Nothing to do with what I said on Twitter yesterday

I’ve been quite dull these past few days on Twitter, haven’t I? Well, that’s not your fault. You signed up, so you’re entitled to a newsletter. I shall write one just for you. (Don’t you be sending this your “junk” file, the way I do with all the newsletters that stack up in my In Box. I did this just for you.)

A friend pointed out to me that I should put the fundraising link in first, in case you get bored before you finish .

I was outraged by the suggestion that anyone might get bored by my writing, but then I calmed down and thought it over. You know, Claire, you did fall asleep reading Dickens last night.

Anyway, the next section is only for people who’ve donated. (If you’ve donated at any time in the past, even a small amount, that counts.) It’s behind a paywall, but the paywall works on the honor system.

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The Paywall of Honor

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As you’ve perhaps heard, on Friday the President of the United States tweeted a photo of an Iranian launchpad. It came from an intelligence briefing he’d received earlier in the day.

You’ve probably also heard that the President has the right to classify or declassify anything he wants, whenever he wants.

Now, that’s not strictly speaking true. Yes, he does indisputably have declassification authority. But constitutional lawyers have argued for years about whether it’s truly a plenary authority, especially in this context. It’s an interesting question. Are the intelligence community, its assets, and its rules for handling its products subject to legislative rule, or do they fall entirely under the Commander-in-Chief’s purview, the way the Department of Defense and its assets do? Depending on your view of this, it’s possible that the President isn’t authorized to release anything he wants whenever he wants. See, e.g., EO13526, EO1233, and Department of the Navy v. Egan. I leave further research as as an exercise for the reader.

But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that what the President did was perfectly legal. Those trivialities aside, was it wise of the President of the United States to disclose billions of dollars of secret intelligence capabilities on Twitter?

I was wondering, and I thought you might be, too. So I asked not just one, not just two, but three high-level sources for you.

These high-level sources agreed to speak with Claire Berlinski’s Newsletter on condition of anonymity. I’ve published the transcripts of our interviews below.


HIGH-LEVEL SOURCE 1

Claire Berlinski’s Newsletter to High-level Source 1: Was it wise of the President of the United States to disclose billions of dollars of secret intelligence capabilities on Twitter?

High-level Source 1, on condition of anonymity: Without acknowledging any past positions, experience, knowledge, or covenants, and relying entirely on open source information, there is a lot of information about capabilities that can be discerned from a piece of imagery. One thing in particular has been mentioned: If it is not an image sourced from a satellite, then it very likely exposes other capabilities of the United States or partner nations that aren’t widely known or acknowledged.

But that wasn’t the case here. Based upon math and open-source tracking information on items in earth orbit, there is now high confidence that this was a picture taken from USA 224, an NRO satellite launched in 2011 for two billion dollars.

Not only does the picture make it clear what that satellite is capable of, if the atmospherics at the time were different than clear air, it exposes additional capabilities of said satellite.

It also provides some rough level of capability that could be used to discern what it cannot do, which is just as bad, because we want our enemies to assume we can see everyone, everything, anytime. Obviously, we cannot do that. Knowing our limitations is of direct strategic value to our enemies.

As an aside, commercial satellite operators are prohibited from selling images with resolutions better than 24 centimeters. This image is estimated to be of a quality of at least twice as good as that.

Claire Berlinski’s Newsletter to High-level Source 1: Could there be any conceivable strategic purpose or advantage in releasing that image? 

High-level Source 1, on condition of anonymity: Depends. Which country’s strategic interest are you asking about?  

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HIGH-LEVEL SOURCE 2

Claire Berlinski’s Newsletter to High-level Source 2: Hi! Was it wise of the President of the United States to disclose billions of dollars of secret intelligence capabilities on Twitter?

High-level Source 2, on condition of anonymity: Without adding any details my own personal past employment history, I can just say that I nearly had a stroke when Trump tweeted this out. It’s actually worse than it looks.

Claire Berlinski’s Newsletter to High-level Source 2: Could there be any conceivable strategic purpose or advantage in releasing that image? 

High-level Source 2, on condition of anonymity: I can make an argument that there could be some rationale here, but that quickly gets into 4D-chess excuse-making territory. More to the point, for every strategic reason I can come up with, I can think of about a dozen alternatives to accomplish that same purpose without disclosing sensitive information about our capabilities. Maybe it’s just a failure of my imagination.

We have literally jailed dozens of people, or fired and barred them from government service, for disclosing less information about our overhead capabilities.

It’s shocking. Really.

The reason we handle imagery with such high expectations of secrecy is rarely because of the content of the image. It is precisely because these inferences can be made about our capabilities.

I’m personally convinced this was a photo taken on a cell phone directly from a printed page in the PDB. Whether or not that is the exact source, it’s a big shock to see that stuff in the open, and it does hurt our capabilities to the advantage of our enemies.

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HIGH-LEVEL SOURCE 3

Claire Berlinski’s Newsletter to High-level Source 3 Was it wise of the President of the United States to disclose billions of dollars of secret intelligence capabilities on Twitter?

High-level Source 3, on condition of anonymity: No.

Claire Berlinski’s Newsletter to High-level source 3: Could there be any conceivable strategic purpose or advantage in releasing that image? 

High-level Source 3, on condition of anonymity: No.


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The Best Prorogation of Parliament Podcast

I received this tip from an anonymous source. This is the best podcast you’ll hear about the uproar in the UK. As my anonymous source wrote,

I wouldn’t normally flag any part of the huge Brexit uproar in Britain, but this podcast seems to me by far the most useful account I have heard.

Anyone wanting a brilliant exposition by David Runciman and the Cambridge Politics Department team from the “Talking Politics” podcast of the issues involved in the present British political crisis should listen to this.

An American podcast at which the LRB Talking Politics specialists are guests. Very lucid and—though they are all Remainers and Johnson critics—dispassionate. David Runciman is the son of the Cambridge political sociologist W.G. Runciman and great-nephew of Sir Stephen Runciman, the Byzantinist.  

The “American podcast” in question is 538. It will take you 45 minutes and 31 seconds. I never listen to podcasts, by the way. I find them a waste of time. I don’t want to spend 45 minutes and 31 seconds listening to people talk, given that what they’re saying would rarely take me more than four minutes to read, if only I had the transcript. My impatience in this respect extends to all human communication. Over coffee, at dinner—the thought will pop into my head unbidden: “If only he’d written this long-winded marriage proposal. Then I could skim it in two minutes.”

There’s one exception, though: Podcasts are the perfect accompaniment to a workout with Daniel and Kelly. Daniel and Kelly play an outsized role in my life (especially given how slowly they speak), and I quite enjoy the Daniel-Kelly-Podcast combination. This podcast is a good match, especially, for a lower-body strength training day, because it’s informed, thoughtful, measured, and they barely mention Trump. (I wouldn’t use it with the kind of workout you can only power with outrage, like HIIT.)

I suggest a series of Kelly’s best lower-body workouts—set them up in advance. Specifically, the Quick Sweat Lifting Session, the 100-Rep Squat Challenge, the 100-Rep Lunge Challenge, and the Second 100-Rep Squat Challenge. If you begin with Kelly’s Jumpstart Cardio to warm up, that should get you right through.

If you’ve organized it as I suggest, you’ll be right at the most unpleasant stage of the workout—when it’s beginning to feel hard, but the endorphins haven’t yet really kicked in—just as the guests explain to the (disappointed) interviewer that talking about the Queen is a distraction; the Queen does what she’s told. That part should keep you interested until you get warmed up. Then you’ll be at the really hard part—the ski-squat double-lift hops—when 538 asks,

From an American perspective, not having a written constitution is kind of interesting, or kind of confusing. When we talk about a ‘constitutional crisis’—if there isn’t one clear document that stands as ‘The Constitution of the United Kingdom’—is it just … violating norms? Or creating problems so that it seems it seems the system as it exists can’t overcome them? What do you mean by ‘a constitutional crisis?’

Your interest in the answer to that question, which I’m sure will be as great as mine, should get you right through the rest of the workout. I won’t tell you what they said, so as not to spoil the suspense, but I wonder if you’ll have the same reaction I did. Tell me what you thought of their answer in the comments.

I find it remarkable not only that there is such a thing as a person who would publicly insist that “the Queen put her foot down,” but many people, and what’s more, this call is coming from the very last people you’d expect to be keen on monarchy as a form of government. I mean, Adam Tooze? Seriously?


We can’t handle the truth

Have a look at the Operation Inherent Resolve Lead Inspector General Report to the US Congress. ISIS is growing, again, in Iraq and Syria. There are now an estimated 14,000 to 18,000 militants. The report specifically and repeatedly attributes this to Trump’s decision to rapidly draw down our troop presence in Syria and Pompeo’s decision to pull our diplomats from Iraq.

If you’re of the “Come on Claire, you’re exaggerating about Trump” School of International Relations, study that report. Obama was pilloried for “throwing away our victory in Iraq.” As Trump himself said:

The way Obama got out of the war was, you know, disgraceful, and idiotic. When he announced the date certain, they pulled back, and they said, “Oh, well.” As much as they don’t mind dying, they do mind dying. And they pulled back, and then, you know, it’s a, it was a terrible thing the way he announced that, and then he didn’t leave troops behind so that, you know, whatever there was of Iraq, which in my opinion wasn’t very much, because I think that, you know, the government was totally corrupt, and they put the wrong people in charge, and you know, that in its own way led to the formation of ISIS, because they weren’t given their due. But, I think that President Obama, the way he got out of that war was unbelievable.

Everyone with an even glancing familiarity with this region warned Trump that it would be a catastrophic mistake to draw down our forces in Syria. Mattis even resigned over it.

“Mattis made his case for keeping troops in Syria. Trump rejected his arguments. Thirty minutes into the conversation, Mattis told the president, ‘You’re going to have to get the next secretary of defense to lose to ISIS. I’m not going to do it.’”

So yes, of course, ISIS has been reconstituting in Iraq, where they’re ramping up for an “aggressive insurgency” and engaged in “an extensive worldwide social media recruitment effort to draw foreigners to the cause.”

The Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve’s acronym is CJTF-OIR. For the sake of readability, I’ve replaced the acronym below with the words “our soldiers,” and replaced other acronyms with conventional pronouns.

Our soldiers told us that it estimates that 45,000 “ISIS supporters” reside at the [al Hol refugee camp in Syria]. Our soldiers stated that the “uncontested spread” of ISIS’s ideology in the camp reflects the Syrian Defense Force’s inability to provide more than minimal security around the camp’s perimeters. … our soldiers reported that they provide security support to Syrian Defense Force’s elements that secure the perimeter of the al Hol camp … [but] they reported that due to the drawdown of U.S. forces in Syria, it lacks resources to track the humanitarian situation in the camp.

Meanwhile, Iran is increasing, not decreasing, its regional footprint:

The United States has sought the removal of Iranian and Iranian-proxy militias from Syria as part of broader goals to defeat ISIS and bring an end to Syria’s 8-year civil war. However, Iran showed no signs of decreasing its activities in Syria this quarter, and in some instances increased its presence.

And Russia has been blocking aid from reaching stranded Syrian civilians at the Rukban settlement:

USCENTCOM reported that Russia has halted aid to the settlement to undermine the legitimacy of U.S. forces stationed at the garrison by creating poor humanitarian conditions and then orchestrating a disinformation campaign to blame the United States for the dire state of the camp. USCENTCOM said that Russia hoped to use controversy over Rukban to force U.S. troops to leave.


Trump is lying about this situation, but he’s certainly not the only one. If only by omission, all of the Democratic presidential aspirants are lying too. I may be wrong—correct me if I am—but I don’t believe a single one of them has discussed this, or its implications. The next President will be up to his or her neck in ISIS from his or her first day in office.

Foreign policy, not domestic policy, is the domain in which the President’s judgment is most consequential. We’ve now had three administrations that have lied about the wars we began in the wake of September 11. Each one, in his own way, has been profoundly dishonest with the American public about what we really confront, the outcome we seek, what it would really take to achieve that outcome, and the cost of failing to achieve that outcome. No one can predict the future with perfect inerrancy, but we’ve now had three Presidents in a row who didn’t even make a good-faith attempt to do this. Our Presidents have told the American public outlandish things— things they could not possibly sincerely believe. It looks as if we’re set to elect a fourth such President. The deceit isn’t owed to these men’s characterological defects. It’s owed to ours. We can’t handle the truth.

Every American alive wants the war in Afghanistan to be over. But no one can run on the platform, “I will surrender to the Taliban” and win. So everyone runs on slogans like, “I will end the war in Afghanistan,” and “I’ll bring the troops home,” or castigates the former president for getting us involved in this, or for mismanaging the war. We speak about this as if it were entirely a domestic matter. As if there were no other party to this war but us. No candidate mentions what is actually happening in Afghanistan, and no one asks, “Why were our troops there in the first place?”

Every single Democrat promises to get the troops out of Afghanistan yesterday. Trump was consistent, before he was elected, in insisting he was the only one could turn it around, or bring the troops home:

He’s now so desperate to fulfil this promise before the 2020 election that he’s sent his envoys off to negotiate our surrender on any terms. But they won’t let us. We can’t even get them to agree to a cease-fire. We can’t even persuade them to say, “Okay, we promise not to let al Qaeda use our country to stage attacks against you again.”

So “peace talks” are ongoing while the Taliban attacks us, kills our troops, detonates bombs, and launches massive attacks on key Afghan cities. Today’s headlines: “Taliban targets second Afghan city as U.S. negotiator says peace deal is near.” Our Partners in Peace? Say it ain’t so!

We’re drawing down our presence at the US Embassy in Kabul. (See: consequences of doing this, Operation Inherent Resolve Lead Inspector General Report to the US Congress, pp. 2, 6-7, 19, and 55-56, particularly).

Here is the speech we will never hear:

Let’s speak truth. We either stay in Afghanistan indefinitely—certainly for a decade or more—or we revert to the situation we were in on September 10, having squandered two decades of our blood and treasure for nothing. The worst consequences of this will be borne by Afghans, especially women and girls, for whom all light of hope will be extinguished. For us, the most significant consequence is that we will confirm our reputation, around the world, as people with whom it is unwise to cooperate. No matter where we go or what we say, they’ll whisper, “Americans may promise you freedom and democracy and women’s rights, but they won’t think twice about leaving you behind to be slaughtered by the Taliban.”

My fellow Americans, my policy is the latter. I think we can live with the risk. We lived with that reputation after Vietnam, after all, and we were fine. Chances are, al Qaeda won’t get that lucky again. With any luck, we’ll never go to war again, either, so it won’t matter that Americans are famous for their disloyalty.

You’ll notice the conspicuous absence of “a plan for that.”

Actually, the word “lying” isn’t quite right. None of them are talking about any of this, so they can’t be lying, technically. But they either know what we’re really facing or they don’t. I don’t know which is worse.

It would be wrong, or it would be missing the point, to judge them. Our politicians lie, and they will continue to lie, because we don’t want them to tell us the truth. The American people will not elect anyone to that office if he or she is honest about the way we use our military, and the way we will continue to use it, and why.

Watch this interchange between Tim Ryan and Tulsi Gabbard, and listen to the audience. Tim Ryan tries to tell something truth-like. But the audience doesn’t want to hear it. They want to be told lies, especially by a military veteran, so they can believe them more readily.


Tulsi, Russia, and Assad

Tulsi’s been excluded from the next debate, so I suppose we’ve heard the last of her, and that is well. Of all the Democrats, Tulsi Gabbard is the most repellant. What appalls me is the way she exploits her veteran status to tell Americans the lies they want to hear. She intimates that anyone who challenges these lies is not only a chickenshit armchair warrior who has no idea what real war’s about, but someone who despises our men and women in uniform and would throw their lives away as casually as they’d toss a used piece of Kleenex.

If you want to take the easy way out in thinking about Syria, there’s Tulsi telling you that everything you’ve heard about it is just war-mongering propaganda. Assad’s not a monster, he’s just fighting terrorists. No war crimes. Nothing that should keep you awake at night. Only bad people are dying. She says this while smiling brilliantly and telling you “I know the truth. Because I’m a veteran.” The military is the only institution Americans still trust. To play that card to defend Assad!—while presenting herself as a principled advocate of peace!—is not only repugnant, it’s really dangerous.

It is true that the majority of veterans, like the majority of Americans, think the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were catastrophic mistakes. She isn’t lying when she says the American military does not want to fight that kind of war. (These views are held in roughly the same proportions among veterans as they are among the rest of the US population.)

But it goes well into the Trump realm of confabulation to when she extends that thought by saying, “And therefore up is down and left is right and good is evil.” It’s not enough for us to tell ourselves that what’s happening in Syria is tragic, but we couldn’t have made a difference, anyway. It’s not enough for us to say, “We could perhaps have made a difference, but we didn’t want Americans to die. We didn’t think Syrian lives were worth it.”

That’s not enough. She wants us to feel good about Assad. She doesn’t want us to spend a moment on regret, or moral introspection, on wondering what it says about the West and its values that we failed to prevent Assad from committing the most appalling war crimes of this century, among them mass murder by poison gas.

I’m not sure why she became an Assad apologist. My speculation—and this is just intuition, I haven’t spent much time thinking about it—is that the truth in this case doesn’t comport with the way she wants to see herself, as a veteran, and the United States, as a heroic country. Acknowledging the horror and evil Assad and Russia have visited upon Syrian civilians, under American administrations of both parties, is ego-dystonic. The truth is is painful. The truth is that we did nothing—or very little—as this evil occurred. We knew it was happening but did nothing. We are still standing by and doing nothing. This probably does not make you feel good. It doesn’t make me feel good. It probably doesn’t make her feel good, either.

My suspicion is that it’s more comfortable for her to believe Assad didn’t do those things, or that everyone he killed was a terrorist, anyway, than to confront the idea that she, and the United States, haven’t behaved heroically. Or even met the basic moral minimum.

Syria and Russia have shifted their strategy in Idlib. They’re no longer trying to capture the territory, because Iran isn’t willing to provide the ground troops. Turkey is arming what the IG report I mentioned earlier euphemistically calls “opposition groups,” by which, I presume, they mean some combination of US-approved opposition groups and jihadi gangs like Ansar al-Tawhid and Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham. (Better known to you as “al Qaeda.”)

Why would Turkey do this? Because otherwise Russia and Syria will march into Idlib, and they’ll gas and they’ll butcher as many men, women, and children as they can. Those they can’t kill will become refugees. Turkey can’t take any more refugees: At this point, there would be pogroms. Erdoğan has made himself essential to Europe—a helpful position to be in, at this otherwise difficult time in his political career—by preventing refugees from escaping. So Turks are arming jihadi goons because no one else is prepared to make Assad’s goons think twice before driving in with the gas canisters.

What’s the problem, though, if Assad is killing terrorists? That’s the Tulsi Gabbard answer. It’s comfortable, isn’t it?

The problem is that in addition ten thousand jihadis, Idlib also contains three million Syrian souls, almost half of whom were forcibly displaced from other parts of Syria and driven like cattle into a region the size of Delaware. They’re not there by choice. They’re innocent men, women, and children. Mostly the latter. Half are children. Women and children together make up two-thirds of the population. Widowed women lead many of these households. They’ve all been herded into Idlib along with with those ten thousand jihadis.

“Overcrowded camps and temporary shelters are everywhere,” according to myriad credible reports. “It is not uncommon to meet people who have fled the fighting five times.”

The rest of the world pretty much agrees that their death would be an unfortunate but minor price to pay if it means getting rid of their 10,000 jihadi companions (or captors, or protectors: the relationship is no doubt getting more complex and intimate by the day).

Because there’s a large and desperate civilian population in Idlib, we try not to bomb that territory indiscriminately. And, in fact, we don’t, from what I can tell. The US aims for—and hits—terrorists and their training camps: legitimate military objectives. So far, I’ve seen no reports that we’ve hit anything but legitimate military targets in Idlib.

This is what Russia and Assad claim to be doing there, too. “Killing terrorists.”

But no, that’s not what they’re doing. Russia and Syria have certainly killed a few terrorists by accident, simply because they’ve killed so many people. But they’re not aiming at them. They’ve converged on a strategy, if you can call it that, of punitive bloodletting: massive, indiscriminate, aerial and artillery bombing, with no military objective. The killing is the point.

Not only do they not discriminate between military and civilian targets, they take aim, deliberately, at the hospitals.

Deliberately? Surely not. By mistake, possibly. The US has bombed hospitals by mistake, too. In Afghanistan, for example.

No, deliberately.

How do we know?

Because at first, UN officials just couldn’t believe it either. The Russian air force wouldn’t deliberately target hospitals, would they? Why would they do that? That would be monstrous. It would be an out-and-out war crime. Not only would it violate the Geneva Conventions, it would violate every ancient warrior taboo and code of honor among professional soldiers. And why would they do it? It would serve no strategic purpose. These hospitals aren’t secret military installations. They’re not part of an infrastructure that supports a military aim.

Russia, they assumed, must be making the kind of mistake we made in Kunduz.

So, as part of their deconfliction program, the UN began asking the region’s hospitals to send them their precise GPS coordinates. They passed these along to Turkey, the United States, and Russia.

Guess what happened.


Why the G8 became the G7

You may not have known about Russia’s hospital-targeting, but obviously our military knows it, and presumably the President has been fully briefed about it. That’s why it caused apoplexy among our allies when Trump showed up at the G7 to argue, vigorously, that Putin should be invited back to the G7.

Diplomats present at the G7 stress that this did not seem to be, “one of those weird things he says off the top of his head.” He was adamant about it. It caused significant discord.

Pour le mémoire: Russia was ejected in the first place because it invaded and occupied another European country. (More than one, in fact.) That’s not a frozen conflict, by the way, or ancient history. More than 10,000 Ukrainians have been killed so far and the number rises every week.

Putin is slowly inhaling Europe, village by village.

He’s really becoming more brazen every day, too. A few days ago, a Chechen exile was assassinated, in broad daylight, in the streets of Berlin. Shot twice in the head at close range. Right in the Kleiner Tiergarten park. The suspect, one Vadim S., a Russian national, was arrested after two teenagers saw him tossing a Glock, a silencer, a bicycle, and a wig into the river Spree. Der Spiegel said German security agencies “were increasingly confident Russia’s signature could be detected behind Khangoshvili’s killing.”

You think?

The Kremlin has denied any involvement in the killing. “I categorically reject any link between this incident, this murder and official Russia,” said Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.

When I lived in Istanbul, I noticed that Chechens got whacked there on the regular. It never made international news. Either Russian hitmen operate there with impunity or they have a private agreement with the Turkish state, which perhaps reserves the right to whack one or two of its own terrorists on Russian soil. Who knows.

But this happened in Germany, where such things don’t usually happen. This means, as Der Spiegel’s source says, “If it turns out that a state player like Russia is behind this, we have a second Skripal case on our hands, with everything that entails.”

And what exactly does it entail?

It’s not as if anyone can do much about this if the US is playing for the wrong team, is it?


Tears of mirth

But seriously, why was Trump banging on about inviting Russia back into G7?

Politico reports that the White House has been slow-walking the funding for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative—again putting Trump and the Pentagon directly at odds. Congress has already appropriated the money for security aid to Ukraine, including funding for weapons, training, equipment, and intelligence.

The White House is saying it wants to be sure the money is well-spent. That could sound convincing if you’re not paying close attention. Yes, of course we have to be sure it’s well spent! Ukraine is very corrupt. We can’t be wasting our money on corrupt Ukrainians— we have corrupt Americans right here at home, and we need to waste it on them!

Except the Pentagon had just finished conducting that review, exactly. “The department has reviewed the foreign assistance package and supports it,” a “senior defense official” told Politico.

Trump isn’t just saying strange things about Putin. He’s rowing the whole boat of foreign policy in the wrong direction, over the urgings of his own military, a bipartisan consensus in Congress, and the protests of our allies—yes, including the ones who “pay their bills.” It’s more than passing strange.

We’re tempting Russia to test to see whether NATO still meaningfully exists, and we’re encouraging our allies to despair, and therefore seek a separate peace with Russia.

I really don’t know whether he’s an asset, a useful idiot, or just differently-abled, strategically. I do know this is not in the American interest. It just isn’t.

These stories tend not to make headlines in the US, but they sure get the attention of security establishments in Europe.

“It’s not the time to decrease military or any other support to Ukraine, it’s the time to provide more support to Ukraine,” [said] a Baltic diplomat …

National security adviser John Bolton spent two days this week in Ukraine, in part to advise Zelensky not to “rush into” any agreement with Russia pertaining to the conflict. …

And you can be quite certain the Kremlin notices these things, too.



Other countries, Trump says, used to laugh at us because we were so weak. They don’t anymore, he says.

You don’t need to understand Russian to grasp who’s laughing at whom, do you?