Monday, February 21, 2022

Ukraine In The Membrane, Now Bracing For Pain

After an alarmingly belligerent speech this evening where Russian Vladimir Putin declared that the "breakaway republics" in Ukraine would be given Russian military support (and throwing years of diplomacy out of the window, he does that a lot) he apparently ordered 150,000 or so Russian troops on the border with Ukraine to come on in and say hi.
The Kremlin has ordered Russia’s defense ministry to deploy troops in two Russia-backed separatist territories that have loomed large in the conflict over Ukraine.

Moscow announced that it would carry out “peacekeeping functions” in decrees published late Monday, shortly after President Vladimir V. Putin told his nation that he had decided to recognize Russia-backed separatists in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.

It was not immediately certain whether the Russian troops would remain only on the territory controlled by the separatist republics, or whether they would seek to capture the rest of the two Ukrainian regions whose territory they claim.

And so it was unclear if a long-feared Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine had begun. The separatists might have invited Russian forces in, but neither Ukraine nor the rest of the world views the so-called republics as anything but Ukrainian territory.

While Mr. Putin’s ultimate plans remain a mystery, a full invasion would constitute the largest military action in Europe since World War II.

By seeking to redraw the post-Cold War boundaries of Europe and force Ukraine back into Moscow’s orbit, Mr. Putin is attempting nothing less than to upend the security structure that has helped maintain an uneasy peace on the continent for the past three decades.

Now edging toward the twilight of his political career, Mr. Putin, 69, is determined to burnish his legacy and to correct what he has long viewed as one of the greatest catastrophes of the 20th century: the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Asserting Moscow’s power over Ukraine, a country of 44 million people that was previously part of the bloc and shares a 1,200-mile border with Russia, is part of his aim of restoring what he views as Russia’s rightful place among the world’s great powers, the United States and China.

Mr. Putin has increasingly portrayed NATO’s eastward expansion as an existential threat to his country, and insists that Moscow’s military buildup is a reaction to Ukraine’s deepening partnership with the alliance.

Essentially, he appears intent on winding back the clock 30 years, to just before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The US is responding with sanctions on the breakaway groups, but not on Russia. Yet. Still, this is going to get out of hand, very quickly, if things go wrong here, and yeah, we've got Russian troops in Ukraine.

I assume we're going to have a UN Security Council emergency meeting within days, but by then, well. Smart observers will notice that this is a repeat of Putin's 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Putin may hope to provoke an armed response from Ukraine that would provide a pretext for a larger assault. But the initial “peacekeeping” move into Donetsk and Luhansk was limited, and a senior Biden administration official was careful to avoid describing it as an invasion, noting that Russian forces have been operating covertly in the two enclaves for nearly eight years.

The Biden administration seemed to be calibrating its response, reacting less sharply to Putin’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk than did some other world leaders. The administration clearly wants to leave the door open for Moscow to stop short of an attack on Ukraine that is opposed not only by a unified NATO alliance but — perhaps more sobering for the Russian leader — by China as well.

Putin is “the ultimate political performance artist,” as Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy put it in a new biography. Monday’s carefully staged events evoked both the majesty of imperial Russia and the pettiness and paranoia of its modern-day leader.

The day’s events began with a televised command performance of Putin’s security council in the ornate Kremlin chamber. Putin asked each of his ministers for their recommendation about recognizing Donetsk and Luhansk. Many responses were dutifully on script, but there were several surprises.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia’s demands for security guarantees were “not an ultimatum,” and he seemed ready to meet Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken for more talks. Lavrov also conceded NATO’s unity, advising Putin that at this past weekend’s Munich Security Conference, “every Western representative declared their absolute commitment to a unified approach,” which “confirmed that we need to negotiate with Washington.”

Some of Putin’s other ministers fed his passion to subdue Kyiv. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Ukraine could obtain nuclear weapons and pose a greater threat than Iran or North Korea. And Nikolai Patrushev, head of the security council, said Western nations “are hiding their true goal — to destroy the Russian federation,” a favorite Putin theme.

But the big surprise came when Putin quizzed Sergei Naryshkin, head of the SVR, Russia’s foreign intelligence service. Naryshkin advised that threatening to recognize Donetsk and Luhansk would be useful leverage for implementing the 2015 Minsk agreements to settle the conflict in the eastern region. Russia has claimed to support Minsk, but Monday’s recognition of the two breakaway enclaves as independent will probably derail any chance for the agreement. In response to Naryshkin’s answers, Putin got antsy.

What followed was a rare Kremlin moment of quasi-dissent. “Speak clearly, do you support recognition?” demanded Putin. “I will,” answered his spy chief. “You will, or you do?” demanded Putin. When Naryshkin waffled and said he would support “bringing them into Russia,” Putin shot back, “That’s not what we are discussing. Do you support recognizing independence?” To which the vexed spymaster answered, “yes.”

The SVR chief may have been rattled by the astonishing ability of U.S. intelligence to read (and publicize) Russian intelligence plans about Ukraine. Whatever the reason, Max Seddon, Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times who translated the exchange in Twitter posts, noted that the session was “like the finale of the Sopranos.”
One thing's for sure, like the seminal HBO drama, we'll be talking about this day for quite some time to come, if not years later, and what it all ultimately meant.

Black Farms Matter, Con't

White farmers, banks, and conservative legal groups have blocked USDA relief to Black farmers for a year now, and it's gotten to the point where Black-owned farms are going under, permanently, unless something changes in the next few months.

For Brandon Smith, a fourth-generation cattle rancher from Texas, the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that President Biden signed into law nearly a year ago was long-awaited relief.

Little did he know how much longer he would have to wait.

The legislation included $4 billion of debt forgiveness for Black and other “socially disadvantaged” farmers, a group that has endured decades of discrimination from banks and the federal government. Mr. Smith, a Black father of four who owes about $200,000 in outstanding loans on his ranch, quickly signed and returned documents to the Agriculture Department last year, formally accepting the debt relief. He then purchased more equipment for his ranch, believing that he had been given a financial lifeline.

Instead, Mr. Smith has fallen deeper into debt. Months after signing the paperwork he received a notice informing him that the federal government intended to “accelerate” foreclosure on his 46-acre property and cattle if he did not start making payments on the loans he believed had been forgiven.

“I trusted the government that we had a deal, and down here at the end of the day, the rug gets pulled out from under me,” Mr. Smith, 43, said in an interview.

Black farmers across the nation have yet to see any of Mr. Biden’s promised relief. While the president has pledged to pursue policies to promote racial equity and correct decades of discrimination, legal issues have complicated that goal.

In May 2021, the Agriculture Department started sending letters to borrowers who were eligible to have their debt cleared, asking them to sign and return forms confirming their balances. The payments, which also are supposed to cover tax liabilities and fees associated with clearing the debt, were expected to come in phases beginning in June.

But the entire initiative has been stymied amid lawsuits from white farmers and groups representing them that questioned whether the government could offer debt relief based on race.

Courts in Wisconsin and Florida have issued preliminary injunctions against the initiative, siding with plaintiffs who argued that the debt relief amounted to discrimination and could therefore be illegal. A class-action lawsuit against the U.S.D.A. is proceeding in Texas this year.

The Biden administration has not appealed the injunctions but a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department said it was continuing to defend the program in the courts as the cases move forward.

The legal limbo has created new and unexpected financial strains for Black farmers, many of whom have been unable to make investments in their businesses given ongoing uncertainty about their debt loads. It also poses a political problem for Mr. Biden, who was propelled to power by Black voters and now must make good on promises to improve their fortunes.

The law was intended to help remedy years of discrimination that nonwhite farmers have endured, including land theft and the rejection of loan applications by banks and the federal government. The program designated aid to about 15,000 borrowers who receive loans directly from the federal government or have their bank loans guaranteed by the U.S.D.A. Those eligible included farmers and ranchers who have been subject to racial or ethnic prejudice, including those who are Black, Native American, Alaskan Native, Asian American, Pacific Islander or Hispanic.

After the initiative was rolled out last year, it met swift opposition.

Banks were unhappy that the loans would be repaid early, depriving them of interest payments. Groups of white farmers in Wisconsin, North Dakota, Oregon and Illinois sued the Agriculture Department, arguing that offering debt relief on the basis of skin color is discriminatory, suggesting that a successful Black farmer could have his debts cleared while a struggling white farm could go out of business. America First Legal, a group led by the former Trump administration official Stephen Miller, filed a lawsuit making a similar argument in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.

Last June, before the money started flowing, a federal judge in Florida blocked the program on the basis that it applied “strictly on racial grounds” irrespective of any other factor.

The delays have angered the Black farmers that the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress were trying to help. They argue that the law was poorly written and that the White House is not defending it forcefully enough in court out of fear that a legal defeat could undermine other policies that are predicated on race.

Those concerns became even more pronounced late last year when the government sent thousands of letters to minority farmers who were behind on their loan payments warning that they faced foreclosure. The letters were sent automatically to any borrowers who were past due on their loans, including about a third of the 15,000 socially disadvantaged farmers who applied for the debt relief, according to the Agriculture Department.
Thousands of Black farms are about to disappear, because banks would rather have Black farmers in debt paying interest than for the government to help them pay the loans back. They are using white rage to smokescreen the issue.

Throughout America's history, programs to help Americans have been blocked for those people time an time again. Black folk were never supposed to get Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. Black farmers aren't supposed to get debt relief. In the end, the government only helps good white people who only need a little help, not the Black folk crushed by generations of systemic racism.

Fixing that is too expensive, you see. Because if Black farmers get help, then the rest of us might do so.

We can't have that.
This is what enrages me about the whole "Democrats are losing rural communities" argument. When Democrats do something to help, they get sued.  Black farms go under, and their white neighbors shrug and go "Well, I know I'll get subsidies and help."

Black Farms Still Matter.

School Of Hard Right Knocks, Con't

Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Republicans are cutting $200 million from school districts that refused to drop mask mandates for students and staff, setting a major constitutional battle in an election year that the GOP may wish it had avoided.

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is backing a controversial proposal to strip $200m in education funding from Democratic counties that defied his executive order last year banning mask mandates in schools.

DeSantis, who is widely seen as a leading heir to Donald Trump in the Republican party, plans to send the money instead to mostly Republican counties that supported him.

The plan, which some analysts believe is almost certainly unconstitutional, was part of a budget bill that passed the Republican-dominated Florida house on Wednesday.

It was immediately attacked by teachers unions, school districts and education advocates, who say the penalties will strip further resources from classrooms in a state already in the bottom four of per-student spending nationally.

“This is retaliation by legislators and the governor,” said Jabari Hosey, president of the advocacy group Families for Safe Schools and a parent of school-age children in Brevard county.

“We are down over 150 teachers in Brevard right now. We need more social workers, there’s a performance gap because of Covid that is still present in our community. We need more funds, more opportunities, more instructors.

“To retaliate and to attack the public school system they are supposed to be promoting is very sad. Frankly, it’s embarrassing.”

Under the proposal by the Republican state congressman Randy Fine, school districts in the 12 Florida counties that implemented mask mandates last summer in defiance of DeSantis’s executive order will forfeit amounts based on their size.

Brevard, where Hosey’s children attend school, and which Fine represents, would forgo $4.5m.

Two-thirds of the money would come from south Florida, which votes overwhelmingly Democratic in local, state and national elections. Miami-Dade, the nation’s fourth largest district with 357,000 students, would lose $72m; Broward, the sixth largest with 270,000 students, would forfeit about $32m; and Palm Beach, the 10th largest with 193,000 would give up $28m.

Of the others, Alachua, Duval, Hillsborough, Indian River, Leon, Orange, Sarasota and Volusia counties, all but three backed Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election in Florida, which was won by Donald Trump.

“Following the law is not optional. These school districts broke the law, and they were broken for nothing,” a visibly angry Fine told fellow legislators on Wednesday.

He insisted during a turbulent session of the Florida house appropriations committee last week that the state would cut the salaries of administrators earning more than $100,000 and not “reduce funding for any direct educational service or resource that impacts the education of kindergarten through grade 12 students”.

He conceded, however, that the policy was intentionally punitive to counties who refused to fall in line with the governor. “It is intended to reward the 55 school districts, the overwhelming majority of which followed our state law and respected the rights of parents over the past year,” he said.
Needless to say, DeSantis and the GOP singling out educators making more than $100,000 for financial penalties and only from the school districts that defied his order is straight up bill of attainder territory, strictly forbidden by the US Constitution.  DeSantis knows he'll lose this battle, but he gets free publicity for sticking it to "rich, overpaid teachers" which is all he really wants.

No, don't expect DeSantis to lose a single vote over this.

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