Tuesday Reads: Ukraine and Other News

Good Morning!!

The war in Ukraine continues to be the top story in the news, but there are plenty of other things happening, so I hope you’ll forgive me if also I highlight non-Ukraine stories today.

Russia/Ukraine News

The New York Times: As Russia’s Military Stumbles, Its Adversaries Take Note.

CONSTANTA, Romania — When it comes to war, generals say that “mass matters.”

But nearly two weeks into President Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine — Europe’s largest land war since 1945 — the image of a Russian military as one that other countries should fear, let alone emulate, has been shattered.

Ukraine’s military, which is dwarfed by the Russian force in most ways, has somehow managed to stymie its opponent. Ukrainian soldiers have killed more than 3,000 Russian troops, according to conservative estimates by American officials.

Ukraine has shot down military transport planes carrying Russian paratroopers, downed helicopters and blown holes in Russia’s convoys using American anti-tank missiles and armed drones supplied by Turkey, these officials said, citing confidential U.S. intelligence assessments.

The Russian soldiers have been plagued by poor morale as well as fuel and food shortages. Some troops have crossed the border with MREs (meals ready to eat) that expired in 2002, U.S. and other Western officials said, and others have surrendered and sabotaged their own vehicles to avoid fighting.

To be sure, most military experts say that Russia will eventually subdue Ukraine’s army. Russia’s military, at 900,000 active duty troops and two million reservists, is eight times the size of Ukraine’s. Russia has advanced fighter planes, a formidable navy and marines capable of multiple amphibious landings, as they proved early in the invasion when they launched from the Black Sea and headed toward the city of Mariupol.

And the Western governments that have spoken openly about Russia’s military failings are eager to spread the word to help damage Russian morale and bolster the Ukrainians.

But with each day that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky holds out, the scenes of a frustrated Russia pounding, but not managing to finish off, a smaller opponent dominate screens around the world.

The result: Militaries in Europe that once feared Russia say they are not as intimidated by Russian ground forces as they were in the past.

Read all about it at the NYT.

Bloomberg: Morgan Stanley Says Russia’s Set for Venezuela-Style Default.

The odds of Russia making its foreign debt payments are diminishing as bond prices fall, recession in the nation looms and various payment restrictions pile up after the invasion of Ukraine, according to Morgan Stanley & Co.

“We see a default as the most likely scenario,” Simon Waever, the firm’s global head of emerging-market sovereign credit strategy, wrote in a Monday note. “In case of default, it is unlikely to be like a normal one, with Venezuela instead perhaps the most relevant comparison.”

The default may come as soon as April 15, which will mark the end of a 30-day grace period on coupon payments the Russian government owes on dollar bonds due in 2023 and 2043, he said.

Indicative pricing show investors value the 2023 bonds at around 29 cents on the U.S. dollar, the lowest ever, according to data collected by Bloomberg, though there appears to have been no trades at that level. In the days before Russia invaded Ukraine last month, the debt was trading above par.

While it is rare for sovereign debt to tumble to the single digits, Morgan Stanley said Russia’s bonds “could get close.” Lebanon and Venezuela are the only recent examples of a country’s debt slipping so low…..

JPMorgan Chase & Co. said on Monday it will remove Russian bonds from all of its widely-tracked indexes, further isolating the nation’s assets from global investors. Venezuela’s dollar bonds were also removed from the bank’s benchmark indexes in 2019 after sanctions curbed trading. 

More stories to check out, links only

The Guardian: Focus on Kyiv deadlock obscures Russia’s success in south Ukraine.

Isabelle Khurshudyan at The Washington Post: I always dreamed of visiting my ancestral home of Odessa. But not like this.

AP: People flee embattled Ukraine city, supplies head to another.

NPR: What the war in Syria tells us about Russia’s use of humanitarian corridors.

Bloomberg: U.S. and U.K. Poised for Ban on Imports of Russian Oil Today.

The Guardian: Ukraine-Russia crisis: ‘I left my husband behind at the border. My heart is broken’

The Guardian: Where in Europe are Ukraine’s refugees going?

US News and Analysis

The Atlantic’s Ed Yong reminds us that we’re still in the midst of a pandemic: How Did This Many Deaths Become Normal?

The united states reported more deaths from COVID-19 last Friday than deaths from Hurricane Katrina, more on any two recent weekdays than deaths during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more last month than deaths from flu in a bad season, and more in two years than deaths from HIV during the four decades of the AIDS epidemic. At least 953,000 Americans have died from COVID, and the true toll is likely even higher because many deaths went uncounted. COVID is now the third leading cause of death in the U.S., after only heart disease and cancer, which are both catchall terms for many distinct diseases. The sheer scale of the tragedy strains the moral imagination. On May 24, 2020, as the United States passed 100,000 recorded deaths, The New York Times filled its front page with the names of the dead, describing their loss as “incalculable.” Now the nation hurtles toward a milestone of 1 million. What is 10 times incalculable?

Many countries have been pummeled by the coronavirus, but few have fared as poorly as the U.S. Its death rate surpassed that of any other large, wealthy nation—especially during the recent Omicron surge. The Biden administration placed all its bets on a vaccine-focused strategy, rather than the multilayered protections that many experts called for, even as America lagged behind other wealthy countries in vaccinating (and boosting) its citizens—especially elderly people, who are most vulnerable to the virus. In a study of 29 high-income countries, the U.S. experienced the largest decline in life expectancy in 2020 and, unlike much of Europe, did not bounce back in 2021. It was also the only country whose lowered life span was driven mainly by deaths among people under 60. Dying from COVID robbed each American of, on average, nine years of life at the lowest end of estimates and 17 at the highest. As a whole, U.S. life expectancy fell by two years—the largest such decline in almost a century. Neither World War II nor any of the flu pandemics that followed it dented American longevity so badly.

Every American who died of COVID left an average of nine close relatives bereaved. Roughly 9 million people—3 percent of the population—now have a permanent hole in their world that was once filled by a parent, child, sibling, spouse, or grandparent. An estimated 149,000 children have lost a parent or caregiver. Many people were denied the familiar rituals of mourning—bedside goodbyes, in-person funerals. Others are grieving raw and recent losses, their grief trampled amid the stampede toward normal. “I’ve known multiple people who didn’t get to bury their parents or be with their families, and now are expected to go back to the grind of work,” says Steven Thrasher, a journalist and the author of The Viral Underclass, which looks at the interplay between inequalities and infectious diseases. “We’re not giving people the space individually or societally to mourn this huge thing that’s happened.

Read the rest at The Atlantic.

The Washington Post: Senate unanimously passes anti-lynching bill after century of failure.

The Senate on Monday unanimously passed legislation that would make lynching a federal hate crime, in a historic first that comes after more than a century of failed efforts to pass such a measure.

The Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which was introduced by Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) in the House and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) in the Senate, now goes to President Biden for his signature.

It is named for the 14-year-old Black boy whose brutal torture and murder in Mississippi in 1955 sparked the civil rights movement.

Booker said in a tweet Monday night that he was “overjoyed” by the legislation’s passage.

“The time is past due to reckon with this dark chapter in our history and I’m proud of the bipartisan support to pass this important piece of legislation,” he said.

In a statement, Rush called lynching “a long-standing and uniquely American weapon of racial terror that has for decades been used to maintain the white hierarchy.”

“Perpetrators of lynching got away with murder time and time again — in most cases, they were never even brought to trial. … Today, we correct this historic and abhorrent injustice,” he said.

The legislation would amend the U.S. Code to designate lynching a hate crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison. More than 4,000 people, mostly African Americans, were reported lynched in the United States from 1882 to 1968, in all but a handful of states. Ninety-nine percent of perpetrators escaped state or local punishment, according to Rush’s office.

Mark Joseph Stern at Slate: The Supreme Court Just Came Perilously Close to Blowing Up Federal Elections.

The Supreme Court will not overturn a century of pro-democracy precedent and two centuries of historical practice to give state legislatures unlimited power over elections—yet.

That’s the upshot of the court’s orders on Monday in two huge redistricting cases out of Pennsylvania and North Carolina. The court refused to block new congressional maps drawn by the high court of each state, declining—for now—to embrace a radical theory rejecting state courts’ authority over election law. In the process, however, four justices did endorse this theory, and three attempted to blow up North Carolina’s upcoming election in a dissent with terrifying implications for democracy. The court stepped back from the abyss, but the ensuing reprieve may not last for long.

Both of Monday’s orders involve this year’s redrawing of congressional maps. In Pennsylvania, the Republican-controlled legislature drew a GOP gerrymander, which the Democratic governor vetoed. Because of this impasse, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stepped in to draw new, fairer districts. In North Carolina, the Republican-controlled legislature drew a GOP gerrymander, which the Democratic governor could not veto under state law. Voters challenged the map under the state constitution, and in February, the state Supreme Court struck it down. The legislature drew a new map, which a trial court rejected and replaced with its own, fairer version.

Republicans appealed both court-draw maps to SCOTUS. They claimed that these plans violated the U.S. Constitution’s elections clause, which says that the “manner” of federal elections “shall be prescribed” by the “legislature.” For at least a century, SCOTUS has read this language to give other organs of state government a say in election law. But conservative scholars have devised a theory known as the “independent state legislature doctrine” that would give legislatures complete control over elections, including voting rules and redistricting. Under this theory, state constitutional provisions governing elections would be null and void, and state courts would have no power to intervene in election disputes. The legislature alone would set the rules—and, in extreme versions of the theory, even dictate the outcome of an election.

The Supreme Court has never endorsed this doctrine, and has explicitly rejected it as recently as 2015. There is a good reason why: It contradicts the original meaning of the elections clause as well as historical practice reaching back to the early days of the republic. A mountain of evidence proves that framers never intended to give states lone authority over federal elections, and instead expected state constitutions to impose substantive limits on election law. Exhaustive research demonstrates that—aside from a few opportunistic arguments raised by congressional partisans in the 19th century—state legislatures, state courts, federal courts, and Congress have all rejected the doctrine for more than two centuries.

And yet, for nearly two decades, the conservative legal movement, working alongside Republican politicians, has pushed relentlessly to enshrine this theory into law.

Scientific American: Millions of Palm-Sized, Flying Spiders Could Invade the East Coast.

New research, published Feb. 17 in the journal Physiological Entomology, suggests that the palm-sized Joro spider, which swarmed North Georgia by the millions last September, has a special resilience to the cold.

This has led scientists to suggest that the 3-inch (7.6 centimeters) bright-yellow-striped spiders — whose hatchlings disperse by fashioning web parachutes to fly as far as 100 miles (161 kilometers) — could soon dominate the Eastern Seaboard.

“People should try to learn to live with them,” lead author Andy Davis, a research scientist at the University of Georgia, said in a statement. “If they‘re literally in your way, I can see taking a web down and moving them to the side, but they‘re just going to be back next year.”

Since the spider hitchhiked its way to the northeast of Atlanta, Georgia, inside a shipping container in 2014, its numbers and range have expanded steadily across Georgia, culminating in an astonishing population boom last year that saw millions of the arachnids drape porches, power lines, mailboxes and vegetable patches across more than 25 state counties with webs as thick as 10 feet (3 meters) deep, Live Science previously reported.

Common to China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, the Joro spider is part of a group of spiders known as “orb weavers” because of their highly symmetrical, circular webs. The spider gets its name from Jorōgumo, a Japanese spirit, or Yōkai, that is said to disguise itself as a beautiful woman to prey upon gullible men.

True to its mythical reputation, the Joro spider is stunning to look at, with a large, round, jet-black body cut across with bright yellow stripes, and flecked on its underside with intense red markings. But despite its threatening appearance and its fearsome standing in folklore, the Joro spider‘s bite is rarely strong enough to break through the skin, and its venom poses no threat to humans, dogs or cats unless they are allergic.

Well, that’s a relief. Read more at Scientific American.

That’s a sampling of today’s news. Have a nice Tuesday, Sky Dancers!