On the menu today: A rare word of praise for the Biden administration; why Vladimir Putin seems so hell-bent on returning Ukraine to the Russian orbit; what makes the current economic situation so unusual; a sudden shift in Democratic officials’ thinking about vaccine mandates; and Dr. Anthony Fauci’s latest assessment of the Omicron variant is a dramatic change from about two weeks ago.
Biden vs. Putin
This newsletter spends a lot of time criticizing Joe Biden and his administration when they deserve it — which is . . . almost all the time, almost every day — but let us pause and credit the administration for spending a good portion of yesterday attempting to send a clear message to Vladimir Putin and galvanize U.S. allies in order to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Since 2014, after the seizure of Crimea, Russia and Ukraine have had a protracted, low-level conflict in the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine. Much of the fighting is done by the “little green men” — masked Russian troops with no uniform insignias. But there are signs that this low-level conflict is on the verge of exploding into a much larger one. Right now, Russia has a lot of military troops amassed around Ukraine’s borders — the head of Ukraine’s defense-intelligence agency estimates the number to be more than 92,000, while other Ukrainian officials put the number closer to 115,000.
And, “U.S. intelligence has found the Kremlin is planning a multi-front offensive as soon as early next year involving up to 175,000 troops, according to U.S. officials and an intelligence document obtained by The Washington Post.”
What’s changed this year? This Wall Street Journal op-ed by Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss offers an illuminating and succinct summary, detailing how Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine as the one that got away:
But one significant piece of unfinished business remains, and that is Ukraine. For the man who dubbed the breakup of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, the ultimate prize would be bringing Ukraine and its capital Kyiv, which the official historiography portrays as the medieval cradle of Russia’s greatness and statehood, back into the fold.
Mr. Putin talks about this goal in conspicuously emotional terms. He has long held that the ties between the two nations cannot be severed and that the Soviet collapse in 1991 was an invalid divorce. Just this past July, he published a nearly 7,000-word article denying Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent country, asserting that the Ukrainian people aren’t separate and distinct from Russians, and claiming that Ukraine can prosper and realize its full potential only as part of greater Russia. Mr. Putin has further warned that NATO is exploiting Ukraine, making it a platform from which to threaten Russia’s heartland. This, he said, is unacceptable, a “red line.”
Vladimir Putin just turned 69 years old. Russian state-run media constantly tout his excellent health, but he’s been seen coughing in public and there are periodic unconfirmed rumors of diagnoses of cancer or Parkinson’s disease. God only knows if any of those rumors are true, but Putin knows the odds of him still being alive and running Russia five or ten years from now are not as good as the odds were five or ten years ago. He’s been running Russia since 1999 as either president or prime minister, and he’s probably closer to the end of his reign than the beginning. It would not be surprising if Putin were spending a lot of time thinking about his legacy right now.
The world is still reeling from COVID-19, most of the West is focused on the rise of an increasingly aggressive China, the NATO alliance is full of unresolved tensions from the Trump years and the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, and there’s a Democrat in the White House who has no interest in committing U.S. troops to the defense of Ukrainian soil. Western populations are divided, angry, confused, paranoid, and not in the least bit interested in a territory fight over places they’ve never heard of, such as Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhia. If you’re Putin, maybe this winter looks like the best opportunity you’re going to get to see Russian flags flying over large swaths of Ukraine before you die.
For most of Biden’s presidency so far, he and his top officials have talked a good game about standing up to Vladimir Putin and then inched away from any actual conflict.
Biden almost immediately accepted Putin’s offer to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty for five years, dropped U.S. opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that makes Europe more dependent upon Russian energy exports, declined to pursue Putin’s personal wealth through sanctions, increased U.S. imports of Russian oil, and canceled the Keystone Pipeline. Despite Biden’s promise to restore U.S. alliances, leaders in Europe are fuming about a variety of policy snubs from him and accusing the president of being disloyal to the Transatlantic alliance. Biden did not mention Russia at all in his address to the United Nations.
Melinda Haring, the deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, wrote in September that the U.S. is governed by “an administration that decidedly wants to ignore Russia.”
But yesterday was a good sign that the Biden administration realizes it can’t ignore Russia any longer. Yesterday, national-security adviser Jake Sullivan said, “I will look you in the eye and tell you, as President Biden looked President Putin in the eye and told him today, that things we did not do in 2014 we are prepared to do now.” While I can’t help but notice that in 2014, Jake Sullivan was . . . er, Joe Biden’s national-security adviser, it is good that these former Obama administration officials recognize that they dropped the ball last time. (Recall John Kerry’s effectively begging the Russians to take the “diplomatic off ramp” after they had seized Crimea.)
That said, it’s clear the administration is trying to play catch-up. Sullivan also said, “When it comes to Nord Stream 2, the fact is that gas is not currently flowing through the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which means that it’s not operating, which means that it’s not leverage for Putin. Indeed, it is leverage for the West, because if Vladimir Putin wants to see gas flow through that pipeline, he may not want to take the risk of invading Ukraine.” Sullivan also characterized the pipeline as “an object of great priority for the Biden administration.”
At least now it is. The Biden administration contradicted its early pledges and dropped its opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in May, and construction on the pipeline was completed in September. If you don’t want a former KGB lieutenant colonel to think you’re a pushover, don’t lead with a bunch of concessions out of the gate, thinking you’re going to build goodwill with him.
And Now, Back to the Administration Missing the Point
Today, President Biden will be in Kansas City, “where he will continue highlighting how the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law delivers for Missourians by rebuilding roads and bridges, upgrading public transit, replacing water infrastructure, and creating good-paying union jobs,” in the words of Jen Psaki yesterday.
The irony is that President Biden is still going around the country, promising that the legislation he’s signed into law will create jobs, during a nearly unprecedented labor shortage. The country has 10.4 million unfilled jobs. For the first time in a long time, we don’t need the federal government or anyone else deliberately setting out to expand the number of job openings. We need more workers to put in the jobs that are unfilled! You almost wonder if this situation is so unfamiliar that the Biden team doesn’t know how to respond. As Dominic Pino laid out:
At no point between the mild recession in 2001 and the Great Recession did the number of job openings exceed the number of unemployed persons. During the Great Recession, the number of job openings decreased, and the number of unemployed persons increased. Both happened steadily throughout the entire 18-month recession, with unemployed persons increasing faster than job openings were declining.
The gap between them reached its apex in October 2009, when there were nearly 13 million more unemployed persons than job openings. It gradually closed over the next eight years, finally disappearing in January 2018. (You may remember this talking point from the Trump administration: We had more jobs than people to fill them.) Things had seemed to stabilize at a little over 1 million more job openings than unemployed persons.
I wonder if Biden is so used to promising to create jobs, he can’t stop.
Look Who Doesn’t Like Vaccine Mandates Now
A lot of times, you’re not wrong, you’re just correct too early. “In recent comments, several high-profile Democrats have stated their opposition to vaccine mandates, specifically applied to private businesses. The most recent Democratic lawmaker to voice her concern was Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Once considered to be Biden’s vice president, Whitmer said she opposes mandates, citing the impact on the state’s workforce — as Michigan grapples with upticks in cases and residents are split on whether or not to get the vaccine.”
ADDENDUM: I realize that when a new COVID-19 variant comes along, it takes a while for researchers to get a good handle on the severity and level of risk it poses. I also know that Dr. Anthony Fauci doesn’t write the headlines about his comments, and he’s usually trying to describe something complicated and nuanced, and he usually wants to err on the side of caution. That said:
NBC News, November 26: “Fauci warns Americans to take new Omicron variant seriously”
UPI, November 28: “Fauci warns Omicron may ‘evade immune protection’ from COVID-19”
The New York Post, November 30: “Fauci warns Omicron variant case count could ‘change rapidly’ amid global spread”
And then . . .
Agence France-Presse, yesterday: “Omicron variant ‘almost certainly’ not more severe than Delta, Fauci tells AFP”