Mar 24, 2022

An update in Ukraine.

An update in Ukraine.

Is Ukraine winning the war?

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 in Ukraine. Plus, a reader question about having TV cameras in congressional hearings (something a lot of people asked).

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky addressing Congress. Image: C-SPAN
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky addressing Congress. Image: C-SPAN


In tomorrow's Friday edition, I'm going to be writing a personal essay about a political position of mine that I feel changing. This is a piece, in part, about what is happening in Ukraine, and how it is making me re-think a long held position I've had about the United States.


Earlier this week, in our numbers section, I listed the price of gasoline at $5.79 in London, England and $6.48 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. I accidentally cited a source with data from 2005. For some odd reason, when one Googles "the price of gasoline in England" the top result is a 12 year old CNN article:

The only person to catch the error was my cousin Tom, who stabbed me in the back by reporting it publicly. In fact, the price of gasoline in England is $8.30 per gallon and $9.78 per gallon in the Netherlands. This is, obviously, a very big difference. And apparently what I get for trying to add some fun international numbers to the newsletter at the last minute.

This is the 58th Tangle correction in its 140-week history, and the first correction since March 15th. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.

Quick hits.

  1. Madeleine Albright, the first female U.S. secretary of state, died on Wednesday at the age of 84. (The death)
  2. Ketanji Brown Jackson said that if she is confirmed to the Supreme Court, she would recuse herself from a case examining Harvard's admissions policies. Jackson's term on Harvard's Board of Overseers expires this spring. (The recusal)
  3. North Korea test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time since 2017, according to reports from Japan and South Korea. (The launch)
  4. Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) signed a new abortion law modeled after the Texas statute that bans abortions after six weeks and can be enforced through lawsuits against doctors. (The bill)
  5. The number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell to 187,000 last week, the lowest level in 52 years. (The numbers)

Our 'Quick Hits' section is created in partnership with Ground News, a website and app that rates the bias of news coverage and news outlets.

Today's topic.

Ukraine. It has now been one month since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine began. It has been 10 days since our last coverage of the war. Our last issue was on the debate over whether or not the U.S. should coordinate a delivery of 29 Polish fighter jets.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration formally determined that Russia has been committing war crimes in Ukraine, something that has been evident through video and photographic evidence on the ground for weeks. The New York Times reported that a "Tiger Team" of Biden officials is now meeting regularly to prepare a response in case Putin "unleashes" his stockpiles of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Senate Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-RI) said an unconventional biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons attack could trigger a NATO response if it impacted neighboring countries. President Biden has also warned that Russian cyberattacks on the U.S. private sector are "coming."

Meanwhile, President Biden met with NATO allies in Brussels on Thursday to address concerns of unconventional weapons attack and to continue to rally aid for Ukraine. The meeting came as Ukraine announced it had struck a Russian-occupied port facility in the Azov Sea, destroying a Russian ship and starting a large fire.

As the war enters its second month, the human toll is already high. 10 million Ukrainians have fled their homes, including 3.5 million who have fled the country altogether, according to the United Nations. U.S. officials announced today they were planning to welcome as many as 100,000 Ukrainian refugees.

A NATO official estimated that as many as 40,000 Russian troops have been killed, wounded, taken prisoner, or are missing in Ukraine, according to The Wall Street Journal. The number of Ukrainian soldiers killed has largely remained a secret, almost certainly in an effort to preserve morale, but Ukraine has acknowledged that at least 1,300 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the war so far. In the Ukrainian city of Mariupol alone, officials said 2,300 civilians had been killed, though that number is likely much higher.

Below, we'll take a look at some commentary from the right and left, and then my take. You can find our previous coverage of Ukraine here.


  • There is widespread agreement on the left and right that Ukraine is outperforming expectations, and may even be winning the war.
  • Both sides are calling for continued military and financial support of Ukraine.
  • Both sides are also calling on Biden to admit Ukrainian refugees who have had to flee the country.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right are still critical of the Biden administration and want them to do more.
  • Some criticize Americans for dehumanizing Russia and not looking at our own mistakes that led to the war.
  • Others insist Ukraine really may have a chance to win, but only if we continue to support them.

In The New York Post, Harry Kazianis said Biden's summit in NATO is not going to do anything to help Ukraine.

"He has already told us what he has in mind when it comes to Ukraine: absolutely nothing that will help Kyiv win its war of survival against the Kremlin," Kazianis wrote. "Indeed, the White House has already announced what will happen at the summit — and none of it will help one bit in the here and now. There’ll be 'new sanctions' and a 'crack down on evasion' of the existing sanctions, national security adviser Jake Sullivan says. While more sanctions will surely hurt Putin in the long term, in the short term, Ukrainians need assistance that will boost them on the battlefield now... Biden just keeps telling us what he won’t do, and that only bolsters Russia’s hope that it can force a settlement on the battlefield.

“In the days and weeks ahead, Biden should not only keep sending anti-tank, anti-air and small arms to Ukraine in ever-larger numbers but increase intelligence sharing with Kyiv — in real time if possible — to make sure Russia can’t destroy supply lines," he wrote. "Biden needs a long-term strategy to ensure Ukraine has the arms to deter the Kremlin from trying to attack again once Russia’s economy recovers or is greased enough from Chinese assistance. But Biden also needs to be firm with his NATO allies, just as Trump was, that Europe’s defense must be funded at a level that ensures this will be Russia’s last aggressive act...Biden must be clear that America cannot be Europe’s 911 force when a crisis breaks out. Why should America care about Europe’s security if Berlin, Paris or Brussels won’t spend the euros themselves?"

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said it's becoming clear "Ukraine can win with enough help."

"The stunning fact of this war is that the Ukrainians have rescued Europe and the U.S. as much as NATO is assisting Ukraine," the board wrote. "Kyiv’s stalwart resistance, at great human cost, has given the West a chance to stop the advance of Russian imperialism before it imperils NATO. The war has exposed the Russian military as weaker than our intelligence services and the Pentagon thought. Against all expectations, Ukraine may be winning. Yet Western leaders still seem worried of what would happen if Ukraine won.

"That’s especially true in the Biden Administration, which has taken many good steps—but typically under pressure from Congress or Europe, and typically late. President Biden is rightly outraged by Mr. Putin’s brutality, and he calls him a war criminal, but he still seems afraid of doing what it takes to defeat him... This cautious commitment extends to the slow pace of weapons delivery," the board wrote. "The U.S. should be emptying and restocking its weapons stockpiles on an emergency basis. The same goes for assisting Western Europe as it copes with 3.5 million refugees and tries to wean itself from Russian oil and gas. The U.S. can accept many more Ukrainians for temporary protected status."

In American Greatness, James Jeffrey called out the "lack of appreciation for the quandary of ordinary Russian soldiers," calling it "lamentable."

"These are young men in their late teens and early twenties who appear entirely expendable to their officers and leaders as they face astonishing fatigue and fear in a war many may well not believe in. The Russian top brass are not the only ones being callous toward their soldiers, judging by the content of Western media and public debate," Jeffrey wrote. "In theory, society’s reluctance to pay in blood should only permit what is necessary, and thereby end conflict as soon as possible. But that didn’t happen in Vietnam for nearly a decade, or in Afghanistan and Iraq across 20 years. A major factor in those three wars rumbling on—the latter two especially—was that the vast majority of society could physically avoid, while some even profited from, the course of those wars.

"The sudden preponderance of deskbound military pundits and cheerleaders would do well to remember advice offered across the ages, from the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu to U.S. defense secretary Robert McNamara post-Vietnam: Know and empathize with your enemy," he wrote. "We failed to do that in Afghanistan and Iraq. That contributed to strategic defeat and enormous losses in blood and treasure for everyone involved... Ukraine has done what it has to do to defend itself and its people. It is far less clear whether the West did what it should have done before conflict broke out, or if it is doing what it should do now to help end the bloodshed."

What the left is saying.

  • Some on the left argue that Ukraine can actually win the war.
  • Many are focused on the need for the U.S. to address the refugee crisis.
  • Others have examined why Putin is so fixated on the besieged city of Mariupol.

In The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum said Ukraine must win.

"The war in Ukraine has reached a turning point," she wrote. "The Russian troops that invaded the country from the north, south, and east are now scarcely moving. They have targeted schools, hospitals, apartment buildings, and a theater sheltering children, but they are not yet in control even of the places they occupy. And no wonder: Few Ukrainians are willing to collaborate with the occupiers. The overwhelming majority, more than 90 percent, believe they will defeat them. The Ukrainian army refuses to surrender, even in cities badly damaged by bombardment.

"Russian planners expected the entire war, the conquest of Ukraine, to last no more than six weeks," she added. "More than half that time has already passed. There must be an endgame, a moment when the conflict stops. The Ukrainians, and the democratic powers that support Ukraine, must work toward a goal. That goal should not be a truce, or a muddle, or a decision to maintain some kind of Ukrainian resistance over the next decade, or a vow to 'bleed Russia dry,' or anything else that will prolong the fighting and the instability. That goal should be a Ukrainian victory. Before you can achieve something, you have to imagine what it will look like. And in this war, victory can be imagined without difficulty. It means that Ukraine remains a sovereign democracy, with the right to choose its own leaders and make its own treaties."

In The New York Times, Sara Chodosh, Zach Levitt and Gus Wezerek wrote that this unprecedented refugee crisis requires an unprecedented response.

"The rate of the Ukrainian exodus is unprecedented in recent history," they wrote. "Europe’s response to the crisis has been similarly remarkable — both in its immediate generosity as well as in contrast to how poorly many European countries have treated refugees from Africa and the Middle East. But the coming months are likely to be the real test of the West’s commitment to Ukraine. As Russian attacks increase in western Ukraine, experts estimate that the number of refugees could double. Leaders in Europe and the United States will need to start thinking about long-term resettlement efforts for the war’s victims.

"Early refugees from Ukraine often had relatives outside the country and the means to reach them. That’s less likely to be true for people who decide to leave in the coming weeks... Work should now begin on a plan to equitably resettle refugees across E.U. member states,” they added. "Poland has already absorbed an incredible number of people; countries like Germany, France and Spain should be prepared to help millions more find homes, schools and health care. Every country must open its arms to Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians who were living in the country — some of whom have faced discrimination at the border... If the Biden administration is willing to arm Ukrainian fighters — whose victories benefit the United States by diminishing Russia’s real and perceived power — then it must also share responsibility for the Ukrainians whose homes are being shelled."

In New York Magazine, Eric Levitz asked why Putin has "brought hell" to Mariupol, a Russian-speaking city in Ukraine.

"These developments may puzzle a lay observer. Why would Russia concentrate its wrath on what was once a bastion of pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine?... Conquering Mariupol is central to Putin’s 'plan B,'" he wrote. "More than three weeks into the war, Russia has yet to secure control of a single major Ukrainian city, even as it has lost upwards of 7,000 troops. As The Wall Street Journal illustrates, Mariupol sits directly between Russian-annexed Crimea and the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. If Russia can secure control of the city and its surrounding area, it can construct a “land bridge” between its two major strongholds in Ukraine.

"This would aid subsequent military efforts to press deeper into Ukrainian territory and immediately establish a continuous line of Russian-dominated land in Ukraine, which could form the outline of a hefty consolation prize for Putin," he added. "Mariupol is home to the largest port in the Azov Sea region and the only major port that serves the Donetsk and Luhansk areas. If Russia secures Mariupol, it will control 80 percent of Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline, enabling it to choke off much of Ukraine’s maritime trade and access to the wider world. Beyond its geographic and economic importance, Mariupol has symbolic weight in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Russian separatists briefly took the city during Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014. When Ukrainian forces managed to wrest back control of the port, it became a testament to the nation’s military resolve."

My take

I'm hesitant to enlist a sports metaphor during wartime — this is not a game and wins and losses mean very different things — but there's a relevance here that is hard to ignore. As Eliot Cohen put in his Atlantic piece, "The more you succeed, the more likely you are to succeed; the more you fail, the more likely you are to continue to fail."

The reality of this in both sports and war has a serious implication, which is that the window for victory is open now — but may not be for long. When a winning team seizes momentum in a game, you'll often hear leaders say things like "keep your foot on the gas" or "pour it on," with the obvious implication that if you don’t, you may lose your momentum and the match. It's hard to escape the feeling that this is where we are now in Ukraine. In scouring all the publicly available information over the last few weeks, I'm becoming convinced, and am astonished to say, that it truly does appear that Ukraine is winning this war. If so, this makes the continuation of our assistance all the more important.

Far-left and far-right critics of the U.S. involvement in this war have said our "true purpose" is simply to use Ukraine as a sacrificial pawn on the global power chessboard. The basic idea is that if we fund Ukraine enough to help it survive — but not enough to win or force concessions — we'll bleed Putin financially, emotionally and militarily, sucking Russia into their version of our time in Iraq or Afghanistan.

As Caitlin Johnstone put it, "The US has a history of working to draw Moscow into grueling, costly military quagmires which monopolize its military firepower while leaching it of blood and treasure... So this isn't something new or out of the blue, and what it means is that all the self-righteous posturing by the western political/media class about the need to pour weapons into Ukraine is not really about saving Ukrainian lives (only negotiating a ceasefire can do that), but about seizing this golden opportunity to hurt Russia's geostrategic interests as much as possible."

The counter to this narrative is that our support is actually keeping many thousands of Ukrainians alive and, more to the point, free. Without our support, Zelensky might be imprisoned or dead by now. Without that support, all of Ukraine would look like the towns and cities that Russia has seized: Soldiers shooting at protesters who want the invaders to leave their neighborhoods. Or, it would look like Russia itself, where thousands of people are being imprisoned for protesting the war or being cut off entirely from the outside world.

Even skeptics of Ukraine's ability to hold the line are conceding we may be headed for a stalemate, but there is a possibility — again, astonishing — that the longer this goes on, the more likely it is that Ukraine will actually prevail. There is little behind the forces Putin has already conscripted and sent to this battle; behind Ukraine are the most powerful militaries and weapons in the world, thousands of volunteer fighters, and far superior morale.

And even if Johnstone is right, even if the U.S. sees a dual upside here (getting to take a "moral high ground" and bleed Putin), providing Ukraine the support it's pleading for is still the right thing to do.

I don't want to paint too rosy a picture of this moment, though. In fact, the horrific reality is Ukraine winning this war may actually cost them more in blood than losing would. Johnstone is right that Ukrainian strength may lead to more civilian death. Putin being on the defensive means Putin acting desperately, as if he wasn’t already. And we know what he does in these situations: He wages campaigns of terror. That means more shelling of civilians, more shelling of hospitals, more shelling of escape routes, more shelling of apartment buildings and historic buildings and office buildings.

This unspeakable reality of war — and the images that come with it — can belie the reality of the military battle, though. In that regard, there is hope. And more reason now than ever that the U.S. support should continue. Sanctions, javelins, anti-tank and anti-missile weaponry, every single thing we can throw behind Ukraine without setting off a nuclear war or a wider conflict should be done. And it should be done now, to force concessions, to force negotiations, to force peace and to make it clear this is a war Putin won't win. That path, the one where Putin seeks a peace deal acceptable to Ukraine knowing it’s his best option, only comes if Ukraine continues to win. We need to give Ukrainians a chance to negotiate from a position of strength.

It's time to pour it on.

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

Your questions, answered.

Q: It feels like Congressional Hearings, especially Supreme Court confirmations, are just becoming platforms for senators to generate theatrical video clips which fire up their base on social media or get them more airtime in TV news coverage.  I think most people agree that transparency is generally valuable in Congress, but is there such a thing as too much transparency?

— SKZ, Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Tangle: I think it's a question a lot of people ask anytime these hearings take place.

Over the last few days, quite a few folks have written in to ask if I thought we should remove cameras from these settings so members of Congress would "behave" themselves. Ben Sasse, the Republican from Nebraska, even suggested that his colleagues' "jackassery" was a product of cameras being in the room.

Honestly, I find those arguments pretty persuasive. When Ted Cruz is checking his Twitter mentions two minutes after he's done "questioning" a Supreme Court justice (he was really just interrupting, delivering monologues and implying she had a soft spot for pedophiles), it's clear what the game is

And to be clear: This is not just Cruz. Many senators on both sides are playing this game, whether it's corny speeches from Cory Booker or theatrical outrage from Lindsey Graham.

In my view, though, there are two ways to look at this. One, we can remove the cameras and thus the allure of making a splashy TV hit. This is a solution that may produce more substantive hearings, albeit less entertaining ones. It would also be like giving the senators training wheels. Or, two, we could do what we're doing here: We could judge the senators negatively or positively based on how they act in these hearings with the cameras on.

I prefer that, and the transparency. Let them show us who they really are. This week, Republican Senators John Kennedy, Mike Lee and Ben Sasse all asked substantive, informative, respectful and relevant questions about the candidate. They were confrontational but decent, something we haven't seen from either side in a hearing like this in some time. They managed to criticize Jackson fervently without insinuating she is permissive of terrorism or child pornography. And so they earned my respect, and they should earn yours, and we should all view them as separate from the Cruz-Hawley-Cotton crew that did exactly the opposite.

I think that is informative, and otherwise unavailable, so it makes me "pro-camera."

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

A story that matters.

The latest U.S. census data is now giving us one of our first looks at how Covid-19 changed the United States. There were 535,000 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, according to the data. It also showed that Americans fled cities for cheaper and less populous areas in droves. "The Ozarks, Catskills and Poconos were among the destinations with seasonal housing that saw significant growth in people moving in — or deciding to stay — between mid-2020 and mid-2021. Counties on the outskirts of metro areas including Columbus and Indianapolis also saw bumps," Axios reports. "Meanwhile, pricey, mega-population areas of New York-Newark, San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland and Los Angeles-Long Beach experienced stark 'net domestic migration decrease.'"


  • 58%. The percentage of Americans who say Ketanji Brown Jackson should be confirmed to the Supreme Court, the highest support for a nominee since John Roberts in 2005, according to Gallup.
  • 58%. The percentage of Russians who said they support the invasion of Ukraine, according to an independent telephone survey conducted between Feb. 28th and March 1st.
  • 23%. The percentage of Russians who said they oppose the invasion.
  • 2.1 million. The number of Ukrainian refugees that have fled to Poland, according to the UN.
  • 500,000. The number of Ukrainian refugees that have fled to Romania, according to the UN.

Have a nice day.

An Italian fisherman has come up with a novel way to keep illegal trawlers off his coastline: With underwater sculptures. Paolo Fanciulli has been fishing off the coast of Tuscany for 40 years, but started noticing the unmistakable signs of illegal trawlers coming across the coast. Illegal trawlers use weighted nets to scour the sea floor, but often take other important sea life and vegetation with them. So in 2013, Fanciulii started the "House of Fish" sculpture park, an underwater park full of mammoth stone sculptures on the seafloor. The giant sculptures hook and trap trawler’s nets, which keeps them out. Now, he says he is planning to expand the park up and down the coast. Euro News has the story.

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