left says Biden must defend Ukraine's sovereignty.
  • They argue that we should use economic sanctions strategically to prevent an invasion or make one too costly.
  • Others say we need to avoid war at all costs, even if it means staying out of Russia's way.

In The New York Times, Fiona Hill wrote about how this was predictable.

In 2008, she said, "Mr. Putin was furious: NATO had just announced that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually join the [NATO] alliance. This was a compromise formula to allay concerns of our European allies — an explicit promise to join the bloc, but no specific timeline for membership," she wrote. "Within four months, in August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia. Ukraine got Russia’s message loud and clear. It backpedaled on NATO membership for the next several years. But in 2014, Ukraine wanted to sign an association agreement with the European Union, thinking this might be a safer route to the West. Moscow struck again, accusing Ukraine of seeking a back door to NATO, annexing Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and starting an ongoing proxy war in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region. The West’s muted reactions to both the 2008 and 2014 invasions emboldened Mr. Putin."

"This time, Mr. Putin’s aim is bigger than closing NATO’s 'open door' to Ukraine and taking more territory — he wants to evict the United States from Europe," she wrote. "As I have seen over two decades of observing Mr. Putin, and analyzing his moves, his actions are purposeful and his choice of this moment to throw down the gauntlet in Ukraine and Europe is very intentional. He has a personal obsession with history and anniversaries. December 2021 marked the 30th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when Russia lost its dominant position in Europe. Mr. Putin wants to give the United States a taste of the same bitter medicine Russia had to swallow in the 1990s. He believes that the United States is currently in the same predicament as Russia was after the Soviet collapse: grievously weakened at home and in retreat abroad."

The Washington Post editorial board wrote about President Zelensky calling for sanctions now.

"Mr. Zelensky’s argument is understandable, both politically and emotionally," the board said. "But it’s not strategically optimal for the reason Mr. Blinken gave on Sunday during an interview on CBS’s Face the Nation: 'Once sanctions are triggered, you lose the deterrent effect.' Unstated by Mr. Blinken, but also relevant, is the likelihood that sanctions now would divide the alliance, because European allies would be unlikely to join in," the board wrote. "So it’s better to keep the West’s powder dry, while broadcasting to Moscow just how potent the sanctions bomb could be if Russia chooses to detonate it by invading. The Biden administration has usefully sent that signal by openly contemplating a plan to deprive Russia of indispensable electronic components manufactured with U.S.-made tools or containing U.S.-made software."

Katrina vanden Heuvel took an anti-war posture.

"Hotheads are having a field day," she said. "With the United States desperately needing to focus attention and resources on the challenges posed by the pandemic, debilitating economic inequality, severe racial division and catastrophic climate change, and as the administration positions itself to take on China, the last thing we need is a war by proxy or, God forbid, directly with the Russians over Ukraine.

"The problem is that the United States doesn’t do diplomacy well," she wrote. "We do guns — with about 800 military bases outside the United States, more bases than diplomatic missions. (Russia’s only military bases outside the former Soviet Union are in Syria.) We do economic sanctions, imposing or threatening them for countries from Venezuela to Russia. We talk about a rules-based international order but respect it only if we make the rules, often exempting ourselves from their application."


What the right is saying.

  • The right criticizes the Biden administration for missteps with Russia.
  • Some say we must mount a strong show of support for Ukraine.
  • Others say we need to avoid war at all costs and address issues at home.

In The National Review, the editorial board said Biden "rounded out his first year in office inadvertently encouraging a Russian invasion of Ukraine."

"His now-infamous comment that the Western response to an invasion would depend on whether 'it’s a minor incursion' was remarkably, disturbingly candid, demonstrating that Washington and the West could well tolerate a limited Russian attack," the board said. "Biden also said another unstated assumption out loud: that there’s no transatlantic unity on how to respond to the Russian military buildup. Effectively, he telegraphed to the Kremlin that the U.S. response to an invasion will only be as strong as what its most reticent ally will permit.

"The president’s comments laid bare the fundamental problems with this administration’s handling of the situation in Eastern Europe so far," the board said. "Washington is hesitant to do anything that might be interpreted in Moscow as an escalation. The White House is yielding to German economic interests over Ukraine’s interest in maintaining its independence. It’s taken a Model U.N., kid-glove approach to dealing with a kleptocratic thug who has shown a penchant for invading the democracies bordering Russia. And it has actively lobbied against measures — such as a Nord Stream 2 sanctions bill proposed by Senator Ted Cruz — that would bolster U.S. deterrence."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said "the West is finally getting more serious about deterring Russian aggression, and let’s hope it’s not too late for Ukraine."

"President Biden is considering the troop deployment, along with ships and aircraft, to NATO allies like Poland and the Baltic states that are closest to the Russian threat," the board said. "Go ahead and send them, sir. Mr. Biden’s strategy of restraint, in the hope of not provoking Vladimir Putin, hasn’t worked. Mr. Putin has been adding to his own deployment of troops on three different fronts on Ukraine’s borders.

"Ukraine isn’t a member of NATO, and the U.S. troops wouldn’t deploy there," it added. "But their arrival in Eastern Europe would send a message that the U.S. would get involved militarily if Mr. Putin makes a play for the Baltic states or otherwise moves against NATO nations. The Russian navy is planning live-fire exercises off the coast of Ireland, which isn’t a NATO member... The U.S. doesn’t need to fight in Ukraine, but it can do more to help that democratic nation defend itself. That means sending anti tank and anti aircraft missiles, as well as assistance with air defense, maritime security and intelligence."

Tucker Carlson, like vanden Heuvel, took an anti-interventionist stance and asked why it's so important to defend Ukraine.

"We're really going to fight a war over some corrupt Eastern European country that is strategically irrelevant to us? With everything else that's going on right now in our own country? No normal person would ever want to do anything like that. How can it really happen?" he asked. "The Biden administration has begun evacuating American civilians from Ukraine. The Pentagon has announced it is prepared to use force in the region. So this country is now closer to a legitimate war than we have been in decades... Russia is not a rock. Russia has nuclear weapons and a real army. A war with Russia is not a joke. It won't be over in a week."


A view from Ukraine.

Vitaly Portnikov, a prominent Ukrainian editor and journalist, said "President Joseph Biden and European allies want to live in a civilized world."

"This is what Ukraine wants, too," he wrote. "Putin wants to live in the world of Hitler and Stalin. In fact, he wants to become both a Hitler and Stalin. But, Putin is politically dead. Apart from ruling with an obviously dysfunctional political system, Putin is dragging Russia into the past, and he wants Ukraine to remain by his side. Actually, he wants the whole world to return to the past. If the West fails to respond, to reason with Putin, if the Kremlin dictator achieves his goal and limits Ukraine’s sovereignty, then it won’t be long before similar conflicts erupt around the world. Authoritarian regimes will threaten democracies; strong rulers will oppress the weak."


My take.

There is a big difference between being "anti-war" and conflating an issue to the point of making it impossible to articulate a moral high ground. Tucker's coverage of this issue, like many of the anti-war writings on the left, has caused a stir. Largely because Carlson, one of the most popular cable television hosts in America, is asking why siding with Ukraine is in our interest.

On the surface, this might seem like a "gotcha" question. It’s certainly provocative. If defending Ukraine means spending billions of our own dollars and results in war with a nuclear-armed super power, why is defending Ukraine in our interest? The answer is actually pretty simple, though: Because we said we would. We said we would defend them and we asked them to trust us in the process. And in the liberal world order the U.S. fought to create — the one we are purportedly holding up — Russia doesn't get to tell Ukraine whether they get to be free or join NATO or build up their military or associate with the West. That's Ukraine's choice.

This part is not difficult. I'm with Carlson and vanden Heuvel on the absurdity of a potential war at a time when we have so many things to fix here at home. And I agree with them that it can be tough watching billions of dollars go out the door while the defense contractors rub their hands together in glee about a looming conflict.

Because I often land in the "anti-war" or "anti-interventionist" camp (it's one of the things I agree with most about Tucker and the "Trump right"), I'm also familiar with the sleight of hand our side often uses. The reoccurring trick used most often is where antiwar leftists and populist right-wing figures try to make faraway places seem equivalent. Ukraine has corruption and its people are divided and their language sounds a lot like Russian, so how different are they really? And is it worth your son dying and billions of dollars and — hey, is that pothole outside your local grocery store fixed yet? Then, the cherry on top: On the left, there will be a dash of “don’t forget, too, that the U.S. is the true axis of evil and the nation that causes and funds all these wars.” On the right, “don’t forget that we could be spending that money on reviving rural America or on securing our southern border.”

Of course, Ukraine and Russia aren’t equals, and there is an ethical side to take. Ukraine is fighting for independence and attempting to abandon its corrupt past and erect a government chosen by its people. Russia is slowly taking bites out of Ukraine, annexing regions by force in an effort to take Ukraine back into its authoritarian umbrella, and its leader murders dissidents. That our military industrial complex is funding untold horror abroad or that our southern border is in a crisis or that rural America has been hollowed out can co-exist with the fact there is a clear side worth defending here. It’s sleight of hand to pretend otherwise.

Ukraine's "fledgling democracy," as it is often and aptly described, has chosen Zelensky and the U.S. and NATO. Look no further than the on the ground reporting from Christopher Miller and others to get a good idea of what the mood is like in Ukraine:

It’s true there are few things Americans have less appetite for than another war. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was a low point in Biden's presidency even though many Americans supported it. Any kind of shooting conflict with Russia in Ukraine that involved U.S. troops would almost certainly be disastrous for Biden (unless there was a Russian provocation so clear and simple most Americans could understand it). And it should be disastrous for Biden. We should not enter another conflict — we cannot. We can’t afford it and we won’t “win” and the nation will revolt.

The National Review editors were right to hammer Biden for his "minor incursion" slip-up, which was an embarrassing moment and the kind of classic “Biden gaffe” that left amusing territory and entered “serious” territory. It's also true Biden still hasn't nominated an ambassador to Ukraine, a particularly absurd notion given the current state of affairs (and one that is squarely his fault, not the Senate’s). But the NR editors also rightly gave Biden credit for quickly rallying our allies. And I give him credit for remaining clear that our troops will not enter Ukraine and — if they are deployed — will serve as a deterrent and participate only in “contingency” activity like helping evacuate Ukrainians if an invasion does happen.

The key, though, is for Biden to keep that promise. And, G-d willing, for a development that allows Russia to back down from the ledge it has stepped out on.

Have thoughts about "my take?" You can reply to this email and write in or leave a comment if you're a subscriber.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Why do we focus on reforming the electoral votes counting when we could move to electing the president by popular vote? I recognize that it requires a constitutional amendment.

— Jim, League City, Texas

Tangle: In a vacuum, I'm actually not opposed to a popular vote deciding the president. It makes sense that if cities and states elect representatives by popular vote, the nation as a whole should, too. Given that most Americans have state representatives, a governor, a mayor, and elected members of Congress — why not just allow a president to be chosen by a majority rather than the electoral college system we have?

The best argument, to me, is probably the most popular one: That it prevents a presidential candidate from simply ignoring a vast swathe of the country. For instance, it would mean a president's campaign focused far more on urban issues than rural ones. One could imagine a world where candidates spent the vast majority of their time campaigning in New York City and Los Angeles, with their combined 36 million people when you take in each's metropolitan areas (for context: Biden got 81 million votes in 2020. Of course, that 36 million people are not just voters but all people).

Aside from that, to your point, it's because it basically has no chance of becoming reality. Along with the cogent arguments against a popular vote president, it would require a complete re-tooling of the Constitution that will never happen so long as there is a clear winner and loser of such a change (in this case, Democrats would almost certainly benefit given the current urban-rural political divide).

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 Supreme Court will take up a challenge to the Clean Water Act that could limit the law's reach. "Under an opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2006, regulators can block development on properties far from waterways as long as they prove a significant connection to the waterways," the Associated Press reports. But a challenge from a couple trying to construct a home in Idaho has now landed in front of SCOTUS. Environmentalists say the challenge could gut the ability to protect wetlands and drinking water, while opponents say the law does not clearly define what constitutes "waters of the United States" and wants to narrow that definition. The Washington Post has more.


Numbers.

  • 14,000. The number of people who had been killed in the Donbas region of Ukraine over the last few years of conflict.
  • 900. The number of employees at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine.
  • 4,000. The number of miles some Russian troops and ships traveled to get to Ukraine's border.
  • 2,000. The number of next generation light anti-tank weapon launchers sent to Ukraine by the United Kingdom last week.
  • 1/3. The estimated total of Russia's available military force that has now been deployed.

Have a nice day.

The James Webb Space Telescope, which we have been dutifully tracking here at Tangle, has arrived safely at its final destination: one million miles away from earth. The telescope successfully unfurled a heat shield, mirrors and other instruments with "few surprises," and is now positioned to peer back into ancient galaxies (perhaps to the beginning of time) for the next 10 years. “We’re one step closer to uncovering the mysteries of the universe,” Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, said. The telescope is three times the size of the Hubble Space telescope and seven times more sensitive, with the technology to peer back at the stars that "twinkled alive at the dawn of time, 13.7 billion years ago," The New York Times reports.


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