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The Morning Dispatch: Will Russia Give Peace a Chance?
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The Morning Dispatch: Will Russia Give Peace a Chance?

'There is what Russia says, and there is what Russia does.'

Happy Wednesday! On this day 41 years ago, Ronald Reagan was shot in the chest by a deranged man who was seeking to impress Jodie Foster.

In one of the more baller moments in the history of the American presidency, the 70-year-old Reagan walked into George Washington University Hospital under his own power, told his wife Nancy that he “forgot to duck,” and removed his oxygen mask in the operating room to joke with his surgeons that he hoped they were all Republicans. (They weren’t, but said they would be for the day.)

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told PBS News on Monday Russia would only use nuclear weapons if there is a threat to the “existence” of the country, adding there is “not a reason” to use them as part of its invasion of Ukraine. “No one is thinking about using—even about [the] idea of using—a nuclear weapon,” he claimed.

  • Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland, and the Czech Republic combined to expel more than 40 Russian diplomats from their respective capitals on Tuesday, claiming they were engaging in espionage and influence operations. “These intelligence officers are a threat to the security of [the Netherlands],” Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra said, and Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney claimed the Russian diplomats’ “activities have not been in accordance with international standards of diplomatic behavior.”

  • South Korean defense officials claimed Tuesday the intercontinental ballistic missile North Korea launched last week was likely a Hwasong-15—a missile North Korea first tested in 2017 that can carry a single nuclear warhead—rather than the more sophisticated, multiple-warhead Hwasong-17 ICBM that Pyongyang trumpeted as a “huge” new development.

  • Days after the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a shooting attack in Hadera, Israel, a gunman killed at least five people yesterday—four civilians and a law enforcement officer—in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak. “Israel is facing a wave of murderous Arab terrorism,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said.

  • The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday amended the emergency use authorizations for the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines to authorize a second booster dose—administered at least four months after the first booster dose—for certain immunocompromised individuals and all individuals 50 years of age and older. Centers for Disease Control Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky formally recommended the fourth dose later in the day, saying it was “especially important” for those over 65 and those over 50 with underlying conditions.

  • According to CDC estimates, the Omicron BA.2 subvariant became the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States last week, with the agency estimating that between 51 and 59 percent of new cases in the country could be attributed to the newer variant. The virus continues to wane in the United States, however, with the average number of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases falling 18 percent over the past two weeks.

  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Tuesday that U.S. job openings remained near record highs at the end of February, when there were 11.3 million unfilled jobs nationwide. The quits rate—the percentage of workers who quit their job during the month—was near record highs at 2.9 percent as well. (Reminder: The Dispatch accounts for approximately eight of those 11.3 million openings: We’re looking for summer interns, a social media marketing manager, an executive editor, and a president!)

  • U.S. home price growth accelerated in January, with the S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller National Home Price Index finding home prices up 19.2 percent year-over-year, an increase from 18.9 percent in December.

  • Three weeks after it unanimously passed the Senate, President Joe Biden on Tuesday formally signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law. Although murder has obviously been illegal throughout American history, the law amends the U.S. Criminal Code to designate lynching as a federal hate crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

Peace Talks All Talk—For Now

(Photo by Mikhail Klimentyev / SPUTNIK / AFP via Getty Images.)

Tuesday’s negotiations between Ukraine and Russia at a palace in Istanbul closed with positive statements and promises to talk more. It’s something, but until Russian President Vladimir Putin decides he can’t get what he wants by force, peace is likely to remain elusive.

Ukrainian officials—including a senior member of parliament and a top aide to President Volodymyr Zelensky—presented the proposal Zelensky had already outlined in recent days: If Russian troops withdraw—and Ukrainian voters approve the plan in a referendum—Ukraine will declare neutrality and abandon its efforts to join NATO. The country would still pursue European Union membership under this proposal, and third-party countries would provide guarantees supporting Ukraine’s neutrality by promising to aid Kyiv if Russia or another aggressor attacks again. Ukrainian officials also suggested siloing off the question of what to do about Donetsk and Luhansk—the two Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine—and Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014. Ukraine presumably wants to stop the full-scale invasion first, then tackle negotiations over those regions where Russia has been involved for years.

“All controversial issues have been more or less discussed,” Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said. “Our proposals have been made.”

Those proposals are a long way from getting Russian approval, as Foundation for Defense of Democracies Turkey expert Aykan Erdemir described Russia’s counters as “a lot of window dressing, and much less substance.” Russian delegates—including chief negotiator and Putin aide Vladimir Medinsky—confirmed to reporters that they’ll present Ukraine’s plan to the Kremlin for consideration. They also made a show of promising Russia would limit military operations near Kyiv as a gesture of goodwill to bolster the peace talks. 

U.S. officials quickly poured cold water on that commitment. “There is what Russia says, and there is what Russia does,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Tuesday. “We’re focused on the latter.” Russia’s advances on Kyiv and Chernihiv had more or less stalled out, so the Kremlin could be using the negotiations as a means of adjusting strategy while saving face. “We believe this is a repositioning, not a real withdrawal,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said. “We all should be prepared to watch for a major offensive against other areas of Ukraine.”

With Ukrainians civilians dying and fleeing—more than 2,900 civilian casualties and nearly 4 million refugees thus far, according to UN estimates—Zelensky is highly motivated to seek peace. But Russian forces’ pivot to the Donbas indicates that—despite valiant Ukrainian resistance in the north—Putin is likely not yet ready to talk. “It doesn’t matter how badly the ceasefire is needed,” Laurie Nathan—a professor at the University of Notre Dame who researches peace negotiations and helped mediate conflicts in South Africa and Sudan—told The Dispatch. “Parties are ready for a ceasefire when they think they can’t win. The parties must have a sense of a mutually hurting stalemate.”

If Putin isn’t looking for peace, what is he hoping to accomplish with the current negotiations? Nathan noted that negotiating gives the Russian president and his negotiators time to figure out Ukraine’s red lines and get to know its negotiators. Peace talks can also serve as a public relations tool, Erdemir said, allowing Putin to cast himself in the role of earnest peaceseeker thwarted by Ukraine’s insane demands—a smokescreen while he plans new attacks. James Goldgeier, a professor of international relations at American University, pointed out Russian officials could also hope—by appearing serious about negotiations—to divide the West over whether to ease sanctions to encourage that behavior.

That latter ploy seems unlikely to work, at least for now. “I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are. We’ll see if they follow through on what they are suggesting,” President Biden said yesterday. ”In the meantime, we’re going to continue to keep strong sanctions. … We’re going to continue to provide the Ukrainian military with their capacity to defend themselves. And we’re going to continue to keep a close eye on what’s going on.”

Russia and Ukraine aren’t the only potential beneficiaries of the talks, which are also a boon for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey buys wheat and vegetable oil from Ukraine, oil from Russia, and trades defense technology with both countries, which also send lots of tourists to Turkey. So Erdogan has a strong economic incentive to seek peace. Before Russia attacked Ukraine, Erdogan’s popularity was sinking amid an economic downturn. A high-profile role in international affairs could distract Turkey’s people from problems at home, Erdemir said, and it could persuade the Biden administration to back off on criticism of Erdogan’s human rights violations, hoping to keep him happily advancing peace in Ukraine.

Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich (a multi-billionaire known for buying yachts, art, and homes across the world, and for owning London’s Chelsea soccer team until sanctions froze his assets) has also carved out a role in the peace talks. He’s not an official part of the Russian or Ukrainian delegation, but he helped connect the parties and appeared at Tuesday’s negotiations. The Wall Street Journal and investigative outlet Bellingcat reported Monday that in early March, Abramovich and two Ukrainian negotiators experienced non-life-threatening poisoning symptoms, allegedly including peeling skin and temporary blindness for Abramovich. Other outlets confirmed the story.

It’s still unclear what happened. Russia denied that poisonings occurred, and a U.S. official told Reuters, “The intelligence highly suggests this was environmental. E.g., not poisoning.” Ukraine has also played down the story, but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters he’s urged his negotiators not to eat, drink, or touch anything during future talks.

The episode underscores that negotiators can’t take these talks lightly even if Putin isn’t fully on board. The deepening bite of sanctions and Ukraine’s continued resistance may push him there, but Goldgeier predicted it could take weeks or months. “It depends on whether [Putin has] come to grips with how badly this has gone compared to what was he was hoping, and how long that’s going to take to realize,” Goldgeier said. “I think there’s still time. I’d love to be wrong.”

Worth Your Time

  • Yuval Levin’s latest essay asks an interesting question: Why do America’s parties keep pursuing losing strategies, doubling down on their base voters rather than attempting to expand their appeal or coalition? “Politicians learn big lessons from big losses or big wins, so neither of our parties has learned much in a long time, and neither can quite grasp that it just isn’t very popular and could easily lose the next election,” he writes. “This dynamic has many causes—from the advent of party primaries to the evolution of the media and much in between. Polarization doesn’t have to mean deadlock, but a long-term pattern of growing negative polarization, in which each party sees the other as the country’s biggest problem, creates incentives for the parties to seek narrower but ideologically purer wins rather than build broader if less ideologically coherent coalitions.”

  • New York Times columnist Ezra Klein has spent much of the past year hoping that former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers’ pessimistic inflation projections would prove incorrect. They haven’t thus far, and Klein invited Summers on his podcast to pick the economist’s brain on what he saw that others didn’t, why he believes progressives should care a lot more about inflation than they do, and what policymakers at the Federal Reserve and in Congress can do to lower long-term inflationary expectations. “The doctor who prescribes you painkillers that make you feel good to which you become addicted is generous and compassionate, but ultimately is very damaging to you,” Summers argues. “And while the example is a bit melodramatic, the pursuit of excessively expansionary policies that ultimately lead to inflation, which reduces people’s purchasing power, and the need for sharply contractionary policies, which hurt the biggest victims, the most disadvantaged in the society, that’s not doing the people we care most about any favor. It’s, in fact, hurting them. … If you don’t respect the basic constraints of situations, you find yourself doing things that are counterproductive and that in the long-run prove to be harmful.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Haley was out sick, but Ryan and Harvest filled in admirably yesterday with an Uphill focusing on the January 6 Select Committee’s vote on contempt charges for Trump White House officials Dan Scavino and Peter Navarro. “In their remarks Monday night, members of the committee appealed directly to the Justice Department to act on the contempt referrals.”

  • In this week’s edition of The Sweep (🔒), Sarah takes a look the value of a Trump endorsement. In a recent study from Echelon Insights’ Patrick Ruffini, “there was a whopping 29-point advantage for a candidate that had been endorsed by Donald Trump … but only if that candidate had also been endorsed by other Republican officials,” Sarah writes. “Without those other endorsements, a Trump endorsement alone was a wash.”

  • American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Adam White returned to The Remnant on Tuesday for a conversation with Jonah about Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings and what they told viewers about her future jurisprudence. Plus: With originalism under attack on the right, will common good constitutionalism soon consume legal academia?

Let Us Know

We’re now more than a month into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and—given how yesterday’s peace talks went—we’re almost assuredly weeks or months away from reaching a conclusion. There’s no shortage of angles to explore when it comes to the most significant land war in Europe since 1945, but there’s no shortage of other newsworthy developments, as well.

Do you think TMD has struck the right balance in story selection the past few weeks? Too much Ukraine, or not enough? What would you like to see more coverage of?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.