In This Episode
- The Russia-Ukraine crisis ramped up this past weekend, and in a controversial address on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of two Russian-backed territories in eastern Ukraine: the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. In response, the White House announced sanctions on Ukraine’s separatist regions but not yet Russia, as there had been hopes of further diplomatic solutions. Michael McFaul, the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and professor at Stanford University, joins us to discuss his view of the situation.
- And in headlines: England is ending most COVID restrictions this week, the Supreme Court of Colombia decriminalized abortion, and the horse Medina Spirit was stripped of his Kentucky Derby title after he tested positive for a banned drug last May.
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Gideon Resnick: It’s Tuesday, February 22nd. I’m Gideon Resnick.
Josie Duffy Rice: And I’m Josie Duffy Rice, and this is What A Day, coming to you after a restful night on the multiple clearance mattresses we bought on Presidents Day.
Gideon Resnick: I got the Franklin Pierce deal. I got the John Tyler deal. I did not get the Andrew Jackson deal for reasons that you can assume.
Josie Duffy Rice: Yeah.
Gideon Resnick: On today’s show, England and Australia are the latest countries to end certain COVID restrictions, plus the late winner of the Kentucky Derby has been stripped of his medal.
Josie Duffy Rice: But first, quite a lot to talk about on the Russia-Ukraine front, so we’ll go through where things stand as of our recording at 9:30 p.m. Eastern. Yesterday in a controversial address, Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized the independence of two Russian backed territories in eastern Ukraine: the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.
[clip of Vladimir Putin] [speaks in Russian]
Josie Duffy Rice: He’s saying that Ukraine isn’t just a neighboring country, but an integral part of Russian history. Along with that recognition, he signed decrees to send military forces into those regions in Ukraine for quote, “peacekeeping functions.” It was not immediately clear afterwards whether there would be a further military incursion from those separatist regions.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, but the action prompted a flurry of responses, including an emergency UN Security Council meeting that began just as we went to record, though Russia chaired that meeting and has veto power here. Here are some of what US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said:
[clip of Linda Thomas-Greenfield] Russia’s clear attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is unprovoked. It is an attack on Ukraine’s status as a UN member state. It violates a basic principle of international law and it defies our charter. What is more, this move by President Putin is clearly the basis for Russia’s attempt to create a pretext for a further invasion of Ukraine.
Gideon Resnick: Additionally, the White House announced immediate sanctions on Ukraine’s separatist regions, but not yet Russia, as there had been hopes of further diplomatic solutions as recently as this past weekend, though further sanctions do appear to be on their way. And President Biden spoke with the leaders of Ukraine, Germany, and France yesterday evening. Meanwhile, Britain intends to announce new sanctions on Russia today.
Josie Duffy Rice: Now, the White House has not been referring to this as an invasion, though that is the perspective shared by some observers, including Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, from 2012 to 2014, and a professor at Stanford University. We spoke to him Monday evening about his view of the situation, and we first asked him what happened yesterday.
Michael McFaul: Well, Mr. Putin took some pretty radical steps. First thing he did was give a very fiery speech to his nation where, you know, the way I read it is he was explaining and justifying a major war. It was a tirade about all kinds of grievances and why Ukraine shouldn’t exist as an independent country. He then jumped off of that interview and met with the two leaders of Luhansk and Donetsk, the rebels, to declare those people’s republics as independent countries. And, by the way, just as a footnote, People’s Republics is what Stalin called his puppet regimes in Eastern Europe after World War II. So that’s not an accident, that’s an echo from that previous period. And then he invaded Ukraine. And I’m choosing my words deliberately. He invaded Ukraine. What he would tell you and what his people would say is that after he recognized these two regions as independent countries, they signed military agreements with both of them, by the way, at the same signing ceremony. And in Putin’s view, he’s now sent in peacekeepers to keep the peace in these two places. But make no mistake, when a country sends soldiers and tanks into the sovereign country, of another sovereign country, that’s an invasion.
Josie Duffy Rice: Can you tell us what the historical significance of those two particular regions is?
Michael McFaul: Yes. So the borders of that part of the world, just to remind your listeners, have been very fluid for many, many years, many decades, many centuries. Today, those two regions, they’re the most populated by ethnic Russians, right? So remember, Ukraine has ethnic Ukraines, has ethnic Russians, other minorities too, by the way, but those are the two predominant groups. And a lot of families that are blended, I think, and that’s really important thing to understand. This is not like in other places where the populations are separate and they don’t intermingle. There’s lots of families that speak Russian and Ukrainian interchangeably. There’s even a language in between that they speak in Kiev. It’s kind of a slang between the two of them. But in that mix before 2014, Crimea, which Putin annexed back in 2014, that was the most ethnic Russian populated region of Ukraine. These two, Donbass and Lugansk, are also the most ethnically Russian. By the way, it’s a big industrial base, three million people are there or so, a major big part of the Ukrainian economy are all located out there. So after 2014, Putin, you know, like I said, he concocted this entire thing, it was not spontaneous, declared that these places should be independent. And that was the justification. He said we need to protect these Russians from, you know, the Nazis that have taken over in Kie,v and that was the pretext for annexing Crimea. And today that was the pretext for now saying they’re independent countries that we are now going to have these military treaties with to help protect ethnic Russians.
Gideon Resnick: And you’re being very intentional about your language of invasion. And I think that not everybody is at this moment just yet, even perhaps some senior administration officials or at least one that I saw was being referenced to on social media. What might be the differences in viewpoints at the moment, or at least the public declaration of viewpoints at the moment?
Michael McFaul: Yes, I’m being very deliberate and I hope my friends in the administration will catch up. And I think that’s part of the reason we’re in this situation, by the way, is that we’ve been wishy-washy about things. When Putin annexed Crimea, we should have had a much bigger reaction to that. Analytically, had we framed it in more stark terms, we might have had a better chance of preventing where we’re at now. But you know, that’s then, this is now. I think the administration is hesitant for some very practical instrumental reasons. They have put in place with our partners and with our allies in Europe, a very comprehensive set of economic sanctions that they want to push the go button if Russia launches a full-scale military invasion. They don’t want to go into that bag of economic sanctions until that happens. They don’t want to use that now. They want to save that for what they believe will be a much larger invasion to come.
Gideon Resnick: Got it.
Josie Duffy Rice: So there are conversations about a possible summit between Presidents Biden and Putin on the condition that there isn’t an invasion. Is that something that is currently off the table now? And how can they effectively get back there if they need to? What is the situation there?
Michael McFaul: Yeah. Well, there was that glimmer of hope after President Macron called Putin and announced that in principle-it’s a very important qualifying phrase-they announced that they would do it. I think the president was right to say, If there’s a way that this will lead to negotiations and avoid war, I should do it. But one, I thought it was a very low probability event yesterday when it was announced. I just think at a certain point, President Biden has to be careful. Does he really want a photo op and shaking hands with a guy that is about to launch a war where tens of thousands of people might be killed? I don’t think that’s a good move on his part. So that’s the careful balancing that he has to, you know, on the one hand, of course, we want to negotiate if we can. On the other hand, you don’t want to feel like you’re being used for a photo op on the day before a war. At this stage, at this moment, I think it’s worth a try. From what I understand, these kinds of ideas are being floated. But I feel very pessimistic today about any chance for a peace summit. And I want to make this personal. I have lots of friends in Ukraine. They live in Kiev. Our president of the United States just said a few days ago they have reason to believe will be attacked. I think it’s a pretty somber moment right now.
Josie Duffy Rice: Absolutely. It’s devastating, you know, acknowledging what you just said and obviously that this is a particularly heavy moment for you and other people who have family and loved ones in Ukraine, we’re not in the game of predicting, but what do you think is going to unfold in the next few days, and where do we go from here?
Michael McFaul: Well, you’re right, I’m definitely not in the game predicting. I’ve been avoiding that throughout this entire crisis. But I do feel we’re at a new moment right now. I just don’t see any sign that he’s looking to negotiate. I also don’t see signs that he wants a limited war. You know, he could have easily recognized these two republics without building up 190,000 soldiers on every border but one to Ukraine. I fear that we are going to witness a pretty major war. It might not be a full-scale occupation of Ukraine, but I think it’s going to be a major war. And remember, the asymmetry in this war is in the air, right? So its airplanes and rockets. I wouldn’t be surprised if the first phases of the war was a kind of shock and awe. But that could go on for a long time, and they can do that. Ukraine does not have a lot of air defense capabilities right now. And you know, there’s been reporting that there’s kill lists, that they’re going to round out critics, and this could be really nasty. And Putin has, he’s killed a lot of people. I think people need to understand that. He’s already gone to war four times: Chechnya in 1999, Georgia, 2008, Ukraine 2014, Syria 2015. He’s killed tens of thousands of people already. And in each of those wars that I just described, from his perspective, he feels like he won. And by the way, I can understand why he feels that. And so I think he’s, given that mindset, I think he’s ready to go in tragically, in a big way. And the last thing I’ll say, and remember, you know, my day job is I’m a professor of political science here at Stanford, and I teach about war and peace, and I would just remind you that it’s rare that wars go according to plan. It’s rare that they’re either short little things, we’re just going to have a little skirmish here in the Balkans, and we’ll be home in time for Christmas. We know how that ends in World War 1. And we know our worse lately have gone where we thought we were going to win and be out, and decades later, we were there. I think that is tragically something that one needs to keep in mind here, and things that happened, that we weren’t anticipating.
Gideon Resnick: We’ll have more conversations and updates on the way as things develop here, but that is the latest for now. We are going to be back after some ads.
Gideon Resnick: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.
Gideon Resnick: England is ending most COVID restrictions starting this Thursday. That is despite the Queen testing positive last week, when the government also estimated one in 20 Britons were infected. Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled his plan for quote, “living with COVID”—which coincidentally was the theme of several parties that were hosted at his house last year. Here is what he told parliament yesterday:.
[clip of PM Boris Johnson] COVID will not suddenly disappear. So those who would wait for a total end to this war before lifting the remaining regulations would be restricting the liberties of the British people for a long time to come. [crowd cheers] This government does not believe that that is right or necessary.
Gideon Resnick: Love those rowdy parliament addresses. Among the rules being dropped, people who test positive will not be forced to self-isolate, and instead be advised to stay home for at least five days. Though at the same time, the country is ending the £500 support payments that it gives to low-income people who do test positive and self-isolate. Other policies, like free testing for all symptomatic and asymptomatic people, will end later on April 1st. Meanwhile, Australia reopened its borders to foreign tourists yesterday after closing them for nearly two years. Aussies have one of the best vaccination rates in the world, over 94% of people 16 and over have been jabbed—good for them—and the government hopes that welcoming back fully-vaccinated tourists without quarantine restrictions will help out its struggling tourism industry.
Josie Duffy Rice: The Supreme Court of Colombia decriminalized abortion in the country yesterday, following years of pro-choice activism by Latin Americans, plus similar moves from the courts in two other majority Catholic Latin American nations, Mexico and Argentina. Abortions in Colombia are now legal in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. Before this ruling, abortions were only legal when the pregnant person’s health was at risk, the fetus had serious health problems, or the pregnancy had resulted from rape. According to the country’s health ministry, about 70 deaths result annually from illegal abortions in Colombia, which are often the only option for poorer people who don’t have the resources to work around the legal system. After the court made its decisions, one of the judges who co-wrote the ruling called it quote, “A symbol of the eternal fight for women’s freedom.”
Gideon Resnick: The Republican war on children is continuing with Florida’s proposed “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which could get even worse. The bill would limit the ability of schools in the state to talk about LGBTQ+ people and issues with students, possibly including events like the 2016 tragic mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Because Josie, it’s not only older history that we can erase, it’s even new stuff that you might even remember.
Josie Duffy Rice: Can’t think back to 2016. That would be asking too much.
Gideon Resnick: Among the 14 amendments to the bill up for consideration, a new one proposed last Friday would require educators to out any student who is known to be questioning their sexual orientation to that child’s parents within six weeks—dear Lord.
Josie Duffy Rice: God.
Gideon Resnick: The bill already instructed schools to out children to their parents, but this amendment takes away an exemption if that information might lead to abuse, neglect or abandonment.
Josie Duffy Rice: Oh my God.
Gideon Resnick: The Don’t Say Gay bill and its amendments face a full vote in the Florida House this week. And this is not just happening in DeSantis world, either. Republicans in 15 other states have proposed similar bills. One in Kansas, for instance, would use the state’s obscenity law to make it a misdemeanor for school staff to use any classroom material that depicts homosexuality— because you cannot learn about other people in your world
Josie Duffy Rice: This is . . . just depressing. No words. The winner of the Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit, was stripped of his title, after he tested positive for a banned anti-inflammatory last May. Now this judgment took a while and came a few months after Medina Spirit’s death. That means he did get to go to heaven a winner. The first place title has now gone to Mandaloon, the race’s straight-edge runner up. For the sake of good drug-free sportsmanship everywhere, we need to teach Mandaloon to figure skate for the Russian Olympic team. Also on the same beat of animals that are big and brown, a bear named Hank the Tank is apparently terrorizing South Lake Tahoe in California. Mr. Tank has allegedly broken into at least 28 homes since July, after his fearlessness towards humans and preference for their food helped him grow to be 500 pounds. The executive director of one California wildlife rescue service put it bluntly, she said quote, “He didn’t get fat like that eating berries and grubs.”
Gideon Resnick: Hey.
Josie Duffy Rice: I know. Rude. Residents and authorities can’t agree on what should be done next, with many who live in the area calling for Hank to be humanely captured and sent to a sanctuary. One Tahoe homeowner pointed out that he is gentle and when he breaks into someone’s home quote, “He just sits there and eats. He doesn’t attack them, he doesn’t growl, he doesn’t make rude faces.”
Gideon Resnick: Yeah. Not like my shitty neighbors’ kids. Am I right?
Josie Duffy Rice: I was about to say, this woman’s family needs to appreciate her more. If you are appreciating a bear in your house not making shitty faces, your standards are way too low.
Gideon Resnick: Seriously. I do think everybody should take ownership of Hank and do meals, you know, one person a day, one person a week-type thing.
Josie Duffy Rice: It’s like a meal train, but in a different kind of way.
Gideon Resnick: Exactly. Let Hank break into your home and have his food.
Josie Duffy Rice: Hank is the train.
Gideon Resnick: Yes. Yes. He’s as large as a train, I’m sure.
Josie Duffy Rice: He is. He Is.
Gideon Resnick: Those are the headlines. Two more things before we go: on the last episode, we mentioned that Florida’s House passed a Republican-sponsored bill that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. We said that’s before most people know they’re pregnant. We meant to say it is actually six weeks before many people even know they are pregnant. We apologize for the error.
Josie Duffy Rice: Also, now through Thursday, February 24th, we’re offering 15% off site-wide in the Crooked store. So check out our What A Day T-shirts, Friend of the Pod sweatshirts, Work From Home coffee mugs, and more. Shop now at Crooked.com/store.
Gideon Resnick: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, don’t feed Hank the Tank, and tell your friends to listen.
Josie Duffy Rice: And if you’re into reading, and not just the results of drug tests for horse figure skaters like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Josie Duffy Rice.
Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.
[together] And stay gold, Hank the Tank!
Josie Duffy Rice: We love you.
Gideon Resnick: We do.
Josie Duffy Rice: Come on the show, Hank.
Gideon Resnick: Yeah, we’ll interview you about your techniques: So how you breaking in these days? 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, and our executive producers are Leo Duran and me, Gideon Resnick. Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.