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The Morning Dispatch: Why is Ukraine Downplaying the Russian Threat?
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The Morning Dispatch: Why is Ukraine Downplaying the Russian Threat?

'There is no need for mobilization in terms of the current threat.'

Happy Tuesday! It’s time to break The New York Times up on antitrust grounds: Between the NYT Crossword, Spelling Bee, and now Wordle, they’ve cornered nearly 80 percent of the productive procrastination market. Hold strong, Chess.com.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The Food and Drug Administration fully approved Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for those 18 and older on Monday after concluding it meets the agency’s “rigorous standards for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality.” The vaccine—which will now be marketed as “Spikevax”—had been available under emergency use authorization since December 2020.

  • British civil servant Sue Gray released some of her much-anticipated findings in the investigation into pandemic-era Downing Street parties, finding some of the events “should not have been allowed to take place” given COVID-19 rules, and that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government exhibited “failures of leadership and judgment.” Johnson apologized to Parliament yet again on Monday, but London’s Metropolitan Police Department is still investigating additional allegations not included in Gray’s initial report.

  • The State Department on Monday ordered family members of U.S. government employees in Belarus to depart the country due to “concerning Russian military buildup along Belarus’ border with Ukraine.” The travel advisory also advised U.S. citizens not to travel to the former Soviet country.

  • During a White House meeting with Qatar’s head of state on Monday, President Joe Biden told reporters he plans to designate the Gulf country as a “major non-NATO ally,” elevating its relationship with the United States as the Biden administration seeks to develop contingency plans in the event of Russian-led natural gas shortages in Europe.

  • The United Arab Emirates intercepted another ballistic missile launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Monday as Israeli President Isaac Herzog was visiting Abu Dhabi. UAE state media reported there were no casualties, as the missile fragments “fell outside of populated areas.”

  • After mounting two unsuccessful Senate runs in 2018 and 2020, Republican businessman and Army veteran John James launched a bid on Monday for Michigan’s newly created 10th congressional district. 

  • CNN reported Monday that Marc Short—chief of staff to former Vice President Mike Pence—testified before the January 6 Select Committee in a “lengthy session” last week after being subpoenaed. 

Why Is Ukraine Downplaying the Russian Threat?

(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.)

When Russia amassed military hardware and tens of thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine in the spring of 2021—the largest such buildup since 2014—officials in Kyiv were among the first to sound alarms about a possible incursion.

“What is happening today? A large number of Russian troops are concentrated near our state borders,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a televised address last April. “Does Ukraine want a war? No. Is it ready for it? Yes. Will Ukraine stop fighting for peace through diplomacy? Never. Will Ukraine defend itself in case of the necessity? Always. Our principle is simple: Ukraine does not start a war first, but Ukraine always stands to the last man.”

After a tense few weeks, the Russian Defense Ministry announced its soldiers had completed their “snap drill” and would withdraw from the border region. But they were back by November, and the situation has only grown more tense in the months since: There are now upwards of 120,000 Russian troops deployed to points along Ukraine’s northern, southern, and eastern perimeters—with more potentially en route—and Russian tanks, missiles, and attack aircraft are right there with them. Three U.S. officials told Reuters over the weekend Russia has begun positioning supplies of blood along the border in preparation to treat the wounded.

But this time around, Zelensky is urging calm. “We don’t have a Titanic here,” he said on Friday, noting the Russian troop buildup could be a threat, attack, or simple rotation. “We do understand what is happening. But we have been in the situation for eight years. … We can’t say the war will happen tomorrow or by the end of February. Yes, it may happen, unfortunately. But you have to feel the pulse on a day-to-day basis.”

Oleksiy Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, downplayed the threat even further in a Monday interview. “There is no need for mobilization in terms of the current threat,” he said, arguing any such mobilization would cause unnecessary panic in the streets. “I repeat once again: The [Russian] numbers are basically the same as in the spring of 2021.”

The statements stand in stark contrast with the sentiment coming from much of the West—particularly the United States. Last week, the White House described a Russian invasion as “imminent.” In a phone call with Zelensky on Thursday, President Biden outlined the “distinct possibility” that the Russians will go on the offensive in February. Gen. Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday the administration “firmly” believes a diplomatic solution is still possible, but added any Russian invasion would result in a “significant amount of casualties.”

Zelensky publicly denied there being any “misunderstandings” with the Biden administration over the weekend, but added he has “deeper knowledge” of Ukraine’s situation than his American counterpart. “I am grateful to those states that have already declared their readiness to provide such support to Ukraine,” he said. “But another form of aid that is as important as armaments and finances is global confidence in Ukraine. Signals about stability, about the reliability of Ukraine as a partner. Especially when there are all grounds for it.” 

Ukrainian officials have been particularly peeved by the United States’ decision—echoed by the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia—to recall the family members of embassy staff from Kyiv. Foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko criticized the exodus as “premature,” and urged international partners to avoid activities that could destabilize the country’s “economic and financial security.”

General concerns about unrest and panic have certainly played a role in Ukrainian leaders’ brave new face, but Nikolenko’s concerns about “economic and financial security” are telling. Since Putin’s mobilization began in November of last year, Ukraine’s currency—the hryvnia—has fallen 8.4 percent against the dollar, putting it neck-and-neck with Russia’s ruble for the worst performing emerging market currency thus far in 2022.

Financial considerations appear to be a major driver behind Kyiv’s recent shift in public messaging, but is there also any chance Ukrainian officials’ public statements turn out to be correct? Some experts believe there could be credence to the notion that the West is misreading Putin’s hand. Could Russia, after building up troops, opt not to invade, like it did last spring?

This is, of course, Russia’s “official” position. On Monday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov—far from a reliable source—accused American media of circulating “unverified, distorted, and deliberately deceitful information” to stir up “hysteria” among the Ukrainian people.

Ultimately, the decision on whether or not to invade is Putin’s—and Putin’s alone. He is expected to speak about Ukraine today, at a press conference with Hungary’s Viktor Orban. The Biden administration’s official position is that, although Russian forces are capable of deploying to Ukraine on a moment’s notice, the Russian president has not yet decided how he wants to proceed. There are practical reasons for Putin to exhibit caution, even if he isn’t sold on the West’s moral case.

Ahead of Russia’s 2024 election, during which Putin is widely expected to make himself de facto president for life, some argue a prolonged, bloody war with Ukraine poses too great a threat to the president’s domestic base of support. Russia would eventually win, but a revamped Ukrainian military—armed to the teeth with Western equipment—could inflict some real damage.

“[Ukraine] is a country of hunters. They have over four million, largely unregistered weapons,” Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Dispatch. As he explained on The Remnant last week, Aron is skeptical Russia will go through with a full-scale invasion. “Imagine urban centers of two to three million people, with everybody shooting from the roof, throwing bombs, throwing grenades.”

In a December 2021 poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, one in three Ukrainian respondents said that they were prepared to take up arms in the event of a Russian incursion into their town or city. And in addition to a long history of successful guerrilla campaigns against foreign occupiers, Ukraine has also dramatically expanded the ranks of its armed forces since the first Russian invasion in 2014.

Putin may be able to achieve some of his long-standing geopolitical objectives without ordering troops crossing Ukraine’s border. The first, Aron argues, has already been realized. “By my count, Biden has spoken to him at least eight times—including the summit—which is an absolute record of frequency,” he said, adding that being seen as on equal footing as the American president is “enormously prestigious” for Russian leaders. “And by the way, with no preconditions. This is unheard of, this is a new diplomatic practice.”

But perhaps most importantly from Putin’s perspective, the last several months of Russian pressure has already exposed divisions among NATO member states. While the realities of a full-scale Ukraine invasion could quickly get the military alliance back on the same page, the status quo—an extended will he, won’t he?—has laid bare some of the greatest vulnerabilities in the alliance, as we noted following Biden’s “minor incursion” slip-up last month.

“[Putin] tested NATO and found it wanting in terms of an effective, timely, solid, united response. That was worth the exercise as well,” Aron said, adding that it could mark the “first step towards degrading the NATO footprint in the area that Russia considers its sphere of influence.”

Russians themselves are split on what they believe to be the Kremlin’s next course of action. Polling is hard to conduct in an autocratic state, but a poll by the Moscow-based Levada Center found that 39 percent of Russian respondents thought war was highly likely or unavoidable, 38 percent thought it was unlikely, and 15 percent ruled it out entirely.

Given his public comments earlier this week, Zelensky would likely count himself among the 38 percent in the unlikely camp. But the White House would probably argue that’s a bluff. 

“We understand the difficult position President Zelensky is in and the pressure he’s under,” a White House official told CNN over the weekend. ”But at the same time he’s downplaying the risk of invasion, he’s asking for hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons to defend against one. We think it’s important to be open and candid about that threat.”

Worth Your Time

  • In his latest column for The Orange County Register, Steven Greenhut objects to those on the New Right hoping to impose virtue upon Americans by government edict. “The goal of using government to achieve socially conservative ends is, as conservative writer Thomas Fitzgerald argued, ‘another bit of modernist utopianism, sure to be as brutal, yet brittle, when confronted with political reality,’” Greenhut writes. “Americans simply will find absurd workarounds—just as drinkers had done for decades in Utah. Government will have more reasons to control, fine, and harass us. … If you want to abstain from drinking or observe the Sabbath, then abstain from drinking and observe the Sabbath.”

  • Neil Young is a private actor who can do as he wishes, but Charlie Cooke has some questions for singer-songwriter about the logical endpoints of his stand against Joe Rogan on Spotify. “At what level of platform do we wish to impose ideological segregation?” he asks in a piece for National Review. “The op-ed page? The newspaper? The newspaper’s comments section? The newspaper’s comments section’s web host? Should I boycott Farmers’ Insurance if the guy in their commercials lies on Twitter? Should I refuse to fly Delta if I spot a passenger I disdain? I’ve been on TV with Joy Reid, for goodness sake. Should I have stormed off in high dudgeon the first time she said something false? … I have been asked this week if I’m on the side of Joe Rogan or the side of Neil Young, and my answer is that I favor neither. My preference, instead, is for a world in which I can subscribe to a digital music library without getting caught up in a cauldron of screaming, stupidity, and badly misplaced neo-Puritanism.”

  • Matt Yglesias’ latest Slow Boring newsletter seeks to define the terms in the never-ending “back to normal” debate. “Covid-19 mitigation measures are causing burdens over and above the burden of disease per se,” he argues. “To the extent that disruptions are caused by sickness, we would expect to see more disruptions in conservative parts of the country with low vaccination rates. Instead, we see equal if not greater disruptions in liberal parts of the country, even though the higher vaccination rate reduces the burden of disease. That’s because those jurisdictions are implementing Covid-19 mitigation measures with costs that exceed their benefits. And by making high-vaccination places relatively dysfunctional, these mitigations are sending a negative (and inaccurate) signal about the power of vaccination to let people live their lives with confidence.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On the site today, Harvest looks at a bevy of new state-level Republican attempts to do something about election fraud—despite many of those states’ own Republican election administrators’ insistence that the 2020 election took place without significant cheating.

  • On today’s episode of Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah break down the latest Electoral Count Act developments before turning to a suddenly relevant 1980s Supreme Court case about pulling books from school libraries. Plus: Sarah rescued a hawk!

Let Us Know

Does Russia launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine? A “minor incursion?” Nothing at all? 

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).