Wednesday, March 2, 2022

BTRTN: Ukraine Stands Tall, With US-Led Global Backing

Tom with the BTRTN February 2022 Month in Review.

In February, the world turned its collective attention to Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, its erstwhile fellow member of the Soviet Union.  The two largest entities from that once-upon-a-time superpower share a long history, stemming back to their common roots in the "Kievan Rus" empire from a millennium ago.  Kievan Rus stretched from the middle of today’s Ukraine straight north for more than 800 miles, through Belarus and the western part of Russia up to the Gulf of Finland, and included Kyiv, Moscow and St. Petersburg.  It was ruled by a man named Vladimir the Great. Most of the millennium, Russia and Ukraine have been together as part of one nation, but even when not, including over the last 30 years, Russians have always considered Ukraine their “brotherly nation.”

As it happens, the two nations are now both ruled by men with the same name as their antecedent, Vladimir Putin of Russia and Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.  Five years after the Ukrainians threw out a pro-Moscow government in a free election in 2014, Zelensky assumed power in another one, in 2019, winning 73% of the vote.  The Ukraine rejection of pro-Moscow government was an insult that Putin took personally and did not forget, to say the least.

The motivation for Putin’s invasion seems reasonably clear, with this insult fusing with his goal of reestablishing the former Soviet Union, one sovereign country at a time.  Putin successfully pried away pro-Moscow separatist provinces in Georgia (in 2008) and annexed the Crimea province of Ukraine (in 2014).  Perhaps perceiving weakness and division in the West, Putin decided that now is the time to take back Ukraine.

There is apparently no one in his inner circle strong enough to put forth the counterarguments. In the larger historical narrative, it is an exceedingly odd time for Putin to seek to attempt to re-establish Russian imperialism, an anachronistic concept, and resurrect the USSR, a failed country.  And such a blatant move against such a large neighbor, in violation of modern conventions that respect sovereignty, would surely invite worldwide scorn and reduce Russia to pariah status.  This is the first of many miscalculations Putin appears to have made.

The second was to underestimate the size, strength and solidarity of the Western opposition response, led by the re-invigorated Biden Administration.  And finally, Putin underestimated the will of the Ukraine people who, at this writing, are fighting for every square inch of Kyiv, having relinquished neither any major Ukraine cities (with the potential exception of Kherson, in late breaking news) nor control of the skies to the Russians.  They have thus, at the very least, delayed the Russian takeover timetable and embarrassed Putin.  

It is somewhat fallacious to assume that wars are won and lost on the relative size of armed forces and the amount and sophistication of weaponry.  Lost in these “on paper” analyses are two other crucial factors:  logistics and fighting spirit.  The Russians appeared to have assumed that the invasion would only last a few days, and thus have run into re-supply issues as the battles drag on.  There are also reports of faltering morale among the Russian soldiers, and much focus on the dogged resistance – and sheer courage -- being displayed by the Ukrainians.  These oft-overlooked factors are mitigating the severe disadvantage the Ukrainians are facing in manpower and arms.

The hero of the hour is Zelensky. The 44-year old is a former actor and comedian, and from 2015-2019 he starred in a very popular Ukraine television show, called Servant of the People.  His role was to portray the President of Ukraine.  One might presume these thin qualifications might not prepare him particularly well for the real deal, and especially as a wartime president.  Yet he has quickly emerged as an inspiring leader with a knack for crisis management.  His response to a U.S. offer to evacuate him from Kyiv was brilliant:  “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”  He also made it clear who the Russians were after with their rather antiseptic goal of “decapitating the government”: he himself was Russia’s “target number one” and his own family was "target number two."  This was another way of dramatizing the cold-blooded nature of the Russian enterprise.  He has become a folk hero, and has a keen grasp of how to catalyze world opinion in his country’s favor.  Even with a life expectantly that could be measured in days, holed up in a bunker, he has kept up pressure on the West for more support.  

One can already see that, should Ukraine eventually succumb under the weight of superior Russian firepower, out of the rubble will emerge a vibrant insurgency that could further drain Russians resources, increasing the cost of occupation.

“Further” because the West has already weakened the Russians materially.  The promise (and early implementation) of enormous financial sanctions on the part of the U.S., Europe and other nations around the world has resulted in a mammoth -- roughly one-third -- drop in both the Russian stock market and the ruble.  Russia is no longer able to look to the West for loans to supports its debt; cannot access frozen assets in the US and Europe (this extending to various oligarchs close to Putin); can no longer rely on imports of badly needed technology to support its defense and industrial ambitions; cannot use European air space; and will no longer enjoy the economic benefits of the much-heralded Nord Stream 2 pipeline into Europe, a project the Germans, rather shockingly, have now shut down.  This coalition is the strongest display of Western unity since George H.W. Bush orchestrated the Gulf War; not coincidentally, Biden is the first U.S. president since the elder Bush to have decades of foreign policy experience.  It shows.

One cannot underestimate the breadth and depth of the global response in repudiating Putin.  A total of 87 countries have formally condemned the invasion via a United Nation’s resolution; protests against Russia are occurring in cities all over the world; and Russians are being banned everywhere from the World Cup to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  Putin set out to transform the European security scheme that has governed the region since the dissolution of the Soviet Empire – and he may just do that, though hardly as he intended.   Finland’s newfound desire to join NATO and the Swiss freezing Russian assets are just two examples of how the West, not Putin, are ever-strengthening their bonds.  Ukraine itself has defiantly applied formally to join the European Union.

Biden has demonstrated not only resolve but creativity in addressing the challenge and, for an administration that has demonstrated a decided lack of communication savvy, he has performed brilliantly on that crucial front.  Biden seems to have taken a page from the NFL game analyst Tony Romo, a former Dallas quarterback, who made a name for himself by predicting from the broadcast booth, with stunning accuracy, the next play being called in the huddle.  Biden and his team – Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan – have essentially done the exact same thing, with unprecedented (in diplomatic channels) near-daily real-time predictions of likely Russian action, with what turned out to be pinpoint precision.  In so doing, they pre-empted and thus undercut the baseless claims upon which Putin would justify his invasion, and accurately forecasted that his end-design went well beyond the separatist Donbas province.  While these predictions were chilling, they restored an enormous amount of confidence in the intelligence upon which they were based -- and U.S. leadership in the crisis.

One can hardly accuse Biden of playing politics in his decision processes.  Sure, he has accurately gauged America’s distaste for direct warfare, as polls showed that, by roughly a 60/20 margin American favored the deep sanctions he threatened over “boots on the ground.”  Since Ukraine is not a NATO nation, neither the U.S. nor other NATO countries have any obligation to commit troops to Ukraine’s defense.   However, Biden knows well that the sanctions will wreak havoc on energy supplies in world markets – Russia is a major energy supplier, particular to Europe – and inevitably drive up prices at the pump in the U.S.  Those prices are already at a high, and already are excising a very high political cost to  Biden.  It is no exaggeration to say that high and rising energy prices – which are driving the 40-year high inflation levels bedeviling Biden today -- may be the single biggest obstacle to Democratic success in the midterms.  And yet he has been leading the charge on developing the most crippling of sanctions and imposing them on Putin and his country, despite the political cost he may bear as a result.

There are political upsides for Biden in all this, however.  While hardly a “Wag the Dog” moment, presidents experiencing troubles with their agendas on the domestic front welcome foreign policy diversion, and, for Biden in particular, this crisis has come at a good time, given his stalled legislative agenda.  But he is making the most of it, as mentioned, by re-establishing America’s prowess in foreign affairs and his own expertise, which were both compromised with the messy Afghan withdrawal.  He has been extremely proactive, which has contrasted sharply with other aspects of his administration, including COVID management, which have seemed reactive.  And he has been extremely visible, addressing the nation numerous times to explain the nature and magnitude of the conflict, and how he is responding to it.

Furthermore, the conflict is extremely complicated for the Republican Party, which is completely split on the proper response.  Mainstream Republicans – foreign policy hawks that seek to limit Russian influence -- such as those found in the U.S. Senate, are generally supportive of Biden’s policies, though chiding him a bit for the timing of his sanctions (and some blaming the Afghanistan exit for given Putin impetus for his thrust).  This argument found little traction, however, as Biden explained that if you unleash the full might of sanctions either before the invasion (as some Republicans wished) or even after the first troops crossed into Donbas, which was already occupied by Russian troops (as championed by others), then one lost any leverage over Putin, and any ability to negotiate some form of peace.

As for the MAGA wing of the party, which is led less by Trump and more by Tucker Carlson of FOX News, they essentially dismissed Ukraine as being unworthy of any attention whatsoever, a classic isolationist position that would have the U.S. bury its nose between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, while China and Russia used their might to expand their influence unabated.  The most outlandish are actually expressing support for Putin, with one well-known conservative podcaster expressing outright that “I’ll stand on the side of Russia right now.”  He was hardly alone.

The Democrats, on the other hand, united behind Biden, along with the mainstream GOP, and thus the majority of Americans are supporting him.  We’ll see what happens when gas prices rise from their current level of $3.70 a gallon nationally to $4.00. 

As for Russia, it may be stumbling in its efforts to subdue Ukraine, and may well be a near-pariah to the world (China’s support is a bit of a mixed bag), but don’t expect Putin to gracefully withdraw and say “Well played, West.”  If anything he will likely double down, as that ominous 40-mile long convoy of armed forces bearing down on Kyiv attests.

Biden made historic news this month on another front, delivering on a campaign promise two years to the day of making it, when he nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to fill the vacancy of retiring Justice Stephen Breyer to the Supreme Court.  If confirmed, she will be the first Black woman to so serve.  Judge Jackson – destined to be known informally as “KBJ” – was the favorite from the start, having received bipartisan support from the Senate in 2021 for her current appointment (she received a whopping three votes from GOP Senators, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Lindsey Graham).  The nomination was overshadowed – even overwhelmed in the news cycle – by the Ukraine crisis, but her nomination will receive a second chance of headlines with her upcoming confirmation process.

COVID took a nosedive in February, the Omicron virus following its predicted “firecracker” path, with new cases dropping a staggering 81% in February from January, from 18.3 million new cases to 3.5 million.  Deaths barely declined at all, from 66,000 to 60,000.  As indoor mask mandates were dropped by even the Bluest of governors, it was obvious that America was ready to move on from COVID.  This too will be a political asset for Biden, in his quest to deliver on the essential promise of his candidacy in 2020:  to return America to normalcy after the epic aberrations of Trump and COVID.  Whether we are truly rid of either are two monumental questions that will shape both 2022 and 2024.

The Biden comeback thus has several strong pillars in place – kudos on the Ukraine front, for now, COVID receding with no new dangerous variants in sight (while keeping a close eye on the Omicron BA.2 strain), and continued economic growth.  But Biden surely needs an easing from inflation somehow, so the spotlight will soon move to the Fed and its attempts to thread the needle between tamping down on the breaks and bringing the economy to a screeching halt.



Below is Trump’s response on the day the Russians began their invasion.  It sounded insane then and has not aged well.

RIGHT-WING RADIO HOST BUCK SEXTON:  “In the last 24 hours we know Russia has said that they are recognizing two breakaway regions of Ukraine, and now this White House is stating that this is an ‘invasion.’  That’s a strong word. What went wrong here? What has the current occupant of the Oval Office done that he could have done differently?”


TRUMP:  “Well, what went wrong was a rigged election. What went wrong is a candidate that shouldn’t be there and a man that has no concept of what he’s {doing}.


“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius.’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. So, Putin is now saying, ‘Its independent,’ a large section of Ukraine. I said, ‘How smart is that?’ And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s strongest peace force … We could use that on our southern border.”


“Here’s a guy that says, you know, ‘I’m gonna declare a big portion of Ukraine independent’ — he used the word ‘independent’ — ‘and we’re gonna go out and we’re gonna go in and we’re gonna help keep peace. You gotta say that’s pretty savvy. And you know what the response was from Biden? There was no response.”



Joe Biden’s approval rating for the month of February dipped a single point to a new low of 43%, and a net negative of -9 percentage points.  It is perhaps worth noting, however, that Biden’s approval rating at first fell in the month, to 41%, before rising toward the end of the month at 44%.  Whether this portends a further upswing in his fortunes remains, of course, to be seen.


Biden’s ratings on individual key issues appears to have stabilized at lower levels after declines from July through November.  There is scant evidence of a “Biden Comeback” but yet also no evidence of further erosion.




In February polling, on average the GOP continues to lead the Democrats on the generic ballot by a single point.  Using BTRTN’s proprietary models (which have been extremely accurate in midterm elections), if this lead was still in place on Election Day in 2022, the GOP would pick up about 20 seats and take over the House with some room to spare, though hardly in the magnitude of the losses experienced by Bill Clinton in his first midterms (-54 seats) or Barack Obama (-63), or even Donald Trump (-40).




The “Bidenometer” fell slightly from January to February, from 68 to 65, driven mostly by the drop in the stock market and the rise in gas prices.  Both movements were directly caused by the Russia/Ukraine war. 

As a reminder, this measure is designed to provide an objective answer to the legendary economically-driven question at the heart of the 1980 Reagan campaign:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  We reset the Bidenometer at this Inaugural to zero, so that we better demonstrate whether the economy performs better (a positive number) or worse (a negative number) under Biden than what he inherited from the Trump Administration.

This exclusive BTRTN measure is comprised of five indicative data points:  the unemployment rate, Consumer Confidence, the price of gasoline, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average and the U.S. GDP.  The measure is calculated by averaging the percentage change in each measure from the inaugural to the present time.

The +65 means that, on average, the five measures are 68% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +65, the economy is clearly performing much better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to only +8 under Bush, who presided over the Great Recession at the end of his term, then rose from +8 to +33 under Obama’s recovery.  Under Trump, it fell again, from +33 to 0, driven by the shock of COVID-19 and Trump’s mismanagement of it.  Now we have seen it move upward to +65 under Biden.

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Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Bidenometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump left office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.


  1. We don't know what the Moscow Stock Exchange is doing -- it will be closed to trading for a 4th day on Thursday the 3rd. Stocks in other markets that have substantial Russian interests have cratered: Bloomberg pointed out "The Dow Jones Russia GDR Index, which tracks London-traded Russian companies, has plunged 98% in two weeks. The slump has wiped out $572 billion from the market value of 23 stocks, including Gazprom PJSC, Sberbank of Russia PJSC and Rosneft PJSC, according to Bloomberg calculations."

    And even those companies not yet impacted by sanctions are pulling back: NPR's report says "many companies worry about the hit to their corporate image globally should they continue to do business in Russia.
    "Never before have we seen such a significant economy be subject to such comprehensive actions, and at the present pace, we're seeing Russia well on its way to being spoken of in the same breath as Cuba and Iran," said Daniel Tannebaum, the global head of sanctions at the consulting firm Oliver Wyman."

    The impact: "analysts at Goldman Sachs said the investment bank had cut its forecast for Russian gross domestic product this year from 2% growth to a 7% decline." Every estimate of impacts I've seen has massive caveats -- and nearly all saying "it could be worse."

  2. It hasn't taken long for the Biden SOTU address, the mature and measured approach to the Russia-Ukraine war, and the continued good news on employment and COVID to begin showing some impact on approval of Biden's Presidency.'s list of polls conducted with any part in the month of March now range from 38% to 48%; their adjusted numbers based on past skews range from 41% to 48%. Biden continues to have approvals slightly higher than the past President. And as yet, I haven't seen indications of the vehemence of opposition that led to Trump's midterm results.


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