Oct 13, 2022

The war in Ukraine escalates.

Russian President Vladimir Putin / Image: World Economic Forum
Russian President Vladimir Putin / Image: World Economic Forum

Is a nuclear strike possible?

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.

Today, we're covering some harrowing updates from the war in Ukraine. Plus, a question about drawing the perfect congressional map.

Quick hits.

  1. The Social Security Administration announced an 8.7 percent social security cost of living raise, the largest increase since 1981. (The raise)
  2. The Labor Department said the core consumer price index (CPI) — which excludes volatile energy and food prices — rose 6.6% in September, up from 6.3% in August, and hitting a new four-decade high. Overall CPI increased 8.2% in September from a year earlier. (The latest)
  3. The House Jan. 6 Committee will hold its ninth and perhaps final public hearing today, saying it will summarize its findings and show new evidence of Trump's role in Jan. 6. (The hearing)
  4. Los Angeles City Council member Nury Martinez (D) resigned after leaked audio of racist remarks. (The resignation)
  5. Alex Jones, the host of InfoWars, was ordered by a jury to pay nearly $1 billion in damages to the families of eight Sandy Hook shooting victims for lies about them and their children being crisis actors that resulted in years of harassment. (The verdict)

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.

The war in Ukraine. Given that we've covered the war in Ukraine several times in the last month, we weren't planning on covering it again so soon. But the events of the last week have made it necessary.

What happened: Over the weekend, a bridge linking Russia to the annexed Crimean peninsula was damaged by a suspected truck bomb. Details of the attack are still sparse, but officials suspect that a truck full of IED explosives was detonated on the bridge, which also carries railroad tracks. Questions remain, like whether the driver of the truck knew the cargo was explosives or not. The Crimean Bridge (also known as the Kerch Bridge) is the only overland link between Russia and the territory it annexed in 2014, and the damage from the blast seriously disrupted Russia's most important supply lines for troops fighting in southern Ukraine. At least three people died from the attack, which sent a part of the 12-mile bridge into the sea.

Putin called the attack an act of terrorism, and on Monday, Russia responded by raining cruise missiles across populated regions of Ukraine, including the capital, Kyiv. Reuters reported explosions in Lviv, Ternopil and Zhytomyr in western Ukraine; Dnipro and Kremenchuk in the center; Zaporizhzhia in the south; and Kharkiv in the east. At least 11 people were killed, scores were injured, power was knocked out, and civilians and tourists were rushed to bomb shelters. It was the biggest wave of airstrikes since the war began eight months ago.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin said he ordered the wave of strikes in retaliation for the attack on the bridge. "To leave such acts without a response is simply impossible," he said. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia's strikes were timed to kill people and knock out the power grid, leaving parts of the country with no electricity, water or heat. "They are trying to destroy us and wipe us off the face of the earth," Zelensky said.

On Wednesday, Russia announced the arrest of eight people in connection with the bombing of the bridge, including five Russian citizens.

Nuclear threat: Last month, Putin warned that he would use "all means" at his disposal to protect Russia if Russian-controlled territory were threatened, which would seemingly include the bridge bombed by Ukraine and the four recently annexed regions of Ukraine.

U.S. officials have maintained that the chances of Russia using nuclear weapons are low, and senior American officials have told The New York Times that they've seen no evidence of Putin moving any of his nuclear assets. Meanwhile, Putin's spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has said the attack on the bridge did not fall within the category under Russia's defense doctrine that allows for a nuclear response.

Still, fears of nuclear escalation are rising, with some Ukrainians now bracing for a nuclear attack. At a private event shortly before the Russian airstrikes, President Biden warned donors of the threat of "Armageddon" if Russia uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, a comment his administration later qualified by noting that the U.S. has no new intelligence of any nuclear threat.

Today, we're going to take a look at some opinions on the latest in the fighting, with views from the right and left here in the states, then my take. You can find our previous coverage of the war here.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right condemn Putin's attacks, and some argue we should provide missile defense systems as soon as possible.
  • Others suggest Congress needs to retake control of America's war powers before we enter the conflict militarily.
  • Some defend the attack on the bridge, arguing it was a high value military asset.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board called for more missile defenses for Ukraine.

“The attacks follow the Russian pattern going back to the beginning of the invasion,” the board said. “Ukraine registers an apparent military success, as it (or someone) did in striking the Kerch bridge between Russia and Crimea. Russia responds with an attack on civilian targets or infrastructure that is important for civilians such as water or electricity plants. Mr. Putin blamed Ukraine for the Kerch bridge attack, which blew up the main lifeline to supply Crimea, which Russia invaded and annexed from Ukraine in 2014. He called the bridge attack a ‘terrorist’ act, which is what his entire Ukraine campaign has been.

“Ukrainian officials said Russia fired 84 missiles and that 43 were intercepted. Most landed in cities across Ukraine as far west as Lviv that are far from the active battlefield, some hitting rush-hour commuters. Russia claims it is firing precision-guided munitions at military targets, but its missiles must not be very precise," the board said. "The U.S. agreed in July to supply the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System, or Nasams, but that won’t reach Ukraine for several months. The U.S. has been reluctant to supply Patriot missile batteries for reasons that seem related to risks of escalation with a NATO weapons system, but that line has already been crossed. Mr. Putin won’t end his war until it becomes clear the cost of continuing it is too high."

In The Federalist, Katherine Thompson said Congress's duty to Americans must trump its infatuation with wars.

“Russian President Vladimir Putin is threatening the use of nuclear weapons in order to defend annexed territory in Ukraine,” she wrote. “In a response now seen by the Kremlin as further provocation, Ukraine officially submitted its application for fast-track membership to the NATO alliance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said of Ukraine, ‘De facto, we have already proven compatibility with alliance standards. … We trust each other, we help each other, and we protect each other.’ To turn up the heat even more, the U.S. foreign policy establishment believes the U.S. would and should respond to any use of nuclear weapons by Russia, even if solely contained within Ukraine’s borders, all but guaranteeing the conflict would spill into NATO territory.

“President Joe Biden’s promise of unwavering support for Ukraine, deployments to the European theater, and massive arms commitment have all gone completely unchecked. In fact, Congress continues to blindly affirm, in a bipartisan fashion, policies toward Ukraine that make it nearly impossible for the U.S. to exercise any restraint as the risk of being drawn into nuclear war in Europe grows. For the American people, burnt out on years of endless wars in the Middle East, Congress must draw red lines... President Biden and NATO need a reminder that Ukraine is not a NATO ally, and even if it were, no military response could go forward without a vote of Congress.”

In The Washington Examiner, Adam Zivo said the attack was not terrorism.

“When transportation infrastructure is requisitioned for war, it becomes a legitimate target for attack, a fact Russia has tacitly acknowledged through prior bombardment of Ukrainian bridges,” Zivo wrote. “The Kerch bridge was built by the Kremlin and opened in 2018, four years after Russia illegally annexed Crimea. It symbolized Moscow’s intent to control Crimea in perpetuity through tighter physical and economic ties. When Putin launched his full-scale invasion in February, the bridge was used to transport troops and weapons to Crimea quickly, allowing the Russian military to march northward and occupy most of Ukraine’s southern coast. Considering these factors, the Russians anticipated that the Kerch bridge would be attacked and prepared extensive defenses accordingly, including anti-air systems, radar jammers, and anti-sabotage boats.

“But there was a hole in their security. Though the exact details behind the attack are unconfirmed, it is widely suspected that the bridge was bombed through a truck filled with IEDs," he wrote. "Again, however, it takes a lot of mental gymnastics to describe the Kerch bridge attack as ‘terrorism.’ According to Article 52 of the Geneva Convention, legitimate military targets are those that ‘by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.’ Under this definition, attacks on infrastructure that contributes to wartime supply lines, including bridges, are legitimate and not acts of ‘terrorism.’”

What the left is saying.

  • Some on the left insist we must continue to defend Ukraine, and retaliate militarily if Putin uses any kind of nuclear weapons.
  • Others argue that we should be working to de-escalate the conflict, and turn to history for guidance on how.
  • Some say this latest volley of combat is a reminder of why Ukraine is winning the war.

In Politico, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the U.S. must be prepared to respond with military force if Putin uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

"As secretary of defense, I heard the arguments that the use of such weapons could be limited and targeted in a way that would not result in a nuclear war," Panetta wrote. "The problem with that kind of rationale is that retaliation knows no limits. Any attack will demand a firm response. And any firm response will risk the danger of escalation. It is precisely because the use of any nuclear weapon is so unthinkable that Putin cannot be allowed to continue his threats without understanding the full consequences to him and his regime. He says he is 'not bluffing.' We cannot afford to 'bluff' either.

"While the United States and our NATO allies should continue to warn publicly of 'catastrophic' consequences of Putin’s reckless nuclear saber rattling, we should be brutally clear to Putin in private: If he makes a reckless decision to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the U.S. will respond with direct military force against Russian troops waging the war in Ukraine, ensuring Putin’s defeat there," Panetta wrote. “We must be prepared to use U.S. military assets, including combat aircraft and cruise missile strikes, to ensure that Putin cannot threaten Ukraine with nuclear weapons. While the administration will need to be vague about what particular forces it will deploy, it should communicate that it could include the full range of conventional capabilities we have in our arsenal, which Putin knows would devastate his military."

In The Washington Post, Katrina vanden Heuvel said we should look to the Cuban missile crisis for guidance on how to act now.

"The Cuban missile crisis proved that even in the face of potential nuclear devastation, de-escalation is possible and diplomacy can prevail," she wrote. "Experts and scholars have relitigated the crisis for decades. But in recent years, archives and memoirs have clarified the picture of what happened during those 13 days starting on Oct. 16, 1962... de-escalation, as [historian Martin] Sherwin makes clear, begins with dialogue. During the Cuban missile crisis, people such as Gen. Curtis LeMay argued that negotiation was tantamount to appeasement. But levelheaded discussion is essential to avoiding certain doom. To sacrifice it in the name of jingoistic posturing is not just absurd; it’s potentially apocalyptic.

"Today, as the world faces the threat of obliteration once more, figures of all stripes are calling for dialogue to prevent doomsday," she wrote. "A small but growing list of progressive members of Congress (along with several peace advocacy organizations) are increasingly focused on how best to promote de-escalation and dialogue, inspired by a truth that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has himself maintained: This war ‘will only definitively end through diplomacy.’ Pope Francis issued an unprecedented statement calling for global leaders ‘to do everything possible to bring an end to the war.’ Even former secretary of state Henry Kissinger has reiterated the importance of dialogue.”

In The Atlantic, Phillips Payson O'Brien said "Russia just showed why it is floundering in Ukraine."

"On Saturday, Ukraine showed why it is winning its war against Russia. On Monday, Russia showed why it is losing... One is clever, well prepared, willing to undertake complex operations, and focused on maximally damaging its enemy’s ability to fight. The other is prone to bursts of rage and is open to committing any crime possible, but its actions are ultimately self-defeating," he wrote. "Russia’s dependence on this one supply line has been a constant source of worry for Putin and his generals. Its evident vulnerability is one reason they supposedly went to great lengths to defend the Crimean Bridge from attack. This is what made Saturday’s operation so crucial: The Ukrainians identified a logistical target of potentially decisive importance, secretly developed a plan to eliminate it, kept word from leaking out, and then executed the plan with considerable success.

"On Monday, the Russians responded in a manner that was both homicidal and pointless. Starting early in the morning, they fired almost every type of missile in their arsenal... And what has it gained from this extraordinary expenditure? The Russians have hit little of military value," O'Brien said. "Far from damaging Ukraine’s ability to fight off the invasion, this week’s strikes have probably increased it... they have provided the Ukrainians with more experience shooting down Russian offensive equipment... instead of weakening Ukrainian resistance, these Russian attacks will likely turbocharge it... Finally, Ukraine’s allies are responding by providing more aid—including the vital air-defense equipment that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has been eager to procure."

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.

  • The contours of "right" and "left" in this war are fascinating.
  • I strongly believe we should continue to supply Ukraine with defensive weapons.
  • Just as we have a responsibility to support a ceasefire and de-escalation, we have a responsibility to prevent genocide.

The way the recent developments in Ukraine are playing with the American public fascinates me.

Each side seems utterly divided on how to proceed. Among moderate Democrat and Republican voters and establishment politicians, there is significant alignment about defending Ukraine among people who agree on practically nothing else. Meanwhile, the ultra progressive factions on the left and the anti-establishment factions on the right seem to be shouting in unison that we are on some kind of unhinged path toward World War III. All the while, despite the talk of war exhaustion in the states, the majority of the American public does seem to continue to support our aid to Ukraine. It’s a nice reminder of why I and others reject the premise of fitting every story into a political bucket.

As for the actual war, it just keeps getting uglier.

The day Russia invaded Ukraine, among many other things, I wrote this:

War is a terrible, tragic thing. For Russia, the brunt of this war will fall onto the shoulders of young soldiers — baby faced "men" who are 17 or 18, 19 or 20, who will go die for something they almost certainly don’t understand. In Ukraine, it will be all hands on deck. Fathers, mothers, teenagers and grandparents will stand side by side with their military. They will take up arms and fight and many of them will die violent deaths. This will be the result of Putin's decision to invade, based on the absurd notion that a nation of 40 million free Ukrainians belongs to him.

We're eight months into the war now, and frankly, it’s even worse than I imagined then. And somehow, in a terrifying gut check, this latest sequence is a reminder that things can still get far worse.

The attack on the Crimean Bridge, which Ukraine is not denying responsibility for, has created an interesting litmus test. Given that the three people who died are presumably civilians, and that it appears possible the driver of the truck was on a suicide mission, commentators like Michael Tracey have described the bombing as an ISIS-style attack. Certainly, if a Ukrainian solider drove a truck onto the bridge and detonated a load of IEDs, knowingly killing himself for the cause, it's fair to call it a suicide bombing — that's literally the definition of the act. And I don't blame Tracey for being reminded of acts of terrorism we've seen in other conflicts. But even if this had been a suicide attack, I don’t think it’s the Ukrainians who are committing terrorism.

If we accept the definitition of "terrorism" as being strikes on civilian centers, strikes that kill civilians, strikes that serve no military purpose other than to unleash terror (which I do), then Russia's army — which has been bombarding schools, hospitals, city centers, and rural towns since the beginning of war — has consistently perpetuated acts of terrorism since the war began. As Adam Zivo made clear in his piece quoted in "What the right is saying," Ukraine’s attack was a military act — a legitimate, tactical act of war as defined by the Geneva Convention.

Russia has been terrorizing Ukrainian citizens since the war began, and now a legitimate (and to some controversial) Ukrainian counterstrike is provoking more attacks on civilian populations. It’s a reminder of how ugly things have gotten.

I don't have access to the same information as U.S. intelligence analysts, who seem quite skeptical of a nuclear escalation, but I also don't find the prospect of nuclear war particularly likely. There's no need to make this ambiguous: If Putin were to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine — of any kind — the U.S. and NATO will respond with military force. I have zero doubt about that. And given what we’ve learned about Russia’s army, it would likely be only a matter of days or weeks before nearly all of Putin's assets outside of Russia were destroyed.

If I know this, Putin knows it too. Which makes it very unlikely to me that he would do anything to draw any U.S. or NATO ally into this war. He's been quite careful not to so far, and I don't think that is going to change.

All that being said, since the war began, I've supported the U.S. and NATO allies providing Ukraine with air missile defense systems. I never understood why they weren't, and I don't see any reason why this is controversial. Protecting yourself from incoming rockets is not an act of aggression. The only person who really drew that line is Putin — who, again, is the same person willing to cross any lines drawn by the rest of the world.

We should be doing everything we can to end this war and prevent global nuclear conflict, obviously. It feels absurd to even have to say that. But we also have a responsibility to discourage future acts of aggression and to prevent the genocide of Ukrainians, who are currently living under daily shellings and attacks in civilian centers across their country.

Your questions, answered.

Q: I'm a computer programmer. Assuming you have all the data you want, how would you want redistricting to be calculated — assuming you can start with a clean slate? I've asked many folks and nobody can tell me. The only thing folks I've talked to can agree on is each district should have a similar (if not exact) number of voters.

— Ted, Hudson, Wisconsin

Tangle: This is a great question. I also do not have a great answer, and I also agree that they should be made up of roughly the same number of voters.

I can tell you what I don't want districts to do: I don't want them to split counties or precincts along made-up boundaries (i.e., districts should be drawn in accordance with existing geographical boundaries). I don't want them to be drawn in a way where one party has disproportionate control (i.e., if 50% of voters in a state are Democrats, but 75% of their districts are run by Republicans, we have a problem). I also don’t want districts with the funky, “know it when you see it” shapes that computer algorithms are good at limiting. Ideally, redistricting creates competitive and compact districts that match the balance of how competitive an entire state is. When we redistrict to make non-competitive districts, as is the case now, we get more extreme politicians and much worse representation.

Key to that, in my opinion, is that redistricting can’t be done solely by the state party in power. It should be done by an independent commission.

Now, that isn't fool-proof either. In California, an independent commission produced a map that would give Democrats 75% of the congressional seats despite owning just 59% of the statewide vote. But commissions in other states, like Virginia, have done a great job producing fair, balanced maps that appease both sides.

Dave Dodson has made the case for a constitutional amendment that would prohibit gerrymandering based on political preferences, which makes a lot of sense to me. This way, states could draw maps based on a lot of things, but not on maximizing political outcomes.

Honestly, it doesn't surprise me that people struggle to tell you how maps should be drawn — it is a lot easier to discuss how they shouldn't. But describing what we don’t want might not be a bad approach —  I think putting limits on redistricting is a good way to solve gerrymandering.

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

Under the radar.

The average ACT test scores for students in the high school class of 2022 dropped to its lowest level in over three decades. Declining scores on the standardized test are the latest indicator of the pandemic's damage to the nation's students, millions of whom were pushed into at-home or hybrid learning as a precaution from Covid-19. But it's not all pandemic related: Scores have been declining steadily for five years. The average test score in 2022 was 19.8 out of 36. In 2021, it was 20.3; in 2020, it was 20.6; and in 2019, it was 20.7 (composite scores can be seen on the right in the chart below). The Associated Press has the story.

A report on the results from ACT. 


  • $10 million. The estimated cost of some of the advanced missiles being launched by Russia into Ukraine.
  • $13 billion. The amount of economic assistance Congress has approved for Ukraine since the war began.
  • $17 billion. The amount of military aid Congress has approved for Ukraine since the war began.
  • $847 billion. The proposed size of the annual defense spending bill currently in the Senate.
  • 4.6%. The pay raise for military members and Defense Department civilians proposed in that bill.

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Have a nice day.

Tenth time's the charm. For the last 10 years, Jamie Graham has been competing in the All New England Giant Pumpkin Weigh-Off. And for 10 years straight, he fell short of the first place prize — until now. On September 30, Graham's pumpkin weighed in at 2,479 pounds — not only winning this year, but beating the previous year's record of 2,294 pounds. He took home an $8,500 cash prize for the win. Graham is 37, and his kids named the pumpkin "Bear Swipe" because black bears have been known to paw on his pumpkin beasts as they grow. TODAY has the story, and yes, I'll give you a picture:

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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.