Biden considering major new executive actions for migrant crisis

Politico

Biden considering major new executive actions for migrant crisis

Myah Ward – February 21, 2024

The Biden administration is considering a string of new executive actions and federal regulations in an effort to curb migration at the U.S. southern border, according to three people familiar with the plans.

The proposals under consideration would represent a sweeping new approach to an issue that has stymied the White House since its first days in office and could potentially place the president at odds with key constituencies.

Among the ideas under discussion include using a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act to bar migrants from seeking asylum in between U.S. ports of entry. The administration is also discussing tying that directive to a trigger — meaning that it would only come into effect after a certain number of illegal crossings took place, said the three people, who were granted anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

A trigger mechanism was part of a bipartisan Senate border deal that never reached the floor earlier this month. During the deal’s construction, President Joe Biden repeatedly said it would have given him the authority to “shut down” the border.

The administration is also discussing ways to make it harder for migrants to pass the initial screening for asylum seekers, essentially raising the “credible fear standard,” as well as ways to quickly deport others who don’t meet those elevated asylum standards. Two of the people said the policy announcements could come as soon as next week ahead of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech on March 7.

The slate of policies could allow the administration officials to fill some of the void left after congressional Republicans killed a bipartisan border deal in the Senate. But it would also open up the administration to criticism that it always had the tools at its disposal to more fully address the migrant crisis but waited to use them.

No final decisions have been made about what executive actions, if any, could be taken, an administration official said, speaking about internal deliberations only on condition of anonymity. Administrations often explore a number of options, the official said, though it doesn’t necessarily mean the policies will come to fruition.

The consideration of new executive action comes as the White House tries to turn the border deal failure into a political advantage for the president. It also comes amid growing concern among Democrats that the southern border presents a profound election liability for the party. Officials hope that policy announcements will drive down numbers of migrants coming to the border and demonstrate to voters that they’re exhausting all options to try to solve the problem as peak migration season quickly approaches.

“The Administration spent months negotiating in good faith to deliver the toughest and fairest bipartisan border security bill in decades because we need Congress to make significant policy reforms and to provide additional funding to secure our border and fix our broken immigration system,” said White House spokesperson Angelo Fernández Hernández.

“No executive action, no matter how aggressive, can deliver the significant policy reforms and additional resources Congress can provide and that Republicans rejected,” he continued.

The three people familiar with the planning cautioned that the details of proposed actions remain murky and that the impact of the policies — particularly the asylum ban — is also dependent on the specific language of the federal regulation, they said. For example, the Senate bill included exceptions for unaccompanied minors and people who meet the requirements of the United Nations Convention Against Torture rules.

There are other complications as well. The implementation of any action from the White House would come without the funding and resources that could make implementation easier, though the administration is looking into ways to unlock additional funding. The actions would likely face legal challenges as well.

The Trump administration repeatedly used Section 212(f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act to aggressively shape the immigration system. In late 2018, President Donald Trump signed a policy that temporarily barred migrants who tried to illegally cross into the U.S. outside of official ports of entry. It was quickly blocked by a federal judge in California. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the decision, which was then upheld by the Supreme Court.

The policies, once announced, will likely be met with steep backlash from immigration advocates who will claim the president is once again walking back on his campaign promises to rebuild a humane immigration system and protect the right to asylum.

Biden administration weighs taking actions without Congress to stem the migrant flow

NBC News

Biden administration weighs taking actions without Congress to stem the migrant flow

Julia Ainsley, Julie Tsirkin and Gabe Gutierrez – February 21, 2024

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is considering taking unilateral action without Congress to make it harder for migrants to pass the initial screening for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border and quickly deport recently arrived migrants who don’t meet the criteria, say three U.S. officials with knowledge of the deliberations.

The actions, which are still weeks away from finalization, are an effort to lower the number of migrants crossing the southern border illegally as immigration remains a top issue for voters heading into the 2024 presidential election.

Under the new policies, asylum officers would be instructed to raise the standards they use in their “credible fear interviews,” the first screening given to asylum-seekers who are trying to avoid deportation for crossing the border illegally. And Immigration and Customs Enforcement would be told to prioritize recently arrived migrants for deportation, in a “last in, first out” policy, the officials said.

Hundreds of migrants arrive in Ciudad Juarez to cross into the United States before Title 42 ends (David Peinado Romero / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file)
Hundreds of migrants arrive in Ciudad Juarez to cross into the United States before Title 42 ends (David Peinado Romero / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images file)

A congressional aide with knowledge of the deliberations said the Biden administration has yet to make a decision, but raising the bar on asylum and deporting more newly arrived migrants are considered “low hanging fruit” and actions that can be taken quickly.

The three U.S. officials said it is unclear whether the policies would be achieved through executive order or a new federal regulation, which could take months to implement.

Making it harder to claim asylum and fast-tracking migrants for deportation are not new ideas, but they are being considered more seriously as the Biden administration looks for ways to tamp down chaos at the border after Republicans blocked border security provisions in the National Security Supplemental bill earlier this month.

An administration official confirmed that the White House is exploring a series of policy options, but said that doesn’t guarantee any will come to pass.

In a statement, a White House spokesperson said, “The administration spent months negotiating in good faith to deliver the toughest and fairest bipartisan border security bill in decades. … Congressional Republicans chose to put partisan politics ahead of our national security. … No executive action, no matter how aggressive, can deliver the significant policy reforms and additional resources Congress can provide and that Republicans rejected.”

Without the bill, any action the president takes unilaterally will be limited in scope because the Department of Homeland Security is short on funding.

ICE is currently facing a budget shortfall of more than $500 million and may have to start cutting key services by May without more money from Congress, sources told NBC News last week.

One DHS official expressed skepticism over the “last in, first out” policy because it would leave millions of migrants already in the U.S., including thousands of homeless migrants in major cities, in a long legal limbo as their immigration cases are pushed to the back of the line.

A spokesperson for DHS emphasized that Congress should still act to avoid compromising border enforcement.

“If Congress once again refuses to provide the critical funding needed to support DHS’s vital missions, they would be harming DHS’s efforts to deliver tough and timely consequences to those who do not have a legal basis to remain in the country,” the spokesperson said. “There are real limits to what we can do given current funding because Congress has failed to pass a budget or respond to the President’s two supplemental budget requests. We again call on Congress to act and provide the funding and tools our frontline personnel need.”

Thousands of student-loan borrowers are set to get emails from Biden that their balances are wiped out. Here’s what happens next.

Business Insider

Thousands of student-loan borrowers are set to get emails from Biden that their balances are wiped out. Here’s what happens next.

Ayelet Sheffey – February 21, 2024

  • Biden announced $1.2 billion in student-debt cancellation for 153,000 borrowers.
  • It’s a result of early implementation of a SAVE plan provision to shorten the timeline for debt relief.
  • Biden is notifying impacted borrowers on Wednesday, and it could take a few weeks for servicers to apply the relief.

Student-loan borrowers, check your emails — you might find a message from President Joe Biden in your inbox telling you that your debt is canceled.

On Wednesday morning, the White House and Education Department announced it would be canceling $1.2 billion in student debt for 153,000 borrowers — the result of early implementation of a provision in the SAVE income-driven repayment plan that shortens the timeline for borrowers to see relief.

Specifically, borrowers who originally took out $12,000 in loans or less and have made as few as 10 years of qualifying payments are becoming eligible to have their remaining balances wiped out.

Beginning on Wednesday, borrowers in the first batch of relief will receive emails from Biden stating: “Congratulations—all or a portion of your federal student loans will be forgiven because you qualify for early loan forgiveness under my Administration’s SAVE Plan.”

“I hope this relief gives you a little more breathing room,” the email, a draft of which was reviewed by Business Insider, said. “I’ve heard from countless people who have told me that relieving the burden of their student loan debt will allow them to support themselves and their families, buy their first home, start a small business, and move forward with life plans they’ve put on hold.”

A White House fact sheet stated that the shortened timeline to forgiveness will especially help “borrowers with smaller loans and put many on track to being free of student debt faster than ever before.” Additionally, per the fact sheet, 7.5 million borrowers are enrolled in the SAVE plan, and 4.3 million of them have a $0 monthly payment.

Here’s what will happen next for borrowers who are, or hope to be, eligible for SAVE plan relief.

Next steps for SAVE plan debt relief

Biden’s email noted that the Education Department has already informed impacted borrowers’ loan servicers that they are eligible for relief. The relief will happen automatically, and borrowers who are notified will not need to take any action.

Servicers will notify borrowers that their forgiveness has been applied, but “it may take some time for your account with your servicer to reflect this change,” per the email. It recommends borrowers wait at least 21 days after being notified of the relief to contact their servicers if they still do not see the relief applied to their accounts.

The Education Department also said that beginning next week, it will start emailing borrowers not currently on the SAVE plan that they could become eligible for relief if they enroll. Borrowers already enrolled in SAVE but not included in the first batch of debt relief will have their loans automatically discharged once they meet the criteria, and the department will continue evaluating borrowers’ accounts “on a regular basis,” per its press release.

Biden’s email also cautioned borrowers to watch out for scams and said that any notification regarding debt relief would come from noreply@studentaid.gov, noreply@debtrelief.studentaid.gov, or ed.gov@public.govdelivery.com.

More upcoming student-debt relief

While the relief announced on Wednesday was a result of early implementation, other provisions of the SAVE plan will be going into effect in July. Those include cutting payments for undergraduate loans in half and allowing periods in deferment of forbearance to count toward forgiveness progress.

Beyond the SAVE plan, the Education Department is also planning to complete its one-time account adjustments for borrowers on income-driven repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness by July 1. The adjustments have so far given thousands of borrowers relief, but the department recommends borrowers who are not in the federal direct loan program or have federally-held loans in the Federal Family Education Loan program consolidate their loans by the end of April to benefit from the adjustment.

More broadly, on February 22 and 23, the department is holding its final negotiation session with stakeholders to help craft its second attempt at student-debt relief after the Supreme Court struck down the first plan. Once negotiations conclude, the department will prepare proposed text on the borrowers it’s seeking to include in this new relief plan.

In Navalny’s last letters, the Russian dissident called Trump’s agenda for a second term ‘really scary’

Business Insider

In Navalny’s last letters, the Russian dissident called Trump’s agenda for a second term ‘really scary’

Kelsey Vlamis – February 20, 2024

  • Alexey Navalny, Vladimir Putin’s most prominent critic, commented on US politics months before his death.
  • Navalny expressed concern in letters to a friend over a potential second term for Donald Trump.
  • Trump briefly mentioned Navalny’s death in a Truth Social post on Monday.

Alexey Navalny, a dissident and the political nemesis of Russian President Vladimir Putin, spent the past few years of his life behind bars but still managed to stay connected to the outside world.

Letters from the final months of his life, obtained by The New York Times, show that Navalny, who’d been imprisoned since January 2021, managed to stay on top of current events — including in the US.

In a letter sent to a friend, a photographer named Evgeny Feldman, Navalny said former President Donald Trump’s agenda for a second term was “really scary,” according to the Times.

He said if President Joe Biden were to have a health issue, “Trump will become president,” adding: “Doesn’t this obvious thing concern the Democrats?”

In another letter to Feldman dated December 3, Navalny again expressed concern over Trump and asked his friend, “Please name one current politician you admire.”

Trump’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.

On December 6, Navalny disappeared from the IK-6 penal colony about 120 miles east of Moscow. He turned up again on Christmas Day when his lawyers announced they had located him at the IK-3 penal colony, about 1,000 miles northeast of Moscow, above the Arctic Circle.

The Times reported that Navalny’s communication ability from his new prison was greatly diminished.

The journalist Sergei Parkhomenko said he received a letter from Navalny on February 13, a few days before Navalny’s death was announced. In the letter, which Parkhomenko shared on Facebook, Navalny spoke of books and said he only had access to classics at his new prison.

“Who could’ve told me that Chekhov is the most depressing Russian writer?” he wrote.

Trump, for his part, didn’t mention Navalny in the days after his death, despite condemnations from other leaders who directly blamed Putin.

In a Truth Social post on Monday, Trump briefly mentioned Navalny before directing his ire at his own perceived political opponents: “The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our Country. It is a slow, steady progression, with CROOKED, Radical Left Politicians, Prosecutors, and Judges leading us down a path to destruction.”

He mentioned neither Russia nor Putin.

Smirnov indictment pushes GOP impeachment probe of Biden off the edge

CNN

Opinion: Smirnov indictment pushes GOP impeachment probe of Biden off the edge

Opinion by Dennis Aftergut – February 19, 2024

Editor’s Note: Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to preserving the rule of law. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

On Thursday, the Justice Department indicted Alexander Smirnov, a former FBI informant, for lying about President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden’s involvement in negotiations with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma Holdings. Smirnov is a central witness in the House Republicans’ Biden impeachment inquiry, which was already circling the drain as committee leaders have persisted in pursuing baseless allegations for political gain.

According to the indictment, Smirnov lied to the FBI by claiming that officials at Burisma, where Hunter Biden served on the board years ago, bribed then-Vice President Biden and his son so the vice president would interfere with a criminal investigation into the company. Smirnov now faces charges for making false statements to the FBI and creating false records.

Smirnov’s testimony has been the “heart” of House Oversight Committee Republicans’ stumbling “investigation” into impeaching President Biden. News of Smirnov’s indictment had Oversight Committee Chair James Comer of Kentucky beating a strategic retreat: “The impeachment inquiry,” he said on Thursday, “is not reliant on the FBI’s [interview of Smirnov]. It is based on a large record of evidence.”

That’s to be expected from politicians trying to salvage an investigation whose key witness has been exposed. With Smirnov’s indictment for fabricating claims, the air is out of the House inquiry’s tires. For those in the fact-based world, the oversight committee’s impeachment car, driven by Comer, is stuck on the edge of a cliff with two wheels hanging in thin air.

The Smirnov episode is Exhibit A in what happens when politicians grinding partisan axes make serious public charges without evidence against elected officials. That shameless behavior erodes citizens’ precious trust in government.

Prosecutors learn early that, in white-collar crimes, you’d better have indisputable documents or witnesses whose testimony is thoroughly corroborated before seeking an indictment. Otherwise, you can get seriously burned in the backfire.

As Hannah Arendt, the dean of 20th century political theorists, wrote in 1971 about years of government lies revealed in the Pentagon Papers amidst the Vietnam War, “There always comes the point beyond which lying becomes counterproductive.”

Politicians like Comer and GOP Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, could learn something from Arendt and from capable prosecutors about tossing aside facts and truth. Unfortunately, the MAGA committee chairs seem to have neither time nor interest in thought, care, competence or real evidence. All that seems to matter to them is repeating the charges enough times for them to sink into the public consciousness.

In 2016, there was no there there with House Republicans’ Benghazi investigation, but the smear looked like it had an adverse effect on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. So Republicans have apparently decided, “Let’s do it again.”

But don’t expect it to work this time. The very smart Democrats now on the House Oversight Committee learned from experience and are onto Comer’s political stunts. His claims have been called out by New York Rep. Dan Goldman, a former prosecutor who worked on the first impeachment of former President Donald Trump, and ranking member Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a constitutional scholar who served on the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol.

As Yale professor Timothy Snyder, the eminent historian of 20th century totalitarianism, has written, “Students of democracy have argued since ancient times … that the truth matters, and that truth needs defenses.” We are lucky to have capable defenders of truth whose counter-punches have been stronger than Comer’s feckless jabs. They don’t carry the power of reliable facts.

With Smirnov, Comer has led with his jaw. When you are dealing with a shaky witness whose testimony is the key to your fight plan, you need to muscle up with corroboration. Comer has none.

Indeed, Comer and Jordan have overhyped Smirnov’s testimony so many times, according to the progressive watchdog Congressional Integrity Project, that it’s hard to keep count. To cite just one example, last June, Comer told Fox News’ Sean Hannity, “This is one of the highest paid, most respected, most trusted, most effective human informants. So what we learned is what the whistleblowers told Sen. Grassley all along. The FBI never investigated this.”

That last claim is yet another falsehood. This whole investigation into Burisma goes back five years. In early 2020, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s disgraced lawyer who was trying to dig up dirt on Hunter’s father, handed documents over to Trump administration Attorney General Bill Barr. According to CNN reporting, Barr told reporters at the time, “‘We can’t take anything we receive from Ukraine at face value.’ Former Pittsburgh US Attorney Scott Brady oversaw the FBI investigation of the Giuliani claims. The 1023 document [memorializing Smirnov’s interview] demanded by Comer is among the products of that investigation. … The FBI and prosecutors who reviewed the information couldn’t corroborate the claims.”

There’s the rub. And Comer’s face plant by relying on Smirnov’s alleged lies is just the latest in a long string of leaning on witnesses who have provided no evidence of wrongdoing by President Biden. They include the president’s bookkeeper, Hunter Biden’s business associates, his art dealer and a host of others who’ve said that President Biden is a loving father but was not involved in his son’s business deals. Comer seems to have gone to the ends of the Earth to find dirt on the president. But the congressman has ended up with an empty dustbin.

Impeachment is the most serious non-criminal charge that Congress can bring against a federal official. It is no place to be inflating allegations and to be relying on witnesses whose testimony is not corroborated. Doing so drains public confidence in impeachment as a guardrail on executive abuses of power. Wild charges without basis in reliable evidence insult fact and truth, the foundations of democracy.

New York University professor Ruth Ben-Ghiat put it this way in her seminal book “Strong Men”: “The decay of truth and democratic dissolution proceed hand in hand.” Snyder makes the same point: “Once factual truth is no defense in politics, all that remains is spectacle and force.”

From Comer and Jordan, we’ve seen plenty of spectacle but an absence of light. These point men for Trump and truthlessness are dangers to democracy.

Indicted ex-FBI informant told investigators he got Hunter Biden dirt from Russian intelligence officials

CNN

Indicted ex-FBI informant told investigators he got Hunter Biden dirt from Russian intelligence officials

Hannah Rabinowitz and Cheri Mossburg – February 20, 2024

The former FBI informant charged with lying about the Bidens’ dealings in Ukraine told investigators after his arrest that Russian intelligence officials were involved in passing information to him about Hunter Biden, prosecutors said Tuesday in a new court filing, noting that the information was false.

Prosecutors also said Alexander Smirnov has been “actively peddling new lies that could impact US elections” after meeting with Russian spies late last year and that the fallout from his previous false bribery accusations about the Bidens “continue[s] to be felt to this day.”

Smirnov claims to have “extensive and extremely recent” contacts with foreign intelligence officials, prosecutors said in the filing. They said he previously told the FBI that he has longstanding and extensive contacts with Russian spies, including individuals he said were high-level intelligence officers or command Russian assassins abroad.

Prosecutors with special counsel David Weiss’ team said Tuesday that Smirnov has maintained those ties and noted that, in a post-arrest interview last week, “Smirnov admitted that officials associated with Russian intelligence were involved in passing a story about Businessperson 1,” referring to President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden.

The revelations about Smirnov’s alleged foreign contacts were disclosed as part of prosecutors’ arguments to keep him jailed ahead of trial – though a federal judge later granted Smirnov’s release with several conditions, including GPS monitoring and the surrender of his two passports. Smirnov declined to answer questions as he left the courthouse Tuesday evening.

Prosecutors alleged that Smirnov “claims to have contacts with multiple foreign intelligence agencies,” including in Russia, and that he could use those contacts to flee the United States.

The explosive revelation comes amid backlash over how Smirnov’s now-debunked allegations played into House Republicans’ impeachment inquiry into the president.

Smirnov has been charged with lying to the FBI and creating false records. He has not yet entered a formal plea, and his lawyers told CNN in a statement, “Mr. Smirnov is presumed innocent.”

According to the new court filing, Smirnov told investigators he was in contact with “four different Russian officials,” all of whom are “top officials” and two of whom “are the heads of the entities they represent.” Prosecutors did not independently verify in the filing whether Smirnov’s reported contacts are legitimate, nor whether the Russians provided him with disinformation about the Bidens.

The false information that Smirnov reported “was not trivial,” prosecutors wrote.

“It targeted the presumptive nominee of one of the two major political parties in the United States. The effects of Smirnov’s false statements and fabricated information continue to be felt to this day,” prosecutors said, making an apparent reference to the turmoil in Congress over the discredited bribery allegations – which were a key element of the GOP impeachment probe.

Of particular note is a story Smirnov allegedly told the FBI in September 2023, alleging that Hunter Biden was recorded making phone calls in a Kyiv hotel that is “wired” and “under the control of the Russians.” Federal agents said they knew Smirnov’s story was false because Hunter Biden has “never travelled to Ukraine.”

Smirnov told investigators Russian intelligence officers would use the hotel to intercept cell phone calls made by “prominent US persons,” prosecutors said, which the Russian government could use as “‘kompromat’ in the 2024 election, depending on who the candidates will be.” Kompromat is a Russian term that refers to compromising information used for blackmail.

The story, prosecutors noted, matches the story Smirnov told his handler about Hunter Biden being recorded in a foreign hotel.

“Thus, Smirnov’s efforts to spread misinformation about a candidate of one of the two major parties in the United States continues,” prosecutors wrote.

And, prosecutors wrote, Smirnov claims to have met with Russian intelligence officials as recently as November and December 2023.

“What this shows is that the misinformation he is spreading is not confined to 2020,” they wrote. “He is actively peddling new lies that could impact U.S. elections after meeting with Russian intelligence officials in November. In light of that fact there is a serious risk he will flee in order to avoid accountability for his actions.”

Weiss’ team argued in court Tuesday that Smirnov could use his foreign contacts, including those in Russia, to flee the country and resettle abroad out of reach from the US government. The judge pushed back on the prosecutors’ assertion, and sternly warned Smirnov while granting his release: “Do not make a mockery of me.”

This story has been updated with additional details.

CNN’s Holmes Lybrand and Cheri Mossburg contributed to this report.

Legal expert warns delay by Judge Cannon could badly backfire on Trump

Salon

Legal expert warns delay by Judge Cannon could badly backfire on Trump

Tatyana Tandanpolie – February 20, 2024

Donald Trump Shannon Stapleton-Pool/Getty Images
Donald Trump Shannon Stapleton-Pool/Getty Images

The delays in Donald Trump’s Florida classified documents case will come to a head Thursday, the date U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon has set as a deadline for the former president and the case’s other defendants to file responses in a discovery dispute with the Justice Department, predicts former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance.

Writing in her “Civil Discourse” Substack, Vance explained that special counsel Jack Smith’s hopes of bringing the case charging Trump with willfully retaining national security documents post-presidency to trial are dwindling as the pre-trial period drags. Whether he will then appeal to the 11th Circuit Court, she said, hinges in part on what unfolds this week.

“Judge Aileen Cannon continues to string out the timeline, permitting this issue to unnecessarily consume weeks of briefing time,” Vance writes, arguing that Cannon must soon decide on issues involving unclassified and classified evidence, while Smith must soon also determine whether to appeal her rulings if they remain “unfavorable.” The case going to trial before the presidential election “would take a moon shot,” Vance added. “Trump is likely to go into the Republican convention and the election without being held accountable for dangerous mishandling of classified materials—something that should be unthinkable and would have been for Republicans in the pre-Trump era,” Vance writes.

But Trump’s efforts to delay the criminal proceedings may backfire, former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner argued, pointing to an expected March 1 hearing to address remaining deadlines in the case.

We know that Donald Trump and his team of lawyers will try to convince Judge Cannon to try to kick the May 20th trial date,” Kirschner told MSNBC Monday, according to Raw Story. “And you may not expect to hear this from me, but I almost hope that she does kick the May 20th trial date. Why? Because if the Supreme Court denies the stay in the absolute immunity issue and returns the case to [Judge] Tanya Chutkan in D.C. in the election interference case — would love to see her take that case and drop it on the docket for May 20th.”

Trapped and left for dead, injured Ukrainian soldiers in Avdiivka exchanged desperate messages as the town fell

CNN

Trapped and left for dead, injured Ukrainian soldiers in Avdiivka exchanged desperate messages as the town fell

Tim Lister, Maria Kostenko and Victoria Butenko – February 19, 2024

Avdiivka was on the front lines of war between Kyiv and Moscow for almost a decade. Fierce fighting raged there for months following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly two years ago.

The withdrawal was far less drawn out. When the Ukrainian military abandoned the town on Saturday, handing Russia its most important victory in months, it was rapid and ruthless.

“Leave the 300 (wounded),” one soldier was purportedly ordered, “and burn everything.”

Hours after Russian troops raised their flags over Avdiivka, one horrifying story has emerged of several injured soldiers who failed to escape – and were later killed as Russian troops reached their position.

The Ukrainian servicemen there were part of the 110th Separate Mechanized Brigade, occupying a position known as Zenit. As Russian forces advanced through Avdiivka last week, Zenit came under heavy attack.

Soldiers stationed there made desperate attempts to escape the ruins of the town, according to Viktor Biliak, one of the soldiers there. In a long and often bleak Instagram post Biliak described the dangerous route that lay ahead.

“There was zero visibility outside. It was just about survival. A kilometer across the field. A bunch of blind kittens guided by a drone. Enemy artillery. The road to Avdiivka is filled with Ukrainian corpses,” he wrote.

Eventually a commander informed him over the radio that the wounded would not be evacuated. Six men were left behind. The messages they left were hard to read, Biliak said.

“Their despair, their doom. It will always stay with us. The most courageous are the ones who die,” he said.

The soldiers left behind

Avdiivka has been on the front lines since pro-Moscow separatists seized large portions of the Donbas region, including the nearby city of Donetsk, in 2014. Years of fighting has turned the town into a heavily fortified stronghold, with entrenchments built up over the past eight years.

But with Ukraine’s army under pressure along several points on the front line and facing ammunition and manpower shortages, the Russian military may have sensed a window of opportunity. It pummelled the area with airstrikes and artillery before intensifying the ground assault.

Ukrainian forces made the decision over the weekend to abandon the town, handing Russia its most significant victory since it captured the city of Bakhmut last year.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the decision to pull back was made to “save our soldiers’ lives.”

Among those trapped and surrounded was a 30-year-old junior sergeant and combat medic from Dnipropetrovsk region named Ivan Zhytnyk, call-sign “Django.” He’d been fighting in Avdiivka for nearly two years, as had the 110th Brigade.

He was badly injured and could not move.

On Thursday, he was able to contact his sister Kateryna and other family members in an emotional video call, a call that has since received widespread coverage on Ukrainian and social media.

Kateryna asks her brother: “So, what, they … no one is coming? Your guys are there too (with you), or are you alone?”

Zhytnyk replied: “Everyone left, everyone retreated. They told us that a car would pick us up. I have two broken legs, shrapnel in my back. I can’t do anything …

He said there were a half-dozen soldiers at the Zenit position, four of whom, like Zhytnyk, could not walk.

Kateryna responds: “I don’t know how to … who to call,” she said while crying. “I can’t figure it out. Who will pick you up?”

No one did.

Ukrainian journalists working with Slidstvo.info later talked to relatives of three of the Ukrainians who were left wounded at the position.

Kateryna told Slidstvo.info: “They had been waiting for the (evacuation) vehicle for a day and a half. And when they realized that no one was coming to pick them up, they started calling everyone. When Ivan called me, he was in so much pain, they had given him everything they had left, but they were running out of medicine and food.”

Later Thursday, another relative reached Zhytnyk via video link, according to Kateryna.

“My brother said that the command had agreed that the Russians would take them out because our men would not get to them,” Kateryna said. As they spoke, she said, the video showed Russian troops entering the position where the men were trapped.

CNN has not seen that video.

Another of the soldiers trapped at Zenit was Andrii Dubnytskyi. His wife Liudmyla told Slidstvo.info: “We talked at 10 a.m. (on Thursday). He was wounded in the groin, he was reeling, trying to joke, started crying. Then we texted …”

“The last message was at 12:00 that he would be captured,” she said.

‘Mom, I am a warrior’

On Friday, a video was posted by a Russian military blogger that showed the bodies of several of the soldiers. The video carried the emblem of the Russian Army’s 1st Slavic Brigade, which had entered the Zenit area in the south of Avdiivka two days earlier, according to multiple accounts.

The text on the video says it was shot on Friday in Avdiivka at a “military unit facility.” It refers to the Ukrainian troops there as Nazis and says ”only death is waiting for you at our land.”

Kateryna recognized her brother’s body by his clothes and by the water bottle he was holding when the Russians took them from the Zenit position.

Biliak, the soldier who posted his account on Instagram, recognized Andrii Dubnytskyi because he had a tattoo in the shape of a cross on his arm.

So did Dubnytskyi’s wife, Liudmyla, who found the video late at night. “At 10:30 p.m. I found this video, I recognized him by his tattoo,” she said.

“He was called up on March 8, 2022, and since then he had been in Avdiivka all the time … My daughter was 4 months old when he was mobilized,” she told Slidstvo.info.

The mother of another of the soldiers made the same horrifying discovery.

Heorhii Pavlov, call-sign “Panda,” had been a contract soldier since 2015 and had served at the Zenit position for the last year, according to his mother Inna.

“They waited for three days for an (evacuation) car,” she said.

“On the 14th he was wounded, he had shrapnel wounds, his back … I begged him very much, son, surrender, I need you alive – he has a small child, 5 years old.”

“He said: Mom, I am a warrior,” Inna recounted to Slidstvo.info.

“I would like to believe that they are alive. The only thing I want now is to find my son,” she said Friday.

A few hours later she recognized the body of her son in the same Russian video.

The 110th Brigade told CNN that it could not verify any details of the incident and was trying to check what had happened.

A well-known Ukrainian military blogger, Yurii Butusov, has since posted the names of all six soldiers who were left behind at the Zenit position.

“These wounded were unable to move on their own, and there were no evacuation vehicles available to transport them. Due to the complete encirclement of Zenit, no vehicles could get through for evacuation,” Butusov said.

It’s not known how the soldiers died, but Butusov alleged that the Russian military “executed the helpless unarmed wounded, who were captured and unable to move.”

The Prosecutor General’s Office in Ukraine said an investigation had been launched into “violation of the laws and customs of war, combined with premeditated murder” in the case of the injured soldiers.

In a statement published Monday, the 110th Separate Mechanized Brigade said that it attempted to negotiate with Russian forces to evacuate wounded troops from the Zenit position after it was completely encircled.

“They [agreed] to evacuate our wounded and provide them with assistance, and subsequently exchange them (for other prisoners of war). Our soldiers were ordered to save their lives,” the statement read.

The brigade later learned its soldiers were killed from the video released by Russian forces.

“War is cruel and we are fighting for freedom at a high price,” it said.

CNN is reaching out to the Russian Ministry of Defense for comment on the allegations against Russian forces in Avdiivka.

The Ukraine aid that House Republican leaders are blocking might actually be good for the US economy

Business Insider

The Ukraine aid that House Republican leaders are blocking might actually be good for the US economy

John L. Dorman – February 18, 2024

  • House GOP leaders are standing in the way of a Senate-backed $95 billion aid bill.
  • The bill would provide about $60 billion to Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia.
  • The legislation would also bolster the US economy, The Wall Street Journal reported.

House Speaker Mike Johnson is blocking a $95 billion emergency foreign aid bill, saying he’s in “no rush” to take up the legislation the Senate overwhelmingly approved last week.

The bill — opposed by many conservatives due to its exclusion of desired security measures at the US-Mexico border — would provide about $60 billion in badly needed aid for Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia’s nearly two-year-long invasion.

The legislation would also give $14.1 billion in military funding to Israel, $9.2 billion for humanitarian efforts in Gaza, and $8 billion for Taiwan and Indo-Pacific allies to deter Chinese aggression.

While supporters of the legislation say it’s needed urgently to help Ukraine, The Wall Street Journal also points out that the bill would benefit the US economy.

Over the past two years, the US defense industry has seen a surge in demand for weapons and munitions, with European countries looking to boost their military operations and the Pentagon purchasing new equipment, according to the Journal.

Officials in President Joe Biden’s administration said that 64% of the roughly $60 billion appropriated for Ukraine in the Senate-passed bill would reach the US defense industrial base, the Journal reported.

Lael Brainard, the director of the White House National Economic Council, told the Journal in a recent interview that the impact on the US economy would be significant.

“That’s one of the things that is misunderstood … how important that funding is for employment and production around the country,” she told the newspaper.

The Journal reported that the $95 billion in aid, in addition to money from previous packages, can “inject funds worth about 0.5% of one year’s gross domestic product into the US industrial defense base” in upcoming years.

It remains unclear when or if the House will take up the Senate bill. Former President Donald Trump also opposes it and is the likely GOP presidential nominee. Trump in recent weeks also helped tank a bipartisan bill that would have tightened the US asylum system, among other measures.

Stalled US aid for Ukraine underscores GOP’s shift away from confronting Russia

Associated Press

Stalled US aid for Ukraine underscores GOP’s shift away from confronting Russia

Nicholas Riccardiu – February 19, 2024

FILE - Smoke rises from a building in Bakhmut, site of the heaviest battles with the Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, April 26, 2023. The GOP has been softening its stance on Russia ever since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election following Russian hacking of his Democratic opponents. The reasons include Russian President Vladimir Putin holding himself out as an international champion of conservative Christian values, the GOP's growing skepticism of international entanglements and Trump's own personal embrace of the Russian leader. Now the GOP's ambivalence on Russia has stalled additional aid to Ukraine. (AP Photo/Libkos, File)
Smoke rises from a building in Bakhmut, site of the heaviest battles with the Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, April 26, 2023. The GOP has been softening its stance on Russia ever since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election following Russian hacking of his Democratic opponents. The reasons include Russian President Vladimir Putin holding himself out as an international champion of conservative Christian values, the GOP’s growing skepticism of international entanglements and Trump’s own personal embrace of the Russian leader. Now the GOP’s ambivalence on Russia has stalled additional aid to Ukraine. (AP Photo/Libkos, File)
FILE - Dead bodies are placed into a mass grave on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, March 9, 2022, as people cannot bury their dead because of the heavy shelling by Russian forces. The GOP has been softening its stance on Russia ever since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election following Russian hacking of his Democratic opponents. The reasons include Russian President Vladimir Putin holding himself out as an international champion of conservative Christian values, the GOP's growing skepticism of international entanglements and Trump's own personal embrace of the Russian leader. Now the GOP's ambivalence on Russia has stalled additional aid to Ukraine. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File)
Dead bodies are placed into a mass grave on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, March 9, 2022, as people cannot bury their dead because of the heavy shelling by Russian forces. The GOP has been softening its stance on Russia ever since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election following Russian hacking of his Democratic opponents. The reasons include Russian President Vladimir Putin holding himself out as an international champion of conservative Christian values, the GOP’s growing skepticism of international entanglements and Trump’s own personal embrace of the Russian leader. Now the GOP’s ambivalence on Russia has stalled additional aid to Ukraine. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka, File)
FILE - Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., meets with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 14, 2024. The GOP has been softening its stance on Russia ever since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election following Russian hacking of his Democratic opponents. The reasons include Russian President Vladimir Putin holding himself out as an international champion of conservative Christian values, the GOP's growing skepticism of international entanglements and Trump's own personal embrace of the Russian leader. Now the GOP's ambivalence on Russia has stalled additional aid to Ukraine. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., meets with reporters at the Capitol in Washington, Feb. 14, 2024. The GOP has been softening its stance on Russia ever since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election following Russian hacking of his Democratic opponents. The reasons include Russian President Vladimir Putin holding himself out as an international champion of conservative Christian values, the GOP’s growing skepticism of international entanglements and Trump’s own personal embrace of the Russian leader. Now the GOP’s ambivalence on Russia has stalled additional aid to Ukraine. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
In this photo released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, Two soldiers of the Russian military engineering units eliminate the mine danger in the city of Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine. Russian forces have taken complete control of the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
In this photo released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, Two soldiers of the Russian military engineering units eliminate the mine danger in the city of Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine. Russian forces have taken complete control of the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)
FILE - A resident looks for belongings in an apartment building destroyed during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Borodyanka, Ukraine, April 5, 2022. The GOP has been softening its stance on Russia ever since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election following Russian hacking of his Democratic opponents. The reasons include Russian President Vladimir Putin holding himself out as an international champion of conservative Christian values, the GOP's growing skepticism of international entanglements and Trump's own personal embrace of the Russian leader. Now the GOP's ambivalence on Russia has stalled additional aid to Ukraine. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)
A resident looks for belongings in an apartment building destroyed during fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Borodyanka, Ukraine, April 5, 2022. The GOP has been softening its stance on Russia ever since Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election following Russian hacking of his Democratic opponents. The reasons include Russian President Vladimir Putin holding himself out as an international champion of conservative Christian values, the GOP’s growing skepticism of international entanglements and Trump’s own personal embrace of the Russian leader. Now the GOP’s ambivalence on Russia has stalled additional aid to Ukraine. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

At about 2 a.m. last Tuesday, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin stood on the Senate floor and explained why he opposed sending more aid to help Ukraine fend off the invasion launched in 2022 by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I don’t like this reality,” Johnson said. “Vladimir Putin is an evil war criminal.” But he quickly added: “Vladimir Putin will not lose this war.”

That argument — that the Russian president cannot be stopped so there’s no point in using American taxpayer dollars against him — marks a new stage in the Republican Party’s growing acceptance of Russian expansionism in the age of Donald Trump.

The GOP has been softening its stance on Russia ever since Trump won the 2016 election following Russian hacking of his Democratic opponents. There are several reasons for the shift. Among them, Putin is holding himself out as an international champion of conservative Christian values and the GOP is growing increasingly skeptical of overseas entanglements. Then there’s Trump’s personal embrace of the Russian leader.

Now the GOP’s ambivalence on Russia has stalled additional aid to Ukraine at a pivotal time in the war.

The Senate last week passed a foreign aid package that included $61 billion for Ukraine on a 70-29 vote, but Johnson was one of a majority of the Republicans to vote against the bill after their late-night stand to block it. In the Republican-controlled House, Speaker Mike Johnson said his chamber will not be “rushed” to pass the measure, even as Ukraine’s military warns of dire shortages of ammunition and artillery.

Many Republicans are openly frustrated that their colleagues don’t see the benefits of helping Ukraine. Putin and his allies have banked on democracies wearying of aiding Kyiv, and Putin’s GOP critics warn that NATO countries in eastern Europe could become targets of an emboldened Russia that believes the U.S. won’t counter it.

“Putin is losing,” Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said on the floor before Johnson’s speech. “This is not a stalemate.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky was one of 22 Republican senators to back the package, while 26 opposed it.

The divide within the party was on stark display Friday with the prison death of Russian opposition figure and anti-corruption advocate Alexei Navalny, which President Joe Biden and other world leaders blamed on Putin. Trump notably stood aside from that chorus Monday in his first public comment on the matter that referred to Navalny by name.

Offering no sympathy or attempt to affix blame, Trump posted on Truth Social that the “sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our Country. It is a slow, steady progression, with CROOKED, Radical Left Politicians, Prosecutors, and Judges leading us down a path to destruction.”

Nikki Haley, his Republican presidential primary rival, said Monday that Trump is “siding with a thug” in his embrace of Putin.

Tillis responded to Navalny’s death by saying in a post, “History will not be kind to those in America who make apologies for Putin and praise Russian autocracy.”

Johnson, the House speaker, issued a statement calling Putin a “vicious dictator” and pledging that he “will be met with united opposition,” but he did not offer any way forward for passing the aid to Ukraine.

Within the Republican Party, skeptics of confronting Russia seem to be gaining ground.

“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” Missouri Sen. Eric Schmitt, elected in 2022, posted on the social media site X after the vote last week. “15 out of 17 elected since 2018 voted NO. Things are changing just not fast enough.”

Those who oppose additional Ukraine aid bristle at charges that they are doing Putin’s handiwork. They contend they are taking a hard-headed look at whether it’s worth spending money to help the country.

“If you oppose a blank check to another country, I guess that makes you a Russian,” Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville said on the Senate floor, after posting that conservative commentator Tucker Carlson’s recent controversial interview of Putin shows that “Russia wants peace” in contrast to “DC warmongers.”

Rep. Matt Gaetz, a leading opponent of Ukraine aid in the House, described the movement as “a generational shift in my party away from neoconservatism toward foreign policy realism.”

In interviews with voters waiting to see Trump speak Saturday night in Waterford Township, Michigan, none praised Putin. But none wanted to spend more money confronting him, trusting Trump to handle the Russian leader.

Even before Trump, Republican voters were signaling discontent with overseas conflicts, said Douglas Kriner, a political scientist at Cornell University. That’s one reason Trump’s 2016 promise to avoid “stupid wars” resonated.

“Some of it may be a bottom-up change in a key part of the Republican base,” Kriner said, “and part of it reflects Trump’s hold on that base and his ability to sway its opinions and policy preferences in dramatic ways.”

Trump has long praised Putin, calling his invasion of Ukraine “smart” and “savvy,” and recalling this month that he had told NATO members who didn’t spend enough on defense that he would “encourage” Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to them. He reiterated that threat days later.

Despite the reluctance within the GOP to continue supporting Ukraine, Russia remains deeply unpopular in the U.S. A July 2023 Gallup poll found that just 5% had a favorable view of Putin, including 7% of Republicans.

But Putin has positioned his country as a symbol of Christian conservatism and resistance to LGBTQ rights, while portraying himself as an embodiment of masculine strength. The combination has appealed to populist conservatives across the Western world. Putin’s appeal in some sectors of the right is demonstrated by Carlson’s recent tour of Russia, after which the conservative host posted videos admiring the Moscow subway and a supermarket that he says “would radicalize you against our leaders.”

“The goal of the Soviet Union was to be the beacon of left ideas,” said Olga Kamenchuk, a professor at Northwestern University. “Russia is now the beacon of conservative ideas.”

Kamenchuk said this is most visible not in Putin’s U.S. poll numbers, but in fading Republican support for Ukraine. About half of Republicans said the U.S. is providing “too much” support to Ukraine when it comes to Russia’s invasion, according to a Pew Research poll in December. That’s up from 9% in a Pew poll taken in March 2022, just weeks after Russia invaded.

When Putin attacked Ukraine, there was bipartisan condemnation. Even a year ago, most Republicans in Congress pledged support. But around the same time, Trump was lamenting that U.S. leaders were “suckers” for sending aid.

By the fall, the party was divided. Republicans refused to include another round of Ukraine funding in the government spending bill, insisting that Democrats needed to include a border security measure to earn their support.

After Trump condemned the compromise border proposal, Republicans sank the bill, leaving Ukraine backers no option but to push the assistance as part of a foreign aid package with additional money for Israel and Taiwan.

Several experts on Russia note that the rhetoric the GOP uses against Ukraine aid can mirror Putin’s own — that Ukraine is corrupt and will waste the money, that the U.S. can’t afford to look beyond its borders and that Russia’s victory is inevitable.

“He’s trying to create the perception that he’s never going to be beaten, so don’t even try,” Henry Hale, a George Washington University political scientist, said of Putin.

Skeptics of Ukraine aid argue the war has already decimated the Russian military and that Putin won’t be able to target other European countries.

“Russia has shown in the last two years that they do not have the ability to march through Western Europe,” said Russell Vought, Trump’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget who is now president of the Center for Renewing America, which opposes additional Ukraine funding.

But several experts noted that Putin has alluded to plans to retake much of the former Soviet Union’s territory, which could include NATO countries such as Lithuania and Estonia that the U.S is obligated under its treaty to defend militarily.

Sergey Radchenko, a professor at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, noted that Russia for decades has hoped the U.S would lose interest in protecting Europe: “This was Stalin’s dream, that the U.S. would just retreat to the Western hemisphere.”

Associated Press writers Joey Cappelletti in Waterford Township, Michigan, and Mary Clare Jalonick and Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.