In Ukraine’s old imperial city, pastel palaces are in jeopardy, but black humor survives

Los Angeles Times

In Ukraine’s old imperial city, pastel palaces are in jeopardy, but black humor survives

Laura King – April 21, 2024

Church personnel inspect damages inside the Odesa Transfiguration Cathedral in Odesa, Ukraine, Sunday, July 23, 2023, following Russian missile attacks. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Church personnel inspect damage from Russian missile attacks at the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odesa, Ukraine. The cathedral is in the historic city center, a UNESCO-designated site. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

On a cool spring morning, as water-washed light bathed pastel palaces in the old imperial city of Odesa, the thunder of yet another Russian missile strike filled the air.

That March 6 blast came within a few hundred yards of a convoy carrying Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who was touring the country’s principal shipyard with the visiting Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotaki.

It was a close call, but Ukrainian officials said that in all likelihood the two leaders were not the target. Like so many other strikes during what Ukrainians call the “big war” — ignited by Russia’s all-out invasion in February 2022 — the attack was aimed at Odesa’s port, a strategic prize of centuries’ standing.

The Black Sea harbor and its docklands — Ukraine’s commercial lifeline and a prime military asset — have been the object of intensifying Russian drone and missile attacks in recent weeks, as Ukraine’s dwindling air defenses leave critical infrastructure vulnerable across the country.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis walk near trees in Odesa, Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, center left, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, center right, walk in Odesa, Ukraine, on March 6. The sound of a Russian airstrike a few hundred yards away reverberated around the port city as they ended their tour. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

In Odesa, the deadly campaign of airstrikes has brought sharply renewed peril to nearly a million inhabitants of one of Ukraine’s most eclectic and cosmopolitan cities, known in equal measures for its people’s mordancy and joie de vivre. And it poses a heightened threat to a world-renowned cultural treasure: the jewel-box grid of streets making up Odesa’s UNESCO-designated historic center, which abuts the port.

Read more: Ukrainians contemplate the once unthinkable: Losing the war with Russia

After a string of attacks on Odesa and its environs, those who watch over the city’s landmark structures are braced for the worst. On many ornate facades in the city center, full-length windows topped with curlicued pediments are boarded over. Inside, as periodic power cuts permit, workers sweep up shattered masonry and painstakingly restore ruined grand staircases.

“It’s very, very difficult work to safeguard these beautiful old buildings,” said Oleksei Duryagin, who heads a firefighting team that works out of a headquarters dating back to the city’s days of horse-drawn fire wagons. “Whenever they try to hit the port, which is what they try to hit, everything here is in danger.”

Because of the building materials used — wood, flammable insulation within the walls — the 19th century buildings that line Odesa’s cobblestone, tree-lined central streets are especially susceptible to fire or collapse. First responders undergo special training in how to fight blazes in structures like Odesa’s sumptuous opera house, perched on a promontory above the seafront.

“From basement to ceiling, I know these buildings like my old friends,” said Duryagin, 52, who has more than three decades of firefighting experience. “I know their mysteries.”

Falling debris from airborne interceptions, rather than direct drone or missile strikes, has caused some of the most serious destruction. Some sites, like the city’s Fine Arts Museum, which is housed in a reconstructed palace, were hit again before they could be cleaned up after an initial attack.

The boarded-up windows on Odesa's Museum of Western and Eastern Art.
The windows on Odesa’s Museum of Western and Eastern Art are boarded up as Russian forces continue to target the port city. (Laura King / Los Angeles Times)

Early in the war, the museum whisked most of its art treasures into hiding. Some display areas are closed off for repairs, and big niches that once held priceless artworks are starkly blank. But the museum remains open to culture-hungry visitors, who must periodically be hustled into its underground shelter when air alerts sound.

Most of the exhibits now have a somber martial theme, including a striking collection of botanical watercolors by a 48-year-old Ukrainian army captain, Borys Eisenberg, an artist and landscape architect who volunteered on the first day of Russia’s invasion and was killed last year on the front lines. His delicate, violet-veined works on paper are mounted on the wooden lids of ammunition boxes.

“You can see that even looking out from the trenches, he found beauty,” said Irina Kulabina, 66, a retired engineer who helps out at the museum. “It’s really important. We should believe in life more than death.”

At Odesa’s Transfiguration Cathedral, the city’s largest Orthodox Christian church, a young priest named Father Alexei gazed out at blue sky through a gaping hole punched in an outer wall during a missile attack last July. He wondered aloud if fresh attacks would outpace rebuilding.

Rubble lies on the floor and walls are charred and blackened inside Odesa's Transfiguration Cathedral.
The blackened interior of the Transfiguration Cathedral in Odesa. (Laura King / Los Angeles Times)

“We just don’t know what else is to come,” said the 28-year-old cleric, who came to Odesa as a refugee from a front-line town in the eastern province of Luhansk.

While repairs slowly progress, services are held in a cavernous, basement-level secondary space, lighted only by flickering candles and lanterns whenever the electricity goes out. After the July strike, congregants converged on the landmark church, helping to gather artifacts scattered by the blast.

Read more: After an artist’s studio was damaged in a Russian missile strike, he found a new medium: war debris

“It was really shocking for everyone,” said Father Alexei. Zelensky said at the time that hitting the cathedral amounted to targeting “the foundations of our entire European culture.”

Last month was a particularly deadly one for the city and its outskirts.

March 2 drone attack wrecked a nine-story building, killing a dozen people. Five more perished in the strike four days later that narrowly missed Zelensky and the Greek leader. A missile and drone barrage on March 15 left 21 dead, including a paramedic killed in a dreaded “double tap,” in which first responders are targeted, seemingly deliberately, by strikes aimed at the same site a few moments apart to give rescuers time to arrive.

Buildings are seen through a damaged greenhouse roof.
The roof of a greenhouse damaged by a Russian missile attack in the botanical garden of Odesa I.I. Mechnikov National University. (Future Publishing via Getty Images)

More recently, on April 10, six people, including a 10-year-old girl, were killed in a strike on an outlying district of Odesa. That attack came on the 80th anniversary of Odesa’s liberation from Nazi forces during World War II.

The Odesa port and two others on the nearby seacoast have been a particular target of Russian wrath for the last eight months, since Ukraine managed to open a coast-hugging 350-mile Black Sea grain corridor to the Bosporus strait.

At the war’s outset, world grain prices jumped as Ukraine exports slumped, causing hardship in some of the world’s most impoverished countries. Now, though, almost 40 million tons of cargo have been shipped since August 2023, port officials said.

“Sometimes we spend all night in a shelter, then take a coffee and go straight to work — this is our reality,” said Dmytro Barinov, the deputy head of the state-owned Ukrainian Sea Ports Authority. “We feel responsibility not only for the Ukraine economy, to our farmers, but to the whole world that relies on our grain exports.”

As attacks continue and the overall war outlook grows grimmer, the city veers between a sense of relative safety and an acute awareness of peril.

Central cafes are full, and people linger at ice cream stands on the promenade. In flat green fields less than half an hour to the east, though, crews scatter pyramid-shaped reinforced cement antitank obstacles known as “dragon’s teeth.”

An ice cream stand on a public promenade
An ice cream stand on the promenade near the Potemkin Stairs, Odesa’s most famous landmark. Disused “tank traps” on the corner of a main boulevard in Odesa’s center. Laura King / Los Angeles Times

Odessa’s most famous landmark, the Potemkin Stairs — best known for the harrowing tumbling-baby-carriage scene in the 1925 film “Battleship Potemkin” — are topped with a roll of barbed wire. But a military checkpoint a few blocks away has been removed, and pedestrians can draw close enough to gaze down the 192 steps leading to the seafront.

The source of the city’s splendor is now the principal cause of its jeopardy. Odesa’s free port status financed its extraordinary architectural flowering in the 1800s and helped build its vibrant multiethnic society.

Russian warships have been driven back from Ukraine’s Black Sea coast — “when the big war started, we could see them from our palaces,” said naval spokesman Dytro Pletenchuk — but only 150 nautical miles to the east-southeast lies the Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula, from which many strikes are launched.

At that range, there is little time for people in Odesa to get to shelter once missiles are in the air.

Read more: In a storied Ukrainian city, a dance with wartime destiny

Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and its fomenting of a separatist conflict in Ukraine’s east were a precursor to the current invasion. Many here harbor ardent hopes of someday recapturing the peninsula, and are heartened by Ukrainian strikes on Russian forces there, including a damaging attack Wednesday on a large Russian airfield.

At the National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater — where April offerings include the ballet “Giselle” and Verdi’s opera “Nabucco” — the show goes on, as it has almost continuously since the start of the conflict. The neo-Baroque opera house is no longer sandbagged, but the war still feels ever present.

Odesa's opera house, formerly protected with sandbags.
Odesa’s opera house, formerly protected with sandbags. Performances and rehearsals are often interrupted by air alerts. (Laura King / Los Angeles Times)

“After night bombings come the most difficult days: Actors, singers and dancers are just physically tired, and it’s hard to deliver the emotional spectrum in their performances,” said Oksana Ternenko, 50, a stage director.

“Sometimes it’s like a theater of the absurd,” she said. “We are starting to rehearse, and a singer is showing photos on the phone: ‘Look, here’s a piece of my house that fell on my car.’ ”

Despite all, Odesa maintains an irrepressible offbeat humor.

A man dances on a brick path as musicians play.
A man dances during the Festival of Humor, which has been taking place in Odesa on and around April Fools’ Day since 1973. (Nina Liashonok / Getty Images)

“My parents and I, we’re very happy that Granny is deaf, so the explosions don’t scare her,” said 14-year-old Alina Kulik, who lives in an outlying district that has been hit repeatedly.

“Right now, we’re in a place that’s a little dangerous,” said her 15-year-old friend Anastasia Jelonkina, as the two girls perched on a promenade bench overlooking the seaport. “We know that. But here we are!”

Odesa’s beaches, beloved by tourists before the war and by locals all along, are full again as spring temperatures rise. During much of the last two years, danger from mines and debris from destruction of a massive dam on the Dnipro River kept the shoreline largely closed.

Sunbathers flock to an Odesa city beach.
Sunbathers flock to an Odesa city beach. De-mining efforts allowed the reopening of the seashore. (Laura King / Los Angeles Times)

But intensive de-mining efforts have rendered the sea off Odesa relatively safe for swimming again, and a tousle-haired Irina Khosovana, a 62-year-old doctor who is a fifth-generation Odesan, said nothing — not even periodic air alerts — could keep her away.

“The sea is our comfort,” she said, gesturing toward the blue expanse. “Coming here is as important as life.”

A largely Russian-speaking city at the start of the war, Odesa still has deep cultural roots in common with the enemy now battering its shores. The poet Pushkin is still revered, with a grand boulevard named for him and a big statue taking pride of place in front of the city council building.

But another prominent piece of statuary near the opera house was deemed a symbol of colonialist oppression — that of the Russian empress known as Catherine the Great. Her likeness, hauled down in the war’s first year, is now boxed up in a black lean-to outside the damaged art museum.

Atop the empty plinth where the statue once stood flies a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag.

Has Russian Propaganda “Infected” Republicans? The Truth Is More Sinister.

Slate

Has Russian Propaganda “Infected” Republicans? The Truth Is More Sinister.

Molly Olmstead – April 20, 2024

Earlier this month, Republican Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the head of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Puck News that Russian propaganda had “infected a good chunk of my party’s base.” Several days later, another Republican, Rep. Michael Turner of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he agreed. “Anti-Ukraine and pro-Russia messages, some of which we even hear being uttered on the House floor,” Turner told CNN, are “directly coming from Russia.”

It was a notable moment—and a telling one, as the House gets ready for a contentious vote on aid to Ukraine. The vote is being loudly protested by far-right politicians including Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is pushing to oust House Speaker Mike Johnson from his role over the issue.

It’s not the first time Republican lawmakers have accused their colleagues of essentially being Russian pawns. But as far-right rabble-rousers in the Republican Party have increasingly advocated against continued support of Ukraine—and even some mainstream Republicans no longer interpret Russian aggression as a ruthless threat to democracy and the international order—the most extreme lawmakers appear to be mirroring the Kremlin’s own propaganda.

Last Monday, Greene told Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast that Ukraine was waging a “war against Christianity” and Russians “seem to be protecting” the religion. The idea of Russia as a great (white) Christian nation has been percolating in right-wing thinking for more than a decade, despite Russia’s history of suppressing non-Orthodox Christianity and exerting power over the Russian Orthodox Church.

But Greene didn’t limit herself to praising Russia’s religious nationalism on Bannon’s show: She cited, as fact, anti-Ukraine disinformation that “the Ukrainian government is attacking Christians” and “executing priests.” This prompted former Rep. Ken Buck, another Republican, to call Greene “Moscow Marjorie” on CNN.

And indeed, this assertion does mirror Russia’s own talking points about Ukraine. (In actuality, the crimes Greene accused Ukraine of committing are crimes Russian forces have perpetrated.) But whether the Kremlin’s own talking points are being piped into the brains of right-wing American politicians—or just bear a striking similarity to the new isolationist rhetoric of the far right—is a matter of interesting debate.

Russian propaganda operations have evolved somewhat from the infamous social media campaigns that influenced the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Take the case of a false narrative about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky using U.S. aid money to buy himself two yachts. This rumor—which is demonstrably false, given that the ownership of ships can be easily tracked—has been swirling in right-wing social media circles for months and popping up in American politicians’ talking points. It’s such an effective fabrication that North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis told CNN in December that the debate over aid to Ukraine had been halted on the Hill in part because some lawmakers were concerned that “people will buy yachts with this money.”

But where did that idea come from? According to the BBC, the assertion that Zelensky had purchased two luxury yachts with U.S. aid money originated in November on a YouTube channel with just a handful of followers. The day after the video was posted, a site called DC Weekly published the claim as news, and that report was then picked up by other websites.

DC Weekly is not some kind of alternative newspaper or community blog; Clemson University researchers Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren argued in a report in December that the website was likely created to share fake news created by Russian state actors. The site is populated with A.I. content, has clearly fake authors, and has been partially hosted on a server in Moscow.

Russian disinformation that is packaged as news, Linvill said in a phone interview, often follows a similar pattern of dissemination. “I would bet my retirement on the fact that the Russians create the videos, plant the videos, write the stories, plant the stories, and distribute the stories,” Linvill wrote in an email.

“It’s the logic of the thing,” he said, “but also the fact that it happens repeatedly.” He pointed to a dozen other instances of disinformation narratives that started as assertions in obscure YouTube videos and were then picked up by publications with similarly legitimate-sounding names.

From 2016 through 2020, Linvill said, Russian propagandists focused on creating social media accounts to promote divisive ideas within the existing American discourse. That is still happening. But today, Linvill said, resources are more likely to be directed toward creating entire fake platforms, including websites that look like news sites. The stories tend to be sensationalized in a way that encourages organic sharing.

According to the Washington Post, Kremlin materials “obtained by a European intelligence service” show Moscow-linked strategists also stoke division in the U.S. by amplifying stories based in reality—including about migrants overwhelming the border, poverty and inflation, and reasons not to trust mainstream media.

But the story of the yacht shows how a fabricated rumor, likely originating in Russia, can start circulating in American politics. On Bannon’s War Room in December, Sen. J.D. Vance said, of his fellow politicians, “there are people who would cut Social Security, throw our grandparents into poverty, why? So that one of Zelensky’s ministers can buy a bigger yacht?”

The yacht story had a specific origin, but the growing anti-Ukraine sentiment among right-wing circles is harder to trace. After years of warfare and many millions of dollars in American aid, it makes sense that American enthusiasm for the Ukrainian cause might organically ebb.

And there is one man whose personal grudge against Ukraine could also cause Republicans to sour on a U.S. ally: Donald Trump.

“When American journalists and congresspeople use Russian talking points, they’re quoting Trump,” said Sarah Oates, a professor who studies disinformation and propaganda at the University of Maryland. “They are broadcasting Russian propaganda, but the conduit is Trump.”

Trump has several reasons to dismiss Russia’s threat to the international order. For starters, he openly admires authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin and has shown an interest in modeling himself after them. More importantly, the association of his 2016 election with Russian election-meddling caused some on the left to question the legitimacy of his victory.

For legitimacy reasons, then, Republicans have an incentive to downplay the potency of Russian propaganda. Not to mention: The basis of much of the Republican Party’s attacks on President Biden relies on a misleading assertion that his son Hunter Biden colluded with corrupt Ukrainian officials. Portraying Ukraine as a corruption-riddled country bolsters right-wing conspiracy theories about Biden’s family.

In other words, shared talking points between Republicans and the Russian propaganda machine don’t necessarily mean Russia is effective in seeding its influence; it’s a mutually beneficial swirl of conspiracy theories. “I think this is just a highly useful convergence of goals for Putin and Trump,” Oates said.

“Trump does not care; he literally is not thinking about it,” Oates said, referring to the possibility that many of Trump’s talking points could come from Russia. “His calculus is, ‘How can I win?’ ”

Because it’s quite possible that Americans who want the U.S. to abandon Ukraine may have arrived at that opinion on their own, Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins, has warned against giving the Russians too much credit for swaying American public opinion.

Rid’s argument is: We shouldn’t help Russian strategists by assuming they’ve succeeded. Russia wants to undermine Americans’ trust in our systems and in our democracy. Believing that another country has the capability to, say, sway an election, serves that goal. “If we exaggerate the impact, we make the operations more successful than they would be otherwise,” he said, “and undermine trust in our own democracy, which is the goal of this game.”

It’s important, he argued, not to blame misinformation, isolationism, and other factors that led to changing views of the war on external actors alone. Americans, Rid said, are “perfectly capable of coming up with crazy ideas.”

Take Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s claim about why Putin needed to invade Ukraine. Speaking to a right-wing Alabama website, Tuberville said: “It’s a communist country, so he can’t feed his people, so they need more farmland.”

The claim—coming from a man who couldn’t name the three branches of American government and who thought World War II was fought over socialism—seems to be pure, homegrown nonsense.

“It’s blaming our own problems on others,” Rid said. “That’s the problem I find worrying.”

To be clear, Russian propaganda should be taken seriously: The country’s plans for deepening existing societal conflicts in the U.S. are not a secret. Given the various motivations at play and the inherent vagaries of how information and belief travel, though, it’s hard to know just how much the Republican Party has been “infected” by Russian propaganda, as Rep. McCaul put it.

What we can say with certainty is that there’s an alliance of interests. In his bizarre interview with Tucker Carlson in February, Putin laid out his several invented justifications for the invasion and said that he was interested in “peace.” The next day, Tuberville said he opposed sending aid to Ukraine because the Carlson interview “shows that Russia is open to a peace agreement.”

In her work, Oates found that researchers often couldn’t tell the difference between media pulled from Fox News and Russia Today, a Russian news network and propaganda arm; “identical” talking points don’t mean Russia is pulling the strings.

But there is still something to be gleaned from the coherence between Republicans and Russian strategists—and it’s probably a warning about our own news-media ecosystems. Rep. McCaul seemed to note this, telling Puck News that he saw “nighttime entertainment shows” in the U.S airing content that was “almost identical” to what was playing on Russian state TV.

US can send fresh weapons to Ukraine ‘within days’

The Telegraph

US can send fresh weapons to Ukraine ‘within days’

Tony Diver – April 20, 2024

Speaker Mike Johnson talks to reporters after the House voted to approve the aid to Ukraine
Speaker Mike Johnson talks to reporters after the House voted to approve the aid to Ukraine – J. Scott Applewhite/AP

US weapons could be sent to Ukraine within days, after the House of Representatives voted to approve more than $60 billion (£48.5 billion) in military aid.

Kyiv’s army has resorted to increasingly desperate measures amid dwindling supplies of key missiles and relentless Russian bombardment that has translated into frontline advances.

Some troops have had to rely on civil society donations of items like drones or have started using decoy air defence systems to draw away enemy fire.

The Pentagon has already moved stockpiles of the most-needed arms closer to Ukraine’s borders in anticipation of the bill passing so that they could be sent to Kyiv at short notice.

Joe Biden’s “supplemental” bill on foreign aid funding has been held up for months in Congress amid opposition from Republicans.

Joe Biden's "supplemental" bill on foreign aid funding has been held up for months
Joe Biden’s “supplemental” bill on foreign aid funding has been held up for months – Alex Brandon/AP

On Saturday night the House voted to approve the package, sending it on to the Senate, where it is expected to pass early this week.

Chuck Shumer, the Democrat majority leader in the Senate, has suggested it could be approved as early as Tuesday. Mr Biden has said he will sign the bill as soon as it reaches his desk.

The aid package replenishes a Pentagon budget that can be accessed by Mr Biden through the Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA), a power used for foreign aid purchases.

It allows the White House to send existing US military stockpiles to another country. More than $40 billion worth of equipment has been sent to Ukraine using this method since the start of the war in February 2022.

Maj Gen Pat Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said this week that the US had already moved weapons closer to Ukraine in the hope the bill would pass, allowing them to be moved more quickly.

“We have a very robust logistics network that enables us to move material very quickly,” he said. “We can move within days.”

The main aid requests from Ukraine to other allies in recent months have been for air defence missiles to protect the country’s cities from Russian attacks, and shells to use on the front lines in the East.

Ukraine's front line has been feeling the strain
Ukraine’s front line has been feeling the strain – ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP

The next package is likely to include ATACMS missiles, which have already been sent in limited quantities to the front line, and Patriot missiles for Ukraine’s air defence systems.

The most recent round of aid, which was drawn from savings in the existing Pentagon budget, included munitions for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS).

The US stores some 155 million howitzer rounds in Europe, and could send them to Ukraine within days.

The global supply of rounds began to fall in recent months after the US budget for Ukraine aid dwindled and European manufacturers were unable to keep up with demand.

William Burns, the director of the CIA, has said that without speedy assistance from the US, Ukraine could lose the war against Russia this year.

Despite initial plans for a spring offensive this year, Ukraine has resorted to defending its existing front lines against Russian troops, without the weapons or personnel to launch a new push into Crimea.

The military draft in Ukraine was this week lowered to include men aged over 25, from its previous level of 27.

As the war in Ukraine has progressed, the US has agreed to send increasingly expensive military systems to Kyiv, including the Abrams tank.

An Abrams tank in Ukraine
An Abrams tank, which have been provided by the US, in Ukraine – X

Russia has also stepped up its defence procurement since February 2022, and has received drones from Iran and missile technology from China, according to US officials.

The Pentagon hopes that the package approved in the House on Saturday will be enough to meet America’s defence commitments to Ukraine until the presidential election, which will be held in November.

Republican efforts to stall the aid ramped up in recent months amid pressure from Donald Trump, the GOP’s nominee, who has opposed further spending and promised to end the war “in one day” if he wins the election.

Despite Mr Zelensky’s requests for advanced fighter jets from the US, planes are unlikely to be approved from the US.

Last year, Mr Biden approved some F-16 fighter jets to be sent to Ukraine from Denmark, under a rule that allows the US government to determine which countries can use planes that American manufacturers have produced.

The Pentagon has also agreed to train Ukrainian pilots to fly the planes, including at the Morris Air Force Base in Arizona.

MAGA Republican’s in congress are to blame: Russia pummels exhausted Ukrainian forces with smaller attacks ahead of a springtime advance

Associated Press

Russia pummels exhausted Ukrainian forces with smaller attacks ahead of a springtime advance

The Associated Press – April 19, 2024

FILE – A Su-25 plane is seen firing rockets over Ukraine in a video frame grab. The video was taken from inside another Su-25 plane and released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Jan. 22, 2024. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)
A Su-25 plane is seen firing rockets over Ukraine in a video frame grab. The video was taken from inside another Su-25 plane and released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Jan. 22, 2024. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)
FILE - A Ukrainian officer with the 56th Separate Motorized Infantry Mariupol Brigade fires rockets from a pickup truck at Russian positions on the front line near Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donetsk region on March 5, 2024. The outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainian troops are struggling to halt Russian advances as a new U.S. aid package is stuck in Congress. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
A Ukrainian officer with the 56th Separate Motorized Infantry Mariupol Brigade fires rockets from a pickup truck at Russian positions on the front line near Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donetsk region on March 5, 2024. The outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainian troops are struggling to halt Russian advances as a new U.S. aid package is stuck in Congress. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
FILE – This frame grab from video released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Feb. 20, 2024, shows one of its Su-25 ground attack jets firing rockets during a mission over Ukraine. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)
This frame grab from video released by the Russian Defense Ministry on Feb. 20, 2024, shows one of its Su-25 ground attack jets firing rockets during a mission over Ukraine. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP, File)
FILE - Ukrainian servicemen with the 28th Separate Mechanized Brigade fire a mortar at Russian forces on the front line near the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, on March 3, 2024. The outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainian troops are struggling to halt Russian advances as a new U.S. aid package is stuck in Congress. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
Ukrainian servicemen with the 28th Separate Mechanized Brigade fire a mortar at Russian forces on the front line near the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, on March 3, 2024. The outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainian troops are struggling to halt Russian advances as a new U.S. aid package is stuck in Congress. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
FILE - Ukrainian soldiers carry shells to fire at Russian positions on the front line, near the city of Bakhmut, in Ukraine's Donetsk region, on March 25, 2024. The outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainian troops are struggling to halt Russian advances as a new U.S. aid package is stuck in Congress. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
Ukrainian soldiers carry shells to fire at Russian positions on the front line, near the city of Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, on March 25, 2024. 
FILE - Ukrainian soldiers with the 22nd Mechanized Brigade prepare to launch the Poseidon H10 Middle-range drone near the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donetsk region on March 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)
Ukrainian soldiers with the 22nd Mechanized Brigade prepare to launch the Poseidon H10 Middle-range drone near the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donetsk region on March 26, 2024. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

Russian troops are ramping up presure on exhausted Ukrainian forces to prepare to seize more land this spring and summer as muddy fields dry out and allow tanks, armored vehicles and other heavy equipment to roll to key positions across the countryside.

With the war in Ukraine now in its third year and a vital U.S. aid package for Kyiv slowed down in Congress, Russia has increasingly used satellite-guided gliding bombs — which allow planes to drop them from a safe distance — to pummel Ukrainian forces beset by a shortage of troops and ammunition.

Despite Moscow’s advantage in firepower and personnel, a massive ground offensive would be risky and — Russian military bloggers other experts say — unnecessary if Russia can stick to smaller attacks across the front line to further drain the Ukraine military.

“It’s potentially a slippery slope where you get like a death by a thousand cuts or essentially death by a thousand localized offensives,” Michael Kofman, a military expert with the Carnegie Endowment, said in a recent podcast to describe the Russian tactic. If the Russians stick to their multiple pushes across the front, he said, “eventually they may find more and more open terrain.”

Last summer’s counteroffensive by Ukraine was doomed when advancing Ukrainian units got trapped on vast Russian minefields and massacred by artillery and drones. The Russians have no reason to make that same mistake.

UKRAINIAN FORCES EXPOSED

Last November, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordered his forces to build trenches, fortifications and bunkers behind the more than 1,000-kilometer front line, but analysts say construction work moved slowly, leaving areas unprotected.

“If the defensive lines had been built in advance, the Ukrainians wouldn’t have retreated in such a way,” Ukrainian military expert Oleh Zhdanov said. “We should have been digging trenches through the fall and it would have stemmed Russian advances. Now everything is exposed, making it very dangerous.”

In a recent podcast, Kofman also said that Kyiv is “quite behind on effectively entrenching across the front” and “Ukraine does not have good secondary lines.”

After capturing the Ukrainian stronghold of Avdiivka, Russian troops are zeroing in on the hill town of Chasiv Yar, which would allow them to move toward Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, key cities in the Kyiv-controlled part of the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. Russia illegally annexed Donetsk and three other regions in 2022, and the Kremlin sees fully controlling that region as a priority.

Zhdanov said Ukraine doesn’t have the firepower to repel Russian attacks.

“They promised to have a defensive line 10 kilometers (6 miles) behind Avdiivka where our troops could get and dig in, but there is none,” he said.

Gen. Christopher Cavoli, head of U.S. European Command, sounded the alarm before Congress last week, warning that Ukraine will be outgunned 10 to one by Russia in a matter of weeks if Congress does not approve more military aid.

IN RUSSIA’S SIGHTS

After securing another term in a preordained election in March, President Vladimir Putin vowed to carve out a “sanitary zone” to protect Russia’s border regions from Ukrainian shelling and incursions.

Putin didn’t give any specifics, but Russian military bloggers and security analysts said that along with a slow push across the Donetsk region, Moscow could also try to capture Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, which Russia tried and failed to take in the opening days of the war.

In a possible sign of a looming attack on Kharkiv, a city of 1.1 million about 30 kilometers (some 20 miles) south of the border, Russia has ramped up strikes on power plants in the area, inflicting significant damage and causing blackouts.

Ukraine doesn’t have enough air defense to protect Kharkiv and other cities, and the constant Russian strikes are part of Moscow’s strategy to “suffocate” it by destroying its infrastructure and forcing its residents to leave, Zhdanov said.

Retired Lt. Gen. Andrei Gurulev, now on the defense committee of Russia’s lower chamber of parliament, acknowledged that capturing Kharkiv is a major challenge, and he predicted the military would try to surround it.

“It can be enveloped and blockaded,” he said, adding that taking Kharkiv would open the way for a push deep into Ukraine and require more Russian troops.

After Putin’s order for “partial mobilization” of 300,000 reservists last fall proved so unpopular that hundreds of thousands fled abroad to avoid being drafted, the Kremlin tried a different approach: It promised relatively high wages and other benefits to beef up its forces with volunteer soldiers. The move appears to have paid off as Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the military recruited 540,000 volunteers in 2023.

“There are no plans for a new wave of mobilization,” Viktor Bondarev, deputy head of defense affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, said in remarks carried by state RIA Novosti news agency. “We are doing well with the combat capability that we have.”

Trump campaign and RNC pledge to unleash thousands to monitor vote counting in battleground states

CNN

Trump campaign and RNC pledge to unleash thousands to monitor vote counting in battleground states

Fredreka Schouten, CNN – April 19, 2024

The Trump campaign and Republican National Committee are pledging to deploy 100,000 volunteers and lawyers to monitor vote counting across battleground states this year – part of what officials describe as a stepped-up focus on “election integrity” by the national party.

Officials describe the program, detailed in a news release Friday and first reported by Politico, as the “most extensive and monumental election integrity program in the nation’s history,” and it underscores how much former President Donald Trump’s relentless focus on baseless election fraud claims from 2020 is shaping the party’s agenda.

As the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Trump now controls the RNC and recently installed a new chairman, Michael Whatley, and his daughter-in-law Lara Trump as party co-chair.

“Having the right people to count the ballots is just as important as turning out voters on Election Day,” Trump said in a statement. “Republicans are now working together to protect the vote and ensure a big win on November 5th!”

The RNC and the Trump campaign said they plan to recruit and train poll watchers, poll workers and attorneys to monitor not only voting sites but ballot-tabulation centers, including those where mail ballots are processed to guard against what they call “Democrat attempts to circumvent rules.”

The party said it plans to establish election integrity hotlines in each battleground state, allowing poll watchers and voters to report issues to the GOP’s legal team.

It’s not unusual for political parties and candidates to work to recruit and deploy lawyers and partisan poll watchers to protect their interests as voters cast their ballots and election officials tally the results.

But some Republican officials – even those who don’t subscribe to the falsehood that rampant election fraud led to Trump’s loss in 2020 – have argued that the GOP was outgunned by Democrats on the legal front during that election – as communities around the country eased voting rules to allow people to cast ballots safely during the pandemic.

In a statement, Charlie Spies, a veteran Republican election lawyer who is now serving as the RNC’s general counsel, said, “The Democrat tricks from 2020 won’t work this time.”

“In 2024, we’re going to beat the Democrats at their own game and the RNC legal team will be working tirelessly to ensure that election officials follow the rules in administering elections,” he said.

Spies promised aggressive legal action if officials deviate from established election procedures or “try to change them at the last minute.”

The new election monitoring program comes as the RNC has engaged in dozens of election-related lawsuits around the country.

With one letter, Trump turned the Republican Party into an extortion racket

USA Today – Opinion

With one letter, Trump turned the Republican Party into an extortion racket

Rex Huppke – April 18, 2024

I’d like to congratulate Donald Trump on the speed with which he’s turned the Republican Party into something resembling an extortion racket.

Aside from sinking his fangs into the Republican National Committee like a hungry bat on a plump Berkshire hog, the man spending his days in a Manhattan courtroom under criminal indictment is now looking to bleed cash out of down-ballot GOP campaigns.

In an April 15 letter, Trump’s campaign notified all Republican candidates that if they use the former president’s name, image or likeness on any campaign advertisements, they need to deliver at least 5% of the money they raise back to the aforementioned criminal defendant.

Former US President Donald Trump attends the second day of his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on April 16, 2024.
Former US President Donald Trump attends the second day of his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, at Manhattan Criminal Court in New York City on April 16, 2024.

You know, a little kickback for the boss man. Just enough to get Trump’s beak wet. Because, as has been made abundantly clear, the GOP is Trump and Trump is the GOP.

The Republican Party is now nothing but a Donald Trump piggy bank

He’s got his daughter-in-law Lara Trump in place at the top of the RNC pecking order, and she didn’t hold back detailing the committee’s singular focus: “Every single penny will go to the No. 1 and the only job of the RNC – that is electing Donald J. Trump as president of the United States and saving this country.”

What is Trump afraid of? On eve of hush money trial, big, bold Donald Trump shows he’s nothing but a giant chicken

Sorry, other Republican candidates! Maybe you can find a different Republican National Committee to help you out. Oh, and in the meantime, if you mention the Republican at the top of the ticket, you need to ship some of the green you raise back upstream to the guy already vacuuming donor money up like a Statue-of-Liberty-size Dirt Devil.

If this sounds unbecoming of a presidential candidate who claims to be wildly successful and incredibly wealthy, wait until you see the tacky sneakers and weird Bibles he’s selling.

Biden is out-fundraising Trump, so more Bibles must be sold!

Adding to the cash thirst, the former president’s campaign is trailing President Joe Biden badly in the fundraising department.

A Financial Times analysis released this week found: “Donald Trump has raised $75 (million) less for his presidential bid than Joe Biden and has 270,000 fewer unique donors now than at the same stage of his run for the White House four years ago.”

President Joe Biden speaks to members of the United Steel Workers Union at the United Steel Workers Headquarters on April 17, 2024 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Biden announced new actions to protect American steel and shipbuilding industries including hiking tariffs on Chinese steel.
President Joe Biden speaks to members of the United Steel Workers Union at the United Steel Workers Headquarters on April 17, 2024 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Biden announced new actions to protect American steel and shipbuilding industries including hiking tariffs on Chinese steel.

He’d have to sell a moon-high stack of Bibles to catch up, so the grift must grow. And grow it has with this new “pony up some cash” push on fellow candidates.

Trump campaign’s letter to other GOP candidates reads like a mob flick

As if actively trying to get Trump’s campaign cast in the next Martin Scorsese gangster film, the letter to down-ballot Republicans included this line: “Any split that is higher than 5% will be seen favorably by the RNC and President Trump’s campaign and is routinely reported to the highest levels of leadership within both organizations.”

Why do Republicans hate each other? Nobody hates the GOP as much as Republicans hate the GOP. Just ask Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Sure, 5% is nice. That’s fine. But, you know, maybe do 10%, maybe even 15%? That’s the kinda thing that gets you noticed, kid.

When you give your party to someone under criminal indictment, well …

The letter also included this note to any campaigns that use Trump’s name, image or likeness and don’t play ball: “Any vendor whose clients ignore the guidelines mentioned above will be held responsible for their clients’ actions. Repeated violations will result in the suspension of business relationships between the vendor and Trump National Committee JFC.”

Yeah, nice little campaign you got there. Shame if anything happened to it, you know?

This all sounds dodgy as the day is long, but regardless, here’s what all the little Republican candidates not named Donald Trump are going to do. They’re going to line up in their fancy Trump sneakers with their Trump Bibles tucked under their arms and drop an offering in the MAGA hat at the feet of the Donald.

Frankly, it’s what they deserve.

They gambled on this guy again.

And the house always wins.

Ukraine’s growing arms sector thwarted by cash shortages and attacks

Reuters

Ukraine’s growing arms sector thwarted by cash shortages and attacks

Max Hunder – April 19, 2024

Employee prepares to place a mortar into a box at a production facility of the 'Ukrainian Armor' company in Ukraine
Employee prepares to place a mortar into a box at a production facility of the ‘Ukrainian Armor’ company in Ukraine
Employee tests a Novator armoured personnel carrier at a testing facility of the 'Ukrainian Armor' company in Ukraine
Employee tests a Novator armoured personnel carrier at a testing facility of the ‘Ukrainian Armor’ company in Ukraine

KYIV (Reuters) -Hundreds of Ukrainian businesses making weapons and military equipment have sprung up since Russia’s full-scale invasion, but some are struggling to fund production and all are afraid of being targeted in intensifying Russian missile strikes.

Owners say they have pumped in their own cash to survive and moved locations at their own expense to stay ahead of Russian intelligence. They are now urging the government to cut what they describe as excessive red tape around its arms purchases.

Several also want to be allowed to export, arguing that the government is unable to buy all of their output.

According to Ukraine’s strategic industries minister Oleksandr Kamyshin, the potential annual output of the military-industrial complex now stands at $18-20 billion.

Ukraine’s cash-strapped government can only fund about a third of that, the minister told Reuters in an interview. That compares with $120 billion of military aid received from allies throughout the war, most of it in equipment rather than cash.

“We have the biggest fight in a generation … If you look, for example, at NATO-calibre artillery shells, the production capacity of the U.S. and EU put together is lower than our needs,” said Kamyshin.

Many of Ukraine’s large, state-owned defence enterprises fell on hard times after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now the war has triggered a resurgence in the private arms sector.

According to his ministry, the number of defence manufacturers has more than doubled since the invasion. Private enterprises now number about 400 to the 100 state-owned ones, although the latter still provide the most production capacity.

To resolve cash shortages, Ukraine is asking foreign partners to fund its defence production. On Tuesday, Denmark made the first such pledge of $28.5 million.

RED TAPE

Some manufacturers say they are struggling to raise funds, a problem compounded by a government procurement process that they complain is slow and cumbersome.

“The first threat that makers come up against when they start working is the bureaucracy of the military sphere and of purchases,” said Vladyslav Belbas, CEO of Ukrainska Bronetekhnika (Ukrainian Armor), one of the few Ukrainian manufacturers making armoured vehicles and artillery shells, among other products.

Belbas cited the fact that the defence ministry only places orders for the current year, hampering makers’ ability to plan for the long term.

Four manufacturers making various weapons highlighted a range of issues: waiting for months to find out if the state was interested in buying, being bounced between departments in the defence ministry and armed forces, and having no assurances of future sales to help them plan production.

The defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the complaints. It has previously said it is building “a new architecture” for defence procurement, and appointed a new chief for the agency responsible for weapons purchases earlier this year.

Private investment has primarily been driven by domestic entrepreneurs, who often say they are driven by patriotism rather than profit.

A source in Ukraine’s government, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues, said private investment was not evenly spread.

“Everyone wants to invest in sexy stories like drones, but nobody wants to go into something difficult like (artillery) shells.”

One way to raise money is to grant licences for companies to export products that would otherwise go unbought by Ukraine due to the lack of financing.

Three manufacturers told Reuters they would like to see export licences being granted, provided the manufacturer had unused capacity not covered by orders from Ukraine.

Kamyshin said that was not feasible: “It’s fair for manufacturers to demand to either contract their capacity to the full or give them the possibility to export … but this position does not have political support, so we are looking for financing for our enterprises so that all production remains in Ukraine,” he said.

DANGEROUS BUSINESS

Aside from financial difficulties, making weapons in Ukraine during a full-scale war is fraught with risk.

When Reuters visited a factory of Ukrainian Armor, the head of the plant, who gave his name as Ruslan, agreed to speak only if his face was not shown to protect him from becoming a target of Russia’s intelligence services.

The factory, which employs around 100 people and makes armoured vehicles and mortars, was in the process of being wound down and moved to another location.

Ruslan said this was because a bigger premises was needed to accommodate more staff, as well as to make it harder for the Russians to find the factory. Some arms manufacturers move locations as often as every three months for security.

“From the (manufacturers) I speak to, not one private company received (state) compensation for relocation,” said Ukrainian Armor’s Belbas.

Another problem faced by manufacturers is the threat of power cuts, as Russia pounds energy infrastructure while Ukraine is running out of air defence munitions to protect its skies.

“In 2022-2023, we did not have electricity for two-thirds of our working hours – of course, under such conditions it is very difficult to manufacture anything,” Belbas said.

The government source said that manufacturers currently had no issues with power supply, and that if mass power cuts did have to be implemented then they “will be switched off last”.

(Reporting by Max Hunder; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Philippa Fletcher)

Trump campaign announces 100,000 poll watchers and attorneys poised for election day

Independent

Trump campaign announces 100,000 poll watchers and attorneys poised for election day

Gustaf Kilander – April 19, 2024

Trump complains to press about how cold it is in courtroom

The Trump campaign has announced that they will have 100,000 poll watchers and attorneys ready to take action on election day as former president Donald Trump’s obsession with election security continues.

Mr Trump tried to overturn the 2020 election citing baseless allegations of fraud by Democrats, and he has made similarly evidence-free claims regarding what Democrats may do this November. Even in 2016, Mr Trump asserted that he only lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton because of fraud.

The Trump Campaign and the Republican National Committee (RNC) said in a Friday statement that they would launch “the most extensive and monumental election integrity program in the nation’s history”.

Mr Trump said in a statement: “Having the right people to count the ballots is just as important as turning out voters on Election Day. Republicans are now working together to protect the vote and ensure a big win on November 5th!”

The RNC said the program was designed by Chair Michael Whatley, Co-Chair Lara Trump and Chief Counsel Charlie Spies as well as the Trump campaign and that it’s intended to “have over 100,000 dedicated volunteers and attorneys deployed across every battleground state”.

Former President Donald Trump speaks with the media at his trial on Friday at Manhattan Criminal Court (AP)
Former President Donald Trump speaks with the media at his trial on Friday at Manhattan Criminal Court (AP)

“Whenever a ballot is being cast or counted, Republican poll watchers will be observing the process and reporting any irregularity,” the RNC said in its statement.

Trump supporters showed up to locations where votes were being counted in 2020, demanding that the counting stop, often in the false belief that mail-in ballots were fraudulent. Some election workers have faced death threats.

Recounts and audits in several states failed to find any wrongdoing. Mr Trump fired the leader of his election security agency days after it issued a statement saying that the 2020 election was one of the safest in history.

The latest announcement states that the RNC and the Trump campaign plan on overseeing machine testing, early voting, election day voting, mail ballot processing, and any post-election activity such as canvassing, audits and recounts.

Mr Spies said in a statement that they would take Democrats “to court if they don’t follow rules or try to change them at the last minute”.

Many Republicans were outraged at the expansion of mail-in voting in 2020 in the midst of the pandemic. Some Republican-led states passed laws restricting ballot access after the 2020 election.

“President Trump has said that the Republican victory in November needs to be too big to rig,” Mr Spies said.

In 2016, Mr Trump lost the popular vote by almost three million ballots, in 2020, he lost it by more than seven million. When asked by The Independent earlier this month if Mr Trump has any chance of winning the popular vote this year, former Republican strategist Rick Wilson said: “None whatsoever.”

Mr Whatley and Lara Trump were installed atop the RNC following the recent ouster of former RNC chair Ronna McDaniel.

In a statement on Friday, Ms Trump said: “Every ballot. Every precinct. Every processing center. Every county. Every battleground state. We will be there.”

Former GOP insider: Trump has “reprogrammed a generation” to fight against democracy

Salon

Former GOP insider: Trump has “reprogrammed a generation” to fight against democracy

Chauncey DeVega – April 16, 2024

Capitol Riot; Trump Supporters Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Capitol Riot; Trump Supporters Nathan Howard/Getty Images

The first of Donald Trump’s four criminal trials is finally underway in Manhattan. This trial, on campaign-finance charges related to Trump’s alleged “hush money” payments to Stormy Daniels, is truly historic, marking the first time in American history that a current or former president has been tried for criminal offenses.

A guilty verdict in combination with the outcomes of his three other pending trials in Florida, Georgia and Washington, D.C., will clearly have an impact on how many Americans vote in the upcoming presidential election. The potential consequences should not be underestimated, given that current polls show a statistical dead heat between Trump and President Biden.

In an evocative preview published by the Economist, the “hush money” trial is described as a “meld of genres”:

The solemnity of the first prosecution of a former president, who also happens to be running again, will nod to tragedy. Really, though, this is a seedy burlesque, with a bit of farce. The case is about sex, money and blackmail. Mr. Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, who will testify against him, once described the conduct at issue as the “filth and muck of politics”…. Every trial is part theatre. This one, slated to run for six to eight weeks (beginning with jury selection), will be a sell-out.

Trump’s criminal trials are historic in other ways as well: They seem to echo the lessons of one of the most dreadful chapters in modern history. In 1923, Adolf Hitler was sentenced to five years in prison for an attempted coup (known as the Beer Hall Putsch) against the state government of Bavaria. He served less than one year, using the time to write the first volume of “Mein Kampf.” After his release, of course, Hitler continued his rise to power, becoming the de facto dictator of Germany less than 10 years later.

Donald Trump has already attempted one coup, and the American people were fortunate that it failed. He has never disavowed the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and, not unlike Hitler, continues to threaten violence (including imprisonment and execution for “treason”) against anyone and everyone who oppose him and the MAGA movement.

If Trump is actually sent to prison, the MAGA movement will likely be blunted, if not broken. American democracy and the might then be able to avoid the fate that befell Germany 90 or so years ago.

Miles Taylor served as chief of staff in the Department of Homeland Security during Trump’s first term. He spoke out early about Trump’s unfitness for office, as author of the 2018 New York Times “Anonymous” editorial. Since then, Taylor has written two books, “A Warning” and “Blowback: A Warning to Save Democracy from Trump’s Revenge.” His new paperback edition of “Blowback” has just been published, incorporating an argument that Trump’s second administration will be far more competent and formidable in its assault on American democracy and the rule of law than the first one was.

In the second half of our conversation, Taylor cautions that the existential danger to American democracy posed by Trump, the MAGA movement, and today’s Republican Party will continue well past Election Day 2024. The American people still have the power and agency to defeat those forces, Taylor says, but only if they shake off complacency and apathy and act to defend democracy and freedom — not just at the ballot box but throughout our society.

This is the second installment of a two-part conversation.

How do you assess Donald Trump and his MAGA movement’s danger to the safety and future of the country and our pluralistic democracy?

Look, I’m still a conservative. This isn’t about a Republican coming to the White House. I don’t even think Trump is a real Republican. It’s about a man who’s said he wants to use government as a tool of revenge — and to advance his own self-interest. That sort of intent — sitting atop the spy agencies and military apparatus of the government — writes its own horror story.

How do we locate Donald Trump and the American authoritarian movement as part of a larger global movement to end democracy, which also includes Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán, and other malign actors?

They are one and the same — reactions to populism. This is where I’ll say that the culprits here aren’t actually the autocrats themselves. It’s us. We’re choosing to empower these people. We can choose not to. The choice we make will define us.

Why do you think the news media and political elites haven’t made the global dimension of this threat to our democracy much clearer?

Attacks on Western democracy from within were not on my bingo card post-9/11. I fear the wayward ex-president will get his way eventually in trying to chip away at the community of democracies. He needn’t win back the White House to execute his vision. Trump has done something more insidious. By co-opting the Republican Party, he has reprogrammed a generation of devotees with his anti-constitutional and anti-democratic views. Copycats will try to fulfill his unfinished plans well beyond his lifespan, an undertaking made possible because GOP leaders have anesthetized their consciences and normalized Trump-like conduct for a decade.

If Trump is defeated this November, will the danger of right-wing political violence decrease? Many experts are concerned that a defeat on Election Day will only amplify the danger from Trump and his followers.

I’ll put it simply. Whether Trump wins or loses, the risk of political violence is high. If he loses, it will likely be far worse than Jan. 6. If he wins, I fear there will be a violent reaction around the country from the far left — a reaction that Trump will use to “justify” a crackdown. Thus, the spiral will begin. There’s no magic wand that can prevent this. We just need to show restraint, urge our neighbors to do the same and condemn political extremism.

Looking back, do you have any regrets about your time in the administration and how you chose to speak out? What do you know now that you wish you knew then?

Six years ago, I sounded an alarm that the sitting president was acting in a way that was “amoral” and “reckless” behind the scenes and that his own staff thought he posed a grave threat to the country. Many people dismissed me and believed Trump’s accusation that I was being disloyal.

Five years ago, I wrote a book about the deeper extent of instability inside the White House and why re-electing Trump could be catastrophic. Many people dismissed me and believed Trump’s claim that it was a “make-believe book” of “deep state” lies.

Four years ago, during the 2020 campaign, I said that if Trump lost, he would try to stay in office, a situation that could end “tragically.” Many people dismissed me and believed the claims of Trump’s acolytes that he’d do the right thing when the time came.

Three years ago, I assembled GOP dissenters to warn that Trumpism maintained a “viselike grip” on the party and that the anti-constitutional wing would overtake it completely if preventive action wasn’t taken. Many people dismissed me and said the GOP would move on from Trump.

Two years ago, I predicted that Trump would run again for the presidency and would likely lead the GOP field. Many people dismissed me and said Trump would be taken out by the courts first.

Last year, I released this book to explain in precise detail what would happen if Trump or another MAGA figure retook the White House, including the specific ways they would weaponize American government against their foes.

My goal here isn’t to prove that I’m prescient. Nor do I think I should be applauded because predictions about a dangerous man and his mob-like movement keep coming to fruition. What I’ve been saying for years about deeper threats to the American experiment should have been painfully obvious to almost anyone who’s paying attention. Yet far too many Americans are imperiling the future once more by ignoring the clanging and rattling truth that could cause the entire country to come undone.

What do you think will happen next? Where are we in the story of the Trumpocene?

First, I say in the book that America’s survival as the United States is not inevitable, but its demise will become a certainty if we continue down our current path. No free system of government can survive the willful ignorance of its people. But I’m not a fatalist; if I were, I wouldn’t have written this book or spent my life trying to protect our country. In fact, I am an optimist about the trajectory of free societies like our own. A democracy is a living thing. Like most living things, it will fight for its survival by exhausting all available possibilities for persistence, though a spirited effort might not be visible until it’s in mortal danger. That hour will be upon us soon.

Second, I note that America can survive the century if we renegotiate our social contract. By that I mean we should examine the underpinnings of our polity together — from the actual ways we vote and mechanisms for spurring political competition to the very Constitution that binds us. Although it may seem impracticable, a renegotiation will look more appealing in the decades ahead of us, more so, I suspect, in the face of genuine hardship. A people so divided cannot continue forward without addressing their divisions openly; otherwise, they should peaceably separate, or spiral toward a violent end.

Thankfully, we are blessed by nature with a say in the matter. Destiny is manifested by decision. So what happens next will depend on our collective willpower as a country and our resolve to eschew the dread of indecision. On that point I feel hopeful, because every guiding milestone we’ve placed on humankind’s trail has been put there by choice. And we can do so once again at a moment of our choosing.

What can the American people do to stop the bureaucrats, advisers and others who will try to orchestrate the Trump dictatorship if he wins this election?

The choice is ours, as it has always been. The founders saw America as an experiment, dependent entirely on our conscious efforts to sustain it and not on preordainment. Some readers will lament these grim forecasts while they loiter in the shadows, contorting logic to justify to themselves why their silence is an exception to the need for all Americans to admit the seriousness of our situation. To those readers I say: I don’t judge you. I’ve been you. I’ve made excuses for staying quiet. But companionship won’t save you from the consequences.

Fewer citizens will make the harder choice. Those who do will start defying their political tribes by calling for civility; they will resist intimidation and reject the moral equivalency crawling into our political discourse; they will put country over party by advocating for system-wide reforms to make our democracy more representative of all views and less prone to upheaval; and they will openly evangelize — through trial and error — the small rituals of civic faith that can restore a democracy. If this is you, then I believe you are America’s last, best hope.

Ukraine army chief says Russia making significant ‘gains’ in east of country

BBC News

Ukraine army chief says Russia making significant ‘gains’ in east of country

Thomas Mackintosh – BBC News – April 13, 2024

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky with Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi at a position near the eastern front line, Donetsk region, Ukraine, 26 June 2023
Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi (L) was appointed as commander of Ukraine’s military by President Zelensky last year [Reuters]

The head of Ukraine’s military has warned the battlefield situation in the east of the country has “significantly worsened” in recent days.

Fierce battles are ongoing in a several villages in the eastern Donbas region.

Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi said Russia was benefitting from warm weather – making terrain more accessible to its tanks – and making tactical gains.

It comes as Germany said it will give Ukraine an extra Patriot missile defence system to fend off air attacks.

In his update posted to social media on Saturday, Gen Syrskyi explained the situation on the eastern front had deteriorated as Russia intensified its armoured assaults.

Battles have raged for control of Bohdanivka – a village west of the devastated city of Bakhmut, he said.

The settlement lies a few kilometres northeast of the town of Chasiv Yar, a Kyiv-controlled stronghold which Russia has been trying to reach after seizing the town of Avdiivka in February to the south.

Ukrainian officials say a slowdown in military assistance from the West – especially the US – has left it more exposed to aerial attacks and heavily outgunned on the battlefield.

Despite repeated assurances that he is dedicated to Ukraine’s defence, US House Speaker Mike Johnson has failed to advance a new military aid bill. The Democratic-controlled Senate passed fresh funding in February which included $60bn in aid for Kyiv, but conservative Republicans in the House objected to the bill as it did not include funds for border security.

Gen Syrskyi said without fresh aid and sophisticated weapons Kyiv would be unable “to seize the strategic initiative” from the numerically superior Russian forces.

Separately on Saturday, Germany vowed to give Ukraine an additional air defence system. Ukraine has made increasingly desperate appeals for supplies of air defence missiles in recent weeks.

On Friday, a major power plant near Kyiv was completely destroyed by Russian strikes. Trypillya power plant was the largest electricity provider for three regions, including Kyiv, officials said.

In response, Berlin has agreed to give Kyiv an additional Patriot missile system. It is capable of intercepting Russia’s most advanced munitions, including Kinzal hypersonic missiles.

Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said Russian strikes against Ukrainian cities and energy infrastructure were causing untold suffering.

President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked Germany for the decision, calling it “a true manifestation of support for Ukraine”.

Since President Vladimir Putin won his stage managed election last month, Moscow has stepped up air attacks on Ukraine.

Russia has, in recent days, unleashed three massive aerial strikes on its energy system, pounding power plants and substations.

Elsewhere, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) said it has foiled an assassination attempt on the governor of the Kherson region, Oleksandr Prokudin. Officials said two men attempted to strike Mr Prokudin’s car with a Russian-manufactured drone.

“This was not the first attempt, and probably not the last one,” Mr Prokudin said a message posted to Telegram.

SBU officials also said they had detained 11 networks of Russian operatives since the start of 2024. SBU chief Vasyl Malyuk said in another Telegram post that this was in addition to 47 last year.

Map
[BBC]