Has the Tide Turned in Ukraine?
Plus: the Libertarians get Trumped.
(Composite by Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)
As Russia’s war in Ukraine hits the 100-day mark, there are many conflicting reports on how it’s going. There’s a view that, as David French puts it, the tide has turned in favor of Russia, which has regrouped after early failures and is gaining ascendancy using its overwhelming firepower.
There’s a more modest view, from Center for a New American Security experts Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Michael Kofman, that “Russia is down but not out” and that Russian forces are making incremental gains in Eastern Ukraine. And there are still many who insist that the war must end in a humiliating defeat for Russia.
What’s been happening recently is Russia concentrating its forces in Donbas and pounding away at everything in sight with heavy and relentless artillery fire, sometimes wearing the Ukrainians down, forcing a retreat, and seizing territory. This is the “win by reducing everything to rubble” strategy that worked in Chechnya twenty years ago.
But is it really working? Hard to say. It appears, for instance, that Ukraine is retaking large parts of Severodonetsk, whose supposedly imminent fall to the Russians was being touted as evidence of Ukrainian failure a couple of days ago when Russia controlled 70 percent of the strategic city. Now that’s down to 50 percent. Predictions that Russia would seize all of the Luhansk region in the next two weeks are also being disputed. The Institute for the Study of War says that Ukrainian defenses, while more degraded than Ukrainian officials admit, “remain strong” and that Russia’s invading force has “concentrated all of its available resources on this single battle to make only modest gains.”
Ukraine is just starting to get new U.S. arms deliveries that should significantly boost its fighting capacity and, some predict, will make a huge difference. That includes advanced HIMARS rocket launchers. Weapons will be arriving from other countries as well, including 15 anti-aircraft “Gepard” (“Cheetah”) tanks from Germany in July.
On the Russian-language website Grani.ru, currently banned in Russia, Russian historian Boris Sokolov (a professor at the Russian State Social University until being forced to retire in 2008 over an article supportive of Georgia) also writes that Russian forces are being depleted by attrition, exhaustion, and losses of technology and machinery. According to Sokolov:
Most likely, in a few days, the Russian offensive in the Donbas will be paused for at least two weeks in order to receive reinforcements of manpower, drawn both from the spring draft and from volunteers recruited among former contractors who previously served in the army. Military equipment will also be supplied. . .
A Ukrainian counteroffensive is likely to follow in late July or August, depending on how soon Western weapons arrive in Ukraine and how quickly Ukrainian soldiers can learn to use them. The Ukrainians will almost certainly advance in the south, with the aim of eliminating the land corridor to Crimea, reconquering the Azov ports and reaching the February 23 line of contact. Current Ukrainian attacks in the Kherson area can be seen as a kind of reconnaissance by combat before a large counteroffensive.
The further course of the war will depend on the results of this counteroffensive. If it has only partial success . . . then the war, in all likelihood, will be positional and protracted, like the Korean War in 1951-1953.
(“Positional warfare” is conducted along permanent and fortified front lines.)
Ukrainian success, Sokolov stresses, depends on Western military aid. Sanctions are also crucial. Sokolov notes the importance of closing loopholes in sanctions that allow, for example, technology with potential military uses to be shipped to Russian companies that don’t have formal ties to the defense industry but may very well funnel their purchases to companies that do. So far, unfortunately, there isn’t much of a chance of drastically reducing the oil and gas revenues that allow Russia to finance its unholy war.
Sokolov’s article is not starry-eyed cheerleading for Ukraine. But it makes a strong case that, heading into the second 100 days, Ukraine can make impressive gains and hold its own.
Obviously, dancing on Putin’s grave is premature. But so is calling for Ukraine to make concessions to Russia—concessions that will almost inevitably involve leaving hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians under Russian rule. We have seen ample evidence of what Russian rule means in the first 100 days.
The Libertarian Party gets Trumped
I don’t consider myself a libertarian—unless it’s with modifiers like “centrist,” “maverick,” “pragmatic” or even “neocon”—but maybe “libertarian-ish” is the right word. (That is, I generally believe that more liberty is good in both the economic and social/personal spheres, but not to a utopian point.) The Libertarian Party has always been a bit too hardcore for me, but I thought it was an interesting alternative voice and a useful corrective to the statist drift of both major parties. There were, I admit, presidential elections in which I voted libertarian because I didn’t like either R or D. (Living in a solid blue state, I can afford to.)
Then, at the Libertarian Party convention last week, a “paleolibertarian” group, the Mises Caucus, took over.
They want to be part of a broader liberty movement that fights “wokeism.” I’m not exactly a fan of “wokeism” either (more on that below). But the Mises Caucus’s definition of “wokeism” apparently includes such shocking and controversial views as “bigotry is bad.”
Its first order of business after the takeover was to remove from the party platform a plank that says “we condemn bigotry as irrational and repugnant” (it’s been there since 1974). What’s more, the Libertarian National Committee is now considering the following resolution:
Whereas, The Southern Poverty Law Center has strayed from its origins as a defender of civil rights and has defamed the now-current Chair of the Libertarian Party and several other prominent members in an attempt to slow the progress of freedom; now, therefore, be it
Resolved, That Libertarian National Committee condemns the Southern Poverty Law Center as irrational and repugnant.
This is a response to an SPLC article, published just before the convention, discussing the Mises Caucus’s “links to [Donald] Trump’s orbit” and “positions [that] mirror the Trump-aligned hard right,” and, in particular, the record of caucus’s chairman, Michael Heise. (Current Libertarian Party chair Angela McArdle, a Mises Caucus member, was mainly quoted as denying charges that the caucus was bigoted but defending an invitation to an anti-Semitic speaker.)
I really don’t know what’s worse about this resolution: the childish trolling (“LOL we’ll take your anti-bigotry plank and adapt it into an anti-SPLC resolution! take that, libs!”) or the petty vendetta. But both of those go really well with the Trump alignment.
The SPLC is hardly above criticism. I’ve criticized it, more than once, for abandoning its integrity as a hate-group watchdog and veering into leftist political tribalism. But as far as I can tell, the SPLC’s Mises Caucus piece is actually pretty much on-target. It documents some pretty ugly stuff, including cozy relationships with anti-Semites and white supremacists—among them the notorious white nationalist Nick Fuentes—as well as advocacy of immigration restrictions intended to combat demographic change and of the freedom to discriminate in the workplace. The Mises Caucus also includes writer and podcaster Tom Woods, a fairly unabashed Confederacy sympathizer.
And then there are the tweets. According to Reason,
The New Hampshire L.P., a powerful vector of Mises Caucus messaging, tweeted on Martin Luther King Day that "America isn't in debt to black people. If anything it's the other way around." (The tweet was later deleted.)
Here’s another deleted tweet by New Hampshire Mises Caucus activist Jeremy Kauffman:
You could say that ascendancy of the Mises Caucus is more evidence of the general going-down-the-toilet of American political life. You could also say, more specifically, that it demonstrates of the Trumpification of political life on the right beyond Republican or conservative institutions.
But here’s the kicker. Most people are no doubt inclined to dismiss the conflict between the Mises Caucus and more progressive libertarians as an amusing slapfight in an irrelevant group of weirdos. But the Libertarian Party can get enough votes to have an impact—enough, for instance, to tip the scales for Joe Biden in several swing states in 2020. Some of the anti-MC libertarians who spoke to the SPLC’s Creede Newton thought that the MC takeover in the party was intended to prevent such a scenario.
Oh, and the SPLC reports, based on screenshots from internal forums, that a lot of people in the MC are really into the “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theory. I am shocked, shocked, I tell you.
Maybe Twitter isn’t the handbasket taking us to Hell
On an optimistic note, a long and fascinating essay by Gideon Lewis-Kraus in the New Yorker argues—countering critics like Jonathan Haidt—that the damaging effects of the social media in areas like political polarization, echo chambers, and radicalization have been dramatically overstated, or at the very least that we don’t really know what those effects are because they are so difficult to disentangle from other factors, and you get into the old correlation/causation conundrum.
When I spoke with [Dartmouth political scientist Brendan] Nyhan, he told me much the same thing: “The most credible research is way out of line with the takes.” He noted, of extremist content and misinformation, that reliable research that “measures exposure to these things finds that the people consuming this content are small minorities who have extreme views already.” The problem with the bulk of the earlier research, Nyhan told me, is that it’s almost all correlational. “Many of these studies will find polarization on social media,” he said. “But that might just be the society we live in reflected on social media!” He hastened to add, “Not that this is untroubling, and none of this is to let these companies, which are exercising a lot of power with very little scrutiny, off the hook. But a lot of the criticisms of them are very poorly founded. . . . The expansion of Internet access coincides with fifteen other trends over time, and separating them is very difficult. The lack of good data is a huge problem insofar as it lets people project their own fears into this area.” He told me, “It’s hard to weigh in on the side of ‘We don’t know, the evidence is weak,’ because those points are always going to be drowned out in our discourse. But these arguments are systematically underprovided in the public domain.”
In his Atlantic article, Haidt leans on a working paper by two social scientists, Philipp Lorenz-Spreen and Lisa Oswald, who took on a comprehensive meta-analysis of about five hundred papers and concluded that “the large majority of reported associations between digital media use and trust appear to be detrimental for democracy.” Haidt writes, “The literature is complex—some studies show benefits, particularly in less developed democracies—but the review found that, on balance, social media amplifies political polarization; foments populism, especially right-wing populism; and is associated with the spread of misinformation.” Nyhan was less convinced that the meta-analysis supported such categorical verdicts, especially once you bracketed the kinds of correlational findings that might simply mirror social and political dynamics. He told me, “If you look at their summary of studies that allow for causal inferences—it’s very mixed.”
This is not to say that there aren’t causes for concern about social media. But it’s all much more complicated than we’re often led to believe, and it’s far from clear what the remedies are.
The fault, in other words is not in our platforms, but in ourselves.
The latest “woke” kerfuffle
People sometimes ask me why I consider myself, broadly speaking, “anti-woke” (despite often being put off by the “anti-woke” tribe).
The latest exhibit is the bullying of Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel—who I should note is my former Reason colleague—over a retweeted joke.
Here’s the drama in five acts:
First of all, this joke does not, as many charged, “mock women.” It’s a throwaway bit of absurdist wordplay. It takes a cliché—“all women are bisexual”—and then gives it an unpredictable and logic-bending twist referencing the “women are crazy” trope. I very, very seriously doubt that any of the thousands of men and women who retweeted, quote-tweeted or “liked” this tweet took it as expressing, even in hyperbolic form, some sort of actual truth about women.
(I also saw people on Twitter trying to do other riffs on this joke with words like “bipedal,” which carry no negative connotations.)
Secondly, Twitter is full of sexist jokes about men, and I doubt that anyone has gotten in trouble for retweeting them. See, for example, the “men will do [X] rather than go to therapy” meme, which got written up as funny and inventive in the Daily Dot, a progressive website. Me, I’d say that was more sexist than the Cam Harless joke, since it was supposed to be highlighting, through hyperbole, an actual truth about men. And it could certainly be read as mocking men’s mental health issues, i.e. “ableist.”
Anyway, I thought the “bisexual/bipolar” joke was funny. And, for the record, I loathe actual sexist jokes of the “women can’t drive” or “women are gold-diggers” types. I also certainly don’t take bipolar disorder lightly, having known several people who’ve struggled with it (including one who committed suicide).
The idea that a joke like this—basically, any joke or comment that refers to a “marginalized group” in an unsanctioned way—causes “harm” is utterly preposterous. It’s a secular version of blasphemy or lese-majesty. I guarantee you that not one person thought less of women or people with bipolar disorder as a result of that joke. But some people may think less of feminists, at least the “woke” type, because of the bizarre overreaction which included not only the gleeful mobbing of Weigel—which escalated after the apology!—but weirdly personal insults.
“Woke” speech-policing is bad for several reasons. One: it really does chill speech and humor. Two: eventually, it allows some on the right to spew actual misogynistic, homophobic, or racist stuff and dismiss those who object as humorless woke scolds. Three: it’s a sideshow that consumes time and energy we could use to deal with real issues.
No one forces you to like a joke. But for heaven’s sake, pick your battles.
Correction (June 5, 2022, 4:10 p.m. EDT): As originally published, this item described Michael Heise as both the chairman of the Mises Caucus and the new chair of the Libertarian Party. While he is the Mises Caucus chairman, he is not the chair of the Libertarian Party, Angela McArdle is. The text above has been edited to reflect this correction.