Sep 13, 2022

Ukraine's counteroffensive.

Ukraine's counteroffensive.

Plus, a question about political investigations.

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: 12 minutes.

An update on Ukraine's counteroffensive, the one year anniversary of our podcast, and a question about investigating political leaders.

Volodomyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine.

One year of podcast!

Today marks one year of Tangle producing our daily podcast — which is audio where I’m reading and riffing on this newsletter. We are up to over 400,000 all-time downloads, a daily audience size of nearly 4,000 listeners and have a 4.9 star rating on Apple Podcasts. I want to give a special shoutout and congrats to our editor and producer, Trevor Eichhorn, who has been the magic behind the podcast since our first real episode.

If you prefer listening, or want to give it a shot while you do the dishes or drive, we always release our podcasts about one hour after the newsletter comes out. And we are working on a few exciting things for the future:

  • More interviews with interesting people in politics, which all of you seem to love.
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  • Friday editions in podcast form, and probably behind a paywall, so folks who only want to listen aren't left out of the special Friday newsletters!

Thanks for all the support, and remember you can find the podcast here!

Quick hits.

  1. The Consumer Price Index rose 8.3% in August compared to a year ago, lower than 8.5% in July but above expectations. On a monthly basis the index rose by 0.1%. Energy prices have fallen, while food and shelter prices continue to rise sharply. (The numbers)
  2. President Joe Biden appointed Dr. Renee Wegrzyn, a biomedical scientist, to lead his Cancer Moonshot Initiative. (The moonshot)
  3. The penalty phase of the defamation trial in Connecticut for Alex Jones begins today, the outcome of which will determine the amount he owes in damages to victims’ families for claiming that the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax. (The trial)
  4. 15,000 nurses in Minnesota launched a three-day strike after talks to produce a contract extension failed. It's believed to be the largest private sector nurses strike in U.S. history. (The strike)
  5. The Justice Department issued 40 subpoenas in a week related to its investigation of Trump’s alleged efforts to subvert the election, spanning a wide array of current and former associates of the former president. (The subpoenas)

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's counteroffensive. Advancing Ukrainian troops have made sudden gains with "shocking speed" in the northeastern region of the country, prompting several U.S. military experts to suggest this may be a major turning point in the war. Ukraine has retaken more than 20 settlements and some units have reportedly reached the border of Russia in their push. The British Defense Ministry said Ukraine's forces have captured territory at least twice the size of greater London.

The sudden gains have prompted unusual criticism of the Kremlin from Russian allies, including loyalists like Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

While many Ukrainians and supporters celebrated the sudden push, it does not signify a definitive shift in the war. Russia still occupies significant Ukrainian territory, including Mariupol, Melitopol and Kherson. They still control the land bridge to Crimea, which was annexed in 2014. And in response to the sudden push, Russia flexed its muscle, launching missiles against critical electrical stations in Kharkiv and Donetsk, which took out power for as many as nine million people on Monday.

Still, the counteroffensive has once again forced Russian forces to regroup and called into question the capability of the Russian military and strategy.

“This is a significant event,” Rob Lee, a military analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told The Washington Post. “It doesn’t mean Russia will be forced out of Ukraine anytime soon. But they keep not learning lessons right, keep not doing basic things right... The overall situation now favors Ukraine, especially in the medium term."

Perhaps most notably, the offensive has forced Russian troops out of cities like Izyum, a special supply hub for Russia's northern front, which is key to Putin's objective of capturing the Donbas region. That goal is one of the few publicly stated objectives of his so-called "special military operation," an objective now in doubt.

In a moment, we'll take a look at some reactions from the left and right, then my take. You can find all our coverage of the war in Ukraine here. Our most recent newsletter on the war, published August 18th, is here.

What the right is saying.

  • Most on the right are hopeful about the momentum changes, but still skeptical of Biden's long-term plan.
  • Some fear how Putin may respond to losing the war.
  • Others ask what Biden is doing to help facilitate an end to the war.

In Fox News, Rebecca Grant said the aid to Ukraine is working.

"Ukraine is on the attack, and it’s working," Grant wrote. "On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a surprise visit to Kyiv promising help 'for as long as it takes' and announcing $3 billion in aid. Then at the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley confirmed Ukraine has launched a major counter-offensive in the south. Ukraine’s been out of the headlines this summer, and the sheer mass of Russia’s army and their limitless barbarity stoked fears Russia might be too strong after all... The triple play by Blinken, Austin and Milley reversed all that. Milley described a 'very deliberate offensive attack' by Ukraine that is 'calibrated to set conditions, and then seize their objectives.'

"On Day 197, this is no stalemate," she added. "Russia and Ukraine are fighting on a curving, 300-mile front with Russia launching a renewed, grinding attack near Bakhmut in the east, while Ukraine pushes its successful counter-offensive centered on Kherson in the south.  From what the Pentagon says, Russian President Vladimir Putin is losing, and Russian forces in Ukraine are having "great difficulty" with supplies, reinforcements and even basic command and control. Americans can be proud of this. The military training and tactical coaching by America and other allies is paying off on the battlefield for Ukraine. To my eye, there is now a military plan in place to push Russia back. It took Team Biden a while, but Blinken, Austin and Milley made clear the military operations are in high gear. Ukraine is on the path to victory."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board expressed concern about how Putin may respond.

"Ukraine’s advances raise the stakes for Mr. Putin. Russian military bloggers are sounding the alarm, but Mr. Putin has been reluctant to mobilize the entire country for his 'special military operation,' lest he court more domestic opposition. Russia’s response on Sunday to its recent losses was to attack power stations in Kharkiv and other cities. This is an attack on electricity for civilians," the board said. "The Russian is capable of anything. He could engage NATO forces in some fashion that he would blame on the West and use to justify a military draft. He’s meeting this week with Chinese President Xi Jinping and is likely to seek direct military aid that the U.S. says Beijing hasn’t provided so far. He’s also likely to cut off energy supplies to Europe even more than he has to keep the pressure on the West as cold weather arrives.

"Russia’s use of chemical and tactical nuclear weapons also can’t be ruled out," they wrote. "The use of battlefield nukes is part of standard Russian military doctrine. Rather than lose in humiliating fashion, Mr. Putin may calculate the military benefits are worth the risks. We hope Western leaders have been mulling how to respond rather than thinking it can’t happen. One point to make clear is that the fault would be all Mr. Putin’s, not Ukraine’s. Factions in the West, on the right and left, believe Ukraine should be left to its fate without Western aid, and they will blame Ukraine for having the nerve to defend itself against a brutal invader."

In The American Conservative, Doug Bandow questioned the strategy going forward.

"The Biden administration has made no effort to pass European defense responsibilities to where they belong: the Europeans," Bandow wrote. "For years, prosperous European allies have refused to take responsibility for their own defense, preferring to free ride on America. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine appeared to finally shake the continent from its complacency. However, despite much rhetoric—especially from Germany, the continent’s wealthiest but perhaps least responsible power—enthusiasm for spending more on defense among the European countries is fading.

"With the Biden administration rushing U.S. forces to Europe, other NATO members are happy to let Uncle Sam pick up the check. Despite the torrent of promises to back Kiev until the Second Coming, the Europeans have so far allowed Washington to provide most of the military aid for Ukraine as well as troops for Europe," Bandow wrote. "Contrary to Washington’s pious proclamations about selflessly helping the heroic Ukrainians, the Biden administration appears dedicated to using Kiev to fight a proxy war against Russia. Americans remain safely at home while Washington battles Moscow in Europe to the last Ukrainian. With its current strategy, the Biden administration seems prepared to finance a war that kills off Ukraine’s entire male population to weaken Russia."

What the left is saying.

  • The left is also hopeful about the momentum swing, and calling for continued or increasing support for Ukraine.
  • Some express fear that the weapons we are sending may end up lost.
  • Others call on Biden and Zelensky to try to begin negotiations.

The Guardian's editorial board called it a stunning breakthrough.

"The stunning, lightning offensive by Ukrainian troops in the north-east of the country constitutes the most significant moment in the war since March, when Vladimir Putin’s assault on Kyiv was repulsed and his invading forces beat a hasty retreat eastwards," they wrote. "Over five days, thousands of square kilometres of the occupied east, including the strategically vital cities of Kupiansk and Izium, have been liberated. According to Ukrainian commanders, Russian troops have been pushed back to the border. The Institute for the Study of War estimates that the counteroffensive has taken control of more territory than Russian forces have managed in all operations since April. Skillful use of western rockets and artillery allowed the Ukrainian military to successfully target Russian supply lines and erode its massive advantage in military hardware.

"For Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the gains in the north-east will be a priceless lobbying asset as he seeks to persuade western allies to step up delivery of the advanced weaponry used so effectively by his commanders," they said. "The successful counteroffensive – and smaller gains in the south – has undermined the idea that Russian consolidation in those regions is inevitable. The strength and determination of Ukrainian resistance will be redoubled, and it will become harder for Russia to establish its authority in recently occupied eastern territory. Ultimately, driving Russian forces back to at least within the territories taken over in 2014 no longer seems implausible."

In The Intercept, Alice Speri wondered about the risk of continuing to send so many weapons to Ukraine.

"Because the assistance is drawn from a variety of sources — and because it’s not always easy to distinguish between aid that’s been authorized, pledged, or delivered — some analysts estimate the true figure of the U.S. commitment to Ukraine is much higher: up to $40 billion in security assistance, or $110 million a day over the last year," she wrote. "This assistance is believed to be playing an important role in the advances Ukraine is making in an ongoing offensive to retake territory seized by Russia earlier this year; the cities of Kupiansk and Izium are reported to have just been liberated. What is clear is that the volume and speed of the assistance headed to Ukraine is unprecedented, and that legislators and observers are struggling to keep up.

"There is little precedent for the breakneck pace and scale of U.S. spending on Ukraine," she wrote. "The relentless stream of funding announcements, in the absence of any public discussion of what the U.S. is doing to seek an end to the conflict, has signaled to critics a recognition that there is no end in sight to the war, and that the U.S. is committed to supporting Ukrainian defense efforts for the long haul rather than pursue a negotiated end to it... In recent conflicts, the U.S. lost track of tens of thousands of rifles and pistols it bought for Iraqi security forces, and tens of thousands more pieces of equipment were lost in Afghanistan, frequently ending up in the hands of the Taliban, who loved to display them."

In The Washington Post, David Ignatius celebrated the advances and said Zelensky could now negotiate from a position of strength.

"Zelensky has refused to negotiate from weakness. Now, after seven punishing months, he’s in a position of strength. Talking to his exuberant country, he speaks of liberating all of Ukraine’s territory. But he must know that is unrealistic for now," Ignatius said. "And the moment might be approaching when Zelensky, from his newly dominant position, opens a door to diplomacy. Even if the Russians scorned his gesture, it would reinforce the image that Zelensky has the upper hand... Putin has always wanted to make Ukraine a living-room war, something Russians could watch on television while Chechens and Dagestanis did the fighting. It wasn’t even a real war, it was a “special military operation” against a country that Putin claimed didn’t really exist.

"Most Russians seemed to cheer the war because they shared Putin’s grievance that it was all the fault of NATO and the Americans. Putin’s problem now is that all those television watchers in Moscow and St. Petersburg can see that the Russian leader’s non-war is a total mess," Ignatius wrote. "The Biden administration has consistently stressed three points about this war. It is committed to support Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defend itself; it doesn’t want a war with Russia; and it believes that, eventually, this conflict must be settled by diplomacy. All three goals should come into sharper focus after Ukraine’s successful offensive."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. It is meant to be one perspective amid many others. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, you can reply to this email and write in. If you're a paying subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • I hate talking about war like it is a football game.
  • We need to start reframing our thinking toward negotiating an end to the war.
  • It seems unrealistic Putin will stop now, and a long winter is ahead.

Look: I hate the media narratives that treat war — death, bombings, prisoners, torture, hunger — like a football game. Momentum and surprises and comebacks and advances. It's not that. Remember: We aren't talking about the war-ravaged eastern part of the country here. Ukraine's "success" is that they have retaken thousands of square miles of territory that were peaceful and intact just a few short months ago. It has taken tens of thousands of dead and wounded, billions of dollars of military aid and months of unbelievably grim warfare to get back to something close to neutral in one corner of the country.

That's not to say it doesn't matter — it does. In the midst of such a horrifying, discouraging drama, it's the kind of encouraging sign I'll take. But it's only a "good thing" if it opens the door to peace. Not only must Ukraine now hold the region and keep Russia cut off from supply refills and other strategic advantages, it must also survive what is going to come next. Which appears to be hell. Russia is now targeting civilian infrastructure, and it is not hard to imagine why.

From Putin’s perspective, with winter around the corner, an energy war will be a fine way to tighten the vice, and 9 million people without power after a few artillery strikes is a pretty good way to start. Nine million. In the U.S., we get wall-to-wall coverage about historic hurricanes that knock out power for a few hundred thousand — Russia took down power for nine million civilians in a matter of hours.

All this is to say, I hope we see Zelensky, Biden, and European allies seize the momentum and move toward some kind of end game. Unfortunately, it’s probably not going to happen any time soon: Biden and the U.S. appear committed to supplying weapons not just for the months to come but the years to come. Zelensky is now talking about retaking territory that was annexed in 2014, well before this invasion. And European allies are scrambling to prepare for a winter — and a future — without Russian natural gas.

None of this should be accepted. This war isn't about Ukraine taking back Crimea, and our support shouldn't be about extending Ukraine's borders to pre-2014. It should be about flushing out Russian forces and forcing Putin to revise his plans, even if it means letting him pretend he won, as long as he leaves.

Not that I find them convincing, but I know there are good-faith arguments that Russia was justified or that the United States should mind its own business. But whatever led up to the war, the central plot line boils down to an authoritarian leader trying to claim 40 million people belonged to him. I think no matter where you land on the blame game, we can all agree the world will be better off if that man's quest is halted — and if the fighting stops.

When the war first broke out, I wrote clearly and plainly that we should do everything we can to keep Ukraine from falling. Ukraine succeeded in this initial mission, and Biden has kept his promise to support them. Six months later, we are well beyond that initial defense, and our entire strategy should be centrally focused on stopping the death and destruction. Dumping more weapons into Ukraine isn’t the only way to do that. We — Ukraine, the U.S., and European allies — have an opening to seek concessions, or at least a pause in the fighting. The odds are of course very low that Russia would back down, but we have a responsibility to continue to engage diplomatically.

In the meantime, Europe should be doing more to support Ukraine, and we should all be preparing mentally for a very long winter.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I have a question about political investigations. Recently, it seems like whenever one party is in power, it spends a significant amount of time investigating shenanigans by prominent members of the other party—Hillary Clinton's emails, Hunter Biden's laptop, the bazillion Trump investigations.

I'm not saying these investigations don't have merit, but they don't seem to accomplish much except inflaming our already dangerously divided politics and eroding trust in our government. Each party automatically seems to believe that investigations into its actions are politically motivated. Is there a better, more apolitical way to investigate wrongdoing by prominent politicians and their families? How do other democracies handle such investigations?

— Sophie, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Tangle: Interestingly enough, I'd say that we are actually the least interested in prosecuting former political leaders. America's attitude, since Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon to avoid upsetting the “tranquility" the nation had experienced due to his resignation, seems to be that it's better to let bygones be bygones than tear the country apart by trying to prosecute political leaders.

Elsewhere, though, that attitude seems far more common. In fact, it has happened a lot recently, which Joshua Keating laid out in astonishing detail in Slate. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy was taken to court for corruption and influence peddling, and his predecessor was convicted of embezzling funds while mayor of Paris. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also fighting corruption charges, and former PM Ehud Olmert was convicted of accepting bribes in 2015. Several of South Korea's recent leaders have been sent to prison for corruption, and one died by suicide before a legal investigation was completed.

Brazil's president, whose term ended in 2010, was sentenced to 12 years in jail for corruption before being freed after 580 days. Italy's former prime minister has been under a constant barrage of investigations. Mexico's former president Enrique Pena Nieto is now under investigation as well.

Not all of these are democracies, but most are. For whatever it’s worth, the European Union has made it easier to charge former presidents and prime ministers. From their view, the immunity laid out for presidents, including the extremely high threshold for impeachment, should probably be reduced. In other words: This may seem unique to us, but it's actually not uncommon elsewhere. And, frankly, I don’t see many better options for how to handle investigations of former leaders.

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.

Under the radar.

Los Angeles County has begun its guaranteed basic income trial program for 1,000 residents. Over the next three years, participants will receive $1,000 a month from the government. They must be over the age of 18 and have a household income under $56,000 for a single person or $96,000 for a family of four, and must also have experienced negative impacts due to Covid-19. The program was developed to study and address poverty and income instability. This is one of the largest attempts to evaluate the potential impact of what is popularly called "universal basic income" in the United States. NBC Los Angeles has more.

Have a story you think is slipping under the radar? Submit one here.


  • 53%. The percentage of respondents who said the U.S. should back Ukraine until all Russian forces are withdrawn, according to a late-August Reuters poll.
  • 18%. The percentage of respondents who said they opposed supporting Ukraine until Russian forces are withdrawn.
  • 66%. The percentage of Democrats who said the U.S. should back Ukraine until Russia withdraws.
  • 51%. The percentage of Republicans who said the U.S. should back Ukraine until Russia withdraws.
  • 26%. The percentage of respondents who said they would support sending U.S. troops to Ukraine.

Have a nice day.

Child poverty rates in the U.S. fell 59% between 1993 and 2019, according to a new study. A comprehensive new analysis shows that child poverty has fallen in every state, to the same degree across racial lines, among households with one or two parents, and even in immigrant and native-born homes. The New York Times reports that deep poverty has also fallen by the same rate. In 1993, some 28% of children — or 19.4 million kids — were poor, lacking the basic necessities. In 2019, pre-pandemic, that number was 11%, representing 8.4 million kids. The analysis points to welfare programs for working families and a focus from the federal government on low-income children. You can find the analysis here and The Times report here.

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