Jan 26, 2023

Ukraine gets its tanks.

A convoy of M1 Abrams main battle tanks move through open ground. Image: NATO / Flickr
A convoy of M1 Abrams main battle tanks move through open ground. Image: NATO / Flickr

Is this the right decision? Or another escalation?

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.

In today's newsletter, we're covering the agreement from the U.S. and Germany to send modern tanks to Ukraine. Plus, a question about the sex crime allegations against Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and an update on the southern border. 

Reader feedback.

One reader from Monterey, California, wrote in and said "My take" had actually changed their mind: "I lean right and, as a parent, I have experienced the subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways that school staff attempt to ‘disintermediate’ parents from the education/upbringing of their children, and I don't like it. I have not studied the AP course curriculum, but I probably share a lot of the views of the critics in terms of the material. But your view got to me: it is a choice that students (hopefully, with engagement or at least transparency with their parents) can take, but are not required to take. Well done!"

Another reader said, "Sorry, I think you got this one very wrong. Lowry is explicit in saying that encountering these voices could be fine if there was also exposure to their critics--it is the one-sidedness of the course that is the problem and that amounts to indoctrination. You really think these students are going to encounter black defenders of capitalism in their regular history curricula? Get an honest look at the thought of Thomas Sowell or Glenn Loury, or for that matter Clarence Thomas?"

One reader wrote in yesterday, after unsubscribing, and said "I don’t agree with your opinions and don’t want to waste my time reading them."

Quick hits.

  1. Meta (the parent company of Facebook) says it will reinstate former President Trump's Facebook and Instagram accounts after a two-year suspension. (The decision)
  2. A judge in San Francisco ruled on Wednesday that footage of the home intruder's attack on Paul Pelosi, the husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), could be publicly released over the objections of prosecutors. (The release)
  3. By a 420-1 vote, the House commended Iranian demonstrators for their ongoing protests. Thomas Massie (R-KY) was the lone "no" vote. (The vote)
  4. The U.S. economy grew at a 2.9% annualized rate in Q4, slightly above expectations from economists. (The numbers)
  5. Pope Francis criticized laws that criminalize homosexuality and called on the Catholic church to be more welcoming to LGBTQ people. (The comments)

Today's topic.

Tanks for Ukraine. On Wednesday, after weeks of deliberation, the German government said it would send 14 of its modern Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine, and would also allow other countries to send German-made tanks to Ukraine. Hours later, the White House formally announced it was sending 31 M1 Abrams tanks, signifying a coordinated effort with European nations.

The announcements come after weeks of diplomatic efforts to get Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who was initially hesitant to send the tanks, on board with the plan. President Biden framed the deal as a way for Ukraine to defend itself, and insisted that Russia should not view it as an offensive threat. It's unclear if the tanks will arrive in time for the next major wave of fighting; some intelligence officials have suggested publicly they believe Russia is preparing for a spring offensive, and delivery of the Abrams tanks is expected to take several months.

In Germany, the decision to send their tanks — and help facilitate delivery from other nations — was made despite internal trepidation. Scholz and other top German officials have feared that the move could drag Germany into the war or provoke a military response from Russia. Germany, unlike other NATO allies like the United States, France and United Kingdom, has no nuclear deterrent.

Until now, Western allies have largely resisted requests from Ukraine to supply their own Western-made tanks, leaving Ukraine to fight on the battlefield with more dated Soviet models. Shortly after the tank agreement was announced, Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrij Melnyk pressed for warplanes.

“And now, dear allies, let’s establish a powerful fighter jet coalition for Ukraine,” he said on Twitter.

Today, we're going to explore some arguments about the tank deliveries.

Unlike our normal left-right format, today we are going to include some perspectives supportive of the delivery, some critical of it, and a view from Germany.

In favor of the tanks...

  • Some criticize how long it took Germany and the U.S. to work out a deal, and say fissures in the alliance are showing.
  • Others call out Russia's brutal war tactics, and argue Ukraine needs all the support it can get to reclaim its territory.
  • Others argue that Ukraine is defending all of Europe, so all of Europe should come to defend Ukraine.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board criticized Biden for the delay and Olaf Scholz for doing the right thing only "after he's exhausted all other possibilities" .

"The belated decision overcomes what was a growing fissure in the NATO coalition aiding Ukraine," the board said. "Mr. Scholz’s move also calms a political uproar inside Germany as leaders in every other mainstream party, most in the media, and some members of Mr. Scholz’s own Social Democrats (SPD) demanded Leopard shipments. Alas, this probably isn’t the end of German dithering on aiding Ukraine. Despite promising a strategic turning point last February, Mr. Scholz resisted sending Cheetah anti-aircraft tanks last year, and he has hemmed and hawed over other military aid before ponying up… This often results from divisions in the SPD, where a vocal Russophile wing seems to worry that supporting Ukraine too vigorously could provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin into some new escalation or even a nuclear attack.

“Bluster from Mr. Putin’s Russian allies about nuking Berlin after the Leopard decision is aimed directly at this crowd,” the board said. “The U.S. announcement is less helpful than meets the headline because the tanks won’t be driving onto C-17s from U.S. stocks. Instead they’ll be delivered through the military procurement process, which will take months or longer... The tale of the tanks is all typical of the Biden Administration’s Ukraine decisions over the last year. It resisted calls to supply lethal drones only to send them under pressure from Congress and media critics; the same with Himars rocket launchers, Patriot missile-defense batteries, and now with tanks.

The New York Times editorial board wrote of a brutal new phase in the war.

“Cruel, seemingly random Russian missile strikes at civilian targets have become a regular horror: On Jan. 14, a Russian missile struck an apartment building in Dnipro, in central Ukraine. Among the at least 40 dead were small children, a pregnant woman and a 15-year-old dancer," they wrote. “NATO allies have thrown more weapons into the mix, including the first heavy tank pledged to Ukraine, the Challenger 2 heavy tank from Britain. Germany, historically reluctant to have its tanks used against Russia, is under heavy pressure to allow its allies to export its first-rate Leopard tank to Ukraine.

“Ukraine and its backers hope that the Western arms will be decisive, giving Ukraine a better chance to blunt a Russian offensive and drive the Russians back. How far back is another question," the board said. "The job at hand is to persuade Russia that a negotiated peace is the only option. This is why the coming fight is critical. But as Mr. Putin digs himself ever deeper into pursuing his delusions, it is also critical that the Russian people be aware of what is being done in their name, and how it is destroying their own future.”

The Financial Times editorial board wrote the case for sending the tanks.

"The approaching spring brings a potential turning point in the conflict in Ukraine. Kyiv is impatient to utilise the advantage that western-supplied arms have helped it to gain in the artillery war, and punch through to retake Russian-occupied territories," the board said. "For this it needs western-made advanced main battle tanks. Such weapons could also be vital in repelling a new offensive Moscow is preparing. Though Germany’s Leopard 2 tanks are best suited to the task, chancellor Olaf Scholz has been reluctant to supply them unless the US sends tanks too. His belated concession that Germany will send tanks — apparently in concert with the US — is an important boost for Kyiv’s war effort.

“Further procrastination would have risked depriving Ukraine of a critical tool come the spring. Along with lighter infantry fighting vehicles that Germany, France, Britain and the US are providing, tanks are essential to mobile operations that involve infantry and artillery, known as combined arms manoeuvre,” they wrote. “Western models have better armour, weaponry and control systems than Russia’s tanks... Permission from Berlin to allow countries with Leopards to re-export them to Ukraine — expected to be granted shortly to Warsaw — could pave the way for a number of other European countries to contribute. This is a welcome breakthrough. Ukraine is fighting a war to defend not just its own homeland but wider European democracy and security.”

Against the tanks...

  • Those who oppose the delivery worry about the U.S. continuing to blow past its own red lines.
  • Some call out the increasing likelihood that Putin responds with a nuclear attack or a direct attack on a NATO ally.
  • Others argue that the U.S. and NATO have no coherent plan to end the war.

In Responsible Statecraft, Branko Marcetic warned of "mission creep" and how the U.S. role in Ukraine is slowly escalating.

"When the United States involves itself militarily in a conflict, it often finds it hard to get itself out, let alone avoid deep entanglements that blow well past lines it had drawn at the start of the intervention," Marcetic wrote. "Little by little, NATO and the United States are creeping closer to the catastrophic scenario President Joe Biden said ‘we must strive to prevent’ — direct conflict between the United States and Russia. Despite stressing at the start of the war that ‘our forces are not and will not be engaged in the conflict,’ current and former intelligence officials told the Intercept back in October that ‘there is a much larger presence of both CIA and US special operations personnel’ in Ukraine than there was when Russia invaded, conducting ‘clandestine American operations’ in the country that ‘are now far more extensive.’

"Meanwhile, the United States and its NATO allies have serially blown past their own self-imposed lines over arms transfers," he added. "By escalating their support for Ukraine’s military, the U.S. and NATO have created an incentive structure for Moscow to take a drastic, aggressive step to show the seriousness of its own red lines. This would be dangerous at the best of times, but particularly so when Russian officials are making clear they increasingly view the war as one against NATO as a whole, not merely Ukraine, while threatening nuclear response to the alliance’s escalation in weapons deliveries... If the intention is to keep this war a limited, regional one between two neighboring states with NATO playing only a peripheral, supportive role, all of these trend lines point in the exact opposite direction."

The Las Vegas Journal editorial board said tanks for nothing in exchange will increase our Ukraine entanglement.

"This is a significant shift in posture. Western officials have long provided Ukraine with defensive weapons, especially as the country showed incredible resolve in resisting the invasion. But they’ve been slower to provide offensive weapons, like modern tanks,” the board said. “That reserve was an appropriate display of restraint given the situation. Russia’s inability to conquer Ukraine shows it’s no longer the dominant military power it once was. That’s worth celebrating. But Russia still has nuclear weapons and is run by a de facto dictator. Sending tanks makes this look much more like a proxy war. How would Russia respond if Ukraine used those tanks for offensive operations inside Russia?

“Providing tanks increases the possibility of regional or global conflict. These decisions aren’t straightforward, and this consideration is a real trade-off. Further complicating the situation is Ukrainian corruption,” the board added. “This week, nine senior Ukrainian officials lost their positions amid scandals. One official, who previously worked in President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office, is being investigated for embezzling millions of dollars in humanitarian aid. Not great. What’s needed most aren’t tanks but an exit strategy. That probably will require allowing Russia to save face, even as it loses militarily. Perhaps that’s in the works, but Mr. Biden has provided precious little evidence of it so far.”

A view from Germany...

In Deutsche Welle, Christoph Hasselbach wrote about why he changed his mind and now supports sending tanks to Ukraine.

“I admit it: I've changed my mind. For a long time, I could understand why the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, was reluctant to supply heavy weapons to Ukraine. And I can still understand the concern that supplying certain weapons could drag Germany, or the whole of NATO, into the war. After all, Russian politicians have threatened exactly that; President Vladimir Putin even toyed with the nuclear option. There are certainly reasons to be circumspect when dealing with Russia,” Hasselbach said. “The problem is: Putin knows this. More than that: He has factored this fear into his calculations from the start. And while Ukrainians are desperately fighting for their lives and freedom, the Russian army is systematically destroying residential buildings and civilian utility installations. War crimes are being committed more or less on our doorstep!

“Given the current military stalemate, energy shortages and inflation, calls for a diplomatic solution are growing louder again in many of the countries that support Ukraine. ‘Let's finally negotiate a peace!’ they say. Yet, one thing is clear: If Ukraine were to negotiate now, it would get a peace dictated by Russia," he said. "According to everything military experts are saying, Western battle tanks would make a crucial difference. With these, instead of just holding its ground, Ukraine could push deeper into Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory... the West cannot allow itself to be coerced by [Putin's] threats. International law is on the side of Ukraine and its military supporters because the country is merely defending itself against an aggressor.”

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. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • I'm still in support of defending Ukraine, but I have two increasingly loud and opposition voices in my head.
  • One wonders if we would have been better off giving full-throttle support from the beginning and crushing the Russian invasion.
  • The other is beginning to see a classic, never-ending, deadly, and strategically ambiguous U.S. intervention.

The last time we covered Ukraine in our main story was mid-October. I wrote then that I continued to support supplying weapons to Ukraine, that we have a responsibility to prevent genocide just as much as we have a responsibility to de-escalate, and that everything about the war continues to be uglier than I imagined.

Today, there are two growing voices in my head that feel to me as if they are on totally opposite sides of the spectrum. One voice is expressing an idea that I can't seem to shake, which is that we blew this from the beginning by hesitating for too long. Early on in the war, the U.S. and NATO allies were so fearful of any spillover into Europe or Russian retaliation (especially nuclear) that we were paralyzed. We sent Ukraine weapons, yes, but we didn't really give a full-throttle defense until Ukraine withstood the initial attack and proved itself a worthy opponent. Many experts expected Kyiv to fall in a matter of weeks.

What if, instead, we had thrust ourselves into the war and simply helped Ukraine snuff the offensive out? What if we had sent aid in force — tanks, planes, deliveries of all kinds, full strategic support? Could all of this have been over in a matter of weeks in Ukraine's favor, knowing what we know now about Russia's military and Ukraine's ability to defend itself? I suppose you could call this devil on my shoulder the Top Gun voice. It's the voice of 20/20 hindsight that insists we had a window to be a heroic ally and we missed it, and have now exchanged it for prolonged trench warfare.

The other idea is most akin to Branko Marcetic’s concerns. That's the voice that is seeing mission creep in every direction. It's the one that can't ignore our repeated blow-bys of our own red lines, the never ending supply of weapons, the seemingly unchanged status of the war, the daily death toll, the stuffed pockets of the war machine, the fact that I legitimately cannot articulate what our strategy is besides keep Kyiv from falling (which, of course, is a very good goal). This voice cringes at the immediate and seamless transition from "we're sending tanks" to "Ukraine needs warplanes," knowing that in a few months they will probably get them.

I suppose you could call this voice The Cynic. And The Cynic sees the same old story we've seen so many times before: We get involved in a conflict, the conflict involves a lot of non-American deaths, the conflict harms a global adversary, the conflict seems to be the one thing our politicians and elites can agree on, and every day we seem to be wading further and further into the fight. One day, before we know it, it'll be American soldiers dying, too, and by then, that will only be another justification to keep on fighting.

I don't know how to reconcile these voices. I don't know which one I agree with or what mix of their ideas to settle on. I know that I want Ukraine's army to prevail, and that I want as few innocent Russians and Ukrainians to die as possible. I know I don’t begrudge the Russian people for what their leaders are doing, for the propaganda they are being force fed. I know the images from the war are nauseating and only one side is indiscriminately bombing civilian centers every day. I know one side wants freedom and independence and one side wants to conquer. I know this war is on Putin, its blood is on his hands, so it is his war to end. But I just have no idea how we will get there.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Are there any updates on the Matt Gaetz sex trafficking accusations? It seemed at the time like this was a pretty big deal and the things he was accused of were quite serious, but this story seems to have gone silent. Is it that the legal process is slow to move and accusations may turn into formal charges, or was it simply another politically based attack with no merit?

— Anonymous from Kansas City, Missouri

Tangle: A quick explanation for the uninitiated: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) was linked to a man named Joel Greenberg, a former tax collector in Florida, who was being investigated for sex crimes. Gaetz was named in federal grand jury subpoenas into Greenberg and his associates, and there was rampant speculation he had paid for sex with an underaged girl.

What we know: First and foremost, Gaetz has not been charged with any crime, and he is not expected to be. This is the most conclusive proof of his innocence. This matters especially since the entire story is being investigated and other people are being charged or indicted.

The bad news for Gaetz is that Greenberg, who he has documented links to, was sentenced to 11 years in prison after pleading guilty to federal crimes, including sex trafficking of a minor. Greenberg’s other crimes include identity theft, stalking, wire fraud and conspiracy to bribe a public official. In court, Greenberg's lawyer said his cooperation played a role in the investigations of 24 people, including eight for sex crimes, with four ultimately facing federal indictments. Gaetz also asked Trump for a preemptive pardon in the waning days of his presidency, specifically for the investigation into sex offenses, which many interpreted as an admission of guilt.

Gaetz has long denied the allegations. They were further complicated by an extortion plot, where a Florida man approached Gaetz's father and told him he could score Gaetz his pardon in exchange for $25 million. That man was recently sentenced to five years in prison.

So: Gaetz's friend pleaded guilty to sex crimes. Gaetz faced allegations of sex with an underaged girl. News outlets reported on that, and political opponents obviously used it to hammer Gaetz. Gaetz asked for a pardon for any future indictment. However, Gaetz has never been charged with a crime, it does not look like he will be, and he provided proof of someone trying to extort him over the charges that led to a conviction. Needless to say, it is not a simple story, but that's where things stand now.

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Under the radar

U.S. authorities say they have seen a 97% decline in illegal border crossings by migrants from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela since Mexico started accepting those migrants. The numbers come just weeks after the Biden administration announced a new policy to accept 30,000 people a month from those countries combined, but also pledged to quickly expel any migrants who tried to enter illegally. Border crossings by migrants from those four countries have skyrocketed in the last year. U.S. authorities had been stopping an average of 3,367 migrants from those four countries in the week that ended December 11. In the seven-day period that ended Tuesday, the number dropped to 115. The Associated Press has the story.


  • $24.9 billion. The total amount of military aid the United States has provided to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden administration.
  • 29. The number of times the U.S. has used a drawdown of equipment from Department of Defense inventories to send weapons to Ukraine.
  • 31. The number of M1 Abrams tanks the U.S. says it is sending to Ukraine.
  • 3,161. The number of Russian tanks Ukraine says it has destroyed during the war.
  • 7,617. The number of Ukrainian "tanks and other armored fighting vehicles" Russia says it has destroyed in the war.
  • $400 million. The total value of the 31 M1 Abrams tanks being sent to Ukraine.

Have a nice day.

A pair of conjoined twins were successfully separated in Fort Worth, Texas, in a remarkably complex surgery that took over 11 hours and was a first for the hospital involved. The twins, AmieLynn and JamieLynn, were born prematurely and joined along their abdomens, sharing skin, muscle, and intra-abdominal organs, including the liver. 25 medical professionals including six surgeons took part in the surgery, and the parents say the twin girls are recovering well in the hospital. "We are very happy with their progress at this point," said Dr. José Iglesias, the lead surgeon on the twins' case. "They're going to grow up into the little girls that they're supposed to be: independent and feisty, like they've already shown us." CBS News 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.