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The Morning Dispatch: Can the Biden Administration Deter Russia?
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The Morning Dispatch: Can the Biden Administration Deter Russia?

Antony Blinken meets with his Ukrainian and Russian counterparts amid increased tensions.

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Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Both chambers of Congress passed a continuing resolution Thursday night that, once signed into law by President Joe Biden, will avert a shutdown and fund the government at current levels through February 18, 2022. The House voted 221-212 to pass the stopgap measure yesterday evening, and—after rejecting an amendment 48-50 that would’ve defunded the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandates—the Senate advanced the CR 69-28. Lawmakers now have about 11 weeks to work out a longer-term budget for fiscal year 2022.

  • President Biden outlined his administration’s plan to combat a potential winter COVID-19 surge driven by the Omicron variant, announcing Thursday he is extending the federal mask mandate on planes and public transportation through March 18, 2022, and requiring anyone flying into the United States—regardless of nationality or vaccination status—to test negative within one day of departure. He also said the Department of Health and Human Services will issue guidance in the coming weeks requiring private health insurers to reimburse the cost of over-the-counter COVID-19 tests. Several more cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed in the United States: Five in New York, and one each in Colorado, Minnesota, Hawaii, and California.

  • The Biden administration on Thursday reached an agreement with the government of Mexico to restart the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols—or Remain in Mexico policy—that require asylum seekers along the southern border to wait outside the United States for their claims to be processed. The Department of Homeland Security reiterated yesterday that Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas believes the program “has endemic flaws” and “impose[s] unjustifiable human costs,” but U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk ordered the Biden administration to reimplement MPP in August after Mayorkas terminated it in July.

  • Russian-led oil producers and the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC+) agreed Thursday to move ahead with their previously agreed upon plan to increase collective oil production in January by 400,000 barrels per day. Some analysts had expected the body to decelerate or pause production growth due to the emergence of the Omicron variant and the United States’ decision to release oil from its Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

  • Twitter announced Thursday it had removed more than 2,000 accounts linked to the Chinese Communist Party that sought to downplay and deflect discussion of the human rights abuses being perpetrated against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Earlier this week, Facebook detailed an influence operation on its platform in which Chinese state employees created a fake Swiss biologist—“Wilson Edwards”—who sought to discredit efforts to investigate the origins of COVID-19.

  • Two Georgia election workers—a mother and daughter—sued Gateway Pundit and its publishers Thursday, alleging the right-wing provocateurs defamed them by falsely claiming they participated in election fraud. Gateway Pundit’s lies, the complaint reads, “instigated a deluge of intimidation, harassment, and threats that has forced them to change their phone numbers, delete their online accounts, and fear for their physical safety.”

  • U.S. District Judge Linda Parker on Thursday ordered nine attorneys—including Sidney Powell and Lin Wood—to pay $175,250 to the state of Michigan and city of Detroit in response to their participation in the frivolous “Kraken” lawsuits seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

  • With Germany facing its worst COVID-19 surge yet, outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz announced new restrictions Thursday barring unvaccinated people from non-essential businesses and shutting down bars and clubs in areas with an incidence rate above a certain threshold. Merkel also endorsed a nationwide vaccine mandate, which, if passed through parliament, could be enacted by February.

  • Initial jobless claims remained near pandemic lows but increased by 28,000 week-over-week to 222,000 last week, according to the Labor Department. The measure’s four-week moving average is now at its lowest point since March 14, 2020.

Will the Biden Administration Deter Another Russian Invasion of Ukraine?

(Photo by Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)

In late February 2014, then-President Barack Obama appeared before reporters with a message for Moscow. “The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine,” he said, cautioning Russian President Vladimir Putin against occupying the Crimean peninsula.

In the year that followed, Russia continued its offensive into Ukraine, capturing and annexing Crimea, moving troops into its neighbor’s eastern territory, and financially and militarily supporting Ukrainian separatists. Obama’s warnings went unheeded, and Putin went largely unpunished.

Seven years later, the Russian president is once again mobilizing tens of thousands of troops and armaments near Ukraine’s border in a surge that Western intelligence suggests portends an imminent attack. As we wrote last month:

In recent days, Moscow has undertaken a “large and unusual” concentration of forces along various points of its border with Ukraine, per Ukrainian defense officials. More than 100,000 soldiers—including ground troops and air and sea personnel—pose the threat of further escalation in an ongoing conflict. But unlike April’s buildup, Putin has thus far refrained from calling attention to the troop movements, which is probably not a good sign.

“It’s been a lot more discreet. In the spring, there was a sense that Russia wanted us to see. There was stuff that was being done very publicly, there were announcements, it was done in broad daylight,” Peter Dickinson, editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert, told The Dispatch. “This time that’s not happening. What we’re seeing actually looks more like a genuine build-up.”

In an effort to avoid a 2014 redux, U.S. officials are scrambling to sufficiently raise the cost for Russia of re-invasion. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gathered with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in Latvia this week before traveling to Stockholm to attend the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Ministerial Council, where he met one-on-one with both Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

“As we’ve made very clear in recent weeks, we have deep concerns about Russia’s plans for renewed aggression against Ukraine,” Blinken told Lavrov in front of reporters before their meeting. “That’s not just our concern. It’s a concern that is shared by many in Europe, and I think Sergey has heard that expressed over the last 24 hours here in Stockholm. We have a strong, ironclad commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

“We, as President Putin stated, do not want any conflicts,” Lavrov said. “But if our NATO partners have stated that no one has a right to dictate to a country that would like to join NATO whether it can do or not, we can say that every country is able to define its own interests to guarantee their security.”

A NATO joint communiqué earlier this year reiterated that Ukraine is on a path to membership in the alliance, a development to which Russia is adamantly opposed. “It is for the 30 NATO allies to decide when Ukraine is ready for membership. No one else has any right to try to meddle or to interfere in that process,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in April. “Russia is now trying to reestablish some kind of sphere of influence where they try to decide what neighbors can do.”

But Putin is undeterred, warning earlier this week that a deployment of NATO troops and weapons to Ukraine would cross a “red line” and warrant an aggressive response. “I hope that it will not get to that and common sense and responsibility for their own countries and the global community will eventually prevail,” the Russian president said.

Blinken described his 40-minute conversation with Lavrov as “serious” and “sober,” with the two men sharing “candid exchanges” on “different perspectives.”

According to a State Department readout of the meeting, Blinken and Lavrov discussed ongoing fighting between separatists and Ukrainian forces in Donbas, efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program, the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, and Russian aggression near Ukraine’s border. “Should Moscow choose the path of military escalation, the secretary made clear that the United States and our allies are prepared to impose significant costs,” spokesman Ned Price said without elaborating on what those costs might be.

Blinken’s threats are “deliberately ambiguous,” said Klon Kitchen, a national defense and cybersecurity expert at the American Enterprise Institute.

“It is trying to communicate at least the threat of military response without actually having to commit to it,” Kitchen told The Dispatch, adding that the Biden administration’s recent responses—or lack thereof—to Russian aggression might be encouraging it further. “In the wake of things like Russia-based ransomware activities, including the attack of critical infrastructure with the Colonial oil pipeline, all Biden has done is puff up his chest and put out a bunch of rhetoric. There’s no indication, whatsoever, that any of that talk has done anything to dissuade Putin. If anything, it seems to have invited even greater aggression.”

Russian forces also gathered near Ukraine’s Donbas region in April of this year, and Putin and Biden held their first summit months later. The Kremlin is angling for a second such meeting, according to Russian media, and recent troop movements could just be another effort to force concessions from the West. But many experts think this latest buildup carries trademarks of a planned invasion.

“The shape of the mobilization is different this time. It involves more troops and equipment, and with deployments that look aimed at a concrete operation against Ukraine itself, rather than a general deterrent posture, or support for Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region,” Matthew Rojansky, director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, told The Dispatch. “There have even been reports that the Russians are doing things like information blackouts and reserve mobilization that would be more likely in case of actual impending war than in the case of an exercise.”

According to Kitchen, hybrid warfare involving cyberattacks would likely accompany any Russian troop movement into Ukraine. “If the Russians were to move into Ukraine, we would expect a pretty significant cyber element to that action in terms of disrupting Ukrainian command and control, their decision-making processes, and hacks against both military and civilian infrastructure,” he said. “I think that gray zone capability would feature prominently.”

As such an attack appears more and more likely, some onlookers are warning Biden to avoid Obama’s mistakes. Legitimizing Russia’s past offensives—or seeking to diffuse Russia’s troop buildup by persuading Ukraine to genuflect before Putin and the lopsided 2015 “Minsk II” peace deal between the two countries, as a much discussed op-ed recently argued—would only create additional incentives for Russia to misbehave again in the future.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia, and David Kramer, a former Bush administration State Department official, make the case particularly forcefully in a Politico op-ed. “Recent history is replete with examples of how failing to push back adequately against Putin’s aggression only encourages more dangerous behavior,” they write. “Even after Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014, the sanctions imposed by the West had an initial impact but were never ramped up in a serious way. Putin has repeatedly drawn the conclusion that he can get away with aggression and possibly even be rewarded for it—or even the threat of it.”

What do they recommend Biden and Europe do instead? Biden, they argue, should refuse to meet with his Russian counterpart until the troops at the Ukrainian border are withdrawn. If the troops return? Immediate sanctions: Booting Russia from the SWIFT banking system, preventing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from being completed, and “most significantly, sanctioning Putin himself and those immediately around him.”

“Pushback and strength are the only things Putin understands and respects,” the pair write. “The West needs to make clear that the costs of re-invading would be punishing and immediate.”

Worth Your Time

  • In an interview on The Lead With Jake Tapper yesterday,  veteran sports broadcaster Bob Costas offered a measured, but forceful, condemnation of the coddling of China by some international institutions and prominent athletes. Tapper asked about the Peng Shuai situation and why the Women’s Tennis Association and International Olympic Committee have taken such different approaches to it. “The IOC is in bed with China,” Costas said. “It’s very troubling, their affinity for authoritarian regimes. … Meanwhile, you’ve got not just the IOC, you’ve got the NBA, and you’ve got Nike, and various individual sports stars in the United States who have significant investments in China, where the sports market is huge. And some of those people are very outspoken—as they have a right to be, and maybe in general you and I would agree with their viewpoints—very outspoken and sometimes offer sweeping condemnations of their own admittedly imperfect country, the United States. But when it comes to China—perhaps the world’s leading human rights abuser given its size and its wherewithal—they’re mum. Very, very few have anything to say.”

  • National Review published a back and forth between Elbridge Colby and Patrick Porter on Thursday, with Colby arguing in favor of the United States defending Taiwan from China with military force and Porter making the opposite case. Both are worth your time. “The fundamental reason [to defend Taiwan],” Colby writes, “is, counterintuitively, China’s awesome power, and the very real danger that this power, if allowed to expand too far, will pose to Americans’ prosperity and freedom. The United States should defend Taiwan because it is important to deny China hegemony over Asia, by far the world’s largest market area. If China could dominate Asia, as it has made increasingly clear it seeks to do, Beijing would determine the terms, tempo, and distribution of global economic power.” Porter is more pessimistic about what a potential military conflict would look like. “The problem is that China will likely not back off,” he writes. “The prospects for a militarized dispute that de-escalates on Washington’s terms, or a hot war that is swift and victorious, are bleak. Why? The heart of the matter is political. China covets Taiwan, seeing it as existentially important. In terms of value, it exceeds the Falklands for Britain or Algeria for France. It is more like the importance of Texas to America. … The issue is vital to the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic standing and survival. Once a war is under way, China must not lose. No matter how much U.S. policy-makers choose to care about Taiwan, they cannot overcome this imbalance of resolve in China’s favor.” 

  • Have you ever listened to a great song on repeat for so long that you grew to hate it? In a piece for The Ringer, Michael Baumann argues that’s exactly what’s happened on a global scale to Coldplay—and particularly it hit, “Fix You.” “‘Fix You’ was the band’s definitive power ballad, and it turned into a huge hit, moving 1.8 million copies in the U.K. and 500,000 more in the U.S., where it peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Adult Alternative chart,” he writes. “But because this was Coldplay, a band that was everywhere and made music for everyone, it was only fitting that ‘Fix You’ ended as a victim of its own success. But whose fault is that? Not Coldplay’s. The greatest sin [lead singer Chris] Martin and his colleagues committed was to write a song that connected with so many people, that scratched so many emotional itches, that too many looked to for catharsis. It touched and moved its audience—what is that if not a resounding artistic success?” (One of your Morning Dispatchers performing not one, but two separate xylophone Coldplay medleys in a high school talent show had no bearing on the inclusion of Baumann’s essay.)

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Yesterday’s episode of Advisory Opinions focused on—you guessed it—oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. What were the key exchanges on Wednesday? Are Roe and Casey actually going to fall? What’s the court’s decision-making process from here? David and Sarah break it all down.

  • On Thursday’s solo Remnant, a sleep-deprived Jonah shares his thoughts on the possibility of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. When does life truly begin? Why are taboos so important? And could the case lead to a sea change in American politics?

Let Us Know

Is the Russia military build-up on Ukraine’s border a bluff or preparation for an invasion?  

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), Audrey Fahlberg (@AudreyFahlberg), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).