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The Daily 202

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

U.S.: We’re not telling the Ukrainians what or how to negotiate

The Daily 202

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

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Welcome to The Daily 202! Tell your friends to sign up here. On this day in 1987, Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The movie taught a whole bunch of us Gen-Xers to appreciate Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.”

The big idea

Ukraine-Russia talks offer the barest glimmer of hope to end the war

As Ukrainian and Russian negotiators potentially grope their way to a deal ending the largest European conflict since World War II, the White House is refusing to say what it would or would not accept as the result, saying those decisions will be made in Kyiv, not Washington.

Should Moscow make “a complete withdrawal” of its forces from Ukraine, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office demanded Tuesday? Could President Biden accept Russian control of pro-Moscow separatist regions in eastern Ukraine? The White House wouldn’t say.

“I am not going to prejudge or lay down any contours of any ultimate negotiation. That is not our role,” Biden communications director Kate Bedingfield told reporters. “Our role is to strengthen Ukraine on the battlefield, strengthen Ukraine at the negotiating table. I'm not going to prejudge what ultimately those diplomatic solutions may or may not look like.”

It may seem premature to scan the horizon for a diplomatic resolution. Bedingfield said Moscow’s announcement of a shift in military operations away from Kyiv was “a redeployment and not a withdrawal” and warned of a “major offensive” elsewhere in Ukraine. Russian forces pounded Ukrainian cities overnight.

But diplomatic negotiations reflect how warring parties think they’re doing on the battlefield, and what they think they can still secure by force of arms versus through lawyerly diplomacy. The United States may be doing more for Ukraine with weapons shipments than by delivering advice on dealing with Moscow or writing rules for a still-remote peace deal.

America’s role

In reply after reply, Bedingfield sketched out the contours of America’s role: Arm the Ukrainians, isolate and punish the Russians, keep the United States and its allies as united as possible. But not set parameters for negotiations carried out even as Vladimir Putin’s bombs still rain down.

Should the United States and its allies offer Russia a tit-for-tat pathway for easing sanctions? “I don't know that Russian activity at this time necessarily merits a carrot,” she said. “We have been very focused on the stick.”

The stick has worked better than expected.

Russia’s vaunted military has yet to take a major Ukrainian city — though it has killed thousands, driven out millions of refugees and devastated the southeastern port city of Mariupol, where hundreds of thousands of people are running out of water and food under a ceaseless bombardment. Ukrainians have inflicted surprising losses of Moscow’s troops and materiel, smothering Russian dreams of a quick victory and putting a new focus on diplomacy.

“We defer to the Ukrainians to discuss the specifics of the negotiations. But we are, of course, committed to a Ukraine that is sovereign, independent, and secure,” Bedingfield said.

Last week, Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan declared: “We are unwavering in our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine. We remain committed to that.”

That’s been America’s position since 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region, an act never ratified by the international community. The United States and many of its allies responded with economic and diplomatic sanctions.

Sanctions conundrum

So questions of Russian control of Ukrainian land — either Crimea or the eastern Donbas area — could get tricky for America and its allies. What happens if Ukraine concedes Crimea is gone? Would the White House accept that? Would U.S. and other sanctions come off? Is Ukraine in effect negotiating for all of NATO?

And the United States will face more questions about economic and diplomatic punishment of Moscow. The Daily 202 has been asking whether we’re seeing a true rewiring of relations with Russia as long as Putin is in charge, or a temporary change in how America and its allies deal with Moscow.

Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland recently floated the possibility “sanctions could be rolled back” in the event of “a negotiated settlement to this conflict that got Russian forces out of Ukraine, that protected Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity going forward, that ensured the rebuilding of Ukraine.

“We are a long, long way from there,” she underlined. “That’s not where we are right now.”

Russia seems to have recalibrated its war aims and demands. Putin advisers no longer talk about demilitarizing or “denazifying” Ukraine (President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, but Moscow uses the existence of right-wing elements in Ukraine to stir support for the war).

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators met in Turkey Tuesday. My colleagues Kareem Fahim, David L. Stern, Dan Lamothe and Isabelle Khurshudyan detailed what Kyiv offered Moscow:

  • Ukraine would give up trying to join NATO in return for security guarantees enforced by the United States and others, reminiscent of Article 5 of the alliance’s charter that requires a collective response if one member is attacked.
  • Ukraine would agree to remain “nonaligned and nonnuclear,” although it could still join the European Union.

The Ukrainian offer, which included “a 15-year timeline for negotiations with Russia over the status of Crimea,” would need approval in a national referendum. And the most difficult parts would require direct negotiations between Putin and Zelensky.

What’s happening now

Inside Hunter Biden’s multimillion-dollar deals with a Chinese energy company

“While many aspects of Hunter Biden’s financial arrangement with CEFC China Energy have been previously reported and were included in a Republican-led Senate report from 2020, a Washington Post review confirmed many of the key details and found additional documents showing Biden family interactions with Chinese executives,” Matt Viser, Tom Hamburger and Craig Timberg report.

The findings: “Over the course of 14 months, the Chinese energy conglomerate and its executives paid $4.8 million to entities controlled by Hunter Biden and his uncle, according to government records, court documents and newly disclosed bank statements, as well as emails contained on a copy of a laptop hard drive that purportedly once belonged to Hunter Biden.”

The big picture: “The new documents — which include a signed copy of a $1 million legal retainer, emails related to the wire transfers, and $3.8 million in consulting fees that are confirmed in new bank records and agreements signed by Hunter Biden — illustrate the ways in which his family profited from relationships built over Joe Biden’s decades in public service.”

Further reading: Here’s how The Post analyzed Hunter Biden’s laptop

Sen. Susan Collins says she will vote to confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to Supreme Court

“In a statement Wednesday, Collins said she had reviewed Jackson’s record, watched much of her hearing testimony and met with her twice in person and concluded Jackson possessed ‘the experience, qualifications and integrity’ to serve on the court,” Amy B Wang and Seung Min Kim report.

Kyiv, Chernihiv accuse Russia of attacks despite promise to reduce strikes

“Ukrainian authorities said Wednesday that attacks continued overnight around Chernihiv and Kyiv, despite Russia’s pledge Tuesday at peace talks in Turkey to ‘drastically reduce’ attacks in both areas,” Annabelle Timsit, Amy Cheng, Rachel Pannett, Adela Suliman and Ellen Francis report.

More key updates:

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Facebook paid GOP firm to malign TikTok

“Facebook parent company Meta is paying one of the biggest Republican consulting firms in the country to orchestrate a nationwide campaign seeking to turn the public against TikTok,” Taylor Lorenz and Drew Harwell report.

“The campaign includes placing op-eds and letters to the editor in major regional news outlets, promoting dubious stories about alleged TikTok trends that actually originated on Facebook, and pushing to draw political reporters and local politicians into helping take down its biggest competitor. These bare-knuckle tactics, long commonplace in the world of politics, have become increasingly noticeable within a tech industry where companies vie for cultural relevance and come at a time when Facebook is under pressure to win back young users.

… and beyond

Biden promised to prioritize people over polluters. This official is struggling to deliver.

“Biden’s own campaign slogan had been to ‘build back better.’ But [Michal] Freedhoff’s first year has been a process of learning just how much she’d need to build just to get back to the way things were before Trump arrived,” ProPublica's Lydia DePillis reports.

The nation’s top chemical regulator’s budget “only recently got a small boost, after years of starvation. Her staff remains overstretched. Unexpected roadblocks have cropped up, both inside and outside the agency, hampering her ability to execute decisions. And now, while they acknowledge the positive steps taken so far, the environmentalists she once worked alongside are increasingly voicing frustration that Freedhoff isn’t doing enough.”

On Capitol Hill

Could postal banking work this time?

Democrats are taking another crack at postal banking, after funding for a pilot program to allow it was stripped out of the omnibus government funding package.

Five Congressional liberals, led by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), wrote to Postmaster General Louis DeJoy on Tuesday asking the U.S. Postal Service to expand existing post office financial service test cases. It comes days after Gillibrand introduced legislation to allow the mail agency to establish small consumer checking and savings accounts, lending services and more.

The mail agency in September debuted a $500 paycheck cashing program at four post offices in New York, Maryland and Virginia. But the initiative flopped; it served just six customers over four months and made $35.70 total. The Postal Service barely advertised the program, and the service cost nearly twice as much as comparable products at Wal-Mart and other retailers.

GOP leaders upbraided DeJoy when the program was announced. Two senior House Republicans, Reps. James Comer (Ky.) and Patrick McHenry (N.C.), the top Republicans on the Oversight and Reform and Financial Services committees, accused the Postal Service of implementing the pilot “in secret” as DeJoy was holding bipartisan negotiations for a financial overhaul of his agency.

Postal banking has become a Democratic hobby horse in recent years, with activists and politicians claiming it solves two problems: the Postal Service’s precarious financial condition and the barriers many U.S. households face to building wealth and accessing their money. 

Jacob Bogage

The Biden agenda

21 states sue Biden administration to end transportation mask mandate

“Twenty-one states filed suit Tuesday seeking an immediate end to a federal mandate that requires people to wear masks when traveling on airplanes, buses, subways and other modes of public transportation,” Lori Aratani reports.

Biden’s budget would reshape his international tax plan to match global deal

“President Biden’s proposed 2023 budget changes a key piece of his international tax plan, moving away from a prior, harsher proposal and toward an evolving international standard for enforcing the global minimum-tax agreement,” the Wall Street Journal's Richard Rubin reports.

Biden hasn’t forgiven student loan debt. Advocates warn it could hurt Dems in elections.

“Young voters came out in record numbers to help elect Joe Biden as president. In courting them, Biden promised to address issues like climate change and making college more affordable,” USA Today's Rebecca Morin reports.

“But more than a year into his presidency, Biden has yet to act on a key promise: canceling at least $10,000 of each American's student debt.”

Russia’s ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons, visualized

“No country has used nuclear weapons in a war since the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan in 1945. However, Russian officials have made repeated comments about nuclear weapons,” our colleagues Adam Taylor and William Neff report.

Hot on the left

The Biden administration’s inattention to diplomacy

“Biden has clearly been playing both sides throughout this conflict—a dangerous game, considering the drift among the media and many liberals to see this war as part of an existential battle for democracy. The administration has expressed little desire for a diplomatic resolution of the war. It has supplied weapons to Ukraine and engaged in economic sanctions with the stated goal of weakening Russian resolve,” the American Prospect's Executive Editor David Dayen writes.

“War is terrible (some would say a crime) and should be avoided at all costs. When it breaks out, all actions should be taken to end it as quickly as possible. Biden’s offhand remark isn’t fatal to this cause; the administration could take action to support a resolution. But they haven’t done so over the past month, and time is short.”

Hot on the right

After crossing Trump, Cassidy weighs governor bid

“There’s no Senate Republican quite like Bill Cassidy: He voted to convict Donald Trump of inciting an insurrection after getting reelected by 40 points, while helping cut big deals on Covid relief and infrastructure,” Politico's Burgess Everett reports.

The Louisianan confirmed in an interview that he’s considering running for governor in his state, which has elected conservative Democrat John Bel Edwards to two consecutive terms — the first one over former Sen. David Vitter (R-La.). Cassidy said it’s not his idea, but that he’s ‘been approached to run for governor’ by people in the state.”

Today in Washington

Biden and Vice President Harris will have lunch at 12:30 p.m.

At 1:30 p.m., Biden will deliver remarks on the pandemic.

In closing

A 7-hour gap in Trump’s calls evokes a missing spot on Nixon’s tapes

“There was chatter about a magazine and whether anybody read it, about a letter to the governor of South Dakota, about the small mining town where the president’s wife was born. Then, suddenly, there was only a persistent humming sound,” Brittany Shammas reports.

“The recorded June 20, 1972, conversation between President Richard M. Nixon and Chief of Staff H.R. ‘Bob’ Haldeman was drowned out from there — the precise moment, prosecutors said, that the two turned to the meatier subject of Watergate. The just-over-18-minute gap in Tape 342 would become a defining point in the scandal and contribute to Nixon’s resignation. What exactly was said remains a mystery to this day.

Washington is again abuzz over a hole in presidential conversations turned over to investigators — this time involving former president Donald Trump,” 

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.