Russia’s Repeating its Syrian Strategy in Ukraine

The Daily Escape:

Quiet stream, rural NH – March 2022 photo by Betsy Zimmerli

There are lessons from history that inform what Putin is doing in Ukraine. First, Syria demonstrates how Putin intends to operate. Putin got Russia involved in Syria in 2015 and helped Bashar al-Assad take back control of most of the country.

One part of Syria that isn’t under control is Idlib Province. That’s because Russia’s Syrian strategy was intense aerial bombardment of cities, followed by the establishment of temporary “humanitarian corridors”. That pushed civilians and fighters eventually into Idlib.

During the Syrian civil war, the Russian and Syrian militaries systematically besieged opposition-held cities, towns, and districts. They rained destruction on the populations with airstrikes, artillery and rockets blasting residential districts, hospitals, and infrastructure.

Eventually, the Russians and Syrians offered humanitarian corridors, allowing civilians and fighters to leave, and be funneled into the northwest province of Idlib. Idlib remains today the last opposition-held part in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of people used the corridors to get out of the war zones. The largest and most notorious example was the evacuation of Aleppo City in 2016, ending four years of siege. These internally displaced Syrians now make up about two-thirds of the 3 million people living in Idlib province. It is still surrounded by Syrian forces and is still hit by Russian airstrikes.

It’s now clear that Putin will bomb Ukrainian cities much like the carpet bombing of Grozny in Chechnya, or Aleppo in Syria. What’s happening on the ground in Ukraine should sound familiar to anyone who watched Russia in Syria. Here’s an up-to-date map of the military conditions in Ukraine from the UK Defence Intelligence Agency:

The map shows that despite many setbacks, Putin’s forces are close to (if they are not already) surrounding Kyiv. If you note the map legend showing “Assessed Encirclement” areas, those are places that the Russians have either captured, or are close to surrounding. They include most major Ukrainian cities.

In response, the Ukraine government in conjunction with the Russian military, have announced humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to leave cities where there is fighting between the Russian and Ukrainian armies.

In Syria, this strategy was effective. The Syrian government regained control by removing large opposition populations, many of whom remain unable to return to their home cities and towns.

This is Putin’s plan for Ukraine. Create a pocket within Ukraine that can be cut off from most resources, a rump state where most of the opposition is located. Damage or destroy most of its infrastructure. Leave it as a broken state unable to exist without outside humanitarian support. That rump state might be as small as a province, or as large as the majority of Ukraine west of the Dnieper river, as Wrongo has suggested.

A second lesson was learned by the Soviet Union’s military in Hungary. Russia’s military won’t repeat their Hungarian experience in Ukraine. In 1956, Hungarians attempted to overthrow their pro-Soviet leadership. In October 1956, the Soviets sent tanks into Budapest to crush the uprising. Many Hungarians, (called “freedom fighters” by the West), rose up against the Soviet invaders. From History.net: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“Incorrectly assuming that the sight of Soviet armor rumbling through the Hungarian capital would quickly cow Budapest’s restive population, Kremlin leadership sent in tanks without the support of infantrymen….Over the next several days, small teams of Hungarian freedom fighters throughout Budapest took on the Soviet tanks, sniping at…crewmen or destroying the vehicles with Molotov cocktails.”

The freedom fighters’ most effective tactic was the “decoy and ambush,” where a decoy team fired at a Soviet tank to attract the crew’s attention and then fled down a side street to lure the tanks into a predetermined “kill zone.” This hubris on the part of the Soviets was a mistake that wasn’t repeated in Grozny and will not be repeated in Ukraine. Hungary didn’t achieve its freedom until 1991 when the USSR collapsed.

But have the US and NATO learned any useful lessons? The West has two conflicting goals in Ukraine. First, imposing strategic defeat on Russia. And second, defending Ukraine’s sovereignty. If our only goal was protecting the sovereignty of Ukraine, then our available options might include putting boots on the ground or imposing a No Fly Zone. But we’re not willing to do either one.

Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born British journalist said the West:

“is doing an AMAZING job…of responding to 2014. That’s when we needed sanctions and arming Ukrainians. We’re ‘winning’ the last war. Not sure we’ve quite caught up with this new one yet.”

The US has discussed an arms lend-lease program for Ukraine. Alexander Vindman asks where are the: (parenthesis by Wrongo)

“…medium- and long-range air defense systems, antitank weapons (beyond the Javelins that have already been provided), advanced extended-range antiarmor capabilities, coastal defense systems, high mobility artillery, and critically important UCAVs” (drones)?”

The West is dithering on the correct level of support for Ukraine. If the US and NATO provided lethal aid via lend-lease, there’s a risk that Russia will escalate. But there’s a better chance that they will not.

It would be a gamble for Putin to escalate, and it’s a gamble for Biden to provide the weapons. Our reaction so far says that the US has lost its nerve without saying the US has lost its nerve.

Sorry Ukraine, we can’t follow your example.

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Russian Sanctions: Who Blinks First?

The Daily Escape:

Secret Canyon, Moab, UT – February 2022 photo by Klaus Priebe Photographer

Collateral damage from the US and European sanctions is growing. One question is whether the West will blink before Russia.

First, a few words about Putin’s strategy. It doesn’t seem that Putin was intent on “recreating the Russian Empire” as many pundits said. Instead, he’s going to partition Ukraine, with Russia controlling Ukraine east of the Dnieper River. That includes much of Ukraine’s industrial base. The southern part of Ukraine contains 13 seaports. In 2021, they exported over 150 million tons of cargo, representing 60% of exports and 50% of imports for Ukraine. Russia has already ended Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea.

When hostilities end, Ukraine will be a land-locked country.

The Russian army will ensure that what is left of Ukraine west of the Dnieper is a broken, third-world country. The indiscriminate missile, artillery and bombing in Ukraine’s west shows that is their intent. Whatever remains of western Ukraine will be the buffer state that Putin wanted prior to the start of his war. In the end, NATO will be forced to agree to a buffer state that is smaller and much weaker than the one NATO originally refused to agree to.

The US strategy for Ukraine had several elements. First, to make the cost of Putin’s War so harsh that he wouldn’t proceed, or after proceeding, would cause him to look for an early way to end hostilities before both were badly damaged: Ukraine by Russian weapons, and Russia by Western sanctions.

Another strategy was to get Germany to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. That has begun. Last week Germany unveiled plans for a terminal to import liquefied natural gas (LNG). Germany currently has no LNG import terminals.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then to learn that the US is the prime producer and exporter of LNG, ahead of Qatar and Russia. But LNG delivered to Europe is 50% more expensive than the gas delivered by pipeline from Russia. It’s true that there’s plenty of European LNG capacity besides Germany’s new planned facility. From the National Law Review: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“The current large-scale LNG receiving countries in Europe are Belgium (one terminal), France (four terminals), Greece (one terminal), Italy (three terminals), Lithuania (one terminal), Malta (one terminal), the Netherlands (one terminal), Poland (one terminal), Portugal (one terminal), Spain (six operational), Turkey (four terminals) and the UK (three terminals). Collectively, their overall LNG capacity is 237 billion cubic meters (of gas)…which is sufficient to cover approximately 40% of Europe’s gas demand.”

It’s possible to reduce German reliance on Russian gas imports, but they can’t easily achieve total independence. Substantially higher gas prices would definitely hurt the competitiveness of German industry, and slow global economic growth. It could become German economic suicide.

A third US strategy was that Putin’s rush into Ukraine would lead to a stalemate on the ground, and that sanctions would lead to a change of government in Russia. Then the new government might turn more towards the West.

The calculation was that Russia can’t win a major (non-nuclear) war without the economic support of the West through purchases of gas, and exports of technology. We’ve discussed natural gas. Protocol’s report on Russia’s dependence on foreign chips found that European and US companies sell them a lot of microprocessors, while their memory chip imports come mostly from South Korea and the US. All are now embargoed.

It’s possible that in executing these strategies, we’re burning up the world’s economy at the same time. These strategies have helped push oil prices above $130 a barrel. Natural gas prices have shot up to over $3,900 per 1,000 cubic meters for the first time in history. This will destabilize more than a few EU countries. As we wrote, the Ukraine war has slashed wheat exports, which will lead to high food prices and shortages in countries that rely on wheat from Russia and Ukraine.

We must be careful that we aren’t sanctioning ourselves. We already have a blowback effect on the sanctions inflicted on Russia. We may see double-digit inflation globally before the end of the year.

It’s possible that every dollar of Republican and Democratic campaign spending for the November mid-terms will be spent on stickers for gas pumps: The Republican sticker will feature Biden saying “I did this” while pointing at the price on the gas pump.

The Democrats’ sticker will feature Putin pointing at the gas prices and saying, “I did this”.

Then campaign workers will spend all of their time pasting one over the other’s sticker.

Pick your poison.

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Monday Wake Up Call – March 7, 2022

The Daily Escape:

Watson Lake, near Prescott, AZ –  February 2022 photo by Steve Matten

Last week, the Labor Department released its monthly Nonfarm payroll report. It showed strong hiring, and a substantial decrease in unemployment. Employment rose by 678,000 in February, the unemployment rate fell to 3.8%, wages rose by just 1 cent to $31.58 per hour, although wages have risen 5.1% over the past 12 months.

We still have 2.1 million fewer jobs (1.4%) than we had in February 2020 just before the start of the pandemic. At the average rate of jobs growth for the past 6 months, it’s about 4 more months before we get back to where we were. From Krugman:

“…what people are actually experiencing in their daily lives is a very strong job market. For example, according to the latest survey from the Conference Board, 53.8% of consumers said that jobs were “plentiful,” a near-record, while only 11.8% said that jobs were hard to get.”

More from Krugman:

“Yet the public doesn’t believe it. According to a new survey by Navigator Research, only 19% of Americans believe that the US economy is experiencing more job growth than usual, while 35% say that it is experiencing more job losses than usual.”

Pandemic unemployment peaked in April 2020 at 14.7%. Back then, Congress was afraid of the country entering another depression, or at best a recession similar to 2008. Congress decided to prop up the economy through a fiscal stimulus called the first CARES Act. Many politicians have talked about how the CARES Act was the financial jolt that has caused inflation to spike.

You probably didn’t realize just how large that unemployment aid was. When unemployment benefits were at their peak in June 2020, the government pushed $1.395 trillion dollars out to the unemployed. Here’s a chart from the St. Louis Fed that shows how fast and how high that cash injection into the economy moved:

Today, these unemployment payments have shrunk by 98% to $26.7 billion. So where in our economy did that $1.4 trillion go? It went primarily to goods purchased locally at Mom & Pop stores and supermarkets. It also went to the big box stores like Walmart, Costco, and Target. It went to Amazon and hundreds of online retailers. At the Mansion of Wrong, it also went to Peloton.  And it went to online services, like Netflix and online education.

Americans spent less than usual on services, so we saw huge job losses in the services sector. Statista reports that we are still short 3.75 million jobs in the services sector and less than .5 million in manufacturing. Leisure and hospitality account for 1.38 million of the total, while losses in education, health services and government also remain high.

Much of today’s inflation is the result of this trillion-dollar unemployment stimulus. Barry Ritholtz interviewed Rebecca Patterson, Director of Investment Research at Bridgewater Associates. She described how the one-two punch of monetary and fiscal stimulus led to a “Demand Shock” where demand for durable goods overwhelmed what manufacturers could supply. She says that while global manufacturers ramped up production by 5% above pre-pandemic levels, demand for those same goods rose by 20%. This is a large part of the inflation spike we’re experiencing, and why the Fed has called it a “transitory” problem.

America’s response to the pandemic reminds us that the way our government responds to crises brings different impacts to different parts of our society.

The Federal Reserve’s expansionary monetary stimulus since 2008 has primarily benefited corporations and the well-off who could buy ever more expensive assets with very cheap money. Fiscal stimulus like the CARES Act and like the new infrastructure bill mostly benefit the bottom 50% of the country: low-wage labor, the unemployed, and the middle class.

So the economy is doing just fine for the top 10% and the upper middle class. But people who make minimum wage aren’t flying to Barcelona this year. They’re not eating at high-end restaurants. When they shop, it isn’t at boutiques. They continue to split financial hairs trying to figure out how to feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads, because rents are rising everywhere in the US and the price of food is going out of sight.

Add to this the interest rate hikes we know are coming, and things aren’t getting better for the lower middle class or people in poverty.

The discussion of the impact that fiscal stimulus had on our labor market isn’t finished. No one really knows why so many people haven’t returned to work, despite the roaring economy.

Time to wake up America! Some Americans are going through hard times. Clearly, people in Ukraine are facing terror that is much worse than here at home. Maybe this cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” by The Brothers Comatose with AJ Lee can bring a momentary comfort in this age of discomfort:

Watch it, you won’t be disappointed.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – March 6, 2022

A federal district court judge in Florida issued an order preventing disciplinary action against a Navy officer who refused to take the Covid vaccine on religious grounds. In the military, this is called insubordination, and is subject to many different forms of punishment. But not according to Florida District Court Judge Steven Merryday:

“The military is well aware of the frailty of their arguments in defense of their practices….The record creates a strong inference that the services are discriminatorily and systematically denying religious exemptions without a meaningful and fair hearing.”

The officer is in charge of a guided missile destroyer that is about to deploy. The warship carries 320 officers and sailors, along with missiles and torpedoes. The Navy isn’t saying where it’s headed. But now, the Navy can’t deploy its warship, even though it says it has lost trust in its commanding officer, an anti-vaxxer who has repeatedly disobeyed lawful orders.

Perhaps the craziest aspect of the judge’s ruling is that the Navy is prohibited from reassigning the insubordinate commander to a position at the same rank, pay grade etc. while the case is litigated. That’s something that the military normally has absolute discretion to do.

But the judge has overruled the Navy, along with the many senior officers who have said under oath that deploying the ship with the anti-Vaxx commander could imperil national security. Instead, the judge has ordered the Navy to keep the disobedient officer in charge of its $1.8 billion warship.

Now, the Navy and the judiciary are at a standoff. The Navy won’t deploy its warship until the commander is stripped of command. The judge will not allow it to do so. As a result, the judge has effectively commandeered a Navy guided-missile destroyer.

The issue seems to be about the limits of individual religious freedom. Military courts don’t usually decide these issues. The controlling law is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that requires “reasonable accommodation” for religious requirements, like for service members who must have beards or wear religious headgear.  They are permitted to do so, even if regulations would otherwise prohibit them. The question is should it apply to vaccinations for commanders when the Navy says they must be vaccinated.

Another problem is jurisdiction. A US district judge shouldn’t have any jurisdiction when the dispute is between the US Military and an officer or enlisted person. Soldiers do surrender some of their Constitutional or legislatively guaranteed rights while in the military, but not all. So some actions must be resolved by civilian courts.

This is a clear example of how the band of authoritarian theocrats with lifetime judicial appointments are trashing decisions taken by both our political and military institutions. In the coming years, the center and left must decide if they’re OK with right-wing judges carrying out a slow motion religious coup under the color of law. On to cartoons.

Strongman has a new meaning:

Does love between two authoritarians amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world?

March Madness used to mean basketball on TV, not war:

Can nuclear war bring Red and Blue together for a one night stand? Nope:

Trans kids being who they are is bringing out the true nature of Republicans:

After last week’s revelations, is the tide turning for Trump? Let’s root for the undertow:

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Saturday Soother – March 5, 2022

The Daily Escape:

Herring Cove, Provincetown MA – February 2022 photo by Karen Riddett

Wrongo and Ms. Right went to the big box store yesterday. Most of the things on our list were out of stock. We also needed to fill the car’s gas tank. Local prices ranged from $3.65 to $3.92/gal. We filled up at the place with the lower number.

This is before any effects of Putin’s War on prices here at home. One product that will be impacted is wheat. Russia is the largest exporter of wheat in the world, and Ukraine is #2. Reuters says that the two countries account for about 29% of global wheat exports. They also say that US wheat futures rose to a 14-year high earlier this week.

The reason is that major wheat exporters aren’t holding as much wheat in storage as they do usually. Wheat stocks are set to fall to a nine-year low of 57 million tons by the end of the 2021/22 season. The news gets worse: If Russia and Ukraine are excluded from those holdings, other major global wheat exporters account for just 16% of the global stock.

That’s enough wheat to feed the world for less than three weeks.

The majority of wheat stock that isn’t in the hands of major exporters is held by China. China’s expected to account for 47% of global inventories at the end of the year. And last Thursday, China started approving imports of Russian wheat that had been blocked for years over Beijing’s concerns about fungus and other contaminants. The countries had announced that China would begin importing Russian wheat and barley shortly after Putin visited China ahead of the Beijing Olympics.

Emptywheel reports that Russia imports a significant portion of the wheat seed it needs for each growing season:

“…where will Russia buy the wheat seed needed? (Depending on source, there’s a disparity in what percentage of wheat seed Russia imports, but it’s between 18-40% depending on spring, hard wheat, or other type.)”

Will Russia purchase seed from China and India? Will those two countries accept rubles? Or will they look to barter for something else in trade, like natural gas?

Ukraine is in an even worse position. Reuters says that Ukraine has confirmed stoppage of its grain exports until the end of the Russian invasion. There is a chance that supplies for the next season from both Ukraine and Russia could also be in jeopardy, pending the duration and outcome of the war.

They also report that Ukraine accounts for 16% of world corn exports. Ukraine and the US are the only world corn exporters until Argentina and Brazil gear up to export their crops. Apparently, Ukraine still has a good deal of its 2021 corn crop to ship, but given Russia’s closing of Ukraine’s access to the sea, that may be problematic.

As the Northern Hemisphere enters spring, grain planting is right around the corner for both Russia and Ukraine.  Corn is going in for Ukraine and spring wheat for Russia. It’s highly uncertain how Putin’s War will impact crop production this spring. Russia has yet to plant 30% of its 2022 wheat crop.

Brazil imports wheat because it can’t grow enough for its own consumption. After Trump closed soybean exports to China, Brazil moved land into soybean production for the Chinese market. Brazil could try to increase acreage dedicated to wheat, but new Brazilian acreage comes at the expense of further destroying their forests, a terrible tradeoff.

We are looking at the emergence of a global economic war of attrition brought about by the sanctions regime. The target is Russia, but economic costs will spill over to the rest of the world.

On that note, it’s time to unplug from the terrible news that for the moment, is mostly caused by a terrible country.

It’s time for our Saturday Soother. We can’t escape the cold blustery weather in Connecticut, so it’s another indoors weekend here at the Mansion of Wrong. Let’s start by brewing up a mug of Monarch Estate Gesha ($42/4oz.) from Honolulu’s own Monarch Coffee. The roaster says it has subtle, sweet flavors of berries, mango, honeydew, apple, and pear. Note the price. Coffee prices have spiked along with many other items.

Now grab a seat by a big window and listen to Hauser performing the cello solo in “Adagio” by Albinoni, accompanied by the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra in Zagreb, Croatia in 2017. This weekend, given the tragedy in Ukraine, it’s nice to listen to music that transports us to a place where there’s peace:

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Judge Says Jan. 6 Was a “Seditious Conspiracy”

The Daily Escape:

Sandhill Cranes, Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, CO – February 2022 photo by Rick Dunnahoo

Most of us had few expectations that the organizers of the Jan. 6 insurrection would face any legal consequences. Indeed, we’ve had almost zero confidence that the truth about what led up to that day would ever be known.

That just changed. Politico reported that:

“Joshua James, one of the 11 Oath Keepers militia affiliates indicted earlier this year on a charge of seditious conspiracy alongside the group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes, on Wednesday became the first person to plead guilty to the sedition-related charge in connection with the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.”

James admitted that he tried to disrupt the peaceful transfer of presidential power and that Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes had a “plan” for accomplishing that disruption. The plea deal statement describes planning that occurred in November 2020 in the DC area and VA:

“On November 14 and 15, 2020, James met with Rhodes and others in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and at Caldwell’s Virginia farmhouse and learned about the start of their plans to oppose by force the lawful transfer of presidential power.”

The November planning meetings are important, because they suggest broader coordination with “others” at the Jan. 6 March. Perhaps the most interesting detail of the statement describes a plan to report to White House grounds and secure the perimeter:

“In the weeks leading up to January 6, 2021, Rhodes instructed James and other co-conspirators to be prepared, if called upon, to report to the White House grounds to secure the perimeter and use lethal force if necessary against anyone who tried to remove President Trump from the White House, including the National Guard or other government actors who might be sent to remove President Trump as a result of the Presidential Election.”

This begs the question of who is suicidal enough to plan to meet as an armed group at the White House grounds, unless they believed they were invited there and cleared for entry by Trump. Absent that, they should have expected to be arrested or shot on sight.

We’re looking at a plea of seditious conspiracy. From the WaPo:

“Federal law defines seditious conspiracy as two or more people who “conspire to overthrow, put down, or to destroy by force the Government of the United States,” or act “by force to prevent, hinder, or delay the execution of any law of the United States.”

This means we can now legally describe Jan. 6 as a conspiracy to commit sedition. For those among us who were wondering what Merrick Garland’s DOJ has been doing for the last year, it’s this: January 6 was officially a sedition, at least for Joshua James.

That says things are getting very interesting, particularly when we add to it this from the WaPo:

“The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol said on Wednesday that there was enough evidence to conclude that former President Donald J. Trump and some of his allies might have conspired to commit fraud and obstruction by misleading Americans about the outcome of the 2020 election and attempting to overturn the result.”

In a court filing in a civil case in California, the Committee’s lawyers said they had accumulated evidence demonstrating that Trump, the conservative lawyer John Eastman, and others could potentially be charged with criminal violations including obstructing an official proceeding of Congress and conspiracy to defraud the American people by illegally obstructing the counting of Electoral College ballots.

The Committee made the statement in a court filing to force Trump’s lawyer, John Eastman, to turn over documents to the Committee. Eastman is the attorney who advised Trump that Vice President Mike Pence could reject the electoral ballots.

The Committee also released an email written in the middle of the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, to Eastman from Greg Jacob, a Pence advisor:

When you read the email above, don’t gloss over this sentence: “I share your concerns about what the Democrats will do once in power.” That shows he is a hard-right partisan. But he closes with the big point:

“…thanks to your bullshit, we are now under siege”.

Short-term, despite the way the media is breathlessly talking about the Select Committee’s court filing, the Joshua James guilty plea is more interesting.

He connects the dots with the Oath Keepers’ leader, Stewart Rhodes. James was also in contact with Roger Stone, which begs the question of what Stone knew about their plans, or more troublingly, what Stone might have directed them to do.

Let’s not get too excited, but it seems that it’s now remotely possible that Trump, Roger Stone, and others will discover that in America, it’s true that no one is above the law.

Cook up some popcorn and watch the show.

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Biden’s Key Domestic Problems

The Daily Escape:

Aerial view of sunset at Cathedral Rock just after snowstorm, Sedona, AZ – February 2022 photo by mattymeis

Wrongo will leave it to others to deeply analyze Biden’s State of the Union speech. Biden clearly doesn’t have the oratory skills of Obama, or a Reagan. He’s more like Carter, or GHW Bush. He is, however, a better public speaker than Mitch McConnell.

Biden’s performance was pretty solid for a guy facing down fascism, both here at home as well as abroad. He didn’t attack his predecessor. He didn’t mention Jan. 6. That means he knows that what really matters isn’t shouting at his political adversaries, but talking over the heads of Congress to the nation.

But let’s take a prospective look at a few of the issues that may make or break Biden’s second year and likewise, cost the Democrats their majorities in both Houses of Congress in November. He’s facing one global crisis (the pandemic) that’s fading, and another (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) that’s escalating.

In his first year, Biden presided over a robust economic recovery. It did create inflation, bringing higher prices for everything from housing and food to cars and gasoline. Here are a few of the challenges and opportunities for Biden in 2022:

Inflation. Biden adopted an aggressive, populist approach to beating inflation in his speech. In particular, saying that “Capitalism without competition is exploitation—and it drives up profits” was a great way to speak to the average American. The Fed’s interest rate hikes in 2022 will help.

Gas prices. The cost of fuel, electricity and power was 3.8% of average disposable income in January 2022. This is about where it was in late 2018, when Trump was president. Vehicle fuel efficiency means $3.50/gal. gasoline isn’t the scourge it once was. But, with the oil markets at above $100 a barrel because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden may have a difficult time convincing voters they’re better off.

The supply chain. The shipping logjam is still with us. The Port of Los Angeles processed 7 million 20-foot equivalent shipping containers last year, surpassing the previous record set in 2018 by 13%. But that system isn’t built to handle the spike in demand caused by people buying more goods than services in 2021. Our supply chain is controlled by private companies including port operators, labor unions, the rail and trucking industries, and the large shippers that rely on their services. It’s unclear what Biden can do to reduce shipping costs.

Homicides. Americans are killing each other at rates not seen in decades. The sense that crime is out of control is and will continue to be a drag on Biden’s approval ratings, especially among Republicans and Hispanics. The current wave of killings began before Biden took office in 2021, and other measures of crime haven’t shown increases. There’s little Biden can do to turn this around.

Illegal border crossings. The 1.66 million migrants seeking to cross the US-Mexico border illegally in the 12 months through September, are the highest number since 2000. But Biden isn’t doing as bad a job as Republicans say. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that the actual number of successful unlawful entries in 2021 was less than one-fourth the total in 2000. Customs and Border Patrol has greatly reduced the number of migrants who manage to sneak in. Biden says he will address the multiple year backlog in asylum cases by hiring more immigration judges.

Tax refunds will be late this year. Americans hate doing their taxes but love getting refunds. A Bankrate survey found that 67% of those expecting a refund said it was important to their finances and planned to either save it, or use it to pay down debt or for daily expenses. The IRS says they’re overwhelmed following pandemic-related challenges, years of underfunding, and additional duties such as administering stimulus payments. The IRS has added a “surge team” to help whittle the big backlog and speed refunds. But if long delays materialize, voters will only remember they had to wait for too long to get their money back.

Biden’s approval rating. Pundits think that unless Biden’s approval rating improves into the high 40%s in the next few months, Democrats risk a 2010-style bloodbath in November. We won’t know for a few weeks if Biden received a bump in his approval ratings post-speech. CNN’s post-speech poll shows that 67% of those who watched the speech say that Biden’s policy proposals would move the country in the right direction, with 33% saying we would go in the wrong direction. That’s in contrast with a survey conducted before the speech with the same people. They were closer to evenly split (52% right direction, 48% wrong direction).

Many of the challenges confronting Biden are not fully in his control. In addition to what are enumerated above, Biden can get a boost based on his handling of Putin’s War and the sanctions regime. That may offset the negative image of our Afghanistan withdrawal.

There are just 8 months until the mid-terms. Biden needs to move fast.

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Biden’s State of the Union Speech

The Daily Escape:

Garden of the Gods Park, Colorado Springs, CO – February 2022 photo by Daniel Forster

Biden will give his first State of the Union (SOTU) address to the nation tonight. If you read Wrongo’s column yesterday, it’s no surprise that he will address a country that remains sharply polarized about America’s priorities:

“According to a Pew Research Center survey, 71% of US adults rated strengthening the economy as a top policy priority, followed by reducing health care costs (61%), addressing the coronavirus (60%), improving education (58%) and securing Social Security (57%).”

Americans are concerned about the state of the economy (71%), with 82% of Republicans and 63% of Democrats agreeing it is a top political priority.

Anyone outside of the Right-wing bubble knows that Biden is already committed to tackling inflation, but Americans remain anxious about the economy, despite record job growth in 2021 and solid wage gains.

So Biden is vulnerable on inflation, particularly since Republicans will stress high gas prices. They will also make the point that excessive spending on Covid relief added to inflation while increasing the budget deficit. In the Pew study, 63% of Republicans said that the budget deficit should also be a top priority.

Biden’s administration hasn’t touted its successes very well. The NYT’s Jamelle Bouie said that Democrats did little to publicize their few successes:

“…rather than go on the offensive, infrastructure spending in hand, they sat quiet. There would be no publicity blitz, no attempt to capture the nation’s attention with a campaign to sell the accomplishments…no attempt to elevate members who might shine in the spotlight and certainly no serious attempt to push back on the right-wing cultural politics that helped Republicans notch a win in Virginia.”

This is an opportunity for Biden to recount his accomplishments. The pandemic is (again) trending in the right direction; the economy is roaring (even though inflation must be addressed); respect of our foreign partners continues to be restored around the world (just when US leadership was urgently needed).

He’s probably had to rewrite the speech a few times since Putin invaded Ukraine, so it’s anybody’s guess what will be emphasized about that.

Biden faces strong political opposition from Republicans, who will fault him for a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the surge in migrants at the US-Mexico border. Some Republicans see Biden’s nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, as a wedge issue to keep Whites from voting for Democrats in November.

But as John Harris says at Politico, Democrats shouldn’t beat themselves up. They should remember:

“…that the modern presidency offers its occupants nearly inexhaustible capacity for political revival. While Biden faces a growing roster of doubts and doubters — including within his own party — his two immediate Democratic predecessors offer vivid examples showing that the tools for him to reverse perceptions and regain control of his presidency are within his grasp.”

Harris says that the Biden administration has failed to tell a compelling story to Americans:

“By outward evidence, Biden and his aides have either not settled on a narrative or have not effectively promoted it. It is on this score that the Obama and Clinton examples are especially notable. Since both Obama and Clinton recovered from midterm blowouts for Democrats to win second terms, why can’t Biden employ their strategies for recasting their presidencies before being blown out?”

The goal of the SOTU should be to give those voters who have open minds a chance to see Biden in new light. We’re always interested in success stories that show the main character growing from start to finish, discovering new ideas and new energy while amplifying his/her original values.

Biden ran and won on “Build Back Better”. It was a practical approach for dealing with the pandemic and the economic catastrophe that came with it. It encompassed straightforward solutions, many of which have been enacted into law.

He ought to use the SOTU as the start of the 2022 mid-term campaign. He’s not an agile politician like Obama, Clinton, or Trump. But he is easily their equal and possibly their superior in terms of understanding the day-to-day practical burdens and aspirations of the voters he needs to sell on staying with Democrats in 2022.

He needs to show America that he’s managing an office with unmatched power in a successful manner. He should work every day to tell the story about who he is and what he’s trying to achieve for the country.

Tonight, we’ll see in what direction he’s taking both the country and the Democratic Party.

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Monday Wake Up Call – February 28, 2022

The Daily Escape:

Wiggly Bridge, York, ME – February 2022 photo by Eric Storm Photo

Wrongo intended to write about domestic issues today. One domestic issue is how Republicans and the Right-wing media pivoted over the weekend from being pro-Putin and his War, to now saying Russia was wrong to invade Ukraine. Is that proof that the sanctions are working?

It’s hard to turn away today from Ukraine news, despite knowing that Biden’s State of the Union (SOTU) speech is tomorrow night. The Republican reply will be given by Iowa’s Governor Kim Reynolds. This happens at a time when there are big differences of opinion about the most important issues facing the nation by Democrats and Republicans.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, 71% of US adults rated strengthening the economy as a top policy priority, followed by reducing health care costs (61%), addressing the coronavirus (60%), improving education (58%) and securing Social Security (57%). The survey was conducted between Jan. 10-17, 2022 among 5,128 adults.

But as expected, the top issues were very different for those who identified as a Republican or as a Democrat. When asked which issues “should be a top priority for the president and Congress to address this year,” the top five regarded as most important by Democrats were:

Top 5 priorities, according to Democrats (percent saying issue should be a top priority)

  1. Dealing with the coronavirus outbreak (80%)
  2. Reducing health care costs (69%)
  3. Improving the educational system (66%)
  4. Dealing with global climate change (65%)
  5. Strengthening the nation’s economy (63%)

Here’s the Republicans’ top-five list:

Top 5 priorities, according to Republicans (percent saying issue should be a top priority)

  1. Strengthening the nation’s economy (82%)
  2. Dealing with the issue of immigration (67%)
  3. Defending the country from future terrorist attacks (65%)
  4. Reducing the budget deficit (63%)
  5. Reducing crime (60%)

Strengthening the nation’s economy is the only priority that both Democrats and Republicans rank among the most important. Two of the Democrats’ top priorities are among the five lowest-priority issues for Republicans. Only 11% of Republicans think global climate change should be a priority (vs. 65% of Democrats). Just 35% of Republicans think dealing with the coronavirus outbreak should be a priority (vs. 80% of Democrats).

Conversely, two of the Republicans’ top priorities are among the five lowest-priority issues for Democrats. Only 35% of Democrats think immigration should be a priority (vs. 67% of Republicans). Just 31% of Democrats say the budget deficit should be a priority (vs. 63% of Republicans).

All of this may be on display at the SOTU and the Republican reply on Tuesday.

Returning to Ukraine, it’s reported that Ukraine and Russia have agreed to have low-level delegations meet, hosted by Belarus, to discuss ending the war. It’s unclear what exactly might be achieved from these negotiations, given that Putin’s War appears to be aimed largely at removing Zelensky from power.

Finally, assuming that Russia wins either on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, that will almost certainly be followed by a Ukrainian insurgency supported by NATO. The US military knows a lot about how many troops it takes to hold ground when most of the locals want you dead.

Many military studies say that the number needed is 10 troops to one insurgent. From The Dupuy Institute (TDI): (Brackets by Wrongo)

“…TDI amassed data on 109 post-World War II insurgencies, interventions, and peacekeeping operations between 2004 and 2009. [TDI]…found that….While overwhelming numbers were not required to defeat an insurgency, force ratios above 10-to-1 nearly always produced a counterinsurgent victory. Conversely, lower force ratios did not preclude success, but conflicts with two or fewer counterinsurgents per insurgent greatly favored an insurgent victory.”

Remember in this case the insurgents would be Ukrainians, and counterinsurgents the Russians. More from TDI:

“When force ratios were assessed together with the nature of the motivation for the insurgency, TDI found that….when facing broadly popular insurgencies, counterinsurgents lost every time they possessed a force ratio advantage of 5-1 or less, failed half the time with odds between 6-1 and 10-1, but succeeded three-quarters of the time when outnumbering the insurgents by 10-1 or more.”

Ukraine’s pre-war population was 44 million. Let’s assume that 20% would support an insurgency, and that 2% would participate in an insurgency. That would be 176k Ukrainian insurgents. Following the 10-1 ratio would mean Russia would need to keep 1.76 million troops on the ground to win, an unsupportable number. Cutting the number of insurgents in half would mean Russia would need 880k troops to occupy Ukraine, still an unsupportable number.

This could mean that an insurgency in Ukraine could succeed as easily as it did in Afghanistan.

Time to wake up Putin! You might win before you lose in Ukraine. To help you wake up, watch the Saturday Night Live open, where the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York performed “Prayer for Ukraine”:

Kinda makes you tear up.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – February 27, 2022

It’s doubtful that Ukraine’s President Zelensky will remain in power, or indeed, live to the conclusion of Putin’s War. There’s a very good likelihood he will not physically survive this weekend, but he’s been remarkably courageous in the face of all this. Ukraine posted a video in which Zelensky said, when the US offered him safe passage out of the country:

“I need ammunition, I don’t need a ride.”

We knew Zelensky had guts because he stood up to Trump when Trump attempted to blackmail Ukraine into sabotaging Joe Biden’s campaign in 2020; but his strength now is at a different level. Three years ago, he was playing a president in a popular television comedy. Today, he’s confronting Russia’s military, having become his TV character in real life.

We’re so used to posturing, talking points and brand management by politicians that it’s almost breathtaking to witness actual courage, resolve, and leadership. Zelensky is rising to this moment.

Many “wise” western pundits have been saying that the guy was hopelessly in over his head. But clutch moments show us to be who we are. And there he is: Not running. Compare that to America’s former ally, the last President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, who got the f outta Dodge at the first hint that things were going south.

Very few of us will ever face Zelensky’s situation. But we all have moments where we must face our fears and live out our principles or run. Zelensky is passing that test. On to cartoons, all about Putin.

Putin’s War has some support:

It’s hard to campaign when your leader undermines the message:

Views on what’s inexcusable differ:

What Putin wants has been clear for years:

America changes its mind about Ukraine:

GOP reacts to Biden’s nominee:

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