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The Daily 202

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

More arms, new training for Ukraine: U.S. gambles on Russia’s ‘empty threats’

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. Whoops. Yesterday, I was choosing moments from the Cold War to illustrate how the U.S. and U.S.S.R. regularly avoided direct military confrontation. In my haste, or post-vacation fuzziness, I blended Truman’s Berlin Airlift and JFK’s Berlin Crisis. I regret the error and hope none of my international relations professors were reading too closely.

The big idea

U.S. gambles on Russia’s ‘empty threats’

In word and deed, President Biden’s administration is shrugging off fresh Russian warnings against providing Ukrainian forces with more advanced arms and new training, in what appears to be a calculated risk Moscow won’t escalate the war it expanded two months ago.

It looks like quite a shift in Washington’s assessment of how far Russian President Vladimir Putin will go after his efforts to seize Kyiv in a lightning war fell short and his military has suffered high-profile losses unimaginable to Western analysts just weeks ago.

Consider: On April 7, The Daily 202 detailed how top U.S. officials were giving conflicting information about whether and how Americans were playing any role in training Ukrainians to use weapons meant to kill Russians, worried about Moscow’s potential response. Officials cited concerns Putin could decide training areas even outside Ukraine would be legitimate targets. 

This week, in the context of the latest U.S. package of weapons for Ukraine, the Pentagon openly discussed the prospects of helping to train Kyiv’s fighters to use artillery in what spokesman John Kirby called a “train the trainers” program.

  • “That training will occur outside of Ukraine,” Kirby said in his briefing on Monday. “It'll be a small number of Ukrainians that will be trained on the howitzers. And then they will be reintroduced back into their country to train their colleagues.”

Or how about sending more airplanes to Ukraine? Just weeks ago, the U.S. declined to facilitate the transfer of warplanes, invoking the possibility of a direct — and dire — confrontation with Moscow if they took off from NATO bases. On Tuesday, the Pentagon confirmed Kyiv had received a boost to its air power.

“They have received additional platforms,” said Kirby. “‘Platform’ is an airplane in this case.”

On Wednesday, Ukraine said it had received parts, not planes:

(A U.S. official told The Daily 202 the U.S. had provided Ukraine with helicopters and with airplane parts. “The number of planes they have active in their fleet has increased,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.)

On Tuesday, Biden confirmed he would be sending more artillery to Ukraine. Prime Ministers Boris Johnson of Britain and Justin Trudeau of Canada made similar pledges, Reuters reported.

What’s changed

The United States and its allies have been providing Ukrainian forces with weapons to take out Russian tanks and planes since the early phases of the conflict, and the idea of direct confrontation between the former Cold War enemies still gets a hard no from the administration.

So in some ways, things feel as though they haven’t changed.

But they did last week, as my colleague Karen DeYoung reported on April 14.

“Russia this week sent a formal diplomatic note to the United States warning that U.S. and NATO shipments of the ‘most sensitive’ weapons systems to Ukraine were ‘adding fuel’ to the conflict there and could bring ‘unpredictable consequences,’” Karen reported.

That official caution, Karen noted, “came as President Biden approved a dramatic expansion in the scope of weapons being provided to Ukraine, an $800 million package including 155 mm howitzers — a serious upgrade in long-range artillery to match Russian systems — coastal defense drones and armored vehicles, as well as additional portable anti aircraft and anti tank weapons and millions of rounds of ammunition.”

Asked Monday about the Russian warning, Biden press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed what she called “empty threats” from Moscow and denied any change to the U.S. approach.

“What we have done here is done exactly what the president said we would do from the beginning, which is, if they invaded, we would be providing significant security assistance, economic assistance, and support to the Ukrainian people,” she said. “ And we're going to continue to do exactly that.”

What does escalation mean to Putin?

It’s not clear whether any single event on the ground, or any specific thread of intelligence about Russian intentions, led to the shift, which Secretary of State Antony Blinken had previewed.

A senior U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be more candid, told The Daily 202 that American officials “always factor in [the] potential for escalation.”

“We simply have to think about that,” the official said. “But we also need to think about what Ukraine needs in the moment and in days ahead.”

Over at the New York Times, Steven Erlanger, Eric Schmitt and Julian E. Barnes tied it to two developments: Ukraine thwarting Russia’s plans to quickly seize Kyiv, and Russia pivoting to focus its military might on capturing eastern Ukraine.

As for the Russian diplomatic note, they reported: “American officials say the warning shows that the weapons being sent are making a big difference on the battlefield. So, for Washington at least, concerns about supplying arms that Russia might consider 'escalatory' have ebbed — as has the initial worry that Ukraine will use longer-range weapons, like jet fighters, to attack Moscow itself and set off a bigger war.”

  • “Officials in Washington are now grappling with how much intelligence to give the Ukrainians about bases inside Russia, given that the Ukrainians have already made small helicopter raids on Russian fuel depots. The White House has also held back on supplying some weapons that could strike Russian forces across the border, like rocket artillery, ground attack planes and medium range drones,” they reported.

Underlying the will-they-won’t-they in Washington is a truth recently spoken by Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), one of Biden’s closest confidants. When it comes to judging what Putin might decide is an escalatory step too far, Coons said last week, “we don’t really know.”

What’s happening now

Wimbledon reportedly planning to bar players from Russia and Belarus

“Wimbledon will bar players from Russia and Belarus from playing in the tournament, according to multiple reports, because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a decision that will affect two of the world’s highest-ranked players,” Cindy Boren and Adela Suliman report.

Trump silent as Tenn. GOP kicks his candidate off ballot

“The Tennessee Republican Party voted late Tuesday to remove Morgan Ortagus, a congressional candidate backed by Donald Trump, from the state’s primary ballot, underscoring the tensions this cycle across the country between GOP factions that are beholden to the former president and those that are not," Amy B Wang and John Wagner report.

Secret Service fatally shoots intruder at Peruvian ambassador's D.C. home

“U.S. Secret Service officers fatally shot a man who smashed windows Wednesday at the Washington, D.C., home of the Peruvian ambassador, District police said,” NBC Washington reports.

The war in Ukraine

Mariupol ‘holding on’ despite calls to surrender

“Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the situation in strategically important Mariupol remains “severe,” and officials said evacuations would be attempted Wednesday through an agreed-upon humanitarian corridor for women, children and the elderly,” Rachel Pannett, Adela Suliman, Ellen Francis, David L. Stern, Amy Cheng, Andrew Jeong and Jennifer Hassan report.

More key updates:

Follow our live coverage of the war here

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Surrounded by Russians, commander describes life inside Mariupol plant

In a video sent to The Post, Major Serhiy Volyna on April 19 asked world leaders to help secure the safety of people leaving Mariupol. (Video: Major Serhiy Volyna)

“In his most extensive comments to Western media, Maj. Serhiy Volyna of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, whose forces have been holding out in the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works against a Russian force that vastly outnumbers them, told The Washington Post that his soldiers would continue ‘to conduct combat operations and to complete our military tasks as long as we receive them,’” David L. Stern and Paulina Villegas report.

We will not lay down our weapons,” Volyna said.

Can technology bring Vladimir Putin to justice?

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine in many ways has become one of the world’s first digital wars, with combatants from both sides fighting for advantage on social media, Western players embarking on attempts to raise cryptocurrency for Ukraine, and a Ukrainian minister taking to Twitter to persuade global companies to intervene digitally,” Steven Zeitchik reports.

“Now, there’s a new frontier. To bolster the kind of war-crimes evidence that has not always proved easy to admit to international courts, a group is looking to the technology behind cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens, or NFTs.”

… and beyond

‘Don’t Say Gay’ bills aren’t new. They’ve just been revived.

“At least 20 states have introduced ‘Don’t Say Gay’ laws this year, which have made waves around the country. But in a handful of states, versions of the legislation have existed for decades,” the 19th's Kate Sosin reports.

“Since 1992, Alabama’s education code stipulated that teachers emphasize “in a factual manner and from a public health perspective, that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public and that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state.”

The latest on covid

Justice Dept.: We’ll appeal mask mandate ruling if CDC says it’s needed

“The Biden administration said Tuesday it would appeal a judge’s ruling that blocked a transportation mask requirement if federal health officials determine the mandate is still needed,” Lori Aratani, Dan Simmons, Mary Beth Gahan and Jennifer Oldham report.

The Biden agenda

Biden admin preparing to announce another military aid package for Ukraine

“The Biden administration is preparing to announce another substantial military aid package for Ukraine this week, five U.S. officials tell NBC News. Three officials said the package is expected to be similar in size to the $800 million one the administration announced last week,” NBC News's Carol E. Lee, Courtney Kube and Abigail Williams report.

“Two officials said the package is expected to include more artillery and tens of thousands more artillery rounds, which will likely be critical to the fighting in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.”

Biden administration launches $6 billion nuclear plant bailout

“The Biden administration moved Tuesday to revive America’s troubled nuclear power industry with $6 billion in spending aimed at keeping open financially strapped plants,” Evan Halper reports.

“The launch of the program, which Energy Department officials framed as a part of the administration’s strategy to fight climate change, would bail out operators of plants in economic distress. The program is funded through the infrastructure package President Biden signed into law last year.”

Biden administration gives more borrowers chance of debt cancellation

“On Tuesday, the Education Department said it will grant federal student loan borrowers additional credit toward loan forgiveness under what is known as income-driven repayment plans. The move will bring more than 3.6 million people closer to debt cancellation, including 40,000 who will be immediately eligible, according to the department,” Danielle Douglas-Gabriel reports.

How U.S.-Saudi relations reached the breaking point

“The relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has hit its lowest point in decades, with Mr. Biden saying in 2019 that the kingdom should be treated like a pariah over human-rights issues such as Mr. Khashoggi’s murder,” the Wall Street Journal's Stephen Kalin, Summer Said and David S. Cloud report.

“The political fissures have deepened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, senior Saudi and U.S. officials said. The White House wanted the Saudis to pump more crude, both to tame oil prices and undercut Moscow’s war finances. The kingdom hasn’t budged, keeping in line with Russian interests.”

Ukraine’s wheat harvest, visualized

Ukraine is on track to harvest most of its vast grain fields this summer — though there are mounting concerns that war-related supply shortages may reduce output by as much as a third. Our colleague Max Bearak reports on the upcoming grain shortage around the world.

Hot on the left

The trade fight that could doom Biden’s industrial policy

One of the highest-stakes fights in the trade chapter [of the Competes Act] is a House provision that would close the ‘Amazon loophole,’ which allows overseas suppliers of e-commerce companies to directly ship to U.S. customers while avoiding tariffs, taxes, fees, or inspection…The Senate version doesn’t close that loophole, and in fact has several features that put the government to work for Big Tech, policing the world to prevent policies the industry doesn’t like,” the American Prospect's David Dayen writes.

“How the two sides reconcile this chapter into something that can still get 60 Senate votes is anyone’s guess. There’s a strong desire on Capitol Hill to reauthorize several critical trade policies that have lapsed. And a bill to increase competitiveness with China necessarily must take on trade policy. But the combination of broad interest in semiconductors and competitiveness measures and the Biden administration desperately needing a win could lead to the entire trade chapter being dropped. And if that doesn’t fly, the dug-in positions of the House and Senate could lead to COMPETES not surviving conference at all, despite widespread bipartisan support.”

Hot on the right

Trump's suit against Clinton might help … Clinton?

“The sprawling lawsuit that former President Donald Trump filed recently against former rival Hillary Clinton could, perversely, boost Clinton allies’ ongoing legal efforts to shield details of their anti-Trump political efforts from public scrutiny,” Politico's Josh Gerstein and Kyle Cheney report.

“Lawyers for private investigation firm Fusion GPS argued in court filings released Tuesday that Trump’s newly filed racketeering suit bolsters their effort to conceal specifics of the firm’s work with the 2016 Clinton campaign via attorney-client privilege. Trump and his allies have long targeted Fusion, which commissioned the controversial Steele Dossier making salacious and at times unsupported allegations about Trump’s ties to Russia.”

Today in Washington

Biden will meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Combatant Commanders in the Cabinet Room at 4 p.m. and host a dinner for the group with first lady Jill Biden at 5:30 p.m.

In closing

Late night vs. new mask rules

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.

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