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The Daily 202

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

Two ways those Russian referendums change the Ukraine war.

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. On this day in 48 B.C. the Roman general and politician known as Pompey the Great was assassinated in Egypt as he fled from the advancing armies of Julius Caesar.

The big idea

Two ways those Russian referendums change the Ukraine war

In a result reminiscent of Soviet elections and roughly as legitimate, the Kremlin now has what it wanted (and concocted) from staged referendums in four Ukrainian territories: Absurdly large majorities of residents in favor of joining Russia. 

While Russian President Vladimir Putin may have sought some kind of political validation from this grotesque pantomime of the democratic process, the votes were illegal under Ukrainian and international law and didn’t come close to being free and fair.

Here are two ways the referendums change Russia’s war in Ukraine, and one way in which they don’t change anything.

  • Let’s start with what stays the same: The legitimacy of Putin’s war and the Russian occupation of regions in eastern and southeastern Ukraine. Or rather, its illegitimacy, both at home and abroad.

The United States and its allies have repeatedly called the referendums a “sham.” They have no chance of securing the approval of the United Nations. Here’s what the NATO secretary general had to say after talking with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky:

That’s unlikely to stop Putin from announcing the annexation of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia. The British Defense Ministry has said Putin could do this in a speech to Russian lawmakers as soon as Friday.

Putin is using the same playbook he used after Russia occupied Ukraine’s Crimea region, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014, as well as in Georgia, where Russia recognized the independence of that country’s regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008.

It may be tempting to see the referendums as clumsy efforts to claim democratic legitimacy and try to win over some sliver of international opinion. 

  • But forcing Ukrainians to vote under close watch from heavily armed Russians or their proxies may serve another authoritarian purpose: Making people go through with something that violates their ideals. It’s a bit like the Romans forcing Christians to renounce their faith to escape martyrdom. It’s not just for the PR victory, but for the damage it does to individuals who compromise their principles to survive.
What changes

One big thing that changes is the enhanced risk of a dramatic escalation. That seems, in fact, to be central to Moscow’s thinking. Putin and other top officials have said that annexation means the Ukrainian regions are part of Mother Russia, and any military attack there will be treated accordingly.

Ukraine seems certain to test that premise. Zelensky has declared Ukrainian troops will push Russian forces entirely out of his country — including Crimea. And Ukraine will do so with weapons provided by the United States and its allies.

Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council and a close Putin ally, said Tuesday Moscow reserved the right to use nuclear weapons if threatened and predicted the West wouldn’t dare respond. (The United States has warned of “catastrophic” consequences.)

Last week, Putin made vague nuclear threats one of the three prongs of his escalation of the war, the other two being the referendums and the announcement he would mobilize 300,000 fresh troops to feed into a conflict that, so far, has gone very badly for him.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said Tuesday the U.S. takes nuclear threats seriously but:

  • “We’ve not seen anything that would cause us to adjust our own nuclear posture at this time.”
  • And “in terms of Russian force posture, broadly speaking, without getting into a detailed operational update,” the United States has seen “no major shifts.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Putin made headlines with nuclear threats that did not fundamentally change the course of the war. But much depends on how seriously he’s prepared to treat the referendums.

  • Another thing that’s changed: Negotiations didn’t exactly look imminent, but now they appear frankly out of reach.

As The Daily 202 has repeatedly said: As long as the warring sides believe they are more likely to achieve their goals on the battlefield than at the negotiating table, a peaceful resolution isn’t likely.

In a video message to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, Zelensky ruled out talks with Putin after the referendums, saying that under the circumstances “there is nothing to talk about with (the) current Russian president.”

What’s happening now

Ian set to make landfall this afternoon near Fort Myers

High-resolution computer model suggest Category 4 Hurricane Ian will cross the coast sometime between mid- and late afternoon in the zone between Cape Coral and Port Charlotte and very close to Fort Myers, probably just to its north,” Jason Samenow reports.

Follow our live coverage of the storm here

House GOP leaders urge ‘NO’ vote on bill to keep government open

“Part of the reasoning: The stopgap measure under consideration was crafted without sufficient negotiation with leading Republicans ‘on pressing issues relating to our government funding priorities, including runaway inflation, the supply chain crisis, the border crisis, or the opioid deaths associated with drugs like fentanyl coming across our open southern border,’ [a memo from the GOP whip office] says,” John Wagner and Mariana Alfaro report.

The war in Ukraine

West condemns staged referendums, calls Nord Stream explosions ‘deliberate act’

The explosions that damaged the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines, causing leaks into the Baltic Sea, appear to be the ‘result of a deliberate act,’ the European Union said Wednesday. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said investigations are underway into what she called ‘sabotage action,’ vowing that deliberate disruption of European energy infrastructure would ‘lead to the strongest possible response,’” Adela Suliman, Robyn Dixon and Praveena Somasundaram report.

Lunchtime reads from The Post

Trump weighed bombing drug labs in Mexico, according to new book

As president, Donald Trump weighed bombing drug labs in Mexico after one of his leading public health officials came into the Oval Office, wearing a dress uniform, and said such facilities should be handled by putting ‘lead to target’ to stop the flow of illicit substances across the border into the United States,” Josh Dawsey reports.

More revelations from Maggie Haberman's forthcoming book:

  • Trump was often crass and profane about world leaders and others in his orbit. He referred to German Prime Minister Angela Merkel as ‘that b----,”’according to the book. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was dying in 2020, the book says, Trump would sarcastically raise his hands to the sky in prayer and say: “Please God. Please watch over her. Every life is precious,” before asking an aide: 'How much longer do you think she has?'”
  • “When former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) pressed Trump to more forcefully condemn white supremacists, particularly avowed white supremacist David Duke, during his 2016 campaign, Trump said he would — but he was in no rush. ‘A lot of these people vote,’ Trump said, describing some of the white supremacists, before ending the call.

The Russian men fleeing mobilization, and leaving everything behind

The emerging scale of the exodus — more than 180,000 Russians have fled just to three neighboring countries, with the full tally likely much higher — has raised questions about the Kremlin’s ability to sustain its war effort. As more Russians cross the border, escaping the restrictions imposed by Putin’s government, they are providing a glimpse of alienation and unease spreading back home.,” Kareem Fahim, Zeynep Karatas and Robyn Dixon report.

… and beyond

Why Manchin backed off on his top priority

“Manchin’s final major priority after a stretch in which everything broke his way needed the support of Republicans. And there were simply too many problems for him to solve in too short a time after releasing his legislation just last week. His home-state GOP colleague Sen. Shelley Moore Capito has her own permitting bill, and Republicans who want to defeat Manchin in 2024 largely have no desire to help him out of a jam,” Politico's Burgess Everett, Josh Siegel and Zack Colman report.

The latest on covid

Covid aid left out of stopgap funding bill

Congressional Democrats opted not to include billions of dollars in new funding for Covid-19 and monkeypox in a must-pass government-funding bill, frustrating Biden administration officials who have called new funding crucial to the federal health response,” the Wall Street Journal's Stephanie Armour reports.

The Biden agenda

Solomon Islands rejects Biden’s Pacific outreach as China looms large

The setback just hours before the start of the summit is a sign of the challenges Washington faces as it tries to reassert influence in a region where China has made inroads. It came as Vice President Harris tours East Asia, where she is emphasizing U.S. commitment to a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ during stops in Japan and South Korea. In remarks in Japan on Wednesday, Harris condemned China’s ‘disturbing’ actions in the region, including ‘provocations’ against Taiwan,” Michael E. Miller reports.

Biden maintains current cap on refugee entries

President Biden said on Tuesday that a maximum of 125,000 people could be admitted into the United States as refugees during the next 12 months, continuing to pursue his campaign pledge to open the country to more displaced people from around the world,” the New York Times' Michael D. Shear reports.

White House hosts conference on hunger with $8 billion in commitments

President Biden on Wednesday is hosting the first White House summit in nearly a half-century dedicated to combating hunger, with administration officials saying they have secured $8 billion in public- and private-sector commitments toward helping provide more food and better nutrition by 2030,” Matt Viser reports.

White House says it’s pushing to allow Puerto Rico fuel shipment

White House officials are pushing federal agencies to quickly approve a legal waiver allowing Puerto Rico to receive a shipment of diesel fuel that is being held off the island’s coast, according to a person familiar with the matter,” Jeff Stein and Toluse Olorunnipa report.

White House mulling potential Yellen departure after midterms

White House officials are quietly preparing for the potential departure of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen after the midterms, the first and most consequential exit in what could be a broad reorganization of President Biden’s economic team, according to people familiar with the matter,” Axios' Hans Nichols reports.

The rise of a new generation of Trump influencers, visualized

By tracking follower counts on Twitter and Facebook, The Post found that this group rose steeply in popularity in the six months before the Jan. 6 riot, gaining a stunning 25 million followers on the two platforms. For those who already boasted massive audiences, most grew their followings by at least 50 percent by posting about election fraud. For those with more modest audiences — about 1 in 5 on the list — the payoff for sowing doubt in the election was even bigger,” Elizabeth Dwoskin and Jeremy B. Merrill report.

Hot on the left

You have no privacy—the government already bought it from tech companies

Congress may soon tell us what price the Pentagon puts on our constitutional rights—that is, how much it pays to circumvent the Fourth Amendment and buy information on Americans,” Albert Fox Cahn and Justin Sherman write for the Daily Beast.

“Just a few weeks ago, the House made this a possibility when it added a requirement to the 2022 military budget that the Defense Department disclose any purchases of commercially available data on citizens’ smartphones and web browsing. ”

  • Some context: “While it sounds far-fetched, this happens more than you might think. The FBI, Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and other law enforcement agencies routinely buy information on Americans—ranging from internet activity to GPS locations—without needing a warrant or having to disclose that behavior.

Hot on the right

Glenn Youngkin hosts donor retreat amid presidential speculation

Some said “the primary purpose of the event, which does not require a donation to attend, is to evaluate Youngkin’s capacity to Mount a presidential campaign, as major Republican donors around the country continue to search for alternatives to former president Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis,” Michael Scherer and Ashley Parker report.

Today in Washington

At 1:15 p.m., Biden will get an economic briefing.

At 6 p.m., he will leave the White House for a Democratic Governors Association reception in D.C. at 7 p.m. He’ll return to the White House at 8 p.m.

In closing

A collab we weren’t expecting: Lizzo x James Madison

Thanks for reading. See you tomorrow.