Aug 18, 2022

The war in Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine.

An update on the latest changes in Ukraine.

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.

We're giving an update on the war in Ukraine, some quick hits, and a chance to ask a question.

09/04/2022. Kyiv, Ukraine. The Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine. Picture supplied by the Ukrainian government.

Yesterday's "A story that matters..."

We (I) erroneously copy and pasted yesterday's "have a nice day" section into the story that matters section. Here was our story that that matters, which was unintentionally omitted:

The FDA issued a new rule on Tuesday that will allow millions of Americans to buy over-the-counter hearing aids without a prescription. The rule will go into effect in mid-October and applies to certain air-conduction hearing aids for people with mild to moderate hearing impairment (hearing aids intended for pediatric use or severe impairment will still remain prescription devices). Some 30 million Americans could benefit from hearing aids, according to the FDA. Hearing loss has been associated with depression, dementia, and balance issues. The move has drawn bipartisan praise because it will reduce the cost of hearing aids. Reuters has the story.

Quick hits.

  1. Two former Pennsylvania judges were ordered to pay $206 million in the infamous "kids for cash scheme," in which they sent children to for-profit jails in exchange for $2.8 million in kickbacks. Both judges are already serving lengthy prison sentences. (The charges)
  2. Rudy Giuliani appeared before a Fulton County, Georgia, grand jury over alleged interference in the 2020 election. (The appearance)
  3. Former President Donald Trump has raised millions of dollars from supporters after the FBI search on his Florida home. (The fundraising)
  4. CDC Director Rochelle Walensky called for a restructuring of the organization after the botched pandemic response. (The call)
  5. The U.S. and Taiwan released plans to hold formal trade talks this fall after a recent visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress. (The talks)

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 been three months since we dedicated an entire newsletter to the war in Ukraine. With Congress on recess and the president and vice president on vacation, we thought it was a good time for an update.

We are now in day 176 of the war. Estimates on how many Russians and Ukrainians have died in the war vary widely based on which country or media outlet provides them. The Russian government has not updated how many soldiers it has lost since reporting 1,351 killed in March, but the U.S. government estimates the number of Russian soldiers who have been killed or wounded to be roughly 75,000. However, it has become increasingly clear that it is not necessarily the Russian military doing most of the fighting or dying, but separatist militias based in the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

In the first four months of fighting, an estimated 20,000 Ukrainian troops were killed or wounded; about 100 to 200 troops were killed per day in June.

Since Russia invaded, the war in Ukraine has moved to the east and south of the country, and is largely being described as "a war of attrition." However, a series of brazen attacks by Ukraine on Russian-occupied Crimea could send the war into a new phase. Moscow had vowed that if Ukraine attacked Crimea, it would face "judgment day," and Vladimir Putin considers Crimea — which he annexed in 2014 — a sacred place. But that didn't stop Ukrainian forces, who executed a series of huge explosions at a Russian munitions depot on the peninsula. Russia's defense ministry called the blasts an "act of sabotage," acknowledging the war has spread into what Moscow considers Russian territory.

Meanwhile, the U.S. involvement in the war remains steadfast. In May, Congress passed a $40 billion package to support Ukraine with financial, military and medical assistance. That bill also replenishes U.S. stock, funds its troop movements in Europe, and puts money into global humanitarian relief. Meanwhile, the United States has already sent about $9.8 billion in direct aid to Ukraine in the form of military and financial assistance, including a $1 billion package Biden pledged earlier this month, the largest security package yet.

In that package, and recent military deliveries, the U.S. has included high-tech weapons called HiMARS — High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System. This is a system that can fire a variety of rockets as far as 50 miles with extreme precision, the kind of weapon Ukraine has so far lacked on the battlefield. Biden was initially hesitant to provide the weapon, since it's capable of striking inside Russian territory. But as Putin kept shelling civilian areas west of the battlefield, Biden and NATO allies relented.

Meanwhile, public polling in the U.S. has shown a slightly declining appetite for supporting Ukraine. According to Morning Consult, the share of U.S. voters who say their government has a responsibility to protect Ukraine from Russia has fallen to 41%, the lowest percentage since the war began. Belief that the U.S. government has a responsibility to support Ukraine is highest among Democrats (57%) and lowest among Republicans (31%). About 33% of independents say the government has a responsibility to help protect Ukraine.

Today, we're going to take a look at some commentary on the war from the American perspective.

You can find our previous coverage of the war, including international perspectives, here.

What the right is saying.

  • The right is worried about the extent of the resources we are committing to the war, and some continue to call for an America-first style intervention.
  • Some argue Ukraine has the momentum, and the U.S. should put the pedal to the metal in helping them defeat Russia.
  • Others criticize the Ukrainian government for trying to "thought police" U.S. citizens who write favorably about Russia or criticize U.S. support for Ukraine.

In National Review, Nate Hochman asked who our Ukraine policy is for.

"When asked about the 'growing number of Americans who don’t think the country should be spending so much money on a war in Europe when there are so many problems domestically,' Zelensky responded that Ukrainians were 'fighting for absolutely communal values' and that 'therefore, inflation is nothing, COVID is nothing. Ask those people who lost their children, their peace, their property at the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion. Who is thinking about masks and COVID? Who is thinking about inflation? These things are secondary.' It should go without saying, of course, that for the Ukrainians fighting for their lives, the financial concerns of Americans struggling to make ends meet here at home would seem trivial," Hochman wrote.

"But Zelensky was talking about U.S. foreign policy. He wasn’t only arguing that inflation and Covid didn’t matter to Ukrainians in the face of Russia’s invasion. He was arguing that, relatively speaking, it shouldn’t matter to Americans," Hochman said. "With respect to Zelensky, he is not the one who gets to determine American foreign policy. Call me old-school, but I tend to think American foreign policy should be oriented toward serving the interests of the American people. We can unite in solidarity with the Ukrainian people’s struggle against Putin’s aggression, providing aid to help with their war effort, but our assistance should be dictated by — and directed toward — the American interest. If Zelensky wants to make a case for continued American support... he should explain it in concrete, material terms, without abstract appeals to vaguely-defined 'communal values' or side-swipes at struggling working- and middle-class Americans who are already predisposed to wonder how sending billions of their tax dollars to a conflict in a far-away country is serving their communities."

In The Washington Examiner, Jon Sweet said "it's been a good week for Ukraine in its defensive war against Russia's invasion."

"Momentum can be difficult to measure in finite terms on the battlefield. Still, you know when you see it, and we are seeing it right now. A combination of artillery, cruise missiles, special operations, and good intelligence has shifted momentum in Kyiv’s favor," Sweet said. "At the forefront of this momentum shift is the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS. HIMARS has given Ukraine an extended operational reach. A successful strike on the Zaky air base in Crimea may have destroyed as many as 21 aircraft and four ammunition depots — the source of the attack remains unknown, which only heightens the anxiety of Russian soldiers occupying bases in Crimea. This attack was followed by a second strike against a military installation in Crimea.

"In the Kherson oblast, bridges spanning the Dnipro river have been damaged by Ukrainian artillery, essentially cutting off upwards of 20,000 Russian soldiers on the west bank of the river from their leadership and supply lines. This leaves them to more-or-less fend for themselves in the face of a Ukrainian counteroffensive to retake the city of Kherson. Die-in-place missions aren’t good for morale," Sweet said. "Success instills confidence as failure instills doubt. Time will determine if these setbacks to Putin’s 'special military operation' alter the course of the war, but they certainly are a step in the right direction. Sustaining success is the challenge, the U.S. and NATO should help Ukraine keep its foot on the gas pedal."

In The Federalist, Sumantra Maitra criticized Ukraine for trying to censor critics of the war and U.S. support.

"On July 14, the Ukrainian government published a bizarre list of academics, politicians, policymakers, and contrarian journalists, who are allegedly propagandists for Russia. The list includes sitting U.S. senators such as Rand Paul, R-Ky., former politicians such as Tulsi Gabbard, and military theorists such as Martin van Creveld and Edward Luttwak, as well as perhaps the foremost living international relations theorist of our times, John Mearsheimer," Maitra wrote. "Given that the Ukrainian government is being subsidized with billions of American dollars, this censorship amounts to American taxpayers paying the Ukrainian government billions of dollars to blacklist American citizens for thought crimes.

"As Dan Caldwell, the VP of Stand Together, tweeted, 'Let’s be clear: this is an attempt by an increasingly illiberal Ukrainian government to silence, intimidate, and smear several prominent American foreign policy scholars whose views are increasingly shared by the American people and policymakers. [The State Department] should condemn.' Caldwell is, of course, succinct and correct, except the Ukrainian government, the country’s assorted lobbying network, and the relentless war propaganda blinded us to the fact that, culturally and tactically, there is no difference between the two warring sides," Maitra wrote. "The same people who are the most vocal about the [Russian] threat to democracy are the same ones currently arguing that 'systemic racism' is a major threat to U.S. national security. And these are the very same forces that argue that anyone who wants to remain neutral in a war on the furthest periphery is a 'Putinist.'"

What the left is saying.

  • The left is divided on where things are, with some arguing that Putin needs to step back from the war and others worried about a long-term engagement.
  • Some fear there is no end in sight.
  • Others suggest Russia and the U.S. need to be negotiating a way out.

In The Washington Post, Michael McFaul said the "realists" have it wrong: Only Putin, not Zelensky, can end the war in Ukraine.

“Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gets a lot of advice on how he can end the war in his country, and most of it pushes in one direction: Swap some sovereignty for peace. If only Zelensky would give Russian President Vladimir Putin another chunk of Ukrainian territory, the argument goes, the war would end," McFaul wrote. “Strangely, few in this army of advisers direct their wisdom toward Moscow. Why does no one offer Putin advice for how to end his invasion? To those claiming to make the ‘case for diplomacy,’ in alleged opposition to the ‘case for war,’ please detail how you would persuade or compel Putin to stop the conflict. Real diplomacy takes two to tango.

“Recommendations for peace that instruct only Zelensky to capitulate are not only repulsive, but also highly unrealistic. The repulsive part should be obvious. Putin was not provoked into invading; Russia faced no security threat from Ukraine," McFaul said. "History teaches that wars tend to end in two ways. Either one side wins, or a grinding stalemate is reached. Neither of those conditions exists yet in Ukraine. No matter what Zelensky says or gives, Putin will not stop fighting until his army can no longer move forward. The real party of peace is not those advising Zelensky to give Putin more land. It is those pushing the West to supply the Ukrainian army with more and better weapons, and as fast as possible. Without stalemate on the battlefield, Putin will never negotiate. The faster Ukraine’s army can stop Russia’s, the sooner Putin’s war will end.”

In The New York Times, Spencer Bokat-Lindell asked if there was any end in sight.

“The quickest and least bloody path to ending the conflict runs through a settlement negotiated by both sides. At the moment, though, that path seems firmly closed off,” he wrote. “Last month, Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, said that Russia was determined to ‘get rid’ of Ukraine’s ‘unacceptable regime,’ suggesting that Moscow’s war aims remained unchanged. Likewise, the Ukrainian government still has no intention of ceding territory it has lost to Russian forces. ‘This is just a question of who beats whom,’ Oleksiy Danilov, the head of Ukraine’s national security council, recently told The Times… With the recent arrival of Western-supplied long-range rocket systems, Ukrainian officials are hoping that they can, first by expelling Russian forces in the south during their anticipated counteroffensive.

"If the Ukrainian counteroffensive succeeds, Putin could come to deem the cost of victory too high,” he added. “Russia has committed 85 percent of its volunteer army to the fighting, a U.S. Defense Department official told The Times, and is struggling to find recruits. ‘American officials and outside analysts both agree if Russia wants to move beyond the Donbas, they will need to take a step they have been unwilling to do: a mass mobilization,’ The Times’s Julian Barnes said last month. ‘Russia will need to conduct a military draft, recall soldiers who previously served and take politically painful steps to rebuild their force. So far, Putin has been unwilling to do so.’”

In Jacobin, Ben Burgis said we should have listened to Bernie Sanders on Ukraine.

"Sanders condemned the impending invasion without equivocation, clearly identifying Russian president Vladimir Putin as the man 'most responsible for this looming crisis' and calling for targeted sanctions on 'Putin and his associates' if they went through with their plans," Burgis wrote. "But he was also clear that, however morally and legally indefensible, Russian policy was grounded in ordinary geopolitical motivations. It’s worth remembering that concerns about increased American influence on Ukraine and about the possibility that Ukraine might one day join NATO were expressed by Putin’s predecessors long before he came to power. This is exactly the kind of reasoning now widely denounced as whataboutism. And the prohibition on ‘whataboutism’ is, in practice, an excuse not to apply consistent standards to the actions of rival powers.

"The invasion of Iraq, for example, was grotesquely unjustifiable. But I wouldn’t have wanted Russia or China to start by arming the Republican Guard to the teeth and then to openly signal a willingness to be more and more directly involved in the conflict — for example, by Chinese intelligence sources bragging to the People’s Daily that they’d been involved in operations to assassinate American generals," Burgis said. "What I would have welcomed, though, would have been any last-minute attempt by one of those powers to broker peace talks to head off the disaster... If Sanders had been president back in February, he would have tried. Maybe the effort wouldn’t have succeeded. But it’s infuriating that Biden didn’t even attempt such an approach before pouring tens of billions of dollars into a proxy war whose ruinous effects have been felt all around the world."

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.

Above all else, it's just a tragedy.

It may be easy to read numbers like "75,000 dead Russian soldiers" or "1,000 Ukrainians dying per day" in a detached, news-consuming manner. But it's much harder to pause and meditate on that. Hundreds of thousands of lives have already been lost, hundreds of thousands of families in ruin. Millions of people — friends, family, colleagues — have been directly impacted on both sides, knowing someone who has died or been wounded in the war.

That's to say nothing of the physical destruction. Countless historical sites in Ukraine are now in ruins. Homes, churches, schools and hospitals are destroyed. Beaches are evacuated. Families are fleeing the country. A generation of children will  now, and maybe forever, view the "other side" as the enemy. The damage of war is incalculable, and in this case it weighs even heavier when you ask why. What has been achieved? What was gained? Who was helped?

In that regard, and after six months of war, my view has hardly changed. This war did not need to happen. You can write all the op-eds about NATO encroachment or U.S. colonialism or corrupt Ukrainian officials that you want, but the fundamental truth of the war is that Putin chose it. Ukraine was not a threat to Russia, militarily or economically. It was not provoking Russia; it was only fighting for contested territory that Putin had already annexed or invaded. There was no world in which Ukraine was going to one day take over Russia, or even try.

What Ukraine wanted was freedom from Russia. What Putin wanted was to bring Ukraine back under his control. That dynamic is the undeniable moral center of the conflict, however complicated the factors around it are.

And what has Putin gained? Again, nothing. He's lost tens of thousands of his own citizens, reaffirmed and strengthened the Western alliance against him, sent his neighbors scattering to join that alliance, and further isolated Russia on the global stage. And he's not even winning the war — not any closer to "de-nazifying" Ukraine or reuniting it with the motherland.

Of course, all this horror is a good reason to want an end to it. The two sides need to begin negotiating, and soon. And however uncomfortable it is for me to concede, those negotiations might mean Ukraine giving Putin some of what it does not deserve to lose. Namely, territory in the eastern part of the country.

I also don't blame Americans who have no interest in watching our government funnel billions of dollars into a faraway conflict with so much of our own country suffering. How could anyone? I can recognize that caring about the war in Ukraine and being invested in its outcome is a privilege. It necessitates financial bandwidth that I'm grateful to have. It necessitates personal stability that makes it easier to swallow seeing your tax dollars going to weapons for a foreign nation. It necessitates faith that the cause of some nation's independence you have never been to and may never go to is worth the cost. I have all those benefits, and I'm lucky to.

But the case for supporting Ukraine, and supporting the U.S. government's investment in Ukraine, is the same now as it was on the first day of the war. People should be free to choose their own government, free to decide their leaders and their future, and free from violence at the hands of other nations. And if that argument convinced us to defend Ukraine at the beginning of the war, when it cost us nothing, it should still be convincing when we need to pay a price for our values.

Putin (and Russia historically) has shown he is willing to fight wars of attrition, and is willing to use Russian gas as a weapon. If the war stretches into the winter, expect Russia to turn off the gas tap to Europe, directly hurting millions on the continent and indirectly affecting the global market, which we are likely to feel at home. And while we are paying, and will likely continue to pay, a high price, it’s worth remembering the initial reason — and that the price Ukraine is paying is in blood.

The counterpoints of our involvement are, of course, true: The United States has inserted itself into wars to conquer, to colonize, to obtain resources, to overthrow governments, and even to dismantle non-existent nuclear weapons. We have participated in wars simply out of spite and vengeance. Yes, funding this fight will make the war machine even richer. Yes, it will drag the war on and yes, in a sick and twisted way, that's a great thing for the U.S. powers, who certainly want to see Putin stretched thin and battered by someone other than U.S. troops. Yes, more of that money could be better spent on schools or rural broadband or violence prevention here at home.

And yet, if there were ever a just intervention — one where we could say we were taking a moral high ground, keeping our own people and allies safe, and fighting for a decent cause, this would be it. Our national interest in this war is that we are a global power with unrivaled resources and reach, and if we want to live in the post-World War II world where autocrats can't simply decide to conquer other nations, we can't merely sit on our hands and watch this aggression unfold. So for that, I support the cause to back Ukraine, however hard it is to watch it drag on.

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Your questions, answered.

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Thank you!

A story that matters.

On Wednesday, a federal judge ordered three of the nation's largest pharmacy chains to pay $650 million to two Ohio counties because of the opioid epidemic. The ruling against CVS, Walgreens and Walmart came alongside a November jury ruling that the companies continued to dispense mass quantities of prescription painkillers while ignoring signs they were being abused. It's the first ruling by a federal judge to assign a firm monetary figure against the pharmacy chains. The money must be paid in installments over 15 years, the judge ruled. All three companies vowed to appeal. The New York Times has the story.


  • 100,000+. The number of U.S. forces stationed in Europe after Biden increased deployments in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
  • 11.1 million. The number of people who have left Ukraine since the war began, according to the U.N.
  • 6.3 million. The number of Ukrainians who are internally displaced.
  • 42 million. The pre-war population of Ukraine.
  • 5.4 million. The number of border crossings into Poland.
  • 20%. The percentage of Ukraine that was controlled by Russia in early June, according to President Zelensky.

Have a nice day.

A new California law is doing something every teenager has always dreamed of: pushing the school day's start time back. A law went into effect this month that says school days should begin no earlier than 8 a.m. for middle schoolers and no earlier than 8:30 a.m. for high schoolers. Sleep scientists have long argued that the typical structure of school start times, with high schoolers going in earlier than elementary school students, was backwards, and that both should start later. Up to an hour later start times have been shown to improve grades, reduce student auto accidents, decrease truancy, and reduce behavioral issues. NPR has the story about the welcome change.

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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.