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The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

Biden says “no,” Americans shouldn’t worry about nuclear war with Russia

The Daily 202

A lunchtime newsletter featuring political analysis on the stories driving the day.

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The big idea

Some concern about nuclear war is fair

President Biden’s reply when asked Monday whether Americans should be worried about a nuclear war with Russia was a forceful “no.” 

His single-word response came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly ordered his country’s nuclear deterrent forces on high alert. The United States and its allies aren’t betraying any sense we’re in an emergency. Some experts see political theater for a home audience

But at least three notable crises in Russo-U.S. relations in 1962, 1983, and 1999 may be cause for concern, though not alarm.

To be clear: Putin’s announcement isn’t why Americans need to worry about an increased risk of nuclear war. It's because of the context  — the largest military confrontation in Europe since World War II.

  • As my colleagues Alex Horton and Missy Ryan reported: “While experts said they did not expect Putin to attempt any sort of nuclear strike on the West or a smaller-scale nuclear attack within Ukraine…they said the fact the alert was occurring at a time when a major conflict is unfolding on NATO’s borders made it much more dangerous. Russia has nearly 6,000 warheads, slightly more than the United States’ approximately 5,400, according to the Federation of American Scientists.”
1962: Cuban missile crisis

It’s not like the United States and Russia haven’t nearly come to nuclear blows before: Think of the Cuban missile crisis, a 13-day stretch in October 1962 in which the Cold War’s two superpowers dueled over the installation of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba.

For decades, that standoff was the best known scary nuclear moment of the Cold War. 

1983: Able Archer

But then we learned about Able Archer, a vast NATO exercise simulating the alliance’s use of nuclear weapons against the USSR after conventional forces failed to repel Soviet troops. I’m simplifying quite a bit, but 1983 was a terrible year for U.S.-Soviet relations. It started with President Ronald Reagan dubbing the USSR the “Evil Empire.” Moscow watched Able Archer with growing alarm, fearing a U.S. nuclear first strike, and placed its forces on heightened alert.

It got bad enough that KGB officers worldwide were reportedly alerted that the situation was critical.

There are two competing explanations for why the two sides didn’t annihilate the world. One was that a mole at NATO headquarters reported they weren’t seeing top alliance officials seeking shelter in their bunkers.

The other can be found in a vividly detailed history of Able Archer from Nate Jones and J. Peter Scoblic in Slate. You can thank Leonard Perroots.

  • Perroots, who was overseeing Able Archer in his capacity as assistant chief of staff for intelligence for the U.S. Air Force in Europe, saw that Soviet forces had raised their alert levels.
  • “[I]nstead of responding in kind, Perroots did nothing. Had he elevated the alert level of Western military assets — which would not have been an unreasonable thing to do — the Soviets might well have concluded that the exercise was indeed cover for an attack. Instead, Perroots, acting on instinct, saw that doing nothing would halt any climb up the escalatory ladder,” they wrote.
1999: Kosovo

The incident in 1999 didn’t involve nuclear weapons. But the U.S. effort to block Russia from deploying troops at the airport in Pristina, Kosovo, nearly touched off the first NATO-Moscow confrontation since the end of the Cold War. In the end, Washington used diplomatic means to thwart the Russians, rather than a hastily-assembled helicopter operation. But it showed how easily the world’s two largest atomic arsenals could end up on a collision course.

And now

For now, U.S. officials have played down Putin’s public show of rattling the nuclear saber, which came as America, Europe and other allies amped up unprecedented economic and diplomatic sanctions that threaten to hobble Russia’s economy in retaliation for his actions in Ukraine.

  • “We are assessing President Putin’s directive and, at this time, we see no reason to change our own alert levels,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters at her daily briefing on Monday.
  • And, Psaki underlined, Russia and the United States share the view “that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” she said.
  • Asked how the United States was reducing the risk of nuclear war, Psaki said Washington was “not escalating our own rhetoric” and “we have not changed our own posture.” That’s to say: America has not matched Putin’s alert with its own in a potentially escalatory tit-for-tat.

At the Pentagon, a senior Defense Department official briefed reporters that Putin’s “unnecessary and very escalatory” order had not led to any “noticeable muscle movements,” meaning any real-world shifts in Russia’s nuclear posture.

In the event of actual fears of atomic action, officials could reach out via the famous “hotline” linking Washington and Moscow. But you can forget about the big red telephone from the movies. What began as a Teletype connection has since 2008 relied on emails between secure computers.

What's happening now

Kyiv and Kharkiv are ‘surrounded’ as Russian invasion escalates

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is surrounded by Russian forces, its mayor said, but remains under Ukrainian control. Residents of Kyiv are bracing for an all-out assault. Russian forces are “apparently preparing to encircle the capital” as a 40-mile convoy of tanks, troop carriers and artillery bears down on the city, Isabelle Khurshudyan, Steve Hendrix, Rachel Pannett, Amy Cheng and Ellen Francis report.

The latest:

Live updates on the Russian invasion of Ukraine are available here.

Midterm primary season kicks off in Texas

Tuesday’s elections will help determine “the political staying power of the Bush family name, the potency of former president Donald Trump’s endorsements and the state’s future representation on Capitol Hill,” David Weigel and Michael Scherer report.

What’s on the table: Primary contests for governor, attorney general and Congress, as well as dozens of local jobs such as county judge and justice of the peace

What experts expect: “Early-voting totals show much higher Republican than Democratic interest in what appears to be shaping up as a low-turnout primary affair.”

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Ukrainians face a ‘double crisis’ of war and threat of disease

War and disease are close companions,” Dan Diamond and Loveday Morris report, “and the humanitarian and refugee crises now unfolding in Eastern Europe will lead to long-lasting health consequences, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.”

Experts are concerned about covid, but also about Ukraine’s recent polio outbreak and a potential resurgence of tuberculosis.

Fears of confrontation between Russia and the West are rising

The rapid escalation, observers say, has made the once-theoretical risk of direct confrontation between Russia and the West a tangible possibility with little hope of the tension subsiding, maybe for years to come,” Karoun Demirjian reports.

A fatal mistake?: “My worry is that there’s a miscalculation, a misunderstanding, an accident, a mistake” that touches off more widespread conflict, said Jim Townsend, who managed Europe and NATO policy at the Pentagon during the Obama administration.

Ukrainians are using social media to rally the world

The flood of real-time videos across social media has also potentially saved lives: “Ukrainians have raced to disseminate defensive strategies, plot escape routes and document the brutality of a raging clash,” Drew Harwell and Rachel Lerman report.

The footage could even “play a critical role in investigating war crimes after the combat ends.” 

… and beyond

Is Putin unstable? Or is he playing a part?

Putin has long struck the world as reckless. But is he dangerously unbalanced? “Western officials must confront Putin as they also wonder whether he comprehends or cares about cataclysmic consequences — or perhaps is intentionally preying on the long-held suspicions about him,” the Associated Press’s Nomaan Merchant and Vladimir Isachenkov report.

“He is isolated and making poor decisions and losing,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nuclear policy at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. “And that is dangerous.”

US officials fear the worst is yet to come for Kyiv

Though Ukrainian forces have staved off the Russian troops attempting to take Kyiv, “US officials warn that Russian President Vladimir Putin could imminently increase the intensity of the attack,” CNN's Katie Bo Lillis, Natasha Bertrand and Barbara Starr report.

“Intelligence and defense officials closely tracking the Russian campaign say that Putin still holds a number of moves in reserve that could devastate the Ukrainian resistance.”

Young people are following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — on TikTok

“The app has become so influential in this conflict that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to ‘TikTokers’ as a group that could help end the war, in a speech directed at Russian citizens,” Reuters’s Sheila Dang and Elizabeth Culliford report.

The latest on covid

Most Americans say the coronavirus is not yet under control

A Washington Post-ABC News poll found that “most Americans say some restrictions on normal activities should remain in place to try to control the coronavirus,” Amy Goldstein and Emily Guskin report.

And: “Bipartisan majorities think the virus is only ‘somewhat under control’ or ‘not at all’ controlled.”

The Biden agenda

What to expect from Biden’s revised State of the Union address

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden’s first SOTU was expected to focus on his domestic agenda. Now his team must navigate how much emphasis to put on everyday struggles like inflation versus the violence in Europe. Here are the major themes he’s expected to hit on:

  • A heavy dose of foreign policy: “The new version will reflect the way the [Ukraine] crisis has added urgency to Biden’s running theme of defending democracies,” Annie Linskey and Tyler Pager report.
  • A step away from Build Back Better: “Biden will shift emphasis away from his Build Back Better spending plan when he delivers his State of the Union address on Tuesday, focusing instead on a four-point plan to save the U.S. economy,” Reuters’s Trevor Hunnicutt reports.
    • The four points: Moving goods cheaper and faster, reducing everyday costs, promoting competition and eliminating barriers to jobs
  • The four points: Moving goods cheaper and faster, reducing everyday costs, promoting competition and eliminating barriers to jobs
  • A new tune on covid: There president is “expected to speak about the coronavirus pandemic in broad strokes, invoking the same ‘things are getting better, but we are not out of the woods yet’ tone that he has adopted in recent weeks,” the New York Times’s Michael D. Shear reports.

Follow along here for live updates on the State of the Union

Biden vows to boost nursing home staffing and oversight

The White House announced the plan Monday, “blaming some of the 200,000-plus covid deaths of nursing home residents and staff during the pandemic on inadequate conditions,” Dan Diamond and Rachel Roubein report.

Biden administration won’t appeal ruling revoking Gulf of Mexico drilling leases

A federal court ruled that the administration “did not sufficiently consider climate change when it auctioned off 1.7 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico last year,” Anna Phillips reports. But in a Monday filing, lawyers for the government said they will not appeal the decision, “accepting a decision that invalidated the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in the nation’s history.”

Texas’s redistricting for primaries, visualized

“Texas grew so much over the past decade that the state earned two additional congressional seats following the 2020 Census. Yet when the Republican-controlled legislature redrew the state’s congressional map to account for those population changes, the contorted shapes around the area resulted in no new majority-Latino district,” our colleague Harry Stevens explains.

Hot on the left

David Miliband: Ukraine presents a moral crisis, not just a military one

The West needs to show it can defend itself, Miliband writes for the NYT. But it also needs to prove it can live up to its values. The United States has predicted that the Ukraine conflict could produce as many as 5 million refugees.

How these people are treated presents not only an immediate practical challenge but also a political one, since both Europe and the United States have in recent years turned tail on their values. (Just ask Afghans, Syrians or Yemenis seeking refuge and respite from war.)”

Miliband outlines three immediate challenges for the West to help address:

  1. “Ukrainians fleeing for their lives need sanctuary, security and stability.”
  2. “Ukrainians remaining in the country will likely be in greatest need.”
  3. “There must be accountability for the conduct of the conflict.”

Miliband, the president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, also served as Britain’s foreign secretary from 2007 to 2010.

Hot on the right

The increasing isolation of Reps. Paul A. Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene

After appearing with a white nationalist group over the weekend, Gosar and Greene are “are on an island among their fellow GOP lawmakers,” Politico's Burgess Everett and Olivia Beavers report.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republican leaders have condemned the duo’s actions.

Why it matters: “It’s the most serious signs of isolation yet for the two Trump-allied conservatives, as party leaders criticize their actions and decline to defend them.”

Today in Washington

Biden will deliver the State of the Union address at 9 p.m.

In closing

🌸🌸🌸

Cherry blossom season is almost upon us. And this year’s peak is expected about a week earlier than usual!

“Based on our analysis of past, present and predicted weather, we’re estimating the peak bloom for the blossoms will be around March 24, or within a five-day window of March 22 and 26,” our Capital Weather Gang's Jason Samenow reports.

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.

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