The Morning Dispatch: After the Fall of Mariupol

Happy Thursday! Congratulations and get well soon to Eritrean cyclist Biniam Girmay, who won a stage of the Giro d’Italia on Tuesday and immediately had to withdraw from the rest of the race after hitting himself in the eye popping open a bottle of prosecco. Race organizers will now present winners with uncorked bottles. 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Sweden and Finland formally applied to join NATO on Wednesday, with Prime Ministers Magdalena Andersson and Sanna Marin meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the military alliance headquarters in Brussels. Despite continued Turkish obstinance, Stoltenberg expects the Nordic countries’ applications to receive unanimous approval within a few months. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with his Swedish counterpart yesterday, and, although Sweden and Finland won’t be covered by NATO’s mutual defense pact until their applications are accepted, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Europe and the U.S. “will not tolerate any aggression against Finland or Sweden during this process.”

  • The Senate voted unanimously Wednesday night to confirm career Foreign Service officer Bridget Brink as ambassador to Ukraine. Earlier in the day, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that—after a three-month closure—the United States was reopening its embassy in Kyiv.

  • President Joe Biden announced yesterday he would invoke the Defense Production Act in an effort to address the ongoing baby formula shortage, requiring suppliers of certain resources to prioritize formula producers over their other customers. He also directed the Department of Health and Human Services to use Defense Department commercial aircraft to pick up formula produced overseas that meets U.S. health and safety standards.

  • Reviewing a March 2019 U.S. military strike in Baghuz, Syria that killed four civilians and injured 15, Gen. Michael Garrett concluded there was no evidence anyone acted maliciously or with wrongful intent, despite several policy compliance deficiencies. “There was no need to hold somebody personally accountable for what happened that day,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters, citing the “regrettable” reality of the fog of war.

  • Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko issued an interim report on Wednesday that found the “single most important factor” in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces’ collapse last summer was the United States’ decision to withdraw military forces and contractors from the country. “The ANDSF had long relied on the U.S. military’s presence to protect against large-scale ANDSF losses, and Afghan troops saw the United States as a means of holding their government accountable for paying their salaries,” it reads. “The U.S.-Taliban agreement made it clear that this was no longer the case, resulting in a sense of abandonment within the ANDSF and the Afghan population.”

  • An Afghan Taliban spokesman claimed Wednesday the group had helped negotiate a ceasefire between the Pakistani government and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TPP). Airstrikes between the two sides had escalated in recent weeks. 

  • A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report released Tuesday found approximately 43,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the United States last year, a 10.5 percent increase from 2020 and the largest number since 2005.

  • A Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives report released this week found the annual number of guns produced in the United States nearly tripled between 2000 to 2020, from 3.9 million to 11.3 million. The report also noted law enforcement officials recovered at least 19,344 privately manufactured firearms (PMFs, or “ghost guns”) in 2021, an 11-fold increase since 2016.

  • The British Office for National Statistics reported Wednesday that inflation in the United Kingdom hit a 40-year high last month, with consumer prices in April 9 percent higher than one year earlier, up from a 7 percent annual inflation rate in March.

  • The average price of regular gasoline in the United States hit a record-high $4.57 per gallon yesterday, according to AAA data, with prices in every state now above $4 per gallon for the first time.

The Ukraine War After Mariupol

An aerial view this week of the devastation of central Mariupol. (Photo by ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP via Getty Images.)

After months of brutal fighting, the siege of Mariupol seems to be ending this week. Ukrainian soldiers—959 of them, according to the Kremlin, including 80 wounded—who had held out against Russian forces by hunkering down in a steel plant laid down their weapons and boarded a line of buses to Russian-controlled territory in Ukraine. Ukrainian military officials say the troops’ “combat mission” is over. “Ukraine needs Ukrainian heroes alive,” the country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said Tuesday. Ukrainian leaders decided they couldn’t retake the city, making surrender the troops’ only alternative to a continuing siege and likely eventual death.

With the key port city fallen, Russian forces now control a strip of southeastern Ukraine from the Russian border to the Crimean peninsula, but their efforts to take control of the southern Donbas region remain stalled. Instead, a Pentagon official said Monday, Russian and Ukrainian forces have exchanged artillery fire in the region over the past few days without exchanging much territory. According to the Institute for the Study of War, Russian troops are still trying to encircle Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine, focusing their efforts within the Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions.

Ukrainians have continued mounting some counterattacks—the Pentagon official said they’ve retaken some towns in the eastern Donbas region and have pushed Russian forces back from Kharkiv to within a few kilometers of the Russian border. Ukrainians have destroyed Russian pontoon bridges over a river in the region. “It’s going to be difficult for [Russians] to make any significant gains in the Donbas area until they can reposition forces or find less well-defended areas to cross that river,” the Pentagon official said. “There’s back and forth every single day, and it’s not like the Russians haven’t made some progress. They have. It’s been, again, uneven, slow, incremental, short, and small.” The Pentagon estimates Russia has committed 80 percent of its battalion tactical groups in Ukraine, and the majority are still operational. The United Kingdom Defense Department estimated Sunday Russia has lost a third of the ground troops it committed in February.

In the southeast, Russian troops are preparing to defend their gains—they’ve been digging trenches and constructing concrete barriers along the 500 miles from eastern Luhansk to Kherson on the Black Sea, Ukrainian officials report. “The war is entering a protracted phase,” Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov said in a statement. “The Russian occupiers are beginning engineering and fortification works in the Kherson region, in the Zaporizhya in order to move to defense if necessary.” Zelensky has submitted a bill to Ukraine’s parliament to extend martial law and conscription for military service through August. “I think we’ll be in a standstill for a while,” a NATO official told CNN Wednesday, 

Ukrainian forces may have lost their last stronghold in Mariupol this week, but their long defense of the city helped produce this contested stalemate. Zelensky adviser Mykhailo Podolyak credited the defenders with changing the course of the war, tying up Russian forces and preventing them from moving through the region to conquer more territory.

But surrendering has left the fighters with an uncertain future. Ukrainian officials said they’ll be freed in a prisoner exchange, but Russia hasn’t confirmed any such agreement. Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky called for the death penalty for those taken prisoner, while the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office has requested a terrorist organization designation for the Azov Battalion—integral to the Mariupol defense—which could mean prison sentences of up to 20 years for those captured. Russian lawmaker Vyacheslav Volodin said there should be no exchange for the “war criminals”—an interesting choice of words, as yesterday the first war crime trial since Russia’s invasion began in Kyiv with a Russian soldier pleading guilty of shooting an unarmed civilian.

The surrender also leaves behind a devastated city. Casualty statistics must be taken with a grain of salt, but Ukrainian officials say more than 20,000 of Mariupol’s 430,000 residents may have been killed, and about 90 percent of its housing has been damaged or destroyed—60 percent of it beyond repair, according to Russian officials. Russia has announced it will raze the Azovstal steel plant and make Mariupol a resort town, undercutting the manufacturing capability that made the port city a strategic prize. “Russia does not need another resort town on the Black Sea,” Institute for the Study of War analysts wrote. “It does need the kind of hard currency that a plant like Azovstal had generated. This announcement epitomizes the kind of Pyrrhic victories Russian forces have won in Ukraine, to the extent that they have won victories at all.”

But the destruction also means that rebuilding will cost Ukraine. “Russia’s message is not ‘resistance is futile’ so much as it is ‘resistance is costly,’” wrote Cynthia Cook, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Ukraine’s partners’ best response is to continue to support Ukraine through supplying arms, to ensure that Russia knows that aggression, as well as resistance, is costly too.”

U.S. lawmakers and the Biden administration certainly plan to keep up the practical support. A Pentagon official said Monday Ukraine had received 10 airlifted deliveries of security supplies in the previous 24 hours, and a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine is working its way through Congress. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced another $215 million in food aid yesterday, and the U.S. also made a symbolic show of support: The embassy in Kyiv reopened, and raised an American flag on the flagpole from which it had been taken down days before the invasion began.

Did Texas Just Break the Internet?

Late last week, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an emergency injunction implemented by a lower court, allowing a social media censorship law passed by Texas Republicans last year to take effect—at least temporarily, while challenges to it make their way through the courts. As Andrew writes in a piece for the site today, it’s potentially a really big deal. 

HB 20, the Texas law in question, compels social media companies to do a number of things, supposedly making their content moderation more transparent and fairer.

It requires a platform to disclose the content management algorithms by which it “curates and targets content to users,” “places and promotes content, services, and products,” “moderates content,” and so on, as well as publish an “acceptable use policy” detailing its content moderation standards and practices and a “biannual transparency report” detailing how it has put those standards into practice.

But the real kernel of the legislation is its prohibitions on content censorship: “A social media platform”—limited in the text of the bill to sites with 50 million active monthly users—“may not censor a user” based on “the viewpoint of a user or another person,” “regardless of whether the viewpoint is expressed on a social media platform or through any other medium.” Under the auspices of this law, many common content moderation practices on sites like Facebook and Twitter—banning accounts that engage in hate speech or other types of forbidden content, for instance, or suspending them with reinstatement conditional on deleting objectionable posts—are illegal to enforce.

Internet companies have long enjoyed broad legal discretion over their own content moderation practices thanks to both the First Amendment and Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. But the 5th Circuit’s unexplained 2-1 decision rattles the landscape.

Suddenly, if nothing else changes, companies could face prosecution for censoring any content for expressing a particular viewpoint.

Social media companies have argued that attempting to comply with the new law will both harm users’ experience of their products and be functionally impossible, given the vagueness of parts of the statute. The trade groups representing them in court have already appealed to the Supreme Court to reinstate the injunction blocking the law. Failing to do so “would compel platforms to disseminate all sorts of objectionable viewpoints,” tech trade association NetChoice argued in a filing last Friday, “such as Russia’s propaganda claiming that its invasion fo Ukraine is justified, ISIS propaganda claiming that extremism is warranted, neo-Nazi or KKK screeds denying or supporting the Holocaust, and encouraging children to engage in risky or unhealthy behavior like eating disorders.” 

The companies additionally argue that forbidding them from removing such content would undercut their advertising-based business models: Customers would balk at placing ads on their sites.

It’s really a debate about who has the right to decide what viewpoints can be expressed on a given website.

According to a once-mainstream line of conservative thought, the answer was simple: Whoever runs the thing, dummy. Crabby that the moderators of your go-to forum keep deleting your proofs demonstrating that the Illuminati control the weather? Go find one with looser content standards, or better yet, start your own!

In recent years, however, a growing contingent of Republicans have begun to sour on this way of thinking. What may have worked just fine in the Wild West days of the early web, they argue, doesn’t cut it in the social-media era, when vast portions of online discourse take place according to the regulatory whims of a few giant corporations. Behemoths like Twitter and Facebook aren’t just humble websites putting up their shingle for people to come hang out—in a sense, they control the contours of what’s being talked about online, period. The time has come, then, to regulate these giants the way we regulate phone companies—as “common carriers” of speech—and pass laws forbidding them from censoring posts based on their political content.

Worth Your Time

  • Is the conventional wisdom about Donald Trump and the Republican primaries held thus far totally off base? GOP voters aren’t Trump zombies, Jonathan Bernstein writes in Bloomberg. “Win or lose, Trump’s candidates are winning about a third of the vote. That’s not nothing, but it does mean that two-thirds of Republican primary voters are either ignoring or opposing his wishes. [And] Trump’s real effect is surely smaller than that,” he writes. “Party actors—the Club for Growth, big individual funders such as the Silicon Valley billionaire and Vance backer Peter Thiel, politicians with local clout such as Republican Senator Thom Tillis in North Carolina, a big player in Cawthorn’s defeat, and most of all Republican-aligned media such as Fox News and talk radio hosts—are probably a much bigger story in terms of actually moving votes than Trump is. Moreover, while it’s convenient to slap the Trumpism label on the radicalism of the dominant coalition within the party, it’s far from clear that Trump has much say in what Trumpism actually means.”

  • Zack Meisel became a father this week, leading him to reflect on his relationship with his own dad, who succumbed to a brain tumor 25 years ago. “He really treasured the Indians, who captured his beloved hometown’s attention in the late stages of his life,”  Meisel—now a sportswriter in Cleveland—writes for The Athletic. “He loved baseball, and he never missed my T-ball or coach-pitch games when he was physically able to attend. And, of course, when he had the strength and energy, we played catch in that front yard, out of the way of the two massive maple trees, one of us standing on the sidewalk and the other up the slope in the front grass. … Twenty-five years later, I’m blessed to be able to create new memories. I became a father on Tuesday. When the first-day frenzy quelled a bit—and I finally listened to my wife, who demanded I quit cracking jokes that triggered pain in her core—I flipped on the Guardians game. As Charlie rested in my arms, the first full at-bat we watched together (OK, he was actually just trying to stick his fingers in his eye) was Owen Miller’s game-tying two-run homer in the ninth inning. … and then the Guardians lost in extra innings. Welcome to Cleveland sports, kid.”

  • From closures to curriculum, parents’ frustration with public education nationwide is nearing all-time highs. It could be the moment school choice advocates have been waiting for, Robby Soave argues for Reason—if the GOP doesn’t screw it up. “The right policy approach is well known to Republican politicians: For decades, free market think tanks have produced volumes on how to expand school choice so that more families can exercise greater control over their educational options,” he writes. “By allowing charter schools to grow and experiment, and by letting students claim the public funds invested into the system in their name and take those dollars elsewhere, such reforms contain a liberatory promise—one that solves the curriculum and closure issues without turning school board meetings into war zones. Will Republicans approach this moment with the clarity of purpose it deserves? Or will they be distracted by a different approach—one that asks state legislatures to micromanage what is taught in the classroom?”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In this week’s Capitolism (🔒), Scott argues Elon Musk’s likely acquisition of Twitter should blunt some of the populist critiques of Big Tech. A heterodox billionaire buying a social media company to replace its “woke” policies and workforce? “The alleged impossibility of such changes was a core part of the new ‘conservative’ argument for regulating Twitter, Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other tech companies allegedly biased against the right’s views,” he writes.

  • What happens now that Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dave McCormick are likely headed for a recount in Pennsylvania? Why is David Perdue pulling his ads in Georgia? Can Doug Mastriano win? Why are congressional Democrats freaking out about New York’s new congressional map? Sarah and Audrey touch on all that and more in this week’s Sweep (🔒).

  • Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper joined Sarah on yesterday’s Dispatch Podcast for a conversation about his new book, A Sacred Oath. For 40 minutes, they reflect on working in the Trump administration, the “Four Nos,” and what Esper sees as the greatest threat to the United States today.

  • In his Wednesday G-File (🔒), Jonah takes both the right and left to task for fueling the other’s paranoia about race. “For the last 20 years, Democrats and identity politics activists have been celebrating the coming demise of America’s white majority,” he writes. “I don’t think the GOP or the conservative movement—such as it is these days—is institutionally racist. This is not to say there aren’t any racists on the right. There are too many of them, and their ranks are growing. [But] the right’s real problem boils down to two things: conspiracy and cowardice.”

Let Us Know

Do you think social media censorship is a problem that lawmakers should be focusing on? If you do, do you think Texas Republicans’ approach is the right one?

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