March 10, 2022

After several rounds of peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, Russia has begun to state explicitly (via foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova) that its war aims do not include overthrowing the elected government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky or occupying the country. Welcome to Vladimir Putin's Plan B. When Russia's invasion of Ukraine began two weeks ago, overthrowing its government and installing a Russian-friendly puppet regime was very much the goal. But Putin's Plan A hasn't worked out as hoped. The Ukrainian military has fought back harder than anticipated. Zelensky has become a hero admired across the country and throughout the democratic world. And Russia's military has suffered severe setbacks. Add in economic sanctions imposed by Western governments (and boycotts by a long list of companies) that are far harsher than Putin, or really anyone, expected, and we're left with something approaching a debacle for the Russian autocrat. Of course Putin can't just end his Ukrainian misadventure, slinking back across the border empty-handed. He needs to be able to point to some alteration in the pre-invasion status quo to justify Russia's enormous loss of blood and treasure, and to protect himself against a palace coup. That's how we get to Plan B, which my colleague Grayson Quay summarized in a recent column: Ukraine would "formally cede Crimea to Russia, recognize the independence of the Russian-backed separatist republics in eastern Ukraine, and amend the Ukrainian constitution to forbid membership in international blocs like NATO and the European Union." Then there's Wednesday's clarification that Zelensky's government would get to remain in power. This would turn Ukraine into a neutral zone between NATO and Russia. That would be a significant break from the way things worked during Cold War 1.0, when lines of separation between west and east were sharp and clear. Back then, you were either on one side of the Iron Curtain or the other — West Germany or East Germany, Paris or Prague. We can already see that stark division returning to borders today, only somewhat further east: between the Baltic states and northern Russia, between Poland and Belarus. If Putin had gotten his way in Ukraine, with a puppet regime installed in Kyiv, the dividing line would have been pushed to Ukraine's western border with Moldova and the NATO states of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. But that now looks beyond Putin's grasp. Hence the fallback of turning Ukraine into an 800-mile-wide DMZ between west and east. Whether Putin will demand literal or only figurative demilitarization remains to be seen, as does Zelensky's willingness to accept whatever the Kremlin ultimately demands. Even more significant is the question of whether the U.S. and NATO will accept it. (Hard lines can be easier to defend than blurred ones.) We may receive answers sooner than any of us expected.

March 9, 2022

Russian state media reported over the weekend that U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner was detained at the airport with cannabis vape cartridges in her suitcase, but there are no public details on when she was arrested, where she is being detained, or why she did not leave Russia with other U.S. athletes right after the country invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. The WNBA said Saturday that all of its players, except Griner, are out of Russia.  Griner has spent her entire professional career with the Phoenix Mercury, but like many WNBA players, she spends the offseason playing overseas, where basketball players can earn significantly more money. Griner has played for the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg since 2015, and she helped them win the EuroLeague Women championship last year. She is one of the world's best women's basketball players and one of the most prominent openly gay athletes. Griner's friends, fans, fellow WNBA players, and wife are concerned that she will become a political pawn as Russia faces unprecedented global sanctions and isolation due to its Ukraine invasion. Getting her out of Russia is "going to be very difficult," Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) told CNN. "Our diplomatic relationships with Russia are nonexistent at the moment," and it's also concerning that "Russia has some very, very strict LGBT rules and laws."  "Public demands by American officials for the release of Americans detained abroad typically have little effect on foreign captors," The New York Times reports. "Such cases are frequently resolved through behind-the-scenes diplomacy," and "some analysts said that elevating the case into the political arena with angry demands could make it more difficult to resolve and put pressure on the other country to not be seen as giving in without a clear win." Sports journalist Tamryn Spruill told CNN on Tuesday why she is trying to raise public awareness of Griner's detention anyway. 



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