by Gabe Fleisher
Good morning! It’s Monday, February 28, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 253 days away. Election Day 2024 is 981 days away.
Welcome back to another week. It’s going to be an important one in U.S. politics, as President Biden prepares to deliver his first State of the Union address Tuesday night. Tomorrow, I’ll give a preview of Biden’s speech and an assessment on his domestic political standing.
But today, I want to offer an update on Russia’s war against Ukraine, particularly looking at the successes the Ukrainian military has had in the past few days. Later on in the newsletter, you’ll also see updates from two WUTP contributors, a packed “Daybook” on an important case before the Supreme Court, and even a link to something that made me laugh.
Sorry the newsletter is coming to you a bit late. I’m currently clicking “send” from a bench outside my dorm building, where we’ve been evacuated due to a fire alarm. College life.
What Putin wasn’t counting on
In the haze of war, it can be difficult to be sure of much. Conflicting reports abound: How many casualties has each side suffered? Who controls which territory?
But in the ongoing Russian assault on Ukraine, one fact received repeated confirmation over the weekend: This war is not going according to Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s plans.
Putin reportedly thought his forces would be able to overwhelm Ukraine’s in a matter of days, allowing him to easily topple the government in Kyiv. U.S. intelligence officials had a similar prognosis.
But Ukraine’s military has confounded all of those expectations. In a handful of days, more than 100,000 Ukrainians have mobilized to defend their country. About half have been civilian volunteers, but their ragtag force has scored key successes against the Russian military, which boasts the fifth-largest army in the world.
As of this writing, not a single major city in Ukraine has fallen under Russian control. As the Washington Post notes, Russia has seen “whole columns of tanks and armored vehicles” wiped out, warplanes “shot out of the sky,” and troops “stranded on roadsides to be captured because their vehicles ran out of fuel.”
“Most critically,” the Post added, “Russia has proved unable to secure air superiority over the tiny Ukrainian air force — despite having the second-largest air force in the world.”
On Sunday, Ukraine succeeded in holding off fresh Russian attempts to seize both Kyiv and Kharkhiv, the country’s two largest cities. According to a U.S. defense official, the Russians have grown “increasingly frustrated by their lack of momentum” in the war, staring down opposition that was “greater than what [they] expected.”
Many symbols have emerged of the Ukrainian resistance: the island border guards who radioed, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.” The mysterious — and possibly mythical — “Ghost of Kyiv” fighter pilot. The couple who got married and took up arms to defend their country in the same day, the teacher weeping as she deployed, the father emotionally saying goodbye to his daughter as he went off to fight.
But none have captivated the world quite like the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. A former comedian, Zelensky’s sole political experience before taking office in 2019 was playing Ukraine’s president on a popular TV show. (Think Ukraine’s answer to “The West Wing.”) Before the past week, he was known here in the U.S. mainly as a side character in former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment saga.
Zelensky has now emerged as a heroic wartime leader, turning his acting abilities towards a series of defiant videos filmed on the streets of Kyiv, which have rallied support for Ukraine’s cause across the globe.
After Russian state media spread rumors that Zelensky had fled the country, the president responded with another viral video, this time surrounded by his top ministers. “We are here. We are in Kyiv. We are defending Ukraine,” he declared. (The U.S. has indeed offered to evacuate Zelensky, but he has refused to go.)
Zelensky has also been a key force in persuading the West to aid Ukraine’s war effort. According to the Wall Street Journal, Zelensky dialed into a meeting of European leaders last week and delivered an an emotional appeal that inspired them to step up their military assistance. “This might be the last time you see me alive,” Zelensky reportedly told the leaders.
Since then, the Western bloc taken historic steps to help Ukraine. The European Union announced plans to send $500 million to finance Ukraine’s purchase of lethal weapons, the EU’s first time ever supplying arms to a country at war. Germany is sending weapons too, a major shift from its longtime policy against exporting deadly weapons into conflict zones.
President Biden also approved $350 million in military aid to Ukraine on Saturday, bringing the total sent to Kyiv by the U.S. in the past year above $1 billion.
The extensive Western response has shown how badly Putin misjudged his global adversaries. While Putin has long sought to weaken NATO, the EU, and other Western alliances, his invasion of Ukraine has only served to strengthen them. (In fact, Ukraine could now be joining the EU, while more countries are pushing for membership in NATO.)
Although past conflicts have often found the West fractured and hung up in diplomatic disagreements, the bloc has moved swiftly and in unison this time. The U.S. and European allies have now imposed devastating sanctions on Russia’s central bank, top Russian oligarchs, and even Putin himself.
The West also acted Saturday to cut key Russian banks off from SWIFT, the global messaging system that connects financial institutions and allows them to make transfers internationally. Meanwhile, the EU closed its airspace to Russian aircrafts and BP “exited” a $14 billion stake in a Russian oil giant, all part of an effort to sever the many ties between Russian wealth and Western countries.
When the president of the European Commission announced the aircraft ban, she pointedly added: “Including the private jets of oligarchs.” Meanwhile, the White House also announced plans to form a “transatlantic task force” that will “hunt down” yachts, mansions, and other assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs that can be frozen.
Russia’s economy has already begun to feel the pain inflicted by Western sanctions. The Russian currency, the ruble, plunged to a record low in value this morning and is now worth less than a single U.S. cent.
The financial meltdown has left Russians scrambling to withdraw foreign currencies from ATMs; meanwhile, Russian central bank has more than doubled interest rates and Moscow has closed its stock exchange for today.
The threat of economic hardship has only emboldened the throngs of Russians who have gathered to protest the war, which has led to thousands of arrests and exposed the vacuum of support Putin boasts among even his own people. A key Russian oligarch also issued a call for peace, highlighting the impact being felt by Moscow’s ruling elite.
As the war drags on, his economy ails, and the West bands together to isolate him and his top allies, Putin has been increasingly backed into a corner.
He can now move in two very distinct directions. On one hand, Russian and Ukraine have agreed to restart diplomatic talks, which are set to begin today in Belarus.
But few, Zelensky included, expect the negotiations to yield a peace agreement. Instead, many analysts believe the state of the war effort — and Russia’s newfound pariah status — will only lead Putin down a more erratic path.
For evidence, look no further than the Russian leader’s announcement on Sunday that he was putting his nuclear forces into “special combat readiness,” a thinly-veiled threat of nuclear conflict that was reminiscent of the Cold War era.
Russia also has plenty of military tools at its disposal, so don’t necessarily expect Ukraine’s victories so far to hold. It is possible that his military failures could just push Putin to strike harder against Ukraine.
Indeed, a three-mile-long Russian military convoy has been spotted heading toward Kyiv, and Belarus is reportedly planning to send in soldiers to back up Putin’s forces as soon as today. Even within the Russian military, only half of the troops surrounding Ukraine have actually invaded — the rest could now be poised to follow. Russia may have underestimated Ukraine at first, but that doesn’t mean they will make the same mistake in the week ahead.
Still, for now, Ukraine is celebrating its improbable successes. “72 hours of resistance!” the country’s defense minister tweeted on Sunday. “The world didn’t believe. The world doubted. But we did not just stand, we confidently continue to fight with Russian occupant!”
Two more things...
There are obviously a lot of important angles to cover in the Russia-Ukraine story, so I’m lucky to have help from WUTP’s talented team of contributors.
Here, foreign policy contributor Miles Hession and economic contributor Davis Giangiulio write in with two additional aspects of the story you should know about:
Oil prices have been surging since Russia launched its invasion. Brent crude oil prices on Thursday climbed above $100 a barrel. It was the first time the global benchmark on prices crossed the threshold since 2014. Russia is a big exporter of oil, and investors worry that the invasion and subsequent sanctions will hinder exports. Simultaneously, the U.S. national average hit $3.60 per gallon, also the highest since 2014.
Gas prices in the U.S. had already been rising before the invasion; the threat of sanctions pushing them higher has led to reluctance by the Biden administration to target Russia’s core energy sector. Some conservatives have blamed Biden’s push towards clean energy for making the country more dependent on Russia and therefore unable to impose energy sanctions. — Davis Giangiulio
More than 500,000 refugees have fled Ukraine in the past week. European nations have taken a decidedly different tone towards them as towards refugees from countries like Syria and Afghanistan. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who once described refugees as a “poison,” has used the Hungarian military to help Ukrainian refugees crossing the border. In Poland, where construction on a border wall to deter refugees has begun, many Ukrainian refugees are being allowed in with no limits.
Early estimates show that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will send thousands more refugees into the E.U. than the 2015 migrant crisis. Black people fleeing Ukraine have been denied entry at the Polish border, with some reporting they were told “no Blacks” when seeking asylum. — Miles Hession
Something that made me smile
There’s not been a lot of happy news lately.
So I’m sharing something that me smile this weekend: “Saturday Night Live” imagining what it would be like if there was a new Covid variant, but one that made everything awesome...
All times Eastern.
— President Joe Biden spent the weekend at his home in Delaware, where he attended the funeral of his late son’s mother-in-law on Sunday. He will depart Delaware at 8:55 a.m. this morning, arriving back at the White house at 9:50 a.m.
At 10:30 a.m., Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will receive their daily intelligence briefing. At 11:15 a.m., Biden will host a secure call with U.S. allies to discuss the latest developments in Ukraine and continue coordinating the response to Russia.
Finally, at 2 p.m., the president and First Lady Jill Biden will host a celebration at the White House to mark Black History Month. Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff will also attend.
— White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold her daily press briefing at 3 p.m.
— The Senate will convene at 3 p.m. Following the daily prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, the chamber will pause for a reading of George Washington’s 1796 farewell address — continuing a ritual conducted by the Senate around Presidents’ Day every year since 1862. Each year, a different senator is selected for the task; this year, the address will be read by Sen. Pat Leahy (D-VT).
Following the address, the Senate will move to consideration of H.R. 3755, the Women’s Health Protection Act. The measure, which passed the House in a 218-211 vote last year, would enshrine Roe v. Wade into law and create a statutory right for women to receive, and doctors to perform, abortions before the point of fetal viability.
At 5:30 p.m., the chamber will hold a procedural vote on H.R. 3755, which will require 60 votes to advance. If the vote fails — as is expected, since 10 Republicans would have to offer their support — the Senate will then hold a procedural vote to advance H.R. 3076, the Postal Service Reform Act.
The postal bill has much more bipartisan support, having passed the House in a 342-92 vote. The measure would strike down a mandate that required the U.S. Postal Service to pre-fund health benefits for its retired employees 75 years into the future. The bill, which aims to rescue the agency from the dire financial situation the pre-funding requirement had imposed, would instead require USPS retirees to enroll in Medicare.
Finally, at 7:15 p.m., members of the Senate will receive a classified briefing on Ukraine.
— The House will convene at 2 p.m. The chamber will allow for up to 15 one-minute speeches from each party, and then will recess until around 2:45 p.m. Upon returning, the chamber will vote on eight pieces of legislation under “suspension of the rules,” a process that allows uncontroversial bills to be fast-tracked if they receive two-thirds support.
One of the bills scheduled for consideration today is H.R. 55, the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which would designate lynching as a federal hate crime. Here are the other measures the House will vote on:
— House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will hold a ceremony at 10 a.m. to dedicate a statue of Pierre L’Enfant, the architect who designed Washington, D.C. The Capitol features a pair of statues donated by each state, depicting two of their notable residents; with the L’Enfant statute, D.C. will have two statues in the Capitol for first time as well. The capital city previously donated a statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
— The Supreme Court will release orders at 9:30 a.m. Then, at 10 a.m., the court will hear oral arguments in four cases that have been consolidated into one: West Virginia v. EPA, North Dakota v. EPA, North American Coal Corp. v. EPA, and Westmoreland Mining Holdings v. EPA.
The group of cases encompass efforts by a group of Republican-led states and coal-mining companies to challenge the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
As CNN notes, the cases are “highly unusual,” because there is no rule on power plant emissions currently on the books that the plaintiffs are challenging. The plaintiffs are instead attempting to pre-emptively block the EPA from implementing such rules in the future; the power sector is the nation’s second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, so such a prohibition would threaten President Biden’s goal of cutting planet-warming emissions in half by 2030.
But the ramifications of the case could go far beyond environmental policy: Republicans are hoping the court’s conservative majority will set a wider precedent curbing the authority of the EPA and other executive branch agencies to issue sweeping regulations, arguing that the agency regulations veer into the law-making powers reserved for Congress.
If the court sides with the plaintiffs, it could mark a reversal from the Chevron deference — which has historically given agencies wide latitude in implementing regulations — and hinder presidents’ ability to unilaterally set policy on climate change, health care, and an array of other issues.
— The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia will kick off the first trial stemming from the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Jury selection will begin today in the case, which is against a Texas man named Guy Wesley Reffitt, who has been linked to the Three Percenters milita group and stands accused of bringing a pistol to the Capitol grounds.
As the New York Times writes, the Reffitt trial “may not be the flashiest or most significant” of the cases tied to January 6, “but because it is the first to reach a courtroom, it will most likely set the tone for those that follow and serve as a kind of proving ground for the charges prosecutors have filed against hundreds of defendants.”
— The United Nations General Assembly will convene at 10 a.m. for a rare emergency session to discuss Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The meeting, only the 11th such session in UN history, was triggered by a motion passed by the UN Security Council on Sunday.
Although Russia is one of five member states with a veto over Security Council resolutions — which it wielded to block a resolution condemning the invasion last week — the veto power cannot be used against the procedural motion required to call a General Assembly session.
The General Assembly is likely to vote sometime this week on a similar resolution as the one Russia blocked in the Security Council. None of the UN’s 193 member states have a veto over General Assembly resolutions.
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