Thursday Reads

Good Morning!!

Yesterday we learned of the tragic death of journalist Eric Boelert in a bicycle accident. He was only 57. This is such a terrible loss.

The Washington Post: Liberal media critic Eric Boehlert dies in bicycle collision.

Eric Boehlert, a liberal critic who offered blistering takedowns and analysis of mainstream and conservative media, died Monday in a bicycle collision in his New Jersey hometown. He was 57.

“Through his journalism, social media, books, and appearances on CNN and MSNBC, Eric was a fierce defender of democracy, social justice and truth in media,” Boehlert’s family said in a statement released Wednesday. “He was fearless and brilliant in his investigation of hypocrisies and double standards in the media, and his contribution was priceless.”

Boehlert’s wife, Tracy Breslin, told the Bergen Record her husband was the cyclist that N.J. Transit said was struck by a train on Monday night. The couple have two adult children.

News of Boehlert’s death provoked an outpouring of grief online from friends and fans of his media criticism, which started appearing in liberal publications such as Media Matters for America, Daily Kos and Salon in the mid 2000s, before he later became prominent on social media and cable news….

Boehlert covered the music industry for Rolling Stone and Billboard early in his career, before he turned his attention to media criticism. He contributed to the liberal media watchdog Media Matters for more than a decade starting in the mid-2000s and also worked as a senior writer for Salon and a media critic at Daily Kos. He took aim at both right-wing media and mainstream outlets for what he saw as their failings, and in early 2020 he started his own liberal newsletter called Press Run because, as he wrote, “we can’t fix America if we don’t fix the press.”

“When a radical White House player is eagerly chipping away at our freedoms and the Constitution, we need the press to stand up to the unprecedented challenge at hand — a press corps that doesn’t wallow in ‘Both Sides’ journalism as a way to escape the wrath from Republicans,” he wrote in February 2020.

There’s much more at the WaPo link.

It’s not clear yet how Boelert could have been hit by a train, but someone from NJ posted this on Twitter:

News from DC

This is a strange story and I suspect it will get even stranger. AP News: US: 2 posed as agents, gave gifts to Secret Service officers.

Federal prosecutors on Wednesday charged two men they say were posing as federal agents, giving free apartments and other gifts to U.S. Secret Service agents, including one who worked on the first lady’s security detail.

The two men — Arian Taherzadeh, 40, and Haider Ali, 36 — were taken into custody as more than a dozen FBI agents charged into a luxury apartment building in Southeast Washington on Wednesday evening.

Prosecutors allege Taherzadeh and Ali had falsely claimed to work for the Department of Homeland Security and work on a special task force investigating gang and violence connected to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. They allege the two posed as law enforcement officers to integrate with actual federal agents.

Taherzadeh is accused of providing Secret Service officers and agents with rent-free apartments — including a penthouse worth over $40,000 a year — along with iPhones, surveillance systems, a drone, flat screen television, a generator, gun case and other policing tools, according to court documents.

He also offered to let them use a black GMC SUV that he identified as an “official government vehicle,” prosecutors say. In one instance, Taherzadeh offered to purchase a $2,000 assault rifle for a Secret Service agent who is assigned to protect the first lady.

Prosecutors said four Secret Service employees were placed on leave earlier this week as part of the investigation.

The First Lady?! Is anyone making sure the Biden’s are really being protected? I hope so.

More from The Washington Post: 2 men accused of posing as federal officers to get near Secret Service.

The charges against Ali and Taherzadeh were made public as FBI personnel were seen in the Navy Yard area Wednesday night and were photographed on social media going into an apartment building. In a statement, the FBI said personnel were conducting “court authorized law enforcement activity” in the 900 block of First Street SE.

The investigation into the pair began March 14 when a U.S. Postal Service inspector went to a D.C. apartment complex to respond to a complaint of an assault on a letter carrier at the building, where many people who work for the FBI, Secret Service, Department of Defense and Navy live. Residents told the inspector that Ali and Taherzadeh identified themselves to residents as Department of Homeland Security investigations special agents who may have witnessed the assault, the affidavit said.

They claimed they were “special police” officers involved in undercover gang-related investigations and probes related to the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, the affidavit states. Other residents told the inspector the men used several apartments in the building, claiming the Department of Homeland Security paid the rent, and used an SUV equipped with emergency lights they identified as “their official DHS vehicle.”

The inspector learned the men were in contact with several members of the Secret Service and had provided gifts to them or their families and use of the SUV, the affidavit states. The document did not explain how the inspector learned about the gifts.

The affidavit included photos of the men in police tactical gear with “POLICE” emblazoned on their clothing. And in one instance, Taherzadeh sent a stock photo from the Internet to one witness and claimed to be in Homeland Security Investigations training, investigators alleged.

And who were these guys working for? Was it a foreign country? I guess we’ll be learning more in the days to come.

The Washington Post: House votes to hold ex-Trump aides Navarro, Scavino in contempt of Congress.

The House voted Wednesday to hold two former aides to President Donald Trump in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with subpoenas related to the investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.

The 220-to-203 vote results in criminal referrals to the Justice Department, which will decide whether to charge former trade and manufacturing director Peter Navarro and former White House communications chief Daniel Scavino Jr. with misdemeanors that can result in up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $100,000.

During Wednesday’s floor debate, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, said Navarro and Scavino “must be held accountable for their defiance of the law.”

“Even if you do it on your own time, trying to overturn an election is still trying to overturn an election,” Thompson said, adding: “This kind of cynical behavior as we investigate a violent insurrection is just despicable. It can’t stand. Dan Scavino and Peter Navarro must be held accountable for their abuses of the public trust.”

Republicans countered by accusing Democrats of targeting their political opponents — despite the bipartisan nature of the Jan. 6 select committee.

A bit of comic relief:

The Daily Beast: Congresswoman Who Downplayed the Capitol Riot Is Very Concerned About a Slap Joke.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) downplayed the violence at the Capitol, voted against awarding congressional medals to Capitol Police officers injured in the insurrection, and ranted that the agency is like the “gazpacho” (presumably a reference to Nazi Germany’s Gestapo). But now she wants to them to devote resources to investigating comedian Jimmy Kimmel’s joke that Will Smith should slap her. “[T]his threat of violence against me by @jimmykimmel has been filed with the @CapitolPolice,” she tweeted Wednesday. Greene has, among other things, harassed a school shooting survivor, posted a mock-up pic of her holding a machine gun near lawmakers’ heads, and liked a Facebook post about executing Democrats.

Ukraine News and Commentary

The Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany’s foreign intelligence service, has acquired gruesome new insights into the atrocities committed by Russian military forces in the town of Bucha near the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. DER SPIEGEL has learned that the BND intercepted Russian military radio traffic in which the murder of civilians in Bucha was discussed. Some of the intercepted radio traffic can apparently be directly linked to dead bodies that have been photographed in Bucha.

Following the withdrawal of the Russian military from the town over the weekend, a mass grave was discovered as well as the bodies of several dozen dead civilians left lying on the streets. The hands of some of the victims had been tied, while other bodies showed signs of torture. Numerous women and children are also reportedly among the victims.

The Russian government has vehemently denied that Russian forces are responsible for these war crimes. Several – completely unsubstantiated – claims have been made that the alleged war crimes have been staged by Ukraine. Those claims, however, are contradicted by the statements of numerous witnesses interviewed by reporters from DER SPIEGEL and other news outlets in the town of Bucha.

The intercepted comments now appear to completely refute Russia’s denials. DER SPIEGEL has learned that the BND briefed parliamentarians on Wednesday about its findings. Some of the intercepted traffic apparently matches the locations of bodies found along the main road through town. In one of them, a soldier apparently told another that they had just shot a person on a bicycle. That corresponds to the photo of the dead body lying next to a bicycle that has been shared around the world. In another intercepted conversation, a man apparently said: First you interrogate soldiers, then you shoot them.

Read more at the link.

The Washington Post: In Bucha, the scope of Russian barbarity is coming into focus.

BUCHA, Ukraine — The name of this city is already synonymous with the month-long carnage that Russian soldiers perpetrated here.

But the scale of the killings and the depravity with which they were committed is only just becoming apparent as police, local officials and regular citizens start the grim task of clearing Bucha of the hundreds of corpses decomposing on streets and in parks, apartment buildings and other locations.

As a team from the district prosecutor’s office moved slowly through Bucha on Wednesday, investigators uncovered evidence of torture before death, beheading and dismemberment, and the intentional burning of corpses.

Some of the cruelest violence took place at a glass factory on the edge of town.

On the gravel near a loading dock lay the body of Dmytro Chaplyhin, 21, whose abdomen was bruised black and blue, his hands marked with what looked like cigarette burns. He ultimately was killed by a gunshot to the chest, concluded team leader Ruslan Kravchenko. His body then was turned into a weapon, tied to a tripwire connected to a mine.

If you can stand to read more, click the link above.

Timothy Snyder at The Washington Post: By denying a Ukrainian culture, Putin flattens his own.

In his 1926 poem “Debt to Ukraine,” Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote: “It’s hard to crush people into one. Don’t raise yourself so high.” After all, the poet continued: “Do we know the Ukrainian night? No, we do not know the Ukrainian night.” But Vladimir Putin wants to crush people into one. He says God told him that Ukrainian souls are Russian. History revealed to him that Ukraine strives to be one with Russia; the very language he speaks entitles him to invade any country where Russian is spoken. An official Russian news service removed any ambiguity a few days ago, publishing a text advocating the complete elimination of the Ukrainian nation as such. And so Ukraine must be crushed, and anyone who thinks or speaks of Ukraine must be eliminated.

By way of these deep misunderstandings, Putin has placed the Ukrainian nation at the center of world history, for everyone to see. A Ukrainian actor, Volodymyr Zelensky, is now one of the most recognizable people on Earth. Putin’s invasion made visible not only that courageous, democratically elected president but also functional institutions, an impressive civil society, and journalists, activists and musicians who appear on our television screens and in our newspapers.

Matters are murkier in Putin’s Russia. A war based upon a big lie is also hard on its culture of origin. Everyone is looking at the Russian nation — or perhaps, rather, for it. What does it do to a society to invade a neighbor, which it claims to love, on the basis of bottomless self-deception? Americans have not yet recovered from the lies they told about Iraq two decades ago, and the Russian deception campaign runs far deeper. How are Russian parents altered when they deny to their children in Ukraine that any war is taking place? What sort of nation makes war and then forbids the use of the very word?

This is Putin’s war, but it is far too simple to say that it is only his war. It is made in the name of Russia, and the killing and maiming and abducting and deporting of Ukrainians are being done by tens of thousands of Russian citizens. As north-central Ukraine is liberated by its own citizens, hundreds of corpses of Ukrainian civilians are found in Bucha and other towns, in positions that suggest atrocities including rape, torture and execution. “This is how the Russian state will now be perceived,” Zelensky said. “Your culture and human appearance perished together with the Ukrainian men and women to whom you came.” Massacres seem to be a normal Russian occupation practice. Even as Russians are committing war crimes that violate Ukraine’s right to exist, Russians are told (and often seem to believe) that they are refighting the Second World War and resisting Nazis. That is a very big lie, and big lies do lasting damage.

I’ll end there. I’m grateful to live in a country that isn’t at war right now. Have a peaceful Thursday, Sky Dancers.

J


Tuesday Reads: Putin’s War and His GOP Fans

Good Afternoon!!

Aliza Nisenbaum

By Aliza Nisenbaum

It’s really difficult reading the news these days, between Putin’s genocidal attack in Ukraine and the Republicans’ attempts to end democracy here at home.

Last night I took a break from the cable news shows and watched the University of Kansas beat North Carolina in the NCAA basketball championship game. It turned out to be really exciting. K.U. was down 16 points at the end of the first half, but came back to win 72-69. It was a battle to the finish and fun to watch, so I’m glad I took a break from politics and war news.

I spent my early childhood years in Lawrence, Kansas, where my Dad was working on his Ph.D. I still have happy memories of those years and of the K.U. campus. When we moved away, I was heartbroken. In those days Wilt Chamberlain played for the Jayhawks before he decided to go pro after his junior year. Anyway, our family always rooted for K.U. in basketball for sentimental reasons.

Now on to today’s Ukraine war news.

This morning, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to the UN about Russian atrocities and Russia’s ludicrous claims that the torture and murders of Ukrainian citizens were committed by Ukrainians themselves: Yahoo News: Zelensky: Russia ‘will try to hide the traces of their crimes.’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused the Russian military of plotting to cover up the mass killing of his country’s civilians in a bid to “distort the facts.”

Speaking in an emotional address to the nation in the early hours of Tuesday morning, Zelensky warned that Kremlin-led forces were attempting to hide the atrocities that were committed in the areas still occupied by Moscow. His speech comes days after hundreds of Ukrainian civilians were reportedly found dead in Kyiv suburbs like Bucha in the aftermath of the recent withdrawal of Russian troops in the region.

In his 10-minute speech, Zelensky accused Russia of using the same propaganda tactics it used when a Malaysia Airlines passenger flight was shot down in 2014 over eastern Ukraine. An independent Dutch investigation found that Russian-backed rebels downed the plane with a surface-to-air missile, killing 298 people. Russia blamed the Ukrainian government for the tragedy.

Berthe Morisot, Girl Playing a Mandolin

Berthe Morisot, Girl Playing a Mandolin

“They used the same tactics when the occupiers shot down a Malaysian Boeing over Donbas,” Zelensky said. “They blamed Ukraine. They even came up with various conspiracy theories. They even went so far as to claim that the corpses were ‘thrown’ on board the plane before it crashed.”

Zelensky made his comments undoubtedly aware that the Russian government is already promoting implausible theories to explain the images and video of bodies littering the streets of Bucha. The Russian Defense Ministry suggested that some of the dead civilians were actually actors pretending to be dead, claiming that the video shows the bodies still moving. Independent media fact checkers and satellite images contradict Russia’s claims; the many journalists documenting the aftermath of the killings also undermine Russia’s case.

This is reminiscent of the conspiracy nuts here in the U.S. who claimed that victims of the Boston bombing were “crisis actors,” and the entire event was staged by the government. They made similar claims about the horrific murders of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Did they get their ideas from Russian propaganda?

You can read Zelensky’s response to the Russian lies at his official website: There is ample evidence that it is Russian troops who destroy peaceful cities, torture and kill civilians – address by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Yesterday The New York Times published an analysis of satellite images that disprove Russia’s ugly lies: Satellite images show bodies lay in Bucha for weeks, despite Russian claims.

When images emerged over the weekend of the bodies of dead civilians lying on the streets of Bucha — some with their hands bound, some with gunshot wounds to the head — Russia’s Ministry of Defense denied responsibility. In a Telegram post on Sunday, the ministry suggested that the bodies had been recently placed on the streets after “all Russian units withdrew completely from Bucha” around March 30.

Russia claimed that the images were “another hoax” and called for an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting on what it called “provocations of Ukrainian radicals” in Bucha.

Girlfriends-1916-1917, Gustav Klimt

Girlfriends, 1916-1917, Gustav Klimt

But a review of videos and satellite imagery by The Times shows that many of the civilians were killed more than three weeks ago, when Russia’s military was in control of the town.

One video filmed by a local council member on April 1 shows multiple bodies scattered along Yablonska Street in Bucha. Satellite images provided to The Timtes by Maxar Technologies show that at least 11 of those had been on the street since March 11, when Russia, by its own account, occupied the town.

To confirm when the bodies appeared, and when the civilians were likely killed, the Visual Investigations team at The Times conducted a before-and-after analysis of satellite imagery. The images show dark objects of similar size to a human body appearing on Yablonska Street between March 9 and March 11. The objects appear in the precise positions in which the bodies were found after Ukrainian forces reclaimed Bucha, as the footage from April 1 shows. Further analysis shows that the objects remained in those position for over three weeks.

Read more at the NYT link.

Bloomberg on the latest sanctions on Russia: Russia’s Effort to Avoid Default Undermined by New U.S. Sanction.

Russia’s efforts to avoid a sovereign default took another blow after the U.S. Treasury halted dollar debt payments from the country’s accounts at U.S. banks.

The decision further complicates Russia’s attempts to keep meeting debt obligations amid the sanctions imposed after it invaded Ukraine. As the government tries to sidestep its first external default in about a century, those restrictions have hampered and delayed the process of transferring money to bond holders.

Friedrich von Amerling, The Young Eastern Woman

Friedrich von Amerling, The Young Eastern Woman

Other governments are also planning tougher sanctions after allegations that Russian troops massacred civilians in Bucha and other Ukrainian towns. The European Union is proposing to ban coal imports from Russia, which would be a major step-up for a region that’s so far shied away from targeting energy flows crucial to the bloc’s economy.

The U.S. announcement is intended to force Russia into either draining its domestic dollar reserves or spending new revenue to make bond payments, or else go into default, according to a spokesperson for the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, who discussed details on condition of anonymity.

“Clearly this latest announcement by the U.S. Treasury is designed to put additional pressure on the Russians,” said Gary Kirk, a portfolio manager at TwentyFour Asset Management. “The alternative payment methods are significantly more punitive and more challenging for Russia and hence it does increase the chances of a technical default.”

More Ukraine war stories:

The Washington Post: Ukrainian villagers describe cruel and brutal Russian occupation.

Cathy Young at The Bulwark: The Bucha Atrocities and the Kremlin Apologists.

BBC: Ukraine war: Biden calls for Putin to face war crimes trial after Bucha killings.

CNBC: U.S. warns Russia will intensify its military operations in Ukraine after weeks of stalled ground fighting.

Walter Russell Mead at The Wall Street Journal: Biden’s Ugly Options in Ukraine.

Republican authoritarians and Russia sympathizers

Catherine Rampell at The Washington Post: This Republican about-face is so much worse than ‘cancel culture.’

The GOP no longer argues that free markets, rather than government, should choose “winners and losers.”

In today’s Republican Party, the primary economic role of the state is not to get out of the way. It is, instead, to reward friends and crush political enemies.

Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham expressed the new ethos in a recent monologue threatening companies that advocated for LGBTQ rights, ballot access, racial justice and sundry other political stances that are anathema in today’s GOP.

“When Republicans, they get back into power, Apple and Disney need to understand one thing: Everything will be on the table,” Ingraham warned. “Your copyright, trademark protection. Your special status within certain states. And even your corporate structure itself. The antitrust division at Justice needs to begin the process of considering which American companies need to be broken up once and for all for competition’s sake, and ultimately for the good of the consumers who pay the bills.”

This might have been an unusually eloquent articulation of Republicans’ punitive new approach to economic policy, but it is hardly unique to Ingraham.

A Romance by Santiago Rusinol

A Romance by Santiago Rusinol

A bit more:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is furious that Disney has publicly criticized his new law prohibiting classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity (nicknamed the “Don’t Say Gay” law); beyond using his bully pulpit to rail against Disney’s supposed indecency, he has threatened to cancel Disney’s half-century-old special status under Florida law that enables the company to effectively govern itself on the grounds of its theme parks. Similarly, last year, DeSantis signed a (likely unconstitutional) law to punish tech companies for privately determined content-moderation decisions, and another law that fines private companies that attempt to set vaccination requirements in their workplaces.

In other states, such as Georgia, GOP politicians have punished private companies for taking supposedly “woke” stands on issues such as gun violence. Republicans in Congress have likewise tried to use antitrust enforcement and other government levers to punish companies whose public stances on voting rights or internal policies on content moderation they dislike.

This approach to governance was expertly modeled by Donald Trump, who as president frequently used the power of the state to reward friends and punish perceived political enemies.

He did this through tax law, tariff policy and other proposed subsidies that chose winners and losers according to their political allegiances. He selectively enforced energy policies, such as allowing offshore drilling, to dole out favors to friends.

Another interesting read by Aaron Rupar about how DeSantis is following Trump’s example. In the article, Rupar interviews authoritarianism expert Ruth Ben-Ghiat. An authoritarianism scholar on DeSantis as “the ultimate agent for the normalization of extremism.”

DeSantis rode the Trump cult of personality to the Florida governor’s mansion in 2018, but he’s since forged his own brand of right-wing demagoguery. Last Friday, he was on Fox & Friends, which has celebrated him for the stands he’s taken against public health regulations to combat Covid, against the LGBT community, and against liberalism in general….

Henry Meynell Rheam, 1859-1920

By Henry Meynell Rheam, 1859-1920

More importantly, DeSantis’s Fox & Friends appearance gave him a platform to rail against Disney, Florida’s largest employer, for publicly speaking out against “Don’t Say Gay” legislation he signed into law that allows parents to sue teachers who bring up gender or sexual orientation in K-3 classrooms.

“This wokeness will destroy our country,” DeSantis declared.

Florida has a large LGBT population and Disney is a major economic driver for the state, so from one standpoint DeSantis picking a fight with Mickey Mouse doesn’t seem to make much sense. But he has his reasons. To better understand them, I reached out to Ruth Ben-Ghiat, an expert on authoritarianism and professor of history and Italian studies at NYU.

Ben-Ghiat has written about how DeSantis is following in Trump’s authoritarian footsteps for both CNN and MSNBC. Last month, she wrote on her blog (“Lucid”) about how he’s turning Florida “into his own mini-autocracy.”

“DeSantis is a particularly dangerous individual,” she wrote. “He may be up for re-election as governor in Florida, but he has designs on the White House as soon as two years from now. It’s not hard to see what he is doing in Florida as a rehearsal for illiberalism on a national scale.”

Read the interview at the link.

William Saletan at The Bulwark: Who’s Soft on Russia? Meet the Republican Anti-Ukraine Caucus!

After years of defending a pro-Putin American president and dismissing Russia’s interference in American elections, Republicans have returned to their old shtick: accusing Democrats of being soft on Russia. Their hypocrisy is galling, but the bigger problem is that their depiction of the two parties is backward. In polls, Republicans are more dovish on Russia and Ukraine than Democrats are. And in Congress, the purveyors of isolationism, appeasement, and Russian propaganda are on the right, not the left.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the House of Representatives has voted on three measures specific to the war. The first vote, taken on March 2, was on a resolution that endorsed sanctions against Russia, reaffirmed Ukrainian sovereignty over territory seized by Russia, advocated military aid to Ukraine, and pledged to support the Ukrainian resistance. All six members of the progressive “Squad”—Reps. Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib—voted for the resolution. So did Rep. Barbara Lee, the Democrats’ foremost opponent of military spending. Not one Democrat voted against the resolution. But three Republicans did: Reps. Paul Gosar, Thomas Massie, and Matt Rosendale.

La Musique, Henri Matisse

La Musique, Henri Matisse

On March 9, the House passed a bill to suspend oil and gas imports from Russia. Five of the seven Democratic leftists voted for the suspension. The two who voted against it—Bush and Omar—were joined by 15 Republicans who also voted no. In addition to Gosar and Massie, this time the list included Reps. Andy Biggs, Dan Bishop, Lauren Boebert, Madison Cawthorn, Scott DesJarlais, Matt Gaetz, Louie Gohmert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Glenn Grothman, Clay Higgins, Bill Posey, Chip Roy, and Tom Tiffany.On March 17, the House passed a bill to end favorable trade relations with Russia and its accomplice in the war, Belarus. Eight Republicans voted against the bill. Every Democrat, including the seven leftists, voted for it.

Several Republicans have gone further. Cawthorn and Gosar are pushing legislation that would prohibit the U.S. military from deploying “by reason of the situation in Ukraine” any more troops than are stationed at the Mexican border. No sensible military planner would want more troops guarding a friendly border than deterring an imminent threat to our most important alliance, but that’s what this bill would do: It would block deployments to NATO countries in Eastern Europe. It’s a gift to Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, 10 Republicans have signed on to a bill that would bar any delivery of military aid to Ukraine until “a border wall system along the United States-Mexico border is completed.” The cosponsors include Reps. Bob Good, Jody Hice, Mary Miller, Ralph Norman, and Randy Weber. (Don’t bother trying to square this demand with Trump’s insistence that he has basically built the wall, except for a couple of tiny spots.)

That’s all I have for you today. Please let me know what you think, and feel free to use the comments to discuss any topics that interest you.


Thursday Reads

By Ukranian artist Eugenia Gapchinska

By Ukranian artist Eugenia Gapchinska

Good Morning!!

I’ve been in emotional protection mode for the past few days. Following the Ukraine coverage is so exhausting. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like for the people who are living through the nightmare of Putin’s deliberate horrific attacks on civilians in Ukrainian cities.

Here are two stories about the horrors happening in Mariupol. After that I’ll try to focus on more positive news.

The city of Mariupol has been particularly devastated, as shown in this shocking AP article that I forced myself to read yesterday: Why? Why? Why? Ukraine’s Mariupol Descends into Despair.

MARIUPOL, Ukraine (AP) — The bodies of the children all lie here, dumped into this narrow trench hastily dug into the frozen earth of Mariupol to the constant drumbeat of shelling.

There’s 18-month-old Kirill, whose shrapnel wound to the head proved too much for his little toddler’s body. There’s 16-year-old Iliya, whose legs were blown up in an explosion during a soccer game at a school field. There’s the girl no older than 6 who wore the pajamas with cartoon unicorns, among the first of Mariupol’s children to die from a Russian shell.

They are stacked together with dozens of others in this mass grave on the outskirts of the city. A man covered in a bright blue tarp, weighed down by stones at the crumbling curb. A woman wrapped in a red and gold bedsheet, her legs neatly bound at the ankles with a scrap of white fabric. Workers toss the bodies in as fast as they can, because the less time they spend in the open, the better their own chances of survival.

“The only thing (I want) is for this to be finished,” raged worker Volodymyr Bykovskyi, pulling crinkling black body bags from a truck. “Damn them all, those people who started this!”

More bodies will come, from streets where they are everywhere and from the hospital basement where adults and children are laid out awaiting someone to pick them up. The youngest still has an umbilical stump attached.

Each airstrike and shell that relentlessly pounds Mariupol — about one a minute at times — drives home the curse of a geography that has put the city squarely in the path of Russia’s domination of Ukraine. This southern seaport of 430,000 has become a symbol of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s drive to crush democratic Ukraine — but also of a fierce resistance on the ground.

Yesterday, Russia deliberately bombed a theater where hundreds of civilians, including many women and children, were sheltering. The location was clearly marked as such.

The Guardian: Search for survivors after airstrike hits Mariupol theatre sheltering civilians.

Authorities in the besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol are clearing the rubble of a theatre hit by a Russian airstrike to search for people who had been sheltering in the basement.

According to local officials, hundreds of people were hiding beneath the theatre, which was designated as a shelter for displaced civilians, including children and elderly people, when it was struck on Wednesday.

The shelter withstood the strike and some people managed to escape, said the former governor of the Donetsk region, Sergiy Taruta, who did not provide details.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the Donetsk regional administration, said on Telegram that the number of casualties was unclear.

A satellite photograph from Monday, released on Wednesday by Maxar Technologies, showed the word “children” in large Russian script painted on the ground outside the red-roofed theatre building.

A photo released by Mariupol’s city council showed a section of the three-storey theatre had collapsed, with rubble burying the entrance to the shelter inside.

There’s more:

Kyrylenko said Russian airstrikes also hit a municipal swimming pool complex in Mariupol, where civilians had been sheltering. “Now there are pregnant women and women with children under the rubble there,” he wrote. The number of casualties was not immediately known.

A witness who posted a video of the aftermath of the attack said the pool had been destroyed and efforts were under way to rescue a pregnant woman trapped in the rubble.

Moscow denies targeting civilians, and Russia’s defence ministry denied bombing the theatre or anywhere else in Mariupol on Wednesday.

The Russians have prevented humanitarian aid from reaching the city and people are running out of food and melting snow for water.

Slightly more upbeat news from Ukraine

Today the Wall Street Journal has a report from a town that successfully fought off the Russian forces: A Ukrainian Town Deals Russia One of the War’s Most Decisive Routs.

VOZNESENSK, Ukraine—A Kalashnikov rifle slung over his shoulder, Voznesensk’s funeral director, Mykhailo Sokurenko, spent this Tuesday driving through fields and forests, picking up dead Russian soldiers and taking them to a freezer railway car piled with Russian bodies—the casualties of one of the most comprehensive routs President Vladimir Putin’s forces have suffered since he ordered the invasion of Ukraine.

A rapid Russian advance into the strategic southern town of 35,000 people, a gateway to a Ukrainian nuclear power station and pathway to attack Odessa from the back, would have showcased the Russian military’s abilities and severed Ukraine’s key communications lines.

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By Eugenia Capchinska

Instead, the two-day battle of Voznesensk, details of which are only now emerging, turned decisively against the Russians. Judging from the destroyed and abandoned armor, Ukrainian forces, which comprised local volunteers and the professional military, eliminated most of a Russian battalion tactical group on March 2 and 3.

The Ukrainian defenders’ performance against a much-better-armed enemy in an overwhelmingly Russian-speaking region was successful in part because of widespread popular support for the Ukrainian cause—one reason the Russian invasion across the country has failed to achieve its principal goals so far. Ukraine on Wednesday said it was launching a counteroffensive on several fronts.

“Everyone is united against the common enemy,” said Voznesensk’s 32-year-old mayor, Yevheni Velichko, a former real-estate developer turned wartime commander, who, like other local officials, moves around with a gun. “We are defending our own land. We are at home.” [….]

Russian survivors of the Voznesensk battle left behind nearly 30 of their 43 vehicles—tanks, armored personnel carriers, multiple-rocket launchers, trucks—as well as a downed Mi-24 attack helicopter, according to Ukrainian officials in the city. The helicopter’s remnants and some pieces of burned-out Russian armor were still scattered around Voznesensk on Tuesday.

Russian forces retreated more than 40 miles to the southeast, where other Ukrainian units have continued pounding them. Some dispersed in nearby forests, where local officials said 10 soldiers have been captured.

Here’s a story with a happy ending from The Daily Mail: Incredible moment: boy, 11, who journeyed 600 miles ALONE across Ukraine to Slovakia with just a phone number written on his hand is reunited with his mother.

An 11-year-old boy who braved the 600-mile journey from southeastern Ukraine to the Slovakian border by himself has been reunited with his mother.

Hassan Pisecká crossed the country with only a plastic bag, passport, and telephone number scribbled on his hand, in a story that won the hearts of people from around the world.

His mother Júlia Pisecká, a widow, remained in their hometown of Zaporizhzhia, where Russian troops struck a nuclear power plant in early March, to continue caring for her elderly and immobile mother who was unable to flee.

On reaching the border, Hassan’s ‘smile, fearlessness and determination’ won over officials who helped him cross into Slovakia. They contacted his relatives in the country using the phone number and a note that was tied to his waist.

He was reunited with his mother, grandmother and dog in Slovakia this week as the family wanted ‘to thank everyone from my heart’ for their help getting the family, who fled the war in Syria several years ago, back together.

Júlia said the train ride out of Ukraine ‘was very difficult’ but ‘we had to escape so our family could be back together’ as she admitted ‘we have to start from scratch. We lost everything we’ve had but we’re healthy.’

The New York Times on Russia’s reluctant troops: As Russian Troop Deaths Climb, Morale Becomes an Issue, Officials Say.

In 36 days of fighting on Iwo Jima during World War II, nearly 7,000 Marines were killed. Now, 20 days after President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia invaded Ukraine, his military has already lost more soldiers, according to American intelligence estimates.

The conservative side of the estimate, at more than 7,000 Russian troop deaths, is greater than the number of American troops killed over 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

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By Eugenia Gapchinska

It is a staggering number amassed in just three weeks of fighting, American officials say, with implications for the combat effectiveness of Russian units, including soldiers in tank formations. Pentagon officials say a 10 percent casualty rate, including dead and wounded, for a single unit renders it unable to carry out combat-related tasks.

With more than 150,000 Russian troops now involved in the war in Ukraine, Russian casualties, when including the estimated 14,000 to 21,000 injured, are near that level. And the Russian military has also lost at least three generals in the fight, according to Ukrainian, NATO and Russian officials.

Pentagon officials say that a high, and rising, number of war dead can destroy the will to continue fighting. The result, they say, has shown up in intelligence reports that senior officials in the Biden administration read every day: One recent report focused on low morale among Russian troops and described soldiers just parking their vehicles and walking off into the woods.

Read the rest at the NYT.

Yesterday, President Biden announced that the U.S. will send more military aid to Ukraine. The New York Times: U.S. Adds ‘Kamikaze Drones’ as More Weapons Flow to Ukraine.

The Biden administration will provide Ukraine with additional high-tech defensive weapons that are easily portable and require little training to use against Russian tanks, armored vehicles and aircraft, according to U.S. and European officials.

In remarks on Wednesday, President Biden announced $800 million in new military aid for Ukraine, including 800 additional Stinger antiaircraft missiles, 9,000 antitank weapons, 100 tactical drones and a range of small arms including machine guns and grenade launchers.

The Ukrainians have already proved their prowess at using British-provided and American-made antitank weaponry against Russia’s much larger military. But in an impassioned speech to Congress on Wednesday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine asked for additional help as Russian troops pushed to encircle major cities.

U.S. and European officials want to send more equipment that is easy to use by small teams, and that has technology that can overcome Russian defenses or exploit weaknesses — rather than offensive weapons like tanks and warplanes that require significant logistical support….

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By Eugenia Gapchinska

As part of the package, the Biden administration will provide Switchblade drones, according to people briefed on the plans. Military officials call the weapon, which is carried in a backpack, the “kamikaze drone” because it can be flown directly at a tank or a group of troops, and is destroyed when it hits the target and explodes.

“These were designed for U.S. Special Operations Command and are exactly the type of weapons systems that can have an immediate impact on the battlefield,” said Mick Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

Bigger, armed drones, like U.S.-made Predators or Reapers, would be difficult for Ukrainians to fly and would be easily destroyed by Russian fighter planes. But former officials said small, portable kamikaze drones could prove to be a cost-effective way to destroy Russian armored convoys.

Read more at the link.

More stories to check out today

Anne Applebaum at The Atlantic: America Needs a Better Plan to Fight Autocracy.

Gillian Tett at Financial Times: Why I should have listened to Garry Kasparov about Putin.

CNN Business: 4 ways China is quietly making life harder for Russia.

CNN Business: Russia says it made a payment to avoid default.

BBC News: Russia’s state TV hit by stream of resignations.

The Guardian: Trump White House aide was secret author of report used to push ‘big lie’

Thom Hartmann at Raw Story: 40 years of the Reagan revolution’s libertarian experiment have brought us crisis and chaos.

NBC News: Brittney Griner’s detention extended until May, Russian news agency says.

Have a peaceful Thursday everyone. I’m going to focus on self-care today as much as I can. I won’t be able to tear myself away from the Ukraine news entirely, but I’m going to take breaks.


Lazy Caturday Reads

Good Afternoon!!

Ivan Kolisnyk, A Drowsy Cat

Ivan Kolisnyk, A Drowsy Cat

The war in Ukraine continues, and although the Ukrainian military is fighting valiantly and the Russians are struggling, the bad guys are likely to win in the end. IMHO, the U.S. and NATO need to do more to help Ukraine. I’ll offer some serious reads on the situation, but first a little furry break from the madness.

From March 2 at My Modern Met: Devoted Ukrainian Cat Cafe Is Staying Open to Care For 20 Kitties During the War.

Cat cafes are a purrfect way to enjoy the company of felines while you sip a tasty drink. The beloved Cat Cafe Lviv is no exception. It’s been open for six years and the small team in Lviv, Ukraine, is devoted to its 20 furry residents. So devoted, in fact, that owner Serhii Oliinyk is choosing to stay at the cafe despite the Russian invasion in his country.

“Our cats have been living in [the] cat cafe since the age of 4 months,” Oliinyk explained. “They are like family. We realized that we would never leave our country, that this was the only place where we could see ourselves in the future.”

Cat Cafe Lviv is open (according to its Facebook page) and is dedicated to providing a safe space for people to stop by and see the kitties who reside there. Hopefully, the cats’ presence and purrs offer a momentary reprieve to the stark realities of what’s going on just beyond the walls.

“We currently have fewer regular visitors, but there are people who have come from other cities and need hot food and positive emotions,” Oliinyk said. “There are three large rooms in our cafe, two of which are located in the basement, so in case of an air raid warning, there is a safe shelter for our guests and cats.”

If you would like to support Cat Cafe Lviv during this time, it has detailed how you can donate money, 50% of which goes to the Ukrainian army.

Click the link to view charming photos of the cats.

From March 2 at Slate: Why the Internet Is Obsessed With the Cats and Dogs of Ukraine.

Alongside images of destruction and resistance, the visual story of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has included a fair bit of cats and dogs. The Albanian Times shared a story of Ukrainian soldiers taking in a puppy left in the cold. Facebook posts tout soldiers cuddling cats and show families refusing to leave their pets behind as they flee. Famed Twitter Maine coon Lorenzo the Cat shared the story of Aleksandra Polischuk, a breeder of sphinx cats who was killed when her home was destroyed. And of course, Twitter couldn’t help but go aww at the photos of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his dogs.

Kateryna Zavadska, Cool cat painting

Kateryna Zavadska, Cool cat

It would be easy to position cat and dog content in a warzone as contradictory to conflict. But pet and animal content aren’t the opposite of war—they’re a part of it. Every pet image coming out of Ukraine right now shows a human impacted by the war in some way. In the above-listed examples, every story of a rescued dog or a cuddling cat was bookended by the actions of people.

Animals remind us of our own humanity, and they can be stark reminders of the human face of geopolitical strife. These cat and dog images coming out of Ukraine remind us, paradoxically, that there are real, individual people on the frontlines. There are real, individual people whose lives are forever changed by this aggression. These aren’t just images of animals in conflict, but reminders of the humans who take care of them and fight on the ground.

It is no accident that we flock to cat content online. It is also not a coincidence that these stories of pets and animal in war circulate widely on the internet. The internet is an ideal space for this type of sharing, as pet and animal images help keep digital spaces lighthearted and fun. Pet and animal images are often the opposite to “doomscrolling,” or the endless scrolling through negative, serious, and depressing news online. Right now, as we doomscroll through a war, cute pet and animal content provides relief, but in conjunction with the war photos themselves, reminds us of the human cost of conflict.

There’s also another side to this phenomenon. Read about it at Slate.

Now back to the news of the day.

At the New Yorker, an interview with Russia scholar that is getting a lot of attention: The Weakness of the Despot. An expert on Stalin discusses Putin, Russia, and the West, by David Remnick

Stephen Kotkin is one of our most profound and prodigious scholars of Russian history. His masterwork is a biography of Josef Stalin. So far he has published two volumes––“Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928,” which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and “Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941.” A third volume will take the story through the Second World War; Stalin’s death, in 1953; and the totalitarian legacy that shaped the remainder of the Soviet experience….

Olena Kamenetska-Ostapchuk, Siesta

Olena Kamenetska-Ostapchuk, Siesta

Kotkin has a distinguished reputation in academic circles. He is a professor of history at Princeton University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University. He has myriad sources in various realms of contemporary Russia: government, business, culture….

Earlier this week, I spoke with Kotkin about Putin, the invasion of Ukraine, the American and European response, and what comes next, including the possibility of a palace coup in Moscow. 

You’ll need to go to The New Yorker to read the whole interview, but here’s an excerpt.

What is Putinism? It’s not the same as Stalinism. It’s certainly not the same as Xi Jinping’s China or the regime in Iran. What are its special characteristics, and why would those special characteristics lead it to want to invade Ukraine, which seems a singularly stupid, let alone brutal, act?

Yes, well, war usually is a miscalculation. It’s based upon assumptions that don’t pan out, things that you believe to be true or want to be true. Of course, this isn’t the same regime as Stalin’s or the tsar’s, either. There’s been tremendous change: urbanization, higher levels of education. The world outside has been transformed. And that’s the shock. The shock is that so much has changed, and yet we’re still seeing this pattern that they can’t escape from.

You have an autocrat in power—or even now a despot—making decisions completely by himself. Does he get input from others? Perhaps. We don’t know what the inside looks like. Does he pay attention? We don’t know. Do they bring him information that he doesn’t want to hear? That seems unlikely. Does he think he knows better than everybody else? That seems highly likely. Does he believe his own propaganda or his own conspiratorial view of the world? That also seems likely. These are surmises. Very few people talk to Putin, either Russians on the inside or foreigners.

Anastasiia Atamanchuk, Fuji Cats

Anastasiia Atamanchuk, Fuji Cats

And so we think, but we don’t know, that he is not getting the full gamut of information. He’s getting what he wants to hear. In any case, he believes that he’s superior and smarter. This is the problem of despotism. It’s why despotism, or even just authoritarianism, is all-powerful and brittle at the same time. Despotism creates the circumstances of its own undermining. The information gets worse. The sycophants get greater in number. The corrective mechanisms become fewer. And the mistakes become much more consequential.

Putin believed, it seems, that Ukraine is not a real country, and that the Ukrainian people are not a real people, that they are one people with the Russians. He believed that the Ukrainian government was a pushover. He believed what he was told or wanted to believe about his own military, that it had been modernized to the point where it could organize not a military invasion but a lightning coup, to take Kyiv in a few days and either install a puppet government or force the current government and President to sign some paperwork.

I haven’t read the whole piece yet, but I plan to read the rest–even though some of it is over my head. There’s also a video of the entire interview at the New Yorker link.

Another deep dive on Putin’s Russia from Anatole Lieven at Financial Times: Inside Putin’s circle — the real Russian elite.

In describing Vladimir Putin and his inner circle, I have often thought of a remark by John Maynard Keynes about Georges Clemenceau, French prime minister during the first world war: that he was an utterly disillusioned individual who “had one illusion — France”.

Something similar could be said of Russia’s governing elite, and helps to explain the appallingly risky collective gamble they have taken by invading Ukraine. Ruthless, greedy and cynical they may be — but they are not cynical about the idea of Russian greatness.

The western media employ the term “oligarch” to describe super-wealthy Russians in general, including those now wholly or largely resident in the west. The term gained traction in the 1990s, and has long been seriously misused. In the time of President Boris Yeltsin, a small group of wealthy businessmen did indeed dominate the state, which they plundered in collaboration with senior officials. This group was, however, broken by Putin during his first years in power.

Ivan Kolisnyk, A Fly

Ivan Kolisnyk, A Fly

Three of the top seven “oligarchs” tried to defy Putin politically. Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky were driven abroad, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed and then exiled. The others, and their numerous lesser equivalents, were allowed to keep their businesses within Russia in return for unconditional public subservience to Putin. When Putin met (by video link) leading Russian businessmen after launching the invasion of Ukraine, there was no question of who was giving the orders.

The force that broke the oligarchs was the former KGB, reorganised in its various successor services. Putin himself, of course, came from the KGB, and a large majority of the top elite under Putin are from the KGB or associated state backgrounds (though not the armed forces).

This group have remained remarkably stable and homogenous under Putin, and are (or used to be) close to him personally. Under his leadership, they have plundered their country (though unlike the previous oligarchs, they have kept most of their wealth within Russia) and have participated or acquiesced in his crimes, including the greatest of them all, the invasion of Ukraine. They have echoed both Putin’s vicious propaganda against Ukraine and his denunciations of western decadence.

The Washington Post: U.S. explores sending Ukraine more advanced weapons after scuttling Polish jet deal.

The Biden administration, under pressure to expand the arsenal of weapons that Ukraine has in its conflict with Russia, is working with European allies to expedite more sophisticated air-defense systems and other armaments into the war zone, U.S. officials said Friday.

Discussions were ongoing ahead of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s planned trip next week to meet with NATO allies in Brussels and Slovakia, which along with Poland and Romania has indicated a willingness to transfer military aid to its embattled neighbor. Slovakia also possesses the S-300 surface-to-air missile system, which is used to shoot down enemy aircraft and is familiar to the Ukrainians.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters that the United States is committed to arming the government in Kyiv with “the kinds of capabilities that we know the Ukrainians need and are using very well.” He declined to specify what types of weapons could be included in the next wave of shipments.

“Some of that material we have and are providing. Some of that material we don’t have but we know others have, and we’re helping coordinate that as well,” Kirby said.

The administration is facing backlash over its decision earlier this week to scuttle Poland’s proposal that would have sent a number of its MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine via a transfer “free of charge” to the United States. Washington, citing concerns that Russia would view the move as a provocation, said the offer from Warsaw was not “tenable.”

Wine Tasting, Roman Filippov

Wine Tasting, Roman Filippov

The New York Times: U.S. Officials Say Superyacht Could be Putin’s.

American officials are examining the ownership of a $700 million superyacht currently in a dry dock at an Italian seacoast town, and believe it could be associated with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, according to multiple people briefed on the information.

United States intelligence agencies have made no final conclusions about the ownership of the superyacht — called the Scheherazade — but American officials said they had found initial indications that it was linked to Mr. Putin. The information from the U.S. officials came after The New York Times reported on Tuesday that Italian authorities were looking into the 459-foot long vessel’s ownership and that a former crew member said it was for the use of Mr. Putin….

American officials said Mr. Putin kept little of his wealth in his own name. Instead he uses homes and boats nominally owned by Russian oligarchs. Still, it is possible that through various shell companies, Mr. Putin could have more direct control of the Scheherazade.

Both the Treasury Department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis and the Navy’s Office of Naval Intelligence are investigating the ownership of superyachts associated with Russian oligarchs. A spokesman for the Navy and a spokeswoman for the Treasury both declined to comment.

The Justice Department has set up a task force to go after the assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. In a discussion with reporters on Friday, a Justice Department official said the task force would be investigating individuals who help sanctioned Russian officials or oligarchs hide their assets. Those individuals could face charges related to sanctions violations or international money laundering charges.

Head over to the NYT to read details about the yacht and how it and other Russian oligarch-owned super yachts could be seized.

There are lots of serious articles on the Ukraine crisis today. Here are a few more to check out:

Holger Roonemaa and Michael Weiss at New Lines Magazine: soldiers: Analysts say the invasion is grinding to a stalemate.

Shannon Vavra at The Daily Beast: Putin’s Desperate Bid for More Troops in Ukraine Is Failing Miserably.

Grid: Is a Russian disinformation campaign a prelude to a Russian bioweapons attack?

I’m getting exhausted emotionally by the war news. I want to read more today, but I guess I need to pace myself. I hope you all are taking good care of yourselves amid all the scary news.


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!