*Ukraine: Russian setbacks, int’l response, Putin’s nuke threat*. Biden’s woes ahead of State of the Union. SCOTUS to hear appeal to limit EPA’s climate powers.
Biden pressured on Ukraine, gas prices ahead of State of the Union
Tomorrow, President Biden will deliver his State of the Union address before Congress. Currently, his administration is grappling with a number of challenges, including criticism on his handling of the Ukraine crisis and inflation. As a result, Biden’s approval rating has dropped to 40%.
Many worry that wide-ranging sanctions on Russia could drive up already high gas prices. So far, U.S. and international sanctions have excluded any embargo on purchases of Russian oil. Despite this, oil prices again jumped over $100 a barrel today due to rampant speculation.
To try to offset the rise in gas prices, the White House has been leading talks with other oil-producing country to increase their output. OPEC is meeting this week to discuss prices and production. But it’s unlikely they will increase their output because they want to keep gas prices high. One silver lining is that ongoing U.S. talks with Iran could result in a deal that will see Iran return to the 2015 nuclear deal and allow Iranian oil to re-enter the international market.
The GOP has also criticized Biden’s handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the conservative narrative on just how Biden has mishandled it have not been internally consistent. Some GOP factions say Biden’s sanctions haven’t gone far enough and others claim they have gone too far. However, George W. Bush’s former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave Biden credit for uniting NATO and the international community on Ukraine.
Supreme Court hears arguments to limit EPA’s climate change efforts
Today, the Supreme Court will hear arguments from Republican-led states and coal companies that want to diminish the EPA’s power to limit emissions. At present, there are no EPA limits on emissions from power plants in force. Rather, this is a pre-emptive strike by coal lobbies who fear new regulations.
One of the goals of the Biden administration is to put regulations in place to halve CO2 emissions by 2030. So far, Democrats have had no success in enshrining this goal in legislation. Polluters believe the next recourse will be to bolster the EPA’s power to implement limits through executive order.
So far, the conservative majority court has taken every chance to hobble Biden’s executive powers. Some fear that the court could make broad ruling whose scope would extend beyond the EPA. Potentially, this could compromise federal enforcement across the board.
Ukraine: Russian setbacks, int’l response, Putin’s nuke threat
It’s been an eventful weekend in Europe to say the least. The Russian advance continues to encircle Ukraine’s capital, and its second city, Kharkhiv. While Russian troops have yet to infiltrate the city and both remain under Ukrainian control, both have suffered extensive shelling. In Kharkhiv, the Russians are using heavy artillery, including cluster munitions, in civilian areas. There are reports they targeted a nursery school where civilians were sheltering.
Since Thursday, at least 352 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, many of those in the last 24 hours. Shelling in Kharkhiv, continuous since yesterday, has killed at least 102, but the final number will be considerably higher. At least 200 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed, though it’s difficult to find up-to-date numbers.
Mercenaries sent for Zelensky
According to Ukrainian sources, over 400 mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a Russian security contractor, have infiltrated Kiev with the objective of assassinating Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Surprisingly, sources from the Wagner Group confirm that they have accepted such a contract. So far they have been unsuccessful. Kiev mayor and former world heavyweight boxing champ Vitaly Klitschko reports that local volunteers have “neutralized” dozens of “Russian saboteurs” in Kiev’s streets since Thursday.
Putin’s goal appears to be to kill Zelensky and install a friendlier replacement. Even if Putin succeeded, this may only succeed in further galvanize Ukrainian resistance and international support. Zelensky’s decision to stay in Kiev, refusing American offers to evacuate him, and his frequent video addresses have earned him 90% support among Ukrainians and international adulation.
The consensus is that the Russian advance is well behind in its timeline of objectives. This is due both to Ukrainian resistance being more ferocious than anticipated, as well as widespread logistical setbacks.
Up to now, Russia’s conventional military assault has progressed little better. Perhaps overconfident of his success, Putin did not send his country’s newest and best equipment in the first wave. Tanks and armored personnel carriers are outdated and poorly maintained. Additionally, there are numerous accounts online of Russian tanks and other military vehicles running out of gas. They seemed to have only had enough supplies for about 48 hours. Soldiers are also running out of food and medical supplies.
Morale among the Russian foot soldiers seems to be quite low. Ukraine claims that some 5000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the fighting. Several hundred have also either surrendered or been captured. Most of the soldiers are young conscripts. Many have told their captors they had no idea they were going to be fighting in Ukraine. The soldiers are allowed to phone home to let family members know where they are. The family members are often shocked to learn their children were fighting in Ukraine.
Ukraine has also set up hotlines, encouraging Russian families to call in to identify captive soldiers. Families can also arrange to repatriate the remains of loved ones killed in the fighting.
The international response to the conflict also intensified over the weekend. Firstly, the U.S., Britain, and EU have agreed to block some major Russian banks from the SWIFT service. This will seriously impede the banks’ ability to transact business abroad. However, there are specific carve outs for purchases of Russian oil and gas abroad, which continue to flow. Banks have also been blocked from trading their international reserves for rubles.
The international community has also increased pledges of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine. Thousands of AK-47s, Stinger missiles, anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons are en route. In a first, the EU has also agreed to purchase more weapons expressly for Ukraine’s defense.
Germany also lifted its ban on sending German-made weapons into a war zone. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also moved to gradually increase the country’s defense spending to 2% of GDP. This is something Germany has resisted for a long time despite pressure from its NATO allies.
Protests, bank runs, and propaganda in Russia
As a result of the sanctions, the ruble fell almost 40% today, an all-time low. This has sparked bank runs as ordinary Russians scramble to withdraw their savings.
Moscow, St. Petersburg, and at least 50 other Russian cities have also seen huge antiwar protests, despite a police crackdown. Human rights groups say police have arrested at least 5000 antiwar protesters since Thursday.
Activist hacker groups, including Anonymous, have targeted Russian state media sites and broadcasters. In some instances, they were able to briefly hijack the airwaves to broadcast the reality of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Many Russians seem to be under the impression that the Russian “peacekeeping mission” was confined to the Russian-separatist held areas in Ukraine’s east.
Putin’s thinly veiled nuke threat
Yesterday, in a likely pre-taped meeting with his Defense Minister Sergei Shoygu, Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, Putin ordered the nation’s “deterrence forces” (including nuclear weapons and hypersonic missiles) on high alert. The decision has rightly alarmed the international community. The implication many have drawn is that Putin’s threaten to resort to nuclear force is an attempt to get the West to pressure Ukraine to capitulate.
There are as yet unconfirmed rumors that Putin sacked his Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov hours after this meeting. If there is any truth to this, it could have massive implications. Some have speculated that Gerasimov may have had second thoughts about arming the nukes, and that Putin fired him in favor of someone who would do as he asked. Others believe that Putin hoped to make Gerasimov the fall guy for his disastrous Ukraine adventure.
Ominously, Russian state TV broadcaster Dmitry Kiselyov opened his popular show by asking the audience, “Why do we need a world if Russia isn’t in it?”. Kiselyov, who has close ties to Putin, went on to boast about Russia’s submarine fleet, which he said was capable of delivering 500 nuclear warheads and devastating the world within hours.
Peace talks on the border
Ukrainian Presdent Volodymyr Zelensky has agreed to talks with a Russian delegation on the Belarusian border. Tellingly, the Russians had dropped onerous pre-conditions for talks with Ukraine it had initially demanded. Despite this, Zelensky didn’t seem to hold out much hope for the talks, but agreed as a show of good faith. Today’s round of talks ended after six hours, and another round may take place tomorrow.
It’s unlikely there will be any significant breakthroughs. Both sides likely see the talks as a chance to regroup. It will buy time for Ukraine to receive weapons and supplies coming in from international supporters, and for Russia to move in its deadlier artillery.
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