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The Daily 202

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

Four decades of Afghanistan loom over Biden’s Ukraine strategy

The Daily 202

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

Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. Via the Associated Press: On this day in 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed a measure outlawing polygamy.

The big idea

From the Russian invasion to the U.S. withdrawal, echoes of war

As President Biden speeds anti-armor and surface-to-air weapons to Ukraine, U.S. officials are making sure those advanced systems, meant to be used against invading Russian forces, won’t fall into the wrong hands, a senior administration official told The Daily 202 Monday.

While those concerns are “a factor in the planning,” the official said on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about internal deliberations, “we’re not going to let a bureaucratic concern stand in the way of getting the Ukrainians what they need.”

That’s just one of the many ways the specter of wars in Afghanistan — from the 1979 Soviet invasion that played a big role in the collapse of the U.S.S.R., to the chaotic 2021 U.S. withdrawal after two decades of fighting — shapes Biden’s approach to Ukraine.

Back then, the landmark 1986 decision to give Afghanistan’s mujahideen Stinger missiles to take out Soviet helicopters came with some angst about the possibility of those easy-to-use weapons finding their way into the hands of people who might be inclined to target U.S. warplanes or, worse, commercial airliners.

From arming the Ukrainians to forging new unity and purpose at NATO, many of Biden’s policies have roots in decades of American and Russian policy in Afghanistan, where neither nuclear-armed superpower was able to impose its will on a tiny but tenacious local population.

Here are some of the ways Afghanistan echoes in Ukraine.

Biden’s doing in Ukraine what he wanted to do years ago. Same with Afghanistan.

Tucked away in my colleagues Ellen Nakashima and Ashley Parker’s superb look at how the 2014 Russian invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region has influenced the president’s response today are these paragraphs:

“In some ways, Biden’s decision-making on Ukraine is reminiscent of his handling of the Afghanistan conflict earlier in his presidency. As vice president, Biden passionately advocated withdrawing U.S. troops from the so-called forever war, but he was overruled by [President Barack] Obama and his team. Biden then campaigned for president on a promise to bring those troops home, and he did so during his first year in office.”

Exactly right. In 2014, Biden advocated for a more hawkish approach. In 2009, he had gone so far as to fax a memo to Obama in longhand arguing for withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Arming the locals was key to U.S. strategy in Afghanistan

There’s some debate about the roles Stinger missiles played in forcing a Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. There’s much less argument about the way they proved lethal to Soviet helicopter gunships that had given Moscow a deadly battlefield advantage.

The White House has struggled in recent days to explain why it categorizes some weapons as “offensive,” with the potential to inflame an escalation from Russia, and others as “defensive,” and therefore okay to give Ukraine without worrying about Moscow targeting NATO or U.S., assets.

It has not, however, had to justify to Congress why it’s providing arms being used to kill Russians. That could be due to the Cold War precedent of arming proxies.

NATO has renewed purpose and unity

When the Soviet Union collapsed, NATO seemed to grope for a new purpose. It got involved in the Balkans wars on humanitarian grounds. But it struggled to redefine its mission — until 9/11. The terrorist attacks on the United States remain the first and only time the alliance has invoked Article 5, the principle that an attack on one NATO partner is an attack on all.

In response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, NATO has once again found unity of purpose, closing ranks behind arming Ukrainians, while its European members boost defense spending and America sends more troops to the alliance’s eastern flank in places like Poland.

Biden’s famous empathy faces a challenge

It’s rare to read a Biden profile that doesn’t play up his empathy, his ability to identify with the jobless, or those who’ve lost a loved one to cancer, as he lost his son Beau.

But that compassion — like domestic politics which, in a famous aphorism, stops at the water’s edge — seems to have geographic limitations.

Biden’s no-regrets withdrawal last year was less of a shock if you tracked a contentious February 2020 interview with CBS. In that exchange, the future president bluntly declared he would have “zero responsibility” for the fate of Afghan women and girls after U.S. forces left.

It’s not that the president is oblivious to Ukrainian suffering — after all, he has rallied NATO and allies in European and Asia, who have shown surprising unity, and given Ukrainians weapons to kill Russians.

But he has drawn sharp lines: No NATO forces on Ukrainian soil or patrolling its skies. And that feels like a throwback to that CBS interview, in which he declared his responsibility “to protect America’s national self-interest and not put our women and men in harm's way to try to solve every single problem in the world by use of force.” A lesson of Iraq and, later, Afghanistan.

You know who remembers Afghanistan? Putin.

Ultimately, the person who probably most feels the similarities between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the U.S.S.R.’s invasion of Afghanistan is Putin. The earlier war exhausted the Soviet appetite for empire and the 1989 withdrawal barely preceded the Communist giant’s collapse.

It’s far too soon to say what the 2022 war will accomplish for Moscow. But you can hear the echoes.

What's happening now

White House: U.S. has exhausted funds to buy potential fourth vaccine dose for all Americans

“Federal officials have secured enough doses to cover a fourth shot for Americans age 65 and older as well as the initial regimen for children under age 5, should regulators determine those shots are necessary, said three officials,” Dan Diamond, Rachel Roubein and Yasmeen Abutaleb report.

“But the officials say they cannot place advance orders for additional vaccine doses for those in other age groups, unless lawmakers pass a stalled $15 billion funding package.”

Day 2: Ketanji Brown Jackson defends record on child pornography sentencing, representation of Guantánamo detainees

“Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson emphasized the importance of precedent and the limits on a judge’s authority and defended her record of sentencing in child pornography cases at the outset of her second day of confirmation hearings,” John Wagner, Mariana Alfaro, Eugene Scott and Amy B Wang report.

Follow along here for live updates

Further reading:

Ukraine says it has recaptured a Kyiv suburb

The Ukrainian military said it has retaken Makariv and expelled Russian forces from the strategically important town close to the capital, Kyiv, which remains under curfew due to ongoing shelling. Ukraine’s forces also managed to prevent Russia from completely taking the bombed-out city of Mariupol,” David L. Stern, Miriam Berger, Amy Cheng, Rachel Pannett, Adela Suliman, Ellen Francis and Annabelle Timsit report.

More key updates:

Live updates on the war are available here

Top U.S., UK officials to meet on possible steel tariff deal

“U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo will meet British trade minister Anne-Marie Trevelyan on Tuesday to finalize a possible deal on removing U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs,” Reuters’s Andrea Shalal reports.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Technology united these Russians and Ukrainians. Scattered by war, they’re trying to stay connected.

“The digital renaissance helped some of the world’s best programmers rise above their countries’ troubled economies and find productive work at salaries far above what they would otherwise earn. There are more than a million information technology professionals in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, about a quarter of whom work for outsourcing firms that serve clients outside the region,” Jeanne Whalen reports.

Much of this digital network is now fracturing as Russia shuts down access to Western social media and news sites, and pummels its neighbor with a relentless bombing campaign.”

… and beyond

Who’s Russia’s top field commander in Ukraine? We don’t know.

The US has been unable to determine if Russia has designated a military commander responsible for leading the country’s war in Ukraine, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter — something that current and former defense officials say is likely a key contributor to the apparent clumsiness and disorganization of the Russian assault,” CNN’s Katie Bo Lillis and Zachary Cohen report.

The cost of disorganization: “Without a top, theater-wide commander on the ground in or near Ukraine, units from different Russian military districts operating in different parts of Ukraine appear to be competing for resources rather than coordinating their efforts, according to two US defense officials.”

A roundup of questions the Senate should ask Ketanji Brown Jackson

Politico Magazine reached out to constitutional scholars and Supreme Court watchers to ask: What one question should senators ask the nominee to understand how she’ll shape the court?

“Several experts said they’d simply ask her directly about her views on big-picture concepts, like ‘Has the Supreme Court amassed too much power?’ or ‘Do you believe in a living Constitution?’ Some said they’d try to tease out her views by asking about the confirmation process itself, or about her background as a public defender. And others asked how she’d conduct herself in public, with all the symbolism that comes from being the first Black woman Supreme Court justice, and in private, as a potential coalition-builder with her conservative colleagues,” the magazine reports.

The Biden agenda

White House: Russia is seeing a big drop in oil sales, imperiling key source of funding

“The Biden administration is examining private industry data showing that sales of Russian crude oil by vessel went from roughly 2 million barrels a day to close to zero between March 15 and March 20,” Jeff Stein reports.

But: “Some analysts believe that Russia will continue to sell huge quantities of oil that will help Moscow fund its invasion of Ukraine.”

Biden heads to Europe in an effort to bolster the Western alliance

“Broadly, the president’s trip is aimed at ensuring that the United States and its allies keep working together against Russian President Vladimir Putin as Russia’s assault on Ukraine continues,” Tyler Pager, Ashley Parker and Isaac Stanley-Becker report.

Warning from Biden: Russia is exploring cyberattack options

“Biden encouraged private sector companies in the United States to strengthen their cybersecurity against a potential breach by Russia,” the New York Times’s Zolan Kanno-Youngs reports. (The Kremlin has denied these plans, Reuters reports.)

Biden administration proposes tougher rules for charter school grants

“As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden proposed eliminating federal funding to support for-profit charter schools, and the proposed new rules go a long way to fulfilling that vow,” Laura Meckler reports.

“At the same time, the spending bill that cleared Congress this month keeps overall funding for the charter school program level at $440 million, as Biden requested in his budget.”

Biden says India is ‘shaky’ in acting against Russia

“India has urged an end to the violence in Ukraine but has not condemned its old Cold War ally for the invasion,” Reuters’s Krishna N. Das reports

“In response to [Putin’s] aggression, we have presented a united front throughout the NATO and in the Pacific,” Biden said Monday. “The Quad — with the possible exception of India being somewhat shaky on some of these — but Japan has been extremely strong, so is Australia in terms of dealing with Putin’s aggression.”

Sanctions on Russia, visualized

“The United States, Europe and their allies rely on Russia for some oil and gas, and a few specialized materials. But they also supply Russia with much of its machinery, vehicles, technology and equipment that help Russia’s economy run,” our colleagues report. Here’s why sanctions can be so effective.

Hot on the left

Dems downplay influence of ‘dark money’ judicial group in KBJ confirmation

What’s happening: “Senate Republicans [want to use] Jackson’s confirmation hearing as a forum to slam Demand Justice — a liberal organization that advocates for adding seats to the Supreme Court and pushed for Jackson’s nomination — as a pernicious ‘dark money’ group acting as puppet master to her selection,” Politico's Marianne Levine reports.

What Dems are saying: “It’s a playbook Democrats have employed in the past against conservative nominees and the organizations that work to promote them, such as the Federalist Society, but Democrats insist there’s a major difference: they don’t work directly with Demand Justice.”

The GOP goal: “Republicans are focusing on Demand Justice as they plan to grill Jackson on whether she supports adding seats to the high court, a question White House officials have made clear she does not plan to answer.”

Hot on the right

Wait … are Republicans pro-earmark now?

The Bulwark's Jim Swift says they should be. Once upon a time, the GOP was staunchly anti-earmark. But, Swift writes, “it’s 2022 and we’re pretty much all Keynesians now. So Republicans are hip to bringing back the logrolling and horse trading. Earmarks are back, baby! After all, you can’t worship at the altar of the King of Debt and seriously pretend to care about the deficit.”

The argument: “Back in the day, Republicans convinced the public that earmarked pork was the real reason government spending was out of control. But that was never the truth. Yes, all totaled, earmarks amount to some real money. But not all earmarked spending was wasteful.”

  • And …“Even when earmarks were wasteful in a dollars-and-cents accounting, they did buy us something: a better functioning legislative branch. The lack of earmarks is part of the reason Congress has been so lousy in recent years.”

Today in Washington

The president does not have any public events scheduled today.

In closing

The hottest ticket in D.C.

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.