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Saturday Q&A

The invasion of Ukraine looms large this week, as you might imagine, and we got hundreds of questions on that subject. In view of this, we're going to do things a little differently, and go with an all-Ukraine Q&A. There were some other very good non-Ukraine questions this week which we'll just hold over to next week.

Current Events, Ukraine Edition: Vladimir Putin

J.A. in Brisbane, Australia, asks: What happens if Vlad P. accidentally drinks some polonium tea? (Maybe from the CIA, maybe a not-so-rich-anymore oligarch, or perhaps in an attempt to outsmart the Dread Pirate Roberts.) I assume some of the president's powers devolve to the prime minister until a new election, but do we have an inclination of the appetite for war beyond Putin's inner circle? And is there a clear successor, or would this trigger similar chaos to if Kim Jong-Un pulled an Elvis on the toilets of Pyongyang?

V & Z answer: It is very, very unlikely that anyone could get to Putin right now. He's being protected by the Presidential Security Service (SBP), which is very good at what it does, and is also very large. There are 2,500+ agents assigned to the protection of Putin and his family; by contrast, the entire U.S. Secret Service is only about 3,000 people, and they have a much broader range of responsibilities than the SBP does. On top of that, Putin spends most of his time these days ensconced in underground bunkers.

That said, Putin is 69, and has had a high-stress job for decades. On top of that, someone in his inner circle could plausibly turn traitor. So he might end up dead; it's just not likely that his demise would come at the hands of someone outside the Kremlin. When it comes to the line of succession, we can tell you half a dozen things:

  1. The Russian constitution, as you point out, calls for the prime minister to serve as successor if the presidency comes vacant. However, that is a "caretaker" situation—the PM's powers are extremely limited (no proposing new legislation, no dismissing the Russian Federal Assembly, etc.), and they only serve for 90 days, until a new election is held.

  2. In theory, Putin's preference for a successor doesn't matter. In theory, it's a democracy, not a monarchy or a dictatorship.

  3. In reality, Putin's preference for a successor probably does matter. It's not actually a democracy, at least not in any meaningful way.

  4. The current PM is Mikhail Mishustin. He is a career bureaucrat who has no power base and is not seen as a plausible long-term successor for Putin. The rough American equivalent would be if Kamala Harris vacated the vice presidency in August 2024, and Joe Biden nominated IRS Commissioner Charles P. Rettig as her replacement.

  5. There is much scuttlebutt that Putin is grooming a preferred successor, but it's not at all clear who that might be. If you had to bet on someone, then you'd want to bet on Sergey Shoygu, who is head of the Russian army, good buddies with Putin, the longest-serving member of Putin's cabinet, and one of the most popular government officials in Russia.

  6. That said, Putin knows full well that having a clearly identified successor in place is not great for his personal safety. The way he explains it is that talking about a successor "destabilizes" Russia. What that really means is that a clearly identified successor could become a rallying point for opponents, and thus an invitation to incite a coup.

In short, the succession situation is hazy, and Putin is going to keep it that way. Even if there's a fairly clear successor-designate today, that doesn't mean they'll be the successor-designate tomorrow.

M.C. in Reno, NV, asks: You wrote that "Putin ... spends nearly all of his time in an underground bunker." What is the source for this remarkable assertion?

V & Z answer: Perhaps that came off as conspiratorial/propaganda, but it's actually a widely known bit of information; he does it for his safety, but also as his COVID-19 prevention strategy. Nearly every picture you see of him these days shows him isolated, indoors, and presumably underground. And the preference for a bunker-like setup has been noted by dozens of reliable publications, including The Guardian, The Times (London), The Economist, Al Jazeera, MSN, and Reuters.

P.M. in Currituck, NC, asks: A few years back on this site (and I am almost certain it was in early 2018, though the Google search of this site seems to be consistently failing to find what I am looking for), I read a piece you wrote about Vladimir Putin being given another term, but once this term was over, the oligarchs behind him may find he has outlived his usefulness and then dispense with him—I really wanted to find that piece so I could link to it properly here.

My question is: Everyone has been acting as if Vladimir Putin is the ultimate decider in what happens in Russia, à la Joseph Stalin or Nikita Khrushchev. But is that really true? Isn't he beholden to what the oligarchs want, and if he doesn't follow that, then he's kaput? That is what I seem to remember from your piece that I cannot find.

V & Z answer: No leader is ever a decider entirely unto themselves, of course, and all of them have to balance various power centers. Even so, Putin does a particularly large amount of balancing, given the nature of the Russian government and economy.

As to the oligarchs, what we probably wrote is that if Putin is ever out of power, he's in big trouble. He's aggravated a number of very powerful people, either by yanking the economic rug out from under them, or trying to kill them, or otherwise doing them harm. And while he's protected by the Russian government, they probably can't get to him. But once he no longer has a 2,500-person-strong security detail? He likely won't be long for the world.

That said, we doubt that it is the oligarchs that are driving the Ukraine situation. Not only does this war not benefit them in a clear way, it will almost certainly hurt them by causing their assets to be frozen, and possibly by causing projects like Nord Stream 2 to be abandoned. It looks more like the drivers of the current war are the Russian people, who are not happy given the disastrous response to COVID-19, a weak economy, shortages of basic food and supplies, widespread poverty, etc. The Russians have overthrown their government twice in the last century (or so), and Putin doesn't want to make it three. Projecting strength, and trying to stoke patriotic sentiment, will serve to rally the public behind him, he hopes.

L.E. in Santa Barbara, CA, asks: Many of the news reports I have been reading have referred to Vladimir Putin's speeches as "unhinged." I don't speak Russian, nor do I have any real understanding of Russian political culture to know what would constitute "unhinged" in their society.

What is your perspective on this? Do you think he is unhinged? And, why do you think the Western media portraying is him that way? What is the value in presenting their readers with the fear of someone who is a loose cannon, so to speak?

V & Z answer: Adolf Hitler often said nutty, conspiratorial things, of course. And he said them in a wild, over-the-top style of speaking. We've mentioned this before, but there are hundreds of recordings of Hitler ranting and raving; there's a grand total of one where he's speaking in his normal voice.

Putin is engaging in the former type of "unhinged" speaking. If you listen to his big speech, he sounds calm and measured, even if you don't speak Russian (compare to a Hitler speech). However, the content of Putin's remarks—gaslighting, really—has very little resemblance to reality. To take one example, he claimed that Ukraine is working to create a nuclear arsenal, which is not remotely true. He also suggested that major Ukrainian agencies answer directly to Joe Biden, which is also not true, of course.

Is Putin actually unhinged, or is it just for show, as it was with Hitler? Probably it's just for show, but as we've written a couple of times recently, it's not impossible that the Russian is losing it. If he started to show signs of dementia, or Alzheimer's, or some other form of mental incapacity as he approaches his 70th birthday (October 7 of this year), there isn't really a way to remove him from power, short of a coup.

But keep in mind that Putin has said the worst calamity of the 20th century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union—an even greater calamity than World War II, in which an estimated 24 million Russian died. If his goal is have the history books record that he was the "czar" who put the Soviet Union back together, nothing he has done so far is unhinged at all. Grabbing land here and there, starting with Ukraine makes perfect sense.

And the reason that the media refers to him as "unhinged" is that it's a pretty apt description for what he's saying, probably the best descriptor available. Sometimes language, particularly in written form, is a blunt instrument. But one would not want to downplay how far removed from reality his words are, even if doing so helps him to establish a character he's playing.

S.R. in Auburn, CA, asks: I'm confused as to why Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine in early 2022, instead of during the other guy's presidency. The former president was BFF with Putin and inexperienced with foreign affairs. He definitely would not have been able to create a unified team with the rest of the world's leaders. Putin might have gotten away with taking all of Ukraine two years ago. Now, with a year of presidency under his belt, and in the face of midterm elections, Joe Biden has been able to demonstrate deft leadership and team building. have written that Putin might not have wanted to invade because he-who-should-not-be-named was unpredictable, implying that Putin wanted to avoid a costly hot war that might have resulted in the use of nuclear weapons.

V & Z answer: Yes, you shouldn't dismiss the significance of Donald Trump's unpredictability. The odds that Joe Biden launches a nuclear strike are 0.0%. What's the number for Trump? Maybe not too high, but not 0.0%, either. Perhaps more importantly, the odds that Biden gives Ukraine a few nukes to do with as they see fit are also 0.0% For Donald Trump? Doing something like that seems exactly like the kind of move he'd consider, since it would be "strong" while allowing him to avoid responsibility for the fallout (and we do mean "fallout"). Certainly, the chances aren't 0.0%.

Beyond that—and we won't know for sure for years, if we ever know—the pressures that are acting on Putin right now might not have been intense enough to force action 2 years ago. Similarly, maybe Russia wasn't in a position to mount an invasion 2 years ago. They aren't really a world power anymore, and they're spread pretty thin, given the size of the country, not to mention their many and various commitments in the Middle East. Note also that as Trump's chances of being reelected were fading, a pandemic was taking hold (these two things are not unrelated). There are few places where disease spreads more easily than a military encampment. If Putin had said "I only have a few more months of my friend Donald" in August 2020, and tried to invade then, his army might well have been brought to its knees by COVID outbreaks.

Current Events, Ukraine Edition: The American Response

B.S. in Somerset, England, UK, asks: The Western intelligence picture appears to have been remarkably accurate. With that in mind, can you explain why America (and other Western allies) didn't take more actions beforehand to prevent the invasion?

Do you think the deployment of troops to Ukraine in a defensive posture would have been considered? Do you think it would have been domestic politics that ruled it out? Or does the West actually not really care about Ukraine as a non-NATO country?

Surely even Putin wouldn't have been mad enough to attack a country with a few battalions of American soldiers on the border?

V & Z answer: To start, and we'll be writing more about this during the week, Putin was clearly determined to invade, and there was nothing that was going to stop that. It's fine to say that Joe Biden and the allies should have done more, but the folks who are saying that never seem to be able to articulate what the "more" might have been.

There is no chance that Biden ever gave serious thought to deploying American troops to Ukraine. First, the U.S. has been at war, in one place or another, for nearly all of the past 50 years. Tolerance for yet another armed conflict just isn't there, at least not right now. Further, Putin has been bending over backwards to contrive a "justification" for invading Ukraine, so that he wouldn't be the "bad guy." And Biden has been bending over backwards to undermine those justifications, such as his warning that Russia was cooking up a deepfake video to make it look like Ukraine fired the first shots. But if the U.S. sent troops to the Russian border, then that would have given Putin exactly what he needed in a nice, gift-wrapped package. Doing do would be unbelievably provocative. What if Russia stationed troops along the Mexican border? Of course the U.S. would respond to that. And of course Putin would have responded to the deployment of American troops along his border, with the approval of much of the international community.

D.C. in Portland, OR, asks: Tucker Carlson's pro-Russian propaganda has become a hot item in the domain of real-Russian propaganda. This "America supports Russia" message has surely increased its hold in the country as a direct result of Carlson's involvement. At what point does this become "unauthorized foreign diplomacy" and a violation of the Logan Act?

V & Z answer: Nobody really knows what it takes to violate the Logan Act, since only two people have ever been charged under that law and neither was convicted. That said, saying provocative and even seditious things doesn't come close to clearing the bar. The Logan Act prohibits private citizens from representing themselves as agents of the U.S. government, and presuming to conduct "official" foreign policy when they have no right or authority to do so. The meetings between basketball player Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-Un are at least in the ballpark of a violation, excepting that nobody seriously thinks Rodman speaks for the U.S. government, including Kim. Carlson's declarations on his Fox program are far removed from that, especially since Fox has made very clear—in court—that he's just an entertainer (like Rodman, actually).

W.K.D. in Houston, TX, asks: Pre-Pearl Harbor (and even post-Pearl Harbor), there was plenty of admiration in the U.S. for Germans, Germany, Nazism, and Hitler. Plenty of folks in the U.S. praised Hitler's authoritarianism and antisemitism and wanted the U.S. to enter the war on the German side. What, if anything, did Roosevelt do about those who were most outspoken regarding their pro-German sentiments? Hopefully he did something, setting the precedent for Biden to do something about the obsequious Russian apologists currently running their mouths today. What could Biden do? What are the limits of the First Amendment?

V & Z answer: This is another subject about which we will have more later this week. However, there are really two things FDR did in this area during World War II. Note that outright expressions of support for Germany became socially unacceptable after December 7, 1941, so there was not much need to police that sort of speech. However, the administration did target Japanese Americans for internment, while requiring some Americans of Italian or German descent to register as enemy aliens and to carry ID cards. In addition, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8985, which established the Office of Censorship. That office was specifically tasked with restricting information that might be useful intelligence for the enemy. So, it would not have done anything about "Germany is awesome and I hope they win the war!" but it might very well have done something about "Hey Germany! I just saw 10 submarines leave Newport News Shipbuilding for the English Channel!"

At the moment, there is little that Joe Biden can do to curb pro-Russian speech. FDR's actions, along with more overt cases of censorship like Abraham Lincoln's tossing unfriendly newspaper editors in prison, were possible because the Constitution is understood to give presidents extraordinary powers when the U.S. is at war. The U.S. is not at war right now, so this does not apply. Beyond that, Biden would be constrained by the fact that it is unwise for presidents with a 40% approval rating to undertake politically unpopular exercises of executive power.

G.T. in Budapest, Hungary, asks: You mention the effects of "a well-executed foreign policy" and list (among others) "the summit with Kim Jong-Un" as an example. Really?

V & Z answer: When you're writing fast, on a daily deadline, sometimes a bit of precision is lost. We went back and changed that to more accurately reflect our meaning; it now reads: "President after president got their best numbers following well-received foreign policy moves." Trump's game of kissy-kissy with Kim may not have been well-executed, but it was well-received by some Americans who were otherwise not favorably disposed toward Trump.

This also gives us the opportunity to make clear that while we think Joe Biden handled the Afghanistan withdrawal about as well as was practicable, we had no expectation it would be perceived that way. On the other hand, we think there's a very decent chance that his Ukraine policy will be received well. And "how good the execution looks" is, of course, more politically important than "how good the execution actually is."

M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: At least for now, would you consider giving us short updates on the politics of the war in Ukraine on weekends?

V & Z answer: We'll do that if something useful presents itself. But even politicians usually take the weekend off (excepting Sunday morning news show appearances), and we don't really expect much big news this weekend, or most others. Further, though the Ukraine situation has been fast-moving this week, it's likely to settle into a slow-moving siege/stalemate, during which things will develop very slowly.

B.K. in Dallas, TX, asks: Is there any way Russian money could be used to pay for the mess in the Ukraine?

V & Z answer: Possibly. It's quite clear that Putin and the Russian oligarchs have a lot of money hidden away in offshore accounts. Some estimates put the total as high as $1 trillion. If the U.S. government goes after that money, well, that's a pretty big chunk of change. And Congress has passed legislation that makes it legal to do so.

That said, like all decisions of this sort, this one is fraught with difficulties. First, the U.S. government would have to find the money. Second, the Russian money launderers are in partnership with non-Russians—bankers, real estate developers, brokerages, etc. These individuals and businesses, many of them American or British, will not be cooperative, to say the least. Third, it's not so easy to target just the Russian launderers. If the U.S. goes after, say, a bank in the Cayman Islands that is popular with foreign "depositors," then it's not just Russian bad guys who will be exposed. And that means more blowback, resistance, and tricky diplomacy. Paul Krugman had a column about this earlier this week.

Current Events, Ukraine Edition: The Trumps

D.H. in Boulder, CO, asks: Eric Trump is quoted as saying "We don't rely on American banks. We have all the funding we need out of Russia." They have certainly benefited from oligarch money being spent at Trump properties. Given the current sanctions on Russia, I wonder if there will be any (additional) financial challenges for the Trump Organization?

V & Z answer: Could be. Nobody really knows the Trump Organization finances beyond the Trump family, a few of their high-ranking employees, and possibly New York AG Tish James. That said, there are pretty clear indications that Russian oligarchs have purchased property from the Trumps as a means of laundering money. So, if the U.S. government goes after the $1 trillion in laundered money (see above), the Trumps could be among the folks to be ensnared.

A.C. in Aachen, Germany, asks: How will Donald Trump, how will Trump's base, and how will the Republicans exploit the Russian invasion in the Ukraine? Will it be a major talking point to say something like "see, this would have never happened under Trump's watch because the Donald and Putin have been buddies"? Will this stick with the American public? And: may there be a point within this argument? What is your assessment of this?

V & Z answer: Trump's own argument has been that if he was still president, Putin would have been too scared to invade Ukraine, since Trump is "Mr. Strong." That might be the right conclusion, though not because Trump is "Mr. Strong," but instead because he is "Mr. Loose Cannon." That said, Trump's argument that he would have kept Putin under control is undermined by his constant kowtowing to the Russian while in power, and by his current complimentary remarks about the invasion, describing it as "genius," among other things. We seriously doubt that anyone, other than the True Believers, could possibly be persuaded that Trump could have controlled Putin.

Other Republican arguments include: (1) This is Joe Biden's fault because of the Afghanistan withdrawal, (2) This is Joe Biden's fault because of his "appeasement," and (3) Ukraine is none of the United States' business. Maybe the GOP will eventually settle on a critique, and maybe the American people will find that compelling. But our guess is that the public will judge the success of Biden's Ukraine policy for themselves, and that Republican spin won't matter that much (excepting among those who are never going to support Biden anyhow).

D.D. in Hollywood, FL, asks: I can't help but wonder if you think Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin ever talk since Trump lost the election? I can't imagine Trump would be of much use to him out of office.

V & Z answer: We doubt it, and for that reason. Trump is not currently a useful asset for Putin. Further, Trump tends to blab about things, and might very well brag to Buck Sexton or Sean Hannity about how he still talks to the Russian. That would be very embarrassing for Putin, and would complicate things for him, politically, since it would be an obvious slap in the face of Joe Biden.

M.G. in Indianapolis, IN, asks: Does former President Trump still getting those classifieds briefings like other former presidents receive?

V & Z answer: No. Former presidents get those briefings at the pleasure of the current president, with the notion being that the current president might want to call on their predecessors for advice. Joe Biden has absolutely no interest in Donald Trump's foreign policy advice, and also does not want Trump to blab state secrets. And so, early in his term, Biden announced that Trump would not be given briefings, in part because there is "no need," and in part because of the former president's "erratic behavior."

Current Events, Ukraine Edition: The International Response

S.S. in West Hollywood, CA, asks: Other than our immediate European allies, can you tell us a little about how the rest of the world is responding to Putin's invasion of Ukraine? What about Pakistan? India? Other Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries? Where are the Netherlands and the other NATO countries we don't talk about in all this? Who else is responding with sanctions or other moves against Russia?

What has been China's response to Putin's invasion? Will Xi Jinping do anything to help neutralize the sanctions against Russia? How is this playing with the Chinese people and are domestic politics something Xi needs to consider in how China responds? And what will this do to the U.S.-China relationship?

Do you see any countries where this is an opportunity for the U.S. to build a stronger relationship? Or, in the reverse, countries where we can expect the relationship with the U.S. will now worsen and become more difficult?

V & Z answer: Here's a brief rundown:

That's the rundown, as it currently stands.

J.E. in Boone, NC, asks: I'm assuming that pretty much every U.S. national security and intelligence agency is now working to know if Vladimir Putin will expand his aggression into areas like Poland and the Baltic States which are NATO members. What is the general thought on how unpredictable Putin is on this and the chances he would do it?

Also, the number of people in the US military has been decreasing over the past several years. If Putin did move on a NATO country, and Article 5 of the NATO Treaty were to take effect, would NATO have enough military power to defeat Russia? What is the general thought about China stepping in to join Russia?

V & Z answer: Obviously, for Putin to invade any country was a pretty outrageous act. Invading the Baltic States would be a considerably higher level of outrageousness, since they are actual NATO members, and so would insist on being defended. And invading Poland would be taking the outrageousness up to 10, since they are not just a NATO member and a large country, they are also right next to Germany. Such a maneuver would almost certainly start World War III, just as invading Poland started World War II (albeit with the invasion coming from the other direction). It is plausible, though not likely, that Putin would try to grab the Baltic States. We think that an invasion of Poland is nearly inconceivable.

The Russian army has about 1 million soldiers under arms, and another 2 million reserves. The U.S. has about 300,000 more active duty soldiers (i.e., 1.3 million), and would have no trouble matching the Russian reservists if the German, French, and British militaries got involved. Further, the U.S. military is equipped with cutting-edge materiel, whereas a lot of the Russian stuff is way out of date. If World War III starts, and it ends up as Russia vs. the West, Russia will be crushed.

The possibility of Chinese involvement is so remote that we've seen no serious speculation about it. It behooves Xi Jinping to stir the pot a bit here, since a destabilized west works to China's benefit, plus they might make some big-time bucks (well, yuan) trading with Russia. But we don't see how it behooves China to actually deploy armed forces in support of Russia. The Chinese do have a large military force (4,015,000 active duty soldiers and reservists), but their direct involvement would drag other Asian countries in, including (very likely) South Korea (6,712,500 active duty soldiers and reservists), Taiwan (1,831,800), and Japan (317,000), and so would likely end up helping the West more than hurting it.

P.R. in Arvada, CO, asks: I was always under the impression that NATO was a purely defensive organization (i.e., if someone starts shooting at a non-NATO country then too bad, they are on their own). Is there a way for NATO to strike first when there is no real threat? In other words, is Putin's "worry" about NATO being right on its border a real concern or just more excuses?

Secondly, is there anything stopping Russia from applying for NATO membership?

V & Z answer: Yes, NATO is purely defensive. However, world history has shown that when a country (or an alliance) wants to start a war, it will generally find a way to do it, and to claim that the other side was the aggressor. Vladimir Putin is doing that at this very moment.

What that means is that it's not outlandish for him to believe that additional NATO countries on his border are a threat. That said, there are many kinds of threats in geopolitics, and most of them don't justify starting a war.

It has been suggested many times that Russia should join NATO, including by Vlad Putin himself (albeit many years ago). However, NATO doesn't particularly want Russia until Russia starts doing better on human rights. And Russia doesn't really want to join anymore, since Putin doesn't like limits on his geopolitical maneuvering, and since he believes that Russia is still a superpower that creates its own alliances rather than joining existing alliances.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: The League of Nations expelled the Soviet Union when it invaded Finland, Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain and other countries left the League. The U.S. never joined. Doesn't it make sense for the U.N. to expel Russia now? That might have some effect on the Russian people.

V & Z answer: We doubt that the Russian people care all that much about the U.N. And while casting the Russkies out of the organization would be a little bit of a poke in the eye of Putin, we don't that he would care all that much, either. Further, in doing so, the organization would be giving up whatever remaining ability it has to influence him. The reason that the League of Nations tossed the U.S.S.R. was that it was clear that Joseph Stalin was no longer listening to them, so there was no reason not to toss him.

R.H.D. in Webster, NY, asks: We've seen the U.N. Security Council in action lately, given the Russia/Ukraine situation. However, the president of the Security Council now a Russian. This is clearly a conflict of interest. Can the rest of the U.N. ask for Russia to recuse itself? How long does a country serve as the "president" of the Security Council, which basically is the chair of the meeting?

V & Z answer: Security Council presidents serve for one month, and the Russians managed to draw February in a non-leap year, so they got the shortest term possible. That means that the service of current chair Vasily Nebenzya will conclude on Monday, and he will be replaced by someone from the United Arab Emirates, probably UAE ambassador to the U.N. Lana Zaki Nusseibeh. Hopefully, Nebenzya didn't get too accustomed to that primo parking space.

In any event, the real problem is not that the Russians were chairing the Security Council, but that they have a permanent seat on it, and a veto on anything the Security Council might do (along with the four other permanent members, namely the U.S., the U.K., France, and China). There is a movement afoot to boot Russia off the Security Council, which is certainly justifiable given that nation's actions in Ukraine, not to mention the fact that they are clearly no longer one of the five most powerful nations in the world. Surely, India makes more sense. Or, if the Council members want to reduce the number of vetoes, then Canada, since the Canadians are surely too polite to exercise the power.

K.F. in Madison, AL, asks: I'm very skeptical of the kind of grift and shenanigans that may go on with "charities" trying to raise money for aiding the Ukrainians. Can you recommend reputable organizations that will be engaging in this?

V & Z answer: To start, you will want to check any charity with one of the watchdog sites, like Charity Navigator or Charity Watch. You also want to try to find an organization that is already in Ukraine. Any organization that needs the months of lead time to establish a presence there is likely to be too late to the party.

Among the specific organizations you might consider:

There are many others, of course, and you can use the two sites linked above to look for charities that match your specific tastes.

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