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The Morning Dispatch: Ukraine on the Brink
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The Morning Dispatch: Ukraine on the Brink

Embassies and industries brace for war in Eastern Europe.

Happy Monday! Super Bowl winners: The Los Angeles Rams, late-90s hip-hop, and people who enjoy watching lots and lots of cryptocurrency commercials.

And consider this your friendly TMD reminder to pick up flowers and a card on the way home from work: It’s Valentine’s Day.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The State Department on Saturday ordered most remaining employees at its embassy in Kyiv to evacuate Ukraine due to the threat of a Russian invasion, adding that U.S. citizens “should not travel to Ukraine” and those already there “should depart immediately.” President Joe Biden spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday, insisting the U.S. and allied response to a Russian invasion would be “swift” and “severe.” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday that, although Russia could still “choose the diplomatic path,” there’s a “distinct possibility” it will invade “very soon.” Biden administration officials said Friday another 3,000 U.S. soldiers will be deployed to Poland in the coming days.

  • After Pfizer and BioNTech announced they would collect more data on the effect of a third COVID-19 vaccine dose for children under five years old, the Food and Drug Administration announced Friday it was postponing a meeting scheduled for this week where public health officials were set to assess the safety and efficacy of the vaccines. Pfizer and BioNTech officials said they expect to have three-dose protection data in early April.

  • The Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit to Windsor, Canada reopened Sunday after it was more or less cleared over the weekend. An Ontario Superior Court judge ruled on Friday police could remove protesters still blocking the bridge after 7 p.m. that night, and Windsor Police said they’ve arrested between 25 and 30 people associated with the blockade. Protests against Canada’s COVID-19 restrictions, however, remain in full swing elsewhere in Canada.

  • A new court filing from Special Counsel John Durham obtained by Fox News alleges lawyers for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign worked with an unnamed tech executive in mid-2016 who “exploited his access to non-public and/or proprietary Internet data”—including domain name system (DNS) data at Trump tower, Donald Trump’s Central Park West apartment building, and the Executive Office of the President—in order to “establish ‘an inference’ and ‘narrative’ tying then-candidate Trump to Russia.”

  • President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Friday that, according to a senior administration official, would be “one step forward in a process” of unfreezing approximately $7 billion worth of Afghanistan central bank assets held in the United States. The administration plans to consolidate the assets into one account and, pending the outcome of ongoing litigation, distribute about half the funds “for the benefit of the Afghan people” and make the other half available to the families of victims who died in the 9/11 attacks. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the plan “an atrocity against Afghan people,” who he said “are as much victims [of Osama bin Laden] as those [who died on 9/11].”

  • The Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency use authorization on Friday for a new monoclonal antibody treatment from Eli Lilly that has been shown to be effective against the Omicron variant. The monoclonal antibody, bebtelovimab, is authorized for use in patients with mild to moderate COVID-19 who are at high risk for progression to severe COVID-19—and for whom other authorized COVID-19 treatments are not “accessible or clinically appropriate.” Eli Lilly announced it had agreed to supply the Department of Health and Human Services with up to 600,000 courses of the therapeutic for “at least” $720 million, and would begin shipments this week.

The Russia-Ukraine Situation Can’t Get Much More Tense

(Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images.)

It’s been about three months since Ukrainian defense officials began warning of a “large and unusual” concentration of Russian forces along its borders, and President Vladimir Putin’s military buildup now stands at 130,000 troops and counting. Russian forces began joint military exercises in Belarus on Thursday that are expected to run through February 20. Given the West’s steadfast opposition to the Kremlin’s proposed security guarantees, the window for a diplomatic de-escalation is, according to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, “shrinking.” 

It could be the most monumental bluff of Putin’s political career. Or it could set off the deadliest military clash on the European continent since World War II. Either way, the world will likely know soon.

Late last week, the Biden administration’s public messaging on the unfolding crisis picked up, in both urgency and frequency. On Friday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan briefed reporters on the “credible prospect” that the Kremlin would launch an offensive before the end of the Beijing Olympics on February 20. An attack could take many forms, Sullivan said, including a “rapid assault on the city of Kyiv.”

That same day, the State Department began the ordered departure of most of its remaining embassy staff in Ukraine and urged American citizens to leave the country through commercial or private means before the end of the weekend. The embassy’s routine consular services were suspended on Sunday. At least a dozen other diplomatic missions in Kyiv, including those of Japan, the United Kingdom, Israel, Germany, Australia, Italy, and the Netherlands have followed suit. An attack led by “aerial bombing and missile attacks” could “kill civilians without regard to their nationality,” Sullivan said.

Several airlines—likely thinking back to the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014—have announced plans to suspend service to the country, and Ukrainska Pravda reported most international insurance companies will pull coverage for planes flying over Ukraine as soon as today. To counter the move—which would effectively ground all flights in and out of the country—the Ukrainian government will reportedly front about $590 million to insure planes itself.

To sum up, most signs point to an imminent Russian invasion. 

But the Biden team is still looking to give Putin an out. Responding to a report from PBS NewsHour claiming Putin had already decided to launch an offensive this week, Sullivan told reporters the headline did not “accurately capture” the U.S. government’s view. “We are not standing here before you today and [saying], ‘The order has been given. The invasion is on.’” In a joint press conference with his South Korean and Japanese counterparts on Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that a “diplomatic path remains open.” 

But German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to Moscow early this week is the last major diplomatic engagement between the West and Russia currently on the books.

“I think what’s happening now is what’s been predictable months ago: We’ve reached the end of the diplomatic conversations,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, the Russian-born co-founder of Silverado Policy Accelerator. “I think [Putin] made a decision, roughly a year ago, to move forward with an invasion and everything we have seen since then has been systematic, by-the-book preparation to build up a massive invasion force.”

Washington’s eleventh-hour efforts to throw Moscow off course seem to be falling short. Biden reiterated the costs Russia would face in the event of an attack and laid out a series of proposals for de-escalation in a call with Putin on Saturday, but an administration official told reporters that the conversation yielded “no fundamental change” in the Kremlin’s position and that an attack remained a “distinct possibility.” 

Per the Russian account of the conversation—which Putin aide Yury Ushakov said took place amid “an unprecedented push by U.S. officials to whip up hysteria over the allegedly imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine”—the proposals failed to address Moscow’s central concerns surrounding NATO expansion.

In both public statements and through state-controlled media, the Kremlin has long laid the groundwork to re-cast any escalation on its part as defensive. The U.S. has attempted to undermine those efforts by revealing them publicly. Recent intelligence first briefed to several news outlets by the State Department alleged that Russia planned to circulate a video of a staged Ukrainian offensive near the Donbass frontline using real corpses, fake mourners, and imitation weaponry. 

Like the timeline, the scope and reach of a possible incursion remains uncertain. While some think Russian forces are likely to stay east of the Dnieper River—perhaps charting the path for a land bridge to the occupied Crimean Peninsula—others fear Putin will make a play for the capital. 

Sullivan on Friday declined to speculate. “We’ve been clear that [an invasion] could take a range of different forms,” he told reporters. “But I want to be equally clear that one of those forms is a rapid assault on the city of Kyiv. That is a possible line of attack, course of action that the Russian forces could choose to take. They could also choose to move in other parts of Ukraine as well.”

Pushing into the capital may be the only way for Putin to achieve his objective of reversing Ukraine’s growing ties with NATO. “I think that’s the only scenario that actually makes sense. Nothing else is going to be meaningful to him,” Alperovitch said. “The goal here is to change the government in Kyiv, to create a situation where Ukraine is back in Russia’s sphere of influence, and anything short of that is going to be a loss for him.”

But such a move would almost certainly land Putin in a “nasty partisan war,” John E. Herbst, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told The Dispatch.

After months of urging the Ukrainian public to keep calm, the government in Kyiv has sharpened its tone in recent weeks. Civilians and combatants alike are now gearing up for a fight. 

“The army and volunteers were able to survive in 2014, when the ‘brother’ brazenly stabbed him in the back. At that time, many people were not psychologically ready to resist those with whom they sat at the same table yesterday. Now the situation is completely different,” Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Saturday. “Do not doubt—the Armed Forces are absolutely ready to fight back and will not give up the Ukrainian lands!” 

Over the weekend, thousands of Ukrainians processed through Kyiv to Independence Square in a march for unity. 

The mood in Kyiv is now one of “silent anticipation,” said Vitalii Ovcharenko, a blogger and activist who fought against Russian forces. “It’s horrible to expect an attack every day,” he told The Dispatch, but added: “I have not heard of any Ukrainians leaving for other countries. There is a feeling that everyone is ready to fight.”

Worth Your Time

  • In his latest piece for The New York Times, national political correspondent Jonathan Martin details Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s efforts to recruit GOP allies and take back the Senate. “As Mr. Trump works to retain his hold on the Republican Party, elevating a slate of friendly candidates in midterm elections, Mr. McConnell and his allies are quietly, desperately maneuvering to try to thwart him,” Martin writes. “The loose alliance, which was once thought of as the G.O.P. establishment, for months has been engaged in a high-stakes candidate recruitment campaign, full of phone calls, meetings, polling memos and promises of millions of dollars. It’s all aimed at recapturing the Senate majority, but the election also represents what could be Republicans’ last chance to reverse the spread of Trumpism before it fully consumes their party.”

  • The American Gaming Association estimated last week that more than 31 million American adults planned to bet on yesterday’s Super Bowl, a 35 percent increase from the year before. It’s not surprising, given that the “thin wall separating the games from the gambling industry is being torn away,” Ross Douthat writes in his latest column. “Once we decided that some forms of gambling should be legally available, in some places, with some people profiting, it became inevitable that restrictions would eventually crumble on a much larger scale. The multi-generational path from Las Vegas and Atlantic City, to Native American casinos, to today’s ubiquitous online gambling looks like one continuous process, with no natural stopping place along the way. But the trouble is that societal health often depends on law and custom not being perfectly consistent, not taking every permission to its logical conclusion.”

  • Whether or not you agree with the Canadian truckers’ cause, Dominic Pino argues for National Review you shouldn’t agree with their methods. “Many of the protesters are demonstrating against more than the vaccine mandate. They feel generally unheard and taken for granted by their government. They want all pandemic restrictions lifted. That’s all fine. They have a right to protest,” he writes. “They don’t have a right to block roads. When leftist environmentalist groups sit in rush-hour traffic to protest climate change, conservatives are quick to point out that they are being counterproductive and making life worse for people who have nothing to do with what they’re protesting against. When Black Lives Matter protesters link arms and block freeways, conservatives want police to remove them. In both cases, conservatives are correct, and the protesters are wrong to block traffic. The current situation is no different. If anything, it’s worse.”

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Congress seems to be getting on the same page rhetorically when it comes to banning lawmakers from trading individual stocks, but actually agreeing on legislation is a whole other can of worms. “Members generally don’t like passing new restrictions on themselves,” Haley writes in Friday’s Uphill (🔒). “Supporters are also contending with a broad array of competing bills.”

  • On Friday’s Dispatch Podcast, Sarah and Steve talk with Todd Rose about his new book, Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions. How much of our thinking about each other is informed by false assumptions? What are the consequences of a society this mistrustful? And what are we to do about it?

  • What do economists Thorstein Veblen and Fred Hirsch have to do with dogs chasing each other around with sticks? You’ll have to read Friday’s G-File to find out. 

  • If you were online last week, odds are you saw stories claiming the Biden administration is paying millions to distribute crack pipes to underserved communities, and stories “debunking” that claim. In a piece for the site over the weekend, Andrew cuts through the partisan noise and informs readers about what’s actually going on.

  • On the site today, Harvest digs into a conflict between the state of Florida and faith-based organizations that provide foster care to unaccompanied migrant children.

  • David’s Sunday French Press argues that “seeds of political violence” are being sown in church. “What we face is a Christian subculture that is full of terrible religious purpose,” he writes.

Let Us Know

Were you rooting for the Rams or Bengals? Did you have a favorite commercial? What’d you think of the halftime show?

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).