In This Episode
- Today marks 12 days since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Over the weekend, the violence continued in multiple Ukrainian cities, efforts to rescue civilians came under attack by Russian forces, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on NATO nations for further military support and humanitarian aid. Ben Rhodes, Former Deputy National Security Adviser and host of Pod Save the World, joins us to discuss what’s happening on the ground in Ukraine, with the rest of the world, and with the refugee crisis.
- And in headlines: A series of tornadoes ripped through Iowa, the Walt Disney Company is facing blowback for not taking a stand against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” Bill, and the United States adaptation of the Canadian trucker convoy descended on Washington D.C.
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Tre’vell Anderson: It’s Monday, March 7th. I’m Tre’vell Anderson.
Priyanka Aribindi: And I am Priyanka Aribindi, and this is What A Day, the show that’s sure that the radio silence we’re getting from Machine Gun Kelly and Megan Fox can’t mean anything good.
Tre’vell Anderson: You know, any time these two are quiet, they’re plotting.
Priyanka Aribindi: They’ve never been quiet. They’ve never been quiet. I’m so, like, what’s happening?
Tre’vell Anderson: On today’s show, a series of deadly tornadoes hit Iowa on Saturday. Plus, The Walt Disney Company faces blowback for not taking a stand against Florida’s Don’t Say Gay Bill.
Priyanka Aribindi: But first, the latest in the war between Russia and Ukraine as we go to record this at 9:30 p.m. Eastern. Today marks 12 days since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and thus far the situation does not show any signs of improvement. Over the weekend, the violence continued in multiple Ukrainian cities. There are reports of intense shelling and a growing number of casualties. So far, Ukrainian forces have successfully defended their positions in some areas, including north and east of Kiev, as well as in the port city of Nikolayev. But there are very concerning reports from other areas, like at an airport 100 miles out of Kiev, where a Russian missile strike destroyed both civilian and military infrastructure and at a Ukrainian nuclear power plant where Russian forces have managed to take full control. Perhaps the most highly scrutinized events of the weekend have been the efforts to rescue civilians from these areas of intense violence. Some of these efforts have come under attack from Russian forces both in Kiev and in the port city of Mariupol. In Kiev, civilians using a bridge to escape the fighting were fired at with mortar shells leaving at least four people dead. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had this to say on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday morning.
[clip of Sec. Antony Blinken] We’ve seen very credible reports of deliberate attacks on civilians, which would constitute a war crime. We’ve seen very credible reports about the use of certain weapons. And what we’re doing right now is documenting all of this, putting it all together, looking at it, and making sure that as people and the appropriate organizations and institutions investigate whether war crimes have been or are being committed, that we can support whatever they’re doing.
Tre’vell Anderson: All right. Wow. So what do we make of this from Blinken?
Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah. The term war crimes isn’t one that’s thrown around lightly, so definitely very bad things happening over there. According to the UN, at least 364 Ukrainians have died since the beginning of this invasion, and at least 759 have been injured, though the actual counts are believed to be much higher than those numbers. The U.N.’s refugee agency says that in the past 10 days, one and a half million people have fled Ukraine, making this the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War Two.
Tre’vell Anderson: All right, so what are the Russian leaders, the Ukrainian leaders saying?
Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, we’ll talk more in-depth about this shortly, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been calling for NATO to stop Russia’s aerial attack by enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would be a major military escalation. Zelensky has also been critical of NATO for not doing more. And yesterday, he described Russia’s plans to attack defense complexes that are in the middle of Ukrainian cities as, quote, “deliberate murder.” Putin, on the other hand, is saying that if the government of Ukraine continues to do what it’s doing, which is defending the country against invasion, it will quote, “put under question the future of Ukrainian statehood.” Putin has also said that he considers the sanction against Russia quote, “the equivalent of a declaration of war” and that any country that calls for a no fly zone over Ukraine will be considered an enemy combatant.
Tre’vell Anderson: All right. Whoa whoa there, buddy. Slow down over there, please and thank you. There is so much going on on the ground, with the rest of the world, with the refugee crisis. For more on all of this, I spoke to former Deputy National Security adviser and host of Pod Save the World, Ben Rhodes. I started by asking him if civilians can still safely escape Ukraine.
Ben Rhodes: It’s getting more and more difficult, is the answer. We still see civilians getting out, but basically in multiple places there is efforts by Russia to encircle cities, to really terrorize the residents with the kind of indiscriminate shelling that is coming their way, to kind of disregard some of these negotiations, which have been run—not a cease fire in the whole country, but creating corridors for civilians to more safely escape. And this is something we’ve seen Russia do in the past. You know, in Syria, where Russia was a combatant, they would negotiate ceasefires and then they would violate them kind of at their will to make a point that there’s a limit to what you can count on, frankly, from their assurances. So it’s just going to get harder and harder, I think, for Ukrainians to make it to the border, but they’re clearly going to keep trying.
Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. And over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky held a call with over 280 U.S. lawmakers. Can you walk us through what was said on that call?
Ben Rhodes: So if you look at Zelensky in general, like what he’s focused on is maximizing what support he can get from everybody. So, you know, he’s talking to world leaders constantly. He’s talking to not just the U.S. Congress, but other parliaments. And I think his ask to the U.S. focused on military assistance, right? The Ukrainians have asked for a no-fly zone to be enforced by NATO. That is something that the Biden administration does not want to do. And I think while I understand why the Ukrainians obviously want all the support they can get, people off to bear in mind that setting up a no-fly zone would include bombing the Russian, not just planes in the sky, but the air defense systems that are manned by Russians on the ground. So that would be a direct war between the United States and Russia, and that’s not something that the Biden team’s wanted to risk. I think as a fallback to that, Zelensky was basically asking for the maximum amount of military support that Ukraine can get, including NATO countries providing him with aircraft that Ukrainians can use. He was telling Congress, Hey, if you wont do a no-fly zone, let me get aircraft on my own and then backfill the NATO allies. And I’m sure he’s asking for a continued increase in sanctions, where all that’s really left is sanctions of Russian oil and gas exports. So, you know, I think it was him calling for whatever support can be provided. And I think, you know, rightly so. That’s his job.
Tre’vell Anderson: I’m going to come back to the oil imports in a moment, but also on Sunday. In answering Zelensky’s pleas from Saturday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that NATO members, particularly Poland, have the go ahead to send their fighter aircrafts to Ukraine. I’m wondering, how does this plan differ from how the U.S. and other NATO allies have been helping thus far?
Ben Rhodes: So if you look at the type of military support that Ukraine has received over the last seven years, really, it’s generally been defensive weapons. What we’ve seen, I think in the run up to the invasion from Russia, and particularly since, is an escalation of the types of weapons that are going in to include know surface-to-air weapons, Stingers, things that can shoot stuff out of the sky, but now literally talking about, you know, fighter aircraft. And I think the important point here is that these are weapons are going to be used to kill Russian forces. You see NATO shifting its appetite to being willing to support not just kind of purely defensive weaponry, but anything the Ukrainians need, within certain limits. It further contributes to this feeling, you know, I’ve had, I think that a lot of us have had watching this, that we’re kind of walking up to the line of being in this war. We’re arming the Ukrainians. We have these massive economic sanctions, were, you know, kicking Russia out of stuff—all of which all those steps make sense in their own right, but the question is, is there a scenario in which that doesn’t kind of lead us into more direct conflict with Russia? And I think nobody can know for sure what Vladimir Putin would interpret as the US having crossed that line.
Tre’vell Anderson: As you mentioned, Blinken has said that the US and European partners are exploring banning Russian oil imports. I feel like just this weekend alone, I’ve seen so many people on social media commenting about their gas prices hitting $4 and $5, but what would it actually look like for the U.S. and the European partners to ban Russian oil imports? What would that look like for us?
Ben Rhodes: From our standpoint, it would just basically be this shock to energy markets and the increase in oil prices generally that would come from that kind of disruption. For Europe, it could be much, much more difficult because they get a massive chunk of their imported gas from Russia. And so there you’re talking about much more significant economic disruption, potentially literally energy disruptions—you know, not just people filling up their cars, is people are heating their homes. So we are likely looking at further inflation, further increases in gas prices in any case. If we do move to kind of this severe cut off of Russian exports, it’s just going to create all kinds of disruptions in the global economy generally too.
Tre’vell Anderson: Now is there more that the outside world could be doing to support Ukraine in this effort
Ben Rhodes: From a sanctions standpoint, like we said, it’s the oil and gas sanctions, and that’s really the only thing left. We’ve already gone in a week to obviously providing much more significant military assistance there. Other things like should the United States provide real time intelligence to Ukraine? There’s cyber activities, we try to disrupt Russian communications, we try to broadcast information into Russia now that Putin is seeking to kind of wall off his people from the reality of this war. The huge challenge before the Biden team is how do you reconcile the impulse to do whatever you can to help the Ukrainians with the very real concern of you don’t want to trip wire into a nuclear war, you know? And somewhere in the middle, right, is kind of where our policy is. And by the way, there’s nothing we can do about that.
Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. Now, the UN estimated that more than one and a half million people have had to flee Ukraine due to Russia’s invasion. This has created a refugee crisis of sorts at the Ukrainian and Polish border, along with other neighboring countries. How are various countries preparing to take in folks who are fleeing from Ukraine?
Ben Rhodes: I mean, thus far you’ve seen like huge open door to Ukrainians from Poland and Romania and even Hungary and Germany. And part from just getting immediate aid, there’s this longer-term question of where are they going to be? Right now, it’s we’re in phase one of just absorbing what’s going to be millions of people. I think where it gets more difficult is how do you accommodate those people in the next year or two? And also do the Ukrainians themselves kind of want to have semi-permanent arrangements or do they want to be in more temporary arrangements because want to go home?
Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah. Now one of the things I’ve been interested in kind of looking at all of this news is we’ve seen a lot of reports as it relates to Black and non-Ukrainian non-European folks being refused at border crossings or transport stations, having trouble getting out of the country. Do we have any sense of how issues like this are being considered in the different efforts to support folks on the ground?
Ben Rhodes: No, I’ve certainly seen it too as well. You know, Ukraine, a major European country, has significant amounts of foreign students, has foreign workforces from different parts of the world. And the reality is in the context of refugees fleeing from Ukraine that tends to just focus on if you’ve got a passport that says you’re Ukrainian, you know. And so I think it’s put people in this difficult circumstance. But basically, the predicament that those folks are in is seeking help and assistance from their own governments in whatever country they end up in. My hope would be that the welcome that is being afforded to Ukrainians extends obviously to everybody else is fleeing from that violence, and these are the kinds of individual stories that can get lost. And I think the baseline should be if you are fleeing Ukraine, you should be treated equally as someone worthy of assistance, whether or not you’re a Ukrainian citizen or whether you were someone else who happened to be living there.
Tre’vell Anderson: Yeah, definitely. And my last question for you, there are reports that more than 4,300 anti-war protesters have been detained in Russia, and anti-war sentiment has really began to spread rampant throughout the country. Is there any world in which these Russian demonstrators make an impact at home and we see some sort of shift on behalf of Putin?
Ben Rhodes: So first of all, I think it is really important to underscore that I genuinely don’t believe that this war is at all popular inside of Russia. So I think that there’s genuine opposition to what Putin is doing in a way that goes far beyond anything else he has faced. What you need to look at is there’s public opinion, which can only really show up in metrics like protest, because there’s not many other ways for Russians to have their voices heard. There’s the opinion of kind of these elite economic circles, the oligarchs. There’s the Russian military itself. And I don’t think demonstrations alone are going to shift Russia’s course, but if you’re looking at the convergence of all of these other forces, the question is, is there any scenario in which things change very, very fast in ways that I wouldn’t even want to predict what the what is. You know, whether it’s like a military coup or some mass popular uprising. I don’t think that that’s the most likely thing to happen in the near term because Russia is such a dictatorship at this point, but things have changed really fast in Russian history—like the fall of the Soviet Union, the start of Soviet Union. Like, Russian politics, there can be huge shifts in limited amounts of time. So this is like one of the few big independent variables, you know, and this is something to watch.
Tre’vell Anderson: That is the latest for now. We’ll be back after some ads.
Tre’vell Anderson: Now, let’s wrap up with some headlines.
Tre’vell Anderson: A series of tornadoes ripped through Iowa on Saturday, killing seven people, including two children under five years old. According to the National Weather Service, the state was hit by at least three tornadoes on Saturday, with the worst one hitting Winterset, a small town in Madison County, where six of the seven deaths were reported. The weather service said that the damage in Winterset suggests that winds had reached over 135 miles an hour. Dozens of homes were destroyed statewide, and cities were left covered in debris on Sunday as officials surveyed the communities affected. And The Des Moines Register reported that the Winterset tornado is the worst Iowa has seen since 2008. Governor Kim Reynolds issued a disaster proclamation for Madison County, saying in a statement quote, “Our hearts ache during this time, but I know Iowans will step up and come together to help in this time of need.”
Priyanka Aribindi: Yeah, it’s really awful. Twitter users have experienced a significant drop off in the number of bots commenting and spreading vaccine disinformation since the invasion of Ukraine, according to new reports from The Guardian. While the reasons for this change are likely varied, social media analysts have observed a shift from misinformation about COVID and vaccine mandates to misinformation about geopolitical issues revolving around Ukraine. Additionally, the Security Service of Ukraine reported recently that a Russian bot farm produced 7,000 accounts to post fake information about Ukraine on social media platforms like Telegram, WhatsApp, and Viber. Meanwhile, mentions associating Ukraine with a popular conspiracy theory called the “New World Order” have doubled since the invasion. Russia has a documented history of coordinating misinformation campaigns online to sow dissent abroad, as demonstrated in the 2016 election and during the COVID pandemic. And while they don’t seem to be slowing the misinformation tactics anytime soon, we can take solace in the fact that for a short window, you might be able to get away with tweeting a spicy take like “vaccines are good” without an American flag named “MAGA Moms 776” calling you a lizard in your mentions. Savor this moment everybody.
Tre’vell Anderson: Savor the flavor. All right. The company that’s dedicated to inclusion and progress in entertainment as long as they’re not risking a single American dollar, the Walt Disney Company, is facing backlash over its financial support of the Florida Republicans behind the notoriously evil “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The bill, which would outlaw any and all discussions of queerness in classrooms up to the third grade, was passed in the Florida House of Representatives last month, despite sharp opposition from the state’s large LGBTQ+ community. The day after the bill passed, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Disney has donated money to every single sponsor and co-sponsor of the hateful bill, prompting social media outrage over the company’s political contributions. Disney released a statement over the weekend in response to the backlash, claiming that the company is a quote, “unifying force that brings people together” and that quote, “the biggest impact we can have in creating a more inclusive world is through the inspiring content we produce.” Never mind their money, I guess Disney can support the queer community by showing Gaston’s friend make eyes at him in three frames of the live action Beauty and the Beast reboot. Nowhere in its statement did Disney condemn the bill or promise that it would stop funding anti LGBTQ plus politicians—of course not. Disney CEO Bob Chapek has also been notably silent on the issue, leaving many to assume that the company won’t be committing to any significant change. But hey, at least they sell rainbow Mickey Mouse ears every June, right?
Priyanka Aribindi: This is wild. Every part of the statement “unifying force that brings people together, the biggest impact we can have is creating the inspiring content we produce”—that has nothing to do with the things that people are saying. I’ve had it with people giving quotes that have nothing to do with the questions they’ve been asked or the things that they are being criticized for. This is garbage. Do better. The latest and largest United States adaptation of the Canadian trucker convoy descended on Washington DC late last Friday, circling the capital city via Interstate 495 with hundreds of trucks, minivans, pickups, hatchbacks, and, of course, motorcycles a.k.a. trucks that were split down the middle by a mad truck scientist—a few more people than at our birthday party, but we didn’t know that at the time. While the convoy of trucks slowed traffic for hours by driving below speed limits, organizers said that the convoy had no plans to actually enter the city, fearful that bad actors could instigate an event similar to that of January 6th, and instead opting to circle in a 64-mile loop around the city—that was actually a lot of foresight from them, and that is kind of commendable because I’d be really nervous that they would do that. By the second loop around the city, the vehicles had gotten spread out from each other, giving the wheeled protests more of a standard traffic vibe. The demonstrators plan to drive around the city throughout the week or until their demands are met, which include a request to quote, “Restore the Constitution.” The aims of the convoy, which originated as an anti-mask anti-vax demonstration have been muddled even further in the past weeks as low COVID deaths and case rates have led to the lessening of mask mandates nationwide. Someone should tell these truckers that if they want to just get out of town for a week, there are way cooler places to vacation than driving in circles around Washington, D.C., like a Bass Pro shop or a city with a good Cheesecake Factory. You got options.
Tre’vell Anderson: You know, I feel like these truckers would really enjoy Myrtle Beach for some reason, right?
Priyanka Aribindi: You know, check it out. I don’t know.
Tre’vell Anderson: And those are the headlines. One more thing before we go: Check out the latest episode of Offline. Kara Swisher joins Jon this week for a conversation about the ongoing war in Ukraine, why Putin is losing the misinformation battle, and what makes Zelensky a compelling online hero. Search Offline with Jon Favreau on your podcast app and smash that follow button to never miss an episode. That’s all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, do say gay, and tell your friends to listen.
Priyanka Aribindi: And if you’re into reading, and not just how to restore the Constitution to factory settings like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Priyanka Aribindi.
Tre’vell Anderson: I’m Tre’vell Anderson
[Together] And go home truckers!
Priyanka Aribindi: Or at least to Myrtle Beach.
Tre’vell Anderson: Listen, go somewhere. Your dogs are waiting for you at home. They’ve missed you for so long.
Priyanka Aribindi: Kick back, relax. Find your beach.
Tre’vell Anderson: Go tend your gardens or something.
Priyanka Aribindi: Collect your mail. You don’t want to leave packages lying out and about. Don’t learn that the hard way.
Gideon Resnick: What A d\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.