Tuesday ReadsPosted: March 1, 2022
So much is happening in the Ukraine story right now. Whatever I post this morning is likely to change rapidly. But before I get to the Ukraine news and analysis, I want to call attention to the State of the Union Address tonight. We can probably use this post as a live thread, but if necessary we’ll put up a new thread for the speech.
Eugene Robinson at The Washington Post: Opinion: Biden’s State of the Union address should build on his record.
“My fellow Americans, the state of the union is … better. Much, much better.”
I doubt President Biden will use those exact words in his first State of the Union address on Tuesday night — not with inflation still in the headlines — but they encapsulate the truth. Biden has not solved all the problems of the nation or the world in his first year in the White House. But he has done a heck of a lot.
Recall where we were on the day Joe Biden took the oath of office.
The nation was gripped by the covid-19 pandemic, and there was no workable process or plan to get everyone vaccinated. The economy was in crisis; restaurants and hotels were shuttered, and airports were like ghost towns. Schools were closed. Two weeks earlier, a shocking and unprecedented violent assault on the U.S. Capitol was waged by insurrectionists bent on overturning the presidential election and keeping Biden’s predecessor in power. That defeated incumbent, bitter because the putsch had failed, lacked the respect for tradition and country to attend Biden’s inauguration.
Look where we are now.
Some 65 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, and nearly 44 percent has also had a booster shot. Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are in free fall. During Biden’s first year, the economy added a record 6.6 million jobs and the unemployment rate fell to 4 percent. Schools are open and functioning normally. Mask mandates are being lifted. Our political discourse has returned to Democrats and Republicans shouting at each other across a yawning divide, but they are once again fighting with words, not cudgels and bear spray.
President Joe Biden will come before Congress on Tuesday seeking to sell his domestic and foreign policy agenda to an American public that has given him persistently low approval ratings as he faces the intensifying conflict in Ukraine.
A key focus of the prime-time address before Congress will be the U.S. response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Biden planning to highlight the united efforts by the U.S. allies and the impact sanctions have already had on Russia’s economy, administration officials said.
On domestic issues, Biden plans to talk extensively about efforts he has taken to improve the U.S. economy and control the pandemic, while pressing Congress to revive his stalled domestic policy agenda.
The speech comes at a pivotal moment for Biden, both at home and abroad. Among recent presidents, only his immediate predecessor, Donald Trump, came before Congress with a lower approval rating, with voters giving Biden low marks on everything from his leadership style to his handling of the economy.
The address may mark Biden’s last opportunity to make the case for his domestic policy agenda before a Congress controlled by his own party, with many Democrats facing a tough fight in the midterms.
The president’s team has been reworking his remarks in recent days to more heavily emphasize the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. White House press secretary Jen Psaki, in an interview with MSNBC this week, compared the moment to the remarks before Congress by President Barack Obama during the financial crisis or the one President George W. Bush gave after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Here’s where things stand In Ukraine right now:
The Russians have unleashed an all-out attack on Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv.
Michael Schwirtz at The New York Times: An explosion rocks Kharkiv a day after shelling in a residential neighborhood.
A large explosion struck central Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, on Tuesday, directly in front of the city’s administrative building, creating a huge fireball that appeared in a video to engulf several cars driving through an area called Freedom Square.
The cause of the blast and number of casualties were not immediately clear, though the city’s mayor said there were dead and wounded. CCTV footage of the attack captured what appeared to be a rocket striking directly in front of the building. Video of the aftermath showed a large crater in the middle of the city’s cobble-stoned central square.
Residential areas in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, were being pounded by Russian shells while a massive 40-mile convoy of Russian tanks and vehicles rolled toward the capital of Kyiv on Tuesday as the war entered its sixth day.
At least 11 people were killed and 35 wounded in the rocket strikes on Kharkiv, Interior Ministry adviser Anton Herashchenko said. He said the rubble was still being cleared and the death toll was expected to rise.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the attack on the city’s main square “frank, undisguised terror. Nobody will forgive. Nobody will forget. This attack on Kharkiv is a war crime.”
Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said Tuesday that his government remained under control but said the city is surrounded by Russian troops.
The Washington Post: Russian invasion escalates as massive convoy threatens Kyiv, Kharkiv ‘surrounded.’
The Washington Post: Satellite images show 40-mile convoy of Russian forces bearing down on Kyiv.
A massive convoy of Russian ground forces is wending its way closer to Kyiv, drawing within 20 miles of the center of the Ukrainian capital Monday, satellite images showed.
The line of Russian military vehicles stretched along the road for roughly 40 miles, far longer than initial estimates, according to the U.S. firm Maxar Technologies, which captured the photos Monday morning local time. The convoy includes armored vehicles, tanks and towed artillery, Maxar said, and it appears to be making steady progress along the war-scarred roads leading to Kyiv.
On Sunday, Maxar released images that showed the same group of Russian forces roughly 40 miles from the capital. The company’s analysts estimated then that the convoy was about three miles long but revised their assessment dramatically upward one day later, noting that cloud cover interfered with initial projections.
The convoy cuts a menacing figure through the countryside near Kyiv, but Ukrainian troops remained defiant Monday after weathering the most intense shelling since the invasion began, in the eastern city of Kharkiv.
The images come amid questions over whether Russian forces will use siege tactics against Kyiv, encircling the city, cutting off supplies and escape routes, and then moving in.
Russia is attempting to surround Kyiv, a senior U.S. defense official told The Washington Post on Monday, adding that Moscow has used siege tactics elsewhere in Ukraine, including in the northern city of Chernihiv and Kharkiv in the northeast. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence.
The possibility of such an attack on the capital city of nearly 3 million people adds to concerns that the death toll could increase significantly in the coming days. House lawmakers briefed Monday by senior Biden administration officials were told Ukraine has suffered 1,500 civilian and military casualties, according to two people in the briefing. It was unclear whether the count referred only to fatalities or included injuries. “It’s likely going to be very significant loss of life,” said Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.), who was born and raised in Ukraine.
So that’s the latest on the war front.
From the Politico piece:
[Fiona] Hill spent many years studying history, and in our conversation, she repeatedly traced how long arcs and trends of European history are converging on Ukraine right now. We are already, she said, in the middle of a third World War, whether we’ve fully grasped it or not.
“Sadly, we are treading back through old historical patterns that we said that we would never permit to happen again,” Hill told me.
Those old historical patterns include Western businesses who fail to see how they help build a tyrant’s war chest, admirers enamored of an autocrat’s “strength” and politicians’ tendency to point fingers inward for political gain instead of working together for their nation’s security.
But at the same time, Hill says it’s not too late to turn Putin back, and it’s a job not just for the Ukrainians or for NATO — it’s a job that ordinary Westerners and companies can assist in important ways once they grasp what’s at stake.
“Ukraine has become the front line in a struggle, not just between democracies and autocracies but in a struggle for maintaining a rules-based system in which the things that countries want are not taken by force,” Hill said. “Every country in the world should be paying close attention to this.”
There’s lots of danger ahead, she warned. Putin is increasingly operating emotionally and likely to use all the weapons at his disposal, including nuclear ones. It’s important not to have any illusions — but equally important not to lose hope.
“Every time you think, ’No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would,” Hill said. “And he wants us to know that, of course. It’s not that we should be intimidated and scared…. We have to prepare for those contingencies and figure out what is it that we’re going to do to head them off.”
Read the full interview at Politico. Also check out this piece by Mattathias Schwartz at Insider: ‘Putin might do the unthinkable’: Former intelligence chief warns that the conflict in Ukraine has increased the risk of nuclear war.
The US intelligence community has made evaluating Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state of mind a top priority in recent days as it seeks to establish how that is affecting his handling of the rapidly escalating Ukraine crisis, according to two sources familiar with the effort.
The efforts come as longtime Putin-watchers have publicly speculated that his behavior has become increasingly erratic and irrational. Since he launched Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last Wednesday, senior US officials have asked intelligence agencies to gather any new information they can on how the Russian leader is faring and how his mindset has been impacted by the unexpectedly unified and tough response from European neighbors and allies around the world.
The US intelligence community has spent decades decoding the former KGB officer, who has effectively ruled Russia since 1999. But while the United States has tremendous institutional knowledge of the man, it has a notoriously poor view into his day-to-day decision-making. The Kremlin remains what intelligence officials call a “hard target” — incredibly difficult to penetrate through traditional espionage.
There has not been any new comprehensive assessment that indicates a particular change to Putin’s overall health, said one US official. And officials have been on guard for the possibility that Putin’s strategy may well be to project instability, in an attempt to push the US and allies to give him what he wants for fear that he could do worse.
But the sudden burst of interest reflects a sense among some intelligence officials that Putin’s decision-making in Ukraine has been out of character — perhaps due to what some previous intelligence reports suggest has been protracted isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Everything US has [is] in [the] realm of conjecture because Putin’s decisions and statements don’t seem to be making sense,” said one source familiar with recent intelligence reporting on the topic. “For years, decades Putin has acted according to a pretty specific template.”
In a classified briefing for lawmakers on Monday evening, Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, said the US intelligence community does not have good insight into Putin’s state of mind, according to a lawmaker who was present.
One bit of good news:
Everything is in flux right now. What will today bring? What do you think?