Oct 4, 2022

Ukraine's advance.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky / Manhai: Flickr
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky / Manhai: Flickr 

Plus, a question about Ron DeSantis.

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: 13 minutes.

We're covering the latest from the war in Ukraine — including the annexations of four regions and Ukraine's advances. Plus, a question about Hurricane Ian and Ron DeSantis.

One year ago today: We were covering the Kyrsten Sinema drama.

Quick hits.

  1. The United Kingdom government reversed a plan to scrap the top income tax rate after a public backlash and major market turbulence. (The plan)
  2. Former President Donald Trump sued CNN in federal court for defamation, seeking $475 million. (The lawsuit)
  3. The U.S. killed Abdullahi Nadir, the leader of the militant group al-Shabaab, in an airstrike in Somalia. (The strike)
  4. Herschel Walker, the pro-life Republican candidate for Senate in Georgia, was accused of paying an ex-girlfriend to have an abortion in 2009. Walker denied the report, from The Daily Beast, saying it was a "flat-out lie" and "repugnant hatchet job." (The report)
  5. The U.S. soccer federation said it has uncovered systematic emotional and physical abuse in the National Women's Soccer League. (The story)

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. Just days after Russia's President Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of four regions in Ukraine, Ukrainian forces made their biggest advancement in the south since the war began, breaking through Russia's lines in Kherson, the southeastern part of Ukraine.

On Friday, at a concert in Moscow's Red Square, Putin proclaimed the provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to be Russian territory. The announcement amounted to Russia's president claiming nearly a fifth of Ukraine's land, and the millions of citizens who live there, to be Russian citizens "forever." It came after Russia orchestrated referendums in eastern Ukraine, which were universally condemned as sham elections by Ukraine and Western nations. As described by residents who escaped the regions, and shown in footage released from the four areas, Russian-installed officials took ballot boxes from house to house with armed men in tow to tally votes. While some residents surely supported the annexation, many Ukrainians had fled the region before the vote even took place.

Donetsk and Luhansk have been home to two breakaway, Russia-controlled republics since being occupied in 2014, while Kherson and Zaporizhzhia have been occupied by Russian forces since the invasion in February.

Just hours after the announcement in the Red Square, Ukrainian forces captured Lyman, a key logistical city in the north of Donetsk province. Holding the town would give Ukrainian forces the ability to cut off Russian supply lines and prevent any further attacks in the area. At the same time, Ukrainian forces made their advances in the south, penetrating a line of defense in the Kherson region along the Dnieper river.

The maps below, from the Institute for the Study of War and the AEI's Critical Threats project, depict the recent advancement in the broader context of the war. The areas outlined in black represent territories Russia controlled before the February invasion. Red outlined areas represent Russia controlled territories since this war began. And the blue areas in the south, just north of Kherson and east of Kharkiv, represent the latest Ukrainian counteroffensive.

Institute for the Study of War
Credit: Institute for the Study of War

Here is where Lyman sits:

Credit: Institute for the Study of War
Credit: Institute for the Study of War

Russia still controls large parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, but recent advances threaten their advantages in the war. Western officials fear the progress could lead Russia to deploy a tactical nuclear weapon to make up for the failings of its troops.

While Ukraine's forces are breaking through critical Russian lines, Russia’s conscription effort has been chaotic. After Putin announced the mobilization of citizens into the army, some 200,000 Russians fled the country and thousands more protested in Russia. Shortly after Putin announced the annexation of the four regions, Russian officials had to concede they did not know where their borders were, given the advancements of Ukrainian troops.

Today, we're going to look at some of the reactions to Putin's annexation and the continuing advancement of Ukrainian forces.


Commentators on both the left and right refuse to acknowledge the referendums held by Russia, describing them as sham elections being held in towns where residents had fled, or among residents whose lives were at risk. There is still widespread support for Ukraine and optimism about their advances, although both Republicans and Democrats are divided about how best to proceed.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left are encouraged by Ukraine's resilience and call for a post-war vision for a defeated Russia.
  • Some argue that Ukraine must be supported in reclaiming its territory, and any future incursions by Putin must be stopped.
  • Others suggest there is nothing more important than avoiding a nuclear strike.

In The New York Times, Alexander Baunov said Putin's speech formed a blueprint for war and peace.

"Mr. Putin suggested that talks for ending the war should begin immediately. He appealed to Ukraine to cease hostilities, withdraw its troops from the new 'Russian' territories and sit down at the negotiating table," Baunov said. "The same type of ultimatum was issued on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On Feb. 21, Mr. Putin formally recognized the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. After clarifying that he meant the entire regions, not just the areas controlled by the separatists, he then demanded that the Ukrainian Army withdraw from both. Within a few days, he launched his invasion.

"Mr. Putin’s latest threat comes after a humiliating retreat from the Kharkiv region," Baunov wrote. "It was this military setback that pushed Russia to announce the mobilization and the annexation, and it seems highly unlikely that the Ukrainians will consider Russia’s request for talks seriously this time around. On the contrary, Ukraine has repeatedly said that annexation would mean an end to any attempt at negotiations with Mr. Putin’s Russia. For Ukrainians, after what happened this week, even sitting down at the negotiating table would amount to surrender."

In The Washington Post, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny made the case that the goal should be moving Russia toward a parliamentary democracy.

"If we examine the primary things said by Western leaders on this score, the bottom line remains: Russia (Putin) must not win this war," Navalny said. "Ukraine must remain an independent democratic state capable of defending itself. This is correct, but it is a tactic. The strategy should be to ensure that Russia and its government naturally, without coercion, do not want to start wars and do not find them attractive. This is undoubtedly possible. Right now the urge for aggression is coming from a minority in Russian society. In my opinion, the problem with the West’s current tactics lies not just in the vagueness of their aim, but in the fact that they ignore the question: What does Russia look like after the tactical goals have been achieved?

"Even if success is achieved, where is the guarantee that the world will not find itself confronting an even more aggressive regime, tormented by resentment and imperial ideas that have little to do with reality?" he asked. "Russia must cease to be an instigator of aggression and instability. That is possible, and that is what should be seen as a strategic victory in this war... Certainly, changing Putin’s regime in the country and choosing the path of development are not matters for the West, but jobs for the citizens of Russia. Nevertheless, the West, which has imposed sanctions both on Russia as a state as well as on some of its elites, should make its strategic vision of Russia as a parliamentary democracy as clear as possible... The Russian people and the Russian elite do not need to be forced. They need a clear signal and an explanation of why such a choice is better.”

The Washington Post editorial board said the West must deter the disaster of nuclear war.

“Twice recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin has raised the prospect of using nuclear weapons in the war he launched to destroy Ukraine,” the board said. “With Russian forces retreating in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Mr. Putin’s threats amount to desperate saber-rattling intended to frighten all. But his threats must not be brushed off completely, given Mr. Putin’s record of folly and recklessness. What weapons are we talking about? Not the nuclear warheads carried by continent-spanning intercontinental ballistic missiles, capable of city-busting strikes with limited warning, which defined the Cold War. Rather, according to the authoritative Nuclear Notebook in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, by Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, Russia possesses 1,912 nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapons, designed to be launched from ground-based missiles, airplanes or naval vessels.

“A nuclear blast in Ukraine, even low-yield, would kill civilians as well as soldiers and contaminate Russia, Ukraine and beyond,” they wrote. “President Biden has properly warned of severe consequences, and Mr. Putin would be wise to listen. Former CIA director and retired Gen. David H. Petraeus suggested incautiously on Sunday that NATO should launch a massive conventional — that is, nonnuclear — military response, including sinking Russia’s Black Sea fleet, if the Kremlin used a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine. This appears to be a recipe for wider war with Russia. Far better to stop Mr. Putin before the cataclysm.”

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right are also encouraged by Ukraine's advances, but worry about the endgame and aftermath.
  • Some argue that the war will now end only with Putin’s regime falling, or World War III.
  • Others criticize the sham elections, saying they will weaken Putin and compel Ukraine to dig in.

In The Wall Street Journal, Walter Russell Mead said "Putin's nuclear threat is real."

"As the Biden administration scrambles to manage the most dangerous international confrontation since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, it must see the world through Mr. Putin’s eyes. Only then can officials know how seriously to take the nuclear saber-rattling and develop an appropriate response," Mead said. "Mr. Putin sees global politics today as a struggle between a rapacious and domineering West and the rest of the world bent on resisting our arrogance and exploitation. The West is cynical and hypocritical, and its professed devotion to “liberal values” is a sham. The West is not a coalition of equals; it represents the domination of the “evil Anglo-Saxons” over the Europeans and Japan. Mr. Putin sees this American-led world system as the successor to the British Empire, and he blames the Anglo-Saxon or English-speaking powers for a host of evils, from the Atlantic slave trade to European imperialism to the use of nuclear weapons in World War II.

"The Biden administration must remember that for Mr. Putin the battle in Ukraine is only one part of a global war against the American-led world order. And if Ukraine is going poorly for Mr. Putin, the global scene is more encouraging," Mead said. "Making threats about the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine advances both Mr. Putin’s goals in Ukraine and his larger campaign against the American-led order. Nuclear weapons, he hopes, could shift the military balance on the ground, and the fear of nuclear war could force Washington to dial back military support for Ukraine. The threat or use of nuclear weapons could split Europe between “peace at any price” governments and governments of countries closer to Russia whose determination to resist nuclear blackmail would only grow."

In The American Conservative, Dominick Sansone said he "underestimated the West's commitment to risk worldwide conflagration before sacrificing its belief in the manifest destiny of global liberal empire."

"It seems the West would rather the world disappear entirely than accept a march of history that doesn’t end with the Kremlin lit up by rainbow flood lights and Pussy Riot playing at the Navalny swearing-in ceremony. Putin, likewise, would also see the world disappear before such a fate befalls his nation. We are at an impasse," he wrote. "And China has not backed off from its support of Russia. Whatever means Putin may now be ready to employ to secure his gains in Ukraine have been tacitly (or explicitly) accepted by China. If the United States does not agree to this outcome and continues to push Zelensky to attempt to recapture the Donbas or Crimea, full-scale mobilization is highly likely.

"If Clausewitz was right and war is politics by other means, the primary goal of Washington in the present conflict is the downfall of the Putin regime," Sansone wrote. "Anything less is failure. As a result world war looms in a way it hasn’t since the interwar years in Europe. Beijing understands as much. It doesn't support Moscow just because it enjoys accessing cheap Russian gas or seeing the West drain its resources. A return to the economic status quo and freezing the conflict in Ukraine are all but impossible. The current conflict seems likely either to end with Putin falling from power or the West realizing that the post-Cold War order is over."

In Fox News, Rebecca Grant said the "sham" election in Ukraine will backfire on Putin.

"The gunpoint voting is over and guess what, Russia says 87% to 99% of voters in four occupied swathes of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson want to join Russia," she wrote. "It’s a sham, of course. President Vladimir Putin is trying to prove to his fellow Russians that he still has a mandate for the war in Ukraine. He’s trying to freeze the conflict and keep the Donbass, some Black Sea ports and to protect access to Crimea. But Putin is shooting himself in the foot by stealing this territory. By annexing territory in the four regions, Putin is really leaving Zelensky no choice but to continue to fight. Annexation means 'there is nothing to talk about with this President of Russia,' Zelensky told the UN Security Council on Wednesday.

"From the military perspective, Russian forces do not even control all the territory Putin is snatching," Grant said. "Ukraine’s steady attacks won’t stop or even slow down just because Putin holds a sham vote and makes a speech in Moscow. Ukraine is retaking ground where Russia made gains over the summer. While they have a long way to go, Ukraine’s forces have the initiative, and are continuing the successful tactics of striking deep at Russian supply lines and defenses. So why did he do it? One can only conclude Putin is playing to a domestic Russian audience – minus the 180,000 Russians who have already fled the country since the Sep. 21 military call-up."

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.

A few weeks ago, the last time we explicitly covered the war in Ukraine, I made a few essential points in “my take”: The West needed to continue supporting Ukraine; the U.S. should continue its efforts to end the war; we should not fund the war indefinitely without any clearly defined goals; and Ukraine shouldn't expect us to support them on a mission beyond ending the invasion that started this year (i.e. retaking Crimea, which was annexed in 2014).

These points drew a lot of criticism, some of which I published in the newsletter. The upshot of the arguments I heard was this: Allowing Putin some kind of soft victory — an out where he could tell his citizens he accomplished his mission — and refusing to support Ukraine in taking back previously annexed territory would be a copout. If the U.S. supported Ukraine just enough to stem the tide of this invasion, but then allowed Putin and Russia to use its new territorial gains as a staging ground for any other invasion down the road, the result would be a massive loss for Ukraine and a rising level of instability in the region. And eventually, inevitably, Putin would just try again.

Other readers wrote in with more sophisticated analyses of the driving forces behind the war, like Putin's desperation to take control of Ukraine's energy resources, and pleaded with me to understand that nothing will stop him until he wins or loses decisively. Some argued that the Western appeasement strategy has already been tried, that efforts to get Putin to hold legitimate elections have failed, that Putin has already broken a laundry list of agreements and will never stop at Ukraine — he will only march on. The argument, essentially, is that I was living in fantasyland: No negotiated end to the war — especially not one where Putin makes territorial gains — will be an end to Putin's attempts to conquer all of Ukraine before looking to other former Soviet countries.

I found these arguments piercing at the time. Sort of like a slap upside the back of the head. And I must concede, the events of the last few weeks, and my own hours spent reflecting on those comments, make the harsh realities they were trying to force me to see more apparent.

There is a truth about this situation that I struggle to accept. It is not controllable. It's possible, if not likely, that no amount of diplomacy or Western pressure or territorial concessions can shape this war. There is one person who can decide whether Russia pulverizes an entire nation in an effort to conquer it. There is one person who can stop the war. There is one person who can make the decision to change course. And that's Vladimir Putin.

Here's another way to think about it: If Ukraine were to surrender right now, and subject its citizens to the rape, torture, death and other war crimes that occupied territories are experiencing, Putin would not simply install his puppets in Kyiv and rest on his laurels. He would turn his attention to the other Baltic states. This isn't something we need to speculate about. He is making it clear. His recent speeches, his "annexation," his gravitas about restoring the historical greatness of Russia — he is not hiding his ambition. It's about his war on the West, one he is keen to keep fighting, and one that starts with retaking Ukraine.

Fortunately, Ukraine is nowhere near surrendering, and Putin's war is far closer to an abject failure and embarrassment than a conquest. If anything, this war has exposed his army's weakness and the reality that — short of nuclear suicide — any ambition of his beyond Ukraine is hapless and delusional. In a slightly less complicated alternate reality, one where Russia didn't have nukes and the U.S. didn't just spend 20 years flailing in the Middle East, a swift NATO or U.S. intervention in the war probably could have ended it in a matter of weeks.

What many of the people who criticized my writing argued is that I should imagine something "better" — a victory more substantial — than simply ceding territory and bargaining for a tenuous peace. In this vision, the failure of this war changes Russia for good. Either Putin is ousted by the oligarchs who no longer want to share in his failures, or his failures are so grave the people force Russia to move toward a more democratic system — one that restrains presidential power and gives more voice to his opposition. This is something akin to the post-war Russia Alexei Navalny is pleading for people to imagine.

After some reflection, I think those critics are right. Our end goal can't be the kind of "regime change" that has marred other conflicts. But when we have the freedom to construct a vision for the future, we should construct the best one possible, which is one that fundamentally preserves Ukraine's independence and fundamentally changes Russia for good. In this vision, Ukraine rides its momentum as far as it can. That means not just regaining the territory it has lost since February, but also pushing Russia out of Crimea and other annexed territories, and ensuring the failure is so complete, so blindingly obvious, that no amount of propaganda and intimidation can make the Russian people forget. It should be a defeat that ends Putin's reign and sets Russia on a new path forward — a moment in time not unlike the fall of the Soviet Union.

I should say, of course, that I prefer this vision of a victory in Ukraine. I think it’s the best outcome. But I struggle to see it on my own, and I can’t honestly say what the United States should do to help achieve it. I have an easier time seeing the other paths: I’m steeling myself for a winter that tests Western resolve, and I am terrified that aggressive measures will end in nuclear catastrophe. But I admire the Ukrainians, Russian dissidents and even the Americans who are pushing for the best outcome. I admire their optimism, hope and conviction that such a future is attainable. I just have a hard time envisioning it myself.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I'm seeing a lot of criticism of [Florida Governor] Ron DeSantis for requesting aid for Florida after supposedly opposing it for Hurricane Sandy victims. Generally, I'm also seeing people criticize his response to Hurricane Ian. What do you think about how he has done?

— Sharon, Orlando, Florida

Tangle: We almost made Hurricane Ian the subject of today's newsletter, but ultimately I decided that I did not want to participate in the politicization of a natural disaster.

I think DeSantis is doing well. Why not? He is giving sober addresses to the public, he's participating in relief efforts, he is fighting for Florida to get relief. As far as we know, he also took a cautious approach and called for more preparation than other governors may have, and he was right to raise the alarm. He's doing all the things you'd want from a governor. There is no good way to take a Category 4 hurricane on the chin. There were mistakes, of course, but that happens anytime there is a natural disaster.

I criticized DeSantis for the Martha's Vineyard migrant stunt, and some have pointed out that he spent millions of dollars of taxpayer money on flying migrants from Texas to New England that could have been used for hurricane relief just a few weeks later. I think those criticisms are legitimate.

I also think it's a separate issue from his response to the hurricane. He was rightly criticized for being one of 66 Republicans who voted against government aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy when it came to New York and New Jersey. Again, those criticisms are legitimate. But legislators had a lot of different reasons for opposing that aid. I'd hope that now, DeSantis may be a bit more understanding of why New Yorkers still hold that against him years later.

DeSantis has spent the week thanking Biden for federal support and ushering in a kind of ceasefire on the political wars to address the disaster. He seems to be taking his duty seriously, somberly, and executing the government's role well. That's about all you can ask for in a time like this.

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.

Planned Parenthood says it has launched its first-ever mobile abortion clinic in Illinois. The organization announced plans for a 37-foot RV that will stay in Illinois but travel along the borders of adjoining states that have banned abortion, hoping to make access easier for pregnant women who seek out the procedure. Illinois has not instituted a ban, but Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee — neighboring states — all have. Leaders of abortion clinics in Illinois say they have seen a spike in patients since the bans went into place, and launched the mobile clinic in hopes of cutting down wait times. Associated Press has the story.


  • $1.26 million. The amount of money that Kim Kardashian was fined for promoting cryptocurrency without disclosing she had been paid for the promotion.
  • 100. The number of confirmed deaths in Florida as a result of Hurricane Ian, according to the Miami Herald.
  • 49-44. Democrats' generic ballot advantage, according to a poll out this morning from Morning Consult.
  • +2. John Fetterman's polling lead over Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania's Senate race, according to an October 2nd survey from Emerson College.
  • 10.1 million. The number of job openings in the U.S. in August, down from 11.2 million in July.

Have a nice day.

A giant new supertanker has found a not-so-novel way to save fuel while crossing the ocean: sails. The China Merchant Energy Shipping company (CMES) has implemented the use of four giant, retractable, lightweight carbon fiber sail blades on a new tanker that will reduce fuel consumption by almost 10%. The corrosion resistant sails are affixed atop the 1,093-foot supertanker, each rising 130 feet from the deck, and creating 13,000 total square feet of surface area. Diesel will remain the primary power source for the ship, but the sails will save money on fuel and reduce greenhouse emissions. New Atlas has the story.

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