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Ukraine Crisis May Be Nearing its Denouement

When it comes to fighting a war, the worst thing for an army is losing. But doing nothing is not a whole lot better. It's difficult and expensive to keep troops in the field—to keep them provisioned, to keep the soldiers' morale up, and to keep folks on the home front from getting restless. So, there's some pressure on Vladimir Putin to put up or shut up when it comes to the 100,000 or so Russian troops he has aligned along the border of Ukraine. And there were some indications on Thursday that "the moment," whatever that means, could soon be at hand.

Putin, of course, really, really, really wants to invade. However, he is also persuaded that he needs some sort of pretext for doing so. And the Pentagon announced yesterday that if the Russian leader can't find a real pretext, then he'll invent one. More specifically, U.S. officials warned that the Russians are working on a fake video that is staged to make it look as if Ukraine attacked Russia, and thus fired the first shot. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said:

As part of this fake attack, we believe that Russia would produce a very graphic propaganda video which would include corpses and actors that would be depicting mourners and images of destroyed locations, as well as military equipment at the hands of Ukraine or the West, even to the point where some of this equipment would be made to look like it was Western supplied ... to Ukraine.

The Russians deny everything, of course, so someone here is not telling the truth.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of senators is working on a bill that would sanction Russia while also giving aid to Ukraine. Those senators had a briefing yesterday, and came out of it saying they are worried they won't be able to get the sanctions done before Putin attacks. Either the members are going to produce a really long bill, or else they learned something very concerning in that briefing.

Putin will be spending some time in China this week hanging out with his BFF Xi Jinping (see below). It seems unlikely that a military attack would be launched with the Russian president out of town, though you never know. It's also the case that if Putin is trying to minimize scrutiny of his actions as much as is possible, the Olympics would provide at least a partial distraction. (Z)

The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Beijing

The worlds of sports and politics often intersect, and that may never be more true than at the Olympics. The opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics will take place tonight (although the competition is already underway, and by "tonight" we mean "tonight, China time"). Here are ten major political and politics-adjacent storylines, if you are interested in keeping an eye out for them:

  1. Genocide: The backdrop to the entire Olympics, really, is China's ongoing persecution of the Uyghur people, which has been deemed a genocide by the U.S. Department of State. The subject might just come up once or twice, say on a medals podium.

  2. Other bad acts: Although the Uyghurs are getting most of the attention, that isn't the only black mark against the current government. There's also persecution of Tibetans, crackdowns in Hong Kong, infringements on Taiwan's sovereignty, and a host of legal and/or human rights abuses. These subjects might come up, too.

  3. Censorship: Or maybe the subjects won't come up. The Chinese government has warned athletes to keep their lips zipped during the Games. Chinese government official Yang Shu explained that "Any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit, especially against the Chinese laws and regulations, are also subject to certain punishment."

  4. Vanishing Act: Several months back, Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai accused a Chinese official of sexual assault. Thereafter, Peng's whereabouts were a mystery for several months, and the Chinese government refused to answer questions. She reappeared only recently, and it's still not 100% clear what happened to her. In any case, it's entirely possible that a non-Chinese athlete could get the same treatment if they displease the Chinese government. On Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) offered some advice: "I would say to our athletes, you're there to compete, do not risk incurring the anger of the Chinese government because they are ruthless."

  5. Boycotts: No nation is boycotting the games entirely, but there is a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott, wherein high-ranking government officials won't attend the Games. Britain, Canada, India, Japan, Germany and Australia, among others, have joined the effort.

  6. Putin: Although Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, Justin Trudeau, et. al, won't be present in China, Vladimir Putin will be there with bells on. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has called Putin his "best friend" and said they will be having lots of fruitful conversations.

  7. Surveillance: The Chinese government loves, loves, loves to collect information on anyone and everyone. There are literally thousands of active FBI investigations into the Xi administration's attempts to steal American information or technology. The presence of lots of foreigners with lots of electronic devices is a juicy opportunity for China to do some spying or stealing. American athletes have been strongly encouraged to leave their regular phones at home and to take burner phones for use while in China.

  8. Cybersecurity: On a related point, the next two weeks will be prime time for malware and other cyber-attacks, maybe coming from China, or maybe directed at China.

  9. COVID: There are going to be a lot of unvaccinated people in Beijing. While a pretty strict testing regime has been put in place, there have already been a higher than expected number of positive COVID tests.

  10. Journalistic Ethics: NBC Sports has a decades-long, billions-of-dollars relationship with the Olympics. It behooves that division of the company to keep the International Olympic Committee, along with whatever country is hosting the games, happy. On the other hand, the NBC News division has a duty to report important news, even if that news gets Xi's knickers in a twist. Which division will win out if there's a big story that brings their respective needs into conflict?

So, there's an awful lot of intrigue at this year's games. There may also be some sporting activities as well, but we're waiting for a report from the staff sinologist to confirm that. (Z)

O, CaMAGAda!

Let's just keep going with the international theme. Trumpism, as we've seen in the last few years, tends to spread rapidly and take hold firmly, at which point it's very difficult to eradicate. It actually has a fair bit in common with a sexually transmitted disease. And just as STDs don't recognize national borders, neither does Trumpism, apparently. Canada's conservative party, which is called the Conservative Party, has been dealing with its own internecine struggle pitting Trumpy Conservatives against not-so-Trumpy conservatives. And while Conservative leader Erin O'Toole tried to bridge the gap, he wasn't able to pull it off. So, he was just cashiered by his party, losing a no confidence vote among Conservative MPs, 73-45.

O'Toole's demise was essentially due to three factors. The first is that, though a politician, he was rather impolitic in dealing with his fellow Conservative MPs. He didn't keep them in the loop on decision-making, and on more than one occasion surprised them with some major announcement or legislative proposal. The second is that, though he ran as a "true blue" conservative (remember, it's Canada, so blue = right-wing), he was too much of a centrist. Many Conservatives did not approve, in particular, of O'Toole's tolerance for vaccine mandates and his opposition to gay conversion therapy.

The final problem is that O'Toole was clumsy in his relationship to the Trumpier elements in Canadian politics, neither hugging them close, nor keeping them at arm's length. For example, he dithered on whether or not to meet with members of the truck caravan that is driving across Canada in protest of vaccine mandates and masking. "It's not for the leader of the opposition or a political party to attend a protest on the hill or a convoy. It's up to politicians to advocate for solutions," he said, before ultimately deciding on a "small" meeting with a few of the truckers. (As a sidenote, reader J.A. in St. Petersburg, FL, brings to our attention that the $10 million the truckers raised on GoFundMe has been placed on hold pending an investigation by the site.)

O'Toole will be succeeded, on an interim basis, by Candice Bergen, who is further right than O'Toole and who has been photographed on multiple occasions wearing a red MAGA cap. This is not the same Candice Bergen who played Murphy Brown on TV, incidentally. Although only one of the two Candice Bergens has been on a blind date with Trump, and it ain't the Canadian one.

The immediate significance of these developments is that, with the opposition in disarray, it strengthens PM Justin Trudeau's position. There was some scuttlebutt that he might be thinking about stepping down, but also general agreement that the Conservatives' woes make that less likely. More broadly, this speaks to our general view that the forces that gave rise to Trumpism are international in character, and so there are insights to be had about American politics from keeping an eye on what's going on abroad. (Z)

Mark Zuckerberg Gets Popped in the Facebook

There was a time when Sears was the unquestioned king of American retail. Not only did they dominate the brick and mortar scene, they also had a hammerlock on mail-order goods. It was like if Walmart and Amazon were the same company. But all good things, as they say, must come to an end, and Sears eventually went into a slow and steady decline. From a peak of more than 3,000 locations, they're down to 25 now, and it's even money that none of those will still be open when the holidays next roll around.

We are reminded of this because one of the 21st century kings of the hill, namely Facebook... er, excuse us, Meta, has been having a really lousy week. On the financial front, the company was worth $900 billion at 3:59 p.m. on Wednesday. Roughly 20 minutes later, after a not-so-great Q4 earnings report was released, its value had dropped to $720 billion. By Thursday morning, it was $670 billion. That's right; in a little more than 12 hours, Meta lost $230 billion, which is really something. Even Donald Trump needs at least 36 hours to lose that much.

The bad news doesn't end there. Apple has decided not to allow ad tracking on its devices. That is Facebook's bread and butter; they rake in the bucks because they target advertising more effectively than anyone else. If they can't collect data on all the Mac users, and the iPhone users, and iPad users, then that takes a big bite out of their business model.

And the worst news of all might be this: Facebook lost users for the first time in its history. They've been stagnant in North America for several years, and in Q4 they lost millions of users in India, Africa, and South America. That suggests the platform has reached its saturation point, and that no further growth will be forthcoming. Facebook has lost many users because of whistleblower revelations about how little effort is put into removing racist and/or seditionist content from the site. It's also lost many users to greener pastures; the kiddies these days, for example, tend to prefer TikTok and Instagram. And finally, users have also been lost to good, old-fashioned boredom. An awful lot of content on the site is same old, same old.

Meta is nowhere near "Sears" status yet; the company still made $39 billion last year, and its virtual reality business is promising (though not profitable yet). However, this is going to lead to even more pressure on Zuckerberg to do a better job of policing content, so as to win back some of those users who quit in protest. And in any event, the more that Facebook's reach shrinks, the less useful it is as a platform for political extremists. Or Russian tricksters. (Z)

Arizona Speaker Just Can't Go There

Republicans in the Arizona legislature—basically, the same folks who brought you the Cyber Ninjas debacle—hoped to change the state's election laws in a manner so draconian it would have made the Georgians and the Texans blush. Heck, it was so draconian it would have made Vlad the Impaler blush. Among the provisions of House Bill 2596:

We're not so bothered by the last one, but the others are quite problematic. Speaker of the Arizona House Rusty Bowers (R) felt the exact same way, so he effectively killed the legislation yesterday.

How did Bowers do it? Deft parliamentary maneuvering. Sending a bill to one committee for review will tend to slow its passage by a fair bit. Sending it to two committees slows things even more, and three committees even more than that. So, to make absolutely certain that the bill never again sees the light of day, Bowers assigned it to all 12 of the Arizona state House's standing committees. For those who don't fully appreciate the drama of an aggressive parliamentary power play, Arizona Mirror state politics beat writer Jeremy Duda has you covered:

I've never seen a speaker or Senate president kneecap a bill as aggressively as this. Triple-assignments? Sure. Been there. But this is Bowers killing the bill, chopping it up, setting the pieces on fire, then digging up the ashes and throwing them into the ocean.

Undoubtedly, even Nancy Pelosi was impressed.

Bowers, who is known for integrity and for a bit of an independent streak, said that the authority to choose leaders has been vested in the people, and it's not for the legislature to take it away. This would seem to be another example in support of the point we made a week ago: In addition to the Democrats, there are a lot of Republicans out there who aren't going to stand idly by and let Donald Trump or his clones make a mockery of democracy. (Z)

This Week in Schadenfreude

Many American readers, and perhaps some readers abroad as well, will be familiar with the show The Masked Singer. For those who aren't, the bit is that celebrities (and that term is often applied very loosely on the show) perform songs, aided substantially by auto-tune, while dressed in an elaborate costume that hides their identity. The performers are judged by a group of mostly B-listers, who also make guesses about the person's identity. Each week, the loser takes off the portion of the costume that covers their head and reveals who they are.

The early episodes of the show's next season are being filmed right now, and while the world at large isn't supposed to know anything about what's happened on stage, the veil of secrecy has been pierced. The Masked Singer's producers, obviously trying to draw in demographics that might not otherwise watch their show, have something of a taste for right-wing political figures who are on the decline, and who are willing to appear on the show in a transparent and pretty desperate attempt to remain relevant. Sarah Palin was on the show a couple of years ago, for example, and bragged that her appearance was "a walking middle finger to the haters."

Anyhow, it turns out that the show decided to give the same shtick another go, and so booked Rudy Giuliani to appear. By all indications, it was a disaster. His performance was reportedly awful (big surprise), and he was the first "celebrity" to lose and be unmasked. When his identity was revealed, two of the show's four judges—Robin Thicke and Ken Jeong—walked off the stage in protest.

Because the episode hasn't aired yet, it's not known which of the costumed folks in the promo pictures is him, though most people are hoping he's the ogre:

Six costumed people: a salamander in
purple king's robes, an ant with big antennae, some sort of warrior with a helmed adorned with sheep's horns, a one-eyed
green ogre with a giant head, a rodent of some sort in a space suit, and a purple koala with a tall striped top hat.

It's also not known what song Giuliani performed, though a selection from the Four Seasons would seem to be in order. Or maybe "Loser," by Beck? "Sympathy for the Devil," by the Rolling Stones? "You Know What They Do To Guys Like Us In Prison?" by My Chemical Romance? If readers have additional suggestions for appropriate choices, we will run some of them on Sunday.

Anyhow, the appearance couldn't have gone much worse, or been more humiliating. And both the show and its network (FOX) are being excoriated for welcoming someone who worked hard to overthrow a presidential election. So, Giuliani's not likely to get too many more invites to appear on popular shows. He may well have hit rock bottom, reputation-wise, at this point, as CNN's Chris Cillizza observes. And if not, well, rock bottom is certainly visible from his current vantage point. Further, this is just the first shot to his ego; the second one will come when the episode actually airs and he gets mocked to pieces all over again. Given how he's treated his wives, his associates, and his country, it's certainly time for some schadenfreude. (Z)

Looking Forward: The Readers Predict 2022, Part VII: Congress, the People

We're getting the crystal ball out for the first time in a week. Here are the prediction items we've already run:

There may have been some confusion, so let us make clear that the boldness numbers we're assigning represent the maximum boldness points available, if the prediction is accurate. If the prediction does not come to pass, those boldness points go poof. And with that out of the way, here are some 2022 predictions for the members of Congress:

That was a long one; we got about 150 predictions for this category. The next subject: the pandemic. (Z)

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