All Eyes On Ukraine with Ben Rhodes | Crooked Media
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January 26, 2022
What A Day
All Eyes On Ukraine with Ben Rhodes

In This Episode

  • Russia conducted a series of military drills yesterday while Ukraine received a shipment of weapons including antitank missiles from the U.S. These were some of the latest turns since diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Russia have faltered and now both are accusing the other of ratcheting up tensions. Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration and co-host of Pod Save the World, joins us to discuss how we got here and what’s next.
  • And in headlines: Pfizer announced that it has begun testing a new vaccine designed to target the omicron variant, British police opened an inquiry into a series of parties held at 10 Downing Street during COVID lockdown, and Neil Young threatens to pull his discography from Spotify if the company doesn’t drop Joe Rogan.


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Gideon Resnick: It is Wednesday, January 26th. I’m Gideon Resnick.


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, the podcast personally responsible for every outfit worn recently by Julia Fox and Kanye West.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, the pants that are also shoes: our idea. Using denim in ways it was never meant to be used: our idea.


Josie Duffy Rice: What can we say? We love, love.


Gideon Resnick: We do. And we love denim. On today’s show, the chip shortage leaves manufacturers with no room for error. Plus more updates in the ongoing saga of Boris Johnson and his pandemic-era parties.


Josie Duffy Rice: But first, yesterday, Russia conducted a series of military exercises throughout the country and near the border with Ukraine, while Ukraine received a shipment of weapons, including anti-tank missiles, from the US. The Pentagon had said earlier in the week that thousands of U.S. troops have been placed on high alert for potential deployment to Eastern Europe. These were some of the latest turns since diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Russia have faltered, and now both accuse the other of ratcheting up tensions. Meanwhile, Ukrainian leaders have projected a comparative calm about the potential of an attack.


Gideon Resnick: The Biden administration is also reportedly concerned about Russia cutting off oil and gas supplies to the rest of Europe and has worked to bolster the available supply there. Europe depends on Russia for about one third of its natural gas, and this relationship is part of the reason for public caution from some European countries—Germany, especially—about how far they would go with sanctions against Russia. That is a brief look at where some of all of this stands as we go to record on Tuesday night.


Josie Duffy Rice: For more on the situation, what led to it, and what is next, we have with us today, Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration and co-host of Pod Save the World. Ben, thank you for joining us.


Ben Rhodes: Good to see you guys.


Gideon Resnick: So there’s a lot that’s been happening. So what do you make of what we’ve seen in the last 24 to 48 hours here?


Ben Rhodes: The broad takeaway is that for a period of time, a lot of the energy and activity was around kind of preventing the war, you know, so you had the diplomatic talks between the United States and Russia. Clearly, those went nowhere. The Russian military deployments continued. And so the steps that we’ve seen take in recent days all feel like the United States doing things anticipating a war, right? So drawing down families of personnel at our embassy in Kiev, sending those additional troops to Eastern Europe to kind of reassure NATO allies that are on Russia’s border or Ukraine’s border that, you know, we’ve got their back—all of those things anticipate an actual conflict and, you know, are not a part of a play to, you know, prevent it. So it does feel like we moved into an ominous phase.


Gideon Resnick: I’m also curious, from the Ukrainian side of things there’s some reporting that Ukrainian leaders are expressing what appears to be a much calmer approach to this than, say, the U.S. or NATO. Why is that in your mind?


Ben Rhodes: Yeah, that’s been interesting to watch and they have been. I think part of this is there’s a kind of fatalism, right, like they’ve been in this kind of low-grade conflict with Russia since 2014. They are preparing in terms of their military for a potential Russian invasion, the way in which they’re deploying their troops, they’re preparing for the contingency. I think the political leadership might just be concluding that like, look, it’s not worth further freaking out our population about this. We want to project some calm.


Gideon Resnick: Can you walk us through really quickly what NATO’s role in Ukraine actually is right now?


Ben Rhodes: Yeah, I think it’s important for people to distinguish two things, right? These 8,500 troops that you hear about in the news deploying to Eastern Europe, that sounds like they’re somehow like going to defend Ukraine has nothing to do with that. These are troops that would go to Eastern European NATO’s allies. You know, Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are and they border Russia. They’re former Soviet republics. Those countries want those U.S. troops there because it kind of reassures them of our commitment to their defense. And it’s a good deterrent against Russia, perhaps thinking it can keep on going past Ukraine and in into one of these places, because that would be inviting a confrontation with the US military, which is far superior than just a confrontation with the Lithuanian military, or, you know, the Polish military. Then the second piece of how NATO’s involved in Ukraine though is NATO is supplying a lot of weapons to Ukraine. It is important to emphasize these are overwhelmingly defensive weapons, right? So the U.S., for instance, will provide things like anti-tank weapons to fight back against Russian tanks. So there is an amount of NATO assistance to Ukraine, but in the event of a conflict, NATO will not be a party to the conflict. It will be Ukraine with a lot of NATO hardware against Russia. Russia can overwhelm that. What this assistance can do is make it more difficult, more painful for Russia, potentially deter Putin if he feels like the cost of the war could be too high. At least that’s the hope.


Gideon Resnick: So can you talk about where there are some differences in approach here between the U.S. and other NATO’s allies, and why that is significant right now?


Ben Rhodes: I think the most significant area of difference is probably on sanctions. Economic sanctions are the kind of main tool that we have to respond to a Russian invasion because we’re not going to go to war. The differences are this: like the US wants the maximum statement sanctions. We’re going to like throw the book at the Russians. That’s, I think, the Biden team’s view. Germany gets an enormous amount of its natural gas from Russia, would take a huge hit from imposing those sanctions, and might have like shortages, might have like, it’s cold in the winter, right? Like, and so I think Germany is the outlier in the other direction of being very cautious about imposing sanctions because it’s going to hit their economy harder than it’s going to hit ours.


Gideon Resnick: Right.


Ben Rhodes: I also think some of the Europeans are a bit exhausted at confrontation with Russia. And I think a lot of the work that they’re trying to do is figure out like what is a common position among different countries. And by the way, that’s a good thing. I don’t think we should be able to just go over there and be like, Here’s the sanctions and sorry guys, this going to totally upend and screw up your economies, but like, we’re telling you what to do. It’s an alliance, like we should figure out, you know—and frankly, it’s a good way to check us, right? Like if you can’t get your friends to agree with you, then maybe you need to think about your position, right?


Josie Duffy Rice: So can you tell us how this current conflict between Russia and Ukraine is shifting Biden’s overall approach to foreign policy?


Ben Rhodes: Yeah, I mean, I think there are two pieces of that. I mean, the first, is this is not what Joe Biden wanted his foreign policy to be about. You know, he came in really focused on a couple of things like China and kind of reorienting American foreign policy for kind of a long-term competition with China, but also these kind of broader questions of democracy, obviously, efforts against climate change. And if you’ll remember, like he had that summit with Putin in Geneva in the middle of last year and the intention of that summit and you know, the Bush administration wasn’t shy about saying it, was kind of like, We kind of want to keep this relationship in check with Putin, you know? And didn’t expect breakthroughs but didn’t want to have further escalation with Russia. And clearly, that didn’t work. You know, and it’s not their fault. I mean, Putin is Putin. But I think how this changes is if there is a significant military invasion of Ukraine by Russia, this will consume a lot of their attention and a lot of additional resources. I think the other thing people ought to be mindful of is if we do those sanctions in the energy space, gas prices are going to go up in this country. And so other challenges that Joe Biden has, like inflation, are potentially going to get worse, too. So this is a potential real rough patch for them to manage through.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah. On that same note about Biden’s kind of approach to foreign policy and how this is really throwing a wrench in things, should Biden be more effectively resisting the voices that are eager for conflict in this region? Should he be taking a less aggressive approach?


Ben Rhodes: This is such a complicated issue because it’s obviously not Joe Biden’s choice. You know, Putin is the one who chose to escalate this crisis, that is a democracy that would like to be closer to the United States in Europe and doesn’t want to be living under the thumb of Russia. And it’s kind of inevitable, given the role that the United States plays, that we’re going to be implicated in some fashion. If Putin is allowed to just like invade a country with 100,000 plus troops, kill tens of thousands of people, extinguish a democracy, and there’s like no sanctions, no consequence for that . . . man! What kind of message does that send about the world we’re in and does that incentivize Putin to go further? And you have to allow yourself to think, well, maybe he wouldn’t stop there. Maybe, you know, there’s another country that you want to swallow up. And so I’m sympathetic in the sense that, like Biden’s got to thread this needle, but I don’t think he needs to get too far over his skis on things like, and we insist that like, you know, Ukraine is one day going to be a member of NATO. You know, like just at a certain point, you have to accept that the United States is not going to be able to dictate events everywhere.


Gideon Resnick: One thing that I feel like gets left out of some of the discussions around this are actually, you know, people that are there. So I’m curious, you know, what has it been like for people living through all of this in Ukraine over the past eight years or so?


Ben Rhodes: Yeah, I mean, I’ve talked to people in Ukraine and know people in Ukraine and talked to some of them recently, and you know what they will tell you—and look, obviously, I’m talking to people that some of them are engaged in politics and they’re obviously committed to democracy—they will tell you that, look, in 2013, there was a huge protest movement against a corrupt, Russian-backed president of Ukraine. And people are just so sick and tired of essentially having their leaders steal from them and be in the pocket of the Kremlin. And there was this kind of transformative movement there of young, led by young people for democracy and that corrupt Russian-backed leader fled the country. And it was this kind of breakthrough moment. They call it the Revolution of Dignity inside of Ukraine. And that’s when Russia started moving in some special forces. It wasn’t a kind of invasion with 100,000 troops. Kind of moved in some special forces and kind of armed, some Russian-backed separatists, and it just started messing around in Ukraine’s East. And you talk to people in Ukraine, they are very proud that they have continued to stand up to Russia, that they have a democracy. That’s their attitude. It’s a very kind of defiant attitude. And you know, if we were in their place, I’d like to think that like we’d feel the same way.


Gideon Resnick: Well, Ben Rhodes, thank you so much again. We really appreciate it.


Ben Rhodes: Thanks, guys.


Gideon Resnick: We will be following this, of course, in the days to come. But that is the latest for now. It’s Wednesday WAD squad, and for today’s temp check, we are talking about the fine leather shoe that got a law degree: Michael Avenatti. He is in the midst of a lawsuit against adult actress Stormy Daniels, who he represented in her 2018 lawsuit against Donald Trump, and has since accused him of stealing from her. I’m glad everybody could follow that. And yesterday—


Josie Duffy Rice: Circle of life, baby.


Gideon Resnick: Yesterday, a little over a day into the trial, he got permission to represent himself in court. The move came after Avenatti and his public defenders disagreed on how to cross-examine one of his former employees. And it sets the stage for Avenatti to cross-examine Daniels, a potentially explosive scenario which some say could backfire, particularly given Avenatti’s combative personality. To review the details of the case: Avenatti allegedly convinced Daniels’ literary agent to send him nearly $300,000 in publisher’s payments that were meant for her. Separately, he’s also accused of stealing millions from other clients to buy a private jet. And as you may know, he was convicted and is now serving out his sentence for trying to extort up to $25 million from Nike—the man who could have been the president of the United States. So Josie, you are our in-house legal expert on WAD. We know that you love when we call you that. What is your take on this and would you represent yourself in a court of law?


Josie Duffy Rice: Well, once again, Gideon. I’d like to say that if I am the in-house legal expert, we are in trouble. I say justice for Avenatti, the most explicitly brazen wrongdoer to come out of the Trump era. And I would never represent myself in a court of law. But that’s just because I’m not a very good litigator. Avenatti could do it, man.


Gideon Resnick: I was going to say, he has the kind of brazenness where, you know that somehow this will work.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.


Gideon Resnick: That’s what is kind of upsetting about it. It’s like a My Cousin Vinny scenario where it’s just like, yeah, like people in there are going to somehow believe what he’s doing. Just because that’s how it apparently works for people that are just really brazen.


Josie Duffy Rice: When I think of Avenatti, I think of Scaramucci because I think of them as the same era of time.


Gideon Resnick: Yes!


Josie Duffy Rice: And, you know, those were the days. We didn’t know it then, but . . .


Gideon Resnick: But guys who were really loud, guys who post.


Josie Duffy Rice: Guys who put stuff on the record that they shouldn’t.


Gideon Resnick: Right.


Josie Duffy Rice: Your classic guy, you know?


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, exactly. We love them.


Josie Duffy Rice: We love them.


Gideon Resnick: We love legal strategy here.


Josie Duffy Rice: Avenatti, if you ever want to come on the show, we would loooove to have you.


Gideon Resnick: Yes, that would be the most intense cross-examination that you or I have ever faced, talking to Mr. Avenatti. Just like that, we have checked our temps. They are relatively high because we’re worried about how this is going to go. But we’ll be back after some ads.


[ad break]


Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.


[sung] Headlines.


Gideon Resnick: Pfizer announced yesterday that it has begun testing a new vaccine that is designed to target the Omicron variant. The company plans to enroll over 1,000 adults in the highly-anticipated study, but the question of whether or not a second booster shot will be necessary to combat Omicron still remains. While we wait on that, we can pick up free N95 masks that have just started popping up at some U.S. pharmacies as part of the White House’s plan to give away 400 million. Masks like those are required as of yesterday, indoors in New York, after an appeals court ruled to keep the state’s mandate in effect. A lower court had struck it down on Monday. Moving on from wins for protection against coronavirus and towards wins for the novel coronavirus itself: the Biden administration announced yesterday that it is going to withdraw its vaccine mandate for businesses with over 100 employees after the Supreme Court blocked it.


Josie Duffy Rice: The pandemic that targets PlayStation 5’s, AKA the chip shortage, is ongoing, and yesterday the Commerce Department issued a report highlighting its severity. The department looked at responses from more than 150 businesses that produce and use semiconductors, and the report revealed that manufacturers who rely on them have less than five days’ worth of inventory to work with.


Gideon Resnick: Man.


Josie Duffy Rice: If you’re someone whose life is enriched at all by cars, electronics, or medical devices, this is bad news. It means that any hiccup in chip production could destabilize supply chains. Demand for chips has gone up in the past year, while chip supply has plummeted, and current supply issues could lead to more factories closing worldwide and more furloughed workers. Last summer, Congress passed the Chips for America Act, which includes $52 billion in subsidies to domestic semiconductor manufacturers, but lawmakers have not yet allocated those funds. Great.


Gideon Resnick: Rats.


Josie Duffy Rice: Great job, guys. The Commerce Department is urging Congress to endorse federal aid for chip makers immediately. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said yesterday quote, “The semiconductor supply chain is very fragile and it’s going to remain that way until we can increase chip production in the United States.”


Gideon Resnick: The good news is that I have been taking master classes in chip production and I am—


Josie Duffy Rice: You’re ready.


Gideon Resnick: —finally my moment. There is finally a man alpha enough to take on Joe Rogan, and he is a creaky-voiced Canadian who scarecrows often identify as one of their own. That’s right, Neil Young is demanding that Spotify remove his entire discography from their platform, citing Rogan’s spreading a vaccine misinformation on said platform as his breaking point. In a letter addressed to his management team and record label, Young condemned the streaming giant for allowing Rogen to spread COVID vaccine misinformation to his massive audience. Young went on to say quote, “They can have Rogen or Young, not both.”—who knew he had action movie lines in him. It probably isn’t likely that Spotify will choose Young over Rogen, given that the streaming platform famously bought the rights to the Joe Rogan Experience for over 100 million dollars in 2020. But at the very least, Young has this podcast in his corner. We are going to follow him wherever it’s necessary to keep rocking in the free world. He happens to be the only 76-year old folk singer to have his own exclusive streaming service, and it is in fact called Xtreme. Young’s letter originally appeared on his website yesterday before it was taken down for unknown reasons. At the time of this recording, the singer’s music is still on Spotify—that’s right, all 72 albums—and Spotify has not released a statement on the matter.


Josie Duffy Rice: 72 albums, almost one for every year of his life.


Gideon Resnick: Exactly.


Josie Duffy Rice: Truly remarkable. Like a proper bag of Earl Gray tea, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson found himself in hot water Monday after police opened an inquiry into a series of parties held at 10 Downing Street during COVID lockdown. The scandal has been brewing for a few months as stories of parties held at government offices have come out one by one, including a December 2020 Christmas rager and a party held the night before Prince Philip’s funeral, for which Johnson apologized last week to the Queen. This week, it became apparent that Johnson had also attended a surprise birthday party thrown by his wife and staff in June of 2020. The Prime Minister’s Office responded to these reports, claiming he was there for less than 10 minutes, which almost has me defensive of the people who went out of their way to plan the totally illegal gathering. I mean . . .


Gideon Resnick: Yes, seriously.


Josie Duffy Rice: You have to have at least one drink. The police’s new involvement in what they’re calling “Party Gate” has many believing the power of the scandal could be what ousts Johnson from office, a man whose tenure as prime minister has survived a Brexit, a lobbying scandal, and a personal style that one could simply sum up as business casual Gary Busey.


Gideon Resnick: I think he doesn’t always reach the level of business casual.


Josie Duffy Rice: I think business casual is very generous to how Boris Johnson translates.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Boris has certainly got his his own thing going on. That is for sure. Wow, a lot to take in there, and those are the headlines. One more thing before we go: this week on America Dissected, Dr Abdul El-Sayed talks to Dana Brown, the Director of Health and Economy at the Democracy Collaborative, about Biden’s new idea of offering Americans a public option for health insurance, and other ways that increased public investment could be used in clinics and hospitals. New episodes of America Dissected drop every Tuesday. You can listen wherever you get your podcasts. That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, do a keg stand at 10 Downing Street, and tell your friends to listen.


Josie Duffy Rice: And if you’re into reading, and not just Neil Young fan fiction like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Josie Duffy Dice.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And party on Boris!


Gideon Resnick: You know, he took the 10 in 10 Downing Street quite literally for the length of time he was at the party. That’s not what they meant on the invite.


Josie Duffy Rice: Oh man.


Gideon Resnick: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media. It’s recorded and mixed by Bill Lancz. Jazzi Marine and Raven Yamamoto are our associate producers. Our head writer is Jon Millstein, with writing support from Jocey Coffman, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me, Gideon Resnick. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.