Sep 7, 2023

Is Ukraine's counteroffensive working?

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky tours an area that was bombed during the war in Ukraine. Image: Raw Pixel
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky tours an area that was bombed during the war in Ukraine. Image: Raw Pixel

Plus, could Michelle Obama get involved in 2024?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, 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: 12 minutes.

We're giving you an update on the war in Ukraine. Plus, a reader question about the possible candidates to replace Joe Biden in 2024.

Quick hits.

  1. Special counsel David Weiss plans to seek an indictment against Hunter Biden by the end of September, according to a court document filed yesterday. (The intention)
  2. A federal judge ruled that President Trump was liable for defamatory remarks made against writer E. Jean Carroll when he denied her rape allegations in 2019 (The ruling). Separately, Fulton County prosecutors intend to call at least 150 witnesses to trial in their racketeering case against Donald Trump and 18 other defendants. (The plan)
  3. In the Senate, former Republican Rep. Mike Rogers announces plans to run for Michigan's open seat (The announcement). Separately, minority leader Mitch McConnell said he has no plans to step down before his term ends in 2026. (The comments)
  4. Mexico's Supreme Court struck down a federal law criminalizing abortion. (The ruling)
  5. The manhunt for convicted murderer Danilo Cavalcante entered its eighth day today as the escaped prisoner remains at large in suburban Philadelphia. (The search)

Today's topic.

The Ukraine counteroffensive. The war in Ukraine has dragged on for 18 months. This summer, the Ukrainian military has been attempting to push into occupied territory in the east and south and cut off Russian supply lines. In the last few months, there have been some significant updates to the progress of the war and that long-planned counteroffensive. We've included the map below for reference:

CIA factbook image

Notably, Ukraine is currently battling Russian soldiers in Bakhmut, which Russian mercenaries took after some of the most intense fighting of the war. Neither side is advancing meaningfully, and the battle there has been described as a stalemate. In the south, however, Ukraine's soldiers have made progress around Zaporizhzhia. Their hope is to push down the southern portion of the country and to the Sea of Azov, which would allow them to cut off Russia's land access route to the Crimean Peninsula. All across the south, Ukrainian soldiers continue making small advances as U.S. officials, journalists, and volunteer organizations track their progress through satellite imagery, social media information, and on-the-ground intelligence.

However, U.S. intelligence officials have recently assessed that Kyiv will fail to achieve the key goal of their offensive. Unlike successful counter-offensives of the past, Russia has had plenty of time to prepare for this push, which was reported on in the news months before it began. Russian soldiers have lined the region with minefields, tank traps, and miles of trenches to protect it. They've been much more successful at defending occupied territory in recent months than they had been earlier in the war.

Along with setting up their lines, Russia has used drones to continue bombing Danube River ports, Ukrainian infrastructure, and even some populated civilian areas. Just this week, at least 17 people were killed in a drone strike on a market in the eastern Donetsk region.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the offensive was going as he expected.

“I had said a couple of months ago that this offensive was going to be long, it’s going to be bloody, it’s going to be slow,” he told The Washington Post. “And that’s exactly what it is: long, bloody and slow, and it’s a very, very difficult fight.”

While visiting Kyiv Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a new $1 billion military aid package and also praised the offensive. Blinken is the first U.S. official to visit Ukraine since the counter-offensive began in June. Back home in Washington, D.C., President Biden is requesting $24 billion more in Ukraine assistance, including $13 billion in security assistance and $7.3 billion in economic and humanitarian assistance. The United States has already directed more than $75 billion in aid to Ukraine since the war began.

However, a growing portion of Americans and some members of Congress are becoming wary of the mounting financial commitment to Ukraine. After intelligence officials delivered a closed-door assessment of the offensive to Congress, some Republicans and Democrats began finger-pointing, with some skeptical of granting more aid to Ukraine and others suggesting the administration failed to provide sufficient resources to Ukraine in a timeframe it required.

A CNN poll released last week found 55% of Americans believe Congress should not authorize additional funding to support Ukraine, while 45% said it should. 51% said the U.S. has already done enough to help Ukraine. In February of 2022, 62% of Americans said the U.S. should be doing more to help aid Ukraine.

Today, we're going to share some commentary on the war from the right and left, then my take. While we often include commentary from abroad for international news, today we are going to focus on the American perspective.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is divided on what to do next, with some calling for more skepticism and oversight of funding and others making the case for continued support.
  • Some argue that regardless of what we do, we have to really make a choice.
  • Others suggest that both the media and Congress are failing to properly scrutinize the funding.

In Townhall, Kurt Schlichter said it's time to make a choice on what to do in Ukraine.

"The Ukrainian offensive spearheaded by Western-trained and equipped units has not made the breakthroughs our generals hoped for. The Russians have done what Russians do, dig in," Schlichter said. So we have to do something. "Course of Action One is do whatever it takes to get the Ukrainians to win the war outright, by which I mean driving the Russians out of the Ukrainian territory that they occupy." This would humiliate Putin and show strength to China, but would require a massive investment of money and arms, and maybe U.S. and European soldiers in the fight. "Course of Action Two is the opposite — basically, just walk away. Wash our hands of the whole mess."

"The advantage is that if we abandon Ukraine, we’re done and the war ends fast. So does our endless funding of it." The disadvantage is we cede ground to Putin and exit the world stage as a power, and "Ukraine is enslaved." Course three is "force a negotiation to resolve the dispute, since neither belligerent seems willing to compromise." That ends the war, but rewards Putin for his aggression. "The Fourth and final course of action is the least advantageous to us, and, therefore, naturally, the one our politicians have embraced so far — the meat grinder option," Schlichter wrote. "This is the course of action where we give the Ukrainians just enough ammunition and training to keep the killing going on indefinitely."

In The Wall Street Journal, Walter Meade wrote about how to help Ukraine win the war of attrition.

“Eighteen months into Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, two things seem clear. First, the war matters. After 15 years of failed Western responses to Russian aggression against Georgia and Ukraine, another failure to contain and deter Russia would have catastrophic consequences around the world,” Meade wrote. “Second, current American strategy is not working well. Ukrainians are fighting bravely. We can and should hope for Ukrainian breakthroughs that transform the military situation and break Russian morale, but hope is not a plan.”

“Absent decisive military victories for Ukraine, the conflict is developing into a war of attrition, and given current American strategy that kind of war favors Russia,” Meade said. “The answer is not to walk away from Ukraine, but to fight Mr. Putin in smarter and politically more sustainable ways. Mr. Putin must pay, and be seen to pay, for his attack on Ukraine, and to do that the U.S. needs a whole-of-government campaign against Russian interests and assets around the world.” We should go after the Wagner Group and its successors in Africa, work with Turkey to make Putin’s presence in Syria ruinously expensive, and target Putin’s Latin American allies with sanctions and investigations.

In Newsweek, Christopher McCallion expressed skepticism about aid to Ukraine, saying we need more oversight.

"President Joe Biden recently requested another $24 billion in aid to Ukraine, including $13 billion in military aid. This adds to the estimated $113 billion, including $62 billion in security assistance, already provided by the United States since the conflict began—considerably exceeding the amount provided by European states, who presumably have a more direct interest in the outcome of the conflict than the U.S." Yet “Ukraine continues to have rampant corruption, prominent far-right and neo-Nazi paramilitaries, and one of the largest illegal arms trafficking markets in Europe."

"This raises the very real possibility of U.S. military-grade weapons proliferating to malign actors throughout Europe and beyond," McCallion said. There are other risks, too: "Ukraine's top general, Valery Zaluzhny, has expressed his frustration with Western governments' insistence that weapons they provide not be used on targets in Russia." The media "has been enthusiastically supportive of Ukraine, and have become hesitant to question the American defense and intelligence agencies they are supposed to scrutinize… Those who claim America's support for Ukraine is in defense of democracy should also want to defend democracy at home."

What the left is saying.

  • The left is concerned about the outlook for the war but maintains there is still a need for increased support from the West.
  • Some look to past conflicts in other countries for lessons about how the war in Ukraine could end. 
  • Others say it’s time to start pushing for a negotiated peace to stop the bloodshed.

In Bloomberg, Andreas Kluth compared the state of the war in Ukraine to past conflicts in West Germany, Israel, and Korea. 

"As they’ve done since the start of this invasion, pundits and leaders instinctively grasp for historical analogies to guide their thinking, and three stand out,” Kluth wrote. “One ‘model’ for Ukraine is West Germany in the 1950s, another is Israel starting in the 1970s, and a third is the Korean peninsula, also since the 1950s.” The comparison between the first two are flawed, but Korea may offer the “best available” analogy. “Then as now, Moscow and Beijing backed the side of the aggressor (North Korea in 1950), while the US led an international coalition in defense of the victim. In Korea as in Ukraine, a kinetic opening phase gave way, from mid-1951, to a grinding and bloody stalemate.”

“If Korea is the right model,” Kluth said, “the lesson is that combatants take far too long to begin talking even after it’s obvious that neither side can win militarily, and then far too long to silence the guns once it’s clear that the outcome won’t change, and that the only parameter left is how many people will unnecessarily die until that’s acknowledged. None of this is about who’s right… But the wisdom of the past suggests that the time has come to fight and talk at the same time.”

In The Guardian, Simon Tisdall argued “the west can’t pull the plug” on Ukraine now. 

“Even after 18 months of horror in Ukraine, too many prominent politicians in the US and Europe appear unable or unwilling to grasp the existential threat that Vladimir Putin’s Russia poses to all.” Tisdall said. “They continue to assume this war, like other conflicts, will eventually end in negotiations. Yet the Kremlin demands nothing less than Kyiv’s total capitulation — and that is not going to happen.” Meanwhile, “Pressure in the US to cut aid to Ukraine and force a peace settlement looks set to grow, regardless of whether Joe Biden is re-elected next year. If victorious, Putin fan Donald Trump may try to impose a quick deal — and pull the plug on Kyiv.”

And despite a momentary threat to his power, Putin is “not budging” but “doubling down on his personal crusade,” Tisdall said. Western leaders must “start fighting to win.” To do so, they should “welcome Ukraine into Nato and the EU without further delay. Offer security guarantees and safe sea lanes now, backed by Nato firepower, red lines, more arms, planes and no-fly zones. Warn China, Iran and North Korea to back off. Stop talking about talks. Accept there can be no peace until Russia unconditionally withdraws… Ukraine must win — or we all lose.”

In The Nation, Jeet Heer said advocates for negotiations to end the war “need to come out of the closet.”

“A strong ‘taboo’ against public discussion of diplomacy pervades the NATO countries,” but “the time is surely ripe for a diplomatic push,” Heer wrote. “This taboo exists for understandable reasons. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is an appalling violation of international law. The Russian army and its mercenary allies have committed horrific war crimes. The danger of any diplomatic solution is that it will inevitably mean that the architects of the war, Putin and his national security advisers, go unpunished. Ukrainians have every moral right to want a return to their nation’s full territorial integrity.”

At the same time, “an interminable bloodbath on Ukrainian soil is also horrific. The status quo is bad for Ukraine and the world. Part of the tragedy of war is that bringing wars to an end often involves accepting less-than-ideal solutions.” Further, “there is every reason to believe the Biden administration has been conducting diplomacy all along, albeit covertly.” If those efforts are “already being done on the sly, there’s now good reason for it to come out of the closet. A call for open talks could force the issue and make clear that the United States and Ukraine and its allies are willing to go the extra step for peace.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • Throughout the war, I've maintained a "support Ukraine at all costs" stance.
  • But, like most Americans, my patience is wearing — and I want to see some meaningful progress.
  • The pragmatic voice is getting louder, and it feels like time for the United States to make a clear, decisive choice in one direction or another.

Throughout this war, I've been pretty staunchly in the "support Ukraine at all costs” camp. You can read my writing from the day the war started up until just a few months ago and see that throughline. Reading my piece from the morning after Russia launched its invasion, now a year-and-a-half old, I was struck by the following passage:

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.

All of this holds true, and I wouldn’t change a word 18 months later. The war has been just as awful as I imagined, with tens of thousands on both sides dead and maimed, millions displaced, billions dumped into weapons and aid, and now the entire idea of supporting Ukraine has been swallowed up by our own partisan politics. I sincerely doubt Putin is going to give any ground in any peace negotiations — he wants complete and total subservience from Ukraine. I also think the “Nikki Haley take” is generally right: We’d much rather stop Russia in Ukraine than on a broader front. If Ukraine falls, Russia could push into post-Soviet Baltic states that are members of NATO. That would then require a military response from us and Europe to defend our NATO allies, not just with more weapons and funding but with NATO troops, and potentially Americans.

But, like many Americans, my patience is wearing thin. When I saw President Biden request an additional $24 billion, my jaw dropped. It's an incredible sum of money, even moreso in the context of what we've already granted. As with past conflicts, I'm left feeling like our European allies — especially Germany and France — are not pulling their weight, even as their leaders continue to support our own backing of Ukraine.

The piece that resonated with me most this week was Kurt Schlicter's (under "What the right is saying"), which was ironic because I often don't find his writing or views very persuasive. But I think he's right: The U.S. is not being decisive. Instead, we are funding the "meat grinder" option, the one that equals stalemate and draws out fighting while maximizing deaths and destruction. This war was never going to be over in six months, unless Russia took Ukraine easily, and now we're entering a new phase where it could continue for years, or a decade, or worse. I don't blame any American for not wanting to be on the hook for that long — not when so many people here are struggling and we've failed in so many similar conflicts.

So we have to make a choice. We have to either go all-in, pushing our European allies to step up their funding and perhaps even pushing their soldiers into the war, providing every piece of aid we can, and fully throwing our weight behind a decisive offensive. Or we have to draw a line in the sand on what we’re willing to do and let the cards fall where they may.

In retrospect, we could have done more earlier to help Ukraine win. But we didn’t — we underestimated them, and that was a mistake. I can't say I honestly know the best choice anymore. My heart is fully with Ukraine, and there's a loud and prominent voice in my head that’s shouting to put every diplomatic and military resource behind them and crush this invasion. In some ways it feels as if it would right many of our own military wrongs to defend a people genuinely fighting for independence.

But I hear the pragmatic voice, too — it’s emphasizing the stalemate, the death, the immovable sides, and the reality that our money and weapons are only holding the line — not moving it. This voice calls for a resolution, a real plan, negotiations... a light at the end of the tunnel.

And each day this drags on, each time we give another billion or ten, each time another report of a failed Ukrainian offensive hits the wire, each time another city center is bombed by Russia, each time another Ukrainian official is fired for corruption, each time another photograph of burnt-to-crisp towns is published, that voice gets a little bit louder.

Want more international news?

We have a partnership with DailyChatter, a daily newsletter that covers international news with the same kind of balance and neutrality we strive for at Tangle. So, once a week, we give them a shoutout — and today feels like a good day to recommend them. DailyChatter is free for the first two weeks, and then $29.95 a year after that. 84% of all their users stick around after the free trial, though, which I think is a testament to the quality of their content. I read it every morning. You can sign up here

Your questions, answered.

Q: You made it sound unlikely that Democrats run anyone other than Biden in 2024. Can they wait till right before the general election and have Biden pick someone else and give all his support to that person? And run someone else even without a primary? My opinion is that if Trump is leading polls they will convince Michelle Obama to step in and run.

— David from Mesa, Arizona

Tangle: If I only made it sound like it’s unlikely Democrats run anyone other than Biden, then I guess I didn’t do a good enough job communicating — it is very highly unlikely that anyone other than Biden runs for the Democrats in 2024. Period. This is what I said in response to another reader question in our mailbag edition:

“Unless, like Trump, he suddenly is facing down a serious indictment, then I don't see any world in which the party abandons him. Part of that, at this point, is logistical. It takes an incredible amount of money and operational support to run for president. If Democrats want to replace Biden, they'd need to build the infrastructure for selecting that replacement now. They'd need to have teams, fundraisers, and Super-PACs. They'd need to get on ballots. They'd need to run primaries. There is so much to do — which is why it usually isn't a surprise when someone runs for president.”

The only other real alternative is that he drops out because of some obvious health-related issue like the ones we are seeing with Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) or Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

If that were to happen, Biden does not get to pick who gets the nomination. Instead, the Democratic National Committee, which consists of about 350 officials, will get together to pick the replacement. And there’s tremendous pressure on these officials to pick someone their voters will support, which means the chance of a surprise candidate is highly unlikely.

And I’ll spell this part out as plainly as I can: It’s not going to be Michelle Obama. I heard people float this exact same theory before the 2020 election, despite no inclination from the DNC nor Obama herself that she was even entertaining the thought. And voters don’t really know anything about her beliefs. What’s her stance on energy? Foreign policy? Medicare reform? We have no idea. When you consider those facts, imagining Michelle Obama as the 2024 Democratic presidential nominee is really nothing more than a fantasy.

So, if Biden does drop out late, who would the DNC be likely to pick? Well, who’s popular enough to win, and who’s shown that they’d be interested? That list is actually pretty short — but I don’t think there’s anyone more feasible than California Gov. Gavin Newsome. Maybe Pete Buttigieg, possibly Kamala Harris; I’m sure some other Democratic senators or governors like Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI) would be considered. Then there are always the perennial outside chances of Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren — but not Michelle Obama.

Under the radar.

Apartment construction in the U.S. is set to hit an all-time high this year, but many of the buildings are of the high-end, expensive type. Roughly 461,000 new units are expected to be built across the U.S. this year, which comes as a housing shortage continues to drive up prices, and an additional 1.2 million apartments were completed during the pandemic. However, the bulk of those apartments are in 20 metro areas where 41% of U.S. residents already live, and around 89% of the apartments finished between 2020 and 2022 are high-end units. Axios has the story on the construction — and what to expect in the housing shortage


  • $66 billion. As of August 10, the amount of military, financial, and humanitarian aid the U.S. had committed to Ukraine.
  • $43 billion. As of August 10, the amount of military aid the U.S. had committed to Ukraine.
  • $15 billion. The combined amount of military aid the U.S. gives to Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, our next three largest aid recipients.
  • $39 billion. The cost of Biden's student loan forgiveness plan for 804,000 borrowers that was announced earlier this summer.
  • 0.33%. The percentage of the U.S. GDP that has been committed to Ukraine.
  • 1.26%. The percentage of Estonia's GDP that has been committed to Ukraine, the most of any country.
  • 0.05%. The percentage of France’s GDP that has been committed to Ukraine.


Don't forget, we've got new content coming out every week on our brand new YouTube channel — including this doozy:

The extras.

  • One year ago today we covered President Biden's Philadelphia speech.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the airplane pooper.
  • Limited Opinion: 976 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking their preferred response to our aging Congress, with 67% in favor of term limits. 17% support age limits, 2% want to leave it up to voters to decide, 2% were unsure or had no opinion, and 1% did not consider it a problem. 10% of responses favored doing something else, which included a combination of age and term limits, campaign finance reform, and physical or cognitive testing.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Vintage fast-food training videos.
  • Take the poll. Should we alter our strategy to the war in Ukraine? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

In Lincoln, Nebraska, 92,003 people gathered in Memorial Stadium, setting the world record for largest attendance at a women’s sporting event ever, for their volleyball match against Omaha. In the spring, Nebraska announced it was planning a celebration called "Volleyball Day in Nebraska," and invited fans to pack the stadium on August 30 for the match. Volleyball is popular in Nebraska, but the university still “took a chance” with the event, according to Nebraska Cornhuskers Coach John Cook. "It feels like a great accomplishment for this sport called volleyball played by women," Cook said. "It's a state treasure. We proved it." The previous world record was set April 22, 2022, at a Champions League soccer match between FC Barcelona and Wolfsburg in Spain, with 91,648 people in attendance. The AP has the story.

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