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January 31, 2022
What A Day
Are You Putin Or Are You Out?

In This Episode

  • Concerns of a possible Russian invasion into Ukraine continue to mount, with Britain moving this week to broaden the sanctions it could impose in case of a Russian offensive. The U.S. has reportedly considered its own set of sanctions, which could have severe ramifications for individuals in Russia and conceivably others in Europe as well. Michael McFaul, the former US Ambassador to Russia, joins us to discuss everything we know and everything we don’t.
  • And in headlines: New data suggests the omicron wave in the U.S. may have peaked, a massive winter storm in the Northeast left over a hundred thousand people without power over the weekend, and numerous celebrities have joined Neil Young’s boycott of Spotify.


Show Notes:



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Gideon Resnick: It’s Monday, January 31st. I’m Gideon Resnick.


Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, the podcast where both hosts are able to say very chill about the Cincinnati Bengals advancing to the Super Bowl.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, if you ever wanted to root for the little guy from the Midwest against the coastal elite Los Angeles Rams, here is your opportunity. Join the Who Dey bandwagon, my friends. It’s time. On today’s show, new data suggests the Omicron wave in the U.S. may have peaked. Plus, policing in a small town in Alabama is alleged to have been driven by profit.


Josie Duffy Rice: But first, some updates on Ukraine. Britain is going to vote this week on a wider range of sanctions it could impose on Russia if the country invades Ukraine. The U.S. has reportedly considered its own set of sanctions, which could have severe ramifications for individuals in Russia, and conceivably others in Europe as well. A New York Times article we will link to breaks down how targeting financial institutions, for example, could lead to higher prices for Russian citizens and even damage pension and savings accounts. Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the country would be looking for more clarification from NATO in the coming days, which was seen as a signal that there’s still some hope for a diplomatic solution. Specifically, Lavrov sought answers on whether NATO would quote, “implement their commitment not to strengthen their security at the expense of the security of others”, which seems a little bit cryptic.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, that’s how I would kind of describe this entire situation. Also on Sunday, the Pentagon said that Russia was still adding troops to the over 100,000 reportedly amassed around Ukraine. So it does feel like anyone’s guess as to what President Putin will do and exactly when. And, according to a Washington Post article that we’ll link to, not everyone in Ukraine, including President Zelensky, share the view that an invasion is imminent. So to help us sort out everything that we know and a lot that we do not, we have with us today Michael McFaul. He is the former U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, and a professor at Stanford University.


Michael McFaul: Glad to be here.


Gideon Resnick: So over the weekend on MSNBC, you said there is still an opportunity here for diplomacy. So can we start off by generally going over where things stand at the moment in terms of diplomatic negotiations?


Michael McFaul: Yes. So just to remind everybody, this all started, this crisis started because Putin decided to unilaterally deploy a 130,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders on preemptive war, right? And what he’s trying to preempt is Ukraine’s membership into NATO. And so he then sent a couple of draft treaties. Very odd, by the way, way to do things. Usually you publish the treaty at the end of the negotiation, not the beginning. But they sent two draft treaties to be signed by the Biden administration for one, a bilateral treaty, and then another one with NATO. And there are many pieces in there, but the key one that they focus on is no more expansion of NATO to Ukraine. And the Biden administration and NATO simultaneously sent their proposals to Moscow, reactions to those treaties. Now we’re waiting to see what Putin says, right? Putin’s the main decision maker—he’s the only decision maker—he’s not the main decision maker. Over the weekend on Friday, there are little hints that they were taking him seriously. Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister, said—I’m paraphrasing, I don’t remember exactly—but he said there was a grain of rationality in the U.S. proposal. And for Sergei Lavrov, that is very high praise. I see little bits of hints that this could move forward in a negotiation. But I need to say also against the backdrop of that on the main demands that Russia provided, several Russian officials have said they were disappointed in the reactions they got from Washington and Brussels.


Gideon Resnick: OK.


Josie Duffy Rice: There is a New York Times report about the ramifications of sanctions that the U.S. is considering on Russian citizens and on other European countries. Can that be avoided, and if not, should the U.S. pursue them?


Michael McFaul: Nobody likes to implement sanctions. I was in the Obama administration in the run up to when Putin invaded the last time—2014—and as we were debating our responses, of course, there are implications for American companies. I do think it’s necessary. If you’re trying to avoid war, you want to raise the costs of military intervention. So that’s what the Biden administration’s strategy is. And I think they were right, even though they’ve been criticized by some members of the Hill, to not sanction now. The tricky space, I think, that the Biden administration is facing between peace and full-scale military invasion where Russian soldiers march into Kiev, Putin has a lot of different options for using kinetic force, Cyber force, partial, annexation. And if he does something in between, then the Biden administration is faced with what is their calibrated response to that? How do they hold our allies together to be calibrated the way we want?


Gideon Resnick: Recently, Ukrainian President Zelensky said that the U.S. would in fact hurt their economy by stoking panic. What did you make of that, and how Ukraine has handled this entire situation more broadly?


Michael McFaul: Well, more broadly, if we go back months—not just a few days or weeks—when President Zelensky finally visited America, the United States, right? Remember that his visit to the White House was held up by President Trump as a quid pro quo for him helping Trump win reelection.


Gideon Resnick: Right.


Michael McFaul: By the way, military assistance was also held up. So finally, he got his visit in August. And on the eve of that trip, and when he was in Washington, and then when I hosted him here at Stanford—he came to Stanford, the day after he met President Biden—he was arguing quite forcefully, We need more military assistance. And I think he was making a coherent argument for why we should do more now. But he was also making an argument to accelerate the process of joining NATO, through something called a membership action plan. And I thought that was imprudent on his part. I thought, you know, Ukraine is not qualified to join NATO. There’s no enthusiasm for their membership in the alliance generally, and in, from what I understand, in the Biden administration right now, so why press for that when you should be thinking about military assistance, training, democracy reform, economic reform? You know, my own view is the way you defeat Putin is you make Ukraine really successful economically, as a free place and secure place. That’s the way you push back on him. One, I give the Biden administration credit for changing and accelerating their policy on military assistance. I think that’s the right thing to do. I support that. I also think it was the right thing to do to put American soldiers on alert should we decide to deploy them within NATO countries. Not Ukraine! Very clear, I want to say that again: not Ukraine. Because I think Americans sometimes hear American troops going to Europe and they think we’re fighting Russia. No. But to calm down our allies that we’re going to defend them should some of this spillover. Nobody in Kiev is happy. Nobody in Washington is happy. Comments made by U.S. officials, including the President of the United States, hinting that they think there will be war, and President Zelensky trying to downplay the probabilities of a major military intervention. And I understand both sides but let’s start with Zelensky. Zelensky, of course, doesn’t want panic, because he doesn’t want bank runs. He doesn’t want the economy to crash. He doesn’t want people to flee. He has a very logical incentive for people to stay calm. I think he faces the dilemma, you want to stay calm, but you also want to prepare. On the Biden side, I think one should be careful about probabilistic statements that we don’t have good information on, but we also have a responsibility to prepare the American people for what might be, you know, the largest war since 1939 in Europe. And you know, when they made the decision to evacuate nonessential personnel from the American Embassy, that to me, is a very prudent decision. As a former ambassador, you do not want Americans dying in a war. I think that’s actually in Zelensky’s interest too.


Gideon Resnick: Right.


Josie Duffy Rice: There’s not just different reads on this from Ukraine and the United States, but also among allies and officials in allied countries, right, that are kind of disagreeing on the likelihood of an invasion. Why is there so much disagreement about that?


Michael McFaul: They’re using this argument about invasion or not, I think as a proxy for response or not. And that I think is exposing some pretty deep divisions in NATO. Remember, NATO’s had a tough time under the Trump era. You know, lots of disenchantment with American commitment to NATO. And then there’s a second thing I think that is less well noticed and studied, Vladimir Putin, you know, he hates NATO. He thinks we’re out to get him. He hates democracy. He thinks we’re out to support color revolutions to undermine his allies and even himself. I mean, he accused me personally of that. So he has been running a counter offensive within NATO countries for many, many years now, you know, with his own media, with his own NGOs, with his own personal diplomacy. And as a result of that, you know, he now has some pretty close friends and allies in the NATO world, right? So Viktor Orban, the head of Hungary, see closer to Putin than Biden. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s closer to Putin. And then even, you know, they’re not in power now, but Le Pen in France, Raj in the UK, and President Trump here in the United States—that’s this alliance of kind of illiberal, conservative, nationalist populists—you know, the labels are hard. But that’s undermining coherence within NATO as well.


Gideon Resnick: I’m curious, too—we have to caveat this by saying, you know, we obviously don’t know anything, of course—but the Pentagon said on Sunday that Russia is adding troops around Ukraine still. I guess, why? I mean, if the thought is that Putin is going to do something, what is he actually waiting for at this point?


Michael McFaul: Well, again, I want to say: I don’t know. So that’s my caveat. But if I were guessing, I would say a couple of things. One, he still wants to have this flank coming through Belarus because that’s the fastest way to get to Kiev. Others, you know, the report, including sources in the Pentagon, talk about the southern part too, the naval attack. He wants to attack from all sides all at once. You know why waiting? I think it is, they’re thinking about diplomacy. I don’t think we should trivialize that. You know, the Olympics start next week. Putin will be visiting Beijing. Xi Jinping is his closest ally and friend in the world and that relationship got closer after Russia’s intervention the last time when we sanctioned them and they pivoted east in many, many ways. I mean, this is just my reading the tea leaves, but I don’t think he wants to ruin Xi Jinping’s party. So I think we have a bit of a lull as a result of that.


Gideon Resnick: And the Olympics timing is really interesting. I’ve definitely seen that thought emerging a lot of places in terms of people thinking through the timing. I’m curious what you make of the current relationship between China and Russia, and what we should be thinking about it in the future.


Michael McFaul: Russia-Chinese relations, bilateral relations, are probably closer today than any time in the history. It’s real. There are many things that unite them. After Putin was sanctioned by us in this confrontation 2014, he needed new places to sell his oil and gas. He turned east. And just last year, I think Russia trade to China is the highest it’s ever been, and I think it may be the highest bilateral trading partner for Russia. I think there’s an ideological dimension to it. They’re both autocracies. They’re very different kinds of autocracies and different kinds of ideologies, but when you look out there at the democratic world, they see enemies.


Josie Duffy Rice: So no one likes to make predictions, of course, but if you had to guess, what do you think is going to happen next year?


Michael McFaul: Well, I don’t know. As I said already two times. I apologize, but I am in the camp that sees pathway to negotiation. I do. I think it’s premature to say this is over and we’re just waiting for the right moment for Putin to invade. I think we should watch very closely what Putin says about those documents that were sent to him. If he dismisses them, then you know, everybody should get ready for war. If he kind of hints that we should keep talking, then we’ll keep talking. And you know, talking is always better than war. If I had to predict about the scenarios, I’d still believe that a limited war is more likely than an all-out war. But the last thing I’ll say on predictions is, predictions are only good until the first point of contact, especially when regarding war and peace. And once you’re in a war and once confrontation starts, lots of other things happen. That’s what makes me nervous. About 130-whatever thousand troops assembled in Europe, you know what happens when they stray into a NATO territory? Imagine what happens if Americans get killed in Ukraine? There’s lots of Americans in Ukraine. A lot of, you know, horrible, horrible things can happen during moments of war. That’s why, you know, I wish well those diplomats who are trying to figure out a peaceful resolution to this moment.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, absolutely. Well, thank you so much again, Ambassador McFaul. We really appreciate you giving us all of your generous time.


Michael McFaul: Thanks for having me.


Josie Duffy Rice: That is the latest on Ukraine for now. We’ll be back with more, right after some ads.


[ad break]


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


[sung] Headlines.


Josie Duffy Rice: Kicking off with an all-too-rare instance of semi-good COVID news: cases and hospitalizations are down in the U.S., suggesting that the Omicron wave may have peaked in recent days. Forty one states saw a drop in COVID cases, and hospitalizations fell to a daily average of 146,000 patients last week. The bad news is that COVID deaths are still on the rise. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, there was an average of over 2,000 deaths daily last week. That’s the highest they’ve been since last February.


Gideon Resnick: Wow.


Josie Duffy Rice: Health experts are cautiously optimistic that there will be fewer deaths in the coming weeks as hospitalizations go down. But states are recovering at different paces. Epidemiologists warn that while hospitalizations and cases are going down in populous states like New York, the worst may be yet to come in less vaccinated areas of the country.


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I’m hoping that we are closer to the other side than we have been for some time.


Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.


Gideon Resnick: East Coasters seemingly cannot catch a break this season after yet another massive winter storm ripped through the coast over the weekend, bringing heavy snow and subzero wind chills. But Josie, at least we’re not talking about it every single second of every day.


Josie Duffy Rice: Very, very true. We’re taking it in stride. All of us.


Gideon Resnick: All of us at the height of the storm on Saturday, nearly 100,000 people were without power. The Northeast was hit the hardest, particularly New England. Boston, for example, got almost two feet of snow on Saturday, the most it has seen in a single day since 2003, while Cape Cod saw winds gusting at over 75 miles an hour. As of yesterday, over 10,000 Massachusetts residents were still without power or heat. Forecasters have been calling the storm a quote, “bomb cyclone” a natural phenomenon that occurs when the air pressure drops drastically in a 24-hour period and creates disastrous conditions. Governors in the region are working to clear roads in the wake of the widespread damage, while some residents live off of generators to stay warm under these freezing temperatures.


Josie Duffy Rice: Residents of a small town in Alabama will hold a town hall meeting this week to discuss claims that local police have pursued excessive policing for profit. Despite having a population of roughly 1,250 people and a median income of less than $40,000, the Brookside Alabama Police Department generated more than $610,000 in fines and fees in 2020, a 640% increase over two years, and a whopping 49% of the city’s total revenue. That’s so wild, I can’t even process it.


Gideon Resnick: Crazy.


Josie Duffy Rice: And during the same time period, the number of cars towed increased from 50 cars in one year, to 789 cars. And to be clear, this is a town with no traffic lights and only one retail store, which is a Dollar General. Since initially reported on the scandal last week, the police chief who oversaw the increase in policing resigned, but Democratic state representatives are calling for the resignation of the town’s mayor, city prosecutor, and judge as well—they all got to go. While getting the officials who enabled the police department’s abuse of power out of there is a good start, activists say it’s a symptom of a larger problem. Says Leah Nelson, research director of Alabama Appleseed, a justice and equity nonprofit, quote, “as long as criminal justice policy and tax policy is intertwined, we will see versions of Brookside pop up. We need policy reform.”


Gideon Resnick: Yeah, that article is really fantastic. I recommend people take time to read it. It is infuriating. Last week we saw Neil Young give Spotify the ultimatum that girlfriends have been getting for the past several years: it’s either me or Joe Rogan. Since the music platform removed Young’s music last Wednesday, other celebrities who have gotten cover stories in AARP magazine are coming out of the woodwork to support the rock star’s bold move. Among the cooler ones, folk legend Joni Mitchell pledged to also remove her music from the platform. In a move that we’re calling “strong yet mysterious”, author and TED Talk icon Dr. Brené Brown tweeted that she would not release new episodes of her two Spotify-exclusive podcast until further notice without saying why. Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist Nils Lofgren pulled 27-years’ worth of songs off of Spotify. And English singer songwriter, James Blunt, said the greatest warning, threatening on Twitter to release new music on Spotify if they did not remove Joe Rogan from the platform. Though, it might be scary, I think it’s wise to prepare yourself for the very real possibility of new James Blunt music—you have been warned. Meanwhile, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who signed an exclusive multi-year podcast deal with Spotify in 2020, released a statement saying that they had expressed their concerns to Spotify but will continue to work with the company.


Josie Duffy Rice: You know Gideon, Meghan and Harry got like $30 million from Spotify and have released exactly one podcast episode in more than a year, so I feel like I’m not convinced that them not releasing new stuff has to do with Joe Rogan, but we can get into that another time.


Gideon Resnick: That is the kind of deal that I think we should all seek: 30 million for one episode seems like it makes sense. And those are the headlines. That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, pull your songs from Spotify, and tell your friends to listen.


Josie Duffy Rice: And if you are into reading, and not just about the nightmares of over-policing like me, What A Day is also my nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at I’m Josie Duffy Rice.


Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.


[together] And let’s go Bengals!


Josie Duffy Rice: Whooo!


Gideon Resnick: I apologize for the amount that I’ll be saying “Who Dey” over the next two weeks of my life. It’s going to be bad.


Josie Duffy Rice: You would think that I was the Bengals fan given the excitement.


Gideon Resnick: The country should be a Bengals fan. This is a rare event. We need to unite around the beautiful city of Cincinnati, the Nasty Nati that we know and love. 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.