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Saturday Q&A

We continue to get hundreds of questions per week about Ukraine. So, we'll do another week of all-Ukraine answers. Regular order will soon resume, we are sure.

Current Events, Ukraine Edition: The Russians

M.M. in Jamaica Plain, MA, asks: I know we may be a ways off from this, but at some point, Vladimir Putin may start looking for an exit strategy that will allow him to save face, at least in the eyes of some, while not triggering World War III. Couldn't Putin simply declare that the Russian campaign of "denazification" of Ukraine has been successfully completed, and announce he will be initiating a slow withdrawal of Russian troops?

V & Z answer: What you're describing is pretty close to the face-saving maneuver that Richard Nixon used to extract the United States from the Vietnam War.

Anyhow, if Putin does decide the time has come to cut bait, he will most certainly find a way to rhetorically turn a "strategic retreat" into a "triumphant victory." That said, it is likely that he will attempt to annex some additional portion of Ukraine's territory, so he can point to a concrete "accomplishment."

K.M. in Tacoma, WA, asks: Vladimir Putin has given these reasons, among others, for his war against Ukraine: (1) to stop the genocide of Russians in Ukraine and (2) to get rid of Nazis there. There is no evidence of a genocide. My question is: Where does the Nazi part come from? Is there a context for this, or is it totally made up as well?

V & Z answer: Most readers will be familiar with the oft-used Republican talking point that the Democrats were the party that supported slavery, and the party that opposed the Civil Rights Movement. The former part is true, the latter part is only semi-true. However, the implication—that Republicans were, and continue to be, the party of tolerance and racial equality—is intellectually dishonest, and conveniently ignores over a century of historical change that has taken place in both parties.

Putin's claims about Ukraine and the Nazis are much the same. In the 19th century, Ukraine was viciously antisemitic, and undertook multiple pogroms against Jewish residents, at least as far back as the 1880s, and possibly earlier. There were additional pogroms in the early 20th century, and during World War II, Ukrainian militias assisted the Nazis in the murder of 1.5 million Jews.

Today, however, Ukraine is a very different country. Perhaps the best evidence of that is the fact that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. In a speech that was circulated as widely in Russia as was possible, Zelensky asked "How can I be a Nazi?" Putin has no answer to that question, of course.

A.L. in Highland Park, NJ, asks: The Internet says the size of the Russian army is 900,000-1 million soldiers, but where does this number come from? Is everyone getting this number from the same Russian ministry spreadsheet, or did some independent agency actually count heads? This week, Paul Krugman pointed out that the commentariat has been declaring that: "...Russian forces are regrouping and will resume large-scale advances in a day or two—and has been saying that, day after day, for more than a week."

Maybe there are no reinforcements? How possible is it that the barracks are empty and the salaries are being diverted to yacht maintenance or the Kensington homeowner's association fees?

V & Z answer: During the Mexican-American War, General Antonio López de Santa Anna would sometimes swell the ranks of his army by ordering that the inmates of local prisons be temporarily released and armed. As you might imagine, this gave him superiority of numbers, but generated a lot of escapees and not a lot of effective soldiers.

The point is, it's not too hard to make someone nominally into "a soldier" or "a reservist" and to give an overblown sense of a nation's military might. That said, assessments of Russian troop strength are not based solely (or even substantively) on claims by Vladimir Putin; there are think tanks that specialize in analyzing questions of this sort, most notably the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). There is a general consensus that the Russians have slightly fewer than 300,000 active duty soldiers in their army, slightly fewer than 1,000,000 active-duty military personnel overall, and another 2 million reservists. An analysis published by the ISW earlier this month concludes that the reservists are basically unavailable (or, perhaps more precisely, not useful) for duty, and that Russia has already sent virtually all of the military strength it is able to summon into Ukraine.

G.M. in Ponte Vedra, FL, asks: Several news sources have stated that Russia is employing mercenaries in its invasion of Ukraine. Where are these "mercenaries" from, and why does Russia—with a huge military establishment—feel that it has to employ (presumably) foreign hirelings to do its dirty work?

V & Z answer: If you'd like the story behind Russia's mercenary forces, this brief video covers it pretty well:

Ok, maybe not. The truth is that for many centuries, mercenaries were a normal element of warfare, particularly as fought by European nations. Hiring a few thousand of them was not particularly different from buying more bullets or commissioning more ships. Today, however, mercenaries tend to be more... shady, for lack of a better term. They are used by nations that are desperate for soldiers (as Russia appears to be), and are often assigned to do "dirty" jobs that the government that hired them doesn't want to be held responsible for. Imagine, for example, that a bunch of guys who are not wearing uniforms manage to assassinate a high-ranking Ukrainian official. Were those folks working for Vladimir Putin? For some other government? Were they Ukrainian rebels from Donbas? Hard to prove, one way or another.

Given the nature of modern-day mercenaries, separating fact from fiction can be difficult. The mercs that Putin is using appear to come from a loose consortium of organizations and veterans of various armed forces long known as The Wagner Group. The Group is trying to make a name change to "Liga," though, as the "Wagner" in "Wagner Group" is Richard Wagner, and the name was chosen because he was Adolf Hitler's favorite composer. That does not mesh so well with the claim that Vladimir Putin is a Nazi fighter.

Anyhow, the Wagner Group/Liga is believed to be under the control of a Russian oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin. Prigozhin first came to Putin's attention because he was Putin's... caterer, so he isn't especially expert in military matters. He is thus assisted by several Russian army veterans, most notably Lt. Col. Dmitry Utkin, who is so fully identified with the Wagner Group that his nickname is "Wagner." No word on whether he's changed his nickname to "Liga."

Given how very close the relationship between Putin and The Wagner Group/Liga is, there is some speculation that the organization is actually a secret branch of the Russian armed forces. The United States reportedly has a similar setup. In any event, given how much secrecy shrouds the operation of the Russian mercs, there is no way to be certain how many of them have been deployed, or what they are doing. However, they certainly do not exist in "game changer" numbers. Putin is not going to be able to deploy 10 divisions of mercenaries (50,000-250,000 soldiers). The mercs are more like Navy SEALs or Army Rangers; they'll be deployed in the dozens or hundreds.

J.V. in Madison, WI, asks: What's your thoughts on the accuracy of polls in Russia. Just how popular is Putin and the war? I saw one poll where the media source would not say who had actually conducted the poll for fear that the pollsters would be retaliated against by the government. If that's the concern of the pollsters, how must the people being interviewed feel about the safety of answering a poll?

V & Z answer: Despite being a polling-forward site, we have not written about any of those polls because we see no value in any of them. They are either going to be manipulated to achieve a particular result, or are going to suffer from inaccurate input, or both.

M.B. in Pittsboro, NC, asks: How much of the horror is reaching people inside Russia? Do most people know what their government is doing or do they believe the utter lies that pig Sergey Lavrov tells because that's all they have to go by?

I'm totally ignorant of cyber-possibilities—it's all magic to me—but if some entity could manage to "beam" the truth widely into Russia, I think there would be quite a revolt...

Is that at all possible?

V & Z answer: There are ways that information can get into Russia. Obviously, it's possible to broadcast over-the-air TV and radio signals, including shortwave (the BBC has just relaunched this particular service) which will certainly reach some Russians. Phone calls from Ukrainians to Russians are still possible. Unlike Facebook, most non-Russian websites are not yet being suppressed. And even on sites that are being suppressed or filtered, people are finding ways to get around the electronic walls. Turns out that e-walls don't work all that much better than physical walls when people are really determined to get past them.

That said, Russians are also being subjected to a constant stream of pro-Putin propaganda, primarily thanks to Russian television and print media. Independent media outlets have pretty much all ceased operations, either temporarily or permanently. As a general rule, propaganda tends to work best on people who already believe in the underlying message, serving primarily to drive them to a more highly activated emotional state (greater anger, greater patriotic feeling, greater hope, etc.). For those who don't buy into the underlying message, propaganda is relatively inefficacious, or else serves to drive them further into the opposition camp. Our guess is that, at the moment, a lot of Russians are buying what Putin is selling, and some smaller (but still sizable) number is not. Time will tell if a tipping point is reached, and domestic politics make continued warfare untenable for the Russian president.

K.A.L. in Mahopac, NY, asks: It seems that there are millions of relatives of Ukrainians in Russia. When people in Ukraine phone their families to tell them what is happening in the war, they encounter apparent skepticism and denial. There is a movement inside Ukraine to nevertheless encourage insistent communication of the true situation. But would not the calls be monitored, and would not the Russian relatives thereby be endangered if they did not parrot back the party line? Are the Ukranians endangering their relatives inside the totalitarian state? Can they trust that the relatives are expressing their true beliefs?

V & Z answer: It would be somewhat impractical for the Russian government to actually monitor hundreds of thousands of phone calls per day. That said, they are certainly monitoring some. And so, even those Russians who are inclined to accept as truth what they are hearing from their relatives are likely to be discreet. It would also be somewhat impractical for the Russian government to start cracking down on the recipients of phone calls en masse. Not only does that take significant resources, but the domestic situation in Russia is already delicate, and imposing something akin to martial law risks lighting the fuse on massive unrest.

If the Putin administration decides that the phone calls from Ukraine to Russia are doing serious damage, then the Russians will just knock out Ukraine's phone network. The reason that has not already been done is that the Russians are also using the phone network right now, for military communications, and also because they expect to take over Ukraine rapidly and would like the infrastructure to be as intact as is possible.

Current Events, Ukraine Edition: The Americans

O.Z.H. in Dubai, UAE, asks: I am truly in awe of how masterfully Joe Biden has (thus far) handled the crisis in Ukraine. It's been such a remarkable balancing act both domestically and internationally and I am so glad that polls are now starting to show some appreciation for that fact. And he has done it in a statesmanlike, mature fashion with no name-calling, no chest-pounding, etc., which is what foreign policy appeared to be degenerating into. My question is, do you have any quibbles with any aspects of how he has handled this, either domestically or internationally? Would you agree that this is truly a master class in statesmanship and diplomacy?

V & Z answer: It is (Z) who is writing this particular answer, and you must recall that (Z) is trained as a historian, which means being trained in assessing what did happen rather than what coulda or shoulda happened. Further, Biden certainly knows lots of information that is not publicly available. And so, for these reasons, (Z) is disinclined to play armchair quarterback. Broadly speaking, he thinks Biden probably played his hand just about as well as he could have, since direct military intervention would have been implausible, both in terms of international relations and in terms of domestic politics.

All of this said, if Biden were to call (Z) up and ask what he could be doing better, the answer would be: "You could be doing a better job of keeping people informed." It is true that Biden speaks to the press almost daily, and it is also true that White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki is vastly more competent and ethical than the three or four folks who immediately preceded her in that office. However, both of those sources of information involve curating and filtering by the members of the media. (Z) would advise something more direct. For example, a Twitter account like @white_house_on_ukraine, or a blog on the White House website wherein people are invited to send in questions about Ukraine and the administration posts answers to several of them each day. In other words, something not unlike what you're reading right now. That might well reach people that aren't going to reach/watch coverage of the latest news conference.

(Z) would also not be averse to something like a weekly town hall in which Biden answers questions about Ukraine, which would be sort of the modern equivalent of Franklin D. Roosevelt's fireside chats. But that would be rather riskier than answers in written form produced by a member of the White House communications team.

M.P. in Albany, NY, asks: Given that the bill moving through Congress to ban Russian oil imports is a bipartisan effort, Republicans would be hypocritical to criticize President Biden for the spike in gas prices. However, my cynical mind has me thinking Republicans are supporting this bill, knowing it would exacerbate the already rising price of gas under the cover of aiding Ukraine, thereby giving them cover to hammer Biden over gas. In a few words, Republicans are using war in Europe as an opportunity to score political points rather than to actually aid a foreign ally. Do you think this line of thinking on Republicans' intentions has any merit?

V & Z answer: No. Biden is going to halt Russian petroleum imports on his own authority, with Congress' approval or not. So, the pins are set up for "blame Biden" with or without legislation. There would thus be no upside to doing something that will serve to give Biden and the Democrats some political cover.

It is entirely possible that the Republicans who want to smack Russia are being motivated by a sense of nationalism or patriotism, and are doing what they think is right. If you want to be cynical, however, then it could well be the case that the Republicans see where public sentiment is right now, by quite large margins, and they don't want to be on the wrong side of it in an election year. If you want to be really cynical, then we would point out that the disappearing Russian oil is going to drive up gas prices, which will work out quite nicely for the American petroleum companies that donate generously to Republican (and Democratic) politicians. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Big Oil) gets about $1 million per year from petroleum companies, for example.

R.G. in Allentown, PA, asks: Isn't the Russian situation irrelevant to rising oil prices? Isn't this just Big Oil gouging?

V & Z answer: It is not irrelevant. First, the (temporary?) disappearance of Russian oil from the American market is going to cut into the available supply of oil in the United States, which means higher prices. Further, the U.S. is going to pay more for non-Russian oil imports, because it will be competing with nations (like Germany) that are going to have to replace their Russian supply. Finally, there are many businesses (most obviously airlines) that purchase oil futures 6-12 months in advance (or more), so as to lock in their costs. If United is certain that, say, Flight 706 out of Los Angeles on July 7 is going to use $51,223 worth of fuel, then the airline knows exactly how much to charge for tickets in order to make a profit. Undoubtedly, the demand for oil futures is, and will be, fairly brisk, which will also serve to drive up prices.

That said, the spike in gas prices was so big and so rapid that it cannot be attributed entirely to these forces. And so, either the petroleum sellers were engaging in price gouging, or else they were charging speculative prices based on where they assumed the market was headed. The difference between those two things is not especially large.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: Is the current situation with sanctions against Russian gas and oil likely to lead to significant improvements in energy conservation and use of alternative energy in the U.S. and Europe? Some things would be easy, like ride sharing or using more public transportation.

V & Z answer: (Z) has a little bit of personal experience here. The lease on his car was up right when the pandemic hit, and he didn't buy it out or bother to replace it for 2 years because public transportation was more than adequate for most purposes.

Now, in-person teaching has resumed and public transportation is not adequate when it comes to the distance involved and the need to be certain of an on-time arrival. So, it is time to purchase a new car, and (Z) would prefer a fully electric vehicle (the last two were hybrids). He's been trying valiantly for several weeks now, and the market is just brutal, whether we're talking new or used. Already, he's been in the process of negotiating a purchase contract five times, only to be told "Sorry, car's been sold!"

So, the early indication is that EVs, at least, are going to surge in popularity. Will that last? Probably. After all, there are significant market and regulatory pressures pushing things in that direction anyhow. Will people also begin to explore alternate forms of transit, like more use of public transit or bicycles? That is much less probable; Americans are pretty addicted to their cars.

S.O.F. in New York City, NY, asks: Can you parse the weird alliance between the populist anti-war right and anti-war progressives? Tucker Carlson's exploits are well known, but the Democratic Socialists of America announced their position, which lines up well with rhetoric on the right. On the flip side, if you read past the "it's all Biden's fault" coming from establishment Republicans, there seems to be a lot of solidarity within the political center on this issue. Is there a historical precedent for this kind of political alignment?

V & Z answer: Much in politics, and much in geopolitics, can be explained by the old chestnut: "My enemy's enemy is my friend." If the far lefties and the far righties are in agreement on goals, then their reasons for thinking that way don't matter all that much.

This is not an especially unusual dynamic in U.S. history. In the Election of 1872, for example, many liberals backed Horace Greeley because they found Ulysses S. Grant to be too centrist, while many conservatives backed Horace Greeley because Grant was the general who crushed the South and won the Civil War. In 1898, many liberals opposed the post-Spanish-American War Treaty of Paris because they felt it was undemocratic and un-American for the U.S. to annex Puerto Rico and Guam, while many conservatives opposed the treaty because they felt brown-skinned peoples were not worth spending time and resources on. In the 1960s, many liberals hated LBJ because they thought the Vietnam War was evil and imperialist and many conservatives hated him because they were fundamentally isolationist.

M.B. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: I've always found Noam Chomsky's mantra—that the U.S. has no leg to stand on in its criticism of other countries' atrocities—to be illuminating and necessary, especially as a counterpoint to our generally nationalistic media. He's still publishing at 93 and I'm wondering what you all think about his recent interview regarding the war in Ukraine. Was it irresponsible for the U.S. to press Russia so hard since the fall of the Soviet Union, considering (maybe) Einstein's adage: "I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones"? Even if we're ultimately in the right in our support of democracy and freedom, is anything worth ratcheting an otherwise manageable power dynamic into a conflict that puts us on the precipice of nuclear weapons being used again?

V & Z answer: Let's start by saying that Noam Chomsky is both brilliant and eloquent, and is probably America's most important living public intellectual.

That said, Chomsky tends to have a very clear model for "how things work," and tends to think about things only in terms of his model. This is true of his (groundbreaking) work in linguistics, and it's also true of his ideas on war and foreign policy. He was raised with strong connections to a particular brand of working-class, left-wing activism, and he basically came of age during the Vietnam War. He concluded more than 50 years ago that the conflict in Vietnam was needlessly inflicted upon an entirely innocent people, in service of America's self-serving imperial goals. That is a justifiable (albeit debatable) interpretation of that particular war. However, it has become the lens through which Chomsky sees all armed conflicts.

As to Chomsky's assessment of the current conflict, it's certainly the case that the relationship between the United States and Russia has gone downhill in the last 25 years, and that we can point to specific decisions made by the last five presidents that exacerbated things. That said, Vladimir Putin is the walking embodiment of "give him an inch and he'll take a mile." With him, it is sometimes necessary to meet aggression with aggression. If you doubt it, ask the Ukrainians about what happens when you adopt a passive, generally deferential posture. It's possible that some of the decisions the U.S. has made were not the right ones, or at least were not the best ones, but we can't get on board with the notion that if Putin had just been treated a little differently, we'd all be singing "Kumbaya" right now.

R.P. in Northfield, IL, asks: On Preet Bharara's podcast this week, Jonathan Karl mentioned that Oliver Stone is very close with Vladimir Putin. They even watched Dr. Strangelove together! He said that Stone agrees with Putin that America is the aggressor in Ukraine and responsible for the war. Stone has made some good movies, but he's also very pro-Russian. Can you shed some light on why he, or anyone in their right mind, would ever take the "America the oppressor as regards Ukraine" position?

V & Z answer: Like Noam Chomsky, Oliver Stone is a left-winger who views foreign affairs through the prism of the Vietnam War. Unlike Chomsky, Stone isn't a particularly gifted thinker. A gifted artist, perhaps, but kind of an intellectual lightweight. So while Chomsky can (and will) defend his positions with abundant amounts of substantive evidence, Stone is basically guided by his instinctive tendencies to be hypercritical of U.S. foreign policy/the U.S. government and to be generally anti-authority (the director does not seem to have noticed that Putin is possibly the world's worst authoritarian, however).

R.S. in Tonawanda, NY, asks: I've been reading here and there that John Bolton has theorized Donald Trump would have withdrawn from NATO in a second term, and that Putin, counting on that, refrained from invading Ukraine during Trump's first term. Curious what you think of that hypothesis, and (pardon my ignorance but) could Trump or any President simply withdraw us from NATO or would the Senate have to abrogate whatever treaty we entered into? (After all, that's what the "T" stands for).

V & Z answer: The treaty that created NATO contains provisions for withdrawal (though the privilege has never been exercised). All a country has to do is inform the United States that they are leaving and, if they stick with that, then they're out a year later. If the U.S. wanted to withdraw, it would have to inform... itself, presumably. And that would also probably be the end of the alliance overall.

It is not clear whether Trump (or any other president) can withdraw from the NATO treaty (or any treaty) of their own accord. The Constitution is very clear that the Senate has to approve treaties, but it's silent on whether the Senate (or anyone else) has to approve the dissolution of treaties. In 2019, fearing Trump would indeed try to withdraw, the House passed the NATO Support Act (H.R. 676), but it didn't clear the Senate. And even if it had passed, and even if Trump did withdraw, then the matter surely would have ended up in the courts, to be decided by the nine-person oligarchy in black robes. So, there are a lot of known unknowns here.

And as to Bolton's thesis, we don't find it especially persuasive. Trump's reelection was far from a certainty. His willingness to actually pull out of NATO was also far from a certainty, especially since he never liked to make decisions that might have actual consequences. Even then, it would have been a year for the withdrawal to take effect, and it's not clear it would have actually gone through, depending on what Congress and/or the courts might have done. Putin does not seem the type to build his foreign policy plans on a foundation rife with so many uncertainties.

Current Events, Ukraine Edition: Ukraine and Other Nations

D.T. in San Jose, CA, asks: I understand why it is inappropriate for a representative of the U.S. government to publicly suggest that someone should kill Vladimir Putin.

But why are we not hearing about any other attempts, by Western governments, to appeal to the Russian people directly? Such as encouraging mass desertion of Russian soldiers by promising protection in the West? Or using Russian websites to suggest that the civilian population might want to consider overthrowing their government?

I would think there is some middle ground between the extremes of "act of war" vs "staying out of Russia's internal politics completely." Why is NATO unwilling to use the same tactics that Russia themselves have been using for years?

V & Z answer: Perhaps you are familiar with "Lord Haw-Haw" (a pro-Nazi British broadcaster in World War II), or the various women known as "Tokyo Rose" (a group of pro-Japan Asian Americans in World War II), or "Pyongyang Sally" (a pro-North Korea Korean American in the Korean War), or Hanoi Hannah (a pro-North Vietnam Vietnamese woman in the Vietnam War who was not Vietnamese American but was very westernized)?

Propaganda of this sort works best if it appears to be "native"—that is, coming from someone who is not inherently partisan, is not being paid for their opinions, and has reached "their own conclusions." The more obvious it is that they are a shill in the employment of the government whose propaganda they are spewing, the less useful they are. Consider how hard Vladimir Putin's people worked to distance themselves from the anti-Clinton and pro-Trump propaganda they flooded social media with.

You can bet every dollar you have, and then go to a loan shark and take out a loan in order to bet even more, that the U.S. and other allied nations have significant operations of the sort that you describe. However, those operations will be far less effective if the involvement of the U.S. government (and other national governments) is announced openly to the entire world.

R.B. in Orland Park, IL, asks: The United States contributed troops to the U.N. peacekeeping force that went to Bosnia-Herzegovina in December, 1995. Since Ukraine is a member of the U.N., why doesn't the U.N. intervene as they did in 1995? Russia should not have a voice in this since they are the aggressor. That would be like having the defendant on the jury panel in a trial.

V & Z answer: The deployment of peacekeepers has to be approved by the U.N. Security Council. And Russia, like the U.S., China, the U.K., and France, has a veto over anything the Security Council does. That may not be how it should be, but it's definitely how it is.

M.O. in Arlington, VA, asks: What is your guess as to the reason for the dearth of information on casualties, loss of equipment, etc.? Specifically, prior to the beginning of the war, the U.S. Government appeared to have deep insight into Russian/Putin planning and intentions that were made public at frequent intervals down to the numbers of tanks, troops, stationed in various places. Now the U.S. government, the media, etc. seem clueless as to what is going on in Ukraine/Russia. An example here is that no outlet is providing any information on casualties, material destruction, or any other specific details about the nature of military activities on anything other than an anecdotal/infrequent basis—a hospital was bombed over there, a convoy has been stuck for a week, Russia is not accurately reporting on the war, etc.

Also, do you agree with the reasoning being given for why Polish MiG-29's can't be delivered to Ukraine? Marc Thiessen's op-ed for The Washington Post provides what, to me, is a compelling tale concerning the Polish MiG dilemma. Ukraine is a sovereign nation, we are already providing lethal assistance to Ukraine, Russia's ability to retaliate for material assistance is limited to non-existent, and the West/Biden should just "do the jet deal!" I never agree with Thiessen, so please help me return to a normal thinking process about the Polish jets/reporting on Ukraine if you can. Give me hope that Biden isn't wussing out.

V & Z answer: Do you know how many soldiers died in the U.S. Civil War? The current figure used by historians is "approximately 750,000." And do you know how long it took to arrive at that figure? Just over 147 years. Wars are messy, complicated, confusing things and it can be very difficult to get good, accurate information. What happened with the Civil War is that, after battles, each commander was required to submit a report estimating the number of soldiers under his command who were captured or killed. And eventually, someone just added up all those estimates and came up with "620,000 dead." It took well over a century before a historian (David Hackett Fischer) pointed out that those post-battle estimates were likely to be too low, since commanders might like to make themselves look less "butcher-like" and/or because some soldiers might take a few weeks to succumb, and so wouldn't be dead until after the report was written and submitted.

That said, we think you are assuming facts not in evidence. While the figures aren't going to be perfect, there are various entities, among them the U.N. and the U.S. government, that provide continual updates on deaths and casualties. At the moment, 5,000-6,000 Russian soldiers, 2,000-4,000 Ukrainian soldiers, and 549 Ukrainian civilians are reported dead. Casualty figures are less reliable, but the best numbers suggest that 10,000 Russian soldiers, 5,000 Ukrainian soldiers, and 957 Ukrainian civilians have been injured.

As to the MiGs, let us point out that there is a careful dance going on right now. On one hand, the U.S. and its allies don't want to give Vladimir Putin any excuse to start invading NATO countries or to start lobbing nukes or to otherwise broaden the current conflict beyond Ukraine. At the same time, Putin is stretched thin, and he doesn't particularly want to add new, armed enemies to the show. So, there's a line between "what the allies can get away with" and "what the allies can't get away with." Unfortunately, that line is fuzzy, and its position changes every day. And a president who misjudges it risks starting World War III.

We are inclined to believe that the reasoning for leaving the MiG-29s in Poland is basically the truth. At the moment, Ukraine's air force is functioning properly and it doesn't particularly need the MiGs. Meanwhile, a bright international spotlight has been shone on the plan by the unwise blathering of a few E.U. officials. So, the risk is somewhat high and the reward is somewhat low. If the need becomes greater, and the spotlight gets a little dimmer, the deal might still go through. In fact, you can be quite certain that people in the White House are working on ideas for pulling it off while still providing a veneer of neutrality. Maybe something like "We Poles are running very short on oil, and we're so desperate that we're willing to trade some MiGs for the rights to try to develop untapped resources in Ukraine." That would be a model very similar to FDR's Lend-Lease policy.

As to Thiessen, he's a neocon, which means his foreign policy preference is basically "shoot first, ask questions later." Or "Kill 'em all, let God sort 'em out," if you prefer. It's easy enough for him to get out his weapon and wave it around and demand that the cavalry be deployed, since neither he, nor his wife, nor his four kids have served in the military, and since he's not going to be the one who is responsible if World War III commences. His pro-torture book was once described as "better at conveying fear than at relaying the facts." That's also a pretty good description of his op-eds.

S.S. in West Hollywood, CA, asks: What can Ukraine do with the $14 billion in aid the budget bill includes, and will they get it in time to make a difference? Could Ukraine buy those Polish-owned planes at a really, really, really good price since gifting them now seems off the table? (With, of course, America discreetly giving Poland an equally good price on planes to replace them.)

V & Z answer: As Donald Trump demonstrated, the president has some ability to control the timetable on which funds are transferred. We suspect that Joe Biden will chat with Volodymyr Zelensky about the United States' goals for the funding (it is partly marked for "humanitarian" aid), and then will release the money. Zelensky will likely abide by Biden's wishes, since the Ukrainian leader hopes for more money in the future.

The funds might well be used to wangle some sort of MiG purchase, though again, they really want this to be on the down-low, so the general public might not find out for a very long time. Since the Poland deal has become somewhat radioactive, Ukraine might approach the other two NATO countries that still use MiGs, namely Slovakia and Bulgaria. Or they could try to find a non-NATO country; there are a total of 29 nations whose air forces include MiGs, and the (non-NATO) ones most likely to be open to talking to the Ukrainians are probably Bangladesh, Algeria and Peru.

M.C.A. in San Francisco, CA, asks: When the conflict in Ukraine is all said and done, how will war crimes be addressed? Who would be charged? Any chance that Putin himself would be put on trial?

V & Z answer: As we note above, wars are ugly things by their nature. And people tend to throw the phrase "war crimes" around a bit too cavalierly. For a politician or a military leader to get in this sort of trouble, their actions have to be really beyond the pale, and their national government generally has to be on board with the prosecutions. Part of the reason that the Nuremberg Trials were possible, for example, was that there was no German government to object, and any future German elected official was eager to distance themselves from the Nazis.

It is unlikely, then, that Vladimir Putin or any of his inner circle will face such a prosecution. If he does, it is more likely to be conducted by the Russian people (as happened with Saddam Hussein and the Iraqis) than by an international tribunal. But if Putin (or any other Russian) actually is tried internationally, it would be done by the International Criminal Court. The U.N. used to establish temporary courts for the prosecution of war crimes (e.g., the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1994), but ultimately decided that having a permanent entity was more apropos.

D.R. in Slippery Rock, PA, asks: I understand why we should not say "the" Ukraine. Should we also stop saying "the" United States?

V & Z answer: No. "United States" is a compound noun with a leading adjective. Per the rules of English grammar, it is supposed to have an article.

The problem with "The Ukraine" is that it is rather colonialist, in two ways. First, there are no articles in Ukrainian or Russian, so the use of "the" is an imposition from Western languages. Second, "Ukraine" means "borderlands." And putting "the" in front of the name somewhat implicitly defines Ukraine as an adjunct to Russia.

To give a crude comparison, "Canada" means "village" in Iroquoian. But if the U.S. were to start calling it "The Canada," it would imply that the U.S. is the "big time" and that Canada is the under-developed sticks (i.e., "the village"). It may be true, mind you, but the Canadians still wouldn't like it.

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