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Our Best Stuff From a Week of Big Russia News
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Our Best Stuff From a Week of Big Russia News

Putin threatens nuclear weapons, tries to annex Ukrainian land, and Russian forces make a retreat.

Hello and happy Saturday. It’s a busy weekend here in the Ohio bureau. Our oldest is home from college for a few days, our middle son is going to homecoming with a group of friends, and apparently we are hosting the (well-chaperoned, alcohol-free) after-party. 

I could attempt to wax eloquently about the moments in which the joys of parenting teenage boys outweigh the moodiness, the smelly feet, and the discovery of half your cereal bowls under an empty Doritos bag in a bedroom corner.

But that is an evergreen topic. Meanwhile, as I’m writing this, news is breaking in Ukraine. Good news. Last weekend, Russia held “referendums” in the territories that they control in Ukraine. I put “referendum” in scare quotes because, well, for all of the perceived problems with voting in the United States, we tend not to send the military door to door to force people to vote at gunpoint.  

On Friday, Putin used the results from those sham referendums to “annex” Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. It’s a blatant violation of international law. As it turns out, it’s also not representative of the situation on the ground.

CNN and other outlets are reporting that Russian troops have retreated from the town of Lyman in the Donetsk region. Twitter users have posted video of what they describe as Ukrainian forces inside the city, tearing down a Russian-language sign.

As Politico notes:

​​Lyman has been an important logistics and supply hub for Russian forces fighting in eastern Ukraine. Its loss will further cripple Moscow’s supply lines just as Ukrainian troops are stepping up a counteroffensive in the east that has pushed Russian forces from the Kharkiv area.

Apparently the Russians are acknowledging the retreat, at least in their own way. From CNN: 

Russia-24 reporter Yevgeny Poddubny acknowledged the withdrawal and claimed the reason for it was that “the enemy used both Western-made artillery and intelligence from North Atlantic alliance countries.”

Not much need to read between the lines here: Russia is blaming the West for its loss. As it happens, even before the events of today, we had a pretty Russia-heavy week in terms of content, and I have summarized several of our pieces below. As much as the news out of Lyman is encouraging, we are at a very dangerous time in the war. Putin is backed into a corner and has threatened to use nuclear weapons, and he’s just suffered an embarrassing loss one day after making an outlandish claim to Ukrainian territory. We hope our work helps you make sense of it all.

Thanks for reading, and have a good weekend.

In his speech announcing the callup of reservists and a new draft, Vladimir Putin made a not-so-veiled threat to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Paul Miller writes that it is unclear how Putin would deploy nukes—the Ukrainians don’t have massive formations of troops that could be taken out with a tactical nuke and detonating a “city buster” over some place like Kharkiv seems beyond the pale even for the desperate Russian dictator—but that we shouldn’t underestimate him. “He is victim to sunk costs: Having lost so many Russians, and lost so much personal and national prestige, he must vindicate their blood and Russian honor and his own legacy by trying to push on to victory,” he writes. “He has repeatedly told his people that this is a conflict not against Ukraine but against the United States and the West. Backing down would be an acknowledgment that the United States defeated Russia—without losing a single soldier. For Putin, losing a major war will cost him his legacy, his power, and likely his life. The war is not existential for Russia, but it is for Putin: He wins or dies.” 

Russia isn’t exactly known for its free and fair elections, but hundreds of thousands of Russian men have voted with their feet in an informal referendum of sorts. On September 22, Putin announced a partial mobilization to shore up Russia’s forces in Ukraine. Since then Russians, mostly men, have been fleeing the country. Charlotte, who will be reporting from Europe for the next few months, spoke to one man who’d fled to Istanbul. Vlad, who did not provide his surname, said he belongs to an unregistered opposition group and described Russia’s targeting of low-level activists. “If you are a big political activist and you gain attention, you will get locked up,” he told Charlotte. “If you are not a big political activist, you don’t know who to trust. Even if you’re a small fish, you can still get fried.” She also spoke to Eva Rapoport, who works for a group helping opponents of the war escape persecution, and notes that some countries are limiting how many Russians they will accept. Charlotte writes, “In theory restrictions on Russian nationals are designed to foster internal resentment toward Putin.” But Rapoport thinks that misses the point. “I do think these sanctions, they’re hurting the wrong people,” Rapoport said. “It’s not affecting people who are in Russia and never planning on leaving Russia.” The debate over accepting those fleeing Putin’s mobilization is fraught, and our new staffer Nick Catoggio ran through the arguments both for and against granting fleeing Russians asylum. Read his thoughts here

One of Kevin Williamson’s recurring features for us will be “Econ for English Majors.” (For some reason there is a stereotype that journalists are bad at math. I will neither confirm nor deny its accuracy.) His first installment is about comparative advantage. It is, as he writes, one of the most “misunderstood concepts in economics.” The gist is that we’re all better off if, within a community, people focus their work on what they are good at rather than have everyone do all of their work for themselves. He starts out with a word problem of sorts: “Bob can gather six coconuts in an hour or catch three fish. Steve, the more energetic one, can gather 12 coconuts in an hour or catch 18 fish.” How can they maximize their resources? And, is that too much math for you? (No judgment here.) If it is, he has an example of what happens when group members don’t seek to divide labor via comparative advantage: He tells the story of locavores who set out to make ham sandwiches truly from scratch. “They raised pigs and made ham, made and aged cheese, grew wheat and milled it into flour, etc. This took more than a year and cost almost $50,000 to produce about 350 sandwiches.” 

However many differences there are between the left and right, both sides have a populist movement within their ranks. I like to joke that whenever Elizabeth Warren teams up with Josh Hawley, be very afraid. But Stirewalt uses his Monday column to highlight the differences between left-wing and right-wing populism. They start from the same point—“things are the way they are—bad, unfair, and getting worse—because they won’t let us have the good things and live the good life”—but diverge over who “they” are. He’s also noticed that both forms of populism have a sense of utopianism baked in. It’s just a different kind of utopianism. “Progressive populism is almost expressly utopian,” he writes. “… If we could provide a reasonable income and services for people, in time, the maladies of the past 100,000 years would fade away. Shiny, happy people holding hands.” But right-wing populism is more reactionary: “Right-wing utopianism holds that if enough power can be placed in the right hands, human nature can be overcome, and men and women will be forced, to their benefit, into the correct communal settings where they can prosper and avoid the chaotic splintering of modernity.”  

Whew, that was a lot. Here’s a little more:

  • Scott Lincicome really, really hates the Jones Act. Using the devastating situation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Fiona, he explains why in the latest Capitolism

  • Jonah’s Wednesday G-File on the devolution of the “conservative” movement is worth a much longer blurb, but you’ll have to take my word for it. Come for the talk about American exceptionalism, stay for the explanation of how the “new” conservatism is just a rehashed Buchanism.

  • No one is on the Uyghur forced labor beat quite like Haley. In Uphill, she reports that “From October 1 of last year through mid-September of this year, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) targeted more than 3,600 shipments worth nearly $800 million from around the world for potential ties to forced labor.”

  • Kentucky has a very restrictive abortion law on the books, but there is also a ballot measure this fall that, if passed, would amend the state constitution to say that “nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to secure or protect a right to abortion or require the funding of abortion.” Will it go the way of the failed Kansas referendum? Andrew reports.

  • A lot of “cancel culture” comes from people on the left calling out egregious behavior by those on the right, or vice versa. But David argues in French Press that the worst kind of cancel culture comes from inside the house. “When your own tribe casts you out, that’s the greatest pain,” he writes.

  • The pods: On The Dispatch Podcast, the gang discusses the explosions that rocked the Nord Stream pipelines in Europe and who might have done it. On The Remnant, Jonah and Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution have a fascinating conversation on men and marriage and masculinity. David and Sarah recorded live from the University of Michigan for Advisory Opinions, speaking with 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Chad Readler. And on Good Faith, David and Curtis interview sociology professor Ruth López Turley about what educational equity and what the scriptures can teach us.

Rachael Larimore is managing editor of The Dispatch and is based in the Cincinnati area. Prior to joining the company in 2019, she served in similar roles at Slate, The Weekly Standard, and The Bulwark. She and her husband have three sons.