Wise Legal Advice Biden May Not Be Getting and Possibly Good News About Russia

As is often the case, there is a golden mean between paying no attention to politics and paying too much. Since I don’t have President’s Biden ear, I’m guilty of the latter (I’m pretty sure the messages I’ve sent him didn’t made it to his desk).

Nevertheless, here is some brief discussion of the debt ceiling I read today that I want to share:

From Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo:

Even though this won’t come as new news to many of you, the following is still a clarifying prism. A negotiation is usually two sides haggling to get things they want. Leverage is often unequal…. But in this negotiation, Republicans are getting various policy priorities and Democrats are “getting” Republican agreement not to create a global financial crisis. That’s extortion, not negotiation. A government can’t operate in any consistent or sustainable way when policy deliverables go to the party willing to credibly threaten the most damage to the country.

And from two law professors with fancy titles who work at respected universities:

Our advice has always amounted to a version of the now-overused mantra: “Keep calm and carry on.” The best thing to do in a debt ceiling crisis is to continue to raise the money necessary to pay the government’s bills. If Republicans block action on the debt ceiling, the President would indeed break the law by issuing new debt. But among his options at that point, all of which would be bad, that would be the closest thing to a plain-vanilla response. We would not see the government stiff its creditors.

Instead, the Treasury Department would do what it always does: go into the financial markets and raise funds from willing lenders. Those lenders would almost certainly demand higher interest payments than otherwise, which would offer the irony that the Republicans’ vows to “do something about the debt” will result in more debt, not less. But in a world of their making, borrowing money as it is needed, in as close to the normal way as possible, will be President Biden’s best (and least unconstitutional) option.

Elsewhere, there’s evidence that some Russian soldiers are switching sides and actually taking back territory from the Russian army. It isn’t a surprise that some of the troops don’t care for Putin at all. This is a good sign, combined with the fact that Ukraine is offering special treatment for soldiers who surrender, including care overseen by the Red Cross and no requirement to ever return to Russia. We used to think high-level officials might be the ones to do something about Putin. Maybe the uprising will start in the lower ranks. After all, the Russian Revolution began with mutiny in the army.

The Untold Story of “Russiagate” and the Road to War in Ukraine

If you run a newspaper and want people to pay attention to an important article, don’t make it 10,000 words long (which would amount to 30 typewritten pages) and don’t publish it two days before a national election. Jim Rutenberg, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote just that kind of article. “The Untold Story of ‘Russiagate’ and the Road to War in Ukraine” was published on November 6, 2022, two days before the midterm election, and hardly anybody seems to have noticed.

A few days earlier, the Times had printed a summary of Rutenberg’s article, written by Rutenberg himself, but the summary was just one of many “live” updates that day regarding the war in Ukraine. The Times put it between “Russian military bloggers criticize the Kremlin for rejoining the Ukraine grain deal” and “Poland erects a razor-wire fence along its border with Russia’s Kaliningrad”. I doubt many people noticed.

Here’s the summary:

Russia’s meddling in Trump-era politics was more directly connected to the current war than previously understood.

President Vladimir V. Putin’s assault on Ukraine and his attack on American democracy have been treated largely as two distinct story lines.

Yet those two narratives came together on a summer night in 2016 when Donald J. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, met with Paul Kilimnik, a Russian citizen who ran the Kyiv office of Manafort’s international consulting firm.

Mr. Kilimnik shared a secret plan calling for the creation of an autonomous republic in Ukraine’s east, giving Mr. Putin effective control of the country’s industrial heartland, where Kremlin-backed “separatists” were waging a two-year-old shadow war.

The scheme cut against decades of American policy promoting a free and united Ukraine, but Mr. T____ was already suggesting that he would upend the diplomatic status quo; if elected, Mr. Kilimnik believed, Mr. T____ could help make the plan a reality.

First, though, he would have to win. Which brought the men to the second prong of their agenda — internal campaign polling data tracing a path through battleground states to victory. Manafort’s sharing of that information would have been unremarkable if not for one important piece of Mr. Kilimnik’s biography: He was not simply a colleague; he was, U.S. officials would later assert, a Russian agent.

In the weeks that followed, Russian operatives would intensify their hacking and disinformation campaign to damage Hillary Clinton and help turn the election toward T____. What the plan Mr. Kilimnik offered on paper is essentially what Putin … is now trying to seize through sham referendums and illegal annexation.

This second draft of history emerges from a review of the hundreds of pages of documents produced by investigators for the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, and for the Republican-led Senate Select Committee on Intelligence; from impeachment-hearing transcripts and the recent crop of Russiagate memoirs; and from interviews with nearly 50 people in the United States and Ukraine, including four hourlong conversations with Mr. Manafort himself.

The Russia investigation and its offshoots never did prove coordination between the Trump campaign and Moscow, though they did document numerous connections. But to view the record through the war, now in its ninth month, is to discover a trail of underappreciated signals telegraphing the depth of Mr. Putin’s Ukrainian obsession.

Mr. Rutenberg could have added that viewing the historical record in the context of the war also helps explain Russia’s support for the ex-president and why he and his most rabid supporters are still taking Russia’s side.

The Russians Are Running Away

According to the Kiev Post, the stunning Ukrainian counteroffensive that began earlier this month has now reached the border with Russia near the town of Hoptivka. Let’s hope Ukraine can secure the thousands of square miles they’ve now recovered and eventually restore all of its national borders.


Tonight, President Zelensky had a message for Russia:


The Pro-Russia, Anti-Ukraine Party

Some Republican lowlife actually said the unindicted co-conspirator who leads their cult was, unlike Biden, “tough on Russia”. (Shamelessness is their superpower). Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine reminds us of what happened on planet Earth:

On February 25, the day after Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, Lee Smith published an essay in Tablet arguing that Ukraine had brought on its problems. Smith, a house stenographer for Representative Devin Nunes and the author of two pro-T____ books, unburdened himself of a long list of Ukrainian provocations. In 2014, Ukraine’s people rejected Vladimir Putin’s generous offer to remain a Russian dependency and voted out his handpicked presidential candidate. A few years later, Ukrainian Americans accused Russia of hacking Democratic emails and extorting Volodymyr Zelenskyy — the guilt for which, in Smith and Putin’s view, was shared by the country their parents had fled. These defiant actions “reinforced Putin’s view that, especially in partnership with the Democrats, Ukraine did not understand its true place in the world as a buffer state.” The invasion was a terrible shame, conceded Smith, but this is what happens when a country has the temerity to offend Putin and T____ and assert its independence.

Putin’s war with Ukraine is being fought to settle a single question: Does his neighboring state have the right to make its own democratic decisions or must it subsist as a Russian vassal?

President Biden’s marshaling of a strong and united European response has thrown into sharp relief the contrast with his predecessor’s “America First” bluster. But there is an even more fundamental contrast between Biden’s multilateralism and T____’s nationalism, one that goes beyond diplomatic skill to core ideology: Many corners of the American right, including D____ T____, agree with Putin’s position.

Putin views a democratic Ukraine as an existential threat to his regime for two very good reasons. First, Ukraine’s majority prefers economic integration with Europe rather than Russia. Second, all strongmen are mainly preoccupied with maintaining power, and the existence of prosperous democracy in a neighboring country is a dangerous counterexample.

Twenty years ago, there was no significant reservoir of opposition to Ukrainian independence and democracy. The burgeoning alliance between Russian nationalists and America Firsters was set in motion when Paul Manafort went to work for the pro-Russian Party of Regions in Ukraine in 2004. Manafort, once one of the most powerful Republican lobbyists in Washington, had begun a globetrotting career selling his services to dictators. His Ukrainian client, Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, was Putin’s main organ for maintaining control of his neighboring country.

Putin nurtured a cadre of pliant Ukrainian oligarchs and functionaries who served a devious double purpose. They would faithfully weaken Ukrainian democracy on his behalf, and then he could turn around to the outside world and hold up Ukraine’s corruption as a justification for why it should not be treated like a real country.

He paired this with a slowly escalating campaign of violence. Putin and his allies would violently intimidate their political opposition to prevent them from gaining control of Ukraine. In 2004, Putin’s agents poisoned Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-western presidential candidate. (This occurred four years before the United States invited Ukraine to join NATO, a sequence that shows Russia’s threats against Ukraine drove its interest in joining the alliance, rather than the reverse, as Putin and his defenders have suggested.) Ten years later, Manafort’s client unleashed snipers and thugs to drive away peaceful protesters before a democratic revolution forced him to flee the country. After Russophiles lost control of Ukraine’s government, Putin started using militias to seize chunks of territory.

At the tail end of the Obama administration, both Democrats and Republicans supported democratization, westernization, and reform in Ukraine. When the Obama administration pressured Ukraine to fire ineffective prosecutor Viktor Shokin — a key step forward for advancing the rule of law in Ukraine — a bipartisan letter commended its efforts and did not draw any significant domestic opposition.

T____’s rise introduced to the Republican Party a figure who shared Putin’s perspective toward Ukraine and often echoed his propaganda. When Putin ginned up demonstrations in eastern Ukraine as a pretext to hive off chunks of land in 2014, T____ gushed, “So smart, when you see the riots in a country because they’re hurting the Russians, Okay, we’ll go and take it over … You have to give him a lot of credit.” After winning the nomination, T____ promised to consider recognizing Putin’s land seizure because “the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were.”

T____ brought on Manafort to run his campaign, which further linked Ukraine’s conflict with Russia to the American domestic struggle. Ukrainians released a “black book” of evidence of secret payments by the previous, pro-Russian regime, which implicated Manafort in an embezzling scandal for which he was eventually convicted. After it hacked Democratic emails and released them to aid T____’s candidacy, Russia claimed it had been framed by Ukraine. T____ subsequently endorsed this theory. (“They brought in another company that I hear is Ukrainian-based,” he told the Associated Press a few months after taking office. “I heard it’s owned by a very rich Ukrainian; that’s what I heard.”)

T____, of course, was impeached the first time for pressuring Zelenskyy to smear Biden, and his motive was primarily to gain an advantage over his opponent. But he also had clearly absorbed Putin’s idea that Ukraine was corrupt and undeserving of sovereignty. T____ regularly flummoxed his staff by insisting Ukraine was “horrible, corrupt people” and “wasn’t a ‘real country,’ that it had always been a part of Russia, and that it was ‘totally corrupt,’” the Washington Post reported. (The element of Russian propaganda here is not the claim that corruption exists in Ukraine, which is true, but the premise that this somehow destroys its claim to sovereignty or justifies subjugation to its far more corrupt neighbor.)

By the end of T____’s presidency, the distinction between his agenda in Ukraine and the Russian agenda in Ukraine was difficult to discern. In the aftermath of T____’s first impeachment, Rudy Giuliani inherited Manafort’s role as a liaison to the pro-Russian elements in Ukraine’s polity. In his travels through the country, Giuliani linked up with Party of Regions apparatchiks as well as known Russian intelligence agents, ginning up business proposals and allegations to fling against Biden. T____’s agents, Russian agents, and pro-Russian Ukrainian apparatchiks were speaking in almost indistinguishable terms.

That view of the world is expressed cogently, if chillingly, in Smith’s essay depicting Ukraine as a tool of the joint enemies of Putin and T____. And it has bled widely into the conservative mind. In the run-up to the 2020 election, numerous right-wing pundits warned darkly that American liberals were fomenting a “color revolution” akin to the pro-democratic uprisings that had broken out against several of Putin’s vassal states. Both their narrative and their diction depicted pro-democracy activists as a sinister cabal and Putin their innocent victim.

By the outset of Russia’s invasion, pro-Putinist rhetoric was common. “Ukraine, to be technical, is not a democracy,” asserted Tucker Carlson. “And by the way, Ukraine is a pure client state of the United States State Department.” To be sure, this view remained a minority on the right — and just as many of T____’s most fervent supporters recoiled at the January 6 insurrection, even many Putin defenders conceded a full-scale invasion went too far. Still, Putin’s claims against Ukraine have received endorsements from both the right’s most popular politician and its most popular media personality. That is not nothing.

It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration’s combination of sanctions, diplomacy, and military aid will be enough to save Ukraine from the predations of its neighboring dictator. The military odds remain favorable to Russia. But as Putin’s militarized irredentism grows larger on the world stage, an increasingly relevant consideration in American politics is the fact that only one American party truly disagrees with it.

Putin vs. the World Economy (and Ours)

The last two Democratic presidents, taking office in 2009 and 2021, inherited disasters from their Republican predecessors. Obama was much too easy on banks and bankers and didn’t do enough to help the victims of the financial collapse, but he restored some normality to our economy fairly quickly. Biden won’t be as successful in the short term.

His administration took serious measures to address the pandemic, unlike You Know Who’s, but right-wing insanity and the Omicron wave delayed getting back to normal. Supply chain disruptions,  corporate greed and the country going back to buying and selling have led to inflation (as in other countries). After four years getting what he wanted from his stooge in the White House (including criticism of NATO and the illegal interruption of military aid to Ukraine), Putin decided it was time to take Ukraine. That will increase inflation even more (and although Republicans want us to be “strong” and stop buying Russian gas, they’ll criticize Biden when gas prices go up). It appears that Republicans can sit back, not propose anything helpful, lie about Biden’s failures and simply wait for unhappy voters to reward them in November. 

Nevertheless, I think it’s worth knowing what’s going on with the economy. Paul Krugman offers his analysis:

When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, I think it’s fair to say that most observers expected him to get away with it. Surely Russia’s huge military would take Kyiv and other major cities within a few days; surely the West would respond with its usual timidity, giving Russia no more than a minor slap on the wrist.

Instead, here we are, 13 days in, with Kyiv and Kharkiv still standing and invading forces bogged down by fierce Ukrainian resistance (helped by a rapid influx of Western weapons) and disastrous logistical problems. At the same time, Western sanctions on the Russian economy are clearly already having severe effects and may get even stronger.

Obviously all this could change: Russian forces could regroup and resume the offensive, weak-kneed Western governments could start lifting sanctions. For now, however, Putin is facing far worse consequences than he could have imagined.

Unfortunately, standing up to aggression doesn’t come free. Events in Ukraine and Russia will, in particular, impose serious costs on the world economy. The question is, how serious?

My tentative answer is that it will be bad, but not catastrophic. Specifically, the Putin shock seems unlikely to be nearly as bad as the oil shocks that roiled the world economy in the 1970s.

As in the 1970s, the blow to the world economy is coming from commodity prices. Russia is a major exporter of oil and natural gas; both Russia and Ukraine are — or were — major exporters of wheat. So the war is having a big impact on both energy and food prices.

Start with energy. So far, the sanctions being applied by Europe against Russia conspicuously don’t apply to oil and gas exports; the United States is banning oil imports from Russia, but this won’t matter that much, because America can buy and Russia can sell elsewhere. Markets are nonetheless reacting as if supplies are going to be disrupted, either by future sanctions or because global energy companies, fearing a public backlash, are “self-sanctioning” their purchases of Russian crude. Indeed, Shell, which bought Russian oil at a discount the other day, has apologized and says it won’t do it again.

As a result, the real, inflation-adjusted price of oil has shot up almost to the level it hit during the Iranian revolution in 1979:

Oil prices in 2022 dollars.

To be honest, I’m a bit puzzled by the size of this price spike. Yes, Russia is a major oil producer. But it accounts for only about 11 percent of world production, whereas Persian Gulf producers extracted a third of the world’s oil back in the 1970s. And Russia will probably find ways to sell a significant fraction of its oil despite Western sanctions.

Furthermore, the world economy is much less dependent on oil than it used to be. Oil “intensity” — the number of barrels of oil consumed per real dollar of gross domestic product — is half what it was in the 1970s.

What about natural gas? Europe depends on Russia for a lot of its supply. But gas consumption is strongly seasonal:

Winter is coming — but not for quite a while.

So the impact of Russian disruption won’t be that big until late this year, giving Europe time to take measures to make itself less vulnerable.

Overall, then, the Putin-made energy crisis will be serious but probably not catastrophic. My biggest concern for the United States, at least, is political. You mightn’t think that Republicans could simultaneously demand that we stop buying Russian oil and attack President Biden for high gasoline prices. That is, you mightn’t think that if you’d spent the past 25 years sleeping in a cave. In fact, that’s exactly what’s about to happen.

Politics aside, food may actually be a bigger issue than energy. Before Putin’s war, Russia and Ukraine combined accounted for more than a quarter of the world’s wheat exports. Now Russia is sanctioned and Ukraine is a war zone. Not surprisingly, wheat prices have shot up from less than $800 a bushel before Russia began massing its forces around Ukraine to around $1,300 now.

In wealthy regions like North America and Europe, this price surge will be painful but for the most part tolerable, simply because advanced-country consumers spend a relatively small percentage of their income on food. For poorer nations, where food is a huge fraction of family budgets, the shock will be much more severe.

Finally, what impact will the Ukraine war have on economic policy? Spiking oil and food prices will raise the rate of inflation, which is already uncomfortably high. Will the Federal Reserve respond by raising interest rates, hitting economic growth?

Probably not. The Fed has long focused not on “headline” inflation but on “core” inflation, which excludes volatile food and energy prices — a focus that has stood it in good stead in the past. So the Putin shock is exactly the kind of event that the Fed would normally ignore. And for what it’s worth, investors appear to believe that it will do just that: Market expectations of Fed policy over the next few months don’t seem to have changed at all.

Overall, the Russian shock to the world economy will be nasty, but probably not all that nasty. If Putin imagines that he can hold the world to ransom, well, that’s probably yet another fatal miscalculation.