I had just finished an interview with Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon when I saw a clip of last night’s Tucker Carlson show. The segment was about Ukraine at the center of tensions between the US, NATO and Russia.
What is NATO and what is the purpose of NATO since the fall of the Soviet Union 30 years ago that NATO was designed to be a bulwark against. Well, no one can answer that question. Not one person. And yet the same people who cooked up the Iraq War are now insisting that Ukraine must join NATO anyway. That would mean putting American military hardware right on Russia’s border. Russia doesn’t want that anymore than we would want Russian missiles in Tijuana.
MSNBC talking head Malcolm Nance said it was a master class in “How to openly Broadcast for America’s enemies.” He said Carlson is playing the part of a Fifth Column – or as Merriam-Webster says, “a group of secret sympathizers or supporters of an enemy that engage in espionage or sabotage within defense lines or national borders.”
“It is really bizarre, but unsurprising to hear Tucker Carlson repeating Russian state talking points that are over a decade old, St. Julian-Varnon said after I asked for a response to the Carlson clip.
“I've written about the connections between the alt-right and Russia. There is an echo chamber between the two that is terrifying,” she said.
She added: “The 180 turn from Republican views during the Cold War to accommodating Russian views on NATO is something to behold.”
St. Julian-Varnon is a PhD student and presidential fellow in the Department of History at Penn. Among other things, she studies African and African Diasporic racial identity in the former Soviet Union. I wanted to know more about the stakes of Ukrainian tensions.
She said the US and NATO allies could have responded more strongly after Russia, led by Vladimir Putin, took the Crimean peninsula.
They didn’t. And here we are now.
What's the status now with US-Russian relations over Ukraine?
Right now, the status is probably as tense as it has been since the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea. Russia is seeking promises that the United States and NATO cannot and do not intend on making. Particularly, NATO not expanding to include Ukraine.
This has been a Russian point of contention throughout Putin's multiple presidencies. He sees NATO as an anti-Russian military alliance, and its expansion into Ukraine is, for him, a threat.
Why does Putin see it as a threat?
NATO was created as an anti-Soviet military alliance. Arguably, since Russia was not allowed to join NATO following the collapse of the USSR, it appears to Putin that it is an anti-Russian alliance.
The level of "threat" that NATO expansion means to Russia depends on Russia's goals. If the goal is to force Ukraine to remain in Russia's political, military and economic orbit, then it is a threat.
However, NATO expansion is not an existential nor military threat to Russia. Putin is using it to rationalize his behavior.
What would he have to gain by invading?
This is the question I've been thinking about the most.
Putin, if the Russian military can take and hold it, gains probably most of Eastern Ukraine, i.e., the Ukrainian territory east of Kyiv. He has stated multiple times that this is Novorossiya or Malorossiya, the names for Ukrainian territory during Imperial Russian history.
So, if we take Putin at his word, he seeks to recreate the greater Russian imperial territory on the western border of Russia by adding the Ukrainian east.
Putin does not recognize Ukraine as a sovereign state nor Ukrainians as non-Russian people. That’s clear from his public statements.
I also think Putin would see invasion, depending on the NATO and American responses, as a clear illustration of Russia's position as a global power (rather than a regional power, as western media and policy officials like to describe it).
More worrisome is if the west fails to support Ukraine in case of an invasion, there is a devastating lesson to be learned by smaller post-Soviet states. It is better to work with Russia than suffer like Ukraine.
Let's assume there is an invasion and there is a response from the US and its allies. What would that response look like?
I'm not sure, and it seems like American and western European leaders are not sure either.
Biden's "minor incursions" gaffe in his most recent speech about the tension in Ukraine showed no consensus on what to do, but it appears there are or will be levels of response based on Russia's actions.
I don't see American or NATO troops on the ground in Ukraine.
Most likely severe sanctions on Russia yet again. More targeted sanctions like those against four Ukrainian MPs with ties to Russia. Perhaps material and weapons support and aid. Maybe support for the Ukrainian domestic fighters against the invading Russian forces.
But I remember watching the crises in Crimea and Donetsk in real-time in 2014, and my hopes for a strong US response were dashed.
So a stronger response would be better?
I think so. The 2014 response did not prevent what we’re seeing now.
But I do not think Russia anticipates nor wants a full-on war, especially with any western forces. It doesn't make sense.
Constant destabilization of Ukraine makes it less likely Ukraine will be a viable candidate to join the EU or NATO.
Can you help us understand Russian politics?
I think it depends on what you see as defining Russian politics.
I'd argue that very little that Putin does is reflective of regular Russians who are still reeling from sanctions and rampant covid infections.
Putin has consolidated power such that the Duma wields little influence on major policy. Influence and money go hand-in-hand in Russian politics, but what is more damaging is the tight hold that Putin has on the media.
Russian state-controlled media serves as a microphone for the Kremlin, and it is incredibly difficult for any Russian independent media sources to remain open.
Meduza (though based in Latvia) has been deemed a foreign agent, Memorial has been shut down (it was an incredibly important archive that preserved the life histories of Soviet people, among other things).
Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church works as an instrument of the Kremlin. So you don't necessarily have an independent religious impulse in the largest church in the country.
And finally, elections, especially national elections, are a sham.
Opposition figures are constantly harassed and imprisoned, their offices raided. There is no open, functioning democracy in Russia.
Can you explain Putin's vision?
I think Putin's vision is to make Russia a world power again, in similar strength and influence to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.
The issues with his vision of Ukraine stems from an imperialist view on Ukraine as forever a part of and linked to Russia. This predates the Soviet Union and ties back to Imperial Russia.
But the vision isn't neo-Soviet per se. We don't see Putin trying to destabilize the Baltic states, but he has maintained close ties and influence with former Soviet states in Central Asia (Russian 'peacekeepers' in Kazakhstan during the protests for example).
Putin also wants to maintain absolute control over Russia. I think the portrayal of Putin as some omniscient, mastermind of evil is overblown. What Putin does understand and has understood for a long time, is realpolitik. Money, influence, hard power. Those influence his thinking and his behavior.
In a way, Putin's behavior in Ukraine is forcing the US, European Union, and NATO to publicly show how they think about and what they will do for the states of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc that want to become part of Europe.
Will the west allow Ukraine to join the EU or NATO? Will it use military support, if necessary in an invasion?
I think these are key issues for Putin because they have real meaning on the ground.
I do want Americans and western Europeans to understand that there are millions of lives at stake here in Ukraine. No invasion will be a minor incursion, it will cost lives and destroy communities.
For the sake of Ukraine, I hope the west understands this.
As Merrick Garland explained in his big speech earlier this month, the way to dismantle a criminal conspiracy is to start at the bottom and work up. It’s a slow process, but it can be devastatingly effective.
That’s why the fifty-nine Republicans who cast fake electoral votes are a gift to investigators seeking to understand Trump’s role in the plot to overturn the 2020 election. These pseudo-electors impersonated public officials in a bid to overturn a presidential election.
They signed forged paperwork and sent it to the government. It’s an open-and-shut case, but investigators could parlay this into something much bigger than prison terms for a few dozen local GOP operatives.
In a group of nearly 60 people facing serious prison time, at least some of them will be willing to implicate the higher ups to save themselves.
“Once those individuals see that they could possibly be facing prison time, I do think we’re going to see some people flip and we’ll get some further information as to who orchestrated this in the first place,” Michigan attorney general Dana Nessel told MSNBC viewers last week, adding that, “It may go all the way to the top.”
Nessel noted that under Michigan law, those who signed the fake certificates could face up to 14 years in prison for forging a public record and five years for election law forgery.
The AG said she’s prepared to prosecute if she has to, but said the federal government is better suited to handle what is clearly a sprawling conspiracy orchestrated across state lines. Wisconsin's Attorney General Josh Kaul agrees this is a case for the feds.
They’re not wrong.
The fake certificates come from seven states, but they have nearly identical verbiage and formatting. Real certificates of ascertainment all look slightly different because there’s no standardized form. Yet the fake ones all look alike. The question: Who supplied the template?
Trump’s inner circle was obsessed with the fake electors scheme. Memos by Trump lawyer John Eastman show that he assigned these fake electoral votes a starring role in his procedural coup. It was these fake votes he hoped Mike Pence would count instead of the real ones.
Weeks before the electoral vote, Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows was texting about how much he loved a plan to seat fake electors. Trump advisor Steven Miller even went on television to describe the plan to present congress with “alternative” electoral votes. US Rep. Mo Brooks led an effort to throw out the electoral votes of the Biden swing states, reportedly with Trump’s blessing.
US Rep. Louie Gohmert teamed up with some of the pseudo-electors to sue Mike Pence in a doomed bid to force the VP to count the phony votes. The connection between the fake electors and that lawsuit was reported well ahead of J6.
“[The fake electors] are counting on Pence and congressional Republicans to treat those informal votes as equal to the slates certified in those states where Trump was defeated,” Kyle Cheney of Politico wrote on Dec 28.
The pressure is on, and the cracks in the facade are spreading.
Arizona state Rep. Jake Hoffman refused to answer a reporter’s question about how he came to cast a fake vote for Trump, nervously referring all questions to “the party chair.”
The chair of the Arizona GOP is Dr. Kelli Ward, who was not only a fake elector but also Gohmert’s co-plaintiff. A number of the fake electors are high-ranking officials in their state parties. Wisconsin’s fake votes were even submitted by the state party’s chair on Wisconsin GOP letterhead.
Pennsylvania’s fake electors are already distancing themselves from their co-conspirators, stressing they refused to sign the electoral vote paperwork unless they could include a proviso that they weren’t the lawful electors unless a court recognized them as such.
“We were not going to sign unless the language was changed to say ‘if,’ fake elector Sam DeMarco told a local paper. “This was in no way, shape or form us trying to go around the election.”
The fact that Pennsylvania and Nevada felt it necessary to include a disclaimer makes the states that didn’t look even worse, like they were trying to, well, go against the election.
It’s been one year since Joe Biden’s inauguration and many are evaluating his performance.
In one such analysis, New York Times reporter Nate Cohn argued that “Biden was supposed to be FDR. Instead, he's following the playbook of the last half century of politically unsuccessful Democratic presidencies, from LBJ and Clinton to Obama.”
Cohn went on to claim that Biden’s ostensible lack of success was due to an over-commitment to Democrats’ “activist base,” an inadequate focus on the economy and a disconnect from the issues facing the American public at large.
This analysis is spurious on multiple levels.
First, the denotation of “unsuccessful” in this analysis is unclear.
Are we talking about legislative achievements, popularity, or both? Either way, LBJ, Clinton and Obama all had victories in domestic policy.
LBJ passed the Great Society and the Civil Rights Act. When Clinton left office, the economy was booming and the United States had a surplus. Obama brought the country out of a recession and passed extensive healthcare reform, ultimately expanding insurance to millions of Americans.
So the premise that Johnson, Clinton and Obama were unsuccessful seems a bit shaky, but what about Joe Biden?
In his first year as president, Biden passed two large pieces of legislation: The American Rescue Act (ARPA) and the Bipartisan Infrastructure bill (BIF). For some reason, analysts seem to consider these pieces of legislation unimportant.
Perhaps ARPA gets neglected because it’s viewed as an emergency measure intended to address the bleeding wounds inflicted by the pandemic.
But ARPA was, in fact, a pretty big deal.
The $1.9 trillion legislation provided financial assistance to citizens and small businesses. The childcare tax credit helped American families in the working and middle classes, and mitigated childhood poverty. School funding and the extension of unemployment insurance likely saved many American lives, as well as mitigated economic harm. The American economy also recovered more quickly than the economies of other developed countries.
Cohn’s memory-holing of the infrastructure bill – BIF – is equally strange. Our nation languished for decades without a substantial investment in infrastructure.
Such investment was so desperately desired that former President Trump frequently declared it to be “infrastructure week” to distract from various scandals. The term subsequently entered the lexicon as a metaphor for hollow, manipulative rhetoric about non-existent policy.
Then Biden came along and did what Trump proved incapable of: He passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. The bill not only enjoyed massive public support, but was also broadly endorsed by unions representing diverse groups of American workers, from truckers to farmers to civil engineers.
Yet, for some reason, both analysts and the public seem to have forgotten this historic legislation even exists.
This may be driven by the fact that infrastructure is popular and uncontroversial. The majority of Congressional Republicans voted against the bill, but they also refrained from waging a public battle.
Infrastructure was thus not very spicy, so the press didn’t cover it as a Biden victory and it has faded from public memory.
Thus, in this case, the popularity of Biden’s agenda may also render this same agenda foggy in press coverage and public consciousness.
Underestimating Biden’s achievements is not the only area where Cohn’s analysis falters.
Cohn also claims that, “Biden’s efforts have shifted from the pandemic and the economy” and decided to “prioritize the goals of his party’s activist base over the issues prioritized by voters.” These choices, according to Cohn, are responsible for Biden’s waning favorability.
This analysis is spurious.
ARPA, BIF and BBB are all bills focused on the economy. ARPA protected businesses, workers and ushered in a relatively swift economic recovery. BIF was hailed as a historic investment in infrastructure, providing funds for bridges, roads, environmental clean-up and broadband internet.
BBB is equally economically focused. The investments in climate change mitigation will save money. Further, both BIF and BBB address long term inflationary effects and could create hundreds of thousands of jobs.
These factors led the Brookings’ institute to declare: “America finally has a generation-defining infrastructure bill — and if the reconciliation budget comes through, too, America will begin a building spree larger than what happened during the New Deal.”
This doesn’t look like Biden’s not focused on the economy.
Cohn’s claim that Biden’s agenda is too catered to the “activist base” of the Democratic party is equally wobbly.
When Americans are directly polled on the provisions included in BBB, such as prescription drug prices or childcare subsidies, they express overwhelming support. Further, while voters express support for provisions like the child tax credit, only 38 percent believe Biden is responsible for this benefit.
Thus, Biden isn’t ignoring causes important to American citizens; rather, an information gap exists between Americans’ assessment of their interests and the Biden policies that address these same issues.
None of this looks like narrow catering to a leftist base; rather it looks a lot like addressing the interests of a broad spectrum of Americans.
So what’s actually going on with Biden’s favorability?
Biden’s current political situation is, in some ways, not that abnormal. One way to look at this is to compare Biden’s polling with former President Trump’s favorability during this same period in his presidency.
Whereas Biden is at 43 percent, Trump was at 37 percent at the one-year mark. In the polls, both Trump and Biden enjoy high within-party support and low support from the opposing side. Their numbers with independents are roughly similar.
However, Biden’s situation is also somewhat unique because, unlike Trump, his agenda is actually popular.
Biden’s first year is also distinct from Clinton’s and Obama’s, both of whom faced massive public backlash against their healthcare agendas, as well as highly effective Republican fear-mongering about socialism and government control.
In contrast, Build Back Better continues to enjoy broad public support. There are no public protests and Republicans have limited their attacks to concern-trolling about the cost of the bill, rather than its contents.
So what’s actually going on with Biden’s favorability?
It’s likely driven by many factors. Perhaps the public is frustrated by the stalling of BBB and uninspired by BIF. The public is also depressed by covid and worried about inflation.
Additionally, some of this might just be due to political gravity. Biden, like Trump before him, remains popular within his own party, unpopular within the opposing party, and is getting grief from independents.
Either way, though, it’s pretty clear Biden’s approval rating is not linked to opposition to his agenda, which is broadly popular.
The agenda is not too far left. It does address economic concerns. The real dynamics at play likely involve political forces over which Biden has little control, the pandemic, and critically, a lack of public awareness about Biden’s agenda itself.
Overall, it’s too soon to tell if Biden is a “successful” president.
We’re only one year in.
That said, Biden has had a remarkably successful first year. He passed two major pieces of legislation. A third piece of legislation passed the House, despite Democrats holding a narrow majority. In the Senate, the bill enjoys broad support, but is held up by the opaque interests of two people.
Is Biden winning a popularity contest with independents? No. Is he winning over the hearts and minds of Republicans? No.
But these are not necessarily the metrics by which we should judge his success.
Rather, we should ask what Biden has actually done. From ARPA to BIF, Biden has passed economically focused legislation that enjoys broad political support from citizens.
Perhaps more first-year analyses should focus on these facts.
What Biden’s more likely experiencing is a confluence of polarization, national depression and anxiety, and large gaps in public awareness of legislation. There is no evidence, though, that his agenda is out of step with the American public. In fact, all of the evidence indicates Americans endorse his plans.